The sun was low on the horizon, sinking down behind the spire of the old Gateway Theatre's Solidarity Tower, a ball of gritty grey light giving way to a darker, greasy black. What passed for shadows these days, indistinct outlines of grey on grey, lengthened slowly and surely, blurring the edges of the still-standing buildings and catching on the jagged, open wounds of the city. A breeze was blowing, steady and cool, off the lake from the smell of it, and I turned my face to it, carefully tracking a slow visual arc around me. A few feet away, Wizard Choi coughed, a deep sucking rasp that rattled somewhere in his ruined lungs.
I turned my head toward the sound; smoothed the surprise away from my face. He was pale, blood splattered around his lips, one eye milky white, the other glazed and unfocused. The bent rebar from the train-tracks stuck up through his chest; he was missing his left leg below the knee; there was a hole the size of my fist in his stomach. One of his hands twitched, his fingers jerking, stuttering against the hard ground; it was the most noise he'd made in hours. I'd thought he was already dead. His body had failed; his deathcurse had been spent. He would be soon.
"Wizard Choi?" I asked, calm and pitched-low, keeping the pain and the approaching night from my voice as best I could. It's not that different than keeping away anger, amusement, frustration at someone's Blackberry going off in a meeting, and I had been long practiced at that. "Can you hear me?"
Choi coughed again, gurgled, darker blood bubbling up between his lips, and I twisted too far, knocked myself off-balance and jarred my leg. I grunted, barely caught the gasp of pain and held it against my lips, my heart pounding in my ears, until the hot shock passed. Not that the vampires didn't know where we were; didn't know that I was injured and Choi moments from death; weren't watching from the dark spaces in the ruined buildings, waiting for the daylight to disappear.
"Wizard Choi," I repeated, the pain and situation wearing at my control, my voice higher, threadier. "Can you hear me?" Choi managed a groan; his hand stilled. "David," I said, "David, it's going to be okay." It was a lie, of course. Fresh blood seeped up from my leg, I could feel the thick fabric of my BDU pants stick to the wound, clotted with grime and attracting dirt and other, worse things. It ached, a constant throb, and was far too hot to mean anything other than infection.
There was a clang from somewhere close; something moving nearby, the rubble from the earlier skirmish shifting and falling, and my back tensed, my heart raced. I tried to calm my breathing; chase away the fear. They could hear it; smell it. They must have known I was afraid, of course, but that was no reason to give them the added satisfaction.
The explosion had caught us off-guard. We'd been sloppy. Careless. Let our vigilance down as we approached home, flush on the success of the trade negotiations with the Caledonia-Milwaukee Camp and the ease of the journey there and back, unhindered by more than a trace of the supernatural predators that thrived in the dark and the ruins of cities. The explosion that had destroyed our convoy had not been supernatural in origin. Choi would have sensed it, otherwise. But a wizard searching for magically-charged booby traps or strains in the fabric of the Nevernever or large pools of black magic isn't going to sense an IED buried in the road until everyone else does.
And we didn't notice it until it exploded.
Most of the convoy had been killed in the initial explosion, or the subsequent overturning of the vehicles and the fires. A few had survived, and succumbed to their injuries in the following hours. Choi and I had dragged ourselves away from the wreckage, small spot fires still burning a few feet away, but neither of us were in much shape to move. Choi's deathcurse had obliterated the first wave of attackers, the Renfields, but there was still the Black vampire scourge itself, sequestered in the shaded safety of the theatre. Not to mention any other hungry predators that may have been attracted by the noise and the death.
The sun was almost gone, a shade of sickly orange spreading out underneath the darkening grey, and the promise of pitch black lurked behind the clouds. Choi coughed, groaned, and managed to focus his good eye on me. His words were mostly air and pain slurred together. It took him a few tries. I made out "Sir," and "taken," and "please". I knew what he meant, what he should have meant, and held up a hand before he forced himself to try again.
"It's all right," I told him. "Just close your eyes. I'll take care of it. I promise." Choi had been a Warden even before the Darkness had struck; he'd survived war with the Red Court and the first hardest years of Darkness. Different wizards over the years had mentioned their contingency plans to me, from the time of the Red War. All Wardens had had them. Everyone had one now. I was his.
I checked my pistol, my rounds. There was enough. And I had my P90 still, for when I became my own last chance. Choi met my gaze; he held it with what must have been an agonizing effort. "You can't," he told me. I realized he'd bitten off part of his tongue. Maybe in the explosion. Maybe from the pain. "Not you. They can't."
"I'll take care of it," I promised again. "I will take care of it. They won't get us."
He held my gaze a moment longer -- then closed his eyes, whole body deflating as he sighed. I raised my pistol, and shot him in the head; in the face; in the heart.
It was the standard protocol. The headshot would limit the amount of information from his life even a powerful Necromancer or demon could harvest, even if they did reanimate his body. The shot to the heart would limit the extent to which either could harness his self. The shot to the face would help to keep his friends and family from recognizing him, if it ever came to that.
The clang came again, lasted, and became a screech of metal -- rusted hinges being forced open.
The Blacks followed. Dark figures rose up in doorways, windows, the collapsed walls and gaping holes in the sides of the Civic Center. A few edged closer, skittering low and keeping to the shadows while the last of the sun's glow disappeared. The automatic field lights affixed to my vest flickered on; I checked my ammunition, and flipped down my night vision goggles from where they rested on my forehead.
The lights on my vest were UV spectrum. The battery would last 10 hours. As long as the Blacks didn't have a sorcerer among them, or no other surge of magical energy happened in the vicinity. Choi and I had manged to draw a circle around us. Choi's will was gone with him; but the idea and symbol of the circle still held. Hopefully it would be enough. Unless there were more mortals, Renfields or other thralls, that the Blacks could use to break the circle.
The heat had disappeared with the light; my breath drifted up before me, my cheeks stung with the sudden chill. I knew what the vampires were; had faced them before, more times than I could easily count. The lack of breath was still jarring, still absolutely, intrinsically wrong on a level somewhere under my skin and in my bones. The Blacks gathered in a jerky half-circle around me, lurching on dead muscles, waxy and in various states of decay. I waited.
... and tried not to wonder what the fuck was taking so long. The Black Court, although denied the aesthetic glamours of the White and the former Red Court, were perfectly capable of being speedy monsters. This labouring lurch and stagger was either some type of ploy, or an insult to us both.
Slowly, seemingly painfully, they slowed to a halt, waiting.
I shivered in the cold, flexed my fingers but didn't move them from their ready position on the gun, and realized something was truly wrong when ice crystals began to spread a delicate latticework on my goggle frames.
"... You presumptive, melodramatic, adolescent-minded, ice-sucking son of a bitch," I said, and the Winter Knight stepped out of the Nevernever at the edge of my circle and shattered the frozen bodies of the Black Court vampires with a word.
"I'm sorry," I said, jerking my goggles up and letting them snap back into place on my forehead, my cheerful curiosity almost drowning my words. "Am I supposed to be impressed? Grateful? Throw myself at your spur-studded feet?" It was a tone that, admittedly, would have sent most of my former employees and even many of my current people into a cautious retreat. The tall, skinny asshole just smiled at me, took in the surroundings with a darkening frown, and knelt down beside my circle. It is a never-ending source of astonishment that for all he has done and seen, the man has never learned to disguise his emotions. I have been tempted to blindfold myself at times, just to put us on more even footing.
"You just come trampling over when it suits you and save the fucking day? Oh no, the townsfolk are in danger, I had better pull my dick out and rush to the rescue." I kicked out with my good leg to break the circle and let him in. "Because Heaven forbid anyone not need rescuing by you. Would it simply fall off, I wonder, if you didn't fill your quota of damsel-saving weekly?"
"Scumbag," Harry said, and slid a large, careful hand below my broken shin; I pulled out one of my knives and cut through what remained of my pants and the makeshift bandage. The wound smelt, and I felt my mouth turn down, my jaw clench. Harry lifted the edges of the bandage away, rubbed at my thigh when I sucked a curse through my teeth. "Not my fault you can't manage to visit the neighbour without making a spectacle of it." He placed his fingers gently on the skin, red and sore, outside the break.
"Black?" he asked, dark eyes peering up at me under the furrow of his brow.
"No," I said, "landmine." I gestured with my chin back toward the wreckage, the bodies. Harry's eyes shuttered, his mouth flattened. "It broke when the transport rolled."
He bowed his head and held his other hand over the wound where the bone stuck through the skin. There was a feeling of warmth, deep in the muscle, then pure cold. I lost sensation immediately, deeper and more absolute than any anesthetic. It was rather peculiar, to see my leg tremble between his hands, to see the edges of the wound close themselves, the scar tissue form and diminish, and be unable to feel it. I was perfectly happy not to have seen the bone right itself and knit back together.
"All right," he said, cheeks and breath puffing out. "Doctor says you'll live."
"Oh," I said, "splendid." I reached up and he wrapped his hand around my forearm, pulling me to my feet. I wobbled, sensation flooding back into my leg, an icy sort of pins and needles that puddled in my joints, and he braced me until I could take my weight again.
"We've got to get out of here," he said, stating the obvious in his own inimitably Dresdonian way.
"The trucks are down. There are almost certainly more enemies in the darkness." He started to speak and I held up a hand. "So you are about to offer -- phrased as an order to accept -- yourself as an escort through the Ways. Am I wrong?"
"Well, John, I could leave you here," he said, cheerfully. "Just say the word."
"Eat me, Mister Dresden," I said politely.
He smirked and made a 'follow me' gesture. He'd correctly interpreted my grudging acceptance. I wanted to live through the night; I was necessary. I would not do so without his help.
He pulled his pentacle from the collar of his shirt, eyes going distant as he held it; the red gem in the center gleamed with an inner light. After a moment, he nodded. "It's about a quarter mile this way." He led me east, along the remains of Lawrence, the road largely intact but cluttered with gutted cars. We reached an overpass; Harry waved to it, and we climbed up the dry hillside and onto the concrete ledge. My leg held me up through the climb; Harry did not notice me noticing, testing the strength and the thoroughness of the healing. It was exceedingly well done. He must have been practicing. The glorious bastard didn't even have the grace to look smug.
He waited for me at the top; the man has legs like a giraffe. He'd lit his pentacle, the faintly blue glow hollowed out his cheeks, caught on the scar bisecting his bottom lip and reflected back in his eyes. I stood beside him, casually copying his stance, his positioning, and looked out as he did, at the ruin of our city.
The Darkness had not been kind to Chicago. We couldn't see everything; we could see enough. Dark, imperfect outlines against black nothingness -- the layer of dust and cloud so thick I hadn't seen the moon or what stars remained in over five years, could still remember the days and nights when it seemed like they must all be falling from the sky -- the twisted ruins of abandoned vehicles, of pitted road, and the dangerous, alien stillness that infused it all. My city had become a corpse.
It was an old pain, now. Healed over with layers of survival and necessity. It still ached. Harry sighed beside me, deep and long enough that I could feel the movements of his chest in my own. It felt old. I felt old. I closed my eyes, let it hurt for a moment more, then reached to the inside panel of my vest and switched the UV lights off. "Well, Mister Dresden. Here we are."
"It's actually about half a meter off the side?" Harry said, looking over his shoulder to me with wide, inquisitive eyes.
"I'll manage," I said shortly. "Do get the door for me like a gentleman."
He gave me an odd look and I could see the wheels turning as he tried to find a snappy comeback incorporating my one-time newspaper moniker. It failed to gel, and he simply gave up and opened the door to the Nevernever. Not waiting for him to precede me (or worse, try to accompany me) I took a breath and made a short running leap for the shimmering door in the air.
I fell into powdery, fresh snow -- it was so soft that I sank two feet into it, and it immediately coated my clothes, stuck to my eyelashes. I had the presence of mind to roll out of the way before Harry landed with a little mushroom cloud of flakes beside me.
"How far?" I said, clenching my jaw so that it didn't chatter. Harry, in a graphic t-shirt and pair of cargo khakis, was unruffled and quite at home in the snow.
"About an hour. But it's a lot safer this way. This is friendly territory." Friendly to him, at least. And those he offered passage, although to give him credit, Winter had become a major ally in many ways to most of the human settlements of survivors. Harry offered a hand to me, and I surprised both of us by leaning on it as I stood.
"Lead on, then."
He stayed where he stood, eying me critically. "You know, I should really just let you get frostbite. BUT." He gave a long-suffering sigh. "Ventas tepidus."
A heated breeze struck me, melting the snow clinging to me and drying away the moisture that it left.
"Ventas insulatum," he said, and the air around me became very still. The meager warmth of my body rushed in to fill the space ... and stayed there, the still air a buffer against the chill. At my eyebrow, he looked proud: "I came up with that one about a year ago. It's just like a down jacket. Only the down uses feathers to trap the air --"
I felt my temper fray and snap at last, and cut off his enthusiastic explanation with a hand over his mouth. "I know how it works, Harry." My eyes were wide and angry. The snowy wood around us was very, very silent. Silent enough that some small, rational voice overrode the soured adrenaline and stress hormones to say: He's not patronizing you. He's over-eager. That's all. Stand down.
"Thank you," I said, and dropped my hand gracelessly. "... Thank you. Yes."
His brow furrowed, and he looked at me with terrible pity. Even he could apparently read how much the day had taken from me. "Are you okay?"
"Two dozen of my people are dead. One of my better combat wizards. I have had to be rescued by an agent of Winter. I am in his power and debt. I am not having a good day, Mister Dresden."
"Stars, John, I wouldn't --"
"I know. That doesn't actually make it better." I scrubbed a hand down my face. "Please. Let's walk."
"Okay," he said quietly, and I was annoyed at how grateful I was for that concession. We moved through winter silence beneath dark-needled evergreens, their boughs weighed heavily with the snow, and a soft, glittering peppering of snow fell in a simple, constant swirl that danced in the light of Harry's pentacle. The snow was uncannily quiet underfoot, no crunch or shuffle, and I wondered what it meant, and if I had the mental reserves to handle the answer if I asked.
"You aren't bitching at me," he said, after some time.
"I'm not sure what to talk about. We usually snark at each other and flirt."
I raised an eyebrow, a little surprised that he was acknowledging that particular dynamic between us. "I can certainly try if you require it. I wouldn't like to upset your routine; it makes you so fussy during naptime."
"Good try," he said with a chuckle.
"... I could, if I were feeling missish, ask where the hell you have been for the past seven months." We had -- I had -- grown accustomed to his irregular visits at the Fort. His absence had been noted by more than one of my people.
"You know how in-demand wizards are." He shrugged. "I got a job offer."
"A job offer," I said flatly. "Another job offer. Which you accepted. You tramp, what have they got that I haven't?"
"A binding circle and a really good mustache twirl," Harry said, shooting me a sidelong look. "See, that's your problem, John. If you really wanted me on your payroll, you would just lock me in a basement and try to starve me until I swore fealty."
"Of course. I've been so foolish. But -- just out of curiosity, how did that tack work out for them?"
"Badly," he said meditatively, nodding thoughtfully, lips pursed. "Really badly. Really, really, really badly."
I chuckled, still aghast at the audacity, at the pure idiocy. "Who?"
"Doesn't matter," he shook his head. "I blacklisted them. Locked them off from the Nevernever. Biiig scarlet A-for-asshole on each of their foreheads that lights up in the presence of magic."
"Mmm. I would have shot them."
Harry shrugged. "You're a killer."
I had to nod. I didn't bring up the subtext of the sentences he'd dealt, that by keeping them from the Nevernever, he had also kept them out of the immediate hands of his liege lady, the Queen of Winter, who would no doubt have taken issue with the imprisonment of her Knight. Perhaps thinking I needed reassurance, he gave me a thump on the shoulder. I shut my eyes and continued with him, wondering if I were tired enough to actually walk and sleep at the same time. I must have tried it at one point, because he reached out and tugged me firmly, knocking me off balance. I stumbled into him, fetching up against the weight of his chest.
"How long since you last slept?"
"Last night. Less than twenty-four hours ago," I said, not wanting to be mothered.
"How long? Was it for more than five hours?"
I didn't dignify him with a response, and instead busied myself with trying to stand up and convince myself that falling asleep against his shoulder would be both foolish and embarrassing.
"More than four? Than three?" he coaxed.
Four and a half, but I growled at him for quiet.
"You have to stay awake. And you have to stay on the path," he said, slow and enunciated as if he were explaining to a child. And any child would know those rules, these days. The Ways had become more of a lifeline to the scattered remains of human civilization than anyone could have imagined in those first years. It wasn't as if I hadn't done this before. Perhaps I was more angry at myself than at him.
"Yes, Harry," I snapped. "I'm not an idiot."
"No. You're the damsel who needed a rescue," he sneered at me, and strode away before I could muster the muscle-tone to deck him. Angry adrenaline and pride kept me on my feet and my eyes open for the next half an hour.
Harry struck a line in the air that bloomed into a door; light flooded through, the golden-pink mix of bonfire and salvaged sodium-vapor lamps. The Fort. It had been my estate, once, a house and oversized yard in what had been a very affluent neighborhood on the northern outskirts of Chicago. Now the bricked walls had been built even higher, the barbed wire strung layers deep; it was castle. One from history, not from Disney; the walls contained a small cluster of buildings and barracks, two wells, farm animals. We were slowly taking over a neighbouring property, securing it from demonic and other influence, constructing a joining wall. It was not as crowded now as it had been in the anarchic second and third years after the Darkness came; then, it had been unsafe to be outside the walls at night at all; we had reclaimed territory, and the dense crowds had filtered back out into it, warded and kept and lighted, only to return on business or to flood inside if there was an attack.
Even with the sparser population it was still loud. Compared to the darkness and silence, it was sunlight and cacophony. I stumbled through like a man still aching from a week-long bender.
The cry went up when the Way opened, and the interior guards were on us at once. I was recognized and quickly taken to be debriefed; Harry, I quickly ordered, was to be treated as an honored guest. It was hardly necessary; the Winter Knight was a favorite.
I do not remember the debriefing; it remains a unordered succession of fragmented images, like a picture box dumped on the floor and torn to pieces: the recounting of the dead, was that before or after I was too incoherent to remember what IED stood for or how many trucks we had had? It was certainly before my synopsis of the trade meeting -- no, after. Both. I had began and concluded with that.
I was looked over by the medic, who accepted the report of my injury and healing without a second's disbelief. Magic, at least, had found a new home in this world. Then I staggered away towards yet another report -- a form intercepted me. Short, but strong. I found a name.
"Hendricks," I mumbled, and after a few moments realized that it was the wrong name. It belonged to a man three heads taller and two years dead.
"Sleep," Luccio told me frankly. "We will finish the rest tomorrow. Nothing is gained with haste now."
"Wizard Choi --"
She nodded grimly, too accustomed to losing men in the field. Long before the Darkness, she had been doing that. "Tomorrow, Baron."
She left me at the doorway to my room, nodding to the man sitting at my desk and rifling through my things. "Dresden."
I felt vaguely betrayed that she had had some part in this trespassing attempt: but more, tired. She closed the door behind her, and I turned my attention to the only other person in my room.
"Fuck off." I stripped out of my soiled vest, shirt, and undershirt; I left my BDU pants where they fell, and staggered to bed, feeling the bedclothes twist uncomfortably under me, paralyzed with half-sleep before I was fully prone. My body gave up. I would deal with the soreness in the morning.
I was moved. Large hands shifted me by the arms and legs, yanked the tangled sheet out from under me and draped it over my body. "Ventas insulatum," Dresden murmured, and the fading shreds of the down-jacket spell knitted themselves into a warm whole.
It is an obvious necessity to have a sustainable food source. Vegetables alone do not suffice -- the human body needs protein in large quantities to function at its peak. Milk. Eggs. Meat. Thence our stock of food animals, gathered from Wisconsin and rural Illinois. They have allowed us to survive.
But the fucking roosters.
"No," I groaned to no-one; the animal in question was too far away to hear me and likely wouldn't have cared.
Then the noise stopped, quite suddenly; not entirely, I realized after a frightened moment, but it had been muffled down to almost nothing. I cracked one eye and saw Harry, in his boxers and a pair of rather faded gym socks, closing a circle that encompassed the room.
"Snoozus Buttonus," he intoned, with a grand flourish and a wink in my direction.
"Wizard Dresden, are you trying to seduce me?" I asked into my pillow, reveling in the quiet.
"Only a little," he said, crawling into bed with me. Back into bed with me, I realized; the sheets beside me were warm. "I tried to ask if I could crash here, but you were gone."
"So you took silence for consent. You over-presumptuous fratboy. You phallus in a cowboy hat."
"Blow me, John," he said, slipping an arm over my waist.
"I believe I have the prior claim." At his blank look: "Eat me. I asked first."
"Rules lawyer," he groaned. "Hell's bells, why I put up with you, I can't say." He snuggled closer, hooking his arm up to comb proprietary fingers through my hair.
I settled back into the pillow, indulging in the soothing pressure of his hand against my scalp. "What the hell are you doing?" I asked after a leisurely moment.
"Well, we didn't get our fight and flirt on like usual last night. We have to squeeze it in somewhere."
"Is this the time?" I yawned; it nearly cracked my jaw. I was starting to wake up, the back portions of my brain finally beginning to hum. I would soon be coherent enough to brew a glass of that particularly foul tea we cultivated -- a painful sacrifice, that; but more greenhouses in Chicago had had yerba plants than coffee.
"Do I wait another five years?" he asked, his tone somewhere between teasing and gracious, mouth downturned, eyebrows raised and acquiescent. He didn't want to. He would.
"... Beg pardon?"
"When everything went to shit, I needed something. Someone, if I'm going to be all girly about it," he said after a moment's reflection. "You were there. The fighty-flirty thing was there. I think it kept me human."
"That isn't effeminate, that's cliche," I objected. His usual humour tended much more toward the stereotypical.
"Yeah. So is life-affirming fucking, but I wanted in your BDUs so bad for a while there. But you were kind of busy."
I was awake enough to finally open both eyes. "Harry."
"You're all I've got left."
"You're my only hope."
"Cliche. And Star Wars."
"You make me feel like I am whole again."
"I am human and I need to be loved. Just like any --"
I shut him up via kiss. Admittedly; cliche. Fairy tales are the place for them, I suppose. Outside, the real-not-Disney castle was awake and would soon need me.
Harry moved in my arms and slid a thigh between my own. Then he tried to kiss me again, and nearly broke my nose.
This, too, was real.