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For the record, what I was doing was pretty much beyond stupid. If there were an Olympics for bone-headed behavior, I'd be taking home the gold, no question.

I didn't take any chances -- I went back to the hospital with all the precautions that Marcone had taken, plus a few more. I just wanted to be in and out, no fuss, no muss. There was no way to know if my plan would work, after all -- if it did, so much the better, but if not -- well, no sense in getting anyone's hopes up.

From close-up, the girl didn't look too much different than what I had already observed. She looked wasted, emaciated, but still hanging on, somehow. I took Bob's skull out of my bag and said, "Okay, Bob. Do your thing."

"I don't know if this is going to work, you realize," Bob said, his voice heavy with skepticism.

"Look, you can inhabit a cat's head. I think you can do it with a coma patient."

"Let's just both agree that I'll say nothing of the sort to the old furball, and we'll live happy lives," Bob shot back.

"Okay, less talking, more diagnostic-y possession," I hissed. I took a pair of scissors out of the bag and snipped a tiny thread from the Shroud that lay under the plain hospital blanket, and a few strands of the girl's hair.

The flames in the skull's sockets went out, and it seemed as if the girl in front of me almost sighed.

I waited, and waited, and waited some more, glancing nervously at my watch. One thing was for sure -- if Marcone caught me, he was going to shoot first and ask questions later. The later part would probably involve a necromancer and shooting me again.

"Come on," I said quietly. "Come on, sweetheart. Help Bob figure out what's wrong."

I waited a little longer, and finally Bob was back in his skull. "For the record," he said, "This is way stupid."

"Tell me about it," I muttered, and stuffed him back in my bag.

***

"Normally, this would never, ever work. You're crap with magical healing," Bob said.

"No arguments there. It's not because I'm a wuss, or anything -- it's just hard," I said, trying not to sound like I was making whiny excuses, even though I mostly was.

"Also, I would never recommend magical brain surgery to anyone. But you know, throw in the Shroud of Turin, and we could have ourselves a party."

I carefully taped the hair I'd taken from the girl to the Cabbage Patch doll (it seemed like an appropriate vehicle, somehow), and then attached the thread from the Shroud to its dress. "Well, we need to party soon, Bob -- we have to time this with sunrise."

"Why are we doing this again?"

"Because," I said, tearing off a piece of duct tape with my teeth, "I'm worried that the Shroud won't work by itself, and I'd like to exhaust all possibilities before I give up on it."

"In other words, she's another girl in distress and you're the biggest sucker in this reality when it comes to women," Bob interpreted, conveying an incredible amount of smugness for something with no visible expression.

The worst part was, he was right. "Okay, let's not linger on my personality quirks. Do you think this looks right?" I asked, running through a checklist on my head as I looked at the doll lying in the circle I'd drawn.

Bob sighed. "Look, the Shroud is, at best, a conduit. If all goes well, it'll magnify what you put into it. But I'm not promising you anything -- there's a whole host of factors outside of your control, and you need them to come together at the same time. Her parents are Catholic, right?"

An image of Marcone attending Mass flashed through my head for a minute, before I shrugged. "I don't think the father would have gone to all this trouble if he didn't believe it might help, if that's what you're asking."

"Well, you're lucky -- she wants to wake up, so that's something," Bob said. "Ready to rock and roll?"

I took a deep breath. Two minutes to sunrise. "Let's do it."

***

I was half-awake and hurting really badly when I heard voices.

"--look, I'm with you on this one -- he's dumber than he looks. But we were on a mission of mercy, I swear!"

There was a grunt in reply, and I dimly registered that my face was plastered against something cold and hard. Stone, maybe.

"Boss says he wants to see him," a reverberating basso said after a moment. "Says he stole something."

"Whoa, hold the phone. Okay, we did steal a couple of things, but it was for a good cause. Dresden gets these ideas in his head, and before you know it, he's using Catholic holy artifacts to wake up comatose people he hardly knows."

Someone pulled at my shoulder and I whimpered in pain.

"Boss says he wants to see him," the voice repeated, and I felt a violent wave of vertigo as I was hoisted up off the floor.

"Okay, okay, but take me too -- I can explain everything!"

I tried to open my mouth to tell Bob to shut up already, but then the shoulder I was slung over moved, and fainting again sounded like a much better idea.

***

I seriously need to quit waking up to people talking about me.

"Do you mean to say that he used the Shroud as a focus?" a familiar voice said, calm and curious.

"Well, kinda. It seemed to me that it's both a conduit and an amplifier. I was banking on that part, but I didn't expect how much it was going to amplify things. Which accounts for Dresden almost frying himself," Bob said, with what seemed like far too much good humor when I was in that much pain.

"I assume you mean not in a physical sense."

"Well, more magical than physical, but he was a passed-out lump on the floor for a few days, so I'm guessing he's not going to be limber and fancy-free for awhile or anything."

"He didn't do anything else? He merely used the Shroud to wake her?"

"Well, I don't know about merely. I mean, that was a lot of crazy energy. Hell, I wasn't expecting it to work -- I'm guessing that's why he's still out of it."

Someone put a hand on my shoulder. "And here I thought you'd leave us well enough alone, Mr. Dresden."

"Wait -- this was all for you?" Bob asked incredulously.

Another pause. "Wake up, Mr. Dresden. You and I have some things to discuss."

"Ow," I said finally, or tried to say. I'm not sure it came out as recognizable sound.

A sigh. "He's been unconscious for two days?"

"Well, it's not like I could get help or anything. No arms, and all."

"Indeed," the voice said, somewhat distracted.

It took more effort than it should have, but I opened my eyes to see John Marcone leaning over me.

"Is she okay?" I mouthed, giving up on trying to make vocalizations.

Marcone regarded me steadily. "She's awake," he said, and something about the way he said it gave me the impression that he'd imagined saying those words for almost seven years but could still hardly believe he was saying them now. "And you, Mr. Dresden, nearly killed yourself."

"Not the first time," I said, managing a painful whisper.

I've soulgazed with John Marcone, but even I wasn't sure what his expression meant. It was something like wonder and vague displeasure all rolled together, and I belatedly realized I was in a darkened bedroom I'd never seen before, with Bob on the nightstand and Marcone sitting next to my hip on the bed.

"What am I going to do with you?" he asked, and it wasn't rhetorical. He sounded like he honestly hadn't the faintest idea.

"Water?" I mouthed hopefully.

A corner of his mouth twitched. "How remiss of me. First things first, I suppose."

I never would have thought that taking anything directly from John Marcone's fingertips would be so heavenly, but the ice chip he slipped into my mouth was grounds for serious reconsideration.

"How ironic that Oriana is in better shape than you are," Marcone said, giving me another ice chip when I'd finished the first.

"Nice name," I whispered, recognizing that bit of information as the peace offering it was.

He was silent for a moment. "It means 'sunrise' in Italian," he said eventually. He shook a few droplets of water off his fingers and said, "Are you a man of faith, Mr. Dresden?"

I stared at him. Bob had said it would take a whole host of factors to wake this girl, but there was such a thing as one coincidence too many.

"Rest," Marcone said, and clicked off the lamp.

I didn't need to be told twice.

***

On the third morning after I'd done something phenomenally stupid, I woke up and didn't feel like I was going to die.

Sure, I was still stiff and sore, but I could actually sit up in bed. The room I was in was obviously for guests -- it was decorated in muted, inoffensive greens and ivory. I was just contemplating the wisdom about making my way to the adjoining bathroom when the door opened to admit a woman with graying curls, carrying a tray, followed by Hendricks.

"Poor man," the woman sighed, taking a lap table and settling it over me with quick, efficient movements before placing the breakfast tray on top of it. "You've been so ill -- you be sure to eat all of that, you understand?"

I think I stared at her like she was a crazy person, but can you blame me? The last time I got breakfast in bed was -- oh, right: never.

Hendricks, who I belatedly realized was responsible for hauling me out of my apartment after my possibly ill-advised experiment with Shroud-directed healing, stood near the doorway and waited for the woman to finish fussing over me. For someone who regularly threatened to beat the crap out of and/or kill people that Marcone thought were bad for business, his demeanor bore an odd resemblance to a little boy waiting to be dismissed from the kitchen table.

When the woman bustled out of the room, Hendricks finally said, "Boss says you stay here for now."

I had already dug into my food -- I hadn't eaten in three days, and I brought a coma patient back to the world of the living, so saying I was hungry was a severe understatement. Which was probably why I answered through a mouthful of pancakes, "That's generous, really, but I'd like to go home."

Hendricks shook his big mug once, and said firmly, "Stay here, until you're better."

Bob suddenly piped up from the bedside, "Dresden, for real -- you couldn't beat off a fly right now, let alone any of the number of people, creatures, and abstract-concepts-made-flesh that would like to kill you, given half the chance."

It was possible that I was hallucinating, but from Hendricks' tiny nod of agreement, I got the impression that Marcone's enforcer and my talking skull were in cahoots.

"Oh, for Christ's sake," I muttered, not pausing from shoveling more food in my mouth.

"Here's what I think -- rest, eat some good food, don't get killed. What do you say?" Bob said, in a particularly annoying cajoling tone.

I looked at Hendricks after I drained my orange juice. It made sense that Marcone would want me to stay -- after all, he'd just gotten his daughter back, so he'd probably want someone on hand in case something happened. Totally understandable. "All right. On one condition -- actually, make that two."

Hendricks frowned. "Boss said no conditions."

I sighed theatrically. "Fine, be literal. But do me a favor and help me over to the toilet, and then ask that nice lady if I can have seconds -- I could eat a cow today, I really could."

***

Marcone's house was too damn big, and I was going to remember that the next time I could barely walk five feet unassisted.

As it was, Hendricks all but carried me to a parlor where a small dining table was set up. Marcone and his daughter were already there -- his daughter was seated in a wheelchair, with Marcone right beside her. Hendricks got me to my chair in one piece, albeit a shaking and sort of sloppy dismount. I pasted a smile on my face, and said, "I hope I didn't keep dinner waiting."

Marcone had one eyebrow slightly raised, clearly passing judgment on my stubbornness.

"Oh!" Oriana exclaimed softly. "It is you. I heard you that night." Her voice sounded scratchy but otherwise perfectly intelligible.

Marcone looked sharply in my direction, and I tried to remember what on earth I might have said to her that night in the hospital that she would remember. "You did?" I said mildly, hoping this conversation wasn't going to hell in a handbasket.

"You and your friend...Bob?" she said, her head tilting a bit.

Marcone gave me a look that managed to suggest that explaining to his daughter that my friend Bob was actually a spirit who inhabited a skull, was in fact not in my best interest. "Oriana, this is Mr. Dresden," he said pointedly.

"Pleased to meet you," I said, smiling for real this time. When Marcone had said she was in better shape than I was, he hadn't been stretching the truth too much -- her face still looked thin, but not as emaciated as it had in the hospital. There was a little bit of color to her face now, too -- just looking at her, I'd have been willing to say that the Shroud did a lot more than just wake her up.

"Pleased to meet you, too," she said, with what were obviously well-drilled good manners. And she smiled, too, and I could see why Marcone had named her after the sunrise.

Marcone signaled for a few servers to enter the room. "I've been informed that you've acquired a...healthy appetite, Mr. Dresden."

"No more binging and purging for me," I agreed.

"Mr. Dresden," Marcone said, his tone gently chiding.

"Sorry," I said, a little abashed at how my mouth moved ahead of my brain when I was talking with him. Oriana was still probably about ten years old, mentally, so I really should make an effort to be a civilized human being for a night. "I think it's like physics," I said, trying to be conciliatory. "No action without an equal and opposite reaction. Like emptying the gas tank or something."

The meal set out in front of us was a bit unusual -- a bowl of broth for Oriana, something with vegetables and seafood for Marcone, and glorious heap of food for me. I was paying so much attention to my own plate that I nearly missed Oriana's quiet question.

"Are you really a wizard?" she asked.

"Yup," I said, happily cutting into my steak.

She nodded as though her curiosity had been perfectly satisfied by that answer, and in that gesture looked so much like her father that I nearly did a double take. I expected more questions, but then again -- children are often more open to believing that magic exists. She ate her soup with a kind of intense concentration, her fist closed around the spoon and her eyes tracking the level of liquid as it moved unsteadily but successfully from bowl to mouth.

Marcone was eating his dinner, too, but I could tell that he was on the verge of offering to help roughly every two seconds. My estimation of him more or less went through the roof when it became clear that he wanted to let her do what she could, even if it was making him worry.

It was a quiet dinner, but not an uncomfortable one -- Marcone seemed more than content to watch his daughter watching me, and I split my attention between the two of them when I wasn't busy trying to eat my weight in some sort of apple and bacon thing.

It was clear that Oriana was a little worn out after she finished her soup. She yawned, and Marcone asked if she wanted to go back to her room now. When she nodded sleepily, he stood up and wheeled her to the next room, which I realized must be her bedroom -- or so I assumed from that much pink in one place.

When he came back out again, he cast one eye at my empty plates. "Mr. Dresden, if I didn't know better, I'd think you were eating for two."

I rolled my eyes. "Me plus Shroud -- you're not that far off. Apparently, the Shroud really likes bacon. Or maybe that's just me."

On a sideboard in the room, the servers had left a decanter and two glasses, and Marcone turned to it and said, "Join me for a drink?"

I'll be the first to admit that I don't have a good head for alcohol, and a reasonable human being might conclude that indulging with someone who had variously wanted to employ me, kill me, and maybe just plain shake me silly was not the best idea ever. So of course I said, "Sure."

He brought over two glasses with a modest amount in each, and settled into the chair next to mine. I took the glass from his hand and tasted it warily -- I'm no connoisseur, but it definitely wasn't bargain-basement scotch. "She looks like she's doing pretty well, all things considered," I offered after a moment of mutual drink-appreciation.

"Better, certainly, than every doctor I've had to examine her says she should be," Marcone said. "Every one of them has told me the same thing."

"That it's a miracle?" I said mildly.

Marcone looked me steadily in the eye. "Would it have worked if you hadn't interfered?"

I took another sip. "I don't know. There were a lot of variables."

He looked down at his glass for a moment, and when he looked up again, his eyes had the kind of steely look to them that I'd seen when he'd faced down monsters for a few yards of a holy relic. "Do you have any reason to believe that this is temporary?"

I could feel my eyes widen in surprise. Trust John Marcone to face down what must be his worst fear without so much as a blink. "It isn't temporary," I said, and I could hear the gentleness in my voice. "I could go into all the details and draw you diagrams, but in the end, it did what you wanted, and it exacted its price. She's going to be fine."

"And you?" he asked, unexpectedly.

I grimaced. "I suspect, given another few days that are a factor of three, I'll be back to normal." I took another slow sip of my drink, and let my eyes slide shut for a moment. Who knew having dinner would be this exhausting?

"I suppose I'll have to put you to bed now, too," Marcone said, just a hint of humor in his voice.

"I'm awake, I'm awake," I protested, which probably didn't go a long way toward making me not look like a kid up past his bedtime.

Marcone snagged my glass from my fingertips. "Not for long, I imagine," he said. "Come along, now."

I stood up unsteadily, and Marcone put my arm around his shoulders before I could get any ideas about staggering back to my room myself. We made our way down the hallway, slowly but steadily.

"Hendricks really would have brought a wheelchair for you, if you hadn't been so stubborn," Marcone said, helping me along.

"I'm not that bad off," I objected, but the trembling grip I had on the shifting muscles of his shoulder gave immediate lie to my words. His side was warm where I was pressed against it, and it was strangely more reassuring that it had any right to be.

"Of course not," he agreed easily, as if he was completely untroubled by hauling around a fully-grown man.

We finally arrived back at my guest room, and I landed in an inelegant heap on the bed. Frankly, Marcone was right -- I probably should have taken Hendricks up on his offer of wheels, because I was exhausted.

I'd managed to kick off my shoes and was ready to just zonk out as I was, when Marcone said, "Under the covers -- the last thing you need is to catch a cold, too."

I gave a jaw-cracking yawn while we wrestled the blankets out from under me, and my eyes drifted shut when my head hit the pillow.

"You've made your feelings plain about accepting things from me," Marcone said softly. I opened my eyes again to see him still standing at my bedside. "But I honor my debts, Harry -- I will find some way to repay you for this."

Our eyes met, and maybe it was that I was drained, magically and physically, and that I'd had a couple of fingers of Scotch that probably cost the earth, but something in the exchange caught me off guard -- I thought I'd seen everything there was to know about John Marcone when he'd first tricked me into a soulgaze, but there was something else there now that I couldn't begin to identify.

I don't know what he saw in my eyes, but he looked thoughtful.

"Good night," he said, and turned off the lights when he left the room.

***

"Blue," Oriana said decisively, after forcing me to draw four cards.

I looked at the sea of green in my hand and mentally groaned. And then I actually made a theatrical groan of deep pain, and said, "You sure you wouldn't like another color?"

Oriana giggled, her voice less scratchy than it had been the day before. "Blue! And I'm skipping you," she said, laying down the appropriate blue skip card.

"Well, you do what you gotta do, I suppose," I said, rearranging my cards even though my case was mostly hopeless, at this point. When Hendricks had hauled me down to Oriana's room, I had been worried for a moment that she was sick, that something had gone wrong.

Turned out, she wanted someone to play Uno with.

"Do you feel better today?" she asked, narrowing her eyes at one card before smacking me with a Draw 2 -- just what I needed.

"Hey, I mostly walked here all by myself," I said. "How about you?"

"Good," she said. "I ate Lucky Charms this morning."

"Magically delicious," I agreed. "Where's your dad?"

"He had to go to work," she said, matter-of-factly. "I got bored, and Mr. Hendricks says he can't play because he has to watch me." She aimed a disapproving pout in the direction of the door, where Hendricks was sitting in a chair, eyes trained on the both of us.

"He's just doing his job," I said. Actually, it said something about Marcone's healthy sense of paranoia that he left his right-hand man behind to guard his daughter when he went out. It didn't strike me as a long-term solution -- presumably, Hendricks had things to, you know, enforce.

"Uno," she said, after laying down her next-to-last card. "You want to know a secret?"

I looked at my handful of useless cards. "What's that?"

"This looks like my room, but this isn't our house," she said, leaning closer to whisper. "I mean, not the house where Daddy and I lived before. But my room looks exactly the same -- isn't that weird?"

I suppose when you have a huge gigantic mansion, you can devote one room to being a replica of your comatose daughter's bedroom -- but it still struck me as heartbreakingly sad. I wondered how many years the room had gone empty.

"It means he was waiting for you," I said finally. "Even when things changed, your dad wanted you to have something that was still the same."

Oriana laid down her last card. It was a blue 3, and I knew it was just a card, but it made something in me shiver.

"Another game?" I asked, gathering the cards together.

She shook her head. "Read me a story?"

I turned slightly on the chair at her bedside to look at the bookcase. "Any requests?"

"Harry Potter."

Crap. Of course she wanted Harry Potter. She had a wizard for a de-facto babysitter, so why not? "Are you sure?" I asked, desperately hoping she would change her mind. I made the mistake of turning and looking at her.

Even with my customary avoidance of direct eye contact, the deployment of puppy dog eyes in a familiar shade of green was devastating.

"The first one," she said. "Daddy already read it to me, but we're in the middle of the fourth book, so you should start at the beginning."

My experience in reading aloud to children was nonexistent, but it couldn't be that hard. "All right," I said, getting comfortable in my chair even as Oriana snuggled back into her mountain of fluffy pink pillows. "'Chapter One: The Boy Who Lived..."

***

"John, your daughter is a card shark," I told Marcone over a late lunch.

"I won six times in a row," Oriana said proudly.

Marcone smiled at her -- a small but genuine one that reached his eyes. "That's quite an accomplishment. Certainly far better than I usually do against Mr. Dresden."

Oriana ate another spoonful of chicken and stars. "Do you play cards together a lot?"

Marcone flicked his eyes at me. "Something like that," he said.

"And then he read Harry Potter to me, but he says his magic is totally different," she said, a small note of complaint in her voice. "He can't even fly on a broom. Is that because things are different in England?"

"Why don't you ask Mr. Dresden that?" Marcone suggested, the amusement in his eyes not at all suppressed.

"Well?" Oriana demanded.

I looked from her to Marcone helplessly. The truth was, my one adventure in trying to ride a flying broom had been wildly unsuccessful, to say the least. "It's different in England," I muttered after a moment.

Oriana nodded her head with satisfaction. "They drive on the other side of the road, too. Did you know that, Daddy?"

"Yes, I did," Marcone said, careful to keep the amusement out of his voice but still laughing at me with those damn eyes.

"And Mr. Dresden says he doesn't watch tv, because he breaks them even when he doesn't mean to," she continued.

"He does have that effect on electronics, it's true," Marcone said, dabbing at his mouth with a napkin. "Among other things," he added, sotto voce.

"Does that mean you can't even go to see movies?" Oriana asked, sounding woebegone.

"Uh. I'm better with older things. Old-fashioned movie reels, not the digital ones," I said, a little uncomfortable with how sorry Oriana sounded for me.

She brightened at that, and turned to her father. "Can we find one of those? So that Mr. Dresden can go see a movie with us?"

It was my turn to silently laugh at Marcone, who looked a little caught. "I'll see what I can do," he said after a moment, and I had no doubt that he would. I don't think he would refuse her much of anything. "But first, you have your appointment with Dr. Yoh in an hour, so finish your lunch."

Oriana looked unenthusiastic at that, but resigned. "Is he going to come every day?"

"Three times a week, until you're all better," Marcone said. "And you have exercises to do on the days when he's not here, too."

She looked a little glum, but obediently finished her soup anyway.

"And the sooner you're better, the sooner we can go see that movie, right?" I offered, hoping Marcone wouldn't kill me for the presumption of trying to cajole her into a better mood.

She thought that over for a moment. "I get to pick the movie out, right? Anything I want?"

I said, "Sure" at the same time Marcone said, "Within reason."

I winced a little and said, "What your dad said."

John Marcone, supreme mafia lord of Chicago and apparently rather competent father, leaned back in his chair and said, "How about we play another hand of cards, and you can show me how you beat Mr. Dresden earlier."

I didn't think that sinking feeling in my stomach was my lunch.

***

Later that night, over another after-dinner drink on a sofa that was more comfortable than it looked, Marcone said, "I must ask you not to make promises to my daughter that you don't intend to keep, Mr. Dresden."

"Huh?" I said, looking at him blankly.

"Your promise this afternoon, to go to the movies as a reward for completing her physical therapy. I know you haven't forgotten who I am -- are you going to keep that promise, several months down the line?" His mouth was set in a hard line, and his gaze was piercing.

"I'm not -- look, just because you're her father, that doesn't mean I would -- what kind of man do you think I am?" I demanded.

Marcone set his glass aside on the end table next to the sofa. "I know very well what kind of man you are, Harry -- I'm just waiting for you to recognize it."

"I don't know what you're talking about," I said.

"As I've said before, you're usually quite perceptive -- given enough time," he said. "But understand this -- I've done my utmost to make this city safe for her. I'm not about to let you or anyone else hurt her through carelessness."

"Is that how she got hurt in the first place?" I asked quietly. "Where's her mother?"

His mouth tightened. "We're not discussing that."

"Nobody even knows that you have a daughter, much less one that was in the hospital all this time," I said.

"The Vargossi family were animals. They had no compunctions about using children as hostages or worse, and I wasn't in a position to demand Oriana back if they had taken her. I did my best to keep her hidden," he said, his tone sharp.

"It was an accident, wasn't it," I guessed, keeping my voice slow and calm. "They didn't know who they'd hurt, and they didn't care."

Marcone's lips twisted into a bitter smile. "As I said, perceptive."

I took a deep breath. "I risked my life to help you retrieve the Shroud, and I risked it again to use it to wake her, even if I didn't quite understand the potential consequences of using it at the time. And this was all before I'd even talked to her or knew she existed," I said.

Marcone nodded slightly in acknowledgment.

"I may not like everything you do, but now that I know her, I can't say I wouldn't have done the same in your position," I said, my voice dropping to a near whisper. "I don't know what I'm supposed to do. I can't hate you, and when I see you with her, I don't even want to."

"Just then?" he asked.

"What?"

"That's the only time you don't want to hate me?"

I looked at him in shock. All I could think of was John Marcone giving me information after I'd blown up his nightclub, hauling me out of water with the Shroud itself, and feeding me ice chips from his fingertips. "No," I said eventually.

"I find, Mr. Dresden, that I don't want to hate you, either," Marcone said, his voice a little rough.

I looked at him, and that thing I hadn't understood before in his eyes -- I still couldn't give something so complex a simple name, but I could understand parts of it.

"So don't," I said, and when we leaned toward each other, the resulting kiss seemed like an intimacy long overdue.

***

I don't know what I expected -- frankly, I hadn't spent a lot of time contemplating how kissing John Marcone would go down. Anyone could have predicted the first wary kisses, slow and soft. It made sense -- that wariness was how we'd first approached each other, way back when he'd offered to put me on his payroll. But behind that healthy sense of caution was that fierce strength of will that I'd seen the first time I looked in his eyes.

And the desire to meet that strength with my own was what probably caused me to tilt my head a little more, slide one hand up from his shoulder to the back of his neck, and start to trust him with this, too.

He made a low noise in his throat and pulled me closer, and I would have wondered if this was a first for him too, if I hadn't been so focused on the intent slide of his tongue into my mouth. When I gave him back as good as I got, his hands only tightened their grip on my hip and shoulder.

"We shouldn't do this here," Marcone said after some unknown period of time. I was a little pleased to hear the slight pant in his usually impassive voice.

"Um," I said, in what was probably not a convincing counterargument.

"Especially with Mr. Hendricks running down the hall this way," he said, pulling himself away from me and efficiently putting his clothing to rights.

"You can tell who it is running down the hall?" I asked in disbelief.

"His tread is quite distinctive," Marcone said, and tugged the shoulders of my shirt into place.

"Mr. Marcone," Hendricks said, slowing to a halt outside the door. He didn't offer any more information, but Marcone stood up immediately and followed him out in the hallway. He spared me one glance before he left, but damned if I knew what it meant.

***

"I'm fine," I told Bob.

"Ooh, look at me! I can use Catholic holy artifacts with no problem! I'm sure it didn't completely knock me flat on my ass for a week," Bob said.

I attempted to smooth the bedcovers into something presentable. "I'm not saying it didn't, I'm saying I'm fine now, and we're going home."

"And how will you be doing that, exactly? Walking?"

I frowned as I remembered that since Hendricks had hauled me here, the Blue Beetle was probably still back at my apartment. "I'll call a cab," I muttered.

"With what money?" Bob asked sweetly.

"Do tell, Mr. Dresden," Marcone called from the doorway.

I winced and turned around slowly. "I have to feed my cat," I said, and then winced again at how lame that sounded.

"If you're referring to the animal that Mr. Hendricks assures me could rival a small pony in size, you may be relieved to learn that your upstairs neighbor has kindly volunteered to look in on it," Marcone said. There was something to his stance that was a little at odds with his words, but I couldn't quite put my finger on it.

"Look, I--" I stopped and took a deep breath. "Thank you for...sheltering me. I appreciate it. But I think it's time I went home."

Marcone frowned. "I don't think that's wise."

"I've imposed long enough," I said firmly. "I have to get back to work."

Marcone crossed the room, and stood closer than either of us would have allowed before last night. "Reconsider," he said, and it wasn't clear if that was a suggestion. "What harm would another week do, in the scheme of things? If you're concerned about loss of income, I'm more than willing to compensate you for the lost time."

"I don't want--"

"My money, I'm aware," Marcone finished. He took my elbow in a firm but not painful grip. "Surely we can be reasonable about this. Workman's compensation is a federal law that I follow quite assiduously, I'll have you know."

"John," I began, and then trailed off.

He rubbed his thumb against my arm, as if in thought. And then he said, "I propose a compromise. If you really feel you must return home, perhaps you could agree to rest there for another few days. Leave the office for next week."

I frowned at him. "I really don't think that's necessary."

His money-colored eyes stared straight into my own. "Nevertheless," he said.

I thought it over for a moment, but it really wasn't an unreasonable request. "Fine," I said finally.

"And come to dinner on Sunday," Marcone said briskly. "I'll have someone drive you home." With that, he strode out of the room and I looked after him in disbelief.

Bob was laughing. "Oh man, you got hosed," he said, in between guffaws.

To my horror, I realized I'd completely forgotten he was there. "I did not," I snapped.

"Seriously -- I never thought I'd see the day when someone could not only talk you into not being a complete moron, but also maneuver you into Sunday dinner. That deserves extra points."

"There aren't points, this isn't a game," I muttered half-heartedly.

"Oh, that's what you think, Dresden."

***

"How about a book? I've got this great one here - it's all about this demon guy, but not like a real demon -- more like the sexy fake kind of demon with really good fashion sense. And he's in love with this priestess who is also apparently a cyborg."

That actually made me look up. "What?"

"I know, I know, that's what I thought, but man, page 168 is smoking," Bob said, a leer in his voice.

"Bob, a book is not going to distract me from the fact that someone is driving by my apartment every two hours like clockwork," I said, momentarily giving up on trying to balance my checkbook.

"Are you sure? Because there's this part where they get it on in an abandoned--"

"Bob."

"You know what your problem is?" Bob said. "I'll tell you what your problem is."

"And you would know, how?" I asked, narrowing my eyes at my bank account statement.

"I know everything," Bob said haughtily. "Also, I am way observant and I was sitting on your nightstand the whole time you were living it up at Casa Marcone."

I sighed. "What."

"Got your attention, huh?" Bob said, smug. "Because the drive-bys aren't what's distracting you, and you know it. You practically ran out of Marcone's like your shoes were on fire."

"Oh, I did not. Strange as it may seem, a man can actually long for his own bed, you know."

"Sure," Bob said in patent disbelief. "It's strange how that coincides with getting a little too close for comfort with a big-time mafia boss, not to mention his daughter whom you practically brought back from the dead."

I frowned at him, but couldn't think of any snappy rejoinder.

"It bothers you, doesn't it?"

I tossed my pen across the table and rubbed my fingertips in circles against my temples. "It ought to bother me more."

"Ah," Bob said sagely. "So, just to check: it's the mafia thing that's bothering you, not the gay sex thing."

"I--what?"

"Hey, I'm not judging you, Dresden. I mean, if you knew some of the things I've gotten up to -- I'm just saying, sometimes you just kind of want to blow someone. Perfectly normal."

My mouth went disturbingly dry. "We're not -- we didn't --"

"But you wanted to," Bob said knowingly. "And Marcone was all over you. He really didn't want you to come home, you know."

My brain took that opportunity to show me a nice mental movie reel of what might have happened if Marcone and I hadn't been interrupted on that sofa -- and the mental image of me undoing his belt and looking up at his half-lidded eyes was only shocking in how plausible it seemed.

"I know he didn't," I said after a moment. "That's why he's having me stalked on a regular basis."

"You know, you say 'stalked,' I say 'checking to make sure nothing nasty with multiple tentacles has broken down your door.'"

I was already shouldering on my duster. "I'm going to his office."

"Don't do anything I wouldn't do!" Bob called up the ladder.

"That's a pretty short list!" I hollered back, and let the door slam shut.

***

I realized when I got to Marcone's office that maybe I should have called ahead. Blasting his doors open was probably a gigantic overreaction at this point, plus someone might accidentally shoot me if I did that.

I did my best to stay polite and calm with front desk security. "Look," I said. "Could you just call up? Mr. Marcone will want to see me." From the depths of my wallet, I fished out a business card that Marcone had left on my office desk once upon a time, which finally persuaded the burly guard to do as I asked. Whoever he talked to upstairs apparently gave him the go ahead, but I got frisked for my trouble first and relieved of my blasting rod. It made me a little nervous to walk in the tiger's den practically unarmed, regardless of whether or not I needed to fear for my safety.

Still, I was escorted up an elevator to a plush office suite with a waiting room that made my office look like, well, a rat trap. Which maybe it was, but hey, we can't all be heads of large criminal empires.

The secretary, whose blonde curls were so perfect that I suspected they were forever frozen in place, finally waved me toward a large set of double doors. Hendricks met me just inside and silently escorted me down the hall to where I could hear the soft murmur of Marcone's voice.

Hendricks nodded his head toward the door, which I took as my cue to enter.

Marcone was on the phone, leaning back in some obscenely expensive leather chair. "Yes. If not the entire stadium, perhaps just the infield will do. Yes. All things considered." He listened for a moment, and then said, "Please do so. Thank you." He hung up, and then turned his chair to look at me.

"The infield?" I asked.

"Hasn't anyone ever told you that it's rude to eavesdrop?" Marcone said, but he didn't seem that annoyed.

"Then you shouldn't have had Hendricks let me in," I said.

"Oriana would like to see the Cubs play, so I was merely ascertaining the availability of Wrigley Field."

"The whole field?" I asked in disbelief.

"Just the infield," he corrected, as if that made things better.

"Don't you think you're taking things a little too far?" I said. "I mean, I understand wanting her to be safe and all, but that's kind of overboard."

"Do you think so?" Marcone said, his tone one of polite disinterest.

That only pissed me off. "I'll tell you what else is taking things too far -- why is someone driving past my apartment every two hours? "

"I wouldn't have to do that if you would just consent to call me periodically," Marcone said.

"And I was supposed to figure this out how?" I demanded.

"Really, Harry, I don't think that's all that much to ask for," Marcone said. "It seems to me that it's a relatively basic expectation for people in our situation."

"Situation? Is that what we're calling this? Look, just because we --" I faltered, because I honestly wasn't sure how to characterize what the hell was going on.

Marcone took advantage of my momentary speechlessness to get up from behind his desk and cross around to face me in the front. I was dimly aware that Hendricks had slipped out of the room and closed the door behind him, but most of my attention was taken by the closeness of Marcone's body.

Marcone raised one hand to my face, while the other settled on my hip. In one soft push and quick step, the back of my thighs bumped up against his desk. "Is there something you'd prefer to call this?"

I swallowed, and Marcone's eyes narrowed before he pushed one thigh between my legs. "This -- we're not seeing each other, we've never even been on a date unless you call picking me up in your helicopter and --"

"Is that the difficulty?" Marcone murmured near my ear. "I assure you, I've long since made up my mind."

"Huh?" I asked mindlessly, which was totally not my fault because the man had a wicked tongue and wasn't afraid to use it.

Marcone nibbled on my earlobe. "I can be accommodating. Where would you like to go?" The warm rush of his breath into my ear made me take in a sharp breath.

"I--" My mind went to his ridiculous plan to rent out Wrigley Field. "Somewhere normal."

"Ah," he said. "I'll leave the planning up to you, shall I?" He stopped teasing the sensitive skin on my neck long enough to catch my lips in a kiss, and I realized that at this point, I was sitting on his desk and had a death grip on the back of his belt. "I'll pick you up at 7," he said.

I still had enough brain power left to say, "If I'm planning it, why don't I pick you up instead?"

He pulled back to look me in the eye. "While I do have considerable faith in you, that faith doesn't extend to that death trap on wheels that you call a vehicle."

"Oh my god, we haven't even gone on a date yet and you're already insulting my car," I complained.

He had the nerve to pat me on the ass. "Best get used to it. I'll have to ask you to take your leave now, as I still have plenty of business to conduct if I'm to take the evening off."

I would have snapped something in reply, but he gave me another one of those devastating kisses which more or less wiped away any rational thought I had left. Somehow I found myself on the other side of his office door again, where Hendricks was waiting.

I spared a moment to be grateful that locking lips with his boss meant no tell-tale lipstick marks, but it wasn't like he couldn't guess what we'd been up to.

"Hey Hendricks, do you know what your boss's favorite movie is?" I asked him on my way out.

Hendricks thought about it for a minute. "The Bicycle Thief."

"Never heard of it," I said.

"Old Italian movie. Social commentary on poverty and law enforcement."

I stared at him, and he shrugged.

"This is going to be harder than I thought," I muttered.

***

I was not having car envy. Definitely not.

Okay, I was. Marcone only pulled up in maybe the sweetest muscle car the seventies ever produced -- a sleek and sexy Pantera.

He didn't offer to open the door for me, which was just as well -- I know I've got an old-fashioned attachment to chivalry, but I wasn't so sure I wanted it directed toward me. "Where to?" he asked.

The good thing about a job like mine is, even though I've made my share of enemies, I've also made a good number of friends who are willing to do me the occasional favor. I'd called in a couple of those favors for tonight -- I was going to prove to Marcone that you didn't need to buy out the infield to have a good time.

"River North," I said. For this evening, I decided there was nothing wrong with going old-school. Fortunately, I'd once exorcised a ghost at one of the best damned pizzerias in Chicago, and pulled a few strings after my meeting with Marcone earlier in the afternoon.

If Marcone thought one of Chicago's great traditions was beneath him, he gave no evidence of it -- and the head chef came out with an unasked-for bottle of wine, which I suspected wasn't actually a measure of gratitude towards me, so much as a tribute to my dining partner.

After dinner, Marcone looked at me expectantly. "Not far from here," I said. "Head up Lake Shore."

When I'd asked Hendricks about Marcone's favorite movie, it had been with the intention of calling in another favor with a happy client who ran a historic movie theater -- the kind with a red velvet curtain, columns, and gilt moldings everywhere. Of course, I'd then asked said client about The Bicycle Thief as a date movie, and he was promptly horrified. It seemed Hendricks really hadn't been kidding in his summary of the film.

"Ah," Marcone said when we pulled up. "Another fine Chicago tradition?"

"I'm a traditional kind of guy," I told him.

His lips twitched into something that might have been a smile.

When we settled down in the middle of the empty theater, Marcone looked around us. "I confess, I'm impressed. You've more influence than I'd surmised."

"Flattery will get you nowhere," I told him. "By the way, I asked Hendricks what your favorite movie is, but it sucks, so we're watching my favorite movie instead."

"Speaking of flattery getting you nowhere," Marcone said dryly.

"Shut up," I said cheerfully. "You're going to love it."

He kept his mouth shut as the movie started, so I was feeling magnanimous and didn't make a fuss when he put his arm around my shoulders.

The Princess Bride is possibly the most perfect movie for a wide variety of people. Marcone's favorite movie may have been a piercing commentary on desperation and social contracts, but I've yet to meet the man who didn't like a good swordfight. Or giants. Or revenge. Or, if we get right down to it, a good old-fashioned love story, even if they won't admit it.

By the time the red curtain came down, Marcone's arm had to have lost feeling -- god knows I've been there a few times -- but it didn't show.

"Where to now?" Marcone asked.

I hadn't actually thought further than the classic dinner and a movie combination. It must have shown in my expression, because Marcone said, "Would it be acceptable if I chose, this time?"

"Lead on," I said.

He led on right back to his house, and killed the engine in front of the door. He turned to me and said, "Can I invite you in for coffee or a nightcap, perhaps?"

I made the mistake I always make with him -- of looking into the only eyes in the city that I can meet on a regular basis. What he'd offered was the polite social fiction that everyone knew -- but in this case, it was backed up by some pretty serious intent.

"You did say you were a traditional sort of man," Marcone said. "I hope I wasn't mistaken in thinking it would extend to this, as well." It was said in a vaguely teasing sort of tone, but I admit to being charmed, almost despite myself.

I got out of the car and walked with him up the stairs to the front door. Almost immediately, I noticed something different about the place.

Marcone held the door open, and looked at me with an air of polite curiosity when I didn't advance through it. "Changed your mind?" he asked, with no hint of censure.

"No, it's just -- you shouldn't just invite people in here, now."

"And why is that?"

I stretched out one hand to the doorframe and felt the buzz of energy under my fingertips. "Houses and homes aren't the same thing. Homes have protection, and they acquire that protection through strength of familial relations. Bachelor pads have nothing on the protections surrounding the home of a parent and child."

"And my house has acquired those protections?" Marcone asked. "How interesting. Won't you come in?"

I flung my hands in the air. "What did I just say? You shouldn't invite people in, it strips your home of its primary defenses -- don't you have someone to think about, now?"

"Harry," Marcone said patiently. "Come inside."

I looked at him for a moment, a jumbled mess inside of fear and hope and confusion and reluctant affection.

"Come in," he repeated softly, and I hesitantly stepped across the threshold.

It was at that moment that I realized another car had pulled up outside -- and then I realized we'd been tailed the entire date by two flunkies. "You had us followed?" I protested.

"Common sense," Marcone said matter-of-factly. "They won't follow us now."

I was pretty convinced that was not quite the truth, since Marcone's backyard had surveillance within an inch of its life, and there was no reason to think his house didn't as well.

The suite we ended up was one I hadn't been in during my stay. Marcone poured us the promised nightcaps, but he needn't have bothered. I set my glass down after a small sip, and said, "You told me this afternoon that you'd already made up your mind."

He nodded.

I took a deep breath and said, "Convince me, then."

Obviously, nothing turned John Marcone on like takeover negotiations, or so I came to understand when he put his glass down and hustled me through to an adjoining bedroom, stripping off clothes on the way.

I had succeeded in opening his belt buckle when we hit the bed, and his shirt was off his shoulders. He'd gotten a lot further with me, mostly because I'd been helping. I couldn't stop kissing him, and he didn't seem to be in a hurry to stop, either -- but then my daydream from earlier that day flashed through my head, and I knew what I wanted to do.

It seemed like Bob was right -- sometimes you just wanted to blow someone. Apparently, I specifically wanted to blow John Marcone, and he wasn't about to stop me.

"No laughing at amateur hour, here," I muttered, pulling at the waistband of his trousers.

"I'd never dream of it," Marcone said, his voice turned a spine-melting purr.

It turned out to be not so difficult -- I knew what I liked, after all, and I was fairly observant. Marcone wasn't shy about letting me know what worked, but was gentlemanly enough not to pull my hair or anything. Even though my jaw ached, I think I'd have gone on for a long time, just to hear those deep, appreciative noises. But he pulled me up before I could bring things to a conclusion, and I would have protested except that he clearly had some tit for tat in mind, and there was no way in hell I was going to turn that down.

Especially if I'd had any idea how good he was going to be at it. If there was a record for turning Harry Dresden into a panting, mindless pile of mush in under five minutes flat, Marcone achieved it handily and then some. But instead of letting me come, he crawled back up my body and took our cocks together in his hand.

I groaned when he started stroking us together and gasped out, "Aren't we going to--"

He pressed a messy kiss to my shoulder. "I thought we should take it slow."

No one has ever accused me of patience once I've made up my mind. "It took us how many years to get here? How much slower do you want to go?"

I could feel him shudder under my hands, and he said, "I thought I was supposed to be convincing you, not the other way around."

I huffed and thrust my hips up against his, which was apparently persuasion enough, or so I assumed with the speed that he turned me over onto my stomach.

I knew enough to relax though the stretching -- hey, just because I'd never gone down on another man before didn't mean I wasn't in tune with my own body -- and Marcone took it slow, so that by the time he stuffed a pillow under my hips and kissed the back of my neck, I was more than ready.

"This, by the way, isn't amateur hour," Marcone murmured near my ear.

"Prove it," I said.

Let it never be said that John Marcone can't make good on his word. There were certainly no complaints from me, if the completely embarrassing noises I was making were any indication. It only seemed to spur Marcone on, and the feeling of his chest rubbing against my back, the strong grip of one of his hands on my hip, and the friction of my cock against the pillow underneath me seemed like far too much for one person to process, let alone hope to withstand for long.

At least, I certainly couldn't -- I choked out a cry against the mattress even as I came on the pillowcase underneath my hips. Marcone slowed his thrusts into me, dropping kisses onto my skin where he could reach. After a moment, I stretched back one hand to his hip and pulled toward me, and he didn't need any more encouragement. It still felt good, even if I was down for the count, and soon enough, his desperate strokes stilled with a deep sigh.

He rolled off to one side, and while we caught our breath, I wondered if I was going to regret this.

But in the end, I could only come to one conclusion. "For the record, John," I said drowsily, "this would be another one of those moments where I don't want to hate you. I might even go so far as to say I actually kind of like you."

"Bizarrely, I find myself rather fond of you, as well," he said.

And the thing was?

I believed him.

***

Life, as it turned out, was complicated. Not like that's a newsflash or anything, but a departed friend of mine told me I was going to live my life in the grey areas. I suppose it doesn't get much greyer than falling for John Marcone. But for all that he was still the same ruthless, efficient mob boss he'd always been, he was a good father -- and, not incidentally, a pretty decent boyfriend.

I kept the promise that I'd made months before, and when Oriana finished her physical therapy, the three of us went together to the theater.

"This isn't a boy movie, is it?" she asked skeptically.

I looked over her head at Marcone and smiled. "Nah. It's got princesses and pirates and swordfighting."

"Not to mention people who come back from being mostly dead, as well as battles of wits, and true love," Marcone added, with a look in his eyes that was becoming more and more familiar.

Mollified, she settled in her seat with her popcorn as the lights dimmed and the movie began to roll.