I lay on my stomach in what might be, in the brief glance I'd taken, the most comfortable bedroom I've ever seen. Between recent injuries, overuse of soulfire and magic in general, and total exhaustion and grief, I didn't have the strength to so much as keep my eyes open. If there was any part of me, physical or otherwise, that didn't hurt I couldn't tell what it was.
I'd managed to hold off collapse long enough to see a housekeeper or something sweep Maggie off to bed. It had been a housekeeper, right? Even Marcone couldn't have managed to get a nanny yet, could he? Did she need one? Did I need one? Stars and Stones, what was I going to do? But then it clearly wasn't up to me.
In the aftermath of the battle I'd barely even started flailing for somewhere to go, somewhere to take her, when Gard had used small words to point out that we were already on our way back to Marcone's mansion. She'd almost been gentle. And then there had been the doctors, and the nanny, and this room, with its freaking oil lamps and fireplace, and deep rugs, and bookshelves, and long enough bed and how the Hell long has he been planning this? And why couldn't I make myself care, really? He hadn't caused any of my recent losses, after all. I'd always been able to manage those just fine on my own. Susan. Oh god, Susan.
Maybe I'll care about the room in the morning.
I didn't move when I heard the door open. Everything in this house, myself now very much included, belonged to Marcone, and he was protective of his things. I was safe. How fucked up was that?
Silence stretched out as someone - three guesses who - stood in the doorway watching me. I could feel the weight of his gaze on my back, as heavy as a blanket. I wasn't going to move. I was not going to show any response. Anything that needed to be said, needed to be done, it could all wait for the morning. I kept my breath even and pretended to be asleep.
That had to be plausible, right? It had been a long day.
He moved closer silently. Those had been really nice rugs, and Marcone's not exactly clumsy. I could tell where he was, though. The feel of his presence was unmistakable, unavoidable. I wasn't really sure if my magic was just that raw and sensitive to another person's aura, or if it was an aftereffect of the bindings we'd done, peculiar to him. It could be permanent.
It wasn't - unpleasant. Knowing I wasn't alone. A tactical advantage, maybe. He'd never be able to sneak up on me like this.
He sat down on the side of the bed. Without that weird sense of him, I'd have flinched, would have given myself away. As it was I kept still, even as his hand fell lightly onto my back. It drifted slowly, avoiding the bandages, coming to rest between my shoulder blades; his thumb rubbing softly on my spine. It was oddly peaceful. I tried to remember the last time anyone had touched me other than to inflict or repair injuries. Susan had-
Mercifully my mind cut that thought off and reached desperately for any other. The belated realization that Marcone's thumb was caressing the exact spot where my neck had broken turned out to be distraction enough for the moment.
I shivered, once, but didn’t try to do anything. It was much too late to fight or run and the pretense of sleep was the only way to hide. And I was so tired. He stilled, his hand lifting off me. Waiting to see if I woke up? I shivered again; I couldn't help it. And then he reached down to the foot of the bed and pulled a blanket up over me.
My breath caught, and my eyes flew open in surprise.
He was looking right at my face; there was no hope I wasn't busted. On the other hand, his quickly aborted movement away from me said he was busted too. I would have said John Marcone never looked guilty as a matter of policy, and he didn't now, quite. But almost.
Why guilty? For the indentured servitude he'd backed me into? For coming in uninvited, for touching me? He'd been working for the first since day one, and this was not my room, not really. Not my home, not my decision. He could do what he wanted with me; I'd already agreed. All I'd held back was a refusal to fight against my friends, and he probably wouldn't have made me do that anyway: they knew my weaknesses.
One of his hands fell back from the blanket to his thigh, but the other hovered in the air for a moment in uncharacteristic indecision. I waited. He let out a breath and reached up to cup my cheek. Warm fingers spread on my ear and hinge of my jaw. His thumb swiping carefully under my eye. Oh. I'd been crying. When had that happened?
"My most sincere condol-" he started, before I cut him off sharply, my voice wilder than I might have hoped.
"No, no please, I can't - Please." Finally, finally I managed to jerk back away from his touch. Because this is my life, I regretted it instantly.
Agony flared up from my shattered wrist, my turned ankle, the deep gash in the side of back where a sword thrust had been slowed down by my coat only enough to lodge in my ribs instead of going through them like paper. Damn, damn, damn. I hissed out pain and his hands were right back, easing me into my former position.
I'd accepted the doctor's pills because I couldn't sleep while using Lash's technique to turn off pain, but now I was robbed of the focus necessary to use that technique, the pain hadn't been killed, and I wasn't asleep anyway. And I was badly handicapped in the battle of wits that so often came with Marcone's company.
Not that it mattered. I'd already lost, I reminded myself. And I was safe; he wouldn't risk breaking me. He used people, sure, to destruction if needed. But only if needed, and not before he'd gotten his money's worth from them. I'd been expensive. At least six of his men's lives, the injuries to more, whatever he'd traded for my healing, the debt I owed Mab that he'd absorbed with my allegiance. I was valuable to him.
God, I'd gotten those men killed. I didn't even know their names.
The pain had receded a little. He was carding his fingers through my hair and talking softly. It was nice. Soothing. I'm not usually very receptive to being soothed, but under the circumstances... I'd allow it. The intimacy of this and his earlier gesture was only just sinking in, but then we'd shared a greater intimacy the first time we met. I'd thrown up walls as hard and harsh as I could ever since, but the very effort it had taken undermined them, needing constant renewal. Even with the insults and aggravation we tended to slide into alliance. Now the walls seemed to be entirely gone. I wondered if the very naturalness of it left him as off balance as it did me.
Could be; talking to fill the silence wasn't something Marcone usually did.
"-considering giving them hazard pay, I didn't quite believe your medical examiner about it actually being a very small and discolored cougar-" caught my attention.
"Wait, go back, what did you say?" Possibly I should be less peremptory to my new lord and master. Screw it. He knew what I was like when he bought me.
He raised an eyebrow, but answered mildly. "We found your cat. Well, that behemoth you call a dog found your cat, but some of my men drove and got the ungrateful animal into a carrier. They're on their way back now."
That explained where Mouse was, anyway. The rest of what he said didn't make any sense, but of course Mouse would want to find Mister as soon as possible. He'd mentioned Butters, who'd been here earlier with the other doctors to offer his expert knowledge of my unique medical needs, but had gladly passed off actual treatment to the living-person specialists. It had taken hours.
It made sense that Marcone would have talked to him, and I could kind of see Butters launching into a Crime Lord/Baron of Chicago induced nervous ramble, which could easily have included Mister. That Marcone had sent goons out at God knows what time of night to find a missing cat was... more unexpected. I'd consider the thought that this was actually a dream, but people don't do nice things for me in my dreams.
"I'll have him put in your sitting room, I don't want him jumping on you in your current condition." No, that would be very bad. The sitting room I'd barely seen at all, getting a hazy impression of more bookshelves and an expensive couch. It was about to get less expensive; Mister was probably really pissed off by now. Well, that was something.
"Why...?" escaped before I could think better of it. What was he doing? The doctors had made sense. Marcone was good at enlightened self-interest and my health and relative sanity were very much his concern. I was no good to him broken. But this? This wasn't... I didn't know what to do with this. Kindness wasn't part of the deal. I hadn't know it was a possibility.
I was grateful. I was achingly, pathetically grateful. For Mister on his way back to me, for Mouse treated respectfully, for the blanket pulled over me, for the soft light of the oil lamp. For the little girl asleep down the hall. I just didn't understand.
"He'll jostle your injuries." Okay, that clearly hadn't been the question I was asking. I opened my mouth to start an argument, and nearly had a heart attack when Hendricks cleared his throat from the doorway.
Apparently, this sensing people thing only applied to John. Who hadn't jumped, the bastard, but was looking over at Hendricks with a frown.
"That report you wanted is ready." Hendricks said impassively.
"Thank you, I'll be there in a moment." Hendricks didn't move. His gaze flickered to me for a instant, then went back to Marcone. They looked at each other for a second. "That will be all." He left. Marcone took his hand out of my hair, stood up and looked at me for a little while longer. I wished I had understood any of the conversation that had obviously just happened.
"Try to sleep" he said, and left.
I did fall asleep soon after that, and woke in the early afternoon. There was a really large tray of food on the bedside table, all of it convenient for someone with one working hand and no inclination to turn over. The water and juice had sippy cup lids, which was embarrassing, but ultimately necessary. I devoured everything.
About half an hour later a maid stuck her head in and seemed relived to see me awake. I let her help me to the bathroom and firmly insisted that I could take it from there. She tried arguing that she had nurses' training and had seen it before, but there are just some things a man has to do on his own, is my opinion.
By the time I acknowledged to myself that I wasn't going to make it back to bed on my own and called her for help, there was more food, and also a lawyer. Apparently there was a whole big legal mess. First of all, Maggie's birth certificate didn't have my name on it. I had to sign some things to get a paternity test. I had to sign some things to apply for custody. I had to sign some things to change my legal residence. I had to sign some things to... I don't even know, I was tired, okay? I just signed things.
And this was all apart from the FBI investigation. John came down explain our official story himself, clearing out everyone but Hendricks, who wandered over to examine a shelf of books.
The story was basically that a drug cartel had kidnapped Maggie to use as leverage to force John to make - Gasp!- illegal deals. Then they'd kidnapped me and Susan as well, right out of the FBI building. They'd tortured me and murdered her. He'd eyed me at this point, and I'd looked away, trying to read the spine of the books Hendricks was by. What was he so interested in?
Thanks in part to the totally coincidental chaos that erupted in Latin America, our captors had been spotted by the people Marcone had looking for us, and Maggie and I had been rescued. The captors had gotten away. Darn. I'd been take to Marcone's house due to my deathly and well documented fear of hospitals. None of us had been in Mexico.
Why had Maggie been a hostage against John? Why were we moving in with him? Because a little while after I'd been banned from working with SI, he'd asked me out. We'd been romantically involved ever since. News to me.
It made sense, sort of. For one thing, the feds were never going to believe that a two-bit con artist of a private detective could be the object of enough enmity to get buildings blown up, burned down, and attacked in broad daylight by people willing to assault the local FBI headquarters. There just weren't any mundane explanations for how I could be that important on my own. So my importance was a connection to someone else.
For Gentleman Johnny the whole thing was a somewhat plausible gang war, put down with his usual lethal efficiency. With him undeniably involved they were bound to consider him either the perpetrator or the intended target of the violence. This was a reasonable way he could be presented as the target. And enough juicy gossip would cover a lot of the gaping holes in our story.
If anything happened to me, this would give him grounds to keep Maggie.
The proposed timing meant that while Murphy was definitely fired, all of her old cases, and other peoples' cases, probably wouldn't get raked over hot coals. Murphy had known for years that I was going to end her career someday: look what involvement with me had done to it already. She was frustrated with me about Marcone, but she understood why I did it, and had finally beaten it into my skull that she'd made her own damn choices. Maybe she'd take up the Sword permanently. Michael would say that where God closes a door He opens a window. I say it sucks.
My faked involvement with Thomas the hairdresser had been spread around enough in the police department that they would believe I was gay. Bi. Whatever. John had never made any of his relationships public; the time I'd walked in on him and Helen had been the my only real proof that he actually-
"Helen Beckett can never, ever be anywhere near Maggie."
He blinked at the non sequitur, but switched tracks willing enough. "No, that's true. I'm thinking of finding her a job outside the city. Perhaps on the west coast."
"Will she go?"
"I'll be persuasive." Normally I'm not in favor of Marcone being persuasive.
"Okay." Okay. I tried to get my breathing back under control. Hell's bells, that had been a bad thought. She'd been willing to sell him out to the Denarians; what would she do when she found out he'd just acquired, for all intents and purposes, a step-daughter, when her daughter had been lost because of him? Should I tell him how she’d betrayed him? See what happens with her first. Different topic.
"The kidnappers got away, huh? You're slipping."
"There's a human trafficking ring that's been irritating me. I'll cooperate with the investigation in their direction."
Nice. The FBI could pretend to believe that we were the innocent victims of genuinely bad people, in exchange for which they could arrest said bad people and rescue some of their actual victims. Or they could waste everyone’s time, energy, and money trying to convict us of doing something to the psychopaths who'd killed a bunch of their coworkers and endangered the public, and neither arrest nor rescue anyone. I wonder what they'd pick.
I bet the organized crime departments here in Chicago catch a lot of shit from their colleagues in other cities.
He was clearly still waiting for me to pitch a fit about the relationship thing.
"Isn't it going to look bad that we're in separate rooms?"
"Not while you're this badly injured, and by the time you've recovered the investigation will be over."
"Even though, you know, this has clearly been my room for a while? Why is that? I could have sworn I'd never been to your house except for that time Rover nearly ate you."
"You were living elsewhere because you value your privacy and need your own space. And it's a guest room. Any magically powerful person would be comfortable here." Which was both true and bullshit: guests don't need bookshelves. Not this many. I itched for them, wanting to get a better look at what was there and mourning treasure companions. Honestly, what was Hendricks looking at?
Actually, why was he here? Didn't he have better things to do? Even Marcone couldn't be paranoid enough to need a bodyguard to wander around his own house. I may not have a real good record of restrained good manners around the man, but at the moment the worst I could do was fall out of bed in his general direction. He could pin me to the ground in two seconds flat. So why bring Hendricks along?
John took my distraction as grounds to move the conversation back where he wanted it.
"Shall I take it you have no overwhelming objections to this? Is there anything you need clarified?"
"I reserve the right to be pissed off when I can never have a girlfriend again." Not that I really could have anyway. What do I have to offer someone? Come share a crime lord's guest bedroom? I'll probably get you killed?
"You know, when I was pretending to be Thomas' boyfriend, he gave me free coffee. I think I'm going to insist on the coffee." There hadn't been any yet, and if there had I might have been able to focus better.
This was met by silence. Hendricks actually turned around to look at me. Then looked at John's stone face and turned quickly back away.
"What?" I like coffee. Everyone knows that.
"Pretending." John said carefully.
"... Yes? Wait, you actually thought-?” Huh. I hadn't thought we'd been all that convincing. “I’m not gay." There was a muffled noise from Hendricks that I couldn't interpret. John actually shot him a glare, which seemed uncalled for. Maybe they'd had a bet.
"You were living together. In a one bedroom apartment." He visibly recomposed himself.
"He slept on the couch! Okay, sometimes he stole the bed, but not while I was in it!"
"And you later began telling people you were lovers because... ?"
"This is going to sound stupid." His expression said he had no doubt. "He was experimenting with celibacy. Which, for him, means preemptively discouraging everyone he can. He was going to be around more straight women than gay guys, so he said he was only interested in men, and in an exclusive relationship with someone tough enough to scare people off but not so dangerous that he needed rescuing or anything... "
"And needed someone to play the part, yes, I see. After that long on your couch I suppose he could be sure you wouldn't succumb to his charms. You really will do anything for a friend."
"It's not like it was difficult. I went over to his shop and ate muffins while women cooed at me. Twist my arm." It had been nice. Pleasant company without demands or expectations that it would turn into something else. I was still pretty sure Thomas had liked it too, all the laughing, teasing women who knew they weren't going to bed with him and didn't mind. "Plus, the White Council and the White Court were both happier thinking we were using each other for sex than actually liking each other.
He let out a slow breath. "I can hardly criticize anything that's caused you to eat more."
"I eat enough" I said defensively. "And you can't criticize anyway. You want me to do the same thing, but more so." What was the big deal here? It's not like we were trying to trick anyone but Thomas’ customers. It hadn't been aimed at John or anything. What did he care if I was really gay or not?
"And since you've acquiesced more readily than I expected, please excuse me. There are some other matters I need to see to." And that was that, apparently.
Before Hendricks followed him out the room, he silently pulled a book off the shelf and dropped it on the night stand. Oh, hey. Terry Pratchett. Awesome.
I closed my eyes and let my sense of John followed him out into the hall, down a flight of stairs, and a bit farther to settle in place. Probably in an office. It was a weird sensation, like this warm living He-Is-There mark pulsing lightly in time to a heartbeat not my own. Nearly a full day after the ritual and still here meant it was probably staying for good, almost certainly if it lasted through tonight.
There had been no way to know what the aftereffects would be ahead of time, really. The ritual we used was a variation of one of those the-king-is-the-land kind of things, channeling the strength of the city through its ruler to do what he wants. In this case, strengthen his champion. Emphasis on his. If Marcone hadn't been able to claim me as his subject, we'd have had to find a different method, and setting up that kind of delicate healing spell normally takes weeks of planning at best.
But this skipped past planning. Spells that work with these kinds of primal forces tend to be simple and powerful, based on willpower and intent instead of precise calculations. The trade off is that they're unpredictable as all get out. Like when I'd made Demonreach my sanctum, and gotten intellectus as a shiny bonus prize. Viaggiatore, some guy Marcone found to do the spell, had taken care to warn me that we couldn't even be sure it would repair my spinal cord.
"You mean it might not work" I'd answered flatly. "I know that."
"That too, but what I meant was that that it could, say, boost your ability to cast purely mental and long distance spells. I understand that the rushed timing here is do to a rescue attempt of some kind. Focus on that, and trust Chicago and Baron Marcone to provide for you. And if the results aren't what you expect, give us a moment to assess before you start panicking."
I snorted humorlessly. "Trust John Marcone? Have you met the man? He has ulterior motives for eating breakfast in the morning."
He'd looked at me thoughtfully. "Do you have reason to believe the Baron will betray you? He hadn't struck me as a man to break his word."
"I-He's a criminal, he's a snake. He's being trying to buy me since we met and he's finally got the right price. Just because he's better than any of my other options doesn't mean I can trust him." Fucking Hell, I’d be his for the rest of my life. I tried to force back the wave of fear that came with the thought of being under someone’s power.
"Mmm. If he intends you harm the spell simply won't go off. You will be neither healed nor bound. I've made clear to him that this relies in large part on a lord's sense of responsibility and care for those under his dominion. He didn't seem to regard it as an issue. It also relies on your willingness to accept his authority."
He waited to see if I had a response to this. I didn't.
"Trust is, by definition, a risk," he'd said slowly. "Always. It can, also, sometimes be a demand that others behave in a trustworthy manner, and few people are entirely immune to that. Even the most hardened traitors may do things they'd never considered for someone who knows what they are and trusts them anyway."
"I can't." I felt sick. Maybe I should try someone else. Mab wouldn't care if I trusted her. She probably think it was hilarious if I did.
"What good would it do him to betray you, even if he bound you first? You would in time find a way to betray him in turn, to his downfall if the rumors of you are true. He'd be a fool. Just try." He patted my arm; I could barely feel it through the numbness.
I didn't strain to watch him return to preparations. I was too caught up remembering all of the many people who had tried to enslave me over the years. The twisted wrongness I could recognize in everything Justin did by the end. Lea's blithe, alien reasoning that I'd be fine and happy if I accepted that she knew best. The vile monstrosity of Bianca and her court. The glittering, tempting seductions wielded by Lara and Maeve and Lash, promising everything if I gave up my soul. Mab and Nicodemus' certainty that they just had to wait before I handed myself over to be destroyed; so overwhelming that I couldn't fully convince myself they were wrong.
The natural, almost majestic danger that had once looked out at me through John's money-green eyes; without malice or contempt. He was a predator, but he killed cleanly, and not for sport. And I'd seen over and over again the fiercely possessive defense he'd leveled against threats to his territory, his people. He'd defend me and my daughter the same way. If I trusted him.
I'd lain in the damn cot, trying.
I came out of the memory at a scrape against the protective brass panel behind the door handle; that kind of handle that's a lever you push down instead of turn. Yeah, sure this isn't my room, I thought as my dog easily opened the door. Then all thoughts of Marcone fled as I spotted the mostly hidden form with her hands buried in the scruff of Mouse's neck.
"Hey" I said softly. "Good to see you."
Maggie didn't respond, letting Mouse draw her towards me only a little further before dragging them to a halt. My view of her was almost entirely blocked, but the top of her head was neatly braided, and her feet were in fluffy pink slippers. She peeked out at me silently from behind her protector, and I tried to think of what to do. Mouse's patiently sympathetic look wasn't much to go on.
"Are you... " She wasn't all right. How could she be? The family that had raised here were dead, she'd spent days in the hands of monsters, and now she was alone with strangers, in a strange place. The maid, Stephanie, had told me that she'd wound up sleeping under her bed and hadn't yet spoken a word. At least she liked Mouse. "... hungry?" I finished lamely. I made a gesture toward the tray of fruit and sandwiches next to my bed.
"I like your slippers." Damn, damn. Most beginning parents probably had as little idea what they were doing as I did, but the kids were too young to be able to tell. And came with more warning. And hadn't been horribly traumatized. I'd never even babysat.
We could have sent her somewhere else, but where? By the end of that fight, the combatants had included Marcone's mercenaries, who were basically hired killers; the Gray Council, whose identities I didn't know; and their allies, who I knew nothing about. Also Vadderung, who had to have his own agenda, no matter how benign he'd seemed. Any of them could have overheard the monologuing that Martin and the Red King had been doing. And the Reds had never had any real reason to keep her identity secret. They could have told anyone.
The Black Council had been up to their necks in this. There was no way they didn't know. And hell, every magic user in the world knew something big had gone down. The more powerful half would find out it was a bloodline curse gone wrong, and would wonder who the intended target had been. My desperate search for help hadn't been very subtle, and they'd draw the correct conclusions easily.
Before, Maggie's greatest defense had been that no one was looking for her. Now that was gone.
So our choices had been to hold her close and make clear that anyone who touched here would suffer the same fate as the Reds, or to give her away and hope whoever we sent her to could do a better job protecting her than the last people who weren't us had done. Or at least that they died less painfully. It hadn't really been a choice.
Susan was right that it would be a life under siege, but Marcone had a big castle with a defending army and everything. It was the best we could do.
My eyes had drifted closed for a moment. I forced them back open to find that she'd moved slightly closer, and then I had a brainstorm.
"Hey, there's someone I want you to meet. I think you'll like him. Could you open the window?" She didn't, but let go of Mouse so he could. A few minutes later Toot-toot was there.
He was loudly ecstatic to meet her. She might have been better than pizza, although the grilled cheese sandwich she was coaxed into offering him certainly didn't hurt. Maggie, in return, stared with wide eyed astonishment at the pixie calling her 'My Lady' and swearing to protect her with his life. Before long the room held a whole swirling cloud of lights and tiny little fairies, and she was turning in circles trying to take them all in. The world she was in now wasn't all bad.
Anyone who says making your child a fairy princess is cheating, as a parenting technique, doesn't have to deal with vampires as well.
She was actually letting out a occasional very small giggle, and when the wee folk left and she slumped in exhaustion, she climbed up on the bed and curled up next to me the way she had at Chichen Itza before we left. I could do this. I could.
Mouse shut the window and padded over to lie across the doorway protectively. Maggie and I both fell asleep.
When I roused slightly there was no light coming in the windows, and John was pulling pulling a chair up to my bed. He spoke softly to avoid waking her up.
"We're looking for a child psychologist with both trauma and magical experience. If we can't find one in the next few days, we'll find someone who knows trauma and give her magical experience."
I blinked at him a few times, distantly shocked. You didn't do that, you didn't force people to believe what they'd always ignored- but if she needed it... I'd done a hell of a lot worse for her.
"Will it help?" From the nightmare stories of Charity and others I knew, she'd be better off without. They hadn't been able to prove the magic though.
"It should. She's been hurt, and needs someone who knows how to deal with that." He paused. "You've been hurt too."
"I'm fine." I answered automatically, and fell back asleep.
The next day was pretty much dedicated to people I didn't want to talk to. The FBI were first, and Stephanie brought coffee in with them, so pretending to be John's boyfriend was a go.
I reeled off our official 'we're not criminals' cover story with no actual attempt to convince anyone it was true. Tilly knew better anyway, and he was writing it down seriously while his partner tried to intimidate me. He wasn't as funny as that asshole Rudolph, but still pretty funny.
Tilly did tell me that Rudolph had gotten Murphy fired, which was expected but still hurt. They told me about what was going on in Central America; accusing Marcone of moving to take more control of the drug and firearms trade in the wake the cartels loss of cohesion. Which would have been expected if I'd thought about it. I told them the truth, that I didn't know anything about that, but that theoretically if someone was taking over, they would almost have to be better than the monsters who'd been running things before, or the civil war that they described going on now. If they weren't in reluctant agreement, I'd already be in custody.
Tilly's head came up sharply at the word monsters. He'd taken his initiation into the magical world better than nearly anyone I'd ever see, especially with the whole ordeal at the headquarters. If he hadn't helped Murphy strong-arm the more resilient agents into manning a barricade to keep anything from getting further upstairs, there could have been a whole lot more casualties. As it was, none of the Eebs’ minions could do an end-run around me and Susan to get at the people having nervous breakdowns on the top floors.
The power of the city had been a torrent running through my veins; I'd been having to hold myself back from using it. Later, I'd had to carefully gather in more energy than I ever thought I'd be able to hold in order to carry it with me far out of my territory, but then? In the middle of downtown, in a building dedicated to the defense of innocent lives and the punishment of the guilty? I'd had power to burn, and I did. Susan had guarded my back while I'd cut down the vampires like a chainsaw. Afterward, Murphy declared herself impressed at the lack of structural damage, but I hadn't needed to bring the building down. I'd been able to just kill them.
The Eebs themselves had run as soon they saw what I did to their Ick, and Susan and I had chased them. It was all very satisfying. When we caught them, we'd broken their kneecaps in honor of my new mob affiliation, and dragged them in triumph back to Marcone's office for interrogation. I'd had an embarrassed moment on arrival, abruptly remembering the way Mister sometimes brought me half-dead things as presents, but John's "It's not even my birthday" had been darkly pleased.
Anyway, the point was Tilly had been attacked by vampires without gibbering or going into denial. He knew that when I'd said monster, I was speaking literally.
“If you and Ms. Rodriguez hadn't... given yourself up to those people, we'd all have died.”
I shrugged. “And we'd have had to face them anyway. They had our daughter. Why should we have wanted a bunch of other people killed as well?” There had been enough of that already.
“It was a brave thing for you to do. Strange coincidence, though, that everything in Mexico started while you were missing. A whole lot of people are dying.” They were. I'd been trying to ignore the the numbers that the two of them were talking about. The sheer number of thinking beings that I'd directly killed the night before last, and the many, many more who were dying now because of actions I'd taken. I'd committed genocide. I'd murdered a woman I'd loved, the mother of my child, in order to commit genocide.
My stomach lurched.
If you ever do significant damage to your ribs, take my advice and don't throw up. It isn't fun. I concentrated on that for a while, and the fact that the vast majority of my direct victims must have had it coming, and after a while Tilly and Other Guy went away and left me alone.
Later on, the delegation from the White Council arrived. John and Gard were there for that meeting, I guess to protect me. The whole wizard community apparently had mixed feelings about what had happened and some of them were pissed off. I mean on one hand, yay the Red Court were dead, and on the other, they'd disavowed responsibility for me so thoroughly that they couldn't take credit. After years of war and centuries of hostilities, this jumped-up vanilla mortal Free Holding Lord goes in and his forces annihilate the Reds entirely. I'm sure that was very frustrating for them. Laughter is also bad for injured ribs.
My brief good humor ended when it was suggested that by using the death curse on mostly-human half-turned Red Court servants and members of the Order of St Giles, I'd broken the First Law. That debate had apparently already taken place though, since John shut it down hard and no one brought it up again.
Luccio, at least, was genuinely concerned for me. There are very good reasons why it's against the Laws to bind people with magic, and I was bound irrevocably. Rituals involving primal forces are no more reversible than they are predictable. A good healer might be able to dig Chicago out of me in several years, by destroying my magic and most of my higher brain functions, but a good healer wouldn't do that. From what they could tell, the spell wasn't doing very much damage to me, much less than they were expecting. I could live with it.
The Wardens wanted information on Viaggiatore anyway, and John gave them enough to make clear that the man wasn't subject to their authority. He had very much not been human. When I'd looked at him with True Sight, he'd reminded me more than anything else of the ocean. Something so big you couldn't look at all of it at one, that could be cruel or kind and was always changing, but fundamentally unaltered. The name he'd given had apparently been picked at random out of the air when Gard had hesitated in her introductions, so good luck even finding him if he didn't want to be found.
If John had been anyone else, he would have been in deep trouble for having had the spell cast on me, but the Accords specifically give Signatories the right to enthrall their own people, and they couldn’t do anything about that either. Someone suggested that I was not John's 'own people', that I owed allegiance to the Council, and I broke in with incredulous anger.
“Owe you? What could I possibly owe the Council that you'd want? You've given me nothing but death threats and contempt- do you really want me to start repaying that? John's done more for me in two days than any of you have in my entire life.”
Luccio frowned, and I knew I wasn't being fair to her, that she'd tried, but goddamn it, it wasn't enough. When she'd dragged me into the Wardens I'd honestly thought I might finally have a chance at acceptance, and instead I'd been their pet boogieman, Darth Vader on a leash. And whenever it looked like I might go off the leash, it was straight back to trying to execute me.
“The Red Court is dead. The war is over. You don't need me anymore. I quit. I'd offer you the cloak back, but it was in my apartment.”
“I believe any further discussion might best take place elsewhere.” John got them out of the room somehow. There were a lot of strong personalities in that room, but I guess none of them wanted to stay enough to argue with him much.
I closed my eyes and let focusing on his heartbeat calm me. He wouldn't let them touch me. I was safe.
When he came back he was carrying the dufflebag that contained nearly all my worldly possessions. He put it on top of the dresser casually and moved toward the chair by my bed, but I couldn't just let it go.
“I, um, get that stuff back?” He looked at me in surprise and growing offense.
“An hour ago you defended my rights to you before the representatives of the Council, and now you think I'd rob you of all you have?”
I winced. “Sorry, I- I have low standards?” He pinched the bridge of his nose.
“Yes, clearly.” He was angry, but not directing it at me.
“It wasn't here... ” It had been stupid, really. What was he going to do with all that, give it to Gard? She was a contractor. She wasn't going to work for him forever. And the monetary value of all of it was nothing next to its magical potential. Of course he was going to give it back to me, it would be a waste not to. It's just that it hadn't been there and, well, there have always been things I had to hide to keep. Even in foster care the other kids said boys shouldn’t wear necklaces.
“I felt it unwise to leave uranium, no matter how depleted, or a human skull, no matter how old, where the FBI could stumble over it, never mind the rest of your collection of contraband. From Ms. Gard's reaction to the skull, it seemed possible that the Wardens shouldn't see them either. And a child shouldn't be exposed to some of these materials.
“Oh. Right.” Especially the skull.
“I won't take things from you without both warning and reason.”
He gave me that look again, trying to decide if I was done losing my mind for the moment. It's always so hard to tell.
“Why do you even have a skull?”
“I get hit on the head a lot; it seemed like a good thing to keep extras of.”
“It. Well.” Oh God. “Could I explain in a few minutes? After you maybe bring the bag over here and then go wait in the other room for a little while? It's- important.” Please don't let me be blushing.
He went along with it, and with the door safely closed behind him I pulled Bob out of the bag and immediately buried him under some blankets to muffle his voice.
When he'd first seen me after the- thing, Bob had been horrified and deeply offended.
“You did ritual sex magic without me?! Without even letting me help plan? After all the times I've pleaded and told you how and- I'm never speaking to you again. And with a guy! You usually act like I didn't even say anything when I suggest guys. How could you do this to me, Harry?” he’d wailed.
Scraping my wits together, I'd been equally horrified. “It wasn't- I'm not- Hell's Bells, Bob, there wasn't any sex! Why would you even think that? It was a healing spell, and to bind me to Marc-Marcone-"
I've never been able to figure out how Bob appears to waggle eyebrows he doesn't have. “Yeah, yeah, but the important thing is, you let him do you. If you could see your aura, you wouldn't ask how I know. Was he good? Was he big? Did he take you roughly but passionately, his eyes dark with-”
“Bob! There was. No. Sex. Of any kind. At all. I don't care what you think you see in my aura; you're wrong. And you've been reading too many romance novels.” That wasn't why his eyes had been dark. “Can you divert your one track mind over to containing enough power from the leylines? I need to have more, but I'm not sure I can take it."
“That's what you said!” He cackled gleefully as I beat my head against the table.
Bob is insane. It hadn't been like that, and I wouldn't have liked it if it had been like that, and why were we even talking about this? I didn't like men. Like that. Goddamn it.
So now, hyper-aware of John on the other side of the door, I tried to explain to Bob why he should keeping his mouth shut about this delusion he had about us. All issues of privacy, tact, future credibility, and good sense weren't worth mentioning, so I skipped straight to threats and bribery.
“If you ever so much as hint that J- that Marcone and I might have had sex or should at some other time, there will never be Victoria's Secret catalogs again.” I hissed. “Do you understand me? Or swimsuit issues, or anything else anything else featuring pictures of half-naked or fully naked women. But if you swear an oath not to talk about this, I will get Marcone to let you visit his whore house sometimes.”
“... Really? Real live prostitutes? Oh, Harry! We're talking just when he's around, right?”
“Or anyone else.”
“Fine.” Fine. I was used to Bob's craziness anyway. “And while we're on the subject, if you speak a word in front of Maggie before she's thirty-five years old, I will end you.”
He promised, and I called Marcone back in.
“This is Bob. Bob, this is John Marcone.” Bob wolf-whistled and managed a leer. It just got worse from there, but Bob didn't actually offer up my virtue to the man, and the conversation ended with John fully aware of both why Bob was valuable to me, and why the Wardens would want to destroy him. Beyond the obvious.
So I guess that went well.
After Bob was put back in the bag and relocated to a closet, John returned to his intended topic of conversation: status updates.
He told me that the Council had backed off on the idea that either of us had violated the rules, and were leaving Molly as my apprentice. That the FBI seemed willing to take what they could get. That Child Services were so far blocked from taking custody of Maggie until her permanent custody status was worked out. That they'd found a potential therapist for her and were doing background checks. That the most of the magical world was in turmoil, but there hadn't been much trouble in our area.
That Michael had come to visit that first day while I was sleeping, and planned to come back tomorrow. That Murphy and Thomas had not, although Butters had called to make sure I was still alive. Nothing shocking. John asked if I wanted him to contact anyone for me. I didn't. Everyone pretty much knew where I was, and if they weren't coming over it was probably smart. I guess we were all back to various levels of officially not caring about each other. Michael's never had any patience with that kind of thing though. Apparently my grandfa- Eb hadn’t been in contact with John either.
I'd never quite understood why Eb took the chance on me. Finding out he was my grandfather... I'd thought he thought I deserved better than the Council was giving me. That he was standing up to them to protect some dumb kid who wasn't anything to him, who was in trouble he hadn't earned. I'd admired that. Finding out that it wasn't anything to do with me being worth saving or the Wardens being bastards, that it had been about not saving my mother... well, it made more sense. And it's good to have family. But I wasn't sure how to feel about it.
It's not like he didn't care about me now. But part of me was saying that when he'd known I was charging off to my death he'd been angry, demanded that I stop, refused to let me explain. Used that damn silencing spell on me. When he found out it was a bloodline curse he'd come and brought help. Who was it for? Me or Maggie or himself? And he'd slaughtered hundreds of humans with a wave of his hand. I'd never seen him break the Laws before. I'd known he'd done it, and after Chichen Itza I couldn't throw stones, but I hadn't seen it before.
If he'd been in front of me now, I didn’t know what I'd have said to him.
John let me sleep for a while after that, and Stephanie woke me up for dinner with Maggie. Maggie continued not to talk, but sometimes nodded or shook her head to something I said, and clung to Mouse like he was the best and biggest teddy bear anyone had ever had. You could see her point: teddy bears can't usually rip bad guys' throats out or give horsey rides.
She went to her room for bed, but sometime in the night she woke up with nightmares and Mouse brought her back. For all that she didn't really know me, I'd made a hell of a first impression, and she'd apparently been out of it through the part where I killed Susan. Demonstrating at least that not quite everyone up there hates me.
When Michael woke me up the next day she was gone again.
He'd brought over some toys and things that his girls had outgrown, and had already given them to Maggie. He'd seen her the first day as well, and had talked to the woman, not a nanny after all, who was looking after her. Bethany Hunter was a single mother who'd put all three of her kids through college after her husband died in a shootout and who now ran Marcone's household. Michael had liked her a lot, which is about all of a personal recommendation I usually need. He said she said Marcone said that Maggie would have a full time carer soon, but they were still looking. She'd also informed Michael that she had a sister who was lesbian and that she wouldn't hear a word against Mr. Marcone and had called me “poor thing" so that was... good.
Michael seemed kind of amused by all that and assured me sincerely that love was love and so on until I threatened to try and get up and hit him. He stopped to keep me from hurting myself, I knew, but whatever works.
Murphy had been calling him and Butters regularly to find out how I was, but wouldn't be visiting any time soon. Her concussion hadn't been too bad, but “She's angry, and worried, and frustrated that she can't get you out of this" he told me.
“I'm fine." Then I corrected that to “I will be fine" as Michael gave me his 'don't lie to me' look. It didn't go away. “It's-" It has to be fine, because I'm stuck with it. “He's not that bad." Great. That sounded good. Zero to Stockholm Syndrome in how long had it been? How long did it usually take?
“Harry" he sighed. “We're all worried. I know he's not truly an evil man but from what you've told Molly, even with the best of intentions binding spells always do damage to their victim. “
I rubbed at my neck. Just after the ritual, Gard had told us that to her True Sight I was wearing a steel gorget around my throat, bracers on my forearms. They were carved with runes and glowing with power. None of them had buckles or latches for removal. All of them had a chain attached, dangling down immaterially through nearly any obstacles into the earth beneath us. To her Sight, when Marcone stood next to me, he lightly wrapped his hand in my leash and I lowered my head and leaned into the contact. Hearing it I'd looked away in humiliation until he caught my chin and I'd pressed in, helplessly comforted, while he told Viaggiatore he was satisfied with the results. Should my land speed record to Stockholm Syndrome be timed to then?
She'd described dark bruises spreading out from under the metal at my wrists, testimony that my inner self had struggled, but they were nothing compared to the holes in people's heads or the barbed wire around their souls that I'd seen elsewhere. Nothing compared to the old scars and half healed wounds she said I'd already borne. No big deal.
“We all get hurt.” I told Michael, giving a pointed look to his cane. “Price of doing business. Can we talk about something else?” I'd survive.
And I did. Life went on. Gard gave me schematics of the warding spells at the house and various other places Marcone wanted protected while I was still on bed rest, and Bob and I had worked out modification and improvements, some that she could do and some that would have to wait. My injuries healed faster than they ever had; I all but drank in magic from the surrounding area, tapping the leylines and natural flows of power with instinctive ease. I was back on my feet in a month and nearly recovered in three.
Maggie started talking and got a bit less skittish. We still didn't really know what to do with each other but she and Mouse were all but inseparable and she smiled when she caught sight of the couple members of the 'Za Lord's Guards that followed her whenever she left the house, along with the bodyguard, a human woman with a magical gift for spotting danger. A good trick, and I was kind of envious even after Thomas remarked that I could generally spot danger by spinning in a circle and pointing at random. It follows me around.
Thomas was speaking to me again. It took him a week or so after the fight; he said he'd needed to think. He'd been thrown by how much control he'd lost since leaving the hair salon and Justine had strongly encouraged him to go back. Lara wasn't able to persuade him not to. That being the case, John was willing to let him into the house, and seemed a lot less frosty toward him than he had been in the past. Thomas, in return, was practically friendly to him. He said it was about time someone dragged me into decent living conditions.
Mister established that he had every right to be anywhere in the house that he wished but graciously permitted the guard dogs outside at night to retain their territory. Those same guard dogs sucked up to Mouse shamelessly. He actually could go wherever he wanted. Michael visited regularly, and Billy and Georgia came to show off their new baby.
And if there were long days I spent curled up around my grief and guilt and Maggie if she happened to be there, so what? They got less common. If she was in with me, John would come in in the evenings and read to her. He never came in when I was alone at night, although he'd pause sometimes at the door, especially on bad nights. He never touched me. I was caught in a confusion between relief and longing, wanting the remembered the warmth of his hands but not the exposure of his finding that out.
It was ridiculous to find his presence comforting. It was stupid to think I could trust someone I was so utterly dependent on. I'd known better since Justin. Even Eb had made me think he was someone completely different from who he was. I’d thought he believed what he said about magic being a force of life, that should only be used to harm others when there was no other choice at all. He was a hypocrite. The security guards in Mexico would have killed us if they could have but the hundreds of human servants on Duke Ortega's estate had been murdered. And he chose to use a cherished memory of what passed for my childhood to do it. It was meaningless to anyone else; how could he have known me little enough to think I'd appreciate it?
I'd known John Marcone for years and he'd never really lied to me; his first act on meeting me was a revelation of who he was. He didn't need to lie to me now; I couldn't oppose him. I knew the worst of what he was going into this. His heartbeat lulled me to sleep at night and his hands had been gentle, both of them dragging me toward life and away from despair.
My instincts kept me waiting for the other shoe to drop anyway. I didn't know how much of what I was feeling was genuine trust and how much was the spell's compulsion. He'd given me far more than he'd promised, so he could still take that away, no matter what he'd said. But he hadn't yet.
The work he had me doing wasn't as bad as I'd always thought it would be. I was usually overkill in dealings with vanilla mortals and he'd been handling that stuff just fine since well before he knew I existed. He'd wanted me as a weapon against his magical enemies, who were generally not people I was on good terms with either. Protecting criminals from things that eat people isn't immoral, especially when the criminals were helping to protect innocents from the things that eat people, which they were.
When the whole "the king is the land" business first came up, I'd argued against Marcone's qualifications as king until Gard rolled her eyes at me and asked if I wanted it to work or not, but he really hadn't been protecting everyone. A high proportion of the city were Marcone's employees or customers somehow, but the rest he hadn't done much for unless you count acting as a trouble magnet. A lot of the bad guys were offended by his having claimed status in the magical community, and some of them challenged that claim. They weren't doing so much of that now.
Right after everything went down, a whole lot of minor league practitioners and low powered nonhumans were kidnapped all over the world. But not in Chicago. Apparently, whoever was behind it decided to wait and reevaluate what Baron Marcone was capable of before messing with us. Probably a good thing that how badly I was injured wasn't immediately common knowledge. By the time that got out, the Paranet was in an uproar about the disappearances, and Marcone had people on the streets checking on the vulnerable. Even if they weren't really his.
They weren't looking away when magical predators went after ordinary people either. They'd hustle the potential victim out of there if the predator was working for someone more important, or gang up and take it out if it didn't, calling in Gard if necessary. John Marcone had finally declared himself responsible for all of Chicago and he was taking it seriously. Once I’d recovered I spent most of my time either putting up wards, advising on tactics or answering calls for an air strike.
All these years I'd been going after only the worst of the monsters, the ones that even their own kind would admit had gone too far, while people were murdered and enslaved by the rest and I couldn't do anything about it. The Council would have killed me themselves to keep me from setting off any more wars. Now I had backup. Now I had jurisdiction over more than just other magic users. Now I had an instinctive sense of where dark magic was being used in my territory, a hundred shortcuts through the Nevernever, and a bigger power supply than I knew what to do with.
I loved it.
We set up charms that would act as distress beacons if broken and passed them out like candy among Marcone's employees and the magical community. Answering those was my first responsibility, although Marcone must have issued pretty strict instructions since they didn't go off all that frequently. When I didn't have anything else to do I'd sort of drift around. If I wasn't going anywhere in particular, I tended to wind up glaring at a troll or something above the prone body of its next victim. They'd often apologize and leave. Sometimes they'd skip the apologies and just run.
The White Court relocated their headquarters to New York with an air of having always meant to do that. I was reminded of the way cats pretend to be leaving the room because they want to, rather than because of that other cat hissing at them. Thomas and Justine both stayed. Full blooded Fay stopped spending so much time here, although our changeling population grew, as did the number of practitioners and clued in mortals in general.
People wanted to be here. They wanted to be under our protection or at least close enough to make a run for us in case of emergency. Some of the more dickish members of the Council claimed to think Marcone was responsible for the kidnappings because they didn't happen in our city, but John very politely explained to them that they were morons. The Paranet had known better. I had a gratifyingly good reputation with them, and Marcone's wasn't bad either. He spread the news about the ritual around fast, and for the most part people took it as the binding oath of protection that it was.
So there were a lot of newcomers from all over the place. If they needed assistance getting here or dealing with immigration issues, Marcone was happy to help with that, and since they kept coming I guess he wasn't asking more than they thought it was worth. If they needed immediate evacuation I'd go and get them, although leaving Chicago felt... uncomfortable. Not painful or anything, I told John when he asked, I was just on edge and very aware that I wasn't where I was supposed to be. It would be hard to spend more than a few days like that. John’s own trips to Wisconsin bothered him enough that he had Amanda quietly moved closer.
The Nevernever wasn't comfortable either, but I could easily spot Chicago exits, and in the city I could generally get a sense of what was on the other side just by concentrating for a while. In combination with my mother's necklace it was very easy to get around. A two minute walk to a Way plus a ten minute walk to Cairo plus a three minute walk back to Chicago and I was on the other side of town. Who needs a car?
The other side of Marcone's estate was a heavily warded though unpopulated fort with my godmother's garden spreading around it. Three and a half months after the battle with the Red Court I ran out of excuses not to step over to thank her for the help she'd been permitted to give me, and came back bemused.
“Hey John, when was the last time someone called you ‘a nice boy'?" I asked him, wandering into his office.
He glanced over to give me a dark look from his conversation with lawyer and absently told me to be quiet when I started to go on. I grinned and settled in a corner with a copy of “The Art of War" off one of his shelves. A little while later he gave me an odd look and finally sent the guy out. He sat there watching me. I hoisted an eyebrow at him. I practice that.
“Why didn't you keep talking?" he asked me.
“You didn't want me to." He nodded, something confirmed.
“And why did you come in? Why stay?"
Why had I? ... Because it was relaxing to listen to his voice. “To bother you." Which was why I stopped as soon as he told me to. Yeah, that was convincing.
He stared at me for a long moment. “Come here" he'd finally said, his voice pitched low. I got up to go lean against his desk with an uneasy feeling, then slid a folder aside and sat fully to give him room as he stood and prowled around the desk closer to me.
"You'll do what I want you to? Whatever I tell you to? You have to?"
Oh, hell. I desperately tried to think of a time since the spell that I'd disobeyed him. “I - I don't know." His usual good manners didn't actually include many direct orders, compliance was just assumed. I hadn't noticed. It hadn't felt unnatural. I course I'd obeyed: I'd promised.
“Raise your right hand." I fought it, panicking, but my hand slowly lifted. My breath was coming too fast and I couldn't think until he firmly said “Stop." I panted for air and swayed toward him, horrified and wanting- wanting- but he jerked back an abrupt few steps and froze. We stared at each other.
"Get out. Now." he snarled the words. I was moving before he finished the second one. With the door closed behind me I sagged against the wall, trying to get a hold of myself. It didn't matter. It didn't change anything. I'd known I was bound, it hadn't exactly been a secret. I couldn't breathe.
Something shattered against the other side of the wall. I didn't see John for the next three days.
Until then he’d been having breakfast with me and Maggie every morning, and generally dinner at night. He’d ask her what she’d done that day and listen seriously, with suggestions about things she might like to do the next. She liked him. She liked the house and the staff. Things weren’t perfect - the first time she yelled “I hate you!” and ran off down the hall I just stood there staring after her until Bethany dragged me off to the kitchen to explain that that was normal, even for kids with regular lives - but generally we were doing okay. She had a tutor helping her get ready for the private school she’d be going to next year, and in the afternoons I’d usually take her out somewhere for a while. We went to museums and parks and the Carpenter’s house, and she got to know their kids. They’d wanted to meet her before, but Charity had put her foot down about her children visiting a mob boss’ house, and it had had to wait until I could bring her over to them.
Molly was allowed into Marcone’s den of iniquity for lessons, but everyone was happier when we did those at her house instead. Things were difficult with Molly. She really didn’t like Marcone. It wasn’t hard to keep them away from each other, but my new lab was in an outbuilding on his grounds, supplied with books and materials bought with his money and filled with projects he wanted me to work on. Bob was thrilled with what we had to work with in his new domain, but with Molly it was easy to get sidetracked into a debate over where it had come from and why or why not John Marcone was a terrible, terrible person.
Those debates, not just with her but with anyone, were always strange. They fell into two categories. In the ones with people like Molly who didn’t like him, I’d find myself saying things like “If he didn’t do that, things would be worse” and “He’s good to Maggie” and “I agreed to it”. Things that felt weird to admit but weren’t untrue. Then they’d give each other looks that said “he’s under mind control: he can’t help it” and I’d want to set something on fire. Talking to Hendricks or Bethany I’d could bitch about what a bastard he was and if it wasn’t serious they’d agree with me and tell me about other times he’d been completely unreasonable. If it was serious they’d usually get a kind of determined look on their faces and half the time the next day Marcone would have changed his mind. Most of the rest of time he’d call me in and tell me why whatever it was was necessary. It never failed to catch me by surprise and leave me feeling oddly guilty. He had the right to do what he wanted with me. I shouldn’t complain.
Now, though, I had a better idea where that was coming from, and I didn’t like it.
So in the evening of the second day John left the house before I got up and stayed out until he had to come back for bed, I called Hendricks and opened with “If he wants to set himself up as some kind of father figure to Maggie, he should fucking well come home to dinner.” Then I hung up. It was about as reasonable as I was prepared to be. She’d been disappointed. I don’t know much about parenting, but I know you don’t drop the kid because you’re upset at her dad. Or whatever his problem was.
What was he supposed to be mad about anyway? Shouldn’t I be the one who got to be mad? I wasn’t. He hadn’t done anything wrong. I could feel the place where the anger should be, but it just wasn’t there. I was scared, mostly, and intensely conscious of the spell weighing at me; telling me I was fine, which was terrifying; so I fought it, which hurt. When I registered the existence of anger on Maggie’s behalf, I grabbed onto it like a lifeline.
I called Hendricks again. “Tell him he’s a fucking coward.”
“Jesus, Dres-” I hung up.
I had a nagging feeling that I shouldn’t put Hendricks through this. We were actually getting along surprisingly well. I’d looked differently at him since finding out he’d read all of Discworld. He’d looked at me differently ever since the meeting in that Burger King. When I’d threatened to kill him and the rest of Marcone’s men, and beat the information I needed out of Marcone himself, Hendricks had shifted to free up his gun, but John hadn’t blinked.
“You would commit murder and torture? Over something we had nothing to do with, that you know I would never allow my employees to be involved in?” I was silent, teetering on the edge of control. I had to find her. He wasn’t involved. He knew something. It would be murder. “I ask again, who is she to you?” he asked. And God, this was exactly why Susan hadn’t told me. Because when I care about something I spell it out in ten foot high letters of fire.
Realistically, if the Denarians couldn’t break him I didn’t stand a chance. She didn’t have time for me to waste here. John Marcone, of all people, was not going to use the life of a little girl against me, of all people. I took a deep breath and gritted out “I’ll explain if you send Gard outside”
“You’re not as funny as you think you are.” The lights flickered overhead
I closed my eyes for a second and wrestled with my temper. “She doesn’t really work for you. I know you; I know you control your people. But Gard works for Monoc Securities, and I don’t know them. I swear on my name that I won’t initiate an on attack you for the next half hour if she leaves.”
He leaned back slowly, and without taking his gaze off me asked Gard to step outside. She nodded to both of us and left.
“She’s my daughter. Susan gave her up for adoption without telling me.” I let my fury over the whole situation fill my voice. Marcone’s green eyes widened, and Hendricks hissed in a breath. I looked over at him, startled, but returned my attention to his boss. “The murder and torture may not work here, but I’ll give it a shot if you don’t give me what I need to know.”
Marcone had apparently gotten over his moment of humanity. “And all those times you said you’d rather die than stoop to such things?”
Moral debates with Gentleman Johnny tend to either clarify my position for me or send me into a frothing, electronics destroying rage. Sometimes both. Maggie didn’t have time for me to lose control, I reminded myself.
“I would. I would rather die.” The conversation I’d had earlier with Murphy about letting people deal with their own consequences came back to me. “I would rather let Susan die. I would rather let Murphy and Thomas die, I would rather let Molly die. I would rather let you and all your people die. We’ve made our choices, and we can die by them. Maybe they were stupid, maybe we didn’t know what we were getting into, but we got into it all on our own. Maggie hasn’t made any choices. She’s a nine year old girl terrified and alone because of my choices. Because of things I did before she was born. I’m responsible. I don’t have the right to say I’d rather die than do what it takes to save her from the results of my actions. And I don’t want to.” Some of the anger had drained away from me, leaving resolve behind. I would find her.
“... I believe I should put you in touch with Mr. Vadderung”
Hendricks had told me later that he’d always considered me to be at heart a brainless thug. The irony, I know. That night had changed his mind. So I was a jerk to put him in the middle of this fight with John, but I didn’t know what else to do. I needed to yell, and yelling at John was difficult to think about. But I could yell at Hendricks, and he would glare at John, and that was almost as good. Better, maybe; John’s cultivated immunity to my yelling couldn’t have worn off yet.
So John was there for breakfast the next morning and apologized to Maggie with as much sincerity as I'd ever seen in him, and asked her if he could go to the park with us that afternoon. She agreed and gave him a quick hug and ran off with Mouse at her heels. There was a startled look on his face; I'm not sure if she'd hugged him before. I tried to hang on to what was left of the anger but it was almost gone. With most of my meal uneaten, I got up to leave as well: if I couldn't blow up I could at least sulk.
"Harry... " His voice caught me. I stopped, but didn't turn to look at him. There was no else in the room. He could do anything to me. He wouldn't. He wouldn't hurt me, if he was going to he would have already. Justin used to- My fingernails dug deeply into the palm of right hand, while my left clenched as well as it could on the back of the chair.
"I'm sorry." What? He didn't- sure, Maggie needed- but- "I am truly sorry." I couldn't speak. He was silent for a few seconds and then asked "Will you look at me?" It wasn't an order. In that tone of voice it wasn't even a request. I turned my head.
His expression was open and bleak.
"You've always wanted this" I accused, bewildered. "You've always wanted me to have to take your orders."
"I wanted you to want to take my orders. I wanted... an eagle to land on my wrist, of its own free will. And instead I broke your wings." My weight fell on the back of the chair, the depth of regret and bitterness in his voice was staggering. "I'd have been... content... to watch you fly."
"I asked for it" I said dully. "I'd have asked for worse." My throat closed up. I wanted to say more, but couldn’t. I stepped towards him and he pushed back from the table, making it easier to sink to the floor at his side, pressing my face against his flank and gripping the legs of his chair. He twisted his body to rub one hand along my shoulders and cup the other around the back of my bent neck as I cried.
We must have stayed like that for a good twenty minutes. Even after the tears dried up I didn't want to move, and he didn't seem to either. I should have been uncomfortable, not just kneeling but embraced by a man, but it felt so good. Part of my upset over the last few days had been his absence. I knew where he was, but he didn't want me there, and that hurt almost as much as everything else. It had left me tense and nauseous, barely choking down enough food to keep Maggie from worrying, and skipping lunches entirely.
My stomach growled and he snorted softly, lifting his arms to let me up. Instead I shifted to sit fully, leaning against his leg and letting my head rest on his thigh. It had been so long since he'd touched me. I was so tired of pretending not to want him to. My eyes drifted shut. He smelled good, the clean masculine scent not at all like Justin's disgusting cologne.
After a pause, he offered me a muffin from off the table. I opened my eyes to take it and noticed the knuckles of his other hand gone white around a napkin. I pulled away from him in embarrassment and scrambled to my feet. What the hell was I doing?
I could feel my cheeks flush as I sat back at the table. That hadn't been homoerotic at all.
"So, um. There are some knockers down under the city. And by knockers I mean mine-dwelling wee folk, not- yeah." Bob was always such a pain about knockers. "If you piss them off they sometimes cause cave-ins, but otherwise they warn you ahead of time. They say some supports need to be replaced." Chicago is built on top of other pieces of Chicago on top of a swamp, basically.
He cleared his throat and asked if a normal inspection team would be able to get to the area, and discussion of all that carried us through the rest of the meal. I don't think I was the only one relieved to be able to escape to do something I understood. Poltergeists aren't hard.
The park was good. John had a big yard with a brand new play-set, but there weren't any other kids there, and since she wasn't going to school right then, well. Isolation wasn't going to help anything. We went the the same place pretty regularly, so she'd gotten to know some of the other kids, and their moms had stopped worrying about how I got my scars.
One of them, actually, wore mother goddess earrings and gave me knowing looks when people started talking about weird things that had happened recently. Her son had a one of those braided friendship bracelets, which kept catching my eye. She pulled me aside and showed me how to make one; it was a charm to make her notice if he got too far away from her. Nice and elegant, not a lot of energy but really well made. She always had a bag of knitting with her, said string would handle about anything she needed.
When she saw John she blinked a couple of times and gave a respectful nod, and then diverted the woman next to her when she would have come over to meet my- partner? Is it still boyfriend after you've got a kid? John nodded in return and we settled on a bench as Maggie was pulled into a game of tag. He stretched his arm behind my back. He did touch me in public sometimes, keeping up the act.
"Does her son have magic?" he asked me.
"Not yet" I answered absently. "Later, if he wants it, probably. It usually shows up in late adolescence. Because what every teenager needs is more reason to be confused and convinced the world doesn't understand them." Then, thinking about it: "You've never asked. About Maggie I mean." Susan had magic, even if she wasn’t actually casting it. The odds were good our daughter had inherited at least some.
"She doesn't now. If she does in the future that's fine, and I'm sure you'll do a good job teaching her. If she doesn't, that's also fine."
"You don't care?" I wasn't sure how to feel about that.
"I care. It's an important aspect of your life, and possibly hers. But I won't mind either way, and it doesn't need to be addressed now, clearly."
"Yeah, since she didn't get set off early." I did not mean to say that, which meant that John jumped on it instantly. He pulled back his arm to turn to look at me, eyes focused. I'm not sure what he had heard in my tone.
"It can be triggered earlier? And that's not desirable?"
I looked away from him. "It- no. Not desirable. Not the magic itself, I mean, but... it happens sometimes when kids get- hurt. Something- longer term, usually. Than the vampire thing. Takes a little while for the survival instincts to take over or something... " Justin had asked me if I wanted to learn magic.
"How old were you?" The fury in his voice was tightly reined in; no one more than a few feet away would have heard him.
Ten. I was ten. When it started. Eleven by the time the magic came but he didn't stop, he- He said it was always done that way, with masters and apprentices. He said, hadn't I wanted it? Wanted magic? He said he was doing it for my own good. He said nothing comes without a price, that no one does anything for free. He said that I was his.
John took my silence as the answer it was. "Is the person responsible dead?" 'Because I'll fix that if he's not' came through loud and clear behind it, but that was a question I could answer, had been made to answer over and over.
"Oh, yeah. Very dead. Really most sincerely dead. He- I burnt him alive." I braced myself automatically for the horror that they always-
"Good." My gaze flicked back up, startled. He met my eyes firmly, his heart-rate easing back slightly from trying to catch up with mine. "Burning is good."
Right. This was John Marcone I was talking too. No one knows what he does to pedophiles, because no one finds the bodies. But: "I used magic." He looked at me. “That’s- not good.”
"Did you have any other effective weapons?"
"Then why wouldn't you have? Honestly, Harry, of course you used magic. Is this what your trial was about?" He was still furious.
"Um. Yes. They - They didn't know every thing he'd done... " They didn't ask. Neither did Eb. I'd thought what he'd done was standard practice, until the end. It had taken years afterwards to figure out how much he'd lied.
"That doesn't make you any less justified." I wasn't- That was- I stared at him. Very carefully, he reached a hand toward me. I drew back. He put it down on his lap calmly. "If you-"
Maggie came out of nowhere and hurled herself into my arms. "I want to go on the swings!" Hair-trigger reflexes nearly blasted her, John's glance to the side my only warning. I couldn't- She wasn't- Goddammit she couldn't scare me like that! John pulled her away from me and told her he'd push her on the swings, and I slid off the bench to try and get my breath back next to Mouse, who licked my face earnestly.
I spent most of the rest of the time we were there trying to focus on modifying that bracelet design to warn me if Maggie came too close when I wasn't paying attention. All of my friends were aware that they shouldn't startle me, and the only time since I was a kid that someone had woken me out of a nightmare was Thomas, who rolled with the blow and wasn’t badly injured. As soon as I was mobile, I'd put up a tripwire sort of ward on my door to wake me up in case Maggie came in at night, and she'd had Mouse to protect her before that, so that was taken care of. I'd thought it was enough, but she just didn't understand that I could hurt her by accident. I could have killed her. Fuck, I could have killed her. That could never happen again.
John had seen it, seen the instant where my hand had come up in a gesture he knew, and the rush of terror and anger that filled me afterward. He kept her away from me. He'd glance over now and then and I'd shake my head, still afraid I'd grab her too tightly, shout at her just for running to me.
What the hell did I think I was doing, trying to raise a child? This was insane, I didn't know how, I was dangerous. Marcone was out of his mind, saying that I- that Justin- I'd killed him with magic. I'd nearly killed Elaine. That was the bottom line. That was anathema. That was what... Eb had taught me. While he was killing people with magic. Shit. Stars and Stones, Marcone was a crime lord, was I really going to start accepting his moral judgments? He hadn't said anything I hadn't thought before, but everyone had always told me I was wrong, was one step from axe-murderer crazy. I was dangerous. I was. That was just true. I was one of the best combat casters in the world. I'd nearly attacked Maggie. It all kept going round and round in my head. Second verse: same as the first. A little bit louder and a whole lot worse.
The bracelet wouldn't be hard to make, which was too bad. I could have used more of a distraction.
I watched them together. I was relieved to have the mafia boss who'd enslaved me taking care of my daughter, because I didn't trust myself. God. I needed to stop this. I just had to put this back behind me where it belonged. If he hadn't brought it up in the first place, there wouldn't have been any problem.
I ran through some of the mental exercises for calm and control that I do before rituals and by the time we went home I could smile at Maggie and take her hand.
After dinner Marcone asked if I'd ever talked about Justin with anyone. I said it didn't usually come up in conversation. Did I want to talk about it with anyone? Oh hell no. All right, he wouldn't insist, but he wanted me to think about a therapist again. Incidentally, didn't Maggie seem to be doing better with hers?
I went to bed early.
There were a bunch of fucking printouts about the after effects of child abuse in an envelope on my desk the next day, which I set on fire. I was up, because I'd be damned if I ran away like he had, and I was fine. The next envelope I ignored for three days before finally reading, and okay, yeah, I could see how it might look like that was me, but I didn't need any help. I'd been managing just fine on my own.
I left the ashes of that one spelling out "Fuck Off" on his desk, and he let it go.
We spent a couple of weeks testing out the boundaries of the spell's control of me, just a little every day. Long attempts to resist it tended to leave me shuddering at his feet, which he seemed to find almost as disturbing as I did. He’d hold me then, telling me how well I’d done, and the nausea would go down as I relaxed back into the spell’s grip.
Direct verbal orders I had to obey. Gestures and implicit orders I could resist if I had a good reason. Requests I could refuse, although I felt guilty about it. If he grabbed my arm I could pull away unless he told me to stop, but I couldn't attack him even to spar, and I could barely bring up shields against him. I had a strong tendency to obey orders from, say, Hendricks if he said they were from Marcone, with that decreasing along with the likelihood of Marcone trusting them to give those orders. When Marcone asked me a question, I could give a non-answer once or twice but no more, and any attempt to lie was completely transparent. It was extremely hard to criticize Marcone to anyone I didn't consider loyal to him. Probably so no one could try to use the knowledge against him.
Unless we were trying to think about it, all this happened without any real awareness on my or Marcone's parts. It felt natural that I should obey him to both of us. It was easier to think about why that was a bad thing when he wasn't present, but still made me feel ill.
John stopped repeating questions. He carefully avoided the casual use of orders that usually occur in conversation, and rarely gave them even when he clearly wanted me to do something. Generally, he'd give me information and I'd figure out what he wanted me to do with it. A building is haunted: I'd better do an exorcism then. He was going to a benefit the next evening: he probably wanted me to go with him and do the significant-other act.
I cooperated, mostly. I couldn't help testing it sometimes, but he didn't change hints into orders no matter how much I ignored them or how irritated he was getting. Requests were sometimes changed, but only if it was really important. I didn't mind that; when lives were riding on something I couldn't stand aside just to see what he'd do. That was justified.
I found myself responding to his generosity by offering to do things that he wasn't asking for at all. Call me Patty Hearst. I put the armoring spell on some more of his clothes. I got the wee folk to get rid of an infestation of moles in the yard. I gave him information I'd picked up around town that I thought might be useful. Every look of pleased surprise I received in return warmed me and left me a little more secure. If he was giving more than he had to, so was I. I didn't owe him any more than I already had and I could stop volunteering things if he stopped treating me well. He could still do anything he wanted, really, but it made me feel less vulnerable.
I started to gain confidence again. I understood what he wanted from me and it wasn't unreasonable. Half the time it was what I wanted to do anyway, but with more emphasis on advance planning and bringing backup. Things were okay.
“Uncle" Thomas was had dinner with us sometimes. Justine usually tried to come too but she was managing Executive Priority and a couple other of John’s places now, and evening's kind of their busy time. Maggie called them “Uncle" and “Aunt" with a child’s unquestioning acceptance. John took those as the honorary terms due close friends, which I was feeling more and more bad about. The White Court wouldn't care anymore about my being Margaret LeFay's son, and the White Council had more important concerns about me than who my brother was. I was only holding onto this secret because it was mine and he didn't know it existed. It was petty, really. I knew his secrets. Pettiness had never been something I’d gone far out of my way to avoid though, and he wasn't asking...
A bit less than two months after the confrontation with John in his office, that's what I was thinking about as Thomas and I headed back to my room after Maggie had gone to bed. So when he said “That was kind of mean of you, wasn't it?" I felt guilty before realizing that I had no idea what he was talking about.
“Taunting him like that." He had to mean John, but I'd barely even been sarcastic all night. John had smirked at some of my jokes. We'd been calling Thomas “Uncle" since he first came over.
“Thomas, what the hell?" I must have looked sincerely baffled, because he took another look at me and rolled his eyes.
“When you ran your fingers along his shoulder as we left." Like that was enough of an explanation. Like I was being slow. “Come on Harry, if you're not going to put him out of his misery, don't add to it. I'm pretty sure he's not actually a masochist, although with his taste you have to wonder."
“... Out of his misery." I repeated, still lost.
Thomas' impatient look turned incredulous. “Oh, Empty Night, Harry, I don't believe- No, wait. I do believe this. Because you are one of the wonders of the galaxy: there are black holes less dense than you are. You really don't get it, do you?" He waited a second to see if I could come up with the right answer. I was coming up blank. "The man. Wants. You."
“He has me. For god's sake, Thomas, did you miss the part where he owns me and I live in his house and do what he says?" Wanting me was in the past. Thomas flopped back on the couch and started to laugh. You would think that flopping could not be done gracefully by anyone, but you would be wrong, and it made his reaction all the more irritating.
“To fuck you, Harry. He wants to fuck you." No. I went cold. No, that wasn't true. He'd said he didn't want to hurt me.
“No." He didn't need to fuck me, if he wanted more control he could just stop hinting and start ordering.
“Oh, but yes. He-" Thomas twisted to look at me. “Hey, it's not that bad." The humor had left his voice. “It's not- Harry. Whatever you're thinking: Stop. He's wanted you for years, if he was going to jump you he would have by now. He's not going to do anything. That's why I told you it wasn't nice to touch him."
“Years. Are you kidding me?"
He hesitated, a little reluctant. “The first time I saw both of you together was in the caves during the ghoul attack. He wanted you then. Harry- there were dozens of my family around him and his focus was on you. When we went back through the gate and left you and Lara behind with the explosives about to go off, I saw his face. It wasn't Lara he was horrified for. He cares about you. I don't know why you won't go to bed with him, I think you may as well take the happiness you can, but he's not going to force the issue."
“... I'm not gay."
He rolled his eyes again. “Yeah, yeah. You've mentioned that once or twice.”
“I'm not! This is ridiculous. Neither is he. I've- I've seen him with a woman in his lap for God's sake, and if he wants me, how come he never touches me except for the public act?" Helen was beautiful. He had women throwing themselves at him, all of them beautiful, and if he wanted a man he could find one who wasn't too thin and scruffy and aggravating. He'd told people I was his- his- the cover story was an excuse to keep me close, not- It was just an excuse. He had all he wanted from me.
He never touched me the way I wanted him to.
“He's trying not rape you, Harry. And doing a good job of it, although you haven't made it any easier with the way you touch him in private. Look- objectively," he stressed the word, “would you say John Marcone is physically attractive?" That was a trap. That was such a trap. I didn't answer. Of course he was attractive, that didn't mean that I wanted- that I wanted him to- I didn't want that. I don't want men.
“All right. If you're sure you don't want him, all right. Tell you what, I'll jump him. He can work off some frustration, you won't have to worry as much, I'll have a good time- I bet he's fantastic, all intensity, and control, and then that perfect moment when his control breaks and-”
“I'll kill you." The words came without thought.
He smirked. “Yeah, that's what I thought. Seriously, little brother, he wants you. He takes good care of you. If you want to take good care of him, what's the problem?" His smile suddenly reminded that me that he's an incubus. “Turn-about's fair play, you know-" His voice was a darkly laughing purr that sent shivers down my spine. “Make him an offer he can't refuse."
The words were still echoing in my head as I lay in bed waiting for John to go by my door. I held my breath as he paused. He wanted to come in. He wanted to- He kept walking, and the usual mix of relief and disappointment filled me. I tried to shut out the disappointment. That was crazy. I hadn't wanted him to come in. I hadn't wanted... anything else.
“Of course we do." Why, why, why, did I have to have a subconscious that hates me?
“Where, exactly, do you imagine I'm capable of going without you?" We were in... John's bedroom. I'd seen it when I was setting some wards on the doorway and windows, the same kind of trip wire things that were on mine. He hadn't been there and I'd poked around a little. It was just curiosity. You don't become a detective without an unhealthy amount of curiosity. Now my subconscious was lounging back against the large bed's headboard.
“Hey, I can leave too. I’m good with that."
“But I like it here. A lot." He gave a self-satisfied smile. The differences between us were as marked than they usually are, but for new reasons. I'm better dressed than I used to be, and my ribs aren't showing as much, but he- He was- He was wearing the gorget Gard had described, minus the chain. It was beautiful. The lines of it were clean and elegant, the engravings complimenting them perfectly. My fingers itched to touch it, and his ran across it like he knew what I was thinking. He probably did. The jerk.
“I don't care. Why are we even talking about this?"
“Because I don't want you to freak out and stop touching him. We want more, not less."
“You're wrong, I don't want him. I don't want- that." I'd never wanted that. No matter what Justin had said, no matter how Bianca's minions had made me beg. He raised his eyebrow in a condescending expression.
“We didn't want ‘that' with Justin, or with Bianca's sick fucks. ‘That' with someone else... could be a different matter. People wouldn't do ‘that' if it had to hurt. He wouldn't want it if it would hurt us." He stretched out a little more. “This is a comfortable bed." It had been. I turned away from him to glare out the window.
“I don't want men."
“Please, if Thomas didn't buy that, do you really think I'm going to? Lying to yourself only works if your self doesn't know better.” And the bedroom dissolved in to a highlights reel entitled The Best Of Guys I Know.
Goddamn Thomas with his purring voice and the little more than nothing he'd been wearing the first time I'd seen him, when I hadn't known why he was interested in me. Billy, stripping to change into a wolf before I turned away, flat stomached and cheerfully nonchalant. Michael, the perfect picture of a storybook hero, offering me friendship and trust like I'd never had before. Sanya, his chiseled muscles gleaming, his matter of fact optimism promising that nothing was too bad to recover from. Flix, grown taller and graceful since assuming Summer's mantle. Vincent Graver: ordinary, unassuming, until his rueful smile lit up the room.
Marcus. His green, green eyes staring challengingly into the depth of my soul, unshaken by whatever he found there. The heat of his hands trailing along my skin, the comfort of his arms around me. His consideration, his support, after a lifetime relying only on myself. The focused intensity of his interest in me, coming back time and again. The sly humor he let only a few people see; the way his expression softened when he looked at me and Maggie. The scent of his body when I'd rested against his thigh. The possessive pride in his eyes when I'd brought the Eebs back to his office, whenever I showed off my magic, my power. His power.
His breath warm against my ear as he'd spoken too low for anyone else to hear “Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden: I, Marcus Enrico Gallo, called Gentleman Johnny Marcone, Baron of Chicago, do accept your fealty, and promise my protection to you and your family in return. Your life is in my hands, and I will keep it well and spend it wisely." My life had been in his hands, the backboard unstrapped from around me, his fingers carefully intertwined behind my neck, his thumbs resting lightly in the soft hollows under my chin. He could have killed me effortlessly, with a slight twist of his wrists or increase in pressure, but the name, the secret, the promise had shocked my inner panic into stillness. I'd taken it in, cradled it close, buried it deep inside inside me next to Amanda Beckett's existence. Power had flowed in behind and I'd opened myself up to it.
The surge of magic was overwhelming, driving inside of me, bringing him with it. It hadn't hurt. It hadn't felt wrong. Control and sensation had spread out from his hands; I'd flexed and stretched my arms, rolled my shoulders in relief. His eyes had been locked onto mine, dark with- okay, fine- with desire. I'd caught at his shirt, pulling him in closer, and he'd shifted his position to accommodate me, one hand cupping my neck and the other sweeping down to the small of my back, lifting my upper body toward him. My guttering reserves of soulfire had flared into a bonfire burning visibly around us as I'd gasped into the crook of his neck and bit his shoulder to stifle my moans, pulling in my legs to curl up against his body. The candles set around us had vaporized. He'd held me tightly, dragging me half into his lap, murmuring "Harry, Harry" over and over. Someone I didn't care about had shouted something completely irrelevant.
It had felt. So. Good.
I jolted awake aching hard, rubbing against the mattress under me. I usually take an ‘ignore it and it'll go away' approach to that; I hate masturbating, it's lonely; but I wasn't alone. Marcus was right there, I could feel his heart beating in the place where I'd put his name, and I jerked off fast and desperate.
Before turning over to stare blindly at the ceiling for a long, long time. Finally I got up to go sleep on the couch. I hate my subconscious as much as he hates me.
Having left the damn alarm clock next to the damn bed, turning it off and going back to sleep for half an hour as usual wasn't an option the next morning. Neither was blasting it into slag and going back to sleep for a full hour. I dragged myself reluctantly into the shower and had started feeling a little human when I noticed Mar- Jo- Marcone's heart rate rising. I groaned and leaned my head against the tiles, but the universe failed to take pity on me.
This happened sometimes: early in the morning, late at night. The first time I'd been awake to notice, I'd gotten worried. Was something wrong, was he under attack? I was in no condition to get up and do anything about it, though, and after a while he calmed down. He didn't mention anything the next day, so I dismissed it. The next time I wondered if he had heart problems; it couldn't be a nightmare: he hadn't had time to fall asleep since going to his room. The third time it had belatedly occurred to me that, whatever I thought about it, jerking off was a popular practice of single men the world over, and he'd just ditched Helen. A couple more times and I'd figured out where his shower was, sight unseen, and had resolved never, ever to mention the heartbeat thing. Awkward.
He was there now. Standing in the shower the way I was. Maybe thinking about me the way I was thinking about- My cock twitched and I ruthlessly turned the tap to cold. My unconditional love for this bathroom was at an end. I should have known better than to trust a water heater, treacherous bastards.
I finished my shower fast and started getting dressed, but he was still at it and as I warmed up my body renewed its interest. Did he have to take so damn long? What was he even doing? I'd wondered it before, just, you know, wondering- shit. It wasn't the first time I'd reacted, either.
Think about something else. Potion recipes, the cold water I'd just been in, what Charity would do to me if she ever suspected the way I'd pictured her husband last night. That took care of it.
I finished getting dressed and reflected that this could actually be a lot more inconvenient than it was. At least it didn't happen when I was out in public.
Actually... this only happened at times when there was no way he could be with someone else. It had been months even though a man like him didn't have to go without real sex. Women, and sometimes men now, came onto him all the time, even in front of me. I'd always get mad: it was insulting and tacky. He'd always seemed pleased when I chased them off, no matter how impolite I was in return. Pleased that I'd... acted jealous. Possessive.
I'd have been furious if he'd encouraged any of them. Anger stirred just at the thought of it, which brought me up short. Where had that come from? How was I even feeling that? He could do anything he wanted with me; I knew it to my bones, I couldn't be mad about it, but that... apparently didn't give him the right to do anything he wanted with someone else. Huh.
At breakfast I couldn't meet his eyes, my face was burning with embarrassment, and I dropped something twice, but he accepted “weird dream" as an explanation for my lack of focus. Or, at least, didn’t ask for a better one.
I dreamed about men in general and Marcus in particular every night for weeks as my subconscious hammered home the lesson he wanted me to learn. In what was absolutely retaliation and not a freak out, I kept two feet of space between myself and Marc-John at all times, even when we were supposed to be playing boyfriends. John went stiff and still around me, visibly gritting his teeth in an effort not to demand to know what was wrong. It felt like cutting off my nose to spite my face. Regular, casual human touch was something I hadn't had since, well, since Susan left me. Even before things went south with Ana, she hadn't been around enough for me to get used to it. I still had Maggie, but it wasn't the same.
I could have that comfort back whenever I wanted it. I just couldn't bring myself to ask for it. I didn't even know for certain whether he wanted me or not. Thomas wasn't always right and neither was my subconscious. So what if he watched me all the time? Not being attracted to me was still the simplest reason for him not to be taking me. Just because I wanted him to didn't mean- I had not just thought that. I hadn't.
If he didn't want me, what were we going to do? I was his and he couldn't have anyone else. He had to know that as instinctively as I did, didn't he? Otherwise he'd have found someone discrete and I'd have murdered her by now. Unless he told me not to. He'd probably consider that reasonable grounds for an order. Somehow I didn't.
Even if he'd wanted me before, like Thomas said, that hadn't stopped him from sleeping with Helen, but now he was being... faithful to me. Even though we weren't really together.
If we couldn't have anyone else, we might as well have each other.
I tried not to think about the dreams or fantasies and found myself tracking his heartbeat instead. He'd started disappearing when I was around and coming back to spend time with Maggie while I was out. That had started when I sat down next to him on a couch and then immediately overridden that instinct to relocated to a chair on the other side of the room. He'd yanked me back and then let go like I'd burned him and left the house.
It would almost be easier if he forced the issue. Then it would be over, I wouldn't have to make this decision. He could tell me what to do and I'd do it and I wouldn't have to admit to anything.
He wouldn't hurt me. He'd been so careful.
If Thomas was right, then John wanted me to admit it, tell him I wanted him. He wanted me to come to him and ask. He'd never done anything that even my screwed up head would interpret as an order or request, but I was making him unhappy; that much was obvious. I was making both of us suffer. And Maggie, who wanted to know if we were fighting and hadn't exactly believed me when I said no.
This stalemate couldn't last. It had only done so to here by a combination of John's self-control and my willful blindness, but now the second was gone, and I could see the strain that first caused him. If I ended it, what did I have to lose? Lots, possibly, but that had never stopped me from doing stupid things before.
I was starting not to care if it hurt, which even I could recognize as a bad sign. Pig-headed stubbornness had kept me from seeking his touch for nearly a month. If his previous absence had been unpleasant, this was rapidly becoming unendurable. The spell was pressing at me, possibly at him, and if we dragged this out any further there was going to be damage one way or another.
I lay in bed feeling him walk to my door and pause, willing him to just come in. He didn't, continuing on to his room. Okay, I could do this. Reckless was my middle name. I shoved Mister off me, pulled a bathrobe over my t-shirt and boxers and followed John down the hall.
John had spun to face me when I’d opened his door, a knife in his hand. He froze when he realized who it was. His jacket was off, his tie loose, the top buttons of his shirt undone. My eyes got caught in the hollow of his throat long enough for him to make make an attempt to get his composure back.
“You shouldn’t be here.” His voice was harsh and low. He put the knife away.
"I need you." It was true. He made a noise deep in his throat and closed his eyes. I took advantage, stepping closer to him and letting the robe fall to the ground.
He opened his eyes but otherwise didn't move. I caught at one end of his tie-"This isn't wise, Harry."-pulled it slowly free and stretched it between my hands-"You can't freely-" held it level just in front of his lips. The words died, his eyes widening.
Then he opened his mouth.
I carefully knotted the makeshift gag behind his head as he remained as still as a cat about to lunge.
When I dropped my hands, suddenly uncertain, he caught my forearms and turned turned us to walk me backward across the room. The backs of my knees hit the mattress and he lowered me down to the center of the bed. It was as soft as I’d remembered. My legs spread naturally. My own racing heart was trying to drown out his, but I wasn't afraid. As long as he touched me everything was fine.
He stood above me, looking at me, and I gripped the bedspread to hold still. Why wasn't he- couldn't he just- "Marcus?" Then he was kneeling between my legs ripping his shirt off while I struggled with his belt. My legs wrapped around his.
When he had the shirt off he caught my wrists in his hands, pressing them down near my head. The length of his body stretched against mine. I arced up against him. He nuzzled against my neck and shoulder, warm skin and the rasp of stubble contrasting with the smooth silk of the tie. I moaned.
He let go of my wrists to let one hand roam under my shirt while his other elbow moved in closer to my side to take more of his weight. I could have moved my hands. I could have gotten away. I didn't want to.
Until then the sheer relief of his presence had been far more important than my arousal. His hand slid down to my groin and that changed fast. He pulled his head up from my neck to watch my face proprietorially as he traced my cock through the boxers. I clutched at the bedding and let my eyes close. I couldn't have mistaken his touch for anyone else's if I'd tried.
Then he stopped, and what came out of my mouth was probably a whine, but he was urging me up to get rid of my clothes, so that was alright. He arranged me on my side, facing away from him, and moved away. I shivered, listening to his pants and weapon holsters hit the floor and a drawer being pulled open at his bedside table. The cap to something popped open.
My tension rose as he settled behind me, but I still moved my top leg to give him access and kept my hands where he'd put them. He could do what he wanted. He pulled my leg back into position. He stroked my flank and upper legs, nuzzling again at my neck, gently scraping his teeth against the ridge of my spine, his chest flush against me. I was panting, thrusting my neglected cock against nothing. There was an approving noise from behind me. His slick, hard cock slid between my thighs, nudging against my balls, and I gasped and jerked back against him.
Propping himself up on his elbow to watch my expression, he poured oil or something on his palm and took merciful hold of my erection, rubbing the length of it a few times. And then circled it with his fist and stopped moving his hand. I whined again desperately and he huffed in amusement. A little tentatively, not sure what he wanted, I started rocking my hips toward his hand and then back onto his cock, and the approving noise came again, deeper.
All higher thought vanished, and good riddance. I clenched my thighs around him and thrust harder. He tightened his grip on me and it was really all over embarrassingly quickly. He didn't seem to mind, rolling me onto my stomach and squeezing my legs together with his knees. One hand between my shoulder blades pressed me down into the mattress, but he still kept most of his weight off me. I had no urge to struggle. He spread more oil along the crack of my ass and the insides of my thighs and fucked hard against me, rubbing against my balls and the sensitive skin behind them with every stroke. It was just about perfect.
When he came, he let himself slump down onto me, and I pulled his arms around me. I fell asleep peacefully for the first time in I didn't know how long.
When his alarm clock went off I snarled "Hexus" at it without opening my eyes and the noise died with a sizzle. There was a moment of silence and then, behind me, Marcus laughed in an open, glad way I'd never heard before. I twisted to stare at him. The gag was off, his expression fond and relaxed. He smiled at me and ran the back of his fingers over my cheek like I was precious, treasured. It was nonsense, but who was I to stop him?
“All right?” he breathed. I nodded. My eyes shut and I nestled in against him, perfectly prepared to stay there til noon. I was warm and comfortable and he must have cleaned me up before covering us in blankets. Anything else didn't matter.
He kissed my bare shoulder and murmured “She'll worry if we don't come down for breakfast.” I groaned. Maggie really was getting better, but she was a lot more anxious than a kid her age should be, and the recent past had been pretty stressful for everyone, right down to the minions.
Light kisses drifted lower and I automatically tilted my head to let him at my throat. This was clearly going to be an obsession. One of his thighs slid between mine as he rolled me onto my back . Waking slightly, I grabbed at his arms tightly. Marcus lifted his head to see my face, threw a considering look at the coiled up tie on his nightstand, physically shook himself, and pulled off me entirely. "Shower" he said with a last caress of my face, and dragged himself up out of bed. I watched in sleepy interest as he padded naked to the bathroom, every muscle of his well toned body moving as smoothly as a predator could ask. Then I covered my face with his pillow and drifted off.
Mar-John, I had to keep thinking of him as John- was dressed and only a little damp when he shook me gently and said the bathroom was free. I sighed and sat up, only then realizing that it was my turn to cross the room naked. My bathrobe was over by the door to the hallway. He'd probably be amused if I took the sheet with me. It's not like he hadn't seen everything, but that had been a heat of the moment kind of thing, and in the cold light of day I'm just not as attractive as he is. Well, the sooner I got moving the sooner I'd be out of sight.
Making a stab at dignity, I kept myself from walking too fast. The flush rising to my face under his eyes made that futile. Oh well. In the bathroom I was startled by the mirror filling the wall behind the sink. My own I'd long since gotten rid of and I kept my hand mirror turned down. Now I eyed myself warily, touching my fingers to the red patches of stubble burn on my neck. I had a turtleneck somewhere. I should maybe get more. My embarrassment over the marks he'd given me had a tinge of smugness. His. I pressed harder against them, scraping a little at one with my nail.
I shivered, dropped my hand and stepped away from the mirror. This had worked, and could continue to. I hadn't gotten caught in memories; my sense of him hadn't let me get confused about who was touching me even while I was asleep. It had felt right to have him on top of me, to let him arrange me as he liked and direct my movement. I'd never gotten off on being controlled before, but I'd never willingly allowed someone to do it either. It was probably the spell rewriting my instincts, which was- I was vaguely aware- bad, but... It had felt good, very good, and I would have a very hard time trying to deny us that again. And better this than needing it and not liking it, I guessed.
He could have taken more. I’d expected him to; I’d have been all right. That would happen later, I knew.
I was pressing at my neck again, and firmly told myself to quit it.
He'd gone downstairs when I came out and I snuck quickly back to my room for clothes. It was close by at least. Maggie was practically bouncing in her seat at breakfast, and John's possessive satisfaction couldn't be any more clear, so we were pretty much good all around.
John continued to go more slowly than I'd expected, insisting that nothing would happen unless I initiated it; that nothing would happen in my bedroom at all and I would still be sleeping there regularly. He was, generally, careful to make sure I could get away if I needed to. We could make out downstairs, or in other places where sex could be relied on to not occur, but he kept the gag in the drawer by his bed, and put it on before anything happened in his room.
He never actually fucked me, although he spent ages sometimes teasing my body open with his fingers and watching me writhe. I'd bite my lip or hand when he'd do that to keep the words back, and he'd rub himself against my asshole and reach inside me until I came convulsing at a touch to my cock. As much as part of me wanted to, I couldn't ask for more, I just couldn't. The first time that happened he jerked off above me, spattering across my stomach and chest, his fingers still sliding in and out of me as he trailed his other hand in the mess. He rubbed come on my swollen bottom lip until I opened my mouth to taste his fingers.
I sucked his dick the next night, going to my knees in front of him before he touched me. One of his hands he kept gentle in my hair, the other left faint bruises on my shoulder. My jaw ached and he was so smooth in my mouth and it was hard to remember ever wanting anything else, except possibly for my head to be held tighter. I thrust against his leg and came before he did. There was some reason why he wasn't fucking me and I wasn't begging him to. Some reason why he was wearing a gag instead of kissing me and telling me what to do. I had to trust that they were important reasons, and certainly the fact that he'd decided we'd do it this way was a good one, but it was difficult to think of others when I lay next to him.
Other times I stayed away, thanking God that John had more self control than I did. We were both happy in his bed; there was humor and tenderness and even looking over things afterward he'd never done anything that would harm me. None of it ever felt painful or humiliating or wrong. There was just pleasure and reassurance, and pride, even, that I was satisfying him. Which perversely terrified me. Lara used to offer me something like that, and I’d never been more scared of her. You can’t trust pleasure, it’s addictive and it makes you forget what else is important.
I'd avoid him those days without any real cause, grateful that my room was off limits to him under his rules and looking for emergencies that called me away to battle. It irritated him sometimes, but at others he just seemed relieved that I still had a sense of self preservation. So we were about even, sanity-wise, taking into account our different starting places.
He was good to me. He really was, it wasn't just my warped judgment. The Pack, who'd been starting to talk about if it was possible for me to crash with them during those bad weeks, relaxed and stopped frowning when John came up in conversation, which made games a lot more fun. In a brief conversation with Murphy, who'd gone on a road trip with the Sword on a trial basis, she said I didn't sound like she had to kill someone anymore. Michael invited him to dinner along with Maggie and me, and Molly was very nearly polite, which was about as good as I've ever managed. Toot and the Guard couldn't figure out why I'd been upset in the first place. Hendricks quit looking like he was afraid he'd have to protect my poor enslaved self from his closest friend, and that had been a close call. The day after I first went to John’s room there had been an agonizing, roundabout conversation with Hendricks about if I was all right, and did I need him to do anything, and we'd both been very relived when it ended. Redheads blush even worse than I do, but I made a fair showing.
And apart from the sex, things were getting back to the new normal. I was studying animating spells to put on the city's more prominent statues in case of future need, smacking unwelcome fae back into the Nevernever, helping my daughter with math, that kind of thing. John was discreetly encouraging some urban renewal projects, publicly scaring the shit out of politicians running on homophobic platforms- which was funny as hell- and, you know, doing the criminal stuff. Gard's contract expired, and John gave her a large bonus and his sincere hopes that she'd be available for short term employments. A few days latter I came by the current headquarters to find her in the lobby. I tensed up, but she smiled and said she was off duty. A few minutes Hendricks came down and left with her. The Ways make long distance relationships a lot easier.
But peace doesn't last.
Suen Piao- probably not his real name- was not nearly a powerful enough caster to be considered a wizard, but had control and finesse to spare. He was a specialist in illusions and veils, a burglar and occasional con artist notorious in magical circles and completely unknown among mundanes. He didn't mess up electronic security systems unless he meant to, could hide himself from supernaturally acute senses, and could slip past all too many wards. There were rumors that he'd once stolen a grimoire from Aleron LaFortier, and you don't break into a Senior Council member's place without skills.
Wardens eyed him suspiciously whenever he came to their attention, but there was no real evidence that he'd ever broken the Laws of the Council despite a lifetime shattering the laws of a significant percentage of the countries in the world. The police couldn't get near him, and wouldn't have been able to hold him if he'd been delivered in gift wrap.
All of which meant that when he turned up in Chicago and asked to speak to the Baron, my first instinct was a feeling of somewhat reluctant admiration, and my second was not to believe a word he said.
He'd gotten into town that morning on a flight to O'Hare. Contact information had been easily obtained from a flier at McAnally's. He'd made an appointment. Promised on the phone that he'd swear allegiance to Marcone if we could give him vengeance and said that a couple hundred other people might as well if we could save them.
So that got the guy in the door.
He was seriously ill, I thought when he came in. His skin had a grayish tinge and he was bracing himself against the wall for support. His clothes didn't fit properly, enough so that even I could tell. I reminded myself that he was an illusionist and took a look at him in True Sight. He looked even worse that way. Tentacles of dark magic wrapped around him, cut off from their source but still buried in his flesh, digging open still bleeding wounds. The flow was worryingly quick from cuts on his wrists, and he was trying to staunch one with pressure from his other hand, which sported half of a broken manacle. A battered mask hung loose by its cords on his chest, revealing a drained and pallid face. His burglar's black clothes were ragged and smeared in filth. I shoved a chair in his direction instantly and shut off my sight as he sank into it.
“Hell's Bells, what happened?" I blurted. I could probably get the tentacles off, but and some idea of their source could only help. Last time I'd tried to do something like that hadn't been fun and I was well aware that fighting a spell could make it worse.
He closed his eye wearily. “I got caught."
He told us he'd been been kidnapped the night after the Red Court Massacre and had been held prisoner with the rest of the missing minor talents for the ten months since then. Someone had held a gun to his one of his friend's head and demanded he surrender, claiming that her employer was going to force him to do some jobs. He'd figured he could escape later, that getting the friend out of the line of fire was his first priority. Both of them had been taken. They'd been subjected to some kind of numbing spell, locked in cages too small to stand up in, and dragged off to some kind of prison.
There had been possibly as many as 1,000 prisoners there; all of them with slight to moderate magical abilities. There weren't anymore. One by one they'd been taken away, for what he didn't know. Around him other prisoners, his friend among them, had died still trapped in spells and too small cages. Whether it was disease, reaction to too much dark magic or simply the body shutting down in sympathy with the mind he didn't know.
When the numbing spell had been put on him, he'd been able to keep enough of his mind free of it to start picking away at the damn thing. Getting free of it and the cage had been complicated by the total lack of privacy, but eventually he'd managed to disguise himself as his own corpse and was hauled away to feed the ghouls. Dead bodies are not well guarded under any circumstances, and he escaped the compound to find himself in a barren part of Syria. On the trip here he'd written down detailed descriptions of the wards and defenses he'd passed through, which he laid on the desk next to me.
John's voice was expressionless as he asked why he hadn't gone to the Council, and I looked at him sharply, dread coiling up inside me. I gotten used to him as an increasingly benevolent dictator, but this had nothing to do with our city. He had no reason to be generous to outsiders.
Suen Piao laughed bitterly. “They wouldn't believe me. They wouldn't even hear me. When I reached Istanbul I went straight to the Area Coordinator of the Wardens and he told me to leave his territory before I had an ‘accident'."
Right. Of course the stuck-up prig threw him out before Looking at him. Sure, he seemed unhealthy and desperate, but ‘illusionist con artist' were the all important words, along with ‘suspected warlock'. Sure, there'd been no known sightings of him since a little before the Massacre, but that didn't mean anything. “We haven't seen the Invisible Man recently" isn't a phrase that's going to spark a lot of concern for the person in question. If anything, it makes you wonder what he's plotting. Sure, Wardens are supposed to help people in trouble, but there's so many who need it, and some of them just aren't worth the effort. That's the way it always was.
“Word in the underground is that if you wanted respect and protection you should come here. People say Wizard Dresden can get anywhere. And I didn't think being a thief would be held against me." He added with an edge of irony. John was still blank faced, unreceptive. “I'm not going to try to bargain. I will swear my loyalty and service to you if you bring down those who did this. I have a few stashes of money and items which will be of interest to your practitioners. And anyone you rescue will owe you more than their lives. That's all I have to offer.”
“I'll need to consider the matter. Please, Mr. Suen, allow me to have my people provide you with medical attention." Suen Piao slumped a little in his chair as he and I both heard the rejection behind John's tone. Someone came in to escort the man out, and when they were gone I told John for the record that someone honestly had worked him over with something horrifying. I didn't really hope it would change anything.
John met my eyes emotionlessly. “Even if his story is entirely true and he isn't the bait to a trap, this is not worth the potential cost, and you know it."
There it was: the other shoe dropping. It felt like he'd punched me. Actually, that would have been easier: shortly thereafter Hendricks would be pinning him down and I'd be figuring out how someone had slipped a mind control spell past me. This had always been there, and there was nothing I could do about it. Because as fiercely as John might care for me, and Maggie, and everyone else he'd assumed responsibility for, as hard as he might fight for us, if you weren't one of his people then you weren't his problem. And now that went for me as well.
With 'his people' currently including everyone I regularly encountered and the vast majority of those that I ran into at all without hostilities, I'd let it slide away from my attention, so much so that I'd actually wondered why I still holding myself back from him. Because, you idiot, he's still a ruthless bastard son of bitch who brought himself to power on suffering of others. Just like he'd always been. No matter how he'd held you or played with your daughter.
I picked up the papers Suen Piao had left behind and turned to the door. “If you'll excuse me, My Lord, I'd like to get that spell off him before it kills him." My voice sounded dead even to my own ears. He was silent as I left the room.
Later, I went out looking for a fight and ended up at Bubbly Creek, staring into the toxic waters. There was something down there, something I didn't want to challenge even now. It had formed in the runoff of blood and offal from the stockyards a little over a hundred years ago: the creek had been so glutted with decaying entrails and filth that small animals could walk on it's surface and anything that had lived in it just added to the decay. The noxious gasses released by decomposition had once regularly caught the “water" on fire. Now there was some life returning as attempts were made to repair the damage, but the spirit of poisoned death was still strong and perfectly able to drag down anyone stupid enough to get too close. I couldn't say it didn't have a right.
For all Marcone and I had done, there were still magical dangers in Chicago. There never wouldn't be. It was built on murder and slaughterhouses and its own ashes as much as on anything else, and there are consequences. To try to get rid of all the ghosts and spirits and dangers lurking in the dark would be as futile and shortsighted as killing all the predators in a jungle. But it's a human city. We aren't just helpless kine.
We can run, we can fight. We can learn the dangers and avoid them. No one swims in Bubbly Creek. They might not know all the reasons why it would be suicidal, but they know enough. And the thing in the water doesn't begrudge us our caution. It's not trying to enslave or subdue us. It kills if given the opportunity, yes. But it's not our enemy. Humans created it with pollution and carelessness; one day we might manage to destroy it with water reclamation projects and good management. Until then, it's part of our city.
A V of ripples in the water moved against the wind. I backed away and started walking again. I wasn't going to fight Bubbles. I might not have been able to. It belonged there.
Other magical beings may not have been intrinsically connected to the city but had still made themselves part of the community. The vendors and guards of the Goblin Market. The knockers down Below. The Pack in their territory. Mac. Thomas. Me. All of us dangerous. All of us committed to our lives here. We'd shed blood, sweat and tears for our home and it had made this city stronger.
But the other monsters, the ones who came here because it was a convenient hunting ground but felt no connection to the place or slightest respect for its inhabitants, who hunted us according to codes they wouldn't tell their victims, who murdered and tormented because nothing good was on TV, who wanted humans ignorant and placid and weak and worked to keep us that way... them the city didn't mind getting rid of. They were parasites, draining the power of a place built on the mottoes “I Will" and “Make Big Plans". Marcone was good with plans, and both of us had plenty of will.
So those that wanted to stay learned to live by the rules Marcone had enforced on more mundane predators already, even if “You may not kill people and consume their hearts without explicit permission" hadn't quite needed to be spelled out before. If someone could only eat human flesh but was willing to work at a cemetery instead of taking her own prey, she was fine. If someone fed on pain and was willing to visit S&M clubs and pay attention to safe words instead of going for people who didn't want it, he was fine. And sometimes Marcone might have something more satisfying for them, which I tried not to think about.
Those who couldn't or wouldn't accept that had mostly moved on to find easier targets. Which was great. For us. But not, say, for New Yorkers, who now had to deal with Lara. Outside of Chicago things weren't getting better. The war being over hadn't brought our casualties back from the dead; the Wardens were still spread far too thin. Every clued in mortal and hedgewitch who could put up a fight who came here was one less who was doing so where ever they'd come from, and when Maeve decided not to throw a torture party in Undertown, she held it somewhere else. Our gains were the losses of others. And I... hadn't thought about it.
I hadn't completely dropped the ball. Towards the beginning what we were doing really was pure accomplishment. Nothing had left without our having killed a bunch of others first, and corpses don't go on to murder anyone except under rare circumstances, which we'd prevented. We'd shown that mortals could be a force to be reckoned with and that things that considered us food could go vegetarian. But now, if we just maintained things as they were, making a fortress for ourselves that the rest of the world wouldn't fit inside- I thought of the way the Reds had been allowed to use South America as an all you can eat buffet, because it kept them mostly out of Europe and North America, and kicked hard at a rock. It was just wrong.
I'd had other problems when Suen Piao and the rest had been kidnapped, and by the time I'd even been really aware of what had happened ‘presumed dead' had seemed more relevant than ‘missing'. If the victims had been from Chicago... but they hadn't been, so it hadn't been any responsibility of mine. And still wasn't. I'd thrown away the allegiance to the goddamn Wardens that would have let me claim it. Fuck.
That lurking feeling that I had no right to risk myself for people who weren't from here was the spell and I just had to ignore it.
We could still take it to Luccio. She'd listen to me. Definitely. Because it wasn't like I had no proof and only one, unreliable witness. It wasn't like this had already been investigated and abandoned after too many resources had been expended on it. It wasn't like I had rejected her life calling and was now under a geas from a criminal she had no reason to trust. And the odds of anyone listening to her weren't all that hot either. She'd lost a lot of influence in the fiasco with Peabody. Before that the Senior Council wouldn't have dared lock her up like they did when she'd tried to help me against the Reds. If this hadn't had anything to do with me and Marcone, she could probably have managed something, but we weren't popular in that crowd.
Marcone, a vanilla mortal who shouldn't have even known magic existed until something ate him, cared more about his rules than theirs and was making other people do the same. I was a constant, living reminder that their traditions didn't always work, and every moment that passed without my going completely off the deep end was proof that they'd been wrong. We were bad examples. We upset the status quo just by living through the day and the White Council hated that. If we took this to them, they'd say it was none of our business. Most of them might not actively want us dead but they would really prefer that we hole up in our territory and stop interfering with our betters.
And since that was pretty much what John fucking Marcone told me to-
The world quietly rearranged itself.
He hadn't given me an order. He wouldn't have thought he needed to, he'd made himself clear and I'd never tried to defy him over something that would cost lives. He might not even know that it had been a choice. I had the notes, I could gather my friends- Murphy and Sanya would go for this in a hot second- I could be gone before he knew the thought had crossed my mind. He wouldn't expect me tonight, I had time. We might not be able to rescue anyone, but I was confident in being able to take my enemies down with me at the worst. John and Maggie would be alright, really. So would the city. They were strong enough. They could hold.
It would be a betrayal. He could never trust me again even if I survived. The freedoms he'd tried to give me would be gone. He would be hurt.
I could take Suen Piao to Tilly. If anyone could see through a lie, he could. John would forgive me for that if the story turned out to be made up. If it wasn't... than what I had to do would be worth the price.
I found a payphone and made a few calls before heading back home. Murphy told me where she was in Texas, and the church Sanya was crashing at in Bolivia said that he should be back soon. I'd go see if Thomas was game for this last before I left: he was the most likely to realize how dumb it was and warn John. My mother's voice whispered directions in my ear and I focused on picking the best route instead of how badly I was fucking myself over.
I had two emergency bags, one in the lab and one in my room, but under the circumstances I kind of wanted both of them. I resisted the urge to sneak as I went in. I was supposed to be there, for god's sake, and someone might shoot me if I acted like I wasn't. It was about 10, and the house was still. John was in Maggie's room and Mouse would be as well. We all tended to check in on her a lot, and she'd get fed up with it eventually, but not yet.
When she woke up tomorrow I wouldn't be here. Even if we won, I couldn't get back that quickly. If we lost... Stars and stones, what was I doing? No, no, stop thinking about that. She had John, and I'd leave Mouse here, and the prisoners in their cages were someone's children, someone's parents as well. If John were helping me this would be so much easier. If I asked him to - I knew he liked it when I asked him for things, but this wasn't like the guitar that had appeared a few days after the cast on my wrist came off. That I'd never played in front of him. He'd been nothing but generous with me, and I'd been so fucking ungrateful. I was right, I was, but if I didn't come back, he'd have to tell Maggie why. I owed him better than this.
Focus. The stakes were too high here. I couldn't risk him refusing me and realizing I could go behind his back. No one just lets me do what I want. Not unless they're in a corner and really need me for something they can't get by force. And asking permission gives away what I'm planning, so gaining forgiveness- actually I don't usually get forgiveness either. Sometimes, though, so I guess the expression's still true.
Ducking quickly into my room, I took a moment to hoist up Mister and ruffle his fur. He was the only one I cared about who wouldn’t question a goodbye. Then I grabbed the bag and started going through it, removing a few things I was sure I wouldn't need and bringing back the candles and iron filings I'd been working something out with the day before. I froze as John left Maggie's room and headed in my direction. There was the familiar pause in front of my door. He'd know I was here from the light underneath it, but that was all right; this was my space, he wouldn't come in-
The door opened to find me staring up at him in horror from where I was sitting on the floor by the coffee table, my supplies spread incriminatingly out on it. Suen Piao's notes prominent among them. I was wearing all my weapons, my mended coat, the full battle array. His heart jolted into high gear. I twitched in a useless reflex to try to hide something, anything, or to scoop up what I was in reach and leap into the Nevernever before he could tell me not to. And then I stopped, digging my nails into the palms of my hands. John could halt me dead in my tracks with a word and running would just make that more likely. If I didn’t make him do that I might get another chance.
I wanted to scream, to sob. I bowed my head and waited.
He was silent and motionless for long seconds, taking in what he saw, his pulse slowing gradually. Unconcerned with the seriousness of the situation, Mister rubbed his cheek against John’s ankle and wandered off.
I trembled with the effort of holding still, half wanting to throw myself at John’s feet for mercy. I had not disobeyed him, I reminded myself. I live for technicalities. When he said my name I flinched and bent lower.
“You were going to go anyway." Past tense. I wasn't going anymore. If I'd just stayed out of the house...
“Yes." Somehow I couldn't find a joke.
He crossed the room in a few long strides and stood over me for a moment while I didn't lean into him. Finally he knelt down next to me and pulled us both up onto the couch, holding me and stroking my hair until the tension melted from my muscles and I lay against him in tired defeat. At least he wasn't too angry. God, I'd fucked up.
“I could cheerful shoot everyone who's ever had power over you." John said quietly. “Myself perhaps included, if I got the rest of them first." What? I turn my head on his shoulder to convey attention but still couldn't look at him. “Harry. It's all right. I'm - not happy, that you didn't feel you could come to me, but since trust seems entirely foreign to your nature, I should have expected that. I'm glad you didn't decide there was nothing you could do. And I'm very glad I caught you before you went off alone to die heroically. Please consider yourself welcome to mentally substitute other words for ‘heroic'. I am."
The dread that had been in my stomach since that afternoon started to unclench. That... sounded almost like he was going to let me fight. Like he would support me. “Murphy was going to come.” I said cautiously. “And Sanya's always up for a frontal assault against stupid odds. Anyway, I suck at kamikaze strikes. I keep surviving."
“Oh, well, in that case-" He cuffed me lightly on the back of the head. “We will not be employing your usual ‘set fire to something and see what happens’ tactics.” He was with me. I wasn’t going to have to... The weight of guilt over my planned betrayal lifted, leaving me floating. “One day your luck is going to run out."
“And then good things will start happening." Hope springs eternal, justifiably. I smiled into his shoulder, relief welled up inside me.
“And you have nothing good now?" His voice ached; he hadn’t followed my change in mood at all.
“No! I - No, John, that's not what I -" I pulled away enough to see him. He looked the way he had the morning he said my wings were broken. I kissed him. Deeply. Wrapped my arms around his shoulders, straddled his lap. He kissed back like he needed me more than air.
“I have good things." I breathed against his ear when it ended. “Very good things. I just - I can't get used to it." The way he was touching me had turned less comforting and more seductive. He was starting to get hard under me, and I shrugged out of my coat before running my hands down his chest.
His arms tightened around me. “If there's ever something you need anywhere near as badly as this damn mission: Tell me. As soon as we're alone, or sooner. Do you understand me?"
There was no reason to struggle against my need to submit. If he’d let me go now he’d let me go again; I wouldn’t have to sneak around. I felt no conflict as I answered “Yes, My Lord." A wince ran through his body. He breathed deeply and loosened his hold.
“I might die a happy man if I never have to hear you call me that again." he said mildly. “By dinner I thought I'd already lost you." Dinner was a haze; I wasn't sure what he was talking about. I hadn't eaten or spoken much but other than that... lost me?
“I didn't figure out I could try to get away until about an hour ago."
John sighed. “I would rather you'd managed to get yourself killed cleanly then spent the rest of my life watching your despair."
Oh. Right. The broken wings thing. He'd... meant that. I mean, I'd known he did: at the time. When it hadn't cost him anything really. I curled into him, warmed.
“I don't like this. We don't have enough information, the logistics of getting that many traumatized and injured civilians half a world away from here to safety will be a nightmare even absent all other concerns, and people will die. But I can't - I won't make this place a cage. That's what I came in here to tell you.”
I kissed his neck. “Thank you." Again. “Thank you." His shirt came unbuttoned slowly under my fingers.
“Fuck. We shouldn't - not here."
“Fuck is exactly what we should do here, John." Rules, shmules. How long had we expected those to last? This was me. I dropped his tie to the floor, unneeded. He hissed.
“Harry... I want you to be very sure of what you're doing here." His voice was strained. I took hold of his wrists and lifted his hands to my neck. Closed my eyes as they settled immediately into place, thumbs against my windpipe, fingers meshed behind. I breathed deeply, without alarm or difficulty. So safe. I rocked forward to let him feel my arousal.
“It’s all right, Marcus.” I looked at him. “I want this." His eyes had dilated so much you could barely see the color. His gentle, firm hold on my throat guided me down on the couch.
I tried to use my legs to drag him with me, but he shook me off and scooted back to get my boots undone. I shed my shirt and wriggled my pants down for him to get rid of, desperate to get back to the good part. He did the same. “Leave the jewelery." he said as I yanked at the first of my rings. He stroked along the inside of my thigh and hooked my knee up over the back of the couch. I moaned, and pressed one hand against my throat. “Tell me what you want."
“A collar." I answered, still craving the light pressure of his grip, and - holy shit, okay, no, what I wanted was for him to make that noise again, repeatedly. Now. “Fuck me, Marcus, please, I want you to, please, please I need-" Oh good, there it was. “- you in me, God, I can feel you all the time and I -" his hand covered my mouth. He was breathing heavily.
“If you don’t stop that I won't last long enough." I sucked two of his fingers into my mouth apologetically. “Christ, Harry, you- tell me you have lube somewhere."
His hands trailed back down my body, mine on his biceps as he licked at my nipple. “Olive oil? Green bottle. Bag. Table- oh. God. Your mouth." Around my cock, as strong fingers worked into me in the now familiar way he'd taught me to love. Because he'd wanted me ready for this. For- “There, Marcus, there, please. More."
He knelt up between my legs to watch me writhe for him, a murmured litany of praise “-so good, Harry, I always knew- don't come yet" falling from his mouth, making me flush and moan. Finally he pulled his fingers free, and put my left leg up on his shoulder. He dragged me toward him, lifted my ass up onto his lap and gritted out “Last chance" as the head of his cock pressed against me.
I scraped together enough control to answer “Want you." So much. God, I'd die if he didn't- he bit his lip as he carefully breached me. I tried to relax more, the intensity nearly overwhelming.
“-just like that, yes, that's good Harry, open up for me-" and he cursed as he sank home in one long stroke, so that keening sound must have been me. He let my legs fall from where they'd been propped to lock around his waist. “Fuck, fuck, breathe Harry you need to breathe-" I gasped for air, the stars receding from my vision “That's it, good. Christ, you're mine. Mine.”
“Yours. I - I'm yours. Marcus, I need- need-” My erection hadn't lost any urgency as he'd entered me; I was desperate. He'd said to wait, and I couldn't, I had to-
“I'll give you what you need." He shifted, pulling out a little and thrusting back in a few times, finding the angle that made my head thunk back against the cushions. I braced my hands against the arm of the couch to give him more leverage and whined. “All you have to do is ask for it."
“... Let me- let me come, please-" Please.
He pulled almost all the way out and I keened again at the loss, but he wrapped a hand around the back of my neck to help me crane up to meet his kiss and whispered, “All right. Now," as he plunged back in and closed his other hand around my cock. I convulsed, screaming into his mouth, clinging to his shoulders. He kept fucking me, tongue claiming my open mouth as he did.
I maybe passed out a little there.
He'd finished when I was aware again, was rolling us so he was lying on the couch, and I was half on top of him, my head in the crook of his shoulder. I shivered, the sweat cooling on my body, and groped on the floor to pull my coat over us. Every shift of my body reminded me where he’d been. I wondered how long it would last. We lay in comfortable silence for a long time.
Finally I asked “How long has this been my room?"
He was quiet long enough that I thought he wasn't going to answer, and then said “About five years. I needed to have somewhere in my home that you'd find welcoming. Even though I thought you'd never see it. It- eased something."
Stars and stones. That was... “You never... "
“What could I have said? What would you have accepted from me that didn't have a clearly labeled price tag?" Nothing. Until Maggie, when the price hadn't been clear at all. I would do anything, I'd told him. So he'd taken advantage to make me to accept a home and a family and people taking care of me and enough power to accomplish things I'd never dreamed of and regular meals and his love.
I leaned in to kiss the side of his mouth, took hold his wrist and brought his hand up to my neck where it belonged. “It's a nice room." I would come back, I promised him mentally. Come hell or high water.
After a while we got up, cleaned up, and started going over what we'd need to get through the defenses of the newly dubbed Chateau d'If. At my second yawn John suggested I get some sleep while he got started on arrangements. I was facing combat soon after all, and he would be staying behind. He didn't want to, but I was perfectly capable of carrying out an attack plan and at least as good at improvisational tactics as he was. Someone had to coordinate things here in Chicago, and that was all him. And both Maggie's parents couldn't go into the same fight.
I learned later that ‘arrangements' had include calling Murphy to reschedule her pick up. I bet that was a fun conversation. She was still in the fight, at least. John was quite willing to include a couple Knights of the Cross in our plans, once they weren't all the plans consisted of.
I went and got her and Sanya the next day, with stops for a quick raid of Suen Piao's stashes for the more immediately useful objects to add to our own stores of potions, amulets and miscellaneous magical items. Some of that store I had made; a fair amount he'd purchased from members of the Venatori Umbrorum, local practitioners or Suen Piao's colleagues. Some of it had been tribute. Some of it had been protection payment from people who had needed a safe place to hide out for a while, without actually living here. It was pretty impressive collection, really, and evened the odds considerably for the less powerful humans who would be throwing down with the big boys. Not to mention the grenade launchers, armor piercing rounds for assault rifles, and the latest in modern protective wear reinforced with warding spells.
While I was gone, John got Agent Tilly's horrified confirmation that Suen Piao at least thought he was telling the truth, which was backed up further by our not having been ambushed getting his stuff. Tilly volunteered as much help as he could give, the poor bastard. This is how John sucks people in. Molly and I went to Syria to scout, her handling veils and I handling transportation. We didn't get too close to Chateau d'If, didn't want to set off any alarms. The place made me throw up Looking at it.
John's negotiations with Kincaid and some other mercenaries who'd augment our own forces went well, and Gard and some other people from Monoc would help hold the fort while the strike team was gone. We were trying to keep our preparations fairly discreet, and we were pretty sure our actual target wouldn't leaked out, but the fact that something significant was going on probably already had, and we needed reliable people here in case anyone tried to hit us while we were distracted.
In a quiet moment I carefully shortened the ties of a webwork of cords to fit Murphy's torso. My friend from the park had made it, working on the principle of a dream-catcher. It should catch malign magical influences and bind them up harmlessly in the beads spaced at intervals through it. It would stop working once the beads were full, but every little bit helps. I added a dab of soulfire for luck. I seemed to be brimming with it today.
“Move around, see how that feels.”
She didn't. When I looked up she was eying me consideringly.
“You look... happy.” I flushed and glanced away. “Yeah, yeah, I know: you're a guy, you don't talk about things, you just grunt now and then, but for once would you cut me a break? Would it help if I told anyone who asks that I threatened to dislocated your arms if you didn't?”
Well. “As long as they don't think I was willing. That's probably the important part.”
“You're sleeping with him, aren't you?” I sputtered, and she glared at me. “No one here wanted to tell me, but that's the impression I've been getting. And you're sitting funny.”
I buried my face in my hands “Hell's Bells, Murph.”
“That's not a denial, I notice.” She waited while I failed to come up with a convincing reason for her to drop it. “I don't - please believe that I do not - want details. But you... look happy.”
“...Yeah.” I swallowed. “I am.” Admitting that out loud felt like I was jinxing it. I was tempted to knock on wood.
“Okay.” She blew out a deep breath. “Okay. And Maggie seems good. And- shit, Harry, I'm sorry I took off on you.”
That had hurt. A lot. But “You had stuff to deal with too. He- he was taking care of me. And Michael and Thomas and everyone were here.”
“Yeah, but that doesn't let me off the hook. I should have- I just couldn't stand looking at him. Knowing that he'd won.”
“He hadn't. Murphy, he really didn't see it like that.”
“I'm getting that. I just still wish there'd been another way."
When I'd woken up in St. Mary's basement I didn't think there was any way at all. My first thought before I opened my eyes was, “That's it. Game over.” My first thought after opening my eyes was, “What the hell is he doing here?” and I repeated it out loud for the benefit of people who weren't me.
“Contrary to your beliefs, I don't burst into flames on entering a church," Marcone had told me.
Molly, glaring at him from her protective stance in front of me, burst out with, “He's got some ridiculous story about Susan hiring assassins to kill you, like she'd need to, and like every hit-man in town doesn't work for him anyway. And then he wouldn't leave!”
“Ms. Carpenter, the reason I have a certain degree of - control over some elements of this city's population is that when someone defies that control, I take action.” Looking at me now “A man currently regretting his actions accepted a contract on your life, to be terminated here, at this church. I believed you would like to know that a sketch of his employer, made from his description, matches the appearance of Ms. Susan Rodriguez."
“Which is stupid! This whole thing is fucking bullshit!” She winced and gave an apologetic look to Father Forthill for the language, while Marcone frowned at her disapprovingly and Gard drifted a little closer to him.
“It doesn't matter" I told them, too exhausted for a fight. “Some of the Red Court can do illusions. They probably hired the guy. Even if he didn't kill me, divide and conquer is usually worth a shot. I don't know why they bothered. I'm already a dead man. Not walking.” A bullet would be overkill. If Duchess Arianna turned up right then to give me Maggie and a sincere apology, my other enemies would have me within days. As a silver lining, the numbness might make slowly torturing me to death a lot less entertaining. Some of them would heal me just to make my death more painful.
There were other powers out there, though, and some of them wanted other things than my end.
“Giving up?” Marcone asked, a weird look in his eyes. Molly practically snarled, held back only by Father Forthill's hand on her arm.
“...No.” Never. Maggie needed me. Without me my friends could never reach her, and while maybe they could carry me somehow through the Ways, they'd all die trying to protect me when the inevitable battle started. The broken leg I'd had already would have been enough to get me and several others killed. This? I couldn't fight like this. I wouldn't know how to even attempt it. But I couldn't give up. There were people -beings- who would fix this, for prices I'd never been willing to pay. I shut my eyes, unable to look at the people around me. “I'll let Mab make me the Winter Knight.”
I was so tired.
“I have to Molly. It's not just my spine. Vadderung said that the Lords of Night can grind me into the floor just by noticing me. I'm not going to get enough power to withstand that out of a cereal box. So what else am I going to do?” Vadderung hadn't been interested in helping when I'd wanted less. Uriel wouldn't lift a finger, he'd made it clear that he didn't actually do anything but manipulate people. Laschiel... might be an option. She wouldn't be able to gain control of me immediately. I would just have to keep it together till the end of the night really. Then I could shoot myself, or at least hold her in check while someone else shot me. Half my friends had already offered to mercy kill me if it ever came down to something like that.
It was an awful thing to do to anyone who cared about me, even though they'd agreed to. On the other hand, there were lots of people who'd be glad to do it. Giving certain members of Council the satisfaction would sting, but... Marcone, actually, would far rather kill me than let a Denarian with my knowledge of him run loose. He would make it quick; clean. He'd respect my sacrifice. I could - not live with that, obviously - but it wouldn't be such a terrible way to go.
I opened my eyes at a scrape against the floor. Marcone was pulling a folding chair over to me, entirely ignoring Molly's fury. “I met Lloyd Slate once.“ he said, sitting down. “He was a rabid dog with human intelligence, and far too much power. Some men should be put down.” He had no idea. Even Slate didn't deserve the things Mab had done, was probably still doing to him. No one could.
Marcone leaned over me, elbows on parted knees, his head almost directly above mine. Staring into my eyes. “I've been speaking with some... associates. Allow me to make alternate proposal.”
Now, most of a year later, gearing up for the next in a lifetime of battles next to one of my closest friends, my life was in the hands of a man who cherished me. A man I didn't need to fear, who wanted me as whole and free as I could be. My daughter was safe and well. My city was secure and prosperous. I was happy.
“There were other ways.” I told Murphy. “This was the right one.”