our breath rose in the cold like a hundred souls escaping

It's funny, but New York City never changes. Horse-drawn carriages turn to automobiles, telephones turn portable, the sky becomes filled with airplanes. Buildings come down, buildings go up; it's not your grandmama's world, but Vincenzo Santorini can't say that he finds things so terribly different. The trees and birds and dogs and cats and people crowding the sidewalks are all still there, and maybe the scene dressings change a little but not enough to really get to him. Then again he's been alive for over a hundred years, so maybe that has something to do with it. Not much surprises him anymore.

"You're staring."

"At you?"

"Occasionally. Mostly past my right shoulder, though."

It's not that nothing surprises him, actually. Audrey Ramirez surprises him, for instance. Like he knows that with their crystals they won't age for a long time, but she doesn't look a day over twenty. Like he knows she's rich (anyone involved with Atlantis is, of course; that's the nature of the place and its exclusive trading rights), but she's still got grease on her nose half the time. Like he knows she's got men chasing after her, important men, politicians and princes and that king, once (she snorts every time anyone reminds her of it); but the tension's between them, hanging in the air between them every time they've met; at the diner or at the bar or the disco or over coffee, and right now eating donuts, for so many decades now. So really, what surprises him is that they still sit here like friends. It surprises him that he hasn't come up with a good way to break it, and he wonders that she never takes things into her own hands.

"Sometimes I think I'm going to move out of this crazy city," Audrey says musingly, half a donut hanging from her fingers like a cigarette.

Vinny raises an eyebrow. "You really think you could tear yourself away? The traffic, the smog; how could you give it up? And hey, it's winter, you can't smell the sewage."

She pops the donut into her mouth and chews, smirking slightly. "Ay, por favor. You love it here. You don't think it smells like sewage."

"We're talking about you, aren't we? You do." He flags a waitress, who pours him another cup of coffee. "Where're you gonna go?"

This is not the first time they've had this conversation. Normally she says she'll move to Atlantis (the proposition is more and more unlikely with each passing year as immigration laws get more restrictive there); she doesn't bother now.

Audrey shrugs; swirls her coffee around in her mug, then takes a gulp. "So maybe I won't."

"You'd find some reason to stay, anyway."

"Claro que sí." A final swallow of coffee and her coat's hanging off her shoulders; it was all one motion. Vinny throws a few bucks down on the table and follows her outside.

It's cold, even for February, and the two of them stand there for a quiet, frozen moment, hands shoved deep into their coat pockets. She opens her mouth; for a second before she speaks her face is wreathed in her fogged breath. "So maybe this thing with us is a reason to stay."

There's a long pause, filled by a car rolling by, headlights sliding across their faces and slush splashing towards their feet. This is a new addition to the conversation, but he gives her an unruffled look. "Maybe."

This is close; as close an acknowledgement as either of them has ever made. Probably as close as they ever will. Audrey watches him, her eyes hooded by unruly bangs, mouth pursed in an expectant pout, and he finally shrugs. "We've been doing this a long time."

"No kidding."

They'll have a long time to keep doing it. There's suddenly something stifling about it, all those years drawing their lives stretched and thin. For forever. Well, as good as forever. There's something to be destroyed here; there's a delicate balance to be overturned. Infinity makes decisions brittle.

The first winter after his family immigrated to America, they had a little basement room in their building that was cold as hell, with an old window that froze over with ice, thin as a strip of parchment paper. For days, once, he worked with a little blade from the kitchen to separate the ice from the pane, because he was a kid and because it seemed important, only to have it shatter in his hands when he finally got it free.

He sees some similarities, here.

Maybe Audrey sees some of this in his eyes; maybe it's his hanging hesitation. Maybe she's just having the same thoughts herself. "Maybe we should forget this," she says, and there's no indication that she was invested (except maybe the way her arms holding her hands in her pockets have gotten slightly more rigid).

In their lives, there's been a lot of forgetting. A lot of living one way and thinking another and holding up that mask to the rest of the world, and truthfully none of them have handled everything in the preceding century that well; they have all botched their immortality in one way or another. Some things have been fixed, some not. Some things, it was hard to know they needed fixing.

"No," Vinny finally says, "I don't think we should."

There's more relief in that sentence than he knew he was waiting for. Audrey exhales, which he sees, rather than hears, in the cloud of breath rising from her face. Something goes with that breath, and they'll find out if it was right or wrong to let it go.

But the silence and inaction between them is becoming awkward, and what good's an admission when you've been mired in habits so long that you don't even know how to begin breaking them?

With a sigh, he takes a hand out of his pocket and holds it out, like an offering. "Let's start here, okay?"

Her hesitation is only momentary, more a product of inertia than anything else. They've grasped each other's hands many times before, in one or another life-or-death situation, but there's something kind of nice about just standing here like this, noticing that the callouses on their palms are in different places and that her knuckles are chapped from the cold.

She meets his eyes; offers him a smile, with a "So far, so good," and then she hesitates before adding, "Things will be good."

"See, that's what I like about you, Audrey. You're an optimist."

There's a puff of wind, noticeable only for the biting chill in it, and it looks like it takes Audrey's breath away. "Let's go," she says suddenly. "Anywhere. Somewhere neither of us has been."

He lets himself curl his fingers around hers (it's not hard; her hands are small). "That shouldn't be too hard here." Of course, they're already someplace neither of them has been.

There will be more, later.

This is fine for now.