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keep your own wounds green

Chapter Text

I couldn’t hear the water, but I knew it was there beneath the floor, deep and fast. Whoever prepared this trap knew me well. I wouldn’t have come if I’d known about the water, kids or - aw, hell. It was kids. I’d still have come, but I might have called someone first.

Running water is to wizards what kryptonite is to Superman, except it doesn’t make us sick. It just takes away our ability to use magic, locks it down deep inside us. And right here and now, I needed my magic as badly as I had ever needed it. If I didn’t get myself out of this, it wasn’t just me that would pay the price for my overconfidence. It was those ten kids one room over. I couldn’t see them now, but I could hear them, reminding me of the consequences. They’d been bait before, and now they were the price of my inaction. If I moved a hair more than I absolutely had to to breathe, the whole building would go up, Harry Dresden, kids, and all. He had told me. My visitor.

My hands trembled. I tried to still them. My arms were getting tired, but I didn’t know what the trigger was. It could be anything. It could be everything. He hadn’t told me. I’d begged.

So I couldn’t move my hands, I couldn’t shift my weight. And anyway, if my hands dropped, I’d choke to death trying not to move my head since my wrists were wrapped with the same material cinched around my neck. I wasn’t sure what it was, but it was smooth and -

Okay, fine. It was a leash. I could smell the leather and the metal. And the fact that it was a leash gave me some idea who was responsible for this mess. Stark naked, kneeling, blindfolded, leashed to a pole in a dark stone room? Had to be vampires. Probably Red Court, since as far as I knew the White Court was still more or less invested in my personal safety.

What I didn’t know was why I wasn’t a bloodless corpse already. Duchess Arianna, for one, would be thrilled beyond words by my untimely demise. There had to be something they needed me for, something more important than getting revenge. I could only think of a few people who wanted to hurt me more than the Red Court, and even fewer who had enough power to get the Reds to hand me over. The Denarians, for one. The Erlking. The Winter Queen. He Who Walks Behind. So I have a habit of annoying people who have more capital letters than morals.

Anyway, no matter how you looked at it, I was in trouble. Those were all creatures who made the Merlin (hey! Another guy with a title who hates me!) look like a pretentious juvenile delinquent, and the way I was now, there was nothing I could do to stop them from taking me or the Reds from draining the children once I’d been traded.

 

It felt like I knelt there for hours. I probably did; wizards, in general, have an excellent grasp of the flow of time, though it doesn’t stop most of them from being late to anything important. Eventually, the door opened again, swung back just far enough to tap the wall lightly. A polite warning that someone was coming in. I would have known anyway, though. It made no sound, but the feel of the displaced air against my skin was evidence enough.

It was all I could do to keep from jerking when my visitor’s fingers touched my shoulder. You can’t move, you can’t move , I chanted to myself. It helped. A little. The fingers dragged lightly across my back to the other shoulder, slid down my clavicle. One rested for a moment in the hollow at the base of my neck. I focused on breathing.

The finger tilted until the tip of my visitor’s nail was against my skin. It dragged up my neck and over the leash, under my chin, forcing it up a fraction of an inch. I control you, it said. I’d had things try to control me before. I’d been stalked and blackmailed and coerced and in the end I’d found a way out. Being controlled was nothing new. I could handle people trying to control me.

I wasn’t sure I could handle this.

“Harry Dresden,” my visitor said. He - it was a he, though I still didn’t recognize the voice - had a rich voice, as complex as the sensations I poured into a potion.

At this point in the kidnap-and-imprison procedure, I generally said something witty and defiant. The words wouldn’t come. It was like I was empty. Like the only thing that existed was his voice and the cold stone floor under my aching knees. Like I could stay there forever, and like I’d do anything, anything at all, to leave.

“You’re beautiful like this, you know,” my visitor continued conversationally. “On your knees. Do you know your lips have parted? You are flushed. Your nipples are hardening. I wonder what would happen if I ran my fingers through your hair, if you would tilt your head into my hand... But you can’t. If you do, they’ll die. Are you wondering what it would be like to choose? If it were not me, but someone else, someone you admire, someone you lust for. If the only consequences for movement were that person’s disappointment. Would you do anything to please them?”

His fingers brushed over my mouth, traced my cheekbone. I licked my lips. They were chapped and dry. The wetness stung.

“Let me tell you something, Mr. Dresden. If I were someone you cared about? You would. You would lay the world at their feet to make them happy. It’s written all over you, the way you move, the way you snap at those you know can give you what you want. Everyone can see it; your friends, your enemies, people you meet on the street. You will not die here, Mr. Dresden. Someone will come for you. Someone will see you kneeling naked on the floor, leashed, hands bound together, unmoving, and glad of it. You will not, as you are wont, forget.”

He lifted his hand from my face, and walked out of the room. The door closed soundlessly behind him. I continued to kneel, motionless, in the darkness.


I knew it was Marcone from the moment the door opened. Wizards have excellent senses, on the whole, but I shouldn’t have known his scent, shouldn’t have recognized the combination of expensive cologne and gunpowder and ink in the rush of air from the opening door. From the rustle of his clothing, I shouldn’t have known that he had paused in the doorway, shouldn’t have been able to picture the pensive, conflicted angle of his head. The rhythm of his steps should not have been familiar, shouldn’t have immediately settled into my heartbeat, into the pulse of blood through my body. And even if I ought to have been able to know this, it shouldn’t have mattered. There were children nearby, young and frightened and cold, and I had been kneeling so long without motion that my muscles had locked, knotted into immobility. But as soon as he walked in -

I still cared. But with every breath I took, my throat pressed into the warm smooth weight of the leash around my neck. Each soft drift of air against my skin felt like the impossibly smooth substantiality of still water. His scent filled the air, and every breath I took I breathed him in. He didn’t speak. I thought that would make it better, but it didn’t. If he had spoken, I could have focused on his words, could have ignored the soft precision of his voice. But he didn’t speak, and I - had no choice but to bear it. There was nowhere I could go, nothing I could do to hide the rising heat in my body, the unevenness of my breath.

I’ll say this much for him; he tried not to touch me. He unwrapped the leash from the pole, from my hands, and his skin never brushed mine. The tremors of the leash did, though. Its slide. The changing pressure. His sleeve rasped against my shoulder as he gently unwound the leather around my neck, and I bit my cheek until it bled. He dropped it on the floor, a dull thud and a brief clank of metal, impossibly loud after so long in the silence. He moved to the blindfold, his hands quick and precise at the knot. Each tug changed the pressure of the fabric on my face and scalp. I stopped breathing for a moment. It fell off and he tossed it to the floor. A quiet susurration. I didn’t want to open my eyes. If I opened my eyes, if I saw him, it was real.

When at last he untied my ankles, I tried to stand. Standing would work, too. Standing was good. Standing in clothes would be better, but I figured I could handle standing naked, as long as I kept my back to him. I couldn’t let him - well. There was no way he hadn’t noticed, but hell’s bells, I could pretend he hadn’t. I had to pretend he hadn’t. Ostriches and me? We are brothers.

Naturally, standing didn’t really work out. My legs refused to unbend and I fell flat on my face. Pain coursed through my body. You know how sometimes you’re lying in bed, and you stretch and your muscle seizes? It was like that, except it was every fiber of muscle in my arms and legs. I didn’t scream. That seemed like enough of an accomplishment, so I pretty much checked out after that.

When the pain died down enough for me to think again, I was folded up on the floor, my face hot with tears. Something was draped over me - my duster. He’d brought my duster. I could feel the heat from his body radiating a few feet away - close, but not too close, like he wasn’t quite sure what to do. What it was okay for him to do. That was fine. I didn’t know either. I needed to get out of there, I needed heat on my knotted muscles in order to move. I didn’t know what I’d do if he touched me. I didn’t want to think about it.

Eventually, he left. He put his hand on my duster-covered shoulder for a moment, though, before he walked out the door, presumably to let me know he’d be back. I waggled a hand at him from underneath my duster cocoon. Fine, fine, go get somebody to get the dead-spider-wizard out of the magic-dampening room, whatever. Please. I needed to get started on forgetting all of this anyway.

When Michael walked into the basement room, I was shaking, and I couldn’t stop.t He walked over to me, laid his hands on my shoulders, and hauled me up. I fell into him, my hands twisting into his shirt. He smelled like sunlight, newly-sawn wood, and fresh bread, nothing complicated, just comfort and friendship and uncomplicated affection. I got my feet under me, more or less, and he half-carried, half-dragged me out of that damn basement into the early morning light outside the church. The kids were sitting in a cluster in the yard, wrapped in blankets. It looked like they were drinking hot chocolate. I counted them.

Nine. There were only nine.

“Who?” I said. It was the first thing I’d said since they grabbed me the night before.

“Jeremy Evans,” Michael said. “He was nine. Harry, you didn’t - “

Jeremy Evans. I hadn’t saved him. I hadn’t saved any of them. And I’d been so caught up in my own head, in my own body, that I hadn’t even heard him die.

Chapter Text

I was pretty busy, the next couple of weeks. There was all the paperwork from my last case with the Chicago PD, Little Chicago needed an update, and I got a case in Indiana. I wouldn’t normally have taken a case so far out of town - too many things can go wrong when you’re outside your comfort zone, even when someone’s not actively trying to kill you - but it was a favor to a friend of a friend. Sort of. Anyway, it wasn’t dangerous, it helped pay the bills, and it got me out of Chicago for a few days. I needed to think, or not think, somewhere far away from everyone.

There are some rules for being kidnapped. Don’t eat or drink anything that isn’t sealed. Don’t mouth off; it only gets you hurt - I suck at that, but hey, at least I heal quickly. And don’t listen to anything your kidnapper says. I mean, if they’re monologuing about their evil plans, go for it, but if they’re just talking? Don’t listen.

It’s not just so you don’t go all Patty Hearst. See, the thing about kidnappers? They want something from you. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t have taken you. Maybe it’s just money. It’s rarely just money. Even if it is, that doesn’t mean they won’t try to hurt you. In practical terms, if you’re hurt, you’re more vulnerable, you’re easier to control. But that isn’t why they want to hurt you. The more broken you are, the stronger they feel.

I knew that, but it didn’t make it any easier to forget what my visitor had said. Because the thing about words? They only hurt if there’s some truth to them.

 

Five days after I got back from Indiana, Jeremy Evans was laid to rest. I went, of course. It’s what you do, if you’re there. When someone dies. I couldn’t go up to his parents and tell them it was my fault their son was dead - they wouldn’t believe me. Just a freak accident, children trapped underground, and me trapped in another part of the basement. So all I could do was stand there in the fog as his coffin was lowered into the ground, and promise him I’d get whatever it was that had done that to him.

So that’s what I did. It was a nasty morning, cold and wet; good weather for a funeral. A sunny funeral is like a sleeting wedding, except even more of an affront. Condensation clung to the gravestones and to the too-white plastic of the low fence surrounding the graveyard. Jeremy’s mother’s hair glittered with tiny droplets of water where it lay on the black shoulder of her dress. For once, my long black duster didn’t look out of place. Harry Dresden, Wizard, always dressed for a funeral.

As long as no one could see my t-shirt and jeans. What can I say? It’s hard finding clothes to fit me, and the way I go through them - I hadn’t bothered to buy a button-down shirt since I was dating Susan. Anyway, like I said, the duster looked proper enough.

The coffin had been set beside the grave, ready to be lowered in. It was a small coffin - I’ve always hated that, the inescapable reminder that the person in that box died before they had a chance to live - and it was covered in flowers. Not lilies or roses. Wildflowers. Ropes of clover draped the coffin. Lopsided dandelion crowns were heaped on it at random, and I imagined the surviving children huddling over them, their fingers stained green and brown with sap. Great drifts of queen anne’s lace, lupine, and black-eyed susans shrouded the coffin in a soft profusion of autumn flowers. It looked natural, somehow, as if the death was in rhythm with the seasons, as if his death was as quiet and inevitable as the withering of leaves.

It wasn’t, of course. His death was painful and terrifying and unnatural. It shouldn’t have happened. Not to him, and not so soon. But it was a nice thought. I wondered who had come up with it. Maybe Father Forthill - but then I saw Charity standing quietly beside Michael, her face as still as the stones surrounding us. She looked old, standing there, and I knew. Jeremy Evans’ death was chance. It could have been any of the church’s children. It could have been one of hers, and this is what she would have wanted if it had been.

Next time, it might be. Sure, Michael wasn’t a Knight anymore, but that didn’t mean he’d stopped fighting the good fight, and as long as he knew me, her children were doubly in danger. I’d tried to keep my distance, but Michael had never let me draw away. And now there was Molly, too, another bond tying me inextricably to the Carpenter family, keeping them in danger.

Molly is my apprentice. She’s also Michael and Charity’s eldest, and since she’s started working with magic, she’s nearly died twice. Once, because she broke the Laws. The second time? She just got caught up in a mess that had nothing to do with her. Chances were it would happen again, and soon. As much as I like having the Grasshopper around, I (and Charity) would prefer for her to be far, far away from me.

Of course, if she stops being my apprentice, both she and I will be executed by the White Council. So she stays alive as best she can, and I keep her alive as best I can. It’s working out so far, apart from the second near-death incident. If I were a praying man, I’d pray that I could teach her enough to survive. But I’m not, and her folks pretty much have the praying covered, so most of the time, I just try not to think about it.

The service wasn’t very long. Even if bad weather’s the best for a funeral, it still doesn’t mean anyone wants to stand out in it for long. Father Forthill made a good job of it; he said what needed to be said, the coffin was lowered into the ground, and we all trooped past for a last goodbye. As I passed by, I dropped a charm into the grave - just a little thing. I couldn’t stop the kid from dying, but maybe I could keep his corpse out of the next zombie uprising in Chicago.

What? They’re more common than you think.

 

On the way out of the cemetery, Michael pulled me aside for a quick word.

“You can’t blame yourself, Harry,” he told me seriously. His mouth was tight with pain, a reminder of another of my failures. “Whatever took you is responsible for this, not you.”

“And yet, if that thing hadn’t been trying to get to me, Jeremy Evans would never have been in danger,” I said. I know. We’re only responsible for our own actions, not the actions of others - but what exactly constitutes ‘our own actions’ is a lot more debatable than you might think. And as far as I was concerned, Jeremy Evans was dead because of choices I had made. I’d pissed off somebody, and Jeremy was the collateral damage in their revenge.

“It killed Jeremy because it wanted to, Harry. It wasn’t part of some plan. It wasn’t revenge. Jeremy was just there when it felt like killing. If it had not been Jeremy, it would have been some other child; if it had not been at the church where it was holding you, it would have been somewhere else. His death is not on your soul, Harry, whatever you might think,” Michael said, his voice grave. I looked into his face. He meant what he said, but then, Michael always did. I forced a smile.

“I know, Michael. Call it survivor’s guilt, if you want.”

“You couldn’t’ve done anything to stop his death.” We were nearly at the road, where Charity waited with little Harry. She was too still, frozen by her efforts to not hold him as tightly as she could into an unnatural stillness. She didn’t want to scare him.

“Nothing that I know of,” I said. “Maybe there was something. But I didn’t even try.”

I hadn’t tried, no, but it was more than that. If I hadn’t listened to my visitor, if I hadn’t let his touch distract me. If I hadn’t forgotten why I was there, too busy thinking about - I felt sick. I couldn’t tell Michael any of that. As an ex-Knight, he’d seen a lot of things, and I’d never met anyone with his capacity for forgiveness. He’d forgive me, sure. And he’d never look at me again like he was looking at me now - like he saw someone worth saving.

“Harry, you forced yourself to maintain the same position for over twelve hours because the slightest movement would result in the deaths of ten children. That is hardly nothing; there are few men who have the strength of will to accomplish such a feat.”

It didn’t seem like very much to me. It was exactly what my visitor had wanted. He’d wanted me to wait. He’d wanted someone to find me. For the first time, I wondered who.

Michael stopped, and gently touched my shoulders, turning me to face him.

“Harry,” he said. “Sometimes it takes more courage to do nothing.”

I waited. He held me for a few more moments, then patted my shoulders and limped off to his car. Charity hugged him as soon as he came within arm’s reach, clinging desperately. I turned away, walking towards the Blue Beetle. It wasn’t something I deserved to see.

Chapter Text

I was halfway home when the Beetle sighed, stopped, and wheezed to a halt in the middle of an empty street. I got out, looking up and down the sidewalk for a payphone to call Mike for a tow. Nada. It was largely residential, full of quiet, empty houses in the middle of the day - kids at school, parents at work. I couldn’t ask to borrow a phone, in any case. However, if I remembered right, there was an El station a couple of blocks towards the lake. There’d be a payphone there, if not before. I leaned into the backseat of the Beetle, grabbed my blasting rod, and began the complex process of unwinding myself from its clutches.

Hey, I’m a tall guy, and spaciousness isn’t the Beetle’s selling point.

Point is, I was pretty focused, so I was completely surprised when I finally extracted myself from the car to find John Marcone leaning on the other side, an expression of feline amusement on his face. You know the one - Mister makes the same face whenever I do something particularly human, like trip over the edge of one of my rugs and catapult into the couch. I resisted the urge to make a face at him.

“You’ve been avoiding me, Mr. Dresden,” he said. He was wearing a black suit with a gray shirt - at least, I thought it was gray, but on closer inspection, it turned out to be kind of lavender. Hunh. The suit fit like it came from the Silk District in New York City, and maybe it had. Marcone ran the kind of business that called for suits sharp enough to cut glass.

“No, I haven’t,” I told him. Just like I hadn’t been avoiding Michael and Thomas and Father Forthill and Murphy an - yeah, it was a lie. But he didn’t know that. It wasn’t like we had a weekly wizard/criminal scumbag coffee date or anything. Our business just didn’t intersect all that often, which I guess is kind of strange for a private detective and a mob boss. “I’ve been busy.”

“In Indiana, yes,” Marcone said slowly. He eased up against the car. I hoped, vindictively, that it was dusty. “Isn’t that a little outside your normal range?”

“They needed the help,” I said. His money-green eyes narrowed. “What?”

“And were there not more pressing matters in Chicago?” he asked, and leaned a little more firmly into the roof of the Beetle. The sun was beginning to warm up. The last of the damp had come off the grass. It was shaping up into one of those hot autumn days, the kind where everything is perfectly clear and underneath the heat you can still feel the encroaching cold.

“Noooo...” I said slowly. “What do you have in mind?”

“The matter of your kidnapping? Or is that entirely too inconsequential to deserve your singularly destructive attention?”

Normally, he’d be right. Normally, when people kidnap me, I get angry. Buildings fall down. Sometimes I start a war. I don’t back off and I don’t back down. It’s a personality thing. But this time? I’d spent several weeks ignoring it, and as far as I was concerned, I could just keep on ignoring it. My visitor wouldn’t kidnap me again. There was no point in blowing things up to make a point. Maybe I was growing up. Maybe I was in denial. I was distantly aware that my breathing was strange, too fast, too light.

“It doesn’t matter. It’s not like - it won’t happen again,” I said, and patted myself on the back for a mostly-even tone. Well done, Harry. “It’s over.”

“A child died,” he said, and I - lost control. Wayward magic careened out into the neighborhood. Up and down the street, car alarms went off. Showers of sparks burst from the light poles, and the plastic of the light covers shattered and sprayed out, covering the street in sharp, sparkling slivers. The Blue Beetle gave a despairing groan, and clouds of acrid white smoke began to drift from under the hood. Power lines fizzed. And that was just outside. I bet the inside looked a hell of a lot worse.

I bit down, grinding my teeth together, trying to pull my magic back inside me. It wasn’t easy. I still wasn’t breathing so well, for one thing. Marcone finally noticed, and made as if to walk around the car towards me.

Back off ,” I told him. Sure, he was criminal scum, but he’d protected Ivy. If I was going to fry him, I’d do it on purpose. So I started counting. 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13... I got all the way to 6765 before he spoke again. My breathing had slowed a little. Enough.

“Harry - “ he started, then stopped and frowned. His hands were folded a little too calmly on the roof of the Beetle. Most people wouldn’t have stayed with me when things started to go boom. Most people aren’t Gentleman Johnny Marcone. When he walks, his balls drag the ground. “I am investigating the matter, and I wished to ask for your cooperation and to offer you what information has come into my possession.”

“Why?” I asked, and jammed my hands into the pockets of the duster, trying to avoid the magical paraphernalia. “It’s got nothing to do with you or your business. Jeremy was at a church, not caught in some gang war. He - my visitor was supernatural. My problem, not yours.”

“Is it not enough that I witnessed the aftermath of the creature’s presence?” he asked me gently. I scoffed.

“No. It’s not enough.” There had to be another reason. But to find it, I’d have to think about - it didn’t matter. If Marcone wanted to investigate, fine by me.

“Then consider this, Harry. I am the Baron of Chicago. You - and the child - are citizens of Chicago, and under my protection. Whatever it was, it came into my land and toyed with what is mine. I will not allow this, or any other such trespasses, to go unpunished.” His voice was still too gentle. It didn’t match his words. Something wasn’t right, there was something he wasn’t saying. Something he wasn’t telling me. I started shaking. I couldn’t breathe. He reached out across the car towards me, his hand extending slowly and cautiously and all I could see - I couldn’t see. It was silent and lightless. There was no sound. Nothing but the cold and the darkness, and if I moved, someone would die.

Something sharp snapped across my face. I ran.

Chapter Text

Somehow, I got all the way to my apartment without coming out of it. When I finally woke up, I was sitting on my couch, staring at the wall. From the dryness of my eyes, they’d been open for a while. My ears were still ringing faintly, that pulsating, untraceable tone that buzzes irritatingly in your ears whenever you’re dehydrated or dizzy or get a knock on the head. Mouse was draped over me, his ears alert and his eyes fixed on my face. I patted his head.

“Good Mouse,” I told him.

Mister, of course, was nowhere to be seen. He doesn’t like it when I show human weakness. It makes him reconsider the wisdom of his allegiances. I’d have to give him an extra can of tuna later to make up for it, or risk being mildly disemboweled the next time I tripped over him sleeping on the carpet.

I got up and made my way to the bathroom. My legs were still shaky, burning with adrenaline and the aftermath of a panic attack. I had to do something about this. It made me too vulnerable. I couldn’t run every time I came in contact with someone who had been there that day. And I definitely couldn’t black out every time I spoke to Marcone. As much as I hated to admit it, it was probably time to do some serious thinking.

It just didn’t make sense. Why had only one child been killed? They had been there for hours; it would have been easy enough to kill all of them, and I might have assumed that a careless movement had been the thing that killed them. For that matter, why had my visitor taken such pains to kidnap and imprison me, and then arranged for my release? My enemies were generally more on the bloodily-murder side of the kidnapping-for-revenge fence. If my visitor had been gunning for me, he’d succeeded, but it just didn’t add up. There had to be something I was missing. Some other motive. Someone else my visitor wanted to hurt.

I went to talk to Bob, more because I felt a little too unbalanced to be talking to myself than because I actually wanted his input.

“So, you’re floundering about in ignorance and denial as usual.” Bob said after I finished explaining. “The only thing tougher than your ability to lie to yourself is your competitiveness. Maybe you should work on that, Boss.”

“Male, humanoid,” I said. “How many people have I pissed off that fit that description?”

The skull laughed incredulously. Yeah, that had been a stupid question. I’d pissed off a lot of people in the years I’d been working in Chicago, and most of them were still out there, or, if they weren’t, had relatives who were.

“Where should I start , Harry?” I scowled at it.

And fit the specifics of the case, Bob. Lawful evil, neutral evil, chaotic evil? Think about it. Only one child died. I’m alive. I’m not even bruised. The only way anyone would’ve known where we were was if the guy who kidnapped us told someone - “ I froze. Told Marcone . My visitor had to have told Marcone where I was, and how to free me. “Hell’s bells, Bob.”

“Finally figured out that your mafia sweetheart has a stake in this?” he asked, his tone oddly concerned. “Stars and stones, Harry, it was obvious.”

I hadn’t wanted to think about it. Thinking about why Marcone had been there meant thinking about my reaction to him, to the situation. Which meant thinking about what my visitor had said. That was no excuse, though. I was letting my desires blind me again, just as I had in that room.

“The Red Court’s a good candidate,” I told Bob, ignoring the crack about my mafia sweetheart. Marcone was no one’s sweetheart, least of all mine. “Prostitution, violence, and I’ve killed enough of theirs in this war. There’s bound to be some vamps out for revenge. But it just doesn’t add up - why involve Marcone? He and Bianca used to compete for business, but he didn’t have that much to do with how that ended. And why kill only one child? That’s not like a Red.”

In that room, I’d been sure it was, but between the sensory deprivation and the mental torture, I hadn’t been at my best. It was looking less and less likely that a vampire, especially a Red, could’ve been behind the - it.

“And whoever this is maintained a human shape over running water, Harry,” Bob told me. “Not easy for a hematophage.”

“Next up is the White Court,” I continued. “Lara Raith has reasons to want me around, and House Raith will back her. But Raith isn’t the only House, and after that business with Madrigal and Vittorio, Malvora and Skavis have plenty of reasons to want me dead or out of commission. It’s the sort of situation they’d enjoy setting up. But again, it doesn’t add up - why let me go? Why kill a child? The White Court generally doesn’t bother with children.”

“They do have a good reason to mess with Marcone, though,” Bob said thoughtfully. “Right now, the White Court and the outfit are the two major players in the industry. It’s indirect, and it’s poetic, just like the Whites like.”

“Pretty big assumption you’re making there, Bob,” I said. His eye sockets flared up like he was about to argue with me. I glared at him. “And anyway, it doesn’t matter - if one of them had kidnapped me, word would have gotten around. They can’t stand not talking about their accomplishments.”

“And then Lara Raith would’ve killed them,” Bob agreed. “She wants in your pants bad, Boss.”

“Whatever,” I told him. “There are probably some necromancers left over from that thing with Cowl, but they’re small fry, and hopelessly bad at planning. And again, they’d have killed all the children. The next big contender is the Denarians. Always the Denarians. It wasn’t Nicodemus, but that doesn’t mean anything, and they’ve got a bone to pick with Marcone after last year.”

“Can’t rule ‘em out,” Bob agreed. “Could be another go at tempting you into their clutches. Could be something else. Hard to tell with Denarians.”

“They’re near the top of the list. After that it’s Summer, Winter, and the Black Council,” I said, ticking them off on my fingers. “Summer wants me dead before Mab can make me her Knight, but they don’t want to kill me directly, and they have a problem with a vanilla mortal signing the Accords. Same thing with Winter, except Mab wants me to be her Knight. The Black Council is always a suspect, though this seems sort of roundabout for them.”

“Harry, you’re talking about the people who instigated the showy attacks,” Bob said. “They’ll have other plans in motion, and those won’t be so obvious, or so easy to foil.”

“I nearly died!” I protested.

“You do that semi-annually,” Bob told me callously. “But Harry...”

I didn’t like his tone. It was cautious and reluctant, like he didn’t like what he had to say. Like I had to hear it anyway.

“What?”

“There’s one group that’s not on your list.”

“And it is?” I couldn’t think of any. Sure, I’d pissed off other people, but they were mostly dead or not the sort of evil that went for a plan that convoluted.

“The White Council,” Bob said, and went dark. I didn’t blame him.

The White Council and I have a complicated relationship. They nearly killed me when I was sixteen, and for ten years, I lived under the constant threat of decapitation, and my parole officer had tried, again and again, to trick me into breaking the Laws. Thereby allowing him to cut off my head. Since the Doom had been lifted, my relationship with the Council had sweetened a little, but I hadn’t really improved my reputation by accidentally starting a war with the Red Court, or by defending Michael’s daughter Molly after her flirtation with dark magic. They’d had to make me a Warden eventually, simply because there were too few Wardens left to fulfill the duties of the Council without me.

I had my supporters, but although many of them were Council heavyweights, they couldn’t go directly against the will of the Merlin, and boy did he ever have it out for me. Something about me disagreed with him. Maybe it was my manly beauty. Hey, you can’t win them all.

Still, I didn’t think that they’d try to hurt me, not on purpose. They didn’t trust me, but they needed me, and they needed me bad. It was in their own best interests to keep me alive and functioning as long as possible, and no one has ever been able to fault the Council on their protection of their interests.

But - the problem was, the White Council wasn’t all that stable these days. There was a traitor, somewhere. People who should have been safe kept dying. And no one knew how. If my visitor had been a member of the White Council, he might not have had a choice.

“It’d still be the Black Council,” I said at last. “Just working through the White Council.”

Bob stayed dark. I rolled my eyes, and climbed out of the basement. I had some calls to make.

Chapter Text

The first person I called was Karrin Murphy. Murphy is my liaison with the Chicago PD. She’s 5’2”, has soft blonde hair, and a face that can only be described as ‘cute’ - as long as it’s not in her hearing. She’s a black belt and has a disturbing fondness for automatic weaponry. Murphy used to be in charge of SI, the department that tries to deal with - or explain away - the things that go bump in the night. Thanks to me, she’d been demoted to sergeant.

Recently, however, she’d been made a job offer. It had a shitty retirement plan, but the working benefits were heavenly - literally. More importantly, if she took it, she’d be able to make a difference in a big way, and that matters to Murph. It’s one of the reasons I like her. Anyway, she’d turned it down, but it wasn’t the sort of offer that expired. Rather, it was the kind that eventually you kind of have to accept. Circumstances will conspire. Still, it didn’t seem to be causing her to lose any sleep at night. Murph’s a Stoic.

The phone rang and rang. Eventually she picked up, though not before the ring had gotten sort of grainy. What can I say? I was stressed, stressed wizards are bad for telephones. And any other sort of machinery. My water heater was going to have had a nervous breakdown before I finished calling around.

“Hello?” she said, voice groggy. I realized, suddenly, that it was after midnight.

“Shit, Murphy, I’m sorry,” I said. “I’ll call you back tomorrow.”

“Harry?” she asked, sounding more alert. “No, it’s okay, don’t hang up. Are you okay?”

“What - yeah, I’m fine,” I told her.

“Is there something going on? Harry - you haven’t, nothing happened?”

“No, gods no, Murph,” I said. Hell’s bells, I was a terrible friend. I called her up after midnight, a few weeks after I’d been kidnapped. No wonder she was worried. I hated it when she was, though a small, mean part of me was glad it was me she was worried about and not Kincaid, the badass supernatural hitman/bodyguard she had an evidently physically satisfying if emotionally empty relationship with.

Yeah, I thought she deserved better. So sue me.

“It’s just - have there been any sightings? Anything strange going on? Any rumors?” I continued.

“This is about what happened, isn’t it,” she said quietly. “Harry...”

She paused, choosing her words carefully.

“I’m glad you called,” she said at last. “Just disappearing like that. It isn’t like you. The last time...”

The last time my behavior had changed dramatically, I’d been hosting the shadow of Lasciel, a fallen angel. And the time before that - the last time I’d checked out of my friends’ lives - I’d spent three months desperately trying to find a cure for the woman I loved, who’d gotten partially transformed into a vampire because of me.

The results of that hadn’t been pretty. Murphy had a lot of reasons to worry.

“Yeah,” I said, my voice rough.

“More of that psychic trauma?” she said, trying to laugh.

“You could say that,” I agreed. I wanted her, suddenly - wanted to hold her small, fierce body against me, to lose myself in her softness and her strength. But we didn’t have that kind of relationship. And even if we did, I wouldn’t do that to her. I wouldn’t use her to reassure myself that I was normal, that I could still take pleasure in the affirmation of a man and a woman making love together. That no matter what my visitor said, I could still have that, still want that.

I listened to the sound of her breath over the phone, slow and sleepy. That was another kind of affirmation. She was still my friend, still cared for me, would still talk on the phone with me after I woke her up from a sound sleep.

“There’s been nothing,” she said at last. “Nothing out of the ordinary. No rumors, no corpses, no strange behavior. Just the normal crazies.”

“Quieter than usual?” I asked.

“No. Just - normal. We’re investigating the St. Mary’s case, but it’s pretty much been ruled an accidental death. Since you weren’t hospitalized and you haven’t reported a crime, we have no grounds for opening a kidnapping case.”

She sounded frustrated.

“Sorry,” I said.

“Don’t apologize!” she snapped. “Coming forward after something like that - it isn’t easy. I know that. I just want to get this son of a bitch and I don’t have a single thing to go on.”

“I’ll let you know if I find anything,” I told her. I didn’t make her promise to leave the action to me. She’d finally gotten that there were some things she just wasn’t qualified to handle, and I’d finally understood that she needed to know anyway, even if there was nothing she could do. I trusted her. She’d have my back. Even if it meant staying out of the line of fire.

“Thanks.” She yawned.

“No, thank you,” I didn’t really know how to say it. Just hearing her voice made me feel a little stronger, a little more capable of facing what I’d been through. “Thanks for - just - you’re the best, Murph.”

“Don’t I know it.”

“Go back to sleep,” I said. “Sorry for waking you.”

“No problem. Harry - you can always call me. If you want to talk.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” I said, but I didn’t mean it, and I knew she didn’t believe me. There were a lot of things I couldn’t tell Murphy, and what my visitor had said to me? That was definitely on the list. Right up there at the top. “Good night, Karrin.”

“Good night, Harry.” On the other end of the line, her phone clicked off. The dial tone began to buzz. I set my phone down, gently, and leaned my face hard against the wall.

Nothing. Nothing unusual. No surge in activity, no drop. Nothing to go on.

Well. That wasn’t strictly true. Actually, thinking about it, it told me a couple of things.

One. My visitor wasn’t the impulsive type. I’d already guessed that; the basement room took planning, and a lot of it. So he wasn’t a promiscuous, uncontrolled killer. Everything he did had a reason. My kidnapping. The location. Jeremy Evans. Marcone’s involvement. It was all part of a plan, a meticulous, calculating plan.

Two. It wasn’t about Chicago, or the war, or some ancestral enemy bullshit, or an apocalypse. This was personal. If it hadn’t been, I’d have heard a lot more about it by now. Stuff like that doesn’t stay secret. Everyone knows something’s going on, even vanilla mortals.

Three. It wasn’t the Courts, and it wasn’t the Denarians. Nicodemus could have made a plan like that, but Nicodemus was dead. I’d killed him myself. His daughter, Deirdre, had nothing like his composure or his ability to command. Moreover, her mother Tessa was a part of the Black Council, and Tessa held all the denarii in circulation. So if there was a plot involving Denarians, it was a plot involving the Black Council.

Which led me to four. It wasn’t the Black Council. I don’t mean to sound modest, but I just wasn’t important enough for them to bother with personally. Sure, I’d foiled a number of their dastardly plots, but they thought big . Their operations were dramatic and catastrophic in scale and, therefore, involved a lot of people. Bob was right that they probably had some more insidious plans in place, but again, I was just too insignificant to devote a whole plan to. If they were involved, I’d have noticed. And how.

And that pretty much ruled out the White Council, as well, since the only way the White Council would be after me personally is if I broke the laws of magic or the Black Council was controlling them. Therefore, I was left with Summer and Winter as my primary suspects, and hell if I knew which one.

I was betting on Summer, actually, mostly because of the season. Autumn is a transition from Summer to Winter. As it progresses, Summer’s power fades, and Winter’s grows. I’d been kidnapped on the autumnal equinox, the pivotal point of the season. That was probably significant. Summer seemed pretty convinced that I was a hair away from accepting the knighthood; an opportunity to weaken me before I could accept it would count as a big score.

What they didn’t know was that becoming Winter’s Knight would weaken me far more than this ever could. If I served Mab, one by one I would lose my friends. They would turn away from me, unable to bear the atrocities I was forced to commit in the name of Winter. And I would change, slowly, become incapable of caring. I would become a human monster like the previous Knight, a degenerate creature by the name of Lloyd Slate, currently suffering agonizing torture in Arctis Tor, Winter’s citadel. Which was another thing - Winter’s retirement plan for its champions was even worse than Heaven’s for the Knights of the Cross.

Anyway. Without my friends, I would have died at least fifty times by now. Probably more. So if I became the Knight, I’d have a lot more firepower, but I’d have a lot less reason to use it. Moreover, I’m not too proud to admit that I’d probably get myself killed doing something stupid. My tactics are okay, but my strategy could use a hell of a lot of work.

What they did? It was nothing. I had plenty of reasons to despise myself; one more wasn’t that big a deal. And if my friends did know, they were still my friends.

If they didn’t, there was no reason to tell them.

 

It took me awhile to pick up the phone and make my next call. Murphy hadn’t been easy, but we had an arrangement. She’d push, but only so far; if I said no, she’d stop. My brother? He didn’t really believe in things like personal boundaries, as long as they were mine. Hypocrite.

Anyway, I’d avoided him too, and I knew that he’d take the contact as an invitation to pry into my business. It’s a brother thing, and as annoying as it was, it usually made me feel like he cared. Right now, though, I didn’t want to deal with it. Still, if there was anything going on, he’d know about it. I had to call.

He picked up on the first ring. Of course. White Court vampires tend to regard rolling up the carpets at one as calling it an early night. Debauched hedonists, the lot of them.

“Harry?” he said.

“How did you know it was me?” I asked.

“Caller ID,” he told me. “We don’t all live in the dark ages. Your ringtone is the Pink Panther theme song.”

“Cute,” I said. “Hey, Thomas. You heard anything about something going down in the Chicago area?”

“Not a thing. It’s been real quiet - nothing but normal stuff. Should I ask Justine, see if she knows anything?”

Hell’s bells. Thomas was offering to involve Justine. He must be beyond worried. I felt like shit. Family doesn’t do that to each other.

“It’s not a big deal, I was just checking around,” I said. “Thomas - I’m fine. Really.”

The line went quiet. Very, very quiet. I knew that kind of quiet. It was the silence of a man counting to twenty, and then doing it again because it wasn’t enough. And then doing it a third time, just to make sure.

“No,” he said at last, voice too calm. I winced. “You’re really not. You haven’t spoken to anyone since then - not Michael, not Murphy, not the Alphas, not me. Harry, you pretended you weren’t home!”
That had not been one of my finer moments.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I needed to think.”

“And you couldn’t do that if you had to let us know you were safe and no more insane than usual?” His voice was rising, little by little. Couple more minutes and he’d be shouting. I didn’t blame him. I’d do the same if it were him.

“I was in a bad place, Thomas,” I told him.

“I know that,” he snapped. “Just - don’t you ever fucking do that again, alright?”

“I’ll try.”

“You’d fucking better.” He sighed, and the anger went out of his voice. “You know what the worst part was?”

“What?”

“You haven’t even tried to look into this, not once, not till now,” he said. “That’s not like you. Something bad comes around, you get out there and get punched in the face by it. You don’t pretend nothing’s there. You don’t ignore it, or go to Nowhere, Indiana for a week and a half just to avoid it. So whatever happened to you, it was that bad. And there’s not a single fucking thing I can do about it. I’ve been checking stuff out, and maybe I’m not as good as you are, but. There’s nothing. Nothing at all on the radar.”

“Not even a single microscopic sonic blip?” I asked, trying for lighthearted. It fell pretty flat. From what Murphy and Thomas were telling me, I was in trouble. While I’d been ignoring the problem, the trail had gone cold. It sounded like whichever of Summer’s hitters had been behind this had skipped town, or was lying real low. The investigation was going to take a lot more work, and I didn’t know how much time I had. Usually, my problems come with an obvious deadline. By which I mean, if I don’t figure it out fast, I’m dead. This time, I had no idea what to expect. It’s pretty sad that that worried me more than the usual two-days-to-solve-the-case-or-die situation. “No sonar bouncing off a piece of seaweed?”

“Not even that,” he said. “Look - just ask me if you need anything, okay? I can do some brainless muscle if you want. Could bring you beer, too. Hell, if you ask nicely, I’ll even listen to you.”

“Anything but that,” I agreed, smiling. “I appreciate it, Thomas. Thanks for covering for me.”

“Got your back, Harry,” he said. “Now go to fucking bed. It’s past one in the morning and you need your beauty sleep.”

“How about you?’ I shot back.

“Can’t improve on perfection,” he said smugly, and hung up. Damn him. He always got the last word.

I put the phone down again. Well done, Harry. Weeks of isolation and avoidance, and not only does the problem not go away but you put every person you know in a panic about you. It takes some real skill to fuck up that badly.

A part of me was perversely glad for their worry. It meant I wasn’t alone. For a long time, I hadn’t had that. When shit went down, I dealt with it by myself; if I got hurt, I patched myself up on my own. Now I had people I could call on - hell, I had people who would yell at me if I didn’t call on them.

My mind kept returning to what my visitor had said, probing it like a sore tooth. If he hadn’t been lying - but if they knew, they still treated me the same, I told myself again, and he’d probably been lying anyway. There was nothing to talk about, really. Either they didn’t care, or what they knew wouldn’t hurt them. I was just as happy to let it rest. Really.

My head hurt. I realized I was tired. Not as tired as I’d been after the throwdown with the Denarians, or as tired as I’d been in half a dozen other cases with similar amounts of sleep deprivation, pain, and mortal terror, but tired enough that bed sounded like a damn good idea. Those two brief phone calls had exhausted me spiritually and emotionally, and I couldn’t call Michael till morning anyway. He probably wouldn’t have anything to add to what Murphy and Thomas had told me, or anything more to say than he’d said at the cemetery, but I owed him.

So I checked Mouse and Mister’s food and water, brushed my teeth, and went to bed.

Chapter Text

I’m a little more in touch with my subconscious than most people. At one point, I thought it was because I was a wizard, but I’ve pretty much decided it’s mental masochism. Either way, we got a lot of face-to-face time, especially while I was hosting Lasciel’s shadow. And my subconscious? Is kind of a dick. Also his fashion sense is a lot better than mine.

So I wasn’t too surprised to find myself in the circle of light that seemed to be my mental living room shortly after I closed my eyes. It could do with some redecorating. Couches would be nice. My subconscious had been suspiciously quiet during those weeks I’d been avoiding everything. I had a feeling he’d been waiting until he could be smug and tell me, once again, that repression was bad for us.

I disagreed. Repression was awesome.

So that’s how I greeted him.

“Repression is awesome,” I said firmly. “Let’s not talk about it!”

“I wouldn’t dream of disagreeing with you,” he said, stepping into the circle. He was wearing dark gray slacks and a white, untucked button-down shirt. His hair was artfully mussed and neatly trimmed. I rolled my eyes. “Not when it’s working out so well for us. How’s the investigation coming along again?”

My subconscious is not only a dick. He’s also a sarcastic bastard. Some might say we have that in common.

“Shut up,” I said. “We’re not talking about it.”

Hey, you can’t win an argument with yourself. Or at least, I never can. I can fault his ethics, principles, and any other sort of code you might want to name, but I can’t fault his logic. He’s cold, but he’s usually right. Not that I ever followed his advice. His logic might be inarguable, but I couldn’t live with where I’d end up if I agreed with it. If it were up to him, I’d be a Denarian and probably have half a dozen illegitimate children.

“Mature,” he replied, sneering. “So, what are you going to do about Marcone?”

“Nothing,” I said. “Working out so far.”

“Our visitor was right, you know,” he said, and walked further into the circle of light. As he did so, bands of leather coalesced around his wrists and throat, appearing from shadows and empty air. He put his hands behind his back. I heard the distinct metallic click of a lock snapping shut. I could feel the invisible pressure of the same bonds around my own neck and wrists, and fought the urge to let my wrists come together behind me. My mouth felt dry. “Imagine it. Imagine kneeling for him . No decisions. No choices. His hands on us, the heat and the texture, not just the pressure of their movements at one remove. He’d be gentle, don’t you think? So afraid of hurting us, of scaring us away.”

I swallowed. It didn’t sound so bad. Didn’t sound dirty or weird. Except - no choices. That wasn’t right.

And besides, he didn’t want me.

“You’re forgetting he’s straight,” I told my subconscious. “He isn’t interested.”

“Oh?” My subconscious said, kneeling on the floor. He looked graceful, comfortable. When I tried to do that, I looked like a collapsible ladder. “Think about it.”

I didn’t have much choice. Suddenly, I was bombarded with memories. His footsteps, slow and quiet and unsure. His hands. The pressures against my skin had been oddly tentative, a little sharp, like he was trying to keep them from shaking. His breath, uneven inhale and exhale, fast and shallow. Perhaps he had been afraid. There was a bomb, after all. But Gentleman Johnny Marcone was no stranger to bombs, and his breath hadn’t changed for werewolves .

Later. Across the car, his green eyes too dark for the afternoon light. His hands, too still, too relaxed. There was no bomb, and his breath was still uneven. His eyes on my body, my face, meeting mine. The lights had shattered, and he had never looked away. Maybe he couldn’t.

Okay, so maybe he wanted me. But I didn’t have to do anything about it. I wasn’t going to do anything about it. We worked well together. I respected him. Hell, I found him attractive, though I wasn’t going to mention it. I still hated his business. What he did was wrong. Although the way he did it was less wrong than it could’ve been, it wasn’t something I could touch and still feel okay with myself at the end of the day.

I wasn’t feeling particularly okay with myself anyway. What I wanted was wrong. But maybe he wanted it too. Maybe -

It didn’t matter. Nothing was going to happen. So it didn’t matter what I wanted or didn’t want, and I didn’t have to think about it. Harry Dresden, problem solver extraordinaire.

My subconscious rolled his eyes and stood up, walked away from me. Evidently our conference was over. Score one for stonewalling. The circle of light in darkness vanished, and I found myself - well, I was dreaming, the sort of dream a man likes to keep to himself. When I woke up, sweat had glued the sheets to my skin in all sorts of uncomfortable ways, and I was about a minute or a really good image away from making laundry an inevitability. It’s not something I’m used to. I’m a grown man, for one, and for another, I’m just not that interested in getting myself off. If there’s not another person involved, it’s hollow, and I feel worse afterwards. I was okay with that, generally. It saved on laundry.

Today, though, I thought I might skip the cold shower. My bed was comfortable and warm. In the dream, I had been safe. Loved. Taken care of.

A minute had been a definite overestimation.

Chapter Text

I called Michael a few hours later. It went pretty much like I expected. He had nothing to add to the nothing I had, but was more than happy to spend half an hour shooting the breeze. The last big investigation we’d worked on together had been hell on our friendship; he had - with some reason - doubted me, and I’d called him on it. I’d also said more than one thing I should’ve kept to myself. It hadn’t been pretty. And when it was all over, Michael was lying three-quarters dead in a hospital operating room. He’d made a literally miraculous recovery, but he’d never wield the Sword again.

Things still weren’t right between us, though we’d both been trying. Part of that was better communication. He asked me about my cases, I asked him about the kids. I told him about the thing in Indiana, mentioned a potion experiment I was working on, and invited him for a beer later that week. He told me about little Harry’s school play and the endless trials of having teenagers. Apparently Daniel and Matthew weren’t quite so intense about it as my apprentice, Molly, had been, but that didn’t mean they were any less eager than your average teenager to find new and creative ways of being a pain in their parents’ asses. He ended the call with an invitation to Sunday dinner. I figured I might go, if I still hadn’t turned up anything by then. Even I get tired of Burger King and pizza.

The next logical step in any investigation is to revisit the scene of the crime. Unfortunately, in this case, the scene of the crime was - well, kind of personal this time. Revisiting it was pretty much the last thing I wanted to do.

The strength of my own aversion surprised me. I’d always thought of St Mary’s as a haven. Not safe from the darkness, maybe, but a place where the darkness was lessened. I wasn’t a religious man, but that church had always given me a little bit of peace. Until now.

It didn’t matter. I had to find the guy and stop him, whoever he was, before he hurt someone else. And with nothing making waves in either world, I had nothing to go on. I had to go back to the source. Had to look at it like a professional, from the outside. So, Mr. Dresden, take me through it one more time. What can you remember from that night? Please start with when you walked through the doors of the church...

I grabbed my keys and headed out, Mouse beside me. We climbed into the Beetle. I rolled the windows down. It wasn’t hot, but Mouse’s breath is kind of overpowering in small spaces. And the smell of the autumn air was pleasant. It mostly smelled like warm asphalt, what with the city and everything, but I could still catch a faint sweetness of falling leaves, lake water, and cold stone.

St. Mary’s is a big brick building in what I am told is the ‘Polish Catholic’ style. As far as I can tell, that means it’s a few gumdrops away from being made of gingerbread. The inside is even more drastic. It’s a vast, light-filled confection of gilding, glass, and frescoes. There are brightly colored statues everywhere. The dark polished benches that make up the seating are kind of like the liqueur-soaked base of an enormous wedding cake. It should have been either beautiful or ridiculous, and yet, it was neither. It was kind of peaceful. Serene. Maybe it was the trees outside.

Or it might be Father Forthill. The padre is the kind of guy who makes you feel like you can disagree with him on fundamental things and he won’t change his opinion of you. He’s like that guy in the story who gave a bunch of silver to the thief who stole his candlesticks. No resentment, no anger, no disapproval. Just fondness and gentle amusement. He could make Notre Dame feel welcoming.

It didn’t feel particularly welcoming at the moment. The white of its dome against the blue sky over the walls of the expressway sent icewater down my spine. The Beetle slowed, and behind me, cars honked angrily. It was enough to keep me moving, but without Mouse as a witness, I probably would’ve just driven past the exit and gone straight back home.

“Damn it, Mouse,” I told him. He nosed my sleeve apologetically, but didn’t stop staring. I patted his head and kept driving.

The parking lot was next to empty when we pulled in. I tucked the Beetle into the corner, and unfolded myself from the driver’s seat. Mouse waited for me to open the passenger door. He could fit through the window in a pinch, but he’d rather not if it can be avoided. We walked towards the church together, across the parking lot and up the steps.

Father Forthill met me at the door.

“Come in, Harry,” he said. He took in the dog and my expression, and whatever he found there didn’t make him happy, because the next thing he said was, “Can I get you some coffee?”

Coffee and tea are sort of like shock blankets. You offer them to people you think are going to freeze up, pass out, or cause serious structural damage. I wasn’t sure which of the three I was, but it’d probably involve throwing up at some point.

“No, thanks,” I said. “I won’t be long.”

“If you’re sure.” He gestured for me to follow him. “I take it you’re here about the other day?”

“Yeah,” I said. “It may have been mentioned that I should do something about it.”

“You don’t have to,” he told me seriously. We walked down the nave, towards the little door at the back that led to his office. “This can be someone else’s burden.”

“It really can’t,” I sighed. “Believe me, if I could pass this off, I would.”

“Would you, really?” he asked me.

I thought about it for a minute. It took that long to get to the door.

“No,” I told him, before he opened it. “I probably wouldn’t. Everyone keeps telling me it’s not my fault. Maybe it’s not, but it’s my job to fix it. As much as I can, anyway.”

He stopped and looked at me for a long moment.

“It’s not,” he said, “but thank you for trying.”

We walked into his office. He sat down, and pulled out a file. It was pretty thin. I don’t like thin files. They look like ignorance in manila. Mouse sat down beside the desk and began thumping his tail gently against the floor.

“So, I can tell you what they’ve found out so far,” he said. “Which is that there were no explosives in the room with the children. You and I both know that doesn’t mean much.”

And we also both knew that it was a few weeks too late to scan for magical residue. An hour after, a day after - if there’d been a spell big enough to murder everyone in the room, there’d have been enough of it left for me to get something. Spells leave traces, and not just physical stuff like candles and herbs and diagrams and stuff. Most of that’s just props, anyway. Although the symbolism can be important for some of the more drawn-out ritual magic, most magic doesn’t require anything more than a good imagination and your Will.

“Yeah,” I said glumly. Explosives would have said a lot. That the guy was rich, for one thing. The kind of stuff that blows up a stone room is not the kind of stuff you can mix up in your kitchen - well, you can, but it isn’t easy, and some of the components are as illegal as the depleted uranium in my lab. He’d also have to be able to pass in human society, and have the sort of contacts you read about in spy novels. There weren’t that many people who fit those characteristics. But a magical bomb? All you’d have to have is a lot of power and know-how. Everyone on my list had those .

I was still betting on Summer, though. Unlike the Denarians, they weren’t that fond of using mortal means of dealing death. Your odd semi-automatic, sure, but plastic explosives? When it comes to making a big boom, they’ll head straight for the grimoires every time. Of course, the remaining Denarians were more than competent wizards. But they lived in the human world, and it showed.

Which just led me back to big, nasty troll in the room - if I hadn’t been so busy pretending nothing had happened, maybe I could have done something. Checked for trace energy. Scanned for a magical signature. Found some suspicious dried leaves. Hell, I might’ve slipped in some ectoplasm, for all I knew. Now, though, there’d be nothing like that left. I’d have to rely on my memories and my instincts, and hope like hell that something turned up.

As if he was reading my thoughts, Father Forthill spoke up,

“Mr. Marcone sent a young woman over to check for magical residues. She may have found something; I’m afraid I was somewhat occupied, and didn’t have an opportunity to speak with her before she left. I’m sure he’d be willing to share anything he discovered with you.”

Funny thing was, I was pretty sure too. While Marcone was criminal scum, he rarely flat-out lied to me. And he’d told me he wanted to join forces, find whoever this was, and make them pay. Given how he felt about kids, I was inclined to take him seriously. I’d have to call him later.

But first, I had to see if there was anything at all left in the basement.

Father Forthill was still speaking.

“I did take the - things,” he said. “Out of the room where you were held. I seem to recall something about some objects holding impressions? No one has touched them, not even I.”

That was good. Reading things isn’t easy, especially not for me, and especially not weeks after the fact. It’d be damn near impossible if everyone and their aunt had had their hands on the stuff first. But the only people who’d touched them had been me, Marcone, and my visitor. It was possible, if only barely, that there was something left.

Normally, I’d call in my apprentice for something like this. Molly may not have anything like the sheer firepower I have, but she’s damn good at the subtle stuff.

Which is exactly why I wasn’t calling her in. I didn’t want her mixed up in this. Molly was no innocent, in a lot of ways, but she was still young, and while I wasn’t deep enough in denial to think that she wouldn’t recognize the things from the cell, I was her mentor. I had to protect her. I’d had her read things before, and it hadn’t been pretty. I knew that whatever she’d pick up from this wouldn’t be good either. The least she’d get off it would be my fear, my pain, and my horror. The most? I didn’t want to know, and I sure as hell didn’t want her to.

Fortunately, she didn’t have to. I had a connection to the stuff, and it was possible, given the age of the items and the amount of time I’d been touching them, that I’d be able to get more from them than Molly would. Moreover, I wouldn’t be distracted by the residue of my own emotions. I could push past them, and if there was anything else to find, I’d find it.

“Where are they?” I asked.

“In the room where Mr. Marcone found you,” he told me. “I thought it would be best if they stayed in their original environment as much as possible.”

It might have been. It might not have been. Magical residues are complicated. They could have been strengthened by the proximity to the stones of my prison, or they could have been weakened by the water underneath them. Running water affects different kinds of spells in different ways. Residues, because they are not deliberately created, are in a sense less magical than most enchantments. Something about nature and artifice. It was why there were some creatures that could not only live in running water but actually drew their strength from it, and why it was possible the water would have had no effect at all. I wouldn’t know until I went down there.

I sighed, and got to my feet.

“Lead the way, padre,” I said. Mouse climbed to his feet, and we all trooped out the door.

Chapter Text

It wasn’t a long walk, which surprised me. Admittedly, the last time I’d made it, I hadn’t really walked so much as been dragged, and the time before - come to think of it, that had probably been dragging too, since I’d been unconscious at the time. Under my own power, it took about two leisurely minutes to get to the sub-basement room. Two minutes. It was that close. I’d been trapped there for hours.

We stopped in front of the door.

“I’ll wait for you outside the door,” Father Forthill said. I shook my head.

“Don’t worry about it,” I told him. “I can get back. You’ve got business to take care of.”

He smiled at me, and opened the door. Mouse looked at me. I gestured at him to stay, and got a stare of disapproval, but he did sit down.

“I do,” he said. “I’m taking care of it right now.”

I snorted and walked into the room. I was fine. I didn’t need an anchor. Still, his concern made me feel warmer. He was upset about the kid and hoped I could find something, but if I didn’t, he wouldn’t think less of me. If all that happened was that I came out upright and functional, he’d be glad. It made it easier to look around the room.

In an explosion of anticlimax, nothing happened. It was an ordinary room in an old Midwestern church. The walls were whitewashed limestone, and the floor was more of the same, without the whitewash. A few crates were stacked up against one wall, but it looked like they hadn’t been moved in a while. If I had to make a guess, I’d say they were empty. It looked familiar, but only in the way that all small, cool, whitewashed rooms are familiar.

I’ve gone back to places where I’ve been tortured before. Usually, there’s some kind of taint. A stink in the air, like the fear is a scent that lingers, like the guilt and anger has soaked into the walls. Here, there was nothing. Just the dusty crates in the corner and a few scraps of leather and cloth lying in the center of the floor. I stepped further into the room and bent over to pick them up.

The world spun, and above me, the lights flickered. I could feel the water rushing under my feet, carrying away my magic until there was nothing left. I was helpless again, trapped by the weight of my memories and the conviction that if I moved, those children that I could not hear crying would die. The room went dark. My hands closed around the scraps lying on the floor. I bent over them, shaking, unable to stand and leave.

“Harry!” I heard. That wasn’t right. My visitor had called me Mr. Dresden. “Harry, please. Can you stand?”

The leather was cool and heavy in my hand. My hands were in my lap, not raised. There was nothing around my throat. My dog leaned against my back, warm and heavy and smelling like dust and sun-warmed animal. I stood up and turned around.

Father Forthill was standing in the doorway.

“Come on, Harry,” he said gently. “I’ve got coffee upstairs - the good stuff, not the fellowship hall kind. You can do your work in my office. It doesn’t need to be here.”

I stumbled out of the room, clutching the scraps to my chest. He lifted a hand slowly, making sure I could see it, and placed it on my arm. His hand was warm, even through the leather of my duster.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I should have known.”

I tried to smile.

“So should I,” I said. “And I didn’t. Don’t beat yourself up, padre. You didn’t know. There was nothing you could have done.”

“No?” he asked, looking up at me. “You were under my roof, Harry. He took my children and he took you and he kept you under my roof, and I didn’t do anything.”

“You didn’t know anything was wrong,” I objected again. “How could you have done anything when you didn’t know?”

“How could you have saved Jeremy Evans when any motion would result in the deaths of all the children?” he countered. “Guilt is not rational, Harry. This is my domain, and I am responsible.”

“Bullshit,” I told him. He nodded gently, and we walked out of the basement, up the stairs, and back through the door into his office.

I spread the pieces out on the floor in the sunlight. Strip of black cloth, something smooth and expensive looking. Blindfold. A tangle of steel buckles and black leather, smooth and thick and supple that separated out into a collar, a leash, and a long thin piece that I assumed had been used to bind my feet. There was nothing else, just those four remnants of a long night. And they held the clues that would lead me to my visitor, if there was anything at all that did. I took a deep breath, placed my hand on the blindfold, and reached down into it with my magic, searching for a trace of memory.

Impressions are like wine being poured into water. At the surface, it’s thick and red, and where the wine hits the water, it goes down deep into the glass. That’s the core, the strongest impression. It’s usually a single emotion, thought, or sensation. However, the wine spreads out into the glass, feathering into tendrils of other impressions left on the object. The further you get from that central idea, the thinner the tendrils spiraling out from it get, and eventually, they bleed into the water altogether.

Of course, the older the impression is, the more diluted that wine gets. Eventually it’s just pinkish water. All you’ve got is a vague idea, emotions in watercolor - a breath of sadness, a momentary surge of dull anger, a thin wash of happiness. If you want anything clear, it has to be pretty damn fresh, or incredibly strong.

The impressions left on the scraps were hardly fresh, but they were strong. I plunged into a morass of fear, desperation, and self-loathing slimed with an oily taint of physical need. It was suffocating. The emotions enveloped me, clinging and heavy, dragging me downwards. I thrashed around, searching for an escape, nearly throwing myself out of the impression before I remembered what I was doing. It calmed me long enough to strengthen my Will, building a weak, transparent shield of blue light around me. The sucking emotions receded. I sent out feelers, searching for something unfamiliar.

It sounds weird to say there was something dark in the impression. But the remnants of my own panic were somehow cleaner for all their primitivity. This darkness was different. It was a sickening miasma, a corrupt film underlying everything. It felt like - satisfaction. Contempt and smugness. Disgust, hatred, and sadistic pleasure. Cunning. Whoever - or whatever - had kidnapped me held an unshakeable conviction that they were doing what was right. That I was an abomination, and that I should suffer for it.

I’d learned enough. I strengthened my Will, preparing myself to push out of the impression. As I did so, I felt a third presence. Restraint, something important held back. Deep anger. And over all of it, a stunning desperate concern that came crashing through my barrier and knocked me straight out of the impression.

I jerked my hand back. What in seven hells had that been about?

“Harry?” Father Forthill knelt by my side, and Mouse pushed his cold, wet nose into my neck. It’s a gesture of affection. Probably. “Are you alright?”

“I’m fine,” I said. “Just a little shaken. You did good, putting this stuff back in that room. It’s strong. I got a lot.”

“You can find the man?”

“Maybe,” I said. “I’ll know him when I see him. Minds like that aren’t easy to keep hidden.”

I could tell that he wanted to ask what I’d seen, and that it was only good manners keeping him from inquiring. Thank god for good manners. I wasn’t really in the mood for sharing.

He gave up eventually.

“Are you going to check the rest of them?” he asked. He sounded dubious. I must’ve looked bad.

“Yeah,” I said. Time to stop giving wizards a bad name, Harry. “Probably nothing new.”

He nodded, and I reached out towards the collar.

When I came out of the last impression, there was a bowl sitting beside me. I reached for it gratefully. It hadn’t been easy, going in there again and again, but I’d had to do it. Even though there was nothing else to find. Even though I’d been pretty sure there was nothing else to find. It was worth it, just to know that I hadn’t missed a whisper of my visitor’s mind. I didn’t know who he was. But I’d find him even if I had to use the Sight on every person from Chicago to Edinburgh.

And part of me had wanted to go back into the impressions, compelled by that wash of concern. Every time it had come at the end and carried me out of the memories. Protectiveness. Bone-deep worry. I didn’t know how to describe it, but it was - fascinating. And strange. Who could have imparted that impression? The only people I knew had touched the scraps were me, my visitor, and -

Stars and stones. Gentleman Johnny Marcone.

The first thing you expect to feel when you realize all that fierce gentleness belongs to your sometimes-enemy is surprise. My first reaction was sadness. It wasn’t like I wanted him to care whether I lived or died, but apparently, my subconscious had other ideas. Because that - all those feelings? They couldn’t have been for me. And I wanted them. Maybe not from Marcone, maybe from no one in particular, but I wanted them and I knew they weren’t mine. Marcone didn’t feel like that about me. About Chicago, sure. About kids, definitely. About Helen, maybe. Me? I was useful. I protected what he cared about. Any protectiveness he felt towards me was that of a man towards an asset - something he needed, sure, but not something he loved. So sue me, but I was tired of secondhand affection. No one had loved me like Marcone loved Chicago since Susan, and on my bad days, I even questioned that. She certainly hadn’t hesitated when it came to leaving me.

“Anything new?” Father Forthill asked when I set down the bowl. He nudged it discreetly to the side. Mouse stepped away from it delicately. For a dog, he sure was picky about smells.

“No,” I said. “But now I know. Didn’t miss anything.”

“Lot of pain for a double-check,” he observed. “You look bad.”

“Had to be done,” I sighed, and got to my feet. Fortunately, the desk was behind me. I propped a hip on it discreetly and hoped the wobble hadn’t shown too badly. “Got any of that coffee, Father?”

“Right here.” He handed me a cup. It was still hot - he must have timed the first one, and started the coffee for when he figured I’d be done with the last one. The padre is good people.

It was good coffee, too, thick and rich and strong, not too bitter, and not the kind of coffee you usually find in churches. He’d added more sugar than I usually like, but I wasn’t complaining. Sugar’s for shock, sure, but magic burns calories like nothing else, and I could use the extra fuel.

“Thanks,” I said when I’d finished. “For everything.”

“I do what I can,” he said. I nodded at him, he nodded back, and Mouse and I headed back through the church and out to the car.

Chapter Text

I was shaky, hungry, nauseated, and tired. I wanted to get in my car, drive home, and lie down on my couch until I didn’t feel like the first supernatural creature that touched me would either knock me over or get blown to kingdom come. Maybe I’d have a beer or two. Read a book. Forget about things for an hour or two, just until my balance came back. The last thing I wanted to do was talk.

So of course I ran into Marcone on the steps of the church.

Well, fell on top of. The sun was shining in my eyes, and between that and the impression-related shakiness, I wasn’t too steady on my feet.

“God, Harry,” he said, hands on my arms, steadying me. I glared at him, and he corrected himself. Hendricks was standing a few feet behind him, face impassive. “Dresden. You look a little the worse for the wear. What happened?”

I thought about not telling him. I wasn’t in the mood for conversation, least of all with - but I’d felt his genuine worry in those bits of leather and fabric. I’d figured out that the attack was partially aimed at him. Maybe he could help. I had half a dozen different reasons, but in the end, he just deserved to know.

“That stuff, from the room,” I said. “I came here to read it. See if he - if there were any impressions left on it.”

He was still holding onto my arms, money-green eyes fixed on mine. If I hadn’t known him better, I’d have said he was quietly thoughtful. But we’ve been working in the same city for upwards of a decade, now. We’re not friends, but I know him. He was about as far from quietly thoughtful as he gets.

“Did you get anything?” he asked. I looked meaningfully down at his hands on my arms. He smiled faintly and released them, hands falling to his sides. The warmth of his palms lingered on my skin. “I would hate to think that your efforts were in vain.”

“Not much, but enough,” I told him. “This is personal, in a big way, but it’s not revenge-driven. You could call it a magical hate crime, though the hatred - it’s not for magic. It’s for me. And you, I think.”

“A hate crime,” he said, looking disgusted. Hendricks shifted, and I startled. I’d forgotten about Marcone’s right-hand man. How stupid was that? But then, Hendricks was good at what he did, if not necessarily the brightest crayon in the box. “Why not? Not every supernatural madman can be obsessed with world domination or revenge, I suppose.”

Okay, that was pretty funny. I had to bite down on my cheek to keep from smiling.

“We’ve got a fairly wide suspect pool,” I said. “So far, Summer’s looking most likely.”

“The Summer Court...” he mused, slipping a hand in one pocket. “While the church isn’t a problem for them, the quantities of iron in that basement are. Your cell had an iron handle. Are you certain of their involvement, Harry?”

“Hates me, hates you,” I shrugged. “Motive, means, knowledge. The execution stinks of either the fae or the vampire courts, but my money’s on the fae. Could be wrong, but I don’t think so. Lara’s on my side, and the other Houses won’t twitch without her say-so. You know that.”

“And the Reds?”

“Busy,” I said. “Also, running water. They can’t maintain their human form over it.”

“An excellent point,” he agreed. “And the Denarians?”

There was the barest hint of a pause before the word. I was impressed. Last winter, they’d kidnapped and tortured him in a ploy to snare the Archive and make her one of their own. Getting him to take up a coin would simply have been icing on the cake. He hadn’t, and she hadn’t, and most of the Denarians had died, including their leader. But there were still some out there, including the leader’s crazy daughter.

“Deirdre isn’t much for planning,” I said. “And Tessa’s most likely working with the Black Council. I’d say Black Council, but it just doesn’t feel flashy enough for them. They’re big-picture guys.”

“As far as we know,” he reminded me.

“Why does everyone keep saying that?” I asked the air. “I know it’s as far as we know, but we can only know as far as we know so for now we need to stick with what we know, okay?”

“Okay,” he said, humoring me. “And - the, ah, White Council?”

“I keep having these conversations,” I said. “The exact same conversations.”

“My apologies. It’s a pity technology disagrees with you so badly; bulk emails would certainly streamline information dissemination.” His smile was thin and sharp. I couldn’t quite tell if he was joking or not.

“Whatever. Anyway, Black Council, White Council, same thing, okay?”

“I was unaware of the merger,” he said dryly. I rolled my eyes.

“The White Council may be full of assholes, but they’re the good guys.” Probably. But that was unfair - they had good motives. I just disagreed with a lot of their methods. “If they’re in on this, it’s because someone on the Black Council’s gotten to them. They may not like me, and they may not be gung-ho about you signing the Accords, but the most they’ll do is ignore us when we ask for help.”

“Unless they’re being actively controlled by the Black Council.”

“Unless they’re being actively controlled by the Black Council.” I confirmed. “And I’ve already explained why I don’t think the Black Council’s behind this.”

He was silent for a moment. I thought longingly of my sofa. Before I could make like a train and depart, though, he spoke again.

“Your own people would refuse you aid?” he said.

“They’ve done it before,” I shrugged. “They don’t like me. Well, most of them don’t, and the ones that do have about as much influence as a dandelion has on a landslide. Right now, they need me, so if they figured they could save my ass without any casualties, they might send some people, or at least let the right people know.”

“A fine organization you picked to join, Dresden.” He looked at me steadily. And the next thing out of his mouth would be something about how the Outfit was totally different. Ten years, and he still hadn’t given up. I cut him off.

“You make it sound like I had a choice,” I said, snorting. “Come on, Mouse. My sofa awaits me.”

We bounded off the steps and loped towards the car. I heard the crunch of shoes on grimy stone as Marcone turned to stare at my departing back, and hoped it didn’t look like I was running away.

Chapter Text

Actively investigating, so far, wasn’t that much different than burying my head in the sand. Sure, I was looking, but I wasn’t finding anything. I talked to Murphy every day. Nothing new on the mortal side. Thomas said Justine had nothing to report from the supernatural end of things. I even tried calling Eb. He wasn’t thrilled to hear what had happened and gave me a good talking-to about keeping him updated, but he didn’t have anything to add to my nonexistent stockpile of useful information. I was about an hour from asking my crazy fairy godmother for a favor when Hendricks dropped by.

I was throwing a ball for Mouse. Mouse chases balls as if he weighed ten pounds and had to wear little jackets in winter. Mouse has no dignity when it comes to fetch. It’s pretty cool, although I get a little concerned about the structural integrity of the building every time he careens into a wall. Anyway, the ball had just rolled under the refrigerator, and I was standing up from the couch to get it out when a heavy fist landed on the door. The sound echoed through my tiny basement apartment.

And he probably wasn’t even trying to be loud.

I turned around and headed towards the door instead, disabling the wards. There was only one man I knew who knocked like that.

“Cujo,” I said cheerfully. “What news do you bring me of our mafia overlord?”

He stared at me for a moment, then visibly decided to ignore everything I had just said. Spoilsport.

“Boss says Marie disappeared,” he told me. “We’ve been trying to figure out if it was voluntary. Turns out it wasn’t.”

Hendricks is a man of few words.

“Marie?”

“Like you. Wizard. Not Council, though. Minor player.” Hendricks shrugged. “Gard said she was okay to check out the church.”

Not White Council material, no, but good enough for Marcone to hire, and good enough for Sigrun Gard to trust with some pretty complicated spells. Not much firepower, but a delicate enough hand to make that inconsequential most of the time.

“And she wasn’t?”

“She never came back,” Hendricks said. “We thought someone had gotten to her.”

My mind flashed to Helen Beckitt. Perhaps... but no. She knew I knew she’d betrayed Marcone, and that if she tried anything magical, I’d find out. Not that sort of treachery, then.

“And someone did, just not the way you thought,” I said grimly. “He’s saying he can take anyone he chooses, any time he chooses.”

“What the boss said,” Hendricks nodded. “Gave me this.”

‘This’ was a lock of hair streaked green and purple and blue, wrapped around with a thin gold chain. On the end of the chain was a paper flower, the center stained rust brown. It was blood.

“Gard can’t track her?” I asked. That had to be what this was about.

“Says she can’t get anywhere if the person she’s tracking is already dead,” Hendricks said. That made sense. As a Chooser of the Slain, Gard knew a lot about when someone was going to die. After the fact her involvement was usually pretty limited.

“I’ll give it a try,” I said. He waited. I waited.

“Boss asked me to go with you,” Hendricks said. “Already lost one wizard.”

“I don’t need a bodyguard,” I said irritably. What? My ego was already as flat as a pancake after the whole kidnapping incident. “Besides, I have Mouse.”

“Help with that information dissemination problem you’ve got.” He grinned at me. I got it. Bulk mail. Nice. “Or backup. The dog’s good, but he can’t pack heat.”

And the Courts were all about not getting within shooting distance of cold iron. Fine. Marcone won. I looked over at Mouse to see how he felt about it. His tongue was out, and his tail was wagging. Weirdo.

“Okay, but we’re taking the Beetle,” I said. Hendricks look pained.

 

Tracking isn’t difficult, most of the time. If you have some blood and a compass, you can find pretty much whoever you want, as long as they’re not crossing running water. I had something better. I had Little Chicago. If the girl was anywhere in city limits, mortal or supernatural, I could get a pretty good lock on where she was. It worked like a normal tracking spell, except that instead of putting the blood in a compass, I paperclipped the lock of hair and the flower to a piece of string and dangled it over the model in my basement.

Hendricks stood at the bottom of the ladder and looked skeptical.

“It’s not a toy!” I said defensively. “It’s a very powerful magical artifact.”

“Uh-huh,” he said calmly. “And the paperclip?”

“Useful for clipping things together, especially paper,” I told him. “Duh.”

He snorted. I turned back to the spell. So far, it wasn’t dangerous to get distracted. In another word, it would be. I paused and looked back at him.

“I know you’re not one to talk a lot,” I said. “But it would be a really good idea to not say anything until I’m done with this.”

He nodded, and I focused on the table for the third time.

Interessari ,” I murmured. The string began to pull towards the West Side, heading steadily northwards at the same time. It stopped at Garfield Park. I looked at Hendricks, letting him know the spell was finished.

“Conservatory’s still a mess,” Hendricks noted. “No one’s had time to finish the cleanup yet. There’s plenty of places you could stash a body.”

Towards the end of June, there’d been a freak hailstorm that smashed half the greenhouses, destroying half the rare plants inside. It was going to be a bitch to clean up, and no one knew exactly how the city was going to pay to replace all the plants they’d lost and repair the buildings. Glass isn’t cheap, despite all the office buildings plated in the stuff. They’d rigged some temporary covers to protect the plants and keep them warm as it got colder, but so far, not much else had been accomplished.

“Sounds like a good bet,” I agreed. I gathered up the hair and the flower, tucking the flower into a silver compass lying on the worktable, then dumped it in my pocket. “Let’s go.”

Hendricks turned and climbed up out of the basement. From the sounds my old thrift-store ladder made, I probably needed to get a new one. Then again, it wasn’t accustomed to anything heavier than me. Probably we were okay for another couple of years, barring freak accidents or frequent visitations of goons.

I followed him up, and headed towards the door, snagging my duster, staff, and blasting rod on the way. Hendricks and Mouse trailed after me, and we all climbed into the Beetle. It creaked a little under our combined weight. The Beetle’s an old car, and while it’s okay with just me, the addition of Mouse makes really steep hills challenging. I figured if we ran into any with Hendricks along, he wouldn’t be riding in the Beetle. He’d be pushing it. It was totally worth it to see him folded up in the tiny passenger seat. I turned the key and pulled out into the street, heading towards the park.

We crept along for a while. It was kind of weird riding with Hendricks. Usually, if I have a human  passenger, they’re kind of chatty. We talk about stuff - jobs, families, the weather. Hendricks just sat there. I guessed jobs were out as a topic of conversation.

“Church that bad?” he asked eventually. Oh yeah. He’d been watching when I fell on top of Marcone.

“Wouldn’t like to do it twice,” I said. “Not the worst, though.”

It hadn’t been. Reliving the same terrible experience over and over again isn’t fun, sure, but there’s worse. At least it gets familiar after a while.

He grunted acknowledgement. “Thought the boss was gonna crack a tooth.”

“It would suck for Chicago if I was out of commission with a guy like this on the loose,” I agreed. Hendricks had been staring out the side window, contemplating the slowly passing urban landscape. Now he turned to look at me.

“He isn’t fond of you getting busted up,” he told me. “Not just about Chicago, Dresden.”

I opened my mouth to say something. It would probably have been something loud and obnoxious, but I never did find out. Hendricks turned back to the window, and that was it. Conversation over. The rest of the drive passed in total silence.

We pulled up in the parking lot outside the building. It’s a pretty small lot - they try to encourage visitors to use public transportation as much as possible - but there were plenty of spaces free. I got out, and Hendricks slid my staff out to me before climbing out himself. Maybe he wasn’t such a bad guy. Mouse thudded out of the backseat and stood beside me, panting.

I looked at the Conservatory. Susan and I had come here on a date once. In my memory, it was a shining building, clean and well-maintained. A little too perfect to feel natural, but not so grand it felt unnatural walking through the gardens. I’d liked it more than she had.

Now it looked like a photograph from a war. The walls and roofs of the buildings were peppered with holes. Heavy gray tarps were stretched over the struts, but in some places they’d flipped back like peeling elephant skin, exposing the damage to the glass.

I’d wanted Mouse to come in with us - he could find Marie much faster than we mere humans could - but there was no way he could go in there. I’d be picking glass out of his feet for hours.

“Mouse?” I said. The dog looked at me, heaved a sigh, and lay down next to a spiky bush with lavender berries. I nodded at Hendricks.

We walked up through the sensory garden, ignoring all the keep-out signs, and into the children’s garden. I’d thought the outside looked bad. The inside was much, much worse. Shards of glass dangled from the ceiling, glinting dangerously. I hoped to hell that the wind wouldn’t blow. The giant insects and flowers inside the garden were pierced with thick shards of glass, and the floor was littered with it. It crunched under our shoes with a faint shriek. It was a bright day outside, but through the tarps, the humid air was gray and dim.

“Don’t think she’s in here,” Hendricks reported. “It’s mostly cleared out. Got that compass on you?”

I pulled it out of my pocket. The paper flower made it a little difficult to read, but it looked like it was pointing towards the fern room.

“Over there,” I said, and jerked my head towards it. We made our squeaky, crunchy way into the next building. I hoped like hell that there was no one around. As loud as it was, a parade might be sneakier.

As bad as the children’s room had been, the fern room was worse. There wasn’t much glass left in the ceiling. The breeze flapped the tarps gently against the struts and whistled softly through what glass remained in an eerie, uneven counterpoint to the flickering light.

The fern room was designed to give visitors an idea of what Illinois might have looked like when dinosaurs were walking around. Some of the oldest species of plants in the world grow in it. Whoever designed it had done a good job - the lush ferns combined with harsh tumbles of rock and a turtle-filled lagoon look about as much like a prehistoric swamp as anything does. Everything grows from the ground, not from planters, and it’s had more than a hundred years to settle into shape. It’s a piece of the primordial past in the middle of downtown Chicago, and walking into it, you’re the one that feels out of place. As far as it’s concerned, it’s always been there, and always will be.

It wasn’t particularly troubled by the shower of glass, either. Severed fronds lay curled up dry and brown, the smell of bruised plants was still heavy in the air, and shattered glass frosted the moss like shards of ice. Here and there bigger chunks stabbed into the earth or some of the larger plants. Despite the obvious desolation, the atmosphere was untroubled - a human thing had broken, and it didn’t care.

“Creepy,” Hendricks said. He was right. I didn’t much want to walk out into the room, and it wasn’t just because of what we were looking for.

“Tracking spell’s not precise enough to drop us on top of her,” I told him, and gestured towards the opposite wall. “She’s that way, sorta in the middle, I think.”

We set off, peering into shadowy clusters of ferns and under rocky overhangs, searching for any trace of the girl. For a room roughly the size of your average ballroom, it took a surprisingly long time to search. In the end, Hendricks was the one to find her. She was curled up on the moss near the lagoon, half tucked under a giant fern. Her arms and legs were laced with cuts from the glass that speckled the ground, but hadn’t bled - after death, then. It looked like she’d been dragged and dropped carelessly to the ground. Her hair was tangled, darkened with dried sweat and blood, but still colorful, if not quite as bright as her neon blue feather earrings. She wore jeans, a black tank top printed with a silver pentacle, and somewhat battered rainbow converse.

She couldn’t have been more than twenty.

“She changed her hair every week,” Hendricks said at last. “All kinds of colors. Just daring the boss to mention it. He never blinked. Drove her nuts.”

“Marie?”

“Yeah,” he said. “Cute kid.”

We looked down at the girl a while longer. Finally, Hendricks sighed, reached in his pocket, and took out a cell phone.

“Found her,” he said, not bothering with greetings. “Yeah. Garfield Park Conservatory. You sure? I don’t - fine.”

The whole phone call couldn’t have taken more than fifteen seconds.

“Marcone sending someone?” I asked.

“Coming himself,” he said. “Stupid. But she’s one of his. No talking him out of it. He should be here in ten.”

I thought about asking what they were going to do with her. I didn’t want her dumped somewhere else, didn’t want someone paid to find her and call it an accidental death. She wasn’t much more than a child, though, and from what Hendricks was saying, Marcone had been fond of her. She’d be okay. So I nodded, and stared down at her small, still form a while longer. Then I knelt, careful of the glass, and placed the bloody flower from the compass in her upturned palm, closing her cold fingers around it.

I stood up and turned to Hendricks.

“I’m gonna find this son of a bitch,” I said, my voice even. “She’ll get her revenge.”

He held my gaze for a moment, looking away just before he triggered a soulgaze, and tipped his head to me. I flicked my fingers at him in a casual salute, and left him there, standing silently beside the dead girl.

Chapter Text

There are a number of ways you can react to something like that, but they boil down to two basic ideas: fight or forget. What I wanted to to do was find whoever had murdered Jeremy and Marie, make them as helpless as those two kids had been, and burn them. Slowly. What I was going to do was get a drink. The last thing you want to do is go into a battle angry - not that that usually stopped me, but I couldn’t find the bastard anyway. So I drove to Mac’s and parked outside.

MacAnally’s Pub is designated neutral territory under the Accords, which makes it the safest place to get drunk in Chicago. Any signatory of the Accords has to keep chill or risk having the wrath of everyone who signed the Accords brought down on their heads. People generally keep pretty chill. Neutral ground’s important. Moreover, Mac brews by far the best beer in Chicago. Those not in the know will do a lot for a six-pack of Mac’s finest.

I was looking forward to a bottle or six. Mac doesn’t approve of drinking to get drunk - waste of good beer, in his book - but I’m not so sure that having a destination in mind invalidates a good journey.

And, okay, maybe I was hoping to run into someone from Summer. Just because you can’t fight in the bar doesn’t mean you can’t pick a fight and take it outside.

As luck would have it, the only affiliate of Summer in Mac’s was the Summer Knight himself, my old friend Fix. I say ‘friend’ - last winter, things had gotten a little tense between us. Things tend to do that when one person pulls a gun on another. Fix had had a good reason, I was pretty sure, but that didn’t change the fact that he’d pointed a gun at me. Friends just don’t do that. Not to sound like a teenage girl or anything, but as far as I was concerned, we were over.

That didn’t mean I wanted to punch him in the face, though.

Well. Not much , anyway. I bet that whoever was doing this hadn’t told Fix.

See, Fix was a changeling - half mortal, half Fae. Under the control of whichever Court their immortal parent belongs to, and regarded as cannon fodder by either. When we met, he and some other changelings had been in more than a little trouble. Among other things, some of them had been kidnapped. I helped them out. In the end, one of their group - Lily - ended up becoming the Summer Lady, and she made Fix her Knight. Anyway, being part of that had left Fix, protective to begin with, even more protective of kids than usual. I figured even the Queen of Summer, whose orders he had to obey, would have a hard time getting him to do something that put kids in danger, even if that something was to just stay out of the way.

That didn’t mean he didn’t know something. For example, if Summer was gunning for me and Marcone, he’d know about it. Hell, he’d be in on it. He’d have no choice.

I walked up to the bar, dodging a couple of the thirteen tables and thirteen pillars crowding the small, dark room.

“Open a tab for me?” I requested politely, ignoring Fix. Mac grunted inquiringly - I didn’t usually have enough cash for more than a pint or two. I sighed. “Bad day, Mac. Real bad.”

He raised an eyebrow. I could feel Fix looking at me from a few feet down the bar.

“Dead kid,” I said. “Someone killed her and dumped her in the Conservatory up at Garfield Park. She looked a lot like Molly.”

Mac scowled sympathetically, and slid me my pint.

“On the house,” he said. Mac doesn’t say much, but he’s good people. I took a long drink, then set the glass down and stared at the bar. Waited.

Fix said, “Harry?”

I ignored him.

“What’s going on?” he tried again. I turned and stared him down. He looked back at me, unblinking. I had to look away before I could trigger a soulgaze. Sometimes being a wizard is really fucking annoying. You can never win a staring contest, for instance.

“Why don’t you tell me?” I asked. He blinked, finally.

“Hunh?” Articulate. That didn’t mean he wasn’t lying.

“About why Summer’s gunning for me and Marcone?” I prompted. “Or are you going to pretend you don’t know anything about it?”

“Are you talking about that kidnapping thing a couple weeks back?” he asked.

“Are you going to keep answering my questions with questions?” I shot back. Mac raised an eyebrow at me. I took a deep breath and kept my voice even. “Two kids have died, Fix.”

“I didn’t have anything to do with that!” he told me. I believed him. That’s one thing about the Fae. They can’t lie outright. But they can evade. Just because he hadn’t had anything to do with it didn’t mean Summer wasn’t involved.

“What about Summer?”

“You honestly think it was Summer took you and killed those kids?” His voice was incredulous. “Empty Night, Harry.”

“Makes sense to me,” I shrugged and took another drink. “Happened on the autumnal equinox, Fix. What am I supposed to think?”

“That doesn’t mean it was us, Harry,” Fix said. He was looking at me seriously. “Could have been anyone.”

“That’s not the only reason,” I said. The more we talked, the more I thought it had to be Summer. Fix wasn’t lying, sure, but he wasn’t saying much of anything at all. No outright denials, apart from his own involvement. “You got any proof it wasn’t you?”

“You got any proof it was?”

“Nope,” I said, cheerful. “But I’m pretty convinced. Just need one. Good. Reason.”

His face paled. I’ve been in both courts before. The first time, I’d helped kill the Summer Lady. The second time, I’d led an assault on the heart of Winter. Both times, I’d had a lot of help and a hell of a lot of luck. I mean, a few of Summer’s hitmen had nearly taken me out last winter, and in the end I’d only made it out thanks to some sleight-of-hand involving a promise, a wise old goat, and a donut. Still, suicidal as an assault would be, neither Court particularly wanted me to try . There’s just enough uncertainty about what might happen.

So I’m unpredictable. What can I say? It’s a gift.

“I think,” he said carefully. “That I should probably call Lily down here.”

“Too high for your paygrade, huh?” I said commiseratingly. “I’m not going anywhere.”

He slid some coins across the bar and went to the back, presumably to use Mac’s payphone. I didn’t bother Listening in. Fix wasn’t stupid enough to say anything incriminating where I might be able to hear, and I’d get some answers soon enough. One way or another.


It wasn’t long after that that Lily came in. She looked good - ethereally beautiful in her spring green dress, of course, but also flushed with health and well-being. I wasn’t sure I liked what being Summer Lady had done to her personality, but I couldn’t fault its physical effect. She walked across the bar to me and slid onto the neighboring stool. When I looked at her, she met my gaze calmly.

“Fix says you think the Court is behind your kidnapping,” she said casually. “We’re not.”

“Can you say that three times?” I snarked. I was shaken by her plain denial; even when they’re in the right, faeries would rather chew iron than say something straightforward. Sure, Lily and I went back, but she was still one of them, in the end. To have her say something like that -

“I and my Court have nothing to do with the attack on you,” she said again. “We did not know of the conception of the plan, and had no part in its execution or any repercussions from its enactment. We are not behind this offense, Harry Dresden.”

And she said it three times. A faery couldn’t outright lie, of course, but the phrasing of her first denial had a little room in it. ‘We’re not’ could have been entirely unrelated to her preceding statement, though even the fae rarely stooped to that level of legalistic hairsplitting. But she’d said it again, and she’d said it three times. There was nothing more binding, not to her kind.

And nothing more offensive than being asked to repeat something three times, I remembered a moment later. I snuck a glance at Lily. She didn’t seem mortally offended. Hopefully she really wasn’t. I could do without seeing any more of Summer’s hitmen on my doorstep.

“Sorry,” I said, to be on the safe side. Hey, it was an apology.

“Were you anyone else,” she said, giving me a small smile, “you’d be dead before nightfall.”

See what I mean about personality changes? The old Lily would never have said something like that, and if she had, she certainly wouldn’t have meant it.

“Thank god for history, then,” I said, and made a manful effort to stop quaking in my boots. “Can I buy you a drink?”

Chapter Text

Don’t get me wrong, I was happy to avoid going toe-to-toe with Summer again. Even with the awesomeness of my wizardly healing, it had taken me a while to get back up to full strength. But I was back at square one, with nothing to work from but a cold crime scene and a long list of suspects. I didn’t know anything. I hate that.

The only angle I hadn’t pursued so far was eyewitness reports. Given that my eyewitnesses were nine scared children who’d seen their friend die, I’d been hoping to avoid talking to them. The probability that they’d seen anything useful was low, and the probability that they could remember it in any helpful way was even lower.

See, kids are generally better witnesses than adults. They have fewer expectations, fewer prejudices, and their thought patterns are less firmly set. An adult sees something and rewrites what they saw into something that makes sense, something that fits the narrative. Maybe they change the time of day, or the order of events, or the appearance of the culprit. Kids don’t do that.

However, they do see things differently than adults do. A kid isn’t going to notice the same things I would, because the things I notice are generally not relevant to them. A kid’s perspective is always going to be skewed; a short person looks tall, a thin person looks fat, and skin color is largely irrelevant. They notice details; there was a puddle on the floor, I wanted to play in it! The man had a duck on his bag. His hair was funny, like that man’s on the television, the one with the blue box. They rephrase the story in a narrative that makes sense to them: He was a pirate! There was a dinosaur! It varies, of course, depending on the kid’s interests, but child testimonies are difficult to understand from an adult perspective, simply because we stop seeing the world like they do.

And, of course, beyond the whole problem of comprehending what a kid is trying to tell you, there’s the problem of asking the right questions. Kids, especially scared kids, are eager to get an adult’s approval. If you ask the wrong questions, the kid will tell you exactly what he or she thinks you want to hear. If they’ve heard a story, they’re usually willing to parrot it right back at you. The trick is to get them to tell you what they experienced, not what they heard someone else say later, not what their mom says happened when they wake up screaming at night.

Back when I was working with Nick Christian at Ragged Angel, I’d seen a lot of interviews with kids, and I’d done more than a couple myself. It wasn’t easy, and I’d been more than happy to see that part of the work go when I’d set up shop for myself. The idea of doing it again wasn’t exactly thrilling. But I had no choice.

I called Murphy and asked her to pick me up at the house in the morning. I had some kids to talk to, and parents respond better to a woman asking to talk to their kid than they do to a scruffy wizard detective. 


 

She picked me up at nine. I’d told her ‘morning’ on the phone, but for me, ‘morning’ tends to mean ‘after I get up’, not ‘those rumored hours before noon’. When she knocked on the door, I was still snoring away in my nice comfy bed.

“Harry!” she said, when I opened the door, blinking the sleep out of my eyes. “Were you down in the – you can’t interview a witness dressed like that.”

I looked down at myself. T-shirt, socks, boxers… Ah.

“Coffee,” I explained. “Car?”

“Yeah,” she said, smirking. “You just finish regaining coherence, I’ll be waiting. Mouse?”

My dog bounded past me, making a valiant effort to shake the stone floor, and hopped into the open door of Murphy’s cruiser. She turned back to the car, and I stumbled back into my apartment in search of pants. And coffee. Coffee would make things better.


 Ten minutes later, I was dressed and verbal and we were sedately proceeding through the streets of Chicago, on our way to the home of Peter Nash.

“His mom said she was glad someone was coming around,” Murphy said. She sounded surprised.

“Father Forthill said she was interested in psychology,” I said. “She probably thinks talking about it will help Peter get over it. It might, at that.”

“Hopefully he’ll give you something to go on,” Murphy took a left, narrowly dodging a jaywalking pedestrian, who flipped us the bird. “Most of the other parents weren’t interested.”

“Fair enough,” I didn’t blame them. And it wasn’t like I could interview all of them, anyway. Nine witnesses was kind of a lot for a busy private eye, and kids took more time than adults, even though they were a lot easier to talk to. “How many said okay?”

“Four – Matthew Johnson’s actually out of the country right now, his parents took him to St Martin’s for a beach vacation. Andrew Wilson has a dentist appointment after school, and his mother made it very clear that he was not available to talk. James Hwang’s father just said no, and Paula Harris is out of state visiting her grandma. Elizabeth Dean’s phone went to voicemail, and they haven’t called back.”

“So, we’ve got Luke Palinski, Mary-Anne Vanduser, and Genevieve Springer, after Peter Nash?”

“Peter is meeting us at the playground,” Murphy told me. “Mary-Anne and Genevieve – they’re best friends - are going to join us for ice cream at Rainbow Cone, and Luke’s mom said they’ll be home all afternoon. We should be able to get as much of the story as there is to get, with that many witnesses.”

If, I thought, there was anything to get. 


 When we got to the playground, Peter was hanging off the monkey bars. His mother saw us, and nodded at me to go into the playground. Murphy went over to talk to her, and I walked over to Peter.

“Hey,” I said. “Your mom told you I was coming to talk to you. My name’s Harry.”

“Like the wizard?”

“Yup,” I said, and took my blasting rod out of my pocket. “See? Wand and everything.”

“Cool!” Peter dropped off the monkey bars and looked up at me. “Can I hold it?”

“Sorry, kid, not a good idea,” I shook my head. “You know the rules. The wand chooses the wizard.”

He nodded seriously. “Are you like Hagrid? Will I get a Hogwarts letter?”

“I don’t think they send ‘em to this side of the Atlantic,” I told him. “But there are all kinds of Hogwarts…es. You’ll find one. Which House do you want to be in?”

“Gryffindor, duh,” he said, like I was stupid. I uncrossed my fingers in my mind. “It’s the best.”

“Well, you have to be pretty brave to be in Gryffindor,” I told him. “Brave enough to do anything, and come back and tell the story.”

“I had an adventure already,” he said. “I can tell you, if you want.”

“Well, if you’re sure,” I said. “If it’s too scary, you don’t have to.”

The kid looked to the side for a second, checking to make sure his mom was still on the bench where he’d left her. She waved, and he turned back to me, pretending he hadn’t seen.

“I’m not a baby,” he said. “Do you want to hear it or not?”

 “It does sound like a pretty big adventure,” I said. He grinned up at me.

 “I was captured by Lord Voldemort,” he said proudly. I blinked. It was always a problem with interviewing kids – you gave them a framework, got them liking you and wanting to tell you the story, but sometimes it was hard to get out of it again.

“Wow,” I said. “You know, I bet this story would be a lot cooler if you told it to me like it was actually happening – like we were superheroes and we had radios, and you were reporting on the mission to me.”

“Okay! We can use a speaking spell!” he said, and ran over to the ship. “Come on! I’ll be the Captain, you can be my cabin boy.”

Well, at least I wasn’t the house elf. And there were three more kids to interview; if I checked Peter’s version with theirs, I could probably figure out what he was trying to say. I followed him over, and took up my position amidships.

“This is the Captain speaking, can you hear me?” Peter demanded.

“Roger that,” I said.

“No! It’s ‘aye aye, Captain Peter’.”

“Aye aye, Captain Peter,” I said obediently. “Can you see the enemy approaching?”

“Yeah! Sails to starboard!”

I looked at Peter. He was pointing to the left.

“They look pretty fierce,” I agreed, and hit myself in the head mentally. This wasn’t going anywhere; Peter had clearly picked up on a new game to play, and I’d been all too happy to go along with it. Time to get back on track. “I thought our enemy didn’t have sails?”

“Oh, right,” Peter sat down beside the speaking tube. “So, Lord Voldemort is coming up to the gate. We’re playing Hide and Seek, and James is It. I’m hiding under the bush with the yellow flowers, and Mary-Anne’s in Jail but she keeps whining and saying she’s bored, but it’s just because she got caught.”

“It’s pretty boring in Jail,” I agreed. “What does Lord Voldemort do?”

“He is watching us for a while, and Mary-Anne keeps whining, and James is really good at Hide and Seek so I get caught too and then everyone else except Jeremy and Matthew.” Peter paused. “Jeremy was really really good at Hide and Seek.”

“He looked pretty sneaky,” I said.

“He didn’t want to play Sardines.”

“Sardines?”

“That’s what Voldemort wanted to play,” he told me. “And he said we could play it in the church!”

“That’s pretty cool,” I said. “I never got to play in the church. There’s got to be a lot of good places to hide in there.”

“You played at St Mary’s?” He turned to look at me.

“I was a prisoner too,” I told him, and propped my leg up on the upper deck before I pulled up my pants leg to show him the bruises on my knee. They were faded, but still pretty impressive to an eight year old. “See?”

“Voldemort did that?”

“Yup,” I said.

“Let’s go play over there,” he said, sliding down the fireman’s pole and climbing the rope ladder into the wooden tunnels near the ship. He sat down in a small room with a speaking tube. “This’s where Voldemort hid, when he was the Sardine.”

“I was over here,” I said, and crawled into the tunnel with the matching tube. It was a tight fit. From here, I couldn’t see Peter. His voice echoed through the tube. It sounded uncertain, suddenly.

“He had a book,” he said. “The diary. We couldn’t read it because it was cursive and we’ve only been learning cursive for three months, even though he put it on the floor.”

“Did he read out loud?”

“Yeah, but it was magic, so I don’t know what he said.”

“What did he do next?”

“He drew some stuff on the floor, and then he grabbed Jeremy and put him in the middle.” Peter stopped, and a sort of wet snuffling noise came over the speaking tube. “I don’t want to play anymore.”

“It’s okay,” I said uncertainly. “Um. You were really brave, telling the story. Really Gryffindor. The Sorting Hat would definitely put you there.”

The snuffling noises continued. I wasn’t really sure what to do – Justin hadn’t exactly been a model for getting kids to stop crying, and with Ragged Angel, I’d pretty much left that to Nick, or the kid’s parents, or a social worker, or a police – you get the idea.

“When I was a kid,” I continued, “There was this really scary guy, like Uncle Vernon, and he hurt me and my friend. I couldn’t save her. I still feel pretty bad about that, but a while ago someone said that I wasn’t thinking about it the right way, and it turned out he was right. Maybe she didn’t mean to, but because she didn’t make it, I did. And so I have to do all the cool stuff she couldn’t do and be the awesome person she would want me to be, for her. And sometimes I have the chance to save other people like I couldn’t save her, and that makes it a little better.”

The speaking tube was silent. I crawled out of the tunnel, and looked into Peter’s. He was gone. The tunnel was empty, and so was the ship, and none of the children on the swings or the slide was Peter. Movement caught my eye – his mother was waving at me. Peter had crawled into her lap, and sat wrapped around her like a small blue-striped octopus. I tilted my head at her, and she nodded. He’d be okay.

Chapter Text

I really like the ice cream at Rainbow Cone. It’s a tourist trap, but it’s justifiably famous. The ice cream is just that good, and it’s cheerful and tacky in the best tradition of ice cream stores. I got a double-scoop vanilla waffle cone with rainbow dinosaur sprinkles, and went over to sit across from the two little girls Murphy identified as Genevieve and Mary-Anne. One of them had long dark curls carefully clipped back with sparkly pink clips. The other one was very blonde and wore a vividly purple dress with striped rainbow tights.

They eyed me judgmentally over their enormous rainbow cones. Vanilla, it appeared, was not a flavor of which they approved.

“Hi, I’m Harry,” I began.

“You’re doing it wrong,” said one of them. “Mama said you’re with the police. You’re supposed to ask where we were on the night.”

“Okay, let me try again,” I said. “My name’s Harry Dresden, and I’m with the police. Can you tell me where you were on the night of Wednesday the seventeenth?”

“I’m Genevieve Springer,” said the child with the dark curls. “This is Mary-Anne. We were at St Mary’s.”

“You saw something bad, right?” I said. “I wasn’t there, so I need you to tell me what happened so I can catch the bad guy.”

“No!” Mary-Anne was indignant. And holding Genevieve’s hand. “You’re supposed to ask us what we saw. Like, ‘Miss Vanduser, what did you see on the night?’”

“You guys are much better at this than I am,” I said. “I’ll try my best to do it right.”

“You better,” said Genevieve. She licked fiercely at her ice cream.

“Miss Vanduser, Miss Springer, please tell me what you saw on the night of the seventeenth at St Mary’s church.”

“We were playing in the yard,” Mary-Anne said. “A man came to the gate.”

“Now you say, ‘Can you describe this man?’” Genevieve informed me. I obeyed.

“He looked like Justin Bieber,” Mary-Anne said, still playing the part of the primary witness. “He was wearing – “

“No, he looked like the Black Knight!” Genevieve interrupted.

“That was later, stupid! When he got old!”

“Okay, but he didn’t look like Justin Bieber, anyway, he looked like Zac Efron!”

“Whatever! He was blonde and he was wearing jeans and a blue hoodie with red strings.”

“It didn’t have any pictures,” Genevieve inserted disapprovingly. “And it wasn’t very cold but he was wearing leather gloves anyway.”

“He got old later?” I said.

“Yeah, when we were in the Chamber of Secrets,” Mary-Anne said. I froze. “He drew some stuff, and then he started reading from the diary, and then he put his hands on Jeremy’s neck and Jeremy got Petrified, and then we all fell asleep and when we woke up he was gone but the basilisk got Jeremy.”

I tried to think how I might have prompted them to shape their experience into a Harry Potter novel. Nothing sprang to mind. I was starting to think that I’d been more on than I realized when I started talking to Peter. What they were describing sounded, under the fictional coating, like a necromantic rite.

Which would explain how my visitor had gotten the jump on me. I’m not the most observant wizard in the land, sure, but training Molly had left me with senses more honed than most. Generally speaking, your average wizard would have kind of a hard time sneaking up on me, and most wizards I knew would be more than a little reluctant to face me head on – I have an awesome, mostly undeserved reputation. An infusion of necromantic power might have been just the edge my visitor thought he needed to ensure I wouldn’t escape his trap.

He needn’t have bothered. As cocksure as I was, and as much of a hurry as I was in, a vanilla mortal could’ve beaned me over the head and gotten the same result. But I would have noticed .

Necromantic power, maybe not. Not right off, anyway. And necromancy was something the Black Council loved.

I thanked the girls, and went over to speak with their mothers.

“Thanks for letting me speak with them,” I said. “They were really helpful. I have one question, though. Have they been watching or reading Harry Potter recently?”

“They have a sleepover once a week,” Genevieve’s mother said. She was a short, curvy woman with rich curls and a sensuous mouth. If her mother was anything to go by, Genevieve was going to be a looker when she grew up. “Usually they want to watch a princess movie, but the last time it was at my house, they both demanded to see The Chamber of Secrets.”

“They asked for it the time before that, too,” said Mary-Anne’s mother. “I thought it was a bit odd at the time; they’re a little young for the whole Harry Potter thing, though of course we’ve watched all the movies as a family. Mary-Anne’s never been that interested, though, not until – the last few weeks.”

She had shadows under her eyes, her brown hair pulled back into a plain ponytail, and her clothes simple – jeans and a t-shirt. But her watch was elegant and expensive, and she was wearing polished brown leather shoes, not sneakers. This was a woman who was usually well put-together and polished.

“Has Mary-Anne been having nightmares?” I asked.

“Every night,” her mother said.

“Genevieve has, too. Her father usually sits up with her.”

I nodded, and passed them a couple of charms, similar to my silver pentacle necklace. They looked at them, and then at me.

“Tell them these are protections,” I said. “They might believe you, they might not, but it’s worth trying. Even if they don’t, it’s something for them to believe in in the middle of the night. I used to work for Ragged Angel – the kids we gave these to almost always slept better after.”

They wouldn’t, I thought, not for a couple of nights, but when they did, the charms would bring the girls nightmare-free sleep. They wouldn’t last forever – just a few months – but by the time they wore out, the memories would be less fresh, and the nightmares, when they came back, would be less vivid.

When I got back to Murphy’s car, she was standing outside it, leaning against the door.

“It’s hot,” she said. I offered her the remnants of my cone. She wrinkled her nose. “Not all of us are six years old, Dresden.”

“Sure must suck to be one of you old people,” I said, crunching on a bite of waffle cone and sticky vanilla goodness.

“Did you learn anything?”

“Yeah,” I said, and told her what the girls had said. She listened carefully, frowning. It was kinda cute, though I valued my physical integrity enough not to mention it.

“So you’re pretty sure it’s the Black Council, then,” she said when I finished.

“Who else could it be?” I asked. She sighed, and eyed me for a moment.

“Well, you know more about it than I do,” she said. “And the whole necromancy thing does sound pretty indicative. But can you promise me something?”

“Maybe,” I said. Once upon a time, I’d have said yes without a second thought. That was a long time ago, though, and although Murph and I are pretty close, now, maybe closer than we’ve ever been, there’s some things I can’t promise her, and a whole lot more I don’t have the right to.

“Just – keep an open mind?” I started to protest. She glared at me. I shut up. “I think you’re probably right, but something – something just seems kind of off. Why focus on you? You’ve gotten in their way a couple of times, sure, but you’re just one wizard, and all their other plans, they’ve been thinking big. Why involve Marcone? The Black Council doesn’t seem like it cares that much about procedure, so why’s a mortal Freedholding Lord a problem for them? Why kill only one of the children? Why kill that girl? There’s something missing.”

“There is,” I agreed. We got in the car, and she started the engine before turning to look at me again.

“So just – you’re a great guy, Harry, but you’ve got kind of a one-track mind,” I snorted. “Not like that, idiot. You’re – persistent. And you don’t like to let things go.”

“You’re saying I’m the cardinal that fights itself in windows until it knocks itself unconscious,” I said.

“Yep,” she agreed. “So if the other cardinal seems oddly Harry-shaped, promise me you’ll take five and think about whether or not it might just be your reflection?”

“I promise,” I said. She had a point. The Black Council theory was the best one I had, but it didn’t add up perfectly. Still, it was the closest to the total I’d gotten – much closer, I sniped mentally to an absent Bob, than any equation involving the White Council.

We drove for a while in silence. The streets were pretty crowded – it was a late autumn afternoon, and it was neither cold nor raining – a state we were unlikely to see again until spring. Eventually, we got out of the city proper and into a more suburban area, and Murphy glanced over at me.

“How’re you holding up?” she asked. I could tell she wasn’t expecting much of an answer out of me. Which is probably why I felt like answering.

I’m contrary. It’s a thing.

“Not great,” I said. “I keep dreaming about the Evans kid. Marie.”

“You did the best you could, Harry,” she told me seriously. I snorted.

“Did I? The more I find out, the less it seems like I did. Was there even a spell? Were there any explosives? I charged in there without thinking, without calling for backup, without looking ahead of me, and I stayed there without even once challenging what he told me. And once I got out? I holed up in my apartment and left the state rather than deal with it, and Marie died doing what I should have done.” I thumped my head against the back of the car seat. Murphy pulled the car over, and parked it beside the road, turning off the engine. Smart move. I was getting emotional, and electronics and emotional wizards do not mix very well. “I was stupid, Murph, and they’re dead because I was stupid.”

“Yeah, you fucked up,” she said, her voice fierce. “You didn’t think – but even if you had, Harry – I’m not saying this was inevitable, but do you really think his plan relied solely on your stupidity? You should have been more careful, and you should have called for backup, but you still might have ended up kneeling for over twelve hours rather than risk the death of those children. Once you were in that room, you made the best choice you could with the information you had, and they are not dead because of that. Jeremy was, by all accounts, dead before you even got there.”

I shook my head. It wasn’t anything I hadn’t told myself before. Murphy groaned, and swiveled around in her seat to face me.

“I can tell you it’s not your fault until I’m blue in the face,” she said. “And I’ll keep doing it, because it wasn’t your fault and you should hear that from someone outside your own head, but Harry, you carry enough ghosts. Let them go.”

I looked at my hands.  Jeremy and Marie weren’t the first people I’d gotten killed, and they probably wouldn’t be the last. Murphy sighed and shook her head, muttering something under her breath.

“Huh?” I said. Murph wasn’t a mutterer - if she had something to say, she’d say it, and you’d better sit up and listen.

“I just - wish I’d found you, Harry. Or Michael. Or Father Forthill. Or -” Her voice trailed off, and she didn’t have to finish. Or anyone else , she wanted to say. As if it would have made some kind of difference. As if Jeremy and Marie would be any less dead.

Chapter Text

When I walked into Luke Palinski’s room, the first thing I saw was the telescope. It was a nice one; solid, durable, sleek in that indefinably expensive way. You couldn’t miss it, not in that utterly ordinary little boy room. It wasn’t pointed at the sky.

“What kind of birds do you see out there?” I asked, gesturing to the park outside his window. “Anything good?”

“Mostly robins and stuff,” he said. I could see he was excited, and guessed most visitors saw the telescope and didn’t bother to look at where it was pointed, or at the Audobon guides on his bookshelves. “Sometimes there’s a hoary redpoll, though.”

“Cool,” I said, and sat down on the floor. From this angle, I could see his rock collection. It didn’t seem to be organized in any way that I recognized – size and shape and color and composition were mixed up willy-nilly, clustered in little groups or scattered at random. They were all clean, though, dust-free and shining

“I’m good at birds,” Luke announced, still standing over me. “Today I saw thirty-one black-capped chickadees.”

“Is that a lot?” I didn’t know much about birds, except as power line decorations. Otherwise, I left them alone, and they left me alone, and I was pretty sure we both liked it that way.

“About normal,” he said, and sat down across from me. “There’s a tree they like to hop around in. Someone hangs seed bags for them, but I’m not sure who, so it’s a mystery. I’m going to get up early every morning from now on and see if I can catch them.”

“You don’t like mysteries?” I asked. I knew the answer.

“Not anymore,” he said seriously, and met my eyes. I looked away before I could trigger a soul gaze – that was the last thing any kid needed after what he’d been through.

“I’m going to ask about what happened when Jeremy died,” I told him. “I know it was a while ago, but anything you remember may help me catch the bad guy. Is that okay?”

“Yeah, it’s okay. I remember it like it was yesterday,” Luke told me, and grinned. It was a good try. “That’s what you say when you remember pretty well, or when you can’t forget, right?”

“Yeah, that’s pretty much it,” I agreed. “So, Luke, can you tell me what happened?”

“Well, he changed,” Luke said. “The police said that was impossible, but I know I wasn’t imagining things. At the beginning, when he said we should play a new game, he looked kind of cool, like someone who bought his clothes too big even though he wasn’t going to grow any taller. And then he looked like a regular grownup.”

“How is that?”

“He was just – wider, I guess.”

“Was there anything special about him? A mark on his face, special hair, something like that?”

“Just a regular grownup,” Luke said dismissively. “But you know what was weird?”

“What?”

“He didn’t do things right. Like, when he wanted light, he didn’t turn on the lights, even though we showed him the light switch. He had a big bag full of candles, and he wouldn’t let us light them or blow them out or anything, he did it all himself. I thought maybe the lights were broken, but when we came out they were okay.”

“That is pretty odd,” I agreed. “Anything else?”

“He made a drawing on the floor, but he didn’t use chalk,” Luke said. This was obviously something completely beyond the realm of comprehension for Luke. “Everyone knows you have to use chalk to write on the floor.”

“What did he use?”

“I think he used paint,” he said disapprovingly. “It was shiny and quiet.”

If I had been inclined towards necromancy, I would have used paint as well. Necromantic rites are not exactly safe. For some completely incomprehensible reason, magic tends to object to being used to kill people and steal or otherwise abuse their life forces. You can’t just channel the magic and hope it works; necromancy requires careful rites to keep the magic under control, and messing those rites up, even if it’s something so minor as a scuffed chalk line, can have dire consequences for the necromancer. In this life and whatever follows. Chalk’s easy, but the risks are pretty high, especially in a room full of restless and uncertain children.

“What happened after he finished painting?” I asked. So far, I hadn’t gotten a good answer from any of the kids, which wasn’t surprising. Kids don’t really get death, most of the time. When they read about it in books or watch it on TV, it doesn’t really scare them because , developmentally speaking, they can’t understand the concept of ceasing to exist. Things just are, and it takes a death like this, close and personal, to prove that life is not a permanent or an incontrovertible state. It’s a pretty big paradigm shift. I still have trouble with that one sometimes, though as far as I’m concerned it might just be wishful thinking.

“I was the next-to- last sardine,” Luke’s hands began to close and unclose, curling open and shut like he couldn’t help the motion. “When I got there, the drawing was almost done. He pushed me over into the corner, and then he stood there by the door and kept talking to himself, like he was swearing but instead of swearing he was saying stuff about Merlin. Jeremy was the last one, because he didn’t want to play, but I guess he got bored by himself because after one of the girls started crying, he came in. The man grabbed him by his hair and put him in the middle of the drawing, and when he let go Jeremy just stayed there, even though I could tell he wanted to move.”

“He probably couldn’t,” I said gently. “The man made him stay.”

“Could he make me stay?” Luke asked. “Or you?”

“It depends,” I said. “There’s different ways to make people stay. He got me when I wasn’t ready, and even though he didn’t make me stay like he made Jeremy, he made me hold still anyway, for hours and hours. I couldn’t move, even though I really wanted to, because if I did bad things would happen – like when your mom tells you to hold really still because there’s a bee and if you move it’ll sting you. But I’m ready, now, and if he tries it again I have some things to help me get loose. I’ll give one to you before we leave.”

“Okay,” he whispered. I waited. “Some – some more stuff happened, before we all went to sleep.”

“Can you tell me?”

“I think so.” His voice was surprisingly certain. “If it’ll help you find the bad guy.”

“It will,” I said. “Whatever you can tell me will help.”

Actually, I wasn’t sure it would – so far, he’d pretty much confirmed what the other kids had told me. A dark wizard, one with necromantic leanings, had tricked the children into following him by appearing to be someone only a little older than themselves – easy enough to do, and an excellent disguise given St Mary’s rotating population of transient youths – and, having lured them into the basement, had killed one and used the resultant necromantic energy to ensure that he could take me down. He’d used magic fairly indiscriminately, but he’d cleaned up after himself extremely well – there hadn’t even been a trace of paint left in the room with the children.

But letting Luke finish telling me what he knew would help him, and believing him would help him more. I owed it to the kid to have him continue. And you never knew, there might be something, some small detail that would be what I needed to lead me to my visitor.

“He said some stuff,” Luke continued after a while. “The room got really dark, outside of the candles, and there were things in the dark, but they couldn’t come all the way in because of the candles. Jeremy was just standing there, and then the man took a finger and closed his eyes, one at a time, and then he put his hands on Jeremy’s neck and they were all shiny and black in the candlelight and – and then Jeremy was dead, and then we all went to sleep and when we woke up Mr. Marcone was there and Jeremy and the man were gone and he helped us get back to the garden.”

That was something else I had to thank Gentleman Johnny for, then. I was sure my visitor hadn’t taken Jeremy’s body out of the room while the kids slept – Marcone must have moved it before he broke the spell keeping the children asleep, so they wouldn’t have to wake up to their friend’s corpse, and they would never have to know that they had been kept for measureless hours in a room with the dead.

“Thank you for telling me, Luke,” I told him, and reached into my pocket for another silver charm. “You remembered really well, and you told me very clearly, and with your help, I think I can catch him.”

“Are you sure?” Luke asked. “Is he going to come back for me?”

“No,” I said firmly. “Definitely not. But if he does, or if anyone or anything else does, just hold on to this and remember that they can’t make you do anything you don’t want to do. It’ll keep them from making you stand still. And it’ll help with the nightmares, too, and keep the things in the dark away.”

“I’m not a baby,” he said. “I’m not scared of the dark.”

“Never said you were,” I gave him a quick grin, and surreptitiously pulled as much magic as I could into the little charm. I hadn’t liked the sound of those things gathering around the candlelight. The charm hadn’t been intended for much more than easing his dreams, but between what extra magic I could cram into it and his belief, it would probably give most of the lesser beings that hovered on the edges a bit of a pause. “But you were right – there were things in the dark. Mostly you’re just remembering, and that’s normal, but just to be on the safe side, hang on to this, okay?”

“Okay,” he said, and held out his hand. I put it in his palm, and curled his small warm fingers around it.

Chapter Text

The first thing I did when I got home, even before I kicked my shoes off, was examine the wards. I didn’t use to; before, I’d have just checked if they’d been tripped, and that would have been enough. Checking made me feel kind of paranoid, like a miser protecting, given the state of my apartment, a pretty pathetic stash of cash, but I couldn’t relax till I’d gone over every inch of them with my magic, checking for flaws, weak points, and disturbances.

There were none. I took off my duster, leaned my staff against the cheerfully-postered wall, and yelled down to the basement.

“Bob! Anything come up while I was out?”

“Pretty sure you need a body for that to happen, boss!” Bob called, voice distorted by the basement and the trapdoor. “Not that you’d know.”

Really? He was going there?

Before I could holler back any threats, he continued.

“But zip, zilch, and nada happened while you were out. There was a phone call, and I think they left a message, but I couldn’t make it out from down here.”

I eyed the phone, which was sitting midway up the bookshelf across the room, wires dangling carelessly. A little red light was blinking ominously.

I don’t like it when people call me while I’m out. I hear that other people get good messages – they’ve won the drawing, their friends are getting married, a long-lost lover wants to get back in touch – or boring ones. Stuff like telemarketers and the census. Me? Whenever someone leaves me a message, it’s because something bad has happened. I eyed the little light suspiciously. Maybe I was seeing things? I closed my eyes and opened them again.

It continued to blink. Damn it.

I crossed the room and leaned against the bookshelf. My shield bracelet clattered against the handset as I pressed the ‘play message’ button. A man cleared his throat and began to speak.

His voice was like some sort of secretarial nightmare. Years of answering phones and making calls, of dealing with unreasonable bosses and irascible visitors, all while staying calm enough to keep from frying the electronics, had ground his voice into that of the next generation of robots. It was bland, efficient, and utterly bored, which made what he was saying all the more horrifying.

“Wizard Dresden? Ah. This is a summons to the trial and execution of the warlock Hollis Ellery, taken in custody last Wednesday in Evanston for grossly flouting the Laws of Magic. The trial will take place on Saturday at 4:30 PM. Please respond at your earliest convenience.” The message wound to an end with a loud beeeeeeep .

I took a deep breath, walked over to the couch, and sat down. I was having trouble processing, between the mental and emotional exhaustion from interviewing the kids and the unexpected whammy of the phone call. It was the way they phrased it – the trial and execution . There was never any doubt about the outcome of one of these trials. I’d gotten lucky; for some reason, Eb had taken a chance on me. My apprentice had gotten lucky; she’d had me. Since becoming a warden, I’d learned just how rare those instances of luck were. And most of these warlocks were younger than she’d been, too young and dumb to know better.

The worst part was, by the time we’d gotten to them, they really were often beyond our abilities to redeem. I wondered what this Ellery kid had done, and wished I wasn’t going to find out.

“BOSS!” Bob’s voice came out of the basement. “What’s up?”

I sighed and stood up. It’s hard to get a good brood in with Bob around.

“They caught a warlock out by Evanston,” I said as I climbed down the ladder into my lab. “I have to go to the execution.”

“Sucks,” he said, without much interest. “Learn anything useful from the kids?”

“Some,” I said. “Looks like our guy might be a necromancer – he was probably using necromantic magic, since it’s harder for non-necromancers to sense unless they’re looking for it.”

“That does sound pretty Black Council,” he said.

“He was adept with illusions,” I continued. “When the kids first saw him, he looked like a teenager in baggy clothes, and then later, after he got them in the room, he was older. Not ancient or anything, but old enough to be old to a kid. Probably looks like he’s in his mid-thirties, or a bit older. Solid build.”

“Anything special about him?”

“He was, and I quote, ‘just a regular grownup’,” I said.

“So we’ve got a middle-aged necromancer who hates you and with the finesse to hold a stable illusion in place for at half an hour,” Bob summed up. “Well, I suppose that’s something. You couldn’t do it.”

 

As usual, the place I’d been summoned to for the execution had seen better days, though I doubted there had been many of them. It was one of those cheap warehouses that goes straight from brand new to dilapidated without bothering to hit most of the usual benchmark moments in the decline and fall of architecture. The corrugated iron siding was rusted, in some places clean through. I wasn’t sure the ceiling girders could hold up a roof, but luckily there wasn’t much of a roof to hold up. Marcone, who couldn’t be too choosy about where he did business, would’ve turned up his scumbag nose at it.

“Seriously?” I said to the air, and gingerly extracted myself from the Beetle. Leaning back in, I yanked my Warden’s robe from the back seat and held it up critically. It looked like the last piece of laundry in the basket you forgot about, and didn’t smell much better. A damp, muddy Mouse had at one point clearly decided to take a nap on it.

I gave it a good shake and slung it on. Disgrace to wizards, thy name is Harry Dresden.

Besides, if I was lucky, the smell might keep my colleagues from talking to me.

As I walked to the door, a gray-cloaked wizard saw me and peeled himself away from the drift of wizards near the door. It looked like they had, on the whole, decided not to risk being in the building for any longer than necessary.

“Harry!” he called, coming closer. It was Ramirez, of course. I saw the moment the smell hit him, and grinned as he tried to disguise his reaction for a moment before giving up and wrinkling his nose. One of the other wizards, who’d seen Ramirez leave the group, stared at us. I thought he looked kind of disapproving. “The fuck? Are you trying to give the Council a collective aneurysm?”

“There is no try,” I proclaimed. “There is only do. Or not, if it’s laundry. I left it in the car after the last thing, and Chicago happened to it.”

“That,” he said fastidiously, “is exactly what it smells like.”

“What’s the situation?”

“It’s a bad one, Harry,” he told me, grin fading. “Started out cheating on tests, making his teachers say exactly what they were thinking, ‘hypnotism’ at parties – cheap laughs. Escalated quickly. They brought me in on the cleanup at the frat house. There were… bodies everywhere. Some of them were still alive. Physically, anyway. His own personal puppet show.”

I shook my head. Magic… it’s something that comes out of life. When it’s used to hurt people, it rips the user to shreds, corrupts them, turns them into something dark. No one starts out that way; I hadn’t, my apprentice Molly hadn’t – hell’s bells, even Corpsetaker had probably had his fair share of milk mustaches once upon a time. And we’d all taken a step down that road. Molly and I hadn’t gone very far, and with some well-timed interference and careful supervision we’d managed to stop before we went further. There’d been consequences. We’d suffered them.

But we could still be tempted. We were more susceptible to it than those who hadn’t taken that step.

“I should’ve heard something,” I said. Evanston was in my territory, though that was pushing the boundaries a little. This kid was my problem. And I’d been – out of touch.

“You can’t keep track of every new practitioner in the greater Chicago area,” Ramirez told me, rolling his eyes. “Just like I can’t keep tabs on everything going down in LA. We don’t have enough people to do much more than put out fires. You know that.”

I did. There were enough minor practitioners in Chicago to fill a rural phonebook, and the new practitioners only showed up on the radar once things went wrong. Or once they started asking the right questions in the right bookstores, in the case of the more responsible and socially-minded individuals. The Paranet, a registry of small-time practitioners, probably accounted for no more than a third of the total magic users so far, and most of them were longtimers. Finding new talent was a problem, and the more power they had, the quicker they tended to go darkside.

This, actually, was probably the reason behind our staffing problems. Well, that and the war with the Red Court. Which was partially my fault, but they started it.

“And this was faster than usual,” Ramirez continued. “First signs, as far as we can tell, started two months ago. And no one realized anything was wrong until fall break, when half the kids didn’t show up at home.”

“How many victims?”

“Eighteen. Eleven boys. Seven girls.”

There wasn’t really anything to say. We leaned against the Beetle silently, contemplating the warehouse and the kid inside, until the Merlin’s secretary came out and beckoned us all impatiently in. We walked towards the doors, and as we did so, the other wizards fell in behind us. The shadow of the building dropped over us, and I tensed at a sudden chill running down my spine. It felt like something was watching me. I looked over my shoulder.

There was nothing there. Nothing strange, no one threatening. Just a handful of Wardens jostling impatiently for the door, eager to finish with an unpleasant duty and get back to whatever they had waiting for them at home. I didn’t even know half of them.

We went into the warehouse.

Chapter Text

The trial was short – they usually are. It’s a formality, more than anything, especially when there’s no chance of a sponsor for the accused. Ebenezar had stepped in for me; I’d stepped in for Molly. No one was going to step in for Hollis Ellery – even if he hadn’t been a slimy, coercive killer, there wasn’t a Warden there with enough reserves of energy and patience to handle a potential warlock and the coinciding Doom of Damocles. His crimes were read. The sentence was pronounced. The kid didn’t have a word of Latin; he just stood there, shaking, no idea what was going on until the sword bit into his neck.

Afterwards, we all trooped outside again. The time post-execution is basically the White Council’s version of a church coffee hour; everyone mills around sharing gossip, speculation, and the latest discoveries, which shows you just how significant the majority of my colleagues consider the death of another human being. And the Merlin doesn’t even provide coffee and snacks.

So, as Ramirez had been caught by a fussy-looking man and I’m persona non grata with all but the youngest of the Wardens, I headed towards the Beetle and freedom from my peers. I was no further than three meters from the car when a hand clapped down on my shoulder and an overly-jovial voice called, “Dresden!”

I turned, politely refraining from burning his hand off. That’s manners for you. It was a heavy hand, and it clung a little, only falling towards the end of my turn.

“Yes?” I asked. The hand’s owner was looking at me, a little expectant, as if there was something I should know about him. His name, probably. “Uh – Smith, was it?”

“Denver,” he said, going for offhand amusement. Underneath the thin veneer of faked humor, there was something – resentful. Some people just can’t handle it when they aren’t memorable. “Adam Denver. We worked together on that thing in New Mexico a while back.”

I remembered the thing in New Mexico. I was pretty sure no one was ever going to forget the thing in New Mexico.

It wasn’t something I wanted to talk about.

“Huh,” I said. “How about that.”

He was about average height, average build. Not handsome, not plain. One of those guys your eyes slid past on the street. I towered over him – I tower over everyone, except possibly pro basketball players and some of the more elongated Sidhe, which is a fact I generally try to mask. It’s not polite to remind people of their vulnerabilities. Sometimes, when a situation is heading in a very unfortunate direction, I have to, but it’s not something I like to do.

I’d been trying to avoid it more, lately.

“Wizard Dresden, I can see my presence is unwelcome,” he said coldly. “I won’t trouble you any longer.”

I sighed.

“Sorry, Denver,” I said. Culture’s a funny thing. As soon as someone gets offended, we hurry and try to make amends. I didn’t want to talk to the guy, and he didn’t want to talk to me anymore, but the minute he tried to leave, I just had to open my big mouth and apologize. “Warlock executions. Brings back bad memories.”

I was feeling pretty antsy. My hackles were up, and I kept looking for a wall to put my back against, but – my instincts hadn’t been too reliable, lately. I kept jumping at shadows. And I was hungry, tired, and discouraged, and my cloak smelled awful. I might’ve even snapped at Eb, if he’d been around.

“Ah,” he said, and nodded in sympathy. “The job can be difficult to cope with.”

If anything, that was an understatement. I’ve seen things I’d give a lot to forget, but they’re burned into my memories and nightmares with the permanence that only the Sight can lend. I’ve done things I’d give a lot to undo, but even magic has its limits, and changing the past is one of them. Still. Smug bastard.

“It’s something else,” I said agreeably, my eyes narrowed against the diffuse sunlight. “You get out in the field much?”

“Not often; I'm more of a researcher,” he said, and then, to my surprise, he smiled, the kind of smile you see when someone's sure they know something you don't. “But when I do, I make it count.”

I looked him up and down.

“Hunh,” I said. “Wouldn't have pegged you as a heavy hitter.”

“Oh, I'm not one for being pegged,” he said. “Unlike you.”

My stomach churned, and my skin felt hot and tight. I – did he – the way – no. I was imagining things, the way my visitor had wanted me to. Second-guessing every interaction, being played by a memory. Nothing else.

“I think everyone with the faintest trace of magic between here and the Outer Realms knows about you,” he continued, oblivious. I dragged my attention back to him, fought down the taste of stone rising sickening in the back of my throat. “Your propensities are really quite infamous. Did you really blow up Arctis Tor? But this is all beside the point – I was meaning to ask, how are you keeping after that unfortunate incident at the church the other week?”

I'm not sure what my face was doing, but it must not have been good, because he took a step back before he spoke. I was surprised at my sense of relief at the distance – he'd been standing closer than I liked, sure, but some people just have a different grasp of personal space, and it wasn't like he was the first person in my life to stand a little too close and breathe a little too heavily while exuding self-importance. And all he'd done was try to rub my face in his supposed superiority, which was par for the course as far as the Council was concerned. Just some poorly-chosen words and a little too much proximity. That was all.

I drew in a deep breath, annoyed with myself for letting him get to me. The last thing I needed was to fall prey to some White Council windbag. I was just going to stand there and breathe for a moment, and everything would be fine.

It wasn't. My stomach was roiling ominously, now, and my head felt too tight. I couldn't move. The stench of wet stone rose up around me again.

A voice spoke from a few feet away.

“Harry?” it said. “Can you hear me?”

I opened my eyes. Ramirez was standing about two yards from me, the faint blue of a shield shimmering around him. I looked around. Most of the other wardens and assorted Councils members had presumably headed home, duty done, but the few that remained were staring at me, faces grim. Naturally, this included half the Senior Council.

All of them had shields up too.

I looked down. The grass around my feet was smoldering, little wisps of smoke curling up around my ankles. I must've been putting off a lot of heat – it felt like someone had opened up an oven door under me. The Beetle's paint was blistering. And me?

Well, my hands were glowing. Flaming, really. Ghostly orange fire licking up my arms, laced with ribbons of black and the unmistakable tinge of silver soulfire.

I locked my hands behind my back hurriedly and tried to look innocent.

“Yes?” I said. Ramirez's shield dropped with a huff of air. Gradually, the air began to cool down.

“Stars and stones, Harry, what happened?” he said. “One moment it looked like you were fine, talking to Denver, no big deal, and then all the magic in the place gets yanked out from under us and there's you one move from sending everything sky-high.”

“Sorry,” I said, a little absently. I was focusing on releasing the magic I'd unconsciously gathered, letting it seep slowly back into the soil and grass and every natural thing, everything with a sense of history. The other wizards relaxed, but kept a healthy distance from me. Not all the bubbles of shields vanished. Even Ramirez didn't move any closer.

“Think I'm gonna need a little more than that, Harry,” he said. “Couple more minutes and you'd have been the second execution of the day.”

 

He was right. My gifts have always been in an... explosive... direction, as much as I covet the delicate control of wizards like my apprentice Molly. They may not have much firepower, but the magic they do is a work of art. It does have its drawbacks, though, and one of these is definitely the impossibility of withstanding brute-force magic like mine for any amount of time. We were all wizards, sure, but if I'd let loose, someone there would have died.

And not to sound callous or anything, but if someone had died by my magic, the First Law of magic would have been broken, and, as Ramirez put it, I would've been the second execution of the day.

I've already been in that position once, and that was a clear case of self-defense, not that the Council cared. The last thing I want is to be there again with even less of a defense.

“That time of the month?” I offered, and crossed my arms over my chest. “No, really. Abandoned warehouse, scared kid who has no idea what's going on, late fall? Ring any bells? The last time I was in a situation that looked like this, that bag was over my head and I walked out with a suspended death sentence. After one of the Council  tried to kill me.”

Ramirez, who I doubted had even been old enough to be an apprentice at that point, looked ashamed and apologetic. The Merlin, who was coming towards us across the grass, did not.

“You could wind up there again, Mr. Dresden, but I doubt your fellow wizards would be so kind as to lay the Doom upon you twice.”

“Relax,” I told him, and proceeded to lie through my teeth.“I've been in worse situations, including being impelled by the Queen of the Winter Court, and managed to hold back in the end. No one was ever in any danger of being fried. Subconscious defenses aside, I like my head where it is.”

He looked skeptical, but there wasn't much he could say; Justin had been a friend of his, and everyone knew it, just like everyone knew about Morgan's endless, sanctioned persecutions.

“I strongly suggest you keep that thought in mind, then, at the next execution,” he said, and with that, he took a few steps off, nodded, and opened a portal to the Nevernever. “I do not wish to see a repetition of this afternoon's indiscretions. Until next time, Dresden, Ramirez.”

We waited by the car as one by one, the other wizards trooped through the portal and back towards Edinburgh or wherever it was they based themselves out of. The portal closed, and Ramirez turned to me.

“Are you being straight with me, Harry?” he asked. “Or do I need to worry?”

I looked at him for a moment, considering. I liked Ramirez; he was good people. We'd worked together on more than one occasion. If I could tell anyone in the Wardens what was going on, it'd be him.

“Shucks,” I said at last. “What's it take to get a guy barred from executions around here?”

Chapter Text

I was doing my best impression of unemployed on my living room couch – t-shirt and boxer shorts, pulpy Western – when the knock on the door came. Mouse lifted his head, sniffed disparagingly, and put it back down again. On the scale from gust of wind to squirrel to ravening horde of zombies, our... guest... seemed to be a postman. I sighed and stood up, then looked down at myself.

“What do you think?” I asked him. “Am I presentable?”

He opened his eyes, rolled them in my direction, snorted, and closed them again.

“Everyone's a critic,” I sighed at the empty room, and headed towards the door. Mouse may have had a low opinion of my sartorial choices, but it didn't look like I'd get in actual trouble for opening the door in my pajamas.

Still... I paused by the coatrack. Whoever was at the door was, at the very least, not intending me any harm, but suddenly, the thought of opening my door out onto my quiet residential street with anything less than an outfit complete with sneakers and an armored coat sent a wave of discomfort for me. I reached for my duster, and paused again.

There was no threat. It might be a little embarrassing, if it was Murphy, but she'd seen me wearing less before. I liked to think we were past the undergarments discomfort stage in our relationship. I didn't need my duster – I was just answering the door.

The knocking came again, a little more insistent in an exasperatedly courteous sort of way. I pulled my hand back, then sighed and scooped my duster off the rack, shoving my arms through the sleeves and wrapping it tight around me like a dilapidated bathrobe. After all, it was late fall, and only an idiot opens a door in Chicago in late fall without a few layers between himself and the outside air.

The sort of picture that made – bare feet, naked legs, duster tight around me and fingers knotted into the leather, messy hair – didn't actually occur to me until I opened the door and saw John Marcone standing on my doorstep like the delivery man in a porno where I was playing the lonely housewife. He was wearing a gray-green shirt the same color as his eyes, and had divested himself of his usual sharp blazer and tie sometime during the evening. The top two buttons on his shirt were undone. His sleeves were rolled up to his elbows. In his arms was a large cardboard box, the kind you usually find shoved up against cantankerous office equipment. It didn't look light – the edges bit into the muscles of his forearms – but he carried it easily.

Surprise kept me frozen, which is why I didn't shut the door in his face immediately.

“May I come in, Harry?” he said politely, face bland. I was sure I hadn't imagined the brief clench of his lips and the rising eyebrow when the door had opened, though, despite the crippling humiliation. It was not, at the moment, doing him any favors. Neither was his use of my given name.

The moment for door-slamming had passed. If you're really going to get the full effect, you have to do it before the interloper can get a word in – otherwise, it's just not worth it. I stared at him, duster clenched tight, and continued to block the doorway.

He sighed, a sound that suggested that, were he another man, he would be rolling his eyes. I continued to ignore him. Let no one say I am not petty.

“May I come in, Mr. Dresden ? I have some information regarding our recent problem.”

I let him stand there a moment longer, just to be annoying, then opened the door wider and stepped back. It was as much of an invitation as he was going to get; my wards wouldn't fry him, but any stray pieces of magic he was carrying wouldn't make it past the threshold. Mouse might consider him harmless to me – and when had my dog put the Baron of Chicago on his clear list, anyway? We were going to have words – but that didn't mean he wasn't a carrier for something he didn't know about. Marcone raised an eyebrow and stepped deliberately into my apartment.

Nothing happened. No fizzes, buzzes, miniature pyrotechnics, or explosions, nothing to indicate that any sort of external magic at all had, intentionally or otherwise, been carried into my apartment. Huh.

He walked into my living room and, after looking around for the coffee table, dropped the box with a thud on the carpet in front of the sofa. I eyed it warily. Somehow, I didn’t think I was going to like whatever was in that box.

“Your furniture appears to have suffered some depredation,” he observed. There had been an incident involving Thomas, a leggy blonde, Mister, and a few potions I had stashed on the table prior to going out. If you were careful, it wasn't too hard to avoid the holes in the concrete floor, but the table was a goner.

I shrugged, and sat down.

Marcone studied the couch consideringly, then sat down next to me. I crossed my arms over my chest and leaned back.

“So?” I said. I didn't like having him here, in my apartment, with the bits and pieces of my life drifted into corners and on shelves. Crumpled bills, magazines, cups and plates with the remnants of meals, my bookshelves with their packed paperbacks – the ordinary detritus of a home, and enough to tell him half the things I hoped he didn't know. Normally, the little guys keep it cleaner than that, but, well. They need an empty house to go to town, and I hadn’t left my apartment long enough for them to feel comfortable.

“This is my city,” he said. “While there are some events I do not have the authority to touch, they hardly go unnoticed. Mundane, supernatural -  surveillance on all the major and minor signatories of the Accords – the Denarians, the vampire and sidhe courts...”

“The White Council,” I said. The couch creaked warningly beneath us. “The trial yesterday. What makes you think you have the right -”

“I have every right,” he interrupted, his voice cool. “As Freeholding Lord of Chicago, everything that occurs in my demesne is subject to my governance – as your Council knows full well, which is why they themselves alerted me to their presence in my city. Do you really think I would let fifty wizards run unsupervised around my city when one alone frequently causes over a million dollars in damage to public property a year?”

He had a point, as much as I hated to admit it. It was well within his rights as a signatory of the Accords to demand notification of entry into his borders – and tribute, as well. Come to think of it, I was surprised he hadn't. Then again…

“Did you ask for tribute?” I demanded. He looked at me and raised an eyebrow.

“Mr. Dresden, you are a member of the White Council, and you live within my borders, unmolested by my retainers, without giving me so much as a nod in tribute. I suspect they would laugh in my face if I were to demand it of your superiors.”

If any man could do it with a straight face, it would be Gentleman Johnny Marcone, but he had a point. I nodded grudgingly, and settled back into the cushions.

“So, what's so important that you show up on my doorstep carrying that ?” I asked, poking the box with a toe. I’d had the fire going all day, and my apartment was – not quite hot, but definitely comfortably warm, warm enough to make my duster seem oppressively heavy, and for sweat to begin to steam up my t-shirt.

“Ah. That.” he frowned at the box. “I confess, I am not certain that bringing it to your attention is the wisest course – it would be simpler to resolve the situation myself, and perhaps kinder. But it would be discourteous of me to deny you the choice. And so, here I am.”

I raised an eyebrow, and he turned to look at me, no trace of amusement in his face. “I, for one, will think no less of you if you choose to forfeit your right.”

Surveillance. The timing. My superior right – and the strong implication that there was a good reason to forfeit that right. Marcone's obvious reluctance to leave this in my hands. The pieces came together in my head.

“It's the Council,” I said. It wasn't a question. “I can't just take your word for it.”

“I had not expected you to,” he said dryly.

“Thus the box?”

“Thus the box.” He stood to go. “There are men and armaments at your disposal. I know it goes against the grain, but pray do not be reckless, Mr. Dresden.”

He let himself out. I stayed on the couch, staring at the box. Under normal circumstances, I wouldn't have believed him. I would have argued. I'd been clinging to the patently false belief that the Council could be trusted – when had I ever been able to trust the Council? - and while I wouldn't say I was looking for a fight, I wasn't exactly in the mood to avoid one, either.

But he hadn't insisted. Hadn't even told me, actually – hadn't wanted to tell me, as far as I could see. He just... let me draw my own conclusions. And, I assumed, gave me the evidence to confirm them. Bastard. I had worked this case. Not consistently, sure, but I had worked it.

Worked it, and gotten nowhere.

The box sat there, daring me to ignore it, taunting me with – heh – the weight of evidence. Marcone would not have left it with me if he wasn't a hundred percent sure of his findings, but if I didn't open it, I could still pretend that he was wrong, that the Council I had been stubbornly believing in was not irredeemably corrupt. If I didn't open it, I could let someone else deal with it – the incident had occurred on Marcone's territory, he had as much right as I. Perhaps more, legally, since I was at least nominally one of his subjects. No one would blame me; the more traditional of the supernatural world would consider this revenge – and if Marcone did it, it would definitely be revenge – the proper duty of the Freeholding Lord, and the more vindictive would think I was getting a bit of poetic justice in, using him where he was prone to using me. Murphy would probably think it was a good way to avoid compounding my 'trauma'. Thomas, the lazy bastard, would congratulate me on making someone else do the work.

I opened the box, of course. As much as I wanted to foist the problem off on someone else, as much as I rationalized away my responsibility, in the end it really was mine, and no amount of agonizing was going to change that. If I couldn’t figure out who it was on my own, at least I could do this. Get something back. For Jeremy. For Marie.

Besides, my curiosity was killing me.

Chapter Text

I put the box back down again after a few pages. It was good old-fashioned detective work, if you could call anything involving that level of painfully cutting-edge technology old-fashioned. Receipts. Credit card history. Booking confirmations. Apparently, the bastard had taken some time off from his scheme for a scenic horse-and-carriage tour of our fair city, before retiring to his four-star hotel for a good night's sleep before the action. And a map, tracing his presence as he progressed through the various security cameras of the city.

All in all, a neat, damning web of evidence, placing Adam Denver where he had no business being, precisely at the time of the incident.

I wanted to throw up. I nearly did. I had known there was something wrong, when I met him outside the warehouse. Something about his voice, though it was nothing like my visitor’s. I had known, and I had not wanted to know. Had refused to know, until Marcone had dropped it into my lap, and I couldn’t ignore it any longer.

Because he was working alone. The Council, as an organization, was not involved. I could have understood the Council, to an extent. They hated me, and I’d found corruption in their ranks before. It made sense. It was clear and fierce and stupid, that enmity, but I recognized it.

Denver? I had everything I needed to condemn him, except motivation. He hated me. I knew that. I didn’t know why. I didn’t know what flavor of hatred. But it felt personal, and - tainted. He’d killed a child. Two children, really. Because, through them, he could get to me.

I picked up the last camera still from the bottom of the box where it lay like the postscript at the bottom of a letter and stared at it for a while. It was obviously the moment that had started the whole painstakingly thorough investigation, and I wondered how closely Marcone had had his goons watching me, that they'd caught the brief expression of intense, personal hatred that had crossed Denver's face when I, speaking to him, had missed it.

I wondered if Marcone himself had been watching, and dismissed the thought. He had a city to run; he couldn't have the time for squinting at hours of blurry security feed, regardless of my feelings on the matter. Which I didn't have. Feelings, that is.

Standing up, I slid the whole mess haphazardly back into the box, hating the feel of the paper in my hands. Maybe it was just that I’d had the lucky draw from the crazy box.

Typical.

I needed - something. A plan, and I was a little short on good ideas. My encounter with Denver at the trial had nearly been catastrophic, but not because the man outclassed me in terms of power. If it came to a no-holds-barred wizardly slugfest, I figured I could beat him on two hours of sleep and a potions marathon. If he could have challenged me openly, he would have. Simple confrontation is much more cost-effective, and a hundred times better for the reputation.

But he was still dangerous. If anything, his lack of firepower made him more so. He'd had to learn other ways to keep himself safe, and he'd learned them well. I'd been set to dancing to his fiddle like a farmer in a fairy ring, and with just as much understanding of what the hell I was getting into.

I didn't like that. It was time for things to happen on my terms. And pronto. I closed my eyes, breathed deeply for a moment, and put the ‘why’ of Denver into a box for now. All I needed for the anger was the ‘what.’

“Bossman!” Bob hollered. “What did His Criminal Hotness have to say?”

The trapdoor was still closed, so his voice was muted, despite not coming from an actual physical mouth. That was intentional; if I hadn't set up the wards to muffle sounds both physical and magical in origin, it'd've been a a close race to see which came first – eviction, or Bob driving me round the bend. He's my best friend, in a lot of ways, but his powers of annoyance are  legendary. There's a reason he doesn't dare enter the Nevernever, and I suspect it has a lot to do with his personality.

I opened the door and started going down the ladder.

“I know who it – who I'm looking for,” I said, not turning my head towards him.

“50 bucks says Council,” Bob replied promptly.

“For fuck's sake, Bob!” It took a lot not to growl it. I pulled the duffle out, and started setting some potions carefully into a cardboard six-pack case. “Yes and no. He's Council, but it doesn't seem like he's working with anyone, off what Marcone found. And he was pretty thorough.”

More so than I could've been, given my fraught relationship with technology.

“That,” Bob said, cackling, “Is almost literally a dead bird.”

“What?”

“A dead bird. A deceased avian. On your doorstep, prominently displayed. Ringing any bells? No?” His eye-flames swiveled to stay on me as I continued to pack magical oddments into the duffel. “Harry, really. The classic example of feline courting behavior? A demonstration of their hunting prowess, as an indicator of ability to provide and a subtle casting of aspersions?”

I decided to ignore him. Responding would only encourage him.

“And it's such a nice one, too!” If he'd sounded any smugger... I gritted my teeth and zipped up the duffel. After a minute, he continued. “Boss, are you absolutely certain this evidence is enough? The Council won't take kindly to – whatever it is you intend to do to the fellow – and this time they won't stop with the Doom.”

“Well, a signed confession in blood would be nice,” I said, “but we can't have everything. It's pretty damn convincing, though. And anyway, I don't plan to kill him with magic.”

“But you do plan to kill him?”

“He killed a kid, Bob,” I turned to face him. Bob's a lot of things to me – lore database, information gatherer, sounding board, suggester of terrible plans. There's no one in my life who's known me longer or better. If I couldn't look him in the eye sockets and tell him the bare-ass truth, then I had no business doing what I was going to do.   “He killed a little boy just to get to me, and murdered a teenage girl for less than that. Hell's bells, Bob, he dumped her body in broken glass. There's no coming back, not from that.”

Breaking the Laws once is hard. Breaking them again is easier. Breaking them a third time isn't very hard at all. Recovering from what breaking them does to your soul, though, that's harder, if not impossible. You can kill from necessity, and, eventually, you heal. It's not easy, and it leaves scars for those with the eyes to See, but it doesn't necessarily change you. It can, if you let it. It doesn't have to.

But killing for personal gain? There's a reason the Council has a one-offense execution policy for murder by magic, and it's not just because it's an offense against the very nature of wizardry. I still wasn’t sure exactly what Denver had killed for, but it definitely fell into the category of shit’s-fucked-up.

“Hey, I'm not saying you shouldn't end the bastard, Harry,” Bob told me. “All I'm saying is, he's one of your own, and no one likes it when one of their own falls. You'd best be damn sure, and have a cast-iron defense.”

“You're saying I need a witness.”

“Or, as you say, a bloody signed confession,” he agreed. “Are you certain you can't let Marcone deal with this? No one would blink twice if he killed a man who worked against him.”

“I can't, Bob,” I said, and winced a little. I had a good reason to kill the man – the reasons for doing it alone were less defensible, and Bob knew it. “The kid died under my watch.”

He was kind enough to keep his mouth shut. Unfortunately, my own mind was not so kind. In ordinary circumstances, the fact that the boy had died in my territory, under my protection, would be enough to justify what I was planning to do. But there was also Marie, who was not one of mine, and who I had no right to demand justice for by the old rules. I mean, common decency, sure. But not rules , not the kind of rules the supernatural world plays by. Marcone had ceded his right to me, and going alone looked an awful lot like betraying his graciousness from where I was standing.

It made sense, too – whatever else he was, Denver was an experienced wizard. There aren't a lot of people who can take on a wizard directly, and if he pitched me into another flashback, I'd be more harm than help to anyone with me. Our last encounter had proven he felt no compunction about bringing up – things – in front of strangers, and I knew he'd be pulling at any straw he could grasp to throw me off balance. Particularly when this particular straw looked as much like a tightrope as it did. He'd grab on and yank for all he was worth, and if a conversation as thinly veiled as an exotic dancer was enough to have me close to blowing up half the Council, I hated to think what he could do to me without any strategic conversational draping.

Without witness, though, I figured I had a decent chance of not reacting. What could he say that he hadn't already said? I'd had the flashbacks, I'd spent hours agonizing over every word and interaction for the last ten years, and I was done. True or not, right now, I didn't really care. As long as no one heard, I'd be fine.

It still felt an awful lot like I was using the kid's death to cover up my own selfish desire to keep what he'd told me secret.

Chapter Text

I had his name. I had an address, and, temporary as it was, tracking him down was as easy as tying my shoelaces. Easier than, some of the mornings I’ve had.

He’d given his real name at the desk, too. I asked for a Mr Adam Denver, and the woman - short sharp hair, tired eyes, and a celebrity magazine she was listlessly turning the pages of - pulled his room up before I had time for my magic to do more than what, Molly assured me, was called ‘lag up’ the Internet. Agitated as I was, that was pretty impressive. Street lights had been flickering all the way to the hotel, and something inside the Beetle had succumbed with a groan as mournful as a whale’s as I pulled to a stop in the hotel’s parking garage. I’d have to walk home, after.

If there was an after.

She wrote the number down on a ragged scrap of paper, pushed it across the desk, and turned back to her magazine. I saw she had a smart phone tucked under the lip of the desk, mostly concealed between the magazine and the furniture. I nodded my thanks to her bowed head, and turned towards the stairs.

As I climbed, I thought about getting angry and decided against it. There was enough to fight without a nom de guerre to contend with, though I didn’t think I’d go so far as to thank him for making my job easy.

It was a total waste of opportunity, though. I shook my head as I hauled myself up the stairs. Bad guys these days have about as much style as a pair of golf pants.

There were plenty of stairs to contemplate on, as his room was on the second-highest floor. It was no skyscraper, but there were still seven flights of stairs between me and him. Around the fifth, I started cursing his name, and by the end of the seventh, his family had lost any reputation they might’ve had. When I finally reached the landing, I leaned against the wall and caught my breath. I was out of shape. I’d have to fix that, sooner or later, if it didn’t kill me first.

As it turned out, if I hadn’t stopped for a moment, I’d have missed him entirely. A subtle crackle of magic shook down the air, and I caught a faint whiff of the otherworldly - the NeverNever. He was opening a portal, and in another moment, he’d be gone. Maybe something had tipped him off - the bored woman at the desk had decided to let him know he had a visitor on the way, the workout on the stairs had covered up a ward. Or maybe he’d decided to take a break from the renegade wizard destruction. Maybe he’d forgotten to water the plants. It didn’t matter. I burst through the stairwell door, plaster dust shaking down from the impact, and flung myself through the entrance of his room, tumbling straight into the NeverNever.

He was waiting for me. I guess he heard me coming. A circle sprang up around me, the hissing flames of it poisoned with death. I felt sick. He was still using the child to power his spells, and the taint of it clung to them.

“Well, Dresden,” a voice said. I crossed my arms across my chest and scanned the area. It was a winter clearing, naked trees and fresh snow. Eldritch or not, it still held prints. I aimed my eyes towards the wide-branched oak the prints curved behind and raised an eyebrow. “I have to admit, I thought you were far too busy pitying yourself to track me down. Well done - or do I have your crime lord lover to thank for this?”

“He helped,” I said, agreeable. “Not good for much, but at least he knows how to use a computer. Unlike you.”

For all the power he’d poured into it, the circle felt brittle, somehow. I glanced at it from the corners of my eyes, taking in the details; fairly decent quality, though a little rough for a wizard of his power levels. Something like this would’ve taken me a little while to draw up, but I had a lot of power. Usually, the less juice a wizard has, the more subtle and intricate his spellwork, and Adam Denver wasn’t barbarian-class as the Council goes.

“Computers,” he said, trying to sound thoughtful. It didn’t work; his voice was tight, a little too fast, too precise. He was scared. “Crass, but I suppose they did get the job done. I had assumed you would prefer to work as a real wizard, but then, you’re barely a real man, are you?”

I had to keep him talking. I needed time. I didn’t want to hear anything else he had to say.

“I hear it was your lover that found you,” he continued, sneering, as he stepped out from behind the tree he’d been using as cover. “Did you enjoy it, being on display for him? Knowing you were completely helpless, that he could do anything to you and you couldn’t move - and that the choice was out of your hands? And he was so careful with you, too. A real gentleman .”

I rolled my eyes. Clever.

There was something dark on the snow near me.

“Not that it’s any of your business,” I said, rolling my shoulders as if to settle them. The movement shifted my gaze, and I let it drift absently - a twig, fallen neat as you please across the line of the circle. Not enough to break it, not quite, but enough. “Seriously.”

“You’re an obscenity,” he said flatly. His voice warped and sharpened, stretching into a hissing whine. “Warlock. You should have died when you murdered du Morne, before you could damn the rest of us with this war of yours. You’re a collaborator who prefers sex demons to his own kind! You bend over for a mob boss and everyone just looks away, too scared to spit on your shadow! Power and luck, that’s all that keeps an abomination like you on this earth.”

“What about you?” I asked. “Necromancer. Child-murderer.”

“It was a sacrifice!” he shouted. “There was no way I could get near you, not with all your guardians! It was the only way!”

“You broke a law of magic,” I grated out. “You killed a child.”

“They were all too scared to do what had to be done. It’s better that I was damned, better it was me than someone else, but someone had to do it! I was the only one with the guts, with the strength to sacrifice my own future to stop you before you could destroy us all. I saw the way they hang on you, the younger wizards, and I knew, I knew it was coming. You’d corrupt them, sell us out, poison us all - in a few years there’d be nothing to distinguish us from the Reds, twisted murderers taking pleasure from depravity and debauched orgies -“

I slung my power into the weakened segment of the circle, shattering it. He cowered, and flung up a shield. It was a good shield, as they go; if I’d hit him with all I had, it’d probably have done little more than singe him even as it melted the earth around him. But it didn’t protect him from any sort of physical attack at all. I swung my staff and clocked him on the side of his head as he turned in surprise.

It connected with his temple, and he fell backwards, skull slamming into the tree behind him with a queasily wet crunch. His shield shimmered out like a heat wave on asphalt as I stepped closer, fingers wrapped around my own shield bracelet. He was down for now, but I’d fought enemies that played dead before.

He was still, sprawled out against the tree. An arm had fallen over his head - I nudged it with my staff, and the lax muscles collapsed into the snow, revealing his face. What was left of his face. My blow, or perhaps the tree, or the combination, had reshaped his skull like a concrete sidewalk reshapes a peach.

I turned aside and lost my lunch to the nearest bush.

It wasn’t the most alarming injury I’d ever seen, nor the most dramatic - when you’re in the business I’m in, you see more things you wish you could forget in a year than most people see in their lives. The Denarians alone could provide a lifetime’s worth of better nightmare fodder than this in one encounter. But I hadn’t meant to kill him, not with that blow. It should have been a fair fight. Magic against magic. A clean duel, with a clean ending where the hero goes home covered in righteous victory, or dies honorably in the attempt.

He’d taken that from me, in the end, as he’d taken everything else.

I needed a drink.

 

I had a drink. I had several. When the knock on the door came a few nights later, I was unshowered, unshaved, undressed, and sober enough to need another drink but not sober enough to stop drinking. The knock came at a good time; my glass was empty, and so was the bottle closest to me. I glared at the door, stood up, and slouched over to the kitchen to grab another bottle.

More knocking. Whoever was at the door was a persistent son of a gun. Unfortunately, that didn’t narrow it down much.

What did narrow it down was the click of a key in the lock and the sudden, unmistakable presence of a predator in the room. You always know it, when there’s something bigger and badder than you in a confined space. There’s a little part of you that’s screaming at you to do something, anything, that will keep you alive a little longer.

Of course, this is me we’re talking about. That little voice of self-preservation uttered a brief, futile meep and subsided, too accustomed to my snark-in-the-face-of-danger attitude to put up much of a protest.

“Wha’d’ya wan’, Thomas?” I slurred. My head hurt, the kind of hurt where your eyes feel like a desert at noon and it’s hard to say if it’s the light or the booze that’s making your vision swim.

“Jesus, Harry,” Thomas said. I turned to glare at him. He was staring around the apartment with the same horror you’d expect to find on the face of the Pope if he were to visit Club Zero. I glared some more. It wasn’t that bad. “Put on some pants.”

“Fuck off,” I said politely.

“No.”

“Fuck off please ?” I said, and attempted to bat my eyelashes. From the expression on Thomas’ face, it didn’t go well. I closed my eyes. “Look, Thomas, I’m not in the mood.”

“That’s what she said,” Thomas said automatically, then sighed. “At least this time you’re too drunk to toss fireballs when people knock on the door.”

“‘m not too drunk.” I said mulishly, but even I wasn’t dumb enough to try and prove it. “Go away.”

“Nope,” Thomas crossed his arms over his chest, drawing out the O and ending with a pop. “I’m not leaving you alone until I feel like it, and there’s no way that’s going to be before you’ve had a shower, eaten, and had something to drink that doesn’t have a proof on the bottle.”

I rolled my eyes, which hurt but was worth it, and turned away again. The bottle was on the counter by my hand. I could pick it up, drink it. Thomas wouldn’t stop me, I knew. He’d talk about it, but in the end he’d either go away or join me. It’s what brothers do.

“I’m worried, Harry,” he said quietly. “You said you weren’t going to do this to me again.”

“Said I’d keep you in th’ loop,” I muttered, but I didn’t reach for the bottle. We stood there for a while, not saying anything.

Finally, Thomas asked, “Is he dead?”

“Yeah,” I said. He was dead, all right. Skull caved in, blood on the snow.

“Council on you?”

“Nah.” I’d called them from a payphone on the way back to the hotel and told them Denver was dead. To ask Marcone for details. He’d have a copy of what he gave me. If I had to bet, I’d say he had two. But in any case, no one had besides Thomas had shown up on my doorstep, so it looked like I was safe from the Council for now.

“Good.”

“Yeah,” I said, and started to cry.

Thomas leaned against the counter next to me until I’d finished, then shoved me gently in the direction of my shower. I’m not sure what he did to the hot water heater, but it was gloriously warm for the whole thirty minutes I was in there, and when I came out half the trash had been stuffed into bags and there was food with ingredients in colors other than brown and beige in takeout containers on the coffee table. He sat quietly with me while I ate, nursing a beer. When I finished, picked up the takeout containers, stuck them in a garbage bag, and sat down again.

I knew he wasn’t going anywhere. If Thomas does something resembling housework, it’s to make a point. The only way I was going to get him to leave me alone was to talk.

And hell if I didn’t want to, anyway.

“It wasn’t right,” I said quietly. “None of it. Finding him. Fighting him. Killing him. It’s not supposed to be like that.”

“Like what?”

“Sordid. Dirty.” It sounded stupid. “Killing him was - ”

“A win, not a victory,” Thomas said, looking away and taking a long drink of his beer. He bumped his shoulder against mine. “Nothing changed.”

“Yeah,” I said. “Ended but not over.”

“You ever gonna tell me what that asshole did to you?” Thomas asked. I thought about it. For the first time, it actually sounded possible. Maybe it was the liquor. Maybe I was just tired.

“Nothing,” I said, looking down at my hands. “He did nothing. He stripped me down and tied me up and - I - I didn’t hate it. Did what he said. I - and then, when Marcone came in - but he never said anything. And the kid died.”

“Ah,” Thomas said. “Wondered if that was it.”

“You can tell!” I said, and jumped to my feet. He rolled his eyes.

“I’m a White Court vampire, Harry, of course I can tell when you’ve got your aura in a bunch.” He tilted his head back against the wall. “It’s kind of what we’re for. Sit down, for crying out loud.”

And if I knew Thomas, he hadn’t looked any further than he had to. There wasn’t much privacy growing up in the Raith household, and despite barging into my home without so much as a by-your-leave, Thomas was pretty careful about not - well, not poking his nose where it didn’t belong, because he loved to do that, but not taking knowledge he wasn’t given.

I sat back down and tilted my own head back. We sat there breathing for a while.

“Is it the sex thing or the Marcone thing?” he asked eventually. It wasn’t an easy question to answer. Neither was exactly the sort of thing I wanted to own up to. “Because if it’s the sex thing, chill. Seriously. Not even on the scale of weird. Might even be good for you. You think too much.”

“Thought you said I didn’t think enough,” I shot back.

“Didn’t say it was quality thinking,” he retorted. “Not even kidding, Harry, and I know from weird sex things.”

That, I couldn’t argue with. It didn’t make me feel good about it, exactly, but Thomas was kind of an expert in the field and if he said it wasn’t that unusual, he was probably right. I rolled my head on my neck and closed my eyes.

“So it’s not so weird,” I said. “But there’s the Marcone thing.”

“I get that.” His voice was quiet. I felt him turn his head and look at me. “Someone you can’t have, right? But it’s worse than that. Someone you shouldn’t have, because you could hurt them. They could hurt you. There’s no way you can make it work, and you want them anyway.”

Justine. I felt small. My brother’s in love with a woman he can never touch, a woman he nearly killed. Compared with that, my problems with having a thing for Marcone seemed petty. Thomas, sensing my guilt, punched me in the arm.

“Stop that,” he said. “You’re an idiot. I didn’t bring up Justine because I wanted you to feel bad. Seriously. I’m just saying, it could be a whole lot worse. Sure, he’s a crime lord, but a one-night-stand? Not even gonna tarnish your white-knight armor.”

“I don’t do one-night-stands.” I didn’t. Never have. They’re fine for some people, I guess, but I need sex to be something more than physical satiation.

Thomas, on the other hand, does little but. He rolled his eyes at me. Somehow it managed to be cosmopolitan instead of sulky. That’s Thomas for you.

“Sex doesn’t have to be deep meaningful connections,” he said. “But I’m not getting into that with you again. Point is, you know the guy. You’ve got a relationship. Sure, it’s not hearts and flowers, but it’s not like it’s anonymous.” He shook his head. “Which would not be a selling point in this case for most normal people, Dresden.”

I shrugged, unrepentant. I like what I like. Thomas could stuff it.

But he had a point about Marcone. We did have a relationship. Sure, it was mostly him needling me and me blowing up his stuff, but I’d known him for years. As much as I hated to admit it, he’d had my back when I needed it. Not even counting this last time.

And I’d had his.

“I’m not saying you’re right,” I told Thomas. “But I suppose it could be possible that there might be worse people to have a… thing… with.”

“Awesome,” Thomas said, standing up. “Now go do something about it. Places to go, people to see, brother mine.”

“Would these people be blond and busty?” I asked snidely.

“That,” he said as he slid his sunglasses on, “would be telling.”

I kicked the door shut behind him so I couldn’t hear him laughing his way down the sidewalk to his car. Brothers.

Chapter Text

I hadn’t paused to let myself consider what exactly I was going to say to Marcone. On the one hand, this was an excellent tactic; I was, after all, actually in the elevator up to Marcone’s office. On the other hand, I hadn’t paused to consider what I was going to say. It felt like walking into a meeting with the heads of the White Council unprepared.

And in approximately thirty seconds, I was due up for a presentation.

The doors rolled open with a soft chime. I had to admit, Marcone had good taste - the plush green carpet probably cost as much as a year’s rent on my apartment, and the two goons pointing their guns at me were top-notch as well, kevlar and muscles as far as the eye could see. My favorite goon, Hendricks, was nowhere in sight. Presumably he was guarding his master.

“Hi boys,” I said, waggling my fingers at them. “Wizard Dresden to see the scum lord. You going to step aside, or is the hallway too small for your shoulders?”

The goon on the left shouldered his weapon. With it propped up on his shoulder, it was easy to see the runes carved into the barrel. They wouldn’t do a thing to protect the gun’s inner workings from errant magic, but then, they didn’t need to. Stand far enough back and even my wizardly aura couldn’t fry them.

His other hand hovered over his knife, though he kept it politely tucked in its sheath. If I had to guess, I’d’ve said it was steel. Marcone was taking no chances.

A warm feeling of unidentifiable origin settled in my stomach. I squashed it as best I could and raised an eyebrow.

“You’re on the list,” he said. I raised my other eyebrow. He ignored both of them - rude - and walked down the hall. I guessed I was supposed to follow him, so I did, tossing a friendly thumbs-up at the other goon as I walked by. He still hadn’t shouldered his weapon. New kid.

Goon One led me into the foyer. Before I could get a word out, the Valkyrie at the desk stood up and met my eyes.

“Mr. Marcone will see you now, Wizard Dresden,” she said. I nodded back politely. She was the kind of woman you don’t interrupt, as beautiful as a Northern winter and capable of gluing her own abdomen back together. Not even kidding, I’ve seen her do it.

“Doing okay, Ms. Gard?” I asked. “How’s Hendricks?”

She smiled a private smile.

“He is a true warrior,” she said, and the curve of her lips tilted slightly. I’d noticed they were getting friendly a while back, and judging by the smile, there had been significant developments in their relationship. “Go in.”

I nodded at her again, and stepped through the heavy oak door as Goon One - Emerson, according to his name tag - pulled it open. It swung to behind me with a soft hiss and click, the latch muffled. The sound barely registered.

Usually when I drop in on a mob office, I find the Don behind a heavy desk with as many goons flanking them as the room can hold. But Marcone? This time he was waiting for me, leaned up against his desk like a magazine spread. Dark slacks. Cream shirt. What I don’t know about clothes could fill a tanker and then some, but I knew enough to want to send a thank-you to his tailor. The slacks weren’t dark enough to hide the contours of his thighs, and the shirt wasn’t quite thick enough to stand up to the afternoon sunlight. He had a boxer’s shoulders, solid with the kind of coiled strength that could bring a man down and keep him there.

I swallowed. Hard. Hell, I’d seen the man a hundred times before, but I’d never looked at him. And let me tell you, there is a difference. Right then I’d’ve walked right past the entire White Court without a second glance.

His hands were braced on the desk. He had surprisingly tan hands, for a man who’d gotten most of his exercise in a gym for the last twenty years, and the angle of his arms pulled the cuffs up a little at his wrists. I wanted - I didn’t know what I wanted. A lot of things.

So I said, “Planned anything criminal lately, asshole?”

Nice one, Harry.

“Nothing in particular, though I could be persuaded,” he replied. “It would depend on the kind of criminal… and who’s persuading me.”

His right hand closed around the edge of the desk, and suddenly, everything seemed a little easier. Lighter. I’d give him hell for a line like that -- later, probably, but not now.

“Have I persuaded you?” I wasn’t sure exactly what I was asking. I knew he wanted me - Hell, he’d made that clear enough that even I’d seen it (eventually), but for what? For how long?

He paused, then looked me in the eyes. Without fear, without hesitation. There aren’t many who will do that after a soulgaze. Especially after a soulgaze with me. Even knowing it won’t happen again, there’s still that - pause.

Marcone’s eyes found mine like he wanted nothing more.

“You never had to try.”

I stumbled towards him; I’d intended to stride, but my legs felt shaky, and I’m not the most coordinated dude in the world at any time. I didn’t care - I barely noticed, apart from dodging the chair that jumped in my way.

He pushed off from the desk and caught my hands. He had to lean up to kiss me - I’ve never kissed anyone who didn’t have to - but there were no questions and there was no debate about who was in charge of this kiss. I tried to pull my hands free, wanting to touch him, but he held on, folding each of my hands in his. I thought about pulling free - I could have pulled free. He would have let me pull free. Instead, I leaned into him, into our kiss, letting him take me wherever it was he wanted it to go. For now.

Right now, where he wanted it to go was me, on his desk. It took me a while to notice where we were headed - it wasn’t until the edge of the desk hit the backs of my thighs that I realized and froze. Marcone freed one of his hands and cupped the back of my neck, leaning his forehead against mine.

“Nothing you don’t want,” he said. His voice was husky, catching, breathless. “Never.”

I looked around his office as slowly and obviously as I could; I’m not exactly delicate.

“Don’t see a fainting couch,” I told him caustically. “I’m not going to break, no matter what you do.”

“No,” he agreed, with - sadness? Weird. “I believe you’re right. But permit me to prevent even incidental damages, if you will.”

“No folding, spindling, or mutilation,” I agreed, and leaned back on the desk as far as my last trapped hand would let me, forcing John to hold me up or let me down. “Tell you what: if I don’t like something, I’ll blow you through the wall.”

“Should we ever get there, I would thank you,” he told me. His voice was serious. As if, if he hurt me, he’d be happy if I hurt him back. And maybe consider it just a start on what he’d do to himself. I... wasn’t sure what to make of that. “If that’s settled…?”

I did have one hand free. I could’ve grabbed his shirt, pulled him to me, started a kiss as heated as it was safe and normal and everything I had done before. We’d be making lo - having sex on his desk in five minutes, and nothing would have changed. Well, except that I’d once had sex with a male mob boss, but hey, wild oats. Gotta sow ‘em all, right?

Instead, I sat back up a little, till the hands between us held a dancer’s tension rather than a hawser’s pull. I hadn’t come here for that. Another time, perhaps, but now - I had something to prove. To myself, if no one else. To Denver, even though he was dead. To Thomas, because goddammit, he had better be right. There was nothing wrong with what I wanted, and nothing wrong at all with the man I thought might give it to me. Had wanted to give it to me. There was plenty wrong with me - I didn’t think I’d find anyone who’d argue with that - but this? This was fine . And I’d prove it. Even if no one but me ever knew it. I sure as hell wasn’t giving Thomas any details.

And Denver was dead , and he was wrong . Whether I enjoyed this or not, he was wrong, and I needed to know that with my body as well as my mind.

So I sat up, and I - waited. John lifted my hand and brushed a kiss across the knuckles before setting it softly down again and stepping backwards a few paces. I blinked. What the fuck? But part of me - hell’s bells, most of me, subconscious and otherwise, we liked it. No one had ever touched me with such - tenderness. And the way he looked at me, as if having nearly seven feet of scrawny wizard in too-short jeans and a slightly-stained t-shirt perched awkwardly on the edge of his desk was not just welcome but precious.

Something… was not adding up.

I opened my mouth to say something, but John stepped forward and ran his fingers over my lips, and I fell silent, suddenly focused with all my body on the light brush of callous against that skin. He lifted his other hand to my cheek, grazing his thumb over my cheekbone, then moved his fingers from my lips to my eyelids, stroking them down. I shivered. Kept my eyes closed.

John stilled.

“On your feet,” he said. And that was all. I was on my feet before I’d taken another breath, my eyes still closed. He was silent. I could feel him watching me. He didn't move. I didn’t move. I just stood there, waiting. Waiting for him to -

“Did he speak to you?” John asked, finally. “In the basement?”

I didn’t want to answer. I didn’t want to say anything at all. Finally, I nodded.

“Ah,” he said. “Wait.”

The air in the room moved as he walked away, though his feet made no sound in the dense carpet. A small click, and the light against my eyelids disappeared. It was dark. Dark, and quiet. But there was no water rushing, and no smell of stone.

Again, I felt the tremors in the air before he touched me. Felt the heat of his body drawing close to mine. I felt a touch on my wrist - a light touch. I’m here , it said. As if I couldn’t tell. As if any room John went out of didn’t get - quieter.

He stroked his hand up my arm, slowly, firmly, until it rested on my shoulder. His other hand rested on my shoulder, unmoving, a solid clasp. Then, lightly, he pressed downwards.

I slid to my knees. One of his hands found its way into my hair. He stroked it, ran his fingers through the strands, tugging and smoothing. If my eyes hadn’t already been closed, I’d have closed them to enjoy that. It’s hard to pet the hair of a seven-foot-tall man. I couldn’t remember the last time anyone had tried.

His other hand… there was a rustle of cloth, the slow jagged clicks of a zipper being drawn down. And suddenly, I smelled him, hot, aroused, male. A shudder ran through me.

I’d never blown a guy before. I’d never wanted to. Apparently, I did now. I was fuzzy with desire, dizzy with it. It didn’t seem to matter much that I had no idea what I was doing - I just wanted my mouth, his dick, however he chose, now .

His hand slid to the back of my head, his fingers catching a little in the tangle as he went. My hair is not the hair of a well-groomed man. The tiny almost-pain set every nerve on fire. I felt as if my skin were alive - well, more so than usual. Like I could feel everything, every brush of cloth across my skin, the pressure of the floor beneath my knees, the temperature of the room, the heat and pull of John’s hand, the - the brush of his thumb on my lip.

He stroked his thumb across my lower lip, once, twice. Then pressed, gently. I - opened my mouth. Without thinking. Without hesitation.

Chapter Text

He slid his thumb inside. It tasted clean, a little salty, but it didn’t really matter what it tasted like. It was the act itself that filled me with desire, made me dizzy with it. I sucked gently, and he sighed, light. I wanted to make him sigh again. Wanted to see what other sounds he might make. It hit me, suddenly, that I’d seen him close to his worst, tired and angry and afraid and in pain, but I’d never seen him at his best. I didn’t think I’d ever see him laugh, not really. I’d certainly never seen him relaxed with pleasure. Not even with an armful of Ms. Demeter. Then again, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to relax with an armful of Ms. Demeter, either. The point was - the point was - 

The point was, I wanted to see that. Wanted to make it happen.

He took his thumb out of my mouth. I licked my lips, chasing that last taste of him. I wanted to reach for him, feel the heat of his skin through his slacks. My hands clenched on my thighs, imagining, starved by the uncertainty of the sensation. I could not imagine how the fabric would feel beneath my hands, smooth cotton, rough linen, the slight cool fuzz of wool. And underneath, the heat and tension of his body. I wanted to pull him to me, wrap my arms around him, dig my fingers into his thighs and taste him.

But I left my hands where they were. Slowly, the clench of my fingers loosened. I waited, head bowed. The only sound in the room was our breathing.

Then the smell and the heat and the slickness of him filled my senses as he pressed against my lips. The hand on the back of my head pulled me forward, gently, and I opened my mouth again. 

 

Only to realize, my mouth full of John Marcone’s dick, that I had no idea what I was doing . Those long hours in my apartment hadn’t really prepared me for the specifics, and like any man who buys his own groceries, I’d seen enough Cosmo covers to know that there were definite do’s and don’ts. No teeth, obviously. After that, my brain stalled out, lost in a haze of uncertainty and desire. I wanted to do something. I wanted to do the right thing. I couldn’t think, not with his cock in my mouth and his hand in my hair, thumb gently rubbing my head.

I guess I could’ve thought back to Susan, to her mouth wrapped around me, but it seemed - wrong. Disrespectful, both to the woman I had loved and to the man I was with. Neither, I figured, would appreciate the other joining them in the bedroom. Though for very different reasons.

Generally, I really, really don’t like not knowing what to do. Not knowing what to do gets people killed, in my line of work, and even though I’m winging it most of the time, I have the context to at least have an inkling if I’m on the right track. Having no clue at all makes me… nervous.

So at the very least I should’ve been tense, kneeling there at his feet with his cock in my mouth and no idea what to do, but I wasn’t. My mind circled lazily around the question of what to do, but it wasn’t urgent, not in the way that not knowing usually is. I knelt there, waiting, enjoying the security of his hand in my hair.

For a moment, the gentle rub of his thumb slowed, as if something had suddenly occurred to John. I felt him shift, just slightly. Then, his grip on my hair tightened a little, and slowly, gently, he pushed me forward, further onto his cock. Just before it became too much, just as my eyes started to water, he pulled me back until once again the head of his cock rested against my lips, smearing them with wetness. He paused. I waited, my eyes still closed, my hands resting loosely on my thighs.

Once more, he guided me forward, tugged me back. This time, though, we kept going, falling into a rhythm. I lost myself in it, in his quiet sighs and the strength of his hands, the heat and hardness of him in my mouth. I didn’t have to think, to choose - I had made my choice. I had chosen to let John do whatever he wanted to me, and the strength it took him to keep from doing that - I loved that tremor in his hands as he kept himself from taking my mouth, as he touched me so gently.

And I wanted to know if I could make him lose that control. What would it be like if he really did use my mouth?

I twitched a little at the thought. My dick rubbed up against the seam of my pants and I moaned deep in my throat at the stimulation. John’s hand clenched in my hair, and the next push was a little more forceful, as if he couldn’t quite help it.

Intrigued, I moaned again, shifting my weight on the floor. His hands cupped my head, holding it still, and he thrust into my mouth, a reflexive jerk of his hips. . He froze - then did it again, deliberate, smooth. It made me shiver. Spit and precome slid from the corner of my mouth, dripped down my chin. I didn’t wipe it away.

He began to move in earnest, his fingers clenching on my head. I let my jaw relax, let him take me, let myself be an agent of pleasure, rather than destruction. I loved the way his breath stuttered, the tiny sounds in the back of his throat, the way his fingers tangled into my hair. I love that he let himself trust me, at least enough for this.

His thrusts became faster, more erratic, as if he were about to come, and I tensed a little, wanting it, the power and the joy of knowing I had given him pleasure. Then, suddenly, my mouth was empty, and he was kneeling in front of me, a hand on my cheek, something rough dabbing at my chin, cleaning me up. I made an inquiring noise, still too out of it to ask the question. He laughed - I could feel the tremor of it in his hands, in the warm air between us. He kissed me gently, then took my hands, leaning back a little.

“Enough,” John said.

I disagreed. I wanted to taste his come, feel the texture of it in my mouth, leaking out between my lips. The fog was clearing enough that the idea seemed absurd, but the primal part of me ignored that, left me dizzy with lust at the thought of it.

“We can finish this here, Harry,” he said. His voice was rough. “Or you can come home with me.”

Something told me this was about more than just whether he came now or later. I thought about it, about what the heat of another man’s come filling my mouth might be like, about what else we might do. About what else he might want from me. What else I might agree to.

I thought I might agree to anything, where this was concerned. Where he was concerned.

The thought troubled me a little. I am not the kind of guy who goes around writing blank checks - it’s a good way to get yourself killed in my world. And whatever I might think of John as a person, he was also a criminal. He had done things that no one should do.

So had I. I didn’t figure either one of us had wanted to.

This wasn’t one of those things.

“I’m all yours,” I told him - and winced at the double meaning.

The terrifying part was that I wasn’t sure I didn’t mean it.