"I'm going down to grab a newspaper," Nick called to Connor as the other man sat in the sunken living room of the apartment above the antique store. "You want anything from the deli?" As he spoke, he leaned over the railing of the walkway that separated the upper bedroom level from the lower living area. From here, he had a clear view of the half-round sofa on which the older immortal sat, as well as the eclectic mix of modern art and antiques that decorated the living room. Without looking, Nick knew that a home entertainment system occupied one wall of the living room, along with a good-sized aquarium filled with exotic tropical fish. He could see that Connor had pulled the walnut coffee table closer to the sofa to create a makeshift desk. The sight amused Nick; he knew that his teacher had a perfectly good desk in the guest room but preferred the light — and the view of the river — generated by the massive windows.
"No." The blunt refusal of Nick's offer came quickly. Connor never looked up from the laptop he was using as his student grabbed a black leather coat from the wrought iron coat rack at the top of the stairs leading into the living room. Connor knew that the younger man usually went to get a paper on Saturday afternoons, primarily to obtain the crossword puzzle and the movie listings.
Nick hit the button for the elevator, having completely ignored the two swords in the umbrella stand at the foot of the stairs. The highly polished metal doors of the elevator reflected a ruggedly handsome man wearing blue jeans, a thick cable-knit sweater, and black sneakers. As he waited for the elevator, he reached behind his back to adjust the gun holster underneath his sweater; it had shifted when he'd stood.
"Forget something?" Connor asked pointedly without looking, aware of the younger man's tendency to rely more on his gun than his sword. Before his death, Nick had been a police officer and had worked for a security firm on various covert projects. The habit of relying on a gun over a sword was something the older immortal was trying to break.
Chuckling, Nick doubled back to jog down the stairs and then reached for the wolf's head broadsword in the stand. "No," he answered as he tucked the sword in his coat and put on the coat. "Just seeing if Rachel was right about those eyes in the back of your head."
Connor shook his head, irked and amused at the same time. Hadn't the man learned yet that you didn't look to see if the sword had been picked up; metal lifting off metal made a distinctive noise, if you listened for it.
Less than ten minutes later, Connor heard the phone ring. He answered it, noting that it was the internal line connecting the antique store to his living quarters. "Yes?"
"Did you order a corpse for Christmas?" Nick asked grimly. "Because we got one on the back doorstep."
"Gift wrapped and addressed to me?" Even as Connor probed for information, a new immortal presence in the area flashed across Connor's senses. It was faint, not very strong, but it was close, and it flickered as if the immortal was trying to stay just out of the average sensing range. Warily, the Highlander rose to his feet.
"You expecting one?" Nick demanded suspiciously. "You said you'd tell me if you were expecting trouble."
"Aye, I did." Connor kept his tone calm only because he knew Nick's mistrust of immortals ran deep. "And I'm as surprised as you are."
Nick took a deep breath. Connor could almost see the way his student needed to remind himself that Connor had yet to lie to him about anything, especially something of this magnitude. Even after six months of living and training with Connor, Nick sometimes reacted as though Connor would leave him as much in the dark as Amanda had. Given what Connor knew about Nick's experiences, he couldn't say that he blamed Nick for believing that another immortal would be more apt to lie or conceal the truth from him in any given circumstance. While that belief was in some ways a blessing — Connor didn't have to teach any lessons about trusting others blindly — it made some things harder, such as building the kind of trust necessary between a teacher and his student.
"At least," Nick continued after a pause, "there isn't a note with the body. Guy's been mugged and stabbed; his wallet's gone, but he's wearing a high school ring with the name of Craig engraved in it. The snow's covering up his tracks, but from what I can tell, I'd say he stumbled his way here and died trying to get help. Oh, and Connor?" Nick's voice went hard. "If he wasn't one before, Craig's one of us now."
Connor didn't waste any more time talking, but quickly made his way downstairs.
"You're crazy," Craig Halverson stated angrily as he stood nearly toe-to-toe in front of an impassive Connor. The pair stood in the living room in front of the sofa, an arm's length away from where Nick lounged, his face betraying only slightly more of his feelings than Connor's did, and that wasn't saying much.
Connor stared at the newcomer. Craig was three inches shorter than Connor's five feet eleven inches; though he had a broader build than either Connor or Nick. Dark brown hair was streaked with blond at the top, closely cropped along the sides, and styled with hair gel. A small silver hoop earring pierced Craig's left ear. He had an oval face with a square jaw, an unremarkable nose, and deep-set brown eyes. The gold-and-teal color-blocked denim long-sleeved shirt he wore contrasted perfectly with his dark blue jeans and hiker-style boots. He looked every inch the fashionable twenty-five year old customer assistance manager that he was — except for the blood staining his shirt.
"Are we?" Connor challenged softly.
"Connor, he's only been immortal an hour. Give him a break; this is a lot of information to swallow." Nick paused. "God knows I didn't believe it when I found out about immortals, and I had time to get used to being around them before I died." He turned to Craig. "I wouldn't blame you if you walked out that door right now and never looked back, but you're not going to have the same life you thought you did. It's too late for that."
Craig looked at Nick, then at Connor. For a moment, he appeared as though he wanted to argue the point further. Then he sank into the supple leather of the half-circle sofa and closed his eyes. "I was just going to get a Christmas present for my sister. She loves stuff from this one little shop up the street." He shook his head sadly. "Never had any trouble before, you know? Anyway, I work out, figured I could handle anything. Never figured I'd get mugged and stabbed in broad daylight and no one would come help me, especially in the middle of Manhattan. This is supposed to be one of the safer places in the city."
"Your sister. Is she expecting you sometime today?" Nick asked. He dismissed Craig's claim on working out. For a man Nick guessed to be five foot eight inches tall with a large frame, Craig had to weigh a good thirty pounds under what he should. Nick suspected the working out was more of a once-a-week-at-a-gym kind of thing, nothing that would help the guy with self-defense. Cynically, the former police officer thought it was entirely too typical that Craig had been mugged.
Craig shook his head. "No, but she'll probably be worrying about me anyway. We've always been able to tell when something's happened to one of us." Seeing the question on the other men's faces, Craig explained, "Risa is my twin sister."
Nick glanced at Connor, not fully understanding why the older man stiffened at the announcement that Craig had a twin. Given what Nick knew about immortality, though, he didn't think having a twin sister was something to celebrate. What did Connor know about twin siblings that he hadn't yet told Nick? "If I were you, Craig," Nick said slowly, his eyes still on his teacher, "I'd think very carefully about what I'd tell Risa."
"I've never hidden anything from her," Craig replied, confused. "You make it sound like I shouldn't tell her about — about immortals. About what happened to me this morning." He looked at Nick, sensing that he'd get a better explanation out of him than Connor would give him.
"Do you think she'll believe you? You're having trouble believing it yourself." Connor's voice held cynical amusement.
Craig started to reply, then stopped, caught by the logic in that statement. "So what do I do now?"
Connor shrugged. "Whatever you like."
"You're just going to let him walk out the door?" Nick queried, surprised. "Tell him the rules and that he's in the Game and that's it?"
"He's in the city," Connor answered simply.
"There's more?" Craig asked suspiciously. He had a feeling that anything they told him was going to be bad. Any enthusiasm he'd felt about surviving the mugging had long since faded in the light of the news they'd given him. "It's not just 'oh, you'll live forever but there can only be one and no fighting on holy ground?' It's already something out of a really, really crappy movie. What more is there?"
"Plenty," Nick answered. "I didn't think I needed a sword. Almost lost my head before I realized how smart it would be to have one, and someone to teach me how to use it." Then a thought occurred to him. "There aren't any other immortals in New York City besides us, are there, Connor?"
Connor laughed shortly. "Not unless they come headhunting." No more words were necessary; Nick knew that his teacher had the ability to sense immortals at a greater distance than most.
"Why is that important? I mean, no other immortals, that's gotta be good, right?" Craig glanced at the two men. "And why aren't there?"
His questions were ignored. "What about Mac?" Nick persisted. "You said you got him to take the last one. I forgot you usually don't take on students."
A shadow of pain crossed the older immortal's face, and then he took a deep breath. "No, I don't." Turning to Craig, he said, "Don't go just yet." Then he walked out of the room.
"Is he always this way?" Craig wondered. "He acts like he knows everything."
Nick laughed. "No, sometimes he's worse. Trust me, he doesn't know everything, but he's been alive long enough to be right more often than not." Under his breath, Nick added, "Much as I hate it when he is." He took a seat beside Craig and clarified, "Connor was born in Scotland in 1518."
Craig absorbed this silently. Nick could almost see the calculation going through the younger man's head. "Is that old for an immortal?"
The ex-cop shrugged. "Not necessarily. You could live a lot longer. Supposedly, there's a five thousand-year-old immortal still alive, but I don't know if that's true, given the person I heard it from is someone who has a difficult time trying to tell the truth." Bitterness crept into his tone, and he swallowed it. "She's over a thousand years old, though."
"She? A thousand? What does she look like?"
Nick closed his eyes briefly as the memories of Amanda washed through him.
After an awkward pause, Craig said sincerely, "Sorry, man. She's dead, isn't she?"
Nick laughed shortly and opened his eyes. "No. No, she's dancing right on through the locked doorways of life and taking whatever the hell she likes." He exhaled heavily. "Not that I haven't wanted her dead more than once."
"I wanted to love her," Nick acknowledged roughly. "And she shot me." He hardened his tone. "Amanda's a thief. Has been all her life, just like Connor's always been the Highlander."
"How'd you meet?"
"I was a cop. She was just another day on the job, or so I thought." Nick's mouth twisted in remembrance. "Next thing I knew, I had a dead partner, a thief who wasn't dead when she should've been, a case of corruption, another dead cop, and a captain who wanted me to sweep everything under the rug in return for a promotion. I said no, quit the force, and started working for an old friend of mine in his security firm. After that, it seemed like no matter where I went or what I did, Amanda was involved somehow. The last case I took involved an immortal who knew how to mix poisons. He didn't take too kindly to my interfering, and gassed me. I nearly died of it; probably would have if Amanda hadn't shot me."
"Like dead forever?" Craig asked.
Even though he'd expected the question, Nick still hated knowing the answer, courtesy of Connor. "No. I still would've been immortal." He chuckled cynically. "Amanda forgot that little detail."
"You said you knew about immortals before you died. She told you?"
"Yes. She wanted to protect me." Nick stood and paced restlessly. "I don't know if it helped. When I didn't know, I didn't even consider the possibility that people could live forever. When I knew about immortals, it was the first thing I thought of when I encountered anyone suspicious. Working in security like I was, it happened a lot." Nick wasn't usually this forthcoming about his past with someone he'd only met that morning, much less someone who was immortal. However, he didn't believe that immortality was a field of pink posies, and felt that the only way to illustrate it clearly was to tell Craig what his experience had been. Given that Connor had walked out of the room, Nick didn't think the older immortal was going to contribute anything to the conversation.
"How long did you know about immortals before you..." Craig couldn't quite say the word. He took a deep breath and forced himself to say it. After all, he'd gone through the same thing, right? "Died."
"Almost a year." Nick sat down again, this time on the end of the sofa almost parallel to Craig. "There were days I cursed Amanda for being immortal, and not just because she was long lived. There were days when I thought I was lucky that I didn't have every old friend and lover I ever had come crawling out of the woodwork, and then having to take their heads when who they were now was something I couldn't let live. Then there were days when I wondered what it would have been like to have lived as long as she has, to go from the days of the Black Plague to now." Nick was quiet a moment, clearly remembering the past. "My first reaction when I revived from getting shot was that she hadn't given me a gift at all, but a curse. I wanted to love her forever."
"Let me get this straight," Craig said slowly. "You were a cop. This chick, Amanda — I assume she's some kind of hot babe, or you wouldn't have stopped to think about her beyond the job, right?"
"She didn't look like any thief I'd ever met, no."
"Okay, so you fell for her, and she had a couple of big secrets. Except those weren't the Jerry Springer kind, they were worse. She was going to live forever, and you were cool with that."
Nick half-shrugged. "It wasn't as though I had much choice. Most days, she seemed to take it for granted. like needing a pair of glasses, or being a kid and living in a war zone." He gestured as he tried to find the words. "But it was her life. It wasn't really mine. I mean, living forever seemed like this big dream at first, but I saw how much it made her a target — I didn't want to spend the rest of my life in some fucked-up immortal shooting gallery. I'd had enough of it being a cop."
Craig was quiet while he thought about Nick's words. "What happened?" he finally asked.
"Would you stick around if someone you were falling in love with shot you?" Nick returned dryly.
"No, of course not," Craig said automatically, and then the words registered. "Oh," he said sheepishly. "So if you don't want to be immortal, why don't you just stop being one?"
Gently, Nick pointed out, "There's only one way to stop being immortal, Craig, and that's when your head is cut off." He exhaled heavily, resigned to his fate. "I've never been a quitter, and I've never been interested in committing suicide."
"Oh." Craig blinked as the logic of that settled in his mind. He wasn't sure how he felt about this whole immortality thing yet, but from what he'd heard so far, it wasn't sounding like anything he could decline. Maybe later, Craig thought, he could ask where the bright side in being immortal was (other than the obvious) — and maybe he could ask someone who wasn't nursing a broken heart over it.
Instinctively, Craig sensed that what Nick hadn't said was both painful and private. Though he wanted to respect that, there were pieces to Nick's story that didn't make any sense to Craig. Feeling unsure of what he could ask without being too nosy, he decided to risk one question. "How'd you meet Connor?"
"Amanda sent him to me. Told him to deliver a sword to me."
"She got him to agree to something like that? He doesn't seem like the kind of guy who'd let anyone make him do something he doesn't want. I mean, he acts like the less he has to say or do, the better."
Nick chuckled. "You haven't met Amanda. Her ability to charm people is one of the main reasons why she's still alive." He sighed. "To make a long story short, Connor's my teacher. I guess the way it's supposed to work is that whoever finds you after your first death and tells you about immortality is supposed to teach you, but that's the ideal world version."
"So you're just going to do what with me?" Craig asked as Nick stiffened.
"Give you a choice," Connor said, reappearing in a way that startled Craig.
"Whoa, man, that's not cool, sneaking up on people like that."
Nick glanced at Connor, worried at Craig's remark. "I felt you leave and come back in, Connor. Didn't you, Craig?"
"Oh, you mean that head rush? That's the Bat Signal? That's the way I can tell another immortal's coming?"
Both of the older immortals breathed sighs of relief at that question; neither wanted to contemplate an immortal who couldn't sense another immortal coming. "Yes," Nick answered as Connor nodded.
"Oh. I thought it was just the weather changing or something like that. When I was younger, I used to get these killer migraines when the weather changed and that's what I thought it was." Craig paused, feeling the weight of their gazes upon him. "You said I had choices. What kind of choices? I mean, I kinda get the impression that I can do nothing, go home, and hope I never have to fight anyone, and everything will be okay."
"That would be one choice," Nick agreed. "Speaking from experience, though, it's a great way to have a shorter life. Though if you don't leave the city, you'd probably be okay; very few immortals come this way."
"You said that before, about how few immortals come here. I don't get it."
"I like my privacy," Connor answered in a tone that said exactly how he obtained it.
Nick shot him a look, opened his mouth to try and make the Highlander back down from his menacing tone, then closed it when Connor merely stared at him, one eyebrow quirked in silent query. Nick didn't quite understand why Connor was trying to intimidate Craig, but he could see the value in not letting out any more information about Connor than Craig needed to know.
Craig swallowed hard. "Okay. Got it. No telling anyone where you live. So, what else is there? Walking away and doing nothing isn't something you're recommending."
"You could live on holy ground."
"You mean like a monk or something?" Craig burst out incredulously. "Nobody does that anymore."
As if Craig's reaction was entirely expected, Connor continued smoothly, "Or you could study with a friend of mine."
Nick looked up at that, but decided against questioning his teacher's judgment. Though he didn't think Connor would take Craig on as a student, not when he had Nick already, he didn't know of any immortal Connor called friend beyond the one he called kinsman. Friends weren't something Connor often spoke of, though Nick figured he had them. Maybe this friend was someone who owed Connor a favor? He'd ask later, when it wouldn't seem like he was questioning Connor's judgment.
Craig, however, had no qualms. "Why couldn't you teach me what I need to know?"
"I already have a student," Connor answered. "Matthew's a good man. He's with the FBI. He'll be up to meet you Monday; he can't be here any sooner than that."
"Do you want me to accompany you home?" Nick offered, taking the cue.
Craig stared at the two men. Both could easily see the emotions crossing his face: confusion, fear, and a kind of wary acceptance. "As long as you don't mind paying for the subway ride. I seem to be missing a wallet."
Connor's short laugh resounded before Nick replied, "I figured that would be the case."
Going to New York a week before Christmas had not been in Matthew McCormick's plans. He'd managed to wrangle (through some careful maneuvering on his part, aided by the wrap-up of a particularly nasty case) some vacation time at the holidays, an unheard-of occurrence for anyone in law enforcement, even a top FBI agent. He'd been looking forward to just catching up on all the things he didn't have time to do. Connor's call had changed that.
Favors seemed to have a genuine gift for coming due at the worst damn times, Matthew thought as the cab pulled up to Nash's Antiques. He'd waved off the offer to be met at the train station, preferring the anonymity of arriving without an escort. Matthew's mouth twisted in a sardonic smile as he remembered just what kind of favor he owed Connor.
"Damned Yankee pirate," he muttered under his breath as he paid the driver and grabbed his duffel bag containing his sword and a few changes of clothes. Matthew knew, even as he cursed, that he owed Connor his life. If Connor's ship hadn't picked him up as a prisoner of war, he would've had to swim back to shore...and drowned a few times in the process. No matter how much Matthew tried to argue that being made a POW erased the debt, Connor had been adamant, and had even pointed out that he had arranged for an escape once they'd gotten to port. That left Matthew dangling on a point of honor, and he'd been born in an age of chivalry, when honor meant more than life. Even now, though time and experience had shown him that honor was sometimes a complicated thing to have, Matthew still believed in upholding it.
The store's door opened easily, jangling the bell. For a moment, Matthew was swept into the past as a unique scent rose to greet him: old wood, worn leather, and cleaning polish mingled with the intangible sense that here was something that knew about age. It was only for a moment, though: the immortal presence that throbbed at his senses was strong, demanding a response from him. He took a deep breath and searched for the source of the presence.
The appearance of a petite, fifty-something woman with graying blonde hair interrupted his search, however. "May I help you?" she asked in a pleasant voice.
He smiled. "I'm Matthew McCormick. I believe I'm expected?" He deliberately deepened his Southern drawl, aware of its effect on women, and not above using charm to get what he wanted.
Before she could reply, Connor appeared. "Rachel, it's all right," he assured her. "Matthew's an old friend."
The woman relaxed somewhat at Connor's assurance, and then stepped out of the way. Matthew stared at the Highlander a moment before extending a hand. Memories flashed through his mind, of other favors exchanged, other debts paid and returned — he hated being the one in debt this time. "Been a long time."
That hand was warily accepted and shaken firmly. "Not long enough by your standards, I'd wager," Connor guessed, one eyebrow raised with an amusement he didn't allow into his voice. Even as Matthew narrowed his gaze at the all-too-accurate statement, Connor turned slightly and gestured towards the back room of the store. "Craig's in the office."
Matthew smiled, recognizing the self-preservation in the invitation. He said nothing, though, as Connor led the way to the office. He'd known Connor long enough to know that he wasn't a fool or a man for small talk. Nor was he surprised to find two immortals he had never met before waiting in the room. ?The one on Matthew's immediate right was a tall, dark brown haired, athletically built man in his early thirties. Dressed in a denim long-sleeved shirt and jeans, he still had the stamp of someone who'd been a police officer, right down to the faintly challenging way he met Matthew's gaze and wordlessly asked, "You're an FBI agent?" Matthew hid a smile and turned his attention to the other man on his far right.
This one was younger, less hardened by life, and clearly uncomfortable as he slouched against the far wall and tried to look inconspicuous. He reminded Matthew of one of the mail clerks he'd seen around the office, right down to the purple long-sleeved shirt that the young man wore over tan khakis. The only difference between the mail clerk and the young man who stood before Matthew was the fact that the mail clerk had the weight to go along with the tank-like build. Someone had been starving this one.
"Matthew, this is Nick Wolfe, my student," Connor announced, indicating the oldest of the pair. "And next to him is Craig Halverson, your new student. Nick, Craig, meet Matthew McCormick."
Nick's handshake was firm, no less than what Matthew expected. Craig's was more uncertain, as if formality was something he wasn't too sure of and hadn't had a lot of practice with. Slouching uncomfortably, hands in the pockets of his khakis, he only muttered a hello, but did manage to meet Matthew's gaze.
"Good morning to you both," Matthew greeted. Peripherally, he was aware of Nick's reaction to his accent, but Matthew cared less about what Nick thought of him and more about what Craig thought, and, just as importantly, how he reacted.
Craig, for his part, seemed as startled as Nick was, and immediately shot a look at Nick for reassurance, a look that was instantly dropped when he realized Nick's attention was elsewhere. Nick glanced at Connor. Matthew could almost read the silent exchange that silenced Nick's questions even before he could begin to speak them. Reluctantly, Nick said, "We'll leave you two to get acquainted."
"We'll talk more later, I'm certain," Matthew acknowledged as the men left the room. Once the door had shut behind them, Matthew turned to Craig. "I'm not what you were expecting, I take it."
With a snort, Craig answered, "Like Mr. Closed-Mouth and Mr. Ex-Cop had a lot to say about you? I'd get more information from a public phone book in the Bronx." He shrugged, clearly resigned. "They said you're taking me to D.C. That's not really the South."
"No, it's not," Matthew replied. "I haven't always lived there. I've lived in a lot of different places over the years." He chuckled. "There was a time when having an English accent was a liability." He paused, studied the younger man. "Yes, I'm taking you home with me. I can't stay here in New York; my life is in D.C., and it would be easier for me to train you if you were living with me. If there's anything you're leaving behind here, now's the time to speak up."
Craig thought a moment. "My job, my apartment, my sister...." he started.
"What do you do?"
"I handle customer complaints for the phone company," Craig answered, his voice wry with self-mocking humor. "I like my job, but getting my ear chewed off for something I didn't do or can't help with isn't something I want to do for the rest of my life. Couldn't afford college, so I didn't have a lot of options when I got out of high school." He brightened. "I earn good money now, though, and finally got a nice place this year." Frowning, he continued, "I'm supposed to sign a new lease in a few days."
"And your sister? Are you close?"
Craig met Matthew's eyes then. "Risa is my twin," he stated in a voice that said he'd die to protect her. "Why? Does that matter?"
Matthew chose not to answer directly. In his seven hundred years, he'd heard of a few immortal siblings, but he couldn't remember of any that were fraternal twins. "Have you talked to Risa since you died?"
Craig nodded. "I called her yesterday. She was pretty worried about me because she felt something happen. I told her that I got mugged, but I didn't tell her about dying."
"Felt something happen?"
Gesturing, Craig clarified, "She and I have this bond. I don't know how to explain it. I know when something happens to her, and she knows when something happens to me. It's not —" He struggled for the words. "It's not like we're psychic or anything, but it's just there. I know, she knows."
Nodding his understanding, Matthew then asked, "Did you tell her you were moving?"
"She thinks I got this brand new job out of state." Craig paused. "That wasn't my idea. I wanted to tell her what happened, but..." His voice trailed off and he looked at the older immortal, who gave him an understanding smile in return. "I hate lying to her, but like Nick pointed out to me yesterday, she'd worry if I didn't, since we're close and I usually see her every week. I promised her I'd say goodbye, though."
"Then we will." Matthew smiled. "From what Connor told me, you weren't reported dead, so you have a bit more time than some others in your shoes. You'll see Risa again, I'm sure."
As Matthew soon discovered, Craig's entire life fit into exactly three boxes, an oversized gym bag, and a milk crate. A call to the Salvation Army took care of his old couch, dinette and mattress, so his belongings consisted of his clothes, twenty CDs, a small boom box stereo, an answering machine, and a few videotapes. With Connor's help, Matthew arranged the shipment of most of it, leaving Craig with a single carry-on bag, and then Matthew sweet-talked the super for Craig's building into releasing Craig's deposit early. A visit to Craig's employer dealt with his employment status. Matthew then arranged for a late evening train back for the both of them. By the time they were through, it was almost four o'clock in the afternoon.
At Matthew's suggestion, Craig called his sister to meet them for dinner. As Risa wasn't there yet, the two men waited for her in the lobby of the restaurant, which was decorated in a mix of collectibles and nostalgia.
"You don't waste much time, do you?" Craig commented. He sounded tired from the day's events.
Matthew looked up from his perusal of the black-and-white photographs that lined the lobby walls. "Not usually." He glanced at the younger man, in time to catch Craig's apparent fascination with a passing waitress. "However, I do believe there are some things worth slowing down for."
Craig chuckled, noticing the innuendo in the older man's tone. "I can handle that." His smile widened as a slender woman walked in the door. She wore a black leather jacket, unzipped to reveal a red tank top. The top was cut low, emphasizing a small, well-supported bust. She'd completed the outfit with vinyl-look black leather pants and knee-high black boots with spike heels. Her shoulder-length dark brown hair was frosted with a streak of blond that framed her oval face. She'd tucked one part of her hair behind her triple-pierced right ear. Sopping wet, Matthew guessed she'd weigh in about a hundred and twenty pounds - slightly underweight for her build, just like her brother.
"Risa!" Craig exclaimed before he hugged her.
"Hi, Bro," she greeted, returning the embrace.
Matthew took the brief moment to reassess Risa. He hadn't felt the faint whisper of immortality that bespoke of pre-immortal status, though he silently acknowledged his accuracy at that wasn't as good as he felt it should be. Still, he doubted that she was pre-immortal. Risa was a fraternal twin; though Matthew was no expert, he did remember reading something recently about a serial killer who was one half of a twin pair, and who was found to share only 25% of his DNA in common with his twin. That fact had stuck out in Matthew's mind, and now, seeing Risa and Craig together, sent a host of questions through his brain. Silently, he promised himself that a call to his teacher, Ceirdwyn, was in order.
Risa turned to him then. "You must be Mr. McCormick. Craig didn't tell me you were so handsome," she gushed.
"Thank you, Miss Risa, you look lovely yourself," he returned formally. "I cannot, however, take credit for something God has done."
The siblings exchanged a look between them. Matthew had seen that kind of look before; it was the "oh-no-he's-religious" look. Some part of him wasn't surprised; religion wasn't the highlight of modern life. That look, however, told him more about Craig, and revealed something he hadn't known a moment ago. Smoothly, he added, "But I digress. Shall we be seated? And please, call me Matthew."
Risa flashed him a quick smile. In a smooth motion that struck Matthew as being oddly protective, Craig stepped in front of Risa to lead the way to the hostess, who seated them in a booth decorated in an Elvis theme. Risa took the seat next to Craig, which meant the twins sat across from Matthew, with Craig on the outside so that he could have enough elbowroom since he was left-handed.
The older immortal's eyes narrowed as he realized Craig was a southpaw. Being one gave Craig a minor advantage to start with, but it also presented Matthew with a challenge, since Matthew was naturally right-handed. While Matthew had taught left-handed students before, it had been at least a century, and the last few immortals he'd faced had all been right-handed.
Oh well, Matthew decided. That's what I get for owing an unspecified favor; payment invariably is as complicated as the circumstances that resulted in the favor being granted. Besides, I haven't sparred against a left-hander lately; this should prove to be an interesting experience and good practice for me.
"It's so cool that you came to pick up Craig," Risa exclaimed after the hostess took their drink orders. "I never heard of any boss doing that." Her voice and facial expression held an unmistakable innocence, the kind that spoke of a sheltered existence.
Matthew shrugged easily, having anticipated the question. "You work for some faceless corporation where you're just another warm body, you're not family to them. Craig is going to be my personal assistant. I work as an FBI agent now, but my family has been in the South a long time and we have some properties here and there that need some personal attention."
"No more Verizon, huh, Bro?" Risa teased Craig, referring to the firm who'd employed him. "Man, I wish I was going somewhere."
Their server arrived with their drink orders at that moment. There was a short pause while the orders were placed; from the way Risa and Craig rattled off theirs, Matthew could tell they came here often. It didn't escape Matthew's notice that Craig ordered a salad in opposition to his sister's hamburger; if that were typical of what Craig ate, it would explain why he seemed to be underweight for his build. Once the server had left, Matthew picked up the conversational thread again. "What would you like to do, Risa?"
She shrugged. "I like running a register and talking with people. I work at a pool hall. Do you play pool? I'm pretty good, but Craig always beats me. I've been at Six Pockets since I was sixteen. Pays good, the boss is okay, even if he's always trying to get in my pants, and I don't know. I don't take tests well, and everyone's testing for something these days."
"She's slow," Craig explained, putting a protective arm around her. "Dad dropped her when we were kids and she hit her head." He caught Matthew's horrified look. "No, no, I'm joking. It was an accident," Craig hastened to assure him. "We were playing on a trampoline and she just came down wrong. Messed up stuff in her brain, though."
"We were eight years old," Risa informed Matthew. "I had to have surgery, and they shaved my head. When it grew back, it was two different colors." She smiled and ran a hand through her hair, pulling a section of blonde hair in front of her face and propping her elbow up on the table to study her hair, clearly fascinated. "People were so envious because I didn't have to color it or anything."
Easily, Craig reached over and disentangled her hand from her hair, then pushed her elbow off the table. "Cool, huh?" he said, smiling, but Matthew read faint embarrassment in his eyes.
"I suspect your parents didn't feel the same way," Matthew observed.
The siblings chuckled. "No," they said in unison.
Risa continued, "They freaked worse over that than when Craig told them he was giving up on women."
"Yeah, it was like they were expecting that," Craig said, rolling his eyes. "I was serious!"
"For as long as it took you to get over Mary Ann," Risa clarified. "Everybody said I was dumb, but Mary Ann was dumber. Nobody believed you were actually kissing that football jock anyway. They thought you guys were just paying on a bet."
"Were you?" Not that it mattered in the end, but his student's sexual preferences were something Matthew needed to know. If nothing else, he'd know whether to give the "sexual orientation is a continuum" speech.
"Maybe," Craig hedged.
"'Maybe,' my ass," Risa shot back. "You got fifty bucks. I should know. You never paid back the twenty-five you borrowed from me in case you lost and had to pay - who was that kid who was always daring people to do stuff for money?"
"Anthony Scholosky. He was poorer than dirt, but everybody liked him. Easiest fifty bucks I ever won, even if I did get suspended for the rest of the day." Craig grinned. "Hell of a kiss, though."
The server brought over their orders then, and Matthew wasn't able to pursue that last conversational thread. He let it slide, preferring to use the opportunity to go into Craig's background and get a better feel for who he was.
"So where are your parents now?" Matthew asked.
"Oh," Risa said, and started to put her thumb in her mouth. Craig quickly caught the action, and someone less observant than Matthew would've missed it. Ducking her head slightly so that her face was partly hidden by her hair, she said, "The drunk guy's car ate them, and then we had to go find a new home."
Craig kept one hand in Risa's as he clarified, "They died a week after we graduated high school. We lost the house; insurance didn't cover much beyond the funeral and what Mom and Dad owed."
"I'm sorry to hear that," Matthew said sincerely.
"We managed," Craig allowed, and gripped Risa's hand in a gesture that struck Matthew as being more comforting for Risa than for Craig. "Risa and I had a place together, but now —"
"Now I got a roommate," Risa finished, brightening. "Tiffany's my best friend, and she's been my friend since we were nine, and we go shopping together. We don't let Craig come with us because he likes clothes too much."
Having seen that most of Craig's belongings were his clothes, Matthew wasn't too surprised at Risa's teasing. That quibbling lasted through the end of dinner.
Though he could see that the twins could talk forever, a quick glance at his watch told Matthew that they'd better get going to the train station. He said as much to Craig and Risa, who reluctantly ended their friendly squabbling. Matthew paid the bill for dinner over Risa's objections that it was her brother's last night in town and that it should be her turn.
"I guess this is goodbye," Risa told Craig a few minutes later as the trio stood beside a cab. "Call me when you get there, okay?"
"I will," Craig promised her, then hugged her. "Be careful taking the subway home," he admonished her as he got into the cab.
She smiled at him. "You be careful." She turned to Matthew, who'd hung back a little to let the twins have their moment together. "Take care of him for me, would you? He's a pain in the butt sometimes, but he's my twin brother, and he's all I got."
"I'll do my best," Matthew promised her as he took a seat beside Craig. Smiling her gratitude, Risa shut the door behind him and then stepped back.
Craig didn't remember much of the trip after that. Though he admitted that he'd never ridden Amtrak before as they seated themselves, he was exhausted enough that the ride was a blur. He did remember that Matthew had been forced to stow the long black case he carried in one of the overhead storage bins; until then, Craig hadn't realized Matthew had been carrying a sword. Beyond that, the rest of the trip barely registered until they arrived at Matthew's three-bedroom, two-story country estate on the outskirts of Washington, D.C. Rather fuzzily, Craig recalled being told that there were three bathrooms in the house, two upstairs and one downstairs, and that he would be sleeping in the guestroom upstairs. Upon waking the next day, it took Craig several moments to remember where he was and how he got there.
A glance around the room located his carry-on bag, parked by the closet. Craig didn't know much about furniture, but he recognized old stuff when he saw it, and the four-poster he'd slept in wasn't something that one could purchase on a rent-to-own plan. The mattress and box springs felt new, though, and Craig was nosy enough to check under the bedding to make sure. The ubiquitous "do not remove under penalty of law" tag was still attached to the mattress, and Craig nodded once to himself, satisfied. As for the other furniture in the room, they matched the four-poster. The entire room reminded him of a movie he'd seen about the Civil War.
Wonder if Matthew's had it since then? Craig thought. He hasn't told me yet how old he is or where he was from originally. He's gotta be old, though. All the teachers at school were. Makes sense if the immortals who teach others are old, too.
Not that I know if that matters or not, he reminded himself as he gathered a change of clothes so that he could take a shower. Connor wasn't exactly happy to have me, and I got the impression that Nick wasn't either. Matthew's all right, but he can't be doing this just to be nice. He needs me like he needs a hole in the head. The whole bit about needing a personal assistant was just so Risa wouldn't think anything about me leaving with someone I don't know. I'm not even sure why he's even taking me on as a student except that Connor asked him. I don't even know what being a student of an immortal means, but I guess I'll find out soon enough. All I know is that I don't want to kill anyone.
I don't want to die, though. I don't want Risa finding out, either. She's not smart enough to handle it.
Resignedly, Craig went to take a shower. When he was finished, he followed the sound of a TV to the living room downstairs. He froze for a minute as the rush of presence flooded his head, clouding his vision, and he breathed deeply to clear it. For a moment, Nick's words about not feeling presence rushed back to him, and Craig laughed sourly, wondering just how much he'd been out of it that morning to have missed it. A few cautious steps forward, and Craig found Matthew seated on a sofa, watching CNN and drinking coffee.
"Good morning, Craig. Take deep breaths; the feeling will pass in a moment."
Craig did as Matthew suggested and found that while the intensity of the pain diminished, the sensation only eased into a dull throb — just enough pressure to make him aware that he wasn't the only immortal in the room. It wasn't the worst headache he'd ever had, but it did make his eyes water slightly. He blinked, and then walked into the living room to sit in the side chair next to the sofa as Matthew turned off the TV.
"Just so you know, I don't think I'm ever going to get used to that," Craig told Matthew as Matthew offered him coffee from a silver coffee service that rested on the table in front of the sofa. Craig refused the offer with a wave of his hand.
Matthew smiled and set the coffeepot down. "Good. That way, you don't take it for granted." He paused, and then looked at his new student. "First order of business today is breakfast."
Craig stared at him. "You're kidding."
"Something wrong with breakfast? You don't like it?"
"No, I just thought you'd be all gung-ho about the sword thing. Connor and Nick made it sound like it was urgent that I had a teacher, like it was the end of the world if I didn't."
"You couldn't stay in New York City," Matthew responded flatly. "It's not a place for a new immortal to be; there are too many who would love to see Connor MacLeod dead, and he would feel obligated to make sure you're safe. He can't do that and see to his own student's protection."
"Oh." Sensing that coffee probably wouldn't be a bad idea after all, Craig reached for the coffeepot and poured himself a cup. The silver coffeepot was heavier than he expected, though, and it wobbled dangerously before he was able to grasp it firmly and pour a cup.
"We'll need to work on your upper arm strength," Matthew observed mildly. "But that can wait until later today."
Craig breathed a sigh of relief; he had a feeling his concept of a workout and Matthew's were entirely different things. Then he took a sip of coffee. The first taste of it poured over his tongue like nothing he'd ever had. It was a world away from the coffee he used to get in the machines at Verizon. In fact, it was worse. He swallowed painfully and put down his cup. "So what do you plan on doing with me?" he asked, hoping that he could engage Matthew in conversation and forget about the coffee.
Matthew smiled. "Since you don't like my coffee," he began, "I suppose I could get started. That is, if you're awake."
"I'm awake." Craig made a face. "You make coffee that demands you wake up and stay there. That's about the only good thing about it."
Matthew chuckled. "Good, then it didn't go to waste," he stated briskly. "Now, about breakfast."
Craig shrugged. "I don't eat it."
"Why not? It's a good way to fuel the body for the rest of the day. Or did you not earn enough for more than a salad a day?"
Feeling as though he'd been caught with his hand in the cookie jar, Craig hunched his shoulders forward slightly. "Rent was the cheapest I could find it without it being in the projects. Mom and Dad always were telling us that we were better than that, even if we were poor because Dad was laid off a lot. Then I had to get a subway pass so I could get around, and I had to make sure that I checked on Risa because she's so brainless she'd forget to take care of herself, and I'm always cold and I like clothes, so I figured I'd go with the healthier stuff. Get a salad, go running when I got hungry, and I wasn't screwing up completely 'cause I was eating right and exercising, you know?"
"You cheat yourself when you don't fuel your body as you should," the older immortal replied.
"You sound pretty sure about that," Craig muttered, abruptly getting to his feet and walking a few steps away.
Matthew shook his head and said quietly, "I fought in winter campaigns. Without double rations, seasoned troops slowed to half their usual speed because it took until noon or longer for them to warm up. Food can substitute for warmer clothes, Craig, and if it has to, for sleep. Starting today, however, you will learn how to eat properly, and how to cook. You're going to need all the strength you can call on when you're in a fight, and there's no reason to be undernourished."
Turning, Craig argued, "But—"
Matthew stared at the younger man. "Craig, the manner of your training is not up for debate. This is not a democracy. Do you want to live?"
"Well, yeah, sure, but I don't get the whole immortal Game thing," Craig retorted, gesturing. "You'll have to excuse me if the first two immortals I've met haven't exactly painted rosy pictures of what I should expect."
"What did they tell you?" Matthew asked, concerned.
Surprised by the tone, Craig answered, "About immortality or about you? Connor said only that you were friends, and that you were an FBI agent. He wasn't exactly Mr. Chatty. I guess he didn't tell Nick much either, 'cause it seemed like from the moment I —" he took a deep breath, fighting the memory that flashed through his head every time he thought of it, and sat down? "— woke up from being dead, Nick just took charge of me, keeping me company and basically trying to keep me from freaking out, I guess. He answered most of my questions about immortality, but I got the impression he would've rather died than be immortal, like he didn't really see any good thing about being able to live forever."
"Did he say why?"
Craig shrugged. "Something about this thief chick, Amanda I think her name was, shooting him, and how he had the hots for her, but didn't think they should be together because in the end there can only be one." He shrugged again. "Amanda apparently told him about immortals before he died but left out the part where he was going to be one, and he spent the next few months running into a few of her old friends. He said that most of those old friends got their heads chopped off, and there were a few that Amanda would've probably left alone if he hadn't gotten mixed up in it."
"I've arrested Amanda a few times over the years," Matthew remarked carefully. "She's not known for being a headhunter, or for caring much about consequences. I'm not surprised Nick feels betrayed by her; she's a thief, and thieves are not known for being honorable, or reliable." His voice and gestures had increased as he'd spoken the last words. Realizing how passionate he'd become, Matthew paused. "Forgive me. Where Amanda is concerned, I have my own score to settle with her; she's managed to escape my custody a few times. As for having to take the heads of old friends, it isn't always like that, Craig."
"Then what? You haven't been Mr. Forthcoming yourself."
"My deepest apologies," Matthew said sincerely. "My name isn't Matthew McCormick; it's Matthew of Salisbury, but since no one uses that wording anymore, I chose McCormick to be my last name. With a few exceptions here and there, I've been Matthew McCormick since I arrived in the Americas. I was born in 1222 in Salisbury, England." He let that information sink in before continuing, "I was a knight, representing my lord, in a tourney in the year of our Lord 1255, when I lost a joust." Matthew's eyes darkened at the memory and his face tightened, even as the Southern accent he'd long ago adopted took on a slightly English pitch. "If my horse had not faltered, I would have avoided the thrust my opponent made. I was fortunate that my lord's court that day included an old friend of the family, the Lady Ceirdwyn, else I would have had a difficult time explaining my miraculous recovery-if I was not burned as a witch."
Craig gaped at him. "You. Were. An actual knight? I thought that was just stuff they made up for video games and movies."
"Sworn to protect my lord's honor, his lands, his castle, and his family." The old oath rolled off Matthew's tongue easily, and he chuckled softly, partly at himself, partly at the disbelief on his student's face. "I was raised to believe that ladies were never warriors, that I should be the one protecting them, not the other way around. Ceirdwyn changed my mind; she was my teacher, and she never let me forget that women aren't the weaker sex. Fairer sometimes, but not weaker."
Craig continued to stare at him as Matthew's words sunk in. Then he began to chuckle. "You had a woman for your first teacher?" He looked at his teacher, amused wonder in his eyes. "Oh man, that must've been a hell of an adjustment for a knight."
"Probably not as much as the one you're making," Matthew said briskly, leaning forward intently. "I was trained to fight; I came from a family of knights. I knew I would die in battle someday. You, on the other hand, grew up believing that fighting was something someone else did, and that war would probably be somewhere else and you'd watch it on TV." The old immortal gentled his voice, seeing the comprehension dawn in Craig's expression. "The Game can happen anywhere, anytime. The trade off for playing the Game, surviving it, is the chance to see things you never dreamed would be possible become reality."
"Like what?" Craig asked, the laughter gone from his voice. Silently, Matthew congratulated Craig for his ability to take life seriously, at least, when it came to what was important.
"When I was born, traveling to the next town wasn't something you did on a regular basis; even if you had a fast horse, you'd still only be traveling thirty miles a day in good weather. You stayed in the place you were born, pledged allegiance to the lord owning the land where you were born, worked for that lord, and went to church. If you were especially lucky, you would be blessed by God and your lord, and your hard work in the fields or in service to your lord would be rewarded. Think about everything that's happened in just the last few years of your life, and then think about seeing all of that multiplied across more than one lifetime."
As Matthew had suspected Craig would, Craig sat in silence for several minutes, thinking over what he'd been told. Then he stood and paced a short distance, biting his bottom lip as he concentrated. Finally, he turned and faced Matthew.
"Why are you doing this? I mean, you don't get any money out of it, and I know there's supposed to be only one of us in the end, so why do it at all?"
"I could tell you I owed Connor a favor," Matthew began, "but that would imply I'm teaching you out of obligation to someone else, that it was the only reason I'm doing this. It's not." Matthew shook his head, underscoring his words. "I teach new immortals because there is no one else I can pass on my life's knowledge to, no children, no blood heirs, no apprentices lining up at my door. This is one tradition I carry with me, and it never stops being needed, never stops being useful, never becomes a part of yesterday. It's important to me. If one of my students ends up taking the Prize, so be it."
"You've had to kill people," Craig stated, his voice turning the statement into almost an accusation. "People you knew, people you loved, people you once called friend. Nick kept talking about that."
"Yes," Matthew admitted with a measure of regret in his tone. "People change, and not always for the better. I wish I could say that Nick was wrong on that score, but I won't lie to you. The Game is not for everyone, and the price for staying alive to see a life beyond your mortal years is high." He looked at Craig. "However, I'm in no hurry to see the end of the Game. Most immortals aren't. I do believe that there are some laws that shouldn't be broken, that it is our responsibility to ensure that the ones who would cause harm to the general public should be dealt with."
"That whole 'mankind will suffer an eternal darkness if an evil immortal wins the Prize' thing?" Craig asked, remembering what Nick had told him.
"Yes. And mortals can't always deal with an immortal criminal, for any number of reasons."
Craig mulled this over and crossed his arms. "But if I'm good enough, I might live to be as old as you, or at least as old as Connor. If I'm too good, though, people will come looking for me. That's why Connor couldn't take me." He looked at Matthew anxiously. "But it's okay to have immortal friends, right? I mean, you're teaching me, and I don't have to take your head?"
"There is no 'have to', Craig," Matthew informed him. "Not unless you're challenged, and even then, you don't have to accept the challenge. I would hope that you don't use what you learn against me. There is no honor in betrayal."
"No, I couldn't do that," Craig responded quickly. "I mean, I'm not even sure if I could take someone's head — that sounds really, really gross — but I know there's stuff I'd kill for." He chuckled softly. "Used to say that all the time, that I'd kill for a new Hilfiger shirt, or a new CD, but I never really meant it. Nick was asking me the other day if I wanted to kill the idiot who killed my parents."
"Son of a bitch walked away with just a couple of scratches," Craig spat. "Hell, yeah, I'd love to, especially since he got only a few years in jail. But I know it's not gonna bring my parents back. I mean, I've always known that they weren't my birth parents, but they were as real to me as anyone else's." The grief he rarely showed in front of Risa rose to thicken his throat, and he swallowed. "I thought they'd live forever. Can immortals have kids?"
"No, I'm sorry, we can't. No one knows where we come from or why immortality is only given to a few."
Craig shrugged. "I wasn't interested in having 'em anyway. I wouldn't want them to be like me." He grinned abruptly. "Risa and I used to get into so much trouble. She's like a little kid sometimes, but I know it's 'cause she got messed up when we were kids. I was always bailing her out of something, and then getting in trouble because I hadn't watched her close enough to keep her out of trouble." He paused. "I can call her anytime and make sure she's okay, right?"
"Of course." Matthew smiled. "Was there anything else you'd like to ask?"
"We got until you say I'm ready, right?" Craig asked. Matthew nodded. "Then I guess not. I mean, I can ask you anything, anytime, right?"
"Then I guess I'm ready for whatever you want to do with me." He paused and studied the tray that sat on the coffee table. "You aren't really serious about me eating more, are you? Because I gotta tell you, I don't know if I can do it. I mean, I'll have to buy new clothes, and I don't have any money."
Matthew chuckled. "Did you think I was joking when I offered you a job?"
"You're really going to pay me?"
"While you're under my protection, I am honor bound to see to your needs," Matthew told him. "Above that, you will need some means of providing for yourself that does not attract attention should you need to leave abruptly. You said yourself that you didn't want to be a customer service representative all of your life; I'm in need of someone to check on a few properties I own to see if they're being managed properly. You have a sharp mind, and you're not as shallow as you appear to be."
Craig smiled and ducked his head, uncomfortable with the compliment. "This is important," he said. "I gotta deal, and deal right now, same way I had to deal with Mom and Dad dying. Risa didn't handle that well, so I had to be strong for both of us."
From the way Matthew smiled and nodded, Craig got the impression he'd passed some sort of test. He soon learned that was the first of many.
The first week passed quickly. Matthew was a patient, meticulous, quietly demanding teacher, while Craig was a willing if not always eager student. Matthew's house contained a ballroom on the lower floor, which he used as an exercise room; here, Craig began to develop the skills he needed to survive the Game. At the end of the week, Craig's meager belongings arrived, along with several boxes addressed to Matthew.
Standing in the living room, Craig surveyed the pile of boxes they'd picked up from the post office box Matthew rented and remarked, "You know, it's a good thing I'm gaining some muscles. This stuff is heavier than I remember."
"Not all of it is yours," Matthew replied as he began to open the boxes using a pocketknife he'd pulled out of his pants pocket. "Connor had some things in his shop that I wanted." A quick slice of the knife across four boxes confirmed what Matthew wanted to know. "Why don't you take these boxes I just opened up to your room and come back when you've finished unpacking?"
"No problem," Craig replied, stacking two. He started to reach for the third, but Matthew's hand on the box stopped him.
"You're going up stairs. You need to see where you're going," Matthew reprimanded, mildly but firmly.
"Oh, yeah," Craig agreed sheepishly. "That would help."
Twenty minutes later, after retrieving the last two boxes of his possessions, his unpacking finished, Craig returned to find the remaining two boxes gone, their contents as much a mystery as when they'd arrived. Matthew appeared relaxed as he read the paper, but Craig knew him well enough now to know that his arrival hadn't gone unnoticed.
The moment Craig stepped into the living room, Matthew folded the paper and set it down on the coffee table. As Craig walked into the room, he could see that Matthew had put the paper beside a long black case similar to what Craig remembered him carrying through the train station.
"You got a new sword?" Craig asked as he took a seat beside his teacher.
Matthew nodded. "Why don't you open the case and take a look?"
Leaning forward, Craig found that the case was secured with three clasp locks, and that opening it would be easier if he knelt in front of the table. Going to his knees, he unlocked the case and then opened it. Cradled within the velvet was a sword that didn't look all that different from the broadsword Craig knew Matthew carried; the length was about the same, but the hilt was steel rather than brass, and the whole sword looked heavier. "Nice looking sword," Craig commented, moving back to his seat without touching it.
Matthew stood, picked up the sword, and moved to where Craig sat. Alarmed, Craig rose to his feet and started to back up. The chair impeded his progress. By sheer force of will, Craig managed not to stumble into the seat, though he bobbled.
"What are you going to do with that?" Craig managed to say, swallowing hard, since the edge of the blade of the sword was still facing him.
Matthew smiled and laid the blade flat across his arm, hilt towards Craig. "Give it to you."
Craig hesitated, then, seeing Matthew's nod of permission, took hold of the leather-wrapped grip. It was lighter than he'd expected, and he had an odd sense of rightness at the weight and feel of the sword in his hands. "Wow. Cool. Thanks," Craig said, stunned.
"Take care of it, live with it, and treat it as you would your best friend. Some days, it may be the only friend you have," Matthew declared solemnly. "Merry Christmas, Craig, two days early."
Still in shock, Craig could only grope for the words to express his gratitude. It took him several moments, but he found his voice eventually. "I won't let you down, Matthew."
"Don't worry about letting me down. Worry about letting yourself down; it might cost you your head someday." The older immortal stepped back, leaned down, and shut the sword case. Straightening, he said, "Before we go and get you used to using that, I do have something I'd like to discuss with you."
Gingerly, Craig laid the blade of his new sword across his arm as he'd seen his teacher do, and asked, "What?"
"Would you like Risa to spend Christmas with us?"
"Would I?" Craig exclaimed. "Oh man, that would be so cool. Can she?"
Matthew smiled. "Would you like to call her and invite her? I'll cover the cost of the ticket."
"Isn't that expensive, though?" Craig asked as he exchanged the sword for the cordless phone that Matthew handed him.
Abruptly, Craig was brought up short when he found his brand-new sword at his throat. "Just a reminder," Matthew informed him calmly. "Never give away your sword. Doing so leaves you unarmed, defenseless, and vulnerable. Friends can quickly turn into enemies when you least expect." The blade bit lightly at his skin, not enough to break it, but enough that Craig knew he'd never forget that particular lesson.
As quickly as the motion had been made, it was retracted. Matthew presented Craig with his sword. He took it again and then tried to decide what he was going to do with it and the phone at the same time. He could feel Matthew watching him with that measuring look of his, waiting to see how he'd deal with this particular problem. Finally, Craig settled for sitting down with the sword across his lap, the phone in his right hand, leaving his sword hand free.
"You're learning," Matthew said approvingly. "As for the cost? I won't do it all the time, but it is your first Christmas away from your sister, and I've always believed that Christmas should be celebrated with family whenever possible."
"The family that raised you, what were they like?"
Matthew smiled. "Call your sister first. Then we'll talk."
After checking his watch to see what time it was, Craig dialed the number for the pool hall where Risa worked. The phone was answered halfway through the third ring.
"Merry Christmas, you've reached Six Pockets," Risa greeted. "Where you can shoot all day and not get arrested. This is Risa, can I help you?"
"Craig!" Risa exclaimed. "I was just thinking about you!? How's work?"
"Great," Craig enthused. "Listen, would you like to spend Christmas with me and Matthew? Matthew said he'd cover your train ticket if you'd come."
"Okay, but I only got a half day off on Christmas Eve and all of Christmas Day. Which subway do I get on? Oh wait, didn't you say plane? I gotta figure out how to get to the airport."
"No, I know you. You'll get lost in an airport and miss your flight. You're going on the train, not just the subway. Ask Sarah to take you there; she rides the train to Baltimore all the time to see her sister."
"Oh!? Yeah, I could ask her to take me. Oh, this is so cool. I get to see you at Christmas and I didn't think I would. So you're coming up, right?"
"No, Risa, you're coming here," Craig said impatiently.
"No need to get snotty. I was just asking."
Craig exhaled, calming himself. "Okay. I'll have to call you back with all the stuff you'll need to know so you get here. How late are you working today?"
"Um, I'm working a double. Nancy called in sick."
"And that jackass is making you cover for her again?"
"Yes, but I need the money."
Craig sighed. "All right," he conceded. "I'll call you back, okay?"
"Okay. I'll be here."
The twins hung up at the same time. Craig turned to his mentor. "She can come, but it would be a short visit." He then told him about Risa's time off as he handed over the phone.
"Don't worry," Matthew assured him, taking the phone. "Let me just make a few calls and I'll arrange everything."
While the older man handled the travel arrangements, Craig took the opportunity to examine his new sword more thoroughly. Experimentally, careful to keep a non-threatening distance away from his teacher, Craig cut air with the sword, and found it to be light, fast, and almost too difficult to control. He'd gotten used to the heavier weight of one of Matthew's spare broadswords.
He caught Matthew watching him, and sheepishly stopped what he was doing. His teacher looked at him inquiringly as if to say, "Why did you stop?" Craig shook his head, not wanting to explain and feeling thoroughly uncomfortable, and decided it would be better to wait out Matthew's calls in the privacy of his own room.
Seeing Craig head for the stairs, a little unbalanced as he essentially tried to sneak out of the room with his sword, Matthew bit back the chuckle that threatened to escape. He politely thanked his travel agent for booking the train he'd requested and then gave her permission to send the itinerary to his e-mail. He disconnected the call and started to put down the phone on the coffee table, and then he paused. A glance at his watch told him it should be evening in Paris, but not late enough to be rude.
"Hello?" a woman's voice greeted hesitantly in French.
Easily, Matthew switched languages. "Good evening, my dear lady Ceirdwyn, and Merry Christmas. I trust I'm not calling too late?"
"Only if you're trying for my birthday."
Aware that she didn't remember the precise date, Matthew chuckled. "I'm supposed to remember what it is this year when you haven't told me yet? You keep changing it, and I'm lucky that I know how to track you down, else I'd never find you."
"You're not getting out of it that easily," she teased him. Then her tone turned serious. "You only call me when there's trouble on your mind, Matthew. Tell me."
"I have a new student. His name is Craig Halverson."
"I thought you said you weren't going to take on any new students," Ceirdwyn exclaimed in surprise. "You said Lila was your last one, that you were — what was it you said? Oh yes, I remember now — 'through with the ones who refused to listen and then blamed you when they got into trouble.'"
"I didn't call you to discuss Lila," Matthew said sharply. "She's been out of the Game since before the Great War."
"I know," was the patient, soothing reply. "Charleston. You scared the hell out of my servants, arriving in the middle of a thunderstorm with her body in your arms."
Matthew closed his eyes, reluctantly remembering the headstrong woman he'd raised from a toddler, through her first death from a fall from a horse, until her final death at the hands of an immortal known for hunting students of other immortals. Matthew hadn't been able to track down that particular immortal, and he'd never forgotten that particular injustice. Pushing the memories aside, he took a deep breath, aware that he'd yet to answer his teacher's implied question. "I owed Connor MacLeod an unspecified favor. He decided to collect by sending me a student to teach."
Ceirdwyn chuckled softly. "Matthew, the entire world owes Connor for taking down the Kurgan. I'd gladly take on a student to pay on that debt; I tangled with that —" She used an expletive in a language Matthew didn't recognize "— and nearly lost my head. As it was, he killed a friend of mine. So, tell me what is so troublesome about this new student."
"Craig has a twin sister named Risa."
"Have you met her?" the Iceni woman asked calmly. "No, you wouldn't be calling if you hadn't already met her, and you've always had more trouble recognizing who'll be one of us than me. I can't tell you for certain either way, Matthew, not unless I meet Craig and Risa. The last set of immortal twins I knew were identical, but they didn't last long in the Game. They thought they could live out their lives in a monastery; it proved to be a mistake." She sighed, faint regret and resignation coloring her tone. "In any case, I don't remember a brother and sister in the Game. It's not even common for there to be family ties like the ones Connor and Duncan share. Maybe before my time it was, but not that I can remember."
Aware that Ceirdwyn had more than two thousand years of living to recall, Matthew didn't doubt his teacher's words. "I don't suppose you know anyone older than you?" he ventured.
"Still living? I wouldn't know, Matthew. Duncan MacLeod told me Rebecca is dead, sad loss to us all that is. Darius, also, I fear. Last I knew, Constantine was alive, but that was at least six years ago. I've tried to limit my contact with others like us; all I've wanted these last few centuries was a simple, uncomplicated life, shared with someone I love." The words were spoken gently, without rebuke. "I'm sorry I'm not much help to you tonight."
"You've given me more than I had, Ceirdwyn, and one or two different directions to think about. That's help in itself. Thank you." Matthew kept his regrets to himself as they closed off the conversation, but even after he'd put the phone down he stared unseeing at the wall. At almost eight hundred, he was not young, even for an immortal. Questions and problems such as this, however, were still beyond him, and even beyond his teacher, thanks to the Game. All that knowledge we're losing.... Thousands of years and dozens of religions that teach people to respect their elders...except in the Game, where they're even better targets than the youngsters.
"Damn it," he whispered. Unlike many in this day and age, he meant precisely what he'd said. With a deep breath, he squared his shoulders and faced the unknown as he had so many times before: with his head up, spine straight, and mind firmly determined that whatever the truth behind the mystery was, he'd find a way to cope. If he was lucky and skilled enough, he might just pass that strength onto his student. Something told Matthew that Craig was going to need it.
"She's probably missed the train."
"Give your sister some credit, Craig," Matthew rebuked gently as Craig drummed his fingers on the wall against which he leaned.
Craig slanted a wry look at him. "Oh, I do. She'll have gotten to the station, but she'll have gotten on the wrong train. She gets mixed up on which subway to take home from Six Pockets. Like that's changed in all the time she's gone to work there?" He sighed. "She's such a ditz."
Hearing the affection and impatience underlying Craig's words, Matthew smiled. "You did mention that her coworker was going to help her, wasn't she?"
"Yes, but that's only if Risa remembered to ask Sarah."
"Why don't you pace, if you're going to continue playing the wall?" Matthew suggested mildly, and then grinned when Craig shot him a "you've got to be kidding" look.
"Very funny," Craig retorted. "You got me this new coat yesterday just so you could see me stumbling around."
Matthew raised his eyebrows. "You said it wasn't too long," he replied, deliberately being obtuse. He knew perfectly well that his student was referring to the weight of the black leather trench coat, which had been custom tailored to conceal a sword without a betraying drag or bulge on one side.
Craig glared at him, clearly not finding the humor in his teacher's words. "You think this is funny, trying to learn how to be im — what we are."
The older immortal smiled. "No," he answered honestly. "You're just easy to bait."
The train station's intercom blared then, announcing the arrival of the next scheduled train.
"We've been waiting an hour," Craig griped. "She's still in New —" Abruptly, hearing an excited murmur from the crowd behind them, he turned around.
Matthew copied his student's action in time to see the crowd of travelers parting to allow a running figure through. The white-blond streak of hair in an otherwise dark brown mass betrayed Risa's identity, an identification that was confirmed when, heedless of the backpack she carried, she threw her arms around Craig. The backpack came dangerously close to smacking Craig, yet Risa managed to shift the load in time to prevent disaster.
"I'm so glad I found you," she exclaimed. "I got so lost, trying to follow the colored lines. Then I thought I'd gotten on the wrong train, and you'd be so mad and you wouldn't wait like you did that one time in seventh grade, but then I found out it was running late, and this really cute Italian guy helped me and he —" Blushing, she cleared her throat. "Well, anyway, he was nice. Nice coat, Bro. Hi, Matthew."
Stepping back, she then skirted the row of seats to meet Craig and Matthew at the end of the aisle.
"Do you have any other bags?" Matthew asked.
Risa shook her head. "I didn't want to forget anything. I forgot to give Antonio back his cell phone, though. I borrowed it to tell Sarah I got here okay." She turned to Matthew. Biting her lower lip anxiously, she handed the phone to him. "Do you think you can get it back to Antonio? I tried that button that says 'home' but no one answered. I don't want him thinking I stole it."
Matthew pocketed the cell phone. "I'll try." He gestured with a hand and suggested, "If you're ready, why don't we head for the car?"
It didn't escape Matthew's notice that Craig kept a firm hand on Risa as he guided her back to where they'd left Matthew's Jeep Cherokee. He quickly discovered why. Risa's outfit today was the same leather ensemble that he'd last seen her in, except she'd traded the red tank top for a green one. In itself, her striking looks garnered a few second glances, but Risa seemed bent on checking out everything that caught her eye. That meant stopping her from wandering down a corridor opposite the one they needed to go down, convincing her that she didn't need to talk to the dwarf dressed as one of Santa's elves ringing the Salvation Army donation bell, and keeping her distracted from the sights around her with a constant stream of inane chatter. The moment they were in the Jeep and the vehicle was in motion, Risa fell asleep.
Amused by the sudden drop of energy, Matthew asked, "Is your sister always like this?"
Craig chuckled. "Only in cars. Subways, she does better, but car rides always made her fall asleep. Our parents used to say that it was the only time other than when we were sleeping we were quiet."
Matthew smiled, and let silence fill the vehicle until they returned to his house. Risa barely stirred as Craig picked her up and carried her into the downstairs guestroom, which shared a bathroom with the ballroom. Though it was only eight o'clock in the evening, Risa had had a three-hour train trip and she'd worked half a day, so neither man found it odd that she was tired.
Once she was settled, Craig wandered over to find Matthew in the kitchen, pulling out a pan from the refrigerator that Craig knew held marinated beefsteaks.
"How long do you think Risa will sleep?"
Craig glanced at his watch and leaned against the sink. "I was going to give her half an hour," he said. "She'd be mad if I let her sleep longer than that tonight. She's always hated missing out on anything."
"Then we'll make sure dinner is ready." Matthew handed the pan to him. "Remember what I told you about the beef yesterday? You're cooking tonight."
Craig groaned. "My sister's here and you still want me to take my turn in the kitchen?"
"No reason not to," the other man said calmly, stepping aside as Craig reached for the skillets, which hung over the kitchen's center island
"Do you really want me poisoning my sister?" Craig asked, even as he pulled down the largest skillet, set it on a burner, and turned on the stove. After a week of Matthew's tutelage, he knew how to do that much. "I don't want to kill her."
"You're not going to kill her," Matthew responded calmly as he turned off the burner and pulled out the broiler. "However, you are going to broil these steaks, and not fry them."
"Oh." Craig sighed, feeling stupid. "You did say we were going to do that when you showed me how to marinate them yesterday."
Smiling, his mentor reminded him, "The only way you're going to remember is if you practice what you learn. It doesn't mean that you're less intelligent." He handed the broiler to Craig, and then showed him how to put the steaks on it and set the broiler's temperature.
Even knowing Matthew was right, Craig couldn't help feeling as if he was back in school, having to learn everything all over again. All that Matthew had shown him so far was new, different, and frightening in its seriousness. Right then, the reality of his situation hit him: his sister was visiting him in a house that was a thousand miles away from everything he'd grown up with, he was living with a man he barely knew, and he was immortal. He shut the oven door and forced himself to breathe deeply.
For a moment, Craig cursed the fact that he had a far-too-observant FBI agent for a teacher. "This is really how it's going to be, isn't it? Trying to figure out when I can see my sister, and having to lie about why I can't."
"Sometimes," Matthew agreed. "Did you always tell her where you were going and why?"
Craig started to reply, then stopped as the logic of that question sank in. "No," he admitted finally. "Sometimes it was easier not to tell her, because if I told her and she had to go somewhere else, she'd end up going to where I was instead of where she was supposed to be." He turned and faced the older man, who was leaning against the far counter with a patient expression on his face. "Guess this isn't all that different, is it?"
Matthew smiled and let his silence serve as an answer. "Does your sister drink wine?" he asked, turning the conversation away into what quickly became an introduction to wine that lasted until it was time to wake up Risa.
"So where's your family?" Risa asked Matthew as they sat down to dinner in the formal dining room.
"They died a few years ago," Matthew replied. "That's when I inherited this house." He smiled gently, though he was peripherally aware of Craig's sudden interest in his food. "Christmas was always a celebration, though."
"What was that like?" Risa wondered, interested.
"Oh," he answered casually, "we'd go to midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, and then go to mass again on Christmas morning. We'd have a party, invite our friends and neighbors; decorate the house with ivy, mistletoe and holly, and light candles." Even as he said the words, some part of him regretted that he couldn't tell the rest of the truth. "My parents were Catholic."
"Wow," Risa murmured, clearly impressed. "We had this artificial tree that was crooked on one side, and we always had to turn the tree so that side didn't show up in the pictures. Santa didn't always come to our house, but Mom said it wasn't because I was bad or dumb."
"We went to church a couple of times," Craig added apologetically. "Mostly it was because someone asked us to go and we wanted to know what it was about."
"I liked the singing," Risa put in. "But then they asked for money, and —"
"— And we weren't allowed back," Craig interrupted, in such a way that left Matthew no doubt that they'd helped themselves to a bit of collection money.
"Well, they said it was going to go to poor people," Risa declared. "Mom said we were poor." She spoke with the wide-eyed innocence that Matthew was quickly discovering was characteristic of her, and with such indignation that he was hard-pressed not to laugh.
Just then, the cell phone that Risa had taken rang. Matthew had placed it on the table in the foyer, but as the foyer formed one wall adjoining the formal dining room, the ring was heard clearly. Matthew excused himself and took the call.
"Hello?" he answered cautiously.
"Oh, good," said a young-sounding male voice. "This is Antonio Morelli. I left my phone on the train to Washington, D.C., and I'd been talking to this beautiful brunette named Risa. Did she pick up the phone and take it home with her?"
"Yes, she did. If you're in the city, I can make sure you get it back," Matthew offered.
"Great," Antonio exclaimed with relief in his voice. "I know it's Christmas, and you're probably busy, so if I can get it back from you the day after Christmas, that would be fantastic. Anybody who'll call me is here in town anyway and anyone else will just have to wait."
"Where would you like to meet so I can give you back your phone?"
Antonio rattled off an address, adding, "It's my grandparents' house. I'm staying for the holidays. Can you come over at eleven or so? We should all be up by then. Is Risa going to be with you when you arrive?" The eager anticipation in the other man's voice made Matthew smile, especially when Antonio hastily added, "I mean, if it's all right that your daughter spends time with someone she just met."
Matthew didn't bother to correct Antonio's mistaken impression. "I'll see you the day after Christmas, Antonio."
Shortly after the debris from dinner had been cleaned up, Matthew offered, "I was planning on attending midnight Mass. You're welcome to join me."
"Oh, that would be so cool!" Risa exclaimed.
Craig glanced at his sister. "I think not," he said slowly. "We don't want to get you into trouble." He reached over and removed a brass candlestick out of Risa's hands as she tried to figure out how to pocket it. "No stealing, Risa. Not here in Matthew's house."
She pouted. "But he can afford it," she said in a very child-like voice.
"He can also arrest you for it," Craig told her sternly, and suddenly, Matthew realized just how they'd managed to survive after their parents had died. He had to fight the urge to smile wryly, and caught himself before Craig turned his gaze to him, an apologetic look on his face. "Sorry, but if we went, we'd spend tomorrow trying to figure out what all she took."
"I like pretty things," Risa argued. "You didn't mind when I took pretty things."
"Yes, but not here. This is home for me now."
"Oh," Risa said with a look of understanding dawning on her face. "Sorry." She paused. "Can we go to church? I won't take anything, I promise." Using the fingers of her right hand, she made an X across her heart.
Matthew glanced at Craig. "Your decision," he said.
Craig hesitated even as Risa looked at him, pleading wordlessly. Sighing, he said, "I don't know if I have the clothes to wear."
"That means we're going," Risa crowed. "Come on, Bro, you look beautiful enough." She ran to the coat closet by the door and started reaching for Craig's coat, only to stop. For a moment, both Craig and Matthew feared she would've discovered the swords they'd stashed in the closet. By the time they reached her, however, they found her stroking the leather of Craig's coat, her head pressed against one sleeve, her eyes closed in an expression of bliss.
Craig breathed a sigh of relief. "Come on, Risa, let me get that."
"It's so soft," she exclaimed.
Craig rolled his eyes. "You are such a dork," he told his sister exasperatedly. "You wear leather all the time."
"Yes, but this is soooft."
"It's Italian." At that announcement, Risa turned to face her brother and let go of his coat. Taking the opening, Craig grabbed the heavy garment and deftly shoved his sister out of the closet and into Matthew, forcing the older man to catch her. Picking up the cue, Matthew held her slightly longer than was proper, allowing Craig time to shrug into his coat without revealing his sword, and to grab Risa's jacket.
"You smell good," Risa announced, staring owlishly up at Matthew. "I like that."
"Thank you," Matthew replied, taking her jacket from Craig. "May I help you into your jacket?"
Delighted by the offer, Risa was all too happy to let him assist her.
As far as Craig was concerned, Mass went surprisingly well, though the first step he'd taken onto holy ground since becoming immortal had disconcerted him. It had felt like he'd crossed through some invisible force field, and he'd been glad that Matthew had been a step behind him to stabilize him and to quickly whisper an explanation when he stumbled. Risa had immediately apologized, having assumed that she'd tripped him, and the awkward moment had passed without further notice.
Awed by the sheer spectacle that was the church sanctuary, a testament to the founders' belief in glorifying God, Risa kept her hands either clinging to Craig or to Matthew. For his part, Craig was equally impressed by both the architecture and the worship service. Though he didn't understand the point of the reverence paid, it intrigued him enough to tell Matthew that he was interested in learning more. The smile that rewarded his statement told Craig that the older immortal was pleased by his interest, though Matthew was quick to add that sharing his faith wasn't a requirement of his training.
Craig wasn't surprised when, less than an hour after they arrived home and he'd crawled into bed, Risa was at his door. In all the time that they'd lived together, she'd never been able to go to sleep without coming to visit at least once. That had been the reason he'd moved out of the apartment they'd shared; he'd wanted privacy, and he'd never felt right about bringing a lover over when he knew his sister would show up in his room in the middle of the night. Cracking it open, she hissed his name, adding, "You awake?"
"Come in," he told her. "Don't slam the door; it's heavy."
She pulled the door open and shut it quietly behind her even as she whispered back, "No shit. That's solid wood."
Reaching for the lamp on the nightstand, Craig switched it on, aware that Risa didn't know the layout of his room. A quick glance at the side of the bed confirmed that he'd hidden his sword out of her prying eyes; he didn't want to explain it to her. Once the light was on, Risa crossed the room quickly to sit on his bed. He shifted, making room for her.
"Everything's solid wood," she continued as she sat down. "I don't know if I like that. Someone killed a lot of trees."
"It was a long time ago," Craig told her as she leaned against the headboard. "These trees died before we were born." There were times when he caught flashes of the woman she could've been if it weren't for the trampoline accident, but he'd learned to live with the regret a long time ago.
"I still don't like it," she insisted. "But it's pretty and solid and I guess that's a good thing, because if it wasn't, things would fall apart." She paused. "I miss you."
Craig's heart ached at the simple declaration. "I miss you too, Risa. This is like when I moved out, except I can't just come over as much."
She stuck the tip of her thumb in her mouth, and automatically, Craig pushed her hand away. "I know. I just — you were gone, and then you came back. You're so far away now."
"What are you talking about?"
She hung her head and shook it slightly. "You said someone took your wallet. You were gone then."
Dread sent chills through Craig. Risa had felt him die, and though he'd managed to dodge confirming that truth once before, hearing her repeat it drove home the extraordinary change his life had undergone. For a moment, he was tempted to tell her just what had happened. He looked into her eyes, seeing the innocence and untainted concern there, and knew instantly that he couldn't tell her. She was his sister, he was her brother, and he had a responsibility to protect her. "I told you," he placated her, "I wasn't home all day because I was dealing with the police and trying to track down my wallet."
He could see her struggling to find the words, and he caught her hands in his own, hating the white lie, but aware that it was just one in a lifetime of shielding his sister from the harsher facts of life. "Risa. I got a little beat up, but I'm fine now. I told you that when I called you, remember?"
She stared at him. "You're lying," she accused. "You got hurt worse."
"I'm okay now," he assured her, not denying her statement, but not confirming it either. "Did you like the church service?" he asked, distracting her.
She nodded. "I liked the singing. Are you happy here?"
Too used to her lightning-quick changes of subject, Craig didn't blink. "I think I will be. Matthew's pretty cool to be with."
"He's not making you do anything like my boss does, is he?"
Craig chuckled. "I have to clean the bathrooms, too, Risa," he answered. "And I told you to tell that greasy bastard to keep his hands off of you. He's not supposed to hit on you when you're working, but he can make you clean the bathrooms."
Risa pouted. "He won't listen. I have to go outside to make him stop. I hate cleaning. I bet cleaning that floor in the room next to mine takes a while."
It took Craig a minute to realize she meant the ballroom he and Matthew used as an exercise room. He chuckled softly, remembering the first time Matthew had showed him how to buff that hardwood floor. "Sometimes."
She cocked her head abruptly, seeing something that caught her eye. "You got new clothes," she accused.
"Yes," Craig replied. "Matthew and I went shopping yesterday."
"I don't have any new clothes," she said, sulking. "You always get new clothes."
"Maybe," Craig suggested with a smile, "you should get to sleep so Santa can come and put presents under the tree."
"He'd come here?" Risa looked skeptical. "But I'm not home."
"Don't worry, he knows where you are."
"Oh." Risa pondered that for a moment. "Okay," she said brightly, rolling her head and shrugging her shoulders in a gesture that conveyed happiness more than indifference. "Good night, Bro."
"Good night, Risa." He waited until she'd shut the door to turn off the light.
In the silence and darkness, Craig closed his eyes, suddenly tired beyond his years. He had no idea how to tell his sister the truth, and he hoped he never had to do so. As much as he loved her (and he couldn't imagine not having her in his life) — he wasn't entirely sure he was prepared to have her in his life forever, if she died and came back like he had. Silently, he promised himself that he'd ask Matthew if he could tell if Risa would be immortal. Just as quickly as Craig thought that, he decided he didn't want to know. It was bad enough having to keep the secret of his immortality from her; Craig wasn't sure if he could keep hers a secret as well. Wearily, Craig pulled the covers over his body and willed himself to sleep. Tomorrow was Christmas, and since Matthew had promised him a day's vacation from training, it would be one day when Craig could almost pretend he'd never heard of immortality. He had a feeling he wasn't going to have many more days like that, and he was determined to enjoy it — and his sister's company — for as long as he could.
"Craig?" the girlish voice sounded in his ear, and he rolled over, giving up on sleep. He blinked as his eyes adjusted to the semi-darkness, the only light coming from the heavy Army-surplus flashlight his visitor carried. He didn't need it, though, to see the shock of blonde hair that streaked the front of her otherwise dark brown hair. He'd already memorized the color combination and envied her for it.
"You think Mom and Dad were really mad about my hair?" Easily, she climbed into bed with him and stuck her hand in her mouth in an unconscious gesture of worry, somehow managing not to drop the flashlight in the process.
"No." With the ease of long familiarity, Craig pulled her hand out of her mouth. "You're not supposed to suck on your fingers anymore. That's baby stuff."
She pouted at the rebuke, but let it pass without comment. "Do you like my hair?"
Smiling, Craig brushed a hand through the offending blonde strands, and promised himself that someday, he'd have hair like that. "It's cool. It's like a comic book." Unwillingly, he remembered the price she'd paid for the shock of blonde in an otherwise dark brown mass of hair: all the blood that had trailed down her face when she'd hit the edge of the trampoline, his own frightened screams when she hadn't responded to his calling her name, the weeks she'd spent relearning basic things. Despite his attempt to suppress them, the pictures flashed through his mind, and he saw them reflected in her eyes. Instinctively, his arm slipped around her in a half-hug.
She leaned into the touch, seeking comfort. "Maybe our real parents were fairies. That's why they had to give us up."
"Grow up, Risa. Fairies aren't real."
"How do you know?" she demanded with all the logic of an eight-year-old. "We're the only twins in school. It's not common. It has to be magic."
"Yeah, like TV. Maybe, when we're old enough, we'll live forever like the fairies do."
"You're such a baby," Craig pronounced with all the authority of an older brother.
"If I'm a baby, then you're a baby. You're eight years old just like me."
"Am not. I know I'm older than you."
Suddenly, footsteps thudded through the trailer home, headed towards the bedroom where they were huddled together. Instantly, the twins went silent.
"Risa?" their mother called. "If you're not in your own bed in the next five minutes, you're gonna regret it."
"Did you close your door?" Craig demanded, suddenly a conspirator in the lightning-quick way of a protective sibling.
Risa's eyes widened. "No." Hastily, she ducked out of her brother's bedroom, but not before sticking her tongue out at him. "I'm older, and I'm gonna live forever and ever," were her hissed parting words.
"I'm gonna hit you if you don't get up now. Are you ever gonna wake up?" Risa demanded as she bounced on his bed. "I've been up for hours already.
Startled, the vestiges of the dream/memory still vivid on his mind, Craig jumped. "Yeah, yeah," he agreed grumpily. "Give me twenty minutes, all right?"
"Matthew said to tell you breakfast is ready, so you'd better hurry." Her mission accomplished, Risa hopped off the bed and headed for the door.
Craig rubbed the sleep from his eyes and took a deep breath. Suspecting the reason for his dream, he shook off the old, unexpected memory and went to join his sister and his teacher for breakfast.
"So, you got home okay?" Craig asked as he lounged on his bed with the cordless phone stuck to his ear. It was the day after Christmas, and Craig had escaped to the privacy of his room since Matthew had gone to deliver Antonio's phone.
"Sarah was waiting for me," Risa confirmed. "She got some new movies for Christmas, and she thought it was neat I talked to this woman on the train almost the entire way home."
"What woman on the train?"
"Well, there was this really old woman named Mildred who had these needles with her and she was making stuff — she said it was a sweater, but it just looked like this long scarf, and it was all creepy colors, and I wouldn't wear it because it smelled like dog sh-"
"Not that woman," Craig interrupted, hearing the revulsion in Risa's tone. That alone told him that Mildred wasn't the one who'd ultimately captured his sister's attention. Aside from that, he knew his sister well; if he wasn't specific enough, he'd hear about all the other interesting people on the train before Risa told him what he wanted to hear. "Tell me about the one you talked to most of the time."
"Oh, Nina? She was so sweet. She showed me a card trick, and she made me practice it until I remembered it, so you gotta see how it's done because it's really, really cool. Plus she was really pretty, with skin that was naturally tan and really long hair, and she was so fun to talk to. She said she'd met a duchess once, but she didn't have any pictures to prove it, so I didn't believe her. I've never seen anybody who could do magic, but Nina said she could."
Craig shook his head. Risa had a way for attracting strangers to her like moths to a flame; Craig had always figured it had something to do with the way Risa would hold nothing back in her conversations with anyone. In some ways, Risa had never quite grown up, and Craig knew people responded to that innocence. "So there was a magician on the train? What else did you talk to her about?"
"She said her mother had been Cherokee and she got her eyes from her. I thought you could only have eyes like she did if you were Chinese, but she said no, sometimes other people get them too. She said she'd been to China. I told her I didn't think China was a place, it was what you ate on, and she laughed so hard she cried." Risa paused, and her voice quivered. "Then I felt stupid, and I told her that I was sorry, because I remembered China's a country." Her last words came out mumbled.
"Risa, take your thumb out of your mouth," Craig admonished her. He heard a sucking, popping sound, and knew his guess had been right. "You're not stupid, it just takes you longer to think." The familiar reassurance sounded hollow even to Craig's ears. Even knowing that their friends would keep an eye on Risa, Craig felt the pain of their separation keenly. He couldn't go charging to his sister's rescue like he used to, and he could only hope that Risa would stay out of trouble. "Now, you didn't give Nina your phone number, did you?"
"Of course not," Risa said, affronted. "I gave her yours, since it doesn't work anymore." In a small, half-muffled voice, she admitted, "I couldn't remember mine."
"Risa. Quit being a baby." A slight popping noise rewarded Craig's words yet again. "You did good, and no, I can't remember mine most of the time anyway. I barely know this one. Now, are you working today?"
There was a pause. "Shit! I'm late!" Risa swore. She hung up before Craig could remind her to take the right subway line.
Chucking ruefully, Craig turned off the phone and set it on the dresser across from the bed. He was just about to decide to see what he could scrounge together for lunch when the immortal headache hit, followed by a polite knock on the door. Already more than halfway to the door, it took only a few more steps for Craig to open it. He found Matthew on the other side, sword held threateningly.
For a stunned minute, Craig thought that Matthew meant to kill him.
Then Matthew relaxed. "Next time?" he suggested. "Answer the door with your sword ready, even if you think it's just me."
"You can't be serious."
Matthew just looked at him.
"You are serious." Craig couldn't believe what he was hearing. "You want me to assume that when I get that feeling that there's another immortal around, that he might be a danger to me? Even if it's a friend?"
"It never hurts to be cautious. Get your sword and keep it with you at all times."
"Paranoid is more like it." Though he thought the idea was overkill, Craig stepped away and picked up his sword from the floor beside the bed. "Now what?"
"Now, we head downstairs," Matthew replied.
Blandly, Matthew looked at him. "If you're going to manage some of my properties for me, you're going to have to learn how to handle real estate. Unless you'd rather not work for me?"
"You expect me to just go on like you didn't just —" Craig began, and then stopped. He took a deep breath. "Okay. This is where you remind me that my training's not a democracy, right?"
"On this?" Matthew smiled. "This isn't training to be an immortal. This is the work I've hired you to do."
"Gotcha." Feeling more reassured, but more wary, Craig waited until Matthew had stepped out of the way before he followed him down the stairs.