A/N: Hey, guys. This short story was written to celebrate the awesome JoeltotheD on his birthday. Though it's AU, I would time the events between Turn Coat and Changes, so it is definitely spoilery up to that point. Also, it doesn't require previous knowledge to be read, but if you've read my stories Requiem for Stuck Pop Stars and On the Fringe of Superheroes, you'll find that some things are familiar. That's because it's the same weirdo universe.
Tremendous thank you to mxpw for first encouraging me before I even started, helping me prepare for the story, supporting me while I was writing, giving me his thoughts along the way, and beta reading this chapter, not only excellently, but in record time. Thank you, Maximus. Molly and I couldn't have done it without you.
Joel, I hope that writing you a Molly story will make up for all the in-jokes in there. I take comfort in knowing that you *had* to know this day would happen. :D More importantly, I hope you're having a great day, and that you'll have some fun reading this. Happy birthday!
The whole story is written, or at least the first draft is, so it will be completed, no worries on the matter. However, I don't know when I'll be able to update the three remaining chapters. I'll try not to make you wait too long. Thanks for reading and enjoy!
Chapter 1: Out for a Muffin
Molly looked over The Stud Shop's front. She had never been to this coffee shop before, and it didn't look like Harry Dresden's usual scene. For one thing, it was very bright, large windows allowing an amount of light far superior to any place he usually enjoyed going. The red paint across the front was paired with white coloring inside, saved for the light grey of the tables, chairs, and counters—so much light. Plus, it was a coffee shop. Sure, Harry liked donuts and coffee, but he didn't go to coffee shops. The IHOP, Burger King, and McAnally's were where he went. Something was up.
The sound of the announcing bell at the door shook Molly out of her thoughts on the sidewalk, and she rushed inside when realizing Harry hadn't waited for her.
"What are we doing here?" Molly asked, as she joined Harry in line, trying not to pay attention to the stares around them.
"I'm thinking blueberry," Harry said, "but that seems like the obvious choice. What do you think?"
"For my muffin," he said. Molly frowned at the counter of baked goods in front of them. "Thomas says they have the best muffins in town."
Molly felt her frown increase. "You've seen Thomas?"
"Not yet," Harry said, stepping closer to her for an instant, as one of the customers ahead of them left with his order.
Molly had to look away. Directly to her right, next to the door, were three little round tables, and a door with bathroom signs. In front, where Harry and she were queuing up, was the counter of baked goods, with two employees behind it, coffee beans on display, and coffee machines against the wall. The counter ended in an L-shaped bar, with three or four barstools, Molly couldn't tell. In the following corner, a TV was hung, and though it was on, the sound had been muted. A sofa and a couple of really comfortable-looking armchairs circled around a coffee table at the foot of the TV screen, making the space resemble a lounge. Everywhere else were tables and chairs, not necessarily aligned, as customers seemed to be moving around the furniture quite a lot.
"Pineapple chocolate chip muffin sounds intriguing," Harry said. "Oh, look, you're in luck! They even got that organic crap you like."
"You'll change your tune when I'll still look like I do, and you'll be a hundred-years-old," Molly told him. "But since you're mentioning it, I'd love one, thank you."
"I wasn't off—fine," he said, and seeing as it was their turn, he moved to the counter. Harry started with the coffees, and to Molly's appreciation, he got her "organic crap" order right. Although, she had to roll her eyes at Harry giving Star Wars character names for the order. "One blueberry, one pineapple chocolate chip, and…one apple, please."
"So what you're saying," Molly said, "is that you're not hung—"
"Oh, sorry," a young man said, after he'd bumped her shoulder as he passed by.
The man, who Molly thought had a British accent, gave her an apologetic smile.
"It's okay," she said, smiling back. It was crowded, after all. Plus, he was cute.
She heard Harry muttering something about hormones, and turned back to him, once she'd made sure to watch the Englishman walking away to his table. "You were saying?"
Harry smirked. "A man's gotta eat. Want one? Thomas' buying."
Molly looked back at the cutie, before cursing herself for giving Harry exactly what he was waiting for.
"An English muffin, maybe?" he said.
Molly ignored him and addressed the waiting coffee shop employee. She was wearing a red t-shirt with a stud-muffin graphic both appropriate (considering the name and nature of the coffee shop), and inappropriate (considering the taste of the joke, which Molly approved of). "One apple as well, please."
The employee gave them a tight-lipped smile and handed over the muffins to Molly, while Harry paid. Since both corners were taken, Molly moved to one of the tables closest to the bar, giving them a good view of the room.
"Thomas wanted to meet here," Harry said, when he sat down next to her at the table. That was a little odd—not to be facing each other—but since Thomas was coming, people probably wouldn't pay attention. Although, since Harry had decided to keep his duster on inside the shop, contrary to Molly, who'd taken off her jacket and was simply wearing a long-sleeved t-shirt, they weren't really that inconspicuous to begin with. They rarely were, anyway.
"And Thomas wanted to see you, because?"
"I called him," Harry said. "About the FBI Fringe Division case."
Molly had figured that it wasn't a personal matter between the brothers. Sure, she'd been insistent that she could use a break from her studies, because that last potion had really been wearing her out, but Harry had never brought her along if he really didn't want to in the past. She hadn't known Harry was still working this case, though.
"They still haven't found Houdini?" she asked.
About three months back, Murphy had called Harry to a crime scene for a consult. Molly hadn't gone with him, but she'd seen the pictures. The victim had been some kind of bodybuilder, or bodybuilder looking-guy, but his appearance had been so extreme—borderline freakish—that Chicago PD's Special Investigations department had been assigned the investigation. It had turned out not to be much of a case, because a special division of the FBI had taken over everything.
Harry had sensed magic on the scene, however, and he'd kept investigating, despite Murphy's warnings not to. He found nothing; but a week or so afterwards, traces of the exact same type of magic residue he had found during the first incident appeared in Missouri. Molly had managed to invite herself on Harry's road trip (She had hidden in the back of the Blue Beetle, and Mouse had been kind enough not to reveal her presence until it'd been too late to turn around). Harry hadn't been happy about it at first, grumbling for half the trip, but it'd been fun—aside from the not finding anything useful part of the investigation, naturally. Molly had been helping Harry in his research since then.
"Uh, does Murphy know about this?" Molly asked.
"I'd tell her," Harry said, "if she returned my calls."
"Right," Molly said, though she wasn't sure she believed him. Looking up at the sound of the door bells again, Molly felt her eyes bugging out of their sockets. "Oh my God!"
"What?" Harry said, almost spitting out his mouthful of muffin. His hand moved inside his duster instantly. "What is it?"
"It's Sarah Walker!"
"Sarah Walker!" Molly tried not to look obvious as she indicated the pop singer to Harry. "From the CAT Squad?"
"The pop band?" Harry asked.
"Yes," Molly said. "I knew they were going to be in town with the concert being in two days, but…" She shook her head, not quite believing that Sarah Walker was here.
Harry's shoulders loosened, and he chuckled—or his version of a chuckle, all subdued so as to not be heard in public. "You a fan?"
Molly shrugged a shoulder. "Well, you know."
"Going to the concert, then?"
"Uh-uh." Molly spoke around her own mouthful. It was one of the best muffins she'd ever eaten, and apple wasn't even her favorite. "Couldn't get any tickets. They sold out pretty fast, and you had to get them via the Internet, so…"
It was impossible for a wizard to make a computer work for that long of a time. Molly's abilities weren't affecting electronics much in comparison to someone like Harry, but… Alicia was still a little mad about Molly's breaking of her laptop this summer, and their mom hadn't been very pleased with the whole thing. Color me shocked, Molly thought for the umpteenth time.
Harry left to collect their coffees when Obi-Wan and Anakin were called. Molly could have sworn that Sarah Walker had smiled at the names. That couldn't be right.
"So which one's Sarah What's-Her-Pop-Star-Name?" Harry asked, when he came back. "The blonde or the brunette."
"Sarah Walker," Molly said, making an effort to enunciate the last name. It wasn't that difficult to remember! "She's the blonde; I don't know who the brunette is."
"She's pretty," Harry said, and Molly felt her neck twisting immediately to look at him. "What? She is."
Molly took a sip of her coffee, before replying, "She's taken." She wasn't completely lying; there had been rumors of a boyfriend.
"Duh," Harry said, "if she's Sarah Walker." He licked his thumbs. "She kinda looks like you, actually."
Molly tried very, very hard not too blush, but she felt the heat getting to her cheeks. It didn't help that Sarah Walker passed by them and sat down right at the table behind theirs. How much more cooler was this day going to get? Molly really wished she had a cell phone to ask for a picture, and that if she had one, it would actually function. She could use magic, she knew a trick, but Harry… Not happening, Molly.
"Anyway," she said, "Thomas, you called him about Houdini."
"Yeah," Harry said. "Maybe he's heard of him."
"So you're ignoring Murphy?"
"Would I ever do such a thing?"
"Heh, probably," Harry said. "But I'm not—in this case—ignoring her. She sent me some info at the office this week. FBI reports and such."
"Thought you said she was still pissed."
"Oh, she is, but the guy—Houdini—whose real name is Dr. Clarkson, by the way, he's still out there. He might try something else, and next time we might not be as lucky. Murph's a cop, first, you know that."
"And if you find him," Molly said, "you'll be off of the FBI's radar."
"You'll be too."
"They haven't even identified me!"
"They did, but Murphy covered your ass," Harry said. "They've been trailing me for days. How many blue-haired young women do you think I have in my list of acquaintances?"
Molly ran a hand through her hair at his words. Saved for her green tips, it was back to its natural color since the incident in New York, but she was thinking about going back to pink soon. And—hellooo, Thomas! Damn sex vampires and their pheromones, or whatever they were sending all around for everybody to feel. Molly liked Harry's brother, but it wasn't that easy to control herself in his presence, not to mention that he always left her…wanting.
Thomas was wearing his usual tight pair of white leather pants, an assorted white jacket, atop of a grey fitted shirt—he was one gorgeous guy. Looking at the other customers, he visibly took a deep breath before walking to place his order. He'd lowered his pheromone-influence.
Harry started on his third muffin as Thomas sat down, giving them a nod.
"Thomas," Harry said.
"Is that Sarah Walker?" the vampire asked.
Molly was going to confirm just how cool it was, but a wave of lust struck her as Thomas scrutinized the singer, making it hard to think, and Harry beat her to it. "Hell's bells," he said. "You too?"
"Justine likes them," Thomas said with a shrug—pheromone levels dropping—and Molly could breathe again. "And they're pretty good. So, what's up?"
"I'm looking for a guy," Harry said.
"You're gonna have to be a little bit more specific than that."
Molly inwardly rolled her eyes. These two could be such a riot sometimes.
"He escaped FBI custody by leaving through the Nevernever last month in New York," Harry said.
That was new. The Nevernever had been one of their assumptions for explaining Houdini's escape—or Dr. Clarkson's escape, now that they had a real name to use instead of the moniker they'd come up with for the man. One assumption among others—not all necessarily realistic since they hadn't found any ring-shaped device enabling space transportation, so it was unlikely that Clarkson-Houdini had used a Stargate—and Harry hadn't confirmed it before.
After their unsuccessful road trip to Missouri, Harry had tracked the magical trail again to a concert hall in New York, another week or so later. This time, it had led to something, even though they hadn't been able to figure out what. The scene had been sealed down by the FBI.
Murphy had told Harry to let it be, that the FBI was handling it, and that it was their problem now. Harry had mostly just grumbled, stipulating that even though it wasn't happening in Chicago anymore, Missouri and New York were still under his Warden Regional Commander umbrella. But nothing else had happened. The Warden living in New York hadn't heard of anything, and the ParaNet hadn't been able to inform Harry on the matter either. So Harry hadn't had anything to work on. Until last month, back in New York.
After the magical alarm he had set up to track the spiritual residue had rung again, Harry hadn't wanted to waste any time, so he and Molly had immediately taken the Ways to travel to the big apple. Following the trail, they'd encountered something, somewhat similar to the first Chicago crime scene victim. But alive, the bodybuilder-guy was much more terrifying, and deadly, and he didn't look like anything of a victim. He didn't look like anything human, to be honest. Harry hadn't meant to at first, but to defend themselves, he had burned it alive. Which was when a FBI agent had spotted them, forcing Harry and Molly to flee using one of Molly's veil.
Harry had gotten in big trouble with the FBI after that.
"Is he a warlock?" Thomas asked.
"No," Harry said. "The guy's just a mortal practitioner, but I don't know what magic he used to open a Way to the Nevernever."
"What'd he do?"
"He's wanted by the FBI."
"Since when do you work for the FBI?" Thomas asked.
"I don't," Harry said. "Do you know something or not?"
"Why do you want to find him?"
This conversation felt a little like watching a ping-pong match—and not in a good way, if there was one.
"It's got nothing to do with the Wardens, or the Council, if that's what you're asking," Harry said. It was technically true. Harry wouldn't let unexplained magic practice happen on "his" territory, but he hadn't contacted the White Council about this case, or involved his fellow Wardens in an official manner. Molly had thought it was because of the FBI, but maybe he was operating on his own for another reason. Trust was her guess—it was usually the issue. "It's just a case."
Thomas bit on his muffin, taking his time. Molly buried her nose in her cup of coffee, trying not to think of what his mouth was doing, and staying out of their exchange. Harry's fingers began drumming on the table.
"I heard about something," Thomas said eventually. "Rumor—and I can't confirm any of it—is that someone, or something, has taken interest in a scientist."
Dr. "Houdini" Clarkson.
"What kind of interest?" Molly asked before she could stop herself. She glanced at Harry, but he didn't seem bothered.
"Whatever he's been doing," Thomas said, "it's got the spiritual world interested. Can't tell you why."
"Can't tell, or you don't know?" Harry asked.
Thomas sighed. "I don't know."
It probably had to do with the magical residue Harry had found, Molly figured, while Harry took his time to consider.
"So you think someone helped him escape for his work?" he asked.
"He's a mortal." Thomas paused as though there was more meaning behind the word. "He might not have been given a choice."
Molly felt a knot overcome her stomach at the thought. Thomas knew what he was talking about. How many mortals had been mentally enslaved by vampires? And there were many other varieties of supernatural predators out there able to do the same.
Harry's eyes had taken on that shade and light they always took when something magical overpowered or threatened a defenseless mortal. He was angry. He didn't say anything, and stared at nothing for the longest time—angry stare and all—probably back to his thinking place.
"I can ask around," Thomas said after a moment. "But that's all I know for now."
Harry nodded tersely in a gesture of gratitude, before throwing his brother a piece of paper—a receipt.
"You're kidding me."
"You said you were buying," Harry said.
Thomas looked a lot like he was stifling a smile when he shook his head and put a few bills on the table.
"So," Molly said, once Thomas had walked out, taking his pheromone-filled aura with him. The temperature of the room had slightly plummeted already. "Did you learn anything?"
"Just confirms what another of my sources heard."
"Why didn't you tell me?" Molly asked. She wished the hurt wasn't as evident as it was in her voice, but she wanted to know.
"There's something about this case," Harry said. "It's dangerous."
Molly wanted to point out that she'd been in danger before, but that wouldn't really help to make her point, so she opted for looking away.
"But you were there in New York," Harry continued. "In fact, I probably would have spent a few days in a FBI basement or something without your help, so…"
So he was telling her now.
"What's next?" Molly asked.
"I'm gonna keep poking around," Harry said, before being stopped by a scream.
A woman busted out of the bathroom on the other side of the coffee shop, stumbling on her way out. She was clearly frightened, her face distorted by fear. The woman fell violently in her haste. Her chin crashed against the floor, and the clap of her jaw resonated inside the suddenly silent shop.
Ouch, Molly thought, hoping that her tongue hadn't been standing in the way or the woman would be spitting blood soon.
Harry jumped to his feet immediately. A damsel in distress: that was something Harry Dresden couldn't resist.
Something followed the woman out. Something looking like…a tree? More like a shrub, really, considering it wasn't more than three feet tall, four tops.
For an instant, people stared. A ridiculous shrub, with big, woody, empty-looking eyes, had just come out of the bathroom. When its bark opened into a vertical split, however, and a stake launched out of it, so fast that Molly had to blink, panic erupted.
Customers rushed out the door in a frenzy of cries, cutlery flying off, chairs falling down, and the annoying door bells singing.
That was just as well, since more walking shrubs appeared from the bathroom.
"Molly!" Harry called, gesturing for her to move behind the bar on their left. His blasting rod was out. "Forzare," he said towards the walking shrubs.
Most of the little forest smashed against the bathroom door and wall, allowing a couple of people, close to the exit and who'd been hit, to head out.
Harry shouted to the two shop employees to use the service door. About ten people at the far end of the shop, including Harry and Molly, were still inside.
Heavens, Molly thought and spun around, Sarah Walker's here!
Sarah Walker, it turned out, had reacted quicker than Molly. She was shunting people toward the bar and lounge corner to take cover. Molly helped her doing so, as Harry made sure that the scared and hurt couple near the trees ran away. Convinced that everybody was safely behind protection, Molly looked back at their assailants.
"Looks like we're having a party," he said, planting his two feet to face the trees. He sounded purposefully calm; that was his "it's going to be okay" tone. He twisted his neck to look at Molly and all the remaining people hiding in the corner beside her. "So," he told his apprentice, "did you invite the wood monsters? 'Cause I didn't."