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The note folded and taped to my bedroom door read “John, I know you don’t like it when I jump you even though we’re fighting about something, and if you come in I will, so maybe you’d be happier in a guest room. Hugs and Kisses, Harry.” I gritted my teeth. What it meant was ‘Sleep on the couch until I get my way’, no matter how Harry had managed to rationalize things to himself.

It was essentially the same thing last night’s note had said. The most substantial difference was that yesterday he’d used a really excessive number of thumbtacks instead of tape. Ms. Hunter had been far more irritated by the damage to the woodwork than I had been, and since Harry was quite aware of his need for allies in any argument he tries to pick with me, I wasn’t surprised he’d dropped that. In all other respects, throwing me out of my own room was looking to be a fairly effective persuasive strategy. I was trying to remember that that was a good thing.

If I wouldn’t give in I could go sleep alone in the guest room, knowing he was waiting here, wanting me. That was last night, and I didn’t care to repeat it. I could open my door, walk in, and end this. Arguments were over as soon as I said they were, and he was usually eager for me afterward. I could actually fuck him: he’d been expecting it from the start and wanting it for weeks. He’d bite his lip and sometimes turn his face away when I fingered him, but rest of his body begged for more and his moans were nothing like protest. I could take him and he would love it. I was certain. Almost certain. I could convince him. I could just leave off the gag and- No. Sanity interrupted, sounding like Nathan, pointing out that it didn’t matter what I thought Harry wanted, that I didn’t get to make that decision for him. That he hadn’t told me no wasn’t remotely the same as his having told me yes. How many men had I held in contempt for not being able to understand that? Why was it so difficult to hold onto now? The tabloids were more right than they knew.

I’ve seen more people than I could count slide into monstrosity. I’d done it myself, long ago, but I would not go further. Harry’s trust in my self control and willingness to let him fight me were all that kept our relationship anywhere in shouting distance of healthy. That trust had to be justified. It had to. I was not remotely a good man, but there were things that I would not do.

Damn him, anyway, for knowing that. For always deep down having known that, even when the ingrained beliefs of a lifetime had him convinced it wasn’t true. After the binding, despite his clear terror of what we were becoming to each other, it had apparently never crossed his mind not to trust me with de facto custody of his daughter. The gag I wore to bed with him had never been protection from anything but accidents. If I wanted to do something to harm him I could just take it off. Even before, when ‘scum’ had been his preferred way of addressing me, Harry had repeatedly come to me for help knowing that when the chips were down I would protect this city. He had wandered into things that were none of his business daring me to to do something about it, knowing I could have had him or anyone he cared for shot in the street. Knowing I wouldn’t.

There were very few people in Chicago brave enough to defy me and formidable enough for that not to be an indication of stupidity. Of those, far fewer would do so for the sake of others. Of those, exactly three had any idea I might give a damn about those others. Nathan Hendricks. Bethany Hunter. Harry Dresden. The first two had always been known quantities; loyal, trusted companions. Nathan guarding my back from our fellow criminals. Bethany staying just out of the line of fire, making sure the veneer of public respectability we needed stayed firmly in place. That no one noticed their importance was proof of just how good they were at what they did.

Harry was hard to miss. He had been a constant surprise, an incessant challenge, an irresistible force. He’d swung wildly from being an ally beyond price to a deadly opponent. I couldn’t look away. Even now, his loyalty assured, I couldn’t predict him. He kept secrets, he hid things on that godforsaken island, he picked fights, charged windmills and somehow left his boots exactly where I’d trip over them. And smirked when I did. It drove me crazy.

Bethany had occasionally suggested that that last might be literal. In my opinion, no one without a quite large family actually needs a house as big as either of mine. Since we weren’t using the rooms that became Harry’s, there was no reason not to indulge myself in that one thing. It wasn’t as though I had myself convinced he would ever return my feelings. That would have been a sign of a problem.

And yet. Harry was mine, finally, utterly, after more than a decade’s certainty that I would never so much as taste him. Still he presumed to use what was left of my better instincts against me. I unclenched my jaw again, reminding myself how empty all this would be if he’d stopped.

Harry didn’t make me wish I was a better person. I could manage that just fine on my own. Harry demanded that I act like one, or else. He found the lines I struggled not to cross and either shoved them into a completely different position or scattered land mines on the other side. I had friends who had followed me down into Hell, and I was reluctantly grateful for the company, but Harry...he dragged me up toward the light without the slightest care for what I or anyone else thought of the situation, and anything that got in his way he burned to the ground. How could I not crave that?

My lover waited on the other side of the door, knowing I could do anything I liked, expecting me to go to the damn guest room or let the damn reporters say what they did without consequence. If I did neither it could eventually destroy us. It was up to me. The tactic was subtle and passive aggressive only to those who knew that Harry’s usual approach was to issue death threats and commit major property damage.

I could put this off until tomorrow. I couldn’t last the next day. I didn’t know if he could either and the situation had to be dealt with soon anyway. I turned the handle of the door and let it swing open in front of me.

My breath caught, looking at him.

The room was lit by a single oil lamp and a few candles. They turned his bare skin golden and gleamed off his dark hair. He sat in the middle of the bed, facing away from me, wearing only jewelry. Weapons that would never be turned against me glistened on his fingers. Shields that he did not need to defend him from me dangled from his wrist, next to a braided cord that told him where the child we were raising was. His arms were raised above his head, swiping a washcloth over the back of his neck. Beads of water trailed down his spine; the position of his arms bent his head forward and arched his back to show off its lean lines. A large bowl sat with the candles and some cloths on my bedside table; his own was covered with the pile of cheap paperbacks, esoteric grimoires and random debris that had been growing for weeks. I hadn’t been able to bring myself to discourage the clutter.

He twisted to check whether this was working. It was. My irritation had disappeared somehow. In the past a scene like this would have left me cold. Such an blatant, overplayed attempt to manipulate me... I’d have been more contemptuous than aroused. Instead heat coiled through me. Why shouldn't he display himself for me? Why wouldn’t I be glad that he wanted to? This dispute wasn’t a challenge to my authority, not when Harry still willingly offered himself up to me, and I could only be pleased with his growing confidence in my bed. It was probably the spell’s effects on my instincts.

It couldn’t possibly just be that it was Harry and I wanted him like air.

“Is the shower not working?” I asked, amused by how long he was holding the pose.

“Right, that’s it.” he lied cheerfully. He thought he’d won. In this light, the already fading bruise on Harry’s eye was barely visible. Which was no doubt also planned. He lowered the pitch of his voice to add “Come help me?”

As tempting as that was... I shook my head. “I can’t just let this go, Harry.”

His smile faded. He straightened, dropped his arms and looked at the cloth in his hands for a moment, before dropping it in the bowl and pulling the blankets up around him. Good. We did not need to be having this conversation while he was naked. Harry spoke, voice low. “They were just wrong, that’s all. And everyone knows that, so-”

“Everyone does not know that. Your friends are not everyone. The magical community is not everyone, and that’s - not even the point. It doesn’t matter what anyone knows, only what they can prove, and what they think they can get away with saying.” He was silent. “No one with half a brain thinks that I’m some kind of innocent, and that’s fair, but they shouldn’t think that it’s safe to accuse me of anything. I have a position that I must maintain, and if I let people think they can disrespect me, I will need to kill to regain that ground later. Neither of us wants that.” Please let him believe that I didn’t want that. There had been enough bloodshed surrounding Harry and Maggie’s emergence in my life that they hadn’t been taken as automatic proof of weakness, but especially in issues concerning them I could not give the impression that my control was slipping. Or let them be seen as viable targets.

He looked mulish. “And going after a bunch of idiots for making a stupid mistake because they don’t understand what’s going on-”

“Willful blindness to reality is not an excuse I have any sympathy for. Whether the reality in question is that a vigilante wizard doesn’t need my help picking up bruises or is that it’s unwise to suggest a city’s head of organized crime is beating his lover.”

“It’s so stupid.” he muttered. I sighed. It wasn’t that stupid, for all that the injury itself was fairly trivial.

Two days ago he had walked out of a Way in Des Moines to find several men threatening a woman. Harry went to the aid of the presumed damsel in distress as automatically as breathing, but she, not realizing at first that the scarred, looming stranger was her rescue, clocked him high on one cheek and then went for her mace. Fortunately he got away before any further harm was done. His eye was swelling by the time he got home.

While I would obviously prefer that Harry not get hurt at all, in our lives a black eye was nothing to get worked up over. It shouldn’t have been anything more than an embarrassing reminder not to underestimate the people he was trying to protect. Harry, with his accelerated healing and disturbing pain tolerance, didn’t even bother to ice it.

He’d spent most of the week shuttling between here and Cameroon, with the international detours magical travel involved. A mixed group of Jengu and humans had outgrown their territory, and I was trying to attract some of them here. While the Formor had stopped challenging Chicago on land, their attacks on watercraft were increasing and we needed reliable shipping. The Jengu, however, considered our climate unappealing and would need considerable inducement to step in the middle of our turf war. I knew the triumvirate of low powered practitioners on the verge of declaring Mumbai the second human run freehold was making similar overtures, and I suspected they would win out. If any of the surviving benign magical beings originally native to this area were interested in moving back - but they had been largely unenthusiastic about promises from a rich white man.

Only a lunatic would involve Harry directly in diplomatic efforts but since meetings in the supernatural world couldn’t be teleconferenced his abilities simplified travel arrangements considerably. As a result, both Harry’s internal clock and his always erratic ability to fake normality were fried. So he met Thomas Raith at all-night diner for a late meal. At two in the morning. With one eye swelling shut. Someone had recognized him and called a paparazzi photographer who happened to have an old camera and a telephoto lens. The unlucky bastard got several photos of my lover, looking stressed and exactly like someone had recently decked him, deep in conversation with his ridiculously attractive supposed ex-boyfriend. The pictures didn’t show that Thomas’ apparent concern was more mocking than genuine.

It was up for debate whether I had hit Harry because he was cheating, or he was cheating because I hit him.

It was honestly a miracle that this had never happened before. Despite his power, he acquires bruises, limps, and worse on a regular basis. Most of the time it’s not an image problem. Minor practitioners, changelings, ‘clued in’ mortals, and all the miscellaneous others who know that magic is real will justifiably assume the Wizard Dresden - Champion of Chicago, Defender of the City, Consort of Baron Marcone - was off demon slaying without batting an eye.

Unfortunately, to the rest of the public, Harry Dresden - wildly eccentric ex-private investigator, inexplicable boyfriend of business tycoon and alleged crime boss Johnny Marcone - was also a figure of considerable interest. Since digital cameras generally malfunctioned or occasionally blew up when he was nearby, the general scarcity of pictures of him only increased the demand and the speculation. In person, Harry could handle that. He lies well, and the strong tendency to trust him Chicago residents have developed makes ‘sparring accident’ go down fairly easily with civilians he runs into. Until now that had been good enough. In retrospect it was only a matter of time until someone at a distance happened to be using actual film and got something decent. Indecent. Suggestive.

Anyone who only knew our mundane reputations would see the bruise and wonder why I’d done it. Who besides me would dare touch him, after all?

As it turned out, that would be Hendricks, when Harry described the woman to us as “a knock-out blonde” with a lift to his eyebrows that screamed ‘Get it?’. Nathan was in this case under Karrin Murphy’s authority, however, and assured me he hadn’t smacked him nearly as hard as she’d instructed.

The attempt at humor had not been welcome. I was fairly occupied being angry. Really very angry. No one had flat-out out accused me of domestic abuse, they weren’t suicidal, but some damn FBI agents actually bumped into Harry to offer him Witness Protection if there was anything he’d like to testify about. He had laughed at them. Then they asked how long it would be until Maggie had the same bruises and Harry found the whole issue much less funny. I didn’t consider it funny at all.

I wasn’t accustomed to being accused of things I hadn’t done. Harry claimed one got used to it, though I haven’t noticed any interest on his part for interacting with the White Council more than he had to. It was bizarre, how outraged I felt. I was guilty of worse, probably, although at the moment it was difficult to think of worse than assault on a dependant, generally accompanied by varying intensities and types of mental and physical torture.

That anyone thought I would do that to Harry, that they thought that our- that his child could need protection from me, was intolerable and - not the point. I deliberately unclenched my jaw. Protestations of innocence coming from me would persuade no one. I had to focus on what could be changed. No one should dare insult me like that, no matter what they believed. It was simple practicality.

“The photographer will have to find another line of work, elsewhere. The -”

“I thought they were sold anonymously.”

“He should have put more effort into that.” Harry nodded, looking at the floor, rubbing one of his wrists. I wanted to go in and hold him. I tightened my grip on the door frame. “He won’t be permanently injured. ” Harry winced. All right, no, that hadn’t been reassuring but if that stupid bastard had any idea this conversation was happening he should be grateful I was letting him live. Not a point I should make. Damn, damn, but if Harry truly needed me to let this go he’d have said so. I saw him storm into the house after the FBI’s visit; he’d been almost as offended as I was and far more vocal about it. He was objecting to this because he thought he should, not out of any real desire to. Surely. Let that be true.

“I’m not going to do anything to anyone who just published the pictures without drawing conclusions,” I offered. “I am-” ruining “-suing anyone who suggested that you deserved it, or should have expected such treatment.” Hendricks had turned off and taken away a recording of a conservative radio call-in host before I could tell whether this was supposed to be a natural consequence of being involved with me personally or another man in general. As though- No. Not the point.

“You can do that?” He still wasn’t looking at me.

“It’s slander.” And they were going to have a hard time finding any lawyers at all, let alone competent ones. I needed to stop clenching my teeth.

“This is really getting to you.” I closed my eyes for a moment, breathed out, nodded. “Okay. I can...do you need me to do anything?” Thank Christ. He didn’t look any more happy, but if he was willing to accept this...

“Not much.” It was difficult to prove that someone had knowingly lied, especially when they hadn’t, but documentation that no bruise existed was a good start. Fortunately, only that one set of photos had been taken before we found out what was happening and Harry had dredged up an illusion to cover it. He’d been seen in public since without any sign of injury. The rumors had died down a bit, although enough people had seen him hurt in the past that they were still persistent.

“Okay.” He ran his fingers through his hair, radiating frustration. “Okay, I- it’s just- I did get a black eye, I am lying about it, you are a scary person - Not to me or anything, but you know, generally - and... bullying people into ignoring when somebody whose husband is important ‘walks into a door’ is kind of... sick.”

Well. Yes. It was. “Harry, I don’t-” Husband. That was not the word I should be getting stuck on. “I-” What was I going to say? I closed my eyes and tried to order my thoughts. “A couple weeks after...” Harry had sold me his freedom “well, After. Thomas Raith came to my office and told me that if I hurt you he would rip out my lungs through my throat with his bare hands. And shove my balls where they used to be.”

He snorted in shocked laughter. “Empty Night.”

“He said he’d regret it, because it would ruin his manicure. And his shirt. He was utterly sincere.” I opened my eyes to meet Harry’s. “I called security to have him added to the list of approved guests.”

“Oh. Really?” He smiled at me, chuckled again and moved closer to me on the bed.

I smiled too, but it was odd. “You don’t usually react well when someone threatens me.”

He blinked and took on the slightly distant look he got when he tried to judge where his feelings blended into the spell. “It’s Thomas. And, well. It wasn’t- You’re not going to hurt me. So it wasn’t a threat. I mean, if I said I’d burn down Mac’s bar if he ever recited the epic of Gilgamesh, he wouldn’t be real concerned, would he?” The words were unnatural in Harry's mouth and from his lost expression he knew that. I doubted he'd believed such a thing of anyone since his father's death.

I didn't know how to respond. Skip it then. “Harry, my point was that I have no desire to harm anyone wants to protect you.” I was perfectly capable of ignoring the small voice that said Raith didn’t have the right to interfere. Of course he did. That Harry had - as he admitted - low standards for being taken care of didn’t lessen my responsibility to fulfill my promises to him or any of his friends’ right to see that I did. I was capable of remembering that.

“If Mr Raith, or anyone else with your best interests in mind, were involved in this, I wouldn’t be harming them. I’m not doing anything to the feds who talked to you. But that photographer could have sent the pictures to the police so they could approach you without my knowledge, without putting you in greater danger. Instead he sold them to the tabloids. The people I’m suing didn’t say you should leave me, they said you had it coming. That would merit a response no matter who they were talking about, no matter what the circumstance.” I took a deep breath. “I know that it will still intimidate people who are trying to deal with actual abuse. It needs to be done anyway.”

Harry bowed his head.

“In the near future, there will be greater than usual donations to several women’s shelters and organizations which combat domestic violence.”

“I know, John.” The FBI was certain that I had an enormous personal fortune hiding in Swiss banks and off-shore accounts. Certainly, I had a substantial reserve, but I’ve never seen the point in accumulating more wealth than can be spent, especially now that leaving Chicago or my position had become impossible. It probably always was, but there was no point now in even having an escape route. Maggie had a trust fund, Harry was well provided for if he didn’t managed to get killed before me, but those could be and had to be drawn from my legitimate sources, just as the house, staff and so on were. We didn’t really need to keep most of the profit from illegal dealings.

Harry had become one of the very, very few people who had any idea of how much money I funneled right back to Chicago, into schools and free clinics and drug rehabilitation programs, into small business development and food pantries. This was my city. It reflected poorly on me when its people, my people, could not escape suffering, whether anyone else knew that or not.

Many couldn’t anyway, of course, and a few didn’t try. I took as much of their money as I did from the more affluent and privileged. But if I did not, someone else would, and that person would not lift a finger to subsidize daycares near poor neighborhoods, blackmail politicians into doing their jobs, keep drug dealers off playgrounds or find under-the-table jobs for 14 year old runaways before they turned to prostitution. I could not make the world a shining virtuous place and I didn’t try, but I ruled this city and it was better off that way.

Harry had needed to know that. He was trapped here and both our lives would be poisoned if he was ashamed of me. Enduring a bad reputation was something he could do if he knew that it wasn’t the whole truth. I watched him draw in a breath and visibly accept my decision. His back was straight, he looked up to meet my eyes evenly. It would be all right.

I should know better than to ever think those words. “Tell me what you do to the photographer,” he said.

“You don’t need to-” I started. He never asked about that kind of thing! Why the hell-

“I do need to know. I - this is my fault. I have to... I can’t just pretend it’s none of my business.” That was...hard to argue with, even as an instinctive denial formed in my throat. He wouldn’t believe me if I told him he was blameless, even if it was entirely true. Part of me started calculating how minor the damage to the man could be while still conveying the appropriate message, another part wondered if I could get away with lying to Harry about what was done. No, Nathan would be all too likely to ‘accidentally’ let something slip. And it would be wrong, of course. I wanted Harry not to be horrified at me more than I wanted to hurt the photographer. But damn it, I really wanted to hurt the bastard. Finally I nodded. This conversation needed to be over.

I took one step into the room to catch the door handle, said “Good night” before I could weaken, and stepped back out, swinging the door closed behind me. There was a yelp of protest behind the door; I started to walk away but only got a few steps before Harry yanked it back open. “Hey! What gives?”

I stopped, but didn’t turn back. “You suggested the guest room, I seem to remember?”

“I suggested that I wanted you, I seem to remember! Come on, John-” He lowered his voice- “Marcus...” I shivered, looked at him: framed in the doorway and still wrapped in the blanket, his expression uncertain. I couldn’t seem to get used to my name on his lips. He glanced away for a moment and added “Please come to bed. I couldn’t sleep last night.”

Hell. I’d hoped the blurry eyes at breakfast were nothing. He’d told me once that he had nightmares, and he certainly had cause, but they were rare when he was in my arms. I wasn’t going to deny him that. I moved back to him, let him retreat to the bed before me. Closing the door softly behind me as I went in, I toed off my shoes and discarded jacket and tie over a chair. “If you’d told me that at breakfast you might have had your way.”

He shrugged. “I didn’t want to talk about it.” He still didn’t want to talk about it: definitely a nightmare. “Maggie was already giving you grief, anyhow. What possessed you to take her to a construction site if you didn’t want her to be interested?” Oh, dear God. Not this again.

“She’s too young to learn welding.” I said for the eighteenth time since Thursday. “She just is.” Why I assumed Harry ‘Fire Hazard’ Dresden would agree with me upon that point I could no longer recall-

“Of course she is, do you think I’m stupid? Don’t answer that.”

I stared at him. “You told her-”

“That welding was indeed very cool. It is. I didn’t say she could learn yet. I was thinking she could help me set up some jewelry or something to be soldered together, and then watch - from a safe distance - while I did it. It’ll be fun. It’s not like she could could turn on a torch while I wasn’t looking: I am the torch.” Right. Well. That was a lot more sensible than I’d thought he was being. He looked deeply entertained. “Say I’m right and you’re wrong and I’ll give you a blowjob.”

How could that be turned down? I walked over to the bed and pulled him closer to me, ran my hands over his arms and whispered in his ear: “I’m right and you’re wrong.” He immediately bit me, a sharp nip below my jaw, and pulled away grinning. I always knew he’d bite.

“Now I want it in writing, asshole. ‘The brilliant and talented Harry Dresden is right, as always, and I am wrong. Humbly, John Marcone.’ ”

I sat down “‘As always’ Really? The rest of it’s not bad, but you realize that an obvious lie will make the whole thing useless as evidence?” He grabbed the gag off the table and threw it at my head.

“I guess humble’s a real stretch too. Put that on.” It came out weaker than order, not quite a question.

“Pot; Kettle.” I said, but refrained from further comment and pulled it around my head. The cotton was soft and stretchy, meant more to remind me not to talk than to actually prevent me from doing so. We’d tried more elaborate bondage on the theory that if a makeshift gag was just enough for both of us to trust me, it would be even easier if I was, say, also tied to the headboard. In practice, it had been an exercise in frustration. The cuffs and ball gag had disappeared sometime the next day; I didn’t ask what Harry did with them.

I sat on the bed, then stretched across it it to fish a receipt and a pencil off Harry’s table. He leaned in against my back to watch me write on the blank side. “The brilliant and talented Harry Dresden, whom I” - “Whom?” He asked, “Pretentious, much?” He’d wrapped his arms under mine and begun unbuttoning my shirt: I wasn’t inclined to be offended. - “do not deserve,” - He took that as the insult it wasn’t and bit me again under the ear. My answering smile was safely concealed by the gag.- “is right, and I, John Marcone, am wrong. I make this confession freely and without coercion.” He snickered. I signed and dated it, then added beneath it “About that blowjob...“ “Smooth,” he murmured. “Very smooth. I bet in school you got all the cheerleaders.” “And more than my share of the basketball team” I agreed, and took him down onto the bed beneath me as he laughed.

“Wait,” he said, his voice suddenly pained, and he pushed at my chest. Struggled to the side, away from me. My fingers tightened around his arms; I automatically put more weight on him for a long moment before the rest of my mind tried to beat my possessive instincts to death with a tire iron. I was up and off of him in only seconds, but this wouldn’t be the first time he’d needed to call things off and how could I -

“Ohh-kaay....” he said. I refocused. Harry wasn’t scrambling away, wasn’t shaking or breathing too fast. Harry was blinking up at me, confused. Then he squirmed a Iittle more and dug the pencil and crumpled receipt I was using earlier out from under him. Jesus fucking Christ. He still looked baffled, Rather than try to convey what I’d thought I just slumped back down onto him and breathed into his neck. His arms came up around my waist, his warm bare body pliant beneath me. “Should I ask?” he said, an edge of laughter back. I shook my head. It was him that refused to have that conversation, anyway. We lay together for a while.

“Really basketball players?” he asked finally. Two was actually a significant percentage of a basketball team, I thought, and nodded. His hands slid under my shirt and he ran his nails up and down my spine, lingered to dig his fingers into a spot in my shoulder that always ached. He had about a million years to stop doing that. Then he opened his mouth again and ruined it. “You only love me because I’m 6’8”.” His voice was wry, inviting me to share in the ridiculousness of the idea that I might love him. It was good that he couldn’t see my face. It was good that I wasn’t expected to speak. I didn’t know how to respond.

Nathan and Bethany thought I should tell him, explain. Thomas Raith and Michael Carpenter delivered knowing looks and pointed remarks that sailed right past Harry’s radar, but after Raith’s last disaster of an intervention, were waiting to let me handle it. I couldn’t. The words wouldn’t seem to come and even if they did... I wasn’t sure if I was more sickened by the thought that Harry wouldn’t believe me, or that if he did he would feel guilty for not loving me back.

Oh, he had come to care for me, yes. I was fairly sure he wasn’t capable of going to bed with someone he didn’t care about. But he didn’t love me. There was honestly no reason why he should, and I truly didn’t need him to, but I didn’t believe he could trust that. He was the kind of person who thought unrequited love to be some great, unendurable tragedy rather than a normal state of affairs. No pun intended. He thought we were both just... scratching an itch. Making the best of something we couldn’t avoid. If that was all he could handle it would be foolish to rock the boat.

He was growing tense beneath me, and I went back to nuzzling his neck before I actually did panic him.

Years ago I fell in love with a man who wouldn’t have give me a civil word even to save his life. Especially not to save his life. The few times he’d actually been scared of me, he’d never let it stop him from doing exactly as he chose, and I couldn’t imagine him starting to for any reason. Nathan said I was attracted to power; how else was I supposed to find an equal? Wasn’t that what I was should be looking for?

That man I fell in love with would have flat out killed me before allowing me to victimize him. He would have rubbed my nose in my inability to intimidate him, would have delighted in telling me what I didn’t want to hear. I could trust him to take care of himself, from me or anyone else. It was a significant part of the appeal.

That was before. There was a bruise now on Harry’s eye, and I didn’t give it to him but he was lying underneath me nervous of my reaction to a joke. At least he couldn’t lie worth a damn, that was the saving grace of the situation. If he said he wanted something he did, and when there was a problem he couldn’t hide it. He hadn’t been coerced into my bed - but neither of us was naive enough not to have considered that his and his child’s welfare depended largely on my good will. If he understood that I loved him, would he know that they were secure or would he think I’d demand more? If I swore I wouldn’t, would he believe me?

Harry’s hands had stilled, fisted in my shirt. “Marcus?” he said. “I don’t...” I sighed and propped myself up on an elbow to look at his face. He looked...tentative. Perhaps a little worried, no worse than that, but certainly not at ease. I brushed his cheek with my fingers and he turned into it, closing his eyes, willing to be reassured. But he shouldn't have needed to worry in the first place. It was wrong.

I lifted up off of him and pulled the gag off over my head. “Marcus?” he asked again, scrambling upright. I put a hand down on his chest, settling him back, and pulled the blankets over him before stripping out of my clothes and putting out the candles. He leaned back against me willingly when I spooned up behind him and a few fingers laid against his lips silenced the questions. I stroked his neck and made shushing noises at him, feeling the tension seep out of him. For all that he genuinely did enjoy the sex, I honestly thought he wanted to be petted and told he’d been good more. He fell asleep before too long.

I stayed awake trying to figure out what to do. We couldn’t keep on like this. It should never have started in the first place; I should have come up with a better cover story, not brought him into my house, not left him with no other options. I had honestly thought, that day after the binding ritual, that we were on the same page. All sense of personal space between us had just vanished, there’d been no awkwardness over the touches. He’d turned toward me like a plant to the sun. I thought things were clear.

I should have sent him away as soon as I realized I’d been wrong. I should send him away now. It was possible, it had to be.

He was bound to Chicago, not to me.

The chains from Gard’s Sight were buried in the ground. I merely reached in and tugged them. Harry was mine because the city was mine; if I broke my oaths, I would still be acknowledged under the Accords as ruler of this territory but the territory wouldn’t feel any obligation to submit to me. Harry would not need to obey me. Some betrayal of the city, perhaps, a bomb in a public place, something like that... was incredibly difficult to contemplate. Even the thought of deliberately and permanently leaving was harder to contemplate than a clean death.

My death, of course, would leave the City vulnerable. We had more than enough enemies who wouldn’t hesitate to destroy us for having dared to stand up for ourselves. I needed an heir capable of maintaining order before I could die. Someone I could trust Harry to. They, of course, would need his co-operation to take my place. My understanding was that, since the binding, Chicago drew quite a bit on the viewpoint of its Champion when it came to a true judgement call. It wasn’t exactly that the City didn’t have a mind of its own; it had too many, millions of sentient beings of dozens of species and God alone knew how many animals, ghosts, books, computer processors, genus locii, and government committees. There was no possibility that the composite being could be sane or comprehensible by human standards. Nor could it truly understand such small and separate creatures as we were. It needed an interpreter when trying to consider human behavior and Harry was the best it had. If he didn’t believe a candidate for Baron would defend and care for Chicago, that person was not going to have any success taking over. And Harry was part of Chicago.

I’d made other promises during the binding, of course, to Harry alone. Protection for him and his family. I didn’t think Harry had actually mentioned that to anyone. At the time, I’d thought Maggie was all there was. I’d been aware that his makeshift assortment of companions might arguably be included as well - Maggie’s Aunt Murphy, Uncle Michael, Uncle Thomas and so on - but that hadn’t been too much of a problem. Some of them wouldn’t ask me for water if they’d been set on fire and the rest had better sense or more courtesy than to ask anything unreasonable. If I’d known about his grandfather or godmother I might have phrased that oath differently. As it was, I was very glad that neither knew how much leverage they had over me.

If I hurt one of them, really hurt them, would it free Harry? Would I need to do less damage to someone who was actually related to him than to those who weren’t to get the same effect? Did it have to be physical? Ms. Murphy had already lost her career over my involvement with Harry, and that didn’t do anything... The matter again hinged on Harry’s perception of the matter, of my betrayal or lack thereof. Since he considered Murphy’s undeserved firing to be his fault rather than mine, my oath was unbroken. His tendency to take things on himself, combined with his self confessed low standards for being cared for, meant it would take something extreme to make an impact. It might take murder.

Maggie would come to harm over my dead body, and the Carpenters were innocents for the most part. Molly wasn’t but if I decided I had to die, there were less painful and more efficient ways to bring it down on myself than harming her. With Ms. Murphy’s having taken up one of the Swords all but officially, she was backed by Someone I couldn’t see myself winning a fight with. Raith, McCoy, and the Leanansidhe were somewhat viable options. The Leanansidhe was a question mark in every respect, which inclined me towards the other two. Raith would probably have less political repercussions and would certainly be the easiest to attack. If they survived, it was possible that either he or McCoy might be persuaded to stand down if I explained my motives. Harry could not be allowed to know why I did it. If he forgave me it would be all for nothing.

I lay in the dark, listening to Harry breath. Contemplating what he would find unforgivable. Remembering the way he’d said I wouldn’t hurt him and knowing he’d far rather endure physical injury than have his loved ones hurt.

I was damaging Harry by being with him, yes. Freeing him would hurt him more, would turn him into an enemy, would divide and leave vulnerable the forces that protected our city. He would still be the Champion of Chicago, and while there was a chance that for the her sake he wouldn’t start a civil war, there would be conflict. At best, he’d leave me. He’d take Maggie and go back to near or complete poverty, without even the resources he’d had before she came into his life. Only people who have always had it ever think that money doesn’t matter, but he barely spent any of what I gave him now; if I did this there was no way he’d ever accept my support again.

He would be free of me. If I asked, he would be horrified that I was considering it at the price. It was stupidity or cowardice or evil to be doing so anyway, just so I could stop watching him flinch. Just so I wouldn’t have to risk watching him change into someone I couldn’t love.

I wouldn’t do it. Not on purpose. I just wanted to.