Johnny Marcone couldn't entirely suppress the vicious satisfaction when Harry Dresden was reported to have disappeared from Chicago. Good, thought a savagely vindictive part of him, let him flee in shame, let him hide away in guilt.
It didn't help his temper any that he also couldn't squash the unhappy longing the news inspired, the remorse that it was partly his own angry rejection that had driven the wizard off, or the humiliatingly, infuriatingly persistent fear that perhaps he'd left because John simply wasn't good enough for him to stay.
“It's almost funny,” Thomas Raith tossed out quietly, with an angry twist to his lips that belied any amusement. “You've been trying to bind him to you for years, and now you've actually succeeded, but you're the one wearing the collar. It's almost as if one of the trickster gods decided to grant you a wish. If I weren't so worried how Harry's going to take it when he comes back to himself, I'd be laughing myself sick.”
On a farm in Missouri, Ebeneezer frowned as he watched his erstwhile apprentice silently work himself to death. The young man hadn't said word one beyond asking if he could stay for a while, and had avoided meeting his teacher's eyes since he'd unexpectedly shown up at the door, looking broken and vulnerable in a way that put Ebeneezer uneasily in mind of the hurt, frightened boy he'd first brought there over a decade ago. Whatever had happened, it had clearly been bad, very bad, and Harry's inability to bring himself to speak of it only deepened Ebeneezer's misgivings. He'd give it a few more days, he decided. If Harry hadn't calmed down enough to tell him what was wrong by then, he'd start contacting the boy's Chicago allies. They'd have at least some clue what had happened – or if they didn't, he wasn't likely to find the information anywhere else short of Hell.
Better to exhaust other options first.
“So he's literally branded 'Property of Harry Dresden' across my forehead?”
“Your whole aura, more like. It's not actually his fault, you know. These flowers, however they do it, roughly mimic the effects of the White Court – they're a little like a stronger, magical version of rohypnol-meets-Ecstasy, and they were designed to target wizards. What's amazing is that he managed to fight it enough to ask first. Well, sort of.”
The members of the Outfit unfortunate enough to come into contact with John over the next weeks left shaking, grateful to be mostly intact and determined to avoid future brushes if at all possible. Those whose positions didn't allow the reprieve of avoiding the boss broke down into nervous wrecks, sweating and fidgeting, jumping at shadows that might become John-Marcone-shaped. Even Hendricks felt the brunt of John's ill humor more than once, before he snapped back that ignoring a problem didn't fix it, and neither did terrorizing one's subordinates, so perhaps John should look into Raith's advice to interview other beings that were bound to Dresden. Gard might be looking into safe ways to remove the marks, but until and unless John was freed he was still going to have to cope with the position he was in now. And that, Hendricks pointed out mercilessly, required information on what to expect.
John yielded with poor grace.
The kiss came out of nowhere. One moment Dresden was muttering about the heat and the cloying, almost physical scent of the flowers, the next he'd stumbled over nothing, prompting John to catch him. The wizard stared at John as if he'd never seen him before, then grabbed him, dropped them both to the ground, and kissed him like his life was riding on whether or not he could turn John's head in five minutes or less.
It was the last night Ebeneezer had allowed himself when Harry finally broke his silence over the dirty dishes.
“Sir,” he rasped, voice hoarse from disuse, “sir, I – ”
“Sit down, Hoss,” Ebeneezer snapped when Harry swayed, shoving him into the closest chair and leaving the dishes where they were for the moment. “You've been pushing yourself to exhaustion every night since you got here, and not sleeping on top of that if those rings under your eyes are any clue. Now, what the devil is it that's got you so worked up?”
Harry tried to curl into himself, face twisting like he wanted to cry. His fingers gripped the seat of the chair so hard it groaned in protest.
“I – sir, I – I think I might have broken one of the Laws.”
Ebeneezer's blood turned to ice-water in his veins. He dropped heavily into the other chair. “Tell me,” he croaked. “Tell me everything.”
“My point is, he's a victim in this too.”
John's control over his temper, already strained, abruptly snapped.
“My heart bleeds. It must be so difficult for him, to be forced into a position of power over someone he despises. Certainly that must be as unpleasant as suddenly becoming another person's property – and not just any person, but one who actively dislikes and vilifies him. The poor dear. Perhaps a fruit basket would help to console him? I'll have to order one on my way back to the office. I'm afraid the time spent here has significantly eaten into my schedule and I have a great deal of work to catch up on. Good day, Mr Raith.”
John finished adjusting his clothing and turned to leave, white-hot fury propelling him toward the car despite the relentless urge to turn around; run back to the drugged, sleeping wizard; fall to his knees and bury his face in the crook of the man's neck; drag him somewhere safe and warm and never leave his arms. Shaking with mingled rage and longing and an absurd feeling of betrayal, he left vampire and wizard in the dust behind him without looking back.
“You go right ahead and call the Council. It won't get you anywhere. He hasn't broken any Laws,” Raith insisted, all icy hostility, any helpfulness or sympathy burned from him with Dresden's disappearance. Negotiations for a list of Dresden's bound subordinates had quickly deteriorated into argument and threats. John raised an eyebrow, determinedly showing no visible sign of the fury coursing through him.
“The last I'd heard, mind-magic was not – ” The vampire interrupted with a cold laugh.
“Is that what you thought happened? You started feeling things you didn't expect and thought he used mind-magic on you? Clearly you weren't listening when I explained what each of those marks meant. He claimed you – branded how he felt about you right into your core. His magic is wrapped around you like a ten foot neon sign, flashing 'mine, mine, mine!' brightly enough that no one with the slightest magical perception can help but notice. It's strong enough that even reasonably sensitive mundanes can pick up on it, for all that they don't know what they're sensing.” Raith paused to smirk maliciously. Perfect teeth gleamed in a shark-like smile.
“Those feelings you're so worried about? The guilt when you hurt him and the longing when he's gone and the warm fuzzies when he's nearby? They're all you. They're your emotional reaction to what you're picking up, caught in the center of it as you are. Of course you want to be near him and feel safe around him, with all that brushing up against your aura. Who doesn't like feeling cherished and protected? Who wouldn't feel bad about hurting someone they knew right down to their bones felt that way about them?”
For the first time since the words “he's claimed you” were spoken in a garden of magical date-rape flowers, John's rage faltered. Deprived of its bolstering effect he felt empty, drained of anything but a hard knot of weary hurt in his gut.
Perhaps Raith noticed this, because while his expression gained no warmth, the viciousness leached from it until he merely looked anxious, raggedly resentful, and nearly as tired as John felt.
“He's not the type to force someone's obedience. Case in point, if he didn't care quite deeply about your will he wouldn't have confined himself to cuddling and mild groping back in the flowers. There's plenty of older, better-trained wizards that wouldn't have been able to resist pushing you down and taking you right there, regardless of what you wanted. I've seen it. That he was able to control himself so well in that state … probably some of it was that he's had a lot of experience with mind-control, and being drugged. But a lot of it was about you. Look, just … just talk to the Guard. Harry's probably got them watching out for you, it shouldn't be hard to get in contact if you can find something they want.”
“What makes you think he'd still bother at this point?”
Raith's smile flickered back on, rueful this time.
“If you could see that protective mark on your brow you wouldn't need to ask.”
“It's in three parts. Three marks where he kissed you – Possession over the neck, Romance on the mouth, and Protection at your forehead,” Raith explained, illustrating with gestures at his own body.
“The first means that you belong to him – that you answer to him and he takes care of you. The second says, surprise surprise, that he's sexually interested in you – and, in conjunction with the other two, that he's taken you as his consort. The third one lets everyone know that you're under his protection and they'll have to go through him and every ally he can call on in order to harm you.”
Ebeneezer let out a shaky breath. Harry had been relieved to hear that taking a consort did not involve mind-magic. He'd been upset more by that idea than by the fear of execution, Ebeneezer thought, though the latter had been in no small way on his mind as well. His mentor's reassurances had relaxed him enough to relate further details – like what had triggered the claiming, as Harry was decades too young to have fallen into that state naturally. He'd have to warn the Council about these flowers, and see what could be done about eradicating them. They were a nasty piece of work, no mistake.
He wondered, carefully hiding his turmoil from Harry, whether he should be furious that his grandson had been drugged, and thus essentially coerced, into making one of a wizard's most important decisions half a century before he was ready for it, or grateful that the precocious boy would at least know the joys of having a consort before he got himself killed taking on something too powerful. Perhaps, he mused, choosing this particular companion would keep the young fool alive long enough to reach adulthood. A mortal with enough wits and power (and balls) to take a place on the Accords would be a formidable partner. It all depended on whether or not this Marcone guy could come to terms with his new status and the responsibilities that came with it.
He already owed the idiot an ass-kicking for his mismanagement, though he supposed some slack should be allowed as the mortal likely had no idea what being claimed meant. It wasn't like Harry would have been any help on that front, uneducated as he was in the matter. Doubtless they were both equally uncertain and off-balance. He really needed to sit Harry down and explain things first, and he'd pay a visit to meet the consort at some later date. He could always shoot the bastard then if he hadn't shaped up.
The kiss was intense, and for a long moment John lost himself in it. Eventually Harry jerked away, panting, reluctant, obviously struggling to focus, but determined to speak. “John,” he slurred, “John, do you, do you still – ” his eyes glazed and he broke off, swaying in toward John's lips again before he caught himself. He shook his head sharply and scowled as he met John's eyes.
“John – b'fore. You were willin' to deal, fight, kidnap, an' kill to have me, you... John. D'you still wan' me?”
The Guard, when he lured them from hiding, were unexpectedly charming, endearingly childlike in their mindset and enthusiasm. Many of them, especially the smaller ones, seemed genuinely delighted that “Lord Harry” had chosen a consort, and excitedly darted to and fro, bragging about past triumphs and crowing over their placement on John's new pixie guard detail.
The larger ones tended to gather around a dainty-looking fairy with hair like dandelion fluff and a truly impressive glower for someone barely a foot tall. General Toot-toot was plainly dissatisfied by his Lord's choice, and made his contempt known by keeping his distance, pointedly ignoring John after the necessary introductions. John disregarded the chilly behavior in favor of speaking with the more welcoming members of the Guard. All of them were full of praises for their beloved Za Lord, who was generous with his care and protection and, most importantly, pizza.
A delicate female half the size of John's pinkie squeaked her tale of a daring rescue from a teenaged practitioner with more romanticism than sense or compassion. A slightly taller male had been retrieved from the clutches of a hungry stray cat. Still another had received hours of assistance placing his silk-twig-and-beer-can home in just the right location for quick access to a nearby restaurant's kitchen without coming in range of cleaning attempts or raindrops. All three had leaped at the opportunity to join the Guard upon receiving the offer – from Toot-toot, not Harry. John wondered, during the tenth or twelfth rendition of such stories, if Harry realized how thoroughly he'd captured the loyalty of his diminutive army.
It was a dismissive throwaway comment, ill-conceived and sparked by a flash of truly ridiculous jealousy and the lingering knot of hurt and resentment discovered in the wake of John's awkward talk with Raith, that eventually triggered the tiny general's explosion.
“He is not weak! He is the greatest wizard! He's faced down the Erlking and even the Queens and he's not even full-grown yet! He will be stronger and warmer and braver than any Lord yet seen, and Toot-toot would have been big enough for him when he was old enough to choose! But the stupid flowers made him choose early, and now he chose you, and Toot-toot will never be his consort, and you're not even good at it!”
“It doesn't take much skill to be a belonging,” John snapped back, before shutting his eyes and breathing deliberately through his nose. Hendricks was right about one thing, he admitted to himself. This whole situation had him badly off-balance, and far less controlled than he could afford to be.
“Foolish! Selfish! Consort is a position of great honor, great responsibility! You don't even know what you're doing! You dare rob Toot-toot of his chance and then undermine your charge?”
John wrenched his eyes open, struggling to pay attention to what was being said instead of lashing out automatically. Briefly he wished Hendricks was here, helping John maintain his composure by proximity alone. Even more briefly his mind flashed to Harry and the calm focus his presence seemed to bestow now – but that was a pointless, counterproductive thought and he cut it off quickly. The rest of the Guard had fallen silent, listening with an air that was markedly less convivial than it had been.
“I don't understand,” he said finally, forcing himself to speak rationally. “In what way is Dresden my charge? I was under the impression that these marks meant, if anything, I was his.”
“Dunce,” the fairy scoffed. “He takes care of you, protects you – you guard his heart. You think consorts just sit around and look pretty?”
A collection of jeers and rude noises indicated the Guard's opinion of this view. Toot-toot's voice rose, shrill and irate.
“You try to keep him healthy, mind and body. You give him a place to relax his guard, somewhere he can meet his deepest needs safely. You keep him balanced. Keep him happy. Defend his honor. Remind him to be smart when he's acting foolish. Keep him safe when he's too hurt to take care of himself. You guard his weak points! You don't exploit them, make up stupid, petty lies that play on his worst fears and make him hurt and doubt and run!” The fairy vibrated in anger, rising to scold John at eye-level.
“Idiot! Traitor! The most important trust a wizard can give and you use it to hurt him!”
“Tell me about it then,” John challenged. “This is the first I've heard about responsibilities. I've never cared for betrayal. Tell me what duties come with this position, so that I may endeavor not to repeat my mistakes.”
He met the skeptical, evaluating look Toot-toot leveled at him with renewed purpose. Responsibility meant power. If he had a firm understanding to ground himself on, and some means to control his life, he could cope with whatever changes and overcome whatever obstacles he ran up against.
The dewdrop fairy opened his mouth to speak again. He was interrupted by the stun grenade that landed in the clearing.
“D'you want me?”
“Of course,” John gasped, “but – ”
But you're clearly under the influence of something , and while I'm tempted regardless, I have a lurking suspicion that taking your binding oath while you're drugged would be a surer way to end up dead than being your enemy outright, he didn't manage to explain, because Harry took this as permission to pull him into another kiss – and if John had thought the first one was intense, the second was mind-blowing. His lips were still tingling as Harry shifted his focus to begin an assault on the most sensitive part of John's neck. That tingled too, when Harry finally came up for air, resting his forehead against John's in an intimate gesture that stole John's breath more thoroughly than any number of kisses. The gentle, chaste press of lips to his brow should have been anticlimactic, but John shivered in its wake, leaning into Harry's welcome embrace.
It wasn't until then that he noticed the glowing shield that surrounded them, or the frantic bodyguard and horrified vampire suddenly present outside it.
“Mine,” Harry sighed contentedly into his hair.