Christmas has never been all that festive a holiday for me, any more than birthdays, or Thanksgivings, or any of the other typical family get-together occasions. It's a byproduct of having grown up without them, for the most part; the loneliness is a dull, familiar sort of ache after these years, one that only flares up occasionally. When I'm kibitzing on the edges of the Murphy summer barbeque, for example; or accidentally burning down half a mall in a failed effort to give my newfound brother a birthday present.
It's a lot less wearing than watching a friend in pain, and knowing that pain is partially my fault. I've been told I take a lot more guilt on my plate than I should; I'd argue the definition of 'should', but I'll admit, pain on others' behalf is always more difficult for me to deal with than my own. But the fact that Michael was around at all-- and that I was able to celebrate the day with him and his family-- yeah. The first Christmas after my friend had to give up his Sword wasn't exactly a happy one, but I'll take the sour with the sweet any day, if it leaves me feeling that heart-full afterward.
The stomach-full feeling, too; that was a pleasant side benefit. Charity Carpenter cooks like she does everything else: with terrifying skill and determination. A holiday meal prepared by the mistress of the house is really something to experience, and one I hadn't actually been expecting after everything that had happened.
I'd planned on celebrating this year as I had several in the past: namely, resting after dealing with the idiocy that clueless beginning practitioners often get up to on the solstice, and eating a bag of Chinese takeout with a warm fire and a bottle of MacAnally's dark brew. The last few years, I'd even had a few gifts to open; I'd been exchanging them with Michael since the first time we'd saved each other's lives, and the recent acquisition of a half-brother and a collection of trusted friends had added to the list.
It made me feel ridiculously warm and gooey inside, looking at that small pile of wrapped affection; it was almost better than actually opening them. Even if all of the givers had more important people to be with on the actual day-- or ironclad reasons they couldn't come, like Thomas or my recently acquired quasi-girlfriend, Anastasia Luccio-- it was proof that they still cared. That I wasn't, no matter how it seemed sometimes, actually alone.
This year, though-- Molly had made some noise about her mother asking whether I had any particular favorite holiday treats, which I'd taken about as seriously as I'd thought was intended: that is, not very. Maybe I'd expected her to send a baggie of iced sugar cookies the next time Molly came to study in my lab, or greet me at the door with a plate of fudge the next time I picked my apprentice up for a field trip, with a half-chiding rebuke to put some weight on my bones in addition to her usual silent command to keep her daughter safe. She'd been, I wouldn't call it friendlier, but definitely less hostile since she and I had rescued her daughter from Arctis Tor together and raked over a few of her old secrets, but I was still wary of how she'd feel about me in the long-term in view of the fact that she'd nearly lost her husband in a battle that began on her turf because of things I had done. Hells Bells, that snowball fight the Billy Goats Gruff had gatecrashed was only a couple of months cold; Michael was barely home from the hospital. See above regarding Harry 'Guilt Is My Middle Name' Dresden; I got a lump in my throat I could barely swallow past every time I called the house and heard his voice.
Charity apparently had meant it, though; to the point of sending her second-eldest offspring, Daniel, to pick me up in the Carpenter family van about an hour before dinner was due on the table. I had just taken delivery of a nice warm bag of takeout when the van rolled up on my street, and I glanced between the cheery printed logo and the solidly built young man in surprise as he climbed out and came to plant himself on my sidewalk.
Daniel just smiled at me a little, taking in the confusion undoubtedly written across my face; he was young yet, but he'd already picked up something of his dad's weight of wisdom, especially after all that had gone down during the last couple of years. Between what he went through when those fetches came to the house after Molly; his defense of his littlest siblings when the goats arrived, which had freed his Mom and I to layeth the smackdown upon them; and the household duties he'd taken up since his dad had been bedridden, he'd matured into exactly the kind of young man who'd one day live up to his father's reputation.
I just hoped that wasn't going to include the same job-- or if it did, that Michael's Boss was going to give the family a few years of cushion, first. I'd already had to send Charity's husband home to her in pieces; I wasn't sure I'd survive doing the same with her eldest son. Amoracchius could wait a few more years for its Bearer, if it was that determined to attach itself to that particular bloodline.
"Don't ask me to tell her you've already got plans, because it's pretty obvious you don't," he told me, gesturing to the gently steaming bag I held. "And I won't lie to my Mom for you, so just come quietly and get in the van."
I made one more feeble gesture in the direction of dissimulation: I still had a hard time believing she actually wanted me there, as opposed to just making a polite gesture toward her daughter's teacher and husband's long-time friend, with whom she'd recently spent several hours in a hospital waiting room. "That might not be a good idea-- I don't want to fry your mother's radio, or anything."
"So take your patchwork car, and I'll follow you there," Daniel shrugged. "But I'm not supposed to come home without you, so...."
Foiled again. I bit my lip; the lure of a home-cooked meal was very, very tempting-- as was the promise of a warm family atmosphere that went with it. It had been a very, very long time since I'd experienced anything like it. "I don't have presents for everyone," I confessed, awkwardly.
Daniel's amusement increased visibly at that. "Molly said you'd say that," he said, "and Mom said to tell you to suck it up, 'cause she didn't get you one, either. But you're family, so you're not going to eat Christmas dinner alone."
How could I argue with that? I dumped the Chinese in Mouse's bowl for him and Mister to squabble over, then locked up my apartment and got in the van.
'Families stay', Charity had told me in the hospital. 'He'd stay for you.' She'd been right about that. But being accepted as important to Michael wasn't the same thing, at least not to me, as being actually included in important family events. She'd apparently meant it that way, though; which was kind of a novel idea, after all the years we'd spent at odds.
The radio survived the trip; I blame it on my subdued mood. The little electronic music device thing I accidentally sat on didn't, though; I'd definitely be doing some penitent shopping at the after-holiday sales. Daniel didn't say anything about it, just rolled his eyes, parked the car in the drive, and left me to follow when he went up to the front door.
The Carpenter house is a little piece of paradise in Chicagoland; it has an honest-to-Michael's-Patron picket fence, trees in the yard, a thriving green lawn, and a threshold reinforced by archangels; I defy anyone to walk up to that front door on a bright winter day and not feel instantly warmed. I stood on the doorstep for a moment before entering, smiling a little despite myself, and braced for the onslaught of my pint-sized namesake and his next biggest sister. They seemed to think my nearly seven foot height made me a perfect substitute for a jungle gym every time I stopped by; and they were extra enthusiastic that day, since they were all hopped up on holiday sugar. I let them climb, and made all the expected noises about how big they were getting.
When I looked up again, Charity was watching me with a solemn smile, hands on her hips and flour on her apron.
"Be welcome in this house, Harry Dresden," she said, formally parting the house's spiritual protection to invite my magic inside with the rest of me. Then, while I was still blinking in surprise at that acceptance, she gestured toward the living room. "Why don't you go keep Michael company while I finish up?"
"Yes, ma'am," I told her, with an only half-joking salute.
Michael had been pillowed into position on the house's largest, comfiest couch. The bullets that had torn him up inside had done enough damage that he still wasn't allowed to actually put any weight on his own two feet, but staying still was an endurance challenge all its own, I knew. His face was drawn with the effort of having moved even that far from his own bed-- but a smile lit his features when he caught sight of me, festooned with his littlest children. I felt that lump rise in my throat again, then dislodged Hope and Harry, sent them off to bother Molly, and moved in to take a seat at his side.
I don't really subscribe to all that 'reason of the season' propaganda, normally; but I gave honest thanks that night. Of all His ambassadors I'd ever encountered-- the heavens' own spook, Archangel Uriel, included-- Michael's the only one who's ever made me measure myself, and come up short. I'm not sure what kind of man I'd have become without his stalwart example in the early years of my wizarding career; and as angry as I was with Upstairs for letting him get hurt in the first place, I was blindingly, joyfully glad that He hadn't just up and taken Michael to His side.
It was all the gift I needed, in fact.
"Merry Christmas, Michael," I told him, and reached over to clasp his hand.
He'd lost muscle, but his return grip was still the steadiest I'd ever known. "Merry Christmas, Harry," he replied.
And to all a good night.