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I woke up to the cheerful jingle of my Mickey Mouse alarm clock, groaned, and reached over to smack it. Gently, of course. I couldn't respect someone who'd beat up Mickey. I hit something warm and yielding instead, which mumbled at me and jabbed me in the kidney.

My slowly waking brain poured precious processing power into this, foregoing the 'stop alarm clock' process altogether. There was another body in my bed. It was big. Muscular. Very masculine. Smelled like orange hand soap. Knee in my kidney.

A smile stretched across my face. "John."

"Fugginalarmclock," my boyfriend said, reaching over and-- very gracefully, considering-- shutting off Mickey. He rolled back stiffly and threw an arm over me, drawing me in closer to him, warm and solid against me.

It had been... what, all of six days since I'd gotten up the courage to tell my roommate-slash-bearer-of-unrequited-love that the unrequited-love wasn't quite as un- as previously estimated? Six days since we'd started jamming ourselves close in my tiny little bed, wrapping tight through the night, facing the morning together, stumbling and blinking?

"Don't we have to get up?" I said, trying to dazzle him with intellectual prowess before the sun rose. “You don’t want to be late.” I set my own hours, but even if I was willing to drive potential customers away by only being at the office when I felt like it, I still opened a good hour after John’s usual shift at the garage started.

"It's Sunday," he grumbled, squirming his hips to get that last ounce of comfort out of our positions, propping up his bad leg a little more securely over my hips. He rubbed his face against my shoulder. I wasn't quite used to feeling stubble on my bare skin yet, but it was definitely something I was happy to get to know. I shivered.

"I like Sunday." I ran a hand over his arm and up to his shoulder, drinking up the heat of him. I hadn't really realized how much I’d missed being touched before he moved in and we started bumping shoulders. Now we were bumping other things too, and maybe I wasn't over the first twitterpated week, but this? This was wow. This was like a meal at Mac's after I'd been living off Ramen for a month.

His hand skimmed down my back, and I yelped when he gave a firm squeeze.

"Mm, ssh, Princess." His hand opened and he stroked the abused muscle.

"Sheath the claws, little lady," I said, ruffling his hair. "We have to Christmas shop today. I need my ass. To walk with."

"We have to Christmas shop?” One of those money-green eyes opened. “Shopping is a we-activity now?"

My brow knit. "Isn’t it? Should it not be?"

"I hadn't considered." He leaned up and pressed a sleepy, open-mouth kiss to my forehead. "I'm opinionated, you know. I will tell you if it makes your ass look fat. Fair warning."

"Okay." I reached back to sweep his hand off my butt and link our fingers. "I've already picked out the drapes for our bedroom. Fair warning."

I figured he would tell me what a girl I was. Not so much. More with the sudden, hungry kissing, his body rolling over me like a wave, toes to lips, his arms curling around me. I muscled his hips a little closer, slid a hand between his inner thigh and my leg. He appreciated that, or at least I assumed that was what the poke against my stomach meant.

Christmas shopping was just going to have to wait.


 

Three days until Christmas, and the shopping mayhem was in full swing. The parking lot at the mall was a sheet of ice, pitted with gravel and frozen chunks of black, gritty slush and pedestrians darting across in sudden, solitary spurts or lumbering through in large herds. They come out of nowhere, sometimes; you have to look for the eyes. John maneuvered through it all like a pro, sliding his Caddy into a tight spot between an SUV and a badly parked compact. He'd done really well-- we were within eyeshot of the mall, only a couple hundred yards of ice and sliding cars away. Since we'd started early, we might not even have to break for the night and make camp.

John pulled his parka a little tighter at the gust of icy wind that buffeted us the minute we were out of the car. "So who have you put off buying for?" he needled sweetly. Because he was the kind of jerk who'd probably got his shopping assembled and indexed back in October. I almost stuck out my tongue, but I was a little afraid it would freeze that way.

"Michael and Charity. Something for their kids, especially since we're going over there for Christmas dinner," I ticked off on my gloved fingers. "I should get something for Nick Christian, my old boss, and for Murphy..." John's eyebrow twitched, but he manfully reined in whatever comment he'd been going to make. I know that he and Murph are never going to be best-friends-forever, but he knows that I care about her, and he tries to tone down his general anti-copness when it comes to her. "And I should probably buy a box of chocolates or something for Mike's family, considering all the tows I've gotten this year. And a box for the Alphas-- give it to Georgia and let her dole it out whenever everyone’s back. Oh, crap, and a card for Ebenezar McCoy, you haven't met him yet, old mentor of mine." I winced. "Although it's going out of state. Probably not going to make it in time." John was taken care of, at least, and that about did it for my friends.

Okay, that was a little sad. But hey, it's a dark and lonely business, being a magical PI.

John jammed a gloved hand down my back pocket. I stifled a cheeksplitting grin.

Between the greater plains of the parking lot and the mall doors we laid our plan of attack: when the light and piped-in music and noise of the mob swept over us, we were ready. A firm nod, and we went in, striking surgically at first at the Hallmark store for cards, tags and wrapping paper, a wine kiosk and then the Hickory Farms table for the Carpenter parents and kids, respectively. I lost John while I was scarf shopping for Murph, but he reappeared with a calm smile and a suspicious looking bag that he wouldn't let me look in. I nodded to him seriously, signaling that it was time for phase two: braving the mobs around the candy store for Nick and the Alphas and Mike's family.

We got out of that with all of our limbs intact, barely, and regrouped at the food court, wedged into a corner near a Salvation Army Santa and a Christmas tree. Between spurts of bell ringing, I managed to get out: "That's everyone, right? Ebenezar, Alphas, Nick, Murph, Carpenters, Rojases-- who's left?"

"Nothing for me, child?"

I blinked as the soft words pierced the noise-- even as I was registering them, that noise was fading, receding to a safe distance as if we'd stepped inside a plastic bubble.

John was staring over my left shoulder. "Well ho ho ho," he breathed. "Merry Christmas."

I turned in my seat and saw what he saw: there was a woman sitting behind me, smiling at us. She was wrapped in a fur robe, open far enough to show that there was nothing under it except bare, pale skin. She had mistletoe nestled over her left ear, which was ever so slightly pointed at the tip, and the green and white of the mistletoe set off her flaming red hair. Her lips were holly berry red, and her eyes were a warm gold, pupils wide and tapered like a happy cat’s.

I froze.

John made a soft sound and reached to touch my shoulder. "Sorry, Harry. Just admiring the scenery. I didn't mean--"

I shook off his hand. "It's not that, Stars! She's-- she's--" the words tangled up between my gritted teeth. "Lea."

"Godson." She smiled sweetly at me and dimpled her cheeks at John, her eyes lidding coyly. "Your young man is very handsome. Would you like some cocoa?" She indicated a pair of mugs on the table beside her, and John was reaching out before I grabbed his hand.

"No," I growled. "He does not want any goddamn cocoa."

John was new to the magic thing, not stupid. His arm tensed under my hand and then he withdrew, softly; I could practically feel him forcing his head clear, shaking off the subtle, brain-muddling glamour Lea was putting out. "Ma'am," he said, suddenly much more wary, still polite. He smiled and dipped his head at her. "Maybe another time."

"As you like," she said primly, picking up one of the cups and drinking it down. She had a cocoa mustache when she was finished. It did not in any way make her less terrifyingly beautiful or sexy.

"What do you want?"

"To bring you Winter's tidings," she said, giving me a bright smile. "And to ask a favor of the season, child."

My eyes narrowed. "What kind of favor?"

"A noble of Winter has been taken. By mortals, we believe. Without him, the black hounds cannot course and I cannot ride; the Hunt will be spoiled, and Winter will lose ground before time." Her mouth turned down at the corners. "He is beyond the reach of Winter, for the time being-- and that time is running short. And you find people, do you not?"

"Beyond the reach of Winter? Do you really think I have the kind of power that stands up to 'beyond the reach of Winter’?"

She paused for a moment, and I braced myself for what was coming: the power she could turn against me. I'd broken my word to her twice; not fatal, but definitely not smart. The balance of magical karma was stacked high against me, and if she pushed this--

Lea smiled again, licking the cocoa off of her upper lip. "Perhaps it is not such a desperate thing, at that. It is only a hunt, and there are many. Be well, my child."

Crowd noise broke in on us again, and she was gone.

John leaned close so that he could murmur-- well, not-shout-- into my ear. "Your godmother, huh?"

"Talk later," I said, shaking my head. My stomach was tied in a tense knot

"Later,” he agreed, gave my hand a squeeze. “Well, I guess you come by your sense of drama honestly." His gentle smile mostly masked that he'd been a little freaked out by the encounter too.

"Just. Let's get home. I want to be behind my wards."

He nodded, and gave me a firm, lingering kiss on the cheek before he stood up to get the bags. I was silent all the way home, and he let me be.


 

I didn't start to relax until my wards were closed behind us and my threshold was between us and the world, warm and humming and smelling slightly of beeswax. John correctly interpreted my clenched jaw as me not wanting to talk about it, and bustled around putting things away to the tune of absent small talk. When the bags and presents were stowed away, he dropped down on the couch next to me with a sigh and shoved me forward so that he could get behind me and start kneading my back.

"You don't have to do that--" I objected, not very convincingly.

"It's on your tab. You can get my feet in a minute if you're feeling that guilty," he said firmly, and dug his fingers into a knot of muscle just above my collarbone. I made a weird painful-happy noise that only sounded a little like a concussed goat, and he snickered quietly. I tried to frown, but my muscles were mostly occupied with how good his hands felt and how good they were making me feel, so I only managed a slack-jawed sort of grimace and a grunt.

"What was that?" he asked, voice innocent. "Did you say something?"

"Gnff," I told him, twitched a hand in an effort to give him the finger, and gave it up for lost, letting my spine go soft and slumping my weight into his hands. He has really nice hands. Blunt fingers and wide palms. Strong-- which he was demonstrating effectively on a knot of tension built up under one of my shoulder blades-- and cleaner than I would have been able to keep mine if I spent my days digging in the guts of vehicles. The orange-scented pumice soap they use at the garage does the job, but it dries his skin out like you wouldn't believe-- I arched my back as his hands slid up under my shirt, and found I didn't mind.

Our apartment was cold, a constant this time of year, the damp and chill creeping into the bones of the building and squatting until summer, and I mumbled unhappily as my shirt rode high enough to expose a strip of my stomach. John snorted and pushed me forward a little, digging in with the heels of his hands. "Quit your whining."

"I'm cold," I grumbled, and he leaned over to breathe hotly on my ear. I squirmed, fighting back an appreciative shudder. "That's not where I'm cold."

"First you're cold," he griped, rubbing his weekend stubble briskly against my cheek. "Then you're not? Make up your mind, Princess."

The leftover adrenaline in my stomach was starting to heat up into something else, going loose and fluttery and losing the tight, sour burn. "I'm a little warmer." His lips drifted back to the ticklish spot behind my ear and I shivered happily. "Warmer--"

We both heard the footsteps coming down the outside stairs before someone knocked sharply on my door, and the hand John had been drifting down to my bare stomach went still and tense, then pulled away. "I'll get it," he sighed. I scowled manfully, a dark, grim expression that in no way resembled a pout.

John glared through the peephole: I saw him shake his head, just a fraction of movement this way and that, his back tense and then his shoulders purposefully relax, and he braced himself to wrench open my heavy security door.

"Why Nathan," he said, in an obnoxious Brooklyn accent. "It is Officer Brannigan. Why hello, Officer Brannigan."

The tiny woman behind the door gave him a long, slow glare, then turned her eyes to me. "Harry. I need your help." Officer Karrin Murphy was five foot even, a pretty, soccer-mommish woman with a cute upturned nose, a short, punky pixie cut, and zero patience for mouthy ex-gangsters and their show tunes references and/or Irish cop jokes. I scrambled up from the couch, tugging down my shirt from where John had left it bunched up at my waist, and she waited until I'd disabled the wards-- I really needed to set up another amulet like the one I'd given John for his keychain to let her get through them on her own if she ever needed to-- then brushed past John as if he weren't there.

My boyfriend rolled his eyes. "Well, boys, I'll let you talk business, then. I'll just go into the kitchen and whip up some hors d'oeuvres," he said, disappearing into the kitchenette. Murphy grunted bad naturedly.

"What's up, Murph?" I frowned. I didn't do business with the Chicago PD anymore, not officially-- not since the mandate from City Hall (probably still on Marco Vargassi's stationary, in Madeline Vargassi's handwriting) that banned me as a contractor. The last time Murphy had needed my help unofficially it was for a retired police officer who'd been targeted by a really nasty binding curse. That had been a few months ago, and had been an all around mess for everyone involved. She didn't look as fried as she had when she'd come to me for help for Mickey, but she didn't look happy.

She blew up at her hair, the longer front pieces flapping while she glowered. "A weird break in on the Gold Coast. Nobody hurt, the family's on vacation, but strange lights and noises. Nothing missing, but the timing's all off. Things aren't adding up. Rudolph isn't on it yet, though-- he took time off for the holidays. Hopefully it won't cross his desk until the new year. I've got a strange feeling about this one, Harry. I just need you to make sure it wasn't something... bad."

There'd been a lot of 'significant-pause bad' since Maddy Vargassi had tightened her grip on Chicago. They say behind every great man is a great woman; in Chicago, the saying's more like behind every spoiled mafioso brat who inherited his throne from Daddy is a sex vampire with her hand up his ass making him sing 'The Rainbow Connection'. Maddy had started a vampire war, centered in Chicago, and either invited or simply left the door open for a host of minor predators to come take advantage of the confusion. The police were less than useless, what with Maddy's favorite, the young Lieutenant Rudolph, heading up Special Investigations and doing his level best to make life crappier for every victim of the paranormal who had the bad sense to go to the cops. The corruption wasn't specific to SI, of course: where's there's stink, there's gangrene, and the whole CPD would need debridement. But SI was the center of the infection, and there were Murphy and her sergeant and a few others, fighting it at the source.

“How hard is it going to be to get in?"

Murph just shook her head dismissively. "There's only four guys there, and Ron knows them all. They'll be very busy looking the other way when you show up."

"Four guys for a break and enter?" My eyebrows tried to meet my hairline. With the budget the CPD was working with, and the extra workload at this time of year?

"It's the Gold Coast, Harry." Murph rolled her eyes, starting and ending the whole conversation with an exasperated flap of one hand. "The Superintendent's not going to risk looking like he isn't taking the nice check-writers seriously." A sigh, the lines around her eyes tightening. "Obviously, I can't cut you a check. But I can drop to Mom that I have a male friend who's looking underfed...."

Murphy's mother's baking could launch a thousand ships. "Gotcha. John--? Grab the keys. We should get out there while there's plenty of daylight."

"You're taking him?" Murphy scowled.

"You're taking me?" John poked his head out of the kitchenette.

"Is that a problem?" I asked Murphy. "My car's in the shop." Again. "Did you want to take me? I kind of thought you wouldn't want to be seen with me-- I can always claim I got hit on the head and wandered into the crime scene in a state of confusion."

Murph turned a long look on John, ignoring me. "Fine. Just make sure you leave everything where you find it. Everyone, too, Marcone." Message apparently delivered, she glanced at her watch, ignoring his annoyed look and my confused one. She pulled out a notebook and tore out some pages: the address, the timeline, a summary of the witness statements. "Got to go. I'm pulling a double again tonight."

I winced in sympathy. After October, the higher ups had tried to set her up for a giant serving of roast scapegoat, but a few friends in their own higher and louder places made it too politically inconvenient to fire her. Apparently, the PTB's new tactic was to wear her down working around the clock until she gave in and quit. "Give 'em hell," I said as she stomped her way back outside, and she answered with a half-hearted wave and a ‘Don't you dare get caught!’

"What was that about?" I asked, after she'd slammed the door shut behind her. I mean, not that Murph hadn't accused John of theft before and was pretty reliable about making some nasty noises about 'are you sure that Caddy's yours it looks awfully expensive did your rich uncle die or something' every six weeks or so, but there'd been something in her voice this time that had given even him pause. Not to mention that this was the first time she’d ever brought up kidnapping.

"Long story, I think." John's brow had furrowed. "Let's go, hot stuff. I'm not going to stand between you and your baked goods."


 

It was probably for the best that John had driven this time. Even on its best days, the Blue Beetle, my multi-colored, long-suffering VW, wouldn't have looked at home in the Gold Coast. John's lovingly restored Caddy at least looked like it could be some bored stockbroker's weekend project-- instead of an overworked mechanic's most prized and compulsively maintained possession. We parked near the house Murphy had sent us to: a pretty little townhouse that would have been prettier if the front door hadn't been hanging sadly on one hinge and the windows hadn't been shattered.

"Subtle," John said dryly. "Someone certainly ordered an extra side of breaking with their entering."

"With king-size fries. Come on," I said, noticing that he hadn't unbuckled. "Don't you want to spend your day off helping me on the job?"

He bobbed a brow, indicating the cops with a small hand motion.

"I'm not supposed to be in there either," I encouraged. "We can not be in there together."

"They do say couples should share a hobby," he said, and when I went up to the house he was following me.

The four uniforms Murphy had said would be there were all hovering around their squad cars, turning their bodies into a windbreak for the still-steaming take-away coffee cups they held in their hands. Three of them drew tighter into their circle when we got out of the Caddy, faces clearly showing that they were very focused on their serious discussion. Much too focused to notice two guys out for a walk who might just happen to get lost and end up in a crime scene. The fourth cop, a big, older black guy with a thick mustache handed off his drink and separated from the little huddle, leveling a steady stare at John and I as we got closer. Rawlins, according to his nameplate.

"Thought there were supposed to be three magi," he said dryly.

"I'm Frank Frankincense." I jerked a thumb at John. "This is Murray Myrrh. We figured gold was already taken care of."

"Hunh," Rawlins said, and turned away, stomping along an already well-trodden path in the snow that led around the side of the house, apparently unimpressed with my sparkling wit. "The family-- the Patakis-- are in Mexico,” he told the landscape. “The neighbors called it in this morning, about 9:00. Heard some loud noises, saw something they said could have been fireworks or firecrackers, all flash and bang." I nodded; that matched Murphy's notes. "We've got no trace of that, but the front's all beat to hell, and the alarm's burnt out."

"Maybe the lights they saw?"

Rawlins led us through a gate and into the backyard. "Couldn’t tell you, Frank. Too bad we’re just some overworked cops. Not like we have an expert to call in or anything."

Walking around the house was like a tour of the distant country of High Taxbracketa; John and I really had traversed afar. We all tromped around to the backdoor where John and I hovered, and Rawlins leveled a bland gaze at us both. "I have a very important phone call to go make," he said. "It might take a while-- I never know how many toppings I want on my pizza. And I have this funny thing where once I'm on a cellphone, I just don't see right. It'll be a shame to miss you folks, but I'm sure you're nice, upstanding young gentlemen who wouldn't dream of unlawfully trespassing on a crime scene."

"No, sir," I said, giving my sunniest smile. "Not us." Rawlins snorted, and turned away, stomping back through the snow. I cheerfully waved goodbye.

John tried the knob on the backdoor the second Rawlins was out of sight: it opened easily, not that I'd been really expecting anything different, and we stomped what we could of the snow and slush and salt from our boots on the stoop. John pursed his lips, peering at and fiddling with the door lock. "It's been picked," he said, and pushed past me into the house, flicking on the light as he went.

"Maybe they needed to make a quick exit?" I offered, and hovered at the doorway another moment.

Going into someone's home is always a serious proposition. A threshold isn't just something for brides to be carried over; it's the boundary of any residence, any loved, cared for place where people feel safe and whole. The hearth may be the heart of a home, but the threshold is the soul of it. And it can pack a serious punch.

I'd wanted to get behind mine when Lea gave me that scare in the mall for the same reason I really hated the idea of waltzing over someone else's uninvited-- it wouldn't come without a cost. If a wizard crosses a threshold without proper invitation from someone who lives in that home, they leave their magic at the door. Just like vampires and other nasties need to be invited in to retain their power, so do wizards. And unfortunately, there was no one at home to ask me over for a rousing game of Clue. It wasn't that I couldn't do it, of course. Unlike a minor spirit or a Black Court vampire, I wasn't physically barred without an invitation; but unlike a more powerful creature, I wasn't going to come through this unmarked.

But I'd dithered enough, and if I was going to have a look at the inside of this place, I would need to get inside this place, so I took a deep breath, extended my magical senses, and stepped inside.

It wasn't nearly as bad as I'd been expecting.

I could feel it, crossing over the line, the ghost of a barrier and a sliver of my magic drifting away to politely wait for me at the door, but it wasn't as if I'd left the whole thing there for valet service. It wasn't as if I'd even left a coat on the rack.

There were a couple reasons that could have happened. A lot of it could just be that the family hadn't lived here very long. Only five months, if I remembered correctly from Murphy's notes. Maybe they'd thrown a holiday party: a lot of people tromping back and forth could wear a threshold down, stretch it out and leave it sagging until the energy of the family shored it up again. But... I'd felt high-traffic apartments with thresholds stronger than this, even ones where you'd never bother to send a Christmas card the next year, or even a birthday card in the spring. My bachelor pad had had a stronger threshold than this before John had moved in; Hell's bells, John's little cement shoebox had had a stronger threshold than this.

And it wasn't that it had been destroyed, pushed through and torn away-- I'd felt a strong, loving threshold that had been rotted to mush by an uberghost invasion in October. Trust me, it isn't a feeling you forget. This felt more like walking into a house that was for sale, when the family'd moved to Florida the year before. Sure, it had been somebody's home, once. There were little memories of that, sunk into the foundation, but the kitchen floor had been torn up and renovated, all the stuff was gone, and hundreds of people had walked in and out, half-imagining what it would be like to make a home there, half busy thinking about the grocery list and the next workday and needing to go the bathroom and finding time to get the car in for an oil change.

If my life had depended on it, I'd have told you no one lived here. Luckily, it didn't and my heart kept beating, because there was everything to indicate that this house had a family, and nothing to support the vacant state of the threshold. Just a nice kitchen done up with oak finish and gold accents, and the remains of one kitchen chair in pieces on the ground.

John was flipping through the stack of paper on the counter, face casual but eyes bright and focused. He was looking for something-- but it didn't look like he was finding it. You just have to be able to read him.

"Harry?" he said, looking up at me. "What is it?"

I frowned. "Threshold feels off." I'd explained about thresholds almost as soon as I'd explained about magic-- to keep him safe, and to keep him from inviting anyone in to my apartment and through my threshold by accident. …It was our threshold now, I guess. Had been for a while, really. And being the big, strong, manly type that I am, I was in no way filled with warm fuzzies roughly the consistency of marshmallow fluff thinking about that. Our threshold was a lot stronger than it had been when I lived alone, and I'd beefed up the wards and magic woven into it since I'd fallen off the Raith-Vargassi Christmas card list. It had only taken one pizza delivery with a side of explosives for me to get extra paranoid. John was already there; he has a whole safety routine he goes through before he gets the mail. He'd accepted a threshold as just an extra layer of security to maintain with aplomb. And kept on me to make sure the wards were healthy, too, once he knew about them. I swear, Bob doesn't nag me as much about it as he does.

John's face gave away nothing, but I could see his body stiffen a little-- and the tightening of pain around his lips as he shifted his weight back off his left leg. I filed that away to where I could feel bad later. So far, I'd dragged the guy across a slippery parking lot, through a mall and back, and out to a crime scene, complete with a trek through the snow. And on his day off, and our first weekend together. Some boyfriend I was. "Off? How--? Was something strong enough to come through?" He gave the kitchen a quick glance over, reassessing.

"Not like that," I shook my head. "I don't even know if it was something." I filled him in.

John narrowed his lips, considering. "Explains how someone could get in, or get in with firepower, if whoever it was is from your side of the tracks. Can thresholds be taken out magically? Like disarming a security system?"

"Not without leaving a trace," I said. "If someone busted through, it would be just as obvious as the door and windows." I jerked my chin towards the living room and the wreck of the front entrance, just visible through the dining room.

John looked over, and then to the back door. "And why break when you can just enter?"

And that. "Yeah," I sighed, and scraped a little bit more snow off my boots on the doormat. "You find anything interesting?"

He shrugged. "Some credit card and bank account statements. A couple bills, a pay stub. No company names I recognize, but it's been a while." Meaning Outfit-owned and operated companies from when he'd had his nose-- and hell, head and shoulders, knees and toes, eyes, ears, and mouth-- in the mob. I wasn't sure if that was reassuring or not; just because Maddy might not have been responsible for this, it didn't mean some other demon or monster or regular old warlock wasn't carving out some corruption of their own.

"Accounts drained? The cards maxed out? Could this have just been someone looking to collect on a debt?"

"Nah," John shook his head, and toed at the remains of the broken kitchen chair. "Enough funds between them to buy our whole building from Mrs. Spunkelcrief and still keep up with the mortgage on their summer home in the South of France."

"Heh," I said. "Putting the gold back in Gold Coast, huh?"

John snorted. "That's not how recessions work, Harry. It never left-- just made room for all its friends and family from the low-income neighborhoods to move in."

I made a face at him. "Thanks for that high school civics lesson, Mr. Scrooge. I'm going to check the dining room. The gold may be around, but let's see about the silver."

"Go blow a yeti, Yukon Cornelius," he said sweetly and headed off in the other direction towards the family room.

The silver was still in the hutch, as was what I assumed was the good china. The china cabinet doors were gone, only splintered wood frames with shattered glass on the shelves and the floor remaining, but the actual dishes looked whole, sitting neatly stacked in the mess. The dining room set itself was off-angle, the tablecloth pooled on the floor and a crack in the wall behind the table, the drywall dust on the hardwood a pretty good sign that that remodel had been after the family had left for sunny weather and five star service. But all told, I’ve seen worse damage-- a lot worse. An aesthetic repair job was needed, but nothing looked truly irreparable.

I continued on into the living room. There was some snow on the ground, mixed with the broken glass that was all that remained of the big front windows, and the couch had been shoved out of position and a comfortable looking chair flipped over, but that was it. The upright piano against the wall by the big stairway leading to the upper floor didn’t look like it had been touched, and although some of the ornaments and tinsel had been knocked off the Christmas tree and the skirt was rucked up, ruining what had probably been a picture-perfect display, it still standing, if lopsidedly.

I went back to find John, cataloguing the damage as I went, trying to see if I could find a natural progression to what had happened. The bottom floor of the house was trashed, no question, but a quick glance into the den told me that the giant TV set, the DVD player, and what John confirmed was a really great sound system were all still nestled safely in their massive-probably-real-wood-entertainment center. The windows must have blown out after the snow stopped last night; other then the stuff that had come in with the glass in the living room, there wasn't even a light dusting to threaten the pricey electronics.

"I mean, maybe the TV was too big to take...?"

"DVD player. Subwoofer," John said clinically. "The drawers in those end-tables don't look to have been opened, either. I'd have to check the upstairs to be sure, but this wasn't for money."

"John. Sometimes you worry me."

He made a face and waved me off. "Harry, this isn't actually personal experience talking. You see, we normal people have something called cable. And Law and Order and CSI. And common sense. I realize that these things are all foreign to you, though, so I'll try to walk you through this."

"Quiet, mortal," I told him and headed back to the living room and the stairs, going up, him behind me. "Oh. Wow."

The downstairs had mostly escaped the snow. Upstairs, not so much. In a way, it was almost a mercy that there was so much of a draft today. If all of the snow upstairs had melted... I winced to think of the water damage. The master bedroom was on the rear side of the house, above the family room, and only slightly snowed in, but the smaller bedroom down the hall was a winter wonderland. Judging by the rumpled Superman bedspread and fallen guardian action figures in the snow-- they must have been on the windowsill-- I was putting the resident at about ten and probably a boy. While John dug around in the master bedroom, I carefully whisked fallen snow away from a little plastic figure: Doc Ock. Well, someone's got to love him. Feeling like Indiana Jones in the Temple of Dr. Doom, I slowly excavated a little assortment of who's who in the DC/Marvel spandex crowd, careful not to get any broken glass stuck in my gloves or my hands.

This room hadn't escaped the damage downstairs-- if anything, it looked worse. The sliding closet door had been racked right off its hinges, and there was a hole in the drywall through a now unrecognizable poster. The little desk chair had been flipped and thrown into a corner, and the bed had been slammed into the wall hard enough to leave dents that made the crack in the dining room downstairs look like a gentle ding. One wall was covered in scorch marks. The soggy carpet was stained with blood, and it had dyed the snow on top of it a faint pink-- if I hadn't dug out the action figures, I wouldn't have known. I cursed inwardly. If it hadn't been diluted and mixed with the snow, I could have used it to track whoever it belonged to. As it was-- no good. Maybe the police could make something of it.

"The jewelry’s still there, and most of it looks real enough not to risk leaving. No damage in the master bedroom or the bathroom, either. Harry, I don't think--" John trailed off as he stepped carefully inside the smaller bedroom. "Jeeze. We're sure the kid wasn't here for this, right?"

"You heard Rawlins," I reassured him. "They're in Mexico. I don't think they forgot their son, unless we're in a Home Alone sequel."

He kept frowning, though. "Maybe his parents got him Superman Number One for his birthday?" he said, without actual hope.

"And the very subtle burglar thought it was in his closet? Or in his bed? And just happened to cut himself on the very subtle broken glass and bleed subtly all over everything?" There was something on the floor, only half-visible under a snowdrift; I'd missed it in my action figure rescue efforts. I bent to pick it up.

"All this over a kid." John made an unhappy sound, half confused, half angry. "Harry, I don't like the way this is going."

I stood up, brushing snow off the little rag doll I'd found. It had button eyes and a few strands of real hair tied in a knot around its limp head. "Yeah," I said, my voice bleak. "Me neither."

 

We made short work of the rest of the upstairs: the guest bedrooms, an office, the bathrooms. They'd all been spared, save for some snow that had blown in under the closed doors, the computer and other electronics left alone. There was a comb in the kid's bathroom and I grimly compared the hair caught in its teeth to that on the doll's head. A match.

I tried not to jump to conclusions. There's more than one use for thaumaturgy. I used it all the time, mostly in tracking spells; it didn't have to be bad news. I couldn’t know for sure-- there was no magic left on the little doll for me to get a read off of to try and confirm what the spell had been; the rising sun must have seen to that. But… a doll. There's not that many reasons to make a semblance of someone. And none of the ones I knew of were good.

The last time I'd seen a take on a thaumaturgic doll, I'd been using it to perform an exorcism on a homicidal ghost who'd taken my form and a big chunk of my magic-- a remix on a spell I'd done a few months before that, using the same focus. The time before that, it had been an intended murder tool in the hands of an over-funded junior warlock with a fondness for carving the hearts out of his victims. He'd used rabbits; I'd used a Ken doll. No matter how plastic and safe or how fluffy those things were, after our modifications, neither were anything like something you'd want near a kid. I was having a lot of trouble shaking the conviction that whatever John and I had wandered into, it was seriously bad juju.

We went back down to the ground floor, me still clutching the little ragdoll. John crossed over to the busted front door, squinting out at the early afternoon sunlight. "Kicked in from outside," he noted, not sounding surprised. "Like the windows. So much for it being the escape route. ...Funny how the windows in the kid’s room looked like they were broken by impact from inside. This looks more like an actual explosion. From outside."

Funny. Yeah. I sighed and set the doll on the arm of the couch, starting to look for something that could ID our perp-- hair, fur, tracks, stray magic, something-- and John started to poke around the very rumpled Christmas tree.

I couldn't shake the feeling that I was missing something.

"What time did the snow stop?" John asked, giving one of the fake boughs of the tree a gentle shake. The pretty ornaments shook, some bells rung softly.

I checked Murphy's notes. "About 7:30 this morning. Just after sunrise.''

"So a good hour and a half before the neighbors saw or heard anything."

"Sprang from their beds to see what was the matter," I confirmed, and got an eyeroll for my efforts. I tell you, no one appreciates me.

"Maybe a scout snuck in to make sure the family wasn't here and then their buddies came back to... what?" He sounded frustrated. "Why just trash the place?"

"Maybe they really pissed off the homeowner's association?"

I got a look that said that he was Not Amused. See what happens when I try to be helpful? I sighed, and said what I was really worried about: "Maybe they pissed off the mob."

A pause; a scowl; a headshake. "Marco likes arson, and his main enforcer likes the personal touch. If Torelli had been here, he would have left some kind of message. This is too senseless. That's the thing about a threat; you have to know who's doing it, or it's no good."

In its way, that was a relief. For one, because Chicago's mob was scary, propped up by Maddy and her White Court allies and her Black and Red Court enforcers. For another, because if I'd gotten John mixed back up in the mob....

John used to have a friend, a guy named Silver-- used to. The only reason John could still walk, that he'd only taken the one shot in the thigh, was because Silver obligingly caught the other two bullets that'd been meant for John. With his skull. Marco and his goons hadn't been shooting to wound: if they weren't such bad marksmen, I'd be paying rent on my apartment alone.

I was so sunk in worry that I missed John calling my name; I looked up the second or third time, blinking.

"Harry?" John had braced himself on a couch arm and was stooped down carefully, picking up something from among the shattered window glass. "That mistletoe hanging up over the hallway door. Is it real?"

I frowned and reached up to rub the leaves between my fingers-- cold plastic. "No, why?"

"They don't have any plants in here, anywhere. The tree's plastic. The wreath is plastic, the sprigs of holly are plastic-- because it's so hard to find and they don't have a hedge of it next door or anything. Not even the poinsettias are real. But then there’s this." He held up a battered little stalk with two waxy leaves, tossing it over to me when I held out a hand for it. It was a bit limp, the stem bruised and bent, the white berries fragile under my fingers. And it was undeniably real, almost identical to a little bunch I'd seen earlier today, artfully pinned behind a just barely pointed ear, set off by rich red hair.

No.

It had to be a coincidence. My godmother wasn't a nice faerie, but she preferred grown men, artistic types, and she had much subtler tools than thaumaturgy. I stared at the leaves dully. If there'd been any trace of magic on them, it had been light enough to dissolve with the rising sun.

"Plastic poinsettias," John was muttering, still moving, poking around the living room and then peering into the broom closet in the hall by the stairs. "There are some serious taste issues at hand here. And what--?" There was the ring of metal. "Shit."

I looked up; he'd found an ancient, stained wickerwork basket crowded in with the rest of the back-of-the-closet junk. Sitting on the ground, it reached his waist, and he was straining dragging it out a few inches into the hallway. Someone had covered it loosely with chains. Iron chains. Something pricked at the back of my brain. "John, maybe you shouldn't--"

He tugged the last coil of chain free and let it pool into a heap. "Don't have enough of a sense of tradition to use real mistletoe but they keep this ugly thing--"

"Ugly yourself, crippled son of a mule!" the basket snarled. John jerked backwards, eyes wide, and stumbled painfully over the bottom of the stairs, barely catching himself on the banister before his head slammed into the wall.

The lid of the basket popped free, braced on a pair of twisted horns; it rose far enough to reveal burning eyes set in deep, bony eye sockets. They narrowed at me. "You, mortal wizard. You are not one of them that entrapped my liege. What have you come for?" The fae had a raspy Germanic accent, overlaid with pure belligerence.

"Trapped your-- the noble who went missing?" Hell's bells. "What the hell were you doing in Chicago?"

"The summons of a child, idiot, and the token of an old debt. The semblance of a child; you've held it in your hands." I stared at him, and the thing in the basket growled, exasperated, and pointed a long-nailed claw over the basket lip and into the living room. "On the sofa, you fuckwit!"

John and I both stared over at the little ragdoll I'd found in the kid's room, sitting slumped on the couch arm. "It wasn't a voodoo doll," I realized. "It was a decoy. They used it to get you here."

"Oh, splendid, it learns, it has thoughts rattling in its empty head!" the fae snapped, basket rocking a little as he shifted, agitated. "The King was summoned here and they were waiting-- so many mortal wizards, none so powerful as my King. But they granted false entrance. Closed the mortal threshold like a trap and stole it away.” He let out a hissing sound, like air out of a tire, rattled and coughed low in his throat. “They wounded me with iron. Bound me with iron. And daylight." He shrunk back into the basket a little, glaring malevolently at me from between the brooms and boxes of junk. "I cannot go to his aid until night falls and there will be little time then. The Queen will not move. The Leanansidhe does what she does. I don't know. Hnnf."

"Why won't the Queen move?" I demanded.

"On the eve of the Solstice will she part from her demesnes and leave all Winter? When it is weak enough with the loss of my King? You were surely dropped as a child, wizard, many times and from a height. Go do something useful."

"Whoever did this is gone," John pointed out, making me flinch-- I'd been so busy with my basket-bastard pissing contest that I'd forgotten he was there. "Unless you have something to go off of, you don't get to bitch at him for not being useful."

Ah, John. Balls and practicality in the face of skullfaced things in baskets. And Murph wonders what I see in him.

"Hahah. Something. I have it for you. Catch!" The fae lobbed a small object at John, a muscular woolly arm visible for just a second, and whatever it was made a nasty squelching sound when John caught it. "Hahaha. Hell with you all. Nng." With a grunt of pain, the fae sagged back into the basket, the lid dropping shut. He had said he was wounded-- and while stronger fae could stand the sun just fine, the basket-bastard was obviously at the limits of his strength.

"So. Um. That was interesting."

"You aren't joking," John winced. "Can you grab a baggy from the kitchen?" He was holding the whatever it was between his thumb and forefinger, and I had to lean close before I could figure out what it was. At first I thought it was a bloody used condom, which was bad enough, but at least you expect something like that that to be on its own, but then the wrinkles resolved themselves into a human ear and I made a gagging sound.

"Baggy. Got it," I said, legging it to the kitchen. My mind was whirring as I ransacked the family's drawers, looking for something to bag our grisly little trophy with. Something about the thing in the basket… the basket. Wait. No. It couldn't be the fae I was thinking of. If it had been that serious of an attack Lea would have told me, wouldn't she?

I'd walked on autopilot, was numbly handing John the baggy when I glanced down at the mistletoe I was still holding.

Does what she does. Oh Hell's bells.

The lightshow way after the break-in. The lip-service damage on the bottom floor, compared with the violence upstairs. The scary noises. Someone bad had been here, no doubt-- and there had been a massive fight upstairs, in the boy's room, in the night when the snow was still coming down hard-- but then in the morning, after the snow had stopped, Lea had been here too. She'd been here and she'd made sure that I'd find out about this; she'd made a production so big that it would have to get back to me. She must have been pretty sure that someone was going to tell me even before she ambushed John and me in the mall--

"That bitch." I threw the mistletoe down. "That's why the soft sell! She didn't have to pressure me to help; she knew Murphy was going to get me involved!" And I was going to wind up doing her a damn favor for nothing. She'd taunted me with the chance to do her a favor, to repay my debt to her, dammit, dammit, DAMMIT.

"Harry, what's--"

"A noble of Winter, did you hear her? A noble of Winter. Like it was some-- Stars, some minor lord or something."

"Harry." John's voice cut through my ranting. He'd zipped the ear into the freezer bag I'd found-- it was one of those helpful ones with the yellow and blue stripes to tell you when it was sealed-- and was standing quietly, waiting for me to wind down. "Tell me what's going on."

"They've kidnapped the King of Winter, John." I met his serious gaze. "They've got Santa Claus."


 

John drove us quietly back at slightly greater than legal speeds, only stopping for McDonald's because I asked him to. I prefer Burger King, but I wasn’t after the food, and McDonald's keeps their coffee hotter, whatever they're saying these days.

"How's your leg?" I asked quietly, and the way John's face went solid was an answer in itself. "Right."

"Save your magic for the tracking spell, hot stuff," he grunted.

"Says the guy who lectures me about false economy." We were stopped at a red light: I gripped the coffee cup in one hand, reached across John's lap to lay the other on his left thigh. "Sol soli," I murmured, and felt the trickle of sunshine-like heat slide from one palm to the other, willing the warmth down into the pins and the bone of John's bad leg. He sucked in a deep breath, steadied himself before the light turned green and he had to drive again.

I'd leeched all the heat out of the coffee by the time we got back to our apartment, but John got out of the car without wincing; it'd done its job. He intercepted the coffee cup before I could chuck it into a garbage can, tipping out the chunk of coffee ice into his hand.

"You know, Harry, I never really get used to what you can do," he said, giving me a wry little smile.

"Just keeping the relationship interesting."

"You're off to rescue Santa. I don't see myself getting bored any time soon," he pointed out.

"Yeah. You're handling that pretty well, by the way," I said encouragingly, and got a headshake in return.

"I'll deal with the implications later. I get the sense we're operating on a deadline," John said pragmatically. " What bothers me is that I can't figure out why this is your problem."

I lifted my hands. "Technically it's not a mortal problem, but the faeries have always been weird about conflict and politics. They love mortal cannon fodder and mortal champions-- I mean, the Knights, that's a whole complicated thing in itself, I don’t really know a lot about it, and if a couple of glowing ladies ask you to choose which one of them is the prettiest you need to run, not walk, to the nearest exit. The White Council's always been really careful to keep neutral with the Sidhe, too: I get the feeling that some pretty big things could explode if Summer and Winter went at it. We're talking big, elemental forces here; it wouldn’t just stay in their backyard. Everyone would feel it."

"Your problem, Harry. Why is it your problem? Like you say, the Council--"

"Wouldn't have a leg to stand on, even if they knew. Technically, capturing a Sidhe doesn't fall under their jurisdiction."

"The Accords, though--"

I gave him a sidelong look. "Who's been telling you about the Accords--? Never mind. Let me guess. A bony little birdy told you. ...I don't know why they aren't going to an arbiter, John." I sucked in a breath. "I don't know. But I'm going to try to find out.”

 

The second we were through the door, I headed for the phone. "I'm going to call Murphy. Make sure someone's checked on the family." Meaning the kid. John nodded grimly. He's got a thing about kids. The phone was working, or at least it had a dial tone, and I pounded in Murphy's cell number. We do most of our talking in person, these days. She doesn't like me calling her, or calling me herself-- you never know who might get a copy of those phone records and see that a CPD officer has had contact with a certain wizarda non grata, but for this, I was willing to risk a quick call to a personal line.

"Murphy," Murph answered. I could hear some noises behind her-- mostly a lot of wind, and the crunch of slow-moving tires, and the odd honk of a horn.

"Hey, Murph," I said, "...are you in a parking lot?"

I could hear the tension she was carrying in her jaw. "Traffic duty on the Mag Mile."

I winced. "Wow. They must really hate you."

"You better believe it," she said, resigned. "Hold on a second." There was a pause, some muffled voices, and then quieter, a little echoey. "All right, you got fifteen minutes. What's up?"

"About that baking," I said, and she sucked in a breath through her teeth.

"Yeah?"

I tried to think up a clever code. "Uh. The cause of the gingerbread house crumbling was as suspected. Has your mom checked on the gingerbread men in the oven? We don't want them to get burned."

"Dresden," she said.

I weighed the pros and cons of trying to dance around this too much and pissing her off, or just cutting to the chase. John must have been rubbing off on me, because I chose the path of least destruction. "It definitely wasn't a normal B&E."

I could practically see the little line of her headache getting deeper between her eyebrows. "Do you know who?"

"Not yet," I said. "But I've got some leads." I made a face and patted the freezer bag in my pocket. "Right now, I don't think it was any of the usual suspects." Meaning probably not Maddy, Mavra and the rest of their vamp army, although the queen bee did seem to have her fingers in everything. "I don't know if the family's involved or in danger or not-- I'm leaning towards not, but there was some pretty hinky stuff in the kid's room. Has anyone made contact with the family, made sure they're okay?"

"Yeah, the security company that runs the alarm system got us in touch with the family's attorney, and she got us in touch with them at their resort. They're fine—upset, of course, but not injured. I’ll get the guys to keep an ear out in case something changes."

That was a relief and I nodded, wincing as my phone let out a burst of static and I started hearing very muffled Spanish in the background. I could hear some sort of techno-enhanced beat, too; the phone was picking up radio stations again. "Yeah! Yeah, that would be good!" I shouted over the background noise. "I'm not too worried about it, but just in case!"

"Ow! Christ, Harry," she said. "You don't have to yell. Is this going to happen anywhere else?"

"Oh Stars," I said, "I hope not." I mean really, once you've kidnapped the King of Winter, what's next? That's hard momentum to maintain.

"What aren't you telling me?"

"Uh," I said, and made a face as I thought.

I hate keeping information from Murphy, I really do. Helping her with a case is easier now than it was a few years ago; I can tell her more now that I'm barred from working for her boss and the CPD, and our friendship has less of my chronic foot-in-mouth disease to strain it. And since she started working with the OLEBES, I'm not her only contact on the magic side. The old thing about not telling anyone about magic who doesn't already know, the White Council's Catch-22, was moot by this point. Murphy's fought vampires and demons and warlocks; she knows.

But, if I was going to be honest with myself, I didn't want to upset her. It's stupid; I know. She's a big girl and a little worry isn't going to do her in-- hell, she probably gets a hundred new things to worry about every day on the job. And I owed her this. She brought me in; she protects this city from as many things that go bump as I do. I just really didn't want to screw up her Christmas any more than it already was. Hey Murphy, guess what. Virginia was on the right track all along: there is a Santa Claus! Except he’s a faerie. Actually, he’s a king of faeries. And also he’s been kidnapped. Merry Christmas!

She sounded strained, a distant car horn almost drowning out her voice: "Harry, how bad is this?"

I had to be honest with her. "Pretty bad," I said. The background music was fading, but the static was becoming constant. "I don't know all the details yet. I'll keep looking into it."

"Pretty bad how? Give me what you know. Harry, I can't keep people safe if you keep me in the dark," she said shortly, and I could hear the impatience even from the bottom of the well she sounded like she was in.

"It's not like that," I said. "It's bad, but it's not immediate bad, I don't think. There was a summoning-- the house was used to stage a faerie kidnapping, a pretty important faerie."

There was a pause as she digested that. Or my phone had died. Then she was back, suddenly loud in my ear. "Do I have to worry about retaliation attacks? Is this going to be political? Are there faerie gangs?"

Hell's bells, I hadn't even thought of that. I didn't know enough about what was going on, and I told her as much. "I'll tell you once I know more, Murph, but I'm really working without a map here. I don't know the faerie Courts that well; I've still got a lot of leg work to do."

"All right," she said, puffed out a breath. "Fuck, I've got to get back out there-- and figure out what I'm going to tell the guys. Anything else? Was Tinkerbell around for you to get a witness statement? Puff leave any suspicious footprints?" The banter felt forced, but it meant she was trying not to be angry with me, and it released some of the stress I carried around in my chest whenever I had to hold things back from her.

"Look, Murph. What we found, I just-- it's hard to explain and I'll try to soon. I just can't-- it sounds crazy over the phone--." She broke in before I could embarrass myself any more, her tone dry.

"Harry, it's okay. You're gay for your roommate, just spit it out."

She probably meant it to be comforting, more forced banter, an old jibe, familiar and reassuring; she'd been making that joke for months and it was still hitting close to home, closer now, even, so without really thinking about it I came back with: "Don’t they send you to sensitivity training, Murph? Expand your vocabulary. Sleeping with one guy doesn't make me gay: I'm pretty sure it makes me bisexual."

The pause on the other end told me I might have found a better time to break that news to her. "Harry," she said, voice tight. "Your phone's crap; are you joking with me?"

"Uh," I said, and glanced over at John. He had his forehead resting on the heel of his hand and his eyes squinched shut. No help there. "No?"

There was another loud honk, and a squeal of brakes. I could hear someone calling her name. "I've got to go. Fuck you, Harry, you're just full of surprises. Keep me informed on the case." She hung up without ceremony, and I followed suit, wincing. I'm not always good with the interpersonal stuff, but I was beginning to think I'd messed up.

"Well." John rubbed the bridge of his nose, his eyes still jammed shut. "I sure hope you won your argument. Much more important than pissing off a cop. Or outing us."

"If you didn't want her to know--" I started, and John cut in like a compact sliding into an empty space in traffic:

"I didn't want you to spring this on her during her already shitty day. And by 'this', Princess, I don't mean that you might not be the paragon of heterosexuality she always took you for. I mean that you are sleeping with a guy she doesn't trust, lately of an organization she hates, during a case that she brought you in on and where you're already holding her at an arm's length. Could you maybe-- I ask as your friend and the guy who puts out for you-- could you maybe not alienate our ally in the CPD?" When he finally opened his eyes, they were a little bloodshot from the pressure he'd been putting on them.

"It isn't like that." As much as he might have a point in one or two places, we both had bigger issues to deal with than him going Miss Manners right now. "Maybe if she wasn't as good a friend as she is, I'd let you lecture me. But I've known Murphy a lot longer than I've known you, John, and she's dealt with much bigger outbreaks of my foot-in-mouth disease. She's not going to raid the apartment because we're dating, okay? I know you don't trust cops, Stars, in this town you'd be a fool not to be paranoid, but Murphy's not your enemy here. If you've forgotten, we're trying to solve a kidnapping case right now."

"You trust her to be good about this."

Did I trust Murphy? Water: is it dampish?

"Yeah." I sighed. "Yeah. I'm sorry if that wasn't how you wanted her to find out. But yeah."

"Okay." He nodded, and slid his poker face on. "So. Gingerbread men make it out of the oven?"

"Gumdrop buttons fully intact," I said seriously, and slumped against the wall, scrubbing at my hair. Off of relationship drama island, back into the raging rapids of Hell's Bells they've got Santa. "You know, I'm really starting to wonder if the Patakis aren't incidental to all of this."

"Mm," he said, eyes slightly narrowed in that way that said he was thinking hard about something and was probably a good five steps further along than I was. "And if it wasn't about them, why use their house?"

"Yeah." We were holding too many pieces-- I thought about the baggy in my pocket and grimaced-- and I had no idea what the whole picture looked like. But at least I knew where to start looking for information. "I'm going to run the evidence past Bob, whip up a tracking spell, see if we can pin down the baddies. Maybe that will give us something."

"If you left the phone working, I can try to fish around for more information about the Patakis. Rule out some of the other suspects on my side of the fence."

I nodded, waved a fist loosely in the air. "Ra ra. Go team."

His teeth showed suddenly. "Damn, you'd look good in a miniskirt."

I socked him fondly on the shoulder on the way past.

 

Leaving John to stalk people over the phone, I headed down into my subbasement, the little room where I keep my lab and some of my reference books. The one on Germanic lore was lying under a folding table, cobwebs on it; I pulled it out, blew off the worst of the dust, and plopped it open on the table. I had a vague idea of what I was looking for, and it took some aimless searching before I found it: a big woodcut illustration of a goat-legged, long-horned, shaggy fae with a skullish face and a basket strapped across his broad back.

"Good choice," chimed in a voice from just to my left and I jumped, glaring over at the human skull that lived on one of my shelves, tucked in cozy in its nest of romance novels and skin mags. It grinned at me, eyes glowing. "You're looking for a date for the Winter Ball, I assume? Pushing it a little late, aren't you? Midwinter’s tonight, after all. But, I can't fault your taste; bet he’s a shoe-in for some of the kinkier stuff, and you know, his tongue is supposed to be as long as a man's arm." If the skull had had eyebrows to waggle, it would have; it had to settle for pulsing the lights in its eye sockets.

"Bob," I said shortly. "Stow it. I need to know everything you know about this guy."

"Kids today," Bob huffed-- without lungs, I know, it takes some getting used to. "No appreciation for tradition. Where's your holiday spirit? Sitting around the cider and hearing tales of Krampus--"

"-- I know the stories, Bob." Christmas with Justin DuMorne had been educational. "Hangs out with Santa. Beats the bad kids with switches, steals the worst ones in his basket. I need something a little more solid."

"Well, you've got the general idea. He's more than Santa's pet bad cop, though," the skull said. "The Winter King has a lot on his plate, and he's got plenty more to do than pop down chimneys and snag free cookies. Krampus is one of his attendants: bodyguard, secretary, general right-claw man. He does some light discipline on the side, because the Winter King is a pretty soft touch, for a Winter Royal-- for a Winter anything-- but that's really more of a hobby. Right now, he's probably gearing up for the Solstice tonight, to stand around and look decorative while Winter hands the ball off to Summer for the year."

"Not so much." I quickly outlined what we'd found in the house-- and watched Bob go from bubbly to twitchy in about thirty seconds.

"You're kidding. I don't buy it. They KO'd Krampus? He's one of Winter's heavy hitters," Bob fretted, the skull rocking back and forth. "I mean, and then there's the King thing. It shouldn't be possible for mortals to summon a Faerie King. It isn't. Jeeze, Lea sure must have some faith in you-- oh, Harry, this is bad. On the Solstice, this is like a declaration of war. How did they summon him?" he said, tracking in verbal circles.

"Well, according to our basket-bastard they didn't so much summon as lure--" I said, but Bob interrupted me dismissively.

"-- And then bind him? Pfft. No human could do that."

"Batman could," I said, mostly to be contrary and partly to try to ease him out of his panic.

Bob made a rude sound. "Oh please, Harry. Just because you have a crush on him doesn't mean he doesn't have limitations. No, whoever did this had help. Maybe Summer flavored help; it's sort of an archenemy thing to do. I mean, Summer's had the upper hand for a few years now anyway, but maybe they got sick of waiting-- I don't want to go up against them, Harry. I owe some of those people money. I'm too young to die!"

I'd known it was bad, but I hadn't expected things to go off the rails this quickly. Bob's nervousness was contagious, and I felt the hair on the back of my neck standing up. "Bob, I know you've been away for a while, but Summer's the court that doesn't enjoy killing people," I objected, trying to convince myself as much as him.

"Spoken like someone who's never met them," Bob snapped. "Go cuddle up to the Summer King sometime, I hear he's a real peach."

I made a face, because I couldn't pick the Summer King out of a lineup if you held a gun to my head and I didn't want to get into a pedantic argument with Bob, especially when he was genuinely upset. "Okay. Fine. Then how about this? Neither Summer or Winter has anything to gain by busting big giant holes in the Accords." Mind you, before The White Court--Black Court--Mob alliance and their war on the Reds and the White holdouts, I would have said the same thing about the vampires. But the fae were staying out of that mess as much as they could. This didn't seem right.

Bob made a thoughtful hmm noise, and sounded a little less ready to shake apart when he said: "You may actually have a point there, for once."

"Hey!"

He ignored me. "If Summer was in on this, Winter would have responded a lot bigger, a lot harder, a lot faster. Possibly dragged in some Accordian allies-- or at least people who owe them a favor. But they asked you, which is a kind of like calling a kid with a squirt gun for an apartment fire--"

"Bob," I said, warningly.

"No offense, boss, but you're nowhere near as powerful as, oh, the Merlin. So why did they pick you?" He had an anticipatory tone in his voice that said he'd already figured it out; I waited expectantly. "Because nobody knows yet! Summer isn't in on it, neither are any of the Signatory deities, or the Council. They’re on one hell of a tight deadline-- midnight tonight-- so they're playing it off like nothing's wrong and sending you to quietly do their dirty work. If you fail, they're not losing another big power for their side, we're all fucked anyway, and they declare war. And if you sort it out, nobody has to know they let their King get kidnapped-- and they know you wouldn't hurt Lea's feelings by tattling."

"You mean I wouldn't get myself into a position where she’d be able to swoop in with a big net and a short leash and drag me off to the Faerie City Pound."

"Harry," Bob tutted. "If my godmother was stacked like that, I would be a lot more open to family game night."

"It'd be hard to appreciate her figure while I was shaped like a dog, Bob."

"Harry!" Bob sounded scandalized. "Even dogs like boobs."

I bit my tongue; anything I said would encourage him. After a ten count-- and then another, in Latin-- I calmly said: "Okay, smart guy. It isn't Summer. Who is it?"

"Someone who doesn't run in many political circles. Someone low profile. Strictly mortal wizards, like Krampus and Lea said. Crazy, stupid-lucky mortals." Bob's eyelights brightened. "You could be pals! If you didn't have to go kick their asses, I mean. Got any leads? Are they in your suicidal humans book club?"

"I have this," I said, holding up the freezer bag. "Courtesy of Krampus."

"Ooh, you get the best Christmas presents," Bob said sarcastically. I think. "Well, what are you waiting for? Let's get tracking."

"Gosh, Bob, I hadn't thought of that. It's almost like I wanted to get information first before I started chasing after whoever or whatever stole the King of Winter."

"Definitely a who. At least that ear came off a human," Bob said helpfully. "See? Doesn't that make you feel better?"

"No, Bob."

“Giving up already, Harry? That’s so sensible; it’s hardly like you.”

I glared at him and ran a hand through my hair. I’d look like a porcupine before the night was through if I kept that up. “Why am I on such a deadline? Lea said something about spoiling a hunt--?”

Bob snorted, tipped back on his occipital bone to get the most drama out of it. "Sure, it would stop the Hunt. Like the President being kidnapped would stop the first baseball pitch."

So Lea hadn’t been completely honest with me. Surprise, surprise. Well, no. She’d been completely honest with me; she just hadn’t told me the whole story. “Not just about a hunt, huh?”

“It’s Midwinter, boss.”

“...And?”

“Bi-annual battle? Passing of the Stone Table?” My face must have given me away. I’d heard of the Stone Table before-- Ebenezar McCoy had told me about it, once, late one night during lambing season. I struggled to make that memory, what he’d told me about the Courts, make sense in light of the kidnapping. “Come on, boss. The Solstice! Longest night of the year! Height of Winter’s power, and the onset of Summer? It’s the changing of the seasons.” Bob sighed, his voice slipping into lecture mode. “The Courts exist in opposition, and they’re on a strict timetable. If the Winter King isn’t in his place by midnight tonight, Summer doesn’t just take the table, Summer slaughters the competition, renovates the spoils, and sets the table up front and center in their new Summer-all-the-time home. And then it’s war. Clear the field and let the weather sort it out. The Sidhe are closer to the mortal world than any other beings of the Nevernever; if their scales go, they’re taking all of you with them.”

“So we have a mild winter,” I said, not convincing myself either. “That happens sometimes. Hell, good luck finding someone who’ll complain.”

“Mild winter. Sure. Mild like the Mesozoic era.”

Oh. I swallowed. “Bad then.”

“Bad,” he agreed. “Keep in mind that this is theory. I’ve never seen it happen; I haven’t existed that long. When you get down to it, the Kings don’t do that much, not on Midwinter or Midsummer; the Queens call the shots in the Courts, but each side needs a full house. It’s the balance that matters.”

“So we find him before midnight,” I said firmly. “We got an ear, we got some time. Let’s get to work.”


 

An hour, a bit of brainstorming and some good old fashioned thaumaturgy later, I'd come up with exactly squat. "Nothing," I said, "still," and tossed my two-dollar Target headphones onto the table. The ear squelched along behind them like a grisly pet, the metal plug stuck into the earlobe in lieu of a jack. I was never going to be able to use those headphones again.

"Boss," Bob said, "I hate to be the one to burst your Christmas cheer, but I don't think this is going to work."

He was right, and I rubbed at my eyes, frustrated. There are only so many reasons that a tracking spell wouldn't work: either I was doing it improperly-- not likely, just like your electrician isn't likely to screw in a light bulb wrong-- or the person belonging to the ear was behind some sort of ward that would disrupt the little bit of magic I was sending out, or they’d crossed into the Nevernever and my magic wasn’t following... or there wasn't anyone left to track the ear to.

"Your ear-bearer is toast, Van Gogh."

"Ear loss isn't usually fatal, Bob."

"Yeah, but who says that's the only damage Krampus dealt him? Or maybe the rest of the crew did him in just so someone wouldn’t hone in on them."

I pushed my fingers through my hair. "They could just be hiding out in the Nevernever." With a kidnapped Sidhe King. Sure, why not? Wanted fugitives always like to stand under giant neon Here I Am, Come Disembowel Me signs, don't they? "Or maybe they have a supercharged shield."

"Well, whatever way the Christmas cookie crumbles, you're not playing this one by ear." He rocked up and down on his shelf, the cranial equivalent of an overly jocular elbow in the arm.

I picked the headphones back up, twirling the cord around my finger. "Then why don’t we try another station?"

I started gathering the new ingredients, and Bob caught on when I fished out the antenna from an old radio. "Thanks for tuning in to DEAD 105 FM, from our ear to yours. All our members are dismembered," he said in a faux-cheerful DJ voice, then more seriously:

"That's pretty risky, Harry. Sympathetic reads aren't really your strong suit. Emphasis on strong. You need light fingers for this kind of thing. If your ear-ee has shuffled off this mortal coil, you could overshoot the last remains of the mortal realm and end up sticking your nose right through to the other side-- and create a handy pathway for your ex-kidnapper to follow back, if he's not too pleased with his new accommodation. Which, besides leaving you open for possession, wouldn't make you very popular with the Wardens. Border of life and all. Or you could just fry yourself on whatever wards they have blocking you. Bzzt! Like the proverbial moth and flame. I'm sure a vegetative state is at the top of your wish list."

I nodded, spreading out a city map on my worktable. It was a standard street map of Chicago, pulled from a nice laminated booklet. I'd drawn in the major ley lines as best I could in red Sharpie. "I know. That's why I'm not going to do it."

It took him a count of two-- just long enough for me to stab one end of the antenna into a blob of Play Dough, and then stick the Play Dough to the table at the north end of the map. "Whoa there, cowboy!" Bob's skull screeched back the few inches of room it had on the shelf. "Run that by me again! Better yet, run it by yourself, and stop at the beginning because no way am I going up naked against who knows what. It's still daylight out there, Dresden!"

"Bob, Bob, calm down," I said, setting heavy candle holders on the four points of the map-- heavy enough to keep the map from rolling up and dislodging everything, and serving the dual purpose of a little added ritual. "I not sending you out there unprotected-- you're not even going out there. But you've got a lighter touch that I do. I need you to follow the trail back, tell me what you can hear, before our guy got out of range. You don't even need to follow it right to the source; just piggyback on it and bounce the feed off the nearest ley lines to get me an approximate location, okay?"

I put an inkwell next to the east candle and scooped the skull off the shelf, promising myself I'd hang a stocking for Bob and fill it with a new magazine and a romance novel. "Look," I said, setting him down on Lake Michigan. "You won't even have to leave your skull."

"Thaumaturgic sonar," he said. "Pretty clever, boss. I want a 24 hour pass for this."

I poured a circle of salt around the map, keeping Bob inside it. I’d be able to channel energy to him, but nothing would be able to get out-- just in case. I didn’t need to run the risk of accidentally sending Bob teleporting out into direct sunlight. "All right. After John and I find Santa, and get home safe."

"Deal," he said. "I don't want to be out there with Winter running wild on the streets anyway."

Bob and the Winter Queen had a misunderstanding a few hundred years back. He won't tell me the details and I've never asked-- accomplice after the fact and all-- but whatever it was, he's not willing to take the chance that she hasn't forgotten about it. It’d only been six hundred years or so; hardly enough time to forgive and forget. "You'll be right here," I reassured him again. "This will just be a reflection of what you're tracking out there."

"It's only a model," he told me, dismissively. Thatta boy. Then: "This is a good idea, boss. A little held together with chewing gum, but I think you're on to something here."

I put the ear approximately over the location of the Patakis home-- and the rest of the Gold Coast, things weren’t exactly to scale here-- then gently wedged the earbuds into the skull's auditory canals. "How's that?"

"What?" Bob shouted, and I rapped my knuckles against the top of his skull.

"Very funny." I lit the candles with a murmured flickem biccus, then bent and poured out another, bigger circle of salt around myself and the table, sealing it with an effort of will. I started up the tracking spell again, then held it there, right at the end, like pressing down on the piano key at the final note of a song, suspending my active magic, open and flowing, and reached out to seal Bob's circle. "Bob, you have permission to leave your skull, to remain in your circle for the purpose of this spell!"

The little gold lights that made up Bob's actual form bubbled up and poured out of the skull like the overflowing head off a glass of beer, trickling along the headphone wires, sparking at the end of the radio antenna. The ink began flying up from the inkwell, little splatters of blue landing this way and that on the map, and I peered at it while I poured my focus into keeping the spell open. There was a limited amount of magic in the circle with me, and an even more limited amount channeled through the circle with Bob, and keeping a spell going when it naturally, instinctively wanted to close was putting pressure on my magical strength, the strain growing exponentially each moment I held it open. It hadn't been a big spell to start with, and I've pressed myself harder in the past-- have I ever-- but this was different than forcing the last drops of magic out when I was drained dry. This was the opposite, letting magic pool and grow in me, without spending it, like building up a charge by rubbing your feet on the carpet, but pretend the carpet is a live wire, and without finding something to spark against.

I started to hear sounds, spilling out from the headphones: tires on a road, the honk of a horn, the rumble and crunch of a heavy vehicle. Someone breathing, gasps rattling deep and strained-- someone in pain, more than one person hurting. And someone else, muted, their sounds angrier, grunts without words, the jingling of bells. Voices, snatches of phrases. "Hold it still," and "Watch where you're pointing that thing, and Turn there, right. Traffic lightened, a little-- there was the unmistakable rattle of an L passing nearby, and the tires slowed, road getting rougher, bumpier. One of the side roads that hadn’t been plowed clear after the snowfall. Eventually, the sound of a car door opening, a tinny rendition of Frosty The Snowman, grunts of exertion. Another rattling door opening, those muted, angry sounds louder, the bells jingling, a voice, almost gentle, coaxing something along, like I would have a stubborn horse on Ebenezar McCoy’s farm—a sudden twang that drowned out all sound as the whoever crossed a magical line or barrier. It rattled in my teeth, started warbling loud and louder still, cutting in and out over the other sounds, and I did my best to ignore it and keep the spell going.

The ink dots were beginning to resemble something less like a Jackson Pollock and more like a connect-the-dots, and the antenna was sparking with Bob's gold light and blue static shocks. I clung to the edges of my spell with my fingertips, gritting my jaw and forcing the spell to stay active, to hover that last split second before closing--

"Done!" Bob said, the last splatter of ink hitting the paper, the sounds cutting out with an angry, wordless shout, the jingling of those bells and angry grunts, and the slamming of a door almost drowned out by that twanging. Bob’s light sucked back into his skull like one of those videos of a blooming flower played in reverse; I reached across the smaller salt circle, breaking it, and pulled the headphones from his earholes in one movement.

I let the spell go. It slammed shut: the earphones blew, the little speakers giving out with a puff of smoke and a spark of light, and the magic recoil slapped back against me. I staggered, eyes watering, and squinted them shut as the ice cream headache flooded in. "Gngggggg," I said, pinching the bridge of my nose between my fingers. "Gnng gng gng!"

"Whew," Bob echoed me, and I squinched my eyes open enough to focus on him. His eyelights were dim orange embers, deep back in his skull; his jaw opened up in a gaping yawn. "You know," he said through it, "I think there's something there. Maybe I've got a gift. Wanna let me do your portrait? Keep in mind-- I only do nudes, and I’m best at couple shots. You and your mechanic want to lay yourselves out, maybe bring in some leather, some silk-- maybe even nipple clamps, you’d like those, trust me, I’ve seen how close you get to cutting glass down here when it’s cold, and give him a ball gag-- I bet I could do wonders."

I glared, but it was as washed out and tired as his attempt at his normal cheeky patter, and peered at the inky mess of my map-- not bad. There was a pattern to the splatters, a definite trail, and the longer I looked at it, the more I could see the picture. Kind of like some of the stuff in the modern wing at the Art Institute. "Don't quit your day job," I told him, and scooped him back up and put him on his shelf.

“Don't forget," he told me. "As soon as you and loverboy are back from saving Christmas, I get to go remind the good girls and boys why it's fun to be naughty." He didn't have quite as much swagger to his tone as he usually did, but I gave him an A for effort. And also A for aspirin, which I badly needed, the pain of improperly released magic pounding away behind my eyes and nose. "And remember," Bob warned me, just was I was heading upstairs. "The solstice is tonight. If the Winter King can't make an appearance before midnight, all hell breaks loose."

"Thanks, Bob. Really."

I get caught in more supernatural turf wars before dinner...


 

I stumbled out of the sub-basement and went straight to the bathroom and the medicine cabinet. Then, swallowing down the headache pills with a handful of tap water, I started ransacking the living-room bookshelves; ever since John decided I needed to be organized, I can't find a damn thing. I uprooted two stacks of books before I found the map I needed, wedged between some geography references.

John was sitting at the kitchen table with a cup of a steaming coffee, a second one waiting for me, and his gun cleaning kit; my .357 was in pieces in front of him, his smaller .45 lying next to it, looking freshly cleaned and shiny.

"Need some table," I said, and John swept me a space clean.

"You don't take care of your gun," he scolded mildly. "One of these days it's going to jam when you don't want it to."

"Thanks, Murphy," I said, and he gave me a dour look. I spread out the map across the table, a duplicate of the one I'd had Bob go artistic on, before the ink-splatter interpretation. "We found them. Sort of." I put the two maps side by side and compared, tracing the dots and splatters on Bob's map up north from the Gold Coast. "A ley intersection a couple miles east of Belmont. Walked by some storefront muzak about halfway through..." I put my finger on the intersection, the last clear splotch Bob had been able to make, double-checked it against the ley line-only map. It was just about where the impact of some magical boundary had tried to shake my sinuses clear, and the trail went cold.

"North Clark," John said, looking down at the map. "And North Broadway. And North Lincoln. And South Ewing. And North Ogden and West Ogden--"

I looked at him, concerned. It wasn't like John to be so slow on the uptake. "No," I said carefully, pointing at the map, "no. Over here, you have to follow the ink. It's nowhere near--"

The look he gave me shut me up. "These," he said, jamming one finger on a marked-in ley line. "The ley lines?"

"Yes?"

"Half of the diagonal streets run along them."

"...Yes?"

He could tell I wasn't following. "That doesn't strike you as. Deserving of comment?"

"Er?" I said. "They're some of the oldest roads, right? Chicago has a lot of ley lines-- really a lot, like only a few other places in the world. It's a hub. Those ley lines have been around a lot longer than the roads, and a lot of the older the roads we have today are built on the pre-grid streets and paths. Some of those could easily have been built along ley lines."

He looked at me a moment longer, then laughed, dry and mostly air, shaking his head. "Harry," he said, "you are incredible."

"What?" I said, starting to feel a little defensive. "It stands to reason-- a lot of people are sensitive to this sort of thing, even if they don't realize it. And it's not like every ley line is paved; there's just a correlation."

"Oh no, no, Princess, I didn't mean it like that." He reached across the little table and grabbed my hands, holding them for a second before leaning back. "I've lived in Chicago my whole life. I think I know it pretty well. Thought I knew it inside and out-- and then there was you. You've got this whole other world you live in, and sometimes you don't seem to have any idea how different this city is with you in it. The whole city; and me." His eyes crinkled up in that not-smile smile he does, a familiar fond, exasperated look. "That's all. Sometimes you show me it, and I have to try to make it make sense, figure out where it fits with the Chicago I know, okay, Harry? Okay."

I blinked at him, awkward. I never know what to say when he has these little impassioned confessions. It must be the Catholic in him; he needs to offer up his inner secrets every few months or he breaks out in a rash. My face was a little hot, but that's just because I worked hard down in the lab, and was still flushed from it, and anyone who tries to tell you otherwise is lying. "I can pull a quarter out of your ear, too," I said, without any of the wry charm I'd intended and a lot of the awkward I hadn’t. "And also track down villains to their lairs. Hooray me."

His smile stretched down to his lips. "Show me what you got, hot stuff. We need to save Santa Claus. ...Christ."

Bob had done a pretty good job, and we narrowed down the area to a couple of blocks, caught in the criss-cross of the ley lines. "Mostly residential in here," I said. "Only this block's stores and shopping, and down here, and some old industrial here, but a lot of that’s been turned into restaurants and shops too."

"Mm," John said, tapping his finger against the ley intersection. "I knew a girl who lived along here. Not the best neighborhood, that close to Belmont, but pretty quiet-- at least it was a year or two ago. Clean enough, lots of trees. Families with kids, pets."

I reached over and rummaged through one of the kitchen drawers-- they're a lot more organized now too, but John hadn't had time to tidy this one up since I'd last been at it, so I knew where to find a Sharpie-- and then squeaked a big circle around the intersection. It was the best I had. It wasn't much, but it was a starting place, and more than we’d had before. I sighed, and scrubbed at my hair. "So what did you get?"

"Not much. The Patakis are from Hungary-- I mean, recently within-the-year from Hungary-- and Marco doesn't have a problem with anybody on that side of Europe as far as I know. It's not family business." He shrugged. "I know. We knew that already. But it's all I've got."

"Not that kind of family, anyway." I frowned. "But that chunk of Europe's a little more traditional. The local wizards... the local fae... and it's heritage Winter stomping ground. Maybe the family has a connection, some ancestor who got a favor from Winter or something. It would explain why they were targeted to be Santa-bait." Because that was one of the biggest whys we were dealing with-- why Santa? Why the Patakis?

John was nodding slowly. "Fits with the rest of the kidnapping-- maybe I'm wrong, but this doesn't seem like something you do without a lot of planning."

I grunted. John was right; there was something comfortable about knowing all the pieces were chosen with the same care. I stared the residential streets. "We could probably leg it through here pretty fast, see if anything stands out. I'll try to pick up the trail, check if there's a concentration of magic anywhere." And to keep someone like the Winter King under wraps, there would have to be.

The power that the Kings and Queens of the Sidhe Courts wield is almost unimaginable. I'm strong for a wizard, especially one my age, probably in the top quarter worldwide. I don't necessarily have a fine touch, but I've got brute strength. Think of me as a battering ram compared to a lock pick. And the faerie monarchs are so far out of my league, I'll be playing peewee as soon as I’m old enough to Velcro up my own shoes, but right now I’m still in diapers, and they earn millions before they even show up to their sold out games. Which made it all the more incredible that some mortal wizards had managed to not only capture good ol' Saint Nick, but keep him captured. And seeing as there hadn't been any breaking news reports of an ice castle springing up in the middle of town where a city block had been, I was willing to bet he was still captured-- and Winter hadn't found him yet.

I squared off the section of roads surrounding the highest concentration of ink dots, and then flipped the Sharpie over to run the bottom end along the drive to there from the Patakis’, and then again along the ley lines. It wasn't a direct route; the detours added a good twenty minutes more of road. Maybe a half-hour, maybe even forty-five minutes when taking in winter driving conditions; risky, with at least one injured man and an angry Sidhe lord in the back. But maybe worth it for the extra juice, especially with an angry Sidhe lord in the back.

John sucked at his teeth-- mostly to give me some type of response, I think. He tends to approach life like a poker game, but I’ve always seen it as more of a rousing round of go fish. With explosions.

“Why Santa?” I said, scowling down at the map. He looked up, starting to frown. “That’s what I’m not getting. Why do this at all? It’s like stealing an armed nuclear missile. Why would you steal a faerie king? No one would be stupid enough to try for ransom-- as soon as you traded back with the Sidhe they’d have your number, and they are not people you want to piss off. What would you even do with him?”

“...Sell him for parts?”

I think he was joking. I’m sure he was joking. Edgy gallows humor. Ha ha ha. I felt my jaw tightening, tension threading all the way up through my scalp. Calm down, I told myself. Calm down, it’s not like you have any glowing memories of Christmas. So you loved Santa as a kid. Who doesn’t? You’re not a kid anymore and you know better now. Santa doesn’t live at the North Pole and drink Coke. Justin taught you better your very first year with him. John looked over, frowned.

“Sorry. Sorry, Harry. I’m not entirely comfortable with the faerie king thing yet. Santa. What that means about… you know, the entire Christmas culture we truck into the house every year. I haven’t gotten that far yet. It doesn’t even sound real yet.”

“Sure,” I said, trying to relax. “I get it. Always surprises with me.” I felt brittle, a hair away from snapping.

“Hey. I’d rather know than not know. And if I have to know, I’d rather have someone who understands on my side. Someone who can do something about it.” John shot me a worried look. “I’m here, Harry. I signed up for the long run.”

He’d told me that after I’d been attacked by vampires, a few months ago. Right before he admitted that he might have a few ulterior motives for sticking around, too. Ulterior and snuggly. I guess I just hadn’t accepted yet that my world-- me-- wasn’t going to kill him or scare him off. Hell’s Bells, I’d barely accepted that I was happy being all cuddly with a male-type human. And this was not how I’d wanted to spend the first week of my new relationship. Our first Christmas, for crying out loud. We’d spent last year together, sure, but this was different. This year we weren’t just friends in the same little apartment. This year Dr. Seuss and I were on the same page: this year, Christmas meant a little bit more.

“Right. You’re right. Forget it. Let’s buckle down and do this.”

He gave me a worried look, and leaned back over the map.

"They're probably driving something big," I said, gritting my teeth and telling the part of me still reeling that Santa was in danger to settle down and go to sleep because it was past his naptime, and John nodded.

"Van, or at least a full-sized SUV. I can't imagine a faerie King would go along without a fight." He paused, thinking. "Wouldn’t being inside a car make him sick?"

"Cold iron," I said, nodding grimly. “It might, even if he’s not touching it. These guys are definitely on the naughty list." Okay, so it sounded better in my head.

“So. Somewhere here.” John sighed, framing the section on the map with his thumb and forefinger. “Doesn’t look like much, does it?” he said with a cynical little smile.

Only six city blocks, was all... basements, sub-basements, alleys....

“An operation this powerful... they’ve got to be giving off some sort of signal. We’ll find them.” I gave him a wan smile. “Hopefully before evening. Whatever wards they have up will be a little dim between daylight and night. It’ll be our best chance.”

Also hopefully. But the odds were with us. You needed a big, big battery for a shield that could keep out Winter’s forces, keep them from finding you, and to keep them from finding one of their own, especially their King; that meant tapping deep into the natural power of Chicago, and that meant some rules and rhythms I could anticipate. Chicago is more than just a collection of pizza and hotdogs and skyscrapers and L tracks; more, even, than a hub of ley lines and raw magic. It’s been around a long time, long before us colonial squatters showed up, and it’s had a busy history-- the latest of which includes us squatters, and went at a pretty breakneck pace, all things and the millennia before considered. It’s built on itself and the bones of its magic, and like anything that’s been around a while, my city has a personality.

Someone pounded on the door.

John looked over at me, brow furrowing before smoothing out into worry. He leveraged himself up from the table, sweeping his .45 into his hand and disappearing it into his sweatshirt pocket, and crept over to the door. He came at it sideways, giving me time to snag my blasting rod from the umbrella stand and get to the other side. He gave me a nod-- I nodded back, and he peered through the spyhole... he sighed, the tension leaving his shoulders, and gave me a grimace. “Password?” he shouted through the heavy security steel.

“Open the damn door, Marcone,” Murphy shouted back, and seeing her might have made him relax, but my back went rigid, the bludgeon of my poorly-timed 100 meter dash out of the closet coming back in full force.

John snorted, and yanked the door open. “That’ll do, pi--” he said, but I cut off his gravelly-old-farmer impression by slapping my hand over his mouth and yanking him back against me before Murphy could decide if he was worth a right hook or not. He usually has more of a sense of self-preservation than that, as much as he and Murphy like to give each other hell. It was almost comforting to know he was as badly rattled by this whole Santa-nabbing as I was. Almost.

“You sure can pick’m,” Murphy said, glowering at me.

“He’s great in the sack,” I offered; John nodded against my hand.

She rolled her eyes and stomped inside, shoving a brown paper bag at us. John grabbed it and I peeked inside-- deli sandwiches, from one of my favorite places. Murph was good people. She shed her heavy uniform jacket and wedged herself a place at the kitchen table, stealing John’s seat, thumping a finger on the map with all its ink splatters and Sharpie lines. “What do you have?”

“We tracked the perps’ van,” I reported. John took up a sentry position, hip against the table, mowing into his sandwich already. Murphy ignored him.

“Do I want to know how?”

“No.”

She grunted in resignation, waving a hand at me to continue. Because the things she didn’t want to know, she usually had to.

“There was a witness in the house. A fae,” I said bluntly. “He had a piece of one of the perps.”

Her shoulders went back, spine straightening. “How big a piece.”

“Ear-sized. And ear-shaped.”

‘This is my life’, said the expression on her face. “And you…?”

“Tracked it. Sort of. They’ve got good protection, these people.” I shook my head, gestured at the map-- and shoved Mister off it, because he’d wandered in to see what was up and decided his butt belonged on downtown. “We’ve got this area.”

“Okay; I’ve got this.” She pulled her battered notebook out of her pocket, flipping to a list of addresses in tiny handwriting. “A list of break-ins, loiterings, and security trips in the past couple of days.” She raked her eyes over it, glancing between the different pages. “And we’ve just got... two, three. Three incidents in your zone. One loitering. No, I know that guy, he’s not one of yours. One break-in. We responded. One old warehouse with a weird power outage. Came in on the emergency band, because it tripped the fire alarm when it died. But the place was empty, company that owned it went under last year; no signs of a break-in, and they’re blaming a busted fuse.”

“That’s them,” I said, and Murphy nodded. She knew what magic did to technology as well as I did. She waved for the Sharpie, and I passed it over so that she could draw an X on the map, slightly offset from the center of the last big spatter of ink, smack in the middle of the section I’d circled.

“Here.” She paused, took a breath like she was reading herself for a fight. “Harry. I know you didn’t want to give details on the phone, but I’m here now. Tell me what’s going on; at least tell me how big it is.”

I gave John a worried look, and he slipped into the conversation. “Big. It will suck if it goes bad. But it isn’t about us.”

“Is your name Harry?” she asked, exasperated, but it was more a token protest than anything, and her mouth drew out, flattened like she’d bitten into something sour. “If Chicago is becoming a center of... faerie gang violence, I need to know everything I can going in. Pretend it’s like any other group. Brief me.”

I made a face; John shoved my sandwich into my hands, and I took a bite without thinking about it. Roast beef, roasted peppers, garlic aioli, spinach, provolone, extra pickles. Murphy was my friend. Our friend. I nodded, and even swallowed so I wasn’t talking with my mouth full. “I don’t know that much myself, but long and short. Faeries: three types. Two are Courts-- kingdoms. And the King of one was kidnapped. It’s a big night for the fae, and if we can’t find the King by midnight, the whole world’s in trouble. And. I’ll give you the weird details later, once we’ve sorted it out, okay? It doesn’t change anything, but... it’s going to sound crazy. You’ve got to go back to work and, and I don’t want to send you off with that, that’s all. I know you can handle it. But I don’t want to make you handle it on the job, too. The actual case is the same, with or without it: kidnapping, midnight.”

John nodded seriously, and I think it was actually his backing that made Murphy accept my half-answer. She sighed and snagged up a pickle left abandoned on my wrapper. “Can you do this alone? Is there anything-?”

I shook my head. “I don’t want more bodies at the scene. They wouldn’t know what to do. And it could-- it could be really bad for anyone in the crossfire.”

She nodded in resignation. “I don’t like it.”

“I know.”

“Do you want anyone there afterwards? Paramedics?”

If someone who could kidnap the King of Winter got me in their crosshairs, if I couldn’t solve it without a fight... there wouldn’t be enough of me left to scrape off the sidewalk.

“No. Not paramedics. But... maybe someone who knows how to put in stitches,” I said optimistically.

“I know just the guy. Call me as soon as you’re out, let me know if you need him.” She reached over and stole John’s coffee, making a face as she drank. “This is disgusting, Marcone. You should be ashamed.” She took another deep swig. “I have to get back. I’m lucky they’re giving me a lunch break at all. “

“Hey, Murph? Take your presents before you go.” Just in case. “They, uh, they aren’t wrapped. But.”

“...Is he going to get himself killed?” This time she actually was talking to John.

He shook his head, a tiny economical movement, and shifted his sweatshirt so that it showed the bulge of his .45.

She shook her head. “Adorable, in a manslaughter kind of way. I’ll hit you up for the presents later. Keep an eye on him.”

“Or?”

“I’m not going to threaten you, Marcone.” She drained the last of his coffee, and handed him back the cup. “Use your imagination. Good afternoon, gentlemen.”

There wasn’t much to do after she left. We finished our sandwiches and split the big ginger-molasses cookie at the bottom of the bag, leaning against each other and the table. Then I swept up the map, John reassembled my .357, and we dressed for what was really hopefully not going to turn into a war.


 

The sun was starting to crawl behind the horizon by the time we got out to ink-splatter-central, fighting traffic and ice. John found us parking near a restaurant a few blocks away-- not on the lot, but near enough that a car didn’t stick out. A good idea. He’s got a sense for how people think. Very practical.

It was a cold night. Very very cold. I gasped a little before I caught myself, the air in my chest going icy, and jammed my knit cap onto my head instead of leaping back into the Caddy like I wanted to. John yanked the strings of his parka a little tighter, sealing the hood over his face, turning away from the wind. He nodded to me; I looked around until I figured out which direction to go, and started to plod in that direction. “Let me go first. The wards are going to be nasty. I don’t want you to catch a jolt from their burglar alarm.”

“I’ve seen what you do to our front door,” John agreed, over the wind. “Don’t walk into it yourself, Harry.”

He wasn’t calling me Princess. He must be really worried. “Don’t worry. I can soak up some hurt before it really starts to do damage. I won’t kill myself with their doorbell.”

“I know,” he said quietly, giving me one of those tiny smiles that remind me what a scary amount of faith he has in me. I gripped his hand, because it was dark and we were alone and he wouldn’t mind, and then let go to lead the way, because it had only been a week, sort of, and we had the world to save.

We walked a few blocks, occasionally shoved forward by the wind, and came up on the address Murphy’d given us, a big old warehouse, empty looking and dark. I glanced down the long, shadowy alley that separated it from the building to its west, a little block of converted-warehouse shops, and grabbed John’s arm to get his attention. He looked back, startled.

“Look.”

“It’s a truck with a trailer,” he said, a little blankly.

“It’s a livestock hauler.” My boyfriend, the city slicker. He hadn’t grown up on a farm. “You drive sheep and cows and horses in those. And it’s old.” It was like Ebenezar’s-- so old the trailer had a wooden bottom and wood slats instead of metal siding. The truck it was attached to was a solid old thing that hadn’t been built any more recently than the 70s, carefully maintained, looking comically rounded and obsolete and not full of electronics.

John made a considering noise. “Wood,” he noticed, and I nodded. “Maybe they were trying to be nice hostage-takers.”

I frowned. “Maybe it’s all they had...” But iron would have been a better cage, and easy enough to build up around the wooden frame, and going after a Sidhe King, wouldn’t every bit help? The iron infrastructure on the outside still wouldn’t have felt great, but there were big gaps, insulation from the metal.

“Is it safe?”

“Let me check.” I crunched over to the hauler-- the snow had been hard enough to bury any tracks that would have told me whether it had been used last night. No wards to trip, no traps, no tickles of sensing power. “We’re good.”

John followed in my tracks, peering inside. “Hay?”

“Straw. There’s a difference.” City boys. I leaned up to see-- it looked clean, too, fresh and as soft as dry grain stalks can be. It was piled deep, a deep indentation in the center, a few discarded blankets off to one side. And it smelled like old, big magic. It made my nose tingle, the build up of a sneeze, and I rubbed at it, frowning. “It can’t be a ransom, right? They would have sent a message. So why the soft touch?” They’d kept their prisoner warm, as comfortable as they could.

John shook his head, shoulders lifting. “Well. At least we’re probably on the right track.”

“Let’s hit the warehouse.” I looked warily at the sun, a low, shrinking blob behind the clouds. “Tick-tock.”

“Just a second. Let me see if I can get in here-- maybe they’ve got some registration, insurance, something.”

“John, even if there is anything, it’ll be fake--”

“It will give us something to trace back afterwards.” He held up a gloved hand, two fingers up. “Two minutes, Harry. Give me two minutes.”

I grumbled and retreated to a little shadowed doorway in the far wall, some shop’s back exit, cramming myself back into the little alcove and trying to keep out of the wind. John poked at the truck, glancing at the tires, the undercarriage, the front and rear with detached professionalism. I rolled my eyes when he blocked my line of vision with his body and did something to the passenger door that had it unlocked and swinging open a minute later. He’d done that with detached professionalism too. I made a mental correction memo for myself: my boyfriend, gone in sixty seconds. Like Murphy said: I sure can pick ‘em.

He rustled around in the dashboard for a while, flipping through a handful of papers, reached over to the driver’s side and rustled around over there too, then the hood popped and he got back out. And looked at the engine, his expression blanked out in the serene, casual way I recognized from what had to be the hundred times I’d brought the Beetle to him like evidence A in the traveling circus of new and exiting forms of vehicular damage. I knew that face. The jerk was looking for patterns. Details. Tip-offs. On how a wizard’s vehicle worked, on how the pieces could be put together....

I pushed off from the doorway, ready to drag him away from the engine-- and he fell over.

I froze.

A side door to the warehouse, hidden by shadow and what I belatedly realized was a pretty great don’t-notice-me spell, creaked the rest of the way open, and a dark shape rushed out. He-- definitely a he, unless she was a large lady with a beard-- took two steps and bent over John, summoning a little ball of silvery light, murmuring another word, his hand still raised--

Fozare!” I snapped, the suckerpunch of my magic into his side dispersing the power he’d gathered and throwing him across the alley. He hit the wall with a meaty thunk and slid down it, a belated rush of breath and a groan following him, and stayed where he’d landed.

“John!” I hissed, dropping to my knees beside him-- I’d only looked at the livestock hauler before, like an asshole, and now I could feel the little warning wards where they flapped around the truck, tattered ends like ribbons from when they’d been triggered by his break-in. “John!”

He sat up suddenly, a hinged, all-ab movement, blinking at me dopily.

“John?”

“Mmuh. Harry.” He shook his head sharply, mouthed at the air a little, trying to get his tongue moving. “Something happened.”

“Yeah. He knocked you out with some kind of spell. Are you okay?” I crouched next to him, offering him an arm out of the snow.

“M’fine.” He levered himself up with my arm, leaning against me, eyes taking a minute extra to focus. “Just lost my brain for a second. Couldn’t move. It didn’t hurt.” He frowned, looking down at himself. “Nothing hurt.”

We both looked over at the figure slumped in the snow. “These people are the worst at being bad guys. I don’t get it.”

John shook his head. “Just because they’re polite about it doesn’t mean they’re not bad guys, Harry. Let’s go see who our buddy is.”

He lowered himself carefully down the far wall and we rolled Sleepy the bumbling bear over. He was a big guy, older than I’d realized at first, his beard shot through with grey and his face slack from the impact with the wall. His hair was grey beneath the rough wool hat-- a big bump coming up on the back on his skull, but no blood-- and he was breathing deeply, chest rising and falling regularly, body still warm where he was bundled up in a big jacket, a heavy wool sweater underneath. It looked handmade, the same rough yarn as his hat, homespun like the stuff Ebenezar McCoy and I had made on his farm. There was dirt and hay crusted into the grooves of his thick boots, and a familiar animal smell when I leaned close. This guy worked on a farm.

John pulled off a glove and reached down to take his pulse. “Alive. Is he human?” He tipped the unconscious guy’s head to see the dark reddish patch where his head had smacked into the brick, the bump that was already coming up. I winced.

“Yeah. He’s human.” He kind of reminded me of my mentor, I didn’t say.

John dipped his bare hand deep into his coat, pulling out a knife. “So you can’t kill him with magic. Does he need to die?”

“I told you, he’s human!” I stared at John, my mouth stuck open. Stars and stones, it wasn’t like I hadn’t known that he’d been a criminal before, worked for Marco Vargassi’s father. But that he could just sit here and offer to kill a man--

“Harry, you all but told Murphy that these people might end you,” he said, low as he could and still be heard over the sparse traffic and the wind, his eyes wide.

“No!”

“Harry, are you sure--”

“I said no,” I growled. “We tie him up in the trailer, and then we go in. It’s almost sundown.”

 

We left Sleepy in the back of the livestock hauler, sheltered from the worst of the wind. Wrapped in the blankets too, for the extra warmth, and to help ease a bit of the worry about the bump I’d left on his noggin. I tried to remind myself that he’d hexed John off his feet, had been bent over him when he was defenseless in the snow, a new spell ready to do who knew what to him. One of the blankets had been sacrificed and sliced into long strips to tie his wrists and ankles and gag him. John hadn’t been impressed-- checking with exaggerated patience while we tied him up, making sure he wasn’t pulling too tight-- but he’d gone along with me, shoving a balled-up strip into the guy’s mouth as a gag, tying it down with a second one.

“CSI,” he said, catching my glance. “Mostly.”

“Hell’s bells.”

“We’ll talk about it later,” he said. He looked worried, the little window of face I could see under his hood. “Once we get out of this alive. I promise.” He clamped down on the nervous expression-- they get away from him sometimes, expressions, when they get big-- but I could still see the tension.

I felt my mouth pulling down, and forced it to even out. “We’ll talk,” I agreed. And then grimaced. We’d already had a version of this conversation today, hadn’t we? Although, there was a difference between not wanting to talk about my godmother, who had a faerie legal right to clip a leash and a collar to my neck and call me Rover for the rest of forever, and why you didn’t knife the already incapacitated human kidnapper--

I spooled back that last little bit of logic, especially the part where Lea wanted to turn me into a dog. Maybe we were just coming from two completely different worlds on that one. And John trusted me. I trusted him, too. He’d been there for me for a lot longer than a week. As long as he was willing to meet me halfway, and not murder anyone we’d work this one out.

“Let’s get inside before they send anyone else to check.” I thumped him on the back, let my hand linger a moment.

We tried the side door, now that we knew it was there. I ran my hand over the brick frame, frowning. The wards were strong enough but subtle, gentle mortal dissuasion, almost friendly, just enough to make the top level of thoughts a little fuzzy, to encourage anyone poking around to remember something else they had to do, somewhere, anywhere that wasn’t here, but there was nothing that would hurt anyone. There was a general, gentle overcoat to turn back ill intention of various flavors, but vague enough that ill intent could mean an IRS agent or a boogie man, and the persuasion wouldn’t stand up to even a strong mortal will anyway. And, I squinted, a small bundle of sticks was hung up at the top of the door, a little cloud of good will and well-being drifting out from it like the scent of spring meadows in an air freshener commercial. Holly and yew, both fresh. Very seasonal, but nothing that would act to deter visitors of any shape, size, or degree of mortality. There wasn’t even a layer of wards specifically for the supernaturally inclined, not even for the nastier types, the vampires and ghouls and cruel little mischief-makers from the Nevernever that ran rampant in the shadows and the dark corners of the city these days. And there was absolutely nothing to explain the head-ringing clap that had blocked my tracking spell and Bob’s resonance sonar.

“Harry?” John asked. “What are we up against here?”

“...I don’t know.” I rapped at the brick. It was the theme, today. I’d been in the dark since Lea had shown up at the mall. “It doesn’t feel like anything, but there has to be something. I’ve been running into it all day. But I can’t tell what it is.”

He was eyeing the door-- it was open a crack, hadn’t closed properly when Sleepy came out. “Not criminal masterminds, these guys.” He looked over. “We’ve already tripped the alarm. Anything worse going to happen if we head in?”

“I don’t think so. It’s all passive defenses. No booms. I don’t get it.”

“Not everyone thinks with explosives, Princess,” he told me, and I elbowed him.

He reached slowly toward the door-- frowned. “I left an invoice unfinished at the office yesterday. The supplier won’t be working until after Boxing day. But I really-- really-- want to go finish it anyway. We’re almost out of milk; we should get some. You need to mail your card if it’s going to have a chance of making it out of state.” He jerked his head, bucked his shoulders, puffy jacket rustling with the movement, and tapped a strong, single finger against the door. It swung silently into the darkness. Nothing ominous about that. John stepped quietly after it, scanning the shadows.

I followed him—tried to follow him. Went for the doorway and took a step, but didn’t make it through: gasped and staggered back into the alleyway, sagging as if I’d walked into an iron bar.

“Harry,” John whispered urgently, turning back to me.

I waved awkwardly, bent over a little, one hand pressing against the phantom pain in my middle, then clutching at my nose, making sure the magical impact hadn’t actually broken anything. The threshold was the strongest I’d ever felt, solid, warm. It was like old oak, like the banisters at Ebenezar’s farmhouse, worn smooth with time and love. But that was impossible. It was a warehouse. A threshold like that belonged on a family home, after generations and generations of children had been born and grown old and had their own children there. It didn’t belong here.

I stuck a mental finger out to poke at it again-- and swore when I was burned.

John was beside me, one hand on my back, urging me upright. “Harry, what’s wrong?”

“That doesn’t make sense,” I said. “What is that doing here!”

He looked at the door, looked back at me. “Help me out here, hot stuff.”

“There’s a threshold! An actual threshold. It shouldn’t be there-- John, it’s really strong.”

“Maybe they borrowed it from the Patakis.”

“No, this is way too strong to be theirs,” I said-- sort of on autopilot. Then: “...you can’t move thresholds. Can you?” Closed the mortal threshold like a trap and stole it away, Krampus had said. Stars, what if John was right? What if they had packed up house and moved-- literally. I couldn’t even imagine what would be involved in-- I was pretty sure it didn’t even work like that--

“No. No way. Even if that were possible it’s still way too strong. The Patakis’s have only lived there a few months, not a few generations. I mean, there are some rituals to jump-start them in a new home but I always thought that was fluffy bookstore-Wiccan stuff.”

Fluffy. I scowled back at Sleepy, still out cold in the livestock hauler. No, these guys might have been getting a failing grade on being cold-hearted bastards, but they were still the kidnappers here. And whatever else they’d done or hadn’t done, they’d captured the King of Winter; that took more power, more discipline and training than you got from the New Age section in Barnes & Noble.

“How much of a jump-start?”

“Not that much!” I flapped my hand at the door, and followed through with a hearty nose-bridge pinch. “None of this makes sense to me. Okay. Break it down. Unknown number of assailants. One incapacitated. Santa held captive. Time running out. Impossible threshold. But this whole thing-- mortals capturing a Sidhe lord as powerful as Santa, holding him, not being finely sliced faerie lunch meat-- is impossible. What’s one more thing?”

John’s hand rested on my back. Warm. Reassuring. The dependable asshole. My heart gave an extra hard beat, and I suddenly didn’t mind the cold so much. “Maybe they fed it steroids.”

I let go of my nose; my eyes were starting to water, quickly going icy. I looked up at the twilit sky. It was definitely past sunset by now. “Okay, impossible or not, it’s in the way-- this whole time, it wasn’t wards, it was a threshold. And wards I can break; a threshold I can’t do anything about.”

“Not a problem for me, at least. And it’s artificial. They put it up. Has to be a way to take it down.”

“John...” He slipped the knife back out of his coat pocket. “I couldn’t even tell you what to look for.”

“I’m not helpless, Harry.” The knife blade snicked out. “I’m not magic but I’m not helpless.”

I knew that. Really. I did. But I didn’t want anything to happen to him. I didn’t want him to get hurt because I’d dragged him along on my case. Hell’s bells, I hadn’t even given him a choice, just assumed he’d come to the crime scene with me. Apparently I thought magical crime investigation was a we-activity now too.

“John. Maybe you should keep the car warm. I might come out of here running.”

“My ass, Princess. I’m the one who’s used to fighting without magic.” He flexed his arm, and the dull lighting from outside oiled across his knife blade. “If you think I’m going to leave you in here--” His eyes widened, and he yanked me to one side, into the darker shadows in the alley.

Two figures appeared in the doorway, indistinct shapes under thick brown robes. They pushed their hoods back to look around, squinted at the darkness and stepped outside-- a man and a woman. Sleepy hadn’t come back; his team must have been getting worried.

John stepped behind the man and smacked him with the butt of his .45, a wicked wrap-around that got him in the temple. He crumpled; the wizard next to him whirled, a spell on her lips-- I swung my blasting rod like a baseball bat and got her across the back of her neck, took out her legs with a follow through from my staff. John got her into an expert chokehold-- she tried to get out a spell, but he jammed his wrist into her mouth, stifling it, shorting her focus with sudden lack of oxygen. I felt the power starting to rise as she gathered up a more deliberate spell-- and then drain away. She crumpled.

“...CSI?”

“Is this the time, hot stuff?” He gave me a worried look.

I bit my tongue and helped take some of the woman’s weight. John hoisted her under the arms and together we got her and the man against the wall. “Sleepy-- now Snoozy and Shut Eye,” I said, and checked both their pulses, and then their ears: all present and accounted for. “Plus Krampus’s buddy. And however many more are inside.”

“But three less now,” John said pragmatically, and started tugging at the woman’s robe. “I don’t have the shoulders for our pal here.” Snoozy was huge, made of working muscle damn near three feet across; I’d thought Sleepy was big, but he was clearly the younger brother in this bear family. A pair of worn overalls peeked through the front gap of Snoozy’s robe, the collar of his waffle-knit shirt pulled to the side and revealing a farmer’s tan, even in the winter dark. It looked permanent, stained into his skin like wood varnish. All of him looked like wood, in a way. The thick callouses on his hands, the bristly grey beard like the knots and face of an old willow. I was half sure that, if I looked under his skin, I’d find layers of muscle grown up for every year, like rings in a tree trunk.

I was reminded, again, of my old teacher, and shoved those thoughts away. Things were tricky enough as it was; I couldn’t afford to get distracted. I helped John yank the woman’s robe off, bracing her off the ground long enough for him to get the length of it out from under her. They never show this part in the movies. It was awkward as hell, but we managed, leaving the woman in her flannel jacket and jeans, and I tried not to feel too bad about it.

“I’ll try to find our missing person. You look for a way to break down the security system,” John said, shifting the woman’s robe so it lay a little smoother on him. He had a good half a foot on her; his boots and the bottoms of his jeans poked out, even when he slouched. Hopefully they wouldn’t look too closely.

“...Be careful,” I said, instead of one of the hundred other stupid things I wanted to say about keeping him safe.

He flipped his hood up, casting his face into shadow. “You too, Harry.”

I was prepared for it this time, but walking through the threshold still felt like forcing myself through the mouth of a bottle, squeezing myself into a new shape that didn’t fit. My magic split off and stayed behind at the door, so much of it peeling away it was like leaving myself behind, like breaking in two.

I took a shuddering breath, coughed because it was still fucking cold, even if the walls kept out the wind, and firmly squashed any memories of the last time I’d been without so much of my magic-- the sensation of Leonid Kravos’ nightmare ripping my spine from my back and my power along with it, the empty, nauseating nothing inside of me where it should have been, the fear that I wouldn’t get it back. John bumped my arm with his shoulder, pushing past me, and I got the feeling he was working on not remembering too.

He disappeared into the dimness and I crept down the wall from the side door, peering into the dark, trying to get the lay of the land. The warehouse was big, long and high, maybe fifty feet, the exposed rafters just visible through the dark. There wasn’t much light, more flickering shadows than anything, the faint, warm glow of oil lanterns and the odd cluster of candles, balanced on some of the stacks of crates and pallets and shelves and other industrial frameworks long since left behind. The place had the forgotten, dusty look of abandonment. Wherever they were hiding their guest, I couldn’t see him. I could just make out the figures moving around by the far wall, a dark shadow near the perimeter that might be John-- and might not be. All the shapes looked mostly the same, the same color, the same slope of heavy robes. My boyfriend, wherever he was, was just another body in the uniform.

I inched along, away from the activity at the far end, my eyes not adjusted to the darkness yet and without the little extra feedback I was used to from the rest of the world through my magic. I could still sense magic, but it was like only hearing echoes when before I’d had sonar-- and there was magic all over the place here, shouting over itself, garbling the message until it was nothing but noise. I couldn’t get a clear picture. I gritted my teeth and prodded against the threshold, looking for the place they were grounding the energy, where they were making this thing that shouldn’t be there. It felt like trying unlock my front door in the dark, wearing oven mitts.

Nothing, nothing, nothing... I found where their wards were rooted, the subtle keep aways, more bundles of holly and yew that were hung on nails every few feet-- I scrambled with my herblore. It wasn’t something I used very often, but I knew the basics of what they stood for. Evergreen, winter, death and rebirth, luck, ever-present life: nothing to explain the threshold, even with the protection and good wishes I could feel willed into the bindings. Of course it couldn’t be that easy. I scowled and stretched up to yank one of the bundles down anyway, poking it gently with my fingers and my awareness of magic, even if the emptiness where mine lived felt like I’d been hollowed out with a grapefruit spoon.

The bundle tingled against my fingertips, tiny sigils stitched into the worn strips of cloth binding the plants together, gentle and sort of friendly, soft like the nose of a new lamb in the spring. Okay. This was officially weird. No one’s magic is that warm and fuzzy. How did a coven that felt like Snuggles The Bear get involved in something like this?

I went up on my toes to hang my little borrowed bundle back on its nail and prowled along, flicking paranoid glances at the moving shadows way across the big floor. I was so caught up in watching them that I almost sent myself falling flat on my face, the wall I’d been running one hand along suddenly not there anymore. I caught myself in time-- reached out and grabbed a hold of something before I introduced myself to the floor. A rail-- no, a handrail. A banister. I’d found a doorway, open, a set of steep metal stairs leading up. I squinted. There was light at the top, faint, flickering. Candles around a corner. The offices. From when this place had been busy, on a deadline, full of workers doing their best to get by and management trying to keep everything running smoothly. Well, time to go see if the big boss was in.

I toed my way carefully up the stairs, feeling with my feet, my ears straining for any sound. Nothing-- until I got to the top. On my right there was a big, open room, flickering candles giving me enough warning to duck back into the shadows of the stairwell. There was a robed figure sitting in the corner, between a stack of chairs and the wall, big and broad across the shoulders, head bowed, a light, closely-trimmed grey beard visible under the shadows of his hood. He was in a circle, surrounded by runes I couldn’t begin to translate, cardinal directions all pinned down with candles.

I could feel the power pouring off of the set-up, the warm living strength he was pumping into the cold concrete to power the impossible threshold. A midwinter vigil, keeping the boundaries alive against the peak of winter’s strength. It was a ritual so old I’d thought it was meaningless now, more tradition than anything, like painting eggs with food coloring for Easter or carving Darth Vader into pumpkins (to ward off all those mischievous Jedi spirits, right?). I’d never seen it actually used for anything before, never anything like this big humming generator.

I hadn’t been blocked by a security system; I’d been blocked by a security guard. Or at least by a watchdog, calling up the strength of the ley lines, using them, holding the power of my city in his heart and his hands and shaping it into a protective, defensive, almost mothering wall against the outside world. The threshold was a living, powerful thing because he was a living, powerful thing; he kept the energy mortal and warm and strong against the dark.

Which meant that, to take the threshold out, I needed to take him out.

I crept forward, staff gripped in my hands, raising it carefully, keeping out of the light so I didn’t create shadows, trying to keep myself at his back-- and when I almost put my foot through a rotten spot in the floor, Vigil turned, and I struck like I was up to bat and it was time for a home run.

He caught it, his reflexes fast, and took the weight of the strike on his own staff, an oak pole as thick as his wrist. He surged to his feet, knocking over the little wooden stool he’d been sitting on, and followed through with a swing of his staff, knocking mine aside and bringing his down hard on my shoulder. I saw white for a few seconds, my whole arm breaking out in pins and needles. My staff clattered against the ground and I grabbed at it, caught it with my fingertips. I swung without thought this time, without finesse, just desperation and a bit of the training Murphy had managed to drill into my muscle memory and reflexes, and caught him in the stomach.

He staggered back long enough for me to get to my feet, my shoulder throbbing. I pushed the pain away gracelessly, not entirely, but enough that I could focus, could think and move without tangling up in hurt. I know how to block pain; Justin DuMorne had been a hard teacher, but what he’d taught I’d learned well. But Vigil had apparently learned those tricks too, or was just one of those guys who was all muscle under a layer of insulation. He’d shaken off the gut punch, already had his staff raised again-- I felt the power swelling around him, as old and powerful and immense as the ocean, supercharged by the ley line intersection he was straddling, already channeling, reshaping it into a tsunami... and I was standing on the shoreline.

So I ducked.

Just not quite fast enough. The spell hit the wall, sailing over me, ruffling my hair as it went. My whole face went numb, down to my brain. Tendrils of spell whispered around my limbs, my chest, a binding pressure around my arms, gentle and persistent and soothing. This had to be what Sleepy had hit John with, and I was worried about him, John, leaving him alone down there in the dark, with the kidnappers, but it just wasn’t urgent the way it should be. The bindings around me didn’t hurt; nothing hurt; the force pinning my arms to my side was supportive rather than sinister, grounding rather than grabbing. I could still breathe-- I was breathing deeply, starting to float above the cold and the pain, at peace with this--

Nothing should feel this good. I snarled and broke the half-formed spell, bucking my shoulder for the surge of pain and mining that adrenaline for a burst of will. The tendrils of force snapped like yarn, and worry and chill and pain jerked back to the forefront of my brain.

Vigil was kneeling over me, his face gentle, a little concerned, his big hand pulling back my eyelids-- he saw when my focus returned, jerked back, and I snarled up at him, swung with my staff and got him under the chin. His eyes rolled back and he went down like a redwood-- was about as big as one, too, over two feet wide across the shoulders, almost as broad as Snoozy and only a few inches shorter than me-- toppling to the ground without any effort to slow himself. He went through the rotten plaster of the office wall and hit the metal railing with a creak.

I scrambled upright, coughing in the dust, and felt my magic coming back to me. Not all of it. Not much of it. Just a promise, a slow trickle like the first melt of spring between cracks in the river ice. But it was there, and it was mine. The vigil was broken and the threshold was going down, sagging and starting to crumble away like termite-eaten wood. Point to the home team.

“Donnel!” someone shouted, and came sprinting up the stairs and right into my fist. Then he fell back down the stairs. Worst. Bad guys. Ever.

His hood had fallen back with him and he floundered away from me as I jumped down the last four steps. He was a little younger that his buddies-- I mean, comparatively, median age for these people seemed to be almost triple-digit-- curly brown hair, thick well-kept beard like the cuddliest Tolkien wizard. I caught him by the hair as he went down and tried to smack his head into the wall-- it works in the comics-- and was stopped by the fact that he was twice my size and all muscle.

The spell he hit me with in return-- a big wall of force, as soft as an airbag (not actually all that soft)-- could have taken down an ox. I had to wonder if that was what it was for. As much as I ached all over, if he’d concentrated that force on my ribs or my skull, I’d be pulp. He murmured a word and fastball-pitched a hex at me, one of those floaty binding ones. Temple Grandin Method hexing, I thought woozily, as the world got tight and cozy and then spiraled away. My shoulder stopped hurting before I had half a chance to muster the pain....

And then it was back and Junior was a crumpled heap in front of another robed figure. The one with jeans poking out the bottom of his too-short robes. John.

“Found something,” he said cheerfully, and waved a crowbar at me. “Presents. And a missing person. You all right?”

“Just woozy.” I let out a breath. “They’ll know we’re here soon, if all the shouting didn’t give it away. The big guy up in the office, he was holding down the threshold. I dropped him, and it’s starting to drop too.”

He helped me up to my feet. “How fast do you recharge, Green Lantern?”

I winced, reached out for my magic. It answered-- but I was still scraping the bottom of the barrel. “Not fast.”

“Fantastic. Come with me. I found… you know.”

“The Winter King.”

“Him,” John agreed.

We crept along in the shadows, keeping behind the stacks of pallets and crates as best we could, heading towards a growing light and a sense of bustle. John led me to the viewpoint he’d found, hunkered down behind a mid-sized crate. I looked out into a cleared area-- I mean, cleared, not just empty, and recently so. I could see the fresh scrapes in the floor where rows of shelves had been dragged away. Somebody had swept, and erected a low wooden table-- big boards over massive sawhorses, sigils burned right into the wood. An altar, rough and practical, built for function, not ceremony, stained with smoke and something red and streaked with wax. I forced myself to look closer. The stains on it were reddish-purple; wine, not blood. The candles burning around it smelled like beeswax.

The setup looked druidic. Some version of druidic, the older stuff from the British Isles that Ebenezar had taught me about but not taught me how to do. Knife goes in cup equals creation stuff. A sacrifice-- an animal or something symbolic-- to bring the sun back after winter. More religious ritual without meaning, just old habits instead of real magic. I’d thought. I’d assumed.

There was a big livestock crate off in one corner. I couldn’t see the shape inside so much as I could see that it wasn’t empty. My gut went cold, and somewhere inside of me, my inner four year old started to have a panic attack.

But there were no bloodstains on the table. Why start here? Why start with him?

“Three of them,” John murmured. “Not enough to try to sneak in with the uniform. You think you can take them?”

“Not in a fair fight,” I whispered back. “I’m running on fumes.”

“All right. So we don’t fair-fight it. …Harry, if you start losing, I’m going to start shooting to maim.”

“...I understand,” I said uneasily. Sometimes I forget how personally John takes it when someone threatens me.

There was a shout, a clang. I jerked, nerves on high, the little extra adrenaline making me twitch-- my sore shoulder locked up for a second-- I grimaced, bit back a gasp, and when I looked the side door was open, two shapes stumbling through, supporting each other. Snoozy, robed, Shut Eye in her jeans and flannel. Crap.

The druids noticed too-- Snoozy called out to them, and he and Shut Eye kept up their stagger, determined, heading for the alter and the huddle of their group. John and I crouched down lower behind our crate, wriggled back into darker shadow.

“Shit,” John hissed, “shit. Why didn’t we tie them up? Sloppy, sloppy shit.”

I gripped his arm. “We just need to stop the ceremony. We don’t need to fight them all. John. They’re going to kill him.”

John nodded, a fraction of movement, his eyes going blank and bright because he was rearranging the pieces, putting them back together into something new.

They made it to the altar, the other druids going out, meeting them half way, all of them stumbling back in a herd, voices rising. They knew we were here, somewhere. Knew we were in the warehouse. Had to have realized we’d taken out Vigil and Junior; now they knew we’d gotten Snoozy and Shut Eye too. Probably were thinking bad thoughts about what we might have done to Sleepy. They were going to take us seriously.

Snoozy and another guy, still hooded, his features shadowed but his body big like the rest of them (wider than Snoozy even and I was starting to wonder if they all packed up like Russian dolls, one inside the other, if they just kept growing with age) were shouting at each other, not unfriendly, just conversation in the key of stressed, arms gesturing, giving orders to the others. The big guy went to the center of the group and Snoozy turned, his back to the altar, his posture screaming that he was on guard duty now, and slowly started scanning the warehouse, the shadows and the crates and all the junk against the walls, taking a few shuffling steps towards us. John and I held our breath.

As we watched, two of the other druids opened up the livestock crate, hauling a big form out between them, carrying from the head and shoulders. I sucked in a little gasp: their captive was big, so much bigger than I was expecting, would be more than a foot taller than me, maybe more than two, if he were standing. But he was limp between them. Bound with something, curled up on himself. They laid him on the altar as gently as they could.

John’s eyes were saucer-plate wide, but his jaw was clamped shut. I could almost feel Snoozy’s gaze on us, thought any second we’d twitch or my heart would make a too loud beat and we’d be caught.

The big hooded guy they were clustered around opened what I thought was a tool case that had been lying on the floor next to one of the sawhorses, and pulled out a knife and a few bottles. He sheathed the knife on a hidden belt and opened a bottle, going to murmur over the captive, anointing him.

“John,” I whispered, horrified. They weren’t waiting for midnight anymore-- there was no time now. We were here. We’d taken out the threshold. “We have to stop it. Right now.”

He lifted his .45, and I shook my head sharply. “Threshold’s too low. The go-away vibes aren’t strong enough for something like that. Cops might show up, or one of the local gangs.”

“Reinforcements would be a bad thing how?” he whispered.

“When that threshold drops, Winter is landing on this place like a really heavy analogy,” I hissed back urgently. “They don’t care about civilian casualties.”

We’re civilians, Harry.”

I peeked over the crate. Snoozy had moved on, scoping out a different part of the darkness. “I’m a wizard. They can’t trample me or my vassal without doing some ‘splaining.” Not that they might not consider a wergild to the White Council an acceptable loss, all things considered, but John didn’t need to know that. Hell’s bells, I didn’t need to know that.

John didn’t even give me a glare for the vassal crack: he was busy thinking. I could see him re-running the situation in his head. “How much juice have you got?”

“I told you! Not much!”

“One little fire spell?” John pointed up.

The fire sprinklers were the old wax-headed kind-- they’d still work even with the electricity shut off, probably even with magic being flung around. And once they started working…

Magic doesn’t do a thing to running water. Running water does a whole lot to magic, though.

“I set those off, I won’t be able to do magic either.” What I could do now, at least; the crumbling threshold was going down like an abandoned house. The foundation had rotted out, the supports were sagging, but until the right gust of wind came along, it was still strong enough to block most of my strength.

“You won’t have to, hot stuff. You’re the distraction.” He tapped the crowbar against my arm. “Can you light it up?”

I socked him on the shoulder in answer and broke cover, bounding out into the open in front of the druids.

“Avon!” I chirped. And then, as they were raising their shields and gathering up those calming spells I bet they all knew, because I pretty sure it wasn’t a coincidence they had a livestock hauler and a livestock crate and Sleepy smelt like a barn, and that spell was probably perfect for stopping an angry cow or sheep in its tracks, “Fuego!”

It wasn’t my finest work, a jet of fire that sparked and flared and just about burnt me out, but it did the job. The sprinklers above me went off, a sputter then a downpour of cold, dirty water—and set off a chain reaction that had water dumping down on half the warehouse.

And only half the warehouse, puddles forming in patches.

“Shitty shitty fucking crap heap not up to fucking code,” John snarled from behind his crate, and took out the first druid who ran towards me at the knees with his crowbar.

I lept, awkward, dodging sideways and slipping in a puddle, narrowly avoiding a spell hurled at me by Shut Eye-- before the sprinkler over her head kicked in, spat and sprayed and joined the deluge of stagnant, freezing water. I wiped the water from my eyes, my wool hat already soaked through, and ran. The abandoned shelving gave me a whole range of rusty, precarious hide-and-seek options; I ducked into a dark row well out of the candle light and felt my way along the slippery floor to the other side. I looked back out at the clear space-- the sprinklers hadn’t hit the altar, I should be so lucky; there were big islands of dry where the system had failed, and it was right in the middle of one.

I didn’t get long to look around-- there was a crash a few feet behind me, a stunned form in a brown robe slumping sideways into the shelving from the other side, out cold. I scrambled forward as quickly as I could in the wet and the dark and the unknown, and burst back out into the open when my shelves ran out.

A spell from across the room went wide, hit the roof above me. There was a groan of metal and a support beam crashed to the ground, water spraying out with sparks-- I threw my arms over my head and ducked behind a stack of pallets. That was different. Not so warm and cuddly with the magic when the chips were down, then. There was a backdraft from the spell a moment later, like air rushing in to fill a vacuum-- it made my gag reflex kick in, like being suddenly downwind of a dumpster in July. That was different too.

Someone shouted and charged my hidey-hole. I rammed the stack of pallets with my good shoulder, knocking it onto them-- they clambered out of the rubble and I spent the little charge in my force ring in a punch to the chest, the last magic I had left. Not a lot of energy was built up in my ring, but it was enough for this. The druid-- a white haired woman built solid and hard as ironwood-- curled around my fist with a gasp and a sigh, falling limp to the wet floor. I was pretty sure I’d just punched out someone’s grandmother, and almost didn’t react in time when I heard a clatter as more pallets fell, the groan of metal as one of the shelves twisted and gave up its load. I flung myself out of the way-- but was already out of the line of fire, the crash a few meters away. Boy I hoped that was John and not aimed at John.

I found a piece of shadow to get my bearings in, and surveyed the destruction. The sprinklers running dry, nothing but a few last spurts still raining down. Half the warehouse near-flooded, shelves toppled. Brown lumps on the ground that had to be the druids, taken out one by one-- a scuffle I could just make out, two lighter smears of dark on dark, close together, one crumpling down. I couldn’t see their pant legs, but I really hoped the guy still standing had been wielding a crowbar.

And I had a pretty clear line of sight to the altar.

The abandoned altar.

The captive faerie hadn’t stirred. He had to be spelled deep with whatever binding they’d put on him, the dark bands I’d seen around him. He was the King of Winter, and as little as I knew about the Courts, I knew that made him an elemental, unstoppable power. Almost unstoppable.

What would happen if he died tonight? It had to be more than the Courts unbalancing. It would be like a nuke going off in the middle of the city, to reuse a simile. The consequences... Eternal summer sounded nice, on paper: not having to worry about the Beetle not starting in the cold, never having to deal with not being able to warm up in my dark, damp little cave, with slipping and sliding on icy sidewalks, with the traffic congestion at the first sight of a snowflake. But Bob was terrified of the idea. And trying to imagine Chicago baking under a sun that would never fade, sweltering in heat that never broke, the relentless burn and endless storms until there was nothing left of my city but rot and overgrowth and hollowed out shells of where people used to be, what might happen if we never had winter to look forward to... the appeal faded really quickly. Stars, did these people actually think this was a good idea? Did they think they were helping?

I couldn’t let him die. I glanced right, left-- there were grunts and crashes in the dark, so John still must be up and doing. I bolted like a sprinter into the clear dry space and skidded to a halt, just a breath away from stumbling into the big curled mass of... the captive. I pawed the blanket off of him-- my mind slid away from how big it was. He was. I could make him out now, a huge male figure, twice the size of the biggest druid, all thick, massive muscle softened with smoothed corners and padding around his middle. He was bound at the wrists and ankles and had something over most of his face. I recognized the shape from Ebenezar's farm, from transporting horses. Blinders. And the thing around his chest was a harness.

And under that he was naked. And. The Winter King. Old wise face twisted in dull pain-- big white beard, almost obscuring the bit jammed in his mouth. White hair everywhere Hell’s bells I wasn’t comfortable noticing that. I didn’t use John’s knife with as much panache as he did, but I managed to get ...his... hands undone, then his ankles. He stirred painfully, and I could feel the magic in the harness biting into his skin-- I could feel the sleeping Winter power restless under it, too, like the tide waiting to come in.

Putting my hands on the leather was like getting a mouthful of lye, of rotten meat. The magic in it was foul to the touch, I could feel it staining my fingers. This wasn't cuddly magic. This didn't feel like these people, these druids-- it felt dark and old and evil. And they'd put it on Santa. Most of the time, I don't think I have much innocence left. But my inner child was having a tantrum over seeing Santa Freaking Claus stripped naked and trussed like a tranquilized farm animal.

I gritted my teeth as I fumbled at the buckles, willing my hands to stop shaking-- part from the power I could feel pouring off him, part rage at what had been done to him, this figure of kindness and generosity in the leanest, starkest season, and part good old fashioned fear. Winter power surged up in fits and starts, like a sandblaster against the inside of my skin. The Winter King stirred under my hands-- ice was forming on my jacket, the air starting to freeze around us, my breath going white and lacing out into delicate frost paintbrush strokes, so slowly I could see it, could almost hear it, like bells, as each crystal formed.

There were so many buckles, each twisted and rusted, Winter working on the metal even as the magic in the leather bound it-- him. I tore a nail fighting with one, a single drop of blood welling up: it hit the Winter King and I could feel him shudder the way you feel an earthquake. I rubbed it away, and it crumbled into powder. He was-- the power I could feel waiting was-- massive, like an iceberg, sitting submerged, like the tundra and the moon.

There was a shout-- I looked up as a brown-robed figure went sailing past me, crashed into the wall. John.

I gripped the knife in my teeth and went for the blinders, what I could do in a hurry, leaving the frozen, warped buckles. I’d probably need to just cut through the leather to get the harness off anyway--

Touching the blinders was like touching a live outlet. The magic in them sucked at my senses, deadening hearing and sight. I heaved, that sandwich Murphy had gotten for me trying to make a reappearance--

I dug my fingers int and yanked. Might have shouted a little, I could barely hear myself, but I felt my throat, suddenly raw, felt the things slide over his head, from under his chin, the bit pulling away with them-- and went sailing through the air, sucked along by a wall of wind that turned into a cushion on the way down, cradling me from the impact. Worst. Bad guys. Ever.

A boot came down on my back, and the blinders were pulled from my hand. Sight and sound rushed back, and I craned my neck, looked up the brown robe. The leader, I guess, what with him having the knife, stood over me.

“Did Winter send you?” His voice was ragged, exhausted. Human. He was as big and muscled under his robe as I’d guessed, and his beard more white than grey now that his hood had finally fallen away. He lifted the blinders accusingly.

“No,” I said. Hey, Lea had played me like a chump-- but I hadn’t let her send me.

“Then why--?” He seemed honestly confused beneath the deep, dark under-eye circles and the twinkle of merry madness gleaming bright. He brushed at his cheek with the back of one hand, his knife not catching the light like John’s had. I wasn’t reminded of my old mentor anymore.

“Because global warming is just murder on my snowshoe business.”

He shook his head sadly, and knelt beside me, knife in hand. “This won’t hurt,” he promised me gently, that crackling madness at the edge of his voice. Of all the times for a warlock not to monologue. They’re supposed to monologue, but he just set the knife to my skin (there was something wrong where the knife cut me, greasy in my blood, like the coat of oil beneath the food when your fries aren't drained properly) and wrapped me in calm pressure that pushed the fear far away--

There was a soft sound behind him. He straightened up and turned, and I could see the switchblade buried to the hilt in his bicep, dark wet blooming out on the robe around it. John was shaking on his feet a yard away, the remains of the harness in one hand, his face white in the firelight. He sucked in a breath as the leader stepped towards him-- the guy didn’t seem to feel the pain of the blade stuck in his arm: his spell on me had barely wavered and he still had the presence of mind to summon a force spell that hit John in the stomach, a second that came down on him like bricks. Just another unstoppable warlock, high on knife.

John struggled up to his feet again. He’d dropped the harness, but he was holding another little switchblade. His last one, the one he keeps in his boot: I’d helped him get ready tonight, not because he needed help but because I liked to tease him about the little boot sheathes and commando gear and tuck the knives into hidden pockets close to his skin, and we’d smiled at each other even though it was stressful and even though we’d both known it was going to be dangerous and it had been good to have someone else with me before I did this kind of stupid crap and I’d only had him for six days and I was still getting over him being a freaking man and now some asshole with the best of intentions was going to end him and then end the world--

And I was hurting. The place where the knife had dug into my neck was starting to ache, fragile around the edges because if anything but air touched it it would suddenly be so much worse-- and the pain was cutting through the calm, grounding me back in hurting, terrifying reality. I focused on the leader. The guy’s shield was too strong to dent with a direct blow and my magic was still at half ebb, sluggish and slow to my hands, but I used the anger and the fear that had crashed back into me to burst free of that gentle, smothering calm and bellow for fire.

The harness and the blinders went up like strips of paper, little gunpowder explosions as the sigils burned and the magic dispelled, greasy black smoke billowing up that looked like it belonged to the knife-crazy a lot more than to the cuddly natural magic. At least it wouldn’t set off the sprinklers.

The head druid threw the burning blinders away and bolted for the altar, flinging his hand out as he passed John, sending him crashing down to the ground. No time for either of us, just a desperate string of syllables, power rising too fast, unsteady and tainted and still brutally quick. The air was starting to get cold, the puddles of water from the depleted sprinklers freezing a step behind the head druid-- but he was outrunning it, steps away from the altar and the power around him was thick and vicious.

From every direction I could hear the warehouse doors splintering, and my magic snapped back to me so hard that it would have knocked me off my feet if I were standing up. I wrapped it around me, trying to gather a spell that would stop it from being too late.

I didn’t have to. The druid never made it back to the circle. A shadow emerged from the rest of the shadows: a fae, handsome features and velvet clothes covered with soot, holding a slim cane in one hand. He brought it down over the druid’s shoulder with a crack, and it sliced through the clothing like a knife. The druid crumpled. I could see the stripe of blood welling up from the skin-- a dainty little stripe more like a cat scratch than like a hit that could knock a grown man to the ground.

The fae smiled-- the inside of his mouth was blood red, except for the teeth-- way too many of them sharp-- and raised his cane again.

Then there was a voice like the whole snowy city had spoken. “Piet.” The fae stopped. We all stopped.

“The Queen has marked them to die,” the fae said-- respectfully, eyes alight with recognition and a respect that verged on awe.

“I’m sure she has.” The King smiled, fondly, heaving himself up to sit on the creaking wooden altar, even more massive and space-filling now that he was moving. “But Mab isn’t here. And I have the right to decide their fate.”

“Then what?”

“Gather my assistants and I’ll tell you,” he said, a little too kindly for someone who’d just spent the evening tied up in a livestock crate.

“Harry,” John had crawled over. “What’s going on?”

“We stopped the ritual long enough for reinforcements to show up. And take credit,” I whispered back, tried to stop my teeth from chattering.

“I can do without a medal and a ceremony from this bunch.” He touched my neck, over the spot where the knife had gone in-- I thought it was a shallow cut, but his fingers were dark and wet with blood when they came back, shaking a little. “It’s stopped bleeding-- but Jesus, Harry, are you all right?”

“Yeah.” Not that I didn’t put a hand up to feel how wide the cut was and wince at how stupid that was. “You?”

“It only hurts where I have skin.” He smiled. “Can you get up? I’m going to need a hand.”

“Sure.” There was a bustle of motion, the movement of inhuman bodies, but we weren’t part of it-- Winter was happening around us. A giant form I recognized-- well, at least from the neck up-- came to replace the Winter King’s scavenged farm blanket with a rich green robe. Krampus from the neck down was pretty much as the woodcut had indicated; torso muscular, abs ripped, goat below the waist. And he was tall, too, taller than me-- it was the theme of the evening. His basket obviously contained a lot more space than the outside would let it; he reached deep in it, bringing out a pair of thick leather trousers and boots, and dressed his King with all the reverence of any steward.

I hauled John to his feet, and he leaned on me for a second, long enough that I worried, but--

“He doesn’t look like part of this party,” John whispered in my ear, and then straightened himself up with only a mid-sized wince.

I followed his little head jerk, saw the odd man out in this circus of robes and velvet and seven foot goat-legged skull people. This one was human.

“He looks like the lead singer of some bad 80’s rock band,” John muttered, his tone putting the guy in the same category as the Patakis' plastic poinsettias. Paused, and then, eyebrows drawing together: “Actually... I think I almost recognize him.”

“Winter Knight,” I muttered back, “has to be. Mortal representative of the Court.”

He was wandering around, looking at all the wreckage and the remains of the ritual as if it was something to be vaguely amused by, projecting an aura of too-good-for-this-warehouse. He wasn’t anyone who’d have stood out in a holiday mall crowd in Chicago-- dark hair, about average build, just under six feet. The only thing that might set him apart was the sword strapped to his waist, the scabbard dark and ornate. I squinted as he got closer. There was a scar on his throat, slightly raised, white and pale. A snowflake.

“...Why the fuck didn’t they send him, then?”

“Hell if I know.” It was snappier than I meant it to be, tired and frustrated. I winced, shot John an apologetic look. “I don’t know. Maybe it would make it too official. Bob said they were probably trying to keep a lid on it. I don’t know, John. I just-- I don’t know.” I reached for him, the few inches between us, and he squeezed my hand. Don’t know if I deserved it, but I took it anyway.

The Knight stopped not far from us, where the druid had fallen-- his body was gone now, carried into the darkness, just a little blood left. And the knife. The Knight bent down and scooped it up, wiped it off on his shirt, and vanished it into a pocket in his distressed leather jacket as casually as a packet of cigarettes. He saw us watching, and gave us a sneer.

“Go back to the Lady, Slate,” Krampus hissed at him, cloven hooves silent and sure on the icy ground. “You’re no use to the King.”

Slate switched his sneer to him. “I’m here on business, Fabio. Mab sent me.”

“We are not Mab’s creatures,” the shadow-and-ash guy-- Pete?-- added darkly, cane hanging from one hand, at the ready. “Or coddled mortals to come in when the work is done as if this were your battle.”

“Hey, if your boss would let me do my job, the kidnappers would be dead by now. It’s not my fault you don’t want my services.” He patted the sword at his side. “I’ll give the Queen your best.” He sauntered toward the door-- hurried along by a somber figure in a shaggy fur cloak, for his protection more than anything going by the look on Krampus’s face.

The King put a hand on Krampus’s bony shoulder. He made the seven foot fae look small and delicate. “Let it go. The Queen and Lady disagree with me on... oh, most things. Him, too. Are we made ready?”

“One is missing.”

“Then perhaps we should ask these two.”

I’d really really gotten used to everyone ignoring me in the last ten minutes.

The King beckoned to us. “Come with me, children.” I tried to keep myself cynical, tried to react to him as a dangerous faerie Lord, told myself I knew what trouble being buddy-buddy with Winter would bring-- and wound up going EEE SANTA EEE inside, reacting to his apple-cheeked smile and his big merry voice and the sheer overwhelming, generous presence of him.

“Harry?” John whispered. His hand was tight on mine.

“You too, Mister Marcone.” He said the name like a joke between friends and John went a little paler. “Hasn’t your friend told you about the rules that bind us? Even Kings have laws. And you’ve saved my life.”

Yeah. John knew about their rules. And he also knew how good they were with loopholes. But I squeezed his hand back-- I think I did, at least, he’d crushed half the feeling out of my fingers and the rest was numbed away by the cold-- and nodded. “Let’s do this.”

Santa’s band of assorted monsters led us out of the warehouse, Krampus in front, hooves nimble over piles of splintered wood and old metal-- through a different side door than the one I knew, torn off its hinges, and back into the alley, farther down than before. There was a sleigh waiting outside.

There was a sleigh waiting. With reindeer and they had bells on their harnesses. I told my heart not to grow ten sizes and it didn’t listen. There were only seven of them, though, some with antlers and some without. They were standing in pairs, but one in the middle was alone, the traces next to it slack.

“I need a full team tonight, and they’ll miss their friend if we can’t find him,” the King said, stepping up to sit at the front of the sleigh, pulling the reins to him. “Wizard?”

Slowly, details started to penetrate as I absorbed the reality of the scene-- the carvings on the sleigh, mostly abstract, snowflakes and trees and deer and none of the cutesy Christmas card G rating. The wear on the treads, the weight and solidity of the sleigh itself. The dark and strange shaped things standing in the shadows around: Krampus, and the sooty guy, Pete, several in cloaks, some more standard elves-- the beautiful kind that look like they’re from Tolkien but act like they’re from Thomas Harris.

And the biggest reindeer had a scar over his back, a thin white rise under the fur, like the mark of a whip or a cane. And one near the back only had one ear, the other a long-healed stump.

I pointed. “Livestock hauler.”

John’s bright. Really bright. But he’s not entirely used to the way the fae operate, doesn’t have a godmother who thinks he’d look better in floppy ears and a flea collar. He didn’t figure it out, I don’t think, until they led the missing reindeer out-- the blanket we’d left on him sliding off, a few strips sliced from another still looped around his delicate ankles. He was still chewing on the strip of cloth John had stuffed in his mouth, an idle calming motion as his big protruding eyes darted left and right.

“Harry,” John whispered raggedly. “Harry, fuck, we can’t let them--”

“It’s this or the asshole with the sword,” I said uneasily, unhappy in the choice I’d already accepted. “I’m sorry, John.”

“You don’t like the team I’ve chosen?” the King’s rolling voice cut in.

“I was just noticing some discrepancies,” John said, voice suddenly loud, strident, jarring in the still dark. “What, couldn’t find Rudolph?”

“Are you volunteering?” Santa asked, mild, and John’s jaw shut with a click. “You might like it, young mortal. Haven’t you wanted to run again?”

“Fff.” John bit down on the curse, shoulders shaking with the control.

“Fuck me?” the King suggested, still very gentle, his big wide voice doing something to the words to take the anger out of them, make them quiet and compassionate. “I understand. But as your companion says. It’s my care or Slate’s. They can’t go alone in the world, still mad with the poisoned things they were gifted with.”

The rotten magic in the harness, the blinders. In the knife. I raised my hand up to the cut on my throat, the blood dried but the broken skin still feeling so greasy, cloying like something gone rancid. The way the stain, the taint, had crackled around the edges of some of their magic, especially their leader’s. I knew it hadn’t felt right.

“I guess reindeer are pretty sane,” I said quietly.

“In some ways.” The King nodded. “It’s not such a bad thing to be. And when they’re whole again, and they’ve served their time, I’ll send them home on two legs.” A grumble from some of the retainers, who apparently liked the sword idea better.

“But if it’s true-- it’s not even their fault! Who gave them the knife?”

The fae shook his big head. “That I can’t say. We’ll seek the culprit out-- but not tonight. There’s too much to be done, and very little time. Come with me, children, if you can bear the injustice of it; I’ll take you home.”

He held out a hand, as big as the night sky and wrapped in the softest leather, and even with the shock of seeing the reindeer, even knowing what I knew, I wanted to go, to sit against his big comforting bulk and ride in a sleigh with Santa. John wasn’t any more immune than me, straining forward, a terrible look of temptation on his face.

And I was wet, water freezing in my hat and my hair and on my clothes; I’d lost my gloves somewhere and my pants and boots were soaked through. I was tired. I hurt. My inner four year old was almost my outer four year old, and he was exhausted and excited and had come close to seeing the spirit of the season sacrificed on an altar. I reached out. And I took the big, mittened hand.

The King hoisted me into his sleigh, putting me half on his lap-- I could have sat there like a kid, easily, he was so big, oh Stars I wanted a puppy and Rock’em Sock’em Robots and I’d been so good-- and half beside him. I squirmed down into a more comfortable position, fully on the seat, and he lifted John up beside me, setting him down easily, like he weighed nothing. He reached down into the footspace, pulling up a set of raw fur blankets, and tucked them over us.

“I give you my word,” he said, looking down at us. “That no debt or obligation comes to you from this.”

In the back of the sleigh, Krampus hissed his disapproval, and the King smiled over his shoulder. “Hush, now. It’s Midwinter. It’s a night for gifts. You cannot tell me it hasn’t been earned.”

The ugly fae looked unamused, but settled into the back, leaning against his basket. The others piled in, and Santa rapped the reins against the reindeers’ backs. They trotted forward as if they’d been doing it forever, hooves clopping on the ice and concrete, getting lighter and lighter-- the bells jingled, the sleigh moved, first slowly and then with a rush of wind, and then we were out of the mortal world and flying.

John caught my hand under the furs, and I remembered that, oh, yeah, he didn’t commute between worlds often. This was his first time in the Nevernever. It wasn’t like I’d been holding out on him: it’s a dangerous place. I don’t use it much myself, because you need a hell of a map to navigate a world that’s only occasionally connected to ours-- and in the Nevernever, two paths that diverge in a wood can lead to one portal to Hungary and one to Honolulu. And that’s not even mentioning the locals.

Every realm you can think of, and all the ones you can’t, are in here somewhere, touching each other and our world at different points-- and each houses hundreds and thousands of such things that dreams and nightmares are made of. The ghost realm, the realm of dreams itself, afterlives, the homes of all and sundry gods and demons. Faerie. And being in the Nevernever made it that much easier for my godmother to find me, to use the link between us, and the power that it gave her over me. Last time I’d been here, Lea had found me within minutes-- and I’d made my debt to her that much worse, had broken my word to her a second time, giving her power over me in the mortal realm too. The debt she’d been so clever about not letting me pay off this morning.

But where we were, we were as safe as two mortals in the Nevernever could be. I squeezed John’s hand back. “Big, huh?”

“We’re in the air. Is that Chicago?” He shot a cautious look over the edge of the sleigh, trying to track the ghostly city fading behind us.

“Sort of?” I’d walked in that city, shadowy and half there. It’s where Chicago’s ghosts live, where the personality of the city and the lives of its people and the memories of its dead bleed over and take root. “It’s sort of an echo of Chicago.”

I wasn’t shouting, I realized. There should have been wind whipping into my face, we were streaking through the air like a fighter jet, but there was just a soft rippling breeze as the cold air seemed to part around us. We were rising, away from the city, into a cloudbank; the Nevernever was below us, ghost cities and strange rivers and mountains of ice shrinking. I hadn’t been in a plane since I was a little kid, and not a whole lot then. Dad couldn’t afford planes, mostly. But this must have been a little what it was like, right? Except no engine noise, just the faint jingle of bells as the reindeer ran on nothing, and the muted conversations in the back of the sleigh as Santa’s people talked cheerfully to each other in various old, guttural languages.

The King looked over, and smiled at us. “Winter is beautiful, isn’t it? If you know how to survive its love and love it in return. Like its Queen, but don’t tell her I said so.”

I nodded dumbly. Don’t tell the Queen of Air and Darkness that her King was happy in their partnership. And totally smearing her reputation. Check. Learn more than I ever wanted to about the home life of the Winter monarchy. Check.

“Harry.” John said, voice too low and tense to be a whisper, almost as tight as his hand in mine. “Where. Are we?”

I glanced at his face-- pale, despite the red cheeks from the wind parting around us, that I could see whipping his hair back but couldn’t feel, the fresh, snapping cold like midnight on top of the world, kept at bay by the big thick furs and our host. Then looked carefully over the side of the sleigh. The ground was getting closer, cut through with a river, white and foggy and glimmering in the moonlight, stretching farther than I could see, dark smudges at the circumference that might have been trees, might have been mountains, might have been water. There were people gathered, two large groups, each on one side of something stone and enormous, broad and flat, held up with separate stones I would have needed four of me to get my arms around, the surface writhing with runes I couldn’t understand, some that looked Norse, maybe some Hebrew, Egyptian, like some type of fae Rosetta stone, lit with a dim blue light-- that would be the Stone Table, then. Everything got bigger the faster we approached. “Faerie,” I told him. “In the Nevernever. Part of Winter, I think.” I forced a smile. It probably looked as sick as he did. “Don’t I take you all the the best places, babe?”

“Midwinter,” the King looked over, eyes twinkling as merrily as on any Coke commercial. “It’s time,” he said. “Fear not; you are under my watch tonight.” He reached over, his big arm wrapping around John and me easily, drawing us in. I pressed up against him-- I’m a tall guy. It’s pretty rare when I meet someone taller than me, tonight being a bit of an exceptional circumstance. And even though I’m pretty skinny, I never really feel small, even when I come up against guys who go for big in muscle mass instead of reach. But I felt, for a moment there, tucked in close to the Winter King, tiny.

I shivered, despite the warmth of his arm, and his laugh boomed out across the sky, all the ho ho hos you could wish for. “You’re a good boy, Harry,” he told me, patted my back. His stomach, while not quite the bowlful of jelly the literature had promised, was still wide and soft under his robe, and I didn’t fight the way his arm made my face press into it, breathed in the leather and fur and wild magic. “Both of you must stay here until I return. Do you understand?”

We’d landed. I hadn’t even realized.

The King let go, and I pulled back, felt John at my other side doing the same, looked around. The sleigh was stopped, little drifts of snow pushed up around the treads, the reindeer all nosing and chewing at the ground, unconcerned. We were a bit back from one side of the gathering crowd-- I took in the milling trolls, the tall, white-furred things I was pretty sure were yetis, the blue-skinned giants in armor of ice, and made a giant leap of logic and concluded that this was the Winter side of the party.

Some of Winter were looking back at us-- the asshole sword guy from the warehouse sneered when he saw me, the young woman beside him who was undoubtedly nowhere near as young as she looked and dressed like some Lifetime movie’s rebelling preacher’s daughter. She flicked her dreadlocks and pointedly looked away. And beside her, a familiar, beautiful Sidhe lady with blood red hair; Lea tipped her hand at me in a wave, blew me a loving kiss. A spot on my cheek burned suddenly, and I shrunk back into the furs, clung tighter to John’s hand beneath them. I’d practically invited myself into her backyard. What had I been thinking? Stars and stones, I hoped John liked dogs.

The King chuckled-- it wasn’t much less a belly laugh than his normal-- and rubbed at the burning spot with his thumb, a cool, comforting feeling that eased the sting. “My men will keep you safe,” he promised, and stepped out of the sleigh, most of the others in the back piling out after him; but the guy in the shaggy cloak took his place, and Krampus leaned on the backrest of the sleigh on John’s right, scowling at the crowd.

“It won’t be a real battle,” the sooty guy-- Pete-- said from the ground, lounging against the wood carvings. His accent was smoother than Krampus’s, his voice more pleasant. Cheerful. Like a crocodile. “If it were we would be out with the King. And he wouldn’t have brought you. He is too gentle hearted with you people.” He tapped his cane against the runners. “The new deer. He should have let Slate kill them.”

“Never would,” Krampus grunted. “Not without malice in their squishy little hearts.”

“You think he’d miss one?” Pete asked, showing his teeth in a big smile, running his blood-red tongue over them. “We could replace it.”

“You know he would know,” the shaggy cloak guy said. “And you’re scaring his guests.”

Pete smiled at us, showing his too-sharp teeth off to their best advantage. John stared back impassively, his eyes like ice chips in the silver light. I’m not as cool under pressure. I just glared. “You do the bad cop, badder cop, baddest cop routine with all the mortals, or just the pretty ones?”

Pete’s smile grew, and his cane came up to tap me lightly on the nose, rested on John’s shoulder. “You are pleasing little favors, it is true. And you have had a trying night: do you think we should take the very best care of you?”

“Your boss said you’d keep us safe,” John said, shrugged off Pete’s cane. “Is the knuckle-cracking part of that?” Krampus made a sound like he’d swallowed a snake and it was fighting its way back up. I hadn’t heard anything exactly like it out of him yet-- but the way his shoulders and the basket strapped to his back shook, I was guessing it was laughter.

“Are we not?” Pete asked, smile going solicitous. “Perhaps this is true. Our new herd is much safer than you, mortal, for all they will work very hard in the coming days. Shall I see to this discrepancy?”

“Piet.” The cloak guy turned to look at him, most of his face obscured by a long, wild beard. He didn’t say it the way the King had-- the world didn’t stop and hold its breath-- more like he was resigned to never going to entirely get off babysitting duty. “We will obey the spirit and the letter of our King’s laws tonight.”

“I think our Ruprecht has taken a shine to you,” Pete told us, cupping his mouth conspiratorially. “I think he must be nearly as good spirited as our lord, looking after little lost--”

Ruprecht growled, a bearish sound, and clucked the reindeer two steps forward-- Pete stumbled as his armrest moved out from under him, catching his elbow on the sledge. Krampus made the half-digested snake sound again, and Ruprecht coughed deep in his throat, a nasty laugh.

I got it.

Maybe they were scary and powerful and could kill me in a heartbeat-- and I’d be lucky if that was the sticky end of their choosing. But right now they reminded me of nothing so much as my friends the teenage werewolves, playing their Arcanos campaigns and doing their homework and planning patrols and shoving each other off furniture. These three-- they were friends.

And sure, they weren’t the Winter answer to the Golden Girls or anything, but they worked together, and they played together, and even though nothing-- nothing, I reminded myself-- from the Nevernever was as cute and cuddly as it appeared, merry ho ho hos and generous hospitality and all, they were playing with us a little too. And since we hadn’t yet been killed, imprisoned, transformed, seduced, or otherwise bewitched, it was better than I would have hoped for.

John was tense against me, not quite as amused by the banter as I was. It took me by surprise a little. He’s unflappable, unshakable. I’ve seen him stare down berserkers. Cope with homicidal ghosts.

… in Chicago.

Chicago is everything to John. It’s why he didn’t leave when his takeover attempt failed and Marco left him alive-- deep in medical debt and in daily pain, but alive-- just because it amused him. John would have had a better life anywhere else. Been able to get a better job anywhere else. Been under a lot less threat, et cetera. But he loves Chicago. It wasn’t like I didn’t know that on some level, once he’d accepted that magic was real and I could fight back against Maddy like nobody else could, that he’d cast me as The Guy Who Will Help Me Save Chicago.

For the first time in maybe ever he was so far off his turf he couldn’t find it with a map, and he was scared. It was a little shocking-- and on some level, where my chauvinism lives, it made him attractive, made me want to puff up and protect him.

“I don’t think it’s going to go bad,” I whispered to him. “But if it does, I’ve got some escape plans. Trust me, okay?”

He didn’t say anything; just shifted a little closer against me under the furs, untensed a little. That was an answer in itself.

I pressed closer to him too, pulled his hand into my lap. He gave mine a squeeze. “Which team are we rooting for?”

“Well, Summer wins,” I said, as if I just knew this and Bob hadn’t given me the run down. “It’s a symbolic thing. Like Civil War reenactments. The table-- that giant stone thing in the ground between them-- goes back and forth with the seasons.”

“These people don’t look like it’s a done thing.”

“Yeah. Well.” I scanned the crowd, all the different weapons, the armor on those whose bodies didn’t include it as a standard feature. “If anything went wrong...” I didn’t even speak the words, didn’t want to breathe what had happened in earshot of any of these people. “I think they’d suddenly start taking it very seriously.”

“Heh. The Winter Will Rise Again.”

“With bells on. But not today,” I said, a little firm, a little relieved. “Today everyone sticks to the script.”

Which seemed a well-practiced one-- the script, that is. There was some cue I didn’t know, and everyone focused, the general din I hadn’t noticed until it was gone dropping away, and the crowds shifted and tightened, drawing together until both sides were centered behind a group at their front-- the Winter and Summer monarchy and their retinues. It was hard to miss them.

The Queens were lighthouses, beacons. They drew my gaze-- more than my gaze, I could feel myself leaning forward, my focus torn between the new growth green and summer gold glow of Titania on one side and Mab on the other, glimmering like the moon over the frozen lake, like the Northern Lights. Could feel the weight of them leaning against the walls of my mind: even thinking their names made me see them more clearly-- opened me up to them, made me feel the thick, sweltering June heat and the crisp, fresh December cold, tangled up my senses until it almost felt like love. I wasn’t Summer’s and I wasn’t Winter’s-- but staring at the Queens, the way they pulled at me, somewhere even deeper than my magic... It felt like a promise that I was almost home.

Which is probably a lot like how those moths feel, right before they fly into the open flame. I wrenched my gaze away. It was hard; my heart was pounding, I was trembling. I became aware of John’s hand in mine again, slack. I squeezed, clutching my other hand around it, just for a second, until he jerked his gaze over and met mine. Beside me, Ruprecht shifted and grumbled to himself, nodding at me, and Krampus growled something I couldn’t make out.

I shook my head sharply, tried to brush off the cobwebs growing over my brain, and looked back to the Queens and their retinues, trying to see the rest of the groups and not just their leaders. They were evenly matched. Beside the Queens were the Knights-- asshole Slate with Mab, an older guy with Titania, his frizzy hair gone white, his blue eyes bright and aware-- and next to them a handful of the pretty Tolkien elves, including Slate’s friend with the dreadlocks, and a few others, more obviously the type you’d get in the pages of Grimm. There was a troll on the Winter side and a giant goat-like creature on Summer’s, walking on its back hooves, but had hands folded together loosely at its waist.

And there were the Kings. They weren’t really part of the proceedings-- not the way the rest of the groups seemed like they were, front and center. It took me a moment to find the Summer King at all, swathed in the dark and shadows, little forms moving around his feet, little red lights giving his eyes away. And. The Winter King. He stood a few steps back from Mab’s retinue, his green velvet robe looking like the heart of an iceberg, like the frozen waves spraying around it. He was tall and majestic and terrible, overpowering, his white beard gleaming, his solid bulk like marble and granite, towering and cold. He was wild and beautiful, like his Queen, and the scared mortal soul at the center of me despaired at their strength. This wasn’t the generous, warm King who had pulled me into his sleigh, who had kept his captors, his would-be murderers, safe from others’ vengeance and the darkness that had crawled inside of them. This wasn’t Santa Claus, not right now, not for this. This was the King of Winter.

They met, the two sides, around the big Stone Table. Bowed. Backed off, the VIPs retreating to a reasonable distance, leaving the Knights front and center. They bowed to one another again-- Slate stiffly, the other guy like he was posing for an artist-- and drew their swords.

The fight looked more like a performance piece than anything. I’ve seen Murph sparring with
the guys in her dojo, with wooden swords or staves, and a real fight isn’t pretty. It’s amazing to watch, but you have to be close. Big crowd pleasing motions aren’t actually great at keeping you from getting killed.

Nobody gave the Knights the memo; Slate fought with big reaching Conan-style swings, even spinning the blade once or twice, hammering at the Summer champion-- who looked more like he was doing interpretive dance, flowing into different shapes and pausing so that the audience could see the graceful stretch of his leg or the subtle positioning of his saber before Slate whacked it dramatically. It had a story, the fight-- don’t tell anyone I actually understand that interpretive dance tells a story, I’ll never live it down-- starting slow and solemn and traditional and building in pace until the big swings and flowy poses were coming fast and heavy.

There was a final flurry and Slate’s sword went flying, not arcing through the air as gracefully as in some in those fights on Highlander, but it rang when it hit the ground with a steely-- well, silvery-- sort of drama. Slate fell back, dropped to his knees, and the Summer Knight went through a series of almost ballet-like poses, flashing his sword around like a rifle in a color guard.

“I really hope we’re not supposed to be learning anything from this,” John muttered.

“Shh,” I said. “They’re passing the Table.”

“Bet they make pills for that,” he said, and I let got of his hand beneath the furs long enough to thwack him lightly on the chest.

Something happened-- I could feel it coming, like everyone drawing in a breath before the first firework on the Fourth of July, the air electric-- and the background lighting changed, the softly glowing runes on the Table flaring and turning from blue to gold. The Summer Knight shouted, clear and ringing, and lunged with his sword.

Slate fell back, swooned and spread out like a more punk rock asshole version of The Death of Superman. I jumped a little, eyes wide, Stars. No one had ever told me the Knights were killed, replaced each year like some sort of seasonal maintenance, Sidhe Court spring cleaning-- and saw that the Summer Knight’s sword was still clean and silver, that Slate was clearly breathing, beckoning with one hand to some of the Tolkien-Sidhe onlookers. A specific gaggle of female-type Tolkien-Sidhe onlookers, who swept onto the battlefield to bear him back to safety, mopping his brow and cradling him against their healing cleavage.

“There were real wars once. We stood with the King.” Krampus leaned over me, burning eyes fixed on the scene, his distaste crystal clear. “There will be again. This is a game. No time for it. Too much to do.”

I stared up at him, trying not to cringe down in my seat, and Pete gave a soft, smokey laugh. “His face is worse than his force, mortal. None of us would raise our hand to start the wars again. But this pageantry is for the Queens. We love Mab,” he added, and I wasn’t sure if that was some obligatory disclaimer or just the way that everything in Winter was part of her gleaming, terrible majesty. “But these games and hunts are not for us. Our domain is the King’s domain. Soon we will be back to our records and duties. That is better.” He said that, at least, with obvious pride. “Ah, there we go. The revelries begin.”

The crowds were drawing in again, now that the show was over, Summer in louder cheer, music breaking out, but even the Winter group looked pretty festive. The ...land, for lack of a better word, was changing around them, around us, the temperature rising, the glittering ice caps on the mountains disappearing, uncoiling green leaves spreading out underneath the reindeers’ hooves. I could smell honeysuckle, suddenly, a whisper of hawthorn underneath it, and lilac, heady on the warming breeze.

“Slate calls the Hunt this year,” Ruprecht observed, hood turned towards a massing party on the Winter side, gathering with horses and a whole lot of big, nasty looking black dogs. Slate was up on a horse-- I took a closer look. Something that looked like a horse. “He’s deep in Maeve’s favor.”

“Deep in something,” Krampus said nastily, claws rasping into the woodwork he was leaning on, and they all chuckled.

The Winter Royals had stopped by the hunting party, the Queen officiating, the King her great oaken arm candy. She raised her hand and they waited-- and then with the flick of her wrist they were off.

Lea was with them, on a something-like-a-horse of her own, her own hounds around her. Across the distance, I could see her give me a little wrist-wave and a mischievous wink before she galloped away.

The King and Queen bowed to each other; the King took the Queen’s hand, raising it to his lips and kissing it. She smiled, and so did he. And then it seemed to be over, and he was crossing the distance toward us and waving.

“Hail, King of Winter,” Ruprecht said, raising his hand.

The King seemed to get smaller and warmer as he got closer; the harsh strength of his face slowly resolving into a merry smile, the golden tones in his robe and skin coming out now that he wasn’t standing next to the Queen’s frosty brilliance, wasn’t representing the might of Winter to its enemies. “Hello, my men. Another year gone and we need not return till Midsummer; are you ready to go home?” He didn’t wait for an answer. Ruprecht stepped out of the driver’s seat, standing respectfully by as the King took his place again, then piled into the back with Krampus, Pete leaping in gracefully behind him.

“We have a little ways to go,” the King told John and me, lowering his voice a little. “We will have some stops along the way. It’s a busy night for me and mine. But we’ll have you home before dawn breaks.” He patted my head and reached over to pat John’s, gathered us a little closer, tucked us under the fur a little deeper, and then took the reins. He clucked to the reindeer and the ground blurred under us with the muffled thump of their hooves on the soft surface. The sound of sleigh-bells was weird-- I was used to hearing them as a musical instrument and not, you know. Something on a sleigh.

Bum bum bum, bum bum bum, bum bum all the way. Oh what fun it is to ride... bum bum Winter fae. I snorted, knew it was stupid and laughed anyway, and John made a sleepy ‘hmm?’ sound. It snapped me out of it, a little-- I wasn’t glamored or anything, just exhausted, and so was he. “John,” I murmured, shaking his hand under the fur. “Don’t fall asleep. Not in here.” We’d been invited, sort of. We were under protection, sort of. I wasn’t taking any chances.

“Right,” he said back, taking a deep breath and forcing his eyes open. “Got it.” He looked around, small head movements-- the ‘no-Murphy-I-wasn’t-sleeping-in-the-lobby’ glance, I categorized it, not that I thought John had ever discovered the infallible sleep-field generated by the plastic chairs and the just slightly too cold air conditioning and the twenty minute too long waiting time down at the police headquarters. He covered it well, anyway, playing it off like he was just checking out the scenery over the side of the sleigh.

I leaned over to look and caught my breath. There were mountains, vast and snow-covered, peaks hundreds of feet below us.

“Are those the Rockies?”

“I don’t know,” I whispered back. We swished into a cloud bank, and when we came out we were over a desert, descending breakneck fast.

John leaned back into the sleigh as the runners kissed the ground, the reindeer’s hooves suddenly crunching, the hiss of fine sand loud after the stillness in the sky . “...I think I left my stomach back in the Andes or wherever.”

“Don’t look for a while.” I scooted us further from the edge, tucking us back up against the comforting bulk of the King. “You didn’t get to go over the repair list on the Beetle when you got home yesterday. You were telling me I need a new fuel filter.”

“Right. And new brakes. They were bad already but the salt is corroding the linkage on the brake cams and your slack adjusters are all out of whack.”

“Not my fault. I have to stop very suddenly sometimes.”

“You’re not going to be stopping at all if you don’t have shoes. Or, you know, brake cams.”

Car talk kept us going for a while. I’m not sure how long, but after a while we just leaned on each other, eyes propped wide, trying to keep each other awake through sheer force of will. I’d been paying so much attention to not sleeping that I’d lost track of the scenery flying past us; I barely processed that we were back in the mortal world, had lost track of how often we’d slipped in and out. John’s hand was a heavy weight in mine; I was focused on his slightly labored breathing, that nauseous going-to-puke fast pant. I barely felt us stopping, was so used to the strange, sudden shifts of light from moonlight on sand to moonlight on water to moonlight through fog and the one lighthouse and more moonlight that I didn’t register the pink glow of halogen streetlights through the swirling snow.

“You’re home,” the King’s voice intruded. “Wizard. Mortal. You’re home.”

I startled like a kid caught napping in class-- my limbs felt stiff, aching with so so long still, my ass throbbed. We’d been sitting for forever. Stars, how did John feel?

He stumbled in his hurry to get out of the sleigh: I caught at his shoulder, and I guess my eyes were a little wide, because he shushed me irritably. “I’m fine. Leg’s asleep. I’m fine.” I scrambled out after him, shivering in the wind, the mortal cold that whistled against my face, so sharp after the warm furs and the shielded bubble we’d been wrapped in. The snow was falling hard, heaping high in drifts that a plow hadn’t touched yet, and my feet sank under it in a way that the runners of the sleigh hadn’t. Winter was in my city-- the lowercase kind and the capital letter kind too. I shivered and wondered where that hunt was riding, exactly.

“Wizard Dresden,” the King called, as I turned to stagger towards the stairs that would take me home.

“What. Is there something else we have to do? Do we-- owe you?” Oh please no. The wind ripped my words away and set my teeth to chattering.

The King laughed-- big and happy, deep in his stomach. And it was exactly like you picture as a kid, just bigger and stronger and wilder. “Owe me? I told you, not at all. Winter’s in your debt. I’m afraid it’s not a very safe place to have us.” He reached out, ruffling my hair with his giant mittened hand. “But a service done is a service done.” He reached into his robe and held out something silvery. “This belongs to Katalin Pataki. Her grandmother did me a favor, too, once. Keep it safe for her. And for me.”

I stared at the little snowflake pendant in my hand-- the token of an old debt, I remembered. A talisman from Winter: a focal that had summoned the Winter King. I didn’t have the other pieces of the ritual-- couldn’t manipulate a threshold the way the druids had-- but the talisman was a loaded gun, a dangerous weapon in the wrong hands.

There was a hiss, just barely louder than the wind, and I looked up to see Krampus crouching in the back of the sleigh, his basket still strapped to his back, Pete, and Ruprecht at his side. John’s hand tightened on my arm. The fae made sure he had our attention and then slowly held up two clawed fingers, pointing to his eyes and then to ours.

The Winter King smiled and shook his head. “He’s grateful. But he’s not a trusting creature.”

I wasn’t going to insult the giant basket-bastard. “I’ll take care of it until she gets home.”

John lifted his chin. “Safe as houses.”

“Thank you, children.” His cheeks appled up. “Oh, Mister Marcone. You’re almost a good boy, aren’t you?”

John sealed his lips tight.

The King shook his head, eyes twinkling-- “Good night, children, good morning. Midwinter’s over and the city will clear before you know it.”

“Uh. Night. Happy Solstice.”

He clucked the reins and the deer and the sleigh started to move-- picked up speed and was gone in the snow, just the sound of bells and merry laughter behind it.

“Christ,” John sighed, after the street had been quiet for a while. “Let’s go inside.”

“I’m going to call in sick tomorrow,” I said. “Oh wait, I’m self employed. Ring ring: Harry here, screw work. See you in June.”

John smiled despite himself, pulling me towards the stairwell. “Well, I’ve got to go to work. Don’t gloat too--” he stopped again. “Oh fuck. My car’s in Lakeview.”

“Gosh. You’ll have to wait until someone can give you a ride. I would, but my car’s in the shop, you know.”

“I’ll get a ride from Liz Rojas-- I could take the L, a bus--”

“Stay home, John. It’s two days till Christmas. You’ve got Tuesday off anyway. Just... stay home.”

I saw his ridiculous drive warring with exhaustion. “...I’ll do a few hours in the afternoon,” he compromised grudgingly.

I hid my tired smile. Harry one, John’s puritan work ethic zero.

We stumbled down the stairs together; I deactivated the wards just long enough to let us through the door, then threw them back up the second we were inside. I felt my threshold-- my threshold, the one I’d earned and John had earned-- close over me like warm water.

John was standing in the living room, swaying a little on his feet. Staring. Mister weaved around his shins, came over and tried to knock me down with a loving headbutt.

Fuego,” I murmured, and John shuddered as the fireplace burst to life beside him. A few drops of water dripped from his jacket, the ice from the sprinklers and the Winter cold melting again. “John?”

“M’fine, Princess.” He jerked, shot me a tired look-- let me take his jacket, and hang it with mine on the coat tree. He got his boots off, braced with a wince against the wall, and stumbled to what passed as our linen closet for a towel. The phone rang on his way back. We both stared at it-- the sound loud, discordant. I blinked, and the towel hit me in the face.

“Hello?” John’s voice sounded rawer, somehow, not the tight, tired murmur I’d grown used to since Santa’s helpers had broken down the warehouse doors, louder and hoarse and meant for someone else, someone public. He coughed, leaned against the counter. “...Yeah. No. What time is it? ...don’t fuck with me, Officer. ...shit.”

I left the towel under our coats and boots to catch the melt water, and hobbled into the kitchen, suddenly aware of how badly my shoulder throbbed where Vigil-- Donnel, my brain kicked in-- had clobbered me with his staff, how the skin on my neck pulled where I’d been cut, how my whole body ached like I’d been in a car accident. And however bad I felt, John had to be feeling worse; when I’d been slapped around by those force spells, I’d been cushioned on the way down. Judging by the leader’s desperation at the end there, how he’d slammed John into the ground-- no way he’d gotten the soft landing.

“4:30,” he told me, quietly-- I nodded, sighed, reached for his hand and squeezed it. The Nevernever has a passing relationship with linear time. Mostly that it passes in and out of it. Somehow, I was pretty sure the only reason it was still the right day was because we’d hitched our ride with the Winter King; no one else would have been quite so generous. “No, no, thank you.” He let go of my hand, reached up to move my jaw, brush his fingers by the cut on my throat. “In the morning. Once the sun’s up. Yeah, he’s going to need some stitches. Something to immobilize his shoulder too. It can wait-- sleep. ...Thanks, Murphy.” He hung up, rubbed a hand over his face-- stumbled out of the kitchen until he found the couch and lowered himself down onto it with a groan.

“She’s been calling every half hour since midnight. Has her medical guy on call. He’ll stop by in the morning.”

“I’m the worst friend,” I sighed, dropping down next to him.

“You’re the best magical contractor,” he said, the lines around his eyes crinkling up. “You rescued Santa. My boyfriend. Found and rescued Santa.”

“She can’t put that on a report--”

“I’ll whip something legal up. Report for her. Local toughs it isn’t worth. Something. Mm.” He shut his eyes-- and didn’t open them again, head lolling against the back of the couch.

“John.” I shook his shoulder and he woke up with a start. “Come on. Bed.”

We were too tired to do more than pull off our bloodied, frozen clothes before we dug under the blankets. I stayed awake an extra minute to listen to John’s breathing level out and deepen into sleep. We’d made it. I’d come home. And so had he. And the world hadn’t ended.

“Go team,” I murmured, and smushed a sleepy kiss on his forehead.

And then I passed out.

 

I woke up an hour and a bit later to Micky going off, fell back asleep to the murmuring of John on the phone in the kitchen, calling his boss, and two hours after that to the most sheepish knock ever knocked.

I lay there and bleared at the ceiling for a minute, trying to figure out if I’d actually heard that or if I’d been dreaming-- John groaned and rolled off the bed, grabbed a pair of sweatpants from the dresser and his robe from the back of the door and stumbled into the living room. Not a dream, then.

He was hauling the front door open when I got there in my own sweatpants, pulling on a long-sleeved t-shirt. There was a little guy waiting outside, bundled up in at least a sheep’s worth of knitwear and a puffy down-filled jacket, his arms wrapped around one of those little suitcases with the wheels, the kind people take on airplanes. “Are you Officer Murphy’s friends?”

“Not until she’s had her coffee in the morning,” I said. “I’m Harry. This is John.”

“Waldo Butters.” He looked between the two of us-- side stepped out of the way as Mister darted out, thirty pounds of feline swishing past his feet. I blinked after my cat, a stray thought trying to form... oh right. Bob. Guess I’d see them in 24 hours. “You guys look like crap. Can I come in?”

I hate to say it, I hesitated. It was freezing out there in the dark stairwell and this was the guy Murphy had kept waiting up last night in case we needed him. And I didn’t want him in my house-- didn’t want any strangers inside.

“You’re the doctor Murphy knows, right? Not a lost pizza guy?” Not a Renfield-- a Black Court vampire’s human slave? Not one of Maddy Raith-Vargassi’s thralls? Not a glamored fae, here to settle a score I didn’t even know about from last night?

“Pizza guys get a company car,” he said, a little reproachfully. “I’m a medical examiner. I have to buy my own. But I can put in stitches. You need them,” he said, tipping his chin at my neck. John leaned up against my back, reassuringly. Especially reassuring was the .45 stuffed in his hip pocket, pressing against the back of my leg.

“Sorry.” I stepped back, out of the way, and Butters shuffled in without a flinch. The wards barely responded to him. No magic, nothing left at the door. That didn’t tell me whether or not he was a normal human under something’s control, but he was reading clear on enough fronts for me to hold my breath and take a leap of faith. If he thought it was rude that I hadn’t exactly invited him in, he didn’t mention it.

“You’re the ME who did the autopsies on the bodies at the Velvet Room,” John said, closing the door behind him.

I glanced at Butters again, reassessing the little guy. Murphy had told me about him, without using his name: the night shift coroner who’d gotten the dump of bodies after the vampire civil war had broken out at the site of one of the Red Court’s old strongholds and John and his merry band of miscreants had helped things along with some home-grown fireworks. How he’d examined them and stood by his assessment that the remains were “humanlike, but definitely nonhuman”. How he’d almost left the city’s employ feet first, because Madeline Vargassi wasn’t letting something like that stay on paper, before Murphy and her few like-minded fellows had intercepted, explained the ropes, took him into their care.

“You read that report?”

“I love a good work of fiction.”

“Yeah, well. The real one was deemed unfit for print. By some really, really big men.”

“Didn’t make it to the Picayune?” John had that hyper-innocent look that makes you want to check your wallet for fingerprints. He likes to keep track of the little underground network of actual information that manages to circulate in the CPD. I think Sergeant Carmichael just likes having a code name for something, myself.

“Heh. You know them. They’ll print anything.” Butters shrugged, and set his case down-- once he had a hand free, he pulled off his knit cap, revealing a big springy bush of a black SOS pad that he’d cleverly disguised as hair. “All right, let me have a look at you guys.”

John flicked on the lights-- only two bulbs were burnt out. We try to keep up on them, now that it’s not just me, and went to stoke up the fire. It was still pretty dark-- living in a cave in the ground will do that. Butters eyed the burnt out bulbs. “Any more lights down here?”

I got the candles. “Flickum bicus.”

It was a risky move. There’s a big difference between knowing, theoretically, that there are, as that old English guy said, more things in heaven and earth, and seeing it for yourself. Even a big difference between performing autopsies on the burnt and battered remains of “humanlike, but definitely nonhuman” corpses and seeing fire burst to life around you. I wanted to vet him a little; my candle spell was about the gentlest litmus test I could give, the smallest thing I could do to show him that this was real and it was time to get out if he wanted out.

He took it pretty well. He stopped-- whole body going still for moment, then turned his head slowly, looking between the candles closest to him, gaze tracking over to John and me.

“Go on,” I said. “Say it.”

“It could be a trick. Self-igniting candles aren’t uncommon. Magnesium. A remote starter.”

I nodded. “Could be.”

“You wouldn’t even have had to set it up for me. They’d be a handy thing to have standing by.”

“That’s true.”

“You’re doing it to test me.”

“Also true.”

He grimaced. “There’s no such thing as magic.”

“No such thing as monsters either?” I crossed slowly over to the couch, careful to keep a good distance from him, let him have his space. Not that I thought the guy was going to be dangerous or anything, but he was already in my apartment, and I’d just thrown something pretty big at him. I could try to give him room to work it out.

“They could have been aliens,” he pointed out pedantically. “Not that that’s any more likely.”

I smiled-- tired, sore. But Butters was dealing. I liked the little guy. He put his case down on the coffee table, opened it up and pulled out a little flashlight, aimed the bright beam at my neck. “Wizard,” he said, sighed. John circled around, sat down next to me, his thigh pressing comfortably against mine, and got the beam in the face.

“Mechanic,” John said, raised his hands in surrender.

The flashlight aimed at his chest instead, Butters frowning. “I’ve got an old Rabbit pickup. Needs some work. You know anything about Volkswagens?”

“They’ve become something of a specialty,” John said, the only guy I know who can do deadpan with his whole face.

“Great.” The light flicked back to me. “So what happened? You guys look like you’ve taken a serious beating. That’s my official opinion, even.”

I shared a look with John. “Some druids kidnapped an elf celebrity.”

“How do I hope you’re joking. Let me count the ways.” He waved vaguely at John. “Going to check your ribs, you’re moving kind of funny. Don’t sue. It might hurt, but I’ve never had any complaints before.”

It was kind of tired but a good attempt; I gave it an eye roll and a “Yeah, yeah, we’re a bit livelier than the usual crowd too, right?” and knew he was with us. What can I say: Murphy knows all the best people.

But Butters did good work, even if we weren’t his normal clientele. Got me stitched up and us wrapped up. I argued about the sling for my arm, until John helpfully volunteered the information that I’d been shot in that shoulder two years ago, the bastard. So now I had one arm pinned to my chest for the next week at least, unless I could find a way to lose the sling without John noticing, and John and I had a clean bill of head trauma-- Butters had been pretty surprised we’d made it out without concussions (no, no, don’t worry, he’s always like this, John said; it’s because his head is full of rocks, I said)-- and was headed home for a good day’s rest. I stopped feeling quite so guilty about keeping him up all night when I found out his job did anyway.

“Do you think he figured it out?" John asked, locking the door behind him. He didn’t have any bandages, but the bruises all up and down his arms, his ribs-- not broken, thankfully, not that he’d even told me they were hurting, the macho idiot-- had seemed like they were getting darker and brighter with every passing minute.

It took me a second to figure out what he meant. “Considering you were trying to crawl into my back pocket the whole time, I'm pretty sure.” I shot him a smile, and he obligingly jammed his hand down the back of my pants.

“Coffee,” I said, pressing a loud, sucking kiss to his forehead. “And then a shower. I have warehouse all over me.” And maybe I’d just forget to put the sling back on after.

“I’m sorry I didn’t get the heater fixed. I wanted it up for Christmas.”

“John. I’d been taking cold showers for years before you came along to save me from the tyranny of cold water. I’ll be okay.”

“Masochist.” He leaned into me briefly and then grabbed his robe from the couch and headed for the kitchen. I could hear the comforting clatter of metal and ceramic, the coffee sounds as he pulled the percolator out of the cabinet (and boy had I felt stupid when he came home with that last month, but the prospect of actual brewed coffee everyday got me over it in a hurry), got out the mugs, a spoon, the milk and sugar. I considered having the shower now and treating the frostbite with coffee, but something John had said bothered me a little. I drifted into the kitchen after him.

“Does it bother you that Butters knows?”

He put the big pot full of water he was manhandling onto the stove, on the back burner, and looked over his shoulder at me, eyebrows high. “No, Harry. I’m not in the business anymore and the people I care about know which ways I swing. It doesn’t bother me. I’m just trying to be considerate.” He reached over, turned on the burner under the water. “I thought you might be a little gun-shy about it with a stranger.”

I blinked. I... hadn’t even thought about that. I’d been the one to come out to Murphy-- well, trip out, over the shoelaces of my own brain-before-mouth sequencing problems, if we were being honest about it. We hadn’t told anyone else. We hadn’t even talked about telling anyone else. It had only been a week-- would only be a week tonight. I couldn’t quite suppress the way my belly unfolded, warm and happy at that. A week.

“...Oh Princess. Why am I even surprised.” John made that sound where he hadn’t made up his mind yet if he was laughing or not, and shoved a cup of coffee into my hands.

Hot, sweet, creamy coffee. My hands curled around the mug, my shoulders hunched in-- I couldn’t decide if I wanted to crawl into the cup or just breathe the steam coming off it all morning. “Marry me,” I said, my eyes squeezed shut, nose a centimeter away from getting burned.

“Not if I can’t wear white.” He leaned against me. “Harry, as far as I’m concerned, until you tell me otherwise the world thinks you’re grade-A straight.”

“The world thinks I’m a crackpot or a con man. I’m in the phonebook under ‘Wizard’, John. Having a boyfriend is normal compared to that.” And if it wasn’t normal to me-- if I chanted boyfriend boyfriend boyfriend to myself so that I could get my conscious mind as comfortable with John as my subconscious already was-- it was because what we had was a good thing. And I wasn’t going to miss out on it because I had cold feet.

John was eyeing me, lips pulled down to one side, brow furrowed up consideringly, concerned but not sure what was going on in my head. I need those occasional moments or I start suspecting telepathy.

“It’s new,” I said, after a second. “It’s new. But I don’t want anyone to think I’m ashamed.”

“Deep end. Head first.” John sighed, and wrapped his arms around me, tucking his head against my collarbone. I held my coffee off to one side so that it wouldn’t spill on him as he held me. “You’re amazing, hot stuff. Some days I wonder if there’s anything you can’t do.”

“Sudoku. Terrible at it,” I joked, artfully disguising the rush of terror I tend to get when he shows me how much he depends on me. I mean, protect him from marauding faeries between worlds? A cinch compared to me trying to make a relationship work.

He pulled away eventually, got his own cup of coffee and then wedged back into a comfortable place between me and the counter. He sipped from his mug quietly and let me do the same-- although I probably wasn’t doing as much heavy mental lifting as he was. My mind was running a loop of mm-coffee-mm-boyfriend. Eventually the water in the big pot started to boil, and John slipped out of his meditative state and up to full performance power in under zero-point-three seconds, getting a bucket out from under the sink before grabbing the potholders and pulling the water off the stove.

“Ah--” I said, and he grunted, hoisting the pot over the bucket.

“You might be happy showering in ice water.” He carefully poured half the water out of the pot, the steam beading on his arms, his face, the countertop. “I’m not.”

I figured it out-- set my empty mug down and hurried to our little linen closet, pulled out an armful of towels, ducked into the bathroom and grabbed the soap and shampoo and a facecloth. He was pouring cold tap water into the bucket when I got back, testing the temperature with his finger. “Decided to join me in the land of modern convenience?”

“Just because it’s Christmas.” I stuck my finger in the water too, made an appreciative noise. Hot water. You don’t know how good it is until you don’t have any. “Why don’t you do this more often?” It was a good idea. Kind of impractical for one person, not undoable, though. Like the percolator; just something I hadn’t really thought of.

He made a face, and I looked at him suspiciously. “You don’t take cold showers when the heater’s down because you want to be macho, do you?”

“It’s convenient,” he said, jaw sticking forward a little. “You can do it. I can do it.”

“I don’t have a bad leg--”

“People had bad legs before there were water heaters.”

I sighed. “Well, I’m not feeling macho. Yes. I would like a hot bath-like experience.”

“Start laying out some of those towels in the living room, then.” He lifted the bucket. “It’s probably more fun if you don’t smack your elbow on the icebox.”

I couldn’t argue with that logic, so I went and shoved the coffee table out of the way, up against the big overstuffed recliner next to the fireplace, and wedged the couch back, layering most of the towels in the cleared space, saving a few for after. With a roaring fire going the living room was a lot more non-arctic than the bathroom; I was liking this idea already.

John nestled the bucket of hot water in the middle of the towels and grunted as he dropped his robe. I started to like the idea even more. I wriggled out of my sweatpants and didn’t instantly freeze-- so, so much better than the chilly bathroom-- then my shirt, happily shedding the sling, and got hit in the chest with a wet sponge. I swear. After knives they’re his weapon of choice, right before towels and dishcloths.

“Let me get your... oh, wow.” His bruises were even more impressive up close and half an hour later. “Butters is sure you didn’t crack a rib?”

“It’s just decoration.” He jerked his chin up. He’s adorable when he’s being manly. I smiled and went to soap up my sponge, stroked it across his chest, down his sides, tracing the edge of the bruises and blowing lightly across them. He shivered.

“You’re not unscathed yourself, Princess,” he said, and ran his washrag down over my arm. I winced. Yeah, the shoulder wasn’t great and there were bruises along my side-- more colorful than his, the impacts not as hard. “...You hold up, though.”

I fought a dopey smile. “You too.” I rubbed my sponge over his chest again, along his heavy pecs, scrubbed it over his shoulder and down the smooth lines of his back, going light over his ribs. Yup. This was a great idea. Even if I was feeling a little bony and non-pectoral in front of him. No accounting for taste, I guess.

“You say the sweetest things.” He scrubbed warehouse grime off my arms with the facecloth, lukewarm trickles of water sliding down my sides. “Trying to get on the good list, huh?” Then: “Santa. Christ. It wasn’t a dream. Those things we saw. That’s your world?”

“Hell’s bells no. This is my world. That... that’s just there. And you know now.”

“I know. And I can handle it.” He leaned in, our mutual back washing society looking a little like a hug. “Let me get your back.”

I turned, and he dunked the washcloth before he draped it over my back, a swathe of heat over my ribs, trickling down to my butt. I reached back to scratch as it trickled down my crack, but he brushed my hand away and scraped the cloth there, too. I sighed in relief. I was warm. My body felt clean.

“Turn,” I told him, once he’d de-dirted me. I scrubbed him down with my sponge, careful on his sore spots, lingering on his butt, gentle with the heated weight between his legs, doing a few passes just to get warm water all over him.

We finished ourselves up-- it felt so good, the hot water, not as good as a hot shower but better than a cold one, warm and clean and his hands on me and mine on him. I understood why the couples in Bob’s novels were always showering together, now. Dunking my head in the bucket to scrub my hair out was fantastic, and I let the water run down my back as I toweled down and hustled into my pants, leaving my shirt off while my hair dripped.

One of the first things I’d gotten John when he moved in, after getting him a bed to sleep in, was a thick robe. Basements get cold even in the summer, and a big fluffy terrycloth layer helps keep the chill out. He’d wrapped himself back up in it and was as close to the fire as he could get, slumped low in the recliner, sweatpants folded neatly over the chair arm, his eyes shut, face still damp from the cleaning.

“Hey,” I said, and he cracked an eye.

“Need something?”

“No. Don’t get up.” I knelt in front of him, tapping a knee. “Just spread your legs a little.”

“Oh.”

“Yeah.” I grinned, and slid my hands into the split of his robe, gliding them up his thighs.

It was funny: when I’d started thinking about John as a partner, a few weeks before I actually made up my mind to try, this was the thing that freaked me out the most, and then it’d been one of the easiest things to do, had fast become a favorite-- not hard or horrifying or distasteful Iike I guess I’d always assumed. His skin was clean and warm and I leaned in to wrap my mouth around his mostly soft dick. Mostly. But it looked like he’d enjoyed the co-washing just like I had.

I felt him firming up against my tongue and started to bob my head a little, falling into an easy rhythm, the pace as much for me as for him. His breath hitched and his hands came down to rest lightly on my shoulders.

The fire was warming up my back and his legs were warm against my sides. I relaxed and got a hand into the action-- I wasn’t exactly a sword swallower, but I knew from experience that John actually really liked it if I went ahead and added a little bit of a handjob.

It was quiet. We were usually-- if maybe half a dozen times was enough to establish a ‘usually’-- kind of quiet, but this was different. It’d been a long night and we’d been in danger and now we were okay and I wanted to feel him and touch him and... well. Things. And quiet was fine.

I could taste salt now, a little bittersweet almost, and he was starting to tug rhythmically at my hair, making my stomach tingle and spark. I sped up my hand, sucked harder, feeling his thighs twitch under my arms, along my sides. I wasn’t used to the taste-- we’d done condoms up till now, even though he was almost sure he was good and I was pretty damn sure I didn’t have anything catching-- when he shuddered and his hips bucked up I was a little surprised at the bitterness that pooled in my mouth.

I swallowed, and it wasn’t bad, and John was shaking a little under me, taking slow, deep breaths, and that was really nice.

I smiled up at him.

My stomach rumbled.

He cracked an eye.

“Sorry.” I caught a bit of wetness at the corner of my mouth with my thumb, pulled an embarrassed face when my stomach gurgled again, firmly awake. “First thing I’ve eaten all morning.”

He made a stifled sound, then another, like he was trying to hold in a sneeze, and then he was laughing and wincing at the way it hurt his ribs and I was trying not to snort.

I didn’t really succeed and he left me there, using his hands on my shoulders to push himself up to his feet, patting at my hair and face, and headed for the kitchen, still laughing. I hauled myself up on my own, taking an extra minute to soak up the heat of the fire before following.

He was rooting in one of the cupboards-- turned when I got behind him and shoved a pop tart between my teeth. Mm, gingerbread. Seasonal. I grabbed it, before it broke and rained crumbs all over the floor, and he jammed me back against the counter and yanked my pants down.

“Mmf-?” I asked, mouth full of pop tart. He plastered himself against my side, groping my crotch. “Mmf!” Okay, I didn’t actually mind. He wedged himself up against me, trapping my legs between his, fisting my dick as he rubbed his stubbly jaw against my neck-- opposite side of my stitches. “-’at fimkles!” I protested, although besides tickling it also really, really felt good. I lifted on my toes a little as if it would intensify the feeling. Mmm, pop tart. Mmm, boyfriend. Mmm, handjob.

I pawed at John, getting my hands around his waist, cradling his ass-- trust me, you’d want to take every opportunity to grab it too-- using my toes and knees to drive myself up into his grip, snickering manfully (note: not giggling like a schoolgirl) into his still-damp hair, the little curls he gets when it starts getting long feathering out. He did something with his wrist that made me gurgle around my breakfast, and I did my best not to get pop tart everywhere. “-ugan!”

“--better angle, you giraffe,” he growled into my chest, and used his body weight to push me back. I slumped where I landed, let my weight rest on one elbow and the counter, pushing my hips up into John’s hand. The kitchen hadn’t been designed with this kind of horseplay in mind and the counter was biting into my back, but my stomach was getting deliciously full and my hips seemed to be operating with a mind of their own, pumping happily into his grip. He pressed another pop tart against my mouth and I bit into it, reached up and broke a piece off and slid it between his lips until he sucked it in, smiling while I chewed. He snorted and leaned in to bite at my jaw, smearing ground-up frosting into my chin.

“Groth,” I said, and tried not to spray crumbs at him when he licked a big sticky streak up my cheek. I swallowed in self defense, tried to grab the pop tart for another bite-- the edge of a big surge of arousal caught me by surprise, and I wound up sucking air and slapping the counter instead. I swear I was just mildly turned on a second ago. “John. John. John. JOHN. Oh.”

My knees went wobbly and I draped back over the counter, my eyes rolling up as he coaxed another sticky twitch out of me. I groaned and he sucked a kiss at my collarbone. “Fairest in the land,” he said solicitously, moving down my torso with loud smacks, rubbing his face on my chest. “Full of grace and,” he lipped at my nipple, and I managed to get back up on my arms. “Poise. I bet you’d feel a pea, you’re so,” other nipple, “delicate, Princess.”

“Up yours,” I told him serenely. “You’re getting crumbs in my chest hair.”


 

I got to go back to bed after that-- well, after John insisted we clean up the towels and bucket and I’d washed my stomach off and he washed his hands. John stayed up to phone his boss again, and then crawled in beside me a few minutes later, grunting something about an ordered sick day and the 23rd turning out to be an unexpected half day anyway. That afternoon, while I used up the last of the milk to scramble eggs for lunch-- one handed, because John had remembered my sling for me-- and John made up a grocery list, Mike’s youngest, Lisabeth, knocked on the door, and she and John went out in her truck to get his Caddy. We traded the chocolates we’d bought-- Stars, only the morning before-- for a tin of caramel popcorn, and she made John promise to take the 26th off and not to go into the garage before nine on the 27th.

Murphy phoned that night to verify Butters’ report that we were alive and in the same number of pieces as the last time she’d seen us, sounding tired and worn out, because her boss wasn’t as understanding about late nights saving the world off the clock, and had spent all day working another double shift. She said she’d drop by between her shifts on Christmas Eve and Christmas, and bring our present over then. She made me promise to tell her everything, and then said it didn’t have to be then, and that was probably the biggest gift she could have given me. I owed her the whole story. And I’d tell her. But I’d let Christmas pass first, before I told her how it-- the world-- could have been destroyed.

The next morning I woke up in time to let Mister and Bob back in-- and promptly went back to bed, Mister’s heavy weight landing near my head, sending me back to sleep with his deep, rumbling purr. I woke up a couple hours after that alone in the bed but to the smell of breakfast cooking, stumbled out for a kiss and a cup of coffee, not in that order, and went and woke Bob up.

He wasn’t happy about it, grumbling incoherently under my arm when I hauled him up from the lab. I’d taken my sling off to be able to grip him and the stairs-- not that I needed to, but it was easier that way, and it let me accidentally forget it down on my workbench. He was sleeping again by the time I plopped him down on the coffee table, eyelights flickering on briefly when I called his name and again when I wrapped my knuckles against his forehead. I even tried waving my coffee cup under his nasal cavity, and only got a growl about cruelty toward skulls and unusual punishment.

John rolled his eyes, dropping down on the couch hard enough for it to bounce and creak. “Oh Harry,” he said, too loud, too breathless, expression too sardonic. “Oh yes, right there. Again. Come on, harder. Over the couch, please, now, please, deeper.”

Bob spun around so fast I’d have been been worried about whiplash if he had a neck, his eyes burning brightly. “Did I hear my alarm go off?” he asked, eager, and then, slumping somehow, “Oh har har.”

John sighed, looking up at me, tilted his chin a millimeter at Bob. The puppy-skull impression was pretty pitiful. “What say. Early Christmas gift?”

“Uh--?” He tugged me down to sit beside him and leaned in, making an exaggerated smoochy-face, and I grinned. “All right. But we spoil him,” I said, before meeting him in a wet, lingering kiss.

“It’s just what I always wanted!” Bob said rapturously. “Again, again!”

“You’ll spoil your dinner,” John said, leaning back on the couch and propping a leg over my lap.

“There’s always room for necking,” Bob said petulantly.

“If you’re very good and you clean your room, I’ll show you my bra strap,” I said.

“Lingerie? Already? Kinky! I like it!” the voice from the skull was bright and chipper. Whatever he’d been doing last night, it apparently hadn’t incapacitated him quite as much as he'd been putting on.

“On task, Bob,” I said. “Royal kidnapping. Druidic sacrifice. Loose ends.”

“Spoil sport,” he said. “Not ready to talk about it yet? You know, you really should talk about this sort of thing before you start doing it-- but you do get so flustered about sex, boss. Look, you’re even blushing now! Did you start thinking about it, all that muscly man meat and delicate lace--”

“The kidnapping,” I interrupted, loudly, ignoring the heat creeping up my neck. Hell’s bells. “I’ve got some-- scratch that. I’ve got a lot of questions.”

“Hanky panky back in the drawer,” Bob said sadly. “With your panties. What do druids have to do with it?”

“They did it,” I said. “A group of them. Lured the King to the house, supercharged the threshold and used it to trap him, and bound him up in a harness to keep him down. They were going to sacrifice him.”

Bob whistled through his teeth. “I know I’ve had some opinions on some of your ideas over the years-- the weight loss potion, the anti-gravity potion, flying on that broomstick--” John coughed into his fist. “But I think that is officially the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.”

“Yeah, well,” I said, “they almost managed it.”

“Druids aren’t exactly known for their tendency towards apocalypse, boss,” Bob said dubiously.

“Or for having little knives of distilled crazy?” I ran through had happened, trying to explain the foul, spoiled sense I’d gotten from the knife, the harness and blinders, in some of the magic the druids had used-- I understood, suddenly, even more than I had before, what it meant that Black magic corrupted you-- and stumbled awkwardly through the box seats John and I had been granted at the Midwinter mock-battle, the memories already feeling far away and a little unreal.

“Told you the King was a soft touch,” Bob said, “letting them off like that? Unbelievable. Anyone else would be decorating with their remains-- even the Summer Lady’s not that easy going, and she’s known to play pretty gently with her mortals.”

“Didn’t look that gentle to me,” I muttered, thinking on Titania, how she’d towered and gleamed just as much as Mab, her might like the sun, like fire, the way forests and fields overgrew ruins.

“They were changed,” John cut in, tone mild but words more clipped than usual, and I could feel the way his body quivered next to me, even if I couldn’t see it. “They were made into something else. I wouldn’t call that a soft touch.”

“Didn’t kill them,” Bob said. “Didn’t steal their souls and use them for the newest, latest thing in Christmas lights.”

John’s face did that thing where it went calm and sort of friendly, because it didn’t have room for everything else it could do. “What about the Laws of Magic?” he asked me. “You shall not transform others. It’s right there, Harry.”

I grimaced. “Human law. Human magic. It works differently when faeries do it. Forcing someone into a new shape... when you do it to someone else, you can’t avoid damaging their mind, not for long. But faeries have different magic; hell, they are magic. They’re different than us, fundamentally, and transformation is a tradition with them.” And now we were getting way too close to a conversation I really didn’t want to have.

“The Alphas--” John started.

“Do it to themselves,” Bob said. “Different again. But don’t be surprised if the lines between their shapes starts blurring-- if it hasn’t already. You mortals are so malleable; even your Names change from one experience to the next. And from the sound of it, your deer are going to be put back after a while-- and with the Winter King, that could even mean before a hundred years have passed and their families are gone and they die from old age as soon as they’re out of Winter.”

I cringed. Bob wasn’t helping.

“The knife,” I said. “The King said they were gifted with it. Someone wanted them to do this. How else would they have known about the Patakis?” I fought with that idea, trying to make it make sense. The warlocks I’ve met, fought, they don’t go for the big world-destroying gestures; they have to live here too. They might want to rule over the world, but they want something left to rule. They kill and enthrall and bind and transform, but they don’t build their master plan around beefed up climate change.

“Well,” Bob rocked slowly back and forth. “The thing about sacrifices is you usually get something out of it. Steal or capture someone’s power. If they’d actually succeeded, they’d pretty much be gods, you know? Gods can live about anywhere; it wouldn’t matter what mess they left behind. They’d have the power of life in the midst of death. I mean, if they’d gone for Titania-- but that would be suicidal. Even more suicidal. You wouldn’t have a ghost of a chance with one of the Queens. The Kings are about the best you could get.”

“...So, what? They thought they were going to be nice gods?”

“I don’t know what they thought, Harry. Cursed artifacts scramble a brain but good.” He shut up, managing to seem pensive without an actual expression.

“Bob?”

“The super-threshold thing. The fact that they actually captured a faerie King. There’s only one coven on this continent that could really get away with that. Well, more than one, but you would have noticed if it was the Children of the Twins or the Sopeo cult; one goes in for a big corpse motif and the other one uses a lot of tricky action-reaction magic. So. It kind of narrows it down.”

“And?” I demanded.

“...You’re going to be upset.”

“Bob!”

“They’re the kind of people you call good guys, boss.” He sighed without breath. “They’re the Cairde. They’re an offshoot of a group in Europe-- good at wards and healing and growth stuff. Langtry’s one of them. One of the European guys, I mean, they think the American group are kind of hicks. If it was them, they thought they could do good with that power. They’re nice. They do good works and protect people.”

“Yeah,” I said quietly. “That sounds right.”

“And they got an idea like this from someone really, really nasty,” he said.

Nasty. I touched my neck, the fresh bandage over my stitches, and felt John’s eyes zero in on it-- he worries sometimes. Worries to the tune of offering to murder people. Stars. I met his eyes and gave him a lopsided smile.

“A week ago I thought Mrs. Vargassi and her corpse-for-hire were all we had to worry about,” he said. “Wow. The good old days.”

“That’s life with me,” I said.

“I’m up for it,” he said defiantly, gaze going intense. I breathed in, and out, and squeezed his knee on my lap.

The moment didn’t have time to get more than lukewarm before Bob was yelling, “Smooch him again!”

John cleared his throat and I found an interesting patch of wall to focus on. “How did they find the Patakis, though?” I asked it.

“Same way you find things when you hit a dead end, boss. They probably know their local nature spirits. None as knowledgeable and personable as yours truly, of course, but they could have gotten the name of someone local. I could find that snowflake you’re babysitting with my eyes closed, even with the warded bag you put it in. And a mortal family without a wizard wouldn’t even have that to block the signal. Chicago’s not that far from Appalachia, compared to most of Winter’s traditional territory,” Bob said thoughtfully. “That’s why they did it here. Probably the first opportunity; Winter’s not exactly generous with their favors. Something like that is pretty rare.”

“Lucky me,” I said.

“Look at it this way; you didn’t have to drive to Tennessee,” he said helpfully. “Way less car maintenance bills here, even with discounts for being Sexy at your mechanic.”

“That’s great, Bob, really. And I have so many contacts in that corner of the woods to help me research local Nasties.”

“Oh, no worries. You’re probably not looking for anyone else from there. They-- or it, or he, or she-- could be from anywhere.”

“Gosh, Bob. Help me out some more.”

“Don’t worry about it, boss. If I know warlocks, they’re mobile. They go where opportunity is. Hey, they’re probably heading this way already.”

I stared at him.

“You screwed up a big shindig, boss. They’re going to want to take it out of you in blood. Among other vital fluids.”

“You’re saying--”

“They’ll be in Chicago, sooner or later, looking for you,” Bob agreed.

“Then they’ll be Maddy’s problem too,” John said optimistically. “Christ. Merry Christmas to us.”

“And to all a good night,” Bob chirped.

 

John and I spent the rest of the day the best we could-- John cleaned, because that’s what he does when he needs to work his worry out by being productive, and also because that’s just what he does, and I curled up on the recliner with my nose in Hogfather, wrestling the mop away from him after lunch. We went for a walk in the afternoon, dodging the snow drifts and watching the lights come on, bumping hips and shoulders and getting in each others’ space. We braved a drug store and I got Bob his book and magazine, and then we splurged on Burger King for supper on the way home and tangled our bodies up on the couch and I poured the heat from a whole pot of coffee into his leg and some into his back and feet, working out the knots of the day and soaking up the chance to touch his skin. Half as a joke and half thinking of sleigh bells in the sky, I put out a can of Coke and a box of pop tarts and John watched me carefully, pouring us each a glass of eggnog with a healthy topping of rum.

“Does that count as an invitation?” he asked, handing me my glass.

“Not. Really.” I jutted my jaw. “Only tonight. It’s balance. There are rules. He’s not going to-- I can’t imagine he’d-- even if he did. There are rules for tonight.”

John nodded, and put down his glass long enough to hang the cheap stocking we’d gotten at the drug store-- the one that John had Sharpied a rough image of a skull onto. He shoved the book and the magazine into it.

It felt so thin and quiet; we were still a little bruised from the rush of sensation and stress on the Solstice. We were sort of sleepwalking through it all. But the feeling that it was almost Christmas seeped in-- even if I knew what Christmas really meant, even if I’d just been up to my neck in the politics of it-- and that excitement started to creep in and fight off the sleepwalking feeling. I wrapped John’s presents in the subbasement, and he commandeered the kitchenette for the same purpose, and we set them out near the tree when we were done, out of the way of the candles. Then we tangled up on the couch again, just looking at our little tree, the way the living room looked in Christmas light. We drank more eggnog and spooned, a little too tired to do anything more energetic, and even with the threat of impending warlocks it was probably the nicest Christmas I’d had in twenty years.

“Let’s sleep out here,” John murmured, drowsy and man-pretty in the candlelight. The sparkly glass and plastic ornaments threw flickery patches of color all over the living room. “Used to fall asleep in front of the tree when I was a kid.”

“I didn’t,” I said quietly. “I’d like to start.” He kissed me and then I helped him fold out the couch, dumping some of the blankets and pillows on it; with our shirts and pants off we cuddled back in, shivering together under the chilly covers until the warmth of the fire outside and the warmth of us inside had them toasty and comfortable.

Either paranoia or anticipation had me keeping an eye on the fireplace well after John had rolled over, his head lying on my arm and putting it as soundly to sleep as he was-- but eventually I caught my eyes falling shut too, and I didn’t try to prop them back open.


 

When I was a kid, before my dad died, I’d wake early on Christmas, probably not long after Dad had finally gotten to bed, the world silent, hung suspended between the seconds. I’d hold my breath, heart pounding in my ears, jumping in my chest, every spare inch of me shaking, filled to the brim with excitement I didn’t know how to spend. I only really remember the last one we had from pretty much start to finish, but I can remember some of those mornings like they’ve been copied right into me, still waiting just under my skin, my ears straining for sound, my eyes darting around the room, looking for the things that were new, before the night caught up with me again and I’d fall asleep, holding so still I forgot to be awake.

The fire was burning down low when I woke up, suddenly, completely, without the slow, sleepy brain clog or the jarring jolt of the alarm. John’s face was against my back, tucked between my shoulder blades, one of his legs nestled between mine, the other propped over my hip, a strong arm warm and solid around my ribs. And it was Christmas morning.

My breath caught.

“Mn.” John’s face pressed a little harder into my back.

“John,” I whispered, looking around, trying to gauge what time it was. The lights on the tree were still burning in their little holders, but the candles were low, the flames flickering.

“It’s a holiday,” he groaned. “Sleep in.”

“John. It’s Christmas.”

He leveraged himself up on an elbow and squinted at me. “Since when are you a morning person?”

“It’s Christmas,” I repeated, and wriggled out of bed-- and yelped at the cold and dragged on my sweatpants and shirt from yesterday. I piled over to our little tree, standing in front of the fireplace to stare at it... I don’t know what I was expecting to find, but it was what you did on Christmas, my inner child said, still restlessly half-awake since the Solstice.

I wasn’t actually expecting to find presents. New ones, I mean. Ones that weren’t the ones John and I had put out last night.

“John.” I said, a little strangled, a little whispered.

John groaned good-naturedly; I could hear the sofa bed creak as he rolled out of it, the shuffling of his own clothes being pulled back on. “Princess,” he said, coming up behind me, resting a hand on my hip, tucking his chin over my shoulder. “It will still be Christmas in a few hour-- oh.”

There was a neat little pile under the tree, sparkling in the dim, warm light. I got the rest of the candles spread throughout the room, and the presents were still there when it got brighter. John squeezed my hip and pulled away, stocking up the fire with some fresh wood and poking at it until it caught, and then came back, calmer for it, not that it showed on his face.

Deep beneath my fear that Winter had left us gifts and the mounting panic at how my wards hadn’t noticed, for all that I hold told John there were special rules for last night, my stomach started to quiver because Santa had left us presents. I jerked my head around to check and-- yes, on the kitchen table. The pop tart box was open when it hadn’t been before, the Coke can in a different spot than where I’d left it.

The presents weren’t big: there were two wooden boxes, each one smaller than my palm, polished smooth and gleaming, delicate silver hinges, a whole library’s worth of tiny carvings worked expertly into the sides, impossibly detailed snowflakes carved into the very centers of the lids, and thin, shining ribbons crisscrossed and tied in perfect little bows like something from a display in a shopping mall window. I picked up one of the boxes and found the tag; an elaborate “J, Friend of Winter,” was inked onto it, made out of miniature drawings of people and animals and landscape like it had been clipped from a medieval manuscript.

I handed it over to John, checked the other one-- H, Friend of Winter. I slid the ribbon off and cracked the lid: a silver snowflake pendent, like Mrs. Pataki’s, down in my lab. “His and his matching favors?” I asked John, voice a bit tight, taking out the little folded card of paper nestled against the lid.

“Is that what this is?” he asked, warily, staring down at his own snowflake. It looked similar to mine-- similar to Mrs. Pataki’s-- but there were subtle, noticeable differences in the details. No two snowflakes are alike, my brain provided, drunk on adrenaline.

“We did Winter a favor,” I said, reading the little card, the ink blue and glittering like twilight on the mountains. “It’s a marker. It marks us-- that we did a favor, that we’re owed one. You can call it in, one time only. John. I... wouldn’t. If you can help it. No matter what you request, they’ll find a way to make it benefit them.” I tucked the little card into its spot, closed the box, and put it back down where I had found it. “I’m guessing the packaging is the King’s touch; I can barely sense them when they’re inside-- it’s like a neon sign when they’re out, Winter’s power. It’s dangerous,” I said. “I’m sorry, I got you tangled up in this--”

“Harry.” He closed his box, putting it back, and reached up to press his fingers to my lips. “I’m with you in this, okay? You can’t let me in on some things and shut me out of others. Let’s see what else we got.” I matched his slanted smile, and he took a little green velvet bag I hadn't even noticed out from behind the boxes. It jingled, and he froze for a second, every muscle going still-- and poured the little sleigh bell into his hand. It looked harmless, sitting there, just a little metal bell, a little worn, cut from a working sleigh. There was a green velvet ribbon, matching the bag and woven between the rounded ends of two of the throats. He looped it over his finger, bobbing it and making the bell ring. “I can’t tell if this is a gift or a threat.”

“With Winter?” I brushed the bell with a finger, could feel the way the little touch made it chime, just a bit, the vibrations running up through my bones and filling my head with the crisp, cold way a winter’s night smells, the slow, smoky dawn of a winter morning. “Both.”

“Ha,” he said, forcing a bit of a cheer. “Sounds like the old days.”

“Short walk off a long sleigh? Cement stockings in front of the fire?” I teased, and he pulled a face and handed me the second velvet bag I hadn’t seen. I fished my bell out, and we hung them by their ribbons on our little tree. John flicked his and made it chime brightly.

“That’s one way to remind myself to be careful who I deal with. ...We got really lucky, didn’t we?”

I nodded.

“Next time...” he shook his head. “I hope there isn’t one.”

“Me too.” I thumped his back, and he leaned into me. “We’ll handle it if there is.”

He grinned at me and stretched up for a kiss, so of course that’s when Murphy knocked.

 

She came bearing baked goods, though, so I forgave her: an armful of plastic containers and old cookie tins that she shoved at me, stomping in and shaking snow from her hair and boots. “You’re up. Good.”

“A bit early isn’t it, Officer?” John asked, and caught the little package she tossed to him, and I unloaded what looked like enough holiday baking to feed five football teams onto the coffee table.

“What, Marcone, you need your beauty sleep?” She hung her jacket up on my coat tree, and passed me a little envelope. “This was stuck in your door.”

It was small, a rich cream color, the familiar size and shape of a greeting card; there wasn’t an address on it anywhere, but my name was on the front, dressed up to look like someone else’s-- someone from a few centuries ago and with a lot more money-- in flowing, blood-red calligraphy. And it was sealed with what I thought was a blob of golden wax made to look like a leaf, until I touched it and it crumbled away into snow, which melted into water a second later. My insides froze and I tried not to show it on my face.

“Harry?” John asked. So much for that.

“Another Winter message,” I said-- and quickly pulled the card out before my guilt showed too. The card was a glossy picture of a cuddly, fluffy puppy wearing a Santa hat over one ear and posing with some presents and a wreath. My expression went brittle. Subtle, Lea. Real funny. I opened it-- there, in the same flowing script as my name:

Godson,

You came to the Table with the King. Never go there with the Queen. Not his favor nor my love nor my oath to your mother could save you then.

The words lost their shape even as I read them, letters blurring and then fading away, leaving the smooth, unmarked card behind.

“Harry?” John asked again.

I looked up-- he was standing a few feet away, still holding the little package Murphy had given him. Murphy was in the kitchen, lighting the stove and filling a pot with water, muttering about how it was Christmas morning how the hell hadn’t we made cocoa yet?

“A warning not to go back to the Stone Table,” I said, and shoved it under a tin of something on the mantle. “Apparently we didn’t make a good enough impression to get invited back to the Club, honey. I just knew I shouldn’t have worn those pearls with that dress.”

“Not something I plan on being a problem,” John said. “That’s a ride I only need to ride once.” He frowned, just barely, more a tiny wrinkle between his eyebrows than any movement around his mouth. “Is that all it said?”

“It was the gist,” I evaded.

“The gist turned you white,” he said. “Harry--”

“I have a little history,” I said quietly. “It’s okay. It was just a reminder.”

“Later?” he asked.

“Later.” I took a half step and tucked my hip against his, leaning just enough to feel the warmth and muscle of him through his clothes. We had a whole shopping list of things to talk about ‘later’. Me and him both. But it was Christmas. We could fight after New Years like everyone else.

“Break it up, boys.” Murphy barged into the room, two mugs balanced in one hand, sipping from a third. It left a chocolate froth mustache on her lip. She didn’t make it look sexy like Lea had, but she made it look comfortable and homey and I was glad she was here, and that was a lot better. “It’s cocoa and presents time.”

“That what this is?” John asked, hefting the little package.

“No,” she said, and put her mug down on the coffee table long enough to pass off the other two to us. “It’s a parking ticket.”

I went and grabbed her present from under the tree. “From us.”

“Us?” she said, taking it, giving it a little shake. “Doing the joint presents thing alread-- have you even had breakfast yet?”

I looked over, fingers in a cookie tin, a piece of fudge already in my mouth, and tried to mimic John’s super-innocent look. “Yeth.” I swallowed. “Fudge.”

She rolled her eyes. “Don’t you ever feed him?”

That was to John-- he took it well, only smirked a little as he helped himself to a brownie and then another and sipped from his hot chocolate. “Kitchen’s not open yet. Holiday hours.”

“It’s almost eight thirty, Marcone.” She reached past me and nabbed a sugar cookie, dunking it in her cocoa. “I’ve got nine and a half hours until I have to be back on shift. I’d be there now but they have rules about back-to-back sixteens.” Her smile was a little sour, and I remembered that for all she’d been worked to the bone by the bosses who were non too subtle about wanting her to quit, she'd also worked every holiday since I’d known her, by her own choice. But she plopped down in the recliner, her present in her lap, and said without too much bite: “I’m not going to my brother’s house-- family’s at his place this year-- until at least noon. Safer bet that the kids will have crashed for the afternoon by then. So come on, hop to it: let’s have some Christmas.”

“Yes MA’AM.” I saluted. So did John; he did it better.

“Bacon and eggs going to please the good Officer? Or do we get thrown in the bad host tank?”

“Depends. Got any toast?”

 

We did, and John and I tripped over each other in the kitchen, getting breakfast ready for the three of us, eating enough and drinking enough hot chocolate for the excitement of waking up on Christmas morning to calm down into the well-fed and warm-by-the-fire lull of Christmas day, and after John and I had put the couch back together, we all settled down and opened our presents.

I held up the Christmas ornament she’d bought us. “It’s a merman. With a firefighter hat.”

“It’s a sparkly orange merman,” John said helpfully. “Wearing leather suspenders and no shirt.”

“I got him in Boystown. Before you decided to play true confessions,” she said, pointing at me with half a piece of bacon.

“And how did you enjoy Gaymart, Officer?” John asked, leaning across me to get a better look at the merman’s entirely nonstandard issue uniform.

“You mean you were going to get me and my boyfriend a stripper merman tree ornament before I came out?” I said, and realized that I’d said it about the same moment that my mouth closed.

The sound of Mister licking out his Christmas salmon tin in the kitchen was the loudest thing in the apartment.

“...You goon, Harry,” Murphy said, peering at me, mostly exasperated but a little fond. “You giant, underfed goon. Merry Christmas, jerks.”

I stumbled up and over to our little tree and hung the ornament on one of the many spare branches, where it caught the candlelight and sparkled in all its metallic orange glory, and the high-pitched ringing in my ears had almost subsided by the time I sat back down and John rested his hand against my back.

Boyfriend.

Boyfriend.

My boyfriend.

I was going to need to find a chance to say it to someone else again, someone who wasn't John, or alone in my head, say it out loud when I could pay attention this time.

Murphy opened her gloves and scarf and helped me polish off a tin of shortbread while John mowed through an entire container of brownies on his own, and she watched us while we opened our presents from each other, giving me a hand in starting off the Hickory Farms collection John had bought me. So that's what had been in that bag. Eventually lunchtime rolled around, and Murph packed up and headed off to join up with her family, post-Santa swag but before moralizing over the stove (drinking optional), she said cheerfully, and John and I had an afternoon to spend any way we wanted to before it was time to get ready to go to the Carpenters’, to meet the newest member of the clan, and for the first Christmas family dinner for me in over a decade.

In more ways than one, really, and I tried not to get too nervous before it was even time to go. No sense in wasting all that apprehension before I found the perfect opportunity to shove my foot in my mouth in front of a full house.

The goofy ornament glittered on the tree, delightfully tacky compared to our other surprise gifts, and in its way as much of a talisman as the snowflake pendants or the bells. It meant Murph was looking out for us, and I’ll take her over the fae any day. She’d shaken off the hard edges of my memories, the sharp pieces of Winter clinging to my dreams, the promise of frostbite in my peripheral vision. I owed her the whole story, and soon. Someday soon, I was going to owe John one, too. Once upon a time, there was a guy whose godmother wanted to turn him into a dog.

“Harry. Hot stuff. I’m having a nap. Come join me,” John yelled from the bedroom.

“Coming.”

Later. I’d earned some later.

I went in, shucking my pants before I crawled into John’s arms-- when he sleeps in, he sleeps in, and he was already half dozing and decadent looking, sprawled out in our little bed-- and let myself be in now.