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Cold Days, Page 54

Jim Butcher

  Thomas was sacked out on one of the cots, snoring. Justine had spooned up behind him, her face pressed into his back. They both had clean faces and hands, at least. Mac was snoozing on the other cot, bare to the waist, his chest and stomach evidently washed free of any dirt—and any blood or any injury as well.

  Sarissa was gone. Molly was gone. Fix was gone. I felt confident they had left together.

  Karrin sat at the fire, staring in, a cup of coffee in her hands. Mouse sat beside her. When I came in, he looked over at me and started wagging his tail.

  “You leave the blanket?” I asked quietly.

  “Once we got the fire going,” she said. “I suppose I could go get you your duster now, though.”

  “I’d look like a flasher,” I said.

  She smiled, very slightly, and offered me two mugs. I looked. One had coffee, the other very chunky soup. She passed me a camp fork to go along with the soup. “It isn’t much,” she said.

  “Don’t care,” I said, and sat down on the hearth across from her to partake of both. The heat gurgled into my belly along with the food and the coffee, and I started feeling human for the first time in . . . a while. I ached everywhere. It wasn’t at all pleasant, but it felt like something I’d come by honestly.

  “Christ, Dresden,” Karrin said. “You could at least wash your hands.” She picked up a towelette and leaned over to start cleaning off my hands. My stomach thought stopping was a bad idea, but I put the mugs aside and let her.

  She cleaned my hands off patiently, going through a couple of towelettes. Then she said, “Lean over.”

  I did.

  She took a fresh towelette and wiped off my face, slowly and carefully. There were nicks and cuts. It hurt when she cleaned one of them out, but it also felt right. Sometimes the things that are good for you, in the long run, hurt for a little while when you first get to them.

  “There,” she said a moment later. “You almost look human—” She paused at that, and looked down. “I mean . . .”

  “I know what you mean,” I said.


  The fire crackled.

  “What’s the story with Mac?” I asked.

  Karrin looked over at the sleeping man. “Mab,” she said. “She just came in here a few minutes ago and looked at him. Then before anyone could react, she ripped off the bandage, stuck her fingers into the wound, and pulled out the bullet. Dropped it right on his chest.”

  “No wound now,” I noted.

  “Yeah. Started closing up the minute she was done. But you remember the time he got beaten so badly in his bar? Why didn’t his injuries regenerate then?”

  I shook my head. “Maybe because he was conscious then.”

  “He did turn down the painkillers. I remember it seemed odd at the time,” Karrin murmured. “What is he?”

  I shrugged. “Ask him.”

  “I did,” she said, “right before he passed out.”

  “What’d he say?”

  “He said, ‘I’m out.’”

  I grunted.

  “What do you think it means?” she asked.

  I thought about it. “Maybe it means he’s out.”

  “We just let it go?” she asked.

  “It’s what he wants,” I said. “Think we should torture him?”

  “Point,” she said, and sighed. “Maybe instead we just let him rest.”

  “Maybe we should let him make beer,” I said. “What about Thomas?”

  “Woke up. Ate.” She frowned and clarified, “Ate soup. Been asleep for a couple of hours. That big bone thing really clobbered him.”

  “There’s always someone bigger than you,” I said.

  She gave me a look.

  “More true for some than others,” I clarified.

  She rolled her eyes.

  “So,” I said, a moment later.

  “So,” she said.

  “Um. Should we talk?”

  “About what?”

  Mouse looked back and forth between us and started wagging his tail hopefully.

  “Quiet, you,” I said, and rubbed his ears. “Bad guy made of bones and he gets the drop on you? Charity giving you too many treats or something? That fight should have been like Scooby-Doo versus the Scooby Snack Ghost.”

  Mouse grinned happily, unfazed, still wagging his tail.

  “Don’t be so hard on him,” Karrin said. “There’s always someone bigger.” Then she shook her head and said, “Wow, we are such children. We’ll grab at any excuse not to talk about us right now.”

  My soup did a little flip-flop. “Um,” I said. “Yeah.” I swallowed. “We . . . we kissed.”

  “There’s a song about what that means,” Karrin said.

  “Yeah. But I don’t sing.”

  She paused, as if her soup had just started doing gymnastics, too.

  Then she spoke very carefully. “There are factors.”

  “Like Kincaid,” I said, without any heat or resentment.

  “He’s not one of them,” she said. “Not anymore.”

  “Oh,” I said, a little surprised.

  “It’s you, Harry.”

  “Pretty sure I’m supposed to be a factor.”

  “Yeah,” she said. “Just . . . not against.” She took my hands. “I’ve seen things in you over the past day that . . . concern me.”

  “Concern you.”

  “They scare the holy loving fuck out of me,” she said calmly, by way of clarification. “This Winter Knight thing. You’re not changing. You’ve already changed.”

  I felt a little chill. “What do you mean? Tonight? Hell, Karrin, when haven’t we done monsters and mayhem?”

  “We’ve done it a lot,” she said. “But you’ve always been scared of it before. You did it anyway, but you thought it was scary. That’s the sane thing to think.”

  “So?” I asked. “What was different about it tonight?”

  “The way your erection kept pressing into my back,” she said wryly.

  “Uh,” I said. “Really?”

  “Yeah, a woman kind of notices.”

  I hadn’t.


  “It’s just . . . Karrin, look, that thing hardly ever does something that isn’t ill-advised. Doesn’t mean it’s going to make the calls.”

  “I will never understand why men do that,” she said.

  “Do what?”

  “Talk about their genitals like they’re some other creature. Some kind of mind-controlling parasite.” She shook her head. “It’s just you, Harry. It’s all you. And part of you was really loving everything that was going on.”

  “And that’s bad?” I asked.

  “Yes,” she said. Then she made a short, frustrated sound. “No. Maybe. It’s a change.”

  “Do changes have to be bad?”

  “Of course not. But I don’t know if this one is bad or not yet,” she said. “Harry . . . you are the strongest man I know, in more than one sense of the word. And because you are . . . it means that if you do change . . .”

  “You think I’d be some kind of monster,” I said.

  She shrugged, and squeezed my hands with hers. “I’m not saying this right. It’s not coming out right. But I felt you, when we were with the Hunt. I knew what was driving you, what you were feeling. And in the moment, I was down with it—and that scares me, too.”

  “So am I too much of a monster or are you?” I asked. “I’m getting confused.”

  “Join the club,” she said.

  “You’re saying that the problem is, you think I could go bad,” I said.

  “I know you could,” she said. “Anyone can. And you’ve got more opportunity than most. And maybe you shouldn’t be rocking your emotional boat right now. When Susan broke your heart, right after she was changed? You went into a downward spiral. If that happened now, with the kinds of things you’re facing . . . Harry, I’m afraid you might not be able to pull out of it.”

  That much sure as hell was true. “You aren’t wrong,”
I said. “But we haven’t even gone on a date yet and you’ve already skipped ahead to the ugly breakup?”

  “There are factors,” she repeated in a firm, steady voice.

  “Like what?” I asked.

  “Like this thing with Molly,” Karrin said.

  “There’s no thing with Molly,” I said. “There’s never going to be a thing with Molly.”

  She sighed. “You’re a wizard. She’s a wizard. Now you’re the Winter Knight. And she’s the Winter Lady.”

  “Karrin,” I began.

  “And I’m going to get old and die soon,” Karrin said very, very quietly. “Relatively soon. But you’re going to keep going for centuries. And so is she. The two of you are close—and even if nothing ever happens . . . it’s one more thing. You know?”

  We held hands and the fire crackled.

  “Oh,” I said.

  She nodded.

  “So there are things stacked against us,” I said. “What else is new?”

  “You are the captain of disaster in the supernatural world,” she acknowledged. “But I’m the one who has repeatedly taken relationships into icebergs. I’ve done it enough to know that you and I are the Titanic.”

  “We’re people,” I said. “Not some fucking ship.”

  “We’re also people,” she said. “A kiss when we’re both ramped up on adrenaline is one thing. A relationship is harder. A lot harder.” She shook her head. “If it ends in tears, I’m afraid it could destroy us both. And there’s a lot on the line right now. I don’t think this is something we should rush into. I need time to think. To . . . I just need time.”

  I swallowed. She still wasn’t wrong. I didn’t like what she had to say, not one bit, but . . .

  She wasn’t wrong.

  “Is this where you tell me we need to be friends?” I asked.

  She blinked and looked up at me. She touched my face with her fingertips. “Harry, we’re . . . We went past that a long time ago. I don’t know if we can . . . if we should be lovers. But I’m your friend. Your ally. I’ve seen what you want, and what you’re willing to sacrifice to make it happen.” She took one of my hands between hers, pressing hard. “I feel lost since they fired me. I don’t know what I’m meant to do or who I ought to be. But what I do know is that I’ve got your back. Always.” Tears fell from her blue eyes. “So goddammit, don’t you start taking the highway to Hell. Because I’m going to be right there with you. All the way.”

  I couldn’t see her face after that. I felt her head underneath my chin, and I put my arms around her. We sat together like that for a while.

  “Things are going to get bad,” I said quietly. “I don’t know how or when, exactly. But there’s a storm coming. Being near me isn’t going to be . . . sane.”

  “Let’s just agree that I’m not all the way together, and save us both some time arguing,” she said. “Always, Harry. I’m there. End of story.”

  “Okay,” I said. “One condition.”


  “That’s not the end of the story,” I said. “I mean, maybe neither one of us is ready. But we could be, one day. And maybe we will be.”

  “Optimistic idiot,” she said, but I could hear the smile.

  “And if we get to that place,” I said, “you don’t chicken out. You don’t run away, no matter how it looks to you. We set course for the fucking iceberg, full speed ahead.”

  She started shaking. She was weeping.

  “And the sex,” I said. “It will be frequent. Possibly violent. You’ll be screaming. Neighbors will make phone calls.”

  She started shaking harder. She was laughing.

  “Those are my conditions,” I said. “Take them or leave them.”

  “You’re such a pig, Dresden,” Karrin said. Then she drew back enough to give me a look through tearstained blue eyes. “Maybe you’ll be the one screaming.”

  * * *

  “You sure about this?” asked Thomas. “Out here by yourself?”

  “Cold isn’t really an issue anymore,” I said, untying the first of the lines from the Water Beetle to the Whatsup Dock. I was wearing some of his clothes from the ship. The sweats were too short, and the shirt was too tight, but the duster hid most of that. “And I’ve got supplies for a week or so, until you can make it back. You sure that tub’s going to make it back to town?”

  “Put three patches on the hull after I got her off the beach, and the pumps are working,” Thomas said. “We should be fine. What about you? That thing the island said was in your head?”

  “Another reason to stay here,” I said. “If Molly’s the one who can help me, I’m on my own for now. But Demonreach seems to be able to make it leave me alone, at least while I’m here. Pretty much means I need to stay until Molly gets herself back together.”

  My brother exhaled unhappily, and squinted up at the noonday sun, south of us, hidden behind grey clouds. “Heard from Lara on the radio.”


  “Both her team and Marcone’s found rituals in progress at the two sites. They broke them up. Someone really wanted this place to get screwed up.”

  “Or something,” I said with a melodramatic waggle of my eyebrows.

  He snorted. “You joke around. But I can’t help but think that Fix is going to hold you responsible for some of what happened last night,” he said. “He might show up to explain that to you.”

  “He shows up here, there’s nothing he can do,” I said quietly. “I can take him on neutral ground. Here, it won’t even be a fight.”

  “Still,” Thomas said. “Out here, alone?”

  “I think it’s important,” I said. “I’ve got to know more about this place and what it can do. The only way to do that is to invest the time.”

  “And it’s got nothing to do with facing Molly’s parents,” he said.

  I bowed my head. “It isn’t my place to tell them. Molly should decide who they hear it from first. Once she has, yeah. There’s going to be a really hard talk. Until that time, I need to be here.”

  “And it’s got nothing to do with facing Maggie,” Thomas said.

  I looked away, out at the grey water of the lake.

  Fix knew that Maggie existed. If he wanted to hurt me . . .

  “She’s with Michael because he’s got an NFL lineup of angels protecting his house and family,” I said. “And Supermutt, too. Am I going to be able to provide a real home for her, man? An education? A real life? What’s her college application going to look like: ‘Raised on Spooky Island by wizard with GED, please help’?” I shook my head. “And when the fallout from the White Council about Molly and about this place starts hitting, it’s going to be a nightmare. I might as well have a target tattooed on her forehead as keep her near me.”

  “Michael is awesome,” Thomas said. “Hell, I wish he’d raised me. But he isn’t her dad.”

  “I had sex with her mother,” I said. “That’s not the same as being her father.”

  Thomas shook his head. “You’d be a good dad, Harry. You’d spoil her and you’d indulge her, and you’d embarrass her in front of her friends, but you’d do right by her.”

  “This is me,” I said. “Doing right by her. For now. Maybe someday things could change.”

  Thomas eyed me. Then he shook his head and said, “Kids change. Into adults. Way faster than it seems like they should. Don’t take too long deciding how much change is enough.”

  Hell, he was right about that much, at least. I sighed and nodded slowly. “I’ll keep it in mind.”

  “I know,” he said, and smiled at me. “Because I’m not going to shut up about it.”

  I rolled my eyes and nodded. “Good. Don’t.”

  I offered my fist for bumping.

  Thomas ignored me and gave me a rib-cracking hug, which I returned.

  “Glad you’re back,” he whispered. “Loser.”

  “You gonna start crying now, wuss?” I said back.

  “See you in a few days,” he said. “We’ll ge
t the cottage finished off. Make it someplace Maggie won’t need to learn shape-shifting to survive in.”

  “Just don’t forget the books,” I said. “Or the pizza for the guard.”

  “Won’t.” He let go of me and hopped up onto the Water Beetle. “Any messages?”

  “Molly,” I said. “When she gets back, ask her to send Toot and Lacuna to me. And . . . tell her that when she’s ready to talk, I’m here.”

  Thomas nodded, untied the last line, and tossed it to me. I caught it and started coiling it. Thomas climbed up onto the bridge and took the ship out, chugging away at the sedate pace he would use until he cleared the stone reefs around Demonreach.

  Karrin came out of the cabin and stood on the deck. Mouse came with her, looking solemn. She leaned back against the cabin’s wall and watched me as she went.

  I watched, too, until I couldn’t see her anymore.

  Thunder rumbled over Lake Michigan, unusual in November.

  I settled the new black leather duster over my shoulders, picked up the long, rough branch I’d cut from the island’s oldest oak tree a few hours before, and started back up the hill, toward the former lighthouse and future cottage. I had preparations to make.

  There was a storm coming in.

  * * *

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