"So mothers, tell your children not to do what I have done
Michael woke up slowly, a luxury he appreciated after far too many interrupted sleeps over his 900 years. There were no windows in the room, so he had no idea what time it was. It was almost too much effort to roll over and check the clock, but he managed it with a great deal of groaning -- 4:00 p.m. He'd slept the whole day away.
He grinned. Perfect.
It was another half-hour before he finally managed to roll out of bed. He reached for the pair of jeans he had taken off last night, and winced at the smell of stale wine and smoke. Groping in the closet, he pulled out the first thing his hand met, a pair of black sweatpants, and put those on instead; it was as close to dressed as Michael intended to get. The jeans and shirt of the night before found their way into the laundry hamper.
Yawning, he opened the door to his room and stumbled into the shadowed hallway. He took a few steps, noticing that it was twilight -- some of the curtains were opened already, and the hall wasn't totally dark. He yawned again, starting for the stairs -- and cursed when his toe ran into something hard. He grabbed for the railing just in time to save himself from falling down the stairs.
"What the hell?" he muttered, jolted almost awake. His sore toe met a familiar shape. "Damn it, she left the Rollerblades in the hall again. I thought you had to be wearing these to be killed by them."
Grumbling under his breath, he threw the skates in the direction of the bedroom across the hall, hearing them thunk on the carpet with satisfaction. Too bad the skates were so tough -- he held out hope of managing to 'accidentally' destroy the them.
Michael tried the stairs again, picking up the knee pads on the steps and the wrist guards on the banister, and making it to the bottom without further incident, only to stumble again over a backpack full of textbooks. Swearing, he added them to the pile he was accumulating.
He followed the sounds of Bryan Adams belting out "Summer of '69" (wondering for a moment *which* '69) to the kitchen. Aislyn was sitting at the table in front of her laptop computer, humming along to the music and occasionally singing along in her clear soprano. The window that took up most of the wall behind her looked out onto Santa Monica beach and the ocean beyond, cast into the deepening colors that followed sunset. Aislyn's pale red-gold hair glowed against the deep blue of the sky.
He watched for a moment, appreciation replacing annoyance, then wandered over to dump his armload of gear on the table in front of her, letting the backpack thump to the floor at her feet. "Did you have a enjoyable day?"
Aislyn looked at the pile in front of her, then up at him. "Yes, I did," she grinned, a little sheepishly. "Venice Beach and back. And I aced the final in Renaissance history. Did you fall?"
"You certainly should have passed it, you were there, and not this time." He sat down into the chair across from her. "Ais, I've learned to accept that you are a slob. . ."
"Organizationally challenged," she corrected, sitting back in her own chair and settling in for the lecture.
". . . but I would like to remind you that you agreed many years ago to confine it to your room," he finished, ignoring the interruption.
"I try," she answered innocently. "But it keeps escaping."
He sighed and gave up. Yet another argument he was doomed to lose.
Aislyn laughed at him, looking him over. His lean body was slouched back in his chair, his long legs kicked out across the floor and his dark red-brown hair rumpled, falling into half-closed green eyes. He looked lazy and satisfied. "Looks like you had a pretty good night yourself."
"Better than some have been, worse than others," he shrugged, looking over towards the refrigerator. It was too much effort to actually get up and get something to drink, he decided.
Aislyn caught the glance and decided to take pity on him to make up for the skates. A sweep of her arm cleared the table in front of him (Michael watched the junk hit the floor again with resignation) and a glass and bottle took their place. He filled the glass and toasted her lazily before downing it in one gulp. Cow, of course. *Damn you, Ais.*
He took a certain satisfaction in seeing her shudder and look back at her computer to avoid watching him finish his meal.
"What are you and your demon contraption doing today?" he asked, sipping more slowly at his second glass.
"Computers are our friends," she informed him absently, punching a few keys. "And we made a bundle on the market."
"That's good." He couldn't muster up much more enthusiasm -- they were already filthy rich, and the stock market was Aislyn's toy, not his. Instead, he finished the glass, and debated pouring a third.
He looked back at Aislyn instead, noticing for the first time that she was dressed up, in a microscopically short skirt and heels. "Where are you going?"
"I have a date," she informed him. "A very handsome man from one of my classes wants to buy me dinner."
"Ah, the real reason you returned to college."
"Well, there're more ways than one to fight boredom," she answered, accepting his teasing. She typed for a few more minutes, before starting the process of shutting the computer down.
Michael watched her fuss with the phone line and various other cords. She seemed nervous, and he didn't think it was because of a date.
"What's wrong, Lady?"
She bit her lip, not looking at him. "Nothing, really."
He leaned over and stopped her hands, which were still playing with the computer. "Please define 'nothing'."
She finally looked at him. "Maybe I'm just being paranoid," she tried to laugh, "but I've had a weird feeling for the last couple of days that I'm being followed."
"Oh really?" He raised an eyebrow.
"It's not another Immortal, I would have sensed it. And every time I try to locate whoever it is, they seem to disappear into thin air. Then, a few minutes later, they're back. It's strange."
Michael thought about it, staring into the bottle of wine. He had great respect for Aislyn's instincts, but also for her overactive imagination. After a long moment, he came to a conclusion. "You're paranoid."
She hit him. "Thanks a lot!"
He rolled with the punch, laughing. "I'm simply agreeing with you," he said. "It's not an Immortal, and there are no mortals who can move faster than you are able to, so what could it be? We haven't made any enemies in decades; there's no reason anyone would be stalking us."
"It could be one of your bloodsucking types," she shot back.
"My 'bloodsucking types' aren't aware of your existance. Why would they be stalking you?" Michael stood up, taking his bottle and glass to the sink. "I think your imagination is getting away with you, and I prescribe a long, relaxing evening with a handsome man."
She shrugged. "You're probably right."
She ignored his rejoinder beautifully. "What are you going to do with yourself, if I might ask?" she said instead, imitating his perfect grammer.
He yawned, stretching lazily. "I haven't decided yet. I'll probably go out again, enjoying the fact that I'm not the one paying to fill your bottomless pit."
That got him hit again. He laughed and wandered back out of the kitchen.
Michael jogged easily down the beach, feeling the sand giving way under his feet. At 3:30 in the morning, even the bars had shut down, but there was still traffic going by on the freeway, and a few cars sped past on Ocean Front Boulevard, about fifty feet above him. He wondered where they were going so late at night -- most non-vampires were in bed and asleep. Or curled up in the long row of humanity who lived by the pier, equally asleep.
On his left, the ocean was calm, waves breaking against the shore in a soothing, steady rhythm, white foam soaking into the sand around his feet the second it hit. The warm salt air seemed to wrap around him, filling his lungs. He could never quite get used to the warmth. It seemed that he had been cold for most of his life. Sometimes, he wondered if he would ever be warm again.
He tried to push the old memories away, before they could take over. Nights spent huddled with his sister in front of a dying fire, trying desperately to stay warm underneath a single blanket. Other nights, sharing what little warmth he had with Aislyn, huddled with her when it was too dangerous to build a fire, out in the middle of nowhere.
He banished the memories, concentrating on the present, on the full moon gleaming above him, the gentle whoosh of the cars as they passed him, the rhythmic pounding of his feet on the sand. He was alone for now; less than a mile away, his best friend -- his only friend -- was waiting . It was enough.
Something tickled at the back of his mind -- a sense of someone watching. He pushed it away as firmly as he had the memories. It was just Ais' imagination rubbing off. They were safe here.
He picked up the pace, taking the stairs up the steep drop-off from the road two steps at a time. Flying would have been faster, but not as satisfying. His breath still came easily, after ten miles; he wasn't even sweating.
He crossed the street, looking both ways, although any car that hit him would wind up in far worse shape then he would. He kept going, loping up the low hills on the other side of Ocean Front, heading for the house built into the side of the hills, almost hidden behind a screen of trees.
He reached for his keys, opening the three deadbolts on the door. The top one was already unlocked -- Aislyn had beaten him home, as he had suspected after seeing her date. The man was nearing fifty -- Ais was far out of his league.
He chuckled as he pushed the door open. It was drowned almost instantly in the roar of an explosion.
The explosion threw Michael across the driveway. He landed hard, the blow driving the air out of his lungs. His lungs struggled for breath even as his mind struggled to understand what had happened. He could see the flames spreading along the front of the house, casting flickering shadows that danced in glee around his body.
Every vampiric instinct within him screamed to run, to get away from the fire, one of the few things that could destroy him. But the part of him that had once been human screamed something else entirely.
The cry exploded from his chest as he hurtled himself toward the door, not feeling the pain of his fall. The doorway was blocked with flames; he barely hesitated, but held his breath and half-jumped, half-flew through them.
Adrenaline and terror combined. He could feel his fangs slip into place, feel his eyes burn from more than the smoke. "Aislyn!" His voice held the raspy threat of a vampire.
The stairs were still in one piece but he didn't bother with them, instead flying straight up to the second floor and Aislyn's room. The skates were still lying in the doorway where he'd thrown them a lifetime ago -- he ignored them as well, searching for Ais. The heat of the flames blocked his night vision, the smoke blocked normal sight -- he was searching blind.
Her room was empty. For a minute, he allowed himself to be relieved -- maybe she hadn't been home. Then, he saw the katana, hung neatly above the bed.
He finally knew what Ais meant when she said her blood went cold. Aislyn was never apart from her katana; whenever she left her room, it was riding in its sheath on her back. If it was here, and she wasn't -- she hadn't left willingly.
He stumbled out of the room, rage fighting with terror. In something close to a blind panic, he frantically searched the rest of the floor, tearing doors off their hinges when they would not open fast enough. The studio, the bathroom, the closets -- all empty. Tears left bloody tracks down his face -- he didn't feel them.
His voice was failing now from smoke and tears. He slammed open the door to his own room - and stopped dead when he saw something sitting on his bed. Squinting through the pain in his eyes, he barely managed to feel his way to it.
He recognized the object the moment he touched it, grabbed it with a blend of confusion and relief.
Behind him, the fire burned along the hall, already within a few feet of the doorway. He searched for an escape route, then remembered -- the katana!
He was far beyond rational, knew only that what he held and the katana were the most important things in the world to Aislyn. His arm up to protect his eyes, he flew back over the flames, gasping as they seared his body. He barely made it into Aislyn's room.
Grabbing the sword off the wall, he wrapped it hastily in the blanket, then took a few steps back. He needed a running start. . . .
With a burst of speed, he ran for the wall -- and crashed through the window as flames roared in behind him.
Truly blind now, he couldn't fly, but landed hard on the ground, his breath knocked out for the second time that night.
He rolled over, blinking and shaking his head in pain. He felt hands roll him over, slapping at him. He almost attacked the owners of the hands, but couldn't move enough. He realized they were beating at flames; he was on fire.
He started rolling, desperately trying to put out the flames. After what seemed like an eternity, the hands stopped him.
"It's O.K., buddy, you're gonna be fine. Was there anyone else in the house?"
*Only my life!* But he was too tired to say it, barely managed to shake his head.
"O.K., we'll have paramedics to you in just a minute. Hang on."
He almost thanked the firefighter -- not quite realizing the ridiculousness of manners. But the word 'paramedic' set off alarms louder than the approaching sirens in his head. He struggled to his feet, shaking off the hands that tried to hold him down with a casual strength that threw them back. He took off at a stumbling run, ignoring their calls.
Michael made it to the beach through sheer willpower, burns and exhaustion ripping at him. He stumbled finally, falling to his knees, barely avoiding landing on the katana. Only then did he stop to look at the other object he had rescued from the ruins of their home.
It was a music box, very old, made of elaborately engraved silver. It had been a costly toy in its day, and was more so now. He opened it, hearing the familiar notes drift out.
"Greensleeves." His gift, long ago, for his own Lady Greensleeves, treasured over the years, brought along when everything else had been left behind. . . .
In his exhausted stupor, he almost missed the paper that floated down from the open box, where it had been clenched under the lid. It landed on the sand; after a long moment spent looking dully at it, he picked it up and opened. It took another long moment for the writing on it to register.
The Japanese characters were beautifully and delicately painted, spelling out a clear message. He recognized the style before he even recognized the signature.
En route to Constantinople, 1096
Michael tossed and turned restlessly beneath his single blanket. His rough clothing, the only set he had, was no match for the chill of the winter wind, and there were not fires enough for commoners such as he, no matter how well they fought.
He turned again, trying to get rid of the rock beneath his side that had followed him since the beginning of this fool quest in Normandy. *Better to have stayed in England,* he told himself bitterly. *You at least had a home there, such as it was, and a fire at night. And no troops of heathens coming at you with blades, hunting your blood.*
He cursed, echoing and being echoed by voices all over the camp. None of the men were happy to be here. Most had homes, families -- but they had been called to do their Christian duty, and take back Jerusalem, in the name of God and the Norman king. He snorted. As if a God who sanctioned this so- called Crusade was worthy of worship. . . .
From far across the field where he tried to sleep, he could hear the drunken revelry of the knights and noblemen who led this bloody parade of fools. They were celebrating their victory, the victory won for them by the bodies of the poor, the frightened, the weak. They drank deeply of their ale this night, as if drinking the blood of the good men who had died this day.
He forced his eyes to close, but the second they did, images sprang in front of them -- images of flashing swords, of companions who had been cut down and died -- or worse, survived, to be taken prisoner. He could even imagine that he heard their cries, as they were tortured by their captors. He knew those cries well -- they echoed from the places where the Normans kept their own prisoners. He could see the blood, flooding before him; he could almost smell it.
He cursed again, and gave up on sleeping, throwing his blanket over the thirteen-year-old boy who was tossing next to him, moaning in his sleep. He had seen the boy earlier, fetching and carring for the older fighters, tending to them as best he could, as one of the few left unwounded this day. He was a brave child, one who had no part in this bloody fight. But who among them did?
Would this boy be the next of them to die?
He walked away from the fires into the darkness surrounding them, away from the tents with their celebrations, and the ragged army who followed them. In the Name of God, they slaughtered, as they had killed his family, and destroyed his home. One day, there would be a reckoning for that time, and for this one.
He had no destination in mind; his feet carried him forward with no help from his mind, as if following some call he could not hear.
From a rise just beyond the encampment, he turned to look back. The scattered fires danced like yellow stars against the ground, through the sides of the tents, promising light, warmth, safety -- things it seemed he would never know again. The cold went bone-deep.
"And will you let me warm you, sir?"
The voice startled him; he whirled, reaching for the staff he had foolishly left with his bed.
"I mean you no harm, good sir," she told him, amusement threading through her voice. "I wish only for companionship on this dark night."
Her accent was strange, he thought dazedly, but composed himself enough to tell her, "You are mistaken, woman, I am no sir, not a knight. Only a humble man, made humbler by this day and this journey. You will find no warmth here."
"Well spoken, for one who is no knight. And I do not seek a knight -- I seek one who knows, as I do, of bloodshed, and loss. And one who knows enough to seek more."
He looked at her with a judging stare. He could see little through the cloak she wore around her like a shield. "Who are you?"
In answer, she let the hood of the cloak drop. He gasped. One part of his brain noted the slanted eyes, the exotic features, the darkened skin such as he had never seen. But the greater part of him focused on those eyes -- glowing a bright red-yellow -- and on her lush mouth, with the fangs that protruded from it.
He stumbled back, swearing by the God he had thought he had all but forsaken. Instinctively, he crossed himself.
She flinched and turned away, then turned back, smiling slowly, seductively. "Don't be so afraid -- I give only what is wanted from me. And take only what is given to me."
She walked closer to him, almost gliding, reaching out a hand to run over his face. He wanted to flinch away from the touch of her cold skin, but found himself unable to move. "You will give to me tonight," she murmured. "And I will give you what you have always wanted. You will never feel the cold again; you will never be alone."
He nodded slowly, unaware that he even moved. She smiled again. "And so it begins."
So deep was her spell that he didn't even feel the pain of her fangs sinking into him. As his blood drained out of him, taking with it his life, heard her murmur, "Now, we shall be one. For all time." And he felt the oneness . . . and the promise.
He stared at the paper she had left, reading it over and over. "Soon, we will be one again. Mariko."
Kneeling on the sand, in front of the ocean, he remembered that promise, long since broken on both sides. And felt again the bone-deep chill he had thought left behind him long ago. He could barely hear the music box over the roar of the ocean, and the louder roar in his head.
"Mariko," he breathed. He well remembered their last meeting -- and what had been lost.
"Mariko!" His scream of rage sent gulls flying into the air in terror. He followed an instant later, blinded now by another fire, one that burned hotter than the ruins of his home.
Aislyn De Connaught faced the thought of waking with extreme reluctance. There was a small troupe of leprechauns holding a festival in her head, complete with drums, loud off-key voices and shouting drunks. She kept her eyes closed and told them firmly to go away. In answer to her plea, they only grew more enthusiastic as she drifted back to consciousness.
"So, you've rejoined the world of the living. You seem to make a habit of that."
The sudden voice snapped her head up and her eyes open -- both actions she regretted instantly, as the leprechauns turned into a rock concert. She sank back, moaning. "A little headache, there? So sorry, but we couldn't have you going for that pretty sword, now could we?" It was a woman's voice, low, pleasant and conversational, with no apparent accent. She heard it only distantly, barely able to focus past the pain. She couldn't see anything past the lights dancing in front of her eyes, then realized there was nothing to see. The room was pitch black.
It was another minute before she felt the hard wooden chair, and the ropes that were tying her securely to it. She fought them for all of a second before the pain hit again.
"Don't bother, child -- I'm quite good with knots. A great deal of time and practice, over the years..."
The voice trailed off at the same time that the pain faded enough for Aislyn to begin to think, at last.
It took three tries to force a question through her dry lips. "Who. . ." was all she could manage.
"Well, at least you didn't start with, 'Where am I?' So trite, don't you think?" The sarcasm was biting, with the thin edge of hatred. So familiar. . . "Still, 'Who are you' isn't much better. I would think, after 800 years, you could do better."
"Go. . .to hell." Ais finally managed to force out.
A low, vastly amused laugh. "Not a great improvement."
The voice kept moving around, which did very little for Aislyn's concentration, to say nothing of her motion sickness. "You. . .going to . . . talk me to death?"
The woman seemed to consider it. "Noooo," she finally answered thoughtfully, drawing the word out. "No, I have other plans for you. And, from past experience, I would say you are harder to kill than that."
The darkness was beginning to lighten -- she could almost make out a form. And the voice -- she knew that voice. "Who the hell are you?" she grated in sheer frustration.
The other's voice was suddenly deadly serious. "You should remember. After what you stole from me, you should remember." It was almost a hiss. "Rest assured, you will remember. And I will take back what is mine."
With that, she left, a door clicking shut behind her. Aislyn blinked at the abrupt end to the conversation.
The confusion didn't stop her from immediately beginning to work on her bonds. It no longer hurt to move -- the Quickening had finally kicked in. Her head had cleared as well.
It had been a familiar voice, she knew; but after so many centuries, voices tended to run together, and she wasn't Michael of the perfect memory. Oh God, Michael. what was he doing now? Did he even know she was alive? If he knew, he would come for her.
It was small comfort, tied to a chair, with a psychopath in the next room. And it was almost dawn. But he had always come before; only once had he been too late...
Aislyn sank to the ground beside the rough dirt floor, trampled smooth by many dancing feet. Hers had been among those feet for...how many hours had it been? She thought for a moment, then shrugged. It hardly mattered.
The buskers were still going strong, the drums and pipes sending bright music towards the sky, echoed up and down the streets of the city by other musicians. Torches burned, lighting the colorful costumes the people had brought out in celebration of the May.
She pulled up her own skirts just enough to massage her feet through the soft leather shoes. The people of Vienna danced with much enthusiasm, but little care for toes. Her feet would be sore for a week.
But it was worth it. For the hundredth time, she blessed Michael's decision to come here. There was work for him, fighting the seemingly endless struggle to maintain the borders of the so-called Holy Roman Empire. He hated the fighting still, but it kept them clothed and fed. Michael had earned his reputation as a night fighter -- he took the watches many others were glad to forego, choosing instead their fires and beds. But not tonight.
And there were other benefits. She laughed at one now -- Michael was still in the middle of the dance, flirting shamelessly with a pretty young woman, his eyes dancing with mischief. He scarcely looked like the fierce, cold man who had saved her nearly four years before, when the Norman invaders had killed her clan....
She forced that thought out of her head. It was over. Michael was her kinsman now, all that she needed. And the ties between them were stronger than blood. . . . She shuddered. Yet another image to force away. Even knowing what Michael was made it no easier to think about.
She pulled her warm cloak closer around her shoulders and began clapping in time with the music, determinedly trying to recapture the cheerful mood she had been in. She couldn't quite do it.
Her gaze drifted back to Michael. The young lady showed no signs of leaving his side. She wasn't worried -- Michael had made a promise to her, and he would keep it. The child was safe.
She had to laugh then hearing her own thoughts. Child -- she was barely younger than Aislyn herself! But keeping company with a vampire could age anyone. At least he was having fun, for once -- she wondered if she would ever understand the burdens his immortality had placed on him.
She dropped her skirts back over her feet, but stayed seated, not quite ready to brave the dancers again.
"I never know what is worse in the morning -- the sore head or the sore feet."
Aislyn turned to smile at the woman who had joined her on the ground. "Aye, the feet are surely as dangerous as the wine, and harder to avoid."
"And both are worth the morning, are they not?"
Aislyn echoed the woman's laugh, nodding in agreement. "Aye, that they are."
They watched the festivities in silence. Aislyn located Michael again, laughing at the sight of his harem, which had grown by two. Strange, Michael was not handsome -- but the women seemed to flock to him anyway. Maybe it was the danger that always surrounded him, the challenge that his knowing eyes supplied.
"Is that your man?" the stranger asked idly, following Aislyn's eyes.
Ais shook her head. "Aye, but not in the way y'r thinkin'. He's m'friend." She laughed at the growing consternation on Michael's face. "And he has more than enough women on his hands -- he's not needin' me."
"I know the feeling," the other woman said softly. Aislyn looked at her curiously, but her face, what little she could see under the cloak, was inscrutable.
Any thoughts of her companion were lost when Ais spotted a roving merchant, carrying meat pies. She gestured for him to come over, pulling out coins. "Would you like one?" she offered.
The woman grimaced slightly. "No, I . . . haven't the stomach for it at the moment."
Aislyn paid and bit greedily. Her tongue came out to try and catch the gravy that dribbled out. She missed some; it fell, staining her cloak.
"Ah, damn," she cursed mildly.
"It's not that bad," the other told her. "Come, we'll go find some water to soak it in -- and our feet as well."
"That sounds like a grand plan," Ais smiled, bouncing to her feet. Her companion rose with more grace, leading the way off the street, towards the banks of the river that ran beside the city. Aislyn glanced over her shoulder at Michael. He seemed to have his hands full; the smug satisfaction had turned to something resembling panic. He caught her eye. . . she laughed and followed her new-found friend into the shadows.
It was some time before Michael managed to extricate himself from the dance. He was already making plans for revenge on Aislyn -- the little brat had seen his situation and run off laughing instead of helping. Well, she was heading in the right direction -- a dunking in the river would be just the thing.
He swatted aside branches, following Aislyn by scent as much as sight. Beyond the lights, the woods were as dark as pitch -- only the glow of his night vision let him move silently through the underbrush.
He frowned when he heard the river -- he had expected to hear Aislyn's voice long before the water's. A sense of urgency began to tickle the back of his mind. He moved with more purpose, shoving branches away and ignoring the bushes that seemed to jump out at him. He was almost running when he heard the sounds of the fight.
He burst through the trees to the river, and saw what was becoming a familiar sight -- Aislyn, laying on the ground. But only one figure crouched over her body, its red heat already starting to fade.
He was beside her in a moment, shoving away her attacker. But the attacker was suddenly not there. He looked up, and saw her landing a few feet away, her cloak fallen back to reveal glowing yellow eyes, and fangs still dripping with blood.
She wiped her face, grimacing. "A far from appetizing meal, Michael. I thought I had taught you better taste."
"Mariko? Why?" he asked numbly, kneeling next to his friend's body.
"Why not?" Mariko shrugged, dismissing her. "I have plans for us that do not include carrying around a human child."
Michael looked down at Aislyn. Her face was pale and still, but for the blood that shone darkly against her neck. *Lady....*
"Whatever plans you have, Mariko, they will not include me." He didn't recognize the voice as his own. "I told you that once. I left you, and I will stay gone. I want you no more."
Mariko laughed in disbelief. "And this is what you want, this mortal child? She could give you nothing. She is nothing."
Michael smoothed Aislyn's hair away from her face, echoing his gesture of years before. Then, he rose to face his Master, his eyes glowing with rage. "She. Is. Everything."
He was on her before she had time to move, throwing her across the clearing. She barely caught herself before landing. "How dare you?" she hissed. "You will not treat me so! You are mine, bound to me by your own oath."
Michael saw a branch on the ground, saw himself pick it up. It snapped in his hands. "There are no bonds left between us. No blood, except your own." He dropped one half of the stick, holding the other. The broken end protruded, an improvised stake. "Leave. And never come back."
She stood, straight and proud in her rage. "You will regret this night. " With a rush of wind, she was gone.
Michael didn't care. He dropped the stake, turning back to Aislyn's side, kneeling again beside her. "I'm sorry, Lady," he said quietly. He toyed for a moment with the thought of bringing her across, giving her back her life, but knew it would be no gift to her, she who would not even allow him to feed from humans. "I'm sorry, Lady."
He took off his cloak, began to lay it over her. He would not let himself think of what the next days would bring, of the loneliness he would find again. He only covered her, lifted her in his arms.
He almost dropped her when he heard her heart begin to beat again.
"Dear God," Aislyn said aloud, shock bringing her out of memories. "That's where I know that damned voice!"
Anger gave her strength; fear gave her more. She had known death for the first time at the hands of Michael's master. Never again.
"God, Michael, hurry."
He had no idea how long he had been flying. He vaguely remembered searching, desperately hunting for something, anything, that would lead him to Aislyn. It was only sheer exhaustion that forced him to the ground.
He was unsurprised to find himself in the ruins of his home. It had burned to the ground -- there was nothing left but ashes. He was too tired to care.
But if exhaustion had drained his strength, it had also drained his rage, leaving him almost painfully clear-headed. Aislyn was gone, stolen by Mariko -- and his Master was not one to make her games easy. She never had been. Searching aimlessly would do no good -- as deeply as he hated the thought, he would have to wait.
Hunger -- burning, soul-deep hunger -- hit him almost at the same time the pain did. A beam of sunlight had found its way over the horizon -- he hadn't even seen the sky begin to lighten. Shelter, then, and food. Those had to come first, before he could do anything.
But his house was gone, the sustenance in it destroyed. The other homes -- in New York, Toronto and London -- might as well have been on the moon for all the good they would do him. He would have to find another. . . .
It was too light to fly. Slowly, keeping to the shadows, he began to run.
Venice Beach was beginning to come alive. The surfers were out, challenging the early morning waves, and some die-hard enthusiasts were already working out at Muscle Beach, showing off the bulging bodies they slaved over, to the evident enjoyment of the boardwalk's other visitors. The tourists had also shown up, looking for the weirdness Venice Beach was known for. From a far side of the concrete boardwalk, a guitar thumped out the blues.
Michael hid in the shadows offered by the many shops that lined the boardwalk. It was not enough shelter -- he could feel his skin burning, even through the protective folds of the Mexican poncho and the baseball cap he had purchased. But it wasn't much farther. . . .
He had never been to the apartment, but he had no trouble finding it. No one looked twice at him -- the small ocean-side residences tended to be rented to artists and students, all of whom had seen stranger sights than he. Doubtless some of Aislyn's classmates lived here.
He shoved the thought away -- it was the artists he was looking for, one in particular. There were no names on the buzzer. He punched the correct button anyway.
"Yes." Her voice held no emotion, no expression.
She knew his voice, didn't bother to answer. The door buzzed softly, then opened. He went through, dragging himself up the stairs to the third floor.
She was waiting for him in the doorway. The room behind her was dark, the curtains already drawn for the day. Her ebony skin seemed to disappear in the darkness, only the gold of her jewelry gleaming in the dim light offered by the hallway. Her face, with its exotic features and close-cropped hair, was impassive even as she surveyed his torn, burned clothing and equally burned skin.
"Michael. Doing well, I see." There was no sarcasm in the words. Anisa rarely bothered.
"I need help. The house....burned. Last night."
"Have you fed?"
She said nothing more, just turned and walked back in, leaving the door open. Michael followed, closing it behind him.
"You look like hell," Anisa said over her shoulder, leading the way into her studio. "What did you get into this time?"
Michael didn't answer, which was all right, since Anisa didn't wait for one, and probably didn't care. She went to her refrigerator and pulled out a bottle, handing it to him.
He opened it, sniffed it -- he recognized the smell, though it had been a long time. It was something he never forgot. He almost downed the entire bottle, but old habits died hard, and he hesitated.
Anisa looked at him expressionlessly. "Still on the interesting diet."
"I have my reasons."
"Your reasons will kill you. Don't be a fool, drink it."
It took him a few more seconds to overcome his promise -- *Forgive me, Ais* -- then he tilted the bottle and drained it.
He'd forgotten -- the richness, the energy in human blood. He savored it, feeling it begin to renew his body. It almost made up for the guilt.
Without speaking, Anisa handed him another bottle, with a glass this time. He drank it more slowly, feeling the blood begin to heal him. Still carrying the glass, he began to wander aimlessly around the apartment. It was obviously an artist's studio -- wood and clay everywhere. A potter's wheel stood in one corner, its metal surface shiny and scrupulously clean. Small abstract pieces, in progress and finished, were scattered everywhere -- he looked at a few and then stopped. They were dark, twisted images, mirroring his mind much too closely for the moment.
Anisa watched him for a while with what seemed like patience, but was probably more like indifference. Finally, she stopped waiting and asked, "What did you run into, and should I watch my back?"
Michael felt a laugh burst up inside, recognized incipient hysteria and choked it off. "No, I'm the only target here. Me and..." his voice trailed off.
Anisa raised her eyebrows. He got the feeling she hadn't missed anything. He also knew she deserved an answer. "I. . .my home was burned and the . . . person I live with was kidnapped. I was looking for her all night."
Anisa didn't blink. "Who would do this? Who could do this to one of us and get away with it?" Michael didn't answer, which was answer enough. "Ah, one of us, then. Do you know who?"
Her clinical tone suddenly set fire to his raw nerves. He spun on her. "Do you care?"
She almost smiled. "Just making conversation. I understand that's what one does with unexpected -- and uninvited -- guests."
Michael took the hint. "Sorry," he apologized with something less than good grace, sitting down on something that looked like a chair but probably wasn't, and taking a deep breath. "I think. . .no, I know, it was Mariko."
Anisa arched one thin eyebrow. "Your Master?"
"Yes." He got up again, started to pace. "I just don't know why! Why would she go after Aislyn, it's been 800 years since we. . ." he remembered his audience and changed the end of his sentence, "Since I last saw Mariko. What could she want after this long?"
Anisa took a sip from her own glass. "Don't ask me. I never was one to deal well with Masters."
Michael looked at her with narrowed eyes. There were all sorts of rumors about how Anisa's Master had met his fate; knowing Anisa, he was inclined to believe them. And even rumors were enough to make her an outcast.
He didn't know her well; no one did. But she had been born a slave in the Deep South, more than a hundred years before, living by the whims of others for her mortal years. He didn't know the details of how she had been brought across, but he knew of her hatred for masters, mortal or immortal. It exceeded even his own.
"So where has she taken her, this. . . friend?"
The new strength the blood had lent him seemed to drain out. "I don't know."
"Do you believe Mariko would have left her alive?"
"She's alive!" It was a snarl, but Anisa heard the desperation behind it. "I just have to find her."
He sprang to his feet, started pacing again. Anisa watched him with detached amusement. To get so emotional over a mortal. . .she would have thought he knew better than that. She finished her glass, let her chin rest against it, as he roamed her apartment like a wild beast.
He turned suddenly to face her. "Anisa, you know others here, you could find out where Mariko is, what she's. . ."
She cut him off coldly. "I have no more friends here than you do, Michael. And I will not get involved. You deal with your own Master." She stood, took the glass over to the sink. "I am going to sleep. I would suggest you do the same. You may stay here for until sundown. No longer."
She ignored him. The door to her bedroom closed firmly.
Michael thought about charging in, making her come out, making her help; he even raised his fist to pound on the door. But there was no point.
He turned away, letting his hand drop to his side, and walked back across the room to the couch on one wall. It was splattered with clay and paint but as exhaustion began to take its toll, he was somewhat less than picky. He laid down, burying his head in one of the huge pillows. Before he had time to think, he slept.
After all these years, Ais could sense a sunrise before she saw it. She opened her eyes, lifting her chin from where it had dropped to her chest. Her stiff muscles protested, but they were forgotten as she realized the room was getting lighter.
She twisted around, fighting the ropes to be able to see her surroundings. It was a large room, unfurnished except for the chair she sat on, and heavy velvet curtains that blocked the huge windows on the east side. A heavy oak door stood solidly on the wall a few feet away. Its varnish was peeling, and the curtains were stiff with dust and age. But they did their job -- only a crack of light crept in under them. It was enough to lend a little hope.
She struggled again against the ropes, bolstered by the light. But, as before, it did no good. She slumped back into the chair, letting the ropes hold her up.
She was expecting Mariko to hear the sounds of her struggle, to come in and gloat, but the door remained closed. Asleep, maybe, Aislyn thought. Or feeding...
She blocked that thought off. No point in worrying about it -- according to Michael, Immortals were a less than tasty meal and Mariko knew well enough it wouldn't kill her.
No, no point in wasting energy. It wasn't as if she could do anything about it anyway. The frustration burned deep, the feeling of helplessness. She forced it down, kept her mind clear and let it go blank. There would be time enough for anger later. For now, with the skill of a soldier and a traveler, she slept.
The dreams were not pleasant. Michael knew them well, the memories that lurked in the back of his mind, waiting for a moment's weakness. Then they stole in softly, and began to replay themselves in front of his eyes. Distorted by time, by emotion, almost beyond recognition -- but he knew them.
"Ah this is indeed a well-filled night, my friend."
Michael propped his fellow drinker up effortlssly, not even trying to conceal his own amusement. "The night's not the only thing well filled. You are filled to overflowing with cheap wine and cheaper women."
The young man grinned, accepting Michael's support and words with no real protest. "Women? Cheap? Never were words more false." He leaned closer, as if imparting the wisdom of the ages. "I tell you, my taciturn friend, there never was a cheap woman born. The virtue of some may have a low price, but their hearts, their hearts . . ." his head rolled around on his shoulders as he closed his eyes, smiling foolishly, ". . . the least expensive of them has a worth greater than a kingdom." Without ever losing the smile, he slowly began to sink towards the ground. Michael watched him with vast amusement, but caught him before he hit dirt and hefted him over a shoulder. "I'm sure the woman are glad to hear your opinion, my young friend. But you would have better luck with them were you to remain sober."
"No," the young man protested, his face muffled against Michael's back. "Were I sober, I could say nothing, could not tell them of their worth. I am too little compared to them."
"Too little?" Michael laughed shortly. "You are the son of their lord, soon to be keeper of these lands and of them. You could buy and sell the entire village."
"There is little worth in that," the young man answered soberly, struggling to raise himself from his undignified position. "A woman's heart cannot be bought or sold, my friend. Only won. One day, you too will know that, when you give your heart."
Michael laughed again, shoving the boy back down. But there was a curious note in his voice, one of regret and of acceptance. "My heart has long since been taken, my soul as well, by a woman far outside your ideals. Outside your ken."
"My heart as well," the boy slurred. "They are amazing, are they not, these women? We think we are the masters, yet they own us heart and soul and we would not change it. I would not give up my lady for any of those tonight. Yet I envy the men who will gain them."
"Any man can. As I said, they are cheaply bought."
"Cheaply sold, yes. But women still, with their own worth in that. . . ." the young man's voice trailed off and his body went slack, finally giving in to the huge amount of alcohol he had consumed.
Michael felt him pass out with relief. The boy said too much, and saw too clearly. Best to dump him at the inn, and let him sleep off the wine and the dreams.
"Michael!" Now it was Mariko's voice, ringing insistently through their small rooms at the tiny inn. "Michael-chan, where are you?"
He sat at the window, staring out into the darkness, and didn't look up from his deep tankard of wine, trying to ignore her, to damp down the rage. He was not strong enough to act on the emotions raging through him.
"Michael, have you finished your hunt already? It is barely midnight." She swept into the room, used to his moods and choosing to ignore this one.
He took another deep drink from his wine. "I . . . lost my appetite."
She turned around, laughing. "Well, that is certainly new."
The laughter faded as he looked at her, met her eyes with green fire. "The boy, the lord's eldest son..." he said slowly, with great control. "He was found dead early this morning. There was no blood left in his body."
She shrugged carelessly, puzzled. "And?"
"It was you, then."
"Of course. " She swung her cloak from around her shoulders, letting it fall on the bed. "The foolish man was drunk, walking around right outside the inn, doubtless meeting a lover or some such. I had very little luck last night; I was not about to pass on such easy prey." She took her hair down, beginning to brush it. "Fear runs rampant through this village -- the priests have done a thorough job of instilling darkness here. Only fools and drunks wander where we may take them. I think we should move on in the morning." She laid the brush down, shaking her thick hair, as black as midnight, back over her shoulders. "Michael? Did you hear me?"
"He was just a boy."
The words were so quiet, only a vampire's keen hearing could have heard. Mariko did, though she missed the sorrow behind them. "I'm sorry if I . . . interfered in any of your plans. I did not know you had already chosen him for your prey."
"He was an innocent. I had no plans for him."
"What a waste." She shrugged, rising from her seat. "Well, it's done now, and I do think we should move on. Which direction would you like to go?"
It was a long while before he answered. When he did, the words were slow and heavy. "Go where you will, Mariko. I will find my own way."
"What?" She wasn't laughing now -- he finally had her undivided attention. "What are you talking about?"
"He was an innocent," he repeated. Visions of the crusade flashed before his eyes. Visions of a young boy, trapped in war. Visons of a young girl, his sister, killed in a battle not of her choice. "I've seen enough innocents die. No more."
She laughed again, but this time there was no humor in it. "You have killed some of those innocents, Michael, darling. Do not place yourself so high."
"Yes, I have killed. Without regret, and I will kill again, without regret. But I have killed none who would not have killed, themselves, given an opportunity," he bit out. "No innocents have died at my hands. I saw too much of that, during the invasion, during the bloody Crusades. I have no desire to see any more."
She started to speak; he cut her off. "I. Am. Leaving. Do as you will." He picked up the bundle of clothes he had already packed, and headed for the door.
Her voice followed him. "Do you think it so easy to leave?" In a blur of motion, she was in front of him, blocking the door. "I am the Master here. You will do as *I* say."
He looked at her deadly serious face with a sudden, soul-deep weariness. Even the anger was gone. "No, Mariko. I go where I choose. And I choose to leave."
For a moment, he thought he would have to fight her. He had no illusions about his ability to win. Then her face changed, and the laughter returned. "Very well,"she said, moving away from the door. "Go where you will. But remember, Michael-chan --" the endearment was thick with irony. "-- you may leave my side, but you can never leave me behind. We are still tied."
He didn't answer, just closed the door behind him. It didn't block out her laughter. It seemed to echo through the corridor, mocking him, ringing through his head. . . .
He woke, and realized the laughter was real, and very close by.
*I told you you could never leave me behind, Michael. Did you think I would let you go so easily?*
The word were inside his head. There was no way to shut out his master's voice. *What do you want, Mariko?* He flashed back to her, as she had taught him so long ago. Some skills never faded. *Why are you doing this?*
*I've come for what is mine,* she answered. *You have been gone too long, Michael-chan. I have missed you. Now, we shall be together again.*
*Mariko! Where is Aislyn? What have you done with her?*
For a moment, he thought she would not answer. *She is of no consequence. I have plans for us that do not include this child -- mortal or not.*
*I don't care about your . . . *
She cut him off. *I will not discuss this. We have other things to speak of, things better spoken of in person. Plans to make.*
He took the opportunity, controlling his anger, sealing it in a place even Mariko could not find it...he hoped. *You're right. We should talk...I would like to see you.* He almost choked on the monumental lie, but she took it at face value.
*I know.* It was all he could do to hide his rage at her smugness. *Come to me tonight. I will be waiting by the pier. Until then, Michael-chan.*
"Mariko!" But she was gone, beyond his reach.
He collapsed back onto the couch, hearing his own shout echoing off the walls. There was no answer.
"I hate it when they do that." The calm comment came from behind him -- he turned his head and saw Anisa, dressed only in a silk tank top that reached the tops of her thighs. She looked awake and unrumpled, although she had certainly been as asleep as he.
"She won't listen," he said dully, staring at the ceiling. "She's determined to reset the clock, recreate something that ended 800 years ago. And she'll kill Aislyn to do it." Anisa did not answer, only turned to go back into her room. "Wait!"
As before, she didn't look back. "I will not help you, Michael. It's not my problem."
"Not your problem." His voice was bitter now. "No, it's not your problem, is it? Life never is to us. We move through our little worlds, pretending nothing in daylight has any vaue, that nothing matters but our own desires. So we kill and feed and destroy." He was looking at her; she felt the force of his stare boring holes through her back. "We struggle against what we hate in our Masters, only to find the same thing in ourselves. And we turn away as innocents die, for no other reason the whim of a Master."
He almost thought he saw her flinch. But still she refused to face him. "It's not my problem," she said again. And for the second time that night, her door closed behind her.
He cursed quietly and viciously, his fist slamming into the wall. She felt the force of the blows shake the apartment, as she leaned against her closed door, and fought back memories of her own.
The sun had barely dropped below the horizon when Michael arrived at the pier. There were still people strolling through the games and the arcade, dropping fishing lines of the end of the pier. One young couple stood on the beach, heads close together. Planning their futures, perhaps. Or maybe caught only in the present. He envied them
Had it been only a day since he had last been here, running on the sand, with everything right in his world? No, less than a day, but it seemed more than a lifetime.
He wandered aimlessly down the wooden planks, hearing them creak under his feet. The sound of the waves breaking on the sand beckoned him; he leaned over the rail, watching them roll in and out, crashing together and dissolving in white foam. A sandpiper danced away from the water, trying to keep his feet dry. A gull stood a few feet away, staring over the water with massive indifference to the tiny sandpiper, or the audience of noisy humans on the boards above him.
Michael envied him that indifference. He could not simply look on, as he once had. The drunken ramblings of a drinking companion and the wounded green eyes of an Irish witch had taken that ability from him. Even now, though, he couldn't regret it.
He leaned against the wooden rail and stared out over the endless ocean. And waited.
The crowds around him thinned out, reduced finally to the patrons of the restaurants that lined the sides of the pier. They trickled past him in twos and threes, laughing carelessly, their voices carrying to him on the salt- laden night air. Soon, even they disappeared. The night went on. And he waited.
Finally, hours past midnight, he heard her. *I feel you waiting, Michael-chan. Come join me.*
He leaned against the rail for another moment, letting his head rest against the rough wood as he breathed deeply, reaching for the control that had always been his. The he stood up straight, and walked down the stairs to the beach, staying on the short boardwalk until it ended, then stepping off into the sand. It shifted and sank beneath the weight of his feet.
Several dark forms lay curled against the pier, seeking its dubious shelter from the stiff, cold wind blowing off the Pacific. He spared them little attention, focused on the form that stood below the pier, water crashing around her feet.
She was leaning against one of the thick pylons that supported the pier. As he drew closer, he saw that she wore no shoes and her shorts stopped above her knees, well above the waterline. Drops of water clung to the bare skin of her legs, and to her face, where the spray had dampened it. She looked young, like any one of the teenagers who thought of the beach as their home. Looked innocent, until you saw the blood that mixed with water around her mouth, as the waves at her feet covered and uncovered what had once been one of the homeless lining the beach. He was now only an empty shell, discarded when Mariko's hunger was satisfied. Michael felt a quick sympathy with him.
But not for long. He had other missions here, he reminded himself.
She smiled lazily at him, and for a moment, she was again the companion he had laughed with, the sultry beauty he had held, the dangerous woman he had loved for a century. "Michael."
He had to fight to remember why he was there. "Where is she?"
She pouted, somewhat petulently. "What does she matter? You're here for me, Michael." She walked slowly across the sand towards him, leaving the shadows behind. He felt his mouth go dry watching her move. She slid her arms lazily around his neck, pulling his mouth down to meet hers.
She tasted of salt, and passion, and blood. He felt himself falling, lost in the familiar sensations. It had been so long.... His arms came up, clutching at her hair, pulling her closer.
She broke away, stepping back teasingly. "Such a reception. I would have come back sooner had I known I would get such a welcome." She trailed a finger over his jaw. "Some things never change. You are still mine."
*still mine still mine still mine* The words echoed strangely in his head, floating through the fog clouding his mind. He caught her wrist, trying to shake off his Master's hold.
She sensed his struggle. Her eyes narrowed, and she stepped closer again. *Why fight it, Michael-chan? We are joined, for now and forever. Nothing could come between us. Didn't I promise you that? Didn't you?*
"I've made...other promises, Mariko," he forced out.
"To your little Immortal?" She spoke out loud as well this time, pitching her voice to be heard over the waves. "What can she offer you? Can she give you what I have? Can she do anything but make you deny what you are? You are a vampire, you are a creature of the night. You are mine."
Her voice flowed effortlessly through the fog in his mind. But under them, he heard other words, centuries old....
"You're a vampire, then?"
"You . . . feed . . . from humans? Like the soldiers?"
"Because it is what I do. What I am."
"I . . . I cannot watch that. Be a part of that."
"Would you rather stay here, easy prey for any others who stalk the night? With me, you will be safe; no one will harm you."
"I will come . . . if you promise not to feed from humans, while we are together."
"You ask a great deal."
"I know. Will you promise?"
". . . You have my word."
"And you have mine. I will stay."
Aislyn's voice, his own promise. "No," he heard himself answer his Master. "She has given me back what I was."
He felt her sudden rage as a blow; her hold over him broke abruptly. But her voice was barely more than a whisper. "So you would choose her over me? Perhaps I should simply remove the choice!"
Michael grabbed her again, freed from all confusion. "If you hurt her, I will see you dead, by my own hands."
She shook him off, almost leaping back. "You cannot hurt me, Michael. You never were strong enough to fight me."
Her fangs were out, her eyes gold; Michael felt his own eyes burning, heard the growl in his own voice match hers. "Things change."
As abruptly as her rage had risen, it vanished. Her fangs retreated, though her eyes still glowed. She walked to him as she had done before, pressing her body to his. Her eyes, still golden, gazed deeply into his. "When she is gone, Michael-chan, you will remember only me. You were always mine, will always be mine."
Her voice was confident, seductive, but this time, he heard the edge of desperation to it. The edge of insanity. He reached up to caress her hair, almost tenderly. "Mariko . . . you know this is no good. You cannot have me by killing her." He tilted her head up, looking into her eyes. "Where is she, Mariko? Give her back to me."
For a moment, her eyes met his with something like understanding. He reached out to her, trying to keep her with him; but it was no use. Her eyes looked past him, at something he couldn't see; when she spoke, her voice was strangely calm. "When she is gone, we will be together again. I promise."
She stepped away from him, smiling up at him like a girl. *I will be back soon. And we will be together.* Still calm and smiling, she took to the air, speeding swiftly into the night.
He could only watch her go. Following would be useless; she would sense his presence. she would lead him in circles, or turn on him. And he didn't know if he could win. But there were other ways to fight.
He sank onto the sand. And waited.
Aislyn worked her arms methodically, rubbing the ropes against the chair. She had no hope of breaking the ropes, but the attempt kept her from going crazy.
The light had faded again, long hours before -- only darkness came in under the drapes. She was almost blind in the darkness; never had she wished more fervently for Michael's night vision. Even more fervently, she wished for the dawn.
She heard Mariko long before the door slammed open. But she was far from prepared for the blow which sent the chair onto its side. She slammed into the floor, unable to break her fall. Her head slammed against the boards, replacing the bruises which had barely healed.
Mariko stood over her, her eyes shining gold, her face a cold mask that matched her voice. "He would choose you over me. So I will remove the choice. And he will be mine again."
"Killing me, even if you could, won't bring him back to you," Aislyn gasped, trying to force her lungs to work again.
"We'll soon find out." The coldness was fading from Mariko's voice, replaced by an edge that sent fear racing down Ais' spine. "And I have learned in these 800 years, you Immortal bitch!" She smiled, the mask cracking with hatred. "I believe you will have a harder time surviving without your head."
Another blow fell, and another. Aislyn tried to ride them, but she couldn't move. She tried to scream, but Michael's name caught in her throat as the darkness began to close in. Dimly, she saw Mariko turn away, reaching for something on the floor. Something long and shining,...
A tall slender form touched down on the sand in front of Michael. "She is downtown, at 6th and Spring; the old hotel opposite the Alexandria. Third floor, east corner."
Michael stood. "You'd better get back home. Sunrise is only a few minutes away."
She nodded, and rose a few feet into the sky. His voice stopped her. "Thank you, Anisa."
She didn't look at him. "You'd better hurry. I don't think there's much time." Then she was gone.
Michael did not watch Anisa go, but followed her to the skies only a moment later. Downtown was not far, but time was precious. He moved as quickly as he knew how, not caring that the sky was getting lighter, that he could be seen. There was no time to worry about bystanders.
Few people were out anyway; not even the buses were running yet. A few bums were wandering the street, but who would believe them if they reported a vampire; would they even believe themselves?
He made it downtown faster than he would have believed possible. He blew past the skyscrapers, ignoring the cars that always seemed to be on the freeways. The old Alexandria Hotel was on his left; he ignored it, listening. He heard the sounds of a city waking -- the first buses beginning their runs; the trucks leaving the Los Angeles Times to deliver their loads of papers; in one of the cheap apartments, a woman screamed. She wasn't Aislyn; he ignored it.
Then, he heard another scream, muffled, but familiar. His own name. "Aislyn!"
He found the room through instinct, started to crash through the window -- and almost ran into the thick bars covering it. He howled in frustration -- then grabbed the bars, ripping the window out of the wall, frame and all.
Mariko stood over Aislyn, lifting a sword from the floor -- a katana as old as Aislyn's, maybe older. She raised it instinctively as Michael came into the room, throwing the window carelessly behind him. Frozen facing each other, none of them heard it shatter on the ground two floors below.
Michael's breathing was heavy, his fangs out, eyes burning. "It's finished, Mariko."
There was no sanity left in Mariko's eyes; hatred and desperation obscured her face, hiding any trace of the woman he had known. "Not yet! Not ever!" She began to raise the sword; before she got it halfway up, Michael's body hit her.
They went sprawling to the floor, Michael's weight driving the sword from her hand. It clattered across the floor disappearing in the shadows by the heavy curtains, which had hardly been disturbed by Michael's entrance. Michael caught a glimpse of Aislyn's face, battered and bloody, barely conscious. Then Mariko's knee drove into his stomach, and he had no time left to think.
They fought almost silently, deadlocked. Despite her slight body, Mariko was the stronger, fueled with blood and the strength of insanity. But Michael fought with rage and fear behind every blow -- and the knowledge that if he let his Master win this fight, it would cost Aislyn her head.
Mariko broke away, racing toward the window and the sword. Michael lunged desperately, sending the sword flying across the room again, and himself sprawling on the floor.
Before he could recover, she was on him, fangs bared. Michael got a hand up to her throat, holding her off. But he could feel his strength beginning to fade, as hers seemed to grow. "Isn't this where you're supposed to say 'If I can't have you, no one will?'" he puffed out through gritted teeth.
It was perhaps not the best of moves. She snarled in incoherent rage and ripped her throat from his hand, rolling towards Aislyn's chair and breaking off a leg. She stood facing Michael with the improvised stake.
She smiled, suddenly in complete control. "I would never use such a cliché. You should know that by now." Then she lunged for him. He barely kept the wood from his heart, felt it rip instead into his side. Through there was no pain, the force of the thrust shook him, doubling him over. He avoided the next blow by instinct alone.
Although her back was to the fight, Aislyn had felt the chair break, heard Michael's gasp, and could figure out what was happening. She struggled frantically against the ropes, ignoring the agony in her body as the Quickening fought to heal her wounds, ignoring the pain as the ropes bit into her flesh. They still refused to give way.
But the chair, weakened by the abuse heaped on it, did, the seat breaking where it joined the back.
As the back of the chair fell away, she wriggled free of the ropes across her chest. It was only a moment's work to get her hands in front of her, to break the chair legs away from hers. She pushed herself to her knees, turning in the same motion.
They were still in front of the window. Michael had acquired another slash, this one across his stomach. Blood stained his shirt, a mute testament to the severity of his wounds. Even a vampire could take only so much, and Mariko was closing in for another try.
Michael sensed Aislyn's movements, looked away from Mariko for only an instant to meet his friend's eyes. Blood streamed from her head, her eyes were wild with fear, dazed with pain. Seeing her, he knew she would be no match for Mariko. He needed to buy her time for her own healing to begin, and there was only one way to do it.
Ais saw the decision in his eyes, saw him brace himself for his last attack. Mariko missed none of it -- she also braced herself, the stake held tightly in her hands, but there was a new awareness in her eyes, that hadn't been there before. "Don't make me do this, Michael-chan." It was still a growl, but with a kind of pleading beneath it. "I don't want to do this -- don't leave me alone again. Don't make me lose you, too."
"Let us go, and you won't have to. Walk away, Mariko, or we end it here."
A single bloody tear trickled down Mariko's cheek. She took one deep breath -- and moved.
But as she lunged for Michael, Aislyn also moved, faster than she had moved in 800 years. She rolled past the vampires, coming up on her feet against the curtains and grabbing fistfuls of the material, throwing all of her weight against them. The curtain rod snapped, sending Aislyn to the floor in a tangle of fabric.
The morning sun streamed through the window, catching the two vampires in its deadly beams. Mariko screamed as smoke rose began to rise from her skin, throwing herself away from the window, away from the sun. Michael caught her, held her grimly as the sun seared his own skin like flames.
Then Aislyn was there, kicking Mariko away from and tackling Michael throwing the heavy curtains over his body, blocking out the fiery light.
Aislyn's unexpected attack sent Mariko to her knees. Her head clouded with pain, she tried to crawl away and made it halfway to the door, but there was nowhere to go. The sun was too high, filling the room, surrounding her with its deadly rays. She screamed again as the flames began to consume her.
Aislyn felt Michael scream in sympathy. He tried to throw her off; she hung on grimly, keeping her face turned away, unable to watch. But she couldn't bury her ears, couldn't block out the screams. They echoed on and on, until there was nothing left of Mariko but ash.
Only after they stopped could Aislyn hear the sounds of the muffled sobs, shaking Michael's body beneath her. She didn't dare raise the curtains; only buried her face in them and waited for the shadows to darken and the sun to move on.
The sunset had been spectacular, burning away the haze that usually obscured the light, and setting the ocean and clouds on fire. There was a pretty good crowd gathered to watch it -- the stores lining the boardwalk had closed, but the restaurants were still open and for many, the day had only begun.
Michael and Aislyn walked down the concrete path, oblivious to the strange mass of humanity that had come out with the night. Aislyn looked sideways at her friend, who seemed oblivious to her as well. It had been three days since Mariko's death; he hadn't spoken since they had retreated from the sun-drenched bedroom to the still-dark living room of the old hotel suite. There, they had rested and healed, only coming out tonight.
But their home was gone; they had no place to go. So they wandered the boardwalk, and went nowhere.
Aislyn reached over her shoulder, touching the hilt of the katana where it rested in its usual place. She didn't know how Michael had rescued it, or the small music box that rested in her jacket pocket. She was afraid to ask.
In another pocket, a sheaf of papers rustled -- a few obituaries, a few letters, some of them ancient. And one only a week old, addressed to Mariko from someone in France, informing her of the death of her "son" in a fire. Michael recognized the man's name as one of his own 'siblings,' as the others the papers spoke of had been. He had never met the other man, but knew he had been with Mariko for many years. And knew that he was dead, as Mariko's other 'children' were. Now, only Michael still lived.
Aislyn didn't have any words for her friend; he had lost so much in one night. But she couldn't stand the silence any more.
"It wasn't your fault." The words sounded strange, dangling out alone in the silence between them.
He didn't seem to hear her, only gazed out over the ocean, his mind someplace far away from her. She sighed and left the concrete, walking across the sand to the small playground a few feet away. The swings were low to the ground, intended for children. She took one anyway, pushing idly with her feet, her head bowed, staring at the sand.
On the steps of a restaurant, a guitar played softly, taking up a familiar melody. She hummed along quietly, then heard Michael's voice take up the words, a soft, broken baritone. "Alas, my love, you do me wrong, to cast me off discourteously. For I have loved you oh, so long, delighting in your company. . . ."
She felt his hands, cool against her back, as he gave her the gentle shove that set the swing in motion. He swung her gently back and forth, back and forth, to the rhythm of the old song, even after the notes faded away into another. It was a long time before he spoke.
"I left her."
Aislyn wrapped her arms around the chains, leaning her head to the side to rest against the cold metal. "Yes," she agreed softly.
"I broke my word."
"You made a choice that was yours to make. Not hers."
"It cost her her life."
"She lived for 800 years without you. She cost herself her life." When he pushed her this time, she twisted to take his hand, squeezing it. "It wasn't your fault, Michael. She just . . . had lost too much. You were only one part of that."
He looked down at her hand, brought his other up to clasp it between them. "I can still see her, still hear her," he said quietly. "She was so beautiful, Ais. So strong. I . . . loved her."
He didn't seem aware of the tears falling down his face. Aislyn raised her free hand to wipe them away; he pressed his cheek into her palm. She could shed no tears for Mariko, but bowed her head again, unable to look at his. "That wasn't her, Michael."
They stood like that, silhouetted against the last of the sunset. "No," he said finally. "I think Mariko died with her children. A long time ago."
He let her hands go, and turned her around, pushing one last time to send her soaring upwards into the sky. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw him appropriate his own swing, shoving himself off. They swung in unison, reaching together for the sky, as the first stars appeared.
And if either of them heard, in the rhythm of the ocean and the echo of the wind, something that could have been a woman's laugh, both chose not to listen.
Overall, this was a learning experience; hopefully, I did learn from the mistakes I made.
Dedicated, with thanks, to Dawn Steele and Teleri, who edited and nagged, and Diane Levitan, who innocently asked, "How about adding another vampire?" and thereby solved the story for me.