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Dea Ex Machina, Dea Sub Iudicio


Child of words, hear thy makers, child of words, we entreat.
With our actions did we make thee, to our voices wilt thou bend.
With our potions, thou took motive, with our motions, came to pass.
We rescind no past devotions, give thee substance, give thee mass.


The older you get, the less you like surprises.

Even - or perhaps especially - when they're young, cute and female and, instead of giggling at the letters on my office door, feel compelled to step inside and say hi to a professional colleague.

It was late April, about a month after I'd had the pleasure of meeting Murphy's father, and an otherwise calm Tuesday with balmy weather - for Chicago, anyway - that followed another unprofitable week during which not even the Chicago PD had needed any consultation. So it was in the distinct hope of some rent money announcing itself that I hurried down the steps to my office when the door bell rang.

Two young women, still talking and smiling among themselves, stepped inside. They looked like the typical Chicago students, weighed down by bags yet relaxed and in good spirits. The first girl through the door was a redhead in a long skirt and a flowery top, the other a brunette in black jeans and a dark tee.

It wasn't due to their cheerful greeting, however, that I almost fell down the stairs; no, it was the tangible aura of power the redhead exuded. Powerful magic has a way of announcing itself to other wizards, usually making them tread with caution, although Bob would say that I am the exception proving the case, but very few of us have such a strong innate talent that it can't be suppressed from at least an initial glance.

The only person I know whose power leaks visibly past their magical shields is, of course, Ancient Mai. Just for the record, I was still insanely curious as to whether or not Mai was in fact a drake, but since I had no intention of pissing off the High Council by dropping impolite questions left and right, my chances of verifying my suspicions were severely limited. Bob thinks it very likely that Mai is a magical creature, but doesn't believe I should limit myself to considering only the draco family.

But that's neither here nor there. As I said, the redhead's power eddied around her like a particularly wide coat, and the wards shone a deep yellow. The good thing with wards is not only that they keep the baddies out (unless, of course, they're invited or simply too powerful to be bothered), but also that their warnings have both a visual and an audible component noticeable only to the wizard who set them - unless he wishes otherwise.

So while I called back a greeting, I murmured an incantation under my breath that would enable me to read the aura belonging to the redhead's companion. It is my experience that wizards rarely hang out with nonwizards, and while the wards had denied neither of them entry, the day with the drake-pretending-to-be-Murphy had made me more cautious.

The brunette also had a magical aura, but hers was only skin-deep and an unusual color for a human - a deep blue streaked with black. A human's aura changes color depending on their emotions and state-of-mind, while, let's say, a hellion's closely resembles hellfire. Vampires, the White Court being an exception, have paler auras that still reflect their moods as with humans. Black streaks in someone's aura, unsurprisingly, tend to mean something nasty.

Not good.

I fervently wished that I hadn't left my hockey stick upstairs and fumbled for the drumstick that was thankfully still stuck behind my belt in the small of my back.

At least Bob's skull was safely locked in the lab, and I hoped he had the sense to stay out of this despite the fact that he knows my wards almost better than I do.

The brunette looked like she planned on catching me if I decided to actually fall down the rest of the stairs, but my dignity stepped in and allowed me to arrive downstairs in one piece.

"Hi. We're new in the city and while window-shopping saw the sign on your door. You're an actual wizard, not with bunnies coming out of hats or sawing a woman in half or something like that, right? Not that bunnies would be of the good, what with some people being afraid of them--" The redhead turned to her companion and continued, "--I couldn't help thinking of Anya during movie nights in Cleveland, you know? No more checking whether a movie was Anya-safe and Dawnie-safe, and... Oh. Sorry. I'm babbling, I know. Bad habit."

The brunette put her hand on the redhead's shoulder and asked in a curt, low voice: "You the wizard? Dresden?"

She managed to look embarrassed and indulgent at the same time, and since despite her aura, she made no move to spew green fire, draw a gun, or push me into the nearest wall, I answered cautiously: "Yes, I'm Harry Dresden, and yes, it reads 'wizard' on the door. I advise, investigate or consult, but I don't do love potions, endless purses, parties or entertainment. Can I help you?"

"Well, I'm a Wicca, and as I said, I'm new here. I'd normally call a friend, but since we're already here - do you know a magic shop close-by, or another supplier that's less with the candles and incense and more with burba weed, Orbs of Thessulah and skink root, but not necessarily with the petrified hamsters. They remind me of a rat I used to have, and I don't think she'd have liked to be petrified. Anyway, can you recommend a place?"

I wondered whether Ancient Mai could talk that much without taking a breath. No contribution to next month's rent was in sight, but at least the redhead didn't look like she had a bone to pick with little old me.

"You can go to Joya at 22nd Street and Cermak. All her stuff is authentic. Make it clear that you're not a novice and that you're here to stay, and she might even deliver to your place. She insists on cash on delivery, though."

Yeah, and if the girl dropped my name and ordered enough, Joya might even be happy with only a deposit the next time my magical supplies ran out. Not very likely, but an always-close-to-broke P.I. can dream, can't he?

What happened next proved without a doubt that Bob's admonishment at amplifying my wards to repel any intruder was more than overdue. Stars, who am I kidding? There's no warding strong enough to keep the High Council out. Ever.

I still believe Morgan enjoys startling me.

The redhead had just given me a cheery wave and turned towards the door when it burst open and framed my dear friend, Chicago's Head Warden.

Right. And the day he doesn't accuse me of being behind the latest surge of black magic in the city is the day I invite Mai out on a date.

Anyway, the aura around the redhead crackled with power, and the brunette dropped into a fighting stance, her left hand on her belt. The door slammed closed. They didn't look scared or surprised, but rather prepared for anything, and that made me interfere. Fast.

"Morgan, how nice of you to drop by. Don't tell me - something bad has been happening, and of course I'm behind it?"

"Dresden, stay out of this. This doesn't concern you." Morgan had his sword drawn, but wasn't attacking. Yet.

The redhead didn't move, but the feeling of power around her thickened. The brunette had a short wooden implement in hand - was that a stake? "How about some introductions, Dresden?" she threw back into my direction. "I like to know what I kill."

"No, no, no, no killing around here! I like my office the way it is. The black guy with the sword is Chicago's Head Warden, Morgan. You don't want to piss him off. The girls were just leaving - who are you, by the way?"

It was Morgan who answered, however. "Miss Rosenberg, you will accompany me to the High Council. Your Slayer companion may come as well."

"Wait, wait, Rosenberg as in Willow Rosenberg? The Red Witch?" Yeah, the magical community gossips like you wouldn't believe. And we have good contacts to several covens in England.

"The 'Slayer companion' has a name, and it's Kennedy. As of yesterday, I'm Chicago's Slayer, and while you're not undead, buster, you're not normal. Plus I don't think you have any right to order my girlfriend around."

"How about less with the dramatic pose and more with the information?" Rosenberg interjected, trying to calm the waters. I could have told her how futile that was.

Of course, that was the moment that Bob - with impeccable timing as usual - chose to show himself. He stepped through the wall from the lab, evidently having heard Rosenberg's name, turned to me with a raised eyebrow and opened his mouth.

His manifestation flickered for a moment when the stake flew right through what would have been his heart and embedded itself in the wall, a couple of splinters raining onto the floor.

"Okay, so what are you? And you, buster, better drop the sword or I'll shove it where the sun don't shine. Got it?"

"Stop!" Rosenberg yelled. Morgan's sword and Kennedy's next stake (I wonder - do Slayers have an unlimited supply of them hidden on their person?) clattered to the floor. I felt my fingers loosen and took my hand away from my drumstick.

Why do I always get in the middle of things like this? It's not just the High Council that doesn't like me, I bet.

"All of us, let's just calm down. Kennedy was appointed Chicago's Slayer, and I came here to help her get settled. How do you know who we are, and how do you know about Slayers?" Rosenberg was still trying to mediate and ignored all glares thrown into her direction.

"Interesting," Bob mused and tapped the fingers of his left hand against his chin. The ring on his little finger glinted in the light of the candles, "so this is the famous Red Witch. You don't look all that impressive for what I've heard of you having more than dabbled in the Black."

"Bob, shut up," I said absently. Morgan looked like the was on the verge of having an apoplexy. This was neither the time nor place for idle chit-chat. Somebody had to be the mature one around here, and it looked like it might have to be me. "Why don't we all sit down and clear this up without bloodshed?"

I gestured them towards the sofa and chairs in the corner of my office, and amazingly they all sat down obediently. The girls chose the sofa, Morgan the chair closest to the door. I dropped down on the other one, and Bob chose to stand behind me.

"First of all, what is this High Council, and why do they want to see me?" Rosenberg piped up first. I sat up straight in reaction and knew that Bob mirrored my shock. Rosenberg didn't know about the High Council, and therefore couldn't know about the Wardens or the magical community as a whole. How had she made it this far without a formal education in the Arts?

My uncle would be salivating about now.

"The High Council is the governing body of the magical community in the world. Its primary aim is to protect humanity from abuses of magic committed by wizards, but it also shields this world from the Sidhe and other creatures that wish humanity harm. It has several local committees in the United States, with the largest one currently located in Chicago. It consists of ten wizards who are considered the most powerful in the world. Their leader bears the title of Merlin, and it is he who appoints his proxies who head up the committees. The head of the Chicago High Council is someone by the name of Ancient Mai. Morgan is her chief enforcer. The Wardens are the High Council's executive arm, and each committee has a Head Warden. They're like... cops. Only they police wizards and magical creatures, watch over the observance of treaties and enforce the Seven Laws of Magic."

I then went into more specifics and detailed the Laws, all the while ignoring Morgan's cynical little smile and Bob's little huffs of disagreement behind me. No-one interrupted me, and I refrained from alluding to my situation at all, even when I mentioned that a wizard may resort to the use of deadly force if he is defending his own life. Yeah, extenuating circumstances my ass. Having had the audacity to defend yourself means having to pay for it for years to come. You don't self-defense a member of the High Council to death, even when they violate the Laws left and right and try to kill you. Especially when you only manage that feat by falling on your face and landing so unfortunately that your hand inadvertently presses an item belonging to your attacker into a thaumaturgy doll made by said attacker as a means of murdering your father. Instead you better die like a good little nobody.

High Council "justice" is a lark. Nobody knows that better than me and a certain cursed sorcerer of my acquaintance.

Rosenberg listened attentively and looked prepared to attack Morgan with a number of questions several times, but when I'd finished, she just asked one: "You mean the High Council is responsible for keeping wizards and other magic users in check so that they don't use their talents to take normal people's lives? So why didn't it interfere with Glory, or the First Evil and its Bringers, and why does the Slayer line exist if theoretically, her work is being done by the Wardens?" She appeared calm and almost uninterested. Was it just my imagination, or did her hair look darker?

Kennedy glowered at Morgan and interrupted before he could answer: "You're the guy from the airport, aren't you? The one who hung out at the baggage claim and blabbered about trials and punishments?"

"We knew when Miss Rosenberg arrived, yes. And I don't think this is any of Mr. Dresden's business, so I suggest we leave."

"I suggest we stay. He's been way more accommodating than you, and I won't meet the oh-so great High Council until you've answered my question, for one."

"The Laws were passed to protect humans from practitioners of the Arts. We only interfere with supernatural powers or beings when they become too powerful or dangerous to remain hidden from ordinary humans' eyes. We have treaties - the Unseelie Accords - prohibiting, say, Chicago's vampires of the Red Court from randomly abducting and killing strangers."

The important word being 'randomly', I thought snidely. If not for Bianca being level-headed and always keeping a firm rein on her people, the Red Court vampires in Chicago wouldn't be drinking obediently from their thralls, no, they would be thinning out the ranks of the homeless people, runaways and hookers. If only Sirota were halfway as restrained, or at least the Council had more of a spine and would send him back to hell instead of kowtowing to him under the guise of the Accords. So much for Mai being undiscriminating when she's being a hard-nosed bitch.

Kennedy snorted derogatorily.

Morgan flushed with anger, but continued: "The High Council is also a political and democratic organization seeking to unite wizards throughout the world. The Council as it exists today wasn't formed until the early 13th century. Before that time, local wizards fought paranormal evil in their own way, which included the independent existence and calling of the Slayer. She was the ultimate weapon of an uncivilized world in which no Laws existed. She became redundant long before today, but she's still an important means of guarding Bocas del Infierno and therefore our world from being overrun by evil creatures of Hell."

"That's all she is? An outdated, uncivilized last line of defense?" Rosenberg's hair now showed distinct black streaks, and her aura flared. I tried to gesture at Morgan to watch his words, but he was looking at Rosenberg far too closely to see what I was doing.

"The Slayer is a magical creature herself as she's imbued with a demonic essence. She's too similar to the things she hunts to be openly associated with the High Council, but in the 17th century the High Council and her society - I believe they're still called the Council of Watchers? - signed a treaty of non-interference that gives her the same standing as a Blackstaff."

Morgan was more polite than I'd ever seen him. I was impressed. I also couldn't let this stand: "Whoa, whoa, whoa, you mean she's a legalized assassin only loosely allied with the High Council, and someone who doesn't have to give a shit about the Laws of Magic?" What did make a Slayer a Slayer, and did they have an open membership or give asylum?

"I suppose that treaty doesn't mention any support, funding or, you know, actual assistance in cases of, say, world endage? Goddess forbid she should have any formal backup or help when needed. As long as it's clear that that hasn't changed and that it means in reverse that Kennedy won't allow any interference with her job here in Chicago and also won't do any of your dirty work on your say-so, I guess our Councils will just continue ignoring each other." She squeezed the brunette's hand. "So your boss' interest lies with me. Why?"

Morgan started looking uncomfortable. He had good reason to - I guess sometimes it's a bit stressful being Mai's sheep dog. Too bad. Suck it up, Morgan.

"You are a witch, Miss Rosenberg, and as such you fall under the High Council's jurisdiction. You have violated several of our Laws, and you will be put on trial before the assembled members of the High Council for your transgressions."

Rosenberg's hair color stopped darkening, but the laughter she broke into sounded more cynical than truly amused. "You mean, despite the fact that I grew to become the Slayer's 'big gun' in her fight against evil of all persuasions, you think you have the right to judge me? You, who all stood back and let us bleed, suffer and die on our own so that the world would still be there the next morning? You don't know anything. I'm only accountable to our Council, and in this case 'our' doesn't mean this thing I've only just heard of and which has never given a shit about what I do before. Buffy and the others forgave me, and I need neither your nor the High Council's blessing to continue doing what I do. I defend the Slayers against magical opponents, and if your bunch decides to stand in my way, you'll live to regret it."

Morgan didn't jump up, but it was a near thing. In the five years he'd been assigned as my Warden and watchdog, I'd never heard him sound that dangerous: "Do not dare threaten me, Miss Rosenberg. The price for disobedience towards a High Council summons is death."

"If I understand your world correctly, I've already been sentenced to death anyway, so why should I bother?" Rosenberg's smile was feral, and the black in her hair had almost entirely swallowed the red. That was when her girlfriend turned towards her and slapped her. Hard.

The room rang with the sound of it, and Rosenberg's head flew backwards. When she recovered to stare back at us, her cheek clearly showed a handprint, but her hair color had returned to normal. Kennedy hissed: "Buffy and Xander would feed me to the Hellmouth, and Giles would be so disappointed. I'm your kite string, remember? Keeping you grounded. You can't let loose like that. I like my White Goddess, but black doesn't suit you. This stupid Council can't do anything to you if you don't let them, so let's play their game - for now."

Rosenberg swallowed, her eyes wide. "I'll go see your High Council, but I want to make it clear beforehand that I deny their right to try me for any violations of those Laws of Magic of yours. When and where do you want me to show up, and can I take some friends with me?"

Morgan's hand was still underneath his coat - I bet he was still gripping the hilt of his sword -, but he kept up the surface politeness I'd evidently never warranted. "The day after tomorrow, at 6 p.m. You will receive a summons directing you to the location. You and your friends won't be allowed to take any weapons with you into the meeting of the High Council, and performing any kind of magic on its members results in summary judgment - beheading by the Head Warden. By the way, meetings of the Council are traditionally conducted in Latin. If your knowledge of it is lacking, I suggest you find a spokesperson who speaks it fluently. Good day, Miss Rosenberg. Miss Kennedy."

He disappeared, turning invisible like always, the show-off, and my doorbell rang a moment later. I gave an exaggerated nod to Bob, and he dissolved into black smoke. A few seconds later, he manifested himself again next to me and inclined his head an increment. So Morgan had truly left. What a relief.

Rosenberg and Kennedy were staring at Bob. The brunette's mouth was standing open a fraction, but she recovered immediately. She pointed her chin at him and asked faux-casually: "He a ghost, or what?"

The stress of the last hour was enough of an excuse, I insisted later, for the fit of laughter I couldn't help but break into, helped along by the snickers I heard from Bob's direction. I hadn't heard him laugh in a long time, and I treasured the sound. The last months had taken us both down, what with Uncle Justin's reappearance, Bob's second death, the drake, and Bob's encounter with the Other Side, and gallows humor means that at least you don't cry. Even though you've been dragged right into the middle of a showdown between a not-in-the-least-helpless damsel in distress and the High Council.

And it was only Tuesday. Swell.

***

It wasn't hard to convince Rosenberg and her girlfriend - whose full name turned out to be Kennedy Fitzgerald (no wonder she didn't advertise it) - to stay. They were both still rattled from the encounter with Morgan and his references to what must, to them, have appeared as a whole new world. They stayed late into the evening to question me about the High Council and the current situation in the magical community of Chicago, and when, shortly after sunset, Fitzgerald became uncomfortable and suggested 'patrolling the streets', I was able to convince her to keep a low profile until Rosenberg's meeting with the Council. They hadn't ever heard of vampires that were not demons housed by reanimated corpses and were at first curious, then revulsed by my descriptions of the White and the Red Court as well as the fact that the High Council has treaties with both.

In return, I got a firsthand account of the adventures of the last two Slayers called, and of the battle against the First Evil during which Rosenberg empowered all surviving Potentials with the essence of the Slayer. Privately, I thought that Rosenberg's stories about the original Slayer, Buffy Summers - and what kind of name was that? - had to be more than a bit exaggerated because they sounded too unbelievable, but the fact that Fitzgerald, who clearly didn't revere Summers to a similar degree, didn't contradict her made me think.

The existence of more than one Slayer as well as their Watchers' Council's decision to send one to Chicago had the potential of causing a major uproar in my city. The vampires of either Court wouldn't take too kindly to being policed, and the Slayers' attitude of 'see vampire, kill vampire', as Fitzgerald put it, would put all our treaties with them in jeopardy.

Essentially, the White and the Red Court police themselves. The White Court, seeing as their survival doesn't depend on blood, are - at least theoretically - not a danger to the people they feed off, but they can do irreparable damage to their victims' psyches and might prefer killing them to avoid their nature becoming public knowledge. The Red Court vampires - like Bianca - each have their regulars who have become addicted to the narcotic properties of their saliva and sustain them by regular feeding. That, however, doesn't mean that accidents don't happen. Bob still chides me that I allowed Bianca to drink from me in the aftermath of my uncle's death, and he is right - I am incredibly lucky that Bianca didn't chose to feed off me more than once and ultimately let me go.

The Black Court - the degenerates, as Bianca calls them - have the least fastidious feeding habits of all vampires. Add to that a high percentage of ThreeEye users, and you end up with dead bodies in alleys, parks and abandoned buildings. I tell my clients to not go out past sunset, or at least not without some protection, but not everybody is that cautious, and some of those who aren't die. A bit of 'patrolling' would clean up the dark corners of Chicago, and that wouldn't be a bad thing in many people's books.

As soon as Rosenberg thought she had all the relevant information, she pulled a cellphone from her backpack, shoving a laptop aside in the process, and prepared to call her friends. That was the moment I resolved to put all my money (which wouldn't amount to a lot, but it's the thought that counts, doesn't it?) on her in the upcoming conflict.

Any witch who masters modern electronic equipment - and manages to keep it running - is a miracle in my books. I told her to step further back into the apartment, preferably the kitchen, when the feedback started screeching audibly, and she did, but assured me that that was a problem she'd be able to remedy with a small ritual.

The mere suggestion of an apartment with a working computer - hey, internet! -, television, telephone and answering machine as well as a kitchen with modern appliances shocked me into silence. I still have a rotary phone and a gas stove, and my television tends to crap out on me. A lot. I barely refrained from telling her I'd kiss her feet if her ritual managed to change all that, but only because I didn't want to be skewered by tall, dark, handsome and gay.

Rosenberg came back a few minutes later and announced that she and her mentor, the Rupert Giles she'd talked about, had agreed that both Giles and Summers would fly to Chicago immediately and be present during the High Council meeting. Rosenberg said that their presence would mean that the required majority for a vote passed by the New Watchers' Council were reached, and I didn't get the impression that she was joking. Evidently, the rest of the board members by the names of Xander and Faith were further abroad and would be unable to make it back to the States in time.

We didn't get back to the topic of what Bob actually was, but I felt Rosenberg's eyes on me when I went upstairs to bed, cradling Bob's skull to my chest, having given the girls the sofa. It pulls out and is quite comfortable, I'm told. Bob had stepped through the wall to the lab about an hour ago, mumbling about research. After Tara's betrayal, I haven't left Bob's skull out of my sight for a single night, and I don't plan on doing so anytime in the near future. Better he watches me sleep than peeping on two nubile, attractive, young lesbian lovers who might take offense. Not that he'd see it that way, I'm sure.

When the familiar black smoke and orange lights settled into the skull on my bedside table, I immediately fell into a dreamless sleep.

***

Evidently houseguests come with coffee and donuts. I awoke halfway with the ring of the doorbell, but didn't rouse until the smell of coffee permeated the air. I don't have a coffee machine for obvious reasons, so I usually make do with instant. When I stumbled downstairs, scratching my chin and hoping to wake up entirely, I discovered Fitzgerald had been to Starbucks. An extremely abbreviated stay in the bathroom later, I sipped at a styrofoam cup full of the nectar of the gods, and my eyelids opened all the way.

Fitzgerald had already drained her cup and was doing some kind of stretching exercises in the middle of the room while Rosenberg kept sipping from something only vaguely coffee-like and typing industriously at her laptop. She looked up.

"He's not around at the moment, is he?"

I must have looked particularly dense.

"Bob. Your ghost."

"Nah. He's asleep. In his-- He's asleep." I'd never endanger him again, and no matter how nice Rosenberg seemed, she had no need to know any details in regard to Bob.

Rosenberg's eyes were very green, and very earnest. "He's incorporeal, or otherwise Kennedy's stake would have killed him. He vanishes and rematerializes by dissolving, and I can read runes. The skull said "Hrothbert" which is an old form of Robert - Bob. A skull that you're mightily protective of. It also bears the symbols for a powerful binding spell that my coven in England would not approve of, because they'd consider it too dark. Your Warden friend--" I laughed derisively, "--okay, not-friend wasn't fazed at all to see him, so I guess he knows very well who and what Bob is. My guess is your ghost has been bound to that skull by orders or at least endorsement of the High Council, and it didn't exactly happen by choice. Am I right?"

I sat down heavily and sighed. That girl was too smart by half. "He's never been very forthcoming with the details, but yes, he was a sorcerer executed and cursed for using powerful black magic, including thaumaturgy and necromancy. His skull has been in my mother's family for generations, and the curse compels him to serve whoever owns it. He can't affect our world at all, although he can materialize as you've seen and write in the air in glowing orange letters. They dissolve when you touch them, and when that happens, it makes him extra cranky. Bob's forgotten more spells and potions than any of us has ever known, and he can do a few nifty tricks that have helped in a lot of my investigations."

"So he serves you? He has no choice?"

That was when I started to get angry. Rosenberg had no idea. I'm not my uncle - I don't treat Bob like a servant. He's my friend. He's saved my life more times that I can count. From the Skinwalker, from Sharon and Nancy, from Uncle Justin and his copy's plans to use me as a battery to be sucked dry so that my uncle returned to life, and from Ancient Mai's ruthless determination to rather let us all die, swallowed by the Other Side, than let the drake go free.

"Back off, will you? I've never treated Bob like that! He wouldn't have sacrificed his second chance at life to save mine if I were horrible to him, would he? He's my teacher, my mentor and friend, and he loves me."

"How about you? Do you love him?"

The feelings her words evoked felt like a punch to the gut. I remembered holding Bob's body in my arms as he died, and the wrenching emptiness in my heart when his corpse dissolved into nothing. If he hadn't rematerialized next to me just then as a ghost, I don't know what I would have done. Smashed everything in the morgue, gone up against Sirota, screamed at Bianca to kill me, or picked a sword fight with Morgan while drunk out of my mind. I don't know. I can't imagine doing what I do without Bob to come home to, to consult, to bitch at, and hang out with. Murphy fills up a hole in my life, but Bob? Without Bob, I wouldn't have a life. I'd screw up during a case that goes way over my head, and that would be it. Finis. No more Harry Dresden.

"Look, Miss Rosenberg, as much as I appreciate your concern for my private life, this is none of your business. Let's just close this topic on the remark that the High Council thinks I'm too lenient and familiar for being Bob's keeper, and if the old Merlin hadn't granted me the skull after my uncle's death, it would right now be gathering dust in some old wizard's display case, with Bob confined to it for all eternity."

"I'm sorry, I'm really not trying to pry, but this kind of concerns me, too. If you take it literally, I'm pretty much in Bob's shoes. I raised a friend of mine from the dead, I killed a murderer with my magic, and I influenced my former girlfriend's mind in order to make her forget something - twice. Plus, I tried to end the world. Well, I was kind of Darth Willow at that time, but I don't think anyone will care. If Bob got tried, executed and cursed for his actions, my future looks about the same. The High Council's not much with the forgiveness, is it?" Rosenberg looked a bit pale and sick after that account.

Which was understandable. Black magic is addictive and taints the user's mind, and I've never heard of anyone turning to it to that degree who later managed to find their way back.

No wonder Morgan had treated the outcome of the trial as a done deal. Unless Rosenberg managed to convince the Council that she wasn't subject to their decisions or that she was in no danger anymore from the Black, she was screwed. Big time.

"One more thing, Mr. Dresden--"

"Please, call me Harry. I suspect we're going to be spending quite a lot of time in each other's company in the next few days." True. Let's just hope that the High Council wasn't about to regard me as guilty by association.

"Then I'm Willow. I guess it wouldn't be a sensible step to break the curse and end Bob's punishment just a day before facing the High Council, would it?"

Her words drove the breath from my lungs, and I fell back into my chair, speechless and dizzy from a strange humming sound in my ears. "You would do that? You could do that? Turn him mortal?"

"Yes. It wouldn't even be very difficult, or require a lot of power. I've already cast a similar spell about two, three years ago, and I've grown a lot stronger since then."

***

Later, at O'Hare International, my wildly fluctuating emotions seesawed to jealousy when it sunk in that Willow had flown here from Cleveland. After what she'd told of her years as a hacker, she was an anomaly as a witch - electronic devices didn't react to her presence. Even shortly before my uncle's death, when I'd backpacked through South America, I'd traveled there by ship, a huge antiquated monster of a tanker I'd signed on.

I went ahead to the baggage claim area to avoid messing up any airline computers while the girls went to collect Buffy Summers. The whole airport felt like a strange new world to me, and I strolled slowly through the masses hurrying from one terminal to another. I've never been aboard a plane - when I was a boy, my father couldn't afford plane tickets, and we usually traveled by bus or car. I'd just reached what I hoped was the correct conveyor belt when a movement in the crowd caught my eye. A tall blonde with short hair winked at me, and I recognized Amber.

Of course the Wardens were here. At least I couldn't spot Morgan.

I was still contemplating whether or not to seek out Amber in the hopes of her being able - and willing - to give me the rundown on the current climate in the High Council when three women crowded up to me without once interrupting their conversation. On second glance, it was Willow and a tiny blonde who were doing all the talking; Kennedy hung back with a scowl on her face.

"...boys in Rome?"

"They're not much with the tall, which is awesome, plus they're all dark-haired and tanned, and flirty, and seriously into blondes. Dawn is pouting. Plus, I've kind of overeaten on pizza, so-- Oh, sorry, we're here. This is your new friend, Harry not-Potter?"

A look into Summers' eyes convinced me that the ditzy blonde act was... not entirely an act, but a way of hiding underneath a comfortable, worn coat one has grown very fond of over the years. She wouldn't have survived longer than almost all of her predecessors if she were brainless, and believe you me - the Harry Potter comparison? I've heard it so often by now that it doesn't even bother me anymore.

Besides, Rowling's portrayal of dark lords and their followers is a very effective means of having wizards newly come into their powers identify with the good guys. If it saves even one child from dabbling in black magic (and subsequently being beheaded by the Wardens), I'll gladly field yet another handful of questions about wizards and broomsticks from a prospective client.

"Harry Dresden, wizard, meet Buffy Summers, Slayer." Willow smiled a bit nervously. "It looks like Giles' plane will be on time, too, at least according to the display panels. We'll pick him up at 22:43, gate F8. Buffy, we're here with Harry's Jeep."

Summers shouldered her bag with ease, linked arms with Willow and led the way to the parking garage. Kennedy followed on their heels. I looked for Amber, but couldn't find her or any other Warden whose face I knew.

Two or three gates later, out of the corner of my eye I noticed another movement in the crowd, but it was just a white dog jumping up to lick a balding, well-dressed man's face. The two men the dog seemed to belong to were laughing while standing shoulder-to-shoulder. One of them wore a red uniform. A Mountie, here in Chicago?

I soon forgot about them when my thoughts returned to Bob, and Willow's amazing offer.

Willow had promised to cast her spell to return Bob to mortal form in the early afternoon, as soon as Summers was fully informed and had given the go-ahead. Willow hadn't wanted to circumvent her best friend, but admitted that in the case of Giles, it was easier to ask for forgiveness rather than permission. She'd sounded scared, but convinced that her mentor would insist on caution and deliberation and postpone the spell until after the High Council meeting. She hadn't voiced it, but her willingness to proceed as soon as possible gave me the impression that she was attempting to get her affairs in order; I guess she was more afraid of the trial's outcome than she admitted to.

I hadn't even dropped a hint in Bob's presence that an end to his punishment might be in sight. I didn't doubt Willow's power - much. But awakening expectations and then dashing the hopes of my old friend would be just cruel. I planned to go over the details of the spell with Willow until I was satisfied that it would do as promised, and then I'd tell Bob.

Again, my stomach felt strangely heavy and agitated at the same time. The last time Bob had been turned corporeal, he'd grabbed my collar, almost strangled me, knocked me out with his powers, then bound and gagged me and finally slapped me awake, although the pats to my cheeks had almost felt like caresses. Because they had been or because I had wanted them to be?

I'm pathetic. So eager for just the smallest sign that Bob might feel more for me than parental affection that I've all but blocked out the pain of feeling my life force drain away, and instead remember with crystal-like clarity how it felt to cradle him in my arms, support his head, feel his breath and stare into his eyes from less than eight inches away.

The situation had felt like the pivot point to countless possibilities, each more promising than the next, until I realized that his laughter didn't mean that he would survive, but instead had accepted that he would die right there in my arms, and that there was nothing I could do to prevent it.

I like women. Blondes, brunettes, redheads, and while I prefer them tall and long-legged, I'm not picky - if they have that certain vulnerable quality that Bob calls my "damsel in distress indicator" despite otherwise being strong and resourceful - like Susan, or Heather - I'm instantly attracted. I've only ever slept with one guy, and that was in Chile. He was Israeli, tall, handsome and charming, a fellow tourist, and we both knew that it wasn't for keeps. I guess I felt I had to get some of my pent-up teenaged rebellion out of the way before I rejoined Uncle Justin in Chicago and got introduced to the High Council, and he had a fiancée waiting at home.

The sex had been good, but there's just something about a woman's mind and body that calls to me. They're so different from us men that we sometimes suspect them of being aliens. They feel good. They smell good. They're complicated, inconsistent, cruel and tender at the same time - all of which, when you think of it, is the perfect description of Bianca. Worrying, isn't it? Anyway, women are as good as another species, and their bodies complement ours.

Bob, though? Bob is not just another man.

He's been my teacher, mentor, friend, assistant, savior, devil's advocate and resident pain-in-the-ass. The rare occasions he's proud and surprised at something I've done I feel ten foot tall. The way he looked at me the moment before he died - I'd kill to have him look at me like that again. I could listen to his voice all day long, and I still hope that one day he'll carry out his threat of singing 16th century showtunes. I've watched more soaps and love dramas for him than for any girlfriend, and the box full of romance novels I dumped in the closet hadn't been left by Laura; I bought them in a garage sale. He rations them so they last him longer. Let me tell you, seeing black smoke rise out of a paperback with a lurid cover and reform into the buttoned-up image of a man with widely dilated eyes and tears on his cheeks is deeply disquieting.

Who am I kidding? It's arousing as hell.

I've always wondered whether he'd look the same if he ever actually dared spy on me during sex, and from there it was only a short step to imagine him looking like that during sex. With me.

I'd love to peel him out of his jacket, his waistcoat, his shirt, unknot his neckcloth, open his belt, draw down his pants and underwear (I've always wondered whether he even wears any), and finally see what his body looks like uncovered, bared to my eyes. The things he does to a suit are unbelievable. Whenever I dress up, I keep looking like myself, scruffy and ill-at-ease. He, however, looks like... I don't know. So far I haven't discovered why he sticks to clothes so far from the period of his birth - and death. Seeing how they fit him, though, is enough of a reason for me.

I want to see him shiver and look at me the way he did after I stood up to the old Merlin and demanded his skull as my inheritance and compensation for forsaking the rest of the Morningway estate. I want to touch him and have him touch me in return. I want all the things I tried to not even dream of in the last couple of years for they used to be impossible.

I want...

I bumped into Kennedy's back and received my share of her current glare. Oh. We'd arrived at my car.

***

Back at my place, Summers listened attentively to Willow's condensed tale of both the events in Chicago and the current situation with the High Council while looking around curiously. It took me a while until I realized that she could actually see the wards.

They didn't react to her much differently than to Kennedy although they glowed more brightly. The two girls' auras would have looked identical if not for the fact that the black streaks in Summers' - her Slayer essence - were less sharp-edged and seemed to have come close to merging with her human part.

"Harry?" Bob came into the living room from the hallway leading to the lab. "Lieutenant Murphy called. I didn't know you were out. She's left a message on your machine, and since its red light is blinking, I dare say it's working - for the moment." He looked at our visitors. "I see your collection of beautiful young women has grown even further. Dare I say that this case, despite its negative connotations for Miss Rosenberg, definitely has its good points?" He smiled at Summers, and I felt a totally irrational surge of jealousy.

"Miss Summers, this is Hrothbert of Bainbridge. He works with me, and as Willow has already told you, he is a ghost." The specifics of Bob's curse were for later. "Bob, this is Willow's best friend, the oldest living Slayer, Buffy Summers. She's here to bat for her at the High Council meeting."

Now how to get Bob out of here so that Summers could ask all those questions that were rising behind those too transparent hazel eyes?

Willow took the problem out of my hands. "Bob, Buffy and I have to tell Harry a bit about my past so he knows what's likely to come up during the trial. Would you mind leaving us alone for a bit?" Direct, but her puppy-dog eyes were imploring enough that not even a centuries-old sorcerer could resist. Without the look I would have received in her stead Bob nodded and prepared to leave. "Harry, I'll be in my skull." Oh, so he was a bit in a huff. Too bad. He wouldn't have to wait long - I hoped.

But first, I had to check Murphy's message. Thankfully, it was just a terse question concerning a minor detail of an old case (Murphy hates doing reports. Especially since the results of my 'consultations', for the most part, are hard to put to paper.) and not a new one she needed my expertise on. Next month's rent wasn't looking too good, but right now I simply didn't have the time to visit a crime scene or dodge any of Murphy's questions. I left a message on her answering machine and told her I was investigating a major adultery case that was taking up all of my time.

Back in the living room, Summers had been cued in entirely from the look of things. Kennedy had made herself scarce. "Let's do the talking-about-tomorrow-evening thing once Giles is here, okay? Willow tells me she wants to go ahead with the big magics before that, though. So why should she make your ghost human again exactly?"

The next hour reminded me uncomfortably much of my interrogation after I'd turned myself in to the High Council five years ago. Considering I didn't know too many details of Bob's past as well as of the offences he'd been executed and cursed for, my ability to give satisfying answers to all of Buffy's questions - she insisted on using first names, claiming that being called 'Miss Summers' reminded her unfavorably of her times in High School - was soon found lacking. However I made a point of detailing exactly what Bob had risked and ultimately sacrificed in order to save my life after my uncle's copy showed up in February, as well as expounding on all the instances his counsel had saved my ass during my 'career' as a P.I. I mentioned the Skinwalker, I mentioned Mai's spell that moved my apartment to the Other Side.

Buffy nodded a couple of times, and I had the impression that I was really reaching her.

When I was all talked out and neither of the girls could come up with yet another question, I called for a halt.

"So, what do you think, Buffy? Keeping Bob chained to his skull is essentially a neverending punishment. Whatever he's done, he's long paid for it. In full. In the normal world, you either get executed or sentenced to a lifetime in prison. In Bob's case, the High Council has done both, and seems to have no plans to ever let him go. That's just cruel. And bad. Perhaps even more with the bad than whatever he's done." Willow was getting all worked up about it. "Plus, binding someone's soul to an object and forbidding the soul to move on? The Devon Coven sees that as the darkest magic you can imagine. You kill people. You destroy their body." She threw a stricken look at Buffy. "Not that I mean you you. This is a general 'you', not a 'you Buffy' you. Okay. What I wanted to say was: Destroying a person's mind is bad enough - just remember Glory -, but at least it's finite. They die. They heal. They move on. Destroying someone's soul ends all that they are, all that they've ever been, all they're ever going to be. Capturing it? That would be like--like--like me using the Ritual of Restoration to fill dozens of Orbs of Thessulah and then keeping them around to--to light my room! Only more with the actual slavery angle. It's evil, and it's wrong, and I won't stand for it!"

"Calm down, Will. I get it, and I'm definitely not on that stupid Council's side on it. But we have to make sure that Harry's ghost won't make with the Darth Bob stuff later on; Kennedy doesn't need that in her town, and your magics kicked my butt pretty well two years ago, just as they did Glory's. Can you do a truth spell on a ghost? I don't want to know all the pervy details of his life back in the days of broadswords and horses, but I want to make certain that he's not going to turn Dark Phoenix either."

I didn't bother correcting Buffy that Bob had most likely died a long time after the "days of broadswords and horses", by which I guess she meant the Middle Ages - in my opinion he died sometime in the late 14th or early 15th century -, but her idea of subjecting Bob to a truth spell didn't sit right with me. Uncle Justin tried several times to command Bob to tell me exactly what he had been cursed for, but thankfully I managed each time to steer the conversation in another direction. While I was bursting with curiosity about Bob's past ever since I was first introduced to his skull, I never felt it was right to force him to divulge it against his will. He has since dropped a few hints. Winifred's name, for example. Talking about her still has the power to hurt him, and no one has the right to make him relive it all.

"While I think it's your right to make certain that you're not bringing a dangerous warlock back to life who might pose a threat to innocent people, Bob's past is his private business. I won't let you force him to tell you all the painful details." Oh God, I just hoped I wouldn't piss her off. I wanted Bob back to mortal, and I was reasonably sure that he'd do almost anything to make that happen, but I planned to be there during the spell, and I didn't want to lose his trust.

Willow looked apologetic. "Ah, I could do a generalized spell that wouldn't let him lie, but wouldn't force him to answer our questions either. But that wouldn't be enough. We have to have enough ammunition to get the High Council to back off tomorrow. I don't think you want to leave for Kandooma Fushi, do you?"

I raised an eyebrow. Yeah, I've learned how to from Bob. So there.

"It's an island in the Indian Ocean, and as much as it looks like a tropical paradise, I guess you'd prefer to stay here in Chicago without guys like Morgan on your trail. That means I - and Buffy - will have to be able to tell the stupid Council that we've taken all the facts into consideration before we freed an 'evil sorcerer'. We can't exactly ask the High Council to hand over their accounts of his trial - as yet another stuffy secret organization, I guess they do keep moldy old journals of all their meetings, don't they? -, and an eyewitness account is even better. Bob was an eyewitness. We need to see exactly what happened... what he saw. I need to do my mindwalk thing."

Buffy started looking uncomfortable. "Will, is that really necessary? And can you even do that with a ghost?"

"Mindwalk thing?" I asked skeptically. Sounded like potential violations of two Laws of Magic to me, although if Bob agreed... But to let someone into his mind? Bob has taught me caution against others, especially other wizards. We're generally not a nice bunch. I've learned how to guard my thoughts and keep my mind closed, and wouldn't drop those barriers for anything in the world. Okay, who am I kidding? I'd do that and a whole lot more if it helped Bob. Plus, I've been deliberating for at least the last two years how to best bring up with Bob the idea that he might... kind of... borrow my body for a bit. Just a teensy little bit. I trust him. I was just afraid he'd read in my head how I felt for him, and so I postponed it. And postponed it some more.

I'm a chickenshit little girl with a crush. So sue me.

Willow explained the specifics and detailed how she would weave in Buffy once she'd established the connection. She saw my face and promised that she would immediately back off from any of Bob's memories that weren't relevant and too personal. I was only marginally reassured, especially when I realized I wouldn't get to be there with Bob. Extending the link to yet another person would be too dangerous and draining for the caster, and Willow needed her strength for the ritual breaking Bob's curse as well as for tomorrow night.

I sighed and tried to accept the necessity. It wasn't easy to swallow.

Buffy rubbed her hands. "Well, then I guess it's time we get started. We so don't want to wait for Giles to be here first. He'd be cleaning his glasses. A lot. Will, do you need any stinky herbs for this?"

"No, just three white candles from my emergency backpack, dim light and a bit of quiet. Oh, and Bob, of course. And Bob's skull."

Willow set up the candles in a triangle on the floor and sat down with crossed legs, murmuring an incantation to Helios and Theia under her breath while I went to fetch Bob, and Buffy drew the blinds.

Bob's manifestation followed me down the stairs from the bedroom while I kept unconsciously stroking the cranial bone with its arcane symbols. This might well be the last time I ever held the skull in my hands and felt the muted hum of Bob's energy under my fingers. I used to sneak Bob's skull with me into bed sometimes when I was eleven. Hell's Bells, it was comforting. So what. Bob didn't complain, and I took pains to make sure that my uncle never found out. The skull says 'Bob' to me, just as much as his voice, the sarcastic tilt of his head and the image of glowing orange letters in the air.

"Harry? Don't you think it's time to tell me what you and your girlfriends have been up to? You're not a very good conspirator; everyone can smell from a mile away that you're planning something." He broke off when he saw the unlit candles with Willow in the center. "Harry. Now."

***

"Absolutely not! Have you all taken leave of your senses? Harry, I won't allow you to endanger your life like that!" I'd never heard Bob shout before. "And Miss Rosenberg, why don't you just search out Morgan and ask him to decapitate you on the spot? The High Council won't let this stand. Ever."

It's not that I had expected an outflowing of gratitude. Still, I hadn't counted on such a vehement refusal either.

"I might as well be hung for a sheep as for a lamb," Willow admitted in a small voice. "But wooly metaphors aside, I think the High Council's ruling was wrong, and evil. They had no right to punish you that severly, and definitely not for all eternity. You deserve better. Harry deserves better. From what Harry has told us, Ancient Mai and the others on the High Council today are just as prejudiced and irrational, and unwilling to grant mercy even if there are tons of extenuating circumstances. One day they will kill Harry, or force him to give up your skull. And you won't be able to do anything."

Bob's expression changed, and I wondered if he recalled, as I did, our confrontation with the Skinwalker. It had taunted him with his inability to do anything to help me - his 'impotence', as she called it -, all the while torturing me, until he had given in. I remembered the bleak, defeated tone of his voice when he had revealed the location where the Ravens had taken Scott. I hadn't blamed him; I know how much it must have hurt him.

"I'd be lying if I said I didn't want to be free from this curse to touch the world again, but not if the price is your lives or safety."

"I can't guarantee that," Willow said quietly, "but neither Buffy nor Giles will let them hurt me, and I won't let them hurt you either--" Buffy nodded emphatically, pointing at herself. "--and Buffy will help. I'll take all the responsibility for this. It's my spell, it's my decision, and the High Council will just have to live with it."

"Bob, I think this would be the best present I ever got," I interjected. "You deserve this. Please."

Buffy added: "I still don't totally get what that Blackstaff-thingy is about, but I'll tell them I endorsed it. If Willow can take a look in your brain to make sure that you're not going to turn all evil and world-endy and crispify us once you're corporeal."

Bob heaved a big sigh (he's really good at that although he doesn't even need to breathe) and gave in with ill grace. I thought I saw a bit of quickly hidden panic in his gaze, however - letting Willow poke around his memories of one of the most painful times in his life (or unlife) thrilled him as much as I had expected.

Under Willow's directions, he materialized sitting with crossed legs in front of her (I hadn't known he could do that) and held out his hands so that they would have touched hers if he'd been corporeal. She was holding his skull in her lap and didn't even shiver at the contact with his ghostly form.

I lit the candles. Willow said a few words in what I believe was Greek, but I couldn't understand enough of to be sure. She and Bob closed their eyes, and I could feel the air grow heavy with her concentration. Bob's image flickered a little at first, but then they were both immobile and locked into their own world.

Due to the fact that I was the only person present to remain on the outside in the real world, I cannot give a firsthand account of what the others encountered inside Bob's mind. The handful of facts I gathered come from what Bob told me as well as from a late-night drinking session with Buffy four days later that filled in a few of the blanks. For some reason she didn't go into, she shuns beer, but she likes everything with a high alcohol content that comes straight from a bottle, and when she feels relaxed enough - and yet still has something on her mind she keeps struggling with -, she has no compunction about sharing. Well, we later shared the toilet bowl. And the coffee and the Aspirin the next morning since I didn't want to bother Bob who can cast a mean sobering spell.

But back to their little excursion through the mind of Hrothbert of Bainbridge, sorcerer, deceased and yet awfully opinionated for a dead guy. Buffy told me that Bob's regular mindscape they stepped into looks like my apartment, down to the last battered chair and scorched floorboard, although it has three more doors that lead to no places found anywhere in Chicago: a sunlit herb garden, a stable with two brown horses, and a library. I half expected Buffy to recount meeting a woman in the garden, because for some sexist reason (according to Buffy), my mind automatically equates 'herb garden' with 'sorceress'. Whatever. No Winifred in Bob's mental landscape, however.

As for the horses? I have never set a single foot in a saddle (or rather: stirrup) and don't intend to, either. Horses are big, and they have teeth, and I don't have an instinctual need to befriend them due to never having been a romanticizing teenaged girl. Unreliable on occasion or not, I love my Jeep, and am very glad I wasn't born in a time when horses were still the regular mode of transport. Bob was, though. I can't imagine 'living' through as many centuries as he has while everything I know crumbles to dust or at least falls into disuse, and totally understand that his mind prefers to cling to something that back then said 'home' to him - especially since it's not like he knows too much about today's world outside my apartment. Which is kind of my fault, I admit it.

I could have taken him outside on occasion, and not just in the few instances one of my cases demanded his special talents. If I truly saw him as an equal partner rather than a servant, shouldn't I have considered his needs and wants more than I've actually done over the last few years?

Too much introspection usually makes me depressed, and as you see, it's for a good reason.

Evidently each brain has its own 'filing system' for memories, for want of a better word, and according to Buffy, Bob's is - not surprisingly - structured like a library. His personification leading the others through his mindscape pulled out the relevant memory, back in the library's oldest section, locked away under glass display cases turned dull and blind by age ("the dust and cobwebs were there because it's an avoidance thing", was Buffy verbatim), and let them see what he tries not to think of when he can help it, today - his time with Winifred, her first death and the ones following it, the resurrections, the slow unraveling of her mind, the villagers' fear and aggression, the Wardens stepping in, the trial, the sentence, the execution, the curse taking effect.

Winifred was pregnant when she died. I might have suspected that she died in childbirth since Buffy went all misty-eyed and mournful during our drinking session, but Bob was more forthcoming.

Well, at least I learnt her name - Winifred of Oswestry, daughter of Berwin.

***

But as I said, my talk with Buffy came several days later. The only thing I knew back then was that they all came through the mindwalk okay - from one second to the other, Willow shuddered, gasped, and opened her eyes, Buffy swayed and almost set her clothes on fire, Willow extinguished the candles with a trembling hand, and Bob transformed into black smoke with orange sparks and flowed back into his skull.

I stood there in an agony of indecision - on the one hand, I wanted to make certain that he was alright, on the other I wanted to give him the privacy he so obviously needed right now. I settled for fussing around my favorite witch and Slayer.

They were both a bit pale, but Willow insisted she was far from exhausted and ready for the more serious part of today's spellwork. I took that as confirmation that both girls were satisfied with Bob's answers and looks into his past that I was dying to snatch a glimpse of one day, and insisted on a short walk-through of the magics ahead of us.

It wasn't one spell as Willow had said - it was two, one immediately after the other. The first to make Bob corporeal, the second to break the connection binding him to his skull and to transfer his essence into his new body. Willow presented a fist-sized ball of crackled semi-transparent glass with the air of a conjurer, eerily reminding me of my Dad's expression during the most demanding of his tricks, and launched into a long-winded explanation featuring words like "Orb of Thessulah", "Jenny's re-ensouling spell", "Angelus", "hospital bed", "Romanian" etcetera, until Buffy firmly took the orb out of her hands and sat her down to calm her.

"She gets a bit punchy after doing too many witchy things," she said dryly. "Coffee helps."

Since Kennedy wasn't around and I had no intention of leaving the apartment, I set the kettle to boil on the stove. We'd just have to do with instant, and I still wanted to read through the two spells. Willow had reconfigured them this morning - so that had been what she'd been typing -, and the neat, straight transcriptions from two basic spells with only vaguely the same intention and outcome took my breath away. As anybody who knows me can tell you, I can't do delicate spellwork - I'm a magical thug and tend to do with sheer power what others manage with a far smaller degree of the same and a lighter touch. A certain evocation, a certain gesture can work wonders during spellcasting - as Bob never tires of telling me. I'm a passable enchanter and conjurer, an expert at tracking, and do well in magical combat (or at least, I haven't been fried to a crisp yet), but I'd better not try my hand at more than the most basic healing spells. Otherwise? Organs rupture, bones break, patient dies. I've never practiced on more than two very unlucky mice - I set the rest free in the garden of Uncle Justin's mansion, and Bob never breathed a word. Thank God.

As for Willow, I'd heard that she was powerful. Her mindwalk spell proved that she had a subtle touch, and the printed-out computer sheets I held in my hand showed that she was also very proficient at crafting her own spells.

I shook off the short burst of envy and concentrated on the printout, then decided to hell with it - I'd better show this to Bob. Of all of us, he knows the most of magical theory, and any spell affecting him had better have his blessing. I picked up his skull and bit my lip in self-reproach when I discovered my fingers were petting it. Again.

I waved at Buffy, pointing at the kitchen in which the kettle was whistling, and retreated to my bedroom.

"Come out, Bob. They're ready for the serious spellwork in a minute, and I need you to look over it first."

Bob manifested a bit reluctantly, I thought, and I pretended not to see that his eyes were somewhat swollen and red. We bent together over the paper and followed it line by line. Bob swallowed at the sight of the first spell and suggested a small change in the wording of the second that I wrote down. He shook his head when I raised an eyebrow, wordlessly asking for an explanation, but he continued to look a bit queasy afterwards. He tried to smile. "Harry, Miss Rosenberg and I went through the entire ritual while she was still," he grimaced, "inside my mind. It will serve its purpose well enough."

I wasn't overly comforted, but if Bob raised no objections, in my books we were good to go.

I picked up his skull and hurried downstairs again. Bob followed me.

Kennedy had returned and wore an expression I'd thought her incapable of - fear. She was kneeling on the floor next to her backpack, twisting and stretching her hands and taking deep breaths. Buffy nodded to her... approvingly? I had the uncomfortable impression that I was missing something, but Bob hissed at me to proceed. I hurried up.

Willow and I sat down, forming two vertices of a triangle after having agreed on our separate parts in the ritual. Bob remained standing on the third vertex, whereas Buffy was demoted to assistant. Bob was uncommonly quiet and seemed to have trouble looking either of the women in the eyes. I longed to touch his shoulder in support and felt a giddy feeling in my stomach that managed to drive away my earlier discomfort. In a few hours, I would be able to comfort him with a touch. Touch. I spaced out for a minute and came back to a lab all set for the ritual to start.

My role was mainly to support Willow with power. I hung onto Bob's skull and scarcely dared breathe, left hand (the shield hand, the hand closer to the heart) extended so Willow could take it as soon as she needed a boost. Buffy lit three candles, one sitting in front of each of us, and a tea light underneath a small bowl of herbs.

"Not dead, nor of the living," Willow began.

Smoke began to rise from the bowl, smelling strongly and yet strangely refreshing. I suppressed a sneeze.

"Spirits of the Upper Air, we call upon you. Hear us, oh Guardians of the Watchtower of the East, spirits of Air, powers of Thought! Hear us, oh Guardians of the Watchtower of the South, spirits of Fire, powers of Will! Hear us, oh Guardians of the Watchtower of the West, spirits of Water, powers of Emotion! Hear us, oh Guardians of the Watchtower of the North, spirits of Earth, powers of Stability! We call upon your powers to free a soul unjustly imprisoned!"

The candles burned with a tall, straight flame that didn't flicker. Willow lowered her head. When she raised her face again, her eyes were black, but she was smiling and her hair hadn't changed color, although I had the impression that one or two strands shone white. She continued in a rhythmic chant, her left hand reaching out towards Bob's manifestation:

"Child of words, I will free thee, child of words, from thy curse.
First thy body will gain substance, then thy soul will come on home.
Light as air, thy thoughts define thee, smoke and mind thy aspect make.
Give them strength and heart and matter, flesh and bone and skin and hair.
Touch the world, oh child, with wonder, with my motions, come to pass.
Mortal bonds replace thy specter, give thee substance, give thee mass."

She reached for my hand and repeated the chant. I saw and felt blue sparks of my power flowing into her. Her fingers clenched around mine while the increasing force behind the syllables raised gooseflesh on my arms and neck. The candles sputtered once.

"Solid!"

Bob screamed and fell to his knees. His outline flickered, then solidified again. He fell over onto his side, and this time there was an audible "thump", all the more frightening for the lack of reaction it evoked from him. "Bob!" I was all set to jump up and hurry to his side, but Willow's nails bit into my skin and reminded me that only half of the ritual had been finished.

I bit my lip bloody. I entertained myself by imagining choking and shaking a certain red-headed secretive little witch while I had to watch Kennedy force Bob onto his back and start CPR. They had fucking well known this was going to happen, and they hadn't told me. Damnit, Bob had known!

I pressed Willow's hand so hard I could feel her bones grinding together. Yeah, I understood. Yeah, I was staying put. Damn it all to Hell!

I felt ice wrap around my heart as I finally, truly understood. The first part of the ritual could only turn corporeal Bob's manifestation. His soul was still bound to his skull, and while the second part of the ritual would free it, a body without a soul was essentially brain-dead... and had to be kept breathing artificially until it was once again merged with a conscious mind.

***

I drew in another lungful of incense-laden air. What had smelled refreshing before now cloyed in my nasal passages. Kennedy had the endurance of a bull. She was still faithfully switching between chest compressions and giving air, regular as clockwork. Bob's body didn't so much as twitch.

Willow had started with the second half of the ritual, now not with Bob's manifestation but his skull as its center. Buffy had pressed the crackled sphere - the so-called "Orb of Thessulah" - into her hands and was forming a circle around the candle in front of Willow with several small, irregularly shaped objects that looked like bones, each incribed with a single rune. Willow rearranged them in an order known only to herself and intoned: "Not dead, nor of the living. Spirits of the Interregnum, I call. What is locked away from our reach, give back to us. What was taken, return. Restore to us that which separates us from the beast. I implore you, Gods and Goddesses, do not ignore our call!"

She clapped her hands once, and this time it was doubtless that several strands of her hair had turned a blazing white. Bob's skull vibrated in her lap, and the runes inscribed in it glowed a dull red.

I heard the wards scream in the back of my head and swayed slightly when Willow drew even deeper from my power.

"Use this orb as your guide! We call forth the soul of Hrothbert of Bainbridge, lost to this world in Anno Domini 972. Gods bind him, bring forth his soul from behind the curse which seeks to imprison it against all laws of time and nature. Bring it forth! Free it! Let the orb be the vessel to carry his soul to him!"

A small glimmer started to glow in the center of the orb. Willow flung her arms wide before her next clap thundered through the room. "Now, now!" The candles went out, the runes on Bob's skull darkened as if someone had thrown a switch, and the orb burst into light.

I held my breath and tuned out the wards and my speeding heart. Kennedy's deep, measured breaths keeping Bob's body alive were everything I heard in the millisecond before Willow continued, "Not a curse, but a blessing. Let his soul revert to its true seat. Let the orb be emptied, let the essence be returned to its original host. It is written, this power is my people's right to wield! So it shall be! So it shall be! Now! Now!"

The next clap of her hands nearly deafened me. The orb glowed even brighter for an instant, then went dark. The wards fell silent.

Kennedy kept up the CPR for a moment longer, then sat up, wiped her mouth and said roughly: "His eyes glowed there for a second, plus, he's now breathing on his own. I'd say the spell was a success, girlfriend."

I stumbled to my feet, almost dragging Willow with me before I remembered to release her hand. My palm stung and felt wet. I was certain I was bleeding, but I didn't care. I almost fell on my face because I felt incredibly dizzy, but I shoved that down as well.

Bob.

I reached his side and fell to my knees in an unconscious repeat of those last awful moments in the city morgue the last time Bob had a physical body.

I dimly heard Buffy asking how Willow had managed to do without Latin or Romanian this time, but paid no attention to her answer. My sole focus was on the living, breathing body in my arms. I didn't even feel the tears on my cheeks until later when I wiped my face because it felt so wet. Bob smelled of blood, sweat, smoke, and ozone, and his hair was so soft, his shoulder reassuringly solid against my knees. I leaned closer, and he opened his eyes, smiling weakly. We were both grabbed by the same feeling of déjà vu and smiled stupidly at each other before he whispered: "Harry, there's no Morningway around in any shape or form, is there?"

My voice wobbled. "No. This is real, and this time you're not dying on me."

He managed another smile that crinkled the corners of his eyes, then his lids fell shut. I checked his aura to make sure that he was only sleeping, then stood up and hefted him into my arms with a grunt. Buffy was at my side in an instant. I'd all forgotten about Slayer strength and just stared at her dumbly. She knew better than to offer carrying Bob herself and just supported his weight, helping me carry him up the stairs into my bedroom where we put him down gently on top of my unmade bed. I dragged up the blankets crumpled at the foot of the bed and tucked him in like a child. I thought my heart would burst.

I kissed Buffy's cheek and told her roughly, "Later, I'll rip off your goddamned heads for keeping me in the dark about all the essential parts of this spell of Willow's. Right now, though, I could kiss the lot of you."

She winked at me. "I'll tell Will you said thanks. We're going to order lunch - or rather dinner by now, I guess... I bet Willow is starved. We'll call you down when it's delivered."

She stepped down the stairs lightly, and my eyes inevitably returned to the person now occupying my bed. Stars and stones, not in a million years would I have thought...

I sat down on the foot of the bed and looked my eyes' fill. Bob, alive, mortal. Here with me. Right now I didn't give a flying fuck about the High Council's reaction and possible repercussions. I sneaked a finger to Bob's left wrist in order to feel his heartbeat and matched my breathing to his. I didn't even realize until later that the rune-inscribed shackles binding him to his skull were no longer in place. I don't remember falling asleep.

***

This time, I didn't awake to a smell; I awoke to the sound of voices and the familiar tinkling of the bell above my office door. There was a slight "thump" like someone had set down something heavy and then a cultured British voice saying: "So, ah, Mr. Dresden really advertises in the telephone book under "Wizard"? Most unusual. But where is he?"

I blearily opened one eye and discovered it was dark outside. That had to be the Rupert Giles the girls had mentioned.

"We let him sleep. We--we kind of cast a--a, well, two spells earlier, and he was pretty exhausted," Willow explained. She sounded younger, uncertain and not at all like the confident witch of this afternoon. I didn't want to move, but thought I owed it to her to say hello to her mentor and be there for the imminent reproaches she had been so certain would be coming.

My face was pressed against something warm. I opened the other eye. I must have sunk backwards onto the bed - the figure half-buried in blankets next to me had to be Bob. My fingers twitched and touched smooth skin. They were curled around his wrist, and his pulse together with his light, steady breathing convinced me that he was okay, although I couldn't help but hope he'd wake up on his own so I could see him smile and hear his voice.

I rolled my eyes at myself and sat up with a bitten-back groan. My neck felt tense, and my left hand throbbed a little. I opened it carefully and saw the blood-encrusted, deep half-moon crescents of Willow's nails on my palm. I no longer felt quite so drained, concentrated briefly, muttered a word and watched the tiny wounds disappear. As I said, I can do small, uncomplicated healings.

I stood up, my eyes once more focused on the silent presence in my bed. "Be down in a minute!" I called, rubbed my face in an attempt at getting rid of the lingering tiredness, barely refrained from touching Bob - and instead watched my hand hover undecidedly above his face for a second -, then clattered downstairs.

At the foot of the stairs, I almost fell over a huge wheeled suitcase and a no less big carry-all, then cowardly detoured from the stares of now four different people to the kitchen in order to grab some caffeine. A small army of Chinese food containers greeted me. I briefly contemplated heating the leftovers, then shrugged and dumped the nearest few onto a plate. Armed with chopsticks and a fortifying mug of instant coffee, I returned to my growing collection of guests.

Giles was a tall, fit, studious-looking man in his fifties with glasses and a measured way of speaking that reminded me of my favorite history teacher in elementary school. His aura yielded no great surprises, although I began to suspect that he had at least a small amount of innate magical talent.

After an exchange of polite greetings, Willow's eyes begged me to begin the first round of explanations, and so I did. Only for Mr. Giles to cut me off after just a few sentences. He made it clear that he knew of both the existence of a magical community worldwide as well as of the High Council. Willow and the two Slayers' surprise gave way to shock and a feeling of betrayal. I could relate.

"Giles? Explanation. Now," Buffy commanded, steel in her voice.

"Buffy, ah," the man took of his glasses and started cleaning them obsessively. Well, it's just another way of avoiding looking at your friends, I suppose.

Buffy looked more mature and tired than I'd thought she could ever be. "Giles. We're rebuilding the Council. Don't you think it just might have been a bit important knowing that there was a whole world of witches and wizards out there, with their own laws and government and police force? Just a little? Especially since they might - I don't know - decide to execute Willow if they ever got their grubby hands on her?!"

Mr. Giles sighed and put his glasses back on. "You're perfectly right, my dear girl. I owe you and Willow - and Kennedy - an apology. I suppose I wanted to forget about it all and never have to revisit that particular part of my life. It was in the aftermath of the whole Eyghon disaster that I was introduced to the High Council, the Wardens and the Seven Laws of Magic." He rubbed his left forearm and grimaced. Buffy and Willow's faces lost a small amount of their rigid cast. Kennedy just scowled. He turned to me: "Back in my early twenties, I--I felt the need to rebel against my father's plans for my future, and fell in with a bad crowd in London. We practiced magic, cantrips and other small stuff, until a friend and I discovered something bigger - Eyghon, the Sleepwalker, a demon who could possess unconscious or dead hosts. Temporary possession, if the proper rituals were observed, permanent or at least until the host body, ah, dis--disintegrated from the strain when they weren't. We were fools. We played with powers we couldn't imagine. One of us lost control and paid the price. Eyghon took him whole. The exorcism didn't work, and the demon killed him. Or rather, we killed him. At least, that was the stance of the High Council." He sighed, looking worn out. "I had run back home afterwards to my father. He steered the police investigation into another direction, but a Warden approached him and demanded a trial hearing. The Watchers have always had at least sporadic contact with the High Council, and my father couldn't refuse such a summons. I went. I almost d-died."

I just nodded in weary sympathy. I could very well imagine.

"Quentin Travers' father went with me as the then-Head of the Watchers. He defended me, not because he liked me, but because he owed my father and because it would have been a sign of weakness to allow a future member of his organization - and a son of one of the oldest Watcher families in Europe - to be executed for practicing b-black magic. They reached some kind of compromise so that at least the threat of execution was off the table - I was declared not a full wizard due to my general lack of powers, and they took into consideration that we hadn't summoned Eyghon with the intention of commanding it to harm someone. I was granted c-clemency with the clear understanding that if I abused my magic or came anywhere near violating any of the Seven Laws, I'd be d-decapitated on the spot." He smiled a bit self-deprecatingly. "I've always been better at theoretical knowledge and rituals - neither of which demand much magical energy -, so I devoted myself wholly to research and had few regrets. Until I watched you grow up, Willow, and wished I could teach you better. Buffy, ah, needed you on the Hellmouth, and you were doing so well. I should have gotten you to Devon far, far earlier. This is all my--my fault."

He spread his hands helplessly. "Frankly, I--I am surprised you have been summoned to a trial hearing at all. I was under the impression that Maeve, the High Priestess of the Devon Coven, had found a way to have the High Council grant you safe passage to England and back to the States, as well as taken responsibility for your further training, after..." He trailed off.

Willow perked up. "I should call her!" Then she deflated. "They're on retreat in Cornwall, and they're not much with the cellphones. Drat. But I could call Linda. She's Maeve's daughter - she thinks magic isn't real, by the way -, but she might know--" She jumped up, pulled out her cell and hurried to the other end of the apartment. I sighed. Being death on electronics sucks.

Buffy sent an affectionate glance after her (which made Kennedy seethe visibly), took a deep breath and heroically resolved to take the next bullet for her friend: She set out to explain our earlier actions today. I tried to sit up straight and project wordless support, wincing at a few of her more colorful expressions. At the same time, I listened prick-eared towards the loft in the hopes of hearing Bob stir. I finally remembered the Chinese food on my plate and dug in.

Willow came back in as the first faint sounds emerged from upstairs. Mr. Giles was already looking thunderous. Well, the girls would have to make do without my presence for a few minutes - I needed to look after Bob.

***

Bob was sitting up in my bed with a bleary, wondering expression on his face. He was stroking the covers with a single finger.

"Good morning or rather night, sleepyhead," I said with an affectionate smile. This sight was one I'd never thought I'd ever see. The only way for it to become even more earth-shattering would be if this were the famous morning after. I hadn't dare remove even a single item of Bob's clothing for fear of being unable to stop, so there was no inch of skin on display that I hadn't already spent far too much time obsessing over in the past.

I would have like to wax lyrical about how the morning light made his skin glow, but fact was, it was very late in the day, and Bob by candlelight looked no different corporeal than in ghost form.

"Harry," he said finally, still occupied with the texture of the blankets.

"How do you feel?" I asked, a bit at a loss. What do you say in such a situation as the token best friend with absolutely no indecent lecherous thoughts?

"Alive. Strange." A half-smile. "Far away." He paused again and pulled back his sleeves. His wrists were bare and smooth, devoid of hair. "The shackles are gone."

But in all those centuries, they had rubbed away the hair on his wrists - even though back then the hair had been merely metaphorical. My stomach felt queasy. Had the High Council no idea how monstrous the thought of eternal punishment actually was?

"Yes. They've disappeared entirely. Your skull is still downstairs," I offered. "You feel no kind of pull towards it, do you?"

"No, the tether is gone."

"What do you want to do with it? Crush it into little pieces? Burn it?" The sooner we got rid of the loathsome symbol of his centuries-long captivity, the happier I'd be. What I'd really love to do with it would be to smash it into dust right in front of Ancient Mai's disbelieving eyes, I thought fiercely.

"No. You'll keep it - one never knows."

"No, Bob! This is not temporary," I swore and absolutely had to touch his shoulder. I felt the material of his suit, and underneath his body heat and a hint of the shape of his collarbone. I felt dizzy and for the life of me couldn't make myself let go, even when his gray-green eyes looked at my curiously.

"Harry? Are you alright?"

"Yes. I'm fine." I tried to laugh. "I wasn't the one who had a Slayer breathe for them for at least ten minutes. Your ribs are fine?"

He grimaced. "A bit sore, but none are broken, I do believe. What I would love to do right now is take a bath."

"Will a shower do?" I asked. "The girls' Mr. Giles is downstairs."

"Indubitably," he said dryly. And really, the sound of a yelling male, British voice from downstairs was hard to miss. I deliberately tuned out the words.

"Can I entice you with some spare clothes from my wardrobe, or do you think you'll get cooties?"

"Drab earth tones and shapeless cotton." He sighed. "Just this once. I feel the urgent need to clean the dust of the last few centuries off my body. It might only be psychological, but I don't care. The last time I bathed was..." He fell silent, but I was able to fill the blanks for myself in silence. Before his execution. Before they locked him up, debated his sentence in one of those excruciating, drawn-out mockeries of a trial, and finally spilled his blood on the ground of some small English hamlet.

That reminded me-- "Bob, you never told me you were over a thousand years old. I always had you pegged at late 14th, early 15th century. So you lived before William the Conqueror's time."

"I'm so glad you paid at least some attention to the history I tried to teach you," he deadpanned. "That was the earliest to which your uncle's grandfather was able to trace back the history of my skull. It suited me to never correct that faulty impression."

I was a little bit hurt, but tried not to show it. Instead, I rummaged around in my closet and pulled out the newest pair of slacks I owned. It was black and most likely at bit too long in the leg for Bob, but that couldn't be helped. At least it wasn't a pair of khakis or jeans. Not that Bob in jeans wasn't...

I thrust the slacks into Bob's arms and dumped a simple white shirt on top of it. Yes, I do own more than just casual clothes. Not many, admittedly, and wearing them tends to remind me of a night I prefer to forget, but occasionally I have dates that lead me to the more upscale parts of Chicago. Blame Susan.

Bob blinked. I loaded his arms with a towel, an undershirt, black socks and, desperately fighting a blush, a pair of plain boxers. "You know where the bathroom is?" I smirked.

Bob remained unruffled. "Certainly." During a handful of our discussions over the years, he has refused to let me have the last word, and if I opted for a fast retreat to the sanctuary of the bathroom, he ignored the implications and stepped through the locked door mid-word. He knew my bedroom was off-limits, and not only when I had a girl over. However, I usually had to sneak very carefully past the lab when I wanted to jerk off. There are several instances in which rooming with a ghost poses a fair amount of problems.

I bit back the admonition to hurry his shower. "You'll come back me up in the living room afterwards, right? Poor Willow's catching a lot of flak for the ritual."

He sighed and with a longing look at the bundle of clean clothes and towel, said: "Let's get it over with first. Miss Rosenberg deserves our support."

So we went downstairs and threw ourselves into the fray, so to speak. On the sofa, I had to stuff my hands into my pockets to refrain from touching him all the time, and when Willow wasn't suppressing tears, she kept smiling at me.

***

Mr. Giles - later "Giles" to us all - couldn't warm up to Bob at all. While he agreed with Willow in theory (after criticizing her recklessness in detail) and shared our opinion of the High Council, Bob's short summary of the crimes he had been cursed for seemed to put him - for Giles, anyway - permanently into the category of "irredeemable villains". Not that Giles ever said that in so many words. Buffy clearly didn't agree with his attitude, and for her sake, he made an effort.

Bob, equally constrained by his obligation to the girls to keep the peace, also did his best. They were cold. They were polite. They preferred to talk to each other via intermediaries. At least Giles appeared to like me.

"You remind him of Xander," Buffy whispered. "Only without the annoying habits, like calling him 'G-Man'."

I couldn't contain my broad grin.

"Oo-oh." Willow's eyes danced. She was cuddling with Kennedy who was as uncommunicative as usual, although closer acquaintance made it appear to me as if that was more a result of Buffy's presence and the 'best-friend' vibes she and Willow exuded that excluded the brunette Slayer than genuine taciturnity. She'd given up a bit of her animosity towards me when I had made it clear how much I owed her for keeping Bob breathing during the second half of the ritual.

Midnight had long come and gone, and apart from Bob and me, everyone was struggling to stay awake.

"Miss Rosenberg," Bob repeated something he'd already insisted on earlier, "no matter how tomorrow turns out, I am in debt to you and your friends. Should you ever need my help--"

"--or mine," I threw in,

"--Dresden and I will be at your disposal."

"We might just come back to that once the next apocalypse shows up on our doorstep," Buffy said. "What? We haven't had one in far too long! World-endy things are overdue!"

Even Kennedy smiled at that before she politely tried to cover a yawn. Willow pressed closer against her and said firmly, "I say it's time we got some sleep. In less than 43 hours I have to show up for my sucky rendez-vous with the High Council."

Willow and Kennedy had dibs on the pull-out couch. Buffy looked ready to settle for a clean part of the floor and a couple of blankets, but Giles insisted they make good on their hotel reservations. "Really, Buffy, you decided to book us into two rooms in the Amalfi Hotel, and now we're going to use them." Willow snickered. "Italy's already in your blood, Buffy?"

"Hmpf. It had a website. Plus, Michigan Avenue's just two blocks away, they said. If I get to travel here on Council expenses, I want at least the chance of shoes. With high heels and yet perfect for vampire asskicking. We'll go shopping tomorrow." She smiled and for a moment looked as untroubled as the teenager she must have been before she'd been called as the Slayer.

With a cheery wave, she and Giles departed after promising to show up with donuts and coffee around 10 a.m. I pushed Bob into the bathroom before a female could lay siege to it. He went gladly.

Willow and Kennedy were tired enough to take their tooth brushing to the kitchen sink with just a mild glare. Dorm-room training always shows.

I said goodnight and fled to my bedroom for a mild freak-out. Forcing Bob to sleep on the living room floor was inconceivable, and yet the only other place left was my bed. How was I supposed to make it through a whole night with him sleeping next to me? I literally tore at my hair - and let me tell you, I have barely enough to spare as it is -, then fell into a weary sort of resignation. Either I'd make it through the night without alerting Bob to my feelings, or I'd have to come clean. There was nothing I could do about it right now anyway.

Bob has never shown any distaste or discomfort with homosexual relationships, and no, not just when the participants in question were hot young lesbians. I did some surveillance on a gay client's partner last year - he suspected infidelity -, and landed in a minor mess involving a member of the White Court. Bob was as helpful (and of course as unfailingly sarcastic) as always. So even if I blurted out my feelings, I didn't expect a blow-up or an abrupt termination of our friendship. Such a revelation might make him uneasy around me however, and the mere thought of that made me break out in a cold sweat. Bob might leave, now that he was back among the living.

I sat down on the bed, my head a wild jumble of painful thoughts, and that was where Bob found me.

He came in still toweling his head. I heard the bathroom door downstairs slam behind the patter of girly feet racing to the toilet, and grinned. My grin kind of froze when I looked up.

Bob was wearing the slacks and shirt I had picked out for him, but he had the sleeves rolled up and left open the top two or three buttons at his neck. He'd apparently figured out the non-electric razor I kept in the bathroom cabinet, because not even the merest hint of stubble showed on his chin. He smelled of my shower gel and shampoo. His white hair was wet, and from it, several drops of water ran down his face before he dabbed at them with his towel.

I swallowed dryly. He looked good enough to eat. I felt transported back to the age of fourteen when, faced with the horrors of puberty, I had discovered that my teacher was a very attractive man - ah, ghost. Knowing it could never come to anything, I'd forced myself to focus exclusively on the fair sex, and hadn't had any regrets. Then, as I said, I met Tamir in Chile, but convinced myself later that that particular encounter had been an aberration. Now, after years of putting Bob into the mental drawer dubbed "safe; beware: incorporeal best friend", I was back to that certain feeling of light-headedness that comes with instant attraction.

"Harry?" Bob looked at me a bit strangely. "Care to tell me why you are staring at me?"

"Oh, it's nothing." I laughed shakily. "I know it's late, but you must be hungry. Wanna come have dinner with me?" My cupboards were bare, and I rarely stacked the fridge with much since it tended to work only sporadically. We could have ordered in, but the girls were asleep in the living room, and I wanted neither Chinese, Italian nor Tandoori, and couldn't imagine Bob would be thrilled with either after a millennium of experiencing food only second-hand. What had genuine Saxon food been like anyway? Could Bob cook (and by that, I don't mean letting my garlic bread burn)? I hoped we'd have the time to find out.

For now, though, I wanted a bit of time alone with him, even if it was only across a cheap formica table.

***

It wasn't until we'd sat down in my favorite diner that I remembered about Laura. The last few times I'd been there, I'd lucked out and come by when she'd been off-shift. Today, I wasn't so fortunate.

Okay, Laura is perfectly justified in being a bit resentful towards me. I've blown her off more times that I can count, and just a couple of those times had been Murphy's fault. I dragged several clients there, Scott Sharpe being just one of them, and treated her like just another waitress in front of them. Then there was that time with Melissa. I tried to explain later that it had been a business dinner, but I had to grovel a lot to make up for it. Then Bianca snowed into my office, and Laura was fed up. Understandable, really - I think. I believe she wanted me to come after her. Instead I remained behind and assisted Bianca who really didn't deserve getting her head blown off courtesy of her very own treacherous protégée.

Bob and I were sitting across from each other, and I was trying to explain to him what the "starter platter" entailed when Laura stepped up to our table and skewered me with her eyes. I smiled back weakly. I so didn't need this right now. "Hi, Laura. Ah, this is my friend, B--Robert Bainbridge. Bob, this is Laura."

Oh, a client, her gaze said. When it turned speculative and stuck to Bob's mouth, I gritted my teeth. "I'm sorry, Laura, we will need a moment longer. This is the first time I am tasting American cuisine," Bob said, a smile lurking in the corners of his mouth.

"Bob," I hissed when she'd left in a much better mood.

"Don't worry, Harry. The lovely Laura is quite safe from me."

"That's not what I meant!" They'd get along like a house on fire, what with their penchants for romance novels and black-and-white tear-jerkers. They could share a box of tissues afterwards, I thought meanly, then bit my cheek in self-reproach. I wouldn't be the other woman.

I stared blindly at my menu. I had to stop this. Right now.

Thankfully at that moment my brain re-engaged and I remembered the small niggle in the back of my brain at Bob's introduction to Laura. Bob couldn't go around introducing himself as "Hrothbert of Bainbridge" any longer; he needed not only a more modern name, but also papers and a social security number. I guess that meant calling "Fingers" Thibault, and no, even with that name he's not a pickpocket, he's a master forger who, in contrast to most of his brethren, has embraced the computer age. Someone had to establish a traceable past for Bob, because if I knew Murphy at all, she'd run a records check on his name immediately once she'd met him. Murphy has become unreasonably suspicious, and I blame the whole sorry Boone case.

I sighed involuntarily. Fingers is expensive. At the moment, I didn't even have the money for next month's rent, plus new clothes for Bob and groceries for two instead of one required money that wasn't in the budget. In the past, I've contemplated on exactly two occasions what I would have to do to avoid having to starve, and luckily Murphy came through for me both times so I didn't have to resort to my ultimate solution.

Well, I was back to my last alternative: Return to the Morningway house and sort through the family jewelry. I tried to do so back when I first got my P.I. license and needed money for the security deposit on my new apartment/office. I couldn't continue when each slender silver ring resonated with echoes of my mother as a young girl, and each of the heavier rings' emanations threatened to choke me on my guilt over Uncle Justin's death. Not to mention the fact that a large amount of that jewelry is somewhat magical in nature, some benign, some less so. Sorting through the entire jewelry box felt like a forbidding task, and I rather left the whole batch locked in the vault. The furniture and fixtures appeared no less challenging. I decided I didn't want anything of my uncle's anyway, closed the mansion down and made do on my own. Oh, the Morningways' lawyer found me a tenant for the land belonging to the estate. His rent pays for maintenance and the real estate tax on the house since the High Council took all the liquid assets, artifacts and the more questionable contents of the library. One day, I'm going to sell the house, and good riddance to that heap of crap.

Bob kicked me underneath the table. I jumped in my seat. "Dresden, what is it with you tonight?" Bob asked irritably. "Order for me, will you?" He pointed at a meal in the steak section of the menu. "Could you point me towards the facilities in this establishment, or will that keep you unduly long from your undoubtedly captivating daydream?"

"More like 'dream'; it's fucking night," I muttered.

He glared at me and stalked off into the direction of my pointing finger. I sighed again. Great. Piss off the very man you've fallen in love with, why don't you? My gaze remained locked onto his rear view, and what a glorious one it was. He was light on his feet and moved with the kind of grace you don't see very often anymore. I suddenly developed an entirely new appreciation for my previously disdained pair of slacks. He'd shrugged on his old jacket over my shirt, and the severe cut contrasting with the velvety fabric emphasized his shoulders, the arch of his back and his slender waist.

"Stop drooling, Harry," Laura admonished me, suddenly appearing at our table. Bob's steps halted for a heartbeat, but he didn't turn around. I prayed he hadn't heard and wanted to sink under the table to die of mortification.

"Laura," I hissed back.

"What? I think it's sweet. He's very attractive." Instead of the anger I had expected she had a dreamy look on her face. Urgh. Even worse. She thought we were 'cute'. I really wouldn't be able to show my face around here anymore. Ever.

Well, at least it got us better service than back with Melissa - when Bob returned from the bathroom, his steaming plate was already waiting. I immediately dropped my eyes onto my pile of onion rings. I prayed fervently that this cup might be taken away from me, but it wasn't to be. Bob sat down and said softly: "Harry."

I didn't have any defense against that tone, and he damn well knew it. I looked up into a pair of gray-green eyes full of unholy amusement and something else I couldn't name. "So you, ah, drool over me?"

I blushed a deep red and for a mad second contemplated suicide by fork. Lying was pointless, not when I'd spaced out on him several times today already. Bob isn't blind or stupid, although he sometimes can't see what's directly in front of him. Well, too late for that now. "Can't we discuss this later? Or better yet, never?"

"I don't think so, my dear boy," he said contemplatively. "I believe I need all the details."

"Yeah, but - outside, okay? After dinner. In the car."

"If you insist."

I've rarely had such a hurried meal. I dawdled. He didn't, despite the fact that he had dessert. Before I had my mind wrapped around a reality in which Bob knew - or at least suspected - my feelings for him and hadn't run screaming back into his skull (or now, back into the night), we were sitting in my Jeep, ready to go home. I couldn't imagine having this discussion in the lab, or, God forbid, my bedroom, so I implored Bob silently to keep quiet a bit longer and drove us over to Jackson Park. On the Eastern side it looks out over Lake Michigan, and now that Raskin, Bushnell and of course Heather were long gone, it was as safe as any deserted park in Chicago. I chose a spot of the fake Greek temple as far away from the site of Mina's death as possible and sat down on the white stone, letting my feet dangle in the cool night air. I stared up at the stars. Mars was a reddish light in the night sky, and the moving dot to his low right was a plane coming in to O'Hare. It was late, closing in on 3 a.m. We should be sleeping, resting, gathering our strength for Willow's trial.

Bob sat down next to me. I started, unwilling to look him in the face.

The wise thing would have been to start the conversation to keep control of it, but I just - couldn't. Let Bob drag the details out of me. My mind was blank.

Out of the corner of my eye I saw that he was looking into the distance; trying to put me at ease, I suppose. "How long--," he began delicately.

"--have I been attracted to you?" I tried to laugh. The sound made me cringe. "Ages. I think I fell in love with you when I was fourteen. I knew it was pointless. I didn't want to make you uncomfortable or lose your friendship, so I kept my mouth shut. When you finally told me why you'd been cursed to your skull, I was so glad I had."

"I loved my Winefride." His voice was quiet, contemplative. "She was everything to me. She was my student. I had traveled much, until I settled for a while in Luvre, close to the border to Cymru; today they call it Oswestry. Her parents sent her to me at the age of nine when she started exhibiting certain talents. Her father promised her to a man more than a decade older when she reached maidenhood. She was a very headstrong woman." His smile was more of a grimace. "For some reason she wanted me, even though I was even more advanced in years than her intended. One night she seduced me - not that I was unwilling... then she refused the match. She was an only child and the apple of her parents' eyes; they gave in eventually. We had to marry, of course, and were very happy for a long time. Upon his deathbed her father begged her for a grandchild, and she wanted to honor his wish. That was when everything went wrong. Her former suitor, out of spite at seeing her with child, rode out on a hunt close to our cottage and shot her, claiming to have mistaken her for a doe. The arrow pierced her chest, and none of my efforts could save her. She died in my arms, and our child died with her. I--I went mad with grief." He broke off.

"I'm so sorry," I said inadequately.

"I never wanted to care for someone so much again. It hurts too much. For centuries, I had no problem keeping an emotional distance to the few mortals with whom I was forced to interact. Most of them were my masters, and I wasn't but a useful tool to them, either a heirloom or a distinction and sign of confidence in their moral strength bestowed by the Council. Then I ended up in the Morningway line, and in 1982 I was charged with your education. After the dozens of young Morningways I had instructed in magic, you were... so very different, my dear boy." He smiled at me, and I began hoping that this might actually turn out okay. "I was vastly relieved to be given into your custody at your trial, and in the past five years I came to admire you even more - your strength of character, your willingness to help even when you received little thanks or compensation, your determination to always do the right thing. How could I not come to love you?"

I froze, my heart in my throat. "Uh, you mean 'love' as in... parental love? Or, or...?"

"After so long without emotional attachments to anyone, I don't believe I differentiate as much as you want me to do, my dear boy. I love you. Is that not enough?"

I wanted to jump for joy, and yet there was still a heavy weight filling my stomach. "It is, Bob. But what if-- what if you meet another Winifred? Someone who simply blows you away, that you fall for head over heels for? I wouldn't... I couldn't..." I lost my mother; I even lost my one picture of her. Social services moved me to Uncle Justin once they'd established where he lived, and in the confusion part of my stuff got 'misplaced'. I lost my dad. I've never been first in anyone's heart ever again, and to find that only to lose it again sometime soon once Bob encounters the perfect woman - I couldn't bear that. I'd rather keep him as a friend than go through that kind of heartbreak again. I have my pride. I wouldn't beg. He'd leave, and I'd break down. I stared out into the night, desperately trying to suppress the tears that wanted to come. Hell's Bells, I wasn't a fucking little girl.

"Harry." Bob's voice was gentle. "I've been bound to my skull for more than a millennium. I haven't even taken a look at the world outside yet. It would be unconscientious of me to promise you too much. I can only tell you - you are as close to my heart as my Winefride was, and I would not hurt you for the world. Were we to become more than friends, I would aim to protect your heart as much as mine. I have never embraced a man in more than friendship. It was not uncommon in the times of my mortal existence, but I never yearned for a male body, not when there were servant girls, peasant women and tavern wenches. And besides..." He hesitated.

I made an encouraging sound, still speechless. Bob loved me as much as the love of his life?

"You--you haven't been my student in a long time, and I am your servant no longer. How would we-- how would we relate, were we to share a bed?" He blushed, and I stared.

I almost fell off my perch at that. "You... Bob, are you serious?! You want to know who would be on top?"

"It's not like I have any experience," he said huffily, still red in the face. "In my times, the older man would assume the more... active... role. But you don't strike me as a personality who would be content with such an arrangement."

I fought the urge to hop off my seat and beat my head against the nearest pillar. Gah. Bob does it again. I felt like a teenager, too embarrassed for words. It seemed I had to clear up quite a lot of misconceptions. "Bob, I think I should have been a bit more indiscriminate with the romance novels I lavished onto you and included a few Romentics." Yeah, I know the name. So what.

He snorted.

"You know what 'gay' means in modern terms. Let me tell you about this nice subculture rampant in the world these days..."

***

I was so far past exhausted that night when we went to bed it wasn't even funny. I think I saw the first light of dawn creeping up the horizon when I unlocked my front door and ushered Bob in, and I was so talked out and numb when I crawled under the blankets that even Bob's proximity didn't induce more than a feeling of utter contentment. I remember holding his hand, then nothing until Willow's voice woke us.

"Wake up, you two! Buffy and Giles are here, and he wants to know whether you got any addresses for him that'd save him from having to go shoe-hunting. You know, bookstores. Magic or antiques shops. Anything shoe-free, I think." Her smirk was audible even though she hadn't climbed the stairs to our bedroom. I was grateful for the consideration, not that there would have been anything for her to see - Bob was just waking up, I was still half-asleep, and our sleep-warmed bodies weren't even touching.

"Willow, wait a moment." It was 10:27 a.m. I dragged myself out of bed, groaning, ran a quick finger down the side of Bob's face - ignoring his bemused stare -, shrugged into yesterday's sweatshirt, and hurried downstairs.

"Morning." The looks and greetings I received were all of the cheerful, awake quality. I envied them. "I've been thinking on this after you all went to bed yesterday. My uncle had a fairly extensive library as well as a lot of personal papers. I've never checked them closely, but I believe there's quite a lot on the High Council; he was a member, and so it was sort of a pet project of his." Yeah, I bet there were tons of details with an eye towards how to kill them the easiest. Unless the Wardens had taken all that shit when they cleaned out the library and his study. Still, it was worth a shot. "It might help you prepare better for tomorrow."

Buffy sighed. Giles looked enraptured. Willow perked up, and Kennedy smiled slightly and squeezed her arm.

"I'll take that as a unanimous 'yes'? Give Bob and me half an hour, and we can leave."

Bob, who had clearly eavesdropped, came down already dressed and beat me to the bathroom. He brushed against me on the way, and my brain stuttered to a stop. Stars and stones, today we so needed a little time just for the two of us, while we were both awake. We would get that much, I promised myself recklessly. No matter what happened.

This morning it was Buffy who turned out to be our savior - on their way here, she and Giles had stopped for coffee.

I dawdled on purpose until Bob, dressed as immaculately as always, even though still wearing my slacks and shirt, took a cautious sniff from his cup. "Dresden, are you certain this is palatable?"

"It's coffee, Bob. You'll like it. It might taste a bit strange when you have it for the first time, but you wouldn't want to miss the taste ever again. It wakes you up."

There was a snort and suppressed giggle from someone female, and I beat a hasty retreat to the bathroom. The slightly steamy air spoke of a hasty shower. The air smelled of my aftershave and deodorant. I had to lean against the door for a moment, my knees curiously weak, before I began my equally hurried ablutions.

Three quarters of an hour later, my Jeep pulled into the driveway to the Morningway mansion, followed by Giles' rental.

I unlocked a side door, the old servants' entrance, and led everyone into Uncle Justin's study. I remained standing at the door, unable to move for a long moment. Memories threatened to overwhelm me, and I felt a phantom throb in my hand where the wooden table leg had grazed me. Bob laid his hand onto my shoulder and squeezed a little. I instantly felt better, knowing not only he was here with me, but having my back - like always. Without him, I wouldn't have gotten out alive five years ago.

I made a sweeping gesture. "This is the study. The Wardens took a huge pile of Uncle Justin's papers and burned a lot of what they didn't take. The library is next door."

Bob took over. "I worked with Morningway on a lot of his projects. There's a safe in the Northern wall. While the content of Morningway's notes might have been suspect, they weren't magical. If we're lucky, the Council missed something." He concentrated and made a sweeping gesture. The ugly Renaissance landscape picture on the Northern wall moved to the side as if on rails. The ordinary looking wooden paneling underneath shimmered until a square of dull gray metal embedded in the wall emerged. Bob made another quick flick of his wrist, and the combination lock turned in quick sequence until a click signaled that it was open. He stepped closer. "Let's see..."

I exhaled in disappointment. The safe was empty. Bob turned and smiled at me.

"Justin used magic to hide the presence of the safe, therefore it was quite detectable by magic. Not exactly what a wizard aims for. Which is why the main compartment never held the most important things. There is another, smaller one, hidden only by the ingenuity of the builder of the safe. To open it, you would need to know exactly where to press and pull..." His fingers moved in the right back corner of the empty compartment, and there was another small 'click'. The rear wall swung back and exposed to our views a smaller compartment built in behind that was stuffed full of papers. "Voilà."

"Wow. I never even knew the safe existed."

"Your uncle had plans for you. Contrary to what you were thinking five years ago, your introduction to the High Council wouldn't have brought with it the implementation of any of his secret plans - not yet, anyway. He wanted you to meet Mai, Langtry, and LaFortier, and realize how undeserving they were of holding the power they had. The old Merlin had lost much support since his initial election, and the hounds were nipping at his heels. Your uncle wanted you to form your own opinion, then cement it by the damning evidence on them he had collected."

"'Damning' evidence?"

"Well, it depends on your point of view, I suppose. In at least two trial cases for offenses against the Seven Laws of Magic, Langtry had ensured that exculpatory witnesses wouldn't be heard - he refused to inform them when and where the proceedings were to be held. As for LaFortier, your uncle had had dealings with a rather questionable character who swore he had evidence proving LaFortier had 'cavorted with beings from beyond the Outer Gates'. I thought it was very much rubbish, but your uncle was thrilled and far more credulous than I knew him to be in any of his other business dealings. Ancient Mai..., well, Mai was an entirely different barrel of fish."

One of the girls surrounding Bob as if listening spellbound to a fairy tale snorted. Mai and a barrel of fish? My mind so didn't want to go there.

"Your uncle had discovered a--an irregularity, if you will, in her genetic make-up. How he had collected samples I did not inquire. He never disclosed to me the particulars, but I am certain she is not wholly human."

"You mean she is part-dragon?" That would explain so much. Her different faces, the fact that she never seemed to age, the facial changes when she became enraged, the red eyes... I shuddered.

"No, not part-dragon. Part-something else."

"You have your suspicions," I accused him.

"Yes, and I might be wrong. Better see for yourself." He handed me the pile of papers. "Miss Rosenberg, Mr. Giles - the library has an entire section devoted to the history of the High Council."

Willow bit her lip, stared longingly at the papers in my hand, then seemed to get that I wanted privacy and left, dragging Giles with her. Buffy linked arms with a reluctant Kennedy and followed, complaining loudly about how dusty old libraries made her break out into rashes.

I sat down at Uncle Justin's desk and slowly sifted through the papers covered in my uncle's neat, cramped script. I wished Bob was here with me and felt a warm glow in my gut when he returned and without a word, dragged close another chair to peer over my shoulder. I was reminded of countless hours analyzing evidence brought over by Murphy when it was just the two of us in my lab, Bob so close I would have felt his breath if he'd been human, yet keeping a careful distance to avoid giving me the 'heebie-jeebies'. Well, no longer. Bob was alive, human, mortal, and his shoulder brushed mine when he leaned closer. I pressed back against him and my hands slowed. "Bob?"

"Yes?"

"I'm so glad you're here with me. Not only here, but here."

"As inarticulately put as always, my dear boy... but I am just as glad to be with you as well." I heard the smile in his voice, and the last part of the depression lingering over me because of our surroundings disappeared. "Okay, then let's see..." I muttered and focused on the pile of papers.

Half an hour later, I sat back in the chair, incredulity mixed with outrage. "So Mai has a naga in her family tree and wears some sort of talisman that lets her change her outward appearance so she looks entirely human? She's part snake?"

"It certainly seems that way." Bob was pacing behind me. He had assumed his classic thinking pose with his head supported on his right hand, the ring on his index finger flashing in the light of the candles, and for a second the feeling of heart-deep gratefulness blanked out everything else. But tomorrow, Mai and the Council might yet take him away from me. I concentrated back on the topic at hand.

"Nagas can have any alignment, but in Mai's case I would say she is definitely not evil."

"No, just straightforward and a bully," I threw in sarcastically.

"True. Still, I can certainly attest to the hypnotic quality of her eyes--"

"--whether or not they glow red," I interjected.

"--she is also a very quick and able spellcaster. It is possible that her bite is poisonous, Justin's research says, and she might also be able to spit venom."

"Yummy. I won't let her bite me or spit at me, then."

"Not unless you want to fall into a nightmare-filled sleep." Bob said dryly. "You might not want to make her angry, either."

"My goal has always been not to anger Mai," I protested. "She gets scary."

"Well, now you know why. She is partly a magical creature and has the corresponding extended lifespan."

"Yeah, but why can she change her face?"

"My guess is the talisman polymorphing her facial features works only for a set amount of time - a few years perhaps - before it has to be recharged. Considering how long Mai has been on the Council, pretending to age naturally would be ridiculous. I believe she enjoys playing a game with other people."

"By rubbing it under their nose that she's older and more powerful than anyone of us?"

"Yes. The Merlin has to know what she is, and yet he evidently trusts her with her position. Perhaps because he knows what she is."

"You think it's a mutual blackmail thing going on? He lets her keep her job, she doesn't kick his ass? He doesn't make public her snaky nature, she supports him?"

"It's most likely not blackmail as you know it. Remember, those are the games the Council members like to play."

"Great." I heaved a sigh and got up from the chair, then stuffed the papers into the inner pocket of my coat. "The stuff on LaFortier is just as much crap as you said, and while I don't think Langtry, as he's now the Merlin, much cares to be accused of rigging two trials resulting in executions, I don't believe there'd be much of a public outcry among the other Council members. They all believe that once you've violated a Law, you're firmly ensnared by the Dark Side. Head off - problem solved."

Bob's hand unconsciously rose to touch the back of his head where his skull had been missing a piece. He grimaced, then shook off the memories and ushered me to the library, his hand warm on my arm. "Let's see what our guests have discovered."

"Right. But, Bob?"

"Yes?"

"There's nothing that'll prevent me from kissing you today."

He actually blushed and stumbled for a second, and I bit back a smirk when four curious pairs of eyes looked up at us from the library table where Willow and her friends were firmly ensconced. Several volumes lay open before them, and Giles was taking notes.

***

The Wardens had left my uncle's minutes of the High Council meetings, written down faithfully ever since his first attendance in 1952. They and the passages discovered by four experienced researchers led by one - make that two - former inhabitants of the house with too much time on their hands helped Willow and her friends gain a surprisingly well-rounded view of what they would be facing tomorrow.

"So," Giles summarized, "Willow has never encountered a Warden or another member of the wizarding community because she lived - and grew up - on a Hellmouth. Its emanations camouflage a wizard or witch's magical signature. Furthermore, no established magic-user settles atop a Hellmouth since the concentration of evil forces found there would be, ah, disadvantageous to an ordered magical community--"

"--and pretty much their life in general," Buffy muttered sarcastically. "Unless you're already of the evil persuasion and very happy to not have to keep out of the Wardens' way. Like, say, Rack."

Giles polished his glasses. "Correct. An, ah, somewhat nearsighted view by the High Council."

I nodded emphatically. As Buffy would say, I was 'much with the agreement'.

"Plus," Willow interjected, "Angel and his organization have never encountered them either. In the 1792 ruling of Covington against Redferne, the High Council was forbidden to ever again establish a presence in the L.A. area. Little surprisingly, the plaintiff was represented by Wolfram & Hart."

Everybody groaned. She elaborated in the face of my confused look: "They're an evil law firm. 'Evil' as in demonic evil. Their clients are members of the mob, tycoons, demons, and vampires. In any case that one side is represented by them, it's clear who the evil guys are. Unfortunately, their lawyers are usually very good at what they do."

"I found something." Kennedy interrupted. "Maeve Colclough, the High Priestess of the Devon Coven, has been a member of the High Council since 1812. She is the head of the British committee."

Willow looked like someone had slapped her in the face. "Maeve knew all along, and she never told me."

"You r-reached her daughter yesterday?" Giles asked compassionately.

"Yes. Linda said she'd tell her ma to get in touch with me. She said-- she said Maeve had left the retreat prematurely and gone abroad on an urgent matter." She tried to smile. "I guess we know now what that 'urgent matter' is."

"Willow. Maeve likes you. She n-never gave up on you. Remember. She and the others from her coven imbued me with enough of the true essence of magic so that Xander could reach you when all seemed lost. She could have come with me. She could have, ah, sent Wardens after you. She didn't. Until we know otherwise, we have to surmise that she is on your side in all this."

Buffy tried to bring the discussion back onto less emotionally fraught ground. "Wardens and High Council-types aren't around in Rome, either. Or Jerusalem, for that matter. What?" she defended herself, "I can do research, too. That dusty old book--"

"--The Treatise of Tasha on the History of the High Council," Bob murmured sotto-voce.

"--says that in 'both the Holy and the Eternal City, the High Council has established a treaty with the Vatican and the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith'. The Doctrine guys - wasn't that the Inquisition, Giles? - have 'the right and duty to watch over the peace in both cities', and evidently that meant they got to kick out the Wardens."

"That was a decision made in the 15th century," Bob interjected. "Perhaps less of a decision than a strategic retreat of the Council who had no aspirations of getting involved in any of the witch hunts performed by the Inquisition. They gave orders to leave both cities. All wizards who weren't suicidal complied, and the ruling hasn't been repealed until today."

"Great. Whatever." That was Kennedy. "Will any of that help you tomorrow, Willow?"

"Giles and I will do strategy in the afternoon. Kennedy, Buffy, why don't you do your shopping thing then?"

"You're kicking us out?"

"Never, sweetie! But it'll be pretty much law studies and precedents and technicalities later... do you really want to listen to all that?" I almost gagged on the sweetness, whereas Kennedy evidently gagged on the impending dryness of the discussion. She and Buffy agreed with a look on cessation of all hostilities in the interest of a shared shopping-spree. Bob and I were threatened with an occasional consult on our better knowledge of Council politics, but all in all, we agreed to break up the meeting. It was late afternoon, and I was starving. Giles asked politely to take some of the books and papers with him to my office, and I saw no reason to refuse. I took him, Willow, and Bob back to my apartment. Kennedy - not Buffy - got entrusted with the keys to the rental car and an admonishment that even the Watchers' Council's financial assets had a limit. Everyone was supposed to meet up at 9 p.m. at my place.

Bob took the passenger seat, still apprehensive of the speed of a moving car, and I smelled a hint of his nervous sweat when I leant over him to fasten his seatbelt. The combination with my own toiletry articles on his skin was making my head swim. Possessive? You bet.

On the ride back, I was certain I was exuding enough frustrated sexual energy to blow up all the wiring in a small city. Willow made a small squeaky sound from the depth of the backseat and more or less shooed us upstairs once we were back home. I had no intention of protesting. Much to the contrary - I grabbed my staff, invoked the wards and set a silencing charm within the perimeters of the second floor, then turned to Bob.

"Now, we're at the kissing part. We went through a drive-by fast-food joint on the way home." Not that Bob had enjoyed the experience. I still remembered his disgusted expression, but he'd eaten enough to keep his energy up. I hoped. I smiled. "We're full, we're home, we're alone... or at least, we have privacy. And I've been forced to watch you in my clothes and that jacket of yours for far too many hours on end. I could look at you all day. But when I do, I get hard."

I felt a little bit ridiculous stalking him, but I hadn't lied. I was hard, and if I didn't kiss him in the next few seconds, I was sure I'd fucking well die.

***

Never has lovemaking affected me so much. The last person I've had sex with was Tara, and Susan before that, and only Tara would have qualified for the nebulous term of 'girlfriend' - that is, if she hadn't been a traitorous bitch with an agenda whose pay ended up being death at the hand of my uncle's copy.

Back then, I was surprised and elated that Tara and I stumbled into bed together so early. Two dates, and wham! Sex. Susan and I have more of an on-and-off-relationship. She tries to worm some printable information out of me, we eat out in a fancy restaurant, and then we end the evening on an intimate note.

On the one hand, I was blown away by the opportunity Tara offered - a real, lasting relationship. We had fun. We clicked. Until she revealed her true colors. Susan, on the other hand, is not only gorgeous, she's also very good in bed, and she is truly fond of me.

Bob... he's something entirely different.

He's taller than both Tara and Susan. He has pale, supple, smooth skin, but that skin stretches over heavier muscle. His hair is soft, and yet so unlike the glossy long blond or brunette hair I'm used to. His shoulders are as broad as mine. He has an adam's apple, and his chin, even immediately after shaving, always feels a bit rough.

All that I still had to discover when I stepped right in front of him and touched his cheek. He raised his face to mine, his eyes a bit wild, before they fell shut when our lips touched.

When we kissed, he smelled of aftershave, not perfume. The chest pressing against mine was undeniably male. No, I couldn't deny I was kissing a man. When he moaned, I knew I was kissing Bob, for even throaty as it was, I would have recognized that voice anywhere. His lips were soft and felt as good as they looked. As a teenager, I tried to convince myself that I only stared at his mouth to admire the way it clipped off even the most tongue-twisting phrases in Latin with perfect pronunciation - and a bit of exasperation at my obtuseness.

I was kissing Bob.

Who hadn't been kissed in more than a thousand years. I tried to hold back, tried to keep it light. But when he hesitatingly opened his mouth to invite me in, I lost it. The next minutes went by in a dizzying rush of wet warmth and a taste I well knew I wouldn't be able to do without ever again.

I stumbled back a step when a firm hand pressing against my chest created enough distance to allow him to speak. "Harry...?"

"Yes?" I breathed. There was a mischievous spark dancing in the gray-green eyes so close to mine.

"This." And he kissed me. Just as deep, just as long, just as unwilling to leave my mouth. I pressed closer, each hastily indrawn breath through my nose smelling of him and stoking the fire in my groin.

I finally pulled back with a groan. "Bob - clothes."

He smirked at me. "You are--" I kissed him quickly, unable to look away from his moist, shiny lips. "--perfectly right." The last ended on another moan when our lips melded again. He scrambled for the collar of my sweater, I for the buttons of his - my - shirt.

Now, not even two wizards can undress while still joined at the mouth, or at least not while they're so much into kissing each other they're decidedly unable to concentrate. We parted reluctantly, stripped off our upper clothes with utter disregard as to where they ended up, and pressed up against each other again. My hands were traveling the planes of Bob's back before I'd gotten even a look at his chest. Bob's mouth wandered from my mouth to my neck while my hands learned the feel of his skin and the shape of his shoulder blades, then the bumps of his spine and the ridges of his ribs. The small of his back was warm and silky, and the damned waistband of his slacks hindered my exploring hands.

His mouth on my neck was sending shivers down my spine, and I was certain I'd end up with a hickey. Not that I cared. The teasing nips of his teeth only added to my excitement. His chest was pressed up against mine, and our skin became hot and slightly sweaty. I felt the hard points of his nipples, but not even the hint of chest hair. Giving up on the waistband for a moment, my hands traveled around and stroked his pectorals. Smooth, warm, utterly touchable. Lower, I discovered that he had been in great shape when he died - there wasn't even the hint of a belly, just flat muscle. He sucked in a breath. That plus the vibrations running through his flesh at my explorations made me suspect that he was ticklish - oh, the potential for blackmail! -, but I let my hands wander up again rather than break the mood. I pinched his nipples, and he gasped.

We broke apart again, and this time it was me who held him away for a long, burning moment - long enough to commit to memory the way he looked. White hair mussed, lips swollen, half undressed, chest and neck flushed, skin moist and shining in the candlelight... broad shoulders, muscled chest, bulge at the groin. The expected bruise on his sternum from Kennedy's CPR was missing; he must have healed it himself. What a view. My eyes stuck to his confined erection, and my own cock twitched in sympathy. I adjusted myself, then snatched my hand away again under his heated gaze. "Let me do that," he said unevenly, unsure and yet challenging at the same time.

His words propelled me closer. I reached out and clasped his hips, and he let a hand travel lower, over my waist and belt until I felt it press against my swollen erection, searing me even through two layers of cloth. I jerked and lost my breath for a second.

"Undressing," I croaked. "Bob?"

The smile in his eyes was reassuring and convinced me over the hesitation on his features that we weren't traveling too fast.

I fumbled with my belt and stared avidly as Bob undid his pants all matter-of-factly. I thought nonsensically that he must have raided the depths of my underwear drawer, for I couldn't even remember owning a pair of white briefs. They fit him extremely snugly at the moment and made it obvious that, despite the unfamiliarity, he was just as aroused as I.

I dropped my jeans and my boxers and reached him in just the moment he'd turned his back to me in order to place his clothes on the chair next to my bed that's serving as a coat rack. My hands landed on his waist only through a massive effort of will; they wanted to wander lower. I swallowed heavily. What would it feel like to...? I wondered wildly.

He flinched at little but then relaxed, deliberately not turning back around. I stroked his hipbones, my thumbs traveling lower from the small of his back, encountering silky skin moist with a thin layer of sweat. My head reeled. I wanted to fuck him. Now. Suddenly a plethora of sensual images from six years ago crowded my mind.

Bob had said he'd only ever slept with women. I thought I'd pretty much forgotten those two weeks in Chile. Right now, however, everything Tamir and I had ever done painted lurid pictures in front of my inner eye, substituting olive skin with pale and black hair with white.

I couldn't. I wouldn't. Not today. This wasn't a quick fuck, and Bob deserved more - indulgence, care, and tenderness.

I pulled my fingers from the crack of his ass and stroked its firm curves with less urgency. I hooked my chin onto his shoulder. "Bob?"

A breathy murmur: "Yes?"

"You've got a really great ass."

His shoulders shook under me in silent laughter. "If you're quite through appreciating this part of my anatomy, I trust I can turn around now?"

"Yes, please."

He did, and my eyes automatically glued to the sight of his erection. He was hard, heavy, uncut, and already wet at the tip. My mouth watered.

"Can--may I?" Pretty silly amending your choice of words in such a situation, but too much time in Bob's company made it instinctual.

He just stared at me, his dilated eyes making a slow, heated perusal of my body, and I felt my cock jump in reaction. "W-what?"

"Suck you."

He moaned and clenched his hands into fists. "Don't--don't let me stop you."

I dropped to my knees in front of him. I let my hands travel slowly from his knees up his thighs, feeling almost invisible lightly-colored hair under my fingers until they reached the position on his hips they'd already grown accustomed to. I leaned forward and breathed onto his erection.

His fists spasmed, then jerkily settled on my shoulders. I felt the ring on his right index finger scratching against my neck and inhaled with a smile. Bob smelled as good as his mouth tasted, the traces of my shower gel disappearing beneath the musky tang of his arousal. All patience gone, I pressed my face into his groin and licked his cock from root to tip. Yep, tasted good, too. Clean, a bit salty, undeniably male.

And impatient. His fingers bit into the hollows above my collarbones, and I sucked him in.

Wow, what a headrush. I'd almost forgotten how that felt, to be on your knees in front of an aroused man, his most vulnerable part filling your mouth, pressing against the back of your throat, cutting off your breath. My head swam. I pulled off, licked, sucked, took him in again. And again. I tried to get him deeper, but a two-week crash course is nowhere near enough to achieve this kind of expertise, and so I held back before I gagged. My mouth was occupied, his moans filled my ears, and my own erection demanded attention, urgently, now.

I felt my fingers bite into his flesh, uncramped them and let them travel lower to his balls. They already felt tight and swollen, and I explored them with my right while my left hand traveled back to my own body. I stroked myself in the same rhythm I was blowing him and discovered as millions of people have all over the world that true ambidexterity is very rare... and next to impossible when you're so turned on your brain is all but drowning in sensory overload.

I snatched back my right hand and took a firmer hold of my own cock, challenging myself to go down deeper--harder--faster, until my jaw hurt and my mouth flooded. Then, suddenly, a shout almost deafened me and my mouth filled with come. I swallowed. I hadn't gotten used to the taste six years ago, and I still couldn't do it without effort, but come on - it was Bob.

Who kept jerking helplessly. I forced my eyes open and up to his face. Clenched in pleasure so vast it almost looked like pain, he also had the silvery trails of tears running down his cheeks. His eyes were squeezed shut, and he turned his head to the side as if knowing I was watching him in this moment of naked vulnerability.

I needed just two more pulls on my own cock, and I came, remembering just in time to lock my jaw to avoid biting down. The whole bicycle thing? Only rudimentarily true. I wiped my wet hands on my thighs, uncaring about the mess, and instead gentled him through the aftershocks. Only then did I pull back, swallow and finally wipe my mouth on the back of my hand. Urgh. I needed more practice. Thankfully, I didn't envision that being a chore.

I got up, feeling my knees creak, and leant my forehead against Bob's temple. He was breathing in big, trembling gulps, his chest heaving. I gave him another moment while my hands crept up his arms to his neck. I took his jaw in a light hold, then cleared my throat. "Bob? You okay?"

That's when he broke out into audible sobs. He pressed his face between my neck and shoulder and went to pieces. To this day, I pretend that moment never happened. The man has his pride, I love him, and if he sets a high value on preserving his dignity, then so be it.

***

It took him a while to calm down, and we ended up sitting on my bed, his head still buried in my shoulder. I stroked his back in a slow rhythm, stayed quiet, and let him come to grips with his emotions. The events of the last day were catching up with us. It couldn't have been easy, going through everything Bob had - from centuries of cursed incorporeality back to being human in a strange new world he'd only ever seen at a distance. Was I taking advantage of him? I wondered. Shouldn't I better have kept quiet about my feelings until he'd grown used to his new existence?

Possibly. Sue me, I'm egotistic. Tomorrow, Willow would be facing the High Council, and Bob's release from his supposedly eternal punishment would meet just as much opposition. I wouldn't let them take him. I wouldn't let them hurt him, punish him, curse him again, and Buffy and the others would stand up for him as well. Still, I understood Willow's feelings of impending doom and the resulting recklessness. Carpe diem, for tomorrow we might well be dead. But even if we died, at least I wouldn't have to regret never having come clean to Bob, never having touched him, never had that old dream come true.

As long as he didn't regret it, I wouldn't either. In fact, I hoped for many, many follow-ups. I wanted to take my time, stretch him out on the bed and learn every inch of his body. I wanted to introduce him to the same pleasures I had discovered in Chile. I wanted to fuck him, and I wanted him to fuck me. I wanted to come home from a case with Murphy, step into the lab, embrace him from behind and kiss his neck and ask what was for dinner.

Yeah, it seems wizards are easy to domesticate. When they meet the right partner.

Hell's Bells, I wanted to introduce him to Murphy and watch the speculation creep over her face. That plus Kirmani's discomfort would keep me entertained for weeks.

Bob moved a little and attempted to sit back. I loosened my embrace, then stared at my hands lying in my lap to give him time to compose himself.

"Harry, what are you thinking?" His voice was still a bit scratchy, but he seemed to be back to his usual self.

"Ah, I--I'm thinking about coming into the lab to kiss you instead of walking through your latest formula hanging in the air," I offered.

"Dresden. As if I'd let you continue shifting off all the research onto me in the future." He gave me a half-smile. "You need back-up on your cases, and then I won't have to watch you crawling back home all beat-up and frustrated."

"Bob!" I protested. "I don't 'crawl' home, and I never get beat up." A look from him sufficed. "Okay, almost never. Rarely. Only on occasion," I amended, scowling.

Back-up would be great. The Wizard and his Sorcerous Sidekick. I bit back a grin at the mental image. Not that I could see Bob as being happy with being my sidekick for long. But that led to the dangerous idea of him finding something better to do with his time than joining me on my 'quixotic crusades', and of him leaving me in the end, so I shut off that train of thought fast. "Plus, I hope you'll keep helping me ameliorate the 'frustrated' part." I gave him a playful leer.

He groaned. "I see. I have fed the insatiable beast." I must have looked a bit unsure, for he continued in a lighter tone: "Harry. I--I enjoyed it very much." I stared at him with barely suppressed amusement. Was Bob getting prude on me? Evidently actually having sex was different from speculating about my bed partners in detail. "The sex, damnit." He blushed a little - the curse of his pale skin -, and my grin broke through.

"You are far too annoyingly proud of yourself," he said huffily. "The next time you will keep still and allow me to explore and discover what you enjoy. Don't they say turnabout is fair play?" Then he kissed me, just a quick meeting of our lips, and stood up resolutely. "I was about to suggest we shower and then go out to dinner with our guests, but then I remembered my rather precarious situation. I ought to keep a low profile until Miss Rosenberg's trial, and shopping for clothing tomorrow will already be public enough."

"Shopping for clothing?" I asked incredulously.

"Yes. What would you rather be in the eyes of the Council - confident, strong, their equal; or ragged and obviously ignorant and inferior? Trust me, we need all the advantages we can get." He grimaced. "However, in contrast to Miss Rosenberg and her friends who have their Council's funds at their disposal, we will have to do the impossible and buy something that costs little yet looks like - what is the expression? 'A million bucks'? You - we - need more paying clients."

I sighed. "It's not that easy finding clients, Bob. The ones with real problems usually turn out to have no money, the city's pay isn't exactly lavish, and I won't work for Marcone. I'm the only wizard in Chicago who isn't affiliated with the High Council in some way, and all those people tend to come from money anyway." As did I. More or less. Uncle Justin's vault was calling my name. Clothes shopping with a budget in the red is impossible, and what with the events following our encounter with a certain two women yesterday, I hadn't gotten around to letting Bob in on how dire the money situation really was. Usually, I'd be bugging Murphy for a new case or an advance about now. Or at least I'd be hanging around the office full-time in the hopes of a client showing up. I debated asking Bob to accompany me to the Morningway mansion for the second time today. He'd know right off what part of the jewelry was safe and what required a careful disenchanting or curse-breaking, but Uncle Justin's house has even more bad memories for him than for me.

Thankfully, Willow and Bob solved the dilemma for me. When we dared peer into the living room after our - separate - showers, Willow was already thumbing through my collection of takeout menus while Giles held up a printout list with bullet points that they still needed clarification on. I ordered, ate and then abandoned Bob to his fate, giving him a vague explanation that I still had something to do for tomorrow and wouldn't be back until at least 10 p.m. I stole a kiss before I opened the office door and tried to let my eyes say what I couldn't for the moment. His face softened a bit, but I knew I'd have to do a whole lot better later or I'd destroy all that was slowly growing between us.

Yeah, I'm an ass sometimes. Bob says I like playing the martyr. He might well be right.

For the second time today, I let myself into the house I'd prefer to forget still exists. I went down to the vault, carried its contents into my uncle's study, dumped them in a heap on the floor and went through them with gritted teeth. I used gardening gloves, my drumstick and more magic than I wanted to spare. I still got enough impressions off a few of the pieces to guarantee for at least a week's worth of bad dreams. Still, around 8:30 p.m., I'd put aside a small pile of ordinary pieces of jewelry, spell- and curse-free and ready to be sold.

Over two hours later, I parked my Jeep in front of my apartment when a parking spot miraculously opened right in front of me. I was exhausted, but triumphant - I'd paid a visit to a jeweler recommended by Charles Harding who'd advanced me a very generous sum after arranging with me for a two-week period for appraisal of the loot. I'd even managed to reach Fingers and had gotten him to promise me a full set of papers and corresponding, ah, 'corrections' of various governmental databases - cash in advance, of course. We'd meet the day after tomorrow, God and the High Council willing, to have money change hands and snap a handful of photos of Bob in the typical abysmal quality of passport photo shots.

I remained sitting behind the wheel for a moment longer, feeling tired to my bones. I couldn't wait to see Bob, and yet dreaded it at the same time. So much had changed so fast; it still felt all like a dream. I thought of his voice, of the familiar exasperation, and that decided it. I wanted to be home.

I unlocked the office door, went through to the living room and stared dumbly at the collection of people present, none of which were Bob. The television was on. "He's in the lab," Kennedy offered, cuddling up to a half-asleep Willow. Buffy sat in front of the sofa with her head tilted back, smiling dreamily. Giles was in one of the chairs, the light of the screen glinting off his glasses. He was reading and paid only sporadic attention to the movie. The kernels of popcorn at his feet proved that the girls' efforts at distracting him had been in vain.

I nodded at them and opened the metal-enforced door to the lab.

***

The lab is a bit cramped and in a perpetual state of disarray. There's always something more urgent to do than tidy it to Bob's specifications. I know what ingredients I have in stock - usually the inexpensive part of the basics -, and I know where I put them. Whether or not the bottles are labeled. Due to the many cupboards competing for space, there's barely enough room for a chalkboard, a lab table, a chair, two wizards and a set of equations floating in the air. Now Bob would have to avail himself of the chalkboard, and I'd never see him writing in glowing orange letters again.

Not that he looked like he'd been in the mood for any theoretical or practical research in the last few hours. The chalkboard was still covered in my runic scribbles of two weeks ago, and the pile of books covering the table was undisturbed. A single candle was lit, and the majority of the room remained in shadow. A dark, motionless figure was sitting in the chair. "Well, finally you are back," a snide voice greeted me.

"Bob? Have you been sitting there in the dark the whole time?" I asked incredulously. "What is it?"

"Nothing's the matter. I needed time alone; time to think, an activity much more suited to undisturbed tranquility and darkness." He got up and came closer. He had an unhappy set to his mouth and closed his eyes momentarily when I lit the rest of the candles with a flick of my wrist.

"I'm sorry I ditched you," I said helplessly. "I didn't think you'd be too happy with me going there."

Just as expected, Bob wasn't when I'd finished recounting my activities of the evening. Finally I had enough. "Hell's Bells, Bob! I thought it would be more than enough if one of us were miserable!" I yelled. "No, it wasn't a walk in the park, but as you see, I'm undamaged - in fact, our finances have never been better, ever. It was worth it; it was even overdue! I'll gladly take your advice on how to de-spell everything I sorted out, but that's a job for another day. Can't we just... I don't know, stop fighting about something so damned unimportant and focus on something that is?"

"And what would that be?" He asked icily.

"Us, for god's sake!"

"I never pictured us like this."

"What do you mean?" I asked cautiously. He'd sounded curiously resigned.

"That you'd move me automatically from being your friend and professional colleague - even one forcibly retired for quite some time - to love interest."

"What the hell is so bad about being my 'love interest'?" I yelled.

"You protect your lovers from the world you live in. Your relationships have never been more than surface. Dates, sex, secrets and many cancellations, then the unavoidable break-up."

Well, that shut me up but good. "Bob," I said helplessly. From his perspective, my solo trip tonight must have looked bad. Still, didn't he see that there were worlds of difference between what I'd ever felt for one of my dates and for him? "I--I didn't think. I've always done these sort of things alone."

"I suddenly understand Lieutenant Murphy's position so well," he continued inexorably. "I've resigned myself a long time ago that I often would have to send you out on your own while having to stay behind and worry, and pace, and count the hours until your office door opened again. You love doing things your way. You desert the people who might dissuade you from your chosen path. Lieutenant Murphy's inimitable stance as something of a co-worker and yet an outsider to the magical world has served you well. You could always justify to yourself that you only intended to protect her by proceeding without her during an investigation. I, however, am no longer a bulky skull to be lugged around awkwardly and therefore a hindrance to be dragged out only in emergencies when you have need of my unique talents. I aim to be more than just your lover, Dresden, you dimwitted fool! I need us to be equals, or this--this thing between us will never work!" He stopped, out of breath and as emotional as I'd ever seen him.

I stepped up to him and put a hand on his forearm. "Bob, you--you're not Murphy, and you're not one of my girlfriends. Taking you with me on cases when you were still a ghost wasn't exactly practical, and now-- it's a bit of an adjustment. But it's an adjustment I will make," I swore. "I just-- I guess tonight I didn't think you should have to come just because I'd been too chickenshit to do something I should have done a long time ago. You already had to spend way too much time at that house." I stopped myself there. Anything else, and I would have sounded condescending. I simply hadn't considered Bob's view, and yeah, admittedly, I'd have to work on that.

I almost never work directly with Murphy during an investigation. The Munzer case had been an anomaly; she'd actually been with me and seen me do some the things I do, even though it had only been a minor tracking spell. Usually she points me at something, I do research, I investigate on the sly into things she'd dismiss as crap, then I present her with a solution that tends towards the incomplete because of the secrets I have to keep. I've learned fast to keep quiet about the paranormal aspects, especially since she's made it clear that she'd rather not know. As a result, I do the major amount of my work on my lonesome - it's become a habit.

A habit I'd have to break myself of fast. "I'll do my best to do better. I promise." One more step, and I crowded him. Time for a gamble. "You're important to me. Stars and stones, Bob, I damn well love you." Now, he'd either kiss me back or shove me off.

He kind of deflated in my arms, his resentment leaving him in all at once. I wanted to shout with joy when he returned my kiss. At first his lips were hard and still a bit angry, then they softened, and our mouths melded. I still experienced the same rush as this afternoon and felt a bit choked up myself. I hadn't seen this coming, but by God, I wouldn't want to miss any of it for the world. Even the arguments, the times he stormed of in a sulk, the cranky, sarcastic temper-tantrums, the icy silences, the ceaseless nagging, the reproaches... well, I had experience with all of these. Really, I can't believe I've been blind for so long. We've had more than a simple friendship ever since I established my own P.I. business and went from seeing Bob whenever Uncle Justin asked me to come visit, to seeing him pretty much 24-7. I never felt comfortable sending him into his skull just to have an evening to myself, and so we hung out all the time.

I know I'm an idiot, thank you very much.

We stopped ourselves from doing more than kissing when he pushed me against the closest cupboard so hard the bottles on the shelves rattled and threatened to fall. Then I remembered our guests and found my better instincts long enough to assist Giles in dragging a yawning Slayer to his car while Bob helped the marginally more awake Kennedy ready the sofa. After our respective bathroom visits, our ardor had cooled a bit, the long day having caught up with us, and we didn't ascend to more than a few minutes of heated groping. Tonight, closeness felt more important. I insisted - a bit incoherently, I fear - that we both sleep as close to each other as possible, and so we undressed and went to sleep skin-to-skin, my head on Bob's shoulder, my hands on his chest. The calming warmth of his skin and the gentle, rhythmic beat of his heart lulled me to sleep.

***

I woke far earlier than I had planned to; it had just barely turned 8 a.m., and judging from the quiet downstairs, the girls hadn't gotten up so far. Bob was still asleep next to me. We had both moved in our sleep, and had ended up lying on our sides, with me pressed against his back. I heard the bathroom calling my name, but even more urgent was yet another call - I'd woken with a morning erection, and my position behind Bob ensured that it dug into a very tempting part of his anatomy. You wouldn't have been able to fit a single sheet of paper between our hips, and his ass felt warm, tantalizing and endlessly inviting. I bit my lip so hard I almost drew blood and pulled back with an effort that was physically painful. Despite my fantasies, I had firmly put Bob's ass off limits for the time being.

When it came to anal sex, I'd already resolved that he would fuck me first. I wanted to show him how it felt for the guy on the bottom, and how better demonstrate something like that than by example? But oh, good resolutions are much easier to hold onto when the man you dream of isn't loose-limbed, languid and so very touchable in sleep.

"Did I tell you to stop?" a sleep-roughened voice demanded irritably.

"Bob? You're awake?" I asked and immediately blamed my sleep-addled mind on the idiocy of that particular question.

"No, this is my sleepwalking mind talking," was the sarcastic answer I was half-expecting already. He moved slowly, languorously, and his ass made again contact with my very erect cock.

I gasped and unwittingly grabbed his hip. "Do that again and our sex life will jump several steps right to the big finish."

"And here I thought you were too old to still suffer from premature ejaculation."

I groaned. "That's not what I meant, and you know it. Good morning, by the way." I buried my nose in the short hair at the nape of his neck and breathed in slowly. My left hand wanted to tighten on his hip, but I resisted. He smelled so damned good.

His hand grasped mine on his hips and pulled it up to his chest, then began caressing my forearm, the fingers exploring and playing with the hair on my skin, slowly stroking it against the grain. "Good morning, my dear boy." I heard the smile in his voice.

I pressed my open mouth against his neck and began sucking lightly. He tasted just as good as he smelled, and I loved the way his body jerked in my arms. My left hand got more adventurous and began searching out his nipples. His smooth, muscular chest had so many intriguing swells and hollows to navigate, but all those flat planes had nothing on the sensation of feeling those two tender bits of flesh crinkle and tighten under the palm of my hand. I heard him inhale on a gasp.

In reaction, I shoved my erection against his pelvis and moaned. A second later, I got hold of myself again and scrambled back enough to pull him with me so he rolled onto his back. He made a wordless sound of confusion and stared up at me from dilated eyes. His teeth were buried in his lower lip, and my eyes locked onto that flash of white against the swollen red of his mouth with the same kind of mindless hunger that had turned his pale eyes almost entirely black.

I shoved off the edge of the blanket still clinging to us and climbed atop him, supporting myself on my forearms to the left and right of his head. That brought us nose to nose... and mouth to mouth. I gave a fleeting thought to the necessity of brushing my teeth, but then just swallowed hard, closed the remaining inches, and kissed him. Undistinguishable minutes later, we were still locked at the mouth, just as deeply as yesterday, and I could no longer detect a difference in taste between us. I'd unconsciously begun to undulate against him, and his hips had taken up the movement and were rocking up in the same rhythm against me. We were both breathing hard through our noses, and my blood was pounding in my ears.

In a more clear-headed moment an indefinable time ago, I had wanted to pull back and introduce a more restrained form of lovemaking. After all, I'd promised myself I'd touch him all over and discover all the spots that made him moan or brought that strained grimace of need to his face that he was wearing right now, but the demands of our bodies proved to be too strong.

The most we managed to do was for Bob to bring a hand between our straining bodies and at first tentatively, then fiercely press our cocks together, all caution forgotten in the heat and driving force of our bodies rushing each other closer and closer to orgasm. We finally had to stop kissing in order to get enough air, and I threw my head back violently when Bob's other hand made a curious foray into the crack of my ass and, just once, stroked across my hole. I was already coming from the sensation when his panting turned into barely audible repetitions of my name, interspersed with a couple of 'please's. I later thought he'd come awfully close to begging, but at that moment the sound just made me grind down hard and bite at his mouth. He came with a shout that he barely had the presence of mind to muffle against my lips.

A moment later I exhaled forcefully and let my forehead rest against his. The last aftershocks were still running through us, and the warm wetness of our semen was spreading between our bellies. My heart was slowing and the sweat was cooling on our bodies, but I didn't want to let go of him. He dug a hand into my side, but I just moved with it and gave a murmur of, "Hmph. Comfy."

His silent laughter vibrated against me, and I felt my lips stretch into an involuntary smile.

He gave me five more minutes. Then, even I thought the discomfort outweighed my current aversion to moving. With a groan, I rolled off him and was reminded that I needed a piss. I heaved myself to my feet, groaned, dabbed at the drying wetness on my stomach with the hopelessly wrinkled blanket, then said: "Bathroom. If we're quiet, we can make it there without waking our guests. We could shower together."

Bob stared intently at my face. Whatever he saw there made him smile at me with such an open, tender expression that it caused my heart to turn over in my chest. "Gladly."

We grabbed fresh clothes, among them my last clean white shirt for Bob, and crept stealthly down the stairs. I only allowed myself to breathe a sigh of relief once the bathroom door was safely shut behind us. We touched constantly, not just in the shower - that was more of an excuse for prolonged, excessive caresses made slippery with soap and water than an honest effort at getting clean -, but also in front of the shaving mirror and later while getting dressed. I watched avidly as Bob's body was swallowed up by yet another set of clothes belonging to me, then used the age-old excuse of having to straighten his collar so I could press up against him and let my hands stroke the triangular patch of skin showing at his throat. I pushed his hands away when they wanted to do up the last two buttons. "Leave them open." When had my voice gotten that husky?

"No," he said firmly. "I will not leave a single button undone if it causes you to lose all control over your hands." He pushed them firmly away. "I am starving. I insist on breakfast first - and by the way, shouldn't you be far less quick to ah, rise to the occasion again? Neither of us is that young anymore."

I sent him a friendly leer. "Speak for yourself, Bob."

He gave an exasperated sigh that included a lifting of both eyebrows, then shooed me out of the bathroom.

My cupboards were still as bare as yesterday, but I still had flour, some syrup, a jar of strawberry jam, an unopened pack of long-life milk and three eggs of somewhat dubious age and origin. When I cracked them, they still smelled okay, so I whipped up a batch of pancake batter and assigned Bob the task of finding the single pan that loves to hide in the depths of my kitchen cabinets. Admittedly, for once I knew exactly where it was - I just wanted to see him stretch to reach the rear corners of the wall cupboard so I could ogle the long line of his back and his ass.

Unfortunately, that was the moment two half-awake girls stumbled into the kitchen, doing their best impressions of baby birds needing to be fed. I stretched the batter to accommodate four hungry mouths and played Suzy Homemaker in front of the stove. Although I mourned to loss of our intimacy, crowding around a table with three friends and fighting for the last leftovers was fun in a strange, unfamiliar way.

"Want to adopt them?" I whispered to Bob when they left the kitchen afterwards to claim their turns in the bathroom.

He smothered a laugh, but he had a relaxed expression on his face that I knew he'd lose again far too soon.

There it was already - a knock on my office door, then the tinkling of the bells signaling that Buffy and Giles had arrived. The next hours would be characterized by more strategizing and a hurried shopping trip planned down to the last detail, then the thing we all didn't want to be reminded of, and yet found our thoughts traveling to in shorter and shorter intervals: the trial.

The fact that someone had pushed a sealed letter underneath my office door didn't exactly help since the envelope bore Ancient Mai's seal. The directions to the trial. They were for a warehouse located in an industrial park in Northern Chicago. The letter didn't contain anything but the three sparse lines listing the address.

***

The decision on the details of our shopping excursion proved to be easier to make than anticipated. Buffy and Giles had come prepared - after all, they'd already known what awaited them when they caught their flights to Chicago -, and Giles, still intent on his expedition through book and antiques stores, didn't want to be stuck with a car in Downtown Chicago and took the bus. The rest of us squeezed into the Jeep and drove the 40 miles to Aurora, Illinois.

I had vetoed the Magnificent Mile, Buffy the Gurnee Mills Outlet, and so we had compromised on the only outlet mall in the Chicagoland area that Buffy pronounced she could live with. I don't think her comments were meant that seriously, and she claimed to be an expert in consignment and thrift store shopping, so I just bowed to her expertise. What do I know about clothing and fashion? I frequent exactly two stores close to my apartment, and even mentioning the possibility of going to either didn't warrant enduring the mocking I'd be bound to receive.

At the mall, Buffy transformed into a general directing her troops. She sent Willow and Kennedy off for groceries (Willow for the selection, Kennedy for the heavy-duty carrying) and took Bob under her wing.

The next hours were a nightmare - at least for me. Bob, the traitor, didn't seem to have the instinctual male aversion against trying on and discussing the virtues of a variety of clothing ranging from casual to business to evening wear, and I had to watch him and Buffy bond over something I've never much cared about.

When I first passed my P.I. exam in 2002 and set up shop, I neither had the money for high-priced business attire, nor did I see the need when I well knew I'd be spending the majority of my time on the seedier side of Chicago. I've never felt much at home in a suit anyway, and dressing up always reminded me of the night my uncle died. I own exactly two pairs of slacks - one of which Bob was currently wearing -, three white shirts, one gray sports coat, five ties (most of which had been gifts), a linen suit I don't like the color of that I wear to court, and a dark suit I haven't seen in a long, long time. I suspect it's still at a dry cleaner's somewhere... if I only knew where exactly.

Bob's clothes pile kept growing at an alarming rate. I'd long since given up estimating the cost in my head. I'd put our fate in Buffy's hands, and considering her eagle-eyed perusal of the price tags, she was well aware of the limit I'd set her and determined to do her best to find an adequate wardrobe for Bob's needs. She also had an admirable eye for what looked good on him. A lot of black, rich colors, textured materials, conservative cuts with just that tiny hint of the exotic I'd always loved about his ghostly attire. She'd sent away all the salespersons trying to interfere, and I simply found a corner to sit in and do a lot of Bob-watching in peace.

If the two of us had been alone, I might have dragged him into the dressing room on more than one occasion to personally test the fit of the suit he was trying on. Due to Buffy's presence and our time constraint, I had to settle for several heated glances.

Bob was clearly uncomfortable being around so many people, overwhelmed by the size of the mall and the range of clothing available, but also enthralled by the seemingly endless choices before him. He often sought my eye, and I quickly realized that the items he and Buffy had the shortest discussions over tended to be the ones I'd approved of with an enthusiastic nod.

Then my grace period was over, and Buffy descended on me.

Another hour later, we reunited with Willow and Kennedy via their cellphones. The two of them had clearly also been clothes shopping. We stopped in the food court for a hasty lunch and then drove back to Chicago with the back of the Jeep full of shopping bags. Willow insisted on paying for the groceries, claiming it was her way of paying me back for putting up her and Kennedy. I thought about disagreeing, but then just thanked her. I wasn't proud enough to be stupid.

Almost immediately after we'd set on our way back Buffy called Giles' cell. "He tends to get assimilated by the mind-altering powers of big old books," she said dryly.

I barely paid attention to her. Instead, I couldn't look away from Bob who was sitting in the front-passenger seat with his head supported by the headrest. He had his eyes closed in exhaustion, and the clear lines of his slack features as well as his relaxed, slightly open mouth made me want to kiss him. Instead, I contented myself with a stealthy move to grab his hand and watched in delight as his mouth curled in a barely-there smile as his fingers pressed mine.

The drive back was uneventful. Buffy attempted to draw out her friends and distract them from the imminent events of later today, but didn't have much success.

Giles, evidently not half as easily distracted as Buffy had made him out to be, was already waiting at the entrance to the office when we arrived. I felt a short flash of guilt - I could have altered the wards and given him a key -, but pushed it away as undue. As long as he kept watching Bob as one would a serial killer about to strike, he didn't rate another designation than 'potential ally', and I don't even give a spare key to my girlfriends. Bob doesn't need a key to get in, and the wards already know him. A moment of focus yesterday had been enough for that.

We put the groceries away, Willow started fiddling with the refrigerator, evidently determined to countermand the first electrical appliance's stance against garden-variety wizards and their magic, and then we all lay down for a bit to rest after the hectic morning. Around 4 p.m., the run on the bathroom began.

I shook Bob awake and watched him gather his new clothes before he descended the stairs for a shower. We didn't say anything, but our hands found each other and clung for a brief moment of mutual support. He was more somber than I'd ever seen him, and a thread of gloom started gathering in my stomach, a weight not even lifted by the sight of him fully dressed and groomed. He'd donned the pinstriped woolen suit in a dark slate blue that Buffy had picked with an eye for today's events, together with the corresponding vest in the same color, and a light gray dress shirt. In contrast to his suit, his white hair shone. I wanted to fiddle with his tie, but he'd already knotted it impeccably. Its pattern picked up in bright splashes the color of the suit as well as contrasting it with various shades of green and brown that brought to mind the color of Bob's eyes. He looked fabulous. I only regretted the occasion.

My outfit for tonight was more relaxed in comparison. Our motto, as Buffy had put it, was to be "confident, dazzling and respectful, yet relaxed and ass-kicky" - a whole set of contradictions in just a handful of words -, and on these grounds had I vetoed the suit she tried to make me get. It had been in a pinkish gray everyone called 'taupe' (a stupid-ass description of a stupid-ass color) and not my style by half. Instead, I'd ended up with a khaki-colored suit in a linen/cotton blend with a subtle allover stripe pattern that went well together with a black polo-shirt underneath. Yeah, khaki is my color. Let Bob mock it for all eternity. I like it. And even they had had to admit that the suit-polo combination looked good on me.

Add to that aftershave, cufflinks, and a handkerchief in Bob's breast pocket, and we presented a pretty amazing picture, I had to admit. In an act of defiance, I put on my father's ring with the blue gemstone that had originally been a present from my mother - and the means of both his and Uncle Justin's death. Now I felt as armed for anything as I could ever be.

Bob looked at me approvingly. "Harry."

"Yeah?"

"If we get past today more or less unscathed, I insist on one thing."

I gave him a minuscule smile. "That being?"

"A night on the town with you and I dressed the way we are now. I refuse to associate all of this," he gestured down both of us, "forever with a High Council summons."

"Deal."

The kiss we shared had no sexual undercurrent at all, just a need to comfort and be comforted. I stroked the side of his face until he captured my hand between his. "It is time."

"I know."

We went downstairs to Willow and her comrades. They were also dressed to the nines. Women have it easier than men in the clothing department - the three girls wore entirely different outfits, and yet they all were stunning, Willow in a folklore dress in moss-green, Kennedy in black and chocolate, Buffy in white with crimson accents. I bet that the allusion to blood put in contrast to innocence was deliberate. Giles wore a tweed suit that was several years old, and clearly a point of contention with Buffy who just rolled her eyes at my inquiring nod.

"Weapons and magical supplies check, guys," she said sharply.

Kennedy, in a bored voice, declared to have three stakes hidden on her person (I didn't inquire as to their location), plus a long dagger, almost a short sword, sheathed in the lining of her coat, that she showed to us with a quick flick of her wrist. Buffy herself claimed to carry an identical number of stakes, plus two throwing daggers fastened to the insides of her jacket's sleeves. She abstained from a demonstration. Giles' reason for wearing a ridiculously long coat became apparent when he presented us with the sword he was carrying. He also had a number of stakes - evidently to be used when the Slayers ran out of theirs. Willow was weaponless. She neither had a staff nor a wand, but evidently she hadn't been using either at any point in her life.

Since Willow had warned us that we might have to leave the place of the trial in a hurry in case it didn't go over well, I'd also resolved to leave my hockey stick and drumstick at home. The Wardens wouldn't allow me to keep either in front of the Council anyway, so possibly abandoning them in their custody would be stupid. Bob didn't have a new focus for his magic yet. Considering the power he radiated just standing next to me, I sincerely doubted he'd need one to be effective should we have to flee or defend ourselves. He raised his hands, palms down, so the others could see the two rings on his fingers. Buffy nodded.

I'd considered making Escape Potions for all of us, but the Wardens would have recognized them as well and taken them from us before the start of the trial. Buffy, however, had offered an alternative. She was carrying a small phial on a golden chain around her neck; it looked like jewelry and emitted no trace of the power she said it contained. It was red - like blood. Stars and stones, it supposedly was blood, and yet the essence of an ancient entity. According to Buffy, one drop of it would be enough to open a door to another dimension, even underneath a veil and an Anti-Teleportation Shield, both of which I was certain the High Council would be securing today's meeting place with. Our escape plan was to step through the door into a dimension called "Pylea" and travel through that world to a point matching our Cleveland where we'd then go plane-hopping back.

"Dawn's blood? Check," she answered herself absently.

I didn't know what the essence had to do with the position of the sun, and I've never found out. Having more of this would be immensely helpful in my work, but Willow and Buffy remained close-mouthed on this topic, and Bob's and my research proved to be unsuccessful. Joya has never heard of it either.

Then we set off in our two cars - no limo for us, nor was there a ball awaiting our attendance. Just ten powerful old people, set in their ways, dangerous and unmerciful, clinging to the letter of laws passed as far back as the Middle Ages. I wanted to freeze time. I wanted to fast-forward to tomorrow.

Hell's Bells, I just wanted it all to be over already.

***

We arrived at the given address at 5:40 p.m. The warehouse must have been abandoned for at least ten years, and the neighboring buildings were in more or less the same sad shape. It was still intact, but the formerly white paint was flaking off in huge patches, and I bet they had water damage inside whenever it rained.

There were perhaps ten more cars parked on the lot in front. They were - without exception - luxury vintage cars in good to perfect condition. My jeep looked sorrowful in comparison, and Giles' modern rental stood out like a sore thumb. There was no living person around save two people in the official uniform of the Wardens - dark robes, scarlet stoles and gray cloaks. They stood in front of the entrance and were clearly waiting for us. One of them was Morgan.

Willow looked over at them, then back to us. She was pale. The smile she aimed at us was wobbling and unconvincing. Kennedy put an arm around her waist and squeezed a little. That seemed to help. "Bob, I guess your Latin is pretty close to perfect, right?"

"Yes." His voice was cool and steady. I could have kissed him for how it made me feel.

"Then Giles and you won't need it." Her lower lip trembled. "You--you said meetings of the High Council are conducted in Latin. My Latin's pretty good, but not good enough to make my case in it without stumbling over my words like a moron. All of us - I guess you too, Harry - have done enough research stuff to have come across more or less any words ever used in that language, but as humans are, we've forgotten most of them. I have this nifty little spell that will bring them all back into our minds. It should allow us to speak Latin like we were native speakers - in Buffy's case, with a really, really weird accent."

We laughed a little at that as she'd clearly intended. Giles nodded to her.

"Ingenious," Bob said. "I had contemplated another spell, but then shelved the idea when I recalled that it would extract the knowledge from the brains of those around us that had the required knowledge. The Wardens would have counted it as undue influence on the members of the High Council."

"Yes, that's what I thought, too!" Willow exclaimed, then became somber again. "It'll last for three to four hours, tops. Build a circle and hold each others' hands."

She took Buffy and Kennedy's, and I took the position across from her. The spell pulsed gently through our linked hands, and snatches of the Latin I'd learned - and mostly forgotten - since I was eleven rose to the surface of my memory. Wicked cool. I immediately wanted to put the rule to the test.

"Amici, quidquid hodie occidat, non velim has dies recentes oblivisci, etiam mundo dato.[1]" I squeezed Willow's shoulder encouragingly, then stepped so close to Bob I could smell his aftershave and the smell of his skin underneath. I would have prefered to kiss him, but under the eyes of Morgan was neither the time nor the place. Behind me, I heard the low voices of the others exchanging their last words. I murmured: "Bob, te amo. Te amaveram multis annis, et nolo credere sortem esse tam crudelem ut nos divellat omnibus factibus.[2]"

He just nodded at me, but his eyes were soft and defenseless. In them, I read the words he didn't have to speak out loud.

As a closely-packed group, we stopped in front of Morgan and his colleague. I heard more than felt the soft rushing sound of a veil shielding us from the outside world once we were within a few paces of the entrance. I can't teleport, but I was betting we'd also stepped inside a shield preventing anyone from trying.

I looked at Morgan and was surprised to see that his features weren't bearing the disdainful expression I'd expected. He nodded politely at us all, but raised a brow when he saw Bob and me. I hadn't been able to decide whether or not he knew about Bob's return to corporeal form, but his demeanor made me quite certain that he didn't. What kind of hints would it require for him to work it out? I wasn't carrying a receptacle big enough to contain Bob's skull, and Bob's wardrobe change should have been a big give-away. Hell, Morgan shows up on my doorstep regular like clockwork whenever someone casts black magic in the city, so shouldn't he be sensitive to all kinds of latent magic? A living sorcerer is different from a cursed ghost. Well, either Morgan had an off-day, or I'd been overestimating his capabilities for a long time.

"Dresden, neither yours nor your ghost's presence is required during this meeting," he stated with a face that had quickly reverted to its usual impassive mien.

"I beg to differ," Bob said quietly. "Considering recent events--"

Morgan and the other Warden looked up sharply. "How--?"

"--we thought it would spare the High Council the inconvenience of having to gather a second time." With a small bow, he offered his arm to Willow who took it with a grave expression that hardly covered the mixture of dread and amusement lurking underneath.

Morgan flinched back and went for his sword. His fellow Warden followed.

"Stop," Giles said sharply, pushing through to the front of our little group. "We are either representatives or allies of the New Watchers' Council and have been granted safe passage to this meeting under your laws as long as we keep the peace. We desire to enter and speak in front of the High Council. We will subject ourselves to be searched for weapons, and we will bring harm to no one as long as no one brings harm to one of ours."

"He is not one of yours," Morgan spat out. "The necromancer is an abomination, and an enemy of the Council."

"The necromancer," Bob said quietly, "is no longer living a cursed half-life chained to his skull, yes. Still, I have no wish to fight the High Council, and request that my case be heard in front of them." His gray-green eyes flashed.

Morgan ignored Bob and instead turned to Willow. "Miss Rosenberg, what have you done? It is your magic that resonates around him. Do you have any idea what cursed thing you have restored?"

"Hrothbert of Bainbridge is no thing, and as I've already said, I'm not accountable to you. I've seen his infractions, I've seen his sentencing, and I've seen his punishment. If anyone, then you all should be ashamed of what you've done."

"Morgan, we're not here to assign blame," I interjected. "Any decision to be made is in the hands of the Council anyway. Let us pass. We promise not to blow up this charming place."

Morgan stared at us. His companion must have heard of Bob, for he appeared to be terrified and thrilled in equal parts. It's not every day that you meet a badass legend from wizarding lore, is it?

Morgan made a small gesture he hid with his body, and moments later another Warden hurried out of the warehouse. She was tall and blonde, and I knew her - Amber.

She looked at us for a second - this time I evidently didn't warrant a wink -, then went to Morgan's side, her long legs covering the distance in only a handful of strides. She listened to his terse whispered words with a solemn face, then hurried back inside, presumably to inform the gathered members of the High Council.

I exhaled quietly. She was still stunning, and yet I no longer felt the need to wheedle a date out of her. I'd take a cranky white-haired sorcerer over her any day.

Morgan and his colleague exchanged a speaking glance, then began checking us for weaponry of both the mundane and the magical kind. The Slayers and Giles all handed over their weapons unsolicitedly and without protest. Morgan was disappointed to find neither a staff nor a wand in mine or Bob's possession. He then lifted a crystal pendant from around his neck and ran it over our bodies. I bet it was charmed to detect the slightest magical emanations and was wondering whether it would really let Buffy's necklace pass without complaint. It did, and although it glowed while run over the heads and temples of those of us who had participated in Willow's language spell, the pulsing light remained white and gentle and was evidently therefore no cause for concern. The pendant also glowed at Bob's rings, but the color of the light didn't change to anything more alarming.

Morgan grudgingly nodded at his fellow Warden. "They're clean. So far. Get the dogs."

The other Warden turned and hurried into the warehouse. Morgan's hand was clenched around the hilt of his sword. We all refrained from making any sudden moves.

Perhaps two minutes later, the other Warden emerged again, leading a pair of wardhounds behind him. I've already encountered them once, five years ago, and they give me the creeps. They're as big as Rottweilers with huge mouths, gleaming fangs, gaping eyes, curling beards and manes. They look like Chinese temple dogs, and they aren't real dogs - they're waist-high animated statues made of some kind of dark greenish stone, and yet they move like cats. You can see their muscles move underneath the smooth surface of their flanks.

The Council uses them as our world's equivalent of metal detectors - they've been created to detect hostile enchantments, artifacts, and concealed weapons. Supposedly they've picked out would-be assassins on more than one occasion, but there are also persistent rumors that they've made an error at least once. It's said that it wasn't pretty.

Morgan gestured to us to step forward one after the other. The wardhounds circled us all in turn. They gave several grindstone-like growls around Buffy and Kennedy, but their lack of a more aggressive reaction made me suspect that they sensed the two girls' Slayer essences. Buffy smiled faintly when the hounds had finished prowling around her, a hard light in her eyes, and I was certain that she'd have fought them bare-handed with nary a concern had they dared attack. When the wardhounds failed to discover anything alarming, they dragged their handler back to the door to the warehouse.

"I don't trust you and your lot, Dresden," Morgan said abruptly. "If anything happens in there, I'm holding you responsible."

I half expected him to pull a dark hood from his belt, reminded as I was of my own trial, but for whatever reason, Willow was spared that indignity. The other Warden remained outside, but Morgan went in front of us, and we stepped over the threshold into a dim open space that was faintly smelling of mold.

***

The warehouse had enormous windows high on each wall, and without them, the atmosphere wouldn't have been merely dim, it would have been pitch black. With more than one wizard present, turning on the power in order to switch on the ceiling lighting would have been an exercise in pointlessness, and not even a sea of candles would have provided sufficient illumination for the cavernous hall.

The members of the High Council were already seated in a semi-circle facing a single chair in the middle of the room. All the members save a young Asian woman in a dark robe with an embroidered stole in a vibrant scarlet: Ancient Mai. She was waiting just a few steps from the door, and her eyes moved over us all, paused briefly on Willow, before they focused on Bob with an intensity that was even more chilling than usual.

"Hrothbert of Bainbridge. So it is true then."

"Ancient Mai," Bob's voice was polite, but it could have frozen solid a lake in Florida.

"Two days ago, I felt a big surge of magic." She turned to Willow with the speed of a striking snake, "Tell me, girl, how did you manage to hide the corruption of a necromantic ritual from the vigilant eyes of Chicago's Wardens?"

"No such deception was necessary. The ritual she used wasn't necromantic in nature," Bob interjected calmly.

"She has returned you to true life. That is necromancy and raises the crimes counting against her by yet another offense against the sixth Law."

"I--I am sorry," Willow began, looking like she was slowly transmuting terror into courage, and Mai smiled. It wasn't a nice smile. "--but it was the nature of Bo-Hrothbert of Bainbridge's curse that allowed me to bring him back without having to resort to Black Magic at all."

Mai's smile vanished. "Explain."

"His soul hadn't moved on as it was bound to his skull, and his body... well, I fudged at bit on that. His original body has long since fallen to dust, but his manifestation as a ghost served as a substitute - a substitute I only had to make more solid. I returned him to flesh. I didn't break the curse binding his soul, but I kind of--stole it from behind the barrier keeping it imprisoned, then sent it into its original host. Or, ah, the new reasonable facsimile thereof." She stopped, flushed and proud. "There was absolutely no bargaining with any gods, and no resurrection. I would never do that to anyone again. I wouldn't call back a soul from death. I did so once, and it was much with the bad. I promised--"

Kennedy stepped onto her foot to stop the anxious flow of words. Willow shut her mouth with an audible snap.

"Bob has served his sentence," I said. Mai's gaze jumped to me and traveled down my body like I was a particularly disgusting insect, although the fact that for once I was dressed in a suit seemed to throw her for a loop. "There will be no execution, and no reinstatement of the curse."

"Dresden, your presence here is a mere courtesy and can be easily remedied."

"And here I thought I was here so I could be punished for not having been a responsible custodian of a certain artifact," I quipped with clenched teeth. Mai at her most ball-breaking terrifies and pisses me off in equal measure. Although usually the terror wins.

"Oh, I would be delighted to bring a new resolution to that end in front of the Council." Her eyes flashed, and I was certain I hadn't imagined the red glint in them.

"You know, my dear Mai," Bob said evenly, "Dresden's uncle had some very interesting papers in his safe. They were about snakes, and about genetics, and of course about the Council on which he had the honor of sitting for so many years. In Justin Morningway's memory, I believe it would be a very... magnanimous... step to let this small matter rest."

I almost choked on my tongue at this calm and unapologetic delivery. Mai was similarly silenced for a moment, then locked her furious gaze onto Bob's eyes. They stared each other down for a long moment, and I kept waiting for her face to shift and change. I was certain only monumental effort allowed her to keep up her usual front and appearance. Amazingly, it was Mai who looked away first.

"Do you really want me for an enemy, Dresden?"

"Ancient Mai, you have never been my ally, or even a neutral party," I said with a churning stomach, "I want my friends and me to get through tonight alive and in one piece. Neither of us has any interest in Council politics, or in upsetting the status quo anywhere but with the demon population of Chicago. We are not your enemies."

"Does the boy speak for you as well, Necromancer?" She asked Bob mockingly.

"I have learned much over the centuries, Mai, and the Black has lost its fascination for me. Henceforth, I swear I will uphold the Seven Laws and follow the dictates of the Council as long as they are just and bring no harm to my friends. I intend to stay with Harry and support him in his endeavors. No one who does not attack us - or those we care about - first will ever come to harm from me, that I do promise."

She stared at him for a long moment, and I felt a small surge of magic flow between them as she considered his words. "I have your word then, Bainbridge. See to it that you don't break it."

At that moment, another figure approached us. It was a dark-haired, slender man of medium build with a neatly trimmed black beard. When he opened his mouth to address us, his white teeth gleamed against his olive skin. "Mai, the Council is now ready to vote on the topic in question. The Merlin requires your presence. I trust your business here is resolved?"

She let her calculating gaze wander over Bob and me. I hardly dared breathe.

"Yes, it is," she said finally.

My knees felt weak, and I wished I could sit down. Morgan's gaze was steely as he rounded us up and directed us into a small office to the left that must have housed the factory manager. Whatever the vote was about, the High Council didn't want us to overhear. We crowded into the office which thankfully contained a couple of chairs and desks, and waited.

"So the woman was Ancient Mai," Kennedy said contemplatively. "What was that whole snake thing about, and who was the guy with the beard?"

"The snake thing was Bob's attempt at playing the Council's game of politics," I said weakly. "The man with the beard was Ignacio Coelho Morreira from Brazil. He's a member of the Council as well as its treasurer. He's in the moderate middle, opinion-wise, and usually votes with the majority."

Perhaps fifteen minutes later Amber showed up to fetch Willow. Willow gave us a brave smile and went without complaint.

Her friends let her go, but only because they knew she wouldn't be entirely on her own. Bob folded his hands in his lap so that the ring on the little finger of his left hand was plainly visible. He had charmed the stone so that it displayed Willow's aura. At the moment, it was still a pulsating blue, the equivalent of her 'resolve face'. Should it ever shift to the yellow or orange depicting fear and terror, we'd have to crash the meeting and hurry to Willow's side before she and the Council began battling it out.

After a short check of the stone, Giles and Buffy crowded Morgan and insisted on being allowed to speak on Willow's behalf in front of the Council. Morgan was starting to look a bit harassed and assured them that they'd be brought in front of the Council after Willow's initial hearing.

Half an hour later, Amber came in again to collect them.

Now it was Kennedy who spearheaded mine and Bob's attempt at worming information about the trial out of my favorite Warden.

"Dresden, why don't you just shut it?" Morgan snapped finally. "There is another issue at stake; an issue that was the reason the Council meeting was called here in the first place. The fate of your new... friend... isn't topmost on the Council's list of concerns. Colclough has already declared her support of Miss Rosenberg and offered to take responsibility for her training. In light of the current situation, they were debating entering a covenant with another power."

"A new accord? With a party with whom the High Council previously hasn't had a treaty? Very interesting," Bob said contemplatively. "This new power wouldn't, by any chance, have its main seat in London, would it?"

Morgan refused to say anything more, but my brain - like certainly Bob's - was racing. The next three hours were torture. Bob and I did our best to ignore each other for fear of being distracted, Morgan stood sentinel next to the door, a glowering presence discouraging us from exchanging more than a few sentences, and Kennedy fidgeted. At around 8 p.m., Morgan lit a couple of candles. The encroaching darkness mirrored our mood. We all glanced over at Bob's ring obsessively in shorter and shorter intervals. The stone was still blue, but its color had lightened a bit, and was that a hint of vermilion and gold? I hardly dared hope.

Finally, we heard steps coming closer, and someone pushed the door open enthusiastically.

Buffy stood in the entrance, looking exhausted yet triumphant. "We're done," she announced curtly. "Let's go. I'm starving."

Kennedy jumped up, pushed her aside and practically ran outside.

Bob and I exchanged a glance and tried to hide our relief. We let Morgan precede us out of the door.

The factory hall was almost entirely dark, but several of the Council members - all of which were still gathering close to the factory entrance - had their staves in hand. The ornate top ends spread circles of pale, steady light that illuminated a fair bit of this side of the room. I scowled automatically. No one has ever said it out loud, but I've seen their barely masked horror at the sight of my hockey stick. It's not exactly the classic wizard implement of choice and doesn't make for a status symbol, but at least you can carry it around in the open without garnering more than a couple of glances, and without being mistaken for a Gandalf impersonator.

Willow, with Kennedy glued to her side, stood to the left, Giles at her shoulder, talking earnestly to a tall, statuesque woman with long brown hair woven into a braid that fell well below her shoulders. Maeve Colclough.

Even Arthur Langtry, the Merlin, was still present, but involved in what looked like a heated discussion with LaFortier - who, in my opinion, is the greatest ass on the Council. Langtry is bad enough, but LaFortier is even worse. A few syllables of heated French traveled my way, but I didn't even try to understand whatever the two of them were disagreeing about. There was a third person participating in the conversation, although at the moment he wasn't saying a word; a very tall man whose face was hidden underneath a cowl. I was willing to bet that the feeling of cynical amusement rolling off him was real and not a product of my imagination. At my trial, I'd gained the impression that the Gatekeeper is a man of few words.

Liberty, a tall black woman, her best buddy Listens to Wind, and McCoy were discussing something with Pietrovich in low voices, but Pietrovich was gesticulating rather animatedly for his customary calm, and whatever he was saying seemed to be causing his colleagues serious indigestion.

Ancient Mai and Coelho Morreira were standing next to the door, their eyes locked onto Willow. They didn't look happy.

A set of glowing red eyes in the dark made my heart race for a second before their owner, a raccoon, scrambled forward to climb up Listens to Wind's leg. So the Indian still had his annoying familiar.

I blew out a breath and hurried to remain at Bob's side. No one should have to walk the gauntlet alone, and boy, those glances were way unfriendly. They looked at him-- I remembered last year, when I'd helped Murphy arrest a serial killer who'd pretended to be a devil worshipper, with crime scenes to match. The whole station had been present when she'd brought him in in handcuffs. Everyone, cops, civilians, arrested hookers and petty crooks alike, had stared at him like he was a dangerous, rabid animal who'd run amok any second. Repulsed, yet fascinated, and thirsty for his blood, the lynching mood just barely held in check by the thin layer of civilization we humans are so proud of.

The Council might have agreed to leave Bob alone - for the moment -, but we'd have to watch our backs. If I'd believed Morgan had been constantly on my case ever since my uncle's death, then I'd been mistaken. Bob's future - our future - would be a walk on a tightrope, with the spectators praying for just a second of unsteadiness so they could pull him down.

***

We all breathed a sigh of relief once we were in the open. The stars above us shone a little through even Chicago's light pollution, and the fresh air was heavenly after the stale, oppressive dankness of the warehouse.

Willow's smile was beautiful.

Apart from us, no one had stepped outside yet, and while I was certain there were a lot more Wardens around, none was in sight. A few steps closer to our cars, I felt us leave the area cloaked underneath the veil, and had to consciously keep myself from showing my apprehension by running towards my Jeep. I wouldn't put anything beyond the High Council, not even attacking us from behind.

Buffy whispered something to Giles, then she swerved and followed Bob and me to the Jeep. Willow, Kennedy and Giles climbed into the rented BMW, waited for my headlights to come on, and then drove off. Only when we were three blocks away did I feel that I finally could let my guard down.

"Please, do not keep us in suspense any longer, Miss Summers. What exactly did the High Council decide?" Bob was looking a bit overwhelmed, too.

So Buffy filled us in, and we learned that Bob's suspicions had been dead on target.

"They weren't as much with the rabid bloodthirstiness as we'd expected. They wanted to make an offer, and if we'd refused, it would have gotten ugly, no question. But their request for a formal treaty of mutual assistance," I practically heard the air quotes, "wasn't stupid at all. We more or less do the same job, at least in two areas, and working together is better than trying to handle the same thing from two different sides. I tried that with an ex-boyfriend's unit once, and we almost lost sight what our jobs were about. Mostly because his superiors were insane and totally into creating Frankenstein. Anyway--"

From Buffy's sometimes rather disjointed narrative, I gathered that Pietrovich had petitioned the Council to acquire the help of the Slayer and her organization, a motion seconded by the Gatekeeper. The liberal members of the Council had immediately seconded the proposition, and I thought I knew their reasons.

Colclough sees Willow as her protégée, McCoy detests executions of promising young wizards, and Liberty and Listens to Wind would never stab him in the back on such a matter. Five years ago, McCoy had been less willing to speak up for me, but then, he'd always hated my uncle and thought I was well beyond saving just because of my bloodline. He conveniently tries to forget that I wouldn't have killed my uncle if I'd been anything like the Morningways. No wonder I thought Ebenazar McCoy was a big hypocrite.

I could just imagine LaFortier and Mai violently objecting, with the Merlin dearly wanting to rule in their favor and Coelho Morreira holding back until a consensus was reached.

The benefits of a new Accord with not only the Slayer, but the Slayers - plural - must have cinched the outcome: Willow had been pardoned, not cleared of the charges against her. In return, she and the New Watchers' Council had pledged their support and signed an Accord obliging the Slayers and the rest of their organization to lend help in certain crises. Giles had insisted on a very restrictive wording in order to assure that the Slayers wouldn't be exploited on "distasteful tasks" (that was evidently a direct quote from the same man who thinks Bob should never have been freed from his curse) like the apprehension or elimination of wizards prejudged as warlocks by the High Council.

Giles' contradictory standpoint was something I refused to spend any time on right now. I begged Buffy to continue, and she told us the rest.

The new Accord would commit the Slayers in lending assistance in the case of a Gate breach as well as in an overt or covert war against the Vampires of any Court.

In short, should there ever occur a breach of the Outer Gates, the Slayers would be expected to join with whatever detachment of Wardens was in the area and contain and dispose of the threat.

The Outer Gates are not the Nevernever. Whatever dwells there isn't just magical in nature - it's always, always evil. Creatures of the Nevernever tend to have their own agenda, and one should be careful in dealing with them. Especially the Sidhe, but that's another topic. The Outer Gates, however, are the only thing that separates our world from the reaches of the Old Ones. As Bob explained it when I was fourteen, the Old Ones are an ancient race of demons or gods who had once ruled the mortal world in the Primordium Age, but who at one point had apparently lost their claim over our reality; some were killed while the others were locked away from the mortal world. They haven't set foot on the human realm since, and if they had, we would most likely all be dead already. However, now and then, perhaps once in a century, their foot soldiers manage to enter our world. These demons are called 'Outsiders' and can only be summoned through mortal magic, that is, by a wizard performing the required ritual. Unsurprisingly, knowledge of what exactly this ritual entails is guarded closely by the Council. One of the Seven Laws of Magic, the fifth one, deals specifically just with such offenses. Usually even the attempt is punishable by death.

It is said that Outsiders are all but immune to magic; at least that's what Bob taught me. He must have encountered them at least once during his centuries as a ghost, but he doesn't want to speak of those events. Believe me, I asked. Even the guilt thing didn't work.

Of course, the new Accord didn't end there.

The next clause concerned the vampires.

Buffy was quite blasé about the history of how vampires came to be. I guess she must have heard the story at least a dozen times.

"Let's see, Giles always begins... yeah, it's something like: 'Blahblahblah, this world is older than any of you know. Contrary to popular mythology, it did not begin as a paradise. For untold eons demons walked the Earth. They made it their home, their hell--'" She had adopted a sing-songy voice with a faux British accent, and I had to bite back a grin.

Despite her flippant attitude, her recounting of the Watchers' records was very precise. According to them, the last Old One to leave this world fed from a human, in the process mixed their blood, and created a new kind of hybrid demon: the walking undead who needs to drink blood to survive. Vampires of the Black Court.

Vampires of the White and Red Court are a bit different, considering they are very much alive, if demons in their own right, but I wouldn't want to meet one of the Old Ones if their offspring were the weakened, lesser form descended from tainted bloodlines. I've summoned demons from the Nevernever or had some sent after me by someone else, and I try not to let the human appearance of Bianca and her people fool me. She's a demon, no matter how much she looks like a seductive, vulnerable young woman.

Still, I like her. She helped me when I was on the run from the Wardens; I helped her when it looked like she was on the High Council's hit list. We don't owe each other anything anymore.

Regardless, I don't want to fight her. Ever.

Apparently Pietrovich, the Council's emissary to the Red Court, had been the one on whose request the Council meeting had been scheduled in the first place. He felt the need to present certain 'concerns' to the High Council. Evidently the king of the Red Court has discovered his ambitious side and dreams of expanding his territory. Believe you me, when a vampire talks about "expanding his territory", that tends to mean "slaughter a lot of mortals and eat them". Unfortunately, due to the feudal structure of the Red Court, should he ever call for war, his loyal subjects would have to obey. While I don't think Bianca would be thrilled at all to risk her standing in Chicago with any outward signs of aggression that would bring the High Council and its Wardens down on her like a ton of bricks, she wouldn't exactly have a choice. Talk about sitting between two chairs.

Pietrovich had been speaking of war. Not a good thing at all.

"I suppose details of the new Accord will be announced everywhere before the ink has even dried," Bob said with a cynical little smile.

I agreed. The Council would drop heavy hints as to the new help they'd acquired in the hopes of the king of the Red Court rethinking his plans for the future. Pitting his subjects against almost a hundred Slayers worldwide would ensure a vastly different outcome in the case of war. At that time, I hadn't seen Buffy or Kennedy in a fight, but Slayer lore paints the girl - or girls - in question even larger than life than any superhero comic. Slayers were created to kill vampires - otherwise, they'd be called differently, wouldn't they?

I wondered whether I should suggest a meeting between Bianca and Kennedy as a means of introducing them and getting them to play nice. But that was a worry for tomorrow at the earliest.

I stretched in the driver's seat and sighed. That's when I felt Bob's hand on my thigh. I turned. He looked just as exhausted as I must have.

"Harry, you promised me a night on the town. No, do not worry," he grimaced, "I believe we are all fairly done in for today. However, tomorrow is another topic altogether. Schedule the evening for a surprise, if you please."

"Stars and stones, Bob, could you be any more cryptic?" I complained only semi-seriously.

He refused to drop any further hints, but he went all out on Saturday, believe you me. Dinner at the Rosebud in the Theater District, then a performance of Lerner and Loewe's "Camelot" at the LaSalle Bank Theatre at 8 p.m. I remembered Michael York as far younger-looking, but then the last role I saw him in was as d'Artagnan. When I read his name on the playbill I was instantly reminded of the endless afternoons with Dad before his evening performance when we both watched television in a hotel room while he practiced shuffling cards to "warm up his fingers", he said. Let me tell you, the gypsy-like lifestyle of my childhood had one advantage - when the television died on us (which it did regularly - wizard, remember?) we usually had to get through less than a week without before we were on the road to Dad's next engagement.

Anyway, Bob loves showtunes; I hadn't been in but one musical with Susan - something about the French Revolution, I think -, and I loved it, too. We got to wear our suits for a much, much nicer occasion, plus we got to undress afterwards. But that evening wouldn't happen until Saturday.

Today, it was still Friday, around 10 p.m., and right now the BMW and the Jeep disgorged our worn-out group of six in front of my office.

***

"Let's go celebrate," Buffy decided. We were all standing in my living room, staring dumbly at each other, unable to believe that everything had turned out alright.

"But not Italian," Bob said with a significant glance at me.

"Thai!" Kennedy suggested brightly. She was in a better mood than I'd ever seen her in. Willow's relaxed, mellow happiness must have been contagious.

We all dressed down to regular clothes. Half an hour later, we were sitting around a table in a Thai restaurant two blocks from my office. It was a bit more upscale than I was used to, and we all felt the urge to work through the cocktail menu from top to bottom, which led to much giggling on the girls' part and a significant mellowing of Giles' British reserve. It would be an exaggeration to say that he and Bob became friends that night, but at least Giles' animosity lessened enough that afterwards I no longer felt the need to play buffer.

Willow and the others took turns to narrate in detail - with many interruptions by their friends - the full particulars of the trial. Bob offered to look over the copies of the Accord intended for the records of the New Watchers' Council in order to, as he put it, "ensure that there would be no sub-clause to bite them in the arse." Yes, Bob's speech slips with a significant amount of alcohol in his system. Admittedly, at that time I was laughing about pretty much anything and was plastered to his side in a way that was just short of indecent. Kennedy's left hand was under the table, and by the way Willow kept twitching, it must have been somewhere rather interesting, so my actions were still quite tame in comparison, Bob assured me later.

We got home some time between 1 and 2 a.m. The walk hadn't sobered us up much. Giles and Buffy left the rental parked in front and took a cab to their hotel. Kennedy was still pouting because everyone had yelled at her when she'd suggested (wavering a bit from the last two Long Island Ice Teas) patrolling Chicago tonight for the first time. Bob kept smiling at me with so much undisguised affection I only remembered from a few instances early in my days as his student. I wanted to touch him everywhere.

We left the girls in the living room - Willow had her hands full with an amorous Slayer - and climbed upstairs to my bedroom.

There, Bob put a hand on my abdomen and closed his eyes. I started explaining where exactly I wanted that hand to touch me before I felt something like a warm electrical current move through me, and tasted shades of orange and green. Whoa. Bob's magic seems to be sympathetic to mine.

Still, I regretted his actions a second later. "Damnit, Bob," I complained, "was that really necessary?" I'd worked up a really, really nice buzz, and now it was all gone. Sobriety makes you feel stupid in retrospect when you think of an evening you spent laughing over the unfunniest things ever.

He opened his eyes and just looked at me. He looked sober, too.

"Nifty little spell," I conceded grudgingly. "But an Aspirin and lots of water works, too."

"Perhaps," he said slowly. "But I would rather have you in your right mind for this." He kissed me.

"Correct me if I'm wrong, but weren't we heading there even with our blood alcohol level somewhere above 0.10?" I asked.

"Yes. However, I would prefer it if we were both in perfect control of our bodies and felt every," a pause, "inch when you fucked me."

"Fuck!" I yelled. "Bob! A little warning the next time!" I'd gone from vaguely interested to rock hard in perhaps half a second. I also saw my good intentions winging it out of the metaphorical window. My plans for our next step during sex had put me firmly on the bottom; after all, I was the one with the experience here.

"Dresden, is there a problem?" an amused voice asked when I remained standing frozen where I was.

"Ah, Bob... I kind of thought I'd be the one to get f-fucked the first time," I said.

"You are blushing," he said with glee. "For a man who claims to have 'done the deed', so to speak, you are awfully reluctant to talk about it."

"Well, perhaps I'm a gentleman," I said indignantly.

"I hate to disappoint you, my dear boy," he said dryly, "but that only works when you refuse to speak about your bed partner's experiences."

"Whatever," I grumbled, "besides, wasn't it you that time in Jackson Park who kept tripping all over his tongue when we had the sex talk?" I deliberately put a lot of emphasis on 'sex', but this time he didn't give me the satisfaction of getting visibly rattled. Damnit. "Anyway, Bob, why do you want to--"

He laughed, then became serious again. "My dear boy, I am no longer Hrothbert of Bainbridge, wandering sorcerer making his way through Britain, nor husband of Winefride, nor a ghost bound to his skull. I am alive again, and I want to mark the change by doing something so vastly different I would not even have contemplated it in my youth. Besides, did we not want to celebrate?"

I wanted to ask him if that meant he would stay with me always, and that I could put my fears of losing him to a new Winifred to rest, but I managed to bite back the question just in time. I had no right to ask him that. Since becoming corporeal, he had talked at length to exactly three women - two of which were lesbians in a committed relationship. I wanted him to choose me, of course, but not if that didn't mean I got him for keeps. Hell's Bells, why did I always have to ruin everything? My arousal had waned, and I wished we were still back in the restaurant. A couple more drinks sounded like paradise right now.

"Bob, let's just go to bed. It's late."

"What is it? I thought--" he trailed off. "Oh no, you will not."

"What?" I asked irritably.

"Overthink this. Blame yourself for committing me prematurely to a course of action with which I have no experience. I. Will. Not. Regret. This. Afterwards. Nor will I leave. This self-flagellation is unbecoming. Stop it."

"Damnit, Bob, you're not ready for this!" I yelled.

"I am."

I glared at him. "Well, then perhaps I'm not."

"Why shouldn't you be? I know exactly what you are thinking, and you are wrong."

"You don't know what I'm thinking."

"Dresden, do not forget I have known you since you were a boy," he scoffed, "I have a very good idea about what your pathetic little brain is obsessing right now."

"So?"

"'So?' Oh please. You are no longer a child. Can we not talk about this like adults? Or better yet, let us make it short. You are afraid of growing used to having me around and of stopping to hide how you feel about me, only to have me leave you for the next trollop with luscious curves in just the right places."

I stayed silent.

"That is where you are wrong. I already promised you I would not hurt you for the world. We have shared our bodies on two occasions. During neither did I feel the need to run away screaming, like you perhaps expected. I did not miss the familiarity of a female body next to me, and I think my body made that very clear."

Boy, it certainly had. My earlier arousal was contemplating a return. Bob was beautiful like this, enraged and animated. His gray-green eyes were alight, and he was pacing unconsciously, his body tense, his temper boiling just underneath the surface.

"Do you really want to push me into a stranger's arms just so you finally believe me afterwards when I tell you that I want you, and only you?"

"You've never said that!" I complained. I wouldn't have missed that, ever.

"No, and that is my fault. Our new friends are all very attractive, and were they available, the man I used to be might have been interested. But I am no longer that man. Loving Winefride changed me, and so have the last 25 years at your side. I value you for your heart, and I believe we have sufficiently proven that your body is no impediment despite being male. Miss Summers suggested I should picture myself in 20 years, and think about where I imagined myself at that point in time."

Thank you, Buffy. I owe you.

"I could only imagine myself with you in this derelict office, fighting against windmills and barely eluding the High Council's Wardens, helping you pursue cases with which no self-respecting wizard would waste his time." A short flash of pain traveled over his features. "The idea of marriage and possibly children leaves me cold. That is all part of my past; a past that has been destroyed by the ravages of time."

I was staring at his face the whole time. Bob clearly believed that what he was telling me was the truth. What did I want? A contract signed in blood that promised life-long devotion and fidelity? Was I really that insecure? Bob was baring his heart to me here, and I let him stumble on and on?

I got up, still blown away. "I'm sorry," I said inadequately. "I've never thought about a future without you in it, either. Mainly with you as a ghost, sure, but there were the occasional daydreams." I bit my lip. "I guess I'm just afraid like you said."

"Perhaps I should be the insecure one in this relationship," Bob said with an arch of an eyebrow. "After all, it is not I who has the inimitable Lieutenant Murphy flirting with him and inviting him to kiss her whenever he pleases."

"Bob! She didn't mean that!"

"That was what she implied."

"She might have, but that doesn't matter. She's a friend, but I love you."

"Was that so hard to say?"

"I already said I love you the day before yesterday," I defended myself.

"You said you had fallen in love with me when you were fourteen," he corrected me, "I took that to mean that your feelings most likely have remained the same ever since. When you later said you loved me, I believe your intentions were not exactly... pure."

"I love you. I'm still in love with you. There. Happy?"

"Ecstatic. And before you feel the need to return to your insecure ruminations, yes, I love you, too. I am in love with you, your annoying self-doubts notwithstanding. Can we now finally get back to what we were doing?" Bob sighed in exasperation.

I grinned. It was fun fencing with words with a Bob pretending to be in a snit. I felt the grin widen. He had said he loved me; that he was in love with me. Yeah, I know. If I were a schoolgirl, I would be writing "Bob ♥ Harry" on all my exercise-books. However, while right now my heart (and most possibly my head) were tending towards the softer end of the spectrum, another part of my body was doing quite the opposite. "Well, what do you know - the mood's back," I quipped and closed the distance between us.

Kissing him was just the same glorious feeling as-- had it really only been this morning that we'd last explored each other's bodies, scared of what the evening would bring? I was already addicted to his taste, to the agility of his tongue and the softness of his lips. The wet sounds of our mouths merging were a reminder of other pleasures yet to come, and we both groaned when we ended the kiss a long, timeless moment later.

We'd learnt from our past mistakes and separated far enough to undress so that we didn't have to fight against the mindless desire to remain clinging to each other. My clothes landed on the floor, Bob's - as usual - were hung across the back of the chair next to my bed. Watching him peel off a pair of black jeans was way, way more enjoyable than seeing him step out of a pair of slacks, and I almost swallowed my tongue when I realized that this time, no set of white briefs remained.

"You went commando?" My voice rose embarrassingly high with the last word, and I winced.

Thank God for romance novels. At least Bob knew immediately what I meant, if the barely hidden grin was any indication. "Yes. And I must admit that the experience is less satisfactory than certain books made it out to be. It-- chafes. However--"

I stepped right in front of him. "Hmm?"

"The way you look at me makes up for the discomfort," he said huskily and touched my cheek with a single finger.

We made it to the bed. Barely.

***

The sheets were hopelessly tangled and creased, unmade after our lovemaking from this morning, but they still felt cool and soothing against the feverish skin of my back.

Bob was on top of me, trailing kisses down my chest, his breath hot on my skin. His weight grounded me and reminded me that everything was real, that it was really Bob's body crushing mine into the sheets and not just a particularly vivid dream.

The candlelight flickered across the smooth skin of his shoulders and made his pale flesh gleam. He sat up for a moment, staring at me, his gray-green eyes demanding acquiescence, then let his fingers deliberately travel to my nipples. I groaned and just gave it all up. My body went limp, all the tension of the past few days, the worries about the trial as well as about our future together just evaporating into the air.

Bob loved me. He was in love with me. Nothing else mattered, right here, right now.

Until a small thought intruded. "Bob, ah--?"

He pressed a finger to my lips and stroked them lightly. I wanted to keep silent, really, I did, but there had been one thought disturbing my newfound peace... Oh, yes. "Bob, the girls are downstairs."

He sighed loudly. "They are asleep, I swear. Still, if you insist..."

He gestured at the door, and I felt the same spell I had cast this morning take hold, guaranteeing our privacy, even should we yell loudly enough to ordinarily bring down the house.

"Thanks," I said quietly, then sucked his caressing fingers into my mouth.

Besides a bit of sweat and musk, I imagined I could taste a hint of pineapple from his drinks. I smiled up at him and found the same serenity I was experiencing in the relaxed, tender expression on his face.

A relaxation that was soon replaced with a new sort of tension when I continued playing with his fingers, licking and nibbling on them, then swallowing around them, mimicking another activity altogether.

He gasped and needed to steady himself with one hand on the bed to stay upright. I liked the result and continued sucking in a manner as x-rated as I knew how. It was fun, and I loved the tremors running through his body, and how the light color of his eyes was eclipsed more and more by the expanding darkness of his pupils.

Finally he pulled his fingers from my mouth, swallowed audibly and had to close his eyes for a second to keep his composure. I smirked and moved my hips a little, having to scramble for control myself when my erect cock brushed against the soft, warm heaviness of his balls.

"Please," I whispered. He opened his eyes again, then sat up on his knees and moved downwards a little so that he could grip my cock with his wet fingers and give it a stroke.

I threw back my head into the softness of the sheets and moaned. Despite having touched so intimately only on two occasions, he already knew me well enough to provide the perfect amount of pressure and friction. His tight grip lit a fire in my brain. I wanted to come, and right now I didn't much care whether or not I lasted until I was in him.

He realized how close I was and relaxed his grasp immediately.

"Lube... 's in the bedside table," I gasped. He didn't let go of my cock, but his hold loosened even more. A second later I heard the sounds of a tube top being opened, and then cold gel made contact with my eager flesh. I bit my lip once again.

Bob stared at my mouth, a hungry spark lighting up his eyes. Then he bent forward and kissed me again. I could hardly feel the barely-there touch of his hand on my erection, but I was very aware of every tiny motion of his tongue that took my breath away. My head swam when he finally ended the kiss on my disappointed moan.

His lips were red and swollen, and I couldn't take my eyes off them. Stars and stones, I love his mouth. And I love it even more when it is still bruised from my teeth. Finally my eyes moved and took in the rest of him. Gorgeous. Simply gorgeous. His hair was still mussed from when he'd pulled his undershirt over his head, and his skin was gleaming with a thin sheen of sweat. With so much skin on display, I decided that candlelight did compliment him. It also created intriguing shadows over his groin.

Yesterday, I had had his erect cock in my mouth, and I longed to re-live the experience. I swallowed thickly, then suddenly remembered that I had hands and raised them both to touch him.

"Shhh." He fended them off, leaving a smear of lube on my forearm, and the firm shake of his head convinced me that he meant it. "This time it is my turn to play, and you will remain lying there and not move a muscle, my dear boy."

"Well, I think I'm going to need to move more than one in order to fuck you," I said unsteadily.

"Yes. Later."

Was it wrong that the firmness of his voice made me even hotter? Suddenly I could imagine putting into practice those vague ideas about bondage that everyone of us - don't you dare deny it - carries around inside their head. As much fun as I thought it would be to tie Bob to the headboard and have all that pale, smooth skin to play with (and push his self-control to the limit along the way), what I really pictured in my head was me, stretched out, bound, helpless. It's not something you'd trust a stranger with. But Bob - Bob wouldn't go farther than what I was comfortable with, of that I was certain, plus he'd make me enjoy it.

I panted and glanced at Bob for reassurance. The set of his features told me that he had a very good idea of what I was thinking of, and we exchanged a wicked smile before he resumed his slow caresses down my body.

He touched me like I was breakable, like it was a gift he'd been given. A slow, methodical massage just with his fingertips, following the lines of the hair on my chest, the muscles, the tendons, noting what made me gasp, what made me flinch, what made me defenseless. I practically saw his brain record the fact that my nipples aren't particularly sensitive and need a stronger touch bordering on pain to send a message to my cock.

I gasped. Pinching works.

I'm not very ticklish, and my navel is just that - a navel, not an erogenous zone. However, stroking the topmost line of my pubic hair works like a charm. Not that my cock needed any more encouragement; it was already as hard as it was ever going to get, and the wetness of my pre-come mixed with the lube created its own kind of urgency. I wanted a firmer touch. I wanted--

He touched my cock again, pumping it a couple of times, but nowhere near enough. My balls hurt. I needed to come.

"Bob--," I protested.

"Patience, my dear boy."

Damnit, I was all out of patience. Thankfully, Bob didn't make me wait much longer.

His left hand began rummaging in the tangle we'd made of the sheets, and it was only when he held up the white tube with an exclamation of triumph that my overwhelmed brain realized that he'd been searching for the lube. He opened the flip top and squeezed out a line of clear gel onto his fingers, then--

No. No way.

This time it was I who batted his hands away. "No. Leave it. I want to do it."

One look convinced him of my determination, and he raised one knee to the side, moving off my body so that I could sit up.

I breathed in deeply for a moment or two, regaining my control, before I grabbed his hand and transferred the slickness coating it to my own fingers. Then I clasped his hips and moved him into exactly the position I had in mind. He was soon on his hands and knees, facing the foot of the bed, his buttocks in tempting reach of my hands. He was swaying a little, and I grinned. The tremor became a full-body shiver when my wet index finger made contact with the crack of his ass.

"Like it?" I whispered.

The throaty moan I got in response was all the answer I needed. My other hand molded around the curve of his left buttock, and this time we both trembled. His skin there felt just as soft and silky as I remembered. I wanted--

I bent forward and kissed it, then sucked in a mouthful of the tender flesh. He jerked and almost fell off the bed. I just tightened my grip on his hips and continued sucking, using my teeth to make certain the spot would bear a spectacular hickey come tomorrow.

There. That should do it. I pulled off and gazed at the clear imprint of my teeth around a dark red, slightly raised circle of flesh right in the middle of his buttock. Proud? Possessive? You bet.

"Beautiful."

"That is--debatable," he gasped, lost in the messages from his body when I concentrated on the fingers of my right hand, finally letting them explore further, travel lower, stroke gently over the tight opening of his body.

"You've really never..?"

"No. Not even with a woman. Sex was less of a--a hobby then, not a pastime lovingly detailed in books, magazines and talk shows. One did it, certainly, but it usually was not talked about, and while certain woman had the--necessary experience--they usually did not let it all come to bear with the amour du jour with whom they ended up sharing their bedding come nightfall."

His speech had become too even, interspersed only by a couple of gasps he couldn't suppress, and I aimed to render him incoherent again. A careful foray of a single finger beyond the rim of his hole did just fine.

The next minutes were entirely without words, although the sounds coming from both of us filled the air and thankfully didn't travel further thanks to the silencing charm.

Bob's trust in me was humbling; despite the unfamiliarity of the sensations, he relaxed almost totally and let me stretch and prepare him as though he regularly allowed someone to penetrate him. I deliberately stayed away from his prostate and just made certain that he was loose and slick enough for my cock.

Unfathomable moments later, I removed my reluctant fingers from his ass, my gut clenching at his unwitting moan of protest. "Just a second," I whispered, tenderness overwhelming me. I took myself firmly in hand, suddenly aware again of the immense pressure in my balls, and guided my cock into his impatient body.

We groaned in unison. He was so tight, and at first it seemed impossible that his flesh would give way. Then he relaxed, tilted his pelvis a little, and suddenly I felt myself slide in almost effortlessly, the lube easing the way, until I was buried to the hilt. He gasped, shaking, and I did the same. The ring of muscle grasped me tightly, my balls pressed against the seam of his ass, and the musk rising from his flesh went right to my brain.

Next I only remember movement, rhythmic, insistent; and mind-melting pleasure. I tried to hold back as much as I was able - which wasn't a lot, let me tell you -, but Bob wasn't taking any prisoners either. He matched me, push for push, shove for shove, and while the sex might have been rougher than I had originally planned, it certainly fried both our brains. I must have reached his prostate no later than with my third thrust, and his yell almost deafened me. After that, he made sure that I clipped it continuously, moving to meet me with limbs far steadier than mine, demanding, relentless, and just as blown away as I was by how good it felt.

I never even got to touch his cock. He came from the fucking alone, collapsed onto his forearms and barely stayed upright enough for me to finish. Three, four trusts later I came with a shout, then fell onto the bed, following him down.

My spent cock was being pressed into the wrong direction, plastered as it was to his ass, but I didn't have the strength to get up. Lube and the stickiness of our mixed semen provided an unpleasant film on our skin. I had a cramp in my big toe. I didn't care, instead I rolled half off the warm body underneath mine and stared at the ceiling as though I had never seen it before, a stupid smile on my face.

I felt great. I never wanted to move again. My heart had become a huge puddle of goo just as sticky and spreading as the wetness between our bodies. My magic was dancing just underneath my skin like carbon dioxide bubbles in a champagne glass. Huh. So this was what "making love" really meant.

And we'd be able to do it again and again, tomorrow and any day after. Provided neither of us stroked out first. I laughed out loud with the joy of it, and Bob's baritone joined in.

***

I awoke to the feel of a hot mouth on my neck. The sun shone in through the blinds; it was morning, but from the angle of the light, I'd have said it was still before 10 a.m.

"Wha--? Bob?" My mind was all fuzzy from sleep. Not that I was complaining. The kissing had transmuted into a soft sucking at my pulse, and I liked it. A lot. Certain parts of me liked it even more.

"Good morning."

"M'rning," I mumbled back.

"I had every intention of letting you sleep," Bob's voice murmured back, "but--"

"Hmm?"

"I got inspired." A sharp nip, followed by a filthy chuckle. "When I went downstairs quietly so as to not wake our guests, I discovered that they were already awake."

"So?" My brain was waking up. Soon I'd even be able to form whole sentences. As you've perhaps guessed, I'm not much of a morning person. Too bad, far too few cases are considerate enough to take that into account.

"They were not only awake, they were very... active."

I sat up. "You're kidding. You--you're telling me you were watching Willow and Kennedy...?"

"Have sex? Yes. I believe the correct designation for the act in which they were eagerly participating is cunnilingus. In the 69 position."

His words instantly painted a vivid picture in my head that made my morning erection hard enough to pound nails. My face felt like it was on fire.

The silencing charm had worn off during the night. I prefer to cast anything bigger than a cantrip with a focus - preferably either my drumstick or my hockey stick - in hand to channel it, but this time I was motivated. A gesture ensured our privacy. A pounce ensured a very enjoyable repeat of last night.

Although this time, I insisted on being on the receiving end. I didn't regret it.

When Bob and I resurfaced, we barely had time for two separate hurried showers. The living room had been tidied up and showed no sign that any intimate events had taken place within its walls. Kennedy had appropriated the free space in the middle for her martial arts exercises while Willow had lined up the rest of my electrical appliances in a row. She was burning incense (I couldn't identify the exact flavor) and kept passing her hands over toaster, television, electrical razor, blow-dryer, answering machine, etc. I thought I saw a white glow emanate from her palms. Since none of the devices crackled or had blue sparks dancing across their surfaces, it looked like her attempts at magic-proofing them were going well.

"Morning," I said. They were both not even marginally disheveled; no, they looked annoyingly chipper, without any hickeys in sight. Damn. Although I'd never yet met a woman whose body could bend quite as effortlessly as Kennedy's. She was doing splits as though they were knee-bends and wasn't even breathing hard.

I looked away fast and ended up catching Bob's eyes. The glint in them indicated that his thoughts hadn't moved on much from our very own morning calisthenics. I sent him a smirk.

"Um, Willow?"

"Yes?" she asked absently.

"I know that Giles leaves today. How long are you going to stay?" I still needed a coffee machine. And a cell phone. Perhaps even a new, 20th century phone to replace my rotary one. A laptop. A DVD player. And preferably a cash cow. Which reminded me - I needed to check back with Charles Harding's jeweler buddy, and take Bob with me to meet with Fingers so that we could get the papers thing out of the way.

"Oh, just for today, No, I don't mean I'm leaving the city, but--but Kennedy and I need to check out an address in Norridge. The old Watchers' Council - the Travers Foundation - had a house there. I don't think it went ka-boom with the Council, but it was buried rather deep in the papers we inherited. I bet no one has checked on it in years, and it's probably all dusty and ruin-y." She wrinkled her nose. "It's located next to the greatest number of cemeteries in the Chicago area, so it's perfect for stationing Kennedy there, and of course I'll come visit her. Lots and lots of times. Plus, perhaps we'll send a batch of newbie Slayers-in-Training to Kennedy so she doesn't get bored. And she still needs a Watcher. Sure you don't want Rona as your love slave, sweetie?"

"What?!" I exclaimed.

Willow only giggled. "It's an inside joke. Rona got Andrew as her Watcher, and she wants to swap him for pretty much anyone. So, pawning him off onto Kennedy - hey presto, instant Rona love slave-ness."

Kennedy smiled - a true smile. "Nope. Rona looks good in leather, but I prefer redheads. Or rather, one redhead in particular."

I got to avoid the outbreak of female lovey-doveyness because my office door was thrown open. Thankfully the forceful entry wasn't due to the arrival of Morgan or Mai plus entourage, but rather due to too much unrestrained Slayer-strength wrapped up in a blonde, petite package. Buffy and Giles had arrived, and had even followed the unspoken tradition of bringing the fruits of their latest raid on Starbucks.

This time, Bob picked up his cup without hesitation. I sidled up to him and poked an elbow into his ribs, careful to not make him slosh his coffee. "Addicted already?" I asked.

"I'm starting to understand your fascination with this drink," Bob murmured back. "It smells dreadful, but somehow you come to anticipate each sip more than the one before."

"I'll make a modern-day American out of you yet."

He shuddered. "If that includes burgers from a 'drive-through' establishment, I think I'll pass."

We said our goodbyes to Giles who evidently had more or less affected a jailbreak from urgent Council business in London to come here in the first place and was needed back there yesterday, then watched him and the others drive off in the BMW. Buffy wanted another chance at shoe-targeted power-shopping. They'd drop her off on the way to the airport, and on the way back Willow and Kennedy would stop in Norridge in order to check out Kennedy's new home.

That left me and Bob to our own devices. Despite the temptation to retreat to the bedroom and stay there until the girls returned, I resolved to do our own shopping for electronics plus the less legal one for Bob's new identification. I stepped to the phone and started dialing.

Bob's mere presence tested my resolve. His kisses almost broke me. If not for the fact that I had the moral high ground with "Bob, didn't you want me to take you along on my trips, especially the shadier ones?", we wouldn't have made it out of the house at all.

Bob's a gigantic lech, which is kind of understandable after a millennium of incorporeality. Add to that that Willow and Kennedy had successfully dissuaded him from seeing them as young, impressive innocents - shyness and puppy-dog eyes had been trumped by semi-public lesbian sex (insofar as one can consider the privacy of their guest bed "semi-public") -, and the whole day turned into an exercise in 'how best to avoid Bob's hands'.

Not that I really minded. Considering I was his first (and only ever, damnit!) male lover, I was thrilled at his eagerness to touch me. Although keeping in mind the speed with which word of mouth travels in the circles I run in, I bet that Murphy would be calling me on Monday at the latest to demand details on my sparkling new private life.

Armed with similarly sparkling new papers for Bob as well as a sparkling new boyfriend, I'd be awaiting her call with equanimity.

***

The next days were fairly stressful, and yet had moments I won't forget until the day I die.

Morgan came by in the late afternoon to politely request a meeting with Kennedy as Chicago's new Slayer. I called her cell and suggested some time later in the following week, but Willow wanted to be present and so they decided on the evening of the very same day. I wasn't all that happy, considering Bob and I had our 'surprise date' scheduled for the same time, but I was outvoted and ended up feeling a bit stupid for wanting to run interference for the Red Witch and her Slayers. After all, they'd faced an apocalypse together and won, as well as gotten through the trial; they had every right to feel self-confident and to waive the presence of a baby-sitter who also happened to be of a significantly worse standing with the High Council.

The Italian food at the Rosebud was outstanding, and Bob and I thoroughly enjoyed the performance of "Camelot". We ran into the Police Commissioner during the intermission, but managed to escape before he recalled from where exactly he remembered my face.

Buffy stayed until Monday morning. On Sunday evening, Bob lured Willow into the lab to exchange details on magical theory that I could hardly keep up with. I nodded along and threw in the occasional remark before my brain rebelled. When I was in the kitchen for a refill from the brand-new coffee machine in the vague hopes of jump-starting my brain, I got claimed by Buffy. She had stumbled across a doppelganger of a previous - and late - boyfriend of the vampiric persuasion and needed either a moodlifter or copious amounts of alcohol. We decided on the latter, informed our overstudious friends who barely noticed, and took off for a bit of bar-hopping. That was when Buffy's mood turned even more morose, and we reminisced over the losses of parents as well as a regular childhood, the expectations of strangers and the failing of being imbued with an over-developed sense of duty and responsibility. Almost by necessity, we visited the topic of Bob's past.

We wallowed. We commiserated. We drank too much.

One could almost say that we had a good time.

During one of the more uplifting parts of the evening, I came to realize that that was a novelty: a good time with a friend of the female persuasion without having to work at seduction. Loving Bob meant I was, at the moment, more gay than bisexual, and considering my plans for our future together, the change in my sexual orientation looked set to be a permanent one. The delayed minor freak-out that thought induced required alcohol.

We walked - make that 'stumbled' - home, were faced with the less than amused countenances of our respective lovers, woke with a headache (at least in my case - cursed be the damned Slayer healing!), got no sympathy whatsoever (and no wake-up call of the intimate kind, either - again in my case), said goodbye somewhere between dismay and delight at the memory of all those shared confidences, and ended up with an empty apartment all of a sudden.

Willow and Kennedy braved the horrors of Kennedy's new house; at first alone, then with Bob's and my help when they were finally willing to admit that they were overtaxing themselves. Willow's array of minor house-cleaning and -fixing spells was impressive, but the brunt of the work still had to be done by hand. I'd expected Bob to complain, but instead he proved to be an invaluable resource. I'd forgotten that he used to live in a time when there hadn't been contractors, carpenters or plumbers around, and one either built one's own dwelling or didn't have roof a over one's head.

On Wednesday, I took the girls to Bianca's club. I'd set up a talk during a long phone conversation with Bianca, and we managed to keep threats entirely out of it; perhaps because we purposefully didn't include Morgan or one of his Wardens. Bianca let it shine through that she, as expected, didn't have much love for her king's new political agenda, and gave us the Red Court's side on the new Accord with the New Watchers' Council. Kennedy would never be the favorite person of any member of the Red or White Court in Chicago, but they agreed on a détente that would need to be hammered out in a separate meeting with representatives of either Court. Basically, as long as these Courts' members played nice and fed without killing, Kennedy would leave them alone.

The Black Court is less hierarchical and less ordered, and as such was far less willing to negotiate. Much to Kennedy's relief - she had already begun to fear that her patrols would end up being purely for 'decoration', as she called it. Demonstrating vigilance, yet not being allowed to exercise those hunter instincts, evidently makes for a cranky Slayer.

Willow flew back to Cleveland about a week later.

She comes to Chicago regularly (not always by plane, either) and hopes, once the newest batch of Slayers-in-Training is ready for the Real World, to be able to move here permanently, a handful of newbie Slayers and Watchers in tow. Chicago has gained first place among the post-Slayer School training assignments for baby Slayers, and is used to teach them how to interact with a mostly non-hostile supernatural community.

The Red Court is behaving. So is the White Court. The Black one is almost extinct. Chicago's streets have never been safer during nighttime. Murphy has noted that even the least superstitious members of the Chicago PD have noticed that something major has changed.

Which reminds me: Murphy.

Connie Murphy, my favorite cop and most regular client, has been introduced to the major points that make up the whacked-out part of my professional - and personal - life. That went more or less like that:

"Hi, Murph. This is my old mentor, Bob. Robert Bainbridge, may I introduce Lieutenant Constanza Murphy. When I consult with the Chicago PD, I usually do so with her."

***

Well, that was the theory, anyway. In reality it went quite a bit differently.

Willow and Kennedy had moved out permanently three days before, but had come around for a relaxing evening of wine, board games, television and just hanging out. We all like to keep abreast of what happens in our city, and exchanging the latest news of the supernatural kind while relaxing in my living room has become a tradition. No one cares how far our respective groping sessions go - although Willow and I are the ones who tend to step on the brakes before our respective partner's exhibitionistic tendencies get out of hand. Needless to say, occasionally Bob and Kennedy have a game of one-upman/-womanship going on and test who of us yells "Stop!" first.

Bob loves it. The nights after the girls leave tend to be the ones for which I can pretty much pencil in an exhausting bout of love-making in advance. Okay, let's be blunt: After so much prolonged touching, Bob and I always end up screwing each other silly.

On the Friday in question - I'd ended up with a longer reprieve from Murphy's eagle eyes than anticipated -, someone knocked on my office door. I happened to be in the bathroom, Bob was fighting with the cork of a particularly recalcitrant bottle of red wine, and so Willow went to answer. When I came back in, Murphy, who had followed Willow in, was standing in the middle of the living room, a bit at a loss. A young, beautiful redhead and another couple in my living room wasn't at all what she'd been expecting to encounter chez moi.

It had to be at the end of her shift, and yet Murphy looked awake, and put together better than usual.

"Good evening. I didn't know I'd be interrupting something," she said with a sharp glance around. "Harry, I need your input on a case, but tomorrow morning is soon enough. And no, this is not anyone's cue to leave."

So Murphy was still smarting a little from the last time her arrival had been the precursor for my guests to remember their urgent need to be some place else. Well, introducing Morgan, Mai, and Amber as friends would have been stretching the truth, anyway, even in the aftermath of us defeating the drake.

"Murphy, people skills!" I normally like it that Murphy is direct. But she shouldn't complain about me keeping my world from her when that is exactly what she wants me to do. "These are my friends, Willow Rosenberg, Kennedy Fitzgerald, and Robert Bainbridge. Guys, this is Lieutenant Murphy. She's the detective I work with whenever one of the Chicago PD's cases becomes a little... weird."

"My current case's definitely a bummer, and right up your alley, too, Dresden. Tomorrow morning or do you want a short outline now?"

"Just tell me the bare bones, Murph. Leave me some wine and don't you lot dare eat all the chips while I'm in the office," I admonished the others.

Kennedy defiantly reached for the Doritos, popped in a handful and gave me a grin. Slayer metabolism, hmph. Willow slapped her hand.

I closed the office door behind me and gestured Murphy towards the closest guest chair.

"What can I do for you, Murphy?"

She stared at me closely for a moment, then pulled a file from her purse. "Read this until tomorrow. The short version is a woman was found dead in a car. The car had rusted into pretty much nothing but a pile of red dust, and the pathologist says that our Jane Doe's blood has no iron left in it. Sounds familiar?"

"Um, not exactly. I'll have to do some research. Now ask what you really want to know."

"Dresden, you have friends? Regular-type friends? I'm speechless."

I didn't have to fake the hurt at her words. "Yes, Murphy, I have friends. Granted, not many, but it helps that they're all more or less in the same business as I."

"All of them? The girls, too?"

I nodded.

"Well, double-dating must be nice. My private life sucks, even when my father's not trying to interfere."

Nice, Murphy. Blame you flirting with me on your dad. I tried to determine whether or not detailing the relationships existing in our circle of four would be the considerate thing to do - so that she wouldn't be surprised later on -, or whether it would be a cheap shot straight from my ruthless side that wanted to hurt her for never truly believing in me.

She took the decision out of my hands.

"I must admit I'm curious - which one is your girlfriend, Harry? The redhead, or the brunette?" Murphy gave me a friendly smile, but the shadows in her eyes showed that she was conflicted about the whole thing.

"Um, well, neither. The two girls are actually together. Bob--Bob is my boyfriend."

I flinched in anticipation of the imminent explosion. She didn't flip, however, or even say anything at all. It just felt like the air on her side of the room cooled down to arctic temperatures.

"I--I could have brought that up differently--better, I mean, Murphy," I offered. "I'm very, very sorry for dropping this on you like that. You've got to understand - I've known Bob for a very long time. I've always had feelings for him. Hell, he practically raised me when I was living with my uncle. Uncle Justin couldn't be bothered with such minor details. Then we lost contact until five years ago, and even then... fuck this," I swore. Couching the particulars of my life in acceptable terms that excluded the supernatural is a fucking nightmare at the best of times, and this? This wasn't the best of times. Not by a long shot.

"Murphy--Connie, I'd like to think we're friends." I leaned towards her and took her hand. She didn't fight me. Her skin was cold. "Aside from Bob, you're my best - and oldest - friend. If not for him, we might well have... become more. You ground me. I love working with you, help you make a difference. I don't want to lose that. I don't want to lose you. But this is--" I choked up. Mai would kill me for this. "This is where you've got to make a decision. Over the years I've kept a lot from you; you're right about that. It was for your protection as well as for mine. But--

But circumstances have changed a little. I have support now. Willow, Kennedy and their friends have kind of... changed the balance of power in my world a bit. Enough so that I can now tell you things, if I want to. If you want to hear them."

She looked at me, still silent. Her eyes were moist. The ring on the chain around her neck shone brightly, reflecting the light of the closest candle.

"Sometimes, Connie, you force entry where angels fear to tread. You don't know enough of my world to keep yourself safe sometimes, and I worry for you. You have nightmares about Miller. Well, I have nightmares about what could happen to you. If you, just once, picked a special case and didn't recognize it for what it was; didn't come to me for help. There are things - and people - out there who'd kill you, just like that." She started at the snap of my fingers. "You might be able to protect yourself better if you knew. But I've got to warn you - it's going to change your view of the world. And once you know, you'll never be able to unknow, even when you want to."

Of course there are spells who could erase part of her memory. In theory, such magic violates one of the Seven Laws, plus, interfering with someone's memory is a tricky business. It rarely ends well. Wardens are allowed a little latitude within the letter of the law. Sometimes, they erase a specific memory from a normal person's mind - say, someone's gotten a glimpse of something supernatural that the Council would rather they not know.

The more complex the memory as well as the more time passed, the harder it is to make them forget. At least that's what Bob taught me. I think he spoke from practical experience. Looking back, that might have well been one of the things he was cursed for.

I'd never do that to Murphy. During the Boone case, I was mightily glad the effects of the Lock and the possession took the decision out of my hands and buffered Murphy from experiencing Boone's spirit taking over her body.

"You can join us in the living room, have a glass of wine and just relax a little," I offered. "Or I can tell you whatever you want to know."

"Whatever I want to know?" Her voice was even deeper than usual, barely masking the hurt. "I wanted you to never lie to me again, but you did. You always do. You might have told me you were gay."

"I'm not gay. I'm--bisexual. I think," I said slowly. "I've pretty much always dated women. Bob-- is the exception. And if I don't screw it up, our... thing... together is for keeps."

"Wow, Harry Dresden is contemplating happily ever after," Murphy tried to joke. Her face wasn't with the program yet, however.

"Yep. I am. I love him, Murphy."

"Then he must be really special. I think-- I think I want to know the truth. I'd love to tell you to explain it all to me tomorrow, but tomorrow I'll be stressed, over-caffeinated and unwilling to get into this. So I guess it'll have to be today." She was still reluctant, and I didn't think she'd take it well. But I owed her.

"Murphy, magic is real. Remember Kelton and Nancy, Carson Harris, and how I followed Munzer's trail."

She was still looking stubborn. I sighed, then stretched out my cupped right hand, palm side up, and concentrated. Slowly, a ball of blue energy formed, crackling and glowing like a miniature sun. "This is raw magical energy," I explained. "Some people are born with it. Few know about it, and even fewer receive the necessary training to be able to do anything with it. I got it from my mother. The whole Morningway family has been wizards for centuries. They've always been very careful who they allowed to marry into their exalted bloodline. My mother pissed them off a lot when she ignored her father's plans - and the husband he'd already picked for her - and ran off with my father. Once she had me and they knew I had the gift, even though it hadn't manifested yet, they became a bit more forgiving."

I paused to clear my throat. This was painful. I prefer not to think of my mother. "Children born with the gift - with magic - are rare outside one of the old families. I guess it's usually a recessive trait. Inborn magical talent manifests some time between a child's eighth and twelfth birthday. They need education and training so they can master it, control it." I allowed the energy in my palm to expand, and it exploded outwards in a flash of blue light before it dissipated entirely.

"Bob was my teacher, and this is where it becomes even weirder."

She smiled a little, her eyes still locked onto my now empty hand. It was more of a grimace, but at least she wasn't flipping out.

"He used to be a ghost. Yeah, yeah, 'ghost' as in spirit, incorporeal, dead - and in Bob's case, cursed. There's a magical community out there, with rules, cops, juries and executioners. Their laws haven't changed much since the Middle Ages. You break one of the Seven Laws of Magic without a damned good excuse, and you usually end up a head shorter. I got lucky - they ruled my uncle's death as self-defense."

She stared at me. "Yes. My uncle. I killed him with black magic, like I said. But it was an accident. Bob lived about a thousand years ago, and when he broke the Laws, it wasn't accidentally. They caught him, executed him, and decided to make him an object lesson. They cursed him and bound his spirit to his own skull, to serve whoever owned it for all eternity. Willow - the redhead out there," I gestured to the door, "did what no one had managed - or dared to - for centuries: she made him mortal again one and a half weeks ago. I had inherited his skull from my uncle, and Bob's been helping me help you ever since our first case together. He'll continue helping us, but now he has a body."

Inexplicably, I blushed at that. Yes, those last few days, I've spent an inordinate amount of time obsessing about said body. So sue me.

I'd done my best to gloss over Bob's past. I didn't want to make Murphy wary of him. Hopefully I'd succeeded.

"So your boyfriend out there is a centuries-old ex-convict, ex-ghost, and wizard." Evidently not.

"Ah, yes." Damn it all.

"You sure he's not going to return to his old ways? He's not going to need killing again?"

"No! He's changed. The High Council had no right to do that to him in the first place."

At her inquiring look, I added: "The High Council is the government of the magical community worldwide. It consist of the ten most powerful wizards alive, aided by the Wardens, which are our version of the police. You remember the three people you met at my place a few months ago? The ones I pretty much shoved out of the door when you arrived?"

"Yeah. The people you didn't want to introduce me to. One of them called me 'Lieutenant'."

"That was Morgan, the Head Warden of Chicago. The Asian woman was Ancient Mai. She's on the High Council. The blonde was Amber, another Warden. There was this green light you came to see me about?"

At her nod, I continued, "It was dragon fire. We'd just killed the dragon. It had snuck in despite my wards because it had changed its appearance so that it looked like you. We were all a bit freaked when you came around directly afterwards."

"Whoa, whoa. Magic - okay, the light show was convincing. Kind of. The ghost thing? Not so believable, but I remember the skull with the carvings you always kept in your office. That was Bob's skull?"

Now it was my turn to nod.

"A dragon? That's crazy."

"Murphy, there are werewolves, and vampires, and yes, dragons. Demons and fairies, too. Sure you want to hear more?"

She was shell-shocked, but soldiered on grimly. That was the Murphy I knew.

I keep a bottle of whiskey in a drawer in my desk - purely for emergencies. I thought this classified as one, and got it out. No glasses, but who cares when your world has just been tilted on its axis?

Murphy and I passed it to and fro, although I was careful to neither get her drunk nor get so myself. Sobering charms are hard to cast when you're drunk, plus I'd already had more alcohol the past two weeks than I was used to. Alcohol doesn't solve your problems. But in limited amounts, it's unrivaled for cushioning shocks.

I tried to keep the focus on the supernatural, not on Bob, but I still think I told her more than I intended to, and definitely more than she wanted to know.

An hour later, I brought her back into the living room to meet the others.

She and Kennedy hit it off. Bob's courteous manner charmed her, but there's still a little resentment between them. Murphy was a bit aloof with me for several weeks, but after that, we found a new balance. One that includes Bob, both on the job and in my private life. He got licensed in record time, and the letters on my office door as well as the ad in the yellow pages now bear two names. He complained a lot over the supposed indignation of being listed as "Harry Dresden & Robert Bainbridge, Wizards", but couldn't come up with a better idea, so he has to deal.

My office has been renovated and redecorated. My apartment as well, plus the lab is so clean it could double as Butters' morgue. If I don't pick up my clothes or forget whose turn it is to load the washing machine, I receive this disappointed look that I've been helpless against since I was eleven. Bob could make me work harder without a word of reproach just by changing the set of his mouth, although nowadays he has been known to forget entirely about the bone of contention since his change of expression just begs me to kiss his disapproval away.

The king of the Red Court was assassinated, and my world almost went to war over it. Kirmani - what are the odds? - fell in love with a vampire of the White Court, and Murphy made me tell him everything. Ever since then, he's been much less of an ass.

Bob and I spent Christmas with Murphy, her daughter Anna, Willow, and Kennedy at our place, and New Year in Cleveland. Buffy is scary when she commands a kitchen. I got to meet her friends Xander, Faith, and Robin, as well as her little sister whose name got me thinking.

Life has changed a lot for me over the last half year. Strangely, it has been unequivocally for the better.

***

Wait, that was the door to the lab. Bob's clattering up the stairs, and that sound was the bedsprings. Gotta go.


The end.

>>>> read the story notes <<<<



[1] "My friends, no matter what happens today, I wouldn't have wanted to miss those last few days for the world." [back]
[2] "I love you. I have loved you for many years, and I refuse to believe that fate would be cruel enough to tear us apart after all that has happened." [back]


"The Dresden Files" story by allaire mikháil, 47.445 words, crossover with "Buffy the Vampire Slayer", Harry Dresden/Bob (aka Hrothbert of Bainbridge), Willow Rosenberg/Kennedy, Harry POV, rated NC-17.

This story is pure self-indulgence and the epitome of overthinking and over-researching. I scoured the internet in reaction to any little question that popped up in my brain, scrolled through endless episode transcripts of BtVS, far too many pages on Wikipedia, researched Wiccan spells, aura colors (according to Vampire: The Masquerade), the difference between the various types of magic users, thumbed through my Dungeons & Dragons 3rd edition rule books, stared at city maps of Chicago, questioned my brother on men's apparel, and pestered the folks at ljdresdenfic with bookverse canon questions. How do you remain as true as possible to such a vastly different universe when you haven't read all the books yet?
I was so proud when, after modifying and playing with the metre, I came up with what later proved to be only version 1.0 of the first part of Willow's spell. Said version that I'm still sore about not being able to use due to necessary changes in the plot demanded by logic, can be found here.

The title is courtesy of ljtemve's enviable knowledge of Latin and means "goddess from a machine, goddess at trial" which is, of course, an allusion to Willow's timely arrival and ability to free Bob from his curse.

I also would like to thank the members of the ljin_latine lj community for so quickly and expertly answering my translation requests. You rock!

All in all, I blame Terrence Mann for most of this. If not for his portrayal of Bob, I doubt I would have given this show, so typical for SciFic's low budget gap-fillers, a second glance. Nothing beats a theater and Broadway veteran who knows how to act and depict a thousand fleeting emotions on his endlessly expressive face. Add to that an equally impressive voice, and all weaknesses of scripts, plots or CGI effects become immaterial. I can't wait for the Dresden Files' second season.

Furthermore, I have to give credit where credit is due - ljbelmanoir's story 'Too Good To Be True' has influenced me heavily. Hopefully I haven't borrowed too many impressions from her. Equally much to blame is ljrahirah for her portrayal of a mature Buffy and her friends in her 'A Raising in the Sun / Necessary Evils / Parliament of Monsters' universe. Finally, I want to thank ljpinkdoom for reading over three drafts of this story and for being very encouraging in the early stages of its development. I wrote the Bob-as-a-voyeur scene for her. Most of all, though, I would like to thank ljtemve for yet again facing a fandom foreign to her just in order to encourage a friend and fellow writer. I appreciate it more than I can say.

Lastly, the soundtrack to this story is, of course, the 1998 version of the Scarlet Pimpernel soundtrack - The Original Broadway Cast Recording (with Terrence Mann as Chauvelin), Rebecca St. James - If I Had One Chance To Tell You Something, in particular track #2 "Alive", and Wait For Me - The Best of Rebecca St. James, as well as Hillsong United - All Of The Above and the Johnny Cash song "Hurt" (the latter I totally blame on ljselmak's songvid *g*).


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