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Wedding Bells… No More like Hell’s Bells

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I want to be able to say that I would have thought about my new approach for getting out of marrying Lara Raith months before if I hadn’t been so busy, but to be honest it had occurred to me pretty early on. Actually within a couple of weeks, however I’d thought the solution was a little too simple when it involved Mab.

I mean, simply asking my boss if there was anyone else she would prefer I marry to secure an alliance other than the uncrowned queen of the White Court was too easy to work, right? At least that was what I’d figured when it had first occurred to me to ask. So I’d put it out of my mind while I’d scrambled for anything which could get me out of my unwanted betrothal to Lara Raith.

Okay, maybe not at first because I had been very busy. First taking the time to heal and helping with the aftermath of the battle. Then fixing up Castle Dresden to be habitable for people and pets again had taken up a lot of my attention. Looking for any hint of Justine and growing frustrated at only finding weeks-old cold trails every time I thought I was close sucked away any free time I’d had between being a dad and fighting with the state about getting my PI license reinstated. Apparently having been investigated by the FBI, declared dead, and then alive, before essentially vanishing off the face of the earth for over a year didn’t make the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation happy about activating my private investigator license even if technically it hadn’t expired yet since the last time I’d renewed it. I was not looking forward to the fuss I’d have to deal with when I did have to renew it next year.

All that and I’d lost countless sleeping hours in the night wracking my brain as to how I’d be able to pull my brother safely out of his carbonite freezer without his demon killing him as soon as I did.

And I’d been... grieving. Hurting. Dealing with the emotional wounds from last summer. I’d been too preoccupied with keeping myself together and hopefully resembling something like a sane parent for Maggie and Bonnie to spend my energy worrying about something that was a year – practically forever – away.

It wasn’t until Christmas had come and gone, and winter’s grip on Chicago had started to loosen, with spring right around the corner that it hit me how quickly time was passing. There would be wedding bells – no, more like hell’s bells – in my future if I didn’t shift focus and do something to stop it.

So I’d buckled down and researched, thankful that I had my handy-dandy magical assistant back so I could ask these sort of difficult questions. Well, most of the time. Butters sometimes came by to pick Bob’s brain about supernatural threats he could be facing in the future and even occasionally borrowed him when under a time crunch. A Spirit of Intellect was handy to have around when trying to find things out about supernatural monsters, trust me.

Not that Bob had turned out to be much of a help. Every conversation we’d had about the Winter Knight’s mantle had turned into a variant of our first discussion on the topic.

Take for example our latest one:

“Boss. Harry. We’ve been over this already, being a Knight of a Fae Court is a lifetime gig,” Bob said, exasperated. The orange lights of his eyes followed me as I paced in front of him in the castle basement. Months later it still smelled of laundry detergent and sweaty gym socks. I also wasn’t used to the shape of the room. It felt like too much space but I figured that wouldn’t last long as I stocked the new shelves up with magical ingredients. I was glad to have a working lab again, and better materials and tools to craft my gear than what I had on Demonreach.

You really don’t appreciate how much easier good tools make your life until you try to make things without them.

I can’t tell you how relieved I felt at getting a proper staff carved out and a new blasting rod.

“We can research and research but every Knight, whether they were of Summer or of Winter, has remained a Knight until they died. Only then did their mantle pass on to someone else. Every single one of them.”

Which I’d already – grimly – known to be true. I shoved the sense memory of blood on my hands back into its box.

Three months of actually looking for a solution. And all I had was zip, zilch, nada. A big load of nothing.

Bob continued, “The only thing that could possibly make a difference, although I don’t know how yet, is that you’re the only one who has also been a wizard. That’s definitely new.”

Bob didn’t know how I’d be able to shed a power which went through the center of my being like a lance without somehow killing myself by pulling it out (it made me feel more like an insect pinned to a collection board). For one, he reminded me mantles were bound to the bearer. It usually defined their powers, at least it did, for most of the immortal beings out there. I was weird in the sense of having claimed the mantle of the Winter Knight while I already had powerful abilities in my own right.

I may use the abilities to my benefit, but my power wasn’t dependent on them.

However, until I figured out how to be free of it, I was stuck being the only wizard Winter Knight of the court of the scary faeries.

Compounding my problem was my own determination that when – not if – I did end up leaving the Winter Court behind it would be with my former apprentice joining in my getaway. So not only did I have to figure out how to be rid of the Winter Knight’s mantle, I also had to figure out how to free Molly of the mantle of the Winter Lady without killing either of us.

And without Molly fighting me on it.

Sometimes I had the sinking feeling she wanted to remain the Winter Lady. That she thought she was doing more good in that role than she had as a mortal wizard apprentice. It worried me but I told myself not to make assumptions. Molly could just be doing what I was, trying to survive her new job without losing herself within it. Even if it meant being the best Winter Lady she could be.

Instead I focused on the step beyond that point. Because if we were able to shed the mantles then it was equally important to make sure that we’d both be able to survive the fallout. I doubted Mab would let either of us go easily.

It made me shudder to think of what I’d suffer through if an angry Mab got a hold of me. I wouldn’t survive her retribution for escaping her. Or if I did I doubt I would be sane.

My main problem was that I simply didn’t know enough about how mantles of power even worked, especially how they were even created in the first place, to figure out how to undo one. The only clue given to me which could possibly point me in the right direction was the knowledge of how mantles became more malleable during Halloween. It was the only time of the year during which immortal beings could die, or add to their power or lose bits of it to another immortal.

Trick or treating for the powerful immortal beings of the world.

A day which was my birthday, of course. Which had also already come and gone. So even if I had a working plan to strip away the mantle this coming October it would still be way too late to avoid getting married to Lara Raith.

I had a little less than two months left when I realized that all I had were stupid options.

Cue me just flat out asking the Queen of Air and Darkness my question.

*-*-*-*

“You said before, that you agreed to the alliance with the White Court because they are strong enough to be a worthy ally,” I said quietly, standing beside Mab.

It was somewhat annoying that the aftermath of last summer’s battle and the continued war against the Formor meant that most of the Ministry summits took place in my city. I had no excuse to get out of having to show my face and play courtier to Mab when all the shindigs were held in Chicago. Although I would forever gloat over how Marcone couldn’t host them in the castle anymore.

I suspected my presence was meant to be a reminder of how she had triumphed against Ethniu, and how the Winter Court – through me as its representative – had been the one to finally shut the Titan down. I had been… well, I can’t say requested because armed fae lords had all but whisked me away at gun-point. I’d told Mab I had things to do but apparently that wasn’t good enough. The fae had simply been insistent, politely insistent. As in I didn’t actually get shot. Barely. Lucky for them, they’d been willing to wait for a babysitter for Maggie to show up, or I would have been the one getting violent.

The point was, I was at a party where I was mostly playing arm candy. It wasn’t as if I was much use as a bodyguard to Mab (even if it technically was part of the duties of the Winter Knight), considering she could squish me like a bug without even trying, so it really reinforced the idea that I was meant to be some kind of subtle message to the rest of the Accorded members.

“It also fulfills the debt owed to Ms. Raith,” Mab agreed, flickering her inhuman eyes at me.

I didn’t question it but I knew that wasn’t anywhere close to the real reason.

Oh, it contributed.

Mab, by her very nature as a faerie, couldn’t lie. But that didn’t mean she didn’t act with more motivations behind her actions than the obvious or that she couldn’t toe the line right to the edge of lying. If she’d wanted she could have twisted the favor used by Lara into something that didn’t involve dragging me into it. Or she could have thrown some high-ranking faerie lord or lady under the bus to satisfy Lara’s demands if Lara insisted on a marriage to seal the deal. Yet considering how Lara had reacted when Mab had let us know the news, I knew I wasn’t anywhere near her preferred choice.

After that bombshell it had taken a few days to figure it out why I had to be the one to be married off. In my defense, I’d been reeling in disbelief and also rather had my hands full. As a mortal, and therefore not as tightly bound to the obligations of fulfilling debts as the rest of the faerie courts, I would be able to help out whenever Lara asked. She wouldn’t have to burn any favors to Mab to get my assistance.

And somehow locking me into a marriage was Mab’s way of getting a tighter hold on me. My grandfather’s words of warning hadn’t fallen on deaf ears no matter what he thought. Although, to be honest, I couldn’t figure out how that was supposed to happen by forcing me to get married. At the moment all it did was make me angry whenever I was reminded of having no choice in the matter.

But just because I couldn’t see the bear-trap hidden in the underbrush didn’t mean that I wasn’t aware it was out there somewhere.

“But she was hardly your first choice,” I said quietly. Why else had Mab taken so long to come to her decision. She was hardly the sort of being to take the time to dawdle. I definitely had the impression that Lara had used her first favor by requesting her alliance before they’d even shown up together in the back of the Munstermobile. And… well, in the battle of Chicago while the White Court had held their own, they had hardly been the most impressive fighters out there.

It made me wonder if there had been someone else at the peace talks whom Mab would have preferred as an ally instead of Lara.

“What if I could secure that alliance instead?”

Mab turned to face me and her eyes flashed. “Unlikely. He has been resistance to any offers.”

He? I winced internally at the idea of my only other option being a man. Then I frowned, wondering who had the balls to turn down an offer of alliance from Mab.

Actually, a rather smart person with great survival instincts. Winter faeries are known for their treachery. No matter how straightforward of an alliance on offer, I’d be wary if I was being offered one. Especially by a Queen of the Winter Court. Even now, if I had a choice about it I wouldn’t be spending my time among them. I couldn’t fault anyone else for deciding to turn down such an offer.

Mab’s cat-slit eyes lifted and scanned across the room full of the representatives of the signatories of the Accords who were part of war against the Formor. Those who hadn’t joined in the battle against Ethniu had been pointedly excluded, and ones who had but weren’t yet signatories, like the Forest Poeple in the form of River Shoulders, were given every honor for having fought.

Her gaze lingered in one place long enough for me to follow its path.

My breath caught as I realized it had landed right on Gentleman John Marcone, the Baron of Chicago, kingpin of its criminal underworld. Oh, and Knight of Hell. Can’t forget that sparkling new and terrifying title.

Oh.

Oh, shit.

My eyes widened for a split-second before I forced my expression back under control. It was a really bad idea to show anything like weakness in this company or to a being like Mab. Even if she was the boss. Maybe especially because she was the boss.

John Marcone. Apparently Mab would be perfectly happy – hell more than happy – to see me hitched to Marcone if it meant securing an alliance with him instead of with Lara.

“If you manage that task, my knight, then I’ll release you from the obligation to wed Lara Raith.”

“Right,” I said blankly. I shook my head and shot Mab a wary look. “If you didn’t manage to convince him of the value of an alliance, how in hell am I supposed to?”

“You have the intelligence to come up with several approaches which the Baron would accept. Among them are tactics that he would not welcome one such as I. For example you could seduce him,” Mab offered, not a hint of amusement in her face at the idea.

Hell’s bells, it can get worse.

Yeah, no. That wasn’t going to happen. Not in a million years. The stars would fall out of the sky first.

I looked away, to hide whatever shock had to be visible in my face. I cleared my throat and managed an evenly toned, “Why him of all people?”

Mab’s eyes shifted away from Marcone and landed back on me like a heavy weight, her power a physical presence I could feel surrounding her. “Because in many ways, in various situations, he has impressed me.”

Well, that completely and utterly spooked the hell out of me.

I stared at Marcone in disbelief. He must have felt the weight of my eyes because he glanced over in my direction his expression cool, calculating and dangerous as always.

I looked away before our gazes could lock.

“There isn’t anybody else?” I asked, trying to sound casual and not absolutely desperate.

“There is no one else,” Mab said calmly, sealing my doom.

Okay, cross that idea off the board.

*-*-*-*

An evening later I was curled on my couch (a huge, ugly and sinfully comfortable used piece of furniture Maggie and I had both fallen in love with which was horribly patterned in green and red) with the burrito blanket around my knees (a castle-warming gift from Butters which looked like a giant flour tortilla Maggie loved using to roll herself into a burrito whenever she saw it) when I found myself distracted from writing out futile plans on how to save Thomas in the journal I held and instead found myself thinking about my mother.

I wasn’t thinking about the usual questions which swirled through me whenever I thought about her, such as what kind of person she’d been, what she’d think of me, what she’d think of what was happening in my life. And more recently, what would she think of Maggie and my decision to raise her.

You know those questions.

No, instead I found myself thinking about her past. About her life in the clutches of the White King. I had absolutely no idea how she’d ended up under Lord Raith’s power. Did she go to him voluntarily? As an ally, at least at first? Or had she had no choice in the matter?

It made me think about the possible relationship I’d have with Lara if I couldn’t find myself a way out of betrothal. I mean, she wanted me dead. She had flat out told me she’d kill me once we saved Thomas. Me being the Winter Knight – and the possibility of annoying Mab – wasn’t enough to stop her. Then there was the fact that even if she changed her mind about my future murder, she couldn’t touch me, literally. Not without giving herself third-degree burns (the reason for my protection made my chest hurt for a long moment before I forced my thoughts in another direction). But it wasn’t a protection I could rely upon. The terms of the alliance with the Winter Court required the marriage be consummated. It was part of Mab’s requirement of ‘a merging of households’.

So if I was forced to marry Lara how long could I expect my protection to last? How long would I have before Mab forced the issue (the thought made me go cold inside in a way which had nothing to do with Winter)? Then it wouldn’t be long until I ended up like my mother. I didn’t know how long I could hold out against a succubus of Lara’s power and a sustained attack without my current protection. A few months? A couple of years?

Nearest I’d been able to work out, my mother had finished growing into her power when she’d ended up in Lord Raith’s hold, so she’d been a helluva lot older than me. She’d been better trained than I was now. She’d had more experience with the supernatural side. She’d already established a reputation – however shady – with the White Council and earned her name among the faerie courts as Margaret LeFay.

She’d been smart, tough and dangerous, yet she’d still ended up trapped among the White Court vampires.

From what I knew of Lara, she would do everything she could to erode my will away. And unlike before, I had the Winter Knight’s mantle which would try to subvert my determination to resist whatever seduction she tried (for a power which seemed to be all about survival it was damned stupid). And while I currently had a hold on the instincts of the Winter Knight, I also had painful proof that my control over it was not absolute.

I had faltered once. I could again. These days, I was worried that I would without the presence of friends who’d fight tooth and nail to save me from myself. My willpower was not enough.

It made me think painful thoughts of my mother’s own will being overthrown by Lord Raith. She’d ended up pregnant with my brother. How desperate had she been? How scared had she been to leave Thomas behind when she had the chance to escape the White King? However willing she may have been at first she sure as hell hadn’t been at the end.

It made me swallow down nausea. It made me hurt to think about it.

She’d left Thomas with them. He’d only been five years old at the time. I couldn’t imagine doing such a thing to Maggie.

If there was one thing I did know about my mother it was that she’d hated the White King.

It said so much that for all the evil she must have seen after leaving my grandfather’s home (she’d known freaking Nicodemus) it had been Lord Raith who’d taken the brunt of her death curse. And she had unleashed her curse knowing she wouldn’t be able to actually kill him. She would only be able to weaken him by making him unable to feed.

I thought about how he had been the one responsible for her death.

A White Court vampire had tormented and killed my mother.

I thought about Thomas’s childhood, growing up in that household. Then how he had barely survived adulthood.

It made me remember a conversation we’d had, where Thomas – who is as devoted to family as I am – said that he hoped Marcone killed Lara. It hadn’t really sunk in at the time. But I found myself thinking about it more and more these days and wishing I’d asked more questions. What had Thomas seen from Lara to make him say that? What couldn’t he forgive? What had Lara become in the intervening years I’d been away from Chicago?

Thinking about being tied to the White Court also made me think about my grandfather. Whose seething hatred for White Court vampires pushed him into completely losing his temper to the point he’d been wild and out of control. Even after I’d told him the truth about Thomas he’d only seen red, willing to kill his grandson. On purpose.

And me, on accident.

It made me wonder in the long hours of the night, what had happened in Eb’s past to drive him to such rage... to such a point of madness.

What had the White Court done to him?

This was the same White Court I was going to be forced to marry into soon unless I defied Mab and probably got myself killed (or tortured to the point of wanting to die), I discovered how to rid myself of the mantle of the Winter Knight and all its obligations, or I married Gentleman Johnny Marcone, criminal mob boss of Chicago, instead.

And I still had no idea how to rid myself of the mantle.

Stars and stones, I had no good options left.

I’d already been down the road of dying to resist Mab. That wasn’t a choice I’d ever consider making again. I wasn’t leaving my kids to grow up without me.

I knew too well the pain of being an orphan. I wasn’t about to inflict such loss on Maggie or Bonnie.

So I thought about it. For hours and hours. Turning it over. Letting it simmer in my mind.

Then I came to a decision. No matter what it took, there was no way in hell I’d let another generation of my family suffer at the hands of the White Court. I wasn’t letting Maggie anywhere near those assholes.

Because if I were to marry Lara Raith and even if we kept it strictly professional with her staying in her mansion while I lived in Castle Dresden it would still paint a target on me and on my mortal daughter. I was fervently thankful that Bonnie’s existence was still a secret from most of the supernatural community so she wouldn’t be in danger, but Maggie would be.

How many White Court vampires were waiting for Lara to stumble in her charade of ‘obeying’ the White King whom she controlled as a puppet? How many were waiting in the wings to challenge and kill her? How many would see attempting to kill or hurt me as a means of striking at her? House Malvora and House Skavis weren’t exactly fond of me after I’d interfered with their last attempted coup.

No White Court vampire who calls human beings kine – cattle – would see anything perverse about striking at me through a child.

And while the smart ones probably wouldn’t do it, especially with the recent history of what I’d done to the Red Court and a Titan, there were bound to be ones too stupid or arrogant enough to believe they’d survive my retribution. Or both since the White Court had no shortage of either. And remembering the White Court’s fondness for cat’s paws, maybe the smartest ones would be more than willing to use the idiots as weapons against me.

Against Maggie.

No. I would do anything to keep that from happening.

Even if I had to marry John Marcone.

Holy crap. I think I was actually going to do it. I was going to ask Marcone to marry me.

...gulp.

Chapter Text

Okay, I may have come to a decision about my future marriage prospects but I had the disturbing realization I had no idea how I’d go about even making Marcone that kind of offer. This wasn’t helped by most of me wanting to gibber in the nearest corner at the idea of voluntarily marrying anyone. It was a feeling made even worse when I thought of a marriage which involved John Marcone in any way, shape or form.

Argh.

I mean I was pretty sure you asked a man to marry you the same way you’d ask a woman. I’m not that ignorant, thank you.

There was just a lot riding on it. Maggie’s safety was riding on it. No matter how uncomfortable it made me I couldn’t get it wrong.

My unease wasn’t helped by knowing my history on that front hadn’t exactly been stellar. The only time I’d ever had the guts to get a ring to ask someone… Susan had turned me down. Even over a decade later the memory still made me ache with could-have-beens and if-onlys.

Oh hell, did I have to get a ring for Marcone?

A chill went down my back making me shivered at the question. And not just because Marcone was a man since marrying another guy had never crossed my mind. It was strictly because Marcone was freaking Marcone. That was enough to scare me.

It would scare anyone who knew him, I swear, it wasn’t just me.

Anyway, I was probably getting ahead of myself.

If I asked him what he thought about marrying me for all I knew Marcone would laugh in my face (well, the corners of his lips would twitch up) or be so insulted he’d have me booted me out of the nearest window. Also I shouldn’t make the assumption he would even accept the offer of forming an alliance with the Winter Court since apparently Mab had tried and failed.

I mean, if Mab hadn’t convinced him my chances of succeeding were astronomically bad.

And then when you considered our history it didn’t improve my already long odds at all. I mean, I had pretty much swindled Castle Dresden (formerly known as Castle Marcone, if only in my head) away from him. Something I knew he was still annoyed about, so I doubted he’d be feeling inclined to do me any favors.

I needed a plan. I needed advice.

*-*-*-*

“Are you sure this is something you want to do?” Michael asked me, watching me with a worried expression. It made the lines around his mouth and the crow’s feet around his blue eyes more pronounced.

I couldn’t blame him for feeling concerned. It wasn’t everyday a friend tells you he was thinking about proposing to Chicago’s infamous kingpin of crime.

Okay, Marcone was only the suspected kingpin of crime. His lawyers were too good to have allowed anything to stick. His record was squeaky clean as far as the general public was concerned. Actually, these days it was better than usual with the rumors of his efforts in defending Chicago circulating among the population. Marcone’s public efforts in providing for Chicagoans in the aftermath of last summer had had his name repeated many times in newspapers with glowing words of praise. Even what he was doing now, which included making resources he had available for those still struggling and his work in the reconstruction of the city gave his image an even brighter polish.

I mean, he even had something of a fan in Butters which I will grumble about forever.

Hell, I’d overheard more than a couple conversations where people talked about how Marcone should run for mayor or governor. Honestly, I couldn’t blame them for thinking he was the best thing since sliced bread considering how Marcone had kept the city working in the weeks after the Battle of Chicago. He’d give people food. He’d brought them water. He’d kept people alive who would have died when aid from the government had failed to arrive in time.

He’d kept barbarism at bay by holding strong the line of civilization.

It even got to me at times and I knew the truth of what he was. He was still a criminal.

Oh, yeah, and also a coin-carrying member of the Order of the Blackened Denarius. Telling Michael about that had gone down like a lead balloon.

“Honestly? No. I don’t. In fact, I think I’d rather cut an arm off, but it’s the best idea I’ve got,” I admitted. Between the cooling gentle breeze, the warming sun and the cold beer I’d been seriously tempted to put my feet up and fall asleep. At least until I’d broached the topic of my crazy idea to my friend. Instead of enjoying a mid-day nap, I was cradling an empty beer bottle in my right hand as I deliberately appreciated the spring green of the Carpenters’ backyard lawn to give Michael time to think.

The main draw-back of living in a small castle with every square inch of the property taken over by its gray stone walls or the small parking lot around the back was the lack of any extra space for a lawn. It wasn’t something that had ever concerned my lone self when I’d lived in my basement apartment but it suddenly seemed a big deal not to have one for my kid and my dog to run around in. Absently, I frowned as I considered the problem. I really needed to do something about it. Sure, the castle was bigger than anyplace I’d ever lived in before, but it was enclosed by walls and it didn’t exactly have a lot of windows. The ones it did have were narrow and didn’t let in a lot of light. And while I could shell out a small fortune to put in bigger windows it kinda defeated the point of having strong, thick stone walls as defenses if I put up glass in their place. Even bullet-proof glass wasn’t that tough.

So during the winter we’d all gone somewhat stir-crazy stuck inside as the snow had piled up. Public parks were a little too public, making me a tempting target for opportunistic assassins. I wasn’t about to put my kid and innocent bystanders in the crosshairs so they were out. Being able to go up to the roof had helped with the cabin fever but only somewhat. The kid needed space to run. And while I knew I was always welcome at the Carpenters, it felt like I should be the one to provide something so basic for Maggie.

I was her dad. It was my responsibility.

“This is a serious matter, Harry.”

“I know, I know,” I muttered. Frankly, I’d rather be worrying about grass.

“Marriage should not be done lightly. You make promises. You make vows,” Michael continued soberly, drawing my attention back to the topic at hand.

I blinked at him, a little surprised that this was Michael’s main concern instead of – you know – who I was thinking about marrying. I rubbed at my face, feeling the scratch of stubble on my left palm as I considered his point.

I said, “Trust me, with my magic I’m well aware of the dangers.”

That was one aspect of the plan which weighed on my mind almost as much as ‘who’ I’d be marrying. Weddings were vows and ritual, once you stripped out the religious stuff. As a wizard, ritual vows were even more tricky than they would have been if I’d been a vanilla mortal. This was actually why on average there weren’t that many married wizards and the ones who did get married took it damned seriously and why those who outlived their spouses almost never married again (I’d heard of exactly two divorced wizards on the Council and they’d been married to each other).

“But if it weren’t Marcone, I’d be making promises to Lara. And while I don’t trust either of them with my life, I trust him with Maggie’s.”

We both looked over to the treehouse where Maggie’s indistinct voice drifted down toward us. Hank and Hope were both up there with her. They were playing a board game. Occasionally an electronic bzzt sounded off which triggered groans and laughter from the trio. It also explained why I wasn’t allowed anywhere near them.

Wizards are walking, talking techno-banes. It wasn’t exactly the best superpower most of the time since it left me out of the tech crazes that everyone else enjoyed. I mean the internet, what was up with that? Or phones that were computers and cameras. Pfft. Clearly some sort of fad. It couldn’t last. We’d be back to rotary phones and having to look everything up in leather-bound encyclopedias in no time.

Allow me my illusions, please.

As Mouse patiently waited for his charge to come down within paw reach, he kept me company by sitting beside me on the porch. He was keeping solemn yet tired eyes locked on Maggie’s location. Earlier he’d worn himself out running around the yard with the kids and he was now fighting sleep. I’d noticed these days that even at the Carpenter home, Mouse rarely relaxed until we were back home.

I wondered if the invisible angels around the property were making him feel like he needed to keep up. Or maybe he was also suffering from the events of last summer. It had been an act of Molly which had kept the Formor servitors who’d gone after our families from succeeding in their mission to kill them.

The angels had been utterly useless on that front. Maybe Mouse thought he needed to make up for their slack and stay on duty.

A good dog. But one who needed a break.

“Hey relax, boy. I’m keeping an eye on her,” I told my dog. I scratched at the thick dark ruff at his neck. Mouse’s tail wagged away happily before slowing as his eyes drifted closed. When he snored he rumbled like he’d accidentally swallowed a motorcycle engine in his last meal.

I wouldn’t put it past the big lug.

“John Marcone has killed people,” Michael said somberly. “Are you ready to expose Maggie to that?”

“No,” I said flatly, giving Mouse a last scratch before pulling away. My hands ended up in fists. “But with Lara… I think she’s worse.”

“Her vampirism, is that what you mean?”

“Yeah, her body count alone is probably a lot higher than Marcone’s, which is saying something. And that’s just the number of people she has to have eaten in all the years of her life. She’s over two hundred years old. It’s got to easily be several hundred people by now. It’s what it would take to feed her and power her up,” I explained grimly. It wasn’t as if I needed more reasons as to why Marcone was a better choice for the simple fact of not being a white court vampire, but I hadn’t been able to stop thinking about the worse case scenario of what would happen if he turned me down and I still ended up forced to get married to Lara. “How many others has she killed on her father’s orders? Or to solidify her throne?”

How many of the unknown number of corpses thrown down in the sunken caves of the Deeps like so much trash had been her kills?

At least Marcone didn’t eat the people he murdered. I was even fairly confident they mostly weren’t innocents either. Every rumor I’d ever heard about people who’d vanished on his orders had been fellow scumbag criminals or those who’d broken his rules. He was still a jerk who peddled misery for money, leaving broken lives in his wake. He was a monster. A remorseless killer. He scared me in ways no one else on the planet managed to do but….

Right now, what mattered to me more was that unlike Lara I could actually trust John Marcone with Maggie. Marcone would never turn her into target. Even if I angered him to the point that he’d try to kill me he would never drag Maggie into our fight. If anything I expected him to go out of his way to keep her out of it. And… something which really mattered to me, if anyone tried to hurt my kid in front of him Marcone would protect her. Hell, he would probably kill whoever made the attempt just for the insult of trying to break his rules about children in front of him. He was the only enemy I had whom I would trust with her life.

Mind you I wouldn’t be happy about it, and I’d only do it if I had no other options, but I could leave my daughter in his hands and return to find her in perfect health and fiercely protected (although I’d owe him so many favors I’d be paying them off for the next ten years). I absolutely had no doubts on that score.

Yeah, it was a weird thing to say about a man I considered an enemy and a ruthless monster, but it was true.

And that was without being married to him, even though I’d threatened him to his face multiple times and knowing he had probably made all kinds of plans to kill me. For crying out loud, he was the one who gave Lara the idea of hiding mines in the walls.

Bastard.

Sitting next to Michael it suddenly struck me that Marcone had also never threatened any of my friends.

And wasn’t like he wasn’t fully aware of Michael’s existence, or Sanya’s, or Butters’s, or the Alphas’.

In all the years I’d been a pain in Marcone’s side how often had he gone after any of my friends and allies? Zero times as far as I knew. He’d never so much as brought up their names to try to get me to do what he wanted (Oh, he did it once with… with… with Murphy… but it was more of a bribe, an offer for him to get her out of trouble with CPD higher-ups, than him threatening her). Instead Marcone had set about manipulating events to get me to do what he wanted, but he’d never tried to use my friends as leverage against me.

Huh. Maybe it was just another sign of the man’s intelligence or his impeccable survival instincts. Going after my friends, even alluding to the possibility, was a quick way to shorten your lifespan.

“And there’s no way you can get out of it?”

“I haven’t given up looking for an out but I also can’t just assume I’ll find an answer in time. I need to have a back-up plan. I can’t afford not to,” I said, grimacing as I admitted, “and he’s the best one.”

Assuming, of course, I could convince the man to join the alliance Mab wanted. Oh, and marry me at the same time.

It hadn’t stopped being a terrifying thought. The only reason I could withstand it at all was that the idea of marrying Lara was a lot worse. Alright, if it were just me, I’d risk it with Lara. I could survive a lot of bad. I’d dealt with pretty damn awful things before. I could withstand whatever she threw at me, hopefully long enough to get out of it with only minimal lasting damage. But I wasn’t the only one on the line anymore.

I wasn’t going to endanger Maggie. At least not more than she was already in danger simply by having the bad luck of having me for a dad.

“This is a pickle,” Michael said drinking more of the beer in his hand. He’d been far more frugal with his swallows than I had been with my beer since he’d only just started his second and I’d just drained down my third bottle.

I was going to have to cut myself off if I planned on driving back home this evening. I’d hate to have to take away my car keys. I was always such a smartass when I demanded I hand them over.

He continued, “I can tell that you are determined to do this. You know I trust your judgment. You wouldn’t choose a path which would bring harm to Maggie. I also can’t help but think that maybe there is purpose to you being so close to Marcone. You could convince him to give up the coin.”

“Ha. Unlikely.”

“You won’t know unless you try. You could be a mitigating force on the influence of Thorned Namshiel,” Michael said quietly.

“Or the other way around,” I pointed out.

Michael snorted. “If Lasciel, a fallen infamously known as the Seducer wasn’t able to convince you to take up the coin, I doubt Namshiel would succeed. It’s not his specialty. He’s always gone down in the Church records as being rather acerbic and impatient. It doesn’t concern me at all.”

I couldn’t help it. A warm glow burst into life in my chest at my friend’s confidence in me. I gave him a grateful look before adding, “And I’ve beaten him before.”

Ah, the memory of smashing Spiny-boy with soulfire made me smirk.

“Exactly, he’s not going to have forgotten that lesson,” Michael grinned back, before asking, “So what exactly do you need my help with?”

I dragged my hand over my face and groaned. “How in the world do I even ask someone to marry me and have them say yes?” I asked plaintively. I peeked through my fingers. “You’re the expert.”

Michael laughed, a low and rolling sound of amusement. “You make it sound as if I’ve asked a bunch of people. I’ve only ever asked one person: Charity.”

I groaned again before dropping my hand away. I slumped in my chair. “I was hoping you had some advice.”

“I was in love with Charity by the time I asked her to marry me so I didn’t doubt my choice. I knew it was right. She’d entered my life for a reason. She was the one.”

“I am not in love with Marcone,” I said dryly. Saying the word sent an unexpected jolt of white pain through me and my mouth tasted of ashes. I reached into the small red cooler filled with ice and drinks which lay at our feet next to a slumbering Mouse. I pulled out a Coke to wash away the taste of loss and ruin. The taste of my favorite carbonated soda helped.

Michael shook his head. “Then all I can recommend is honesty. Tell him the truth. It will be up to him to decide to accept it.”

“Be honest. Okay,” I muttered although frowning at the idea. But thinking it through I had to reluctantly nod in agreement. Nothing good would come out of lying to Marcone about what was driving me.

If he thought I was lying or setting him up for a fall then Marcone wouldn’t take me seriously. He’d say no before I had the chance to explain myself or convince him otherwise.

“Well then, Harry, I hope you get your man,” Michael said, his blue eyes twinkling at me.

I glowered at him.

*-*-*-*

I decided that if I was going to be serious about my plan (really embracing my loss of sanity), then I had to really think through my approach.

If I showed up unannounced and started blowing doors off hinges I’d get myself shot faster than I could say, “Where’s Johnny?” And if I was lucky enough not to get shot, or blown up with mines, there was no way in hell Marcone would agree to an alliance with Winter. He’d be too damned angry over the encroachment on his territory. While the thought of enraging Marcone filled me with unabashed glee, because pissing him off or taking him off guard was guaranteed to bring a smile to my face, I simply couldn’t be that rude to another Accorded member.

Not anymore. Not without getting myself punished by an angry Mab soon after.

Just in offering an alliance, I was representing the Winter Court in an official capacity and not only as its Winter Knight. I was an envoy of Mab’s will. If I insulted Marcone in her name… I shuddered.

So I took my own feelings out of it, including sticking my fear over freaking Marcone into a box and shoving it deep to keep my subconscious company. I ignored the fact I was coming in with what amounted to a marriage proposal and tried to think of my approach in a more objective light.

I had to be ready to convince Marcone of the benefits of working out a more solid alliance with Winter.

And while I could try to approach him in one of the constant Ministry summit-dash-parties which took place while the ongoing war with the Formor required the various members to constantly coordinate together for their world spanning battle, those weren’t exactly private. Even if I found a quiet moment to take him aside, I suspected we’d have too many eyes on us. I wouldn’t trust that anything we said to each other wouldn’t be overheard, not with the abilities some Accorded members had. Hell, I expected all of them to try to eavesdrop.

If I failed… I didn’t think Mab would be pleased with me for making the Winter Court look bad in such a public place.

Anyway, the next summit was over a week away and I couldn’t afford to waste anymore time. I may end up needing it to persuade Marcone to change his mind.

Damn it, I think I needed to make an appointment.

*-*-*-*

A couple of days later, I was on my way to meet with Marcone when I found myself thinking worried circular thoughts such as: How in the world do you get a mob boss, freeholding lord and knight of hell to marry you, especially when they were the same damned – heh – person?

For the first time ever I found myself regretting how often I spat insults in the man’s face. I still meant them and would happily repeat them – loudly and from various rooftops – but they didn’t exactly cast me in the best light as future spouse material.

Oh damn, thinking of myself as a spouse to anyone just froze me in place which wasn’t exactly safe when driving a tank like the Munstermobile (to the other cars on the road since the Cadillac could run someone over and it wouldn’t even slow down its massive momentum). I forced myself to pay attention to my surroundings as I drove to the address where I could find Marcone.

But my thoughts circled back around. I ended up wondering again: What did Marcone want?

Other than to rule the world like any Dark Lord worth his salt.

Ugh… that was probably unfair. Marcone’s ambitions weren’t that extreme.

I hoped.

As far as I knew he only wanted to rule Chicago. Something he was solidly on his way to achieving without me being any kind of help. And now that he was learning magic from Thorned Namshiel it wasn’t as if my magic was a big bargaining chip.

But I did have one thing which I could throw in the pot: My reputation.

I’d always sort of ignored the way others responded to me. I hadn’t liked that the White Council saw me as dangerous. I didn’t like how the Paranetters were now wary of me. I hadn’t liked how worried my friends had become since I’d taken up the mantle of the Winter Knight (even if I shared in their concern).

But everything I was, with everything I’d done, had caused my reputation to grow by leaps and bounds over the last several years. All I’d fought and survived translated to status in the supernatural world. Status which often correlates to power and influence.

There was a reason so many of the supernatural powerhouses guard their reputations. A damned good example was how Nicodemus was fairing right now with his own name in the toilet. He was no longer protected by the Accords, and since he’d been outed as the backstabbing asshole he was, he was being hunted by anyone and everyone with an ax to grind. Considering how many broken lives he had left in his wake he’s got a lot of payback headed his way.

Nicodemus had built his power base over decades, centuries, and millennia. And in less than a handful of years it was in ruins.

That was how important reputations were among the supernatural set.

It was the same reason Marcone had become that much more fanatically protective of his reputation. And why he’d leveled so many threats about not being disrespected by yours truly. It would actually be a hit to his power base if he didn’t address an insult.

And I… well, my reputation had grown in ways I hadn’t truly considered until it had been brought to my attention. If I ignored the Winter Knight schtick...

I’m the Warden of Demonreach. I’m the Wizard of Chicago.

I’ve killed a loup- garou. I’ve killed faerie queens of Summer and Winter. I’ve wielded hellfire and soulfire. I won the duel against Count Ortega. I’ve used necromancy to reanimate a dinosaur and brought down several of Kemmler’s apprentices. I’ve led the Wild Hunt. I’ve destroyed the Red Court of Vampires down to the last member. I’ve walked on the other side of the veil as a ghost and I’ve come back.

I’ve imprisoned the Last Titan. Bound her to my will.

My reputation painted me as freaking dangerous as a nuclear core in the middle of a meltdown.

Never mind that half the time I survived by the skin of my teeth, through luck, or with the support of my friends and allies. Hell, even Marcone a few times.

The fine details weren’t important. Only the end results mattered.

That was what I had to bargain with. All I really had to offer was myself.

I hoped it was enough.

Chapter Text

I wanted to pull at the blue and green stripped tie at my throat feeling certain it was slowly tightening with every breath I took as I walked from my car towards Marcone’s current inner sanctum, ignoring the echoing tightness of nerves in my gut. I tried to force my hands away before I snarled under my breath and pulled the torture device off, sticking it into the pocket of my suit jacket. I adjusted the leather attaché case slung over my shoulder, then made sure I hadn’t wrinkled the black suit, or somehow stained the black inner shirt before undoing the top button to at least make it seem the lack of tie was a style choice. And not a ‘trying to keep the clothing I’d bought from murdering me’ decision.

Yeah, actually bought and it had cost me more money than the rest of my wardrobe combined had so far. Which, okay, wasn’t much. My closet had plenty of space left in it for new novelty t-shirts and jeans but it was the principle of the thing. One set of clothing should not cost more than everything you had to wear put together. That was just wrong.

Normally, I wouldn’t have bothered to spend so much money on someone I wasn’t actually dating (or wear a damned tie). I sure as hell wouldn’t normally have gone to these lengths for John Marcone and not just because he was a bastard. For all his fancy suits and expensive cars, Marcone never struck me as someone who was particularly impressed with the flashy aspects of being rich. Oh, don’t get me wrong he used it, that was clear from his bespoke suits to his imported Italian shoes to his expensive haircuts, but to Marcone it was simply another means of expressing his power. He used the image he created to exert control over people who were easily awed or intimidated by such trappings.

I, on the other hand, didn’t care one whit about wearing suits to impress people (to look like a professional in court was something different) but I needed to show I was on an even footing or at least as close as I ever got. So expensive new suit and new shoes to also convey I was damned serious.

I’d also left my leather duster in the Munstermobile. Not wanting to seem like I was planning an attack, I’d also left behind my staff, blasting rod and guns.

I hated it. And not just the choking tie which had tried to give it its all on its mission to strangle me (maybe it was evil… that was it, I was burning it at the earliest opportunity). Not having the duster made me feel naked. It made my shoulder blades itch, making me too aware of my vulnerability to a surprise attack. It had taken a couple of minutes of mental exercises to convince my instincts that it was okay to leave my magical gear behind.

If the meeting went dicey the only advantage I had was the power of the Winter Knight (which I couldn’t do anything about removing and the whole reason I was here in the first place), my pentacle necklace with the Ways stone, three silver kinetic force rings, a newly made shield bracelet and an experimental copper ring which stored static electricity on the same principle as the kinetic force rings. Although the electrical ring took a lot longer to build up to a destructive force than the kinetic rings, the one time I’ve used it the blast exploded a tree stump into fiery splinters.

I may or may not be calling it a mjölniring.

Okay, I wasn’t exactly going in unarmed but at least I was making the effort not to appear visibly aggressive.

When I’d called for my appointment with Marcone I had expected to be directed to Executive Priority. It was one of Marcone’s brothels, disguised as a high-end gym and health spa. It had been untouched by the violence and destruction which had wrecked so much of downtown Chicago. I knew he kept an office at the place so I’d thought I’d be told to show up there.

Instead, I found him in one of those portable office trailers (you know, the kind which are rectangular bland boxes which kill your soul a little bit every time you see one) on the site of what had been one of the buildings to get knocked down by Ethniu wielding the Eye of Balor. Scores of mafia tough guys, ex-military and assorted gangsters (the distinction was only clear once you got close enough to see the designs of their tattoos) were wearing hard hats and were hard at work in the construction zone. After nearly a year the last of the debris had finally been cleared away and the recovery work had progressed to the building phase.

I wasn’t any sort of building expert but from what my uneducated eye could see they were in a huge deep hole pouring concrete for new foundations. Even knowing these were Marcone’s guys I was struck with a sense of fierce civic pride at seeing them putting a piece of the city back together.

Chicago had been given a set of black eyes, a broken jaw and arm as well as several busted ribs in the battle with Ethniu and the Formor, but she wasn’t letting herself be beaten down for long. She was picking herself up, dusting herself off and after months of balancing on the edge of survival was finally beginning to heal. Chicago was determined to come back the stronger.

A tall blond muscular Einherjar with a braided beard guarded the door to the portable office. I thought I recognized him although I couldn’t quite place where I’d seen him before. He gave me a wide smile after I introduced myself.

“Ah, the seidrmadr of Chicago, welcome! I will proclaim your arrival!” he bellowed cheerfully.

After a few minutes the blond warrior touched his earpiece, spoke with a surprisingly quiet murmur considering his normal volume had appeared stuck on loud before opening the door and gesturing his permission for me to climb up the short steel staircase to see Marcone.

For a split second, I seriously considered the benefits of running away and taking my chances with Lara, who for all the points against her – up to and including her attempts to kill me and her stated goal to actually finish the job – didn’t scare me near as much as Marcone managed on an average day (she still scared me but she was at a seven while Marcone turned the dial up to eleven).

Oh, dammit. I was here for Maggie.

I straightened by back, set my jaw and walked in.

*-*-*-*

Marcone’s office looked surprisingly bare with a couple of city prints on the wall and only a few metal filing cabinets until I realized all the empty spaces had probably contained computers, screens and other technological doodads which would have died in my presence if they hadn’t been whisked away to safety.

“Good afternoon, Mr. Dresden,” Marcone greeted me from where he sat behind a heavy oak desk. He was wearing one of those high-end, tailored gray suits he liked. Marcone glanced briefly at the Einherjar and dismissed him with a gesture. The hulking warrior gave him a respectful nod before closing the door behind me, leaving him to stand guard outside.

I wondered if this desk also held a weapon which could kill a powerful sorcerer like the one I’d been told about. Hmm, knowing how over-prepared Marcone liked to be and how he seemed to have a plan for every possible contingency, maybe the question I should ask myself was not if there were any but rather how many wizard-killing weapons he had tucked away in the drawers.

Although knowing what he had on a silver chain around his neck, did he even need them?

I pushed those paranoid thoughts away. I probably wouldn’t like the answers.

“Baron Marcone,” I said, keeping my tone blandly polite and my back straight. I kept wanting to hunch my shoulders, certain I was going to bang my head on the low ceiling.

Something flickered behind Marcone’s cool green eyes. He straightened in his brown leather chair and watched me with an increased intensity which made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. I didn’t let his stare get to me as I walked towards him and sat in the chair before the desk.

I took a breath before I met his gaze, which was of a color that always reminded me of faded dollar bills. I could meet his eyes, having already seen his soul once I wasn’t about to get another glimpse. Soulgazes were a one-time event, thank goodness. Not that I needed the reminder that he possessed the inner core of a ruthless predator. Or that his determination was as certain and steady as the earth. Or that he was fearless through and through down to the bedrock of his self.

It was the memory of what I’d seen in the soulgaze, what I had seen inside of his soul, that fueled my fear of him.

And here I was about to ask him what he thought about the idea of the two of us getting married. To each other.

Hell’s bells.

I fought down the urge to squirm in the chair.

Marcone said, “I take it you are here on official business.” His pale green eyes narrowed. “On behalf of the Winter Court or yourself, Dresden?”

I blinked, taken aback that he made a distinction between me and the Winter Court. As the Winter Knight most people would have assumed the faerie court and I, their knight, to be one and the same. That I had no other loyalties, having thrown in my lot with them. Or would have thought I was so tightly bound that I couldn’t speak without it being Winter related.

Marcone didn’t make any such assumptions.

Did I forget to mention he was also scarily intelligent? There was a reason he’d managed to hold on to his power for so long, to stay in charge against both mortal and supernatural challengers. He thought about possible dangers and developed and prepared countermeasures. It was his forethought which had given Chicago the ghost of a chance of surviving the battle last summer and its aftermath. He was not about to let it slip by him that I was utterly capable of acting independently from the Winter Court.

“Both,” I admitted. “Although, I’m here mostly for myself.” I opened the leather bag and pulled out a manila paper folder stuffed to the gills with sheaths of paper. Marcone watched me set it before him before arching his eyebrows.

I continued, “I have a...” I couldn’t help it, my mouth quirked, “a proposal for you.”

“And here I am without a lawyer,” Marcone said dryly.

“I’m sure they’re on speed-dial,” I said, matching his tone. I shrugged. “That’s for you to keep so you can have it looked over by them.” It was actually a copy of the treaty worked out between Lara and Mab, with a few choice words edited out or changed – white-out and pen – so that it would apply more to Marcone. That was all I could really do, I didn’t exactly have the pull to make major changes without Mab’s agreement. If Marcone had any major disagreements with any of the terms of the alliance he’d have to work it out with her.

Marcone began reading through the papers. Much faster than I had managed when I’d first gotten them. And I didn’t think it had anything to do with having Namshiel in his head. He was probably a lot more used to the legalese. I had needed to take notes to make sure I understood all the points outlined.

After wading through it all, I’d realized that what it boiled down to was a mutual protection pact. With either member of the alliance being able to call upon the resources of their ally at any point. Attacks between the alliance members and their subjects, or those under their protectorate, weren’t allowed and breaches of the treaty would need to be addressed with much more than the usual weregild. Territories of both needed to be respected but also unmolested transport would be allowed through those lands.

And so on and so forth in the same vein.

I knew the moment he got to the bit of about needing to marry the Winter Knight to solidify the deal because Marcone went dangerously still.

He raised his eyes and stared at me for a long moment, looking for what exactly I couldn’t tell. I didn’t look away, keeping my face expressionless. He didn’t say a word before dropping his gaze back to the papers to continue reading.

I didn’t know what the hell that meant. My stomach started building even bigger, tighter and more anxious knots. The Winter Knight mantle started to stir like it thought I needed to fight off an enemy. I had to force myself to keep my breathing steady while thinking out the numbers in the Fibonacci sequence as I waited for Marcone to finish.

After he was done going through the contract, Marcone closed the manila folder. Then he stared at me with an expression that was even more closed off than usual which, for him, was really saying something. After a moment of silence Marcone said flatly, “I hardly feel like getting in the middle of whatever domestic dispute you are having with Ms. Raith.”

Baffled, I blinked at Marcone. Then I remembered. The stupid plan to make it seem like I was having sex with Lara to hide our rescue of Thomas. And after all these months Marcone was bound to have heard about the betrothal plans from someone, probably an informant. If he didn’t have spies embedded in the White Court (and in the courts of as many other Accorded members as he could get away with) I’d eat my new suit.

If I thought about how it looked, then me showing up to offer him an alliance to Winter (with a marriage attached) would make sense if he thought I was cutting Lara out for reasons related to relationship drama. If we’d been together all this time then it was the only thing which made sense.

“There is no domestic dispute with Lara because there’s no relationship between me and Lara,” I protested.

“Your regular lunch dates with Ms. Raith would indicate otherwise.”

I grimaced. Okay, I only went to those for two reasons. One, Mab was making me. And two, they were the perfect time to discuss the fruitless search for Justine and my lack of progress on how to save Thomas. Being out in public, at a cafe or restaurant, with all those witnesses protected me from an angry Lara. The only reason I’d never argued against calling them dates was that they provided a handy cover to the White Court of what we were up to. Not even Lara wanted it known among the other White Court houses that Nemesis had been inside of her personal assistant. It made her look weak. And I didn’t want them to look too closely into my investigations, either.

I didn’t blame Marcone for having gotten the wrong impression of those meetings or what they said about my relationship with Lara.

I admitted, “I don’t have a choice about those.”

“You attend them on orders of your queen?” Marcone asked.

I nodded. It was mostly true after all.

He continued watching me. The fingers of his left hand were tapping away lightly. “If she intends you to marry Ms. Raith, why would I risk her displeasure by interfering?”

“Lara used a debt to Winter in order to request an alliance,” I explained. I avoided Mab’s name too. I didn’t want to bring her attention down on me today. “My boss only cares that the ally is a strong Accorded member. Frankly, she doesn’t care if it’s Lara or if it’s you.”

Even if she did have a preference.

I nodded at the papers. “Those are the terms they’ve worked out between them. I figured it would be a good starting point for you.” I didn’t doubt Marcone would be able to negotiate a better deal on his own behalf.

Marcone leaned back in his chair. “Your queen extended a similar offer of an alliance but I refused it. I hardly need to codify my business with her into a formal alliance. The current status quo more than fulfills my needs. And it doesn’t require a marriage to anyone.”

My knotted stomach sank to the level around my feet. Hell, I wasn’t convincing him.

“However,” he continued, staring at me with a sharper look. “I am curious as to why you’d bring this to me after all these months when the news of your betrothal to Ms. Raith has already been disseminated out in the world. What do you have to gain?”

“Does it matter?”

“Yes.” Marcone’s cool green eyes hardened into flint. “Because I can’t help but consider the possibility that this is nothing more than a plot to undermine my holdings. The White Court has been relentless in their attempt to extend their influence into Chicago. Any casual observer would consider your interactions with them to be an indicator of whom you’d support. And even if you weren’t an ally to Ms. Raith I’m hardly about to accept what amounts to a marriage proposal from someone who has repeatedly declared his intention to bring about my downfall.”

I stared at him. I closed my eyes, took a deep breath before letting it out and opened them again to see Marcone watching me with a predator’s stillness. I wondered if he thought I was going to attack him with a spell. I ignored his tension.

I said quietly, “It’s not like that, I’m not here on the behalf of Lara. Or even my boss. I only just learned I had an option other than to marry Lara. I have my own reasons as to why I’m here and why I brought this to you.”

“Considering your past eloquently stated opinions of me, Mr. Dresden,” Marcone said sarcastically. The ice in his stare dropped the temperature several degrees until I swore I could feel the air chill. I fought down a reflexive shiver. He continued, “I’m sure you can understand my incomprehension and caution as to why you seem so intent on getting me to accept this alliance.” He rapped the papers with the knuckles of his right hand.

“I don’t want to marry Lara Raith.” I raised my chin, remembering my reasons for being here. It poured steel into my spine. “And it has nothing to do with my feelings about Lara or even about you,” I said fiercely. “I’m only here for one reason.”

Marcone kept watching me.

“My daughter.”

Marcone’s hands tightened for a moment, blanching out the pale scars on his right knuckles, before he deliberately relaxed them leaving his fingers spread on the desktop. It was his only sign that my words had any kind of impact on him. His expression didn’t change but the weight of his attention grew heavier. I knew I’d startled him. He hadn’t expected this particular explanation as to why I was here at all. It weirdly made me feel better. At least Marcone wasn’t always able to see every angle in a situation.

This was the first time I’d confessed to him I had a daughter. Oh, her existence was hardly a secret, nor was the fact she was living with me, but this was the first time I’d ever admitted she was mine to someone I didn’t like and who wasn’t a friend.

I took a deep fortifying breath and continued, “Initially a blending of bloodlines was required for the alliance but not even the Queen of Air and Darkness can demand that of an ally so it was changed to a blending of households. Which means if I marry her I’ll have to let White Court vampires in my home. And I’m not about to let my kid anywhere near those monsters. I’m willing to do anything to prevent it. I’ll marry anyone who won’t endanger her.”

Marcone stared with opaque eyes.

I didn’t know if I was convincing him. I smothered my worry and continued quietly, “Between you and Lara, and trust me I hate saying this, when it comes to my daughter she’s safer with you than with her. Than with them. And that’s what matters to me.” I straightened up as tall as I could get in the chair. Leaning forward I narrowed my eyes at Marcone, saying fiercely, “That’s all that matters to me.”

I let my words sink in for a moment.

“So yeah, I’m here and I’m bringing this to you,” I continued in a calmer voice, tapping the papers in front of him. I added in the most sincere and honest way I knew, “I’m asking you to marry me. Marry me, John.”

For the first time Marcone’s wall of ice cracked. His eyes went wide. His lips parted in shock. And he stared at me looking more thoroughly rattled than I’d ever seen.

For the first time since I’d walked in, he looked away from me and it was kinda fascinating to see Marcone so unguarded. It reminded me that there was a human underneath all that stainless steel armor after all. Um… metaphorically speaking.

But it only lasted a couple of seconds before he regained control of his expression. Although this time Marcone looked more grim when he looked back at me.

“You’ve tried to get out of your impending marriage to Ms. Raith,” Marcone said slowly, like he was finally accepting the fact that I was here because I was running out of options. Not because I had any motives involving me bringing him down.

I nodded. I bit back the urge to quote, ‘Help me, Obi-wan Kenobi. You’re my only hope.’ That I was here was proof enough of my level of desperation. I didn’t need to beg. Although, I would. If he wanted me to, for Maggie, I would.

Marcone’s manicured fingers of his left hand tapped slowly on the papers as he thought.

I’d always been able to read Marcone better than most but even I couldn’t tell what was going through his mind. Some sort of risk/benefit analysis? Asking Namshiel for advice?

I strangled my impatience and sat. And waited. And waited for his answer.

Finally, Marcone said, “Considering a significant number of members in my line of business hold rather… conservative views, I don’t find any of the terms of an alliance with Winter sufficient incentive to deal with the fallout which will affect my holdings when the news spreads that I am married to another man.”

I opened my mouth to argue. To try to convince him to say to hell with any assholes who didn’t like it. It was none of their business who he married when the specificity of his words struck me.

“Wait… there could be terms which would make it worth it?” I asked slowly. I frowned, thinking. The terms for the ally to Winter were rather good. I could see why Lara thought it worth it to burn a favor in order to request a binding alliance. I looked at Marcone. “You’re aware that you’d be able to get as many favors out of Winter as you wanted without going into debt? Including the use of the Winter Knight?”

I hadn’t been happy to learn I’d been bundled in the deal but I also wasn’t exactly surprised. I honestly thought this would be something Marcone would like. He’d recently used me as a weapon to strike against Nicodemus so he couldn’t say I wasn’t a valuable resource.

Ugh, thinking of myself in those terms just made my stomach churn.

“You can’t tell me that it doesn’t appeal to you, being able to call on my talents whenever you run into a problem. And you wouldn’t even have to be sneaky about it,” I pointed out. “No pulling strings. You’d just call me up.”

“Yes, it is intriguing,” Marcone admitted. “Your boss even brought it up when she first broached the idea.”

And it hadn’t been enough, apparently. Oh, damn it.

“Then what do you want?” I asked.

“Tell me, Dresden, do you intend to shed the mantle of the Winter Knight?”

“If you mean, am I going to spend the rest of my life tied to the Winter Court? The answer is no way in hell,” I said.

Marcone’s mouth went up the corners. “I’ve suspected as much. Yet this contract clearly states that a binding alliance with the Winter Court is contingent upon marriage to the Winter Knight. I hardly intend to find myself wed to your successor if I agree to finalize the deal and your tenure ends.”

Holy shit. I hadn’t even considered that. At no point in the terms for the alliance was my name actually mentioned. Only the Winter Knight. So if I stopped being the Winter Knight….

I tried to picture what would happen if Marcone said yes and later ended up forced to get married to someone half as awful as the previous Winter Knight had been. My mind boggled. The Winter Knight would be dead before the day was over. Marcone was sneaky and smart. He’d get away with looking like he had nothing to do with the murder even to someone like Mab.

And if the quality of Winter Knights didn’t improve… Mab would have to start getting a hold of prospective Winter Knights in bulk.

I pulled my thoughts away and focused instead on what Marcone was getting at. “I can get that fixed,” I reassured him. It shouldn’t be hard to get my name added as the specific Winter Knight in question.

“Hmm.”

The hair at the back of my neck prickled and my wizardly-sense tingled in warning. “What more do you want?” I asked warily. Of course it wasn’t that easy.

Marcone’s expression was serious. “I want an alliance with you. Something separate from Winter which would continue even after you leave your queen’s employment.”

“You – you want to work out terms of an alliance with me?” I’d thought this could be the direction it would go but I hadn’t thought he would be the one to bring it up. I said, “You know I’m no longer part of the White Council, right?”

“Yes, I’m aware. It’s a definite point in your favor,” Marcone murmured. “I’d prefer a working alliance with the Wizard of Chicago than with a wizard of the White Council.” A flash of contempt showed on Marcone’s face before smoothing out. He clarified, “A lasting partnership.”

“How long lasting?” I frowned.

“Preferably permanent if that’s what you’re offering.”

At once, I was suspicious and on guard. “You know I won’t agree to that.”

“Then I would accept something on a shorter term, say for the next twenty-five years,” Marcone said in a serious tone as he watched my reaction to his opening bid. His opaque pale green eyes didn’t even flicker at the ridiculous number.

I could feel my eyes widen. He considered twenty-five years short-term? Stars, I know he’d said he was learning to think about time differently, but twenty-five years was hardly a blink of the eye, even for wizards whose life-spans reached three and four hundred with ease. What in the hell did Marcone consider long-term if a quarter century was short-term for him, two hundred years?

This was more time than I’d considered putting forth. When I’d figured offering my support to him would be on the table, I’d thought it would amount to throwing whatever weight I had as the Wizard of Chicago behind whatever he wanted to get done as the city’s Baron. Also that I would need to help him out whenever he demanded it such as standing by him in fights against supernatural attacks or in magical political matters. But a partnership for twenty-five years? I thought I could handle it for at most five years. Maybe ten if pushed.

What he was talking about wouldn’t just tie me to Marcone in the eyes of the magical community. I’d be a known associate of his even among vanilla mortals (if I had any friends left among CPD officers then this deal would kill those relationships dead). I’d have to be public with my support for him during all that time. I could divorce Marcone the day after I shed the mantle, but this would still stick. My connection to Marcone would bring even more scrutiny from law enforcement down on my head.

Which was the point, I suspected. He wanted to know how much I was ready to sacrifice. This was Marcone’s price. At least all he’d mentioned so far. I suspected I was going to face more demands. We were only in the opening rounds of negotiating something which would work for the both of us. And I wasn’t exactly standing in a position of strength. Of course Marcone would try to leverage every advantage he could get. I didn’t really expect anything different from him.

Did I like the idea? No. But I didn’t like the whole being forced to get married to someone I wouldn’t pick in a million years either and yet here I was.

But… I couldn’t help but remember the lengths Marcone had gone to protect Chicago during the battle against the Formor. Or how when I’d confronted him about having a responsibility to the city which went beyond merely claiming the title of Baron of Chicago, he’d actually stepped up. I would have yelled myself hoarse, but if he’d decided to not bother protecting the people I’d brought to him then there was nothing I could have done. The only option I would have had was to stand between them and approaching danger and die in the attempt to play living shield to a couple hundred men, women, and children.

But Marcone did decide to do more. He’d made the choice to shoulder the responsibility of those people’s well-being too. All without gaining any benefit from it. And if the man meant to keep that up, meant to be the Baron of Chicago who continued to protect the city and its people, that was something I had very few qualms about supporting. I mean I had some qualms, it was Marcone after all.

Yet being known as someone who’d have Marcone’s back for the next twenty-five years… only for Maggie would I do it in a heartbeat.

“Yeah, okay,” I said grudgingly. I nodded slowly. “I can do twenty-five.”

Marcone’s eyes widened a little in surprise. He hadn’t expected me to agree.

I felt a flash of regret at the thought that maybe I could have been able to negotiate him down. I shook it off.

“But with limits,” I warned him in deadly serious voice. I locked my gaze on his. “You know there are things I won’t stand for. There are things I won’t support.” He already knew how I felt about his so-called business. If Namshiel’s whispers in his head started leading him down a darker path than that of a criminal which he already walked, I’d be there to stop him. Neither the Winter alliance nor the partnership would protect him from me. Not if the lives of innocents were on the line. Not if he started using the magic he was learning for evil.

Just because I was no longer White Council didn’t mean I didn’t understand the reasoning behind the heavy-handed enforcement of the Laws of Magic. And unlike those kids who ended up as warlocks because they didn’t know any better, Marcone was fully aware of the consequences if he really embraced his Sith side.

I let my eyes flicker to his chest, where underneath his shirt the chain holding the denarius was hidden, before raising my eyes to meet his.

He got it, giving me a slight nod.

“I don’t expect anything different from you,” Marcone agreed calmly. “However, I demand you don’t just accept accusations from others without looking into the matter to verify the truth for yourself.”

I tilted my head questioningly.

“There have been situations in the past where false accusations have been leveled against me,” Marcone explained. “So you better be certain before you act, Dresden. I don’t tolerate betrayal, nor do I forgive it.”

I looked away as I rubbed at my chin. Knowing my history, including how often others had used me or tried to use me as a cat’s paw, the possibility that Marcone’s enemies would try to use me as a weapon against him was all too likely.

“We should probably write these out,” I sighed.

Marcone’s mouth quirked up in amusement before he dug out a yellow legal pad. He wrote out the list in very clear handwriting. He included a lot of elements from the Winter treaty, such as the mutual defense pact, although we did argue over what it meant.

Technically, I’d inherited the guardianship of the Paranet territories of Chicago which they continued defending in my name. The Paranet was still active and after the Battle their numbers were skyrocketing, allowing them to cover a lot of Chicago especially with the Alphas monitoring them. I was considered the big gun they called in if they ran into something they couldn’t handle. Under Marcone’s terms, his guys could call me in too. I grumbled a bit but I agreed to it in the end. No matter what, it was still Chicago I’d be protecting. Even if Marcone was profiting from selling his protection. It was one of his business ventures that had taken off after the events of last summer.

Marcone also wanted to be able to call upon my investigation skills whenever he wanted once I was no longer the Winter Knight. I was grumpy to realize that if he accepted the Winter alliance he could do that whenever he wanted. I managed to get Marcone to accept that twice a year I’d take on a free case on his behalf but everything had to be explained to my satisfaction. For any other cases I’d still better be payed my usual rates.

Marcone had only looked amused when I’d insisted.

Chapter Text

It took the better part of an hour for us to hammer out the details of a partnership which didn’t make my stomach twist too much when thinking about it. It was pretty bare-bones in fine details but solid about what we expected from each other.

Marcone finished writing and looked up at me. “Other than this partnership, what else are you willing to offer?”

I felt my eyebrows go up in incredulity, as I gestured at the notes filling up the legal pad. “That isn’t enough for you?” I grumbled. I frowned before shooting him a look full of suspicion. He wouldn’t be asking if he didn’t have something in mind. “What more do you want?”

“The castle.”

Alarmed, I straightened in the chair. I said firmly, “No, you’re not getting it back.”

“That is yet to be determined.”

“That hell it isn’t. No, it’s mine,” I scowled. “Finders keepers.”

The corners of Marcone’s mouth twitched upwards. He said, “That’s not actually how that’s used.” He leaned forward on the desk, his cool green gaze intent. “Fine, if ownership is not on the table then what I require is access.”

I blinked. “What the hell for? You already took out everything that was in there. Including stuff which had been nailed down.” And screwed into the wall. Or in the walls like the copper water pipes which had been pulled out on his orders.

Have I mentioned that he’d been a sore loser about handing over ownership of Castle Dresden?

“The castle is the single most magically fortified location in the city,” Marcone said flatly. “It is a powerful, ancient spell-resistant bunker which is not easily replicated.”

I got it then. “You want to be able to use it as a shelter.” Which was the reason I wasn’t going to give it up without a knock-down, drag-out fight. Other than the Carpenter home, it was the only place in the city I felt was safe enough for Maggie to live and where I could let down my guard and actually sleep without paranoia about an imminent attack keeping me up and pacing the halls. Without Castle Dresden we’d have to live on Demonreach and the island wasn’t exactly great for Maggie’s commute to school.

It made sense Marcone would want the option of heading to the castle for safety if he faced a magical foe he couldn’t stop, bribe or kill. But if I agreed it would also increased the danger brought to my doorstep. To my kid’s doorstep.

On the other hand, if Marcone got killed while I was still the Winter Knight I suspected Mab would find someone else to marry me off to before I knew it. It could easily end up being someone worse than either Lara or Marcone, too. Ugh.

“On two conditions,” I said, raising my right hand up to show him the count (my middle finger may have gone up first… accidentally). “One, you try to do everything you can to avoid being followed. And two, you warn me you’re showing up and what’s after you. Even if I’m not home when you show up you still need to let me know what I’m walking into.” It would also give me time to get Maggie over to the Carpenters. Or at the very least let me prepare the defenses and stock up on weapons from the armory. Yes, I had an armory. It was something which filled me with way too much blood-thirsty delight.

The gargoyles which defended the outer walls were pretty damned great, but they were limited to close quarter physical attacks. They weren’t much use on the magical energy front, or if someone decided to throw the equivalent of a magical bomb or used an actual rocket launcher to attack the walls from down the street. Fortunately, the original owner of the castle had taken care of that as well by creating some heavy-duty protection spells which were part of the stonework and therefore not easily overcome. And while I wasn’t looking to test their limits anytime soon, I thought it would take direct bombardment from a tank to knock down a wall.

The castle’s defensive spells made my old basement apartment’s shields look like paper-thin walls you could poke through with a careless finger. I took a moment to be glad I’d worked out how to activate the spells which had come with the castle, as well as reinforcing the protections with my own magics.

“If time permits,” Marcone agreed. “Considering the nature of what would bring me seeking sanctuary that may not always be feasible.”

“Just remember my kid lives there too,” I said grimly, my voice dark with warning.

Marcone nodded, his expression serious. “I won’t forget.”

His acknowledgment made me relax. Because I did trust him to avoid putting Maggie at risk if he could help it. I made a mental note to build a pass-key for Marcone so he could enter Castle Dresden without being fried by the wards.

“Alright. Is that the last of it?” I asked, feeling weary. I rolled my shoulders feeling antsy to get back home. To put on my duster. This was the single longest time I’d spent in Marcone’s presence, especially alone. It may have been my idea but I still wanted it over with already.

It was a minor miracle neither of us had said anything to annoy the other or start a fight this entire time. I kinda wanted to end our meeting on a high note. Also I wanted my answer. He hadn’t said yes, yet.

I cleared my throat, “If have an answer –”

“It’s not,” Marcone said coolly, cutting me off.

I sank back into the chair. Of course it wasn’t. I fought off a groan, as I ran a hand through my hair making it even more disheveled. “What more do you want?” I asked reluctantly.

“A great many things,” Marcone said lightly, making me snort. “However, I will settle for your secrets.”

I stared at him, aghast. Marcone looked at me patiently.

“You want my secrets,” I repeated in disbelief.

I – I hadn’t expected that. Of all the things which Marcone could demand of me. My secrets? I was a wizard! Keeping secrets was not only in the job description, it was practically a way of life.

They practically made you sign in blood ‘I will keep all magical secrets to myself’ when they handed you the stole for wizardrly. But then I remembered. I wasn’t a wizard of the White Council anymore. I’d been kicked out. Any oaths I’d sworn, any promises I’d made to keep Council secrets… they sure as hell didn’t apply anymore. And they couldn’t convince me keeping their secrets was worth it.

But I had more than White Council information in my head. Sure, some of it was personal. But some of them were secrets which weren’t mine to tell. Including more than a couple which could cost me my life if I shared them with someone else.

What exactly did Marcone want to know? It wasn’t like Namshiel couldn’t fill in a lot of his information gaps. The damned angel’s specialty was magic, with him Marcone had a greater trove of knowledge on magical matters than I did. Or Marcone could always get information from Vadderung, wasn’t that one of the reasons why Marcone had a client contract with him?

Why was Marcone so hell-bent on getting my secrets?

“Consider it as bringing me up to date on various situations you know about, if it will make you feel better,” Marcone said as he sat back in his chair. His expression was calm as he kept watching me.

I narrowed my eyes. “Not a mutual exchange of information?”

Marcone shot me an amused look. “No,” he said. “It is not.”

It reminded me all over again that I was the one asking for help here. I shouldn’t be surprised he was looking to pry every possible advantage out of the circumstances that he could.

I throttled down my temper.

“You know there are things I can’t tell you,” I said. “And I would think you wouldn’t want me to get into the habit of spilling secrets which aren’t mine to share.”

Exactly what – or who – I was talking about hung in the air between us before Marcone gave me a reluctant nod. “A valid point. But considering how often you end up in the center of whatever catastrophe is looming on the horizon, or how often you appear to have access to the best solution, I’d prefer to be read on to what you know than to have to find out at the last moment. Not only do I wish to know of any potential dangers, but also I want to be kept appraised of anything else you discover as you conduct your investigation business in Chicago. No matter how personally discomforting it would be to you. I don’t intend for your secrets to threaten my holdings or bring danger to those under my protection.”

I thought about it. And I couldn’t help but remember the last time someone had demanded I stop keeping her in the dark, and actually bring her in on the things I faced. How she’d wanted no more secrets between us so she could do her job, protect her people and the city.

I swallowed and forced the aching memories back.

“I’m not just going to tell you everything.” Marcone frowned. I continued, plowing through before he could object. “But if you have questions about something I can answer, something which is mine to tell, I’ll let you know.” I straightened my back and shoulders. “But only after this – ” I tapped the manila folder before him, “is done. I’m not going to be sharing anything right now.”

Marcone’s eyes narrowed. “I accept those terms. However there is one question I want answered before I consider agreeing to anything.”

Wait… he hadn’t even made up his mind to say yes yet? Great.

“What exactly?” I asked warily.

Marcone’s stare was like a drill. “Why did you spend all those months on the island when you had to know the Formor servitors were taking people from Chicago?”

“I – what?” I said, taken aback. That was not the question I was expecting from him. I’d thought he’d want to know the location of the Eye of Balor. Even the Spear of Destiny. I frowned, puzzled. “Why does it matter to you?”

For the first time since I’d sat down before him I saw embers of anger in his expression instead of his usual icy calm. “Considering how many of your own allies were under the impression that you would soon return, and how many of the people you always insist need protection were taken or injured in that span of time, ones who may not have been endangered had you been in the city; yes, I wish to know the answer. What kept you away, hero?” The sarcasm in his low voice was a blade with a razor’s edge which threatened to draw blood.

My stomach sank. I had made it a point not to even think about the real reason why I’d had to stay on Demonreach when I wasn’t safely behind my wards. Too many supernatural beings could pluck thoughts out of your head without you being the wiser. It was easier to just not think about it, putting it out of my mind.

Keep it secret. Keep it safe.

“I had a medical condition,” I said finally. It was the closest I could get to the truth.

“What sort of medical condition?”

Instead of answering, I asked, “Why is it so important to you?”

Marcone steepled his hands before him. He studied me over the tips of his fingers. “Because it is highly uncharacteristic of you, Dresden. I thought it a sign of the changes wrought to your personality due to becoming the Winter, but then you proved otherwise on the night of the battle against the Formor. You haven’t changed. So, it is an anomaly. I’m not fond of those. They are often indicators of unseen problems.”

I shook my head. I couldn’t just tell him.

Marcone’s eyes went flat. “I’d reconsider. Because this is knowledge I insist upon having before I make my decision whether or not to accept a binding alliance with Winter.”

And marriage to me. Oh, shit. Oh, shit.

I rubbed at the back of my neck as I looked away from him again. “I need to think about this,” I finally said.

“I will give you three days,” Marcone continued. I could feel him studying me. “But then I want my answer. Or you should accept the fact that you will be married to Ms. Raith, Mr. Dresden.”

I hid a wince. He hardly needed to remind me why I was in his office in the first place.

After several seconds of silence ticked by, Marcone added in toneless voice. “I also have a final concern I wish to address.”

Warily, I looked up and frowned at him. “Oh, what kind?”

Marcone tapped the manila folder with the Winter treaty. His pale green eyes were locked on mine as he said, “Are you aware that the Winter Court requires the marriage be consummated?”

My mouth went dry even as my hands felt sweaty. I had been trying not to think about it, in all honesty.

“Yeark.” I cleared my throat to get rid of the frog which had croaked out that response. “Yeah, I’m aware.”

Marcone’s expression was inscrutable again as he stood up and walked around the desk to my side.

I watched him warily. He stopped right at the edge of my personal space. I had to resist the urge to push against the floor with my feet to roll the chair away on its casters.

His gaze was locked in on mine in such a way it felt dangerous to look away. I tried not to feel like the mouse hypnotized by the snake.

We stared at each other for a long moment before he demanded, “Kiss me.”

“Sure, if you say yes,” I said at once, not even thinking on my response. Then I blinked as my brain caught up with my mouth, then my eyes widened in shock. “Wait, I thought you were straight.”

Marcone raised a skeptical eyebrow at me. “When have we ever had such a conversation?” he asked pointedly.

Yes, I had been assuming. And apparently making an ass of myself by it. In my defense, the only person I’d ever seen with him had been a woman so it wasn’t exactly out of nowhere.

Marcone continued watching me, clearly noting I wasn’t making any move towards him. “If you can’t even kiss me, Dresden,” he asked dryly, “how in the world will you be able to handle the wedding ceremony? Or the wedding night?”

I couldn’t help it. My cheeks heated at once.

I looked away from him and focused my attention on a convenient print of an unfamiliar skyline he had on a wall. It took a moment to realize it was a future concept of what Chicago would look like once its skyscrapers had been rebuilt. It looked great.

I scowled at it anyway as I said, “I figured we could work it out and end up with something which we could both deal with.”

Of course, I’d been thinking Marcone wouldn’t like the idea of having sex with a man, much less with me, and would be as willing to do anything to get out of it.

I was starting to get the sinking feeling I’d been really off the mark there too.

“I don’t believe you can, Dresden.” I jerked my gaze back to him to see Marcone frowning at me thoughtfully. Then he shook his head. “And if that is the case, then this endeavor has been nothing more than an intellectual exercise bound to fail.” He turned to head back to his chair.

I blurted out. “No. Wait.”

He turned back to me.

“Nothing’s changed,” I said, not letting myself think too hard on what I was agreeing too. I swallowed down hard. “Okay,” I said again in a firmer tone, trying to make it sound like I knew what the hell I was doing kissing a man.

Marcone came closer, eyeing me carefully like he thought there was a chance I would get violent.

It made me mentally grimace and feel like a total jerk. So I forced myself to relax. Marcone pressed his left hand to my shoulder. His scarred right knuckles briefly touched the underside of my jaw before his surprisingly warm fingers gripped my chin and lifted me to meet him.

I panicked. I pressed my hands to his chest to keep him from moving.

“Mr. Dresden.” Marcone’s voice was quiet. He made to move away but I ended up bunching his clothes under my hands to get a grip to stop him.

“Wait… it’s not you… it’s just...,” I flickered my eyes away as I said, my voice low and pained, “the last person I kissed was… was Karrin Murphy.” And it hurt. It hurt. It hurt that this last sense-memory of her was going to be replaced. “Keep… keep that in mind.” I finally dropped my hands away from Marcone as I met his gaze again. His expression softened.

Marcone’s slow acknowledging nod showed he understood the steep cost of what he was demanding.

I closed my eyes not wanting to see the hit coming.

It wasn’t much help. It wasn’t like I could make myself think I was being kissed by someone else. The hand at my jaw was too broad. The scent he wore, some expensive cologne, was too masculine, too distinctive, smelling of leather, cedar and petrichor. It was a scent which I’d smelled on Marcone before, making it obvious even without opening my eyes as to who was about to kiss me.

I tensed up, my hands clenching tight on the arms of the chair, but I didn’t move away.

I don’t know what I expected. I hadn’t spent any time thinking about what it would be like to kiss John Marcone. But I was still taken by surprise at how gently he started the kiss. Nothing more than a brush of warm, soft lips against mine. Although the feel of rasp from his growing stubble against my own was such a new sensation I nearly jerked away before I stopped myself.

Then Marcone pressed closer, tilting my head back even further as his mouth grew slowly more insistent. The flicker of his tongue against the seal of my lips made me realize I should probably start participating at some point. Reluctantly, I parted my lips but instead of invading my mouth with all the finesse of a bull in a china shop Marcone kept the kiss gentle. Teasing.

Grudgingly, and if a loaded gun was held to my head, I would admit it wasn’t terrible.

Minutes ticked by as he kissed me and my tension started ratcheting down when nothing exploded and the world didn’t end.

As if he’d been waiting for me to relax, that was when Marcone kicked the kiss into a higher gear, going from zero to one hundred miles an hour in five seconds flat.

The kiss became hungrier, wetter, slicking my mouth. Marcone’s grip on me became firmer. The flat of his tongue pressed against mine with confidence as if he was absolutely certain of what he was doing.

I was so startled my eyes flew open. That was when I saw Marcone’s expression. His eyes. Half-lidded. Hot and hungry. Watching me. With irises a darker green than I’d ever seen on him. He looked like kissing me was something he’d been wanting to do for a long, long time.

Something about seeing desire on Marcone’s face. About feeling how sincere he was at that moment, sparked a heat in my gut. And my heart began pounding. My breath caught in my throat.

I jerked away, shoving Marcone back. Only then did I feel the stir of the Winter Knight’s mantle. And it hit me, that what I’d been feeling was me. It was all me.

No. No way. It had to be the mantle. I just hadn’t been paying close enough attention to the effect it was having on me. That was all.

For a moment Marcone and I stared at each other as we both panted for breath. His breathing was harsher than mine. His eyes dropped to my mouth for a moment before he looked up to meet my eyes again.

And I knew, I knew down to my bones that if I showed him the slightest indication I was willing, that I wanted him back, I’d find myself kissed again. Or, hell, bent over his desk before I could protest that I wasn’t that kind of guy. It was there in the smoldering heat in his eyes, in the wetness of his reddened lips and in the way he looked at me like he wanted to kiss me. To taste me on his mouth again.

Like he wanted to strip me down and devour me.

I looked away as I rubbed at my mouth trying to get rid of feeling of Marcone’s kiss before I looked back at him. “I can handle it,” I said, my voice sounding harsh in the silence broken only by our heavy breathing.

Something I could have sworn was regret flashed across Marcone’s face, but it was gone too quickly for me to be certain of what I’d seen. His usual poker-face was back on, wiping every trace of what he’d been feeling away. It was actually scarily impressive how quickly he could get a hold of himself. If I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes I never would have guessed that just a few seconds before he’d been close to being turned on.

Over me.

Holy crap. I needed to get away to think.

“Mr. Dresden… I’m still not convinced,” Marcone said quietly.

I shoved away my worry, my discomfort, and stiffened my spine to meet his eyes again.

“Truthfully, do I want to kiss you? No, I don’t,” I said flatly. “But then I don’t want to kiss Lara either.” Even if I had kissed her a few times. It wasn’t something I wanted to repeat. At least Marcone hadn’t tried to mind-whammy me at the same time. Which actually put him ahead of Lara on my willingness to kiss again scale. Erk. “But I’ll do it. I said I can deal with it and I meant it.”

Marcone’s brow was furrowed and to my surprise he looked away again. “I guess my concern is baseless without first getting the answer to my question.” He sighed and looked back at me. “That addresses everything which had come to mind. So I do believe we are finished for the day.” He leaned back in his chair.

“Goodbye, Dresden,” Marcone added pointedly when I didn’t move.

I got out. I managed to keep from running out, too aware of the number of eyes on me from the construction site until I reached the Munstermobile. After pulling on my duster, I sat in the driver’s seat. I closed my eyes and swore under my breath.

Damn it.

I rubbed at my face. Then at my lips again, where I could still feel the phantom press of Marcone’s mouth. Part of me wanted to curl up and grieve over no longer having the certainty of knowing the last person I kissed had been someone I loved. Another part of me grumbled... because that goddamn sneaky sonuvabitch had gotten a kiss out of me. Yet another part of me remembered Marcone’s expression as he was kissing me and it just made me feel awkward. Like I’d accidentally exposed a deeply personal and private secret which I was never meant to learn.

My cheeks were feeling red-hot again… argh.

I forced myself to think, to focus

Marcone still hadn’t said yes to my proposal.

I hadn’t completely failed. He may not have said yes but Marcone hadn’t said no either. More than the kiss, I was actually worried about what he wanted to know. The reason for why I’d been on Demonreach for all that time. How much was I willing to tell Marcone?

Dammit. Dammit, I had another decision to make.

Chapter Text

It wasn’t until I was home with the heavy wooden door closed safely behind me that I let myself relax. I waited until I was certain the wards were up before even thinking about what was worrying me. Hell, the mantle’s reaction to the kiss was also weighing on my mind but it wasn’t my priority right now.

Marcone wanted to know about Bonea.

He may not realize what he was asking, but ultimately that was what he wanted to know. The whole reason I’d been on the island was because she’d been in my head, growing too big for it and ready to be born. I had been, for all intents and purposes, pregnant. Spirit pregnant.

For all that Bonnie’s existence was known by my close friends – Mab and who knew how many Denarians – I’d been keeping her a secret as much as I could. The same way I’d safeguarded Bob over the years. I kept her out of public. I kept her behind my wards. I tried to not even think about her when I wasn’t home. I didn’t want so much as a whisper of a rumor of Bonea to get out to any ambitious sorcerer who would see her vast pool of angelic knowledge as a resource to exploit. Or for any word of her to get back to the White Council.

I’d had nightmares about what would happen to Bonea if the White Council learned of her existence. Or even worse, through them, what the Black Council would do. My fear of not only what they could do with her but what they would do to her was… intense. I still wake up some nights with devastating images playing before my mind’s eye.

My spirit daughter was in so many ways much more vulnerable than Bob. And vastly more powerful.

He had said so himself after he’d met her in person… well, skull to skull.

“You know how Spirits of Intellect work, boss. Knowledge is literally power and a part of us. Your kid… not only does she have a copy of what little is in your head –”

“Hey,” I protested mildly.

Bob ignored me, “But she also has the sum of all of Lasciel’s knowledge. Lash was a copy of freaking fallen angel! Do you have any idea how powerful that makes Bonea? Not even a year old and she could wipe the floor with me without even breaking a sweat.” The orange lights which Bob used as eyes looked wide and alarmed in the sockets of his skull.

The sight made me stir uneasily in my seat.

“But you know what’s even more terrifying?” Bob asked, solemn in ways I rarely saw from him.

I shot him a wary look. “What?”

“She inherited your free will.”

Confused, I frowned, “How is that a bad thing? It sounds like a good thing to me.” One of the problems caused by Bob falling into the wrong hands was that he could be used to do harm. By anyone who possessed his skull. He was rather like the genie from Aladdin in that way, he couldn’t not obey. Even if he didn’t want to, he could be used to hurt innocent people.

But unlike that movie’s hero, I’d never figured out how to free Bob from his bindings. Whoever held his skull commanded him.

“I don’t know how you could think it’s good,” Bob snorted in disbelief. “You don’t even like the idea of me running around with no holds barred.”

“Only because you set off orgies,” I grumbled, narrowing my eyes at him.

“Well, yeah… err... that’s not the point. She’ll be worse. She has none of the limitations of an angel, none of the restraints which limit their influence on the material world,” Bob said. “Harry, the best way I can describe her is as a loose bomb. Only one that can determine for herself when and how often she goes off.”

I rubbed at my face. “Bonnie is just a little kid, Bob.”

“Yeah, a little kid, which is even more scary. Because like any child she can be unreasonable, or easily swayed, scared, or even just plain tricked into exploding,” Bob pointed out. “I can’t even image what her first temper tantrum is going to be like. And right now she’s practically a newborn. She’s only going to get more powerful as she grows older, gains even more knowledge and develops control of her abilities. If she’s a large bomb now then at some point she’s going to grow up into a mega-ton nuke.” Bob’s voice grew even more worried. “She’s part angel and has no limiters, so when she goes off… the effects will be felt on more than the spiritual plane, Harry. Think Pompeii or Mount Tambora or the 1556 earthquake in Shaanxi, China. Oh man, if she really tries, maybe even as bad as those Youtube predictions of what will happen when the supervolcano in Yellowstone goes off.”

I felt a chill run down my spine. Then I shook it off and shook my head. “No,” I said firmly. “I’m not putting any bindings on her.”

“She’ll be a mega-ton angelic nuclear bomb, Harry!”

I shot him a cutting glance. “How many wizards on the Council were saying I was just as dangerous when I was a kid? Are still saying it about me?”

The jaw of Bob’s skull clicked shut against his teeth and his glowing eyes dimmed as he looked away from me.

“Even now, how many of them want my power leashed and under control because they consider me a danger to innocent people? Hell, to them?” I continued harshly. “No, I’m not doing that to Bonea. Like you said, she has free will. I’m not going to take it away from her.”

I wasn’t going to cripple my daughter’s ability to make her own choices. Just the thought made me nauseous. Bonea was my child. My job was to protect her. The last thing I was going to do was clip her wings.

Yes, she needed to be watched over carefully. Yes, Bonnie needed guidance. Yes, she had the potential to be dangerous, but that was true for every person who had free will. That was sort of the point. Being able to make decisions came with the potential to make wrong, awful, evil choices as well as extraordinarily selfless, compassionate and good ones.

Bonnie was a child. What she needed most was to be protected and given time to fully grow into her own person who knew her own mind.

She needed to know she was loved, cherished and safe. Just like every child deserved.

I sighed and rubbed at my aching eyes. I’d been awake too many hours. I needed to get some sleep. I appreciated that the Carpenters were giving me a bed to sleep in until the hole in the castle’s roof was fixed. I really should use it. Hopefully, I’d get some shut-eye some time this week.

“Look, Bob, every parent worries about how their kids will turn out. What they’ll become as they grow up. And in that sense I’m in exactly the same boat for Bonnie and Maggie. All I can do is teach the girls my values, what I think is right and wrong, and why. And then hope they’ll agree with me and make it a part of themselves too. Actually, I’m betting on them being better people than I could ever hope to be.”

And happier. Please, please. Let that be the case.

“I hope you’re right, boss,” Bob finally said quietly, eyelights flickering back to me. “Because she could just as easily start listening to the wrong people. And if you thought Evil Bob was bad… Bonea could become a nightmare like no one has ever seen before, and not just in the spirit realm but also to the people on this side of the veil.”

As I remembered my conversation with Bob, I couldn’t help but feel fear settle in my gut like a lump of granite, cold and hard. I swore loudly, thankful that Maggie wasn’t home.

I hadn’t planned on bringing Bonnie to Marcone’s attention. Hell, I didn’t know who I was more worried about, whether it was Marcone or Namshiel.

Bonnie was a child. For all of her knowledge and intelligence she reminded me of a really young kid a lot of time. I mean, she struggled with the concept that items moving due to momentum wasn’t an indicator of life. Lately, I hadn’t been able to get her to accept the fact that fire wasn’t a living creature. I had to wait until she was out of the room before I could snuff out a candle or she got upset.

Like I said, she was very young and there was so much she didn’t understand.

Under Marcone’s rules about children she would be protected, same as Maggie. She was almost two years old, so that had to count for something. Only she was also a Spirit of Intellect. I had no idea where that would make her fall in Marcone’s estimation. Would he see her as a kid first or as an inhuman spiritual entity?

Which would Marcone think of as more important?

If Lasciel had considered Bonnie too valuable to leave in my head and had been willing to fight to rip her out of me to save her, what would my kid mean to Namshiel and Marcone? Especially if either realized how much power he’d gain from having her in his control.

The hell with that! I’d rip him apart if he tried to influence her. Either. Or both if that was what it took.

Goddammit, I wasn’t about to risk Bonnie for Maggie’s sake. I couldn’t do that anymore than I could risk Maggie for Bonnie. They were both my kids. Like my id had so eloquently stated: Protect the offspring. At all costs and against all threats.

But… I couldn’t deny that one helluva important point to consider was how Marcone looked to be in control of his partnership with the Fallen. It was something I didn’t expect him to ever willingly give up. It wasn’t in Marcone’s nature to give up his free will to another. It wasn’t in the steel of his tiger-soul.

It may have been over a decade since I first saw Marcone’s soul, but that determination ran so strongly through him I doubted that it would easily change. So I had to ask myself: In a contest of will power, who did I trust to win? A damned fallen angel or Gentleman John Marcone? A powerful spiritual entity older than humanity itself or a mortal man with steel in his predator soul?

I doubted Marcone had so much as gotten within ten feet of the coin without being fully aware of what he was risking, and the potential corruption of his autonomy which he was exposing himself to by picking it up. So yeah, John Marcone would win. And he wouldn’t be easily tricked or scammed into giving up his freedom.

I paused my pacing and let the certainty of that realization sink in as I breathed.

Okay, so if (yeah, I was aware it was a big if) I could trust that Marcone would remain in charge and make all the decisions, then what I needed to do was get Marcone to see Bonnie as a child first and foremost. Only then would she be safe and off limits, the same way that Maggie was protected. No matter what Namshiel whispered in his ear Marcone wouldn’t budge on that.

Not even if his own life was on the line.

But how did I convince Marcone to see Bonea for the young child she was when she was little more than a spiritual entity in a skull?

I mean, sure, he may have an entity of his own in his head, but that experience didn’t automatically mean he’d be able to see the child in a glowing green ball of light housed in a wooden skull. Humans aren’t wired that way. I mean, give us enough time and we can make friends and develop all kinds of fond feelings for anyone or anything (just look at the predators we let live with us which we call pets), but for decisions based on first impressions… a wooden skull just wouldn’t cut it.

I paced the halls of my castle as I thought.

...unless I could conjure a body for Bonnie to inhabit so Marcone could see the truth of who she was with his own eyes.

With that idea as a foundation a possible plan started coming together. It was based on a couple of projects I had been thinking about but which had kept being pushed back down on the To Do list as more urgent matters had demanded my attention. But if I got started on them now… I thought I had enough time to put everything together to make my plan work.

Although, damn, I also needed to tell both my kids about Marcone. Maybe not all the details since they weren’t exactly kid friendly. But there was no way I was going to drop a stranger in on Maggie without warning.

Okay, okay, I could do this… after all I’d known Marcone for years now. Oh stars, this was going to be weird to explain. Maybe it was better if I just kept it simple. He was someone I worked with, someone I’d known a long time (damn, has it really been nearly two decades?), and someone I wanted them to meet.

That was all.

*-*-*-*

After two days I called Marcone from my office. It was a first floor room I’d claimed for running my private eye business. It also had one of the three landlines in the entire castle.

“Mr. Dresden, I take it you have come to a decision,” Marcone said, as soon as he came on the line.

Even without him in the room I was mentally transported to when I’d seen him last.

“Yeah,” I said, rubbing at my mouth. Faint crackles of static started to sound through the phone line. I put a clamp on my emotions, not wanting my magic to kill the call before I was done. “But it’s not something I can just tell you over the phone. I’ll need to show you.”

The skeptical air on his side practically poured out through my end of the phone. “Your medical condition?” he asked, his tone mockingly polite.

I scowled. “You’re the one who’s determined to know my secrets. Come to the castle tomorrow. At noon. Don’t bring any bodyguards.”

“Hmm, not exactly the most courteous invitation I’ve ever had extended to me,” Marcone said, his tone cooler.

The hint wasn’t anywhere close to subtle.

“Yes, I’m inviting you. You’ll be my guest,” I said, rolling my eyes. He couldn’t possibly still think I was setting a trap. Paranoia, thy name was Marcone.

He knew why I was bothering to give in to his demands. My circumstances hadn’t changed. I still had no intention of getting married to Lara. Even with all he was demanding in exchange Marcone was still the better option. However, if he felt better knowing he would be under the protection of guest rights then he had his invitation. “12 o’clock. Wear comfortable shoes. Oh, and skip lunch.”

“I’ll be there,” he said. He hung up before I could get in another word.

I glowered at the phone before dropping the handset of the rotary phone back onto its cradle. Then I opened my door and popped my head out of my office to find Maggie waiting anxiously right outside. She looked up at me with a questioning look in her wide brown eyes, even as she held Bonnie’s skull tightly in her arms.

Bonnie’s current skull was painted like a Mexican sugar skull. Maggie had insisted at least one (she really thought they all should be) needed to be painted white and decorated with flower designs and all sorts of geometric shapes and colors.

I couldn’t disagree with her logic that all skulls needed to be beautiful and painted, especially those for her little sister (Bob had begged not to go through the same process and I’d agreed although one of these days I may do it just to see his reaction when he woke up painted with flowers). I will say it was a freaking hassle to get right since I didn’t consider myself an artist… well of the Art – yes, it counts – but that was magic not paint. But it had been worth it for the way Maggie had beamed at me after it was done.

So two adorable girls and one handsome dog had been waiting for the news.

“Well, guys, he accepted. The picnic barbecue is on.”

“Is this good?” Bonnie asked, her glowing green eyes looking at me.

“Yes, it is,” I said, nodding.

“Why?”

“Because we get to have some fun.”

“Okay!” Bonnie said, green lights swirling all around her skull. It was something she’d started doing in the last couple of months and used any excuse to show off.

Maggie looked like she still wasn’t certain about meeting someone new even after a couple of days for it to sink in but was willing to go along with it. Brave kid. Mouse’s tail wagged and he headbutted Maggie in the side until she giggled.

“Can it also be a tea party?” Maggie asked as she tried to cuddle both Bonnie and Mouse at the same time.

I grabbed Bonnie’s skull before it was accidentally dropped to the floor. It was tough. I’d made more skulls once I had my lab up and running because I’d still owed Bob a debt. And I may have been a bit paranoid about Bonnie not having a safe place to stay during the day. With the extra practice I’d been able to upgrade Bonnie’s digs since I was firmly against the idea that phenomenal cosmic power should go hand in hand with itty bitty living space. So I knew the new skull could take a lot of punishment as it was now made of hardwood and the antler was reinforced with a silver inlay.

But however tough the new skull was, it still made me wince every time I saw Bonnie go bouncing on the stone floor. It always reminded me of how I kept intending to get the hallways carpeted and not just the bedrooms. That was also down on the To Do list. Way down.

“Sure,” I said smiling, holding Bonea loosely in my hand so she could move as she wanted. Her excitement was so high that her skull was vibrating gently against my palm. “A picnic barbecue tea-party. Why not? We can hit the stores, buy food and tea. And a teapot.”

“And tea cups!” added Maggie. She gasped in delight. “Can we go to the thrift stores?”

We both liked the thrift stores. Maggie adored going, thinking of each visit as an adventure where we went hunting for treasure (and depending on the time of day they were also emptier than most conventional stores, which helped). I liked saving money considering I had a lot more rooms to furnish than I’d ever had before. The stores were where we’d found the ugly couch. I always liked to see what goodies had come in since our last visit. I had a room I’d designated the library (the spell books stayed down in the lab) which needed several more bookshelves and more books.

I nodded, “And tea-cups, of course, how could I forget.”

“I know eighty-three recipes for tea cakes,” Bonnie added, turning her skull to gaze up at me. “British and Southern.”

“Let’s narrow it down to a couple so we can make sure we get the ingredients. Why don’t you guys check to see what we have in the kitchen first so we don’t double up.”

Maggie nodded. “Okay, Dad.” She pulled away from Mouse and reached up her hands for Bonnie. I dropped her into her sister’s hands. Together, with Mouse trailing after them, they rushed off to the kitchen. My daughters’ excited voices blended together as they talked about tomorrow and everything they wanted to do.

I followed after them, hiding my worry down deep where hopefully none of the kids could see it.

Chapter Text

I waited for Marcone to show up, keeping an eye on my watch even as I went through my mental checklist to make certain that I hadn’t forgotten anything in the early morning rush of preparation.

It was practically noon on the dot when I realized I’d forgotten the sodas and went to fetch the small cooler I’d prepared the night before with drinks.

Maggie had an affection for fruit flavored sodas, specifically Fanta. I despaired over my kid ever accepting Coke as the only real, true soda worthy of touching a Dresden tongue. Unsurprisingly, I wasn’t the one who was winning that argument. It was her big eyes. I melted like butter before a blowtorch when she looked at me with them.

I didn’t bother getting ice for the drinks since I have nifty ice powers which I had no problem abusing when it came to getting a perfectly chilled Coke. So why bother carrying extra pointless weight?

The sound of the doorbell ringing (a literal brass bell which was incredibly loud for its small size) reached me in the living room where I was double checking I’d grabbed everything for the barbecue. I jogged over to the door, the red cooler in one hand and my carved wooden staff in the other. I juggled both as I opened the door to find Marcone standing on my doorstep.

He was out of his usual suits. Instead, Marcone was wearing dark blue jeans, a red and white flannel shirt over a light gray t-shirt and black leather work boots. Between the Cubs cap on his head and the aviator sunglasses hiding his eyes, John Marcone was barely recognizable. I could pass him on the street and wouldn’t even realize it was him until I looked twice. Assuming I even thought to look twice.

It had been years since I’d seen him in a similar laid-back outfit. It was really disconcerting.

“Well, come in,” I said after a moment, stepping back to let Marcone into the castle’s foyer after I lowered the wards. I raised them again as soon as he entered.

Marcone pulled off the sunglasses, putting them in his shirt pocket as he glanced around taking in the visible changes I’d made to the castle’s first floor before looking back at me. His gaze was as calm as always as he said, “I assume there’s a good reason for this song and dance, Dresden.”

Annoyed, I said, “Hey, you’re the one who wanted to know why I was on the island. You don’t get to complain about how you learn the answer.”

Marcone’s pale green eyes narrowed. “I do, however, get to judge whether or not you are wasting my time. I have important matters which require my attention.”

I took a calming breath, reaching for patience. “I’m not wasting your time, Marcone. Look, I know that I’m asking a lot but I’m just trying to make sure you’ll understand.” Before he could say another word of protest, I juggled the staff again until it rested in my inner elbow and reached into my coat pocket and pulled out the periapt I’d made.

The necklace was little more than a long strip of brown leather, but it held a charm which amounted to a clasp of gleaming silver holding onto a chunk of pale green crystal about the size of my thumb. The hexagonal crystal was carved with sigils which ran up and down the facets until ending in a faceted tip. In the dim light of my foyer it was possible to see the lambent green light within its core.

It was a crystal from Demonreach’s caverns.

I held the bespelled periapt out to Marcone.

“Put this on.”

He eyed it warily for a moment before reaching out to take the necklace from me. He studied it in his broad hands, noting the symbols. He frowned at it and then up at me.

“It’s for your protection,” I explained.

“Protection from what, Dresden?” asked Marcone, even as he raised the necklace over his head.

“You’ll see,” I said noncommittally before I shoved the cooler into his free hands.

I turned to the closed door of my home and raised my staff. “Aparturum,” I called out, pouring my will into opening a doorway out of thin air into the Nevernever. The wide round circle was smoother than usual. I was getting better at those these days.

The existence of the portal made the magic of the castle shiver in alarm. I could feel it, through the connection I’d established with the ancient magic of my home. It felt like the castle was warning me of a breach in its security. I patted the nearest wall in reassurance. Then I realized Marcone was watching me and I fought off an embarrassed urge to hunch my shoulders. This was my castle dammit, if I wanted to pet the wall, I was petting the wall.

“Let’s go,” I said, hoping he hadn’t noticed my embarrassment. I stepped across the portal with a swift stride, only closing it when Marcone stepped through too.

On the other side of the Nevernever, I saw the familiar spirit side of my neighborhood. It was something I’d seen before. The streets and the buildings mostly looked the same as I’d seen all those years ago, except for the lingering structural damage which I suspected came from the emotional pain my neighbors had been dealing with since last summer. Traumatizing events reverberated into the Nevernever. Something like last summer was going to leave a lingering echo which would last for generations.

Other than the damage, the major change was instead of the old boarding house, the castle stood in its place. On this side, its normally gray stone walls glowed incandescently with multicolored coruscating light. Castle Dresden looked like it had been built out of neon with fireworks going off from every inch of it.

It may look pretty but those sparks could blast an intruder to ashes if the magic touched them. The destructive power of the wards was mind-boggling.

I turned my attention away from my home and paid more attention to what was stretching out behind the castle’s lightshow.

When I’d first seen the woods I had been reminded strongly of Fangorn Forest. It had the same dark, hungry and foreboding feel. Like it would kill you in a heartbeat just for breathing funny. I wasn’t that far off the mark. I could wander through safely, but then I was the Warden of Demonreach. If anyone else walked in without permission they’d be killed.

Fangorn 2.0 was the Nevernever part of Demonreach’s defenses. Something I would never have seen or been able to access from Chicago until recently. But then, having the Warden of Demonreach living in a castle filled with the same type of magics as could be found on the tower of the island had created a new Way through the Nevernever. I had staked a claim on both, so now I was also able to reach the island from my own doorstep.

I appreciated having it. It was a helluva lot faster than taking the Water Beetle, let me tell ya.

“Okay, stay close,” I said to Marcone, who was staring at the castle. Before I took a step to cross into dark woods I held out my left hand to Marcone.

He drew close and reached out at once, clasping his warm hand in mine. He shifted his grip until his broad fingers interlocked with my own. My fingertips could feel the faint, raised scars on Marcone’s knuckles. I could also feel familiar callouses, although I’d known them on smaller hands. They were the sort which only came from devoting hours to the gun range and vigorous training with other weapons.

Almost at once the visceral memory of his hand on my chin and the kiss which had followed struck me knocking me mentally off balance. I looked away from Marcone before he could see my expression. The hairs at the back of my neck prickled with my awareness of close he was standing.

Damn it, he was even wearing the same cologne.

“Don’t let go,” I said, stubbornly ignoring my own thudding heartbeat. “The forest doesn’t like strangers. If I lose you I may not be able to find you again in time. And for goodness’ sake, don’t drop the cooler.”

I couldn’t see it but I could practically feel Marcone frowning at me. Instead of looking at him, I tightened my grip on his hand before I stepped into the dark woods.

Silently, he followed after me.

Abruptly, the light show from the castle vanished. A faintly greenish glow that came down through the rustling branches made the woods appear to be in a perpetual state of twilight.

Also, can I just say that it is really weird to have Intellectus on this side of the Nevernever. Because in the same way that I knew every square inch of the island, down to the number of grains of sand on its beaches and every insect in its soil, I knew the woods. I could feel Demonreach’s power thrumming through it. I knew the location of every trap, its dangerous magics, every blood-thirsty creature which was bound to it. I could feel it when the trees creaked and moved. I knew when the woods changed form. This forest was like an ever-shifting maze with only one purpose.

To kill whomever was foolish enough to step inside it.

Like I said, it made me think of Fangorn Forest. I was half-convinced that if I went looking I would find Ents. Or hey, maybe even the Entwives.

The gnarled woods were deep and ancient, covering a span in the Nevernever easily five times the area of Lake Michigan. Fortunately, I didn’t have to walk far to get to its center. The woods knew who was the boss and shifted around to get me to my destination quickly. But that didn’t mean I could let down my guard. There was someone at my side whose presence was being tolerated only because he was with me.

I stepped confidently, knowing where to walk to find the secret paths to avoid the traps and hidden roots looking to trip the unwary. Marcone didn’t have to be told and he followed me with sure steps. Around us the trees groaned and shifted. Branches stretched and reached for Marcone until I glared and they subsided. The woods were not happy about Marcone. I wondered if the protections could sense Thorned Namshiel’s presence. They certainly felt more aggressive than usual.

We walked maybe a few football-field lengths, around five hundred yards, before we abruptly came upon a clearing. At the center stood a tower. It looked exactly like the tower on Demonreach would have looked if it hadn’t been broken. It also glowed with the same neon and fireworks power of the castle.

I glanced over at Marcone and I caught him studying it with a thoughtful expression. I doubted the similarities of the magics had escaped him.

Like I’d said before, he was smart. And observant.

“Aparturum,” I said, holding out my staff. As the spell expanded into a gate back to the mortal world the smell of Michigan’s waters came across the dividing line of realities, ushered along by a steady cooling breeze. The blazing heat of sunlight and bright blue sky overhead really made the faint crepuscular light drifting through the trees even more eerie.

Sometimes I was tempted to call it Mirkwood 2.0. But the forest didn’t have that many giant spiders in it.

I didn’t hesitate and I stepped onto Demonreach with John Marcone at my side.

At once, Marcone recognized the remains of the tower. Not surprising, it was hardly his first visit to the island.

“Why are we here?” Marcone asked stiffly. Considering I was still holding his hand, I could feel the thrum of tension running through him. Abruptly, I remembered how dangerous Marcone could be. Physically I mean. He had the sort of insanely quick reaction time a tennis player would kill for. I’d seen him pull out a knife nearly faster than I could follow with my eyes. And I was currently well within striking range.

The only advantage I had was that both his hands were full. I tightened my hold of his hand. I don’t know if I meant it to be reassuring or to keep a grip on him.

“Hey, you’re here as my guest, remember,” I said. I caught Marcone’s gaze and held it for a moment before I deliberately dropped his right hand and took the cooler from him. He let it go, still eyeing me suspiciously.

“We’re here to talk,” I continued. “Because while we’re on Demonreach Anduriel can’t spy on us. No one else can either. Not even Mab.”

Marcone’s green eyes narrowed then his eyes went distant like he was talking to someone else. I’ll give you three guesses on who it could have been. And the first two don’t count.

“That is… an unexpected advantage,” Marcone said thoughtfully, the tension slowly winding out of him. My own followed suit.

I snorted in wry amusement. “Figured you’d like that.”

I turned and headed for the small house which had been built with stones from the tower. I had filled the space before the house with a folding table covered with a long vinyl tablecloth patterned in the classic checkered red and white. The table was surrounded by four cheap folding chairs. There was another smaller table nearby with a tablecloth covered in red roses that was filled with teacakes, a steel kettle, a jar of honey and a sugar bowl filled with sugar cubes. Also three separate teapots and four stacks of teacups for authenticity’s sake. The table was ready and waiting for the tea party to start.

I set the cooler on the ground and let my staff lean against the picnic table.

“The periapt I gave you is for protection.”

That earned me a faint hmm of acknowledgment. I figured he was checking the truth of my words with Namshiel too.

I’d already had the barbecue coals set up in a round kettle grill. It was just waiting for the fire. Which I might as well start now that all guests had arrived.

“Flickum bicus,” I said, willing a flame to light the coals. As I did I used my all-knowing sense of every inch of Demonreach to scan the island for any intruders, before focusing on Maggie and Bonnie and Mouse. The perpetually worried dad part of me relaxed at knowing they were safe.

Marcone was studying the crystal charm. After he was satisfied by whatever he got from it he looked in my direction. I saw him noting the number of chairs.

“It’s spelled to keep the psychic influence of the island out of your mind,” I explained as I grabbed a chair, sat and gestured at Marcone to join me.

“So this secret of yours, you intend to keep knowledge of it from Nicodemus or Mab?” Marcone asked as he sat down on a chair across from me. The table was so small I could feel his knees knock into mine. I shifted away. Marcone’s eyes flickered.

Then I realized that he was doing it on purpose. He was testing me, or at least testing my reactions to him while under the guise of being one of two grown men trying to fit their legs under a table. I narrowed my eyes and deliberately put my legs back where they’d been. This time the sides of my calf muscles leaned into his own until we were each trapping the other. And I left them there, feeling the burn of his body heat against my legs for a few seconds before I broke and moved them away.

Even through my jeans it felt like he’d seared my skin.

The corners of Marcone’s lips flattened out and his eyes narrowed.

“Unfortunately, they both know the important parts,” I said, after clearing my throat. “But not all of it and I’d rather keep it that way. Look, it’s a long story.” I’d never actually told it in its entirety like this to another person. Even the ones who knew everything, like my friends and Thomas, had gotten it in pieces over the years. Not all at once. I took a deep, fortifying breath and continued, “After our first run in with Nicodemus, before he left town, he threw Lasciel’s coin at me. I was stupid. I touched it.”

“It’s the reason you started using hellfire,” Marcone said, without surprise. He leaned back against the chair and studied me.

I wondered how much Namshiel had filled him in on everything which had happened whenever Nicodemus had come to Chicago. I admit I was curious on the Denarian side of those details. Although, I could make several educated guesses.

“Yeah but I didn’t want it and I had no intention of taking up the coin. So I did the only thing I thought would keep Lasciel out of my head. I buried the coin in concrete within a circle until I couldn’t hear her voice anymore. I thought that was the end of it. But then I started using hellfire. Later I learned that by touching the coin I’d put a copy of the Fallen in my head. A Shadow of Lasciel.”

Marcone’s eyes went a bit distant, conferring with Namshiel again. Even through the baseball cap, I could see a faint purple glow on Marcone’s forehead. I wondered what twisted truths the Fallen was speaking to him.

“For years, Lasciel’s shadow was in my head, trying to trick me. Or simply trying to convince me to take up the coin. Oh, sometimes she helped. She wanted me to know how valuable she could be and how with the coin I could do so much more. And other times we just talked.” I shrugged. “And… the thing is, you can’t spend that much time interacting with someone, getting to know them without influence going both ways.” I sighed. “I started calling her Lash.”

“You renamed her!” The outraged English accented voice which came from Marcone’s mouth made me shoot Marcone an exasperated look. “How dare you!”

“You weren’t invited to this conversation, Spiny-boy. Butt out.”

I hadn’t understood the gravity of what I’d done at the time by renaming her. It was only after seeing how angry Uriel had become at me for trying to give him a nickname that I looked into it. Yeah, the whole ‘-el’ part of an angel’s name is actually kinda important. And I’d stripped it away from Lash.

Marcone murmured something to Namshiel in that language I didn’t understand, and had yet to figure what it even was, before he removed the Cubs cap. Narrowed, purple eyes glared at me from Marcone’s brow.

Although seeing proof of a Fallen within a person always gave me chills, I glared back at the demon, focusing on Marcone’s eyebrows. I mentioned how a soulgaze is a onetime thing, right? I didn’t want to test if it was possible to have one with a damned angel. I didn’t think my brain would survive the experience.

“Continue please, Mr. Dresden,” Marcone said, looking interested and less annoyed now that I was talking.

“Lash became a… friend,” I said after taking a breath and deciding to ignore the glowing purple demon eyes. “Do you remember the night in the Deeps? Specifically the psychic force which knocked us down?”

“Clearly. I also recall it didn’t affect you for long.”

“That’s because Lash shielded me. Then she told me we were about to get blasted with a power so great it would have killed all of us. She pleaded with me to call to the coin. Said it would save my life. I refused. Instead, I told her that she could save us. She could make the choice to help me.”

“Impossible,” snarled Namshiel. “That is not the function of the shadow.”

“She wasn’t Lasciel anymore,” I snapped back. I looked into Marcone’s impassive eyes. “She was Lash. That night she took a psychic bullet for me. She died for me.”

“Impossible!” said Namshiel again.

Marcone and I both ignored him. Marcone's pale green eyes narrowed thoughtfully. I could practically see him using the information to put together answers to any questions he may have had. “This is why Nicodemus was unable to control you. Namshiel said after they accomplished their mission against the Archive the plan had been to take you with them. He hadn’t been able to figure out how that part of Nicodemus’ plan had failed.”

I nodded. “Yeah, but that’s not the important thing. When Lash died, she also redirected the impact of the attack. I was left with brain damage.”

Marcone’s eyes went wide before he managed to shutter the reaction away.

“Nothing too bad, at least according to the few scans my doctor was able to get of my head. Just... visible.” I explained, gesturing towards my head with my left hand. “So when I started getting headaches a few months later, I wasn’t exactly surprised. Nor did I think anything of it. I had taken a pretty big hit.” I shrugged as I glanced away briefly. “Someone had died in my mind. There were bound to be aftereffects.”

“Yes, I would image that would be the case,” Marcone murmured softly. Even Namshiel’s purple eyes stopped glaring, looking almost sorrowful.

“But as time went on, the headaches started getting worse and worse. And after a couple of years they weren’t just headaches anymore. They were migraines. Pretty bad ones. I was going to figure out what was going on with them… but I had to rescue Maggie from the Red Court first.” Marcone’s eyes flickered at my admission of what had driven me to utterly destroy that vampire court. “Then I died.”

“You had yourself shot,” corrected Marcone.

I blinked at him in surprise. Had everyone figured out I’d been the one behind my own assassination attempt?

“Really, Dresden?” Marcone raised an eyebrow at my expression. “Once I was made aware of your decision to take up the mantle of the Winter Knight, and since I have some understanding of your personality, it was a moment’s thought to realize you’d intended to prevent yourself from being used as a weapon.”

I frowned. Damn, was I really that predictable? Yeah, I think I was. At least to those who knew me.

It was always weird to realize Marcone was one of those people.

I nodded in acknowledgment of his correction anyway. “Yeah. Okay, I had myself shot. Mab and the island kept me alive after I fell in the lake. After I woke up I was told I had a psychic parasite in my head which was causing the headaches. It was killing me and I didn’t have much time left.”

Now it was Marcone’s turn to frown.

“When Mab let me return to Chicago for a mission, I was also looking for Molly Carpenter since she was the only person who would be able to help me get the parasite out. But –” I waved my right hand in the air to encompass the entire events of that October 31st. “– things happened. I ended up back on the island. Faerie queens died.”

“And Miss Carpenter became the Winter Lady.”

I nodded. “And Mab took her away before I could get her help. So I waited for Molly to come back. At that point the pressure in my head was so intense if I left the island I’d have been dead within the day. Until I got the parasite out the island was keeping me alive.”

Marcone shifted in his seat and his cool green eyes narrowed. “If you had a solution to your medical condition, why were you on the island for over a year?”

“I hadn’t planned on being stuck here for all that time. I kept trying to contact Molly. I kept sending out messengers. At points I even considered leaving the island, but by then my migraines were… really bad. They were knocking me out for hours on end. They were so intense I knew I’d be dead the moment I left the island. So I didn’t. I waited. And waited. Until Mab showed up for your scheme against Nicodemus.”

“How were you able to finally set foot off the island?”

“Mab’s magic,” I said, touching my ear where the piercing had long since healed over. “With it I was finally able to leave. And that was when I learned that Molly never got any of my messages. She had no idea I needed her help.”

Marcone stiffened. His eyes narrowed dangerously. I could practically see the speed of his mind racing and putting the clues together.

“The messages were being intercepted. By the Winter Queen,” he breathed. The anger I’d seen before flared in his eyes again making them practically glow in their own right. His hands clenched tightly on the table’s rounded plastic edge for a moment before he relaxed. He continued coolly, “She was the reason you remained on the island. It was due to her decision you failed to return to Chicago for all that time.”

I nodded grimly. Some part of me would never forgive Mab for stranding me. Even though I was genuinely grateful for her actions in saving Chicago during the Battle. I’d always remember that year I’d been forced to stay on Demonreach. And not just because that winter had been the most miserably alone I’ve been in a long, long time but because I’ll always wonder if I could have saved at least one innocent life if I’d been in Chicago instead.

Now, the light of anger in Marcone’s green eyes practically threw off sparks as he looked at me.

“Through her actions she affected my demesne,” Marcone stated with an impressively measured tone. “You are not exactly selling me on an alliance with Winter.”

Oh, hell. I hadn’t thought about how that little nugget of information would go down.

“Hey, I’m telling you the truth of what you wanted to know. And you know why I brought the alliance pact to you and it has nothing to do with it benefiting the Winter Court.” I ran my fingers through my hair, even as I expanded my awareness of the island to check up on my kids again. They were fine. Picking the plump wild raspberries growing near one of the few creeks running through Demonreach.

I focused back on Marcone. “What matters is that’s not the end of the story. During the whole heist of the underworld scheme I found out something important.”

“Go on,” Marcone said, after taking a breath and making his flash of temper vanish like it was never there at all.

Spooky.

I took a breath too. “The parasite in my head wasn’t a parasite in the way I thought. It was a child, mine and Lash’s. The migraines were labor pains. She was trying to be born.”

“Impossible,” breathed out Namshiel, his purple eyes wide with shock. Marcone just blinked at me.

“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means,” I growled at Namshiel, annoyed at his commentary. What part of butt out was so difficult to understand?

Namshiel glared at me again, but Marcone’s lips twitched in amusement. He said, “So you were for all intents and purposes… pregnant?” I eyed him warily. But Marcone didn’t laugh he just watched me. Almost at once understanding dawned on his face, “Ah, this was your medical condition.”

“He is lying,” Namshiel said insistently. “None of us are capable of–”

I cut him off. “Making spirit babies? Hey, it turns out that’s wrong.” I looked into Marcone’s eyes. “Maybe something you should keep in mind with him in your head.” I widened my eyes innocently and said, “Use protection.”

But Marcone’s amusement had faded. His head was tilted slightly to one side as he listened to whatever Namshiel was telling him.

Okay, story time was over.

I whistled, sharply. Through my all-knowing state I knew Mouse heard the signal because his ears perked up. He started nudging the girls back towards the house.

Chapter Text

Absently, I tracked the path my daughters and my dog took as they walked through the island’s trees to where Marcone and I waited.

“If your story is true Namshiel is convinced you would not have survived the experience,” Marcone said, frowning slightly. “Mortals do not often survive the birth of Spirits of Intellect.” He focused on me. “Apparently, your head should have burst open.”

“Have I ever lied to you?” I asked. That earned me a skeptically raised eyebrow.

I coughed. “Ahem. Well, I survived because I was really freaking lucky. Mab’s little magic trick had failed and my head was about to split open.” I grimaced. “At least, it certainly felt like it.” Thinking about the experience was little more than a memory of smeared blurry pain and a time crawl, but it still made me shiver in fear at how close we’d both came to dying that day. Me and Bonea. At that point she’d been too big and too tired, trying her best not to kill me, and too worn out from winter magic to pull herself free. “But Molly showed up in the nick of time.”

I turned a little in my seat, and Marcone followed my gaze. Together we watched Mouse come into view out of the trees, followed by Maggie wearing a blue t-shirt, blue jeans and black sneakers. Right after Maggie, walking on legs which were much steadier than only a day ago and holding a red plastic bucket (the sort of toy ones used by kids when they played with sand) full of the raspberries they’d been picking was Bonea. Her lips and cheeks were stained red-purple with raspberry juice, pulp and seeds.

It had taken more effort – in the form of will and concentration – than I had expected, but surprisingly not too much energy to conjure forth a body formed from ectoplasm from the Nevernever which Bonnie could inhabit. She no longer looked like the pre-teen I’d first seen with my subconscious self. Maybe it was the effect of having spent time with her and seeing her innocence and incomprehension of pretty basic things, but my mental estimation of her age had dropped. It had affected the conjuration of her body so now she looked about seven or eight, or a really, really tall six year old. She had the same features as before such as Lash’s brilliant crystalline blue-green eyes. My hair color and my jaw. The features of women who’d been important to me (I’d almost changed her chin to something which would hurt less but… in the end I couldn’t) Seeing her next to Maggie, it was obvious that they were sisters.

The purple cat-ear headband on Bonnie’s head was her sister’s contribution to her outfit as well as a pink and purple stripped t-shirt, jeans and white sneakers.

“I survived and my second daughter was born. Unfortunately, Nicodemus and Lasciel know about her existence,” I continued, grimacing. “Or at least they knew she’d been in my head. I’ve been hiding her. I asked my contacts in the spirit world to pass on rumors that she didn’t survive her birth so no Denarian will come looking for her.” I let that sink in. “Now I’m sure Namshiel is saying all kinds of crap about how valuable she is. But I’m telling you I’m not letting her fall into the hands of the White Court or White Council or anyone or anything who’d try to use her,” I glared at Marcone, or to be specific, at the purple eyes on his brow which were looking rather wildly wide-eyed in Bonnie’s direction.

I find it bizarre to be able to describe a pair of glowing purple eyes as looking flabbergasted since I’d thought you needed a face for that expression but Namshiel was pulling it off.

I hissed at the Fallen, keeping my voice low so my kids wouldn’t overhear as they grew closer. “And that’s not up for negotiation.”

“Understandably,” Marcone agreed quietly, glancing at me and then turning to look at my daughters and Mouse. He murmured something indistinguishable and Namshiel’s eyes closed, vanishing from Marcone’s brow. Then Marcone put on his Cubs cap.

It was pretty obvious when Maggie noticed Marcone was sitting at the picnic table. She froze mid-step clutching for Mouse. I also saw the moment Maggie realized that most of Marcone’s attention was focused on Bonnie. My breath caught in my throat as her spine stiffened and her eyes narrowed and she took step away from Mouse.

My beautiful mortal daughter, who was afraid of meeting strangers due to the trauma she’d survived at the hands of the Red Court of vampires. Who could barely tolerate entering stores to go shopping. She put herself between Marcone’s eyeline and Bonnie with her jaw raised stubbornly, determination written bold across her face and fire flashing in her dark eyes.

The sight gave me a disorienting feeling of déjá vu.

Maggie looked like a tiny ferocious wolverine (both the animal and maybe even the clawed mutant). Ready to fight in defense of her little sister. No matter how big her opponent.

I couldn’t have been more astonished or proud.

Out of the corner of my eye I saw Marcone glance over at me. “I certainly see the family resemblance.”

“Maggie. Bonnie. This is John Marcone,” I said after I managed to gather my wits about me. Although unable to keep the proud smile off my face as I gestured from Marcone to my kids. “Marcone, these are my daughters: Margaret Dresden and Bonea Dresden.”

Marcone got to his feet. He actually gave them a polite, if stiff, bow. “I’m pleased to meet you both,” Marcone said gravely, before sitting back down.

Mouse walked towards Marcone, sat down and lifted a paw. “And last but not least, this is Mouse,” I added.

As Marcone shook Mouse’s offered paw, Maggie’s expression softened and she shot him an uncertain look. It took her moment as her huge dark eyes studied Marcone, who remained relaxed and calm (a bit too deliberately to be anything but a means of helping Maggie feel safe), for her to come to a conclusion about him.

“I’m pleased to meet you too, Mr. Marcone,” Maggie finally said quietly. She relaxed enough to stop blocking her sister, choosing instead to stand by her side. One of her small hands buried itself in Mouse’s fur. The other clasped Bonnie’s shoulder.

Bonnie walked forward enough to put her bucket down on the table before frowning up at Marcone. For a second, I wondered if she could sense Namshiel’s presence. Oh stars, I hoped not. I wasn’t ready to explain the Fallen to Maggie. But Bonnie just turned to me with a sudden bright white smile which mirrored Lash’s gorgeous vibrant smile so much it took me off-guard.

Stars, she was adorable, even covered in leftover raspberries.

“I like taste,” Bonnie declared. She smacked her lips. “And raspberries.”

“I can see that,” I said, as I dug a travel packet of wet wipes from my coat pocket. I’d learned the hard way those things are worth their weight in gold when you’re a parent. I wiped the mess off Bonnie’s face as she wrinkled her face and tolerated me cleaning her up.

“She ate so many I thought she’d throw up,” Maggie confessed, coming up to my side after making a wide detour around Marcone. I dropped a kiss on her forehead before returning to my task of getting every bit of sticky mess off Bonnie.

“I ate one hundred and eight raspberries,” Bonnie said, once I was finally satisfied.

“That’s way more than I could eat in one sitting,” I admitted, genuinely impressed. And baffled at how she’d eaten so many. Bonnie beamed proudly. “Punkin, why don’t you and Bonnie-lass take your berries inside the house. While you’re there could you also bring out the barbecue stuff? I’m going to cook us burgers in a moment.”

“Sure, Dad.”

Marcone watched me watching the girls. He waited until they were out of earshot before saying quietly, “Your daughter Maggie… I hope I didn’t distress her further.”

I shot a him a startled glance. “You can tell?”

“That she has dealt with trauma no child should ever know? Yes,” Marcone said somberly, his eyes closed briefly before he opened them to look at me again. “Unfortunately, I have seen it too often.”

I wondered how many he’d killed in retribution for those children’s pain, to punish them for breaking his rules, before deciding I didn’t actually care all that much. I didn’t feel a twinge of regret for the lost lives... no pity for those who would harm children. In certain ways, being a parent had made me more ruthless than even the Winter Knight’s mantle managed.

I said quietly, “She still has nightmares. It helps she has me. Mouse. Bonnie. The Carpenters. A heavily fortified castle to sleep in.” My hint wasn’t subtle but I was ready to hammer the point home on how I was never giving up the castle again.

“I have reports which speak of House Malvora and House Skavis sharing an interest, and a hunger, for traumatized individuals,” Marcone said, a flash of concern crossing his face. His glanced towards the house where my kids had entered. “It is another reason to keep her away from the White Court.”

Since they were fear eaters and despair eaters Maggie would be an irresistible feast.

“Yes,” I agreed fervently, my hands clenched in fists.

Before I could take the opening to remind Marcone he still hadn’t given me an answer to my proposal, Bonnie walked by holding a dirt clod the size of my fist. It wasn’t exactly small. A few seconds later Maggie stopped by to drop off the tray of raw burger patties and uncooked hot dogs before she chased after Bonnie. Mouse strolled by, pausing to give the meat a longing sniff. He shot me a mournful look and then took off after the girls.

Marcone said, looking in the directions of my kids, “She’s about to take a bite of that.”

Alarmed, I yelped, “Bonnie! Stop! You can’t eat that!”

Bonnie froze with her mouth wide right above a clod of dirt. Maggie started giggling. Mouse was just grinning and wagging his tail.

Bonnie’s face scrunched up as she looked puzzled. She called back, “But you said food grows in soil.”

“Yes, but that doesn’t mean you can eat dirt. It’s not good for you!” I said.

“It won’t hurt me, Dad. My body is made up of ectoplasm,” Bonnie pointed out.

“Very reasonable,” Marcone said, his voice sounding choked. Although his expression was poker-faced, an amused gleam in his pale green eyes gave him away.

“Stop helping,” I hissed at him. I told Bonnie. “You need to leave space for hamburgers!”

Bonnie’s bewildered expression looked like she didn’t understand the difference between dirt and a burger but was willing to give me the benefit of the doubt since I was her dad. Which, okay, made sense since she had never eaten a burger before. She’d only had two days practice at having a body.

She sighed and let the clod drop to the ground. Then Bonnie proceeded to lick the remaining dirt off her fingers.

“Oh, gross,” I groaned in disgust. I threw my hands up in exasperation. The sound of Marcone’s low chuckles rolled across the field.

“Eeeew!” Maggie shrieked before her giggles became so intense she had to sit on the grassy ground.

I also had a bubble of my own amusement caught in my chest. Bonnie was ridiculous.

I found myself wondering if Maggie had done anything similar when she’d been a toddler. A stab of grief over all the years I’d missed hit me. But this pain was muted and fading the longer I was able to be her dad. So I easily shoved it away.

I caught Marcone rubbing at his lips with his right fingertips as if was trying to erase his lingering smile. He eyes locked onto mine and his amusement faded. He nodded at me.

“Bonea is a child,” Marcone murmured.

The relief which struck me made me desperately glad I was sitting down. This was the first time Marcone had actually said it. And he wouldn’t have said the words if he didn’t mean them. “Yeah… she’ll be two next year,” I said. Exasperated, I added, “And still in the sticking everything in her mouth stage.”

We both turned to look at the girls and Mouse who now seemed to be digging into the dirt looking for what I couldn’t guess. Unless they were searching for bugs and worms.

“I think I better get the burgers started before the kid eats something else. Do you want something to drink? I have soda, water and beer.”

Marcone nodded at me, his expression back to being unreadable. “Water is fine, Dresden.”

I unwound my legs from where they’d somehow become tangled with his. Huh, when had that happened?

I got up, prepared to feed the ravening horde.

*-*-*-*

I finished off my fourth burger with Bonnie matching me bite for bite, making me wonder where she was putting it all and if I’d accidentally given her a bottomless pit instead of a stomach. Maggie, having a reasonable appetite, had finished off one burger and one mustard-drowned hot dog. She was watching Marcone (who’d only had one hamburger and therefore lost the eating contest as far as I was concerned) with all the nervousness of someone coming to the decision to tiptoe through a minefield.

“Mr. Marcone, if you like… you don’t have to… but would you like to come to our tea party?” Maggie asked softly. She wasn’t looking at him. Instead her focus was on Bonnie as she held onto her sister’s hand.

Marcone stilled. His expression softened. He cleared his throat and said, “I would be delighted, Miss Dresden. However, I’m afraid I will not be able to linger for long.” Marcone side-eyed me. “Your father did not inform me of your party and I have another appointment I cannot miss.”

I glared at Marcone for the way he was blatantly throwing me under the bus, but he shot me a look which practically said: ‘It’s true so you’ve no one to blame but yourself’. I grumbled. Okay, maybe he had a point. I hadn’t given him any warning to clear his schedule.

Before Maggie could express any disappointment, Marcone continued. “I can spare the time for one cup of tea, Miss Dresden.”

Maggie nodded gravely, but also relaxed at not being rejected outright. She got up and went to the tea table and started bringing the stuff over to the picnic table. I helped with the teacup towers before a porcelain disaster struck. I also put the full kettle, a campfire rated number, onto the grill to get the water boiling.

“Maggie said that I was to the play the role of the Cheshire Cat,” Bonnie explained to Marcone, pointing at her fake cat ears. “For the tea party.”

“From Alice in Wonderland? The book or the movie?” Marcone asked politely. He had his hands before him on the table. The sense of stillness to him wasn’t the sort which always made me think he was preparing to react quickly to danger but instead it gave me the impression he was making every effort he knew of to appear as harmless as possible.

Marcone wasn’t very good at it. He didn’t seem to know if he should smile or not. It was kind of funny to see Marcone trying not to appear dangerous. And I’d admit, if only to myself, it was… charming.

Maggie seemed to appreciate it in her quiet way. Bonnie, with the obliviousness of the very young, didn’t seem to have noticed.

I took a moment to marvel that seeing Marcone interacting with my kids didn’t make my irrational sense of parental protectiveness flare up. Of course, it could be I was feeling so secure because neither Marcone nor Namshiel could do much in the middle of my sanctum. On Demonreach I held the magical high ground. But I didn’t think that was the sole reason.

It was just… Marcone. Everything I’d been saying about trusting him with Maggie wasn’t just empty words. And knowing that he saw Bonnie in the same light as my mortal daughter, that she was a vulnerable child who needed to be protected too, well… now I could say that I also trusted him with Bonnie.

I couldn’t begin to image Lara sitting in his stead at the picnic table. No. No way. I couldn’t even consider the idea of her being on Demonreach at the same time as my girls without anger and fear for them stirring in my gut.

It really made me feel on a level that had nothing to do with rational thought that my choice to come to Marcone with the Winter Court alliance was the right one, even with a Denarian living in his head, even with all the demands of Winter. If I managed to convince Marcone to marry me then both of my children would come through unscathed.

“The movie,” Maggie explained shyly, as she brought over the sugar bowl. It had been a lonely Halloween dish, black and covered in white skeletons, which she had unearthed in our hunt for tea party stuff. She glanced at Marcone out of the corner of her eye. “Dad is reading us the book but we just started it. We saw the movie last time Hope came over to babysit. She brought a laptop since Dad was out.” She pulled out a sugar cube and handed it to Mouse who slurped it up.

“I take it you’re Alice?” Marcone asked gently.

Maggie nodded.

“Mouse is the Dormouse,” Bonnie said. “Because he’s a Mouse.”

Marcone nodded as if that made perfect sense.

Mouse wagged away with his tail. He’d actually won the unofficial eating contest considering he’d devoured more burgers and hot dogs than all of us combined. His jaw dropped and he gave us all a doggie grin.

“Dad said he doesn’t do hats so he is the March Hare,” Maggie said, as she brought over the plate of Southern tea cakes. She handed a cookie to Bonnie who bit into it. Instantly she made a noise of delight and then crammed the entire thing into her mouth.

“Oh, I think you mean the March Hare-ry,” I interjected.

“Really, Dresden?” Marcone said, shooting me wry glance.

“Hey, I’m officially allowed to make dad jokes now,” I said, smirking smugly.

“What was your excuse before?” Marcone murmured.

“Keeping up my high smartass rating is hard work.”

“Um,” Maggie stared at Marcone, studying his cap as she chewed nervously on her bottom lip. “I guess you can be the Mad Hatter?”

I grinned. “Or the White Rabbit, who needs to rush away. Since if he’s late the queen will say off with his head.”

Marcone shot me a narrow-eyed look but then nodded slightly in acknowledgment of my suspicion of who he was meeting next.

“The Mad Hatter is fine,” he said.

“Hmm,” Bonnie agreed with cheeks puffing out from the number of Southern tea cakes she’d shoved in her mouth. Her face was already smeared with crumbs and more were being lost through her teeth as she tried to talk. I rescued the plate of cookies before she grabbed more.

“Whoa, there Bonnie-lass. How about you work on what you have in your mouth first, then you can have another.”

I’m not sure what she said as I mostly got a spray of cream-colored cookie crumbs fountaining from her lips in answer.

Well, at least this picnic was going to feed the ants, I thought as I cleaned off my shirt.

I handed Bonnie an open bottle of water. She ended up spilling nearly half of it down her shirt before she figured out that you’re supposed to only tilt the bottle back a bit, not lift it upside down over your mouth.

Paper towels are also one of the amazing, handy things all parents give fervent thanks for.

The tea kettle started whistling and I went to get it so the tea could steep.

It was really good getting to see both of my girls playing at tea-party by taking over making the cups, while I drank a decaffeinated black tea with too much sugar – my fault for letting Bonnie make my cup. My enjoyment of the sight wasn’t diminished by John Marcone interacting with them. If anything it was really amusing to see Gentleman Johnny Marcone holding a delicate white tea cup patterned with red roses while listening to the words of a pair of little girls as seriously as if they were faerie queens. Although he was more wary with my daughters than I’d seen even when he was interacting with actual dangerous faeries. It was like he thought Maggie or Bonnie would eat him or something, which was… interesting.

Okay, with Bonea there was a slight chance it could happen.

As I clocked my observations I reveled in my relief, in my success and in the sense of physical lightness it brought. My plan had gone off without a hitch. Yeah, I’d been worried, have you seen my life? Things rarely went completely according to plan. Or if they did, then it usually ended with me picking up a whole lot of injuries. It was really strange to have a plan work without having one or five broken bones to show for it. It said way too much about the state of my life that I found the thought more unnerving than reassuring, until I shook it off.

Another thing which was a pleasant surprise was how well Maggie was tolerating being introduced to someone new. Even when she’d first met Thomas she had needed to walk away to get some space to recover. But she hadn’t done that with Marcone yet. No doubt it was the benefit of having Mouse stuck to her side like he was glued there. Or maybe it was simply the presence of her little sister. I don’t think Maggie would leave her behind, no matter how scared or anxious she was feeling.

I frowned at the thought and looked Maggie over more carefully. But she didn’t look like she wanted to run and was trying the best she could to hide it. She did keep going quiet and studying Marcone out of the corner of her eye as she drank her tea but she didn’t look tense or scared. Mouse, my best indicator of my eldest daughter’s feelings, was calm, panting and leaning against Maggie’s side with literal puppy-dog eyes aimed at her and Bonnie as he pleaded for cookies.

Because he was clearly starving. That big faker, I thought fondly.

I continued watching everyone before I cleared my throat.

“Aaahhh, very merry unbirthday to me,” I started singing. I didn’t have the best voice but it was worth it for the way Bonnie looked up at me with a smile while Maggie stifled a grin behind her hand.

I looked at Marcone, raising my eyebrows. He shot me a baffled look.

“You have to say: To who?” Maggie helpfully whispered at Marcone.

“Ah, thank you, Miss Dresden,” Marcone said politely. The icy look he gave me let me know exactly how he felt about it but he still said, “To who?”

“To me!” I laughed.

*-*-*-*

I’d just finished dismissing the gate to the Nevernever that Marcone and I had taken to return to the castle’s foyer (I occasionally pause in mid-step in disbelief at knowing I had a foyer) when I caught him watching me. I raised my eyebrows at him in a silent question.

“You have two children to protect,” Marcone said, his expression weird. Complicated. It made me completely turn to face him, wary. “Whatever you may think about the lack of risk I pose to their safety you can barely tolerate being in my presence, Dresden. How could you allow them anywhere near me?”

“Because everything I said before is still true, Marcone. My boss is making me marry someone,” I said, resting my staff against the wall so I wouldn’y be holding a weapon during this discussion. Not that I thought it would worry him but… it didn’t look good. “It was either you or Lara. And I’ve chosen you.”

Marcone jerked a little as if he’d been electrocuted. I realized I’d never actually articulated myself that way before. However lacking in options for spouse I was between Lara or Marcone, it had still been my decision to pick Marcone. That wasn’t something Mab had forced on me like the betrothal to Lara.

“You know the truth of why I was on Demonreach. You know about everything – everyone – I’m trying to protect. Your question has been answered.” I continued. I remembered how he’d looked at me after the kiss and my voice gentled despite myself. “Now I want my question answered. It’s up to you to tell me no or yes, Marcone. But if you say yes, know that you’ll be helping me protect them from the White Court.” I paused and added quietly, “Please, help me protect my kids.”

On this topic I had no pride, it was a worthless emotion compared to my need to keep my family safe. Protect the offspring was like a beat, a metronome, in my chest, steady and unrelenting.

“Help me keep them safe and out of the hands of monsters, Marcone. Marry me.”

Marcone’s expression shuttered and his pale green eyes became unreadable.

The silence between us made my heartbeat thump away like a drum in my ears.

“Why… why do you always come to me with such requests?” Marcone finally whispered, in a voice threaded with faint incredulity. The inscrutable mask he wore dissolved slowly until I could see the disbelief in Marcone’s face. It was in his entire body, shown in his hands which were slack as they hung at his sides as if he didn’t know what to do with them. “You know what I am. You’ve seen my soul. Why do you always come to me as if you are certain I would be willing to play the hero?”

My throat was dry. I swallowed to wet it. “Because every time I’ve asked… you haven’t let me down.”

Marcone rocked back on his heels like my words had been a blow which had sucker-punched him. He looked away from me.

I reached out and clasped his right hand in both of mine. He let me. And I spoke the words for the third time. Hoping the power of threes would help me out and spin luck in my favor. Letting it be the question I’d been avoiding. “Will you marry me, John?”

Marcone’s cool green eyes closed for a moment as if pained and he gave a slight shake of his head.

My stomach started to sink. For a single long second I thought I’d failed.

Marcone’s green eyes opened. He stared up at me with an open expression as if every mental and emotional shield he carried had been jostled out of place by my question and now he was struggling to return them to where they were meant to be. I could see that below his bewilderment, below his disbelief there lay that hunger I’d glimpsed before. His eyes were fixed on me with the focus of a starving man being offered food.

“Yes.”

It was my turn to stare at him in astonishment. He said – had he? He had. – Marcone had said yes. To marrying me.

For a wild moment, I felt like the dog who’d caught the car. Holy shit, what now?

But Marcone didn’t give me the time to sink into my burgeoning panic.

“I’ll marry you,” Marcone said. He looked away from my wide eyes then he pulled away from me. I let him go. “However, Dresden,” he said after another moment of silence. “I want you to consider this: Consent given under duress is not true consent. And you are asking me to enter a marriage with you not out of desire, a need for companionship, greed or some other selfish motive, but to safeguard your family. Not even for your own well-being but out of fear for the safety of your children.” He shook his head slowly. “Because you’ve been deprived of your right to refuse. To say no. Even if it doesn’t disturb you. It disturbs me.”

I didn’t interrupt to correct him. He was wrong. It did disturb me – hell, it made me angry, sparking a white-hot flame inside me – but it just wasn’t enough to stop me.

Marcone’s gaze returned to me. “And I’ve been unable to move your queen on the requirement that the marriage needs to be consummated.” His expression went complicated again then it slid back under his control becoming unreadable – I could practically hear the clicks. “She requires it.”

My breath went out in a rush at the astonishing revelation that he had been trying.

I was bewildered. Marcone wanted me. I knew it. I’d felt it in the kiss. I’d seen it in his face. Why was he bothering?

A dawning sense of understanding sent a jolt of shock through me. It was like getting struck by lightening all over again.

It was because Marcone wanted me to want him back. Of my own free will.

And I actually found the idea more worrying than… well, simply closing my eyes and thinking of England. I didn’t know if it was something I could do. I couldn’t just make myself have feelings for him.

Marcone continued, his tone colorless, showing little expression except for the flinty look of determination in his pale green eyes. “No matter what you think of me, I’m not the sort of man who takes to bed unwilling partners. For all my sins, I haven’t done so in the past. I hardly intend to cross that line with you.”

I swallowed. For a long moment I was tempted to just lie, maybe rely on the Winter Knight’s mantle to convince Marcone that I wanted him with the same desire, the same depth of emotion I’d seen in him. But that would have been a lousy thing to do to someone and not just because I’d already decided lying to Marcone was a bad idea.

I knew what it felt like to discover that a lover’s autonomy had been violated and learn they had never intended to be in your bed in the first place. That they would have never been there if they had been able to make the choice for themselves, if they hadn’t been influenced by an outside force. I knew those dregs of misery. I had stood in them. That I hadn’t drowned in them had been due to Luccio’s grace, forgiveness, internal strength and certainty that she had felt a spark of attraction for me even if she would never have pursued it.

I was asking Marcone to marry me (and everything that required) with both eyes open to the fact I didn’t want him back. While knowing that if I had the freedom to refuse Mab’s orders I would never have come to him with my proposal in the first place. That if it was up to me I wouldn’t even be talking to him right now.

Dammit. I felt like an asshole. Like the world’s biggest, thoughtless and most insensitive bastard. If the shoe had been on the other foot with someone coming to me in the same situation I would have hated it. I don’t think I could have the fortitude to agree to marry them. I wouldn’t have been able to stand the ugliness. And the questions of what sort of man I would be if I just went along with it.

Except in this case I was the one doing the asking.

“If the wedding day comes and I judge that it is a line I will cross...” Marcone’s expression was grim as he looked up at me. “I will say no.”

We locked eyes. I could see the depth of his resolve. It went down into the bedrock.

On this, I wouldn’t be able to get Marcone to change his mind.

It was times like these when I remembered that for all of Marcone’s villainous tendencies, for all the horrible things he did without hesitation or regret, the man had a startling streak of decency running through him, like a thin seam of brilliant gold in coal.

It always caught me flat-footed when I saw it.

“That’s fair,” I agreed after a moment. I wouldn’t blame him. However, I started thinking there was an age-old solution to the problem. Even Mab, as far removed from soft human emotions as she could be, had seen the value of it. “Okay. We have more than a month until the wedding day,” I continued. I cleared my throat, hoping I didn’t sound as awkward as I felt as I said, “Let’s go on dates.”

Marcone blinked up at me.

I had a wildly amusing realization that it had probably been a long while since someone had asked him out.

I offered, “Another Ministry summit is coming up. You can be my plus-one.”

Marcone snorted. It was a sound of pure disbelief but then the corners of Marcone’s mouth twitched up. The depth of my relief at the sight threatened to knock me off my feet.

Marcone asked dryly, “After all this time I would’ve thought you were aware that I’m the host for the meetings of the Ministry in Chicago.”

“Fine, fine, I’ll be your plus-one.”

Marcone hummed. “It’s a political event. I’d hardly call it a romantic setting.”

True. But maybe that was why the thought didn’t freak me out.

“Gotta start somewhere,” I said.

“We will also have many eyes watching our every move,” Marcone pointed out. He shot me a skeptical look. “Do you think you can remain polite for the entire evening?”

“I can manage it.”

Marcone’s expression didn’t look reassured.

I mentally grumbled over this universal lack of confidence in my ability to be diplomatic.

Marcone tilted his head, thinking it through. “Alright,” he said. “Let’s see if it works.”

“Good, I’ll pick you up,” I said.

Marcone eyed me. “That’s hardly necessary. The gathering begins at 6 o’clock at the usual location. If you wish to spend more time together we can have dinner after it ends.”

I nodded. “Okay, yeah that sounds like a plan.” And I noted the way he was also giving me an out if I didn’t want to spend more time with him.

Marcone stepped back and turned away. “Goodbye, Dresden.”

I dropped the wards, opened the door to my home and watched Marcone walk out. His body language shifted from it’s usual commanding posture into something more relaxed, casual, blending with the clothes he wore to make him just another pedestrian.

After closing the door and raising the wards again, I let myself stand there for a moment letting the reality of everything sink in. Then I shook it off, and opened a gate to the Nevernever again.

My girls were waiting for me to rejoin them at the tea party, then we were going to enjoy the gorgeous summer day at the beach.

Chapter Text

I didn’t hear from Marcone until a couple of days later, in the morning after I’d finished dropping Maggie and Mouse off at her summer school classes. What can I say, the kid enjoyed school and had asked to go. Clearly not something she got from me because I would have hated every second of having to go to school in the summer. It made me desperately proud and gave me a new understanding of all those parents who stuck those braggart ‘My Child is on the Honor Roll’ stickers on their cars.

I couldn’t wait until I got some of those. I was gonna plaster the Munstermobile with all of them.

I’d returned home to find a courier loitering outside the door of Castle Dresden. He perked up as he saw me pull into the drive which led to the back parking lot.

“Are you Harry Dresden?” he called out.

“That’s me,” I said warily, preparing to activate my shield bracelet.

Fortunately, it wasn’t some trick an assassin was using to get close; it wouldn’t be the first time that had happened. All the courier wanted was for me to sign confirmation of a packet delivery before he raced off to his next one. I signed, got my packet, parked the car and entered Castle Dresden. I had it open as soon as I had my wards up. Inside was a legal envelope which I opened, shaking out a sheathe of papers. I barely got through the first pages when it sunk in what I had in my hands.

It was solid, signed proof of Marcone taking the beginning steps to honor his agreement to marry me. It was an application for a marriage license from the Cook County Clerk’s Office with Marcone’s information filled in. A yellow sticky note on it told me to fill in my portion.

I stared at it.

I don’t know when I ended up sitting on the floor but it had been long enough for my butt to get cold from the stone floor as I ended up flipping through the rest of the papers, skimming everything which Marcone’s lawyers had outlined.

The second chunk of papers was actually a prenup. By filling it out I would be agreeing I didn’t have a right to touch any of Marcone’s businesses, bank accounts or properties. I couldn’t ask for so much as a red-hot cent from the man during the marriage or upon a divorce. Which was just fine by me. It was blood money. The thought of spending any of it made my stomach twist in disgust in the same way as it had all those years ago when Marcone hd offered me pay me anything I wanted to work for him. I didn’t want his money then and I didn’t want his money now.

Anyway, it wasn’t like I needed his cash. Even without touching the diamonds, I actually had a pretty full bank account. It turned out the Winter Knight got a yearly stipend which went into a high six digits and since I hadn’t touched my bank account in the last two years I’d actually become a millionaire. At least until a good chunk of that money went into the castle.

I was no longer a millionaire. That was how much it cost to fix Castle Dresden. I tried not to think about it because it made me cringe. Home ownership – castle ownership – was not for those faint of heart or light of wallet, let me tell you.

Marcone had also sent a more official looking set of papers outlining the terms of our partnership. It had been signed, showing his agreement to everything we’d worked out. The start for the twenty-five year time frame began the day after the wedding.

I noted there wasn’t anything from him on the alliance with Winter. I guess Marcone hadn’t finished negotiating with Mab yet.

I got myself off the floor and went to find a more comfortable spot so that I could read over the papers carefully before I signed. I read through it twice, getting coffee half-way through because all the legalese was making me fall asleep. Once I was certain there weren’t any surprises or that I wasn’t being tricked into something awful like handing over my soul, or worse Castle Dresden, I signed at the spots carefully marked for my signature and initials. I kept the copies and packaged everything to mail back to Marcone and his lawyers.

Only then did the reality of my future crash down on me like a tidal wave.

Hell’s bells, this was actually happening. These were the first steps that would end with me married. To John Marcone.

Oh crap, oh crap…I just then realized I’d completely forgotten to let Molly know I wanted to change an important factor about the wedding planning: The other person who was going to show up to exchange vows.

I winced.

I mean, I may not be much involved with the planning, but the few brushes with it I’d had (mostly Molly practically tearing out her hair in frustration about venues) gave me the impression that wedding planning was a lot like preparing to go to war. It involved juggling a lot of different things from making sure equipment, food and support staff ended up in the right location, in the right numbers at the right time, all while making sure everyone showed up dressed appropriately for the occasion and ready to rumble.

That the wedding now involved Marcone instead of Lara was going to change… every single thing about it.

Oh man, oh man, I hopde she wouldn’t kill me.

*-*-*-*

Having explained everything to my friend, I came to a stop to let her process the information while also giving myself the time to drink down some of my hot coffee before it cooled.

Molly’s expression had been unreadable when I started but it had grown pensive as I talked and explained… well, everything since Mab had given me an answer to the question of who else was on the block for an alliance with Winter. She said soberly, “John Marcone…you know I would never have picked him for you, Harry, but considering the options he’s actually the best choice.”

My mug hung in mid-air as I stared at her in surprise. Never in a million years would I have expected her to say that. “Um, you think so?” I asked as I put my coffee down on the table.

“I know you don’t like to admit it but you work really well together. You both want to protect Chicago,” Molly said, nodding slowly with a thoughtful expression on her face. She tucked a long white-blonde lock of hair behind her left ear and shifted in the chair of the cafe where she’d agreed to meet me. Her half-empty hazelnut mocha latte in a white ceramic mug marked with the cafe’s logo sat before her on the table. She was wearing an ice-blue pant-suit and blazer with a purple blouse. The outfit combined with her jewelry made her look like a prestigious lawyer or power broker taking a break from a packed schedule of meetings.

Probably not that far off the mark, I realized a split second later.

I hadn’t yet told her she had dark smudges of chocolate at the corners of her mouth. I was enjoying the sight. There was something so reassuringly human in it.

“I’ve borne witness to all he’s done for Chicago in the aftermath of the battle against the Titan,” Molly said, an otherworldly timbre in her voice making it ring with subtle power. Hints of Winter gently hummed in the air around her. I tried not to shift uneasily. “Except for you, he’s done more for the people – for those who’d been hurt and desperate – than anyone else.” Molly’s blue eyes grew somber and her mouth pursed unhappily. “I don’t know how many more people would have died from looting, from starving, from the cold or from… assholes.”

...from those simply taking advantage of the situation because there were always evil bastards looking to strong-arm the weak. Or to take from those who already had so little to their name. But even those jerks knew better than to piss off Gentleman Johnny Marcone.

“Marcone kept the city together. He kept Chicago civil. He kept people alive. I respect him.” Then Molly scowled. “He’s done more than Lara has.” The low hiss in her voice at every mention of Lara’s name was the sound of an angry snake about to strike. “And he hasn’t tried to kill you either which earns him a lot of points in my book. So yeah, I think he’s a much better choice of spouse than she is.”

“I don’t want to marry him either but for Maggie’s sake –”

“He’s the best option.” Molly’s smile was small and a little wobbly around the edges but also sincere. Not in the sense she was happy about the situation but in support of my decision.

Some tense part of me, relaxed. I hadn’t realized how worried I’d been until that moment about how Molly would react to the news. She’d been upset when Mab had first declared my betrothal to Lara. I didn’t want to hurt my friend in the same way by telling her there was someone else I had decided for myself I was going to marry.

“But –” Molly continued, looking concerned. Her brow furrowed and she studied me carefully. “– how are you feeling about this? Marcone has never been your favorite person.”

Understatement of the century.

“Yeah, he isn’t anywhere near the top of the list,” I agreed. Then I admitted, “Actually, Marcone hasn’t been too bad about it. He’s not asking for anything insane.” Actually, you could argue I was the one asking for the insane. I’d been thinking a lot about the last conversation I’d had with Marcone. And while I wasn’t happy with the idea he could turn around and say no after agreeing to marry me (I fully intended to call him a runaway bride if it happened), he’d made a damned good point. Too good of a point for me to argue against it.

I understood it. It made me respect Marcone all the more to know he had another line he refused to cross, other than his known rule about children and innocent bystanders.

I rubbed at the back of my head feeling heat crawl up into my cheeks. “Um, I’ve asked him out. On a date.”

Molly’s eyebrows shot up. “What! Really? You have?” she asked, disbelief written all across her face. “Jeez, why?”

“He’s uncomfortable with the whole thing.” Her eyebrows gathered in confusion. I explained, “The whole: ‘I’m not exactly choosing to be married in the first place’ thing.” I shrugged. “I thought that maybe dating would help.” My cheeks burned and I lifted my coffee to gulp down a swallow.

Understanding crossed Molly’s face. “Ah, that makes sense. I wouldn’t be comfortable about it either,” she said. Then she frowned as she tilted her head. “You seem worried about it, though.”

I grimaced. Usually, I tried to keep it in mind that Molly was sensitive to the emotions of others. But sometimes I simply forgot. “Well… yeah.” I hunched my shoulders and muttered into my coffee. “I haven’t dated a guy before.”

Molly’s blue eyes twinkled so merrily I was strongly reminded of Michael. “I’d offer advice but all I’ve got is make-up tips, advice on how to walk in high heels and how to best show off your boobs.”

“I don’t have those,” I said, looking at her warily. She, in turn, began eyeing my chest critically and I had to resist the urge to cross my arms in front of me as a shield.

“No, but you’ve been working out,” Molly said. “You have pecs. It’s almost as good. Ooh, you could wear a shirt with a boob window.”

I could only guess at the level of appall my face had to be showing by the intensity of her snickers. It took a few minutes for her laughter to calm down into a grin.

It was really good to see her laugh. Even if it was at my expense.

Molly frowned slightly and glanced me over from head to toe with a thoughtful expression. It made me straighten in my seat in worry. She tapped her chin as she asked, “Do you need help with clothes?”

“No!” I yelped.

“Are you sure?” Molly said, skeptically.

My current black shirt had a classical old bearded wizard in brilliant blue robes and a pointed hat looking serious and epic with green lightning running off him. He held up his staff glowing white with power as he summoned forth… a giant pizza.

Look, it spoke to my soul. I couldn’t I resist buying it.

“Yes, I’m sure,” I said. I was a grown man, dammit. I didn’t need my friends to dress me.

“If you say so,” Molly said reluctantly, clearly not convinced.

I grumbled into my coffee. She tried to hide her smile behind her mug but it was too wide.

“When is this date with Marcone happening?”

“I’m his plus-one for the next Ministry party.”

“Hmm, I’m supposed to represent Winter this time,” Molly said. Her blue eyes narrowed. “Full warning, I’m telling him I’ll make his life hell if he doesn’t treat you right.”

I snorted at the idea of needing a defender but I also couldn’t help but grin at knowing she was in my corner. “Thanks, Molls.”

Her smile was warm and incandescent. It faded away before she added hesitantly, “You know, when you called me up I thought it was to talk about something different.”

Baffled, I raised my eyebrows at her.

Molly chewed on her lower lip. “Harry. The anniversary of the Battle of Chicago is coming up.”

I looked away and deliberately controlled my breathing. I hadn’t been thinking about it. It wasn’t like I hadn’t been well aware that a year to the day of the Battle would soon be upon us. A year since so many people had died. Since Murph –

Still I felt blindsided by Molly’s reminder. Soon it would be a year since someone I’d been in love with had died before my eyes while I’d been helpless to save her.

“Ah,” I said quietly. “No, I don’t want to talk about it.”

“After Murphy –”

“Don’t. Please, don’t,” I said, cutting her off. I breathed for a moment until I thought I could talk with an even voice. “I’m fine.”

Molly reached out and put her cool hand down on top of my own, the bracelets around her wrists singing musically. “Harry, you don’t have to talk about her but the rest… I’m here if you want to talk about it.”

“Thank you for the offer, Molls.” I wasn’t ready to talk about it. Not with anyone. They didn’t understand the impact the entire horrible night had had on me… and not… not just… Murph. That had gutted me, left a hole inside me I didn’t dare touch. And when it had happened, I’d already been hurting from the trauma of all the horrible things I’d seen just getting to the Bean. And then afterward, I’d suffered even more and not just from physical injuries.

The mental wounds from carrying a banner were like my burns, still hurting, red and sensitive even now. Before the night of the Battle, I’d never been connected to so many people in my mind. People who’d followed me into battle. I had felt their wounds as if they’d been my own. I’d breathed their last agonized breaths. I’d died as they had died.

Their screams still rolled deep in my chest. Sometimes they spilled out at night.

The battle had left my psyche raw and nerve endings exposed. Every death had left me feeling worse. And all this had been happening while I had also been taking the spillover bruising blows of a Titan’s psionic attacks as Ethniu had gone after the immortals on the field.

It had been too much. I had lost too much.

How did I explain to Molly, who still occasionally looked at me with the glow of hero worship in her eyes (I doubted she realized I noticed), how at one point in the battle I had simply given up? That while she had been fighting for her life – for all of Chicago – I had lost all hope. That I’d been convinced it was impossible to survive Ethniu. That I’d been ready to die without a fight.

It was simple. I couldn’t.

“I’m okay,” I said firmly.

Molly looked like she didn’t believe me but was kind enough to let the topic drop. She looked away from me as she took another sip of her hazelnut mocha. It gave me time to get a hold of myself, so I tucked my emotions into a ball and put them away deep inside where she wouldn’t be able to sense them.

“Have you told Lara you’ve dumped her for Marcone yet?” Molly asked after a moment.

Amused, I snorted. “Well, I wouldn’t put it that way,” I said dryly. “You’re the first one to know he’s said yes. Well, I’m pretty sure that Mab has already figured it out considering how Marcone has been negotiating the Winter part of the alliance with her.” While I hadn’t gotten the details, a little bird – or should I say several winged fairies – had told me that those two had been meeting a lot over the last few days. “Lara doesn’t know yet.”

Molly’s blue eyes gleamed with wicked glee. “Can I be the one to tell her?”

I was taken aback by her expression. Her smile was reminding me more and more of the bull sharks out in Lake Michigan. “If you want. I’d planned on visiting her next to break the news.”

Molly’s predatory smile widened. “I’ll take care of it, Harry.”

I eyed her but then decided that whatever war seemed to be brewing between my former apprentice and Lara Raith was none of my business. I wasn’t about to get in the middle of two supernatural royals deciding to duke it out.

I’d rather go hide in my castle. Maybe pull the covers of my bed over my head while I was at it.

A look of dismay suddenly crossed Molly’s face. “Oh, no,” she breathed. “I’d finally sent out the invitations.” Molly had also been dragging her feet about getting everything started. Same as I had. Heh, like wizard, like former apprentice. Molly’s expression grew determined and the chill of winter rose in the air fighting the lingering summer heat. “Don’t worry, Harry, I can fix it.”

Before I could say a word, Molly stood and strode away from the cafe table. She pulled out a cellphone and in a few seconds was urgently talking to someone on the other side of the line.

“Not only the invitations, we have to change the venue too! And the decorations. I want to get rid of all that stupid white, Auntie Lea. Yes. I know there’s barely any time. That’s why we have to start now.”

Yup, I don’t think I was needed here anymore.

I gulped down the last of my coffee before I caught Molly’s eye. I waved goodbye as I stood up from the chair. She waved back, absently. I walked away quickly before it occurred to her to press-gang me into helping set up my own wedding.

I was going to show up without arguing about it. That would have to be enough.

*-*-*-*

As I stepped out of the Munstermobile, the slight weight of what I had in my blazer pocket felt heavier than I knew it to be. I touched it lightly and then proceeded to ignore it so I wouldn’t chicken out. Instead, I gave myself a quick check over, using the meager reflection from a large display window of a nearby store front.

Molly, apparently not trusting my ability to handle getting dressed on my own, had sent along one of her faerie minions to drop off a selection of shirts, pants and blazers for me to wear, even a couple of tuxedos, suits and pairs of shoes. I would have been hesitant to accept the gift if it hadn’t been for the note: For the successful outcome of Winter’s endeavors. Which I figured had given Molly enough wiggle room not to stick me with the bill of owing her another favor. So from my new wardrobe items, I’d selected a dark gray blazer, a blue silk shirt and dark designer jeans which all fit me so well I was suspicious that they hadn’t been made by mortal means.

I admit it had been something of a relief not to have to worry about what to pick out to wear from my wardrobe. For these Ministry meeting shindigs, I’d always shown up wearing a t-shirt, jeans and cowboy boots because I didn’t care how I looked and honestly neither did Mab which was why I could get away with it (actually I think she enjoyed the idea people would be stupid enough to judge me based on appearances). A date made me a lot more nervous about my clothes than usual. And I wasn’t a fan of going clothes shopping. At my height it was a real pain in the neck to find something off the racks which fit and I liked.

I mean, who liked burning through two hours to find a pair of a pants and maybe a couple of shirts to buy? Ugh, I could’ve been using that time to read a book instead.

I fully planned on grousing to Molly about the clothes when I saw her next. I hadn’t decided yet if it would be before or after I said thank you.

I walked into the building, getting past Marcone’s cold-eyed outer security without any problem. No one took away my blasting rod, rings, or gun because these guys were watching out for Formor assassins, not for tall wizards. Not that they needed to physically frisk me with the layers of magical shielding and protections woven around the building. Not only did you have to be a member of the Ministry to get inside, you also needed to have been personally vetted by one of the Faerie Queens. Anyone trying to sneak in with a forged invitation to this party would be turned into a statue (in ice or stone depended on which fae court was point on the magical security) before making it more than three strides past the entrance.

Childs found me practically as soon as I was inside the marble-floored lobby, and before I could say a word he was ushering me towards an elevator. The private elevator, not the public one available to the unwashed masses.

“Go to the tenth floor,” Childs said after he swiped in a card reader. It took him five tries to get it to work. I whistled innocently as he eyed me accusingly. As soon as the double-doors opened he waved me in.

He also didn’t follow.

I frowned at him but hit the button for the tenth floor anyway. I stepped out of the elevator to find three Einherjaren warriors – a smiling blond, a dour brunet, and an immense redhead with an impressively large gut considering he was nearly as tall as I was – all lounging around looking casual except for the various weapons they were toting. They had the easy-going manner of friends who’d known each other for a long time.

They were familiar too. It took me a second to remember where I’d seen them last. In my defense, they’d been covered in blood and gore from various injuries and being worked on by EMTs while being safeguarded by a wall of CPD officers led by Rawlins.

Even knowing death didn’t knock Einherjaren down for long it was really good to see they’d made it.

I introduced myself. After an exchange of mostly friendly greetings I was escorted by the steely-eyed brunet down a hall. I may have eyed the walls suspiciously, then ceilings and floors when paranoia bit down hard, but I didn’t see any sign of hidden mines. But then, would there be? Marcone had a lot of skilled, experienced construction workers on his payroll. There wouldn’t be clumsy patch jobs giving away his hidden traps.

After a moment, I decided that while my worried speculation was probably right on the money, it was unlikely that Marcone would chose now of all times to turn me into wizard-salsa.

We came upon an unmarked door which looked no different than several others we’d already passed. The Einherjar knocked twice, then opened it and waved me in.

Alone, I walked through the doorway, noting that there was no threshold to the place, to find myself in the entrance hall of an apartment. I walked through taking in everything. The apartment was very expensively, if sparsely, furbished in tasteful dark woods and light grays. But it was also impersonal, like an interior designer had been unleashed with an unlimited budget and allowed to do what they wanted after being given the order to keep it minimal.

I found Marcone sitting in a well-lit living room on a gray leather couch, looking at a glowing tablet. It was one of those tech toys which resembled nothing more than a piece of glass framed in a slender piece of black plastic.

They were the worst mirrors I’d ever seen.

Yes, I’m aware there’s more to those things than that. But considering what I do to technology with a computer chip, or anything with ‘smart’ as part of its name, that’s all the use I’d ever gotten out of them.

I took the moment to study Marcone because something about him was niggling at me. There was something… different about him.

It took me a couple of seconds to realize what it was. Now, Marcone was a handsome guy and he kept himself in shape. The only signs of his age were visible in the faint wrinkles at the corners of his eyes and the streaks of distinguished silver at the temples of his otherwise dark hair, but this was the first time I’d seen him wearing clothing which looked to be deliberately chosen to flaunt his looks and his body. He was still wearing a gray suit, but this one was lighter colored than his usual charcoal gray and it had thin silver pin-stripes running down it.

The suit was tighter than any suit I’d seen him wear in the past.

Although Marcone was sitting down the cut of his vest showed off the trimness of his waist to the span of his shoulders. His pants rather flatteringly emphasized the length of his legs, hinting at the strength in them. And even the corded steel muscles of his arms and chest were more outlined than I’d ever seen through the tightness of Marcone’s shirt. The silvery tie he wore didn’t detract from it at all.

The dark green material clung.

Huh. I guess I wasn’t the only one making an effort.

A moment later it hit me that I was staring like a creep.

I cleared my throat. “Hey, Marcone,” I said in greeting and warning. I stood at what I hoped was a safe distance away from his tablet.

“You’re here earlier than we discussed,” Marcone said calmly. He glanced over at me. Marcone’s eyes were cool and unreadable. The greenness of his shirt really emphasized the color of his eyes. He scanned me swiftly, from head to toe then he clearly stopped looking for a threat because it became slower… more lingering.

Appreciative.

I tried to fight off a blush but I could feel my cheeks heating.

Marcone looked away to tap gently at something on the bright tablet screen and it went dark. He put the tablet down on the couch and then stood up, turning towards me.

“Is there a reason you’ve shown up so early, Mr. Dresden?”

I took the look to mean it was safe for me to approach, while also noting the distancing ‘Mister’. Ah, probably not the best foot to start off the evening. I’d better explain myself and fast. I considered the small weight which had been burning a hole in my blazer pocket. “Yup, there’s something I want to give you first.”

Marcone’s eyebrows quirked and his head tilted. “And it couldn’t wait an additional twenty minutes?”

“Maybe, but you’re the one who pointed out there’ll be eyes on us. And the news of our engagement is bound to be spreading among the Accorded members by now so….” I shrugged.

I was now close enough to Marcone that I was able to reach out and clasp his right wrist (huh, same cologne, that hadn’t changed). Marcone watched me but he didn’t fight me as I brought his hand up, palm first. I ignored how my stomach swooped at the trust implied – last time hadn’t been a fluke after all – Marcone kept letting me manhandle him. I shoved the realization away to think about later as I reached into my blazer pocket with my free hand to pull out the item I’d worked to create since his visit to the castle.

Then I lowered the engagement ring onto Marcone’s broad palm.

I had made it out of silver, because it was the metal I knew best – could work best – other than copper. It held a single sparkling diamond. The diamond was bracketed by two small green crystals from Demonreach. I don’t have a lot of practice inserting gemstones, so instead they were held inside a block of silver using a brute force method to keep them in place. It wasn’t exactly pretty. If Marcone punched someone while wearing the ring, it would leave a deep imprint, or even tear away flesh if angled just right.

But no matter what the ring looked like there was no denying what I intended it to mean by making it for him.

Marcone stared at the blunt ring where in gleamed in his hand. The diamond looked like held a flame within it. Then he frowned slightly. “Is there magic in this?”

“Yeah. It doubles as a pass-key. It’ll get you through the wards of the castle,” I explained.

Marcone glanced up at me. “Already?” he asked, his brow furrowed. “This is premature, Dresden. The agreed terms of the partnership stated –”

I cut him off, saying, “There’s only one reason I would have tried to keep you out of the castle and you’ve know it now.” I nodded at the ring. “That’ll get you in if you need sanctuary like you asked. Well, that and this to open the door.” I dangled out a key. “I know we have a month until everything is official. But if you need it… use it.”

Marcone stared at me and I let it show on my face how seriously I meant it. He nodded slowly. “Very well, I accept.”

I watched him take the ring and slip it onto his left ring finger. I was distracted by the sight. That was my ring on Marcone’s hand. I had to swallow hard and look away. Hell’s bells, I’d known it was coming. I’d made it after all, but seeing it there was incredibly disconcerting.

I hadn’t expected it to hit me so hard but then… I’d never made anything for someone else to wear on a long-term basis. I’d never crafted jewelry for anyone but myself. Okay, yes, they’d been magical tools, but I could easily have made a bracelet without turning it into a focus or energy reservoir.

Stars, even the ring for Susan had been store bought.

“Dresden.”

I looked back at Marcone who took the offered key. It vanished into a pocket.

“Are you ready?” Marcone asked, as he picked up the suit jacket which had been resting over the arm of the couch.

“Not really, but let’s get it over with,” I said, truthfully.

Marcone didn’t look at me as he buttoned his suit jacket closed. It was also different than usual. Not as long. Tighter.

If he was managing to hide even half the number of weapons on him as I’d known him to carry in the past in that outfit I’d be impressed.

I tore my eyes away before Marcone noticed. Abruptly, I was consciously aware of how close we were standing to each other still. I backed off a couple steps to give him some personal space.

As Marcone checked and adjusted his cufflinks, he continued, “I’ve only just finished negotiating terms with your queen. So presenting a unified front is the best way to project the strength of the alliance with Winter to the other Accorded nations. Especially to those who held expectations that you would be tied to the White Court instead. To accomplish this goal I’m going to have to touch you.”

I swallowed. I managed a calm, “This is a date Marcone. I kinda expected it.”

Marcone’s eyes flickered towards me. “While that may be the case, I do not want you to be caught by surprise or feel threatened. You have a tendency to react… explosively to either. Anyway, it is polite to ask for permission, especially of a date.”

“Don’t worry, I’ll give you five stars on your gentleman rating,” I promised, making a cross-my-heart motion over my chest.

The corners of Marcone’s lips twitched up. “Hmm… I don’t think it’ll count if it comes by telegram.”

I snorted. And weirdly just like that I felt a lot calmer about what I was about to walk into and at whose side. Banter, it’s good for what ails ya. “What? They don’t have a 1-800 number? Then I guess you’ll miss out.”

“How terrible,” Marcone said dryly. “I guess my reputation will just have to take the hit.”

*-*-*-*

“I trust you will resist the urge to spark off another war while it is known you are my personal guest for the evening,” Marcone said, as we stepped out of the elevator and walked to the ballroom where the summit pre-party was being held.

Out of the corner of my eye, I could see the three Einherjaren bodyguards try to stifle their grins.

“I’ve started one war. One,” I complained, rolling my eyes in exasperation. Why did this keep coming up with people? I hadn’t started a war in years. “It’s not like it’s a habit.”

“No,” Marcone said in calm agreement. “However, there is always the possibility that it’s a hobby.”

I snorted, amused at his comeback. I grinned. “I’ll let you know if I’m feeling bored.”

“Please do,” Marcone said, then as one of the Einherjaren opened the double doors he put his hand at the small of my back.

Even expecting it, I nearly jumped out of my skin but I got control of myself in time so all I did was go tense. I frowned as I decided I didn’t like the message we’d be giving to the rest of the Ministry members by having him escort me into the room like this.

Marcone didn’t look at me, giving me a second to get a hold of myself before he pressed lightly on my back. But I twisted like a snake, until his hand slid off me and I caught it in my right hand. I gripped his hand in mine. He’d wanted a partnership. Then he better be ready to show it was one.

Marcone’s eyes flickered to me and I stared down at him in determination.

He nodded slightly and together we went through the doorway and into the view of all the Accorded Nation representatives in the ballroom while holding hands.

Chapter Text

The ballroom was exactly what came to mind when anyone used the word: A large room with a very high ceiling, lit up with chandeliers and with a polished hardwood floor for dancing. This one was set up with a round conference table – an expensive looking kind made out of dark wood – with high-backed chairs at intervals to hold the leaders of the Ministry delegations for when the meeting got underway. Meanwhile every member nation had a smaller table. They were scattered around the room where the delegations sat to discuss whatever they had on their minds with other members or among themselves in preparation for when the meeting went from unofficial to official. The farthest table was long and loaded with food for those wanting snacks and with no patience for the waitstaff circling around the room.

I started scanning the ballroom, looking for reactions to the sight of me walking in hand-in-hand with Baron John Marcone. The Einherjaren left us to what I assumed were assigned spots to keep an eye on any developing trouble while covering Marcone’s back.

Molly, with her entourage of Winter faerie minions, didn’t even glance in my direction. She was focused, flipping through various binders piled onto her table as she handed out orders to the fae around her. To my mute horror, I saw my godmother’s shinning copper curls among the bowed heads of members of the Winter Lady’s entourage.

What the hell was Lea doing here? She never showed up to these things.

The Leanansidhe looked up from looking at a binder and smiled at me with all the smugness of a cat seeing a wounded bird. I wanted to gulp and look away but I didn’t dare, instead I arched my eyebrows. Lea’s smile didn’t became any less predatory but her green cat-slit eyes glowed with approval. She looked back to Molly when she said something to my godmother and only then did I dare move my eyes away from the Winter delegation.

That was when I caught sight of Lara, with a couple of her sisters, sitting on what had become her favorite piece of furniture at these meeting: A couch. A leftover from last year’s peace talks which she’d really taken to. Freydis Gard sat on the floor before Lara, as she watched the room. The look Lara shot me was cold and silver-eyed but otherwise she didn’t react.

Sarissa, the Summer Lady, and Fix, the Summer Knight, both glanced in our direction. Fix looked wide-eyed at me but only for a quick moment. Sarissa raised her flute of champagne and returned to talking to Ivy’s representative. I had yet to stop finding it funny that all of Ivy’s people looked like librarians. Up to and including sweaters with patches at the elbows and eyeglasses kept in place by those loop string things.

The Archive to archives to libraries to librarians. It was funny to me, okay.

The svartalf delegation at their table nodded in acknowledgment, although it was directed more towards Marcone than at me. He nodded politely back.

Then my attention was caught by the ghouls.

The members of the LaChaise clan didn’t look happy but then they never really did unless they were face first in a pile of meat. I’d been hearing rumors they were complaining, accusing the other Ministry members of picking the juiciest Formor targets (those with the greatest treasure caches or fewest defenses) and in turn giving the ghouls the toughest nuts to crack. They were set up the furthest away from the entrance and yet I could still hear the growls in their voices as they exchanged words. The leader of the clan was in today and Carter LaChaise looked angry.

A couple of ghouls looked in the direction of me and Marcone with ugly scowls on their faces.

Or maybe it was just their faces. Heh.

I could feel my eyes narrowing to dangerous slits and my free hand twitching with the urge to grab my blasting rod from its holster, even as I penned a mental note to keep a stricter eye on ghoul activity in Chicago. My never extinguished hatred of ghouls flared red-hot. But I knew better than to give in to my desire to burn all ghouls down to charcoal skeletons although it would be so, so satisfying. I got a grip on my temper. I didn’t want to stir up the Winter Knight mantle this early in the evening.

Dammit, but I just hated knowing they were around. The ghoul population count always went up by a significant degree whenever Carter LaChaise was in town since he practically brought his entire clan with him. And while I couldn’t prove it the number of missing persons reported to CPD (according to Paranoid Gary) also spiked up. I’d have to send a warning to the Paranet to be on the look out and keep people off the streets for the next few nights.

“Unless you want me to indulge in my hobby,” I murmured to Marcone in warning, tightening my grip on his hand. I tried not to get distracted by the weight of the ring on his finger. “Then you’ll leave me behind when you go talk to them.” I didn’t gesture. Only shooting the ghouls a sharp, humorless smile before returning my gaze to Marcone.

Marcone’s eyes flickered in acknowledgment and he gave me a slight nod. Then he directed us towards the svartalves.

*-*-*-*

Marcone left me by the food when he went to talk to LaChaise which proved all over again that the man knew me.

I happily tucked into the biggest stack of bacon-wrapped lobster tails I could pile onto a small plate, waving away the waitstaff as they offered champagne. I’d noticed before that whenever the Ministry leadership (or maybe just Marcone) was feeling particularly pleased with how the war against the Formor was going there was a noticeable uptick in expensive sea food hors d’oeuvres.

It made me wonder if Marcone was tempted to embrace the Addams’ family credo for his own: We gladly feast on those who would subdue us.

“So, what ever happened to ‘Eeww’?” asked a low, seductive voice sounding exactly like melting chocolate tasted. It distracted me from where I was eyeing the grilled octopus on bamboo skewers as I chewed on the last of the lobster.

Well, here was someone who would probably claim that fictional family’s credo unironically.

I glanced over my shoulder to see Lara, a smile of amusement gracing her face. Unsurprisingly, she was wearing white today and also the gloves which showed up whenever I was around. Every other part of her was covered. Well, except where her gown was flowing around her with a slit beginning at her upper right thigh, showing off a long, pale leg and ending at a slender foot in a white stiletto with a silver heel.

I blinked and looked again. Oh, that was not regular footwear. That was a weapon hidden as footwear. The heel may not have had a point but it definitely had an edge. Talk about taking the stiletto name of the shoe too literally.

Lara’s eyes were actually crinkled at the corners. As if she actually found the entire situation pretty funny. She continued, “You were vocally against the idea of kissing Baron Marcone but now you’re marrying him? What changed your mind? Or his? Did he offer you some afternoon delight? Or was it the other way around?”

“Well… I found out girls have cooties, so…,” I said, giving her a careless shrug and ignoring her implications. I nodded in greeting, “Hey, Freydis.”

Freydis Gard had a badly hidden pained expression like she was wondering who she had pissed off to be forced to be here. Vadderung, probably, I would have told her if she’d asked. I was pretty sure he’d been the one to assign her to Lara in the first place.

I glanced around the room and I saw Marcone standing before the ghouls’ table, turning to look back at me. His jaw firmed and while he didn’t go so far as to arch his eyebrows in a question, there was still a slight narrowness to his pale green eyes which conveyed the exact same thing. I gave a slight shake of my head, keeping my eyes locked on Marcone’s own before I lowered my gaze back to Lara.

“Freydis,” Lara said. Her red-headed Valkyrie bodyguard shifted her body, hiding her hands before snapping a wooden tile. At once, I could feel the familiar surge of magic in the air around us as the rune tile released its spell. Ah, I knew this particular bit of magic. It was the one which would make our conversation sound like pointless small talk to anyone eavesdropping. And considering the uptick in attention I could feel focusing on us, that was probably everyone in the room.

“You could have given me more warning,” Lara said still smiling, but there was a bite to her voice and her gray eyes were paler than usual.

“Didn’t the Winter Lady talk to you?” I asked, plastering a fake friendly expression on my face. Her expression made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.

“She came by the house early this morning,” Lara said, her tone sour. From her tone it didn’t sound like it had been a pleasant visit.

By the skin of my teeth I was able to keep my surprise off my face. Why had Molly waited… ah. “Marcone hadn’t finished his negotiations with the Winter Court until recently,” I said carefully, still smiling. Of course, Molly wouldn’t say the Marcone-Winter alliance was going through until the terms had been finalized to Mab’s satisfaction. “So there wasn’t much lead time to warn you. Anyway, you’ve been trying to find a way to get my boss to change her mind about the betrothal for months,” I continued. “You can’t tell me you’re angry to be out of it now.”

“Yes, I’m… delighted by the outcome. However, if I’d known ahead of time I would have had an appropriate explanation in place for when the news reached the rest of my court,” Lara said. “Now they are trying to strong arm my staff to find out what I knew. If I’d known you were going to the Baron. And if I did, why I would have let it happen. I’m going to be facing questions. And repercussions if I don’t have the right answers.” Lara’s smile was still on her face even as she hissed out angrily, “I will retaliate if I need to, Dresden.”

Against me? Or against Marcone? Both of us? No matter what it was I had to nip this in the bud.

Smiling, I nodded. Both in agreement and to keep up the charade for anyone keeping an eye on us. “Or you could spin it another way,” I said, as I reached for the skewered octopus and took a bite, mentally imagining it was kraken. It made the tasty lemony mouthful even more satisfying. Hmm… tastes like chicken.

“What kind of way?” Lara asked warily. And still smiling although her eyes were chilly.

I turned so that my face was away from the room, allowing me to drop the stupid smile from my face before my cheeks started hurting. I picked up more food from the table, skirting around the fried frog legs because I was not that culinarily brave. But, damn, if they didn’t smell good too.

I said, “You can’t tell me everyone in the White Court was looking forward to seeing me married into your family. Not with how much trouble I bring with me. Not with my reputation.”

Lara nodded in a friendly way.

“So tell them you’ve been working on getting me to go to Marcone for all these months. You’ve never invited me to the mansion. You’ve never brought me to any kind of shindig as your date, so you clearly never intended for the marriage to go through at all. Tell them it was your idea to get rid of a ticking timebomb in the middle of your court. That it took time because you were just trying to do it in the most delicate manner you could to not upset my boss or me. After all, I’m dangerous. Look at what I’ve done to the White Council after being a member for a couple of decades. They’ll be recovering for generations. What will I do to the White Court if I’m among you? I mean, I already destroyed the Deeps and back then I was only visiting. It’s better for the White Court to let me be Marcone’s headache to deal with.”

I checked to see how she was taking my words. Lara’s expression was stunned and her red lips were parted as she stared up at me.

“Tell them that was your plan all along. You didn’t dare let them know in case it somehow got back to Marcone before everything was ready. Tell your people you tossed me like a hot potato at him and he was the one who didn’t think and caught me. Whose to say what havoc I will wreak? I anger people all the time. Who knows how many enemies will I bring down on the Baron’s head?” I casually ate more of the pseudo-kraken on a stick (part of my mind couldn’t help but worriedly echo my own words: What enemies indeed). After swallowing, I added, “Now all your people have to do is sit back and wait to see what happens. It’s a win-win for the White Court.”

I fully turned back to Lara with a friendly expression on my face.

“You are getting smarter about all this, aren’t you?” she murmured, looking thoughtful at my words.

I cocked my head to the side. “Who, me? Nope. No way, I’m only a brainless thug whose only skill is smashing things or burning them down. Ask anybody.”

A low amused snort escaped from Freydis.

Lara sighed, the anger in her drained away and her eyes darkened into the usual gray which wasn’t as worrying. She said, “Well, I’m looking forward to one thing.”

“What’s that?” I asked warily.

The last of the coldness finally seeped away from Lara. Mirth, instead of anger, was making her eyes shine and her lips curl up. “That all the unresolved sexual tension and eye-fucking will finally calm down. Seeing you two go at it always makes me so damned hungry.”

I nearly choked on my octopus. I had to cough hard and thump my chest.

“What?” I croaked out once I could finally breathe. “No. There’s no… no that.” I couldn’t even say it. Eye-fucking? What the hell.

The incredulous expressions on both women’s faces were alarming.

“You’re kidding, right? I haven’t even been around you two that long and I can see how often the Baron stares at you. And how you stare right back at him,” said Freydis, giving me a look like I was dropping in her rating system for being an idiot.

Dammit, I liked being a six on the Freydis Scale. Hey, getting that number from a Valkyrie who preferred to sleep with women was like scoring a ten from anyone else.

I scowled, darkly. “I do not.”

That was when Marcone practically materialized next to me like he’d teleported. I tried not to jerk in surprise. The faint sense of rune magic around us popped like a balloon. Marcone shot me a quick, evaluating glance before he pressed his left hand against my back. I fought off an alarmed twitch. He turned to Lara, saying calmly, “Ms. Raith, forgive me for stealing away Mr. Dresden, but the meeting is about to start soon.”

“Of course. But first, Baron Marcone…,” Lara said smiling politely. Her smile shifted into something more seductive and hungry as she took in how Marcone looked in his suit. She wasn’t subtle, as she scanned him from head to toe and back up again. Her paling eyes betrayed her hunger. Lara didn’t go so far as to lick her lips or try to throw her succubus mojo at either of us. Not that she would, considering how it would be seen as an attack while she was under guest right, but I got the impression that she really, really wanted to.

I was reminded of how Thomas had once said that the only other man to turn her down recently – other than yours truly – had been John Marcone.

I frowned at her and shifted so that I had Marcone’s hand back in my grip.

I could see the moment Lara caught sight of the ring on Marcone’s left hand because her expression grew closed for a split second. When she smiled again her expression had none of the heat from before and her face was stiff with some hidden emotion. Not by much. The difference may not even have been noticeable to those who didn’t know her well, but it was there in the tight muscles at the corners of her eyes. Whether it was anger, hurt or something else, I couldn’t tell.

Marcone gave no indication he’d seen it but I’d bet my bottom dollar that he had.

“I wish to extend to you my congratulations on your upcoming nuptials. I do believe you two deserve each other,” Lara continued. Her eyes flickered to me. Her smile grew more genuine and downright wicked, as she said to Marcone, “I know an artisan who can build these gorgeous handcuffs which can survive against super-human strength and are fairly magic resistant. Or would you prefer a gag? Both? I’m asking so I know which wedding gifts you’d enjoy, Baron.”

This time I choked on air.

“I appreciate the thought,” Marcone said calmly, not even a flicker of reaction crossing his face. “But I hardly find such accoutrements necessary, Ms. Raith. And on the question of gifts, I do believe the Winter Lady is the one who has put together a wedding registry if you wish to discuss it with her.”

The delight dimmed from Lara’s face and she shot Marcone a narrow-eyed look.

Marcone’s small smile was utterly lacking in humor.

Almost involuntarily I glanced over to the Winter contingent and noted to my relief my godmother and the stack of wedding planning binders had vanished, leaving Molly to do her Winter Lady thing without being distracted by her appointed role as wedding planner.

As my eyes returned to watching Marcone then Lara and back to Marcone, I was reminded of how both of them had spent several years maneuvering against each other. Clashing and fighting and who-knew-what. Unless one of them was taken down they would continue to be at odds for many years into the future (Lara didn’t even know how potentially long that time may be with Marcone’s coin-buddy extending his life) as they struggled to increase their influence in Chicago and erode at the other’s power base at the same time.

Have I mentioned lately how I really, really hate politics? Or to be more specific, getting caught in the middle of power struggles?

But I also knew whose lot I’d thrown in with.

“I’m sure Molly would love to go over it with you,” I said to Lara, before I let Marcone draw us away toward the conference table.

Now, Marcone never came to these meetings with support staff unlike the other Ministry powers. I figured it was simply because he did the majority of his prep work beforehand. And on the rare occasion he needed anything else he could send one of his people to go grab it for him, and it wasn’t like they had far to go considering it was his building. Therefore because he didn’t need it, he didn’t have that extra smaller table for his minions. Instead, there was a single heavy high-backed wooden chair in place of the table. It was the sort of chair which always gave the impression of only needing to be adorned with gold leaf to be considered a throne.

We headed for it. Molly stepped away from the Summer contingent with a respectful nod to Sarissa and Fix who returned the gesture, before she joined us. Molly made it look casual and smooth, as if she fell into step next to Marcone all the time. Like it was entirely a coincidence that the Winter Lady happened to be heading in the same direction (since the Winter Court was on the right of Marcone’s throne-chair).

“I need to have a word with you, Baron Marcone,” Molly said quietly. The sense of Winter chill in the air coupled with the odd feeling of having cotton balls in my ears led me to think she was muffling the conversation from the rest of the room with a subtle veil.

Marcone’s glance toward her was sharp and assessing. Marcone’s voice was low as he said coolly, “Winter Lady, if you intended to impart some sort of warning regarding how I will suffer retribution if my treatment of your Knight is anything less than honorable, you should be aware your father has already delivered it. Succinctly.”

My jaw dropped.

Molly’s eyes went huge for a split-second before she regained control of her expression. “What?” she whispered in disbelief.

“Your father,” Marcone explained, watching Molly with a neutral expression, “requested to meet with me yesterday. Privately. He delivered an impressively professional threat should I bring harm upon Mr. Dresden during the course of our new… partnership.”

Damn it. I’d told Michael about everything, but if I’d known he’d go to Marcone to threaten the man…. Okay, I still would have brought him up to date, but I sure as hell would have talked him out of going to Marcone. Who, in case Michael had forgotten, had a freaking Fallen angel in his head!

Holy shit. It wasn’t like the angel security detail traveled with Michael wherever he went.

Both Molly and I must have still looked pretty bug-eyed, because the corners of Marcone’s lips twitched up.

“Why did you meet with him in the first place?” I asked. Did Namshiel throw a fit at being so close to a former Knight?

Okay, now I kinda wished I’d seen that.

Marcone’s hint of humor faded away as he looked up into my eyes with a serious expression.

“Because I owe Mr. Carpenter a great debt, Dresden,” Marcone explained solemnly. Molly was staring at him, frowning thoughtfully. “And it is one in which granting a meeting spanning barely over a handful of minutes is hardly enough to begin to redress.”

Oh. I hadn’t realized that Marcone would look at Michael and the permanent damage from the injuries he’d suffered in the mission to rescue Marcone all those years ago and acknowledge he owed him. Owed him a lot. Marcone could have ignored it. I was the one who had brought Michael to the island. It would have been easy… hell, even expected, for Marcone to refuse to acknowledge there was any sort of debt, after all it wasn’t like he’d been the one to ask Michael for help.

I hadn’t expected Marcone to think he owed Michael… anything. Huh, that was something I would need to think about.

“Although, regretfully I did have to turn down his invitation to Sunday dinner,” Marcone continued blandly.

This time Molly made a choking noise.

And me? I marveled at the mental image that conjured.

I bet Namshiel just loved that idea. An invitation to go to the Carpenter home and be outnumbered and surrounded by militant angel bodyguards. Heh. He’d be like a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs.

“He’s a good man,” I said quietly. Not for the first time, I felt that warm swell of bottomless gratitude for whatever lucky set of circumstances had brought Michael – all the Carpenters – into my life. Michael was a rare breed indeed and not just because he was someone who could look at what I was, what I’d become, and not only see the good but also apparently go out and deliver a shovel talk on my behalf. And then have the guts to turn around and invite the very man he’d threatened, Gentleman John Marcone – kingpin of Chicago and someone he knew had a Fallen angel in his head – over to dinner.

“Yes,” agreed Marcone, and then he tilted his head and glanced from me to a new chair in a silent indication of where I should sit. When he’d gestured at his goons it had been a signal to have another one of those high-backed chairs brought out. Although this one was not deposited before the conference table, it had been set exactly between Marcone’s chair and Winter’s chair, with about four feet from the table’s edge. Close enough to show I wasn’t some minion of either, but far enough away that it was also clear I wasn’t an independent Accorded power.

Huh.

However, all I did was arch my eyebrows and stubbornly remain on my feet. Marcone’s pale green eyes glittered with a shade more amusement. Then he nodded to Molly, before dropping my hand and walking off.

Molly stood next to me for a moment, watching Marcone take his seat at the conference table. That set off some signal to the rest of the Accorded nations, who started to move to their chairs.

Molly shook her head slightly. “I can’t believe Dad stole my thunder.”

I grinned down at her. “Well, we know he wields Mjölnir.”

Molly smiled back at our inside joke. She hummed thoughtfully, glancing at Marcone, “Damn. Now, I do kind of want him to show up for dinner one of these days.”

“What the hell for?” I asked, eyeing her in disbelief.

“Because Dad kinda sucks at handing out threats. Mom… on the other hand? She can really scare the hell out of people, sometimes with just a look,” Molly said in satisfaction. “Especially when she’s being protective over family.”

I blinked at her. I opened my mouth to protest my inclusion in the Carpenter Clan but the sharp look Molly shot me made me think better of it. I shut my mouth. Then I glanced over at Marcone and tried to image any set of circumstances that would involve Charity Carpenter being in the same room as Marcone.

“Hasn’t Chicago suffered enough damage?” I asked mournfully, as cold sweat prickled along my back.

Molly snorted, then abandoned me to take up her duties as the youngest Winter Queen.

I sank into my chair and mentally fortified myself to pay attention to the next couple of hours of the war effort against the Formor.

Chapter Text

I followed Marcone back into his upstairs apartment… well, in the sense that he owned it and it was an apartment. I expected the man lived in it with the same permanence that I’d give a hotel room I paid for the night. It would explain the utter lack of threshold. But considering he owned the building which was layered with magical protections while also being guarded by armed security personnel with more firepower than some human nations, I could see why its lack wasn’t something he was too worried about.

The Ministry summit-parties never lasted too long. About two hours on average, with the longest I’d had to suffer through being around four hours, when some intense arguing had taken place about the benefits of attacking a newly discovered Formor fortress full of soldiers and treasure, and then who would be the one to do it and reap the rewards. This evening had lasted a merciless three hours since people kept wanting to talk before they made their excuses and left. Marcone’s alliance with the Winter Court and my upcoming marriage to him had been the main topic of interest.

I’d gotten stuck in many, many conversations about it.

Yes, it was true. No, it wasn’t a weird joke I was pulling. Yes, I was aware I was scowling, this is how I glow with happiness, okay. Grrr.

I may have started getting tetchy after an hour of it. Fortunately by then the summit had started breaking up.

The three Einherjaren left us at the hall as Marcone opened the door to the apartment.

The delicious smell of cooked meat wafted to my nose and my stomach growled to complain, letting me know I hadn’t fed it nearly enough food this evening and I’d better fix that. Right now, dammit.

“Will you be joining me for dinner, after all?” Marcone asked. At my lack of immediate answer to his question, Marcone turned to arch an eyebrow at me.

A part of me wanted to tell him no. I was tired and I wanted to go home. Even knowing most of the people at the summit, parties ran counter to my homebody instincts and I was mentally exhausted. Another part of me was salivating over the smell of food and had punched me in the taste buds to get my attention.

My stomach growled again. My nose chimed in a vote. My mouth was watering.

Well, I knew when I was outvoted. Anyway, there was supposed to be a point to this evening other than posturing for the supernatural community. I should put in some work on my campaign to convince Marcone not to back out of our betrothal.

Okay, thinking that was still weird even after having spent a good chunk of time talking about it with other people.

“Sure, I’ll stick around,” I said.

Marcone nodded and led the way into the apartment. Someone had stopped by after we’d left and set up several lit tapered candles in silver candle holders scattered throughout the apartment. There were even a few intricate candelabras resting at places where more light would be needed.

The smell of food grew heavier in the air as we got closer to the dining room. Marcone undid the buttons of his suit jacket and shrugged out of it before slinging it over the back of the gray leather couch with his left hand as he passed. The candlelight of the apartment caught on the ring.

Goddammit, it was still distracting to see my ring on Marcone’s finger.

“Leaving candles unattended is a fire hazard,” I pointed out.

“I hardly consider it any more hazardous than having you in the same building, Dresden,” Marcone said at once, which made me snort in appreciation.

I hadn’t burned down anything in years, but I would admit to feeling smug that Marcone still judged me to be… well, a danger to his insurance rates, as he’d long ago put it.

Marcone glanced at me as if he could read my thoughts, and he smiled slightly before he gestured for me to proceed him into the dinning room.

*-*-*-*

Dinner was… difficult.

It was strange to realize I’d felt more comfortable walking into the Ministry summit holding Marcone’s hand, or hell, simply fighting at his side against monsters than I did just sitting across from him at his dinner table and eating his food while trying to stay civil.

Especially when there was no one else around to be a distracting buffer.

It was just… sitting down to eat a meal together. Breaking bread. There was a reason that those actions resonated with us. Why it was one of the oldest ways used to ease tensions. It was a universal point of commonality in humanity. People bonded over food. It was the times of day people talked to each other. It fostered connection. Intimacy.

Stars, the very idea of intimacy with Marcone… yeah, it was tripping me up.

Sure, I was the one to push for this date but the very idea of having a conversation with him – of all people – was tough.

I was floundering.

I mean, what did Marcone and I have to talk about? I was hardly going to ask him: Hey, murder anybody I know recently? How’s the corruption of the city’s soul going? Have you bought any useful politicians lately? The force of evil in your head, how’s that going for you?

Yeah, right.

Neither was I going to ask Marcone how his so-called business was doing. I knew too much as it was and all it did was make me angry. Yes, I hated the fact that Marcone was a criminal. And it drove me absolutely nuts to know nothing I said or did would ever change that, so I had to ignore it. Anyway, I suspected it would really hurt my chances of convincing Marcone to go through with the wedding if I stormed off while spouting threats. And getting him to agree to another date would probably also be dead in the water. So yeah, that was another topic of conversation stamped with a large red NO, with an additional note of ‘Don’t even think about it, dummy.’

I gulped down more of the red wine which had come with the meal while trying to decide if I really wanted another glass. Regretfully, I made myself stick to what was left in it.

Hell, there were just too many conversational landmines. I wasn’t looking to blow-up the evening. At least, not on purpose.

Argh.

Now, I’d had first dates that were a helluva lot more… disastrous. Trust me, you have a demon show up to kill you during your first date with someone you really like. Ending up dragging her into a situation where she risks being murdered too, and it quickly sets a high-bar mark to clear for freaking awful. But this dinner date with Marcone was a new level of uncomfortable. And it wasn’t the whole ‘I’m dating another man for the first time’ angle, which was something I hoped Marcone hadn’t noticed.

Maybe the main problem Marcone and I had was that we knew each other too well. And yet at the same time we also didn’t trust each other well enough to be truly relaxed in each other’s presence.

I wasn’t the only one feeling this way. That was the only thing which kept me in my seat at Marcone’s dinning room table. Marcone’s composure was calm and collected as always but the way his pale green eyes were steely as he watched me sitting across from him betrayed him.

Look, you have to know how to read Marcone’s subtle tells. And when he looked more alert for danger than usual happened to be one of his. He was as uncomfortable as I was.

This evening was going great. If it was meant to be a showcase on how not to do it.

If it wasn’t for the fact that I had to drive back home I’d be asking for more wine right now. Hell, maybe I’d be guzzling down the entire bottle. I had to keep reminding myself this evening wasn’t the worst date with someone I’d ever had. It wasn’t much help.

After finishing my plate, I got to work on seconds when Marcone decided to be the one to break the uncomfortable silence. He put down his fork. He watched me eating for a moment, as if considering some important words. It made me wary and I swallowed down my mouthful of steak.

Then Marcone said slowly, “So the Cubs –”

“Really, Marcone? Sports?” I shot him an incredulous look.

“Well, I could discuss the weather, if you’d prefer,” Marcone said, a shade of amusement in his pale green eyes. He swallowed down a sip of his wine and arched his eyebrows.

I snorted. “There’s only so many ways to describe Chicago summer and that’s as hot, humid, I’m-melting-I’m-melting and oh-god-why-please-make-it-stop. But sure, hit me with the sports talk. Although keep in mind I haven’t had much free time to keep up these days.” Or any free time at all.

“The Cubs after performing extraordinarily well in their first few games this season have returned to their usual level of performance since they won the World Series,” said Marcone, after a moment.

Ooh, Marcone had to bring up the only sore point I had on the subject of baseball. Trust him to find it.

I glowered down at my food.

“I still can’t believe I missed that,” I grumbled. I stabbed at my steak, not even a little disappointed that the meat didn’t make a satisfying thunk sound. The filet mignon was so soft the tines of the fork parted it like a knife. It was too damned good. “What kinda Chicagoan am I? I missed seeing the Cubs winning the World Series!”

“Dresden, you were dead at the time,” Marcone pointed out, dryly.

“I was only mostly dead,” I said, waving my left hand dismissively. “It’s not a good enough excuse for missing getting to see the ‘curse of the billy goat’ finally broken.”

“Considering the average wizard’s lifespan goes into several hundred years, it is entirely likely they will win at least a couple of times in your lifetime.” Marcone paused and seemed to consider his words. “Or at the very least once more. Possibly.”

“Ha,” I said doubtfully, although the curse was well and truly gone now and unlikely to ever be reinstated considering the originator had been one of Ethniu’s victims, I wasn’t sure I trusted the Cubs that much. Okay, yes, I cheered for them. And would happily go to their games (I hoped to take Maggie one day, when being among so many people wouldn’t give her a panic attack), but that didn’t mean I expected them to get to another world series anytime soon, much less win. “Knowing my luck, I’ll miss it even then.”

Marcone’s smile was small but it faded away after a moment. The feel of his pale green eyes on me was heavy. “Well, if you do not want to remain on the topic of sports and your own misfortunes… the conversation you were having with Ms. Raith…,” Marcone stated. “What did you discuss?”

I narrowed my eyes as I realized the entire baseball conversation had been a feint. A way to distract me, getting me to relax enough so Marcone could hit me with the actual question he wanted answered.

I rolled my eyes in exasperation. “You know, you could have just asked from the get-go if you wanted to know.”

And before Marcone could do more than go blank, I told him everything… well, almost everything. I don’t know what Lara was hoping to gain with her continual insistence that there was something going on – that there had been… tension for a while – between me and Marcone but I was keeping it to myself until I could figure it out.

Marcone listened quietly. When I finished explaining the idea I was hoping Lara would run with, he stared at me with a stony expression which made the small hairs on the back of my neck stand up. I straightened up in my chair. Under his opaque expression, I could see the wheels of thought spinning.

With our history, of course, Marcone would be wondering if anything I’d told Lara was true.

“Before you get paranoid about it,” I said, frowning at him. “I shamelessly stole your ideas. Figured if you’d thought them up it was bound to occur to someone in the White Court too.” I stabbed at the honey glazed carrots on my plate.

Marcone nodded slowly but without relaxing. “I’m more surprised you bothered at all, Mr. Dresden. Nothing in the agreement between us or in the alliance with Winter requires you to be so proactive in defense of my interests before everything is finalized.”

I paused with the forkful halfway up to my mouth and I stared back at him. I put my uneaten forkful down on my plate. My eyes dropped to the ring on his left hand before I locked my eyes with Marcone again. “I thought I had already made it clear what I wanted, Marcone.” I gestured toward his hand. “You’re wearing the proof I’ve decided to stand in your corner. I agreed to a partnership of twenty-five years, remember? Do you need me to shout it from the rooftops?” I asked. I leaned forward and I couldn’t hold back a grin. “I know a great spell to amplify sound. I bet I can get coverage of a pretty good chunk of downtown Chicago.” It would be a moment’s work to retool my joke gift for Butters into something loud enough for it to be heard for a couple of miles in every direction.

“That’s really not necessary, Dresden,” Marcone said calmly. “Although if it will please you, I will hardly stop you.” Marcone’s head tilted to the side. “I’m curious as to exactly what you would say.”

Dammit, it wouldn’t be as much fun if he didn’t hate the idea. I settled back in my seat and picked up my fork again.

“Guess it’ll just have to remain a mystery,” I groused.

The slight smile on Marcone’s lips made me grumble louder.

The mood for the rest of the dinner wasn’t as awkward as it had been for the beginning of it. Although considering the tension had been twanging in the air until I could practically hear it, the slight relaxation wasn’t what I would call comfortable either.

I pushed away my plate feeling pleasantly full and regretfully deciding thirds were out of the question.

“Would you like something to drink?” Marcone offered, as he stood up from the table. He slipped his cufflinks off and rolled back the sleeves of his green button-down shirt until his forearms were bared.

I blinked at the sight a couple of times before I focused on his question.

“No more alcohol,” I said, as I stood up and followed him. “I can’t stick around too long, I’ve got a babysitter who needs to get back home. I’ll take a coffee if you have some.”

Marcone nodded and he vanished silently through another door which I suspected led towards the kitchen. Or whatever passed for a kitchen in this place. I was struck with a powerful wave of curiosity. Was Marcone the kind of man who bothered to cook for himself? Did he even know how?

The idea didn’t fit at all with the mental image I had of him.

That was when I was slapped with the realization of how little I actually knew about Marcone. Yeah, I’d seen his soul. I knew how he worked. I knew the depths of his ruthlessness and what drove him. But that information of ‘who’ Marcone was as a person hardly came with the fine details which filled in the outlines. Which made someone… alive.

How often did I simply stick the label of monster – predator – on him, even knowing there was more to him than that? Even with Mab, someone I’d once dismissed as evil, I’d learned she was far more complicated than such a simple label warranted. For all her darkness and inhumanity, she was a defender. She fought for our reality.

Marcone… was hardly any different. He had proved it in his defense of Chicago. He was human, and in many ways far more complex. He could grow. Change in ways someone as powerful and immortal as a faerie queen simply couldn’t. It was humbling to acknowledge I had my own set of prejudices against the man which I needed to work on if my plan to not end up married to Lara was going to work.

Marcone apparently liked the Cubs. Maybe, I couldn’t be certain. For all I knew he was using the team to make small talk. There was a lot I simply didn’t know. Hell, I’d never asked. Although, considering our usual dynamic he probably would never have bothered to answer.

I should ask.

I wondered what he would be willing to share.

The burr growling of a coffee grinder hard at work made me jump. I followed Marcone into his kitchen. I stalled at the door, hesitant to take another step closer when I saw the sheer number of appliances dotting the countertop.

Okay, a handful wasn’t too many, but it sure looked that way with the way they dominated the space. They were made out of stainless steel and with more buttons than a space rocket. I’d probably break them if I so much as sneezed in their direction. I admit, I enjoyed the idea and would happily do it in a heartbeat – I may never get over the fun of breaking Marcone’s stuff – but I did want a cup of coffee before I left.

The bitter, dark smell of coffee was already beginning to waft through the air.

Marcone finished grinding the coffee beans and was spooning the grounds into a reusable filter for a drip coffee maker. That was when I noticed that in the few seconds he’d been out of sight, Marcone had removed his tie and undone the top two buttons of his shirt.

The candlelight made the hollows of his collarbones and what little was visible of his chest really stand out. It took me longer than I’d like to admit to check for Namshiel’s silver chain. But I didn’t see it.

I wondered to myself at how much wine I’d had to drink. I would swear it hadn’t been more than the one glass.

I really needed some coffee.

I leaned against the doorframe and watched Marcone prep the coffee machine with water filtered from the fridge. He moved… gracefully. That was the only way to describe it. Like he’d gone through these motions a thousand times and didn’t need to think through what came next. It was just done.

I tried to picture a young John Marcone holding down a job as a barista and my brain threatened to revolt. No. No way, maybe I could believe it if he was undercover in a cafe so he could assassinate his target. Yeah, that made a lot more sense. There was still an aura of danger around him. Like he could just as easily spin to grab a carving knife from the knife block as he could reach for the sugar bowl.

I nearly jumped out of my skin when Marcone asked, “How do you take your coffee, Dresden?”

“What, you don’t have a folder on me with a bunch of details about my life, Marcone?” I asked, only half-joking. Then I winced. Because I didn’t actually want to know if it turned out to be the case. Talk about creeping me out.

Marcone’s smile was utterly shark-like – spooking me – for a moment before it softened into something more amused than predatory. “Ah, I’m afraid those little details have escaped the notice of my agents.”

I squinted at him, feeling more than a little worried about the ease with which he referred to having agents. It made it seem like he was running some secret government department which needed undercover agents and who knew what else, instead of a criminal empire suspected to have connections throughout North America. And even further out, I always thought.

“Well, Nick Fury, maybe you should think about getting better agents,” I said. Okay, it was disturbing how well I could see the job fitting him. It was weirdly plausible when I remembered all the shady stuff pinned on the CIA in the past. But Marcone’s contempt for the federal and state governments had grown rather obvious in past Ministry meetings – well, at least to me – especially with their failure to help Chicago’s residents. Their slowness had cost lives.

The hiss of brewing coffee – the ambrosia of the gods – sounded in my ear making the delicious scent even stronger in the air as the first hissing drops of coffee started filling the pot and thoroughly knocked my thoughts in other directions.

I straightened from my slouch. “Sugar,” I finally answered. “I like my coffee sweet. With a splash of creamer if you have it.”

Marcone nodded.

I kept watching him move about his kitchen and pull out unadorned white coffee mugs from their cupboard. Of course, he wouldn’t have anything with personality in his kitchen. Still, I had never in my life seen Marcone being so domestic. Ever. It was blowing my mind.

It was a reminder of what I’d been thinking before. Of how little I knew of him.

I frowned thoughtfully. I said, “You told me once that your parents didn’t leave you much. Certainly no inherited silver you could have used against a loup-garou.”

Marcone stilled and turned enough to look at me, his expression back to being unreadable and his pale green eyes seeming darker in the dimly lit kitchen. I couldn’t tell what he was thinking. “Is this leading somewhere in particular, Mr. Dresden?”

I considered him. Thought about the kind of questions I wanted to ask. About the answers I wanted. Even if he didn’t respond it would tell me something. But it struck me that this could quickly become a sharing session and I didn’t feel like answering anything he could ask me in turn. I’d already agreed he could learn my secrets. But it sure as hell wasn’t going to be right now, dammit. So I side-stepped. “Yeah,” I said, slowly. “I realized how little I actually know about your past. Did you grow up in Chicago?”

Marcone was too controlled to let his body relax in relief or something so obvious, but the smooth way he started moving again was a pretty strong indicator of how uncomfortable he had been at having me bring up his parents.

“Yes. In a rather impoverished neighborhood which ended up garnering the wrong sort of interest for its survival,” Marcone admitted quietly. “Not in the sense of being stricken with violence. But rather, it was a location which proved to be too valuable and drew the attention of those who sought to… profit. It fell into ruin because of powerful people who brought pressure to bear to deprive it of resources. Then it fell prey to violence. And there was no one in power who cared enough to do anything about it. So the people who had lived there for decades were powerless and driven out.”

Fascinated, I cocked my head.

“In the end I learned a valuable lesson,” Marcone said blandly. He could almost fool you into thinking this topic wasn’t touching him at a deeper level if it wasn’t for the tight way his hand was gripping the handle of the coffee carafe as he poured the steaming fluid out into the mugs. “You can work yourself to death to keep what you have but if you don’t have any power than everything can be taken from you in a heartbeat.”

There was so much unsaid history in that statement I was tempted to ask more questions. But something in the way that Marcone glanced at me told me that he wasn’t going to share.

It was stunning that he had said anything at all.

Gentleman John Marcone was notorious for having a past so shrouded in mystery that no one in the CPD had ever been able to find anyone willing to admit that they’d grown up with him. Or that they’d known him at all before he was a lieutenant for the Vargassi family.

“Everyone has power,” I said quietly. “We can make choices. You know that too.”

“Hmm, powerless was a poor choice of words. Maybe, too much faith that a system which was turned against them would eventually work in their behalf. Unaware that it was never made for their benefit in the first place.”

I flinched because those words struck at a sore spot I hadn’t expected. Made me think of how I’d ended up in the foster system and then in the hands of my first magical teacher… made me think of how the White Council had nearly beheaded me for breaking the laws of magic, simply for having defended myself against him. But I also hadn’t made it out of those situations alone either. “That’s rather pessimistic, and not exactly complete is it? People have power when they stand together. When they’re willing to help each other,” I said. I locked my eyes with him. “You know that too. You’ve seen it.”

Marcone opened a hand as if he was giving in to my argument, but I noted he didn’t actually say he agreed.

I continued, “I’m surprised. It’s not like you haven’t used the system for your own benefit.”

“Once I figured out my way in,” Marcone murmured. He dropped a large spoonful of sugar from a ceramic container into one mug, stirring it before adding creamer to both cups. He came around to where I was standing and handed me my soulless plain mug.

I sipped my sweet coffee and eyed Marcone. He slipped by me. That prickling awareness of his body heat shivered through me and I clutched my hot coffee in both hands. I followed after him as he walked to the living room. “I get the impression you could have gone anywhere, done anything, so why did you stay in Chicago?”

“Because I know this city from its gutters to its penthouses, from its worse slums to its most opulent mansions, I know its best face and its worst,” said Marcone simply, as he sat on his couch. I watched him slip off his expensive Italian leather shoes, using his feet to get them off. Marcone flexed his dark socked feet against the wooden floor only once. “And Chicago is home.”

That hit me hard.

“Yeah, it is,” I said hoarsely. I sat on the couch too, leaving space between us. I swallowed down another gulp of my delicious coffee to give myself something to do.

I may not have grown up in Chicago. But it was home to me too. It had sank itself deeply into my bones. Even if I managed to live the full span of my wizardly life (something that often looked unlikely with all the trouble which came my way all the damned time) I couldn’t image living anywhere else.

With my mother’s Ways stone I could have chosen to take Maggie anywhere in the world. I could have used the map and gone somewhere I could hide her while still fulfilling my duties to Mab and being the dad who came home to her. But the thought of leaving Chicago had been unthinkable. The city would have to end up a glowing radioactive crater for me to pick up and go.

Marcone and I exchanged looks of perfect understanding and just like that the silence between us shifted into something a lot more comfortable than it had been during dinner. It was a moment of understanding which went deeper than our past antagonism, or any words of threats we’d lobbed against each other.

One of the few things we agreed on completely, and had agreed on for years, was to protect Chicago.

Which was, of course, why I had to open up my mouth and ruin it. “When are you free to meet again?”

“You want to schedule another evening together?” Marcone asked skeptically.

“Hey, I didn’t set your building on fire, I’d call tonight a success,” I pointed out. “A second date isn’t that crazy of an idea.”

Marcone huffed in brief amusement but his expression turned serious. “Is it even something you truly want, or are you simply going through the motions?” he asked, turning to study me intently. “If your previous dating history is any indication, your preferences seem to run towards women and Raiths.”

I blinked at him.

Oh, shit. Of course, Marcone would have heard the rumors about me and Thomas which had gone around a few years ago. Practically the first ones who’d heard them and then spread them around had been the Chicago Police Department (SI alone had had a field day, hell, a field month and hadn’t stopped teasing me for over a year), and Marcone was suspected of owning entire stations of CPD officers. There was no way he hadn’t heard the gossip of me dating another man at some point.

Stars and stones, it explained why he was willing to give dating me a try even after his declaration on how he felt about the subject of me having no choice in getting married. He thought there was a chance that I could want him back all on my own.

Okay, I decided at once, confessing to Marcone those rumors were nothing but lies wasn’t happening. I had kept up the act as a cover to keep people from digging into my relationship with Thomas and learning we were brothers; it had been the only way I could think up to protect Thomas from the White Council while excusing the fact we stayed in each other’s life.

Letting Marcone in on that particular secret dropped to the rock bottom of my To Do list.

Hell’s bells, I had a perfectly good reason to keep it to myself. With Marcone being so fervent about the whole issue of consent – and how he felt about me asking him to marry me to protect Maggie – how in the world would he react if he learned I’d never so much as kissed another guy before he’d demanded one from me all those days ago.

He would put a stop to everything. Now. He probably wouldn’t even care if he took a hit to his reputation (actually, knowing how he planned ahead Marcone had probably already come up with a way to turn it in his favor). I don’t know if he would give me the chance to talk him out of it.

I couldn’t risk it.

“I’m asking you, aren’t I?” I said, after clearing my throat.

“Hmm,” Marcone said as he took a swallow of his coffee. He narrowed his eyes slightly like he sensed I was hiding something important from him.

I clamped down on my panic, feeling my mouth go dry but forcing myself to not show it on my face. Marcone was scarily good at reading me. I didn’t want him to get the wrong idea… or the right idea in this case.

“Okay, I admit, being here with you like this isn’t something I’ve thought about before,” I said truthfully. “But I’m willing. I’m asking. Isn’t that what you care about?”

“Then prove it Mr. Dresden,” Marcone said. He put down his coffee mug on a coaster on the coffee table.

I stared at him wondering what he meant. Marcone arched his eyebrows. Then it clicked and I clutched at my coffee mug like I needed it for protection.

I could feel heat crawling up my cheeks. Suddenly, I was really aware of the spread of my knees as I sat on the couch, the way my blasting rod dug awkwardly into my hip and how close Marcone was sitting to me. Okay, he maybe wasn’t right next to me but he was easily within arm’s reach.

I scowled right back at him. Marcone’s lips quirked up.

Then Marcone shifted. He turned his upper torso so he was mostly facing me even as his right arm went up on the couch’s arm, turned inward enough to let his bare forearm and right hand dangle in a relaxed fashion, while flexing his arm enough for the muscles to be even more visible. His right foot remained flat against the floor even as his leg turned inward and his left leg rose up, cocked against the bottom cushions. His left hand rested on his left knee, curling slightly on it. And he leaned back against the corner where the back of the couch met the arm. The way his eyes were riveted onto me felt like he was trying to get another peek of my soul through sheer force of will.

Hell, between the candle light, Marcone’s bare throat, the undone top buttons of his tight shirt and the expensive suit he was wearing, all that he was missing was a tumbler of whiskey to look exactly like a magazine ad trying to sell me some high-end men’s cologne.

Marcone’s pale green eyed stare was relentless. I didn’t move. Then he tilted up his chin in a clear challenge. And that was when it struck me that he wasn’t going to make a move. At least not the first one.

It would be up to me.

I wanted to sputter. Really? Really? He was making me do it. That jerk. Fine.

I ignored how my own heart rate started galloping away. And how I was hit with a rush of adrenaline. It made me feel like I was about to run head-first into something dangerous… terrifying. That if I wasn’t careful I wouldn’t be coming out of this in one piece.

I lowered my own coffee mug to the wooden coffee table, ignoring the empty coaster set out to protect the varnish.

I stood up. Only once I was on my feet, I realized I’d done it to get psychological advantage by looming over Marcone. Who only just looked amused like he knew exactly what I was doing, dammit.

I leaned over him, my right hand resting on the back of the couch next to him.

Marcone’s head tilted back and the humor drained away until all I saw in his eyes was banked heat.

I froze.

“Close your eyes,” I managed to say after a couple of seconds, my voice lower and rougher than I meant it to be.

Something flashed across Marcone’s face too fast for me to catch what it could be. Yet after a moment his eyelids slowly closed shut, sealing away those dangerous pale green eyes. I was so close to him I could count his dark eyelashes. I could see the minute shift of his corneas under his skin.

I breathed for a moment, taking in his cologne. Also the waxy smell of the candles and of the coffee.

And then I kissed John Marcone.

The rasp of his growing stubble was still startling, but not enough to make me jerk away. And his lips opened up under mine, willingly. Welcoming.

His mouth was hot. Startling hot. The lingering heat and the bitter taste (Huh, he didn’t like sugar in his coffee. Weirdo.) of the coffee he’d been drinking scorched my lips, my mouth. Then Marcone reached up with his right hand to curl gently – nothing more than a press of fingers, no grasp at all – to keep me in place as he slipped me his tongue.

It was as hot as the rest of Marcone’s mouth.

The kiss was so similar to the last time we’d kissed. I was abruptly glad I was holding my weight on my hands or I’d have flailed.

The kiss was less gentle than the last, Marcone infusing it with the same sense of care but also confidence on his end. Like he knew how to kiss. That he had as much expertise in it as he did shooting a gun, or throwing a knife.

And he proved it to me.

The slick firm press of his tongue sliding against my own, the way his lips shifted under mine, sparked off a flame.

When the heat of lust bloomed in my guts, I knew that it had nothing to do with Winter at all. The Winter Knight’s mantle was stirring, but it took a moment. It wasn’t in control. And in that space of time, it was my mouth pressing back against Marcone. It was me choosing to bury my left hand in Marcone’s hair.

My actions were my own. And they were the reason my heart was pounding. It was my own desire turning me on.

Hell’s bells. It was all me.

By the time the mantle showed a real interest, pressing me to get violent, to pull Marcone off the couch so I could bear him down to the floor and… well, I had no more doubts. The mantle’s desires were too dark, in a way I hated. In a way which was about as subtle as a crazed grin on a bloodthirsty berserker’s face. But when its urges were this obvious it made it easier to tell it apart from my own.

I was the one reacting to kissing Marcone. No magical suggestion was influencing me. I hadn’t drunk any potion. No one was in my head. Winter hadn’t taken over yet. The coiling feeling of desire, want and heat in my guts was me… only me.

Me.

I pulled away from Marcone before the Winter Knight’s mantle could exert any influence. Or I could panic. He let me go easily. Not grasping. Not gripping to keep me where he wanted me.

I forced myself to keep my breaths slow and steady as I stood up straight. I took a couple prudent steps back and thought about math.

Marcone’s eyes slowly drifted open again. And something in the way Marcone looked up at me, made me think abruptly of a similar expression I’d often seen on my brother’s face when a startlingly gorgeous woman smiled at him and he was feeling… ravenous. Marcone had the same look of intense hunger which only one thing could satisfy. The same overwhelming swirl of emotions, of desire and need glowed in his eyes.

It proved to be too much. I looked away, feeling my entire face burn as I flushed.

Math. Think about multiplication tables, I told myself firmly.

In the silence after the kiss, I was able to get the mantle to lose interest and go back to sleep.

“So... like I said: When are you free to meet again?” I asked, when I could trust my voice not to waver. I acted like I needed to fix the way my blasting rod sat in its holster instead of watching him.

I don’t think I fooled Marcone for a second.

“In a couple of days, I’ll take you to lunch, Dresden,” he said, his voice rougher than I’d ever heard it.

I frowned and risked a glance at Marcone. Who’d gotten himself under control again, well mostly. His eyes were hooded. His breathing was deeper than normal. And he was still staring at me… his eyes were too open. Too bare.

I was used to more walls between us.

“You just fed me, I think it’s my turn,” I objected, ignoring the feel of his gaze.

Marcone finally looked away from me and he exhaled slowly. It was always fascinating to see the barriers go up. Although… this time it went slower than usual. Like it was more than what he usually had to control within himself. It was taking greater mental effort.

“It’s vastly easier on my security,” Marcone said quietly, “if I can be the one to make the plans about where we will go.”

Huh, good point.

“I’ll pick you up in two days time at 11:30 a.m. for lunch. I can spare a couple of hours. That’s the only time window in my schedule for several more days,” he continued.

“Okay, I’ll see you then,” I agreed. Then I bid him a hasty goodnight and tried not to break into a run as I got past his front door.

*-*-*-*

I didn’t quite stagger away in shock from Marcone’s building but it was damned close. And I admit that I wanted to find some place quiet to think and breathe, but I wasn’t anywhere close to where I could do that safely. And having a meltdown in public was bound to get back to the wrong people. Like my boss. Ugh.

Stars, since when did I start finding another man attractive? And Marcone of all people? He’s a freaking criminal! A murderer!

A little voice in my head said, ‘Hey, so are you.’

I growled and ignored the voice.

When had this started? Okay, I could almost reconcile being attracted to another man since I run into supernaturally attractive people of both genders all the time (looking back maybe it hadn’t been as confusing as I’d always labeled my reaction). Hell, Thomas had lectured me once on the nature of attraction and how White Court vampires exploited the fluidity of it because most people existed on a spectrum of sexuality which could shift (or in the case of White Court vampire on the hunt, be forced to shift)… but John Marcone?

I think my subconscious was waiting for me to ask myself this question because the memories of how I kept noticing how he looked in his new suit all evening hit me like a ton of falling bricks. Followed nearly at once by the memory of Marcone’s mocking question of whether I was hitting on him when he’d been partially undressed in the locker room the night of the battle.

Oh. I had been staring at him. Noticing his body in such a way that with a woman I would have instantly known what it meant.

Hell’s bells. Okay, so I’d been noticing Marcone for a while. How long had that been going on?

Dammit, I rubbed my hands through my hair as I walked back to my car. I couldn’t think about that out in the open like this. I wasn’t wearing my duster. I was too vulnerable to attack to walk around with my guard down. I needed to get home.

*-*-*-*

Luckily, I got home without running anything or anyone over. After I waved to Amanda as she drove away in one of the Carpenter family cars I went to check in on Maggie.

My daughter was curled up in her bed. It was so big and wide she nearly was lost in it. Mouse could sleep at the foot near my daughter’s feet without breaking the bed frame from his weight. I hadn’t realized they made beds rated for woolly mammoth weight until Maggie had insisted she wanted one.

Right now Maggie was asleep, her head practically hidden in a nest of pillows even as she’d kicked off most of her covers. She was curled up around Bonnie’s skull, clutching her little sister to her chest. Hilariously, everyone in the bed was snoring. Soft snores came from my oldest daughter, high pitched wheezes from Bonnie while Mouse rumbled away. As I walked into the room one doggie eye peeked at me before Mouse’s tail thumped the bed twice before he fell back asleep.

I kissed foreheads and carded my hand through hair or fur as appropriate before I left the room and went to the library.

I sat down before the fire. Mister jumped onto my lap and demanded his tribute in the form of pets and ear scratches while I stared blankly at nothing. I gave the cat who owned me his due as the master of the castle as I thought.

Was this attraction to Marcone just me having some kind of mid-life crisis?

Well, considering I wasn’t even a quarter of a way into a wizard’s usual lifespan, I sure as hell hoped not.

So… apparently I was attracted to John Marcone. And had been for a while, if not years.

Why had no one told me? You’d have thought my subconscious would at least have given me a hint with all the dreams the asshole threw at me. Maybe clued me in between the nightmares. Something.

Then I remembered how incredulous Lara had looked when I had denied having any sort of sexual tension with Marcone.

Oh, hell. I’d been flat out told by a sex vampire that I had a thing for Marcone and I’d dismissed it. I hadn’t believed her. Hadn’t given her observation – and not even her first one on the subject either – another thought.

I groaned.

“I am,” I told Mister, even as he purred in my lap, “an idiot.”

Chapter Text

I wanted to stick my reaction to kissing John Marcone in a box and pretend it had never happened. Or label it a very weird fluke or some odd reaction to my plan to get the man to marry me (I mean, that had to be messing with my mind, right?). But before I could even really embrace the idea, memories rose up from the depths of my mind (I knew who to blame for those: My id who was being a right bastard tonight) of noticing Sanya. How I’d appreciated the sight of the big Russian’s muscles as his skin had glistened with sweat while he’d been working out under the afternoon summer sun.

Oh, stars. I had once described his skin as chocolate. Okay I’d been thinking in terms of color but… that was pretty telling word choice for anyone to use to describe someone else. I mean, who throws the word chocolate around without instantly thinking ‘delicious’ or ‘I want some’?

So I’d apparently been noticing other guys too. Dammit… Marcone wasn’t a fluke, was he?

I brooded, scowling at the air as I realized how long I’d gone without ever realizing this about myself. Although, really, another hundred years without having this revelation would have been great. Or, you know, never. Especially, if it involved getting hot over a damned criminal like Marcone.

I groaned quietly to myself as I remembered my id’s snarky accusations about how I never knew what was going on in my own head. I had thought that it had been a dig about Bonea and how she was growing in my mind. But he’d probably also been thinking about things like this.

I couldn’t even claim this was the first time I’d suppressed my attraction to another person to the point I had refused to admit to myself it existed. At least until Thomas had pointed out the freaking obvious.

…I was noticing a disturbing trend of having sex vampires point out my attraction to others which I should have damned well known about.

I felt really, really dumb.

I don’t like it. I was a wizard, dammit. One of the wise. I should have had this shit figured out a long time ago. That I hadn’t made me feel rudderless. Hell, what else was rattling in my head I didn’t know about? That was a disturbing thought.

But in my defense I was used to feeling an instant pull of attraction which was nearly overwhelmingly when I came face to face with a beautiful woman. With guys... there was none of that immediate firestorm of desire hitting me all at once. No, my attraction to men seemed to be a slower, smoldering fire. One with a flame that would take longer to build in strength but would be no less overwhelming or put off any less heat… at least if it wasn’t smothered down to nothing first.

And that was what I’d been doing all this time. Until I’d gone and kissed Marcone, not just once but twice, making it hard to ignore how I reacted.

Goddammit, but why did I have to go and feel any kind of attraction to him?

I had – I realized with self-disgust – awful taste in men. Or at least in one man specifically.

Why couldn’t I have had this realization over Sanya? I was friends with him. I liked him. The wielder of Esperacchius was a good man with such a depth of warmth it radiated off of him. Even his warped sense of humor cracked me up. Sanya was a hero. Someone who had forgiven me without hesitation for my actions, for hurting him, when the need for revenge had overwhelmed me and put me under the full control of the Winter Knight’s mantle. I sure as hell hadn’t forgiven myself.

Sanya was nothing at all like Marcone.

And I wasn’t facing a future where I would end up married to him because I had no other options.

My stomach went tight. Abruptly, I realized I was as tense as a bowstring about to snap and my breaths were too shallow and too fast. Black spots bloomed across my vision even as everything narrowed. I forced myself to take slow, measured breaths before I passed out. I focused on petting my cat. Trying to disengage my brain from the thought of sex and Marcone.

Okay, okay, there was no reason to panic... maybe this was actually a good thing. Maybe. Maybe. I mean, Marcone wouldn’t be able to use the excuse that I didn’t want him to get out of the wedding.

I stopped breathing for a long minute before I forced myself to gasp for air. Mister didn’t like that, and he jumped away to go find a place to sit that wasn’t having a sexual identity crisis.

I couldn’t blame him.

Oh hell, I couldn’t explain why the idea of the wedding night with Marcone was making me freak out now.

Alright… maybe I could. I mean, before… before tonight, before I realized I was actually into the man, it wouldn’t have meant anything. I had thought I would be as invested in it as I would be in… well, getting my dry cleaning done or the car washed. Having sex with Marcone would have been a chore to get out of the way. It wouldn’t be something to do for fun or pleasure but because it was necessary to keep Maggie as far from the White Court as I could. And hopefully, it would be a night that wouldn’t end up being too embarrassing for either of us. At least not if we were supposed to keep working together for the next twenty-five years like Marcone wanted.

I’d gone to him because when I’d considered the wedding night from a position of pure cold-blooded calculation I hadn’t thought Marcone was prone to do anything too mortifying or inclined to spark my temper. After all it would be damned moronic to piss off the wizard who’d already stated he’d kill you if pushed by then being a heartless bastard and pushing. In all the years I’d know the man I’d never seen Marcone do anything so obviously stupid or pointlessly cruel, at least not with his own hands. If he was being a bastard for a purpose, for his business – he murdered people, don’t forget – that was another matter altogether. Then I wouldn’t put it past him.

So I’d thought I could just get through the wedding night. No problem. Maybe I’d end up having grit my teeth, but otherwise it would be easy enough to survive.

And… after Marcone’s declaration about how he felt on the issue I had grown less worried about it. I believed Marcone. I practically had his word on it. I knew he wouldn’t force me to do anything.

Abruptly, I realized why I had become oddly comfortable with the idea of the wedding night since that conversation. Why my rising panic had never made a comeback before now. Marcone had returned to me some of the power which Mab had stripped away when she’d told me I was to be wed to Lara and nothing I said would keep it from happening. He may have expressed it in terms of it being his choice but what he did was dependent on me. Or at least on me being a willing participant. So I had regained some of my autonomy (yeah, it sucked that it was something I had to ‘gain’ and my flame of rage at Mab burned).

But now, I was facing the realization that having sex with Marcone wouldn’t be something I could do and then forget. Not when I knew I wanted him. Not when it could be something I’d actually… enjoy.

And that was when I realized the other reason for why I was panicking. Stars, just the thought of enjoying sex with anyone regardless of gender felt like a betrayal. To... to… the woman I loved… to Murph.

The pain which throbbed through me brought me to my feet. My chest hurt as if something large was crushing it. I hungrily gasped for air and the room spun. My knees cut out from under me and I abruptly sat back down on the couch.

She hadn’t even been gone a year.

How dare I be attracted to someone new. How dare I consider willingly touching someone for pleasure who wasn’t her.

Abruptly, my eyes felt hot and wet. My vision blurred the sight of the library. I had to blink desperately to clear it. I breathed shakily and it took special effort to force my thoughts away from that bit of throbbing agony. I curled up and buried my face in my knees as I tried to keep from hyperventilating. I had to take conscious control of every breath.

It took several minutes for me to get a hold of myself.

Then I shook my head. Okay, I wasn’t thinking about this anymore. Nope.

Once I thought I could trust my knees not to buckle, I stood up and grimly walked downstairs. I needed to call the Paranet to warn them about the ghouls like I’d planned on hours ago, then I was going to be down in my lab. I wasn’t going to be able to relax enough to fall asleep anytime soon, so I might as well use my time productively and think on how I would get rid of the Winter Knight’s mantle. Again.

And after that I was going to the room I’d turned into my personal gym and exercising with my weights. Even if I had to put every weight plate on the bar and do reps until even the mantle was exhausted and I stopped thinking.

I was done.

*-*-*-*

Fortunately, my subconscious decided to not be a complete asshole and gave me a break for the night. No memories of the Battle of Chicago made me wake up screaming. Or if he did send me any bad dreams they weren’t any I remembered in the morning when the alarm rang to get me up and shining.

I grudgingly woke up but I absolutely refused to shine. That wasn’t my job. I was a wizard. We were not a breed known for our sunny dispositions.

I was pretty bleary that morning as I watched Maggie eat the scrambled eggs she’d made for our breakfast. Hey, I’d supervised. And helped to pick out the pieces of eggshell when she’d cracked the eggs a bit too enthusiastically.

Bonnie was in her skull, siting on the center of the table so she could turn to watch us both. Without a body she may not be able to eat, but she’d been joining us for every meal since day one.

Hey, family meals are important.

“Dad, are you okay?” Maggie asked hesitantly, looking across the table at me. She was cutting her toast into triangles with a butter knife. Then she was carefully smearing butter on some and jam on others. The stick of butter in its butter dish was speckled with strawberry jam.

I don’t have mirrors in the castle. But I could imagine how ghastly I had to look this morning for my daughter to be worried.

“I’m okay, sweetheart,” I said, trying to be more awake and less of a gloomy bastard. Then I considered. I had meant to ask my kids what they thought of Marcone on the day they’d met him, but between one thing and another (including trying to build the biggest sand castle ever on the beach of Demonreach) it had slipped my mind. “Hey, Maggie, what did you think of John Marcone?”

Maggie chewed on her breakfast even as she slipped Mouse a piece of buttered bread.

“He was nice. Kinda scary, but… nice. He didn’t want to frighten me,” she finally admitted. Then she frowned thoughtfully. “I think, I think Bonnie and I scared him, Dad.”

I blinked.

I couldn’t help it. The belly laugh which slipped out of me rang throughout the kitchen. It made Maggie smile and Bonnie turn her skull towards me. Mouse doggie grinned too.

“Yeah,” I agreed, between chuckles. “I don’t think he’s used to being around kids.”

Maggie nodded. “Is he going to visit again?” she asked quietly.

I hadn’t yet told my kids about the impending marriage. I would. Maybe when it was closer. Ugh. I fully admit to being a chicken about telling them about it. Look, it was weird and complicated to explain. I could barely explain it to another adult without feeling uncomfortable, the idea of letting my kids in on even a few of the details made me squirm.

But I would… eventually. Would twenty-five years be too long, I wondered.

“Yeah, he may come around more,” I said solemnly. “If it’s okay with you, punkin.”

Maggie nodded easily, not looking at all worried. She was trusting that her dad knew what he was doing with Marcone. I sure as hell wished he’d let me in on the details.

Maggie ate the last of her toast and then ran off to brush her teeth and get her school stuff.

Mouse left the spot where he’d been sitting at my daughter’s feet and came over to lean against my side. I scratched his ears. Then I slipped him some of the eggs because I was also a soft touch when it came to my dog.

“I also wish to go to school,” chirped Bonnie, as soon as Maggie returned.

“You’re too little,” Maggie said, as she opened up her backpack. It was mostly black with pink and white accents and featured a Spider-girl. Maggie had corrected me rather firmly, saying she was a hero called Spider-woman.

“I can make myself bigger,” said Bonnie.

“What she means is that you’re too young,” I said.

“When you’re older,” Maggie reassured her. She turned to me. “Right, Dad?”

I hesitated. “You know Bonnie is special, Maggie. She doesn’t need to go to school.”

Maggie nodded slowly, clearly thinking of what that meant.

I picked up Bonnie’s skull and cradled her in my arms to take her back to the bedroom she shared with her older sister.

Maggie rose on her tiptoes and leaned over to kiss her sister’s skull on the forehead. “Bye, Bonnie. See you later.”

Bonnie sighed, a wistful sound which made my heart hurt to hear. “Goodbye, Maggie. Goodbye, Mouse.”

I tucked Bonnie away in the bed, grabbed my duster, then I took Maggie and Mouse to school.

On the drive back home, I found myself feeling uneasy and tapping my fingers on the steering wheel of the Munstermobile. Without being forced to concentrate on my dad duties I found myself circling back to the previous evening and the uncomfortable revelations I couldn’t ignore anymore.

I needed a soundboard. Someone to talk to.

Making up my mind, at the next light I hauled the tank into a perilous U-turn and headed to the Carpenter house.

I noted that the driveway and front parking of the house was emptier than usual, but there was still someone home so I parked my car. Then I went up to hit the doorbell.

When the door opened to Charity Carpenter eyeing me like I was a cat who’d brought her a dead bird, I was hit with the thought that this was a mistake.

“Michael isn’t here,” she said firmly. “He has a job and won’t be back for hours.”

“Oh, well… I can come back later,” I said and shifted on my feet, ready to make a getaway.

I must have looked pretty pathetic because Charity said in a quieter voice, “You look like you need to talk, Harry. Come in. I can’t promise you the best advice. But I can listen.”

I considered the invitation. I meant to turn her down, but instead I found myself nodding. And I stepped into the Carpenter house to have a heart-to-heart with Charity Carpenter.

Maybe I should have run for it while I had the chance.

Chapter Text

I got a grip on my nervousness at not having Michael around, telling myself to knock it off. Charity hadn’t actively hated me for years.

I silently followed her to the Carpenter kitchen.

The morning sunlight was coming through the wide, east facing windows so that everything was lit up with a warm golden glow. The light spilled over onto their dinning table and illuminated all the scattered evidence which proved this was a home with a loving family. There were photos of smiling children on the walls. Including a new one of Charity and Michael’s grandchild, a wrapped tiny bundle with a barely visible face held by a beaming Daniel and his wife.

Even Maggie had a lingering presence. She was in several photos and her art still hung from its pride of place on the refrigerator door.

It was a good reminder that Charity loved my mortal daughter with a depth equal to that she held for her own children.

Charity gestured at me to sit down at her table.

I did. I stared down at the grain of the walnut wood, absently admiring Michael’s workmanship as a carpenter. I heard the distinct tssh of Charity opening the refrigerator door before she closed it again. Then she walked over to where I was sitting. She had two brown beer bottles in one hand and in the other she carried the Mjölnir shaped bottle cap opener.

Well, I’d always suspected Michael wasn’t the only Carpenter worthy to wield the power of Thor. Actually, considering how her preferred war weapon was a hammer, it wouldn’t surprise me to learn Charity was the perfect choice for Mjölnir. She’d already know how to use it in combat.

She sat across from me, opened one and then the other bottle. As she pushed the open bottle over to me she asked worriedly, “It this about Maggie?”

I shook my head.

“Molly?” Charity asked, her voice tighter with mute fear.

“No,” I said in quick reassurance. “It’s not about her.”

The building tension slowly released from Charity’s muscled shoulders. Her growing age had softened her muscular build but it hadn’t diminished the strength in them. Nor had it rusted any of the iron in her soul. “Good,” she said fiercely. Then she said a milder voice, “Alright… then what is this about?”

I opened my mouth but found myself feeling off balance for a moment. I didn’t know how much Michael had told her about my current situation. Oh stars… I didn’t want to have to explain it to her.

I fervently hoped she already knew.

“Er… you know about the thing with Marcone?” I asked cautiously.

Charity’s blonde eyebrows went up. “If you’re talking about your engagement to him… I was home when you were discussing the plan with Michael.” She gestured at the kitchen’s windows which looked out into the backyard. “The patio isn’t exactly soundproof,” she said dryly. “And Michael filled me in on what I missed.”

I nodded, relieved I wouldn’t have to go into the details. I wasn’t exactly surprised Michael would have talked to Charity about it. Michael wouldn’t have shared my personal business with anyone if I’d asked him to keep it between us, but I hadn’t bothered. So of course, Michael would want to talk it over with his wife, with his life-partner. He would have wanted to get her opinion on the matter. Or just let her know what was going on… because the Carpenters considered me family.

I looked away from Charity’s piercing blue eyes and took a swallow of the beer, trying to not show the stab of envy which went through me. I ignored the feeling until it dwindled into familiar grief at knowing I had come so close to having something similar to what they had built together.

Remembering why I had felt the need to talk to Michael my gut tied itself up in knots.

I focused on the cold beer. It didn’t hold a light to Mac’s best, but then nothing else on this earth did. However it managed to be pretty decent beer. Instead of guzzling it down, like I was tempted to do, I only drank down a couple of swallows of the bitter brew before I set the bottle down on the table. I thought about the entire gnarled knot of emotions lying like a cold lump of pressure in my stomach.

I took a deep breath and then I told Charity everything. How I’d been working to convince Marcone to keep the engagement. How I’d kissed the man… and – to my horror – found myself liking it. A little. How I’d later realized I’d been checking him out all evening. Hell, even longer than that.

“And it’s not even the first time!” I glared at my innocent beer. “Damn it, I wish I could just forget it.”

“Harry,” Charity said, interrupting me before I could tell her my revelation about Sanya. “Did you come here, come to this house, thinking that we’d… encourage that line of thinking? That due to our Catholicism we’d tell you to ignore it?”

I blinked at her, taken aback. “No,” I said, genuinly startled. The idea that any of the Carpenters – for all their faith – would have reacted badly to knowing that their weird friend Harry had a thing for men too had never once crossed my mind. Okay, maybe with anyone I didn’t know so well I would have wondered and worried. But I’d never heard so much as a whisper of bigotry from any Carpenter on the subject (they were big on love thy neighbor). Nor from anyone I would consider a friend.

Although, stars and stones, Butters might never let me live it down considering how I’d once told him I wasn’t gay. At all.

“Good,” Charity breathed. Her blue eyes were dark and somber. “Then I want you to consider this: I know what it is like to live for decades with a secret about myself. To live every day knowing I was hiding it from my loved ones, from those I should have trusted with everything. From the love of my life. I had kept a part of myself apart from them out of fear and shame. And out of the wish that my secret would wither away and vanish.” Charity slowly took a breath and I found myself caught by the ache I could see clouding her eyes. By the hush of an old anguish in her voice. “Whatever you and I have been to each other over the years, I would never wish that misery upon you. I want you to keep that in mind when you talk about ignoring your interest in men.”

I nodded slowly. I wanted to ask Charity when she’d finally told Michael the truth of her magic abilities but I decided it wasn’t any of my business. She would have told me if she wanted me to know.

Anyway, Charity had a point. I had no problem putting aside bad experiences and old hurts. I could tuck them away and never mention them again. Never even think of them, well, most of the time if I didn’t factor in nightmares. But knowing I wasn’t as strictly heterosexual as I’d always believed wasn’t exactly in the same category. It wasn’t something horrible I’d barely survived nor was it something sanity threatening like some things I’d seen with the Sight. It was vastly easier to stifle those experiences than it was to suppress something which was an integral part of your very self.

Anyway, that had never been me. There was a reason you could find me in the phone book under ‘W’ for Wizard, and why I’d been the only White Council member – before they’d kicked me out – who’d made themself so easy to find. Hiding who and what I was had never been my style.

And… there was actually a practical reason as to why you didn’t want to go for the denial route when you’re a wizard. Easiest way to explain it was to consider the reason a lot of the spiritual gurus and religions who focus on spiritual attainment and achieving higher planes of consciousness go big on the whole ‘know yourself’ idea. That knowledge impacted your entire being. Your balance. A wizard who didn’t know themself thoroughly could have it affect their magic. With some intricate spells you really had to know yourself – the good, the bad and the ugly. And considering my weight class, anything less could potentially mess with my grip on my power, and that was dangerous. Not only to myself but also to those around me. To Maggie.

And as if that wasn’t bad enough, denial of that type could leave cracks in your psychic defenses that might as well be open doors to supernatural predators. In my case, with everyone out there who wanted me dead, I might as well ring the dinner bell if I was going to go the ostrich route and stick my head in the sand.

I knew, as I sat in the Carpenters’ sunlit kitchen that I would eventually accept my interest in men as a part of who I was. I couldn’t say when (it might be a few decades if the rate I’d been going was any indication) but I would end up there. I would be able to rattle it off like a lot of details about my life. I was Harry Dresden: Dad, wizard, private investigator, owned by a cat, protected by a good dog, liked magic, books, beer, steak, Burger King, women and men, oh, and I owned a castle. It would just be another detail. And not even a major one either compared to my entire crazy life.

It helped when I thought on how I never had to do anything with it. Just in the same way I didn’t go around sleeping with every woman I found attractive. I didn’t have to hit on every man I found… distracting. Or I’d like to think that would have been the case if it hadn’t been for Marcone.

The thought of kissing him again made my traitorous palms grow sweaty and my heart thump.

Yup, and it was still freaking disturbing. For more than one reason.

“Am I betraying her?” I blurted out.

“Who?” Charity asked, puzzled. “Lara Raith?”

“No, not her. Karrin.” Murphy’s name rang through the kitchen. I realized with a lurch of nausea that this was the first time in close to a year I’d actually said her name out loud. Actually spoken her name with my own lips instead of only keeping her in my mind. But then whenever I thought of her… it hurt.

“Oh,” said Charity.

I clutched my beer, barely keeping myself from shattering the glass with the tight grip I had on the brown bottle’s body. I looked back down at the tabletop, not wanting to see pity or sympathy on Charity’s face.

Remembering her always hurt. That hole inside me, that agony I didn’t dare touch, throbbed. The slowly healing burns on my left arm, which I could usually ignore, joined in muted physical counterpoint. Speaking her name gave the grief weight. Gave it more power. I tried to shove it into its usual box but it refused to budge, instead it dug in its claws and held fast. At least for a moment, but I was too stubborn and the grief and pain and feeling of having lost something – someone – precious slowly subsided down to its usual levels of perpetual aching.

Had I really gone so long without speaking her name? Suddenly, that felt like a betrayal too. A worse one. Like I was trying to forget her. Erase her existence when that was the last thing I wanted.

I resolved, then and there, to talk about her more no matter how much it hurt me. The idea of letting Murph be forgotten… no, I couldn’t stand for that happening.

“Why would you think you are betraying her?” Charity asked. Her voice was still quieter than usual, but steely. Like she was going to get an answer out of me come hell or high water.

I appreciated the fact she wasn’t trying to be gentle. I didn’t know if I could handle compassion right now. Not without losing the unsteady grip I currently had on my emotions.

Slowly, I confessed, “With Susan, when she left, I was devastated for a long time. It took years before I so much as asked someone out again. But now I’m already enjoying kissing someone new? Bad enough it’s Marcone, but so soon?” I couldn’t quite keep the self-loathing out of my voice. “It hasn’t been a year.”

“And so you feel like you’re betraying her,” Charity said, understanding in her voice.

“Yes.”

“When it comes to Karrin…,” Charity continued thoughtfully.

I looked up at her warily.

“I had my share of girl talks with her, but relationships weren’t something we discussed much,” she said. “So I can’t help you there.”

I blinked. “Girl talks?” I parroted. I wondered if I’d heard her right as I squinted at my beer. What was in it? And was it causing auditory hallucinations? Girl talk and Murphy didn’t exactly go together in my head. Even less when you factored in Charity.

Charity took a swallow of her beer and set it down with a sharp smile. “Oh yes, we talked about swords, knives and armor. How to get a blade through chainmail to cut a femoral artery. Girl talk.”

My upper thighs suddenly twinged with phantom pain. “Right,” I said seriously. “Of course.”

Charity’s smile faded away after a moment, as she said, “You’re the only one who can answer your question. You knew her best. What would she have thought? Would she have considered what you’re doing a betrayal?”

My breath caught in my throat. And the feeling of pressure on my chest came back. “I don’t know,” I mumbled, looking away.

“Yes, you do,” Charity said ruthlessly.

And I did. I did know.

I wanted to say the Karrin Murphy I known would have punched me in the face and I would have deserved every blow. And maybe she would have. Once. The Murph I’d known while she’d been a cop had been angry at the world, at her failure to protect the citizens of Chicago. To keep the darkness of the supernatural from haunting their steps. It was strange to look back on those early years we’d known each other and have the startling realization that she had been burning out from the pressures of her job. And hurting from her failed marriages in ways which hadn’t sunk in as I’d been too wrapped up in my own mess of a personal life. That her frustration at not being able to do more had started to get the better of her, at least until the job had kicked her to the curb and she had found other ways to help.

But the woman I’d loved. The woman who’d fought at my side like she was meant to be there. The woman who was calmer and more centered than the cop she’d been, oh, she would have understood.

Heh. She would have made fun of me for getting to be my age without realizing I didn’t only check out women but that was about it. Even my decision to go to Marcone, she would have understood why I was making that choice. She would have punched me in the shoulder because it was Marcone while telling me to keep my eyes open. But hell, she’d worked with him for over a year while I was gone. While not exactly the same situation, she’d also made the choice to be involved with Marcone for the greater good. Murph would never have blamed me for deciding it was the best way to protect Maggie.

She would never have thought I was betraying her. She would have trusted me.

I jerked my thoughts away before I could start down the spiraling path of thinking about how she had trusted me too much. How I’d failed her.

“She would never have blamed me,” I finally admitted to Charity. I huffed a humorless laugh. “It’s me, isn’t it. I’m the one who can’t forgive myself.” I ground the heel of my right palm into my eyes, seeing the bursts of false light from the pressure. “Marcone is damned criminal.” Emphasis on damned if Marcone’s coin-buddy had any say in it. “A killer. What in the hell am I doing finding that man attractive?”

“Yes, he is criminal. A mobster and the savior of Chicago,” said Charity, with implacable certainty.

I dropped my hand from my face and stared at her.

She inclined her head. “I keep up with the news. And with the anniversary looming, that phrase has been thrown around more and more lately.”

I grimaced.

“I asked my daughter about it,” she continued, drinking more of her beer as she eyed me. “She said that one of the major reasons Chicago didn’t fall was because he chose to defend it.”

“He wasn’t the only one, but yeah,” I said, grinding the answer through clenched teeth. From the moment Ethniu had thrown down her challenge, the first to step up to meet it had been Baron Marcone. Everything would have fallen apart if he hadn’t been there. If he hadn’t planned ahead.

I groaned in dismay and frustration, “Why can’t the bad guys just stay… evil? It’s easier to hate them if they don’t go around saving the city.”

Charity shook her head. “Has life ever been so cartoonishly simple? It isn’t a superhero movie.”

And if it were… dammit, I think Marcone would have the role of the antihero. Or at least not the worst villain around.

Too much like real life, I thought.

“What do you think about Marcone?” I asked.

Charity’s mouth pursed in disapproval for a moment. “I can’t tell you what to think. I’m not marrying him,” she said. “You’re the one who has to make up his mind.”

I grumbled but grudgingly nodded. It was something that was going to be on me to think about. I was the one who had to reconcile everything I knew Marcone to be, every horrible thing he’d ever done, would do, with the fact that I was going to make him a part of my life for the next twenty-five years. Attracted to the guy or not, that time-frame hadn’t shifted with my revelations. Neither had it affected my determination to get the man to marry me.

Charity’s expression softened as she said, “Did we ever tell you Marcone paid for most of Michael’s medical bills?”

“No, you guys hadn’t,” I said, blinking at her, “but I’m not exactly surprised.” Especially now that I knew Marcone still considered himself to be indebted to Michael. I frowned. “Most?”

“When I realized why we weren’t getting the bills, I contacted the hospital and had them sent to me. By then there wasn’t much left to pay.”

I nodded. Then I asked warily, “Did you know Michael went to talk to him recently?” I didn’t want to get Michael in trouble, but surely he’d told his wife he had confronted a Knight of the Blackened Denarius, without a holy sword.

Oh, shit. At least, I hoped he’d told her.

Charity’s eyes gleamed. “Who do you think sent him?”

I felt my eyes widen and I stared at her agog.

She snorted. “If the man has gone this long without killing you, he is hardly about to murder my husband for extending a dinner invitation.” She tilted her head to the side before asking, “You are going to bring him over to dinner one of these days, right?”

It may have been a question, but it had the hard tone of an order.

I tried to huddle behind my beer. “Would the angels even let him in?” I asked, desperately reaching for an excuse to say no way.

“If Marcone leaves the coin at home,” Charity said calmly. “It won’t be a problem.”

I reluctantly conceded. “I’ll ask.” Then I shook my head in disbelief. “Why do you want him to visit?”

“You’re family, Harry,” said Charity with a steadfast certainty. “You’re the annoying little brother-in-law I never wanted. And if he’s going to be your family too then I want to get to know him.”

I blinked at her, shaken by the idea.

If – when – I married Marcone he’d be family. Holy crap. I hadn’t even thought of that. I mean, it wouldn’t feel like it. Hell, I wasn’t even thinking of him in terms of being my spouse, just as the person I’d be married to. But legally, for all intents and purposes, he would be my family.

Well… that was something new to freak out about.

I thumped my head against the Carpenter dinning table. “I think I need more beer.”

“No,” Charity said calmly. “You’re driving home. I’m cutting you off at one.”

I groaned in protest at this cruelty. But I nodded and sighed in acceptance of the bartender’s right to choose not to serve me another beer.

“So I’ve been hearing that you have a way to give Bonea an actual body,” Charity continued, a smile audible in her voice.

I mumbled something incoherent.

“When are you going to bring her over so I can give that sweet child a proper hug?” Charity continued, again in that tone which was more a command than anything else.

“Soon,” I muttered, getting to my feet to make my escape.

Charity arched her golden eyebrows at me but allowed me to make a clean getaway.

I stopped at the point where the kitchen blended into the hallway which would lead me out the door and looked back her. I said, “Hey, thanks.”

“Anytime, Harry,” Charity said quietly.

Chapter Text

I’d hit the point of deciding that I was going to ignore my burgeoning attraction to Marcone by the time the lunch date rolled around, mostly for my own peace of mind.

Look, I would grudgingly admit to finding men attractive. Some of them. Maybe. Okay, I would confess I had a fascination with Sanya’s muscles if anyone asked (while hoping no one cared enough to ask), but that was as far as I was willing to go.

On the subject of Marcone… that was an entirely different matter altogether. And it had nothing to do with him being a man. My own sense of right and wrong was offended by the life he led. Marcone’s business was crime and nothing about it was pretty. He was ruthless, fearless and scared the hell out of me on a good day. There was a reason my favorite insult for him was scumbag. But no matter how much I hated that about him there was no denying the truth that he was also the one who said yes to marrying me to protect my kids. He was the same person who would also fight to keep them safe if they were endangered. Who already had if you considered his actions in defense of Chicago.

Hell, whenever I’d thought about the whole shebang I ended up with a headache. Also considering how hard I ground my teeth they’d soon end up as stubs at the rate I was going. So I was tabling the matter for a later date. I was hoping to avoid thinking about the complicated topic until the wedding… okay, I probably wouldn’t push it that far, but most of me wanted to put it off until then.

Argh.

But no matter how I felt about avoiding the subject of my attraction to Marcone, the morning of our planned lunch date was on hand without me having made any movement on the subject (yes, I was aware of how bizarre it was to be insisting on dating the man while actively not wanting to be attracted to him) to my irritation. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, also I was also stuck trying to figure out what in the hell to wear.

I scowled at clothes filled wardrobe, annoyed by the fact I had no idea where Marcone intended to take us for lunch. If I had a clue I’d know what to pick out, right? Or what to avoid. Or what to wear if I wanted to be deliberately obnoxious.

It didn’t take me long to reach the point of not caring what I’d look like. I made the choice to go for the comfortable clothing route by wearing my usual jeans, black t-shirt (which had a twenty-sided die and the legend of ‘This is How I Roll’) and cowboy boots since it had the advantage of potentially – and hilariously – scandalizing any fancy shindig Marcone took us to when the phone in the library rang.

I reached it at the seventh ring. I hoped it wasn’t a telemarketer. Those guys did not give up easily.

“You’ve reached Castle Dresden,” I said. Then I added in my best low, threatening growl, “Although if this is Alex from Windows R Us again. I’m cursing you and everything you own to end up covered in bees for calling me again.”

The voice who answered me wasn’t a telemarketer.

“Dresden,” said Marcone, a note of amusement in his voice. “While I’m fascinated to know the story behind that statement, I’m afraid my curiosity will simply have to go unassuaged. I’m calling to cancel our appointment for this afternoon.”

For a moment, I was distracted by the sound of Marcone’s voice in my ear before what he’d said actually sunk in.

“What?” I asked, frowning and feeling concerned. Why was I worried? Well, had Marcone ever struck anyone as a flake? Something more had to have happened for him to cancel our lunch together. And with Marcone I expected any event which made him change his plans to be bad. Seriously bad, although for others or himself was the question. “Hey, what’s going on, John?”

Before Marcone could answer I heard a series of abrupt yet low coughing sounds which sounded like gunfire with someone using a suppressor coming through his end of the line. My entire attention focused on what I could hear through the phone. But I wasn’t getting enough details so I started Listening.

Listening was a simple trick of focus, it wasn’t particularly magical. Most people could do it. It just took concentration. Also knowing the trick of learning to tune out those constant sounds we are always subconsciously hearing. Then you can really focus your attention on a single point of origin.

“A rather pressing matter is currently demanding my full attention,” said Marcone with a steady, unaffected voice. Yet in the background I could hear various voices talking urgently. Not that I could make out heads or tails what they were saying since they weren’t speaking English. Considering the number of Einherjaren acting as Marcone’s bodyguards I pegged it as Old Norse.

Again, the sounds of suppressed gunfire came through again but louder. Then a sudden loud cacophony of rapid shots made me jerk the handset away from my ear in reflex. I put it back at once.

That was return fire. Marcone’s bodyguards were shooting back.

“Dammit, are you under attack, right now?” I demanded.

There was a squeal of rubber tires on asphalt as though a fast moving car had been forced to come to an immediate stop on a hard surface. Then the unmistakable sound of shattering glass. More urgent voices. A man’s low moan of pain filtered through the racket.

“A unfortunate situation has arisen but I assure you, Mr. Dresden, it is hardly worth your concern,” Marcone said still sounding infuriatingly calm but this time there was a tension in his voice. I got the impression I wasn’t supposed to have caught on to what was happening.

Well, too damned bad. I knew now.

I heard the metallic sounds of car doors clicking open. Then more gunfire.

Marcone’s voice snarled out, “Get the wounded. Prepare to move.”

“Where are you?” I asked urgently, barely noticing the creak of plastic under my right hand as I tightened my grip on the phone’s handset.

For long moment all sounds coming through the landline cut out but before I could worry that Marcone’s phone had died – or he’d died – the sound came through again.

Bastard had muted me, I realized in annoyance.

Marcone continued, “As soon as I have a free moment I will contact you to reschedule our lunch. Good day, Mr. Dresden.”

“Wait –” But the only response in my ear was the landline’s humming dial tone of a disconnected call.

I swore. I slammed the handset back onto its cradle. I glowered down at the rotary phone. I seethed angrily for a few seconds.

Fine. If Marcone didn’t want my help then I would keep my nose out of it.

John Marcone was dangerous in his own right. He could protect himself. Any foe who didn’t know that going in was going to get a nasty surprise if they cornered him. He could move with shocking speed for a human and he was the single most dangerous being with a knife I’d ever seen. That was without factoring in the fact that Marcone was a freaking Denarian. Thorned Namshiel was bound to have several nasty tricks up his sleeve if anyone got a drop on them.

Except… I had first-hand experience in seeing how a Denarian wasn’t invincible to a bullet. Being a host to a fallen angel was no guarantee of surviving a bad situation. I’d thought later on that Marcone had gotten lucky when facing Ethniu that she had wanted to see him die slowly from a broken neck instead of going for the quicker route of ripping his head off. A broken neck he could recover from as a Denarian. Decapitation, not so much. Yeah, Denarians could take a lot of punishment but they could still be taken down; they could bleed out. They could be taken by surprise. Hell, the only Denarian I known to be the exception to the rule was Nicodemus, but that was because of another artifact he wore, not because of the power of the Fallen.

Stars and stones, I’d seen a single gunman take out several Denarians with head-shots. Later I’d found out they had been perfectly normal bullets. Kincaid was an extraordinary shooter with a supernatural lineage and an unnatural dead-shot, yeah that had been the case, but the bullets had been nothing but lead.

It had sounded like Marcone was facing several shooters. Or someone with a freaking machine gun.

A large part of me twitched with guilt and while I tried not to think it I couldn’t help but wonder if this had anything to do with me. The sinking feeling in my gut made me think so. Call it instinct, wizardly insight, or my own paranoid experience but I don’t like the timing of Marcone coming under attack. Not when the news of Winter’s alliance, and my engagement to him, had only just broken to the Ministry members. It had probably spread to the rest of the members of the Unseelie Accords not too long afterwards. And then rumors of it were bound to have gotten out to the rest of the supernatural world.

Who knows who’d heard about it by now. To mangle the words of a man much wiser than I: A rumor sometimes doesn’t even need people, it runs ear to ear without ever touching lips.

Maybe someone had heard the rumor and hadn’t liked it one bit.

Which, of course, would make it my responsibility. Marcone would never have accepted the alliance with Winter if I hadn’t asked.

I started pacing and I made three circuits of the library before I came to decision that there was no way in hell I was going to stay in my castle while Marcone was under fire. I would admit that a part of me – a surprisingly small voice – wanted to leave the man to face whatever he had coming to him but it quieted pretty fast.

I’d never been able to stand back when I saw someone in danger. That it was Marcone hadn’t changed that about me. Okay, I won’t deny that it had also occurred to me that if the man got killed I’d end up engaged to Lara again, but it wasn’t the only reason I wanted to act. No, what really mattered to me the most, what was pounding in my head was the knowledge that someone or something was trying to kill a man I knew. Someone who was a part of my life, however much I grumbled about it.

The man who’d said yes to marrying me a little over a week ago… his life was in danger.

And that really pissed me off.

Deep within in me the Winter Knight’s mantle stirred. It snarled angrily and possessively.

Someone was attacking Marcone, who was mine.

...whoa. Okay. That thought had come from the mantle. At least it better have. Talk about unsettling.

I didn’t want to waste the time but I forced myself to take a few minutes to think calming thoughts about numbers to get the mantle to settle down. It was hardly the best strategic thinking. I needed to have a clear head.

Once, I was mostly certain that the mantle’s bloodthirsty urges had tapered down to something less insane I ran out the library and to the armory. I grabbed my blasting rod, staff, a couple of loaded guns and other magical gear out of the armory.

As I hit the first floor of the castle I suddenly realized that I had no idea where in the world – or in Chicago – Marcone was at that moment. I came to an abrupt stop, swearing.

For a moment, an ugly sense of helplessness hit me.

Oh hell… if I didn’t do something someone else I knew could die.

Could be killed. Violently. Left to bleed out.

When I could have stopped it.

For a moment, it felt like my heart stopped beating. My chest hurt.

I forced myself to breathe and think. If Marcone was under attack he’d go to one of his properties and while he owned more of Chicago than any other single individual the places he’d go while under attack were limited. For a split-second I wondered why he hadn’t come to Castle Dresden. That was why I’d given him the key and ring. But I forced myself to set the question aside and focus. Marcone would stay away from places with too many people. He’d take himself off the street to minimize witnesses and innocent bystanders who could get caught in the crossfire.

Then an idea struck me like lightning from a clear blue sky.

If Marcone was still wearing the ring then I could track him. I had made it. I could use it to find him.

At once, I raced down to my lab.

*-*-*-*

I pushed down harder on the Munstermobile’s accelerator making the engine growl like a prehistoric predator until the pedal was flat against the car floor. I knew the speed I was pushing the Cadillac wasn’t safe but I was feeling the urgent need to move.

Go faster. Get there before it was too late.

If that wasn’t enough to get me a traffic ticket then I would have gotten one for the way my attention was divided between watching the road and keeping an eye on the compass arrow which aimed me towards Marcone’s location... well, the ring’s location but I was assuming Marcone was still attached to it.

As soon as I turned into an area I recognized, I put the compass back into my duster’s pocket and put both hands back on the Munstermobile’s steering wheel. I may not have been back to the place in years but my memory of where to find Marcone’s estate hadn’t faded.

Hey, you end up fighting hexenwulfen FBI agents and a demonic loup-garou on the same night and the place tends to stick in your mind.

I eyed the high walls as I went down the street. The entire neighborhood was full of estates which made Marcone’s look like cottage on a sliver of land but that didn’t mean that it wasn’t huge to us plebeians (yes, I know I own a castle, but I’ll argue I still count). I couldn’t afford to rush in, or jump the wall without first taking the time to study the situation. I couldn’t risk getting shot by Marcone’s own men when I was there to help protect their boss.

What? I do eventually learn to look before I leap.

I studied the walls, the cameras that Marcone had upgraded since I’d last been around, and the tops of the trees on Marcone’s side of the wall. I was growing worried I had gotten the wrong place. I couldn’t hear or see anything abnormal. Not even Listening caught anything. I went so far as extending my wizard senses but I couldn’t pick up any magical energies, other than the usual background energies that you’d find in places where there were people about. There was no gunfire. There was no shouting or screams.

But then wasn’t that the point of Marcone’s estate? It was a place where he could do dirty deeds and no nosy neighbor would be close enough to hear the gunshots.

I frowned. I continued driving until I saw what I’d been looking for: Something out of place.

In this case, it was a small fleet of four black SUVs, parked together.

Yes, it was weird, especially in that neighborhood. It wasn’t the kind of area where people left their cars on the street. Anyone who was entering one of those properties needed to get past security gates, security cameras, security guards and security who-knows-what. You get the theme and involved lots and lots of security. People don’t go up to those kinds of places on foot.

So they sure as hell didn’t leave their vehicles on the side of the road.

I reversed the Munstermobile to keep it out of sight before I jumped out, holding my staff in my right hand. I shook out my left hand, ignoring the way it made the burns ache, as I prepared to activate my shield. The summer heat was blistering through the heavy leather of the duster as I stalked towards the cars.

I barely made it five steps when the coughs of suppressed gunfire erupted, nearly making me jump.

A dozen black-clad ghouls vaulted over Marcone’s wall. Four of them stopped at the tops of the walls, crouched down to minimize their profiles and brought up submachine guns. They began shooting in controlled short bursts as they swept the area behind them with smooth precision.

Marcone’s men must have right behind them because a ghoul took a direct hit and toppled off the wall.

I brought up a hasty veil which in the daylight made me look like a heat mirage but I took any advantage I could get.

The way the ghouls moved with the guns in their claw-tipped hands and the way there were dressed in tactical gear was worrying. These monsters weren’t like your typical everyday ghouls I was used to. These were like the military-trained ghouls I’d fought once before and barely survived.

Well, shit. Military ghouls, why did it have to be military ghouls?

I wanted to backpedal to give myself space and time to consider a plan of attack. But that angry part of me that had nothing to do with the Winter Knight, the part of me which could never ever forget what ghouls had done to two kids I’d been training, growled in rage. That explosive temper which had existed with me for as long as I’ve known… it caught fire.

Ghouls. I loathed ghouls.

My lips curled back into a snarl as I stalked forward. Under a closer look, all of the ghouls who’d made it over the wall were hurt. They were bleeding from several gunshots, and injuries which looked to have come from all kinds of bladed weapons. One ghoul in particular looked like he’d been smashed on the side of the head with a war-hammer and was leaking all kinds of fluids from the caved in section of his skull. As tough as ghouls are they didn’t look like they could put up much of a fight anymore, having been beaten to the point they weren’t healing very quickly. My inner predator (which I don’t know if I could blame on the Winter Knight since humans are a predatory species in their own right) only saw weakness as the ghouls ran to their cars to drive away

I aimed my staff at the nearest SUV, dropped the veil and thundered, “Fozare!

The blast of force hit with so much kinetic energy the front of the stationary SUV crumpled like it had suddenly slammed into invisible wall while going at full speed.

At once one of ghouls on the wall turned to fire in my direction even as the other two snarled and leapt towards me. The one who’d been knocked off, jumped back onto the wall and continued firing into Marcone’s side.

I’d already had my shield in place so the bullets bounced off. But I’d gotten a little more creative with my newest shield bracelet, and the bullets went back in the same direction they’d come from. Okay, it wasn’t perfect, the bullets lost a lot of momentum and wouldn’t be hurting anyone too badly but they stung like hell and would hopefully make anyone who shot at me think twice about shooting me again.

The ghoul who’d shot at me shook his hands but quickly caught on that he wasn’t badly hurt. He took the moment to reload his gun.

Dammit.

The other two were already changing, They brows thickened, their jaws protruded, their shoulders threatened to burst out of their uniforms and their human-shaped fingers shifted into curved claws of predators who ate humans for breakfast. And brunch, lunch, dinner and probably a late-night snack too.

They were soon racing towards me so quickly they were nothing but blurs. But they weren’t fast enough to match the reaction time of a combat wizard enhanced with the Winter Knight’s mantle.

I snarled out, “Infriga!”

I caught both ghouls in a blast of cold so intense, that a layer of fine white frost covered the cars and the street for several yards in every direction. At least until the afternoon summer heat began melting it.

I stalked towards them. Hell, they’d frozen solid barely four feet away from me which meant if I’d been any slower they would have gotten me. I smashed the heads of the two new ice statues with my staff. The iced flesh shattered under the force of my anger-fueled blows.

Maybe it was it was the spell, or maybe one of the ghouls had finally gotten a good look at their new attacker, but suddenly one of them shouted something I didn’t catch in an alarmed voice and every ghoul dove into the remaining cars while the remaining ones on the wall started shooting at me again.

The first couple bullets struck my duster. I swore, ducked and raised my shield again before a lucky bullet could catch me in the head.

Then the wall ghouls did a crazy jump onto the roof of the last departing SUV while still freaking shooting at me. Assholes.

I had to keep my shield raised and watch in annoyance as the three remaining SUVs raced away.

They had completely vanished when I heard another car coming up behind me. At once I spun on my heel, pointing my staff only to see Childs holding up his hands through the window of a minivan. It was the sort of car made infamous by soccer moms. Not exactly the ride I was expecting from Marcone’s top killer. I always thought the troubleshooters went around in something more… dramatic. Although, considering my current ride was painted with electric purple flames, I probably had no room to criticize.

“Hey, hey, we’re friendlies,” said the young man. The van came to a stop and I could see several of Marcone’s cold-eyed troubleshooters inside it.

I eyed Childs as he stepped out of the van. “I wouldn’t go that far,” I told him, although I did move the top of the staff so it wasn’t pointing at Marcone’s men. It wasn’t a gun. It couldn’t go off by accident, but it was a weapon. I didn’t want one of those professional killers to think I was about to blast them with magic.

With his unsettling green-gold eyes, Childs looked at the damaged car and then at the two headless ghoul corpses still frozen and standing as the ice held them in place. He sighed, “At least nothing is on fire.”

I swear I had nothing to do with it but that was when the SUV burst into flames.

Childs shot me poleaxed look then he glared like he thought I’d done it on purpose. I could practically see the muscle twitching at his jaw. But he kept a hold of his temper as he gestured at the other men in the car. The other trouble-shooters jumped out. The way they moved as they spread out to check for stragglers was with the same military precision I’d seen during the Battle of Chicago.

For the first time, I wondered how many of Marcone’s men had survived that fight. And if any of the armed men before me had also fought at the Bean.

“If you would please get in the car, Mr. Dresden,” Childs said in clipped tones, his English accent giving them a particularly cutting edge. He knocked my thoughts out of the grim memories of nearly a year ago. “The boss is expecting you.”

I sighed, “Of course he is.” I set the end of my staff on the ground and looked down at Childs with a scowl. “Fine. But I’m taking my car.”

*-*-*-*

Childs had insisted on driving me back. I almost left him behind in annoyance but grudgingly let him take the passenger side seat. Apparently, he needed to be there to verify it was me and allow the Munstermobile to get through the front gate otherwise I’d be shot. I pointed out the absurdity of any attacker finding another Cadillac hearse with the same paint job but I was ignored. As I drove Childs kept watching the road, turning to check behind us like he expected another squad of ghouls to jump us.

It wasn’t until I’d parked the Munstermobile in the large detached garage that the extent of the damage to Marcone’s property was more visible. I followed Childs around to the back of the mansion as I eyed the building. Several windows were shattered, bullet holes had Swiss-cheesed one of the walls and thick smoke hung in the air. While I didn’t see any flames, I suspected something on the grounds was on fire. I could hear the active sirens of approaching fire trucks which backed up my theory.

Marcone was standing in profile just before the open double doors at the back of the mansion. The blond Einherjar I’d seen so many days ago at the construction site was standing nearby with a war hammer in his hands.

I hadn’t expected the wave of relief which hit me at the sight of Marcone. I had to lean against my staff for a couple of steps, but straightened before anyone could see my reaction.

Marcone was staring out to the grounds, holding a semi-automatic rifle in his hands even though it was strapped to his shoulder. His hands were smeared with blood, so much so that the cuffs were stained a deep crimson and his nails were caked with it. Even the ring was so covered in it that the silver and diamond were dull. He was wearing a Kevlar vest over a charcoal suit that I couldn’t help but notice wasn’t as deliberately cut to be appealing like the last one he’d worn. Which was just as well considering the damage it had taken. There was dirt on Marcone’s suit. There was also a two tears along the left calf of the pant suit as if it had been clawed up.

Marcone must have heard us because he turned, the gun still in his hands. His money-green eyes were flat and colder than usual.

That was when I saw the splatter of wet blood below Marcone’s throat, staining the tie and the collar of the white-button down shirt. I froze. The edges of my vision went black and for a moment I couldn’t think. Or move.

Was that his blood?

“John,” I strangled out. Before I could control myself, I took several steps towards him with my hand out. I came to a stop as when I processed Marcone’s steely expression. It wasn’t exactly what I would call welcoming.

Then I realized what the gore meant. It looked like he’d been caught in the arterial spray of someone standing very close to him. And he must have tried to staunch the wound, explaining why his hands were covered in blood.

Oh. That explained a lot. Marcone didn’t like having the people under his command injured or killed.

Marcone’s expression was unreadable. Even to me.

“Mr. Dresden, somehow I am not surprised that after very clearly stating that this matter was none of your concern, you decided to show up,” Marcone said in a voice as dry as a desert in high noon. His pale green eyes were flinty. I didn’t like how he kept his weapon in his hands. Did he think I was a threat? “And since I said your presence was not needed, keep in mind, I don’t consider you an invited guest.”

Oh, shit. There was a lot danger implied in that statement. I raised my chin and tightened my grip on my staff, even as I wondered what had set off Marcone’s paranoia about me this time. “Hey, I stayed outside your walls. It was your goon who brought me in so technically I was invited. Anyway, you’re my fiance,” I said, reminding him that I had a lot riding on him staying alive. “I’m not exactly a typical guest.”

The goon in question winced as he took several steps away from us. Childs was quick on the uptake. Or had a very finely tuned set of survival instincts.

Marcone stared at me, as if searching for some answer in my expression. I met his gaze without flinching. It took a few seconds but he gave me a curt nod of acknowledgment. My tension went down a notch and I relaxed my hold on my staff.

I continued, “I didn’t really do much. Other than freeze a couple of the ghouls and smash one of their getaway vehicles.”

Marcone straightened. “You have prisoners?”

Childs was shaking his head before I could answer. “He took their heads off, boss.”

“Hey, I didn’t know you wanted any of those bastards alive. You didn’t bring me in on the plan,” I pointed out. Then I frowned. “Why do you want prisoners away?” The answer came to me before Marcone could give it. I stared. “Hell… you don’t know who sent the ghouls.”

Marcone’s face may have been immobile but there was flash of anger in his eyes and a tightness in his fingers on the semi-automatic rifle in his hands which made clues drop out of the ether.

“This isn’t the first time they’ve attacked you,” I breathed, stunned.

Marcone glanced at Childs. He didn’t say a word but the young man caught the implied order anyway and he walked off until he was out of earshot and out of sight. By now the fire engines had arrived and some of the Einherjaren seems to be leading the firefighters to wherever the blaze was burning. It said a lot that those ancient warriors still kept their weapons in sight.

Marcone gestured at me and I followed him into his mansion. As I walked beside him, the iron scent of blood was powerful and nauseating. I had to fight off the memory of the last time I smelled that much blood. I couldn’t think about it right now.

I focused on Marcone. He was limping a little, favoring his left leg. It wouldn’t even have been noticeable I hadn’t been specifically watching for any sign that he’d been hurt.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” I demanded, so busy watching Marcone I didn’t do more than glance at the inside of the house. Unsurprisingly, it was decorated a lot in the same style as that apartment where we’d had dinner. So he used the same decorator or that was just how his tastes ran.

“Because it’s none of your business, Mr. Dresden,” Marcone said coolly. He finally let go the rifle, letting it hang from its strap as he gestured at me to follow him. “You are prone to make a situation more volatile whenever you are involved. And while that may be an advantage under certain circumstances, considering the suspects I have in mind I don’t believe your skills are currently required.”

I considered the possibilities, especially the first suspect who had come to my mind.

“LaChaise,” I said flatly.

Marcone’s pale green eyes flickered. He raised an eyebrow.

I snorted. “He’s the mostly likely suspect. You called him a coward in front of every Accorded nation at the peace talks last year. You may have couched it in terms of a question but he wouldn’t have forgotten it.” My eyes narrowed. “And since he’s an Accorded member and part of the Ministry so you can’t just launch a counter-attack without proof.”

Marcone nodded. “A sound theory and one that is hard to prove since ghouls are the most commonly used hit-men among the supernatural nations. They could have been hired by any person with the contacts and money to pay them.” He added in a drier tone, “That is why having a living prisoner would have been beneficial.”

I ignored the dig.

“It could be Tessa. She had a few of those guys with her last time she was in Chicago,” I pointed out. I thought about it some more. “Actually no, I don’t like her for this. If she was going to strike back at you for your scheme against Nicodemus she would do it herself. Or with her band of Denarians. She wouldn’t use ghoul muscle.”

“It could also be the White Court. My agents have garnered reports on how unhappy various members are about my upcoming alliance with Winter.”

I stared at him. Oh, I hadn’t thought of that. I didn’t think Lara would be striking out against Marcone. Not when she didn’t want to end up hitched to me anymore than I wanted to marry her, but that didn’t mean that it couldn’t be one of the others acting on their own. Lara doesn’t have absolute control over everyone in her court. Could this be some kind of power-play by House Malvora or House Skavis?

I couldn’t refute the possibility but….

“It wouldn’t be Lara,” I said with quiet certainty. “It isn’t really her style.”

Marcone’s shot me an assessing look. His eyes were still like granite. “She could be using them to test the extent of my security, Mr. Dresden. Style is not a sound basis to eliminate a suspect without more information.”

I frowned, partially by idea and a lot more due to how often Marcone had been calling me ‘Mr. Dresden’. That was more times in a row than normal. What was going through his head? Did he still harbor thoughts that I was working with Lara to take him down?

“They haven’t been attacking?” I asked, as I watched Marcone hoping to catch a clue as to what he was thinking. “It looked like the ghouls were loaded for bear with the number guns they were toting.”

“While their attacks have been professionally thorough,” Marcone said flatly, “it is the speed in which they move to attack and then break off that leads me consider that it is a means of testing my security net.”

“They never attack the same place twice. They were testing the fences for weaknesses, systematically. They remember,” I quoted.

“Yes. Although, I intend to remain uneaten by these predators,” Marcone said, his voice hard. Marcone’s pale green eyes went colder. “Or by whomever hired them.” Then he gestured with his bloodied hand as he opened up a door with his right. “Mr. Dresden, I need you to remain here. I need to change before the police arrive. I do not wish to be dragged in for further questioning today as blood has a tendency to make law officers arrest first and ask questions later.”

I blinked at him then looked through the doorway and I saw Marcone had led me to a library. There were a lot of leather-bound books, in shelves that went from the floor to the top of the high ceiling which filled the room (I was not staring with envy no matter what my face showed). And no windows, I noted. Or anything electronic which my anti-technology field could destroy.

“Okay,” I said, suddenly feeling awkward and a lot like the uninvited guest Marcone had accused me of being. Marcone turned to leave. “Hey, Marcone,” I said, catching him by the elbow for a moment just enough to stop him.

He tensed but paused.

“Are you alright?” I asked, staring down at him

Marcone gave me a curt nod. “Yes.”

“You got hurt,” I said, looking at his left leg.

“It is inconsequential,” Marcone said. “And will soon heal.”

An advantage of having a Denarian in your head.

“Good,” I said quietly, and meaning it more than I ever thought I would.

Marcone must have heard the truth in my voice because he stared at me again for a moment. Finally, the ice in Marcone’s expression thawed and he slowly relaxed. Then he added, “I will be back after I finish dealing with law enforcement… and if time permits, maybe we can have that lunch together after all, Dresden.”

“Yeah,” I said, nodding. “I’d like that.”

He nodded in return and then left, closing the door behind him.