I saw a figure wandering into the halo of halogen light, drawn by the noise. An older man, hair so short it was almost stubble, but I’m guessing there would have been a healthy amount of gray mixed in with whatever the original color was if it had been long enough to tell. He looked tough, sturdy, but not tougher than the gnoll that had ambushed me.
“Run!” I yelled, helplessly, but the gnoll had seen him already-- it turned on him, baring its rotting teeth and charged. I tried to trip it with a wall of force, but the rain falling around us made my already weakened magic flicker and stutter, and all I did was make it stumble for half a second.
The stranger watched the loping thing dispassionately, waiting until it was almost within arm’s reach to cock a fist and step forward past its reaching talons and sock it in the chest.
It yelped, folded around the impact, and rolled backwards. The man looked at it for a moment, and then drove a work-booted foot down on its misformed skull. There was a final sounding crunch, and a splatter of ectoplasm.
“Thanks,” I said, and wiped some rainwater out of my eyes. I was lying in a puddle, so it didn’t really help. “Are you here to kill me?”
“You’re welcome. And no.” He came over, leaning down to offer me a hand up.
I took it gingerly, and he lifted me easily to my feet, brushing the parking lot gravel off of my back. Standing, I could see just how short he was, comparatively-- not even five-six. His shoulders were broader than mine, though, and he was obviously well maintained even under his baggy, patched clothes. His face was strong, jaw round, brows heavy; his nose had been broken at least once. His eyes were dark; he was eying me back, disapproving.
“Look at you, boy; what a mess you’ve managed to get yourself in. You’re soaked through. The hell are you doing in Ohio this time of year without a coat?” he scolded, shucking his green jacket-- one of those vintage German army jackets that have gotten popular lately, although his looked like he’d had it for quite a while. He shoved it at me.
“Sure. I’ll just get further in your debt, then.”
He paused, jacket still held out. “Right. The fae. I’m not one of them. Jake sent me.”
My lips thinned out. "That's a hell of a claim to make." And a hell of a time to show up. I’d just missed my last chance to get out of the state tonight, and gotten ambushed by the hungry local fauna. My savior’s timing was suspect at best.
The man nodded sagely at me. "Ah, didn’t know I was dropping a name. Union, is he?"
"Joking. Knowing your usual crowd, he's not just a janitor. Mind you, I guessed that; when one moment you're no-where and the next you're standing on an island blinking and wondering where the hell you got eyelids from, you gather the man responsible isn't just punching a timeclock."
The rain was slicking his faded polo shirt to his chest. I could see just how... trim, I guess, he was. Not chiseled or sculpted, just... compact. Powerful. Nothing on him spare or wasted, his body built for function. I also noticed the scars-- faint, raised lines on his neck, arms, what was visible of his collarbone. And then I looked closer and saw that the skin tone on his left forearm didn't actually match the one on his left bicep, just a few shades off; if he was wearing long sleeves you'd never notice. And his hands weren't quite the same size and shape.
"You're not human."
"Didn't claim to be, did I?"
"Well?" I prompted.
"I'm a household spirit made flesh, the manifestation of your faith and trust in a lifeless thing given life. Sort of a golem arrangement, I think. But then I'm not the one to ask about the particulars."
"Your name isn't Frank, is it?" I asked sardonically. "Middle name starts with N, last name Stein?" I finally took the jacket, slipping into it-- it was still warm. Comfortable. Like... well, slipping into an old jacket isn’t the best simile for that situation, is it? But even though the sleeves were way too short and the shoulders were baggy, it was warm and… sort of safe, I guess. It felt like it fit, even if it the way my wrists were poking out showed that it clearly didn’t.
"No, actually. I am German, though." Which was funny, because he did have a slight accent, but he sounded more like a jovial British drill sergeant than anything. "You can call me Blue."
"And Jake sent you."
"He did. Pulled me from the ether and told me you were getting in trouble in Ohio, and to go get you. Didn't tell me how you got here, mind you. Barely gave me directions. Cagey bastard. How did you get here, anyway? I saw that ten-speed-- thing-- you keep chained up at the docks,” he said with loathing. “But you didn’t bike all the way here.”
“Took the bus.”
He winced. “It hurts. Somehow I knew you had. Still hurts.”
“Something wrong with Greyhound?” I said shortly. It hadn’t been a fun trip; my terror that I would break down an entire bus full of people hadn’t made for a stress-free journey, and after nine hours of trying to contain my magic my nerves had been shot, I’d just about been sparking at the fingers, and I’d been ready to get off and walk. And since my client was refusing to pay, I barely had fare back; I wasn’t going to be eating till I got home.
“Oversized. Smelly. Gas-guzzling,” Blue said distastefully. “And impersonal. Everyone’s for the hiring. And that’s all right, I suppose, for some people.”
“Yeah, I don’t know if you know this, but I don’t actually have a car right now.”
“I know,” he said flatly. “But I do, as it happens. Borrowed it. Come on, let’s get you home.”
“Look. I appreciate the concern.” And I did. Sort of. It wasn’t often that I had someone looking out for me-- or who said they were looking out for me, at any rate. It also wasn’t often that depending on the kindness of strangers didn’t turn around and get you magically indebted or your soul eaten or your body possessed or come with some other nasty price tag. “But I’ll handle it.”
I patted at my back pocket-- I still had my wallet, with just enough for a return ticket-- and a murmured ventas brought my blasting rod and my staff-- halfway across the parking lot, where they’d been sent flying in my fight with the gnoll-- into my hands. My dufflebag was a few feet away, muddy and probably soaked through, just like me, but the only casualty had been my windbreaker. I wiped some more water from my eyes, pushed back the wet hair sticking to my forehead; it was a good thing I didn’t really feel the cold these days.
But there’s nothing pleasant about being soaked through, even if I could still feel my fingers, and I was going to have to find something to clean some of this mud off with or I wasn’t going to be allowed on the bus, fare or not. My stomach gurgled. I really wanted to go home. This whole case had been a bust-- the possessed man I’d come to help had been faking and I hadn’t even gotten paid for the trouble of saying so, never mind the high fee his wife had offered originally-- and I just didn’t have the energy for whatever, whoever, this stranger was.
I held up my blasting rod, just loosely enough to gesture with it but not threaten him-- he hadn’t actually given me a reason to distrust him beyond general principle-- and said “I’m going to get my stuff,” I jerked my chin at my bag, “and then I’m going to the bus station. Tell Jake his help is appreciated, but his timing has a case of acute lastseconditis.”
“Listen about as well as always,” Blue grumbled, and picked me up-- a princess hold, because a fireman carry would have left my legs and arms dragging.
“Hey! Kidnapping!” I wriggled, but his grip was like iron, even one-armed when he shifted me to reach down and grab my bag-- I about managed to pull his polo shirt out of place, trying to pry his arm away. He had a tattoo on one shoulder, I saw, as I dragged the sleeve up instead of forcing his elbow to give out. An angular symbol-- a V and W stacked on each other. Huh. He must be really into classic--
I had one of those moments of clarity my id always takes credit for, where the little clues finally caught up with me and clicked. Why I’d let him get a hold of me, had struggled instead of flambeing his face or going for the gun in my pocket. Why he’d seemed naggingly familiar. Why the jacket fit so warm and snug around me.
“Are you my car?”
“Was. Until a while ago.” He set me on my feet next to a silver Cadillac. “Rise and shine, darling, I’m back.” He knocked on the passenger window with his knuckles, and the lock popped up. I blinked.
He gave me a smirk. “Get in. Pretend you have the sense to come in out of the rain. Even though we both know better.”
“...Wait, you’re my car. You’re the...”
“Blue. Yes. Your little household spirit, equal parts faith and hope and magical residue and magical thinking. Sort of a proto-consciousness.” He nodded. “And then some jackass in bad shoes blew me up. And then it was later and I was on Demonreach with Jake.”
“Kind of surly, isn’t he?”
I gaped at him.
“Harry, it’s raining on you.” He tipped his head at the car. “We can talk on the way back to Chicago.”
“You can drive?” I said.
He gave me a slow, waiting look, brows furrowed. “Sometimes, Harry, I worry about you. All of the time, really.”
He reached across me and pulled the passenger door open, and with a check of his hips sent me sprawling inside. He tucked my legs in before I could do much more than yelp and try to get back out, and closed the door firmly.
He reappeared a second later, sliding into the driver’s seat, pulling on his seat belt. “Strap in,” he said, in a less-jovial more-British-drill-sergeant kind of way, and thumped the ignition with the tips of his fingers. It turned over. Huh. Technomancy. I guess that kind of made sense-- I wondered if I’d fry that, too.
“...I’m so sorry for what I’m going to do to this car,” I said awkwardly.
“Eh, well. It’s only Marcone’s. He’s got the best money can buy in mechanics. Which isn’t Mike,” he said with proprietary pride, “But it’ll recover.”
"Borrowed." If I thought he'd genuinely asked Marcone for help I'd be worried. But you couldn't help but notice that he didn't have a key.
"I plan to return it," he said. "That makes it borrowing."
For the moment, at least, everything was working; windshield wipers wiping smoothly, engine purring as he drove us out of the parking lot, a little chime dinging away in time to a flashing red light on the dash, until he glared at me and I realized the light meant I hadn’t put my seat belt on yet. I did, and Blue nodded.
“We’ll get a hotel in a few hours. Want to get some miles between me and here.”
“I’m almost out of cash.”
“I’m not. Won a few bar bets on the way here.”
I gave him a long look; his eyes were flicking regularly from windshield to mirror to mirror to his dash display, the way they teach you to do in driver’s ed but you never actually do. Oncoming headlights played the shadows of beaded water across his battered face.
“Bit a hole in a tire.”
“Bit a hole--”
He took a second out of his windshield-mirror-mirror-dash routine to shoot me a smug half-smile. “Wouldn’t be the first time I ate a tire when you weren’t expecting it, would it?”
I snorted in startled laughter, and settled back, smiling bemusedly. He grunted in amusement and went back to driving, but he was still smiling a little.
There was just the beat of rain on the hood and the muffled squeak of the wipers and the whush of the rain under the tires. It felt like being back in the-- I mean-- it didn’t feel like a borrowed car with Blue driving.
“Did it hurt?” I asked the passenger window, the dark highway outside.
“Beg pardon?” Blue asked pleasantly.
“You blew up.”
“Oh, that.” He inhaled massively and exhaled, a long gust of wind between his lips. “Not as such. Household spirits don’t have much by way of a complex nervous system, Harry. I knew that he wasn’t supposed to be fucking around with my undercarriage and I didn’t like it, but then he was gone and I didn’t know what it meant, that extra little weight. Was barely anything-- then I don’t remember after that.”
“That was a really shitty day.”
“I hear. I’m glad you weren’t with me, though.”
I felt ghoulish for it, but I had to ask: “Do you know who?”
“Not a name. He was a new tail of yours. Not one of Marcone’s regular surveillance bunch. Don’t think he was Marcone’s at all. Sloppy. Left scrapes all over, handprints; doesn't matter now, but it’s just bad practice.” Blue worked the gear-shift without breaking his rhythm, and I couldn’t even feel the hitch as we sped up. “I’ll know him if I see him, though. And then him and me, we’re going to have words.”
Thinking too hard about that meant thinking about how I’d felt when I saw the Beetle go up. I tried not to-- but it was hard not to, the surer I got that Blue was telling the truth. I know, it’s ridiculous. But this is my life, okay? And it had been such a sock in the gut to lose my car, a cold sort of pain because it had been my car, and suddenly it just. Wasn’t. And I’d been so tired, then, already. I’d barely had the energy to cry much-- probably for the best.
"It's been hard without you," I said, when the silence was starting to get to me. "Biking in Chicago sucks. And I can't take Mouse with me most places. I'd take the Ways, but whenever I do Maeve has some convenient errand for me. Last time I had to go get her a latte. From a little cafe. In Paris. Took an hour for me. Wound up getting home a week later."
"Get some sleep, you," Blue said gruffly. "You'll feel less maudlin after a nap." But I think he was a little touched.
"You're not the boss of me," I said, but I leaned back and shut my eyes.
A second later, Blue said my name. I blinked. We were way out of the city-- nothing but dark flat field on either side of the car, the occasional hump of a hay bale. The highway was empty except for us and a car behind us, throwing our shadows forward. My eyes were sticky and my muscles were stiff.
"I said wake up, Harry. We've got company."
"How do you know?" I asked, scrubbing my face.
"I know when someone's breathing down my neck. You gave me plenty of practice. They came out of nowhere about fifteen minutes ago. Two cars, Ohio rental plates." I looked for the second car, and caught it behind the first, close enough in the shadow that I’d mistaken them for one. He shot me a look. "Make any new enemies lately?"
"Hey, how do you know they're mine?"
"Because I've only been alive for three days. And you're trouble."
"You're the guy who stole one of Marcone's cars."
"Borrowed. Anyhow, why would he go to all this trouble after I'd started back towards Chicago, though? Besides, Marcone's people are more careful." He frowned. "I'm going to fake engine trouble. Faking it will be a nice change, I have to say."
He shifted into neutral and tapped the ignition again; the engine shut off, white noise I really only noticed now that it was gone. I felt us decelerate as the wind caught at the Cadillac. Blue flicked on the hazards and steered us towards the edge of the road with the last of our momentum.
One of the cars passed us and pulled onto the edge in front of us; one behind. A man in a hoody got out of the rear car.
"Stay put," Blue said, and opened the door, stepping half out. "Evening, sir. Seem to have run out of gas. You couldn't give me a lift to the nearest station, could you-?"
"We want the magician," said Hoody.
Blue tutted, standing casually beside the open door. "Now, see, that's a problem. Because I was hired by Johnny Marcone to bring him back to Chicago for a chat, and I just can't see him being pleased if I lost him halfway."
"You just tell Marcone that Dresden here ruined an operation for Mister Baker. Tell Marcone he had to be dealt with."
"I'm sure he'll be fascinated. But Dresden comes with me."
Hoody had his hands in his pockets. I didn’t like it. I didn’t like it enough to raise a shield, concentrating to focus it around something that wasn’t me, funneling extra will to refresh it against the rain-- a wall of invisible, flexible force between Hoody and Blue.
To absolutely nobody’s shock Hoody pulled a gun out of one of his pockets, brandishing it at Blue. "Why don't you just step away from the car?"
Blue slanted a look at me. I held up my arm, shield bracelet on the bare wrist.
"Because I don't want to." He turned away, not flinching as a bullet splattered on the air behind him. If it had gone another foot, if there had been a badly timed sheet of rain to wash the shield away, it would have gone through his head.
...He just shot at my car. I seethed.
Blue sat down, slamming the door behind him, and started the car, however he was doing that; a bullet pinged into the bumper as we peeled back out onto the road. The car ahead of us roared to life, moving to block our path.
“Who’s Baker?” he asked.
“It doesn’t ring a -- wait, the guy I was here to exorcise,” I said, frowning. “He worked for a firm called Jefferson and Baker.”
“Good to know,” Blue said. “I’m going to total their cars now, if that’s all right.”
“I’ll help,” I said grimly, looking behind us. Hoody’s car was following us now-- two people. Hoody was the passenger, I could see, gun out but not trying to shoot us while we were so far away. So maybe he wasn’t quite as dumb as I’d been giving him discredit for. “How far do you need to stop?”
“On this road? Thirty feet if we’re lucky.”
“Right. Let the guy in back catch up, and then get ready to stop hard.”
“Let him catch up...?” Blue looked pained. It probably went against whatever principles cars had.
“So I can blow his tires off.”
“All right. If it’s for a good cause.”
He eased off the gas-- just barely-- and Hoody’s car moved up to tap our rear bumper; the guy ahead slowed down to bracket us in.
The nap had done me good. The spell I was gathering came sure and easy. I’d done it before, variantions on it-- once on Lake Michigan, stealing heat from the lake, once to a couple of berserkers, using the energy of their pickup. I went for the Lake Michigan variation tonight.
“NOW,” I bellowed, and everything happened at once-- I released my spell; the tires on the car behind us superheated and exploded out as one; Blue flung an arm across my chest and hammered the brakes. The car behind us clipped our tail and sent us into a swerve, a skidding fishtail across the wet road that ended when we crunched into the safety barrier that protected the grass median. My head snapped forward but I didn't go far, between the seatbelt and Blue's protective arm. Marcone was going to need those mechanics.
The car ahead of us, though, hadn’t been fast enough on the brake.
The heat for my spell had to come from somewhere. I’d picked the concrete ahead of us. And the water on the concrete ahead of us. They hit the long, wide patch of black ice I’d created and spun sickeningly, doing donuts in the ice until they hit the safety rail themselves, a lot harder than we had-- and went through it, rolling over onto the wet grass.
The airbag in the front car had gone off-- it was slowly deflating, the door opening, a form crawling out and curling on the ground. Steam was billowing from under the crumpled hood-- the radiator at least had to be toast.
I peered through the darkness at the figure, trying to make out details-- a man, still on his hands and knees, looking shaken but not visibly bleeding or broken. "Are they going to be okay?"
Blue scowled dangerously. "The rear one might, once it gets new wheels. The front one’s totalled, though, the engine’s-- oh, you meant the people. Yeah. No promises about whiplash, though."
"You can say that again," I griped, rubbing the back of my neck.
"Is that asshole for 'thank you, Blue, I appreciate you getting me out of trouble back there?'" he said sharply, starting forward slowly, picking his way carefully across the ice.
"Thought so." He sighed and lifted his chin. "Well. S'been a learning experience. Finally figured out what antilock brakes are for. Take back almost everything I ever thought about them."
"What do you have against antilock brakes?"
He snorted. "Fiddly. Inconvenient. Drain on the battery. Not particularly appropriate for the wizard on the go."
"Wait, are you jealous?"
"No," he growled.
"Because we did stop really neatly back there, we didn’t even spin out--"
"What's that, boy? 'I want a smack across the head,’ is that what you said? ...Oh, hell, look at that. Really, now? Two and a half years old and already we're a prima donna, are we?" He thumped the dash, but the dying windshield wipers didn't kick up again, squeaking to a stop about halfway up the window. There was a grating sound and the radio turned on, a woman’s voice crooning soft, low Spanish; then, just as suddenly, it died with a little pop, taking one of the headlights with it, leaving us limping along with just the one that had taken a hit from the guard rail. It was flickering bravely on, but for how long, I didn’t know.
"Cars these days. Can't handle a little magic," I said.
"Fussy little high-maintenance drama-queens," Blue said darkly. "Don't get me started on that steroid-addled thing the vampire drove. So high and mighty because they slapped an army uniform on a bog-standard SUV, 'armored' my left--"
He saw me trying not to laugh and cut off with another grunt, glaring out at the road, what we could see of it through the rain.
"Should stop soon anyway," he said bad naturedly. "Our luck we'll find the one trooper out tonight and he'll want to make a production out of the headlight being out. Hotel off the next exit all right?"
"Sure," I said obediently, fighting down a grin. “You know those guys are going to tell their boss that Marcone insulted him.”
“If we’re lucky, he’s stupid enough to try to do something about it,” Blue said, showing his teeth nastily.
“Marcone’s not going to let this slide. He’s going to--”
“Carbomb me? I’m a lot more mobile than I used to be.” He reached over and shoved me fondly. “I’ve been through a little too much to shake in my boots over Gentleman Johnny Marcone.”
That seemed to be the end of that.
There was a Burger King near the hotel with a twenty-four hour drive-through-- we stopped there first. "Better be worth the sedimentary layer of wrappers you used to leave in the back," Blue grumbled after repeating my order for burgers and fries and Coke, but he didn't let me pay, either.
The hotel I had to pay for, of course, some of my money supplemented with Blue's cash-- they wanted to see a driver's license, and whatever else Blue had managed to pick up on his way to find me, he hadn't managed that. He skulked around in the background, only popping in to give the make, model, and license plate of the Caddy. We got a room and settled in for dinner.
Blue flicked on the television, chuckling as I immediately focused on it-- don't laugh, I'm not used to TV, especially not one I can hear as well as see, and can see without two layers of shopfront window between us. It went staticky once or twice, but I got to see an entire show about competitive cupcake making, between sort of appalling commercials. I finished my Whoppers and had a hot shower, leaving everything but my boxers and shirt hanging in the stall to dry off, and was sitting on my twin-sized bed rubbing my neck when he came over and took over the job.
"Professional pride," he said, when I gave him a bemused look. "It'd do my reputation no favors if I actually let you get neckstrain."
"It's-- just kind of weird."
His hands were rough and calloused-- symbolic, I guess, of all the work he'd done as-- well, a car. It didn’t feel weird to touch him-- Hell’s bells I used to sit inside him. But it was worrying to think about the things I'd used the Beetle for over the years. Bunker, dinner table, windbreak, makeshift bed... makeshift apartment sometimes, in a strange city.
"I used to drive around in the Beetle. And. Uh."
"And don't want to think too hard about what you were shifting with all those years," he said wickedly. I went red and jerked out of his grip. The TV went snowy and dark for a second before I got myself under control.
Blue was smiling indulgently at me. "Don't hurt your neck again, Harry. Cars don't actually have penises, whatever you people use us to compensate for."
"Mmble," I said, glaring at the floor.
He laughed. "Go to bed. You barely got half an hour in the car. You get cranky when you don't sleep. Too much longer and you'll start muttering to yourself."
"I don't talk to-- I was just working out problems," I protested, going red again.
"Alone. In your car. As one does." He picked up the remote to click off the TV-- it didn't, and he tsked, tossed it aside, and walked over to do it the old fashioned way. The room fell into darkness; darker when he clicked off the bedside lamp. I heard the other bed creak as he settled down, two thumps as his workboots hit the floor.
"See you in the morning, troublemaker," he said warmly.
"Yeah. You too." I snuggled under the blanket, turning toward the patch of darkness that I roughly knew he was in. "Hey, Blue?"
"Thanks for getting me out of trouble back there."
"It's my job," he said simply. "Been doing it more than fifteen years. Damned if I'll stop just because I have a pulse."
I smiled, and rolled over, and fell asleep.