Title: Handle With Care

Author: Jedi Buttercup

Rating: T

Summary: Ms. Summers might as well have worn a sign reading 'Danger to Life and Limb' in large, neon print.

Disclaimer: The words are mine; the worlds are not. All your Buffy are belong to Joss Whedon and your Dresden Files to Jim Butcher.

Spoilers: Fusion-fic. Set between #7 "Dead Beat" and #8 "Proven Guilty" in the Dresden-verse; post-"Chosen" and somewhat AU-ish for Buffy.

Notes: For polgara_5, who requested "B:tVS/Dresden Files. Buffy/Harry, friends or pairing, book or TV. Something fluffy with a bit of substance." Ended up more substance than fluff, sorry!

The first several times I put on the gray cloak of Wardenship, I felt a little like a kid wearing a costume. It's one thing to accept that the White Council's wizarding law force really needs all the hands it can get to help take down the latest threat to supernatural law and order; another thing entirely to sit down with the paperwork and the files and all the rules I'd only glimpsed before through the dark glass of Morgan's threatening behavior, and realize that all of a sudden I'm responsible for being the wagging finger of wizarding authority over half of freaking America.

Some days, I doubted I was capable of watching over even half of Chicago. When I thought back over all the mayhem that had gone down since I first set up shop as the city's only professional wizard, I knew I had been far luckier than I deserved. And it wasn't as though I had the best track record with authority figures. Or thinking before I leapt. Or any other qualifications, bar sheer kaboom experience, that would make my acquiring the title of regional commander look like any less of a desperate move on Luccio's part. When I looked at it like that, I could almost understand why Morgan had refused to give me any other Wardens to actually command yet.

Almost. I wasn't going to let go of my determination to thwart Morgan's expectations just because I finally understood that his hostility toward me wasn't personal; the habit was much too ingrained. Hells Bells, I'd been spitting in his eye since I was sixteen; I wasn't about to stop now, even if the combined forces of the Red Court war, Kemmler's disciples, and the Corpsetaker's theft of Captain Luccio's body had converged to create the unlikely happenstance of his being my official boss.

Yeah, I wasn't looking forward to my first performance review. If they even had them in the Wardens-- I hadn't read that far in the official documentation yet.

I should probably move that up the list of my priorities, I thought, as I put the final touches on a pair of tiny pewter models. I kept meaning to, but between my duties as supernatural detective, consultant to the CPD's Special Investigations division, the cleanup leftover from the last major wizarding conflict in the city, and my own private projects, I hadn't had much time to just sit down and read. Especially when that reading material was a dusty compilation of arcane legal language nearly as heavy as Mister, my pet Sabretooth Housecat. Grouting floor tile was more entertaining.

And I should know; I'd had plenty of experience in home repair lately. After fielding the best efforts of a swarm of zombies to destroy my apartment, pretty much all of the furniture in the living room had needed replacing. The steel security door had taken some severe damage as well, and let's not even mention the foulness my unwanted guests had left behind on the rugs. I'd decided it was time to finally put down an actual carpet, and spruce up the bathroom and kitchen with more appropriate flooring surfaces than plain concrete while I was at it. I was still only halfway through the tedious process, but I was pretty sure all the effort would be worth it when I was finally done. It wasn't the prettiest remodeling job ever, but at least it would be functional.

My efforts to make a dent in the inventory of the local Home Depot weren't limited to the reflooring effort, either. Lately, with the help of my friendly skull-bound lab assistant and spirit of intellect, Bob, I'd been taking steps to enhance my ability to locate and deal with any bad guys that came to stomp around on my turf. Or find lost pets. You know, whichever Warden-slash-detective pursuit might have priority in any given week.

I carefully eyed the placement of the new building models I'd just affixed to the large table that had formerly been my primary work surface in the lab, and made mental notes about which of their missing neighbors I should scout next out in the real Chicago. In my admittedly biased opinion, the loss of workspace was a fair trade for the benefit I'd get once my shiny new toy was completed.

Stray Chihuahuas aside, I'd been going after a succession of more and more dangerous vampires, warlocks, Faeries, and other assorted preternatural foes for years, and without the hefty collection of friends and acquaintances with their own degrees of badassery I'd somehow acquired over the years, I'd never have survived them all. I'd been stuck reacting rather than acting almost all of that time, and that was a dangerous situation for anyone, not least a wizard with a hot temper, more power than common sense, and a literal fallen angel whispering in his ear. This new tool would hopefully give me more discernment and breathing room when tracking down the bad guys.

At the moment, though, Little Chicago was mostly proving to be a huge drain on my time. I could spend hours down here lost in calculations, construction, and the tweaking of energy flows-- which, according to the wind-up clock I kept down in the lab, was about to make me late to my next appointment. It probably wouldn't be a good idea for me to show up unshaven, unwashed, and wrapped in flannel-- especially considering how that had worked out for me the last time I'd tried it.

I sighed, then shed my working robe, hung it up on its hook, and climbed the stepladder up to the main room of my apartment. Mister stretched from his favorite perch atop one of my bookshelves-- currently standing several inches away from the wall, as I hadn't yet fixed the new baseboards in place-- and yawned at me, showing an impressive array of sharp teeth. On the floor beneath the bookcase, a shaggy Dogosaurus Rex lifted his head as well, staring pensively at me.

"I know, I know," I muttered to Mouse as I crossed the floor into the bedroom. "I'm hurrying."

I stepped carefully over the still-exposed tack strip where the bedroom's new carpeting butted up against the bathroom tiles, peeled off my clothes, and hurtled into the shower. My appointment was in Cleveland that evening, in about six and a half hours, and even in light traffic my trusty old multi-colored Volkswagen Beetle would have trouble covering the distance in that amount of time.

Cleveland, of all places. The choice of location still bothered me. The last time one of my teachers had spoken to me about the mysterious Watcher's Council, he'd given the impression that they were headquartered somewhere back in Jolly Old and primarily staffed with folk whose accents matched the d├ęcor. The girl on the phone, however, had been very American, and had referred to the offices there as their main center of operations. What could have prompted an organization so old and so hidebound to suddenly transfer operations to my area of responsibility?

The cold, cold water sluicing down over me held no answers. I shivered violently as I stepped out and dried off, then headed for my wardrobe, mind already three steps ahead of what I was doing.

Not so my feet.

"Damn it!" I hissed through gritted teeth, hopping awkwardly back as a band of fire erupted across the sole of my right foot. I leaned back against the tiny sink cabinet, then folded my leg up to inspect it, a trickier maneuver than you might expect considering how tall I am and how small the space is. Tiny pinpricks of blood were already blooming across the callused skin. Stupid tack strip. Covering those suckers up was definitely next on my remodeling to-do list.

I tended to the parallel rows of tiny wounds with the first-aid kit I kept under the sink, then limped back into the bedroom, more carefully this time. Some impression I was going to make. I threw on a white silk shirt-- an old standby, saved for those occasions on which I might face archaic weaponry, on the theory that the Mongols must have known what they were doing-- and a pair of dark slacks. Dark socks, heavy boots, my black leather duster, and my gray Warden cloak completed the ensemble. It might be monochromatic, but at least I didn't clash.

I checked the old Mickey Mouse clock in my bedroom again, shook my head, and left a quick note on the mantel for my half-brother. Thomas hadn't been around the apartment much of late, and hadn't seemed much interested in what I was up to when he was there (probably hoping that I wouldn't ask questions if he didn't), but I couldn't in good conscience leave the city without letting him know where to look for the body if I should happen to disappear.

Not that I thought I would. But you never knew. Especially when dealing with an organization old and widespread enough to be an independent signatory of the Unseelie Accords.

According to Ebenezar McCoy, the wizard who'd overseen the last few years of my apprenticeship, the Watchers were a group of lower-level practitioners and clued-in straights who'd been mucking around in the supernatural since the dawn of recorded human history. Like the Venatori Umbrorum and the Fellowship of St. Giles, two other independent organizations of nonwizards with paranormal connections, they were currently allied with the White Council. Unlike the Venatori or the Fellowship, however, they tended to restrict their help to informational assistance, and they never asked for physical aid in return. As a result, very little was known about their operations, other than the fact that they spent a lot of resources studying locations where the veil between our world and the spiritual realm of the NeverNever is worn particularly thin.

They called those locations Hellmouths. And until a couple of years ago, a little town named Sunnydale over in Ramirez' jurisdiction had been one of them. Before it had rather suddenly fallen into the earth.

I spared a few mental cursewords for Carlos' busy schedule-- I'd left several messages at his family's restaurant in L.A., hoping he'd be able to tell me more-- then gathered up the tools of my trade and headed out the door. Time was, I'd never have gone to a meeting loaded up with not only my kinetic force ring, shield bracelet, and pentacle necklace, but also my blasting rod, handgun, and wizard's staff; it was kind of overkill for most everyday situations, like carrying around a bazooka. But that was before I'd touched off a war and pissed off any number of powerful entities. Who was to say Ms. Summers wasn't beholden to one of them?

Regardless, she was still a member of an allied organization. And as it was part of my duties to be the ambassador of the White Council to any preternatural groups within my range of responsibility, I couldn't just ignore her. Besides, it was possible I was just being paranoid, wasn't it?

I tried to hold that thought in mind as I resecured the magical and mundane security measures behind me, then turned toward the Blue Beetle parked at the curb.

Perched on the hood, an unfamiliar blonde woman-- maybe Murphy's height, maybe a little taller-- looked back at me, head tilted in assessment.

Stars and stones, you'd think I'd know better than to jinx myself by now.

"Buffy Summers, I presume," I drawled, cautiously approaching the car.

She slid down to the ground as I approached, landing on dainty little high-spiked sandals as solidly as if they'd been work boots like my own. I'd only ever seen balance like that in supernatural entities before. Above the heels-- and the attached ribbons caressing their way up her shapely calves-- she wore a short skirt that compensated for its revealing length with conservative coloring, and a flowing, pale green blouse cut there and back again that matched her eyes. Tiny little chips of green fire dangled from cute earlobes, and her slim, muscled arms were neatly camouflaged with bangly bracelets; overall, she looked like Murphy on a dress-up day, only-- girlier.

She might as well have worn a sign reading 'Danger to Life and Limb' in large, neon print.

"So you're Harry Dresden," she replied, with wry, pursed lips. "Kind of tall, aren't you?"

"I suppose that depends on your perspective," I couldn't help saying, deliberately eyeing her from the top of her head-- were those stakes tucked into her artfully arranged bun?-- to her petite, iridescently painted toes.

She snorted a laugh, then held out a small hand to shake. "Sorry to drop in on you like this, but since a friend had last-minute business out this way, I thought I'd save you some time. Good thing, too; you were leaving it kind of late, weren't you?"

Hells Bells, even her attitude reminded me of Murphy. "A wizard is never late, nor is he early," I replied in lofty tones as I shook her hand. "He arrives precisely when he means to."

"Nice try, Gandalf," she shot back, "but I don't even let Andrew get away with that, and he's the closest thing to a wizard we have on staff. You have to earn your tardiness privileges with me."

Clutching her warm, surprisingly callused hand in my own, I suddenly wanted to earn a whole lot more than that. It had been a long, long time since I had spent quality time with an attractive woman in a social situation. This was hardly a social situation, though, and I hastily thought chilly thoughts in an effort to squash down my libido. "I'll remember that," I said.

"Good," she said. "So. Got a place to meet?"

I looked back over my shoulder at the stairs down to my apartment, considering; I definitely wouldn't invite a complete stranger behind my wards, but it was interesting, I thought, that she hadn't even suggested it. She obviously knew a little something about thresholds and magical home protection. Fortunately, I did have an alternate place in mind: the only bit of Accorded Neutral Ground in Chicago. The strictures of the Unseelie Accords would shield us equally there.

"McAnally's Pub sound all right?" I asked, testing to see if she knew it.

She did, if the brightness of her smile was any indication. "Sure, if Mac doesn't mind me avoiding his brew. I've heard good things about it, but me, supernatural business, and alcohol have always been extremely unmixy things."

"I'm sure I can drink enough for both of us," I said dryly, and couldn't resist getting in one more dig. "Or at least for two of you."

"Can you fight with that staff," she parried, the corners of her eyes crinkled with silent laughter, "or do you just use it to keep from falling over when the wind picks up?"

Somehow, I didn't think she meant magic when she mentioned fighting. "A little," I said, dipping my head in acknowledgement at her return jibe. "A friend of mine has been teaching me aikido and quarterstaff moves, when I have the time to practice."

"Oh, goodie," Summers beamed toothily. "Think you'll have time to spar later, then?"

I chalked up a couple more points in the 'Danger, Harry Dresden!' column, and resolved to change the topic post haste. No one that petite and that confident in her own fighting skills was worth facing in even combat; long, long experience had taught me to take refuge in the better part of valor.

"Anyway, it's a little early for Mac's," I said, clearing my throat, "but he does a mean steak lunch, and if you like lemonade, he makes the kind with lemonade chips instead of regular icecubes."

Her smile didn't dim; at least, not until I moved to hold open the passenger door of the Beetle for her and she got a good look at the interior. I hadn't quite got around to having my mechanic fix it up yet-- actually keeping it running had been more of a priority-- and the temporary seating was still an uncomfortable construction of plywood and two-by-fours. Dresden Remodeling Services, Take One.

"Sounds... like a plan," Summers said, raising her eyebrows as she gingerly stepped into the vehicle. "Mold demons?" she asked, eyeing the plank supplementing the remains of the plastic dashboard.

"Mold demons," I confirmed, impressed, as I folded myself into the driver's side and turned the key in the ignition. "You know, you're the first person that's guessed that right away."

She shuddered gracefully. I tried not watch the effects it had on the drape of her blouse.

"Seen one mold demon, seen them all," she said. "Talk to me after you've spent an entire afternoon down in the sewers tracking slime demons."

Curiouser and curiouser. The more I talked to Ms. Summers, the less she fit the mental profile I'd had in mind after the phone call. For someone who looked so young-- maybe mid-twenties, though in this biz that often didn't mean as much as you'd think-- she talked and held herself like a professional, despite the bright smiles and snazzy wardrobe. Either she was something I'd never encountered before, or she'd been walking the walk since she was a little kid, or maybe both; either way, she definitely merited careful handling.

"So. Care to tell me exactly why you wanted to meet me, or do you want to wait until we get there?" I asked conversationally, as I guided the car through the busy streets.

She was silent for a long moment; then she sighed. "The Watchers haven't exactly had the closest relationship with your people in the past," she sighed. "And I have plenty of personal reasons to hate everything that cloak you're wearing stands for. But Giles-- I guess you'd call him our boss-- says you're not exactly a typical member of the establishment, and he thought it would be polite to do a face-to-face before we kick up any more dust in your territory."

I was seriously going to skin Ramirez the next time I saw him for not checking his messages; I could really have used some up-to-date intel before going into this meeting. "Personal reasons?" I asked, carefully.

She turned and stared straight at me before answering. "I know you've been under the Doom of-- Damn-it, or Democracy, or whatever," she said. "Giles says it means you broke one of the Seven Laws sometime in the past, but they let you live because someone stood up for you."

I winced, and at more than the mispronunciation; I was pretty sure I knew where this was going. "I killed with magic, in self-defense," I admitted quietly. "A wizard who'd known my mother took me in and made sure I unlearned all my bad habits."

"Willow didn't have anyone to stand up for her," Summers said, bitterly.

Willow? As in Rosenberg? I glanced over at my passenger, startled, and saw the tears standing in her eyes. Damn; if she'd been Rosenberg's friend, I was surprised she was talking to me at all.

I hadn't known that the warlock in question was attached to the Watchers, but I'd heard all about her execution; she'd broken not only the First Law, but also the Second, Third, Fourth, and Fifth, and had made a run at the Seventh before the local Wardens found out and put her down with extreme prejudice. As thin as the Council was stretched at the moment in dealing with the war with the Red Court, a lot of young people with power were slipping through the cracks like she had; it often started with something simple, like breaking into or manipulating someone's mind with the best of intentions, but before long the corrupting effects of black magic drove the wizard in question entirely over the edge. Necromancy, murder, raising a temple of Proserpexa-- I couldn't imagine how painful and terrifying it must have been for Summers to have a front-row seat to her friend's meltdown.

The standard line-- that warlocks that far gone were almost never capable of rehabilitation, and that putting them out of their misery was the only way to prevent worse problems in future-- was on the tip of my tongue, but I held it in. It obviously wasn't what she wanted to hear, and the goal today was to establish a working relationship, not to destroy all possibility of one.

"I'm sorry," I said, sincerely. "I was lucky. If it hadn't been for-- well, let's just say that under normal circumstances I'd never have been made a Warden."

"I know," she said, quietly. "Hence the asking for you, specifically."

I cleared my throat. "Any other topics of conversation I should avoid?" I asked.

"More like, what shouldn't you?" Summers answered, tiredly. "Although-- if you've heard anything about Angelus or William Malvora--"

I blinked, trying to decide if I wanted to know why there was wistfulness and grief in her tone while discussing a pair of White Court vamps from the House known for feeding on human fear.

"Sorry, no," I said, shrugging, and made a mental note to pass the question on to Thomas, if I managed to catch up with him anytime soon.

"We should probably stick to business, then," she said with a sigh.

Silence reigned in the car until we parked, then walked to McAnally's; we took one of the empty round tables near the back wall, and I let her have the seat that faced the door. We made small talk about the pub's structure-- the reason for the theme of thirteen in its furnishings, and the details of the carvings visible on the columns that rose up out of the floor-- until the food was ready, then settled in to enjoy.

She was fun to talk to, once we were off the heavier subjects; the number of beings she recognized from the carvings (and often had awkwardly hilarious stories about) was amazing, and I couldn't help but share a few stories in return. I was careful to leave out most of the delicate details, but it was strangely relaxing to talk shop with someone as quippy as I was who knew exactly what I meant when I wrinkled my nose over the grosser and more hilarious corners of the monster-hunting business. The tale of the chlorofiend-- excuse me, plant monster-- was a big hit with her, especially the fact that it was my petite policewoman friend who'd taken it down.

"So that's why you didn't give me a hard time," Summers said, laughing, at the end of the story. "I usually get dismissed as a brainless blonde right off the bat, especially by people who know my name."

"All hail the power of Woman," I agreed, raising my second bottle of Mac's best to her.

She smiled warmly at me, and it lit up her whole being; she fairly glowed with it. Another stab of longing went through me at the sight, and I blew out a breath.

"So. Kicking up dust in my territory?" I reminded her.

"Right." She straightened in her seat, merriment fading into business-like blandness. "How much do you know about the formation of new Hellmouths?"

Oh. Oh Hell.

I thought back over the rising tide of dark events in my corner of the country over the last decade, cross-referenced with the sudden dip in reports regarding Cleveland since the Watcher's Council had apparently moved in, and put them together with the little I'd heard of Hellmouths in the past. No wonder it had been so easy for Kravos and Mavra to weaken the barrier between the NeverNever and Chicago a few years back. If that was simply spillover from Cleveland's rising troubles...

Somehow, I had a feeling I'd be seeing a lot more of Summers in the years to come.

"Tell me more," I said.