The writing in the steam on the mirror said WATCH UR BACK.
John dropped his towel and went for the gun in the toilet tank, taking cover in the angle between the clothes hamper and the wall. He swept the room quickly, even leaning out to nudge the cabinets under the sink open. Nothing.
He couldn’t see around the corner into his bedroom: the chokepoint was the obvious place for an ambush. Why warn him, though? A problem for later.
John made a decision. He came out of his crouch, took two quick steps to the vanity, and threw the blown glass bottle of liquid soap out the door. It smashed hard on the bedroom wall opposite, explosively loud.
John waited, counting down. It would take eight seconds to get up the stairs and down the hall, they’d argued about it more than once. And this was only going to work if Hendricks wasn’t already dead.
He reached zero and charged around the corner into the bedroom just as the door banged open. Hendricks bulled in, his gun up.
They turned side on to each other, automatically, and each cleared half of the bedroom. John could hear his own controlled breathing, the slithering plink plink of dripping soap. The bedroom was empty.
Hendricks checked the obvious hiding places – under the bed, inside the wardrobe – and then the less obvious ones – the TV cabinet, the tiny air vents. Then he looked from John – dripping, naked, and holding a Glock in ready-stance – to the smashed bottle.
“Feeling frisky this morning?” he asked.
“Check the mirror,” John said, lowering his gun. Hendricks did, and there was a deeply unhappy crease by his mouth when he came back out.
“There haven’t been any alarms,” he said. “Come on.”
John took thirty seconds to towel the worst of the water off, but bypassed the suit hanging on the wardrobe doors in favor of sweatpants and a t-shirt.
They went downstairs together, Hendricks taking point. The house was silent this early – John preferred the cleaning staff to come and go mid-day, when he wouldn’t be home.
The security panel in his office hummed, all lights green. None of the windows or doors had been breached, none of the motion, infrared, or thermal detectors activated. Hendricks cycled through views from both the external and internal cameras, then rewound each several minutes just to be sure. They watched Hendricks himself arriving; otherwise, no one appeared.
A frisson tingled down John’s spine. “I should get a picture of it before it fades,” he said. Hendricks held up his phone without comment. “Good, thank you.”
“Ah—“ Hendricks squinted at the phone, poked at it, then shook it. “Dead,” he said succinctly. They looked at each other. “Gard?”
“Gard,” John agreed. He forced his hands to unknot. It was nonsensical to be relieved that some hostile magic had intruded into his home. But he’d been plagued with oversensitive nerves and sleeplessness for three days now. It was as if he’d caught a case of doubt, like other people caught the flu: was this and that organizational decision the right one? Was he thinking big enough long term? And most disturbingly, for just a few seconds while Hendricks was in the bathroom, am I cracking up?
It was irritating. It was pointless. Doubt was for people with the luxury of second-guessing themselves. John had no time for it, and no use for this lowering weight of sudden, nameless regret.
“I’ll get dressed,” he said.
He was in the kitchen doctoring his coffee when he heard Hendricks pause his downstairs search to let Gard in. They exchanged a few muffled words, and she came around the half wall from the dining room, heels clicking.
“Good morning,” John said.
She stopped and stared at him, with that thousand yard blank-eyed look that she’d given him only twice before. She did not look human when she did that. John set his coffee cup down with a genteel chink on the marble counter.
“Am I going to die today?” he asked.
She blinked and snapped out of it, merely a professional paranoiac and occasional killer again.
“You could,” she said. “But first things first: what did you see?”
He took her upstairs. The bathroom had aired out and the steam dried up. The message was gone. Eerily, it hadn’t even left a smudge, certainly no fingerprints. Gard eyed the indicated spot, inspected Hendricks’s cell phone, then breathed on the glass. Nothing emerged from the mist of her breath.
“Yes,” she said slowly, and there was a lot more hesitance in her voice than John was used to hearing. Or preferred to hear, all things considered. “There was someone here.” She paced the bathroom once, frowning. “But I can’t tell if it was a consciousness or . . . something else.”
“Like a spell?” Hendricks asked, materializing in the doorway.
“Probably not. Mirrors are difficult, symbolically.” She faced the glass, one absent hand smoothing her pristine hair. “They, well, reflect.” She pulled out her box of tiles. “Let me try a few things. You,” she tilted her chin at John, “need to rethink your schedule for the day.”
They left her to it. John went down to his home office and conducted his first meeting by speakerphone while Hendricks shuffled and cancelled the rest of the day’s schedule.
The first time Gard had seen his approaching death, they’d found a bomb under his car. The second time no obvious threat had materialized, but Gard had looked at him with only safe, polite interest the next morning. Perhaps it would have been a freak accident. Or, more likely, some murder attempt gone wrong before it ever got close. John didn’t know what would happen if he made it through today alive, and Gard saw the same shadow over him tomorrow. To say nothing of the day after that, and the day after that. Hendricks had read a lot of Poe while he was getting his first Masters – there was something gothically familiar about the idea of death that arrived on your doorstep one day and would not be thwarted for any precautions.
Everybody died eventually, of course. Just look at Harry Dresden.
Gard came down in half an hour. “I don’t know,” she said, before either of them could ask. “It’s nebulous, but definitely magical.”
John suppressed an irritable observation about how obvious that was.
They did go out eventually to a meeting at the Hyatt Grand bar that could not be rescheduled. Hugh Singh irritated John on a personal level with his swagger and his ‘bling’ and his habitual cop-taunting like it was a fucking sport, but it wasn’t worth alienating him and the slice of the New York pie he represented. And he showed no signs of attempting to poison John’s drink or shoot him in the head, so at least there was that.
Hendricks wanted to shorten the meeting or run it long so John wouldn’t exit when his schedule said he would. Singh ran it long, which was not John’s preference, and then walked out with him, still talking.
Gard was waiting for them in the lobby for the dangerous trip from door to car. Her eyes fastened on Singh immediately, and he trailed off in mid-sentence, uncomfortable and not knowing why. She gestured sharply at Hendricks, pointing at Singh with the other hand.
John turned and ducked, scanning for threats, and in the same moment Singh’s head pulped like a melon.
John dropped and rolled. Gard came with him, gesturing choppily. Something cracked in the air two feet above them; his brain only belatedly interpreted it as a second bullet ricocheting upward off an invisible barrier.
They made it into the sheltered entrance of the bar, and John finally got a chance to pull his own piece, for whatever good it might do. That had been a long-range shot. He leaned out around the wall for a quick look, just in time to see the plate-glass front window succumb to spreading fractures and shatter in great, transparent sheets onto the tile. The lobby was empty, though he could hear someone sobbing hysterically behind the reception desk.
No more shots came. The two of them waited in silence while behind them the mid afternoon patrons did the lawyer and accountant version of chickens running around with their heads chopped off.
Hendricks texted them a warning before he came up from behind, appearing from a service door and ducking around the bar.
“Didn’t spot him,” he said, dropping into position on John’s other side. “The car’s around back.”
A siren sounded at last. John sighed, developing a headache. He didn’t have the patience for the boys in blue today. Though at least they were in the first precinct. Captain Oliver had too many children to send to college on his police salary; he was a useful man to know.
“Stay here, see what you can find out,” he said to Hendricks. Then, “Let’s go,” to Gard.
Hendricks stuck with them through the service hallway and out a back door. There was luckily an overhang to occlude a sniper scope, and the car waited just a few steps away, but they were all jumpy. Gard whipped around, tracking movement, and nearly shot an enormous tabby cat, balancing improbably on the rim of a dumpster. It hissed at her, sensing danger, and leapt away.
Hendricks shut the car door after them and knocked a farewell on the roof. Gard directed the driver to the office on Wabash, which was the most defensible option.
John made a series of quick phone calls, greasing the law enforcement wheels for Hendricks and asserting his own continued good health. Gard waited until he was done, then said, “Dresden was shot long range.”
“I know,” John said, more testily than he’d meant to. That itched at him, maddeningly; he did not like people dying in this city without his word behind it. And Dresden in particular. John had been prepared to kill him for years, if the time ever arrived when they couldn’t share Chicago anymore, or Dresden dropped the white hat routine and became a different kind of danger. And then someone else had done the deed, cockblocked all John’s intricate, beautiful plans with a rifle and a bit of surprise. He needed to know who had taken Dresden out anyway, but he was also furious at the trespass.
Assuming Dresden was dead. Nearly three days out, and there was still no body. And Gard’s attempt to find out through more arcane means had come up inconclusive.
If Dresden was dead, that would be very . . . inconvenient. Frustrating. Personally insulting. Beyond that, John had decided not to commit himself to a reaction, not until he knew more. Knew for sure.
The car stopped at the side entrance. Gard got out first, eyes flicking left and right.
“Company,” she said. John heard the engine approaching. “It’s Thomas Raith,” Gard reported after a moment.
Interesting. John emerged to find a gray BMW parked on a slant, blocking them in. Raith got out, displaying few traces of his usual playboy chic. He looked awful, actually, washed out to bony transparency in a black sweatshirt and jeans. John touched the cross he wore under his suit against his skin. He knew what a hungry vampire looked like.
Raith came around to their side of the car, moving fast, then stopped ten feet back, mere inches before Gard would have started making an issue of it.
“Was it your kill?” he asked without pleasantries.
“Excuse me?” John was honestly confused for a moment, with Singh fresh on his mind. But no, of course, that was not the death Raith cared about.
“Did you kill Harry Dresden?” Raith was speaking calmly, but John wasn’t fooled. He knew what a monster looked like, from long personal experience. All vampires were monsters, though only the White Court retained enough humanity to occasionally feel bad about it. Just enough humanity to be really fucking annoying, in other words. Raith did not look like he felt bad about it right then.
“I didn’t kill him,” John said. “I had no reason to at this time. And several reasons not to, as a matter of fact.”
Raith watched his reactions through inhuman eyes, nodding slowly. “All right,” he said. “I might believe that.” He rocked a half step back. “But I will find out who it was. And if it was you, I will come through her—“ he jabbed a contemptuous finger at Gard “—and I will come through whatever else you throw at me, and I will eat you.” He walked back to his car.
“Well,” Gard said blandly after he’d driven off. “He certainly thinks Dresden is dead.”
She was right – that was clearly grief. And loyalty. Dresden had inspired a lot of that last, in a number of surprising places. John could respect that, as someone who frequently needed to do the same. He had made a study of it, before and during his military service, and he’d learned that the trick was to do what you said you were going to do, it was that simple. Dresden managed it without ever quite meaning to, the way he did a lot of things, but his methods appeared to be essentially the same. Only on him, people called it integrity.
“I need to know for sure,” John said, heading for the door.
“I can go out to the boat where it happened,” Gard said. “See if that will help.”
“Wait until dark,” John said. “I’m coming with you.”
He spent part of the afternoon extending his apologies to Singh’s bosses in New York. This was the fourth time someone had taken a bullet meant for him. Remorse was not part of the equation today – Singh was a grown man who’d known what sort of risks he ran. It was just sloppy and unprofessional to have him as collateral damage in a domestic matter.
Hendricks came back in a few hours, looking dour. “Slugs were seven millimeters,” he said. “And I found a probable shooting location. There’s a parking garage roof at the other end of the block. About nine hundred yards at a downward angle and through a window?” He made an impressed face.
“The slug recovered from Raith’s boat was a seven millimeter,” Gard said.
“Thank you, I am aware.” John drummed his fingers on his desk.
“I don’t like that they warned you,” Hendricks said, palpably unhappy.
“Yes, that,” John said. He’d gotten pretty far in life by exploiting other people’s overconfidence. Still, it was a point. You didn’t often see someone wielding both a delicate sniper’s scope and what was apparently some very subtle magic. Which implied multiple people, and quite possibly an organization.
They didn’t go down to the shore until after nine. The marina was technically closed, but John owned it under seven layers of shell companies, and he had a key. They didn’t turn on any lights, and Gard spent half an hour ahead of time drawing a spiky rune on his palm that would hopefully fox an infrared scope.
What would Dresden have done to defend himself against a sniper, if he’d ever gotten the chance? His coat had been bulletproof, John had seen that firsthand. What else could he really have done, though?
Dresden and Gard practiced very different kinds of magic. It wasn’t regret John felt for ending up with Gard: she was obsessively competent, and she frankly didn’t give a damn what he did or why. And even if her magic was time-consuming and subtle, it worked. She wasn’t Dresden with his endless well of fire and his destructive glee. Dresden could flatten her like a bug on the plane of raw power, or so she’d said frankly during her second job interview. And watching her do magic didn’t make John want to fuck her, which was for the best, all things considered.
It was what it was, and John didn’t regret how things had come out. He was just a little wistful, sometimes, thinking of what might have been.
Raith’s little boat was still snugged up against the floating bumpers, and there was crime scene tape threaded through the deck railing. The three of them switched on their flashlights and hopped easily over.
There was a lot of blood. John preferred head shots, personally. Something small caliber, delivered right up against the temple. It was quick, efficient, and virtually error proof. And if you couldn’t kill someone up close, looking into their eyes and listening to them plead, then you shouldn’t be doing it at all.
A long distance shot like this one, though, that would be through the center of mass. John played his flashlight up and down. There was a spray of blood on the cabin wall, drops trailing upward with the force of the initial impact. It was high enough to be mistaken for a headshot, if you didn’t know how freakishly tall Dresden was. He’d gone down, and then apparently into the water. No way to know how long that had taken, but he’d bled a hell of a lot on the deck. Enough to probably be fatal, if he weren’t a wizard, or insanely lucky, or as many-lived as a cat.
Gard crouched, handing her flashlight off to Hendricks. She opened her box of supplies and scraped at a tacky splash of blood with her bare fingernail. She flaked it onto the glinting tip of a silver stylus, and began carefully inscribing onto a blank tile.
John explored the rest of the boat while she worked. There wasn’t much to see; the deck was otherwise clear, and when he picked the lock on the cabin door, he found the cops had removed any of Dresden’s more interesting possessions. There was a coffee cup in the tiny galley sink, and a towel hanging crookedly over the curtain rod in the bathroom. The bunk was a little rumpled. My God, did Dresden fold himself in half to fit in that thing?
John’s foot skidded. He crouched, fishing for something dark on the dark floor, and came up with a ragged scrap of leather. A waft of . . . roses? Improbably reached his nose, and the hair on John’s arms stood up on end, the way it did still in the presence of unexpected magic.
He sat on the edge of the bunk, playing the flashlight over the scrap. This could be from Dresden’s coat, and that would certainly explain why the gunshot had done its damage. The leather seemed to be getting colder, as if in response to the warmth of his hands. Ice crystals formed on it as he watched, and then just as quickly dropped off and vanished, accompanied by another burst of wild roses. Then the leather lay inert in his palm, slowly warming to his skin. John wished Gard had seen that – she might have been able to tell him what that fizzling end of a spell had been.
Though he could make a guess. He hadn’t known what to think when he’d heard Dresden had sold out to the Winter Fae. He still didn’t. And he also still didn’t know what had been riding Dresden so savagely when they’d met that last time, or why Gard’s master had taken an interest. He’d asked her, later, and she’d brushed him off, as she was contractually permitted to do in such matters.
It pissed him off to have these powers moving in Chicago without his understanding. Something important was afoot, that had been clear even before Dresden brought the entire Red Court toppling down, fuck knew how, and then got himself killed just in time to avoid all the cleanup. Fucking typical.
John clenched the piece of leather in his fist. This wasn’t grief. Dresden was the object of a constant obsession because he was unattainable, and the object of occasional sexual frustration because – because he was. He’d given John endless grief in life; John did not have to spend it on him in death. Karrin Murphy was grieving; the werewolves were grieving; Thomas Raith was grieving. John was just angry, and tired, and feeling his age.
There was a thump on deck, the shuffle of a big man moving very fast. John shoved the leather into his pocket with one hand, pulling his gun with the other as he went up the cabin steps.
“On the dock to the left,” Hendricks said urgently to him as soon as he came out.
Movement snagged John’s eye, and he tracked it with his light. Hendricks came up beside him, gun muzzle following.
“Shit,” he said laconically as something the size of a small pony emerged from the shadows. It paused in the light, shaking its head and then posing. Hendricks finally got another beam on it and John leaned forward, staring.
“Wait, that’s a dog,” he said. “I think that’s Dresden’s dog.”
The animal shifted, presenting them with its unmistakably canine profile as if to confirm. God damn it was big.
“Wait,” John said. “Let’s see what it does.”
What it did was gather itself and leap onto the deck from about eight feet back without any apparent effort. The boat rocked under their feet. The dog paced the edge of the deck, circling wide around Gard as she continued to work. It touched its nose down to a patch of blood and whined quietly. Then it reached John and Hendricks in its circuit, padded up to John, and sat down at his feet.
“My God,” John said spontaneously, “how is it possible that you learned any manners growing up?” All of his experience with canines was of the guard dog variety, but he knew the basic principles. He extended the back of his hand to be scented. The dog obliged, though John somehow received the impression that it was only humoring him.
John set his hand carefully on the dog’s head. It permitted this docilely enough, then shoved its nose under his wrist and neatly deposited his fingers behind its left ear. John scratched, bemused but obedient.
“He’s probably been out here since it happened,” Hendricks said. “The shot might have scared him off.”
“No,” John said certainly. “Not him.” Dresden’s dog would have followed him into the fiery pits of hell, wagging all the way. Talk about loyalty.
Gard snapped her tile with a crack. A red haze glowed briefly, illuminating her hands, and the scent of fresh blood rose in the air. The dog whined again; John rubbed his knuckles over its skull distractedly until it quieted.
Gard crouched in stillness for about thirty seconds, then let out an audible breath and pushed up to her feet. “He’s not alive,” she said without preamble.
Well. John exhaled and glanced down at the waiting dog. That was that, then. He suddenly felt the need to do something ridiculous, like set fire to this boat and push it out onto the lake to burn. Or go home and drink a toast to Dresden, the stupid, incredible, overgrown, adolescent madman.
“Except,” Gard said, and she was sounding hesitant again, “he may not be dead, either.”
“Say what?” Hendricks said before John could. “Isn’t this like pregnant or not pregnant?”
There was no light to see Gard’s face by, but she sounded very unhappy. “Not always. It’s like . . . let’s just simplify and say there are two lists, and nearly everyone goes from one to the other. Except right now, Dresden isn’t on either.”
“Meaning?” John said. “In practical terms, please.”
She shrugged. “I have no fucking idea.”
Harry Dresden, breaking the rules and making trouble until the bitter end.
“Do you know what the dog’s name is, at least?” Hendricks said. He had really odd priorities sometimes.
“It’s in Dresden’s file.” Gard bent to gather her equipment, then paused to scrub her hands with a sterile wipe. Sometimes it really seemed as if magic involved more bodily fluids than whoring.
“It’s Mouse,” John said. The dog’s ears perked affirmatively. That was Dresden’s sense of humor for you; if he’d had an actual mouse, he’d have named it killer.
“He likes you,” Hendricks said.
John belatedly caught up to the drift of this conversation. “Oh God, you want to take him home, don’t you?”
“Nope,” Hendricks said placidly. “I want you to. You have more room.”
John exhaled through his teeth. That was true; Hendricks’s tenth floor apartment couldn’t compare to three acres of backyard. And Hendricks had been trying to make him get a pet for years. He kept saying it would be good for John’s blood pressure. John suspected it was actually a different form of the same impulse that made Hendricks quote long passages from Macbeth and The Hermeneutics of Something-Something at him.
Still. He was here, and the dog was here, and Dresden was not.
“Fine,” John said ungraciously. “Let’s go.”
The dog wasn’t wearing a collar. John couldn’t recall Dresden ever putting a leash on it. He’d just talked to it like a person, and the dog had done everything he wanted it to. Was that an unusual property of the dog, or an unusual property of the wizard?
Mouse followed him back to the car without any prompting at all, and folded himself up uncomplainingly in the backseat footwell. It was a good thing they were in the Suburban today.
Hendricks stopped on the way to pick up dog food and, while he was at it, dishes, a collar, leash, bed, and rawhide bones. John bit back half a dozen comments as this was all loaded into the trunk. Apparently he was adopting the dog, or else.
Mouse investigated the house when they got home. John followed him around, watching. If he didn’t know better, he would have said the systematic sniffing paid particular heed to the hidden cameras and Gard’s little magical intruder deterrents. And John wasn’t sure he knew better.
Mouse fell on his helping of kibble like a starving wolf. John ate with him, standing over the kitchen sink and thinking idle thoughts about bullets that just barely missed, and bullets that did not.
Sloppy of Dresden to die and leave his dog out there alone. And all his other wizardly unfinished business, to say nothing of the ongoing cleanup from the Red Court’s destruction. Chicago hadn’t been hit much at all, considering Dresden’s previous efforts at pest control. Which had all been a warmup for the big event, apparently.
The comparisons were obvious. Dresden had brought down an organization thousands of years older than John’s, exponentially richer in human and magical and literal capital. John didn’t think he would have been next, but it did lend an interesting perspective. Especially since Dresden probably didn’t see much difference between them. John could practically hear him, all cutting righteousness -- the only difference between you is that they eat people literally, and you only do it metaphorically.
Still. The first thing he’d felt when he’d heard was a thrill of savage, vicarious triumph. And awe. Then, when he’d learned that Dresden had come home safe from the jungle and died in Chicago . . .
John laid out the dog bed in the downstairs den. Mouse settled on it, pleasantly obedient. Perhaps this dog business would work out, after all. But when John came out of the bathroom to get into bed, the throw blanket had been relocated to the floor and Mouse was curled on it, tail tip tucked over his nose. He opened one eye to watch as John decided whether he was going to make something of it.
“I’m assuming you don’t have standing orders to rip out my throat in my sleep,” John said at last. The eye closed, and Mouse wuffled a sigh.
John slept restlessly for several hours. When he finally fell into a deeper sleep before dawn, he dreamed about Dresden. It was the usual sort of thing – no narrative, no explanation, just their bodies. They were on the dais at his latest office, and even in the dream, John was puzzled because Dresden had never actually been there. They grappled against his desk, clothes already gone, tripping each other to the floor. Dresden fought him, twisting and elbowing, his magic sheeting over them both. The pulse in his throat beat fast under John’s teeth, and his dick strained in John’s hand. Dresden never stopped fighting him, but he said, “yes, yes, make me, yes,” again and again.
John plunged awake, gasping. He sat up, sweating and hard. His alarm would go off in twenty minutes.
Someone was staring at him. John had a gun in his hand before he remembered the dog. Mouse flicked his ears, tremendously unimpressed, and John carefully replaced the gun, his hands quivering with nerves and frustration. He was still hard, and a goddamn dog was making him feel actual shame about that.
John swung his feet to the floor and scrubbed at his face. What did you do with a dog, anyway? Walked it, of course, and fed it, and played fetch. And the dog rewarded these efforts with unstinting and heroic loyalty, or so it was said.
Hmm. Put that way, it all seemed a little more explicable.
He went for a run, circling the property inside the fence. Gard hadn’t gotten a good look at him yet today, but if he couldn’t be relatively safe in his own backyard, this was a problem on an entirely different scale.
The dog stayed with him, trotting companionably along, sometimes darting ahead to sniff at something and then circling back. It was nice, actually. John began to understand why Dresden was so attached. The dog took up space in the same way Hendricks did, only without the fancy degrees and marginally less likely to offer comment.
Hendricks was in the kitchen when John came panting up the back steps.
“Bedroom’s clear,” he said in greeting. “I left a panic button on the bathroom counter.”
John showered like he always did, no faster or slower, except that he often jerked off after a workout and today he . . . chose not to.
This time, the writing on the mirror said TOLD U SO. John stared at it, obscurely outraged, with the tiny seed of an idea slowly taking root.
Motion in the foggy mirror caught his eye, and he spun. It was Mouse, wagging fit to bust and grinning doggily. John stared from him to the mirror and back again.
“Dresden?” he said. His pulse was tripping far too fast, all of a sudden. “Dresden, if that’s you—“ he inhaled between his teeth. “You obnoxious – are you fucking haunting me?”
The overhead light flickered, so fast he could have imagined it. And then new words appeared on the mirror, swimming up out of the steam fully formed as if Dresden was thinking them there, not writing them.
LET THE CAT IN.
“What?” John raged.
Mouse wagged harder, his tail thumping the doorjamb. The shower quietly dripped. The steam on the mirror slowly began to dissipate.
“Dresden?” John said again, far less indignantly. “Are you . . . still there?”
He might be playing possum. Or his strength might be limited, his power to influence – Jesus Christ – to influence the living world.
John dried himself rapidly and suited up for the day. Hendricks was sitting at the top of the stairs, playing sudoku on his phone with a shotgun across his knees.
“Go let the cat in,” John said, permitting himself a moment to vindictively spread the Dresden headache.
“Cat,” John said. “Apparently one has come calling.” Mouse trotted ahead of him down the stairs, making a beeline to the kitchen. John assumed he was seeking breakfast, but he was sitting at the back door when they came around the corner.
“I don’t see a cat,” Hendricks said seriously, studying the camera display panel.
“This shit was supposed to stop happening now,” John said, and opened the door. Something huge and gray hurtled between his feet, and Hendricks yelped like a little girl. “A cat,” John said dryly, closing the door again.
“That is not a cat.” Gard had appeared in the kitchen doorway. She stared at the animal licking its paws in the middle of the counter island. If she’d had back fur, it would have been bristling. The cat ignored her.
“Maine coon, maybe?” Hendricks said, eyeing it thoughtfully. “Big bastard.”
“Try an ancient elemental . . . something,” Gard said. Hendricks’s drooping gun barrel came back up. “Where did it come from?”
“Dresden passed me a mirror-gram this morning and told me to let it in,” John said.
“Hold on, didn’t Dresden have a cat?” Hendricks asked.
“Can we focus?” John snapped. “Dresden is haunting me, and apparently he won’t be satisfied until I adopt all of his strays.” He looked around the room a little wildly. “I am not letting the Carpenter girl follow me home, do you hear me, Dresden?”
His pulse was still racing strangely, his entire body clamoring with conflicting signals. It jangled him over from surprise into anger.
Hendricks and Gard exchanged a speaking look. “. . . Okay,” Gard said. “Are you sure it’s Dresden?”
John felt himself flush. “Are you insinuating something?” Did she think he was – what – cracking under the strain? That was ridiculous; he did not crack. And there was no strain.
Gard looked steadily back at him. “I’m asking a question,” she said mildly.
John breathed in and out twice. “Yes,” he said at last, keeping his voice level and calm. “It’s Dresden. I’m sure.” He assayed a rueful smile. “No one else could be this infuriating.”
Hendricks had been looking quickly between them, keeping his thoughts to himself. “Okay,” he said carefully. “So the cat is Dresden’s?”
John mentally scrolled back through Dresden’s well-thumbed file. “Could be. He wrote checks to a veterinarian a few times.” He paused. “And I’ve seen this cat before somewhere. It was recently, I just can’t remember . . .” The cat was staring at him; its eyes glowed orange even in the morning sunlight.
“Still not a cat,” Gard said tensely. The animal stuck its back leg straight at her and began pointedly tonguing its nether regions. Hendricks suppressed a snort.
“Okay, fine,” John said to the air. “I’ll play along. Why the cat?” He looked down at Mouse, who had taken up his pose at John’s feet again. “And the dog? What’s the point?”
Silence. John glanced around the kitchen, frustrated. Dresden had written on the steam in the mirror, and nowhere else. What did that mean? It was ephemeral, for one. Maybe he could only make himself felt in passing, short-lived ways. Everything in the kitchen was marble and chrome and black glass; it all looked uncompromising and decidedly haunting-proof in the morning sun.
“Boss,” Hendricks said.
The cat had wandered to the other end of the island where there was a notepad and pen that John and his housekeeper used to communicate. The cat was batting at the pen, smacking it repeatedly until one end popped up and it could bite down with its sharp little teeth.
“No way,” Hendricks said as the cat laboriously dragged the pen upright over the pad.
Gard took three long steps and clicked the button at the top of the pen with one finger at the end of a stretched out arm. Then she took three long steps back again.
The cat began to – there was no other explanation – to write, with the pen clamped awkwardly in its mouth and its head jerking up and down.
“We should put this shit on Youtube,” Hendricks breathed.
The cat dropped the pen after a few minutes. John plucked up the pad before anyone else could. He tilted it into the light, squinting. “Gibberish.”
Hendricks gave it a try, turning it this way and that. “That looks like a ‘S,’” he said. “And that could be two ‘L’s.’ Or maybe a U.”
The cat watched them, emanating disgust.
“This is ridiculous,” John said. “We need a set of Scrabble tiles.”
“I’ll send one of the boys out,” Hendricks said, and jogged off to pass on the order and further cement John’s reputation as a growing eccentric.
John continued on with his morning routine, which now apparently included feeding Dresden’s dog. The cat vanished while his back was turned, and a few minutes later John saw it curled in the sun on the deep bay windowsill in the living room, with Gard standing glowering sentry over it.
John poured himself some coffee, and carried a second mug out to her.
“Well?” he asked.
Gard sipped, staring at him. “There is a shadow over you,” she said, though the sun streamed in full upon them both. “But today is not the day, I think.”
John dumped out the Scrabble tiles on the dining room table when they arrived. The cat came as if summoned, which in John’s limited experience was a thing of pure magic right there. It picked its way delicately around, shoving a tile here and there and sweeping most away with its tail.
The message was brief: GET THE SKULL FROM THE POLICE STATION.
“What?” Hendricks said. “It can’t mean Dresden’s skull – they still haven’t found a body.”
“Was it with Dresden’s things?” John asked the cat, feeling only mildly foolish. The cat stared back, unblinking, which was probably the best answer he was going to get. “All right,” John said briskly. “An open homicide case, victim’s belongings would still be in temporary evidence storage downtown. This shouldn’t be too difficult.”
It wasn’t. Ten hours and five thousand dollars later, a cardboard box and a canvas wrapped bundle were passed in through the open window of the suburban as they idled at a corner.
“Power objects,” Gard said, swiping the bundle away before John could open it. She clicked on the overhead light to unroll the canvas, revealing a long, intricately-carved staff.
“This isn’t his,” she said, running her fingertips up and down an inch away from the wood. “Or at least he didn’t make it, and a practitioner at his level will always make his own tools.”
“Interesting,” John said noncommittally, and opened the box. It didn’t contain much, only a few little jars and vials like Gard sometimes carried, an envelope, and, indeed, a skull. John lifted it out, handling it delicately.
“Fuck, Dresden was weird,” Hendricks said, eying it in the rearview mirror.
“That’s spelled.” Gard stared at the skull, a line between her brows. “And very old.”
“And still inexplicable.” John peered into the envelope. Ah, good, there were the requisite baggies of trace evidence. And at the bottom, an innocuous little lump sealed in another envelope that John knew without checking was the bullet.
He looked into the cardboard box again, suddenly struck by the notion that he might have all the remaining worldly possessions of Harry Dresden in his hands. As in most things, when Dresden had a run of bad luck, he did it in spectacular fashion.
Hendricks pulled the car into the garage instead of into the open courtyard by the front door. Gard rewrapped the staff to carry it in, visibly reluctant to touch it with her bare hands.
John set the box on the dining room table next to the Scrabble message.
Hendricks lifted the skull out. “Alas, poor Yorick,” he said. Gard snorted and took it from him.
“I can’t pin this down,” she said, holding it at arm’s length and squinting hard. “And I’m reluctant to interfere with it. I wonder if—“
And then the cat arrived from the second floor landing with a thump, and something -- a glowing yellow-orange alive something – leapt from it to the skull. The eye sockets flared up, like a particularly ghoulish jack-o-lantern.
“Well it’s about time,” the skull said, in a hollow, ringing voice. “I was starting to think you people would need some fucking sky writing.”
“. . . Dresden?” John asked, incredulous.
“Naw.” The skull rattled faintly in Gard’s grip, its lights swirling. “I’m --- well hello, pretty lady! You must be the valkyrie. Dresden told me you were a BAMF, but he forgot to mention the rack on you!” It tsked. “That boy, hopeless, I swear.”
“Not Dresden,” John said dryly.
“Not smart,” Hendricks said, shooting Gard a nervous look.
“Spirit, I would know thy name,” Gard intoned.
“Sure, sure!” the skull said. “I’m Bob. And you’re the luscious Ms. Gard, the big guy is Cujo, and you!” The lights swirled, somehow giving the impression of lasering attention. “You must be John Marcone. Man, I’ve been wanting to meet you for a while. You make Dresden turn the best colors sometimes, you know that?”
John blinked. “Dresden was your . . .?”
“Master,” Gard supplied.
“Well, yeah, technically,” the skull said. “But I think of it more like a partnership. I bring a massive archive of ancient magical knowledge to the table, and he brings porn.”
“I see,” John said, fascinated.
“Oh, and by the way, Dresden is,” the skull said. “Not was. Very much not.”
John took a step forward involuntarily, a sudden tension crackling in him. “He’s not dead.”
“Nope. So don’t start getting any big ideas about trying something on with me. Won’t work.”
John had been entertaining exactly such notions. He shelved them temporarily, though he was curious if Dresden’s . . . pet skull would be as irrationally opposed to belonging to him as Dresden himself.
“Is it really Dresden manifesting?” Gard asked sharply. “Or just his ghost?”
“No ghost,” the skull said. “That’s really him.”
John’s skin had been crawling ever since some foreign presence had insinuated itself into his private space. Knowing that it was Dresden didn’t make that better, it just turned it into a different itch.
“What is he, exactly?” he asked.
“He’s . . . corporeally challenged,” the skull said. “Also, really really cranky, wow-ee.”
“You’re saying he’s in limbo.” Gard looked deeply uncomfortable at the mere idea.
“Yep,” said the skull. “Stuck in the middle, like the manmeat in an existential sandwich.”
“Limbo,” Hendricks repeated. “Like Dresden got booted out of his body, except he wasn’t allowed off at the next train station, so now he’s just . . . hanging out?”
“Accurate enough,” said the skull. “And he wants to talk to you, Johnny boy. I can’t get much from him. He was really weak at first. Had kind of a shock, you know? But he managed to give me permission to go on walkabout until I could find you.”
“Why me?” John asked, honestly astonished.
“Take it up with him,” the skull said. “He’s been screaming at you for days, you’re just too dense to hear it.”
“Then how do I talk to him?” John asked, mentally preparing himself for an onslaught of magical nonsense. Would he have to drink goat’s blood? Smear a clarifying potion over his eyes?
“I’ve been working on that,” the skull said. “Boss is getting stronger all on his own, so that’ll help. But I’m thinking what you really want is to go spend some time in a place he’s connected to. Like his apartment, if it was still standing, or—“
“—the boat, where he died,” John finished. Where all his blood was still splattered across the deck.
“Five points to Slytherin,” said the skull. “That might just be enough to pull him farther across.”
John stared from the skull to the dog, sitting and looking hopefully up at him. The cat, at least, didn’t seem to give a damn and had wandered off. It was a relief to think the cat was, after all, just a cat.
He should ask the skull for a reason, extract a concession from it in the form of knowledge or just a favor owed. But. He and Dresden had tacitly agreed years ago that conversations between them came gratis. Everything else had a price, of course, but time enough for a cup of coffee and a lot of wary sarcasm was the basic courtesy of occasional allies. And if Dresden wanted something, he could pay for it himself.
“Boss,” Hendricks said. “The slugs were seven millimeters.”
And there was that, yes. Also, curiosity, so potent it was nearly electric. Dresden Fever, John recognized the symptoms.
“All right,” he said. “Let’s go steal a boat.”
The theft was laughably simple. Twenty years ago, John could have hotwired a car in less than sixty seconds, but those skills were rusty and a boat was not a car. That’s what he had people for. Diaz was a bright, ambitious kid who’d come home from Afghanistan with a missing leg to discover Uncle Sam hadn’t saved a job for him. John would always have a job for someone with that kind of head for numbers, and apparently some more esoteric skills as well.
“There you go,” Diaz said, crabbing out from under the helm as the engine sputtered to life. “Looks like she’s fueled up, too.”
“Thank you,” John said, surveying the instrument panel. He hadn’t been boating in a while, but this looked simple enough. “You were never here tonight.”
“Yessir,” Diaz said, hand twitching in an abortive salute. He swung across the deck, a modern pirate with a titanium prosthesis and Banana Republic jeans. John made a mental note of his unquestioning efficiency, and turned to the more pressing matter of arguing his point to Hendricks.
He won the debate after only a few minutes. So Hendricks and Gard both left, and John maneuvered the boat out of the marina on his own, moving slowly with only the running lights and the moon to go by. He dropped anchor a few miles out, far off any usual commercial or pleasure lanes.
It was three in the morning by the time he made it down to the cabin. There wasn’t anything more to see with all the lights on. John considered his options, and went in to the tiny bathroom for a shower. He made it a long, hot one, but the postage-stamp mirror was unadorned when he got out. John lingered in the tiny space, practically a sauna with the door closed, but Dresden was silent. Not here. Or waiting.
John still wasn’t tired. He prowled around the little cabin for a while, poking into drawers. Raith left as little here as Dresden had.
Interesting, Dresden and Raith. By all appearances a sexual relationship, except that had never rung quite true to John, for reasons frustratingly unarticulated. There was a deep attachment there, in either case. There must be, for both of them to transgress the boundaries of their creeds again and again for each other. John had always itched to know why, even if it was an answer as formulaic and unsatisfying as that they just liked each other. Why the sacrifices, the trust, the loyalty against all reason, given their respective allegiances? Why Raith?
On impulse, John conducted a far more thorough search. There was a stash of pornography in one of the drawers under the bunk, mostly heterosexual, the glossy professional stuff livened up with a rainbow of kinks. John flicked through it, taking mental notes on Raith’s tastes, which were predictably diverse but rooted in deep emotion – trust, worship, subservience.
Well. Raith might have Dresden’s trust, but no one was getting the other two out of him.
Nothing else of interest popped up until he looked more closely at the proportions of the room and realized there must be at least one hidden compartment. It took twenty minutes of crawling and thumping before he found the release mechanism.
Inside was -- holy mother of God – a sword. One of the swords. Dresden couldn’t have wielded it, could he? He was a perfect candidate for knighthood, on the surface – he played urban chivalry to the hilt. But John had seen into his soul, and he knew that no, Dresden was not a Knight of the Cross. John handled the sheathed weapon cautiously, unwilling even to touch the hilt. This must be Carpenter’s blade, the one he’d relinquished when he’d taken those bullets over Demonreach.
Such a strange idea, giving up that sort of calling, that responsibility. John had realized years ago that there would be no retirement for him. There was no graceful exit, and what would he do with himself, anyway? He’d once nurtured the youthful certainty that he could bend his skills to many professions, but the last decades had made him unfit to be anything but what he was.
He got tired eventually, a little before five. John took one more turn around the deck, shining a flashlight over all Dresden’s spilled blood as if some message might be written there. It wasn’t. He gave it up at last and tucked himself into the bunk. Sleep came sweet and easy to him, after this very long day.
He was in the back seat of his Cadillac, the garment district sliding past the windows and Harry Dresden next to him.
“Ah-ha!” Dresden said, mobile face splitting in a grin. He mimed putting a cell phone to his ear. “Can you hear me now? How about now?”
“Mister Dresden,” John said, “I am sitting right here.”
Dresden dropped the antics, leaning forward. He planted his elbows on his knees, a peculiar feat of geometry for someone of his proportions. “Yeah you are,” he said. “And I need you to listen to me. Are you listening?”
“Why?” John asked, because it was important to see what was behind all of Dresden’s flim-flam before it broke over your head and, just as an example, set substantial pieces of your property on fire.
“Because,” Dresden said, “you’re going to bring me back.” He hesitated, looking somewhat sour. “You’re the only one who can, apparently.”
John woke with the vague sense of something sliding through his grip, and the strange conviction that someone had just been shouting his name. He looked around the cabin, momentarily confused about where he was, let alone why. Ah, Raith’s boat. Because of Dresden, who was dead and yet not dead, and who –
And who had just been in his dream.
John sat up fast, clutching after it. In his old car, yes, the one where they’d had their very first conversation, their soulgaze. And Dresden had said – he had said he could be brought back.
“Harry?” John said, his voice hoarse from sleep.
John laid down and deliberately composed himself. He relaxed his hands, his arms, his torso, and imposed an iron calmness onto his mind. He could usually sleep on a dime. But that time he had to work all the way through a set of breathing exercises before he started to go under again.
He was hanging upside down. He was in pain, he was very angry, it was dark.
There was movement above him. John twisted, torquing his body up as he spun dizzily at the end of a rope over the pit in his backyard.
“Ah, jeez,” someone said above him. “Marcone, you are the weirdest motherfucker, I swear.”
“Dresden?” He strained, muscling himself nearly in half on pure core strength so he could look up. The moon was full, of course. A figure crouched batlike on the platform above him, just spindly arms and fluttering coat and white face. “Dresden,” John confirmed, with a sense of inevitability. He let himself drop, swinging free again.
“Who else were you expecting?” Dresden sounded impatient, which was his default in the absence of anger. “Listen, John, I need you to pay attention. I’m getting stronger fast, but this still isn’t ideal, I don’t even know if you’ll remember in the morning. So I need you to listen to me, okay?”
“I would be more inclined to if you would pull me up,” John said peevishly.
Dresden laughed. “You put yourself there, you know,” he said, and there was a sudden tension on the rope. John was jostled upward, dropped a few sickening inches and yanked to a stop with a painful lurch.
“Dresden!” he barked.
“I’m working on it,” Dresden said. He grunted with effort. “Fucking – I don’t know how much time I have here. Are you listening? Will you remember?”
“Remember what?” The pit spun slowly beneath him, and John closed his eyes.
“You’ll have to get Thomas,” Dresden said. “I’m not sure of all the details yet – I’m still figuring it out. But I’m going to need him. Gard too.” There was a brief pause. “And you,” Dresden added.
“Raith, Gard, me,” John repeated.
“And Bob,” Dresden said. “He’s helping me think this all out.”
“Ah, the pet skull.” John tucked his arms behind his head, attempting nonchalance as he was hauled unevenly upward by his ankles. “Does it come with any care and feeding instructions?”
“Nah, not really,” Dresden said between pants. “Just keep him clear of disruptive forces like sunlight – Gard’ll know. You can give him some porn if he gets uppity, but keep it softcore, will ya?”
“Why?” John asked, helplessly curious.
“Trust me, you do not want to know.” Dresden gave a mighty upward heave and caught him by the ankle, but instead of pulling him up the rest of the way he paused and gave John’s leg a shake. “Marcone, focus. Do you remember what I told you?”
“Raith, Gard, me,” John parroted. He flexed his body again, bending at the waist and straining up. Dresden let go of his ankle and their hands locked, warm in the dark shadows under the platform.
“That’s right,” Dresden said. He squeezed too tight, and John heard him take a ragged breath. “I’ll owe you,” Dresden said. “I’ll owe you so much, I—“ His voice was strained. “Damn it. It’ll be one hell of a marker you’ll have.”
John tipped his head back, swinging there between the rope around his ankles and Dresden’s grip on his hand. He couldn’t see Dresden’s face, just his silhouette against the moon.
John leaned up toward him, leveraging himself on their locked hands. “You haven’t said it,” he murmured.
“Said what?” Dresden demanded forbiddingly.
“You know what I want. Say it for me.”
Dresden made a low, furious sound. John hung beneath him, focused and waiting. It was coming, he could feel it. And it was going to be good.
Dresden cleared his throat. “John,” he said with obvious effort. “Please.” And then he let go, and John fell.
He woke when he hit the cabin floor. John rolled up onto his knees, disoriented and pumping with adrenaline.
He crouched there for a minute, backup gun in hand. The boat moved gently beneath him, and all was silence.
John got to his feet eventually. His knees ached, even after such a short time. He had been reassured that it wasn’t arthritis, not yet. But the warning sign was more than enough, thank you.
He went into the bathroom to splash some water on his face. It wasn’t until he looked into the mirror that John remembered. Raith, Gard, me. Half-forgotten dream and reality stitched themselves together: Dresden was dead, Dresden was in his dreams, Dresden needed his help. Dresden would owe him.
“But I’m not a wizard,” John said out loud. “What am I supposed to do about it?” There was no answer.
What else had Dresden said? John shut his eyes, willing the recall. Dreams, what an extraordinarily inefficient mode of communication. And a terrible bargaining arena. John could remember Dresden speaking to him in urgent tones, but how it hadn’t seemed to matter, not really. How was John supposed to present a solid negotiating stance in a situation like that? It was galling, but John could not trust his subconscious to speak for him, given some of its notable excesses and eccentricities.
Then again, he’d gotten Dresden to say please. He remembered that.
And now he desperately needed coffee. John got dressed and went up on deck. It was just shy of dawn. The empty lake lay quiescent under the lightening sky. John had slept less than an hour combined, he judged. He wasn’t disastrously tired yet, but he could feel the edges of his focus fraying.
John went to the helm. He needed something to do with his hands while he thought.
The trip back in went as smoothly as the trip out. A few early pleasure boaters saw him, but John didn’t particularly care. Hendricks joined him on the dock as soon as the boat was tied up; he brought Starbucks, because he was still and always a walking miracle. They tidied the crime scene tape in silence while John guzzled. Not the worst sunrise they’d ever spent cleaning up together, not by a long shot.
“Well?” Hendricks asked as they headed for the car.
John rolled his eyes, already appalled by what was about to come out of his mouth. Magic. “Dresden came to me in a dream,” he said. “And he wants me to bring him back.”
“. . . Huh,” said Hendricks, with about as much inflection as he’d use to note that it was going to be a nice day.
“Take over the driving, please,” John said as they came up on the car. Then to Gard as she slid into the back with him, “Talk to me about resurrection spells.”
Gard’s eyebrows rose. “Forbidden as necromantic magic by the White Council,” she said promptly. “And for good reason – the components of such a working can be . . . expensive.”
“Rivers of blood, the skulls of firstborn children expensive,” Gard said. “And it’s never a sure thing what you’ll get back, anyway. It’s said that there is no power this side of the nevernever great enough to retrieve all of a soul.” She shrugged. “I don’t know if that’s true or a bit of cautionary propaganda. This really isn’t my area of expertise. At least not . . . moving this direction.” She paused. “Just out of curiosity, will I be performing one of these rituals?”
“You said that Dresden wasn’t dead,” John said in lieu of a more direct answer. “Does that make a difference?”
“Ye-es,” Gard said slowly. “A significant one, I should think. For starters, it’s a decent defense to any charge of practicing necromancy.”
John acknowledged that with a dip of the chin. The laws of magic were no different from any other, more brutally enforced than some, slightly less arbitrary than others. Breaking them would simply require the same degree of planning as breaking any other law.
And as for the price, well. Of course there was a cost of doing business. John’s lips curled at the thought he might finally find out how much Harry Dresden was worth. Rivers of blood? No. But something else . . . it was possible. John just had to make sure the price was right.
“I don’t know enough about it,” Gard said. “I’ll start some research. I want to take a crack at those bullets, too, see if there are any forensic traces.”
John lifted a hand. “Yes, but before you do, I have an errand for you. Please go into Faerie and get a message to the Queen of Winter. I would like to meet with her or a representative at her earliest convenience.” He paused, calculating. “Tell her that it’s about the Winter Knight.”
John made himself more coffee when he got home, and took it out to Gard’s shielded laboratory in the guest house. The dog met him at the back door, nosing insistently around his legs.
“Breakfast in a minute,” John said distractedly.
The dog butted at him, nearly taking John out at the knees with a restrained shove of its hunched shoulders. John stopped, steadying his coffee, and looked down.
“Ah,” he said. The dog looked back. “Yes,” John said, feeling very foolish about it, and yet also very certain at the same time. “I think I talked to him. Come on.”
Dresden’s pet skull had pride of place in the center of Gard’s immaculate work table. John had been wondering exactly what the etiquette was here – did he knock on the cranium? Make some sort of offering? But he needn’t have bothered.
“There you are,” the skull said, lighting up the instant John came in. “Dresden’s charged up like a cheerleader on prom night. I assume you talked to him?”
“I think so,” John said. “At least, I dreamed I had a conversation with him.”
“What’d he say?”
John pulled up Gard’s stool, settling down with his hands around his coffee mug. “A number of intemperate things,” he said. It seemed a fair assumption, even in the absence of clear recall. “But let’s talk about you for a minute. You are his . . . advisor?”
“For my sins,” the skull sighed. “Sometimes it’s like trying to teach a two-year-old not to eat paste.”
“I can only imagine,” John said, attempting and failing. “Let me assure you that I, at least, am extremely interested in your council.”
“Well well,” the skull said, chortling. “You silver-tongued devil, you. He never said you were such a sweet-talker.”
“Maybe he wasn’t listening to me, either,” John said. He leaned forward on his elbows. “If I were to go about resurrecting him, how would I do it?”
“I’m so glad you asked!” the skull said with frenetic salesman’s bonhomie. “It’s great, really it is. This is old magic. The oldest, maybe, because this just might be the first thing an ape did with power: tell death to go fuck itself.”
“Ah,” John said. “And how’d that work out?”
“Well, er,” the skull said. “These circumstances are totally different! And he’s really only a little bit dead, anyway. This isn’t even a resurrection! It’s more of a . . . container swap.”
“Right,” John said dryly. “Just tell me how it works. In terms I might understand, please.”
“Oh, yeah,” said the skull, “like I’d unload this stuff on you without a bunch of stupid metaphors to pad your little brain.” It rattled pointedly. “Look, okay. It takes four people. Two pairs. There’s Dresden and there’s the valkyrie, each of them doing a spell at the same time. One on each side, right? And then there’s another pair. It’s all very archetypal and blah blah blah. This would be you and Thomas. It’s kind of like drawing lines – one between her steaming hotness and Dresden, and another one across it, between you and Thomas.”
“Like a cross,” John said.
“Well, sure,” the skull said. “If you want to slap some Christian iconography over an idea old enough to make your religion just some whiney rugrat by comparison.”
“So two lines, then,” John said, letting that one go. “Why?”
“Well,” the skull said, “I can’t really give you any cushy metaphors for that part. The spell is the metaphor. It’s a way out. And a way through. I can’t explain it any better than that.”
John drummed his fingers on the table. A foot from his left hand was a sandwich baggie, and inside it was a flattened seven millimeter slug. John picked up the bag and swung it in front of his eyes.
“And the price?”
“Not your life,” the skull said. “Everyone always thinks that, but I’m here to tell you the universe is not that tidy.”
“All right,” John said. “Then what does it take?”
“Intent,” the skull said. “Will. And balls. And need. Really, that’s it, you’ll hardly notice.”
Spoken like someone who’d never dedicated his life to something, never worked with every fiber of himself to make it happen because failure was unthinkable.
“What archetypes?” John said abruptly.
“Sorry?” The skull rattled its jaw at him. It was somewhat distracting.
“Archetypes,” John said. “You said that’s what the spell is about, that Raith and I are . . . playing roles, is that right?”
“More or less.”
“Er . . . well . . .” The skull could do shifty with remarkable verve for something with no eyes. “He hasn’t actually told me that bit? I don’t think he knows.”
“Wait, what?” John said, sitting up straight.
“It’s not like it matters,” the skull babbled. “You don’t need a cue card to make this work, you just need to show up. Boss says you go in one slot, that’s all that matters.”
“Fair enough,” John said. He was perfectly willing to accept the notion of playing without an exact script. But. “You’re getting all this from Dresden? This isn’t your vast archive of magical lore?” Something cold shivered down his spine. “Where is he getting it?”
“It’s not all him,” the skull said sulkily. “I’d heard about this, of course, I just didn’t know the fiddly details.”
“But he does,” John said. “All of a sudden. Tell me how.”
“He . . . has a source,” the skull said. “Other than that, I’m not at liberty to say.”
The skull was talking like Dresden had tapped a highly-placed CIA mole. Or something exponentially stranger. What powers did he have access to now? John’s brain conjured more and more outlandish imaginings. It couldn’t be a real archangel, of course, that would be absurd. This superstitious shiver was unnecessary.
John set the bag down with a clink. He wondered which bullet it was: was that from the cabin wall of Raith’s boat, or from the lobby of the Hyatt? Had that slug gone through Dresden, or Singh?
“Thank you,” he said to the skull. “You’ve been very helpful, given me a lot to think about.” He stood up, scrubbing his hands briskly together.
“Wait,” the skull said.
John turned back. “Yes?”
“Are you going to do it?” the skull asked.
John had the absurd desire not to kick a puppy. Assuming the puppy was ancient and wily and quick as a snake.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I’ll decide when I’m fully informed.”
“. . . Huh,” the skull said. The notion of free and rational decision-making was probably startling, considering the company it kept.
John went back to the main house. The coffee pot beckoned, but his alertness was already on the brink of edginess. He settled for a sandwich and an orange instead.
His home office was quiet. John lost himself for half an hour in fiddly administrivia. It was soothingly predictable, with the exception of Emanuel’s new ethics in public contracting initiative. That could present a problem. Though in John’s experience, dedicated ethics officials were only marginally less likely to be available for purchase than any other sort. It might get expensive in the long term, but not disastrously so. Bribes were, from a certain perspective, just another kind of business tax.
He became aware of a presence, and looked up. Hendricks leaned in the doorway with his arms crossed. His brow was lowered, his stare contemplative.
“Gard back?” John asked.
“Not yet.” Hendricks didn’t head for his own desk and computer. Instead he lingered there, looking like he was considering taking root.
John bent his head back to his notes and finished his sentence. But then he couldn’t quite seem to remember what the next one ought to be, and he looked up again.
“It’s perfectly rational,” John said, dropping his pen. Hendricks lifted his eyebrows. “Dresden,” John said impatiently. “It’s perfectly rational to go through with this. He was – is a valuable asset.” Karrin Murphy’s recent adventures were proof enough of that. Dresden protected the city and, by extension, often spared the expenditure of John’s resources. Even if he exacted a toll in collateral damage. “His new tie to Winter is a complication, I’ll admit,” John said, “but the debt he’ll owe is incalculably valuable.”
Hendricks’s eyebrows had been steadily climbing.
“It’s perfectly rational,” John repeated. “And I haven’t even made up my mind yet, anyway. But there’s nothing outwardly wrong with the idea. I’m not – this isn’t –“ The Dresden Problem. That streak of self-sacrificial nonsense, a sort of virus of infective insanity the wizard spread like goddamn herpes. Most people fell prey to it eventually; it was one of the greater mysteries and outrages of John’s life that he wasn’t immune.
“Okay,” said Hendricks. “I was just coming in to point out you’ll be meeting with faeries later and you might want to take a nap first.” His stare was unimpeachably bland. “To make sure you’re not off your game or anything.”
“. . . Oh.”
“That’s good to know about Dresden, though,” Hendricks continued mildly. “Glad to hear you’re being totally rational about this.”
John stood up, pulling the tattered remains of his dignity around him. “I think I’ll go take a nap now,” he said. “Excuse me.”
Gard woke him in the early afternoon with a knock at his bedroom door.
“The Leanansidhe is coming to tea,” she announced, sticking her head in at John’s summons.
John frowned. “I haven’t met that one.”
“No,” Gard confirmed, with a speculative frown suggesting that meeting her now was . . . interesting.
“Tell Maia to go all out, please,” John said. “Tiny sandwiches, china, the whole thing.” Did he have a china tea service? No matter, he had competent people.
Gard nodded her approval. “That’s probably the best tack to take with her, yes,” she said.
“Brief me in ten,” John said over his shoulder, heading for a shower.
High tea with a faerie lady. Would this madness never stop?
At least she was coming to him; John loathed faerie. There were two categories of magic. Most of it was infuriating, outrageously illogical, and vastly inconvenient. A very small portion of it filled John with a wondering, joyous awe. To be alive, to see such things . . . it moved him. Also inconvenient. But more pleasurable.
Faerie definitely fell into the first category. John’s initial visit was supposed to be a quick fly-by for a meet-and-greet. His business had taken three hours in subjective time, but he’d reemerged in Chicago to find ten days missing and his organization in restrained conniptions. John had always suspected deliberate intervention, a kind of hazing, perhaps. But really: unpredictable time flows? Who could live like that?
He paused in front of the mirror when he got out of the shower. He was moving quickly; there hadn’t been time to work up a really good steam. But as he watched, a smiley face smudged onto the glass. It appeared like a drawing this time, line-by-line, responding to a ghostly fingertip. And positioned as it would be if Dresden were standing next to him, there at the vanity counter. It should have been sinister, but wasn’t.
“Don’t get excited, I haven’t made up my mind yet,” John said repressively.
There was a . . . shiver in the room, something John felt against his skin though the air didn’t stir. He was suddenly aware of his nakedness. It hadn’t seemed to matter before. He’d always read Dresden as a prude, but perhaps that didn’t matter now, without a body of his own.
HAUNT YOUR ASS, Dresden wrote in the fading fog. It should have been a threat, it should have been desperate. Instead, John had the impression Dresden was laughing at him.
“Why me?” John said to his reflection. “You said I was the only one who could do it. Why?”
Nothing. John waited while the glass slowly cleared. Was he talking to an empty room? Was Dresden here with him all the time now, or did he fade in and out like a bad radio signal?
He heard Gard come in, and turned away with a sigh.
The briefing was less illuminating than he’d hoped, but far more interesting. John dressed while Gard talked, her voice floating in through the open closet door. He dressed formally, soberly, going for that kind of old-fashioned that also looked timeless.
He appreciated Gard’s style of reports. She had this matter-of-fact quality, so it didn’t seem to matter that she was delivering a personal dossier whose factual sources consisted entirely of supernatural water cooler gossip and a bit of Yeats. Which might even be the same thing. John preferred his briefings without poetry, thank you; it had never made much sense to him. The gossip was nearly as metaphorical.
He got the idea, though. At least enough to be even more cautious than usual when he greeted his guest. The Leanansidhe was striking, of course, and regal as a queen. John brushed his lips over the tips of her fingers, feather light, mouthing all the appropriate phrases. He guided her to the back veranda. It would ordinarily be unforgivable to entertain a guest outside in November, but of course she wouldn’t mind the cold, and John could endure for politeness. And for the excuse to avoid inviting her across his threshold.
The tea was a marvel of confectionary nonsense. John assayed the ritual of pouring and serving: Hendricks posted himself against the wall of the house behind the faerie’s shoulder, and proceeded to mock John mercilessly for the whole thing using maybe two muscles in his face.
“So charming,” the Leanansidhe said, lifting a spun sugar snowflake to her lips, her eyes steady on his. John would have been more gratified if he hadn’t suspected she would have eaten him just as easily, and just as easily forgotten. She was beautiful. He supposed he could see what had drawn all those doomed artists and musicians and poets to her. She could make them burn as short and fierce as a Roman candle. It might be tempting, for those who cared about that sort of thing, instead of anything sensible.
Which raised some interesting questions about her connection with Dresden, didn’t it?
“I wish to extend my condolences to your queen on her loss,” John said. “Such a shame to lose her knight just as she gained him.”
A shadow passed faintly over the Leanansidhe’s genteel charm. “The queen is . . . upset,” she said. John wondered if Caligula’s advisors had delivered news of his moods in that same mild tone.
And the queen, not my queen. Interesting.
“I can only imagine,” he said blandly. “And you? Did you know Wizard Dres – excuse me. Did you know the Winter Knight well?”
“Intimately,” the Leanansidhe said. “And all his life.”
Oh really? “I wasn’t aware his ties with your court went back so far,” John said.
“Oh, farther,” she said. John offered her a plate of pastries, prodding her along with an inquiring noise. “His mother was a friend,” the fae said, “and very dear to me.” She sipped her tea, one pinky extended in absurd elegance. “She was a great planner, was Margaret Le Fae.”
“A trait she did not pass onto her son,” John said automatically.
The Leanansidhe didn’t smile. “A few hundred years to grow up in,” she said. “It would have come. In time.” The delivery was flat, her face serene. But a chill wind lifted the edge of their lace tablecloth and slipped icily under John’s jacket, even though they were sheltered here by the house and the trees.
“Ah,” John said carefully. “My apologies. I didn’t realize. My condolences on your loss, as well.”
“Aren’t you sweet,” she said remotely.
John suspected he was as interesting to her as a bag of rocks. As boring as any other mortal, aside from her chosen few. And with them she was . . . what? Mother-lover-predator-salvation-destruction. John had never read his classics; he had Hendricks and Gard for that. But he was getting the idea. She probably loved deeply, if not well, and few of its objects survived the experience.
How sad for her.
And useful for him. “Dresden was . . . difficult,” John said. He let his eyes fall to the table, toyed with his napkin ring and then spun his cup on its saucer. “I – he will be missed.”
“Difficult,” she repeated. “Yes. Stubborn. Foolish. Senselessly independent. Do you know he refused the honor of being one of my hounds?” Her frown was all wounded bafflement. “I would have taken excellent care of him.”
John had been nurturing some fellow feeling – finally, here was someone who understood -- but it quickly evaporated at that last. “How inconsiderate of him,” he said. Good God. John’s offers were even more generous and rational in comparison.
“Well, that was my godson,” said the Leanansidhe, and placidly sipped her tea.
“Your—“ John started, then shut his mouth. A faerie godmother? For God’s sake. Where did Dresden come up with this shit?
“Oh yes,” said the faerie. “You didn’t know? Well, I suppose only his closest intimates did.”
“I—“ John began, then shut himself down hard. He didn’t need to tell her all the intimate things he knew about Harry Dresden, to – for fuck’s sake – to defend his place in Dresden’s life to her. She was rattling him. No particular subtlety to it, as if he weren’t worth the trouble. But it was working anyway.
Sleep. He needed more sleep.
“I’m always interested to learn more about Wizard Dresden,” John said carefully. “He was a fascinating man.”
It was like being stared at by a glacier. “Less so, dead,” she murmured. “Mortals are. And much less useful.”
“Ah,” John said. “Which is what I wished to speak to your queen about.”
She sipped her tea again. “If you have information regarding his killer, my queen will be . . . suitably grateful.”
“I don’t.” Her eyes narrowed on him, as if sensing a lie. Which it wasn’t. He didn’t know anything, he just had . . . ideas.
“Then what exactly is your interest in my godson?” she asked. Then she paused, breaking out into a beaming, delighted smile. “Oh! Is this a question of testicles? Those are my favorite.”
John felt his face lock up, freezing into polite interest. His eyes flicked to Hendricks, still against the wall. Hendricks looked back, one eyebrow creeping up, and John could just hear him dryly saying, which are her favorite, testicles or questions?
He forced his shoulders to relax, breathed out, looked back at the Leanansidhe. “If your queen would be grateful for vengeance, I assume she would express appropriate gratitude for the return of her knight?”
The air went still; John had the odd sensation that it didn’t even want to move in and out of his lungs.
The fae had gone porcelain white, nearly translucent under her blazing hair. “He’s not dead?” Her voice was flat and affectless, her lips barely moving.
“He is incorporeal,” John said cautiously. “It remains unclear, but he’s able to communicate. And he thinks I can bring him back.”
The Leanansidhe breathed out. John couldn’t hear it, but he could see a puff of frost. There was a quiet crackling; he looked down to watch ice crawling from her fingertips down the handle of her spoon.
“Then, John Marcone,” using his name the way her kind always did, as if it were a loaded gun, “you have asked the wrong question. It’s not how grateful the queen will be if you bring Harry Dresden back. It’s how angry I will be if you do not.”
It was very well done menace; John had a professional’s interest, and her delivery was effective.
And she didn’t care about dead mortals. Uh-huh.
“Ah,” he said, and made himself wait a five count before he moistened his dry mouth with tea. “That does put a different slant on things, yes.”
She smiled. No teeth, just red lips and a look of sweet-voiced homicide about it. “Good boy,” she said. “Now, tell me everything.”
John did, with some reluctance. It didn’t take long. The faerie listened silently, not asking questions, steadily eating her way through a platter of watercress sandwiches. Her face changed while John laid out his sparse facts and sparser memories of contact with Dresden.
“Oh, child,” she said softly when he was done. She wasn’t talking to him.
John gave her a few beats, then gently cleared his throat. “The magical details remain unclear,” he said. “And are obviously beyond me, personally.”
She was smiling at him now, soft and a bit dreamy. It was the most alarming thing she’d done in the past twenty minutes. “But of course it will have to be you,” she said. “To work at all – how long has it been since anyone managed this spell, I wonder? Oh.” She clasped her hands like a child. “I was mistaken earlier. This is my favorite thing mortals do.”
Don’t ask, don’t ask, don’t encourage her. “What is?”
He needn’t have worried; she ignored him. “I can’t help you,” she said. “But if you need me, say my name three times. I will hear, and I will come.”
Was that supposed to be a safety net, or a threat? “I will remember,” John said. You did not say thank you to a faerie.
“And I you, for the tea.” She rose, and John hurried to follow. “And for the service you will be performing for me.”
I’m not doing it for you, he wanted to say. But it was a useless, peevish reflex. And in a way he was doing it for her now, with that threat hanging over his head.
Dresden had known this would happen, that’s why he’d been laughing. Damn him to hell.
Hmm. Well, given the circumstances, perhaps not.
“It was a pleasure,” John said, bowing over her extended hand. “May I walk you out?”
“Oh, no need,” she said casually, stepping down the veranda. “Good day, Baron Marcone.” And she walked through an invisible door into another world.
John hoped in a burst of frustration that the nevernever hit her soundly on the ass on her way out.
“Well,” John said with a sigh. “That settles that question. Please locate Thomas Raith for me.”
He turned around in time to catch Hendricks’s eye roll. John frowned at him, nonplussed. “You don’t approve?” he said. “Because from what I understand, she is perfectly capable of making life extremely difficult for us if we don’t do what she wants.”
Hendricks looked pained. “I know.”
John felt his mouth drawing down into an irritable scowl. It was always like this, when it was about Dresden. John would be going about his business, and a Dresden-shaped curve ball would come rocketing through and he’d have to drop everything and deal with it. And Hendricks would be right there the whole time, as reliable as sunrise and taxes and Catholic fucking guilt -- as reliable as always. But John got a sense of static from him every time, something a little extra in his watching, judging eye.
“All right,” John said. “If there’s a problem, let’s have it. Her threat is a potent one, but I’m listening.”
“Her threat,” Hendricks said, “is a really good excuse to do something you were going to do anyway.” He smiled. “And there’s no problem. Carry on.”
“I—“ John began, stung.
There was a quiet rattle-rattle, then a clatter and a thump.
They spun together – Hendricks was better dressed for emergencies, and he had his gun out first. “Back!” he barked at John, his eyes quartering the yard. John had already taken two long steps under full cover of the veranda roof. There were no good sniper vantages with a line on the back of the house, he knew that for a fact, but still.
Nothing moved. John retraced Hendricks’s inspection just to be sure, but there was no hail of bullets, no assault team, no lone assassin, not even a squirrel.
“Boss,” Hendricks said. John followed the tilt of his chin back to the tea table.
“. . . Ah,” he said, and stepped lightly over, passing behind Hendricks instead of across his firing line.
A silver bowl had tipped over, the sugar spilling messily across the dark blue tablecloth. “Stand down,” John said, bending closer. “It’s Dresden. The writing was hard to make out – sugar was not a reliable medium. John squinted, leaning in and tilting his head away so his breath wouldn’t erode the letters even more.
“What’s it say?” Hendricks asked, still giving his paranoia a good airing as he walked the perimeter of the veranda.
“It says ‘Rock’em Sock’em,’” John said, and sighed. “I need another nap.”
Raith was easy to find and, more to the point, easy to reach. John was relieved; he’d been nursing unpleasant images of having to extract the vampire from the bosom of his family. But that was unnecessary, as it turned out.
John left Gard with her bullets and spent the evening at his latest construction site, keeping his hand on the reins. Half his job these days was simply being visible – rumor, imagination, and his well-made organizational machine did the rest of the heavy lifting. In this case, visible did not involve any easy sightlines from windows.
The team he had on Raith reported in after nine: the vampire had been at the marina all afternoon, they knew in retrospect, and was now making his erratic way from bar to nightclub in Lakeview. John worked late, waiting for Raith to settle in one spot long enough to make the drive worthwhile.
And so it was he spent ten uncomfortable minutes in the back seat of a suburban, parked in the darkest corner of an ill-lit motel lot, waiting for Raith to finish with his . . . business. John occupied himself with email, pecking laboriously away at his phone’s touchscreen keyboard and thinking, again, of Dresden and Raith. If it had been a sexual relationship, Dresden had shown none of the expected ill-effects from such prolonged exposure. But maybe a wizard had stronger defenses, so that was not definitive evidence of anything.
It gnawed at him. How else could you explain two men sharing what was, by the blueprints, a tiny apartment? And sex explained most of the inexplicable things people did. John was no stranger to gonad logic – it was the only kind he’d ever indulged until his mid-twenties. And even growing up as hard and fast as he had didn’t make it stop. It just meant the crude, howling animal was one more leash to hold.
So sex could explain it, yes. But . . .
But sex couldn’t explain everything.
Raith emerged eventually, coming down the outside steps from the second floor.
“Heads up,” John said unnecessarily to Hendricks, who was already cuddling his rifle. They got out of the car, going in opposite directions.
“Mr. Raith,” John said, angling to intercept him in the middle of the parking lot. “A minute of your time, if you please.”
Raith whirled on his heel. The nearest light was thirty feet away, but it didn’t matter. Because Raith was glowing, beautifully and horribly. It was kind of useful, actually, to be able to see his face by its own internal luminescence.
She must have been very tasty, whoever she was. John sometimes forgot how much he hated vampires until there was one in front of him. And this one in particular . . .
“Are you serious?” Raith said. His face twisted up, ugly. He tossed his head, raising his voice as if speaking to the night. “You recruited John Marcone this time? Really, guys?’
“Beg pardon?” John said.
Raith dropped his chin, staring down his nose at John with unconscious elegance. “What, you aren’t my next intervention?” he asked. “They’re scraping the bottom of the barrel if they’ve gotten to you.”
Ah. Dresden’s friends must be trying to yank Raith out of this self-indulgent spiral of sex and dissipation. In Dresden’s name or some other such nonsense, no doubt. John felt his lip curl.
“I am not your intervention,” he said, and felt it unnecessary to explain how little he gave a damn what Raith did to himself.
“Huh,” Raith said, visibly put out. He was furious at the thought someone had come to tell him what an idiot he was, and then furious to find out they hadn’t. Why did Dresden put up with this shit? “It was a good bet though,” Raith said. “You want to drag someone out of the gutter, might as well send another rat.”
“I’m nothing like you,” John said, allowing himself to be provoked for the second time today. What was wrong with him?
“Nah, I’ll give you that one,” Raith said. “At least I’ve dispensed with all the bullshit. I mean, look at you.” He was suddenly six feet closer. In the same moment a tiny red dot appeared, Hendricks’s scope reaching out from the darkness and resting between Raith’s pretty eyes. “Gentleman Johnny,” Raith sneered, “who doesn’t sell drugs to kids. Just their parents. How do you not choke on all that bullshit you feed yourself?”
“Ah,” John said dryly. Someone threw that at him every few months or so, then couldn’t believe it when John wasn’t overcome with shock to discover his personal code couldn’t withstand close scrutiny. Whose could? He got things done, that was all that ultimately mattered. “People make choices,” he said. “I merely supply what they’d get somewhere else, likely at a higher price.”
“Well, that last part is true, anyway,” Raith said. “The rest of it is bullshit, though.” He smiled dazzlingly. John found him as attractive as the larval stage of something, but his pulse still picked up, his blood pumping faster. “You think you’re so rational,” Raith said. “People don’t buy what you’re selling of their own free will. Oh, but you never put a gun to their heads, right? Well, I’ll let you in on a little secret.” He leaned in. “The whole world is a gun at your head. And mine. And his.” He jabbed a finger in the direction of Hendricks, not even looking. “There’s no such thing as free choices. There are just things we do, and most of the time we never even know why. At least I’m honest enough to admit it.”
He looked like a homeless man ranting on a street corner. Sounded like one, too. “And honesty is working out well for you, I see,” John said, surveying Raith’s rumpled clothes. Was that the same sweatshirt he’d been wearing two days ago?
Though it did make a kind of sense, in a sad way. Of course it would be important to Raith to think that. A man who had failed so completely at controlling himself would want to think it could never have been done.
“Yeah, speaking of liars,” Raith said aggressively. “You want to tell me again you had nothing to do with my – with Harry Dresden’s death?”
“If you like,” John said equably.
Raith moved in again; Hendricks was barely a beat behind with the rifle scope. “Did you think I wouldn’t know, you sick fuck?” Raith said softly. “The cops released my boat today. Still covered in his blood. And in you.” He inhaled like he was sniffing, though John knew he must be referring to some more ephemeral psychic sense. “Like jizz on a napkin,” Raith said, mouth twisting.
And that was enough of that. “Rock’em Sock’em,” John said.
Raith blinked, derailed. “. . . What?”
“Rock’em Sock’em.” John leaned forward on his toes, just to show he didn’t mind being in close quarters, either. “It doesn’t mean anything to me, but I’m assuming it does to you.” He paused; Raith’s expression of arrested confusion clearly said that it did. “It’s what Dresden told me to say to you.”
John had the strange urge to look away from what was happening on Raith’s face then. He didn’t indulge it. Raith swayed forward; the light under his skin, the stolen vitality of someone else seemed to flicker erratically. “I—“ Raith said. “Where is he?”
“Right now? I don’t know,” John said, suddenly done with this. “He is currently a ghost. And he told me he’ll need you to help remedy the situation.”
Raith clutched convulsively at his throat. John thought for a bemused moment that he was actually about to faint. But no, Raith was fingering a necklace, some sort of charm on a chain. A cross, perhaps.
“How?” Raith seemed reduced to jerky monosyllables. John might have felt bad for him if – well, if he wasn’t Raith.
“Unclear as of yet,” John said. “There will be some sort of ritual.”
Raith breathed in. “If you’re fucking with me,” he said. “If you’re – I’ll—“
“Yes, yes,” John said. “Get in line.” He surveyed the vampire up-and-down. “And get yourself together, while you’re at it. I’ll call you tomorrow.”
He left Raith standing there in the parking lot, visibly gutted by hope.
It occurred to John ten minutes later that he might have been the intervention after all. How irritating.
They drove back in silence. Hendricks kept his eyes on the road; John took over the rifle and watched for tails.
Nothing untoward happened until they were safely behind the gates of the estate and Hendricks had already put the car in park.
“Gard’s coming,” he reported, checking his phone. “She says she has—“
The rearview mirror broke with a crump, caving inward like it had been punched. They both ducked, but there was no sound of a shot.
The window closest to John was next; it broke outward away from him in an explosion of pulverized safety glass.
“Shit,” Hendricks said succinctly, lunging out of the car.
John didn’t follow. He was stuck in his seat, pinned by an overwhelming sense of presence, a looming something that crackled over his skin. It was huge and vital and here and furious.
The door next to him jerked open and Gard was there, Hendricks standing over her with his gun drawn.
Gard’s heels crunched on the broken glass. “Really?” she said, making it clear that she was speaking to the empty air. “You think throwing a tantrum will make it better?”
And John heard the answer in the same moment he realized – of course – it was Dresden.
It’ll make me feel better, Dresden said. The words seemed to just appear in John’s awareness without recourse to his ears. He wasn’t sure if Dresden actually said them or if John’s brain had simply supplied them as the most bog-standard sulky wizard response. Gard didn’t look like she’d heard a thing.
“Excuse me,” John said.
Gard’s attention returned to him. She hissed out a breath between her teeth. “I had a breakthrough on the bullets,” she said. “Intent leaves a stamp as unique as rifling on a gun barrel, so I cast a spell that would—“ she correctly interpreted the look on John’s face and skipped smoothly on past the hocus-pocus. “Morelli,” she said crisply. “Both shots were on his orders. And he’s acquired himself a magic user.”
“I see,” John said. He unbuckled his seatbelt with steady hands. Gard moved back to let him out, but John paused a moment, looking around the vandalized car. “She’s right,” he said remotely. “Throwing a tantrum won’t help anything.”
He got out of the car, stepping fastidiously over the glass. “Anything else to report?” he asked. “A location on the shooter?”
“Not yet.” She was watching him with sudden wariness. “I can keep at it.”
“No need,” John said, and smiled. “Go get some sleep. That’s what I’m doing.”
He saw Hendricks wince out of the corner of his eye. John didn’t really need to look at him, he definitely didn’t need to ask to know what Hendricks was thinking.
They’d talked about it once, way back when. Eleven thirty on a Monday night, standing around a trash can and waiting for their blood-soaked clothes to finish burning. John had yawned and stretched, cracking his back, and made some comment about how good it was going to be to get to bed.
Hendricks had sighed. He was easy to irritate back then. Way more incomprehensible lectures and way fewer long stares. “You know, you don’t have to do that,” he’d said. “Tell everyone about what a good night’s sleep you get just to show you don’t give a damn.”
John had frowned at him. They knew each other well then, of course, but not like now, with all their conversational patterns carved in deep ruts. So John recognized what Hendricks was saying as the same thing he’d been saying for months, but he didn’t have his responses all worked out yet.
“But I don’t give a damn,” he’d said.
Hendricks had rolled his eyes. “Yeah, sure.” He’d said. “You just keep telling yourself that.” His mouth twisted. “If it helps you sleep at night.”
“Ms. Gard,” John said, fixing his cuffs. “Mr. Hendricks.” He glanced casually around. “Mr. Dresden. Good night.”
The dream was different this time. And maybe it wasn’t a dream, because John was fully aware. He was asleep, and he knew it, but he felt perfectly conscious and in control when he found himself standing in a dim, firelit room.
It was small, a little chilly, but very busy and lived-in with rugs and cushions and books everywhere. And Harry Dresden coming at him, incandescently angry.
“Marcone,” Dresden said. He pulled up short with maybe six inches between them, using all his ridiculous height better than John had ever seen before. “You got me shot. You got me dead.”
“Well, that’s one interpretation,” John said. He refused to give himself a crick, so he was mostly staring at Dresden’s chin. It looked pissed off.
“Oh yeah? What other way is there to interpret it? Some asshole wants to take you down, and he got me out of the way first.”
“True,” John said. Morelli had been inching his way up to a full takeover bid for years. John had repelled all boarders – the influx of street muscle, the incursion of low-level spies into his organization, the sudden appearance of local competitors. Simple assassination was the logical next step for Morelli. Hell, it’s what John would have started with, if their positions had been reversed. He knew how to run a takeover operation, thank you.
Then again, the logical next step for Morelli should have been to take the hint and back the fuck off. But there would be time to make that clear.
“Is this your apartment?” he asked with sudden interest, looking around. Fireplace, well-loved furniture – could he make out any book titles in this light?
“What?” Dresden glanced over his shoulder, distracted. “Yeah. I mean, it was.” His attention returned to John. “Can we focus? You got me shot.”
“No, Mr. Dresden,” John said patiently. “I did not. Your reputation got you shot. If someone wants a piece of this city, getting rid of you is a sensible precaution.”
“Yeah,” Dresden said, dogged and savage. “But it was because of you. This asshole doesn’t want a piece of the city, he wants a piece of you. Your—“ he sneered “—your empire.”
“My goodness,” John said lightly. “After all that effort you’ve put in to establishing your independence from me.”
“Fuck you,” Dresden snarled. There was a strain in his voice, a crack of overstretched desperation. John wondered suddenly if ghosts could sleep. Had Dresden been running hard and invisible and unheard since he bled out in the lake? “I don’t owe you anything for this,” Dresden said. “Exactly the opposite. When I’m back? Then we’re even.”
John did look up then, glaring right into Dresden’s eyes. “No,” he said. “You will pay. You will pay because you are desperate, Mr. Dresden, and because you told me yourself I’m your only option.” Dresden reared up, outraged, and John rocked forward on his toes. “However, I will swear to you by whatever you like. I promise you. Morelli will be paying a lot more.”
Dresden blinked, shuttering his eyes away for a long ten count. When he opened them again, he seemed calmer. John didn’t know if it was the threat or the promise that had ultimately soothed him.
“I get to choose,” Dresden said roughly.
“I beg your pardon?”
“The favor,” Dresden said. “I get to pick it, not you. You can ask for – for whatever, but I get to pick which one.”
“Done,” John said. Dresden was difficult enough on his best days that it would have probably worked out like that anyway. And letting a person think they’d won something was a profitable maneuver.
“Fine,” Dresden said. He only sounded tired now. He turned his back, walking across his living room that didn’t exist anymore. “Just – just go away, Marcone.”
And John splashed into sudden consciousness like he’d been shoved there.
He sat up, scrubbing at his face. It was just after midnight. He’d gotten forty-five minutes of sleep, if that was even sleep.
Whatever it had been, he wasn’t going to get anymore.
He should go take a crack at some lingering administrative tasks. Or work out until he was tired. Or surely there was a movie somewhere in this house he could manage to care about.
He wasn’t going to do any of those things.
John got up and dressed rapidly – jeans, sweater, jacket, two guns, two knives.
He went downstairs to his study and unlocked the safe. The little one under the shortest bookshelf, not the big obvious one behind the painting. There wasn’t room for much, just a wallet on top of a manila envelope.
John flipped through the wallet reflexively, making sure. He had a couple hundred in cash, and a never-used credit card and a driver’s license, both under the name Daniel Todd Black. Including a middle name added a certain extra believability, he’d found. And this name needed to be impeccable.
He took a burner phone out of the stack in the bottom drawer of his desk, turned it on and made sure it worked, then turned it off again.
The dog was in the doorway when he turned to go, and it didn’t move as John approached.
“Excuse me,” John said, offering up a conciliatory scritch. The dog looked unimpressed, and trailed him through the house to the garage. It made as if to follow him out to the car, but that wasn’t happening.
“No,” John said. Then with more force, “I said no.” Standoff. John had been under the impression that dogs were supposed to be obedient. Then again, this was dresden’s dog, who was not only extraordinary but, well, Dresden’s.
“Look, you can’t come,” John said, feeling stupid like he always did when he talked to the dog. “You just can’t.”
Nothing. But what was he expecting, really?
John left him there at the door to the garage, unhappy and reproachful. This was why he didn’t have pets; animals couldn’t be reasoned with, and even if they could, they’d never admit it.
Daniel Todd Black drove an old, well-maintained Mercedes, and had for several years. He was wealthy but frugal, and not particularly flashy. He kept his car in a garage north of town.
John went through the usual song-and-dance to get there. He took one of his more discrete cars and drove several miles east, then left it in a waiting spot in the underground lot of a Bank of America. The bus line he needed was twenty-four hour. That got him to the El, and then to another bus, and finally to the Mercedes.
John began his drive north just after one. The second thoughts only had a chance to catch up then. He’d been thinking he could get up and back by the morning, maybe seven or eight. And he might manage that, but he probably should have left a note, or at least sent Hendricks an email.
This was not actually a good idea.
Then again, this was never a good idea, and in the grand scheme of things, tonight was no more egregious a risk than usual.
He drove evasively, zigging up through the suburbs and doubling back multiple times once he hit the highway. Driving evasively to the same place over and over again was difficult. John got off Route 90 early this time, circling northward on secondary roads.
Chicago fell away, until even the lights faded from the horizon. And then it was just him and the car and the nighttime road, mostly empty except for him.
He pulled off the road just over the Wisconsin border. There was nothing but a rest stop – a gas station, a KFC, a McDonalds, all deserted – and a massed army of sleeping cows.
John pulled into the pump farthest from the convenience store by habit. The night was quiet when he got out. No music, no cars, no people. Just cows and the thump of the nozzle going in as he started the pump.
John leaned against the car, hands in his pockets, his head tipped back. The stars were dazzling out here, but they were hard to see with the waxing November moon. There was frost in the air.
Peaceful. Or something. John always felt a little uncomfortable out of the city.
“Down!” Harry Dresden said.
John dropped, and the car window he’d been leaning against exploded. John rolled away, one arm shielding his face from the glass, pulling his gun with the other.
A bullet cracked off the pavement to his left. John went the other way. The pumps were terrible cover, all he really had was the car –
Which the shooter also knew. There was a steady tat-tat-tat of automatic fire, and the bullets went ping-ping-crunch in the body of the car. John went for the gas pump after all, and took two precious seconds of stillness to switch gun hands and pull his Ka-bar. This was a mess, he was all but completely exposed out here on the blacktop. The only chance he had was to get out of here, or to take the fight back to them.
There was a tearing noise, then a liquid sound and a rising cloud of gasoline smell. A shot had knocked out the hose, and gas was spraying everywhere.
. . . Ah. Well then.
John ran like hell, bent double. He made it from the first pump to the second, to the third, to the tree and garbage can twenty feet from the convenience store.
The store, which was where the automatic fire was coming from, he belatedly realized.
But it wasn’t tracking him, at least not for the moment. The shooter was concentrating back at the car, pouring his fire into it. John crouched down in the meager shelter, wondering grimly if he was far enough away.
There was a certain sound a car made as it blew. It was the whump before the boom that was so distinctive, like a massive breath drawn in.
A wave of force and heat slammed into John’s back. He flattened to the pavement, pressing a hand over his mouth and nose.
So. They’d made sure getting out of here wasn’t an option. Which left only one. And it wasn’t a good one.
No thinking, just move.
He ran the thirty feet to the dumpsters full out. He didn’t bother to crouch, it wasn’t worth the sacrifice of speed. His feet slammed off the pavement, his body straining forward.
And that time the gun was tracking him. He barely made it.
He slid past the plastic recycling bins, not slowing, and thudded full-tilt into the biggest metal dumpster. He was bleeding from the calf where a close shot had kicked a chunk of pavement right through his jeans. But he couldn’t feel it yet, aside from the warm trickle into his sock.
Silence. John put his back to the dumpster and stared out over the empty blacktop. Nothing but flat as far as the eye could see. Useless, even in the dark. The store was off to his left and to the rear; he wouldn’t see them coming.
Then again, if they were smart, they would have brought grenades. And whether he saw that coming or not probably wouldn’t matter.
John regulated his breathing, keeping his weight ready on his good leg. A grenade was possible, but he didn’t think so. These guys probably had orders to make absolutely sure, and shooting someone between the eyes was a much better way to do that than picking through several tons of garbage trying to make sure there were enough fleshy bits accounted for.
No, they’d come out to him.
It took them eleven minutes, by John’s watch. Long enough to psych him out, if he’d been a few decades younger and minus several years of experiences in parts of South America that weren’t stamped on any of his passports.
It was nice of them to give him the breather, actually. It let him ascertain that his leg was increasingly painful but still reliable.
Three of them came at once. John had maybe four seconds warning – an eternity, really – off the sound of their running footsteps. Two left, one right.
He broke left, exactly like they weren’t expecting him to. Down, shooting up at an angle, and he got the point man right in the mouth. The second was momentarily distracted by the spray of blood and bone and brain from the back of the skull a foot from his face, and John closed in.
They jockeyed fast, the corpse slowly folding down to the pavement between them. John kept his back to the dumpster as much as he could, peripherally aware that the third man must be closing. Where was he, John couldn’t see him—
Immediate problems first. The guy closed in. The whites of his eyes were showing even in the dark – John suspected he didn’t remember he was holding a gun. It took some people that way.
The guy was pretty good. John was better. He crushed the windpipe fast and left him. Messy not to make sure of the kill, but it could wait ten seconds. The last guy was—
The last guy was a wizard.
John finally got eyes on him, still at the far end of the row of dumpsters. He was gesturing fast, muttering to himself in that way that meant either florid delusions or spellcasting.
John ran for him. The wizard looked up, gabbled rapidly, and pitched a hissing, black something at him. John lunged left – it followed him – he twisted away, it was still coming – it was going to --
A glowing blue shell sparked into life, curving protective wings around John’s face and over his shoulders. The spell hit it with a sound like bacon in a frying pan, times a thousand.
John blinked away dazzling blue and black afterimages. His head was ringing, and that whole side of his body felt mildly singed.
He lurched up and ran at the wizard. It was over in less than three seconds. Magic users. John was convinced that most wizard fatalities would be preventable if the stupid bastards just remembered to plan for a good old-fashioned physical assault.
John drove his knife blade up from the base of the skull, deep into the brainstem. He wiggled it around to be sure, then pulled out and let the body drop. No death curse, no fuss. This was why he’d never been all that concerned with the idea of wizards running amok and trying to take over the world. Powerful? Yes. Invincible? Decidedly not.
He made sure of all three kills – the crushed windpipe had proven fatal surprisingly fast. John started to search them, hands moving automatically, then his brain caught up.
A team of three? Really? The magic user to track him and two for muscle, sure, but that wasn’t an assault force. And if it was, he was insulted.
Maybe they hadn’t been planning on this. Maybe they’d just gone for broke when he’d stopped.
But no matter what, they would have called for backup.
John gave himself a five count there behind the dumpsters. He took the weight off his leg, scrubbed his knife clean on his jeans, and thought fast.
“Dresden?” he said into the quiet dark. “Was that all of them?”
The answer was a shove between the shoulder blades. None too gentle, and very clear: move. It was the most disturbing thing to happen all night, being touched by a hand that wasn’t there.
John jogged out from behind the dumpsters. He took twenty seconds to check out the convenience store. He didn’t want to go in and risk getting caught on any cameras that might have survived the wizard. Wizards. The clerk was dead, messily and unmistakably.
He doubled back to the dumpsters. The first man he’d shot had keys in his jacket pocket, along with a phone. John shattered the phone out of a faint hope that it might slow down a GPS trace, if that would help at all.
Then he started working his way outward in ever widening circles at a limping jog. He found their car three hundred yards down the road. The clerk’s car would have been safer on the GPS front, but there was no way to get the keys.
John adjusted the mirrors, moved the seat back, and drove off at the speed limit.
He put five miles of road behind him before he felt safe enough sparing the attention to try his phone. It turned on in his hand, then flashed blue, then white, then black. Permanently.
John sighed explosively, tossing it into the passenger’s seat. The silence in the car took on a decidedly apologetic quality. Or maybe that was just wishful thinking.
All right, think. He needed to swap cars, first and foremost. Twice, ideally. He needed to stop long enough to make sure his leg would hold up. He needed to reestablish communications.
What do you have? What do you need? His first Sergeant had yelled that a lot, usually when one of them was neck-deep in mud and stuck in a thigh chokehold.
It was how he and Hendricks had met, sitting up all night and making fun of the old bastard. “What do you have, soldier!” “A macaroni and cheese MRE, sir! And fleas, sir!” “What do you need, soldier?” “A medium rare tenderloin, sir! And a Turkish bathhouse, sir!”
The sleep deprivation wasn’t quite a problem yet, but the prospect was looming. And John didn’t like the idea of driving all the way back to Chicago tonight, even in a different car. He was hurting and tired, and an unknown car with no armoring or modifications was just asking for problems.
And he wanted a solid wall to put his back against.
All right. Keep moving.
He crossed the border again, and headed west. He switched cars twice in Galena. He left the sedan behind a shopping mall and hotwired a Toyota two blocks over, then swapped it out for a suburban. That was better. Then he picked a number at random – seven – and pulled in at the seventh likely motel he saw. Daniel Todd Black’s cash got him a room without the need for identification; an extra forty ensured it was the one at the end.
John only turned the lights on to verify that no one was waiting for him.
The phone purred a reassuring dial tone in his ear, and he punched in Hendricks’s emergency line. It rang twice.
“Problem?” Hendricks asked. Only long acquaintance let John know he’d just woken.
“Not at the moment, no,” John said. “But I could use a pickup.”
Hendricks’s tone went decidedly pained. “Where are you?”
Martyred, now. “Ah, Johnny—“
“A pickup,” John repeated, then rattled off his location in one of the oldest codes they’d ever devised together, just in case.
Hendricks grunted. “It’ll be a while.”
“I know.” Three hours, minimum. “I can wait.”
“Make sure that you do,” Hendricks said, making it clear that if there were any more unauthorized jaunts tonight, there would be proportionate consequences.
“I’ll do my best,” John said, and hung up.
He took five minutes in the bathroom to deal with his leg. It was ugly – he could see all the way down to muscle tissue, and the wound was visibly filthy – but it wasn’t bad. He scrubbed it out as best he could, then hacked off the leg of his jeans below the knee and fashioned a bandage from his undershirt. Good enough.
He padded back out into the room, startling a cockroach, and shut off the lights again. He’d already closed the curtains, leaving only a little edge tucked back in the corner. John lowered himself at the head of the bed, his back against the wall. He rested his semi-automatic in his lap, and slid down far enough so he could see out into the parking lot without moving.
The adrenaline come-down was brutal. John rode it out, eyes on the parking lot, keeping his hands steady only by forcing all the tension out of them. He occupied himself for a while trying to recall all the times he’d been alone in a close-quarters fight like that over the past decade. Not that many, all things considered.
A wave of sleepiness swamped him. John beat it back. It was unlikely he could be found here, but they’d done it once. Perhaps there was another wizard, or perhaps they would just get lucky. He needed to stay awake.
Nothing moved in the room but the air in John’s lungs. But over a long stretch of seconds he became aware, in gentle increments, that he was not alone. There was a presence beside him on the bed. No weight on the mattress, no breathing, just a thereness.
John controlled the overpowering impulse to look. Goosebumps prickled up his arms, but he kept his eyes on the parking lot.
“You’re welcome,” Dresden said. Clear and close, unmistakably strong and there.
“Now now,” John said, not moving. “Let’s not pretend it isn’t entirely self-serving of you to keep me alive.”
“True,” Dresden said, without real rancor. “Still, it was awfully nice of me.”
“Mmm,” John said noncommittally. But, well. “Thank you. Knight Dresden.”
He’d tossed that out as a test shot; the quelled silence was not the response he’d expected. John let it lie between them, oddly unwilling to press at that point. It was sore on Dresden’s part, probably. John would classify his own feelings on the subject as . . . irritated. Peeved, perhaps. Not something he could indulge at the moment.
Dresden broke the silence. “You were going to see her?” he asked. “Amanda?”
John couldn’t remember the last time he’d heard another human being say her name. To the hospital staff she was Amy Black; to the rest of the world, she was dead.
“That was really dumb,” Dresden said.
John twitched. He’d been anticipating this lecture, of course, but not from Harry Dresden, thank you very much.
“Seriously,” Dresden said. He apparently didn’t need any help to carry on this conversation. “Someone’s gunning for you, and you pick now to go wandering off on your own? What’s wrong with you?”
John clamped his lips together. It was none of Dresden’s business what had driven him out here tonight. Hell, the whole thing was a mess: seven millimeter bullets, Dresden raging at him, feeling a kick somewhere in an old bruised place that had never healed, should never heal. People died around him and because of him and for him with clockwork regularity, but—
But this was a mass of psychological wetwork John had no desire to pick apart. Let it fester with everything else down there.
The silence stretched again. When Dresden finally broke it, his voice was soft, just a murmur in the dark.
“You shouldn’t ever see her,” he said. “You have to know that.”
“I do,” John said. He looked down at the gun, back at the parking lot. Exhaustion blunted the edge of his anger.
“Then why?” Dresden sounded lost. “Stars, John, if those guys hadn’t gone for you when they did – if they’d followed you all the way to her—“
“I am aware of what could have happened, yes,” John clipped out. He exhaled hard through his nose. “She doesn’t have anyone else. And I’m responsible.”
“Oh, please.” Dresden sounded angry. Why did he care, all of a sudden? “She’s just a prop. It took me forever to figure out – it’s like if you get your guilt spooge all over her, you don’t have to worry about it for any of the actual unforgivably horrible shit that you do.”
John went cold from the guts out. “Harry Dresden,” he said softly. “Shot and bled out and dead, and still. No sense of self-preservation at all.” He kept his hands loose and relaxed on the gun. “And if that wasn’t clear enough, I advise you to shut your mouth.”
Dresden did for an entire thirty seconds. “Look,” he said, and it was so painfully predictable that John’s anger fizzled into tired amusement. “Look, I just meant – I know you –“ It finally penetrated that there was something off here, something wrong in the stress on Dresden’s voice. His ghost voice that wasn’t even really here, that had no throat to rasp with tiredness. “Sometimes, the responsible thing is to walk away. Even though it sucks.”
If Dresden had been alive, John could have read a clue off his face. As it was, he had only his gut.
“I don’t accept that,” he said to the window and the dark.
The air shivered faintly with Dresden’s cracked laugh. “Yeah, I figured,” he said. “And you know the weird thing is, I almost like that about you.”
John let that lie there for a few minutes. He felt himself opening up, attuning to Dresden’s presence, feeling him in the air.
“Harry,” he murmured when the moment felt right. “What is it?”
Dresden stirred, John could feel it in the prickling of the fine hairs on his forearms. “Why do you care?”
John smiled to himself. “I don’t,” he said mildly. You never even had to lie to Dresden. You just had to say what you meant and watch him run the wrong way with it. He would hear, I don’t give a damn, when John had really said, caring is completely inaccurate a word. He had no word that was accurate for it. Fascination came closest. Obsession, maybe, on his worst days. But John had a superstitious certainty that he shouldn’t try to pin it down any more than that.
“It . . . doesn’t matter,” Dresden said. The alarming wobble in his voice steadied. “. . . And don’t call me Harry.”
John’s shoulders eased. “Of course,” he murmured. “How rude of me.”
“Nah,” Dresden said. “That was irritating. I’ll let you know when you get to rude.”
“Please do,” John said. “I await the judgment of an expert.”
“Exactly,” Dresden said in tones of satisfaction. Then, “. . . Hey.”
John didn’t bother answering. It would have just spiraled into further juvenilia. Though for once, he couldn’t swear it wouldn’t all be coming from Dresden’s end.
Christ. He used to stay up for seventy two hours straight and suffer nothing worse than a faint touch of mania towards the end.
John didn’t worry about his own death much. He was resigned to its consequences – the likely upheaval in Chicago, and of course some much more . . . metaphysical difficulties for himself. He would die, and those things would follow. And also when you dropped a plate in the kitchen, it broke.
Aging though . . . the thought of it was plaguing him more and more. To get weaker, slowly, to get tired. To get smarter, if he was lucky, but less capable of enforcing his will. “You don’t want to go gently, no kidding,” Hendricks had said the one time John had raised the subject.
But it wasn’t just that. John had lived for decades always looking forward to the next step, victory, regrouping. And now there was more behind him than in front, and it made him think. Lingered around the edges of every day. Let useless existential concerns slip into the cracks.
“Um, so,” Dresden said eventually. “About this ritual . . .”
“Mmm?” John said, pulling himself back to the moment. “Ah. Is this the part where you tell me about the catch?”
“Sort of.” Dresden sounded genuinely sheepish. Which was funny, considering most of the time he never realized he was the catch.
“Spit it out,” John said tiredly. “This is magic we’re talking about, so I assume it’s something absurdly poetic and metaphorical.”
“That depends on how you look at it, I guess,” Dresden said. “See, I’m pretty sure we’re going to have to do it on Demonreach.”
John was silent.
“You know . . . the island?” Dresden said.
“Yes,” John said, desert dry. “The island. I know.”
“Er.” John had the sudden conviction that if Dresden were alive, there might actually be an incredibly awkward manly shoulder pat in the offing. Good God.
“Why?” he asked.
“Uh—“ This clearly had not been the anticipated response. “It’s kind of complicated, but I think it’ll help. The island is – um. Well, it remembers me.” The air moved uneasily. “Maybe better than I remember me.”
“I . . . see,” John said, which was not entirely true. “Well, that will require a boat, but I happen to have several of those.”
“So . . . it won’t be a problem?”
“No,” John said evenly. “I’ll just need an hour or two notice, that’s all.”
“No, I meant,” Dresden said laboriously, “it’s not going to be a problem for you?” He paused for a beat, then plunged on. “’Cause the last thing I need is for you to freak out or something over going back to the place where, y’know.”
“I won’t,” John said calmly.
“Okay, good,” Dresden said. Then, sounding for all the world like he didn’t know why he was still talking, “Are you sure? I mean, we could try it somewhere else.”
“I’ve been back before,” John said.
There was a nonplused beat of silence. “Really?”
“Of course,” John said. “I spent the night out there over a year ago.”
Because torture did things to you. And its aftermath required checking off a series of steps, never in the same order, sometimes more than once. Hit that punching bag for an hour every day for a month, go to church more regularly, spend nights incognito working security at one of the rowdier underground boxing clubs. It all worked, eventually. And spend the night alone on the island where you had screamed and begged and crawled, where you had leveraged every humiliation, milked every bodily degradation for their amusement, for just a little more time. That worked, too.
“What,” John said lightly, “you can’t guess?”
“. . . Oh,” Dresden said. “That does make sense, kinda.” He paused. “You’re still a crazy motherfucker, though.”
Quiet again. Sitting a night’s watch with someone was like that, you would talk and sit, talk and sit to some shared rhythm there in the dark.
It was after five. This far into the winter the sky wasn’t even a little bit gray yet. Only one man had walked across the parking lot in the last forty-five minutes, and he’d been going to smoke a cigarette out on the strip of dead grass by the road.
“You can sleep if you want,” Dresden said. “I can wake you if anything happens. I think I’ve proven I’m invested in keeping you in one piece.”
“You would wake me up anyway,” John said, amused.
“Not necessarily.” Dresden sounded offended at this favorable opinion of his care for his fellow man. “You think I’m so predictable, don’t you?”
“Yes,” John said honestly. “Exactly up to the point where you’re not, but that takes some getting to.” Exactly to the point where he became the Winter Knight, just for an example. And how much getting to did you need for that? John wasn’t going to get an answer – he didn’t have to ask to know.
He was tired. And Dresden would wake him, John didn’t doubt that. But what would he dream? And would Dresden know? How much had he learned already, riding invisibly along in John’s life?
John slid down another half inch, easing the strain on his spine. “Why me?’
“Well, I don’t know what we’re talking about, but it’s safe to say you asked for it,” Dresden said.
John rolled his eyes. “For the spell. You came to me. You said you had to. Why?” Why could he hear Dresden when Gard and Hendricks couldn’t?
“Oh,” Dresden said. “Well that’s actually really interesting! I had no idea there were so many energy currents at play until now. It’s amazing, it really is. And you just fit the bill. Energetically, I mean.”
John could recognize magician’s patter when he heard it. The sort of thing you rattled off when you didn’t want anyone noticing what your hands were doing.
“How so?” John asked. “Precisely?”
“Well . . .” Dresden hesitated. “We soulgazed. That’s part of it, I think. It leaves a mark. A permanent memory, at the very least, and that’s not nothing. And what Gard said about violent intent – that works in a lot of different ways. We’re targeted by the same guy. That matters, it turns out. There’s your stupid poetry, I guess.”
“So in other words, you don’t actually know.”
“Well . . . no,” Dresden sighed. “Then again, I’m only about sixty percent sure this whole thing is going to work, so what do you want from me?”
“What will you do if it doesn’t work?”
Dresden hummed a thoughtful noise. “Bug the crap out of you for a really long time,” he said. “Go everywhere I never got a chance to go. Accidentally get blackmail material on a lot of people. Bug you some more. Fade, eventually.”
John was obscurely disappointed by this. Dresden shouldn’t be so fatalistic; he should be kicking and screaming about the injustice of it all. He should be proclaiming that he’d bring himself back from death with or without help. Just how tired was he? And just how sad, whatever his secret reasons?
John hadn’t meant to sleep. And he’d been sure he wouldn’t – he knew how to sit a watch.
But then he was waking up with the memory of being shaken. The sun was rising, there were kids kicking a soccer ball around the parking lot, Hendricks was pulling up in a suburban.
If he’d dreamed, he couldn’t remember.
And the other side of the bed was, of course, empty.
They gathered at two o’clock that afternoon for what John thought would be a council of war, but which turned out a lot more like the initial planning meeting for a big Italian wedding. Lots of opinions, egos, feelings. No bleeding, though.
They sat around his kitchen table: Gard at the head, Raith in the corner looking washed out and vaguely green, Hendricks taking meticulous notes, and the skull holding forth like a ghoulish centerpiece.
And Dresden. He seemed reduced in the daylight. Or maybe he’d discovered some unknown streak of shyness, because he stuck to flicking the set of Scrabble tiles around as a means of communication.
The vampire and the skull were operating at roughly the same level of mental maturity, but Gard could manage them both handily. The actual choreography of the thing didn’t interest him much, once he’d gotten his stage directions. Which turned out to be far more minimal than he was expecting.
“That’s it?” he said, looking from Gard to the skull to the Scrabble tiles.
“That’s it,” Gard confirmed.
“You can dance, if it’ll make you happier,” the skull said.
“That’s quite all right.” John glanced at Raith, who would apparently be playing his opposite number of sorts. He’d said more to the dog leaning against his knees than he had to any of them.
The Scrabble tiles rearranged themselves with a clatter. BLEED ON EACH OTHER. HOLD HANDS. SHUT UP.
“All right,” John said, waving an open hand at Gard. “Continue.”
They did, at great length and in exhaustive detail. Everyone was fascinated, up to and including Hendricks, who was eating it all up with a spoon.
Gard had some finicky criticisms about the sloppy application of blood magic. It all turned on Dresden and Gard performing the same spell at the same time, and Dresden was convinced they wouldn’t be able to synch up. The skull really wanted to add an orgy.
Dresden and Raith couldn’t seem to stay on task, either. They kept sliding off into extensive discussions of an injury the Carpenter girl had apparently sustained, or long and incomprehensible arguments that seemed to consist entirely of pop culture references and insults. It was irritating. Even more so when John started to suspect Dresden was doing it on purpose. He could restart his vampire rehabilitation project on his own time, when he was corporeal and no longer in John’s kitchen, thank you very much.
“Excuse me,” John said when they started in for the third time. “A small detail: when is this happening, exactly?”
There was a startled pause. “Well,” the skull began, “we can wait for him to get a little stronger, and I still want to have a good juicy marinate over the exact flavor of—“ it broke off, swiveling as the tiles rattled.
NOW, they said.
“—Or now, that could work too,” the skull said.
John glanced at Gard. She nodded back, thoughtful but steady. Raith met his eyes for the first time since he’d shown up, and dipped a tight-lipped nod. Hendricks, when consulted last, made the high-sign with his pen.
“All right then,” John said, standing. “I’ll go make sure the boat is ready.”
It was more complicated than that, of course. The skull couldn’t withstand sunlight, Gard wanted to triple check everything, and there was the pesky problem of navigating to a place not on any map. John had only found it last time by persistence and extraordinary luck, which even at the time he’d suspected had been something more like . . . permission.
But this time they had Dresden, who could make a compass needle spin on its axis and point to the island from anywhere on the lake. Interesting.
The sun was setting by the time they dropped anchor a couple hundred feet out.
“Wait,” Dresden said into John’s ear, sliding past in a shivery rush of presence.
John waited at the rail, looking to shore. His leg throbbed dully. Gard and Hendricks stayed habitually close, the dog waiting between them.
“This is good,” Gard said, gesturing to the sky. “The right time for it.”
“I would have thought sunrise,” Hendricks said.
“That too,” said Gard. “Transition times. Liminal spaces. When the world opens a door.”
That was far more woo-woo than she tended to be about magic. John wondered if it was all getting to her – the sun drowning itself in the watery horizon, the mysterious island, the ghost in their midst.
Dresden had been dead for a week exactly. John could only be glad it wasn’t the more traditional three days. That would have been too much.
Where was his body? Rotting at the bottom of the lake somewhere? That was the trouble with magic: it was all ambiance and proper metaphors, but how could you be sure it was going to account for the important details like decaying flesh?
Dresden returned in an effervescent rush. He didn’t say anything, but the sense of now now now was unmistakable. The lot of them piled into the dinghy, and Hendricks rowed them in. His hair was a crown of fire with the sun behind him, and he looked like a Viking in jeans as he reached and flexed, reached and flexed.
John had been anticipating a long trek across the island, maybe all the way up to the lighthouse, but it either didn’t matter or Dresden was getting sloppy in his impatience. They would find out soon which it was. Either way, Gard began her preparations on the shore.
She started with a circle, of course, nearly eight feet in diameter. Then she walked the circumference, bending every step to place something just inside the boundary. Half of it was the expected sort of set dressing – a piece of ivory, a ginger root, an old penny, a crow’s feather. Magic things. They all seemed to say this means something! even if John couldn’t figure out what.
Other things were more explicable: a piece of linen stained with Dresden’s blood, a newspaper clipping with a blurry photo of him, and – John didn’t know why he hadn’t seen that coming – the bullet. Both their bullets. Odd.
Raith had brought his own small cache: a scattering of beer bottle caps, a ticket stub, a chunk of polished wood. John dug into his pocket and, as Raith passed, dropped the frayed scrap of leather from Dresden’s coat into Raith’s cupped hands, on top of a Hotwheels car. Raith’s face didn’t flicker, and he laid the scrap on the dirt next to his offerings with no comment.
Hendricks paraded the skull around for a good look, and it was declared good.
“All right,” Gard said, inhaling. The last time John had seen her this chary of performing a spell, she’d been drawing the rune on the bullet that could, if necessary, kill Harry Dresden. Hendricks touched her fleetingly, just a brush of his hand down her back.
She stepped to the circle’s edge, facing east, and gestured the two of them into position on opposite sides facing each other. Hendricks took three long steps back, the skull tucked under his arm like a football and the dog at his side.
It tweaked John’s sense of symmetry that there were only three of them standing there, that there was no one to guard the eastern curve of the circle. Until he realized, ah, of course there was.
Gard began to speak. John couldn’t understand the words, so the syllables just flowed into a steady sound.
Funny that there was chanting. Dresden never seemed to do that sort of thing. Was this part of the old magic, the spell he’d accessed from his unnamable source? Or was it more like that forty-five minutes of talk-talk-talking you got at the beginning of weddings to buffer for any late arrivals and to get everyone in the mood.
It was working, if that was the point. The sun had completely set, and the sky had gone from pink to purple in less than three minutes. It was silent except for the quiet lapping of the lake and Gard’s clear, confident voice.
John glanced across the circle. Raith had his hands at his chest, clenched around something on a chain. His face was bleak, his eyes closed. John doubted him, suddenly. His strength, and maybe his commitment. Did Raith have what this would take, or had he spent it in one of his fits of pathetic self-destruction?
Intention and will. And need. And balls.
John closed his eyes, too, and tried to relax. He’d made a bargain, and he would keep his end of it to the best of his abilities.
It slowly impinged on his consciousness that Gard wasn’t the only one speaking. Very softly under her voice was Dresden in counterpoint. What he was saying didn’t sound much at all like John’s limited church Latin. The two dead languages were odd to the ear, overlapping each other.
The words of mass often stuck and looped in his mind, the way he understood music did for other people. Et in spiritum sanctum, Dominum et vivificantem.
John prickled all down his back under his shirt and jacket. It was a cold shiver of awe at what they were trying to do. If this worked, it would be the glory of magic he’d always suspected but never quite found. That he, a mortal man, was needed to stand on this circle and add his will and intent and balls and –
If this worked . . .
Oh Father --
He cut the thought off, faintly scandalized. But at the same time, if it was intent they needed . . .
The words came slowly. John couldn’t remember the last time he’d prayed beyond the safe, ritual words.
I find myself in the situation of needing to ask for -- No.
I would take it as a great personal favor if -- No.
I don’t know if -- I’ve never asked for.
And then, like drawing a deep-set splinter. Please. I need. Kyrie, eleison. Please.
He heard a footstep in the dirt and opened his eyes. Gard had stepped into the circle. Across from him, Raith was waiting. John nodded, and they stepped in together. Something twanged in John’s inner ear, and his sense of the rest of the world dropped away.
Dresden was here, in the circle with them.
Gard gestured, still speaking. He and Raith each pulled a knife. John drew his blade across Raith’s uncallused hand. Raith returned the favor, cutting deep. They swapped sides; the handle of John’s knife was slippery in his bleeding hand as he cut Raith’s other palm, and Raith cut his. They dropped their knives in a patter of blood. The soil of the island seemed to soak it up with alarming speed.
They clasped hands, palm-to-palm. Their blood touched, mingled, pooled between their hands and fell to the soil. Good God, this was not hygienic.
And then something snapped between them, popping into being and growing. Raith’s hands spasmed against John’s, they clutched each other until John’s fingers cramped. They nestled the growing magic between them, nursing it along. Not that it seemed to need the help; it doubled and trebled and then surpassed the bounds of mathematical categorization. John’s mind skipped helplessly over useless metaphors – ball lightning, fire, the ever outrushing universe.
It grew, and tightened, and readied. John was dimly aware of Gard, still speaking low and steady. There really ought to be shouting, all things considered.
He looked up, right into Raith’s eyes. They were wide open, now. John was no wizard; he did not have the power, and he did not have the mind for it, the gift of metaphorical thinking. But he could imagine this. There would be a line between Gard and Dresden, a tight cord of magic drawing him in. And there was a line between John and Raith, their opposition lending it strength. John could guess the archetypes – wasn’t it obvious? Two killers, alike in that much. But John could control himself, and Raith could not; John was careful and rational, and Raith was – well. A vampire. And Dresden had only ever been interested in forgiving one of them, there was that, too.
The spell built, and tightened, and paused. Held its breath, and teetered . . .
Then the dog barked with a sound like thunder, and the spell cracked open. And Dresden came through.
But he didn’t come through the spell. That wasn’t the door, just the map to get there. John was the door, and he was open, and Dresden came through him.
It was . . . they were . . . it was like the soulgaze, an indelible moment of understanding. But this time no metaphors, no representational shit. Just them, self to self, knowing.
And then John was on his ass in the dirt. Gard had stopped chanting. It smelled like ozone and blood and ginger root.
“. . . Oh fuck,” Harry Dresden said.
Raith made a quiet, choked noise. “Weren’t those your first first words, too?” he asked.
John didn’t want to open his eyes. He’d had all of Harry Dresden inside his skin, an ephemeral and infinite complexity of memories and hurts and orgasms and power and fear. And it was fading.
He opened his eyes anyway.
Harry Dresden was sprawled out on his back on the dirt, and staring at him. And naked.
“Uh—“ Dresden said.
Gard stepped past them, and John’s ears popped as she broke the circle. The dog hurtled right over John’s head and landed with its forelegs to either side of Dresden’s shoulders.
“Ug!” Dresden said, jerking his eyes away from John’s face and clumsily fending the dog off. “Mouse!”
“Yes, Mr. Dresden, very good,” John said. “Now let’s try something with two syllables, hmm?”
Dresden’s eyes snapped back to him, and hot color flooded his face. His mouth worked, his hands clenched on the dog’s ruff. “Uh—“ he said. And then he jolted, spine snapping straight. “I have to go,” he said, eeling out from under the dog.
“What, no thank you?” John asked.
Dresden seemed determined not to look at him now. “Shut up, you’ll get your thank you,” he said, then jerked and hissed between his teeth. “I have to – Thomas, I’ll call you later. Take care of Bob, okay?” He made a tearing gesture in the air, nowhere as elegant as his godmother had been. But it worked just the same, and Dresden stepped away naked into another world of blowing snow with his ridiculous dog at his heels, answering the call of his Queen.
“. . . Well,” John said, picking himself up. “That was bracing. And he’s left us with the cleanup, as usual.”
John slept the sleep of the just that night. His dreams, if he had them, were safely unmemorable. And most importantly, his own.
And when he got up the next morning and showered after his run, no one was there to give him attitude in the steam on the mirror.
“No sign of him,” Hendricks said when he arrived in the kitchen while John was eating breakfast.
“That’s nice,” John said, rattling the paper. “I’m sure he’ll be occupied with faerie business for a while. We have more important things to worry about.”
“Morelli,” John said, drawing the name out.
Hendricks spun a kitchen chair around backwards and straddled it. “We going to war?” he asked, reaching for the coffee pot.
“No,” John said. “Not in so many words. But we are going to show him how it’s done.”
That required planning. John spent three days getting all his ducks in a row. The second day, Gard took one look at him and confined him to the house for twelve hours. She and Hendricks hovered over him for the duration, not letting him so much as go to a bathroom with an outside window. And John was not a hundred percent certain Hendricks wasn’t pre-tasting his food, either.
The whole thing was wildly inconvenient. He’d been neglecting his organization for days. Not so much for Dresden’s sensibilities, but because there was plenty of ammunition he could have picked up just by riding along in John’s daily life. And now there was this to deal with.
Three days after Dresden’s resurrection, they drove out to a private airfield in Wisconsin and took a charter to Massachusetts.
The operation went like a dream. Gard had suspected all along that Morelli had only the one magic user, and John had eliminated that problem, such as it was. So getting in was not actually an issue, and involved a relatively minimal loss of life. At the moment of truth, Morelli didn’t even look particularly surprised.
“You should have kept your eyes off what’s mine,” John said, and shot him. Kneecaps first, and then the head not long after. Because he needed to make an example here, but he didn’t really have time to sit through a lot of bleeding and screaming.
They were back in Chicago by nightfall. Neat and efficient. Boston was going to be a mess for a while as the lieutenants fought to take over. But Boston was not John’s. Unlike some people, he knew how to be content with what was his.
And through it all – through Gard’s magical preparations and John’s careful planning and Morelli’s screaming – Dresden wasn’t there. Not in the mirror every morning, not in the prickling hairs on the back of his neck, not in John’s dreams.
He was off in faerie somewhere; there was nary a wizard-sighting in the entire tri-state area.
The cat vanished. The morning after the spell it was there in the kitchen, demanding food and affection. And then the morning after that, gone. It left John with a bag of cat food and a clawed-up couch. To say nothing of the dog paraphernalia. What was he supposed to do with all that? Donate it, probably.
It wouldn’t be so easy to get rid of the vague sense of abandonment. It was ridiculous – they were Dresden’s companions, only here in passing to extract a favor. They had never really belonged to him, and there was no space in his life for them anyway. Still. It was strange to run alone again. The dog had shadowed him in the house for days, silent but watchful. The lack was more noticeable in some ways than the presence.
It was only with Dresden alive and gone, instead of Dresden dead and here, that John felt . . . well. Haunted.
The Dresden Problem.
He was a splinter in John’s psyche. Always had been, truth be told. But it was worse now. John had learned to live with it like so many other things. And maybe that had been a mistake; maybe he should have solved this problem years ago, saved himself a lot of hassle and time.
He could solve it now. It would be as easy as going to Boston and taking Morelli out had been. Just plan, prepare, execute. And maybe it was time.
John came at the café on foot from halfway down the block. Dresden was sitting with his back to the wall at an outside table, the newspaper spread in front of him and coffee at his elbow. He didn’t look up until John’s shadow fell across him, but he wasn’t surprised. Just awkward. Good.
“What?” he grunted, popping a pen out of his mouth. John glanced down at the newspaper. Real estate ads. Interesting. He suppressed the urge to make an offer Dresden would vigorously refuse. He was probably a terrible tenant, anyway.
“May I sit?” John asked.
Dresden made a face and twitched a shoulder, which was probably the best John was going to get. He pulled out a chair, but waved the waitress off. He wouldn’t be here that long.
“Are you well?” he asked.
“Hunky dory,” Dresden said. He was staring off past John’s shoulder. It was weird for Dresden, who made eye contact with John habitually and fiercely.
John leaned over and twitched up the edge of the newspaper to peer at the front page. Yep, Sun Times. With a headline about the Boston mobster found dead in his home right below the fold. Dresden probably wanted to make a snide comment about John’s methods of solving problems, but he was too relieved to have one less enemy running around. The hypocrisy might be obvious enough for even him to notice.
“And your Queen?” John asked politely.
Dresden’s face did something . . . complex. “Queenly,” he said. He was rolling the pen across the backs of his knuckles, distractingly dexterous.
“Excellent,” John said. “I’ve come for my favor.”
Dresden actually looked at him for that, surprised. “I thought you’d hoard it,” he said. “Sit on it for years and make me suffer.” His mouth twisted down. “I thought that was the favor.”
“No, thank you,” John said. “I can be decisive, when circumstances warrant.”
“Whatever,” Dresden said. “You do remember I get to say no, right?”
“Of course,” John said. “Suit yourself. But you can pay off your debt in one night. A night with me, to be precise.”
Dresden’s reaction was fantastic. Three beats of blankness, then he lurched back in his chair, thumping it into the wall. His mouth worked, and he reached up to press a hand to it, hiding. Interesting. He’d never had that instinct before. Was that something learned in the faerie courts, even so fast?
“I’m referring to sex,” John said.
Dresden went scarlet. “I got that, thanks,” he said.
“Good,” John said. He suddenly wished he’d ordered that coffee after all. Something to occupy his hands. “I wouldn’t want there to be any confusion about the terms. I would, of course, promise not to do you any serious physical harm, and I would—“
“Shut up,” Dresden said hoarsely.
John did. Dresden was at least looking at him now. But this wasn’t quite the reaction John had been anticipating. Dresden wasn’t surprised. That was all right – John had suspected Dresden might have picked up a few facts of life, spending so much time in John’s space.
But Dresden wasn’t laughing. He should have been horrified, and then he should have been thrilled. He should have told John no already, and be reiterating with prejudice. He should hold this moment over John’s head for the next decade.
That would have solved the Dresden Problem. John didn’t think even a fascination as entrenched as his could withstand that sort of scalding mockery. He could burn it out of himself. Hell, Dresden could do it for him.
But Dresden wasn’t laughing. He was staring. Just like he had on the island when he’d come back to life. And he looked . . .
“You are so fucked up,” Dresden said quietly. He inhaled an enormous, shaking breath. “. . . Okay,”
John almost blurted what? like a moron. He stamped his reaction down to one slow blink.
“Ah, you do understand exactly what—“
Dresden waved a frantic hand. “Do not give me the bees and the bees speech,” he said. “I will punch you, there’ll be no choice.”
He looked steadier now, less fixed and strained around the eyes. John recognized the look: it was the one Dresden got in the last round of a fight when his enemies were massing and he knew that was it, and he gathered his all for one final stand.
“Sundown to sunrise,” John said, adding terms just to see what he’d do.
“Fine,” Dresden said. “But I say when.”
“Within reasonable limits, of course,” John acceded. “Anything else?”
Dresden was breathing a little too fast. “No,” he said, taking a beat from the rapid fire negotiations to actually think about it. “That’s it.”
That was it? What the hell was going on here? “Excellent,” John said, standing. “I’m glad we could come to an understanding.”
Dresden’s mouth went quirked and strange, and he actually laughed. “Yeah,” he said. “Something like that.”
Hendricks was waiting by the car half a block west. John had managed to settle himself down by the time he got there, but Hendricks still looked at him funny as he came up.
“Perfectly fine,” John said. And it was, of course. Like the best plans, this one had a failsafe. Because if Dresden agreed to his terms, then John could take care of the problem much more pleasantly. Scratch the itch, finally. Make it all stop the old-fashioned way.
It would work out fine.
He just didn’t know why.
So he waited for Harry Dresden. And Harry Dresden made him wait. Of course.
John spent the first forty-eight hours convinced Dresden was going to come barging in and recant. But no, Dresden had never backed down, and he wasn’t going to start now.
So then John was convinced Dresden would appear at any moment, that he’d want to bull through and pay his debt fast before he had a chance to stew over it. But Dresden didn’t do that, either.
Was he having more paralyzing second thoughts? John had no problem sleeping with someone who despised him, as demonstrated at irregular intervals over the past few years with Helen.
But Dresden was not Helen. Her hatred was a lash he deserved. Dresden’s was . . . erotic.
If Dresden wanted to snarl and spit while John fucked him, that would be fine. That would, as a matter of fact, be just the thing. But John didn’t have the taste for a more fundamentally unwilling partner.
But that was the issue, wasn’t it? Harry Dresden had said yes. He’d been predictable right up to the point where he wasn’t, and apparently that point was John propositioning him. And John still didn’t know why. The thought of Dresden nursing his own unwelcome sexual fixation had never occurred to him as more than an absurd outlier possibility. And it still seemed unlikely.
And, with increasing interest, when?
It took John weeks to realize he wasn’t waiting well. It was December before he so much as remembered Thanksgiving. Oops. That certainly explained the barely suppressed resentment when he’d worked straight through last Thursday night. An unforgivable lapse, to forget the demands of everyone else’s personal lives in the lack of his own.
And he was on a hair-trigger. Sexually frustrated, and sleeping even less than usual. John caught his attention wandering at critical moments, and he suspected it showed. And then he snapped at Gard, nearly taking a layer of skin off her when she came up beside him in the morning and attempted to apply a protective charm.
There was startled silence in the office for several beats. Gard stood still beside him, her hands upraised. She and Hendricks were looking at each other; the way they were clearly communicating through their blank faces was suddenly infuriating.
John breathed in and out with care, three times.
“I apologize,” he said evenly. “Carry on. Please.”
She did, and John endured. He didn’t know why the crackle of her magic over his skin had set him off, why it seemed to rub at raw nerves now.
Gard exited silently when she was done. Hendricks didn’t.
John walked to his office window, back to the desk, and around again to the glass.
“All right,” he said to the skyline. “Let’s have it.”
Hendricks grunted. “Got nothing to say,” he said. “Except whatever the fuck it is, you need to deal with it.”
“It’s just Dresden,” John said. Body want. So habitual at this point it was unreasoning and cellular. “I’m fixing it,” he said. “I have it all worked out.”
Oddly, Hendricks actually looked more unsettled.
“Should I . . . do anything in particular?” John said, tipping his head in the direction of the door. He didn’t think Gard would get much out of flowers or some other traditional gift of apology, but it was worth asking.
“Leave it,” Hendricks advised.
“And you?” Not that Hendricks ever needed appeasing, in so many words. His maintenance was far more costly. And worth it, of course.
Hendricks shrugged. “Way I figure it, the wizard’s like malaria,” he said.
John blinked. “How so?”
“Most of the time you’re fine,” Hendricks said. “Except every once in a while, when you’re really not.”
John frowned, prickling uneasily. Hendricks was talking like there was some sort of pattern. The wizard was an old problem, of course, but John would know if he’d been . . . troubled like this before.
“I’m fixing it,” he said again.
“Oh good,” Hendricks said, with completely unwarranted sarcasm.
December rolled on. It was bitingly cold, more like late January, and the first big snow came two weeks before Christmas. The city spent a collective five minutes of delighted wonderment, then got over it and hunkered down resignedly for the duration.
John leased out a completed building, transitioning smoothly to the next rehab project. He weathered the endless parade of December events, charity galas and holiday parties and business receptions. Morelli’s cousin – the putative winner of the power struggle -- sent him a holiday card. Good to see someone in that family had sense. John returned civilities, and there was that problem shelved for the moment.
One of the Bucktown Council delegation was becoming an irritant. John had no problem directing a portion of his revenue streams to men like him. That was practical, just the way business got done. But it was not anyone’s due, and it certainly wasn’t what John did in response to threats of the F.B.I. coming down on him. Please.
He’d endured that nonsense throughout the fall, but his patience was gone. Twenty years ago he would have just shot the asshole. Then again, twenty years ago he never would have been in this situation, with all its complications. Shooting him was option three, and option one worked just fine.
John contributed the legal maximum to the guy’s PAC, then crashed a political fundraiser and went for the one-armed chummy hug right in front of a photographer from the Tribune. The photo ran the next day; twenty-four hours after that, an intrepid reporter dug up the record of the contribution, and it was all over but the resignation press conference.
Funny. In private, John’s name got people elected. In public, it sank them like a stone.
All of that settled him down. He was still waiting, but there were things to do, and of course he could be rational about this.
The effects of the spell . . . lingered. John found himself thinking of Dresden at odd moments, or suddenly knowing things about him he hadn’t before. Like when he’d put the first spoonful of risotto in his mouth at a charity dinner and knew, with such revulsion that the food nearly curdled in his mouth, that Dresden hated mushrooms.
Little things. And bigger things, like a yawning sense of existential horror he knew didn’t belong to him. It was Dresden’s, it felt like desperation, and it was called the Winter Knight.
The thought that Dresden might have some reciprocal knowledge of him was unsettling. What would he do with the trials and trivia of John’s life? Ignore it, probably. And there was no real danger, after all. John had many secrets, but Dresden already held the only one that might mean anything to him, and he’d shown no sign of betraying Amanda in the past few years.
John got out of a meeting in late afternoon a few days before Christmas. He was so busy with his phone in the car that it took him a few extra minutes to realize they were heading out of the city, not in.
“Problem at home,” Hendricks said as soon as John looked up.
Hendricks made the face John had privately labeled ‘existential indigestion.’ “Just something you’ve gotta deal with. Apparently,” he said, and pressed his lips tight.
John happened to know from long and bitter experience that there would be nothing else forthcoming, so he shrugged and went back to his phone until they pulled up and got out. Hendricks gestured him on, face impressively blank.
“All right, what?” John said, looking around the foyer. But Hendricks didn’t answer. Because he wasn’t even there – he hadn’t followed John past the front steps. In fact, the whole house felt empty. No Spanish radio from the kitchen, no chatting from the staff.
John’s pulse ticked up. He walked the bottom floor slowly, room-to-room, and looked out across the backyard. Nothing. He went upstairs. But any methodical impulse was gone, and he went straight to his bedroom, moving too fast.
Harry Dresden was lying on his bed, reading a book. His staff was propped against the wall, and he surprisingly possessed manners enough to take his shoes and socks off. John had never seen his bare feet before; they were long and bony and incongruous on the bedspread.
“You’re late,” Dresden said, looking up. “Sun set eight minutes ago. You’re totally not getting that time back at dawn.”
John ran hot, a full-body flush. It was like being sixteen, when Fiametta Caldone had taken her top off and he’d looked at real live naked breasts for the first time, and then she’d let him touch them and suck on them. And later fuck her in the back seat of her big brother’s jeep. Just one look at her tits had revved him up so hard it hurt. And it was even better because she wasn’t supposed to let him do any of that. He wasn’t supposed to want to. And if her brother knew, if his mother knew, if Father Castiglione knew—
John had been under the mistaken impression that he’d outgrown that childish fascination with the forbidden.
. . . He was supposed to be saying something.
John crossed to the side of the bed. Dresden had been reading a book, some doorstop paperback with a castle and crossed swords on the cover. John took it out of his hands and tossed it onto the night table.
And then he just looked at Dresden, from his messy hair to his giant feet. He was wearing a t-shirt that said I VOID WARRANTIES. There were fine dark hairs on his forearms, John had never looked close enough to see that before. But the scar bisecting his lip; that, John had studied at some length.
Dresden twitched uneasily under his eyes. He was breathing through the nose like a spooked horse.
Where to begin?
Anywhere he wanted.
John reached out, making the gesture slow and deliberate. He put his hand on Dresden’s knee, ran it up his leg, and grabbed hold of the soft package in his jeans.
“Hey!” Dresden yelped. He started to jerk away, but John tightened his grip. Dresden hissed between his teeth and froze.
“Settle down,” John said. “I told you what I wanted from you.”
“Yeah,” Dresden said. John rolled his hand and Dresden’s voice hitched. “But you could try a little something else before you get right to the slap and tickle.”
John explored the contours of Dresden’s dick as much as he could through the jeans. Nice. He grabbed a handful and squeezed.
“No,” he said. “I don’t think I will. Come on. Get hard for me.”
“You—“ Dresden choked. He tossed his head on the pillow, flushing hectically. And he obeyed.
John kept rubbing him, handling him a little roughly. The jeans were probably chafing and pinching, but that wasn’t stopping Dresden.
“There we go,” John said, smacking his bulge lightly. Dresden twitched and yelped pleasingly. “Up,” John said, and went for his belt.
He’d thought that would be it. That if Dresden had a breaking point, it would be when John unzipped his jeans and yanked them down his thighs. (Mickey Mouse boxers? Really?) But Dresden didn’t put him through the wall into the next room, and he didn’t bolt.
“Good,” John said, shoving the jeans and boxers off the end of the bed. Dresden was three miles of legs. Winter pale, but there was a lot more muscle on him than John had expected.
“Spread your legs,” John said. “More. More. Come on, show me what I’m getting.”
Dresden made an enraged snorting sound, and there was a long, waiting pause. And then he spread his legs. John flicked the hem of his t-shirt out of the way and looked at his hipbones, his flushing cock, the little downy hairs on his balls.
He slid a hand underneath, grinning to himself. Dresden had shown up at some meeting or other about five years ago without his coat, wearing a t-shirt two sizes too small and jeans that actually fit. His apprentice had opinions, apparently. John had wanted, from that second to this one, to grab Dresden’s ass and give it a good squeeze.
And here he was finally doing it. Mmm. Someone should feed Dresden up a bit, though – he hadn’t always been this bony.
John reached further, ran his fingers down Dresden’s dry crack, pausing at his hole. Dresden made a semi-hysterical noise and clapped his legs shut like an offended debutante. John rode him out, keeping his fingers exactly where they were.
“Yes,” he said musingly. “I think that’s where we’ll start.” And he went for the lube in the nightstand.
Dresden was big-eyed and hyperventilating when he turned back. But he moved willingly enough, bending one leg up and scooting down the bed when prompted. John hitched a knee up on the mattress, leaning his weight on his hip. He was still wearing his shoes. Ah well, no matter.
He slicked up his fingers, breathing nearly as fast as Dresden was. Dresden’s cock was a nice handhold; John gripped it with his left, giving it a few good pulls, and reached down with his right. He rubbed two fingers over Dresden’s hole, loving the twitch and the quiver, the frantic catch to his breath. John drove a finger into him.
And realized, instantly, that it was a mistake. Dresden’s whole body bent in resistance, his spine contracting, his knee thumping John solidly in the ribs. John pulled out just as fast, chagrinned. Talk about acting like he was sixteen.
“Okay, okay,” he said, petting Dresden’s dick.
He’d been so tight; it must have been a really long time for him. Had it been Raith after all? That would make sense, with the off-again phase these past few years. But surely there had been someone else?
Or maybe Dresden was just one of those men who took a lot of work. John felt his mouth twist – he just would be, wouldn’t he? Well, that was all right. John liked work.
“Here,” he said, frankly a little unnerved by Dresden’s continued silence. The guy looked like he was seriously considering having an aneurism. John grabbed the lube and slicked up both hands. Dresden’s eyes practically popped out, like he really thought John was about to double-fist him cold. Good God.
“Settle down,” John said again. “Who’s been mauling you?”
Dresden flashed him a look. “What, aside from you?”
“A miscalculation,” John said. “Here, just let me . . .”
He took Dresden’s cock in both slick hands, one sliding up and down, one rubbing over the head. Dresden liked that just fine, thank you very much. John kept at him for a while until Dresden’s breathing had settled from combat-levels to mere arousal. Then he got more lube and rubbed it everywhere, all over Dresden’s balls, slick through his bush, up and down his crack until he was wet from stem to stern. Dresden liked having his balls played with. John was careful, at first, and Dresden frankly looked a little bored. So John tugged lightly, just wanting to get his attention, and got a whole hell of a lot more than that. Dresden went, “oh,” the first sound of unfiltered pleasure he’d let slip. John did it again, delighted, then rolled them, being rougher than he’d be on himself. Dresden ate it up with a spoon. His pelvis tipped up, his mouth fell a little open.
John traded off for a while, jerking Dresden’s dick and then reaching down and giving his balls a little tug. He tried to be fast about it; there was something delicious in Dresden’s surprise. And after a few rounds of that, he pushed his finger into Dresden’s hole at the same time.
“Uh!” Dresden said, freezing up. But he was more relaxed, and a hell of a lot slicker, and John was in all the way.
“I got you,” John heard himself saying nonsensically. And just as appalling, “Shh, here we go.”
It took a long time, John was dimly aware of that. But mostly he was focused on Dresden. John kept at him with just one finger for a while, then worked two in. That took a lot of patience, and Dresden had the expression of a guy who was sure this was either fantastic or terrible, he didn’t know which. Back to one finger then, and Dresden finally started moving with him a little, just involuntary shivers from his shoulders down to his hips.
Two again, and it was easier that time. John’s fingers were sliding smoothly, and Dresden’s dick was hot and eager in his hand.
He paused again for yet more slick. Probably overdoing it, but it really couldn’t hurt at this point. He held Dresden steady with a hand on his hip while he pushed his fingers back in. Then on a whim, not even really thinking about it, he tugged at Dresden’s balls, being much rougher than before. Dresden yowled, mouth open, rising up and shoving all the way down on John’s fingers.
And then it all seemed to click, and Dresden was good. Dresden was golden. John didn’t have any attention left for Dresden’s dick. He was hunched over, his back aching, holding Dresden’s hips up with one hand, giving him three fingers from the other. Just banging him like that, keeping his legs wide open with a braced forearm. Dresden really wasn’t helping, moving like he was. But he could go on making those sounds, that would be just fine.
John couldn’t keep it up, not with his wrist bent awkwardly and Dresden’s far foot kicking involuntarily into mid air.
They were both breathing hard when he stopped.
“What?” Dresden said, his legs flopping when John dropped his hips to the bed.
“Hold that thought,” John said. He stood up and kicked his shoes away, going for his belt in the same motion. “Come here.” He was too impatient to do more than get his zipper down.
“What?” Dresden said again, blankly. Then, “. . . Oh. Um.” He looked startled, and confused, and turned on. It was a pretty good combination on him, actually. “. . . Okay,” Dresden said, nodding to himself. “Yeah.”
He flailed aimlessly for a second, not sure where to go. John solved the problem by hooking him around the bicep and yanking him over sideways.
“Okay, okay,” Dresden said, actually laughing. “C’mere.”
John stood beside the bed, fishing his dick out and holding the back of Dresden’s neck. His hands were shaking. What was that about?
“Okay,” Dresden said again. He seemed to be talking to himself. He breathed carefully, leaning in. John saw his eyes cross.
It was snowing out, and barely ten degrees. The room was chilly even with the heat on. And Dresden’s mouth was impossibly warm.
John said “ah,” on a long, involuntary exhale as Dresden mouthed at him, then took him slowly in, lips working down by increments. He stopped with just the head in his mouth, a crease between his brows. He made a thoughtful, “hmm,” noise, but his lips stayed too loose, his tongue moving with surprising hesitance.
John tugged lightly on the hair at the back of his neck. Dresden overreacted, his eyes popping wide and a tooth scraping as he jolted. John hissed, tugging his hair a lot harder that time before he could stop himself.
Dresden came up spluttering, which was at least better than escalating his end with another bite.
“D’you mind?” he said, slapping at John’s hand.
“Sorry,” John said. “I didn’t—“ Then about seven different clues all belatedly came together at once, and he stopped. “You’ve never done this before,” he said.
“I was figuring it out,” Dresden said irritably. “If you hadn’t gotten all grabby – what?”
“I thought—“ John said. “I was under the impression that—“ He released Dresden’s hair and dropped both his hands to his sides, rocking back on his heels.
“Huh?” Dresden said, looking at him like he was crazy.
It wasn’t that John couldn’t recognize shame. He lived with it every day. But that was old shame for things done and mistakes made long ago. Not this rush of immediate nausea.
“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” Dresden said, staring at him. “Marcone, I swear, you killed four people last month – and that’s just the ones I know about – and you decide to feel bad because, what? You didn’t take me dancing first?”
‘You’re—“ John said, and swallowed the word different down so hard it was physically painful. He felt obscurely angry at Dresden, like he’d broken some rule or compact. What the hell was he thinking, spending . . . that here, tonight, like this?
“Okay, no,” Dresden said with sudden force. “Marcone, quit it. Do not freak out. If you freak out, I am going to really freak out, okay?”
He meant it, too; there was strain on his face, a fracture in his voice. And looking at that, some internal wobble in John immediately steadied.
“Okay, it’s fine,” he said, and put his hand over the crown of Dresden’s head.
“Yeah,” Dresden said, and cracked an alarming grin. “Thought so. As long as you’ve got someone to tell how it’s gonna be, you’re fine.”
“I am not,” John said reflexively. How had this become Dresden comforting him?
“Okay then,” Dresden said. He hooked his fingers in John’s belt loops, and his smile went all crooked. “Then I won’t ask you to give me some pointers here. I was even going to listen to every third thing you said, too.”
“I—“ John said. Stand up, soldier. He scruffed Dresden’s hair. It wasn’t even six P.M., and this night was already so far off script, he didn’t even know what was happening anymore. “All right.” He cleared his throat. “Come here. Watch your teeth,” he said. Tighten your lips . . . a little more . . .”
It didn’t take long, because that was Harry Dresden: he didn’t just set fires, he was the accelerant. One moment John was holding him by the nape of the neck, awkwardly talking him through his first blowjob and trying to keep his head in the game. And then he’d kicked off his pants and they were both on the bed; he had Dresden on his back and was straddling his shoulders.
“Open your mouth,” he said. “No, I mean relax, just let me—“ He rubbed his knuckles down Dresden’s cheek, gently pressed his mouth open. John tipped his dick down with two fingers, easing in, not too deep, and rubbing back and forth across the roof of Dresden’s mouth, hard palate to vulnerable soft, and back again. Dresden was breathing too fast through his nose; his eyes sprang wide with instantaneous alarm if John gave him a millimeter more than an inch-and-a-half.
His inexpertise should not have been so hot. His nerves should not have been a turn-on.
John lifted Dresden’s uncertainly hovering hand and placed it high on his thigh. “Tap out, if you want,” he said. “Instead of biting me again, please.” Dresden snorted at him, rolling his eyes. But then he went stiff and a little panicky again as soon as John pushed in.
‘I promised I wouldn’t hurt you,” John said.
Dresden tipped his head back, going pink as John’s dick slid over his cheek. “Oh, I know you won’t,” he said, with such immediate certainty that it was startling. John couldn’t think of a single other person aside from Hendricks who would say that with conviction. But Hendricks had three decades of teamwork to build on, and Dresden had . . . what? Whatever good guy faith in humanity streak he might be cultivating had never extended to John in the past, and there was no reason in the world why it should now.
A question for a less fraught time. He rubbed the head of his dick back and forth across Dresden’s lower lip, enjoying the visual. Dresden licked out at him, curious and then triumphant at John’s reaction. And that was all it took. John went a little crazy over the feel of Dresden’s tongue on the head of his dick; the wet slide over his glans actually made him dizzy.
“Do that again,” John said, and, “again.” And from there things spiraled right back out of control. Dresden licked him everywhere. John was shocked by his gleeful adventuring. But mostly he was just thinking fuck yes as he knelt up and moved forward to let Dresden at his balls. That wasn’t his favorite thing, physically, but looking down at Dresden’s head framed between his legs, watching the way his lashes lay dark on his cheeks while he opened his mouth . . . it all worked.
“Make it wet,” John said, when he finally got his dick back in Dresden’s mouth. “Make a mess. Come on, Dresden, I know you know how to do that.”
He wanted Dresden to suck him so hard he drooled. He wanted the most obscene noises one man’s mouth could make, and he wanted to watch it happen.
Dresden did it all for him, and then a little extra credit. And if John liked giving orders, then Dresden damn well liked taking them, at least under very particular circumstances.
He kept freezing up, though, whenever John tried to go deeper. Even with his eyes half-crazed and his mouth working frantically, there was still that moment of no. John kept trying to slow down, to come right up to the line without crossing it. But Dresden just made muffled, impatient noises and tugged none too gently at the hairs on his thighs.
It was as if that’s what Dresden was after. The resistance point, the refusal. Like he was testing himself.
And Dresden kept looking at him. John couldn’t exactly ask him to stop staring, even though it was subliminally uncomfortable. So he stared back instead, matching Dresden intensity for intensity until it was as if the staring was what they were really doing, and the sex was just an afterthought.
He sat back after a while, keeping his weight off Dresden’s chest. One hand curled automatically around his dick, stroking once, twice. He could come like this. But that hadn’t been what he’d wanted. He hadn’t made plans for this night, not until he found Dresden waiting for him, and any floridly creative imaginings had collapsed into the simplest, oldest fantasy: get inside him, as deep as you can.
But that was before he’d known exactly what Dresden had brought to the table. What John wanted hadn’t changed, not in substance. But maybe a bit in flavor. He kept thinking of Fiametta, and then ten months later Kyle Krattman, the first man he’d ever really noticed. He’d never forgotten those nights, the surprises, the delights, the disappointments. And he’d never, ever forgotten either of them.
John had never known he was subject to the widespread fascination with virginity: his own was long-abandoned, of course, and if he’d ever been presented with anyone else’s before, he didn’t know about it. But this was Dresden, and if Dresden was going to remember this night for the rest of his long, long wizard life . . .
“Are you going to let me fuck you?” John asked.
Dresden went back to the big-eyed panic routine just like that, but he didn’t hesitate for a second before nodding. John wished with sudden fierceness that he could tell the difference between conviction and desire: had Dresden committed himself because that’s how he paid his debts, or did he just . . . want?
“Over, on your knees,” John said, getting out of the way. “Here, take it off.” He peeled Dresden’s t-shirt up his back, nearly strangling him with it.
“Okay, stars,” Dresden said, freeing himself and tossing it away. He pushed up on his hands, looking back over his shoulder and making a face. “Of course you like it like this,” he said.
“It’ll be better for you,” John said, distracted as he dug for condoms. Also it was satisfying, in a bestial sort of way, to have Harry Dresden on his hands and knees, waiting for a good screwing.
“You don’t have to do that,” Dresden said. “I mean, if you don’t want to?”
John paused with a packet between his fingers. “Beg pardon?”
“The rubber,” Dresden said. John didn’t think he’d heard anyone say that in fifteen years. “I can’t catch anything, and it’s not like you’re ever careless anyway,” Dresden said. His shrug was casual, but he was watching John with keen interest, like this really mattered to him.
John glanced down at the packet, hesitating. The last time he’d had unsafe sex he’d been maybe twenty five. The precautions were so habitual by now, abandoning them felt transgressive. Though at the same time, that inner twenty-five-year-old was indulging in some absurd fist pumps and chanting oh hell yeah.
And Harry Dresden didn’t stand for other people’s rules, did he?
John dropped the packet back into the drawer. Dresden turned his face quickly away, hiding his expressive mouth with a hand, like he’d done back at the café.
“What?” John said, uneasy.
“Nothing.” Dresden dropped his hand; he was attempting nonchalance and missing it by a mile. “Weren’t you about to get yours?”
John knelt up behind him and ran his hands down from Dresden’s shoulders to his waist. He was long and lean everywhere; John could practically see the intricate pullied workings of his bones and tendons and muscles every time he moved.
There was a messy, circular scar just a hair clear of his spine to the left. It was rough under John’s fingers as he swept them up and then down again.
“Nice and slow,” John said, because Dresden might be talking a good game, but his back was stiff as a board.
And oddly, there was no rush. John was raring to go at the slightest provocation, but he was not, in fact, twenty-five anymore. He had self-restraint down to a science by now.
Besides, they had plenty of time, they had—
John stopped, his hands tightening on Dresden’s hips. Today was December 21. They had time: they had the longest night of the year.
“Sunset to sunrise,” he said. “That was our agreement.”
“. . . Yeah?” Dresden said.
John inhaled through his nose. “A summons from your Queen would violate those terms.”
“She won’t,” Dresden said.
“It is the Winter Solstice,” John said. “And you are her Knight.”
“Yeah,” Dresden said. “But she also understands debts. Boy howdy, does she ever.”
“So you’re excused from tonight’s duties?” John said. “To come to me?” Did that make sleeping with him the frying pan or the fire?
“Yep,” Dresden said. “Clever, huh?”
John answered by pushing two fingers into him. He was still slick from earlier, but he twisted and whined.
“You’re using me to protect you from her,” John said, driving his fingers deep. “Maybe you should have thought a little further ahead when you gave it up to her, hmm?”
“Maybe you should stop talking about something that’s none of your fucking business and that you don’t understand,” Dresden said, back bowing.
“Maybe you should remember why you’re here,” John snapped. “You made yourself my business.”
“Like I could ever forget,” Dresden snarled. Then, in exactly the same tone, “Okay, fuck this, come on.”
John knelt up, furious in that way Dresden could provoke where it came all the way up to the surface without stopping to ask permission. He spread Dresden open on two fingers, and popped the head of his dick in.
Dresden yowled and yanked away violently enough to leave the sensitive head of John’s dick aching.
“Hell’s bells!” Dresden said, sounding shocked.
John reached out to him, actually a little contrite. That was not the sort of thing he wanted Dresden to carry away with him and remember always.
But Dresden wasn’t panicking. Dresden was pushing back into his hands.
“Okay, go,” he said. Then when John still hesitated, “Now, Marcone, before I come to my senses.”
John paused just long enough for more slick, moving so fast he flung the cap halfway across the room. Then he took hold of Dresden’s thigh, spread him open, and pushed all the way home in one stroke.
Dresden stopped breathing; his back was rock-hard under John’s spread palm. Then he came back to life, his whole body heaving. But he wasn’t pulling away.
“Son-of-a-bitch,” he snarled. “Marcone, you son-of-a-bitch.”
“Hurt?” John asked, holding very still.
“No, it’s great,” Dresden said, with enough sarcasm to fell a tree.
“Too much?” He took hold of Dresden’s hips, gritting his teeth in preparation to withdraw. Some people just didn’t like this, and it would absolutely be the perfect unfair thing that Harry Dresden was here at last with him now, and one of them.
All Dresden’s sound and fury had suddenly damped down.
“Dresden?” John said. “Too much?”
Dresden shook his head. The back of his neck was bright red. John suppressed the urge to tell him to use his words.
“All right,” John said. “Here, I’m holding still.” He nestled his hips right up against Dresden’s ass, stomping hard on the urge to thrust just once, get that tiny bit of friction.
He reached around and took hold of Dresden’s dick. It was flagging, and John cradled it warmly, squeezing from base to tip. He balanced on his knees, reaching with his other hand to squeeze at the head and rub his fingertips back and forth until Dresden’s slit was wet.
“There we go,” John murmured. He kept at him, working steadily, not moving otherwise. Dresden slowly hardened in his hands. He stopped gasping, his breathing slowed; John was startled to realize after several minutes that their breathing had slid into synchrony. John’s hands were slick with lube; he was jerking Dresden steadily with that wet smacking sound that sent a sympathetic twinge straight to his own balls.
“Mmm,” Dresden said very quietly.
“That’s right,” John murmured. “Just keep going, you’re doing great.”
“Fuck you,” Dresden said. But there was no bite in his voice, just heat.
“It’s a thought,” John said. “But let’s focus on the moment.”
He got Dresden there, eventually, working him long and good with both hands. He jerked Dresden off for a long time, teasing at his glans with his fingertips. Then when Dresden was really into it, John went at him faster, reaching further down to play with his balls. He was a little rough, like he knew Dresden liked now, and Dresden said “ah!” for him, his voice jagged.
Dresden started moving eventually. Involuntarily at first, John was sure, just little pushes into John’s hands and then a shocked catch in his breath when he remembered exactly where John’s dick was. He forced himself to stillness for a while, but John knew it wouldn’t last. He tugged on Dresden’s balls, running his fingernails lightly over the tender skin.
Dresden made a noise of mulish frustration, and moved again. Deliberately this time, with a little grunt of relief and discomfort. It wasn’t much, just the shallowest rocking of his hips, but it was enough.
“Yeah,” John heard himself say. He was jerking Dresden viciously fast now. “Come on, Dresden, that’s it, do it to yourself.”
Dresden came in his hands, pressing forward and back with a full-body shudder. His muffled sound of relief turned to a yelp as John squeezed him tight, gripping his balls, and slid in and out of him in one long, perfect stroke.
“Fuck!” Dresden said.
“Just—“ John said, and ran out of words. He held Dresden’s wet dick in his hand, eased up on his balls, and fucked into him half a dozen times. Too hard, he was sure, his hips slapping against Dresden’s ass, but it was done, he was there – and he shoved as deep as he could to come.
Dresden dozed a little after they disengaged. Or at least did a good job faking it. John lay beside him, keeping his eyes on the ceiling. It eventually sank in through his hazy bliss that he’d never managed to take his sweater off. He contemplated that for a while, and eventually sat up enough to do it. He flopped back, rolling towards Dresden.
Dresden was one of those people who was actually even more disproportionate at rest. He was ridiculously long, even on his side with his shoulders tucked down and his arms around himself. He looked tired.
There was a fresh scar on his chest, a neat, round patch of shiny skin expertly placed over the heart. A very good shot. John leaned up on an elbow, matching the entrance wound to the messy splash of exit on Dresden’s back. He pressed a thumb to Dresden’s chest, testing the give of the scar tissue.
Dresden’s eyes popped open immediately.
“Does it hurt?” John asked.
“Not really,” Dresden said. “Tugs, sometimes. Down deep, you know?”
“It probably will for a while,” John said. He indicated a scar of his own high up on his right shoulder. “This did for almost a decade.”
Dresden leaned in to look, obviously curious. John let him poke, but shook his head when Dresden’s long fingers started exploring the back of his shoulder.
“No exit,” he said. “It broke my collarbone, which slowed it down enough to lodge in my shoulder blade. It’s still in there.”
“Oh, I’ve got one of those,” Dresden said, indicating a stippling on the inside of his forearm. “Except it’s just an iron pellet.”
“How did you do that?” John asked. Those were old scars, but they didn’t look like anything he’d ever seen before.
“Eh, just this drill my teacher came up with,” Dresden said vaguely.
John sat up and rolled him over. He lifted that arm, turning it into the light. “Any more of those?” he asked.
“Nah,” Dresden said. He was watching John again, eyes dark and thoughtful. And being surprisingly docile under the manhandling.
John inspected his arm anyway. He measured Dresden’s wrist with his fingers – it was small and bony – then stretched his hand out flat – it was giant and bony. The pulse beat steady in his wrist. Dresden’s other hand was the one he’d burnt years ago; it didn’t move as smoothly, and it wouldn’t actually uncurl to perfect flatness. But from what John could guess, it shouldn’t even still be attached, so there was that.
“What are you doing?” Dresden asked, bemused.
“Inspecting the merchandise,” John said lightly.
Dresden rolled his eyes, but he didn’t feel the need to otherwise respond, surprisingly.
John looked at him everywhere. He ran his fingers up the soft skin on the insides of Dresden’s arms, counted his ribs, poked a finger into his belly button, played with his nipples. Dresden made a number of intemperate comments upon his general character when John fitted his hands around his throat.
John ignored him. He smoothed Dresden’s eyebrows, scraped his knuckles along his stubble, delicately touched a fingertip to his translucent eyelid and watched him blink it away.
“If you’re planning on checking my teeth, you should know I bite,” Dresden said.
“Oh really?” John said, grinning.
He lifted Dresden’s legs to watch the muscles in his thighs move, then petted the soft hairs near his groin and the coarser ones on his calves. He investigated the pale skin in the bends of Dresden’s knees, then bent his feet back and forth. Dresden went, “mrrr,” when John ran his thumbs up his arches.
John rolled him over then. He touched every scar on Dresden’s long back, and scratched his nails down the groove of his spine, between the planes of strong muscle. Dresden was bony in the limbs, even a bit stringy. But he carried his strength at the core, in his wide shoulders and muscled back. John grabbed his ass in two handfuls, grinning as Dresden said something muffled and incomprehensibly insulting into a pillow. John spread him open, then, and ran his fingers up and down Dresden’s crack.
“Stoppit,” Dresden said, flushing and wriggling.
“No,” John said, and rubbed the pad of his thumb over Dresden’s hole. He was red and a little swollen, but it didn’t look bad at all. Tender though, to judge by the noises Dresden was making. “If you tell me you don’t like it, I’ll stop,” John said. “And if you tell me you do like it, I’ll put my tongue in you.”
“Eww,” Dresden said with involuntary honesty.
“You sure about that?” John asked, still rubbing. “Think about it. Don’t lie, now.”
Dresden was thinking about it, John could tell by the spreading flush and the sudden unevenness to his breath. “I—“ Dresden said. Then he shut up, and John sensed the obstinate finality in it.
John laughed again. “Roll over,” he said. swinging a leg across as Dresden did, and nestling their crotches up together.
“You serious?” Dresden said, looking down with some incredulity. “Already?”
“Well, I do want to get my time’s worth,” John said.
“Yeah, but you’re how old?” Dresden asked insultingly.
John rolled his eyes. “You’re the wizard,” he said. “Don’t you have some method of solving these little inconveniences?”
“Well,” Dresden said, grinning. “If you really want me to improvise some magic on your manparts, sure—“
“Hang on,” John started.
But Dresden had already gathered their two dicks up in his giant mitt. “Abracadabra, allaka-ba-zent,” he intoned. “Makes all it touches, big and tumescent!”
Something crackled between their pelvises, and John’s involuntary laugh choked off. They both stared down.
“Er,” Dresden said. “. . . Oops?”
“You,” John said helplessly. “Did you just accidentally – you are the most ridiculous human being I have ever—“
“I can try to undo it?” Dresden said, making ominously arcane gestures with his free hand. “Dispel the energies with—“
“Oh no you don’t,” John said.
They tussled; John wasn’t even really sure what for, but their dicks were rubbing between their bellies and it didn’t seem to matter. They rolled over twice, grappling with each other’s unbreakable holds.
And slid seamlessly into a dirty grind, with Dresden flat on his back and John plastered to him, their hips moving together.
“Put your legs around my waist,” John said roughly. He lifted Dresden’s hips, angling him. “Is it all right – can –“
“Oh, stop flattering yourself, I can handle it,” Dresden said, sneering.
John felt himself grinning. He was pumping with adrenaline, just as ready to go as if he hadn’t gotten his half an hour ago. It was magic. “I’ll keep that in mind,” he said.
It was different that time. John was far less careful, and Dresden was far noisier. They slid up the mattress, Dresden moving with uncoordinated fervor under him.
It was the best sex of John’s life. That came to him while he was scrabbling at Dresden, trying and failing to shove his hips up far enough to get deeper. It was inelegant and too fast, and nothing extraordinarily creative. But John had never gotten it so right before.
“You can’t get this when you’re dead,” he panted to Dresden. “You hear me?”
“I know,” Dresden said. He tossed his head back on the pillow, and John went for his throat, leaving a line of overlapping teeth marks. “Stars,” Dresden whined. He grabbed John’s hands, rubbing at his palms until he found the twin lines of scar where Raith had cut into him. “Stars, John, I know.”
They both slept after that, though not for long. John was floating on a cloud of physical well-being, and something more fundamental that he felt no need to name. It woke him needy and thrumming in the late evening, and he introduced Dresden to the singular pleasure of waking with your dick in someone’s mouth.
They utterly destroyed the bed, sticky sheets a twisted mess, the torn bedspread leaking stuffing everywhere. John got them into the bathroom after midnight for a long hot shower, which apparently was the sort of hedonistic experience that really got Dresden going. They put on the bare minimum clothes and went down to raid the fridge, each bolting down a few thousand calories like they’d just finished a triathlon.
Dresden always looked hawkish and a bit eerie in low light. It was just how the shadows played on a face like his. But he was damp-haired and amused in the light from the fridge, just a guy in John’s kitchen. He looked good there.
They retreated back up to a guest room, where they slept a bit more, and then woke again.
“What is this, collect the whole set?” Dresden complained around three thirty. “Because if you tell me you have an actual checklist—“
“Less bitching,” John said crisply. “Now, just crook your fingers a little bit – more – ah. Again.”
“You are so spoiled,” Dresden said, listening to every instruction with an attention and exactitude John would have sworn he was incapable of.
He slept again around five. He was punchy and exhausted, his body one big throb of satisfaction.
Dresden woke him getting out of bed. John rolled over, making no secret of watching him dress. The light outside the blinds was gray.
Dresden pulled his t-shirt on, then padded back to the bed. He loomed there for a minute, expression hidden in the dimness.
“Well,” John said. “And we’re even.”
Dresden made a quiet sound. “Yeah,” he said. “I guess we are.” There was a brief silence. Dresden eased back on his heels, then breathed in sharply and surged down, planting his hands on the mattress. “There’s one thing we didn’t do,” he said.
“There are a lot of things we didn’t do,” John said, a little pained to learn the limitations of Dresden’s sexual creativity.
“Hell’s bells, do not tell me,” Dresden said. “I just meant—“ and he darted in and kissed John on the mouth.
John missed the first few moments out of sheer bogglement, then he caught the back of Dresden’s neck, rolled toward him and sat up into the kiss. They both must taste foul after the long night, after having their mouths everywhere on each other. But it didn’t really matter.
Dresden pulled away, panting. “Sun’s up,” he said.
“Ah,” John said, and let him go.
But Dresden hovered there anyway, breathing close. “Hell,” he said. He sounded exhausted. “Marcone. I’m sorry.”
John frowned. “For what?”
Dresden sighed. “Yeah,” he said quietly. “Exactly. See you around, Marcone.”
And he was gone.
John stayed still for a while, propped on his elbows and watching the sun rise.
Well. That was that. He’d spent his favor, exacted his due. And Dresden had apologized. What the hell was that? John was missing something, clearly.
. . . And so what if he was? The point of this exercise was to quench his impulses. Definitely not to start haring off after every stray detail.
And it couldn’t be that important, of course. If it were, he would know it.
It’s not like I don’t know. It’s not like I haven’t been told several thousand times in my life; it’s not like I haven’t said it to Molly a couple thousand times more.
You may be a wizard, you may think you’re powerful. You may actually be powerful. But you do not fuck around with magic you don’t understand. You have to know what you’re doing, and how it works, and why. Because if you don’t . . . You might think it’s okay, you might have gotten a result. But there is always a catch, and it will always catch you.
Yeah, I would have done it anyway. It was my life I was getting back. And yeah, it wouldn’t have helped if I’d had any warning.
I had no idea how the spell would work until it did, and I came back. Through Marcone, like light through water. And in passing, I knew him. More specific, more intimate, more total than any way I knew him before.
I didn’t stop to think. There were two people I needed, and Thomas and Marcone fit the bill, the pattern of energies I was working from. And I just thought sure, okay, no problem. To the extent I thought about it at all. Brother, enemy. That made sense, in a vaguely poetical way, and otherwise I didn’t really care.
I shouldn’t have agreed to his favor. That one I might not have done, if I’d been thinking clearly. If I hadn’t been so fascinated. If I hadn’t needed another look into him.
I wish I hadn’t. I wish I didn’t know what it’s like to tell him to hurry up, because I want him inside me even though I shouldn’t.
He tried to make it so sordid. But then, when he’d forget . . . I know what joy looks like on him now.
I am so fucking stupid. I thought it was brother, enemy. It wasn’t. It was brother, lover.
In this consuming, terrifying, storming, helpless way that he’s lived in for years. He never had any choice about it. It just is. I just . . . am. It still makes my hands shake when I think about it.
And he has no idea.
Which probably makes him smarter than me. Because I wish I didn’t either.