Written for: The Whattheficathon; crossing the Dresden Files (books) and Firefly, although you don't need to know both to read it. I couldn't work Methos in here, no matter how I tried, Orock. Hope this works.

Note: (Set between Dead Beat and Proven Guilty for Harry; post-Serenity for Firefly). Some spoilers for the earlier books; some deliberate omissions, since they're not relevant to the story.

Disclaimers: All mistakes in Chinese or continuity are mine. I own none of these, and selling Harry on eBay is illegal anyway.

Acknowledgements: Luba, Nate, Tina, and Val deserve thanks for beta-duties, outlining, titling, cheerleading and reassurance.

Time Bomb
By Christina K
Copyright 2008

Chicago, 2004

There are some days it's just better to not pick up the phone. Some people's answering machines would thwart even that decision, but I don't have one, for good reasons. So I have absolutely no one to blame but myself when I do the stupid thing and answer a phone call.

"Dresden." I yawned, and checked the clock, then scowled. Five am is not a happy time for me. "And this better not be a call for political action. I am not about action before dawn." I hate election years. Chicago goes just a little more nuts than it is at any other time during changes of power.

"It's Murphy, Harry." Murph sounded like I felt, doubled. "Could you get down to the precinct within an hour or so? Something from your side of the street needs attention."

Chicago's Special Investigations makes up enough of my paycheck that I wouldn't blow it off anyway, but Murph's tone guaranteed I'd be there pronto. We've been friends for years, I know the 'all hands on deck' tone in her voice even before coffee. I forced myself to sit up, blinking as Mister sauntered in to inform me that as long as I was awake, I could serve him breakfast. "What kind of something? Murder, robbery, other?"

"This one goes squarely in the 'other' column." Murph battled a yawn and added, "I don't think I can get you paid for this, Harry. But I seriously think you need to be the one dealing with it. When can you get down here?"

"Gimme forty-five minutes. Should I come armed?"

A pause. "I'm not sure it would do you any good if you did. But you might want to be."

Curiouser and curiouser. And me without my morning breakfast too. "Right. Be there by six, and you're buying me coffee."

I ambled into the 27th precinct, Mouse at my side as I headed up to Murphy's office. Whatever badass thing Murphy wanted me to deal with, it helps to have a Faithful Canine Carnivore there to assist in subduing the bad guy. I rapped on Murphy's door with my knuckles, staying far back from her desk and the nicely delicate computer she didn't want to replace again. Me and electronics: never going to be Best Friends Forever. "Hey. What's the latest and greatest?"

Murph cocked an eyebrow at me over her coffee, and took a long moment to consider before she joined me out in the bullpen. "We've got a woman down in holding. And when I say woman, I'm closer to saying 'girl'. She might be legal, might not." She tapped her fingers on her mug, looking unsettled, and there's not much that gets under Murph's skin. "She appeared in the middle of a MacAnally's.' 'Poof', one second there's a clear stretch of bar, the next second, there's a girl standing on top of it, according to the witnesses."

"Whoops," I muttered. There were worse places for someone to accidentally 'poof.' Mac's is a space acknowledged by the magical Accords, protected neutral ground, and a lot of magic types hang out there. If any crowd could take that with aplomb, it would be Mac's late-night regulars drinking beer. "Did some normal citizen freak out, or did she start a fight, or what? It's not like translocation is even on the books as existing, much less being illegal."

"No, but climbing up the Lakeshore Bridge as it rises, trying to dangle off the end and demanding access to the cosmos gets you EMT's and various people thinking you're a suicide risk," Murph answered me. I winced. "The local beat cops back-tracked her to Mac's, and from there, we've got nothing. She doesn't have a record, she hasn't served in the armed services, and I'm waiting for a COTUS search. But I doubt anything will turn up. Unless it's a missing persons report from a mental hospital. I grabbed her for SI when I got the uniforms' reports."

"Okay, so the 'poof' kinda means something out of the ordinary is happening," I said cautiously, "But Murph, what do you want me to do?"

"Take charge of her. Do something," Murph said in frustration. "She keeps trying to get out of her cell and climbing the ceiling!"


"She's Spider-Man?"

"She's nuts," Murph said, putting down her mug and heading across the bullpen toward holding. "And we can't deal with her. If I let them take her to St. Mary's on a psych watch, she'll be out in 72 hours and probably jumping off another bridge, if her behavior here is anything to go by. I feel sorry for the kid, I don't want anything to happen to her. You're a Warden, Harry. You're supposed to handle this kind of thing now. So. Time to step up and earn that paycheck, just like any other public servant."

"Ouch." I followed Murph down to the hallway, Mouse padding along beside me. "You do know I took the job just for the snazzy outfit, right?"

"Yeah, I figured you wanted that robe for when you play D&D with the werewolves."

"It's wash-and-wear. Never underestimate the value of easy-wash clothes, Lieutenant."

"I'll give you a hat with stars on it if you get this girl some help," Murph offered, signing into the passbook outside of holding. "Okay, bring her out.

Two big cops were-- not exactly manhandling, but definitely acting as human arm-cuffs to a girl who looked like a stiff breeze would send her tripping back to Oz. I could sympathize with Murph's trouble in classifying her as girl or woman; she was tall and wiry, probably about eighteen or nineteen, but too thin, with long dark hair tangled like a little kid who'd been running around the playground all day, and a pink dress in a style that would've worked better on a twelve-year-old. It was the expression that could really throw you, though; just this side of vacant, but then I caught those big hazel eyes flicking to all the exits with the calculation of a cornered snake. This was not a kid unused to taking care of herself, no matter how far off beam she was acting.

"River?" Murph's voice had the gentleness she reserved for crime victims and witnesses to bloodshed. "This is Harry, the man I told you about. He's going to try to help you figure out where you belong. Do you understand?"

She glared at the two cops, jerking her arms out of their hold, then rubbed her biceps, scowling at me through her hair. "She understands. She doesn't see the applicability. The circle can not be squared. I am an island unto myself. Further assistance is futile." She paused, tilting her head at Mouse, then said, "Lhasa is very far away."

O-kay. Who told the crazy person my dog was from Tibet?

Mouse, meanwhile, was snuffing at the edge of her dress, then flopped down on her feet waving his paws in the air, begging for tummy scratches. Maybe-crazy and possibly-psychic smells like French fries, who knew? River's scowl disappeared, and she giggled, looking a lot younger as she bent down to pet him and smooth his fur.

"Great. Let me know how that works out. I have five other fires to put out. Bye, Harry." Murph marched off to defend Chicago from the Forces of Evil and Bureaucracy, and I scrubbed my face with one hand as River returned to glaring at me. Just what I always wanted, legal custody of a hostile teenager.

"Let's get some breakfast."

The Waffle House on 43rd does a mean special, and River inhaled three waffles, four eggs, a side of bacon and a fruit salad like she hadn't eaten in weeks. I contented myself with a coffee and a bagel, and watched her tuck in, waiting for carbs and hot chocolate to buy me a little goodwill.

"So. We'll start with the basics. Where are you from, River?"

She gave me an eye-roll, and chewed her food, carefully enunciating, "Elsewhere. Never-where. No-where. I fell through a crack in the worlds."

Baby Goths give me a pain. Also: Neil Gaiman reference, check. Billy and his pack would get a kick out of her. "Let's get a little more specific. Is there anyone I can call to come get you?"

"Not yet." She poked at the jelly on her toast, frowning. "Simon is worrying. I can feel it. Even so far away."

"Who's Simon?"

"Ghuh-Ghuh." Or at least, that's what it sounded like. At my look, she glared at me again. Clearly, this girl shared many people's opinion that I was a bear of very little brain. "Brother!" You dumbass was left implied. "I was there, then I was here, and he can't get here."

"About that. How did it happen?"

She frowned again, but this time I got the feeling it was more thinking, not so much her hostility at being pushed off on me as a problem. "She was on serenity. Night-time. Couldn't sleep." She tilted her head, and pulled her legs up onto the booth, wrapping her arms around her knees. "Too loud. Everyone under. Dreams of falling in her head. Early was a little right. She wasn't wrong." She rocked, then said, "It sang to her, dong ma? So she sang along."

I stared at her a minute longer, hoping that would make sense if I thought about it. I wish I knew what language River was speaking when she slipped out of English; I was going to have to ask Bob. Unless she'd made it up. In which case, I didn't think it would help to know. "So. You were… somewhere else. Awake. Other people were asleep." I paused, then asked, "So what was the singing? A spell to get you here, or what?"

In my defense, I was hoping to get a reaction from her by mentioning magic, maybe get her to relax, trust me, open up. I didn't expect her to laugh at me. "Magic doesn't exist. It's a superstitious invention used by primitives to explain the physical workings of the universe beyond their mathematical comprehension."

"So what's your explanation for suddenly showing up at Mac's, poof, zing, look ma, no hands?"

She slapped her hand down on the table, scowling at me again. "I told you! I fell through a crack! A subspace construct through the continuum which had not previously been there! The song was the frequency adjustment which allowed my passage. Or so I believe."

Even when she was speaking English? And not talking about herself in the third person? River still didn't make sense. I rubbed my temples, and sighed. "River, I can't help you if I can't figure out what's going on. Or what happened." I dropped my hands, and matched her glare for glare. "Goddamnit, I'm trying to help. I get that you don't think you need it, but people who go dangling off bridges attract all the wrong kinds of attention. If you're going to get home the same way you got here, wherever there is, you're going to have to give me something to work with."

She stabbed another piece of bacon, shoved it in her mouth, and glared at me, chewing. Then she swallowed. "Lieutenant Murphy believes you are a follower of Houdini and Merlin. One was a myth, and the other was an illusion. She also believes we are on Earth-that-was." River snorted. "How can you help me?"

Hoooo, boy. I took another swig of coffee, then sighed. "Look, I can prove it to you. Magic, Earth, me helping you. If you're up for it."

She gave me an intrigued but skeptical look. "How?" Then her eyes widened. "I don't want you in my head!"

"River, calm down." So much for the soul-gaze idea. And let's add mind-reading to her little bag of tricks, shall we? For a girl with possibly-psychic abilities, either she was in heavy denial or the semi-craziness was letting her interpret it as alien powers or some other bizarre thing. "I won't do it without your permission. But if I did soul-gaze you, you'd know as much about me as I'd know about you." I let that sink in a moment, then carefully said, "You'd know how I can help you, and I'd know what I need to do it. It won't hurt. It's a little scary, but I swear, you'll be as safe as I will."

River chewed on her lip, twirling a strand of hair around her finger one way, then the other. "I can't hear you very well," she said suddenly. "Surfaces only. You weren't surprised." I stayed still, letting her process that. I have pretty good mental shields; you need them, in my business. Hopefully that was giving her a some reassurance that I knew what I was doing. "Maybe. Yes. Okay. But! Ending quickly. She doesn't want to get confused. She hates that."

"It's over in a second, River. It feels like it lasts longer, but it's very very quick." Attitude problem aside, I was starting to get why Murphy had been protective of her. The kid wasn't playing with a full deck, but with powers she didn't understand manifesting, and a latent mental problem of some kind, how could she handle it any better? I hoped her brother would be understanding, or someone else in her family, when I finally found them and explained what had happened to her. "You ready?"

She gulped, then lifted her eyes to mine.

Some people experience soul gazes as music; some get a fast video of a moment that defines the person they're soul-gazing. On different occasions, I've gotten something of each.

This was more like a comic book. Frame after frame of bright colors, frozen for a second, with sound laid over the top. I moved from one shot to the next, like walking through a picture gallery of neon action-adventure with a classical soundtrack.

A much younger River, in a ballerina outfit, dancing the part of Odette, the Swan from Swan Lake. A kid a few years older than she was on the sidelines, clapping, his eyes lit up with joy. There were two adults behind him, holding a conversation and ignoring both kids.

In the next box, she was still dancing. But it was Coppelia—you may not know that one. The story's about a puppet-girl, whose puppeteer wants her to be real. River had strings connected to all her joints, and two huge guys with blue gloved hands were pulling her strings. Up, down, sideways, twirl—and she was bleeding from the contact points. Jesus. She looked half-asleep, caught in a nightmare. The terrifying part was how well she danced on those strings. Faster than normal. Leaping higher. Kicks you can't make because human joints don't bend that way. Too fast. The music went all Night on Bald Mountain as she spun so hard I thought her neck would snap, and then--

The kid from the first frame cut her strings in the third shot, dragging a now-limp River offstage. The gigantic blue hands slammed the curtain down, then tippy-toed around the edges of the picture, looking for River, making frustrated sock-puppet expressions at each other when they couldn't find her.

Fourth frame was Hansel & Gretel: River and her brother, hiding in the woods. Simon led River away from a witch, River led him away from a wolf, and then… hunh. A riverboat. One of those big paddle-wheel jobs from the last century, that you can still see on the Mississippi sometimes. There were people there, going by too fast to catch all of them; a saloon girl, a captain, someone in a Scarlett O'Hara dress, a big guy out of Bonanza, an old bartender, a gambler in a bright coat, a woman with a gun….

And then something I couldn't see (maybe a gigantic blue hand from offstage?) attacked the whole construct, forget the frames, forget the music, it all fell apart like exploding stained glass. Leaving River curled up in a little ball in the center of it all, bleeding from a thousand cuts and shivering like she'd never get warm.

"Gah!" I came out of the soulgaze trying to get my breath, shaking, fists clenching. "What the hell happened to you, kid?"

She stared at me wide-eyed, then muttered under her breath, "Se per muove. The center can not hold more than its interior space. Displacement of space. Three point one four one five nine two six…"

"River. River, come on, calm down." Christ, what had set her off? What did she see in my head that rattled her this bad? Or was it her reaction to being seen? I tried to keep my voice gentle, despite how monumentally pissed off I was at whatever had happened to her.

This kid didn't come off the factory assembly line with emotional problems. Someone had screwed with her head. Her brother had gotten her away from them, but she still wasn't over it. No wonder she was crazy. No wonder she didn't trust me. Last time anyone had gotten inside her skull, they'd left her fractured mess. I wanted to punch the shit out of someone for what she'd been through.

"She is not wrong! She isn't!" Her movements were getting more frantic, less careful as she dropped her fork and stood up on the booth seat. "She is right! Even if you are right! She is not to be protected! She is better, Miranda left her, she is better and I can speak English and you are not to injure yourself! Merlin is not to be shut in a tree! No one needs to be damaged!"

Okay, so, jackpot: the inside of my head and the inside of River's head didn't mix well. "Got it, understood, ten four, can you sit down? The nice people who gave us waffles are going to kick us out if you don't chill."

And on the word chill? She was leaping from her booth to the back of the seat, then leaping to the next, over the heads of startled diners, onto a planter next to the window, off a chair, onto a table, and then a freaking diving-roll out the door. I swear to you, the Flying Wallendas would've hired her for their opening act if they were still on the circuit.

While I sat there like a dummy and gaped.

By the time I'd slapped a twenty down for the breakfast, and made it out the door, she was nowhere to be seen.

Mouse was still where I'd parked him outside. He gave a mournful bark, then panted at me, spitting something out of his mouth. A scrap of pink dress.

"Gooooood boy."

I made it back to my apartment in record time, thudding down the stairs to my workshop and yelling, "Bob! We've got a tracking job!" I started gathering the ingredients I needed, checking on my Igor-slash-Yorick. "Wakey wakey, damsels to save, demons to thwart."

"Demons? It's not even Halloween yet." Bob's eyes glowed in his skull, and how he managed to yawn when he doesn't have an esophagus, I'll leave to you to ponder. "Who's the damsel? Is she foxy? Feisty? Friendly?"

"River's too young, too crazy, and too violent for you, Bob." I paused while gathering some chalk, and asked, "Okay, what does 'dong ma' mean? And 'ghuh-ghuh'? Are they even a language, or was she babbling at me?"

"It's Chinese, Mandarin," Bob said, showing a little more animation. "'Dong ma' is 'do you understand?'" Which I should have gotten from the context. "Ghuh-ghuh is brother. She from Chinatown? Was she wearing a cheong-sam?"

"Stop perving on the client, and no, and no." I assembled a brass bowl for the tracking spell ingredients, and looked over Little Chicago. "It's not ready yet, is it?"

"Sorry boss," Bob sounded actually serious for a minute. Maybe a minute and a half, an new record. "It's just not complete enough yet. Snap-crackle-fizz if you tried to use the model. Gotta work with a map, like always."

"Meh. Right." I finished putting the strawberry syrup from the Waffle House, the crumbs of bacon, eggs, and waffles, and the scrap of her dress and one hair that Mouse had managed to sniff out for me, all into the brass bowl, and lit it, chanting under my breath, focusing my will to find her.

A tiny blue light formed from the flames of the bowl, rose up, and hovered over the map of Chicago, coming to rest on the Sears Tower. Great. She was probably looking for that 'subspace construct' again. She seemed to think jumping off high places would get her home. Damnit. I pulled out a length of gold chain I'd saved for something like this, and held it out to the blue glow. "Illumine." The glow snapped to the chain, and I stuffed it in my pocket. Hopefully it would lead me to River when I got close enough for it to pick up on her presence. I folded up the map, getting ready to leave, and asked, "Bob? What do you know about subspace constructs?"

Why don't I ask these questions first, I sometimes wonder.

"What, like tesseracts? Black holes? Rifts in space?" Bob made a humming noise and said, "They're illegal as hell by Council standards, creating them takes a lot of talent and power, and they're murder to aim. You can end up in the Cretaceous period when you meant to go to the Renaissance, or London when you just wanted to pop over to Tokyo. Not for the faint of heart, boss."

Oh. Crap. I facepalmed, and said, "We're going to have to check for them when I find River again. I think she fell through one; the kid's got some talent but she's completely tweaked. I didn't understand what she was talking about when she said she fell through a continuum. No wonder she said her brother's too far away to know where she is."

"What did she hire us for, Harry?"

"Ummm." I fidgeted. "She didn't. Murphy wanted me to keep an eye on her after she poofed into Mac's last night. Then she…" I cleared my throat. "Ran away."

Bob was still laughing as I climbed up the ladder.

The Blue Beetle put-putted to the Sears Tower through mid-morning traffic pretty steadily, without running into any problems. I probably should have taken that as a warning, since that never happens. It was the last part of the day that went the way I wanted it to.

Parking is a sport in Chicago; sometimes, a blood sport. I? Have allies. Also, pizza. Trust me, that's not a non-sequitur. A little more intelligence gathering was called for at this point, and I knew just who to ask. Pulling into a deserted alley near the Tower, I opened up a Little Caesar's box, and laid it on the hood of my car, drawing a circle around it with chalk. Then I called my minions.

So they're more like free-lance protection specialists, only six inches high. If I pay in pizza, I can call them minions for as long as they work for me. A flurry of pink, blue, purple, and green lights hovered over the pizza, and I grinned at the leader of the fuzzballs. "Hey there, Toot-toot."

"Harry Dresden," squeaked the lead lavender pixie. "Multi-meat toppings?"

"Only the best for you guys," I told him, bringing out my map and the necklace to do a check on River again. Yup. Still on the Tower. "I need a parking space somewhere within a block of the big Tower. And if you've seen a girl, pink dress, maybe…" What? Crazy? Gymnastic? Upset? "I'd appreciate a head's up."

Two pink lights grabbed pizza topping and crusts, then zipped away to find the Blue Beetle a berth, while the rest dug into the pizza, Toot-toot stuffing his mouth with both hands. It was like a pastel piranha attack. Do not get in between a wild faerie and his dinner, is all I'm saying. After about forty-five seconds, he burped, then told me, "No girl. Something strange, Harry. Disturbance in the Force!"

I kept my face straight and asked, "You wouldn't yank my chain, would you, Padawan?"

He shook his head vehemently as the two pink girls came back, wiping their faces free of pizza sauce and cheese. "You come this way," they sang, voices high-pitched and pretty.

I followed the little pink fairies down into a parking garage one block away from the Tower, Toot-toot pacing me outside my window. You'd think people would notice this, but it's not like the little guys show up well in direct sunlight; dandelion puffs, blowing trash, you name it, that's what they'd look like to anyone else. I was just thinking about how to talk River off the Tower when I turned the Beetle's wheel—

And hit the brakes, gaping in front of me at the figure caught in my headlights. Then I turned to glare at Toot-toot. "You should've warned me!"

"Didn't know!" he squeaked back at me, looking nervous. The two pink fairies looked guilty.

The woman – no, being – standing in the path of the Beetle smiled smugly, and tapped the Beetle's hood with the hilt of her sword. Probably knew it would fall apart if anything sharp tapped it. "Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden. We have business to discuss."

"Mab." I eased off the brake, put the Beetle in park, and got out—but did not cut the engine. So it was a fantasy and a dream that I'd be able to hit her with it, or escape in it. We all need our coping mechanisms. My delusion that I could evade the Queen of Air and Darkness was a longstanding one. "Your Majesty. I'm in the middle of a case. Can't it wait?"

She tilted her oh-so-perfectly chiseled face toward me, and reached out to toy with the lapel of my duster. She should have looked ridiculous in the parking garage, among the graffiti and oil stains on concrete; instead, she made it look like a movie set, with all the lights aimed at her. The usual low crawl of desire started up, and I stomped on it with mental steel-toed boots. "I have need of your assistance now. Do you wish me to compel you, or will you be reasonable, for once in your life?"

Anyone seeing me with Mab would think I was a lucky sonuvabitch. They would have no idea that I was a lucky sonuvabitch because I was still standing after several encounters with the lady. I once had the stupidity to ask one of her people for help; she got a lien on my life because of it. Then she turned around and passed the lien along to Mab. Bank of America would be brought up on SEC charges if they got to operate like that. To say I'd rather not deal with her is the understatement of the century.

"Is this about the favors?" I asked, feeling the chain and the blue glow under my shirt. "Because if it is, I'm willing to hear you out, but there's a girl I have to help first. If I don't find her, she might hurt herself. I'm not willing to negotiate anything while I don't know where she is."

Mab's eyes went flat, the slitted-pupils focusing on me with unnerving intensity. "It is a simple thing. If you agree now, I will release you to pursue your damsel." She held open her hand, and the image of a music box appeared in it. Nearly transparent, made out of glass, fragile and delicate as a whisper. "An artifact of my shaping has been lost. I desire its return. It is somewhere in Chicago. Find it for me, and bring it to me, and I will consider dissolving one of the favors still owed."

"And if I don't?"

She snapped her fingers, and the Beetle's engine died. And the lights went out. And… crap. I was stuck in an underground parking garage with no light, time running out, with the Winter Queen ready to reach out and snuff out the magic I needed to find River.

"I don't get to leave 'til I agree, do I?" I asked in resignation. I already knew I would do it. Compared to some things Mab had asked of me? Finding a toy was a tiny thing. Of course it would come with strings, conditions, and probably blood. But she had me over a barrel. "Fine. Fine! But that's it. No one's dying, no one's being killed for it, and no one is going to suffer for it. Got it?"

A ripple of amused laughter wrapped around me like a cat. One with claws. "In this instance, it will not be required."

"How am I supposed to find this thing?" I asked, reaching out to take a look at it. There were characters all around it in some script I didn't recognize. It looked like a tiny piano, now that I got a better look at it. Mab flipped up the lid, and a classical theme played, one I didn't recognize. "Very pretty. Any idea where it went?"

"It will leave a trail behind it. Mortal blood created it; you alone can find it." A clap of her hands like thunder, and the words: "Find it."

Always helpful, Mab. The Beetle's lights came back on, and I scrubbed my face, turning to get back in to park it. The blue glow on the chain under my shirt was still glowing; hopefully, it would get me to River even with unexpected interruptions.

By the time I got to the top of the Sears Tower—taking the stairs because I didn't need to get stuck between floors while on a search—I had to stop and catch my breath, wishing for a bottle of water or a maybe a bucket to duck my head into. In spite of that, I paced around the observation platform until I found River, precariously balanced on one of the railings, legs doing the splits, but not showing any signs of an urge to jump. There's a platform right below the observation one to catch jumpers; maybe that's why no one was trying to stop her. Yet. I took a couple deep breaths, then carefully approached her. "Hey."

She turned her head to look at me and gave me a sad-clown smile. Usually that's creepy, but on her it was heartbreaking. "I am out of my element. Not fire, or water, or air. Only earth. Earth." She frowned over the edge of the railing, her hands braced on the bar to take most of her weight, and slowly brought herself up into handstand, dress falling down around her face. She was wearing shorts underneath it. "Modesty must be preserved."

"It's creepy when you answer what I'm thinking, you gotta know that," I told her. "Come on down. We have to talk." I paused. "Please?"

She let go of the railing and jumped backward to land on her feet next to me, giving me a solemn look. "We are already conversing. Exchanging views. At cross purposes. You believe I am magic. And insane. I believe you are magic. And insane." River paused. "Though for different reasons. She has known other madmen like you."

"Oh yeah?" I asked, letting out a breath I'd been holding as she imitated Mary Lou Retton. "Am I likely to meet them?"

"Unable to say." She frowned again, hugging herself. "Mal is on the other side of the construction. And his thoughts are too linear to accept a three-dimensional reality." She scuffed her toe on the ground. "He seeks to re-make the past into his image of balance. As do you."

Translated from River: whoever I reminded her of, he had no idea about magic. And he might or might not be a bad guy. If he'd had to deal with her in one of her terrified fits, I'd buy him a beer out of sheer sympathy.

"River, I swear, I will get you back home, but I just got mugged by… let's say a very dangerous woman, and leave it at that." I took a breath. "I have to finish a job for her, or I'm going to be in huge trouble. Can you please not run off again, and promise to quit jumping off things, hanging off things, or disappearing, until I can find what she wants me to find?"

She frowned at me, again, the puzzled-look instead of the fierce-pissed-off look. "It's a construct. She should know its resonance. Why does she require you? "

Aaaand we're back to the crazy physics talk and third-person. I really wished Bob were here to translate. "Because I said please? Please?"

River gave me another you're so dumb, how do you even talk? look, then rolled her eyes. "She will not leave. She will remain. She will… help." She gave me a bright smile. "Yes!"

"She will not help," I said firmly. "She will stay at my place, out of the way, until Harry—damnit, now you've got me doing it. Until I get back from where I'm going to check. Mab said I could find it, so it shouldn't be impossible." I took a deep breath. "Understood?"

"She understands." River sniffed. "More than you do."

I left River at my place, with Mouse, and firm order to 'stay' for both of them. Then I grabbed Bob and went back to downtown Chicago, and the Underground.

A lot of old buildings sunk underneath Chicago as they were building; the residents just built on top of them. The city burned, the built over it. They even did testing for the Manhattan Project down here at one time, during WWII. As a result, the stuff you find down here tends to be strange, even for Faerie, and even for magic. I figured it would be the best place to start looking for Mab's toy.

"Did she say what it was for?" Bob asked as I took him out of my knapsack when we hit the first turning down into the Underworld. It is not the sort of place you go without a guide. "That might give us a place to start."

I thought back to our conversation. "She said it would leave a trail, that mortal blood created it, and that I alone could find it. Other than that, all I can tell you is it looks like a crystal piano and is the size of my hand."

"Not bigger than a breadbox, then." I gave Bob a withering look, and he blinked back at me, unrepentant. "So you're trying to find someone who'd recognize the description, give you a lead?"

"It is the place to buy and sell stuff. Although who the hell would have the stones to steal from Mab…" I paused. "Wait. She didn't say stolen. She said 'lost.'"

"Fine distinction," Bob agreed. "So, we need a way to track a lost pretty… hey." He sounded thoughtful. "Mortal blood. And only you can find it."

I stopped in my tracks, wondering. "That's too easy. Besides, where did she get my blood, if she created it from me? "

"It's Mab," he pointed out. "And it's not like you haven't bled all over the place, Harry."

"Point," I muttered. "Right, so… gimme a sec to set this up."

I repeated the basics of the finding spell I'd used on River earlier in the day, only substituting my blood for the basic components. I drew one of the symbols I remembered from the crystal piano on the inside of the bowl, then repeated the word "Illumine" and held my breath.

Power, will, and blood. You don't get much more powerful conjurings than that. The glow from this spell made the blue-white searching glow I'd constructed earlier look like a nightlight compared to a neon tube. "Fabulous. We are in business, Bob."

"Let's just hope no one else already found it who wants to keep it." Bob stared at the light in front of me cheerfully. "You're really annoying when you get your ass kicked."

I stuffed Bob back in the knapsack in lieu of commenting on that.

Our LightSaber of Searching (TM, Bob – I swear he likes D&D more than all the werewolves combined) lead us to a long gallery of jazzed-up shacks in what might have started out as a subway shaft, but now resembled the Pier at full blast. Chili lights and Christmas lights were strung between stalls, fairies of every description were selling food, magic equipment and ingredients, novelty items like Mickey Mouse clocks and Adidas trainers; one tiny music box would easily get lost down here. A couple people noticed me, and edged out of my way; a couple others whispered as I went by.

It's tough being a celebrity.

The LSofS finally lead me to a tiny stall overgrown with glowing crystal flowers; it looked like Tinkerbell's hideout, with a couple dozen of the littler pixies zooming in and out, whispering to the proprietor, then heading behind the scenes.

Said proprietor looked like a harmless little gray-haired old lady, knitting in a rocking chair. And I have this pier you can buy, right on Lake Michigan. Dirt cheap.

The light in my hand was pointing to a locked chest on which she'd put her feet up, and the shrewd red-eyed gaze she gave me didn't look like she was interested in anything I had to sell. "Harry Dresden."

"Glad we can skip that half of the introductions." I gave her my best smile, the one that doesn't even hint I want to bite someone. "I'm here to purchase something I think you might have found."

"Can't say as I have anything like that." She kept knitting, needles clacking away like Madame Defarge, but her nostrils flared, fee-fi-fo-fum, I smell the blood of a stupid hu-man. "I trade in glow-flowers. Nectar. Fairy dust. Nothing anything the illustrious Dresden would be interested in."

"Save it for the tourists," I said, letting the LightSaber point at the box again. "Whatever is in the box? Is not your property. We can talk purchase, or we can talk seizure. Your call."

She gave me a thoroughly nasty, pointy-toothed, haven't-flossed-in-years smile, and I readied my shield bracelet and staff. Crap. I hate it when people aren't reasonable.

I was ready for her to go for my throat, or throw power at me, or do something else violent and straightforward. Instead, she muttered a single word under her breath, and tied a knot in her knitting. The first hint that I was off-base came with a pinch to my gluteus maximus. "Ow!'

Then they were swarming me, a horde of pixies with gold eyes, all of them pinching and biting and poking, high-pitched voices screeching, so fast that they were gone by the time I aimed at them. "Damnit!" I raised my staff and roared, "Forzare!"

All of the little ankle-biters fell back about ten feet, stunned and mewling, and I felt like the world's worst person. Damnit. They can be deadly when they want to, but they're so damn small. What kind of bully beats up on pixies? I dabbed at a bite behind my ear, and swore at the blood trickling down my neck.

Which was when the glow vines reached out and wrapped around me, squeezing hard enough to make ribs crack. My staff fell out of my fingers, and before I could say another word, the vines were twisting around my throat, cutting off my air. I thrashed and twisted, and the vines just got tighter.

"Can't have you taking the shiny back to Mab," I heard as my vision started to gray. "Far too special. Too powerful. Yes, yes. Mother Odile can see her way to a nice tidy dominion, with this toy."

I reached out, triggering my wring, and the vines around one hand unspooled. I reached up to yank on the vines around my throat, pulling them away long enough to draw in one breath of air. But they curled around my fingers, pulling my hand back to my throat, and I hadn't even thought of a counter-spell—



I turned my head to see what was going on, drawing in another desperate breath, and saw a very determined-looking River throwing things at Mother Odile. Chairs. Chests. Spools of cloth. Jars of nectar. The 'whap' I'd heard was her laying about with my staff, catching the fairy on the head, to judge by the blood. Odile's knitting was on the other side of the stall, but she still shrieked, "Attack!" to the pixies, and they dive-bombed River. I choked out a warning, and River whirled to meet the new threat.

She picked one out of the air—then a second. Then a third. A fourth. Fifth? Sixth.

And started juggling them. Up, down, sideways, circle, spinning them like tops. After about a minute of that, the pixies were darting over to hide behind Odile.

"Let. Him. Go." River ordered as another one escaped, bending down and picking up Mama Odile's knitting. "Or this burns." She held it close to the nearest lantern, and waved it around like she was going to incinerate it.

Smart girl. I chuckled with what little air I had, then felt the vines loosen, and drop me to the ground. "Nice. Timing."

"You're welcome." Somehow she managed to combine know-it-all with pleased-with-herself very well there.

"Supposed to stay at my place. With Mouse."

There was a sheepish 'woof' from outside the stall, and I peered over the edge. "Some guard dog you are."

"We had better things to do," River said, shrugging, still holding up the knitting. "Never go without back-up. It's a rule."

Odile was giving her a baleful look of pure hatred, but River was glaring right back. I picked up my staff and knapsack, then crossed to the chest River had thrown during the proceedings. Please, let Mab's stupid gewgaw be in one piece. I carefully sorted through the broken bits, and drew a breath of relief.

Frabjous day. It was intact. I pocketed the piano, and turned back to River. "Time to go."

"She'll follow. Hurt us. Steal it back." She glared at Odile. "Nature of the scorpion."

"Oh, I don't think that'll be a problem." I took the knitting away from River, and Odile quit glaring and started looking afraid. "You get this back when Mab has her pretty. Until then? Think about what I could rebound on you, if you decided to push this. Got it, Mother Odile?"

She gave me a look of poison, and settled back down into her chair. "Someone should pay for the mess you've made here."

"Charge your customers a 'got caught with stolen goods' fee. Not my problem." I whistled for Mouse, who stuck his head in the door, and Odile shrank back a little further. "Pleasure doing business with you, Odile." Then I turned to River, wrapping a hand around her wrist as we stalked down the alleyway. "You did a good thing. And you could have gotten killed down here. Never, ever, ever do that again."

River stuck her tongue out at me, and somehow twisted her hand around so she was leading me by the wrist, instead of vice versa. Mouse thudded along beside her, panting happily. "Life is risk. Learned that in the future. Friends need to be saved. Could tell, feel…" She slowed down, searching for words, then pointed at my dog. "He agreed."

"Oh, and we always listen to the dog, don't we." I rolled my eyes, letting her tug me along, interested to see that she seemed to know exactly where to go to get out of Underground. "So. Believe in magic now that you've seen all this?"

She hmm'd, almost skipping as we went by a few more stalls. "Irrelevant. Labels. Reality is not defined by them. Will. Focus. Purpose. Those are definitions."

I thought about that, realizing she'd just defined how magic works, even as she denied it. It's not the words or the incantations or ingredients that make magic; it's the ability to force reality to bend to your will. To imagine something new. Maybe that's what she'd been doing all along? Maybe half her gymnastic skills was applying her own magic to the world around her, through her body. Hmm. Well. After Mab got her toy back, then I could concentrate on finding River's Simon, and getting her some help with her magic.

But first, pizza. I was starving. And I wanted Toot-toot's help in tracking the pixies River had juggled. Some of those little guys can really hold a grudge.

It was sundown before we got out to the most deserted part of the forest of Lake Michigan, in order to summon Mab. Yes, we. If I'd left River in the apartment she would've just followed me again. Probably hitching a ride with an ax murderer she'd have to subdue on the way there. I wasn't taking any chances.

I placed the music box on a stone near the lake, and then took a deep breath. "Mab. Queen of Winter. Queen of Air and Darkness. Queen of the darker Fae. Come and claim that which you asked me to seek."

It's always good to be very, very specific when summoning fairies. They don't just pick up spare towels and silverware when they leave a place.

The waters of Lake Michigan swirled, parted, then rose into a fountain around Mab, who glided across the water in a garment made of all the colors of the sunset, frozen into ice around her. She alighted on the beach in front of the stone I'd chosen, and smiled at me. I swallowed, fighting back the usual surge of desire and fear, and indicated the tiny trinket she'd asked me to find for her. "It doesn't seem like it was worth the trouble. But here you are."

Instead of looking at me, or the music box, though, she was looking at River. "Ah. Your missing child."

Crap. Crappity crap crap. "She's not part of this, Mab. Leave her alone." I tried to push River farther behind me, and muttered, "Do not mouth off at this woman. You will not win." Do what I say, not what I do. I didn't want to see River gasping in pain, the way Mab had left me a couple times.

River ignored me the same way Mab had, staring from Mab to the music box, then back. "You constructed it. It was your song. The frequency was attuned precisely."

"Correct." Raspberry-frost lips curved into a wicked smile. "I wished to ascertain its efficaciousness. I thank you for being participating in my little quest."

The hell? "Wait. Wait. Back up. Construct. This? You made this to bring River here?"

"I was searching for a particular desirable outcome. Her presence facilitated it." She shrugged cloud-white shoulders, and gave me a faintly amused look. "And without having to use one of the favors you owe me, still."

"Now wait a minute! You said—" She'd said maybe. She hadn't guaranteed anything. Damnit. I'd been too worried about River to pay enough attention to what we'd bargained over. And with fairies, the letter of the law always wins. "Fine. Whatever. Just get River back where she belongs, okay? Her brother has to be worried sick about her."

"And why would I do that?" Mab asked idly, one finger reaching out to stroke the crystal toy.

"You owe her," I said through gritted teeth. "She's been in a strange place without her family for over a day, she's been scared and found out about magic, and she didn't ask for any of this. You used her to prove some esoteric eccentric whim of your own. I'm calling you on it. Pay her back. Take her home."

"Wait." River stepped forward, and laid her palm over the crystal piano. "It isn't enough. She has to promise."

"River." No, no no no, Mab was not someone a kid like River should be taunting. "Stop. Let me handle this. It's not your problem."

"Is," River said, a mulish expression spreading over her face. "She cheated. Used your blood to bring me here. Didn't ask." She cocked her head, then smirked at Mab, who blinked at her, slow and cat-like. "Won't tell. If you promise: never again. One time only." She blinked at Mab in eerie mimicry, and for a second, her face had a fey cast to it that made me wonder how human her family was, and if maybe she had more than human magic working through her. "Schrodinger's cat stays alive. And dead."

Mab gave her a thoughtful look, which unnerved me even more than if she'd lost her temper at River's demands. "You comprehend the implications."

"She comprehends." River nodded. "She understands."

"I wish I understood. Is anyone going to explain it to me?" I asked.

"No," River and Mab chorused in sync, and I shivered.

"Say your good-byes, little dancer. Then I'll return you home." Mab's smile was almost indulgent. Creeeeepy. "Our bargain will hold."

River turned to me, then surprised me with a fast hug. My arms went around her on reflex, then tightened. "Won't be able to call," she said into my shoulder. "Too far away. Won't be able to find me." She shook her head hard, then pulled away. "No explanations. Sorry. No words. And the math is too complex." She frowned, then her expression cleared, and I could see her struggling to be clear and direct. For once. "I will be fine. Simon takes care of me. And others. Friends. The Blue Hands—" she gulped. "Won't find me. I get stronger all the time. Safer." She squeezed my hand. "Don't worry?"

I squeezed back, and shook my head. "Comes with the service. But I'll try." I tapped her chin with a closed fist. "Try to stay out of trouble?"

She snorted and rolled her eyes. "Just as much as you will." She let go of my hand to bend down and hug Mouse, then straightened and crossed over to the stone and the crystal piano. "My blood, yes?"

"Yes," stated Mab. I watched River cut her palm open on the jagged edge of the rock, and then place it on the crystal construct.

For a second, I saw stars. Nebulas, planets, moons, constellations spinning out of control, the zoom of satellites going by, an infinitely huge and crowded universe, and one star zipping by and then winking away like a firefly—

Inside my mind, soft as the brush of an eyelash, I heard:

Good-bye, Harry. I'll remember you. Someday you'll understand. Mab doesn't know everything.

And with that final somewhat cryptic statement, the light and the stars and the universe collapsed into the crystal piano again, with a tiny, final, plink.

I drew a slow breath. "Are we done here?"

Mab picked up the box, and smiled at me. "For now."

I couldn't get away from that pretty smile fast enough. "Good. Let's not make the next time any time soon, okay, Mab?"

"I am inclined to overlook your attitude today, Harry Dresden." She caressed the box. "In payment for future favors."

I took a step back. Then another. "You do that."

With a final ice-cream headache of a smile, Mab melted back into the water, and disappeared.

I headed to MacAnally's and bought Murph a beer, telling her the whole story. She frowned as I got to the end, sipping her own drink. "So Mab just sent her home? No conditions, no contusions? That doesn't sound like the Queen you've described to me before."

"No, it doesn't." That eerie resemblance that I'd noticed came back to my mind, and I took a pull off my bottle. "Except. Well."

Murph poked me in the shoulder. "Well, what?"

"I was thinking about what Mab said. About having created the box. And the trail it would leave."

I tapped my fingers on the glass. "And the way River acted. Maybe..." I stopped. "Nah. It's crazy. Forget it."

"I swear you get more frustrating every time you deal with the fairies, Harry. They should pay the rest of us for putting up with you after one of their gigs."

"You go and try to collect that. I'll stay here and drink."

I just can't help but wonder: if you're going to pull someone across a zillion miles, well. You have to have a connection. You can't just reach out and grab anyone. Magic has rules. So I'm thinking: somewhere in the world-- hell maybe Taiwan, or Hong Kong, or China; River's slipping into Chinese points to that-- there's maybe a girl who's related to Mab. Or whichever fairy whose blood she used to make that box; she might not have wanted to use her own. That's a huge risk. Blood calls to blood. And Mab couldn't get to her any other way than this. Pull her out of her life, and into Chicago. Why? Why pull me into it? Just to see if the spell worked? To see if she could call any mortal, if she had the blood of their relatives?

Damned if I know.

But if Mab's leaving her alone, I'm going to leave her alone too. I just hope her friends and family can cope with a crazy genius gymnastic magician when she gets home.

I lifted my bottle to Murph. "To no place like home." And she clinked hers against mine.

Coda: Somewhere across space and time…

River stepped back into the cargo hold from the folding pocket of space she'd traveled across, and paused, listening.

Serenity was still asleep; she could feel her brother's sleeping thoughts, Inara's, Mal's, Jayne's. Zoe was drifting along the edges of a dream of Wash; her baby was turning in a circle, sucking its toes inside her womb. Mab had returned her mere hours after her departure. Good. Simon need never know, or worry; she could feel the edges of his dreams, worry-tinged, but not aware. Not yet.

Kaylee was awake, and in the engine room. River tip-toed in, and settled down next to her. "I had a dream." Better to lie than be thought mad again. "Of Earth-that-was."

"Didja? Was it shiny?" Kaylee wiped her hands on a rag, and gave River a sleepy, happy smile. "All blue and green? Or was it all abandoned and dead and all?"

"It was itself." Hard to explain, even with the dream-excuse. "Huge city, on a lake. Tall tall towers; I danced on one. People living underground, with glowing flowers that choked." She stretched out one leg, poked Kaylee on the knee with her toe. "A wizard came to rescue me."

"Ooooo. Was he handsome?" Kaylee gave her a conspiratorial grin, and River grinned back, laughing inside that Kaylee always thought of the same thing first.

"A little. Smart. Tired. He worked too hard." She bit her lip, remembering Mab. "There was a wicked sorceress. She pulled me there with my blood. His blood. He was our ancestor, one of mine and Simon's. He didn't know. Not any of it. Still tried to protect me."

Kaylee gave her an understanding glance, and River didn't need to read her mind to know she was thinking of their parents, and how Mama and Baba had let Simon and River go without even trying to help them. If Harry had known that, whichever one was his descendant would have felt the full force of his wrath. Even across five centuries. It had been weirdly comforting to realize that, and hug someone besides Simon in her family again. "Well, of course he looked out for ya." Kaylee reached out to pat her foot. "That's what family does."

"Yes." So she was not going to tell him what she had perceived in Mab's mind. Her plans for Harry, the hope of a fey child with Harry's powers to seal Mab's power. Fairy magic; mortal blood. Success possibly confirmed by River's presence, product of Harry's blood and fairy blood, five hundred years later. He'd been blind to the possibility. To the risk of Mab doing this more than once. At least she would retire satisfied with her little game, and keep her promise to River. She thought her victory inevitable.

But who knew how it came about? Mab might think she knew the outcome. River knew Harry. Schrodinger's Cat was not dead yet. And Harry would protect any child of his, and its mother, no matter if they were human, crazy, magic, or not. Mab might have bitten off much more than she could chew.

"That's what family does."