So this is just a little oneshot that I've been obsessed with for a little while now. I had to get it written; it wouldn't leave me alone. I've had to take some liberties with things such as ages and dates, I'm afraid, as Jim Butcher tends to be maddeningly unspecific when it comes to these things. If there are any glaring errors I've made which go contrary to the books let me know, please. I have tried my best. Also, please note that I haven't read Ghost Story yet, although it's in my queue, so this takes place really as if that never happened. If there are mistakes made which are through facts established in Ghost Story well, then, mea culpa.
In this, I am assuming that Molly was 24 in Changes, which was published in 2010, meaning she was born in 1986. Other dates and ages are all worked around that, even though I know that time-keeping in the Dresden 'verse can be a little wonky.
There's a lot of angst in here. Perhaps too much. I don't know. I cope really badly with life in general and I just fail to understand how fictional characters cope so well with situations much worse than I've ever experienced. So much of the stuff I write for most fandoms is just… characters dealing with stuff. Working it through. No one ever seems to pause to do that and that's probably a good thing, but I've always wondered why.
Anyway, the reading thing. Go and do it if you so wish.
Her boots crunched on a fresh layer of snow. It had fallen on top of several previous layers which had been packed treacherously into ice. This was in turn piled on top of grass brittle with the cold and iron-hard earth beneath that.
Molly's breath misted in the air in front of her and the bite of the cold wind wormed its way through chinks in the layers of clothing wrapped around her like armour. The cemetery was deserted, as one might expect given the temperature. Sunlight weakened by the season and the death throes of the afternoon glimmered all around her on the newest layer of untouched snow.
Chicago had finally seen a respite in the driving snowfall of the past week (global warming her ass) and the sky was a pearlescent pale blue, unmarred by clouds, and yawned widely above her. As she walked she listened to her exhalations, the squeaking as her shoes forced air from the snow on the ground, and the tweeting of a somewhat optimistic bird who was announcing spring a couple of months too early.
She was heading towards the north-east corner of Oak Woods Cemetery (not quite as fancy as Graceland, where Harry had his plot, but a graveyard was a graveyard, in her book) so she could also hear the strangled plashing of Lake Michigan in the very distance as it heaved sluggishly against ice. Apart from that and the occasional slither of a car on the other side of the cemetery's wall picking its way through the slush of snow melted with rock salt, silence reigned.
A sudden gust of icy wind blew the hair that wasn't pinned down by a woollen hat in her face and she spat it out, tasting conditioner. Recently, the blonde had become mysteriously lighter and lighter until she realised that it was actually just streaked through with white and silvery-grey. Age had added its own highlights.
She was long past dyeing her hair now; that was a folly of her youth and she had stopped with that when she turned thirty (which was a hundred years ago this year, she remembered). Still, maybe she'd give it one last go, buy a box of dye from the drug store to hide the grey. Go purple one last time, perhaps.
She certainly didn't miss the straw-like consistency over-processing with dye and products had reduced her hair to that was for sure. So maybe the grey was there to stay, just one more way for the universe to remind her that she was getting old. At a vastly slower rate than everyone else, sure, but she was still ageing. Even if her magic made sure she left everyone she knew or cared about in the dust.
She stopped in front of a cluster of granite headstones. Reaching out with a gloved hand she brushed away snow clinging to the lettering of the first one and read it to herself. Even after over six decades, the words still brought a lump to her throat.
Here lies Michael Joseph Patrick Carpenter
Devoted husband, father and grandfather
And his loving wife Charity Isobel Carpenter
Beloved wife, mother and grandmother
Once again, she found herself automatically repeating the same old mantra she had turned to just to try and dull the pain of them being gone. She was lucky to have them around for as long as she did — her parents had been old when they died. Her mother had lived to be 95, for crying out loud, mostly through sheer force of will and bullheadedness (and perhaps, even, partly due to her latent magical talent). Not many other people got to have their mom around for that long. Harry had only had his dad for fleeting seconds in comparison.
When her dad retired as a Knight of the Cross, he and her mom had gone on to live long, happy lives together, surrounded by children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. They had been happy and for such a long time so she knew she should be grateful for all of that time and yet…
It was never enough, not really.
Even as her brain retraced those same steps in her mind, reminding her to be grateful for the time she had had, it would never be enough. They were her parents. They had raised her, loved her unconditionally, even when she'd been acting pretty unlovable for a time there. They had sacrificed themselves over and over again for her. How was she meant to get used to them being gone? How did anyone? She was barely into middle age in wizarding terms at just 129. There was a long, hard slog ahead of her yet.
Molly sniffed heavily and turned to look in the direction of the lake, letting the cold wind bowling off its surface dry the tear that traced its way down her cheek. When she turned back to the headstones, her eyes were dry.
"Flos excresco," she murmured, feeling a practised eye-roll at the faux-Latin incantations that she had somehow picked up from Harry during her tutelage. She had originally told herself that she'd never use Latin like that (which she had dubbed Craptin, just to annoy him), that it was corny and old hat, but here she was. Maybe she was as old as the (non-doctored) version of her birth certificate said, even though she didn't look it.
From the ground of the grave burst forth spears of greenery, thrusting the snow aside. As she watched, they blossomed into a mixture of snowdrops and daffodils, waving merrily at her in the bitter wind. She smiled briefly at them, the expression dogged by sadness and not reaching her eyes, before turning to the next graves.
It had been difficult to get so many plots so close together, but Molly had been the recipient of numerous inheritances over the years, being so long-lived, and close to 130 years of compound interest her a relatively wealthy woman. It was fairly easy, with money behind you, to achieve what would have been impossible had she been poor. As such, the next generation of Carpenters were laid out next to their parents.
Six graves, belonging to her siblings and their spouses, were all covered in snow the same as her parents. She stepped over the second plot in the row — empty — the one she'd been saving for herself when the time came in couple of centuries or so (if Chicago even existed then, if the world hadn't changed beyond recognition). Then she started brushing snow from these graves as well.
The graves were arranged in order of birth, starting with her own plot and ending with little Harry's. The lump in her throat grew bigger, as it always did, as she brushed the snow from all of their names, traced her fingers over the lettering.
The Carpenter house had been beautiful in its crowdedness, its chaos. Children on children laughing and joking and talking… living. Jostling for the bathrooms, bickering over who ate the last of the cereal, who had borrowed whose favourite sweater and never given it back. They were a well-oiled machine though, when it came down to it, and the way they all pulled together when it was needed had just been part of who they were. It had been at the core of their family, spearheaded by Charity and later Michael after he retired.
They had been happy once, a long time ago. Looking back now, it was like some kind of blissful dream. The pandemonium contained inside the walls of their home, the white picket fence at its boundaries, made her chest ache to experience it again.
Hope had lasted the longest of all her siblings, dying aged 101. But the Hope that had been left after age had ravaged her was not the kid sister she remembered.
Wispy white hair, skin like crêpe paper, liver spots and the ever-present wheelchair did not epitomise the bubbly child whose diaper Molly had changed when Molly had been in her early teens. Then she had blown raspberries on Hope's belly, the way she had seen her mother do, inhaling the sweet smell of talc and diaper cream. Back then, Hope had had so much promise, so much potential. She could have grown and changed in an almost infinite number of ways, been whatever she wanted.
And then, a century later, Hope was done growing and changing. She had lolled limp in her wheelchair like an empty sack. No sparkle. No promise. No potential. Just age. Years and years and years, written across Hope's face in a spider-web of lines and furrows so that she barely looked like her sister anymore.
It had hurt to see her sister like that, withering away to nothing in a home when Molly remembered how things used to be.
Molly had posed as a great-niece and visited as often as possible, especially when her sister approached her mid-nineties and Molly began to sense that there wasn't much time left. Hope had started to get confused and very, very tired towards the end. She had been weary, just waiting to go. Her legs were badly ulcerated due to poor blood flow because of her failing heart and so she couldn't walk.
To Molly, it was practically yesterday that Hope had been running around playing tag with her older siblings.
Molly remembered Hope crying when she was younger, wishing she was older so she could go to school with the rest of the Carpenter kids or stay up late with them and then suddenly there she was. Older. In a wheelchair. Slowly dying.
It felt like Hope had wished too hard to grow up back then and this was some wicked faerie's warped granting of that wish. It wasn't, though (although Molly wished it was so she could pump said faerie bitch full of iron and have her sister back) — it was just the passage of time that had done it.
It had done the same to all of her siblings, just like it had done to her parents before her.
And despite all that time had taken for her, her parents, her siblings, everything else, her magic had made sure that time had left her pretty much alone. The grey in her hair was a sign of her advancing years, sure, but it was the grey you might find on the head of a fifty-something — Molly was 129. Yet here she still was. Still going. Still living, still breathing, even though the weight of loss threatened constantly to squash her flat.
Molly had fallen apart so many times over the years and got back up again. Each death knocked her down on her ass and then she had just got back up again. What else was there to do? She couldn't lie down in her empty plot and wait to die just because it had happened to everyone else she knew.
Molly wondered if this was why so many wizards seemed to be alone. Could they not cope with the losses associated with becoming close to mortals? It wouldn't surprise her. The sheer amount of death she had seen in almost 130 years had left her riddled with holes she was sure would never heal.
The lump in her throat swelled until she could barely breathe for the pressure it made. She shuffled over to the last grave in the row and brushed the snow off just as she had before. Still the words made her cry, the pain as fresh now as it had been twenty-five years ago today when she had been stood at this graveside watching the burial.
Michael Harry Joshua Carpenter
Son, husband, father, grandfather.
May he rest in peace.
She had stopped dyeing her hair aged 30 when it became apparent she was going to be a mother. It wasn't something she had wanted or even planned but from the second she saw those little blue lines on that pregnancy test she had loved her yet unborn son fiercely.
Back then, sitting on the edge of the bath and waiting, she had been certain that she wanted a negative test and that the last thing she wanted was a child. But then she'd seen that it had been positive and suddenly… things had changed, just like that. There was no real way of explaining it but it had happened right there and then. She had suddenly gained a whole new perspective on her mother's actions over the years and wanted and loved that child more than anything. For the first time in a long time, she'd had a purpose: to be a mother.
It had helped to make her feel whole again.
The guy she had been with at the time was the culmination a string of meaningless relationships she had had after Harry had been shot, after the final battle with the Red Court had left her physically and mentally scarred. She had fallen prey to a lot of things then, relationships with the wrong type of men being just one of them. He hadn't stuck around once he had found out she was pregnant but that was okay. She hadn't needed him.
It wasn't that she had been abused. Hell no. She would smack anyone who tried upside the head so hard they'd be seeing stars without the need for a One Woman Rave; she hadn't been that far from herself. It was just that it had been a confusing time for her. She had needed someone, anyone, to be with. It didn't matter if he was the right person, The One — all she had wanted was the other side of the bed filled when she woke up sweating and screaming from the nightmares. She had seen people torn apart, not just with her eyes but with her psychic senses as well. It had left a big mark, it had left her unsure of herself, who she was, what her place was in life.
And unfortunately, for a time, she had thought that the 'right' place was in the arms of losers because they were the only ones who would have someone so damaged. She had been so broken that she had felt that they were the only men she deserved.
Her son, Michael, had been born in 2016, a hundred years ago this year. She had buried him on this very spot twenty-five years ago today. Just like with Hope, the rest of her siblings and her parents before that, she had had a ringside seat to his deterioration into old age while time barely gave her a cursory glance.
There had been the hope that perhaps he would have magical talent, just like she did and just like her mother had before that, but there was no trace of it to be found. He was just a regular mortal, with a regular mortal lifespan. There was no magic to save him, no way that he could keep his mother company as time flowed around her like water instead of through her, like it did everyone else.
And so he had died.
Almost everyone has to bury their parents at some point in their lives. It's a fact of life. It hurt and it was painful and she wished that she had never had to but it happened across the world each and every day. The old go first. The young outlive them.
Burying a child, on the other hand, was something different.
No parent should ever have to bury their child.
It went against the laws of nature — it wasn't right, it wasn't fair somehow. She should have gone first. And yet she had done it a quarter of a century ago and still kept living. Still she stood here, waiting for her time, knowing that it could be centuries, plural, from now before she ever got to rest.
She got knocked down. She got up again.
Despite all of her magical talent, despite what Harry had insisted on calling her 'gifts', she hadn't been able to save her own son as cancer ate away inside his abdomen, turning him cadaverously thin with translucent skin stretched over bone like tissue paper. What had started in his liver had spread too far and too fast for even the medical advances of the day to save him. He was old, they said. Treatment was harsh and vigorous and too much for his enfeebled body to handle.
Demanding in a voice choked with tear to his doctors, begging oncologists to do something because he wasn't old, he was so young, only earned her really odd looks because he had been 75. They didn't know that she was pushing 105 and she had met wizards who had shoved 300 aside half a century ago and were still marching onwards and upwards. Living. Breathing.
All of the things her son could no longer do.
All things she had no idea how she had continued to do after she had buried her son.
Michael, her son, had had a wife and three children, Molly's grandchildren. The oldest, Samuel, was already 63. Samuel had two twin sisters, Ruth and Jessica, who had left 60 behind them a year or so ago as well. Molly had already begun to recognise in Samuel the signs of age. They weren't so noticeable yet, but they were there. The thinning hair and skin. The slight stoop to the walk, the shuffling, the flashes of pain darting across his face when he got up from his chair. Wrinkles on wrinkles around his mouth and eyes, signs that he had lived and laughed and loved and cried.
In 20 years, she'd still be stood here, visiting these graves.
In 20 years, she'd probably have buried her first grandchild also.
That wouldn't be here, though. Nine plots in one place was enough of an ask, even with her means. Plus, who wanted to be buried with their great aunts and uncles, their great-grandparents? Ruth lived in Florida now, Jessica in New York. Her family, what was left of it, was spreading itself far and wide and as hard as she tried to hold on to all the threads, to keep them all together, be the matriarch her mother had been… things had slipped.
Samuel, Ruth and Jessica also had not an ounce of magical talent between them. She had hoped (desperately now) that it had skipped a generation, that her grandchildren would share her talents (and, selfishly, her longevity), but that wasn't the case.
Once, before Harry had had his way with the Red Court and everything had gone to hell in a handbasket, she had asked why she had received magical talent and none of her siblings had.
Harry had (very diplomatically) told her that, in some families, magic wasn't handed straight down from parent to child like it had been with him and his mother. Sometimes all siblings had talent; sometimes none. He had also hinted that she should ask her mother about it, and she had, which is when she had found out about Charity's early experiences with magic and when things had started to make a lot more sense.
Her mother had disliked Harry so vehemently at first because she was terrified that if her children saw him using magic, should they also be so capable because of her lineage, it would encourage them to turn towards their gift. Charity had thought that her children would be encouraged to nurture their magic to fight the good fight where she had let her talents slip and that it would be a dark and dangerous road to follow, one she didn't want her children mixed up in.
Well, in Molly's case Charity had been right. Molly had turned towards magic, turned to doing good (eventually). So perhaps it wasn't a completely unfounded fear on her mother's part.
Still, it turned out that in some families receiving the magic chromosomes (try throwing that one at your high school biology teacher) was more random than in others. Hers turned out to be one of those families. So here she was. Protected by magic that her son and grandchildren hadn't got a share in. She got to live forever in comparison to most mortals. And every second of that forever was filled with the memories of those who weren't so lucky.
Her family, deep in the ground.
The sigh she let out puffed into a cloud of mist in front of her face. When you lived for so long, everyone else's life seemed sped up in comparison somehow. It seemed only yesterday that Samuel had been calling her from the hospital, telling her to come and hold her first great-grandchild. She was a gorgeous baby. Born with a full head of blonde hair and blue eyes you could get lost in. Lily Carpenter.
It hadn't been yesterday, though. It had been thirty-eight years ago. Lily had been to high school, been to college. Lily had a freaking MBA and wore pantsuits to work. She had fallen in love, got married, provided Molly with her first great-great-granddaughter, because that was something that actually happened when you lived to be almost 130. Even that had been thirteen years ago.
So much had changed. So many things were different. And throughout all of that, Molly had stood basically unchanged. Life waxed and waned around her, bursting into bloom and shrivelling to dust and she could only watch. She never got to participate, not really. Just stand by and observe as everyone around her that she knew and loved, that she depended on, grew old and died.
She murmured her incantation again, watched as flowers bloomed across all of their graves.
She was still here — she got knocked down, she got back up again.
By now, Molly had lost count of the amount of times over the past century plus that her life had fallen to pieces, shattered into a million tiny shards, and she had got back up again. Picked up the pieces. Put them back together. What else wasthere to do?
She got knocked down, she got up again. And again and again. Then and now, then and always. She owed that much to all of the people lying six feet below her, to Harry.
"What have I told you about making veils in the snow?" she called out, her voice ringing out clearly in the frozen air. Molly turned to where a set of footprints had come to a halt and heard a surprised squeak. She cocked an eyebrow and waited.
The veil vanished in a shimmer like that which bounced off concrete on a hot day and revealed a girl in her early teens. She was wearing a heavy winter coat and was carrying a shopping bag in one hand. Molly's blue eyes had persisted in subsequent generations but the girl's hair was dark; she had inherited her father's colouring there. Amelia Shale, Molly's oldest great-great grandchild, had flushed to the roots of her hair, adding to her cold-rouged cheeks.
"Uh," Amelia stuttered. "Don't… don't…" Her eyebrows knitted together confusedly.
Molly rolled her eyes, walking over to Amelia and gently placing her hand on the girl's shoulder. Molly turned Amelia around and pointed out the smaller footprints that roughly followed Molly's own, much-larger prints.
"You have to remember that even under a veil, you leave tracks," Molly said patiently. "It's no good not being seen in person if everyone can tell you're there by looking behind you. Plus, you need to work on your traceability. I could sense magic was manipulating my senses."
Amelia nodded, chewing on her lower lip in thought. "Okay," she said eventually. "I can figure that out."
"Here," Molly said, picking up a handful of snow. She blew on it gently and it swirled into a flurry, multiplying in mid-air and airbrushing away Amelia's tracks. Sure she was showing off and sure she didn't need a handful of snow to do something as basic as hiding footprints but hey, she'd learned under Harry. If he'd taught her one thing, it was panache.
"Does your mom know you're gone?" Molly asked, going for stern but missing by a furlong or two as usual. Try as she might, she could never pull stern grandmother off. It seemed so hypocritical, somehow, after all she had seen and done in her long life.
"She thinks I'm staying late at school practising the viola," Amelia said, wrinkling her nose. "I came to see you instead but you were just leaving when I got there so I followed."
"The viola is important to your mom," Molly said, wondering if she'd come any closer to stern in this wild game of ring toss she was playing with it. "She wants you to do well. And you're pretty talented. Practically a virtuoso."
Amelia rolled her eyes. "You have to say that. You're related."
"Hey, my opinion counts because, related or not, you didn't get your musical talent from the Carpenters, believe me," Molly said, starting to walk back towards the cemetery's gates with Amelia in tow. "Your eyes and your attitude, sure. Lord knows where the music came in. I can't carry a tune in a bucket."
Amelia sniggered. "I know."
Molly glanced wistfully over her shoulder to where her additions to the graves were already wilting in the cold. "And remember, out of all of my siblings? I had the best voice. Scary, huh? Come on. Let's go."
Amelia nodded pensively, following Molly's gaze. She was quiet for a minute, trudging through the snow at Molly's side.
"Am I going to be alone one day?" Amelia asked suddenly. She stopped dead, her eyes shimmering with tears as she looked up at Molly.
Molly frowned, dropping to her knees in front of Amelia. She produced a wadded up tissue from her coat pocket and handed it to Amelia just in time, managing to intercept just before the tears began to fall proper.
"What?" Molly asked. "Kiddo, no. Of course not. Why do you say that?"
Amelia abandoned all pretence with the tissue and began crying in earnest, her tears steaming slightly as they slid down her face. "I'm the first once since you, aren't I?" she asked thickly. "The first one with magic?"
Molly closed her eyes and sighed internally. How was she meant to make something like this better when she hadn't managed to make it better for herself yet? "Well, yes," she said eventually. The snow was seeping through her jeans; her knees were going numb.
"And you're all alone," Amelia said, her voice rapidly thickening further as sobs caught in her throat. "You're like a 150 and you… you're all by yourself."
Molly snorted gently. "Hey, kiddo. I'm not even 130 yet. Give me a break."
"It doesn't matter," Amelia said. "You're still sad. You still come and visit great-grandpa Michael and… everyone else. Isn't that going to happen to me?"
Molly wanted to lie, to say no, that Amelia wouldn't end up like her one day but she couldn't bring herself to drop such a huge untruth. Instead, she swept her great-great-granddaughter up in a hug. "Come here," she said, pressing Amelia's body, which was hitching with sobs, into hers.
"I don't want it," Amelia said eventually, choking on her first full-on sob as she succumbed to the hug. "I don't want to be different. Please don't make me."
Molly's stomach gave an unpleasant twist. It was like someone was stabbing her in the gut. "I'm sorry," she said into Amelia's ear, rubbing the kid's back soothingly. "But look, kiddo… I can't change you. You are who you are. You are gorgeous and talented and sweet and kind and strong and brave and smart and you're going to be a kick-ass practitioner some day. Do I wish that I hadn't passed this on to you? Maybe. But you have so much potential. Do you know how much good you could do with your magic? The people you could save, the lives you could change for the better? You have to think about the good. Let it outweigh the bad."
"Everyone's going to die," Amelia whimpered. "And I'm going to be left by myself."
Molly broke the hug and tilted Amelia's chin up, carefully avoiding meeting her full gaze. Amelia's cheeks were wet; pellucid tears glistened like tiny crystals in the fading sunlight. "Listen to me. I am not going anywhere for the next couple of centuries. At least. I will be here for you no matter what. And even after that you're going to have a family one day. People to look out for you. You're never going to be alone."
Amelia's throat bobbed uncertainly. "You promise?" she asked.
"Cross my 130-year-old heart," Molly said. "Look at me — even after 130 years, I've got you and your mom and your grandpa, don't I?"
Amelia sniffed and then blew her nose on Molly's tissue before squirrelling it away in the pocket of her coat. "Okay," she said, exhaling heavily. She swallowed hard, gnawing on her lower lip. Although she still looked troubled, the tears had stopped.
Molly's gut twisted again as she recognised the signs of Amelia pushing the conflict deep down inside her. She wanted to tell her not to do that, that leaving it to fester in the dark only made things worse, but Amelia was so young. If she didn't want to confront the fact that she probably had another four centuries in her, if she was lucky, then who was Molly to make her?
"Good girl," Molly said instead. "I wish I'd been half as brave at your age as you are." Molly got to her feet and started brushing at her knees. "Come on, Padawan. Let's get out of here."
"Padawan?" Amelia said hesitantly, trying the word out in her mouth. She wrinkled her nose at the unfamiliarity of it.
"Junior Jedi?" Molly tried. Amelia still looked at her blankly. "Oh God," Molly said, throwing back her head and groaning. "I'm so old. When did this happen? I used to be cool." Had Harry felt like this all the time when she'd been around?
Amelia regarded her sceptically. "When?"
Ouch. Straight from the mouths of babes.
"Hey, your great-great-grandmother was seriously cool. Back during the early 21st century—" Molly started, before she heard herself. She closed her eyes and reached out to pat Amelia on the head. "Let's go home," she said tiredly, sliding her hand down to rest on Amelia's neck and leading her gently along. "Grandma needs a drink."
"Can we bake cookies?" Amelia asked.
"Have we met?" Molly asked dryly. "Remember me, kiddo? I'm not that kind of grandma. You're talking to the woman who was eighty before she found out you didn't actually toast French toast. Martha Stewart I am not."
Amelia delved into her shopping bag and pulled out a box of cookie mix, rattling it at Molly. "I remembered," she said. Then, "Who's Martha Stewart?"
Molly shook her head in disbelief. "Really? What are they even teaching you kids in school these days?"
"Geometry?" Amelia tried.
Molly snorted, then took the box from Amelia and examined it. It had to be Divine Intervention that Betty Crocker had stuck around for as long as it had, just so she didn't look like a total failure as a grandma. Amelia held her shopping bag open and Molly put the cookie mix away.
The graves were hidden from sight now over the crest of the hill behind her. In front of her, the cemetery's wrought-iron gates lead to the world beyond.
As they left the cemetery, Molly slipped her hand into Amelia's. After checking no one could see her in that self-conscious teenage manner, Amelia squeezed back. A lightness in Molly's chest grew as they picked their way through ice and snow with the promise of a warm house and fresh-baked cookies awaiting them.
"I love you," Amelia said quietly, breaking the comfortable silence that had fallen over them as they passed through the gates.
"Yup. Back atcha, kiddo," Molly said.
And then she smiled.