I woke to the unusual sensation of soft, warm flesh draped over my chest and thighs, and the slightly more familiar din of tiny dwarves with hammers pounding away on the inside of my skull.
If I were more your average sort of guy, that might have been my cue to groan and stretch, then go looking for a little more hair of the dog that bit me. Or maybe-- well, I'm not the type to kiss and tell, but certain morning-after activities are supposed to help with the leftover aches from the night before. Unfortunately, in my experience, a headache like that was usually the result of a concussion, a vampire attack, a misfired spell, or magical overuse, and whichever one it had been this time wasn't likely to be anything worth celebrating. At least the body atop me was breathing-- and very clearly female-- which crossed a few of the more problematic possibilities off the list.
That still left me with an awful lot of questions. The last I remembered, I was locking up my office after wrapping up a disastrous case involving a warlock just a few months younger than Molly; I'd intended to head for McAnnally's to console myself with a steak dinner and some of the nectar of the gods he called beer, but before I could leave I'd run into someone who'd asked if my door sign was truth in advertising....
My memory fuzzed into a smear of headlights, the cascading laughter of a young woman, and the giddy rush of power through my veins sometime later. I knew better than to get falling down drunk when I was in a maudlin mood-- I don't often show the best judgment when I'm in an altered state, as I've had repeated occasion to find out first hand-- but something had to have happened. Either way, the main question at hand was whether the aftermath called more for embarrassment, or for killing it with fire. I already tasted ashes in the back of my throat, which didn't bode well. Not at all.
"Buffy?" a nervous voice called from somewhere relatively nearby, sending a spike of pain straight through my eardrums into my sluggish grey matter. I didn't recognize the voice, but there was something oddly familiar about the name she was using. Something I thought I should remember.
The limp form sprawled over me whimpered and stirred a little, smearing drool across my collarbone.
Oh. Right. A vague memory of lips shaping that name slid through my thoughts-- and had she really told me to conjure by it at my own risk? A sense of humor: that was a point in her favor.
"Buffy?!" the other woman called again, a strained quality to her voice I'd heard all too often from clients terrified out of their wits and trying to hide it. And there was another point, taken away.
I contemplated slitting my eyes open to evaluate the situation more directly, but decided to keep them shut as my companion stirred again. She groaned, a distinctly unhappy sound, then shifted her weight to lever herself upright. She took a few of my chest hairs with her as she peeled herself away from me; if I hadn't already been awake, that would have done it.
"Willow?" she replied, in a faint, raspy tone that sounded at least as pained as I felt.
"Oh, thank goddess!" the stranger exclaimed, driving that spike a little deeper into my skull. "Are you okay?"
I swallowed, tasting smoke and iron with strange overtones of something fruity, and did my best not to react. From the way 'Buffy' was reacting, my companion was in pretty much the same state I was. That crossed a few more possibilities off the list; whatever had happened was likely to have been consensual, at least. On my part as well as hers, which was a relief I didn't care to examine too closely. My muscles were starting to chime in with sore spots in some pretty unusual places, but I didn't feel any of the sharp pains that would hint at fang marks or lingering aftereffects of Red Court venom, just a nasty case of dehydrated brain cells and an unpleasant all-over tingle like a first degree sunburn. And though I couldn't yet remember if there'd been anything else to it, I did have the sense that we'd enjoyed ourselves. Thoroughly.
"No," Buffy replied plaintively, then shifted her weight again to plop down on the floor next to me, bracing herself against my shoulder with a smallish hand. "Ugh. What the hell happened? I thought we were just gonna talk to the wizard about sending us home!"
A flash of silvery sequined shoes, clicking together at the heels, flashed through my mind. Were they creatures from the NeverNever? Fae? I hoped not; I was entangled enough with that world as it was. The rest of me was starting to clamor louder the longer I was awake; I was in serious need of a few moments alone with a toilet, and I seemed to be wearing nothing more than my duster and the glove I used to hide the scars on my left hand. The wrist of that hand felt stiff and a little sore; so did most of my other joints, to a lesser degree, and parts of my-- back-- were a little chafed from repeated rubbing against all that leather. I'd have to remember that for future reference: sex in the coat, bad idea.
My other cheeks heated with embarrassment at the thought. Hopefully, neither of them were looking closely enough to notice. Or looking at anything else, either, as a matter of fact. I resisted the urge to shift my gloved hand to a more strategic location; the mysterious Buffy had seen a lot more than that, if the snippets of sensation I recalled were anything to go by.
"Do you really want to know?" the even more mysterious Willow replied, in a tone like a caution sign.
Buffy stilled, then seemed to shift-- looking around the room, if I had to guess. Then she drew in a sharp breath, and choked a little, as though there was something wrong with the air. "Oh my god," she said. "Is this--? Did we--? Wills, I thought I was imagining the fire!"
I sucked in a deep breath, tasting ash and strawberries again-- and that prickly, sunburned feeling started taking on more ominous implications. The last time I'd lost control of myself during sex, I'd worked unbinding magic without being consciously aware of it; and I'd been known to be a little... intemperate... with fire ever since I was a teenager. Was it possible that I'd--?
Willow sighed. "Not so much. By the time you got him back to the hotel, you were talking about Spike, and I think he was telling you about someone called Susan? Then you started talking about exorcizing old memories...."
"Noooooooooo...." Buffy groaned, as she put the pieces together.
"Yep," Willow chided her further. "You lured him into the bathroom with a trail of jello shots, then proceeded to barricade the door with duct tape. You really should have thought that one through..."
A bad day. An ill-advised amount of alcohol. Sharing bad memories. Stars and stones, Thomas was going to laugh himself sick if he found out what I'd done.
I levered my eyelids slowly apart, squinting against bright slanting beams of-- yep, that was very definitely sunshine, shining down above me. Visible through a very charred set of rafters.
I don't have the best track record with resisting temptation. Nor with women. Nor with being trapped. And especially not with any combination of the above, as almost all the females in my life could tell you. I winced, and lifted my chin a little to take in the rest of the scenery: the equally blackened walls of the bathroom, the half-collapsed, charred door sagging to reveal a pale face under a fringe of red hair, and a perfect circle of white tile under me spreading out from a point just to the left of my body. A point that coincided with the wrist clasped by my upgraded shield bracelet.
And on my right-- hell's bells. Petite; blonde hair pulled back in a ponytail; a firm, slender body with weapons calluses on her hands. Even with the bloodshot eyes and a light dusting of ash over naked, sunburned skin, she still looked gorgeous and fierce: twenty kinds of deadly in a tiny, silken purse.
Oh, yeah. I was starting to remember exactly why I'd been fascinated enough to follow her home in the first place. I would take Thomas' laughter any day over Murphy's expression, if she ever found out.
"Hey, he's awake!" the redhead yelped, clapping a hand over her mouth. "Mr. Dresden?"
I sat up slowly, pressing the heel of my right hand to my forehead, and surreptitiously pulled the edges of my coat together with my other hand as I drew up my knees. With that fraction of my dignity restored, I felt a little more equal to facing my-- clients?
"Call me Harry. Anybody seen my clothes?" I mumbled, around the furry obstruction in my mouth passing for a tongue.
The blonde turned slightly to one side, gesturing toward a mound of ashy layers that might have been fabric before they had been flash-fried into oblivion. "Same place mine are, I think," she winced.
"No firefighters?" I managed next, slightly less coherently as I contemplated the ruin of one of my very favorite irreverent tee shirts.
"Not yet," the redhead out in the hall replied, biting her lip. "I can't keep them from finding us forever, but until someone gets close--"
"You've put up a veil," I groaned, abruptly recognizing the berrylike overlay on my senses; it wasn't a style of magic I was familiar with, but it was magic, and strong enough she could easily have torn an aperture to the NeverNever on her own. "If you can do that, then why were you looking for me in the first place? Couldn't you use your own magic to get home?"
I glanced over to meet Buffy's raised eyebrows, and she stared back for a long moment, giving me an impression of intense green-hazel eyes as I tried to avoid a soul gaze without being too obvious. Then she scooted her legs in as I had mine and wrapped her arms around them, glancing up at her friend. "To do that, we'd have to know where home is from here," she admitted.
So, not the NeverNever, then. The back of my neck tingled a little at the implications-- but the sting of scorched skin was competing with it for my attention, and the still gently smoking structure around me was starting to loom like the walls of an unstable prison cell.
I got my feet under me, then stood, pulling my duster more tightly around me. "Well, I think we can safely say it's not in the bottom of a bottle of vodka-- or even Mac's microbrew," I quipped, clenching my teeth as I waited for the surge in my headache and the sudden roil of nausea in my gut to settle.
Buffy snorted a laugh, then reached a hand up, and I pulled her cautiously to her feet. I couldn't help but look as she moved: golden skin, smooth muscle, curves that I'd apparently left fingerprints on the night before, and some interesting scars whose stories I wouldn't mind learning.
Not that I had room for any more complications in my life. I glanced away to nod at the foreign wizard, wincing. The sooner I put last night's lapse behind me, the better, especially if Ms. Willow's magic drew the attention of other Wardens; and fortunately, the women's goals seemed to coincide.
"Can you veil us all out of here?" I sighed. "If we can get to my office, I'll see what I can do."