After awhile, the lies became part of the holiday tradition.
"No, she's not gonna be able to make it this year," Nick spoke. He held his phone away from his ear in anticipation of the response, and a scowl marred his forehead when it came. The strenuous objection carried cleanly across the room and, despite himself, Nick rushed to cover it. "She has…to work…Yes, again. No, she can't get out it. You know how it is."
He turned away and stepped out of the room for the rest of the conversation, but Katherine noted that he'd made sure she heard that part. She finished rolling a freshly-laundered blouse and tucking it into her travel bag. There wasn't much room, but there also wasn't much she could bring. All the new security regulations had made traveling harder over the last few decades, and keeping track of the details was increasingly more than she wanted to deal with. But, jobs still needed doing and there wasn't much call for a mercenary who refused to go where the work was.
A few minutes later, Nick returned and planted himself in the doorway. "In case you didn't hear, Mom wasn't happy you canceled again. She said she was really looking forward to having the both of us out this year." He gave a small, defeated sigh. "You know, they haven't seen you in more than ten years. I think they're starting to take it personally."
Katherine's hand tightened around the roll of socks she'd been about to pack. "We talked about this—"
"They're not going to be around much longer, you know." The accusation rang clear in Nick's tone. "And it's getting harder for everyone to get together at the holidays anyway. Taylor and Alex—" He named his two oldest nephews—"are both out of the country this year on their study abroad programs, and Brooke"—and his oldest niece—"really does have to work and can't get enough time off to travel."
"Which you seem to think leaves a hole in the seating arrangement I need to fill," Katherine responded.
"You are my wife," Nick countered. "You're a member of the family, and this is a family event."
Without the three oldest nephews and niece, that left Nick's sister and brother, their spouses, and the two youngest nieces—all of whom had known Katherine for as long as she'd been in Nick's life. She tucked the socks in her bag and made a mark on the supply list before looking up. She'd seen this issue building ever since she'd had to start bowing out of the Christmas gatherings and other family get-togethers. It always happened when her spouse visibly aged beyond her ability to fake her own mortality, and yet none of them ever believed her when she warned them what would happen if they were able to stay together that long.
"Nick, I'm sorry you can't have the holiday with your whole family together, like you want; I really am. I miss your parents, too. They were always good to me, and you know I'll do anything I can to take care of them. But the holiday is for your family, and if I showed up now, you know they'd all spend the week trying to figure out how I'm able to look so young." She started to strike a pose, and managed to switch the movement in a spin toward the bathroom for her toothbrush. She didn't want to rub it in.
"Instead, I'm going to get to put up with everyone subtly trying to figure out if my marriage is falling apart while they rehash every old argument that might be the cause of you shunning them. Yeah, I'm really looking forward to that."
Katherine offered a helpless shrug; there really wasn't anything she could do that wouldn't make things worse. "When I call, I'll assure them that I'm only busy working. That should keep the gossip wolves at bay."
"Gossip," Nick echoed, his gaze sharpening as he seemed to finally notice what she was doing. "Are you sure that's the only reason you're avoiding my family? Maybe you're getting sick of me, too?"
There it was: the reason for Nick's anger manifesting now.
"I thought you said we were going to wait on taking this job until my knee was healed," he continued. "Another week or so…"
Nick's right knee currently sported a brace. He was only a couple days from being able to officially remove it after his last surgery, but Katherine had a feeling he'd keep finding reasons to wear it. Along with his graying hair and increasingly deeper wrinkles on his forehead, his body had begun taking a lot longer to recover from wounds. It meant he had to be a lot more selective about which jobs he accepted, though even that care couldn't eliminate the risks that came with their line of work. Most mercenaries would have retired long because their accumulation of injuries started to get in the way of them doing their jobs.
"And risk sending you home to your parents' with newer injuries? I wouldn't dare!" Katherine gave a quick shake of her head. "I've got this one." For the moment, she gave up entirely on packing and crossed the room to take Nick's hands. Though they were warm and familiar, she felt his distance in them. He was so worried she was cutting him out that he was preparing to cut her out first. "Don't you ever think I'm getting tired of you. We're not going to have enough time together as it is. Twenty-three years is not enough. Maybe when I get back we should discuss a career change, something we can do together that doesn't involve chasing after people who're trying to kill us."
Nick held the position for a moment, then pulled away. "Sure. When you get back." It almost sounded like he didn't expect her to do that. "Until then, I guess I'll go do the crossword, or something."
Katherine waited till he left to sigh. Aging was inevitable for mortals, provided they didn't die before they had a chance to notice its effects. She'd observed the process with loved ones countless times now; she knew that having someone around who served as a constant reminder of the youth and vitality they'd once had only made the decline more difficult. Yet she couldn't bring herself to not form relationships with mortals, and she'd met very few who were unwilling to form a relationship with her, once they knew. Staying together after the differences really set in, though, could be the challenge.
The job was easier without Nick along—not that she'd ever tell him that. She allowed herself to get caught trailing her first target. He dragged her in front of the rest of the team to shoot her, presumably to show off how tough he was. After that, it became absurdly simply to take them out since she had now identified them all. As a bonus, they were all superstitious. By the time she came to kill the leader, he wasn't interested in stopping her. It was easier, but it wasn't fun.
Katherine was gone for five days.
Nick didn't call once. Every time she tried to call him, the phone went straight to voice mail. She left a message the first couple times, then stopped. He'd call her back when he was ready. Just in case, though, she sent a text, assuring him she was OK, that this wasn't Immortal business, and that she would be coming home soon. That also went unanswered.
The plane flight back gave her a lot of time to think. To worry. Maybe he really had left her. Some mortals really couldn't handle aging alone. She'd thought Nick would figure it out, but their fight suggested otherwise. He wouldn't need to divorce her. If he was that determined to be on his own, she'd arrange a public death for herself. The transfer of assets would be a lot easier that way, and would keep the courts from prying into her life. Or maybe he only needed time to cool off. He could go visit his family, reconnect with his roots, and come back to her when he'd had enough of normal. Over the last 2000 years, she'd learned that most people could adjust to anything if given the space to do so on their terms.
Nick was waiting for her at the baggage claim. He'd dyed his hair dark, like it had been in his youth, and he was wearing black jeans and a black jacket that looked like it offered little protection from the wind that had shoved the plane all over the runway. His brace was gone. Rather than looking younger, as he'd likely intended, the overall result was of a fifty-something man trying too hard to look younger.
"This is a surprise," Katherine said, at both his presence and his appearance. She wanted to pull him close, kiss him, relearn him. She didn't care how old he looked, how old he was. They really weren't going to have enough time together, no matter what decisions he made. She restrained herself, in case that wasn't what Nick wanted. The carousel started up then with a clunk and a loud groan and she stepped into position with the rest of her fellow passengers. She'd taken her travel bag on board the plane and would have no reason to be at the luggage carousel if not for the suitcase full of gifts she'd shipped home for the family. Interesting how Nick had anticipated that.
He flashed a chagrined smile as he joined her. "It's only the first one. I hope you'll forgive me. In the spirit of the holiday." Grabbing her arm, he tugged her back around just as a familiar set of white curls separated itself from the crowd.
Katherine's eyes widened and she instinctively sought for a place to run to, but Nick's hand on her arm kept her in place. Ten years and the woman was as familiar as if no time had passed at all. Ironic, that. Katherine swallowed. "Mom!"
Cecilia Sutherland had shrunk over the last decade and now walked with the help of a cane, but she showed no signs of frailty. Her gaze swept over Katherine. "Katie," she acknowledged. The expression of locked disapproval, familiar to all her children and grandchildren as the first step of a dressing down, turned confused, then faded. "Nick said you were meeting us here. I thought he had to be pulling one over on an old woman, only I wasn't going to pass up any chance to see you in person. I thought we had some things to say to each other." She slipped her own coat off and handed it to Nick, who draped it over his arm, then peered closer at Katherine. "You really haven't changed. Not one bit."
"I cut my hair," Katherine responded. There wasn't much else she could say. How could you do this to me? she asked Nick with the twitch of an eyebrow. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the suitcase she'd shipped back spin past her. No one dared break the moment to retrieve it.
"So you did." She gave the style a brief consideration before passing judgment with a simple: "I preferred it longer."
Something in her tone made a laugh bubble up. Katherine slapped a hand over her mouth, but couldn't keep it back. Soon she was snorting and drawing the attention of a plane-full of jet-lagged people who'd been hoping for an excitement-less exit from the airport.
"Nothing to see here," Nick spoke to the crowd. "Just an overdue family reunion." He glared at the nearest non-Sutherland until the person turned back to searching for his suitcase. Soon enough, everyone else followed direction. That was a trait Nick would never lose to age. "You see, Ma? Everything's fine."
With a tightening of her jaw, Cecilia disagreed. "Honey, you never were as good at lying to me as you thought you were. When you told me…" She glanced at Katherine, appraising. "Though now I see why you thought you had to try."
Katherine opened to mouth to respond, but found she didn't know what to say. Whatever Cecilia thought she'd learned was undoubtedly wrong, but the truth wasn't going to be any better.
"Come on," Cecilia said, "let's get that bag you have your eye on." She glanced at her watch, shook it, and held it up to her ear. "Do you have anything else? We need to get you checked back in if you're going to make your next flight."
"My…next…flight?" Katherine shot another non-verbal question at Nick, who once again resorted to answering with a shrug.
"It's the holidays, dear," Cecilia pointed out, "and your presence is expected. My son said I needed to see you, which is why he insisted I come out to meet you here at the airport. I'm returning on the next flight and you all are coming back with me. He's already checked in, you see. As am I. We only need to get you straightened out."
Nick's efforts to reduce his own aging wouldn't hide Katherine's lack thereof. Their basic problem hadn't been solved, and couldn't be solved. Suddenly, that didn't seem like the most important issue.
"Christmas is still two weeks away!" Katherine blurted out. "And I don't have any clean clothes"
"That'll give us plenty of time to get caught up while we're doing laundry," Cecilia declared. "As soon as I know what we're supposed to ignore, I'll see that no one ever mentions it. I have that power, you know." She winked in amusement at her own joke. Checking her watch once again, she added, "Nicholas, grab that suitcase and let's get a move on. Katherine, give me your arm."
Given no choice, Katherine and Nick jumped to follow directions. Funny how thousands of years of life had done nothing to inure her against the family matriarch. Oddly, she didn't mind. She was looking forward to seeing everyone again. Not that she'd let Nick have that win so easily.
Nick looked smug at the success of his plan. Leaning closer to him, Katherine whispered, "I'm going to make you regret this."
"Somehow," he answered, "I don't believe you."