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"Here's one they just made up: "near miss". When two planes almost collide, they call it a near miss. It's a near hit. A collision is a near miss." -- George Carlin

 

The Blue Beetle gave a long, shuddering cough of a swan song, just long enough for me to get out one exasperated and slightly desperate plea for mercy, before it rattled to a slow, wheezing stop about ten feet from the entrance to my parking lot. Something in the engine popped once, twice, and the third time the whole car seemed to deflate, sinking in on itself like a version of its six-legged cousin tucking in to die.

I winced, checked the distance between me and the curb -- it would pass as a hasty parking job. If you squinted. But it wasn't like I had much choice. I turned the ignition off, and braced myself for the step out of the sweltering but shaded heat of my car, and onto the sidewalk and into the direct sunlight of a summer afternoon in Chicago. I took a moment to wilt, carefully keeping my skin from the hot metal of the Beetle's frame, and debated rolling the windows up.

The Beetle, much as I love it, isn't exactly going to be winning any beauty pageants, especially with the new door I'd had to have put on a few months ago, after a bad case of traffic and big demons. It was perfectly serviceable, just bright yellow, and in rather diametric opposition to the pale blue of the rest of the car. The Beetle didn't even have a radio; it wasn't like one would keep working around me for long. Wizards and technology mix about as well as a slow-moving squirrel and oncoming traffic.

I decided to risk it, and left the windows rolled down. Crime had been getting steadily worse in Chicago for the past year or so; everything from petty theft to disappearances, murder, and rape seemed to double monthly. It was keeping the city's finest on their toes and under the scathing scrutiny of the press, and keeping my old boss Nick Christian busy looking for missing children and even an entrepreneur like myself reasonably stocked in cases, but if some enterprising thief could manage to get the Beetle running, I would have to get his card and keep him in on-call. Besides, it was a thirty second walk from my basement apartment. It would have to do.

The inside of my apartment was blessedly cool. That's one thing about living in the basement of a century-old converted boarding house: no need for central air. Plenty of need but no way to keep heat going in the winter, of course, but that wasn't currently my concern. My concern was busy taking up space out on the road and promised to be doing so for the foreseeable future if something wasn't done about it, so I lifted my old rotary phone to my ear (a dial tone; sometimes I do luck out) and dialed my mechanic's number by heart.

Mike's got to be a certified genius, I swear. He and his staff manage to keep the Beetle running the 9 days out of 10 that it manages -- the best average I've ever maintained with a car -- and assures me that the model is the easiest to repair, which is one of the reasons I keep driving it.

Mike's his own boss; he runs a tiny little garage on the west side, and even without my biweekly service requirements could probably keep himself well-employed just with his other regular customers. I'd helped him out a few years ago, right after I got to Chicago, before I'd even thought about harassing Nick Christian until he gave me a job as his assistant so I could put in my required time to earn my own PI license, and he hasn't failed me yet.

The phone kept ringing.

Mike had never let me down, not even when I phoned in from just outside the city limits on the I-66 one Sunday evening after the Beetle gave up the ghost on our trip back from St Louis. It was a Tuesday afternoon. He was probably just with a customer. Maybe he was in the garage, or out looking at a drive-in in the parking lot. He'd hear the phone eventually.

After about 20 rings I was steeling myself to risk hanging up and trying again -- who knows, my Murphonic technology field could have been mucking with the call from the first ring with me none the wiser -- when the phone gave a little echoey click. I jerked up, ready, and slumped when it rang again.

Hell's bells, Mike, come on --

"Yeah, man? Whaddya need?" The voice was male, a little distracted but pleasant, and there was a casual familiarity there that I was pretty sure I didn't warrant. And, more to the point, it definitely wasn't Mike's.

"Well," I drawled, letting him know I was thinking hard, "if you're just going for survival, I guess the consensus is a roof over your head, food -- although I think what qualifies as food might be up for debate -- and water. I'm a bit decadent though, I'll be upfront about it. I need coffee, the occasional trip to Burger King, a decent sleep every few months, and a Star Wars marathon at least once a year. Oh gosh, and a working vehicle."

"... Customer. Just a sec," the guy said, and ended with a grunt of air I could barely hear over the rattle and clang of moving machinery in the background. "There we go," the guy said. "Had to get out from under the truck."

"So, either Mike's gone for a drastic redesign in the shop front, or I'm talking to the garage."

"Sorry about that," Mister Undertruck said, not taking me up on the opening I'd left him. "Calls usually get the machine after a few rings; not sure how yours made it back here. You must have held on for a long time."

I don't know if it's possible for me to kill Mike's answering machine from across town, but I winced anyway.

I could hear Mister Undertruck walking, a heavy door with loud hinges opening, and he said, "Looks like Mister Rojas is talking with a customer out in the parking lot. Can I take a message; get him to call you back?"

"Yeah," I said, "would you just have him call me? It's Harry's car again."

"You're Harry?" Mister Undertruck said, and I could hear a bit of a smirk creeping in around his words. For some guys, fame comes with big payloads, Ferraris, and a yacht-full of leggy, busty shipmates. I'm not one of those guys. "You going to need a tow again?"

I sighed. "And probably a loaner if one's available."

I could hear the clacking of keyboard keys. "Looks like you're in luck," Mister Undertruck told me. "There's an old Corolla you can use. Where's your Beetle? I'll call Liz -- she can probably leave to get it within the hour."

I rattled off my address, and added: "That's home, and the car's about ten feet east of that, parked on the shoulder," and finally got a laugh in return.

"Were you coming or going?"

"Coming, at least," I said. "Should have been expecting it -- I think it's been a whole week since I last left it with you guys."

"Eight days," Mister Undertruck agreed cheerfully. I must have been paying his rent or something. "All right, Mister Dresden --"

"-- Harry," I said, leaning back against the wall. "You don't get to know how many days it's been since my car last broke down and then call me 'Mister Dresden'."

He hummed agreeably. "All right, Harry. You want to ride in with Liz and the tow-truck? Get the loaner then?"

"Better than forking out for a cab," I agreed.

"You sound like a man after my own paycheck," he said, and the clacking stopped. "Anything else?"

"Stars and stones, I hope not."

"I'll let Liz know," he said. "And ask her to call you if there's any delay. You have a good day now."


 

The bell on the front door of Mike's garage jangled as I entered, and I almost drowned it out stomping the slush and gunk off my boots. It was mostly a wasted effort; the small mat at the doorway was soaked through already, grimy water seeping out onto the shop tile in an oblong puddle, and my stomping didn't do much more than splash it around.

I didn't recognize the guy behind the desk -- not that Mike has a lot of staff, but I know him and his daughters -- but he tipped his chin up in casual greeting when he saw me looking. He was casually handsome, pleasant but nothing extravagant or over the top, and looked to be in decent shape under his coveralls. He was a little more than average height; his hair was lighter than mine and shorter, but nothing that had been recently cut. He had a bit of stubble and wore a politely interested expression, and something told me that trying to pull anything past him would be a very foolish move. I wondered if the brewing trouble in the city, worse in the low-income neighborhoods like it always was, was starting to get bad enough that Mike had hired some part-time muscle.

"Afternoon," the guy said. "Car trouble?"

"Nah," I said. "It's the garage-Americana design aesthetic and the coffee that keeps me coming back."

He raised an eyebrow and his gaze focused like a gray-green laser.

"It was still running," I said, "but it won't go higher than second, and the sound it made when I turned it off just now wasn't friendly. And the passenger window won't roll back up. It's a replacement door; I had it put on in April." At least it was a mild January, but my entire right side was still freezing. My old denim jacket, layered with flannel on the inside, was worn-in and comfortable -- and fit me in the arms, which is akin to finding gold when it comes to coats -- but was far more suitable to fall and spring in the Ozarks than winter in Chicago. I'll get a decent jacket eventually. Just not this year.

"Harry?" the guy asked, squinting a little. "You're a lot taller in person."

I grimaced and braced myself for another round of Larry Fowler-induced infamy. I'd appeared on the show a few months ago in a bid to drum up some publicity for my new business, and was still dealing with the consequences. "Drank my milk and ate my greens," I agreed. "Whaddaya know, it even put hair on my chest."

"... Sound about the same, though."

The dry, easy tone was familiar, amusement trapped under a little Italy accent and long-suffering exasperation. It clicked; I smiled. "John Undertruck."

He angled his head, expression going from amused and welcoming to politely curious with a shift of one or two muscles, and I shrugged. "I needed something to call you, the first time."

He nodded slowly, obviously remembering the conversation. "It's not entirely accurate though," he added, faint lines around eyes the color of dollar bills crinkling and one corner of his mouth lifting in a lopsided smirk. "Most of the time it's more 'Inbeetle' or 'Overbug'. It is my job to keep your pile of junk running, after all." He peeked over my shoulder and out the front window; his gaze tracked across the parking lot until he found my Beetle. "And it sounds like you need me again. I've got nothing pressing; let's go have a look."


 

He followed me back out into the parking lot and we kicked up gritty slush with each step. It was a good thing my cowboy boots were already weather-stained past the point that anything new would matter. John wore big heavy boots pulled up over the legs of his coveralls, a faded jacket that must have been pretty puffy once upon a time, and the type of fingerless gloves that come with mitten flaps. He looked warm. I was jealous.

I popped the trunk and he stared down at the engine for a few long moments, shaking his head. "I don't know what you do to it, Harry, but I'm pretty sure it would constitute abuse in any other relationship."

"Har," I said. "Hardy har har. They teach you that at the Henry Freud School of Automechanics and Therapeutic Counseling?"

"Hey," John said. "Don't bring your mother into this." The lines around his eyes crinkled again, and he jerked his chin at the Beetle. "Start it up for me?"

The engine sputtered once, twice, and turned over before promptly stalling. "... Won't come out of neutral," I said, jerking on the gearstick.

He reached in through the passenger window and tugged the stick himself before shaking his head. "All right," he said, pulling back and rubbing at his left thigh with an absent grimace. "Let's push it around back. I'll see what I can do."


 

It was storming again, the night full of fast-falling spring rain that smelt like garbage and Lake Michigan and was cold enough to make my shoulder twinge inside its sling.

I rubbed at it once I was through the door to Mac's pub, water dripping down my canvas duster and out of my hair and into my eyes. It didn't help, just reminded me not to put pressure on an already agitated wound, and I started down the stairs before anyone could open the door I'd just come through into the back of my skull. Mac's isn't a well-known place -- most people have to be told that it's there at all -- but that doesn't mean it isn't popular, particularly among the magically and supernaturally inclined subset of the Chicagoland population.

Thunder rumbled so deeply that it made the the rafters rattle even at the basement level, and I eyed the low-hanging ceiling fans warily, letting myself give in to the temptation to duck when I came off the short set of stairs.

It had been a long spring already. A week ago was already starting to feel like a year ago, and if it hadn't been for the ache in my shoulder from where I'd been shot by a power-hungry warlock after I'd crashed his orgiastic, mind-altering substance-producing party, I'd have been ready to believe the whole thing had happened to somebody else. The sleepless nights I'd been having were my own though, and the cast and sling I was supposed to wear for another few weeks, and the dry burning feeling around my eyes, like my skull was losing density with each hour of lost sleep.

The whole ordeal had been messy for everyone involved. The bodies with their hearts exploded out of their chests -- well. No way that wasn't going to be messy. And all the loose ends and unanswered questions, and the dead or missing suspects and the disappearance of a large illegal drug stash.... The cops were just loving it. I hadn't heard anything from Officer Murphy since she'd finished taking my statement the day after Victor Sells' lake house had burnt down, and our friendship was rocky enough anyway that I didn't want to guess how well it was going to weather this.

It had been messy for me too, of course. No way I was going to escape that cluster fuck. In fact, I'd narrowly escaped with my life -- more times than I cared to think about. My shoulder gave a throb, and I scowled. That had been one of the times. It had left evidence behind; the others had been more circumspect. I had a few bumps and bruises, a renewed fervor for my fear of giant sharp pointy things being held against my neck, and a whole lot more nightmares than I had nights to have them in.

The thunder rumbled again, the lights flickered but returned, and I weaved my way around the thirteen carved wooden poles Mac had supporting the roof and scattered around the floor in a pattern designed to both disrupt the flow of random magical energies, and, I'm certain, impede any forward progression on behalf of yours truly.

This spring had been long and hard; but tonight I was meeting a friend at a bar and having a few of the best beers in the city. John was already there when I arrived, seated at the bar and curled around a bottle of one of Mac's finest. There were raindrops scattered across the back of his leather jacket and catching the light in his hair, and I didn't think he'd been there for long.

I slid onto the stool beside him, and tipped my chin up in greeting to Mac with the same motion. "Hey," I said. "You found it. I keep you waiting long?"

"Nah," John said, and I could see the lines around his eyes crinkling, the side of his mouth rising, even as he stared across the bar. "Just long enough to get to know your chatty friend here."

"Hnngh," said Mac -- about as much as he ever says, and passed me a bottle. One eyebrow rose, maybe two millimeters, and I saw him take in the cast and sling, the bruises along my jaw and the healing cut on my neck. For Mac, that was practically gushing.

"Rough week at the office," I said, shrugging my working shoulder.

John turned and his eyes widened, his little half-smile melting off of his face. "Harry. Jesus." He blinked, and then the smile came back -- mostly. "Did you get the license plate number --?"

"I think it's embedded in my skull." I rolled with the joke, smiling half at it and half at the coolness of the bottle against my lips and fingers. That Mac had sullied his old world microbrew by introducing it briefly to a fridge.... Well, the guy must have been really worried about me. I never got my beer cold at Mac's.

"Do you want to talk about it?"

I let the beer roll over my tastebuds and down the back of my throat in a long, leisurely swallow. Then I looked at John. The strange bare whisper of urgency I'd heard in his voice wasn't anywhere on his face, which just showed buddy-buddy concern for his most reliable client.

"It's nothing too bad. A case went south; the wife hired me to look in on her husband, and he didn't like me looking in," I said, carefully not lying.

"Ah. Job hazards." He nodded and lifted his beer, matching me. No beads of condensation on his bottle; he didn't rate fridge beer. But I always knew Mac liked me best. "He worked you over pretty thoroughly," he said with a rueful shake of his head.

"Yeah, well, human punching bag is just one of the many services I offer."

A snort from John. "It's not going to be a problem again, is it?"

"No. He's in custody. What are you, anyway, my babysitter?"

"I'm just asking," John protested innocently. "You're a PI. In this town. I'd be a bad repairman if I wasn't a little worried."

The penny dropped. "You thought it was --"

A casual, one-sided shrug. "One of Marco Vargassi's goons got murdered in a drug deal last week. You didn't say exactly what that husband was into that was so objectionable. I wondered."

No. I hadn't said exactly. But he'd been supposed to assume that it was a simple infidelity case. I shifted uncomfortably, and John gave me a sharp look, face pulling into a worried furrow. "Harry. You didn't --"

"It was only ... vaguely related ..." I hedged. Okay, YES, Sells had murdered Tommy Tomm because Tomm was trying to double cross him over the magic meth they'd been cooking up together. Fine. But I didn't think Marco Vargassi and company were bright or open-minded enough to connect Tomm's death by chest explosion to magic, to Sells, and to me.

"You're sure it's over," he said quietly, seriously. "You're sure. Tell me you're sure."

I didn't do anything as classless as look around for eavesdroppers, but I did let my eyes sort of wander around the vicinity before I answered. "I'm sure. Vargassi's people don't know what happened to their guy, not really. They don't know that my client was involved."

John looked me in the face, and I jerked my eyes up to his eyebrows. He didn't comment; he'd never mentioned it in the time we'd known each other. After a second, his eyes crinkled; his shoulders shed just a little bit of tension that I hadn't realized had crept into them. "So. You look this bad -- what have you done to the car?"


 

By the time I'd left Mac's that night, I'd dismissed John's concerns and pretty much forgotten about that entire part of our conversation. So two months later, when my office door was darkened by three very large shadows of the type generally found in conjunction with football players and walls that can be seen from space, I took a minute to blink, toss the paperback I'd just finished into the 'Out' bin, and say "Can I help you, gentlemen?" before one of the thugs closed the door and another crackled his knuckles in a way specially designed to send fear coursing through veins, and I got it.

Stars and stones. How does that saying go, again? April showers bring June mobsters?

"Look," I said. "Is this about the letter I wrote my alderman? Because I stand by what I said: sweet as she is, old Missus Webber's pink flamingo collection is becoming a blight. I ask you, how many plastic birds does one garden really need?"

"Dresden," one of the goons said, apparently the elected spokesman for the group. Who knows, maybe he was the only one who knew how to form sentences.

"That's what it says on the door," I said, rising slowly from my chair, making sure to keep my hands visible. It left the ring on my right hand visible too, and with a pretty clear line of fire for the stored kinetic energy built up in it, but chances were these guys didn't know that.

"We're here for your two o'clock appointment," the spokesgoon said, shuffling forward a little to loom even more threateningly. The others fell in line behind him, buzzed haircuts almost identical and beady little eyes scanning the corners of my office.

"I don't have a --" I started automatically, and then realized the uselessness of protesting and shut up. The goon looked disappointed; he'd probably spent all morning thinking of that one. He nodded at his crew; the guy checking my coat closet grunted an affirmation, and the guy by the door opened it again.

And She Walked In. It was the moment every PI dreams of, deep in their heart; a heart-stopping woman in a slinky dress sauntering in as if she should have a bongo accompaniment for the movement of her hips. The goons weren't oblivious; they all relaxed a little and sort of leaned towards her.

I suddenly wondered if I'd remembered to brush my teeth. Had there been onions in my lunch?

"Harry Dresden," she said, my name rolling around her mouth like twelve-year-old scotch.

"Uh," I said intelligently. "Yuh."

She beamed at me and sat down in the chair across from the desk, crossing her legs in a way that maximized the amount of skin showing through the slit in her dress, and minimized the amount of her body that the sheer fabric left to the imagination. I became intensely aware that she was, practically speaking, almost naked. The dress was about two ounces of silk, and she wasn't wearing any jewelry except what was either an engagement ring or the world's most expensive golf ball.

"I'm Madeline Vargassi."

I'll blame it on my body's blood flow being largely diverted from my brain; it took a moment to click. Oh shit.

"How can I help you, Missus Vargassi?" I said, listening to my voice from a distance.

She laughed, sultrily. "You already have, Harry. That's why I'm here! To thank you."

The images THAT set off in my head were overwhelming, erotic, and guaranteed to get me outfitted in cement cowboy boots before the day was out. "Ah --?" I fumbled, trying to gather my scattered thoughts.

"That little Three Eye business," she said, waving one perfect hand. "Didn't you know who was financing Sells? Some two-bit cousin of mine who thought he could help her get one over on me." She smirked. "I was going to have Marco Sweetheart clean it up for me, but there you were!"

"I didn't --"

"-- I know, but I'm so grateful anyway." She leaned forward, her eyelashes stopping one blink short of a flutter. She said something; I couldn't hear it over the sound of her suddenly prominent cleavage.

"Uh." I said. "Beg pardon?"

Her cheeks dimpled, her eyes sparkling with amusement as I yanked my eyes up above her neckline. "What would you say about working for me full-time?"

I responded on pure instinct: "No."

Something ... happened. The overwhelming sensation of hot and sticky that had been rushing through me since she'd walked through the door turned sour, sharp and not a little stabbing, like I'd been full of milk and it had suddenly gone off. I recoiled, jerking back into my own space, and became aware of the goons again when one let out a soft, surprised little grunt.

Maddy had dropped the vamp act -- ha! -- and was staring at me in naked fury. No, not even that. Naked petulance.

"What. Did you say?" she said, clipping each word off sharply.

"I said no, I'm not going to work for you." I felt the intensity of Loom in the room escalate, but ignored the goons, looking just up and to the right of Madeline's light gray eyes. They went another shade lighter as a wave of lust smacked me upside the head. I ground out: "Keep pushing it, lady. You're about to break the Unseelie Accords like a fortune cookie. Want to guess what's inside? Hint: it involves wardens and you can't put 'in bed' at the end of it."

The sour milk feeling drained out of me, leaving a bruised, sore, empty ache.

Madeline scowled. It was still beautiful. It just wasn't attractive; thank God. "I'd change your mind if I were you."

"I know you would. That's why you get to leave now."

"I control the man who runs this city," Madeline said tightly. "I don't have to break the Accords to get my way."

She snapped her fingers, and the goons clustered around her. "Next time we meet, Dresden, you'll be begging me to let you work for me," she hissed, striding through the door out into the hallway.

"Have a nice day," I called after her as banter-goon slammed the door. I heard footsteps move away, and after that, the ding of the elevator.

I jerked out of my chair and staggered to the door, peering out into the hallway; they were gone. Then I shut the door. And locked it. And slid down the back of it, skin crawling. Stars and stones, I needed a shower.


 

I like to think I did what anyone would after that. I sat on the floor and gibbered for a while, somehow managed to get my insides to settle down long enough for to me stand up, and closed shop for the day. I drove home without causing any accidents, got out of the Beetle and stood at the top of the steps leading down to my apartment; then turned around and drove back the way I'd come.

I didn't think I'd be able to stand a cold shower, right then. My insides felt like they'd been stretched too wide from the inside, forced open by something stone and uncaring. My skin just felt like I'd been rolling in newspapers. Old, slimy newspapers. Maybe with bugs. Time for a contingency plan. I took my battered canvas backpack from my car and strolled into the Y that was halfway between my apartment and my office.

The shower stayed hot for almost fifteen minutes. Fifteen blissful, Nirvana-like minutes of warm water and soap. I'd been lucky, hit an off time and gotten one of the few closed stalls, and hadn't had to stand out in the open shower, pretending like my boxers were a bathing suit and I was cleaning off before going swimming.

I actually felt clean when I got out of it, the water only lukewarm, fingers and toes beginning to go pruny, and used the old blanket I kept in the car for the times it broke down in the dark or cold as a towel.

I'd made myself turn my brain off while I was under the hot water -- outside in the sluggish, humid heat, it started to spin up again.

White Court. Mob. Mob. White Court. WHITE FUCKING MOB COURT. And goons eying my knees longingly. AND WHITE MOB COURT.

Time to stop reacting, and do some digging.

I called Murphy from a payphone outside a branch of the public library. The reception wasn't good, although it was better than what I usually got from the old and often-abused rotary phone in my apartment, but her irritation came through loud and clear.

"Dresden," she said, "nobody named Vargassi is your problem. Understand?"

"She's only been married to the guy a year," I protested. "You don't have anything on a Madeline LaBelle?"

"Harry --"

I played on a pretty certain hunch, despite what the wedding announcement had said. "How about Madeline Raith?"

The sudden temperature drop told me all I needed to know. Or maybe it was the sound of a door being slammed in my face. "Afraid I can't help you, Harry," she said, her tone distant and full of short, clipped enunciation. "Was there anything else?" Some papers shuffled; I knew she'd gone into busy-and-distracted avoidance mode and was tidying her desk.

"That bad, huh?" I said.

"Hasn't anyone cheated on their wife recently?" she asked, tone more exhausted than flippant. "Raith isn't your problem either."

I bit down sharply before I retorted that it was more my problem than she knew. Because it would piss her off, and we were on the outs as it was. And because then she'd want to know why it was my problem.

Dammit, the Chicago PD was not ready to handle mobbed-up sex vampires.

I could hear a voice in the background, the muffled sound of Murphy's hand going over the receiver, and her voice in reply. "I've got to go, Harry," she said to me a moment later. "You listen to me; stay out of it, or so help me, I will find a way to have your licence yanked and you tied up in paperwork and red tape so fast, you won't have a chance of looking into anything for a year."

"That Dresden?" the voice from the background said, and then louder, into the phone. "Dresden? You got any valid reason to be harassing my patrol officers?"

"Sergeant Carmichael," I said, and smiled just so he would hear it. "What a pleasure to hear from you."

He slammed the phone down without replying; the crappy public phone didn't provide the effect I think he was looking for. I grimaced and hung up; it was going to start asking for another quarter anyway.

I'd come up short at the library; without Murphy's help I was at a dead end. A year ago, I would have called a reporter I knew, but her paper had been bought out last winter, and she'd moved out west. I went back to my office, leaving the 'Closed' sign up, and stewed over what little I'd managed to find out while I shored up the relatively shabby wards.

Marco Vargassi hadn't really been on my radar. His father Tony had made news by dying of a heart attack about a year and a half ago; it was an open secret that Marco had gotten control of Chicago's underworld along with the other family heirlooms. He'd been running the mob in Daddy's tradition; messy, extravagant, not very subtle fingers deep in the police pie. I'd always thought that it was Murphy's lack of a price tag that had kept her a patrol officer, even though she'd earned Lieutenant five times over. But I'd always thought that the mob was a problem for the feds, not for a guy like me. I didn't handle those kind of cases.

Showed what I knew. I should have listened to John's warning when he --

John.

I glanced at the clock, swore, and headed for the door. If I had good timing, I might catch him before he left work.


 

I had good timing. The 'open' light was just flickering out in the office when I pulled up. Mike saw me through the window and yelled into the garage.

A service door opened and John came out. He looked tired, his limp a little more pronounced than usual. He narrowed his eyes suspiciously at me, then at the Beetle. "Doesn't look damaged. What'd you do?"

"It's not the car. I was hoping to talk. Your place?" This was going to be awkward enough without having to explain away the 'witches don't float' informational pamphlets.

Both of his eyebrows slowly rose. "Why Harry, I didn't know you felt that way. Should I pick up some box wine on the way?"

I made a rude noise, and his eyes crinkled as he laughed. "Yeah, yeah," he said, waving one hand absently. "Why the hell not? Let's go to my place." He spared the Beetle another glance. "You sure you can drive that thing? No hidden casualty you're too proud to tell me about?"

"Please," I said. "It has a pink hood. What pride do I have left?" John had put the new hood on last month, after the old one had been slagged by fire. He insists it was the only one he could get. I maintain he did it out of a severe case of being a dick.

He flashed a wicked grin, and nodded his head back towards the service station. "I'm parked behind there. You wanna follow me? There's usually okay parking around my place. And no one'll be desperate enough to steal that fine piece of German engineering."

I nodded, scratching at my nose with my middle finger in defense of my car's honor, and Mike idled by in his old Ford truck, window rolled down and one hand stuck out of it, shooing us along. "You kids go be buddies on your own property," he called. "You get mugged here, I have to deal with the insurance."

I flapped a hand vaguely up and down, and John smirked, toodling his fingers, but took his keys out of his pocket after. "Red Cadillac," he said. "I'll drive out this way; don't get lost."


 

John pulled into a small parking lot in a neighborhood worse than mine, if you can believe it. His comment about my car not getting stolen suddenly made more sense. He thumbed me around the back of a big cinder-block of an apartment building, then turned the Caddy to squeeze into a spot marked, in fading paint, 't nant nly'.

By the time I'd parked and got back around to the front, he'd already gone. Inside, I assumed. I cautiously followed -- there was no lock on the outside door -- and was faced with a badly carpeted, badly lit entrance hall. The largest door was the one for the stairwell; the others could have been broom closets. I wondered if he'd ditched me for one crazy second, until he stuck his head out of a door about halfway down the hall.

"Come in. It's as good as it's going to get."

Sounded like John prepared for company, even self-invited company, the same way I did. When I thought they warranted it. "You cleaned?" I said, crossing through the open door and over the faint threshold. It parted easily with the invitation he'd offered, but it would have barely made a dent in me anyway. It was even tinier and more fragile than my own. Apartment living was bad for that, but this was one of the worst I'd come across. "I didn't know YOU felt that way."

Unlike the outside door, his had locks. Five of them, including the chain, and he reached across me to turn and slide them all into place with the relaxed efficiency that came from habit. "I'm a gentleman, Harry," he protested, retreating into the room and taking a seat on the mattress on the floor. "I'm even giving you the chair."

There was only the one, a second (or third) hand wooden kitchen chair scooted under a card table that looked to double as desk and dining table. Scooted under because if it had been pulled out, it would have taken too big a bite out of the available floor space. The mattress on the floor already halved it; the little miniature refrigerator and neat stacks of milk crates converted into shelving took up a lot of the rest.

Somehow he kept it clean, cleaner than I kept my place -- there was no door on his tiny bathroom, and I could see that it was tidy, the shower curtain conscientiously pulled back on a shower that two people could almost stand up in. Almost.

"Stars," I said, despite myself, taking in the cramped surroundings. "I've seen shoeboxes bigger than this."

"With the size of your feet, I'm sure you have," John said mildly, crossing his legs in a space-saving lotus. Well, almost; his left leg only got so far before he winced and gave up. "So?" He spread his arms in a welcoming gesture. "My humble estate. What can I do for you?"

Time for the fun part of the conversation. I sighed and took the chair, since it had been offered, and dove right in: "What do you know about the mob in Chicago?"

Whatever he'd been expecting, that wasn't it. One eyebrow jerked up, and he gave me an amused little smirk. "Wow. Okay. Anything in particular you're looking for?"

"Hard to say," I temporized.

He looked at me for a second, then shrugged and leaned back against the wall. "What do I know about the mob. Well, through about... June '98, pretty much everything." He wavered a hand in the air. "It's hit and miss after that."

Uh. Huh. Okay, my turn to not have seen it coming.

I left him his smirk, and sucked at my teeth. 1998. A couple years before Missus and Mister Vargassi had made it official, but going by how long Raith had had her fingers in the Marco pie -- ew -- he might know something that could help.

I didn't know a whole lot about the White Court vampires; but enough to know that, like every other vampire, they ate people, even if they were a little bit more dressed up about it. They were supposed to be a tidy monster, keeping the bodies swept under the rug by means of cats paws and misdirection. That said, my encounter with Madeline hadn't been much like misdirection; more like an attempt at supernatural concussion.

"I got a visit from Madeline Vargassi this afternoon," I told John. His eyes widened; his face went blank as the muscles tightened. "She wasn't," I frowned, not sure how much to say. "What I would have expected."

John erupted into a froth of angry swearing. Well, I assumed it was swearing. I didn't understand most of it, but the tone was pretty clear. Latin shares a few words with Italian; I at least picked up on him calling me an idiot. Creatively. At length. I thought he was winding down after a few minutes, but it was just to take a deep breath and start up again, this time in English.

"You said it was over, Harry!" He started to stand up without thinking, and hissed as he put too much weight on his left leg; he sank back down and glared up at me. "You told me it was over."

"It's not over."

"My GOODNESS, no SHIT, REALLY?" He scrubbed his palms over his eyes. "Madeline FUCKING Vargassi. You know what I know about the mob, Harry? I know that Madeline leads Marco around by a little leash on his dick. He never, never says no to her. If you piss her off, you will wind up on a dock somewhere with a gun to the back of your head and the police will be too busy jacking off with Marco's bribe money to ever find your body. Goddammit, Harry!" He held up a hand. "All right. Maybe it's all right. What did she want to talk to you about?"

"She wanted me to work for her."

"Harry, she will EAT YOU. You don't know what she can do."

Hoo, boy, would he be surprised if he knew. "It's okay, John," I reassured him. "I said no."

"You said --" He gaped. "You just told her 'no'. Just like that. 'No'."

"And kicked her out of my office."

He stared at me for a few long seconds. Then he shut his mouth. Said, calmly: "New York. Move to New York. Tony's brother-in-law got drunk and screwed up a wedding for the niece of the local Don. The famiglia there is traditional; they don't forgive that kind of thing, and Vargassi is persona non grata there. You go to New York and Vargassi tries to get you, the locals will leave you alone just to spite him."

I'd been wondering, in the back of my head, what John's connection to the mob was. Ever since he'd brought it up, I'd been turning over what I knew about him, what might have happened. Maybe he was a goon, once, although he seemed a little too bright and focused and all-around decent for that. Maybe he'd been a failed PI. A store owner shaken down for money. I'd seriously entertained the thought that he might have been a cop, one who ended up on the wrong end of a Business encounter and wasn't going to be making a living off his pension.

"You weren't a cop, were you."

He'd managed to vanish all of his anger somewhere; he was calm now, and he looked up at me with a rueful smile. He looked tired, all of a sudden. When he relaxed I could see the deep bags under his eyes. His eyes were bloodshot and the gray-green color of his irises looked almost leafy in contrast. "No. I wasn't a cop."

I felt my eyebrows rise. I hadn't realized the extent of the secret life of my car mechanic. I pushed my lips together and nodded. Okay. "Not a cop," I repeated.

"We've established that." He nodded, businesslike.

"Right," I said, and nodded again. "Okay. I was never under the impression that that career path had much of a retirement plan."

He gave a broad shrug, just a hint of his self-depreciating smirk. "Not at all. I got a tenth-anniversary bullet in my leg and everything."

I winced. That explained the limp. "Whose wedding did you screw up?"

He didn't smile -- I think he was too tired -- but his eyes crinkled. "Give me some credit, Harry. I know better. It was just a question of job performance."

"That's an extreme evaluation. Bad?"

"Good. Good enough for Tony to notice. Good enough for Marco to object to Tony noticing. I think he thought I was bucking for next in line." He patted his leg. "So he took me out of line. I caught one here. My best friend was with me at the time." This time he tapped his forehead. "He got the other two."

"God, John --"

"-- I halfway enjoy your company, you idiot," he said, cutting me off brusquely. "Despite your taste in and treatment of automotive vehicles. It wouldn't actually make me happy to see you on the wrong end of Marco. Move to New York. Okay?"

I took the deflection from his pain as my due, letting it soak into my skin and call up that leftover stretched, bruised feeling from Madeline's visit. I rubbed at the bridge of my nose, my mouth slanting. Stars, it was hot in here. I gave his little cement shoebox of an apartment another look; it made my place seem like a well-off extravagance, just in terms of floor space alone.

"So," I said, drawing it out while I shuffled my thoughts back in order and tried to remember why I'd come to him in the first place. I'd already made a point of diving right in tonight; wouldn't do to change the game plan now. "When did the mob learn about magic?"

"Magic. Is that a drug? I haven't heard of that one."

"No. Magic. Mojo. Alakazam; poof. Thaumaturgy, Spectromancy, et cetera."

John didn't respond for a moment, and I braced myself. "... Did you hit your head?" he asked finally. "No. She took Torelli, didn't she, and he 'helped you through the door'. And then you DROVE. Harry, you know better!"

"John, I'm fine. I don't have a concussion." I saw him raising his hands, three fingers up. "Three. June 17, 2001. Bush. Fourteen and fourteen is twenty-eight. It's all right."

He waved off my assurances and unfolded with a grunt, hauling himself up with both arms to check my pupils and start feeling my skull. He had big, blunt fingers, cleaner than mine would have been after being wrist deep in grease all day. He was frowning with concentration as he worked.

It'd been a while since anybody had touched me. I don't have touchy-feely friends. I don't have many friends, period. I startled, and he misinterpreted it as a wince. "I fucking knew it," he said, and his fingers stilled. "Is it sore --?"

"No. I'm just not used to big burly men grabbing me by the head," I said, waving his hands off. "John. I'm fine."

"You are cracked in the head," he informed me seriously. "I say this as a friend."

"You are a dick," I told him judiciously. "I say this as a friend, too." I smiled, waiting until his eyes crinkled in worried response. "I've got to get home." John might think I was nuts, but he'd given me something to go off of. As of '98, Vargassi wouldn't know magic from a hole in the ground. As of 2001, married to a sex vampire. She'd sought him out, I was willing to bet, and took everyone in the Business by surprise. My problems were named Raith, not Vargassi. Well, okay, according to the county court, they were now also named Vargassi. But the basic point stood.

"You're sure you're okay to drive?"

"Yeah, John, I'm sure."

"Like you were sure about Marco not knowing about your client?" he asked sweetly, and I punched him on the shoulder. Hard.

"Bite me."

"Too stringy," he said dismissively. "Fine, you ungrateful bum." He waved me at the door, and sagged into the chair as soon as I vacated it. "Don't let the door hit you on the ass."

I flipped him off fondly on my way out.


 

As worried as John had been about my imminent midnight swimming trip, the rest of that summer passed uneventfully. By the time October rolled around, all clear, cool mornings and nights and long, golden afternoons, John was still checking my Beetle for bombs every time I brought it in or dropped by, but even his vigilance had waned.

I hadn't heard from Madeline Vargassi, nee Raith, again; unfortunately, I hadn't learned much about her either. Every stone I'd overturned had come up empty. I'd even gotten desperate enough to go fishing in the only vampire pool I knew, and while the Red Court and the White Court don't share much more than an appetite, the absolute lack of information I'd gotten from the local heavy-hitter on the Red Court side just about screamed that something shady was up.

And there'd been the usual assortment of cases, although fewer than usual and Murphy hadn't thrown a bone my way in over a month, and as much as I hated to admit it, the issue of the White Mob Court had been shifted to the back-burner. That night, I descended the steps into Mac's and scanned the crowd -- a little thicker than usual, but it was Friday night -- for a familiar face, and let my worries about Raith simmer carefully away.

I found Kim Delaney, dark haired and round cheeked and classically beautiful, sitting at a table near the back, a steak and bottle of Mac's finest in front of her. A similar set up of food and drink, the steak dinner complete with potatoes and green beans, waiting on the other side of the table across from her, and I slid into the empty chair and eyed the food and then her in turn.

It smelled amazing. My stomach growled. I ignored it, and kept my eyes on Kim, on the inside edge of her right eyebrow. I knew that Kim, about my age and a sometimes-apprentice of mine with just enough talent to need direction and help to control her gifts but nowhere near enough to qualify for wizard standing, was almost always as broke as I was, and didn't usually have money to spare. She spent most of her time working for environmental activist groups, mostly nonprofit and often non-funded; if she had already sprung for supper for two, this little social call promised to be less about the catching up she'd proposed, and more about the favor she'd mentioned.

Kim arched a dry smile at me, which quickly grew into a real one, dimples appearing in her cheeks, and manged to look me in the face without looking me in the eye, a trick that few non-practitioners of the Art could master. "Go ahead, Harry," she said. "It's not a bribe to spend time with me. Take it as a friendly gift. Yeah, I've got a favor to ask -- two, really -- but the food isn't for that. I got a new job, and I know you're tight for money lately. Since that thing last spring, I mean. Let me do this, okay?"

I grimaced at the reminder of the Sells case, and the fallout, but it didn't stop my stomach from rumbling even louder. I'd been living on ramen and soup for weeks, and the siren call of the charred meat was almost more than I could bear. Still. I couldn't eat her food without knowing what she wanted from me. I wouldn't be able to say 'no' if I needed to that way. My sense of honor is just a little too overdeveloped for that. I think it must have stolen the food from my common sense in the womb.

"Kim, I'm thrilled for you. But --"

I saw a look of resolution move across her face, and she shook her head, reached into her purse, and pulled out a sheet of paper.

"Tell you what, Harry. You tell me if you can help me with this, then either way you have a nice steak dinner."

I looked at the paper, three concentric rings of sigils. Blinked. Folded it sharply, and shoved it back across the table. "No," I said. "Absolutely not."

Her eyes narrowed, and her jaw firmed up. "Okay," she said, lightly, which was even more worrying. "Have some steak. I'll tell you about my new job."

The dinner sat there, looking wonderful. My sense of self preservation clawed up from the depths of my soul and clubbed my sense of honor. I picked up my knife and fork, and committed to cutting a chunk off my dead cow. There. I'd done it. No going back.

My bite felt like it got stuck going down, and lodged a big brick of guilt in my esophagus. Kim was a friend, and I was taking advantage of her. I hunched over a little and washed my steakbrick down with a long pull of beer. It didn't really help, but my next bite must have pushed it down to my stomach. They were the heaviest green beans I'd ever eaten.

For her part, Kim didn't seem to be having any trouble with her appetite. In fact, she was having more trouble finding time to eat and talk about her newest cause. "The Northwest Passage is really important, Harry, ecologically speaking. A whole green corridor across the Rockies and the Great Plains. Almost as much wildlife dies off trying to get from one isolated habitat to another as is affected by local habitat loss," she told me earnestly as I tried to wash down a forkful of instant cement cunningly disguised as mashed potatoes.

She paused. "The ribbon cutting is tomorrow night, at the office. I want you to come meet Mr. MacFinn and Ms. West. They're the project founders."

My sense of honor must have been making a comeback, or maybe the construction materials filling my digestive tract were playing tricks on my brain, because before I'd realized it, I'd said, "Um, yeah. Sure. Okay."

I regretted it immediately. There are some things that just don't mix. Oil and water. Wizards and technology. Me and formal events. I tried to remember if I owned any pants other than jeans and khakis. I had a few pairs of sweatpants, and a set of jogging shorts. Somehow, I didn't think those would cut it.

Kim grinned at me before I could take it back, stopping eating and talking long enough to make me feel like even more of a heel than I already did; I hadn't realized that was possible. "Great," she said, "oh great. I'm glad, Harry. I really want you to meet them. I'll rent your tux -- don't worry, you'll need one, and I know you don't have one -- and everything; please, let me do it. Consider it an early birthday present if you have to, okay? Thank you, Harry."

Kim didn't usually get so... gushy over things. She had a lot of practice being passionate while staying clearheaded. My suspicions rose, and I immediately squashed them down, telling myself not to be paranoid, and to appreciate a friend's prosperity as much as I could while my own business was going under. I was even getting food and a party out of it.

"I'll call you at your office tomorrow morning," she said, and smiled again. I could see the tiredness in it this time, if I looked past her enthusiasm and my own guilt. "Get the details set up."

We ate the rest of our meal slowly; Kim talked about migratory species and land acquisition and different national parks that her new job worked with in the US and Canada until we were finished and full, and promised again to call in the morning.

When I left Mac's the moon was full and round overhead, the barest sliver waning away, and my stomach felt like my steak had carried the weight of the entire cow. I tried to focus on the road on the way home, on the weight of Mister draped across my feet once I was in bed, and on falling asleep; I still spent half the night thinking of the three circles Kim had shown me, and wondering how she'd gotten herself involved in something that could get her killed.


 

I'd gone to sleep still worrying about Kim and whatever project she was working on, but I woke up to a phone call that almost made me forget them.

I staggered to the phone, knocked it off the cradle, picked it up, and said "Dresden," with all the courtesy of a guy who's been asleep for three hours tops.

"Did I call at a bad time?" asked the sullen voice on the other end of the line. A man's voice. Reedy.

"Mort?" I said blearily. Mortimer Lindquist, Chicago medium. Our paths crossed occasionally, but I hadn't spoken to him in months. Not since I'd been desperate enough to ask him to --

"You said to call you right away if I found out anything. About. Her." His voice lowered conspiratorially.

Of all of my leads in the city, Mort was the last one I'd have expected to turn up gold. Still, I wasn't going to look a gift horse in the mouth.

I was suddenly a whole lot more awake. "Yeah," I said, searching for a pen and paper. Or a pencil; I wasn't picky. Any kind of writing utensil. I picked up books and the odd dish off my limited amount of counter and table space, stretching the phone cord as far as I could, and finally found an old golf pencil and a flier from Radio Shack. They would do. "Yeah; what do you got for me?"

"Just a name, a place. I had to trade a few favors for this already; I couldn't get anymore. But Madeline Vargassi's been paying off a gang to do her dirty work -- the Streetwolves. At the Full Moon Garage. Down by the Forty-ninth Street Beach. You got that?"

"Full Moon Garage. I got it." Like the lady said; who had to break the Accords when you could break kneecaps instead? "I'll go talk to the nice gentlemen."

"The boss's name is Parker. Harry, are you sure about this?" Mort's voice went suddenly uneasy. "I don't think this guy's going to rattle from a few parlor tricks. Maybe you should keep looking for another in."

"I don't do parlor tricks," I said grimly.

"Harry, I'm serious." There was a note of real urgency creeping into his words. "I told you what I know." Almost defiance. "But give this one a pass, okay?"

"I'll be okay, Mort. ...Thanks. I'll get you the payment I promised as soon as I'm done." And I hung up, scrubbing a hand over my face.

Kim's party was tonight; she wanted me to meet her bosses. If I timed it right, she'd never even know I'd been out. But I knew me; no way this was going off without a hitch. So after I'd had a refreshing cold shower and my morning pop tart, I called her.

"Kim. The party -- I might be a little late. I had a case come up, and --"

"-- It's okay, Harry. There'll be two hours of speeches before the mingling part," she cut in, laughing. "You don't need to make excuses. So I'll meet you there?"

I was a little suspicious at how casual she was being, but I'd handle that when it came to it. Knowing Kim, it would definitely come to it. I made sure to get the address from her -- downtown, near Millennium Park -- and said I'd try to be there to catch at least one speech, if Kim could have the tuxedo place drop the suit off.

Then, in a good mood, I called the garage. Mike picked up. "Is John there?"

"Yeah. Just a second." There was a rustle as he covered the receiver with his hand -- not even close to tight enough that I couldn't hear him bellowing "JOHNNY, IT'S YOUR BOYFRIEND," back into the shop, and the friendly "FUCK YOU, TOMATO PICKER," in response.

The phone in the shop picked up. "What did you do to the car?"

"Hi, honey, my day was great. When are you coming home?" I cooed, and I heard Mike laughing into his end of the phone before he hung up.

"You're an asshole, Harry," John said, but he was snickering. "What do you want?"

"I got a lead on a case I've been working on. I'm in a good mood. Want to get a beer tomorrow night? If I've got something to celebrate, I'll buy. If it's a bust, you can console me with free booze."

"Why tomorrow? Late night?"

"Yeah -- after I go down to the," I checked my notes, "um, the Forty-ninth Street Beach, I have to meet a friend of mine at her business's grand something or other." I glanced at the clock. "And I have a meeting with a client this morning. Dammit. Got to go, John, I'll call you tomorrow."

I heard him saying something as I put the phone down, but I'd hung up before I really registered that he'd been trying to talk to me. Whatever it was, I'd get it from him tomorrow. A last look at the clock and I bolted out the door. Well, if the Beetle didn't die, I'd make it to the meeting. And it'd been running pretty well. I felt good. Charged. I'd covered all my bases, and I was ready for anything.

Yeah, that should have been a clue that things were going to go wrong.


 

Oh shit, I thought as I rounded another corner, my boots skidding on old rainwater and whatever grew in the puddles around here. I tried to stop from saying it out loud. From what I'd seen, these guys had really good hearing.

That being said, they could probably hear me panting; the heels of my boots hitting the asphalt. Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit.

My duster flapped out behind me, catching on a gust of wind that promised rain, flapping like a canvas sail, and cost me a few precious seconds in speed. The length of my duster was usually one of my favorite things about it, but right now dramatic effect was falling sharply in my esteem. Not Going To Get Me Killed would have been a much more valuable feature.

I could hear the Streetwolves behind me, a thunder of falling feet and eager breathing. They sounded close. They sounded everywhere.

In retrospect, I probably should have approached the situation a little bit differently. I'd started out well, asking nicely to talk to them. Things had gone off the rails when they had not so nicely refused. The crowbar to the back of the neck that had passed for a diplomatic overture had rattled me, and ended the soulgaze my standoff with Parker had turned into, but I still should have remembered that it's bad to throw fireballs around in enclosed spaces filled with gasoline, paint, and oil fumes.

On the plus side, the explosion had thrown me through the door between the garage and the front office, and I'd been able to scramble through the office door (which had been plate glass and was now a bare metal frame) and into the street.

On the downside, now they were pissed off.

A dark form barreled out of an alley, a tall woman bent to hit me at about waist height. Something flashed in her hand, and my body made a panicked spring straight up in the air before my brain had even identified the sizable knife aimed for my hamstring. She crashed into me and we fell over in a tangle -- my force ring hit her before her knife hit my throat, and the stored kinetic energy sent her flying like a ragdoll into a wall on the other side of the street. She snarled and shook her head, jumping to her feet as more shadows appeared, and charged back towards me.

I took off running again. A shout from a shadowed doorway sent me tripping in another direction, and I smelled smoke and fire. They'd driven me back to the garage. A big body hit me from behind, knocking me to the ground. I rolled over, fended off a punch with the skillful flailing of one arm, drew in a deep breath to shout a Forzare, and Parker's hand clamped over my mouth, slamming my head onto the concrete.

"Now!" he growled, and it really was a growl, a noise that rattled around deep in his throat.

I think I wasted a whole two seconds wondering if he was about to berate me between punches, comic book style. That's all the time it took for his second in command to torque off the cap of the fire hydrant. A spray of pressurized water slammed into my back, almost jarring me out of Parker's grip. Almost. He showed his teeth in an angry grin, and held me in the spray. "Wizard. She said she'd leave us alone if we gave you to her," he shouted, over the drum of water. "She didn't say you had to be alive."

He slammed the fist that wasn't holding me into my face. A blunt pain started in my spine and radiated out when a Streetwolf I couldn't see kicked me in the back. Someone slammed a boot down onto my leg. I tried to focus -- tried to get a hand into my duster pocket, where my .38 was stored. A steeltoe crunched down on my hand, and the world went black around the edges. Someone was screaming like a girl, far away, barely audible over the water that was soaking my duster and clogging my ears. I tried to summon my will -- hit Parker with something. Anything. I might as well have been trying to swim against a waterfall. The running water stripped my magic away.

I made a last desperate attempt with my good hand, trying to get a thumb into the pressure point on the wrist that Murphy had once shown me. Parker howled, and shook me. "-- Break your fucking hands!" he snarled, and a Streetwolf pinned my arm onto the street. Parker raised a boot --

Then the world was really loud for a second, and the wolf who'd been kicking me fell over. The one pinning my arm snapped his head up and snarled -- and took a second shot in the chest. Parker took one in the thigh, but didn't go down.

He dropped me and I hit the concrete, trying to focus through the spots in my vision, trying to make sense of what I was seeing. Parker was facing down a red Caddy, a muzzle protruding from the driver's side window. He lunged, bellowing, and the engine revved. Still bleeding from his leg, Parker bounded across the street, fist up as if he was going to punch the car. He went fast; the car was faster. It wasn't up to speed, but the impact was still loud, a sick crunch that left Parker in a crumpled heap.

The car stopped beside me, and the driver's door swung open.

"GET IN THE CAR," John bellowed, reaching out for me. Some idiot part of my mind focused on the fact that he wasn't wearing a seat belt. When I didn't move fast enough for him, he reached down and grabbed me by the collar -- there was that girly screaming sound again -- and threw me with a grunt over his lap and into the passenger seat. "Come on, come on, come on --" he grunted as he tried to get my battered legs folded inside the car. "HOLY SHIT HE'S GETTING UP. HARRY, MEET ME HALFWAY HERE!"

I obligingly curled into a fetal position and he slammed the door and hit the gas. The Caddy backed up and spun like a stunt car; the acceleration shoved my brain up out of my skull, and I was gone.


 

I couldn't have been out for too long. When I came to, still curled half in the passenger seat, half in John's lap, he was breathing hard, one hand white-knuckled on the steering wheel, the other carefully holding his shotgun at the ready, just out of sight of the window.

I... hurt. Everywhere. I was freezing cold. Wet. Bruised and bleeding. My one hand twitched miserably instead of flexing, and my missing magic was aching like a fresh amputation, all the more jarring when I reached for it and came up woozy and empty.

I must have made some sort of sound, because John's eyes snapped down to me, wide and a little wild. I realized we weren't moving, and tried to see out the window over his head. Night sky. Part of a cement ceiling. A bit of a streetlight.

"Where?" I said, and coughed. Oh Stars, did that hurt.

"Not Streetwolf territory," John said, sounding pissed off. "You know, I figured the odds that you would go straight into the middle of gang territory and walk up to their headquarters were pretty high. So why was I actually surprised when I saw you? I don't know."

"Working. For Vargassi." I wheezed. I hauled myself up, bracing my back against the passenger door of the car. It gave me a better view of our surroundings; a parking garage. Besides John's Caddy, I couldn't see a single car that cost less than my apartment.

"Bullshit," John said helpfully. "The Streetwolves don't work for anyone. With, occasionally. Never for." He took a deep breath and moved without warning, slamming his palms on the steering wheel. "GODDAMMIT." He glared at the wheel for a few seconds. "Okay."

I flinched when he reached for me, and yelped when he touched my hand.

"It's not broken, Princess," he said, moving it slowly. "Stop whining. Did you hear anything break?"

I shook my head, and wished I hadn't. The world swam around me again, and I started to black out. Big hands caught me by the shoulders, and John kept me half upright.

"It's all right," he muttered in a low voice. "It's all right. Look at me. What is it with you and head injuries? Look at me."

I blinked at him, and he looked deep into my eyes, checking the pupils. Then he looked into my eyes properly, cupping my head in his hands so that I was looking back. I had the presence of mind to flick my gaze away -- I'd already seen one soul tonight, and Parker's rage was still burned into the back of my eyelids -- but John jerked my chin, forcing my gaze back. I stared numbly at him, and the soulgaze started.

John's soul was a bare, spartan place; strong, empty, and stained with a corrosive feeling of failure. Like a big powerful muscle car that had blown a tire and been left to rust where it stood. He had a tiger's soul, sharp and merciless, but it was a tiger in a zoo. There was a sense of such loss -- he'd had everything, or at least enough, but the world had slammed down around him and he was left to pace back and forth in the confines of the garage and his tiny cell of an apartment until his eyes dimmed and glazed over. As terrifying as the flickers of what he'd been were -- the glimpses of a man who would kill dispassionately, with all the emotion of a bank teller -- the withered remnants of his ambition and boundless strength were just as horrifying, just as painful to look at.

And then the tiger in the cage lifted its massive head and looked at me, and I jerked back, afraid.

Then I blinked.

John was still staring into my eyes, his face in a frown of confusion. "Harry," he said, in a low, shaken voice. "You have two shadows."

"I know," I said stupidly.

"What's that about?"

"Long story."

"Magic," he said, resigned.

"Alakazam. Poof." I shivered; maybe because of what I'd seen in him, more likely because I was wet and low on blood. "Only happens once. Not again."

"All right." He lowered me back into the seat carefully, reached over my shoulder to buckle me in. "You don't have a concussion. Are you going to survive long enough for me to take you home and first-aid you?" He had a weird poise I don't expect from people who've looked into my soul. I've known people to faint. Scream. Cry. John had taken what he'd seen in me and looked at it clinically, filed it away -- and I was left rattled.

"Yeah," I said firmly. "Be fine." I tried to straighten up.

As if it had been waiting for an invitation, the pain rushed back into me and my stomach twisted inside-out. I bashed my bad hand against the door lock before I got the Caddy's door open, half falling out as I threw up all over the tire of the BMW in the next parking spot.

"Sure you will. God, you're such a dumb shit, Harry." John sighed and handed me a water bottle when I carefully rolled back into the Caddy, still strapped in. It was half-empty, warm and a little stale, and the best water I had ever had. It hurt to spit it out when I was done rinsing my mouth.

John reached across me and down to the floor, shoving my knees out of the way surprisingly gently for such a brisk movement, and rooted around. He came up with a grease-stained fast food bag and dropped it in my lap. "Use this if you have to hurl again. Spare the interior. As a favor to me."

"My place," I managed, taking deep breaths and thinking hard. "We should. Go to my place."

"You got any kind of decent first-aid kit?" he asked, gaze tracking up and down my body, his dollar bill green eyes bright in the dim light. "And any fast way out if they've followed us?"

"Wards," I said, and tucked my bad hand up against my breast bone. "I have wards."


 

John all but dragged me out of the Caddy and down my front stairs, his mouth set and his eyes darting this way and that. I tried to take my own weight on the stairs -- I couldn't imagine what this was doing to his leg -- and grunted and stumbled for my effort. But we made it, and I managed to pull my focus and slowly returning magic together long enough to deactivate my wards and get us inside.

"I'm gonna get some antiseptic and something for you to drink. How hot's your tap?"

"No hot water," I grunted.

"What? How long?"

Explaining the effect of my magic on technology -- even that of a water heater -- would take precious syllables that I just couldn't manage right now. "No hot water." I said.

"Jesus Christ. You live like an Amish hobo," John groaned.

He pushed me forward over my threshold, following with a reassuring ease, and flipped the light switch by the door. Nothing happened. I hadn't replaced the few bulbs I had since the last time they'd burnt out, and he tried again before turning to me incredulously. "Let me fucking guess," he said. "No lights. The PI business that bad? What am I gonna do, patch you up by flashlight?"

I rubbed at my nose with my good hand, the old fast food bag still clutched in it -- I hadn't needed it yet, but I wasn't taking any chances -- and gathered up my tired will to work my simple candle-lighting spell. A murmured "Flickum bicus," and all the candles scattered around my living room and what passes for a kitchenette lit up.

John went very still, gaze flicking around the room so quickly I doubted he saw much of anything, and then shot forward so fast I barely saw much of anything. "You idiot," he said, and slapped a hand flat against my chest. "Sit down before you hurt yourself again."

I wanted to protest. There had been some hurting, yes, but I had been firmly on the receiving end. That said, I didn't think my chances of either effectively conveying my reasoning or of convincing John were too strong, so I settled for making vague grumbling sounds and letting him carefully push me over to my couch.

"Don't move," he said gruffly, as he started to gently extract me from my duster. I was too drained to help more than a little.

"Undressing me already." I coughed. It hurt. "Not that kind of girl."

"You sure look dumb and easy to me," John returned. "Gotta make sure that hand of yours isn't broken anywhere."

I frowned. "Thought you said it wasn't. Princess."

"I lied. We needed to get going. The ribs are probably cracked, but there's nothing we can do about that. Can you move your arms and legs?"

I tried. I could. "Yaaaay."

"Smartass," he said, and started carefully moving the fingers of my bad hand. I winced a few times, but there were no sharp pains. I even had most of my range of motion. "You lucky fucker. Got a sprain but no breaks."

"Yeah. Lucky me. Ow!" He'd put my hand down and carefully pushed my wet shirt up around my armpits, moving on to examine my chest. "Less sexual harassment! More aspirin!"

"Yeah, let's make sure you aren't bleeding internally first, huh?"

"Bet you say that to all the girls."

"And now I know more about your sex life than I ever wanted to." He wrapped his palms around my ribs, and prodded carefully with one blunt finger when I hissed. "I could play these like a xylophone," he said. "Don't you ever eat?"

"I have a fast metabolism."

"So it's not because you count your calories? Gotta fit into that size two?"

"You are the ugliest high school cheerleader I know," I told him frankly. You have to be honest with friends. Then I yelped.

"That bruise is going to be extra pretty by the time it's done, but the rib's not broken," he said, frowning at it, then shooting a dubious look at my duster, a sad crumpled heap of canvas.

Unimpressive as it looked, I'd poured some spells into it over time, mostly since that mess in April and my vampirosso visitor. Wards, mostly. Protective stuff. Not enough to keep me from getting killed, or even to stop a knife, let alone a bullet. But they'd done their part against Parker and his pack's fists and feet; I was still breathing. I grunted.

"All right. I guess you can have some aspirin, you big girl." On my directions, he found the bottle of pills and my first aid kit; he came back to start taping and bandaging me up. He grumbled as he worked, a litany of complaints about my common sense, my living situation, my lack of anything to eat in the icebox, and my stupid face. He'd given me aspirin and cold water; I would forgive him anything. As he taped me up, I drifted in and out of focus; he had to wake me up to get me to bed.

I slept like the dead until the phone rang the next morning, too tired to have more than a few zoo-themed nightmares. John was gone; he'd left some fast-food bags for me, I noticed as I staggered to get the phone. "Dresden?" I said, distracted by the smell of what I was pretty sure was hashbrowns and a sausage biscuit.

"Harry." Kim's voice was reproachful.

"Oh, hell. Kim, I had a really bad night --"

Her voice did a neat one-two step from scolding to worried. "Oh, no! You sound terrible. Do you need me to come over? Mr. MacFinn wanted to have dinner with you tonight, but if you're not feeling all right --"

"Dinner," I said longingly. My stomach was a gaping void. "Wait, what --?"

"I'll pick you up at eight," she said firmly.


 

That night I went and met Harley MacFinn and Tera West. Harley showed me his nifty silver binding circles and explained gently why he needed them. Kim was kind enough not to rub it in too much. He explained that he needed her as a supernatural researcher -- he might not always be back at a safehouse when the full moon hit, and someone had to be able to circle him in. He smiled at me, and I saw a man with a terrible curse -- a monster inside of him -- trying to do the right thing, trying to keep himself and everyone around him safe.

I found myself agreeing to help and tutor Kim in circle construction, for a healthy subcontractor's fee.

Then Tera introduced me to a group of bright young faces that she'd been training to keep an eye on the situation in Chicago. She knew as well as I did that Maddy had her fingers in everything, and wanted some spies she trusted. I looked at her 'Alphas', not one of them legal to drink yet, all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, and told her that I wasn't a babysitter. She smiled at me, or at least showed her teeth, and I saw a woman who was wondering if I was too stringy to eat.

I found myself agreeing to mentor the Alphas. I got out of MacFinn's beautiful town home with all of my limbs and most of my dignity, and considered myself lucky.


 

About a week later, John called.

"How much is the rent on your little batcave?"

I told him. There was a long pause.

"My landlord hiked my rent up under me. I can't keep up -- not and pay for my meds this winter." He sighed. "I'm not actually rescinding my opinion that you live like an Amish hobo, but if you let me sleep on the couch, I'll take half the rent and fix the water heater once a month."

I considered that it might be dangerous to have a vanilla mortal roommate. And the sheer annoyance of having another body in what wasn't a huge apartment, even if it was bigger than John's shoebox.

I considered hot showers once a month in the privacy of my own home, and having a little extra cash for things like... food. Mm, food.

"I have a strictly BYOPB policy," I told him, and after his patient waiting silence: "Bring your own pink bedruffle." He told me to go fuck myself and hung up, but he showed up at the doorstep that night with his stuff.


 

For the next... eleven, twelve months, life actually managed to be pretty good. The White Mob Court problem didn't go away. The Streetwolf problem didn't go away -- although it did sort of simmer down. Bob mentioned, easily a month too late, that we had Lycanthropes in town. This was after John had a meeting with them on neutral territory, and if you think it's impossible to have a calm, polite discussion with someone you recently shot in the leg and ran down with your car, you haven't met my mechanic. When I told him his new frenemies were wolf-souled berserkers, he paused, nodded approvingly, and said: "Good. They'll respect boundaries."

Big heavy brass ones, has John.

My relationship with Murphy continued to sputter along, just on the brink of going dead altogether -- until Maddy Vargassi, I shit you not, did me a favor. She put the word out that Harry Dresden, Wizard, was to get no police contracts on pain of pissing her off. I still helped SI out from time to time on an unannounced, non-official basis, but my one fairly-regular paycheck shut off -- but on the bright side, when I wasn't working for Murphy and having to keep things from her, we got along a lot better. I paid the rent with odd jobs, weightloss potions and pet-tracking, the odd supernatural mediation, like an arrangement with some Cobbs to a high-end shoe store, and John started quietly pulling overtime to keep food on the table. It was rough, but we managed. Murphy gave me a little shit about having a button-man for a live in boyfriend (her words), but John was apparently not on any unofficial threat lists in the department. She'd mentally labeled him as harmless. Which pissed him off. Maybe I shouldn't have told him.

They did meet, Murphy and John, eventually: their mutual hatred was so strong and so sudden that I worried I'd be losing half of the rent check when they eloped. People who fight like that should either be married or relatives. John got along better with my friend Michael Carpenter, although he tended to drop his head and do the lapsed Catholic shuffle whenever Michael's work with the local churches came up. And he introduced me to a small, spread network of second and third cousins and old ladies of no particular relationship to him who'd known him in high school. They liked me. Welcomed me. Fed me. It was all really new and disturbing. When someone's sister's girlfriend's cousin was looking to get rid of a fold-out couch-bed, I asked nicely and they hung onto it long enough for me to scrape up the money. When I brought it home to John, he punched me in the ribs; but I tend to think that that was mostly because of the pink Disney Princess pillows I'd thoughtfully accessorized it with.

So I was eating on a regular basis, I had a scrupulously tidy roommate who consistently paid rent, and Murphy didn't hate me. Good times, right?

Sure. Except that outside my wards, things were looking pretty nasty. Whether Marco Vargassi just didn't give a damn, or Maddy had eaten too much of his brain, Chicago's underworld was a violent mess. Local gangs spatted for territory; neighborhoods that had been safe five years ago suddenly started sprouting alleys you didn't want to walk down at night. Businesses were folding; the police were handcuffed, and the newspapers knew it. There were lots of articles and exposes about the growing corruption, but nothing came of them.

And like a drowning swimmer flailing, the city started to attract predators. Vamps. Ghouls. Lots of nasty little faeries (please don't tell me you think all faeries are nice) and assorted monsters. Maddy was a messy eater.

It didn't go unnoticed by the rest of the White Court, I discovered that much -- the Chicago Raiths were allied with some of the more established Red Court vamps against her, but when they hit Maddy with magic, she hit back with mortal weapons and mortal strength. It's really difficult when you're a Red Court vampire and your opponent can have your stronghold detonated by a city work crew in the middle of the day. Chicago lost an ancient institution when Bianca fled the city with a killer sunburn and her brothel in ruins, the sunshine streaming in on what was left of her people. The White Court didn't know how to handle Maddy, tactless and terminally un-subtle as she was. She wasn't supposed to have a heavy hand in the mortal world. She wasn't supposed to be heard OR seen... and she wasn't supposed to be winning.

So as bad as Chicago looked to mortal eyes? Yeah, it was a lot worse on the other side of the veil. Dark, deep pockets of yuck were getting stirred up. Old ghosts were feeling the turbulence. Chicago has a lot of ghosts....


 

I wasn't particularly pleased to answer the phone one Saturday morning the next October and hear Mortimer Lindquist on the other end. I didn't hold his "lead" from last year against him -- I'd arranged to make sure he always had a little bit of extra protection around his home in case Maddy tried to pay him back for failing to get me killed. He'd genuinely tried to warn me that day, which was the only way I'd dissuaded John's expressed desire to introduce Morty's shins to his friend the lug wrench. It had served as a good training ground for the Alphas, too, a real but low-key situation, and they were starting to pull together. It didn't make me feel any better about sticking a bunch of teenagers on the frontline, but it was better than having them running around trying to organize themselves and getting killed doing it.

"Yeah, Mort," I said, leaning against the kitchen wall, already regretting the social nicety of boxer shorts. It had been a hot and humid summer and the calendar change to autumn hadn't done much to change the weather. My apartment can usually tough out a heat wave with the best of them, but the continual months of constant high temperatures had eventually caught up with it, turning it into an underground pool of stagnant, sticky heat. "What's up?"

John's head surfaced over the icebox door like a casually curious periscope, and I flapped a hand at him. Down, mechanic. No blunt force trauma necessary. He reached over and shoved a can of Coke against my neck, making me jump, but I held it there after he let go.

Mort hemmed and hawed in my ear, and I let him talk himself in uncertain circles. Mister stalked around John's feet, and I saw a few scraps of deli turkey just happen to fall in front of him. Their relationship had started off a little rocky, but some sort of peace treaty had been brokered. I wasn't entirely sure of the details, but Mister no longer stalked John through the apartment or glared at him while he slept, so I figured that, whatever it was, it was all for the best.

"Stars, Mort," I finally said, my Coke warmed enough that my neck was getting slippery from the condensation. I popped it open and took a long drink. "Spit it out." Mort hadn't gotten over the trying-to-get-me-killed thing as quickly as I had, it seemed.

"You need to talk to the Wardens, Harry," he said. "Something's bothering the ghosts."

Or he had just gone absolutely insane.

"No," I said, managing to find the counter for my can before my flailing spilled it. "Hell no. Hell's bells, have you lost your mind? I say one word about ghosts to Morgan, he takes it as a confession that I'm breaking the fifth law, and off goes my head. I'm kind of attached to my head, Mort, and I'd like to keep it that way. And, forgive me if I'm wrong here, but isn't "bothered" sort of a crucial part of the job description for most ghosts?"

"Not like this. Harry. The scale of this, it's massive," he meandered, and then quieted down. "Okay. Harry, listen. I may not be playing on your level." He paused bitterly, and added: "Or any level, these days. But people still come to me with ghost problems. I know what normal activity looks like. Sometimes a spirit deals out some bumps and bruises and maybe once every five or ten years you run across a really bad haunt. Maybe once every five years in America and I mean the whole continent someone dies because of a spirit. It's getting more common; you read my book --"

"I read your book, Mort," I sighed. It had been a little Revelations-y.

"But as bad as that trend is, this is worse. The way Chicago's ghosts are acting, Harry, if something isn't done, there's going to be a body count even the police will notice."

I went quiet. That was... bad. Really, really bad.

"Do you know... what? I mean, I know there's bad mojo in the city, but this sounds like a lot more than background noise." However noisy it was right now.

"Why do you think I'm calling you, Harry?" he said. "To chat? To catch up? To tell you to scoop up after your little werewolf pack or I'll leave it on your front step? Of course I don't know what. It's something powerful enough to be taking on some pretty old ghosts on their home turf and win, and cruel enough to leave them alive --" he stopped. "Well, you know what I mean. Leave them partially intact. And hurting."

He sighed, and I recognized the weariness in the sound. Mort's got his issues -- don't we all? -- but these ghosts were his friends, and he was worried about them. "Go to the Wardens, Harry. This is dark, and you can bet that anyone who'll do this to ghosts won't think twice about doing it to the living, too. The Council's more likely to listen to you than me; stop this before the death toll starts rising. This is their kind of problem -- the ghosts wouldn't be this angry if the veil between worlds wasn't tearing up like cheap pantyhose. They need to know."

"Mort," I said. "I can try. But they don't really like me there, you know that."

He puffed out a breath, it rasped like old static, and said something that cut in and out. "I'm starting to lose you," I said. "The phone's gonna die."

"I said St. Michaels," he shouted. "Old Town!" And the line cut out.

I held the handset to my ear for a moment, listening to nothing. I'd done a few exorcisms in my time, nothing major though. Certainly nothing on this scale. Whatever this scale was.

Something tapped against my head and I looked over to John, offering a pen and one of those long skinny notepads real estate agents give out. "Weren't you going in to work today?" I asked, returning the handset to the cradle and taking the pen and paper from him.

"Still today, isn't it?" he said mildly, and went to the sink with his plate and glass to dab dish soap on them and start scrubbing. The guy does his dishes immediately after each meal. Who does that? He had on a loose shirt, the back wet with sweat, and a pair of sweatpants that had been hacked off at the knees, his calves thickly-muscled and damp. It must have been earlier than I thought, if he hadn't changed out of his yoga clothes yet. He has a pretty grueling looking routine he does. He says it's for physio, but I think he's just a masochist. "Something going on?"

"I gotta go see Michael," I said, jotting down what Mort had said. If whatever was going on involved a church... well, I hated to drag Michael into things with me, I'd gotten him hurt once and I don't think his wife is ever going to forgive me. She's terrifying. But I was going to need backup, and this was something on his turf. I could use his help.

"And the Wardens?" he asked, voice so casual he could have been commenting on needing to make a run to the laundromat, but I knew better. I looked up from my notes -- they were turning into a bunch of arrows and exclamation marks anyway -- and over at his back, bent over the sink while he studiously dried his plate. And dried it. And dried it.

John doesn't like the Wardens very much.

The subject of the White Council, including the Wardens, had come up a few times in the past year. The Council's pretty strict about not telling mortals who don't already know about magic about magic, but after the soulgaze and a round of rather intense questioning, I'd just about given up on trying to keep anything from John for his own good. He accepted explanations about the hags, ghouls, and the Sidhe as easily as if I'd been reading a car manual to him. He asked questions about small, practical things -- how much running water, how much iron, would UV or a full-spectrum lamp substitute for sunlight? But if I mentioned the Wardens, or the White Council in general, the tone of the discussion would change, fast. You'd see his face shut down, eyes narrowing just slightly, jaw clenching. Maybe it was because he'd been on the other side of the law when he was younger. Maybe he didn't like the idea of a secret cabal that practiced high-handed diplomacy with slavering things that wanted to eat normal people like him. Hell, I didn't like the idea either.

"I'm not going to go knock on the door if I can help it," I said with feeling. "But Mort said they needed to be told about this, and he's probably right."

"Or he's trying to get you to walk into a trap again," John said, tone almost as dry as his plate had to be by now. "Worked last time, didn't it?"

I made a face at his back. "No. He told me there was a trap. Then he told me not to walk into it."

"Which just means he knows what a contrary jackass you are," John said, finally setting his plate in the dish-rack almost hard enough to break it.

"Gosh," I said. "All this sweet talk is going to turn my head."

John snapped the dish towel at me and missed by a good three inches. My eyebrows rose; he must have been distracted.

I slipped past him, and grabbed a box of pop-tarts out of the pantry for road food (what, you can eat just one?), went to my room to pull some clothes on, then yelled into the basement: "BOB. You have permission to scout with Mister!" I gave John a little salute on my way out the door. "Gotta go. I'll see you tonight," I said optimistically.

I wouldn't see him again for a week.


 

It was a child at the church. Well, the ghost of one, anyway. A screaming little boy who sounded like feedback and was starting to cause structural damage. One parishioner had wrenched a knee when a crack appeared on the front steps, but things could have easily gotten out of hand. My car had died with a cough of smoke when I parked it in front of Michael's house, and he'd driven. It was for the best -- he distracted the priests with his good nature while I tucked the little boy in and sent him to sleep.

I had Michael stop at my office building on the way home. Turned out that that was for the best, too. Stuff like that has a tendency to happen around Michael. I left a message with the florist that acted as a front for the Wardens, and checked with my own answering service. Then Michael and I drove over to the Gold Coast and dealt with the spirit of a recently departed great aunt whose senility had apparently come with no little violence and even less tolerance for Missus Campbell's choice in husbands.

It was bad, worse than usual, but it wasn't the spiritual turf war I'd been led to expect by Mort's call. Neither was the poltergeist at the U of C that we handled the next evening, despite the homicidal rages it sent a few poor librarians into, after they saw the remains of some of their oldest books, and the concussion one of the grad students had ended up with, after she'd caught the corner of a floating table with her skull.

I was thinking that it was a little anticlimactic, and was ready to laugh it off. Then I dropped by home -- John wasn't there, but Mister bolted in under my feet, wide-eyed and spitting. He scrabbled at the door to the sub-basement, and I let him in dumbly. Mister coughed, and disgorged a glowing hairball that streaked into Bob's skull. "Cook County Hospital!" the skull gasped theatrically.

I was very conscious of Michael peering down behind me -- he knows about Bob, but he doesn't like it. I'm not entirely sure what part Michael disapproved of more: what he calls "consorting with spirits and familiars", although he was currently having no problem petting Mister, so I guess he didn't count, or Bob's taste in literature. There was a Penthouse centerfold open and on clear display on Bob's shelf. A natural redhead. I winced. I didn't even remember buying that one for him.

Bob had gotten his wind... figuratively... back. "I'm not telling you while Mister Leviticus up there is listening in," he said sulkily.

Michael looked surprised, but reached down to gather up Mister into his arms and disappeared.

"Well?" I demanded.

"Harry, there's something BAD at Cook County. Something went in and came out, and Agatha's been screaming."

"Agatha?" I said. I know, I know. Bastion of wit.

"Agatha Hagglethorn," Michael said from upstairs, sounding troubled.

"HEY, buddy!" Bob yelled, jaw dropping in anger. "You no like the spirit, you no get the info!"

Michael ignored him. "Harry, this ghost is dangerous, and strong. She haunts the children's ward --"

"-- We have to go, now." I jumped for the ladder.

"You're WELCOME," Bob snapped after us, and then went quiescent. He was rattled; I could tell. It worried me. I made a mental note to pick up a new magazine for him on the way home.

Then I had to go put down the ghost of a woman who'd lost her kid and gone crazy, possibly not in that order. Ran into my fairy godmother. Broke my word to her for the second time, which is kind of like voluntarily chopping off a finger. Bob's magazine fell out of my head, and when I got home -- John was still gone, or possibly had come home and gone again -- all I wanted to do was sleep.

I couldn't be so lucky, though. Agatha Hagglethorn had raised more questions than she'd answered -- it hadn't just been her predisposition to infanticide and murderous rages that had set her off. No, she'd been hurt. In agony, wrapped up in some sort of torture wire. Strands of barbed wire had run about her flesh, beneath her clothing. The barbs had dug cruelly into her every two inches or so, and her body had been covered with small, agonizing wounds. The wire had been a single strand that started at her throat and wrapped about her torso, beneath her arms, winding all the way down one leg to her ankle. At either end, the wire had simply vanished into her flesh. No matter what her mental state had been before, it had driven her mad. And it was deliberate.

That wire had been a spell of some sort, although not like one I'd ever seen before. It had been ... off. Wrong, in a very fundamental way that did the same sort of things to my insides as seeing someone with a back or a limb broken so badly that their body twisted in ways human bodies simply shouldn't, the dead in the wreckage after a head-on collision. Wrong in a way that was an utter violation of everything I'd been taught about magic. Most magic throbbed and pulsed with light, life, even if it was being used for malevolent purposes. Magic comes from life, from the energy of our world and from people, from their emotions and their will. That spell had been dull. Flat and matte black and an affront to what magic was supposed to be.

In short, it was serious business.

Chicago's got its fair share of spooks and spirits. All major cities do, and the historical population density for the area might not have provided as many opportunities for ghosts to form and collect as major Asian or European metropolitan centres, but Chicago's had an active recorded history, and even before a bunch of white guys took a long boat ride and decided to play violent squatter, Chicago's been a hub of spiritual and supernatural activity. There are so many ley lines crossing through here, sometimes I feel like I'm tripping on them.

I didn't have Bob's knowledge or anything, but I knew some of the local ghosts in passing, and had come up with a list to start playing housecalls from. I'd been beginning to think it wasn't worth the effort... and then I'd met Agatha. I'd gotten the list back with the rest of my things when Charity had posted our bail -- turns out two grown men in varying degrees of Hallowe'en costume can't break into a hospital nursery and not attract some unwanted attention, even in this town -- and it felt like a brick in my duster pocket.

It was still dark out. There were a few hours to go until the sun came up, and most sensible ghosts would be tucked in so their ectoplasm didn't burn away. I thought longingly of my bed, polished off the last of the deli turkey and the two pieces left in the loaf of bread, shoved a handful of animal crackers down my throat, and grabbed a can of Coke for the road.

The Beetle was still parked outside the Carpenter house, where it had spent the last two days; I'd have to call a cab, try to plan my route so it was the most cost efficient ... or, I could hitch a ride with Michael. Michael, who was leaning against his pickup in the little gravel pit that passes as my buildings parking lot, sipping from a takeout coffee cup. Michael, who was a good man and a good friend and who's wife was probably going to murder me and stick my head on a pike for all to see if I brought him back injured, or possibly just on principle.

Michael passed me a second coffee cup when I got in the cab of his truck. I told him where to go, and we passed the trip in silence. We had some ghosts to dig up.


 

Talking to ghosts is harder than you'd think. Especially when you're not a natural medium and also not relying on sound recordings and knocks on the table to make a cheap buck off of unsuspecting folks' grief and naivety. You have to get their attention, and then keep their attention without pissing them off (something more dangerous than usual with the question for bachelor number three being 'are you being driven insane by a torture spell wrapped around your very essence?'), and then manage to get something useful out of them.

Ghosts are pretty stuck in their ways -- something that makes sense, seeing as they're essentially snapshots of a person from a single, often traumatic, moment, and not able to change and grow like the living soul they originally came from. The older a ghost gets, the more likely it is that it will have developed a bit of a persona of its own, and a more stable frame of existence to catch some of the whispers going down the grapevine, but that still didn't make a casual conversation easy.

And trying to do all of that a few hours after fighting for your life against an insane ghost on her home turf, well. I've done harder things. I've done stupider things. But not many.


 

I wound up sleeping the worst of my headache and exhaustion off at the Carpenters' in their guest room, a soft, safe place that doubled as Charity's sewing room, and joined them for breakfast the next morning -- frosty silence from Charity, Michael's very lovely, very pregnant, very musclebound wife, happy chatter from the kids. Someone knocked on the door, and Daniel, their second eldest, immediately stood up.

"No, son. Eat your breakfast," Michael said fondly but firmly, and picked up the duffle by his chair. The family shared a glance, and went on eating, the chatter a bit subdued. Charity's lips went a little white around the edges as she took a long drink from her orange juice. I looked away before she could catch me staring, and wondered how many times the children had watched their father pack up and go in the middle of breakfast or a softball game or the night and worried about whether or not he'd come home. They were tough, this family.

The conversation at the door was curious, but not threatening. Michael came back in, trailing two young women, and put the duffel bag down again. "Harry? These girls say you know them?"

One of the girls was tall and skinny, give it a few years and some good meals and she would be the type that got called 'willowy', with thin, pale blond hair and quick, smart eyes. The other was about half a foot shorter and a lot curvier, busty and hippy with a comfortable roll in her stride and hair that a kind friend would have called 'auburn' and a not-so-kind friend would have called 'carrots'. They both smiled at me, and I waved my fork back, making sure I'd gotten all the scrambled egg off it.

"Yeah, yeah," I said, and lead with my chin for introductions. "Michael, this is Georgia and Andi, two of the Alphas I've told you about. Guys, Michael Carpenter, Charity Carpenter, and their family."

"Mort said we'd probably find you here if you weren't at your house," Andi volunteered. "He thought you and Mr. Carpenter were in danger. Hi, Mr. Carpenter. Because you were screwing around with the Big Thing? He sent us to keep an eye on you. And you, Mr. Carpenter, if that's okay."

This time I was in on the Carpenter Family Glance.

"We should probably go talk to Mort," I said reluctantly to Michael. I didn't want to leave the cozy house, the cozy breakfast.

"Yes," Michael said, nodding calmly. He sat back in his chair at the head of the Carpenter table, which I was willing to bet he'd made himself, and resumed eating. "When we are finished, and the dishes are put away. Girls?" He gestured to the table and we all squinched down the long bench seats to make a bit more room.

Georgia and Andi attacked the breakfast with gusto that betrayed what had probably been a long night on four legs, and I demonstrated that, unlike them, I wasn't a teenager anymore, and passed on the plate of bacon to Georgia's skinny hands after only taking two slices. Martyrs don't have it so hard.

The Carpenters seemed to take a shine to the girls; Michael had them talking about what classes they were taking, Georgia was helping little Hope, sitting next to her, get her cheerios from her bowl to her mouth, and Andi managed to catch Amanda's glass before she knocked it over and flooded the table with milk. When Michael and I packed up to leave, Charity was chatting pleasantly with them both and only shooting me frosty glances every minute, instead of every twenty seconds or so. The closing of the front door, solid and steel-enforced, was like a physical break, snapping us off from the warm comfort of family and snapping us back into the reality of a Chicago where the ghosts were being driven mad.

Or maybe it was just me. Michael shouldered his dufflebag easily and swung it into the back of his truck, his steps as firm and confident as they ever were. Michael's a rare breed, and I don't just mean because there are only ever three Knights of the Cross at a time. He's righteous and humble and decent, down to his core. We'd soulgazed, five years ago, when we'd first met. I'd cried.

And speaking of being a Big Girl, I shot my car a worried glance and silently promised it I'd be back. As soon as this mess with the ghosts died down, I had to get it into to the shop so John could work his own brand of magic. Wherever he was these days.


 

The ride back from Mort's was subdued, Michael with his hands on the wheel and his mouth a set line, and me with Mort's notebooks heavy in my lap and my mind flitting from one tired memory to the next. The books were leather-bound journals, thick with pages full of neat, ordered notes in the first ones and jerky, scattered scrawl in the last. I could smell the ink; it was comforting. Grounding. Something resolutely earthbound and mortal amongst all my thoughts of ghosts.

Something had come through last night, Mort had said, pale and shaken and a little bitter. Something like he had never felt. Something big and bad and angry enough to scare Mort into running. Something ready to start killing. He'd named it a nightmare; advised us to get out of town like he was. I didn't blame him. I wished I could leave, really. But I couldn't. There was trouble in my city, and I was the best shot there was at stopping it.

I flipped through Mort's notes, barely reading them. A lot of it was along the same vein as his books, just more involved and even more Armageddon-laden. Was Morty right? Could the barrier between the spirit world and our own be falling apart? The thought made me shudder. Something had been formed, something big and mean. And my gut instinct told me that it had a purpose. All power, no matter how terrible or benign, whether its wielder is aware of it or not, has a purpose.

"A nightmare," I said. Michael didn't respond, but I could feel the weight of his gaze when he looked over.

So this Nightmare was here for something. I wondered what it wanted. Wondered what it would do.

And worried that, all too soon, I would find out.


 

There was a new car parked in front of Michael's house when he pulled into the driveway, and a woman in the driver's seat talking on her a cell phone. She got out still talking, and yanked the phone away from her ear with a wince when I got out of the truck.

"Murph?" I asked, studiously ignoring the fast, high-pitched beeping sound her phone was making. That was her own car, and she wasn't in her patrol uniform, dressed instead in jeans and an off-white windbreaker, her short, punky haircut swept back. She wasn't wearing makeup, which wasn't unusual, but there was a pinched quality around her mouth, and her eyes were tired and deep-set. "What's up?"

She gave up on her phone and shoved it into her pocket, eyeing me suspiciously. I shuffled my feet and looked away because I do that all the time, and not because Murphy has a stare that could make a brick wall back down and mumble something about having an appointment on the other side of town. You can't prove otherwise. "Your live-in scumbag said I might find you here." She nodded her chin at Michael, "Mister Carpenter," and turned back to me. "I need you to come with me."

Well, it wasn't official business, whatever it was. Even without Maddy running interference on my livelihood, Murph's little Escort and wardrobe told me as much. Murphy was good people. She'd had my back when I needed it, more times than I could count, and I was pretty sure that some of the cases that had come my way over the past year and been by way of her suggestion, official police contracts or no. But Chicago was going to be torn apart -- the world could be torn apart -- by a big bad Nightmare if I didn't use what little time I had to figure out who, why, and how to stop it.

My face must have shown what I was thinking -- I've never been good at poker, and the few times I played with her, Murph's cleaned me out -- because Murphy straightened her back, chin tipping up, and cut me off before I could even begin. "No, Harry, I don't want to hear it. You need to come with me. Now."

"Murph," I said anyway, because I've never really been clear on the concept of survival tactics. "I'm working on something really serious --"

"-- And I'm serious. Get in the car, Dresden."

Michael's big warm hand came down on my shoulder, and the other closed around my elbow. He escorted me over to the passenger side as easily as I'd seen him carry Hope to bed for a nap. I did my best to save my dignity by not screaming and kicking my feet. "Harry," he said, his voice quiet and calm. "Go with Officer Murphy. Even in times like these, one should not turn aside a friend in need. Return when you are finished. We will have time."

My face was still plenty hot after Murph had pulled away from the Carpenters' house, and I kept my eyes fixed on the road. For her part, Murphy didn't say anything, save a quick half-hearted 'I'll have her home by 10,' to Michael when she got in the car, just drove with a steely sort of determination and enough skill that doing so didn't get us killed.

"So," I said a few blocks away from the Carpenters' while we stopped at a red light. Murph's lips were pursed and her left foot tapped lightly but insistently against the clutch. "Going to tell me where we're going?"

The light turned and we shot forward. "Micky Malone," she said.

My stomach went cold. "Dead?"

"No." She shook her head sharply. "But not good. I think something attacked him."

I knew she didn't mean an attack of something, like the flu. Didn't mean a wild dog or anything normal like that. I could hear Mort in my head: A body count even the police will notice. And Micky -- a friend. He'd had to deal with the worst that the city could throw at him.

Last winter, when the vamp war was just in its birthing stages, Micky had helped bust what he thought was a white slavery ring and was really a Black Court supermarket. In the dark warehouse, something had bit him in the leg. The wound hadn't healed in the hospital -- necrotic tissue had spread like fungus up his calf until all they could do was amputate. He'd gone through therapy. Got a cool prosthetic. And had some long, hard talks with me about what he'd seen that day, what had attacked him. He'd known as much about the Unseelie underbelly of Chicago as anyone in the department besides Murphy, and he'd just recently led the charge against a sorcerer who was siccing demons on Chicago. He'd known he was making enemies in the supernatural world -- had chosen to do it.

But whatever he'd been ready for, I hadn't been ready for the dark to follow him home. I wasn't about to roll over and accept it, either.

"Thanks for bringing me in on this, Murph," I said quietly.

There were cops with garbage bags when we got there, gathering... something. Something I didn't want to look at too closely, off the front lawn. The bags reeked -- not just a smell, but a feeling that rose from my stomach and coated my mouth like lye. There'd been bad deaths, here. Little bad deaths. A lot of them. I realized that the strange sound I'd been trying to place was actually the quiet: no birds singing in the greenery; nothing rustling in the grass. My stomach tipped over, and I jerked my head away from the cops and the bags.

Murph punched me on the shoulder and let her hand linger, knuckles digging into my arm, for just a second. It helped.

While Murphy went to get Missus Malone, I stood awkwardly on the porch and trailed my fingers against the front door. I could feel one of the cops glaring at my back, some puzzled eyes on me. I shut them out.

The Malone's threshhold should have been a magical brick wall. They loved their house, their home; they had kept it up and put their own hard work into it. Sure, people had been tromping in and out all day, but they were cops. Extended family. But the magical barrier I brushed was like rotting wood -- it sagged against my touch and crumbled. The edges were tattered and slimy. Something had come through it, all brute force and rage, and left decay behind.

No.

Missus Malone came out with Murphy -- who looked as if walking back into that house had aged her ten years -- and invited me in with a trembling voice. I followed numbly, feeling the threshold gasp around me like something dying as it let me in.

Micky looked... terrible. Like a really edgy comic artist had drawn the Joker from Batman, and then let a teenager scribble fountain-pen wounds all over the line art. I clung to that image, two-dimensional and distant, so that I wouldn't have to process the too-real stink and pain and accept the horrible rictus grin and sightless eyes of my friend. I made his hyena scream the sound effect in a horror film, the grunting sound he made just part of the far away soundtrack. Something I could control. Something I could fix. You can fix it, Harry.

When I had a handle on myself, I prepared for what I'd see, and opened my Sight.


 

I don't remember getting into the bathroom, but Murphy had me by the arms before I could get a second handful of soap in my eyes. There was no delicacy, no subtlety to what had been done to Micky. There was just pain, just gaping wounds where chunks had been taken out of him. And barbed wire. And barbed wire.

"I'm going to help him," I said to Murphy, pretty funny coming from a guy bent over the sink having someone else rinse the soap from his eyes for him.

"You're going to calm down first," she said steadily, handing me a towel. I held it over my stinging eyes and blinked painfully at her. "Your heartbeat's jackhammering. Your hands are shaking. Look." They were -- fear and anger and adrenaline.

"It's the Nightmare," I said quietly, through my gritted teeth. "It's been tearing up the city, Murph. Shaking up the ghosts until they start killing. But it's not a ghost this time. It's Micky."

"Calm down." She grabbed my arm and squeezed until it hurt, and slowly, I did. "Now go fix it," she said, low in her throat.


 

It was another hour until I crawled home, straight into the shower. It hadn't taken so long, getting the spell off of Micky Malone. I just touched it and tada, it wound up onto me. The barbed wire had sunk into my skin and I'd screamed for an open window and gone out it, wrapping myself in my own fire on the way down, lancing the THING off of me.

It was the burn treatment that had taken a while. Yeah. My fire burns me as good as anyone else. Even as short, hot and targeted as my little human torch act had been, it hadn't been short enough. It wasn't serious, but it was an omnipresent, terrible pain. I was glad that John hadn't fixed the water heater yet this month -- all I wanted was cold, all over me. I had a big pack of burn ointment, but I'd dropped it on the couch when I'd come in and that was miles away across dry, painful territory.

Stupid. Stupid, stupid. But I couldn't risk the spell getting loose, whiplashing back into the city to hurt someone else. Maybe there was something smarter than luring it onto me, fine. But after what I'd seen, I hadn't been willing to let it get away. And what were actually pretty superficial burns still seemed worth it, in the light of seeing Micky wake up, sane and safer, and his wife holding him.

If only cold steely resolve worked as an ice pack, am I right?


 

John still wasn't home when I dragged myself to bed. No idea where the jerk was; I bunked down lovingly cuddled next to some icepacks and slathered liberally with burn ointment.Wizards heal fast. Between a few hours and the cold, cold shower, I already felt like I'd stayed in the sun a few too hours too many, but not like I'd launched myself from an open window, wrapped in a blanket of fire.

John wasn't home when I woke up, either, but Mister was purring over a can of tuna next to the bed, and the cold weight in bed with me meant that my icepacks had been recently changed. When I risked rolling over, I saw a new can of Solarcain on my dresser, right next to a bag of Burger King and a sports bottle of ice water. The bottle of aspirin was in my hand, though I only realized it when I went to shove my hair out of my eyes and smacked myself in the forehead with it. Because he's the kind of asshole who does that.

So the morning didn't hurt as much as I'd expected it to.

When the phone rang, I knew it had to be John -- and answered it: "Hi, Mom. About time you called. Did you do my laundry yet? I'm running out of clean Spiderman undies."

A cold voice that was definitely not my roommate's answered. "Dresden. I know what you're looking for."

"... Rudy?" I blinked. It was a cop, and not one of the friendly ones. He was the newest head of SI, the city's Special Investigations unit for 'supernatural' crime, and even for a punishment position, you don't jump from 'Corporal' to 'Lieutenant' in two years unless someone greases the rails with cash and the scum off of your brown nose. And he'd been a great fit for the position, let me tell you; Rudolph had a real talent for rationalizing away supernatural crap, and had reduced work for his department largely by treating the victims of supernatural crime like drug addicts. He was an asshole. And he hated me. It was mutual.

"I can't ignore this anymore," he said quietly. "Tonight. Meet me at the corner of Stark and Fifth; the warehouse." The phone hung up with a click.


 

It took me a few minutes to recognize where I was after the cab drove off. The sun was getting low on the horizon, bright orange replacing the gold of the autumn evening, and it threw mixed light and shadows through the gaps between the buildings, making me squint while I counted out change for the cabby. He looked uneasy, eyes flicking to the nearby alleys and cross streets. He didn't even stick around to haggle over my tip or lack thereof -- just peeled out, leaving me to figure out my surroundings. Mostly it was the hole in the earth that filled me in.

Demolition hadn't been kind to the Velvet Room, or the months that had followed. Brittle, faded tape flapped in the breeze, mostly torn away from the rebar and remaining foundation, and old stains on the ground showed where rainwater had collected and gone stagnant over the summer. If I hadn't heard the stories about what went on around here after dark, I'd have believed the place was abandoned.

I had heard the stories, though. And I'd seen some of what remained of the handfulls of Red Vampires who had survived the attack, their minds slowly degrading down the totem pole of reasoning. Final destination: something the Red Court vampires with functioning social skills called 'blood slaves'. I'd say it was more along the lines of 'rabid dog oh God oh God shoot it again', but it doesn't sound as fancy. And they weren't the only supernatural predators lurking in the shadows around here; scourges of Black Vampires had been sprouting up in the abandoned buildings that were becoming the norm in some parts of town, drawn into the conflict that was in full force between Maddy and everyone else -- just ask Micky Malone. The Whites were pretty much the only Court you wouldn't expect to find down here, and there were plenty of ghouls and nasty faeries and other assortments of Nevernever creatures drawn to scavenge to make up for it.

And here I was, standing on the street corner in the middle of it all like a tasty Wizard McNugget, watching the sun go down, taking my last natural defense with it. Stars and stones, Harry, I thought, glancing up at the growing twilight. Why not just flash them a little leg and get it over with?

And where the hell was Rudy, anyway?

My blasting rod was hanging from its string inside my duster; the weight was comforting, but I had a sinking suspicion that it wouldn't do me much good. I'm strong for a wizard. Especially one my age. Not so good with the more delicate stuff, but in terms of firepower, I'm in the top 25% worldwide, and most of those above me are a lot older and a lot more experienced. All that did right now was give me a bit more of a fighting chance.

I'd walked into another trap. Fool me twice, Maddy. Jesus. How could I have been so stupid? Like Rudolph was just going to roll over with an attack of conscience. The soulless, brown-nosed weasel had cited a victim of faerie mischief with public indecency and public intoxication, and after taking what he chose from her terrified rambling, with child endangerment. It had taken Murph and I months to get Amy set up with a family of practitioners, the wife part of a small local coven Kim had introduced me to, and John had managed to get her some identification for her new life. Murphy was forcibly kept out of loop on the details -- she provided the force, I should add. Amy's foster family was still looking for their missing seven year old, but the investigation had been quickly buried under dozens and dozens and dozens more like it. More and more people were disappearing in Chicago everyday. In the end, Amy had been lucky: her trip to the Nevernever had only cost her twenty years.

I'd thought Rudy was about as bad as someone could get, after that. I was quickly reevaluating my opinion. Stupid, Harry. Stupid, stupid, stupid.

I could blame myself while I was running, I decided. Well, sauntering. Until I had at least four blocks between me and the bombed out pit of the Velvet Room, running would just attract attention. Maybe I could get into a church or something and hunker down until the sun came up.

I turned down Stark and started to walk casually away, doing everything but whistle. Something skittered in a nearby alley, and I jerked my head around to see -- and cursed. Newspaper in the night breeze. Didn't mean there wasn't something in the alley, though. There was an unpleasant smell rising out of the sewers, and my skin was crawling. I was nearly far enough from the pit to start sprinting.

About twenty yards ahead, a manhole cover lurched, and then was knocked out of the way, ringing as it rolled down the street. A hand, bent into an unnatural claw shape, gripped at the cement, and a form started to haul itself out onto the street. There wasn't much streetlight; there was enough. Black Court.

I spun on my heel and sprinted back the way I'd come, loping two blocks back until I could see the wreckage of the Velvet Room again. A Black Court gave a gargly war-cry behind me, and a hiss answered it from the hole. A Black hunched too close to the edge and a slender, human-looking hand flashed out and dragged it in. There was an ugly sound, a dying rattle that went on too long.

Oh shit.... I started off at about top speed down an alley that took me in the general direction of 'away', and then skidded to a stop as I heard the echo of sewer grates bending and opening on the street I was coming up on. Behind me, more of the same. I made a split second decision, and ducked in the mouth of the alleyway, crouching down behind some garbage cans.

This didn't make sense. The Black Court wasn't on friendly terms with the Red, being further down the food chain and generally the -- wait for it -- black sheep of the vampire Courts, but for a mass of vamps to move on another Court? Maddy acting out and pitting herself against her family and the Chicago Reds, that was one thing. But this was unheard of. It would mean the shattering of old treaties; it would mean absolute war.

The mass of Black Court vamps, besides the one unlucky one at the edge of the pit, had taken up pseudo-military formation and were waiting almost quietly. For a good five minutes everyone just stood there and stunk -- then the ranks (I know, I know) parted.

A slight figure walked through the divide, footsteps echoing with perfect cliched ubervillain panache. I became suddenly, intensely aware of my own heartbeat; of my breathing, sounding bellows loud in the darkness. I couldn't tell if the figure was a man or woman -- or had been a man or a woman. Before a vampire had sucked its life out and turned it into a monster. Even from my hiding spot, I could tell it had died a long time ago.

It stopped when it reached the front line, made a point of surveying the street with a slow turn of its head left then right, and raised one skeletal arm in a gesture for silence that had long since fallen, or maybe just to make sure every eye was fixed on it. This was in keeping with the vampires I had met; something about being a life-sucking demon seems to make unrepentant drama queens.

When it spoke, its voice was a dry, decayed hiss; I could almost smell old mildew and rotten wood, and the dust that starts to stink when the light's taken away. What I could really smell was a bunch of corpses that had been rolling around in the sewers. I'm not sure that was better. Its voice carried well, for its size and its age; it took two slow heartbeats before I realized my senses were almost pushed flat by the sheer force of the subtle spellwork that was projecting the voice forward and layering it deep into the minds of everyone listening. My stomach rolled with acid and surprise. This thing wasn't just a vampire; it was a wizard.

"Cousins," it said, "brothers and sisters of the Red Court." Its head jerked sharply to one side, and the sudden movement highlighted how fucking creepy its stillness was. It was absolute. Living things aren't frozen like that. We're always moving, always shifting and adjusting and processing on some level, no matter how quiet and still we keep. This thing wasn't. The presence of the vampire's magic increased -- icy and slippery against my magical back now that it was blunter and more obvious than the subtle suggestion -- and the force of it pinned me down where I crouched. I wondered what Red had drawn attention, and how it was baring the full force of the Black vamp's regard.

Bracing, I warily extended my senses towards that dark magic. Cold washed over me. And it felt familiar. It felt like frozen chains and cruel twists of thorny wire. It felt empty and black, and like everything that magic isn't. It felt like barbed wire, wrapped around my soul.

Had I just found the Nightmare?

"Mavra of the Black Court of Vampires greets you," the Black vamp said, and the spell pinning my movements pulled away, leaving only the amplified projection and the live-feed into my consciousness. It was an efficient way to get someone's attention, especially that of the Red vampires, with their fast decaying reasoning skills, that was for certain.

And just as certainly, it was a violation; another being's invasive will worming its way through my head, and the longer it remained, the more desperately I could feel my own will resisting. There's a reason the Council has laws against that. Thou shall not enter the mind of another. Thou shall not enthrall another. It was an affront on the most basic level: my thoughts, my actions, my most fundamental privacy and the forum for self were not my own.

I was pissed.

"Chicago is now the sovereign territory of the Lady Madeline Raith," it -- Marvra, she -- said, face splitting open like the skin of a rotten vegetable to show her teeth in an ugly grin. "Ruler of House Raith by virtue of strength. You are her honored guests."

She walked over to peer into the edge of the pit where the Velvet Room had been, grinning down, the bare light making her rotting face look more like a skull, if possible. "She offers you a gift!"

A form surged up out of the wreckage, a feral Red going for her throat. She batted it aside with the barest touch of one hand and a word that was like bile via the ear. The Red hit a nearby building and crumpled on itself, writhing in pain.

"You have the gift of a Choice. Join her ranks." The 'or' was implied, I guessed. And by the tone of her voice, really unpleasant. "Bianca spurned her hospitality, but your mistress's mistakes will not be held against you. Come out. We will feed you. Your new Lady is kind."

A shadow slipped out of a little lean-to of fallen concrete, wavering towards Mavra. A Red, not beautiful anymore, its flesh-mask ripped to shreds to show a distorted, batlike face and a sagging, gaunt body. It dropped to only halfway-human knees in front of her. She smiled. "You swear allegiance?"

The thing barely had the strength to nod. Mavra touched it on the forehead.

I felt a drain, a horrible sucking pulled-tooth feeling; three or four of the Blacks next to Mavra toppled over silently. The body in front of her transformed, skin melting over the haggard bat-face like the lifespan of a candle played in reverse. The Red stood up, tall, beautiful -- a blond man with a cold face.

And wearing a binding spell so potent that I could see it with mortal eyes for a second, before the wire around his neck -- quiescent and loose, for now -- faded away.

There was a long silence. Then there was a trickle -- a few more lurching forms coming out of hiding to be restored and bound by their oaths. Then nothing.

"No more?" Mavra said, her voice cloying sweet. She gave it a beat and a half.

Then there was a tiny mental push. And the mass of Black Court vamps washed into the wreckage like sewage down a drain.

And like in any flood, the ruin of the Velvet Room backed up and ran over.

At first it was just a few vampires, Reds and Blacks, some fleeing, some pursuing, some caught in the middle of their struggle, savage and deadly and inhuman. The Reds were surprisingly agile for their starved and feral state, but the Blacks, unrestrained by the limits of life on their bodies, more than kept up. There were sounds coming from the pit. Most of it was made of up of screams from the Reds, garbled and shrieking and distinctly bestial, mixed with wheezing, chest-tearing coughs and howls that had to be the Blacks. They almost sounded human. Almost.

And, slowly, like the frothing mass of a river swollen past its banks, the battle began to overflow.

I could feel my jaw dropping; my mouth pulling down in shock. The vamps swarmed up like locust, blocking out the few dim streetlights, the light pollution from the rest of the city, the sky. There were so many.

There must have been more Blacks in the sewers, my brain reasoned, somewhere behind the gibbering, with only part of the force lined up for show with Mavra on the surface. It was the only explanation. I never would have expected so many Blacks; I don't think anyone would have. The Black Court had been almost entirely eradicated in the last century -- ever since Bram Stoker had published the handyman's guide to hunting and destroying them, arranged and financed by the White Court. I hadn't realized there were this many Blacks left in the developed world. Chicago had been good for the Black Court, it seemed.

And they just.

Kept.

Coming.

The Reds came with them. Bianca's court must have been larger than I'd ever dreamed off -- I wondered how deep that pit went: at least two, three levels deeper than I'd thought, maybe more. Because they were like cockroaches, their nest disturbed, piling over each other in waves that didn't seem like they were going to end. More had survived Maddy's attack than I'd suspected. Many more.

My stomach turned, and I watched the vampires do their best to slaughter each other.

This was bad. This was really, really bad.

I glanced behind me, risked pouring some will into the pentacle around my neck to light it up and illuminate the alley behind me, and scanned for vamps. The battle was noisy enough, I reasoned that if any cautious stragglers were waiting it out I would be able to take them down before they could draw attention to us. Luckily, there was nothing there, just clear passage to the next street over, and I didn't have to find out if I'd just committed suicide by extreme stupidity.

For the moment I was safe and relatively well positioned. Hooray. But when the battle was over, the winners were going to swarm over the streets of Chicago, and I and anyone else in the way were going to be picked clean like a dead cow in a piranhas-only swimming pool.

I looked at what the vampires were doing to each other, the Blacks slowly wearing down the Reds, tearing into their necks, ripping at their guts; the Reds fighting back, clawing and biting with immense strength and indiscriminate violence. I imagined what either Court would do to a person. An old lady like my landlord, out walking her dog. A young couple on their way back from a movie. Charity and the kids. The Alphas. Murphy, and the poor jerks in SI. John.

I thought about what Madeline fucking Raith had done to my city in just a few short years. I'd let the swagger and the lack of subtlety lull me into thinking she was just spoiled -- a rich monster who wanted a whole city to eat. But the woman who'd hired this monster for a hitman wasn't playing with kid gloves. She wanted power on the mortal and supernatural levels. She'd found an enforcer that could murder vampires, control armies... and use a dark, sick magic.

I could wade in and kill Reds and Blacks until my arms gave out and they ran me over. Mavra would just make more. I could run; but I couldn't live with myself, with the deaths I could have prevented.

Or I could cut this monster off at the head and die doing it. But hey, my chances of getting out of the alley alive had been pretty slim in the first place.

So I poured my will into my shield bracelet, getting it ready. I primed the kinetic charges on the ring I was wearing, just in case, and closed my right hand around my blasting rod, letting my will seep into it. I gathered words into my mouth, ready to cast. And then I sunk a hand into my pocket, pulled out my gun, aimed, and squeezed the trigger twice.

At least one of the shots was good. I caught Mavra on the right shoulder, and the impact smashed her rotting bones and burned the flesh away. Her head whipped to me, then the stump of her arm, and then she reached out with her left hand and ripped the arm off of one of her Black Court followers. He screamed, a horrible ongoing death rattle; she ignored him and held the limb against her shoulder, the rotting tatters of flesh twining together. The fingers on the severed arm twitched, then flexed, and she held her new hand in front of her face and wiggled the fingers a few times to try on the fit. The pop tart I'd had for lunch tried to come back up.

I blinked, trying to tamp down my stomach, and she was charging, plowing through the fight and leaving a swathe. I got my shield bracelet up just in time to block a curse -- the impact was jarring and it felt like it left a corrosive slime on my arm. I shot her again, but she was ready and batted the bullet away with a wall of force.

"Wizard," she said, mouth cracking in her rotten grin. "Lady Raith wants you."

"You have to do the fingerpoint and wear the hat," I said, gritting my teeth as I reinforced my shield. I dropped the gun back into my pocket and flipped my blasting rod up into my hand. "It doesn't count if you don't have the hat."

She hissed a word and the ground buckled under me, the concrete starting to soften like quicksand. I yelped and jumped to one side. "Fuego!" I bellowed, a fireball blooming from my blasting rod. Mavra flattened against the wall, skittering out of the way like a bug, and then launched off the wall at me, mismatched hands curling around a frigid spell that tasted like barbed wire and pain. I flung myself under her, whipping an arm up to bounce her off my shield, and gave her forward trajectory a little upward velocity.

I'd rolled onto a half-full soda bottle; I rolled over some more and flung it after her. "Forzare!"

The plastic bottle didn't slow down, too charged with kinetic energy to give into piddly forces like air drag. It smashed into the brick wall a second before Mavra did and left a hole; when she hit, the weakened bricks crumbled and half the wall slid down on her. I spared a moment to feel guilty for my Superman-level property damage and then raised my blasting rod, raining fire into the wreckage. I could feel her shield weakening under me.

A brawl spilled into our alley, two Black Courts ripping at a batlike thing.

I stared as the Blacks and the Red crumpled, and figured it out too late when Mavra's shield strengthened and the fallen bricks exploded off of her. A rotting wind caught my shield and smashed me into a dumpster. Mavra staggered out of the wreckage and slammed a foot onto my shield with a snarled word that hit like a jackhammer. Then again.

She was strong. So was I. But she was ripping power right out of the shambling army, and as long as they were there, she was freaking invincible. I strained, pouring my will into my shield, and readied a death curse that would hit Mavra so hard that Maddy would feel it.


 

I don't think either of us heard the shift in the battle, even knew what was going on until a fleeing Black Court -- the first and fastest of the herd -- scrambled over my shield, running blindly. He didn't notice Mavra. Neither did the gangle of leather and teeth that plowed straight into her, knocking her off me and shaking her concentration. The Red barely spared a second to hiss at her -- it was scrambling to its feet and running again.

Something bounced and tinkled into the alley; a piece of piping, soldered shut at both ends. With a fuse...

Well, hey. I was already on the ground. I curled into a ball and flattened my shield around me just as the pipe bomb exploded. I felt the sharp rain of shrapnel pelting into my shield, inhaled acrid smoke... and the incongruous sweet scent of roasted garlic. Mavra was gone. The unfortunate Black Courts who'd been caught in the blast were writhing in pain, tearing at the nails that studded their rotting flesh. I staggered to my feet and bolted -- right to one side and into a wall, banging my shoulder. My equilibrium was shot. But I shook my head, got my bearings, and started off -- this time sans slapstick.

I remembered seeing a group of abandoned cars near the wreck of the Velvet Room, on a side street. They'd provide me cover to do some spell-slinging, and I might be able to get to safety and summon the cavalry before I went back out to die stupidly. I ran, shield tight around me like a football player's pads, and the fleeing vamps who crossed my path gave only the most desultory swipes at me. I wasn't about to celebrate my luck just yet -- just because someone was attacking the Blacks, it didn't mean they were friends of mine. They could be the rebel White Courters for all I knew. Enemy of my enemy just tended to mean a lot more enemies.

"WIZARD." Mavra's voice rose above the din, and I swore and dived for the cars, taking cover behind an old junker to snipe at her with a quick fire spell just to make sure that she couldn't concentrate enough to hit me with something. She was fighting through the crowd, almost sizzling with power as Reds and Blacks wilted in her wake. The corpses were piling up. Everything smelled like death and the dead; even the cars I was using as cover reeked.

Behind Mavra, though, I could finally see what had the vamps running -- a line of snipers with squirt guns; they fought in formation, the front line covering the ones in the back as they reloaded from a big tank in the bed of a pickup. Where the water hit, Red or Black, it burned. Off in the alley I'd vacated I saw a familiar blue glow. Michael and a Knight I didn't know were fighting shoulder to shoulder with a thick, organized mass of men -- some from one of the Jamaican posses, I was guessing, others who could have been from any local gang or even the neighborhood watch, for all I knew. I recognized Parker and his Streetwolves, mostly by the uncanny speed of their movements as they hurled garlic grenades and dropped Reds with knives and steel pipes.

It was the goddamn CAVALRY. And if I could distract Mavra long enough for them to get here, I might survive. I cast around for a weapon, a chunk of metal, something to throw, to keep her at a distance... and several small details clicked in my head.

One. Bianca would have never let cars like this hang around on the streets outside the Velvet Room. So they must have been brought here after it was demolished. And they hadn't been driven casually; most of these would have had to have been towed.

Two. There was a distinct herding dynamic going on as the gangs closed in, as the Streetwolves drove stragglers back to the mob near the pit. I knew that pack formation. I'd run from that pack formation.

Three. The reek I was smelling now wasn't what had been assaulting my nose all night -- the smell of rotting flesh that had been lurking in a sewer drain. It was something different. I realized what it was: the cars smelled like Eb's farm, when we were fertilizing the vegetable patch....

Four. The gangs and Streetwolves were scattering. RUNNING. Strewing the path behind them with holy water and garlic bombs, but definitely retreating.

Five. Oh No.

Mavra made a lunge for me, leaping and actually flying across the intervening space. I made a lunge for anywhere but near the cars.

An old minivan went first, going up in a rose-bloom of stinking fire, but the light hadn't even faded when the SUV near me blew. The blastwave picked me up and tossed me, and my shield finally broke as I crashed through a chain link fence and clocked myself on a dumpster. I didn't know if the bombs were still going off or if it was just my head ringing; I curled into a ball and tried to block out the screams and the smell of burning flesh and hot manure. At the edge of my damaged hearing there was inhuman screaming, and the pop of more garlic bombs as the gangs moved back in to clean up the survivors.

"M," I coughed. "M'in here," I tried to yell; it came out as a whispered wheeze.

"Yesss," the answer came, too close. I squirmed back as what I'd taken for a pile of garbage bags moved, leathery skin shifting. The Red was charred, missing a leg, but it came at me in a three-legged crawl and clamped a clawed hand over my mouth.

My fucking luck. I reached for a reserve of will, trying to raise my arm to slap it away with a force ring, and realized that I'd dislocated my shoulder only as the pain hit. The Red sank its teeth into my neck with a sigh of relief. ...the pain went away....

I felt myself slipping into a stupor as it drank, trying to muster up the words of my death curse before I went out altogether. I couldn't gather the focus. Everything with an edge blurred together.

"Your fucking luck," a voice said, and the Red's head came up away from my skin and did a 360 degree turn. My hearing was back; I could hear the vertebrae shatter as they were ripped apart.

A tall, beautiful man was standing over me. I drooled defiantly at him as he tossed the batlike head away and knelt, patting me down for injuries.

"Muuhh," I challenged him, but he ignored me and gripped my bad shoulder, testing it.

"This is going to hurt," he warned, and then popped the joint back in.

Someone screamed like a girl. Then it was all nothing.


 

I came to just in front of my apartment door. The key was in the lock and the door had been forced open, but I could feel the wards tickling against my cheek. I had a dim, dreamy memory of being driven, carried. Words....

I blinked. What I'd heard didn't make sense. Some of it was reasonable.

Wake up, Harry. Come on, I can't go through these. I'd been draped like a sack of potatoes against the wall. They can't know I was here. I can't wait. Dammit, Harry. Come on.

The last words were so bizarre my mind had rejected them, tried to parse them as Latin or something.

Pull through, little brother....

Maybe it had been Latin. I reached out to clumsily deactivate my wards and haul myself inside. My whole body flushed with a throb of blurry, tingly pleasure each time my heart beat. The warning sparks that popped and snapped against my duster sleeve almost went unnoticed, except that they made my eyes burn, and I had to force myself to concentrate and get the wards down. Everything in the living room spun lazily unless I focused my eyes on it; I fell back against the door to close it, and considered staying there. Some part of me was screaming, shouting and shaking the bars of its cage, trying to get me to think and take care of myself. Most of me was too damn stoned to notice.

I felt good. I felt better than good. Not even the times I'd been doped up in hospital could hold a candle to this.

I staggered around and somehow made it to my bed, falling in face-first. Mister leapt up beside me a second later and prowled around my head, waiting for me to get up and feed him. "Go away," I heard myself mumble. "Stupid furball. Go on."

He purred, something that could cause unsecured furnishings to topple on a good day, and stuck his face in my neck, brushing against the wound from the vampire's teeth. It hurt. A lot. I swore and jerked up from the bed, but the pain cleared my thoughts long enough for me to stumble to the kitchen and drop some sliced chicken into Mister's bowl and then get to the bathroom.

My power dipped and welled like the lake in a bad storm. A low-intensity 'Flickum bicus' at the oil lamp in my bathroom surged into a wick-burning fire-thrower spell.

For a second I thought the light might have blinded me, and I clumsily blew out the little flame, the forearm that wasn't attached to my distantly throbbing, recently dislocated shoulder flung over my eyes. I spelled the light on again with desperate, drunken concentration, and forced myself to blink through the tears until I could see in my little shaving mirror. My pupils were huge, blown out wider than I thought anyone's could go. And there was a raw, open tear on my neck, red and smeared with the blood that was still welling up and running over, inflamed around the edges of the multiple individual fang marks.

The saliva, my brain told me, from somewhere far back, tinny and distant behind the pure, unadulterated glow of my high. It was keeping the bite from healing. I had to clean it. I spread the blood around a bit with a facecloth -- somehow I ended up barely braced against the wall via the toilet with a balled, sodden facecloth in my hand before I connected the reality of the vampire saliva's narcotic effect with the bleeding wound and my swimming vision. Iodine wasn't going to kill this infection.

It was a struggle, but I made it down into my lab with my first aid kit and bones intact. I knocked some things off my shelves before I found my jug of holy water. It was still a third full; I slopped it over my neck and patted at the bloody wound with a dishtowel that weighed about a thousand pounds. It burned like the fucking sun. My strength gave and I slumped back, slapping a big gauze patch over it.

I didn't remember my lab floor being carpeted, but sitting on the floor felt so comfortable I thought I'd try lying down. Giving up on the effort it had been taking to sit upright was a great call; my eyes wobbled and slammed shut. But it was okay. This time I was choosing to pass out. That meant I'd won.


 

I dreamt.

It was the height of summer. Hot, humid; I was in a warehouse, wheezing on the dust and sweating under the full August moon, barely visible through a hole in the roof. There was something in the air, fumes and smoke, and it made my head spin. I stepped carefully over the listless bodies of about a dozen young men and women and the remains of their party -- empty beer cans, strewn clothing, scuffed out roaches, pipes, and needles. Around me, SI officers fell on the kids in a dark-clad swarm, cuffing them and hauling them out into the night and the waiting wagon. Murphy jerked her head at me as she hoisted a stumbling, half-starved girl to her feet; the cross around Murph's neck glinted in the moonlight and the beams of the other officers' flashlights. She'd be back.

"That's all of them," Mickey said, soft and low as he drew in on one side of me, his distinctive tread from the prosthetic as muffled as everything else in the gloom and haze. His shotgun was held at the ready; he was the only one of the cops to have forgone any extra protection by way of cross or holy water, relying instead on his weapon. He might have had a point. Michael was on my other side, his steady presence radiating calm. Or maybe it was just that he was armed with a really big sword.

"Okay," I whispered, "keep to the plan. Me and Michael in the front. I take down the sorcerer; Michael gets the demon. I handle anything else supernatural. You guys," I gestured loosely at Malone and Murphy behind him and Carmichael beside her, silent and still, "handle any human flunkies who try to interfere, and grab the sorcerer as soon as I've got his power out of play. The demon comes after you, throw your water at it and run."

Murphy nodded, her mouth a set line, and Carmichael rolled his little piggy eyes, but his face was grim.

The shadows seemed like living things, the densest part of a jungle and we were hacking through them like old growth, and even though I knew Michael was beside me, knew Malone and Murphy and even Carmichael were right at my back, every sense was screaming at me that I was lost and alone.

The lights flickered like a movie projection going bad; the air went syrupy around me. With a lurch, the dream skipped forward, and skittery images flashed in front of me. Kravos raising the demon. Michael coming forward. Me, holding a Ken doll with one of Kravos' hairs taped to its chest, binding him --

I squeezed the doll, spell closing around something big and solid, and started to bind him away from his powers. I could feel it taking hold, but Kravos was still upright, unaffected. I pushed harder. A last desperate attack, and Kravos turned, pointing behind me. His mouth gaped in a laugh that I couldn't hear.

Behind me, my allies were sprawled on the floor, blood trickling from their mouths in pulses, from their ruined eyes. I could feel the doll throbbing in my hand, in rhythm with Michael's spasmodic, failing breath.

"This isn't what happened!" I screamed, a horrible numbness freezing me in place. It was Kravos' hair. I'd bound him. Malone had taken out his legs, Michael had gone sushi-chef on the demon. Through a mess of sticky dream logic I struggled to break the nightmare, to make myself REMEMBER that it was impossible to murder my friends, that it had only been a magical binding spell, that one hair couldn't belong to four people. The dream fought back, showing me horrible phantom images -- a thrall switching the doll, Kravos redirecting the spell right in front of me without me noticing, little niggling, conflicting mistakes that ate away at my concentration. "This isn't how it goes!"

Suddenly and inevitably the demon was behind me. It grabbed me by the neck and lifted me, crunching into my back and pulling like a kid eating corn on the cob. I felt my ribs snapping off as my spine peeled out of my back.

Then someone decked me.


 

I gasped, tasting blood that I was sure was from my ruined lungs, and was on the floor of my lab. I was covered in vomit and foaming spittle. So was my roommate; he didn't seem to notice. He was staring down with at me, his face in a rictus of fury and terror, green eyes blazing.

"Hit him again!" Bob yelled frantically from his shelf. "He can't fall back asleep!" John didn't hesitate, delivering a stinging slap across my face.

I thrashed out of his grip and crab-crawled back to the copper circle embedded in the lab floor, closing it with a painful exertion of will. I was broken; terrified; couldn't process what I was seeing or hearing. I curled into a fetal ball and shook.

John slumped outside the circle, sitting awkwardly, talking to me. The words ran through my ears and to my screaming lizard brain, which skittered away from them. My jaw hurt. My body hurt. I shivered, shutting my eyes and curling tighter.

"-- safe now, Harry," the words finally resolved themselves. "You're in your circle, you're safe now. You're in your circle, you're safe. It's okay, Harry, you're safe now. Come on, hot stuff. Come on, Princess, you're safe. It's okay."

Bob's voice twined in, urgent and fast. "I saw it. I saw the thing. It came in through your dream, Harry --"

"-- Shut up," John snapped, head wrenching around. The skull ignored him.

"It tried to eat you, Harry --"

"-- AIR HAMMER, Bob," John snarled. "Don't think I won't."

"It's important, asshole!" Bob yelled back.

"Stop," I whispered, and they both did, their attention snapping back to me. "Stop," I said again, even though I didn't have to. I could feel my gorge rising, what was left of it. "Stop." I slammed my mouth shut before it could become a litany.

I was still on my side, knees curled up and shoulders hunched, and allowed myself a deep breath before I pushed up into a sitting position, staying firmly inside the protective ring of my circle. "Stop it," I said, one more time. "Both of you. Please. Someone tell me what happened. And where," I let my gaze, a little wild and fuzzy only because my eyes had been closed and I'd been sick all over the place, and not because I was still crying a little, settle on John, "have you BEEN?"

"Harry, Harry," Bob said, "the thing, it was here. I saw it, you went out to it and it came in. What did you dream?"

John scooped the skull up under his arm, cupping his hand under the jaw to force it shut and slapped his other hand over the mouth. It took me a second to notice because my ears had started ringing when I remembered my friends dying, my spine being torn out. The bite wound on my neck gave a throb, and I stared down at the sick covering me and tried not to gag.

"I don't need my mouth to talk, moron," Bob said angrily, the jaw of the skull not moving.

"I need it to fastball you into the wall, though," John growled.

"Just try it, buddy," Bob snarled back. "I am two pounds of whupass. And he likes me better."

"Oh, yeah, because you regularly put down half the rent."

"Put me down, greasemonkey," the skull said loftily. "The grownups need to talk about big-people problems."

John ignored him, and started up the ladder, tucking Bob under his arm like a football. "You get to give him the third degree after he's had a change of clothes. You can't smell him right now. You wouldn't understand."

"Put me down," Bob shrieked, the skull wriggling under his arm like one of those kids toys with the little off-balance motors in them.

"You can check the wards," John was saying as he climbed out of sight. I huddled in the circle, starting to shiver again -- this time because there was vomit and sweat sticking my clothes to me, and I was cold.

Mister leapt down into the lab and sauntered over to sit beside the circle. He looked at me, and then started to clean himself ostentatiously. Upstairs, Bob was talking and John was thumping around the kitchen. It sounded homey and safe. The adrenaline from the nightmare was starting to fade, but there was an ache in my back -- and the rest of me. I felt defenseless. Violated. The circle was safety, and no amount of wet and stinking was going to chase me out.


 

I was starting to doze off when a sharp, high sound woke me -- I froze, listening, and managed to identify my teakettle over the sound of my slamming heart. There were heavy footsteps, and John's face appeared, looking down into the lab.

"Alive down there?" he called, and tossed down a garbage bag full of something soft. "Your fucking water heater. You couldn't get attacked two weeks ago when it was fixed? Goddammit." He grunted and started to climb down, lugging a bucket that steamed in the chill lab air. "Strip'm, Harry." He pulled my big bathrobe out of the trash bag and waved the black plastic at me. "Laundry in here. I'll wash it in the morning."

He paused at the edge of the circle, still holding out the trash bag, letting me make the choice. I stared back at him, gave a shudder, and tried not to cringe as I pushed one toe over the copper and willed the circle to break. Then I stayed put. The magic might be gone; but the placebo effect was in fine working order. John handed the bag across the circle wall carefully, and the robe, and then went to gather my scattered first aid kit.

Whether he was giving me a moment intentionally or not, it was a relief not to have eyes on me when I peeled off my soiled clothes. I kept waiting for my hand to come back wet with blood. But it was sweat. ...Other things. No blood, except old rusty streaks where last night's neckwound had stained my skin and clothes. I wiped off with my shirt and shoved everything into the bag, dragging my robe around me. I didn't have the energy to shove my arms through the sleeves. John came over, bringing the bucket with him.

"They were all out of sexy nurses at the corner store. You get me." He reached into the bucket, pulling out a sponge, and winced a little at the heat of the water. I scooted to the side of the circle and let him start to wipe the worst of the sweat and sick off of my neck and chest. I could see him gritting his teeth; his awkward stance was putting weight on his left leg. He ignored it, and reached down to fumble one-handed through the first aid kit, setting aside some more gauze, ripping open an alcohol wipe with his teeth.

He squeezed the sponge over the makeshift bandage on my neck, and I could feel the crusted, dried blood giving way. He carefully peeled it back and made a face at what he saw there. "This'll sting." He started to clean it with the alcohol pad. It STUNG. I gasped to let him know he had severely understated the situation, but absolutely did not whimper. Then he dabbed it down again, and put on fresh gauze. "Not bleeding anymore. Red?"

"Red. I sterilized it." I wondered how the hell he knew that -- where he'd seen a Red Court bite? Remembered he hadn't told me where the hell he'd been. "Where the hell have you been?"

"Tell you in a minute. Is it still walking?" he asked sharply.

Oh, right. The whole Mina Harker bit. A Red bite did more than pump you full of happy juice. It gave the vampire a link into your head. Mind control. I'd told John about that; wish I'd bothered to remember it myself. On the other hand, I was doped to the gills on drool at the time. Ick. "Head pop off. No more Red," I promised, skimming past the 'creepy hot guy' part of the evening. "Now where were you?"

"Getting some friends together for a party," he said, his expression suddenly innocent.

I remembered the uncanny organization of the rival gangs fighting shoulder to shoulder. Someone had told them who to fight, and how, armed them with holy water and garlic. I'd thought it must have been Michael, but now I was wondering. Now I was thinking that that kind of organization was a symptom of the same sickness that makes a guy wash his plate immediately after every meal. "... Tell me this wasn't the shindig with the holiday-crackers that launched me into that wall."

"... You were there," John groaned, clapping one hand over his face. "I wondered why your duster smelled like shit." His hand came down; his gaze focused on me with that eerie laser precision. "What in God's name where you doing by the Velvet Room in the middle of the night?"

"... I. Um. Got a tip."

"Lindquist." John made it sound like 'scum.' "His brake lines are toast. He just doesn't know it yet."

"Stars, it wasn't Mort!" I said, annoyed. "It was Lieutenant Rudolph."

John blinked. "... Lieutenant Rudolph."

"Yeah. The head of SI."

"I know who he is. Apparently you don't," he said, throwing the sponge into the bucket with disgust and sitting back heavily. "Lieutenant Dennis Rudolph. Head of SI, moonlights as a colonoscopy camera for Madeline Vargassi."

"Uh," I said, ducking my head. "Oh."

"Harry, you idiot. If they had a contest for all the idiots in the world, to see which one was the biggest idiot, you would lose the entry form. You have the self preservation instincts of a lemming."

"Actually, the Disney filmmakers --"

"To hell with the Disney filmmakers!" He threw up his hands. "I DON'T GET PAID ENOUGH FOR THIS."

"No," I said quietly. "You don't." I finally wedged my arms through the sleeves of my robe, sitting up as straight as I could. "You've put yourself in danger, now. The Nightmare's after me. It'll hit you too, to get to me. So will the vampires -- just me being there puts me on their shit list. Higher on it than I already was, I mean."

John leaned back onto his arms, sitting a little more comfortably. He gave me an incongruously poker-faced nod, a little 'I'm listening' eyebrow.

"You gave me some advice once. I'm giving it back. Only I'm right about it," I couldn't resist slipping in. "Leave town. New York, maybe. The Church will be able to help you duck the vampires -- more priests know and understand than they let on."

"Like hell," John said, but politely and respectfully and only once he was sure I was done talking.

"I can't ask you to stay," I said, with all the strength I had. "I can't. What you did tonight was stupid. Dangerous."

"I'm sorry, can't hear you through the walls of your glass house there --"

"-- VAMPIRES, John. And they're not even the worst that's in this city right now. You got lucky tonight! If I hadn't been there, the Black Court Mage would have fried you all long distance before you could tag her with anything and then you all would have died."

"I'll account for that next time," he said, lifting his chin, green eyes cold and steely.

"No next time! You can't! Nobody's going to thank you for this. You're going to hurt and hurt and hurt and then something will eat you," I said, my voice going raspy as I reached the end of my endurance. "You didn't sign up for this. Go away, John. Get out. While you can."

He was still listening with that uncanny calm. He raised both eyebrows, a pedantic expression, like a school teacher wondering if a problem student was done with their outburst.

Then he spoke, his voice cold and low, clipped and precise. "Harry, you have no idea what I signed up for. I'm with you. That's not a subject for debate. Think enlightened self interest, if it helps. Until you came along, I knew that there was nothing and nobody that could challenge Vargassi and survive. But you're crazy, and you're a fucking wizard, and you can beat Missus Master of Puppets Vargassi and Marco the Muppet. And I signed up for that," he said fiercely, eyes boring into mine. "So I'm not going anywhere. Mm?"

I blinked, leaning back a little from the intensity of his glare. Suddenly, he dropped his gaze, tugging my robe a little more securely over my chest, smoothing down the terrycloth to cover the damp, clean skin.

"John?" I said, a little numbly.

His mouth squirmed into a frown of concentration. His voice was tired, more like himself now. "I saw your soul, Harry. Fire and strength and shadows. Two of them, if we're counting," he said, sounding a little defensive. "And I see you go out every day fighting to keep the city safe. You get paid maybe half the time, you get thanked about once a leap year, and you keep doing it. Because that's what you do. It's not that unreasonable to be impressed by that. To be attached. Whatever."

"What are you saying?" I whispered, sounding like a bad soap opera and sure he was about to laugh at me. What I heard in his voice was somehow as unsettling, as unexpected, as when he'd been making his little war declaration.

"I'm in love with you." His shoulders bucked in a quick, hard shrug. "A little. I'm not leaving you."

I gaped, and he picked up the sponge again and went on cleaning off my face with lukewarm water as if nothing had happened.

I waved his hand away. "John." I tried to gather my thoughts, to figure out what I should ask, how to make sense of that bombshell, the two sides of him that he'd bared to me tonight, what this meant for me, for our friendship. The moment stretched between us, tense and important. My mouth opened, and the words: "Wait, so you're gay?" just kind of tumbled out.

John froze, looking up at me again. His face was immobile, a perfect, emotionless mask again. I stared back, mouth still hanging open like a landed fish. The corner of his mouth twitched, and his lips pursed tight as he tried to keep his mouth in a straight line.

"Um," I said, and that last straw broke his pokerface.

"Ladies and gentlemen! Harry Dresden!" He flung his hands to the ceiling, choking out the words between fits of snorting laughter. "Still not replaced by a changeling."

"Hell's bells, John!" I said, annoyed, suddenly terrified that that whole awkward moment had been a horrible joke. "What the hell?"

"Oh, God, Princess, I'm sorry. Didn't mean to hurt your feelings. But you can ruin a moment like a pro." He was still laughing, tears leaking from his eyes. "Jesus Christ, I love you," he gasped, when he could grab a breath. His eyes crinkled up fondly, and he shot me this warm look I'd seen before a couple hundred times and never registered. "You asshole. Ha!"

Oh.

He slapped me on the thigh. "You're going to be okay, Harry. You'll be okay. You bounce back like a fucker. Made of rubber."

"John, I don't want to know what you know about rubber fu --" at which point the sponge he'd been using to clean me smacked me in the face. I spluttered and wiped down my face with the sleeve of my robe. John was looking innocent; he practically had a halo on. He wasn't quite as good at not-being-to-blame as Mister, but damn, he was close sometimes.

"Nothing changes, huh?" I said, quietly relieved.

John gave an elegant shrug, waving a hand. "In the business parlance, fuhgeddaboudit."

I managed a weary smirk. "If I flash my bra strap, do I get an I-love-you discount on my next garage visit?"

He snorted. "Sure thing. I'll refund everything you paid me this month."

I winced. My car repairs this month had all been entirely pro-bono. Speaking of which, the Beetle was still parked out in front of the Carpenters' house. My eyes flew open. I hadn't really been thinking when John had been not-explaining his extra-curricular activities. "Michael," I said.

"He took a claw in the shoulder, but he'll be okay. We got him to St. Mary's and Father Forthill got the wound bathed, and patched him up. He was going to stay there until daylight."

I nodded, relieved, and feeling no little bit like a heel for completely forgetting about my friend. Churches were the safest place, really, to withstand ghosts -- and any Black or Red Court vampires they may or may not have been aligned with. He'd be safe there; probably safer even than most. I didn't wonder until a moment later, when John had his side turned to me, stooping on his bad leg to pick up the bucket of now cool water, to wonder how he knew about Father Forthill. My mechanic had more invested in what I'd grown accustomed to thinking of as 'my world' than I'd realized. I wondered how long he'd been doing this kind of thing on the side -- if he hadn't told me because he was afraid I'd try to stop him, or because he just didn't want to worry me.

"You ready to come out?" John asked me, face relaxed and casually open. I looked down at the safety line of my circle, then stared at him until I squinted, but if there was any trace of judgment there, he'd hidden it where I couldn't see.

"Are you going to hold my hand?" I asked, and batted my eyelashes.

"No," he said, and held out the bucket. "But you can carry this."

"Aren't you my knight in shining armor?" I grumped, picking it up weakly -- with my good arm. I wondered when I'd have to tell John about the White Court vamp who'd saved me and popped my shoulder back in. It seemed like the thing he'd want to know -- but I couldn't explain it myself.

"The store was all out of those, too," John said blithely, and swung the bag of dirty clothes over his shoulder.

"Figures, I said. "That place never has milk when I run out, either." I braced myself to step outside the circle. It was anticlimactic, and I followed him up the stairs. He did better with his leg than I did with my shoulder, but I wasn't about to tell him so. He reached down after me to take the bucket and then my hand to help me out, so it might have been a moot point anyway. But we didn't say anything. It's a guy thing.

It turned out I hadn't made too much of a mess when I'd been stumbling around, doped up on vampire spit. Or John had managed to tidy up while the kettle was heating. That was more likely. I could see a few bloody handprints on the wall and my bedroom door where I must have pawed at them to guide myself along. I winced, wondering what my bedsheets looked like. "What time is it, anyway?"

"It's half past indecent o'clock," Bob sniped from his perch on the coffee table, facing the door. He rotated, the 180 degree turn somehow no less icky for all that his skull wasn't actually attached to a neck, and added, "It's after sunrise, Harry. I'm demanding a change in my contract."

"I'll do all your auto repair work for free, too," John grumbled vaguely. I peered at John a little more closely. He looked like he'd had a long night; in the greater light of the living room I could see how pale and drawn he was, the dark shadow of his stubble and of the deep-set rings under his eyes.

"How long have you been up?" I asked, and before he could blow the question off, pointed my hand at the scattered candles nearest him and whispered: "Flickum bicus."

Nothing happened. Well. One of the wicks smoked a little -- I felt the power sputter up in fits and starts, little bubbles of will instead of what should have been a pure stream of it. And I could feel an ache starting in my legs.

John and Bob were staring at me, Bob uncharacteristically silent. Just when I thought Bob had fallen asleep on me, the skull rattled. "I told you, Harry. I told you it was important. I tried to wake you up, but you couldn't hear, and HE didn't get down there fast enough --"

John didn't shoot back; his eyes snapped to the skull and his mouth drew into a flat line, but he shut up and waited.

"It took a bite out of you, Harry. In the dream, did something attack you? Bite you?"

"The demon. From the Kravos thing," I said, sounding grim and resolved instead of shaky. I promise. "It, uh. My spine."

"Base or top?" Bob said, sounding worried.

"Base," I said, shoving the memory down.

"Oooh. Right for a Chakra point, huh? Worse than I thought." Bob paused, and in a rare show of diplomacy, said: "You're just going to be running a little low on magic for a while, Harry. You'll recover! Maybe a few years. Worst case, not more than fifty, right?"

"Fif --" John barked, but cut the word off.

Fifty. Years.

"I -- I don't understand," I said, and the back of my knees somehow managed to find the couch to buckle against. "Fifty years. Bob, what?" I looked over at the candles; at John's tense face. "It. It ate me?"

Like a kid and corn on the cob. I held my fist to my mouth until I was pretty sure I could breathe without worrying about anything coming up, and tried to ignore the sensation of blood down my back. "How?" I asked. "My threshold?" I winced when I remembered what the Nightmare had done to the Malones' loving, steady little threshold, and thought of all the more damage it could do to mine if it had barged through. Especially compared to the Malones', mine was no great shakes -- although its meager strength had more than doubled in the past year. Strange, really; bachelorhood didn't do much for creating a homey feeling --

-- John's confession was fresh in my mind; I glanced over at him, tense and still, his mouth a flat line and his eyes fixed on Bob.

Oh. Right.

I rubbed a hand over my face. "The Nightmare. How did it get in? Over the threshold? That still leaves the wards."

"Didn't have to get in, Boss," Bob said, "that's what I was trying to tell you. See if you let him take me upstairs next time. You went out to it."

"Bob, sleepwalking? That's the best you got?" I said bad-naturedly. "I wasn't well enough to awake-walk last night." I forced myself up from the couch and into pacing mode. A slow, wobbly pacing mode.

"Jeeze, Boss, you've been a wizard how long? You went all Twin Peaky."

I stared blankly at him, but John's tense expression loosened enough for an eyeroll. I hated it when my arcane spiritual guides were more up on pop culture than I was.

"Fire-walk with me," intoned Bob. "Mortal dreams can extend into the Nevernever. Especially wizard's dreams. You dreamed -- and your defenses were low. This thing lives in the Nevernever, Little Nemo. All it needed to do was find the right moment, get its foot in the door, and it forced its way in like a spiritual Jehovah's witness."

"If that can happen, why aren't people attacked all the time?" John asked, his eyebrows pulling another notch closer to one another.

"Like I said -- only if your defenses are down. Most mortals come equipped with a standard set; wizards come with the expansion package. Wouldn't be any of you lot left if you got torn to spiritual shreds every time you closed your eyes. But getting bit by a vampire is kind of like the flu -- pretty bad itself, but your immune system is shot," Bob said earnestly. "You can catch all sorts of other stuff in the meantime. Like a bad case of vengeful spirit."

"So that's what it was?" John said, a little impatiently. "A spirit. A human spirit?"

"Probably. I mean, there's other things, but he was napping in a puddle of holy water all night -- there's not much that wouldn't be affected by that. Human ghosts, though, they have different rules. So do some of the Sidhe, but I'd have noticed that."

More damn ghosts. And I was getting left out of the conversation again. Who was the wizard here, anyway? I was in charge. Sure, I was a little banged up and messy. Sure, my kitchen was kind of wobbly and tipping to one side, but I still deserved to be a part of this.

"Whose ghost, though?" I said, pulling up a chair and sitting down to signal that we were getting down to business. And not even remotely because my head was swimming.

"Someone you've pissed off," Bob said, helpfully.

"That narrows it down," I grumbled.

"Someone you've pissed off who's died recently."

"Oh gosh," I said, snapping my fingers. "That clears it up. Thanks, Bob. Don't know what I'd do without you."

"If you're going to get crabby about it," Bob said, "I'm going to bed." His eyelights flicked out, and I flung an arm up at the ceiling. Stars and stones, how did I end up with such a dramaskull for a lab assistant?

John dragged a chair over from where it was tucked against the far kitchen wall. It squeaked; he didn't do anything to stop it, and let the front legs hit the ground a little harder than necessary. He sat down pretty hard too, left leg stuck out in front of him, and glared at us both.

"You," he said to Bob, "wake up and don't pretend like you're taking everything this idiot says to heart. You know what he's like when he's tired. And you," he turned to me, "have had a bad night and almost gave me a fucking heart attack, so shut up and sit still until the water boils and you can have some of that instant shitwash you call coffee."

Bob's eyelights came back on, a dim, sullen orange glow. "You're not the boss of me," he told John primly. "I don't have to do what you say."

"Yeah," I said, "you do. Obey John as you would me. That's a command. And don't think I don't know who must have filled in some of the details for him and his little supernatural national guard project. I knew I didn't buy you that redhead."

John's gaze jerked over to me -- his eyes were bloodshot, leveled like a laser and just as bright -- and back to Bob so fast it gave me whiplash. I was starting to feel like I was missing out on part of the conversation again.

The kettle whistled; I tried not to think too long on the fact that the man with metal pins holding his leg together and who'd been waging urban warfare and crouching down in my subbasement all night still beat me to my feet. "Stay there," he said. "I'll get it. Just. Focus. Think through what you know. You're a smart guy, Harry. We can figure this out."

I listened to John putter around the kitchen for the second time that night, and focused on centering myself. I'm pretty good at it. You have to be, to be a wizard. Justin DuMorne had made sure to teach me that. Maybe it was the long practice of avoiding that train of thought -- of my first master, the man who had adopted me and another budding young wizard named Elaine, had taught us under what I could now recognize as suspect conditions to say the very least, who had betrayed our trust, had attempted to invade my mind and invaded hers, whom I had finally killed, burning him to death -- that spun my mind firmly onto the topic at hand with enough force that my brain screeched.

The ghosts. The Nightmare. Micky Malone. Barbed wire spells. Maddy. Mavra and her Black hordes. A ghost who attacked me in my dream, and ate away a part of me.

How the ever ringing Hell's bells were they all connected?

I rattled the pieces around in my head... something probably made easier by my explosive-concussion fueled flight the night before. No matter which way I looked at it, there was one piece that stood out.

Micky.

What did Micky Malone have in common with vengeful spirits and power hungry vampires?

I was beginning to think I had a pretty good idea.

John was reaching over my shoulder, holding my World's Greatest Mom mug in front of my face. I blinked; reached out for it. Judging by his expression, he'd been holding it a while.

"Bob," I said slowly as John lowered himself carefully onto his chair. I twisted my hands on the mug, letting the heat creep into my skin. "Agatha went after newborns. Was there anyone else -- besides meddlesome wizards -- that she could have attacked?"

"Sure," Bob said. "Older infants. Abusive husbands. Maybe abused wives."

"But not, say, a well-adjusted middle-aged school teacher with no history of family violence?"

"Of course," Bob said, "there has to be a commonality. You really should have read those journals you got from the ectomancer. Ghosts can only affect things that somehow relate directly to their deaths."

"So," I said, "to be running around wrecking the amount of havoc it is, the Nightmare has got to have a personal bone to pick. That's what that means. And to be able to tie Micky up in that barbed wire torture spell, it has to have a beef with him."

John started; I grimaced. I'd forgotten he hadn't been with me this whole week. He'd obviously been kept up to date; but no one had given him all the details. Stars and stones, had I even given anyone all the details? "I got it off him," I said. "He'll ... get better."

"... Your Johnny Storm impression," John said with an exasperated sort of certainty.

"It grabbed me," I said defensively.

He grunted, a deep sound like a buffalo in pain. "Fine. Commonality. Micky. ...He's been in SI a while. You said he met vampires. Is it the vampires?"

"Human spirit, remember? And I didn't dream about vampires."

And that was the rub. I'd dreamt about a demon. I saw John thinking the same thing. "Bob, how long does it take holy water to go flat?"

"It's not Perrier," Bob said. The 'you idiot hairless ape' was implied.

"But you're sure I was protected last night?" I pressed. John's chair scraped, and I looked over.

"I have to make a call," he grunted, rolling his hip and heading off towards the phone. Bob and I shared a look, and then the eyelights in the skull rolled.

"All right. Let's see what's so important."

I craned back, a little dizzily, to try to watch him on the phone. He was speaking in a low, pleasantly conversational tone -- it meant nothing. John did pleasantly conversational to everyone. Telephone polls. Salesmen. Muggers. Even bill collectors. I couldn't make out the words -- and as my chair skidded on the floor because I was leaning too far back, he turned around and mouthed sit down before you kill yourself, illustrated by a palm down hand gesture. Like a kindergarten teacher. If he was surprised I was trying to listen in, he... oh, hell, who am I kidding? He wasn't surprised.

After a minute, he stopped talking and started to hum 'The Girl From Ipanema.' I finished my coffee and decided that the paper was way too far away to reach for.

I could see it in his eyes when he came off hold. He went from a distant, contemplative gaze to lazer-focused anticipation by moving two whole muscles.

"Yes. Yes. So he's --?" he said, expression not moving. He's not a phone nodder; I've always been jealous. "Ah. We of the Chicago Picayune thank you for your comment," he said, wryly enough that I knew the person on the other end was in on the joke more than I was. He hung up.

"Well?" Bob demanded. "Spit it out."

"Leonid Kravos committed suicide in captivity. Ritualistically. Bloodily. They're hanging Officer Murphy out to dry for it, incidentally."

The stray lego pieces of comprehension started to form a spaceship in my head. Click, click, click. Whooosh, swoosh, to the terrible truth! "Maddy has a superghost on staff now. And she gets to make an example of Murph for anyone in the department who's still holding out."

John smiled at me. Pleasantly. He looked me in the eye -- because he could, because we'd seen each other's souls. "I hate this woman, Harry," he said, still smiling, mouth in a loose, friendly arc, eyes warm. "I want her to die."

I knew him well enough to see past the mask. He was furious, so furious that his face couldn't contain all the rage -- so he wasn't trying. Maddy had sicced ghosts on Chicago -- on infants, and John has a THING about kids -- on civilians. Set off a vampire war in the middle of a crowded city. And she'd hurt me. Shaken, I realized how much of John's depthless anger at the vampire was because she'd set out to hurt me.

Stars. 'And Harry was amazed to discover that when he was saying 'what the fuck have you done to your car, you maniac', what he meant was 'I love you', only maybe he kind of shouldn't have been.'

"Don't rush me," I said quietly. "I'm working on it."

"Yes," he said, with utter faith. "Can you take Kravos?"

"I'll need an hour to get the stuff together. Then we go get Michael. Then Kravos is melba ghost."

"I'll make some more coffee. And you need to eat something." I didn't argue. "How much of a hurry are we in?"

"Minimal. He's no good in the daylight -- neither is his Black Court nurse's aid," I told him, and he headed off to the kitchen.

Bob's skull had swiveled. He was staring at me silently.

"What? I can take him," I protested. "Some ghost powder, a relic trap...."

"Your mechanic."

"He's making more coffee." I thumbed over my shoulder at John.

"I think he's insane."

"John? He's just... driven. And he hasn't had much sleep."

"He's washing the dishes."

I looked over my shoulder. John was washing out my just-emptied coffee mug. I explain and explain to him that it's not worth it; the last thing that was in there was coffee, and the next thing that will be in there is coffee. A coffee ring is not going to significantly change the taste of coffee. He tells me this is because I drink shit coffee, and washes my cup.

"It's a condition, Bob. You just have to be patient with him. Supportive."

"He's a morning person, too, isn't he?"

"Patient. Supportive."


 

It took me forty minutes to get ready; forty five after John cornered me with a plate and made me eat three pieces of toast with peanut butter and drink a glass of milk. Fifty after he took the dishes back, washed them off, and put them away, but he gave me a can of Coke and half his pop tart when we got in his car, so I forgave him.

By mutual agreement, we headed to the Carpenters' house before trying St Mary's. It was still pretty early, there was a good chance Michael hadn't come home yet, but I didn't think I'd be able to face him if I showed up without having checked on Charity and the kids. Also, from what I had gathered (gathered being a polite word for Charity laying it out for me in a clipped tone while casually beating bread dough into submission a few days before), this would be the second time in all his years of Knighthood that Michael would have been injured on the job. As the first time had been five years ago, when he and I were newly acquainted, helping me out on a case, and Charity still held that against me with a righteous fury as cold and immovable as a glacier ... John and I were going to need each other as backup on this one.

It was raining, the whole sky blanketed with thick dark clouds and the rainwater icy cold; John navigated smoothly through it, his ban on me ever, ever, ever driving the Caddy still intact. He also kept up a stream of banter and information, probably to keep himself awake -- not me, obviously, I was bright-eyed and ready for anything. He told me about the vamp party, the buzz that the explosions had been part of a terrorist movement, the police efforts to make it look like a gang battle instead, aided by some heavy hands on the part of the White Outfit (John's name) in what was probably an effort to keep the feds out of the picture. Which, for once, was almost the truth as well as being the option that would panic people less. Although it was a little grim that a massive gangwar like that seemed normal in Chicago these days.

I listened attentively, drooled only moderately, and slowly assembled a reasoned, helpful response to his information.

John glanced over. "... You're trying to make a White Outfit after Labor Day joke, aren't you."

"No." Yes.

He smirked affectionately, but I was saved from anything worse because we'd arrived at the Carpenters'.

John pulled us up to the curb, and I got out on the street side, stepping right into an icy cold puddle -- of course -- that quickly let me know there was a hole in my left boot. I headed for the Carpenters' house as John was still unbuckling. Then a wolf came hurtling out of the rain and smashed me back onto the sidewalk.

My head hit the pavement with a crack, ringing loudly; I could see and smell, but not hear, the animal pinning me to the ground and baring a mouth of sharp teeth at my face. The beast's nostrils flared.

And then it was off me and bounding back to the Carpenters' house, whining; the door opened and Charity was standing there with a white bathrobe. The wolf hurtled into it and there was a blur of fur and skin and terrycloth -- and then Andi was slamming the robe shut and going, "It's him! It's okay it's him!" loud enough that it made it through the headache-rush in my ears.

Georgia came bounding out of the house -- still shaped like a gangly young woman, but with a definite canine lope to her movements -- and reached me about the same time as John did. They hauled me to my feet, and John said, conversationally and without any judgment in his tone (you SEE?), "That was necessary?"

"He showed up half an hour ago," Georgia said, wide-eyed and chopping her sentences into staccato bursts. "It wasn't you, though," she told me. "Andi met him outside and he smelled wrong. When he figured out she'd figured it out, he threw a fire spell at her, but she's okay! She dodged and got inside. He couldn't come in the house! He left!"

"The Nightmare?" John said, startled. "Harry, you said he couldn't --"

"-- He wasn't strong enough before," I groaned. "But now he's got a bunch of my power. Nice fresh alive energy. He can move during the day." He was wearing my face. Stupid, stupid. How hadn't I thought of that?

"Where?" John grabbed for his keys, and he and Georgia shared a brief tug of war between me as she tried to get me to the house and he tried to steer me back to the Caddy. I restrained a manly whimper of pain as Georgia pulled at my bum arm.

"Could be anywhere," I said, and apparently there was enough manly whimper in my voice after all that both of them stopped pulling and John let Georgia push me up the walkway. "Go back after Micky and finish the job. Murph. Carmichael --"

Charity Carpenter appeared at the door, clutching a cordless phone. She was a big woman -- I mean Amazonian, big shoulders, six feet if she was an inch, brick house, mighty mighty -- and she was carrying her pregnancy (seven months now?) very well. She hadn't stopped working out, I was guessing, by the way she was gripping the cordless phone in her hand: white-knuckled and hard enough to make the plastic creak.

"Ah. Hi, Charity?" I said.

Her eyes speared through me. I could feel ice crystals forming in my spleen.

"Father Forthill called," she said, hand over the receiver. "He said that you just came by to take Michael home. He wanted me to know that Michael was all right and on his way."

"Oh. No."

"I'm going to go save my husband," she said, tears welling in her eyes, the plastic shell of the phone now actually audibly groaning and creaking in her hand. "Then I am going to kill you, Dresden."

I get more death threats before noon. Maybe I'd just gotten used to head injuries; my mind was actually a bit clearer for the adrenaline and the tap on the skull. I knew where the Nightmare was. Who he was after. Where to find him. How to stop him... mostly. I had to stop him. There was no time to argue this out with Charity, and no way I was letting a pregnant woman go take on that thing.

I made a quick, command decision.

"Andi! Keep her inside! Keep her safe! Georgia! Call Father Forthill back, QUICK, get him to call Michael back in if he can!" I felt a little bad for pitting a werewolf against Charity -- but Andi had knocked me on the head, so maybe she owed me this one. Still, I didn't want to wait around to see the carnage -- I ran for the Caddy. John was already there, starting it.


 

John broke speed limits getting us to St. Mary's, but the minutes still felt like hours. I was digging frantically in my backpack -- I needed the relic trap I'd made and the ghost powder. Not that they'd do much, if Kravos was strong enough to go strolling around in the middle of the day.

"Ready to tuck and roll?" John said, voice jarring me out of my battle plans as we rounded the last block, running a stop sign. I jammed everything into my duster pockets, grabbed my blasting rod -- remembered about my magic and grabbed for the .357 instead. My old .38, which had certainly cast fewer aspersions about my confidence levels, had been lost the night Parker had tried to curb-stomp me.

There was a moment of relief as I saw Michael on the sidewalk outside, holding an umbrella for himself and a tall, dark-haired man, talking to Father Forthill. A moment of sheer wrongness when the dark-haired guy turned to look at the Caddy and I saw my own face -- skinny, stubborn-jawed, hawk-nosed. My own eyes widened with recognition, then the Nightmare was turning back and lifting a hand, calling a word --

Father Forthill threw himself out of the way of the fireball and it left a blackened mark on the church steps. Michael turned and caught a wicked punch in the kidney -- followed by an elbow to the shoulder that staggered him. Blood bloomed on his shirt -- a reopened wound -- and the Nightmare ripped Amoracchius' scabbard off of his shoulder even as I was stumbling from the Caddy and sprinting towards them. He didn't touch the sword, but holding the leather he used it as a club, catching Michael across the face with the pommel. The Knight went down, and the Nightmare reached after him, gripping his hair. I was still yards away but I could see his mouth forming a word, could FEEL the echoes of the spell he was building, to fry Michael alive as he held him. A bullet hit him in my face as John sniped from the car -- Kravos absorbed it like jelly, barely showing a wound, but his attention wavered.

I whipped out the Ken-doll, bound in a piece of shroud-cloth, Kravos' hair still on it from the night we'd taken him down the first time, and stole the spell right from under his feet.

Fuego.

The power was already built, and he wasn't ready for me -- for a blessed second I felt a channel open between us and my magic flowed into my hand and into the doll. I dropped it quickly -- it was already on fire when it fell, melting into a stinking plastic sludge before it hit the ground, only the hair left intact. I triggered the incantation on the burning shroud-cloth: Memorium. The spitting fire on the sidewalk surged back into brilliance, a gout of blue flame shooting up.

A piece of hair or skin doesn't do much to the person it belonged to, once they're dead. You couldn't pull off a full magical bind, the kind I'd used on Kravos when he was alive. But the spirit is still bound to its earthly remains, just slightly, and if you beef up the connection you can hit the spirit where it lives, especially if the death is recent.

Kravos dropped Michael and howled in pain, and I could see his grip on my form slipping, my features wavering like the air on a hot day. Father Forthill had gotten to his feet, and as Kravos writhed the priest grabbed Michael around the ankles and started dragging him out of reach; a second later John was there, taking half the weight. Another form was coming down the steps Forthill had been standing on; a young black man -- face kind of familiar, sword REALLY memorable -- vaulted Forthill, John, and Michael to land between Kravos and me. He swung his sword in a glowing arc, aiming for Kravos' neck. With a snarl of effort, my double lifted Amoracchius' scabbard, holding it out as a shield.

The leather parted like butter under the young Knight's swing, but the steel blade underneath didn't -- the two swords rang like a bell, and a burst of white light flared from one end of the sheathed sword to the other. Kravos gave an echoing scream and dropped the sword as the aftershocks rippled through his ectoplasmic being.

The connection between us twanged like a rubber band and my Memento Mori spell flared with sudden power and burned out as the hair targeting it was consumed too fast. Focusing my will, I managed to hold our connection by my spiritual fingertips -- keeping the channel between us alive, a trickle of power still coming to me. Kravos shook his head and lurched to his feet, just dodging the Knight's second swing. I felt him clamping down on his end of our connection -- without the enchantment weakening him, he had more of my power to lean on than I did.

He raised a hand to the Knight, summoning his will again.

"Your magic will not touch me," the young man warned, barely decipherable through a thick Russian accent.

I could have told him not to say that. Never say 'I am invincible.' Defeat will surely follow.

"Forzare!"

Or, in this case, fallen tree branch. It shot up from the gutter, pegging the Knight in the back of the head; he crumpled forward, groaning, his sword falling from his hand. Dammit, the kid was green. And Kravos had more experience.

He knew better than to try another spell where I could see him and siphon the energy off. Instead, he grabbed the Knight by his shirt and took off, moving with inhuman speed.

CRAP. He didn't have to use magic. Give him the chance and he'd just take the kid apart like one of the poor dead things in Micky Malone's yard, with his bare hands and teeth. If I gave him a chance. I doubled back, grabbed the sword off of the sidewalk -- just a hunk of metal in my hands, but if I could get it to the Knight -- and went after them.

"HARRY!" John bellowed. I didn't look back; I was running too fast to take my eyes off of the ground in front of me.

A car nearly pasted me as I crossed a street after the thing; its honk followed me as I hurtled into someone's yard, then up and awkwardly over a wooden fence that the Nightmare had cleared effortlessly. I tried to summon a spell, something, to trip him -- he dodged around a corner and out of eyesight. I went on grimly, ducking and dodging and following the thin thread of power between us; I couldn't let up, couldn't pause for a second to give him a chance to think. I was desperately hoping that he didn't just give it up for bad and snap the Knight's neck.

By the time he gave me another clear shot -- emerging out of the rain and coming up in the shadow under the interstate overpass -- I was out of breath and my legs were watery. I'd tucked the sword under my arm, but I had to keep my hand on the grip so that it didn't fall and slice me, and it was throwing a wrench into my stride, slowing me down. It was like ripping out one of my own teeth to concentrate, focus what power I had, and hurl a spell --

-- at a crumpled fast food bag, kept dry by the overpass above, just in front and to the left of him. It burst into greasy flame, and he startled out of the way, stumbling. Two steps, three. The Knight came to life in his arms, struggling, and Kravos wasted another second throwing him into the overpass wall with a terrible meaty thump.

But no crack, I had to tell myself, and dropped the sword, making a last desperate sprint for him, lurching into a tackle, and hitting him too high. We grappled. He was stronger -- knocked me away, gave me a rabbit-punch that dropped me to my knees. The world swam, but I clung to consciousness and the tether between us. It'd been a lucky shot to get it in the first place. As long as I had it, my foot was in the door, but no way in hell I could pull that off twice, especially with the hair gone.

I was braced for another blow, but nothing came; looking up at the faintly rocking world, squinting through the rainwater that dripped out of my hair and down my face, I saw that he had walked leisurely away to pick up the Knight's fallen sword, wrapping the handle daintily in a dirty newspaper before he touched it. I got to my feet -- and nearly collapsed. I couldn't outrun him. I could barely stand.

"This is better," he said, smiling as he hefted the sword. It was my voice, but strangely garbled, overlain with his own pitch and inflection. "I will still kill the Knights with thine own power. But first I shall have defiled a blade with thy blood. Art thou innocent enough to deaden it, I wonder, that it might be destroyed? If not, the Christian Knight has a rabbit's litter of children."

"Fuck you, buddy." I flipped him off, sudden, terrible rage nearly drowning out the sound of the traffic rushing by overhead. "I beat you before, I'll do it again. You're outclassed."

"You forget. I am what thou art," he said, spreading his arms to show off my body. I was a pretty skinny guy, and there was a hole in my jeans.

"Yeah, well I wert what I art a hell of a lot longer than you," I snarled, and mentally grabbed our connection and pulled.

It staggered him. For a second. Then he started pulling back, and the pain flared in my back and crackled down my legs as if he was trying to pull my muscles out by the roots.

"Fool," he said triumphantly. "Had you taken the White Lady's offer, you might live today. But she has lost faith in you, and offered her hand to a wiser man than thee. I will be all that I was and all that you were, and by Mavra's power I shall regain my body yet. But mayhaps she can give me yours. I will see your loved ones die, wizard, die looking up into your face --"

I contorted my face and spat, mostly to hide my expression. The Knight was getting up behind Kravos, crawling over the asphalt towards the ghost and the sword.

"Cower and plead now, and thy death will be quick at least." Kravos raised the sword -- and saw something in the reflection of the blade. Turning towards the Knight he laughed and raised his hand.

A hole opened in the world in front of him. The sword came out first, slicing into Kravos' shoulder. A grey-cloaked figure followed, dragging the sword across Kravos' neck. Kravos cursed and bled, pale ectoplasm oozing out like puss.

Instinctively -- the bastard had been a warlock in life -- he readied a spell.

I shut my eyes and thought SAMURAI, gathering an image, an imaginary sword in my hand, gathered it up, whispered Forzare --

-- and shoved the spell down the connection, pushing all the force I had mustered into Kravos, shaping the spell before he could speak it.

The Knight's sword jerked in his hand and drove his arm up, twisting like a homing missile and burying itself deep in his stomach. He stared down as he bled, as the holy blade slowly ate away his being.

"Excuse me," said a heavily accented voice, and the grey hood turned to look at the battered young Knight. "That is mine." And he reached past the newcomer and closed his fist around the blade's handle.

Kravos' mouth opened and nothing came out as the sword flared to life inside him. The Knight jerked it out and swung overhand, cutting two neat Kravos-pieces that sputtered and melted away into ectoplasm and a tendril of greasy black smoke and then nothing.

There was that rubber band feeling again, and energy poured into me like water onto parched earth, like coffee at five-am. It renewed me, sent a surge of energy and health from my gut to the tips of my hair. My magic. My magic.

"Who are you?" the Knight was saying to the grey-cloaked figure.

"He's a Warden," I said cheerfully. "And it took him long enough to get here."

"The Council got your message," the Warden said simply, in a rich, faintly accented alto that had me doing a double take. She took down her hood, revealing a harsh, lined face -- once it had no doubt been beautiful, but now it was striking, chiseled with years and wisdom, still feminine even with the long hair pulled back into an iron-grey braid. Captain Luccio. No shit, I'd gotten serious firepower. "We acted as quickly as we deemed necessary."

"Yeah. I bet you deemed it a whole lot more necessary when you thought it was me," I said bitterly. "Amazing how I don't hear aaaanything for a week, but when someone that looks like me starts throwing fire around, all of a sudden you're here."

"The Council has other priorities."

"Than WHAT?" I snapped. The Knight was watching us both with concern; he had sheathed his sword and taken up a position a little away from both of us, unmindful of the cold rain. "Did you miss the freaking WAR on? There's vampires swarming the streets trying to kill each other and anyone they lay eyes on and the Council is too fucking BUSY?"

"You think we didn't notice the war." Luccio stared at me, and barked out a laugh. "You think we didn't notice the entire mobilization of all three Courts. Wizard Dresden. What do you think we've been doing?"

"It started here. It started with Maddy. If you wanted to do something about it you should have been here!"

"If." The word startled me into silence. "If we wanted to."

"You don't." I've never really had a lot of faith in the Council. It's mutual. I knew there were many on it who would have seen me killed ten years ago; who thought I fell somewhere on the line between a dangerous criminal and an apocalyptic madman. I thought they were arrogant, closed-minded, out-dated judgmental pricks. I'd never realized that they might simply not care.

The Warden's eyes narrowed, and she looked at me like a college prof eyeing a particularly dense undergrad. "Wizard Dresden. If we interfered in this fight, both sides would take it as a declaration of hostilities. You would have us plunge the Council into war with the vampires?"

"I would have you do your fucking job and protect mortals from the blood-sucking monsters who want to eat them. But no, it's easier to make treaties. Easier to appease them -- and to just let them kill each other. So a few hundred thousand civilians die. Maybe a million or two. There's a couple billion of them, right? You won't run out or anything," I spat, my vision going red. My anger swelled through me, and I could feel my newly-regained magic just ready and waiting and PRIMED to do something. They thought I was a black wizard? I'd give them black, the cowardly shits --

"We will -- we ARE keeping the conflict away from mortals. The war proper takes place in the Strongholds of the Red Court; much of the White Court has retreated there, with their allies. It is open, unpopulated country. Chicago is the only city that any Court now holds sway in. Here the Council cannot officially intrude."

"And we're a fire ship. We're collateral damage." I felt sick. "You'll give up a city to save a world, right?"

"DO YOU THINK I WANT TO?" For a second I saw pain in her eyes, fierce rage. "Do you think that if we had any choice --"

"You COWAMFFF." A big hand clapped over my mouth at the same time that a heavy weight landed on my foot.

"Duty, it is a terrible burden, da?" said the Knight somberly. I threw an elbow into his ribs, but the only sign that he'd felt it was that he leaned a little more weight onto the boot heel crushing my foot. "Best to go forward with calm head."

"... Indeed, Sir Knight," Luccio said, giving him a measuring look and sheathing her saber. He'd taken her off guard. "We have not met. Forgive me. I am Captain Luccio of the White Council."

"Sanya Antonovich, wielder of Esperachius." He bowed deeply. Since his massive forearms were connected to the equally massive hands clamped around my head, I bowed too. Give me Kravos back. Him I could hit with a fire spell. "I would introduce my friend, but I do not know his name."

"Wizard Harry Dresden," Luccio filled in.

"MFF MM," I told her.

"He is pleased to meet you again," Sanya said brightly.

"Yes," Luccio said dryly. "I see that your English is excellent."

"I hope that in time, will be so good as yours. Though it could never be so beautiful to hear," he added, ignoring the disgusted sound I made into his hand.

"... huh." Luccio's eyebrow rose so high that it took the other one with it. "It's been fascinating to meet you. To see you again, Wizard Dresden." She gave me a bow. I gave her a finger gesture, which she also ignored. "I cannot stay."

"Do svidanya," Sanya said with an elegant head bow. Luccio gave him one back, just a slight inclination of her head, and tore another hole in the world. Sanya only let me go when she was gone.

"Kiss ass," I hissed at him, whipping around to glare through eyes that were squinted to be menacing, and not because the rain was blowing from that direction.

"What is this?" he said innocently. "My English is not big yet."

I would have explained it with hand gestures, but a red Caddy and a big green minivan pulled up on the road nearby, and Michael -- safe, sound, arm in a sling -- was calling out to us from the passenger seat.

"Hey, suicide girl!" John yelled from the Caddy. "Get your skull-print panties back on and get in the car! You're getting back behind the wards before a demon squirrel eats you!"

"Fuck you, John!"

"What's that, Princess? Your stupid was too loud, couldn't hear you."

I looked at Sanya, who was smiling happily. Looked at Michael, who had at least bothered to hide his amusement. Charity was staring straight ahead at the road, her hands gripped on the steering wheel.

"You aren't worth the effort," I sulked at Sanya, and went to get in the Caddy.


 

I was too angry to talk on the way home. John didn't try; he pulled into a McDonald's without being asked and got a couple of coffees and about five bags full of burgers and fries ('and a chicken sandwich and fries for me, please') and then took us home. There, instead of falling face first into bed like a sane person, he declared that he was 'too keyed up' (it was almost visibly a lie -- he must have been exhausted) and went to go fix the water heater, his coffee and half his fries untouched, still in his wet clothes, 'for something to do'.

I mowed through a few more Big Macs and finished his fries before I went to pester him, bitching about how he knew I liked Burger King better and getting compared to one of those fancy inbred long-haired cats 'with a face like it walked into a shovel a couple times, the ones that only eat fresh tuna on a porcelain plate', at which point I told him fuck you, it's been a bad day, and he said 'tell me about it'.

And then he listened to me yell and punch the wall for half an hour.

Then he went and got a second replacement thermostat out of the big oak toolbox he keeps in a sheltered corner of the apartment, and re-fixed the water heater.

"Take a fucking shower before you blow the block," he said after stomping up out of the subbasement, his tone one that I recognized as 'I'm being an asshole because you couldn't take it if I was gentle.' He slumped on the couch, waving a hand to shoo me at the bathroom.

My day had sucked. I took a moment to reflect that his had sucked, too. I'd seen his face, when I ran past him, chasing Kravos. Wondered why that expression had looked so familiar.

I'd seen it on Charity's face when she'd gotten that phone call. Horror. Resignation. The knowledge that she couldn't get there in time to save her husband and that even if she could, there was nothing that she could have done.

But maybe that was why I'd missed it; because I'd had the Carpenters as my standard of capital-L Love for so long. Somewhere in me I'd always figured that if I fell in Love, it would look like that. Soft touches on the face and crushing hugs after I came home safely. Gentle endearments. I hadn't ever considered that 'Asshole' and 'Princess' and punches on the shoulder and the superhuman effort required to give me hot water now and then could stack up to the same thing.

John was giving me a funny look. "You're thinking. I can smell the smoke. Don't you want a --?"

"-- In a minute. How's your leg?"

He looked down, shrugged. "Been better."

Translation: aching. He went very easy on his meds when the weather was nice; partly to keep from developing a habit, partly because he liked to stockpile for the inevitable cold months when he couldn't afford to refill his prescription. But even in good weather he could overwork it, and on a wet day like today, the mild cold could settle into the pins in his femur even if it was the warmest fall in recent memory.

"I need to try something. Make sure my magic is up to snuff again." I grabbed the coffee he hadn't drunk, hadn't even opened -- I could just feel the still considerable heat through the Styrofoam: just as the federally mandated message had warned me, the 'CONTENTS' were 'HOT.'

"Like I can stop you," he said with a groan, shifting sideways as I sat down beside him.

"Okay. Sit really still." He flinched when I set a hand on his thigh. Okay. Magic trick. Hot, hot coffee in this hand. Stiff, cold muscle over here. "Sol. Sol soli."

I let some of the heat from the hot, hot coffee trickle through me, willing it to expand, thinking soft thoughts at it. Then I gently pushed the heat into the skin under my other hand, urging it to filter down through the muscle without burning. Sunlit warmth, diffuse and healing.

John's eyes widened -- then closed. He groaned softly.

"How's that feel?" I asked, just shy of whispering.

"Better," he said, eyes still closed, lips parted. He'd gone almost completely limp, doing a good impression of Mister in a sunbeam.

"Now, don't expect me to do this often or anything. I just wanted to see if I could. Might be useful if I'm stuck outside or something --"

John's head lolled, his breath deep and regular.

"-- Falling asleep during spell practice. Ingrate," I said. Quietly, because the guy needed his sleep. I might as well have shouted it, though, for all he was waking up. I hushed at him, and he barely mumbled when I propped him up to get the folding bed open, and slid across it bonelessly as soon as I let him. He was a ragdoll when I stripped his damp clothes off and covered him in a blanket, which, I had to use the rest of the heat from the coffee for something....

Then I chucked out the cup, which now contained a solid block of coffee-flavored ice, and went to have my shower.

Chicago's problems were nowhere near over. There was still one hell of a war on. The Wardens wouldn't be helping. The war would be bad. White Court vamps were no pushovers -- and one of them had taken a very weird interest in me.

And on a personal note was the John Thing. The John Thing wasn't really a bad thing. It was just a weird thing that I'd never dealt with before.

All of these thoughts were made way more tolerable by the warm water pelting over my body. You have no idea. Ever tried to wash off ectoplasm in cold water? Not having to is worth an arm. And going to bed all hot and pruny?

Bliss.

Even if Mister came and sat on my head because he liked the steam I was putting off. This was a bliss that cat-butt could not dent.


 

Andrew George Carpenter was born one cold, dark and snowy morning, a week before Christmas. The only other times I'd heard Michael sound as proud as he did on the phone that night was when he'd called after the births of his other youngest children. He gave us the baby's weight and size; a happy if scattered account of the three a.m. hospital run that morning; and invited us over for Christmas dinner.

I thanked him; gave my congratulations; told him to hope that little Drew's grade school classmates never learned he'd been named after two girls, and held the phone against the cradle after I hung up.

It had been a long, tired few months for the city. Like the Nightmare week had been high tide, building and building, and now the damage was coming to air. There were vampire skirmishes almost every darker, longer night; an increase in violent drug addiction and animal attacks reported in the papers. Murphy was undergoing never ending reviews on the job. A lot of SI was, and cops I'd never heard of in other departments, a floodgate of the police corruption examinations that the media had pressed for before, all triggered by Murphy's apparent gross mishandling of a mentally ill man who had tragically taken his own life. That there was absolutely no doubt that the cops who would eventually all be dismissed were some of the most decent ones left on the force... well. That wasn't an issue that anyone seemed to care about.

The Alphas were getting more real world work than I'd ever imagined or wanted them to have. But I was grateful for their presence. Michael had been kept busy, even his out of town trips had decreased greatly, and Sanya had stayed in town until Hallowe'en and come back for another week around Thanksgiving with the third Knight in tow, a small Japanese man who'd shaken hands with John and me, told a story about becoming a Baptist out of a cultural misunderstanding and a love for Elvis, and was gone the next day, leaving me with a sense of peace I hadn't felt the likes of since. Morgan, the regional Warden Commander stationed closest to Chicago, and my former Warden parole officer, seemed to be spending more time in the city, doing what Wardens are actually supposed to do when they're not terrorizing suspected warlocks and paroled wizards. He saved a lot of lives. He also got to spend that much more time looming over my shoulder, waiting for me to slip up and break a Law (or badly bruise one; he wasn't picky). He and John met. Once. The only reason it didn't come to blows was Mac's presence and the weight of the Accorded Neutral Territory sign hanging in his bar.

John continued to be a go between for the local gangs and less organized groups of street toughs. He roped me into a few meetings with local spirits, too, although that was pretty trivial stuff -- I mean, trivial, down to the Cobbs in the mall touching up shoes in the lost and found -- until we got home and he started telling me which of them had been approached by Maddy, which of them had signed up. (Very few; a relief. The Sidhe population in Chicago wanted no part of this one way or another.) He had started to branch off into local minor-league practitioners when he ran bang up against Murphy, doing her mandatory community service. Seems that a friend in the FBI had made it a little too awkward, a little too noticeable for her to be let go completely; she'd survived a battery of psych evaluations (the kind that some of the newly-ex cops were calling abusive) without complaint (except to me, over beer) and was doggedly holding onto her badge. And while doing her community outreach, she'd found a victim's group to work with -- the OLEBES, they called themselves, a long, unwieldy acronym that changed meanings depending on who you asked. They'd set up their own protection net for people like Amy who had been run around by Rudolph and the rest of the increasingly crony-esque SI.

Somewhere between the bitching and whining and open hostility (bitching and whining on John's end, open hostility on Murph's, I hasten to add), a fledgling network started to arise for humans victimized by the Supernatural to find help from the proper resources. I would have done the volunteer work anyway, getting them in contact with the right people; I looked a little horrified at John when he told me it was also a tax write-off.

I am really fond of the guy. I am. But sometimes his level of practicality is a little creepy. Then again, I'd seen his soul -- a little single-minded survival and predation was to be expected. Came along as a package with the tendency to go boneless next to a heat source, not that I'd ever told him he was inexorably a big cat in my head.

"You planning on standing there all night?"

I turned, taking my hand off the phone, and used it to tell John what I was thinking.

He ignored it. "Well?"

"Drew was born. He's a Drew, not an Andrea. He's fine. So's Charity. They want us to come for Christmas dinner."

John grunted. "Good. And sure, I'll go -- I'm not sitting between you and Charity, though."

"Even if I get you a Kevlar reindeer sweater?"

He strolled past me, heading for the living room, swatting my ass as he passed. I'd given myself about two days after he'd confessed his undying and sappy love for me to be paranoid about him touching me -- it wasn't as if he'd ever been a hands-off guy. I hadn't even taken the forty-eight hours to get over it. I'd always kind of liked that he was affectionate, in an obviously overcompensating macho kind of way. I didn't get touched much. That human contact was nice. So John liked touching me, and I liked John touching me.

I'm not naive. I knew that John might, quietly, like there to be a little more touching me involved, and maybe even some of me touching him. What he felt for me wasn't platonic. He wasn't gay -- he'd made that clear enough, he flirted, sometimes dated women casually -- the phrase he used was 'equal opportunity.' Having consulted several reference tomes, I was pretty sure that that was Macho-speak (eastern-highland dialect) for 'bisexual.'

I'd always considered myself straight -- not insecure about it, I just didn't notice guys that way. It was a little jarring to realize, once I looked at it, that I noticed John. That I'd noticed him for a long time. And that I'd been noticing him more, or noticing myself noticing him more, for the last few months.

All this serious and philosophical meta-commentary on my own psyche took place in about two seconds, while my mouth was saying: "Are you going to move things in there again? Dammit, John, last time you re-arranged everything it took me two weeks to find my reference on plant spirits --"

"-- You know, most people call what I'm doing 'cleaning'," he shot back mildly, and I stomped out after him. I was lucky; there hadn't been enough light to start laying waste to my organizational system. He was going after the unlit candles, one by one, with a long match. Being a romantic, he'd gone for the ones closest to our little Charlie Brown tree first.

"Stand back, citizen," I intoned, making a sweeping gesture. "Flickum bicus."

"Showoff," he said, but I saw his eyes light up as the candles flared up and danced. He loves it when I do magic. I crossed the relatively short space of the living room towards him; he felt me moving into his personal space and looked over his shoulder at me. "Harry?"

"John," I said innocently, and wrapped my arms around his waist.

A moment happened. A longish one, quiet; I digested the feel of his stomach, very slightly padded, mostly muscle, under the fabric of his thick long-sleeve t-shirt. The smell of his hair and sweat and skin -- all familiar, but I'd never been up quite this close and personal. I laid my chin against his hair and shut my eyes.

"Dresden," John said, exasperated but not moving. "You are a penis in cowboy boots, are you aware of this? You've decided you want a ride so, hey, let's not even ask the other guy if he's in the mood. It's inconceivable that he might not, at this particular juncture, be longing for the healing touch of your dick. And so what if there's shit that needs to get done today, the universe will surely bend around the whims of your genitalia. And while I'm trying to clean, too, dammit --"

"-- John," I said serenely, wrapping a little tighter around his solid warmth. "Blow me."

"Okay," he said, with equal mildness, and that's when he moved.

John's a full head shorter than me. He's got a bad leg. I take defense classes from Karrin Murphy. None of this makes up for the fifty pounds of muscle he has on me. He twisted in my arms, planted his hands on each side of my ribcage, and threw me onto the couch like a bag of groceries.

"What?" I spluttered, once I righted myself and managed not to tip over the arm of the couch and smack my head on a bookshelf. By that point, he'd sat down beside me, and was eying me clinically.

"I think you'd better sit up on the arm."

"What?" I repeated.

"It'll be easier for me. ...Oh, wait, Princess, did you want me on my knees? Because you're officially insane if you think my leg can take that."

"What?" This was becoming a habit.

He sighed, leaned over, and pressed a meaningful kiss to the crotch of my jeans.

Oh stars and freaking bellstones. My roommate, the literalist. This wasn't exactly what I'd had planned. I'd hug him; he'd call me a girl and we'd banter; I'd see how it felt to touch him. Maybe we'd do... something. John had apparently pegged me for being five or six steps ahead of that.

It was dawning on me that certain much-maligned parts of myself were five or six steps ahead already too, and John was still laying open-mouthed kisses onto the denim over my groin and thighs, his breath filtering hotly through the fabric, and that was fantastic. The answer to 'could I get turned on by a man?' seemed to be a resounding 'wheeeeee!'

"This isn't what --" I stuttered. "Um? John?"

He looked up, and I could see the penny drop. "You asshole," he sighed, leaning back.

I looked down at him, he was flushed, faintly aroused -- good look on him, I noted -- and at myself. Less 'faintly', there.

"I didn't think this through." John stifled a hysterical snort at that, which I ignored, blundering forward: "But. Maybe don't stop?"

"I don't know what else I was expecting," he said, amused and... well, loving, and laid his head against my thigh. After few seconds of just leaning companionably on me, he turned his face down and started kissing back up my inseam.

... Wheeeeeeeeee.

I tried not to startle when he unzipped my jeans. It shouldn't have been a big step, considering what he'd already been doing, but it was a pretty big lurch forward for me. Apparently not for him; he went on, kissing my stomach -- I liked that. I think he noticed, not that the twitch my dick gave against his cheek would be hard to miss -- and then fishing my dick out of my boxers. He made a surprised sound and I winced; from what I knew, I was rushing things. Then again, it'd been ten years since I'd done this, and neither of us had known what we were doing. And then she'd died.

I was glad John wasn't looking at my face; instead, he was pulling something out of his wallet.

"You're not supposed to keep them in there," I said helpfully, hearkening back to one of the pamphlets I got handed at the Y sometimes. He ignored me and ripped open the foil packet, dropping the rolled up condom on my dick like a little festive hat.

A snarky comment died in my throat as he leaned over and unrolled it onto me with his lips. It was more for show than anything, I think, and he finished the job with his fingers, but it was a little intense to watch his mouth sliding down my dick that way.

"Not going too fast, am I, Harry?" He did look up.

"Er," I said. Yes, said my brain. WHEEE, said my dick.

"It's okay," he said, closing his hand around me and stroking. "No rush." His cheeks were flushed; his pupils were dilated, and the contrast made his eyes look a brighter, leafy green. He was idly massaging the tent in his jeans with his other hand. 'Everything in hand,' my brain cracked wise.

That was no joke, really. He was certainly having no problem playing the patient older partner to the blushing virgin. But it was starting to get to me. Look, I'm not some caveman or anything, but I like to be -- well, the guy.

Fortunately, John didn't complain about my dick-in-boots status when I leaned over to kiss him, pressing our lips together awkwardly. Which could be attributed to the long stretch, not to any rustiness on my part, I was hoping.

He shut his eyes and relaxed into the kiss, hands still moving, and slipped his tongue into my mouth. Which, obviously, couldn't let that stand. The Guy, you know. So I pushed back. And he liked it, or so the happy little growl he made against my mouth seemed to imply.

After a while I felt safe enough in my manhood to finally drift away from his mouth -- okay, after a few extra kisses, he was really good at it, and it turned out I liked his mouth. He smiled wickedly, and bent over to wrap his lips around me.

This time I did hit my head on the bookshelf. He kept going, after some protestations that I was fine: I'd have said it was almost workmanlike, because between his mouth and hand he was moving smoothly along the shortest path between point A and point Harry's Orgasm, but he seemed to be having so much fun himself, if the sounds he made while I patted awkwardly at his head and face were any indication. I didn't know what to do with my hands -- wound up gripping his shoulders so that I didn't fall off the couch backwards. After a while I stopped thinking. Then a little while after that, I gasped my way through orgasm and realized I was gripping his thick shoulders hard enough to bruise.

He slipped the condom off and chucked it into a waist basket. "Little while for you, huh?" he asked, completely without judgment but with an intriguingly red-mouthed grin, and started to get me back into my pants.

"Ten years," I said without thinking, and his eyes snapped up to meet mine.

"Jesus, Harry --"

"-- Shut up. Shut up, shut up, shut up." I slid down onto the couch and smashed my mouth over his, forcibly relieving him of massaging-John's-crotch duty by taking over myself. He groaned and wrapped an arm around my shoulder, the other hand skimming lightly under my shirt and just rubbing idly along my side.

When grunts of enjoyment deepened into ones of frustration, I fumbled the button of his pants open and realized how MUCH he'd been enjoying the petting. When I curled my fingers around his dick (okay, fine, I had to check: a bit shorter than mine, slightly thicker) he griped something about that's no hand, that's a catcher's mitt, but I couldn't really hear it. Although it was an intriguing feeling, him mumbling into my mouth.

It felt strangely empowering to hold his dick in my hand, jacking him off as we necked. It was weird; I'd never been one for that particular activity solo, but it was more like heavier heavy petting with him. It made him feel good -- as much was obvious by his grunts and humming noises and the way he was thrusting his hips into my grip. It wasn't scary or emasculating. It was pretty sexy, actually. Powerful. And he's never looked as goofy as when he finally got off, silent and slack-faced. Knowing I did that? It could go to a guy's head.

"Harry," he said quietly, leaning against me. His lips brushed against my neck, and he moved in a way that I had to accept -- with some disbelief -- was snuggling into my arms. I accepted the inevitable and wiggled a little closer, wiping my hand on my t-shirt as I went. His mouth moved up my jaw and back down my neck -- gentle, absent touches and only the promise of suction.

"Hey," I said, and pressed a kiss to his forehead. "Want to go again?"

"You're kidding," he said flatly, and rolled his head against my chest so that he could see my pants. "You aren't kidding. Your balls must be turquoise."

"You'd know," I reminded him.

"Ten years of pent up sexual frustration. What the hell did I sign up for?" He didn't let me answer; gave me a loose-mouthed kiss that distracted me for another few minutes. His mouth wandered away, back down my jaw, and wound up on my chest; he sighed into my breastbone. "Ten years. You were a teenager. You were, what, eighteen?"

"Sixteen," I admitted.

"Was it that bad?"

"No. It was good. It... ended badly."

He gave me a long searching look. "Am I going to hear about that one?"

"Probably. Am I going to hear about --?"

"My list is longer and probably a little less dramatic, but sure." He nodded, rubbing my thigh reassuringly.

It did interesting things to the pull of my jeans. "Um," I said, squirming.

He snorted, moving his hand up to work a little more directly, cupping my erection and grinding his palm against it slowly. I think my eyes crossed, and I'm not proud of the high-pitched little squeak that happened.

"It's okay, Harry," John said with a gentle curve-mouthed smile. "Just because I can't get it back up as quickly as some jerks I know, it doesn't mean I'm that kind of asshole. I'm here. I'm still with you."

Something warm and maple-flavored stirred in my chest. "I know. You always are." And then I had to kiss him again.

"What do you want tonight?" he asked, hand stilling, when I let him have his mouth back.

"Everything."

"You're out of your mind."

"You knew that when you signed on."

He laughed, an easy puff of air against my cheek. "You are some kind of high maintenance, Princess, you know that? Good thing I love you."

"You too, asshole." And I stood up, grabbed his hands, spoke a word that put out the candles, and pulled him to bed.


 

It was awkward. It was painful, at points. John had very reasonably pointed out that we really didn't have to do everything the first night, he wasn't a fucking fucking-machine, Harry. I brilliantly rebutted that by reminding him how long it had been since I'd had sex, dammit.

It was good. It was really, really good.

John was asleep; he'd wedged himself as far away from the edge of my narrow bed as he could without knocking me off, to give his bad leg room to bend out and lie supported on a pillow, and I could practically count his vertebrae against my stomach. I could feel, rather than hear, him breathing. Not a snorer; good to know. Because.

I realized that I'd already mentally moved him into my bed. Every night. Whether we were having sex or not. Usually 'having', probably. This, every night -- this part, with him warm and cinder-block heavy in front of me and my arm draped over his side. I was already trying to figure out if I could get up to pee without jostling his leg, mentally measuring the room to see if we could get a bigger bed in.

The mattress dented as Mister jumped up, stood with his tail twitching his annoyance at his spot having shrunk considerably, and finally settled on against my stomach as a place to sleep, wedging himself between John and me like a malevolent hot water bottle.

John muttered, not really fully conscious, "Fuck, cat," and was gone again.

He was a light sleeper. I could work with that. And Mister was probably going to insist on a bigger bed, come to think of it; cat piss on your boots can be a pretty compelling argument. I could move some of the stuff out into the living room. John wouldn't need to fold out the couch anymore -- or we could get a raised bed with shelves under it, might have to make it ourselves, and there would have to be an actual step leading up, not just a ladder, for John's leg.

In my head, a voice suspiciously like John's was reminding me that I was a cock in cowboy boots. One night and we were married, huh? One night and it was picking out drapes and making our own beds? What was this, Little House on the Prairie?

But I love him, said a totally girly voice. My arm tightened a little around his waist, and I bowed my body around the furry land mine between us to touch my forehead to the back of his skull. Ha, one night and it's love. Virgin.

Bull, I realized. I'd been in love with him for months. This was just the sticky part. And he loved me. I kind of wanted to hear him say it again. I knew how he would, with total sincerity and a mocking 'Princess' or 'hot stuff' tagged onto the end. I had to find an embarrassing nickname for him.

So in the middle of a vampire war, a city under siege, that's how I fell asleep that night: coming up with dumb endearments for my lover. As long as he was on my side, the city would be okay.