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Author's Chapter Notes:
The title is from a quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson: "The most dangerous thing is illusion."


DISCLAIMER: I most emphatically do not own The Dresden Files. They belong to Jim Butcher, ROC Books and Lionsgate Productions. No profit is being made and no copyright or trademark infringed upon.

***

After all a dozen or so apocalyptic battles on a certain island out in Lake Michigan...after the Council had dealt with its latest catastrophe by lying and sweeping the evidence for anything to the contrary under the carpet...after a number of people, many of them those I loved and all of whom had made a difference in my life, had suffered and in some cases died for no good reason, I knew that the only thing I wanted to do was run away from home.

You can't really do that, of course. Not when you're an adult. You especially can't do it when you're a Warden of the White Council of wizards—think "magical cop, judge, soldier and executioner"--and you're Chicago's first and last line of defense against...well, I hesitate to say "the forces of evil" these days. Too many people have decided that I'm one of those forces for me to be entirely comfortably with the term. I fight people and entities that oppose me, my friends and family, and my city. That's all I can do.

And lately I couldn't even do that. Not successfully. Despite being ridiculously powerful for a wizard who hadn't even hit his first century yet, I kept getting thrown into battles with things that were older, bigger and a hell of a lot badder than I was. And the harder I tried to become strong enough to deal with my current enemies, the more frightened and suspicious the Council became. It was a lose-lose situation, and I was very tired of it.

Plus, I was beginning to wonder if I wasn't a jinx. It seemed like everyone who knew me suffered in some way. My mother was cursed to death when she was giving birth to me. My father had died of a brain aneurysm when I was six, and I'd heard from a demon that he'd been murdered. I'd killed my teacher and adoptive father, and never mind that it was in self-defense. One of my best friends had lost the job she was born to do and her reputation because of me, while another had been permanently crippled. His baby son had nearly been possessed by a fallen angel because of me, too. His daughter had become a warlock—a breaker of the Laws of Magic—because, in all innocence, she was trying to imitate me and make the world a better place through spells and enchantments. She'd nearly gotten her head chopped off because of this. My first girlfriend, Elaine, had nearly been suggested to death by a vampire that battened on suicidal despair; my second girlfriend, Susan, had been half-turned into a Red Court vampire, and was struggling to retain what shreds of humanity she still possessed; and the third, who had also been my boss, had, in quick succession, lost both her body and control over her mind. A sort of enemy who kept risking his life for me as if I were a friend and a little girl who I'd like to have as a daughter had been tortured for a week by a half dozen fallen angels and their psychotic hosts. And my brother...

Oh, my brother.

Despite this conviction that I was a disaster to anyone who mattered to me, I still spent a couple of months after Morgan's death attempting to get back into the swing of things. I was working hard, both as a detective and as a Warden—which, as usual, meant that I was barely scraping by financially. I visited friends, talking with them and playing games. I even tried to re-enter the dating scene, figuring that the old cliché about falling off a horse was probably true.

I might as well have tried to push a mountain uphill.

"I don't get it," I said to Murphy over steak and cheese sandwiches on toast at Mac's. Macanally's Pub was and is neutral ground for all things magical. No one inside was going to be zapping anyone—the pub was constructed so as to disrupt magical energy, and anyone attacking from outside the pub would a) run into some brilliantly constructed wards and b) violate the Unseelie Accords, which is a peace treaty that wizards have with a few score supernatural organizations and entities. Breaking the Accords...well, it would be the equivalent of one country attacking every other country in the world simultaneously.

I was, as nearly as possible, safe at Macanally's Pub. For a given value of safe. Because if the bad guys ever decided to say,"Screw the accords," I was still going to be magicless until I could get out the door. This was not a happy thought.

"What don't you get?" Murphy said, brushing a lock of blonde hair out of her face before biting into her sandwich.

"I'm doing what I always do. I get hurt, I bounce back. People around me get hurt, I try to be there and help if I can. Only this time it doesn't seem to be working. And I don't know why." I took a huge bite out of my sandwich for emphasis.

Murphy studied my face without precisely looking me in the eyes. "You don't know why," she echoed. "And I guess that all of the magical battles you've been in for the past fifteen years have nothing to do with it."

I gritted my teeth. Heroically macho, that's me. "I'm supposed to be able to stand up to that kind of thing!"

She took another bite of her sandwich and then rolled her eyes. "Yeah. Right. Thought Spider-Man was your thing, not Superman. Newsflash, Harry--you're getting burned out. You need a break. Find someone or something you can relax with—and it would probably be better if it wasn't related to magic."

I felt as if I'd just gotten a karate chop to the stomach. "Magic's all I know, Murph. It's the only thing I am good at, seriously."

"Then develop another skill!" she snapped. "Magic for you is all about battles and struggling to survive. It's like sharpshooting and martial arts are for me. But when I go home at night, I don't relax by tossing an ottoman across the room with a hip throw." She sighed. "You need to find something that doesn't remind you of danger and pain and death. Something that lets you have some measure of peace. And if you don't--"

I could fill in the rest of the sentence myself. And the hell of it was, she was right. I'd seen and fought a too many hideous things over the years, and the last one—an image burned into my memory with perfect, permanent clarity—had very nearly driven me insane. It scared me how close I'd come to being catatonic for the rest of forever...and how badly damaged I still was.

Murphy was right. I needed a break, and magic wasn't going to provide it. But I had no idea what might.

A few days later, when I was busy mending the wards on my apartment for what felt like the millionth time since the battle, I realized what was wrong.

I didn't feel safe here anymore. My apartment had been attacked and assaulted and invaded a thousand times. It felt a castle under siege. No wonder I was having such a difficult time maintaining the wards; in my mind, this wasn't a home any longer. It was a battlefield.

Battlefields are notoriously hard to protect.

Fortunately, I knew of a place that was not only safe, but that would welcome me.

A half hour later, I borrowed my brother Thomas's boat, the Water Beetle, and sailed out to the island in Lake Michigan that I had named Demonreach. The place that, for diverse and sundry reasons, mostly to do with survival, I had turned into a sanctuary.

I didn't do much that first day back. After greeting and gifting the genius loci of the place, I just wandered about the island, letting myself adjust to the skill I'd gained by making the island my sanctuary. Intellectus, it's called—a deep awareness of everything happening within a sanctuary's boundaries. I hadn't had time to think about this during the battle; I'd only had time to use it. Now I just let myself savor what was happening everywhere on the island on this lazy late summer day.

Which was not much, actually. And that suited me just fine.

I came out to the island again a couple of days later. The week after that, I decided to make a three-day weekend of it. By September, I had started rebuilding the island's ruined lighthouse. The work was slow—I knew nothing about carpentry and masonry—but I learned. By the time late November rolled around and I had to stop coming out to the island because the lake was filled with chunks of floating ice, I'd made considerable progress. And that winter, when I wasn't protecting my clients, practitioners of magic and Chicago from peril, I spent my time weaving spells of protection into the boards and stone that would become the walls and ceiling of my new lighthouse-tower.

It was peaceful. Calming. I felt as if I was starting to heal.

Then one day the following spring, while I was doing my construction work, I sensed someone stepping onto the island.

Who is it? I asked silently.

The response was a confused mish-mash of images and emotions rather than words. Human, it said. Tense. Unhappy. His blood has been shed here. He is doing nothing to harm us.

I sighed. It figured that a member or two of the Council would be curious about this place. Truthfully, I was surprised that they had waited this long to investigate. I knew they didn't trust Demonreach or me, but this was ridiculous.

Putting away my tools and materials, I headed down to the beach near the dock to see which wizard had set foot on my island.

Which was where I ran smack dab into John Marcone.

***

I must have looked somewhat poleaxed. The man had been cruelly tortured here by some very literal Hell's angels; I couldn't understand why he'd ever want to return.

He looked, as he always did, very good, though for once I couldn't chalk it up to the clothes. He was dressed casually in jeans that were more Army-Navy Store than designer brand, a light blue sweatshirt with dark blue silhouettes of an octopus and a tiger on it, scruffy white sneakers and, of all things, a battered Chicago Cubs baseball cap. His hair had a bit more grey in it than I remembered, and his ear still had a bite taken out of it; apparently he hadn't opted for reconstructive surgery.

And yet, despite the studiously ordinary clothes and the marks that his experience had left on him, he looked good--like a king that had been wounded in battle but had survived to fight another day. Of course, I wasn't sure how much of that was my opinion and how much was the island's.

He was staring at me with wild green eyes, as if I were an apparition.

"John?" I sounded a bit hoarse, even in my own ears. "What are you doing here?"

His response was smooth and immediate. "I could ask the same of you, Mister Dresden."

I opened my mouth to say something stupid and bantering—and then stopped. I didn't have the energy for a quarrel or for a pissing contest.

"I'm tired. Coming here makes me feel better, that's all."

"You don't look as if you've been sleeping poorly," he murmured as he looked me up and down.

"I did for years." True, I'd had bouts of insomnia and near-nightly bad dreams for decades. I hadn't had either since I'd begun visiting the island, and for that I was grateful. "But that's not the kind of tired I mean."

I thought I might have to explain that, but instead he gave me a probing look that might as well have shouted, You too, Mister Dresden? Then he nodded, saying quietly, "I understand."

"Now to turn the question back to you...why are you here?"

He bristled a bit at that. "I realize that I'm not welcome here, Mister Dresden, but I assure you that I'll be gone in an hour. I asked Ms. Gard to leave me here for that long."

Alone? But that doesn't make any sense. Shaking my head, I stared at him. "Would you mind repeating that? I think the sun was in my ears. It sounded like you just said that you didn't bring any bodyguards with you—not even Cujo Hendricks."

"I didn't." A fierce and—I have to use the word—tigerish scowl. "And I would appreciate it if you would refrain from calling Mister Hendricks that. He is a good and loyal employee, and one of the few people I can still call friend. He is not a rabid dog."

One of the few people I can still call friend. I'd never thought of John Marcone as being isolated before, much less lonely. And he was handling the insult a lot better than I would have if someone had given one of my friends a similar nickname.

I think that it was at that moment that the line between us was well and truly crossed, though I didn't realize it at the time.

"Okay, then," I said, shuffling my feet a little. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean anything by it. I think I was going for the fiercely rabidly loyal thing, but I guess I missed that by a mile."

A longer and more perplexed stare this time. "Mister Dresden...are you actually apologizing to me?"

"Don't get used to it."

"Should I start looking around for rabbit holes?" he asked politely. "Or should I merely ask you to brew me some beer in eggshells?"

I laughed. I really couldn't help it. How many crime lords know an ancient method to force faerie shapeshifters to betray themselves? "You could always chalk it up to the moon being in the seventh house."

His eyebrows escalated almost to his hairline. "You're really claiming that you're apologizing because Jupiter is aligned with Mars?"

"Yep. Got a better explanation?"

"None that sound quite so like you, I will admit." He gave me a smile that had a trace of sadness lurking in it. "I'm sorry to have intruded on you, Wizard Dresden. It won't happen again."

Well, hey. If he could be polite, maybe I could be honest.

"No need to apologize." After all, he hadn't known I was here. "You still haven't told me why you came here, though. I mean...if I'd been through what you had, I don't know that I could stand to come here again."

"I can't stand it," he said softly, crossing his arms over his chest. "That's why I'm here."

Light dawned. "Ah. Exorcism."

"Of a sort, yes." His expression was somewhere in between worried and wary. "I don't suppose I have to tell you that this must go no further."

"I think that we can consider the warnings given and received, yes."

He nodded, then took a deep breath. "Then I would ask you to imagine—hypothetically—having been in an unbearable situation in which you were completely helpless. How would you deal with the fact that your foes might well force you to face the unfaceable again, if they possibly could?"

I thought of the skinwalker, which instantly brought its hideous image to my mind. Damn wizard Sight. The memory wasn't breaking me, but it still hurt. I couldn't keep myself from flinching.

I could swear that I saw a glimmer of sympathy in the man's green eyes. "You too?"

"Yeah. A skinwalker."

I thought I would have to explain that—most people don't know a lot about chaotic evil semi-divine abominations who can transform into anything and who are, for all practical purposes, immortal. And explaining wouldn't be a good idea. Just naming the thing could draw its attention, and it already had reason to hate me.

But Marcone didn't need a definition. He blanched white as I said the word. "Dear God."

"Yeah."

"But you beat it."

"No. I didn't." Almost a year later, and that still galled. "I tried, and it almost killed me. And it barely had to lift a finger to do it. Listens-to-Wind sent it howling, but--"

"But it's still alive and it still wants revenge. Because you survived against it."

"That would be my guess."

"And you're upset that I'm here alone? Are you looking for a rematch, or are you just trying to commit suicide?"

He looked and sounded perfectly calm, if you didn't know him. I'd been around him long enough to read the tells—his eyes darkening slightly, the studied placidity of his tone contrasting with the way he shifted ever so subtly into a battle stance. He wasn't just annoyed, he was furious.

I reacted the way I always do...by being a smart-ass. "Aww, John. I didn't know you cared."

Normally this would have made him back down. Not this time. Instead, he stepped closer, glaring up at me. (Not that he's even remotely short. It's just that a guy who's six-foot-three does have to look up at one who's six-foot-nine.)

"I care," he said, gritting his teeth. "I dislike waste. I dislike it intensely. And you are essential to the safety of Chicago. I will not see you throwing your life away because of some macho game. And if I have to swim across Lake Michigan dragging you behind me in order to get you to some modicum of safety, I will do it. Do you understand? Now. How much danger are you in?"

He'd said things like this to me before, but never when we were standing on this island. So I'd never known the things that the island was telling me—that his heart was speeding up as he spoke, that adrenaline was flooding through him, and that quite a lot of blood was flowing to a very definite point in his body. And, I was summarily informed, I was in a similar state myself.

Wait, what?

That was when the evil subconscious that lives in my brain spoke up. I've seen him in dreams. He looks like me, only he dresses all in black and wears a goatee that I swear he stole from the Master in Doctor Who.

Look, Harry. You know you like guys as well as women. You've checked out Billy's muscles. And Michael Carpenter's. And Sanya's. Thomas's abs, even. And I'm pretty sure that guys who aren't attracted to other men don't describe their sex vampire sibs as looking like "the lost Greek god of body cologne." Hell's bells, the first thing you thought about John Marcone was that he was handsome. And you never stop thinking about how he looks, or how muscular he is, or how green his eyes are.

That's half the reason that you have so many problems with women—because you want both. We both do. We always have. And as much as I know you want a family, we won't be able to commit to anyone until you deal with who and what you are.

The lying has to stop.

And considering how many people keep kidding you about being gay—Butters, Thomas's clients, Thomas's landlord, Murphy, Special Investigations—well, at this point, I think the only one being fooled by the lie is you.


And with that, he vanished back into the depths of my brain. And I was left staring, open-mouthed, at the face of an angry mobster.

If this were a Harlequin romance, I would have bent low and kissed him. (Oh, shut up. Of course I know about romance novels. Hell's bells, I've got an air spirit in my sub-basement who practically worships Nora Roberts. And no, that's not a euphemism.)

This wasn't a romance novel. So I shelved the lecture I'd just received, telling myself I'd think about it later, and tried to answer John. What had he just asked me? Oh. Oh, yeah.

"I'm not in any danger. Not here. In fact, this is probably the safest place in the world for me." And with that—and without stopping to question the impulse making me say this—I told him about the link between me and the island.

He was silent for a few minutes afterwards. When at last he spoke, it was in a very dry tone. "Well. It appears that at least one man on this earth truly is an island."

I squirmed. "Well...sort of. I'm not the island, exactly. I'm just linked to it."

"Permanently linked to a powerful source of ley lines that is also possessed of an ancient, if somewhat grumpy, guardian spirit. The Council must have had a collective grand mal seizure over this."

"Pretty much, yeah."

"And my being here truly is an intrusion," he said, heaving a heavy sigh. "You and the island are one, after all. And I came here uninvited."

Once again, as I had when I'd named the island Demonreach, I felt an irresistible impulse to say something that I didn't quite understand. "Then be invited, John Marcone. Both Demonreach and Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden welcome you."

He gazed at me with a half-perplexed, half-hopeful expression. "You mean it, Mister Dresden?"

"Harry. I insist that people who are sharing sanctuary with me call me Harry. And yeah, I mean it. And so does the island." I shuffled my feet on the sandy earth and began to explain as best I could.

"It's not a bad place, John. The Denarians did a lot of bad shit here. So did the skinwalker. But the place itself isn't evil. It won't hurt you. I mean, you could slip and break your leg, sure. But that could happen anywhere. Nothing bad's going to happen because the island hates you. In fact"--I smiled a bit sheepishly--"it's impressed."

"It is?" he said, his amused tone clearly saying, You are?

"Yeah." And I really didn't want to get into why the island and its spirit were impressed, especially as I didn't consciously know myself. Plus I still had plenty to think about when John wasn't around, courtesy of my evil id. "So. I'm going to be up there"--I pointed up at the hill on which the semi-ruined and semi-reconstructed lighthouse stood. "Got some building to do. What about you?"

"I thought I would just stay on the beach and do some yoga. I'd prefer not to explore yet."

Yoga. He did yoga. Okay, that just flat-out wasn't fair.

Stupid evil subconscious and its vivid imagination.

It took me a minute to notice that other word in the sentence. "'Yet'?"

"I had planned on making further trips out here if the first one was...satisfactory." He gave me an oblique look, as if he had a question that he wasn't quite sure how to ask.

I sighed. "John. Barring any dire emergencies, the invitation stands. It's not a one-time-only thing,
okay? When I said that Demonreach welcomed you, I meant it."

He gave me a brief, startled smile. "Thank you, Harry."

***

And that was how it began.

As the weather got warmer (for a given value of warm—Lake Michigan would never be described as a tropical climate), we both started coming out to the island more and more often. Nothing planned, nothing deliberate. Demonreach simply felt more comfortable than Chicago.

By the time May rolled around, he was helping me rebuild the tower.

Before the Fourth of July came, we'd had an argument about who was better at yoga which turned into a competition. Which he won, by the way. I'm good, but there's no way to beat a guy who can do scorpion pose and make it look easy.

I don't remember which of us was the first to bring a meal and split it with the other. I do know that I introduced him to Macanally's home-brewed ale. I think the gods on Olympus drink Mac's ale when they're tired of nectar and ambrosia.

By August, we were operating on an improvised schedule. Nothing you could set your watch by; that would be dangerous for both of us. But by now he knew when I had a case, and I knew when he had business meetings, and we were taking special care to go out to the island at approximately the same time.

And I still hadn't figured out that what we were doing was, effectively, dating.

Oh, I'd thought about that realization that my evil id had shoved in my face. Thought about it a lot, in fact. And I'd come to the conclusion that for a long time, I'd mixed up what I wanted with who I was.

I'd been noticing guys for years—ever since I was fourteen or fifteen and thought that the sinewy and tanned college kid mowing DuMorne's lawn was seriously hot. But not long after that, Elaine and I slept together for the first time, and I figured it had just been a phase. After all, I liked girls. And I wanted scads of kids someday. So obviously, I was straight, right?

No one had told me that I might end up preferring male and female. Or that it was okay. I'd muddled through as best I could, trying to be my chivalrous self and a very consciously male noir-ish detective and still indulge in the odd glance in a handsome or muscular man's direction from time to time. And if people kidded me about being gay, well, they were just teasing. I knew that.

Only now it wasn't working anymore. I wanted John. Wanted him so much that it hurt. And it didn't help that, courtesy of the island, I knew that John felt the same way.

And we couldn't do anything about it.

No one had to tell me why John wasn't acting on how he felt. Hello, detective here. Despite relying on magic, I really can deduce things. One thing I knew was that the Mafia wasn't going to be handing out rainbow buttons at the Chicago Pride Parade anytime soon. Somehow, I didn't think that John being bisexual would go over well; in fact, I doubted if his rivals would distinguish between bi and gay. I could just picture the disgust that someone like this had become a power in Chicago. The fear. The macho loathing. The murderous homophobia. Not to mention that Hendricks and John's MONOC corporation contractor, Sigrun Gard, would be targets...as would a little girl in a grown woman's comatose body. John went to insane lengths to protect his people; I couldn't see him putting any of them on the firing line. Especially for a supposedly straight wizard who wasn't exactly noted for experimentation, calmness or discretion.

And while I didn't think that my friends and colleagues would kill me for being bisexual, I couldn't see how I could tell them that I was without bringing up who I was interested in.

It would be disastrous news for Murphy. It would also probably get me fired as police consultant—which was the only steady salary I had, Warden's pay being less than a pittance—and result in every case in which I'd consulted being reversed or overturned. Murphy would be labeled a dirty cop...just by association. And Murph was the soul of honor. She didn't deserve that.

And if possible, telling Thomas would be worse. My big brother was pretty much in his big sister's pocket these days. She kept him close to Chateau Raith, and she kept him properly fed, rather than half-starved as he'd been for the past few years. I rarely saw him these days; I wasn't entirely sure how much of his mind was his own. And the last thing I needed was for this information to leak to my somewhat terrifying evil stepsister.

The White Court did not need to have this kind of information about me or John. And since my brother's half-sister was the de facto ruler of the White Court vampires, if not the official one...yeah. I've seen Lara Raith in action. She's powerful and gorgeous, generates pure sexual desirability—big shock, considering she's a sex vampire--and is completely amoral. As for her mind—well, if she were going up against Niccolo Machiavelli, my heart would break for the poor naïve man.

Telling my brother was a risk I didn't dare take.

And then there were the Carpenters. They had their own very special issue with Marcone—not that any of them had mentioned it, but they didn't need to. There's no good way of saying to a friend, "Hey, remember a few years back when you and I went to an island in Lake Michigan to rescue a little girl and a crime lord, and you got half-blinded and crippled and had to give up being God's personally appointed knight? Yeah, I kinda want to sleep with the crime lord now, and I hope you don't mind..."

Yeaaaah. Good luck with that one.

If Michael would be hurt—and there was no question in my mind that he would—the Carpenter women would be furious. I suspected Charity, who was devoutly Catholic, would ban me from any contact with her family on moral grounds alone. And as for Molly...

Well, she'd ended up breaking the Fourth Law--"thou shalt not enthrall another"--to, as she saw it, save her best friend Rosie and her boyfriend Nelson from heroin addiction. Molly hadn't mindraped them; she'd simply overwhelmed their minds and wills, forcing them to be terrified every time that they'd even thought of shooting up. She'd insisted that she'd done this to save them and Rosie's baby; Rosie had already miscarried once before due to drugs.

Whether Marcone or one of his rivals had been responsible for getting them addicted, I didn't know. Marcone was Mafia, though, so it was a fair guess that, among other things, he dealt in drugs.

This didn't make me any happier. And the fact that I hated the Outfit he worked for but couldn't hate the man—that I actually liked and trusted the man--wasn't likely to make my apprentice one ounce more reasonable.

I wanted to come out. Needed to, even. But I couldn't see a way to do it without enraging and/or destroying the people I cared about most. Again.

So I did what I'd been doing for years. I sublimated. I channeled how I felt into construction and magic and just plain enjoying the time that we could spend together. And occasionally I patted myself on the back, telling myself how beautifully I was handling this and how mature I was being. I even believed it.

I had reckoned without both of us having smart friends.

One Saturday in September I came home around noon. A client had called me to find and exorcise some kobolds making knocking sounds in the walls of her house; it turned out to be the furnace instead. She'd been pleased enough to give me a nice fat direct deposit to my checking account, and I was looking forward to just going home and pretending—for a day, at least—that I was one of the idle rich.

Imagine my reaction, then, when I found John's bodyguard Hendricks waiting for me in my living room. He was holding Murphy's crystal amulet—the one I'd given her so that she could get past my wards. God alone knew how he'd managed to steal it. He was holding it at arms' length and watching it warily as if it was a black mamba poised to strike. I had no doubt that he was going to return it to Murphy the instant he left, which was a relief, but which didn't make me one bit happier that it had been stolen in the first place. He didn't have his happy face on, either, but then he never does when he's dealing with me.

"Dresden," he growled at me, "what the fuck are you playin' at?"

"Hi—" Damn it, I almost called him Cujo, and John had told me his opinion of that nickname. "Hi, Hendricks. I hate to bring this up, but...stars and stones, what are you doing in my house?"

"Came to give you a warning."

"Let me guess. You're gonna make me an offer I can't refuse. And if I do, I'll sleep with the fishes."

Hendricks turned nearly as red as his hair, and, if possible, his little piggy eyes grew even smaller. But when he spoke, his voice was quiet. "I don't quote Harry Potter movies at you, y'know."

Damn it. He had a point. "Okay. You're right. What's the warning?" Not that I mind Hendricks, it's just that I don't want to find him in my house at the end of the day. The man looms over everyone and everything, and not in a benevolent way. It's like dealing with a very angry Great Wall of China.

"Stay away from the boss."

"Huh?" I knew I couldn't have heard right.

"Stay. Away." He chewed on his lip and glared at me as if he wanted to belt me in the mouth. "You got no idea what kind of trouble you're creating."

"I'm not doing anything!"

"You're spendin' all your time with him. Yeah, yeah, I know, you're out there buildin' a tower on Torture Island--"

"Demonreach." It seemed very important to make that point. "That's its name."

Hendricks' expression said that he couldn't have cared less. "Point is, Dresden," he said with exaggerated patience, "you and him go out to the island about two, three times a week. That's time that he used to spend socializing with rivals and schmoozing with women. Now he's dating you."

"Dating?! I haven't...we're not..."

"You eat with him; he's had lunches packed. He's tryin' out new booze that you've given him. You talk together. You've got his goddamned phone number. How many dons you figure give out their phone numbers to someone not in the business? And you're having fun buildin' the tower out on the island. And you make a point of being there together. Okay, it's not dinner by candlelight and dancin'. But don't tell me you ain't datin', because you are. And you're gonna get him killed if you aren't careful. So stay away."

"We aren't doing anything!" I was doing everything at this point but throw the words at his head. Somehow I had to drive it into Hendricks' mind that I wasn't the threat he thought I was.

And that was when he hauled off and knocked me across the room.

Automatically, I gathered my magic to hurl a fireball at him if he followed up.

But he didn't. He clenched both fists as if he wanted to break me in half and spoke in a calm growl. "He's establishing a pattern of consistency. That is not good. It's not just that people could find out where he's going and when and kill him. You're important to him, don't you get that? There are people who will hurt you to break him. And they will do things that will make that burned hand of yours look like a paper cut."

Letting my shield bracelet absorb the energy from the fireball, I stared up at him. "You know words like 'consistency' and 'establish'?"

He snorted. "And a thug can't have any brains, right? What the fuck do you know about me, Dresden? Seriously, what do you know, besides my last name and who I work for?"

I quickly reviewed what I knew of Hendricks. The answer was "nothing much."

"Sorry," I said, or rather mumbled. I'm not entirely sure that he heard me, but I guess he caught something of my tone because he nodded and turned to go.

"Hendricks." I didn't want to call after him, didn't want to say what I had to say. My life would be infinitely improved if I were a better liar.

He stopped and turned to face me again. "Yeah?"

"I don't know if I can stop seeing him. I'll be more careful. I'll try to protect him. But..."

I expected an explosion. Instead, Hendricks sighed. "Yeah. That's about what I expected. But Dresden—anything happens to him because of you? I'll kill you."

There wasn't any rage in his voice. It was just a cold statement of fact. If John died because of me, I'd have to pay in the same coin. No more, no less.

I swallowed. Hard. "Well, if anything happened to him, I'd ask you to."

"No, you wouldn't."

"Yeah, I would." I thought for a minute. "But first I'd ask you for some time to go after the bastards who happened to him."

"Oh, I'd go after them first."

"What, you don't believe in sharing the wealth?"

He made a sound somewhere in between a snort and a guffaw. And without another threat or so much as a backward glance, he walked out, leaving me awkwardly sprawled on the floor.

Once I was sure he had left for good, I got up, grabbed some ice from the icebox, wrapped it in a towel and applied it to my aching head. When the pain was gone, or mostly gone, I headed out the door.

It was time--past time, it seemed--to talk to Michael.

***
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