So the first order of business is a great big thank you to Kleenexwoman for writing to my prompt for Sara Bareilles' song Fairytales. Her fantastic story, Fairytales, figures the various princesses as participants in a reality show and looks at the darker side of the happily ever after that each of them was hoping to get. She neatly intertwines the original fairy tales, the song lyrics and her own unique spin on their stories into a whole that is bittersweet but ultimately lovely. This is really clever.
I was at once more and less productive than usual this year. I only wrote my main assignment, since I somehow managed to be both incredibly busy and a major slacker this Christmas season, but it's definitely the longest thing I've ever written in such a short time. It probably could have been easily twice the length if I'd left myself enough time to get really into it, but overall I'm pretty pleased with how it turned out. This was a great opportunity to a) challenge myself to write in the first person and b) be as sarcastic as humanly possible. I also got to use my fairy encylopedia as a research tool which is always a bonus in my book.
Title: Rhyme without Reason 1/2
Fandom: Dresden Files by Jim Butcher -- If you like magic in the modern world, witty narration and/or detective stories, you should read these books. Seriously.
Characters: Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden, Thomas Raith, Mouse
Word count: 10,304 total *fist pump*
Summary: Takes place a few months after the events of Blood Rites. Harry's got a new dog, a new brother and a slew of cases that centre around vanishing animals with anger management issues. Sometimes his life is weird even for him.
You just know that any day that starts with a client claiming they got attacked by a very large goose is going to be a doozy.
Tobias Varty was quite possibly the most ornery looking old man I'd ever seen. Considering that a good third of the White Council seemed determined to win an award for being the most stereotypical crotchety white-bearded old wizard in history, that's saying a lot.
Tobias was glaring at me from under thickly beetled brows, the thundercloud expression on his face suggesting that he blamed me personally for the hospital bed he was lying in, the cast on his leg, world hunger and probably cancer. And he'd just admitted to being piledriven down a flight of stairs by a waterfowl.
My stunning sense of tact informed me that this was perhaps not the best time to make a joke. I swallowed the first half dozen things that came to mind and managed an impeccably witty, "Oh. Okay then," instead.
Tobias' eyes narrowed further. "Are you taking this seriously?"
"As a heart attack," I promised. "So, uh, where did this happen?"
"At home," Tobias answered, after an assessing pause during which I did my best to look like someone even marginally responsible. "Three nights ago."
"Okay," I said again, because I am nothing if not a brilliant conversationalist. "And that's how you got-" I waved a vague hand at the sling holding his broken leg.
That earned me a nod and absolutely no lessening of the scowl.
I coughed. "Right. So, can you think of any reason why this goose would have wanted to hurt you? Recent trips to the zoo? Ate one of its relatives for Christmas dinner?"
The glare intensified, which I hadn't thought physically possible. "Stop trying to be cute, Mr. Dresden," Tobias ordered. "If you don't believe me, then just go."
I shrugged. "I've heard worse," I offered, which was true. It probably said something disturbing about my life that a homicidal goose didn't even rank in the top end of my weird stuff that happens to Harry Dresden meter. "But I can't really help if you won't talk to me."
Some of the angry bluster seemed to bleed out of Tobias' shoulders. "Fine," he allowed finally. "No, I can't think of anything I might have done to offend a goose. And yes, I have been thinking about it, crazy as it is."
I nodded. Geese didn't really strike me as a revenge-driven type of animal anyway. "And I'm guessing it was long gone by the time the paramedics showed up?"
"Before I even hit the lower landing." Tobias scrubbed a hand across his face, looking somewhere between rattled and thoroughly disgruntled. "I didn't bother mentioning it to anyone else. Didn't want to end up in the psyche ward." Dark eyes fixed on me. "Haven't made up my mind yet about whether you're nuts, but I'm not sure how much it matters in the long run."
What a heart-warming vote of confidence. "I'll do my best not to give you many opportunities to question my sanity," I told him, wrapping up the conversation as quickly as I could. Better to leave now before I gave in to the urge to say something unforgivably irreverent and gave up on my paycheck before I'd even got started.
I assume that situations like this are why I've been told that it's a bad idea to go through life with sarcasm as your default setting. Usually by people who don't think I'm funny.
Tobias seemed just as happy to have me out of his hair as I was to make my escape, so it wasn't long before I was wending my way through the sterile hallways, an address and a half dozen unanswered questions swirling around in my head. Lights flickered and machines beeped unhappily as I went past and I had to focus hard on not making anything explode. Technology and wizards weren't quite as bad a combination as toothpaste and orange juice, but it would still be better for everyone involved for me not to be here.
The wind knifed through me as I stepped out of the hospital and into the ankle-deep slush on the sidewalk. March in Chicago was cold and wet and miserable and made most people want to move. Preferably to Maui. Even more proof that I was, in many ways, kind of an idiot.
I pulled my leather duster tighter, shoulders hunching against the chill. The cold seeped through my battered sneakers as I trudged out to the parking lot where my faithful Blue Beetle waited, looking more gray than blue after a long winter of dirty snow and salted roads. Not that it was really blue anymore underneath the grunge anyway, but I couldn't help but feel a little bad for it anyway. Winter was always hard on it, even by my standards.
I was on a time limit to get across town to my office, so I didn't give the Beetle a chance to warm up before throwing it into drive and peeling out of the parking lot. Peeling was, of course, an operative term since five months of winter apparently hadn't been enough to teach some people how to drive in the snow and the Beetle and I chattered the entire way. I was fidgeting long before the building my office was in loomed out of the wet, overcast gloom, and I took the stairs three at a time on the way up.
There were voices drifting through my closed office door when I reached it. One was low and warm, while the other was suspiciously giggly.
I sighed. That was pretty much what I had been expecting.
I walked in without bothering to knock. It was my office, after all.
Thomas broke off mid-sentence, glancing up at the door. "Harry!" he greeted, with a lazy sort of grin. "You're late."
"Traffic," I explained, pulling the door shut behind me. I glanced at the very pretty young woman sat nearly in Thomas' lap and quirked an eyebrow. "So I’m guessing you haven’t talked about the case yet," I said to him.
Thomas' grin went sheepish around the edges. "Sorry. We got… distracted."
“I can imagine.” Thomas was a white court vampire, which meant that he looked like an Abercrombie and Fitch model and had the ability to make girls spontaneously orgasm at twenty paces while feeding on their life force.
He was also my half brother. It wasn't uncomplicated.
The woman was still making googly eyes in Thomas' direction, giving no indication that she'd even heard me come in. I looked back at Thomas. "A little help, Don Juan?"
"Emma," Thomas said, smooth and sweet as honey. "This is Harry Dresden. You wanted to talk to him, remember?"
Emma Wallace, my client, blinked like she was waking up from a particularly nice dream and turned to face me. She was exceptionally pretty, to the point that I wouldn't have been surprised to find that she was a model for Revlon ads or paintings of angels or something. She certainly gave a new significance to the idea of being distracted by a pretty face.
I was vaguely aware of the fact that I was staring when Emma's cheeks pinked in a way that made her look simultaneously pleased and flustered by the attention. I couldn't imagine how she wouldn't be used to turning heads. Maybe she didn't get out much.
Thomas made an amused sound and I dragged my attention back to the matter at hand.
"Hi Emma," I said, my voice considerably less honey-like than Thomas' had been. I sat in my chair behind the desk and smiled at her. "You wanted to see me?"
"Oh, yes." Emma darted one last glance in Thomas' direction, then squared her shoulders as she looked back at me. "I need you to find something."
"Okay." I adopted my attentive listening-to-clients face, which was basically my regular face with fewer snide remarks attached. "What are you looking for?"
My listening-to-clients face gained a skeptical eyebrow. People looking for books never seemed to work out well when you were in the wizarding business. "A book."
"It's mine," Emma said quickly. "I've had it since I was a child. It belonged to my mother."
"And it's been stolen?"
Emma hesitated for a beat. "I don't think so," she settled on, which would have been shifty even without the way her eyes kept cutting away to skitter around the room. "It's been missing for about two weeks."
"Okay," I said slowly. So far I wasn't liking the sound of this. "And what sort of book is it?"
"I have a description," she told me, digging into her purse and pulling out a square of lined paper. She handed it over. "Is that enough to find it?"
I unfolded the paper and glanced at the neat, even handwriting there. Plain tan hardcover, fourteen by ten, approximately two inches thick. Absolutely no description of what was written inside it. Subtle.
"Emma," I said, more of a sigh than an actual word.
"I'll double your regular rate," Emma interrupted, the words hurried like she'd been practicing them on the way over. "This book is very important to me, Mr. Dresden, and I don't know who else to ask. Please." Her eyelashes batted in a distressingly charming manner and I tried very hard to remind myself that I was a professional. Being a sucker for a lady in distress had only ever got me in trouble.
Tears threatened in the corners of her eyes and I folded like a lawn chair.
"I'll see what I can do," I promised, knowing even as I said it that it was a monumentally stupid thing to do. Emma brightened and Thomas rolled his eyes at me behind her back. I figured I deserved both responses.
Emma didn't linger after she'd got what she'd wanted. She gave me her phone number and a down payment, then gave Thomas a look that could have set a man on fire. Then she smiled and let herself out.
The moment she was gone, I slumped down and thunked my head down against the desk. "That went well."
Thomas' voice came from somewhere to my left. "You're kind of hopeless, you know that? I'm impressed you ever managed to stand up to Lara."
"I knew she wanted me dead," I reminded him, shifting so that my cheek was pressed against the cool wood. I blinked in his general direction. "It makes a difference."
"Whatever you say, Harry. So," he said after a moment. "How did your other client meeting go?"
I groaned. "Three guesses and the first two don't count."
"Another animal attack, huh?"
My nod was kind of impeded by the desk but Thomas got the gist.
"What was it this time?" he asked.
"A goose," I told him, not even bothering to keep the incredulity out of my voice. "Pushed the guy down the stairs."
Thomas frowned. "With what? It hasn't got hands."
I rolled my eyes. "Not sure that's the problem here, Thomas. It's like the entire animal kingdom's gone on a bender. And everybody wants my help dealing with it."
"Well," said Thomas, laying the sarcasm on thick. "You are well known for your skill with animals."
"Oh yes," I answered dryly. "I'm a regular Doctor Doolittle. As if having to deal with a cat, a puppy and you isn't bad enough."
"I am terribly high maintenance," Thomas agreed, some of the foppish, pretty boy persona he'd been wearing when I first met him bleeding through. Even after several months of having him sleeping on my couch, I still wasn't really sure how much of that he did on purpose. "Which is why you're going to drive me to work."
"That’s news to me."
Thomas' shoulder lifted in a graceful shrug. "You're the one who double booked your clients and needed me to sit in your office for you. It’s only fair.”
"Thanks for watching the place," I remembered to tell him, even though he clearly hadn't been that successful at keeping his mind on business.
"Eh," he dismissed. "It's not like it's any less boring here than it is in your apartment." His grin sparkled. "And now I get a drive to work."
Thomas worked the night shift at Wal-Mart. It was pretty funny.
"I thought it was younger brothers who were supposed to be the nuisance," I objected, hauling myself to my feet.
Thomas' grin went smug around the edges. "I've had far more practice at being irresponsible than you have."
I heaved an exaggerated sigh. "Well let's get you to work then, so I can go stalk a homicidal goose."
Sometimes it's hard to believe this is my life.
After dropping Thomas off at work, the Beetle and I puttered uptown to the address Tobias had given me. A woman whom I figured was probably Tobias' daughter was kind enough to invite me in and unkind enough to insist on following me around as I skulked through the house, chattering the whole while. I made listening sounds in the appropriate places, most of my attention focused on trying to find any trace of Tobias' mysterious attack goose. Ultimately, it was a wasted effort; the place was as absent of magical tomfoolery as a birthday party at Bill Gates' house. Just like all the others. Disappointing, but not terribly unexpected.
I poked around for a half hour or so, just to make sure, before extricating myself from the young Miss Varty's monologueing and making my snow-bound way home again. Summer couldn't come soon enough.
My cat Mister launched himself at me as I let myself into my basement apartment, followed closely by Mouse, the hyperactive gray puppy I'd been more or less adopted by a few months ago. At the time, he'd been able to fit in my pocket. Now, he was nearly as big as Mister and was a hundred times better at being underfoot. I stooped to give a proper hello to both of them and Mouse nearly wagged himself off his feet in his enthusiasm, delighted as he always was when either myself or Thomas came home after leaving him alone all day.
After Mister had returned to his customary perch on top of the bookshelf and Mouse had returned to a more tolerable level of overly excitable, I lit some candles against the approaching evening and padded into the kitchen to make something to eat while I muddled over the mess I'd gotten myself into this time. It was about as impressive as it could be without anyone actively trying to kill me.
Tobias was the fifth person in the last fortnight to come to me with a story that sounded like a special National Geographic edition of Girls Gone Wild. Which was pretty much just as ridiculous as it sounded.
It had started with a woman who'd been chased down the street by an army of stub-tailed rats, to the understandable confusion of her husband. She'd been joined by a man who'd had not one, but two owls try to make a nest in his beard, a young lady who'd been attacked by a spider the size of a small dog in Millennium Park, a woman who'd nearly had her nose pecked off by a crow. Now it was Tobias and his hip-checking goose. Definitely a pattern, but I'd be damned if I could figure out what kind. Well, aside from the crazy attack animals thing. That part was pretty obvious. It was the why and how parts that I was stalling on.
Even Bob was stumped and he normally took great delight in reminding me just how much more than me he knew. Which, given he was a spirit of knowledge, was pretty much fine with me, but it left me flailing rather embarrassingly on those rare occasions when he couldn't help. And now I was starting to face the very real concern that I wasn't going to be solving this case without some big, staggeringly obvious clue landing in my lap. Which didn't happen nearly as often as CSI would have you believe.
I managed to produce something edible for dinner while my brain ran around in circles and Mouse crawled into my lap when I sat down to eat. I couldn't exactly say that I minded the company. Mister and I have always been pretty self-sufficient, but that didn't mean I was immune to the appeal of a lapful of happy dog. And Thomas' schedule was usually the reverse of mine, so it wasn't like I was suffering from an overabundance of family time with my newly discovered sibling. In a lot of ways, it was more like sharing a dorm than being part of a family.
Still, I couldn't help but feel strangely domestic as I left a plate of food in the fridge for Thomas, took Mouse for a quick walk around the block and put myself to bed with Mister's warm bulk pressed against my leg. Maybe this family thing wasn't so far off after all. Who'd have figured?
The next day dawned dark and blustery and I managed to trip over Mouse twice on my way out of the bedroom. Be in awe of my catlike reflexes. Thomas was sacked out on the couch, stripped down to his boxers and looking like part of a porno shoot even with bed head and his feet hanging over the end of my slightly too-short couch. He didn't so much as stir while I puttered around the apartment, feeding Mister and Mouse and throwing together something quick for myself. I found his plate from the night before lying in the sink and added my own breakfast dishes for the cleaning staff to deal with later. And by cleaning staff I meant the troop of brownies that I'd earned as a reward for helping the Summer Court out a couple of years ago. The fairy kind of brownie, mind you, not the youth group.
After breakfast, I took Mouse for a walk, the ends of my duster flapping in the wind and making me look like some kind of tall, hunch-backed crow. Which at least fit in well with the cases I was dealing with at the moment, though I wasn't really convinced it was a look I ought to be cultivating. Mouse seemed to like me well enough anyway.
Thomas was still dead to the world when we got back, which was a joke about beauty sleep just waiting to happen. Unfortunately, I've never been nearly as funny without an audience (well, technically I was, but without anyone around to appreciate it, it just seemed kind of sad), so I left him there and snagged my warm flannel robe off its peg, then headed down into my subbasement lab. Which was freezing. Maui just kept looking better.
But I didn't have the leisure of going back upstairs and burrowing under my down comforter for the next week or two so I lit some candles, brushed the worst of the dust off the table and got to work.
The easiest way to find lost things was to get a hold of a piece of whatever it was you were looking for and use that for a seeking spell. In the case of Emma's missing book, I didn't have that option because my life is never that easy.
Instead, I was going for the still relatively easy option of dowsing. You've seen it done before, usually by people using Y shaped sticks to find water. The wizard's version was pretty much the same in principle, though it had a much higher success rate. Also, it didn't look quite so silly.
Magical dowsing was done using crystals, usually tied to something sturdy to give you something to hold onto when they tried to jump out of your hand. I rooted around in the lab and came up with a hunk of oddly shaped crystal about the size of a golf ball and a length of thick cord. That'd do.
Unlike most of the potions I ended up needing in my line of work, dowsing crystals were made from a fairly simple list of ingredients. I tossed the crystal into a pot of simmering water and added a handful of patience, the needle off a compass, an old shoe and a liberal dose of wishful thinking. Emma's bit of paper went in last and then it was just a case of waiting for the water to boil off so I could fish out the crystal and tie it onto the waiting cord. Easy stuff.
I looped the cord carefully over my left hand, tying it round my palm when I realized that my fingers wouldn't be able to grasp it. I'd had kind of an accident when trying to take out a nest of black vampires late last year and it had left me with a severely charred collection of fingers that only vaguely resembled the hand I'd gone in with. I didn't have a lot of motion left in it, but I wasn't about to let it get in the way of my work any more than I had to.
Once I was sure the knot wasn't going to slide loose, I lifted my hand and directed a surge of power into the crystal.
"Quaere," I told it and it jumped at the end of the cord, swinging back and forth like a pendulum before tugging insistently to the left. Houston, we have lift-off.
Thomas was still slumped on the couch when I came back upstairs, only this time he was thumbing lazily through a book I'd never got around to reading. I had a lot of them.
"Hey," he said, without looking up. "I left some food on the counter. I was going to call down earlier and see if you wanted some, but I didn't want to disturb you."
My stomach gave a little gurgle at the mention of food, a forcible reminder of the way I tended to lose track of time while futzing around in my lab. "Thanks," I told him, even though Thomas' attempts at using my wood-burning stove usually ended in very burnt food and, on one memorable occasion, a visit from the fire department. "I'll get some later. You busy?"
That earned me a raised eyebrow and an expansive gesture at Thomas' current sprawl. “Do I look it?”
I ignored him. "You want to give me a hand?" I hoisted the crystal and watched it swing vaguely towards the back wall. "I was gonna try to track down this book and I could use a driver."
Thomas shrugged. "Why not? Beats sitting here being bored out of my skull."
"It's so nice to know where I fall on your social calendar. Did you feed the dog?"
"Yes mom," Thomas said, with an exaggerated long-suffering sigh. "Want to check my homework too?" He gave me a cheeky wink, retreating to the bathroom before I'd thought up an appropriate retort. He'd been getting better at that.
I looked down at Mouse, who was scampering around my heels as usual. "I don't suppose you'd be willing to maim him a little?" I asked. "Show him who's boss?"
Mouse panted at me.
I sighed. "Some help you are."
Thomas and I hit the streets with considerably less pedal to the metal than that phrase usually suggests. The roads were just as clogged as they'd been the previous day and my little crystal was proving not nearly so handy as I'd been hoping.
"You sure it's working right?" Thomas asked, after a good hour of aimless driving through the streets of Chicagoland. "I feel like we're going in circles."
I scowled at the crystal, which was twitching in a disappointingly half-hearted manner. "Hard to say. It's definitely picking up something, but it's like it can't get a fix on it." Or like it thought the book was in a half dozen places at once. Which, while interesting from a metaphysical point of view, wasn't particularly conducive to my current quest.
“You know,” said Thomas thoughtfully. “I’m beginning to think this magic stuff isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.”
“You’re just jealous that you can’t blow stuff up with your mind,” I shot back. The crystal gave a half-hearted wobble to the side and I made a face at it. "Turn left up ahead, I guess."
Thomas sighed. "You sure know how to show a guy a good time, Harry," he said, making the turn.
"Lucky for me you're apparently a cheap date." The crystal made a sudden sharp swerve to the right, dragging the string nearly horizontal in its wake. I straightened from where I'd been slumped low in the passenger seat. "Well. That's a bit more promising."
Thomas eyed the crystal. "Do you think we hurt its feelings?"
"Maybe, but I'm not about to apologize. Right wherever you can."
We followed my suddenly useful crystal for another few blocks, the directions coming faster and sharper until we ran out of road, the crystal still pointing straight ahead.
And found ourselves facing a Starbucks, of all things.
"Huh," said Thomas. "Does that seem anticlimactic to you?"
"Very," I agreed. "If Emma left the book behind on her lunch break, this is going to be the easiest job ever. Come on, let's check it out."
It took some time to find a parking space - apparently Starbucks is the place to be at five in the afternoon - but we eventually managed it. The small group of smokers lingering around the door watched us parallel park with absent amusement, though their attention sharpened into something decidedly predatory as soon as Thomas stepped out of the car. I couldn't really blame them; Thomas was definitely prettier than the average bear, though it was a bit disheartening to get relegated to Boo-Boo status every time we went out in public.
At least I was taller.
"So we're just going to ask if anybody stole a book?" Thomas asked as we ambled closer, completely ignoring the not so subtle looks our audience was giving him.
"Pretty much," I agreed. "See if they have a lost and fou-" The crystal twitched suddenly in my hand and I paused, looking down.
Thomas stopped next to me. "Everything okay?"
"I don't know." The crystal was still pointing at the storefront but every few seconds it swung to the left before dragging itself back. "But I'm beginning to think I want a refund."
Thomas cocked his head at me. "I thought you made it."
I nodded. "American craftsmanship. Not really all it's cracked up to be."
"So what do you want to do?"
It was a good question. "Can you take care of the coffee shop?" I asked. "I'll find out what else it's pointing to while you," I made a gesture meant to convey 'stand around and be ridiculously good looking while people fall in your lap'. Judging by the expression on Thomas' face, it probably lost something in translation.
"While I what?" he pressed, sounding somewhere between amused and bitter.
I sighed. "Look. Like or not Thomas, you're good with people. It doesn't have to be a bad thing. Just go in there and be your normal charming self."
A grin twitched at the corner of Thomas' mouth. "You think I'm charming?"
I made a face at him. "I think you're an ass. Are you going or what?"
Thomas laughed. "Oh alright, Harry, but only since you asked so nicely." He flashed me a Hollywood smile, bright and flawlessly white. The gaggle of women at the door sighed like the heroines of one of Bob's bodice rippers and, somewhere behind me, I heard the unique yet utterly unmistakable sound of someone on a bicycle plowing straight into a lamppost.
I refrained from rubbernecking over my shoulder to check the damage and rolled my eyes at Thomas instead. "Put that away before someone gets hurt," I told him.
"Picky, picky. You want me to get you a latte or something?" I mimed a swipe at Thomas’ head and he danced out of the way with another chuckle. “I’ll be right back.”
Thomas walked off with a definite sway in his hips and the smokers by the door flocked over as soon as he came within range. My brother the showboat. I shook my head and turned my attention to the crystal. It twitched to the side again and I fell into step behind it.
I headed off down the sidewalk, doing my best to keep going in a generally forward direction despite the way the crystal kept trying to lead me back to the Starbucks. I turned off the main street into the mess of alleys beyond it, attention fixed on the crystal.
The swinging of the crystal got more frequent the further away from the coffee shop I got. The alleys were dim and piled high with garbage and dingy brown snow; I had to step carefully or risk face planting into the cement. Between that and the need to pay close attention to my crystal, it was pretty safe to say that I wasn't paying much attention to where I was going. I've always had excellent survival instincts.
The crystal jerked with an odd hooking motion and I took an absent step around the corner into another alley.
And came face to snout with a lion.
The thinking part of my brain got about as far as ‘Hell’s bells, that’s a lion’ before it hit a mental brick wall and started grinding gears. My animal brain just flailed uselessly and started whimpering in sheer, unmitigated terror. The rest of me stood there like an idiot, absently cataloguing the damp-fur smell of the thing’s dark brown coat, its heavy mane and a jaw full of really, really big teeth like there was going to be a quiz later.
Then the lion growled, a low, terrifying sound accompanied by a lip curl that neatly showcased the aforementioned teeth, and I turned on my heel and ran like hell.
I’ve had a decent amount of experience at running for my life over the years, but there was something particularly inspiring about knowing there was a deadly hunter over twice my weight charging through the snowy alleyways after me. The crystal bounced and slapped against my arm in time with my churning legs, my duster flying out behind me like a banner. I could hear the steady pad of massive paws behind me as I ran, far closer than I would have liked.
Shrieks and startled expletives peppered the air as I charged out onto the main drag with the lion hot on my heels and I wondered if I could keep running long enough for someone to get the police here. The steady wuff of breathing at my back suggested probably no.
An unexpected patch of ice sent me skidding and I stumbled, a pained breath hissing out of my lungs when my bad hand went out automatically to check my fall. It took a vital few seconds to shake off the haze of pain and then the lion was there, gold eyes fixed on me as he slinked slowly closer.
I took a steadying breath and prepared to blow some stuff up. Without a blasting rod. Great.
The ring of bone on stone clacked sharply in the silence behind me and I executed a masterfully awkward check over my shoulder while trying not to let Mr. King of the Jungle out of my sight. Of course, any benefit that the ridiculous maneuver might have had was completely lost when I realized that the thing standing still and proud not ten feet away was a unicorn, and promptly did a rather comical double take.
Oh yeah. I'm just that smooth.
I once saw a centaur disguised as a unicorn disguised as a tank in the Nevernever, but I'd never seen the genuine article before. This one didn't look quite like I'd been expecting either: it was black as night from horn to hooves and rather shorter than I'd always thought unicorns were supposed to be. It was more like a pony than a stallion. I doubted it would even come up to my shoulders. How disappointing.
The next few seconds happened very quickly.
An earth-shaking roar belatedly reminded me of the honking great lion breathing down my neck. I managed a half turn back before it was charging, strong legs covering the distance at an alarming rate. On my other side, because my day can always get worse, the unicorn lowered its head and charged, hoof beats striking off the cement like gunshots. I stood stock-still in the middle, because I'm apparently suicidal.
A voice yelled, "Harry!" and a solid wall of muscle barreled into me with the force of a two ton wrecking ball, spilling with me onto the floor and rolling us both out of the immediate line of fire. The lion and unicorn clashed like the proverbial tides scant inches away, snarls and snorts and screams filling the air.
I threw up a shield around myself and my rescuer, which, at this point, was about as helpful as giving an oxygen tank to someone who'd already drowned. Never let it be said that I don't pull my weight.
"Harry?" The steel bands wrapped around my chest resolved themselves into a pair of arms and Thomas blinked down at me with worry written all over his face. "You alright?"
A quick check revealed that I wasn't missing any major limbs or bleeding from any unfortunate places so I nodded. "I think I'll survive." Another roar ripped through the air as the edge of the unicorn's horn scored a gash as long as my arm in the lion's shoulder and I realized that this wasn't perhaps the best place for a heart to heart. "Okay, time to go. Let me up."
Thomas and I scrambled to our feet with varying degrees of finesse, by which I mean he stood up and hauled me up after him like I weighed little more than a Ken doll. I kept pumping energy into my shield as we edged towards the Starbucks, my staff leveled at the grappling creatures in case they objected. They just kept tearing chunks off each other as though we weren't even there. Which was totally fine by me, really.
We made our way down the street with slow careful steps, Thomas watching where we were going while I kept both eyes on the championship cage match still raging in the middle of the street.
Thomas' hand brushed my left sleeve. "Car's right behind you."
"Good show, Jeeves," I said absently. I climbed into the passenger seat and Thomas hardly gave me the time to fumble for my seatbelt before throwing it into reverse and getting us the hell out of there. Neither Simba nor the My Little Unicorn made to follow.
We were three blocks away, Thomas' hands white-knuckled around the steering wheel, before I remembered how to breathe properly. "So," I said eventually, with what I thought was a remarkable amount of aplomb. "Did you find the book?"
Thomas barked out a breathless laugh. "No," he answered, eyes darting my way. "Did we really just watch a lion and a unicorn duking it out in the middle of Chicago?"
I shrugged. "Either that or we're both on acid."
There was a wry edge to Thomas' laugh this time. "Not the last time I checked. Is your life always this weird?"
"Nah. Sometimes people try to kill me too." I glanced out the window in the general direction we'd just come from. "There's one thing that's bothering me, though."
Thomas snorted. "Just one?"
I ignored him. "Why didn't they attack us? Most things don't pop out of the Nevernever just to fight with each other."
"Only you would complain about not being attacked by something." Thomas paused, his tone carefully neutral when he added, "You think they were from the Nevernever?"
"I don't know where else they could've come from. You don't exactly find unicorns and lions frolicking together at the zoo. And they were too solid to be magical constructs."
"I've seen pretty strong magic creatures before," Thomas pointed out. "Hell, I've seen you use stronger spells than that."
"Yeah, but it's sort of like the difference between real life and virtual reality. Sure VR images look real, maybe even feel real, but they're not going to be able to mimic all five senses. Those things did." I paused. "Well, I don't know what they tasted like, but close enough. It wouldn't be worth it to pump enough power into a spell to make it that realistic, especially if all you're going to do with it is make it fight another construct to the death. You'd be better off buying tickets to a WWE match."
I could see Thomas turning that over in his head. "Okay, so they were real. But what were they doing here? And how did you end up in the middle of their slap fest?"
"Oh." I hefted the crystal again, which was amazingly still in one piece. It tugged insistently back the way we'd come. "I was following this thing and got distracted by the sudden appearance of lion. I've got no idea where the unicorn came from."
"Huh." Thomas glanced at the trailing crystal. "Should we go back? I mean, your magic rock says that the book's still... oh."
As Thomas spoke, the crystal gave a strange little quiver and went limp, dangling from the cord like a normal pendant.
"Hell's bells," I swore, prodding at the little bit of rock. It didn't so much as twitch. "This spell should be able to track that book halfway across the state." I slumped down in the chair and threw a piteous look at Thomas. "Why is my life so complicated sometimes?"
Thomas chuckled. "Guess you're a Saturday's child."
I blinked at him, nonplussed. "What?"
"Like the nursery rhyme?" Thomas turned at the next intersection and I realized that he was wending back towards my apartment. "You know, Monday's child is fair of face, Tuesday's child is full of grace, yadda yadda." He waved an absent hand, looking uncharacteristically reserved. "Saturday's child works hard for a living. Sounds like you."
I didn't respond to that backhanded insulting compliment inherent because I was too busy having a light bulb moment that Bugs Bunny would've been proud of. I groaned. "Oh Hell's bells, I'm an idiot. They're all nursery rhymes."
Thomas raised an eyebrow. "What?"
"All these animal attacks, they're nursery rhymes." I explained, the pieces tumbling into place. "The Three Blind Mice, Little Miss Muffet, Sing a Song of Sixpence." I waved a hand back at the chaos we'd just left. "Even the Lion and the Unicorn. Something's bringing nursery rhymes to life."
"Doesn't that mean there's a nursery rhyme about geese throwing people down stairs?" Thomas asked, wrinkling his nose.
"And people complain about the violence in children's programming." I was silent for a moment, thinking about Emma's too-pretty face and the way she didn't seem quite used to the attention it earned her. "It's Emma's book."
"What's Emma's book?"
"The clue I've been missing. Think about it. She's had this book since she was a child and she 'lost' it about the same time as all these crazy animals started showing up."
"You think it's a book of nursery rhymes?" Thomas guessed. "And she's, what? Using it like a spell book?"
I nodded. "Got it in one. I always knew you weren't just a pretty face."
Thomas' expression shifted. "Did you now?" he asked, and only several months of being in close quarters with the guy clued me in to the resentment and uncertain hope hiding in his dry tone.
"Thomas," I said frankly. "The first time I met you, you were wearing a loincloth. You made nice with me while I was dressed up like a cheesy vampire at a Red Court shindig. No one's that dumb. Which really only left one other option."
I startled what sounded like a genuine laugh from him and I thought once again that I could probably do this whole brother thing.
"I don't know," Thomas said, with a teasing glint to his eye that I hadn't seen much of since he'd moved in with me. "Crazy does kind of seem to run in the family."
"Sometimes," I agreed, because really, the guy had a point.
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