Cold days, p.15
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       Cold Days, p.15

         Part #14 of The Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher
 

  “Kilos,” Molly said.

  “I inherited the last guy’s weight set,” I said. “It’s this fancy European thing. Not sure exactly how heavy that is in English.”

  “In England they use kilos,” Molly said wryly. “But it would also be around sixty or sixty-five stone.”

  I stopped and looked at her.

  She smiled sweetly at me.

  I sighed and kept on walking out to the boat.

  It’s called the Water Beetle. It could be the stunt double for the boat of the crusty old fisherman in Jaws, except that it had been freshly painted and refinished and it looked a little too nice. I stopped on the dock in front of it.

  There. I’d been standing right there, looking out toward the parking lot when it happened. My chest didn’t actually feel a pang of agony, but the memory of it was so sharp and clear that I might as well have reexperienced it—it hadn’t hurt at the time, not until I’d been in the water for a while, but it had been pure fire once Mab and Demonreach had succeeded in keeping my soul and body knit together.

  And to think, I’d had to call in a solid to get the guy to come shoot me. It seemed like kind of a waste, at this point. I’d been sure that if I had managed to win the day, thanks to my deal with Mab, that I would be a monster in need of a good putting down. I’d scheduled my own assassin, and Molly had used her unique talents to help me forget that it was coming. Once the day had been safely saved, the plan had been to circumvent the evolution of monster-Harry by way of high-powered rifle.

  Except I’d survived. Next, I guess, came the monster-Harry part.

  I had it on good authority that it didn’t have to end with me going all nutty and villainous—assuming an archangel was trustworthy, which I didn’t. I also had it on good authority that it would end like that anyway. So at the end of the day, I really didn’t know what was going to happen to me in the future.

  Heh. Why should I be any different?

  The Water Beetle was definitely not battened down for winter, not yet. She was a sturdy, tough little craft—not fast, but not afraid of much of anything nature would throw at her, either. Her gangplank was down, and “batten” and “gangplank” are about the only boat words I’m comfortable with. I moved up it without hesitation, even in the shadowy dimness of late night on the marina. I was familiar with the boat. I’d visited the island on it on multiple occasions.

  I went aboard and up onto the roof of the wheelhouse, where the driver’s position was. I flicked on a couple of tired old bulbs and checked the gauges. Fuel, oil, good. She had more than enough for the trip out to the island and back. The key wasn’t in the ignition—it would be in the small safe down in the boat’s cabin, but I knew the combination.

  “We’re good,” I called softly. “Come on.”

  Molly came up the gangplank while I went down into the cabin.

  I got no warning whatsoever, no sound, no visible motion, nothing. One second I was going down the stairs, and the next my face and chest were being crushed against the wall and something extremely sharp was pressing against my neck, just beneath my right ear. Cool, iron-strong fingers were spread over my whole head, pressing it to the wall. The message was clear—if I struggled or made any sound, something pointy would go into my brain.

  I froze. It seemed smart. If my attacker wanted me dead, I wouldn’t still be able to reason that he could already have killed me.

  “Hello, precious,” murmured a man’s very soft voice. “I think you’re on the wrong boat.”

  I sagged suddenly in relief. “Stars and stones,” I breathed. “Thomas, you scared the hell out of me.”

  The power of the cold fingers against my head did not falter in the slightest, but there was a short, stunned silence. Then the pressure against my skull became furious. “Do you think this is funny?” my half brother said, his voice becoming louder, fairly boiling with anger. “Do you think I am amused by this kind of prank?”

  “Thomas,” I said. “It’s me.”

  “Sure it is,” Thomas snarled, the pressure against me surging for a second. “Harry Dresden is dead.”

  I thought my eyeballs were trying to squeeze their way out of their sockets. “Glurk!”

  “Now,” he growled. “I’m going to give you exactly three seconds to start telling me the truth, or I swear to God they will never find enough pieces of you to identify the body.”

  He meant it, Hell’s bells. He was furious. If I were the kind of guy who ever got scared by anything, ever, which of course I am not, I would have been feeling extremely nervous at that moment.

  “Mab!” I ground out. “Dammit, Thomas, you lunatic. It was Mab!”

  “Mab sent you?” Thomas demanded.

  “Mab saved me!” I rasped. “Hell’s bells, man, it’s me!”

  Thomas growled, lower, but he didn’t pancake my skull or stick something sharp and metal into my brain. Thomas was strong—stronger than me. A vampire of the White Court can bring out that kind of strength only on special occasions, but Thomas was a very well-fed vampire. I knew that if he wanted to do it, Winter Knight steroids or no, he could twist me like a congressman’s logic.

  “Molly!” he called out. “I know you’re out there. I can smell you.”

  A few seconds later, there were soft steps on the gangplank, and then the shadows moved at the door. “I’m here.”

  “What the fuck is this?” he demanded.

  “I’m not sure,” Molly said. “It’s dark. But if I could see, I’d tell you that I try not to put myself between two siblings when they’re fighting. It never seems to help.”

  Two or three flabbergasted seconds passed. Then the pressure against my skull was gone so fast that I all but fell over. I grabbed myself before I could and shook my head. “Ow. Nice to see you again, too, man.”

  He moved silently across the cabin and something clicked. A battery-powered tap light came to life, bringing a dim if adequate level of light to the compartment.

  My brother was a hair shy of six feet tall. He looked much as I remembered him: dark, glossy hair fell to his shoulders. His skin was even paler than mine. His eyes were storm-cloud grey, though they looked brighter than that now, glinting with little metallic flecks that revealed his anxiety and anger. He and I shared a similar scowl, all dark brows and intense eyes, and his mouth was twisted into a silent snarl as he stared at me. He was wearing a pair of jeans, and that was it. The cabin’s bunk had been folded down and slept in. I’d woken him when I came aboard. In his right hand he held a metal tent stake. There was both dirt and rust on it. Can you get gangrene in your brain?

  “Oh,” Molly said. She stared at Thomas for a moment. “Oh, um. My.”

  Oh, I forgot to mention it: My brother is the kind of man whom women stalk. In cooperative packs. I’d say he was model pretty, except that as far as I could tell, there weren’t any models as pretty as he was. He had muscles that rippled even when he was motionless and relaxed, and it was utterly unfair.

  And . . . I didn’t do a lot of appraising myself in the mirror, typically, but I suddenly realized that sometime in the past few years, Thomas had stopped looking like my older brother. He looked younger than me. Wizards can live a long time, but we don’t look youthful while we do it. Thomas was a vampire. He’d look this good until he stopped breathing.

  The guy barely works out, eats whatever he wants, and gets to look that good and that young his whole life. How is that fair?

  “You can’t be my brother,” Thomas said, staring hard at me. “My brother is dead. You know how I know?”

  “Thomas,” I began.

  “Because my brother would have contacted me,” Thomas snarled. “If he were alive, he would have gotten in touch with me. He would have let me know.”

  Molly winced and looked away as though she’d just heard a very loud and very unpleasant sound. I’m not sensitive to the emotions of others the way Molly is, but I didn’t need to be to know that Thomas was boiling over in reaction to seeing me there.

&n
bsp; “I’m sorry, Harry,” Molly said. “I can’t . . . It hurts.”

  “Go,” I said softly.

  She nodded and withdrew onto the deck of the boat, shutting the door behind her.

  My brother stayed where he was, staring at me. “All this time,” he said. “And not a word.”

  “I was dead,” I said quietly. “Or the next-best thing to it. Maybe it was more like a coma. Hell, I thought I was dead.”

  “When did you wake up?” he asked. His voice was carefully neutral.

  “About three months ago,” I said. “Wasn’t in good shape. I’ve been recovering since then.”

  “Three months,” he said. “No phones there?”

  “No, actually. I was in a cave on the island for a while. Then Arctis Tor.”

  “No way for you to make contact?” he asked calmly. “You?”

  Silence fell heavily. Thomas knew the kinds of things I could do. If I want someone to get a message, I can generally make sure it gets done—one way or another.

  “What do you want me to say, man?” I responded. “I sold out, Thomas.”

  “Yeah, when you hurt your back. You told us. For Maggie. To get her home safe.”

  “Right.”

  He was silent for a second. Then he said, “Empty night, why didn’t I put that together . . . ?” He sighed. “Let me guess. You tried to kill yourself after she was home safe, right?”

  I snorted through my nose. “Something like that.”

  He shook his head in silence for several seconds. Then he took a deep breath, looked up at me again, and said, “You. Moron.”

  “Hey,” I said.

  “You. Idiot.”

  “Dammit, Thomas,” I said. “I haven’t lived my life the way I have to watch myself get turned into—” I broke off suddenly, and looked away.

  “Into what, Harry?” he asked. “Say it.”

  I shook my head.

  “No, you don’t get a pass on this one, little brother,” Thomas said. “Say it.”

  “Into a monster,” I snapped.

  “Right,” Thomas said. “A monster. Like me.”

  “That isn’t what I meant.”

  “It is exactly what you meant,” he spat, angry. “You arrogant . . .” He flung the tent spike in a fit of pure frustration. It tumbled end over end once, and sank two inches into a wooden beam. “You were going to be tempted, eh? Going to have to deal with monstrous urges? Going to have to face the possibility that you might change if you lost focus for a minute? Lose control of yourself? Maybe hurt somebody you care about?” He shook his head. “Cry me a fucking river, man. Boo-fucking-hoo.”

  I couldn’t look at him.

  “You’d rather be dead than be like me,” he said. “That’s one hell of a thing to say to your brother.”

  “It wasn’t about that,” I said.

  “It kind of was,” he snapped back. “Dammit, Harry.”

  “I can’t go back and change it,” I said. “Maybe I would if I could. But it’s done. I’m sorry, but it is.”

  “You should have talked to me,” he said.

  “Thomas.”

  “You should have trusted me,” he said. “Dammit, man.”

  The memory of those desperate hours hit me hard. I felt so helpless. My daughter had been taken away from her home, and for all the times I had gone out on a limb for others, no one had seemed willing to do the same for me. The White Council for whom I had fought a war had turned its back on me. Time had been running out. And the life of a little girl who had never known her father was on the line.

  “Why?” I asked him tiredly. “What would it have changed? What could you possibly have said that would have made a difference?”

  “That I was your brother, Harry,” he said. “That I loved you. That I knew a few things about denying the dark parts of your nature. And that we would get through it.” He put his elbows on his knees and rested his forehead on his hands. “That we’d figure it out. That you weren’t alone.”

  Stab.

  Twist.

  He was right. It was just that simple. My brother was right. I had been self-involved and arrogant. Maybe it was understandable, given the pressures on me at the time, but that didn’t mean that I hadn’t made bad calls of colossal proportion.

  I should have talked to him. Trusted him. I hadn’t even tried to consider anyone other than Maggie, hadn’t even thought to start seeking support from my family. I’d just moved right along to the part of the plan where I hired one of the world’s premier supernatural assassins to whack me. That probably said something about the state of despair I’d been in at the time.

  But it didn’t say as much as I had about my brother. He was right about that, too. It wasn’t something I had ever consciously faced before, but I had told Thomas, with my actions, that it was better to be dead than a monster—a monster like him. And actions speak far more loudly than words.

  I always thought it would get easier to be a person as I aged. But it just gets more and more complicated.

  “I’m sorry. I should have talked to you then,” I said. My voice sounded hoarse. “I should have talked to you three months ago. But I couldn’t because I made the wrong call. I didn’t think I should contact anyone.”

  “Why not?” he asked, looking up.

  “Because I didn’t deserve to do it,” I said quietly. “Because I sold out. Because I was ashamed.”

  He came to his feet, angry. “Oh, absolutely, I get that. I mean, you had to stay away. Otherwise we all would have known that you aren’t perfect, you gawking, stupid, arrogant, egotistical . . .”

  He hit my chest and wrapped his arms around me so hard that I felt my ribs creaking.

  “. . . clumsy, short-tempered, exasperating, goofy, useless . . .”

  I hugged my brother back and listened to a steady string of derogatory adjectives until he finished it.

  “. . . asshole.”

  “Yeah,” I said. “I missed you, too.”

  Chapter

  Fifteen

  Thomas got us to the island navigating by the stars.

  I kept checking the ship’s compass. Not because I didn’t trust my brother, but because I had no freaking idea how he managed to keep the Water Beetle on course without one. Molly had spent the first part of the trip down in the cabin, wrapped up in some blankets: It was a chilly night out on the lake. Thomas and I were comfortable in shirts. I suspected my apprentice was still feeling the aftereffects of standing too close to my reunion with Thomas.

  I filled Thomas in on recent events on the way out, omitting only the details on the immortal-killing thing. I had a sinking feeling that knowing something that important about beings that powerful was an excellent way to get yourself killed horribly on any night of the year that wasn’t Halloween.

  “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Thomas said, when I finished the briefing. “Have you seen her yet?”

  I scowled. “Seen who?”

  “You tell me,” he said.

  “Just you and Molly,” I said.

  He gave me a look of profound disappointment, and shook his head.

  “Thanks, Dad,” I said.

  “You’re alive,” he said. “You owe it to her to go see her.”

  “Maybe when this is done,” I said.

  “You might be dead by then,” he said. “Empty night, Harry. Didn’t your little adventure in the lake teach you a damned thing?”

  I scowled some more. “Like what?”

  “Like life is short,” he said. “Like you don’t know when it’s going to end. Like some things, left unsaid, can’t ever be said.” He sighed. “I’m a freaking vampire, man. I rip out pieces of people’s souls and eat them, and make them happy to have it happen.”

  I didn’t say anything. That was what my brother was. He was more than that, too, but it would have been stupid to deny that part of him.

  “I’m mostly a monster,” he said. “And even I know that she deserves to hear you tell her you love her. Even if she never gets
anything more than that.”

  I frowned. “Wait. Who are we talking about here?”

  “Either,” he said. “Stop being an idiot. Stop flagellating yourself about how you endanger her by being in her life. You’re the only you in her life, Harry. Believe me. They don’t make replacements for a guy like you.”

  “They don’t make replacements for anybody,” I said tiredly. “We’ll see.”

  Thomas looked at me like he wanted to push. But he didn’t.

  “So what about you?” I asked. “Justine and her playmate keeping you company?”

  “Playmates,” Thomas said absently. “Plural.”

  Totally not fair.

  “Hmph,” I said.

  He frowned. “Hey. How did you know about that?”

  “Ghost me was there the night Justine decided she’d had enough of you moping,” I said.

  “Ghost you was there for how long, exactly?” he asked.

  “I left before it got to an NC-17.”

  He snorted. “Yeah, well, Justine . . . has sort of become a dietitian.”

  “Uh, what?”

  He shrugged. “You are what you eat, right? Same principle applies to vampires. Justine thinks I’m sad, she brings home someone happy. She thinks I’m too tense, someone laid-back and calm.” He pursed his lips. “Really . . . it’s been kind of nice. Balanced, like.” His eyes narrowed and flickered through a few paler shades. “And I get to be with Justine again. Even if it was hell, that would make it worthwhile.”

  “Dude,” I said, making the word a disgusted sound. “Single guys everywhere hate you. Starting with me.”

  “I know, right?” he asked, nodding and smiling. Then he looked ahead and pointed. “There, see it?”

  I peered ahead into the black and found a giant block of more solid black. We were at the island.

  The cabin door opened and Molly emerged, the blanket still wrapped around her shoulders. Her face still looked drawn, but not as pale as it had before we left the marina. She came up the steps to the top of the wheelhouse and stood beside me. “Thomas,” she asked. “Why were you down at the boat tonight?”

  Thomas blinked and looked at her. “What do you mean?”