The sky was white, the ground was white, the air itself was white, sparkling with floating flakes of thin, fine ice, too cold and dry to be really snowing.
Winter’s a cold place. Brutal. Merciless.
Except when and where it isn’t.
What it generally always is is beautiful. The field around me, six inches deep in crusted snow and gleaming in the not-quite-sunlight could have come out of a dream, or a really high-end snow globe.
My name’s Harry Dresden. I’m the Winter Knight, the mortal arm of the Winter Court, the faerie political powerhouse that owned-- and pretty much created-- the land around me. I’m still mortal, technically, as much as wizards are-- we’re a pretty long lived bunch. But the difference between mortal and being one of the fae is more of a biological difference. They live on belief, on the energy of magic and of the worlds that surround ours. Me, my body requires food. Preferably Whoppers.
But my job came with perqs, so unlike most Whopper-fueled people, I was standing lightly on top of the crust of the snow, watching a herd of silver deer bounding across the field, not leaving tracks any more than I was. The light oiled across them, glimmering as their muscles flexed and twitched.
They paused in a group, tails up, ears flicking, and some of them bent to nuzzle under the snow, looking for... something, little flowers and grass like you can’t find on Earth.
Then they all looked up, together, in my direction-- and bolted.
I heard the crunch, crunch, crunch of someone struggling through snow a second after the deer had, turned and saw the figure stamping toward me, sinking through the snow like a lead weight, and as it got closer, I could hear grumbling.
The snow squeaked as he sank through it, so cold that there was no moisture left to damp the sound. Perqs of the job, like I said; I didn’t really notice. He was wearing just a battered green jacket, and it was bundled around him, but he wasn’t freezing to death, either. Then again, I knew him, and I knew that he could take a lot worse than this.
“Hey, troublemaker!” he shouted, as he got closer. “Could you be any further out? Drop a few more degrees and I’m not going to be able to start.”
I grinned. “You got here, didn’t you?”
“You take me the best damn places, you know that? I’m getting deja vu. Big tree monster’s going to jump out of that forest over there any minute and leave a dent in my chest,” Blue grunted, crunching the last few steps towards me.
He squinted up at me-- already almost a foot and a half shorter than I was, and now another six inches with the snow-- and promptly added another two feet to our high difference by grabbing me around the middle and lifting at the same time that he tried to squeeze the breath out of me.
I was used to his greetings, and didn’t yelp much. “Missed you, too,” I laughed instead, clutching at his shoulders until he let me back down.
I had. Really, really badly.
Blue was an old friend. A really old friend. Once upon a time, he’d been my car.
Then he’d been blown up, and then a few years later, he’d been... Blue. Showing up to get me out of a scrape in Ohio, to rescue me from a gnoll and later a couple of would-be baby mobsters. He hadn’t stayed with me very long, just long enough to make sure that I was safe and provided for up to his standards. He has high standards about my safety.
He’d show up, every couple months, make sure I was eating, make sure I was wearing my seatbelt, then he’d head out again, in another borrowed car, doing... I’m not sure what he was doing, for an angel I knew as Jake. But it was good to see him when I could, to have that little sliver of my life back, a friendly face and a comforting presence to eat Burger King with and talk to and just... be sort of normal with. As normal as it could be.
“Yeah, yeah. Come on, Legolas, let’s get out of the snow.” He tugged at my hand, and I sunk down into the snow with a puff of powder.
“Is something wrong?” I asked, frowning. “Some kind of emergency?”
“Yeah,” he said, slipping his hand to my back-- not that I needed him to keep me steady, but he’s got some habits that were built into him. “Turns out a crucial part of the Christmas decor is missing. You’re the only one tall enough to reach the top of the tree.”
“Oh, hah,” I said. “No, really.”
“There’s not an emergency.” He arched a bland eyebrow at me. “You’re missing Christmas, is all.”
“Oh, hell’s bells. I’m not missing it.” I waved around me at the gleaming snow, the white deer grazing in the distance. “I’m in it. This is Christmas; all around me. I’m right in the middle of it.”
“This isn’t how you do Christmas,” he said with a scowl. “Not you. Eggnog milkshakes and celebratory Burger King; scraping your change to give to bell-ringers. You’re missing that.”
“Blue, one of my bosses’ part-time holiday job is Santa Claus. No one can do Christmas more than this.”
“You used to manage all right.” His tone had a funny edge to it.
I scowled. “Yeah, all alone in my basement. That’s the spirit of the season right there.”
“Yeah, maybe it is.” He squared his shoulders, solid and immovable. “I did the food runs often enough. I know you kept it in your own way. You aren’t alone, Harry. You have people who care about you, don’t pretend you don’t just because you think it makes you more of a lone hero.”
My face went red. “Those were just the rough drafts, I was only reading my journals out loud to get the pacing right, I don’t actually call myself that oh my god--”
“Don’t make me carry you home, troublemaker,” Blue said. “You spend all your time in Christmas here, fine-- why not come spend the day with the rest of the world?”
I sighed, rubbing at my nose, because I really didn’t want to fight. And maybe he had a point. Just because it was Christmas all the time didn’t mean I couldn’t go spend Christmas itself with my city and my car.
I missed Chicago, when I thought about it. When I pulled my mind away from perfect snowscapes and ice palaces and silver stars and the Northern Lights spread across every endless clear, winter night. I missed all the people, the buildings, the food, the traffic. The Hunt’s great and all, but there’s nothing to remind your blood pressure what it means to be alive quite like trying to navigate the Kennedy expressway during the height of holiday rush hour.
“Get you back fast enough, you can probably still get a call in to NORAD,” Blue added, and my ears went even hotter.
“How do you even know about that!”
“The one year, your phone was out, you drove to a payphone,” he reminded me. “I heard. I felt it. What it meant to you.”
“It’s just,” I said. Muttered. “You know. On the radio, when I was a kid. My dad.”
“Come home for Christmas, Harry,” Blue said, and I suddenly couldn’t remember why I’d been arguing.
“Yeah,” I said. “Okay. I guess we go back that way?” I looked at the way he’d come, his trail of footprints leading back into the line of white on white that made the horizon, the shadows and broken snow the only dissimilarities in the gleaming landscape.
“Navigational skills like that,” Blue said, resting his hand on my back and pulling me along with him, “it’s a miracle you can find your own bony arse.”
I tried not to smile. There was a quality around the edge of his voice that sounded exactly like a car whining as it tried to start on a cold day. Familiar and mortal. There was a lot of... solid... reliable... carness, around him, still. I let him tug me a little closer, familiar and intimate in a way that had to do more with seeing me at my lowest than with anything sexual.
I saw little lights ringing us, zipping around us like fireflies (or fireflies on steroids) done up in Christmas-light colors; Toot-Toot and some of his army. I gave them a wave, and Toot flashed back at me, but they didn’t come any closer; they don’t like Blue’s aura. Too much iron in it. He’s not exactly a Nevernever local. Which reminded me:
“How did you get here?”
“Wardrobe,” he said jovially. “Speaking of which, it’s entirely too cold. Let’s get out of here before I need a plug-in; haven’t seen one since that lamp post back a ways.”
I beamed proudly at him. “You’ve been catching up on your geek references.”
“Who’s got to catch up?” he snorted at me. “You mumble along with your books when you’re tired, and by the way I could do without knowing the major plot points to every Alex Cross novel, thanks.”
I still did feel a little …off balance when he reminded me that he remembered things before being bipedal. But it didn’t scare me. Sure, he remembered things I’d said and done when I thought I was alone, but-- that just meant I hadn’t been alone, and someone who had my back had been there. I’ve seen a lot of stuff no human should have to see, tangled with monsters from humanity’s nightmares. Car spirit? Especially one who still liked me even after I put him through the demonic monkey incident? Didn’t even register as a threat.
Blue shifted, catching me with his shoulder and sending me flailing sideways, landing on my ass, sputtering. “Don’t look at me,” he said innocently. “I’m not the one who never bought me snow tires.”
“But you are the one who said that antilock braking was a drain on the battery and too expensive--” I didn’t think that even made sense. Car jealousy is an awful thing, apparently.
He rolled his eyes, reaching down to pull me back up to my feet, brushing me off and keeping up a low, rumbling stream of complaints, sounding a lot like he used to on cold winter mornings when I left the Beetle running while I scrapped the windows off.
I got the warning cry about half a second before the light show erupted, a hundred shades of ephemera and wonder, and then had a half second after that to get my shield up before a rain of snowballs splattered against it, puffs of icy powder exploding around us and destroying all visibility.
“Heads up!” I shouted, dragging Blue down into a crouch, tightening my shield around us. “Hold steady!”
I had to time this right-- I watched the snowballs come, from all angles, all sides. I shot Blue a quick glance. He was kneeling, warily looking up at the exploding snowballs bouncing off the shield. “Shield’s going down,” I warned, “two seconds! Tell me when!”
His eyes sharpened, and I looked away, down at my hands pressed against the snow, ran through the calculations as quickly as I could--
“Now!” Blue snapped, and I pushed with my will.
Even as I said it, I could feel the snow moving, shifting under my fingers, out from under my feet, flexing and rising. I slammed the shield back up, bisecting a snowball, raining down a little explosion of flakes, and outside my shield the snow rose up like a tidal wave, like the concussive force of an explosion.
Slowly the snow settled, and there was silence.
And then a tiny glowing head popped out of the snow, and another, and there was a wave of tittering and shrieking laughter.
“Again!” one of the guard called, zipping up and turning a dizzy loop.
“Vanquished!” Toot declared from a nearby bush, and collapsed theatrically.
I dropped my shield again, and a handful of the Guard zipped by, brushing against me but not landing, still wary of Blue at my side.
“Well fought, my lord!” Toot added, lifting his head before dropping it back again.
“A valiant effort,” I told him. “Well fought, Major General.” I bent and offered him a hand. Toot was over a foot and a half tall now, and strong enough that I could feel the weight of him when he tugged himself up, before his wings started to blur and he lifted off the ground. I didn’t try to figure out how he was aerodynamic. That’s just how magic works.
“Toot,” I said. “I’m heading to Chicago. Can you guys keep an eye on things here?”
“Aye-aye, Sir!” Toot said, saluting sharply. He turned a shrewd look on Blue, who was watching us impassively. “We’ll be watching you too, Ironheart,” he warned grimly. Or as grimly he could get, with his piping voice and cotton candy hair.
“I’m freezing my tailpipe off here,” Blue grumbled. “Let’s go.”
He took off, and I followed after him, waving at the Guard who followed us, a chattering, whirling escort until we reached the spot in the field that opened into a warehouse in Chicago.
Chicago was cold in a different way than Winter had been, the air warmer but humid, and it was like someone had poured light into my bones. It bubbled over in a laugh before I could stop myself. It was Christmas.
Blue snorted at me. “Let’s go,” he said, stomping snow off his boots. It turned to ectoplasm on the concrete floor. He looked around, and pointed at the far side of the warehouse. “That door. It’s not too far to the hotel.”
It was a nice hotel, just outside of the Loop and far enough off the Mag Mile to be somewhat closer to affordable, and plenty enough neighborhoods removed from where I’d lived to be familiar without being overwhelming. And we were on the first floor. I didn’t want to know how Blue’d swung that one, but it meant no flights of stairs to schlep up and down, and I was grateful for it. The room was a decent size, as big as my old apartment with a little kitchenette, two beds, and a tub that wouldn’t be big enough for me but a shower that more than made up for it. There was a folded pile of clothes on the counter that didn’t look like it came standard with the room, and a Spider-man toothbrush and some toothpaste that I knew didn’t. Blue had planned this out.
“How can you afford this?” I hated to ask.
Blue shrugged. “I get by. And eating’s more a hobby for me than anything, I can do without.” He caught my look. “--No, I mean it. I don’t need it like you do, you bottomless pit.” I made an affronted sound; he looked satisfied. “I can make cash. Being able to talk to other cars makes for good free-lance mechanicing. I still take a few bar bets. Occasionally Jake spots me some money, if he thinks I’ll need it...”
Jake. Yeah. “So-- what is it you do for him? He an okay boss?”
“He’s not my boss,” Blue bridled. “I just... keep useful. Got to have something to do. He points me at things, situations, I go try to clean up what he wants cleaned up.”
I gave him a worried look. “You sound like a hitman.”
Another dismissive sound. “Nah, nah. Nothing that clean-cut. Occasionally it’s a nest of monsters, sometimes it’s a random who needs a tire change in the middle of nowhere, sometimes I deliver the odd package that got lost in the mail, bring messages. Little things. He says it’s important.”
“...You’re the short, grumpy version of Touched by an Angel?”
He glowered at me, and, when I started to laugh, made threatening motions in the direction of the hotel ice bucket.
“Ice cube down the back isn’t going to stop me. I’m the freaking Winter Knight--” My grin died as a thought occurred to me. “Am I one of Jake’s errands, too?”
Blue frowned in thought, jutted his jaw. “Not as such.”
My back stiffened, an angry haze blurring my vision. “I’ve spent a lot of time with people who are really good at lying to me without actually lying to me, Blue. I know an evasive ‘yes’ when I hear one. Bad enough I’ve got Mab ready to yank my leash at every moment, I’ve got to worry about Jake keeping track of me too? What am I, the universe’s toddler?”
My volume had risen, and when I stopped, I was shouting.
Blue didn’t change his tone, barely showed that he’d been in the room with me yelling at him. But he’d been subject to a lot of my temper tantrums over the years. I had the mechanic bills to prove it. “He mentioned you’d been away for a while, that was all. Didn’t even bother to give me directions this time. If he’d wanted you for something I’d’ve told you instead of dragging you off for Burger King,” Blue said. “I was worried about you, I missed you. Stop being an ass.”
My jaw jutted out, but I couldn’t quite bring myself to look him in the face. My emotions were all over the place, these days. But I didn’t need to take it out on my friends, maybe my one truest friend. I couldn’t really believe that Blue would have anything but my best interests at heart. And I’d yelled at him and accused him outright of lying to me.
“...Burger King?” I said, not able to keep all the hope out of my voice, and he snorted.
“I see how it is,” he said fondly. “There’s one three blocks over, and a McDonalds one block south. I’ll go get some burgers and eggnog shakes. You have a shower and calm down. There’s a pair of sweats in there for you.”
I nodded, and he left me to get a quick call in to NORAD, because it’d seem like something was missing if I didn’t, and do my best to drain the hotel’s hot water heaters, scrubbing at my hair with the little bottles of shampoo and conditioner, lathering up the slivers of soap until I squeaked.
I came out wrapped in half the towels and the sweats Blue had left for me. The pants were a tiny bit short, but baggy, but the sweatshirt was massive. It might not have fit in the arms if the shoulders hadn’t been near my elbows, but it did, and that was what counted.
Blue was sorting through a pile of Burger King bags on the little table tucked in to the corner by the TV, and when I flung myself at one of the beds, he tossed me a bag full of Whoppers and onion rings, and flopped down on my bed next to me. It was large enough that he didn’t have to shove me off or lie half on top of me, which was a change from most of the hotel rooms I’ve been in.
I considered that and felt a little worse about my outburst. He’d been nothing but friendly, had really wanted to treat me and look out for me. Maybe I hadn’t had enough of that in my life recently.
Maybe I had needed to get back to the real world a little more urgently than I’d thought.
“Sorry,” I said.
He nodded, easy, forgiving, and flipped on the television. “Christmas special?” he said. “Saw it on the guide.”
There was more than one to choose from-- almost every channel was taken up with little flashes I half recognized from displays in stores, caught from the corner of my eye during Christmases past, and a lot of things I didn’t know at all. We settled on one I did know, though, just a few minutes in, the stop motion animation just like I remembered it from when I was a kid, mostly viewed in hotel rooms a lot like this one.
The thought sent a little pang of warm nostalgia through me, a little glow that went all the way to my toes. I chased it down with most of a Whopper and a long, cold slurp of ice creamy eggnog.
“You know,” I said, watching a musical number, “if one of the fae actually wanted to turn dentist I’d be worried. Really worried. Not people you want to get hold of your teeth.”
Blue grunted at me, swatting at my shoulder for quiet.
“And I’ve seen the Winter King’s retinue. They look more like the big white guy than the little conformist gnomes. And let me tell you, that is nothing like his wife.”
“I’m trying to watch this,” he grumbled. “I’m missing vital plot points.”
I dug back into my childhood memories. “Everyone becomes friends, Rudolph saves the day, there’s a weird miner, and a bunch of sad toys.”
“That wasn’t in the song,” Blue said suspiciously. “I know the song, it was on the radio often enough. Your big white friend didn’t feature, either.”
“Not a lot of things rhyme with ‘evil dentist elf,’” I offered.
“Put it on the shelf?”
“Herbie the evil dentist, had a bunch of jars of teeth,” I mused.
“No, I take your point,” Blue said. “Now hush. I’m watching.”
“And if you ever saw them--” he hit me in the face with a pillow, looping an arm around my back while I sputtered, and pulled me into a headlock.
I did, and eventually his grip slackened until his arm was just draped over my shoulders, one hand wrapped loosely around my elbow, holding me still. He reached over during a commercial break, tugging at the covers on the other bed, and draped them over both of us. I wriggled down, jamming a pillow between his thigh and my head, and started watching with my eyes half open. I’d always liked the stop motion animation as a kid. It was special in a way normal cartoons weren’t. Something just for Christmas, like clementines and eggnog and gingerbread houses and candy canes.
I’d seen these movies in hotel rooms like this one, and someone had been looking after me, then, taking care of me. Blue’s arm lay over my shoulder, a little like my dad’s, a little like a seatbelt.
I lost the plot somewhere around the song about silver and gold, and my blinks were getting longer and longer, and sometime between the Charlie-in-the-box and the winged lion, I fell asleep.
Christmas morning dawned clear and bright, and I woke to the sound of Blue in the shower and a box of doughnuts waiting on the table. Blue shooed me away from the little coffee maker and got a full pot out of it, and by the time we’d finished that and the doughnuts, and watched half of a cartoon special before the TV stopped working, it was noon, and we were ready to go out.
There weren’t many stores open, but we wandered up and down the mostly empty blocks peering in windows, the crowd getting thicker and thicker as we got closer to Millenium Park. I followed my nose to a gyro stand, across the street from the skating rink, and the guy we got in line behind turned around, smiled at us, and my stomach fell to my knees.
“Jake,” I said.
“Shit,” Blue said.
Jake raised an eyebrow, amused. “Merry Christmas, Harry,” he said. I grimaced at him.
“I’ll be back in an hour or two,” Blue told me, turning and handing me a handful of bills and the hotel key. “Go back to the hotel if you don’t want to wait; I’ll find you.”
I knew what it was like to be called away for work. At least Blue’s contact was nice enough not to just pop him from Point Wherever He’d Been to Point B. So I wished him good luck, bought myself three gyros and two pieces of baklava, and wandered over to watch the skaters and stuff my face.
The rink was packed, gliding skaters and flailing skaters wedged in tight together, a general flow of traffic in large, slow circles, and a few brave salmon in knitwear fighting their way upstream. I didn’t really want to join in-- not that I was hopeful the skate rental would have any in my size-- but I liked being here, the thrum of humanity almost illuminated, warm and alive.
It took a bit of poking around for somewhere to sit before I saw the man who had a bench all to himself. Chicago may be an urban jungle, but it hones its citizens’ instincts as sharp as any jungle with more vines than skyscrapers. Once I saw him, it took a careful scanning of the milling crowd, then, following his eyeline, to the skating crowd, for me to spot the tall, striking blond woman and the brick wall of a man she was skating with.
What do you know, even the mob kept Christmas in their hearts.
I didn’t bother to try to sneak up on him, but Marcone didn’t look up from whatever he was doing on a little laptop until I’d plopped down next to him. He glanced at me, did a barely visible double-take of recognition, and then quickly shut the laptop down.
“Working on Christmas? Wow, you are a monster.”
“Your associate set us back several hours yesterday.” Marcone glanced warily around, but if he was looking for Blue, he was out of luck, and I had a moment of pride in my car for putting that exasperated look on the scumbag’s face. “He availed himself of my vehicle and then my security contractor’s services. He’s a very abrupt entity.”
“I’d say I’m sorry. But you know I’m not,” I said cheerfully.
He glanced at his laptop, at a cryptically flickering green light that hadn’t shut off when the others did-- and then went yellow, and went out. Whatever that meant, he didn’t look happy, flipping the contraption over with a sigh, working levers so that part of the computer came away with a clicking sound. I thought it was the battery, not that most people let me close enough to their computers to get the lay of the land.
“I’m not sorry about that, either,” I volunteered.
“Thank you for the clarification,” he said, his voice bone dry, and for a second I almost thought he was going to smile.
“You know me. I’m a stickler for clarity and calm communication.”
He actually did smile then, a flash of quirked lips before he turned his head away to watch the ice skaters and hide his expression with a drink out of his cup. It surprised me that I was happy about that. I don’t like the guy, we aren’t friends, but if he was still able to smirk about my stupid jokes then Chicago hadn’t hit critical status yet.
I grinned at him, and he gave me a bland, questioning look, game-face back in place.
“Just thinking that you’re like a canary. Only you aren’t cute and you don’t sing.”
“Tweet,” he said, with a brief nod as if he understood me.
He arched an eyebrow, but didn’t pretend to misunderstand, tipping a hand. “Here. In one piece, more or less. A startling decline in property damage that has yet to be fully understood. Your allies are contentious, but they are competent and capable. They miss you. And you?”
I shrugged. “Winter, you know. The Sidhe. It’s not so bad, and I’m not there all the time. I’ll be here more often.” I shot him a look, secretive, and couldn’t stop my grin. “I’ve met Santa Claus.”
He stared at me, maybe impassive to anyone else, but I’ve spent more time than is healthy with him over the years, and I could see the wheels and gears spinning in his head, trying to mesh.
“Winter King,” I added, and popped a piece of meat from my last gyro into my mouth. “Yup.”
“Mister Dresden,” he finally said, “are you trying to tell me that you’re one of Santa’s little helpers?”
“Nah,” I said. “Krampus won’t let me anywhere near the lists. Doesn’t trust my penmanship.” I finished off my gyro, sucking sauce off my fingers, and pulled out the baklava bag, offering it to him.
“Poisoning me for Christmas?” he asked.
“Ex-lax,” I said cheerfully. “Now, a clever man would put the poison into his own pastry--”
“Of course,” John said, selecting the piece closest to him, and biting it in half. “I would ask if you had become involved in any land wars in Asia, but knowing you, it’s better that I don’t know the answer.”
“It was South America, anyway.”
Gard and Hendricks skated closer, gliding past us, just a few feet away. Hendricks glared at me from under a knit hat the colors of the Norwegian flag. It clashed horribly with his hair.
“Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night?” I offered, waving cheerfully after him as Gard tucked her arm in his and pulled him in a tight spin, leading them away from us again.
“Please,” Marcone said, looking up at the clear blue sky, the crowd of people on the walkway above, the city reflected back in the Bean. “It’s not even three in the afternoon.”
“Wouldn’t want to set you back anymore,” I said. “Since you’re so far behind already.”
“Your consideration is the kindest gift of all,” John said, laying a hand lightly on his chest.
“And your company is all I could ask,” I said, in syrupy Hallmark tones.
“So you’ll be gracing us with your presence again? How fortunate.”
I shoved my own baklava in my mouth, twisting around in the bench to get the full 360 of the park and all the people, the street behind us, the tops of the buildings that weren’t blocked out by the rest. This was my home. This was Christmas. Car trips home are traditional this time of year, after all. I just needed mine to come and get me, remind me what was important.
Stars, I’d missed this place. It was good to be back.
“Couldn’t get rid of me if you tried, John,” I told Marcone, and grinned at his face as Blue shoved through the crowd and waved at us. “Gotta go. Shopping. I know it’s late, but I can’t get everyone consideration for Christmas.”
“Not with the short supply on hand, no,” he said, mouth twitching, and I waved at him and grabbed Blue by the shoulder, plunging back into the crowd with him.