It hadn't been my fault. I want to state that for the record, before rumors start spreading.
In my defense, I've never had to worry about cameras or any of those freaky technological thingamajigs. Usually, they don't work when I'm around. There was no way in hell I could have known that the newest reporter for the Arcane was some kind of collector nut, who loved using antique cameras for her shots. Those things weighed a ton. No one in their right mind would carry them around; they belonged in museums.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. You're probably wondering what I'm talking about. Well, yeah … that.
Somehow, I managed to make the front page of the Arcane—you have to give it to classic cameras; they were damn reliable around magic. That in itself wasn't the problem. I'd figured rather prominently in a number of articles in the Arcane before, what with being the only professional wizard in the book and all that. My ex-girlfriend used to write a syndicated column for the paper. That's how we met.
Making the front page of the only newspaper in Chicago that covered paranormal and supernatural events shouldn't have been a big deal, right?
The article wasn't about me doing magic, or saving the world yet again (usually a side effect of trying to save my own ass), or rescuing helpless humans in need (my poorly paying job). I could have lived with that.
What I couldn't live with was a piece of journalistic trash titled "The Outfit seals business deal with magical community," in big black letters, on top of a picture of me kissing John Marcone. With tongue. You could see a bit of it if you squinted. And that, ladies and gentlemen, that had so not been my fault.
I was going to kill John 'Harry-don't-be-such-a-prude-and-kiss-me-already' Marcone. It was going to be a gruesome death. It would go down on the annals of White Council history as the best case of we-should-have-known. Morgan was going to cream his pants when his paranoiac suspicions about my psychopathic evil ways were finally proven true.
I didn't care. I was going to kill Marcone.
My phone rang. I glared at it, and it skipped a ring before it went on. The newspaper had just come out, not many people could have had a chance to read it. Right?
Gingerly, I picked up the receiver. "Yes?" It was safer not to identify myself, just in case.
It was the soon-to-be-dead John Marcone. "Harry, it's good that I reached you." He had his business voice on, flat and devoid of emotion. You could never tell if he was about to order an execution, a hostile take-over or just another bottle of wine.
"I'm going to kill you," I said. Since I'd decided on the path of darkness, I felt I should go through all the clichés. Announcing my evil plans of murder and mayhem was part and parcel. I didn't care what the Evil Overlord List said. I wanted Marcone to know what he had coming.
"Good, you've read the news already." He seemed totally unconcerned. "When the FBI comes to talk to you, don't tell them anything. I'll have my lawyers get you out of there within minutes. Half an hour tops."
"The FBI?" I squeaked. "The FBI? What does the FBI have to do with anything?" I'd been fearing Murphy's reaction, the Carpenters', the Alphas', Susan's, Thomas's, stars and stones Bob's. The FBI hadn't been on my radar.
"Really, Harry." John's chiding tone grated on my nerves. "Some sections of Italian private entrepreneurship show their support with a kiss. They'll want to know if you know anything of interest about my business. Just tell them that we're involved in a romantic relationship, and you know nothing about my work."
"I know nothing about your work!" I screamed into the phone. The line was filled with static for a moment. I took a deep breath and tried to calm down. "And we're not involved in a romantic relationship. We were. I'm breaking up with you, scumbag."
"Excellent angle," John said. "Just tell them that we're over. They won't believe you, but keep insisting on it until my lawyers get you out."
"It's the truth," I growled.
"Hm, that was almost convincing," John said. "Keep practicing. I'm sorry, Harry, I have the chief editor of the Tribune on the other line. I need to make sure that they don't reprint the picture. We'll see each other tonight."
"The Tribune?" I gasped, but John had already hung up. I slammed the phone down with more force than necessary. "I wasn't practicing, you ass. We're truly over," I groused.
Mister jumped down from his spot on the couch and gave me a dirty look for interrupting his sleep with all the racket.
"We are," I insisted, feeling kind of sorry for myself. Mouse whined in sympathy and licked my hand. That's the reason why dogs are a man's best friend instead of cats.
John, the asshole, had been right. The FBI came. I told them that it was all a big misunderstanding and that I had no business dealings whatsoever with the Outfit. They didn't believe me. Big surprise. They tried to do the whole good cop, bad cop thing, but when you've faced down the Queen of Air and Darkness, a couple of Denarians, the White Council and a bunch of Red, Black and White Court vampires, an FBI agent is just an FBI agent.
I entertained myself plotting the best, most efficient ways to kill John without it being traced back to me. Hellfire? Entropy curse? Clean shot through the head? Everything had possibilities.
John's lawyers got me out before I could make up my mind, and I headed home. Murphy was waiting for me, her mouth set in an angry, tight line.
"Hi, Murph." I waved my hand tentatively at her.
"Harry, what the hell were you thinking?" For someone who's just five foot nothing, her voice could carry anger like a professional wrestler.
"I can explain." I raised both hands, trying to placate her.
"Jesus, Harry, you swore to me that you didn't work for Marcone. I believed you," she said, balling her hands into fists.
I took a tentative step back. Murphy's control wasn't all that good when she felt betrayed or threatened. I'd seen her in action, and she could beat the crap out of me without breaking a sweat. I wouldn't even have time to activate my protection shield; she was that good.
"I'm not working for him, Murph," I reassured her. "We were just drunk," I said.
Don't look at me like that. I'll have you know that that excuse worked for two weeks before John and I were finally forced to admit that alcohol could justify the first three rounds, but it didn't explain the next dozen.
"It was the anniversary of—that's not important. Anyway, there were huge amounts of Mac's best ale involved. That stuff packs a punch. One thing led to the other and … we were very drunk," I finished lamely.
I didn't feel it necessary to mention that the first time John and I got drunk together had been the day John returned the Shroud to Father Forthill over four years ago. I'd taken two cases of Mac's best and appeared at his place uninvited. We managed to get wasted without any sex happening. Hell's bells, we managed just fine without sex for three years afterwards.
I was still claiming that the batch of ale I got from Mac last time (seven months ago, not that I was counting or anything) had been off somehow. It was a great explanation—or it would have been—except for the part where it kept happening.
"Give me some fucking credit, Dresden," Murphy said. "I'm not falling for the drunken gay sex red herring. If you've caved and decided to work for the Outfit, have the balls to say it to my face. It's my career at stake here. Do you know how much heat I'm going to get once IA finds out that you've been initiated?"
"Initi—what? Karrin, I'm telling the truth. I'm not with the Outfit. I'm just banging Marcone." My face flushed. I could feel heat spreading down the back of my neck. It was the first time I had to admit to anyone that we … well … you know. Out loud it sounded so much worse than inside my head. "I was banging Marcone," I hurried to correct myself. "That's over now. We broke up. I dumped him. We are no more. We have ceased to be. We are exes."
Murphy wasn't impressed by my Monty Python. "This isn't a joke, Harry." She got in my face, one hundred pounds of seething anger about to blow up. "Marcone kills people for a living. He sells drugs. He has half the politicians in the city in his pocket and at least one quarter of the PD. He's a monster. Not the kind of monster you fight with magic, but the more perfidious, human kind. And you've agreed to keep his damn secrets."
"I—what? What secrets?" She'd totally lost me.
"Don't!" Her nostrils flared. She took a step back, visibly fighting for control. "Just don't. I was with Organized Crime before I landed in SI. I know what kissing Marcone means. Whatever secrets you've agreed to keep for him, I want you to know that as long as you're protecting his trust, you're betraying mine. Goodbye, Harry."
"Murph, wait," I called. I tried to catch her wrist, but she saw it coming and skirted away, leaving me grasping empty air. She took of the amulet granting her access to my wards and threw it on the couch.
"Well, fuck," I said, after she'd closed the door. That didn't bode well.
You'd think that would be the lowest point of my day, but you'd be wrong.
My phone rang again, and I jumped to get it. "You're so dead, scumbag," I growled into the receiver.
"So it's true then?" Eb's voice said.
"Uh … Eb, how are you?" I said with fake cheerfulness.
"I'm fine, boy. How are you? Has he tried anything yet?" Eb asked. "Don't do anything rash, Hoss. The Council is keeping an eye on you." He gave a frustrated growl. "When I get my hands on Marcone, they'll need a map to find the pieces."
"Uh … ." Mr. Eloquence, that was me. "Eb, you don't need to protect my virtue," I said. For a second there, McCoy had sounded more serious than I liked.
"Who does that upstart mundane does he think he is?" Eb continued as if I hadn't spoken. "Threatening to kill you in public, hiding behind his humanity. He knows that you can't defend yourself. If you kill a human the Council will be on you. Don't worry, Hoss, I'll handle that uppity Baron myself."
"Eb, it was just a kiss," I tried to explain.
"You don't need to sugarcoat it for me, Hoss," Eb said. "I was in Sicilia when the Cosa Nostra was just getting started two centuries ago. I know damn well what a kiss on the mouth from a mafia boss means. If he thinks I'm going to let him kill you, he has another thing coming."
"Eb, look, really, you're taking this out of context. He isn't trying to kill me." I choked over the next words, "We're having an affair. That's all."
"Hoss, don't lie to me. You like women." He said it with the same off-handed conviction people use to comment on how blue the sky is at noon on a cloudless day. Unshakable.
"No—well, yes. Of course I like women, but I also like—" I stopped, unable to say the word. It was one thing to have a secret, drunken (shut up, we were drunk the first time) gay affair no one knew about. It was another to acknowledge you liked men, which I didn't. I didn't. "I like Marcone," I admitted, the words strangled.
Hell's bells! Where was Nicodemus when you truly needed him? I could have used an apocalypse right then.
"Hoss," Eb said, his tone soothing. "I know you don't want me to interfere in your affairs, but you don't have anything to prove to me. I know you could get rid of that arrogant Baron without my help, but there's no need for you to catch the heat. Relax, I'll handle it." He hung up.
I stared at the receiver in shock. That wasn't good, that wasn't good at all. I'd spent the best part of my morning coming up with creative ways to kill John, true, but I was afraid that when Eb talked about 'handling the uppity Baron,' his methods would be more … terminal.
I dialed Marcone's number. Cujo picked up the phone. "I want to talk with John," I said.
"He isn't available at the moment," Cujo answered.
"No, you don't understand. This is urgent. Life or death urgent." Keep calm, Harry, just keep calm. I couldn't have the line going dead on me.
"Mr. Dresden, Mr. Marcone is cleaning up the fallout of your little indiscretion. He doesn't have the time to deal with your sexual identity crisis," Cujo said in a clipped voice.
"What? My indiscretion?" To say I was appalled would've been an understatement. "It was Marcone's fault, just so you know," I said. Then, I added, "Also, I'm not having a sexual identity crisis. I have no problems whatsoever admitting that I like … ."
"Dick? Taking it up the ass? Biting the pillow?" Cujo suggested, his voice oh so sweet. The asshole.
"For all you know Marcone it's the one who likes taking it up the ass," I protested feebly.
I could almost hear Cujo's smile when he spoke next. "Maybe. Unlike you, he doesn't need to kiss and tell to assert his masculinity. Don't bother me again with your sexual insecurities, Dresden."
"I'm not sexually insecure," I snarled at the dial tone for all the good it did me.
Things were getting out of hand fast. Too fast. There was nothing much I could do, other than fervently hope that Ebenezar knew better than to aim a satellite at Chicago. If my city got hurt because of John I was going to be very cross.
I peered outside my apartment, fearing a horde of paparazzi or something, but no one was there. Either John wasn't as infamous as he believed himself to be, or he could control the press better than politicians and stars could. I was putting my money on the latter. Knowing that you might end up in a lake wearing concrete shoes ought to be a bigger deterrent than defamation law suits. John was an overachiever; he'd probably go with both routes: Sue them for all they were worth and make them disappear afterwards. I was ashamed of myself, but a part of me was glad that John could call newspapers and tell them, "Don't reprint the story or else."
Despite the lack of reporters, I decided to stay home and not bother with my office. Besides, my day had been screwed to hell already. I was entitled to a long sulk.
I was just barely getting started when someone knocked on my door. "Harry, it's me, Thomas. Let me in."
I sighed, resigned, wondering what Thomas might want from me. "Hi," I said and waved him in. As usual, Thomas looked like a movie star, all fluid grace and perfect lines. Intellectually, I knew it was his vampire heritage, but still it was sad that he'd taken all the good-looking genes and left none for me.
He smiled at me, all teeth and charm. Alarm bells started to ring inside my head. Thomas turning his charm on never boded well. Oh, he wouldn't feed on me or anything, but he only used the innocent boyish smile when he wanted me to agree to something he knew I'd hate.
"What do you want?" I narrowed my eyes, watching him with suspicion.
Thomas's smile widened. "Why? Can't I just visit my brother?"
"Thomas," I warned him. I wasn't in the mood for mind games.
He chuckled. "Oh, fine, I do have an ulterior motive." He took my wrist, careful not to touch bare skin, and dragged me to the couch. He pushed me gently until I was sitting down and leaned close, no sense of personal space whatsoever. "I want a kiss, too. I promise I won't bite … or eat. Not a even a tiny nibble."
I gaped at him. "You want a what?"
"A kiss," Thomas said. "I don't see why Marcone should get to kiss you when I don't. I have dibs. It was my idea to use bogus relationships as a blind. How come you never kissed me?"
"You're my brother," I said, slightly appalled at the idea of kissing Thomas.
"So?" he asked.
Right, of course that wouldn't mean anything to him. He was a fucking Raith. I rubbed my face and pressed the heels of my hands into my eyes. It was a good thing that I wasn't prone to headaches. The day merited one. "Thomas, my relationship with Marcone isn't fake. John and I have been lovers for months." It was getting easier to admit out loud. I hadn't even stuttered that time. Go team Harry!
"Oh, please, as if I'm going to believe that," Thomas said. "I know how these things work. Marcone wanted to prove to some rival that you were on his side to show his power. Everyone knows that a kiss on the mouth is how the mafia shows that they're allied with someone. I bet he paid the Arcane to have that article printed."
Sadly, that made a kind of sense. If you were totally paranoid. "He didn't kiss me to prove anything." I was starting to get angry. Why was that so difficult to believe? "We've been shagging for months. The sex is awesome. Best I ever had. I like taking it up the ass!"
Hah! That hadn't been so bad. Too bad Cujo wasn't listening.
Thomas's smile faltered. "Harry, you don't need to lie to me. I'm your brother."
"I'm not lying, damn it!" I spat.
Thomas backed away, raising his hands. "Gee, no need to get pissy. See if I care that you have a new fake boyfriend."
My jaw dropped. I stared at him, realization dawning. "Thomas, are you jealous?"
He spluttered, "Of course not. What kind of stupid question is that?"
"You are jealous," I said, taken aback.
Thomas crossed his arms. "I'm not."
"Are too." Then, before he could protest further, I leaned forward and placed a soft kiss on his cheek.
Thomas went utterly still, watching me with big, startled eyes. "Oh." He raised his fingers and touched the spot where my lips had pressed against him.
"Happy now?" I asked.
"How come Marcone rated tongue?" Thomas asked, eyes narrowed.
"You're worse than Bob, you know that?"
He pressed his lips into a thin line. "I resent that comment. You aren't really having sex with Marcone, are you?"
"Would you believe me if I tell you that I was?" I asked.
"Nope," Thomas said.
"Of course you wouldn't." I rolled my eyes. "My life would be too easy if people would believe me when I tell them the truth."
"Whatever," Thomas said, standing up. "I'll let myself out."
"Do that," I said, falling back onto the couch and closing my eyes. Sometimes, it just sucked to be me.
Once Thomas was gone, I gathered my duster and my staff and left the house. It didn't make for a good hiding place. At this rate, I'd end up talking to Father Forthill, the Alphas or worse yet, Molly. A strategic retreat seemed the best option.
I slid inside the Blue Beetle and headed for John's place. No body believed me when I told them John and I were involved. I doubted anyone would think to look for me there. Security let me in without giving me any pain. They didn't even look at me funny. Hendricks, on the other hand, started glaring the moment he saw me approach, but he pointed me to John's office anyway.
John was sitting behind his desk, stacks of papers sprawled all over the table. His computer was already turned off, as were the two monitors on his desk. The guards must have sent some kind of message warning him I was coming.
"Harry," John said. His face didn't show any emotion, which just meant that John was worried about what I'd do and trying to hide it. I'd learned a thing or two over the last seven months. John's biggest tell was that he didn't have any tells at all.
"Hi," I said, closing the door behind me.
John blinked. "What're you doing here?"
"What? I'm not welcome any more?" My voice came out weaker than I intended. It had been a shitty day.
"Always," John said. He rolled his chair back and beckoned me with his hand.
I went to him and sat on his lap, for once not caring about my legs being too long to manage the position comfortably. "I'm not sexually insecure," I said, curling in on myself so that I could rest my head on his neck. He closed his arms around me, and for the first time that day I could relax.
John lifted a hand and caressed my cheek softly. "Mr. Hendricks is a very intelligent man, but like most intelligent men, he sometimes believes he knows more than he actually does. Don't listen to him."
"I wouldn't anyway," I lied. I leaned into John's caress, rubbing my cheek against his hand, enjoying the way my stubble caught on his calloused fingers. "No one believed me. I told everyone I was involved with you, and no one believed me. There was a picture in the paper! What more proof do they need?"
"It's the same as with magic, Harry. People only believe what they feel safe believing, no matter the evidence." John's fingers combed through my hair. "Did you want them to know?"
"Yes … no. I'm not sure," I admitted, too confused myself to know the answer. "I thought I didn't, but then it just pissed me off. It's not that far-fetched. We make a good team."
John chuckled, a soft, warm sound that eased some of the tension coiled inside me, melting the cold anger in my heart. "We make the best team, but we are quite the unlikely couple."
I nosed at his neck, burring into the hollow between his chin and collarbone. I loved the smell of him, a custom-made sandal wood perfume mixed with expensive silk hiding faint traces of leather and gun oil underneath all. "I want them to know. I want them all to know that kissing you isn't some death sentence, or some business deal, or some ridiculous mafia initiation ritual or whatever. Kissing you means that I—"
His hands stopped mid-caress. I felt more than heard his quick inhale. He held absolutely still. The words I didn't say hung in the air between us.
I closed my eyes. I'd learned one thing from the disastrous end of my relationship with Susan. Hiding from your heart only brought more pain. Life didn't forgive cowardice.
I raised my head and looked at John. I cupped his face with my hands and lowered my mouth to his. It was a soft, chaste kiss, just a brushing of lips. I broke away and said, "I want them all to know that kissing you means that I love you."
"Harry," John gasped and jerked. He closed his eyes, fighting for some measure of control. His chest rose and fell. His fingers gripped my arms almost painfully as though he was afraid I might disappear if he let go.
I'd seen John face down Denarians, rival mob bosses, faeries, vampires, the fucking White Council. Yet, I'd never seen him at a loss for words, all his masks shattered. Desire, pain, hope and fear warred for control, plain for everyone to see. This was what John Marcone looked like when he was terrified.
In the face of his fear I felt bolder. "We should get married some day," I said, my mouth on autopilot. "I want to show them this thing we have is the real deal."
His head whipped up. He opened his mouth to say something and closed it again. I could see him fighting with the words, trying to answer and failing. Some of my confidence faltered, a nagging doubt coming to life inside my head. "Unless you don't want to?"
"Always," he whispered.