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Phoenix Tears

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Target Practice

I don't really remember getting here. There's some girl that Mab sent with me sitting in the driver's seat. Probably we drove. But I don't remember getting into the truck. I don't remember crossing the lake. Hell's bells, I don't really remember the argument that got me here.

I feel paralyzed again. My legs won't move and both hands are frozen onto the truck's door handle. I vaguely notice the vibrations of the vehicle stop, and that girl – who I can't remember the name of – turn to look at me. Her head is slightly tilted, a riot of flaming hair spilling over her shoulders, and a look I can't quite place in her eyes.

Sympathy? Maybe it's pity. She touches my shoulder and my limbs start to respond as I hit my head off the roof. Yep. Suave, that's me.

"She's home," the girl murmured.

Damn, I really should try to remember her name. Since my vocal cords didn't seem to want to work either, I nodded and climbed out of the vehicle.

I didn't trip. Really.

It should be illegal for trucks that big to not have running boards.

I slammed the door on the muted laughter coming from inside the vehicle, and stomped up the walkway to the door. I knocked on the door. And promptly fell on my ass when the wards zapped me. Super.

I noticed Murphy standing in the doorway with a shotgun aimed at my face about the same time I realized that I was sitting on the ground rubbing my own ass.

"I must be special; I don't remember those wards trying to electrocute Mort when he knocked."

Still standing behind the wards, she cocked the rifle. Apparently Murphy has become immune to my charming wit and good taste.

"Um. Hi, Karrin?"

"This is NOT funny. You have a three second head start, and then you can dodge buckshot."

Yeowzers.

"Um..." Gosh, I'm brilliant. I know that she's become extremely paranoid, and I hadn't even thought about what to say. Well, that's not entirely true. I probably did think about it on the way, but seeing the house rendered me nearly comatose.

"Look, I realize you don't believe me right now – but it IS me. Call Mollie. Call Butters and have him bring over Bob. Heck, go get Mister or Mouse.

"Because you were right. I wasn't dead – I was a pawn for Mab and that spirit on Demonsreach. Well, I think it was that island's spirit. I can explain, just let me explain."

She narrowed her eyes and glanced at the Dodge Ram sitting on the side of the road. "Who's that?"

"Uh. Yeah. Not sure. Mab had her take me here since I had no car... or anything really."

"You don't know her name," she deadpanned.

I could feel my cheeks heating up. "Well, no. I'm sure I was told... I just... a lot of things are blurry. I remember getting dragged into Molly's head when she battled the Corpsemaker. I remember chatting with Uriel. I remember walking through a doorway expecting to pass on or something - and waking up in a cave with Mab leering over me instead. I remember who ki–"

I bit my lip quickly. If I tell her that before she's sure it's me, she probably wouldn't bother counting. She'd just start shooting.

Of course, she might start shooting even after she knows it's me when she finds out that I put a hit out on myself.

Note to self: stand behind somebody she likes when we get to that part. Or at least make sure there aren't any firearms in easy reach. Besides, I was still sprawled out on the pavement. I was a sitting duck and she already had the gun trained on me.

"Who killed you, then?"

"Murph..."

"Damnit, I'm not getting anyone over here for some prank. Get. Lost."

And she fired a shot that missed my foot by an inch.

"Hell's bells Karrin." I scrambled to my feet. "It's me."

She narrowed her eyes and met my gaze. I felt a pull as a soul gaze began, and this time neither of us looked away.

Karrin was gone. The house was gone. Instead, I was standing in the doorway of an office that badly needed a date with a decorator. A scarred desk featuring a mountain of paper and a typewriter was situated across from me facing the door.  One leg was being held up with a book. Two chairs sat facing it, both bright orange and upholstered in ripped vinyl.  The chair behind the desk wasn’t much better – but at least it was black instead of orange.  Bookcases flanked the window on the far wall, while wood paneling coated the walls down to some truly amazing lime green linoleum tile.  I’m sure it was the height of style during the 60s.

One wall to the side was virtually swallowed up by a single huge painting.  From the door it looked blank.  Since nothing else seemed to be happening in the office – and the door behind me was locked – I went and stood in front of it.

After a moment, the stark white canvas began to swirl – it looked as though the canvas was being twisted in the frame.  After what seemed like a year, a picture snapped into place with an audible pop.  I looked in at Murphy’s childhood bedroom, and my eyes nearly fell out of their sockets. It was girly.

The carpeting was pale pink shag.  Eggshell white paint gave way to a mural of Sleeping Beauty’s castle. From my perspective, I could see that it was a shared bedroom.  One side of the room held a crib painted white with a Winnie-The-Pooh mobile hanging over it.  The other held a single bed – also painted white – with a lacy pink bedspread.  Stuffed animals crowded the pillows and it looked like eleven year old Murphy was trying to drown herself in them.  She was shaking with tears.

“Aww, Karrin....”

Somebody cleared their throat behind me, and I spun around.

She wasn't the angel that I remember Seeing. Her cropped blond locks were once again long, flowing and glowing brilliantly. But the tattered and stained white robes I last Saw her wearing were replaced with gleaming silver armour. A winged helmet graced her head. The shotgun was gone. Instead, she held a wooden longbow covered in both scrollwork and runes. A silver arrow fletched with white feathers was cocked and pointing at my face.  Some things never change.

“He was my everything,” she murmured as tears streaked down her face.  And then she loosed the arrow.

Bullseye

The soulgaze broke, and once again I found myself sprawled on the pavement.  This time, however, I had a bit more to think about.  Murphy wasn't the angel I had always suspected. She was a freaking valkyrie.

I eventually realized that I looked like a baby bird wanting to get fed, so I clamped my mouth shut. Murphy just stared.

"Well. Wow. A soulgaze. Or we could do that."

I studied Murph some more. She still had her hair chopped off way too short in my opinion, but the steel in her eyes was melting and the gun was no longer pointed between my eyes. Yippee for progress!

"I wasn't thinking straight, you know. The whole deal with Maggy..." A lump formed in my throat and threatened to choke me. I closed my eyes, swallowed and ploughed ahead. "I made some shitty choices. Actually, I made a lot of them. I never meant for this. I'm so sorry Karrin; you have no idea how sorry."

Call me crazy, but I think she tried to blink away some tears too. She looked over my shoulder, and I realized that my driver was standing about two feet away – behind me and slightly to the left. She must have gotten out of the truck when Murphy started shooting.

The redhead just shrugged. "I'll go wait in the truck."

"No, no." Murphy looked chagrined. Apparently some early childhood hospitality training had kicked in. She stepped aside and finished lowering the rifle. "I won't invite you in, but I'll still serve you coffee in the living room."

The girl smiled slightly and shook her head. "This isn't my party. I'll wait outside." She shooed me away with her hands, and turned back towards the pickup.

Me? Well, I walked across the threshold and left most of my magic behind.

----

Murphy pointed me to the couch and walked into the kitchen, leaving me standing in the doorway feeling awkward.  Nothing new there.  So I decided to play the good guest, and seated myself where she had indicated.

The room hadn’t changed since the last time I had seen it.  A little too girly for Murph, but she did her darnedest to offset the doilies by adding a gun cleaning kit and various firearms to the decor.  The room was chilly, and I wondered why I wasn’t wearing my duster.  It took me a minute to realize that my duster was pretty much destroyed during the battle at Chichen Itza and that I was naked when I woke up in the cave.

I didn’t remember getting dressed and panicked a little.

I panicked a little more when I realized that I was dressed.  What I was wearing could loosely be called clothes.  Mab or my godmother probably picked it out as some kind of cruel joke.

I was wearing shiny silver dress pants, thong sandals and a silk baby blue version of the puffy shirt.  Yes, the freaking puffy shirt. Sheesh, no wonder Murphy was sceptical.

I could hear murmurs from the kitchen – Murphy was probably talking on the phone – and started picking at the frills down the front of my shirt. I was still fiddling with them when Murphy reappeared in the doorway and burst out laughing.  I transferred my scowl from my offensive clothing to her.

“I can’t believe they dressed me in this crap.”

“I like it.  It’s payback for putting me through hell.”  She handed me a mug of steaming coffee and sat on the chair across from me.

I took a sip of the piping hot ambrosia.  Neither of us said a word, we just sat there drinking coffee as the clock ticked.

“I sort of expected you to be angrier.” I could see a wry smile appear half hidden behind her mug.

“Later.  I made some calls, people will be getting here very soon.  Then you can explain.”  She took another sip. “And I still haven’t ruled out shooting you.”

Another minute of silence, and Murphy caught me rubbernecking around.  “Where’s Mister?”

“Out.  I suspect he’s hunting deer.”

More silence.  Which was probably a good thing considering how good I am at sticking my foot all the way down my throat.

After approximately three geological epochs, the doorbell rang and my stomach dropped down to my ridiculous sandals. If there’s one thing I’m good at, it’s keeping cool, calm and collected in the face of confrontation.

Murphy got up, walked over to the door, and whispered something to Thomas before she let him in.  I, clever guy that I am, got up to greet him.  Thankfully, I had put the coffee down first because he crossed the distance to me in about two steps and sucker punched me.  It would’ve been such a shame to spill my first coffee in six months all over Murphy’s nice furniture.

He didn’t hold back either.  The force of the strike knocked me backwards over the couch and onto the floor beyond.

“On the floor again. This must be some kind of record.” The power of the Winter Knight kept the brunt of the pain away, but my lament still came out as a groan. And my brother was walking towards me again with murder in his eyes.

Murphy piped up, her voice suspiciously gleeful. “Relax, will you?  Other people will want a round with him too.”

“Did you hit him yet?” This from my darling brother.

“No, I shot at him.”

“You missed?”

“On purpose.” She shot Thomas a wide smile. “We’ll save the best for last.”

“I don’t know. You’d have to do some creative shooting to outdo what Molly has planned.”

I blanched a little. “Good grief,” I muttered, setting myself back onto my feet for the umpteenth time today. “My ears work.”

“So does your mouth.  So use it.” His murderous advance might have stopped, but his demon hadn’t completely subsided.  His skin was otherworldly pale, and his pupils had vanished behind the white of his eyes.

I took a step away, and heard a car door slam. Talk about nice timing.

Murphy raised a finger at Thomas to tell him to wait, and opened the door once again.

Will walked in first, holding what looked to be a suitcase and some sort of baby carrying device.  Georgia soon followed, holding a bundle wrapped in a blue blanket.  I used my super-duper investigative skills to determine that it must be their kid and that they had a boy.

And then a gray coloured missile streaked through the door and lunged at my knees.

And I fell over.  Again.

What About Bob?

Will eyed me for a minute, and then turned to Murphy.  “How sure are you that it’s him?”

“I’m soulgaze sure.”

The werewolf harrumphed and pitched the duffel bag at my head as hard as he could.  I didn’t want to roll away – there was a thirty pound ball of fur kneading my chest – so I deflected the missile with my arms as best I could. It weighed a ton.

“That’s a diaper bag, right? Not an anvil?”

Georgia gave me the fish eye and looked to Will.

“Make yourself useful and get out a diaper, the wipes and the tin of Bag Balm.”

I sputtered a little.  “Bag Balm?”

“Kirby has diaper rash.”

That poor kid - I swallowed a laugh. I mean, I know Kirby was their friend. Their packmate.  And that it hurt all of them when he passed away.  But no self-respecting kid deserves to be named after a giant pink marshmallow with legs.

Apparently I didn’t hide the laugh as well as I thought, because Georgia had raised the stakes in the staring game.  So, I peeled Mister off of me and started rummaging through the lead lined diaper bag. I extracted the items I was told to get, and looked through it for a few seconds more before handing the goods to Will. He raised an eyebrow at me.

“I was looking for the bricks.  That’s the only explanation I could think of for it weighing that much.”

Will chortled and led Georgia and the baby away to diaperland as the doorbell rang yet again.  And yet again, Murphy walked to the door, opened it, whispered something and stepped aside.

I waited a beat, and in stalked Mouse the Moose.  The big dog being here meant that Molly, Michael or both of them wouldn’t be far behind.  But something was wrong. Mister was happy to see me.  Murphy, Thomas, Will and Georgia were pissed, but seemed relieved.

Mouse seemed to look me up and down.  Then he took two steps forward.  His head dropped.  His tail shot out behind him.  His hackles rose. A soft growl filled the room.

I froze, and my pulse started doing the cha-cha. I’m no lightweight, but Mouse is one big dog.  I’ve also seen him go head to head with some serious Big Bads.  More to the point – it hurt.  He may be a dog, but he was one of my best friends.  And he was in attack mode while looking at me. I started to shake and slowly back away as my mind screamed at me to think about this. 

Stupid brain.  A smarter brain would be telling me to run like hell.

But since I’m such a fan of logic and reason, I tested out some middle ground.  The dog does, after all, understand English.

“Mouse, buddy?  It’s me boy.”  Sometimes my eloquence astounds me.

The growling got louder.

I swallowed and started looking around. “The odds of successfully surviving an attack on an Imperial...”

Mouse snarled and lunged.  And vanished right before reaching me, leaving me standing half crouched with my arms held up to protect my face.

I turned my gaze to the doorway, and widened the space between my arms to see better. “...Star Destroyer are approximately...”

Molly dropped her veil.  “Shut up!”

Michael, who had apparently also been veiled, put his hand on his daughter’s shoulder as if to restrain her.  The real Mouse was staring at me, head cocked to one side with his mouth open in a doggie grin.  Apparently the dog recognized C-3PO and Michael didn’t.

“You look like the Count of Monte Cristo,” Molly added.

This from a girl who hadn’t seen a shower in weeks and was dressed so well that she made bag ladies everywhere look like runway models. I almost started fiddling with my obscene shirt again, but managed to restrain myself using my incredible powers of self-control.  Instead, I muttered something about Elaine and dancing.

Molly chuckled at me, then grabbed her father’s hand, took a deep breath and closed her eyes. Huh.  She must have decided to See me instead of taking Murphy’s word for it. Her eyes opened, her shining blue orbs unfocused until they found me again.

I had to make an impression.  After all, last time I quoted Star Wars – but I’d already done that.  I needed to expand my horizons.  First, I considered doing the chicken dance.  Unfortunately, most everyone in the room was armed and since I wasn’t invited in or wearing my duster I couldn’t deflect any bullets.  But I still danced.  I positioned my hands into a sweet thumbs up pose.  I kicked my feet.  I flailed around like an idiot.  Elaine Benes, eat your heart out.

 “God Harry, you’re such a dork.”

“Molly!”

“Well, he is.  Oh.  Second commandment.  Right.”  She pursed her lips. “Sorry.”

Thomas, who couldn’t seem to decide who to scowl at – Molly or myself – finally piped up. “Can we get some answers now?”

I did some mental calculations.  The only person missing was Butters.  And Bob... stars and stones.  I hadn’t remembered Bob.

Another door slammed outside, and Murphy responded with a very simple “Soon.”

She grabbed her purse and walked out the door, returning a few minutes later with a stack of Pizza ‘Spress boxes.  She set them down on the coffee table and instructed everyone to sit as Molly appeared out of nowhere with a stack of plates and napkins.

My mouth watered.  It had been better than six months since I had pizza.  In fact, it had been better than six months since I had anything resembling normal food.  Mab gave me something suspiciously like freaking protein shakes.  They did the trick, don’t get me wrong, but it just doesn’t compare to pizza and beer.  I’m pretty sure I lunged at the top box.

I also might have started foaming at the mouth when sweet brother mine knocked me back onto the couch.  I definitely said some impolite words.

Karin gave me a prize winning smile.  “You can eat when you’re done explaining why you’ve put all of us through hell – especially Molly.”  She helped herself to a slice of pizza and flicked a piece of pepperoni at my dog.

That caught me off guard.  Did Molly say something?  Or was she just referring to the fact that by killing myself I had tied a noose around her neck too?  I hadn’t exactly been rational.  I was paralyzed, my daughter (that I didn’t even know I had) was about to be killed, and if I couldn’t fix it I was pretty sure the world would spontaneously combust.

So I decided to make a deal.  I would give in and give Mab what she wanted.  I’d become the Winter Knight – at least temporarily.  I had called Kincaid, put a hit out on myself, and then had Molly make me forget about the phone call.  I woke up alone and worried that the universe was about to implode – so I conjured up the fairy queen of air and darkness.

My plan worked out super.  Kind of like the one with the marbles, but with more soul damnation.

I looked around at the faces of my friends.  They all wore a mixture of hurt, betrayal and anger on their faces.  But people were missing.

“Two things first,” I began.  “One – how long has it been since I was a ghost, and two... what about Bob?  Well, and shouldn’t Butters be here too?”

They looked at each other.  Nobody spoke.  That’s real promising.

It was Michael who spoke up.  “It’s been four months, and ah...”

Molly interrupted him.  “Butters had to wash his hair.”

“No man would say that, grasshopper.”

“I’m paraphrasing.”

“So he didn’t want to come.”  I thought about that a moment.  And what I thought about made me a little green.  “Bob didn’t come back from the Nevernever, did he?”

Nobody would look me in the eye.

But Bob couldn’t have died, could he?  I mean, he was a seriously powerful spirit.  He could probably roast me if he had the proper motivation.  Of course, he was fighting Evil Bob – that part of himself that was moulded by Kemmler’s insanity and later cast off after I commanded him to forget. 

And Evil Bob scared the crap out of me.

“No Harry,” Murphy said, her voice low. “Bob never returned to the skull.”

Mouse whined and laid his head on my knee. I didn’t get weepy.  My throat tightened.  I would not get weepy.  I had known Bob longer than anyone present.  I refused to get weepy.  I could feel Murphy’s grip tighten on my hand.

Stupid allergies.

“I know you miss him – but let’s put this aside for a while.  At this rate the pizza will be gone before anyone lets you have a slice.”  She produced a bottle of Mac’s pale out of thin air and handed it to me.  I have no idea where it came from, but that taste of nirvana left the coffee behind in the dust.

The beer was significantly hoppier than I remember.  Or maybe it was just the situation in general that left a bitter taste in my mouth.  I gulped it down in about half a millisecond anyway.

Molly passed me a second one out of the cooler nestled under the coffee table.  She looked... guilty.  “After what happened with the Corpsetaker... I told Murphy.  I don’t think she told anyone else.”  Murphy nodded.  “So you need to go over everything still.”

Well, that explained the awkward silent treatment before everyone arrived.

I scratched Mouse’s ear for a moment, then took another bracing swig of Mac’s fine ale.  I focused on a spot on the ceiling, and began.

“It started when the boarding house burned down.  I fell off the ladder.  Broke my back.  It... took away my hope, and made me seriously consider doing something I had avoided for years.  I awoke in the church, alone in the dark.  There was a note taped to the ceiling, telling me somebody would come in soon.  Nobody came.

“I tried Uriel first.”  I met Michael’s eyes.  “He had given me access to soulfire when I rid myself of Lasciel’s shadow.  I figured that maybe he had an interest in me.  I had been selfless – all of the bullshit I’ve dealt with over the years hasn’t benefited me one whit.  I could have ran, I could have left others to duke it out.  I figured that this time – the one time that would benefit me, would benefit Maggie – was something I deserved some help with. He turned me down.”

I shook my head at Michael’s scowl.  “No interruptions.  Let me finish.”  Taking another swig of beer, I settled back into the couch.

“I didn’t want to take a coin.  Lasciel taught me how to summon it.  I didn’t want to know; in fact I pretended that I didn’t.  But I do.  I also wasn’t that desperate yet – I still had one more option.  I called Mab.  She took me to the stone table and presented me with Lloyd Slate.  I took the mantle of the Winter Knight when I pressed a knife to his throat.

“So Lea dressed me up like a fool for the first time, we went to the Yucatán, we kicked some ass.  We annihilated the Red Court. And I killed Susan.”  A fresh well of tears threatened to erupt, but I swallowed them with Herculean effort.  I met Murphy’s eyes, and held on tight. 

“We finally decided to take a risk.  I didn’t remember, but I knew myself, and I knew what I had planned to do all along.  I knew that Heaven wouldn’t help me, and I’d end up choosing one of the two evils available to me.  So that day in the church, I had asked Molly to do something I had no right asking of her.  You see, I didn’t want to take a coin or the mantle.  I didn’t want to have to live with myself like that.  And, I remembered something that Kincaid had told me years ago.  That, if the time ever came, he would kill me with a sniper rifle from 100 yards away.”

Murphy’s eyes hardened to steel, and her grip on my hand had transformed into talons.  There were murmurs from everyone else present.  I did my best to ignore them and pushed forward.

“He owed me a favour.”  I gulped.  “I called him up.  Arranged for it to happen the day after the trip to Mexico.  And had Molly erase the memory from my brain.”

I bit my lip.  Murphy’s nails had begun to draw blood.  Thomas was threatening to strangle me.  Molly was sobbing.  Michael looked thunderstruck.  Will looked betrayed.  Georgia just hid herself behind a curtain of hair as she nursed the baby.

It was Georgia that calmed everyone down – or at least made them take a rain check.  She told me to keep going because – quite obviously – Kincaid didn’t manage to kill me.

Unfortunately, this was the tricky part.  I didn’t really know enough about what happened to give a good explanation.  Fortunately, that redhead that drove me here poked her head through the front door at precisely the right time.

“I’m sorry to intrude, but Harry might need some help filling in a few blanks.”  Her eyes swept over the room to Karrin, who nodded.

I took this opportunity to get a good look at her.  I’m ashamed to admit that I really didn’t give her a second glance on the way here.  She has wavy hair the colour of molten lava that flows down just past her shoulders.  Intense green eyes are lined heavily with mascara; and despite it being November she wears a tank top, cut-off jeans and sneakers.  She also looks really familiar, though I couldn’t place her face for the life of me.

Karrin interrupted my ogling. “Aren’t you going to introduce us?”  I could see her smile – she damn well knew I couldn’t.  For that matter, Ginger was smirking too.  Typical.

She stepped up to Murphy and extended a hand.  “You can call me Jean.”

Jean.  Jean.  I looked from Murphy back to my driver, my mouth hanging open.  She winked at me. Well, glaze my nipples and call me Rita.  This could get interesting.

Endsong

Apparently I wasn’t the only one who caught it – Will looked about as flabbergasted as I felt. 

On the other hand, Molly was using the superpowers she inherited from her mother to stare the newcomer down, while Georgia, Michael and Murphy looked pretty neutral.

Thomas... Thomas apparently didn’t know whether to attack her or hit on her.  “Harry? What is she?

I waved his question away.  If my guess was right, I might be able to swindle a demonstration out of her.

“I’m hungry.  Let’s finish this up so you can stop torturing me with pizza.”

People nodded, and muttered, and we all rearranged ourselves on Murphy’s furniture.  Jean stood behind me, probably so I wouldn’t stare.  After all, I did have a pretty serious fantasy of her going when I was twelve.

Don’t look at me like that.

I grabbed my fifth beer.  If I couldn’t eat pizza, the least I could do is try to give myself a buzz.  As a bonus, I apparently lost some tolerance to the stuff after a ten month long abstinence. 

“Um, where did I leave off?”

“Kincaid missing you with a high tech sniper rifle.”  Murphy sounded a little bitter.  Gee, I wonder why.

“Right... he didn’t miss me.”  I jabbed my chest with a finger, just a little to the left of my sternum.  “The bullet caught me here.  I had finished getting ready for... I was early, and was too full of nerves to keep sitting in the cabin.  I thought maybe you might be early.  I was confused – and I didn’t understand what had happened.  I remember wondering why I picked a shirt with a bullet hole in it right before I toppled into the lake.”  I shook my head.  “It didn’t take long.  I woke up in Ghostville about to get flattened by an oncoming train.  But you know this part.”

“The purpose of that excursion was supposedly for me to avenge my murderer.  Pretty darn ironic, I must say.  Anyway – I learned the truth while I was a spectator on Molly’s battle of wills and Uriel snatched me up pretty much instantly.  We had a talk. We watched the finale, then he took me on a farewell tour.  We saw Thomas and Justine... and Maggie.”

Michael interrupted someone for probably the first time in his life. “You and Uriel... what did you talk about?”

I frowned, and glanced back at the woman standing behind me.  “I’m getting to the part where things get hazy. When I woke up in Ghostville it was because my death was orchestrated.  The ghosts there... they form a sort of outpost headed by Uriel.  They correct instances where free will was taken away.  Apparently, when I first woke up in the church – before I had a talk with Molly – I had a visitor during my self-pitying pep talk.  A fallen was there, helping me berate myself.  Putting words into my head, and since I’m so good at blaming myself for things that aren’t my fault I believed it.  That whisper, that lie, was what drove me to kill myself.  According to Uriel, that’s what allowed him to act and send me back as a shade.

“But after it was all said and done... I wasn’t even allowed to die.  I was brought to a door, I asked the archangel some questions and got some equally impertinent and cryptic answers.  When I went through the door, I found myself on Demonsreach.  Mab was there – and quite pissed at me for trying to get out of her bargain.  She... and the genius loci – the island’s spirit – had apparently been keeping my body alive.  Which is why I was told it wasn’t available while in Ghostville.”  I twisted in my seat to look at the thing that modelled herself after a superhero.  “But what I don’t understand is this.  If Mab really did prevent me from dying, how did I become a ghost in the first place?  I have a feeling that even the Queen of Air and Darkness cannot sever and reattach a soul from the body at will.”

She nodded at me.  “Very good.”  She walked around and perched on the arm of the couch.  And while I moved over, I snagged my first piece of pizza.  Nobody seemed to care – either they were too busy being intrigued by our guest speaker or they were satisfied that I’d said enough.  Either way, the pizza was superb greasy goodness.  It hardly mattered at all that it was cold.

“The Winter Queen was not completely truthful when she claimed death was a spectrum – not a black and white matter.  It is indeed black or white – you are either alive or you’re dead.  Your soul is either present, or it has moved on.  A person trapped inside a coma and on life support is alive only as long as the soul remains with its vessel, as once it leaves it technically cannot be rejoined.”

“Technically.”

“Mmhmm... people have been known to break rules on occasion.  There’s also a time limit.  Shortly after you fell into the water you succumbed to a fatal gunshot wound.  It was after this that the Cold Queen found you and brought you to the island.  She could, with the help of the genius loci, resuscitate your body and keep it alive; but she could not force your soul back into your body.”

“But... it happens a lot.  Something happens; you die for a couple minutes.  CPR or those paddles save you.  You come back.”

“Of course it does.”  She gave me a severe look, “but you missed the train.”

I sputtered.  I had woken up as a ghost while lying on some train tracks.  With a train heading my way.  Carmichael pulled me off.  “Are you telling me that I could have avoided all that crap by letting a freaking train run me over?”

“You were at a way station so to speak.  Had you let the train take you... it would move you forward.  Since your body was revived, it would have brought you back rather than just brought you to what comes next.  Getting away from the train told the Powers that you weren’t ready to leave.”

“Um,” Molly interrupted.  “Is it normal to become a locomotive pancake to uh, move on?”

The redhead chuckled.  “No, when you get the train scenario you’re usually a passenger and you jump off to stay.  I suspect the Watchman changed that around just for Harry here.”

I thought about that for a minute.  Mab wasn’t capable of bringing me back by force.  Demonsreach probably couldn’t do it either.  Uriel wouldn’t have interfered.  Or would he?  He knew damn well that nothing was fixed, that my actions hadn’t balanced any scales.  Plus, he was magnificently hush hush about the whole ordeal.

“So Uriel sent me back?  The whole ghost thing was a distraction, a way to give me an edge on that particular battle, and then he sent me back?”

She was shaking her head slowly.  Had been since I opened my mouth – but my mouth wanted to speak its mind and I have a habit of letting my mouth win.

“The angels cannot do that without permission.  The Watchman... just made sure that enough time passed for the Cold Queen to find an alternative.”

I looked down at my hands for a moment before softly responding.  “You know, I have a hard time believing that you would work for Winter.”  I met her gaze.  “Summer seems more your style: Summer Fire, goodness and light, and all that.”

“I am not Sidhe,” she scolded. Matching my tone, she continued.  “I am not of Fairy, and I am not beholden to Summer, to Winter, nor to the Wilds.”

“But you did Winter a favour.”

“Indeed, and now Winter is in my debt.”

“But why?  Your kind is generally neutral, refusing to get involved.  Or so I was told.”

“Perhaps I made an exception for you.”

I snorted.  “Lady, nobody helps me unless they want something from me in return.”  I grimaced a bit.  That was rather harsh, and well, pretty much everyone in the room would tell me I’m full of crap.  And I suppose I am.  Crap.  “Present company excluded, of course.”

I got hit in the face with a wadded up napkin.  “Open mouth, insert foot,” I mumbled.

“You could give lessons,” agreed Murphy.

I grunted in reply.  Murphy, who is fluent in gruntinese, accepted my apology.

I turned back to our very own Deep Throat. “So, why did you help me then?”

“Has anyone told you that you’re quite a bit like your mother?”  She pulled something out of her pocket and tossed it at me.  “Don’t lose that.”

I caught the little bundle of silver and released a breath I didn’t know I had been holding.  It was my mother’s amulet – a pentacle featuring a single red gem that held all of her knowledge about the Ways through the Nevernever.  I hadn’t been wearing it when I awoke with Mab in the cave.  I thought it had been lost, and I wasted no time putting it on.

“I took it before Mab could find you, I didn’t want her destroying it.”

“But...”

“That’s enough Q&A.  It’s time for you to return to Court – your end of this bargain is finished.”

“Bargain?”

I couldn’t help but see a certain glint in her green eyes. “Well, yes.  You made a bargain with the Queen to put your training on hold and meet up with your friends here in Chicago.  As per the bargain, you would not have any recollections of your training thus far.  I believe it had something to do with paranoia between the Sidhe Courts.  The memory block will be erased as soon as you are brought back.”  She gave me a significant look.  “Since you have spoken with everyone...”

Huh.  No scheming required, apparently.  Things don’t often work out this well.  I should take a picture. “I haven’t spoken with Bob... What about Bob?”

“Bob unmade himself.”

Ok.  That wasn’t the answer I was looking for.  “Um.  Explain?”

Jean chuckled and returned to her seat.  “As you know, Bob is an air spirit – a being of pure intellect.  Pure soul.  Once, you ordered him to never retrieve a certain set of memories again.  He complied the only way that was possible – he split himself in two.

“You see, the soul itself is perfect.   It is a union of pure intellect, pure emotion – and it cannot forget. Mind magic, that which changes your memories, opinions and beliefs does not remove the old ones.  It cannot.  Instead, it hides them – locks them away.  But they’re still there just waiting to be examined.  Bob had a choice.  He knew that he could either lock them away where a new master may one day uncover them or he could cast them out.  To him, the choice was obvious.

“But that part he severed from the whole was still him.  They no longer occupied the same space, but they were the same nonetheless.  So, to use your names, when Bob finally destroyed Evil Bob once and for all... he also destroyed himself.  For, what you do to one half, you also do to the other.”

I seriously hoped that Bob hadn’t realized this.  If he had, and if this worked, I’d have to kill him all over again.

“But, I can’t fulfill my end of the bargain without speaking to him.”

“Naturally,” came the rather smug retort.  “I need to make some preparations.  Go to the place you call your Godmother from.  She’ll await you there and help with your end of the preparations.”  She dropped the truck keys onto my lap, and leaned down to whisper the list of materials I’d need to provide into my ear.  “I’ll see you there.  Bring the skull.”

She vanished in a pillar of fire.  Talk about an exit.

“Was that... that...” stuttered Will.

Hey, my sentiments exactly.  “Yeah.  She looked a heck of a lot like Jean Grey to me too.”

“If she isn’t a fairy, what is she?” demanded Murphy.  “And who’s Jean Grey?”

“Jean Grey is a comic book character, one of the original X-Men from the 60s.”  I gulped back the rest of my current bottle of beer – yes, I lost count and no, not even a little buzz – and then tossed the empty bottle into the box we’ve been using to contain the empties.  “At first she was known as Marvel Girl.  Then, in the late 70s, she became known as the Phoenix.  It was a really good pair of plot arcs too.”

That was a phoenix?” Molly whispered and the awe was pretty apparent in her voice.

“A phoenix in human clothing, yeah.”  I grabbed the last bottle of beer and fumbled with the set of keys.  “I apparently don’t have much time to set things up, so...”

We said our goodbyes for now.  I’d say they were all done with a minimum of hugs and threats, but I’d be lying on both counts.  Karrin called Butters from the kitchen, and hopefully talked him into meeting me on the shore of Lake Michigan with Bob’s empty skull.  Seeing as he was scared to face me earlier, I sort of had my doubts, but Murph shushed me and shooed me out the door.

This visit didn’t really accomplish much.  Well.  In theory it would resurrect Bob, but other than that...  I told them a story.  Then some cosplay loving immortal bird gave us a philosophy lesson.  We still had things to work out, to talk through.  Murphy never got around to beating me up, which probably only meant that she’d do it when I was least expecting it.

But they knew I was alive, and I knew they were still safe.

I suppose that counts for something.