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The Knight and the Pea

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February in Chicago isn't what anyone would call tropical, but after the bite and bone-deep cold of Winter, the nippy lake breeze that blows through the open Way feels almost balmy. I test it with my fingers, then slide both hands into my pockets, deeply angled and softly lined, and hop off the step of a frozen-over snow bank and into a downtown back alley. The pentacle around my neck lifts with me, and thunks against my chest on landing. Home sweet home. Or something like that.

The wind picks up when I close the Way, gusting in to fill the space in this realm, and takes a faded old grocery bag with it, blowing it drunkenly this way and that. I duck my chin -- it's mostly habit. I don't feel the cold like I used to -- and start towards the street. I've been away for a while, but things don't seem to have changed much. Still smells the same, all trash and cars and millions of people living close together. Still sounds the same. That's one thing about my city. You know what to expect.

...One thing I don't expect is the small form that steps around the corner of my alley as I approach the intersection with the sidewalk. I have my shield up and the words to throw a cannonball of force ready when he reaches up and pulls off his knit cap, shoving it in his pocket, and the pompom is replaced with a head of hair so wiry it springs up when it's released. He looks like a wire-topped Q-tip.

"Butters?" I drop the shield in time for him to walk through it and not into it, and he grips my arm, one hand on my elbow, the other resting on my forearm.

"Harry!" he squeezes just a bit, gives my arm a shake. I close my hand over his top one, the soft knit weave of his little drugstore gloves surprisingly rough under my fingers. "You're here!"

"Yeah," I say, blinking at his enthusiasm. I mean, I've missed the little guy, sure. But I wasn't expecting a welcome wagon. "Why are you?"

He smiles at me like I'm a particularly slow toddler and pats my hand, pulling me with him onto the sidewalk. "Like we don't keep any eye out for your returns," he says, chuckles, and takes his hands back to clap them together. "You still have friends here you know, Harry. Brr! Aren't you freezing?"

My arm's aching by the time Butters leads me into a little coffee shop by his work, and I flex my elbow carefully while dodging tables and baristas. The little guy's stronger than he looks. Who knew one-man polka was so demanding?


 

A distracted moment in the dojo, and a blow I should have and could have blocked lands -- square in the eye, because actors with wires can't jump like Murphy can when she's giving a flying kick. I tip over like a yardstick balanced on one end, wincing as I land on where she landed a love-tap to the ribs earlier. The mat is sweaty and a little gritty from the crap people track around on their feet without knowing it, and it sort of stinks, but I lay there for a second anyway. It's softer than the bed in the Water Beetle.

Immediately Murph's blown the whistle to end our session and she's offering a hand up, perfectly balanced beside me. "What's wrong?" she demands, pursed lips downturned. "Harry, you're moving like a zombie."

"Like a badass zombie," I say, automatically defensive. "I'm just feeling a little under the weather, Murph."

She frowns, taking her hand back. It's adorable, but saying so would be suicidal. "We're calling it a day. If I want a punching bag, I'll use the sand-filled ones. They're more of a workout."

"Wounded, Murph." I stand up and dust myself off.

Her face softens. "You want to go get a beer?"

I shift awkwardly. I haven't been back to Mac's in a while and I haven't been out with Murph in any non-job-related capacity (punching bag duty counts) since I was shot.

"Maybe later," I say, and she just nods.

"Get out of here then," she tells me, punching me on the shoulder and jerking her chin towards to locker room to gently shoo me away. "If we're done with your Night of the Living Dead routine, I'm actually going to get a workout in now." Good people, Murph.

The guy in the locker room mirror looks like a prize fighter, he's so beaten up. Butter's handprints haven't faded, wrapped around my elbow, pressed into the top of my arm. There are faint purple marks on my hand where Stallings pumped a little too hard last week. I rub two fingers over the raised welt where Murphy landed a hit on my chest earlier, the skin hot and red. There's a flower already blooming on my shoulder from her pulled, friendly punch, and the streaky, green-yellow swell of a black eye is pooling along one of my permanent late-night bags. It's frankly starting to worry me.

"Knock it off," I tell the guy in the mirror, not meeting his eyes. "You look like a battered husband. And you're not even married to her."


I don't know what business Kincaid has in Winter, but he's there when Mab makes one of her Consort Calls. I don't notice until we're done and I've crawled back out from under her gown, a white ice-cave of silk tulle, tongue nearly frostbitten and limbs loose and tingling in ways that have nothing to do with the cold.

I lift my chin and ignore him, but he meets up with me on the Ways out.

"Didn't know you had it in you!" he says, sounding impressed, and whacks me on the ass so hard I jump.

That night, his handprint is as clear as a green-edged tattoo. Hell's bells.


 

Carpenters swarm around me, pouring out of the minivan, fast-food bags in hand. Molly is still eying me warily: she has been since I was Knighted. I think she's wondering which brother is the more sexily damaged at this point. She keeps her distance, walking around me into the house. The other kids, though, they don't mind, and Daniel, home from school for the exam break, is all awkward smiles in the doorway and even Matthew waves at me, looking up from inhaling a triple-whopper that's half gone before he's inside. I smile back at everyone, shuffling and waiting for Michael to climb out of the car.

Then tiny Harry darts past me and Charity follows, whirling to catch Hope's milkshake before it capsizes and then back on target -- a precisely choreographed ballet that would have gone off without a hitch if I wasn't standing dead in her way.

Her elbow catches me hard in the cheek: I sit down, suddenly, and I don't know if the ringing "HARRY!" is concern for me or an order for her youngest not to run into the next yard over to pester their beagle. Harry-the-tiny-one comes back anyway, dashing over to tug on my shirtsleeve and coax me up with a piping: "C'mon Harry come meet Chester he's friendly!" He's bigger than I realized now, at least from this angle, and I do the mental math -- nine? ten? It's a cold sort of surprise, settles in my lungs, and I oblige his tugging efforts by grunting and groaning dramatically until I'm back up and towering over him, lurching after him up the sidewalk and into the tidy home, giving Chester an obligatory wave on the way.

Later that afternoon Molly is deliberately not playing a game of Horse when Michael loses his footing, his shuffling steps skidding on a patch of ice that the spring thaw hasn't withered away yet and his cane leaning uselessly against the garage door, and knocks me down, his firm shoulder splitting my lip as we tumble. We smother each other in apologies and the game breaks up.

That night, my little shaving mirror shows me a nasty fell-down-the-stairs type bruise across my cheek, my swollen lower lip. A nice matched set, really, and a good addition to my Dalmatian-spot collection.

I sigh, and hope rather than expect them to actually fade.


 

I'm playing bodyguard and arm candy for Maeve while she plays politics with Lara Raith -- who's acting on her father's behalf, of course. The fire crackles in a fireplace so ostentatious I wouldn't have thought I'd ever see one outside of a movie set, too hot for the season but Maeve puts out chill like a portable air conditioner, and Lara and Maeve smile and insult each other graciously. I keep my ear out for tone shifts, important words, and grin at Lara's security for something to do, a matched set of beach-bodied blonds with well-cut suits that don't do a thing to disguise their physical perfections. They're professionals and stare disinterestedly back, expressions flat, but she jerks her eyes away from mine before a soulgaze can start, and he shifts, his stance widening by a centimeter. Maeve strokes up my thigh and tuts at me, telling me coyly to behave.

Thomas lurks outside the doorway for a moment, makes eye contact, and walks past, crossing back a few minutes later to make eye contact again. A moment passes and a slender woman appears, her hair gleaming and white, up-swept in a bouffant and she's wearing delicate white gloves, bearing a tea set on a silver platter. Justine. She sets the table quietly, movements silky and smooth, barely marking our ladies' tightly, unerringly polite conversation with the punctuation of teacups.

She touches my wrist as she leans over me to fill my cup, her hand resting so lightly on mine that I barely feel the squeeze. It's enough, and her lips curve gently at my thanks when she offers the little sugar bowl.

Her touch is livid and dark by the evening, and at night, on the Water Beetle's tiny deck, I perform every test I can think of. I'm not bewitched, not cursed, not ill. I look out at the lake, and only realize then that the late night rain has turned to snow, a wet slushy mess that has banked up on the deck beside me. I shake the snow out of my hair, brush it off my tshirt, and stand with one hand wrapped around my new bruise. It's mine to keep.


 

I lie on the narrow slat bed in the Water Beetle, the boat rolling with the waves and the promise of an early summer storm, bumping gently against the dock, and run my hand under my shirt and trace the raised, heated mark spread across my stomach where I'd side-stepped Luccio and walked right into McKenzie at the meeting of the Eastern Region Wardens. A constellation composed of five individual bruises is speckled around it, one for each of his fingers where he'd caught me before we'd both gone sprawling. My back throbs where he'd clapped it a moment after, a swollen knot that I press back into the hard little bed before I roll to my feet. Mouse raises his head.

"Come on, boy," I say. "Time to get out of here. You want some steak?"

The Alphas are at Mac's, the three of them that are left, anyway, and Andi squishes me in a hug as soon as I walk through the door, Georgia moving in to follow suit and Billy, a half step behind her, grips my arm, overlaying Butter's old touch. I haven't seen them since before my Knighthood, and they pull me over to their table, chatter around me, until I mumble something about my meeting tomorrow and stagger to my feet. Mac's left a bag of bones and leftovers on the bar, and I walk into him turning the corner when I go to get it.

I reel, aching where my chin glanced off his forehead, and find the wall before I go down. He grunts something that could be surprise or could be a question, and I nod, palm cupping my jaw. "You okay?" I ask, gaze darting to what might be a red mark on his bald head.

"Hnng," he says, waves a dismissive hand, and hands me the bag from the bar.

"The pony thanks you," I say, and can hear Mouse's tail thumping against the wall where he's waiting at the top of the stairs.

My ribs are an impressionist's interpretation by the time I'm back in the little boat, my chin purple. I lie back in bed and catalogue each touch, offered and accidental, each bruise and bump, file them away by incident and place and person, cross-referenced on my body and in my head. They aren't going away.


 

Nine o'clock and Maeve doesn't appear in a flurry of snowflakes and blatant sexuality, and I know I'm going to be Winter's only presence at this meeting. I duck the crowd headed for the elevator and go up the stairwell instead. Hendricks is waiting for me at the top, strands of grey peeking through the shock of his red hair, and I'm glad for the physical benefits of Knighthood when I'm not sweaty and out of breath and can smile cheekily and call him Ronald McDonald instead of panting my defiance. He grabs me by the shoulder and escorts me into the boardroom; my knees almost buckle.

I feel someone watching when I fuss with the lever to make the chair sit higher; look up and narrow my gaze at the dollar-bill green eyes leveled at my own. My shoulder gives a throb, safe under the layers of glamour and my long-sleeved tshirt, and I don't let it touch the chair when I sit down. John opens the file folder in front of him and somehow calls the room into silence without sounding like a presumptuous upstart; I close my eyes, feeling the outline of Hendrick's hand as the bruise takes hold, sinking into my skin.


 

John's eyes track me from across the boardroom as waiting quiet replaces the last trailing discussion, and I glare back, confident that he can't actually see the bruises that are still violet-dark on my face and arms and torso. I shift uncomfortably anyway: the welt Kincaid left on my ass still a faint ache when I put my weight on it.

"We done? Good." I stand up and pop my knuckles. "Later, folks. John." I stalk out, hearing the meeting break up behind me, murmurs and wrapping-up sounds. It's fifteen floors down; I make a face. It'll be easier going down than it was hauling my bones up, though, Winter Knight or no.

On the sixth floor landing, John steps into the stairwell, fresh and unruffled. Bastard took the elevator. He pulls a key ring out of his pocket, locks the floor entry, and puts the keys away again.

"Mister Dresden. You left before we could talk." His mouth tips up to the side.

"Fuck you, Doctor Phil," I advise him, pushing around and heading for the stairs again.

He grabs me on the shoulder, hand fitting neatly into the blue-black handprint of his bodyguard. I wince despite myself.

"Don't think it hasn't been noticed, Mister Dresden," he says lightly: a jolt of panic comes through my arm and I'm smacking his hand away before I realize what I'm doing. "Your new body ornamentation. How . . . Johnny Cash."

"You don't get to insult me anymore, Baron," I hiss at him, irrationally angry at the suggestion that I get myself hurt on purpose. My body's just doing this.

Something changes in his eyes; he's figured something out, I don't know what. He eyebrows at me and says: "That was hardly an insult. Insulting you would have been comparing you to a teenage cutter who wants Daddy's attention. But that's not what it is, is it, Knight?"

He moves like a snake. His hand slams palm-first against my chest, knocking me back into the stairwell wall. It knocks the wind out of me -- he's STRONG, dammit -- and while I'm wheezing he follows me, pressing me back into the concrete with his body weight.

"Fff," I wheeze, and he snarls at me silently, his teeth right up in my face. One hand is still flat on my chest. The other drags down my side and back, cupping my ass just before his fingers dig in. Hard. I gasp, and then give a breathy yelp as his palm lands on the erection I'd been trying to will down through most of the meeting. I kept getting distracted, imagining that he could see all the touches that had left the bruises -- now I wonder if he actually can, somehow. The thought weakens my knees and makes me pulse against his palm. He smirks. And leans into me, inhaling the scent of my skin. And bites down on my shoulder, giving a dog-like head shake to make sure that the bruise takes.

It's enough. I shudder and spit out a curse and come in my pants like a teenage boy.

His massaging hand stills and cups me, gently, as I soften. When I can meet his eyes again, he's not smirking anymore. He's looking at me almost clinically, and he wipes his hand down on a gray silk handkerchief (who the hell carries handkerchiefs?) before he tugs the neck of my t-shirt to one side and says: "Show me."

More to spite him than anything, wanting to give him a shock, I drop the glamour. He eyes the teeth marks that are already darkening.

Then he dips forward and kisses them. I rear back so hard that I smack my head against the concrete wall -- suddenly his hand is cupping my head, protecting it from another blow. He kisses my black eye, bruised cheek and chin; his breath touches my fat lip, and his lips follow so lightly it's barely contact at all. A kiss on the temple is as close as he can get to the lump that's forming on the back of my skull.

"Still among the living, Mister Dresden," he says, almost as if he's hoping that I'll accept his verdict, not sure I can. His fingers move in my hair and it can't possibly be a caress. "You don't have to collect them. The way you live, more will come." And something in the way he's looking into my eyes for reassurance tells me -- he doesn't mean that I'm accident prone. We both hear the footsteps, echoing, climbing up towards our floor: he sighs quietly, tucks the silk handkerchief into my pants, and steps back, unlocking the sixth-floor door and vanishing.


 

The next morning I wake up and my skin is clear-ish, the most recent bruises fading. Even the bite-mark on my shoulder (Stars!) is starting to lighten and turn colors to show that it's healing.

So maybe the criminal scum asshole jerk has a point. I didn't give up human contact when I signed on with Mab. You don't have to collect them.

I look at the mark on my shoulder -- it's turning colors, but the sensation of his lips touching me is the one that lingers. I make a mental note to find out what the hell drugs he was on, and file the whole thing far away from the OTHER thing.

Shoulder eye cheek chin lip temple shoulder. More will come.