“You’re a child,” Marcone said blankly. His voice was perfectly calm, but there was something about his eyes that reminded me of Wile E. Coyote, windmilling his arms at the edge of a cliff.
Unfortunately for Marcone, he was going to have to handle his own cliff moment. I had my own problems.
“You shot me,” I said, equally stunned.
I mean, technically he hadn’t. One of his people had. And technically it hadn’t actually hit me, just the construct I’d carefully created with major advisements from Bob until I had something like a mecha suit to run around in, except instead of a cool robot body, it was just me, but older and tall enough to not look like an easy target to most bad guys.
Or I’d had a cool construct like that. Up until one of John’s goons ruined it with a well-placed bullet after it had been weakened by the drizzling rain that had been making Chicago miserable all day.
The goon was at least having as a bad a day as I was; he had only just gotten up from the heap he’d fallen into after a well-placed Ventus had thrown him into a wall that now had a truly remarkable dent in it. He had also dropped the gun and was currently slowly edging his way out of the room. Either he knew his boss’s position was on shooting kids all too well and was taking the better part of valor until everyone figured out whether I counted or not, or he was afraid that I was about to start throwing around the mojo again.
Which still didn’t change the fact that, “I wasn’t even doing anything! Is one of your goons going to shoot me every time I reach into a pocket now?”
In fairness, I’m a wizard. I can do a lot of scary things while casually reaching into a pocket. But if our relationship, such as it was, had deteriorated to the point that Marcone’s goons were going to shoot me over it, then these little meetings were going to get significantly more awkward.
Marcone’s fingers were a little white from where he was gripping the edge of his desk. “Mr. DiNozzo, fetch Ms. Gard for me. Now.”
Mr. Trigger Happy gulped but was all too happy to comply.
I glared after him. I wish I could say that it looked intimidating, but –
Look. My clothes were designed to fit the construct, okay? Not me. The construct is over six feet. I haven’t quite reached five, though I’m pushing it. I was swimming in those things.
My main concern was that it was going to be really hard to run like this, but a quick spell could probably sever some length of those jeans if it came to that. Replacing the jeans would be a pain and a half with the amount of cash I currently had socked away under my mattress, but I’d make it work. I always had so far.
Or, failing that, I could admit the whole fiasco to Thomas. But I tried to avoid that whenever I could for the sake of his blood pressure.
“Explain,” Marcone said in a remarkably strained voice.
I turned back to him, which I probably should have done sooner, frankly. Marcone was not the sort of person it was safe to turn your back to.
Okay, not my brightest moment, but I was genuinely confused here.
He waved a hand at my – everything, which was kind of bewildering, actually.
“Look,” I said slowly. “I’m a wizard. You know that.”
“Your use of magic is not the issue here,” Marcone said tightly. “The necessity of using it in that particular manner is. Were you hit by some curse you were attempting to hide?”
I blinked. “Point to you, Marcone. I guess you’re not as much of a stalker as I always thought. I kind of just assumed that you’d dug up my birth certificate by now.”
Marcone’s sudden return to careful blankness suggested that he had, in fact, done just that.
“I’m thirty,” I reminded him, in case he looked through so many dubiously attained records a day that he’d forgotten.
When this did not result in a sudden lightbulb, I continued.
“ . . . and I’m a wizard.”
Still no lightbulbs.
Which was – huh.
I knew something Marcone didn’t know.
And it wasn’t like it was exactly a secret, not for the general terms, but I was still a little reluctant to hand Marcone anything he didn’t already have.
Fortunately for my dilemma, that’s when Gard showed up.
Gard didn’t even blink when she saw me. I don’t know if Mr. Trigger Happy had prepped her or if she had just seen too much to be impressed by a mini-me in baggy clothes.
Probably the latter.
“Ms. Gard,” Marcone greeted her. “How old would you say the wizard in front of us currently is?”
Gard considered this.
“Twenty-five,” she decided.
“Hey!” I protested. “I’m small for my age, that’s all.”
Marcone closed his eyes. “It seems,” he said tightly, “that I am missing something. Perhaps one of you would be kind enough to explain it to me.”
And the thing is, Gard clearly already knew, so Marcone would know soon enough, and I might as well explain it so that I at least got to hold it over Marcone’s head that I knew something he didn’t.
“Immortality,” I announced, “is like ice cream.”
“Why did it take me this long to realize you were a child,” Marcone muttered.
I manfully ignored this. “Immortality is like ice cream,” I repeated. “It comes in a lot of different flavors. There’s premium immortality, the good stuff, the kind where you’re young and healthy forever and not even a nuke’s going to take you down. Unlike ice cream - even the really good, premium ice cream - you can’t get this kind at Walmart. It’s rarer than you’d think, actually, because most people, if you work hard and believe in yourself, you can find a way to kill.”
I didn’t tell him that in some cases, that “believe in yourself” part isn’t just inspirational. If you believe in yourself hard enough and get enough other people to believe it too, you can make reality bend, bit by bit. Marcone was dangerous enough without deciding that what he really needed was to believe in himself hard enough to start taking down the Faerie Courts or something.
“Then there’s everything else, which looks like immortality but really isn’t, which in this analogy probably makes it frozen yogurt or something.”
Gard looked amused, which I was proud of. Marcone looked like he regretted several of his most recent life choices, which I was also very proud of.
“The frozen yogurt of immortality can be pretty good too. It can get you youth and agelessness, like the White Court Vampires . . . or sometimes just the agelessness, like Mother Winter. Or neither, like some really unfortunate beings. Mostly cursed ones. That’s the thing about immortally, especially the knock-off store-bought kind: it doesn’t always kick in when it’s most convenient for you. It follows rules of its own.”
Marcone looked like he had an inkling of where this might be going.
“Wizards are not immortal,” he said anyway, with that dangerous softness that reminded me one of his goons had shot me a couple of minutes ago.
“Nope,” I agreed. “Wizards die, same as any other mortal. Plus or minus a couple of horrible death curses when we go, of course.” Never hurt to throw out that little reminder. “Memento mori - it’s a large part of what keeps us human. So we die. We even die of old age, sometimes, if we can duck all the vampires and elemental horrors and trigger-happy mafia men that try to get to us first. We just . . . take our time to get there. Slow like the line for an ice cream truck on a really hot day.”
Marcone considered this. “I think you might be starting to mix your metaphor.”
It’s possible he was right, and that this analogy might have gotten away from me.
On the other hand, there was no reason to admit that. I trundled onward.
“Since we’re wizards, and the universe has it out for us specifically and me in particular, we do not get premium value slow aging. It does not conveniently kick in when we’re young and beautiful and linger there for a couple hundred years before rushing to the finale.”
“That would make things far too easy,” he said knowingly.
“Exactly. So it kicks in when a practitioner starts using magic. Magic touches on the forces of creation - a force intrinsically tied to life. For low level practitioners, this usually means they’re a bit of a late bloomer in their teen years before aging gracefully throughout adulthood.
For wizards strong enough to join the Wardens, this means you get to spend a few extra decades straining for the mile marker of adulthood as you inch ever forward in the painfully long line for the ice cream cone of death.”
The two of them digested this for a moment.
“I have heard this explained many times before,” Gard said at last. “This is the first time I have heard this particular metaphor.” She considered a moment longer. “I am curious what such ice cream flavors would taste like.”
“Mixed metaphors aside,” Marcone said, steepling his fingers, “exactly how old would your own people consider you to be?”
I shrugged uncomfortably. “That’s tricky.”
It’s hard to say, for instance, whether I’m aging slowly enough to rival the original Merlin, I’m just late for a growth spurt, or I’m doomed to be short.
I was not about to share that piece of information with Marcone, however. None of those options would lead the conversation anywhere good.
The Merlin bit for obvious reasons and the short bit because I refused to give him the ammunition.
“Brain development is widely considered an accurate measure,” Gard volunteered. “It has, however, proven a difficult thing to check in wizards by those who experiment with such things.”
“One could judge by observation,” Marcone said dryly. This did not hide the fact that he still had a distinctly Wile E. Coyote look in his eyes.
I shrugged again. “I mean, I guess you could judge by things like ‘self-control’ and ‘good judgement,’ but frankly, I think explosions are going to be cool no matter how developed my brain gets.”
“Given my experience with such things, I would judge him to be on the verge of adolescence,” Gard informed him.
“Ah.” Marcone said. “And you are living on your own as a private detective in one of the most dangerous cities in America because . . . “
It was obviously time to get something clear. “Marcone, you’re scum that occasionally manages to stop being scum long enough to help me save the city from ghouls. One of your goons just tried to shoot me in the head. You are not my mother.”
“No,” he agreed levelly. “But I do have connections with Social Services.”
“One, that’s disturbing. Two,” I gestured down at my oversized clothes and then waggled my fingers. “Magic. I guarantee that by the time you send anyone I’ll be back to my usual charming self. Three, what exactly is your plan to deal with things the next time the city is knee deep in necromancers if I’m off playing happy families somewhere?”
Marcone’s lips tightened.
“And four,” I said triumphantly, “I’m not living alone. I’m living with a responsible adult.”
“You’re living with a White Court Vampire,” Marcone hissed before collecting himself. “If you need help ridding yourself of him – “
Thomas had found me trying to make it on my own after I killed Justin and ran off. He’d found me books to supplement Bob’s . . . eclectic teaching style, found an apartment that wouldn’t let the rain in or fritz out when I had a nightmare, and bared his teeth with whatever degree of bloodthirstiness was necessary whenever his family or any other boogeyman tried to show up in the doorway.
He couldn’t cook worth anything, but he could reliably stick enough pizza rolls in the oven to make a whole troop of teenagers happy, and he had once attempted dinonuggets in a misguided effort to help me reclaim my childhood.
“Touch Thomas, and I’ll recreate the Great Chicago Fire right here in your office,” I said flatly. “I’m fine. Try to get involved, and you won’t be.”
With that, I turned and stalked out of his office with all the dignity I could muster.
It was not, admittedly, all that much dignity, but apparently my death glare had advanced to the point to make Tony Trigger Happy quail even while I was tripping over my own pants, and that was definitely something.
Marcone listened to the door slam with a faint sense of numbness still coursing through him.
Dresden was a child.
He’d had the thought before, of course, but he’d always meant it as an exasperated sigh aimed at Dresden’s stubborn sense of black and white morality, schoolboy insults, and absurd insistence on reckless decision making.
And also, once, his insistence on meeting at a Burger King and wearing the paper crowns.
But Dresden was actually, literally, a child. One that was not even quite adolescent yet.
One that had charged onto an island of nightmares to save Marcone and another child pushed into things too young.
One that was routinely the only thing between this city and supernatural destruction.
One that Marcone had carefully plotted several contingencies to kill.
One that, he realized with a special, fresh layer of horror, he had repeatedly insisted on meeting in a brothel.
“Ms. Gard,” he said in what he realized was a gesture of far too little, far too late, “please make a note that all future meetings with Mr. Dresden should be at the Burger King of his choice.”
“Noted,” she said blandly. “Are there any other changes you would like to make regarding Dresden?”
There was a reason for his rules about children.
The only thing worse than a man with Dresden’s insane levels of power was an unstable child who did.
“I want him observed,” he said. “Constantly.”
“And at the first sign of trouble from the vampire – or anything else – contact me immediately.”
“Noted,” Gard repeated, and she left with just a hint of a smile.