melannen: Commander Valentine of Alpha Squad Seven, a red-haired female Nick Fury in space, smoking contemplatively (Default)
melannen ([personal profile] melannen) wrote2015-10-30 09:07 pm

(no subject)

So anyway, in an attempt to get all settled before NaNo/YT season, I've been trying to get all my fanfic wips in one place (no, all of them, back to the last century) and man, there's a lot of good stories in there that are never going anywhere. :/ It makes me sad that nobody will ever see them, but not sad enough to do all the canon review + writing work that would be required to finish them.

Here, reading list, have 7500 words of Harry Dresden and John Marcone written c. 5 years ago, before Ghost Story came out. Featuring huddling for warmth. In a Canadian shack. In a blizzard. With bonus soulbonds and spirit animals and marriage-of-convenience and fuck-or-die. And, apparently, mpreg and pot. I wonder how many other random tropes I was planning to throw in here before I remembered that I can't write feels.


*****
I was lying in a field of dry grass. It itched, and I rolled over, halfway, snuffling it out of my face as I went. The dry grass stretched around me to the horizon, flat against a blank white-gray sky, a world completely empty except for me and the tiger.

I looked at the tiger, curiously. I should have felt the danger from it, felt it as soon as I woke up, and I should have put up shields, because I had the reflexes for it, and oh, there was danger in every line of that tiger, every sleek muscle beneath the orange-and-black fur, every fiery gaze it sent against that featureless horizon, every graceful motion of those fine-tuned limbs. Even the torn ear was a threat, an advertisement of old fights it had won. It was pacing, restless and measured at the same time, the same way I'd seen the cats pace in the lion house at the Lincoln Park Zoo, in a frustrated defiance against against constraint that it could not escape and could not fight.

Except - I watched, then, more analytically. No. The caged tiger in the zoo had paced back and forth, back and forth, the same straight, endless, futile lines. The tiger paced in a circle, a circle about ten feet around me, and it wasn't purposeless expenditure of energy. It was a defensive circle. It's one of the most basic pieces of defensive magic you can do; one of the strategies that's still so embedded in the human consciousness that mundane children learn it in the nursery even now, centuries after science has taken the place of wizardry as the religion people trust first to control their surroundings.

Even drawn by someone with no magical talent or training, a circle, like thresholds and other simple boundaries, can have some defensive efficacy, if whoever draws it has the faith and the will to enact it. And the tiger had will; I could feel it burning bright without even using my magical senses, a certainty that whatever it decided would happen, would happen - even if it was the whole universe that had to change before its conviction did.

I must have made a noise, or reached out with my power unconsciously, because the tiger turned to look at me, then, its huge head swinging around, all animal grace but with that ponderous speed that called to mind heavy machinery. It regarded me for a moment out of lambent green eyes, and then padded over to where I lay on the ground, nudging me with its muzzle.

I leaned a hand against it, tried to sit up. I should have been scared. The danger never went away, and neither did the fury I could feel hanging heavily over everything in the scene - the atmosphere, the ground beneath us, the tiger, and even, in some small, far-away place, in myself. But instead, I felt safe. I could feel the circle's protection, basic but strong, around us, even thought the tiger was no longer pacing it; and a tiger's fur - if you've ever had the chance to touch it - is incredibly thick and warm, the strong and stiff hairs of the upper coat protecting a thick layer of incongruously fluffy underfur. I let my face sink down into it for a second, comfortable.

I was incredibly tired.

The tiger snorted at me, and wedged its forehead against my shoulder, pushing at me until I lost my balance on the arm that was propping me up and fell back down, supine. It glared at me for a moment, and then draped its forepaws and chin across my chest, the weight just enough to make it clear that I wasn't getting up anytime soon - very much like my own housecat Mister did, when he had decided I wasn't spending enough time in bed (and only slightly less heavy than Mister.)

"You want me to go back to sleep, huh?" I said.

The tiger gave me a withering look. Obviously, it was telling me, eloquently if nonverbally.

So I did.

****


John stood up, and took a deep breath. Harry Dresden was settled, as comfortably as he could be, on the bed. If you could call a few loose wooden slats, held off the cold ground by a simple frame, and covered by a rough and exceptionally dusty bag of straw, a 'bed.' All the same, he seemed to have fallen completely asleep - finally - and John was tempted to sit back down and curl up beside him. John hadn't had quite as rough a past few days as Harry had, but it hadn't exactly been easy going for anyone.

As the member of their little refugee family who was currently least impaired, though, it fell to him to make some sort of situational assessment and then put a plan in place for improvement, if only by figuring out how to start a fire and heat up some water.

The resources were limited, though. John acknowledged that it was an incredible combination of luck and preparation that had gotten them here at all - that he'd remembered this isolated safehouse, that he'd managed to communicate to Harry where it was, that Harry, despite everything, had managed to draw them back to Earth close enough that John could navigate them here - and that he'd trusted John enough to do so, with no explanations and too exhausted to have comprehended them even if they'd tried.

So here they were, in a small cabin made of clapboard and corrugated aluminum, somewhere in Ontario fifteen miles from the nearest neighbor. Not what John would have chosen as a hideout, but he'd inherited it - in a way - from a predecesso. It had pedigree all the way back to the original bootleggers, and he'd made the effort to keep it up if only out of a sense of history.

The tiny iron stove, that nonetheless occupied almost a third of one wall, was still largely intact, once John had tidied out the nest of some small animal that had chosen to homestead there in the three years since anyone had been here last.

He had not, at the time he had decided on the future course of his life, expected upkeep and operation of a 1920s-era wood stove to be a skill he would need, but as he had come to understand more of what it meant to be involved in Harry Dresden's affairs, he had taken the time to learn, under the assumption that it would most likely be useful sooner rather than later. As usual, he'd been right.

A quick twist and he emptied the debris that had accumulated in the stove-pipe into the bin behind the stove, then reconnected it, and laid a small but neat fire using previous contents of the bin. Beside the stove, though far enough away to be protected from the worst of the radiant heat, was a stack of three large plastic tubs of the remarkably useful kind.

The top one, already open and partially empty, held a small collection of nondescript and sturdy men's clothing. Packed above them, in vacuum bags to reduce volume, had been a collection of colorful fleece blankets, now tucked under, around, and over the wizard who still slept on that shelf of a bed.

John turned to look at Harry, just a glance to ensure he was still breathing and warm, stopped himself from turning with a twitch that would have been barely visible to outside eyes, and then stopped himself from stopping. There was no-one else who could see; only Harry, and as far beyond his reserves as Harry had pushed himself, it was unlikely he would be anywhere near the waking world to notice any dangerously wayward partiality on John's part.

Despite the fact that the bed - probably originally built by whatever unlucky, rangy Dustbowl-era farmer had eked out this place to begin with - was tall enough, for once, that Harry could have stretched out fully, he was curled rather awkwardly on his side. By the time they had limped into the cabin, John nearly carrying his companion, Harry had been conscious only by courtesy, and John had been left to arrange him on the bed as best he could. Unlike the bed, the blankets hadn't been long enough for a man who was well over six and a half feet, with the result that he looked rather more like a very small child wrapped in a colorful patchwork quilt than a very tall man on a platform bed. But despite his face being softened, finally, in sleep, he still looked as if he were huddled in around himself, defending against some still-raging turmoil, whether internal or external it was impossible to tell. John took the two steps that were necessary to cross the cabin's floor, and laid a hand gently on Harry's shoulder. Harry relaxed: slowly, and not all the way, but it began almost immediately after John's touch, obvious enough if someone had observed Harry well enough to notice the tension in the first place.

It worried John that he could do that. He had not intended to take up that power. Not now, and not under these conditions. Too much power, and in the wrong places, could be almost as bad as not enough, as they'd both learned the hard way.

But he had more immediate things to worry about now, and so he lifted his hand away, allowing Harry to slowly slide back into that difficult rest, and returned his attention to the cabin's supplies.

The second tub down, when he opened it, proved to contain foodstuffs, almost all of them dried. Pasta; instant oatmeal; beans; dried meat, fruit, and vegetables; and some powdered soups and drinks. John made a face. It wouldn't have been reasonable to stock the cabin even with canned goods, because they wouldn't last through the freeze/thaw cycles of the summers and winters here, but the provender was not exactly what he would have chosen. At least they were unlikely to starve; and stacked to the other side of the tubs were several dozen cold-resistant MREs should John's creativity with the dried supplies run out.

He considered, for a moment, the possibility that Harry would a) recover, b) volunteer to cook, and c) have the skill to produce anything John would be willing to eat. Then he chuckled softly at his own joke, shifted the tub of food to the floor - losing about a third of his remaining floor space in the process - and opened the last tub.

This one contained the miscellaneous supplies. On top was a long-necked butane lighter, which John immediately used to start the stove warming before he dug into the rest of the goods. He had a vague memory of the supply list he had approved for this place, but it had been some time ago, and conditions changed. A compact but well-stocked first aid kit, which would have been quite useful if the beings they had fled from had been polite enough to do them mundane and external injuries. He shook out the baggie of medicines, and thumbed through a few that had likely not expired, putting them aside for later use if it seemed necessary.

Rifling through a scattering of other possible useful items - waterproof matches, a compass, a hunter's knife, an emergency radio, several revolvers and ammunition, some notebooks and pens, a pack of playing cards - John pondered for a second whether Harry would be able to find any magical use for them, as difficult as it was for him to imagine the two of them killing time with a few rounds of rummy - and then came up with another prize.

It was a compact satellite phone; he turned it over, and yes, the batteries still showed a charge. He balanced it in one hand, thinking. With this phone he could theoretically call his people down in Chicago and have helicopters here to pick them up in a few hours, if weather conditions cooperated. It was tempting to at least try to call out - but he glanced over at Harry, and sighed, rather more fondly than he intended to, before knocking the battery pack out into one hand and secreting it in a pocket of his cargo pants. The weather was not cooperating, and it wasn't likely to do so until Harry pulled himself together somewhat. In the meantime, any attempt to turn an electronic device on was simply asking for it to spark and die, if not catch fire. Better, and wiser, to leave it as thoroughly deactivated as possible until there was at least a small chance in hell of getting through.

At the bottom of the tub was a collection of cooking pots. He pulled out the largest, a fairly deep aluminum saucepan, and hefted it consideringly. They would have to boil snow for drinking water.

The door of the cabin opened inward. In an ordinary Canadian winter, this was a necessary precaution against the possibility of feet of drifted snow piled outside it.

When John pulled it open, he stepped out onto bare frozen ground. For ten feet, in a circle around the cabin, and a twenty-foot-or-so dome overhead, it was a pleasant, dry winter day, a few degrees below freezing with just enough gentle wind to keep lacy lines of snow meandering over the grass. Outside that hemisphere - centered not over the cabin itself, but over the bed where Harry Dresden lay sleeping - was a universe of blank white. Snow piled already over a foot deep even where it wasn't drifting higher, and an eerie wind whipped the thick, heavy flakes that were still rapidly falling into a solid wall of white.

"Harry," John said, to the snow and the cold, with the air of a man who has been waiting a very long time to say it, "Sometimes I truly wish that at some point in our acquaintance, even once, you had given me reason to believe that you have any idea what you are doing."

Then he filled the pan with clean snow from the very edge of the circle, stepped softly back into the cabin, and closed the door behind him.

------------------

The next time I woke up, the tiger with the torn ear was holding a cup to my lips.

"Drink it, Harry, you need the fuel," he told me, and he was right. I was suddenly aware that I was blindingly thirsty, and I exerted myself to lift my head, just enough to gulp down the liquid. It was warm and sweet and tasted slightly fruity; a nectar of Paradise given my current state. When the cup was empty the tiger pulled it away, and I reached one leaden arm up to grasp his paw, my fingers sinking into the thick fur.

"Oh, are you actually going to stay awake this time?" he asked me, humor in his green cat's-eyes. I mumbled something - the whole scene is still clear as day to me, backlit with a pale warmth, but all the same my head was muzzy with sleep and exhaustion and I have no idea what I was planning to say, if I even knew at the time. The tiger dipped his head, but I could tell he was laughing at me, as he lifted his other paw to press my hand back down and tuck it under the blankets.

"No, I wouldn't quite call that awake." He tilted his head at me. "Rest, Harry. Now that you've got some liquid in you, you need the time to heal. It's only been a few hours." He dropped his paw to my forehead, and I drifted back to sleep with the calloused strength of paw-pads bright against my skin.

****

John sank down on the edge of the bed, finally drinking his own cup of hot Tang. Not his beverage of choice in most circumstances, but it would serve for shock and dehydration in the absence of anything better. He thought wistfully of several hospitals, where he could have Harry on an IV drip, and monitored by doctors, and, given that it was Harry Dresden, probably also strapped to the bed to prevent him from trying to dash off and rescue somebody. Not that Harry was safe to be in a hospital, with his effect on machinery; sadly, this cabin was probably one of the more suitable places he'd ever recuperated from one of his fabulous mad stands.

John glanced around the cabin. Waiting for Harry to rouse enough that he could be woken to drink, John had done his best to set the cabin up into something like a functional living space. The tubs were arranged into counter/table spaces with the most useful supplies easily accessible, the pots arranged around the stove (except the one that was still steaming softly, over a half-banked fire.) His own wet clothes from the previous days, and Harry's duster and sweater, were hung on nails by the door, drying out while serving the additional purpose of extra insulation. Bundled on the floor below the door, still lain where he had dropped them as he'd hauled the two of them inside, were his satchel and Harry's backpack. His eyes slid over them in guilty avoidance, but there was nothing else left to do in the cabin, unless he wanted to descend to the level of attempting to tidy the dirt.

It was a strange feeling to be at loose ends; in his ordinary life, he took care to schedule leisure time for himself, and to let himself relax, but there was always the knowledge that there was work he could be doing, that it would be there as soon as the schedule required it, and that the relaxation itself would make him more efficient when he returned to his duties.

Here, there was literally nothing he could be doing, nothing more useful than sitting in a surprisingly homelike cabin in the middle of a howling snowstorm, watching Harry Dresden sleep and counting down time until the rest of the world had sorted itself out enough that he could safely act again. He let himself consider the paper and pens he had laid out; there would be no harm in working out a few more contingency plans, but he stopped himself. Only one thing in all the world left to do, and he was avoiding it.

He dropped both the tin cups into the water-pot to boil clean, and steeled himself to pick up the bags. Harry's he did not attempt to open, not without Harry's explicit permission, or at the very least the guidance of another qualified practitioner; he would not have been the slightest bit surprised to discover that it held some sort of vicious trap spell, or for that matter, that it opened into another dimension. It was hung on the nail with Harry's duster.

His own satchel he knew rather better, though there was very little in it likely to be useful, especially as most of the contents had been peremptorily dumped to drop weight over the course of the past few days. He rolled the remains out onto the lid of one of the plastic tubs: a half-empty plastic water bottle, spent cartridges, a backup knife which got slipped carefully into one of the empty holsters under his jacket, , a fried phone, spare IDs and credit cards in various names that were probably quite thoroughly demagnetized, and all the other small odds and ends of detritus that tended to gather in the bottom of a bag without any volition on the part of the owner.

And the small round bundle wrapped in dirty, ragged cloth that Harry had thrust on him with hasty introductions, less than a day ago, unsure of his own ability to keep it safe. John steeled himself, and unwrapped it.

Inside was a well-aged, polished human skull, incongruous against the cheerfully utilitarian blue plastic. It was Harry's companion, the spirit of air and intellect called Bob. John had, of course, known about him. Harry attempted to keep his existence a secret, but keeping a secret was one of several skills which he was unexpectedly abysmal at, for a qualified wizard. John had occasionally considered that the reason Harry had decided to buck convention by advertising his profession in the phone book was simply that he knew he would have been hopeless at hiding it. Bob's existence was known to a substantial subset of Chicago's magical underworld, and with John's resources it had been easy to learn the basics, and a few not-so-basics, all of which were telling him that waking the spirit was a seriously risky proposition, given the circumstances.

On the other hand, nobody had ever reported his being less than helpful to Harry, and Harry had said - eloquent words of trust forever to be etched in John's memory - "Bob, this is John. John, if I go down, Bob can talk you through it. Bob, if I go down, talk John through it."

He was fairly sure this wasn't the outcome Harry had been making last-minute allowances for when Bob had been shifted to John's satchel, but Harry was technically down, and technicality was usually all you needed with spirits.

It was a moot point anyway. Unwrapped from the cloth, two points of light were slowly fading up in the skull's eye sockets. "Boss?" the spirit asked, sounding slightly muzzy. "What's up?" and then the lights focused down to sharp points, drilling right into John. "Oh," Bob said. "It's you."

"Yes," John told him. "It's me. Do you remember Mr. Dresden's instructions?"

"I take it we all made it out."

"Yes. We're in a place of sanctuary, of sorts."

"Mafia hideout!" Bob said gleefully.

"...of sorts," John said. "I need to know some status details. Such as whether we're actually going to be safe here."

Bob's eyes dimmed slightly, thoughtful. "Is it still snowing outside?"

"Everywhere but a thirty-foot dome around Harry, yes."

"Good," Bob said.

"Good?"

"As long as the storm's going, nobody's going to be able to get to us. It will be impassible for anyone without magic, and no one using Faerie magic will be able to see inside it; they'd have to walk in blind, and they won't. And as long as the storm's going, it means Harry is still managing to channel the power, at least a little bit."

"Channel the power?"

"Did Harry manage to explain anything to you?" Bob asked.

"Harry? Explain something?"

"Good point. Hmm," Bob said. "Here's a metaphor: Have you ever seen photos of an oil gusher? That's basically what's going on. Harry's tapped in to a deep well of the Winter Queen's power, but he knocked off the cap, so it's fountaining out into the world through him. He seems to be bleeding it off into the weather, which is lucky, because if it was was just spewing out amorphously, we might all have tentacles by now. Or something worse."

"So what we need to do is re-cap the well," John replied thoughtfully. He had eventually gotten used to the idea that when magical practitioners and beings couched things in allusive metaphor, they usually weren't trying to obfuscate, just doing the best they could to describe something in words that wasn't meant to be described that way. Of course, with magic, there was also always the chance that something you thought was metaphorical was simply a plain description of the truth.

Bob winced. "Okay, maybe that wasn't the best way to put it. Let's try again. Have you ever had a stomach bug that was so vile it felt like your body was trying to reject everything you'd ever eaten? Projectile vomiting, explosive diarrhea, the works?"

John winced. "Yes." Memorably. The restaurant had mysteriously burnt down shortly afterward, for some reason.

"Well, Harry's rejecting the Faerie magic. But since he's still plugged in to the power sources in the Nevernever, as soon as he expels what he's got, more floods in. And the Winter Queen has an endless supply of shit in her pipes."

"I think I liked the first metaphor better."

"Yeah, well, if we try to cap it on his end, he's going to go pop."

"But as long as the storm's going, he should be fine?"

"Yeah. We might have to do something eventually, but it should be stable for a few days at least. He is stable, right? Not bleeding out or anything?"

"He's sleeping, over there," John said. He jerked a thumb over his shoulder to point, and Bob the Skull somehow managed to turn himself, as well. John followed the skull's gaze.

Harry had tensed himself up again, in just the few minutes since John had moved away, curling stiffly up like a man with a gut wound. John sighed, and went to lay a hand on him again. As he did, Bob made a sudden choked sound.

"Wow-ee," he said. "That's some aura fireworks. Did you know that you and he--"

"Yes," John cut him off shortly. "I've known since about five minutes after we met. We shared a soulgaze, if you recall, and I am capable of recognizing my destined soulmate when I'm staring right at his naked spirit."

"Harry doesn't know," Bob pointed out.

"Are you sure? I had occasionally wondered."

Bob snorted derisively, an interesting talent without a nose. "Believe me, if he knew, he would have been whining about it to me incessantly ever since. When did you meet, anyway?"

It was marked so indelibly in John's memory, wound up so vitally around so many of the choices he'd made since, that it hadn't quite occured to him that Bob wouldn't know. "Ten years ago. A few days before Harry's showdown with Victor Sells."

"Really," Bob said, rolling the word around luxuriously.

"Is that... significant?"

A bare skull should not have been able to waggle its eyebrows. And yet.

John looked back down at Harry. "So he did know?"

"Not a chance," Bob said. "Seriously. He's the wizard. You're, and I mean this as a compliment, honestly, about as unmagical as a human being can be. How did you figure it out and he didn't?"

"Well," John said, unable to entirely quell a fond glance, "Harry is... exceptional. And I'm in a profession that doesn't allow one to hold onto any illusions."

"Whereas Harry's made a career out of hanging onto his illusions at all costs, I get your point," Bob conceded.

"I take it that's why my touch seems to help him sleep?"

The skull rocked ambivalently. "Yes, partly. Any human touch would help him at this point, I think. That's mostly a natural sleep of exhaustion, and it's mostly natural nightmares. But the potential, and the resonance, you two've got between you is probably helping to ground him, to remind him of the proper shape of his soul. Touch him as much as you can, it'll be good for him."

John looked at the skull, then back at Harry, and shrugged. At this point, he supposed, there was not reason not to. He sat down on the floor, leaning back against the bed, and draped one of Harry's arms down over his shoulder. Harry snuffled and rolled closed to him without opening his eyes.

"So the sleep's not entirely natural, then," John said.

"He should wake up as soon as he's made up the sleep he's lost, which is a lot, don't get me wrong, but no, even after that he won't be 100% percent, not as long as he's acting as a conduit for the storm. And he won't be able to make much use of his own power."

John tapped his fingers on the box lid beside him. "Can we cut off his connection to the source?"

"It might stop on its own. Natural healing."

John just stared at him.

"Okay, no, we won't be that lucky. Still. The Queen might get tired of waiting out the storm and cut him off herself. I think that's what he was hoping would happen, although by now he should know better than to expect her to do the convenient thing."

The skull rocked uncertainly again. "Or you could fuck him."

John sputtered. "What?"

The skull leered, somehow, despite lacking lips. "You know. Just like Sleeping Beauty. True love consummated to break the spell and save the day."

"Would that work?"

"It might. Have you ever heard of matrimonium verum?"

John ran through his hard-won stock of knowledge about the workings of the magical world, but couldn't get much further than the Latin. "'True' marriage? With the implication that most marriages are not true, I presume."

"He'd translate it as 'real' marriage,' Bob said, with a nod in Harry's direction. "They don't talk about it much. I think the White Council finds the whole thing kind of embarrassing. You get married - real married, I-am-my-beloved's-and-my-beloved-is-mine, to the one person who's your perfect match, and your obligations to them override any other magical obligations. It's the only thing that can exempt a wizard from his sworn allegiance to the Council - get real married to a vanilla mortal, and the Council will have to stay out of your business for their lifetime, whether they want to or not. And it can break curses, and, of course, cancel deals with the Sidhe."

"Cancel it? He could have gotten married at any time and been free? Surely it can't be that simple."

"What about this situation is simple?" Bob asked. John conceded the point.

"Look," Bob said. "I don't know if it would've worked before. Being the Queen's knight is a lot bigger than most deals with the Sidhe. But he's already seventy-five percent of the way to breaking it just through sheer bloody-mindedness: which is why we're stuck with the storm and the Canadian Shack. Frankly I wouldn't've have said that much was possible, either. Sealing your pairbond at long last ought to act as a sort of reboot, for both your souls, which might be enough to knock what's left of the old bitch's teeth out of him. And you'll be somebody asserting a stronger claim on him than the Winter Court has, pulling on a deeper and older power than even the Queens can access. And true love can defend against more than just vampires. And then, his deal with the Queen was sealed with sex. A lot of magic's built on frankly puerile symbolism, and just reversing that symbolism'll have its own power."

John worked that through, to the best of his understanding of magic. "Wouldn't the opposite of sex be no sex? I think Dresden's tried that one already."

"At length, and with unbelievable amounts of whining," Bob agreed. "But that's not the right symbolism: you'll need the opposite of the kind of sex he had on that altar. Which means - love. And complete trust. And consent. Enthusiastic, informed consent. It'll be a new experience for him."

John wished he was surprised by what Bob was implying about Dresden's history there. "So for this to work, I have to convince him that the two of us are soulmates, and get him to admit he trusts me, and then enthusiastically agree to get real married. And then agree to make gentle love with me in front of a crackling fire." John raised an eyebrow. "Does any of that sound likely?"

"If half his stories are true you've managed weirder things," Bob said. "Oh! Also, you can't tell him that it'll cancel his deal. If he's doing it with ulterior motives - like breaking a spell - and he's desperate enough that it probably would - it won't be real enough."

"What happened to informed consent?"

"You'd go for it even without the storm over us, wouldn't you?"

John shrugged. "I'll be moving up the timeline due to circumstances, but -- essentially, if he was ready, yes, I would."

"So tell him that. Just don't elaborate on the circumstances. You can even tell him that there's something you're not telling him. Love doesn't mean giving up all your secrets. That should work."

"So all I have to do is get Harry Dresden to finally admit - to himself, no less - that he trusts me and cares for me. And without letting him figure out why."

"Easy-peasy," Bob said, and then in reply to John's glare. "No, seriously, to pull the Winter Knight from Winter? That we've got a possibility at all is miraculous. Wouldn't work with anything less than a Destined and Sealed One True Pairing, though. So I guess he lucked out, happening to have you along! Mind you, just a kiss and a declaration and a promise won't do it. You really do have to go for the old-fashioned way, like in the original story."

John made a face, and then scooted a few inches farther away from both the bed and the skull. "Didn't Sleeping Beauty wind up pregnant in the original story?"

The skull started laughing. It wasn't as disturbing as it should have been. "Oh, I do like you, John Marcone. I can see why you've gotten as far as you have in our world."

"Well, you did mention the possibility of loose magic floating around. Tentacles or worse."

"I guess if you get that far you'll just have to hope it does seal everything down. Fast."

The next time I fuzzed out of sleep, I thought I was alone for once, but then I felt the warmth of the tiger's fur all along one side of my body, and heard the repetitive murmur of soft voices and a rhythmic "tink" sound like something small falling from a height.

I opened my eyes. The tiger was sitting up on its haunches next to my bed, and I'd somehow draped half of myself over it. It was having a conversation with a small tornado. Wait, not small. i squinted. A very large tornado that was somehow only occupying a small amount of space.

"Was that 73 or 74? You know, I had expected you to be rather more upset about this," the tornado was saying, and then another 'tock.' "Tails," he added brightly.

"I lost all capacity for disbelief a long time ago," the tiger replied, and there was another 'tock'.

"Tails," the tornado said again.

"Of course it is," the tiger replied. He picked something shiny off the ground in one massive paw, and tossed it in the air.

"How are you doing that with paws?" I asked muzzily. I don't know why that seemed like the most urgent question at that point, but it was. No way they had that kind of dexterity. I remembered those paws, up close. Feeding me orange-flavored soup?

"See if you can turn the Sight off, Harry," the tornado said gently. I blinked. My Sight was on. That might help explain the tiger and the tornado. I closed my eyes again, opened them. Still a big cat and a windstorm. I frowned, levered myself up to a seating position, and concentrated. It was a hell of a lot harder than usual, but finally they resolved from a tornado and a tiger into Bob and Marcone. Oh. That explained some stuff I was remembering. There was a lot it didn't explain, but my memory of the last week was slowly trickling back as the sleep cleared away. Molly, and Butters, and Bob. Stumbling on Marcone, serene and stoic and half-starved in a cell of ice under Arctis Tor. Doing a bunch of stuff that was stupid even by my standards. Maeve calling me before her in a rage and deciding that fuck it, I was finished with her bullshit, and pulling the plug, and then realizing what the fuck I'd done and fleeing through parts of the NeverNever where even Maeve wouldn't go, with all the fury of winter following after.

Marcone leaned back to look up at me and said, "Ah, Sleeping Beauty, finally properly awake, are you? Here, you try it."

I caught the small silver object he tossed me by a reflex I really should have trained out of myself by then. It was a coin. An ordinary, non-Demonic American quarter. "What are you two doing?" I asked, trying to rustle up the required suspicion. It wasn't coming.

"Flipping a coin," Bob said. "It's come up tails 75 spins in a row."

I raised my eyebrows, and then tossed and caught it and peeked under my hands. It was an Illinois quarter - of course - which meant that tails was Abraham Lincoln, looking rugged and manly, against the Chicago skyline. "Of course, I do know stage magic," I said, "So I could be cheating." I reached over and pulled the coin out from behind Marcone's ear - I had to brush up against his hair in the process, and definitely didn't feel a shiver down my back at the memory of the tiger's fur.

"I've never seen you do stage illusions before," Marcone said, smiling at me with that disconcerting warmth he'd been pulling out more and more when we interacted.

"There's a lot of things you've never seen me do, John," I replied, and found the coin under my foot before I tossed it up in the air. It landed on the bare dirt floor between us, Chicago-skyline up. We all stared at it for a second.

"And you don't find the statistical anomaly worrying?"
Outlines
"If I really did what I remember doing, with the amount of magical energy that's got to be on the loose around me, I'd be more worried if it was coming out fifty-fifty," I said, as Marcone picked up the coin and dropped it beside Bob again on the lid of one of the supply tubs. It landed tails-up.

"It doesn't worry you that it keeps coming up tails, in particular?" Bob asked. "Doesn't strike you as an omen?"

I shrugged. "Slightly worried you aren't making a dirty joke about me needing to get some tail."

"We went over that before you woke up," Marcone said drily. I felt a ghost walk over my grave at the thought of Marcone and Bob comparing notes for who knows how long while I was out. Stars and stones, I had told Bob to help Marcone if I was out for the count, hadn't I. In my defense, it seemed like a good idea at the time.

"Anyway," I said, cutting off that train of thought, "Given my mood lately, we're lucky it hasn't been coming up skull-and-crossbones dripping blood."

"I can give you blood and rhetoric without the love, and I can give you blood and love without the rhetoric, but I can't give you rhetoric and love without the blood. Blood is compulsory. It's all blood," Bob muttered sotto voce.

Marcone jabbed a thumb at him. "See, Yorick here gets it. He has culture. Subtlety is wasted on you, Dresden."

"Hey, I'll have you know I have the spirit of a true artist!" I told him. "Its owner left it to me before she got eaten by that demon."

"And if it was anyone else saying that, I would assume they were joking," Marcone told him seriously.

I realized belatedly that I didn't actually want to go into any detail about that - I wasn't sure I could play guitar anymore anyway - so instead I stood up and stretched, the not-quite-long-enough fleece blanket that was wrapped around my shoulders baring a strip of skin to the cold air of the cabin. It actually felt cold. I was afraid to hope that was a good sign. "Why were you flipping a coin anyway?" I asked.

"Bored," Bob replied shortly. "So very bored."

"When my people stocked this cabin," Marcone said, "we were assuming it would be used by one or two persons of interest who needed to be entirely outside the awareness - and jurisdiction - of the US government. And were probably not on terribly good terms with the Outfit. I don't think anyone quite visualized that myself, a talking skull, and an injured wizard would be trapped here by a magical blizzard. High-class entertainments weren't a high priority."

"If you're that bored," I said, "I could probably teach you some card tricks or something. Didn't I see a pack of cards around here somewhere?" I reached over and started digging through the tub that held the miscellaneous tools and supplies. I remembered the tiger digging in there in one of my vague moments of wakefulness.

"You're assuming I don't already know card tricks."

"I meant real card tricks. The fun kind. Not how to cheat the house at blackjack," I said, still rummaging through the box. Can opener, first aid kid, small notebook-- Marcone did know how to stock a safehouse, I'd give him that. I shifted one of the bowls to dig under it and my fingers latched onto a ziploc bag full of something that felt botanical. I pulled it up, frowning. "Shouldn't this be in with the food-- oh."

"Oh indeed," Marcone said, and pulled the baggie of what was very obviously marijuana out of my unresisting fingers. "I said no high-class entertainment, but we weren't planning to leave them completely bereft."

"And of course you went with something that would leave them relaxed and mellow and a bit impaired."

"Yes, Harry, very few of my men need anything that might up their aggression and anxiety, we get the point," Marcone said, producing some rolling papers from the bottom of the same box. He held them up. "You ever used?"

"Not recreationally," I told him.

"Which implies---?"

"Some spells and potions involve partaking in psychoactive substances of various kinds," I said. "But that's part of a guided ritual, where you do a lot of meditation and stuff ahead of time to make sure the trip takes you exactly where you need to go, and even then it's pretty dangerous. Wizards can't risk anything that might risk them losing control over their power, so outside those circumstances, it's pretty much just an epically bad idea. Alcohol's manageable as long as you don't go all the way to delirium, but anything that might involve losing touch with reality is right out."

"Huh," Marcone said. "That makes an unfortunate amount of sense. So beyond that, what are your thoughts on legalization of drugs?" he asked.

I stared at him. The head of the Chicago mafia was sincerely asking me my opinions on the drug trade. "If I'm going to have that conversation with you, I'm going to need to be stoned first," I said, and reached for the baggie. I'd always sort of wanted to try it the way ordinary people did, and they were right, with the storm out side it wasn't like there was anything better to do.

"Didn't you just explain that you couldn't risk anything like that?"

"Yeah, I don't dare get high, because my powers might get out of control," I said. I let the silence stand for a moment, long enough that the wail of the magical blizzard outside the cabin - the one being powered by the uncontrolled Winter magic still pouring through me - became inescapable. "Oh wait!"

"Okay, point to Harry," Bob said.

I reached for the baggie again. "So unless you've come up with a way to solve my little leaking magic problem--" I said. But I couldn't help but notice that when I left that sentence hanging, it sort of hung there. Almost visibly. I cleared my throat. "Have you come up with a way to solve this?"

Marcone started to say something, but I raised a hand to silence him. I didn't need Marcone trying to tell it to me in whatever way would best suit his purposes. "Bob, I command you to tell me if you've found a solution."

"Okay, yes, we think we did." Bob said.

"...And?" I asked.

"And if we tell you what it is, we might ruin the chance of it working. Sorry, Harry."

"This is going to wind up being one of those deep Freudian spells that depends on me reaching some sort of personal revelation, isn't it?" I said.

"....possibly," Bob replied.

"Does that sort of thing happen to you a lot?" Marcone asked curiously.

"You really don't want to know," I answered. "But I am definitely going to want to be stoned for this."

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