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Dirty Dancing

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I allowed myself exactly one girly shriek of alarm to clear my head, on the same principle that martial artists use kiai, then reached one final time for the wind, feeling like it had already scoured out everything inside of me. We'd lost more altitude in that dive than I'd thought; and instead of being able to gently and gracefully float on down to the courtyard or, even better, outside the walls, the best I could do was brake my fall to the top of the spire of Arctis Tor.

I landed in a tree, of all things. Its branches were winter-bare and thickly coated in ice, of course, but still. A tree.

I didn't land gracefully, either. I managed to mostly protect my face, although it was scratched and wind-chapped enough already that it was hard to tell, and not losing any eyeballs was always a plus; but it meant that I kind of crashed down through the branches, breaking the smaller ones and bouncing off the big one like a black leather pinball. When this was all over, I had a creeping hunch that I'd never want to move again. Ow.

Something else I discovered on my way down was that this wasn't really a tree. It was a sculpture, carved or grown from brackish ice. The tinkling noise it made as it shattered accompanied me as I fell, shards of it finding their way inside my collar and down the back of my neck.

I finally bumped to a stop, hung up on a forking limb several feet off the tower roof. My arms flew up with a jolt, leaving me face to face with a grotesque parody of a human visage, presumably Mab's own twisted version of the Green Man.

"Uwaaagh!" I shrieked, startled.

Then, to my horror, the thing's eyes snapped open, staring blindly at me, and it screamed.

I screamed back, recoiling from the hoarse, almost voiceless cry that rattled from the thing's cracked lips. It took on an edge of real fright as my reflexive attempts to get the hell away dislodged me and I fell completely out of the tree.

For a moment, I just lay there on my back, allowing my scattered wits to settle. "What the stones shit bells?" I asked in a voice half an octave higher than my usual register.

There was a series of clicking noises from the tree. I sat up, looking around, just in time to get hit on the head with something hard.

I blinked, looking down at the thing that had bounced off my skull and was now rolling back and forth lazily on the icy ground. It was my staff.

Gingerly, I gathered it up and used it to lever my creaky way to my feet. All that reviving Summer energy was definitely wearing off.

There were other things in the tree, bird and beast, all of them glazed into immobility by a thin rime of frost. Except for the gargoyle face.

A face attached to a person, I now saw. A naked man hanging crucified from the branches, limbs bound in ice as Winter slowly, slowly ate him. Everything else here—except for the lopsided mess I'd made of the ice tree—was perfectly preserved. I did not have a good feeling about this.

I also kept having a feeling like there was something familiar about the man on the tree. Against my better judgement, I took a step closer.

His hair was longer than mine, and I was getting to the point where I was going to hack six or so inches of it off again soon; going raggedly to white in a way that looked to me more like the result of head trauma than old age. Blood and spittle dripping from his lips had frozen his beard into a matted, disgusting mess. His body was wasted, rotting, scarred. But now that I was looking at him upright, I knew him, and I fought the urge to retch.

"Who is there?" croaked Lloyd Slate, the Winter Knight.

And people wonder why I don't take the job.

I licked my lips. "Dresden."

I'm not sure the sound Slate made then can be called a laugh; it certainly couldn't be called sane. Not that Slate was rowing with both oars in the water before he found himself on the business end of Mab's bad side. I'm pretty sure you'd have to be crazy to sign up as Winter Knight; but there's crazy, and then there's double-crossing the Queen of Air and Darkness. And that had been one of his better character traits.

"You're here. Thank god, you're here. You bitch, I've been waiting so long." Slate's hair crackled as he twisted his head away from me, probably the only motion available to him. It bared the fish-pale skin of his throat. "Free me. Do it, quickly."

I'd been more than a little rattled, and I didn't immediately get what he was saying. A part of me instantly rebelled at the idea, the part that takes it a little too personally when a woman is raped, when a girl is killed, when a man decides his dick's all the justification he needs.

"Kill me." Lloyd Slate's rasp hit me like a slap in the face. "Kill me. Kill me. Thank god, Dresden, kill me. Free me from this nightmare."

I felt abruptly nauseous. For once the clear, cold air was helpful. And by the time I got my breathing steadied and shored up my mental walls—I did not need a repetition of last fall's anger management failures—Slate had thankfully subsided back into unconsciousness.

For the first time, I took the time to really look at my surroundings. Almost everything on the parapet was made of ice, and everything that wasn't was covered in it. It might have had the shape of a garden, with trees and flowers and idyllic benches, but it felt more like a prison. My eye found the bright patches of colour easily, but it was drawn towards another disruption in the otherwise unblemished, unchanging scene.

The all-too-familiar face of my godmother, the Leanansidhe, topping a rough ice statue kind of like a full-body version of those wax hand things you can get at fairs. Only something had melted the covering away from her head and shoulders—probably that wild shot I'd taken at the semurghs, I thought.

"Stars! Lea! How long have you been standing there?"

Lea gave me a long-suffering look for that particular piece of idiocy; but, given the way her usually-vibrant hair was plastered damply to her face and her eyes shone with an unsettling, febrile light, it lacked her usual refined edge. I still flushed. Hells bells, calm down, Harry, I told myself.

"I thought you might have had enough shocks for one day."

"Uh, thanks, I guess. Did Mab do this to you?" I asked, the gears of my brain grinding slowly into gear at last. Last year, during the whole mess with Necromancermania that had trashed my apartment, I'd tried to dial up Lea and gotten Mab instead. I'd been afraid my head cold had somehow screwed up the invocation, and of course Mab had been a cagey bitch about it. But no, apparently Lea had been busy getting the ice treatment at Mab's Cold Spring Spa. "I know I hit every branch on the crazy tree on the way down, but what's your excuse?"

Lea's laugh was even less reassuring than it usually was, if not as horrible as the noise Slate had made. The gold of her eyes glinted like coins as they darted back to fix on Slate's mutilated body.

"You do not understand his true torment."

"Umm..." I said, very unpressingly.

"There is pain, of course," Lea continued almost dreamily. "But anyone can inflict pain. Accidents inflict pain. Pain is the natural order of the universe, and so it is hardly a tool mete for the Queen of Air and Darkness. She tortures him with kindness."

"This is just the set-up. She takes him down again, doesn't she?" Cold. But then, what else would you expect?

Lea smiled, a chilling, slightly mad expression.

"She heals his wounds and takes his pain. She restores his sight, and the first thing his eyes see is the face of she who delivers him from agony. She cares for him with her own hands, warms him, feeds him, cleans away the filth. And then she takes him to her bower. Poor man. He knows that when he wakes, he will hang blind upon the tree again—and can do naught else but long for her return."

I shook my head. "You think he's going to fall for that? Fall in love with her?"

"Love. Perhaps, and perhaps not." Lea seemed almost amused. "But need. Oh, yes. You underestimate the simple things, godchild. Love. Being given food and warmth. Being touched. Being cleaned and cared for—and desired. Over and over, spinning him through agony and ecstasy. The mortal mind breaks down. Not all at once. But slowly. The way water will wear down stone. It is a slow seduction. A conversion by the smallest steps."

I thought, uncomfortably, of Marcone.

"Yes," Lea agreed, as though she'd been reading my mind. "Mab, you see, is patient. She has time. And when the last walls of his mind have fallen, and he looks forward with joy to his return to the tree, she will have destroyed him. And he will be discarded. He only lives so long as he resists." Her gaze was once more fixed on Slate, and I had no trouble whatsoever picturing with her the image of myself in his pace. "This is wisdom you should retain, my child."

"Do as I say, not as I do, eh?" I said with a pointed look at Lea's own imprisonment.

Lea seemed to deflate; and while she had been creeping me the hell out, this was possibly even more disturbing. "I grew too arrogant with the power I held. I thought I could overcome what stalks us all. Foolish. Milady Queen Mab taught me the error of my ways."

I was still trying to parse whatever the hell that meant when suddenly I heard footsteps coming from somewhere behind me. Hand going to my blasting rod where it was still lashed to the inside of my duster, I spun and looked past the frozen forms of three Sidhe women frozen back to back to back to see Marcone burst out of an archway that must have led to the stairs.

There was steam rising off Marcone's reddened face. I didn't want to think about how many stars he'd just run up; was the man trying to give himself a heart attack?

Alert green eyes locked on my movement immediately. "Thank god. Are you done here?"

"And they call you a gentleman."

Marcone shot me an irritated look. "Time is a factor; something else is coming this way."

"What?"

"Mister Raith did not provide a great deal of detail, but he was most insistent."

As always, Marcone looked like he was sucking on a lemon every time he mentioned Thomas. I ignored it, as usual, holding up my hand for silence so I could Listen.

An eldritch, creeping note; another, somehow liquid; yet another, hard and brassy; more and more, coming in from every direction. I recognised the calls of faerie horns. I'd heard them before.

The moonlight glinted off everything; but some of the glints on the horizon were shifting of their own accord, I saw when I opened my eyes again. I turned back to Lea. "This was me, wasn't it? The fire—"

"Summer fire, here in the heart of Winter."

Marcone actually almost jumped. "Jesus god!"

Lea spared him a glance, then went back to boring holes in me with her eyes. I felt kind of like a snake-charmer, or maybe it was the snake. The snowy slopes were being rapidly swallowed up by a darkling tide.

"So I pissed some people off." Well, I'd known that was going to happen going in.

"Indeed, all of Winter races for the chance to be first to taste your blood." Lea has a way of delivering these blood-chilling threats like she's complimenting my choice of evening gown or something.

"..." I said. "Right. Marcone, let's see if we can get this ice off without hurting her."

Marcone looked between us warily. "Who is she?"

"My frigging faerie godmother, okay? C'mon, I thought you were the one in a big hurry." I held out my hand, wiggling my fingers for one of Marcone's spare knives.

Lea choked, and for a moment her face reminded me of Lloyd Slate's. Crazy tree; I stifled the urge to erupt in hysterical giggles.

When we'd both managed to rein ourselves in, Lea looked more like herself than she had since I found her here; weary, as I'd never seen her before, but also less like she was about to go flying off the handle.

"Child. You must not free me."

What? "What?" I said aloud. "I'm not leaving you here like this." Sure, my godmother was about the most powerful, and so dangerous, creature in Winter short of Queen Mab herself. Sure, she'd taken advantage of me while I was scared and vulnerable and then, well, hounded me for years trying to abduct me and turn me into a dog. But I still wasn't about to leave her Han Solo'd on top of Mab's fortress—if nothing else, she might think saving her was worth enough to actually cough up something about my mother.

"I cannot yet be trusted. It is not time. I would not be able to fulfil my promise to your mother, should you free me now. You must leave," Lea grated.

"Trusted?" I mean, really. This was Lea we were talking about.

"No time." Lea's voice was strained. "I cannot long keep it from taking hold of..."

Lea went limp, although the ice behind her head hadn't melted as far as the stuff in front, so we got a good look at the warring expressions ravaging her finely-sculpted face. It was coated not with sweat, as I first thought, but water, as though she was standing under a slow dribble.

When she opened her eyes, Marcone put an arm out to hold me back. I swatted it down irritably, but I didn't make another move towards Lea.

"Godchild, why do you hesitate? Free me now and I will take you safely from here."

"You're right. It's time to go," I said, slowly backing away.

Lea's yowl of frustration shook another few ice-twigs from the tree. I grabbed Marcone and hot-footed it out of there before she woke up Lloyd Slate again.

As I passed the Sidhe noblewomen frozen in some hopeless last stand, I thought I saw one move in my peripheral vision, turning her head toward me. The statues were rimed over with faerie freezer burn, but I could have sworn I saw a flicker of colour, there and gone, the exact cool emerald of Mab's eyes—you didn't forget those eyes, even if there was no soul behind them to gaze upon and lock them in your memory.

Mab's eyes looked out at me from the statue and winked.

I had a strong urge to run off the edge of the parapet and try my luck with the landing again. Instead, I settled for taking the steps down two and three at a time.
__ __ __

"Is everyone okay?" I asked as we descended. "Did it work?"

"Mostly minor wounds," Marcone replied. "Shortly after all the roaring and flames stopped, the harnesses engaged. I can only assume the birds they caught were the correct ones."

"I warned you about that. Transmogrification's illegal, so I need help or—"

"—time to study the problem. Yes, I know. Your werewolves all left for the gateway as soon as the birds were secure. Most of the birds are pursuing them, but we were given to understand they would move faster on their own."

I panted a laugh. The kids were safe; even if we didn't make it out, the Council would take care of them. Everything they needed was in the harnesses. "And Thomas and Cujo?"

"Holding the entrance to the tower."

I cocked an eyebrow at Marcone. "So why wasn't it the vampire climbing four bajillion stairs to make sure I didn't land on my head?"

"It's my mission," Marcone said as levelly as you can when you're breathing that hard. Down wasn't as bad as up, but several hundred feet amounts to a whole lot of windy staircase. "Faerie godmother, Dresden?"

I winced. "Believe me, it's way less cool than it sounds."

"What was wrong with her?"

"We all go a little mad, sometimes." I shrugged.

Marcone let it drop. Hell, I didn't know what was going on with Lea. But apparently she was a voluntary centrepiece to Mab's ice garden. More or less.

We didn't stop long at the bottom of the tower, just ducked our heads outside to scout around and legged it. In addition to various horn calls, we could now clearly hear a cacophony of drums, shrieks, and war cries. My mind worked furiously.

The sky, which had been clouding over all the time I was talking to Slate and Lea, was covered completely by the time we cleared the outer walls, and we plunged into a white gale that had blown up, presumably in reaction to the same thing that had the rest of Winter so ticked off. I wrapped the remnants of Summer fire around us to keep the biting wind from killing us all with hypothermia, although it still flung up snow crystals in concealing billows all around us.

Mouse and the Alphas had already broken a trail for us, though being somewhat less nimble we two-footers had to take the occasional detour. There was one place where Hendricks, eyeing the oncoming horde, growled something under his breath and actually shoved me and Marcone up a rocky bluff. Thomas, who had simply leapt to the top, caught and hauled us the rest of the way up, then bent to heave Hendricks off his feet.

I was already shaking with exhaustion, or maybe it was the cold, when the Alphas' trail started to fade, erased by the fury of Winter itself. There were no stars visible in the sky now, and the full moon was completely hidden behind veils of cloud and snow.

Questing out with my wizard's senses, I locked onto a breath of warmer magic that could only be Lily's gate. I took point from Hendricks, breaking the way more slowly with my staff. It was an uphill slog; and at first I thought I was hallucinating the puff of summer air and hazy, sepia-tinged glow hovering in front of me.

We were maybe thirty yards away when something huge and shaggy flung itself out of the snow in front of us; then another, and another.

I threw the last of my reserves into my shield bracelet to give the boys time to ready an attack, but the creatures sailed past us, loosing their own spine-chilling howls in response to the battle sounds of Winter's armies.

Relief flooded through me. "Come on; it's all right!" I shouted, dropping the shield and forging onward. Close; so close.

A furred shape bumped up against my hip, and I leaned on it gratefully, letting it guide me back to warmth and light. More streamed out, encircling us like an honour guard. They'd been fast getting those harnesses off. Either that, or...

I knew I was back in Chicago when the temperature rose a hundred degrees between one step and the next, but the only light was the flickering flame from the butterflies on the border of Lily's portal. Mouse—from the height, it had to be Mouse—gently steered me out of the way as everyone else boiled through in a mass of ectoplasm and fur. Yummy. I could just make out Lily's profile folding as the fire flickered out and the portal closed.

Someone had set up a camp lantern at the other end of the greenhouse, where the Alphas were all putting their clothes back on, except for a few with bandages who were dressed already. My group all looked like drowned rats, even Thomas, although the ectoplasm was already evaporating.

Billy Borden came over to me. "I thought you weren't going to piss off all the faeries this time," he said.

"That was only like half," I protested. Or, okay, maybe two-thirds. Thomas was right: that had definitely been the Erlking calling the Wild Hunt down on my ass.

Marcone had offered Lily a hand up from a bed of wildflowers I didn't remember being there when we left. Fix appeared at her other side. They started walking her in the direction of a chair, but she shook her head. There were a lot of things I wanted to talk about with Lily, but rather fewer I wanted to discuss in front of Marcone. I barely got the time of day (four a.m. Sunday morning) out of her before they were off.

I heaved myself up with a sigh and tottered over to check on the de-semurghified bird-kids, shooting Marcone a glare when he made to help me, too. Instead, I leaned on my staff, like a proper wizard.

Seven harnesses, seven birds. The Alphas hadn't undone any of the knots except the safe ones I'd pointed out to them, so the birds were still bound and motionless. In addition to the birds I'd known about, there was also a heron, a nightingale, a partridge, and a duck, of all things.

The Alphas filled me in on their side of things. All of them were peppered with pecks and scratches, although the thick fur of their wolf forms had saved them from the worst of it. Looking at some of the bandages, I wasn't so sure I was convinced.

Once I'd triggered the spell, they'd raced the birds to the portal, which is when the most serious injury—Tommy's wrenched shoulder—had happened. Apparently, Fix had been working some fire of his own, taking down the pursuit.

Back in Chicago, the Alphas had divested themselves of their harnesses; and the ones still in good enough shape to fight had gone back in. They claimed it had been a quick turnaround, although Tommy, Hannah, and Phil had had time to visit the ER and a Walgreens for stitches and snacks, respectively.

Evidently most of the time-stretching had happened right before we crossed back over. That was another thing I wished I could talk with Lily about but didn't want to discuss with anyone else. Because from where I was sitting, we had walked in and out of Arctis Tor pretty easy. And there was flat-out no way the Summer Lady could have affected the passage of time in Winter, which had to have been Lily's game plan, giving me that butterfly to tap. I was the stalking goat, set out to lure Winter's forces into place; Maeve—it couldn't have been anyone else—pulled the whole region into the temporal slow lane, leaving Summer free to jump in on the White Council's side during the current confrontation. All nice, neat, and helpful.

I wouldn't have bet much on that being the whole story, though. What I'd seen on top of Arctis Tor... Frigging faeries; they were worse than White Court vampires, and that was saying something. Someone had used me to score off someone else, and I had no idea who it was. Lily? Maeve? Mab? Even Titania was a possibility.

Meanwhile, I had birds to deal with. I'd have liked nothing better than to go home, kindle a fire in the fireplace, and lock myself and Maggie in for a month or so while I caught up on sleep.

Instead of falling on my face, though, I next went outside to check on Marcone. He was talking to someone on a cell phone, though I assumed the absence of panicking mob enforcers meant he'd warned his people he might be out of touch for a while. Hendricks saw me approaching and grunted something to Marcone, who cut the call. Not that I was capable of frying so much as a microchip right now.

I set my jaw, still leaning rather heavily on my staff. "Well, this has been fun, but you should get going."

"Have you had a sudden insight in the last ten minutes? Because I seem to remember you saying something about needing time and resources before you could make an attempt to reverse what has been done to the children. I can provide you with a secure location where you can rest and work."

"Really, Marcone?" I was too tired for this.

He huffed an impatient breath. "I thought I'd proved my intentions in this align with your own."

His eyes, washed out to a weird brownish colour in the sodium streetlight, caught mine. I looked away first.

"Look, the people I'm going to call in, they aren't going to trust you, and they aren't going to like any vanilla mortal being this deep in their business. I need them, and I'm already not their favourite person."

"I find that hard to believe; you're so good at making friends, after all."

I gave him a flat look. "Do you think you can stop being a control freak for long enough to let me do my job or what, Marcone?"

"At least allow me to provide transportations—"

I shook my head. "Think of it this way: the FBI is already looking at you pretty hard for this. If you don't touch anything, it can't lead back to you."

"The same might be said for you," Marcone pointed out.

I twiddled my fingers in the air. "Ma-a-agic."

"Honestly, Dresden." Marcone's tone was exasperated, but his expression was saying something else entirely.

I swallowed. "I'll let you know when it's done."
__ __ __

Thomas had vamoosed almost as quickly as Lily and Fix, so it was just the Alphas and me. It didn't make me happy to know that he was feeding, but there wasn't anything I could do about it now except worry. So I worried.

"What now?" Georgia asked me.

I was swaying on my feet. "Get the birds behind my wards. There isn't anywhere else, and I need to recharge before I c—hey!"

Georgia dangled my keys in front of me. "That's the second time you've almost fallen over even with the stick."

"I'll drive," Hannah offered.

"You're hurt," I objected.

"And well-rested. I'd have gone back in with the others, but I didn't want to pull my stitches. You coming or not?"

I grumbled under my breath, but graciously deigned to allow myself to be chauffeured. I waited for Mouse to clamber into the rear, replaced the improvised seat back, and got in.

I woke up to the sound of the car door opening. We were in the little gravel lot beside my building, the sky overhead just beginning to show hints of something other than light pollution. Mouse was snuffling impatiently at my ear.

Making a creaky old-person noise, I stumbled out of the Beetle and helped Hannah with the foam-covered boards. Mouse tumbled onto the ground like a furry landslide.

The rest of the Alphas were waiting for us. Yawning, I took down my wards, and we hauled the birds inside.

Then they were gone and I was alone in my apartment with what probably looked like a major SPCA violation and a thirty pound cat who didn't know the meaning of the word 'domesticated'. Mister put his front paws up on the couch where four of the seven transformed birds were laid out and licked his whiskers. I put down the phone and decided that maybe moving them all downstairs had better be job one.

I gave Bob the Reader's Digest version of events while I cleared off enough space on one of my lab tables for the birds and brought them down, ignoring the indignant yowls and occasional odd thump from my bedroom. Mouse lay in front of the door with, I swear, a look of satisfaction on his face. They actually get along pretty well, most days; but from the look of it, Mouse enjoyed getting one over on Mister for once.

When all was done, the trap door to the basement closed and my bedroom door opened to disgorge a very unhappy cat, I picked up the phone again. I called Inari's cell first (hey, I can't fry the things long-distance and Charity gets kind of grumpy when I wake the entire household at the crack of dawn) and let her know I was back safe and Molly could bring the Scamp back any time, although I was probably going to be unconscious for a while.

Next was a call to the Council requesting that they put me in touch with whatever they had for an expert on transformation and also informing them I'd dealt with Bird Sorceress. I then proceeded to fall into bed face first and sleep for fourteen hours straight.
__ __ __

I woke up with a sudden weight on my diaphragm and a siren in my ear. "MOMMY MOMMY MOMMY! I's home!"

Squinting my eyes open cautiously, I hugged the little noisemaker. "Heya, Scamp. Sorry I took so long."

Maggie squirmed and poked me in the shoulder. "No more monsas?"

"No more monsters," I confirmed, flopping over onto my back. Ow.

Maggie frowned, which was adorable, and then poked me directly on a bruise, which was not. I groaned.

"Mommy hurt?"

"Oof. Mommy just fell down, sweetheart." A lot. "Did Molly bring you?"

"Aun' Em," Maggie agreed. "Said I's can wake you up."

"Well, that's nice," I said with about three hundred per cent less murder than I felt. Well, vengeance would be mine shortly. "O-okay. Mommy's going to try to get up now."

Maggie shrieked with laughter at the sounds I made as I stood up and staggered towards the bathroom. Every muscle in my body screamed, but my bladder felt like it was about to explode. I probably should have at least taken my jeans off when I got home, if only because I'd been able to move then. My arms were stuck to the leather of my duster. At least I was warm.

I showered as quickly as humanly possible—I'd had enough cold for one lifetime, thank you—and tortured myself with some stretches just to get my muscles working again. At least it kept the Scamp entertained. Molly knocked on the door just as I was pulling my shirt on.

"Harry? Are you ready for coffee?"

"Is the answer to that question ever no?" I replied.

Molly opened the door and handed me a mug of steaming tan liquid that was more cream than coffee. My apprentice is even more of a nightmare in the kitchen than I am, but I dump like a quarter cup of half and half in anyway, so you can hardly taste if it's burnt.

"Let me guess: I should see the other guy," she said.

"You try getting repeatedly body-slammed by Clifford the Big Flying Dog and dropped into a tree."

Molly raised her adorned eyebrows. "Aw, boss, you get to have all the fun."

I took a casual sip of coffee. "Well, I was going to ask you to help with some set-up, but if that's the way you feel..."

Molly perked up, much like Mouse does when I bring out the bacon. "Tonight?"

I shook my head. "Gotta work some things out, first. Take tonight, meditate, and be back here tomorrow morning around seven. And try not to dress too much like a hooker; we might be getting other wizards, and it's hard to respect someone when your first impression of them includes their belly-button ring."

Molly mumbled something that sounded like reactionary old sticks into her can of coke.

"Yeah, but they're reactionary old sticks you're potentially going to have to be dealing with for the next few hundred years, so behave."

"What, like you do?"

"The Council wouldn't get so worked up over me if they didn't take me seriously," I said. "I wouldn't call it a good first impression, but I don't get cat-called."

Molly left, and I took the Scamp down to the lab. Bob had been inspecting the birds. I put Maggie in her ghetto play-pen under the tables, although I had to watch my feet: Maggie had recently figured out the trick of picking out the knots in my shoelaces. Real highly evolved sense of humour on the kid. Good grasp of consequences. Just like her mom.

We're working on it, okay?

Bob and I talked transformation options and temporary warding for a while. Maggie fell asleep and I realised I was famished. I broke for food and to put the Scamp to bed. Mouse heaved himself up next to her like a life-sized teddy-bear.

When I finally made it back down to the lab, shop talk devolved into a more detailed recounting of events. Bob agreed that it smelled pretty strongly of fish for a bird-themed outing.

Being the responsible adult that I am, I forced myself to go lie in bed (I had to forcibly evict Mouse to fit) sometime after midnight. My body-clock was screwed all to hell, but that's what you get for dicking around in Faerie. But that wouldn't matter to the Scamp, who hadn't quite figured out sleeping in yet. Hey, I was still grateful she was sleeping through the night. That first year, it had seemed like just when she was getting the hang of it, she started teething; and then it was just twenty-four-seven misery for everyone involved.

I lit the candle on my nightstand in its safety-glass chimney and settled in with my zombie-gnawed copy of The Diamond Throne. But my attention kept drifting to Maggie snuggled up next to me, back safe where she belonged.
__ __ __

Molly showed up prepared this time, not only with her midriff covered, but with some of some of this truly foul Tibetan tea that the Knights of the Cross have adopted and which reminds you they're champions of a religion that espouses mortification of the flesh. I regretfully declined the muscle relaxants: never, and I cannot say this enough, plan or execute complex magical undertakings while you're on drugs.

At least I was well-rested, even if I had fallen asleep the second time with my head at an unnatural angle. I could have just gone on working all night; but I'd tapped myself out doing all those showy acrobatics back at Arctis Tor, and to pull off the rest of it, I was going to need my batteries fully charged.

I was in the middle of the usual morning circus with the Scamp, somewhat at at disadvantage from the (alas also not unusual) achy and prematurely disintegrating condition of my body. The need for a highchair was obviated by my lack of anything to sit at other than my coffee table, which was more or less Scamp-height; but of course my rugs suffered in consequence.

Selfishly, I left Molly to try to stop Maggie from smearing applesauce all over Mouse's head while I double-fisted Holy Zen spore tea and my morning coffee. Mister padded over to investigate; he licked Mouse's gooey fur experimentally.

Apparently it wasn't to his taste, because he sniffed and turned to saunter away, abandoning Mouse to his fate. Mouse dropped his jaw in a doggy grin, and I swear I saw a glint of anticipation in his eyes before he shook himself, spraying everything within about two feet of himself with atomised applesauce, including Mister, Molly, my couch, and my kid.

Mister yowled indignantly and shot off to the top of a bookshelf, while the Scamp crowed, "Bad dog!" and, somewhat inconsistently, threw her arms as far around Mouse's neck as they would go. Beside her, the look on Molly's face so closely matched the expression of offended dignity Mister was wearing that I snorted devil-tea up my nose.

By the time we got everything cleaned up, Mister released to either lick his wounded pride or relieve his feelings by killing unsuspecting pet bulldogs, and Mouse hosed off and left to dry outside—he could take his chances with Mister's retribution—the phone still hadn't rung. I'd been hoping that with Summer's help, the Council and the Venatori would have handed the Reds their asses in short order, thus freeing up someone to de-bird the kids. Maybe my old mentor Ebenezar McCoy; I didn't like it, but he did have licence to break the laws of magic. Maybe he'd had some experience with that one.

They didn't call and they didn't call. I gave Molly the basic rundown of what had happened at Arctis Tor. When she started asking about some of the other things that had happened this week, I had the Scamp help me test Molly's progress with her shield. It wasn't perfect, but there had definitely been progress. I guess flocks of angry birds are as effective teaching tools as baseballs. It made me grimace, but Molly erupted into an inexplicable fit of giggles when I said it out loud.

Molly and I worked together some more, and she and the Scamp gave me a post mortem on her training session with the Alphas earlier in the week. (Some of the scratches on Molly's arms were actually from all the falling down that came from city girl trying to run through the woods.) In all, it had been a properly humbling experience for my apprentice.

Good. Molly was at that age where young people stop believing anything anybody tries to tell them until they run face-first into it and break their metaphorical noses (not that I have any experience whatsoever with this frame of mind), an attitude that wasn't helped any by her recent birthday rendering her a legal adult. Realising that I wasn't the only one who could knock her on her ass was an important part of her education.

I swung around back to check on Mouse when Maggie and I went out to get the mail. He was sunning himself, still slightly damp, while my upstairs neighbours' girl told him at length what she thought of the smell of wet dog.

Maggie absolutely refused to settle down. I love my daughter, I really do; but she hadn't really evolved much of a conception of what a 'distraction' was. Which was ironic, because she was an excellent one. And I of course had absolutely no willpower when it came to being distracted.

It finally came to the point where I sent Molly outside with her to blow off some steam. Between Molly, Mouse, and the wards I'd put up around the building, the Scamp would be safe enough. My apprentice got into really unattractive teenage snits whenever she started to feel she was getting stuck with sprog duty too often; but I needed to be where I could hear the phone, and Molly wasn't going to figure out how to change those kids back.

There was an extension in my lab now, so I settled in down there with Bob and the bird-boys and the trap-door closed. Personally, I preferred not to chance the phone ringing right in my ear when I was trying to concentrate on something delicate—just the one upstairs was bad enough—but body-jewellery aside Molly was a well-brought-up young lady, and it was easier to turn the ringer off when I needed to concentrate than it was hauling my apprentice to the ER when she took the ladder too fast and fell off.

As it happened, it wasn't a problem that afternoon. By dinner, I was as cranky as the Scamp, who was apparently boycotting naptime out of sheer contrariness. The only call I'd gotten all day was from Georgia, making sure I hadn't slipped into a coma.

Predictably, the phone rang just as Maggie was finally drifting off. I sighed, setting down the yellow legal pad where I'd been putting together my report to the Council and reached for the receiver. The Scamp stirred against me, grumbling. Optimistically, I rubbed soothing circles on her back as I answered the phone.

Across the coffee table, Molly perked up from where she was sprawled across one of my arm chairs. I was pretty sure she'd devolved from working out a set of power calculations and ritual circles to doodling in her own notebook. She'd vetoed her usual spot crammed into a corner of my lab on the undeniable grounds that it smelled like bird. I had ignored Bob's similar loud complaints, seeing as he didn't possess a nose.

"So. Field trip, boss?" Molly asked eagerly when I hung up the phone.

I looked down at the Scamp, who had been poking me all through the brief telephone conversation to express her displeasure with all the noise. Stars, this was going to be fun.