Chapter 5: A different path to take.
Shoving a fistful of dollars at the cabbie a few moments after they finally sputtered to a halt outside of his home, Dresden thrust the door open none too gently and stalked around the back of the vehicle as if it had done him a personal wrong, thrusting his wallet into a back pocket on his jeans.
He waited while the man behind the wheel counted every bill and held it to the light for authenticity before triggering the trunk's switch, by which point Molly and Sirius had emerged to find him quietly emitting steam from between his ears.
The glower he directed upon his assignment and Micheal's daughter turned after a long moment upon the bags of groceries, and he thrust his staff into the crook of one arm so that he could scoop up the nearest of the lot and march down to the stairs as if his stiff leg did not bother him at all.
Molly gave the elder wizard a questioning look behind his back, but Sirius only shrugged one shoulder loosely and bent over to grab the rest of the food. Beneath the rustle of plastic he did clarify, however. "Been something of a bloody terrible couple of days so far," he said.
She perked up at the term 'bloody'. "What happened?"
He glanced at her eyes without thinking, meaning only to evaluate if they had the kind of look that could handle even a fraction of the truth, but when she failed to break the connection a split-second later, the world fell away from them both-
A large cathedral-like room surrounded the same girl he had just been looking at - only now she looked more fatigued around the edges here, as if something unseen was eating away at her whether she knew it or not.
Stretching out along her back, her shadow trailed up to the windows, in which a small handful of reflections appeared. Each one displayed what seemed to be a different aspect of the girl, as if in different points of her life-to-come or her life-gone-past.
Happy moments stood beside paintings of sorrow and tragedy, blood stained hands and wry grins sitting next to gauntly thin limbs, while bland normalcy sat in the smallest and all-but-alone pane, as if trying to distance itself from coming to pass...
Shaking his head as his vision suddenly returned to her face, the older wizard remembered what Dresden had told him earlier that day, and blanched.
Bloody hell, now I can pull off this soul-staring madness? He thought, disgusted with himself.
There were certain lines even he respected, and he did not appreciate the intimacy such an act brought with it - he had known things about the girl that he had no right to, just as he had understood aspects about the younger wizard he had no desire for, either.
Molly had gone pale even beneath her getup, but her expression was only one of mildly-horrified interest, with what might have been a hint of concern.
"What happened to you?" She asked quietly, distracting him from his self-condemnation.
He was distracted from saying anything by the arrival of a darting, white-shaped blur from behind a set of trash bins, which yowled warningly as it sidestepped the taxicab and clipped him on the side of a knee in passing, then bum rushed down the stairs and straight into a returning Dresden's knees as if it were an albino bludger.
Surprise lit up the younger man's face in the split-second he had before impact, and that was in turn replaced with a half-voiced protest and pitiful attempt to steady himself with the staff.
"Mist-aarh!" whatever word that had been in his throat was changed to a low shout as his legs were bowled out from under him, throwing Dresden face-first toward the ground and dragging the wooden construct down with him.
Amid the jarring crunch of bone crashing into unforgiving pavement, a distinctly unpleasant snap and fizzle of energy dissipating into thin air signified the magical foci's death.
Sirius had dropped his own bags by that point, but as he sniffed cautiously at the scent in the air where the thing had passed, it read, loud and clearly, cat.
Musk and sardines filtered through the odor of damp fur, along with a faint trail of litter, though he would have placed that as at least a day or two old.
His suspicions were cemented when a very feline growl of dissatisfaction emanated out of the doorway, and a pair of heavy and slitted eyes turned toward Dresden as if down-dressing the wizard.
It was only at that point that he realized he had hunched over as if assuming his grim's charging position, still sniffing at the air by instinct, and that Molly was eying him now in more than just idle curiosity.
Merlin's balls, he thought, suddenly feeling embarrassed for some reason. He snatched at the bags he had dropped and hurried down the stairs to check on the other man, while Molly followed along in his wake with more interest in her eyes than before.
Dresden shoved up to his elbows by the time they finally approached him, staring down and wincing at the slight drops of blood where a few splinters had lodged themselves in his chin.
"First the sword, and now my staff," he lamented quietly.
"Are you alright?" Sirius asked him. Dresden craned his head up a fraction, then sighed in a very tired fashion and slowly shook it.
"No," he said simply, but added after a moment, "and I doubt I'll get much better today. Hells bells, I hate it when there are days like these."
Molly stepped around them both to drop her bags off just past the door, staring around the dark room with its single candle glowing, then came back to take Sirius' for him, allowing the older wizard to get a hold up beneath Dresden's arms and haul him to his feet.
To add disgrace to his already battered dignity, his stomach erupted in a renewed round of growls.
It was a sign of Dresden's emotional state that he kept from cursing at it and allowed himself to be helped inside, but at the doorway he paused and half-heartedly dug around in his duster until he laid his hand upon the long and smooth wand he carried there.
"Take these for me," he said, turning and thrusting the remnants of his staff toward Sirius. The older wizard blinked in surprise and let him go in order to do so, shoving one underneath his left arm so that he could steady Dresden again.
"Flickum Bicus," said wizard intoned quietly, waving at the ground where he had landed, and a few dime-sized flames burst to life wherever a spot of red marred the concrete.
Sirius couldn't help but wonder aloud what the point was, which earned him a bland stare rather than an irate one, as he half-expected by that point.
"Another gap in your education I need to cover," Dresden muttered as they stepped inside, and he added more loudly, "Help me shut the door before a ghoul shambles in."
Sirius raised a cursory eyebrow even as he threw his shoulder against the weighty steel.
"What's so bad about ghouls? Ungh, aside from that one in the toilet at dear old Grimmauld Place, I've never seen a ghoul go bad on its own," he challenged evenly.
"A little racket might even brighten this dungeon you refer to as a home up, regardless of if it does keep me awake half of the night," he added as the lock slid into place.
This time the look he received was far from thrilled, but the younger man at least spared Molly's innocuous-appearing form nearby a glance before retorting in a quiet, harder tone.
"Your world must be fairly nice and pleasant, given most of what I've heard from you so far. Ghouls are among the top three worst monsters I encounter on a regular basis, second to Vampires and third only to the Fae," he bit out, ignoring the pain shooting through his bruised jaw.
"If you say so," Sirius answered, but it was obvious he was only aiming to placate Dresden.
"Um, Harry?" Molly interjected neatly. He looked over to her dark outline again, shuffling his expression to a moderate attempt at neutrality.
"I could really use some better light, because I can't seem to find your refrigerator anywhere in here, just a freezer."
A rough snort was followed by Dresden aiming his wand at the fireplace, and in a dry tone he repeated his prior spell with more strength to his voice, "Flickum Bicus!"
A crackling flame burst up amid the logs there, blasting a wave of warmth and light across the room and closer to the kitchen area, but still hardly enough to work with. He repeated the motion with a more grandiose gesture, and every candle available suddenly flickered to life.
Molly blinked owlishly for a few moments and looked around. "You don't have a fridge?" She asked doubtfully.
"It's called an icebox, Molly," he answered.
She frowned and began loading up eggs, lettuce, and more besides inside of what she had mistaken for a rough freezer, but Sirius walked over and snatched up the cooling tray of fried chicken before she could touch it, glancing around to avoid meeting her eyes again.
Over one shoulder he espied the cat responsible for Dresden's misfortune, skulking nearby, and latched onto the opportune moment.
Sullenly reclined atop the bookcase now, it cast a reproachful glare as Molly loaded up the groceries without so much as a hint of dry or canned food shaking toward it, cycling from one of them to another as if an great injustice was unfolding.
"Your cat or an enemy's," he asked with a nod toward the furry behemoth; he had little doubt that it was every bit as large as Crookshanks had ever been, and perhaps rather more, as he compared them.
Dresden shoved his wand away and sighed, running a hand through his hair, then approached the couch and sat down on it.
"Mine. I forgot all about him last night. I'm surprised he didn't try to tackle me this morning."
Sirius' eyebrows slowly rose as he approached the couch. "So that's a normal, everyday occurrence for you?" At Dresden's impatient nod he only shook his own in return and popped open the plastic lid, licking his lips before biting into a drumstick.
"Bah, what are you, a dog person?" the younger wizard sniped. That earned a choked cough, turning into a wry, hearty chuckle once he managed to swallow roughly.
"Something like that," he returned, then gestured toward a sudden dewdrop of blood dripping onto the carpets. "You may want to clean that up."
Dresden glanced down and then ran his hand over his chin, wincing again.
Before he stood up, however, he leaned closer and said in a quick whisper, "I recognized the effects of a soulgaze out there, Black. Be careful who you trade looks with for now on."
Sirius choked again, scowling at the reminder. By the time he could retort, however, the other man had already shuffled his way toward the bathroom door and stepped inside of it.
To compound matters, Molly finally pushed the last spare package into its place and began to compile her own afternoon snack, and as she did so she picked up where they had been interrupted earlier.
"What were those cloaked creatures? I still have a chill watching those people degenerate into them."
Setting his next half-chewed drumstick down, he sighed. She's just a girl. Even if she believed my journey, I'm not going to haunt another soul with any more knowledge of the Dementor's than I have to.
"Darkness," he said after another moment of thought. "Just consider them darkness personified. Evil like all beasts that consume another by instinct may be considered evil."
The clink of her knife dropping to the plate was followed by a quiet intake of breath.
"They ate your friends and family?" She gasped.
Sirius cursed silently and shoved the drumstick back into his mouth, right next to his right foot, and promptly began to chew at it vigorously.
"That's horrible! No wonder you look so haggard," she stated, picking the knife back up and continuing where she had left off a moment before.
Dresden emerged with a trio of bandaids strewn across his chin at that point, looking almost comical beneath his serious features, and with a growing blue blot shining beneath them where hints of red did not already stand out.
He stepped around Molly and drew out a slightly-cooler-than-lukewarm beer along with a pre-made deli sandwich from the cooler, then retreated for the other end of the couch, leaving her alone as she quartered the bread.
He sighed appreciatively as the first bite reached his taste buds and then less so at the bland beer, but in his own opinion, any brand was poor by comparison to Mac's.
By the time she joined them, half the sandwich and more so the bottle were gone.
Sirius slid as far to the left as he could go without sliding off of the arm altogether, giving her plenty of room by comparison to the cab ride.
"Are you going to continue yet or should I start fishing for other subjects," Molly asked him, staring him in the eyes again.
He firmly directed his eyes over her hairline as his fingers dug around the plastic bottom in search of another piece of unchewed meat, but finding just scrappy skin and bones, he futilely shoved most of a wing into his mouth to keep it preoccupied.
She huffed and cautiously turned her attention to Dresden instead.
He beat her to the punch on asking anything, however. "As I said earlier, care to explain in full why I had to pick you up instead of your rightful legal guardians and parents?" His tone shifted toward a resonance of pain by the end, and he set the beer down to rub around the bandages irritably.
Molly bottled right up and leaned back into the couch, scowling down at her plate.
"Suit yourself. Black, hand me whats left of my staff," he said.
Sirius set the plastic down and offered up the two halves of wood, and Dresden shoved down the rest of his meal and knocked back the bland beer before standing up and working over to the phone.
She tensed up as he began ringing up a number, then exhaled slowly.
Several rings passed before an old, strong voice answered. "What is it, Hoss?"
"Something important has come up, sir," Dresden said.
A noticeable change suffused the other voice before it spoke up again.
"Nothing to do with what we just discussed last night, not directly, anyway. I may need to take a vacation again, sir."
"A - vacation, yes," the voice hesitated a fraction between responding, and most of the impact resolved itself back to a more natural tone afterward.
"Where and when did you have in mind?"
"The usual field of choice, and preferably by next Sunday."
"Be careful on the way, Hoss. Good traveling."
He hung up the phone and ran another hand through his shaggy hair, feeling the exhaustion of the day creeping up on him now more than ever.
"Molly, we don't have all day to try and get the truth out of you. I'd rather not call up Charity, but this is the middle of a magical murder mystery, and two more lives were nearly thrown onto the burning pile a few hours ago - us," he said grimly, clenching his teeth against the pain.
Molly blinked, and looked back and forth between the two of them. "It's... it's complicated," she stated softly. "Can't I just stay here with you for a few days? Help out with your case somehow?"
Dresden scoffed and tried not to wince again. "I like your enthusiasm, Molly, but you're just another vanilla mortal. It's bad enough bringing Black into this, but if Murphy caught wind that I had dragged a civilian in, we'd all be in the frying pan. To say nothing of what your parents would do when they found out, not if."
Her expression shifted into a grimace of her own. "I can do some magic!" She countered.
"Can you now?"
"Yes. Nothing like yours, not if even half of what dad says is true," she swallowed a lump in her throat at the mention of her father, but she stood up. "But I can do some. Invisibility."
Dresden left his hand on the phone, but he gestured with his other for her to do that.
Her eyes closed as she concentrated, and the edges of her curly hair suddenly faded out. The effect rolled over her body from several different points, but within ten seconds she had completely camouflaged her form from sight.
An embarrassed laugh escaped her lips, but he shuffled around the couch to examine where she had stood from each direction. After three passes he exhaled and stopped where he had begun.
"That's one mean veil," he said softly, impressed. When she returned to visibility in much the same manner as she had vanished, he continued.
"If you're having trouble explaining your talent to Charity, I'm sorry. But a veil isn't going to be enough, Molly. Even if you could hide from mortal eyes, you couldn't mask your scent, or your tracks, or the carbon-monoxide you breath-" before he could go on, Molly's expression soured and she began blinking out of sight again, a little quicker than before.
Dresden sighed and rubbed the bridge of his nose.
"She doesn't have a scent." Sirius stated when he opened his mouth.
Dresden frowned at him.
"How do you know?" He demanded irately.
"It's not just the smell of blood that I grew acquainted with in my w- times," he amended hastily. "I can't smell anything from her like before, not even the sandwich on her plate."
Scowling, Dresden let go of the phone again.
"Invisibility and masking her scent might help, but there are things in the Nevernever that will still be capable of tracking her - and unless you can tell me she is masking even her heat emanation and blending it perfectly into the surrounding air, it's far too dangerous to bring her along!"
Sirius stood up.
"And how am I much more useful at the moment? As I've told you several times already, the limitations of my magic are bound to a wand- blasting rod, then! The best I can perform is Apparition, and that has more risks without a wand than I feel safe performing again without one!" He argued.
Molly suddenly reappeared, fatigue stretching her features.
"Stars and stones," Dresden said darkly, staring down at the broken staff still clasped in one hand and arm.
He turned to the fireplace and paced back and forth a few times, chewing his words, and then bent down to lean them against the nearby wall.
"Twelve hours, Molly. Followed by two more days and nights," he said flatly, finally turning back to face them both.
"There are things that Black and I have to discuss before we depart to carve out new staffs - yes, Black, plural," he bit out. "If you can improve your veil, your endurance to hold it correctly by the time we return, if I judge it good enough... hell's bells, Michael is going to kill me if you get so much as a bloody nose, kid."
Molly stood up straight and blinked again, this time with a noticeable glint of moisture gathering in her eyes.
"This isn't a game. I can't even begin to tell you how many people died at the convention last night, and more besides will probably die before we can solve this. I'll do everything in my power to stop that, but I can't protect both of you."
"Convention?" She asked.
"Some kind of horror convention, Murphy said. Lieutenant Karrin, to you," he amended.
Molly's face fell into the same kind of pale grimace as before, and she dug into her pockets until she had a folded up sheet. "'Splattercon!!!' ?" She asked him quietly.
Dresden took the sheet and examined it a moment, then looked back to her face again. "Yes," he said.
"Oh, God," she murmured, dropping back down to the couch.
End Chapter Five.