I think I know why zombies are always groaning in the movies. Coming back from the dead frickin’ hurts. Okay, so maybe I hadn’t quite kicked the bucket, but believe you me, getting back to moving when your muscles haven’t been used for months and months is not pleasant.
Even less so under the tender – insert sarcastic air quotes here- care of the Queen of Air and Darkness.
It took me a while to regain any sense of myself, but when I did, I was in Arctis Tor, being pampered and almost murdered by beautiful Sidhe women. It wasn’t really the murdering that made me get out of there, though. It was responsibilities.
My friends might have survived without me, but they were by no means fine. Most importantly, my apprentice wasn’t fine and since it was my own damn fault, I was going to have to fix it.
It took a few weeks until I could move around on my own, but when I could, I got the hell out of Arctis Tor. I knew I really couldn’t fool Mab about the goings-on in her realm, especially not her own stronghold, but she didn’t stop me. I took that to mean that she knew and didn’t care.
Hiking back to the portal Lily had once created was tough work, opening it up even more so, but I didn’t actually freeze. I guess that meant I could finally fulfill my dream to become a world renowned figure skater. What fun.
Chicago was in the middle of summer and the change in temperature was pretty damn jarring. It was evening there too and once I’d gotten used to it, it was pleasantly warm. I started up my tracking spell of Molly the moment my feet hit the ground. I didn’t have any of her hairs anymore, but I had something even better.
Namely – Heh - Her full name, willingly given to me from her own lips. With that, I homed in on her location within an hour.
Like most big cities, Chicago has its fair share of drifters and hobos living on the streets. I saw several of them as I followed my tracking spell down the streets, coming to a halt in an abandoned building on the edge of an industrial area.
It was little more than a concrete box, barren and cold, with most of its windows on the first and second out of the three floors broken to one degree or another.
It wasn’t until I’d stepped through it that I felt the very, very subtle threads of magic woven through the air, but I recognized it. It wasn’t a compulsion, the kind of highly illegal mind-magic that got your head chopped off by the wardens. No, this was something far cleverer and a feat worthy of a wizard of the White Council.
It was a suggestion, a feeling of unease that the area wasn’t safe. It wasn’t exactly a stretch to assume so and pretty much any person who’d survived the streets of Chicago, especially lately, would be smart enough to run in the opposite direction if they ever felt that way.
But I knew my apprentice’s work and stepped right through it. She didn’t have the raw power to actually make the spell dangerous and even if she did, there wasn’t any way to do that without a proper threshold.
The tracking spell led me up flights of concrete stairs and into what had probably once been the lunch room. In one corner, I saw a form huddled up in a pile of blankets, awake and facing my direction.
I hadn’t actually felt it happen, but Molly’s wards had probably included some manner of tripwire to alert her of my approach. It was probably for the best, all things considered and I held up my hands even as the girl got to her feet and summoned light into a small crystal she’d bound up into a necklace.
Molly had always been pale, but what little color she’d gained in the weeks since I’d last seen her drained from her face. Her mouth opened and closed again without her managing any words as she stared at me.
“Hey, Molls,” I said tentatively, crooking the fingers of my right hand into an awkward wave.
“Harry?” She asked, her voice thready and rough. “Is it you?”
She moved closer, her steps slow and measured.
I’d taught the kid well. She didn’t take my word for it. Instead, she opened up her sight. Running on her leg probably hurt like hell and most definitely wasn’t a good idea, but she did it anyways, crossing the fifteen feet of space between us and all but toppling me over.
Molly Carpenter might have gotten worryingly thin, but she was almost six feet tall and I hadn’t recovered much of the muscle I’d lost on my vacation to Ghost World and had to grab hold of the doorframe behind me to stay upright.
Her arms wrapped around me and she held on with such desperate intensity that it actually hurt. I was well accustomed to pain, though, and bore it with manly dignity gently patting her dirty hair. She hadn’t showered in a while and I’m not going to lie and say she smelled pleasantly, but once you’ve gotten used to crime scenes, you can persevere through most things.
So I did just that, returning the hug and letting Molly stain my shirt wet with her tears.
“I’m so sorry, Molly. For everything I made you do.”
It took her some time to gather herself together again, but she eventually did, pulling back a pace without letting go of my arm. Almost like she was afraid I’d turn into smoke and blow out the cracked window we stood next to if she did.
“It’s okay,” she said. “You’re back now, right?”
There was an almost child-like fear and hope in her voice. God I was such a bastard. I nodded at her.
“I’m back. Go get your stuff. We’re leaving.”
She blinked at that and actually hesitated for a moment. It had probably been a while since she’d taken orders from anybody and it had never been something she was good at to begin with. But after a moment’s consideration, she headed over to her little nest, picked up the backpack and a ratty old coat and returned to me.
“Alright,” she said. “Where to?”
Working for the forces of evil has its perks. Dental, for one, because of the tooth fairy. I so wish I was joking on that one, but I’m not. Then there’s the expense cards. The fae don’t really care about money as much as they do favors, but they are always interested in power and they’re not dummies.
They have enough money to get by and they make sure their agents have every advantage available. That’s where my expense card comes in. I’m not sure how the Svartalver made it, but Mab had promised it wouldn’t break down the way ordinary tech did around me.
I was still dubious about that, but it worked swimmingly when I used it at the hotel. Unfortunately, the machine I’d stuck it in wasn’t as lucky and I had to wait for the staff to bring out a spare before I could get a room.
It was a nice place and Molly had gone invisible the moment we’d entered, presumably wanting to avoid people looking at her.
I generally went with modest living quarters when I was out of town on work out of respect to my clients. Tonight, I hired the pent house because I took petty pleasure out of using up Mab’s money needlessly.
“Wow,” Molly said softly, looking around the room. “Uh – How are you affording this again?”
“Perks,” I told her briefly. “Nothing to worry about.”
My apprentice gave me the same look of skepticism she’d bestow upon me whenever we’d argue the superiority of Burger King over McDonalds and set off to explore the room. She quickly homed in on the bathroom and I didn’t blame her. Showering had been the first thing I’d done as soon as I was able to do it under my own power.
She hesitated there for a moment, then turned to me and said.
“I’ll leave the door open. Just give me a few minutes.”
“Uh – what?”
“Not… Like that. I just don’t want to be alone right now if that’s okay. I’ll get bubbles or something if you get shy.”
I glared at her and the flush worsened.
“Wizards do not get shy, Molly,” I told her firmly.
She grinned and moved over towards the bathroom, leaving the door closed most of the way. I busied myself with a call down to room service. By the time I had food and drinks delivered and paid for the bathroom was getting steamed up from the hot water and the bubbles were rising over the brim.
I settled on the floor next to her, back to the tub and groaned as I slouched down with the plate of food at my side.
“Feeling better?” I asked, grabbing a roast beef sandwich and offering it up over my shoulder.
Molly had snatched it out of my hands in less than a second and her next words came out muffled.
“Much better. Almost human.”
I grabbed myself a sandwich and for a little while, we sat there and ate in silence.
“Harry?” She reached out with her voice as much as with her hand and ran her fingers through my hair. Droplets of water fell off her arm and back into the tub with soft splashes.
“Will you sleep with me tonight? Just sleep, I promise.”
It’s never that simple, of course, and I knew it but I hadn't the heart to deny her request, either. I turned around to face her for the first time, finding her laying back with her head on the edge of the tub, her pale, slender shoulders blending almost seamlessly with the frothy mass of bubbles.
Her eyes met mine, lingered, and I knew she was about to make her move before she did. I waited and she didn’t disappoint, slowly rising to her feet in the tub.
She hadn’t changed a lot since that night six or seven years ago. She was still tall, still fit, still gorgeous but she’d lost quite a bit of weight. I was glad I’d gotten a few extra sandwiches.
She’d gotten rid of most of the piercings, but the tattoos were still there, the weaving designs standing out starkly against her pale skin.
There were bruises here and there, too. Most were faded or fading, but she had a fresh nasty one on her shoulder. It seemed Lea was still attempting to fulfill my obligations in her own way.
Her eyes were just the same as that night when I’d accepted her as my apprentice. Blue, deep, sad and hopeful.
With more difficulty than I’d like to admit, I turned away and grabbed one of the bath robes off its hook, offering it and a helping hand to Molly. The smile slipped off her face, replaced by something weary and resigned, but she accepted my help.
I helped her over to the bed and under the sheets, joining her there a few minutes later when I’d put a ward on the door to dissuade visitors. I thought she’d fallen asleep already, but she soon stirred and moved over to my side of the bed, laying her cheek on my shoulder.
“I always knew you’d come find me,” she mumbled, already half asleep, and clinging to me. “I always knew.”
I woke up and knew, even before I’d opened my eyes, that I wasn’t alone and that something had changed. Considering the fact that I was still in my chambers in Winter, there were very few available suspects.
“What do you want, Mab?” I asked wearily, opening my eyes.
I’d been correct in my guesswork. The Queen of Air and Darkness was on the bed next to me, just far enough not to touch, but near enough that I could smell her perfume and feel the cold radiating off her body.
She lay on her side, head propped up on her hand, staring down at me with something unpleasant in her expression.
“Pathetic,” she said, the disgust in her voice readily apparent.
I had absolutely no patience for vague Sidhe bullshit at that moment and no reason to act like I did.
“I’m sure I am.”
I let my head fall back on the pillow and closed my eyes, hoping in vain that if I ignored her maybe she’d go away. I’d apparently run out of lucky breaks.
“Such a martyr… Not even in your dreams do you give in to your desires,” she said. “Why?”
I sighed. Playing possum wasn’t going to work and she’d clearly seen the dream. I’d just have to play this out and wait for her to grow bored.
“I don’t want the girl, Mab. I love her, even if you can’t comprehend what that means, but I don’t want her.”
If that offended her, it didn’t show on her face.
“So you say and so you tell yourself but if that was the truth she would not approach you at all in the dream.”
Her sparkling white teeth reflected the light on the single candle burning on the bedside as she bared them in a smile and for the first time, I was afraid.
“Uh.” I think we’d both hoped for something a bit more eloquent. Mab sighed and continued.
“You lie to yourself and to me but to what end?” She shook her head and moved closer until her lips were brushing up against my ear. Her next words chilled me as surely as any arctic wind would.
“Your notions of morality, your noble intentions are as admirable as they are foolish. In the end, they are all irrelevant. Long you denied yourself the girl because you believed it wrong and what fruit did that yield?”
I opened my mouth and closed it again. She wasn’t right, exactly, but she wasn’t wrong either.
“She is ailing, in flesh and in spirit and it is largely because of you. You want to take care of her and you are ashamed.”
My neck was still stiff, but I managed to turn my head to face her.
“And it was all your fault, Harry,” I murmured, remembering the words that Lasciel had whispered into my ear. “Whatever it is you’re building up to, spit it out. I’m tired.”
“You are the Winter Knight now. Lying to yourself, denying yourself that which you desire is compromise. Compromise is weakness-” Her lips smashed into mine in a hungry kiss, an expression of dominance that left my lips bruised. When she spoke again, Mab’s voice was a throaty purr.
“Weakness is unacceptable.”
Her hand dipped under the covers and journeyed south, raising goosebumps along my belly as it went.
“I will offer you a deal. You will be allowed to travel to Chicago and to take care of your apprentice as long as you do so without denying yourself anything. If you worry about the girl’s well-being, you may take her here.”
Her fingers found me hard and aching and she smirked.
“Shall I have her brought in or would you like to wait until you have recovered sufficiently to collect her yourself?”