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John said goodnight to Gard in the foyer. Harry’s staff was gone from the hall closet, but Maggie’s leather jacket was there. It was one of the few possessions she’d brought with her from New York. She’d come to them with four changes of clothes, one pair of sneakers, and a couple dozen tattered paperbacks John suspected she might kill to protect. Also, defensive instincts honed so sharp, she was going to take someone’s fingers off. That too.

She wasn’t in the kitchen. And he was early enough, she might not have eaten dinner yet. Hmm. This might be an opportunity, if he handled it right. He’d been trying to get more than two words and a dismissive stare out of her for months, and he frankly admired her endless well of creative evasions. And, of course, the stone-walled refusal behind them.

He knew better than to wait her out. And overwhelming force had proven . . . inadvisable. There was no give in her resistance, and the harder he shoved, the more she’d dig in. But there were ways, and there were ways.

She was so very much her father’s daughter.

First things first. He headed for his study to unload his briefcase and check for any more last minute wedding nonsense. Forty-eight hours to go, and he was getting that crackling, down-to-the-wire feeling, like he should be showing up in fatigues and full combat gear instead of a suit.

He processed the noise from the study as he came through the door, looked up, stopped. Stared for an uncomprehending moment. Then jerked his eyes up and away to fix on the blank wall behind his desk.

Well. He wouldn’t have to look for her after all.

“I will be back in sixty seconds,” he said into the frozen silence. “Please be dressed by then.”

He backed out and retreated halfway down the hall. His watch had a timer function; John set it for a minute, stared as the hand started its sweep. He was glad to find this reflexive instinct for precision was still operating. He felt like a bug that had just been introduced to a windshield.

He could hear them, the scrabble scrabble as they flung themselves back into their clothes, the stressed timbre of Maggie’s voice as she said something, a panicky baritone response from her . . . companion.

Fifteen seconds gone.

John was dimly aware that he was exhibiting physical symptoms that might, in other circumstances, be indicative of a panic attack: quickened breathing, constricted pupils, faint dizziness as if he weren’t getting enough oxygen.

For fuck’s sake. He’d come through firefights as steady as a rock, this was ridiculous.

Then again, he knew what to do when someone was shooting at him.

All right, pull it together. Surely he knew what to do here, as well. His brain quested for obvious action plans, but all it seemed capable of retrieving was his mother, invoking God and her own maternal supremacy in the same breath as she came at him with a wooden spoon. And she hadn’t let them put their clothes back on first, either.

Perhaps not.

Forty-five seconds gone.

Okay. It was fine, he had this. She was, after all, sixteen. Clever she might be, but he’d been around the block a couple hundred more times, he could –

Oh dear God, he was going to have to tell Harry about this. John experienced an abrupt and violent perspective shift on such topics as panic attacks and action plans.

His watch beeped.

He strode back down the hall and stopped in the doorway, projecting calm authority with the swing of his arms and the straight set of his back. Maggie was on her feet, clearly waiting for him. An oversized blond kid was still hunched on the couch, caught in the act of lacing his shoes.

“So,” John said mildly. “Introduce us please, Maggie.”

Her mouth was already opening to respond to whatever she’d expected him to say; she had to swallow it hastily back with an expression that put John oddly in mind of a pistol jamming up. Her eyes narrowed, and there was a pause.

“Maggie,” John said.

She twitched. “J.T.,” she said shortly, gesturing at the punk on the couch. “J.T., John. My father’s—“ she let it dangle, and John honestly wasn’t sure just how incendiary the next word was going to be. But she apparently decided to keep it dialed down for the moment and finished with a bland, “boyfriend.”

John almost asked for the punk’s proper name, but if Maggie was making an effort to keep this relatively civilized, he could do the same.

Besides, the kid was wearing a letter jacket with a football patch identifying him as number 12, which would make him easy to track down, if necessary.

“J.T.,” John repeated, attempting and failing to make eye contact. “I’d say it was a pleasure to make your acquaintance, but I’d be lying.” The kid went from green to white. “Well,” John said, clasping his hands. “I have two questions.”

“Look,” Maggie said, taking a quick step forward. “You can’t—“

John lifted a hand. “After, please,” he said gently.

She shut her mouth with a snap.

“Thank you,” John said. “Now, I happened to have done extensive research in the process of choosing your school, Maggie, and I imagine your parents did the same for you, J.T. And so I know for a fact that sexual education is incorporated into science or health courses during every year of the curriculum.”

“Oh my God,” Maggie muttered. John suspected she was going for disgusted bravado. She hadn’t quite made it.

“And so my question is,” John said, “were you taking advantage of the education and resources at your disposal to practice safe sex?”

“Look, it’s not like—“

John cut her off with another raised hand. He was continually surprised that it was working; the last time they’d been forced into a confrontation, she hadn’t let him finish a sentence without telling him to go to hell, in her quiet, locked-up way.

She must be genuinely worried about what he might do. And, to judge by her expression, increasingly pissed off because of it. Young Mr. J.T. merely looked nauseated.

“Answer the question, please,” John said.

Maggie rocked back on her heels, crossed her arms, and kept her mouth shut. She’d just decided to stop playing ball.

“Uh,” J.T. said into the silence. He actually raised his hand and waited for John to acknowledge him. “We were using – um. Yes?”

“I’m very glad to hear it,” John said. “Otherwise, this might have to get unpleasant.”

“As opposed to what?” Maggie muttered.

John ignored her. “Which leads me to my second question – will you be joining us for dinner, J.T.?”

“Uh—“ the kid looked helplessly at Maggie for a cue.

“We’re going out, I think,” John said.

Maggie gave him a look that clearly said, we are? John stared levelly back until her eyes slid away.

“I . . . don’t want to intrude?” J.T. said carefully.

Maggie’s lip curled. She was doing nothing to hide her reactions, and John could track the current of her frustration redirecting. She couldn’t aim it at him, not right now, but there was another handy target in the room.

“He’s not coming,” she said shortly.

J.T. looked relieved. A little hurt. But mostly relieved.

“All right,” John said. “Then be ready to go in half an hour, please. No need for formal dress. J.T., I’ll walk you out.”

The kid stood up. He was a big bastard – John had maybe an inch on him. J.T. crossed half the distance to Maggie, then pulled up short. He checked John’s expression – John gave him nothing – looked at Maggie, and backed hastily off.

“I’ll see you in economics?” he said.

She gave him nothing but a disdainfully turned shoulder. “Sure,” she said.

John ushered him out with a gesture. He went, a touch of the kicked puppy about him.

There were many things John could have said on the brief walk to the front door. He swallowed most of them down, because he liked to avoid being a cliché whenever possible, and also he suspected silence would do just as well here.

J.T. clearly did not feel the same. He inhaled a half dozen times in under a minute, then apparently lost his nerve every time and let the breath go again.

He pulled it together as they reached the front hall. “Is Maggie in trouble?” he blurted.

There was a complicated question. “That isn’t entirely up to me,” John said.

“Yeah, but.” J.T. stuffed his hands in his pockets and actually scuffed his sneaker on the hardwood. He, at least, seemed to have no problem living a cliché. “I don’t mean to tell you your – it’s just Maggie’s real nice, you know?”

“Really?” John said, honestly startled.

J.T.’s eyes flashed up for the first time. “Well, no,” he said with a nervous laugh. “She’s not. But I like her anyway. . . . Sir.”

John felt sudden, unwanted sympathy for the kid. “Well,” he said. “It seems you do have better judgment than our meeting would suggest.”

The kid went red. “Uh,” he said. “Yeah. I’m sorry. Really, really, really sorry.”

He had manners, at least.

“I’m sure Maggie is, too,” J.T. added, with far more eagerness than perspicacity.

“Not yet,” John said, and J.T. proved he had some functional native intelligence by not pursuing the matter further. His exit down the driveway owed more to speed than dignity.

John retraced his steps slowly, wondering whether she would still be there waiting for him. He had a chance here, a tiny crack in the door while she was off-balance and worried. But she could slam it in his face, again, if she got herself together fast enough.

The study was empty. John set his briefcase down, unpacked it mechanically. He circled the room, touching books and opening cabinets. Everything was in its place. And there was nothing sensitive in the house, not anymore, discounting the safes.

He stared at the couch. He used to sleep there some nights, back when no one was waiting for him upstairs.

Subtle like – well. Subtle like a teenager. Seven thousand square feet of house to choose from, and she came here, to his space. He’d gotten home early, but not by much. She’d wanted to know she’d transgressed right under his nose. He was sure he’d received more literal and pointed fuck yous, but he couldn’t seem to recall any off hand.

And that raised the uncomfortable question of what else she’d been up to, the times she didn’t get caught.

A tension headache squeezed at his temples. He’d been running flat out for over a month, with the wedding to think of, and taking time for their trip after. And now this.

He wandered out and stood at the foot of the stairs for a minute, at a loss. Now that he wasn’t under the gun, he should have a good think, figure out his strategy here. Articulate a response that wasn’t an instinctive repeat of anything his mother or a priest had ever said to him, because that’s all he seemed capable of coming up with so far.

. . . Or he could go take a shower. It wasn’t as if planning for encounters with Maggie had ever done any good before.

He fully expected her to keep him waiting for fifteen minutes at least, and he was resigned to the possibility that he might have to go up and force her out. But she appeared only five minutes after his deadline, lanky and tall in jeans and a blue t-shirt, with the pentacle Harry had given her around her neck. Her short-clipped dark hair was sleeked to her skull, her face scrubbed. He was pretty sure she didn’t wear cosmetics, but she seemed able to add or drop five years at will. At the moment, she looked like a tired, unhappy, angry sixteen.

“You look nice,” John said.

She blinked, visibly wrong-footed. “. . . Thanks,” she said, giving it up as grudgingly as if it were her soul. John decided not to push his luck and didn’t offer his arm.

Gard was off-duty, and this was Hendricks’s night to teach. So John drove them himself, with one trail-car. Hendricks had been the last person to drive the BMW, so the radio was tuned to sixties rock. At least for the ten seconds of music John heard before the signal broke into static. It cleared momentarily for the radio to play what sounded like a Cantonese talk program, improbably crystal clear, before dying completely.

Maggie hunched in the passenger seat, pressing her lips together. “. . . Sorry,” she muttered.

“It’s fine.” John pulled out onto the highway, carefully not looking at her. She took it badly when technology died around her. Was it frustration that she couldn’t access the toys she was used to, or anger at this external manifestation of a lack of control? He’d heard Harry talking her down in these moments – breathe slowly, it’s fine, think calming thoughts. Maggie tolerated that from Harry . . . mostly. John suspected he would not fare so well if he tried it.

La Esperanza was quiet on a Thursday night. They were seated quickly in the back, screened from prying eyes by a bank of plants and a curtain. Maggie liked it here – she’d chosen it for dinner on her sixteenth birthday. She and Harry between them could put away roughly Mouse’s weight in pasta, once they got going.

The manager appeared the instant they were settled, bringing bread and stuffed olives and fried risotto balls. Maggie endured his bustling in stone-faced silence, then speared an olive on a toothpick as soon as he was gone.

“More bribes?” she asked, popping the olive into her mouth.

“What, dinner?” John asked, surprised. “No. Just good negotiation strategy. It’s helpful to relocate to a neutral public space.” He speared a risotto ball – it was crisp and perfect outside, rich and creamy inside. “Also, people are generally more agreeable after they’ve eaten.”

“Huh,” Maggie said. Whether she was unimpressed with his candor, his reasoning, or the mere fact of his existence, John couldn’t tell.

“You think I’m trying to bribe you?” he asked.

She snorted. “Swordfighting lessons? Horseback riding? Come on, do I look dumb?”

He put down his fork. “The swordfighting lessons are not a bribe,” he said. “They may be a matter of life or death. Which you well know, because you are not, in fact, dumb.”

She acknowledged this point with nothing more than a slow blink. Sometimes she was utterly transparent to him, all her emotional responses as clear to him as a game of connect-the-dots. And then other times she retreated into an impenetrable reserve, and he remembered that he knew nothing about her, not really.

“And the horseback riding?” she asked.

“Oh, that was a bribe,” John said. “Did you like it?”

“No,” she said instantly.

John let himself grin, and she scowled, stabbing a risotto ball so violently it deflated, oozing.

“So,” he said. “This J.T. How long have you known him?”

Her fork hit the table with a clunk. “Can we not?” she said. “Can we skip all the -- stuff and get to the point?”

“I beg your pardon?”

She put her hands flat to the table and leaned forward. John recognized the mannerism with a jolt; that was how Harry sat at Accords meetings when he was getting down to business.

“You said we came here to negotiate.” She flashed him her crooked front teeth. “Fine. Let’s negotiate. I don’t want you to tell Harry about – you know. What do you want in exchange?”

John bought himself a few seconds with an olive. Then he pushed his appetizer plate aside, dusted off his hands, and folded them on the table. It said I am taking you seriously.

“I’m afraid that’s not on offer,” he said.

“Oh come on. It’s not like you don’t keep secrets from him. Two weeks ago that lady F.B.I. agent came to see you again, and you never told him that.”

Holy Christ on the cross, how did she know that?

“True,” John said, wondering a bit helplessly how to condense the result of a decade’s worth of negotiated boundaries and compromises and polite fictions -- and giant, still smoking craters where there had once been polite fictions. It kept one or both of them sufficiently happy a sufficient amount of the time. It was the greatest accomplishment of his life. but hell if he could explain it. He didn’t have to explain it to get this one right, though. “I can’t keep this from him,” he said. Harry would never forgive him if he found out, which he inevitably would, and that was just for starters.

She slumped. “He’s going to get all . . . crazy.”

John had been resolutely not thinking about that. He was aware that he was essentially putting his hands over his ears and saying la la la in hopes it would make the hounds of hell lose interest and wander off for a nap. But he didn’t really care.

“I suspect he will, yes.” John said, with what he thought was remarkable restraint.

She made a tiny sound of distress. John suppressed the ruthless urge to tell her she should have thought of that before. Harry’s ‘all crazy’ was probably going to be one of those whole family experiences John kept hearing about.

Maggie was staring off past his shoulder, fidgeting convulsively with her water glass. “Do you think it’ll ruin the wedding?” she asked abruptly. “He’s looking forward to it so much.”

“Really?” John said incredulously. That was definitely not the impression he’d gotten, last time they’d talked.

She flashed him an irritated look. “He’s excited to go away after.”

“Ah.” That he would believe. And he was excited, too. The last time they’d managed a vacation was – Jesus – three years ago. And it seemed like, for the past few months, they were lucky to scrape out time for a conversation with each other. Forget about a quiet evening in. The thought of spending their precious, hard-won two weeks on family melodrama made something primitive and ungoverned and really fucking tired rise up in a long howl of protest.

And it was nice of Maggie to be thinking of Harry’s feelings, even if she was using them for her own ends. Things were better for the two of them. John didn’t know how Harry had done it. Grown on her like fungus, he suspected from personal experience. However he’d managed it, these days she was returning his abject devotion with a prickly sort of respect. She called him ‘Harry’ and regularly did exactly what he’d told her not to do, but John had overheard them having entire two-sided conversations about things that weren’t magic.

But he should still encourage any tendencies towards personal consideration, right?

The waiter appeared to take their orders. Maggie went for beef lasagna, and a salad, and asparagus, and more bread. It was like watching a magic trick, seeing this tall, bony girl eat like that. John ordered ravioli stuffed with lamb, mint, and pistachios.

“There may still be some room for negotiation,” he said as soon as the waiter was gone.

“I knew it.” Her mouth twisted in disgust at his lack of integrity, but she leaned forward eagerly to take advantage of it. Atta girl.

“I won’t run a cover-up for you,” he said. “However, I think we can agree it’s in our common interests to make sure Saturday goes peacefully.”

She committed herself to that with a grudging nod.

“And it’s in my interests to enjoy a peaceful vacation. So. How about we hold off telling him until we’re home again.”

She bit her lip. “. . . We?”

Damn. John had the impression that the responsible parent move would be to require her to confess her own sins. The Catholic in him certainly thought that was the way it ought to be done. Teach personal responsibility, ownership of your actions and their consequences, all that.

Then again, Harry and Maggie’s rapport was fragile, and Harry was in fact going to get all crazy. John had shouted at her once. He’d been afraid and – he could see in retrospect – out of his depth. He was still paying for it half a year later.

“I will tell him,” he said.

Their food came. Maggie dove into her lasagna, disappearing a quarter of it in the time it took John to dissect his first ravioli.

“Okay,” she said, scrubbing a napkin across her mouth and crumpling it carelessly on the table. “What do you want in return?”

John also suspected the responsible parent thing to do at this juncture was say ‘nothing, just to get us all through this.’

Fuck that.

“Dinner,” he said. “In or out, it doesn’t matter, but you and me. Every two weeks for a year.”

She gave him one of her most unimpressed looks. “Next you’re going to try and make me call you stepdaddy.”

She said it with a mocking lilt, of course. It stung, of course. He ignored it, of course.

“No,” he said calmly. “I won’t. Do we have a deal?”

She shifted uneasily. “You’re not expecting me to, like, spill all my secrets over bi-weekly pasta, are you?” The curl of her lip told him exactly how unlikely she found that.

“No,” he said. “I expect you to show up.”

Her eyes narrowed. “That’s it? I don’t even have to – I don’t even have to be nice to you?”

John let his smile tell her how unlikely he thought that was. “I wouldn’t want you to strain yourself,” he said. “Well?”

She thought about it for another few beats, then stuck out her hand. “Deal,.”

He shook solemnly, keeping his expression cool and professional. “A pleasure doing business with you,” he said. “We’ll count tonight as number one.” He bit into a ravioli. “So. This J.T. kid. You serious about him?”

“Fuck off,” she said conversationally.

John put his fork down. “We’ve talked about this.”

She tossed her head. “You said I didn’t have to pretend to like you.”

“I do require you to be civil,” he said. “As we have discussed on multiple occasions.” He smiled. “But you don’t have to pretend to like me, no. I like you more than enough to carry dinner conversation.”

She seemed actually flustered by that, the way she still was by most affection that didn’t melt away at the first sign of resistance.

“He seemed like a nice kid,” John said. Which was not entirely true. Young Mr. J.T. had struck John as a not particularly bright hormonal good-for-nothing with the unbelievable gall to think he could –

Oh-kay. Apparently his inner radio was still only tuned to receive the wisdom of his mother and old Father Featherstone.

“J.T.’s okay, I guess,” Maggie said, twitching a shoulder.

“I liked him,” John said, blatantly provocative.

She made a face. “You would. Turns out he’s kind of a pushover, doesn’t it?”

John digested that. “If you would like to test the mettle of your . . . . young men by introducing them to me, I’d be happy to help you out,” he said. “But I’ve got to tell you, if your criteria is a teenaged boy who isn’t intimidated by me, you’re looking for someone very, very stupid.”

“Harry isn’t intimidated by you,” she said.

“I rest my case.”

She scowled at him. “He is not stupid.” She paused. “Well, okay. He’s kind of a doofus. But he’s not stupid.”

“Very true.” Harry had the sort of helter-skelter, nonlinear mind that could consistently fail to remember the basic requirements of daily life, but that could make lateral leaps of such stunning insight that John lost his breath. “Harry’s . . . special,” he said inadequately.

She made a noncommittal “hmm,” and kept eating. ‘Special’ was probably not one of her criteria.

Sex. She was having sex. At sixteen, Christ. All right, he’d been seventeen when he’d started up, and Harry had been younger. But it wasn’t like either of them were glowing examples. The mistakes they’d made, the ways they’d hurt themselves. The thought of Maggie going down the road either of them had walked made John’s insides clench up in outrage.

That was supposed to be the point, wasn’t it? You lived hard and dirty so your kid wouldn’t have to. Except, when it came to the breach, their kid was just as lost and confused and incurably young as they’d been, and John had not a single word of wisdom that might help. The only wisdom he’d ever learned was the hard-won, blood-in-your-mouth, get-up-or-give-up kind. He couldn’t teach it to her over dinner with a piano tinkling genteely in the background. Not even if she would listen to him.

He’d been so sure he could handle it. So certain, in the face of all Harry’s nerves and second-guessing, that he could be the rock, the logical one. He would care for her, of course, feed and clothe and shelter her. Love her. He’d been ready for that. Eager, in the secret depths of him.

And then she had come into their lives, locked-in and uncommunicative and so very, very angry. And when she’d escaped Gard’s custody for an afternoon jaunt, he’d found himself standing in his study, hands locked behind his back to stop them shaking while he screamed at her. How could she do this, she didn’t understand the risks to her, she had no consideration, no respect. And all the time thinking, I will kill them, I will tear their faces off with my bare hands, if anyone hurts you I will – I will.

He was no one’s rock. Not anymore.

And she had looked confused, then belligerent, then, at the last, frightened. Not understanding a word he was saying for what it was. She’d relied on herself so long and so well, it was like you were speaking a different language if you said I love you to her.

That poor J.T. kid. He was going to get his heart broken for his trouble, John had no doubt at all.

“I’ve been meaning to apologize,” he said.

She squinted dubiously across the table at him. “For what?” Her tone suggested a myriad of sins to choose from.

“Back in January. When you took off on us. I was . . . I was not wrong. But I was too harsh. I’m sorry I frightened you.”

“You didn’t,” she said, with instantaneous denial. “I’m not scared of you.”

“Hmm,” John said politely. Harry was perceptive, of course, and he knew John to the bone – the way a scalpel would know, sometimes. But Harry was also kind to those he loved. He prettied them up for himself. Maggie was, in some ways, far more clear eyed. So no. He did not believe her.

“Nevertheless,” John said. “I will try to be more considerate in my boundary setting.”

Maggie gave him a flat look. “You are so weird, do you know that?” She said, and plunged back into her dinner.

John grinned helplessly at her. “It’s going to be a good year,” he said, just to see her scowl.

*

I came out of the nevernever whistling. It was a warm night, and I shrugged out of my coat as I cut across the back lawn. The gardening service had been through today – the yard smelled like cut grass and freshly turned soil. I should get Maggie out here at dawn some morning; she might be ready for the numinous, ephemeral results you could get using morning dew as the base for a potion.

Assuming the thought hadn’t already occurred to her. Clever and curious, that was my kid. And a natural early-bird. The cleverness was inspiring and scary and humbling; the early rising was just wrong.

I saw the blood a second before my boot came down on it. I leapt back from the bottom step, fumbling with my staff and my coat. It was dark, and the spatter on the steps gleamed under the security lights. It was still wet, and I could smell it.

No. Oh God, no.

I went up the stairs in a single jump. There were only a few scattered droplets on the patio. It was like someone had stood on the steps bleeding for a while. But coming in or going out?

The back door was ajar. I flattened to the wall next to it, struggling back into my coat as quietly as I could. Nothing moved.

I went through the door fast, lighting my pentacle as I moved. The back hall was empty, just a pile of shoes by the outside door and a light on around the corner.

I kept going. I was being careless, I knew that, but I had to know –

I swung around the corner. Kitchen to the left, living room straight ahead, and to the right – my eye snagged, and my hands were coming up before my brain managed to parse it as a gun. My shield blossomed around me; the overhead light popped, but it didn’t matter because my staff was blazing up –

“Oh,” Hendricks said, and lowered his weapon. “Fuck’s sake, Dresden, warn a guy.” He was in the secondary bathroom, straddling the edge of the tub and twisted around to watch the approach from the back door.

“Where are they?” I demanded, taking two long steps into the doorway.

Hendricks reholstered his gun. “As of four minutes ago, having dessert at La Esperanza,” he said.

My shield died all at once, and I slumped against the jamb. The bathroom light had survived my magic, and my face in the mirror was gray.

Hendricks was looking at me funny. That was nothing knew. But the part where he pulled an apologetic face after definitely was. “Ah, jeez,” he said. “Did you think – sorry.”

“It’s fine,” I said, straightening up. “There was blood, is all.”

“Have to scrub that,” Hendricks said absently, like he was making a note. There was a first-aid kit open on the floor, one of John’s exercises in externalized paranoia. It could probably stock a battlefield hospital for a day. Hendricks bent awkwardly sideways, fishing around.

I got there first, because it had suddenly penetrated that Hendricks’s color was way worse than mine.

“Gauze?” I asked, slapping his fumbling hand away. He gave me the brow-wrinkly side-eye that makes him look like first cousin to a redheaded chimp.

I used to think Hendricks disliked me out of habit. Cujo see, Cujo shoot, Cujo no change his ways. Not even when John and I were shacking up and, oh I don’t know, raising a kid together. Turns out I might have misjudged Cujo a teeny bit. It’s hard to believe a guy is too dumb to roll with the times when you’ve overheard him quote Sartre from memory and then dismiss him with the sort of pithy, cutting passion of someone who really knows what he’s talking about. Rocked my world on its foundations.

So it wasn’t that Cujo disliked me from habit. He just disliked me. Fair enough. He could join the back of the line. And for my part, it’s pretty easy not to like a guy who’s really busy not liking you.

We could tolerate each other’s existence these days, at least. John didn’t understand it; his plaintive confusion was kind of sweet, actually.

“. . . Needle,” Hendricks said about two seconds before I would have told him fine, he could patch himself up if he was going to be such a fucking princess about it.

“Whoa,” I said, startled. “How bad is it?”

He leaned back and pointed. I knelt up for a look and whistled. He had the right leg of his jeans sheared off above the knee; the meat of his calf was gouged and lacerated in a ragged semicircle around the back of his leg, and his bare foot was leaving smeary, bloody prints on the bottom of the bathtub.

“Stars,” I said, “I think I can see the muscle. Hang on, let me call the doctor.”

“No.” Hendricks grabbed my wrist, squeezing down on my pressure points probably by reflex. “No calls.” I jerked away, shaking my hand out.

“Oh-kay,” I said, narrowing my eyes. “The hell?”

Cujo sighed hugely, like the world was just one fucking trial after another. “Needle?” he said.

I got him the needle, and even threaded it for him. He had alcohol swabs lined up, and it looked like he’d already done the awful sanitizing bits. I watched him in silence as he contorted sideways, setting a precise, tiny stitch on the inside of his leg just below the knee.

“That’s from barbed wire, isn’t it?” I said, finally figuring out why it looked familiar. I’d cut the hell out of myself on it once, that’s where I’d seen those jagged cross-hatch patterns before. Not the most painful thing to ever happen to me – that was my hand, winner and still champion. But definitely top ten.

Cujo grunted between his teeth. It sounded vaguely affirmative.

I sat back on my haunches, chewed my lip, then tested a theory. “John’s gonna be pissed,” I said.

Cujo didn’t grunt that time. He just finished setting his stitch in silence, then sat up, looked me in the eye, and said, “I’d rather he didn’t know.”

Ding ding ding. “Yeah?” I said. “Why’s that?”

Hendricks always took an extra few seconds to answer a question. And he had this habit of moving his mouth as he thought, like a cow chewing cud. It was one of those things that made him look particularly stupid, and I twitched. I don’t trust Hendricks’s kind of smart, and I definitely don’t like it when I’m not supposed to know it’s there.

“You’re getting married in two days,” Hendricks said finally.

“I got the invitation, yeah,” I said. “What about it?”

Hendricks winced uncomfortably. “Look, I don’t know the details of whatever deal it is you two worked out about the business,” he said. “And don’t tell me. But I got the idea you don’t want to know about this shit.”

And I was getting the idea Hendricks didn’t respect that very much. Well, he didn’t have to try and make a rela—a marriage. Stars. He didn’t have to try and make a marriage work.

“He tells me what I need to know,” I said. “Why don’t you give it a shot.”

Hendricks pursed his lips. “I was coming back over here after class to check on some things. Half a dozen guys jumped me two blocks out. Going for a snatch-and-grab, not a kill.”

“I assume that . . . didn’t work out well for them,” I said. I gave Hendricks another, more careful look: his knuckles were bloody, and there was something funny about the set of his shoulders. “Were they trying to get to him through you?”

He nodded brusquely. “Not that it would work.”

He bent back to his leg, mouth pressed tight as he set another stitch.

“Hey,” I said, frowning at him. “Cujo, you know that’s not true, you know he’d tear this city down to get you back.”

Hendricks gave me a look like I was a dribbling moron. “Dresden, that is not comforting,” he said.

“. . . Oh,” I said, thinking about it. It’s not like I hadn’t ever lain awake at night, wondering what John would do to keep me alive. And more to the point, what he wouldn’t do. “Okay. Point.”

“And you’re wrong, anyway,” Hendricks added in an absent tone, turning back to his work. “Someone takes me for leverage, he’ll try to get me back, sure. But he won’t give in to demands. We have an agreement.”

“Oh,” I said again, more faintly. “That’s . . . very thorough of you guys?” I could absolutely see them sitting around one night, back when John was becoming The Gentleman, talking it through and deciding that was the most rational thing.

Hendricks grunted. “The point being, he ain’t gonna like this,” he said. “Not one bit. And it’s going to be a mess, I can just smell it. But he’s got other things to think about right now.”

Like getting us all through this stupid wedding, and then whisking me off to our mystery vacation destination for two weeks of incredible, incommunicado bliss. If he took his eye off the prize, chances were good I would end up beating him soundly about the head.

“Can it wait?” I asked.

Hendricks nodded. “I can handle it for the next few weeks,” he said.

“Okay,” I said, exhaling slowly. “Then . . . thanks. That’s really decent of you, Cujo.”

He shrugged. “Childs put all his money on ‘wedding called off due to mob war,’” he said. “And I want to clean him out.”

“Really?” I said. “I thought ‘ceremony interrupted by vampire assassins’ was still the favorite.”

“Nah, that was last week. Right now it’s ‘zombies.’ Jimmy-the-Grip has his whole next paycheck riding on it.”

I shook my head. “Been there, done that,” I said. “. . . For fuck’s sake, Cujo, give it here.”

He’d been bending farther and farther to the side, hoisting his knee up and trying to get at the cuts on the back of his calf. I took the needle away from him, rolling my eyes.

“Here,” I said, sitting on the toilet lid. “Put your foot up.” I got a pair of rubber gloves out of the first aid kit – John was such a freak – and snapped them on.

The cuts on the back of his leg were pretty deep. Most of them didn’t need stitches, but I set three just below his knee, and another four dotted raggedly downward.

“Where’s your money?” I asked, wiping the blood away with an alcohol swab.

“I diversify,” Hendricks said. “I’ve got ‘Dresden will be late’ and ‘we’ll end up scrubbing someone’s blood out of the carpet.’”

“You know,” I said, “as long as its not any of our blood, I’d really be okay with that, comparatively speaking.”

“Amen,” Hendricks muttered.

“And I will too be on time,” I added, pinching the end of the thread between my fingertips. “Scissors? . . . Thanks.” Then I paused, blades suspended a millimeter from Hendricks’s hairy calf. “Hang on,” I said. “Back up the train – they’re having dinner? Together?”

“Yep.” Hendricks mouth tipped up at one corner. “And they haven’t disturbed the peace or anything.”

Well, they wouldn’t. Maggie kept herself battened down pretty damn good, and John was almost never a shouter. They were both more the ‘verbally eviscerate someone in my inside voice over the salad course’ type. But still, out together, eating a meal. A little flare of joy bloomed in my chest.

“Goodness,” I said, doing my best southern bell. “I do declare. Miracles can happen.”

I worked in silence for a minute. Hendricks’s breath hitched every now and then as I dragged the thread through his skin, but he held still. I steadied him with a grip behind his knee. His leg was a solid trunk of muscle; it possibly weighed more than I did all on its own.

“So,” I said, because I will never be accused of letting things fly by without a good poke. “Now that I’m marrying him you’re going to be nice to me, is this how it works?”

“No,” Hendricks said immediately.

“Oh, good,” I said. “That’s a relief. I was getting worried there. You laying off me would be like if they suddenly canceled taxes.”

Hendricks was doing that chewing thing again. “Look, it’s not about the wedding,” he said after a pause. “and it was never personal.”

“Really,” I said flatly. “You could have fooled me.”

Hendricks sighed. “Not like that’s hard,” he said. “Oh, put your hackles down. Look, back when you two started up this whole thing, there was a decent chance it would all go wrong and we’d have to take you out.”

I gaped. “Are you fucking kidding me?” I said. “You were going to shoot me if – what, if I broke his fragile little heart?”

“Nah, stop being a drama queen,” Hendricks said. “Don’t pretend you weren’t always a threat. And if you two imploded, if it went really bad . . .”

I didn’t have anything to say to that. It’s not like I hadn’t thought about it myself. Just a little bit, now and then. All the time we’d spent together, all the secrets he knew. How my body trusted his, instinctively, pressing close in my sleep. How bad it could be if it all fell down . . .

“So,” said Hendricks, “we might have to take you out. And it would be better for him if he didn’t have to do it himself. And it would be better for me if I didn’t like you. So there you go.”

My hands had gone cold. I made myself set the next stitch as carefully as the rest. “Do you have an agreement about that, too?” I asked.

“Not really.” Hendricks shifted on the lip of the bathtub, hitching his shoulders. “I brought it up, and he brushed me off. But we both knew, yeah.”

He’d said more words to me in the last five minutes than the last five years. One after another, no hesitations. Was he like this with John all the time, telling him the hard truths he needed to hear? That might explain a lot.

“Butterfly bandage,” I said, dropping the needle in the trash can. “You’re going to be limping. And he’ll notice your hands.”

“I’ll tell him I got carried away doing hand-to-hand in the gym,” Hendricks said. “He’ll buy it, he’s distracted.”

“Yeah.” I started taping. Hendricks’s legs were thickly pelted in red hair. It was going to hurt like a bitch to pull all the tape off again. “He’s going to be pissed when you tell him,” I said.

“Eh.” Hendricks shrugged and rocked both hands in the air. Nothing he couldn’t handle.

“Okay, you’re done,” I said, sitting back. “Anything else?”

“Nope.” He swung his mangled leg over the side of the tub and gingerly stood on it. I could see his wince in the mirror as the muscle flexed. He bent and started cleaning up, meticulously repacking the first aid kit. He was probably returning things to the exact arrangement John had left them in. If I’d learned anything from being on the inside of this deception, it was that if Hendricks wanted to keep something a secret, I didn’t have a chance of even knowing there was something to know.

I ran the water in the tub for a minute, and watched the blood turn pink and swirl away.

“I’ll scrub the patio,” I said. “You shouldn’t be kneeling down.”

“Thanks.” Hendricks slid the first aid kit back under the counter. “Appreciate it.”

“Yeah.” I sucked at my lip. “So, what’s the deal,” I said to his broad back. “You figure, hey, I’m marrying the guy, you’re probably not going to have to shoot me now?”

He snorted. “Ha, tell that to half the married couples in this city, see how hard they laugh.” He stood from an awkward crouch, dusting his hands off on his thighs. “No, it’s not that. But way I figure it, I try to shoot you now, there’s a decent chance he’d step in front of the bullet. Later, Dresden.”

I sat on the closed toilet lid for a minute, gaping. Then I got up, went out back, and scrubbed up Hendricks’s blood. Just another Thursday night at Casa Dresden-Marcone-Mendoza.

Hendricks had retreated to his usual guest room when I went back in. I stretched out on the couch in the den with something to read and a bag of pretzels, the picture of innocence when they came home.

“Hey,” I said, peering over my book. Maggie looked cranky. John looked smug as a cat. Huh! “You got any homework, Walrus?”

“It’s done, and stop calling me that,” Maggie said, bringing her generalized cloud of crank to bear squarely on me.

“Oh good,” I said. I stretched my hands over my head. “Then you have time for a little magic?”

She went still, like a dog on point. But she played it cool with a noncommittal, “I guess.”

I sat up and spread my empty hands in the air. “Percipio,” I said, bringing my hands dramatically together. And when I spread them apart again, there was a lit candle in each.

Maggie compressed her reaction to a slow blink. “Okay,” she said. “How’d you do that?”

I swung off the couch. “You tell me,” I said, and handed her the candles. “Let me know when you figure it out. I don’t think you have the skill to duplicate it, so just use your brain.”

“. . . Huh,” she said, and walked out without another word, face possessed by concentration in the candlelight. She didn’t acknowledge John as she passed him where he was leaning in the doorway.

“Hey,” I said, wandering up to him. He was doing idle rich tonight in slacks and a cashmere sweater. One of my least favorite looks on him. But I leaned down for a kiss anyway.

“Hey,” he said, giving it back with interest. He had a very particular look in his eye.

About five years back, I wandered into John’s home gym one morning while he was working out, and found him flushed and sweaty on a weight bench. He wasn’t grunting and gasping like I’ve seen some guys do, just moving the bar up and down with slow, powerful flexes. He was wearing track pants and a t-shirt with the sleeves torn off. At least until I dragged him down onto the floor with me, unknotted the drawstring of his pants with my teeth, and talked him into doing a series of extremely filthy things right then and there.

John’s a quick study, so it only took one repetition for him to figure out exactly what the sight of him working out does to me. That’s okay. Watching me do magic does the same thing to him.

I followed him upstairs, one finger hooked through the back of his belt, just because.

He paused inside the bedroom door, giving me thoughtful green eyes over one shoulder. “It’s going to drive her nuts, trying to figure that out,” he said.

I blinked innocently, and he snorted.

“She’s going to be pissed when she realizes it was just sleight-of-hand,” he said.

I shrugged. “She thinks magic is the only way to do cool shit,” I said. I wanted her to remember otherwise. That, and some other things I knew were important, but couldn’t really articulate.

John smiled wryly. “You’re . . . pretty good at this,” he said. “Do me a favor and remember that, okay?”

“. . . Okay?” I said, but he just smiled to himself and turned away, reaching for the hem of his sweater.

“Hey,” I said. I stepped up close behind him, putting my hands over his.

“What?”

“Nothing,” I said, sliding my arms around his waist. I squeezed, and he ‘oofed’ quietly. I bent my head to rest my cheek in his hair.

I was suddenly . . . happy. With this voice in the back of my head squealing he loves you, He really really loves you! Which, duh, I knew that. I was marrying the guy, for God’s sake. But if Hendricks said it was true . . .

John turned around, slinging his arms up around my neck. I loosened my hold, and he leaned back, trusting me to keep him up. His eyes were smiling with that solid, centered contentment I was always surprised to see.

“Tell me about your day,” he said. “Anything interesting happen?”

“Nope,” I said. “You?”

He started swaying a little bit, bringing me along into a slow-motion, feet-planted dance. “Nope,” he said. “Nothing exciting.”