When Harry wakes up, his head is cradled by the seat belt, his neck is sore from being at an angle, and his cheek hurts where the seat belt has dug into his skin. The car windows have all fogged over and it's kind of cold and really dark, and he doesn't know where he is, or where his dad is, or even where they were before he got here. The radio hisses static, and it's so dark he can't see it from the backseat and none of the lights are on, but he can hear it and it doesn't make any sense because Uncle Justin hardly ever uses his radio, and even when he does, he only listens to opera and classical German composers-- and then Harry remembers that his dad isn't anywhere anymore and hasn't been for more than a year now, and something must be really wrong for Uncle Justin to have left him alone in the car in the dark.
He pulls his hand into his coat sleeve and uses his fist to scrub at the window beside him. The steam has iced over from his breathing, but he scrapes away a little peep hole to peer out of, and it's dark out there too, and he still has no idea where he is. He tries to remember where he was-- there was a party, and he didn't even have to wear a suit because Mr. and Mrs. Laurenten had kids so they were having their own party while the grownups had theirs, and he and the girl who was seven and had red hair and someone else's boy in a green sweater played Sorry, and the girl's sister who didn't have red hair listened to loud music on a Walkman, and there was a toddler and she fell asleep in a chair by the fire, and it was Christmas Eve and the Laurenten's tree had had hundreds of tiny white lights. It was a pretty great night but he was so tired afterward; it was pretty late when they left, way past his bedtime, and now he's sleepy, and he doesn't really know what to do. But it's easiest to stay where he is, and besides, that's what you're supposed to when you're lost. He doesn't really know if he's lost or not, but he's pretty sure someone is, so it's probably him.
He starts to doze off again, blinking slowly, but then he begins to shiver, and he pats at the seat around him until he finds the soft wool of his hat and his mittens and his scarf. He can't get his scarf on until he remembers how seat belts work, and it takes a bit of fumbling until he finds the buckle, but eventually the strap retracts back up to the roof, and he can move his arms to wrap the scarf around his neck and his cheeks, and he lays out across the backseat to try and sleep until someone finds him.
He thinks maybe the car's outside, because when he stares up and out through the window he can see a tiny bit of light, silvery and bright. It's probably the moon because you don't see stars very often in Chicago because there are always lights on, but there aren't now, so maybe it's stars after all, and he doesn't really mind because he likes Chicago a lot more than he thought he would even if it gets pretty cold sometimes.
"You shouldn't be awake, Harry," someone says, and these lights are in the front seat, fluxing with the words. It's a voice he knows, but he can't think from where, and he's about to tell it not to be dumb because he's obviously already asleep if a star is talking to him, but then something tap taps against the window, right against the spot he cleared away.
He's too tired to be as scared as he should be, but he flinches and sits up, startled, his movement made sluggish and slow by the sleep chained around his limbs, his thoughts, and presses his back to the far door.
Tap tap. It's a light, soft and small, and it hovers in the air outside the window. Harry thinks it might be a firefly if it's not a star, because it moves in the same way, bumping against the window like it's inside a jar. Tap tap tap.
"Harry," the voice says, the inside-the-car lights coalesced into a shape, white hair and pale eyes and the same stern face that tells him he's used the vocative declension again instead of the locative, or that he's drawing on information from a movie instead of a book he's supposed to have read. "It's imperative that you remain asleep. You’re out of bounds if you're sleeping. You'll be safe."
Tap tap, the light goes again, and tink tink when it's joined by another, this one a pale gold to the first's white. Tap tink tunk, and the newest one is a rose glow, brighter than the others, so bright Harry's hand casts shadows when he reaches out to press his fingers to the cold glass.
The lights line up against his fingers; he moves his hand back and forth, up and down, and it's like drawing little constellations. "Harry, do not let them distract you. Go back to sleep."
The lights dart away so quickly it takes his eyes a long time to keep up -- he's so tired, it's like fog over his vision, in his brain, and he can barely think through it -- and they've come back and done it again before he realizes what they're doing.
"Just close your eyes, Harry," the voice says, going smooth and cajoling. "Close your eyes, and sleep will come."
Tunk tunk! the lights go, and dart back and forth. Tap tap tink!
Harry fumbles with the door handle, mittens too thick, his fingers lost in the wool and his hands not responding to the half-thoughts in his head. He's suddenly frantic, going hot and itchy underneath his clothes, wanting to get out of the car, out to the lights. His hands slip and slide around the lock, wool mittens fighting for purchase on the metal, trying to pry it up so he can get out, get out, get out.
"Harry! Do not get out of the car!"
The lock slides up, he wedges his mitt behind the door handle: the night rushes in with cold wind and a flurry of small, icy snowflakes. The cold is enough of a shock that Harry hesitates, just a moment, still in the car and the lights waiting, hovering beyond the door. There's something friendly about them, playful, and he knows if he just follows them long enough he'll find his way somewhere important-- somewhere he doesn't even know he's looking for. He thinks maybe his dad would be there, but then thinks that's pretty dumb, but he knows it will be warm and better than sleeping in the back of a cold car, waiting for someone to come find him, that's for sure.
"Harry, do not follow them," Bob says, and Harry blinks at him, his vision sleep-fuzzy and eyes squinted up at the cold and the wind.
"It's just a dream, Bob," he says, voice small behind his scarf, and he scrambles out the car door, the lights darting just out of reach in front of him.
It's cold, so much colder than in the car, and his whole head feels like it freezes -- breaks open when he blinks the snow from his eyelashes -- and he loses his footing and falls over, slipping in the snow, slipping on the dark and the swirling white and the shock of the wind. There's a moment -- just a moment -- when all he wants is to be home, back in his big bed in the Morningway estate, back in one of the hard little cots in the apartments he shared with his dad, back inside the car.
The lights circle around him, dipping in and out of his field of view. They sound almost like bells, now that the car isn't between him and them, and a little like the ocean in the morning, how it sounded that year his dad worked in Florida, all silver and cold on the shore through the orange trees, and a little like the wind and the crunch of snow underfoot, when he was eight and his dad took him to the icefield in Canada.
One of the lights brushes his cheek, as soft as a snowflake, the fluff of a dandelion seed, and his whole head fills with silence that's as sweet and warm as melted butter on popcorn. The lights drift away, coming together to form a loose line, meandering off, taillights stretching out down the road. Harry slips, hands sliding on the ice under the snow, and stumbles to his feet to hurry after them before they can leave him behind.
It's an easy walk, at first, finding his balance and following along in the line, the lights darting around him, urging him on, almost like they're holding hands and they're taking him home. It's almost nice out, he realizes, with the lights brushing against his coat, his hair, his face, leaving little glowing trails of warmth. The snow is steady, whisked this way and that by the wind, sparkling in the glow of his friends and the streetlights as they gutter and flicker on and off like the candles in the library at home.
The city is beautiful, all done up with an icy crust of snow and shine, white and frosted like something he's seen in snow globes and on cards, but never in Chicago. There's no rumble of the L overhead, no honks from cars, just the snow making everything as quiet as dreaming. They pass the Chicago Theatre-- he almost doesn't recognize it with only the G and O left half-lit, and he tips his head back to catch snow on his tongue.
The lights grow restless, though, urgent, they're almost there, where they're taking him, and they flutter around him like a little tornado, hurrying him on before breaking away. They're faster than he is -- so much faster -- and he runs to keep up with them, face going hot, lungs tight and sore from the cold air. He slips and slides on the icy sidewalks, the snowy roads when they cross streets, and he has to squeeze between cars, all pulled over and crowded together. There are people in them, he can see the dark shadows of shapes beneath the piling snow and fog on the windows, but they're sleeping. All of them.
Something in his chest twists and turns beneath his burning lungs, and he thinks he should be worried about this, really worried-- but one of the lights doubles back, darts around his face so close he's almost fast enough to catch it, and takes off again to join the others.
"Wait," Harry says, gasping, running faster still. "Wait up," and he's barely loud enough to hear himself, scarf still wrapped around his face, catching his voice and keeping it small. He skids around a sharp corner-- and stumbles to a stop when he almost runs into a chain-link fence.
The lights are on the other side. They hover and float, drifting in gentle circles, tinkling in the quiet and the dark. They're waiting for him, and even as he watches, a few drift away, fading out into the dark, getting smaller and smaller, and he grabs at the fence with a gasp, struggling to jam the toes of his heavy winter boots into the metal lattice and pull himself up.
He's almost there, shivering against the cold that's so much more here and the wet freezing wind, one hand gripping the top bar, ready to scramble up and over. He looks back over his shoulder -- just a glance, back where he's been -- and his throat closes before he can scream.
There's a dog. Big, bigger than any he's ever seen before, all black, and he'd have missed it in the dark if its eyes didn't glow-- a low, sullen orange like the embers in the fireplace in his room when he wakes up at night. It's growling, sharp teeth bared, and those teeth and those eyes, they're all he can see, all he can think about, and he's pinned to the spot, left hanging from the fence in the cold. And then there are more dogs, moving in from behind the first one, all as big and dark and angry looking as the first, their teeth and eyes shining.
Harry manages a small, scared sound and almost forgets about the lights, his whole head filled with those eyes and those teeth, but he's almost over the fence already, and he manages to turn away from the dogs and lunges the last foot, dragging himself up with his arms, his feet kicking and flailing as he loses his footholds.
There are sounds behind him, paws on snow and growls and snarls and a roar, and this time he does scream when the whole fence shakes as something heavy jumps against it and teeth close down on his jacket and yank him back.
Across the sleeping city, magic takes its toll as a pot on a hotplate boils dry-- the Ramen inside burns, stinking, and catches fire. The flames don't spread far before the melting wax on a sprinkler head sets off a chain reaction across the entire floor, stagnant water sleeting down, putting out the fire and washing off the enchantment keeping everyone asleep.
The inhabitants move staggering and half drunk; down the hall a man paws at, mouths at his bed partner, less interested in the stinking, tepid rain than in her curves, her soft hair, the sex they were having when sleep took them. She makes an angry, unhappy sound; what's awake in her brain is coming to grips with the water damage that's happening even now. She is Not in the Mood. She staggers out into the hall and him after her to wait in the stairwell until the water runs out. The hall's residents fall back asleep there, most of them; a few stagger back to sodden apartments to sleep in their tubs or pass out on their wet beds, and the woman is one of them. She shuts the door on her guest and leaves him standing in the hall.
Frustration and a sense of unease keeps him awake instead of in a heap in the stairwell, and so when it's all over only one man is walking, only one man is awake or half awake; he is wandering quietly home through a sleeping city, thinking of very little except the bed waiting for him. His hindbrain doesn't like how dark and quiet the city is, and something in him is small and afraid at the sound of distant hoofbeats and laughter, but mostly he's tired. His vision flickers in and out, and shadows in alleyways that must be dumpsters, trash bags, parked cars-- they turn into monsters, hulking dogs, long fingered little human-like shapes, and they don't resolve back as he walks past. There are noises filtering in and out of his brain, and he swears something skitters past him, a shadow in the bad light. A gleam in a sewer becomes reflected light on froglike eyes, and he doesn't know what he's seeing anymore.
But then he sees the old car, the expensive old car with no security system, with the back door open a crack. He knows exactly what that is, real and solid and tempting. Too expensive to leave like this, all alone, too expensive to pass up even if he aches to sleep. So careless to leave it this way and maybe careless enough that there's a briefcase or a wallet inside, or maybe just a place to shut his eyes for a minute, just a minute, out of the wind and the snow, because the want to sleep is an ache draped over his brain. He slips inside easily, his forebrain slouching in circles trying to remember if the insignia is Packard or Studebaker, and blinks at the static-spitting radio. Even if he had the hand-eye coordination to jack a radio right now, he doesn't know what he'd do with that ancient AM monster. There is no briefcase, no wallet, and he pops the glove compartment, hoping that there's cash or a backup checkbook.
Rifling through the papers he touches something hard, draws it out and blinks dopily at it in the dim light from the flickering streetlight nearby. He is twenty and he has never seen a human skull before, never felt human bone cold and smooth under his fingers until now, and he screams -- "SHHHHIT!" -- and throws it instinctively away. It bounces off the driver's side door and rolls to a stop, upright on the driver's seat and grinning at him. It has cracks or-- carvings or something riddling it and the surge of repulsion and shock blasts away the last of his sleep. His hands are suddenly dexterous as he claws open the passenger side door and shoves himself backwards out of the car.
"What is your name, boy?" The voice comes from behind him and he whirls to see a man in dark funereal colors with a harsh face and hair the color of the snow that is falling straight through his lean body, leaving little glimmers of fast-fading gold in its wake.
"Fuck you," says the young tough, badly startled-- which is not entirely accurate, because his name is Johnny. He gets his switchblade out -- with, sadly, not quite his usual panache, his usual sleight-of-hand speed, but out -- and holds it like a talisman in front of him, reminded very quickly that his gloves are on the woman's floor and her apartment is blocks away. He shivers, defiantly. The drowsy feeling has been stripped away and he can feel now what a difference it makes that his coat is wet, that he's wet. His sleep-mussed hair has frozen into a post-modern sculpture, and he still smells like filthy standing water.
"Harry is missing," the stranger says in clipped tones, a British accent like something off of the BBC, a villain from Doctor Who. Not the trashcans with the modulated voices, one of the other ones. "Help me retrieve him and perhaps I won't leave you to Wizard Morningway's tender mercies."
Johnny considers this proposition. "Fuck you," he enunciates clearly, because his point obviously hasn't gotten across yet.
The stranger ponders this briefly, and then reaches out for him. Johnny sweeps his forearm to knock his hand away and touches nothing but a horrible, freezing emptiness so much worse than the chilly air. The stranger is touching his chest now, index and middle fingers buried to the first knuckle in him, pointing accusingly into his ribcage, and Johnny's teeth chatter spasmodically, bruisingly.
"Perhaps a more immediate threat, then," the stranger says -- ha ha, wait for it -- coldly. "Pick up the skull and do what I tell you, and I won't stop your heart in your chest." Johnny's skin is trying to crawl away from that contact, and he has no trouble picturing muscle and bone parting and shrinking away from that cold in full, Technicolor horror.
So he holds out the mandatory five seconds, showing at least acceptable amounts of machismo, and then retreats, folding himself back into the car to pick up the skull, wrinkling his nose at the fragile feel of it. "You're kind of an asshole."
The stranger sneers at him. "This way," he says imperiously, and John follows him. "Keep your knife ready. There are things in this city tonight that fear only steel."
He doesn't have to be asked twice; he closes the blade but keeps his reddened fingers wrapped around it, jamming his fist into his pocket. "What's the skull for?"
There's the barest pause. "It will help me find the boy."
The missing Harry is a child, then, and Johnny can't entirely shrug that off. It's no night to be out. The falling snow, small soft flakes, is so pretty you almost forget about hypothermia, the trees and the sides of the buildings and the power lines all crusted with hoard frost, and the streets are too quiet and too dark. The street lights and strings of Christmas lights on the trees are guttering like candle flames in a steady breeze, some of them dead or dying as they pass. No bystanders, no cops, nothing to stop the city from eating a kid, and Johnny knows how hungry Chicago can get.
He tucks the skull under his arm like a grotesque basket ball and jams his free hand into his pocket, wiggling his fingers to try to warm them up. "See, me personally? I'd follow the footprints."
The stranger gives him a frosty look, but doesn't argue. The closely spaced tracks of little snow boots are the freshest ones, although they're being filled in with snow even as Johnny watches. Everything else is buried an hour deep, wheel ruts and bigger footprints. The streets are empty, but every available bit of curb has a car parked on it, as if the snow forced them off the road, and the snow's not even that bad, especially not for Illinois. He gets his first sense of how wrong this is, how really wrong, when he detours (making the stranger yell at him) to sweep off the insulating cover of snow on a badly-parked compact, and sees a woman sleeping inside, slumped sideways into the passenger seat.
"She's going to freeze," he says uncomfortably, somewhere between matter-of-fact proclamation and implied question, because he doesn't know if he needs to do something about this, and he hates cops, and he's suddenly wondering if all of these beached cars have sleepers in them.
"She will not," the stranger tells him with a lift of his chin and a wave of his elegant hand, and Johnny's happy to follow him and leave the sleeping figure behind, walking quickly away from the cold knowledge of the sleepers around him, the danger they're all in. "She's safer than you are, tonight."
"I wouldn't have to freeze if you'd let me go home."
"The cold is the least of your problems," the stranger tells him with entirely too much satisfaction. "It is Winter you should fear."
Johnny looks at him politely, because that's pretty damn stupid.
"Not the snow. The hunting party." The white-haired man smirks, enjoying Johnny’s ignorance, his own power in knowledge, dolling it out in bits and pieces. "The Winter's Hunt rides and the black dogs of Anwnn course on Christmas morning, till the rising of the sun. You have seen the small things in the shadows that they hunt. By the Accords, they may not hunt in a city unless they spell the mortals within into a deep sleep... every man, woman, and child, every creeping insect and nesting bird."
"Not even a mouse?" Johnny asks sweetly.
"But you. You are awake: now you are game for the hunt."
The stranger's smirk widens and twists into a snarl; he has uneven teeth. "Move faster, boy."
Johnny doesn't quite break into a jog, but his strides lengthen, and he's walking faster-- just to warm up, he tells himself. He likes to think of himself as kind of a social rebel who doesn't buy into conventional morality, and the persistent little asterisk that says (*except for kids) kind of takes the shine off of his self image.
The stranger starts talking again in a low, pedantic tone. Johnny recognizes a nervous tic when he hears one; he isn't stupid enough to think that the stranger is any less dangerous, because he can still walk through fucking walls and he's freezing cold, but it looks like even spooks get antsy.
"The Winter Hunts are not like the Wild Hunt, because they are not called by the Erlking, the Lord of Summer. The leader of the Winter Hunt is the fae who has found the most favor with the Winter Queen--"
It sounds like one of Nathan's D&D sessions and Johnny tunes it out just as easily, eyes tracking the sleeping city and picking out things that are Wrong. Lights that should be on but aren't. Eyes watching them out of sewer grates. The dark traffic lights. All the pulled over cars (and the people sleeping inside). The still L, the train stopped on the tracks, the lights out or dimmed. He can hear the voices on the wind--
"-- a deep and unbroken sleep, free from thirst, hunger or cold. Some mortals awake-- obviously." The spook slants his eyes over at him, looks ahead again. "Those who wake are hunted. Some escape, or are rescued by the Wardens. Some are taken by the hunt, killed or stolen. Cities are meant to be safe, but Maeve pushes the boundaries of her influence. She is trying the White Council. Yet this city may try her back. It is said that Chicago has its guardians, but I do not know what form they take."
"Shut up," Johnny hisses. The stranger opens his mouth, teeth showing again, but there's no time for that. "Shut up, look at the footprints."
The little bootprints are spaced wider now, and messy, skidding in the snow to track a little boy running. Parallel with them are massive pawprints and Johnny thinks of the quiet things that were crouching in the alleys, watching, things that feared steel but a little kid wouldn't have a knife on him, and he's sprinting now, combat boots crunching and slipping in the snow, knife back out and his thumb tense over the release button.
Out of the corner of his eye he sees the stranger keeping pace with no apparent effort and he turns his attention back to the snowy little prints and trying to follow them through the dark streets. His chest and throat are burning with every icy breath, his eyes watering against the freezing wind in his face.
The quiet buildings around them look familiar, but it doesn't click until Johnny skids to a stop, sliding on the ice and racking himself hard on a low chain-link fence. The virgin snow has been scattered here, a whirl of paws, four or five sets, motion and little boots. The pawprints come back out of the fray. The little boots don't. There's no blood. That fence isn't too high for a kid to climb, not hardly, and if these people aren't from Chicago or just don't know the city well-- would this kid have known, in the dark? Known, before he fell off of Navy Pier and into the deep, freezing lake?
"Harry," the stranger murmurs, horrified, staring numbly down into the dark water. "No."
Johnny takes a few steps back, leaning over to breathe. He's too winded to speak.
"Bob!" pipes a little voice from behind them. "Bob!" There's a little boy-- maybe eleven, twelve? In a puff coat, mittens, a scarf, a little bobble hat. He's standing next to a big lion statue, just like the ones in front of the Art Institute-- it even has a Christmas wreath around its neck. The city must be trying to class up the pier again.
"Harry!" The stranger snaps alert so fast it's like he flickers from position to position, runs a few long legged steps and stops dead about twelve feet from Johnny, arms half-open, as the little boy comes running up to him. The kid -- round face, messy dark hair peeking out from under his hat, big brown eyes -- stops before the Hallmark hug that should have happened, and just sort of looks up at the stranger. Bob-the-spook looks down, his face that combination of exasperation and anger and relief adults get when kids do this kind of thing.
"I told you to stay in the car, Harry," he snaps.
"I'm sorry, Bob," the boy says, and sniffs. His nose is red with the cold. "I thought I was asleep."
"Why didn't you listen to me?" Bob demands. "Why didn't you come back?"
Johnny watches this uncomfortably, looking away when he realizes the kid is crying.
"Will-o'wisps. Pretty persuasive," grunts another, deeper voice. "You so old you've forgotten? Huh?"
If James Earl Jones was from Chicago. That's what the lion's voice sounds like, Johnny thinks. That, and it's fucking moving the fucking lion statue just fucking walked over here it fucking talks what the fuck.
Even the stranger flinches back. The lion huffs a breath at him, and it ruffles the snow-white hair out of place. That shakes Bob-the-spook more than Johnny, which is his one triumphant moment in a night that started with not getting any and ended wet and holding a human skull. Bob shoots the lion a defiant look and leans over to whisper something to Harry. The little boy nods and walks over to Johnny, wiping his eyes on his scarf.
"It's okay. I'll take it," he says, holding his hands up for the skull, his small face (still sticky and red-eyed) set in as serious and grown-up a look as he can chisel onto it.
Johnny hands the skull over, happy to be rid of it, even though the kid doesn't seem to mind holding it. He cuddles it like a signature football, looking relieved, and goes dashing back to the lion. When he's about, oh, twelve feet from Bob-the-ghost and takes his next step, Bob isn't ready, and he gives a little jerk like a running spaniel hitting the end of its leash. It's just a fraction of a second and Bob's following casually along behind the kid like he meant to the whole time, but something that's been nagging at Johnny finally clicks in his head.
"The skull." Bob and the kid and the lion all turn to look at him. "...it's not some magic ball," John says, disgusted. "It's your... your goddamn ankle bracelet. I could have left you in the car! I could have left you!" It boils up from him, angry and bitter, just the idea that he didn't have to go sprinting through the snow in a wet jacket with no hat, no gloves, that he could have been at his apartment asleep the whole time, it's winding his nerves tight and something's going to tear if he gets much more pissed off.
Bob draws himself up to his full height, standing right at the end of that twelve-foot leash and glaring at him. "You could have, but then I couldn't have found Harry. Warden Morningway would have known that his nephew and heir was lost in the Winter Hunt, and I would have been obliged to tell him that a young man had refused to aid in the search... you would not have enjoyed the results."
"Oh, sure. It's a tiny little city," Johnny sneers, freezing ears pounding at the spook’s smug fucking bullshit attitude. "You would have found me no problem. There aren't, oh, a couple million people here or anything."
Bob flickers, shape going misty and shimmery, and suddenly Johnny is staring at himself. "There is nowhere you could have hidden," says mirror-Johnny, and grins nastily.
Johnny's fear is drowned out by the sound of his temper snapping. "Oh, really? Is that what you're telling me? Well, you talk a lot, Bob. But you know what I think?"
"Oh, do enlighten me," Bob drawls, melting back into his usual form.
"I think you're a freak with no follow-through. I think this whole night is messed up. I think this whole--" he waves an arm that encompasses everything: the boy, the lion, the ghost, the dark, sleeping city. "This is bullshit. And I'm going home." He flips them off cheerfully and spins on his heel, taking off at a bouncy, fast walking pace towards an alley that will get him off the pier and headed roughly in the right direction.
"Kid?" the lion is rumbling behind him, warning, almost threatening. He walks faster. "Kid, I wouldn't do that--."
He knows the area well; he doesn't need the streetlights and it's a good thing, because it's almost completely black now. Two blocks, stamping through the still-piling snow. Three. A turn into an alley and back out, and he finds himself on a wide white expanse that used to be a four-lane street, where the cars are just still, snowy mounds and it's like being in the middle of a desert. There's a big white deer standing in the intersection. It turns to look at him.
"...'scuse me," John says, and starts to give it a wide berth. He knows they're supposed to be shy animals, but those horns look nasty, and he's never seen one before and it's a lot BIGGER than he'd imagined. It's one of the most beautiful things he's ever seen that isn't a car; big and delicate and organic and serious looking, muscles twitching under its fine white fur. It seems so fragile, as if its spindly legs shouldn't be able to support that much bulk so without shaking, bending with the strain. It flicks an ear at him seriously. Then it turns, bolts.
The back of his neck starts to crawl, even before a sexy little laugh hits him between the shoulder blades.
He had an idea in the back of his head, when the spook said 'hunt'. It involved big stubbly guys in camouflage. Deer blinds. Drinking Coors and shooting shadow monsters with hunting rifles. The Most Dangerous Game, now with added Bigfoot and Nessie.
It did not involve Swamp Thing Barbie and her dream horse. She's naked, buck naked, beautiful-- her skin is taut and somehow thicker, he thinks, like a dolphin. Her hair is green, thick, like trailing moss. She giggles again, a tinkly laugh, and her teeth -- so many teeth, all the same size and shape -- are sharp, serrated points the color of fresh grass. Her thighs and groin are mostly obscured by the shaggy, weedy mane of the horse-swamp-teeth thing she's riding, as beautiful and perfect and wrong as she is. He sees it all in the same heartbeat. He sees the spear in her hand, the nasty barb on it like a harpoon, and he stumbles back, knowing from experience that he can't outrun a horse-- and that thing looks streamlined, like a fucking shark, much faster than a CPD mounted officer. He's stumbling backwards anyway, slipping in the snow as he tries to get enough space to run.
She's playing with him. She's letting him gain ground, and then she kicks her horse into motion and it clears the distance he won for himself in a single thudding leap and she's raising the harpoon and the last thing he'll ever see are her perfect breasts heaving with the movement and that is not quite the consolation it should be.
Something hits him, hard, like a glancing blow from a car. He tumbles back and hears silver ring dully against bronze and wood shatter. The lion is poised in front of him, and it roars, a sound that shakes the street like the L passing. The horse thing rears and bolts, the otherworldly huntress pounding away towards River North, following the deer now. John's shoulder is bruised; he may also be having a heart attack.
"Kid, you are as dumb as a box of hair," the lion tells him, shaking its head sadly, evergreen wreath rustling and carved mane rippling not quite like real hair.
"Are you okay? Mister, are you okay?" the kid is pestering him, and--
"Be careful, Harry," the spook is scolding the kid. "Don't look in his eyes." Because Johnny is what, Thulsa Doom or something?
"I'm fine." He's getting light-headed from how hard his heart is pounding, jangling fear-brittle adrenaline making his hands shake, but he gets unsteadily to his feet anyway, slapping snow off of his jacket and the backs of his thighs. Swamp Thing Barbie's spear is lying in two pieces a few feet away, but even though he could probably pawn the silver blade, he's just going to leave it right where it is, thanks. "Shouldn't you be getting junior over there out of the cold?" He flicks a hand at Harry, who's still staring at him, making a big production out of yanking his gaze from Johnny's eyes when Johnny looks at him, arms still wrapped tight around the skull.
"Absolutely," the lion tells him. "But I can't if I'm keeping you from getting eaten, now can I?"
Johnny's jaw shoves out. "I can handle myself."
"There are dogs, too," the lion says helpfully, stretching out the way cats do when they want you to know how unimpressed they are, tail in the air, a ripple of something like muscle under its bronze hide.
"The black dogs of Anwnn," Bob says triumphantly. Johnny hasn't known the spook for long, but he's already got a pretty firm grasp on the fact that he likes to be right.
"They have red eyes and big teeth," says Harry, and Bob looks at him, startled. "They were chasing me. But I didn't know."
"Our Lord," Bob breathes. "Harry, how did you get away?"
"Danny stepped on them."
"Danny?" Bob says inquisitively, running over Johnny's incredulous "Danny?"
"Stands in an Attitude of Defiance," the lion says primly, sitting down in the snow with his massive bronze paws tucked neatly under him, tail curled around over top. "On the Prowl is on the South Side tonight. Just in case any more of you people decide to wake up and start a new career as dog food. Which, by the way, means I can't actually be in two places at once, so, you, with the bad haircut... try to stick with the rest of the class, please?"
"Danny," John repeats.
Danny gives a feline shrug. "It'll do."
"Real gift for names, kid," he says to Harry, and gets a blazing glare from Bob for reasons unknown. He hadn't even been trying to piss him off at that point-- which, if he thinks about it, just goes to show how badly that close call had shaken him, but he's not about to think about it if he can help it.
"We should return to the car," Bob says. Harry gives him big eyes, the way kids and puppies do, and Johnny doesn't have either but he knows to brace when he sees that look.
"You will not feel hunger while you sleep; Justin will make sure you're fed when you wake again," Bob says haughtily, and gets a sad look from the kid. He changes gears, shifting a level or two down from complete asshole, and says, more gently: "There is no food for the having, Harry. Everyone is asleep. Just as you should be."
"Okay," the kid says, quietly.
Whether it's because he feels bad for the kid, or just to piss off the ghost, Johnny finds himself saying: "Everyone's asleep? They wouldn't wake up if we came in and asked for fries and a Coke?"
"Only a few things can end this sleep. Running water," Bob says, eying his frozen hair, "fire, or magic."
Johnny smiles like an angel. "I know a place."
He strolls off in a completely different direction, and hears the patter of little feet and the near-silent groan of brass bending as it moves behind him. Looks like the votes are in. He leads them a few blocks -- much more aware now of what's in the shadows, quietly relieved that things shrink away and vanish when they see the lion -- and kicks the snow off his boots against the wall of a late night diner, pulling open the door and waving everyone inside. He illuminates the place with his lighter (he doesn't smoke, but it's as much part of the uniform as his leather jacket), and the light flickers across the few stragglers who'd been in here late on Christmas Eve, slumped over their tables and face down in their hash browns. The one waiter is sleeping under a table, and when Johnny pops the little swinging door to step behind the counter, he almost trips over the short order cook.
Harry hauls himself up onto a bar stool expertly; the kid is used to diners. He gives Johnny a happy, expectant smile in the dim light. The skull sits on the table beside him, scarf, mitts and hat quickly following, Bob scowling over the little boy's shoulder. The lion is last in, daintily wiping its back paws on the mat and letting the door fall shut behind it.
The grill is still hot, quietly radiating warmth. Johnny avoids it very carefully and steals over to the pastry case. "Just what the doctor ordered. Here you go, kid." He reaches in and picks out a giant piece of baklava, the way they serve it here and one of his favorite treats when he's in this neighborhood, and puts it on a napkin-- then one for him, and one for the road. Harry's eyes light up; he takes it with a small, earnest 'Thank you, and starts to eat it quietly. It feels like a library in here, or a tomb, with the sleeping people all around them. Even if they supposedly won't wake up for anything....
He's eying the cash register when Bob appears in front of him, glaring into his eyes from all of two inches away. "I wouldn't," the ghost murmurs. "This is not a night to incur more debts than you must. Have you money?"
He can't stop himself from stepping back sharply when the ghost appears, and it makes him defensive and surly. "No."
Johnny turns out his pockets and then pulls out his wallet, opening it to display the sparse contents. "Here. Look. I have fifty one cents. And a half-off coupon for a Big Mac meal."
"Better than nothing." Bob nods at the counter. "Leave them, in return for the food."
"The HELL I will!" Johnny retorts, but you can't really win a staring contest with a ghost. He grumbles and places the coins and the crumpled paper next to the register. "For a dead guy, you are awfully touchy about a little petty theft, Bob."
"My name is Hrothbert of Bainbridge," the ghost says, eyes narrowing. "And in my life, I committed greater sins than you could aspire to in your nightmares, boy."
"Well aren't you a fucking charmer?"
"Don't swear in front of the child."
"Gosh, I beg your goddamn pardon."
"Guard your tongue, before somebody takes it."
"Like who? Like you? I'm onto you, pal. You can't do jack SHIT. You look important and you're really cold, and that's it."
"True enough," the ghost says, voice getting deeper and more resonant. "But Wizard Morningway--"
"-- Wizard Morningway, right, he's tough shit. Let me guess: he's kinda big and he's awful strong? You keep talking about him, but you know what? Your boyfriend isn't here to beat me up right now. Bob."
If Bob's going to say anything it's cut off by a half-stifled snort, and they both look over to see Harry, eyes sparkling, watching them and giggling into his hand.
"Eat your dinner, Harry," Bob says stiffly, like a cat caught doing something embarrassing, and smacks his hand over Johnny's mouth to keep him from distracting the little boy. There's no pressure, but the sound of Johnny's yelp is strangely muffled, like it had to come a long way, and the sudden freeze makes his teeth chatter so hard that he bites his tongue and tastes blood.
He swears under his breath but Bob has already vanished, reappearing on the other side of the room.
He goes back around the counter and plops down next to Harry, lounging on a stool. It's warm in here, with the grill still going, and his hair is starting to thaw out. He slicks it back so that the water doesn't trickle down his face.
"You got wet," Harry says. Master of observation, this one. "Is that what woke you up?"
"Yeah," he says, glowering over at Bob. "And then someone made me walk around in the freezing cold." Then he thinks about what Bob had said, what could break the sleep, and peers more curiously down at the kid who's picking a walnut out of his baklava to nibble at slowly in that ridiculous way kids do, making even the smallest bit of food last for ages. "What about you. Why did you wake up?"
It must be a good question, because the kid starts looking as guilty as a puppy that just peed on the carpet. Johnny can see the ghost looking over at them, head turned a little away but eyes following them, about as subtle as a street sign, even if his nose is still in the air. Harry shrugs and breaks off a chunk of baklava, holding it out to Danny and Johnny doesn't know what it says about his night that he almost fucking forgot a walking, talking lion statue with a giant wreath around its neck was in the diner with them.
The lion pads over and takes the bite from the kid, as careful as can be -- Johnny's not going to lie and say that seeing that big bronze mouth and those sharp bronze teeth closing carefully down over that little hand doesn't make his stomach lurch -- and then pulls away, licking at his lips.
"You're a prince, kiddo," he says, that deep rumbly voice a little more rumbly still, and sets about washing his face with a paw.
Johnny's not really sure how that just worked –- where would the food go? -- and going by the slightly constipated look on the spook's face neither is he, but Harry's grinning like a fucking loon, and Johnny can't help himself and he laughs a little, breaking off a piece of his own baklava and popping it in his mouth. "So?" he says, chewing on the sticky treat, and elbows the kid lightly. "You don't look like you got set on fire. You a magician or something? Huh?"
"Eat your food, Harry," Bob interrupts, like the phantom of the broken record. "The longer we delay, the longer we keep --Danny from his post." He barely trips over the name, and John has to give him credit for that.
"Yes, Bob," Harry says, obligingly picking another nut from his pastry, which judging by the ghost's face, isn't quite what he was hoping for.
Johnny makes his face friendly and broad, shrugging when Harry darts another look over at him. The boy glances quickly at Bob, then back to Johnny-- then his little face crinkles up with concentration, and the salt shaker by Johnny's hand rises a foot into the air.
It's been a night full of ridiculous and amazing and impossible things, but this, this more than anything else, makes him jerk back, almost sliding off the stool, his heart stopping for just a second before starting back up in double-time to make up the difference. "Jesus, kid," he says, over Bob's scolding "Harry!" and that startles the kid, who loses his concentration. The salt shaker drops and Johnny whips his hand out to catch it, wincing in anticipation of the silence-wrecking clatter that doesn't actually come.
Instead, he sets the shaker down, trying not to breathe too hard from the shock of it all, not to boggle at how Harry's just a little kid and it's such a little thing that shouldn't be able to happen at all, at how it's a fucking salt shaker not a monster horse or a walking statue, that it's something he sees all the time and he's even seen that very one before, and finishes off his baklava because he doesn't know what else to do with his hands or his mouth. Not a bad shock, like the ghost, the spear, but something he can be impressed and a little awestruck by because it is real and close and happening right here in this cozy little diner and most importantly because it is not actually threatening his life. "Guess you are a magician."
"I'm a wizard," the kid corrects him seriously. "Magicians do stage stuff and sleight of hand. My dad was a magician. I'm a wizard. My name's Harry," he finishes, and that last part Johnny actually knew.
"Johnny," he says politely. "How long have you been in Chicago, Harry?"
Harry picks out another walnut and starts to wear it down. "About a year. But Uncle Justin doesn't live in the city. He lives in a big house in Winnetka."
Johnny's eyebrows raise, and he remembers the expensive old car he found Bob's skull in. Figures. "Aren't they all big houses in Winnetka?"
"Pretty much," the kid says without further elaboration.
"So, you live with your uncle."
A nod. Johnny doesn't ask. Harry's parents, for one reason or another, are Not Around. Johnny knows how that goes.
"And the ghost?"
"He's Bob." At Johnny's inquisitive brow, the kid explains: "He's kind of my tutor. He's really old and kind of grumpy but he knows a lot. He's from Bainbridge and his name means that he's probably even older than William the Conqueror." A pause, then, proudly: "I looked it up."
Johnny gives him a blank look. His attendance during the semester of European History in high school was spotty. At best. The kid is finally warmed up to his subject and he rambles on, in the way that kids do, a happy matter-of-fact babble about all the arcane things he's been learning, between decreasingly tentative bites of baklava, happy to talk and let his secrets out. Johnny breaks the last of his baklava in half for him, growing boys and all that, and pops the other half into his mouth.
"We just had algebra at my school," he teases, and Harry grins.
"Did you know that that's an Arabic word, from Al-Jabr, which is a word they used for calculating equations in a really long essay about math?" Harry recites.
"Nope!" Johnny says, with perfect honesty.
"Neither did I, untiiiiil," Harry says, making a face, and does a little point at Bob behind his hand. It's Johnny who has to stifle a laugh now, and he still gets a suspicious look from Bob, who's been talking quietly with the lion. Johnny gives him a look so innocent you could hang a case of halos on it.
Then Harry shows him a trick his dad taught him, making a quarter disappear and reappear in a coffee cup-- and then puts the coin back on the counter where he got it, bless his heart. Johnny palms the quarter and has Harry guess which hand-- Harry gets it right both times (sleeve, then pocket), and because Bob has no sense of humor and because he wouldn't want to upset the kid, Johnny puts the quarter back too. The baklava is gone and they're laughing quietly when the grownups wrap up their serious talk and come to stick their noses in things.
"The spell will fade with daylight," Bob says, breaking in almost politely-- yeah, Johnny is astonished, too. "The Wardens will be done with their business, hosting the fae and preventing what catastrophe they can. Harry, we must go. There is still time before your uncle returns."
"And you need to get somewhere to sleep it off, Rebel Without a Scarf," the lion adds.
Johnny hops off his stool, holds out his arms to help Harry slide down, and holds the kid's scarf and hat for him while he re-mitts himself, making a face as his fingers stick to the wool. When Harry's bundled up, he picks up Bob's skull, and they head out. The streets are quiet but not empty-- now that Johnny knows to listen, he can make out the hooves drumming, and the shuffle of strange inhuman hunted things. He and Danny form a protective barrier on each side of Harry; the little boy has shifted Bob's skull back into a football carry and has one gloved hand on the lion's bronze back.
They walk for a while-- Johnny's sure he stumbled farther than this, half asleep, but he's awake now and every block feels like a mile, every mile like a journey. The snow slowed while they were in the diner and now it's just a soft shimmering in the air when it catches on the odd still-flickering streetlight or strand of Christmas lights or in the glow of the moon-- which is pretty bright, without the lights of the city, but no matter what The Night Before Christmas has told him, it's nowhere close to midday. The snow's piled up pretty high, though, at least a foot, more like two in most places, and Johnny's glad he doesn't work for the city because the shit they're going to get for not getting the plows out, holiday or no, he would not want a piece of it. The drifts are high enough sometimes that he has to lift Harry up over them or the kid would be up to his waist, and because when they start walking around them Danny warns them back to the sidewalk. Johnny doesn't know what he sees, or hell, smells or hears or whatever, and it's sort of spooky because he's usually pretty good at knowing who and what's around him, but he's smart enough to know that the lion's the only thing getting them through this night alive.
It doesn't sit comfortably; the weight of knowing is balled up hard in his gut like cold fast food. He's lived in Chicago his whole life, and he's pretty sure he's seen some of the worst it has to offer, and what he hasn't seen he at least knows about, and half of it he's been there for, and he's done his part and taken his cut because at that point it's just money for the taking and he refuses to feel bad about it (*except for kids). But this. This is different. Chicago has its fair share of monsters, to be sure, but they've fought for their place and they're home grown and they belong just as much as the streets and the buildings and the people. These aren't monsters that belong: they weren't shaped and made in Chicago, and they don't know the way things work here.
He's starting to get really cold again; he hunches in on himself, hands balled inside his pockets, and Harry passes him his scarf and hat. Johnny's about to protest, refuse to take them, and can see Bob drawing himself up -- his brain skips on the fact that the ghost straightens and looks like he's sucking in a deep breath, over and over until it shuts down and he has to just let it go, it's hardly the strangest thing he's seen all night -- but Harry flips his hood up and fumbles with the strings until he's managed a sloppy bow and his head and face are protected again. Bob concedes the issue with narrowed eyes and Johnny's 'Thanks, kiddo' is a little more heartfelt than he'd admit to anyone else, and he tugs the hat over his re-frozen hair, not even caring about the bright green pompom bobbling away on top, and wraps the scarf around his hands.
Harry starts stumbling after a while, eyes almost closed and little face dopey-looking with sleep, and Johnny knows how he feels, but his brain is still skittering along, raw and awake, and will be until he knows the kid is safe from the things they keep catching glimpses of, from the broken sounds carried in bits and pieces on the wind. They have to stop at an intersection when something small and white-furred goes dashing through, leaping at an angle and using a pulled-over taxi's rear window as a landing-point for a hairpin turn, and a moment later a pair of horses with wolfy teeth carrying two Renfaire supermodels goes pounding past, some of those giant black dogs racing around their legs.
The cabby doesn't stir, and Danny starts across the street the minute it's clear, but Johnny can't help but look back at the cab, the dark shape of the driver slumped over the wheel, and wonders how much magic is enough to wake someone, if you have to be magic or just have it happen around you, and what it meant that getting wet could make you fair game for this kind of fucked up fairytale nightmare. And no one knows, he thinks, and then fuck, because no one knows.
He knows everyone's asleep-- but he hadn't really thought about what that meant. That all the stupid cops he hates are asleep on the job; that Nathan and the rest of his friends are sleeping just as deep as the customers in the diner; that even Big Tony and dumbfuck Marco are passed out ballsdeep wherever they are. That the only thing keeping things from going even more to hell is a pair of walking lion statues and (something tickles the back of his mind, that the ghost had said) Wardens, whatever those are. It's not fair, and he sounds like a kid younger than Harry thinking that, but it's not. There are rules to Chicago's monsters, and these ones aren't playing by them. There's nothing that people can do about this, but now he knows, and he's going to keep his ear to the ground, because he's not letting some magical tourist get the drop on him ever again.
Harry stumbles sideways into him, and then almost walks right into a snow drift that's piled almost three feet high against a mailbox. Johnny unwraps his hands long enough to get a grip under Harry's arms and lift him up over it, and then kicks through it himself, ignoring the smug look Bob gives him when he -- ha ha -- ghosts through the drift, lighting up like a firefly around the bottom edges where he passes through the snow.
"Oof," Johnny tells Harry, making a show of stretching his back and breathing hard. "Shouldn't have given you that much food-- you weigh a ton!"
Harry laughs, a little stupid-sounding with sleep, and between Johnny and Danny and Bob they keep him talking and walking, and he's almost bright-eyed again by the time they finally get back to the car-- Packard, that's what the damn logo is, Johnny recognizes it now that he's not completely sleep-stupid. Harry climbs into the backseat and shuts the door. It looks cold in there, the car sitting there the whole time with doors ajar. Johnny opens the front passenger door -- the one he went ass first out of -- and sticks his head in. "Sweet dreams, kiddo. Merry Christmas." Outside of the car, Bob is gesturing at his head in reminder, and Johnny hands back the scarf, pulls the pompom hat off of his head and reaches over and plops it back onto Harry's rumpled hair-- but not before he ruffles the kid's hair one more time. Just because it makes the ghost glare.
"He'll be okay in here, right?" he asks Bob, once he's wiped off the most obvious of his prints and hip-checked the door shut.
"Indeed. Once the spell overtakes him, nothing can hurt him. I promise." The ghost catches himself being friendly and personable and puts on his sneer-face again. "Which means that you can go wherever it is your sort goes after a binge."
"Go sit on an icicle, Casper," John says, with a last wave to the ghost and the kid in the car.
Harry watches Johnny retreat into the dark and the falling snow; Danny's right beside him, big tail sweeping over their footprints and leaving the white drifts looking just like new. Bob's not outside the window anymore, so he's probably in his skull.
"Bob?" He says quietly, and smoke pours out of the glove compartment, turning into his teacher, standing in the middle of his car with his shoulder in the driver's seat and his legs vanishing through the floor.
"What is it, Harry?" He's sounding almost kind again, which he doesn't usually. "You should be asleep. You'll get cold."
"I'm going to be in trouble," he guesses, the words sounding close and final in the confines of the back seat. Bob pauses, and then flickers, and then seems to be sitting on the other side of the backseat with him. Bob doesn't always take the trouble to pretend he can sit down, and the way he sits with his hands neatly clasped in his lap, long legs folded up so that they don't stick through the back of the seat in front of him, it makes Harry feel suddenly like they're sharing this, and the backseat feels less like a place he has to wait and more like a little fort, safe and small and just for them.
"I don't believe Justin needs to know that anything untoward transpired tonight," Bob says, and Harry has known him about long enough to know what he means and to catch the rare hint of mischief in his voice.
He smiles over at Bob, happy. Uncle Justin's pretty busy most of the time, and sometimes he feels like Bob doesn't like having to teach him, but maybe he likes Harry a little after all. Bob's eyes crease a tiny bit, and it's hard to see in the dimness, but Harry thinks he's smiling back.
"Johnny won't tell about magic, will he?" He's not afraid, not really; if it was wrong to tell his new friend, Bob would have stopped him.
"He won't remember, Harry," Bob says gently. "The spell should hide the memories of this night once morning comes-- make them no more substantial than a dream."
A dull hollow forms in Harry's stomach. He hadn't really thought about it, and he'd kind of known that Justin wouldn't let him hang out with the older boy, but it had been fun and he'd never seen anyone get Bob that flustered before. He'd thought they could all be friends, but now it's being snatched away from him again, and Johnny won't even remember his coin tricks or that he lent him his scarf or anything. "What about Danny?" he asks, but the look on Bob's face is pretty much an answer already.
"The guardians only wake for extreme circumstances. You may see the lions walk once or twice again in your lifetime, but I can hardly guarantee-- oh, Harry," Bob breaks off, sounding dismayed. "Harry, child, I'm sor--"
"-- I'm fine. I'm not crying," Harry says, and turns around to lie forward against the door, trying to rub his eyes without Bob seeing. "Goodnight, Bob." He's tired, but he doesn't know how he'll sleep. His stomach feels like a rock, because people go away all the time and it hurts.
His cheeks are sticky and he wipes at his face with his hands, the wool rough where his eyes are wet, then scrubs at the window to clear away a porthole in the frost. He can see Bob's reflection in the glass, just barely, and then brighter when he dissolves into light and smoke and pours toward the glove compartment. Then he's gone, and there's just dark snow, something lighting it up from a ways away. The light gets closer, and he bites his lip, ready to call Bob out even if Bob will see him crying because what if it's a monster....
The light is a big silver lantern, although instead of a candle there's one of those balls of light inside it, one of the ones that almost led him off the pier, bouncing around irritated. It's got a pinky-silver light, bright enough to show him a lady sitting on a white horse. She's watching him, head tipped to one side. He thinks he's seen her before, maybe a long time ago; she's really pretty with bright red hair and a nice smile. She gives him a soft look and a tiny wave; she's not telling him to come out and most things that can hurt him wouldn't come through iron, so it's probably okay. He waves back shyly, and then has to scrub away another tear that blurs everything up into stars.
The lady has slender, pale fingers, and she isn't wearing much: she doesn't seem to mind the cold. She touches one finger to her lips -- shhh -- and then her eyes crinkle and she blows him a kiss. The car feels warmer, suddenly, and the ache in his stomach and the sadness seems farther away, wrapped up in something soft. His eyes droop and sleep comes after all.
The city seems a lot colder and a lot darker when it's just Johnny and the lion, his combat boots kicking through the snow and Danny crunching it down with wide, sure metal paws. He shivers, hunching his shoulders and balling his hands in his pockets, missing the kid's hat and scarf, and is suddenly all the more tired for the little bit of food in his belly and the remembered warmth. He's been trying not to let his teeth chatter, but when he looks over, Danny's eying him thoughtfully.
"What?" he says, but his teeth click together a few times, and it's not as tough as he was hoping.
"Where do you live, James Dean?"
"Near North Side. It's not that far." He pauses a minute, reorganizes his route, easy habits so ingrained he didn't even think. "The L's not running." He's only crossed under at least three stopped trains tonight, silent on the tracks. Only the whole fucking city is asleep, it's not like he should have thought about that or anything. "I can walk."
"Sure you can," Danny agrees easily, circling around casually to walk on his other side, between him and the road, leaning lightly against him, and Johnny hears sudden hoofbeats, sees a flash of moving dark on dark across the street, the glow of many red eyes. He slips his knife out of his pocket-- fingers aching and stiff, movements so much slower than when he's at his best, but out, thumb on the button. "But I know a place; we're close. We can wait there until that party thins out."
Almost all the streetlights are out now, and those that aren't are flickering more off than on. The city's darker than he's ever seen it before, a kind of dark he didn't know you could get in cities. Johnny puts his hand on Danny's shoulders behind the wreath, just to keep track of him and warn himself if Danny sees trouble before he does, squinting into the blackness and blinking the snow out of his eyes. But he must have blinked for longer than he thought, because the next time Danny speaks they're at a set of big steps, and Danny's shaking his head, making the evergreen wreath rustle and shed.
"Come on, kid, keep up with me here." Johnny clings to the not-hair in the lion's mane and stumbles up the steps, through the big heavy set of double doors that Danny pushes open with his shoulder, and follows him into a big space where even his thoughts feel like they're going to echo, then twisting and turning through some hallways and into smaller rooms, and if it's not as warm as the diner it's still warmer than the street, and his skin goes hot as he starts to thaw out.
"Home sweet home," Danny rumbles, and Johnny frowns as he finds a wall to lean against.
"S'not my home."
"Nah," the lion says, "but it's mine." He walks by, paws soft and shadow heavy, and Johnny slides down the wall a little, curling around himself until he finds a comfortable patch of floor. "Rest up, kid. You got a long walk home, right?"
"Right," Johnny says, "right," and yawns in the middle of it. He squints, trying to focus, but it's so dark.
Far away, a deep voice says "You'll want to slip out the back door when the security guard wakes up," and then he's left in a calm, warm silence to ponder what the hell that means and let himself drift.
The sudden sound of hooves, silvery laughter, dogs barking, all so close they could be on top of him--
He sits up with a start, fear rising fast and sharp in his chest, his throat, his eyes flying open. Adrenaline gives him focus again: the sound is close but muffled, the sharp bright edges taken off of it; there's still a bubble of quiet around him, bordered by the walls and windows. He realizes that there are windows for the first time, because there are lanterns or something on the other side of them, bobbing lights hooked to saddles and hung on big poles. They silhouette the strange hunting party, throw the shadows of too-long too-thin limbs and wrong shapes and too many legs across the room he's in. But more than that, they light up the windows, a swirling sea of blues and dotted golds that wash over him as the Hunt carries the light past, and that thin, colored glass feels like the thickest wall that could be between him and that.
It takes him a minute, but he's seen pictures of these-- he can remember, five years ago, when they were unveiled. It's the windows, the three of them, the American windows. Chagall. He's in the Art Institute. He's in the Art Institute, and that means the lions are outside, and with the lions outside, right at the door, it doesn't matter what else is out there too, it's safe.
The panic drains off and leaves him feeling stretched out and empty; he slumps down, not comfortable but exhausted. He tries to pick out the windows in the dark, trace the patterns again, but it's almost pitch black now, and he blinks to rest his straining eyes. They wedge shut, and this time they don't open again until morning.
Harry is a slack-limbed lump in the backseat when Justin returns, his face drawn and tired, cane held loose in his hands. He tugs at his leather gloves, pulling them tighter down his wrists, and settles into the driver’s seat with a faint grimace and a roll of his neck. There’s an audible pop and crack from the movement, and Bob pours from the glove compartment to take form in the passenger seat, feet disappearing through the car floor and eyebrows arched. Justin makes a face, gives a half-shrug; faeries, it says.
"How were the negotiations?" Bob asks.
Justin sighs, and turns the key in the ignition -- the engine coughs, grates, and again, but turns over -- to let the car warm up. "Trying," he says. "I don't have Margaret's way with the Sidhe. We all know that. ...Maeve left a mortal Emissary to speak through. I don't think the boy was expecting his function to be quite so literal."
He chuckles, mostly air, tired and dry, and spreads his hands. "She maintains she was bound by the word of the Accords; the Council has filed protest, and insists her kingdom holds no title to the land here. The growth of technology -- communication -- tests the limits of what can be done in one mortal area without discovery, but I rather suspect it won't be debated again until the sitting and re-signing, in ten years. ...Only ten years. How time flies."
He shakes his head and his mouth slants, wry. "The Archive was spending the night with her daughter; I do not think she appreciated her summons. As if the rest of us enjoy playing host to the fae. But. All was well?" He looks out the front window, the ice and steam slowly disappearing from the glass, the sky rich and bright with stars between the L tracks overhead.
"As well as can be expected on such a night. There was a White Stag in the city-- perhaps other forces disapprove of Maeve's movements here," Bob shares, and it has more than a bit of the flavor of illicit gossip. Justin considers this with interest for a moment.
"And Harry? He didn't wake up?" The glance Justin shoots his protege is not without affection, or conflict; Bob knows how much of Margaret he can see in the boy's face.
"Briefly," Bob folds the truth easily; it will explain away any small traces of their excursion. "But quickly fell asleep again. He's quite strong."
"Mm." Justin knows it as well as Bob, though perhaps it's for the better that he not know the extent of the night's activities, or Harry's surprising ability to spontaneously throw off the spell of sleep. It might make him hasty. As for the appearance of the Leanansidhe-- well, the wizard has had enough reminders of his departed sister for the night, certainly. It was only the tiniest spell of restful sleep and after Harry's night perhaps it was for the best. If Justin were in a less hostile mood, Bob is sure, he'd understand entirely.
"Rather overwhelmed by Chicago, though. He's been too little exposed to it," Bob continues after a moment's thought, speaking freely because, to a large extent, Harry's grounding in the social graces is up to him. "He should have a better understanding of history and society to temper his practical studies, a familiarity with Chicago's culture. Power is nothing without grace, after all."
Justin waves a tired hand. "Museums, I suppose?"
"Perhaps the Art Institute to start," and he is relieved to see the wizard nodding in agreement.
A last glance at the sleeping child and Justin says, quietly but conversationally: "At the party, if you recall. Councilman Dombrowski and Laurenten went into the library for nearly half an hour. I wonder if they had anything interesting to say?"
Bob bows his head silently. He spent the evening with his skull concealed behind a row of books, and he has heard exactly what Justin hoped that he would. It is a blessing that, for the time being, Harry lacks the guile to wonder why he occasionally accompanies Justin to these functions. This small triumph ill makes up for the inconvenience of being trapped in the city on such a night, but missing such a prestigious Christmas function would have set back certain of Justin's plans by a matter of months. ...And the boy so rarely sees other children.
Justin nods, and gives him another, familiar wave to banish him to his skull for the night. Dawn will come soon, the faerie magic will melt away like frost on a windowpane, and the city will shake off its too-deep sleep, tucking any memories of the night into the place between dreams and waking; but they will be safely within the estate walls by then, and Harry will wake in his own bed on Christmas morning.