From the outside, Cory might have thought the house abandoned. A simple, two-story Colonial, it sat devoid of decoration or lights on the residential street. The reds, blues, and greens strung through the trees and along the eaves of the neighbors' houses reflected off the edges of its snow-covered lawn and danced uninvited through the ice that crinkled the bushes and trees. Only the straight-edged preciseness of the shoveled driveway and walk and a single lamp in one of the upstairs rooms gave away the presence of an occupant.
At the end of the block, a lone car drove past the intersection, its motor the only noise in the quiet night. Cory sunk back into the shadows between two houses just in case, his breath caught.
The bedroom light flicked off and a few seconds later another came on downstairs. Through the curtains, Cory caught glimpses of the occupant's silhouette as he moved to the living room, the kitchen, and back, each room occupied for only a few isolated minutes at a time.
Soon, the tip of his nose began to tingle and the ends of his fingers went numb. Though still early, the sun was long set, taking the temperature with it. Thick clouds filled the sky and the air tasted of more snow to come. Pressing his lips together in frustration, he pulled his hood tighter around his face.
Like it or not, he was going to have to move tonight.
Cory slipped into the waiting car and basked in the dry, hot air blowing from the heater. “It's not going to be easy,” he told his accomplice.
She glanced toward the house. In the faint green lighting from the dashboard, her expression gave little away. “Never is,” she answered. Her gloved hands rested on the top of the wheel. “Are you sure this is what you want to do? We can still change our minds.”
“You should know me better than that,” Cory retorted. “Besides, if you didn't think this was a good idea, you wouldn't be here. And because you're here, I know it's a great idea.”
She shook her head, fondly. Her long hair was bundled under a woolen hat and a bulky coat hid most of her tells, but Cory caught the twitch at the corner of her mouth that almost became a smile.
“Admit it,” he wheedled, “You had nothing better planned. I'll bet you were going to stay in. Maybe read a book. Go to bed early?”
“What's wrong with that?”
“Nothing if you want to be a stick-in-the-mud,” Cory answered.
The seat leather creaked as she shifted to face him. “A stick-in-the-mud?” She crossed her arms and glared at him, daring him to defend the accusation.
Cory grinned at how easy it was to rile her. “Predictable, then,” he answered with a wink. “You could be home reading a book, but Ceirdwyn-the-wise would never pass up an opportunity to share some of her boundless wisdom.”
This time, she didn't take the bait. She merely waited, unmoving while he took stock of what exactly the millennium between their ages meant.
The blasting heater filled the car with the scent of plastic and oil, and brought a bead of sweat out on Cory's lip even while the nerves in his earlobes protested their thawing. “I should get going,” he said, scrabbling for the door handle.
“Good idea,” she stated. “Before someone wonders what we're doing out here and calls the cops.”
As he escaped from the car, he thought he caught a note of irony in her voice.
Cory drew a sip from the cup of mulled wine and basked in the heat of the fire roaring in the fireplace. Even after all these years, he still marveled at the kind of wealth that allowed wood to be burned like this, especially so early in the season. Outside, the wind howled and moaned, rattling the trees and shaking the shutters and doors. While the thick tapestries along the walls kept out the worst of the cold, its chilly fingers still groped into the room and wrestled for control.
At a desk that he'd had brought in, Matthew scratched at a paper with his pen, his focus intent.
“Come on,” Cory chided. “Let the work be. It can wait. Our stomachs are full, the wine is good, and the roads are impassable. Let's enjoy the evening. Perhaps some music?”
Without lowering the pen, Matthew responded, “The work of the law doesn't rest. Especially over the holidays, as you well know. People have more time now to get into mischief, and more wine to help them along.”
From her couch, Ceirdwyn looked up from the book she'd been reading and studied her student. “The law may need constant vigilance, but I believe this is the last season where that will be your task. How long have we been here? Ten years? Twelve? This was the first time you've settled in one place since you died, and it's so easy to lose track of the years.” She closed the book with a sigh and set it aside. With a wistful air, she added, “This may be the last lesson I have to teach you.”
Rising, she smoothed down the folds of her dress. “It's time for you to start a new life.” Turning to Cory, she directed, “And you, too. Learn the lesson well because, God willing, you'll be enacting it many more times.”
Cory jerked up straight, his satiated bliss gone in an instant. “Do we have to leave now?” He tried to keep the panic from his tone, but couldn't. He liked this life, with its beds and stuffed quail and never-ending fires. The thought of leaving all that behind made his pulse pound.
“No. As you pointed out, the roads are impassable.” Ceirdwyn listened for a long moment to the wind. The first snow hadn't fallen yet, but this storm could soon change that. “Or, soon will be.”
With a flourish, Matthew finished his letter. While he waited for the ink to dry, he began preparing the wax for the seal. Candle flame twinkled off the signet ring on his finger and he paused to admire how the light played off the McCormick seal carved into the gold. “The winter will give us plenty of time to prepare. There's no reason we can't have the house packed--”
A wave of Ceirdwyn's hand cut him off. “No packing. When you move on, you have to make a clean break,” she said. “You cannot take anything.”
“Why?” Cory questioned, the vein in his temple throbbing at the increasing horror of Ceirdwyn's explanations.
“Because someone might recognize it and discover your real identity,” she answered. “Then it's worse than if you'd never left at all.”
Cory frowned into his cup, drew a few deep breaths through his nose to try to calm himself. “How are we supposed to live if we can take nothing valuable?”
“Valuables disappear all the time,” Ceirdwyn answered. She looked right at him, brows raised as if daring him to claim ignorance of that fact. Cory shrunk back in his seat, but didn't argue. Stories of quick-fingered servants, hard-drinking men looking to scape up a few extra coins, and thieves in the night figured heavily among everyone's knowledge. Cory'd been all of them at one point or another.
Ceirdwyn crossed to Matthew's desk and peered down over him like a doting mother while he folded his letters and sealed them, ready for the last messenger to take them before the snow came. No sooner was he done, than Ceirdwyn picked up the signet ring. “It's the things that hold sentimental value that give us away. This is what you must let go.” With both the mens' eyes on her, she pitched the ring into the fire. Matthew started after it, but Ceirdwyn held him back with a firm grip on his shoulder. “Let it go,” she said. “It's time.”
The shrill jangle of alarms tore through the house, their volume exaggerated against the quiet night. Cory lift his hands from the window sill and slowly brought them to rest on the back of his head. He had no fight here tonight, and no desire for anyone to think otherwise. Standing still, he waited.
Footsteps pounded across the hardwood floors. The light snapped on. “Turn around,” the homeowner ordered. Though he didn't shout, his voice carried over the alarm with an authority that brooked no disagreement.
Matthew stood in the office doorway, a sword in one hand and a gun in the other. Both lowered when he saw who stood before him. He was dressed in jeans and a red and blue flannel, work boots on his feet like he planned to go out, though Cory knew that he hadn't left the house in days. The three day stubble on his face gave away what the apparel choice did not. “Cory,” Matthew acknowledged. “Breaking and entering? I should arrest you.”
Though Matthew's voice still carried easily, Cory tilted his head like he couldn't hear. “What?”
The sword dropped a little lower. “I should--” Matthew started.
“Don't move.” Without taking his eyes off him, Matthew stepped into the hall, found the alarm box, and silenced the noise.
The sudden silence left Cory's ears ringing. Shaking his head, he listened carefully for the clunk of the gun being set down and the shrk of the sword being resheathed. No sooner did he hear them, then he asked, “Did you say something about arresting me?”
“It wouldn't be your first Christmas in jail,” Matthew answered simply, as if to preempt the one argument Cory might be able to use against him. Breaking and entering was, after all, a crime, and both of them were well aware of what that meant.
“That's true.” Cory pretended to contemplate the threat. Then, with a shrug, he dove for the window. “You'll have to catch me first,” he yelled over his shoulder. He'd chosen this window because it was tucked in the shadow of the house, hard to see from the street, and the wind had pushed the show up against in the house in a convenient break fall. Other windows might have been easier to break in, but this one was easier to escape from.
He hit the snow and rolled, coming up covered in globs of wet flakes, cleared the rest of the yard in a few leaps, and took off running. Salt crunched under his feet on the sidewalk; the sharp cold stung his eyes and inside of his noise.
The neighborhood Matthew had chosen to live in this time had few options for places to run to, so Cory aimed for the small park only a few blocks away. A water retention pond masqueraded as a lake for families to enjoy picnics around. In the summer, a fountain added a touch of decoration and kept the water circulating so it didn't gather algae. This time of year, the fountain was off and the lake was circled with orange gating to keep kids from trying to ice skate. No one was meant to go near the pond in the winter, so that's where Cory went, with Matthew hot on his heels.
“I don't know what you think you're doing,” Matthew called. “But now you're really in trouble.”
Cory glanced back, waved. Matthew also had clumps of snow sticking to him, like he'd dived out the window after Cory rather than wasting time on the front door. He hadn't even bothered to grab a jacket or gloves first. More importantly, he hadn't stopped to pick up his weapons.
Arriving at the park, he vaulted the metal gate that encircled it, slogged through the snow, and pushed through the prearranged cut in the orange safety netting. He paused, waiting to hear Matthew's huffing behind him, then stepped onto the ice. It gave beneath his feet and started to crack. With shuffling steps, he moved toward the fountain. White lights strung on the park's trees provided the only illumination in the winter night. It was enough to outline the big shapes, and enough to swallow the details in shadow.
“Don't come out here,” he called back, in case Matthew planned to chase him onto the ice. “It can't support both of us.”
Matthew stopped at the edge of the pond, drew back. “Are you planning to stand there until spring? You didn't think this one through too well, did you, Raines?”
Cory smiled. “Maybe I'm planning to dive in,” he answered. “Hypothermia's not the worst way to die.” Unconsciously, his fingers drifted to the juncture of his neck and jaw and traced where the hanging noose had strangled him. That had been the worst way to die, if only because he hadn't known then that the death would be temporary. “You can fish me out in the spring and then arrest me for B&E. I'm sure that'll go over well.”
Though he couldn't see them, Cory knew Matthew's eyes were narrowing, could easily picture the constipated expression he made when he was trying to solve a case. "What're you doing here, Cory?" Matthew asked.
"Maybe I just wanted to visit my teacher. It is Christmas, you know."
Matthew offered a low grunt of disbelief. Both of them knew that Cory wouldn't go through the trouble of tracking down a fellow Immortal for such an innocent reason. He would, however, go through the effort if he was looking to gloat. “You're the one who robbed the Vanden Heuval collection,” Matthew stated. "You stole the Pontormo sketch."
With a slight bow, Cory acknowledged his role in a crime that few others could have committed. He was impressed with how quickly Matthew had figured it out. Under his feet, the ice shifted.
The Vanden Heuval estate had been packed with antiques: real ones, not the boxes of Happy Meal toys and Bakelite phones that stuffed modern antique shops. Only one had been what Cory was after, though there'd been another that had caught his eye. “I gave it back,” Cory responded in his defense.
Matthew started to take a step forward, but stopped when he saw where it would land. “You sold it back,” he corrected. That part of the case hadn't been public knowledge; all the news reported was the sketch's safe return. No charges were pressed and everyone breathed a sigh of relief at the preservation of a piece of cultural history. The story was in and out of the public awareness in a matter of hours.
“For a fraction of what it was worth,” Cory replied, only a touch of bitterness seeping into his words. He had, after all, achieved what he'd wanted. “Anyone who can spend 5 million dollars on a drawing should have been making sure the food pantries were stocked. Especially this time of year. I just helped nudge--”
With a resounding crack, the ice gave way, and Cory fell into the frigid water.
Hard shakes rattled both their bodies on the slow trudge back to the house. Sodden, half-frozen clothes clung to them, grew stiffer and colder with each second. If not for Matthew's arm around Cory, and Cory's around Matthew, neither would have made it.
At the end of Matthew's driveway, they felt another Immortal.
Matthew reached for the sword that wasn't there, his eyes darting up to the bay window and the backlit shadow of a person on the other side. He hesitated. Neither fight nor flight were options with any possibility of success right now.
Through a jaw clenched so tight that Cory thought the muscles might snap, he hissed out, “'sss ok.” He tried to tug Matthew forward and only managed to keep them upright as a gust of wind blew a flurry of snow off the roof and into their faces.
The front door opened then and Ceirdwyn stepped into the frame of warmth. She had traded in her winter coat for a thick red sweatshirt across which rhinestone speckled reindeer pranced. On her head was perched a pair of bobbing antlers. She took one look at them and let out a peal of laughter that resounded across the yard.
Matthew's shaking abruptly ceased, and Cory felt a surge of smug satisfaction that almost made the whole swim worth it.
Without a word, Ceirdwyn turned and went back into the house, leaving the door open behind her. Cory took that as a hint and, powered by the promise of warmth within, forced his numbed legs to carry him there.
With dry clothes and a full stomach, Cory plopped himself into Matthew's armchair and kicked his socked feet onto the footrest. The natural gas fire that crackled in the fireplace heated his toes nicely.
“You put a lot of thought into this,” Matthew stated. He stood in the doorway from the kitchen and surveyed the living room. In the short time she'd had to work, Ceirdwyn had transformed the austere space with a red blanket, a small lighted Christmas tree, and a few strands of Holly. “Decorations, dinner. Whose idea was it?”
“Whose do you think?” Ceirdwyn answered, pushing past him to also go stand near the fireplace. In her hands, she cradled a Santa-mug from which steam drifted upward. “Only one person would home in on the breaking and entering as the important part of the Santa myth.”
“I didn't break anything,” Cory protested. “Besides, even I know that the presents are the important part.” Rolling his head toward Matthew, he continued, “Next time I spring a Christmas party on you unannounced, I expect presents all around."
Matthew parried Cory's hint with an unimpressed glare.
"But...since you didn't actually let me drown or freeze, I'll call us even for this year,” Cory conceded quickly. He nodded at Ceirdwyn.
Taking the cue, Ceirdwyn reached behind the strand of Holly on the mantle and pulled out a small, wrapped box, which she handed to Matthew.
He peeled back the paper, opened the velvety box within, and just stared at the contents. “Where did you get this from?” Matthew asked, the question aimed right at Cory like the first round of an interrogation.
Cory threw up his hands in defense. “Don't ask questions at Christmas?”
Leaning close to her student, Ceirdwyn whispered, “He bought it. He saw it in the Vanden Heuval collection and had me approach them. I don't think he wants you to know that, though.”
Matthew acknowledged the subterfuge with slight nod.
Feeling that his reputation was safe, Cory let himself finally relax into the soft cushions. “Now you have something to jog your memory,” he informed Matthew. He didn't even try to hide his amusement at getting to lecture his teacher. “Next time you move on, try to remember to send change-of-address cards. It'll save us all a lot of trouble planning the holidays.”
Ceirdwyn hid her laugh behind a long drink from her Santa mug.
For a second, Matthew's expression went blank. Then his shoulders loosened and his guard dropped. Reaching into the box, he pulled out the signet ring from so long ago. The gold glimmered as he slid it on his finger.