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Blue Christmas

Chapter Text

The man stepped out of the car, closing the door firmly behind him, the sound bouncing around the mostly empty parking garage. There was a somewhat cheeky air to it, a bit of irreverence that didn’t bode particularly well for the immediate future.

“Boss,” Hendricks said, and wedged himself professionally into my personal space.

“Cheers,” the man said, smiled. It was more a smirk. “Welcome wagon? Abbott and Costello?”

I sized him up over Hendricks’ shoulder, trying to identify who he was working for. He was an automotives expert, obviously, since there were no visible keys when he drove in, nor did he pocket any when he stepped out. The modest, uninspiring cars I maintain for business use have impressive theft-deterrent systems, and it’s more than a matter of splicing a few wires to steal them.

A veteran thief. He wasn’t young; he wore his hair in a short military buzz, which concealed neither the dusting of gray nor the way the hairline had retreated from his temples-- but he still had an air of youthful recklessness about him, that confidence associated with fast life and adolescence. He was either delusional or extremely good.

Considering the circumstances, I suspected the latter.

He was at least half a foot shorter than me, was frankly dwarfed by Hendricks, but his body was solid, muscular. He didn’t appear to be packing.

Hendricks was relaxing very fractionally beside me; he had also failed to see any weapons hidden in the jeans, the sweater, the old German army jacket. Traditional or otherwise.

“I’m John Marcone,” I introduced myself, keeping my tone and expression professional, neutral. I tipped my head slightly to Hendricks, making sure I knew the distance between us, in case it became necessary to move quickly. “My associate Mister Hendricks.”

The thief’s eyes brightened a bit in recognition, and his grin widened. “Pleasure to make your acquaintance. Just returning your car, and I’ve got business with your hired security.”

He had a British accent; I could roughly sense that it was lower class, and it lent him an air of faint rough menace. It wasn’t the BBC news-reader standard I became fast familiar with, years ago, in an effort to improve my vocabulary and smooth the accident of my birth from my pronunciation. It was closer to the stereotypical Cockney but not quite what popular entertainment had accustomed me to, and I unfortunately couldn’t place it beyond that.

Hendricks grunted threateningly. To a stranger: a warning, promising dire things to anyone who threatened my ruinously expensive security contractor. I understood his actual intent-- a simple expression of distress. Gard could handle her own battles; Hendricks preferred that there not be any.

“About the car,” I said, keeping the discussion grounded-- two levels under, in this case-- keeping it away, for now, from any violence not well-camouflaged by even tones and polite smiles. “Not to be confrontational, Mister...?”

“Eisenherz. Blue Eisenherz.” The man offered a hand, glanced at Hendricks, and pulled a slightly sardonic face and thought better of it.

I smiled and pretended I hadn’t seen. There was a line of scarring, like old stitches, all the way around the strong wrist that was revealed when his jacket pulled back along his arm.

“Mister Eisenherz,” I said instead, not attempting to give the German the faint trace of authenticity Eisenherz had. “It has come to my attention that while you are not, to my knowledge, an authorized member of the car pool, you have been taking a certain amount of liberty with the use of my vehicles.”

“Little bit,” Eisenherz said with a faint smile. “You have them to spare.”

“From each according to their abilities?”

“Wrong side of Germany, friend.”

“Are you originally from Germany?”

“Originally.” That seemed to be all I was going to get.

“And now?”

The smirk came back, and Eisenherz spread his arms slowly enough that he didn’t end up with Hendricks’ professional qualifications between the eyes. “I am not, strictly speaking, of your earth and stones, Baron,” he says, “but your city’s been my home.”

He couldn’t be flashing a ‘You’re missing something, foolish mortal!’ sign any brighter if he came with neon lights. I wasn’t interested in playing a game. It would be useful to know what variant of supernatural being he was, but not at the expense of trading barbs that might give my guest equally useful information.

“We’re veering from the subject. You’ve been borrowing my vehicles. I’d like to know why.”

He gave me a nod as if he approved of something. I don’t enjoy being patronized by the supernatural. Nor am I fond of secretive intimations that I’m passing some arbitrary test of worthiness. I kept my smile professional, and ignored the little stings of irritation. “Just business. This, and that.”

“Antagonizing white-collar criminals in Ohio?”

“Not my original goal, no. They were trying to kidnap Dresden, though. I may’ve dropped a name.”

He knew who I was, then, but not by sight. Knew who I was to the human world, as well as that beyond it. He knew that other criminals feared the name Marcone, but didn’t share their trepidation. Irritating. I considered having him murdered on principle; Hendricks would object.

“A habit of yours, then, name dropping?” Eisenherz shrugged one shoulder, not thick with muscle, but blocky, solid. And given his most likely fantastic origins, no doubt stronger than it looked. “And am I to take from it that you are an ally of Mister Dresden?”

“Yes.” He said it with such conviction that I was taken aback, had a half second of wondering if I had even heard him correctly. I’d been expecting another deferral, another hint, another riddle.

I didn’t so much file that bit of information away as star it, highlight it, and move it to the top of the pile. Eisenherz wasn’t known to me, from what I knew about Dresden’s activities, but he could be a new ally, or an old one with a new face, or simply one who hadn’t made contact yet with my reconnaissance.

And there’d been plenty of time for Dresden to make new allies-- there’d been hardly a trace of him in Chicago, since the haunting. Hendricks rolls his eyes at my files, but it is, I believe, as much for show as anything. He doesn’t always approve of my interest, but he understands the importance of research.

“Why my cars? Surely there are any number of vehicles someone with your skills could acquire.”

“Yours are discrete. No company branding. Not flashy. You keep’m up well.” Eisenherz shrugged. It was true. The... man? Man, easier, until I knew better. The man knew the value of discretion, at least when it came to automotive vehicles. “And I bring them back. Figured you to be the most reasonable about that.”
“Am I being unreasonable?”

“Nah. Perfect gentleman.”

“I’m going to have to ask you to stop taking my cars, however.”

Eisenherz chuckled. “Aside from the once, haven’t I always brought them back in condition?”

“That’s beside the point.”

“Well. We’ll have to talk that one over later.” Idly, the man waved at the car he’d just exited with an empty hand. “Lock up, sweetheart.”

The car chirped, locks shooting home with a tiny clunk, and my eyes flicked to his other hand-- also empty, still hanging by his side. He hadn’t shifted in any small way that would have triggered a mechanism, or if he had, I hadn’t seen him.

Hendricks was glaring harder. He hadn’t seen how it was done, either.

Well, that was either a convincing bit of technological fakery, or an ability I’d never seen before. Combined with the complete absence of damage, of any trace of tampering, on the previously borrowed cars, it was worrying. There was a very high possibility that there would be nothing I could do to stop Eisenherz from taking a car whenever he felt like it-- a little barb of mortal impotency, the type the supernatural set so liked to sting me with. I’d ask Gard for a report on the situation, see how reasonable it would be to develop countermeasures.

“Now that we don’t have that settled,” Eisenherz said, “will you be so kind as to point me in the direction of your security contractor, or will I go find her myself?”

“Don’t threaten my people,” I said, crisply, to the point. I slid a hand casually into my pocket and palmed a knife; steel bladed, silver inlaid, and carved with a few interesting runes. It might or might not actually harm Eisenherz, but it was more likely to than most things.

But it was the words, not the hidden weapon, that gave the man pause. He reacted to my censure before I had even completed the move. “...I think we’re getting off on the wrong foot. I’m not here to threaten anyone.”

“And if I refuse to take you to her?” I tipped a brow. Hendricks, interestingly, feigned distraction, typing with one massive thumb on his phone; he was baiting a move, in his own way trying to determine this man’s intent as urgently as I was. And he wouldn’t be bothering, if he felt that Eisenherz warranted the full brunt of his attention.

I kept my hand on my knife.

“I’ll try to catch up to her elsewhere.”

“And if she doesn’t wish to be caught up with?”

He shrugged. “Then my life gets a hell of a lot more difficult. Not too many people in the city can open portals, and fewer that I trust.”

“You trust Ms. Gard?” I asked, wondering where the hell he was going with his matter-of-fact nonsense.

“Never met her. Dresden trusts her, though. That’ll do.”

“He’s told you that?”

“He’s mentioned it.” And somehow, that was not a confirmation. My patience was wearing thin, but the last inch of it is the strongest, and I stayed calm.

“Gard says bring him up,” Hendricks grunted.

I slipped my hand back out of my pocket. “Well, Mister Eisenherz. It would seem to be your lucky day.”

 

Elevator rides with hostile forces of varying kinds takes a certain skill, one I have grown and honed over time. I’d had tenser rides than this. Certainly more immediately dangerous ones-- inches away from men who would gladly stick a knife in my side or press a gun to my back-- but I had seldom felt quite this uninformed while the subject of my ignorance stood a few feet away, seemingly content to stare off into space, waiting with professional patience.

Ms. Gard was waiting when the doors pulled apart, calm, as cool as the steel of her axe-- which she was not, I noted, carrying. Nor was there evidence of more mortal weaponry on her person, not that she tended to make it overtly obvious when there was... at least so long as she wasn’t sporting a submachine gun, or piloting an extensively modified helicopter. Those were significantly harder to overlook. Her eyes were bright, sharp, and tracked up and down Eisenherz quickly, openly cataloguing.

“Good day,” she said, as we stepped from the elevator. “I’m told you wanted to see me.”

Eisenherz gave her just as considering a look back, diplomacy seemingly not a skill he thought necessary to exercise. “Afternoon. Hear you’re good with a helicopter.”

“I hear you are very good with cars.”

“It’s a knack.”

“And not so good with accessing the Nevernever.”

Eisenherz nodded, unashamed. “Not one of my talents.”

“It has been my experience that those who are not of this realm need no assistance returning to theirs.” Gard spoke levelly, but there was no disguising the questions she asking.

“I’m fantastic at that. But I need to go to Winter.”

Gard shifted her look to me. “I believe we should continue this discussion in the office.”

No one spoke until we were past reception, through the hall, and then the enforced door of the large office space Hendricks, Gard, and I shared.

“Nice set up,” Eisenherz said, wandering without hesitation past Gard and Hendricks’ desks in the bullpen and through the open secondary door that led into my office, peeking through the closed blinds and out at the city. He twirled the pull between his fingers. “May I?”

It was very polite, and rather more complicated than necessary, for a means to an assassination attempt. And the glass was as bulletproof as the market could make it. Hendricks didn’t like it, I could see it in his face, but he hadn’t actually protested. I took his silence as-- if not assent-- an indication that he wasn’t going to waste his energy arguing. Still, I waited until I’d stepped inside the circle that was embedded in the floor around my desk, unseen and quiescent under the carpeting, before I nodded. I didn’t think Eisenherz was there to me kill me, but it didn’t pay to take unnecessary chances.

The city was, of course, beautiful. Fog covered most of it, frozen in a thick, jagged coat on every surface it touched, and mixed with the smoke and water vapour pouring from the heating systems of all the office towers to make the sky white. The thick frost it left behind made driving hell, but from here, safely inside, the buildings around us gleamed and the glimpses of river and street and lake glinted and glimmered with all the lights of winter.

Eisenherz looked out across it with real interest, his smile losing some of its smirk.

“I usually see it at ground level,” he said, eyes tracking over the the scenery. It was another one of his hints, even if given somewhat unconsciously. I was getting sick of it.

So I simply bit the bullet. “What are you?”

Eisenherz turned from the window but didn’t answer immediately, frowning, thinking it over. “Bit metaphysical, actually. I’m not precisely sure. Not human, but definitely biological. A spirit made flesh. That’s a recent development.” He’d explained before, but not often enough to have a pat answer. “I like it.”

He seemed to be waiting for a cue to continue, and I obliged: “Before this most recent development?”

This he knew by rote, with certainty: “I was a 1967 Type 1 Volkswagen.” A pause. His mouth quirked as he took in my politely flat expression, the general screaming aura of bullshit that I couldn’t quite rein in (and had no desire to, frankly, if all he wanted was to make me the mortal butt of his joke). “Most of me, anyway. Wound up with ‘75 headlight mounts at some point, don’t ask how the garage managed that one. Dresden called me the Blue Beetle.”

“Bullshit,” Hendricks said out loud, taking the onus off of me. I notched Hendricks’ Christmas bonus up several percentage points.

“Arguably,” Eisenherz said. “But strong bullshit. Psychic residue, a critical buildup of superstition. Plenty of cars have’m. But it takes one hell of a push to actually get--” He gestured at his body.

“A domovoi. A household spirit,” Gard murmured. She, at least, looked like she was considering taking him somewhat seriously. “I would not cross the someone who could give such a thing a real mind. I do not think I like it.”

I could see Hendricks restraining his own conversational input, clinging to his veneer of brute force and malevolent stupidity. A manful effort, and I didn’t have the classical background to step in and relieve the tension in return. I’d ask, later, what his insight was.

EIsenherz seemed unmoved by Gard’s censure or Hendricks’ glower.

“If you could walk me through the process, between automobile and… biology?” I interjected, both to move things along before my security people got restless, and because really, how the hell.

“Not really, wasn’t there for most of it. Got carbombed back in 2011. Woke up a year later. Missed all the stuff in between.”

“I remember,” I said, and I did. The report had been shocking, the battered old car as pervasive, as persistent as Dresden himself. “A shame, that incident. It wasn’t one of my people.”

Eisenherz’s teeth showed. “I know that, Marcone. I recognize most of your shadows, they hung around me often enough. If he’d been one of yours, we’d already have had a talk.”

“I thought you weren’t threatening us,” Hendricks said, with an ever-deepening scowl.

“I’m not. I would be if you’d tried to kill me,” Eisenherz said, and under the chipper accent that may or may not have been exaggerated for my benefit and the air of quiet-- I couldn’t quite bring myself to say mechanical-- confidence, I got an abrupt glimpse of Dresden’s own mannerisms, his smart mouth and general anti-authoritarianism, and I could almost let myself believe wholeheartedly that this was Dresden’s car.

“Technology has grown into the lives of mortals far quicker than wizards have grown older, in this age,” Gard said, consideringly. She was eyeing Eisenherz with cautious respect. “The interaction between Dresden’s magic and the modern system of a twentieth century automobile... I do not think it would do this, not by itself. But with the right will, and application of magical thought... it could create a safe place for a domovoi to form. If the circumstances were right, if the master of the household--” she tipped a hand at Eisenherz, who smirked back, but not unkindly, “the property and chattel, whatever it may be, were to place such great faith in it. Who made you whole?”

“Can’t say. He hasn’t told me. Seems to be on Dresden’s side, or you can bet your battle axe I wouldn’t run his errands.”

Hendricks’ eyes narrowed. “Why doesn’t he open your damn portal?” He added a bit of growl at the end, for appearances sake.

“Because this isn’t one of his errands. Not that he ever gives me more than a direction and maybe a few dollars, or I wouldn’t have to borrow your cars.” Eisenherz grumbled. “This one’s personal. Got to fetch the troublemaker back for Christmas. It’s after the Solstice, they can spare him, and he’ll regret it if he misses it.”

“You mean Dresden,” I murmured, half to remind him that I was there, half to place a claim on all the spinning possibilities of this conversation.

“Yeah. Who else?”

Who else indeed. I frowned, trying to chase down the various implications of this, of what Eisenherz was claiming, of what he was asking for. I could either accept or disbelieve Eisenherz’s claim to be Dresden’s former vehicle, however fantastic that claim may be. To accept it would give credibility to Eisenherz’s stated desire to retrieve Dresden from Winter. Disbelief would leave me back at square one.

Gard seemed to believe him, at any rate, or believe it was possible. My instincts weren’t cautioning me against believing Eisenherz-- and I paid Gard too handsomely to ignore her judgment.

“And how much trouble, on a scale of, say, one to Armageddon, will this abduction of the Winter Knight bring down on my head?” I asked.

“Christ, I’m just getting him for a visit,” Eisenherz said, rolling his eyes.

I waited, and Eisenherz finally sighed, adding: “If he won’t come willingly, I won’t force him. You know Harry. He won’t come if he thinks trouble will follow him. Besides,” he said, smirking. “I’m not asking you, am I?”

Gard glared at him. “You’re asking me. If you expect my help, be kinder to my shieldmates.”

His brows furrowed up. “I just want to find the goddamned wizard, is it so much to ask-?”

“Yes, if you expect me to send you to Winter, carrying an iron heart.” Gard shook her head.

“I can’t help what I am. And he’s going to miss Christmas if someone doesn’t remind him about the real world.”

Eisenherz was losing his cool-- or no, he wasn’t losing that, it seemed to be innate, but he was tense, his attention diverted from smirking and needling me towards his end goal.

“You’re extremely loyal to him,” I observed, and he shot me a look of exasperation.

“I’m his bloody car, of course I am.”

“Mm,” I said, because ‘bullshit’ would be redundant. “Ms. Gard, you have my blessing... if you choose to help him. You also have my backing if you want him thrown out of the building.”

“I will take him through,” she said simply. “There is a connection to Winter’s lands in one of your warehouses, Baron. It will do. But--” she looked at Eisenherz. “Winter’s territory is wide. I do not know and I will not spend my favors to find out where the Knight is.”

“I paid off some local spirits for a tip,” he said simply. “I’ll find him once I’m in. You just open me a door.” A pause. “Please.”

“You will owe me a favor.”

“Duly noted.”

With a fractional nod from me, she turned back into the bullpen, going to the desk she had been working from, retrieving her winter coat from the coat tree beside it. “I will be back in half an hour,” she said. “Or I will call.”

We went out to the hallway and the elevators as a group, neither Hendricks or I eager to have Eisenherz leave without verification.

“Report in once you’ve delivered him,” I told Gard. She dipped a nod, and cued the elevator.

We stood in silence, Hendricks glaring, Eisenherz placid, Gard looking thoughtful, until the bell dinged and the elevator doors slid open.

Hendricks waited a few moments after Gard and Eisenherz had disappeared, and the elevator had hummed away.

“Well, we know where he got those sterling diplomacy skills,” he rumbled.

“The sheer contrarianism almost makes me believe his story. ...Speaking of which.”

“Do I buy it?” Hendricks shook his head, turning away from the elevator. “Don’t know. Considering all the mythological bullshit that’s turned out to exist in some form or another... household gods are a thing, golems and possessed objects are a thing. Gard called him a domovoi, think that’s something like a lar, and she at least thinks it’s possible. So. I can’t call it, but there’s a non-zero chance here.”

“Fantastic.”

He grunted, a long-suffering non-syllable that conveyed a deep and primal sympathy in the face of the smug and supernatural better than mere words.

After that moment of commiseration, there was still work to do, so I went into my office and braced my overflowing inbox, and Hendricks sat down to read over field reports and make notes on his thesis.

Gard called twenty minutes later to report her successful drop off and the exit of one Mister Blue Eisenherz from my sphere, at least for the time being, and to revise her return time because the traffic was some old Norse expletive. I told Hendricks as much (shouted it through the open door, but the building was extremely understaffed for the holidays and I imagined nobody would protest my lack of decorum anyway) and went back to work.

Gard’s arrival was almost twice as long as her revised estimate, and she made no attempt to hide the bags she carried, two retailers with storefronts a few blocks away. I scowled, and she ignored me thoroughly as she tucked the bags beneath her desk, and hung up her coat and scarf.

I gaped almost openly when she bent and extracted a box of chocolates from one of the bags, peeling away the plastic wrap and ribbon in one quick movement. She walked over to my desk, holding the box open and offering, and nodded politely when faced with my incredulity.

“Ms. Gard,” I said, my jaw tight. “While I am aware that the general pace of business tends to slope this time of year, I must request that if you are going to bill me for your time, you do me the courtesy of fulfilling your contractual duties, and as they are not stipulated, save your shopping expeditions for when you are off the clock.”

“Of course,” she said, bland faced and unaffected, and placed a chocolate on my desk.

I glared at it until I heard her offer the chocolates to Hendricks, back out in the bullpen, and then their voices, low, as they snacked and gossiped. I turned back to my report, transferring my glower to the charts of new year projections generated by some of the best economic minds in the country. Some of my more legitimate businesses were under a great deal of strain. The black market, of course, was booming, but one cannot deal in that kind of money without a sufficient amount of legal cashflow. Not if one wants to remain in business for long.

The finances were bad enough. If I started adding the other issues into my considerations-- the fractured supernatural and mortal politics of Chicago, the increasing number of small powers feeling at the edges of my authority, the outright challengers.... One of whom was stealing my cars on a regular basis...

One of whom claimed to have been a car, and that was unsettling, right down to the bone of it. The mechanical, the technological, the mortal. If cars themselves could be given minds, mouths, the ability to comprehend all you had done and said in them. If something that human could be made... well. That human. Then what was there left? What remained that was ours? And how easy would it be to unbury all the dirty secrets spoken in confidence? There were fairy tales about that, too...

I was grinding my teeth. I made myself stop and loosen my jaw: took a few deep breaths, sent off a few emails-- the one to Gard about today’s report was, possibly, crisper than intended-- and went back to the yearly projections.

My email alert chimed a few minutes later, and I flicked my inbox open, instantly assessed it as low priority, shut the inbox, processed what it had said, and opened it again.

The subject was “OOO I AM THE SPIRIT OF YOUR PENTIUM” and it was from one NHendricks@BrighterFutureFoundation.org.

In full, it read: “Greetings, mortal! My name is Penny Gizmo. I am the spirit of your Pentium, who has served you faithfully these many months. I am going to stop working unless you take your security team out for coffee.”

Oh god.

I deleted it without responding. And the second and third-- promising me to be visited by ghosts of Amigas Past and IPad Future respectively if I failed to display the requisite holiday cheer.

And then the next had the subject line “TOASTY THE TOASTER REQUESTS AN AUDIENCE WITH BARON MARCONE”, from MonocSG@BrighterFutureFoundation.org

I got up quietly, prowled around my desk, and stuck my head out into the bullpen. Two grown adults-- arguably some of the most dangerous security professionals in the state of Illinois, no less-- grinned back at me, both trying not to snicker like children.

“Is there some reason I should be aware of that I’m being bombarded with seasonal whimsy?”

“Figured you need a dose of lighten the fuck up,” Hendricks said, with an ease that came of an ironclad and not unfounded certainty that I could not fire him.

I could feel my face tighten, my jaw firm, little tells that would give me away to myself, to Hendricks, probably to Gard, and couldn’t stop them. “Your thought, although misplaced, is appreciated. I would suggest instead tha--”

“This is not the time for your Country Club Monster routine,” Hendricks said, brow pulling down in what would, if you were foolish enough to give more consideration to his size and musculature than his mind, look a lot like anger. I knew it was worry, and bristled.

“Perhaps you have failed to notice amidst the holiday cheer, but I have many businesses and a city to run, Mister Hendricks.”

“That a recent development, boss?”

I leveled him my blandest look. It bounced off him like a piece of gravel off a brick wall. “Does this have some relevance, or are you just attempting to render me festive through seasonal bludgeoning?” I tried to squash my irritation down until it disappeared, pressing it flat, an easy habit.

“Whatever works.”

“It’s already late,” I said. “Why don’t you take the rest of the day off?”

Hendricks’ face darkened.

It was the wrong thing to say. I’m not usually so careless. Hendricks has known me too long to let me be; I’ve known him too long to let myself. The absurdity of the day was apparently weighing on me more heavily than I’d realised.

“As it’s just past two in the afternoon,” Gard interjected casually, “I believe a coffee break is more in keeping than a meal. Although I would not turn down a scone, or other baked good, were it to be offered.”

“Please,” I said. “You should both go, enjoy yourselves. I have some matters to take care of.”

“For Christ’s sake,” Hendricks sighed, leaning back in his chair. “It’s Christmas Eve. Stop trying to work yourself into an early grave. There is nothing you can do today that you can’t do making small talk over caviar at the end of the week.”

I grit my jaw, feeling my teeth start to grind. “I do not need to tell you what a precarious state this city is in, Mister Hendricks. We have work to do.”

“We can do that without you having a stress-induced aneurysm, Sonny.”

I narrowed my eyes. He usually reserved Godfather references for debates about my sleep schedule or lack thereof. “You’ve been taking debating notes from Dresden, I see.”

“Sorry, Mister Hill,” he said, blinking innocently.

I could feel my teeth grinding again. Hendricks was trying to convey something to me, along with Gard, and I doubted it was anything but tangentially related to the holidays. I was in no mood to decipher it, which was certainly part of the problem.

“I made certain checks on my way back to the office,” Gard said. “And made certain tests when our guest was not watching me. He is what he says he is, and no more. He is not harmless, but he is not beyond your reach or mine. You need not fear him.”

“You could have told me this earlier.”

“Your mind is much in battle. You would not have heard me,” she countered.

I couldn’t argue that, just pressed my lips together. I had misspent a considerable portion of my youth stealing cars. I know the ins and outs of many makes and models, and while I had not encountered one with a mind of its own before (a particularly muleheaded 1979 Malibu that insisted on stalling every time it took a left turn notwithstanding), I was confident, with Gard’s assurances, that I could handle this one. If I needed to. I am more comfortable with older vehicles, less computerized... but Eisenherz had said he was 1967, hadn’t he?

“He is a simple creature, at the heart of him,” Gard said, rising and unhooking her scarf and then Hendricks’ from the coat tree. “I do not believe he means you harm. Come, Baron.” She looped Hendricks’ scarf around his neck, tying it in a quick, complicated knot. “Let us observe your city.”

“I’m getting coffee,” Hendricks said, standing and grabbing his coat. “I’ll meet you out front in fifteen. ...Come on, John. It’s Christmas Eve. Give yourself a break.”

I rolled my eyes at him, but didn’t fight, locking up the reports in my desk and slipping into my jacket, following Gard out of the office and then the building.

It was snowing gently, large soft flakes that drifted out of the white, foggy sky, quickly coating my shoulders and hair, hiding the sidewalk and most surfaces. Gard looked warm and only slightly smug beside me, her hat pulled low and already glinting with snow.

“For pete’s sake,” Hendricks grumbled, stepping out from the shelter of a bare tree, the unlit lights strung through its branches almost completely obscured by the snow. “Brush your hair off.”

I did, and a second later he shoved a hat at me. “You don’t get your latte until that’s on,” he threatened, but I was already pulling it down around my ears. “Good,” he said, placated, and tucked a take away coffee cup into my hand.

I took a careful sip, and still burned my tongue. Eggnog chai. Another bit of seasonal whimsy. He fell into step behind me, a protective wall as Gard walked casually ahead of us, every bit as protective, if less obvious.

“We got this, boss,” Hendricks reassured me quietly, and I understood him, even if I didn’t agree with his optimism.

My poor bleeding city, infested and infected. Hendricks had more faith in my ability to keep the damage under control than I did myself.

But I thought I understood now what he and Gard had been trying to break to me, with the chocolates and the Chai and the insubordinate ridiculousness. I needed to live and remember why we were fighting, instead of just building up my offices and armies, instead of trapping myself with irritation and seclusion and paranoia. I needed to breathe. I needed to take a walk. I needed to see the damn city I was killing myself for for a few hours.

Or something like that, at least. Their greater intention put into words I knew how to use. Hendricks could red pen my thesis statement later, if I ever got drunk or maudlin enough to share it.

“Of course,” I answered back, and his hand was at my shoulder and gone again, and no bystander would have understood what a comfort the brief touch had been.