Blood Debts Book 5 of The Return
A Ranma, Sailor Moon, Dresden Files fic thingy.
By Sunshine Temple
Naturally, I own neither Sailor Moon nor Ranma nor the Dresden Files. So here's the disclaimer:
Ranma 1/2 and its characters and settings belong to Rumiko Takahashi, Shogakukan, Kitty, and Viz Video. Bishoujo Senshi Sailor Moon belongs to Naoko Takeuchi, Koudansha, TV Asahi, and Toei Douga, and DIC. And the Dresden Files is owned by Jim Butcher.
Previous chapters and other works can be found at my fanfiction website.
Temporary Backup Site.
Other website Temple of Ranma's Senshi Seifuku
C&C as always is wanted.
Epilogue: Opening Consequences
I stood on the sidewalk, hands in my coat pockets. I didn't really need to. Sure, there was a chill in the air, and a light shower fresh snow gave everything a crisp look. But I was pretty insulated against the cold.
Before me was a picturesque white colonial-style house complete with a white picket fence. The Carpenters had a lovely home. It was a wonder Michael was able to maintain such a place within the city. But good living did have its benefits. Though recently, on one of his knighting missions, hopefully his last, he had had an unexpected windfall.
Still, I didn't see any splurges recent of wealth. But Michael and Charity weren't the "let's buy a sports car and a ski boat" kind of people. They were more "save away for the college funds for our many children".
I glanced about the house. It was a nice place, full of love. Hells Bells, when I was dead, well mostly dead, they had adopted Maggie. And if I wasn't... available, I couldn't think of a better place for her to live. Though... I now had a close second I suppose.
The walk from the gate to the front door had just been swept. Otherwise I would have seen Butters and Sanya's footprints. At my insistence, they had gone ahead. They were Knights, Michael and Charity would know they hadn't been mentally compromised. They also could show the photo album my sisters had made for me.
More importantly, Charity liked Butters and Sanya. She wasn't so fond of me, and that's back when I was still a human.
If Molly was available I would have had her come too; she was their eldest daughter. But I hadn't met her yet. Given the warm reception Mab gave me, and the downright ostentatious follow-up when we got to Arctis Tor, I was pretty sure the other Queens of Winter would approve.
Still, I was apprehensive.
Just because the Mantle of the Winter Lady would find "Dame BlackStone" intriguing doesn't mean that Molly Carpenter, my old apprentice, would like the changes. And she was having enough problems dealing with her Winter nature pressing against her persona.
I was her Knight as much as I was Mab's, or Mother Winter. I would have to meet her, but not today.
I sighed and shifted a bit of salt with the tip of my boot. I could feel...
Well, the threshold around the Carpenter residence was formidable. About the strongest I had seen. Not to mention, I could sense several things, like bundles of Soulfire around the property.
They were wary, but made no move against me. Then again, I was on this side of the gate. Across the street was a twinge of UnSeelie. I gave the safe house a bare glance. They were well-concealed, but their car was too new, the house looked a bit too neat.
Even the Carpenter's place had a bit of the natural distress that came from having a house full of kids. Michael did his best to keep up on home repairs, but he was only human.
It also helped that when a downright glamorous raven-haired woman exited the fae safe house, she openly stared at me before bowing her head and gliding to her car.
Yeah, "Dame BlackStone" wasn't exactly a secret around Winter. I was going to have to meet Molly sooner rather than later; odds were she already knew.
The sidhe indicated that Molly had kept her promise to provide her own protection for her family.
But my attention wasn't really on the angelic or fae guardians. Despite being invisible, my horns tingled at the people inside. The sensation was muffled, but I could feel my daughters. My hand clutched the gate and I kept from myself from sighing.
I stepped back and glanced around. Since the sidhe woman had driven off I was alone on the street. Or at least it looked that way.
"If I could have a moment of your time?" I asked the empty air.
There was a shift of the wind and I felt someone standing next to me. I slowly turned. A young man with dark gold hair hanging messily over silver blue eyes nodded to me. He wore old boots, faded jeans, a white shirt, and a heavy parka with a stitched patch bearing the name Jake on it. A snow shovel was propped against one shoulder, held like a soldier absently carrying a rifle.
"Dresden," Uriel nodded.
I took a moment to study the archangel. I had met him several times before. There was something hideously absolute about him.
Stars and Stones, Mab liked him. That showed you the kind of Angel he was: serious, dedicated, on-mission. This was Heaven's black ops guy. The last time we had met was after he had taken a role, not a direct role of course, that wasn't his place, but a role in the downfall of Nicodemus.
"You had a hand in this?" I asked gesturing over myself.
The Archangel smiled, the expression softening the sharpness of his cheekbones. "Must we go over this again?"
I crossed my arms and turned to face him. "Yeah, yeah, I know you're all about free will and choice. That's not what I meant."
Uriel inclined his head, as if to admit he had spoke to soon.
"I get Winter Mother sending me off on this mission. She fights Outsiders too. I'm her knight as much as Mab's. And, given she's a fae queen, I'm sure there's plenty other reasons why she did it."
Each fae court has three queens: the queen who was, the queen who is, and the queen who will be. Winter Mother, the queen who was, is the most powerful, but also the most constricted from interfering in mortal affairs, the most remote.
The blond man nodded.
"I also get Lady Pluto's actions. She couldn't stop Tessa from getting in, but she could help the one person on her planet who had fought Tessa before. She was the one who made sure I even landed in the right time-zone. And I'm sure she did more than just hire the bearded-Spock-universe me. Like Mother Winter, she's got her own schemes too."
"The Gate and Key is devoted to the line of Serenity. One hopes the heir treats her better than the Mother," Uriel said, a bit sadly.
I blinked at that. Yeah, there was a lot more to Lady Pluto than just a spooky girl. "Which brings us to you."
"Me," he amiably repeated. "What troubles you?"
"It's not that you were working behind the scenes. You did that with the Nicodemus thing, and it's because he killed Deirdre, his and Tessa's daughter, that mantis girl went on her rampage."
The archangel tilted his head slightly.
I waved my hands. "Whoa, I'm not blaming you! That dysfunctional Fallen-beholden family made their choices. I'm only saying that you if you felt like you needed to help in the first case, you'd feel the same need in the second."
Uriel's smile returned and he gave a non-committal shrug.
"Two Knights of the Cross helped me both times. And there was the whole miraculous artillery barrage."
"One might say that was due to the skill of the canon operators, or a nice young woman giving precise firing coordinates," he mildly said.
"Or maybe a miko using her Faith and one of your Swords to invoke a blessing," I countered. "I also recall my sister surviving a point blank Hellfire shot from Tessa. What, did everyone get one free protection with each blessing?"
Uriel amiably spread his hand. "We're still not at what's bothering you."
"Right. I get your involvement but..." I bit my lip. "I'm a demon."
"I hadn't noticed."
"Really?" I snorted and putting my hands on my hips leaned forward. "I think it's pretty clear there's something different about me."
"Maybe on the outside." Uriel smiled.
"Just for that, I should make you take me out shopping for new clothes."
The angel blinked. "Well, you did once try to bill me."
"Yeah, yeah," I waved him off. "When found out I still had my Soulfire, I figured you were okay with all... this."
"Ah," Uriel swiveled the shovel down onto a patch of snow and leaned on it. "We come to your concern."
Once, when we had talked, he had explained how he could predict people's lives. It wasn't exact, people had Free Will and all that, but it was like knowing the contours of a hill. Given that, you could guess where water would flow from the top to the bottom.
Someone could always damn the river, or cut a ditch, or do something to change the terrain, but, in general, if you knew the lay of the land you could predict where the water would go.
"Did you..." my eyes darted to his. "Did you expect me to become a demon? Is this part of some plan of yours?"
His smile returned. At least he managed to keep from laughing. "No plan. I saw it as a possibility, but not among the likely ones." Uriel pursed his lips and he looked down at the bit of snow his shovel had pierced. "Perhaps my estimation was wrong."
I laughed. "Come on, Mr. Sunshine, I got injured."
"You often walk with the chance of grave injury. Just recently, you could have died in battle against Tessa or her summoned Outsiders. You could have died in Lomar. Even your first fight against Tessa could have ended badly; she did throw a safe door at you."
"Yeah, or I could have been gutted by those fake FBI wolves when I first arrived. Or their giant machine gun could have cut me in half.
"Still, you know the kind of decisions I make when I find myself unable to fight but needing to fight."
He nodded. "Which is why I expected you to exploit the bond you had already bargained for the last two times you had been grievously injured."
I blinked. "Oh." That was what Mab had meant when I asked her to heal me and she told me I had my full measure of Winter power. Mab had healed me after I had gotten shot. Sure that took a long time, but it was possible.
"So... you expected me to go all uber-Winter Knight?"
He looked at my choker and gave me a pointed look.
"I'm a different kind of Knight now." I winced. Empty Night. Both he and Mab had expected me to do one kind of foolhardy grasp of power in a desperate attempt to heal. Embrace the Winter Mantle and... what? Use it to force some type of change into my body?
Or would it have been a less physical transform? Maybe I would have simply had a lot more ice powers and could have been wheeled about the battlefield like a cross between Professor X and Iceman.
"Fine." I huffed. "I'm still a demon."
The worst part was that those two were right. I had embraced the Winter Mantle and used it to change my body. But it was done in addition to the succubus change.
"It was your choice," he said mildly, his attention back to the snow on the ground.
"My sisters and Butters made that abundantly clear," I said, not pouting.
"They were right."
I shook my head and stomped a foot. "I guess I shouldn't be surprised. You set it up so that Nicodemus and Tessa were offered a chance, a way out. But their Fallen blinded them."
Uriel's grip tightened on the shovel handle. "When one has borne a coin for so long, has taken the lies of the Fallen into their heart, it can be all but impossible to reach them."
"But not impossible." I looked back at the house. "At least Imariel's in the penalty box."
Uriel raised an eyebrow.
"Yeah, yeah, I know the Fallen are destined to get back into circulation. At least make sure the coins Butters collected stay locked away. I mean, Lasciel got out way too quickly."
The Archangel frowned.
"I'm not asking you to violate your rules," I said soberly. An Archangel doing that would... well, recall the last time one of those guys broke the rules and Fell.
Uriel seemed mollified. "But?"
"But between your whispers, your dead cop friends, and other spooks, you might get the opportunity to balance the scales." I shrugged. "Maybe that could help buy some time to keep Imariel locked away a bit longer."
"Ah." His tone wasn't exactly disapproving, but it wasn't approving either.
"Hey, I made sure Butters took all the coins back with him, and I let him keep them."
"Your family wanted no part of those things. Rather wise of them, for the Denarians are not for their world. And you learned the dangers of containing a single coin let alone over half a dozen."
"I might not have," I pouted. Sure, I no longer had the subbasement where I buried Lasciel's coin in the concrete for a few years. But now I had a spooky island. An island that was really a supernatural supermax prison.
I was already storing some holy relics there. Part of me thought I could keep unholy relics there. But... the problem is the Fallen's coins were fated to eventually escape. That's what they did.
Given that, keeping them on my scary island was a bit too much like putting a helicopter with keys in the ignition just outside the prison yard. Sure, the prisoners shouldn't be able to get to it, but the combination was just begging for trouble.
Uriel nodded. "Your concern is noted."
"I just wanna make sure you do right by Butters."
The angel looked up. He seemed a big surprised.
"This was his first big mission as a Knight; he bagged a lot of coins. It'd really suck if less than a year later he has to fight all the same Fallen all over again."
"He wasn't there to 'bag coins' as you put it."
"I know; he was there to help me. Tessa still died. I still became a demon. I'm more Mab's than ever before." The last part was said a lot less bitterly than I expected. At least I didn't purr as I said it.
"Ah, back to your fear." He looked at me. "I once gave you a bit of advice."
"Seven words." I tapped my fingers against the gate. Lasciel had broken the rules. She contacted me when I was at my lowest directly, secretly, without me touching her coin.
With only seven words, she pushed me over the edge; convinced me that I couldn't handle being the Winter Knight. That push drove me to suicide.
One upside was that since she broke the rules, it allowed Uriel to balance the scales.
When I most needed it, he told me seven words and saved me from falling into hopelessness. "Yeah, but the difference is back then I didn't want to... serve Mab."
He glanced at me.
I was certain that he knew what Mab had done when she welcomed me back into Winter, including after she had given Butters and Sanya rooms to rest after our travel. Lea didn't hold anything back when she reported and Mab was... prepared.
"Embracing the Mantle was your choice."
"Yeah, and the one you thought I'd make," I said a bit tartly.
Uriel shifted his shovel scooping a bit of snow. "That is true. If you got hurt, I did consider you taking charge of the Mantle being your most likely way to heal. Joining House BlackSky was far lower. After seeking aid from the Lunarian Court."
I laughed. "I was tempted by the magical girls. But Lady Pluto was just a bit too worrying. Maybe if Ranma had said no."
He nodded. "I certainly didn't put great odds you would both embrace the Winter Mantle and join BlackSky."
My gaze lowered. "I screwed up the change. My sisters warned me I'd have to turn myself into a succubus. They'd provide energy, the blueprint, all I had to do was follow through. I'm a frikin' wizard and I couldn't handle magic so basic anyone could do it."
I rubbed my forehead. "And now I'm alone." I could feel their absence gnawing on me. Sure I had my daughters, friends, and family, but they weren't succubae. There were things they wouldn't understand.
Hells Bells, they were twitchy enough when I came back after taking up Mab's job. How would they react with me being a literal demon? They'd be afraid I wouldn't be Harry anymore, and they were right to be afraid.
"Harry Copperfield BlackStone Dresden," Uriel said, perfectly capturing my Name. He shook his head. "Remember: wherever you go, there you are."
"Buckaroo Banzai again?" I laughed. He had given me that line when I was a ghost and had asked for some advice just before... Just before I had stepped into the darkness and into Mab's arms.
And it was then that he used those Seven Words: Lies, Mab cannot change who you are.
"I'm still me? But..." I touched my slender, pale fingers to my choker.
Uriel lifted his shovel. Leaning back a bit, he glanced over and nodded. "Who else would you be?"
"A demon." I stated. Mab's pet a part of me whispered. Which I suppose was better than: Mab's pet monster.
"That's your species, not who you are. And it was your own doing."
"My sisters helped," I said a bit bitterly. I didn't like what Cecilia had done, but I wasn't sure she was wrong.
The angel nodded.
"Still... what about Michael?" I went back to looking at the house. The Threshold around it was something impressive.
Uriel blinked. "He accepted and still helped you when you possessed a coin."
"Yeah, but that's kind of his job. The Knights are supposed help those sad-sacks with a Fallen on their back get rid of the damned bits of old currency." I spread a hand and let some talons form. "It's not like I can give this up."
"Ah." His tone was non-committal, as if he didn't quite believe me.
I hadn't put too much thought into turning into a human, but there might be a way. I mean: wizard. And for my age a real powerful one and no slouch in skill. So, if I really thought about it I might figure something out.
Not to mention, I had far more experienced people I could bug. My grandfather, Ebenezar, has centuries of experience and had written the book on training wizards. Or, at least, one of the better ones.
Hells Bells, when it came to transformation magic there was another Senior Councilmember I could pester. "Injun-Joe" Listens-to-Wind was amazing at shapeshifting. He could turn from human to eagle, to wolf, to bear the size of a mini-bus.
And if shapeshifting didn't pan out, well, I knew where I could get an Unravelling. That was a powerful bit of magical cloth that when unthreaded would take any bit of magic with it.
I had thought I could use it to cure Susan of her latent vampirism. True, that had been about the only cure I had found for the half-vamps of the Red Court.
Regardless, things... didn't work out. Instead of using it on Susan, I had to use the item to turn a young woman from stone back to flesh. And, well, things didn't work out well for that girl in the end either.
I sighed. I had lost so many over the years.
Worse, I only knew one place where I could find an Unravelling: the hut where Mothers Winter and Summer lived. And, given I'm pretty dang sure Mother Winter had a hand in me being all perky demon goth, bugging her for a way to turn back human might not be smart.
Of course, if I didn't limit myself to humanity, the easiest thing I could do was go fully sidhe. As it was, right now I was a mortal who was part fae. There's another word for that: changeling.
Theoretically, I could embrace my fae side.
"That choice would have complications," Uriel said mildly.
"Tell me about it," I shook my head. "I kinda like being mortal. I'm not like Molly, I never saw the big deal about cell phones." As the Winter Lady, Molly didn't have to worry about her magic interfering with technology.
"But yeah, that'd get me even more into Winter, and I'd stop being the Winter Knight."
"That position is open only to mortals." Uriel nodded.
"Mortal," I snorted. "I'm amazed demons count."
Uriel raised an eyebrow.
"Yeah, yeah, I know we have Free Will and aren't bound by our natures. Which says some pretty interesting things about the origin of my current species. And how we stack up against other demons."
The Angel gave a little smile. "Mab has informed you of her preferred replacement for you?"
"She implied Thomas would fit the bill." I snorted. "Which makes total sense now, what better follow-up to a succubus Winter Knight than an incubus Winter Knight?"
I withdrew my claws. And that could be the real irony of me going full fae to "cure" myself. Plenty of supernatural things rocked the succubus and incubus act. Only some of them were demons. Knowing my luck, I'd still be a succubus. I'd still have the same urges and hungers.
But I'd be a succubus without the connection to my sisters.
That was not something I wanted to give up.
"It is good to consider your choices, but in this case it's all hypothetical, isn't it?" Uriel gently prodded.
I flexed my fingers. "Well..." He was right. I eyed him. "Of course, you don't care. I mean, to you, the soul's what counts, not the body."
Uriel gave me a very patient nod. "Yes, you are a soul that has a body"
Suppressing a smirk, I noted as he said that he looked me over. "Maybe later I'll look into a way to change back. Maybe I'll spend that time looking into getting free of Winter, that may be more productive."
Even I could tell my heart wasn't in either of those statements. But Uriel didn't challenge me on that.
"But right now I have friends to talk to, family to meet," I smoothed my shirt down.
Uriel leaned his shovel against the fence. He put a hand on my shoulder, opened the gate and led me through.
Upon my first step on the walkway, the front door opened. Three Knights of the Sword stepped through. Michael the retired Knight, Sanya the current Knight, and Butters the newest Knight.
Michael Carpenter was a large man who despite his cane and limp still looked powerful. He was also tall, and as I neared I realized he was now taller than me. He had a quizzical expression as if his mind was only now processing what Butters and Sanya had been saying.
As they stepped onto the porch, three more followed but held back in the doorway. Charity, Michael's wife, stood in the middle, a tall Valkyrie-style blonde.
It was funny. I knew two other tall, prim warrior blondes that did the Valkyrie look. Both were mercenaries to boot. Though Gard was a literal Valkyrie.
I was momentarily distracted by the idea of Gard, Eve, and Charity having dinner together and spending the bulk of the time complaining about my idiocy.
Blinking, I realized that Charity's expression wasn't the normal hostility, frustration, or begrudging almost-respect she had for me. She knew her husband and daughter did dangerous things and they had both gotten hurt trying to help me.
She looked to her husband then to the person helping me up the walkway.
I only briefly studied the swirling emotions emanating from her. My attention zeroed in on the two figures flanking Charity. One was a dark-haired young girl and the other was a ghostly feminine form. My daughters. And behind them was the giant shaggy form of my dog, Mouse.
Uriel's grip on my shoulder released as I crossed the remaining few yards and went up the steps to them. The knights parted. Maggie was confused, but she wasn't scared. Bonnie on the other hand recognized me immediately.
I drew them both into a hug. Mouse also pressed against us, his tail thumping against my legs. I had to actively resist letting my own out. And, I might have gotten Charity swept into it as well. Still, I figured I had time to get things straightened out.
I was home.
My brother pulled the hulking black SUV into the parking lot. His grey eyes flashed over me.
"Thanks for the lift," I smiled. "I'll make it up to you when I get a replacement car. Like, three drop-offs or pickups at the airport."
"You better get something bigger than a crummy Beetle then," Thomas said as he put the vehicle in park in front of a modest brick office building.
It was a bit more expensive than where my old office was, but that place had been blown up by the Red Court a few years back. Stupid vampires.
"It was a classic," I huffed. "And you know how I can't own a new car." Human, demon, I still had plenty of techbane.
He eyed me, a bit of silver twinkling. "You can afford better. Buy a real classic." Even when disapproving, my brother was way too pretty. Tall, tumbling dark hair, effortlessly muscular. It was interesting; I knew he was a White Court vampire. I had even seen his Hunger when we Soulgazed many years ago.
But now... now I could understand.
"I don't even have a driver's license yet. Stupid Council."
"How have they taken the..." he gestured, his hand brushing over my coat and blouse.
"They don't know yet." I crossed my arms. I had waited a couple days to tell my contacts on the Council. Well, Butters, Sanya, and Michael had written their letters.
I had thought that getting Ebenezar, Rashid, and Luccio to meet with me, sight and voice unseen would have been difficult, but the Gatekeeper had been, for once, easy to get a hold of.
Which confirmed my suspicions that there was some connection between the Senior Councilmember who watched the Outer Gates and Lady Pluto. Maybe there was some sort of mailing list for people who guarded supernatural doorways.
My brother raised an eyebrow.
"I told Ebenezar, Rashid, and Luccio."
My grandfather, another member of the Senior Council, read the three letters from three Knights of the Cross, active and retired, stating I was who I said I was, including the almost insultingly terse one Sanya had written.
He must have seen my mother, his daughter, in my face because the big, grumpy man hugged me. The moment was ruined a bit when Lucio Captain of the Wardens, and one of my bosses, burst out laughing.
Thomas nodded. "Sensible of you. Lemmie guess, they told you to shut up and let them handle it?"
I frowned thinking of Lucio. She had once been an older, extremely hardass combat wizard with well over a century of experience, but a fight with a body-swapping necromancer had left her in the body of a young blonde woman.
We had dated for a time, and I might have teased her about her dimples. Which explained her mirth when she saw that my younger form also had dimpled cheeks. The levity was cut short when Rashid pointed out how... complicated my change was.
"Yeah... that's why it's taking so long."
"Half the Council already thinks you're some not-so-secret Warlock. And that was before you started working for Mab," Thomas shook his head. "Empty Night, you really didn't think this through?"
I glared at him but then wilted a bit. "I just wanted to stop Tessa."
He squeezed my hand. "At least some good came outta this." His hand was cool, and pale. It looked a bit like something carved from marble.
At least it complimented my own snowy white fingers and sapphire nails. Stars and Stones, neither of us had the little imperfections that made our flesh look truly human. The contact tingled as both of our Hungers nipped at each other.
It wasn't the mutual connection I had with my sisters: succubae shared within the brood and formed bonds. White Court vamps backstabbed even their closest family members.
I sighed. "I might be kicked out of the Council." I had been critical of the Council for decades. I had spent much of my life living under a probation, something they cheerfully called the Sword of Damocles, waiting for the time some grey-cloak Warden would come in and lop off my head.
But now the prospect of being given the boot, hurt.
"It is a humans only club," Thomas' tone was unexpectedly bitter.
"Those three said they'll see what they can do. Eb thinks he can keep me in. With only two Senior Council votes it may take some... horse trading. But if I don't get kicked out of the Council itself, Lucio'll make sure I'm still a Warden. I might have a demotion, but, since no one was reporting to me anyway, I had already lost my Regional Command in all but name."
"Harry, do you want the job?"
I frowned. "It is a source of money."
My brother snorted.
"I'm also deeper in with the Council. It makes it harder for the Merlin's cronies to lob accusations I'm some danger when I'm a wizard cop."
He poked me in the chest. "That's not why you want it. You like helping people."
"And you like being able to stick it to the Merlin and his chums. You know he's gonna turn all purple when he finds out about this right?"
I gave an innocent smile. That dimple of mine really helped sell it. "Hadn't crossed my mind."
He laughed. "So, that's what it takes to get you to hold back and let someone else do things for you?" Putting his hand on my shoulder his expression sobered. "Lucio isn't going to spend the political capital to have you keep your job out of the goodness of her heart."
I put my hand on his arm. "I know," I said quietly.
"She's head of the Wardens; she'll have political or at least strategic goals. And a Warden with Winter's ear is valuable, not to mention the... demon side. That's a rare asset to her."
"She'd never ask me to do black magic!" I said hotly, my eyes flashing.
Thomas pulled back ever so slightly.
"Hells Bells, she taught Morgan; she hates black magic as much as he does." Donald Morgan the scary, now deceased, Warden who spent over a decade stalking me, sure I was going to turn evil. We, sort of, made up before he died. Well, we killed a traitorous dark wizard mole together. That counts as bonding, right?
"Yeah," he looked into my eyes. We had already Soulgazed. That event had confirmed he was my brother, and revealed a message our mother had saved for us. "She can't stand black magic and now she's got a non-evil demon? If, somehow, you get to keep your grey cloak there's a lot you can do for her that no one else can."
"Look, you still need paperwork. And you don't have to wait for Council intrigue to straighten out. My sister can help you get an ID, transfer your business license so you don't have to sneak into your own office."
I scoffed. I didn't need to sneak. "And what will that cost me?"
He shrugged. "You can pay it."
I gave him a wicked smile and shifted. My hair darkened to glossy black. I lost a bit of height but added a hint more breadth to my shoulders and filled in my proportions. Cheekbones became less sharp as my lips became fuller, darker. As the rest of my makeup changed to complement a more natural, if still pale, complexion my eyes shifted to a shining silver.
"I suppose I can," I purred.
Thomas stilled. That is for a moment he was statue-still. If anything, this got his Hunger more confused than anything else.
"What, you'll spend the night with her?"
"For a whole night I'd better get more than some paperwork," I gave a haughty sniff and idly fluffed my hair. "I'll meet her on my terms, keep the surprise."
Thomas shook his head. "Look, Lara already knows."
I eyed him.
"No, I didn't tell her. But come on. You've been talking with people since you've gotten back. And you might as well meet her, she already knows all about the new you."
I smiled, flashing my teeth. "No, Lara has stories about some sidhe succubus claiming to be Harry Dresden. She has no idea."
He gave a long blink. "Oh, Empty Night, you're going to look like this when you meet her aren't you?"
"Maybe." I gave him a coy smile as I let the glamour slip and returned to normal.
My brother shook his head. "Well, if you don't say anything she might not figure it's you."
I gave him a dismissive sniff and certainly didn't pout. "You and Justine still on for day after tomorrow? I know she's..."
"Yeah, and she's doing good," his grip on the wheel went a bit tight. I put a hand on his arm. Justine was Thomas'... well, she was very close to him. She was also carrying his child. It was difficult for White Court vampires to conceive and the pregnancies were complicated.
Just another downside to being a White Court vamp.
I didn't say anything. I wasn't even sure I knew what I was offering, but I did know that if things went bad for Justine or the baby I'd help.
Eyes flashing silver, Thomas nodded. "I don't know if it'll come to that," he grumbled in almost a growl. His Hunger nipped at mine, as if feeling territorial at the contact. No wonder the Raith family members were so prickly with each other.
He relaxed his grip. "Will Murphy be there? How's she handling dating a chick?"
"It's not a date! You and Justine will be there, as well as Maggie and Bonnie."
Mr. prefect six-pack despite-never-doing-a-situp brother gave me a confident, winning smile. "I wasn't talking about Tuesday's dinner." He then laughed at my blush.
"Complicated. She's..." I shook my head. "Butters and Andi are helping a lot. I think Murph wishes she'd been the one sent to help me."
Murphy was Catholic and she had carried a Sword in battle. She also used to be a cop and worked with mercs before. All good points that meant she would have been handy to have had on that mission.
On the other hand, she also kinda caused one of the Swords to shatter. In the end, that gave Butters a nifty lightsaber. "She says that if she'd been there I wouldn't have done some fool thing."
"Maybe," Thomas nodded. "Or maybe you would have done something stupider, behind her back just to spite her."
"Ranma wouldn't have let me." This time I'll admit I pouted.
"Ah yes, the crazy sister," he shook his head. "Redheads."
"Come on now, you'd like her."
"Sure." He gave that winning smile again. "Butters says she loves teasing you. I figure that's enough in common to get along great."
"Yeah, yeah," I grumbled and opened the door. "Thanks for the lift." I stepped out of the giant vehicle. The vertical drop felt high enough that I had to suppress the urge to release my wings.
I still had to pull my duster around myself again after it billowed out behind me. At least my skirt settled down on its own.
"At least you're no longer unkempt and disheveled," Thomas' tone was dry as he handed over my staff.
"You're just jealous because you're no longer the pretty one," I stuck my tongue out. "
The vampire put his hand to his chest. "Right. That's like me being jealous of your sisters."
I smirked, he was so jealous I totally got the better batch of succubus sisters.
"I like Inari," I said. Though Thomas' baby sister wasn't really a vampire. As far as I knew she had yet to feed, and could very well be free of her Hunger.
"She's not really one of us," Thomas said echoing my thoughts.
I tilted my head, wondering if by "us" he was including myself and my- Oh Hells Bells, he was.
"And Natalia isn't that bad," Thomas added.
I laughed. "Later."
He nodded. "Later, Harry."
I closed the door and he drove off.
Shrugging my duster and adjusting its belt, I slipped into the lobby. The tiles echoed on my boots. There were a couple of people waiting by some threadbare chairs and someone going to a counter with a bank of mail slots behind it. The lobby was a bit worn, but the floors were clean and the plants were watered. There was the scent of fresh paint on half the walls. The other half had been sanded and prepped.
I nodded to man behind the counter and got an enthusiastic wave. Manny was an older, burly, built-like a bulldog Portuguese fellow with a cheerful disposition.
I had just gotten my private investigation service reopened before being sent off on that Winter mission. Unfortunately, so far, vanilla mortals had a harder time accepting that I was Harry Dresden than the supernatural community.
For the latter, a wizard becoming a pale, blue-tinged woman was a possibility, for the former that was simple madness. That said, Manny was the building supervisor and primary repair-guy and didn't take much sweet-talking to let me deal with my cousin's business.
It helped that Manny knew Michael, one construction and repair professional to another. And Michael was able to say with complete honesty that I was taking over the business once all the paperwork was in order.
He also didn't seem to mind that said cousin carried the same staff as a certain Harry Dresden. Upside to Cecilia and her girls tweaking my duster's style, I didn't look like I was trying to wear the coat of a much bigger man.
I went through a hallway and passed an elevator with some longing. I had bad luck with elevators, especially in my last office building. I really didn't want to bother Manny with having to deal with an elevator car getting crushed by a giant scorpion.
Besides, it was only a few flights of stairs and it would make for good practice. Though by the second level, I was cursing my boots, and getting a bit jealous of Lara. Thomas' sister could run in high heels, on gravel.
Stupid, cheating vampire.
I got to my floor with the minimum of wobble. My sisters would be proud of my impromptu training and not quitting. Well, Ranma and Cecilia would. Eve would simply point out that any heel elevation was a tactical disadvantage.
As I approached the door, I muttered about hypocritical big blondes. My sister wore high heels, like, all the time.
I sighed at the glass inset on the door. It said "Harry Dresden. Wizard."
It had been a good moment when the painters had put that up. It showed that I was back in business. Now... now I had to have the name changed.
I could still go by Harry Dresden among the supernatural set, but with mortals? Again... gender aside, no one would buy that I lost five inches and over fifty pounds of bone and muscle.
I unlocked the door. My nose flared.
Oh, Empty Night.
I closed the door behind myself and let my Winter power ease out. Like my old office, this one had an antechamber waiting room in the front. But unlike my old office there wasn't any furniture or table. It was empty. The paint was fresh and the floors had been polished and Manny had put a plant in one corner. It sat on the floor in a little pot all alone.
I had to keep my introduction to magic pamphlets on a large cardboard box. I frowned. I needed a better display. I also debated if I should put some of the Silva Succubus ones Cecilia had helpfully supplied me with.
On the one hand, I might not be the only true-succubus here. On the other hand, I wasn't sure I wanted to advertise that bit about myself to quite the same level as my Wizardness.
Either way, I went to the door that led to my cramped inner office. I would have loved to have kicked the door down. But, Stars and Stones, it was my door. I didn't want to pay for replacing it.
My nostrils took in more of the intruder's scent. The smug bastard was waiting for me.
Knowing my sisters, they would have gone around and come through the window. Or maybe something crazier like blasting through the floor or the wall.
But... well, it says a lot when I find their collateral building damage excessive.
I simply opened the door and stomped in.
A man with strong, handsome features sat behind my desk. He had dark hair tinged with silver and cold eyes. He wore a black suit. I had known his tastes were expensive but thanks to Cecilia and old-man-assassin me I had a better idea just how expensive that elegant, bespoke suit of his was.
A thin grey rope dangled from his neck like a half-done bolo tie.
He was Nicodemus Archleone, leader of the Order of the Blackened Denarius, Tessa's former husband. All of this, the trip to another world, Tessa's mad revenge scheme, over a hundred deaths, my becoming a demon, was all because Nicodemus had murdered Deirdre his and Tessa's daughter.
The bastard clasped his hands on my desk.
I slammed the door behind me.
"Once again, I must thank you for your assistance, Dame BlackStone," his voice was resonant but there was a raspy undertone to it. He gave a shark-like smile, but his shadow flickered about.
I flashed my own teeth at him.
"Ah, yes," he nodded slightly. "Congratulations on joining the winning side."
I snorted at him. Given my new family had helped me kill a whole mess of Denarians, I had my doubts that they'd be on the same side as his. Hells Bells, his own little Order was rife with factionalism. Tessa being the prime example. Lasciel also hated his guts. Also, I'd be willing to bet good money that BlackSky wouldn't be too fond of old Nick.
Marching up to the desk, I lifted my staff off the floor. "Get out of my seat," I hissed as my tail slipped out. I thunked the end of my staff onto the battered surface of my desk.
He chuckled, watching my horns emerge "My, did I pick the right coin for you," he leaned back, his shadow spreading beneath him, pooling all over the base of my chair.
"Lasciel didn't do this to me." I narrowed my eyes. "Out."
"Pity. I suppose she lacked the imagination to offer what you really wanted." The old monster pulled off a reasonably wistful tone. It was disturbing. "Shame. She could have made you quite lovely, but this form will do."
"My chair." I flicked my staff out with one hand. Once its end swept past the edge of my desk I slammed it down. The carved length of wood skittered but it slammed right into the floor between the wheels of my desk-chair.
Right on Nicodemus's shadow. Which was the manifestation of his Fallen: Anduriel.
My hand clenched and silver and blue flames burst from my staff's runes and brightened the room like dozens of miniature spotlights.
The shadow screeched as Nicodemus bolted from my chair. He stood behind the desk with perfect composure, but I could smell just a bit of apprehension on him.
"You just here to gloat?"
He made a disappointed noise. "Dresden. Must you be so childish? We've worked together."
"Yeah, you betrayed me and my friends in the vault and tried to kill us."
"The arrangement was that we would work together until you retrieved the Grail for me." He bowed his head. "Thank you, by the way, it's been most... useful."
I growled. Mab had loaned me to the old monster. And we had both adhered to the letter of our agreement. We worked together to rob Hades's vault to acquire the Holy Grail.
Old Nick had planned to betray us from the start. And the Grail wasn't even his real target. Sure he could get up to all sorts of mischief with it, but what he was really after were the other holy artifacts on display in Hades' vault. Artifacts that, unbeknownst to Nicodemus, I stole right before he got to said display.
His cold smile grew. "Now, if I recall, it was you who recruited the Skinwalker, before I even met the man. Goodman Grey was critical to the operation, and from day one he was your mole."
He was right on that. Though I had help, Mab and a certain powerful, gift giving member of Winter had setup the meeting with Grey.
"Yeah, and Hanna was a ringer for Lashiel. What's your point?" I shrugged. It had been disturbing to see Lashiel again, especially when possessing a pyrokinetic Practitioner.
"You've always been devious, deceitful."
I kept a straight face. Okay, I could run a scheme, but I wasn't a great liar.
He smoothed the rope that dangled around his neck. "Now, you are literally demonic."
I glared at him.
He gave a smooth, pitiless smile, but his shadow jerked like a marionette. "People were always afraid of you. Ever since you burned your mentor to death. Well, everyone thinks Justin DuMorne is dead. And from those young days you just keep piling on."
The old monster shook his head. "You've been Winter Knight for less than three years, and now this? People will talk."
I snorted, leaning on my staff. Sure it wasn't the most elegant stance to take, but I didn't care. "Big words from you. Last year you lost your rep, your minions and your daughter."
Hate flashed across his dark eyes, but Nicodemus simply nodded. Even his shadow seemed restrained. "And then my former wife went mad and tried a most unconventional scheme. You know Tessa's style."
I frowned. The late mantis girl was more "charge in and eat your face". Her cadre of Nickelheads were more the cause havoc and pain now, while Nicky's crowd were the long term plotters.
"You think this is related to the attack on Arctis Tor?" About a decade ago, Stars and Stones, has it been that long, the Heart of Winter was breached? On mission to rescue Molly, I had only come in to catch the aftermath, but I could tell that Hellfire had been used.
Like I said, the Denarians were a fractious bunch.
I studied Old Nick's face, careful not to get caught in a Soulgaze. "Hells Bells. You're afraid?"
"I have concerns," he said crisply.
"Yeah, I mean, with Tessa and Deidre dead, you've gotta be the oldest host still around. I mean, geeze, what if someone were knocking off the senior members of your little club?"
My glib question covered up my introspection. Okay, the old-snake was right. There was something off about Tessa's actions. Thorned Namshiel had been the key player in giving her spell support up in Canada. The guy was also behind some other pretty shady dealings. But right now that Fallen's coin was without a host.
Problem was, said coin had a nasty habit of getting loose and finding hosts, even by Denarian standards. So sure, there might be a conspiracy that pushed Tessa into trying to summon some Outsiders. Not to mention that Tessa had been tricked into summoning giant frog-squid creatures instead of a more... pliant eldritch horror.
Thing is, I knew all for certain that there was a conspiracy to get Tessa out of the picture. Sure, Uriel wanted to give her a chance at redemption, but Winter Mother just wanted her off the board, and Lady Pluto took the mantis girl's intrusion personally. But all three agreed that Tessa had to be separated from her Fallen, one way or another.
And just last year Gentleman Johnny Marcone and Queen Mab had conspired against Nicodemus. The mobster wanted payback for being kidnapped and tortured by Nicky and his goons. Meanwhile, my Queen wanted him hurt. She was the one that set it up so that Deirdre would die and die by Nicodemus' own hands.
So yeah, there totally was a conspiracy to knock off the senior members of the Order of the Blackened Denarius. I was okay with that. I wondered if Molly would be the one to orchestrate the fall of Old Nick himself.
I smiled at him. "Gee, maybe you're right. You could be in terrible danger."
He glared at me. "I am capable of taking care of myself."
"You must be, given you're in the same room with both Deirdre and Tessa's killers."
"Do you have any idea what would be unleashed in my absence?" he demanded.
"Honestly?" I prodded his shadow with my staff again. "If Tessa's plan wasn't so apocalyptic I was gonna sit back, make popcorn, and watch her take you out."
"Dresden this is-"
I cut him off. "Seriously. I offered to help her kill you. She didn't take the deal. Maybe it was because her Fallen was busy lying to her. Maybe it was because I ate her leg." I shrugged.
"You have no idea what you're meddling with," his tone was frosty.
"That makes two of us," I said as my tail flicked about. I stepped to the side "Now, get out."
"Dresden, you are throwing away a great-"
I made a fist and let icy gauntlets grow around a forearm. Runes flared into existence and flames started to lick out as I pointed the weapon at him. "Nicky, you can ether walk straight ahead and out the door, or I can blast you out the window."
His lip pulled back in a snarl.
"Your choice. I mean, we're only three stories up. You'll be fine." That much was true. He had a magical artifact that, above and beyond his Fallen's help, made him all but invulnerable. Now that little noose had its weakness.
The millennia old monster tensed. I shifted slightly; if he decided to throw down I was going to fill the room with blinding light, pounce, then strangle him with that rope he conveniently dangled down his neck.
Let his little shadow buddy Anduriel deal with a total absence of shadows. My tail twitched as icy blades started to extrude. Right, might as well jab his guts with that: disemboweling was distracting.
The tension eased slightly as Nicodemus strode past me. The door closing behind him was surprisingly quiet.
After a moment the tension eased and I let my tail and shoulders loosen. Looking around the office I realized I was going to have to sweep the whole place, maybe the whole floor just in case Nicky had left behind any surprises.
"Maybe I should have just attacked him," I grumbled.
Satisfied with the chickens, I put the big iron pan back into the oven and closed it. The appliance was gas and probably would be okay... as long as I didn't think too hard about explosions. My old apartment had a wood stove and an ice box, but a Practitioner had setup this place. And while, at the time, her techbane wasn't quite as bad as mine, it was still a problem for her. Still, I used the mechanical egg timer instead of the timer built into the stove itself.
Brushing my hands, I unslung the apron and went from the kitchen section of the broad apartment to the cluster of chairs, couches, bookcases and tables that made up the living room. Unsurprisingly, it reminded me of my old place, just with nicer materials.
I had gotten used to second hand furniture and living in a basement with spotty heating, so a bright airy flat with fancy wood furniture and leather seating was still... off-putting.
Course the whole place was a loaner.
Though that didn't stop me from flopping onto the couch.
Murphy looked up from the album she was leafing through. Only a hair taller than my eldest sister, she had a similar wiry build. Her blonde hair was cut short. I wouldn't say it was a pixie-cut.
But that was because I knew actual pixies; they tended to have much longer hair. And, more importantly, the ex-cop would beat me for saying that. Murphy might look like someone's favored aunt, but she was one of the toughest mortal humans I knew.
Murphy looked over, her blue eyes drifting across me and pausing at how I had crossed my legs. She then went back to the album. The current page had a group photo.
"How many nieces did you pick up?" she asked.
"Fifteen. Split among three sisters, so it's not that bad."
She snorted. "I come from an Irish Catholic family. You don't need to bother with excuses."
I mumbled something.
She turned to another page. This one had me slumped, looking exhausted, wings splayed out behind me. In the picture my head was on Eve's lap and I was gnawing on a protein energy bar. Murphy gave me a quizzical look.
"That was after flight training. It's, uh, really draining," I said as I shifted to slouch down a bit more on the couch.
She nodded. "You took off your apron."
"I only needed it-"
"Yes to keep your clothes from getting dirty."
I grumbled something.
Murphy looked up at me and laughed. "You're so cute when you try hide that you're being domestic."
Murphy gestured. "You flopped down on the couch like a clod, and then tried to sprawl out to hide your height and look slovenly."
"But despite that you cross your legs at the knee and your hands move down your thighs in a smoothing motion as you sit." She arched an eyebrow. "Even though you're wearing pants, you're acting like you've got a skirt on."
"Um... well, Miss Murphy, it's like you're a detective."
She snorted. "Thanks to the Chicago Alliance, I've been spending time with succubae. I can see the signs, more than the obvious ones."
"Raith vampires don't count. They've got the moves but they're not the real thing," I said, petulantly.
Murphy gave a "see what I mean gesture".
"Does it help? Your time leading the Alliance I mean?" The Chicago Alliance was something Murphy, Butters and a few others, including Gentleman Johnny Marcone and Lara had organized after I had, well, died.
Without me around, plenty of supernatural threats started crawling out of the woodwork. Especially the Fomor, a bunch of magical, froggy creeps that came out of the seas. Course the Fomor, and their creepy hybrid monsters, were a world-wide problem.
See some fool had destroyed the Red Court and that left a power vacuum.
"Oh sure," Murphy said with a smirk. "I know from dealing with Felicia what to do if you get all hungry succubus on me."
She was confident. And, in truth, she had been able to handle the cute little Raith girl. Except, Murph's tone was a bit forced.
I couldn't help but pout. If my tail was out it'd be curling up. "Yeah, you can handle one of us."
She hit me on the shoulder.
"Stop being such a mope." She glared. "You think I'm suddenly scared of you because you're some gangly demoness?"
I didn't give an affronted gasp. "Well..."
She hit me again. "Harry, you've always been intense and scary."
I frowned. Okay, as a human I had been basketball player tall, muscular and scarred. It's not like being intimidating was hard. And that was before you counted in that I'm a wizard.
"Maybe now, you'll at least be mindful of how other people could see you."
I crossed my arms and gave her a wry look. Then I pointedly glanced down.
Murphy scoffed. "Please, your chest isn't that fabulous. You're still way too tall, especially with those legs."
"I didn't realize you preferred legs," I smirked.
Murphy cocked her head. "Well, I certainly don't have much interest in breasts. Already have a set, thank you very much."
I frowned, derailed for a moment. "So... what you're saying is you're jealous of my legs."
Murphy then blushed a bit.
I leaned over leering. "No need to be embarrassed Karin," I said using her first name. "It's natural," I purred.
Clutching the album, she shifted her seating and I could feel her heartbeat quickening.
"It just means you're jealous of my height. Perfectly natural reaction for shrimps."
And then Murphy smacked the heavy photo album against my forehead.
"Ow!" I said and pulled back. My concentration slipped and my horns and tail eased out.
"That redheaded sister of yours is short. How does she deal with you being such a brat?"
"By throwing me out of flying helicopters and planes," I grumbled.
"Dad, she kicked you out of the plane," Maggie corrected as she stepped out of her room. Mouse lumbered next to her and Bonnie's translucent image hovered at her shoulder.
"Err... how much did you hear?" I asked, my tail swishing awkwardly.
"You mocking Miss Murphy's height by comparing her to a crustacean," Bonnie said.
Mouse lumbered over to me and chuffed until I put my hand on his neck and started scratching. His tail began to thump and wag, which was a bit infectious.
I noted that Maggie's eyes had moved up to my horns.
"I can hide them," I offered.
Maggie looked at me, her dark brown eyes seeing something. Then she shook her head and ambled over to the couch. I slid over to the middle and she sat on my left. Her nimble hands deftly took the album that had fallen into my lap.
She started flipping through it. I noted her attention was mostly on the earlier section, back when I was human.
Bonnie hovered by pondering the images. "These are almost all candid," she noted.
"Er, yeah. My sister's friends like taking photos," I offered. That was a bit of an understatement. The effect I had on technology, only slightly slowed down the Company's near obsession with surveillance.
Murphy held her tongue. She had been a cop a long time, and had spent time with Kincaid, Einherjar, Chicago Outfit hitters, and other types of assassins and mercenaries, both mortal and otherwise.
Maggie was looking at a picture of me with my sisters. It was a group hug, and all our... accoutrements were out. It was the kind of image Eve would grumble about infosec, opsec, or some other portmanteau that I secretly suspected the blonde made up on the spot. But this time she was as happy as her sisters. It was a rare unguarded picture of her.
"You came back," Maggie noted.
My tail twitched. "I learned my lesson," I said and pulled her into a hug.
She stiffened for a moment, but only out of surprise.
Finding out about Maggie had changed my life. And not just because she had been kidnapped by vampires, and said vampires decided to blow up my office, burn my house down, crush my car, and try to kill me and all my friends.
I had done things to save Maggie.
Shame and guilt held me back. I wasn't sure the Winter Knight would be the proper parent for Maggie. Sure there were other things that kept me from seeing her, but even after I stopped being, mostly, dead I couldn't bring myself to meet her. But that had changed last year. I wasn't going to let a little thing like being a gangly demoness keep me from my daughters. Though... as I pulled Bonnie into the hug, part of me wondered if I had really learned my lesson.
Or if my demoness nature was overpowering my apprehension.
I almost pulled Murphy into the hug but she arched an eyebrow at me, and either way the embrace ended when Maggie started to squirm.
She closed the album and placed it on the coffee table. "It's a shame you got hurt, Dad. But it's good that you found a way to get better."
"And this form does reduce the probability of permanent damage," Bonnie helpfully added.
Murphy shot me a look. She had gotten the unabridged versions of my training under Ranma and the final battle against Tessa. Yes, there were no permanent injuries, but not for lack of trying.
"Another upside is Dad can't make up excuses when it comes to clothes shopping." Maggie gave me a devious look. "Or makeup."
"You're too young," I automatically said.
Pouting, Maggie pointed to my lips, then to my eyelids.
"I uh... Don't really know how it works. Sorry, kiddo, it's just part of this body."
She looked to Murphy for conformation.
"Does your Father look like someone who would have a clue about lipstick, let alone mascara and eyeshadow?"
"Stupid fae magic," I grumbled.
"What is objectionable about our magic?" a clear high voice asked as a small figure buzzed in. Over a foot tall, Lacuna was a gorgeous pixie. Fine black hair was in a braid almost as long as she was tall. Her skin was almost succubus pale with shifting deep purple tattoos. She had long, lean features that gave her an elegant, predatory beauty.
If she hadn't looked that way when she was working for me when I was still human, I would have worried my nature was rubbing off on her. It wasn't quite the same as with Toot-toot, the head of the Za-Lord guard.
He had changed when I swore to my Queen, going from wyldfae to Winter. The rest of the guard had not changed as much. Which was good. Yes, I had a fae army. Sure, they were all of the little-folk and most were no larger than an inch, if that, but they were great for recon and doing other little tasks.
And no, they weren't a perk of being the Winter Knight, I had already recruited them, and had been paying them for a while before I took up Mab's offer. Huh, fairy army and fairy godmother...
In retrospect, maybe I shouldn't be so surprised at the whole sidhe succubus knight thing.
"Nothing," I sighed at Lacuna. She was wearing a dark green and silver little robe that was rather kimono-like. I'm sure my sisters could have pointed out how I was wrong and that it was actually some other garment.
The fairy tilted her head, large black eyes studying me. "I don't know what is more shocking, that you can lie, or that you choose to do it so poorly."
Maggie snickered at that. She gave the album a thoughtful glance. "Maybe I can get lessons from one of my aunts."
"Or cousins, Misako sounds like the expert," Bonnie helpfully agreed.
My tail flicked a bit. Stars and Stones, my nieces wouldn't be a bad influence, but many of them were very... exuberant.
Maggie looked up. "Please? We spend plenty of time with Uncle Thomas and your sisters sound nicer than his branch of the family."
She had me there. "Sure, they live far away, but they are planning on visiting." Lady Pluto had been true to her word and I was at least able to send messages to my family, and get replies back.
Maggie perked up. "Great!"
Lacuna looked expectantly at me.
"Yes?" I asked her.
"You have guests arriving," the fairy said, almost absently.
"Our dinner guests?"
Lacuna tilted her head the other way. "I won't presume who you invited."
Fae could be frustratingly formal and precise; it came from a dislike of being asked direct questions. I suppressed a little sigh. "Who are they?"
"Your brother and his mate."
I stood up. "Why didn't you say that? Or mention that when you flew over."
"You didn't ask," she stated stiffly.
I muttered a bit as I made my way to the front door.
The building was owned by the Svartalves, and Molly had gotten the apartment for doing something pretty important for them. I didn't know the details, but she apparently saved a diplomatic event from exploding. Which shows that sometimes the apprentice can be distinct from the mentor.
Given the value, or paranoia, the average svartalf put on property and privacy, I could be pretty sure any visitors that got this far were on the guest list. But I hadn't been in the business this long without some paranoia of my own.
A Fallen Angel had broken into my office recently after all.
Thus when someone knocked at the door I didn't immediately lower the protective wards. Instead I extended my senses out, pushing them past the protective spells. I felt a buzzing interference in my horns, which made me feel a bit... homesick for my sisters and their Jammers.
But that abated when I sensed my brother and Justine. My tail relaxed as I unlocked the door and let down the wards.
Thomas entered with a languid, easy smile. A beautiful, slim woman was holding onto the arm of his coat. Silver-white hair tumbled down her back and she wore a breezy white dress. Her pregnancy was early enough that she wasn't showing.
After they entered and as I closed the door, she looked me over with a bright smile. "You look great! I love that blouse." She handed a large ceramic bowl over to Thomas and hugged me.
"Uh, you look good, too," I said with an awkward smile.
"Dinner smells great. I brought some dessert. Thomas, put that in the fridge."
Thomas nodded and went around the kitchen counter.
"What did you bring?" Maggie asked, getting up, with Murphy following behind her.
"Oh, some chocolate mousse with caramel gems and a couple layers of white chocolate bark."
"Decadent," Murphy noted.
"Given my job and who I'm with..." Justine gave a shy smile, gesturing to Thomas. She turned to me. "I could give you the recipe too."
"Yeah," Thomas nodded to my hanging apron. "You seem to be getting better at this domestic stuff." He put on a thoughtful expression. "Though, I suppose that makes Murphy 'the guy'."
And then Murphy hit him.
The blade of her hand hit his forearm near the elbow with a quick strike.
"Gah!" Thomas shook his arm. "Damn it Murphy! That's right in the funny bone!"
"Oh," Murphy gave a bit of a pout. "Did I pinch a nerve? I just wanted to tap your ulnar."
Thomas grumbled and flicked his fingers about.
I suppressed a little smile. Thomas was lucky, if he had made a similar comment to one of my sisters... I paused. I wasn't sure, actually. If Ranma did take offense she'd do something worse than strike his ulnar nerve. But she might not care.
His cocky composure regained, Thomas leaned on the counter. "Hey, I'm trying to compliment your house keeping, bro. Remember, I lived with you for a couple years."
I gave him a haughty sniff. "Maybe if you were a better roommate I'd have been able to keep a cleaner apartment."
"You're saying I'm messier than a ten year old girl?" Thomas asked.
"Yes." Myself, Justine, and Murphy echoed.
I tried to keep my tail from swishing. It was fun to be on this side of the "a group of woman disapprove of a clueless man" equation.
For his part, my brother did look abashed.
He then turned to Maggie and Bonnie. "So, how are you two doing?"
"Good, Dad's gonna take us to the zoo tomorrow," Maggie said.
"I have heard good things about otters. I wish to see one," Bonnie added.
Thomas looked at me with a bit of concern.
"We've got a ride-along setup," I assured. Direct sunlight could be damaging to spirits if they weren't protected in a vessel.
He nodded. "You know, Lara's still upset that you tricked her."
"Upset's not quite the right word," Justine murmured. She worked as Lara's assistant. Thus she had an inside view to the workings of the White Court, which was handy, given the intel she fed to my brother.
"She's played games with me for years, and I turn the tables on her one time and vamp it up with the sexy-" I glanced at my daughters. "Erm... she's just jealous."
"Covetous would be a better word," Thomas stated.
Murphy shook her head. "What did you expect Dresden?"
"Well, I-" The ding of the timer on the counter interrupted. "Oh, looks like dinner's ready," I gamely said, seizing the opportunity.
"I'll help set the table," Justine offered before going to Maggie. "You wanna help kiddo?"
Picking up some oven mitts, I opened the oven. The smell was quite good. I put the oven pan atop the stove and closed the door.
"That'll work, give the chicken time to cool a bit and then we can cut it up," Murphy said, slipping up next to me
"Thanks for the help," I turned to her.
She looked up with a wry smile. "Well, this isn't quite the... biggest mess you've gotten into. Though I suppose this is the first time you've hit on Butters."
"Yeah," Blushing, I turned aside before the Soulgaze could start. "I'm still glad you're here to help me clean things up. Though it helps that I'm prettier now."
"You are such a nerd, Harry," she poked me. Right above the base of my tail.
I may have given a surprised noise. But it was totally adult and mature. And not a high pitched squeak.
Looking away from the food, I turned and stepped a bit closer. My tail swished and I could feel that Murphy's smile was genuine. Sure, she had a bit of apprehension but she was happy that I was back.
End Blood Debts
There we go.
I'd like to thank the prereaders for their help in this project: J St C Patrick, DCG, Kevin Hammel, and Ellf. Thanks to Patrick for all his help on correcting and proofing these works, and his especially speedy work on getting the epilogue up and ready. DCG has been a constant long time asset and a major work in this.
Kevin Hammel is a consummate writer of the old school and has been a strong influence on the very direction of The Return as a series and the development of the succubae as a species and Ranma's brood as a family. Again, I'd like to thank Ellf for being the catalyst to this project, and his influence, and more, will be seen with some future projects.
And finally I'd like to thank all those who have read and enjoyed my story, and especially those who have commented if even to say that they enjoyed it. Thanks to all of you!
And there it is. Blood Debts. The story may be done, but there's more Return, an there will be more stories of Dame BlackStone..