I came home on Christmas Day. The Guardsman who found me in the wreckage of Cellular Field would swear up and down that I hadn't been there a moment ago when he looked, that he would have remembered seeing a naked man lying in the bleachers, but it didn't matter. I was home. I was back in Chicago, alive and breathing, and the sky was clear and blue. And it was freaking cold out.
In the end, the massive fires and destruction were all blamed on gas leaks caused by the earthquake, but as icing on the cover-up cake, the rumours of a terrorist attack were talked down, but never fully dispelled. I assume a few holes in the official story were put there on purpose to give the conspiracy nuts something to focus on besides the possibility of magic. I don't think I have to say that the government – at least a few departments – were complicit in the cover-up. And I also probably don't have to say that the survivors weren't talking. Pretty much everyone felt the same way: Who the hell would believe them?
A few hours after I got back to reality, the first one to hear and find me was, naturally, Karrin. By the time she tracked me down at what amounted to a refugee camp in Westchester, I'd scrounged up some jeans and a sweat shit, but hadn't really gotten my strength back – she flying-tackled me in a tight hug that threw me to the ground. I didn't mind, and she never apologised. As I recall, all I said was, "Missed you, too." She just squeezed harder. For that moment, it was enough.
The reconstruction of Greater Chicago was to take years – and created, all told, several thousands of jobs. A remarkable number of those jobs were in construction, controlled demolition, and waste disposal, a great many of the contracts awarded to companies owned by John Marcone, a local business hero who was recovering from a nasty injury (he'd taken a chunk of flying masonry through the shoulder).
I hated it, but I supposed it was better than letting the contracts go to an outsider who wouldn't know or care for Chicago at all. He was helped in his endeavour by his trusted operations manager, Helen Demeter. Ms. Demeter's daughter, who was comatose, was housed in a private room at the finest hospital in the tri-state area, and visited daily by her mother, who everyone said was a warm, lovely woman.
Overall, the loss of life was pegged at around 4000, give or take. An exact figure was never and could never be named. I hated that, too. I knew I wasn't directly responsible for each and every one of those deaths, but I accepted that some of the blame was on me. This was my town, after all. I could only resolve to do better in the future.
Of course, I'd have to do better with fewer allies. Oh, the Alphas stayed, most of them, anyway. This was their town, too. And Will and Georgia were not long before they had a little cub on the way.
But Thomas was leaving. His apartment had survived everything with only minor structural damage, and was cleared for habitation almost immediately. Karrin and I moved into his spare bedroom with little convincing. He and Justine spent that night elsewhere. (In gratitude, I think we managed to only blow out three lightbulbs. And maybe the TV.)
"So you two are off to LA?" I asked at the one and only dinner that Karrin, Thomas, Justine and I had together.
"Off to see family," he said, standing over a two-days late Christmas dinner, one hand pouring red wine, and one hand on Justine's shoulder. "Well, Dad's side."
Justine had her hand on his, and they were both smiling. "Inari and Bobby, of course," she said. "Then, we were thinking Egypt."
"Egypt?" Karrin said with a raised eyebrow. "You have family in Egypt?"
Justine looked up at Thomas. He smiled and glanced over at the door, where the great Sword Amoracchius rested against the wall. "Just… had an idea I could do some good there."
Murph smiled. "I know what you mean."
I drove to the airport in a car that Thomas had arranged for me, as a Christmas present. Or, as he said, "The last Christmas present you're ever getting from me. Ever." A 1967 Corvette Stingray. I tried to refuse, and he tried to point out that I was an idiot, and in the end I saw his point. It was blue, of course, but it didn't really replace the Blue Beetle. It just succeeded it. I gave it a month, maybe two, before it broke down irreparably, but I planned to enjoy the lead out of it in the meantime.
Just before heading off for their security frisking, Thomas embraced me. "Lara's agreed to keep paying for the apartment, for six months. Long enough for you to get on your feet, I thought."
"Appreciate it. Don't really have much at the moment."
He glanced at Karrin and gave her a wink. "You've got plenty, little brother." Then he clapped my shoulder and walked off hand in hand with Justine.
The same day my brother – and, I dared think, my future sister-in-law – caught their flight, we also saw off a few others. Sanya was heading back to Russia, for the first time in a couple of years.
"Home is where the hearth is," he said, shaking my hand.
"Heart," I corrected.
"If you had ever been to Russia in winter, you would know I said it right." He turned to Murphy and favoured her with one of his huge smiles. "I shall see you soon, I think."
"Not too soon, I hope," she said, and gave him a hug. She seemed freer with the hugs lately.
He just laughed. "Never too soon to do good and kill evil!" He drew a few looks from passer-by, but no security personnel. Of course. Then he was on his way, too.
When Elaine was ready for her own departure, Karrin very suddenly had to go buy a candy bar from a vending machine. Women and their crazy cravings.
"You're not actually taking a plane, are you?"
She shook her head. "Stars, Harry, I'm not crazy. It would probably be safe, but the Way I know is faster."
"Of course it is." I shook my head, not really sure what to say. "I'm not good at this part."
"Me neither. Never have been." We both looked like a pair of awkward teenagers. Tall, gangly teenagers. Completely unsure of ourselves or out bodies, maybe not even our minds. Certainly not our loins. Finally, she took the plunge. "I'm happy for you."
I smiled, though it was a sad smile. "Thank you."
"Don't suppose I could convince you to come to LA sometime?"
"Maybe in a few months. Once things calm down here."
She nodded. "Plenty of Paranet work to get at."
"Maybe I could come out, and we could have a Paranet-con."
"That actually sounds like a good idea."
"I'll call you," I said.
She nodded. We shook hands for a second, two, then we were embracing. In that moment, I knew we would stay friends.
We separated naturally, neither of us pulling away from the other. "Take care," I said.
"Always." Then she, too, was heading away.
The next good-bye was at home, and it followed a hello. When Karrin and I got back to the Gold Coast apartment, I slammed on the brakes and jumped out of the Blue Vette. I took ten steps and fell to my knees. I wrapped my arms around Mouse's neck, and he even got a paw around my back. I pulled back and got both hands on his big, shaggy, beautiful head. "Good to see you, buddy."
He huffed at me, then let his tongue out and licked my face – and I mean my entire face – once. Then he looked down, and I saw Mister. I picked the ridiculous cat up, struggling only a little. "Just as good to see you, too." He looked completely unimpressed.
We were settled in not five minutes when I got a page from the ground floor. I had some… interesting visitors.
McCoy, Ramirez and the Gatekeeper needed to talk. And I needed to talk to them. No one asked Murphy to leave. Rashid had replaced his missing eye with a new one, that looked just like the one he'd had before. I finally had a chance to explain to them what happened after the sylphs grabbed me at the stadium. I went as far as the Walker escaping. "This mess with Luccio," McCoy grumbled, "has left us in a bind. She left a note for Chandler. A lot of Wardens – including Chandler, who should be the natural successor – are having a problem with it. No one knows who to trust." He looked at me, rather pointedly.
"Not a chance in hell," I said.
"I don't want to you to be captain, hoss; I know how you feel about the whole business. I want you to pick the next captain."
"Oh. Well, that's easy. The only Warden I know and trust is sitting right here."
"Me?" Carlos said. "You can't be serious."
"Why not? Is it the hand thing? You can get a hook, like a pirate."
"No, man. I'm too young."
The Gatekeeper leaned forward. "You may have noticed, Warden Ramirez, that the majority of Wardens are quite young these days. And that both you and Wizard Dresden command a great deal of respect from them. With his endorsement, even the Merlin would concede to your appointment."
I gave Rashid a finger-gun. "There you go."
"But, but…" Ramirez took a second to find his voice. "But there's so much paperwork."
I laughed. Karrin slapped him on the shoulder. "You'll do fine, kid. Police work is half paperwork, anyway."
I wanted to laugh at his face – a cross between scared, excited and resigned – but something else was on my mind. "Sir? One other thing?"
McCoy took a breath and nodded. "Molly?"
"Don't worry, hoss. I don't think it'll be hard to talk Mai into letting her re-sit them. She's a stickler for not leaving any loose threads dangling."
I nodded, somewhat satisfied. It was the best I could hope for, really.
"Of course, there's a Senior Council position open. And whoever takes it will have a grace period where their every word will be considered, even in matters like getting an apprentice a second go at her exams."
One of my eyebrows crawled into my hairline. "What are you saying, Sir?"
"I've had a vague and unofficial conversation with Langtry. Considering, well, everything, he's agreed to offer the opening to you, if you want it."
"Holy shit, Dresden," Ramirez said. "Uh, sorry, sirs," he added.
I sat back. The Merlin was quite a politician; given the lowered age of the majority of wizards these days, and the fact that so many of them knew me, I'd be a popular choice. I knew in a blink that I'd never take it; I didn't need more power or temptation, and my PI business – my whole life, really – was going to need my complete attention right now. "Tell him I'll think about it," I said.
I finished the story, which, up to that point, only Karrin had heard all the way through. Carlos looked at me with awe, McCoy nodded soberly and nodded as though he expected nothing else. The Gatekeeper hardly moved a muscle.
I walked them to the door. While McCoy and Ramirez waited in the hall, the Gatekeeper shook my hand. He didn't let go quickly, but rather leaned in close and spoke in a low voice. "You understand, now? The importance of the Gates?"
"Stars and stones, yes."
"Good. That is good. Should I ever retire, there is now someone who understands. Someone who could, if necessary, take my place." He squeezed my hand, nodded deeply, and turned away.
I was left shaking my head.
Four days later, I walked Molly from the hospital to her re-test. The Merlin took Captain Luccio's place in the exam panel himself. To no one's surprise, Molly passed with flying colours. I was the first to congratulate her. I hugged her, almost knocking her over since she still couldn't put much weight on her one leg. "I'm proud of you, grasshopper."
"Thanks, teach. Couldn't have done it without you. Obviously."
It was New Year's Eve the following day, and we celebrated at the Carpenter house – which had survived the past month with nary a scratch. Of course.
At the celebration, Michael and Charity were hard-pressed to let Molly go. Alicia and Kelly were inseparable, and even Daniel managed to cast off his seriousness for a night.
But Karrin seemed distracted. I caught her sitting near the fireplace, keeping young Harry Carpenter company while he droned on about some cartoon based on a videogame. I touched her shoulder. "Sorry, little man. Need to borrow this lady."
"M'kay," he said, and dashed off to corner one of his sisters.
"You okay?" I asked, plunking down next to her.
She took a deep breath. "I've been getting a call."
"I'll be back, you know."
I looked her right in the eye. "I know. I have faith."
She smiled and kissed me. We spent the rest of the evening near each other, and kissed again at the stroke of midnight. I had high hopes for the new year.
I had trouble letting her go a couple days later at the airport. It would have been an odd sight; a 6 and a foot tall man refusing to let go of a 5 foot nothing woman – but anyone who knew us knew she could have broken my grip at any second. The good-bye wasn't quick, but it was sweet. I waited until she was invisible behind the security checkpoint before leaving.
I was in the parking garage, near my new car, keys in hand, when I felt the chill up my back. I suddenly had a longing for my duster. I'd have to get a new one soon. I turned around. The Winter Lady was there. She was dressed conservatively, for her. A small jacket over a tight blue tee shirt, and jeans that actually had some give in them.
"Queen to Be," I said.
"So respectful," she said, and took a few steps closer. She limped a little. "Mother wishes you to know, she expects you at Court tomorrow." She stepped right up to me. "I'd be more than happy to escort you," she said, leaning in close.
"I'm sure you would, Lady," I said, checking my temper. "But that is tomorrow. Today, I'm afraid I'm not… good company."
She grinned at me. "Oh, dear Harry, are we sad?"
I said nothing, just set my jaw and stared over her head.
"Oh, so serious. Not as much fun as Lloyd. But so much more capable. In the morning, Mr. Knight," she said. She slunk away from me, heading for a shadow. In a moment, she was gone.
I got into the car, and just breathed for a three-count. I was still under Winter's thumb. Well, I'd worry about that later. Tonight, I had one more night to myself. And I was glad I didn't have to say good-bye to Karrin in the morning.
The drive back, I took my time, trying to enjoy everything, even the other drivers who cut me off.
I was back in the apartment less than a minute when there was a knock at the door. Which was odd, since visitors had to get buzzed up. A neighbour? I opened the door and was greeted with a spectacular sight that left me breathless.
She smiled, and it was bright and friendly and perfect. "Hello, Harry."
"How?" I couldn't speak in sentences longer than a syllable.
Another figure, an older black man, stepped into view, and he smiled just as brightly. "Uriel?"
"May we come in?"
I shook my head. "Of course."
I have no memory of moving back into the apartment or sitting down, but then we were there. "You… you're solid?"
"I am… restored," she said.
"I don't - "
"You are looking at Lasciel," Uriel said. "Not a shadow, not an illusion. A full Angel."
"But, you vanished – I felt you go."
"Yes," she said, looking at Uriel. "That was… a unique experience."
"It was a unique set of circumstances," the Archangel said.
"What do you mean?" I asked.
The two superior beings exchanged a look. "A redemption," Uriel said.
"Redemption?" My eyes snapped back to my former ride-along partner. She smiled again.
"Lasciel's coin," Uriel said, is gone.
"Gone? But… I thought that destroying the coins was impossible."
"From the outside, yes." He put a hand on Lash's shoulder. "From the inside, that is another story. It may be a long time to show a benefit, but the coin is gone. There are only 29, now. The balance has tipped, finally, in favour of the light."
We talked for a little while more. Or at least I think we did. I know I asked some questions, and I know there were answers. But damned if I can remember what any of them were. I only know I was left with a feeling of great hope. It was enough.
A few minutes after they left, I went to the window and watched the sky change colour as the sun went down. As darkness settled in, there was another knock at the door. I turned, smiling, and headed to answer it. Then I heard Mouse growl, and stopped, looking at him. He was staring at the door, teeth bared. I approached the door more slowly, shield bracelet ready. I pulled the door open.
Standing in the hall, leaning against the doorway, was a perfectly plain looking, non-descript man. He could have been anyone. I'd never met him before, didn't know his face. He wore jeans and a jacket, and a red shirt. It was a bit obvious, really.
I knew who he was.
"Hi, Lou," I said.
"Harry Dresden," he said, and it rolled of his tongue like silk.
"What do you want?"
"Oh, not much you can give me, really. I have to admit, I honestly thought the game was over, this time."
"The game?" I asked. "Oh, of course. Job was the first player, wasn't he?"
"Very good. The stakes double every generation. It finally led to your vanishing act. But yet, you came through. A shame, really, that you're not playing anymore."
"Oh, I'm still willing to play. When you're up for it, you know how to find me; I'm in the book." And I slammed the door in the Devil's face. Things weren't perfect, but they weren't broken, either. And neither was I.
A/N: Thank you. Thank you to everyone who read right from the beginning, and to everyone who found this story after it was finished.
I hope you enjoyed it, and I hope to write another one someday. This one took three years, though, so no holding of breath.