There was snow on the ground in Wolf Lake Park. Seeing as it was still March, had been a cold winter, and we were about as deep into the park as you could get without coming out the other side, that wouldn't be so unusual in and of itself. But, considering that I'd been flinging handfuls of flame around like an unsuspecting popcorn boy standing in for the fire juggler at Cirque Du Soleil, I thought it was worth noting.
Not to mention the amount of high-powered artillery that had been thrown about, and the number of combat boots that had tromped through the area.
"Ha!" I said to the back of Darth Wannabe as he ran, staggering around a birch tree and into the waiting arms of Office Rawlins of the Chicago PD, Special Investigations. I'm always a gracious winner. Darth Wannabe seemed grateful for Rawlins' bulk and the strong grip that hauled him upright as he fell, even if Rawlins snapped his cuffs around Darth's wrists with the same motion.
Although Darth's makeup had washed off, he was still almost white. His eyes were deep-set and ringed with black, and his teeth chattered. But that was to be expected. He'd just been forcibly cut-off from an attempted Outsider possession; Outsiderius interruptus was going to do some major damage to whatever mental processes he might have had in the first place. "That would be my smoke messing with you," I shouted after him. "Blow it out your ass."
Except that it seemed that the Soulfire wreathed around me didn't generate much heat. I was pretty cold.
A hand came down on my shoulder. I jumped, wavered, and turned to the source, giving him my best quick-to-anger wizardly glare. The crime lord was unaffected. "John," I said "We've got to stop meeting like this."
"Mr Dresden," John Marcone said, one hand on my shoulder and the other reaching out to hold on to my elbow. His money-green eyes were pale and close. "Sit down."
The bright, effervescent blue-white glow of the Soulfire swirled around his wrists and between his fingers. I looked over Marcone's shoulder, and realized how far from his men I'd traveled while facing off against the Outsider influence, and Darth Wannabe and his darthlings.
Somehow, Marcone maneuvered me to a fallen tree. There were a lot of those in this part of the park now, quite suddenly and coincidentally and not at all related to any indirect property damage, and a strong hand pressed against the back of my neck. "Put your head down. Breathe."
Marcone held my head between my knees. I was going to protest; but once it got there I ended up too busy with breathing to notice much more than the flicker of the Soulfire fading away, and how much my head was spinning.
I realized that I didn't know how long I'd been calling on my Soulfire, or how long the battle with the Outsider had lasted. Weak and just emerging into this realm though it had been, it had packed some serious punch. Time had slowed to something immeasurable; and certainly my recollection of it was blurred. It could have been minutes. It could have been hours.
The cold that flooded my stomach had nothing to do with the late night or early spring weather. I shuddered, and closed my eyes.
A box of pizza landed on my lap, and the hand slowly lifted from my neck, resting again on my shoulder. I jerked, flinched, and opened my eyes. "John?" I said. "You still there?"
Heavy footsteps walked away with a snort.
"Good boy, Cujo," I said. "Fetch."
"Mr Dresden?" Marcone said from beside me. His hand flexed on my shoulder, and my neck was cooling rapidly from where he'd been holding it. "Are you with us?"
I tested my head, and found that the world didn't move too drastically if I kept my actions slow. I frowned at the pizza box. "Did you bring enough to share with the whole class?" Toot and the rest of the Guard would be disappointed if they didn't get any.
My stomach rumbled.
I'd buy them one tomorrow.
I had the box open and was finishing off my fourth piece before I paused mid-bite. I noticed that the pizza, a meatlovers with mushrooms and extra cheese, was lukewarm at best. That the moon was low on the horizon, and that the woods sounded almost empty. That my fingers were cold, but not freezing, and had the fading memory of being warm and wrapped in something soft. That Marcone still had his hand on my damn shoulder.
I looked up at him, his body-armoured outline much bulkier than usual in the dim light of the moon and the headlights of what looked to be a potentially interesting explanation parked a few feet away. An all-black, all-terrain, four-wheel drive interesting explanation, in fact.
My chilling fingers throbbed.
A heated interesting explanation.
I finished chewing, and my hands were grabbed. Marcone's gloves were warm but his grip was strong, and he chapped my fingers roughly between his palms, the burn of restored circulation offset by the softness of the leather.
"Are you with us, Mr Dresden?" he asked again.
"Who's us?" I said, and spied the hulking figure of Hendricks in the driver's seat of the ATV. Oh, right. He'd brought the pizza over. I looked down; the box was empty. My head snapped up, and Marcone dropped my hands to steady me from the vertigo.
"What are you looking for, Mr Dresden?"
"Faeries," I said. Obviously.
"Of course. I would be more concerned if I didn't know that this is what passes for normal conversation with you." The empty box was taken from my lap, and a hand appeared underneath my elbow. "Are you all right to get up? The temperature's still dropping. We should get in the vehicle and get you home, unless there is somewhere else you would rather go? Sergeant Murphy had to leave with the rest of her squad, but demanded a full report and to speak with you at the earliest convince. Or would you rather the apartment of one 'Toemass' Raith, perhaps?"
"No," I said, shaking my head. I was pulling my arm away from his grasp when we got to the ATV. ""I just want to go home. Where's my dog?"
Mouse's head appeared in the window, and drew back as John opened the door. I scrambled in beside him, and buried my fingers in his fur. "Traitor," I said. "You been in here keeping warm?" My staff and blasting rod were on the seat. Mouse bumped my chin with his nose.
"I find it sufficient to say that your dog has always maintained a higher degree of sense than his owner." John shut the door behind me.
I frowned as Marcone got into the passenger's seat, and Hendricks carefully eased the ATV into motion. "John? Why are you here?"
"You contacted me, Mr Dresden. When you learned that Wolf Lake Park is now my property."
Oh right. Maybe the ATV wasn't going to warrant so interesting an explanation after all. "No, John," I said. "I mean: why are you here."
"Ah. Well, Sergeant Murphy was forced to leave, as I said. And my men were unable to contact Mr Raith."
"He's in Mexico," I said. "Until next Tuesday."
"I see." Marcone met my eyes in the review mirror. "You may wish to leave his home, cell, and private business numbers new messages when you are home, then. To inform him of your wellbeing, and to ask him to disregard any messages left in your interest on my behalf. And," he added, picking up where he'd left off, "I could not rationalize calling upon Mr Carpenter; not when I had no pressing business, and the means to keep you safe from such mortal perils as hypothermia and hypoglycemia, if not the supernatural threats. Although I feel you are uniquely equipped to handle your own, there."
Marcone's eyes flicked away from mine in the mirror, and I looked down at Mouse's head in my lap. I scratched behind his ears. My skin hummed with the after effects of the now long-faded Soulfire. I had never really dwelled on the possibility before, but somehow I wasn't enjoying the realization that the overlord of the Chicago underbelly, the only mortal man to ever strong-arm himself a place in the Unseelie Accords, had been scared of me.
"No," I said. "The Carpenters need to be left alone."
We were on a normal street, the rut and jostle of the ATV in the park giving way to the smooth ride of a Chicago road. Streetlights passed in stripes of light and dark, and I looked up as we turned the last corner before my place. The light caught the scar, and shadows framed the torn piece from Marcone's ear.
"Sorry," I said.
John turned and caught my gaze, then glanced away again, one hand coming up to rub at the back of his head and block my view.
We pulled to a stop in front of my entrance, the stairs sunk into the ground and leading to my basement apartment. "I trust you can get yourself down the stairs, Harry? Or would you like Mr Hendricks to carry you?" Marcone's smile was bland and urban, with just the promise of light in his bright green eyes. His handsome face was calm and unsuspecting. His expression showed no hint that he'd just babysat my stupid ass in the middle of the woods overnight. Somehow, he made the Kevlar he was wearing look like a thousand dollar suit.
I pushed open the door, grabbed my staff and blasting rod, and Mouse slid out into the parking lot. "Go pee on the third rail, John," I told him, and followed my dog.
"Why, Mr Dresden," Marcone said. "Don't you watch Mythbusters? They disproved that one."
"Pity," I said. "Guess I'll just have to settle for telling you kids to get the fuck off my lawn."
I slammed the ATV door to make my point, and didn't look back as I let myself in. The ATV didn't drive away until my door was closed, and I leaned against the inside of the heavy steel and listened to the tires crunch away.
My stomach was full; I was still warm from the heat of the car (Hendricks must have been roasting); I was tired, but more in the way of having saved the world on half a cup of coffee and two hours of sleep, and not with the bone-crushing sort of weariness that came from an extended magical battle that called upon my very soul.
Speaking of which, I felt ... whole. My soul wasn't worn away, or even dangerously drained. Something had helped fill in the bits I had spent while battling the newly-emerging Outsider; something had helped to jump-start it, at least, if not restore the totality.
I dropped my staff and blasting rod into the umbrella stand. "Hells fucking bells." Mouse looked at me. "Don't give me that," I told him. "The last thing I need to be doing is sharing pieces of my soul with John fucking Marcone. Never mind taking on bits of his."
I thought of the time that I'd lost when I'd closed my eyes; of the pizza that filled my stomach; of the warm hands on my neck and shoulders and the pale green eyes. The man had been scared of me and had still taken care of me, had let me rest, had fed me, and then had taken me home; and no doubt had faced down Murphy to do so. I wondered about those messages he'd left Thomas.
Mouse thumped his tail against the couch. My dog has always been smarter than me. "Oh. Oh no. Oh, stars and fucking bell stones, no." No one was ever going to let me live this one down.