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What Matters Most

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I wish I could tell you that it all started in some grand, romantic fashion, but that wouldn't be the truth. Not that I've ever had much of a Don Juan reputation, but a guy likes to get some respect in that department. Still, I wouldn't trade what I have now for anything. I know exactly how lucky I am.

The first night I spent with Michael Carpenter as anything more than friends was actually not very more-than-friendly at all. He didn't bring me flowers; he didn't take me out to dinner; he didn't serve me alcohol; we didn't even have sex. He simply came over to my apartment, let me lean on his shoulder a bit while my world realigned itself, then dragged me back to his house.

To sleep, he said. It had been a long day, and he was still concerned about my safety.

I was still processing that day when we crossed his threshold. Theirs. Ours, I suppose; I'd spent enough time there bringing food and helping the kids with their schoolwork and crashing on the couch when Michael was out on one of his God-ordained missions that I didn't need permission to enter any more. The faint whisper of power folding in around me as I entered the home tickled along my nerves the same as it had all year; and that unsettled me, though it took me a long, weary moment to realize why.

The denarius, I thought, stunned, as Michael directed my feet toward the stairs. Lasciel's. I'd taken it up; I'd slapped my hand down over it when Nicodemus threw it at Little Harry's feet, so focused on the danger to Michael's youngest that I completely failed to register the danger to myself. So maybe I'd ducked out of the cookout immediately and buried the thing in wet concrete under the summoning ring in my sub-basement, the better to resist it; but I knew I'd already been tainted by it. If I hadn't, wouldn't I have turned it over to the Church already, like Sanya had with his before he'd become a Knight? There was no way to be sure of my own motivations where anything to do with the coin was concerned, but I hadn't been able to bring myself to give it up, either.

I hadn't been willing to take so drastic a step, not while there were still people depending on me, in need of my protection. Even if that meant I'd have to protect some of them from afar from that moment forward. There was a heck of a lot of power packed into each of the Blackened Denarii, if only a way could be found to use it safely.

Good intentions or not, though, I'd figured my new status would make me about as welcome under a divinely protected roof as I'd been the evening I'd walked into Bianca's party in a cheap vampire costume.

Michael had been there with me that day too, come to think of it. Right at my back, exactly the way he was now, though back then his motivations had been a lot clearer.

What was it I told Bianca's minions when they came to provoke us? Right: "What can I say? He's just so big and strong." Well, he is. A stronger man than I'll ever be. A better man, too. On his good days, he glows like a beacon to those of us able to perceive it, as powerful in his faith as I am in my magic. I never feel very much like one of the Wise when we end up on opposite sides of an argument; it had been my stubbornness that had kept me in town after that first encounter with Ursiel, not any conviction that I was right and he was wrong about the dangers.

Okay, so there'd maybe been a little hurt pride in there, too; a tiny bit of a sting that after all the times we'd fought alongside one another, he thought I couldn't handle myself. That he thought I'd leave him-- and the children, and the other Knights, and Murphy and the Alphas and everyone else I cared about-- to face the Denarian threat without me. I cared about him-- about all of them-- too much to let that happen.

Speaking of too much. I roused a little as Michael sat me down on his wide, comfortable bed, pulling at the sleeves of my duster. I focused on his face: more familiar than my own due to the lack of mirrors in my apartment, paler than usual and creased with the aftermath of turbulent, negative emotions. I hadn't seen him look so shattered since the day we'd buried Charity.

"No, don't," I said tiredly, brushing at his arms. "It's all right; I'll take the couch. Linens still in the same place as always?"

"Don't be ridiculous, Harry," he replied, in that matter-of-fact way of his that can make even a resident of theological Switzerland like me believe that God has a Plan, and that Michael is its instrument. "The bed's big enough for both of us."

He cupped the side of my face with his right hand, tilting my head back a little; somewhere in the back of my mind, where my higher functions were struggling to come back online, I realized he was checking to make sure I was really all right. The rest of me, however, was finding it surprisingly hard to concentrate through the warmth, both physical and spiritual, emanating from that callused palm. I instinctively raised my left hand to cover it, and furrowed my brow a little as I stared back at him.

Apart from my brief relationship with Susan, it had been years-- more than a decade-- since I'd experienced any kind of caring touch on a regular basis. It was nearly as much of a draw for me as the sweatier kind of hands-on exploration, and definitely not something Michael normally indulged in with anyone but his family. I would know; as much time as I'd spent around them in the last couple of years, I'd wasted a lot of it in futile daydreams about him. No, he wasn't my usual type; but then, what is usual for a wizard? Unless you're content with an unequal relationship, the pool of people both willing and able to accept, not to mention stand up to, the kind of supernatural havoc that comes with the territory is pretty darned small, and Michael is a standout even in that select group.

Which isn't to say that I don't appreciate the usual attractions of the male of the species on their own merits. It was just my luck that of all the strong-willed, supernaturally educated, eye-catching men I'd ever met, Michael the widowed, devoutly Christian Fist of God was the only one who wasn't either a mentor figure or someone I dared not trust. It's one thing to notice the color of a mob boss's eyes, the amazing musculature of a nearly-naked White Court vampire, or the close cut of a mercenary's suit; another thing entirely to do something about it. Women had proven a marginally less dangerous option.

Not that I'd dated all that many women, either. But I liked to think that I hadn't entirely made a hash of things with Elaine and Susan-- at least not before the inevitable disastrous breakups.

Michael seemed to realize at that point that I wasn't quite following his train of thought, and he smiled at me, a touch of sadness shadowing his eyes. "You mean a great deal to this family, Harry," he said. "To me. And perhaps I haven't made that quite as clear as I should have in the past. When I think about what could have happened-- what did happen--"

He looked down at my hands as he spoke, and I recalled Shiro's death with a pang. Michael's mentor in the Knights of the Cross had given up his life for me, and what had I done with it? Given it straight over to one of their greatest enemies. I knew I had barely begun to understand just how serious the consequences of picking up Lasciel's coin were going to be, and I could still hardly believe that Michael wasn't holding it against me. I had desperately not wanted him to know; his good opinion meant the world to me. When he'd turned up at my door with Amoracchius immediately after I'd spent a grueling ten hours tearing a hole in the floor of my sub-basement to imprison the thing, I'd been convinced that my worst fears were about to come true.

But he'd put the sword down. He'd comforted me. He'd brought me back here. And he was saying.... What was he saying?

He swallowed; I saw the Adam's apple bob in his throat, and then he looked back up at me, that same intensity returning to his gaze that I'd seen when he'd opened his arms to me back in my apartment. It made my heart skitter strangely in my chest; foolish organ that it was. I knew it didn't mean--

"I love you, Harry," he said.

"...Whuh?" I blurted, too startled to manage anything more coherent.

He smiled again at that, and this time it reached his eyes. "I know my timing is poor," he continued, "especially given Susan's recent visit; I know how much you love her."

I swallowed at that, flushing a little at the memory of Susan, wrists secured with the unicorn-hair restraint I kept in the apartment, dark-eyed and moaning with lust in the grip of her blood hunger. She'd felt, smelled so good as I had tended to her wounds; if it hadn't been for the nagging worry about Michael-- gone to St. Louis with Sanya without so much as calling to tell me first, and me trapped on the inside of my emergency wards where I couldn't get out to help him if he needed me-- I might have given her a rather more thorough farewell than we had planned on. She'd been right about all the reasons we needed to stay apart, but Michael was right, too: I still loved her.

The thing was, I was pretty sure I loved Michael, too.

"I don't expect you to say anything," he continued. "Or even to return my feelings. But Shiro said something to me before everything happened, advice I should have heeded sooner." He paused. "Sometimes, when it's hardest to say, is when it matters the most to say it."

Something in my chest broke a little at the tone in his voice as he said that. I could feel myself choking up; I closed my eyes and turned my cheek further into his palm, trying to regain my equilibrium.

"I didn't think your God approved of that kind of thing," I managed.

"His Word speaks quite strongly against magic also, as you might recall," he said, softly. "But it also says, 'for Love is of God, and everyone that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God.'"

I snorted a little at that, and opened my eyes. Michael'd spoken to me a time or two about matters he disapproved of-- speaking with spirits, for example, not to mention sleeping with Susan before making a commitment to her back during the episode with the Nightmare-- but he'd been remarkably pragmatic about my wizardry, in and of itself. And considering that Shiro had been at best, technically a Baptist, and that Sanya, the third Knight of the Cross, was an agnostic socialist-- well, I thought I'd trust the man God actually spoke to rather than a handful of quotes from a sacred document that had been retranslated several times by mortal men with all-too-human agendas.

Still, I never could give in graciously, even when faced with something I wanted dearly. "What about the children?" I asked.

"They already adore you," he replied, stroking my cheek with his thumb. "And I will not hide this from them, as though it is something to be ashamed of."

I adored them, too. And though I didn't think it would be as easy for them to accept as Michael thought-- fourteen-year-old Molly and thirteen-year-old Daniel, especially, remembered their mother very clearly-- the surety in his statement warmed me clear through. Still, that wasn't the only-- or even the largest-- obstacle hanging over our heads. I hated to bring it up again, but I wouldn't be able to live with myself if I didn't.

"And what about Lasciel?" I continued, softly.

He finally dropped his hand at that, his jaw firming as he turned back to the task of removing my duster. I shifted a little to help as he tugged it off me; the heavy leather garment made a solid thump when he dropped it onto a chair beside the bed.

"I trust you," he said. "I won't pretend not to be troubled by it; but you're a good man, Harry. I know you. And Shiro trusted you enough to leave Fidelacchius with you. We can discuss it further later, but it's your choice what to do with the coin. Though if you ever change...."

I could hear the steel-- and the pain-- reverberating in those last five words, and felt perilously close to breaking out into unmanly tears. "I don't deserve you," I said.

That earned me another smile. Stars and stones, the beauty of this man.

"Get some rest," he told me. "I need to speak with Sanya, but I'll be up soon. We'll talk more in the morning."

I couldn't just let it go at that. I caught his hand as he pulled away, and squeezed it once, sharply. "Michael," I said.

"Yes, Harry?"

I blew out a deep breath, and summoned up all the courage I could spare. "I love you, too."

The look on his face as I said it was enough to buoy me up for the rest of the night; through the (regretfully solo) ablutions before bed, through the dreams that embraced me as I slept, and into the morning, when I woke wrapped in a pair of strong, caring arms.

Maybe some things really aren't meant to go together. Things like oil and water. Orange juice and toothpaste. Wizards and electricity. Me and Susan.

But maybe some things are.

I could definitely get used to this.