It was a cold day in Metro City, which was not unusual for the latter half of December, but the raw wind whistling down from the north bit through bare skin and ordinary winter clothing. Even indoors, any room with windows even slightly oriented toward the north felt the chill of the stiff wind; it cut through all but the most heavily insulated glass like the teeth of a piranha slicing through tissue paper.

As that simile flitted through the thoughts of Warden Thurmer, sitting at the same old desk in the same old office in the same old underfunded facilities of the Metro City Prison for the Criminally Gifted, it brought back memories of the many holidays he'd spent in charge here. He'd watched the place change, first from a fairly standard state prison to a gleaming state of the art facility, and now to another tarnished and tired victim of too much mandatory sentencing and too many budget cuts. He tried not to dwell too long on the memories stirred up by thoughts of a toothy fish and his blue-skinned master, for that inevitably brought with it a tangle of conflicting emotions he was simply getting too old and too tired to fight with any longer.

Still, he mused, wondering if it would do any good to try turning up the thermostat a few notches, those memories weren't quite as painful as they had been a mere year and a half ago. Certainly, young Blue had crushed his heart and ground it under his heel when he'd chosen a criminal career as the self-styled villain Megamind, but in some ways, Thurmer couldn't help but feel that he was at least partly to blame for that. Sometimes, he was sure he just hadn't tried hard enough to get the child into a decent home before the strains of growing up in a prison left him scarred for life. Other times, he felt equally sure that he had done as much as anyone could, trying to protect the boy from forces in the world that would have gladly turned him into an interesting but very short-lived remake of Alien Autopsy.

But lately, most of the time he just felt that he was exhausted, bone-tired, and ready to retire. He'd been glad when the adult Blue had finally found a reason to reform, to end the bad boy charade and turn his considerable intellect and talents for invention to positive ends. He wished it might've happened sooner, but... well, that was water long gone under the bridge. Now, he could only wish him success in his new career, and hope that neither he nor his successor ever saw the alien darken the prison's cellblocks again. Not without a guest pass on visitor's day.

He glanced at his desk calendar and noticed that it was December twenty-first, four days before Christmas, and the first official day of winter. The shortest day of the year. Damned if it didn't feel it, today. That raw northerly wind had a smell to it that said it was only toying with the city, taunting its inhabitants into thinking that it would stay merely a bitter cold wind — until it turned, just a bit, but enough to whip up a gale from the lake and bury everything in a blanket of lake effect snow. He really wasn't in the mood for another Christmas blizzard. Maybe a couple of inches of nice, fluffy snow, just to give everything that traditional White Christmas feeling, but not a storm that would pound on the city for a day and two and bury it under a few feet of the white stuff. If he didn't have to lift another shovelful of snow for the rest of his life, he wouldn't miss it. Maybe...

His flickering idea was snuffed out before it had a chance to light by a knock on the door. God, but he hoped it wasn't another batch of boring end of the year paperwork that required his stamp of approval. "Come in," he called, too tired and cold to muster much in the way of enthusiasm.

Miss Norton, his most recent secretary, stepped in with her usual chipper attitude, which got to be exceptionally so around the holidays, any holidays. Christmas was especially bad, and if he hadn't put his foot down, citing various rules and regulations, the place would've been positively dripping with every kind of decoration imaginable. When she was around, Thurmer was sometimes glad he wasn't a diabetic. "Package for you, sir!" she announced so cheerfully, the warden wondered if she didn't have a little flask of the newest batch of inmate hootch tucked away in her purse. She brought the small box to his desk, her movements wafting a thick and cloying cloud of gingerbread scented cologne in her wake.

He sighed. "Thank you, Miss Norton. Have you heard anything from maintenance yet about the boilers?"

"Not yet, sir, but they've promised they'll have space heaters brought into the office wing if the problem isn't fixed by noon!" She made it sound as wonderful as the announcement of peace on Earth, goodwill toward Men. "Is there anything else I can do for you, sir? You do look just a wee bit down on such a lovely winter's day!"

Her impenetrable armor of cheeriness obviously rendered her utterly impervious to wind and cold, he decided. He idly scanned the box to see who might have sent it, but saw nothing but the address label. He sighed again, reaching into his desk drawer in search of scissors or a letter opener to slit the package's seal. "Yes, you can go down to the cafeteria and bring back a thermos of their strongest coffee, black. That might take the edge off these infernal drafts."

"Yes, sir, one pot of piping hot coffee, coming right up!"

When she was gone, Thurmer felt an immeasurable sense of relief. He hadn't felt this exhausted by being around someone so obscenely energetic since... Well, since the last time Megamind had actually been in prison of his own volition, before Wayne Scott had retired from the hero business. He knew the story of what had happened to Metro Man's powers, how their loss had forced him to give up the job of protecting his beloved Metro City, but frankly, Thurmer thought the whole thing was a crock. He'd had enough contact with the superhero over the years of his conflicts with Megamind to know that behind all his blathering about truth and justice, Scott was still something of a spoiled brat, eager to grab the limelight so long as it shone upon him in the way he wanted. He'd watched his attitude change from that of an eager hero to one going through the motions and pasting smiles on his face. He knew that Scott was bored with the whole superhero gig, and frankly, he hadn't thought much of his method for getting out of it. Granted, nobody in all of the state of Michigan was more disappointed with Megamind than he himself, but even though he was sometimes angry with his former ward for wasting his God-given gifts, he didn't think it was fair for Scott to try and nail him with a bogus murder rap, just so he could give everyone the slip and take up a career as a pretty sixth-rate musician. He'd been glad when Megamind was cleared — because for all the bad things he'd done, deliberately hurting people had never been one of them — although he thought Scott had gotten off too easily after perpetrating a hoax.

Ah, well, yet another ocean of water under the bridge. He decided to take advantage of Miss Norton's absence to get a quick look at whatever was in the package, just in case it turned out to be another tacky gag gift from one of his acquaintances in the state DOC. He'd already received three, and the lack of any label identifying the sender made him suspicious, since two of the others had also arrived in this condition. He had long since started to think this was another thing he wouldn't miss when he retired.

When the box was opened, he tried to see what was inside, without success, so he tipped it over until the contents slid out onto the desktop. There were two items: a small package wrapped in shiny blue foil and tied with a silver ribbon, along with a pale blue envelope. Okay, he thought, maybe it was a gag Hanukkah gift. He decided to try the envelope first. On its face was written To Warden Ralph Thurmer, in dark blue ink. The handwriting looked vaguely familiar, but he couldn't be sure. He opened the envelope with a deft stroke of the letter opener, and drew from it not a card but a single sheet of matching stationery. He was expecting a computer printout, since that was the norm these days; to his surprise, it was hand-written, in the same neat cursive script, using the same dark ink. That uniqueness alone would have gotten him to read it, even if it turned out to be nothing more than a few bad holiday jokes or some old friend's latest ramblings about his talented grandkids.

But it wasn't.

To Ralph Thurmer, c/o Metro City Prison for the Criminally Gifted

Dear Warden,

I know that this is very long overdue, and quite likely will make no difference in our current relationship, but I wanted to send you this letter for two reasons:

First, I would like to apologize to you for all the trouble I have caused you ever since my escape pod landed in your prison yard, thirty-six years ago. I understand now that I have made many mistakes and bad choices in my life, which I regret. While I maintain that some were the result of being forced into a position in which I was left with no other option, a good many were the product of my own stubbornness, and anger. In hindsight, I can see now that you tried to nudge me in the right direction whenever I went wrong, and I really have no one but myself to blame for refusing to see the truth. For that, I offer my sincerest apologies. Of all the people I knew when I was a child, you were the only one who truly had my best interests at heart. If I had only listened to my heart and head instead of to my anger and hurt, things might have gone very differently, for a good many people.

Which brings me to my second reason: I want to thank you, for all the kindness you showed me, and all the good advice you tried to give me. Believe it or not, I did listen. Now that I am trying my best to reform and take up the task of protecting the city I once terrorized, I remember all that you told me, and I find that it is some of the best advice and guidance I have to follow. Also, I think that if I had not had your kindness to look back upon, I might have believed that it was impossible for me to ever be liked by anyone on Earth. Your acceptance of me as a child eventually enabled me to accept myself for what I really am, and most recently has helped me to find acceptance by others. There is no way I can repay you for this, except perhaps to try to become the kind of good person you wanted me to be from the beginning. I know that over the many years of our acquaintance, I gave you plenty of reasons to give up on me — and I do know that at times, you did, out of frustration, but never forever. The moment when I honestly began to believe that I might be able to move beyond my villainous past was when you wished Minion and me good luck when I escaped to rescue Ms Ritchi, eighteen months ago. It began a chain reaction inside of me, and I am terribly grateful for what has happened as a result. I hope that someday, you might be, too, and find it in your heart to forgive me.

I may not owe all of it to you alone, but I certainly owe you a great deal for the better life that I am finally coming to know. And whether you believe it or not, I am humbly thankful for your part in helping me to reach it.


Mykaal Blue, aka Megamind, Defender of Metro City

Thurmer read the letter, then read it again, three times. He wanted to believe that this was for real, but given some of the gags he'd had pulled on him recently, it could easily be just another tacky joke. Why did some people go in for this sort of thing, year after year? He was sure he'd never understand it, not in a million years.

All right, may as well get it over with, he told himself with a sigh, reaching for the small package and wondering what absurd thing would pop out of it. That seemed to be the way of it when people pulled these Megamind gags on him. Something always burst out of the package, like stupid spring snakes, or a cloud of blue powder thrown in his face. To be on the safe side, he held the thing at arm's length, angling it away from him, just in case. The silver ribbon slipped off easily enough, so the trigger had to be tripped when he tore the paper. He did so, unable to stop himself from a knee-jerk protective cringe, his eyes squinted shut against a possible puff of face-plastering powder.

When nothing happened, he cracked open one eye, then opened both fully to see what tearing the paper revealed. For the better part of a minute, he could only stare in surprise.

"Well, I'll be damned," he finally breathed. Pulling away the innocuous wrapping, he found himself holding a woolen ski cap, hand knit of soft red yarn with a fluffy white pompom on the top. Pinned to it was another note, in the same hand as the letter:

Sorry I was never able to replace the one you loaned me. Minion helped me with this, and if it doesn't fit, please let us know. We have lots of yarn left.

Merry Christmas, MM (& M)

The warden found his eyes misting, now certain that this was no joke. None of the guys in the DOC who liked the gag bit knew about his relationship with young Blue, especially not that he had loaned him a new ski hat to wear on a field trip gone terribly wrong, thirty years ago. That little detail was a matter only between himself and Blue and Minion, and maybe the long deceased Nick Cabela. He turned the cap in his hands, examining it. While it wasn't perfect, it was a good novice effort, much like the one his daughter had made for him so many years ago. On impulse, he tried it on, and smiled to discover that it fit pretty well, like the one Cindy had made for him when she was in the fourth grade.

He was wondering if he might be able to tell his now adult daughter that his long lost cap had been miraculously returned when he heard Miss Norton just outside the door. He quickly removed the cap and hid it on his lap beneath the desk as she knocked to announce her arrival, then entered with the pot of coffee from the cafeteria. "Your coffee, sir," she said, setting down the pot in an open space on the desktop. He watched her reach over the cups filled with pens and pencils and other office necessities, noticing something about her that he hadn't seen before, what with the plethora of gaudy holiday jewelry she wore on both wrists. She turned to leave the room without another gushing word, and he knew his sudden suspicion was right on the money.

"Thank you, Mr. Blue," he said in a perfectly normal voice. "It's very kind of you to save Miss Norton the trouble."

The secretary stopped as if she'd run smack into a brick wall. When she turned to look back at him, stuttering in denial, Thurmer saw that Miss Norton's dull gray eyes were now a strikingly bright green. He smiled, the same kind of knowing look he had given young Blue so often when he came home with unfair notes from the teacher that he didn't want to admit to having. The "secretary" shut the door; then, turning back to face the music, moved the dial of the not entirely hidden holowatch, causing the disguise to vanish. And there was Megamind, not in his most familiar working get-up, but in a winter version that had a long, exactingly tailored, high-collared coat of black and blue glove leather that appeared both supple and yet thick enough to insulate the wiry alien from the worst winter cold. What he used to keep that big head of his warm Thurmer didn't know, but he had no doubt there was some provision for that as well.

"How did you know?" Megamind had to ask, wondering just what had given him away. He'd only asked the secretary if he might do this to be sure that the warden had gotten his little gift and his letter, and hadn't just tossed them away, unopened. He knew that most people would wait until after opening a package before throwing it away, but the child in him still had an unreasoning belief that the warden far too often could see right through some of his most innocent plans. It was the more devious ones that usually got past him.

Thurmer actually managed a ghost of a smile. "The eyes, for one." He chuckled inside at the look of frustration that flashed across the blue face, a look he knew well from his ward's childhood, which appeared whenever he came up against some glitch in his ideas and designs that he just couldn't seem to fix. Kindly, he didn't mention it. "And I thought I saw something on one of 'Miss Norton's' wrists that wasn't there ten minutes ago. Besides, you don't know her, do you? On one of her down days, she gushes more than all the oil wells in Texas, and today she smells of gingerbread, not mint. Even if I completely missed all the rest of the clues, the green eyes and the mint would've given you away. I haven't forgotten your addiction to peppermints, especially around Christmas. You didn't dehydrate her to sneak in here, did you?"

Megamind shook his head just as if he were six years old again. "No, of course not. I came in with a legitimate visitor's pass, and asked her to deliver the package to you. When she came back from the cafeteria, I told her I was a bit nervous about how you'd taken it, or if you'd even bothered to open it, so when she told me she'd take a peek when she took in your coffee, I asked if she'd let me borrow her image to do it myself. She thought it was a wonderful idea."

The warden snorted. "Yes, she thinks everything's a wonderful idea, which was a dead giveaway. She never just brings in anything and leaves without gushing about something and asking me what she can do next to brighten my day." He brought out the cap from under the desk, smiling fondly at the gift. "Thank you for this. I'd almost forgotten about it, and I was pretty sure you had. Did you really make it?"

The alien nodded. "With a lot of help from Minion. He's gotten to be quite the domestic little fish, when he isn't playing sidekick, or off making appearances at conventions."

Thurmer nodded. "I read about the sensation he caused at that conference last week. He's quite a guy, for a fish. Always knew he'd make a good name for himself, someday."

Megamind squirmed, now feeling very much the child again, remembering the first time he'd been brought to this room after doing something genuinely, deliberately, willfully bad. His eyes dropped to the floor, stinging with remorse. Never had he wished so strongly for that reset button. "I'm sorry you couldn't say the same for me," he said contritely.

The warden found that he couldn't let him squirm quite as long as he'd initially wanted. "Actually, I always hoped you would, right up until the day you finally did. I won't lie and say that all the anger and disappointment you made me feel wasn't real, but..." He sighed, and felt the beginnings of an honest smile start tugging at his lips; he forced them to remain still. "You're doing good now, and making a damn fine job of it. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't proud of you, Mykaal."

"You — you are?"

The way the big green eyes looked up at him, Thurmer felt as if thirty years had vanished, along with all the acts of mayhem and rebellion and villainy. It was as if he were again looking at a timid little boy of six who couldn't understand why the whole world seemed set against him, who simply needed a kind word or an understanding smile to make everything right again.

Now, as then, he couldn't bring himself to deny him. "I always knew you had it in you; I just wish it hadn't taken you quite so long to figure it out for yourself." The waves of relief emanating from the novice hero were so palpable, Thurmer couldn't restrain the smile any longer. "As a matter of fact, I've been trying to work up the nerve to get in contact with you to thank you."

"Thank me?" Megamind echoed, sure he'd misheard. "After all the years of hell I dragged you through, why would you want to thank me? I should be the one thanking you, for not welding me into a steel box and leaving me to rot!"

Thurmer chuckled. "It would've been a waste and you know it. One way or another, you'd've found a way out. Besides, you've already thanked me," he pointed out, picking up the sheet of blue stationery as evidence. "One sincere letter like this is worth a thousand that aren't. I appreciate the effort it must've taken for you to write this. But I'm not talking about thanking you for the past. That's behind us, hopefully for good."

"Oh, it is," he was assured, candidly and not so over-emphatically as to be meaningless. "I have too much to lose now to even think of going back. It was never what I really wanted, anyway. I just didn't know it until I had to face the truth."

The warden nodded his understanding as well as his acceptance. "An honest answer," he approved. "I'm glad to hear it. No, what I wanted to thank you for was the good job you did back in May, rescuing that busload of kids who were almost killed in that construction accident on the west side interchange."

It took less than a second for Megamind to recall the incident with crystal clarity. It seemed that some part of the city's myriad expressway bridges were always under repair, but the amount of traffic passing over them each day made it impossible to close them completely for more than a few hours in the middle of the night. The main interchange on the west side, where the two largest expressways met, was a huge tangle of high overpasses and ramps that carried more traffic than any other part of the city's highway system. The heavy volume was punishing to all its structures, and the project of rebuilding and replacing it had been going on for nearly three years. Late in the spring, a villain wannabe calling himself the Decimator had sent Roxanne's station a series of threatening emails and homemade videos, promising to bring down the entire interchange during the busiest time of day, on a random day before the end of May.

Fortunately, after enough emails and video CDs had been sent to provide adequate information, Roxanne had asked the city's new hero for help. It had taken less than half an hour for Megamind to analyze the data embedded in the electronic threats and amateurishly made CDs, crosscheck the information with Internet providers and the pertinent computer manufacturers, and pin down the originating computer's owner as well as his location. The guy was a rank amateur, in Megamind's opinion, lacking even the most basic skills any villain worth the name would use to obliterate his electronic footprints.

When he had accompanied the police to the Decimator's garage — it didn't even qualify for the term hangout, much less lair — they had all been relieved to find the guy puttering away in his pajamas, his doors not even locked. The hack was no threat in and of himself, but the variety of explosives and demolitions gear he'd managed to acquire could have been very deadly, had he been able to carry out his threats. When he'd realized that he had been caught, the crook had tried to set off an explosion to start a huge chain reaction and take out the entire place, himself, the police, Megamind, and probably the surrounding two blocks of densely populated inner city neighborhood as well. Fortunately, Megamind had been alert and much quicker, so the would-be villain wound up as a dehydrated little cube before he could set off the suicidal blast. Really, any idiot could have seen it coming when he bellowed, "You'll never take me alive, coppers!" Rank amateur. Very rank. The ex-villain had been very glad when the confrontation was over, and he could get away from the overpowering stench of old garbage and ripe sweat clogging the air of that grungy garage.

The police had happily taken the cube into custody while a team of investigators moved in to catalog the Decimator's equipment and any other information they could find on him and his demolitions suppliers. There had been a prominently displayed chart of his planned bombing of the interchange hanging on the back of the garage door, and as a precautionary measure, Megamind had offered to take his hoverbike and a group of brainbots to make certain he hadn't already started to place any of the charges, since it was a massive plan and the projected end-of-May deadline was less than a week off. He and the bots had indeed found some wires and several lumps of explosive — already wired but thankfully without detonators — located on three of the twelve key pylons supporting the main overpass.

As he was quite familiar with how to handle almost every explosive known to Man (and a few that weren't), Megamind had been able to instruct the brainbots so that all of it could be efficiently and safely removed, after proper visual and data-scan records of all the sites had been made for the authorities. Some of them might argue that he should've left the things in place until a police team could come out to remove them, but there were simply times when it was best to deal with matters immediately rather than wait for the overworked authorities to get around to it. With all the construction that was going on in that area, there would have been definite risks in leaving wired charges in place.

It had been a simple stroke of luck that the process had kept him there as long as it had. Not five minutes before he would have been ready to leave, an accident in one of the massive construction cranes working on the interchange had brought the thing's heavy boom crashing down on one of the highest ramps, just barely missing half a dozen cars, flattening the trailer sections of three semis, and sending a school bus flying as it clipped its front end. The vehicle had flipped, then landed on the guard rail, careening dangerously on the brink, tilting back and forth like a huge seesaw. From his position nearby, Megamind had been able to see that if left unchecked, the tipping motion would end tragically, as the bus was on its side and the greater pull of its weight would soon send it sliding over the edge, to plunge off the ramp and into the waters of the river below.

He hadn't even stopped to think about his actions. Summoning all available brainbots in the area and calling for additional backup, he and the bots flew directly to the endangered vehicle. Using thin but immensely strong grappling wires, he'd used the hoverbike to latch onto the end of the bus protruding over the rail and, with the assistance of a dozen brainbots, had pulled it up far enough to haul it back onto the roadbed of the expressway ramp. With the help of the newly arrived bots, the bus had been righted, and its emergency exits quickly opened. Miraculously, the injuries suffered by the occupants had been minor, with the exception of a couple of broken legs and a dislocated shoulder. Several brainbots that had been programmed with search-and-rescue skills had gone in to assess the situation and render first aid to the worst injuries before the police and paramedics and other rescuers could arrive on the scene.

Megamind — who was squeamish about many other things — hadn't given a second thought to following them in, since he'd grown accustomed to having to deal with his own minor injuries. Despite the considerable preventive measures he'd been able to employ to avoid serious physical damage at the hands of a superpowered rival, lesser damage had been an inevitable part of his former life of crime. His arrival as the first help on the scene had had the thoroughly unexpected effect of calming the terrified children, who recognized him as the city's new hero and defender, not as its former master of villainy and evil overlord. The brainbots, which had frightened them at first, quickly became part of his reassuring presence as he directed them to help with the injured and evacuate the rest of the youngsters from the bus.

He had been so involved in the needs of the moment, he hadn't even noticed the traffic helicopter that had reported the rescue as it happened, nor had he paid attention to the eventual arrival of other news media on the scene. It had only been when he'd noted Roxanne's presence nearby — as a reporter, not as a friend or a bystander — that he'd actually taken in all that was going on around him, all that he had done as a simple reflexive response to the sight of innocent lives in danger. That had been the moment when he'd suddenly, fully felt the utter rightness of his new role as a hero, and had been able to take genuine pride in it, without the slightest hint of reservation.

The memory of that day played through his thoughts, lightning-quick, but just as clear. He smiled wryly. "You're welcome," he said, "though I'm not exactly sure why you're thanking me. Not only was that six months ago, but it was certainly the least I could do. Criminals, after all, aren't the only dangers from which our citizens need protection. It was simply my job, and I was glad I could be there to do it."

"Oh, I know that," Thurmer replied with his own lopsided smile. "The media just had a field day over the whole 'miraculous rescue,' and your Ms Ritchi wasn't the one making the most noise — though I'm sure she was happy to hear it. No, this is strictly personal. That school bus was returning from a field trip to the Metro City Zoo, and one of my granddaughters was on it. Lily was one of the kids with a broken leg, and she told everyone how scared she was, until you and your little robot helpers showed up to save the day. She knew that I knew you, and she wanted to give me a thank you card to send you, but I just didn't have the heart to tell her that we weren't exactly friends. I've put her off for so long, telling her that superheroes are too busy to handle things like fan mail, that I think she's just given up on the whole thing. My fault, really. I just couldn't work up the nerve to try to get in touch with you. I wasn't sure you'd care to see my face again, now that you're out on your own."

Megamind was unusually quiet for a moment. He could easily picture both the child's disappointment, as well as his former guardian's uncertainties. "I know how you felt," he confessed. "It took some... rather unusual events to get me to realize that my apologies to you were long overdue. But I'm glad I saved your granddaughter, even if I didn't know who she was. Has she decided I'm not cool anymore, or do you think she'd be satisfied with delivering her thanks to me in person? Because you're right about one thing, I don't handle fan mail very well!"

Thurmer was genuinely surprised by his offer. "You'd do that for me?"

The smirk that danced across the alien's face and glinted in his eyes reminded him not so much of the old evil Megamind, but of young Blue in a mischievous, playful mood. "No, I'd do it for your granddaughter," he said with perfectly feigned arrogance, which was spoiled a moment later by a perfectly unaffected laugh. "But I would do it for you, too, sir. I owe it to you. If she's off next week like the rest of the shkool kids, maybe we can arrange something."

"She'll be thrilled, especially if she can get to meet Minion, too. I don't know what it is, but the kids just love him."

"It's a fish thing," Megamind declared in his best darkly mysterious tones. "Beyond the understanding of us mere non-piscines." He abruptly reverted to a much more normal grouse. "When did you start refrigerating this place? I'm wearing three layers of leather and four of molecular level micro-insulation and I'm still freezing! You could liquify nitrogen in here!"

The warden's sigh was one of long suffering. "When we had our budget cut for the last five years running. You know the drill. Old furnace in the office wing, no new funding unless it falls under mandatory expenses, keep fixing what you've got 'til it's old enough to auction off as an antique."

Megamind grumbled. "What, don't they have any respect for their hero's old home?"

Thurmer shrugged. "Not much. Unless the hero's willing to pay for it. How do you think Scott wound up with his face plastered all over the county?"

The blue genius pursed his lips, considering the problem. "I'll see what I can come up with. No promises, though."

"That's a better deal than we get from the state. Would you like some coffee to warm up with? I know I've got a second mug around here, somewhere..."

Megamind shuddered. "From the cafeteria? No, thank you. First it warms you up, and then..." He shuddered again. "No, thank you." He started to say something more, thought better of it, reconsidered that, then forged ahead. "There's a Starbucks up the road that usually doesn't pitch a fit when I stop by — not lately, anyway. It's warmer, if the prison can spare you long enough to get your color back. You're almost as blue as I am — though not as devilishly handsome, of course."

Thurmer loosed a gruff laugh, amused by the bizarrely charming display of vanity that he didn't think his former ward would ever quite lose, which was probably just as well. Change was good, in moderation. His glance slid to the stained plastic serving pot from the cafeteria — was it really that color, or had it just gotten that way? He didn't think he wanted to know the answer. He could almost see the vile brew inside eating holes through the plastic, trying to escape like everything else around here. Himself included.

He was weighing the pros and cons of being seen hanging out in a coffee shop with his former most-wanted prisoner during the middle of a work day. He was beginning to think that maybe it wasn't the right time for that big a shift in attitude when he heard the not-so-dulcet tones of Miss Norton, warbling along with some new holiday song on her radio. He wasn't sure which was worse, hearing Wayne Scott's off-key singing about reindeer that cut through fog with their laser-red eyes, or Miss Norton's pitches that could bend steel.

He had no problem making his decision. Grabbing his coat and his new hat as he came around from behind his desk, the warden shrugged into the former, pulled on the latter, gave Megamind a friendly clap on the shoulder, and said six words he'd never thought he would ever utter in the alien genius's presence:

"Let's get the hell outta here."

So that's the story, more or less, of my two most memorable Christmases. Roxanne and I decided that our mutual present to one another would be consolidating our living arrangements, which was completed with the help of Minion and some of the better-mannered brainbots before the end of the year. I'd expected that there'd be some dickering over whose place would be "eliminated," for lack of a better word, but she had no problem with the idea of moving into the living quarters of the Lair. The elimination of rent and acquiring the use of my master bath facilities were apparently powerful deciding factors in my favor. I have to admit, I was glad she chose as she did, not just because I hadn't looked forward to the... er... lively discussion leading up to the decision, but more because I do worry about people who don't have my fine-honed sense of decency actually trying to hurt her in an attempt to get to me. It feels strange at times to realize how the tables have turned, but I'm more than willing to accept that minor humiliation if it means having her in my life, in my home, and keeping her as safe as I can. She'd never consent to the kind of security measures that would ease my worries the most, but then, her feisty nature is part of what I have always loved about her, and no amount of security would be worth dampening it. I'm sure that our shared life won't always be such a bed of roses — although, maybe it will. Roses do have thorns, after all, but the occasional prick is a small price to pay for their undeniable beauty and their sweet scent, which I've always considered one of the most delightful things on Earth.

I realized a long time ago, of course, that there is no real Santa Claus, but sometimes, luck and fate and the incomprehensibly amazing workings of the universe come together in ways that allow one person to be a very real Santa for another, if only for a day. In my mind — and heart — Nick will always be Santa, not just because he found a link to my past that helped to open doors in my future, but because he made a difference in my young life with his acts of simple, compassionate kindness. Even though I made some bad choices about the direction of my life doesn't mean his advice went unheeded. To be honest, I believe that without our unexpected encounter and Nick's insightful words of wisdom, I would have become more angry and bitter than I did, and would have vented it all in much more disastrous ways. Roxanne and Minion are right: I never really was a true villain at heart. And I believe Nick is in part responsible for that.

So, do I believe in Santa Claus, really? No. But when I stop and think of the wonderfully smart and lovely woman who is now happily and willingly a part of my life, the person who was at long last able to help me see beyond the facades of my past to the truth I'd buried inside me so long ago, I most definitely believe in angels.


Author's Afterword

And there you have it, the first longer story I've started and completed in over five years. To all those who have been faithfully reading and reviewing, I give my most heartfelt thanks, I appreciate each and every word even though I'm really lousy when it comes to replying! Believe it or not, for someone who can be such a long-winded storyteller, I often find myself at loss for words when it comes to things like email. It's been a fun ride, and, I hope, only the first (well, second, counting "Buddy") of many more rides to come!