"You just caught us. Getting set to take Maggie and Mouse to the zoo to meet mighty Moe," he replied, his voice holding gentle cheer. "Going to be a good time. You ever been to the zoo?"
Murphy had warned me that this would happen, that something would inevitably come up to distract me from me from my day with Maggie. Something supernatural. Something dangerous. Something that absolutely demanded my attention and I would be a monster for ignoring it. She had warned me and said that I was to absolutely, on no accounts, get involved. Usually, that would guarantee that I would get involved, but this was my day with Maggie and this was one thing I didn't want to screw up. Murphy is a wise lady.
But Butters was in danger and he was my friend.
I meant what I said to Butters, he was a Knight now, and I didn't think the Almighty gave his Knights burdens greater then they could bear, but still. Accidents happened.
And Butters had asked me for me for my help.
I had given him information but I hadn't gone myself, hadn't – Maggie tugged at my sleeve and I shook myself. Butters was a Knight now, not the scared little mortician I had met all those years ago and I had a day, a whole day, with Maggie and Mouse to enjoy.
We arrived at the zoo, Mouse dressed in his best service dog uniform. I was trying to keep my head down. There had been an … incident a few years back. It wasn't my fault, in fact I had helped clear things up, but you know how people remember these things. I didn't think anybody would remember me. It had been a long time ago. Still.
We waited in line. I'd try to go for a not-so-busy time, but there were still a respectable number of people waiting to get in. We got to the front and the desk jockey scowled at Mouse. Mouse grinned back amiably and I handed over the service dog papers. The desk jockey looked over Mouse dubiously. I could understand his scepticism; Mouse was bigger than Maggie.
"Look," I said, my hackles beginning to rise, encouraged by the Mantle, "if I need to pay extra for the dog, I will, but-"
"No. Just make sure he behaves himself," I nodded and paid for Maggie and me. I could understand Desk Jockey's frustration. It was all too easy to fake service dog papers. Hell, I'd done it myself when I'd needed to get Mouse into otherwise dog unfriendly places some years back.
At first I found it difficult to relax. I hadn't brought my Staff due to the whole, 'need to be inconspicuous' thing, though my blasting rod was tucked away in my duster. The zoo was too crowded, which always meant trouble, both because how easily an assassin could hide in a crowd and how many people could get hurt in the crossfire should there be a fight. I'm not exactly a subtle fighter. We were surrounded by animals, which wasn't a bad thing; I liked animals. I had spent some of the best years of my life on Ebenezer's farm and I had, until recently lived with and cat and a dog. But if the animals escaped that would mean more chaos and I knew how many supernatural nasties liked to disguise themselves as animals.
So, yeah. I wasn't finding it easy to relax.
Has anyone told you kids are like little conductors? They pick on your mood real fast. Maggie got sort of small and quiet and shivery. Mouse moved close to her and gave me an accusatory look. Wow. Judged by my own dog. New low, Dresden.
I took a couple of deep breaths, used the methods for focussing my mind every wizard knows and forcibly calmed myself. I held out my hand to Maggie and asked, "Where do you want to go first then, Magpie?" she smiled back and started telling me of all the things she wanted to see. She had done her research. I was so proud.
I still kept my Wizard Senses on in the background. No need to be stupid.
Let me tell you one thing. Children are fascinated by everything. It's amazing. She asked a billion questions (which I answered with complete and utter accuracy) and found a new best friend in a monkey type thing (Mouse wasn't at all jealous). I promised to introduce her to Sue when she started asking about the dinosaur.
Children are dangerous. I would probably reanimate Sue just for Maggie's amusement.
And the energy she had! I swear her feet didn't touch the ground. Possibly one of the Carpenter Kids had injected her with sugar before we had left. There would have to be questions when we got back (out of Charity's sight, of course).
Maggie bounced and chatted and ran several marathons and I realised I was happy. Capital 'H' Happy, even. There was a warm fuzzy glow in the pit of my stomach and I had let go of my background Wizard Senses, I was just … content.
Oh. I was standing in the middle of the corridor, providing an impromptu roundabout and receiving several glares. I shifted to one side and out of the way of the traffic.
"You're just so beautiful, precious."
Maggie gave me a look that all kids perfect early on. The one that lets adults know when they're being ridiculous. I didn't care. She was beautiful.
I ruffled her hair, "Well you might have endless energy, but I don't. How about we get some food, Magpie?" She grinned. Mouse slobbered.
Of course, that was when things went downhill.
We ordered our food – only the greasiest, unhealthiest, stuff for us, which delighted Maggie no end. No doubt she'd been forced to endure only the healthiest fare at the Carpenters (aren't I a great father) and managed to bag a plate of kitchen scraps for the pooch, when a man stalked over to our table with an arrogant scowl.
Immediately my hackles rose as the Mantle detected a threat and wanted to rip him apart.
Keep calm Harry, you've got Maggie with you. Deep breaths.
I stood up to greet him. He was tall, but I was taller. I nodded as he approached. The faux polite manly nod that means 'I recognise your threat and am currently restraining from physical violence.'
Calm, Harry, calm.
"What's that dog doing here?"
Maggie stiffened behind me and Mouse moved closer to her. I clenched my fists and started doing sums in my head. I've gotten quite good at advanced math due to all the calming down I've had to do.
"That's none of your business," I said, "but he's fully licensed and well trained, if that's your concern. I've got papers."
Wow. That was almost … diplomatic.
Mr Dog Hater snorted, "Everyone knows those papers can be faked. Look at her, she doesn't need a dog. You just wanted to sneak your pet in."
Rip his head off. Be quick and easy.
No. Too many people watching. Also, killing: bad.
I was glaring at him without looking him in the eyes (it's a skill I've cultivated over many years) and trying to ignore the Mantle. "You have no idea what you're talking about," I growled, fingers twitching. "Just because you can't see something, doesn't mean it doesn't exist, you ignorant shi-shizer. Now then," I said, stepping very close and lowered my voice, "go sit down and stay the hell away from my daughter."
Although Mr Dog Hater was shorter than me, he looked tougher than me. In fact, despite the training I'd been doing I still looked like a stretched out beanpole. He looked like someone who swallowed cans of spinach on a regular basis.
Still, he gulped and backed away.
Calm down Harry, try not to sound like-
Someone who would destroy an entire species if they threatened my daughter?
Mr Dog Hater shuffled back to whatever hole he had come from and I sat back down at the table, feeling shaken. I'd always had a bit of an anger problem, but I didn't like feeling so out of control, especially with Maggie around. Mouse nudged my leg and I looked at Maggie. She gave me small smile.
"Thank you," she said in a heartbreakingly tiny voice.
"For standing up to him. Some people don't understand. About Mouse."
Oh. Well. I did good.
She frowned and I tensed, "I – I'm not – not weak for needing Mouse, am I?"
I cursed Mr Dog Hater for somehow stirring these feelings in the middle of a zoo. These feelings obviously weren't new and if it had happened anywhere else I could have gotten Michael to help talk about this stuff. Or Charity. And I cursed myself. I wasn't good at feelings, I generally ploughed through all the traumas I accumulated until my friends decided I was being stupid and helped. Forcibly.
"No, you're not weak," I said. I gulped, "you've just been through something terrible," memories came unbidden to my mind. Susan. "Something that no one should have to go through, let alone a kid. And that's left its mark. An injury, if you like. And perhaps, one day, that injury will heal, but taking medicine for an injury isn't weakness, it's just human. Your medicine just happens to come in the form of a large, brilliant dog named Mouse."
The air was thick and heavy. I didn't know what else to say. Mouse rested his big head against Maggie's lap and she managed a frail smile. "Ice cream?" I asked. Most things can be cured by either ice cream or beer (preferably Mac's), and Maggie was too young for beer.
She smiled some more, something warm and genuine that made me think I wasn't entirely a failure as a father.
We were driving back in the Carpenter's people carrier. Whilst I was slowly moving back into Chicago, I still hadn't replaced the old Blue Beetle. Murphy had rolled her eyes at that, saying something about 'attachment issues'. I just insisted that I couldn't find a car that would be reliable enough; cars these days had all sorts of gadgets and gizmos that would be sure to explode around a wizard, even something as simple as electric windows would be sure to fail at some point. Murphy just gave me that look.
The people carrier was ridiculously big for just the two of us, but it was nice not to be bent in half for a change. Awkward heart-to-hearts and nosy dog haters seemed to have been forgotten and Maggie babbled about her favourite animals, a wide grin on her face.
I let her talk, providing the occasional encouraging word or grunt, letting her energy wash over me.
I've theorised on the existence of 'sleepeons', the subatomic particle that made me drowsy when Maggie was sleeping on me. Now I think she was emitting the opposite. Energeons? Awakeons?
I needed to think of a better name.
We drove up to the Carpenter's suburban paradise. Maggie bounded off to tell the other kids about her animal adventure and I strolled in after her, giving the invisible angelic guard a casual salute as I went.
I saw Michael almost as soon as I walked in and a line of tension that I didn't know I had been holding made itself known, "Michael, I got a call from Butters, do you know-" he grasped my arm, still strong despite his injuries, and walked me through the house until I saw Butters slumped on a armchair, exhausted but uninjured as far as I could see.
"Butters, how'd it go?"
He gave a weary grin, "I Jedi'd its ass."
I felt, rather than saw, Michael's disapproving look behind me and slumped down into a chair next to Butters, "Heh. So you did okay then. Good."
I must've sounded a little surprised or something because Butters frowned and said, "Didn't you think I could? You said-"
I shook my head, "No, Butters, I – it's, you're my friend. You asked for my help and I didn't come."
He looked at me evenly, "But you gave me the help I needed," he sighed. "If only I could do something about my glasses."
"Yeah. I'm pretty much blind without them and every two-bit bully knows to knock them off as soon as possible."
I frowned as a thought struck me, "Didn't Shiro have specs as well? Like, really thick bottleneck specs."
Michael nodded, "He was nearly blind without them. He fought with instincts other than sight."
I grinned, "Grandpa Daredevil." I wiggled my fingers, "Use the Force, Polka-Boy."
"What does that mean, who was Shiro?" asked Butters
Something inside me tightened as it always did when I thought about Shiro, "He was the one who had that Sword before you. He was a good man," and he had given his life to save mine. He had been dying of cancer at the time, but that hadn't lessened the sacrifice. He had given himself to the Denarians, to Nicodemus himself, and they knew pain like no one else. Shiro had believed I was a good man. I shook myself, "I don't know, maybe it's something to do with Faith; that's what your Sword is, after all."
"I'd still like to be able to see."
"Very understandable. You can try contact lenses, I guess."
"They make my eyes itch like crazy," said Butters, "besides, they can still fall out if you get hit hard enough."
"They can do things with lasers these days," I suggested. Butters shivered. I understood. Only Bond villains should be playing around with lasers.
"I was thinking about goggles or something," said Butters. I couldn't help it, I laughed. "Hey," said Butters, good humouredly, "plenty of superheroes wear goggles."
"But I was also thinking, is there a chance of healing them, y'know, magically?"
I shrugged, "Healing's not my area. Have you asked Bob?"
"Yeah, but it's not like he can examine me properly or anything."
I nodded. "I can ask. Listens-To-Wind is our best healer, and he likes me. But it's not like any of the Senior Council would object to doing a favour for one of the Knights."
After that, business talk faded and we turned to other, more pleasant topics. Beer was produced and Charity appeared with piles of food. I've said it before that Charity can make a feast out of a stick of gum and an apple core and she did not disappoint. I don't know how she does it. Perhaps it's her latent magic showing up, although I can't exactly discuss that theory with anyone.
Maggie had finished regaling her tales with the other Carpenter children and the younger ones were now demanding their own trips to the zoo. I smiled. My Maggie was quite the little storyteller.
I leant back and closed my eyes, smiling as Maggie clambered over me.
Today was a good day.