John wakes before the sun, and the penthouse smells of waffles and bacon. He’s out of bed, silently, in his t-shirt and sweatpants, shuffling over the thick carpet while his trick knee warms up, gun in one hand and Blackberry in the other, his thumb hovering over the button that will send an emergency call to Hendricks.
There’s whistling coming from the kitchen, “Jingle Bells” so out of tune it becomes “The Imperial March”, and he’s got the door flung open and his phone thrown back on the bed and the safety on and his gun in his pants pocket before his knee can even twinge because there’s only one person, only one god-damned pubescent fire-starting son of a bitch that could be, and he’s going to wring his stupid scrawny seven foot high neck.
It’s still somehow a shock to see Harry when he pads into the kitchen; the wizard’s back is to him. He’s wearing a black t-shirt that certainly has a picture or slogan across the front, and worn grey sweatpants, but his feet are pale and bare. He’s manhandling an old waffle maker, the kind that heats up on the stove and doesn’t need an outlet, and trying to flip the bacon in a frying pan at the same time. The grease spits and he hisses, says “Hells bells” through his teeth, and it almost takes John’s stomach out.
“I realize that your access to movie reruns is poor. But poltergeists generally try to inflict greater damage than making a slight mess in the kitchen,” John says, the jibe easy and polite and conveying none of the conflict that seeing Harry Dresden alive again has stirred up. He died. There was blood, too much of it, on the boat, and then he was simply gone-- until reports of his ghost, well suppressed, made it to Italy. Then, as suddenly, he was alive again. As if that that followed logically. As if that simply happened sometimes.
He has been known to be active as the Winter Knight for some months now, relatively low-key accounts trickling in, shockingly minor property damage all and all, but John has not until this very moment seen him breathing, shuffling, too-damn-tall, alive.
The look Harry turns on him is damnably level. Keep Calm and Merry On, his shirt cheerfully proclaims, words blocky over a snowflake that looks like a crown. “I’ll clean up when I’m done,” he says. “Do you want coffee or hot chocolate?”
“...Orange juice,” John says, just to be contrary while his ears start to pound and his neck goes cold and his face goes hot.
“I checked already; you only have cranberry. And a can of clamato juice. Which, ew.”
“I’m sorry. How silly of me. A giant dead man has appeared in my kitchen. I thought orange juice would simply follow.”
“I’m, uh. Not dead anymore. You need a full-on Ghostbusters to get spectral orange juice.” He flashes a wide-mouthed, awkward grin at John. It almost fells him.
“Of course,” he says, “cranberry juice is far more apropos when there’s a resurrectee in the kitchen. Do forgive me. My hosting duties for the post-departed must have completely slipped my mind.”
“It’s okay. I made waffles, so we’re observing the really important Christmas rituals. By the way. It’s two days to Christmas. There’s no eggnog in your fridge. Did you finish it or do you really want me to believe you didn’t buy it immediately after it went on sale after Thanksgiving?”
“...My nutritionist believes in seasonal eating, but not quite that way.” But now he remembers how he used to be so pleased when it appeared in the dairy case again, how buying it was the start of the season, how cloying-thick it was on his tongue, cheap and off-brand and wonderful.
“Right.” Harry picks up the waffle maker and forks a waffle out, opens the oven door and disappears it inside. “You forgot it was Christmas. I’ll get you some later. Blueberries or chocolate chips?”
And that, somehow, is too much, the final straw of inanity he is willing to take when there is someone who died, someone who should be dead and gone and certainly not in his kitchen making waffles standing there grinning with that stupid presumptuous idiot face at him.
“Mister Dresden. You have a minute to tell me what you want; then I call security.” He looks pointedly at the kitchen clock, moving back to stand by a hard-wired phone that should still-- hopefully-- be functional.
“I’ll get you some coffee,” Harry says. “You look like you need it. Jesus, John. Sit down already. You look exhausted.”
“Forty-five seconds.” John knows that he sounds like an extra on a bad prime-time drama, but there’s an inevitability to it, as he finds himself searching for something genuinely authoritative and finds only cliché and surprise and that strange pain in his gut that has been dogging him.
Harry notices that he’s off form and the worry in his eyes chafes. John is tired, to the bone, has been since before Italy and he hates Dresden seeing it. “...no, sit down. I’ll get that coffee.”
The bastard is pitying him. He takes a half-step forward, angry, off his game-- reaches for the phone. “Are you even listening to me, Dresden? Do you have lake water in your ears?”
And he’s not listening-- he’s up on his toes, stretching for the cupboard above the fridge that John has to stand on a chair to reach, exposing a strip of pale back and belly. “It was up here, right?” He fingers the door open, stuttery little movements catching at the bottom until it swings wide and he jumps up and comes down with John’s expensive, barely used french press. He peers at it dubiously. “This thing does make coffee, right? It’s not just a rich scumbag version of a tea kettle?”
“You don’t boil water in it, it’s made of glass, you idiot.”
“Well excuse me,” he says, like there’s nothing better to do in Winter than watch 90s sitcoms, then “shit,” and puts the press on the counter so he can flip the bacon and turn the heat down on that burner. “So fine, genius. Where’s your kettle?”
John pauses, peers up at the row of cupboards above Harry’s head-- it’s his penthouse, after all, and it’s not like he’s never used the kettle, why just last month, no, two months ago, he made a cup of that tea from--
“Right, you don’t need more sleep or anything.” Harry bends, exposing that strip of back again, and a little bit more, the hollow at the base of his spine, and pulls out a pot from one of the lower cupboards. “I’ll handle the water; you get the coffee.”
The minute has come and gone by now, a few times over, and John can’t work up the right kind of indignation to be public about this, to call security and have the wizard escorted out, and he could find some reason why it would be a bad move politically, throwing Mab’s Knight out on his bony ass would no doubt cause offence, but mostly it’s just too personal, the hurt and upset churning around inside him, too sore and close to bring out for others to see. So he goes to the freezer and pulls out the little brown bag of pre-ground.
He levels a bland, blank look at Dresden, dares him to comment-- but the wizard’s filling the pot at the sink, holding it between his oversized hands, and then there’s steam coming off the top and frost on the outside, spreading from between Harry’s fingers like on the windows in the morning after a cold winter’s night, and for a minute there, John had forgotten about magic, about the impossible absurd things this overgrown scarecrow can do when he wants to, and it’s a little hard to breathe.
“Great,” Dresden says, reaches over and plucks the coffee bag from his hands, opens it and peers inside, sniffs, and then goes for the press pot.
“Do you even know how to use one of those,” John starts, and Harry shrugs, tips the bag over the pot and starts to shake, and John sputters, snatches the bag back, and then grabs the press for good measure. “No stop let me you need to start with water is that boiling?” He eyes the pot, steaming away, and then Harry is giving him that stupid widemouthed grin again, and it’s easier to just make the coffee than fight him without it.
They work well together, or at least avoid collisions, Harry spooning out more waffle batter and dropping blueberries into it, closing the iron and moving back to the bacon, John measuring out the coffee grounds and carefully ladling in the hot water. Harry can’t find the paper towel for the bacon that’s done, just the softer side of crispy that John likes it, so they switch places and Harry pours the coffee while he takes over breakfast-- snags the potholder from Harry’s back pocket and frees the new waffle, adds it to the plate warming in the oven, and tells Harry two creams when he asks and doesn’t comment on the 3:1 sugar to coffee ratio going into the other cup. And then there’s a moment of calm, and Harry passes over his mug and he takes it, and takes a slow sip, and decks Harry across the chin.
Harry catches himself on the counter, staggering back and blinking, a hand up to his jaw.
“No longer incorporeal then,” John says, “in the interests of scientific inquiry, of course. You understand.” The edges of his voice are curdling, going a little manic; he can feel it catching in his throat like an early cold, fraying something he didn’t realize he was clinging to. “One must be sure.”
There’s a slow bloom of red darkening on Harry’s chin. It’s beautiful, somehow, and it shouldn’t be, for all that John’s wanted to punch him more times than he can remember, among other things, and then he realizes that it’s Harry who’s beautiful and shouldn’t be, as simple as that. There’s an effervescence, a softening, like someone’s smeared the lens with Vaseline; he looks youthful and peaceful and like something out of a dream. John’s gaze flicks to the waffle iron, sitting on its burner. Really iron, old fashioned and heavy. But Harry used the potholder; it would protect him, if it’s that he’s not himself at all.
It would be so easy. This wouldn’t be the first creature to ply on Dresden’s face; certainly not the first since the shooting. Sergeant Murphy had met her fair share of the impostors, as had the Carpenter family. They all had.
But none since May. None since the Winter Knight had entered the reports and rumour mill. None that could waltz so easily through Ms. Gard’s wards and his own equilibrium and wearing that goddamned t-shirt and thrice damned grin.
John’s knuckles start to throb; he unclenches his fist. He can feel the smile as it cracks across his face, a little too rictus-like for public consumption, his calm a patina, flaking away. Harry isn’t a dream; no more than he is a ghost; just a man, maddening, who can come back from the dead when no one else can. “Your timing, as in all things, is a marvel, Mister Dresden.” He spreads his hands, smooths out his expression. “Tell me, do you try to be the most inconvenient thing in my life on any given day, or is this merely another of your myriad talents?”
He holds up a finger, considering. “Or no, perhaps you conserve your efforts; guerrilla tactics can be quite effective, if properly applied. I presume this is why you’re here now; why you couldn’t have had the grace to spare me your haunting entirely, oh no. No resting in peace for either of us it seems; I get the special order: dead and alive and a pain in my fucking ass.” It tears a little coming out, harsher than it’s meant to, and it winds him, leaves him out of breath and panting angrily in his kitchen.
“Get out, Dresden. Fuck you. Get out.”
The wizard doesn’t say a word; he only reaches out and, disarmingly politely, takes John’s cup of coffee and puts it safely on the counter. Then he pulls John to him by the front of his shirt and drives a fist into his side. John crumples in his arms, clinging to his shoulders, and the angry energy bleeds out and something else comes in through their points of contact.
“See?” Harry says into his hair. “This is why I picked you. You owe me.”
“Owe you what?”
“Just,” Harry says vaguely, “owe me.” His hand splays over the bare skin of John’s arm and that strange transfer of energy is almost tangible. “Or at least you’re enough of a jerk that I don’t feel bad ruining your Christmas, or something.”
He wasn’t planning on having a Christmas to ruin, so he directs an unamused look-- more solid now-- at Harry. Explain, he commands with the micro-motions of brow and mouth.
“I’ve been dead.”
“No shit, really?”
“...mental breakdown later, John. I need to explain this.” Harry spreads his hands, thinking visibly, his whole face involved in the effort of putting together whatever it is he’s putting together.
"Winter. It's different. The-- shape of it and the way time works and some of the physics are really off. It's like-- putting a plant in artificial light, the spectrum is different, and-- wait, maybe I should start with-- you know people share energy, right? Even paying for a cappuccino is exchanging a little bit of yourself with someone else. Not much. But a little. If you're friends your energy gets all over each other, and when you fight as hard as we did--" Dresden stops, and sighs, and starts over, startlingly and suddenly coherent: "I need to get a read on the way my aura used to be. A baseline for what I feel like when I'm not the Knight of Winter. You have a lot of my energy on you. It was going to be awkward to crash anybody's Christmas, after the ghost thing, but you're the one I didn't feel bad about waking up."
"So you've come here to fight, and re-allocate the 'energy' we share between us." He knows that magic is real, that auras are real, but it still sounds like new-age nonsense and he can’t quite keep the aftertaste of derision from his tone.
"I came to make you waffles," Harry says seriously. "Sharing food is one of the quickest ways to shuffle some energy around. ...So is throwing punches, but I didn't have that planned, and it's not as fast."
"'One of the quickest'. What's the quickest?" John wonders.
"Well, there are some rituals, and then there's..." Harry clears his throat but-- surprisingly, considering what he says next-- does not go red. "Then there's intimate physical contact."
"Sex," John corrects his euphemism. That's why it's part of the mechanism that wards off the White Court, he recalls. Mutual protective influence.
"Even a hug," Harry corrects him back. "If you mean it. But yeah. Sex is a biggy."
"You should have brought flowers, then." John's mouth turns down, and he feels petty for the childish jab.
"Sex wouldn't work with us,” Harry says, almost conversational. What have they come to that Harry is less easily unbalanced than he is?
"Because we're men?"
Harry doesn't rise to the slight chill in his voice. "Because it doesn't work if you don't mean it."
'If you don't mean it.' What is the man, five years old? 'If you don't mean it'. As if sex in itself wouldn't be as competitive and engaged as any fight to the death, if Dresden were willing to take that step. As if his stomach isn't twisted into knots at Dresden's presence. As if he isn't fighting the panicky urge to hit Dresden again, before he can grab him and touch him and assure himself that Harry is back among the living, before he can show the idiot how much he 'means' it.
Instead he bulls past Dresden to pick up his coffee and take a too-big swallow, jamming him with a shoulder on the way past, only wondering afterwards if that too was an exchange of energy.
“So we’re going with ‘fighting’, then? Good to know I can always count on you, scumbag,” Harry says, stepping back into the kitchen to flip the waffle iron over on the stove. The sarcasm falls flat, and John realizes that he is not the only one looking for their new equilibrium. It helps.
By mutual agreement they ignore the large dining table, putting their plates of bacon and waffle on the high counter that separates kitchen from dining room, perching on stools to eat and drink their coffee. They don’t talk but John still imagines he can feel the energy passing between them, old memories and old fights at each other’s throats and at each other’s backs. As new-age hippie-dippy bullshit as that is.
Their arms brush when they reach for things, butter, syrup, their drinks. Harry snickers and swipes half a piece of John’s bacon off his plate, brushes it through some syrup, his mouth open and full, and he’s about as well-suited for company as the twelve year old he mugged for a sense of humour. A drop of syrup stays at the corner of his mouth. John frowns at it, and makes a subtle motion at the corner of his own mouth, which is cheerfully ignored.
“Syrup,” he says.
“Waff?” Harry asks, mouth full of waffle.
He waits until Harry swallows and then wipes it away. It isn’t a tender motion, mostly palm and looking quite a bit like a shove in the face.
He stares at Harry’s skin as his hand passes. He hadn’t been aware of the faint glimmer on Harry’s face, the subtle glow to his skin, but he sees when it fades, when the wizard’s skin loses its strange smoothness and shows pores and lines more clearly. Like brushing the Photoshop away from the model on a magazine cover, Harry becomes less distant and impenetrable and suddenly... human.
“Regaining your energy?” John asks.
‘Yeah.” Harry looks surprised. “You can tell?”
“It’s... visible.” Almost. In a way. It’s difficult to tell and perhaps it’s just the way that John is perceiving him that is changing. “How much do you need?”
“It’s-- whatever I can get.” Harry’s face wrinkles up at the expression on his face. “It’s not as bad as it sounds. Hey, I got you something.”
“A migraine in a pear tree.”
“I tried. I couldn’t train it to perch.”
“...ridiculous.” John pauses. “Everyone knows you use duct tape.”
“Do you know how duct tape is like the force?” Harry asks, and John rolls his eyes.
“Have you ever run into anyone who doesn’t?”
Harry actually pouts at him. His thin lower lip actually juts out. Ridiculous. It feels good and natural, though, even if it’s too early for the undercurrent of real antagonism and tension that usually punctuates their meetings.
...Their meetings also usually don’t involved badly wrapped boxes, but Harry gets up fishes around under the living room couch and pulls out one of the aforementioned. It’s wrapped in dollar-store wrapping paper, thin enough John can probably see through it if he tries, white reindeer on a red background, and finished with a gold dollar-store bow, the adhesive to which has all but given way already. John accepts it as he would an armed explosive device, or a live snake.
“In return. For the energy. The hospitality. Just evening out the scales,” Harry says, dismissing the gesture with all the subtlety and grace of a drunken headbutt.
John hefts the package lightly in his hands; there’s weight to it, solidity. He raps at the top and is rewarded with a hollow-sounding knocking.
Harry’s eyes are wide; he’s leaning forward a little on his stool, dragging his arm through the mess on his plate, eager. So John wipes the syrup away with a napkin, gets his knife from his plate, and carefully slices through the little pieces of tape.
“Come on!” Harry says, looking like the talking German Shepherd in that Youtube video Hendricks had snickered at for days. “We’re not saving the paper here!”
John gives him his sweetest smile and unfolds the corners one at a time.
Inside is a box, wooden, obviously handmade, sanded smoothed and varnished dark. The little latch is iron; so are the hinges. There are delicate carvings around the edges of the lid, and if they-- looking closely-- weren’t a stylized rendition of the Chicago skyline, he wouldn’t have believed Dresden would have had the patience to do it himself. The lid opens smoothly-- the inside is lined with soft pale fabric, greens and blues, and there’s a card nestled at the center.
“Merry Christmas, Scumbag,” John reads, and doesn’t even bother to arch his eyebrows.
“I made it myself!” Harry says, proud, ignoring the face John gives him. “I got the pattern from the Winter King and some friends helped me make the pieces, but I put it together, and picked the wood and the lining. It’s for putting things in.”
The best John can determine, the wizard must have built up an immunity to sarcasm after the first few decades, because his “Heavens, I’ve been doing it wrong for years,” rolls off without even leaving a mark.
“Things you need to be safe, I mean.” Harry shrugs, reaches out and brushes the side of the box. “I put a spell on it. It’ll last. I might refresh it every few years, but it won’t go with the sun or anything. What’s placed inside will be hidden.” His mouth curves again in that open, awkward, crooked grin. “Keep it secret; keep it safe!” His McKellen impression is predictably overdone. John’s not sure what to say.
“This is. Quite the gift,” he settles on, holding the box up to the light, watching it gleam down the polished sides. It’s more than that, he knows; it’s generous, excessive. The effort of the magic alone, to work the spell so deeply into the wood and enforce it so strongly, to turn the little box into, essentially, a refuge, a shelter. This is a gift meant for someone who means a lot more to Harry than he can afford to.
John touches the iron latch, the hinges, swallowing a bit of bitterness and an equal measure of warmth. “So you aren’t theirs, yet? Not entirely?”
“Never all the way. Take that on faith.” Dresden says it like it’s an in-joke, and John searches his face for the punchline. He finds it in the wry twist of Dresden’s mouth, unreadable but significant, and he reaches out again to touch it, leans in to breathe (hot, mortal, morning coffee-breath) on it. He expects Dresden to recoil, to be the one to lose this game of intimacy-chicken, but Harry fails to flinch and they are kissing, softly, the taste of syrup cloying between them.
He’s afraid that when the kiss breaks he’ll actually say it aloud, admit his fury that Harry left Chicago. Left him. That if he was going to die he had the gall to do it at anyone’s hands but John’s. He clamps his mouth shut and presses his face into Harry’s shoulder, closer than he’s ever been to the other man, claiming this space as his by right because he must know that it is real.
“We should go back to punching one another,” he says, and Harry grunts an agreement, but they stay in one another’s arms and John lifts his face up to find Harry’s mouth again.
It’s eight in the morning and Gard is looking bemused, waiting outside the penthouse’s door. She bristles with subtle weaponry-- bulges under her armpits, a certain pull around her pants ankles.
“He didn’t call at 7 a.m. for a briefing,” Hendricks says, and her face clears into grim understanding. She holds up a finger and pulls a small pouch out of a pocket.
He covers her with a pistol as she crouches, tapping into the wards and throwing the runes. “Ice,” she says, and he can hear the frown that he’s too busy watching the stairwells and air ducts to see. There’s a rattle as she throws them again. “A man of ice and fire. He is winter, and he is the torch.”
“Shit,” he says. “We go in assuming it’s the wizard? What’s the margin for error on the read?”
“It is too strong to be any other. He came with the Winter King’s blessing.”
He shoots her a quick glance, a question.
“In this season, the Winter King and his folk are welcome if they bring neither malice nor a sword.”
“Fairy gifts should be classified as WMDs.”
“Indeed. But the King is not as subtle as his Queen. Neither is her Knight.” They share a weak chuckle at that.
Hendricks rolls his head, trying to loosen his neck. Nerves are making him go tight, top to bottom. “All right. I’ll put the building security on standby, but the first attack is good manners? He might leave if we ask.” They’ve got an even shot, at least. Dresden talks to Hendricks like a recalcitrant child at the best of times, but Gard he respects.
Gard’s eyes look into the distance. “Agreed.”
They nod to each other, and slip inside. They take corners slowly, looking for anything out of place. The kitchen is the first evidence of the intrusion-- it’s a fucking mess. There’s a bowl with a layer of congealing batter in the bottom sitting on the counter, a plate of waffles, still warm to the touch, a pan with a few strips of bacon and a lot of cold bacon grease in it, a splattering of extra grease on the stove top where it popped and hissed while frying. The french press is out, a stew of grounds at the bottom, the coffee inside no doubt gone flat and bitter.
They could test it for poison, sedatives, but if there’s tranquilizers in the coffee, it’s the least of their problems. Dresden wouldn’t poison someone to death. It’s not in his arbitrary, childish moral code. Laxative in a milkshake is hilarious if the antagonist of the day deserves it; death by poisoning is cheating. The sitcom rules the wizard lives by, his wishful version of normality.
...Really, is it a shock he hooked up with the elves?
The living room looks disarrayed, but there’s no sign of a real struggle. No blood, furniture still mostly upright. Gard picks up the handset of the cord phone, and they can both hear the dial tone. She puts it back quietly, and Hendricks doesn’t know if that makes it better or worse, that John had every chance to put up a fight.
A nod to one another, and they open the door quietly and slide into the bedroom.
There’s a long silence. An interminable two or three seconds. Hendricks’ foot taps against something; a ratty tennis shoe, size sixteen. He kicks it over to join its neighbor by the closet door. They look at the bed for a while.
They slide right back out of the bedroom.
“It could have been worse. They were still dressed,” Gard says optimistically. “At least he is sleeping.”
“Not sure if that makes it better.” Not the sleeping thing. John always operates on that thin line between exhaustion and Hendricks having to drug him himself. If he sleeps in during the holidays Hendricks won’t have to switch him to decaf when he’s not looking.
No. The thing where he was wrapped in Dresden’s arms, his arms around that skinny waist, and the wizard drooling unconsciously into his hair. That’s what he has a problem with.
John’d reacted funny to Dresden from the start. Always too interested in him, falling into these weird, manipulative, co-dependent patterns with him. The month after Dresden’s death was the closest he’d come to falling apart since they’d lost Silver to the hexenwulven more than ten years ago. Hendricks... is not happy about this new thing.
Gard pats his arm. If she doesn’t share his misgivings, at least he knows she understands.
Hendricks calls in the code that will stand-down the penthouse security squad from high alert, Gard resets the wards, and then they steal the bacon and waffles and sneak away for a quiet holiday breakfast together. They’ll deal with it after New Year’s.