I'd known from the start that there was something a little... different... about Finch.

Well, maybe not from the very start. I'd been too caught up in my own pain to really pay much attention to the telltales when he'd first approached me. That was half the point of the alcohol, after all, during those long months after Ordos and the emptied Arndt house when all I wanted was to disappear: it blurred everything else down far enough that I could almost pretend none of it existed, either. But in the morning, after I woke ziptied to the headboard to an imperious phone call and the sounds of recorded terror? There was no mistaking the tingle of energy under his skin when I broke into the next room and pressed an arm against his throat.

I'm not a practitioner, myself. I suspect that if I was, I'd have ended up in an entirely separate branch of government service. I'm simply... sensitive to such things. Many field intelligence operatives are in these darkening days; we're the ones most likely to survive high risk missions to far flung locales where the shadows still reign, and also, perhaps not surprisingly, a much higher percentage of those recruited after the collapse of the Twin Towers than those before. By our very perceptiveness, we're less likely to tolerate the gradual downward spiral of the world around us without trying to do something about it.

Of course, not everyone with the eyes to see uses that knowledge in a constructive manner. The job Finch and I do would not be nearly so necessary if they did.

Finch, though: it only took that one touch for me to tell he was something more. Not by much; his presence didn't seem to be enough to disrupt electronics, one of the major warning signs I'd learned to look for in humans with preternatural abilities. Nor did he have trouble meeting my eyes, and he displayed none of the various traits that might signify a nonhuman predator. He simply... shone, with a flickering, liminal energy, if I looked at him just right. But it was what he did with that trickle of magic that made him so dangerous, not his weight class.

Even drunk, there was no way an ordinary man could have cuffed me to my bed without waking me.

Finch is a supernaturally sneaky son of a bitch, virtually unnoticeable when he exerts his power, and I'd have recognized that even if I hadn't been cornered by a concerned third party the week after I took out the trash for Megan Tillman. Tall, blond and mercenary stalked me deliberately enough to make it clear he could kill me at a distance if he chose, then led me into the Lyric Diner and sat at the same table I'd last eaten at with Finch. And then he asked about my intentions.

A lot of people have asked me what the hell I thought I was doing, over the years. Few have ever set my nerves to crawling as much as Kincaid did, that evening. I'm skilled, but at the end of the day I'm still just a guy with a gun- and I could tell, even more clearly than with Finch, that Kincaid was something other.

He means something to someone very important to me, he told me: keep that in mind.

I have nothing left to lose that Finch hasn't given me, I told him in turn: you'll have to trust me when I say he means something to me now, too.

What that something was would undoubtedly shift over time- but I expected it would exist in some form or another until the day one of us died, and I had no doubt Kincaid could see that in me as clearly as I could see the banked menace lurking in his shadow.

The conversation didn't last much longer. He left, and I never caught sight of him again. Nor did any of our cases afterward deal with overt preternatural activity- yet another sign that Finch had a foot in that world as well as the one I'd been born to. The literal monsters are just as capable of premeditation as those who wear human skins, but none of them ever came up in connection with a Number. Whether Finch was simply concealing them, or the mysterious Machine had been programmed to filter them out, the end result was the same. Any supernatural activity I discovered was dealt with on my own time.

I assumed that was part of the reason things had gone so wrong with Elias; by the time we encountered him, I had already internalized that sharp divide. Pattern and routine are deadly to men with my skillset, and I hadn't even noticed how comfortable I was becoming with my new job. When Finch called, I cast myself into the gap between human law and real justice; and when he didn't, I left out bread and milk for the tiny wyldfae to discourage them from mischief, ran off minor predators from the other side, dragged vampire victims- the bled kind and the soul-damaged kind, though the latter were less likely to cooperate- to addiction clinics, and referred anyone I couldn't directly help to the new paranormal network some optimistic soul set up a few years back.

Charlie Burton seemed as normal as I was. And in fact, he was just that; Carl Elias has no ability himself. But he knows it when he sees it, and he has no fear; he offers them what they want, and they offer what he wants in return. The money for his meteoric ascent comes from Court coffers- and he has practitioners enough around him to ensure he comes out on top in any given conflict. Until the day he doesn't- until his patrons have wrung every last drop of usefulness from him- that won't change.

Without more powerful assistance, Finch and I were spitting into the wind trying to stop him. He knew it, Elias knew it- and even I had to admit it, after the debacle with Leila. It took all the credit I had to arrange for my apartment, the library and Carter's house to be warded against threats less overt than a bullet; I knew no feasible way to protect the five Mafia dons whose numbers came up in response to Elias' rise, and from his continued silence on the subject, Finch didn't either.

We needed help. We didn't have it. But I didn't intend to let that stop me.

Fortunately- for a loose definition of the term- help arrived just before we set out to eavesdrop on the dons' monthly meeting.

Not that it looked like it at first glance. My first introduction to Harry Dresden was the sight of a lean, shaggy haired man about a head taller than I was, shrouded in a heavy leather trench coat and gray cloak, at the library doors. He wouldn't meet our eyes, he wore more rings than Jessica had had in her entire jewelry box- and he carried himself like a man braced to defy hurricane force winds. He simply spread empty hands at my stare and declared he was "visiting on Archival matters."

Finch stared for several seconds from the dim shade of the building, then nodded in return, lips thinned. "I am perfectly capable of looking after myself," he replied. "I left her personal service more than a decade ago. I don't need her charity."

Dresden looked momentarily surprised, eyebrows lifting; then shook his head, eyes flickering over Finch's careful stance. "You left her grandmother's service. And don't think I don't understand why. But Ivy still counts you among her Master Archivists; you haven't stopped doing the job. Besides, it isn't charity, it's pragmatism. This city is part of my territory, and the last thing I need is a mortal lord out here bowing and scraping to the Courts."

Finch's face froze as Dresden started speaking, and I felt an unexpected, sympathetic clench of pain in my chest. I knew that paralytic degree of grief. It was more than the loss of someone important; I knew Finch had experienced that around the same time I did, from the few threads I'd managed to unearth about his past. This was something older and deeper: the hollow left behind when an entire life is unexpectedly shaken from its foundations and left in ruins.

Perhaps that was the secret of his more recent recovery; of his ability to think outside himself, construct a scheme to help others, and give someone in equal straits a hand up while I still lacked the will to do more than simply exist. He'd experienced its like before.

Finch gave our visitor a wan, wry smile, and shook his head, breaking the thorny mood. "Ivy," he said. "So they gave her a name, after all. That's- that's good. When I severed my ties, they were still determined to keep her isolated from all personal contact."

"Yeah, well, they left her Kincaid," Dresden shrugged, casually throwing out the name as though he associated with people of that mercenary's caliber on a regular basis. "And I met them when she was- about seven? I didn't care what the Council thought, I wasn't about to go around calling her The Archive just on their say-so. You should see her with my cat, or a box of art supplies; she's definitely more than just a collection of data."

Finch's expression softened further, even as I tensed, dropping a hand to my concealed weapon; clearly, this Ivy's welfare meant a lot to him. "All right, then," he said, turning to head inside. "Be welcome, Mr. Dresden. Come in, and we'll fill you in on what we know."

Dresden eyed my posture consideringly as he followed. "Kincaid said you had potential," he said. "I think I see what he meant."

Different, it seemed, was an understatement for Finch's role in the magical world, and he'd told me nothing about it.

A headache started throbbing at my temple as I fell in behind him. It was going to be a very long day, I could already tell.