A number of people have told me over the years that my mouth was going to get me in real trouble one day. A subset added that it would probably also get me killed. None of them managed to call this one.
". . . Whoa," said Bob.
"Yeah," I said, and cleared my throat uncomfortably. Not that it did any good.
"I mean . . . whoa." Bob was sitting in the middle of the sofa bed in Michael's den. He made the place look like a dance party when he strobed through a slow, whirling pattern of astonished light. "Boss," he said in tones of rising excitement, "you're a girl!"
"I know." Stars, did I know. My jeans were too loose in the waist, painfully tight across the hips, and way too long. There was hair brushing the back of my neck, my boots were sliding all over my feet, and I was afraid if I breathed in too deep I would come busting right out of my shirt. "Look, can I reverse it?"
It's hard to get a good look at spells on yourself. It's like trying to stare at your own ass without a three-way mirror. I'd been trying all the way out of faerie and back to Michael's, but Bob could get it done faster and better.
He hummed thoughtfully. "That's one doozy of a spell, Dresden."
"It's the Leanansidhe's," I said. I pushed last night's pajamas off the sofa bed and sat down. Thomas needed his boat back for a few weeks, so I was living out of a backpack at Michael's. It was nice of him to offer, but there was a reason I preferred my own space; the fact that children should never be exposed to Bob was only the tip of the iceberg. The whole troop was out tonight at a school play, at least, so only Mouse and Bob had been waiting for me. Mouse just sniffed me a few times and wandered off; Bob was going to be a hell of a lot chattier.
"I can't really get a good look," Bob said.
"If you tell me I have to take my clothes off, I will end you," I said flatly.
Bob pondered this for a beat. "But I'm sure I can make do!" he said. "Faerie magic, nasty. Complicated. Look, Dresden, I'm thinking you can't reverse this without turning yourself into a vegetable – and I mean that literally not metaphorically, by the way, an actual vegetable, when I said you needed more vitamins in your life, that is not what I meant. But spells as big as this, you know they don't last."
"It'll come off at the new moon, she said." I counted forward again for the hundredth time in the past hour. "So, four days."
"Oh," Bob said, rolling his eyelights. "Jeez, Dresden, what's your problem? So you have tits for four days. Suck it up and be a man. You might even enjoy it," he added, somehow managing to leer with his voice.
I folded my arms. "I don't know if I can." Everything still hurt, reverberating with the aftershocks of the transformation spell. And my nerves were already shot after just an hour. The sense of being on the brink was overpowering. I was afraid every time I opened my mouth that I might start shrieking and not stop.
"Look, I really think it's a bad idea," Bob said. "And do you want to go pissing her off even more?"
Okay, that was actually a good point. I slumped forward, then sat up fast when . . . things shifted and jiggled. "Okay," I said, trying to talk myself down. "It's okay. I can just – I can – okay, no. Maybe I'll just take sleeping potions for the next four days."
"You can't," Bob said helpfully. "You have to go to that negotiation thing day after tomorrow."
I smacked my forehead. It's a sad state of affairs when your talking skull becomes your social secretary. The signatories to the Unseelie Accords were conferencing, and I had to show up and be decorative. Hell's bells, everyone would be there.
"Hey, I just realized!" Bob said. "You're like a country song: you lost your house, you lost your car, you lost your job, and now you've lost your dick!"
I breathed in through my nose. I'd been having these little moments now and then where I really, really just wanted to hit someone. Even if they were noncorporeal, it turned out. People could piss me off by saying 'good morning' wrong, so not a shocker that a reminder of the fact I'd pretty much hit rock bottom could do it.
A door closed at the front of the house and I jumped. Bob's eyelights winked out – he was under very strict orders about speaking to all the Carpenters now, not just Molly. I sucked in a breath and resisted the urge to jump out the window and go hide in the tree house. Bob was probably right, and I would have to see other people eventually.
I met Molly in the front hall. She gasped, jumped back, and flung out her hand for a defensive charm -- good girl.
"Hang fire, Grasshopper," I said, readying my shield bracelet just in case.
Molly dropped her hand and gaped. ". . . Whoa," she said. Then in tones of horror and awe, "Harry. What did you do?"
"I said no to –" I made the universal hand gesture for 'Queen of Winter that frozen bitch do not speak her name.' "She wanted me to do something for her, and I didn't." Which was as much detail about that as Molly needed to know ever, thank you. One of us with gory nightmares was plenty.
"So she . . .?" Molly said, and made the universal hand gesture for 'magically gave you breasts.'
"No," I said sourly, "her henchwoman did that." Unordered and everything. Figuring out what I'd done to piss off my Godmother was currently way down on my priority list, but I'd get around to it someday. "Look," I said, shifting uncomfortably. "Do you think there are any clothes around here that might fit me?"
"Oh!" Molly said, and wrenched her fascinated stare away. "Yeah, um, let me see what I can dig up. Everyone else will be home in ten minutes," she added, which was the single motivating force that got me into the downstairs bathroom with a stack of castoffs to face down the prospect of a shower.
Everything was just . . . wrong. My legs were too short and my hands were too small. My balance was off enough to make me feel like I wasn't sure where the floor should be. My skin felt overly sensitive under the hot water. I jiggled.
All of that added up to some serious weirdness. But on top of that was something else. It was like the five seconds before a panic attack on constant replay. I knew a few things about existential dislocation – the last few months were one long, nasty crash course. It was like that, with an extra helping of screaming nerves.
I got out and dried off slowly. Then I took a huge breath, balled up my towel in both hands, and scrubbed down the foggy mirror before I could chicken out. I took two steps back, and looked.
I had a cap of dark hair nearly to my shoulders. It was sleeked down from the shower, but bits of it were already poking out in every direction. My eyes were set a bit wider apart, but they were otherwise the same. I still had my scars. My face was . . . I stared until my eyes crossed and finally realized that I looked less like Mom now and more like Dad: fuller in the mouth, a little more rounded over the cheekbones and jaw. Okay. This was okay.
I felt like a midget, but measuring by the bathroom door, it was a good bet I was still comfortably over six feet.
There were . . . breasts. Two of them. They were . . . nice? A fair bit more generous than I usually liked. Moving on.
I was carrying more weight. My thighs and hips were rounder, and there was an actual gentle curve to my belly. I decided spontaneously that the triangle of dark hair between my legs concealed mysteries that there was just no need to deal with.
I cocked my head to the side and looked her up and down again. If I thought about it like that – this is a woman in the mirror – then it was actually okay for a second. I could look at her without feeling nauseous, and I could even see that, yeah, she was kind of a knock-out. Huh.
But when I tried to think that's me . . . it was like trying to shove two repelling magnets together. The harder I pushed, the more my brain just wouldn't go there.
I didn't feel different – I didn't feel like a woman. I just felt really awful.
Well. I'd lived through a happy handful of nasty things in the past few months. Losing my home, my job, my identity, and my self-respect didn't actually give me perspective on losing my dick, but after the tenth or twelfth kick to the teeth, things circle around from awful back to morbidly funny.
It was a nice theory, anyway.
Four days. I had to make it through four days, so I would. And to do that, well, I didn't have to – to wear skirts or anything. I just had to keep my head up and not freak out.
Shame I'd been trying and failing at both for months.
I got dressed. The clothes weren't perfect, but they worked better. I finger-combed my hair like I always did, and went out to face the zoo.
I didn't sleep well that night. I actually kind of fit on the sofa bed now if I laid diagonally, but nothing was comfortable. I got up after five when I heard Charity in the kitchen.
"Morning," she said, touching my back as she passed. "Coffee?" I racked my brain, but I couldn't remember a single other time she'd casually touched me.
I drank my coffee and stayed out of her way. Molly generally slept until noon if left to her own devices, but I went up and ruthlessly pounded on her door just after seven.
"Meditation!" I said heartily when she emerged. "Come on, back yard, let's go."
"Wow," Molly said, blinking resentfully. "You look even worse than usual."
"I don't have my face on yet, it's early," I said. It was pure reflex. The day before, it would have made Molly smile. Today it made her stutter, and me want to punch a wall. Great start.
Molly actually managed a decent trance after an hour of bitching and moaning. I . . . didn't. Pacing worked for a while, and some haphazard bits of martial arts I practiced against an invisible opponent. That helped me relocate my balance a little, anyway.
The wrongness of my body was there, every time I moved. Every time I breathed.
I borrowed an elastic band from Molly and got my hair out of my face. I couldn't do anything about the rest of it. I briefly considered buzzing my hair off entirely, but then I figured I shouldn't. I was already confused enough about whether I was a man or a woman; no need to confuse everyone else, too.
I took my eyes off Molly for all of two seconds, and when I turned around again, she'd vanished. Charity only said she'd had some errands to run, and could I carry this load of clean sheets upstairs and check the spring gun trap on the older boys' bedroom window while I was at it?
Molly came back early in the afternoon with a bunch of shopping bags and Thomas in tow.
"Oh God," I said, clutching my head. "Molly, did you have to?"
"She really did." Thomas eyed me up and down, lips pursed. "Oh man. They are going to love this in your little junior wardens fan club."
"Don't even," I said.
"Ooh, and your werewolf D&D group!" Thomas said with enthusiasm. "I know I have Billy's number somewhere."
"Can we go back to the part where we weren't speaking?" I didn't mean that. Mostly. If there was one single thing I'd gotten out of my new position as Mab's – Hell's bells – Mab's bitch, it was something more solid with Thomas. It was like he trusted me more, instead of less. Maybe he thought I could better understand what it was like to live under someone else's control, and that made it easier for him to talk to me. For values of 'talking' that meant bugging the crap out of me.
And he wasn't wrong about me having a hell of a lot more empathy now, anyway.
"Brought you presents," Molly said, and plunked a shopping bag in my lap. "Thomas helped, and Mom and I think we got the sizes pretty close."
There were two pairs of jeans, a set of boots, and a jacket, even though I didn't need one of those anymore. I poked deeper, and winced at the sight of a bra. Stars and stones. There was a pack of underwear, too, but I didn't see why I couldn't just stick with my boxers.
"And these," Thomas said, dropping a stack of t-shirts on top. "I tried to get things you'd like."
I lifted the top one. "Team Bella?" I said, disbelieving.
". . . or that would be funny," Thomas said, loitering comfortably out of arm's reach.
"Thanks," I said, with malice aforethought. But that was the thing about brothers that I'd only figured out in the past couple years: we could make almost anything a bit better just by being mean to each other.
I gave myself the rest of the day to hide out in the house. Sometimes you just have to crawl under a rock for a while. Ask me how. I slept badly again that night, but when I got up early, I took Mouse and walked down six blocks to the nearest bagel place. I felt hyper aware the whole time, like I was expecting an attack. I was halfway there before I realized I was waiting for everyone to stare. But of course they weren't – to all appearances, I was just a tall woman in a Powerpuff Girls t-shirt walking a big dog.
The bagel place was packed. I left Mouse to his adoring fans outside and waited in line. People gave me a lot less personal space, now that I was just tall instead of freakishly tall. And now that I wanted it a whole lot more.
I ordered coffee for myself and a dozen bagels to take back to the house. The counter guy was usually pretty cranky this early, but today he smiled at me, lip ring flashing, and asked if I was enjoying the sunshine. He came around the counter to hand me my order, and I was back out on the sidewalk before I noticed that he'd tucked a mini cinnamon pastry thing into my hand with the paper bag. Weird.
I spent the morning tormenting Molly with a series of casting drills that required a lot of oomph. Just because heavy-hitting wasn't her strongest suit didn't mean she couldn't develop the muscles. Or that she shouldn't, considering the company she kept.
The mini-summit on the Accords was held in a Hilton Hotel conference center, of all freaking places. I showed up early, which would have been more effective if everyone else wasn't equally paranoid.
The Summer crowd was already there, hovering at the far end of the big conference table. They eyeballed me and whispered, but were clearly not surprised. The fucking faerie fucking grape vine. Fabulous.
I didn't know who the White Council was sending. It couldn't be me, not anymore. I was never the best choice for these things, but I still minded. It was a nice surprise, though, when Ramirez swaggered in and made a beeline for me.
"Dude," he said, grinning. "I thought Molly was joking."
"Okay, okay," I said. "Get it out of your system, come on."
"Seriously," Ramirez said. "I don't even know where to start. This is, like, once in a life time stuff here."
The skin between my shoulder blades prickled, and I rolled my eyes around the half of the room I could see. "Um," I said confidentially, "Is there a guy pointing a shotgun at the back of my head, by chance?"
"Nooo, not exactly," Ramirez said, squinting past my shoulder. "But John Marcone is staring at you."
"Hell's bells," I said, experiencing a full-blown surround-sound flash of how hard I would laugh if he got turned into a girl.
"And now he's coming over here," Ramirez reported. He eased half a step closer, frowning. I didn't see it coming when he put his hand on my back, and I startled badly. "Sorry," Ramirez said, looking suddenly sheepish as he dropped his hand. Okay, whatever the hell that was about.
"Might as well get it over with," I said, resigned to this new humiliation. I turned around just as Marcone arrived, and jolted in my boots through one of those spikes of out-of-body vertigo. I knew I'd lost a few inches, but now I had a precise scale to measure myself against, because Marcone was looking me straight in the eye.
"Excuse me, Ma'am," he said, smiling with a magnitude more warmth than he usually put into his business face. He caught up my hand, slick as a politician, and pressed it between both of his. "I'm Jon," he said. "I apologize for staring, but have we met?"
Stars and stones, it looked like I was having a stroke of luck at last. "No," I said, because if he hadn't heard, I really wasn't going to tell him. "Definitely not."
He cocked his head. "Are you sure? You look incredibly familiar." His eyes kept flicking over my face, that creepy file room he called a brain working away at me.
"Yes," I said hastily. "Absolutely sure. It's one of my life goals – regular exercise, eat vegetables, don't dance, never associate with lowlife criminals."
I tried to retrieve my hand, but his light grip had suddenly clamped tight. He rocked forward on one foot, inhaled, and stared at me so hard I was sure there were eyebeams coming out the back of my head. ". . . Mr. Dresden?" he said. Apparently, complete bogglement on him looked like his serious business face with a whole lot more eyebrows. It was kind of satisfying, actually.
"Yes, all right," I said, irritated. I tugged on my hand again, and Marcone jolted, startled and discomposed.
"My apologies," he said, looking down and releasing me. And when he looked back up, he was cool as a cucumber again.
"This is . . . extraordinary," he said. "May I ask how it happened?"
"Magic," I said repressively. "Rituals and—" I waved a hand "—wizardly business you wouldn't understand."
His eyes crinkled up at the corners. "Ah, I should have known," he said in tones of enlightenment. "You pissed someone off."
"How'd you know it was me, anyway?" I asked, curiosity getting the better of me. "If you tell me I'm the only person who is sarcastic at you, I'm losing all faith in my city."
The corners of his mouth tipped up. "You aren't the only person who mouths off at me like that," he said. "You are, as it happens, the only person who mouths off at me at all." He paused, smile vanishing. "And I believe that's our city."
"Wow," I said. "Your report card for this month says, 'Johnny has finally learned to share his toys.'"
"And there you go again," Marcone murmured. It kept throwing me, being exactly his height. He'd always used eye contact like a battering ram, and it was coming straight at me now. When he looked away, I felt like I could breathe in fully again. "It looks like we're starting," Marcone said, gesturing up the room with his chin. "If you'll excuse me, Knight Dresden, Wizard Ramirez."
I twiddled my fingers at him, smacked Ramirez on the shoulder, and drifted across to the little knot of Summer people. Fix and I nodded to each other and performed our respective functions by propping up the far wall side-by-side while everyone settled down and Lily and Maeve started sharpening their claws on each other. Ivy, on Lily's right, was coloring the wings on a paper airplane. She was either being passive aggressive or a teenager. Or possibly multi-tasking.
"Nice rack," Fix said out of the corner of his mouth, once it became clear that we were strictly decorative this time and we wouldn't have to ritually beat the crap out of each other or anything.
"Thanks," I said. "It's new, figured I'd take it for a spin."
"Fucking faeries," he said, so quiet he was just mouthing it.
"Fucking faeries," I agreed, not bothering to be nearly so quiet. Maeve shot me an I'll tell mom! glare, and I grinned at her until my face hurt.
The whole thing took an hour longer than it was supposed to, and I was pretty sure by the end that everyone left more disgruntled than they came. Except maybe Marcone, who was sitting on the far side of the table in my line of sight. He took copious notes on a legal pad, which palpably worried everyone else. Probably why he was doing it. It didn't worry Ivy; she sailed her paper plane at him, which he caught, gravely thanked her for, and tucked away.
I snapped back to alert mode when things started breaking up. Maeve's brain usually worked on the shiny principal – if she saw it, she wanted it, but if she didn't, she forgot it existed. I edged along the wall, keeping behind her as she turned and hitched up her slutty secretary skirt. Lily buttonholed her for one last snap and snarl, and I kept backing up.
Right into a pair of hands that closed warmly over my shoulders. "It's all right." Marcone again, damn it, speaking so close his breath brushed my cheek. "Mister Hendricks will distract her, if necessary."
I turned quickly. He wasn't smiling, which was lucky for him, because if he'd looked the slightest bit smug, I might have needed to punch him. As it was, I gritted my teeth into his polite calm.
"I don't need your help," I said.
Marcone took a decorous step back. "I know," he said. "But that doesn't preclude me from offering. Particularly when I want something in exchange."
"Of course you do," I said on a sigh. "What?"
"Your time," he said. "An hour, maybe a bit more."
Ten years ago I would have told him to fuck off on principal. Five years ago I would have gone with him out of curiosity, and because I really couldn't tell anymore which one of us owed the other at any given time. Now the Baron of Chicago wanted to talk to the Winter Knight, but specifically not to the Winter Lady. I gritted my teeth, furious at him, and his politicking, and my damned oath to Mab like a spike driven deep into my magic.
"Fine," I said. "But you're springing for McDonalds – I'm starving."
"I can do better than that," Marcone said, and lightly touched my elbow. "Shall we?" It should have been ridiculous, all that polish. Jumped up street thugs shouldn't say 'shall.' Then again, a plain old muggle mortal should not have forced a seat at this table to powerbroke with the magical equivalent of the G8 Summit, so it seemed like Marcone could do or say anything he damn well wanted to.
Maeve was gone. Ramirez lifted an eyebrow as Marcone and I passed him. I couldn't immediately tell whether he was asking if I needed backup or wondering who I was consorting with now. We hadn't had one of our beer appreciation nights since Warden Dresden became Knight Dresden, and I was pretty sure it wasn't just because I didn't have a couch to offer anymore. I gave him the benefit of the doubt and flashed him an okay with both hands.
A car pulled up the second we stepped onto the street. Marcone held the back door for me, nice as the spider to the fly. He slid in beside me, Hendricks materialized from nowhere and jumped in up front, and traffic parted for us like the Red Sea. I'd taken the nevernever over because some days the dangers of freaky multiplying serpents and tentacled hydras are easier to face than the afternoon commuter rush. Clearly I just needed to carpool with the right person and his chauffeur's certification in offensive driving.
"Okay, what?" I asked, leaning back and folding my arms.
"I thought you were hungry?" Marcone said solicitously.
Well yes, I was, but I'd mostly just been messing with him. "There's a decent chance whatever you want is going to ruin my appetite," I said. "Might as well get it over with."
"But Sir Dresden of Winter deserves all the formalities of hospitality," Marcone said. He eyed me for a beat, then gently added. "You missed your cue. You're supposed to tell me not to call you that."
I knew what he looked like when he was mocking me. This wasn't it, but it poked me in a tender place anyway, and I was furious again, just like that. "Don't," I said, leaning across the seat into his space, "call me that."
Marcone's eyes widened fractionally, but he didn't move. Unlike Hendricks, who leaned around the passenger seat in the corner of my eye, one hand sliding into his jacket, like he thought I would go for Marcone's throat with my teeth. Okay, so maybe I was overreacting just a teeny bit.
"Of course," Marcone said smoothly. "If you don't want me to. Harry."
The tension in me popped on a surprised laugh. How did he do that? I sat back and, after another few seconds of glaring, so did Hendricks.
"Where are we going . . . John?" I asked, glancing out over my shoulder. We were heading steadily into suits territory, where the buildings got taller and spiffier and everyone walked just a bit faster.
"Right here," Marcone said as we turned into a garage entrance. "My office. I'd appreciate it if you didn't blow it up for a few months at least – it's new."
"Now you're just asking for it," I said maliciously.
I got out of the car before he could answer, because he was kind of a control freak about having the last word and it would drive him nuts. He had a parking spot right in front of the elevators, of course. No little sign saying reserved for the Baron Fancypants Fuckyouup, but it wasn't like anyone else would dare.
I kept my mouth shut on the ride up – and up and up – because if I said anything he would answer me, and five times out of ten that just pissed me off, and frying elevators when I'm in them is a habit I'm trying really hard to break.
We came out into a reception area. Dark blue carpeting, leather chairs, glass tables polished so clean they were practically invisible and arranged to take you out at the knees. There were two secretary's desks, both empty. That was kind of weird, because it was only a little after six, and I would have laid good money that Marcone hired people as compulsively workaholic as he was.
"What day is it?" I asked, suddenly realizing I didn't know on any scale unrelated to phases of the moon. Easy to lose track when you popped in and out of faerie as much as I did these days.
"Thursday," Marcone said. "The twenty-eighth. After you." I might get all het up about the way he kept holding doors for me like I was actually a girl, but he'd been doing that as long as I'd known him.
His office was bigger than my apart – than my old apartment. You could have played a decent game of hockey on his desk alone, and the whole place could have developed its own weather patterns. Black-and-white photos of Chicago hung in thematic groupings, and it was all obsessively neat. Everything was unplugged, the computer and phone and desk lamp and iPhone charger, cords tidily bundled up. Even the overhead lights were off, though they weren't necessary with the setting sun pouring in through floor-to-ceiling windows.
"Nice man cave," I said.
Marcone actually smiled with his whole face like a normal human being, which probably met his quota for the third quarter. "Thank you," he said, and led me across to the grouping of couch and table and chairs by the windows. "Please sit down. How do you feel about Thai?"
"Positive," I said, deciding to let the dinner thing slide. After drinking blood from Mab's cup, so fresh from the hunt that it was still warm, taking food from Marcone just wasn't a big deal anymore.
The view was stunning. I took the end of the couch right up against the glass and gawked like a tourist while Marcone spoke quietly to someone about dinner and rustled around at his desk. The buildings across the street were nearly all glass, and they glowed red in the setting sun, too bright to look at. It was already twilight on the street far below, and the buildings all seemed to rise out of a sea of purple shadows.
It had gone quiet behind me. I turned around and controlled a startle to find Marcone sitting on the couch with me, hands folded, patient as a sphinx.
"All right," I said, clearing my throat. "What's this about?"
He retrieved a folder from the table and handed me a stack of photographs. The shot on top was a school photo of a teenaged boy with purple hair and an overbite. After him was another boy, looking away from the camera with his tongue between his teeth, and then a green-eyed girl with freckles.
"Alex Javier Costa," Marcone said, following along as I flipped. "Ram Agoram. Sheena Gray. Fifteen, fifteen, and fourteen, respectively."
"Oh-kay . . .?" I said. I didn't know where this was going, but I already had a sinking feeling.
"They all vanished. Costa from his family's restaurant after hours, Agoram on his way home from school. Gray was a runaway. They all reappeared weeks or months later claiming no memory of where they'd been. Gray and Costa both showed signs of frostbite. In August."
"Ah Hell," I said.
"They were all sexually active during their absence," Marcone continued coolly. He tapped his folder. "I have at least eight more."
"I don't suppose you've gone to the cops," I said.
"What good would that do anyone?" Marcone asked.
I bit back my automatic retort about Murphy and S.I. She could have helped, once upon a time, and the reflex to rely on her still worked, uselessly.
There was a knock on the door. A smiling woman came in at Marcone's summons and brought us a tray of plates and cutlery. Amazing smells came from the bag over her arm, and she unloaded a heap of plastic containers with a flourish. I wondered, a little amused, if the restaurant paid Marcone in supersonic delivery speeds instead of more traditional protection money.
There was satay, and drunken noodles so spicy they made my eyes water, and vegetable curry, and lamb something, and dumplings. Marcone seemed to figure out pretty fast that I would say yes to everything he offered me, and he just kept on doing it for the novelty or something.
I took half a dozen bites to give myself time to get my thoughts in order, and also because, well, food.
"Have you talked to Maeve?" I said at last.
"Briefly." Marcone touched his napkin to his mouth. "She said they came willingly."
"Yeah, well, she has a funny definition of willing," I said.
Marcone cut me this look, suddenly intense, and I turned my shoulder to him. Hell's bells.
"She also said she thought they might be members of her court in the half-blood," Marcone continued after a beat, "and that she returned them when she learned she was mistaken."
"Yeah fucking right," I muttered.
Marcone pressed his lips together. "That is what I said, in general terms." While he called her 'My Lady' and kissed her hand, no doubt. Ha. "Technically speaking, she's not violating the Accords," he said. "My lawyers checked. Thoroughly."
"I figured," I said. I hadn't actually read the Accords all the way through in one sitting, since they were long and, well, boring. But I didn't really need to. "They like that sort of thing, obeying the letter and violating the spirit." Marcone shifted, the steel bar up his spine suddenly acquiring some microscopic give. "What?" I asked, frowning at him.
He thought fast, just click click click behind a blank face. "You said 'they,'" he murmured at last, looking me in the eye. "Not 'we.'"
I opened my mouth, then shut it, then opened it again to put some curry in. "I'll see what I can do about Maeve," I said after I'd swallowed.
"Please keep me informed," Marcone said. "More lamb?"
The sun dropped below the horizon in that abrupt way, and I blinked in the sudden gloom.
"Just a second," Marcone said, and went into the darker half of the office, cat-footed and sure. He came back with an armful of candles and arranged them around the table in a protractor-perfect circle, the obsessive compulsive nutbar.
"Don't bother," I said as he pulled out a lighter. "Flickum bicus."
He straightened, smiling, as the candles blazed up. They burned cold blue for a long, disturbing tick before settling into a comfortable yellow.
"Thank you," Marcone said, imperturbable. "And you didn't even try to set my eyebrows on fire."
"Night's young," I said. "Are you going to finish that?"
"Be my guest." He sat next to me again, turned sideways with his arm stretched along the back of the couch and his open hand inches from my shoulder. "So. May I gather from the fact that you aren't kicking holes in Winter's palace that your current condition is temporary?"
I disappeared the rest of the noodles and sat back with a sigh. "I'll get my dick back at the new moon," I said. Satiated fullness wasn't enough to overcome the wave of creepy crawlies.
"Hmm," Marcone said, watching me. "Your new position seems to have some . . . interesting hazards."
"You have no idea," I said, crossing my arms.
"Never mind," I said. It was weird, but I suddenly realized that if I wanted to talk to someone about it, Marcone was a pretty good candidate. Better than Thomas or Michael or Murphy, because they were better off not knowing. Marcone, though, I was pretty sure I couldn't scare him. Still, that didn't mean I wanted to talk about it at all.
"Hmm," Marcone said again.
I frowned at him, then sat up. "Hey," I said, startled. "You're mad at me."
"It is a month with an r in it," Marcone said coolly.
"Yeah," I said. "But what's your beef? I haven't set anything of yours on fire in – jeez, over a year."
"Very remiss of you," Marcone said, dry as dust. "And yes, I have been . . . somewhat annoyed."
"Why?" I asked.
He smiled with half of his mouth, humorless. "You finally sold yourself to someone," he said. "And it wasn't to me."
I flushed up under a wash of something a bit off-center from anger. "She had a better healthcare plan," I said.
"Good for her," Marcone said. "How's the retirement package?"
Short, bloody, and at the end of a knife. He probably knew that, in general terms if not gory specifics. Fuck. "What, you going to try poaching, now?" I asked. "Or are Winter's sloppy seconds not good enough for you?"
"That is . . . inaccurate in the extreme," Marcone said, eyes half-lidded. "What would poaching get me, do you think?"
"One of her icicle stilettos to the face, to start with," I said.
"It's possible," Marcone said, unconcerned. "That wasn't what I was asking."
I looked away. Hopping out of the fire into the frying pan was a positive step, I supposed. Marcone was a step up, comparatively. And yeah, I wanted a whole bunch of take-backsies, I wanted this fucking oath out of me, and never to attend another faerie revel, and to have my apartment back, and all my things, and somewhere permanent for my dog and my cat and my talking skull to call home.
Except I also wanted the magic she gave me, and the strength. The way things were going, I would need them.
Marcone touched my shoulder lightly to get my attention. "Tell you what," he said. "You let me know when it's open season, all right?"
Was that an actual lifeline? He couldn't get the oath out of me, and he couldn't make the Queen forget about me, but it felt like one anyway. Wow. "Okay," I breathed, not even daring to think her name right then, for fear she'd hear me.
"In the meantime," Marcone continued evenly, "can I offer you dessert?"
"Hmm," I said, actually tempted. I wondered if he could get delivery from that incredible cheesecake place in the Loop. Jeez, what was wrong with me today?
"Ice-cream?" Marcone coaxed. "Pie? You have always struck me as a man with a weakness for ridiculous pastry."
Damn it, how did he know that? "You are such a stalker," I accused.
He pulled a face, making fun of himself a little bit. "Mister Dresden, please. Stalking is so vulgar."
"And you're never vulgar," I said, rolling my eyes.
"It's been known to happen," Marcone said, smirking. His hand was still on my shoulder, warm, and he was looking at me like . . . he was looking at me like . . .
"Hell's bells," I breathed, shocked to my cotton socks. "The bagel guy was flirting with me!"
"I have no doubt," Marcone said, and then waited.
"And . . ." I said slowly, as the other half of that thought arrived. "And so are you."
"Yes," he said. "I am. I'm delighted you've finally noticed."
I boggled for a minute; I was pretty sure mine had a lot more gaping mouth and gormless expression than his. Marcone watched me, a little too relaxed to actually be relaxed, and carefully removed his hand from my shoulder.
I can't explain what I was thinking. Hell, I wasn't thinking, not really. I can slap on some explanation about how I hadn't actually been thinking for months, or how everything had felt so muffled and distant, like nothing really mattered, or how I suddenly just wanted the animal solace of skin and touch. He was there, and what else mattered, really? True, as far as they go.
But at the time, I just kissed him.
He made a surprised noise, but he caught on lightning quick. Never let it be said John Marcone won't catch a free fastball. His arms went around me and he slid one hand into my hair, and his tongue was teasing gently along my lower lip. I went from zero to a hundred so fast, it made me dizzy. I bit his lip and he tugged my head back, staying with me, relentless.
So I went for his belt buckle. It seemed like a good idea in the moment, okay?
"Whoa, whoa," Marcone said, breaking away from my mouth and laughing. "There's no rush."
"Oh," I said. "But there really, really is." I grabbed him by the tie and hauled him back in.
"I see," Marcone said, when I was good and done with him. "Well, in that case—"
His thumb flicked over my nipple, and I jolted, making a tiny sound between my teeth. He kissed down my neck, and there was a lot of really fast rearrangement, with his arm urging my legs up onto the couch and his other hand supporting me between the shoulder blades. I felt kind of like one of those companies he swoops down on and takes over before breakfast every Monday just to get the week started right.
The second I was on my back, he slid a hand up tight between my legs. I made frantic "mmm" noises into his mouth, because okay, yes, I needed it bad. I knew what I wanted, but my body didn't seem to know how to move to get it. I rocked my hips up, but my instincts served different anatomy, and it just got me more frustration. Then Marcone slid his whole hand down, and up, and ground it in these little circles. My hips followed, and fuck, that's what I'd needed.
Marcone pushed up on his free hand. I don't always like being watched, but just then there was some amazing convergence of his knuckles and the seam of my jeans and the way I was moving, and having his eyes on me just made it hotter. Still, in another ten seconds, I was going to be making a lot of embarrassing noises, so I said, "c'mere," while I could and knocked his supporting hand out from under him.
We twisted together, groping desperately. He unhooked my bra one-handed in about a tenth the time it'd taken me to get it on. My shirt was rucking up, and both his hands were under it. I wrestled him over onto his back, because like hell I was taking this lying down. And then I was straddling him, and he was moving under me, and his dick was right there where it counted. Something sizzled down my spine, half panic, half heat, and I moved on him until it felt good.
It was different. I mean, obviously it was different, but it was so strange to match that feeling – the muscles of my belly and thighs tightening the same way, but a yielding liquid heat between my legs – to what I knew of wanting it really, really bad.
Marcone pushed up into me. He made this sound in his throat, and his dick got just a bit harder. And I thought, Do I want? Yes, right now, fuck it all anyway.
"Um," I said, breathless. "Do you have a condom?"
Marcone bit down on my neck harder than he'd meant to, I think. "Yes," he said, a bit wild around the eyes. He sat up and nearly fell off the couch. "Yes I – just a second."
He hurried back towards his desk, and I think I heard him stumble. I used the time he was gone to struggle out of my t-shirt and bra. The cold air made me shiver, and I pressed a nipple between two fingers without really meaning to.
Marcone came back, tossing his jacket and tie over a chair and dropping a box onto the table.
"Allow me," he said, still Mister Manners, and replaced my fingers with his mouth. I smacked my elbow on the back of the couch when I flailed. Marcone rode it out, one hand sliding down to the zipper of my jeans. I whined between my teeth and started tearing the buttons right off his shirt with sharp tugs, just because.
Marcone laughed, and said something muffled in which the word "destruction" figured prominently.
We had to untangle again to get our pants off. I won because I didn't have a belt, but Marcone could move really fast when he was motivated. He kept his eyes on me the whole time, his laser focus only deflected by a momentary tiny smile at my Spiderman boxers.
"Here, just let me—" he said, and pressed his hand to me again. I moved into it, and I could feel how slick I was under his fingers. Marcone eased a finger into me, the heel of his hand rubbing and rubbing. I clenched down involuntarily. That was not how I would have expected: it wasn't like I could feel every ridge on his fingertip, but the awareness of it in me as he pressed deeper was intense.
"Come on already," I said, impatient for the full meal deal.
"Pushy pushy," Marcone said, sounding like he approved, thank you. He snagged a condom and maneuvered the whole shebang one-handed, the smooth bastard. "Okay," he said. He slid his finger most of the way out, just leaving the tip so he could – so he could hold me open. I was running pretty damn hot already, but I prickled right down my spine as his dick pushed in. Intense, yeah. Parts of my brain that had never been used were lighting up like the fourth of July.
There was a lot more stretching than I'd have thought. I was getting a little overwhelmed; one second it was good, it was great, never going to stop, and then the next it was too much, out-of-control.
And it stung, a bit, which I think he could tell; he kept going slower and slower, until he was just making these tiny pushes. And that was no good at all, because as soon as everything slowed down, I had this shocking flash of vertigo -- I'm fucking John Marcone and I'm a girl and I belong to Winter and that sense of wrongness hit me brutally like a punch.
"Hey, whoa," Marcone said, touching my cheek. "Harry. Am I hurting you?" He looked faintly panicked, which would have been more interesting if I hadn't been wondering what the hell he thought he was doing, talking to me all soft and sweet like that.
"I'm fine," I said, shocked to hear a tremble in my voice. Marcone pressed his lips together until they went white, and pulled out of me all at once like a guy ripping off a band aid. "Hey!" I said, outraged. "Who said you could stop? I'm fine."
"Of course you are," he said. "But let's try something else just for a minute."
"What?" I demanded. He slithered down my body and kissed me, open-mouthed, below my belly button. "Oh!" I said intelligently, and then, "ooh," when he spread me open with two fingers and set his mouth on me.
He figured me out so fast, it was kind of embarrassing. Particularly since, after about thirty seconds, he knew more about what I liked than I did. The gentle flicker of his tongue made my toes curl, and I went nuts when he sucked hard, but the in-between pressure of his fingers just tickled more than anything. He went "mm," sounding enormously pleased, hitched one of my legs over his shoulder, and took me to pieces. I actually blushed when I heard the wet noises as he fingered me.
He was really good. And he liked it, he made that very clear. I'd always felt a little . . . intimidated going down on a woman, but he was all focused confidence. What would it be like to have him on his knees for me in my real body? I squeezed my eyes shut tight, and bit down on my hand, and let my hips do what they wanted until—
I tipped over an edge I didn't see coming into an easy, sweet orgasm. He worked me through it gently, one hand rubbing soft circles low on my belly. "Ooh," I said coherently, and then gave a shivery sigh when he kissed me one more time, lingering, right where it counted.
"There," he said huskily, his breath a tease. "Is that better?"
"Yes," I said. ". . . Um, if there had been anything wrong in the first place, I mean." I stretched, sighing again. I felt loose and warm and amazing and – and his fingers were still inside me, moving in tiny thrusts. I inhaled sharply, sweat popping up, and my motor turned over just like that. I wanted another one, and I could get there, I knew it.
"Hey," I said, and hauled him up by his biceps. I tried not to stare at his mouth, but it was pretty much a lost cause. He was breathing fast, but he wasn't saying anything, and I realized after a second that he wasn't going to. "I'm good," I said, rolling my eyes at him. "Come on, take two, chop chop."
He swapped out for a new condom, fastidious to a fault, and still not talking. This time he slid into me easy as anything. We both groaned, and I wriggled impatiently while he got his weight settled on his hands.
And then, yeah, it was good. The sort of good where you don't really want to get to the best part, because then it will be over. I got one leg up around his waist as he rocked into me. I couldn't keep my hands still on his steadily flexing back. He was sweating at the temples, breathing fast but even like a distance runner.
If I tilted my head way back, I could see up through the windows to the night sky. The stars were just coming out, so clear without all the light pollution you'd get down below. Marcone had patience to burn, apparently, because I watched the western sky fast turning to night while he moved inside me.
My brain kept getting confused, because I was hearing these amazing, breathy sounds of a woman getting done just right, and that turned me on. Except, um, that was me making the porn soundtrack, and that was me getting done just right, and loving it.
I was thinking that what I'd gotten before was just a taste of what was coming down the pike now, and I was starting to want it more than I wanted the friction and the sense of fullness.
I pulled my eyes away from the sky and ran my nails lightly down his spine. "Come on," I said. "Harder, put your back into it."
Never let it be said that Marcone can't take instruction in the breach. He gave it to me harder until our hips slapped together. I smacked one hand up flat onto the window to get some leverage, and gave him as good as I was getting.
"Come on," I said, tipping right over into 'need it right now.' "I said harder -- is that the best you've got?"
Marcone flashed me more teeth than I'd ever seen on him. He hooked my left leg over the back of the couch and pushed up on his knees, lifting me with both hands under my ass. And then he let loose, and yeah, it was all systems go.
I made this long, continuous sound while he pounded me. But that was okay, because he was swearing in a teeth-gritted monotone, and his hands were flexing hard on my ass.
"Come on come on," I said, though I wasn't sure if I was talking to him or myself.
"I can't," he said, sounding agonized. He hitched me up two-handed. "Sweetheart, you're going to have to—"
I know I thought don't call me sweetheart as I scrambled to get my fingers where I needed them, but I don't think I managed to say it out loud. There was one bad moment, because it didn't seem to matter what else we were doing – it didn't seem to matter that he was fucking me, my fingers still were expecting to find something else. I closed my eyes and shook my head hard. I didn't care anymore, I just wanted to get off.
So I got her off. I pressed hard with two fingers, then pinched, jolted against him, and did it again and –
The first time had been like riding a wave. This one was brutally ripped out of me, huge and completely uncontrollable. I probably screamed the place down, but I don't actually know. He kept hard at me all the way through, until I was making broken gasping noises as the lights cleared from my vision. Stars and – well. Stars.
He eased off, but he didn't let go of me, even though I could feel his arms trembling. He went slower but deeper, punching out a hard breath on every stroke. I wasn't doing much of anything besides quivering. I pressed a hand to my belly where it ached faintly, strangely, intensely every time he went so deep.
His voice was shredded when he came. I watched – fair's fair – and when he was done, he dropped me like a sack of potatoes and barely controlled his boneless collapse so he went sideways onto the back of the couch instead of down onto me. Gentleman Johnny.
There was a long, stunned silence while we caught our breaths.
". . . okay," I said faintly at last. "That was better than cheesecake."
"Oh good," Marcone said, on a shaky exhale. "So glad I could satisfy."
"Mmm," I said, rather than anything else embarrassing and completely uncalled for, thank you, like best I've ever had and I don't know if I can walk right now.
Marcone groaned and sat up. "Don't go anywhere," he said, and startled me with a kiss brushed along my jaw.
His footsteps padded away across the carpet, a door opened, and I heard water running. Of course he had some ridiculous executive bathroom. I stared dreamily at the ceiling, buzzing pleasantly under my skin.
He came back and leaned over me, smiling. Warm water dripped across my chest from a washcloth, and I shivered, cooling rapidly and actually feeling it.
"I got you," Marcone said softly. He ran the cloth in a straight line from my throat to my belly button, and then up the insides of my thighs. The cloth was a little rough on my quivering nerve endings. And then the bastard pressed the tip of one finger into me through it. "Oh really?" he said interestedly, as I shuddered.
"Absolutely not," I said, because it would be best to nip any tendency to smugness in the bud, and also I couldn't have gone another round if my life depended on it.
Marcone laughed, but finished the rest of the cleanup quickly. Then he spread a blanket over me and slipped under it in the same motion. And suddenly we were . . . cuddling? His face was just inches from mine, and he rested one hand on my hip.
I was about to say something – though I really don't know what – when he silently offered up his other arm as a pillow. Well, functional cuddling was okay, I figured.
Apparently he's one of the few guys who can stay awake after, and apparently even when I'm a girl I'm not, because the last thing I remember is looking at him, still wide awake, and thinking that I really should go.
The eastern sky was just turning faintly gray when I woke up. The candles had gone out. I was comfortable and fed and laid, which cumulatively accounted for my best wake-up in months. I willed a tiny bit of light from my amulet.
Marcone was sleeping beside me, and we were tangled together all the way down to our toes. I didn't know exactly how or when, but I was sure I could find a use for the fact that he was a bit of a mouth-breather.
I needed to go. The Carpenters would have worried, and Bob always said things when I was out late, and – I just needed to go.
He woke up the minute I moved.
"Good morning," he said, and kissed my neck, surprisingly affectionate. "How did you sleep?"
"Great," I said honestly. Even with two of us, his couch was ridiculously comfortable.
"I sleep here at least once a week," he said, and nuzzled my cheek. "Though never with such delightful company, I must say."
I really needed to go. I displaced his circling arm and sat up. "It's all right, go back to sleep," I said, practically whispering, as if that would nudge him back under. "No, really, don't get up."
He subsided, but rolled onto his back to let me slide over him. I was sure if he got up and we turned on some real lights and said more than ten words to each other . . . well, clearly nothing good could come of it.
I stretched hugely when I got to my feet, then poked around for my clothes. Stars, but I felt good. Like a nice crunchy layer of awesome around a chewy center of crappy. It'd been a long time since I'd managed even that much.
"Can I get you a car?" Marcone asked. He was watching me in the light of my amulet, and I had to work hard not to dress faster.
"Naw," I said. "Did you know there's a way into the Nevernever less than a block from here?"
"I did." He stretched, bare arms posed over his head. "It's one reason I bought here. That, and the paninis on the corner."
Good grief. Give the man an orgasm and he spontaneously grows a sense of humor. I stared down the bra, wishing I could just skip it, but I'd already learned the error of that one. Luckily, I didn't fumble it too badly in front of him. I tugged my t-shirt into place – wrong hips, wrong waist, wrong pull on the fabric across my chest.
"I'll do . . . something about Maeve," I said.
"Be careful," Marcone said, like he was worried about me. Like he had a right to be.
"I'm always careful," I said.
Marcone sat up. "How did lightning not strike you just now?" He tossed the blanket aside and took three quick steps, casually naked, to catch me around the waist. "You're a menace," he said, and kissed me, his arms sliding up my back. The kissing was – okay, yes, the man is very good with his mouth. The hugging was frankly weird.
"Oh?" I said. "A menace to what?'
"My blood pressure." He bit my earlobe. "My insurance premiums -- get that smug look off your face."
"Sorry, I had an itch," I said sweetly.
"Aww, can I scratch that for you?" He groped my ass, eyes smiling.
"I'm going," I said. Damn it, his fingers were walking the seam of my jeans forward between my legs. I was shocked to find out I had any juice at all left in ye old batteries after last night, but yep, there it was. ". . . going," I repeated, stepping back before things got out of hand.
"Of course." He let go of me, but leaned forward and pecked me on the mouth. "Have a lovely day at the office. Try not to piss anyone off enough to turn you into a toad."
"Try not to piss anyone off enough to start a gang war," I shot back. It was way funnier in my head, okay?
I came out of the office to find Hendricks asleep in a waiting room chair shoved up against the opposite wall. The part where I felt kind of sorry for him in no way made up for how creepy it was to know he'd been there all night.
I hit the stairs at a jog. The sidewalk was nearly deserted, and I only had to wait for a newspaper truck to turn the corner before I stepped into the nevernever. Half a mile's trot through ankle-deep forest loam, another way to an old stone bridge (the troll was a buddy of mine and let me pass since I'd brought him some Pringles last week. I dunno either, trolls). Sideways again to a creepy tumble-down stone building on top of a mountain, and then I was just ten blocks from Michael's. You gotta love the ways.
I hopped the back fence, negotiated the jungle of toys on the patio, and let myself in with the spare key. The house was dark and silent, at least until Mouse heard the stealthy noises I was making and came padding down from his spot with one of the younger kids to sniff my shoes and wuffle confusedly at me.
"Sing it, brother," I said. I let him out into the yard and leaned on the porch rail while he sniffed and did his business. The most sadistically early birds were just starting up, and the sky had gone from gray to pink. It was a cold morning; I could tell, intellectually, off a vague sense impression and the lightly frosted grass, but I stood impervious in a thin t-shirt.
Harry Dresden, welcome to the wreckage of your life.
Weird. If I'd picked one thing out of everything I'd done in the past few months that would let me wake up still respecting myself in the morning, fucking John Marcone really wouldn't have been it. If I could have come up with it as a possibility in the first place. And yet.
Maybe it was just that Marcone's brand of nasty was downright fluffy in comparison to some – I hesitate to call them people -- I'd been associating with lately. Not to name any names. Maybe it was that any moment of pleasure could be sweet to me, now. Maybe it really was true what they said; orgasms were the world's oldest magic.
Charity was in the kitchen when I went back in. She had a ten-pound bag of flour open on the counter and the coffee was dripping. And here I was, still in yesterdays clothes with at least one bite mark and a desperate need for a shower. Awkward.
I'm pretty sure Charity has acquired a complicated kind of affection for me over the years. I grow on people, what can I say? And I'd actually liked her all along, in that quivering way you like somebody who could probably kill you with a rolling pin and her pinky without breaking a sweat. But that didn't always translate into us being nice to each other.
"Good morning," I said. "I'm just gonna . . ." I jerked my thumb towards the den. "I can help in a minute."
Charity eyed me, measuring cup poised, sucking her lip between her teeth. "Clean up before Molly sees you," was all she said, though.
Thank God Bob was currently wrapped in an old t-shirt and tucked inside a big tupperwear container in my bag, that was what I was thinking.
Weekday mornings at the Carpenters's are a complete zoo. I'd tried to pitch in a few times with school lunch assembling or breakfast wrangling or making sure the kids got out the door at precisely timed launch intervals to meet buses or carpools. But the whole mad thing worked fine already, and I really just got in the way.
The house emptied out eventually, which meant that there were only six pets and two kids under the age of five to corral. Molly and I barricaded ourselves up in the attic. It was way too hot and stuffy with the windows closed, and Molly complained of the cold when I opened one. But we'd made it our space over the past few weeks as we tried to reconstruct my lab, and it was what we had.
It was a weird, weird day. Molly, always sensitive to my cues, was shooting me wary looks after only half an hour. I deflected her with a quest to brew a supply of a sleeping potion I'd invented. Even with the recipe, it was just enough past her comfortable skill level to make her jaw set and that determined crease form between her eyes. I was willing to bet I wouldn't see her again until it was done.
I went downstairs midmorning and grabbed my backpack. Bob went in first, then the complicated threadwork spell I'd been working on, then a sack lunch from Charity. I hoofed it back out to the nearest way with Mouse by my side, and in three quick hops and one long scramble up a rocky seaside cliff, I came out again on Demonreach.
"Peh," Bob said, as soon as I opened up his container and unwrapped him from my t-shirt. "You could have at least washed that first."
"I give you the clothes off my back, and you complain," I said. That actually made Bob shut up for a second, and I winced internally. You wouldn't think a being as old as Bob would be put off his feed by a little thing like the loss of a home and all familiar possessions and surroundings, since to him a decade was probably just a blink and a yawn. But you'd be wrong.
"I've been thinking," I said to distract him. "Do you suppose we could set the channel for my new circle with running water?"
"Huh!" said Bob, eyelights strobing momentarily. "That's almost clever, Dresden."
"I know," I said, pleased. There were serious advantages to setting a copper circle into stone as opposed to dirt, but it was a pain in the ass to say the least. When I'd set my last circle in cement in my basement, I'd hexed three separate drills, broken my thumb, accidentally hit groundwater, and then discovered at the moment of truth that I'd mismeasured by just two hairs and my perfect copper ring wouldn't fit. But if I could somehow carve the circle with the force of running water . . . I had an affinity for water now, after all. The colder the better.
No one knew I still came to Demonreach, not Molly, not Thomas, not . . . Her. Pretty sure. God, I hoped. I tried not to even think about her when I was there, because she was tuned to me now – or I was tuned to her – and just a whisper of her name could bring her attention.
And it was kind of nice, not thinking about it.
I hadn't done much to the place, really. Just a canvas shelter on the first level of the lighthouse to keep out the worst of the elements. I was slowly accumulating things there. I'd lost over twenty years of magical packratting, some of it literally irreplaceable. Starting over was so daunting, I hadn't even been able to face it for weeks after the fire. Then again, now it might take me an afternoon to rebuild a storable battle charm that had cost me months of sweat and blood when I was twenty-five, so there was that.
It wasn't what my friends meant when they suggested I needed to start actually looking for a new place. It was a creepy deserted island with a lot of bad memories and a nasty spirit presence, not a cozy walkup with a balcony and utilities included. It suited me just fine right then.
I spent a couple hours out in the weak fall sun, figuring out the seventeen roadblocks to my brilliant water plan, and working around about half of them. Bob read an old Playboy from 2002, apparently one of his favorites, and offered up a helpful commentary on my assets as compared to the models's.
"Come on," he wheedled, while I stared moodily at another rock I'd accidentally cracked in half with injudicious freezing. "Show me your tits, just once. You're like a brother to me, Boss, it won't be weird or anything."
"That is wrong on so many levels," I said.
"You are such a prude," Bob sighed. "How long have I been saying this to – hey! Why'd you just go that color?"
"Too much sun," I said, and turned my back. I could not think of a single living being on the planet I'd like to discuss last night with less than Bob.
Last night, when I really, really wasn't a prude.
Stars and stones. I'd turned on so hard last night, I apparently hadn't turned back off again. My hands were shaping water incantations, but my mind kept wandering off the reservation. Bare skin, and his hands, and his mouth, and yeah, okay, his dick in me.
But it didn't matter, after all, did it? Months of thrashing and misery about what I'd done and what it cost, and it just meant I could turn around and sleep with John Marcone. Because it didn't matter, not really, what this body had done with his. I didn't know who I was anymore. I hadn't, for months. And now I was in the wrong skin, not just the wrong life, so why not have meaningless, amazing sex? At least then there was afterglow.
I packed it in late in the afternoon. Bob lobbied hard to be left to his own pornographic devices, but I was feeling twitchy about leaving him too far out of reach these days. No reason, I'm sure.
Molly pounced on me the instant I got back, flushed and accomplished, with the hair-raising news that her sleeping potion worked great; she'd tested it on her little brother and everything. Hell's bells, there was no way this wasn't going to end up being my fault, somehow.
The after-school madness was coming into full swing, so I retreated to the den. At least until little Hope came to tell me I had a phone call.
I grabbed the living room extension, since there seemed to be an entire junior high soccer team in the kitchen.
"I got it, kiddo, thanks," I said, and waited for the receiver to clunk down. "Hello?"
"Mister Dresden." Marcone sounded warm and amused.
"Do I want to know how you knew I was here?" I asked, leaning against the wall with a thump.
Marcone hummed thoughtfully. "I would say no, but you seem to enjoy being annoyed with me so much."
I scowled, already revving up. "I do not."
"My mistake," he said, and I just knew he was smirking. "Would you like to explain the error of my ways to me over dinner?"
"I don't know if you have that kind of time," I said. Then, catching up, ". . . dinner?"
"Dinner," he said. "A meal eaten in the evening, sometimes accompanied by conversation and wine."
"Oh, um," I said, completely thrown.
"Also frequently eaten out at a restaurant," Marcone continued implacably. "At Luigi's, for example."
"Like hell you're taking me out like some – some – some lady," I said, outraged. And to one of the restaurants he used to front his gambling ring, too, everybody knew about that.
"Oh?" Marcone said interestedly. "Would you rather stay in?"
I breathed in sharply, swamped by mental images. And why not? I'd be myself again in just one more day; I might as well grab what enjoyment I'd found while I could, as weird as it was.
Charity shouted, "Brownies!" from the kitchen, and there was a thunderous stampede.
"Where?" I asked into the phone.
It was Marcone's turn to audibly inhale. So weird, and weirdly exhilarating, to remember how desperate for it he'd been, too. Still was, apparently. Maybe I was just handing him ammunition for later, and maybe he had some freaky kinky interest in magic-made girl parts, but whatever it was, he really wanted to fuck me again.
"I have a house," he said, voice lowered. "I don't suppose you'll let me send a car?"
"Don't suppose I will," I said.
"All right." He rattled off an address, solidly in WASPy residential territory. "Eight o'clock?"
"Sure," I said, resolving to be early because he was expecting me to be late.
"I look forward to it," he murmured, low and intimate, and hung up.
I rattled around the house uncomfortably for the next few hours. I reorganized my tiny cache of possessions, played catch with Mouse for a bit, then went in and took another shower. It wasn't primping, and hell if I was putting on fancy underwear or anything like that. If I had fancy underwear in the first place.
I stood in front of the foggy mirror while I combed out my wet hair. I didn't look at myself much these days. I mean, I'd never spent a lot of time staring into mirrors, but for the past few days my eyes had just seemed to slide off somewhere else every time I walked by. I looked now, though, as the woman's face slowly emerged from the clearing steam.
At least I still had my own eyes; for some reason the idea that they might have changed too went past all the dislocation and discomfort and straight into 'things that would actually drive you insane.'
She still wasn't me. She couldn't be, obviously. But she could make John Marcone sit up and beg for it in his own special way. That was . . . yeah, that was pretty satisfying, actually.
I put on a fresh pair of jeans and a dark green t-shirt with PRINCESS in sparkly letters across the front. Thomas thought he was so fucking funny.
I'd seen Molly do it dozens of times, and I did have a dim recollection of perfecting my own exit technique when I was a teenager, so I just blew through the kitchen on my way out. "Have a nice dinner," I called cheerfully. "I'll be out late -- don't wait up."
There wasn't even anything horrifying or disgusting in the nevernever, for once. I popped out behind the screen of an oak tree in a quiet, twilit cul-de-sac. There was a park at my back and soft jazz music drifting from a cracked-open window in the house to my right. Marcone should be just down the block. Hell's bells, but the thought of him living here was so weird, like a lion peaceably moving in with a pack of unsuspecting gazelles.
It was a good bet the guy sitting in the parked car on the corner was security, but I'm sure there were others I didn't spot. I squinted at addresses and turned up a brick driveway to a cute little two-story number with an herb garden in a window box and actual curtains. Seriously!
He answered the door in a pair of jeans and a black button-down with the cuffs folded back to the elbows, and carrying a potholder with stars on it.
"Sweetheart," he said, eyes crinkling up as he read my shirt.
I meant to say don't call me that, but what came out instead was, "You cook?"
"I do." He opened the door wider and beckoned me in. "My mother insisted on it."
"You have a mother?" A threshold parted for me and then closed again once I'd passed, a prickle on the fine hairs all over my body. It wasn't the massive psychological drawbridge the Carpenters had, but it wasn't quite as puny as I had expected, either. Mine had felt like that, back when I had a threshold.
Something began beeping in the kitchen. "Excuse me," Marcone said, touching my back. "I have to check that. But there's a photo next to the fireplace if you don't believe me."
I followed his gesture through into the living room. Lots of bookshelves, all full, and good grief but he liked his couches big. A fire was already burning in the fireplace, and I crossed to take a look. The photo on the left was of three young men in full Marine dress uniform, beaming with their arms around each other. On the other side of the mantle was a middle-aged woman sitting alone at a picnic table. The resemblance was striking – she was dark-haired and green-eyed, with the same blandly attractive bone structure. She wasn't smiling, but she looked like she could be any time in the next five seconds.
Strange. Marcone had sanitized his life, scouring it clean of any personal connection that an enemy might find and exploit. I was surprised to see these pictures, even somewhere he felt safe. Assuming he felt safe anywhere, and I bet he didn't.
. . . oh. The penny belatedly dropped. It was all right to show these photos, because everyone in them was dead.
I padded back through to the kitchen. Marcone was stirring something with one hand and seasoning with the other.
"It's a gas stove," he said, aware of me without looking. "If you make it explode, I might honestly be impressed."
"You're impressed with me all the time, don't lie," I said. Granted, I thought it was often the way I was impressed when Molly accidentally stumbled into a new branch of magic on the happenstance of the phase of the moon and an idea she'd gotten from Harry Potter, but it still counted.
Marcone left his bubbling pot and came over to me. "We skipped a step," he said, taking my hands.
"Did we?" I asked, playing dumb.
"Good evening, Harry," he said, and kissed me hello. I swayed into him, grabbing his shoulders. He smelled good -- basil, and maybe a hint of expensive aftershave. It hadn't even occurred to me to shave my legs or anything ridiculous like that, but his jaw was smooth as seven in the morning.
"Hi," I said when we broke apart. "John." He smiled and kissed me again; there was intent coming off him in waves. We got hot and heavy just like that. We tilted against the doorframe, kissing frantically, both getting handsy. He molded one palm to my ass and tugged; I followed his lead and my spine arched against the doorjamb. I brought him with me as I twisted, and he went easily until his back hit the wall. He shifted his weight, letting me between his thighs, and we ground together, mutually shameless.
Stars, but I wanted him. Right there on the kitchen floor. Or maybe on the counter, if I could get my legs around his waist –
The kitchen timer beeped again.
"All right," Marcone panted after thirty seconds of increasingly annoying beeping. "Feel free to magic that."
"I'm trying!" I protested. The damn thing just wouldn't quit, no matter how many wizardly things I thought at it. To be fair, I was kind of distracted.
"Fine, fine." We unpeeled from each other reluctantly. Marcone's pupils were dilated and some mysterious person had unbuttoned his shirt partway. "That's the pasta," he said, taking a step back. "Dinner's almost ready."
"Oh my God," I said. "You're one of those people with opinions about the virtues of anticipation, aren't you?"
Marcone poured the pasta into a colander in the sink, turning his face away from the billow of steam. "What a shock to discover you're not," he said, dry as dust. "Wine? Beer? Soda water?"
"Beer." Maybe I'm a philistine, but I'd never really developed a taste for wine. I'm sure the fact that the only person who'd ever tried to educate my palate was Justin DuMorne had nothing to do with it.
We ate in the living room in front of the fire. I found the beer – something dark with German labels – and he assembled plates of pasta and salad. He brought out a branch of candles; he didn't bother with a lighter, just waited for me to gesture them to light with my fork. I couldn't actually object, since it was already dark, but the ambiance was odd – more date than booty call, something like that.
The food was great. The salad had goat cheese and nuts and more vegetables in one place than I generally see in a month. The pasta sauce was meaty and spicy, and my first bite of carbs after a day of steady magic suddenly made me ravenous.
"Okay, a little impressed," I said. There was bread, too, straight from the oven with a crispy outside and warm, chewy insides.
"Thank you," Marcone said, touching the neck of his beer bottle to mine.
"Of course," I added, "I'm less impressed that you pulled some of my favorites from the creepy 'Harry Dresden dossier' you probably have."
He set his bottle down gently. "No, as a matter of fact, this was personal observation and luck." He stared at me steadily, disconcertingly. "I pay attention."
"Don't I know it," I said. He made detail-oriented type A people look like slackers. Let's not get into how I compared.
"Hmm," said Marcone, paying a creepy amount of attention to the look on my face. "Is it the inequity that bothers you? All right." He spread his hands. "Do you have questions?"
"Uh," I said, goggling.
"I may not be able to answer," he said. "I keep many people's secrets. But there must be things you'd like to know."
Yeah, there were. Assuming I could manage to come up with any on the spot like that. "Um," I said, and took a sip of beer. "Okay, fine. Do you have a file on me?"
"Yes. Would you like to see it? It's stored electronically, but I can run you a printout."
Stars and stones, was he trying to sabotage his chances of getting laid tonight? That would be a lot more intriguing if he weren't also sabotaging mine by association.
"Later," I said. I took a few bites, thinking fast.
"May I propose a trade?" Marcone said. "A question for a question?"
"Sucker them in, and then spring new terms on them," I said sourly. "Yeah, okay, shoot."
He touched his napkin to his lips. "What is Thomas Raith to you?" He was sleepy-eyed, face relaxed, which only made me tip over to high-alert.
Filling in gaps in that file, right, because he hated not knowing things. I pulled a face. "Other people's secrets," I said. "But, um. He's important to me. Our differences come between us, but we both know neither of us is going to walk away permanently."
"Hmm," said Marcone, eyes half-lidded. "Thank you. Your turn."
"Okay," I said. He'd unsettled me, and I didn't quite know why. This wasn't what I'd signed up for – fabulous dinner and getting-to-know-you games in freaking candlelight. So I pulled the pin and threw. "How many people have you killed?"
He blinked once, very fast. "Personally, eighteen," he said. "would you like details?"
". . . No," I said. That was not as many as I'd expected. What had I expected? A climb to power on the piled corpses of his enemies. Which was probably true. But maybe he was just as finicky a killer as he was a dresser.
And he had lots of people to do it for him, now.
Stars. Twist the perspective just a bit, and that was a lot of people. That was an entire freaking baseball game.
"My turn," Marcone said. "Is there any way to soulgaze a second time with someone?"
I frowned, puzzled. What was he doing asking me questions about magic when he had practitioners on his payroll and a shot at my personal life?
"I've never heard of one," I said. "I mean, theoretically, I suppose so – it's soul magic. A built-in spell. So you could maybe find a way to trip it again for someone. But why would you want to?"
"Is that your question?" he asked lightly.
"No," I said. I scraped up the last of the pasta, considering. I was tired of this game. "I'll save it," I said. "Ask later."
"Of course." Marcone sat back and finished his beer. "Can I get you anything else?"
I helped him with the dishes because it got under his perfect host skin, and also because it was just so bizarre to watch him loading a dishwasher. We didn't talk much. Probably for the best.
He steered me gently away from the dishwasher once he started it going. A wise precaution – I'd made one flood suds three feet deep once. Marcone ushered me out of the kitchen, his hand at my waist. We paused in the living room doorway. And yeah, it was true, no matter what we'd said to each other, I'd been simmering all night. I was intensely aware of him, of his even breathing and the warmth of his hand.
"May I?" he asked softly. He didn't need to elaborate; his eyes were on my mouth, and we both knew what he wanted.
I nodded, and we kissed. It took us a minute, but without even trying, we were right back where we'd been an hour ago. There was nothing gentlemanly in the way he was touching me.
"So," he said, kissing down my neck. "At the risk of being forward, what are my chances here?"
It was kind of an absurd question, considering I was plastered to him with my hands in his back pockets. Not to mention what we'd already done. "Hmm," I said, willing to play along. "Your odds will improve significantly if you ask nicely."
I expected him to take that as an invitation for something dirtily persuasive, which is what it was. But instead he held me closer and breathed "please," into my ear, quiet and rough-voiced.
Something inside me wrenched. "Yeah, okay," I said, laughing helplessly at myself. "Come on."
Most of that night is a blur. We kind of went crazy once we hit the bed; my memories are a jumble of moments, out-of-order and pornographically intense. I remember getting on my knees and holding onto the headboard until my hands ached while he gave it to me from behind, a little rough but perfect. I remember laughing because there was a handgun on top of the box of condoms in the nightstand drawer. Maybe you had to be there. I remember being surprised that the thing I didn't like about going down on him was the latex in the way. I remember riding him until my thighs burned, and how I almost stopped him when he slicked up and worked a finger into my ass, because I didn't go for kinky stuff like that. But then I just thought, fuck it anyway, and let him because it's not like any of this really counted, and it was kind of amazing.
We took turns waking each other up for another round. He liked to see what we were doing by the light of my pentacle, and he really liked it when I got so distracted that my metaphorical finger slipped and the light flared so bright it left dazzling afterimages. Smug bastard.
I woke with his arm warm across my back, but cool everywhere else without the covers. It was still dark, and I was really thirsty.
I lit my pentacle to a dim glow, slithered out from under him, and grabbed a shirt from the tangled mess of our clothes. I wandered downstairs, looking around like I hadn't before. No more photographs, and not much art, either. There was a guest bedroom at the top of the stairs, and a gym in the back of the house on the ground floor. Just a punching bag, some weights and equipment, and rolled up yoga mats, nothing too fancy.
No TV in the living room, huh. He didn't like it? He didn't actually spend much time here? Hard to say with a guy who owned ten million dollars of Mcmansion but slept on his office couch all the time.
I padded into the kitchen and got myself some tap water. The streetlights glowed through the partially open curtains. I cracked the window for a breath of fresh air and heard only the contented silence of the suburban night, too late for crickets, too early for birds.
There was a glass teapot on the windowsill, and a pretty wooden box with multiple bags of loose leaf tea. I lifted an eyebrow, and on impulse filled the kettle.
The teas weren't labeled, so I just went with my nose for something bitter and a little spicy. I found a mug in the cabinet over the sink (plain white, no cutesy sayings, go figure), and let the leaves steep in it when the water boiled.
It tasted like something earthy and complicated with a twist of cloves at the end. Nice. I leaned against the window, sipping slowly. I hadn't bothered with pants, and the glass was chilly against my bare thigh. I closed my eyes when I shifted my weight and a cool draft insinuated itself between my legs. I was still wet, sticky and gently throbbing.
Marcone announced himself with two quiet footsteps.
"Hmm," he said thoughtfully, putting his arms around me from behind.
"What?" I asked.
"Just trying to decide whether I like you better in my clothes or out of them," he said.
I looked down. Oh, whoops, that wasn't my undershirt. I'd bypassed the woman's shirt and grabbed it without thinking.
"Are you all right?" Marcone asked, rubbing his hands up and down my forearms.
"New moon," I said, instead of anything sensible like 'fine' or 'none of your business.'
He leaned around me to look up at the sky. The moon was whittled down to a tiny sliver, barely brighter than the stars. "Tomorrow night." He rested his chin on my shoulder. "What is it like?"
I laughed, a little bitter. "I have no idea," I said. "Women don't . . . they can't feel like this all the time." I'd caught myself thinking that if I held still too long, I'd start clawing at my own skin. And it only got worse, not better, like I was rejecting a transplant. "I really want to shave," I said to Marcone. "I'll never complain about that again."
He ran the back of his hand down my smooth cheek, then stroked my hair off my face. "And be taller than me," he said softly.
"And have the right sized wrists," I said, rattling my loose shield bracelet. "And not look like this anymore."
"You don't like the way you look?' He turned his head as if the window were a mirror he could see me in.
"It's . . . complicated," I said. Because no, I really didn't. But at the same time, maybe I did, in the way I might like how an unknown woman on the bus looked, impersonal and a little bit salaciously speculative.
"Your power . . . comes through, you know," Marcone murmured into my ear. "When you aren't paying attention sometimes. That hasn't changed. You don't even know, you take my breath away."
I was suddenly one giant raw nerve. My eyes prickled, and I blinked, confused and embarrassed. "Don't," I said. "John . . ."
"All right." He brushed a kiss down my neck. "I'll stop. For now."
I shook my head, sucking in a breath. What did he mean? Now was all there was.
I lifted my mug to him, not turning my head. "Blow," I said.
He did. "Is there arcane significance to that, or am I the drunk Vegas floozy blowing on your dice?"
"You say that like it's two different things."
I dumped the dregs and leaves out into a plate from the drying rack. I willed my pentacle brighter and leaned over, squinting. This wasn't one of my gifts, except on the very rare occasions when it was. I'd spent an entire year once seeing nothing but genitalia in the tealeaves, which told me only what I already knew – that I was fifteen and not getting any yet. And then, on my sixteenth birthday, I'd looked down and seen the end of life as I knew it, losing Elaine, losing Justin, losing myself. And I'd laughed it off, because I was sixteen and so naïve, my young self felt like an alien to me now.
"What do you see?" Marcone asked softly.
I was turning the plate round and round, because the future doesn't always appear to you right side up.
"Nothing," I said on a sigh, and turned to put the plate on the counter. "Not a single goddamn thing." What would I have seen six months ago, if I'd bothered to look?
Marcone stayed with me, arms around my waist. "Okay," he said. "Come back to bed."
I was dragged from sleep far too soon by a ringing phone. I floundered up, confused, because that didn't sound like my phone.
It wasn't. I didn't have a phone anymore. Marcone was up on one elbow reaching for it, surprisingly coordinated.
"Marcone," he said laconically. Then, "When? . . . Yes. . . . Have them wait. Thank you." And he hung up and rolled out of bed.
"Problem?" I asked. I was so tired I was dizzy, but Marcone was pulling on a fresh suit in record time.
"Not for you." He ducked into the bathroom and came back out ninety seconds later ready for a board meeting. "There's been an incident. Someone made a mistake, and several of my people are dead." He came back over to the bed after this flat summary and sat beside me. "I'm sorry to leave you like this."
"It's fine," I said, trying not to imagine exactly what he meant by 'incident.' Or 'mistake.' I had some experience, so I knew that was his heads will roll voice.
"Go back to sleep," he said, easing down to soft-spoken without a blink. "Stay as long as you like."
"Well," I said, tempted. I hadn't slept in a real bed in weeks, let alone anything that wasn't too short for my legs.
A buzzer sounded downstairs. "My car's here," Marcone said. "I have to go." He leaned down and kissed me on the forehead, which was the single most innocent thing he'd done to me in two days. "Sweet dreams," he said, and was gone.
When I woke up again, it was after noon and his huge shower was calling my name. And when I got downstairs, there was a bag of bagels on the counter. I stared at them for a minute, still waking up, then laughed. Goddamn Marcone. Bagels, ha.
There was a different security guy at the curb when I left. I waved at him, rolling my eyes, and headed for the Nevernever.
I ended up spending most of the day on Demonreach. I didn't stop at Michael's, so it was just me, no Bob, not even Mouse. I didn't do it that way on purpose, but it turned out to be exactly what I wanted. I was feeling raw, maybe . . . maybe a little fragile. So I brewed a series of defensive potions, paced, and thought about Maeve.
I couldn't threaten her. She could squash me like a bug, and just might do it, too. And I couldn't blackmail her, even assuming the Queen didn't know what she was up to. They didn't get along, it was true, but they were also a solid glacial power united in one big fuck you to Summer, and the Accords, and the tiny crawling humans.
All right, so who could go at Maeve directly and win? Aside from the Queen, anyway, because hell if I was trying that angle unless I had no other options.
I left at sunset and headed for Thomas's boat. It was back in its slip, though he still had the keys. I camped out on deck with a couple of hotdogs I'd bought on my walk down, and waited for the new moon to rise.
The Leanansidhe kept me waiting. I was expecting it, but my hands were sweating and my pulse racing by the time she deigned to put in an appearance.
"Child," she said, stepping lightly from nothing to the dock to the boat.
"Godmother," I said, standing.
She came and inspected me, smiling faintly. "Did you learn your lesson, then?"
"To do what I'm told?" I asked. "Odds aren't great, no."
She sighed like I'd disappointed her. But she was a faerie, so there was a lot of what can you expect from talking monkeys in there, too.
"Oh, child," she said. "Do try to stay alive through the Winter Solstice – I'd hate for you to miss your first one." She blew me a kiss. I felt it hit me like a pellet of ice, and I folded up on the deck, my internal organs turning inside out. I could feel her footsteps as she walked away, but mostly I was biting through my tongue and trying not to make too many wounded water buffalo noises.
I lay curled up on my side after the ugly parts were over, my cheek pressed to the deck as I swallowed down the nausea. The moon looked down at me. Probably mocking, it would just figure.
I hauled myself up at last, and . . . oh. It was like getting my arm out of a cast after a bad break when I was eight – everything hurt like a bitch, but the sense of release and freedom was incredible. I paced the deck, patting myself down and accounting for all required parts. Marvelous stubbly jaw, and amazing flat chest, and perfect enormous feet, I love you!
Okay, it was possible I hadn't actually planned this out too well, because now I was a manically grinning guy on a boat in really uncomfortable jeans and a princess t-shirt. Ask me if I cared?
The entire clan was there when I got back to Michael's, and there was a lot of applause and backslapping. Charity had baked a cake. It was a good night. I tossed around balls of light in the backyard for the younger kids, and Molly impressed the pants off everybody with one of her fireworks shows. I caught Charity and Michael standing on the back porch, arms around each other, beaming mistily at her. Not like I could talk. Hell of a kid, that girl. I liked to think I'd contributed, even just a little bit.
Michael and I cleaned up while Charity got the rugrats to bed.
"I'll be out of your hair soon," I said, passing him with a stack of dirty paper plates.
"No rush." Michael swiveled on his bad side to face me, turning on his cane more gracefully than I managed on my feet. "We like having you here."
"Thanks," I said, touched. It probably didn't make much difference to them, adding one more performer to the circus, but still.
"But you do need a place of your own," Michael said. "A holding center."
"Yeah," I said. "I know. I'm working on it."
I slept great that night, even though the sofa bed was even smaller for me now. In the morning, I packed. I could get a substantial chunk of my worldly possessions into one backpack. I left the girl's clothes – Charity and Michael knew how to grow them tall, so one of their girls could probably fit them pretty soon.
The first task of the day was to track down Grimalkin. That wasn't difficult – he stayed in Winter whenever he could, and he was a predictable little psychopath. I found him casually dissecting a pack of small lizardy things, occasionally pausing to lick their juices off his claws.
All faeries are kind of like magical lawyers, when you get right down to it, but not even Mab loved contracts like Grimalkin loved contracts. I'd come prepared with a note pad, a bunch of random questions about obscure provisions of the Accords, and a studious expression. Grimalkin was happy to expound at length about how well he'd screwed everyone else over, which got him in a good mood and was also educational. I waited for a good opening, then casually mentioned how much fun Maeve was having in Chicago lately, with an implication of wild all-nighters and just a hint of wistfulness that she had so much independence from the Queen.
Grimalkin didn't say anything, but I saw his eyes narrow. I excused myself ten minutes later, willing to bet that he would engineer it so Maeve spent the next several weeks tied to Mab's apron strings and hating every second of it.
That wasn't a solution, but it got her out of Chicago and it bought me time to work.
I could feel Mab, an implacable cold presence in my chest. It had taken me months to realize that, through her, I could also feel the rest of faerie spreading like a web: the Leanansidhe and Grimalkin and Maeve and, recursively, myself. We all circled Mab, begging for her attention and simultaneously trying to displace it onto someone else. Everyone else was a lot better at it than I was, and I needed to catch up. I needed to get a leg up on Maeve; I needed it not to matter that she could turn me into a wizard pancake. I needed her to be afraid of me. I didn't know how I was going to manage that yet, but I'd figure it out. And in the meantime, I could start tugging on the web and seeing what happened.
. . . Oh. So that was the lesson.
Well what was the bell-ringing point of a faerie godmother when she wouldn't just out and tell you these things? Oh no, instead she had to go around – Hell's bells!
Fine. The next time Mab ordered me to do something I didn't want to do, I needed to have an option other than 'yes' or 'no.' I had no idea how I was going to manage that, either, but it was clearly time to start working on it.
I came out of faerie in downtown. I was running ten minutes late, but it wasn't like Murph didn't know me and expect it.
She was waiting at a window table in an independent coffee shop we both liked. The owner knew me, so he let Mouse come in and flirt his way from table to table, collecting pastry scraps in tribute.
"Hey," I said, dropping my bag at the table. "Can I get you a refill?"
"Nope," Murphy said, tilting her half-full cup at me. "But the scones are great today."
I came back with my coffee and a plate of chocolate cranberry scones. Murphy really wasn't kidding about them.
"Okay?" I asked, pushing the preserves over to her.
She nodded, taking a bite. "You?"
"Same," I said. Murphy and I were having a weird patch. It happened to us periodically, but this one was lasting longer. We had something a little more concrete to be weird about, I guess. She was out of town a lot these days, and not talking much about it. I said yes whenever she wanted to see me, and didn't ask intrusive questions.
We'd get over it eventually. We always had before. And I'd been thinking, in the long silences that stretched for weeks, that maybe it was okay to let it all go for good. The thing we – okay, the thing we'd never had. The potential thing. It'd been there for a really long time, and maybe the complete lack of urgency should have clued me in sooner. I'm pretty sure Murph was way ahead of me on that one. I may be slow, but I do catch up eventually.
"Heard you were a girl," Murphy said, licking preserves off her thumb.
Stars and stones, welcome to the next six months of your life. "Yeah," I said. "It was . . . kind of like a vacation, actually."
"A testosterone vacation," Murphy said, amused. "Only you, Dresden."
I'd meant more of a reality vacation. And, in reference to that thirty-six hours of Marcone madness, a sanity vacation.
. . . Man. Going back to celibacy was going to suck for an extra few months this time. Everything else, though, seemed to be sucking significantly less. It was a good day to be a man.
"You look different," Murphy said, squinting at me.
I leaned over to see myself in the mirror behind the counter. Scruffy, too bony, vaguely confused expression, all as usual. "Looks the same to me."
"Except for how you're smiling," Murphy said. "You weren't doing that for a while there."
She shook her head.
I sighed and leaned my elbows on the table. "Okay," I said. "Straight up. How bad has it been?"
She sipped her coffee, thinking about it. "Pretty bad. You've been kind of 'poke with long stick and then back away fast.'"
"Oh," I said and made a face. So maybe all the distance wasn't just weirdness. Good going, Dresden. "Um, sorry?"
"Whatever," she said, and flicked a straw wrapper at me. "There are a few people who worry about you, y'know."
For Murphy, that was the equivalent of clinging to my hand and sobbing into my shoulder from anyone else. Yikes.
I put the straw wrapper between my lips and blew it back at her. "Well maybe they don't have to," I said. "I'm a big boy again, now."
Murph and I stayed longer than either of us meant to. It was nice, and we promised to do it again sooner than freaking Thanksgiving.
Before leaving, I asked at the counter if they had a Yellow Pages. They didn't, but the cash register kid looked up the nearest outdoor supply store on his phone for me. People don't believe in ink on paper any more. What's the world coming to?
Mouse waited outside while I picked out a winter-rated sleeping bag and a few other necessities. Then we ducked back through the nevernever, and I set up actual camp on Demonreach.
It was pretty homey. I rigged up a shelf for Bob out of some rocks and a plank. Mouse found an old bone to gnaw; I studiously didn't think about where – or who – it came from. I started a fire in front of the lighthouse and cracked a can of chili for dinner. I even had marshmallows to roast.
I stayed out there longer than I'd meant to. I'd just been planning on a day or two, but then it was three, and then it was a week. I worked magic intensively for hours, until I entered a near trance state of concentration. When I wasn't doing that, I did what I could with the lighthouse, repairing leaks and nailing down boards.
I couldn't spend the winter there, not with just a sleeping bag. The lighthouse would take a lot more tools and expertise than I had. But still. It was quiet and it was mine. And it . . . felt safe.
I thought about sex a lot, until the magic and the physical tiredness drove it out. And then I dreamed about it. And I seemed to have some sort of girl hangover, because I kept dreaming about that, too. Like most things, it was better in my dreams.
The sex wasn't better. I'm pretty sure it couldn't be without actually frying my circuits. I dreamed I was a girl for some of that, and for some of it I didn't. Sometimes it changed on me, midstream. It was all very symbolic, vision quest, in touch with your subconscious crap. I hate that sort of thing.
Still, sex dreams about Marcone. Sex memories.
It'd never been like that with anyone; I'd never been like that with anyone. Not even people I'd really cared about. Maybe that was it: when it didn't count, I could just let go. I didn't have any relevant experience, but I had the impression that you were supposed to be able to forget irresponsible flings, though.
It would fade eventually. The afterburn of amazing sex, and the reminder of what it was like to sleep next to someone, and everything. Clearly there was a reason I didn't have casual affairs – I wasn't built for them. My stupid brain didn't care what it was and what it wasn't and had latched onto him just because he was there. It would fade.
Mouse and I reemerged into the world on a Saturday. I checked my voicemail from one of the few remaining payphones in Chicago. Nothing urgent. I touched base with a few people who had pointedly wondered where the hell I was, then got hold of Thomas. He offered to hand over the keys right then, so we met down at the boat an hour later.
"There's beer in the fridge," he said, holding the cabin door open for me.
"Bless you and all your endeavors." I dropped my backpack on the bunk while Mouse nosed around, inspecting his territory. "Is it too early, do you think?"
"Naw." Thomas correctly interpreted that as a request for company and plunked down in the tiny galley. Then he came right back up again, light on his feet like a dancer. He and Mouse simultaneously tilted their heads, though only Mouse's ears actually perked. "Someone's here," Thomas said. "Two – no, one man."
"It's always something," I muttered, and opened the cabin door. Mouse shouldered past me, and by the time I made it up the half flight of stairs onto the deck, he was sniffing Marcone's offered hand. Mouse grumbled inquisitively, and Marcone crouched down, expression serious and respectful, to let Mouse deposit fur all the way up the sleeve of his snazzy wool coat. Mouse's tail began to thump. Not that I could talk – I distinctly remembered liking the way Marcone smelled, too.
"Mister Dresden," Marcone said, standing. He glanced past me to Thomas, lounging in the doorway, and his eyes went cool. "Mister Raith."
Thomas acknowledged him with an incremental dip of the chin. Why did he get all the dignity genes?
"So, sweetheart," Marcone said, taking two steps closer to me.
I scowled. "How many times have I told you not to call me that?"
"Not once, actually," Marcone said, one side of his mouth tipping up.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Thomas straighten. If his eyebrows got any higher, they'd come right off. Crap crap crap. He strolled over to stand beside me, hands in his pockets, and Marcone's eyes narrowed. They assumed matching polite smiles and sized each other up like they were measuring for pistols at dawn. Or possibly chain saws.
It occurred to me very belatedly that somewhere in that creepy dossier of his, Marcone probably had a note on those old rumors about Thomas and me. Holy cats. If Marcone's obsessive proprietary thing clashed with one of Thomas's periodic bouts of brotherly protectiveness and they started fighting over me, I was jumping into Lake Michigan, no question.
"Hey," I said, nudging Thomas. "Maybe a rain check?"
"Sure," he said lightly, and cut me this look -- you don't want me to stay?
I shook my head at him. He dug out the keys and handed them to me, his fingers brushing my arm. It was deliberate – Thomas never touched anyone unless he damn well meant to – and his eyebrows started climbing again at whatever he got off me.
"Thanks," I said, resisting the urge to start pushing him towards the dock. He already knew way more than I'd ever wanted him to.
"You know where everything is," Thomas said. He was doing that thing where the entire half of the boat with Marcone on it didn't exist to him. "I'll call you."
He leapt lightly to the dock and walked away. Marcone didn't look an iota less alarmingly polite.
"Um," I said. "Maeve should be out of Chicago for a while. It's temporary, but I'm working on something better."
"Good," Marcone said. "That's not why I'm here."
He came closer, flirting with the edge of my personal space. "If you're going to blow me off, I'd prefer that you did it to my face," he said.
The hell? "What, so we can fight about it?" I said, mouth moving automatically.
Marcone flashed me some teeth. "Yes. Or so I can convince you you're making a mistake, actually."
Marcone's voice dropped. "I think it's been amply proven how good we can be together."
I swallowed, having traitorous thoughts. "Okay, yes," I said, because there was no point even trying to lie about that. Chemistry, we had it. "But that was different."
"Yes," Marcone said, and gave me a once-over that made it abundantly clear he wanted to know all about the difference. Empty night, Marcone liked men?
"But—" I said cogently. "You . . ."
"I saw an opportunity. I took it. That's what I do." He laughed ruefully. "Only you would need a magical sex change operation to notice that someone is throwing himself at you."
"You were?" He couldn't have been; I notice these things. . . . eventually.
"Repeatedly. Frequently." He eased half a step closer. I felt like a mouse being hypnotized by a snake. "Also right now, God help me," he said.
"Um," I said. That was not a squeak in my voice. "This is . . . unexpected."
Marcone slapped a hand across his face and groaned. It was the most demonstrative I'd ever seen him. With his clothes on, anyway.
"And here I've been for the past week thinking 'surely I was obvious enough,'" he said. Then he dropped his hand and looked me in the eye. I'd seen him stare down oncoming monsters like that while he loaded his rifle. "I. Want. You," he said. "You oblivious, dribbling moron."
". . . oh," I said.
Marcone watched me flounder. "Your turn," he said, after the silence had stretched too long. "It's like a trade, now you talk. I've already ritually sacrificed my pride."
Stars and stones, but he really had. "Um," I said. "I was kind of on a different page, here."
"I know." Marcone smiled one of his friendlier, more harmless smiles. "Welcome to the romance."
"Oh my God, don't call it that," I said, appalled.
"All right," Marcone said agreeably. "The affair, then." That was not any better – an affair implied lots and lots of sex. Elicit, passionate sex. Not inaccurate, but very distracting.
"I don't know what to say." Let alone what to do. It shouldn't have been a question. It wouldn't have been, six months ago. That's the thing about doing things you thought you'd never do – there are suddenly so many possibilities.
"Say yes." He set one hand lightly at my waist. "Let me take you to dinner. Argue with me about what movie to see after." He bit off the next thing he was going to say, but I knew exactly what it was. Heat flushed through me. My body had changed, but his hands hadn't, and the brush of his thumb on my hip bone made me ache.
"You're crazy," I said on a shaky exhale.
"I happen to know crazy ideas are your forte."
That was true. And yes, I still wanted him, that was also true. But this, this would count. And not just because we had the same parts, now, though that was . . . a thing. And it would make all the previous stuff count, too – his office couch, and dinner, and a picture of his mother.
Yes or no? Hell's bells, always this.
Maybe I was desperate. Maybe my judgment was completely shot. Maybe he only looked so good in comparison to the rest of my life, which was still an unholy mess. Or maybe this was just the first time I'd been able to see him clearly.
"I'm picking the restaurant," I said. "And I have conditions."
Marcone just lit up, behind that buttoned-up exterior. It was amazing. "I like negotiating," he said helpfully.
"Lots of conditions," I said. I was sure I would remember what they all needed to be any time now.
"Are there any attached to me kissing you?" Marcone asked politely.
"Oh yeah," I said. "Lots. But there aren't any attached to me kissing you, are there?"
It wasn't fair, asking him to show me his vulnerable underbelly like that. But he'd been doing it for the past five minutes, and it was kind of addictive.
His mouth curled, rueful. "No," he said. "If that's how you want to play it, there aren't."
Being taller than him was pretty excellent.
I didn't really bother looking for witnesses when Mouse and I popped out of the nevernever behind the oak tree and jogged up the street. It was one in the morning, and I was late. Demons late, missed dinner by five hours late. I wasn't even sure Marcone would still be there – I didn't think he stayed in this house much when I wasn't with him.
I slept on the boat, I slept on Demonreach, I slept in faerie. And sometimes I slept here. Marcone didn't ask where I'd been if I didn't volunteer it, and I didn't ask him what he did all day. If I decided to ask, I knew he'd tell me. And if he asked . . . I was starting to think I'd answer.
Hendricks materialized from the shadows at the top of the driveway. "Boss said to let you in," he grunted, and punched in the security code for me.
I wanted to ask if John had already gone to bed, but I was afraid if Hendricks and I actually tried to have that conversation, one or both of our heads would explode. So I just nodded and closed the door behind me.
A light was on in the kitchen. The place was predictably spic and span, but I could tell that he'd cooked. Aww, crap.
The rest of the downstairs was dark. There just happened to be an enormous pillow in front of the fireplace; Mouse stretched out on it with a groan. I went up to the bedroom, where John breathed quietly on his side, his back to a single candle left burning for me. The heater was on full blast and he'd pushed the covers down, showing me his back and the bare curve of his ass. I undressed silently while I ogled him.
I shouldn't have bothered, because he stirred the minute I put my knee up on the bed. He stretched, rolling to face me in the same motion.
"I'm sorry," I said, wincing in anticipation.
John blinked sleepily and pulled me down to him. "Still in one piece?"
"Yeah." My stubble rasped interestingly against his when we kissed. "Sorry. I borrowed Molly's cell phone to call you, but then something ate it."
He cracked up, snorting helplessly against my cheek. "You really could not make that up, could you?"
"No," I said, and bit his ear. He'd probably known where I was the whole time. His creepy stalker ways were just one of the things we weren't talking about. I wasn't even putting a 'yet' on the end of that sentence . . . yet. Still, getting stood up is never a good time.
"Did you eat?" Little known fact: John Marcone can fuss like nobody's business. Or maybe that's just the way he expressed his screaming desire to grab my life with both hands and organize it until it cried for mercy.
"Dumplings," I said, distracted by his wandering hands.
"Yes, sweetums?" he said, and pinched my ass.
I yelped and armed myself with the pillow swiped from under his head. He pinched me again, fast as a striking snake, and I went for him with a howl. I got in one solid whack with the pillow before he knocked it away from me. And then I only had a few seconds of illusion that I might have the upper hand before he got both my wrists behind my back and locked my legs between his strong thighs. I thought he'd flip me over, but he rolled instead and pulled me on top of him. I was still tripping off the night's adrenaline, and I shoved hard against him when he let go of my hands and grabbed my ass. "Yeah," he said, voice rasping. "Come here." We realigned, and I hissed between my teeth when he closed his legs around my cock. It was a little dry, but the burn was working for me. He wasn't fully hard yet, but he dug his fingers into my ass and urged me on. Not like I was going to argue. I thrust until I came, and he caught my noises in his mouth.
Nothing fancy, but it worked. I tried not to think about the fact that I'd been all over him and begging for it when I was a girl, but now I was way more cautious, constantly asking, Do I want to do this? How about this? I also wasn't thinking about how, when I was tired or tipsy and not worrying about it, the things I wanted were exactly the same.
I knew what I wanted just then. I went for the nightstand drawer, and took it as a personal compliment that the box of condoms was on top of the handgun. He was ready to go with all the friction. I rolled the condom down him with both hands and bent my head.
His fingers closed warmly on the back of my neck. "That's it," he said, voice strained. "Oh, Jesus." I took a quick breath and slid down again, and swallowed, and then set a slow rhythm. Marcone's thumb was digging hard into the back of my neck, but under my hand his stomach muscles practically quivered with the force of his restraint. "Come on, sweetheart," he said, "make noise if you want to." And I found I did -- quiet sounds of appreciation low down in my throat. How did he always know? "Will you – will you open your eyes for me?" The stutter made me ridiculously smug.
I looked up. He stared me right in the eye, focused and intense, not sparing a glance for my mouth. I would swear he didn't even blink when he came.
He was smiling, rare post-coital dopiness showing through. I disposed of the evidence as fast as I could, then hurried under the covers he held up for me. He tucked into my shoulder, sleepy-eyed and pleased as a cat.
"John?" I said, keeping my voice quiet.
"Why did you ask me about soulgazing?"
His head popped up, alert to his back teeth just like that. Damn it. What did it take to get one past him?
"Is this your question?" he asked.
"Yeah," I said. Which meant that the next one would be his. It'd been a pretty safe position, knowing I had the next one dangling, and here I was spending it on a weird thought that just wouldn't quit.
John eyed me from three inches away. "You think you already know the answer," he said.
"You wanted to know just how much I've changed," I said. God knew I did, and John actually had a shot at looking into my soul again to compare.
He shook his head, smiling faintly. "No," he said. "I wanted to show you that I have."