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[personal profile] ghostofthemotif
Title: A Birthday Ballad
Characters/Pairings: Marcone/Dresden, ensemble
Rating: PG-13
Summary: The ballad of Tam Lin holds a great deal of truth and, in the right hands, may hold the key to Dresden's freedom from Mab.
Author's Note: This is a de-anon from the Dresden Files kink meme.

The touch of winter overcame one by degrees, both literally and figuratively. It was a bite in the air and at the back of one’s neck, and it didn’t cease or lessen with time, only made the skin go numb until that contact was no longer noticed but still a constant presence. I’d seen that lack of sensation settle over Dresden’s shoulders with Winter’s mantle. People grew with age, and that progress was visible in their actions, in the sequence of their words, in the smallest facets of their expressions. Dresden had been frozen in time the moment he’d become the Winter Knight, and rather than exhibiting his penchant for soldiering obstinately forward, or even coiling in on himself and slipping backwards, he’d fallen sideways. There were no stepping stones to leap for in that space, no handholds to find.

I possessed little doubt that I was watching Dresden sink either into cold detachment or madness. It was simply too soon to determine which. His smiles were still the same, and I knew his eyes well enough to catch the intended meaning--- but it was that sameness, that feeling that I was watching recorded emotions displayed by a living suit of armor for posterity’s sake, which first gave me a sense of disquiet. I’d shaken a dead man’s hand before, and it was reminiscent of trading barbs with this Harry Dresden.

It wasn’t something I was willing to accept.

We were, I admit, a study in what happens when two stubbornly uncompromising men in positions of power find themselves in love. I’d approached my goals with the same unfaltering assurance that I always did and happened to pause one day only to glance up and discover that something had gone rather awry. It wasn’t alarming, merely unanticipated. I adjusted with the same ease as a man who had ordered incendiaries and been given a bonus pack of C-4. Both were useful and just as prone to setting things on fire. Such was the difference between the intended partnership and the resulting affair Dresden and I maneuvered ourselves into. It was understood albeit unspoken, and very rarely acted upon. Our language was one of years spent delving into all corners of one another’s psyche with brief, sparse forays into physical intimacy. It didn’t make our encounters any less potent; I’d seen his soul, in his eyes and bared to the world with every action he took, distance be damned.

He made a deal with Mab. I have made many deals in my life, and I can count on one hand the number that hadn’t had a means of escape without breaking terms. I am a man of my word. That does not mean I can’t properly read a contract.

The day I was given firsthand proof of the extent Winter’s mantle had affected Dresden’s mind, the same day that I looked into his eyes and saw something powerful bound, cornered, and desperate, I decided it was time I extended my services.

The story of Tam Lin came to us from a studiously anonymous source ---the Summer Knight, Fix, who still needed some advice in the realm of stealth--- after several months of research, and was again verified by a being calling himself a member of Dresden’s personal guard. As the information came from two individuals with vested interests in either Dresden’s discontinued tenure as the Winter Knight or his well-being, I elected to explore the matter further. Ivy simplified the endeavor considerably in that same casually-dropping-hints-so-as-not-to-seem-biased manner she already possessed at such a young age.

As far as I could tell, most Knights had gone readily into the employ of the Queens and had not sought freedom. Those few that had attempted to break away, had long since severed ties with any allies that would have been willing and able to aid them. They were isolated, and in some cases, submerged so deeply in torture and forces of behavior modification that the desire for independence was a fleeting thing.

Dresden had friends.

---

The invitations to Dresden’s birthday celebration were widespread. The Leanansidhe had made it into a personal project. She’d gotten a patently terrifying expression of delight on her face in an Accords meeting, and arranged for Dresden’s sweet mortal friends to be able to attend. It was like watching someone attempt to pamper a determinedly indifferent new kitten.

It had, however, given us the opportunity we needed to act. Furthermore, there was the added windfall of Dresden’s birthday falling on Halloween--- the date that the story we were essentially pinning our hopes on had mentioned specifically. If there was a chance of the circumstances that had freed Tam Lin working on our behalf as well, this was it. Gard assured me that our research was solid, and Ebenezer had agreed with her when Michael had managed to get in contact with him to explain our plan. The wizard, who I still hadn’t met but was assured had Dresden’s best interests at heart, wouldn’t be able to attend, but he would be waiting in the wings for the final stage.

As it was, Michael and Murphy were the token mortal guests besides the invitation bestowed on myself as the Baron of Chicago. Hendricks and Gard were welcome on the grounds of yes, dear baron, of course you may have your charming entourage, what sort of host do you take me for? Obviously, it had less to do with that, and more to do with an expression of an utter lack of fear or concern over what we would be able to do when faced with yet another example of Mab’s hold on Dresden. There were many more intelligent avenues that she could have taken besides taunting us. She should have chosen among that number. I had no illusions as to the gap between us as far as power went, but I was no fool in the land of loop-holes, and she’d left us one that the whole of Chicago could have fallen into, which it metaphorically might, depending on the way the scenario progressed.

Finally, Thomas Raith and Kincaid had procured invitations, although the latter would have been a guest regardless of his association with Dresden. He had a certain reputation that made him a frequent favorite of the fae. Kincaid was also responsible for our ace in the hole--- the Erlking. It was my belief that nothing could have convinced the Erlking to get involved with one of Mab’s political machinations disguised as revelry, except for precisely this: we were going to steal her Knight, a man who he already found interesting, and he was going to get to play witness whilst simultaneously enjoying the hospitality.

Maeve had taken it upon herself to provide the early entertainment as we awaited the procession, though it was of a variety that I had no interest in. I’d been assured beforehand that the mortals taking part in the play had not been taken from Chicago; it was not much comfort, and I could see Michael shaking, barely restrained, and the set of Murphy’s jaw hardening, her body going very still. The humans would be freed, we knew, and we would do them no good by interfering.

I was grateful when the din died and the road leading to the clearing began to glow. From the distance, the shapes of horses and their riders could be discerned, seeming to draw closer on a ribbon of white light. The attendees gathered on either side of the winding road through the forest, mostly fae, but with scattered denizens of other races breaking through the crowd. The air around us filled with lights of colors representing the entire spectrum, alive and darting back and forth as though their attention could not long be held by one thing.

Mab rode in front, her grey horse somehow larger but with slimmer dimensions than any horse should have been, its eyes a solid crystalline blue without pupil or iris. To her right rode Dresden’s godmother on a red steed that tossed its head and stepped carefully over the dogs darting between its legs, and to her left… Dresden himself, on a white horse, the most seemingly mortal and commonplace even when taken in comparison with the duel lines of bays following behind.

I forced my body not to tense as the procession drew closer. Across the path from me, Michael’s arm shifted, and his cloak fell back to reveal the hilt of Amoracchius. I knew for a fact that he would not use the sword here, but the threat of it, we hoped, would be discouragement enough. Beside him, Raith straightened from his affected slouch, and Murphy’s crossed arms tightened, one hand disappearing inside her jacket. Without looking, I knew that Hendricks and Gard were equally diligent, and somewhere beneath the Erlking’s gaze, Kincaid was ready to become the distracting bastard he was truly so adept at being.

The Queen of Winter had just drawn even with my position, when a goblin cried out in offense at something that had left Kincaid’s mouth and lunged for him. There was a strangled cry, and in the same hairsbreadth of time, blood flecked the ground in front of the horses. The Leanansidhe’s hounds went wild beneath their feet and bounded forward towards wounded prey, tearing indiscriminately into the crowd when they found there wasn’t enough for all involved.

For all appearances, Mab and the Leanansidhe were utterly unconcerned. On the contrary, they seemed almost amused. The clash, and the resulting gore, was just another piece of the revelry, just another bit of fun for their Knight’s birthday. The impromptu bloodbath began to spread down one side and scattered the line of horses, the fae astride them going for weapons but not worried enough to raise them.

And that was why when I broke from the tidy columns of onlookers, their eyes were not on me.

It did not take Mab long to amend that error.

“Marcone!”

Murphy’s voice cut through the sudden chaos, and I instinctively bent low to avoid the plume of blue-white force that careened over my shoulder. A boulder twenty feet in front of me turned to ice and shattered. I barely spared it a thought, and when I lifted my eyes, it was to see Dresden gripping the reins of the white horse that was trying for all it was worth to throw him.

There was a moment, one stilted moment of almost-confusion, almost-hope, where he glanced up and met my stare. It couldn’t have been more than a second, perhaps a fraction less, but in the upheaval of order around us, it was a glimpse of stability. I saw when comprehension began to creep across Dresden’s face, and I felt my gut wrench when he smiled--- because that smile wasn’t the same, it was new, but it was withered and worn, and it hurt---

I stretched out a hand towards him.

Dresden dropped the reins and reached.

That smile was going to get me killed.

Mab’s shriek was a physical blow as I pulled Dresden into me as he fell. Her voice brought everyone assembled to their knees with nothing more than a single note, high and sharp and so cold. I was dimly aware that with that sound, oxygen was being ripped from my lungs, my skin taking on a blue tinge. Dresden’s arms went around my back as I hit the ground. When my arms completed their circle around him, Mab’s cry cut abruptly off. A claim had been challenged---

Dresden shuddered against my chest

---and that challenge was being met.

Dresden’s scream held none of the sheer, indefinable power of Mab’s, but it chilled me to the bone. He was shaking violently, and I tightened my hold. Wind rushed past my ears, and in halting, rasped syllables, it told me you cannot have him. I gave a feral grin that I hadn’t allowed to twist my mouth in years, very clearly responding no one can.

And then I was holding onto a blood-matted hound with its teeth bared at my throat. The shift had been quick, but far from smooth, and the sharp jut of bone as it realigned slit over my palm, over my ribs, over my hip. The cuts were shallow but bled heavily. If Mab thought that was enough to force my grip to break, her poor underestimation of my abilities drastically needed to be addressed.

The hound’s teeth snapped and Dresden growled and lashed forward in his new form, in shock, panicked.

My fingers clenched in his fur. “Whatever you become…”

(The deadened expression on his face from across the table, dressed in Winter’s white, recycled grin, reused words, the statistics of the city’s dead rolling off his tongue with no consequence in his eyes---)

The fur melted to scales and my hands slid against the snake’s skin as they sought purchase, the massive adder’s ---Dresden’s--- body as wide as my own.

“Whatever she can make you…”

(Standing at his Queen’s side, without reaction as she argued for terms that should have terrified him, that must have terrified him, but that he would not discuss with anything more than sarcastic quips that had lost their humor by simple virtue of the numb disillusionment in his voice---)

Scales grazed against my arms and drew blood, scraped against flesh, as they shortened and split into the hide of a beast I couldn’t name but whose spine broke through its skin in sharp spikes and whose horns ripped a jagged slash through the shoulder of my suit and drew a red line across my cheek. If I hadn’t ducked my head back and rolled us onto our sides, Dresden would have unintentionally slit my throat.

“You know I’m not the sort of man that gives up,” I grit out.

(Pressed against the wall of a dark stairwell, a little overwhelmed by that first kiss wonder, utterly incapable of considering anything but the vast array of methods the other’s hands could find a way to kill, to maim, to betray---)

His spine shrank in again, and I was holding onto a tiger, and Mab’s laughter was thick in my ears. I briefly caught sight of Dresden’s friends and mine surrounding us in a circle, facing outward.

“I don’t let go.”

(Gripping his wrist, saying his name, short, clipped, as he started to leave the room, strange in a grey suit, ice blue tie, slicked hair---)

Something avian raked its talons over my arms, wings blotting out the sky and the forest and nearly lifting me from the ground.

“I won’t let go.”

(Nails biting into my back, over my shoulders, my spine, mouth cold, nearly too cold on my neck---)

I was holding a man who wore Dresden’s face, but his skin was coated in frost, his lips blue, his eyes a dead white. He stared into me, suspended above me, devoid of expression, the blade of a knife clasped in his hands beginning to slide up my side.

This is what he is, the wind told me.

One of my hands moved to the base of his skull, and I dragged him down into a kiss, defiantly answering you’re wrong.

His skin began to warm, degree by degree, but the moment his mouth started to move over mine, he changed, and I knew this transformation was the last. His weight vanished completely, and in my hands I was holding a piece of coal, hot and beginning to burn.

I sat up and cradled it to my chest before surging to my feet. I didn’t even take the time to breathe. Gard was at my side before I’d completed the motion, and I felt her hand on my arm just before we jolted forward through a Way and to a place of quiet, allies closing in around us, Mab’s shout cutting through the air behind.

---

The well I dropped the coal into was located on a farm in Missouri, owned by a man who said nothing to me, but whose gratitude was evident in the slope of his shoulders and the grip of his hands on the stone rim as he helped Dresden climb naked from the water. The rest of our group had taken up residence in Ebenezer’s home and were waiting for the ritual to be complete. We were unsure of the ramifications of more than myself being present, and the elder wizard had only approached when he felt the surge of magic that meant Dresden had been returned.

In the story of Tam Lin, his love had wrapped him in her mantle, binding him to her in some way rather than the Queen.

I could have removed my suit jacket and draped it over his shoulders, but I did not. Instead, I handed him his duster.

He studied my face briefly and then accepted it with that new smile. Our hands touched beneath the fabric, and his fingertips traced down the scratches on my skin.

Harry Dresden was not a man who could be bound by chains that were not of his own making. The only way he would ever come to me and stay would be if the choice was made entirely of his own volition. I was not going to be another choke collar that he sought to escape.

“You’re free,” Ebenezer told him, and our hands fell to our sides. “Marcone negated Mab’s claim in front of a field of witnesses, including the Erlking. Her word is bound.”

“Yeah,” Harry said. His eyes were still locked on my face, in that not-quite-looking way that wizard’s had, but they finally found my own. “Yeah,” he repeated, and there was some sort of heat in his stare that I abruptly realized that Winter had never had any hope of touching. “Thanks for being a stubborn asshole, I guess.”

The corner of my mouth twitched in mild (familiar, happy) annoyance, but the reply of, “And thank you for possessing the grace to fall off a horse,” came easily.
 
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