Christmas Story #1
Neither Flesh, Nor Fowl, Nor Good Red Herring
A Forever Knight Story
by Susan M. Garrett

Their eyes met for a brief moment--his green and flecked with gold, hers dark and older than time. Their gazes locked. They hissed at one another, baring fangs, protecting their territory and letting the other know just what was what.

Sydney went back to grooming his front paws. Shaking her head, Janette looked to the invoices on her desk, again regretting her decision to do a 'good deed' for Nicola.

It had been little more than a hour past sunset when she'd heard his step outside her office door, even over the thrum of the bass from Alma's choice of early evening party music. Dropping the files to the top of the cabinet, Janette had run to the door and thrown it open.

She'd known instantly that there was something wrong. Nicola's smile was nervous, hesitant. "Joyeaux Noel, Nicola," she'd said, taking a step back into the office. "I do hope you're here to give me my present."

A blank look crossed his face, but he'd recovered quickly. Still standing in the doorway, he'd shrugged. "I'm on duty, but I'll be by when the shift quits. Janette . . . I need a favor."

She'd folded her arms, her smile disappearing. "What kind of 'favor'?"

"Well, Nat went home for Christmas--"

Janette had walked around her desk, trailing her finger along the edge of the wood. "Ah, and you have no one to accompany you to a party? While the cat's away, eh, Nicola?"

Her expectant look had brought an immediate denial. "No, nothing like that," he said quickly, glancing down at the floor beside him. "Actually, the cat's still here . . . ."

She'd followed his glance and caught sight of the edge of a pet carrying case, the peeked just beyond the door. "You don't mean you're taking care of that . . . animal?"

"Yeah." He'd shrugged, then straightened, as if accepting the responsibility. "Like I said, I'm on duty tonight."

"So all the little mortals can scurry home to their Christmas celebrations?" Feigning a yawn, she'd seated herself on the edge of her desk. "How wonderfully unselfish of you."

"And I was wondering if you'd keep an eye on Sydney while I'm at work."

She remembered sitting bolt upright, horrified at even the suggestion of becoming a feline baby-sitter for the evening. "Nicola! Are you insane? Why can't you leave it in your apartment?"

Nicola glanced down at the cage again. "He's been acting . . . different. It could be that he misses Nat. Or he could be sick."

"So take it to an doctor."

"If I could find one open this late on Christmas Eve. And I'm late for work as it is." Picking up the box and holding it in both arms, he'd walked into the office, a little-boy-lost look on his face. "Please, Janette? Only until morning?"

He knew she could refuse him nothing when he looked at her like that. "All right," she relented. "Put it over there."

Nicola hadn't even followed the finger she used to point to the corner of the room. "You'll have to let him run around. I have his blanket, his food and water, some of his toys--"

"Its . . . toys? I won't have to play with it, will I?" Leaving the desk, she'd walked over to him. Carefully, she touched one of the bars in the box opening. A loud hiss caused her to withdraw her finger quickly. "Wouldn't it be happier in the box?"

"Come on, Janette, there's no room in there. I hated to put him in, but I had to get him over here--"

"Oh yes," she'd said, with exaggerated understanding, "your precious car."

Nicola had frowned, then put the cat carrier on the floor, in the center of the room. "Besides, if he's sick, he'll feel better if he can stretch out, roam around a bit."

She'd stared down at the box at her feet, still not daring to touch it, as he ran to the door and returned with a cardboard box. "And what about our friends outside? Letting it roam around the club--?"

Nicola had bent down and removed items from the box; a dish of food--that had the cat's name on it, no less--another of water, a litter box with fresh litter, a small rag from a blanket, and a few assorted rubber toys, one of which actually squeaked as he dropped it on the floor. He'd looked up quickly at her comment. "Just keep him in here, then."

Abandoning the box, he'd risen to his feet, placing his hands on her bare shoulders. "Janette, I really appreciate this. I didn't know where to take him. Schanke's off duty, Grace is working, and then I remembered you'd owned a cat once."

She'd sniffed audibly, looking away from him. "Nicola, you know as little about those animals as you do about women. One does not own a cat. A cat owns you. And it was not a pleasant experience--for either of us."

But his hand had tightened on her shoulder, the other slipping down the skin of her arm and sending a tingle through her. Kissing her cheek, he'd whispered in her ear, "Natalie would kill me if anything happened to him--"

"Too late."

"So keep him safe, okay? I'll see you when I get off shift, all right?"

Before she'd been able to answer, he'd slipped out the door, which he'd closed firmly and finally behind him. She'd been left with a cat in a box, assorted cat maintenance utensils, and a squeaky rubber mouse in a shade of yellow that was more than faintly nauseating.

Sighing again, she turned back to her work, determined not to pay any attention to the evidently very healthy feline. Or to the enormous scratches on her cherry wood divan. Or to the large tufts his claws had ripped from her rug. Or even that hideous fur-like thing that he'd expelled during a violent coughing fit.

Especially that.

There was a knock at the door. Janette was on her feet before it opened more than a crack, her eyes meeting and holding those of her feline charge. "Close the door," she said harshly, "you'll let the cat out!"

Alma slipped into the room, the door quickly closing beside her. The blonde was wearing one of her party frocks, a sprig of mistletoe dancing at the top of her current hairstyle, surrounded by ringlets and curls. "Cat?" she asked blankly. Then, catching sight of Sydney, she rushed over to him and scooped him up into her arms, clasping him to her bosom before he could yowl. "Oh, what a darling baby? Is he yours? Ouch!"

Janette hid her smile and turned away, hearing the cat hit the floor and scurry beneath the furniture. "Cats have claws, Alma. Don't worry, it will heal."

By the time she'd seated herself behind her desk, Alma was brushing at her decollete and wincing slightly. "Not before tonight," said Alma sharply. "It wouldn't be the first time--"

Janette raised an eyebrow. "Really?"

But Alma didn't rise to the bait. She stepped carefully in the middle of the room and Janette realized just how tempting those bare ankles in the high heels would be to claws hidden beneath a divan. "Why don't you have a seat?"

"No--I--he's not yours?" she asked again, somewhat nervously.

"I'm watching him for Nicola's friend." She steepled her fingers, amused at seeing Alma without her usual sense of elan intact. "Don't you like . . . cats?"

"Well, I'm a little worried about the armadillo."

Janette blinked and stared at her, even though Alma's eyes were glued to floor level, shifting from one potential cat-hiding place to another. "The what?"

"The armadillo? Dwight? He lives in the basement." Alma glanced up at her and shook her head. "Come on, Janette, you must be getting senile. I asked you if we could have Dwight ages ago and you said yes."

Her fingers folded together of their own accord when Alma used the word 'senile,' but Janette managed to keep her smile in place. "I told you that you could have a pet, but . . . why an armadillo?"

"It's expected."

"By whom?"

Alma broke her survey of potential attack sites with another long-suffering look. "You just don't watch the right films, do you?"

As Janette believed that prolonged conversation with Alma could drive even a saint to insanity, she simply shook her head and turned back to her paperwork. "Why are you here? You told me yourself the clientele is non-existent, or too depressed to be of any use. I thought we were closing early so you could all attend Emile's party? It's nearly midnight."

"It is Christmas Eve."

There was a hesitant note in Alma's voice she hadn't heard before. Startled, Janette looked up. "You've given everyone their presents?" she asked suspiciously, wondering if Alma had managed to disrupt the simplest of holiday traditions.

"Yeah. Just like you said." She paused again. "You're old. Older than all of us."

"Yes," said Janette slowly, so intrigued by an appearance of original thought that she decided to let the age comment pass.

"And, well, everyone we knew is dead or they think we are. Our family, our friends--there's nobody left, except us. Does it--does it ever get easier?"

Of all the things she might have expected from Alma, she never could have dreamed this conversation. Alma stood expectantly, twisting her hands together, waiting for an answer.

Janette rose and walked around the desk. She took Alma's hands in her own and answered softly, "No, cherie. It doesn't get easier."

"I thought--I thought I should ask," was the answer. Then Alma pulled away. "Oh, I almost forgot!"

"Forgot what?"

Again, Alma seemed hesitant, reminding her very much of Nicola's behavior, earlier. "We, uh, kind of got together and got you a present. For the holiday. It's outside."

Janette froze in place as Alma dashed to the door, closing it quickly behind her. A corner of her soul was touched by the gesture, but beyond that--and surprise that her dear charges had actually thought of something other than fashion, music, and fresh young things--was fear. Their income was limited. And, wisely or not, the group often looked to Alma for leadership. She didn't want to begin to imagine what Alma might consider a suitable gift.

The banging and scraping at the door did nothing to alleviate the air of unease that settled in her stomach. Janette walked across the carpet and opened the door for the second time that evening.

It was a gold bird cage on a tall stand, with a black bow at the very top. Inside was a sleek black bird wearing a red ribbon.

"Surprised?" asked Alma, peeing around the doorway.

With one fluid movement, Janette lifted the cage into the room, her other hand reaching out and snagging Alma's arm. Just as she got the vampiress into the room and the door closed, Sydney streaked by. He batted the closed door lightly with a gray paw, then headed back to the divan, where he proceeded with his grooming as if that has been his destination the entire time.

But Janette had no time to waste on a disgruntled feline and his abortive bid for freedom. Her attention was torn between the bird, which stared at her, unblinking, and Alma, who was positively beaming.

"It's a raven," said Alma proudly. "Like your club."

"I can see that."

"Sort of like a mascot. We'll take care of it and feed it and teach it to talk--"



There was more than a little hurt in Alma's tone, but Janette shook her head as she inspected the cage. "No. This is a club, not a menagerie." The raven cawed at her and she turned away from it, spying an interested Sydney looking on. "Whatever anyone might think. Take it back."

Alma hung her head. "All right. But, they're closed now. It's Christmas Eve."

Janette waved her hand and walked back to the desk. "After Christmas, then. Alma, you--and the others--have centuries ahead of you. Save your money. Invest it. Don't spend it on . . . pets." She shook her head again as she seated herself. "Really!"

"I'll take it back," promised Alma, giving the bird a wistful glance. "But . . . don't you want to go to Emile's?"

She sighed, looking down at the paperwork in front of her, then met Sydney's eyes again. "No. Someone has to show some common sense. And the animals should be looked after. Besides, he never plays enough jazz."

"I'll mention that to him," said Alma.

"See that you do." Janette smiled, nodding at the downcast vampiress. "Give everyone my regards. And, Merry Christmas, Alma."

"Yeah." Alma brightened, the tips of her fangs showing past her pearly smile. "To you, too, Janette. See you in the morning."

Wonder of wonders, Alma remembered to close the door quickly. Janette almost laughed at Sydney's frustrated leap from the divan to the door, but stopped herself when he fixed her with a glare. "You're here for the night," she told him. "Get used to it and behave yourself."

Outside, the music had died down from a dull roar to a hollow echo of silence. She could feel the absence of the others, of their thoughts, and feelings, and their sheer existence.

The raven cawed again, a harsh sound in the silence.

"Yes," agreed Janette. "It's quiet. But the proper atmosphere to do inventory." Glaring at Sydney, she rose to her feet and added, "Can I trust the two of you alone together? Or will there be an incident?"

Sydney looked away, studiously grooming his back paw. The raven hopped on his perch, then turned his back to her.

Shaking her head, Janette picked up a clipboard and pencil. Now she was talking to animals!

Joyeaux Noel, indeed!


She counted aloud--had been counting aloud--in a variety of languages, for the past twenty minutes, just to break the silence. The club was dark and quiet, a dismal feeling at night, when it should have been filled with thunderous sound and youthful bodies trying to grind themselves into oblivion. She'd even caught herself humming, but stopped that quickly enough. For now, she'd have to satisfy herself with the clink of bottles and the scratch of the pen against paper.

That's when she heard the voices.

They weren't particularly loud, or even hushed. And they seemed to be coming from her office. But how could that be? She'd left no radio or phonograph on. Only the animals were in there--a bird and a cat. Unless the bird could talk, for ravens could sometimes be trained to mimic a voice . . . .

Curious, Janette abandoned the clip board at the counter and moved quietly to the door. When placing her ear against the wood proved frustrating, she opened it a crack.

"--Won't be staying long, then."

She couldn't see, but she could hear. The flutter of feathers and a hoarse caw accompanied the statement. The bird could talk. Trust Alma not to mention the fact and scare her silly! Then again, knowing Alma, the bird probably hadn't gotten a chance to get a word in edgewise.

What a wonderful idea! The bird would hear a word like 'vampire' and suddenly everyone would know that her club was a meeting place for more than just the local trendsetters.

That's when she heard the second voice.

"Not that I'm any better off. There she goes, without a second thought to me." A soft yowl accented the comment. "But to leave me with them! I have enough problem figuring out the no-furs, but these others . . . they smell wrong. All wrong."

There was another flutter of feathers against the bars of the cage, accompanied by raucous laughter. "I've seen even their kind come and go. You're on--what--your second life?"

"Third," corrected the softer voice. "Why? How many lives do your kind have?"

"One. Forever. It's all the same life."

She heard a tingle of metal, Sydney's license jingling against his collar. "Really? It never ends? Even after the dark/cold?"

"Even after. You close your eyes. When you open them, your wings are smaller again, but you know everything you've always known, what every raven's known since the first."

"You have seen it all, then," said the cat's voice, with some amount of wonder. "How can you stand to be caged? I was in the box today. He's going to have a hard time putting me back in, I can promise you that."

The bird's answer was preceded by a long, low sound. "It will pass. It all does. I will close my eyes and open them and I will be small and in the world again. Until then, I will wait. And pass the time--hsst!"

She had leaned against the door and it had opened, the noise so small that even she could barely hear it. But the dark-eyed raven appeared to miss nothing. As she entered the room, he ducked his head and said, "Good Christmas, lady."

Eavesdropping from behind a door made it seem almost possible. But as she stood there, looking from the bird, to the cat, and back again, she found herself doubting her sanity. "Am I mad? Or dreaming?" She spun around, expecting to find the others had returned. "It's a trick, isn't it? Nicola has lent them some of his toys. They're hiding somewhere. Or someone's a ventriloquist."

"You're awake enough," said Sydney sharply. Diving from the couch, he padded over to her and tapped her ankle with his paw, his claws sheathed. "And no madder than before. Now pick me up."

Automatically, Janette lifted the cat into her arms, then nearly dropped him when she realized what had happened.

"Sssshush," warned the raven. "Let the lady be. You're only angry because she threatened to cage you again."

"He gouged my divan," protested Janette.

"Wouldn't if you'd given me a proper scratching post."

"Nicola didn't bring one. And I don't know what cats need." Sydney turned over in her arms and she stared at him. "I'm talking to a cat and a bird."

"Raven, if you please," corrected the bird. He hopped from the perch, to the floor of the cage and shook his sleek black feathers. "The clock has struck midnight. It's Christmas Eve." He paused, but when she continued to stare, he cocked his head at her. "Surely, lady, such a long-lived one as yourself must know the legends?"

"So few of the non-furred do," commented Sydney. He tucked his head under her hand. "Just behind the ears, please. Aaaah, that's it. You've got nice long claws. Not like my non-furred."

"But she's not a 'non-furred.' She's a sharp-tooth. They live longer." The raven fluttered again in the cage, seemingly perturbed, until Janette moved closer. "Lady, haven't you ever heard us talk?"

"No. Never."

Sydney stretched in her arms, flipping over on his stomach. "By 'us' he means what you call the 'voiceless.' Perhaps you've just never listened properly."

"I would have noticed," said Janette sharply, wondering if it was true that cats landed on all fours when you dropped them.

Sydney favored her with a yawn that ended in a cat smile. "You didn't notice I needed a scratching post."

"Enough," cawed the Raven. It fixed Janette with one beady eye. "From the last stroke of twelve until the stroke of one on Christmas Eve, all creatures share a common language. We understand one another. And you. And we have made a pact that during understanding we will not harm one another."

Janette glanced down at Sydney, her chances of proving the 'on all fours' wives' tale with live experimentation suddenly dashed. She met the Raven's gaze. "Then I could release you from the cage, and the cat would not chase you? That's so . . . unnatural. Predators do not make peace with their prey."

"Your kind speak to the no-furs all the time," said Sydney. "That sharp-tooth who brought me here--he speaks to my non-fur often."

She felt the hackles rise along the fur of his back and smoothed them with her hand. "You don't approve?" she asked, purring into his ear.

The cat snuggled into her embrace for a few seconds, then stiffened and leaped from her arms. "Kind stick to kind," he hissed, curling up on the divan. "Sharp-tooths should go away."

"Should we?" asked Janette, her own hackles rising. "And don't hiss at me! I've been hissed at by more dangerous creatures than you!"

"We shouldn't argue," warned the Raven.

Janette sat down on the divan, dumping Sydney to the floor. "Argue? With a cat and a bird? I am dreaming."

"You're long-lived," continued the Raven. "I know you've heard the stories. How far back does your memory go?"

"Longer than a cat or a bird," countered Janette.

Sydney hissed, then ducked under the divan as she swatted at him.

"Lady, be kind," said the Raven, his velvet tones broken by scratchy sounds. "The cat, perhaps--they have no more than nine lives. But mine goes back far longer than yours."

"Really?" Janette laughed and leaned forward. "And what, pray tell, have you see, Monsieur Raven?"

"I have seen the sky afire and the earth beneath water, the green destroyed and the green triumphant in return."

"Before the non-furred?" asked Sydney, peeking his head out from under the divan.

"And later," said the Raven. "I saw a man speak to a burning bush. I have seen a god born to a woman who traveled on a great tusked beast. And I have stood on a mountain of skulls and watched three men die against the sky."

"You say you have seen these things," said Janette, smirking. "But many could say likewise."

"I have seen a woman who would not be as others wished." The Raven fixed her with his beady gaze. "I saw her make a pact to win her freedom, but she was tricked into tighter chains. It was in a place of green hills and blue sky, where white marble rose to touch the clouds and crisp olives dressed the leaves--"

Something in Janette's throat tightened. Rising to her feet, she approached the cage. "Be careful," she warned the Raven. "There are things you have seen that I will not hear."

The Raven bowed his head. "My pardon, lady. But would you have me speak of the darker things I have seen?"

"Oh, the sharp-tooths like those," commented Sydney, sauntering out from beneath the divan. "What have you seen of them?"

"I have seen non-furs sprout paws and claws and fangs. I have heard voices with no flesh nor fur, nor feather nor scale, that screamed in the night. I have seen lights in the sky, smelled death in the wind, and heard thunder beneath the earth." The Raven paused. "If you will, lady, I may speak of your kind."

Janette ran her hand over the bars of the cage, her memory casting back through time, for the sight of a raven, any raven. "So, you have spied on us?"

The Raven fluttered his wings and returned to his perch. "We observe, only. We do not judge. We watch. And we remember all that we see."

"And what will you remember of us?" asked Janette, peering through the golden bars of the cage. "Fangs and flashing eyes? Flight and fury? Blood--?"

"Much blood," agreed the Raven, looking to the bottom of the cage. "Oceans of blood." But then he looked up, turning his head to fix her with one eye. "But I have also seen your kind laugh and love and live among the non-furs in the darkness. And I have seen your kind grow warm and breathe and live beneath the sun, age and grow old as the short-lived no-furs, and pass into darkness."

"You lie!" hissed Janette, turning away from the cage. "There is no way back across!"

Sydney rubbed against her bare ankle to get her attention. "I've heard ravens have forked tongues," he whispered.

"I speak the truth," cawed the Raven loudly. "Believe it or not as you wish, it makes no difference to me."

She was about to turn, ready to throttle the bird with her own hands, when she remembered what he had said about the olives and the marble. Janette paused, considering his words. "It would be magic," she said softly, mulling over the idea in her mind. "A miracle."

"A simple transformation," stated the Raven. "I have seen a statue to turn flesh, to live and love a non-fur. I have seen a light shine for eight days from a temple, where there should have been darkness. I followed the path of three wealthy men across mountain and endless sand, to kneel at the foot of a non-furred cub's crib."

She heard the Raven flutter his wings against the cage again. "You, too, have seen many things, lady. You have seen, but you have not always observed or understood. Some you accept. Some you deny. But there are miracles. There is magic, call it whatever name you wish. Non-furs who would have died before, now live. Land that would have been left for waste, now flourishes. Fur and fish and fowl who would have disappeared into darkness are still in the world. There are many miracles, lady. They come in all sizes."

"There are ways to go back across?" she asked, almost to herself.

"So I have said."

"You've seen it done?"

"A half dozen times, if not more."

Janette turned on her heel and caught the Raven with a steady gaze. "How?" she demanded, walking toward the cage. "How is it done?"

A lesser creature would have wilted beneath that gaze, swooning in charm or fear, paralyzed by her force of will. But the Raven was no lesser creature, as she was beginning to understand. It met her eyes evenly and, for the first time, she felt herself in the grip of something older than herself, older even than her master, LaCroix.

"Would you know, lady?' asked the Raven, his silken voice smooth and sweet . . . and unnerving. "I will tell you the truth, if you ask. On this night, I can speak only the truth. But do you wish to know the truth? What once is heard cannot be unheard. Think, before you ask to hear this thing."

Stunned, she looked down to find Sydney rubbing against her ankles again. "Don't ask," he warned her. "No-furs cannot bear the truth. And from what I've seen of you sharp-tooths, well . . . you prefer dark lies."

Janette almost answered, but stopped herself. Did she want to know the ways to go back across? Not for herself--she was happy as she was. But should there come a day when she found herself in love with a mortal, or when she could no longer bear the moonlight laced with blood and death . . . would it not be reassuring to know there was a way to escape what she had chosen to bring upon herself?

And--Nicola. If she knew, she could not hide the secret from him for long. It was what he most desired. He would promise his undying love and gratitude for such a gift, then would turn mortal and leave her and her world forever, in so short a span of time. She could live somewhere other than Nicola for long periods--she wasn't obsessed, after all. To live forever if Nicola were not somewhere, to laugh at her vanities, chide her for her foolishness, and hold her against the bright and fatal sunshine--that would be a hard thing to bear.

To see Nicola's eyes when the sadness and despair came upon him, to know that she had this chance to save him and did not take it--that would be hard to bear, also.

"Tell me," she said suddenly, whirling and turning back to the cages. She held onto the bars to keep her balance, feeling suddenly lightheaded, inebriated. "Tell me how, Raven. I want to know."

The Raven ducked his head solemnly. "As I promised, I will tell what you ask." His eyes brightened as he turned his head, one eye fixed upon hers. "There is a--Awwwwk!"

The sound was loud and brutal. Janette released the bars of the cage and almost fell, but righted herself quickly. "What? Tell me. What must I know?"

The Raven looked up at her. "Caw! Caw-cawwwwk!"

Just then, she heard the chime of the small clock on her desk toll once--and only once. The hour had ended, as the Raven had said, as the stories had said. They no longer shared a common language. That single hour of Christmas grace was gone.

The Raven could not speak.

Janette found herself speechless--with anger. The sounds she made were guttural,unintelligible, as she cleared her desk with a sweep of her hand, threw an ashtray and glass against the wall to watch them shatter, pounded upon the floor, the wall, the hard wood of the desk . . . until there was little strength left in her.

With the end of the fury came the end of her strength. Like a blind man, she stumbled to her cabinet, opened it and rummaged for some of her private vintage. She pried the cork from the bottle with her long nails, then tilted her head back and drank, sinking to the floor as she did so. Only dimly did she realize that Sydney had left the relative refuge of the space beneath the divan to sit beside her, rubbing the length of his body along her leg.

A few moments more and she licked her lips, the last trickles of blood coming from the bottle. The warmth that spread through her was due to more than the blood. She'd lost control. Losing control meant destruction. It didn't happen often, but she hated when it did.

Carefully setting the bottle aside, she wiped the smudged makeup from her face with a handkerchief that rested on the cabinet, then smoothed back her hair with her hand in one fluid motion. Yes. She was herself again. This was a disappointment, but she'd gained some small victory this night.

She knew there was a way across.

Furrowing her brow, she looked down at Sydney and sighed. "Well, cat, now we know. We know that Nicola isn't doomed in his quest for mortality. The question is, do we tell him?"

Sydney's answer was a long, low yowl.

Which, to her ears, was no answer at all.

By the time Nicola arrived, she'd managed to hide the evidence of most o her tantrum. True, she'd had to change her dress--from black leather with studs to black lace with ribbons--and fix her makeup, but Janette was certain after carefully scrutiny in the mirror that Nicola would never notice that she'd had a little 'episode.' Men so seldom did notice those things, if one was careful.

His tap on the door was hesitant. She never looked up from the mirror s placed on the desk top, where she was arranging her hair. "Come in, Nicola."

She heard the door close behind him and the soft step of his boots upon carpet, but still she fussed with a pin that would not stay in place--until a package wrapped in horribly clashing red and green paper was thrust beneath her nose, obscuring her view of the mirror. "Merry Christmas," said Nicola, lightly nuzzling her ear, before stepping away.

For the moment, Janette tried to ignore the sudden warmth that rushed through her at his nearness and concentrated on the present, which she'd snatched from his hand as soon as it came into view. Her nails made quick work of the wrapping and she allowed it to fall to the floor as she opened the box.

The bracelet was exquisite--gold and emeralds--and a quick look at the b confirmed her suspicion. "This is the same design he made for the Duchess Alexandra. When I asked if Henri could copy it, you bribed him to say no, then had him make one for me. Nicola, what a cheat you are!"

She turned in time to see him flash a grin at her. He stood beside the raven's cage. "If you don't like it--" he said, in mock worry, walking toward her. "I can send it back."

Janette snatched her wrist away, the bracelet already dangling from it, pressed the cold metal to her lips. "I shall treasure it always." Then she dropped her arm and leaned forward, touching her lips lightly to his. "Just as I treasure you."

Nicola backed away, after a moment, returning to the bird cage. Hands i the pockets of his leather jacket, he walked first one way, then another, surveying it. "It seems I'm not the only admirer to bring you gifts tonight."

"Oh, yes." She waved her hand, enjoying the brief sparkle as the light caught the stones set in her gold bracelet, then joined him beside the cage. "A gift from Alma. And the others."

"Does he talk?"

Her heart paused in her throat, momentarily stifling any attempt she mad speech. But, somehow, reason won. "Why, yes. Of course." She leaned forward to tap her fingernails against one of the cage bars. "The raven, Sydney, and I have had a lovely conversation this evening." When Nicola stared blankly at her through the bars, she met his gaze quite seriously. "Nicola--you can't tell me that you've never heard that animals can speak on Christmas Eve?"

When his lips curled into a smile, she knew her secret was safe. "That story was old when I came across," he chided. Then he looked away from the bird. "And speaking of Sydney--"

Janette walked to the divan and reached beneath it, pulling the reluctan cat from his hiding place. "He's here. Unharmed. And not a sneeze from him." She cradled Sydney in her arms and he settled against her, purring contentedly. "I should think that if you take that mohair sweater away from him, he should be all right. Next time you watch someone's pets, find out if they have allergies."

To her satisfaction, Nicola frowned suspiciously. "How did you know--?"

She reached down and unwound a long white thread from one of Sydney's cl which she deposited in Nicola's outstretched hand, never losing her grip on the contented feline. "Really, Nicola, you must learn to observe your surroundings. You're supposed to be a detective, are you not?"

His fist closed over the white thread. "I am. And this wouldn't stand in a court of law. It's circumstantial." His frown deepened as he walked over to her divan and knelt by the damaged leg. "Unlike this. Janette, I'm sorry. I didn't think--"

"It's only furniture," she said, with forced gaiety. "Old furniture, at that. I was thinking of having it replaced--"

"By even older furniture?"

She matched his smile. Still stroking the cat, she walked over to the b cage. "Was your night uneventful?"

"Yes, luckily enough. Christmas Eve can get weird some times, but this everything was dead. I noticed you closed the club early."

Her back toward him, she shrugged slightly. "Not much of a crowd. You could say it was 'dead' here, too. The others had parties to attend. I told them to close."

He was behind her, passing her without touching, then walking around the cage. Now it was his turn to play with the golden bars, to test their pitch with a flick of his finger. "I'm sorry if Sydney's presence detained you."

"Not at all. I didn't feel much like a party this year." She looked up eyes meeting his. "I was hoping we could spend the day together. Reminiscing, if you like. About old times."

His expression darkened and she cursed herself for handling the matter i such a clumsy fashion. Nicola turned away, but she could see the tension in his shoulders, the sudden wall he'd thrown up around himself. "No, I don't think so."

"You are such a boor, sometimes." When he turned, stunned, she pouted. "Yes, that's right. Have done with it, Nicola--admit what you are. LaCroix is gone and he was the one who made it difficult for us, for you. It's Christmas. Be at peace with yourself, at least for one day a year."

Her chiding seemed to have had an effect. He walked away, but she could the hesitation in him. "There is no peace for me. Not until I know there's a way back. Not until I'm certain--"

Sydney tensed in her arms. She continued stroking the cat's fur and loo down, at the carpet. Here was the moment. If she was to tell him, ever tell him, it would be now.

Or never.

This time it was she who walked behind him. "There is no way back across," she whispered, her voice low, but firm. "Tonight, today, Nicola, be what you are. Be with me."

With a wild yowl, Sydney exploded from her arms. His claws raked into h bare skin and she released him, pulling back with a cry. Nicola caught the cat in mid-leap, but encountered no resistance from the angered feline.

Just as quickly, he was by her side, leading her to the couch. "Bad Sid Bad. Janette--he's usually not like that--"

She sat down with all gentility, her hands held demurely in her lap, as dabbed at her cuts with his handkerchief, his other hand gripping most of Sydney, who was trying to escape. It took all of her willpower not to lick the oozing red line that ran down from her bracelet to her forearm, but she refrained. "Cats have claws, Nicola. It's to be expected. At least Sydney's honest with his. Most keep theirs hidden."

Taking his hand, she paused, waiting for him to meet her eyes. "I'm afr I left my gift for you at my flat. Meet me there." She bit back the word 'please' before it could escape her lips.

He seemed to note the omission. This time, he hesitated only briefly, t nodded. "All right. But I hope you've gotten your wide-screen TV fixed. The game should be spectacular."

Sighing, Janette rose from the divan. "Sports! Nicola, we've spent the better part of eight centuries together, learned countless 'games' that are far more amusing, and you want to watch a televised sporting event?"

But when she faced him, he was smiling. And she knew that he was only teasing. "Go!" she said, pointing to the box he'd brought with him. "Collect your cat toys. You can leave that feline at your own flat for the day. I can't see that he could do any worse there than he's done here--especially if you keep that sweater or whatever else it is out of his reach."

Nicola hurriedly bundled Sydney's artifacts into the box, not paying all that much attention to the spilled food and water he scattered across the floor. He was just about to try to stuff Sydney into the cat carrier--the feline screeching loudly--when Janette put a hand on his shoulder. Gesturing toward the large cardboard box, she said, "He doesn't like to be caged up. Toss him in the box. That should save your car upholstery."

Sydney's gaze, which had been hate-filled until that point, softened considerably. She nodded at the cat, then turned her back to them. "I have to lock up here. By the time you drop off the cat--"

"I'll see you there."

She turned, then walked toward the office door, opening it for him. For moment, he paused. "Janette, thank you. I can't tell you how much I appreciate your taking care of Sydney--"

"You can tell me in detail . . . later." Leaning forward, she planted a kiss on his cheek, then stood at the doorway, watching him make his way through the darkened club, Sydney's eyes peering over the top of the box at her.

Once he was gone, she turned toward the cage. The raven stared at her. much did he know, or remember? She'd never given much thought to animal, or bird, intelligence before. Was what he claimed to know still locked within him, beyond her reach? Would she have to wait a year to get an answer to her question?

Did she want her question answered?

Janette walked quickly to the door of the cage and opened it. Thrusting hand inside, she caught the bird. He fought, but once outside the cage she could control him easily with two hands. She exited her office and made her way to the back of the club, to the freight door that opened onto the alley.

The metal door was cold, letting forth an inhuman cry from frozen hinges it opened into the alley. The early morning sky was still dark; stars shone brightly against the blue-black velvet. There was a three-quarter moon in the sky, but it was partially hidden from view by sporadic clouds. And the lightest of snowflakes trickled downward, adding to the several feet of snow already piled against the walls of the alley.

Holding the raven in her hands, she stared into its eyes. "You said you would tell me the truth and you tried--we simply ran out of time," she said softly. "You were right. I don't want to know. I'll give you your freedom. But you must do something for me."

The black eyes stared at her, unblinking. Janette licked her lips and continued. "If you are all the same, have the same memories, remember this--I will not have your kind here again. If you or any like your kind come again, especially on this night, I will wring your feathered neck and drink your heart's blood before you can utter a sound."

With that, she tossed the bird skyward. His wings hadn't been clipped f captivity, so that after a faltering start, he soared upward, into the darkness of the night. Her keen eyes watched him, until she was certain that he was gone. Only then did she close the door, barring it from the inside.

Janette paused for a moment, back against the cold steel door, wondering whether she'd done the right thing, and knowing that this decision would be replayed in her memory time and again. Now that it had been done, it wouldn't be undone. She'd see to that. And with the ravens warned to stay away, there was only one more witness to her treachery.

Smiling as she headed back to her office to get her wrap and car keys, s wondered what Nicola would say when she volunteered to cat-sit for Sydney next Christmas Eve and the Christmas Eve after.

There were, after all, only six cat-lives worth of Christmas Eves left before her secret would be safe . . . forever.

The End.