by David Thun
Aislyn De Connaught laughed as she spun across the dance floor, light sparkling off her red-gold hair. "This was a lovely idea, Michael," she called out. "I haven't had this much fun in two hundred years!"
Michael grinned as he gracefully stepped alongside her, bringing her around in an elegant pirouette to face him. "Well, considering the nonsense we went through in the U.S. recently, I thought a surprise vacation would be just the thing to relax us."
"Yes but Paris?" said Aislyn. Her brows furrowed in mock seriousness. "Remember, I'm the one paying for this!"
"Rubbish," replied Michael. "You can just play with your demon machines to procure the funds for us-"
"Computers. They're called computers. Get with the twentieth century, will you?"
"-and aren't you the one who's always telling me how wealthy we both are?"
"No thanks to you, wastrel. But seriously," Aislyn slid her arms around Michael's waist, looking fondly up at him. "Thank you for this. I feel better than I have in years."
His smile faded into seriousness. "You are most welcome, Lady." A finger brushed back a stray lock of auburn hair. Aislyn blinked and then shook her head.
"All right, enough mushiness! Now then," she said, taking the lead and spinning them back towards the center of the nightclub. "Tonight we dance and make merry 'till the wee hours. Tomorrow, you sleep in while I visit Abby at the Sorbonne. Tomorrow night, we hit the Left Bank for some serious celebration."
"Gods above, Lady," groaned Michael. "You'll be the death of me yet."
"Funny talk for a man celebrating his nine hundred and thirty-ninth birthday this year."
"Ouch," said Michael. "I swear, when a woman gets past seven hundred, she turns into the worst sort of harridan---"
Aislyn smacked him in the chest. "Poltroon! A gentleman never makes mention of a lady's age! I'm tempted to storm off in a huff and leave you t' stew in your own juices!"
"Ouch, oof, ow! Sorry, sorry, sorry. Uh oh," Michael glanced at his watch. "Speaking of which, the wee hours hit in twenty minutes. I need to get back."
"Spoilsport. I'll get the car."
"No, it's all right, I feel like a stroll. Just don't go off with any strange men. Nine hundred years," he grimaced, "and the Gauls are still a nation of degenerates."
"Me?" said Aislyn, a wide-eyed little-girl expression on her face. "Go off with strange men?"
"I rest my case. Good morrow, lady."
Aislyn smiled. Poor Michael, she thought, he's so overprotective. Not that there's anyone else here that's caught my eye. Well, maybe just that dark-haired young Italian by the door. Or perhaps the blond boy in the red silk shirt. Or that tall scrumptious drink of water over by the bar...hmmm........
Dawn was just beginning to pink the edge of the horizon as Michael strolled along the Rue Maison, hands in coat pockets as he whistled tunelessly to himself. Although he felt the wash of fatigue across his body from the sun's approach, Michael's steps were light. Two weeks in Paris had brought smiles back to Aislyn's face after the weeks of chaos in America, beginnning in Los Angeles with Mariko, Michael's former master, who had struck at Aislyn in an insane attempt to regain her former fledgling. Michael's steps faltered and he shivered briefly. Even thinking of Mariko now was enough to quench his good mood.
And are you here for Aislyn's pleasure, he wondered to himself, or simply to escape your own guilt? Admit it, you still loved her...even when she tried to kill you and Ais, even when she was burning to a charnel ruin in that apartment...
"Ah, to blazes with it," he muttered to himself as he arrived at the flat he and Ais had rented. Unlocking the door, he stepped inside and stretched. "Aislyn's right, we should just relax and enjoy-"
He barely felt it, a whisper of wind on the back of his neck as something large and heavy smashed his head from behind.
Stars exploded behind Michael's eyes. Even taken by surprise, his inhuman reflexes allowed him to flinch aside from getting his skull caved in. Hitting the floor, he rolled to his feet, desperately trying to clear his swimming vision.
A hulking form stood before him, clad in grey slacks, grey shirt and a brown leather trenchcoat. His features were obscured by a leather mask. Michael blinked. He stood taller than most men, but his attacker topped him by half a head.
Michael growled, feeling the fangs extending, pricking his lower lip. "I think you have, the wrong house, friend," he hissed. Pulling himself to his knees, his right hand reached out to grasp a nearby chair. "The costume party's down the street."
"On the contrary, m'sieu," the masked giant said. His voice was like broken glass ground on gravel. "I have found exactly what I am looking for." He stepped forward.
Michael lunged, swinging the chair in a wide arc to smash into the giant's chest. There was the crack of broken ribs and the masked man flew across the room.
Exhausted, Michael staggered forward. Sunlight was creeping over the windowsill. He had to close the curtains....
The masked giant stood up. Michael stared in shock-a blow like that should have put him in the hospital for months, if not killing him outright. With a catlike speed belying his huge form, the masked man rolled to his feet. He reached into his trenchcoat, and suddenly a huge broadsword was in his left hand.
"Surprised?" The giant laughed. Michael's fist swung and connected with a bone-shattering crunch on Malvoisin's jaw. The Immortal shivered as if a fly had landed on his skin, and suddenly gestured with a small golden cross. Michael flinched back. Malvoisin lunged forward with his blade, and Michael gaspedwith pain as the giant ran him through. He ground his teeth in pain and rage. Behind the leather mask, Malvoisin's violent eyes widened in something like amusement.
"I have encounter one of your kind before, you see-and emerged victorious." Malvoisin stepped back, raising his bloody broadsword in a mocking salute. "It has left me with certain advantages. Ah, I see the sunlight is finally taking effect...."
Michael staggered back as his exposed skin began to burn. He hadn't fed the previous night, and his strength was fading. He crawled weakly toward the shadowed portion of the room, trying to avoid the sun's lethal rays.
The giant stepped over him, lightly resting one booted foot on Michael's chest.
"Now m'sieu," the giant chuckled. "Where were we?"
Aislyn pulled the Jaguar to the curb, radio going full blast, her head pleasantly blurry with champagne and exhilaration. What a night! Too bad Michael couldn't keep day hours, she felt like she could go without sleep another-
The fog instantly lifted from her head as the sensation of another Immortal's presence filled her mind. She saw the door to the apartment was open. Trouble!
Aislyn reached into the back seat, seized her blade, and leapt from the car. Reaching the doorway, she stared in shock at the tableau before her.
A gigantic figure wearing a leather mask stood in the middle of the living room, a broadsword in one hand, a curtain-swathed, unconscious Michael in the other. Seeing Aislyn, the violet eyes behind the mask's eyeslits narrowed. The broadsword raised threateningly.
Undaunted, Aislyn raised her own blade into a guard position. "I am Aislyn De Connaught. Release my friend."
"Je suis Etienne Le Malvoisin. I have no interest in you, jeune fille," the masked stranger rasped. "But I am afraid I have need of your companion."
"Put him down," Aislyn said quietly. "I won't ask you again."
"Good," said Malvoisin. Dropping Michael to the floor, he lunged at her.
Sparks flew as their blades collided. Aislyn grimaced, jumped to the left, and swung at Malvoisin's head. But as good as she was, Malvoisin's inhuman strength kept her at bay. The giant seemed to parry her strongest attacks without effort. With a hail of blows, he forced her back across the room. Aislyn slammed into a wall as the giant bore down on her.
Desperately, Ais dropped and lashed out with a vicious kick to the kneecap. Malvoisin howled, his defenses momentarily down. Clenching her blade in both hands, Aislyn swung with all her might-
--And gasped in shock as her blade bounced off the giant's neck.
Malvoisin howled with laughter. Aislyn stared at the shredded neckline of his shirt. The glint of a steel collar could be seen beneath it.
"Fortune favors the prepared, Lady." He bowed mockingly. Hearing Michael's special name for her twisted by this monster fueled Aislyn's rage.
"Prepare this!" she shouted. Whirling her blade above her head she brought it down full force on his sword arm.
The giant roared with pain as his sword flew from his mauled hand. Hate radiated from his every move as he clutched his maimed limb, staring balefully at Ais. "Very good. And you shall pay for it. But not today." Seizing Michael, he hurled himself through the window.
Aislyn was only a moment behind him, but she could find no trace of Malvoisin as she frantically searched the street. Whirling back inside, she glanced at the sword Malvoisin had dropped. Her eyes caught a glint from the floor; a broken gold medallion....
I must have broken it when I hit his neck, Ais thought. Picking it up, she studied it. It was a golden crucifix with a crystal set in its center. As she lifted it, she saw a viscous red fluid flowing within.
"Michael..." she whispered.
"My God, Aislyn!" gasped Dr. Abigail Armstrong as Aislyn staggered into her office at the Sorbonne. With a well-practiced shove, she launched her wheelchair forward, catching Ais as she stumbled and collapsed. "What happened to you?"
"I need your help, Abby," gasped Aislyn. "One of my friends has been kidnapped. By one of my kind."
"I'll help any way I can. But first we need to patch up those cuts. And get you a change of clothes." She wheeled herself towards a small alcove, absently smoothing her straight brown hair in a nervous gesture as she rummaged through a medicine cabinet. "I don't know how you manage to keep finding yourself in these situations."
Ais smiled wanly. "I don't find them, they find me. As you well know."
Without turning around, Abby waved her arms in an Oy-don't-I-know-it gesture. Despite herself, Aislyn felt just a little better.
She'd met Abby Armstrong, then a grad student in medieval history, while studying at university back in the United States. Sharing a mutual interest in history (one studied it, one had lived it), they'd grown to be close friends. But they hadn't known everything about each other. Until...
It was during a nasty encounter with the Immortal serial killer Crippen that Ais had learned Abby was also a Watcher -- a member of the secret society of mortals dedicated to observing and studying the struggle of Immortals through history. It nearly broke their friendship, until Abby had bent (well, broken) the code of the Watchers to protect Aislyn's life twice over. After that, well, they'd had an understanding.
A short time later, Ais was washed, changed and securely bandaged (she didn't need it, but Abby clucked and said 'a pinch of prevention....' Aislyn groaned and surrendered), and Abby was staring at the strange crucifix.
"Where on earth did you get this?"
"The Immortal who kidnapped Mi-my friend was wearing it."
Abby stared over her glasses at Ais, a dubious look on her freckled feature. "Mm hmm. And would this friend happen to be a member of your little fraternity you haven't told me about?"
"No! He's-very hard to explain. Please Abby, I'd tell you more if I could. It's-it's just not my secret to tell. He's not one of us, I swear."
Abby softened. "All right. This is the crucifix of St. Ignatius. It's a precious relic, thought lost during the Terror." She shook the crucifix and stared at the red liquid trapped in the crystal.. "Supposedly, this is St. Ignatius' blood, preserved and sanctified. It's associated with accounts of miraculous healings in the thirteenth, fifteenth and seventeenth centuries." She paused. "Strange item for an immortal to carry, I would think."
"So would I," said Aislyn grimly.
Abby slid over to her desktop computer. "Who was it?"
"He called himself Etienne Le Malvoisin. Big, over seven feet tall. Fights with a Norman broadsword," Aislyn frowned. "I couldn't identify any features. He wore a leather mask."
"Ah, ha! I've got him! Etienne Le Malvoisin, born in Rouen, France 1358, became Immortal 1393. Raised in a seminary. Past activities unknown. Settled back in France in 1964, became involved with local organized crime. Connections to Paris smuggling organizations, specializing in the theft of religious artifacts. No known visual record of his appearance." Abby's face grew grim. "Three Watchers have died trying to get a description. This is a very nasty customer you've chosen to tangle with."
"He chose to tangle with me. That was his first mistake." Aislyn stared as the data scrolled up the computer screen.
"He seems to have a fetish for body relics."
"That's his thing-he steals relics of saint's bodies. Bone, fingernails, hair, blood, anything of that sort. That and any relic associated with healing." Abby rubbed her chin. "Weird hobby."
"Blood..." whispered Aislyn as she stared at the Ignatius crucifix. A cold knot of fear was twisting itself tight in her stomach. "Where can I find him?"
"I'm not sure," Abby said. "His lair is very well concealed. However," she added, fingers flying over the keys, "financial records show he owns a big nightclub. Dupin's, in the Rue Morgue. Kind of a goth hangout."
"Right. Thanks Abby." Aislyn dashed to the door.
"Aislyn," Abby called. "I know it's no use telling you to be careful, but don't...don't get killed, OK?"
"Believe me, Abby," Aislyn said with a tight smile. "It's the farthest thing from my mind."
Aislyn grimaced. Dupin's was a far cry from the Paris hotel she and Michael had danced the night away in only a day ago. The DJ's pumped the screeching wails of Nine Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson as listless, black-clad youths with too much white makeup and spiked hair tried to out-morbid each other on the dance floor. For some reason, a decorative motif of orangutans wielding shaving razors was plastered across the walls. The stench of tobacco and other, less savory herbs billowed across the room in a delirious fog.
Zipping up her leather bomber jacket, Ais shrugged her duffel bag over her shoulder and strode purposefully toward the bar. A thin, sallow teen with rouge-stained lips matching the color of his silk shirt wiped wine glasses as he stared insolently at her.
"I'm looking for the owner," Aislyn said. The youth pretended not to hear. Ais counted slowly to ten. She repeated herself in French. The bartender smiled mockingly and tapped his ear.
"Fair enough," gritted Ais as she grabbed the proffered ear and slammed the bartender's head against the counter. Silence ensued.
"Let me repeat myself," said Aislyn, speaking in English again. "I'm looking for your boss. I'm in a hurry. I've run out of patience wi' your gosh-I'm-dead-aren't-I-cool crap." She smiled sweetly. "So would you like t' give me a hand, then, or shall we start the Vincent Van Gogh tribute here and now?"
The bartender rolled his eyes frantically. One of his hands flopped weakly toward a door to Aislyn's right.
"He's waiting for you. Out...back..." he gasped.
"Thanks," said Aislyn, pushing him back. Releasing the bartender, she strode towards the door. The crowd shrank back as she passed.
A bleary eyed girl glanced at her emaciated male companion. "That was cool, non?" she muttered.
"Heh, heh, cool, mais oui, heh, heh, cool," he muttered back.
As Aislyn kicked the back door open, the buzz of an Immortal's presence nearby assaulted her. She brought her blade up and stepped forward.
Standing in the narrow, trash-filled alley were four men whose seedy clothes and features practically screamed "thug." Aislyn cursed as she saw the silenced pistols in their hands. Behind them, moisture glinting off his leather mask, was the malevolent presence of Etienne Le Malvoisin.
"Bastard," spat Aislyn. "You need to hide behind your jackals?"
"All's fair in love and war, mademoiselle," rasped the giant. "And I owe you a little payback, remember?"
Aislyn leapt forward as the guns coughed. Two of the thugs fell shrieking, but Aislyn was thrown to the ground as bullets slammed into her. Instantly her Quickening began to heal the wounds, but she would be helpless for several minutes.
Malvoisin chuckled. "A small return for this." He held up his mangled right hand. "I do not think it will fully regenerate. I would amuse myself with you longer, but expediency must rule." Drawing his sword, he stepped forward, raising his arm for the killing stroke. "There can be only-"
The clamor of a second Immortal's presence suddenly flooded Ais' mind as a black shape dropped from the roof, crashing into Malvoisin. The giant pitched onto his face with a roar. The thugs gaped.
With a flick of a wrist the dark figure drew a saber and lunged for the nearest thug. "Hold this." The thug howled as his gun (and hand) were separated forcibly from his arm. Without pause, the newcomer rolled, seizing a dropped pistol and drilling the last of Malvoisin's toughs.
"By Jove," exclaimed the newcomer. "I've still got it."
The giant pulled himself to his feet clumsily-Without his hand, Ais thought wildly, he's way off-balance-and raised his blade. The newcomer, his back to Aislyn, readied his weapon as well.
"Little blowfly," Malvoisin snarled. "You can't beat me with that toy."
"Mayhap," the newcomer said in a voice that seemed far too cheerful-and familiar, damn it!-for Aislyn's liking. "But unlike some psychopathic mask-wearing assassins who shall remain anonymous, I came prepared for surprises, don't y' know." Sirens sounded from down the street. "I called the gendarmes before I showed up," the newcomer continued. Aislyn could distinguish a faint English accent. "They're rather anxious to meet you. Just like old times, eh?"
Malvoisin choked incoherently. "You'll all suffer for this!" He ran off down the alley.
"I swear," sighed the newcomer, "some people are incapable of what the naturalists call 'learning behavior.'" He turned. Aislyn's eyes widened as she saw a familiar snub nose and chipmunk grin beneath a shock of rumpled black hair.
"Fitzruth?" she gasped weakly. The newcomer swept her a stage actor's bow.
"At your service," Fletcher Morgan, Fifth Earl of Fitzruth (landless) drawled in an over-the-top Shakespearean accent. A small furrow creased his brow. "Isn't this the part where you say 'oh, thank you, brave hero' and fall into my arms in gratitude, fair damsel?"
"Fitzruth...." Ais growled warningly as she pushed herself to her feet, but to her chagrin she fell forward. Fitzruth caught her with another grin, which disappeared abruptly as her right hand clenched in a chokehold around his neck. "First...thank you. Second, if you don't get me out of here now, I'm going to skewer you. Then hang you. Then flay and quarter you. Then stomp on any bits that are left. Understand?"
"Completely," Fitzruth squeaked. "Let's be on our way, then."
"Now," Fitzruth said, as he presented Aislyn with a steaming mug of tea inside his modest Latin Quarter studio, "why don't you tell me why you're tangling with Malvoisin."
Ais sipped and grimaced. Earl Grey. Euuuw. "Don't you have coffee?"
Fitz sprawled out on the couch next to her. "The Americans, bless their hearts, have given the world many wondrous inventions-television, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Felix the Cat and Disneyland, to name but a few," He shuddered. "But coffee? Please. And you're stalling."
Aislyn winced. At this rate, she thought, I can kiss Michael's secret good-bye here and now. "He's kidnapped a friend of mine. I can't tell you all the details...."
"More secret errands?" Fitzruth blinked. "This is getting to be a habit...."
"Fitzruth," Aislyn shouted over the din of the cart-horses. "If you spill this wagon, I'm going to skewer you. Then hang you. Then...."
"Yes, yes!" Fitzruth shouted. "Skewer, hang, flay, quarter, stomp! I'm very well aware. Hyah!" He urged the horses on. "But my associate's ship leaves Calais at midnight, so unless you want to go back to Paris and discuss the issue with the Committee of Public Safety, I'd suggest you let me drive, please."
Aislyn bit off a scathing reply. Despite herself, she admitted that Fitz was putting himself through a hell of a risk to get her out of France. In truth, it was fear more then anger that fueled her words. Madame Guillotine killed Immortals as easily as ordinary men.
The Terror had caught her and Michael-and all of France-completely off guard. Night was bad enough, with the smell of blood mixing in the streets, the occasional shouts and wailing of another arrest penetrating the walls of each hovel they hid in-but the days, with the relentless drumming, the howls of the mob, the rhythmic awful sound as the guillotine claimed victim after victim-desperately trying to smuggle Michael secretly to safety before they were discovered each morning had pushed Ais to the brink of exhaustion.
She knew Fitzruth well. A mercenary, dilettante and smart-aleck even among Immortals, but he combined it with a oddly endearing streak of integrity. They'd crossed paths on several occasions. More often than not, he'd driven her mad with his incessant chattering, but more often than not he'd ended up putting his life on the line for her. Like now. When an exhausted Aislyn had stumbled across him in a tavern, and begged his help, Fitz had set his jaw and leapt to the rescue without hesitation. His connections had provided passes, disguises, bribe money and transportation out of Paris, and booked her passage on a ship for Dover.
However, as the cart made another hairpin turn, she began to wonder if she'd survive the ride to the boat.
"What I'd like to know is," Fitzruth continued, clapping his moth-eaten peasant's had back to his head an instant before it took flight and jerking his head at the back of the wagon, "is why we needed to bring a bloody cartload of coffins along with us?"
Oh, I'm just trying to smuggle a vampire out of Revolutionary France. What else is new? Aislyn chewed her lip nervously as she wondered what Fitzruth-who didn't know about Michael and his 'delicate dependency'--would make of the contents of the largest coffin. "Camouflage," she said. "They won't be likely to stop a couple of peasant gravediggers, will they?"
"Oh, drat," Fitzruth swore, jerking on the reins. "It looks like we're about to find out."
Standing in the road were four soldiers, sullen faces staring from soiled blue uniforms. Their rifles, however, gleamed with care, Aislyn noted with dismay.
Fitzruth brought the wagon to a halt. "Good day, Citoyen Corporal," he said in perfect court French. Aislyn's nails dug into her palms. Fitz, you aristocratic idiot, she thought, peasants don't speak perfect court French!
"Good day, citoyen," rumbled the corporal. "Where to, in such a hurry?"
"The graveyard. Bodies to bury. They're getting quite putrid..."
The corporal laughed. With an ugly sneer, he suddenly smashed the butt of his rifle into Fitzruth's face. The Englishman dropped to the ground, stunned. Aislyn's left hand crept under the seat where her blade was concealed, but stopped at the sight of the other three soldiers training their rifles on her.
"So late at night? Let's find out what surprises you're hiding," growled the corporal. He signaled one of his men, and they hoisted a coffin-Michael's coffin!-from the back of the wagon. Aislyn paled.
"Citoyen Corporal," she called, trying to keep the trembling from her voice. "I don't think you want to open that."
"Oh, indeed?" snarled the corporal as he pried the lid open. "Why not-GOD IN HEAVEN!"
Michael burst out of the casket, eyes aflame, fangs fully extended. The effect was spectacular, to say the least. One hiss in the corporal's direction, and the entire patrol fled shrieking. Michael sank back, laughing.
"I've been waiting six hundred years for a chance to try that-" he choked out between guffaws.
"Oh for the love of-" Aislyn jumped down and grabbed the coffin lid. "Get down you idiot! Fitz is coming to!" Matching deed to word, she slammed the coffin lid back down (eliciting a muffled curse as it struck Michael's nose) and seated herself on top of it as Fitzruth sat up, muzzily rubbing his head.
"Why Countesh, I couldn' pozzibly drink annuther drop...." he mumbled, then blinked. "Where'd they go?"
"You don't remember?" Aislyn said, putting on her famous wide-eyed innocent look. "You were like a tiger. If the last one hadn't chucked a big rock at you as he fled, they wouldn't have touched you."
"Oh? Oh. Oh!" Fitzruth shook his fist vaguely at the forest. "That's right, you Frogs! Don't think to mess with Lady Fitzruth's favorite boy twice!"
Aislyn rubbed her temples. "I don't doubt it. Can we go now?" I'm getting too old for this....
"I'm getting too old for this, Ais," sighed Fitzruth. "Can't you just tell me why Malvoisin's after your friend?"
Aislyn sighed. "That's just it. I don't know." She glanced back at Fitzruth. "And I can't tell you more. I swore an oath to Michael."
Fitz stared at her soberly, all trace of humor gone from his face. "Ais." He took her hand. "I respect your wish to protect your friend. But if we can't put our heads together, he's dead. I know this bastard. He's not the live and let live type. Trust me."
Michael, forgive me.... "All right, Fitz. Trade. Tell me why you're after him, and I'll tell you....what I can."
Fitzruth looked at her silently for a few seconds, then nodded. "All right. Malvoisin," he said, "is one of the most vile Immortals I've ever met-and that's saying a lot. Present company excepted, of course."
"Please, Fitz, no jokes."
"Mmm. He's obsessed with mysticism, alchemy, magics. He's been murdering, stealing and raping arcane artifacts for centuries. He'll cheat, lie, steal-anything, even break the rules of the Game.
"I've been chasing him for decades," Fitz continued, "but I lost him in Hungary, during World War II. He was working with the Nazis, stripping old castles with the help of a pet SS regiment."
"What was he looking for?"
"Folklore. Deuced weird. Not religious. Historical artifacts relating to homicidal Slavic nobles. Elizabeth Bathory. Breslau of Wallachia. Vlad Tepes-"
The cold knot of fear in Aislyn's gut drew tighter. "Vampires. Oh no. No."
Fitzruth raised his brows.
"He thinks my friend is a vampire."
Fitz guffawed. "What a pack of bloody nonsense! You mean a bloodsucking creature of the night? Bats, crosses, fangs, the whole lot? Where on earth did he get a notion as idiotic as that? There's no such thing....ah, er, oh dear." He trailed off in the face of Aislyn's bleak stare. "Er...is there?"
"It's no more likely than undying men and women running around cutting each other's heads off since the dawn of time. Is it?" Aislyn asked bitterly.
"My God," Fitzruth rubbed his chin. "It fits. Bloody hell, it fits. It's what he's been after since the beginning...."
Fletcher Morgan, Fifth Earl of Fitzruth, stood in the public square at Rouen and stared silently at the charred ashes that had once been Jeanne d'Arc, the Maid of Orleans. The tears stinging his eyes were from the smoke and ash still billowing in the late night air. At least that's what he told himself.
The mob had disappeared hours ago, losing interest once the final cries had died. Only Fitzruth remained, staring blankly at the blackened stake and failing to banish the horror in his heart.
He'd come to France to fight for the glory of England. Why not? The King said it was a just cause. Adventure, women and song were what he'd expected. Instead, he'd found himself steeped in a charnel house of horror, as his troops had supported the brutish Burgundys and their turncoat French allies while they crushed peasants beneath their heels.
The Maid had changed that-driving Burgundy and English armies from cities long thought tamed. Even as Fitzruth had seen the English armies crumble before her onslaught, he couldn't help but admire her. Jeanne d'Arc hadn't fought for loot, or conquest, or even the joy of fighting-she fought for a cause she thought was just.
And we captured her, tortured her, and let the bishops burn her on a trumped-up charge, Fitzruth thought to himself. God's wounds, what am I fighting for? Savagely, he spun on his heel and left the dead to their silence.
It was close to dawn when he heard the muttered voices in an alley he'd thought empty.
"Did you bring it?"
"Yes, Father," a fawning, slobbering voice replied. Stepping into the shadows, Fitzruth saw a familiar, squalid figure-Guis, assistant jailer of Rouen. He dangled an object Fitzruth couldn't quite make out in one hand before a towering, richly robed figure whose features were obscured by a voluminous cowl.
"Excellent," replied the hooded figure in a dulcet voice. An hand reached out for the object-a plain wooden crucifix, Fitzruth saw with surprise.
"And m'gold, Father Malvoisin," Guis whined, spittle drooling down his cheek. With a shock, Fitz recognized the cowled figure as the secretary to DeMarche, Bishop of Rouen. "Y'promised gold. It took a pretty bit of effort to get it off 'er neck before they burned her." Guis fawned petulantly. He cackled. "A pleasant search, though-"
"Your reward. Yes." Guis' choke of dismay was cut short as Malvoisin suddenly siezed him and drove a slim dagger through his eye. The jailer dropped. Leaving the dagger where it was, Malvoisin wiped his hands fastidiously on his robe. "I had enough difficulty persuading DeMarche burning that little French bitch was necessary," he murmured. "I'm quite out of patience to deal with raff like you." He raised the crucifix. "At last...have mercy Lord. Grant that she truly did speak to saints and that you will end my pain...."
With a sudden, insectlike scrabbling Malvoisin dropped to his knees. Reaching inside his hood, he began to make frantic scrubbing motions inside his cowl with the crucifix. Fitzruth stared in bafflement.
"NOTHING," shrieked Malvoisin. With a spasmodic jerk, he hurled Jeanne's crucifix away. "Nothing, nothing and nothing...."
Fitzruth strode toward him. The wave of Immortal's Presence jerked Malvoisin from his mutterings.
"You vile bastard," spat Fitzruth. "You contrived to have her killed?" He reached down and grabbed the wooden cross. "For this?"
"You can't understand," Malvoisin hissed. Even through the muffling of the hood. Fiztruth could hear the madness. "You're like me, one of those touched by God-but none of you share my pain," With a hysterical giggle, he jerked his hood back. "Look at me!"
Fitz choked, stepping back and drawing his blade as he crossed himself with his free hand. Malvoisin had once been handsome, but his face was now a ruined horror. Plague boils drifted in a half-melted river down his cheeks. Scars ravaged his lips and eyes. Only the tufts of silky blond hair that remained and the intense violet eyes suggested the man he might have once been.
"It was the plague, obviously. I was dying. I called for God for mercy," Malvoisin half-chanted, his voice rising to a high-pitched shriek. From under his robe, he produced a sword. "He heard me. But I weakened, I hung myself. God grew angry and punished me. Oh yes. I don't die. I don't age. BUT THE SCARS WERE ALREADY THERE!" He ran forward, swinging wildly.
Steel rang on steel. Fitz was a veteran of a score of battles, but the priest fought with the strength of the insane. A wild riposte found Fitzruth's shoulder. Staggering back, he cursed as he tripped over the jailer's body and fell headlong, his sword flying form his hand. Malvoisin advanced, speaking as if to an unseen audience.
"It has to be there. There are too many tales of miracle healings. Some artifact, some elixir, some cure! And I'll find it, oh yes. They won't stop me. This one won't stop me," he gestured vaguely as his booted heel crashed into Fitzruth's ribs. "I've got all the time in the world." He raised his blade.
A glint caught Fitzruth's eye. Without stopping to think, he siezed the dagger from the body of the dead jailer and brought it across Malvoisin's throat.
The priest gave a hideous rattle. His blow wavered, striking Fitz a glancing blow across the temple.
Fitzruth lost no time. "Guards!" he shouted "Guards!"
Hand at his neck, Malvoisin hissed again, but failed to form coherent words. Shouts and the clash of metal sounded from down the street. Clutching his already-healing throat, Malvoisin raced off.
"Can't believe they were actually there," mumbled Fitzruth. He looked sadly at the cross in his hand.
"I wasn't much use to you before, Mademoiselle," he said softly. "But you've shown me that there are better things to fight for than blood and gold. I won't stand aside in the face of monsters like that one. Ever again." His fist clenched. "And however long it takes, Malvoisin will answer for his crimes. I promise."
"Sweet Christ, what a terrible story," Aislyn whispered. "How do you keep making jokes in the face of horrors like that?"
Fitzruth shrugged. "Easier than going stark raving nutters."
"He wants Michael's blood. To cure himself," Aislyn frowned. "Why didn't he just try surgery?"
"He did. In London, 1973, when it was still relatively new. My source told me the surgical incisions healed too quickly to help him. He's desperate."
"Then there's no time to waste," Aislyn stood. "We have to find him. Do you have a computer?"
"Of course I do. What do I look like," said Fitzruth in a deadpan tone, "some kind of walking ananchronism?"
Aislyn raised her brows.
"I play Pengo 3000 on it. Mostly," Fitzruth said sheepishly. "Marvelous game. But there's a modem and an Internet link."
"He'd need someplace where he wouldn't be conspicuous." Click, click, beep!
"And store your friend without being noticed as well," Click, click, tap.
"Somewhere with access to medical equipment-" Click, tap, click. "And blood."
"Ugh. Wait, look at this police blotter!" Fitzruth's finger jabbed at the screen in front of Aislyn's nose. "Ambulance stolen from Our Lady of Mercy, on the Left Bank, a day ago. Turned up abandoned three blocks from your apartment."
"Bastard. That's how he got away undetected. Let's go." Aislyn jumped to her feet, grabbing her sword.
Fitz raised a finger. "He'll be waiting for us. No doubt his men have our descriptions. I trust you have a plan to sneak in undetected?"
Aislyn paused. "He used an ambulance," A cold smiled played across her face. "Turnabout is fair play...."
Michael awoke to pain.
The chill was in his heart, and moving inch by inch through his limbs. Needles pricked his arms. He lunged against the straps holding his arms, but his strength had vanished. The rage-the dark bestial side he had chained for so long-snarled and slavered, but there was no blood to fuel it.
"He's regaining consciousness. We should dump him."
"No. We take it all."
"I should point out sir, that will kill him-aside from taking several more hours. We can't keep this up much longer."
"Kill him? Perhaps, perhaps not." A rasping chuckle. "Do what you must...."
Michael sank into darkness. Aislyn, hurry!
The ambulance driver was young and female and pretty. Dr. Giseaux was young, male, healthy and French. Therefore he had no qualms about giving the sobbing girl a comradely hug as the nurses pulled the emergency readouts off the corpse.
"I tried so hard," she sobbed. "He just wouldn't respond," Tears dampened the red-gold hair under her baseball cap.
"I understand, chere," Giseaux said soothingly. He moved his patting a little lower-her back was a knot of tension. "You are of course new at this-and not from around here, judging by your charming accent. American?"
"Irish," she sobbed. Giseaux's ears pricked up. A friend in Radiology had told Giseaux about an Irish girl he had dated...Giseaux decided to let his hand wander a little more.
"We will see to the arrangements, cherie. But you are distraught...I get off duty in two hours, perhaps I could take you to...eek!"
A sudden painful squeezing sensation erupted in Dr. Giseaux's delicate regions. The ambulance driver smiled at him through clenched teeth.
"You're very kind. I think I've had enough comforting, now. Could I take him to the morgue? I feel...responsible for him.
"Certainly," squeaked Giseaux, remebering suddenly what had happened to his friend from Radiology after he had broken up with the Irish girl. "Of course."
"You're really sweet."
As the elevator doors slid shut, the corpse jerked upright abruptly.
"Ow, ow, ow, ow ow!" Fitzruth yelped. "I see medicine's another thing that's seen no improvement in the last five hundred years," He threw on the shirt Aislyn tossed him and pulled his saber from under the stretcher, checking the sword with a practiced eye.
"Fine. Next time I'll be the corpse and you can get the comforting pat on the arse," said Aislyn, sighting along her own blade.
The waves of the Buzz struck them both simultaneously as the elevator doors slid open. A door at the end of the hall read in French, "Intensive Care."
Fitz and Ais glanced at each other. "On three," Fitz said.
Ais charged forward, smashing in the door with her shoulder.
"...three," Fitz groaned.
"You're too late, Miss De Connaught," a dulcet voice called out as Ais broke the door down.
Ais peered into the dimness. Intensive Care was deserted, save for three figures-a rat-faced man in a lab-tech's coat, a withered form strapped to a bed (Michael!), and Malvoisin.
The giant raised his hand in a mocking salute. Clenched in his fist was an IV bag filled with red fluid.
"You don't know what you're doing, Malvoisin!" shouted Ais.
"On the contrary, mademoiselle-I know exactly what I am doing!" Malvoisin tore the bag apart and began sucking noisily. Red gore dribbled down his ravaged face and across his shirt.
Fitzruth ran up to Aislyn. "Don't you bloody well know the definition of the word 'three'--Oh, gross!" Fitz stared in shock at Malvoisin. "That may well be the second most disgusting sight I've ever seen!"
Ais blinked. "What was the first?"
"The movie 'Seven.'"
Aislyn ground her teeth, and then jerked her head in shock.
Malvoisin's face was changing. The scars were knitting shut, the boils and sores vanishing. Standing in front of them was a Greek godling, blond hair descending in gentle waves past the shoulders, skin glowing with an unearthly vitality. Tears streamed from the violet eyes. Only the red stains around the lips and the mad gleam in the violet eyes belied the figure's beauty.
"At last," he said softly, "at last...."
Aislyn charged. She'd seen the abilities Michael exhibited. Their only chance was to stop Malvoisin before he learned how to use the power the vampiric blood imparted him.
"Fitz," she shouted as she aimed a powerful overhead swing at the giant, "get Michael out of here!"
Then the world tilted crazily and stars exploded behind her eyes. Faster than the eye could follow, Malvoisin batted her sword across the room and sent her flying into a wall. Plaster shattered as she hit.
Fitz had leapt and rolled past Malvoisin. The rat-faced tech pulled a gun from under his lab coat. The English mercenary kicked the gun aside and slashed twice. The tech toppled over without a sound, a crimson stain spreading across his coat.
Stepping back, Fitz whirled suddenly as Aislyn was thrown. "Ais!" He glanced wildly between Michael, and the back of the mad Immortal giant as Malvoisin advanced on Aislyn.
"To blazes with the rules!" Fitzruth's saber swung in a lightning arc.....
...and bounced off Malvoisin's steel collar with a discordant clang.
"Oh, bloody hell," sighed Fitz, as Malvoisin turned toward him, eyes flaring a flaming gold.
"You think I didn't learn from the last time we fought, little flyspeck?"
Fitz shrugged with an apologetic Who, me? gesture, and suddenly doubled over with a hiss of pain as Malvoisin's fist smashed repeatedly into his stomach and face. "You can't take my head. You can't stop me! I'm more than human. More than Immortal!" He struck Fitz in the face. "MORE!"
"More than unhygenic," mumbled Fitz through puffy lips. "Immortality is no excuse not to floss. Also, I think your beauty treatment's wearing off...."
With an annoyed expression (remarkably similar to Aislyn's), Malvoisin hurled Fitz to the ground and turned back towards Aislyn. But he drew up short as he glanced at the mirror next to the door.
Malvoisin's face was pulling back into a vulpine mask of rage. Yellow eyes flamed and needlelike fangs protruded from his stained lips. Worse, the new skin was drying and cracking as underneath a crisscross pattern of scars re-emerged...
"NO!" cried Malvoisin. His eyes fell on the dazed Ais. "No. The effect's just temporary." He leaned over Ais. "I just need-I just need more blood...."
"Psst! Dracula! For the love of Godfrey, wake up!"
The voice was oddly mushy and definitely not Ais. Michael blearily summoned his ebbing will and cracked his eyes open.
A man wearing a black trenchcoat, an impish (though somewhat mangled) grin, and what looked like sixty-seven bruises grinned up at him from a sprawled position at the side of the bed.
"Who...th' dv'l... " Michael whispered.
The man was weakly tugging at Michael's restraints. "Fletcher Morgan, Fifth Earl of Fitzruth," he whispered. "Currently landless. I'm a friend of Aislyn's." A strap broke free from Michael's left arm. "But it's up to you to stop that maniac Malvoisin, because Ais is down and I'm about to pass out...."
Fitzruth's head hit the floor with a noticeable thump.
As his vision swam into focus, Michael saw the hulking form of Malvoisin crouching over Aislyn across the room. Fear surged through his limbs and he clawed desperately at the remaining restraint.
"Just more blood," hissed Malvoisin. Crushing Aislyn in a bear-hug grip, his fangs dropped toward her throat.
"It's not the blood, Malvoisin," gritted Aislyn through clenched teeth. Though horrified, her eyes were full of pity.
Malvoisin drew back. "What?" The dulcet tones skittered and became rasping gravel. Clearing his throat ferociously, he tried again. "I don't understand you."
"You were so desperate to restore yourself, you went over the edge," Aislyn said. "You killed, you betrayed, and you've made yourself into a monster." Malvoisin swung his head back and forth, half in denial, half to avoid meeting the Irish Immortal's gaze. "The wound you can't heal isn't on your face-it's in your soul. And no quack remedy is ever going to heal that."
"You lie!" Malvoisin shrieked. Red-tainted spittle splashed Aislyn's face. "You saw, the blood healed me!"
"It hid you. For a little while. But it takes a little more of you soul each time. How many corpses will you crawl under to cover your black, withered spirit?"
"You're lying. You're just trying to save your own life."
"Maybe," Aislyn stared at him levelly. "But I think there are some things far worse than death."
"Far worse," a deep voice said from behind Malvoisin. The giant whirled. Michael stood there, gaunt, skeletal, swaying, but with fire blazing behind his eyes. Leaning on his arm was Fitzruth.
"Let her go," Michael growled in a rolling, snarling animal bass.
Like a puppet, Malvoisin flinched, his arms dropping like his muscles were cut. Aislyn leaned back against the wall, staring in relief-and a growing fear.
"Now come here," snarled Michael. Fitz, a spooked expression suffusing his features, sidled away from Michael and edged over to Ais.
"Did I say something about vampires being a pack of bloody nonsense?" he whispered.
"Please kick me later."
Malvoisin desperately tried to resist, but could not draw away from Michael's cold gaze. "This is impossible," the giant whimpered. "You are drained. You are helpless."
"My blood is in you," purred Michael. The sadistic pleasure in his voice sent chills down Ais' spine. "When you took my blood, my will became yours. It seems you didn't study hard enough. Ais," he said, never looking away from Malvoisin.
"Take your friend and get out."
"I can't leave you here like this-"
"GET OUT!" Michael roared. "It falls to me to finish this. I would not have you-" he paused. His eyes flickered. "Meet me outside in ten minutes. Go,"
Aislyn's face grew very, very blank. "Come on Fitz." They limped through the doorway.
Malvoisin twitched desperately as Michael strode toward him. "You can't kill me. You can't take my head." Hefting his sword in his left hand, he swung, missed and staggered. Michael sidestepped and knocked the sword aside. Malvoisin giggled hysterically. "No sword can cut through my collar. And it's welded permanently into place."
"You speak under a misapprehension," growled Michael. "I'm not going to cut off your head."
"Silence," Malvoisin's voice was cut off. The giant tried to lurch forward but a gesture from the vampire froze him in place. Michael stepped forward, eyes flaming gold. "As I said-I won't kill you. And I guarantee, you'll never need to worry about your disfigurement again.
"Listen very carefully...."
Outside the hospital, Aislyn crouched on the curb, her head in her hands. Fitzruth sat next to her, uncharacteristically silent.
A cold breeze rustled among the litter in the gutter. Fitz looked up. A dark shape was gliding down from the roof of the hospital.
"It's done," he said quietly.
"Is it?" replied Ais, without looking up.
Fitz started to say something, but then Michael dropped silently to the ground in front of them.
"Michael!" Ais jumped to her feet, ran forward, and suddenly stopped herself.
"Ais," he said. He wouldn't look at her. "Are you all right?"
"Yes," she lied. Then, "Michael, what happened-"
"Please," he said. "Don't ever ask me that again." He lifted into the sky. "I need to be by myself for a while."
Aislyn stared as he rose into the sky. She thought she couldn't be more frightened then when Malvoisin had taken Michael. She was afraid now. Of what she'd seen.
Of what might be lost, perhaps forever.
A gentle hand rested on her shoulder.
"Come on, fair damsel," said Fitzruth. "I'll take you home."
"Merde," sighed Inspector LeBrun as he stared morosely at the struggling paramedics, "Why am I always on duty when the weird ones show up?"
Tossing aside a cigarette, he walked over to where a pretty junior officer was taking the statement of one of the doctors.
"I'll take over from here, Liselle," said LeBrun.
"Yes, Inspector," she squeaked. Saluting, she raced off. LeBrun wondered why she was blushing. He turned to the doctor. "Your name."
"Dr. Giseaux, Inspector." Odd, he was blushing as well.
LeBrun jerked his thumb at the paramedics struggling to sedate the disfigured giant on the stretcher. "What the devil's his story?"
"We don't know!" Giseaux wore an expression of nervous bewilderment on his handsome features. And for some reason, he insisted on standing with his legs crossed. "An escaped mental patient, perhaps-but not ours. He says his name's Malvoisin-that's the only coherent thing we were able to get out of him..."
"Malvoisin? Etienne Le Malvoisin?"
"You recognize him?"
"Oh, yes. Suspected smuggler and racketeer. We've been wanting to have a little chat with him for some time. What was he doing here?"
"We don't know!" Giseaux ran his hands through frazzled hair. "He apparently was attempting to steal something from the hospital with the aid of one of the laboratory techs-a fellow we've suspected of pilfering for some time now. Apparently they quarreled, and Malvoisin killed him." Giseaux shook his head. "With a broadsword, Inspector!" He squinted at Le Bron. "You don't look surprised."
"I'm not. Don't ask," he snapped as they strode over to the back of the ambulance. With the help of an additional pair of burly gendarmes, the paramedics had the raving giant strapped securely in at this point. Only the ravaged head jerked back and forth.
"A cure! I'll find it!" Malvoisin shrieked. "I have all the time in the world!"
"Here's the damndest thing, Inspector," Giseaux said. Seizing the giant's forehead, he pulled a penlight from his lab coat and flashed it in Malvoisin's eyes. The pupils remained still.
"I'd like to know how he managed to kill that tech with a sword," Giseaux continued. "He's obviously stone blind!"
LeBrun groped for the antacids he kept in his coat pocket. It was obviously going to be a long night.
Domremy, France. One week later.
The statue had the visage of an avenging angel, a lady warrior staring with eagle eye, sword raised in defiance of the English foe.
Fitzruth knelt on one knee before it. Aislyn stood a short ways behind him, wondering what he was thinking. He laid a wreath of flowers at the base, followed by a battered wooden crucifix, and bent his head in silence. Ais fancied she saw him rub his eyes a few times. Then he stood up.
"It's too blinking tall," he said in an outraged tone. "And she never wore armor like that! No decent soldier would wear that nonsense! And her eyes are too narrow-set. Hair's too severe. Feet too big-"
"Fitz," Ais said in exasperation. "Can't you do a memorial service without a bloody art critique? If I have to listen to you much longer, I'm going to skewer you. Then-"
"Hang, flay, quarter, stomp!" they finished simultaneously. Fitzruth cocked an eye at her. "Can't you ever think of any other way to kill me?"
"Sorry," Aislyn looked down. "Guess I'm getting stuck in a rut in my old age."
"Don't be sorry," Fitzruth said. Linking arms, they strolled outside. "Do you realize this is the first time I've managed to annoy you in a week? I was afraid I was losing my touch!"
Aislyn glared at him witheringly. "I somehow doubt that will ever happen."
"Ouch, ow, ow!" Fitzruth clutched his chest dramatically and staggered in a circle. "The wounds I suffer for you!"
"You," said Aislyn, fighting the twitching in her lip, "are the most irritating, motormouthed, damfool Sassenach I have ever met!"
"Guilty as charged. Rakishly handsome, though, you must admit. A snappy dresser, it can't be denied. Witty... well, it depends on whom you ask," Fitz squinted. "Are you smiling yet?"
"No!" A splutter escaped Aislyn's lips. "Well, maybe. A little. I'm still going to kill you, though."
"Whew. I was getting worried there." Fitz' face grew serious for a moment. "Things aren't right yet between you and Michael, huh?"
"No," Aislyn said, staring back at the shrine of Saint Joan. "I'm afraid. Of seeing what he's capable of becoming. Of what we both might become. Monsters, like that thing that died at the hospital..." Her voice cracked a little. "Is this how it's going to be for the rest of our lives? Forever? Fighting one twisted thing after another -- until we're just like them...."
She trailed off. Fitz stood in thought for a minute. "Ais," he said. "Do you know the story of Tannhauser?"
She shook her head.
"Tannhauser came to the Pope, with a desire to be absolved of his sins. His tale was so black that the Pope turned from him in horror, refusing him absolution. The Pope said the Lord would sooner cause flowers to bloom on his sceptre, before forgiveness would be granted to a man like Tannhauser.
"The next day, when the Pope entered his chambers, a garland of flowers was blooming from his staff," Fitz rubbed his jaw. "I guess the moral of the story is, as bad as people can get sometimes, the whole point of caring about someone is that everybody deserves a second chance.
"We've all done things we aren't proud of-believe me, I've been there. It took a river of French blood-and Jeanne-to convince me I had to be better than the man I'd been in my first life." He paused. "You know, everything he did in that room he did to save you. And everything you did was to save him. Just a thought."
Aislyn nodded, and hugged him suddenly. "Thank you, Fitzruth." She cocked her head, a devilish gleam in her eye. "Saaayyy...What exactly did you go through that mess for?"
He grinned, his serious mood vanishing. The bruises on his face were almost completely gone. "The good deed is my reward." He bowed dramatically.
"Well, something occurred to me," said Aislyn, leaning close with a mischievous smile. For some reason, sweat broke out on Fitzruth's forehead. "Isn't this the bit where the hero gets a good-bye kiss?"
Fitz blinked. "Ah! Er, well, I hardly think that's proper--" Aislyn leaned in and kissed him warmly. Drawing back, she suddenly exploded in peals of laughter. "Fitz, you're blushing!"
"I most certainly am not!" Fitz squeaked indignantly, furiously trying to pull his head into the collar of his shirt.
"I don't believe it," Ais gasped between laughs. "Fletcher Morgan, Fifth Earl of Fitzruth. Mr. Aren't-You-Grateful-Fair-Damsel. Scoundrel among Scoundrels. Prince of Mercenaries. And he blushes!"
"Dash it all, Ais," Fitz said in exasperation, "I never expected it to actually work!"
"Never underestimate a fair damsel, Fitz," Aislyn laughed as she took off down the path. A few moments later, she turned back. "What are you going to do now?"
"Think I'll visit Cairo. Heard there was a bit of a ruckus last week over a stolen mummy. They can use a man of my talents there."
"Don't wreck the Pyramids," laughed Aislyn. She spun, and was gone.
Fitz stood there a moment in utter bewilderment. Then a slow smile crept across his features. Hands tucked into trenchcoat pockets, he strolled jauntily down the hill.
"By Jove," he exclaimed, "I've still got it."
When Aislyn returned to the car, Michael was waiting for her.
"The Englishman's gone?" he inquired in a too-casual voice.
Ais nodded. "He's off to Cairo. Something involving a stolen mummy." She looked at him. "Don't worry. You're secret will be safe with him."
Michael nodded in turn. "I thought it might be. I'm sorry I didn't get the chance to thank him for his help." He took a step forward, a look of anguish rippling across his face when Aislyn flinched back. "Ais, I-"
"Wait Michael. I know what you want to say." Ais drew a shaky breath. "You're ashamed of what I saw in the hospital. And you're afraid it'll happen again, only this time you won't be able to control it." She looked at him bleakly. "Right so far?"
"So far," Michael said thinly. "And, perhaps-it would be safer for you if we went our separate ways."
There was dead silence between them for a moment. Ais was the first to break it.
"Bullshit!" she shouted. Michael blinked in surprise. Aislyn grabbed him by the collar and shook him.
"What you did in there-what we both did-was for the sake of friendship! You fought like a devil to save my life from a madman, and I did the same for you." Tears welled in Aislyn's eyes. "I know you don't like a lot of things about what you are. I don't like them either-I hate them.
"But friendship isn't just about looking at the good and ignoring the bad, Michael. It's about seeing the whole person-good and bad-and loving what's there. All of it." She blinked and drew her arm across her face, sniffing furiously. "So if you've got some, some pig-headed idea about noble and heroic self-sacrifice, forget it. You're not getting rid of me that easily."
Michael stared at her a moment, the despair fading from his face at last. And then his arms were wrapped around her, and hers around him.
"Thank you, Lady," he whispered. Drawing back, his eyebrows furrowed in puzzlement as Aislyn craned her neck behind him. "What are you looking for?"
"Flowers on a staff. Never mind, it's a long story. Okay," Aislyn said, jumping into the car. "Are we ready to start the next phase of our vacation?"
"Vacation?" asked Michael incredulously. "After this mess? Lady, are you mad?"
She patted his arm indulgently. "Everyone deserves a second chance. Drive. We're not stopping until we get to Geneva. I've heard they've got some great clubs there---"
His groan-and her laughter-lingered in the air long after they vanished over the horizon.
This story is dedicated to Perri, because she says it's all my fault, and to Abby, who I thought needed to have a cool character based on her.
Possibly the most flattering thing that can happen to any author, particularly a fan authos, is to have someone write fanfic for you. Dave came through in a big, big way after that wench Aislyn started talking to him and woke up poor FitzRuth. I was delighted to meet the Earl, and anyone who wants to join me in hassling Dave for the sequel is welcome to do so; he swears he's working on it! And has been so swearing for almost 5 years....