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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.


Chapter Text

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.

“Za lord!”

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.

“Chaaaaarge!”

“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.

Nix undosus!”

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.”

“Sure.”

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.

“Hush.”

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.

“How’s things?”

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.