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I'd done this before. Never on this scale, maybe, but I'd done it before. I'd saved the day, mostly, more or less, on several occasions. I'd done it before, and I could do it again.

There wasn't any other way it was going to happen.

The only good thing about having your back to the wall is that it makes it really easy to choose which way you're going to go.

I felt like throwing up. But I stiffened my back and straightened my shoulders and walked quickly over to Mother Summer as she finished standing up from tending to the last of the wounded Sidhe.

"Ma'am," I said quietly. "I'd appreciate it if you could take me home. I have work to do."

Chapter Thirty-five

With all the benevolence she'd had going on, I sort of forgot that Mother Summer wasn't human. She took me from the gates back to her cottage in silence, smiled, touched my head with her hand-and sent me back to my freaking grave.

I landed on my ass in the muddy broken ice-and could still hear the echoes of the crackling detonation when Mother Winter's ugly mitt had smashed up through it and grabbed my noggin. I could still hear the raucous cawing of startled crows. Time had all but stopped while I was gone-or, more accurately, time had flown by extremely swiftly where I had been, in the Nevernever, relative to Chicago. I'd been on the other side of that kind of time dilation while dealing with beings of Faerie before, but this was the first time I'd actually benefited from it, gaining time rather than losing it.

Which I hadn't even considered until now. If things had gone the way they usually did when one got pulled into Faerie business, I could have been gone for an hour and come back a year later, to what would presumably have been a blasted wasteland. The thought made my stomach churn with anxiety.

But I suppose I hadn't exactly volunteered for the trip. It wasn't like I'd taken a hideous risk on that score-it had been something entirely outside of my control.

That was scary, too.

While I was sitting there wondering whether that meant that I was a control freak or just sane, a Goth kid poked her head into view atop my grave and peered down at me. She took a cigarette in one of those long holders out of her mouth, exhaled smoke through her nose, and said, "Dude. That is pretty hard-core down there. Are you, like, gonna cut yourself or something?"

"No," I said, self-consciously hiding my hand behind my back. I looked down and only then did I realize that my outfit had changed from the Sidhe armor back to the secondhand clothes I'd been wearing before. "I fell."

Other Gothlings appeared. The girl repeated herself, and the others agreed that I was hard-core down there.

I sighed. I gathered my things and clambered out with some reluctantly offered help. I didn't need it, but I thought it might be good for some kid's self-esteem. Then I looked around at all the people staring at me, hunched my shoulders up around my head, and hurried out of the graveyard before anyone else could become helpful.

* * *

When I got back to Molly's place, she asked, "Why do you smell like cloves?"

"Kids today," I said. "I'm just glad they weren't smoking marijuana."

"Ah," Molly said. "Goths. So I guess that's grave dirt on you?"

"Stop Sherlocking me," I said. "And, yes, it is, and I'm showering. Any word?"

"Not yet," Molly said. "Toot's waiting outside for his crew to get back. I had to promise him extra pizza to keep him from going out to look himself. I figured we needed him to coordinate the guard."

"Good thinking," I said. "One sec."

I went into my temporary quarters and got clean. It wasn't just because I had mud from a century-old graveyard on me, along with an open wound on my hand, and because I feared about a million horrible things that could be made from those ingredients. The whole wizard-metabolism thing means that our immune systems are pretty much top-of-the-line. I doubted the Winter Knight's mantle was slouchy in defending against such mundane threats, either.

It was mostly because I'd been up close and personal with some extremely powerful creatures, and such beings radiate magic like body heat. It's the sort of thing that can cling to you if you aren't careful, maybe coloring the way you think a bit, and definitely having the potential to influence anything you do with magic. (It happens with people, too, but with people, even wizards, their aura is so much less powerful that the effect is negligible.) Running water cleanses away the residue of that kind of contact, and I wanted to be sure that whatever happened tonight, I wasn't going to be handicapped by any mystic baggage from today's visits.

I hit the shower, bowing my head under the hot water, and thought about things. The Mothers had been trying to tell me something, something they hadn't said outright. Maybe they hadn't wanted to just give me what I wanted-but, way more likely, maybe they were incapable of it.

I had bullied Maeve and Lily into straight talk, such as it had been, and it had obviously been uncomfortable for them. I would never have tried the same thing on Titania or Mab. For whatever reason, it seemed that the essential nature of the Queens of Faerie was to be as indirect and oblique about things as possible. It was built into them, along with things like not being able to tell a direct lie. It was who they were. And the farther up the chain you went, the more steeped in that essential nature the Queens became. Maybe Titania or Mab could be a little bit straightforward at times, but I doubt they could have laid out a simple declarative statement about the issue at hand without a major effort. And if that was true, then maybe the Mothers couldn't have done it even if they wanted to.

There'd been a message in all their talk, especially Mother Summer's. But what the hell had it been?

Or maybe this wasn't a human-faerie translation problem at all. Maybe this was a male-female translation problem. I read an article once that said that when women have a conversation, they're communicating on five levels. They follow the conversation that they're actually having, the conversation that is specifically being avoided, the tone being applied to the overt conversation, the buried conversation that is being covered only in subtext, and finally the other person's body language.

That is, on many levels, astounding to me. I mean, that's like having a freaking superpower. When I, and most other people with a Y chromosome, have a conversation, we're having a conversation. Singular. We're paying attention to what is being said, considering that, and replying to it. All these other conversations that have apparently been going on for the last several thousand years? I didn't even know that they existed until I read that stupid article, and I'm pretty sure I'm not the only one.

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