"It's too late tonight to drag the past out into the light
They stared at each other intently, face to face, eye to eye. Sweat poured down her face, but she refused to back down, and her opponent had no intention of doing so, either. "You're not going to win, Michael," she informed him.
"Don't bet on that," he returned with a wolfish smile. They circled around each other, looking for a weakness or an opening.
"Just give it up, Aislyn. I promise, it won't hurt for very long."
"Go to hell, Michael." She suddenly made a move, lunging past him towards the doorway. She wasn't quite fast enough to beat a vampire, though; he grabbed her around the waist and pulled her a foot off the ground, tight against his chest.
"Give it to me, Ais. Now."
She fought for another minute, then went limp. "All right, already," she grumbled, loosening her grip at last. "Here it is, now let me go, you big ape!"
He plucked the remote control from her hand and released her, turning the television on with a smug smile. She hit the floor and proceeded to trip over the coffee table, landing on her rear with a thud. "That was very graceful," Michael observed, turning the channel to the one he wanted. "How have you survived 800 years?"
"By staking smart-aleck vampires. " She rested her elbows on her knees, shoving sweaty, pale copper hair out of her face and glaring at him with baleful sea-green eyes. The rest of her hair fell long and straight around her knees, halfway down her back. "Bad enough it's so damn hot out there, but you have to start wrestling matches over the stupid telly."
"Some of us are not affected by the heat," Michael said smugly, without moving his eyes from the screen.
"Some of us are going to wake up in a sunbath and learn all about heat," she threatened in return. "If I miss Babylon 5 because of your damned obsession with CNN, there'll be hell to pay."
"There usually is," he mumbled under his breath.
"What was that?"
He rolled his eyes, careful not to let Ais see. The muggy heat of the Louisiana July was sending her already-formidable temper to new heights; threats concerning stakes and sunlight had been coming up more and more often in the last few weeks. If the heat wave didn't break soon, he was going to seriously consider finding them a new home. "I said, I would never come between you and your television; I have a more efficient sense of self-preservation than that."
She huffed and sank onto the couch next to him, sprawling casually over the cushions and closing her eyes. Extremely cut-off shorts and a bikini top covered the absolute minimum amount of fair skin; the rest of her long, slender body was on display. Michael's eyes left the TV just long enough to enjoy the view.
"Lecher," she accused him without opening her eyes.
"Just admiring the scenery, Lady."
Her only response was a distinctly *un*ladylike snort; he laughed and returned his attention to 'Headline News'. The anchor was discussing the latest round of peace talks in the Middle East and he listened with interest.
"What is your obsession with the news, anyway?" Aislyn complained lazily, although he noticed her head was cocked so she could listen as well. "It's the same things we've been hearing about for the last 800 years -- wars, murders, politics -- the only thing that changes is the names. Lord, what fools these mortals be," she added parenthetically.
"Perhaps that is why it's so fascinating. I fought a crusade attempting to take over that country; centuries later, those crusades are still being fought, but on different grounds. And, once in a great while, someone actually makes a step forward. I find myself curious as to when the next step will be. What it will be."
"Whatever." Aislyn stretched lazily, her disgruntlement already forgotten. "Wake me when it's 7. Or when they do the stock market reports, whichever comes first."
It was too good an opening for Michael to resist. "Now, that is what's pointless. It's only numbers, artificially created by bizarre and equally artificial notions of value. Why do you and so many other people spend so much time following it?"
"Money," she shrugged, "Pure and simple. Besides, it's fun trying to predict which way the frog is going to jump and it's not like we can't afford to guess wrong periodically."
"Perhaps, however..." He was all set to continue the argument, but Aislyn's eyes suddenly opened and she shushed him, leaning forward to stare intently at the television.
"... in Dallas, another in a string of bizarre serial killings. Police report no connection between the latest discovery of an unidentified decapitated body, and six similar crimes reported in the last three years, three in the last month. However, sources inside the department say the killings in the Texas city may in fact be linked. In Toronto...."
Aislyn reached for the remote control and Michael relinquished it without protest. "You've got to love the modern media," she sighed, muting the television. "A hundred years ago, Immortals died and no one took notice of headless bodies. Now, everyone hears about them, and starts putting pieces together. I wonder how much longer we can stay hidden."
"You're sure it was an Immortal?" Michael asked, already knowing the answer.
Aislyn shrugged carelessly, her eyes shuttered and her jaw tight. "Two of those who died were Immortal -- Mario deGauss lost his head in Dallas a year ago, Petra Baiul about six months before that. I assume there's an Immortal living there, one who's deeply into the Game."
"You don't know?"
"It's not like there's an Immortal Yellow Pages, you know." She half-laughed, playing idly with the remote. "We still get news of each other the old fashioned way, by word of mouth. Maybe we need to set up Immortal hangouts, like you fanged types do, so we can keep track of each other."
"It would be destroyed by the first Quickening," Michael pointed out.
"Mmm. True. Oh hell!" She changed the channel just as the clock changed over to seven. The image of a spacestation came on screen, and Michael sighed and wandered out of the room. If he dared to talk to her before eight, she really would stake him. Her obsession with the future almost matched his preoccupation with the present -- probably for the same reasons, if she'd admit it.
The sun was almost down, anyway. He wandered through the sprawling house, strongly considering detouring for a quick drink out of one of the bottles in the kitchen. Deciding against it, he headed towards his room, in search of clothes to replace his jeans and T-shirt before he went out for the evening. There was a bar near the Vieux Carre which was popular with the others of his kind who frequented the city; he could find companionship there, if not nourishment. Most bars did not serve non-human blood, and Aislyn would skin him if he broke his promise.
It was a small price to pay, he supposed, for Aislyn's company. Few of his kind still formed attachments with anyone, preferring to remain loners rather than watch mortals die or other vampires become bored and leave. Strange; even after so many centuries, he and Ais never seemed to grow tired of each other. Annoyed, certainly; occasionally, even angry. But never bored.
Their home was within walking (or, in his case, flying) distance of the French Quarter; it had cost a great deal but, as Aislyn said, they could more than afford it. His only real objection had been the cliche of a vampire living in New Orleans, created by those damn Weiss books, to say nothing of how long the days were in the summer. Aislyn had, as usual, over-ruled him, claiming a deep desire to live somewhere she could hear decent jazz on a regular basis.
A more accurate desire would be their mutual need to leave California and the remnants of their life there, destroyed months ago.
He shoved the thought of that time out of his mind, determined to enjoy himself, and landed in the alley behind the club, referred to as the Landing Pad by many of the younger denizens. Smoke and music hit him instantly as he strolled through the back door -- whoever was playing tonight was coaxing soft, sexy, heartbreaking sound from an alto saxophone.
Aislyn would kill to hear most of the musicians who performed here, but they couldn't risk it. Today or many tomorrows from now, someone might remember meeting her, and start wondering why she hadn't aged, though she was not a vampire. Too many questions would be raised -- and he could not risk his society discovering the existence of Immortals. The price would be much too high.
"Michael!" one of the fledglings near the bar turned to greet him. "I hadn't dared hope you would join us tonight."
He groped for the young blonde's name -- Catherine, Cassandra... "Casey, good evening."
"Not yet," she grinned, "But it could be." He tried not to roll his eyes at the ancient pick-up line, but made absolutely no objections when she slipped off her barstool to move suggestively against him. "Will you dance first or.... drink?" she purred, tilting her head to the side in blatant invitation.
Far be it from Michael to turn down a lady. He leaned over to nuzzle her neck, his hand roaming through her heavy hair and down her back to bring her closer, their hips moving together to the insistent beat. "Dance, of course -- why waste the music?"
Casey smiled up at him, then spun away towards the crowded dance floor. Michael followed lazily, surveying the room and making mental bets as to how many of the inhabitants were there to party -- and how many to prey. There was a brief flash of guilt at the thought, the tenuous belief that he should do something to prevent the deaths, but it faded and disappeared as he rejoined Casey and lost himself in sound and touch.
He never had been able to say how he knew when she was there -- perhaps her heartbeat had a different sound, perhaps it was her scent, of ocean and soap and the faintest perfume, that reached him. Perhaps it was simply the force of her personality, seeking him. Whatever the explanation, he sensed Aislyn as soon as she entered the front door of the club.
He wasn't the only one. A man in his early thirties physically, but at least a hundred years older, immediately closed in on the redhead. Ais smiled but brushed him off, moving past him so smoothly that he could only blink at her back. She wandered casually towards the bar, stopping to dance for a moment here and there, like any other clubhopper on a steamy Saturday night.
Michael carefully detached himself from Casey, leaving her with a lingering caress and a promissory kiss, before drifting casually towards the bar. His partner wouldn't have come here unless it was important, but there was a game to be played if she was to be protected.
She leaned over the bar, giving all interested parties an excellent view of her legs in the microscopic denim skirt, and ordered a beer, taking a long sip before leaning back against the bar. Michael strolled up next to her and ordered wine, giving the bartender a look that meant he actually wanted *wine*, with nothing extra added. Then he leaned next to Aislyn with one arm, trying to look like a man on the make.
"Ais? What are you doing?" he hissed through a charming smile.
"Not here," she batted her lashes, letting her lips curve suggestively as her eyes gave him a thorough once-over. No one else would have seen the urgency behind them. "Too many ears. We have to leave, play a pick-up."
"Right." His wine arrived and he sipped the thick red liquid, running his free hand along Aislyn's forearm, below her rolled-up sleeves. She smiled again, tossed her head, and took another long drink, playing hard-to-get-but-not-impossible with 800 years of expertise. He downed his wine in one gulp, grabbed her hand, and pulled her out onto the dance floor.
She went willingly enough into his arms, resisting only hard enough to make the onlookers buy the act. Her slender figure melted against him, meeting the driving blues rhythm as if they were the same person, trapped in two bodies. He closed his eyes, knowing it would take time to make this look good, and savored the feel of her. He could almost wish.... he shoved the momentary thought away into the corner of his mind with the centuries-old lock. There was no place for it in their lives. There never had been.
All too soon, Aislyn moved just slightly away, breathing as heavily as he, and started to lead him to the door. He followed without protest, letting his hands roam freely, working their way through the crowd and through the door into the sultry New Orleans night.
Michael leaned against the side of the building and looked at her *very* unhappily. "Would you like to tell me just what that was about? You know better than to come here, Aislyn."
Ais stalled, trying to find the right way to phrase things. He waited, arms crossed over his broad chest, looming down at her from his extra foot of height. His reddish-brown hair was rumpled, falling into his forehead, and his green eyes stared at her with a combination of patience, fear, affection and real anger. "Yes, I know better than to come here," she finally said defensively, "and I brought protection." She reached into her shirt and pulled out a battered silver pendant, disguising most of it in her fist.
He could still see enough of the crucifix to make him wince. Dierdre's crucifix, one of the only things they'd been able to rescue from the rubble of their home, destroyed in an explosion only a few months before. It had been smoke-blackened and twisted by heat, but still retained enough of its form to be a useful defense. To a certain extent. "Point made, but your sword would be more effective."
"Which is why I'm wearing it," she shot back. "And this was too important to wait. We have a problem."
He lifted a dubious eyebrow at her. "Do we?"
She gave him an exasperated glare. "Give me some credit -- do you think I *want* your blood-sucking pals to figure out there's another kind of Immortal in the world? That I *want* to kick off a war between our respective societies? We played the game, all anyone in there is going to think is that you picked up a redheaded mortal and went out for a midnight snack."
"And my known eccentricity of not drinking human blood?"
She shrugged. "So you backslid. Most of those vampires were too young to believe anyone would really choose to do that, anyway, and we've got bigger problems than your image."
"So you said." He let the argument go, knowing he wasn't going to win. As usual. "What is it, Lady?"
Aislyn raked her hair off of her neck, trying to let some air through to her sweat-soaked back. "I flipped back to CNN after B5 to check the stock reports, and Headline News came on. They're reporting more murders in Dallas."
She shook her head. "No, I could live with a beheading. Almost. But Michael, two more bodies showed up near the site of the beheadings."
"There was no blood. But there were wounds -- on the neck."
She saw the implications sink in. "Oh, damn it to hell. There's an Immortal and a vampire on the same hunting grounds."
"Exactly." Her eyes met his, finding the same grim conclusion there. "We've got to intervene before either of them figures out that there's another predator on the block."
She could see him juggling possibilities in his mind, then he straightened up. "Are we flying or driving?"
"Driving, unless *you* want to deal with the Dallas / Ft. Worth Airport."
Aislyn parked the Taurus in the underground garage at the Sheraton. Tempting as it had been to let the valet handle the parking, she didn't particularly want witnesses to the always-entertaining spectacle of unfolding Michael from the trunk. And hadn't it been fun finding a car with enough trunk space to deal with a 6-and-a-half foot vampire, to say nothing of their luggage?
She popped the trunk before getting out, walking quickly around to lend her partner a hand. After several seconds of grunting and groaning, they got him to his feet; he stretched while Aislyn retrieved their bags from the back seat.
"Maybe we should have selected the Cadillac," Michael grunted as he tried to work a kink out of his back.
"You mean like the Amazing Fang-Boy's? No, thanks, you'd probably have wanted to paint it some disgusting shade of green, too."
"How long do you plan on holding that grudge?"
"Until it dies of old age. Want to get the bags?" she asked over her shoulders, her heels already clicking across the floor towards the elevator.
"Yes, milady," he muttered sarcastically, picking up the two slightly battered suitcases, grumbling audibly about the fact that luggage never stayed intact for more than one trip around her -- scuffs, scrapes and rips appeared like magic. She grinned and didn't even consider going back to help him.
"Have you decided what our first move will be?" he asked, setting the bags down in their room a few minutes later.
Ais shrugged out of her light trenchcoat and took off her katana, laying it reverently across the foot of the bed before kicking off her heels. "I haven't a clue, except to go poking around the area where they found the bodies, someplace called the West End. That's downtown, I think."
"Yes," Michael confirmed absently. "If we wait until dark, we can play the game with you as bait. I'll be your cover until you spot the Immortal."
"You've been watching N.Y.P.D. Blue again, haven't you? How about the vampire, how are you going to find him?"
"Or her, and I have no idea," he shrugged. "Dallas is not a haven for vampires; it's too deeply set in the Bible belt. Also, Texans are allowed to carry concealed weapons, and they have a nasty tendency to *shoot* people who grow fangs. We can heal, but it tends to put a damper on hunting."
"I'm sure the lawmakers would be happy to know they've lessened the number of 'death by fangs' in Dallas," Aislyn told him, not *too* sarcastically.
Michael didn't deign to answer; Aislyn grinned and started to rustle around for party clothes.
Skin-tight black jeans, an equally tight black v-neck T-shirt and black cowboy boots, covered with a black, hip-length windbreaker that was just too damn heavy for the heat of a Dallas summer, but necessary to hide her sword -- if she'd been hunting vampires, she couldn't have been dressed more appropriately, Aislyn reflected, studying herself in the mirror behind the bar.
Unfortunately, no immortals of any kind had come forward to take the bait, and she was getting tired of being a barfly in a tourist trap like this. Four nights already, and not even a shiver of the Buzz. Michael had had no more luck looking for his own kind.
Maybe it was a wild goose chase, Aislyn finally acknowledged. Maybe one or the other of their quarry had decided to move on. Maybe the last beheading had been that of the resident Immortal and his or her killer had decided against hanging around.
Or maybe the Immortal had just gotten tired of country music. Aislyn resisted the temptation to turn around and put her sword through the speaker nearest her, which was bleating out yet another 'done-me-wrong' song in a nasal twang that grated on her every nerve. Rock, techno and disco drifted in from the other bars in the so-called 'Dallas Alley' -- any of them sounded better than country at the moment.
She signaled Michael, who was being invisible on the other side of the room, inconspicuous in a black T-shirt and blue jeans, and paid her tab, starting to stroll towards the door. Before she got halfway across the room, one of the urban cowboys who'd been eyeing her all evening casually stood up in her path. "Leavin' so soon, pretty lady?" he asked, with a thick drawl that might have been funny if the line wasn't so obviously cribbed from at least five John Wayne movies.
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Michael start glaring daggers at the cowboy, and shook her head at him quickly. Then she took a deep, calming breath, and looked up the three inches to the top of the cowboy's head, mentally choosing between three biting responses.
Before any of them could make it past her lips, her head started roaring. Caught off guard, she blinked and reached out towards the nearest steady object, which happened to be the back of another cowboy's chair. He took the balance check as either an invitation or a plea for help, and lumbered to his feet to face off against the first cowboy.
Aislyn didn't pay attention any of it -- an Immortal had just walked into the bar. *That sounds like the opening to a really bad joke*, she had just enough time to think before she spotted the blond Immortal, who was looking around him with paranoia that matched her own.
He caught her eye -- and smiled.
Michael had been strongly considering going for the 'cowboy's' throat even before Aislyn turned pale. When she did, it was all he could do *not* to fly across the room to rip the overweight man's arms off. But the second man, who had apparently decided he was Aislyn's protector, was already preparing to throw the first punch -- and Aislyn recovered quickly.
He followed her gaze to the blond man in the doorway, who had sketched a small, quick bow in Aislyn's direction. Aislyn responded with a slight nod and glided away from the two men, who were so busy making macho poses at each other that they barely even noticed when the object of their dispute left. Michael made a quick mental bet with himself, then strolled out of the bar after Aislyn, counting down. The brawl broke out as he hit zero -- not bad.
Dallas Alley opened on one end into a parking lot, on the other into a public square. It was packed with people who had apparently decided there was safety in numbers, drinking and hollering to show they weren't afraid of anything. Yet another (bad) country band was performing on the small outdoor stage, there was a huge line queued outside Planet Hollywood, and tourists with beer posed in front of the Godzilla statue and thronged the steps opposite the stage. Aislyn followed the Immortal to the square; Michael stayed close enough to hear what was going on without being obvious -- a neat trick over the music and shouting.
"I am Aislyn De Connaught," Ais told the other Immortal as he sat down at one of the small table. Her arms were crossed, her hand in perfect position to reach over her shoulder and draw her katana.
"Paul Marcus," the other answered, his accent a British clip overlain by a Georgia drawl. His short, wiry body was draped bonelessly over his chair as he quirked his head to the side slightly, studying her. "I've heard of you -- with your reputation, I've no wish to fight you."
Aislyn lifted an eyebrow in return. "Apparently that didn't bother you when you took on Mario deGauss. Or Petra Baiul."
"They challenged me," Marcus replied calmly. "And you'll notice who won."
The other eyebrow went up; Michael winced. He knew that look -- she'd apparently known deGauss or Baiul better than she'd let on to Michael. "Is that a brag or a challenge?" she asked dangerously.
Marcus shrugged casually. "A warning, perhaps?"
Aislyn smiled slightly, with less than no humor. "If I were you, I'd confine my warnings to opponents who are closer to your league."
This did not look good, Michael realized with sinking feeling somewhere near the pit of his stomach. With half his mind, he tried to find a discrete way to remind Aislyn that a public square in downtown Dallas was a bad place to hold a fight. The other half was fully occupied in cold-bloodedly summing up Marcus' chances against Aislyn.
Which weren't good. Something in Marcus' eyes and stance spoke of age, perhaps three or four hundred years, but also a cockiness far too young for those years. Aislyn could probably take him without breaking a....
He'd heard Aislyn describe the Buzz to him many times over the years, but the only reference point he had was the peculiar echoing sensation the world seemed to take on when another of his kind was near. He felt it now, pulling his attention away from Marcus and Aislyn and towards the top of the stairs leading into the warehouse / shopping mall that was the centerpiece of the square.
In the sea of tanned Texas bodies, the vampire should have been easy to spot, but it took him an excruciatingly long moment to find the Hispanic woman in her late twenties who lazed against a doorway, returning his gaze as calmly as Marcus had returned Aislyn's. She had short black hair, a body verging on the voluptuous, and was dressed in slightly closer to nothing than even Aislyn usually managed -- not beautiful, but undeniably sexy. She wasn't very old either, maybe a century or a bit more, but she *was* too damn close to the two Immortals.
He debated quickly with himself, then strolled up the stairs, passing Aislyn's table. She looked up as he passed and he flashed her the quick hand signal that meant 'Stay'. She blinked once in acknowledgment and proceeded to ignore him, going back to her sniping contest with Marcus. He didn't think the other Immortal could see Aislyn's shoulders tense.
"Michael," he introduced himself as he got closer to the vampire. Idly, he wondered why the rituals between Immortals and vampires seemed to be so much alike.
"Constanza Garcia de la Torres," she purred in return -- there was no other word for it. Her eyes roamed lazily up and down his body before focusing on his face. He tried to ignore them. "You're new in town."
"How could you tell?" he answered, letting the slightest edge of sarcasm creep into his voice. This one would eat a man alive, given half a chance. He didn't intend to give her one.
But instead of getting upset, she started laughing. It destroyed the sex kitten image, but was much easier on his equilibrium. "That should teach me to start out with a cliche," she said, smiling. "I'm sure you've heard them all before."
"A few times," he agreed, unable to stop his own wry grin. Her accent was an odd Spanish and very attractive, as he was sure she knew. "Other than that, it was not a bad approach."
"Oh really?" The smile turned arch and she turned the heat back up a notch. "Want to give me some pointers?"
He let his eyes narrow slightly. "Only one. Start being more careful with your meals -- the Dallas serial killer is playing much too heavily on the news. You'll bring more trouble down on yourself than you can deal with."
"I thought it was killers," she pouted, leaning back and smiling towards a young man who passed by them. The boy almost walked into the door. "And I don't generally remove my victim's heads, although I understand that's becoming a popular way of life up north."
His eyes narrowed again at the reference to the string of Immortal deaths around the Washington/Canada border. But she couldn't possibly know to what -- or whom -- she was referring. "I doubt those have anything to do with us," he said dismissively, "except to demonstrate how easily multiple deaths can be noticed, and endanger the Community."
"I should worry about Enforcers, then?" Constanza asked ingenuously, her dark eyes smiling up at him innocently.
He cleared his throat of a sudden obstruction. "If I noticed, so might they -- and coming looking for you. Your victims have been on television."
"Oh, that's truly a heinous sin," she sighed. "All right, your warning has been delivered. But I'm a very big girl --" Her sideways glance added layers of meaning, "-- and I can take care of myself."
Michael lifted an eyebrow at her. "And if you can't?"
If anything, her small, feline smile got wider. "Then I'll find someone else," she reached out and lazily trailed a hand down his chest, "to do it for me."
It should have been a come-on to end all come-ons, but was something different instead. He sensed the presence at his back as she looked over his shoulder, and turned around -- to find Marcus standing there.
"Excuse me, miss," he asked Constanza, his accent suddenly three shades heavier. "Is this man botherin' you?"
"Does it look as if she's bothered?" Michael said with lethal challenge, gesturing towards the hand that was now hovering somewhere near his belt.
Constanza removed it with a witchy smile. "No, no bother," she assured Marcus. "Everything is under control."
Something in her voice struck Michael as familiar, and he tried to think why. Not the words, not the tone -- but the expression in her eyes, an odd glow to them as well as a level of meaning, as if she was passing a private message to Marcus.
As Aislyn tended to pass them to Michael when they were playing for an audience. The Immortal's hand was in his jacket, and Michael was suddenly certain that his fist was wrapped, not around a sword, but around a stake.
But another message flashed between the two and the Immortal relaxed. "One can never be too careful of such a lovely lady," he said gallantly. Constanza made a moue in response, sending a heated smile Marcus' way.
Michael forced a smile of his own, then winced mentally as he sensed Aislyn coming up behind them.
"Do you always rescue damsels in distress, Marcus?" she asked, with so much acid the Immortal should have dissolved then and there. "I hadn't noticed that tendency in any of your other... encounters."
And that confirmed it -- Aislyn *had* been friends with the woman Marcus had killed. *Wonderful,* Michael groaned silently.
Marcus didn't even look at Aislyn. "Of course -- a gentleman lends assistance whenever he can," he answered smoothly.
"As you heard for yourself, the lady needs no assistance," Michael interposed, before Aislyn could say whatever she was obviously dying to shoot back. On a hunch, he added, "The young lady and I are members of the same... community group, you might say."
Bingo. Marcus' eyes narrowed in recognition before he caught himself, and smoothed his face back to cocky blandness.
Aislyn was staring at Michael as if he was insane; he shook his head slightly, willing her to stay quiet. She shrugged and turned away from the confrontation. "Remember my warning, Marcus," she threw over her shoulder, "Or your next encounter may put you farther a*head* than you'd like."
As exit lines went, it was fairly good -- or would have been if Constanza hadn't lunged forward apparently involuntarily at the unveiled threat towards Marcus. Her lips peeled back to reveal fangs before both Marcus and Michael grabbed her, Michael's iron grip much more effective than the other man's. Aislyn spun, sensing the sudden motion, her right hand over her shoulder and her katana partially drawn, the blade gleaming above the collar of her jacket.
They froze that way for a long, endless moment -- two vampires, two Immortals, each knowing what the others were.
When faced with two vampires, Aislyn thought, both with glowing eyes and one showing fangs, as well as another Immortal, all in the middle of a huge crowd where fighting was an absolute impossibility, there just didn't seem to be another appropriate response.
"I hope you appreciate," Michael said casually, without loosening his hold on Constanza, "that this is exactly the scene we came here to prevent."
Aislyn shifted her grip on her sword minutely, without taking her eyes off of Marcus. "I think this just became your classic 'good intentions' scenario. These two already know about each other."
"As do you," Marcus observed, letting his eyes flick from Michael to Aislyn and back. "Now that's odd. I thought our relationship was the only one of its kind," he said, very calmly, to Constanza.
The vampire had already began to calm down; her eyes shifted from yellow back to brown, and her fangs receded. She shook Michael off of her left arm, but let Marcus keep hold of her right; his grip shifted around her waist, changing from a restraint to a caress as she relaxed against his side. "Perhaps you were mistaken, querido," she finally purred, smiling up at him. his eyes narrowed and her smile faltered, then widened again deliberately.
Aislyn smiled mockingly at the exchange. "Somehow, I doubt it's your first mistake. Querido."
Marcus' slight smile never flickered. "He who makes the fewest mistakes, wins."
Her smile turned smug, condescending. "Dream on, boy-o."
Marcus flushed a dull red, his hand twitching towards his back; Constanza clutched at his wrist, exchanging a look with Michael. "If the two of you can stop rattling your swords for a moment," Michael said with thinly veiled exasperation, "we should perhaps take this discussion somewhere more private."
"Not to mention quieter," Constanza added, as feedback from the stage mike suddenly squealed through the air. Both vampires winced as their super-sensitive ears were assaulted.
Aislyn and Marcus snarled again, then turned away, ignoring each other. "Suggestions?" Aislyn asked Constanza shortly, begrudging even the single word.
Constanza didn't appear to notice; she was looking up at Marcus. He nodded once, shortly. "If you can tolerate food," she told Michael, "then yes, I can suggest."
Michael sighed with another exasperated look in Aislyn's direction; she glared back. "Yes, I can tolerate food. Lay on."
They wound up in the courtyard of Landry's, an historic seafood restaurant a few blocks away. The courtyard was open enough that no one would overhear them, especially not with the small fountain running a few feet away, but still public enough to prevent Aislyn from killing Marcus. For the moment.
The vampires and Marcus chose only glasses of wine; Aislyn, just to be irritating, ordered a po'boy. Besides, she was actually hungry. "So," she asked sweetly, leaning back in her chair and eyeing their new companions over the rim of her wineglass, "how did you two meet?"
Constanza, sitting very close to Marcus with a hand resting on his forearm, gave him a questioning look, as if waiting for instructions. The resemblance to her non-verbal communication with Michael struck Aislyn again; these two had been partners for quite a while. Somehow, though, she doubted Constanza ever threatened Marcus with the remote control, or anything else. "We... attempted to hunt the same prey," Constanza said finally, choosing her words carefully. "Soon after I was... brought across. In La Paz?"
"Yes, it was," Marcus confirmed absently, running a finger up and down the stem of his wineglass. Constanza's hand stayed on his other arm; she hadn't stopped touching him since they'd left the square. "Unfortunately, our... mutual target was in that rather deserted area of town in order to... meet with me, a fact Senorita Garcia did not discover until after she had attacked him."
"To my regret." Constanza shuddered with the memory. Ais fought back a smug grin, suppressing a shudder of her own; Immortal blood was to vampires as castor oil was to humans. "I looked up to discover a sword above my head..."
"As I found myself confronted with fangs," Marcus finished with an amused look at his partner. "I soon became aware of the... advantages of partnership, and we stayed together."
"I bet," Aislyn muttered into her wine, the sweet smile never budging. She could think of several advantages off-hand, and she didn't like any of them. But she and Michael had, after all, been enjoying partnership for 800 years without crossing the line. Any line. She had no choice but to give these two the benefit of the doubt, however much it went against the grain.
"And the two of you?" Marcus asked lazily, as if he couldn't care less. "How did you make each other's acquaintances?"
Michael sent a look at Aislyn, warning her to keep their ages out of it. She gave him an 'I *know* that' look in return. "Michael saved my life before my first death," she said simply. "We stayed together after I became Immortal."
"Oh, really?" Marcus looked slightly more interested. "Who was your mentor?"
A shadow flashed across Aislyn's face. "Rebecca Horne."
"Ah. My condolences."
Aislyn's eyes narrowed as she judged his sincerity; he came up short. "And your teacher?"
Marcus shrugged. "No one you've ever heard of."
Aislyn smiled humorlessly. "Try me."
The waitress arrived with Ais's po'boy before Marcus could choose his comeback; Aislyn almost snarled with frustration. Michael kicked her ankle warningly and she glared at him, then took a large, messy bite out of her sandwich. Michael averted his eyes as Constanza, who hadn't turned away fast enough, turned a delicate shade of green when the smell of oysters hit her.
Marcus actually looked amused. "So," he said, tapping his fingertips against the top of the wrought iron table, "the two of you paid enough attention to the news to piece together our existence, then came running down to prevent us from meeting each other. "
"More or less," Michael acknowledged gravely.
Aislyn swallowed, giving Marcus a condescending, 'how stupid *are* you?' look. "Do you seriously want vampires to discover the existence of Immortals? Or vice versa?"
"Not particularly," he admitted, the look apparently rolling right off. "But that's for, ah, personal reasons. I fail to see why the discovery would be such a tragedy."
It was Michael's turn to give him a Look. "Constanza has surely told you of the Enforcers. Do you really believe they would calmly sit back after discovering another immortal race exists for them to share eternity with? A race of non-vampires?"
"Hell, no," Aislyn answered the rhetorical question, leaning forward intently. "Especially when Immortals are a damn sight harder to kill than vampires, and can hunt during the day. Enforcers exist to protect their society -- they'd see Immortals as an unacceptable threat, and try to wipe them out. It's what they *do*."
"And somehow I cannot see *Immortals* sitting calmly back for that," Michael picked the thread back up. "Nightmare stories come to life and start attempting to kill Immortals outside of the Game? It would begin a war between our societies, pure and simple."
Marcus looked at Constanza, who was staring deeply into her wine glass, rotating it with her free hand so that the dregs splashed against the sides. "If what you say is true..." she began.
"It is," Aislyn said flatly.
Constanza ignored her. "If it is true, why have the two of you not been discovered, after so long?"
Aislyn lifted an eyebrow at the unsubtle probe into their ages, but let it pass. "Because we've been bloody damned careful, that's why!"
Michael gave her another warning look; her brogue was coming out with her temper. "Not careful enough," he pointed out. "There was Florence."
Aislyn snorted. "Aye, Florence. And the trouble that little bastard Lorenzo got you into, when we were both still too young t'know better," she said with a pointed glance.
"Must you remind me?" Michael half-groaned, half-laughed.
"You brought it up," Aislyn shrugged, not finding the memory nearly as amusing as he did....
The sounds of coarse laughter and coarser humor filled the luxurious rooms of the small salon, clashing oddly with the thick, finely made velvet and satin of the furniture and wall hangings, and the elegance of the small bronzes scattered on every table. But it didn't clash as badly as the vision of the condotierri who held up one of the walls near the door.
Michael watched the proceedings with detachment, trying not to notice that the so-called sophisticated Florentines were approximately as couth as a pack of wild dogs. The self-proclaimed lords of the city lounged in luxury, propping their feet on velvet cushions, wiping their hands and faces on the silk and satin of their clothing, and ignoring the small, beautiful bronzes scattered around them in favor of leering and pawing at the high-priced courtesans who reigned over the salon.
*At least I don't have to listen to Aislyn complaining tonight,* he told himself firmly, *Or spend my night glaring down any man who thinks she's a whore because she wears a sword and travels with me.*
He did allow himself one small, satisfied smile. Even when Aislyn joined him on bodyguard duty, De' Medici's hangers-on now confined themselves to obscene (and anatomically improbable) muttering under their breath in Aislyn's direction, out of fear of Michael's rage and Aislyn's blade. None of them knew quite what to do with a woman condotierri, but they'd learned damned quickly what *not* to do.
*Aislyn is right; De' Medici doesn't need us. No one would dare make a move against him -- Cosimo has been out of exile less than four months, and already he controls most of the money in Florence, and all of the government. He doesn't need bodyguards -- he needs a pair of performing bears to follow him around.* He shifted his feet, trying to keep his sword from banging into the wall behind him. *But as long as he's willing to pay our usurious rates, what have we to complain about? Besides boredom.*
Still, boredom aside, he was glad Aislyn had taken herself off to meet her friend Dierdre -- if he had to listen to her endless moaning one more time, he'd have been tempted to drown her. He tried not to think of what the two women were up to; from what he'd heard of Dierdre since she and Aislyn had met almost a hundred years before, she was capable of finding at least as much trouble as his lady.
He pitied the men of Florence.
Two hours later, De' Medici finally left the salon, signaling Michael to follow him. Michael lifted an eyebrow at the imperious gesture, but trailed after Cosimo and his entourage, keeping both mortal and vampiric senses alive for signs of trouble. He expected nothing and found nothing, except for the disquieting sensation of eyes on his back. In this city, though, that was nothing new.
It was more upsetting tonight, perhaps, because he'd spotted Lorenzo in the crowd again two nights before, staring speculatively at Aislyn. The young vampire had vanished before Michael could fight his way through the crowd in the Palazzo. He could only hope the other didn't recognize Ais as the woman he'd fought with in Rouen. But it was a faint hope.
*Maybe she should have just slept with the weasel at the time,* he thought disgustedly. *Or maybe I should have just let her kill him. Better yet, maybe *I* should have just killed him, and the society be damned.*
De' Medici dismissed him at the small palace that masqueraded as the family home; Michael made one last patrol around the house, finding everything secure, then slipped into the night. He had a fairly good idea of where to find Aislyn; even if he couldn't risk being seen by Dierdre, he still wanted to make sure both of the women were safe. Then he could concentrate on tracking down Lorenzo.
Sure enough, the small public house they'd discovered near their quarters was lively and loud, an out-of-key and mostly obscene drinking song echoing as far as a block away. Michael grinned in spite of himself, recognizing a very familiar soprano singing the chorus with great enthusiasm.
He slipped through the rough-hung door and lurked in the smoky shadows near the edge of the room, scanning the crowd to locate his Lady. He finally spotted the blaze of her hair near one of the fireplaces -- she was holding a mug of something in one hand and cheering loudly as a beautiful, black-haired woman, dressed in the plain woolen garb of a merchant's wife, arm wrestled with a dark man twice her size. He might have been doing better if he wasn't distracted by the abundant cleavage his opponent's gown was showing.
*Dierdre,* Michael guessed with a private grin at the astute tactics, as the woman succeeded in slamming the man's hand hard against the table. The loser cursed and half-rose, reaching across the table to grab the woman's arm threateningly. He yelped in pain an instant later, as she produced a knife and sliced it efficiently across his shoulder. Aislyn's main gauche appeared a moment later, the long, slender knife gleaming in the firelight, and the two faced the loser down in silent challenge. Cursing and holding his injured shoulder, the loser finally departed, leaving a fair-sized pile of coins on the table, which the winner began scooping into a pouch.
*Yes, definitely Dierdre,* Michael concluded as Aislyn looked up and spotted him. He bowed his head in wry appreciation; she grinned and winked before helping Dierdre recover their winnings. *And they both seem to be taking good care of themselves. And Ais is quite well distracted; that leaves me free to search for that sly little weasel Lorenzo....*
"Good evening, Michael."
He stopped breathing, then turned slowly, already knowing what he'd find. Only one kind of vampire felt like this to his senses, bursting his head with emptiness. "Good evening," he answered calmly, blanking his face completely. "And you are?"
The other man smiled with no humor, showing the faintest glimpse of oversized fangs. "I think you know that already," he answered in a low, calm voice that held no audible accent. "Come with me; we must talk. I require... an explanation. At the least."
Michael's lips thinned, and he resisted the urge to look over his shoulder. There was still the possibility the other man didn't know what Aislyn looked like. But it was hard to resist taking one last look, knowing there might never be another.
He followed the Enforcer into the street, striding beside the vampire until they were well away from the public house, deep in the common district. Michael maintained his silence, waiting for the Enforcer to speak first. When he finally did, it was almost an anti-climax. "Your choice of companions is... quite interesting."
Michael shrugged. "She's a beautiful woman; her family always has been," he said carelessly, baiting the hook.
The Enforcer wasn't biting. "She's a descendent, then, of a former companion?" he asked, not even trying to hide his disbelief. "An odd assertion, as a young acquaintance of mine swears she's the same woman who attempted to destroy him almost eighty years ago.
It was getting harder to maintain the disaffected facade. "And who might this acquaintance be?"
"Lorenzo di Contini."
Now *there* was a surprise. He swore under his breath in as many languages as he could remember knowing. *I knew I should have killed him when I found Aislyn holding him off with her sword, I *knew* it. Why couldn't the little bastard have left when I warned him to, instead of having the monumental stupidity to try to take Aislyn against her will?*
"Lorenzo is, as you say, very young," he said out loud, preparing himself for what was coming next. "Over our lifetimes, it's easy enough to mistake one mortal for another -- although I'll allow that Aislyn has her grandmother's look about her."
"She uses the same sword," the Enforcer said, with a finality that told Michael he'd already made up his mind who to believe; keeping the lie going would only make things worse. "She uses it with the same skill, and carries the same name --- and the same scent. She is not a vampire -- what is she? And why have you not yet destroyed her?"
"She's not a threat to us," Michael said carefully, admitting to nothing and trying to keep a leash on his temper. "She has never been a threat."
"She attempted to kill Lorenzo," the Enforcer pointed out, his eyes starting to glow in response to Michael's obvious anger.
Michael's temper snapped. "Lorenzo attacked her!" he snarled back, heedless of blowing his lie, his eyes burning. "She defended herself against him! That doesn't make her a threat to us, only to that cocksure little bastard!"
"Her life is as long as ours, you admit as much, and she knows of us, of our ways. She is a threat to us by her mere existence!"
"Why?" Michael demanded. "If indeed she is as Immortal as we are, why does that make her a threat? It's not as if she's wandering around staking vampires on a whim."
"If she exists," the Enforcer said slowly, almost hissing it past his fangs, "there may be others. Humans we can dispose of -- her kind, whatever they are, cannot be so easily dealt with. Were others to learn or our existence as she has, there would be nothing to save us from their attack. It is a chance our society cannot take if we wish to survive!"
"The only times she has fought one of us, it was in self-defense!" Michael tried one last time, already knowing it was hopeless. Already knowing that there was only one way to protect Aislyn from the Enforcer -- once the vampire finished with Michael, he would be after her.
"And you helped her!" The Enforcer snarled through his fangs at full volume, crossing the line past rational thought. "Whatever she is, instead of dealing with her, you sided with her against one of us! You've violated every rule of our society, threatened our very existence by your actions, and you will both pay the price!"
"Never!" Michael made his move and leapt at the Enforcer, who ducked away with preternatural speed. Michael went flying past him to sprawl on the ground, but regained his feet in a moment. The Enforcer was waiting for him, slashing out with his arm to slam his fist into Michael's face. Michael rode the blow, but it knocked him off balance; the Enforcer, long, terrible fangs fully extended, was on him in a moment, ramming him with amazing strength against the side of a wall. From within his hooded cloak, he withdrew a thick, sharp stake and swung it down towards Michael's chest.
Michael kicked out and twisted, and the stake caught only the side of his chest, then splintered against the wall, driven inches into the wood by the Enforcer's enraged strength. The Enforcer hissed violently and released the stake, transferring his grip to Michael's chin, forcing it up for his fangs. Michael fought, but his strength was nothing against the Enforcer's.
The other caught his eyes, forcing him to look deep into their depths. "You will tell me what the woman is," the Enforcer said slowly, threateningly. "You will tell me what she is, and how to destroy her."
"She... is..." Michael struggled helplessly, knowing he was losing the battle, what was left of his soul screaming useless defiance. "She... is... not--"
The Enforcer's grip loosened at the unexpected shout; Michael reeled as his mind was suddenly freed. He brought his arms up in a scything blow, setting himself free, then hit the ground and rolled. Something clattered to the ground next to him; he reached for it blindly, feeling sticky wood against his finger, seeing the flare of heat through his dizzied eyes. The Enforcer howled above him and he rolled, thrusting the torch hard against the other's cloak.
The Enforcer's howl turned to a scream, as the fire moved impossibly fast, consuming the cloak and its occupant, turning him into a pillar of fire. He screamed, long and loud, agony in every sound. The vampire became a torch became a living flame became.... nothing. Only a pile of ash on the ground, flames still flickering quietly among them.
He stared into the cinders for a long moment, as the impact of what he'd done sank in, then looked behind him to see Aislyn standing only a few feet away, her drawn sword sagging in her hand. Dierdre stood next to her, also armed, taking in the scene with eyes widened by shock. In the dwellings behind them, lights began to flicker into life, as the residents summoned up the courage to investigate the unearthly battle.
"Shit," Aislyn cursed quietly, moving to his side to offer him her arm. "An Enforcer? Did he hurt you? Dammit, I'm sorry, I didn't realize you were in danger until too late."
Michael nodded, using her hand to drag himself to his feet. "I'm well enough. But we must leave here, quickly."
Dierdre looked from the flames to Aislyn, then to Michael, and he realized how much she'd seen. "By the Gods," she breathed, her dark eyes filled with a strangely fearless amazement. "What goes on here? Aislyn, *this* is your Michael?"
Aislyn looked at her friend as if she hadn't even seen her until she spoke. "Ah, *hells*. Michael, I'm sorry, I--"
"Hush, Aislyn." Michael shook his head. "You know she's seen too much."
"Aislyn, we can't take the chance, for her safety as well as ours." She bit her lip, then met his eyes, nodding unhappily.
Dierdre looked back and forth between them, suddenly wary. "What are you two discussing? Michael, what in the all the realms of Hades are you?"
Michael walked to her, meeting her eyes. "I am no one," he told her firmly, concentrating all the force of his will on her.
She started to protest, then her eyes glazed over slightly. "No one," she repeated vaguely.
"You saw only two men," he projected the strongest image he could into her mind, hearing the distinct beat of her heart echoing in his, "The young man with the black beard killed the other with a torch -- you did not know either of them. If anyone asks, this is what you saw. No one else was here but you and Aislyn."
"No one here..." she repeated distantly; he concentrated a moment longer, burning the message into her will, then turned to Aislyn. "Watch her the rest of the night and reinforce what I told her. If you both tell the same story, it should be believed by any who wish to investigate, and will be the same story told to the Enforcers if they come."
"Lorenzo?" Aislyn asked simply. He nodded and she blew out her breath in disgust and the remnants of fear. "You should have let me kill the little bastard in Rouen."
He almost smiled. "I will, next time. Take care of Dierdre; we'll need to leave Florence with tomorrow's sunset."
He wasn't strong enough to fly, but blended into the shadows as the first people ventured onto the streets, voices raised in query. Aislyn heaved an audible sigh, then shook Dierdre awake as the onlookers descended and he retreated.
"The Enforcers tracked Lorenzo down a few weeks later -- they were not in the mood to hear his fairy tale about a woman who was not a vampire, yet still eternally young, when they had witnesses to his murder of an Enforcer," Michael finished the story. "Everyone on the street that night swore they'd seen it exactly as Dierdre and Aislyn had described. I understand they took their time destroying him."
There was a long silence, as Constanza and Marcus absorbed the story. "Point taken," Marcus finally said, slowly, looking warily from Michael to Aislyn -- the secondary point, their revenge on Lorenzo, had apparently also been taken. "We will... attempt to be more discreet."
Aislyn snorted quietly. "He's starting to talk like you," she murmured to Michael. He sent her a sideways glance with no heat in it; she gave him a crooked, mischievous smile in return. Out of the corner of his eye, Michael saw Marcus take notice of that smile, appraising Aislyn for the first time as a woman instead of a rival, and fought back the urge to go for the other man's throat. His eyes were just too damn cold.
He settled for standing up and pulling Aislyn's chair out for her. "As we've made our point," he said quellingly, "we'll be on our way."
"Thank you, Michael," Constanza said, looking up at Michael with liquid eyes. they cooled and narrowed as she turned them to Aislyn -- apparently, she'd seen the awareness in Marcus' eyes as well, and didn't like it. "And you, of course, Aislyn."
He *saw* Aislyn bite back several responses, settling for a less-than-gracious, "You're welcome. Just remember to clean up after yourselves from now on. Or we'll have to do it for you."
"Understood," Marcus promised easily, without getting up.
Aislyn nodded at him, watched with visible disgust as Michael kissed Constanza's hand gallantly, and left through the front door without waiting to see if he was following.
For a moment, as they left, he thought he felt eyes on him, but attributed it to Aislyn's flair for gaining attention. Taking her hand possessively, he led her away from the restaurant.
"I can't believe how you drooled over that little idiot," Aislyn informed her partner, checking the window drapes to make sure Michael would get no unpleasant surprises at sunrise. "And did you notice who did most of the talking, and gave all of the cues? It was amazing, you almost couldn't see the strings he was pulling to move her mouth. That was *not* normal behavior for a vampire."
"She was a bit slow," Michael admitted, peeling his T-shirt over his head. "But she's not a bad kid. She simply has terrible taste in partners."
Ais couldn't argue the second part, but her stressed nerves took exception to the first. "Not a bad kid? That *kid* is a blood-sucking creature of the night who has killed at least two people in the last five days. I don't think her *taste* is all that picky to begin with."
Michael looked at her, still holding his T-shirt. "She's not the only blood-sucking creature of the night in the vicinity," he said icily. "You're in no position to judge her, Aislyn, with the heads you've taken. She's a vampire, and a young one. It's what she does, just as I did and would still, were it not for my promise to you."
His jab hit with the force of a punch. It was so easy, sometimes, to forget what he was.... what they both were. "If y' resent that promise so much," she bit out, sitting down to pull her boots off with more force than was necessary, her brogue thickening as she held back unexpected tears, "then why've y' kept it all this time?"
She heard Michael sigh and throw the T-shirt across the room; it hit the wall with a soft thud and slid to the floor. Then the mattress next to her bent under his weight. "I'm sorry, Ais. That was a low blow. I do not resent my promise to you, and rarely have."
She sniffed loudly and dropped her second boot. "Rarely?"
He half-laughed. "Would you prefer I lie?"
She shrugged and sniffed again, well aware that she was acting like a five-year-old. "Aye, I would."
He laughed for real and put his arms around her, pulling her back against his chest and resting his chin on her head. "I *am* sorry, Lady."
"So am I. About the blood-sucker crack, I mean." She nestled back into his familiar bulk, tilting her head to see his eyes. "Not about the promise, especially not after what Mariko did t' me. Knowin' how it feels t' be... assaulted... raped, like that...."
He smiled sadly down at her, his eyes softening with the warmth he rarely showed another. "I know, Lady. I may have regretted making that promise once or twice, but I've never regretted keeping it. Not as long as it keeps you with me."
The tears threatened again, but they were easier to fight in the safety of Michael's embrace. He cradled her close for a long time, then gave her a gentle, lingering kiss and released her. "Go to sleep, Lady; I'll stay awake awhile longer."
Aislyn left him reluctantly. "Y'll be watchin', then?"
He nodded, his face grim. "Constanza is a small enough threat, I think, but Marcus... I don't trust him."
"Neither do I," Aislyn agreed softly as she changed into her sleepshirt. His back was turned while she changed clothes, but he returned to pull the covers around her, as if tucking in a small child. "He's a bad one," she murmured sleepily, the stress of the last several days catching up to her all at once.
"Agreed." Michael straightened and reached for the bedside lamp. "Go to sleep."
The room plunged into darkness, which she knew wouldn't trouble Michael. She could hear him moving around quietly, never bumping a shin or a toe, guarding her sleep. They were comforting sounds, that had never failed to make her feel safe even in the worst of times.
She smiled into her pillow and snuggled deeper into the blankets, then frowned slightly, as the flash of jealousy Constanza had aroused came back to her.
She truly didn't care most of the time when Michael took an interest in another woman, knowing his first loyalty would always be to her, as hers was to him. But she'd come too close to losing him too many times, and part of her was always on guard for any threat to him. Without Michael's steady, abiding love, the prize of Immortality would crumble to nothing.
Sleep was a long time coming; her dreams had to fight for space with too many old fears, too many memories....
Paris, like Vienna, was nothing like Aislyn had dreamed -- dirty and dank, smelling of people and animals and refuse, all crowded together and left to stew. She pulled a fold of her cloak over her nose, breathing through her mouth until her senses adjusted. "How long d' we have t' stay here?"
Michael didn't look any happier about the noise or the stench. "Not long. The rest of this night, and all of tomorrow. We leave at sunset."
"All right," she agreed with a sigh. "We'd better be findin' an inn quickly; the sun will rise soon."
"*I* will find an inn," he corrected firmly, steering her into the narrow space between two shabby wooden buildings. "*You* will wait here."
She looked up at him sharply. "And why am I waitin' here?"
"Because we cannot take the chance that word of the two 'witches' who escaped the clutches of that damned hedgepriest has preceded us," Michael told her gently. "If it has, they will be looking for the two of us together, not one of us alone."
"You said they couldn't track us here!" Aislyn protested, shoving a lank, tangled hank of hair out of her face.
"Lady, I don't believe the Pope himself could find us here --"
"You shouldna use his name in vain," Ais shivered and crossed herself hastily.
Michael's eyes rolled. "-- but there's no purpose in taking unnecessary chances. Wait here."
She wanted to argue his logic, but had made the mistake of sitting down; her body informed her in no uncertain terms that it did not wish to move again for some time. "All right, go on with y'. But don't forget about me."
He grinned rakishly. "Never, Lady. Stay quiet and out of sight."
"I will," she assured him with a touch of exasperation. "Go!"
He went, blending into the shadows silently for all his height and bulk. She sighed and rubbed her bare feet, noticing that the gash she'd picked up that morning from the sharp rock had already healed.
It frightened her more than she wanted to admit, this new strength in her body. The brief rest was already restoring her from exhaustion, her worst injuries now healed in mere hours. There was a new energy in her veins, as if nothing could harm her.
*Is this what it feels like to be of Michael's kind?* she wondered, hugging her cloak tight around her chest in a futile attempt to warm up. *But I'm not one of his. I can't fly, and I don't... I'm hungry, but for food, not....* She shuddered and didn't complete the thought. Michael had taken to disappearing for a moment when they stopped to rest; she did *not* want to know where he went. He always came back looking satisfied, and guilty if he'd found no food for her.
It was no wonder that they'd run into trouble; they'd been careless and paid the price. She had to stifle an *extremely* inappropriate giggle. Being accused of witchcraft was far from a laughing matter when a hedgepriest lurked in every village, bonfires waiting to dispose of the 'wicked', and innocence or guilt didn't matter a great deal.
But the 'priest' had looked so *terrified* when Michael had lifted himself and Aislyn into the air and away from the screaming mob. If they'd been able to bring along their packs, it would have been the perfect escape.
As it was, they'd been left with nothing but the clothes on their back, and those were beginning to fall apart. Ais pulled at the torn, dirty fabric of her gown, dreaming idly of new clothes.
She was deciding between a green gown and a blue one when the ringing in her head began, nearly knocking her off of the barrel she'd chosen for her chair. It was noise without sound, whirling and pounding in her head with a thousand voices, until she thought she was going mad.
Then it quieted, backed off, and she opened her eyes again, blinking back tears. They blurred the figure standing in front of her, but did nothing to obscure the sight of light gleaming off a swordblade.
"I am Antoine Dansereau," the sword's owner told her in French, shifting the blade so that the light flashed in her eyes. "I'm so glad you've come to me, child."
Somehow, he sounded less than sincere, Aislyn concluded, scrambling to her feet and away from the man. He blocked her with one smooth flowing step. "Get away from me," she threatened, scrabbling beneath her skirts for the knife Michael insisted she wear. She finally produced it, clutching it with white knuckles in the air between them.
Dansereau was not impressed; he smiled broadly, the startling whiteness of his teeth cutting through his dark beard and mustache. "You think to take my head with a knife, pretty little girl? You must be even younger than I thought."
"Old enough t' defend m'self against the likes of you!" she spit back, trying to keep the cold terror out of her voice. For a moment, she was back in Vienna, and Mariko was looming over her, ready to strike....
He laughed and stepped towards her arrogantly, reaching to wrest the knife from her hand. She sidestepped automatically, her frozen muscles finally responding, and slashed swiftly at his arm, feeling the knife rip through cloth and flesh. He cursed in loud surprise, swinging a backhand at her. She ducked again, but still took a glancing blow to her head; it knocked her off-balance and into the rough wooden wall behind her.
"Enough games," Dansereau said through gritted teeth, blood dripping down his forearm. She cowered back against the wall, hearing her own whimpers of fear, and despising herself for them. "Now you die."
"I don't think so." Dansereau spun when the new voice cut through the air, a woman's calm contralto. Aislyn looked up to see a tall, blonde woman, calmly composed and carrying a sword.
*An angel,* she thought dizzily. *Come to rescue me. Michael's going to love this!*
Dansereau seemed to have a different impression of the new arrival. "Rebecca," he sneered. "This is none of your affair; you can't interfere."
"Can't I?" the woman asked quietly, her accent that of the upper class, almost pure Norman. "She's a child, untaught and untrained -- you know better than to attack her."
"She's one of us -- that means she's in the Game," Dansereau pointed out smugly.
"As are you." Rebecca spun the sword once, with easy grace. "Kill her, and I'll finish you before the Quickening ends."
Dansereau growled, low in his throat, but Rebecca didn't move. Finally, he spit on the floor at her feet and sheathed his sword, stalking back out into the street.
Rebecca watched him go, keeping her sword in guard position for a long moment. Then she relaxed and let the sword fall to her side, moving along the alley to kneel beside Aislyn. "Are you all right, child?"
Aislyn pulled herself to her hands and knees, inspecting her scraped palms. "I am gettin'," she said, slowly and precisely, as her voice came back under control, "very damned tired of bein' rescued."
Rebecca smiled, offering her free hand. Aislyn wasn't happy, but accepted it, pulling herself off the ground and dusting off her dress. She found another new tear and groaned, mentally comparing her clothes to the immaculate gown, overdress and hose Rebecca sported. "Who was that bastard?" she asked, trying to remember the little bit of Norman she'd managed to pick up. "Another whoremonger lookin' f'r new merchandise? I'd have done him precious little good dead."
Rebecca shook her head. "No, something much more serious, I'm afraid," she answered in English. Aislyn groaned at the proof of how terrible her Norman was, but welcomed the language she knew much better. "Do you know who you are, child?"
Several answers came to mind, but Aislyn didn't think any of them were the one Rebecca wanted. She settled for saying, "I'm Aislyn of Connaught. Does this have to do with what he did inside my head?" she asked, gesturing after Dansereau.
Rebecca nodded soberly. "It does, indeed. You see, Aislyn... you're Immortal. As am I, as is Dansereau."
Aislyn blinked. "Im-- immortal? But I'm not...."
"You are," Rebecca cut her off gently. "You were recently hurt, very badly, were you not? And now you heal quickly, and never stay tired for long. And my presence sets your ears -- your mind -- ringing."
Aislyn nodded slowly, biting her lip. "But I'm not a witch!" she blurted. *Or a vampire....*
"No, you're not. But you are Immortal." Rebecca sighed, but smiled as well, obviously amused by her own stumbling attempts at explanation. "This is not the place to talk. Come with me, and I'll explain everything."
Aislyn instinctively started to follow, but abruptly remembered her partner. "I can't go with y'. Michael said t' wait here."
"Michael? Your husband?"
"M' partner. He went t' find us rooms. He'll be back soon."
"Does he know about what you are?"
Aislyn gave her a Look. "M'lady, *I* dinnae know what I am. But yes, he knows what's happened t' me."
Rebecca didn't look happy, but conceded, "Then we'll wait."
Aislyn bit her lip again, then settled back down on the barrel to contemplate her new bruises while they lasted, strangely content to obey. Somehow she felt that all of this was, for the first time in her 18 years, going just as it should.
Michael stood silently at the window, seeing the very beginnings of dawn touch the sky, turning it to darkest blue, then highlighting it with palest rose. He could dimly remember the full glory of the sunrise, as seen through his own eyes rather than on a television or movie screen. Sometimes, he wished he could see it again, just once -- but that price would far higher than he'd ever consider paying.
He turned just enough to see Aislyn sprawled under the blankets, her hair streaming over the pillow, almost the same color as the sun he'd left behind. She'd left a trail of clothes on the floor and the contents of her suitcase had taken over an entire corner, despite all of his efforts to keep the room neat. She was argumentative, stubborn and strong -- and more precious to him than any sunrise.
She stirred slightly, murmuring in her sleep. He leaned closer to listen, and heard the name she whispered -- "Rebecca."
Mentally, he cursed Marcus for opening the old wound. Aislyn had cried for a week when Amanda brought the news of their mentor's death; he'd held her, biting back his own grief for Aislyn's sake. But he, too, remembered the gentle Englishwoman who'd shared their secret and kept it hidden from everyone, except Amanda, over the centuries.
He smiled slightly. Rebecca had dealt with the concept of vampires with much more grace than he'd accepted Immortals; she'd barely blinked at discovering what her second student was....
"Aislyn?" Michael's whisper carried for at least a league to his own ears, but Ais still didn't appear from the shadows. Growling, he trudged the rest of the way to the building where he'd left her, checking around them out of habit. There was Aislyn's heat pattern, sitting where he'd left her, and beside her was.... Michael's feet left the ground before his thoughts finished processing. There was a stranger standing over his Lady, that was all he needed to know.
He dove into the valley at full speed, slamming into the tall woman who was threatening Aislyn, hearing the woman's sword thud dully against the dirt as it was knocked out of her hand. They fell hard to the ground, Michael on top, fangs out and eyes glowing as he prepared to sink his teeth into the woman's throat.
"Michael, no!" He shook the clutching hands off his shoulder automatically, bloodlust taking over his reflexes. The woman's eyes were wide and shocked beneath him, then they closed as if in resignation. Her heartbeat beckoned him; he lowered his head to strike.
A moment later, he felt the impact of something long and sharp in his gut. He blinked in surprise and snarled, reaching beneath him to grab the woman's hand, pulling her knife out of his stomach effortlessly. She swore a shocked curse and Aislyn was on him again, frantically tugging at his shoulders.
"Michael, no, she helped me, stop it! Michael, she's like me, she'll taste terrible anyway and she helped me so please, let her go! Michael, please!" It was the barely controlled terror shrilling Aislyn's voice that finally broke through the blood-haze and brought Michael closer to reality.
"Saved you?" he hissed over his shoulder. "She had a sword."
"Had being the operative word," the woman said dryly, still sprawled beneath him. He looked down at her again, seeing shock and fear in her eyes, but also deep curiosity. "And I had no absolutely interest in hurting the girl."
"She didn't, Michael, she drove off another man who wanted t' cut m' head off! Dammit, Michael, y' promised me, let her up!" Aislyn nearly shouted, still pulling at him. He gave in and stood slowly, wrapping a protective arm around the frantic girl and pulling her against his chest.
"All right," he said slowly, his voice returning to normal as his fangs receded. "I'll trust what Aislyn says."
"Y'd damned well better," Aislyn muttered against his chest, punching his half-heartedly.
He ignored her, concentrating on the woman. "Who attacked her?"
The woman picked herself off the ground, brushing her clothes off ruefully, but didn't, wisely, even attempt to retrieve her sword. "That's... rather a long story. I've told part of it to your... to Aislyn. As I told her, if you'll come with me, I'll tell you both the rest."
Michael's eyes narrowed. "Go with you where?"
The woman sighed. "Considering that you've already proven your ability to rip my throat out, I really wish you wouldn't stare at me as if I were going to attack." She leaned over to pick her sword up casually, sheathing it... somewhere; Michael couldn't quite tell where it went.
"Michael?" Aislyn was looking up at him with pleading, oddly determined eyes. "Please come with us. I think you need t' hear this as well."
Put like that, he couldn't refuse. Unhappily, he followed Rebecca and Aislyn out of the shadowed alley and into the street.
"Immortals? Playing some sort of Game which involves cutting one other's heads off? And you expect Aislyn to become involved?" Michael's shout rang off the stones of the old cloister, echoing through the huge room Rebecca had shown them to.
She stood next to the fireplace, heating something that smelled of cinnamon and apples. "Aislyn is already in the Game," she answered calmly. "Now, she must learn what she needs to know in order to survive it."
"This is ridiculous!" Michael started to stand, grabbing Aislyn's arm. "Come with me, Ais."
She resisted. "Not yet, Michael, will you please listen to her?"
His eyes narrowed, and he concentrated on her, so closely he could hear her heartbeat. "Come with me, Aislyn."
She wavered, her face starting to blank. Then temper tore through her eyes and she jerked herself out of the trance he'd induced. "Don't you *ever* do that t' me again!" she hissed, fury written in every line of her body. "Now sit down, y' big bully, or I'll stake y' m'self!"
He sat, reluctantly. "Is this Immortality more ridiculous than vampires stalking the night t' devour their victims, as in the old grannies' tales?" Ais continued, arms crossed over her chest. "And can y' think of any better explanation why I didn't die when Mariko drained me? Why I heal as quickly as you do?"
He growled under his breath, but couldn't supply one. "I still don't trust her."
"Y'r bein' paranoid!"
"That's what keeps us both alive."
Aislyn looked at him incredulously. "Y'r undead and I'm apparently Immortal. D'y' want t' reconsider y'r definition of alive?"
He stood up so fast he knocked over the rough bench he'd been sitting on, something hard and painfully burning its way through his chest. "You want to stay here, Aislyn? Well enough, stay here. You'll apparently do better without me, anyway."
"Michael!" He ignored Aislyn's shout and headed for the door, the rushes on the stone floor muffling the angry thumps of his boots.
"Fine!" Aislyn shouted after him, her temper finally igniting. "Go on, leave, y' coward! I c'n do this by m'self!"
"I hope you can, dammit, I --"
"That's enough!" Rebecca's voice thundered over Michael's retort. "Michael, come back and sit down. Aislyn, be silent, you're only making this harder!"
Michael glared at Rebecca with all the force of his age and will; she looked back at him without blinking, until his eyes were forced away. Grudgingly, he leaned against an ornately carved pillar and waited.
"That's better," Rebecca said, sighing. "Now, if the two of you will cease behaving like children --"
Michael lifted a lip at her, revealing one gleaming fang. "Children?"
She glared him down again. "Yes, children. Tell me, Michael, can you teach Aislyn to use a sword?"
"Yes," he answered instantly.
She lifted an eyebrow, than picked up her sword, swinging it in a quick, complicated pattern that even Michael's eyes could barely follow. "Would you like to prove your skills against me?"
He desperately wanted to say yes again, but beheading would kill him as surely as Rebecca claimed it would kill Aislyn. "No," he muttered instead.
Rebecca's eyes warmed. "There's no shame in that; I've had a good many more years to practice than even you have, I'd venture to say. There is much I could teach both of you, if you'd care to learn."
Aislyn crossed her arms over her chest, staring obstinately into the flames. "Who wants him?"
It was her turn to lose a stare-down with the blonde woman. "Your immortality will cost you enough friends, Aislyn," Rebecca warned. "Don't throw any away out of temper. You'll have a long time to regret it."
Aislyn's jaw worked stubbornly, but she finally asked, reluctantly, "You'd really teach both of us? Teach Michael to fight along with me?"
"To fight, yes," Rebecca smiled, "and other things I think you'll both appreciate. On one condition." She suddenly sobered, pinning both of them with a steady gaze -- a neat trick, as they were on opposite sides of the room. "When you fight another Immortal, Aislyn -- and it will happen, unless you barricade yourself on Holy Ground such as this all your life -- Michael cannot interfere. Ever."
Rebecca cut off their joint, simultaneous protest. "Not ever. I'll have your word, Michael, to abide by the rules as Aislyn must."
Aislyn started to speak again, but Michael cut her off. "I give you my word that I will abide by your rules," he said slowly, deliberately, "as long as Aislyn's opponents do the same. I will not sacrifice her to one less honorable than she is."
Rebecca thought about it, then nodded. "So be it. "
Aislyn looked from one to the other, obviously baffled by their sudden accord, but also relieved by it; her own quick temper had already cooled. "If that's settled, then," she said slowly, "it's nearly sunrise. Michael, y' need t' sleep."
Rebecca's eyebrow went back up. "Sunlight?"
Michael nodded reluctantly, unwilling to disclose even that much information. "Will burn me. Yes."
Rebecca smiled crookedly, shaking her head in disbelief. "It's always a shock to have old tales proven true. Vampires.... You must tell me more someday, when you've learned to trust me. Until then, let me show you to a chamber away from the light. I'll guard Aislyn while you sleep."
"Aislyn can guard herself," Ais grumbled automatically, but followed the two of them farther into the cloister. Her hand snaked out tentatively to take Michael's and he grasped it firmly.
But who was reassuring whom, he didn't know.
Michael woke from his shift in the bed around six, rolling over and stretching. Opening his eyes, he saw Aislyn sitting in the armchair across the room, looking at him with amusement over the top of a thick, battered paperback. "You sleep like a brick," she informed him.
"So you continue to tell me." He sat up and ran his hands through his hair before swinging his feet off the bed. Aislyn's sword was out, he noticed, laid across the table beside her with the hilt in easy reach. "Any trouble?"
She found a bookmark and laid her book down, stretching in her seat. "Nothing. Maybe we misjudged the little twerps."
"Somehow, I doubt that," Michael told her dryly.
She shrugged and wandered into the bathroom, taking a pile of clothes with her.
"Going somewhere?" he asked through the door.
"Now that you've rejoined the land of the living, I want to go to the Galleria -- might as well have *some* fun on this trip."
Of course. Far be it from Aislyn to pass up the chance to go to one of the two largest shopping malls in Texas. He opened his mouth to volunteer to accompany her -- shopping with Aislyn was an endless source of fascination, and he didn't really want her wandering around alone anyway -- but the harsh ring of the phone cut him off before he could say anything. He strode back to the bed to answer it. "Yes?"
"Michael? This is Constanza."
His eyes narrowed and he sat down. "Constanza? What's wrong?"
Her breath was short, as if she was having trouble controlling it, and her voice held the slightest tremor, her accent heavier than before. "Michael, I... I must speak with you. It's... about Paul."
Michael worked to keep his own voice flat. "What about Marcus?"
She huffed her breath out heavily, impatiently. "He's gone... He's.... Por favor, I can't talk now, I don't know where he is. If he catches me talking to you.... Will you meet me, after sundown?"
"Are you afraid of him?" Michael demanded. "Why?"
"He knows about us," Constanza hissed, sounding genuinely shaken, close to tears. "He knows our ways, our weaknesses. Of *course* I'm frightened of him, and you and your Immortal friend should be as well! I must get away from him, before he does anything... please, will you meet me? Will you help me?"
If there was one thing Michael had never, in all his years, been proof against, it was the sound of fear in a woman's voice. He tried to remember the time of sunset, then suggested, "Meet me in the east parking garage at the Galleria, at 9:00."
"No," she protested, "It's too public. The ball on the top of Reunion Arena -- the one with the lights, downtown. It will be safer there."
His eyes narrowed again, but he agreed. "All right, I'll meet you there."
"Gracias, Michael," she sighed with audible relief. "Thank you a thousand times."
"Just be careful," he warned her. "If Marcus is so dangerous..."
"I will be," she assured him, then hung up.
Michael replaced the phone and stared at it in long contemplation. Behind him, the bathroom door opened and Aislyn reappeared, wearing a short, pale green sundress and battered white sneakers. Her hair fell loose around her shoulders and the heavy silver chain around her neck disappeared beneath the top of the dress, hiding Dierdre's crucifix from his eyes. "Michael? Coming out with me?"
"It's not sundown yet," he answered automatically, his mind elsewhere.
"So? We can load you in the trunk." She waited for an answer. "Michael?"
He shook himself, forcing his attention back to his partner. "No, Lady, I think I'll pass on another trip in the trunk. You go on, I'll meet you there after sundown, around 9:30. In front of... oh, Macy's."
She looked at him oddly, here yes narrowing. "What's wrong?"
"Nothing," he lied, knowing he would pay for it if she found out. "I have some... business I need to attend to alone."
She didn't buy any of it, he saw, but shrugged, respecting his wishes for once. "As you like. I don't think the mall's going to be open long after that."
"Then next time, we'll come in the winter, when the sun sets earlier." He dredged up a smile, not wanting his much-too-perceptive partner to realize how worried he was. If she knew about the meeting with Constanza, she'd insist on coming along, and he didn't want the two women anywhere near each other until he sorted out what was going on. And if Marcus was truly as dangerous as they thought, Ais would be safest waiting for him in a public place. "You go on, Ais, I'll meet you."
She nodded and picked up her katana, sheathing it in one smooth stroke, then slipping on a light jacket to cover it. "At 9, then. Stay out of trouble, unless you take me with you."
"Of course," he answered automatically. She didn't seem reassured, but left anyway.
It was a long wait until nightfall, but Michael tolerated it more or less patiently. He flipped the TV on once, and turned it off again in disgust when not even CNN could hold his attention. He tried a few pages of Aislyn's book, but could not lose himself in the intrigue surrounding a Soviet submarine.
He even fed from his small stock in the room's refrigerator, determined not to meet Constanza -- and, if she was correct about the Immortal, Marcus -- at anything less than full capacity. But the rich, mouth-filling taste of the blood could not wash away his tension; even as he drank, he cursed the limits that his existence forced on him, and the sunlight that held him prisoner.
As soon as the sky was dark enough to cover his flight, he left the hotel and took to the air.
Reunion Arena was very close to the West End, almost next to it, and the ball on top was circled with thousands of lights, making it clearly visible from miles away. Michael homed in on it with no problems. "Constanza?" he called as he landed, not sensing another vampire present.
The city of Dallas spread in front of him in a truly impressive view, many buildings lit with colored lights for no apparent reason. At another time, Michael might have appreciated the magnificent gaudiness, but at the moment, he had other things on his mind. "Constanza!"
She was not there. His jaw clenched with impatience, but he stood still, making sure he was invisible within the shadows.
And he waited.
Aislyn paced in front of Macy's, occasionally aiming a kick at one of the full shopping bags she'd set on the ground. For the hundredth time in half an hour, she checked her watch. Almost 10:00 and the security guards were getting serious about chasing people out of the huge mall. Where the hell was Michael?
She forced herself to sit back down on the tiny bench in front of the store, trying to ignore the niggling sense of worry that was eating at the back of her neck. *It's not like he's never been late before,* she tried to convince herself.
*No, it's just been three hundred years since the last time,* the pessimist on her shoulder responded.
*So? He's due....*
She sighed and vaulted to her feet, going back to pacing. Lights started clicking off in Macy's, leaving her illuminated only in the hall lights. Most of the roof was skylights -- *Good thing Michael *didn't* come* -- but night had set in for real outside.
"Miss?" A security guard approached her from the shadows; she almost went for her sword in surprise, but managed to stop herself. "Miss, you're going to have to leave now, it's past closing."
Aislyn breathed out slowly, trying not to swear at the way she was jumping at shadows, and relaxed. "Right. Sure, I'm out of here." She collected her bags and headed for the exit to the parking garage, promising new and unique methods of staking to her partner for making her worry.
The guard locked the glass door behind her and she went down the concrete stairs to her parking level, fumbling with the bags and her pockets to locate her keys. She found them with a quick cry of triumph....
And dropped them again as the Buzz hit, hard. The packages followed the keys, tumbling to the ground as she drew her sword and fell instinctively into a defensive position. "Marcus?" she yelled suspiciously. "Show yourself, if you've got the nerve."
"Oh, the nerve and then some." He appeared from behind a Bronco, strolling down the ramp as casually as if he were walking through a garden party -- except that one usually does not attend garden parties carrying a sword. A broadsword older than he was, she noticed, wondering if his wiry frame had the endurance to use the heavy weapon. "Are you one of those people who can't remember where they parked?" he continued snidely. "I was getting tired of waiting for you."
"So sorry to inconvenience you," she shot back, as a neon light came on over her head, flashing 'Set-up, stupid!' in red and black. "What have you done with Michael?"
He smiled, spreading his hand in an innocent gesture that was ruined by the broadsword. "Not a thing. We simply gave your fanged pet something to chase other than you."
*We?* She spun, bringing her sword up and around; a few feet away, Constanza let the uniformed guard she'd been holding drop in a boneless heap at her feet. Blood smeared her mouth as she gave Aislyn a satiated smile, her fangs gleaming white through the dark red.
Aislyn froze, memories of another bloodthirsty face flashing through her mind, paralyzing her for one crucial second. Constanza took full advantage and lunged.
Aislyn's training took over from her horror and she dodged instinctively, slashing out with her katana, but wasn't fast enough. Constanza easily avoided the sword and clamped her hand around Aislyn's throat, lifting her off the ground. The vampire's eyes were calm, her fangs hidden again, but her hand tightened its steel grip steadily.
Fighting for breath, Aislyn twisted to land a solid blow to Constanza's ribs with the hilt of her sword. When that had no effect, she kicked out, landing one solid blow to Constanza's stomach and another to her breasts. An Immortal or human woman would have dropped in pain; Constanza merely blinked and shook Aislyn casually back and forth, rattling her teeth, blackness swimming in front of her eyes.
In the turbulence, she was dimly aware of something warm and heavy finding its way from beneath the bodice of her dress. Constanza gasped suddenly and tossed Aislyn away like a wet rag, Ais twisting in the air enough to make sure it was her back that hit the wall several feet away, not her face.
For all the good it did her. She lay sprawled on the concrete floor, her breath now completely gone and her body threatening open revolt. Her ribs sent hot, stabbing pains through her chest, and she felt blood running past her ear, soaking through her hair.
"Dammit, Constanza," Marcus swore mildly, a few miles above her head. "She's still got the goddamned sword."
Constanza was hissing in pain, but her voice was apologetic. "I'm sorry, Paul, but she's wearing a crucifix! I told you we should have been more careful -- she knows as much of my kind as you do!"
*Dierdre's crucifix*, Aislyn realized dimly, struggling to make it to her knees. *The oldest defense against vampires... God, I'd kill for a garlic pizza!*
"You don't tell me anything," Marcus said in sharp reprimand, "And soon she'll be dead and it won't matter what she knows." She heard him approach, saw his shoes stop in front of her, and managed to raise her head to meet his eyes. He was smirking. "Such a waste of a lovely face -- I almost regret that we don't have more time, milady. "
"Y'll forgive me if I dinnae share those sentiments." Aislyn tried to tighten her grip on her sword, but her fingers didn't want to respond. Her head hurt....
Marcus' smirk widened as he twitched his sword into guard position. "Normally, I'd come up with something such as, 'there can be only one'. However, since there are obviously two in this case, I'll dispense with the pleasantries. Give my regards to Rebecca -- and, of course, my dear teacher Luther."
He brought the sword up and down in one smooth sweep. In the same moment, Aislyn's sword jumped upwards, blocking his blade with a clash that echoed through the garage. The pain of the blow shivered down her arm, and met the adrenaline surge coming back up.
"Good-bye to one of us, anyway," she gritted out through clenched teeth, as she twisted enough to slam her foot into the side of his knee. His balance wavered for a crucial second under the clumsy kick and she rolled away, coming up on her feet just out of range. "Come and get me, cracker!"
He flushed at the Southern insult, stalking forward. Behind him, Constanza watched silently, her eyes glued to Marcus. Aislyn couldn't spare her any attention; as soon as Marcus was sure of his balance, he lunged for her. She knocked his blade away, but the effort cost her. She danced backwards, trying to keep her distance, as black spots whirled slowly before her eyes.
"Is this how you killed Petra, you cheating bastard?" she snarled, trying not to gasp. "And Mario? Is *this* the advantages of partnership with a vampire? How long has Constanza been winning your fights for you?"
He shrugged, circling her slowly. "It's one of the advantages, of course; you should know that. Once I finished training her, she became an invaluable tool in the Game. Haven't you taught your Michael to hunt for you?"
"He's my friend, not a Labrador retriever," Aislyn panted, flicking a glance sideways to see how Constanza had taken the comparison. The vampire was watching the spectacle with her head tilted to the side, her eyes intense, but oddly detached, never straying from Marcus. *God, if Michael could see his 'not a bad kid' now....*
Pain slashed through her side, jerking her wandering attention back to the fight at hand. She slashed down and out, forcing Marcus' sword away from her side, too late to stop him from cutting her. Blood soaked her dress instantly; praying the Quickening would kick in before she died of blood loss, she wrenched her katana back around from the block, aiming for Marcus' gut. He saw the danger and jumped back out of range, letting her blade whistle past. She recovered and slipped back to guard position.
But she could barely stand, and Marcus knew it. "Give it up, milady," he taunted her, circling, forcing her to back away. "All you're doing is hurting yourself, and there's not going to be an miraculous rescue from your vampire pal. Give it up."
"Drop dead," Aislyn snarled.
He smiled, his eyes flicking over her shoulder in an unmistakable command. "You first." He lunged again and she backpedaled, running directly into Constanza's shove. It was Aislyn's turn to fight for balance; cursing herself for not moving quickly enough to avoid the vampire, she fell backwards into the corner of the stairwell.
Pain flared on both side of her body with the burn of the slash and the flaring agony of her ribs. *Hit that wall harder than I thought*, she thought hazily. *Punctured lung, at least. Taken out by this cowardly little pretender.... Oh shit, Michael, it was such a good run.... Be well, my friend.... Live well....*
The light glinted on Marcus' sword as he brought it up; Constanza hovered behind him, waiting for the kill. Aislyn met her eyes and was surprised to see no gloating or bloodlust there, just a kind of watchful expectation.
She had no time no time to analyze; instead, she adjusted her grip on the sword, ignoring pain and exhaustion to bring it into guard one last time. She knew there was no way she was going to pull this one off, but she was *damned* if she was going to make it easy on the bastard. There was time for only one last, brief prayer -- *Michael....*
Marcus spun in mid-stroke, trying instinctively to bat down the dark form speeding towards him. He missed; Michael heard the Immortal's agonized gasp as the impact of Michael's shoulder drove the breath out of his body. Michael carried him another few feet, then dropped him from near the ceiling. The Immortal crashed to the ground and lay still.
"Cabron! Leave him alone!" Constanza left the ground with a scream of agonized rage, her eyes glowing and her fangs fully extended. Michael met her charge in mid-air, twisting to throw her behind him. Without stopping, he dove for Aislyn and caught around the waist, pulling her against his chest and flying hell-bent-for-leather for the exit from the parking garage.
Michael flew without thinking, other than to assure himself that his partner's head was still on her shoulders and her heart still beat. She lay limply in his arms, unable even to lift her head. He swore in long-dead languages he'd forgotten he knew, in a continuous stream as they tore through the night.
He almost flew into the church steeple before he realized what it was, then banked quickly and landed on the lawn, swinging Aislyn more comfortably into his arms and carrying her towards the back door.
It was locked; he wondered for a moment what the world had come to that a church had to be kept locked, then lifted a foot and kicked. The wood shattered as the door exploded inwards.
He carried Aislyn inside, flinching at the stained glass cross in the side window, and headed straight for the sanctuary. Hundreds of years ago, she would have been safe from the Pope himself within church walls. Tonight, it was her only hope against Immortal and vampire alike. Neither of them could hurt her on Holy Ground, even now.
A light shone over the altar, reflecting from the gold-embroidered altar cloth and the elaborate crucifix on the wall. The light burned like fire into his eyes, but he ignored the pain, staggering with Aislyn to the front of the church, and laying her a few feet from the altar. Every instinct screamed at him to leave this place, forbidden to his kind, but he lingered a moment longer, to make certain. She was still unconscious, the long gash on her side showing only the first signs of healing.
He reached for the chain around her neck, tugging it carefully over her head. The crucifix touched his skin once, leaving blackened skin behind; he set his teeth against the searing burn, and stuffed the necklace in his pocket. Then he kissed Aislyn's forehead gently and stood, rage burning through fear to leave only one desire in his soul -- to kill those who had betrayed him and his Lady.
The church was only two blocks from the Galleria; he covered the distance in seconds, blind fury driving him onwards, back towards the parking garage, determined to catch the bastards before they could escape him.
But they were waiting, standing together in front of the glass-enclosed stairwell as if posing for the cover of Sports Illustrated. Marcus' sword was in a casual guard stance in front of him.
Michael came to a stop a few feet in front of them, his eyes glowing and fangs extended. "Any last words?" he growled from deep in his throat. "Before I kill you for betraying us?"
"Don't be so high and mighty," Constanza hissed back, slipping defensively in front of Marcus, fully 'vamped out', as Aislyn would say. "What do their rules matter to us? If Paul is clever enough to find a way around them, he deserves the Quickening -- it doesn't matter to us."
"Oh, it matters, Constanza." Michael took a menacing step towards her; she hissed again in warning. "It destroys your honor, as well as his."
"Honor?" Constanza's laugh was closer to a snarl. "What is honor weighed against love? You claim to care for your Aislyn so deeply -- don't try and tell me you've never broken the rules to save her, because I won't believe it."
"I've never helped her to break the rules of the Game, only to even the odds when another breaks them, and *she* would have allowed nothing else!" He looked from one to the other with contempt. "You've betrayed both her kind and mine!"
His hand swept out to knock Constanza aside; she screamed and went for his throat, her nails digging for his eyes, leaving gouges along his cheeks. He caught her wrists, avoiding her flailing kicks easily -- she was untrained, fighting with a blind reliance on a strength that would have been more than sufficient against mortal or Immortal. Against another vampire, she was easy prey.
He thrust her aside, letting her land in a crumpled heap a few feet away, and turned towards Marcus, who had obviously been relying on Constanza to get rid of Michael. Dimly, through the film of red that clouded his eyes and mind, he wondered if the two of them hadn't taken on vampires as well as Immortals, clearing the way to the Prize. It stopped mattering as Marcus recovered himself and swung his broadsword straight towards Michael's neck.
Michael dodged the blow, which would have killed him as surely as an Immortal, with blurring speed, stepping past Marcus to rip open the trunk of the car nearest the combatants. He threw the lid at Marcus, who barely avoided it, and retrieved his true target. The heavy sheet of metal clattered on the cement floor, echoing through the garage, as Michael met Marcus' next blow with a tire iron.
Steel met iron with a dull clang, chipping the Immortal's blade. His eyes flared with anger at the damage to his sword -- more emotion than he'd shown towards the damage to his partner, Michael noted distantly. Constanza had chosen her ally poorly.
He felt a cold, deadly smile tug at his lips as he swung the tire iron, on the offensive for the first time. Marcus danced aside again, but misjudged Michael's superhuman speed; the tool caught him on the ribs, the pointed end tearing through shirt and flesh. Michael saw the blood begin to flow with satisfaction -- one blow towards avenging Aislyn.
He swung the tire iron back and up, aiming for the head this time; Constanza howled. It was her turn to fly through the air, crashing into Michael and sending him flying through the glass windows behind them, and another ten feet beyond that. They crashed through the glass of the mall doors and fell to the ground, Michael landing on the bottom.
Constanza wrapped her hands around his neck, trying her damnedest to rip his throat out with her fingernails, her fangs driving to catch his jugular. "You won't have him!" she snarled, her eyes lit with insane determination. "He is all I have and you will not take him from me!"
He wrestled with her, but she had the advantage of being on top -- he couldn't get enough leverage to throw her off. The tire iron had fallen a few feet away, precious inches from his touch. He rolled from side to side, one hand thrust up against Constanza's jaw, the other holding her wrists, but Constanza refused to let him move an inch.
Something dug into his hip and he remembered; he loosed her jaw and she smiled in heady triumph, until he clamped his other hand hard around her wrists, holding her captive.
The shining silver cross touched Constanza's perfect cheek and she screamed as the scent of burning flesh filled the small chamber. She fought to free herself, but his grip on her wrist had become a cuff, the captive turned captor. Michael shoved the cross harder against her, feeling his own fingers char, until panic gave her the strength to break free from his hold and fling herself across the corridor.
Michael stood slowly, nauseous from his own pain and the sound of Constanza's keening moans. She huddled against the glass wall that circled the open atrium that cut through the middle of the mall, holding her face, oblivious to anything but agony. He took a step and stumbled, cradling his hand against his chest, as Marcus made his way cautiously through the broken glass, sword held high.
"Constanza." Marcus' call was answered by a weak moan, as Constanza twisted her head enough to look at him. The once perfect skin of her face was blistered and black, her left eye swollen almost shut. Marcus took in the sight, his face freezing in a mask of hatred.
*Maybe Constanza didn't choose so poorly,* Michael thought, as Marcus' face froze into a mask of hatred.
"I'll kill you myself, vampire," the Immortal swore, advancing on Michael.
Too exhausted to fight, Michael backed away from the Immortal's sword until he ran into the brass railing that topped the glass walls. Time would heal him, and stop the pain, but Marcus wasn't about to give him any. *I should have waited for Aislyn to heal, dammit. She's going to kill me herself, if Marcus leaves anything for her. At least you're safe, Lady....*
"You want me, Marcus?" he dared aloud, in the same words he'd heard Aislyn use so many times. "Come and get me." Then he was in the air once again, jumping over the railing and plummeting through the open atrium to the floor below.
He barely managed to stop his fall before he landed on the... ice? His feet slammed into the ice skating rink built in the middle of the mall; caught by surprise, he felt the ground slip out from beneath him and landed hard on his back.
Marcus' curse rang through the air with the sound of pounding feet, echoing oddly in the huge building. There was a staircase not far away; Michael fought the slick ice and his blistered hand to regain his feet before Marcus could make an appearance.
He made it to his feet and almost to the opposite edge of the rink, before Marcus leapt down the last five stairs, running to the wall around the ice, opposite Michael. He was over it in a moment and on the rink, his right hand still armed with the sword; in his left was a long, pointed stake. He stalked towards Michael, intent on the thrill of the hunt above all else.
Michael, on the other hand, saw the shadow slip down the stairs behind the Immortal. The pain from his hand had already dimmed as his body fought to heal itself. His hunger grew, along with his anger.
"What a traditionalist," he mocked with as much distaste as he could muster, feeling his eyes begin to glow, his fangs slowly slip back into place. "Who do you think you are, Victor Van Helsing?"
Marcus' lips twitched in a grim imitation of a smile. "No, I think I'm Paul Marcus. Your destroyer."
"And I am Aislyn De Connaught. Y'r worst nightmare."
Marcus spun so quickly he almost imitated Michael's slide, trying to find out where the voice had come from. He didn't have to look far; Aislyn had swung her legs over the side of the glass wall and was sitting on it casually, her katana unsheathed and crossed in front of her chest. When she saw she had Marcus' undivided attention, she slipped to the ice -- her rubber-soled sneakers keeping her from slipping even a little, Michael noticed, faint irritation warring with his fear -- and stalked towards the other Immortal.
A few feet away from him, she fell into guard position. "Now, you Southern-fried bastard," she spat. "Let's see how good y'are all by y'r cowardly self."
Michael couldn't see Marcus' face, but the Immortal's back straightened so fast Michael though it was going to snap. He dropped the stake to the ice and brought his sword up in a two-handed grip."I don't need anyone else to take you out, *milady*." His tone made the courtesy a sneer.
"Too bad y' didn't think of that before y' let y'r little friend interfere." Aislyn's eyes lit with a killer's manic glee. "Come on, boy-o. Let's get busy -- for real, this time."
Aislyn sprang forward, swinging her blade down from right guard in a slashing, arrogant arc that terminated somewhere near Marcus' neck. He parried and dropped the stake to slash back two-handed; she danced out of the way, sliding across the ice as if she were wearing skates.
He followed, striking at her in a series of quick, testing attacks that she turned away without riposte, keeping her face blank but knowing her eyes were shining with adrenaline.
She faltered once, letting one of the blows slipped through and slice into her shoulder. From somewhere behind her, she heard Michael bite back a shout, but she ignored him and the wound, barely noticing the slow flow of blood that dripped down the bare skin of her shoulder. There could be no doubt that Marcus noticed, however; his next moves were faster, more confident.
Too confident -- she sensed the moment when Marcus got cocky and over-extended a shade too far, and struck instantly, batting her opponent's sword aside and stepping in to open up the side of his chest with one smooth stroke.
Marcus staggered back as blood dripped from the wound, bouncing on the ice. *Better than a hockey game,* she thought with bloody satisfaction.
Instead of following up on her blow, she stepped back, a small, tight smile playing across her lips. Shock spread across his face as it finally sank in that she'd been playing with him, baiting him into making a mistake. Exactly as he and Constanza had done to Michael -- and to her. She would take her time making him pay for attacking them, rules be damned.
Michael's voice crossed the ice to her, low and urgent. "No more games, Aislyn. Finish it now."
"Why?" she asked calmly, without looking away from Marcus. "I'm enjoying myself."
"Because it's not what you're about, Lady," he told her, his voice carrying through the arena with a strange clarity. "It's not what Rebecca taught us and you know it. It's not what you taught me."
She heard him; her heart twisted as killing rage fought with sanity. Marcus stepped back even further; as the katana came up over her head, he slipped in his own blood and fell at her feet. "No, please!" he begged her, all dignity and pride lost.
Aislyn stared down at him with eyes the temperature of the ice on which they stood. She wanted nothing more than to make the bastard suffer, but Michael, damn his soul, was right. The irony of it -- the vampire telling the Immortal how to be human -- struck her and she almost laughed.
Then her sword fell and time stopped.
A pale, silvery mist formed slowly, and began to rise off the ice, like a frozen pond under the sun. It coiled around Aislyn, almost covering the headless body at her feet. She threw her head back as the mist touched her face, swirling and twisting until it blew her hair back away from her face, whipping the remnants of her blood-stained skirt around the sword that dangled at her side.
The first bolt of lightning flashed from the floor to her sword, running up her body to dance around her eyes. Another flash, then another; the Quickening filled the arena, skating across the ice to explode against the glass walls, spinning through the air to the walls of the three levels above them, flowing around the metal trim and crashing high against the skylights. Vaguely, she sensed Michael duck for cover as glass rained down on them; she screamed up at the open sky, raising her arms to embrace the storm.
Time began again and Aislyn slumped forward, falling to her knees on the ice. The point of her sword dug in next to her, keeping her from falling on her face. Then Michael was beside her, his arms around her shoulders, holding her up as the last bolts of lighting chased over the ice. "Well fought, Lady," he whispered.
She couldn't answer, her breath stolen from her by the Quickening, but she leaned heavily against him. He smoothed her sweat-soaked hair back from her eyes, and rested his cheek on the top of her head. For a moment, there was peace.
Then a low moan started above them, building into a banshee wail that shook the glass still left in the walls. Michael shoved Aislyn to the ice, crouching over her protectively as Constanza shot down from the level above them. She ignored both of them, landing next to her lover, reaching out to touch first his shoulder, then the blood that pooled where his head had been. Her lips formed a silent word -- Paul.
"You've won your 'game', then?" she spat through her fangs, her hair hiding her face from the two who watched. "Fair and square, is that it? You killed Paul. My Paul, the only one in the universe who gave a damn about me!"
"The two of you started this fight," Aislyn rasped, her voice still torn by the Quickening, her body too weak to move.
Constanza didn't appear to hear; she was smiling lovingly down at Marcus' body, her burned, scarred cheek making a horrible mockery of the expression. Slowly, she licked one blood-coated finger, as if savoring the taste, then ran her hand again along her lover's back. "My own master deserted me when I was created," she said conversationally, suddenly, supernaturally, calm. "I had nothing, no one -- my family would have declared me a demon, or worse. Paul found me, cared for me, gave me something to live for. A purpose for my eternal life."
Michael's face was set, as cold as the ice beneath them. "He's dead, Constanza. He chose the fight, he broke the rules and now it's over. Let it go."
Constanza looked up, as if seeing them for the first time. Something harsh and ugly flashed across her face. "You don't understand, do you?" she said softly. "You've taken my life away."
Then she was in motion, Marcus' fallen broadsword clenched in her fist as if the steel weighed nothing. Michael stumbled backwards in an awkward dodge, not fast enough to avoid the blade that bit through his collarbone and down into his shoulder. Thre was no blood, but the force behind the blow drove him to his knees.
Ais strangled her instinctive shout and rolled away automatically as Constanza closed on her. She slammed into her sword, still thrust deeply into the ice, after only inches and grabbed for it, but didn't have the strength or leverage to break it free. Constanza was moving at normal speed, drawing out the end, her face still frozen in that mockery of a smile. In an eerie echo of Aislyn's final blow, she lifted Marcus' sword above her head.
Aislyn rolled again, *towards* Constanza, coming up hard against the vampire's feet in an attempt to throw of her balance. Constanza didn't budge; her smile grew as she looked at Michael. "Now," she told him softly, "I will take your life away."
"NO!" Michael shouted. Constanza's form blurred into vampiric speed and the sword flashed and dropped -- but Michael's shoulder got in the way as he dove on top of Aislyn, covering her body with his own, his arm lashing out as he fell.
Aislyn gasped for breath, shoving at Michael. Slowly, he rolled off of her and she was able to look up, still struggling to breathe. Incredulously, she saw Constanza stagger, her hands losing their grip on the sword, and saw the stake Marcus had dropped, now planted firmly in the vampire's heart.
Constanza looked from Michael to the stake, and back again. Shock was replaced, after a moment, by that same teasing smile she'd worn when they'd first met. "I'll join... my Paul... in hell, then."
Michael shook his head, slowly. "Give him our regards."
Her smile broadened slightly in appreciation of the irony, then faded as blue light flickered around her, rising from the ice like a strange, twisted Quickening. Michael shielded Aislyn's eyes as the supernatural flames devoured Constanza, leaving only a faint tracing of ashes on the ice as they faded away.
"If I'd known he was Luther's student, I'd have killed him the first time we met, swear to God," Aislyn repeated for the third time.
Michael stroked her hair back from her face, breaking through the tangles left by blood and the Quickening with gentle fingers. "Consider this your revenge for Rebecca, since Amanda and her friend took care of Luther for you."
"The student of one kills the student of the other? I guess that's justice, in a twisted sort of way."
"If I ever find Constanza's Master," Michael said grimly, "I'll extract some justice of my own. The careless bastard will not live to see another sunset."
Aislyn twisted to look up at him, wincing as the movement strained the muscles in her side and ribs. A few hours was not enough time for even an Immortal to heal completely. "Why would he have abandoned her, like she claimed? I thought Masters preferred to control their 'children'."
Michael pulled her back against him again, rubbing her ribs to ease the soreness. "Many do. Others... do not. It is frowned on by the Society, as fledglings without guidance attract too much attention, but it happens. And it is the fledglings who pay the price."
Aislyn shook her head. "Like a young Immortal with no one to teach them. Easy prey, wandering around with a target on their backs, ready and able to be warped and twisted by anyone who comes along." She grinned wryly. "I never thought I'd say this, but thank God for Mariko."
He smiled his agreement, feeling a soft jab from the regret that never left him completely. "And for Rebecca, who tolerated so much to make sure both of her students learned."
"Thank Rebecca indeed," Aislyn laughed. "'I don't care if you're a vampire, a dragon in human disguise, or the reincarnation of King Arthur himself! You chose to stay here and learn and by God, you will!'"
Michael groaned and rolled his eyes at her dead-on impersonation of their teacher. Aislyn laughed, the lights from the huge ball above them flickering strangely on her skin. "You realize how lucky you are that Constanza was Catholic, or that cross might not have done nearly as much damage -- she'd have torn your throat out. And you're even luckier I showed up in time to take out Marcus after you stupidly went after him yourself. You never were much good against a sword."
He'd heard variations of this several times over the last few hours, and didn't bother to defend himself anymore, any more than he pointed out how her assumption that Marcus would fight fairly, one on one, had almost gotten her killed. He settled for simply agreeing, "True enough. I do pity whoever has to clean up after that Quickening."
They quieted, looking out over the lights of the city in silence. Michael had brought Aislyn back to the top of the arena to recover and heal, wanting to share this sight with her. It was somehow easier to think here, above the noise and the people.
Ais shivered once, although the night was still warm; he tightened his arms around her. "What is it, Lady?"
She shook her head, still gazing outwards. "It's just that... I saw us in them, like some kind of... twisted reflection. We might really have become them, if things had been different."
"There but for the grace of God go we?" He shook his head, his cheek moving against her silky hair. "There's no point in thinking that, Aislyn. We are *not* them, and never could be." He smiled against her head. "You would never allow me to become like the others of my kind, or to use you as he did."
"No," Aislyn agreed, with a laugh that was barely more than a breath. "Any more than you would let me turn into a cold-blooded bastard like Marcus. But you know..." her voice changed, becoming thoughtful, "I think they might have actually loved each other, in their own twisted way."
"Perhaps. But not in *our* twisted way." He stood suddenly, pulling her with him and up into the air, held firmly in his arms. She laughed in surprised, and he smiled down at her, spinning her around in mid-air. "Fly with me, Lady mine, Aislyn mine."
"Michael, stop clowning around and put me down!" she yelled half-heartedly, clutching at his neck. "If you drop me, I'll haunt you for the rest of eternity!"
"Is that a promise?" he grinned.
She tightened her arms, trying to look threatening despite the silly smile that was spread across her face. "It's a guarantee, damn you!"
"You have a deal, then." He loosened his arms just enough to let her slip an inch or two. She shrieked gratifyingly, clutching harder at his neck, laughing and swearing almost too hard to hang on. Chuckling, he pushed them away from the tower and into the sky over the city; they soared into the wind and headed home, Aislyn's voice trailing behind them as she gave him hell.
No one saw them go, save one set of patient, watchful eyes.
As far as I'm concerned, this is the best Sun and Moon story I've finished. The comparison between Marcus and Constanza, and Michael and Aislyn, was interesting to set up, and this was my first shot at good, extended fight sequences, but the flashbacks to Rebecca were absolutely the best part. She was such an amazing character who was wasted in the two episodes of Highlander she received. I tried to do her justice.
Oh, and views expressed by Aislyn do not necessarily reflect my own -- I like green Caddies and country music. It's not my fault she doesn't.... And don't worry, I'll tell you what got Aislyn pissed off at Nick. Eventually....
Thanks to Nadia Cameron, T.J. Glenn and Heather Alexander, for inspiration beyond price, and for simply being Rebecca, Michael and Aislyn; and to Dawn Steele, Jennifer Mingee, and Catherine Boone, who beta read the whole mess.
This one is dedicated to everyone who patiently waited -- or nagged and harassed me -- for this story; you're the reason it got written. It's especially for Lisa Reeves and everyone at Syndi-Con East who recognized and/or threatened me. < g > Of such things are a writer's discipline -- and ego -- made.