Leaning tiredly on my staff, I stared numbly down at the body of a young woman with a gaping hole in her stomach. She couldn't have been older than twenty, run through with a Warden's sword because she had been about to cast a deadly spell at us. Even now, the revolting cloying stench of black magic lingered in the air, remnants of the battle between the Wardens, Red Court vampires and enthralled sorcerers.
Tactically speaking, it was a good plan for the Reds. Sorcerers had more juice than small-time practitioners but weren't as strong as full wizards, and hence were easier for the Reds to attack and addict to their bite. Humans with magical abilities were more likely to cause damage to the Wardens, or least be better cannon fodder than plain mortals. Meanwhile, the Wardens had always been way too enthusiastic about executing warlocks, but it would be clear to anyone that these sorcerers were being violently hostile only because of the addiction. Even so, there hadn't been any other way for us to respond when we had raided a Red Court safe house in Belize City and encountered vicious retaliation.
Four sorcerers were dead, none by my own hands, but that meant nothing to the guilt sitting heavy in my stomach. Along with it was a simmering anger at the vampires for coercing four innocents into this state, essentially turning them into irrational junkie puppets lashing out with black magic.
I gritted my teeth when it occurred to me that the situation had way too many parallels to what Justin had done to Elaine, had tried doing to me. Fire had been my solution this time too, my magic blazing through Reds like I had set my previous guardian on fire.
Mouse, who I had brought with me, nudged me in the hip. I relaxed a little, his warm steady presence against my side managing to loosen the tight roiling ball of emotions in the middle of my chest. I buried one hand in his thick fur, drawing strength from the Foo dog and ripped my gaze away from the dead woman to survey the aftermath of the battle.
Captain Luccio's arm was being bandaged by another warden and Chandler was limping, but luckily none of us had been seriously injured. Newbies were being drafted every day, but we couldn't afford to lose any more of us, not when the Red Court had decimated nearly three-quarters of the Wardens since the beginning of the war years ago.
"Alright, gather around," Luccio called out. "Time to leave. Dresden and Mouse, you're on point and bodyguard duty."
Mouse woofed lowly in agreement and padded along at my side when I opened a path into the Nevernever, small group of grey-cloaked Wardens trooping along behind us. I kept my eyes peeled, watching the surroundings keenly for any signs of trouble. Feeling a bit like a chaperone accompanying a group of children back home before curfew, I waved goodbye to most of the Wardens returning to HQ in Edinburgh and watched Carlos step back to Los Angeles before finally winding my way back to Chicago.
Exhausted but also starving, I ducked into the first Burger King I saw, leaving Mouse to sit outside with my staff being goggled at by passers-by. It wasn't every day you saw a huge dog half your height guarding a six-foot stick. When I got back out with my bags of food, a ginger person-shaped statue was standing next to my dog, scowling. The menacing effect was somewhat spoiled by Mouse leaning against him, doggy grin wide and tail wagging happily.
"Dresden," Hendricks growled. "Where the hell have you been?"
"Do you guys just stake out every Burger King in Chicago?" I grinned wanly at the other man's glower, too worn out to summon more than passing irritation at the fact that my movements were being tracked.
Hendricks' frown faded as he scanned me closely. Now that the adrenaline had faded, I probably looked like death warmed over. "You going to faint on me, Dresden?"
There had been a time when I had seen the redhead as nothing more than a mindless mobster built like a brick wall, but I knew better now. He was a very intelligent mobster built like a brick wall. "Nah, I don't faint. Pass out manfully, maybe."
He gave me a very eloquent stare and indicated the black car idling by the road, door to the backseat open and revealing the mob boss seated inside.
The past year had seen the Red Court going back to their guerrilla warfare tactics. I had become something like their public enemy number one, being constantly ambushed in Chicago, and stars and stones those had been a few really crappy weeks. I hadn't been able to step out of my apartment without triple-checking for anything nasty outside my door.
However, the Reds' mistake was not realising that the Baron had no tolerance for the havoc they wreaked in his city. Once I got over the fact that it really wasn't about me – not entirely, anyway – the strange alliance with Marcone had resulted. With the Reds slowly gaining strength, there hadn't seemed to be a point in refusing an ally, especially when I discovered that the mob boss was making plans of his own to exterminate every single Red Court vampire in the Midwest. I wasn't exaggerating when I said 'exterminate', because Marcone was the kind of ruthless businessman to handle any undertaking with extreme thoroughness.
I may not agree with how he operated, but I trusted certain things about him. He was a honest criminal. I trusted that he would never harm children or allow anyone to do harm to children under his watch. I trusted that he would do his best to protect Chicago, and understood that from his perspective, I was part of the city and hence under his protection as well.
I was still working on dissuading him on that last one.
Someone was also petting my hair.
Oh. Right. I had a vague memory of getting into the car, and nodding off after I had practically inhaled my burgers and fries.
Blinking my eyes open, I turned over onto my back and grimaced when my knees knocked against the car door; a six-foot-nine wizard did not fit comfortably when lying down in the backseat of a car, especially when said backseat already had a mob boss on it.
Money-green eyes met mine when I looked up, Marcone's hand moving away, expression carefully neutral. This close to him, however, I could sense how he had gone tense and still, like he was waiting for me to make a scathing remark or blast him with flames. I waited for myself to react, to brush the other man off and get out of the car, throwing a sarcastic quip over my shoulder as a parting shot.
Instead, all I could think about was protesting that I was not the white cat sitting in some villain's lap. The dim interior of the car was cosy, with two of us on the backseat and a dozing Mouse taking up most of the footwell. The car had stopped moving, engine shut off; the only sounds were three sets of calm breathing. It created a sense of safety that I was reluctant to disrupt.
"I need to call the Paranet and pass down the word," I muttered, closing my eyes. Stars, but I was bushed. The incessant minor skirmishes were wearing me thin. I couldn't remember the last time I had more than four hours' uninterrupted sleep. "Tell them to be more vigilant against the Reds. Practise their fire spells or keep some folded sunshine handy all the time."
The Baron picked up the non-sequitur smoothly, tension draining away. "The Red Court is targeting practitioners now?"
"Not the minor ones, not worth their effort. But never hurts to be prepared, right?"
I couldn't pinpoint the day when I had become comfortable with John Marcone in my personal space, but here we were having this business-like conversation while I was lying on his lap, neither of us acting like anything out of the ordinary. Stranger things had happened.
"I assume that today's battle included practitioners addicted to Red Court vampires?"
"You make it sound like a Walmart sale. Buy a couple of vampires, get a rabid sorcerer free!" Against the back of my eyelids, I could picture perfectly the grisly body of the dead sorcerer, innards spilling out from her wound. I exhaled a stuttering gasp. The low ache started up in my chest again, some of the mental crap I had shoved aside after the battle resurfacing. "Hell's bells, four sorcerers dead because the Reds were using them like puppets."
A light touch on the top of my head diverted my attention. "Harry. Deep breaths."
Marcone didn't ask if I was alright, which I appreciated, because I wasn't. Taking slow, controlled breaths, I used the other man's equanimity to compose my own. The Baron had a kind of mental equilibrium I both envied and wondered about, considering his profession. I guess his moral compass was just crooked, and he was okay with that because it let him go about his business with terrifying efficiency.
What I saw when I finally opened my eyes again scared me. If I were quoting one of Bob's romance novels, I would use words like tender, warm, and loving. Very few people in my life had ever looked at me like that. It was how Susan had looked at me, and that comparison brought up all kinds of questions.
"Someday, Harry," Marcone murmured lowly, still regarding me with that intense gaze, "I hope you'll tell me what happened to you."
Contrary to what Thomas and Murph thought, I wasn't that oblivious. There were very few reasons for someone not your parents to pet your hair in your sleep, and look at you like you're something precious to them.
There were also very few excuses I could use to explain why I wasn't moving away.
"Are we back at my place? How long have we been parked here, anyway?" My own legs were blocking my view out the window.
Fingers twitched once against my head before stilling. "Less than ten minutes."
Interesting. Was that a tell? "Liar, liar, pants on fire."
Lips curved up in a smile, eyes glinting with humour, and for the first time I let myself really look. "I do hope not literally."
"Nah, I'll save it for the Reds." I pushed myself up into a sitting position, Marcone's hand resting on my back to help, the contact somehow seeping through my duster and shirt to leave a warm sensation.
I opened the door to let Mouse out first. "So, thanks for the ride."
"Rest well, Harry." Marcone's features were undergoing a very subtle, fascinating shift, his lips pressing together like he was restraining himself from saying more.
I sat there for several moments staring at a very complex man for whom I had very complex feelings. Arguably, one of my best and worst characteristics was my tendency to act on impulse, and right then I was torn between kissing him or telling him it would never work out between us. I didn't know which one I wanted to do more, or maybe it was both.
In the end, I did neither.
"What're you doing for lunch tomorrow?" I took childish pleasure in the slight widening of Marcone's eyes and the stiffening of his frame in surprise, but waited for a response, making it clear that I wasn't pulling his leg.
"I have a lunch meeting, but cancelling it would be no issue." He recovered quickly, eyes intent on mine. "If it is agreeable, shall I pick you up at noontime tomorrow?"
Was it possible to love someone but not like what they do? I guess I would find out.