There’s a second when John puzzles at the rope around his leg-- a loop of badly-coiled line that someone left on the dock, that he’d strayed into and tangled himself with by way of one careless step, dodging a spilt bait bucket, not looking where he was putting his foot. And then there is the splash, and he realizes that the precariously stacked fifty-pound boat anchor attached to the rope has gone into the water. And he knows in the microsecond before the rope around his ankle goes tight-- too quickly to move, too quickly to even flinch-- that it’s over.
He has no purchase on the wet wood; he goes in, bashing his chest on the corner of the dock on the way, his head smacking a pylon as he slips further, is dragged under; the world spins and he is dizzy and paralyzed and takes that fatal breath that is only lake water and is gone. He sinks deeper-- or maybe he’s stopped and it’s only his vision getting darker. His air-starved brain flashes through crisis situations, looking desperately for the one that will offer an answer to this last final, ridiculous disaster--
Who stepped in front of the car as he was getting out and fired off a round that sounded like thunder-- there was a ripping pain in his shoulder and he fell back into the sedan as his people descended on the shooter like angry bees, Hendricks hurrying to his side to pull open his shirt and see...
A faded scar.
The gunman was gone, his people in a confused ring around nothing.
The elevator on the way into the building; the cables snapping, the safety brake barely deploying.
The virus that shut down the computers, a recreational one, eminently fixable but wasting expensive time.
The fuse that blew and made the alarms fail. His clock alarm. The intruder alarms...
The fall down the stairs.
The latte that scalded across his hands, lap, down between his legs at a sudden jolting stop.
The truck that ran the red light and sent the car into a pole; the driver largely uninjured but his ribs cracked and his head bleeding from the impact with the window, sharp and fast.
"Monoc cannot help you," she said. "You knew there would be a price. You forced the hand of fate. The Liesmith has claimed you."
Under the surface, in the freezing water, he tries desperately to move. If he can get to his knife, can cut the rope... he is regaining muscle tone, controlled movement, he only has to stay calm--
Oslo was a respite from the bad luck that had dogged his steps, but he was still running on adrenaline and self-control. The plane flight in had been harrowing.
"Only one person can break the curse." Vadderung shook his head. "Not even me. Loki’s a slippery little bastard but he’s made a pretty strong claim for oath-breakers and that kind over the centuries; I’ll do everything I can to find a loophole, but the records are extensive and I can’t shield you here for long."
"Because he wants to score a point on me. And because you saved... someone he’s interested in. It has to be Dresden; it was his life."
A moment of triumph as he wrestles the knife from its hiding place, his clothes heavy and twisting in the water. It catches on a loop of loose thread, a fragile resistance, and that’s enough to break his grip: the knife fumbles from his frozen hand and falls slowly away towards the lake bed.
He had saved Dresden’s life for his own purposes, but he had saved it. It was a chip too long un-called in. Their wrestle of give and take had gone on too long. (His chair collapses when he sits in it; he catches himself, lands awkwardly on his tailbone, but spares his head the hard floor.)
He had hoped, of course, that Dresden would see sense, and he would never have to bring real leverage to bear. (The first pen breaks in his hand, a shard of expensive metal jammed in his palm. The second leaks but his notes are legible, organized, thorough.)
But he had the contract drawn up. It was for the best, really, as much as he’d hoped it wouldn’t come to this, that they would find a way to work things out without the paperwork, without the impersonality of the stark black ink. But putting it in writing gives it weight, a sense of authority and inevitability, makes it-- to be trite-- more real.
He wouldn’t be surprised if Dresden didn’t even know what he held, or what a target it painted on him, and on John. Allying their resources is the best option; it’s the only option. The only way to keep them both from trouble, and heaven knew Dresden had practically given trouble a standing invitation. It was infuriating, in a way. (His hands shook, providing opportunities for myriad paper cuts, leaving him shredding and burning copy after copy after copy of the contract with his blood on the pages.) That someone as powerful as Dresden, as willfully stubborn and distractingly, unselfconsciously brave, can be such an idiot. About his own safety. About the quality of life he refuses himself-- the comfort of enough to eat, of hot water, of a day of rest when needed, and not when he is so badly injured the pain killers keep him bedridden.
It will be better for Chicago when this is done and it will mean that John does not shake apart with this bad luck. Loki is interested in Dresden, after all; the man needs to bite the bullet and sign up with someone who can protect him. It’s time for this decade-long game of theirs to end.
A brief phone call and Dresden knows to expect him, if not why. He needs the wizard to be off balance. Not that he’s ever on it.
As he dies, as all his regrets line up to watch him go, he feels a wrenching feeling, surging upwards. Surely, Catholicism assures him, it should be down-?
Then for an eternity, it is dark and no longer hurts.
A streak of pain and heat claws across his chest. Then again, and his lungs are on fire and he is coughing up foul water with great sobbing heaves. His lungs feel tight, promising to cramp and tear if he breathes any deeper. His head throbs.
"Uh, you don’t actually have to say 'clear' when I’m not anywhere near--"
"Yeah I do. It’s based on my will. And my will is pretty sure you always say 'Clear' before you zap someone." The nearer one, the one in favor of symbolic 'clear'ing, pats his cheek. "Hey. Hey. You with us?"
He gasps, croaks out a non-word; tries to open his eyes, sees the hand poised above his chest, two fingers extended and ready to channel painful life through his heart again. The hand patting his cheek grips his jaw, gently urges him to look up. His vision swims; his eyes burn. He shuts them.
"We’ve got to operate fast." The hand lets go of his face, rests on his chest, bare. "The bad luck works off of his life force-- it’s weak now, but the stronger he gets--"
"Harry, he could go into shock if I try to operate now."
"I won’t let him go into shock."
The symbolic clearer lifts his shoulders and resettles his head and shoulders, propping them up on some sort of support. A plank of wood? ...No, a pair of bony thighs. Kneeling at his head, almost a Pieta; hands resting on his again, ready to spit fire through his heart.
"I need to... see. Ugh. Stars. Right there." A thump on his chest, above the little nothing-scar that he found after the shooting.
"Right. Um. Okay, Mister Marcone: I need you to relax as best you can. I can’t risk a pain killer. This is going to hurt."
First there is a stinging swab; then a cold edge touches his skin and drives in. He gasps and heaves up-- all of a centimeter, as an all-encompassing force bears down on his arms, his torso.
"Don’t think about it. Ignore it," a low voice above him urges, and one of the dangerous hands covers his eyes, presses a sleepy calm into his brain. He makes a sound-- the promise of a sound-- embarrassing and vulnerable, but the hand feels good and nothing else does. It pulls the moan from him, and he’s so humiliatingly grateful.
"Not too much. He can’t fall asleep," the voice with the scalpel barks.
The drowsiness pulls away, and he hates the loss but he will not surrender. He knows how to bear through this. He’s had bullets removed before. Battlefield surgery. He yelled out then, too, in pain; it tears through his throat.
Pressure digs into his exposed muscle, stinging, wrenching-- catches at something nudged up against the bone and makes him howl. Tugging; pulling-- it feels like it’s part of his body, that it will rip out everything if it pulls even a little further-- and then in one jolt of cold, intolerable hurt and the pressure and the sharp object are gone.
"Okay," pants the scalpel voice. "Okay. I’ve got it all. I’m going to disinfect the best I can and close him up."
Stitches are the easy part. He sags back, head lolling on the bony legs as the comparatively mild pain of the needle starts.
"Stay with us," orders the voice above him, the hand on his forehead tugging at his hair now. "Stay awake."
"I'm awake," he says, throat raw but words finally back. He counts the stitches; ten, tiny and neat. "I don’t need to be coddled."
"Fine with me." The last of the drowsy feeling, and the hand, disappear. He opens his eyes.
There is a small man crouching by his side, tying off the last stitch. Waldo Butters, the much abused ME who runs in Dresden’s circles, affiliated with the BFS. They’re in the empty boathouse by the marina.
There’s no asking who’s thighs he’s lying on, whose hands wrenched him back to life. There’s a dull sense of defeat, now; he is entirely at Dresden’s mercy, any debt he could have claimed repaid with finality.
He hears, faintly, a siren, but it’s getting closer every second.
"Now they get here," Butters grumbles. "Three minute response time my--"
"It’s okay." Dresden jerks his shirt closed, a largely symbolic gesture for all the privacy it will give him, here, like this, but he appreciates it more than he wants to. "Go be a hero. I really shouldn’t be here for this." He grabs his staff-- a new one-- his coat-- also new (or used, as the case may be)-- but pauses at the door, holds up a manila envelope.
"This is yours, right? I found it on the dock where you went in."
The contract. He doesn’t say anything and doesn’t have to; Dresden opens it, glances over a few pages. His expression is tired, a little shocked, but not like John had imagined-- vindictive, vicious-- drawing up the clauses. He’s less scandalized, more disappointed. "...You realize this would never have worked, right? You realize Mab would have turned your testicles into snowballs, right?"
"Moot point," he rasps. "I’m in your debt, now."
"No." Dresden makes a face of sudden disgust. "This wasn’t for you, John. Not for you, not ever again. This was for Chicago." He drops the contract and speaks a word, and it’s ashes before it hits the ground.
"You should--" Butters holds out a bloody wad of greenery, waxy stems and white berries stained with red, and before John can speak Harry has taken it and burned it the same way, a lingering, noxious fume in the air.
Then the wizard is gone, slipping out just before the EMTs burst in.
They ask questions. Butters answers them. The rope snapped; he was floating when Butters found him, yes, alone. There had been a huge splinter in his chest from the dock, he says, he extracted and stitched it up once he was resuscitated. Yes, the cardiac device in the boathouse’s first aid kit was dead but it had had one shock left in it before the computer died.
John confirms everything when asked; they’re perfectly serviceable lies.
He is lifted onto a stretcher and born away to be healed like humans should be healed, in a hospital, with medicine, not with lightning in a wizard’s fingers and sleep in the cup of his palm.
Butters is a hero; he is offered a promotion that he turns down, is offered far better hours that he does not. He shies away from interviews and the media loses interest quickly enough, with the right encouragement.
And they do not speak of it again. He sees Dresden once or twice, in the course of business. He hears of him more, the new Winter Knight, troublesome yet respected in the supernatural circles, confusing and angering all the important figures he runs across.
Still active, somewhat, in Chicago; no office, but taking cases again. Re-acquainted with his friends-- Murphy, the werewolves, the Carpenters, hoarding bits of familiarity and humanity with them, the pieces of his old life he can maintain and still be what he is, now, Winter’s sword hand.
But not with John.
When they meet in an Accords meeting he gets a tired, disinterested look. John throws a well-aimed insult; Harry shrugs it off. He makes a knowing comment about one of Harry’s friends. Harry sighs and tells him he’s not in the mood.
He had thought that their destinies were so tightly entwined that they would go on hating and grudging and saving and fighting each other until they circled in too close and the collision broke the world in half, or at least Chicago.
He had thought that they would go on insulting each other, trusting each other to be what they were, bantering over the phone and threatening each other in the same breath as a schoolboy taunt. He had thought that they would always be in each other’s orbits.
He had thought that it would be personal. When one of them lived or died at the other’s hands. He didn’t think it would be a tired sigh, a look of disgust, an unspoken and unfriendly goodbye.
And now Dresden is...
So far outside of John’s reach that he does not know how to begin to find that place again.
It festers in him; he shows no one, of course, goes on as he always has, as strong as he always has, but with a sense of discontentment and a lack of control, a pattern he had always been confident would fall into place now shaken to pieces, burnt to ashes. He does not allow himself to lose sleep, but finds himself relying on melatonin and relaxation exercises more than he has in the past ten years. He does not allow himself to lose weight, but finds that he is not particularly in the mood to eat, no matter how hard, how mindlessly relentlessly he works himself.
Surrender takes the form of McAnally’s ale and nondescript civilian clothes.
The docks are slippery, but he is physically back on form, not hexed into injury; all of his scalds and nicks and cuts from that period have healed. Still, he is careful on the wet surface, climbing carefully onto the deck of the Water Beetle, steadying himself before he knocks.
Harry opens the door and then slams it on his quickly-inserted foot.
"The beer is for Chicago. Please, can’t we just talk?"
Harry sighs. "I’m not inviting you in."
For all the threshold that a place like this could have. But John follows him inside and sets the beer down, taking two bottles from the case first.
"If this is about that contract--"
"Good. Good!" Harry scrapes the too-long hair out of his eyes angrily. "I don’t have time for your weird possessive bullcrap. In case you missed it, I already sold my soul."
"Why her?" The question is out before he can help it-- he grips the bottles tightly, sure he just ended the night before it began-- but Harry sighs and answers.
"Because you couldn’t fix a broken back, John. And because God doesn’t do requests."
He doesn’t want to examine the literalism of that. "Will you be leaving the city?"
"Like I could. Like it would let me go intact. I’m here; as much as I can be, because I can’t do anything else." Harry snorts. "And fyi: dating two women? Sucks."
"To the other woman, then." John offers a beer, and Harry takes it with a snort of amusement.
The feeling of relief, then, as the wizard opens the bottle and takes a deep drink, turns on him and lambastes him for daring to serve it warm, is--
It must show in his eyes, because Harry’s mouth turns up.
"Yeah, I missed you, too, scumbag."
"Pubescent firestarter," John says, and is smiling now, his face cracking open and showing how happy he is to be here; and they drink until they are sagging against each other and if he had known how strong and steady the wizard could be, without the weight of manipulation and threat--
He would still have done everything he has done, but he can at least recognize when it’s time to fold. Harry demands a promise of 'no further attempts to put Harry on yet another damn leash, he has plenty already, okay?' and John swears wholeheartedly to the letter and to the spirit of it. Because like this, in his Salvation Army sweater and faded jeans, with the wizard’s shoulder propping up his head, he feels that Chicago is in balance again, that the city is as it was and as it should be, and that things will start to right themselves.
And all they had to do was die to figure it out. He laughs, and Harry asks why, and he tells Harry, and Harry laughs and slings an arm around him and they support each other unsteadily to the narrow bed-- as they must support each other, opposing and at counter purposes except when they aren’t.
John tucks his head on the bony shoulder and worms tight under the blanket, and the way that Harry accepts and encourages the embrace opens a world of potential for things that they can do when they are sober, and the way he says goodnight with a tired insult promises that when John is in a suit again and Harry is on duty, they will fight and grudge and save and hate until the city is clean again, and after that, and after that.
And for now, Harry’s breath is warm on the back of his neck, steadying out with sleep, there is frost on the little cabin window, and the sliver of winter sky John can see is clear and cold. Tomorrow is the first of December, and because mule-headed idiocy and sticking your fingers in the eyes of giants must be contagious, he is going to hang mistletoe over every damn doorway he owns.