Title: Holding My Ground
Author: Jedi Buttercup
Summary: I hated to think that I might have that much capacity for darkness in me. 2200 words.
Disclaimer: The words are mine; the world belongs to Jim Butcher.
Spoilers: Dresden Files novels through "Dead Beat" (#7)
Notes: Introspective fic, for the 3rd sticksnstrings lyric ficathon. Prompt was "Hellbound", by Doro & Warlock.
I feel ghosts
Are all around
(but) I hold my ground
-"Hellbound", by Doro & Warlock
Music. It's supposed to soothe the savage beast. Heal wounded souls. And a basketful of other inspiring things.
In theory, yeah: that's true. Well, maybe not the savage beast part; it's never done anything for Mister's mood, and Mouse outside of battle is the most phlegmatic mountain of fur I've ever met, so I can't vouch for whether or not it works on animals in general. But as for the rest of it- it's impossible to be a wizard and not notice the rhythms and resonances that affect and inform the lifestuff, the magic, we work with. From the tiny differences in the ways Names are pronounced, to the thrum of mortal heartbeats, to the ritual chanting used to clear air and mind for larger workings, everything has its own tempo and tune. Everyone has their own tastes - just as every practitioner chooses their own magical language- but I have yet to meet a wizard with a completely tin ear.
In practice, though: practice had proven to be an entirely different story. I squeezed the fingers of my scarred hand idly around the squishy ball I was using to exercise the withered muscles, and glared at the guitar lying in its open case at my feet.
Butters' Christmas gift had been a really creative idea for physical therapy, I had to admit. The ball was great for basic flexibility, but did nothing for fine motor control, and most of the other alternatives were seriously demotivational. I'd been really touched when he gave it to me. I'd even spent the time to read the Guitar For Dummies book that had come with it. I had to assume I was worse than a 'Dummy', though, because no matter what I did- even when my hand wasn't cramping with exhaustion- nothing at all resembling music was coming out of it.
Okay, so that might be partially my own fault. I've always been more or less the arcane equivalent of a computer geek, and even in recent years as I've started hanging out in wider circles my leisure activities have tended to revolve around the preternatural. I might roleplay a barbarian with massive thews and not an erg of magical energy, but I'm pretty sure that from a layman's perspective any of Billy's campaigns would lump comfortably in with spell research, or potion brewing, or even my latest project, a miniature scale model of downtown Chicago. (Maybe especially the model).
I've wondered, every now and again, if it might be a good idea to pick up a more suave and socially acceptable hobby, like Sherlock Holmes with his violin; but I've never had the patience to spend that much time on anything without an immediate magical application. Even my exercise program- as far as you can call running a 'program'- grew out of the observation that being able to haul ass might one day save it from the ghoulie or ghostie of the week.
That complete lack of experience was unfortunately telling when it came to the guitar. Even if I had an ear for music, I completely lacked any practical sense of how to string two notes together. I'd never taken the music lessons a lot of kids sign up for as arts electives in high school or college, as my education had been a little on the nonstandard side, and none of the families or mentors I'd stayed with since my dad died when I was six had been musical, either. That lack of trained instinct was completely compounded by the trouble I had moving my fingers at all, much less getting them to hold specific patterns. It might take until my hand fully healed to coax anything worth listening to out of that torture device, and according to Butters that would take years, if I was lucky.
I sighed, set down the ball, and turned my hand over to examine the lone unmarred patch of skin amid the melted, waxlike texture of my palm. Lasciel's sigil stared back at me, a caution and a taunt all in one. How much had the fallen angel affected what I'd done the night I'd taken the fight to Mavra and earned those scars? No, not just that night- stars and stones, how about that whole week? I hadn't found my emotional state unusual at the time, but in retrospect the signs had all beenl there.
Just as they'd been a year later, when I'd faced Kemmler's disciples and consciously pulled on Lasciel's power for the first time. Call me the magical Hulk: you won't like me when I'm angry. Not anymore.
Not that my temper has ever been all that mild. I've used anger and fear to fuel my magic ever since I was an apprentice; any emotion is good for that, but the more powerful the better, and anger's a gimme in most confrontations. I'd like to be able to blame that habit on fallout from my first mentor, Justin DuMorne, whose favorite teaching tools were terror and pain... but a lot of it really was just me. Lately, though, I'd had more than just my anger to worry about. I had a genuine minion of Lucifer fanning the flames, and it wasn't exactly easy to tell where I left off and her influence began.
I should have known when Bob had been surprised by my latest plan that something was off; my lab assistant is a spirit of air, not even remotely human, and his grasp of morality is a little shaky at the best of times. When he'd called my idea to take out the Black Court vampires in their sleep "atypically vicious", it should have been a red flag. Danger, Harry Dresden: you are on a slippery slope.
It had just felt so good to finally take the fight to them, for once. To strike back, and break out of the cloud of tension and dread they'd cast over my city. It had been three years since I'd inadvertently started the war with the vampires, and it had seemed like every blow struck against them had bounced back twice as hard. It hadn't helped that half the White Council had still been dragging their feet, hoping it would all go away if the Reds got their hands on me and rendered me an ex-offender. Opinion had shifted a little after I'd won the privilege of neutral ground in Chicago in a battle of wills against the vampires' envoy, Duke Ortega, but not by much. And even that battle, I'd mostly won by default. My second mentor, Ebenezar McCoy, had actually had to kill Ortega in the end- though that had turned out to be just the tip of a whole other, unrelated iceberg of issues.
The point was, there I'd been, newly aware that Mavra's scourge had set up shop in my city- and my first impulse had been to assemble a Justice League and take them down. You'd think that would be a good thing- except that I'd deliberately left out the one person whose help might have done the most literal Good. Capital G intended.
I'm talking about my friendly neighborhood Knight of the Cross: Michael Carpenter. Call that little bit of avoidance flag two.
Hells bells, Michael had been the one to introduce me to Black Court vampires in the first place; he'd personally exterminated a group of Mavra's descendants about twenty years ago, and had recognized Mavra herself at Bianca's party before the war started. You'd think he'd be a natural resource when I ran into the bloodsuckers again, wouldn't you? But I'd told myself at the time that I was tired of getting him hurt: a polite fiction to cover the fact that I was afraid he'd feel the Blackened Denarius's presence, and think less of me. I should have been more worried about it being there to feel in the first place.
The situation with Mavra hadn't been the only ominous experience I'd had that week, either. If I closed my eyes, I could still feel my reaction to Trixie's murder attempt as though it were yesterday: a vast, dark tide of violence and lust, intense, satisfying, and overwhelming. I'd stood over her, relishing my survival and the power of life and death I held over her in turn, for several long moments: I'd never wanted to kill someone more in my life, and I had enjoyed every second. I'm still not sure how I managed to hold myself back; it had been a very close thing.
I hated to think that I might have that much capacity for darkness in me. It was worse, though, not to know how much of what I'd been feeling was actually me, and how much could be put against the Webweaver's account. The former, I might have a chance in Hell of controlling; the latter- well, I'd already seen where the latter could lead. With all the control in her hands.
Bad enough that I was already Hellbound. The last thing I wanted was to take anyone else down with me- literally or otherwise. But we all know where roads paved with good intentions lead.
I'd made Murphy compromise her own principles: I'd Seen what time spent around me had done to her, in the wounds and filth smeared on the angelic form of her spiritual image. I'd known what it would do to her to kill an enemy with a human face, and I'd still asked her to pay that price. I'd also nearly got her, Kincaid, and a bunch of innocent children roasted when I'd foolishly underestimated my opponent's ingenuity. I was still paying the consequences for that- and not only in the limited usefulness of my shielding hand after her minions' improvised napalm had seared it. Mavra had escaped- and had come back a year later to use Murphy's vulnerability against me.
After all of that, how was I supposed to trust my instincts anymore?
...And yet, after the last several years, how could I afford not to?
If I'd waited any longer to shoot the Corpsetaker during the Darkhallow- if I'd paused to double-check my doubts about who was in control of Luccio's body before putting a bullet in the back of her head, there might have been two dying women in the street that day and someone else running around wearing my body. It had been the first time I'd ever killed someone without giving them the chance to fight back; but if I'd hesitated at all... For want of a bullet, the entire White Council might have been lost, given what we'd found out about the Red Court's plans afterward.
Right place, right time, wrong person: it wasn't the first time I'd tripped headlong into a convergence of improbable events. Sooner or later it was going to happen again- and I'd rather be hanged for a sheep than for a lamb. Do, or do not: there is no try, and do not never pulled anyone's fat out of the fire.
Even if it was their own fault they were in the fire to begin with.
I'd taken a couple of steps toward establishing some outside checks and balances, at least: Billy knew the whole story now, and I'd managed to establish a conscious line of communication with Lasciel's shadow rather than leaving her unopposed to work her wiles on my subconscious. I'd also figured out how to veil my active thoughts from her awareness; kind of like shutting the barn door after the horse is gone, but it might slow her down a little. The Denarius was still physically buried under layers of magic and concrete where I couldn't easily get to it, and I regularly had Bob do a fingerprint check of the contents of my skull. And if I ever feared that I was getting too close to losing it- well, I'd promised myself I'd call Michael or Father Forthill and get it over with.
Until then- well. I still had some hope I'd be able to come up with a way to break the curse myself: to uproot the psychic beachhead Lasciel had created in my brain and get rid of the Denarius on my own. Hey, it could happen; like I said, improbable events converge on me all the time. When the time was right, I'd fight my way clear of it- and until then, I'd stand my ground and survive. Just like always.
...Well, maybe not just like always. I glanced at the Mickey Mouse clock on the mantel, sighed to see that it was already midnight, then dropped the squishy ball on the couch and leaned over to lift up the guitar.
I took my time settling the instrument in my lap, testing the range of movement in my left hand. The first two fingers, and my thumb, moved in slightly jerky motions; the last two didn't move much except when their neighbors were pulling them. Not very promising. But- I wasn't going to give up, not yet.
Not in this- and not in anything else, either.
I set my jaw, and tried the first few chords of "The House of the Rising Sun".