Turn Coat Chapter 49

Chapter Forty-nine

Thorsen kept me from bleeding to death from the cut Peabody had given me. The Swede and his backup squad had been faced with a long run to catch up, a lot of locked gates, and the confusion we'd left in our wake. They reached me about three minutes after Morgan died. They did their best to revive Morgan, but his body had taken enough torment and lost too much blood. They didn't even bother with Peabody. Morgan had double-tapped the traitor's head with Luccio's pistol.

They bundled me off to the infirmary, where Injun Joe and a crew of healers-some of whom had gone to medical school when the efficacy of leeches was still being debated-were caring for those wounded in the attack.

After that, things fell into place without requiring my participation.

The Senior Council managed to contain and banish the mordite-infused mistfiend, a rare and dangerous gaseous being from the far reaches of the Nevernever, before it had killed more than forty or fifty wizards. All things considered, it could have been a lot worse, but the fact that it had been the gathering of LaFortier's former political allies who had been subject to the attack occasioned an enormous outcry of suspicion, with the offended parties claiming that the Merlin had disregarded their safety, been negligent in his security precautions, etc., etc. The fact that the attack had occurred while unmasking LaFortier's true killer was brushed aside. There was political capital to be had.

Basically the entire supernatural world had heard about LaFortier's death, the ensuing manhunt for Morgan, and the dustup during his trial, though most of the details were kept quiet. Though there was never any sort of official statement made, word got out that Morgan had been conspiring with Peabody, and that both of them had been killed during their escape attempt.

It was a brutal and callous way for the Council to save face. The Merlin decided that it was ultimately less dangerous for the wizards of the world if everyone knew that the Council responded to LaFortier's murder with a statement of deadly strength and power-i.e., the immediate capture and execution of those responsible.

But I knew that whoever Peabody had been in bed with, the people who had really been responsible knew that the Council had killed an innocent man, and one of their largest military assets, at that, to get the job done.

Maybe the Merlin was right. Maybe it's better to look stupid but strong than it is to look smart but weak. I don't know. I'm not sure I want to believe that the world stage bears that strong a resemblance to high school.

The Council's investigators worked more slowly than Lara's had, but they got to the same information by following the money, eventually. The Council confronted the White Court with the information.

Lara sent them the heads of the persons responsible. Literally. Leave it to Lara to find a way to get one last bit of mileage out of Madeline and the business manager's corpses. She told the Council to keep the money, too, by way of apology. The next best thing to six million in cash buys a lot of oil to pour on troubled waters.

He might have wound up with his brains splattered all over a desolate little hellhole in the Nevernever, but Peabody had inflicted one hell of a lot of damage before he was through. A new age of White Council paranoia had begun.

The Merlin, the Gatekeeper, and Injun Joe investigated the extent of Peabody's psychic infiltration. In some ways, the worst of what he'd done was the easiest to handle. Damn near every Warden under the age of fifty had been programmed with that go-to-sleep trance command, and it had been done so smoothly and subtly that it was difficult to detect even when the master wizards were looking and knew where to find it.

Ebenezar told me later that some of the young Wardens had been loaded up with a lot more in the way of hostile psychic software, though it was impossible for one wizard to know exactly what another had done. Several of them, apparently, had been intended to become the supernatural equivalent of suicide bombers-the way Luccio had been. Repairing that kind of damage was difficult, unpredictable, and often painful to the victim. It was a long summer and autumn for a lot of the Wardens, and a mandatory psychic self-defense regimen was instituted within weeks.

It was tougher for the members of the Senior Council, in my opinion, all of whom had almost certainly been influenced in subtle ways. They had to go back over their decisions for the past several years, and wonder if they had been pushed into making a choice, if it had been their own action, or if the ambiguity of any given decision had been natural to the environment. The touch had been so light that it hadn't left any lasting tracks. For anyone with half a conscience, it would be a living nightmare, especially given the fact that they had been leading the Council in time of war.

I tried to imagine second-guessing myself on everything I'd done for the past eight years.

I wouldn't be one of those guys for the world.

I was in the infirmary for a week. I got visits from McCoy, Ramirez, and Molly. Mouse stayed at my bedside, and no one tried to move him. Listens-to-Wind was a regular presence, since he was pretty much my doctor. Several of the young Wardens I had helped train stopped by to have a word, though all of them were looking nervous.

Anastasia never visited, though Listens-to-Wind said she had come by and asked after me when I was asleep.

The Gatekeeper came to see me in the middle of the night. When I woke up, he had already created a kind of sonic shield around us that made sure we were speaking in privacy. It made our voices sound like our heads were covered with large tin pails.

’’How are you feeling?’’ he asked quietly.

I gestured at my face, which was no longer bandaged. As Listens-to-Wind had promised, my eye was fine. I had two beautiful scars, though, one running down through my right eyebrow, skipping my eye, and continuing for an inch or so on my cheekbone, and another one that went squarely through the middle of my lower lip and on a slight angle down over my chin. ’’Like Herr Harrison von Ford,’’ I said. ’’Dueling scars and beauty marks. The girls will be lining up now.’’

The quip didn't make him smile. He looked down at his hands, his expression serious. ’’I've been working with the Wardens and administrative staff whose minds Peabody invaded.’’

’’I heard.’’

’’It appears,’’ he said, choosing his words carefully, ’’that the psychic disruption to Anastasia Luccio was particularly severe. I was wondering if you might have any theories that might explain it.’’

I stared across the darkened room quietly for a moment, then asked, ’’Did the Merlin send you?’’

’’I am the only one who knows,’’ he said seriously. ’’Or who will know.’’

I thought about it for a moment before I said, ’’Would my theory make any difference in how she gets treated?’’

’’Potentially. If it seems sound, it might give me the insight I need to heal her more quickly and safely.’’

’’Give me your word,’’ I said. I wasn't asking.

’’You have it.’’

’’Before he died,’’ I said, ’’Morgan told me that when he woke up in LaFortier's room, Luccio was holding the murder weapon.’’ I described the rest of what Morgan had told me of that night.

The Gatekeeper stared across the bed at the far wall, his face impassive. ’’He was trying to protect her.’’

’’I guess he figured the Council might do some wacky thing like sentencing an innocent person to death.’’

He closed his eyes for a moment, and then touched the fingertips of his right hand to his heart, his mouth, and his forehead. ’’It explains some things.’’

’’Like what?’’

He held up his hand. ’’In a moment. I told you that the damage to Anastasia was quite extensive. Not because she had been persuaded to do violence-that much came easily to her. I believe her emotional attitudes had been forcibly altered.’’

’’Emotional attitudes,’’ I said quietly. ’’You mean... her and me?’’

’’Yes.’’

’’Because she always believed in keeping her distance,’’ I said quietly. ’’Until recently.’’

’’Yes,’’ he said.

’’She... never cared about me.’’

He shrugged his shoulders. ’’There had to have been some kind of foundation upon which to build. It's entirely possible that she genuinely felt fond of you, and that something might have grown from it. But it was forced into place instead.’’

’’Who would do that?’’ I shook my head. ’’No, that's obvious. Why would he do that?’’

’’To keep tabs on you, perhaps,’’ the Gatekeeper replied. ’’Perhaps to have an asset in position to remove you, if it became necessary. You were, after all, virtually the only younger Warden who never gave Peabody an opportunity to exploit you, since you never came to headquarters. You're also probably the most talented and powerful of your generation. The other young Wardens like to associate with you, generally, so there was every chance you might notice something amiss. Taken as a whole, you were a threat to him.’’

I felt a little sick. ’’That's why she showed up in Chicago when she should have been back at headquarters helping with the manhunt.’’

’’Almost certainly,’’ he said. ’’To give Peabody forewarning if you should get closer to his trail, and to locate Morgan so that Peabody could make him disappear. Morgan dead at the hands of White Council justice is one thing. Had Peabody succeeded, killed Morgan, and gotten rid of the body, then as far as we knew the traitor would be at large in the world, and uncatchable. It would have been a continuous stone around our necks.’’

’’And a perfect cover for Peabody,’’ I said. ’’He could off whoever he wanted, and given the slightest excuse, everyone would assume that it had been Morgan.’’

’’Not only Peabody,’’ the Gatekeeper said. ’’Any of our enemies might have taken advantage of it the same way.’’

’’And it also explains why he came to Chicago after I dropped that challenge on the Council. He probably thought that the fake informant was Anastasia. He had to go there to find out if his brainlock was holding.’’ I shook my head. ’’I mean, he never needed to come through that Way since he already knew one out to Demonreach. Christ, I got lucky.’’

’’Also true,’’ the Gatekeeper said. ’’Though I would suggest that your forethought allowed you to make your own luck.’’ He shook his head. ’’If Morgan had not acted so quickly, things might have been even worse. Luccio would have stood accused as well, and neither of them would have had any idea what had happened. Accusing Morgan was bad enough-the Wardens would not have stood for both the Captain and her second to be placed under arrest. It might have begun a civil war all on its own.’’

’’Morgan... he loved Luccio,’’ I said.

The Gatekeeper nodded. ’’He wore his heart on his sleeve for quite a while when he was younger. But she never let anyone close. In retrospect, it was a personality shift that should have been noted, though she kept her relationship with you discreet.’’

I snorted quietly. ’’Easy to expect tampering when someone turns into a foaming maniac,’’ I said. ’’When someone changes by becoming happy, it's sort of hard not to be happy for them.’’

He smiled, a brief flash of warmth. ’’Very true.’’

’’So she's... I mean, when you help her start fixing the damage...’’

’’It's already begun. Her subconscious has been struggling against the bindings placed in her mind for some time. Even if she'd felt something before, the fact that it was forced upon her will cause a backlash.’’

’’Yeah,’’ I said. ’’Things got sort of tense between us, I guess, after this whole situation got going. I mean, I sort of figured we'd already broken up, but...’’

But this wasn't a case of having loved and lost. She had never loved me. Madeline's kiss, when she'd buried me in an avalanche of bliss while she took a bite from my life force, had proved that. Anastasia hadn't ever been in love. Maybe she hadn't ever really liked me. Or maybe she had. Or maybe it was all of the above.

Whatever it had been, it was over now, before it could grow into anything else, and neither of us had been given much of a choice in the matter.

I hadn't expected it to hurt quite as much as it did.

Rashid put his hand on my shoulder. ’’I'm sorry,’’ he said. ’’I thought you deserved to know.’’

’’Yeah,’’ I said, my voice rough. ’’Thank you. I guess.’’ I found myself letting out a bitter little laugh.

The Gatekeeper tilted his head.

’’I've been trying to work out why no one used magic on anyone at LaFortier's murder.’’

’’What is your conclusion?’’

’’You can't do anything with magic that you don't really, truly believe in,’’ I said. ’’Some part of Luccio had to recognize that killing LaFortier was wrong. So she used a knife. Morgan could no more have unleashed magic upon a lawfully serving Senior Council member or onto his commanding officer than he could have apologized for how he's treated me. And LaFortier never saw it coming from Anastasia. He probably died confused, never had a chance to use a spell.’’ I looked up at the Gatekeeper. ’’It wasn't some big arcane, mysterious reason. It was because everyone was human.’’

’’In my experience,’’ he said, ’’that is more than mystery enough.’’

I was gathering my things to leave and go back home when Ebenezar appeared in the doorway. ’’Hoss,’’ he said calmly. ’’Figured I would walk you home.’’

’’Appreciated, sir,’’ I told him. I had already sent Mouse home with Molly, and it was always a good idea to avoid walking the Ways alone. We started walking through the tunnels. I was heartily sick of them. I'm not claustrophobic or anything, but I think you'd need some kind of groundhog gene to enjoy living at White Council HQ.

We hadn't gone far when I realized that Ebenezar was taking a roundabout route to the Way, through tunnels that were largely unused and unlit. He conjured a dim red light to his staff, just enough to let us see our way, and in the color least likely to be noticed.

’’Well,’’ he said, ’’we filled LaFortier's seat on the Senior Council today.’’

’’Klaus the Toymaker?’’ I asked.

Ebenezar shook his head slowly. ’’Klaus didn't say it, but I suspect the Merlin asked him to decline. Gregori Cristos got the seat.’’

I frowned. The seats on the Senior Council were awarded geriocratically. Whoever had the most years of service in the Council was offered the position of leadership, though there was nothing that required a wizard to accept a seat when it was available. ’’Who the hell is that? He's not up at the top of the seniority list.’’

My mentor grimaced. ’’Aye. A Greek, and an unpleasant bastard. He's lived all through southern Asia over the past couple of centuries. Distinguished himself in the battle with that rakshasa raja the Council took on recently.’’

’’I remember when it happened,’’ I said. ’’I heard it was pretty crazy.’’

Ebenezar grunted. ’’He was LaFortier's prot¨¦g¨¦.’’

I took that in, processing the logic. ’’I thought that bloc had been appeased.’’

’’When someone wants power, you can't buy him off,’’ Ebenezar said. ’’He'll take what you offer and keep on coming. And Cristos as much as told the Merlin that he and his allies would secede from the Council if he didn't get the seat.’’

’’Jesus,’’ I said quietly.

He nodded. ’’Might as well give the Red Court the keys to all our gates and let them kill us in our sleep. Fewer bystanders would get hurt.’’

’’So the Merlin made a deal,’’ I said.

’’Didn't have a lot of choice. Cristos's people gained a lot of support after they lost so many at the trial. He'd have taken a third of the Council with him.’’

’’Screw the selection process, huh?’’

Ebenezar grimaced. ’’It's never been codified by anything but tradition. Oh, the Merlin made a show of adhering to it, but I guarantee you it was arranged behind the scenes, Hoss.’’ He shook his head. ’’The Senior Council has issued official positions on LaFortier's assassination.’’

’’Let me guess,’’ I said. ’’Lone gunman.’’

He frowned at that for a moment, and then nodded. ’’Oh, Kennedy. Yes. It was an act of individuals motivated by profit. There is no evidence to suggest the presence of an organized conspiracy. There is no Black Council.’’

I stared blankly at Ebenezar. ’’That's... stupid.’’

’’Damn right,’’ he said. ’’But they had a majority. The Merlin, Cristos, Mai, Martha Liberty, and the Gatekeeper.’’

I shook my head. ’’What the hell does he think he's accomplishing?’’

Ebenezar shrugged. ’’He's never been easy to read. And I've known him since I was sixteen years old. Two or three explanations come to mind.’’

’’Like, maybe he's Black Council.’’

Ebenezar walked for several steps in silence. Then he said, ’’Aye.’’

’’Or maybe Peabody got to him harder than we all think,’’ I said.

’’Improbable,’’ Ebenezar said. ’’The drugs he slipped the Senior Council let him nudge them... us. But we're all too crusty to bend more than that.’’

’’What then?’’

’’Well, Hoss,’’ he said, ’’maybe Langtry's worried about the consequences of officially acknowledging the Black Council.’’

I felt a little chill glide over the nape of my neck. ’’He's worried that if enough people knew that the Black Council was real, they wouldn't line up to fight them. They'd join.’’

’’Everyone loves a winner,’’ Ebenezar said. ’’And we haven't been looking too good lately. People are afraid. Cristos is building his influence on it.’’

I stopped in my tracks and all but threw up on the cold stone floor.

Ebenezar stopped, putting his hand on my arm, and frowned in concern. ’’What is it, boy?’’

’’Sir,’’ I said, hearing my voice shake. ’’When Peabody came to the island...’’

’’Yes?’’

’’He wasn't alone. Someone else came with him. Someone we never saw.’’

We said nothing for a long minute.

’’That's only one explanation, Hoss,’’ Ebenezar said. ’’It's not even a calculated estimate. It's a flat-out guess.’’

There was no conviction in his voice, though. Ebenezar felt the same thing I did. A hard gut feeling that left me certain-not pretty sure, but certain-that I was right. Besides. We were talking in whispers in an out-of-the-way corridor of our own damn stronghold. If that didn't tell you something was seriously wrong with the White Council, I don't know what would.

’’They're inside,’’ I whispered.

My mentor faced me gravely.

’’That's why they whacked LaFortier. To get their own man into position.’’ I leaned against the wall and shook my head. ’’They won.’’

’’They won the round,’’ he said. ’’Fight isn't over.’’

’’It is for Morgan,’’ I said.

’’But not for you,’’ he said with harsh intensity. ’’Morgan thought that saving your life was worth losing his own.’’ Ebenezar took a deep breath. Then he said, very quietly, ’’Hoss, it ain't over. Some of us are going to do something about it.’’

I looked at him sharply. ’’Do something?’’

’’It's just a few, for now. Some wizards. Some key allies. People we know we can trust. I'm the only one who knows everyone involved. We've got to take this fight to the enemy. Learn more about them. Determine their goals. Shut them down.’’

’’Fight fire with fire, eh?’’

Ebenezar smiled wryly. ’’In denying the existence of one conspiracy, Langtry has necessitated another.’’

’’And got himself a twofer with a side order of irony,’’ I said. ’’If the Black Council finds out about us, they're going to jump for joy. They'll expose us, call us the Black Council, and go on their merry way.’’

’’ 'Us'already, is it?’’ His eyes gleamed as he nodded. ’’And given what we'll be doing, if the White Council finds out, they're going to call it sedition. They'll execute us.’’

See what I mean? Just like Disneyland.

I thought about it for a minute. ’’You know that in every objective sense, we're making a Black Council of our own.’’

’’Aye.’’

’’So where does that leave us?’’

’’With pure hearts and good intentions,’’ he answered. ’’Our strength shall be the strength of ten.’’

I snorted loudly.

Ebenezar smiled wearily. ’’Well, Hoss, we're not going to have much choice other than to be walking down some mighty dark alleys. And doing it in mighty questionable company. Maybe we should think of ourselves as... a Grey Council.’’

’’Grey Council,’’ I said. We started walking again, and after a few minutes, I asked him, ’’The world's gotten darker and nastier, even in just the past few years. Do you think what we do will make a difference?’’

’’I think the same thing you do,’’ Ebenezar said. ’’That the only alternative is to stand around and watch everything go to hell.’’ His voice hardened. ’’We're not going to do that.’’

’’Damn right we're not,’’ I said.

We walked the rest of the way to Chicago together.

Murphy drove me down to get my car out of impound, and I caught her up on most of what had happened on the way.

’’You're holding out on me,’’ she said, when I finished.

’’Some,’’ I said. ’’Sort of necessary.’’

She glanced at me as she drove and said, ’’Okay.’’

I lifted my eyebrows. ’’It is?’’

’’You are beginning to deal with some scary people, Harry,’’ she said quietly. ’’And people are trusting you with secrets. I get that.’’

’’Thanks, Murph.’’

She shook her head. ’’I don't know, Harry. It means I'm trusting you to come to me when you've got something that intersects with my responsibilities. I'm a cop. If you screw me on something I should know...’’ She shrugged. ’’I don't know if we could ever patch something like that up.’’

’’I hear you,’’ I said.

She shook her head. ’’I never really cared for Morgan. But I wish it hadn't ended that way for him.’’

I thought about that for a minute and then said, ’’I don't know. He went out making a difference. He took out the traitor who had gotten hundreds of wizards killed. He kept him from getting away with God only knows what secrets.’’ I shrugged. ’’A lot of Wardens have gone down lately. As exits go, Morgan's was a good one.’’ I smiled. ’’Besides. If he'd been around any longer, he might have had to apologize to me. That would have been a horrible way to go.’’

’’He had courage,’’ Murphy admitted. ’’And he had your back.’’

’’Yeah,’’ I said.

’’Did you go to his funeral?’’

’’No one did,’’ I said. ’’Officially, he was corpus non gratus. But we had a kind of a wake, later, unofficially. Told stories about him and came to the conclusion that he really was a paranoid, intolerant, grade-A asshole.’’

Murphy smiled. ’’I've known guys like that. They can still be part of the family. You can still miss them when they're gone.’’

I swallowed. ’’Yeah.’’

’’Tell me you aren't blaming yourself.’’

’’No,’’ I said, honestly. ’’I just wish something I'd done had made more of a difference.’’

’’You survived,’’ she said. ’’Under the circumstances, I think you did all right.’’

’’Maybe,’’ I said quietly.

’’I went through that phone you sent me.’’ She meant Madeline's phone, the one Binder had given me.

’’What did you find?’’ I asked.

’’The phone numbers to a lot of missing persons,’’ she said. ’’Where's the owner?’’

’’With them.’’

She pressed her lips together. ’’There were a lot of calls to a number I traced back to Algeria, and another in Egypt. A couple of restaurants, apparently.’’ She took an index card out of her pocket and passed it to me. It had the names and addresses of two businesses on it.

’’What are they?’’ she asked.

’’No clue,’’ I said. ’’Maybe Madeline's contacts in the Black Council. Maybe nothing.’’

’’Important?’’

’’No clue. I guess we'll file this under 'wait and see.'’’

’’I hate that file,’’ she said. ’’How's Thomas?’’

I shrugged and looked down at my hands. ’’No clue.’’

My apartment was a wreck. I mean, it's never really a surgical theater-except for right after Morgan had shown up, I guess. But several days of frantic comings and goings, various injuries, and serving as Morgan's sickbed had left some stains not even my faerie housekeepers could erase. The mattress wasn't salvageable, much less the bedding, or the rug we'd transported his unconscious body on. It was all soaked in blood and sweat, and the various housekeeping faeries apparently didn't do dry cleaning.

They'd taken care of the usual stuff, but there was considerable work still to be done, and moving mattresses is never joyful, much less when you've been thoroughly banged up by a supernatural heavyweight and then stabbed, just for fun, on top of it.

I set about restoring order, though, and I was hauling the mattress out to tie onto my car so that I could take it to the dump, when Luccio arrived.

She was dressed in grey slacks and a white shirt, and carried a black nylon sports equipment bag, which would hold, I knew, the rather short staff she favored and her Warden's blade, among other things. The clothes were new. I realized, belatedly, that they'd been the sort that she'd favored when I first met her, wearing another body.

’’Hey,’’ I panted. ’’Give me a second.’’

’’I'll give you a hand,’’ she replied. She helped me maneuver the mattress onto the top of the Blue Beetle, and then we tied it off with some clothesline. She checked the knots, making sure everything was just so, and then leaned on the car, studying my face.

I looked back at her.

’’Rashid said he talked to you,’’ she said.

I nodded. ’’Didn't want to push.’’

’’I appreciate that. Quite a bit, actually.’’ She looked off to one side. Mouse, now that the work was done, came out of a shamelessly lazy doze he'd been holding in the doorway and trotted over to Luccio. He sat down and offered her his paw.

She smiled quietly and took it. Then she ruffled the fur behind his ears with her fingers, the way she knew he liked, and stood up. ’’I, ah... I wanted to be sure you were recovering.’’

’’That's very responsible of you,’’ I said.

She winced. ’’Ah. Dammit to hell, Dresden.’’ She shook her head. ’’I spent almost two hundred years not getting close to anyone. For damn good reasons. As can be evidenced by what happened here.’’

’’Can it?’’

She shook her head. ’’I was... distracted, by you. By... us, I suppose. Maybe if I hadn't been, I'd have seen something. Noticed something. I don't know.’’

’’I kind of thought that you were distracted by the mind mage who had you twisted in knots.’’

She grimaced. ’’They're separate things. And I know that. But at the same time, I don't know that. And here I'm talking like some flustered teenager.’’ She put her hands on her hips, her mouth set in annoyance. ’’I'm not good at this. Help.’’

’’Well,’’ I said. ’’I take it that you came here to let me know that you weren't going to keep pursuing... whatever it is we had.’’

’’It's not because of you,’’ she said.

’’I know,’’ I said. ’’Never was, was it?’’

She exhaled through her nose, a slow sigh. Her eyes lingered on me. ’’I've always liked you, Dresden. For a long time, I thought you were dangerous. Then I saw you in action against the Heirs of Kemmler, and I respected you.’’ She smiled slightly. ’’You're funny. I like that.’’

’’But?’’ I asked.

’’But someone pushed me toward you,’’ she said. ’’And that pisses me off. And...’’ She started weeping, though her posture and her voice didn't waver. ’’And I thought that maybe I had broken through some kind of... scar. Or old wound. Or something. That I had grown closer to you, and maybe would keep growing closer to you, and it made me feel...’’ She shook her head as her voice finally broke. ’’Young. It made everything feel new.’’

I walked around the car to stand in front of her. I reached a hand toward her shoulder, but she raised hers in a gesture of denial. ’’But it was a lie. I'm not young, Harry. I'm not new. I've seen and done things that... that you can't understand. That I pray to God you'll never need to understand.’’ She took a deep breath. ’’This is ridiculous. I should be better at handling this.’’

’’What's wrong?’’ I asked quietly. ’’I mean, other than the obvious.’’

’’I got to have se* again,’’ she snarled. ’’And I liked it. I really liked it. I had forgotten exactly how mind-numbingly incredible se* is. And right now I'm having trouble forming complete sentences because I want to rip your shirt off and bite your shoulder while you're still sweating while you-’’ She broke off abruptly, her cheeks turning bright red. ’’You're not even forty.’’

I leaned against the car, looking at her, and started laughing quietly.

She shook her head, scowling ferociously at me, her dark eyes bright. ’’How am I supposed to give you orders, now?’’ she asked. ’’When you and I have... done all the things we've done.’’

’’Well. What if I promise not to put the pictures on the Internet.’’

She blinked at me. ’’Pictures... you are joking, Dresden? Aren't you?’’

I nodded.

’’Because I had quite enough of that during my first young adult-hood,’’ she said. ’’Italy may not have had an Internet back then, but you'd be shocked how quickly pictures can circulate even when they're painted on canvas.’’

’’Ana,’’ I said quietly.

She bit her lip and looked at me.

I reached out and took her hands. I squeezed them. Then I lifted them to my lips and kissed them each once, gently. ’’Whatever the reason, I'm happy to remember the time we had.’’

She blinked her eyes several times, looking up at me.

’’I get it,’’ I said. ’’Things have changed. And maybe that time is over. But you'll be okay. And I'll be okay. You don't have to feel guilty about that.’’

She lifted my hands to her lips and kissed them, once each, just as I had. A tear fell on my knuckle. ’’I'm sorry,’’ she said.

’’It'll be okay,’’ I said. ’’It's okay.’’

She nodded and looked up at me. I could see the calm, collected strength of the Captain of the Wardens, ready to assume its guiding role. I could see the uncertainty of Anastasia, who hadn't been close to anyone in a long time. And maybe I could see something lonely and sad that was a part of who she had been when she was a young woman, well over a century before I was born.

’’Goodbye, Harry,’’ she whispered.

’’Goodbye, Ana,’’ I said.

She squeezed my hands and turned to walk away. She stopped after half a dozen paces and looked back.

’’Dresden?’’

I looked at her.

’’Rashid doesn't talk much about the night Morgan died. I barely remember anything myself, after Peabody said what he said.’’

I knew what she was after. ’’He wasn't alone,’’ I said. ’’I was with him. And he knew that he'd found the traitor. He was content.’’

Something tight in her shoulders eased. ’’Thank you,’’ she said.

’’Sure.’’

Then she turned and strode purposefully away.

I looked at the bloodstained mattress on the Blue Beetle, and sighed. I didn't feel like driving it anywhere. It was early. It could wait a few hours. I turned to Mouse and said, ’’Come on, boy. I need a beer.’’

We descended out of the summer heat into the relative cool of my basement apartment.

Maybe I needed two.

It took Justine more than two weeks to get me that meeting with Thomas. When she called, she was speaking in her official secretary tone again. She stipulated a public meeting place, where both of us would have the protection of the need to maintain a low profile. It was a precaution that the White Court had required of me, given how tense things had been between the Council and the White Court's leadership, of late.

I met Thomas on a Saturday afternoon outside the Great Cat House at the Lincoln Park Zoo.

As I came up, I spotted a pair of Lara's security guys, trying to blend in. Thomas was leaning on the rail that looked into this big pit where they keep a couple of tigers. He was wearing tight blue jeans, and a big loose white shirt. Every woman there and a large chunk of the guys were looking at him, with various degrees of lust, longing, interest, and seething hatred. I walked up and leaned on the rail beside him.

’’Hey,’’ I said.

’’Hey.’’

We stood there watching the tigers for a few minutes.

’’You asked for the meeting,’’ he said. ’’What do you want?’’

I arched an eyebrow. ’’Thomas, I want to see you. Talk to you. Be sure you're okay. You're my brother, man.’’

He didn't react to my words. Not at all.

I studied his profile for a few moments. Then I said, ’’What's wrong?’’

He moved one shoulder in a careless gesture. ’’Nothing is wrong, per se. Unless... it was me.’’

’’You? Were wrong?’’

’’I was an idiot to try to live the way I've been living,’’ he said.

I looked at him sharply. ’’What?’’

He rolled a hand in a lazy gesture. ’’The boutique. The constant nibbling, never sating myself. The...’’ He shrugged. ’’All of it.’’

I stared hard at him. Then I asked, very quietly, ’’What did the skinwalker do to you?’’

’’He reminded me of what I really am.’’

’’Oh?’’

Thomas turned to look at me with calm deep grey eyes. ’’Yes. It didn't take him long, once he set about it.’’

I felt sick to my stomach. ’’What happened?’’

’’He hung me up by my heels,’’ Thomas said. ’’And ripped strips of skin off of me. One at a time.’’

I shuddered.

’’It's agonizing,’’ he said. ’’Not terribly dangerous to one of us. My demon didn't really have any trouble regenerating the skin-but it did become hungry. Very, very hungry.’’ His eyes suddenly gleamed paler silver and he looked back at the tigers, which were now restlessly prowling the pit. ’’He'd taken a female kine to the lair where he had me prisoner. And he fed her to me.’’

’’Hell's bells,’’ I breathed.

Thomas watched the tigers pace. ’’She was lovely. Sixteen or so? I don't know, exactly. I didn't ask for her name.’’ He spread his hands. ’’It was a fatal feeding, of course. I don't think I've ever really explained to you exactly what that is like.’’

’’What is it like?’’ I asked in a quiet rasp.

’’Like becoming light,’’ he said, his eyes drifting closed. ’’Like sinking into the warmth of a campfire when you've been shivering for hours. Like a hot steak after a day of swimming in cold water. It transforms you, Harry. Makes you feel...’’ His eyes became haunted, hollow. ’’Whole.’’

I shook my head. ’’Thomas. Jesus.’’

’’Once she was gone and my body was restored, the skinwalker tortured me again, until I was in the same desperate condition. Then he fed me another doe.’’ He shrugged. ’’Rinse and repeat. Perhaps half a dozen times. He gave me young women and then put me in agony again. I was all but chewing out my own innards when he took me to the island. To tell you the truth, I barely remember it.’’ He smiled. ’’I remember seeing Molly. But you've taught her enough to protect herself, it seems.’’

’’Thomas,’’ I said gently.

He smirked. ’’If you ever get tired of her, I hope you'll let me know.’’

I stared at him, sickened. ’’Thomas.’’

He looked at me again, still smirking-but he couldn't hold it. Once again, his eyes looked hollow, touched with despair. He looked away from me. ’’You don't get it, Harry.’’

’’Then talk to me,’’ I said, urgently. ’’Thomas, Jesus Christ. This is not you.’’

’’Yes, it is,’’ he spat, the words a bladed hiss. ’’That's what it taught me, Harry. At the end of the day, I'm just an empty place that needs to be filled.’’ He shook his head. ’’I didn't want to kill those girls. But I did it. I killed them, over and over, and I loved how it felt. When I think back on the memory of it, it doesn't make me horrified.’’ He sneered. ’’It just makes me hard.’’

’’Thomas,’’ I whispered. ’’Please, man. This isn't what you want to be. I know you, man. I've seen you.’’

’’You've seen who I wanted to be,’’ he said. ’’Who I thought I was.’’ He shook his head and looked around at the people around us. ’’Play a game with me.’’

’’What game?’’

He nodded toward a pair of young women walking by holding ice-cream cones. ’’What do you see when you look at them? Your first thought.’’

I blinked. I looked. ’’Uh. Blonde and brunette, too young for me, not bad to look at. I bet the blonde paid too much for those shoes.’’

He nodded and pointed at an old couple sitting on a bench. ’’Them?’’

’’They're fighting with each other over something and enjoying it. They've been together so long, it's comfortable for them. Later, they'll hold hands and laugh over the fight.’’

He pursed his lips, and pointed at a mother chivvying a trio of small children of various sizes along the zoo. ’’Them?’’

’’She's got an expensive ring, but she's here at the zoo alone. Her kids all have matching outfits. Her husband works a lot, and she doesn't look as good as she used to-look how the shoes are biting into her feet. She's worried that she's a trophy wife, or maybe an ex-wife in progress. She's about to start crying.’’

’’Uh-huh,’’ he said. ’’Can I give you my first thoughts?’’

I nodded, frowning at him.

Thomas pointed a finger at the young women. ’’Food.’’ He pointed a finger at the old couple. ’’Food.’’ He pointed a finger at the mother and her children. ’’Food.’’

I just stared at him.

He rolled his head, inhaling deeply and then exhaling. ’’Maybe it was all those kills together like that. Maybe he drove me insane with the torment.’’ He shrugged. ’’Honestly, I don't know. I just know that things seem a lot simpler now.’’

’’What are you trying to tell me?’’ I asked. ’’That you're happy, now?’’

’’Happy,’’ he said, scorn ringing lightly in his voice. ’’I'm... not wandering around blind anymore. Not trying desperately to be something that I'm not.’’ He looked back down at the tigers. ’’Something I can never be.’’

I just stood there, shaking my head.

’’Oh, empty night, Harry,’’ he said, rolling his eyes. ’’I'm not some kind of ravaging monster. I'm not some kind of psychotic rampaging around the city devouring virgins.’’ He waved a hand in a casual gesture. ’’Killing when you feed feels fantastic, but it's stupid. There are far too many advantages in ensuring that the kine survive. Not only survive, but grow and prosper.’’ He smiled a bit. ’’You know, I really think I might have something to offer the world. I never could have exerted any kind of influence on my kin as a moping exile, trying to be human. Maybe this way, I actually can accomplish something. Promote a more responsible standard of relations between humanity and my kind. Who knows?’’

I stared at him and said, ’’Gosh, that's noble.’’

He eyed me.

I hit him with my heaviest sucker punch. ’’What does Justine think of it?’’

He straightened and turned toward me, and there was imminent violence in the set of his body. ’’What?’’ he asked. ’’What did you say to me?’’

’’You heard me,’’ I said, without changing posture or rising to the threat.

His hands closed into fists, knuckles popping.

’’Still stings, doesn't it?’’ I said quietly. ’’Still burns you when you try to touch her?’’

He said nothing.

’’And you still remember what it was to hold her. Like you did the night you trashed Madeline at Zero.’’

’’Jesus Christ, Harry,’’ he said. He turned to face out, away from the tigers, and his voice was full of weariness. ’’I don't know. I just know that it doesn't hurt so bad all the time anymore.’’ He was quiet for a long time. Then he said, in a very quiet voice, ’’I have bad dreams.’’

I wanted to put my hand on his shoulder, to give him some support. But some instinct warned me that it wouldn't be welcomed.

’’You took a beating,’’ I said quietly. ’’What that thing did to you...? Thomas, it knew exactly how to get to you. How to torment you the most. But it won't last. You survived. You'll get past it.’’

’’And go back to that miserable half life I had?’’ he whispered.

’’Maybe,’’ I said quietly. ’’I don't know.’’

He looked at me.

’’You're my brother,’’ I said. ’’Nothing will ever change that. I'm here for you.’’

’’You're a damn fool,’’ he said.

’’Yeah.’’

’’It would be easy to use you. Part of me thinks it's a fantastic idea.’’

’’I didn't say you weren't an asshole. I said you were my brother.’’

The bodyguards stirred. Nothing big. They just sort of animated and moved toward the exits.

Thomas grimaced. ’’Lara thinks I've made great progress. She's...’’ He shrugged. ’’Proud of me.’’

’’I liked you better the other way,’’ I said. ’’So did Justine. Maybe that should tell you something.’’

’’I've got to go. She's afraid you'll think I'm all brainwashed. Didn't want to risk you trying to deprogram me when I haven't been programmed.’’

’’I confess. The idea occurred to me.’’

’’If someone had gotten into my head, I don't think there'd be so many doubts,’’ he said. ’’This isn't something you can help me with, Harry.’’

’’Maybe,’’ I said. ’’Maybe not. Either way, you're still my brother.’’

’’Broken damn record,’’ he said.

I held up a fist.

He stared at it for a couple of silent beats before he made a fist of his own and rapped my knuckles against his.

’’Don't call me,’’ he said.

’’I'll be patient,’’ I said. ’’But not forever.’’

He hesitated and then nodded once more. Then he thrust his hands into the hip pockets of his jeans and walked quickly away. The bodyguards fell in behind him. One of them said something while he had one hand pressed against his ear.

Purely from petty malice, I waved a hand and hexed his radio, or phone. Sparks flew out of his ear and he all but fell over trying to get the earbud out.

Thomas looked back.

He grinned. Not long but real.

After he was gone, I turned to regard the tigers. I wondered if I knew them for what they really were, or if all I could see were the stripes.

I'd missed Kirby's funeral while I was in the infirmary in Edinburgh. A couple of weeks had gone by after that, and I'd talked to Will and Georgia by phone occasionally.

Gaming night came along, and as I had most weeks for the past several years, I showed up at Will and Georgia's place. I had my Arcanos rule book with me, and a Crown Royal bag filled with dice. I was wearing a black T-shirt that had a monochrome image of several multisided dice and said, in block print, ’’COME TO THE DORK SIDE. DO NOT MAKE ME DESTROY YOU.’’

Will answered the door and smiled at me. ’’Hey, Harry. Wow, your face is... manly.’’

’’Chicks dig scars,’’ I said.

’’Who is it?’’ came Andi's voice. It sounded limp, lifeless.

’’It is I, Harry Dresden,’’ I said solemnly.

Georgia appeared behind Will, smiling. ’’Harry.’’ She looked at my shirt, and my gaming stuff. ’’Oh... we weren't really going to...’’

Kirby had been the one who ran the game for us.

I stepped aside, grabbed the geek standing behind me, and tugged him forward. ’’This is Waldo Butters,’’ I said. ’’And his geek pen** is longer and harder than all of ours put together.’’

Butters blinked, first at Georgia and Will, and then at me. ’’Oh,’’ he said. ’’Um. Thank you?’’

Will looked from Butters to me, his eyes searching. ’’What is this?’’ he asked gently.

’’Life,’’ I said. ’’It keeps going. Butters says he can handle an Arcanos game. Or he can run a bunch of other ones if we want to try something new.’’ I cleared my throat. ’’If you like, we can go over to my place. Change of view and so on.’’

Georgia looked at me and gave me a small and grateful smile.

Will looked at me uncertainly. Then he turned back into the apartment. ’’Andi?’’

She appeared beside Georgia. Andi looked absolutely withered. Multiple broken ribs and major surgery will do that to you. She was on her feet and moving, but it was clear that she'd been staying with Will and Georgia so that they could help care for her until she recovered.

I smiled at Andi and said, ’’I don't think Kirby would want us to stop playing completely. What do you think? I mean it won't be the same game, but it might be fun.’’

She looked at me and then at Butters. Then she gave me a little smile and nodded.

Will swung the door open wide, and we went inside, where I introduced Butters to everyone and produced several bottles of Mac's best ale.

See, here's the thing. Morgan was right: you can't win them all.

But that doesn't mean that you give up. Not ever. Morgan never said that part-he was too busy living it.

I closed the door behind me, while life went on.


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