A Wedding and a Decision
Highlander: The Series, Forever Knight, X-Files, JAG, and Tom Clancy novels crossover
It'd been a good day. I was just getting home from work and stopped to grab the mail on the way past. In addition to the usual fist full of junk mail, I found one letter from Nick Wolfe with a postmark in French.
First, I want to thank you. I don't know if it's for putting up with me, helping me find a teacher, being a friend, or just for being there, but thank you.
Second, you were right. This IS a gift. Once I had some sense beaten into me (literally), I realized just how valuable a gift it really is.
Last, hope to see you in June.
Also in the envelope was an invitation to the wedding of Nick Wolfe and Amanda Montrose in the coming June in Paris. It'd been nearly two years since I'd sent Nick off with Connor MacLeod for training. This was the first thing I'd heard directly about Nick since then.
I smiled as I read the letter.
"What're you smiling at, Ryan?" Jennifer came over and took a seat next to me, leaning her head on my shoulder and reading the letter.
I held it up slightly, still reading. "Nick Wolfe and Amanda are getting married. You met Amanda shortly after we got together, remember?"
She nodded thoughtfully. "Tall, thin, blonde?"
I nodded. "That's her."
"Didn't you say that the Nick she was looking for wasn't happy with her?"
"Yeah. They apparently made up." Not that it surprised me much. Once Nick calmed down, he probably forgave her quickly.
Jen was still reading the invitation. "Paris in June? Never been there."
"I have, but never left the university." Watcher's University, lo these many years ago. "It'll be an adventure for us both."
She pulled her head back a little and looked at me in surprise. "Both?"
I nodded. "If you want to come, sure. I expect there's enough of a Community there that feeding you won't be a problem." Being a vampire, she had some unusual travel restrictions.
She stared off into space for a few seconds before a smile formed. "Grandma Terry mentioned once how nice the city is. I guess I'll just have to go and decide for myself."
"This is so exciting," Jen commented as we settled into our seats. The first class section of this transoceanic flight was surprisingly empty. Of course, the unusual departure and arrival times probably had a lot to do with that.
I laughed at her enthusiasm. "Never flown before?"
"Nope." She paused. "At least not on a plane, anyway."
I grinned at her joke. "I just hope all our luggage arrives with us." Fortunately, my sword case was nearby. Duncan had mailed documentation to cover that for me out of the blue after I mentioned that I'd be flying to Paris for the wedding. All in all, he'd been an absolute godsend. He'd even offered to board my anonymous guest and me with him at his barge. I'd politely refused. Jen's eating habits would be hard to explain.
"I just hope we can get around town without knowing any French," Jen commented.
"Me too." I was counting on Paris being enough of an international tourist city that our American English would be good enough.
"What's the hotel where we're staying again?"
I pulled out the directions that Duncan had given me. Staring at the name, I finally said, "I probably couldn't pronounce it if I had to."
She laughed. "We're WAY too much the children of modern American society."
"Ain't that the truth," I agreed.
The stewardess started her little safety presentation. Both Jen and I basically ignored it. If the plane went down, there was nothing in the presentation that would help us. She ended the presentation with the announcement, "And the first in-flight movie will be 'Bride of Dracula'."
I nearly laughed out loud at Jennifer's groan.
Fortunately, the rest of the flight was uneventful. We even lucked out and all of our luggage arrived with us. The cabby dropped us off at the hotel and I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was an American hotel. Duncan apparently had pity on me and was trying to make this trip as painless for us (and the local Parisians) as possible.
"So what would you like to do tonight?" asked Jen as she flopped down on the bed after her shower the following evening.
All sorts of possibilities flashed through my mind, but I decided to be practical first. "How're you on food?"
She nodded in acknowledgement. "Good point. We'll have to stop at a place Grandma Terry mentioned once and see if they're still in business."
"Okay. After that, a walk along the Seine, see the various landmarks, lots of choices. What do you think?"
She shrugged. "Whatever you want. I'm flexible."
I gave her a leer. "I know you are, but that's not what I asked."
She made a face back. "You know what I mean. Come on, get dressed. We need to hit this bar soon. I'm getting hungry."
The cab had just pulled away from the curb and I'd taken one step forward when the Buzz hit me. Better than two thousand years old, and he had as many heads to his credit for his age as Duncan did. And for those of you not keeping score, that means a LOT. And we were walking into a probable vampire club. I was definitely in trouble if this didn't go well.
"What's wrong?" asked Jen, apparently sensing my hesitation.
"Company." I paused as a slight shudder ran through me. "Very dangerous company," I amended.
She looked concerned. "Well, I HAVE to go in there. You can stay out here if you'd prefer."
I shook my head. "A crowd is actually safer."
She gave me a skeptical look but didn't press the issue. We entered the bar, and I started looking around for the Immortal. It wasn't difficult to find him. He was looking at me when I spotted him. Tall and with brown hair, he didn't have any distinguishing features. The woman holding onto his arm was much more memorable. Relatively short with a vibrant head of red hair, she even vaguely looked like Jennifer. Jen saw where I was staring and looked over in that direction. I was paying too much attention to the Immortal to see her reaction, but she let out a squeal of delight and went running across the room. To my absolute shock, the unknown woman stood and caught Jennifer in a hug when they collided. I put the pieces together and walked over feeling much better. Thank God he wasn't likely to be dangerous. I had as much chance against him as a lame rabbit trying to fight a wolf.
Stopping beside the hugging women, I offered the Immortal my hand. "I'm Ryan Chessman."
He smiled and stood. Taking my hand, he said, "Aaron Grey." His aura twitched as if that wasn't his real name, but I accepted it.
I glanced over at his companion. "And she must be 'Grandma Terry'."
He laughed. "Yes, I suppose she is. At least to Jennifer." He waved a hand at her.
Pulling her head up for a moment, Theresa said, "You two sit. We're going to get something to drink." The two women walked arm in arm toward the bar.
Taking a seat across from Aaron, I said, "I've heard about you from Natalie, but I was hardly expecting to find you here in Paris."
One eyebrow rose. "You've met Nat?"
I nodded. "First met her in Las Vegas several years ago, actually. I moved to Toronto shortly afterward. Detective Knight nearly had to shoot me after he stumbled upon the end result of a fight I had."
He smiled fondly. "How're they doing?"
"Good. The four of us meet something like once a week over drinks. That's where I met Jen, actually. She asked me to dance one evening. And as they say, the rest is history."
"Good for you. We've heard about you through Michelle. At first, Terry wasn't so sure about one of us dating her granddaughter, but it seems she's happy. That's all that really matters." He looked fondly over at where the women were standing at the bar, chatting. He looked back at me. "What brings you to Paris? On vacation?"
I shook my head. "Attending a wedding of two friends, actually."
He looked mildly interested. "Two of us?"
I nodded. "Amanda Montrose and Nick Wolfe."
His jaw dropped. "Amanda?!?" He leaned back and started laughing. Half a minute later he calmed down enough to get out, "Who would have ever thought?"
I grinned. "You mean her marrying anyone other than Duncan MacLeod."
He nodded and grinned back. "That too. Out of curiosity, how do you know them?"
"Mac was one of my teachers. I knew her through him before I even moved to Toronto. Once there, I met Nick. He knew about her, and they were in some kind of private investigator partnership. After his accident, I helped him find a teacher."
He nodded at the explanation as the women returned. Jen set a tall glass of amber liquid in front of me. "Do you have any idea the look the bartender gave me when I tried to order a BEER for you?"
I grinned. "So sue me. I don't like wine."
Slipping in next to Aaron, I heard Theresa mutter, "He's in France and he refuses to drink wine." She gave an exasperated sigh. "Youngsters nowadays."
"Stop it, Grandma," chastised Jen as she sat. "Sorry, I forgot the introductions. I'd like you two to meet Ryan Chessman. Ryan, this is my grandmother Theresa Ryan and her husband Aaron Grey."
I offered her my hand. "Pleasure to finally meet you. Jen talks a great deal about her 'Grandma Terry'."
"Likewise," she said, shaking my hand. Her hand was the cool grasp I was learning to expect among vampires. Since I was expecting it, I didn't react to the two thousand plus years of age I felt.
"How long are you in town?" asked Terry.
"Where are you staying? With Duncan?" asked Aaron.
I shook my head. Jen answered, "And how would I explain my . . . eccentric eating habits?"
"Good point," conceded Aaron.
I turned to Aaron. "Speaking of Duncan, how do you know Amanda and Mac?"
"Met then a few years ago here in Paris. They were with," he paused fractionally, "Adam Pierson. We bumped into them at Darius's grave."
"He was an old friend of ours," added Theresa.
I nodded. "I never knew him, but everyone seems to have held him in the highest respect."
"Who?" asked Jen.
Aaron answered, "Father Darius. He was slightly older than we are, and the last three-quarters of his life he was a priest here in Paris. He provided sanctuary for many people and was friend and confidant to many others. He was also the one who married us." Terry squeezed her husband's hand.
"So where ARE you staying?" asked Terry.
"An American hotel that Duncan recommended."
"Why don't you come stay at our place?"
Jen shook her head. "We couldn't."
"Why not?" asked Aaron. "It'd be far cheaper for you two. Besides, it'd give us some company. And keeping you fed would be a LOT easier this way."
Good points all. "If you don't mind . . ." I started hesitantly.
"Nonsense," responded Terry. "How often do I have a chance to host my own family?"
Jen laughed. "Okay, if you insist."
Having tour guides made things a lot simpler. They took us to the various attractions in town that were open in the evenings. The third night we were staying with them, they even took us out to eat. It was a vampire run restaurant that also catered to mortal appetites. I'd never heard of such a place, but I was still learning how to deal with Jen's lifestyle.
While I had the opportunity, I also asked Aaron to take me to Tessa's grave. I'd never known Duncan's friend, of course, but I'd heard a great deal about her through both Mac and Richie. Paying my respects seemed the appropriate thing to do.
While we were out and about, he also showed me the cathedral that Darius inhabited for centuries. It may have been my imagination, but I could swear I felt an almost subliminal Buzz coming from the sanctuary.
The next evening, Jen and I visited the club that Amanda owned. Getting out of the cab we'd taken over, I worried that our clothing wouldn't meet the dress code. She definitely ran a quality place.
We made our way into the place, and I stopped at feeling a Buzz. No, three of them. It took a few moments to sort them all out, but I eventually came to the conclusion that it was Amanda, Nick, and Duncan. My, oh my. This could be interesting.
Scanning the room, I spotted them sharing a table. Once Nick caught my eye, he waved me over. Nodding to indicate the direction, I led Jen over to them. On the way, I saw that Amanda had gone back to black hair. I was glad. She looked better that way.
By the time we arrived, she was standing. Waving to indicate the place and smiling, she said, "Welcome to the Sanctuary."
I raised an eyebrow. "Is that the translation? It IS holy ground then?"
Amanda shot a glance at Jen before nodding to me.
"Convenient," I commented.
She smiled and nodded again. Sitting back down, she said, "Please, join us."
I offered my hand to Nick, which he took without hesitation. "You're looking well, Nick. How have you been doing?"
"Good." He shot a sideways glance at Amanda before adding, "Better in a few days, but good for now."
Nick grinned and Duncan chuckled at Amanda's blush. Turning to Duncan, I said, "Thanks for all the help regarding this trip, Mac. Without your instructions in hand, this trip would be a lot tougher."
He nodded. "Glad I could help." He looked at Jen appreciatively. "And who's the lass hiding behind you?"
Pulling her from her hiding place, I said with a smile, "Gang, I'd like you to meet Jennifer Frost. Jen, you've already met Amanda. This is Nick Wolfe, and this is my teacher Duncan MacLeod."
She shook Nick's hand politely before turning a raised eyebrow to Duncan. "So you're the famous Duncan MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod that Ryan keeps talking about?"
"I'm not so sure about the 'famous' part, but yes, I was Ryan's self-defense teacher."
I shook my head at them. "She knows."
Three eyebrows went up but nobody commented on it. As I was pulling a fifth chair forward to sit down, Nick asked Jen, "I'm sure I'll regret asking, but you've already met Amanda?"
Jen looked down in embarrassment and stared at her hands. Nick and Duncan turned quizzical expressions onto me. I'm sure I was blushing faintly. "Yes, they've met."
Silence descended for a moment before Duncan said, "Well, don't leave us in suspense."
Amanda burst into laughter. Recovering herself and blotting her eyes daintily with a lace handkerchief she pulled out of somewhere, she said, "I doubt you'll get the story out of these two, so I may as well tell it. It was shortly after our 'incident', Nick. I'd returned to Toronto looking for you. I went over to Ryan's one Saturday on the chance that he knew where you were." She paused, staring at the ceiling. "Let's just say that they weren't expecting company right then."
I breathed a sigh of relief. That story could have been told a whole lot worse. "Well phrased," I thanked her, ignoring the grins tugging at Duncan's and Nick's mouths. Hoping to change the subject, I asked, "Would I know anybody else that's been invited?"
Duncan spoke up, "Richie and Hoa are flying in tomorrow. Adam's been invited, but I've no idea if he'll be here. Joe lives here in town now."
Nick took up the list. "Connor of course. My boss, Bert Myers. I invited a few friends from the precinct, but I doubt many of them will show."
Amanda continued, "Lucy is already here. Liam will be officiating." She frowned with a soft sigh. "I wish Rebecca could have been here, but that's the breaks." Shaking off the brief spell of melancholy, she suddenly smacked her hand on the table. "I'm being a terrible hostess. Would you two like anything to drink?"
She didn't blink at my request of a beer, however she did recommend a German brand instead of my preferred Killian's. When she turned to Jen, she said, "I'm fine, thanks."
"Nonsense. It's on the house."
Jen shook her head. "I'm on a special diet. Thank you for the offer, but I'm afraid not."
Shrugging her acceptance, Amanda got up and walked over to the bar. Also standing, Nick said, "I'll be right back." He took his bottle in hand and followed in Amanda's wake. I idly watched him as he passed behind the lounging Amanda. Since I was looking in that direction, I saw him give her behind a quick swat without even slowing down. She turned to glare at him, but he calmly walked into the restroom.
Chuckling at their antics, I said, "Those two certainly are happy together."
"Aye," was Mac's soft response.
I turned to look at him. He was staring at his drink. I'd rarely seen him depressed, but he was giving every indication of being in a serious funk. Softly, I said, "Mac, you okay?"
Looking up at me with a raised eyebrow, he attempted a casual smile. "Sure. What do you mean?"
I wasn't buying it. "You're depressed."
He managed to look mildly offended. "Nae, I'm not."
I just folded my arms against my chest and gave him a "tell me another one" look.
He returned his eyes to the glass he held cradled in his hands and spoke softly, "Okay, yes I am." He gave an almost soundless sigh before continuing. "I keep trying to be happy for her. She's clearly in love with Nick, and I think he's a good guy and will be good to her."
He silently stared at his drink for a moment before I broke the silence. "I know how to fix this." Both Jen and Mac turned skeptical looks to me. "Polygamy," I announced.
Jen bit a knuckle in an effort to not laugh. Mac pulled a small smile out of somewhere. "You win. I'll be in a better mood." I nodded. He turned to watch Amanda, but I heard him mutter, "Polygamy. Sheesh."
I hid a smile. Mission accomplished.
The next night wasn't nearly so calm.
It was time for Nick's bachelor party.
As the previous evening was drawing to a close, Duncan had pulled me aside and told me where to meet the gang that was getting together. With a little trepidation, I arrived at the appointed time and place. As the cabby pulled up outside the "Le Blues Club", I felt several Immortal signatures.
It took a few moments to sort it all out. Duncan, Nick, Connor, Richie, and Methos plus two unknowns were all present, I decided before the door even opened. Sure enough, seven Immortals plus one mortal were inside. The bar was obviously closed to the public for the occasion.
Joe Dawson was tending the bar and threw me a cheery wave. Methos was on a barstool and gave me a calm nod. We hadn't parted on good terms, but he was apparently willing to call a truce. Considering how dangerous he potentially was, that was just fine with me.
Duncan and Connor were sitting at one table sharing a bottle of scotch. As my gaze swept over them, they both saluted me with their glasses before slamming back the contents.
The next table held Richie, Nick, and the two unknown Immortals. Deciding I'd survive the evening much better there, I went to the bar and greeted my onetime employer, "Joe. How's things?"
"Ryan! Good to see you again. How's life been treating you?"
I shook his hand and asked, "This a private party, or can anyone join?"
"Feel free," he waved expansively. His smile fled and his voice shifted slightly. "Just leave all weaponry on the coat rack." He pointed to the pegs on the wall that held four trench coats and three leather jackets.
"Good idea," I agreed. I took off my coat and hung it up on one of the free spots.
When I got back to the bar, Joe asked, "What'll you have?"
I nodded toward Nick. "If I can pry it away from him, I'll probably just have some of that pitcher in front of the guest of honor."
Joe grinned. "Don't worry about that. MacLeod's picking up the tab tonight."
Both my eyebrows skyrocketed. "Which?"
His grin got bigger. "They're splitting it."
I grinned in answer. This just keeps getting better and better. "In that case, I'll start with a Killian's and then just refill from whatever's handy."
As Joe was filling my request, I heard Methos mumble, "Youngsters nowadays: No taste."
I flicked him an tolerant smile but didn't say anything. Joe handed me the full mug, and I made my way over to the foursome. I arrived just in time to hear Nick say, "I can't believe that little pipsqueak suckered me."
Richie replied, "Nick, we DID tell you that that's how he operates." He looked up at me and smiled. "Ryan! Welcome to the party!" He made room as I pulled a chair over.
Nick waved his cigar at the two Immortals I didn't know. "Ryan Chessman, these two are Father Liam Riley and Robert de Valicourt." I shook hands all around as Nick continued, "Ryan here is the one who introduced me to Connor." He turned to me. "I was just telling them about Kenny."
"About time someone got that little bastard," commented de Valicourt.
I heard Richie mutter something, but no one seemed to catch it.
I turned to Riley. "Amanda mentioned last night that you'll be officiating the ceremony?" He tilted his head in affirmation. I studied him for a moment before asking, "I'm sure I'll regret asking, but what's an Irish priest doing in Paris?"
He laughed. "It's a long story. Suffice it to say that I enjoy the city."
I faked a sad sigh. "And here I thought you'd tell me that you were in town to keep Amanda in line." That drew a grin from the four men.
He nodded in acknowledgement. "That too."
I turned to de Valicourt. "I'm sorry, but I'm afraid I've never heard of you."
He waved it off. "Gina and I are old friends of Amanda's."
"Gina," I muttered, trying to place the name. Suddenly, I snapped my fingers and pointed to him. "You're the one who's been married for three hundred years."
He nodded. "We've known Amanda for most of that. She's served on our wedding party occasionally."
My brow furrowed in confusion. "Occasionally?"
Nick nodded. "Seems they get married again every hundred years."
Interesting idea. Speaking of which . . . I turned to Richie. "I STILL haven't received an invitation from you and Hoa."
Liam raised his eyebrows and looked at Richie. "The lad's engaged?"
Richie looked at me with a slight shrug. "We're in no hurry." He grinned challengingly. "When are you going to find someone and settle down?"
I sighed dramatically and laid a hand to my chest. "Now that I've lost all chance at the delectable Amanda," I had to stop at the three laughs and one death threat uttered by my table mates. Grinning, I said, "Seriously, Richie, you'll probably meet her tomorrow at the reception."
He nearly choked on his mouthful of beer. "Really?"
"Really," nodded Nick. "We met her last night. Pretty little red-headed thing."
Liam perked up a little. I turned to him. "Yes, her father was Irish. But back off. She's taken."
He faked a pout that set the rest of us chuckling.
"I tell ye, I can so throw a hat trick!" Connor's voice rose at the next table.
Richie frowned in confusion. "A what?" he asked.
I nodded at the electronic dartboard game standing along one wall. "A hat trick: Three bull's eyes in a row."
Liam leaned forward with his eyes bright in anticipation. "You know how to play, Ryan?"
I shrugged. "Some. Haven't joined a league, but I enjoyed playing with co-workers during lunch a few years ago."
Liam looked up and said loudly to Duncan and Connor, "A hundred francs says Ryan and I can beat you two Scots."
They suddenly quieted down and turned to look at Liam. I was staring at him. "Are you nuts?" I asked him quietly.
He lowered his voice as well and said to me, "Look at them. Do you seriously believe those two stand a chance against us?"
I looked over at the MacLeod table. Three empty scotch bottles littered the scarred tabletop, and both of them were leaning at haphazard angles in their chairs. I turned back to Liam and grinned. Composing my features, I turned to the MacLeods again. They were still frowning fuzzily at Liam. I said, "Well, come on. A hundred francs says that Liam and I can beat the infamous Highlanders in a darts game of cricket."
The room was silent, but I could see Joe trying to keep from laughing.
The two kinsmen looked at each other for a moment. Duncan appeared to think it over before nodding to Connor as steadily as he could manage. Connor turned back to us. "Agreed."
I stood and walked over toward the dart board, digging some change out of my pocket. Behind me, I heard Joe say, "This I have to see. This one's on the house." He hit a few buttons on the cash register and pulled out some coins. As I fed the machine to get things going, Liam and the MacLeods picked out their darts from the mug full of old plastic tipped projectiles available to the public.
Once the machine was happy, I joined my partner, and he handed me three darts he'd rescued. "None of them are in very good condition, but these are the best I could do for you."
I nodded my thanks and watched the MacLeods loudly arguing over which of them would get a dart they'd both apparently decided they wanted. It took a few minutes with everyone looking amusedly on, but they eventually sorted themselves out. When they came back to the throwing line, Connor asked, "Who's on first?"
I flicked a glance at him and replied, "What's on second."
He blinked. "I don't know."
"Third base!" called Nick, Richie, Liam, and Joe.
Duncan looked around in confusion as the five of us laughed. "What are they talking about?" he asked his partner. Connor could only shrug.
Composing himself, Nick stuffed his cigar back into his mouth and pulled a coin out of a pocket. "Here," he said. "Call it," he said as he flipped it into the air.
"Heads." "Tails." The MacLeods' answers overlapped. They turned to glare at each other.
I bit my knuckle hard and managed to keep from laughing. Robert bit his lip. Richie put a hand to his face, but his eyes were shining in contained mirth. I could see Nick's jaw tighten as he fought laughter as well. I didn't dare look over at Liam or Joe. I was sure their expressions would only cause me to lose the fight against my laughter. Nick caught the coin and slapped it to the table but didn't expose it.
Connor said something to Duncan in a language I couldn't place. Duncan responded and they went off into a heated argument. I glanced around the room and discovered that Methos and Liam could follow what was being said, but the rest of us were being left behind.
Liam interrupted at one point, "That's disgusting even for a Scot, Connor."
The two kinsmen stopped and stared at Liam. "Ye understand Gaelic?" asked Duncan in astonishment.
Liam responded calmly, "I DID grow up nearby if you'll recall." The Highlanders blinked in tandem. Liam continued, "Well, is it heads or tails, lads?"
"Tails." "Heads." Once again, the answers overlapped. However, they'd both changed their minds.
Shaking his head, Liam turned to the grinning Nick and said, "Tails."
Nick exposed the coin and sure enough, it was tails.
Liam lined up at the throwing line as the MacLeods made room, muttering about cheats. Totally ignoring them, Liam settled back and threw his three darts with quick flicks of his wrist. At each dart, the board chirped to us, indicating him making marks. He walked up and retrieved his darts as Duncan walked up to the throwing line.
To his credit, all three of Duncan's darts DID hit the board. Not that any were close to where he was aiming, of course, but he didn't injure anyone in the attempt.
Stifling the smile, I took my place and let loose. My style wasn't nearly as good as Liam's. I used too much arm and not enough wrist. Still, I did manage to get two marks.
Connor swaggered up to the throwing line. Once positioned, he said to Duncan, "Here's how to play this game, lad." Taking exaggerated care, he threw.
His first dart missed the scoreboard completely, causing the board to give him an electronic raspberry. Two guffaws and three snickers sounded around the room.
Glaring around quickly, Connor tried to salvage his pride. Muttering something about taking a practice shot, he lined up again and let another dart take flight. This one managed to hit the board at least. His third dart even managed (somehow) to make one mark.
After the first round, Liam and I were ahead six marks to one.
It only got worse.
Liam finished the game during his throws during the fifth round. By the time he hit the twenty-first mark and ended the game, the MacLeods had only managed four.
Scattered applause and chuckles sounded as Liam took a bow to the room. I put my darts away and made a detour by the bar before returning to my seat. In a low voice, I asked Joe, "Did you have a tape recorder going?"
Methos answered, "Let's just say that Connor's comment involved cold haggis, two live sheep, and Duncan all involved in some improbable activities."
Joe's open-mouthed stare at Methos was enough to set me to snickering. I re-took my seat just in time to hear Robert say, "Well done, you two."
Liam shook his head. "Those two are so drunk that even *I* could take their heads if I had a mind to."
Duncan fell back into his seat at the next table. "'I can so throw a hat trick,'" he mimicked his partner as Connor also sat down.
"Aw, shut yer mouth," was the subdued response.
I saw Nick close his eyes and his face turn red in an effort not to laugh at his teacher.
Trying to stave off a serious problem, Joe said, "Once I heard this was going to be a bachelor party, I brought a few games." Everyone looked over in interest. He continued, "I've got playing cards and Trivial Pursuit."
Methos's face brightened. "How about Trivial Pursuit?"
"I'm on Adam's team," Duncan, Richie, and I chorused. Joe started laughing silently again.
A smile flickered across Methos's face, but he shook his head. "I'm on my OWN team."
The three of us groaned. It took a few minutes of argument, but eventually the MacLeods teamed up and the rest of us formed the third team.
Nick and Richie were our staples in Sports, and Liam turned out to be amazingly good in Literature, but Methos ruled the game. He won the game during his fourth turn. We'd managed three wedges, and the MacLeods had only one.
"Ah'm not going to be on your team for anything else tonight," announced Connor.
"Why not?" wondered his kinsman.
"Cuz I lose every time we're teamed up."
"You lose because you're both falling down drunk," retorted Robert in a quiet voice that didn't carry to their table.
"How about some poker?" suggested Duncan.
"Friendly or for money?" asked Robert taking another drag from his cigar.
"Friendly," answered Joe holding up two boxes of multi-colored chips.
"But I'm no good at poker," objected Liam.
Connor grinned wolfishly. "That's okay, we'll go easy on you."
I was looking at Liam strangely. His aura had flickered with his last line as if he were lying. He caught my eye and winked subtly. Grinning at his antics, I said to the MacLeods, "Speaking of money, you two still owe Liam and me a hundred francs from the dart game."
"Do not," objected Duncan.
"We all heard the bet being accepted," pointed out Joe, coming out from behind the bar with chips and cards.
"But he cheated," Connor pointed to Liam.
I tried for a dumbfounded tone, "You're accusing a priest of cheating?"
Liam managed a hurt look.
"Err . . ." Connor blinked and frowned.
"Besides," I continued, "how COULD we cheat? The board kept score."
Duncan and Connor looked at each other for a moment before they both sighed. Connor fished a hundred franc note out of his pocket and handed it to Liam.
Liam was counting out fifty francs to give to me when I stopped him. "Just put my fifty in the offering plate Sunday." He smiled slightly and nodded.
Connor turned to Duncan. "Ye owe me fifty francs for your half of the bet."
Duncan mumbled something unintelligible and paid studious attention to the chips. Nick, Richie, and I made quick work of sorting the chips into seven even amounts as neither Methos nor I were interested in playing. Everyone else busied themselves with pulling extra chairs over to the table. Once the chips were distributed and Joe started shuffling, I got up and took one of the empty pitchers with me. With Joe's permission, I refilled it behind the counter before repeating it with the other two pitchers on the table.
Once the liquid refreshments were replenished, I took a seat a couple stools down from Methos. "Truce?" I asked.
He glanced at me before returning his attention to the game. "Were we at war? I hadn't noticed."
"I hate to state the obvious, but we didn't part on the best of terms. I just wanted to make sure there were no hard feelings."
He waved in an offhand gesture. "Oh, that. No harm done."
I frowned at him before shrugging. That went a lot easier than expected. Not that I was complaining, though. We watched the first two hands go by in silence before the stakes started getting higher. It took only fifteen minutes or so before Richie became the first victim. He crossed over to the bar calmly and sat between me and Methos.
I glanced at him. "You took that well."
He grinned slightly. "I lost to Nick. At least it wasn't to Mac or Connor."
Methos smiled softly. "Good. You caught that one."
Curious, I watched the game a little closer for a few minutes and came to the conclusion that everyone was subtly teaming up against Duncan and Connor. Neither of them was getting away with any bluffs; someone or another always called them. Their stockpiles of chips were starting to show it, too.
Grinning at the subtle war going on, I asked Richie, "Hoa here in Paris with you?"
He nodded. "She's probably over at the Sanctuary with the girls by now," he said, glancing at his watch.
"Is that where the bachelorette party is happening?" I asked, only mildly interested.
Richie nodded. "Amanda invited her before we even got to town." He looked sideways at me. "I'm surprised she didn't invite your lady friend."
"Maybe she did," I mused, remembering Amanda pulling Jen aside just as Duncan was talking to me last night.
"So Hoa will meet her before I do?" Richie looked a little ticked at it.
"Don't worry about it," I soothed. "I'll introduce you to Jennifer tomorrow at the reception."
"She won't be at the wedding?"
"No, she can't make it until later." Besides, all the crosses in the sanctuary will no doubt be a problem for her. Not to mention the fact that the ceremony begins before sunset.
The three of us sat quietly watching the game for a few minutes. Father Riley and Joe seemed to be slowly doing better than anyone else. The MacLeods were taking a fearful beating.
Methos leaned over and pulled the humidor off the bar top and opened it, offering a cigar to me and Richie. Rich took one, but I declined. I'd probably yarf if I tried to smoke, though the odor of someone else smoking has never bothered me. As Methos and Richie were bringing their cigars to smoking life, Methos mentioned, "You know, with the testosterone level in this place, I expected scantily clad women to make an appearance by now."
I rolled my eyes at his phrasing. The man predated the concept of tact, so I guess I could forgive him.
Richie chuckled softly. "I'm not disagreeing with you there. I asked Duncan earlier. Connor apparently tried to hire some dancers, but Nick and Joe nixed the idea. Something about drunk Immortals being dangerous enough without that added incentive."
We continued quietly watching the game for a few more hands before Richie suddenly asked, "How do you do it?"
Both Methos and I turned to him. "Hmm?"
He glanced at Methos a moment before returning his attention to the game. Quietly he asked, "How many mortal lovers have you had?"
"I lost count somewhere around two hundred. Why?"
"How do you do it?"
I frowned slightly in concern. I thought I knew where this was going, and it wasn't good. Methos frowned a little at the question. "Do what?"
"Fall in love with them even knowing that they're mortal."
Oh, shit. Quietly I asked, "What's wrong, Rich?"
He shook his head and sighed. "Nothing, but do you realize that Hoa will be thirty within a couple years?"
"And you're starting to feel mortality," finished Methos.
Richie frowned in thought before nodding. "I guess so, yeah."
Methos stared into space for a while before replying. "I wish there was an easy answer. The short version is that you don't ever get used to losing them." He sighed and took a swig of beer before continuing. "There are two ways of approaching it. If you never take a mortal lover, then you are never hurt when they die. However, that leads you to becoming old, bitter, and lonely. If you choose to have lovers, wives, whatever, then you're going to get hurt when they die. That's a given." He stared at his bottle in silence before adding, "I've been down both roads. The heartache is better than the loneliness." He smiled sadly, "At least this millennia it is."
A lump formed in my throat as I thought about Andrea. Out loud I said, "You were there when I lost Andrea, Richie. I miss her, but I wouldn't trade away any of the memories to lessen the pain."
Methos quirked an eyebrow at me. "You're entirely too young to be that maudlin. Stop it."
I chuckled a little as Richie said, "Okay, Gramps."
Methos graced him with a sour look before changing the subject. "Incidentally, I heard that Wolfe killed Kenny and you two were there. What happened?"
I shrugged when Richie looked over at me for permission to tell the story. He answered, "I was going to have a fair fight with him, but he took Hoa hostage. Nick shot him and took his head before he got up again."
Methos nodded. "She didn't get hurt, did she?"
Richie shook his head. "Just scared."
"Argh!" Connor's voice brought our attention back to the poker game. We turned just in time to see Connor glaring at his cards in frustration and Joe trying to look calm and innocent. A sizeable pile of chips in the middle of the table only made Joe's task more difficult. "The only damn mortal in the room and he beats me," Connor muttered as he stood unsteadily and headed to the restroom. I shot a glance at Liam and Robert, but they didn't react. They apparently knew enough about Joe that such a comment didn't surprise them.
As he was gathering cards to shuffle, Duncan muttered just loud enough for everyone to hear, "See? I'm nae bad luck for 'im. He's bad luck for himself."
Joe and Liam shared a chuckle while Joe raked in his winnings. From the looks of things, those two were doing quite well. Nick and Robert weren't very far behind, but Duncan was in trouble.
It took three more hands to finish Duncan off. From there, the stakes skyrocketed again. Two hands later, Robert fell out. The next hand claimed Nick. Both Joe and Liam were content to call it a draw at that point.
While Richie, Liam, and I were clearing the table and Joe was refilling the pitchers, Nick announced, "I have an idea."
"See, I told ye he could," said Connor to Duncan.
I had to bite my lip and Richie closed his eyes to prevent the laughter from slipping out. A sound that can only be described as a cross between hiccupping and snorting came from Methos's direction.
Nick glared at the Highlanders and then Methos for a moment before continuing, "Most of you have known Amanda longer than I have. How about you all tell me a story about her?"
I saw the gleam form in Duncan's eye. Methos did too and cut him off. "Mac, you'd better keep it polite. He IS going to marry her tomorrow." Duncan looked slightly depressed but nodded his agreement while the rest of us (with the exception of Nick) laughed.
"Will you tell us one, too?" asked Joe.
Nick nodded. "Sure. Who's first?" He leaned back in his chair, bringing a fresh cigar to life and clearly enjoying the evening.
Duncan said, "Well, since I'm being limited to 'polite', I guess I'll tell you about when we first met." He leaned back in his chair and frowned in thought. "I was walking through the marketplace in Cairo. Since I was just wandering through, I really didn't want to get involved in any Challenges, but I felt two Immortals anyway. As I was looking around, I spotted two women standing there with hands on sword hilts. And two lovelier ladies ye're unlikely to see! One was taller and with red hair, and the shorter had raven black, curly hair under their plumed hats. You should remember that this was during the age when women were seen but not heard. I just couldn't fathom two women walking around on their own like that. I approached them and offered my services as escort. The taller one, Rebecca Horne as it turns out, made it very clear that they didn't need protection, least of all the type that I was likely to provide. Amanda interrupted, saying that there were much better uses for such a handsome head than to cut it off. She pinned me to the wall and kissed me, not three minutes after seeing me for the first time! Once she stepped back, she said her good-byes and they walked off, arm in arm. It was less than a minute later that I realized what Amanda's preferred occupation was: My coin purse was gone. Remembering what direction they went, I took a short cut to get ahead of them. Once they rounded the corner, I smiled charmingly and plucked my purse from Amanda's hand." He smiled at the ceiling. "Then took them to a tavern to get to know them."
"Whatever DID happen to Rebecca? I've heard Amanda mention her several times but never been told where she is now," commented Nick.
"She's dead," stated Methos flatly from his seat at the bar.
Everyone shifted their attention to the oldest Immortal. "What happened?" asked Nick.
Methos gave a half smile. "Guess it's my turn to tell a story. This one is entitled 'The Methuselah Stone'." He took a sip of his beer before continuing. "Ever since Immortals started being noticed by mortals, the mortals of this world wanted Immortality for themselves. Legend has it that there IS a way to become Immortal. It's a magical crystal called the Methuselah Stone. Rebecca Horne was thousands of years old by the time she died. As part of her training, once she let her students go out into the wide, cruel world, she gave each of them a shard of a crystal that she had. Nick, you no doubt have seen Amanda's. She wears it on a chain as a necklace. Anyway, Rebecca never did tell her students what it was, just that the crystal shards were for luck. One Immortal by the name of Luther heard this story and decided that if the stone made mortals into Immortals, imagine what it would do for an Immortal! So he started hunting down Rebecca's students for all the pieces. He eventually found Rebecca and killed her for the pieces she had left."
"How'd Luther know the story?" wondered Liam.
Methos shrugged. "I don't know where he heard the story of the Methuselah Stone, but how he knew of Rebecca's students carrying around shards is quite simple. He was one of them."
Richie's jaw dropped and I felt mine do the same. Nick asked incredulously, "He killed his own teacher?"
Duncan grunted. "You'll find that Immortals will do damn near anything to get what they want." Robert, Liam, and Connor nodded solemnly. Each had their own stories, apparently.
Richie frowned slightly. "How is that an Amanda story?"
"Because the next year I asked her to help me steal it from the collection where it was being kept."
Robert looked at him in astonishment and a little apprehension. "And why did YOU want it?"
Methos sighed sadly. "To cure Alexa. A young lady I'd fallen in love with who was dying," he explained to Robert's raised eyebrow.
"Well," said Joe with forced good cheer, "we can't let this party get depressing. Hmm, a humorous story?" He leaned back in his chair and stroked his beard thoughtfully. He suddenly turned to Duncan with a wicked gleam in his eye. "Mac, how about I tell them about you, Amanda, Fitzcairn, and the Stone of Scone?"
Duncan groaned and put his head into his hands. "Please don't, Joe. I'll never hear the end of it if you do." Liam and Connor were looking at him strangely. They'd apparently heard of this thing. I certainly hadn't.
Joe chuckled. "Okay, okay. Hmm, then I'll tell the story I heard from you about when you found her in Saudi Arabia." Duncan looked up to listen to this story, and his lip twisted into a smile. Joe smiled back and launched the tale. "Her pilfering ways had finally caught up to her. She'd been caught stealing from a sultan's treasury and taken prisoner. Instead of putting her to death or cutting off a hand as was the custom, the sultan decided to bring her into his harem. He apparently didn't have any fair skinned wives yet and found her to be attractive. Duncan was a guest of this sultan the next day. As part of the entertainment, the harem had to do a dance for the distinguished visitor. You can imagine the sultan's surprise when Duncan MacLeod expressed an interest in his newest acquisition. I'm sure she filled out the clothing well, but probably couldn't dance to save her life!" Chuckles came from everyone.
"She probably danced better than she can sing," commented Richie.
"And how would you know how well she sings?" asked Duncan.
"Because she sang to me in a bar one night."
"WHAT?" came from Duncan, Joe, and Nick.
Richie smiled. "It was several years ago now. You were here in Paris, Mac, and I was taking care of the dojo. Amanda came breezing in one evening as I was closing. When I explained that you were out of town, she invited me along instead. There was a new bar opening, and she wanted to check it out." He shrugged, a little embarrassed. "When Amanda asks you to do something, how can you say no?" Everyone smiled. "Anyway, she took me to this bar. Problem is, I didn't know it was a karaoke bar until we got in there." I saw Joe shudder slightly out of the corner of my eye. Richie continued, "She kept buying me drinks and chattering away about anything and everything. I figured, 'What the hell? I didn't have anywhere to be, why not spend it with Amanda?' At any rate, after about my tenth beer, she suggests I get up and sing her a song. I try to refuse, but she gives me that little pout that she's so good at. I make a deal with her: If I sing one, she sings one. Next thing I know, I'm up there singing 'Everything I do, I do it for you' to her. I must've been pretty bad, because I got more laughs than applause when I was done. Once I got back to the table, she tried to weasel out of singing, saying that she had a lousy singing voice. When asking nicely didn't work, I resorted to blackmail. She eventually went up and sang 'Material Girl'." He chuckled at the memory as I snickered at the choice. That song was perfect for her. Richie continued with an amused grin, "Let's just say she was right about her singing abilities and leave it at that."
Joe held up a hand. "Backtrack a second. You blackmailed her?" he asked in an incredulous voice.
Richie's grin got bigger. "Yep. I threatened to post her phone number in the locker room at the dojo." The room erupted in laughter.
"Ah, she may not have a voice of gold, but she certainly has a heart of one," countered Liam when the sound level dropped enough for conversation.
"Not that I'm disagreeing, but what do you mean?" I asked.
"Oh, it must have been nearly a hundred years ago now. Somebody stole the cross out of the sanctuary and emptied the offering box. The box wasn't a big deal, but the cross was made of solid gold. It would take a fortune to replace." He leaned back and smiled. "When I told her about it the next day, Amanda stared at the wall for a full minute before getting up and walking out, all the while muttering about talking with her 'contacts'. Well, not more than thirty-six hours later two men walked in and put the cross back on the front table. They then started apologizing profusely to me and all the parishioners who were in the room at the time. They didn't even stop when two police officers walked in and started listening. When they were being led away, they kept saying that they hoped that the 'crazy woman' would leave them alone now. When I asked Amanda about it later, she admitted to scaring them into returning the cross. I asked her, 'Why did you do it?' Her response was, 'They give thieves a bad name.'" Everyone laughed. That sounded so like Amanda's reasoning.
Nick looked over at de Valicourt. "Robert, how about you?"
He frowned in thought for a few moments and absently tapped the ash off his cigar before smiling. "We were living in San Francisco in 1889." He cocked his head as a slight frown formed. "Or was is 1890? Anyway, it was time for Gina and me to renew our vows. Amanda was going to be Gina's Maid of Honor that time around, and Amanda wanted to give her a proper bachelorette party. I didn't think anything of it since Joseph was giving me a bachelor party that same night anyway. So the time for the wedding arrives and no Gina or Amanda. Another half hour later and I was getting really worried. I was about to ask the sheriff to go looking for them when they came charging up on a horse-drawn wagon with a man chasing them yelling for them to stop. Gina ran inside to the dressing room, and Amanda hopped down and sweet-talked the man into not charging them with having stolen the wagon. They were just in a hurry, seeing as how it was Gina's wedding day, and they BORROWED the wagon to make it there on time. Eventually, the owner of the wagon left. I went to Amanda to ask what was going on but stopped when I saw how she looked. Her dress was torn in three different places, dirt on her face, hair an absolute disaster, and blood along one arm. I asked her what happened. She gives me that sweet, innocent smile she's so good at and replies, 'Why, whatever do you mean, Robert? Gina and I just got back from the party.'" Robert smiled at the ceiling a moment before continuing, "I asked Gina about it that night, but never did get a straight answer. Knowing Amanda, I'm not sure I WANT to know." Scattered chuckles sounded around the room.
Connor took up the tale-telling, "She broke me out of jail once."
"Wha' were ye doin' IN jail?" asked Duncan.
Connor grinned. "The lady in question was better at evading police than I was."
The silence was broken by Robert, "Come on, Connor. Tell us the whole story."
Connor nodded and then waved his shot glass at Richie. "The lad's right. When that black-haired seductress asks ye to do something, how do you say no? At any rate, she and I bumped into each other in New York a little over a century ago. Over dinner, she told me about a sure-fire way to steal a display of Spanish doubloons that were coming into the New York Museum of History from Madrid. All she needed was for another person to help out holding the rope and to be available to drive the carriage. I tried to refuse, but that woman could get the Pope to renounce his vows." He waved his hand at Nick's low growl. "But I'm off the subject. The plan went well until we were on our way off with the coins. The police responded faster than she thought they could. We split the doubloons and went separate directions after agreeing on where to meet. Well, to make a long story short, I've never been good at evading police. They caught me within a few minutes with a bag full of Spanish coins that I had no right to have on me. That night, Amanda came and broke me out of the jail." He chuckled at the memory. "And she was more mad at losing half the coins than anything else!"
Chuckling, Joe said, "How about you, Nick? You promised us a story, too."
Nodding, Nick started, "Well, originally, I was a cop in Toronto. I was investigating a jewelry theft and of course the name of Amanda Montrose came up immediately." He was interrupted momentarily by the chuckles and snickers around the room. Smiling, he continued, "That's how I met her. Her proving Immortality to me was much more . . . interesting. She'd told me what she was by this point, but I didn't believe her. So to prove the point, she shot herself in the heart in my truck. I pulled over and tried to help, but she was already dead. I just held her for a few minutes, trying to decide what to do." He scratched the back of his head in embarrassment. "That is until she gasped for breath. At that point, I dropped her and jumped back." More chuckles sounded. "She calmly asked for a hand back up. No shock in her voice, just like people getting up after being shot is an everyday occurrence." He chuckled at himself for a moment. "Well, I guess it is for some." Shaking his head at the memories, he turned to me.
Nodding, I said, "Well, I guess that leaves me to tell a story. This one goes along with Amanda's having a heart of gold. Duncan and Nick heard the beginning of this story last night." I waved my hand at them and took breath to calm the embarrassment down. "Right after Nick died the first time, he came to me for help. With Duncan's assistance, we got Connor to agree to teach him. They'd been gone for maybe a week before Amanda came to my place to see if I knew where Nick had gone to. The previous evening and into the morning I had a houseguest." I looked between Nick and Duncan and said, "Amanda said last night that we weren't expecting company. What she didn't tell you guys was that it was nearly noon when she got over to my place. And I answered the door barely awake and wearing a bathrobe." I paused. "And my guest came out of the bedroom wearing one of my t-shirts." Several grins formed around the room, and I felt my face warm with a serious blush. "The scene was sensitive enough between Jennifer and myself. Amanda had the compassion to not make any smart comments. She just asked about Nick and took her leave when I wouldn't tell her where you had gone off to." I looked over at Nick and said, "My story may not be as funny as Joe's, but it shows her concern for you and sensitivity for me." I raised my mug in toast. "That's one special lady you're marrying, Nick Wolfe." Everyone raised their own glasses in accord.
Whatever else she may be, Amanda is special.
I arrived at the cathedral late the next afternoon for the wedding. Walking in past the huge double doors, I waded into several Buzzes simultaneously. Sorting through it as I waited in line to get a seat, I recognized everyone from last night plus Amanda and Basil Morgan whom I'd met a few years ago in Toronto. There were also three more Immortal signatures that I didn't know, but anyone here probably wasn't a threat.
Taking the seat I was led to, I looked around to see where everyone was seated. Unsurprisingly, the Immortals I recognized were scattered around the room. Spotting Robert, I realized one of the unknown Immortals was no doubt his wife Gina.
After I was seated, it didn't take long for the ceremony to start. Once the music started, Duncan, then Nick, then Connor filed out of a side door to stand at the front of the room beside Father Liam. Seeing that they were all smiling at the back of the room, I craned my neck around to see a young girl solemnly walking down the aisle, scattering rose petals. Curious, I checked the handout and discovered that this was Mary Lindsey. Once she made it to the front of the room, Duncan gently helped her back to sit by her mother. As he was getting back to his place, the traditional music started and everyone stood. Turning to see the bride, I was only mildly surprised to see that it was Methos who was "giving the bride away". I doubted he was a father figure to her, but he was a good choice anyway. Amanda herself was wearing a gorgeous dress that had surprisingly little lace or other ornamentation. I decided on the spot that the woman made the dress instead of the other way around. Based on Nick's expression, he agreed with my assessment. Come to think of it, everyone up there seemed to agree with it.
Smiling demurely, Amanda let Methos hand her off to Nick and the ceremony got under way. While Father Riley was talking about the immortal bonds of love, Duncan's position in the front caught my eye. He was apparently standing in witness for Amanda as Connor was for Nick. Interesting choice, considering the relationships involved.
By some amazing coincidence, everything went off without a hitch. Nobody even peeped at the "or forever hold your peace" line.
After the ceremony, we all migrated to a nearby banquet hall for the reception. Joe was tuning up on the bandstand, and I was sitting with Richie and Hoa, waiting for Jen to show up.
"How'd everything go last night?" I asked Hoa. Jen hadn't said anything to me last night or this morning about the girl's party. She had just smiled and shook her head.
Hoa giggled. "Really well. Everyone got a little tipsy and started telling embarrassing stories about the men in their lives. Even Lucy got into the action and told us a few stories about her husband." She frowned a little. "Come to think of it, I think Jen was the one who said the least last night."
I tried for a superior look and haughty tone, "That's because I have no embarrassing stories."
Hoa snickered as Richie said, "Shall I repeat the story you told last night?"
My face fell. "Um, no." I paused. "Please," I added.
Hoa raised an eyebrow and smiled at me before she dropped the subject, for which I was eternally grateful. "Anyway, I talked to her a little. I like her, by the way."
I smiled. "Nice to know you approve."
"When do I get to meet her?" asked Richie.
"Soon," I promised after checking my watch and discovering it was shortly after sunset. She should be on her way.
"So do we call Mac the Maid or Matron of Honor?" asked Richie with a wicked gleam in his eye.
Hoa swatted his arm. "I think it's sweet that he'd stand with her."
I agreed with Hoa but couldn't prevent the chuckle that escaped when thinking of Duncan MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod as a "Maid of Honor".
Nearly a dozen people in the room stiffened in their seats as two Immortal signatures approached. From the door, Connor announced, "Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the bride and groom!"
Cheers, applause, and one or two wolf whistles greeted the new couple as they arrived. Smiling in embarrassment, Nick led Amanda over to the cake for the obligatory cutting and more picture taking.
While we were watching the cake being cut, I felt a cool hand fall to my shoulder. Looking up, I found Jen standing behind me, watching Nick and Amanda. Standing, I said, "Richie, I would like you to meet Jennifer Frost. Jen, this is Richie Ryan. I believe you met Hoa last night."
She smiled at him and shook his hand politely before taking the seat I was holding for her. Richie couldn't tear his gaze away from Jen. Hoa finally leaned over to him and whispered something. He tore his gaze back to Nick and Amanda, but he flushed scarlet. Jen's mouth twitched in amusement. I grinned, realizing that she'd probably heard whatever it was Hoa said to Richie.
I turned and got my first good look at Jen and realized what the problem was. For starters, her dress was new. She'd somehow managed to find a dress that was the exact shade of green as her eyes. Between the dark green dress and vibrant red hair twined in some intricate braid falling down her back, the whole effect was stunning. No wonder Richie couldn't tear his eyes away from her!
Hoa whispered into my ear, "Now YOU'RE drooling. Behave yourself, Ryan."
I blinked and looked at her in surprise. Jen's soft laughter kept my embarrassment to a minimum, though.
Shaking off the distracting thoughts, I saw that the guests of honor had moved on to their table. Standing, I offered to get cake for Jen. As a vampire, I knew she couldn't actually eat any of it, but we had to keep up appearances. Since we'd discussed it previously, she didn't react to my ridiculous offer, merely shaking her head. I glanced over at Richie and Hoa to find them nodding and Hoa saying, "Thank you."
I nodded in response and got into the line for cake. I found myself beside the de Valicourts and chatted with Gina as the line slowly moved forward. Once we got to the head of the line, another shock awaited me. Serving cake was Lucy Becker and a younger lady I didn't recognize.
Lucy lit up the instant she spotted me. "Ryan! I'm glad you could make it. I'd like you to finally meet my niece. Rachel, this is Ryan Chessman, the young friend of Amanda's that I've been telling you about." She beamed at the two of us.
I bit my lip when I noticed Rachel roll her eyes and sigh soundlessly. Still, she smiled at me politely. "How do you do?"
I shook her hand and smiled at her, mumbling a polite reply. Gathering three plates of cake, I made my way back to our table.
"I'll kill her," Jen announced as I distributed the cake.
Hoa and Richie looked confused as I laughed. "I don't think that'd be a good idea, Jen. She's just being her usual matchmaking self. She obviously doesn't know about us."
Jen started muttering to herself as Hoa asked, "What'd I miss?"
Trying not to smile for Jen's sake, I said, "Amanda's friend Lucy Becker. She's the one up there serving the cake," I indicated. Hoa and Richie glanced over at her as I continued, "She's been trying to set me up with her niece on a date for years. Well, she finally got the two of us in the same room. Based on Rachel's reaction, Lucy has been working on her as well as me." I sighed. "How do you tell Lucy 'Thanks but no thanks.'?"
Hoa giggled. "One of my roommates had an aunt like that. Said it drove her nuts." She frowned and glanced back over at Lucy and Rachel. Turning to Jen, she asked, "You heard them from over here?" She absently started eating the cake that I'd put in front of her.
Jen nodded. "Good ears." I nearly choked on my cake. That was definitely an understatement.
From the front of the room, I heard Joe over the speakers, "As is the custom, the first song is reserved for the bride and groom. After that, everyone feel free to join in or request songs." As he was speaking, Nick and Amanda moved to the dance floor. At the first strands of the new song, they started slowly dancing. The entire room watched, mesmerized, as the couple in dazzling white gently swayed to the sound of Joe and his band.
Once that song faded out, Nick and Amanda drifted back over to their table and the dance floor filled with other couples, including Jen and me. Once we were comfortably swaying to the song, I asked Jen, "What do you think of Richie and Hoa?"
She sighed softly into my shoulder. "They're obviously in love. They're good for each other."
From my angle, I could barely make out her slight frown. "What is it?"
She shook her head. "Just thinking about something."
"I haven't decided yet. I'll let you know."
Okay . . . Like I understand what THAT'S supposed to mean.
We comfortably moved through the crowd, enjoying the feel of each other until the song ended. At that point I led Jen back to the table and held out her seat for her. As she was sitting, I asked our table mates if they wanted something to drink.
Jen shook her head, but Richie jumped up and offered to get them. While Richie was off doing that, I scanned the room to get an idea of who all was around. Duncan and Doctor Lindsey were dancing, as were Robert and Gina. Looking over at the band, I saw Richie drop two sheets of paper into a glass container next to Joe. Taking an indirect route, Richie returned to our table and distributed the punch glasses he'd brought.
After Richie had seated himself, the four of us casually talked for a time before Jen said, "I have a hypothetical question for the two of you, if I may."
Richie raised one eyebrow slightly and nodded. Hoa propped her head up on one hand and gazed steadily at Jen.
Taking a deep breath, she asked, "Do you two believe a person's nature determines their actions and personality?"
Huh? Where was she going with this?
Both Hoa and Richie frowned at Jen in confusion. "Huh?"
Her brow furrowed in thought. Glancing at Hoa, she asked Richie, "How freely can I speak?"
I answered, "Hoa knows we're Immortals if that's what you're asking."
She nodded. "Immortality is a good example. Do you two believe all Immortals are destined to become cynical, calculating, and paranoid?"
I was frowning again, this time in mild anger. "How can you say that? If you think that about me, why are you staying with me?"
She shook her head. "I didn't say *I* think that. I'm asking if THEY," she waved at Richie and Hoa, "believe that."
Richie was frowning in distaste. "No," he stated flatly.
Hoa curled a hand around Richie's elbow. "I agree. Just because he's Immortal doesn't mean he'll turn out to be a cynical bastard like some other old Immortals I've met."
Richie glanced at her and a lip twitched toward a smile. He was no doubt thinking about Methos, just like I was.
Jen nodded. "Okay, thanks." She turned her head to watch the dancers.
I looked at her in mild amazement. "What, that's it?" Jen's attention turned to me. "You ask that question and then drop the whole topic when you get your answer?"
"Yes," was the steady response as she returned her gaze to the dance floor.
I glared at her half-heartedly for another few seconds. I leaned back in my chair and looked up at the ceiling. "Women!" I turned to Richie. "If I ever claim to understand women, kill me, okay?"
He brightened. "Can I?"
Hoa swatted his arm.
Jen looked at me in disgust. "I'll explain later, okay?"
Whatever. Instead of commenting (and probably getting myself into a LOT more trouble), I grabbed my empty drink cup and headed up to the punch bowl for a refill.
As Rachel was ladling more punch for me, she commented, "This'll break Aunt Lucy's heart."
One eyebrow rose and I half smiled. "My getting more punch will break her heart?"
She rolled her eyes at my lack of understanding. "NO. The fact that you have a girlfriend will. She can't try to play matchmaker with us anymore."
I cocked my head. "Well, I'm not going to apologize for Jen, but I AM sorry to leave you to her tender mercies."
I smiled in answer before asking, "Could I ask a favor?" She inclined her head in what I took as permission. "When Amanda throws the bouquet, I think it'd be nice for Hoa to catch it. She's the other Vietnamese lady sitting at my table. At any rate, I've already asked Jen to help, so if you two could bracket her in the center and then steer her toward it . . ."
Her grin was all the answer I needed.
"That is vicious, but a wonderful idea," commented a voice behind me.
I turned, afraid of who may have overheard. And I came face to face with Doctor Lindsey. I smiled and offered her my hand. "Doctor, so nice to see you again. And yes, it is sneaky. But Hoa and Richie deserve a little happiness. For what it's worth, I'm going to recruit Mac and Adam into helping me do the same with Richie and the garter."
Doctor Lindsey handed her glass to Rachel as I was talking, and once I had finished my explanation, she nodded. "I'll inform Duncan, and he'll get Adam for you." She grinned a little. "And I'll help with Hoa." She paused and studied me a moment before nodding. "Now I remember you. I met you at the hospital when your friend . . ." She trailed off. "Sorry."
I nodded. "It's okay. Yes, we did meet at the hospital just after Andrea died. I did want to meet you under better circumstances, and these certainly qualify."
She nodded back. "That they do. Sorry to cut this short, but I'd better be getting back to Mary. Nice seeing you again, Mister Chessman."
Retrieving my glass from Rachel, I walked off toward Joe and the band. Once there, I spotted a pad of paper next to what looked like a huge brandy snifter. Deciding that's where the requests were being submitted, I wrote "Everything I do, I do it for you" on one sheet and "Material Girl" on another before depositing both in the bowl.
I made my way back to the table. Taking a seat, I ask Hoa, "How long are you two going to be in town?"
She shrugged. "A few days."
Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed Jen nod, seemingly to herself. Richie apparently noticed too, since he frowned at her.
She must have noticed his attention, because she turned to him with a smile. "That's good. Ryan and I would like to see you again before we go back to Toronto." She pulled a pen out of her microscopic purse (how the hell did she fit a pen in there?) and jotted down something on one of the monogrammed napkins lying on the table. "We're staying with my grandmother here in town. If you two could come by at six tomorrow evening?" She handed the napkin to Richie with a smile.
He took it and glanced at the writing before folding it and placing it into his pocket. With a glance at Hoa for her reaction, he nodded his agreement. "Sure." He gave me an evil grin. "Staying with her GRANDMOTHER?"
I shrugged. "Jen hasn't seen her in years. And it's free rent and free guides." I grinned back. "Besides, neither of us is a screamer."
Jen flushed scarlet (what do you know, vampires CAN blush), and Hoa bit a knuckle and turned purple in an effort not to laugh. I held Richie's gaze steadily until he turned away.
"Ryan," Jen growled. Hoa lost control over her laughter at that.
I waved a hand at Richie. "That's what he was getting at."
He looked hurt. "Was not."
I sighed at him as Hoa frowned. Giving him a stern look, I asked, "Need I remind you that I'm an Immortal lie detector?"
He opened his mouth and shut it again before blushing faintly. I grinned triumphantly and folded my arms across my chest. Jen nodded an apology to me, and Hoa giggled.
As the band was winding down from a song, I heard a musical chiming. As I was turning my head to try to identify it, more chiming came from various directions. I grinned and turned to the main table in time to see Nick and Amanda stand and start an enthusiastic kiss. Nearly a minute later, they came up for air, to the general cheering in the room.
Once everyone had calmed down a little, Connor stood with glass in hand. "I'd like to propose a toast. And for once I'll be serious." Scattered laughter interrupted him for a moment before he continued. "To Nick and Amanda: May your love shine as long and as brightly as long you both shall live."
The general agreement of the room caused an embarrassed smile from both bride and groom as everyone ceremoniously drank.
When Connor sat back down, the band launched into "Everything I do, I do it for you." Pushing back my chair, I offered Jen my hand and led her to the dance floor. Once we were comfortably swaying, I saw Duncan moving to the music with young Mary Lindsey standing on his feet. He looked up and noticed my attention. I raised one eyebrow in query, and he nodded back. The plan with Richie was on.
I chuckled as his dance partner demanded his attention. Into my ear Jen whispered, "What?"
I nodded toward Duncan and the young Miss Lindsey and turned us around enough that she could see them.
She turned and smiled at the scene as she laid her head against my chest again. She sighed and said, "That's one thing I'm going to miss."
I thought about it for a second. "Though neither of us is physically capable, that doesn't mean we can't adopt."
She stopped dancing and looked at me. "You're kidding."
I shrugged at her and gently pulled her back into the dance. "Why not? Duncan has unofficially adopted several kids." I paused as I thought about it some more. "Though I'd like to only adopt pre-Immortal kids."
She was frowning at me again. "You're serious."
"I've thought about it some, yeah. I'm not interested in doing this anytime soon, but it's an option for the future."
She looked at me in frank appraisal. "You're full of surprises, Ryan Chessman."
I smiled at that one. "Now, what was with that question you asked Richie and Hoa earlier?"
She shook her head. "I'll discuss it with you tonight. And I still haven't decided it for myself yet, either."
I sighed in frustration. "You're not going to tell me anything, are you?"
She grinned unrepentantly. "Nope."
I growled in mock anger as the song wound down. She didn't take it seriously since she giggled as she took the seat I held out. From the bandstand, we all heard Joe announce, "Though I promised to take requests, we've got several here for a song that I can't play. I can't reproduce Madonna's voice, so I can't fulfill the five requests for 'Material Girl' that have come in."
Though the sound that came from the head table was loud, it didn't QUITE qualify as a bellow. "RYAN! I'm gonna kill you!"
Everyone turned in time to see Amanda stride angrily toward our table and Richie bolt for the men's room. Since her eyes tracked him, I wasn't afraid for my own life, though I was just as much to blame since I was one of the five. I gritted my teeth in an effort not to laugh. I didn't dare look around the room for the others in the room who might have been the culprits.
Once she stalked back to the front table, Joe continued amid the snickering, "With that, we'll be taking ten minutes. See you soon."
Hoa looked over toward the men's room where Richie was still hiding. She turned to me with something resembling a smirk. "Will you please go get my big, bad boyfriend out of his hiding place?"
With my eyes alight in amusement, I excused myself and retrieved Richie. It took a few minutes before he was convinced Amanda wouldn't kill him outright, but he did eventually come out under his own volition. Amanda contented herself with merely glaring at Richie.
The next hour or so, with everyone generally enjoying themselves, passed relatively uneventfully.
Until it was time for the garter and bouquet.
When Joe made the announcement that it was time for the throwing of the bouquet, Jen jumped up and grabbed Hoa's hand and practically drug her off toward where Amanda was standing. Since I was watching, I saw how Jen deftly forced her way to the front and center of the gathering group of women. Rachel quietly slipped in on Hoa's other side and Doctor Lindsey appeared behind them. Amanda turned her back to the group and threw the flowers on the count of "three". Her aim was off. Instead of going toward the center where Hoa was, they headed straight toward Jen. Her hands came up like she was going to catch it, but her left hand inconspicuously batted it into Hoa's chest. Faking disappointment, Jen sighed dramatically as all the other women congratulated Hoa on a good catch.
Duncan magically appeared behind Richie's chair. "You realize what this means, don't you?"
Richie craned his neck around to look at Mac. "What's that?"
"You have to catch the garter now."
Richie frowned. "What do you mean?"
"Well, whichever of us guys catches the garter gets to put it on Hoa. And unless you trust one of us to reach our hands up her skirt . . ."
Richie's jaw dropped. I could see him turn to me, but I was looking up at Duncan. "That sounds like fun." I gave a leer which Duncan returned with a smile.
Richie growled and got up to stomp over to where the women were dispersing. As I passed Jen, I gave her a subtle wink. I turned to Duncan once Richie was a couple paces ahead. "Well done. He'll fight for it now."
Duncan solemnly nodded, but I could see the smile forcing its way onto his face. By the time we reached the gathering bachelors, Richie had already planted himself in Hoa's previous spot. Duncan and I bracketed him, and Methos, Joe, and Connor arrayed behind us. None of us had to worry, though. Nick's throw came right at Richie and was quickly snatched out of the air.
Grinning triumphantly, Richie walked over to where Hoa was seated. Kneeling down, he slid the garter over the foot that she helpfully held up to him. When he tried to stop with the garter just over her knee, the assembled bachelors jeered and urged him to go higher. Connor's voice rose above the others, "If that's all the better you can do, lad, let me have a shot." Richie gave Connor a venomous glare and slid it another four inches. The crowd broke into applause as Richie and Hoa stood and headed toward the dance floor.
As I was taking my seat next to Jen, I noticed that Nick, Amanda, and Connor were making a discreet exit. I flagged Duncan down as he was walking past. "They're leaving already?" I asked, nodding towards the three retreating backs.
Duncan shook his head. "Not quite yet. They have a few more pictures and then they're going to change before making the mad dash outside."
"Just so long as they don't leave before we have the chance to pelt them with rice," quipped Jen.
Duncan laughed. "Half the people in here would have my head on a platter if I let that happen."
I grinned at his comment. "Literally as well as figuratively." He tilted his head ruefully before I continued, "Anyone decorating their car appropriately?"
His grin turned slightly malicious. "Joe, Adam, Connor, and I took care of that this morning. It won't be here to take the new couple away, but rest assured, it's been taken care of." With that, he began circulating around the room again.
Jen watched him pensively. "I wonder what he meant by that."
I shrugged. "We'll find out eventually. Incidentally, good job on the bouquet."
She gave me an innocent look. "How do you know I wasn't trying to catch it myself?"
I grinned back. "Your hand - eye coordination is WAY too good."
She smiled in acknowledgement.
We had another half hour worth of dancing before Lucy came up to our table with a basket of little bags full of birdseed. As we were all arming ourselves, I introduced her to everyone. "Lucy, I'd like you to meet Richie Ryan, his fiancÃ©e Vu Tran Hoa, and my girlfriend Jennifer Frost. Gang, this is Lucy Becker, a friend of Amanda's."
She smiled politely and shook hands all around, though she looked slightly depressed over my "girlfriend". Oh, well. Can't win them all. "If you'll all line up outside that entrance," she said, pointing toward the door Amanda and Nick gone through previously, "the bride and groom will be leaving in the next ten minutes."
"Oh, goodie. I get to pummel Amanda with something." Richie looked positively excited.
Everyone had a good chuckle at him as we leisurely made our way outside.
Once we had a view outside, we realized what Duncan meant by saying that their car wouldn't be taking them away. At the end of the walkway, a white horse-drawn carriage complete with a "Just Married" poster and liveried driver sat patiently. Upon seeing it, Jen posted herself as far from the horse as she could and still be along the obvious escape route that Amanda and Nick would have to use.
Sliding in just behind her, I whispered, "Something wrong?"
Shaking her head, she leaned back into me and turned her head to tell me, "I tend to make most animals nervous. They seem to be able to sense us much more easily than humans can."
The 'us' she was referring to was clearly vampires. I thought about it for a second and commented, "Perhaps because we rely on sight much more than almost any other animals do. Our other senses are tuned down too far."
She nodded and commented almost to herself, "Fortunately."
I wrapped my arms around her and rocked her gently. Despite the fact that she'd been a vampire for a few years now, she still wasn't comfortable with all the facts of her relatively new existence.
The walkway was quickly lined with guests, and Lucy and Rachel continued to pass out the birdseed weaponry. Apparently at a subtle signal from Connor at the doors, the coachman climbed down from his seat and held open the door to the carriage and waited. This clued the rest of us sufficiently that Nick and Amanda hadn't a prayer of making it that far without being bombarded from all sides. Laughing and giggling, they both shook out their hair out before climbing into the carriage past the smiling driver. Once they were settled comfortably, he calmly shut the door and climbed back up to his seat. Flicking the reins, he set the carriage in majestic motion. Before he'd made it twenty feet, his passengers were locked into a passionate kiss, provoking another round of cheers and wolf whistles from the guests. Nick broke off the kiss and looked over the back of the seat toward the diminishing crowd illuminated in the streetlights. Throwing a cheery wave at us, he leaned over and knocked Amanda down below the visible level of the seat back. We could all hear a brief shriek (that wasn't at all unhappy) before it was abruptly cut off.
Chuckling among ourselves, everyone slowly filtered back into the banquet hall to retrieve purses and coats.
Once we had gathered our things, Jen and I headed to the door. Connor and Duncan were seeing everyone off.
"See you before we leave town?" I asked Duncan.
He nodded. "Sure. You still have the directions to the barge?"
I nodded before turning to Connor. "Nice seeing you again, Connor."
He shook my hand. "Take care of yourself." He smiled roguishly at Jen as he gallantly kissed her hand. "And the lass," he added to me.
I chuckled at her raised eyebrow. "She's quite capable of taking care of herself, but I'll accept the thought. You two need help cleaning this place up?"
They shook their heads. "Off with you," said Connor, waving us on our way before he turned to the next exiting guest.
I unlocked the door to Aaron and Theresa's home with the spare key they'd lent us. Cracking it open, I called in, "It's okay, Aaron. It's us."
"We know," replied Terry's voice.
I walked in with Jen and turned a raised eyebrow at Terry who was curled up on the couch with a laptop. "How?" I asked curiously.
She smiled. "Two people approaching, but only one heartbeat? How many other vampire - Immortal couples do you think there are?" Her smile grew. "And of those, how many are in town and have a key to this house?"
I half-grinned in acknowledgement. "I take your point."
As I was pulling off my tie and coat and heading back to our room, I heard Jen ask, "Grandma, can we go for a walk? I need some advice."
That stopped me in my tracks. I turned a questioning look at Jen, but she just shook her head. Terry had also raised an eyebrow but was putting her computer away and getting ready to go out.
Shrugging at the minor mystery, I turned to Aaron who was on the recliner next to the couch. "You up for some sparring?"
He thought about it for a second before nodding and putting his book on the table beside him. "Sure. There's an exercise room I have downstairs we can use."
He headed to his bedroom as the girls went out the front door.
I met him downstairs after I'd changed into a workout shirt and shorts. He was stretching as I walked in the room. Since he was apparently content with loosening up first, I laid my weapons down across from his longsword and started my own stretching katas. Once I was loosened up, I found him looking down at my weapons in interest. "Two blades?"
I nodded. "I know it's unusual, but it seems to work for me." I glanced at his sword. It looked like a standard English longsword except for the deep red gemstone in the pommel. I frowned at it. "A ruby in the pommel?"
He smiled slightly and shook his head. "It isn't a ruby."
I waited, but he didn't say anything. "Okay, I'll bite. What is it?"
He stared off into space for a few moments before shaking his head. "Doesn't really matter."
I cocked my head in a clear question.
He shook his head again. "We going to spar?" he asked as he leaned over to retrieve his weapon.
Fine, so he wasn't going to tell me anything about that sword. Taking my own weapons in hand, I asked, "Rules of engagement?"
"Flat of the blade. Don't ruin nearly as many shirts that way."
Nodding in acceptance, I took a step back before saluting him with my wakizashi. I settled myself into a defensive stance. In addition to having several inches of reach on me, he had better than two thousand years of experience. I didn't expect to do well against him, but I figured the practice couldn't hurt.
I was both right and wrong. I was right that I wouldn't do well. I was wrong that practice wouldn't hurt. He managed to fracture a few bones when I overextended my right hand and it was exposed, not to mention the multiple bruises he inflicted.
I did actually manage to hit him once with my knife. He'd apparently not fought a two bladed opponent very often and left himself partially open to a solid blow on the outside of his sword arm. I almost smiled at that point since the hit would have nearly disarmed him if it were real. I didn't smile since he'd already "killed" me a dozen times by that point.
By the time we'd been going for an hour, I was nearly falling over from exhaustion. I was saved from crying "uncle" by the arrival of the ladies. They came walking in after Aaron had thrown me into a particularly painful wall. I stayed down, panting.
I heard the women walk in and pause before Terry asked, "You beating up the young ones again?"
"Actually, he's done quite well."
I looked up in amazement. He'd broken a sweat but wasn't breathing heavy. "WELL? You've spent the past hour wiping the floor with me!"
"He has a few years on you," Terry pointed out.
She had a point. Better than two thousand years certainly makes a difference. But that didn't make my shoulder feel any better.
Pulling myself up with a hand from Jen, I formally bowed to Aaron. "I concede, sir."
He smiled and saluted me with his blade. "Well done, Ryan. Some more experience and you'll be a force to be reckoned with."
I'd rather be left alone, but I appreciated the compliment.
Dressing after my shower, I asked Jen, "Can I ask what's going on yet?"
She turned off the TV after a futile hunt for something decent to watch. Laying the remote down on the bed next to her, she asked, "What do you think of Hoa?"
I thought about it a few seconds as I was pulling a t-shirt and shorts on. "She's a good friend. She's fun and good for Richie. She's roughly our age, of course, so there's a lot of commonality. She's also one of the few non-Immortals who knows about us and I can talk to about it." I smiled at Jen. "She's also a good looking woman, and I would probably try to be more than a friend to her if we weren't together and she didn't have Rich."
She nodded once. "How serious are they, do you think?"
I frowned in confusion but thought about my answer. "Very. They ARE engaged, after all." I remembered Richie's comment about the fact that she's getting older and how he's feeling mortality secondhand for the first time. "In fact, I think Richie is beginning to feel regret that he'll outlive her. He made a comment to that effect at the bachelor party."
Jennifer nodded thoughtfully. She stared at the wall, obviously thinking about something before I asked, "Why are we talking about this?"
She shook her head again and stood up. Taking me by the hand, she walked me back toward the front of the house, ignoring my requests for an explanation. Once she got to the front room, she let go of my hand next to the couch. "Have a seat. This is going to take a while. Want anything to drink, Grandma?" she asked of Terry who was sitting on the other end of the couch.
"Please. Tell Aaron to bring Ryan something out as well."
Jen nodded and headed to the kitchen. Once she'd left the room, I sat and asked Terry, "Do you know what's going on?"
"Yes. Wait until we're all here and comfortable, though. Jennifer's right. This discussion will take a while."
My confusion was touched by a little apprehension by now. What was going on?
Aaron emerged from the kitchen with two brown unlabeled bottles in hand. He gave me one and took a seat on the recliner. I looked at the bottle in curiosity. "What's this?"
He grinned. "Try it."
Shrugging, I took a swig, figuring that it was homemade beer. It wasn't. It was a LOT heavier and stronger. I nearly choked. "What IS this?" I coughed out as Terry reached over and whapped me on the back.
"It's called mead. Kind of an old style beer."
"Good God. It's a wonder you survived this stuff," I commented, looking at the bottle in my hand in shock and suspicion.
Aaron was chuckling at my reaction as Jen came back in with two goblets. Handing one to Terry, she sat down next to me on the couch.
"Okay, the gang's all here. Is anyone going to explain this to me?" I asked in mild annoyance.
I could see Terry's careful expression of neutrality and Jen chewing on a lip, apparently trying to decide how to proceed, but it was Aaron who answered, "Ryan, what do you think of vampires?"
I frowned at him in blank confusion. "This a trick question?" He shook his head calmly. "Well, unless I'm mistaken, I'm sharing a couch with two of them. One's your wife, and the other is practically mine." His eyebrow went up at that, but he made no comment. I continued, "If I thought they were potentially a problem, I certainly wouldn't be here."
"Not quite what I asked, but enlightening anyway. No, what I wanted to know is what you thought about vampires AS A WHOLE."
I leaned my head back and frowned in thought as Jen snuggled up to me. Finally, I just shrugged, absently laying an arm around Jennifer. "They're people, just like everyone else. Some good, some bad. Their longevity gives some of the older ones a unique perspective on the human condition perhaps, but then so do the older Immortals." I sighed, and I looked down while my lip twisted in a grimace. "Though we're a much more paranoid bunch. Unfortunately."
I looked up to find Aaron nodding thoughtfully. "True. Though you'll oftentimes find older vampires to be more callous toward humans as well. Present company aside, most vampires don't give a rat's ass about humans."
"Outside of these two, I can only think of one besides Nick Knight who have any sympathies for humans," I agreed.
Terry nodded. "Even Michelle only tolerates them."
I raised an amused eyebrow. "Them? You WERE born human, Theresa. As was everyone else in the room."
Terry and Aaron shook their heads. Aaron said, "No, you and I aren't human. We're Immortal. We may LOOK human, but we aren't physically human any more than vampires are." He paused momentarily to collect his thoughts before continuing. "Vampirism is caused by an outside agent. Immortality is something we were born with."
Hmm. Good point. I nodded in acknowledgement. "Okay, that's true." I cocked my head to the side. "Where's this conversation going, anyway?"
Aaron shifted his attention to Jen so I did as well. She sighed softly. "I'm considering taking a childe."
I cocked my head at her. "At the risk of sounding ignorant or chauvinistic, we're not talking about a young human to raise here, are we?"
Terry shook her head. "No. In essence, she's talking about creating a great-grandchild for me." She blew a breath through pursed lips before going on. "It's something all vampires can do, but most don't take it very seriously. Fortunately, Jennifer seems to understand the ramifications. She's discussed it with me, and I have no objections. That leaves only you."
I blinked in surprise. "Me? I CAN'T become a vampire, can I?" Though the idea of an Immortal vampire certainly was fascinating from a theoretical standpoint.
Jen spoke quietly, "No, but you know her."
It all became clear in one moment. "Hoa."
"Hoa," Jen agreed with a nod.
Oh, boy. I leaned my head against the back of the couch and stared at the ceiling while I thought about it.
Well, it'd make Richie happy. He wouldn't lose her anytime soon, probably. She'd be happy for the same reasons. After a few adjustments to their lifestyle, they'd potentially be happy forever.
But, oh, those adjustments.
I looked back down at Jen. "Hate to ask a stupid question, but why are you asking me? Why not ask her?"
"I intend to. But only if you think she and Richie can deal with it."
I started chuckling. "Honey, Richie can deal with anything as long as he gets to keep her forever. I'm more worried if SHE can deal with it. I'm sure it takes some serious getting used to."
Jen rolled her eyes. "It sure does," commented Terry in wry amusement. "However, having a stable relationship will make it easier on her."
Not surprising, that. "Okay, now what?"
"They're coming over tomorrow," Jen pointed out. "You boys go for a walk when they get here, and Grandma and I will talk it over with Hoa. If she agrees, then we can get Richie back in here and talk with him. If they both agree, then we can plan from there."
I answered the door the next evening. Everyone agreed that they'd be more comfortable if I was the first one they saw. And comfort was something that was going to be in short enough supply tonight.
I smiled at the couple, though Richie still had a hand in his coat. "Come on in. It's okay, Richie. Aaron is a friend." The aforementioned Aaron was sitting on the couch with his hands in plain sight. No sense in having Richie more twitchy than necessary.
As I let them in, Jen came out of the kitchen and smiled at Hoa and Richie. "Why don't you guys go for a walk? Hoa and I have some girl talk to take care of."
Aaron and I nodded at her cue. As I was pulling my coat on, Aaron said, "I have my cell phone with me. Give us a call if we're not back when you're done."
"Sure thing," Jen answered distractedly before offering Hoa something to drink.
"You sure got me out of there quick, Ryan. What's up?" Richie asked once we'd made it to the end of the block.
I was pulling my attention away from the sunset as Aaron laughed. "Have you ever LISTENED to 'girl talk'? I've been around a LOT longer than either of you two. Trust me that this is easier on us in the long run."
Richie chuckled and stuck out his hand to Aaron with a smile. "Richie Ryan."
"Antonius Aurelious Constantine, at your service," Aaron sketched a half bow to Richie. He smiled. "Though I go by Aaron Grey."
Richie turned to me with a raised eyebrow and asked, "I thought you said you were staying with Jennifer's grandmother."
Aaron (Antonius?) answered, "They are. My wife Terry is Jennifer's grandmother."
Richie nodded at the information before cocking an eyebrow at Aaron. "With a name like Antonius, you had to be Roman."
"Originally," Aaron agreed as he started walking again.
Something Aaron had said finally registered with me. "Constantine? Any relation to Marcus Constantine?"
Aaron smiled. "My father." He shrugged. "Adopted father anyway."
I blinked in surprise. Wow. You learn something every day.
We chatted easily as Aaron led us to a local brewpub and ordered a beer for each of us before leading us to a table. Once we had settled, I said, "I have a theory, and I want your opinions on it."
"Theorize away. I promise not to laugh too loud."
"Your confidence is noted, Aaron, thank you." Richie snickered. I continued, undaunted, "Does anyone know where Immortals comes from?"
They both shook their heads. Aaron spoke up, "Comments about the birds and bees aside, not really, no. I've heard some pretty wild theories, but nothing provable."
"Well, here's another theory for you: The extra leakage from an unleashed Quickening."
Aaron narrowed his eyes slightly, but Richie widened his. "Erh?"
"Some of the Quickening energy ends up being 'grounded out', right? What if that energy doesn't just go away in the earth, but rather finds a new home in the form of an unborn child?"
Aaron frowned thoughtfully. "That's an interesting theory, but it doesn't explain why we're all foundlings."
I sighed. He WOULD have to find a hole in my theory. "True." I gave a shrug. "I don't know. Well, just add that one to your list of wild theories. If you ever DO find out the truth, let me know?"
He chuckled. "Will do. Hey, have you two heard the joke about . . ." His pocket chirped, interrupting him. Digging out his cell phone, he held it up to his ear. "Grey." He listened intently for a nearly a minute before nodding and saying, "We'll do that. We're about a twenty minute walk out. See you then." He stood as he dropped the phone back into his pocket. "Finish up, gentlemen. It's time for us to get going."
Richie and I stood and pulled on our jackets before following Aaron back out the door. We were nearly a block away before Aaron broke the silence. "Richie, how much do you know about the supernatural?"
My head jerked up and over to stare incredulously at him. PLEASE tell me he wasn't about to tell Richie what I thought he was out in public like this.
Richie was clearly lost. "Huh? Supernatural like what? Immortals probably qualify. That the kind of thing you're talking about?"
"Sort of. I'm more asking about what you'd consider to be mythological beings. Angels, devils, like that."
"Ghosts, ghouls, and goblins?" Richie asked in amusement.
"Yes," came the level answer.
Richie shrugged before turning to face forward again. "Until I see a ghost, I can't really believe in them."
"Fair enough," Aaron answered. He saw my scrutiny and shook his head fractionally. This evening was definitely going to be interesting.
The quiet walk ended once we made it back to Aaron's home. He led the way inside to find all three girls sitting around the front room. Jen and Terry seemed at ease, but Hoa's eyes seemed a little wide.
I walked over to Jen and gave her a quick peck on the cheek. Looking back up, I saw Richie sitting down next to Hoa in concern. "You okay?" he asked.
She shook her head before taking a deep breath. "Ask me again after Jen and Theresa talk to you."
"Terry," the woman in question immediately corrected.
Richie looked up and frowned as Aaron shared a kiss with her. He glanced back and forth between Jen and Terry. "Um, Aaron, I thought you said you were married to Jen's grandmother."
Terry nodded calmly. "Jen is my childe's childe, yes."
Richie slowly said, "Jen looks about twenty-five, and you don't look much above thirty." Confusion and questions were expressing themselves on his face clearly.
I took over the conversation with him. "Richie, how old is Duncan MacLeod?"
He glanced at Terry and mumbled, "Um . . ."
I waved his concern off. "She knows about Immortals."
Richie nodded and answered my previous question, "Mac's four hundred something."
"And he looks to be in his mid-thirties," I agreed. I let that thought hang in the air so Richie could process it.
He stared at her for a few seconds before asking, "You're Immortal?" It was the only possible answer he could come up with, but he knew it wasn't the truth, either.
"Of a sort. I'm a vampire."
Richie laughed nervously, obviously waiting for the punch line. He looked from the completely calm faces of Terry, to Aaron, me, Jen, and finally settled on the still pale face of Hoa. He took Hoa's hand, and she gripped him tight enough that he winced. Composing his features, he turned to me. I took it as a mark of his trust in me that first he was asking ME, and second that he wasn't trying to kill someone. "Is she serious?" he asked with a head tilt toward Terry.
"Yes, she is," I answered. "Theresa Ryan is almost the same age as her husband. You already know he was originally a Roman."
Jen's eyebrows skyrocketed as she turned to Aaron. Hoa didn't react. Heck, I wasn't sure she was even breathing at this point.
"I'll assume for the moment that you're not all insane. Why are you telling me?" His eyes widened suddenly. "You haven't done anything to . . ." he turned to Hoa quickly.
She shook her head. "No, nobody's touched me since you left."
He took a deep breath and closed his eyes, apparently trying to compose himself. Opening his eyes again, he looked around the room before settling on Jen. "A vampire's granddaughter?"
"Not genetically, no. Grandma Terry brought Michelle across, and Michelle brought me across. It isn't quite like a parent - child relationship, or a teacher - student for Immortals, but it has elements of both. I like Terry, so I call her grandma." She grinned. "Besides, she likes it."
"I don't know about you, but it makes ME feel old," muttered Aaron.
I chuckled as Jen and Terry smiled. Hoa giggled, but it came out a little too high-pitched.
Richie was studying my face intently. "You knew." It wasn't a question.
But there were several answers to that not-question. "Yes, I learned Jen was a vampire two days after I met her. Yes, I knew Terry was also a vampire. Yes, I knew what they were going to be asking Hoa tonight."
"Which brings us back to an earlier question," he commented, shifting his attention back to Terry. "Why tell me?"
"Because I want your opinion," answered Hoa in a small voice.
Richie turned back to her. "On what?" he asked more quietly.
"Whether I should be . . . brought . . . across." It must have taken a lot for her to say that since she was breathing heavy. Before our concerned eyes, she suddenly paled and collapsed against Richie.
"Hoa!" he shouted, standing up and laying her down across the couch. Jen automatically started forward. She made it to within arm's reach of them before Richie turned to her with a furious, "Back off!"
She stopped, but didn't turn away. In a surprisingly calm voice, she said, "Before I was brought across, I was a nursing student. All I'm going to do is check her." Richie gritted his teeth and one hand reached into his coat. Jen continued, "Pull your weapon out if you want. If I do something you don't like, go ahead and kill me. But I'm going to see if Hoa is going to be alright." She pushed her way past a stunned and shaken Richie and took Hoa's pulse and checked her eyes. Standing, I hung my coat on the coat rack and went into the kitchen. Drawing a glass of water, I also soaked a washcloth and wrung it out before bringing both items back out to the front room. Neither Terry nor Aaron had moved, and Richie was watching Jen and Hoa intently.
Without turning around, Jen held out her hand and said, "Washcloth." I laid it in her hand, and she immediately transferred it over to Hoa's forehead. I put the glass of water down on the table near Hoa before returning to the recliner that Jen had started in. After another few seconds, Jen stood up from her kneeling position beside Hoa and crossed the room to me. Gracefully curling up on my lap, she commented, "She'll be fine. She just passed out. Emotional stress, probably."
Gingerly sitting down on the couch beside Hoa's head, Richie rested his head into his hands. Taking five or six deep breaths, he roughly scrubbed his hands over his face before looking up at us again. "Vampires." It's amazing how much meaning he could stuff into that one word.
"Vampires," Aaron agreed. He slowly removed his coat and laid it on the floor before sitting down near Terry's feet.
"Why?" Richie asked.
We were all confused. "Why what?" I asked.
"Why do you want to do this to her?"
Terry and Jen gritted their teeth, and Aaron's eyes narrowed. "What they OFFERED to Hoa," I quickly corrected.
"And if we don't want it?" Richie challenged.
"Then you are free to go," answered Aaron.
"Just like that?" Richie asked sarcastically.
"Just like that," Terry smoothly answered. "We'd ask you to not mention vampires to anyone, but we won't stop you if you want to leave. However, this isn't for you to decide." She nodded to the unconscious Hoa. "It's for her."
Richie's face slowly settled into a frown. "You've obviously convinced her," he nodded down at Hoa. "How do I know you're not all totally nuts?"
I had been expecting this. Instead of a shocking visual demonstration, I interrupted, "Richie, do you have a pulse? Does Hoa?"
Not understanding, he checked Hoa's neck with one hand before nodding to me. I continued, holding out my left wrist. "Do I?"
He didn't move. "What are you getting at?"
"Humor me," I answered.
Shrugging, he stood and crossed the few feet separating us. He pressed two fingers to the inside of my wrist for a moment. "Yes, you have a pulse," he said sarcastically.
Jen wordlessly held out her wrist. Sighing, Richie checked her. Then he frowned and shifted his grip. His face went expressionless and he shifted his grip again. Dropping her hand, he took a step back, suddenly much more pale than he had been. "This is impossible," he muttered.
"Any more impossible than two thousand year old Immortals and Quickenings?" asked Theresa quietly, holding out her wrist for him to check.
Richie folded his arms and shook his head slowly at her offer. Terry dropped her hand to Aaron's shoulder as Richie shifted his attention back to Jennifer. "Okay, as insane as it sounds, Jennifer doesn't have a pulse. But that doesn't prove she's a vampire."
"What more proof do you need?" asked Aaron. He sounded more resigned to the situation than anything.
Richie never took his eyes off Jen. "Turn into a bat," he said challengingly.
I barked out a laugh that startled everyone in the room. "I'm sorry," I said, waving a hand and fighting my laughter. "That's the exact reaction I had when Nat and Nick told me."
Terry let out a long string of grumbled words in some language, the only one of which I even had a shot at was, "Americans." Aaron smiled, but didn't say anything.
Fighting my own smile, I turned back to Richie. "No bats, coffins, or lack of reflections. Most of the rest of it is right, though. Sunlight, crosses, garlic, etcetera." From my angle, I couldn't see Jen's face, but based on Richie's tense stare, I guessed she'd gone golden-eyed and pointy-toothed at the very least.
"Satisfied?" asked Hoa quietly. Richie whirled around to look at her. She'd apparently rejoined us at some point.
Crossing back to her side, Richie asked, "You okay? You gave me quite a scare."
Waving off his attempt at help, she sat up but held the washcloth in place. "Are you listening to them? Think about what this can mean to us."
"Huh? Turning you into a vampire?!? What good would that do?" Everyone ignored the implied insult.
Hoa's hand shot out and pointed at Theresa. "She's over two THOUSAND years old. She ISN'T AGING."
Richie turned to Theresa and opened and closed his mouth a few times, but no sound came out. With his nearly wild, bulging eyes, he looked like he was about to panic. I hoped I wouldn't have to physically tackle him to keep him from hurting someone.
Hoa had dropped the washcloth to the coffee table, but she caught his hand and attention again with a quiet, "Richie, I wouldn't age anymore. We could be together forever."
He turned to stare at her as I tightened my grip on Jennifer. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Terry shift her hand to rest at the base of Aaron's neck.
Richie and Hoa continued to stare at each other. Neither said a word for a few minutes, but Hoa reached forward to caress Richie's face and smile softly.
"Well," said Terry, suddenly breaking the silence. "We've given you two a LOT to think about. Why don't you go back to your hotel and talk it over. Let one of the four of us know when you've come to a decision. I only ask that you don't tell anyone else either way. Fair enough?"
The knock on the door late the next afternoon didn't surprise anyone. Since I'd felt Richie approach, I opened the door without any hesitation as Aaron looked nervously on. "Rich! Welcome back. Come on in."
He shook his head. "Afraid not. Could Hoa and I take you and Jen out to eat?" He paused. "And talk?"
I nodded. "Sure. However, why don't we just meet Jen somewhere after awhile? Very few places cater to her tastes. Besides, it's an hour until sunset."
He chuckled nervously. "Sorry, forgot. Yeah, why don't we meet her at Mac's barge later?"
Nodding, I went back in to retrieve my coat. Hurriedly, I told Jen the plan and where I'd left the directions to Mac's barge. She agreed readily enough but then caught me in a quick hug. "Good luck," she whispered.
Rejoining Richie outside, we went back out to the cab he and Hoa had apparently brought from wherever they were staying. After seating ourselves, Richie rattled off directions to the driver. The quiet French driver merely nodded and pulled away from the curb. I greeted Hoa pleasantly. She smiled back. She looked a great deal calmer than she did twenty-four hours previously. The rest of the drive passed in comfortable silence until we pulled up outside "Le Blues Club." Joe warmly welcomed us and then steered us toward a secluded booth once he realized we had a serious talk planned.
Once we had been comfortably seated and some light sandwiches ordered, I broke the increasingly uncomfortable silence as gently as I could. "I'll assume this discussion will center around the offer Jen made to you last night, Hoa?"
She glanced up from playing with the condensation rings on the tabletop long enough to make eye contact with me and smile fleetingly. "Yes." It was such a simple word, but it carried so much more.
Trying to smile encouragingly, I said, "Well, I'll try answer any questions you have."
"Where to start?" whispered Hoa to herself. "What will be different?"
She would have to ask an impossible question first, wouldn't she? "I can't answer that question fully. Only Jennifer or Terry could. As for what I do know: you'd be faster and stronger. You wouldn't age. You could fly. You'd have hearing and sight well beyond the rest of us." I took a breath as I let the bombshells drop, "And you could never go out into the sunlight again. And you'd have to drink blood to survive."
Hoa shivered slightly at that.
"Where would she get it?" Richie asked practically.
I assumed he was asking about the blood. "Three choices: she could kill for it, she could buy it, or you could give it to her."
Richie's eyes narrowed a little. "What was that last one again?"
I fell silent as our sandwiches were delivered. Once the waitress got far enough away, I said, "Immortal blood is more than sufficient for vampires. And our very nature makes us immune to the effects. We do 'die' of blood loss, but revive just fine." I picked up my glass and studied it for a moment. Giving her a small smile I added, "Just make sure he has a glass of water handy when he wakes up."
Giving a half-hearted grin at my attempt to keep the conversation light, Richie nibbled on his sandwich.
Fiddling with hers, Hoa asked, "You said I could buy the blood?"
Disregarding the fact that she sounded like she'd already made up her mind on the matter, I said, "Yes. Every Community has several places where they sell blood to the local vampires."
"Vampires tend to gather in groups. One city worth is called a Community. It is typically led by the oldest vampire living there."
"How old is the 'oldest'?" asked Richie nervously.
"Terry could assume leadership over just about any city she moved to if she wanted." I didn't bother to tell them about the power struggles that occasionally erupted in the upper levels of vampire Communities when such things did happen.
"Why the oldest?" asked Hoa.
"'With age comes wisdom' is the popular answer. More practically, the oldest is also the most powerful. Communities are not democracies in any practical sense. The leader of a Community is rarely expected to do anything other than settle disputes and take care of the occasional problem anyway." Between explanations, I was working on my roast beef sandwich. For a bar, this place had an amazingly good (though limited) menu.
"What problem could a vampire Community possibly face?" asked Hoa in blatant disbelief.
"You'd be surprised. A vampire running all over a city indiscriminately killing mortals, for instance. Hunters are another problem. Despite their apparent invulnerability, there ARE ways to stop a vampire. Occasionally a mortal will discover their existence and try to kill as many as possible. That problem isn't limited to vampires, as I'm sure Richie can tell you. At any rate, these Hunters must be stopped as well."
"Where could we live?"
I shrugged. "Just about anywhere you wanted. If there isn't a Community there, you'd have to secure your own blood supply. I have a friend who could talk to you about that if needs be. Actually living ON holy ground may not be a good idea, though. It tends to make some vampires," I paused, looking for the right word, "twitchy."
Richie raised an eyebrow at my phrasing. "How many vampires do you know?"
"Almost a half dozen that I'm aware of."
"What are they like?"
"What are Immortals like?" I answered his question with one of my own.
He frowned in confusion, but Hoa answered the question. "Normal people. Some good, some bad. Most are just individuals."
I nodded. "Of those I know, yes. I've been told that most vampires aren't very polite when it comes to mortals, though. The older ones tend to view humans as sources of food and nothing more. Much like we'd treat cows and pigs if we had to interact with them."
"Sounds morbid," responded Richie after a few seconds of contemplation.
"Yes, it is." I sighed. "Don't let me fool you. Most vampires are cold hearted SOB's." I smiled slightly. "Not unlike some ancient Immortals I know."
"TouchÃ©," smiled Richie. "Must have something to do with becoming an old fogey."
Hoa's jaw was falling open before she broke into giggles. "You two," she managed to sputter.
Smiling at her, Richie turned back to me, "Anything else?"
I nodded. "Lots. But I'm not the right one to ask everything of. There are lots of things about Jen that I'm still finding out about two years later."
My answer had sobered Hoa. She asked hesitantly, "So do you think I should do this?"
Great, the other impossible question. I stalled as long as I could, taking another sip of my drink and thinking it through. "I don't know," I eventually answered honestly. "If you do, you'll be together as long as you wish. You'll forever be in your late twenties, which I understand isn't a bad place to be," I added with a sly smirk. Richie had to hide his smile quickly as Hoa gave me a sour look. I continued more seriously, "But if you do this, it can't be undone. I've been told that making this transition can be difficult at best. And it will be a transition. For both of you." I stopped and rubbed one hand over my face. Moodily, I stared at my drink. "Do you realize I've been out in the daylight more in the past two days than I have all year? I can never take Jennifer to a tropical beach on vacation, watch a sunset, or really go out to eat with her." I was silent for a few more moments, not looking up at them. "Knowing she can outlive me is a comfort, but don't think there isn't a cost to this."
I smiled almost sadly at their twin expressions of concern. "Don't rush into this. It's a one-way trip. If you can make it work out, it works out VERY well. If it doesn't . . ." I held my hands open in a helpless gesture and shrugged, finishing with, "Then it doesn't."
Trying to lighten the mood before I got depressed, I stood. Dropping some money on the table, I said, "Come on. We'll be meeting Jennifer at Mac's barge soon. Besides, I don't want to miss tonight's sunset."
"Want a beer, you two?" Richie asked as he led the way up the plank to the barge.
"Sure," I answered. "Duncan's not here?" It was pretty obvious from the moment we left the cab. His Buzz wasn't anywhere in range.
Hoa shook her head as she settled herself on the couch. "He's out with Doctor Lindsey and her daughter. We have the place to ourselves tonight. Well, for the next couple hours anyway."
Good. Little chance of him walking into the middle of a difficult discussion.
Richie passed out the beers before stretching out on the couch. "Ryan, we asked earlier if there was anything else we should know. You didn't really answer."
I shrugged. "Lots more you'd need to know if this is the direction you're going to go. But the problem is that I don't even know where to start."
"Are you willing to answer specific questions?"
I nodded. "There are a few things that Terry and Jen asked me not to tell you until you'd committed to this course. And they'll probably be the ones to tell you most of it anyway. I'll answer what I can."
Richie bit his lip. "How should I phrase this? Will we need to make any changes in our living arrangements?"
I smiled at how he had asked that one. Since I thought I knew where this was going, I decided to have a little fun. "Vampires don't sleep in coffins, remember?" I paused in thought. "Though if that's the way the two of you prefer to sleep anyway . . ."
I trailed off at Richie's dark look. "Very funny. That wasn't what I was asking."
"Sleeping patterns don't change. She'd still need the same amount of sleep, though you'd probably want to shift it around so you're awake during the nights." That also wasn't what he was after, but it answered the question.
Richie didn't look like he knew what to ask next. Or how to ask it. Hoa took a shot, "Do you and Jen . . . Err, can vampires . . ." She blushed.
I finished her question, "Do Jennifer and I make love? Have sex? Do the down and dirty? The horizontal mambo?" At each phrase Hoa got progressively more embarrassed. Richie already looked like he was about to die. I started to snicker. Taking pity on them, I composed myself and answered the question. "Yes. Sexual drive isn't adversely affected by vampirism. Though some of the side effects take some getting used to." I let them squirm for a moment before continuing. "At moments of . . . high emotion, a vampire will instinctively let the teeth elongate and try to drain anybody in the immediate vicinity. That can be trained out, but it takes time." I rubbed my neck thoughtfully before adding, "Though it takes quite a while." I turned a smile at Richie. "Does that answer the question you tried to ask ten minutes ago?" He blushed again, much to my amusement. "Look, all four of us are in our physical prime. It was something I figured you'd want to know, since I had basically the same question." I smiled to myself. "Fortunately, Jennifer answered that one for me with her actions quickly enough."
"There are some things about your life I do NOT want to know."
I looked at Hoa mildly. "You DID ask." I snapped my fingers as another though occurred to me. "One other thing. Since vampires are really 'dead', that means they have no heartbeat. And they're cool to the touch. You may have noticed that last night, Rich. Anyway, that's a minor fact that can sneak up and scare the heck out of you if you're not paying attention."
The door opened and Jen walked in, completely at her ease. Richie nearly bolted off the couch before he recognized her. "Jeez! Give me a heart attack, will you?"
She paused in hanging up her coat to arch an eyebrow at him. "You'd survive it."
I hid a smile behind taking a sip of my beer. Richie continued, "You know, knocking is usually polite. What if you'd come to the wrong barge?"
Jennifer rolled her eyes. "I heard your voices in here, so I knew it was the right place."
"You heard us?" asked Hoa, bemused.
"Better hearing, remember?" I commented.
Jennifer crossed the living area slowly, taking in the sites as I'd already done. She finished by curling up on my lap. "So what'd I miss?"
"Some of the basics," I answered.
She nodded before turning to them but keeping most of her attention on Hoa. "Any questions for me?"
"Um, about your eating habits," began Hoa tentatively.
Jennifer shot a frown at me. "You covered the basics?"
I addressed Hoa, "You can say the words 'drink blood'. She's a whole lot more calm about the topic than I am."
Nodding nervously, Hoa tried again, "Do you eat real food, or can you only . . . drink blood?"
"Most vampires can keep water down, but everything else except blood just comes right back up."
"What kind of blood?" asked Richie hesitantly.
"Human, cow, and pig are the only ones that I've heard of being used." It was amazing how calmly she was discussing all this.
"Hope you don't mind my asking, but where do you get yours?"
"There's a bar in Toronto that's run by one of the Community. I can buy bottles there." She shot a sideways glance at me. "Assuming I can control myself around Ryan here." I gave a grin but didn't respond.
Neither of them dared touch that one. "What are the best and worst parts of being a vampire?" Hoa asked instead.
"No PMS," she answered immediately. I had to bite my lip to keep silent, but she could obviously feel me shaking with my contained laughter. That was okay, though. Richie was laughing out loud too.
Jennifer and Hoa looked at the both of us and then at each other. In perfect chorus, they gave an exasperated, "Men!"
They both broke into giggles as Richie and I continued chuckling. Composing herself, Jen said, "Really, the best thing about being a vampire is the lack of pain. The only thing that hurts is when I touch a holy symbol like a cross. Cuts, burns, broken bones, bruised muscles, NOTHING hurts anymore. The worst part?" She stared off into space for a second. "You're going to laugh." She paused as Hoa promised not to. "Real lemonade on summer days." Hoa and Richie tilted their heads and frowned, but neither of them laughed. Jennifer continued, "I used to do a lot of running. For me, there was nothing quite as good as a cold glass of real lemonade after getting all nice and sweaty running three miles."
Hoa nodded. "I prefer tea myself, but I understand what you're saying." She took a deep breath. "So what do YOU think I should do?"
Jennifer laid her head on my shoulder and was silent for almost a minute before answering. "I wouldn't have made the offer if I didn't think it was something worth having."
"Hate to sound callous, but what do you get out of this?" asked Richie.
Jen shook her head. "Nothing in the long run. Immediately, she would be my childe. As such, she is subject to my commands. Once she's been trained a little, I would rescind my command over her." She would also get a free meal out of it, but I figured it'd be pretty crass to point that out.
"Training?" asked Hoa.
"You'll have to live with me or Terry for the first few months while you're taught how to function as a vampire. How to use your new powers, when NOT to use them, how to hide your nature, like that. Moving and changing identities will be easier. Richie probably already has that training himself." She paused for his reaction, and he nodded. She continued, "Once I'm convinced you can function on your own without harming the humans around you or exposing vampires, then I will formally release you, and you can go where you wish."
"That's the second time you mentioned releasing her," pointed out Richie.
"Some vampires create children as personal slaves, and the bond will permit that level of control. However, I won't do anything that isn't in her best interest. Like I said, I'll release her when I feel it's safe."
"And we have your word on that?" asked Richie sarcastically.
Hoa hissed at him to shut up.
"It's okay, Hoa. It's a valid question." She took a breath. "Would it make you feel better if Ryan taught you how to destroy vampires? Then if necessary, you could stop me."
I certainly didn't like the way this conversation was turning out. I stared at Jennifer in blank shock. She ignored me.
Richie stared at her for a few seconds before nodding and leaning back.
"Why are you doing this?" asked Hoa.
Jen almost smiled. "You two love each other. I have it in my power to permit you to love each other until the end of time." She shrugged. "That sounds sappy, but it's the truth."
Hoa seemed to ponder it for a few more seconds before nodding. "I'll do it."
Richie's jaw dropped. I raised an eyebrow. "You don't need more time to think about this? Like I keep saying, it's a one-way ticket."
Hoa shook her head. She glanced at Richie out of the corner of her eye. "I would like to talk with Jennifer alone for a few minutes, though."
Rich looked at her in concern for a moment, but she shook her head silently. Sighing, he stood and pulled on his coat as he followed me out the door.
Once we'd made it one dark block along the Seine, I forced out, "I'll teach you what I know about stopping a vampire, but if you use it against Jennifer, I swear to God I'll tear your heart out with my bare hands and shove it down your throat. Then and only then will I take your head with a dull, rusty razor blade." The whole thing was delivered in an absolutely flat voice.
He stopped and looked at me, gauging what he knew about me against what I'd said. He finally nodded and continued walking, not having said a word.
I finally got my anger under control nearly a mile later and let out a sigh. "Since this'll probably happen, there're a few things you need to know so it won't take you by surprise. Her physical appearance will change subtly. Her complexion will become more pale. I already told you about the skin temperature and heartbeat. Until she learns control, stressful situations will force her face to 'vamp out'. Usually, her eyes will glow golden and teeth elongate. If her eyes turn red, run like hell. If she ever does drain you, initially it WILL hurt, but only slightly. It quickly becomes something close to euphoria, though. You'll revive very thirsty. Keep a bottle of Gatorade or something similar in your refrigerator at all times. Draining someone gives the vampire a glimpse into that person's life. She may learn things about you that you haven't told her, so be prepared for that." I paused in thought. "I don't know if you give Hoa backrubs or not, but it'll be pointless when she's a vampire. Sore muscles simply don't happen, so rubbing them won't help her at all. Exercise is unnecessary for them, but she'll still be incredibly strong. She could easily break your hand while holding it during a movie for instance. Do NOT treat her like she needs protection. As a practical matter, she'll be better at fighting than you will. For all the vampire - Immortal couples I know, the vampire half is under strict orders regarding what is appropriate behavior to do around other Immortals. It'll be hard for her to stay out of your fights, especially when she realizes she can win them for you in about two seconds. DO NOT LET HER," I emphasized. "If the Community hears about a vampire using their powers for anything except keeping the Community hidden, they'll hunt her down and destroy her. Never discuss vampires with anyone unless you KNOW that person is aware of them. If a vampire ever comes to talk with her, let them. Never interfere in vampire business." I thought for another half block before I concluded, "I'll tell you what I know about fighting them later. For now, I think that's all you need to know."
"That's it?" he asked sarcastically.
I half smiled at him. "It takes some adjustments, but it'll be easy in the long run."
He rolled his eyes as we crossed the river on one of the foot bridges. "How're you treated?"
"By those who know who and what I am, I'm accepted. Generally, I'm discriminated against, but only from a distance." I grinned without humor. "Jen is protected because of who her Mistress is, so she isn't getting any grief about our relationship. I'm under no such direct protection. I embarrassed one particular loud mouth one night in full view of three dozen others. He came after us a few days later." My jaw tightened. "He didn't survive the fight, but we did. Just barely. Since then, it's been more grudging acceptance than anything else. I'm left alone as long as I don't interfere with them. Almost none of them understand what I am, though. It gets kind of weird trying to keep track of who knows how much."
A few miles later we walked back into the barge in time to hear Hoa exclaim, "He said THAT?" followed by two female giggles. I rolled my eyes at Richie as we hung up our coats.
"Welcome back," called Jennifer. "Have a nice talk?"
"After he told me to behave myself toward you, Ryan gave me a crash course in vampire etiquette," Richie replied.
She turned a questioning look to me. "And did you behave?"
I nodded. "Yep. No blood drawn."
She pouted. "Darn."
Richie and Hoa stopped in their tracks and looked at her in confusion. "Darn?" they chorused.
I rolled my eyes and faced Richie. "One new pastime Hoa may pick up. Newly spilled blood 'tastes' better, apparently. So anytime I have a fight and my opponent draws blood, I certainly have no more use for it, so Jen gets it."
"And she WANTS you to get hurt?" asked Richie in confusion.
A small smile tried to force its way up. "I don't complain, due to HOW she gets it."
"Okay, I'll bite," Hoa said.
"Not yet," interjected Richie.
She glared at him as I fought a smile. She turned to me and asked, "HOW does she get the spilled blood off you?"
I turned a leer onto Jennifer. She looked slightly embarrassed. "Don't?" she asked.
"As you wish," I calmly answered. I took a seat and blandly looked at her. Jennifer apparently didn't trust my answer, because she continued to stare at me for a few seconds before she turned her head back to Hoa. I quickly said, "The same way a cat cleans itself." The next thing I knew, Jennifer had run full tilt into me and was pinning my arms behind me.
"Argh!" she screamed and glared at me. I continued to smile slightly at her even as I tried to catch my breath from the impact.
Apparently catching what I was referring to, Hoa made a face. "That's gross."
"Oh, I don't know. Sounds kinda fun to me," answered Richie with a wide grin.
She frowned in distaste at him. "You would."
He nodded. "Me and my perverted mind, I know."
Jen's glare softened as she continued to stare at me. "You're impossible."
I nodded. "It's why you love me."
She shook her head. "I love you in SPITE of it." The kiss that followed left no doubts about the fact that she loved me, but I still wasn't quite sure why.
When we came up for air, Hoa asked, "You two want us to leave?"
Jen and I stifled the chuckles that threatened to come out. "No," I answered. "We still have to work out some arrangements with you two before we fly home in twenty-four hours."
"Where and when, mostly," Jennifer answered, composing herself as she sat calmly on my lap.
"I hate to sound stupid, but why does it matter?" asked Richie.
"Convenience and stability," was Jen's answer. "Traveling's a bad idea for the first month or so, so we all need to figure out living arrangements before we do this." She sighed. "It would be easier on you if we did this in Seacouver, but we really do need to be in Toronto for some of it. Uncle Nick is the only one who I can trust to teach her hand-to-hand combat, vampire style."
Richie shared a look with Hoa before turning back to Jen. "Actually, Toronto wouldn't be a bad idea. I need to leave Seacouver soon anyway, since people are starting to notice I'm not aging." He paused and tilted his head. "Uncle Nick? Nick is another of Terry's children?"
I shook my head. "It's more complex than that. One of Aaron's students is Natalie. Natalie married Nick."
They digested that addition to the "family tree" for a moment before Richie looked at me in concern. "If you think I'm going to call you my father in law . . ."
Everyone laughed. I waved the idea off. "Half brothers through Duncan if you want to call us anything other than friends."
"This family tree is getting complex," commented Hoa.
I grinned. "And not a one of them is a blood relation." I paused and glanced at Jennifer before correcting myself, "Well, genetic relation anyway." She rolled her eyes.
"How seriously are the family relationships taken?" wondered Hoa.
Jennifer shook her head. "Not very. I make a MUCH larger deal out of them than anyone else, mostly out of respect for Terry and Nick. As a practical matter, the only ties that ever matter are who brought who across. Everything else is personal loyalty out of respect or enforced loyalty out of intimidation."
Richie and I nodded. We understood those concepts quite well.
Hoa got us back on track, "Well, once you get back to Toronto, if you could send us a copy of the classifieds, we'll see about finding jobs and a place to stay."
I shook my head. "Job, singular. And you can stay in our place." I grinned at Richie, adding, "Assuming you two aren't screamers." Jen swatted my arm.
"Wait a minute," began Hoa.
Jen shook her head, forestalling anything Hoa may have said. "You certainly can't work for a few months until you're trained. Staying with us simplifies a LOT of potential problems. Feeding and training being the most obvious." Though all four of us staying there was going to get kind of crowded.
"I am NOT going to accept charity," grumbled Richie. They clearly didn't like the idea, but they had no argument against it.
I shrugged. "Then contribute toward our mortgage, grocery bills, whatever."
He nodded, relaxing back against the couch. His independent streak was as wide as mine was, apparently.
"You have our phone number and address?" Jennifer asked. They nodded. "Let us know when you're moving and we'll help." She sighed. "I know this is going to be tough on you. We'll help in any way we can. Just name it."
"We appreciate it," said Hoa.
In the middle of her sentence, two Immortal auras came into range. Richie immediately stood and grabbed his coat. I was about to go get mine as well when I identified the approaching Buzzes. I held up a hand to Richie's concerned look. "Duncan and Connor."
Jennifer shook her head. "Three adults and one child."
Hoa shook her head. "I'm the only one here without an early warning system," she grumbled. She glanced at Jen. "How do you know that?"
"Three sets of long strides, one much shorter."
Richie chuckled as he went to the door to announce our presence before Duncan or Connor did something dangerous. We could hear the greetings above decks before Duncan poked his head in on us. Taking in our relaxed poses around the room (Jennifer was still sitting on my lap, playing with my shirt collar), Duncan said, "I hope I'm not interrupting anything."
The two girls shook their heads as I said, "We WERE about to have a four-way, but now since you're here . . ."
Jen swatted me on the arm again.
"Four way what?" asked young Mary Lindsey with all the curiosity of any other five year old as she came tearing down the stairs. Her mother came right behind and gave me a death glare.
I answered, "Game of cards. But I don't know any card games for more than four people, so I guess we can't do that." And THAT was pretty damn smooth, even if I do say so myself.
Mary came up to us and stopped just short of where I was sitting. Taking in our seating arrangements, she looked me right in the eye and said, "Hello, I'm Mary Lindsey."
I shook her extended hand. "I'm Ryan Chessman." I indicated Jen with my hand once she'd released it. "And this is Jennifer Frost." They shook as I waved at Hoa. "And that is Vu Tran Hoa."
Mary shook Hoa's hand before returning her attention to me. "Are you two married?"
I smiled slightly. "No, we're not."
She tilted her head. "Any kids?"
Hoa's eyes were beginning to shine in contained delight. Richie, Duncan, and Connor wore big grins. Doctor Lindsey was watching closely, but didn't seem concerned. I answered the question, "I'm afraid not. I can't have any kids."
She stepped away and nodded solemnly. "You're like Uncle Duncan then?"
Wondering what I was going to get myself into, I asked, "And what's that?"
"Immortal," came the calm reply.
"Mary!" hissed her mother, shooting a glance at Hoa then Jennifer. Richie started to bite a knuckle to prevent the laughter.
Apparently realizing she'd made a mistake, Mary sucked her lower lip in and stared at her shoes.
"It's okay, Doctor Lindsey, they know." I then looked down to address myself to Mary, "Yes, I am. But your mother's right. You really shouldn't ask that question. If the wrong people found out that Uncle Duncan's Immortal, they could hurt him."
She cocked her head first at Duncan and the her mother before turning back to me. "Why?"
Oh, boy. How to answer that one?
Hoa saved both me and Anne Lindsey. Getting off the chair and down to one knee next to the girl, she said, "Did you know that a long time ago people would hurt and kill other people just because their skin was a different color?"
Her brow furrowed for a moment, but she nodded. "Different color like Doctor Adams."
Glancing up to catch Doctor Lindsey's nod, Hoa nodded to Mary. "Yes, different color like Doctor Adams. Since some people didn't really understand that other people could have different color skin but were still nice people, they would hurt those other different people. Immortals are like those different people that got hurt, Mary. Most everyone doesn't understand them very well, but that doesn't mean they're not nice. Uncle Duncan for instance. He's nice, isn't he?"
Mary brightened right up and nodded. "He makes GREAT pancakes!" Over Mary's head, I saw Richie bite his finger harder and Connor go into silent convulsions. I fought to remain impassive.
Hoa didn't bat an eye. Instead, she nodded in agreement. "My boyfriend Richie is nice too, and he's Immortal as well. See? Immortals can be nice people too. But if someone who doesn't understand them finds out who they are, then that someone may hurt them. That's why we can't tell anyone about Immortals, okay?"
Mary thought it through before nodding. Turning to me, she said with considerable aplomb, "Your secret is safe with me."
I nodded as solemnly as I could under the circumstances. "Thank you, Mary."
She smiled sweetly at me and Jennifer then went wandering around the room, incessantly curious.
"Pancakes, Uncle Duncan?" asked Connor in a mostly steady voice. Mac dug an elbow into his side unobtrusively. Richie was wiping tears away.
After flicking a glance at the Immortal children, I turned to Hoa. "Thank you."
She smiled. "You looked like you were digging yourself a hole. Thought I'd help dig you out."
Jen finally spoke up, "You'd make a wonderful mother." She flinched and looked away, realizing her faux pas. "Sorry, I shouldn't have said that."
Hoa smiled sadly as she got back up into her seat. "It's okay. I realize I won't have any of my own. But I still enjoy kids."
Now that Connor had gotten himself under control, he spoke up, "Jennifer, if I could steal away your seat cushion for awhile, I'd like to have a word with him."
Nodding, Jennifer got up and helped me to a standing position. Once I was up, she turned to Hoa. "Want to take a walk?"
I was out the door with Connor and could hear Jen and Hoa leaving and heading the other direction. Taking a deep breath of the cool air, I asked, "What's up, Connor?"
He was silent for another ten feet before starting, "Last month I stumbled upon an Immortal. Two things about her you'll find relevant. She was new, had no idea what she was. And she's a member of the United States Secret Service."
I waited, but he didn't continue. "Okay. I don't want to sound rude, but what does this have to do with me?"
"Two weeks into her training she pointed out how useful it would be for an Immortal to be a part of the Presidential Detail."
I frowned slightly. "Extra media exposure if one of us gets shot," I commented. But she had a point. Immortal bodyguards would be effective for a whole host of reasons.
He shook his head. "She understands the need for secrecy and will take appropriate actions as needed."
"Okay, and so we get back to a previous question: what does this have to do with me?" WHERE was he going with this?
"You got extra training from the witch Cassandra."
I bit back the retort about his choice of words. "Yes, but I'm WAY too young myself to train someone else. You want me to contact Cassandra for you?"
He shook his head. "No." He took a breath. "My student wants to offer you a job as a Special Agent in the United States Secret Service."