find_rightbrain: (Harry Dresden)
[personal profile] find_rightbrain
Title: The Ghost of Christmas Eve
Characters/Pairing: Rose Marshall and Harry Dresden, mention of Gary, Emma and Mister
Word Count: 4479
Rating: Worksafe
Summary: No one wants to pick up hitchhikers on Christmas Eve... except, of course, someone who just can't ignore a damsel in distress.
Notes: Written for [personal profile] ordinarygirl for a Yuletide treat. The timelines probably don't match up at all - post SHR-canon, somewhat flexible in TDF-canon, but presumably some time before Blood Rites. Luckily for me, Butcher doesn't believe in giving actual... dates...
Disclaimer: Sparrow Hill Road, Rose Marshall and the ghost roads belong to Seanan McGuire. The Dresden Files and Harry Dresden belong to Jim Butcher. Gary and Mister belong to their respective snarky narrators.

I’m sure winter isn’t actually colder than any other time of year — not for me. Without a coat to anchor us to the daylight, hitchers are always cold, even in the heat of midsummer. But it feels colder, trudging through the slush on the side of the road, one hand jammed into the pocket of my jeans, the other stuck out to one side, thumb in the air.

I can’t feel the wind, but that doesn’t mean I don’t imagine the way it would cut through my thin shirt and slide between my ribs like a knife. Somewhere in the back of my head, in the small part of me that still hasn’t accepted my death, I can’t help blaming that wind for the cold at the core of my being, like the cold isn't a simple fact of my existence.

And even if the cold’s no worse than usual, it sure lasts longer than usual, on a night like this. Christmas Eve, and all anyone wants to do is get home to their families, so not even looking sad and young and freezing is cutting it right now. I catch a couple drivers glaring my way as they pass, like hitchhiking in this weather is reason enough for suspicion — and maybe it is — but for the most part, they just ignore me, eyes locked on the road ahead like if they don’t acknowledge me, they won’t have to feel guilty.

I glare enough for both of us, muttering darkly under my breath I watch tail lights glide away into the night. All I want is a ride, a coat… I’d kill for a burger, but even that’s optional at this point. All I need is to borrow enough life to slide back into the twilight, where it’s just as cold but doesn’t cut as deep, somehow - and where I have my own damn ride. Sixty years after I died, this is the first Christmas I don’t have to spend alone… and yet here I am anyway.

You’d think people these days have never even heard of A Christmas Carol.

It actually startles me when a battered old Volkswagen Bug rolls to a stop beside me. The driver leans across the passenger seat and doesn’t even bother rolling down the window, just shoves open the door so he can talk to me. The door is red. The rest of the car is every color but red, but it glows like moonlight reflected off clean snow to my eyes. She's not pretty, but she's loved — she has a soul, and that's not something that can be said for many cars.

"Where’re you heading?"

"Gary," I blurt out, the first thing off the tip of my tongue, and don't bother elaborating or correcting myself. It's true enough, even if he'll think I mean a city in Indiana. Something flickers across his face, maybe rethinking offering me a ride, and I hurry to add, "But… I'll go as far as you can take me. If I can just warm up a little…"

I hunch my shoulders, wrapping my arms around my midsection now that I'm not sticking my thumb out anymore. I widen my eyes a little, and let the constant cold of death coax a useless shiver out of me. It doesn't take a lot for me to look small and pathetic, especially in the middle of a Chicago winter — if there's one upside to dying so young, that's it. It only takes a moment before he sighs, inclining his head to invite me into the car.

"Come on. Hell's bells, what d'you think you doing out here anyway? Experimenting with frostbite?"

I bite back a grin as I climb into the car. You can't really count on chivalry in the twenty-first century, but when you manage to find it, it always runs deep.

*


Pulling on a trenchcoat while seated in a car is awkward - though, I guess, no more so than struggling out of it had been for him. It's much too big for me, the sleeves falling far past my fingertips, but I snuggle into it gratefully as human heat spreads through my body once more.

My fingers and toes and face are all still freezing, and if the Beetle's heater is actually working, I can't feel it, but at least now when I shove my hands into my armpits, I actually have some body heat to borrow from myself. That's the deal, for someone like me: we're only as real as the coats we borrow, and the life clinging to those coats is ours until we take it off or the sun rises, whichever comes first. Other kinds of ghosts have other bargains they make with the twilight for their continued existence, and sometimes the less you actually know about those things, the happier you'll be — let's just say there are worse deals than a hitcher's, and leave it there.

I stare out the window, let my eyes unfocus until the headlights and tail lights seem almost seasonally appropriate instead of just depressing, and pretend I don't notice the worried glances he keeps casting my direction whenever he can risk taking his eyes off the road. He probably thinks I ran away from home or something, but if I can just keep my mouth shut long enough to let him really consider it, maybe he'll figure that no one runs away at this time of year, in this weather, this poorly dressed for it, without a good reason.

"I'm Harry, by the way," he says finally. I feel a little warmer, hearing that. I have a nephew with that name. Of course, he was born well after I died, but he's less crazy than certain other relatives, and he has that same chivalrous streak. Must be a Harry thing.

The smile I give him is brighter and more real than anything he'd get from the shy, scared girl I'm supposed to be right now. "My name's Rose."

*


The only sounds are those the car's making, and his teeth chattering faintly in the cold. I risk a glance over at him, but he's busy pretending he's fine even though the only real difference between the inside of the car and out, temperature-wise, is probably windchill. He must be freezing… but somehow I don't think I'm in any real danger of him asking for his coat back.

I can't help jumping a little anyway when he finally breaks the silence.

"So… you do know you're going to get killed if you don't freeze to death first, right?"

"I'll be okay."

It's all too easy for him to mistake that for teenage bravado. He's meant to. He can't know I've been hitchhiking for longer than he's been alive, and the worst the world could do to me already happened before I even left Buckley.

He mutters something under his breath that I don't quite catch, and his fingers tighten a little on the steering wheel as the car pulls to a stop at a red light. The Beetle's engine grumbles softly in half-hearted annoyance, echoing him - and once more for good measure as the red flicks to green and she lurches forward once more. I can pretty much guess what they're both saying. He thinks I'm crazy or stupid, and the car thinks both of us are for being out in this weather. I can't argue with either of them.

"So what's in Gary?"

I shake my head a little. What isn't really the right question here, but it's still not exactly a lie when I answer, "Just a friend."

"Any reason your friend can't wait just a little longer to see you?"

*


I let Harry talk me into spending the night on his couch. Not that I'm planning to stay all that long, but he'd feel bad setting me back on the cold shoulder of the road, and I'm vaguely hoping to get dinner out of it, at least.

The trenchcoat sweeps the ground like the train of a gown as I climb out of the car, pooling around my ankles, and it's only when Harry gets out of the car that I realize just how tall he actually is. I feel like a kid dressed in my dad's coat, and I have to hike up the sleeves past my elbows and pull the coat clear of the ground just so I can follow him down the stairs to his apartment without tripping over it.

Harry smirks at me a little as he pauses at the bottom of the stairs to open the door. I glare back, trying to retain some dignity standing here in a coat about twenty sizes too big for me, and that only gets a snort of amusement out of him, but he at least refrains from commenting.

The door swings open, and Harry steps into the dark room ahead of me. I hesitate before following him, something prickling at the back of my neck — and even I'm not sure what that feeling is. If I were still living, that would be another matter. There's still no guarantee he's not going to try to rape and murder me or anything, but once you're dead, you can afford that kind of risk. The only things that really scare me anymore are things out of the twilight and the midnight, and Bobby Cross, who's both all and none of the above… but this doesn't feel like any of that either.

The prickling resolves to an uneasy shiver down my spine, and then fades. I shake it off and step inside.

It's a far cry from the truck stops and diners I'm used to. This is no humming temple of the road, but it has a different sort of power to it — not the energy of thousands of lives passing through, but deeper, more personal. Candles flicker around the room and a fire crackles in a fireplace, the only sources of light in the room, and how Harry managed to light them all in the time I was hesitating outside the door, I have no idea. It's quiet here, and I realize after a moment it's the silence that comes with a complete lack of technology in the room: no faint buzz of lights, no rattle of a heater, no hum of computers…

This is not the apartment of a man in touch with the modern world. I'm more acquainted with modern conveniences, and I've been dead sixty years.

"The electricity here's… temperamental," Harry mutters by way of explanation, his back to me as he walked toward what looked like a vague approximation of a kitchen. "After a while, you just give up on it. You want a Coke or something?"

I barely hear the question. That prickling at the back of my neck has returned, a strange feeling of premonition… though of what, I have no idea. He's not a routewitch, of that much I'm sure. His car was loved, yes, but not the car of a routewitch, and this house is too lived-in for a person whose life belongs on the road. But I realize now — should have noticed before — that he sees me in a way those who aren't part of the twilight shouldn't. He looks at me without flinching. His eyes don't skitter off me the way they ought to, for a person safely grounded in daylight America. But we're off the road now, and the air only tastes faintly of smoke, not even a trace of ash or lilies, so he's not dying either, at least not in a way that would make him part of my world.

What are you? is what almost comes out of my mouth when I open it to answer. Instead, I manage a shrug and a soft, "Sure."

The can he hands me is lukewarm, but that's fine when my fingertips are still a little numb from the cold outside. I mutter a thank you, still glancing around the room uneasily, keeping him in the corner of my eye. Suddenly I'm not so sure I should be here after all. It's tempting to slip off his coat and just get out, but… I can probably afford to stay a little longer. Until I figure out what the hell is up here.

A cat the size of a bobcat saunters out from behind the couch, wandering over to slam himself against Harry's legs in greeting. It only turns to look at me when it hears me popping open my can of soda, and its yellow eyes widen slowly as they fix on me. Its fur starts to bristle all over, back arching and claws sliding out of its truly massive paws. I take a little half step back as it hisses at me, and start to make some excuse to Harry about having a dog at home, and maybe it smells it on me…

And then I realize the cat's not looking at me. It's looking through me. Harry's eyes are fixed somewhere over my head and behind me too, alarm in his eyes, his body language as tense as the cat's. There's not a single part of the twilight or the daylight where any of those things are a good sign.

I knew I should have left when I had the chance. Curiosity didn't kill the road ghost, but it sure gets me in more trouble than I ever needed, sometimes.

*


"Hey, Rose," Harry says slowly, holding out a hand toward me, his voice gentle like he's trying not to startle me — or whatever's behind me. "I need you to step over here real quick."

A different person — maybe one with a less… let's say unique sense of self-preservation — would probably listen to him. I stay exactly where I am, just turn around slowly. My borrowed heartbeat thunders in rising panic, some part of me half-expecting to see Bobby Cross standing there, and it's almost a relief when I recognize the white-clad form standing there: just a ghost of Christmas past. Generally scary as hell for the living, but basically harmless.

Calmly, I set my soda down on a nearby table, fold my arms over my chest and glare up into its face, trying to ignore how ridiculous I must look standing here in a borrowed trenchcoat that drags the ground. Not that ghosts of Christmas past really have faces to look into — they're shrouded all in white, their faces blurred and hidden under a cowl, so they could be anyone, really. I've played the part a time or two before myself, because let's face it, there's usually not a lot else to do on Christmas Eve when you're a ghost.

"What are you, new at this?" I snap at him. Or her. It. "You're not supposed to show up when there are other people around. Are you sure you're even at the right house?"

Dickens got one thing right: only jerks are supposed to get ghosts of Christmas past. You know, Scrooges. In other words, not the kind of people who generally give rides to shivering teenagers on the side of the road. Harry's been nothing but a good guy to me so far, and — all weirdness about Harry and his place aside — it seems a lot more likely that the ghost screwed up than that he secretly kicks puppies in his spare time.

The cat yowls behind me, though I'm not paying much attention to it at this point. "Rose…" Harry says, half a warning, though the other half of his tone is pure confusion. Staring down ghosts is definitely blowing my cover, but the ghost's already here — I'm pretty sure pretending normality is a lost cause at this point.

I arch my eyebrows at the ghost, waiting for an answer.

Naturally, I don't get one. It backhands me across the face instead, knocks me across the room, and lunges for Harry. I hit the wall, and then the floor, and for several seconds, it's all I can do to sit there, blinking in surprise. I can taste blood in my mouth, and the back of my head throbs with each heartbeat so it's hard to think past the fact that a goddamn ghost of Christmas past just threw me into a wall. So much for that basically harmless thing.

"I think I might have a concussion," I mutter to no one in particular — possibly to the cat, who's peering out at me warily from underneath a nearby chair.

I'm a fan of living and all, but sometimes, it really sucks. I'm always cold and hungry when I'm dead, but living means I get sore feet from walking, means I hurt and bleed and bite my tongue when thrown into walls and can get concussions. The upside is that I can deal with all those problems easily enough. My hands are halfway to my shoulders to shrug the coat off when a crash from across the room sets my head pounding again… and reminds me that there's more to worry about here than a little temporary pain that'll be gone by dawn no matter what happens.

Harry. He's backed into a corner in the kitchen, ghost between him and me, as well as between him and any way out that I can see. I set my hand against the wall and stagger to my feet just as the ghost lunges at him again, pale hands twisted into claws and reaching for his face. A dome of golden light appears between them before the ghost can reach Harry, and it rebounds off the shield with a scream of animal rage. Harry starts to shout something, but breaks off mid-word with a muttered curse.

The ghost pauses just out of arm's reach and straightens its hunched back slowly, seeming to grow as it does until its head almost brushes the ceiling, until its sweeping white robes nearly block Harry from my view entirely. He's holding it off for now, but I can't guess how much longer that'll last. I could still leave. I could shrug the coat off and be gone, and neither the ghost or Harry would notice until I'm long gone.

And maybe then I'll meet Harry at the Last Dance Diner on his way through the twilight, and have to explain to him what happened, and feel like a cowardly jerk for the rest of my presumably very long existence. The guy picked me up out of the freezing cold on Christmas Eve, and I'm standing here thinking about abandoning him to his fate. Damn it. Living sucks, being dead sucks more, and having a conscience sucks most of all.

I shove myself away from the wall and at the pair of them, slipping one arm out of the trenchcoat as I run and praying I don't trip over it or snag it on something or lose it completely before I make it to Harry. I just barely duck around the ghost, one of my feet sliding through its robes with a shock of cold like I just plunged it into Lake Michigan, and thankfully don't smack into one of those shields like the ghost did. I nearly tumble into Harry, but pull myself to a halt just in front of him and hold out a hand, palm up.

"I need you to trust me, okay?"

He meets my eyes, and his eyes widen a little when he does, like somehow I'm scarier than the very pissed-off ghost trying to rip his throat out. "What the hell are you?"

Not the answer I was hoping for. Not helpful. I notice something shifting out of the corner of my eye, and swing to face the ghost instinctively as it leaps for the both of us once again. Harry barely looks at it, just sweeps a hand up and snaps, "Forzare!" It goes flying across the room as easily as it had swatted me away before. And then Harry quirks an eyebrow at me, obviously still waiting for an explanation.

"Ghost," I answer, a little bit shaky after that display of force. I'm still holding my hand out to him, though. "You?"

He stares at me for a second longer, and then nods shortly. "Wizard," he says, and takes my hand. "I'm hoping trust comes with one hell of an explanation?"

"Later," I mutter. What I'm planning to do could very well kill him anyway, but it's probably a better way to go than being torn to pieces by an angry Christmas ghost that won't play by the rules. And if we're both very lucky, maybe being a wizard will keep him alive. Maybe.

The ghost of Christmas past recovers and swings back toward us, rising in my peripheral vision like a tidal wave about to crash down on both our heads.

I shrug the trenchcoat off my other shoulder. It pools around my feet as my straight red hair bounces into lemon-blonde curls, my jeans and shirt become my familiar green silk prom dress… and I pull myself and Harry down into the twilight, clinging tight to his hand as the layers of reality peel away before us. There's a flicker of a shadowy, older Chicago, gas lamps and wooden streets. A flash of bright sunlight and flowers. And then soft twilight closes around us, the smell of asphalt and a sky of smudged bluish gray.

I'm back down to my place in the twilight, my version of America, and Harry's still with me.

*


"I just got some feeling back in my fingers," I grumble as I slide into Gary's open driver's side door and pull the keys to the ignition out of my bra. Don't ask how they got there — I don't know either, when they were in the pocket of my jeans before, but it means it's literally impossible to lose them, so I'm not complaining.

With a bit of concentration, my prom dress turns into something a little more comfortable, T-shirt and torn jeans. I over to Harry, who's still eying the empty landscape and perpetual twilight and endless road a little uneasily.

"Hey. You want to get in so I can try and get you back where you belong?" To the daylight, at least. I can't make any promises about Chicago.

"You have a ghost car too?" he asks dubiously.

I grin, sliding my hands over the steering wheel. "Gary," I explain brightly. "He's my boyfriend."

Harry's mouth hangs open for a second, and then snaps abruptly shut. "I… literally don't know what to say to that."

Gary's engine growls a little without me turning the ignition or touching the gas, and Harry edges a half-step back.

"Sorry. Didn't mean anything by it, honestly."

I can't help a snicker as I start the car properly, sinking back against Gary's leather seat happily. It's not exactly like sliding into a lover's welcoming arms, but it's the closest I can get, and more than good enough for me. "Seriously, get in. Your Christmas ghost is only stuck up with the living until dawn, so it'd be really nice if we can get you out of here before then."

He eyes Gary with obvious suspicion, but opens the passenger door and slides in. "That was a Christmas ghost? There are Christmas ghosts?"

"Only at Christmastime." I shrug and hit the gas. "We have signups. It's supposed to be a stranger, but I guess someone could've slipped through the cracks. Have you pissed off any people who're dead now?"

He gives me a long, flat look… and then bursts out laughing. I decide to take that as a yes.

*


I'm sitting at the counter of the Last Dance in a borrowed sweatshirt, absently stirring a malted with my straw and watching as Harry talks to Emma. He's taking the whole twilight thing pretty well for someone who seemed so firmly anchored in the daylight… and Emma's taking the whole wizard thing pretty well herself. Of course, being a bean sidhe, she's a lot older than I am, and has seen more of the world in both twilight and daylight than I have — I'm going to have to corner her later and interrogate her about this.

I hop off my stool, abandoning my milkshake, to follow Harry as he starts for the door. I fall in at his side, and I don't even have to ask the question before he explains, "Your friend thinks I can get back on my own. Probably."

I blink a little in surprise that he even has a way of his own out of the twilight, but… then again, routewitches and ambulomancers manage it all the time. I guess there's no reason to believe a wizard couldn't. "Probably," I repeat, half to myself. My voice is louder, though, when I add, "If that probably turns into a definitely no, I'm really sorry. I thought…"

He shakes his head, cutting me off. "You were trying to help. And since most of my other options involved setting my apartment on fire, I think I like your solution a lot better."

His boots crunch on the gravel in the parking lot as he stops, startling me. I'd kind of half-expected him to keep walking, out onto the road and then… I'm not sure where I expected him to go from there, but it definitely involved some kind of movement. Instead, his eyes unfocus a little, and he reaches up like he's taking hold of the air itself between his fingertips, twists and pulls and murmurs, "Aparturum."

And just like that, the twilight tears, and morning light pours onto both of us through a hole in the world, just like… well, magic. I can see the shoulder of a freeway through the hole, cars and semitrucks rumbling by. It's cold, but not nearly as bitterly as Chicago had been, and there's snow on the ground, but not much, and melting fast from the looks of it. Curious, I lean forward to poke my head through, and from there, I can catch sight of a green road sign: 136 miles to Little Rock.

"Where am I?" Harry asks with a resigned sigh as I pull back and he steps through, leaving me in the twilight, him in the bright and very literal daylight. I can't help letting out a soft sigh of relief seeing him safely on the other side, knowing I haven't stranded him here in the twilight — but I manage to cover that relief after a second with cheerful schadenfreude.

"Arkansas," I answer, grinning wickedly up at him through the doorway even as he reaches up again to close it. "Hope you're good at hitchhiking."

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Aubrey

February 2011

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