The rising rays shattered the crisp morning atmosphere, glistening on the snow coating the pines and lining the edge of the road. Breath misted from the mouths of the four youngest McCallister sons as they trudged up the street, the latter two with worn pairs of ice skates slung over their shoulders. Rearden peered across the property behind the barbed wire fence on the right side of the street. The wooden home in the midst of the frozen grass seemed still, and the pool behind it reflected the sunlight.
"McVicker has the Rottweiler with him," he explained in a deep murmur, as a precaution. "Assuming he has gone to see family, we should be in the clear until this afternoon."
They continued up the road until they reached the area where they could see the iced pond at the rear of the property. The reeds provided an acceptable amount of concealment, but the surface with visible. Rearden parted the barbed wire strands to allow his brothers, and then himself, to sneak between them and trek to the edge of the ice.
Alasdair dropped down to a relatively smooth rock and kicked away his shoes. He yanked a tarnished skate over one sock with a groan. "Gavin, give me the ones you have. These are really tight."
"No, those are enormous," answered Gavin as he seated himself beside him. "And so are your feet."
"You must be joking. I grew out of these skates when I was ten."
Rearden snorted with amusement as he peered around with his back to them. "Alasdair, those are big on me, too. Sorry, lad, but the problem isn't the skates."
"You sure there's no one here?" Gavin asked as he laced the skates and eased himself upright.
"Saw McVicker drive away fifteen minutes ago. Stop agonizing over that prune. I'll be at the corner of the property by the wire. Liam, go to the other side of the pond and make sure no one comes that way."
"All right. I'll use the sparrow call if I see anyone," Liam crashed through the cattails and vanished.
"This ice is thin," Gavin mused and pressed one blade at a time on the pond. Alasdair approached behind and gave him a shove, sending his arms darting out to the side as his legs wavered beneath him.
"So what if it is?" he teased with a smile and coasted around him and circled the rim. "We drop through the ice, swim to the edge, and we go home to dry out and warm up."
Rearden stared down the street at the sound of an approaching engine where he remained concealed behind a pine. The soft tones of Gavin and Alasdair's voice flecked with eagerness were scarcely audible. The irregular stream of cars proved to not be a threat to their covert mission. Soon, Alasdair emerged through the reeds with a raised pair of skates in his grasp.
"Here," he gave them to Rearden as they passed each other and secured his post where the view was sufficient. The skates were loose no matter how much he yanked the laces, but he managed to glide across the ice with speed by the time Liam appeared and drifted to the middle.
"Remember when Alasdair was too restless to guard?" Rearden said as he encircled Liam, whose breath erupted into a gust of steam when he chuckled.
"That was last week, Rearden," he teased. "Listen, a magpie came skipping up to the door—"
"And what? Someone's going to die?"
His brother stared down at the ice as wind whispered across the pines and oaks. He shook his head and smiled wanly. "Nevermind."
Crunching snow startled their eyes to where Alasdair was crashing through the reeds and parted the cattails to see his brothers. "Calder is at the street. Ma wants us home to eat breakfast."
Rearden and Liam exchanged a glance.
"We'll be home as soon as we get these skates off," Rearden said as he reached the stone at the edge and dropped down to remove them. Alasdair traipsed around the pond to see where Gavin positioned himself. He disappeared into the silence of the woods behind the pond until Calder came struggling through the barbed wire fence and met the two brothers at the rocks.
"Ma made me promise not to return without you. I assume she knew you would get distracted."
"Clearly, Alasdair and Gavin are the two you're referring to," Rearden stated as he scanned the area around them to no avail.
Calder released a sharp breath. "Go get them."
"They know the way back."
At that moment, Alasdair came sprinting toward the pond with rounded aquamarine eyes. "Get to the street! McVicker came back with the Rottweiler!"
Calder cursed under his breath and rushed toward the barbed wire with his brothers behind him. Rearden stopped at the wire and ushered Liam and Alasdair through, and then Gavin. The Rottweiler leapt out of the silver Acura and came racing out the mouth of the gravel drive a moment before Calder would have passed it. He skidded to a stop and raised his arm in defense in time for the growling dog to latch onto it with bared teeth.
"Get him away!" Calder shouted to the man standing beside his house with crossed arms. "Make him let go of my arm!"
Alasdair sprinted toward the man, shouting similar demands while Liam sprinted to their property and Gavin reached the confrontation to shove the dog. Rearden darted to the edge of the street to snatch a pine branch and returned to the dog to pry his clamped jaws apart. Calder winced as a whimper escaped him, scarcely audible among the growling of the Rottweiler and Alasdair's screaming. He managed to wrench his arm loose with the prying and reeled back.
"Come home, Blitz," called McVicker.
Rearden steadied his brother by his other arm while Gavin rushed to the house to unearth their medical supplies. Alastair trotted back in time to catch the wrist of Calder's injured arm as he staggered down the sloped street and toward their home.
"I really hate blood," he mentioned insipidly.
"I know," Rearden consoled as Eagan rushed past an anxious Liam at the property line.
"I'm going to kill that man," he snarled as he snatched the wounded arm and inspected the trace amounts of blood that seeped through the punctures in his navy canvas jacket.
"What are you planning to do?" Liam continued to tremble with adrenaline as they passed him and made their way through the side door.
"You leave that to us," Rearden answered. "Eagan and I will do something tonight. The less the rest of you know, the better."
Gavin was darting around the house, removing medical supplies out of every cabinet and setting them on the kitchen table, where Callum awaited them with a drawn chair. Cairbre assisted Abigeál in shoving the breakfast plates and omelets to the opposite side as Calder dropped down into his seat and Callum removed his coat. The eldest brother then unbuttoned the sleeve at his wrist and gently rolled it up to his elbow. Calder shuddered at the blood that trickled down his arm until Eagan gave his cheek a smart slap and crouched down beside him.
"Don't you dare look at it. We are not going to mop up your puke and peel you up off the floor."
"Nail him for me, all right?" Calder murmured down to him.
"Promised we would."
"The rest of you ought to start eating," Abigeál advised as she poured the peroxide on a cotton ball. "I will let Calder eat as soon as he's positive he can keep it down."
Calder breathed in and out as steadily as he could while his mother bandaged his arm and his brothers and father started eating. He closed his eyes and counted the ticks of the grandfather clock, listened to the song of a wren outside, and cringed at the sharp barking of Blitz.
When he swallowed his last bite, Eagan rose and slapped Calder on the shoulder. "Get up so I can beat your –" Abigeál slammed the door, "—at darts."
Calder stood with silent compliance and made it to the room they shared, still in a daze. He rummaged around a drawer for their darts and emerged with about six. He gave three to Eagan and positioned himself at about the middle of the room with one eye squeezed closed. After aiming with his left hand, he fired the dart into the bull's-eye of the target.
"Perfect," Eagan griped and positioned himself. "You're as accurate with your left hand as your right."
"I practice in between assignments."
"I'm not going easy on you by using the same hand."
"All right. You're showing enough pity by playing darts with me."
"Well, if that's the standard of pity," Eagan mused as he poked his tongue out of one side of his mouth and sent the dart right outside the bull's-eye, "you must have a lot toward me. We both know you'd rather have anyone else in the same room."
"Can't deny that."
Eagan chuckled with amusement. His brother withdrew the dart and started to aim an instant before the door opened and Rearden appeared with massive eyes.
"Cease fire!" Eagan roared. "Rearden, you might want to knock."
"Yes, I do," he slammed the door and crossed the room to collapse onto their mattress. "Can't say I've imagined me death would be something so stupid."
"I have" Eagan admitted, and groaned as Calder took his shot and scored closer to the middle again.
"I cannot even imagine how bloody pleased I will be to sleep in an actual bed," Rearden rued as he stared at their game beneath leaden eyelids. Calder snorted with sarcastic amusement.
"Look who I have to share with."
"Pity," Eagan mused as he aimed his dart and fired it several inches outside his target. "Calder has to sleep alone several nights in a row."
"Please. That is the one highlight in our arrangement."
Calder aimed his last dart and sent it toward the target. The dart penetrated the bull's-eye again. Eagan snorted and gave him a shove toward the back of the door. "Game over. Get out and help Ma in the kitchen or something while we plan."
"Do you suppose we should get Liam?" Rearden asked.
"Ma asked him to help her choose which carols to sing tonight," Eagan said as he crossed his arms and leaned his back against the wall. "Easier if only the two of us know, anyway."
"All right. Whatever we do, we have two rules. The first: No physical damage to anyone. The second: We cannot do anything so severe that it will render what McVicker did void."
Eagan snorted and rolled his eyes. "Right. We can all stand around his house and sing kumbaya. That should teach him a lesson."
"I'm serious. We do anything illegal or severely damage property, we divert attention from what he and that Rottweiler did to Calder."
Eagan cursed beneath his breath. "Let me hear your ideas."
After several ideas and arguments, they laid out a simple plan and set out within the hour. Their mother was particularly distracted with planning a caroling party that evening, and as a result, she managed to distract most everyone else in the family. The atmosphere was frigid and overcast at that point, but the two sons were as steadfast in their plans as their mother was in hers.
"He doesn't appear to be home at this angle," Rearden murmured as he peered above the barbed wire he was crouching behind. Eagan searched the property with keen eyes.
"Avoid complacency. Get to the house."
The two stretched ski masks over their faces and adjusted their ebony coats. Eagan parted the wire and Rearden squeezed through. The latter returned the gesture, and they sneaked toward the house from behind. Rearden pinned himself against the white planks and peered around the edge.
"The dog should be somewhere on the property."
Eagan gave a patronizing nod. "So keep an eye out."
"Get me something to use."
"Ladder, moron," Eagan pointed past him to the metal ladder laid against the side of the garage.
Rearden edged to the gap between the house and stooped down beside the ladder to gently raise it above the concrete. He edged backwards and behind the house again and propped it up to lay it silently against the gutter. Eagan gripped the side as he stepped up the rails and onto the roof. There, he removed one wooden Merry Christmas sign and passed it down to Eagan to be splashed into the pool.
"Silently," Rearden hissed down. "Blitz might be around."
He reached for a jolly plastic Santa and five cheery snowmen to pass down one at a time, with a plop in the water in between each. He crawled around the roof until he was positive there was nothing more, then peered down to his brother.
"That was all we have up here."
"Get on your stomach while I kill the power."
Rearden sprawled across the shingles with misted breath, staring at the moon ahead. Suddenly, everything disappeared into darkness. He raised himself up again and reached over the edge to pull up and coil the string of colored lights. When he dropped these down to Eagan, his brother pitched up a roll of toilet paper. Rearden ripped a couple squares away and unraveled it slightly. He set it on the shingles and gave it a push, so that the shingles were covered in a path. Eagan cast a second into the closest barren tree so that it looped over the branches and dropped back down.
The area was moderately covered when the distant merry choir of "Jingle Bell Rock" set their hearts thundering. Rearden scrambled to the middle of the ladder and leapt down with a strangled gasp. "Me ankle is sprained!"
The snarling visage of the Rottweiler appeared at the window and sent him sprawling to the ground with surprise. Eagan hauled him up and gave him a shove. "Go! They're going to ask where you are."
"I'd look more suspicious going than staying."
Rearden agreed and shoved his coat and ski mask into his arms before sprinting down the sloped pasture. He scrambled between the barbed wires rather gingerly and rushed to sneak into the crowd coming up from the gas station at the base of the street as they started into the Wassailing song. Liam gave an approving nod and pointed out the burrs in his shoes with sparkling emerald eyes. Rearden pulled himself aside to remove as many as he could.
Soon, the entire crowd was past the McCallister house singing "Silent Night" into the crisp air, past the moonlight glistening in the snow, while Eagan stole back to the empty home with an armload of gear. He entered the kitchen to the aroma of turkey and sneaked into the bottom drawer of one column, where a wine bottle laid on its side. He cringed, but removed it anyway.
The stars disappeared into the night sky by the time the family arrived home. Callum attended the oven immediately to retrieve and prepare its contents before excusing himself and darting back out.
Raindrops dripped from the pines, splashing against December snow and strengthening it into ice. A steady drip splashed into a metal pail in the middle of the fire station, where York stared out the window at the steady rain and Jarah stood above the small Christmas tree in the corner to straighten the angel. He admired the pine with a smile. "And there you have it."
"Looks nice, Charlie Brown," Xavier simpered and inspected the cards he had been dealt by Justice moments earlier. There was a soft rap against the door, and Justice rose to answer it. There, he discovered a man with a rosiness in his porcelain cheeks and a cardboard box in his arms. Eyes as clear as glacier ice edged down to the crushed foil within the box.
"Hello. I apologize if I have interrupted anything, but I assumed you could use a rather late meal."
"We appreciate the meal," Justice smiled and moved aside. "Please, come inside."
"I could never intrude—"
"You can't intrude," Jarah assured him as he rose and pressed a shoulder against the door frame. Callum darted his eyes around the room before he gave a reluctant nod and shook the last raindrops out of his dark hair. Jarah released a smile when he entered. "You can set that on the kitchen table, Callum."
The man started with mild surprise as he complied. "You know me?"
"My name is Jarah Morgan. Your brothers have spoken well of you. Can I take your coat?"
"Thank you, but I—" Callum's sentence withered away when he noticed the droplets all over his thin black coat and gave another reluctant nod. "Yes, thank you."
He peeled away his coat and passed it to Jarah, who dropped it onto the corner of an open door while the captain Justice Peterson introduced himself and the others.
"It's a pleasure to meet you all," Callum answered.
"More like our pleasure," Xavier chuckled. "You brought food."
"Yes, a roasted turkey and cranberry chutney with a canister of tea."
Heat rose to his complexion as he strove to say something else, but another rapping at the door spared him. The firemen exchanged curious glances as Jarah darted to answer it again. A woman with strawberry ringlets and an infant swaddled in her arms wiped her eyes with one wrist.
"Merry Christmas, ma'am."
The woman shivered and pressed a kiss to the head of the child. "I need you to take her for me."
"We can do that for you."
"She is two days old," she extended child to him as she uncurled with a surprised wail. "Eliza Lee."
"All right," Jarah received her into his arms and stroked the carnation woven blanket in an attempt to soothe the girl. "We appreciate your bringing her to us."
"Take care of her."
"We promise we will. Merry Christmas."
"And take this bracelet here," Justice appeared beside him. "We will match your daughter with one, in case you decide to reclaim her."
The woman accepted the bracelet and gave a watery smile as she disappeared again. The child started to scream, so Jarah bounced her gently on his hip with a "you're all right." Callum stared with astonished eyes.
"The poor child!" he exclaimed. "What was all that?"
"Safe Haven Law," Justice explained between cries. "A mother can surrender her newborn to a fire station, no questions asked. Prevents them from acting in panic and doing something rash."
"She has a siren on her, little rascal," Xavier mused as he laid his cards down again.
"I would, if I was her," York started rummaging through the cabinets above the kitchen sink until he discovered a bottle. Callum remained in statue mode as he observed the men hustle around the station.
"May I help in some way?"
"You have already done us good," Jarah sent him a smile. "Get some diapers out, Xavier."
"Yes, Saint," Xavier mocked.
"Go," Justice ordered.
"Allow me to get out of your way, then," Callum snatched his coat from the door and reached his arms into the sleeves as swiftly as he could. "I appreciate your inviting me in."
"We appreciate your generosity. Merry Christmas!"
"Merry Christmas," Callum sent one last smile over his shoulder and closed the door behind him.
Rain showered down on the windshield as Callum drove up the street he lived on only to have the keys snatched out of his hand the moment he emerged from the crimson van. Rearden gave him a slap on the back and leapt into the seat to reverse onto the street again and drive to one of the churches about fifteen minutes above them.
By the time he arrived, he could hear the lovely and angelic sound of handbells playing "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen." He opened a sanctuary door and sneaked inside to see Hannah standing in the choir risers with one of the smaller pairs of bells. She met his eyes and sent him a rosy smile, which he returned. The rain and slushed into snow, and he was coated in it. But a couple in the rear pew squeezed aside so that he could seat himself beside them, and that is exactly what he did to relax the remainder of the evening.