Chapter 1: Best Laid Plans
Rain pelted against the windscreen, eclipsing the evening. They sat in a tense silence. Michael’s brow was creased with concern as he stared down at Ammorachius on his lap. Harry looked about ready to murder someone, probably Michael. He drummed his fingers impatiently against the steering wheel of the Blue Beetle.
It was the Knight of the Cross who spoke first.
“I’m not comfortable with this, Harry.”
The sound of the wizard grinding his teeth was almost audible.
“Have you got a better idea?”
“It’s wrong. To summon the demon is bad enough, but to do it in a house of God?”
“Look, I get that calling up demons in a church isn’t exactly Christian, but we are severely limited on venues. Hell - sorry, heck - calling it up in a church, a place of purity, may even weaken it. It could play in our favour.”
“But that does’t make it right. We have the almighty on our side: we should not rush to such drastic measures.”
“Michael,” his voice was strained, “four people have been killed by this thing. If we delay any further, there will be more deaths.”
“Harry, I will do many things to help you - I have done many things to help you - but I will not take up arms in a church. You know what happens when Ammorachius is wielded with impure intentions.”
A silence stretched out between them.
Harry weighed up his options. He knew the knight was stubborn as a rock when it came to some things (as much as he admired Michael’s commitment to his principles, they were maddening sometimes), and he knew that the longer they spent bickering, the longer that monster had to line up another victim.
He came to a a decision.
“Fine, we’ll do it your way,” he said. “But if things go belly up, which they probably will, knowing my luck, be ready with your sword. We’re going to need all the help we can get.”
“Thank you. Have faith, I’m sure all of this will be resolved.”
Harry smiled grimly. “I hope you’re right.”
“Okay. Let’s get the job done.”
They stood in the centre of the gymnasium. The lighting was poor (they hadn’t risked the main lights) and the only illumination was provided by several pale candles. Candles, however, were not sufficient to push back the darkness in the cavernous building; the weak light flickered and danced around the two men.
Michael hadn’t been ecstatic about the idea of breaking into a school. However, with some coaxing from Harry, they had settled on it as their summoning location. The ritual couldn’t be completed outside: the rain would play havoc with the circle and they needed a big location as it gave them more room to set up and manoeuvre. In other words, if things went horribly wrong, it gave them more space to run away from the big murderous bad guy they had just summoned from an alternate dimension. Thankfully, it was also a school holiday and the middle of the night, so the risk of dragging any children into the mess was minimal.
It took Harry around half an hour to set up. Michael watched carefully as he did, impressed by the surprising grace the man demonstrated: he made drawing the summoning circle look like an art. In a way, he supposed, it was. The noise of the chalk moving against the floor was almost inaudible over the dull thrum of the rain against the roof of the gym.
Despite his admiration, there was something about the sight of Harry so reverently drawing the arcane symbols that made Michael deeply uncomfortable. He knew Harry, trusted him, and would willingly lay down his life for the other man. But...this was an aspect of his friend’s life that he couldn’t touch. Harry’s power always felt alien to him, no mater how many times he saw him use it. It was a lonely feeling. Perhaps Harry felt the same way about his faith?
Sometimes, on the more difficult days, the knight wished that things had been different. What would life have been like if they were just Harry and Michael rather than Harry of the White Council and Michael the Knight of the Cross? What if they had met when they were younger, when things were less complicated? Michael loved his religion, loved his role as a defender of humanity, but he did sometimes long for the burden of responsibility to be lifted from his back. And he carried such a burden.
If only...If only... If there were two other words in the English language that expressed regret any better, Michael didn’t know them.
He watched Harry continue to complete the circle with a mix of longing and frustration. In the dim light, he could see the muscles of Harry’s back flex and move under his shirt as he worked. He could see the glimmer of sweat on the other man’s brow, the sheen of it on his neck...
Michael shifted uncomfortably, averting his gaze. He knew he shouldn’t feel as he did, knew he shouldn’t want what he did, but... it was a longing that he couldn’t suppress. The knight was only human, and that came with the knowledge of all of humanity’s flaws.
“Aaand, done.” Harry wiped his brow with the back of his hand. “Are you ready to kick some murdering demon’s ass?
The rain continued to lash against the roof. The sound of it echoed throughout the large room.
“I’m ready.” Michael wielded Ammorachius and took up a fighting stance. “What’s the plan?”
“Simple - I’ll call it up and then we whack it with everything we’ve got.”
The knight frowned. “Not much of a plan, Harry.”
“I know, I know,” Harry knelt, pressing his fingertips against the circle and readying himself and his will. “But simple is effective. It’s not like we have many options anyway. Let me lead, and then you can swoop in with the sword when you get the chance. Right?”
Michael hesitated, but only briefly. “Right.”
“Then let’s do this,” Harry said. “Wish me luck.” The wizard winked at the knight over his shoulder.
“We don’t need luck, Harry, not when we have Him.”
“I knew you were going to say that,” the wizard replied, before sending a pulse of magic into the chalk lines he had drawn.
A moment passed. Nothing happened. Harry stood and stepped back. Although Michael couldn’t see the other man’s face, he knew he would be frowning.
Something was wrong.
“Harry,” he said, moving forward, “what’s happe-”
Without warning, a blazing light suddenly erupted from the circle. It flared violet, the colour and brightness so intense that Michael had to shield his eyes against it. Even when he squeezed his eyes shut, the afterimage was burned into his retinas. Almost simultaneously, a wave of unseen power forced Michael back and slammed him bodily against the wall of the gym. In the dizzy, gasping moments of pain that followed, he hazily thanked God for his breastplate - without it, the impact would easily have shattered half a dozen ribs.
He heard Harry give a surprised yell and he tried once again to look in the direction of the circle. It was like staring into the sun. He could see the outline of it framed in colour. Violet, acidic green and bloody crimson flashed once, twice, three times - he could barely see Harry’s outline silhouetted against the whirling maelstrom.
Inside the circle, against the shifting, living colour, something moved.
So, they had succeeded: they had called up he demon they had been hunting. However, the sheer scale and power of it was far, far beyond what they had anticipated. That, and it had clearly expected them to come calling.
“Harry!” Michael yelled, knowing that there was no way the other man would be able to hear him.
Getting to his feet, he hefted Ammorachius and began to run to his friend’s aid. It felt as though he was wading through deep water. The gym swayed and blurred before him, the fiery outline of the summoning circle fading before his very eyes. Just staying upright was a colossal effort. What was happening to him?
He tried to continue running, but his steps faltered and he fell. Ammorachius landed with a metallic clang as he lost his grip on the sword. The knight groaned in pain: it was as if a crushing weight was pressing down on him, stopping him from aiding his friend, rendering him powerless.
But Michael wasn’t concerned for his own safety. Harry - how would he cope alone against such a foe as this? Cold fingers of despair began to close around him.
Darkness began to taint Michael’s vision. He fought against it, but the effort was futile. As his consciousness abandoned him, the last thing Michael heard was the sound of Harry shouting his name.
Although several hours had passed, it was still raining. The sound of it hummed against the roof of the gym as the weak light of dawn filtered in through the high windows. Michael, roused by the light, blinked his eyes open. Groggily, he sat up, head throbbing painfully at the action. Even down the tips his hair, everything seemed to ache.
Blearily, he took in his surroundings. The room he had opened his eyes to was quite different to the one he remembered from last night.
There had clearly been a terrible fire and Michael was surrounded by its aftermath. Scorch marks marred the once white walls of the building and the wooden floor was blackened and charred, reduced to nothing but ash in a few places. Everything was burned beyond recognition: if there had been anything in the room before, it was gone now. The fire had seen to that. The air was thick with the smell of smoke and burnt wood. He coughed on reflex, trying to get the taste of ash out of his lungs.
Only one area had been left unaffected: the space around Michael. A perfect circle, completely untouched by the devastation that had consumed the rest of the building, encompassed the knight. It jarred with the ruin of the rest of the room.
Someone had done this; someone had protected him. And that person was...
He staggered upright, desperately scanning the destruction for any evidence of his friend. Guilt and anxiety roiled in his gut. How could he have let this happen?
After seconds that felt like hours, his eyes fixed upon a solitary figure on the far side of the room. It was lying its side on the floor of the gym, facing away from Michael.
He staggered over to it, praying, praying and praying that his gut instinct was wrong. Michael was no coward; he had faced countless battles with no concern for his own life. However, that limp form made him taste the fear on his tongue, inhale it, breathe it. It was an alien sensation.
When finally reached the figure, one thing was painfully clear. This wasn’t a living person: this was a body.
His breath stuttered in his throat as he took in the details. His inner barriers began to crack.
The corpse’s features were burned beyond recognition. Any distinguishing characteristics, hair or facial features, were gone. Any hope that he wasn’t staring at the corpse of his friend, however, was short lived.
Something silver glinted in the body’s charred hand. As if in a waking dream, he knelt an pulled a painfully familiar silver chain from the blackened palm. It was a silver pentacle. Harry’s silver pentacle.
It was all too much to take.
Michael bit back a sob. This thing, this body burned beyond recognition, was that of his friend. This was Harry. This was what Michael had let Harry become. This was his fault.
He fell to his knees beside the body, cape pooling behind him. Gently, very gently, he lifted the body into his arms, forcing himself to stare into its hollowed features.
This was his fault, his responsibility, and he would damn well look it in the face.
“I - I’m sorry, Harry,” he said, voice cracking. “This is all- Damn it! I need you here, Harry. I need you here.”
Tears began to fall on the charred flesh. Michael didn’t notice.
“I’m so sorry, Harry. I am so, so sorry.” He paused, breathing heavily. “I- I always-”
The words didn’t come.
He choked back another sob. Even in death, he couldn’t tell Harry that he loved him, that he’d always loved him, despite his religion, marriage and the hundred other things that had stopped him from ever telling the other man. He just couldn’t say it. Michael just hoped that his actions over the last few years had spoken for him. He just hoped that Harry had died knowing that, no matter what the rest of the world thought of him, he had one person who loved him unconditionally, but who was just too cowardly to ever say it.
Words failed him as they had done so many times before. He hunched over the body and simply let himself cry.
Michael was so consumed by his grief that he didn’t hear the footsteps behind him.
The knight went very, very still.
“Err - sorry to interrupt, but ‘Mr Crispy’ you’ve got there is the bad guy,” Harry’s words were hesitant, although he tried to cover it with the forced joviality. He’d never seen Michael cry before. “I’m here - still alive, like always.”
Harry paused, giving the knight the opportunity to say something. He didn’t. Harry couldn’t see the other man’s face from where he stood, but the man’s posture was rigid. The fact that he still held the remains of ex-murdering demon in his lap didn’t help matters.
Harry, ever one to fill an uncomfortable silence, kept speaking.
“I stepped out to let the wardens know we’d dealt with the bad guy. They’re sending some guys over to help with clean up.” Harry ploughed relentlessly onwards. “I did try to wake you, but you were dead to the world. Well, not quite as dead as that guy, but...erm, still pretty dead? Unconscious, I mean.” Harry was floundering under the weight of Michael’s silence. “To be honest, I’m surprised there’s anything left of him, all things considered. I suppose murdering demon assholes don’t make good firewood, huh? Looks like he grabbed my pentacle in the struggle.”
He paused, hoping that Michael would put him out of his misery and say something.
“Umm, sorry to worry you? It’ll be a funny story in a couple of years?” he added lamely.
Hesitantly, he stepped closer to the other man and reached out a tentative to place on his shoulder.
“Ummm, Earth to Michael..? You okay?”
The instant Harry’s palm touched the knight’s shoulder, it was like a switch had suddenly been flipped.
Michael sprang up, the demon’s body falling disregarded to the ground. He swung around and barrelled into he other man, pulling Harry into a crushing bear hug.
Michael was caught between laughing and crying.
“You have no idea how I-” The knight’s voice was rich with emotion. Michael and Harry’s were practically forehead to forehead. “You can’t imagine what- I- I thought you were dead!”
“Not dead! Not dead! Very much alive!” Harry managed to gasp out. Metal armour is not good for hugs. Jesus, the other man was strong. And close, very, very close right now.
Thankfully, the wizard was too busy trying to breathe to feel embarrassed.
Michael didn’t back off or alleviate his grip in the slightest. “Thank God you’re alive! Thank God! I thought I’d lost you, Harry. I thought I’d lost you!”
“Michael,” Harry tried to wriggle away, but he may as well have tried to wrestle with a polar bear. “I will be dead in a minute if you don’t let me breathe!”
“I thought I’d let you die. You can’t know how-”
Michael’s eyes finally focused on Harry’s. “What?”
“Enough with trying to crush me to death! I like having ribs!”
There was a pause, Michael loosened his grip slightly, but didn’t let go. The knight was looking intently at the other man, seemingly coming to some sort of decision.
Harry started to ask, “What is-” but never got to finish his question. Michael, determination shining in his eyes, reached up pulled Harry towards him. He pressed their lips together in a kiss, effectively stealing the other man’s words.
Outside, the rain finally let up, making way for the clear summer sky. It was a new day.
Harry rang the doorbell, nearly flinching at its cheery little chime. Shuffling his feet uncomfortably, he stood there and waited. It felt like the Carpenter’s front door, complete with its gleaming knocker and clean, bright paint were glaring down at him.
After less than a minute, (Harry was counting the seconds in his head) the door opened.
It was Charity. She looked surprised to see him.
‘Well,’ Harry’s brain provided, ‘this is going to be awkward.’
“Hiya, Charity,” Harry said, forcing a smile. It probably came out as more of a rictus grin. “Is Michael home?”
“Harry,” she said, stepping back from the door. “Come on in. Michael’s out the back.”
As Harry stepped into the house, he got more of a chance to look at her. She seemed...tired. There were faint frown lines on her forehead and dark circles under her eyes. Admittedly, this was nothing unusual for a parent with young children, but for Charity...
“-or anything, Harry?”
It was only then that he realised he had been staring and had totally missed the fact that she had been speaking to him.
“Sorry, what was that?’
“Can I get you a drink or anything?” she repeated. “It’s hot out.”
Around them, the hustle and bustle of Carpenter family life went on: there were voices, laughter, the sound of a T.V. set and he could hear the erratic footsteps of children. It was a Saturday and the younger members of the family were at home.
“No, I’m okay thanks.” Harry was eager to spend as little time around Charity as possible. “Whereabouts is-”
Molly’s head suddenly peeked out from a doorway. “Harry! I thought I heard you!” She rushed over to greet him like a hurricane made up of black clothing, piercings and brightly colored hair. “You here to see dad or me?”
Harry gave her a smile, this one less forced than the one he had given to her mother.
“Your dad, grasshopper. I see enough of you during our lessons.”
She pulled her face into an exaggerated frown. “Oh, fine then!” she said, tone mockingly haughty. “When you see dad, tell him I said hi - he’s been camped out in the workshop for days! See if you can lure him out, will you? I tried, but-”
Charity suddenly cut in. “Molly, aren’t you supposed to be studying? Don’t you have a paper due in soon?”
This was one of the rare moments that Harry could see Molly act her age.
She turned to her mother, face a picture of despair. “But mom, Harry’s here and-”
Charity, however, was not a moment to be argued with. “Now, Molly.”
“Ugh, yeah yeah. I’ll go study.”
Molly’s absence (she stomped her way into the other room), left Harry and Charity alone again. Despite the noise going on around them in the house, it suddenly felt all too quiet for Harry. He pushed down a memory of what had passed between him and Michael a few day’s previously, irrationally afraid that Charity may be able to work out the cause of Harry’s guilt just from looking at his face.
Having watched Molly leave with a mother’s tender concern, Charity gave a gentle sigh and turned back to him. “Sorry about that,” she said. “You were saying?”
Again, Harry was surprised by the lack of the prim vigour he was used to from the other woman. Once again, his attention was drawn to the dark circles under her eyes.
“Erm, you seem pretty tired. You okay there?” he asked, feeling as though he was tentatively dipping his toe into a pool filled with piranhas. So, you’re feeling pretty crappy, eh? Just how much more crappy would you feel if I told you the reason I’m here is because your husband got all kissy with me...
Charity gave a slight frown, now that was an expression he was more familiar with, and she looked thoughtful.
“Oh, I’m fine. It’s...” she trailed off for a moment, but then continued, tone firm. “It’s Michael.”
Harry’s stomach lurched. Oh shit. “Yeah? What’s up with him?”
“He’s been... different since the last mission he went on with you,” she went on, bringing her eyes up to meet Harry’s. “You wouldn’t know anything about it, would you?”
“So, this is where you’ve been holed up?”
Harry stood in the doorway of the workshop. Michael, who had been busy sawing through a piece of wood, paused and looked up at Harry, obviously surprised. He had clearly been busy: the room smelt of freshly cut wood and the workbenches were laden with various projects in different stages of completion. Harry stepped inside and the door hung open for a moment before closing with a snap behind him. If it took slightly longer to close than usual, neither of the men noticed it.
For some reason, Harry had expected him to look different. The knight, although sans armour and wearing a tight fitting t-shirt and jeans, looked the same as ever. When going through a rough patch, the first thing people normally let slip is personal appearance. Hell, Harry certainly had after the whole incident with Susan. But Michael looked as fresh as ever, disregarding the sweat on his brow from the exertion of his work. From what he was wearing, the man’s powerful build was obvious. But Michael wasn’t toned from putting in the hours at the gym. It was from all the physical labor he did from his work along with the whole ‘vengeful knight chopping down bad guys’ thing. God, being around the man and his muscles made Harry feel like a stick figure...
Strangely, Harry was slightly disappointed. Michael was always so...Michael. He’d already seen a couple of the man’s barriers break down (hence the visit) and was oddly curious to see more. Which was obviously a terrible idea: everyone knows what happened to the cat for sticking its whiskered nose where it didn’t belong.
So, although Michael (slightly disappointingly) didn’t looked like a haggard version of his usual self, he was clearly taken aback by the wizard’s sudden appearance.
“Harry,” he said, stepping back from the workbench, “what on earth are you doing here?”
At that, Harry raised an eyebrow. “Hmm, let’s see.” He raised a hand, fingers outstretched, and began ticking off reasons. “Firstly, you went AWOL and haven’t returned any of my calls. Secondly, I wanted to check you were still alive. And thirdly, because you’re an idiot, idiot.”
Michael frowned. “Because I’m an idiot?”
“Hell yeah, you’re an idiot!” Harry couldn’t help but let some of his anger slip into his voice. “And I never, ever thought I’d say this about you, but a selfish one at that. I just had to lie to your wife for you.”
Michael’s face was a mask. “You lied to Charity?” His voice was very quiet.
“Yeah. She wanted to know if anything had happened during our last mission - if I knew about anything bothering you. She’s worried about you, Michael. And I lied through my teeth to her and said I had no idea.”
Michael rubbed at his temples, a frown clouding his expression. “I’m sorry, Harry. I never would have-”
But Harry didn’t give him the chance to speak. He strode over to the other man and jabbed an accusing finger at him. “I’m not the one you should be apologising to,” he growled. “You’ve got a family in there who needs you - you’re a great dad and they need you buying groceries, driving them around and telling them off. Wallowing in here doesn’t help anyone, including you.”
The other man avoided Harry’s eyes. “I just need some time,” he said. “I need time to-”
“Time to process the fact that you kissed me? Is that it?”
There was a sudden sound: the clatter of some of Michael’s work tools suddenly shifting in their position on the bench as if suddenly jostled, a gasp that seemed to come out of the empty air. Harry and Michael were so intent on each other that they didn’t even register it.
In all the time Harry had worked with Michael, been his friend, he had never seen the other man flinch, even in the face of seemingly unbeatable odds. But he did now, at the mention of the kiss. Regardless, Harry ploughed on. “Look, we both know what happened. It was a surprise but,” he locked eyes with Michael, “if it’s what you want, I’m willing to forget it. We can’t let this get in the way of our work together.”
A moment passed. In those few seconds, Michael seemed to have come to a decision. He no longer avoided Harry’s eyes, determination kindled in them. He stood tall and faced the other man directly. “You’re willing to forget it?”
“Yeah, I’m willing to forget it! Call it what you like - a moment of madness from inhaling too much burnt demon fumes, or maybe you were still delirious from being knocked out. It was just a kiss, Michael. No a big deal!”
There was a loaded silence. Michael’s fists clenched and unclenched. He could see the tension in the other man’s shoulders, his jaw.
“But what if I don’t want to forget it?” The knights voice was cold and firm. “There are many things that I am, Harry, but a liar is not one of them.”
There was another slight sound from the other side of the workshop, but once again it passed unnoticed.
It took Harry’s brain a couple of moments to catch up with his ears. “Uhhh,” he said, eloquent as ever. “But, Michael, you-”
“The reason I did what I did, Harry, was because I wanted to,” the knight continued in that calm, confident tone. “And I’d wanted to do it for a long time too.”
“Oh...right.” Why was it that, when Harry actually needed to say something, words completely failed him?
“Of course, I am well aware that I shouldn’t have such feelings: I’m a married man and a father as well as a Knight of the Cross. Those responsibilities come first.”
“Y-yeah, I get that.”
An expression of something like sadness crossed the other man’s face. “And that is why I can’t see you again.”
“I don’t want you to call, come to my house of have any contact with me directly in future. Of course it will still be necessary for you to teach Molly, but I will ensure that you have no contact with me in the process.”
Harry’s surprised stupor suddenly lifted and was, with equal swiftness, replaced with hot, searing anger. “So, you’re ditching me?” Harry’s tone was bitter and he didn’t care. “You’re cutting our alliance, putting hundreds, maybe even thousands, of people’s lives at risk—including your own—because you can’t handle the fact that you’re into another guy.”
With lightning speed, Michael suddenly grabbed the front of Harry’s duster, pulling him close. Harry was struck by the scent of freshly cut pine, probably from the wood he had been cutting. More striking, however, was Michael’s expression, so different was it to calm confidence. Harry could have sworn there were tears in the other man’s eyes and his face was a mixture of anger and sadness.
When the knight spoke, his words were low, deliberate and dangerous. “I am doing this, Harry, because it is the only way for me to live my life and still believe I’m a good man. You think the issue is because you’re a man? The issue is because I’m married—to a woman I love—and I’m a father. Do you know what this would do to them? To Charity? And don’t you dare belittle my feelings for you as something that can be brushed away so easily! Do you know how long I’ve- How much I wanted to- It’s been years!”
And as quickly as Michael had pulled Harry to him, the knight let him go, turning his back on the other man.
Harry, to his own astonishment, found himself close to tears. “Michael, I-I’m sorry. I didn’t know. Really, I didn’t want to-”
The knight’s voice, heavy with suppressed emotion, cut over his own. “Just go, Harry.”
Harry opened his mouth to protest, but then stopped. He was in no fit state to argue and he was worried to push the other man any further than he had already. Feeling like a coward, he turned on is heel and made for the door.
In his rush to get away, Harry again didn’t notice that the door to the workshop stayed open for a fraction of a second longer than it took for him to leave.
The door slammed shut behind Harry. There was the sound of his rapid strides, followed by that of the Blue Beetle’s engine starting up, roaring to life and then pulling away.
Once she was completely sure Harry was gone, Molly Carpenter appeared from thin air. She stood beside her father’s workshop, her face pale: a stark contrast to the brightness of her hair. Tears were clearly visible on her cheeks. Silently, she leaned against the wall of the workshop and slowly slid to the floor. She raised a trembling hand to cover her mouth.
Despite the shock clouding her senses, one thought rose clearly to the surface of her mind: perhaps falling in love with Harry Dresden ran in the family?
So, that was fun! Apparently my favourite Michael is a suffering Michael. Huh... But then I reckon Jim Butcher himself must be a bit of a sadist considering the amount of craziness he puts Harry through. The Napalm Death song (in all its 1.316 second glory) ‘You Suffer’ (but why) could be a fitting—if extremely short—theme tune to The Dresden Files.
As always, thanks for reading and any comments and/or kudos!
Please be aware that the rating will most likely be going up in the next chapter.