My Nightlife in Toronto
Highlander: The Series, Forever Knight, X-Files, JAG, and Tom Clancy novels crossover
Today was definitely NOT a good day, I noted to myself while hiding behind a rail car.
It had all started during lunch. I was quietly eating at my favorite deli when a Buzz came into range. It took only a second to realize that it was trouble. Nobody I knew, less than fifty years old, and several heads of various strengths to his credit I noted as he walked in the door. Based on the number and strength of the heads he'd taken, I guessed him to be an up and coming Hunter. Looking to be mid twenties with a beaten up leather jacket, torn jeans, and a crew cut, his pallor spoke of too much time away from the sunlight.
He caught me looking at him and walked over jauntily. Taking a seat across from me without a word, he seemed to radiate arrogance. I just stared at him, looking bored. Taking one of my French fries off my plate and popping it into his mouth, he studied me. Presently, he asked, "How's the pickings around here?" A slight New York accent was added to my mental description.
I shrugged. "I wouldn't know. I don't hunt."
He grinned unpleasantly. "Too bad. Looks like you'll be my first victim here in town."
I raised one eyebrow and let one side of my mouth curve up in a sarcastic grin. "Arrogant little shit, aren't you?"
He grinned evilly, but his aura flickered a little. "Perhaps," he allowed. "However, one way or another, we'll find out which of us will be the One."
I rolled my eyes. Where did they come up with these lines? In a lower voice, I continued, "Look, jackass, walk away. I don't want to kill you."
His grin widened. "Afraid not. Rail yards at ten tonight?"
He stole another fry from my plate before standing up. On his way out the door, he resettled his jacket across his shoulders, and I noticed a suspicious bulge in the middle of his lower back. I grimaced in annoyance. Great.
By ten 'til ten that night, I was settled in for what was to come. I'd parked my car nearby, so he'd know the general area to find me in. Fortunately, I'd found a spot that rail cars encircled fairly well, and I was at the entrance to that area. He had to come by me to get into the open space. Hopping up onto the coupling between one car full of steel coils and another full of building supplies, I waited. Presently, I heard a car pull up near mine and a car door open then close. Here he comes.
His Buzz hit me less than a minute later. I dislike cheating myself, but he had a gun. And he's a Hunter. Pulling my own pistol, I crouched down on top of the coupling and cloaked my aura. When he felt my Buzz fade, he came to the only conclusion he could: I'd backed away from him. So he came further forward, confident that I was retreating. At least that was what I was hoping he'd think.
"Come out, come out, wherever you are," he sang.
I nearly lost the concentration needed for cloaking due to laughter. Sure enough, I watched him walk by in a crouch, gun in one hand and short sword in the other. The instant I had a clear shot at him, I uncloaked myself and aimed. He froze when he felt my Buzz come back, but that only made my shot easier. A single crack from my Glock cured the problem for the time being.
Jumping down from my perch, I brushed myself off as I walked over to my opponent. I tucked my gun back into my waistband and took his gun from the limp hand.
Walking away from him, I looked it over. A nice SigSauer. Might have to keep this one. I reached a spot about fifty feet away from him and sat down on the ground with my back against the wheel of one of the train cars. And waited.
It took him nearly ten minutes to come around. His first move was to reach to the middle of his back, presumably for his gun.
I stood up, and he froze at the sound of the gravel shifting under me. Warily looking up, he saw me with his gun in my hand. "I wasn't going to use that," he said, slowly getting up.
I didn't bother to respond to the obvious lie. Reaching over with my other hand, I released the clip out of his weapon. Crouching down, I placed his gun on the ground and pulled mine out. Pulling the clip out of that one as well, I placed my gun next to his and backed away a few feet before tossing the clips under the rail car. I reached into my coat and pulled out my sword and knife. "My name is Ryan Chessman, and I believe you Challenged me."
He'd watched the whole thing in silence, never taking his eyes off what my hands were doing. After I introduced myself, he gave me a mocking salute with his blade. "Dale Stanley. There can be only One."
I sincerely hoped not, but it didn't matter much. It wasn't going to be him in any case.
I was cleaning the swords after retrieving both guns when I heard another car pull up. Grabbing everything, I sprinted fifty yards away from the body before hiding behind a rail car full of lumber.
And so here I was, still a little dizzy from a Quickening, holding two swords, a combat knife, two guns, and hiding within fifty yards of a decapitated body. Oh, did I mention that the car that had just pulled up was next to where I'd parked mine?
Like I said, it wasn't turning out to be a good day.
Listening intently, I heard two sets of footsteps approach Stanley's body and stop. "Shit," I heard a female voice say.
"There," said a male.
I looked down at my hands and found my Glock in one and combat knife in the other. I certainly couldn't be taken to jail, but neither could I allow these two to recognize me.
I heard the footsteps approach at a run before stopping. "Toronto PD!" shouted the male voice. "Come out with your hands up!"
Damn! Now what? My conscience wouldn't allow me to kill two cops. But I couldn't be taken. Alive at any rate. I'd heard Duncan tell a few stories about sneaking out of morgues, and it looked like that would be my only way out of this. Much as I hated to do this, I had to get myself killed.
Stepping around my hiding place, I snapped a shot in the general direction of the first figure I spotted. Since I really didn't want to hurt anybody, I aimed high. My goal was to get killed, not to kill someone.
The other voice (I'd aimed at the man) shouted, "Nick!" before I felt a sledgehammer blast into my right shoulder. Inadvertently dropping my gun, I gritted my teeth and prepared to charge forward with my knife. I HAD to get them to kill me.
I froze. How in the hell did he know me?
As if in echo, the woman asked, "Nick, how the hell do you know him?"
Ignoring her for the moment, the man holstered his gun and walked toward me with both hands low and palm forward in a comforting gesture. Ignoring his partner's frantic calls, he said to me, "Ryan Chessman, it's Nick Knight. We met in Las Vegas a year ago, remember?"
Pressing my fist to my shoulder to at least slow the blood flow until my healing could close it, I studied him. Yep, it was the same man I'd met at the Excalibur jousting tournament when I went through Vegas just after Andrea had been killed. I nodded to him, and he relaxed at once. In Vegas he'd been with an Immortal named Natalie Lambert. So he'd probably not be a serious problem for me.
His partner, on the other hand . . . I looked over at her and frowned.
He called over his shoulder, "It's okay, Tracy. He's Immortal."
I snapped a glare at him. "You really shouldn't tell anyone that."
He shrugged. "She's a Watcher."
Walking over to us, she holstered her gun before whispering to him, "You shouldn't tell Immortals that."
I laughed before my shoulder made me suck in a breath. Gritting my teeth, I said to her, "Don't worry about it. Look up my Chronicles. I was a Watcher when I was killed the first time."
Nick tore his gaze away from my shoulder. "Sorry, I should make introductions. Ryan Chessman, meet my partner Detective Tracy Vetter." He turned to her and spoke rapidly, "Tracy, stay with him a few minutes. I'll go take care of the body." He turned and walked rapidly away.
I frowned at his retreating back. You'd think a cop wouldn't be squeamish about a little blood.
Vetter was standing there, looking at me. "Sorry about the shoulder. What were you doing? TRYING to get yourself killed?"
I grinned. "Yep. How else was I going to get out of this mess without either killing you two or becoming a fugitive with the cops close on my trail?"
She nearly giggled. Tilting her head back toward where Knight was lifting the body with amazing ease, she asked, "Who was that?"
"He said his name was Dale Stanley. I expect he was a young Hunter, new to town." I gave a one shoulder shrug. "I was the first target he stumbled across." Since my shoulder had at least stopped bleeding, I removed my blood covered hand and started walking toward my car. She fell in step beside me. Stiffly putting my knife back into its sheath in my coat and pulling out the bloody handkerchief to clean my hand, I asked Tracy, "Before I make a fool out of myself, is he still with Natalie?"
She nodded. "Yep. In fact, we were on our way to meet her at the Raven when we got a call of a shot fired at the rail yard." I almost missed a step before she assured me. "Don't worry. Nick and I were the only ones called in to investigate."
I nodded, relieved. By the time we passed where Stanley had lost about a foot of vertical, Knight had already removed the body. Something occurred to me about what Knight had called her. "He called you detective?"
She nodded casually. "Nick and I are homicide detectives."
I nearly laughed out loud. "Quite the cover for a Watcher. Very convenient."
She smiled and nodded again. "In more ways than one," she said enigmatically. I shot her a questioning look, but she shook her head.
By this time, we had gotten back to the cars. Nick tossed me a set of keys. "To the victor go the spoils," he nodded toward a gray Taurus.
I didn't need it. More to the point, I didn't know how to fence it myself. Therefore, I couldn't keep it myself. I handed the keys to Tracy. "Contribution to the Watchers."
She raised an eyebrow. "Thanks."
I nodded. Turning back to Knight, I said, "Thanks for the help, but what makes you think I'm not a problem?" Okay, so I was suspicious of do-gooders.
He nodded to Tracy. "She gets updates about all the Immortals in town and shares the pictures with me. Just in case we stumble across one in the course of our job you understand," he added with a smile. I added my own smile while he continued, "I recognized your picture when you moved here days after we met in Las Vegas. Since then, she's kept me up to date regarding your actions. You're not a threat to anyone, Mister Chessman."
Well, that explanation certainly covered everything. Including how he recognized me immediately and why he didn't introduce me to her. I smiled sheepishly. "Thanks." I opened up my trunk and bundled Stanley's sword into one of the old blankets I kept back there and tossed his gun next to it.
Tracy held up the keys to the Taurus. "I'll be along, Nick. Tell Vachon I shouldn't be more than a few minutes. I have to drop this off at an appropriate place and hitch a ride."
"Don't you want me to give you a ride?" Nick asked in surprise.
She shook her head. "The less you know about the Watcher activities here in town, the better for everyone involved."
He didn't seem happy, but didn't argue it, either. Getting her partner's grudging acceptance, Tracy waved to me and took off in the car.
I turned to Knight. "Um, need help with Stanley's body?" He shook his head. I was tempted to ask, but refrained. "Okay, then. Thanks for everything."
He opened his car door before stopping and turning to me. "Why don't you come with me to the Raven? We're off tonight, and I'm sure Natalie would be happy to see you again."
I raised an eyebrow. "With a blood soaked shoulder but no wound? Don't you think I'd stick out in a crowd?"
The briefest of smiles flickered across his face. "Point taken, but the owner is an old friend of mine. He has a few guest rooms in back. I'll ask if you can borrow one of them to clean up in."
Hell, why not? A few drinks after a Quickening always calmed me down.
I followed my apparent rescuer back into town until he stopped outside a club. As he got out of his car, he indicated to me to wait one minute. He stepped into the bar and came back out within two minutes with somebody in tow. As they approached my car, Natalie's Buzz walked into range.
Getting out, I approached them with hands out in plain sight. Once Natalie recognized me, I rotated my arm to stretch out the shoulder.
"Hello again. You okay?" she asked.
I nodded. "Already healed. I'm trying to keep the shirt and coat from stiffening up with the dried blood."
She flicked a glance at Nick before nodding.
He said, "Nat'll show you the back way in and the guest rooms. I'll be in the bar. Come on out when you're done."
I nodded at his comment before opening my trunk and pulling out the duffel bag containing my emergency change of clothing. That retrieved, I followed Natalie down an alley beside the bar. I said, "It's been a while. How've you been doing?"
She glanced at me as she opened a door. "Pretty well. How about yourself?"
"Rough night, but otherwise I can't complain."
She smiled as she pointed me down a hall. "Second door on the left."
After a quick shower and change, I followed the sounds out to the bar area. Stepping out of a side door, I made my way over to the bar for a Killian's before looking for Nat and Nick. They were sharing a booth with Tracy and a dark haired man in a leather jacket she was using as a backrest. Not that he seemed to be minding, of course.
As I approached, Nick stood up and pulled another chair over. "Ryan Chessman, meet Javier Vachon."
I offered him my hand which he took without hesitation, though he didn't get up. Once I touched his hand, I felt something odd. He FELT old. Four hundred years or so. But no Buzz. I remembered that Nick had felt the same way back in Las Vegas. Vastly older than they look, but no Immortal signature. What WAS it about these two?
Something must have been showing on my face because Javier asked, "Something wrong?"
I shook my head. "Sorry, long night."
He nodded. "Tracy told me."
I frowned at her. She shrugged, unapologetic. "Hey, I can't keep secrets from Vachon. Don't worry, though. He's good at keeping all KINDS of secrets." Both men leveled sideways glances at her; Natalie covered a case of the giggles with a hand.
There was definitely something more going on than met the eye.
As I took my seat, Tracy said to me, "Nat and I are arguing the merits of the various Star Trek series."
I smiled. "Ah! A deeply philosophical discussion."
Knight and Vachon groaned. Nat, Tracy, and I laughed. After fifteen minutes of being totally lost, the guys pleaded for us to change the subject. Talk turned to other topics, including Immortality.
"What I don't get is why you do it," commented Vachon before taking a sip of his drink.
I shrugged. Trying to keep my voice down to keep the discussion away from nearby ears, I said, "For myself, it's a case of simple self-defense. I don't go looking for trouble, but I don't back down from a fight if the opponent makes an issue of it."
He nodded. "So why would THEY do it?"
I sighed. "A lot of people find the Quickening itself enticing. Then there's the thrill of the hunt. And as the saying goes, there can be only One. And some people try and become that One."
"And what does the One get?" asked Javier.
Nat shrugged. "The Prize."
Everyone looked at us expectantly.
Vachon broke the silence. "Okay, I'll bite. A new Ferrari and a trip to Tahiti?"
With a slight grin tugging at the corner of my mouth, I shook my head. "Nobody's quite sure. Some feel it's ultimate power to rule this planet. Others feel it's simple mortality."
Vachon stared at me for a moment. "You go around decapitating people to get a Prize, but you don't even know what it is?"
I shook my head. "*I* don't, no. Others do."
He thought about it for a few moments. "How depressing."
I raised an eyebrow at his observation and nodded agreement. Shaking off the slight depression threatening to overcome the conversation, I said to Natalie, "Nick and Tracy are detectives. What do you do?"
"Police pathologist, part of the coroner's staff."
I shuddered. "No offense, but that's gruesome. I couldn't handle high school biology, let alone pathology."
She grinned. "It really IS fascinating, but I understand your attitude. It's common enough."
I turned to Vachon. "And you?"
He waved a hand negligently. "Oh, a little of this and a little of that." He grinned mischievously.
I was about to comment when somebody stopped at our table. Looking up, I found myself staring into the prettiest pair of deep green eyes in existence. Okay, so I'd not taken a recent poll, but I wouldn't bet against these two. Tearing my attention away from them, I noted the rest of her features. She was a slim, middle-of- the-back redhead standing at about five foot seven. Since I'd already studied her eyes, I'd seen the slight slant at the corners. Initially, I guessed her age to be close to mine. My physical age, anyway.
She smiled down at me. Holding out one hand, she asked softly, "May I have this dance?"
My analytical mind was still functioning, and noted the lack of major accents. It took a moment before my conscious mind caught up. Okay, so it had to stop panting first, but that's the same thing. Smiling up at her, I said, "Sure." I stood and took off my coat.
Hanging the coat over the back of my chair, I heard Natalie say, "Jen, he's a friend of mine. Play nice." Vachon nearly barked out a laugh, but muffled it in time.
I turned to look at her in annoyance before turning a glare on Vachon. Before I could say anything, "Jen" took my hand and started lightly pulling me toward the dance floor. "Come on," she whispered to me.
Threading our way through the tables to the small dance area, I said, "My name is Ryan Chessman. What shall I call you, lovely creature?"
She laughed quietly. "Jennifer Frost. But most people call me Jen." Nodding agreement, I enfolded her slim waist as her hands interlaced behind my neck.
We'd been slowly dancing for perhaps a full minute before she broke our silence. "So, Ryan Chessman, what do you do for a living?"
I smiled at her. "It's just Ryan, and nothing much exciting, I'm afraid. Programming web pages and like that. You?"
She shook her head. "Just graduated. Haven't found anything yet."
I nodded. "Give it time."
She raised an eyebrow in amusement. "Says the voice of vast experience?"
I chuckled at her teasing. "Okay, so I'm a little older than I look. Not to change the subject, but why'd you ask me to dance? Not that I'm complaining in the least, but I would imagine that such a stunning looking woman has difficulty sorting through all the offers that SHE receives, let alone have the time to go looking herself."
She frowned slightly and stopped dancing. "Are you accusing me of something?"
I blinked in confusion before her meaning sunk in. I shook my head. "No, I'm not." I hung my head sheepishly. "I'm sorry, but I'm not used to anyone finding little ol' me to be good looking."
We resumed dancing after she nodded. "Don't believe it if you must, Mister Self-Effacing, but you really are. However, if it makes you feel better, then I'm after you for your mind."
I raised an eyebrow. "You're after me now?" I appeared to give it some thought, staring off into space over her shoulder. "Hmm, perhaps I should let you catch me," I muttered to myself.
She giggled before resting her head on my shoulder. She immediately pulled her head back and looked at me with a frown. "You hurt?"
I frowned in confusion. "No, why?"
"I smell blood."
I forced myself not to react. "Well, I was earlier, but I thought I'd cleaned it all off." How do I explain that the bullet wound had long since healed as well?
Nodding at the end of that minor mystery, she replaced her head on my shoulder. The rest of the dance passed in silence.
Once the music shifted to a faster number, we headed back to the booth I'd started at. While I was trying to pull a chair over, she smiled at me and shook her head. Turning to Nick, she said, "Interesting friend you have here. Take care of him, Uncle Nick." She leaned over to me and gave me a quick peck on the cheek. While she was still bent over me, she whispered, "Maybe we'll see each other again sometime." So saying, she headed out the door and disappeared.
I must have had a priceless look on my face when I turned back to the group because Tracy's eyes were shining in amusement and Vachon was grinning. Quickly composing my features, I said to Nick, "Uncle Nick?"
He winced. "Long story."
Late the next afternoon, just before I left my office for the day, the phone rang.
"Hi, Ryan. It's Natalie."
"Hey. What's up?" We'd all spent a pleasant evening together last night, but I wasn't really expecting anything to come of it. Correction: I was HOPING for something to come of it, but not from Natalie.
"I was wondering if you wanted to spar. It's been a while since I had an Immortal opponent, and I thought it'd give us a chance to talk."
I wrinkled my brow in confusion. "Sure to the sparring, and sure to the talking. But why? I was under the impression that you'd be just as happy if we kept our distance." Last night she had struck me as being vaguely uncomfortable when near other Immortals.
I could hear her soft sigh. "I would. But both Tracy and Nick pointed out that I needed more Immortal sparring opponents. Sparring against Nick is all well and good, but only having one opponent makes me potentially blind to other people's styles."
I barely heard the second half of what she said. "'Sparring against Nick'?" I asked.
There was a short pause. "Um, yeah. He did some fencing in college."
Uh, oh. College fencing teams used foils, fencing sabres, or epees, which were much lighter than swords. Not to mention the vastly different styles. I couldn't believe a foil opponent would do her any good at all. In fact, it would probably only hurt. Thinking through that one, I began to wonder who her teacher was to not give her enough training to see that obvious problem. "Okay, sure. You have anywhere in mind?"
She rattled off an address that I vaguely recognized as being in a slightly disused industrial park. Jotting it down, I said, "You trust me enough to not do this on Holy Ground?"
I could hear the wry amusement in her voice, "Is there any reason I shouldn't?"
I chuckled. "No, but you didn't strike me as the overly trusting type. No offense intended."
"None taken. And you're right; I don't trust very many people. But Nick'll be there."
I grinned. "Well, now, if you two are going to outnumber ME, I'm not sure I can trust you."
She laughed at my teasing. "See you at eight?"
As I wound my way through the industrial section, I noticed that the whole area was quiet without feeling deserted. After the day shift, it apparently closed down for the night, I mused as my headlights reflected off of Nick's Cadillac.
Getting out, I walked into the doorway and stopped in pleasant surprise. The building was once a light manufacturing plant of some kind, but the machinery had been removed, leaving a large open space. Off to one side was a couch and a mini-fridge. Not exactly all the comforts of home, but definitely better than I was expecting. I whistled as I made my way over to the stretching Natalie.
"I sure hope you're not whistling at my wife," came Nick's amused comment from where he was leaning comfortably back on the couch.
I chuckled. "No, sir, I was not. This is a nice place." I waved my hand vaguely around.
Nat nodded. "It is, isn't it? Unfortunately, it isn't mine. It's my teacher's, but he lets me use it whenever I want."
I nodded. Unless she was independently wealthy BEFORE she died, she wasn't nearly old enough to afford a place like this.
Walking over toward the couch, I called over my shoulder, "Spar with real swords, or would you be more comfortable using the wooden practice ones?"
Nick raised an eyebrow and his mouth quirked into a smile. Nat called out, "Real would be my first preference, unless YOU would rather start at the wooden ones?"
I shrugged. "Naw, the real deal would be fine by me." If she had only been sparring against someone with a fencing style for a while, I'd be surprised if she could keep up with me, but I had to give her the choice. I took off my coat and laid it over the side of the couch and placed the carrying case down beside it. Taking my weapons in hand, I walked back toward Natalie. Stopping a few feet short, I placed my blades on the ground before going into a few stretching routines before a couple light katas.
Once I was loosened up, I took my swords back up and said, "What rules do you want to go with?"
She quirked an eyebrow and a small grin formed. "You choose."
Why did these two seem so amused with the whole situation? "Okay, how about anything goes short of the neck or cutting off anything. Drawing blood is acceptable, but nothing permanent."
Her eyes flickered over my shoulder to Nick for a moment before returning to me and giving a calm nod.
Giving her a quick salute with my wakizashi, I stepped back and reviewed the situation. We were roughly the same height and build. Her sword was longer and heavier with a basket hilt, but I had two weapons. Depending on her skill level, this could be fun.
It wasn't. She had me reeling backwards and frantically defending less than a minute into the fight. A minute and a half later I was on my back with a sword tip touching the middle of my chest. Both of my weapons were way too far out to be useful in defense if she wanted to press the point.
I panted out, "I yield."
Nodding, she pulled back her sword and offered me a hand up. I dropped the wakizashi to get to my feet.
Nick came walking forward with two towels and a water bottle. "Good fight, Ryan. Who was your teacher?"
I glared at him. "Good? It took her all of two minutes to beat my ass." I turned to her. "Where the hell did you learn to fight that well? I thought Duncan was good, but even after his training for a few years, I couldn't hope to keep up with you."
She smiled. "Well, Aaron is pretty good too."
I grunted and wiped my face. "Say, you said that you'd only sparred against Nick here for a while, right?"
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw him turn to her quickly. She nodded to me.
"And that he'd taken some fencing in college?" I continued.
Her eyes narrowed a little, but she nodded again.
I turned to him. He was frowning at her before turning to me. I said, "Fencing uses foils or similar weapons. She couldn't stay nearly this good against swordsmen just by sparring with someone using that style." I looked back and forth between them. "What gives?"
He stared at me a moment. Slowly, he said, "It wasn't me she spars against. It's someone else."
I raised an eyebrow and looked back at her before turning my attention to him again. "She just said it was you."
Still using the same slow enunciation, he said, "You misheard her. I'm not the one she spars against."
Frowning, I turned to her. "Okay, one of you is telling me one thing, and the other is saying something else. Make up your minds."
Neither said anything. They caught each other's eye, and he shook his head slightly. "It didn't work," he said to her. Turning to me with a sigh, he said, "Okay, I also know how to use a long sword."
I rolled my eyes. "Now at least you two are consistent." I frowned at him. "Where'd you learn to use a long sword? Unless you're Immortal, which you aren't, how would a forty something homicide detective know how to use a long sword?"
He grimaced. "I'd really rather not say."
Something that I couldn't really explain about him suddenly clicked. I stared at him for a moment. "How old are you?"
He frowned in confusion. "What?"
I enunciated slowly, "How. Old. Are. You?"
With a little confusion and a lot of 'humor the crazy guy' tone lacing her voice, Nat asked, "How old does he look? You'll be . . ." She frowned at him a moment before continuing, "forty-five in April?"
I shook my head. "Remember in Las Vegas when I told you that I could guess Immortal ages?"
He suddenly looked wary. They both nodded.
I continued, "Well, when we shook hands, you felt a LOT older than forty-five. You have no Immortal Buzz, so I don't think you're Immortal. But you feel something like eight hundred, as odd as that sounds. And you know how to use a long sword. I'll try again." I clasped my left wrist in my right hand behind my back and looked at him. "How old are you?"
He sighed. "Eight hundred and thirteen in April." Nat frowned, but didn't interrupt.
For my own part, I was simply staring. I worked my jaw for a moment before anything came out. "What?" Okay, not the most intelligent thing I'd ever said, but it was the best I could do under the circumstances.
He calmly crossed back over to the couch with Natalie. I numbly followed, almost unconsciously. He calmly threw over his shoulder, "You were right. I'm a little over eight hundred." She propped her sword up against the side of the couch as he settled down against the arm. Once he was settled, she stretched out beside him, using him as back support.
At this point, a good sneeze from somebody two blocks away would probably have knocked me over. Trying desperately to wrap my mind around this idea, I said, "Uh . . ."
Natalie giggled. "You notice how they all react like this?"
He smiled briefly before saying, "Come on now, Ryan. You are yourself Immortal. I'm sure you're aware that there are Immortals that are thousands of years old. Why is it so hard to imagine someone else being that old?"
Finally regaining something resembling mental balance, I got my mouth to start responding to commands again. "Okay. Let's start at the beginning. You look human, but you can't be. You're not Immortal, so what ARE you?"
One eyebrow rose in amusement. "I'm not an alien if that's where this is going."
I shrugged. "That would be one valid answer."
He rolled his eyes. "Despite TV and the movies, I've never seen anything even vaguely hinting at another intelligence in the universe. And I've seen some pretty strange stuff."
I nodded. "Okay, so you aren't an alien. Fine. That doesn't explain what you ARE."
He sighed in exasperation. "I was born Nicholas de Brabant in the year of Our Lord 1188. I was brought across in Paris in 1228."
I blinked. "Brought across? What's that supposed to mean?"
"Turned into a vampire," was the calm answer.
Oh, of course. Silly me. I should have thought of that. Good joke, guys. I paused, waiting for the punch line. The only problem was that neither of them was smiling. I slowly shook my head. "I'm sorry, I can't believe that. You're claiming to be a blood-sucking undead being from mythology who died nearly 800 years ago?"
"All except the part about mythology, yeah," he answered with a patient sigh.
"Okay, prove it," I challenged.
"How?" he asked. I suddenly noticed exactly how pointed his incisors were. And were his eyes really glowing?
Shaking off the hallucinations, I said with a grin, "Turn into a bat."
"It's always the same thing," muttered Natalie from her position in Nick's arms.
Nick swatted her arm playfully. "Now be nice. Remember how hard it was for you to come to terms with vampires and Immortals yourself." She nodded grudgingly as he turned back to me. "Hollywood has gotten several parts of the mythos wrong. Turning into bats, mist, or wolves is one. No reflections and coffins as well. Other than that, most of the rest is correct."
I frowned in thought, trying to remember what else I'd heard. Physically powerful, superior senses, hypnotic powers, oddly seductive, sunlight would destroy them given time, wooden stakes would stop them but not destroy them, religious icons would repel them, rumor said garlic would too, and of course the blood-sucking thing. And one was calmly sitting on a couch talking to me?
I abruptly sat down on the floor, nearly skewering my leg on the knife I still held clenched in a now bloodless hand. "This is unreal," I said to myself.
Natalie snuggled in a little more. "Nope, he's quite real."
I looked at him. He looked normal enough. "Sunlight and wooden stakes are bad, blood is tasty, garlic stinks, the whole nine yards is RIGHT?"
I rubbed my forehead with my free hand. "Wake me when the nightmare is over," I muttered.
He frowned at me. "Look, I didn't want to tell you, but you were obviously picking up bits and pieces. And you're a resistor. Telling you the truth seemed like the best solution. I hope to keep you out of more trouble with the Community this way."
"Community," I echoed, mind suddenly running at warp nine. I looked at him. "You and Javier and who else?"
He blinked. "How'd you know about Vachon?"
I shrugged. "He feels four hundred."
"Oh, yeah. Well, more than just us. It'd be better for you to not know who else is a vampire."
"And a resistor? You said I was one."
"Someone who I cannot hypnotize. Most Immortals and various mortals are resistors."
He discusses it so calmly, I noted irrelevantly. Shaking off the random thoughts, I said, "Okay, you're a vampire. No offense, but you're far from what I imagined."
He nodded. "We've learned to fit in." He gave a grin. "I don't even own a cape." Natalie's snicker interrupted him for a moment. "We behave as normal members of society so we don't attract attention. Yes, we do drink blood to survive. However, killing innocent mortals isn't how we do it anymore. There are better solutions now. Expired donor blood, animal meat packing plants, autopsy waste, bodies like your Dale Stanley last night that need to be disposed of, and so on." He sighed. "Don't let me fool you. We don't use these alternate sources of blood because of concern for mortals. We do it because it causes less exposure for us. Most vampires don't care about the welfare of mortals. In that, I'm actually something of a maverick." He gave Nat a light squeeze, and she smiled.
This idea will take some time to come to grips with. "Okay, now what?"
"That depends on you."
I blinked. "Me?" What the hell did I have to do with this?
He nodded. "You have three choices. Never tell anybody and stay in touch with us or never tell anybody and avoid us."
I waited. When he didn't continue, I said, "And the third choice?"
"I kill you," he stated in a flat tone. And his eyes were most definitely glowing this time.
I swallowed hard on a suddenly dry throat. "Uh, no offense, but this is quite a bit to take in at once."
They both nodded. Nat said, "That's not surprising. This IS a lot to dump on you." She pulled herself out of Nick's embrace and levered herself upright again. Taking her sword back in hand, she said, "For the time being, though, I believe we were here to spar?"
I looked up at her with a small smile. "And get my mind off of the second most shocking revelation of my life?"
She smiled and offered me a hand up. "Exactly."
The night was spent restlessly, to say the least.
Vampires? Who would believe in something like that in this day and age? I snorted in amusement. Who would believe that grad student and researcher Adam Pierson was actually five thousand years old and had to be decapitated before he would die?
In a way, it all made sense, though. Such stories had been floating around for who knew how long. Where there's smoke, there's fire, after all.
Well, what to do about it? Of his three choices, I only had two real options. I had no doubt of his ability to kill me if he felt the necessity.
To keep in contact, or not? Until I knew they were vampires, I thought Nick Knight and Javier Vachon were relatively normal people. Which means that they ARE normal people, with one or two quirks.
After a little thought, I figured (hoped) I was safe enough around them. Unless one knew how to kill me, they really couldn't do any harm. Besides, Tracy being a normal mortal and Nat as an Immortal were both obviously comfortable in the company of two vampires.
So it all came down to whether I wanted to. Much to my surprise, I concluded that I did want to stay in contact with them.
"Toronto PD. How may I direct your call?"
"Doctor Lambert, please."
"One moment." After listening to five seconds of the music, I wondered if everyone in the world used the same "hold" background.
"Corpse pickup hotline. You tag 'em, and we bag 'em."
I shuddered. "Doctor Lambert, you've spent entirely too much time around dead people. Do you always answer the phone that way?"
She chuckled. "Just the internal line from the PD. What can I do for you, Ryan?"
"I wondered if we could talk."
"Sure. About what?"
I shook my head. "Too long to go into over the phone. How about we meet for supper in a few?" It was getting late, and I was getting hungry.
"Sorry, Ryan. I just got into work. I work the night shift, you know."
"Why," I cut myself off. Of course she would structure her work schedule around Nick's. Think it through, dummy. "Okay, when will work for you?"
She paused a moment before answering. "I assume it's about what Nick and I discussed with you the other night?"
"Yeah, it is."
"Okay, how about in the morning? Call it nine?"
"Meet me here. We'll find a quiet park bench somewhere."
"Oh, this feels good," she said, face upturned to the sun. The next morning, we'd gone to the city park on the theory that it'd be deserted at that time of the day. We were right.
I chuckled as we walked along the footpath. "I understand why you wouldn't get out in the day much, but have you really given up sunlight completely?"
She took a deep breath before shaking her head. "No, not really. It's just that so few of my friends are out and about during the day that I kind of miss it sometimes."
I grinned. "That explains it."
She turned to me with a raised eyebrow. "What?"
"Why you and Nick would go to Las Vegas on vacation. Where else would a vampire go on vacation than the city that is world renown for its night life?"
She smiled and inclined her head in affirmation.
We continued in silence for a few minutes before I spoke. "I've given some thought to Nick's offer the other night. I'd like to ask a few questions before answering, if I might." She nodded silent agreement. "Okay, where do I start?" I muttered to myself. "How do I treat them?"
She shrugged. "Treat them as normal people. Or perhaps normal people of a specific group. For instance, you wouldn't tell blonde jokes in a room full of blondes, right?"
I shook my head. "Probably not."
She nodded. "There you go. They're mostly normal, just one or two topics aren't fit for conversation."
"Okay, what are those topics?"
"Suntans, garlic pills, Dracula movies, I'm sure you can imagine the rest. It isn't all that tough so long as you think before you talk."
I rolled my eyes. "I try, but it isn't always easy."
She nodded in agreement. "True, but the more time you spend with them, the more you realize that they're just a special group, much like Immortals are."
She had a point there. How would I react to a joke about the guillotine? Much as Nick would to "Good morning, sunshine" comments, no doubt. "How many of them know about us?"
She nodded. "Some."
I sighed. "That isn't an answer."
She grinned. "But giving you more of an answer will tell you who more vampires are. Don't worry about them giving away our secret, though. They're in as much danger of persecution and witch hunts as we are. More, considering how vampires have been portrayed in history."
Another good point. Time to switch tacks a little. "What rules do they operate under?"
"Much the same as ours. Blend in. Don't bring attention to yourself. They don't age either, so they have to move around some if they have mortals around who may notice. However, most don't have many mortal friends. But vampires don't tend toward hermitism as Immortals do. They tend to gather. As much for protection as anything, I suppose. There's very little large scale internal fighting, so having large groups together isn't an issue with them."
Uh, oh. "So how many vampires were there at the Raven?"
She shrugged. "I don't know."
I frowned at her. She relented, "Okay, yes, the Raven is a vampire club."
My jaw nearly fell open. But it had looked so NORMAL. I recalled that Vachon's drink looked a little thick, but other than that, nothing seemed different than what I was expecting. I said as much.
She smiled. "See? If you aren't looking for it, they're perfectly normal people."
I smiled back. She had another point. Okay, switch tracks again. "Nick said that most vampires don't care about the welfare of mortals."
"Most don't. Nick and Vachon go very much against the grain on that one, but there are more converts on that topic all the time."
I frowned. "Are we safe in there?"
She nodded. "You and I have little to worry about, of course. Tracy and I are known, and under the protection of Vachon and Nick. Since you were openly seen with us, you're under their implied protection as well."
"Not to sound ungrateful, but is that enough?"
"Yep. Nick's sire LaCroix runs the Raven. And he's one of the oldest vampires around. Nobody would mess with that authority."
"The one who brought him across. It's something like a child / parent relationship or student / teacher for us, though not exactly."
"Anything else about them that I should know about?"
"They're incredibly strong and have superior senses. They can sense each other though not in the same way we do. Smelling blood will sometimes send them into a frenzy, especially if they're hungry. Religious symbols will repel them, or burn them if they're actually touching it. They fly and can move blindingly fast. Their regenerative powers are even faster than ours."
Mental note: don't get a vampire pissed at me.
"With those kinds of powers, what happens when one goes out of control? It's bound to happen, isn't it?"
She nodded. "Yes, it happens. To answer your question: they police themselves. There's a group within the Community called the Enforcers. They're basically vampire cops."
I tilted my head. "Like Nick?"
"Cops of the vampires," she corrected herself.
"Okay, are they stronger or better trained, or what?"
"Not especially. They just act as a team when necessary. As for stronger, physical powers are a function of age. The oldest are the strongest."
One of her comments from the other night came back. "Jennifer called Nick 'Uncle'?"
"Before becoming vampires, they're perfectly normal people. Spouses, kids, whatever. Having normal living relatives isn't all that uncommon for a young vampire."
"But Nick isn't young."
She mumbled something.
It was hardly any louder this time, but I caught it. "I said, 'Jen is.'"
She sighed. "Young."
"A young vampire," I corrected.
She raised an eyebrow at me. "Yes. You're taking that revelation well."
I shrugged. "She smelled blood on my shoulder even after my shower." Nat nodded. I continued, "Unless Nick is Jen's dozen times great uncle, they're not blood relation."
She shook her head. Taking a deep breath, she said, "Here goes. My teacher is Aaron. His wife is Theresa, a vampire. Theresa sired Michelle. Michelle sired Jennifer. So in effect, I'm Jennifer's aunt, and Nick's her uncle due to our marriage."
I mentally sorted that one through for a while before chuckling slightly. "Those of us who never had family, or lost it, rebuild it where we can."
She nodded brightly. "None of those are parent / child relationships, of course, but we're all relatively close." She grinned at my groan. "No pun intended."
"Of course not," I muttered in mock disgust. I softened it with a smile before frowning. "Wait a minute. If she knows Nick's her uncle, then she knows about us?"
"Afraid so. Michelle knew through Terry, and she told Jennifer."
"Great," I muttered.
"Relax," was the soothing answer. "Remember, they're in more danger from exposure than we are. Besides, they can keep secrets better than anyone I know."
It was two more days before I screwed up enough courage to return to the Raven. Once I passed the threshold, I was struck once again by how normal the place seemed.
Shaking off the random thoughts, I scanned the crowd for any familiar faces. Okay, so one in particular, but four other possibilities. I spotted Vachon and Tracy sharing a table toward the back. I made my way over to the bar for a drink before heading that way. "May I?" I asked the couple, waving at the empty seats.
"Please," said Tracy.
"Welcome back," said Vachon. "Looking for anyone in particular?"
I gave him an amused smile. "Two, actually. The other one is our friendly neighborhood Watcher here," I inclined my head to Tracy as I took a seat.
She tilted her head warily. "Yes?"
"How much, if anything, do they know about vampires?"
Both of them stared at me in abject shock. Vachon slowly frowned. "Whats?"
I grinned at him. "You and yours."
He rolled his eyes and sighed in exasperation. "What are you talking about?" All in all, it was a good performance.
I pointed to his drink. "I'll bet that's not the red wine it looks like." He started to frown again. I raised one hand. "Don't worry. I started to piece things together and asked Nick his age." I grinned. "I'm a resistor, apparently. He felt that telling me the truth would be better for all involved."
Vachon groaned again. "Great. Just great. Hell, Knight, why don't you place an ad in the paper?"
I continued nonchalantly, "And then he threatened my life if I told anyone."
Vachon seemed to calm down some. "Well, that makes me feel a little better."
"I bet," said Tracy sarcastically. Turning to me, she said, "To answer the question: nothing. Those Watchers assigned to Immortals with vampire spouses know, but nothing's ever been recorded." A small smile formed around her eyes. "Why? You have anybody in particular in mind?"
I let a small answering smile form. "Perhaps. Mostly, I was worried about what MY Watcher would think if I ended up in contact with Nick for a prolonged time."
Tracy nodded thoughtfully. "True. Well, we'll cross that bridge when we come to it. Meanwhile," she focused her gaze over my shoulder, "speak of the devil, and here he comes."
I twisted around in my seat just in time to see Nick walk in the door and survey the room. Spotting us, he made his way over and took the remaining seat at the table.
"I can't believe you told him," stated Vachon without preamble.
Nick raised one eyebrow and shifted his focus to Tracy and me before returning to Vachon. "It seemed the thing to do at the time. Besides, we already know his secret."
"Fair's fair," said Tracy.
I looked at her. "But I don't know any secret about you. That isn't fair."
"I have no secrets," she said loftily.
"I know all your ticklish spots," remarked Vachon offhandedly. Tracy suddenly looked less sure of herself. "And the contents of your bottom two dresser drawers," he continued.
I nearly choked on my laughter when she hissed, "Don't you dare."
Both Nick's eyebrows were raised in amusement. "Do tell," he bade Vachon.
Tracy glared around at the three of us. Turning the full force of that look on Vachon, she repeated, "Don't. You. Dare."
"Spoilsport," he muttered.
"Yeah, spoilsport," echoed Nick childishly with a gleam in his eye.
"Men!" Tracy exclaimed.
"Can't live with us," started Vachon.
"Can't live without us," I finished.
She looked at the three of us as we were laughing. "You're all hopeless," she stated with a theatrical sigh.
"I disagree," said a voice to my side. I turned to see Jennifer approach behind Nick. Laying her hands upon his shoulders, she said, "Some have a few redeeming features. Hi, Uncle Nick." She leaned over and gave him a peck on the cheek. She turned and smiled at me as well.
Standing, I said, "Would you care to join us?" She tilted her head in acceptance.
As I was dragging a nearby chair over, I heard Vachon mutter, "Oh, brother."
Tracy poked him in the ribs. "Sure, Jen. You're welcome to join us anytime."
Jen smiled at Tracy as she took the seat I held for her.
As I retook my seat, I said to her, "I'd offer to get you a drink, but I don't think that'd be a good idea."
"I doubt the bartender would give it to me."
She frowned at me in confusion. "He knows," said Nick quietly.
Her eyes widened noticeably. She opened and closed her mouth a few times before anything came out. Finally giving up with a frustrated sigh, she said, "Well, I guess you know my secret."
I nodded. "As you know mine."
She looked at me in frank appraisal. "You're full of surprises tonight."
I grinned. "Ah, but the night is still young."
Vachon groaned. "You've watched entirely too many movies."
"What can I say? Unlike some here, I grew up in the age of TV."
"So you ARE still young?" asked Jennifer.
I nodded. "Only four years older than I look." She brightened considerably at that news. "You can't be much older than that yourself." I didn't feel any age from her like I did Vachon and Nick.
She shook her head. "One year now. A rogue vampire was running and tried to use me as a hostage one night as I was on my way home from class. He broke my neck when he was cornered, but one of the vampires chasing him brought me across just in time."
I raised an eyebrow slightly. Turning to Nick, I said, "Nat didn't tell me Michelle was an Enforcer."
He shrugged. "Does it matter?"
Jen was looking at me in surprise again. "You're amazingly well informed for a mortal."
I grinned. "I'm not mortal."
She smiled. "So I heard."
"If you'll excuse us," interrupted Vachon. So saying, he stood up and pulled Tracy to the dance floor.
I looked after him a moment before asking Nick, "He always like this?"
He shrugged and then looked up as Natalie walked in the door. Turning to Jen, he asked, "I'm going to get Nat and myself something to drink. You want one?"
Nick was to the bar before I asked, "He didn't ask what you wanted?"
She looked at me with an amused smile. "How much choice do I really have?"
I opened my mouth to say something before my brain caught up. Duh! I shook my head sheepishly before saying, "Sorry, I'm kinda new at this."
"That's okay. So am I. Relatively, anyway. Some things still catch me by surprise."
"You know, even knowing about Immortals, it never occurred to me that something like vampires could exist."
She shrugged and raised one eyebrow in mild amusement. "Surprise."
Nat and Nick arrived at the table from two different directions. Nick placed a goblet with thick "wine" in front of Jen before taking his seat. "Glad to see you're still with us," said Nat as she took a seat next to Nick.
"Are you going somewhere?" Jen asked me.
I blushed as Nat answered, "No, it was just that he wasn't so sure about coming back in here when he found out about the majority of the clients."
Jennifer nodded with a slightly sad expression.
Nat continued, "What made you change your mind, Ryan?"
My blush deepened. I flicked a glance toward Jen but shook my head.
Nick's eyes were lost high on his forehead. I didn't dare look at Jen to see her reaction. That is, until I heard, "I'm flattered." At that point, my gaze shifted over to see her smiling at me.
I smiled back tentatively. I'd never been good at expressing emotions. My last girlfriend had to literally pin me to the wall and kiss me to get me to admit that I was attracted to her. Though this wasn't exactly the way I'd hoped that Jen would find out, it did solve a lot of problems.
I was saved any further response as Vachon and Tracy returned. "Are we all done baring our hearts here?" asked Vachon sarcastically.
Jen hid a smile behind taking a sip of her drink. Tracy saw this and looked to me with a raised eyebrow. She smiled and nodded at my continued blush. Completely oblivious, Vachon effortlessly picked up a chair and brought it over before sitting down.
"You're a real ass," commented Nat.
He shrugged. "Part of my charm."
"Is that what you call it?" I muttered low enough to not be overheard. Well, not overheard by human ears anyway. Jen hid a smile behind her hand, Nick's lip twitched upward in amusement, and Vachon turned a mild glare on me. Seeing their reaction, I sighed. "Damn bionic hearing." Nick's smile was matched by Nat and Jen's laugh came to full force.
"Just remember that," suggested Nat. "Most anything we say in here is potentially overheard." My face drained of all color as I rapidly reviewed all the conversations I'd had in here. Nat hastened to reassure me, "Like I said, most everyone in here keeps secrets well, though. Don't worry too much about it."
"And if they didn't, they'd have to answer to me," chimed in a new voice. Looking over, I saw a dark, pretty, slim lady standing between Jen and Nick.
Nat looked up and said, "Hi, Michelle. I'd like you to meet Ryan Chessman. A newcomer to our little clique."
I stood and offered her my hand. "So you're Nat's 'sister' Michelle. Pleasure to meet you." I peripherally caught her age at fourteen hundred as she shook my hand and smiled.
"Sister?" she asked. She shook her head immediately. "Oh, Aaron. Right. So you know that I have a vested interest in keeping Immortals a secret." Turning to Jennifer, she said, "You're right. He IS good looking." She smiled at everyone at the table and said, "Just stopped by to say 'hi'. Everyone have a good evening," before walking away.
I retook my seat with a bemused smile. Looking at Jen's mortified expression as she tracked Michelle, I said, "I'm flattered." Her eyes shifted over to me before falling into an embarrassed stare at her lap.
Tracy and Nat broke into laughter. Vachon looked vaguely sick.
Standing again, I offered a hand to Jen. "May I have this dance?"
Her eyes snapped back up to me in surprise. Seeing my relaxed smile, she apparently realized I wasn't upset. Nodding her agreement, she stood up and let me lead her to the dance floor.
Once we were comfortably swaying to the music, I muttered into her ear, "As embarrassing as the last ten minutes were for BOTH of us, it told us something we wanted to know, but weren't about to ask." I sighed. "I'm interested in seeing more of you, but frankly I don't know if it's safe. For either of us."
I could feel her shrug. "I'm safe enough. After all, Nick, Vachon, and Grandma Terry all openly associate with mortals. It isn't like the Community doesn't know about them. With Michelle's position, I wouldn't be bothered. As for your safety?" She shrugged again. "I don't know." She looked at me with a little gleam in her eye (that was also glowing faintly). "In stressful or emotional situations, there's no telling WHAT I may do."
I looked at her in surprise before laughing nervously. "And here I was worried that I was being too forward." I sobered before continuing, "You do have a point, though."
We finished the dance and made our way back to the table. I noticed that Vachon and Tracy had left sometime during the dance. As we were arriving, Jen picked up her and Nick's empty goblets. Announcing that it was her turn to buy, she turned and headed to the bar.
Nick looked after her for a moment before looking at Nat's empty glass and asking, "Want another?" She nodded and he picked up her glass. "Ryan?"
I shook my head as I sat down. "I'm fine." Nick nodded and headed off with Nat's glass in Jen's wake. I turned to Nat. "Jen mentioned her 'Grandma Terry'. You folks are pretty close knit, huh?"
She shrugged. "Jennifer seems to make a bigger deal out of it than most, but yes, we are pretty close." She chuckled a moment in remembrance. "Jen gets her zest for life from Terry. That's one spirited woman."
I smiled at her unintentional pun. A spirited vampire. For some reason, the phrase just sounded funny.
We watched Jen and Nick at the bar silently for a few moments before Natalie continued, "Incidentally, you may be interested to know that Immortality protects us from the effects of vampirism." She waited a beat before looking me in the eye and smiling slightly, "And blood loss."
My mind gradually picked up on her reference, and I dropped my jaw open in shock. I vaguely noticed Nick and Jen return, Nat take Nick's hand and lead him to the dance floor, and Jen flopping down into her seat.
I looked over at Jen as she laughed nervously. "You'll never guess what Nick just told me." Her expression was equal parts embarrassment and amusement.
My earlier astonishment melted into a smile. "Probably something very much like what Nat just told me." I turned toward Nick's retreating back and said in a normal tone. "Damn bionic hearing." Without slowing or turning, he threw a wave over one shoulder. I laughed before turning back to Jennifer. "Do you sense a conspiracy?"
A small smile started to form. "They DO seem to be ganging up on us, don't they?"
I smiled fondly. "And I thought Lucy was an incurable matchmaker," I said, referring to Amanda's friend's continuing efforts to get me to go on a date with her niece. I looked over at where Nat and Nick were dancing. "But she doesn't have anything on those two over there."
Nick looked over at us and raised an eyebrow. Turning to Nat and whispering something, she then turned to us with a nearly comic "Who, me?" look on her face.
I groaned and rolled my eyes as Jen giggled. I continued, "Just as Michelle no doubt is." I looked quickly over toward the bar where I'd spotted her to see her suddenly shift in place to turn her back more squarely toward us.
Jen smiled, a little embarrassed. "This place has too many ears," she announced to no one in particular. "Let's go for a walk." Nodding agreement, I retrieved my coat off the back of the chair and shrugged it on. I helped her on with hers before I offered her my arm.
On the way out the door, I said to nobody, "Thank you all for the concern, but kindly leave us be. We ARE adults." I was rewarded ten seconds later by distantly hearing Nat's laughter. Jen and I shared a grin as we exited.
Randomly picking a direction to walk, we headed out. We'd gone about two blocks in silence before I asked quietly, "So what's it like?"
"Being a vampire?" she finished. She continued at my nod. "Not much different. It's not like this has altered my personality or anything. I still enjoy Harrison Ford movies and Danielle Steele novels. I HAVE lost some pleasures like ice cold lemonade on sunny days, but gained some others. Flying is the most incredible experience imaginable." She sighed. "It has its upside and its downside." Shaking her head, she asked, "How about you?"
I thought about it for a few moments. "Everyone imagines Immortality to be this wonderful gift, and in some ways it is. But it's also lonely. Knowing any mortal friends I make I have to leave within a few years. Even with Immortal friends, it's hard, knowing that any day the Game may take one of them or me in a Challenge. Mostly knowing that all this," I waved my hand in a vague all- encompassing gesture, "will be gone long before I am makes everything feel kinda pointless."
She squeezed my arm. "You're getting maudlin. Stop it." She paused before adding, "You're entirely too young to be thinking like that."
I laughed despite myself. "Okay, you win. I'll be in a better mood. Let's see, the upside of being Immortal?" I paused in thought. "I get to play with knives."
I could see her make a face out of the corner of my eye. "Michelle never explained everything about Immortals. For now, let's keep it that way, shall we?"
Nodding agreement, I said, "Okay. Just don't be surprised if I suddenly pull a sword out of my coat."
She looked at me in disbelief. "Tell me you're kidding."
I shrugged. "If an Immortal Challenges me, I have to fight, run, or hide on Holy Ground." I pulled my arm from hers and draped it over her shoulder. "I rarely run, and hiding on Holy Ground in present company won't work very well."
Her arm curled around my waist. "Thank you, but Holy Ground doesn't bother me. Holy SYMBOLS make me uncomfortable, but nothing more than that unless I'm touching it."
"That's weird," I said. "Why would a symbol made of stone or wood made in a specific design bother you?"
"Dunno, but that's how it is."
We walked in silence for another block before a yawn escaped me. She stopped in her tracks. "Why didn't you tell me you were tired?"
I shrugged sheepishly. "I was enjoying our time together. But it IS the end of the day for me, and I am tired." She nodded and we steered back to the Raven's parking lot where I'd left my car. Once there, I asked, "Can I give you a ride?"
She stepped right up in front of me and laced her hands behind my neck. Giving me a lazy smile, she asked, "How about to your place?"
I stammered nervously, "I'm not so sure that'd be a good idea."
She stepped back and sighed. "You're still not comfortable with me." It wasn't a question.
I frowned in frustration at myself. Sometimes I felt like I should tattoo "Prize Dolt" across my forehead. "It isn't so much what you are as it is the fact that this is going so fast. I'm just uncomfortable with inviting women into my home after knowing them for only two days."
She smiled coyly. "Playing hard to get?"
I shook my head in frustration. "No, I'm not. The speed of everything is just making me uncomfortable."
She folded her arms across her chest. "I'm interested in getting to know you. You said yourself that the Game, whatever that is, could take you any day. If that means we don't have much time, so be it." She peered at me a moment. "What are you afraid of?"
Good question. Here I was, refusing to take a gorgeous woman home with me. What's wrong with this picture?
My frustration must have been parading across my face. She saved me from aggravating the situation further by saying, "Look, if it makes you feel better, we'll just say goodnight right here on two conditions."
"What're those?" I was also angry with myself for the sense of relief I felt.
"We meet tomorrow night when you're more awake." I smiled. That one I could easily live with. After seeing my nod of agreement, she continued, "And you give me a goodnight kiss."
Laughing at her teasing tone, I held my arms open for her. After enfolding her in a hug for perhaps fifteen seconds, I pulled one hand up and brushed a strand of hair off her cheek. Cupping the side of her face in one hand, I tenderly kissed her for a few seconds.
After pulling apart again, she smiled impishly, "Is that a sword in your coat, or are you just happy to see me?"
I laughed. "Both," I admitted. "Hope you don't mind, but going unarmed is unhealthy for me."
She nodded calmly. "Fair enough."
Pulling her back into a hug, I murmured, "Good night."
"Hmmm," she hummed. "This feels good. Keep this up and I may not let you go."
Smiling, I released her and stepped back. She pouted. Chuckling at her words and expression, I said, "You ARE a tenacious thing, aren't you?"
An almost predatory grin surfaced. "Only when I see something I want."
One eyebrow rose in amusement. "Should I be concerned?" She smiled an enigmatic smile that women seem to be so good at. Sighing dramatically, I said, "Yes, I definitely SHOULD be concerned."
She laughed. "Tomorrow night at eight, right here?"
I ducked back in for a quick kiss. "Looking forward to it."
And indeed I was, I admitted to myself. It was twenty something hours later and I was on my way back to the Raven. Sometime during the day I realized that I enjoyed spending time with her. And so I was determined to spend what time I could.
That evening we went for a walk in the city park and talked until well after midnight. The next evening we went to an outdoor concert. We always met at the Raven, because it was relatively neutral ground and central for both of us.
As I was on my way to the Raven to meet Jen for the forth night in a row, I reflected on her subtle hints that she was willing to take the relationship to the next level. It wasn't so much that I was unwilling as it was that I didn't want things to go so fast as to become impossible to manage. Considering how well everything had gone up to that point, I wondered why I was still hesitating. "Why fight it?" I asked myself.
After parking, I walked toward the front doors of the Raven but never made it that far. "You're late," announced a voice behind me.
Stopping in my tracks, I turned to Jen. She was wearing tight jeans and a baggy maroon sweater tonight. Reining in my wandering attention, I looked back to her face with a raised eyebrow. Checking my watch, I saw that she was correct. Bowing extravagantly I said, "A thousand apologies, milady. I beg for forgiveness."
She smiled at my antics. She suddenly frowned in thought. "Well, I'll have to think of some suitable punishment for later." I grinned, wondering what kind of "punishment" she had in mind. Walking up to me, she threw her arms around me in a strong hug that lasted until I could hardly breathe. Releasing me, she said "What would you like to do tonight? We can go in there," she chucked a thumb at the Raven, "or we could walk."
I shook my head. "Entirely too many prying ears in there. One other choice is to rent a few movies and go back to one of our places."
Both of her eyebrows were riding high. "Mister Bashful is letting his hair down? What brought this on?"
I shrugged a little uncomfortably. "I'm attracted to you, and you are apparently attracted to me. Why should I be fighting this?"
Her grin was pure delight. "There's nothing 'apparent' about that second one. And you shouldn't be fighting what's happening between us. Sure, let's get a few movies, but we'd better go to your place. My roommates have erratic enough schedules that they may be a problem. Let me just run in and grab a drink to go, and we'll be on our way."
As she was heading inside, I reflected that she was definitely in a good mood. Now to just get over the butterflies in my stomach.
"I certainly hope you won't break that child's heart," observed a voice behind me.
I whirled around and came face to face with a severe looking man who apparently took delight in looking the part of a modern vampire. He had a long, pale face and was dressed entirely in black.
"Don't scare me like that," I said as my heart slowed down to something approaching normal. "Who're you, and why do you care?"
"My name is LaCroix," he didn't offer me a hand, "and why I care is immaterial."
I raised an eyebrow. "Nick's sire LaCroix?"
He tilted his head and a ghost of a smile formed. "You know of me then. Yes, Nicholas is my childe." I could hear the slight spelling difference, and with it the world of difference.
I nodded, acknowledging the information. "As for Jennifer, she is an adult, isn't she? If she and I want to pursue a relationship, what business is it of yours?"
"I make it my business to keep an eye on all the children in town."
I folded my arms in an insolent gesture. "Gee, Mister LaCroix, can I take your daughter out tonight?"
His face settled into a slight frown. "Don't be flippant with me, young man. And if you think your Immortality will help you against me, you're sadly mistaken." Goosebumps formed all over me as I realized just how dangerous this individual was. He smiled (not a comforting sight), apparently sensing my mood. "I am merely telling you that to go out with her under false pretenses will bring about consequences that you will not enjoy."
I swallowed on a dry throat. Nodding respectfully, I said, "I understand, sir."
He nodded once and disappeared in a blur of movement. I leaned back against my car and took a shuddering breath. That guy could spook anyone.
"He has that effect on people," Nick observed, walking up.
I looked at him out of the corner of my eye. "What effect is that?"
I grunted agreement, but left it at that. Jen came walking back up to us with a brown paper bag under one arm. I opened the car door for her, and she grinned at Nick. "Don't wait up, Uncle Nick." She winked at him as she climbed into my car.
Nick shook his head and smiled at us. As I was passing him on my way to the driver's side, he whispered, "Take care of her."
Reaching the driver's door, I opened it and nodded to Nick over the top of the car. I intended to.
The night was a roaring success, I observed to myself five hours later, fuzzily watching the credits scroll by. Jen had picked me up a six-pack of Killian's in addition to her purchase, so I was obligated to pay for the movie rentals. I'd wanted a sci-fi, but she'd convinced me that "Pretty Woman" and "Enemy of the State" were much better choices. Besides, she argued, my life was close enough to science fiction that more wouldn't help much. Then she picked up a romance and a movie that increased my paranoia. I wasn't even going to try to figure that one out.
I was leaning back comfortably on my couch while she was stretched out and using my leg as a pillow. I ran a hand along her arm, causing her to nearly purr. "Movie's over," I observed.
"I noticed." She didn't even sound tired.
I stifled a yawn against the back of my hand. "No offense, but I'd better get to bed if I want to function tomorrow."
Nodding, she stood and walked over to the VCR. Setting the tape into the rewinder, she began shutting everything else down. "Shall we, then?" she asked over her shoulder.
I blinked at her, suddenly very much awake again. "You are persistent, aren't you?"
I could see the smile in her reflection on the dark TV screen. "You promised to stop fighting this, remember?" I had to admit that I had, but try explaining that to my nerves. She finished her chores by the TV and came back over. Standing over me, she frowned before coming to a decision. "Take off your shirt and lay down."
I raised an eyebrow in amusement. "Why?"
"So I can give you a backrub."
Definitely not the worst suggestion I'd heard today. I obligingly stripped off the shirt and rolled over to be lying face down on the couch. She swung a leg over my back so she was kneeling above me. She started rubbing my shoulders and said, "I'm stronger than last time I tried this, so say so if I use too much strength, okay?"
I barely managed an incoherent mumble and nod of agreement. It'd been entirely too long since someone had given me a backrub, and it felt wonderful. Though her hands were a little cooler than I expected, it didn't matter much. She continued silently for a couple minutes before I commented, "This feels wonderful. Where'd you learn to do this?"
Her hands didn't even slow. "Didn't I mention my degree was in nursing, specializing in physical therapy?"
My lucky day. I smiled and lazily looked at her three quarters empty bottle. I could vaguely hear her talking, almost to herself, but it seemed to take too much effort to ask her to repeat any of it. Besides, she apparently wasn't expecting a reply, since she continued methodically rubbing my back and talking softly. I was nearly nodding off when she got up and offered me a hand. "Come to bed," she said softly.
A Buzz woke me the next day. I nearly bolted out of bed toward my closet and the spare gun in it before I identified the signature as Amanda's. Muttering darkly under my breath, I stumbled over to my robe and pulled it on. Heading to the door, I picked my way around various discarded clothing. "What're you doing?" mumbled a voice from the bed.
"I have a visitor. Go on back to sleep."
I didn't get a reply, so I closed the bedroom door behind me. I reached the front door just as a polite knock sounded. I opened the door to find a visibly distraught Amanda who walked past me and flopped herself down on a dining room chair. Accustomed to her dramatic entrances, I merely closed the front door and followed. "Amanda, what're you doing here on a Saturday . . ." I peered at the clock.
She finished, "Late morning?" I took one of the other chairs at the table and stifled a yawn. She looked me up and down, frowning distastefully at my robe. "It's about Nick, but a more important question is: What happened to you?"
I frowned at her but ignored the question. "What about Nick?"
"Yeah, what about Nick?" asked Jen, emerging from the bedroom wearing one of my t-shirts. And nothing else I could see. She came up behind me and slipped her hands under the robe to cross her wrists on my chest.
Amanda looked at our respective (but not terribly respectable) states of dress and came to the obvious conclusion in about one and a half seconds. "Ryan darling, you haven't introduced me to your friend." She stood regally and offered Jen a hand. "I'm Amanda Montrose, and you are?"
Going along for the moment, Jen shook the extended hand. "Jennifer Frost. I'm afraid Uncle Nick's never mentioned anyone named Amanda."
"Uncle Nick?" asked Amanda in blank confusion.
"Different Nick," I said, suddenly realizing the problem. To Amanda, I said, "I haven't heard from Nick Wolfe since sending him off for training with someone Duncan recommended." She opened her mouth, but I raised a hand. "No, I won't tell you who. And I don't know where, so save that question. I assure you he's safe, and he knows how to get in touch with you. For the time being, you'd better leave him alone. He probably isn't terribly happy with you." She looked unhappy, but she nodded. To Jen, I said, "Amanda is a trusted friend." I grinned at the woman in question before continuing, "But nothing more, no matter what she may insinuate. Her heart's already owned by at least two others." She looked at me with a raised eyebrow, but didn't respond to the bait.
Instead, she said, "Well, if you aren't going to tell me any more about Nick, I'll just leave you two alone." She paused. "Let me know if you hear anything?" she asked me, still concerned. At my nod, she turned to Jen. "Nice to meet you, Miss Frost." She walked over to the front door and called over her shoulder, "I'll just let myself out. Enjoy yourselves."
I stood and crossed to the door, throwing the deadbolt before turning back to Jen. "Who was that?" her question was neutral enough, but I could well imagine the concern prompting it.
I shook my head. "Like I said, a trusted friend, who happens to be older than Nick Knight." Jen relaxed as I continued, "She was concerned about a mutual friend who just recently became Immortal. He came to me, and I sent him off with a teacher."
She nodded at my reassurances. "And why is that Nick upset at her?"
I smiled. "I thought you didn't want to hear about Immortal business."
"Hmm," she agreed. Walking over to me, she loosely gripped the lapels of the robe and kept pushing until she had me pinned to the door. "But there is another kind of business I WOULD like to discuss with you."
It was more than an hour later before I got around to my shower and breakfast.
With a still wet head of hair, I was working on my eggs while Jen took her shower. I was halfway done eating before she emerged, wearing one of my spare sweatshirts and a pair of sweatpants. "Well, good morning. Or afternoon as the case may be."
She smiled at me while her hands fit one of those rubber band things into her hair. Finished getting her hair out of her face, she walked over to the couch and retrieved her bottle off the floor and took a short pull. She made a face and looked at the bottle in distaste.
I nearly laughed at her expression. "It HAS been out all night. If it needed to be refrigerated, you should have said so."
She grinned slightly. "It didn't occur to me at the time."
Finishing my meal, I leaned back in my chair. "You okay on food until tonight?"
She looked up from dumping the rest of the bottle of "food" down my drain. "I'll survive."
"As your host I really feel I should feed you, but under the circumstances I'm not exactly sure how. Well, aside from the obvious, anyway," I added.
She smiled at me slightly before turning back to rinsing the bottle out. "Thank you, but it won't be necessary. Really, I'll be fine."
I shrugged. "You say so. I'll have to brush up on my 'How to Host a Vampire' etiquette before I invite you over again." I tilted my head slightly. "Assuming you'd be agreeable?"
Placing the cleaned bottle into my recyclable container, she took a seat at the table. Propping her head up on a hand, she stated, "Most agreeable."
I smiled, which she returned. "Good." I paused before continuing hesitantly. "I'd like to ask you two questions, but I don't want to get you upset with me, okay?" She looked slightly wary, but nodded. "What'd you do to me last night?"
She grinned with a twinkle in her eye. "I thought that was rather obvious."
I gave her a wry look. "You know what I mean. Sometime during the backrub I lost all inhibitions. Up to that point my nerves were tied in knots. After that, everything seemed perfectly natural. No nervousness at all. What did you do?"
Leaning on her elbows and lacing her fingers together, she stated, "I whammied you." Huh? "Hypnotized," she explained to my confused look.
"But Nick told me I was a resistor."
She nodded. "Most Immortals are, I've heard. But I wasn't trying to get you to do something against your will. Between relaxing your body with the backrub and the light 'whammy' I put on you at that point, it broke past your psychological block."
I thought about it for a few moments. "Neat trick."
She grinned. "And your other question?"
"This one is tougher." I took a deep breath before asking, "Why are you attracted to me?" I continued rapidly, "Not that I'm complaining in the least. You're stunningly good looking, and the more time I spend with you, the more I like you. But I know I'm no Brad Pitt, George Clooney, or whoever else is the current model of masculine handsomeness. No offense, but with your special skills, you could have quite literally any man you wanted. So I guess my question is more like: Why did you pick me?" I stopped, hoping I hadn't pissed her off. It was a difficult question to ask without being insulting to her as well as to me, but I needed to know the answer.
She gave a small smile. "You don't believe me when I say you're good looking, but you are. At any rate, you're right in that with my skills I could have any man I wanted." She leaned back in her chair. "However, that isn't good enough. If I'm going to spend a lot of time with someone, and a lot of time for a vampire can stretch out a VERY long time, then I want it to be someone who I don't have to hide my nature from. And I don't like to force my will onto someone, so doing the whole 'vampire seductress' thing and creating a 'slave to my will' wouldn't make me happy in the long run." She paused thoughtfully before continuing. "I saw you in the Raven talking to Uncle Nick. I listened to enough of your conversation to realize you were Immortal, just like Natalie. So you were someone who would understand the concept of a million tomorrows." She paused again and her voice lowered slightly and taking on an almost melancholy quality. "I asked Grandma Terry once why she stayed with Aaron. She answered that he was someone who had the ability to outlive her, and that it was comforting to have someone like that. They're actually almost the same age, so they both grew up during the same times, and I think that's a bond they share as well. Before you ask, yes I could have taken up with another vampire. However, being close to someone who's actually ALIVE gives some color to this gray existence of mine. I'm still very young as far as vampires go, but I was already recognizing how dull and featureless my existence was becoming." Her voice softened even more. "I saw in you a chance to get back that vitality I lost a year ago. I've seen how fundamentally unhappy the older vampires are, and I've seen how Grandma Terry, Uncle Nick, and even Javier Vachon become more alive when they're around their respective significant other." She looked down and finished in a whisper, "And I guess I just wanted some of that happiness."
My heart melted. Taking one of her hands in mine, I said, "I'll be honest. We don't know each other well enough to know if this'll work out in the long run, but I have no complaints so far." I stood and pulled her up into a hug, wrapping my arms around her. For her part, she nearly curled up face first onto my shoulder. "I'll have to meet your Grandma Terry sometime. She sounds like a wise woman."
Jen laughed, but it sounded almost like a hiccupping sob. "That she is. I think she'd like you. It's hard to impress Grandma, but I think you would."
"Sounds like a date then." I could feel her smile. Her arms came out of their folded position against my chest and came around my back. "Jen, I don't know anything about you. Yes, you're a vampire. I've heard some about what that means, but not everything. And I don't know that much about YOU. Who is Jennifer Frost?"
She laughed again and pulled herself out of the hug. Not releasing my hands, she pulled me over to the couch. Sitting down and tucking her feet under herself, she patted the couch. "We have hours until sunset. Have a seat. This'll take a while."
Over the next few hours, we traded life stories. I learned that she had been born of an Irish-American soldier in Vietnam to a local woman who died during childbirth. Not turning his back on his daughter as so many had done, this man took the infant Jennifer home with him when his tour was up. He'd died a few years later in an auto accident, and she'd been raised by his parents in Chicago. They had both died five years ago, and she'd used the insurance money to go to college in Toronto. She had a few friends in Chicago, but going back after what happened to her one horrifying night a year ago was out of the question.
I told her of growing up in Indiana in a foster home with a dozen other orphan children. I was never particularly close to any of the other children or our "parents", so I went to college on an academic scholarship and never went back. I still exchanged Christmas cards with my adoptive parents, but they understood that I wasn't a part of that family. I described Andrea, and how I'd known her from working together after college. She knew and understood what happened to me when I died my First Death, and she wasn't scared off. We'd happily lived together for a few years until she was killed by a crazed Immortal coming after me. I deleted any references to the Watchers. Knowing about such an organization wouldn't improve the situation, and it didn't matter for the time being.
In addition to personal matters, we also exchanged basic information on our respective "races". In addition to what Nat had told me, I learned that vampires cannot feel pain except for wooden stakes and the burning that holy symbols produce; they do feel pleasure, however. Blood is the only "food" they can keep down. Almost any blood will work, but only human blood tastes "right". Usually, they have no heartbeat or internal body heat. This explained why Jen's skin always seemed a little cooler than expected. They have the same sleep cycles that everyone else does, but since sunlight was deadly, most sleep during the daylight hours. Like Immortals, they are physically incapable of carrying diseases, having children, or being sick. Also like Immortals, decapitations would kill them.
I told her about Immortality and the Game. To my quiet amusement, she asked all the same questions that Vachon did. Why do it? What's the Prize? To the question of where pre-Immortals came from if all were foundlings, I shrugged. I had a few theories, but nobody honestly knew. I described Duncan, Richie, and my training. When I explained about Quickenings and that there can be only One, she nodded and said that that explained my comment about pulling a sword out of my coat. To my relief, she made no moral comments about what I did to survive in the face of a Challenge.
After we both finished talking, we sat quietly, absorbing the other's story. Checking the clock on the wall, I got up and quietly fixed myself a dinner. Jen sat on the couch and stared at my philodendron, clearly lost in thought.
After cleaning up my dirty dishes, I went over to Jen. Seeing she was still lost in thought, I laid a hand on her shoulder, intending to quietly get her attention.
I got her attention alright. It just wasn't quietly. Jumping off the couch in a blur of motion, she grabbed me by the throat and picked me up. Her face had elongated and eyes turned golden before she stopped. Placing me back on my feet, she let her face revert back to normal. Stepping to the far end of the couch, she sat down and hugged her legs, forehead to knees. "Sorry. You startled me."
Absently rubbing my neck, I sat down. Realizing she probably felt bad about it, I tried for a humorous approach. "No problem. Just remind me to not startle you anymore." It didn't work too well. Scooting closer, I laid a hand on a knee. "What's wrong?"
She looked up at me, her eyes still glowing. "How long until sunset?"
Suddenly realizing the problem, I glanced at the clock and did some quick mental arithmetic. "Couple hours still."
Her head sunk back down to her knees. "You'd better leave me alone until then."
I shook my head. "Not going to happen."
Her head came back up with a jerk. "You don't understand the problem."
"You're hungry." Her eyes narrowed a little, and she nodded. "Remember what I said about being a good host?" Another nod. I took a calming breath. "I have something you need. It won't hurt me to give it to you." I held out my left wrist. This scared the hell out of me, but Nat no doubt knew firsthand that it wouldn't kill me. Besides, this woman in front of me was clearly in need.
She slowly reached forward with one hand and traced a fingernail lightly along the artery. Pulling her gaze away from my wrist, she asked, "Are you sure?"
I nodded. I was scared, but sure. Trying to make myself feel better, I said, "Just promise you'll guard me until I get back onto my feet, okay?"
She wasn't listening. Taking my wrist in both her hands, she slowly brought it up to her mouth. I felt something cut into one side of the wrist before a sense of well being washed over me and the lights dimmed out.
I woke up with a start. It was only the third time I'd ever died, and I wasn't used to it. Coughing, my first impression was a cottony, dry mouth. The second impression was of thirst. I swung my legs off the couch to stand, intending to get myself something to drink. Looking up, I found Jen standing over me with a large glass of orange juice in hand. She gave it to me with a small smile. Smiling back momentarily, I drained it in record time. Finishing that one off, I walked to the kitchen and refilled the glass with tap water and drained that too. Refilling it yet again, I walked back to the living room. Jen was on the couch again, hugging a throw pillow to herself and watching me. I took a seat beside her and smiled. Holding up the glass, I said, "Thank you."
She shook her head. In a small voice, she said, "No, thank YOU. You didn't need to do that."
"Do you feel better?"
I reached over and wiped a red drop off her chin. "Then it WAS needed."
Her smile was all the thanks I could have asked for.
That evening, I took Jen back to the Raven. Walking in arm in arm, we caused a few raised eyebrows, but no comments. Seating her at a table along the side, I went up to the bar to get our drinks. "A Killian's and a house special, please," I ordered.
The bartender didn't slow down her wiping of a glass mug. Looking me up and down, she said, "I'm not sure you'd like the house special. It's an acquired taste."
I shook my head. "It's not for me. It's for Jennifer Frost."
That did cause her to stop wiping the spotless mug, but she didn't start filling the order, either. As she was looking at me speculatively, a voice behind me said, "It's okay, Urs. Go ahead and fill the order." She focused over my shoulder for a moment before nodding and turning to do just that. Turning my head slightly, I watched Michelle lean one arm against the bar top, facing me. "I was about to send search parties out after Jen."
I grinned. "As you can see, she's alive and well. Relatively alive, anyway," I corrected myself. I shook my head at Michelle's weary sigh. "Sorry, but I'm new at this."
"Obviously," was Urs's sardonic comment as she put the drinks down beside me.
Michelle smiled slightly at that one. Her smile faded into a harder look as she leaned over slightly to me. "I don't know how old you are, but if you harm that child, we'll have a serious problem between the two of us."
I was tempted to roll my eyes, but didn't think it would be a good idea under the circumstances. Instead, I did say, "First, I'm no older than she is. Second, I have no intention of harming her. I can't promise that this relationship will last indefinitely, but I intend to do everything in my power to see that it does."
She stared at me intently for long seconds before she nodded once. "Good."
I smiled softly. "Just so long as I don't have to call you 'Mom'."
Urs barked out a laugh. Michelle raised one tapered eyebrow in amusement. "That won't be necessary."
Nodding, I picked up the drinks. "Have a good evening then, ladies."
Moments later, as I placed the drink in front of Jen, she asked, "What was that all about?"
I shrugged as I took a seat. "I have to pass everyone's tests before I'm accepted. Frankly, that one was probably the toughest. If so, then I'm fine, at least for the time being."
She frowned in annoyance and looked over at Michelle. Shaking her head, she said, "Why do they keep treating us like children? Why can't they just leave us alone?"
"Because from their point of view we ARE children. Less than thirty years each is nothing compared to much of the clientele here."
Jen sighed in annoyance but didn't dispute that. "I hate it when you're right," she muttered.
I smiled crookedly. "If that's the case, this relationship is going to be tough."
She smiled at me speculatively. "Is this a relationship?"
I smiled back a little nervously. "It certainly looks that way. If not, perhaps you need to tell me now before I fall even further for you."
She leaned forward, and one hand started doing interesting things to my knee under the table. "I was teasing you, Ryan."
I let out a silent sigh of relief. Good. Reaching under the table, I captured her wandering hand and brought it back up. Laying a kiss on the knuckles, I laid it back down one the table but didn't release it.
"What was that for?" Her tone was innocence itself.
"Avoiding a distraction," I answered.
>From behind me, I heard, "This establishment isn't licensed for a floorshow. Please don't give us one."
I jerked my head around to find out who said that and just caught a back retreating through a door behind the bar. I turned back to Jen, shaking my head. Her mouth was hanging slightly open, looking in the same direction I was just looking. "What?" I queried.
"That was LaCroix."
So? "And?" I prompted.
"He made a joke."
Your point being? "Yes . . . ?"
"LaCroix doesn't make jokes."
I shrugged. "Hate to break it to you, honey, but he just did."
She shook her head in amazement. "Wonders never cease," she murmured.
The next afternoon, I decided I needed some additional protection. If I was going to be frequenting a vampire club, I'd better be prepared to defend myself against vampires. I went shopping at a craft store before stopping at a grocery to restock my refrigerator. Spotting something else that would be useful, I also picked it up.
I had just finished putting the final touches on my initial purchase when the doorbell rang. Tucking everything away, I answered the door, expecting Jen. I wasn't disappointed. She came bouncing in, stopping only long enough to plant a kiss on my cheek. She went straight to the refrigerator and placed two bottles in it before putting a stack of movies on top of the VCR. Picking one out of the middle of the stack, she popped it in. Finally taking off her coat, she placed it over one of the dining room chairs. Crossing back to the couch, she removed her shoes and curled up on the couch with the remote. Looking up at me, she asked, "You going to sit down, or are you going to stand there all night?"
I laughed. "Make yourself at home," I offered ironically.
She smiled brightly. "Don't mind if I do."
Shaking my head in amazement, I said, "You're impossible."
"But you love me for it."
I looked at her in thought. Slowly I answered, "I'm getting there, yeah."
I didn't even see her move. One moment she was sitting on the couch, the next she was hanging on to me with arms around neck and legs around my back. Her momentum knocked me back into the wall behind me. I would have had the wind knocked out of me, but she was doing a good job of keeping my mouth sealed with her own.
It was quite a while before we got to the movies.
We'd been dating pretty solidly for three weeks before the problems started occurring. Not between us (I was considering asking her to move in with me), but between us and the rest of the vampire Community. I was spared most of the brunt of it, but I could see her occasionally turn and glare at someone for a comment I didn't hear, or she would get "accidentally" bumped as we were walking through the Raven. Little things, but enough to make it clear that what she was doing was against peer pressure. It was all done by the "younger" crowd. None of the older vampires (at least those I was aware of) ever said a word. To her credit, she swallowed everything and never said a word. At one point I asked her why she put up with it. Her answer was about how juvenile it was to respond to the baiting, but I could tell it was really upsetting her. It came to a head five weeks into our relationship.
We were seated in the Raven, just passing a quiet evening. The crowd was relatively sparse that night and was therefore more vocal about getting rid of the "vermin". I'd heard it often enough (followed by Jen looking at me nervously) that I knew the comments were directed at me.
One individual who I recognized as being one of the more vocal antagonizers came up to the table to my left and just stood there, staring at us. Jen had previously put her hand on my right arm. She left it there and increased the pressure a little. I looked calmly up at the guy standing before us with distaste in his eyes. "Can I help you?"
He ignored my question. Turning to Jen, he asked, "How can you stand to be around him for any length of time?" Her eyes narrowed a little, but she didn't say anything.
I calmly took a sip of my soda and decided that enough was enough. It was time to do something about the situation. Deliberately antagonizing him, I said, "Maybe she enjoys my company over yours." Slipping my arm from under Jen's grip, I unobtrusively reached my right hand into my jacket pocket.
Sneering at that idea, he said, "I really doubt that." He focused his attention on her. "Come on, sweetheart. I'll show you a good time that this," he gave me a disgusted look, "individual couldn't begin to duplicate." He refocused his attention on her and held out a hand.
Pulling my right hand back out of the coat pocket with a wooden cross cupped in the palm of my hand, my left whipped into my jacket to the pocket I'd sewn in place next to my combat knife. Reaching up with my right hand as quickly as I could, I grabbed him by the back of the neck and pushed him face forward into the table. I knew I couldn't match him strength on strength, but the cross burning at the back of his neck gave him the impetuous to move along away from it, bending forward at the waist until his face collided with the tabletop, crushing our glasses under his chest. Pulling my left hand free of my jacket with a thick wooden dowel rod, I placed the sharpened end against the middle of his back. Standing up, but not moving either hand, I got a much better angle and got away from his easy arm's reach. The whole thing had taken less than two seconds.
Ignoring the deafening silence around us, I said conversationally, "Oh, but you don't know WHAT I'm capable of doing."
He hissed in pain and moved a hand to the back of his neck. "Stop," I barked. His hand did, and I continued, "No matter what you do, I figure I can ram this stake home before you could stop me. You willing to risk your existence on that?"
He stopped moving, merely hissing in anger and pain. I noticed smoke begin to curl around my fingers. "Hmm, what happens if I leave this on the back of your neck long enough? Does it burn through, or just leave you branded?" He growled outright at that one. Jen was rigid with fear by this point.
"Is there a problem here?" asked Michelle, suddenly appearing beside me. She hadn't even been in the room before this occurred. The Enforcer grapevine was even better than I'd heard.
I smiled at her. "No, no problem. Just having a discussion with our friend here. He seems to have a problem with me, but doesn't want to discuss it to my face. Instead, he's trying to make my girlfriend's life difficult. I'm just doing what I can to protect her and my honor." I noticed LaCroix out of the corner of my eye, behind the bar. He was watching, but hadn't done anything directly.
Michelle nodded at my explanation. Turning to the guy I had pinned, she asked, "Fredericks, do you have a problem with my childe spending time with this gentleman?"
I would have sworn that he couldn't have paled further, but he did. Michelle's and Jen's relationship wasn't well known, apparently. This new information changed the dynamic of the situation dramatically. "I was just asking her to dance," was the sullen reply. He was still in pain, but his fear was overshadowing it for the moment, apparently.
"Really? With her boyfriend sharing the table? That was quite impolite of you, wouldn't you say?" Michelle was enjoying this. And I could see several other smiles form around the room. This guy wasn't well liked, apparently.
He mumbled something.
Michelle leaned forward. "What was that?"
Through gritted teeth, "I said, 'I'm sorry.'"
Nodding, she straightened back up. "Ryan, you can let him back up." I cautiously removed my hands and put the weapon and cross away. Standing back a pace, I clasped my hands loosely in front of me and watched. I'd just let an angry vampire loose. I doubted he could kill me (permanently) with his bare hands before Michelle and Jen could rescue me. Even if he tried, he would be sealing his own fate. Michelle continued speaking directly to him, but everyone in the room heard. "For the record Jennifer is under my personal protection, and by extension that includes Ryan. I happen to know that Nick Knight is also a friend of them both. Now, you will not bother either of them again. Do I make myself clear?"
Based on what I felt of his age, he didn't have a chance in a stand up fight with Michelle. He apparently understood that too. Slowly straightening, he nervously swallowed and nodded to her. Throwing a murderous glare at me, he roughly pushed his way to the door.
Michelle turned to me and Jen. "May I have a word with you in the back?"
Nodding, I offered Jen my arm. She nervously took it, and we followed Michelle behind the bar and toward the back rooms. She entered one and took a seat at the conference table in there. Jen and I sat across from her.
LaCroix quietly walked in and remained standing. Opening the conversation, he said, "That was a foolish thing to do."
I turned to him. "Perhaps," I allowed. "But you have to have seen how everyone's been treating us. What'd you expect me to do? Under the circumstances, what would YOU have done?"
Michelle nearly smiled. "Torn his heart out of his chest, probably."
I tilted my head to her. So she wasn't mad at me. Good. "Okay, should I have killed him in the middle of the bar or just embarrassed him like I did?"
LaCroix answered, "In a public forum such as that, you did the correct thing. However, I have the distinct feeling that he'll attack one or the other of you sooner or later, regardless of Michelle's protection. Killing him then may be the only option."
I frowned at the both of them. "Will Jen or I get into trouble if we have to do that?"
Jen quietly answered, "No. Destroying a vampire in self defense is acceptable."
Michelle nodded. "Correct. IN SELF DEFENSE. Ryan, I also asked you back here to tell you a few things. What that arrogant idiot did isn't against any of our laws. He was perfectly within his rights. Officially, the Enforcers can't do anything about him. Unofficially, however, I can offer you a discreet bodyguard if you need one."
I thought it over before slowly shaking my head. As tempting as the idea of a vampire bodyguard was, it would defeat the purpose. If I couldn't handle myself against young bullies, then having official protection would only hurt matters in the long run. "Probably not. Does he know I'm Immortal?"
LaCroix shook his head. "Few know. There is a great deal of rumor about Doctor Lambert and now you, but very few know the complete truth."
I nodded. "In that case, as long as I don't go unarmed, between Jen and myself we should be able to handle him." I smiled at Jennifer, but she didn't seem so confident. My smile melted into a frown as I studied her. "What's wrong?"
Michelle answered. "Something else you apparently need to know about Jennifer. She isn't very good at confrontations. In the year I've known her, I haven't seen her harm a fly. I don't know if it's personality, or education, or what." She shook her head resignedly and looked over at Jen.
So did I. She was still staring at her hands resting on the table.
LaCroix addressed her. "You two will likely be safe for the time being. However, if you want young Chessman here to survive the fight that is coming, you need to get over this ridiculous hesitation of yours." She looked up at LaCroix and frowned at him in thought.
I disliked his callous phrasing, but I had to agree with the idea. Me against a vampire without the element of surprise wouldn't be pretty.
Michelle looked at Jen thoughtfully for a second before glancing at LaCroix and myself. "Gentlemen, could you leave us alone for a few minutes?"
I stood to stretch and looked down at my watch. "I'd better be going home anyway." I knelt down next to Jen. She had retreated to looking at her hands again. I tilted her head toward me with a knuckle under her chin. When she was looking at me, I softly said, "You going to be okay?"
She nodded immediately. "I don't know what Michelle wants to talk about, but I'm safe with her if that's what you're asking."
I shook my head slowly. "No. I wanted to know how you're FEELING after that little confrontation out there."
She gave a small shrug. "I'm fine."
The words didn't agree with her tone, but I didn't press the issue. "I'm going home. Call me if you need anything?"
She nodded again and gave me a spontaneous hug.
Releasing her, I stood and left the room, LaCroix following close behind. "She's falling in love with you," he commented in a slightly sour tone.
I stopped and looked at him. "Is there a problem with that?" I'd also heard several stories about his attitudes toward mortals in general.
He gave an eloquent shrug. "I disagree in principle with vampires fraternizing with mortals. Or Immortals," he allowed. "However, Nicolas's marriage to Doctor Lambert has made him a better man. Much as I doubt it, perhaps something similar will happen in this case."
I raised an eyebrow. "Thank you," I said ironically. "Nice to know you have such faith in me."
He nodded, either not catching or ignoring my tone. I should've expected it.
The next evening I went to Nat's training warehouse for our weekly sparring practice. I hadn't heard anything from Jen for close to twenty-four hours, and I was getting curious as to what Michelle said to her.
Opening the door, I heard the crash of swords. Looking in nervously, I saw Nat sparring with Nick. I quietly crossed to the couch and took a seat. Based on what I could follow, Nat actually had a better style, but Nick had strength and speed on his side. They battled across the floor for perhaps another two minutes before Nat lost her grip and her sword went flying. Panting heavily, she leaned forward to rest hands on knees.
I whistled in appreciation. "If that's what you've been practicing against, it's no wonder you're so damn good."
Nick tilted his head in acknowledgement. Nat looked up at me and smiled. "Thanks. Aaron gave me a good base, but Nick's kept me in practice." She smiled at him fondly. "Not that he would have given me the choice."
I looked back at the detective. "I just hope I'll get good enough to keep up with the two of you eventually."
Nick gave a confident nod. "You will."
All three of us looked over at the door as it opened. I was pleasantly surprised to see Jennifer walk timidly in. I stood and crossed over to her. "Jen!" I gave her a hug before pulling back and frowning at her. "Don't take this the wrong way, but what are you doing here?"
I heard Nick call from behind me, "He doesn't know?"
Jen shook her head and focused on me. Sighing slightly, she looked down and said, "Uncle Nick is going to teach me to fight."
I raised an eyebrow in surprise. "What brought this on?"
She looked up and fixed me with her gorgeous green eyes. "You."
"Both Michelle and LaCroix pointed out that you can't win a fight against a vampire. If I want you to survive, I have to help. I can't help unless I know how. That's where Uncle Nick comes in." She focused on him over my shoulder.
I looked back just in time to catch his nod. "Michelle called me this afternoon and asked if I'd be willing to take Jen as a student." He raised an eyebrow at Jen. "But she didn't mention that LaCroix had anything to do with it."
Jen shook her head. Pulling herself out of my grip, she crossed over to him. "Not directly. He just pointed out that if I loved Ryan, I had to learn how to help defend him against my kind."
Nat looked over at me with a smile. Both my eyebrows were quirked. That was the first time that the word "love" had come out of her mouth with regard to me. It wasn't much of a surprise, but it was comforting to know that's how she really felt.
Nick nodded at Jen's answer. Flipping the sword he held around, he handed it to Nat and waved Jen over to the center of the open space. For her part, Nat walked over to the couch and placed Nick's sword into a carrying case and hers into her coat before taking a seat. Waving me over, she patted the seat, indicating that I should take it. I did so, wondering what vampire self defense training would look like.
It turned out to be very similar to the first few lessons that Richie and Duncan had put me through. All the techniques were the same, but a vampire's speed and strength made even the most basic moves devastating. By the end of their training, Jen was starting to get comfortable with the self-defense, but still was hesitant to strike back. Well, it would be a long process, just as it had been for everyone else.
Their training continued daily (well, nightly) for the next week. By the end of that time, Nick had managed to provoke her into attacking just once. He'd given her the knowledge she needed, but she was still not attacking.
"Come on!" he snarled for the umpteenth time, eyes glowing.
She started forward but stopped herself. Relaxing her face back to normal, she shook her head.
He sighed as his fangs retracted. "That's enough for tonight."
Nodding quickly, she rushed over to her coat and then the door. I watched her go with a slight frown.
Nick came over to the couch and sat down with an exasperated sigh. "I've never heard of a vampire who refuses to attack someone."
"She was a nursing student when she was brought across," I pointed out.
He shrugged. "Maybe that's it. I don't know. Unless she's willing to fight, the training can't continue. There's only so far you can go before you have to do some hands on practice."
I nodded. Theory only went so far. Practical experience was needed at some point.
In an effort to break the mood, Nat said, "Well, enough of that. See you tomorrow for our training, Ryan?"
I agreed distractedly as I headed to the door. I was distracted for more than one reason. Tonight was the night I'd decided to ask Jen to move in with me. We'd been dating for a month and a half, and growing closer the entire time. It only made sense for us to live together. Besides, it'd simplify things for both of us.
As I'd hoped, I found Jen waiting by my car. Wrapping her into a hug from behind, I whispered, "You okay?"
She rested the side of her face against one arm. "Yeah, I'm fine."
I held her for a few more seconds before pulling away enough to step beside her, keeping one arm around her shoulders. "Come on, let's walk."
We silently began walking through the deserted industrial park. We'd been wandering aimlessly for two or three minutes before she broke the silence. "I don't know why I can't bring myself to attack Uncle Nick. I know I won't hurt him, so that isn't it."
I squeezed her shoulder. "Don't worry about it. He's given you enough pointers so that you can defend yourself. That's all that really matters." I took a breath before continuing. "That isn't why I asked you to walk. I've been giving it some thought and was wondering if you'd agree to move in with me." She stopped dead in her tracks and turned to stare at me. I continued hurriedly, "It's completely up to you, but I think it'd make things easier on both of us. We already spend so much time together, and this way it'd be easier. Besides, there's no sense in you paying rent when you spend almost as much time at my place anyway, right?" I smiled at her nervously. She just continued to stare at me.
"NO!" she suddenly shouted, flinging me to the side and herself to the other.
I landed nearly ten feet away in a state of shock. Had I misread her THAT badly?
I looked up when I heard the hiss. Our attacker from the previous week (Michelle had called him Fredricks, wasn't it?) was trying to rain blows on Jen's head, but she was parrying for all she was worth. Jumping to my feet and grabbing the wooden stake in my left hand and wakizashi in my right, I charged forward with a yell. My gun would be faster, but I'd heard from Nick that a gun was useless against vampires. Fredericks broke through her defenses while I was still one stride away. One fist catching her squarely on the temple, she flew a few feet before falling to the ground in a heap. He turned to me just as my wakizashi was reaching him. Spinning to knock the blade away from the line to his chest, his right hand went crashing into my left forearm, breaking both bones and forcing me to drop the wooden stake. My momentum carried me past him, and I spun to keep him in front of me.
Too late. Pulling the sword out of my grasp (and breaking three fingers in the process), he snarled in my face, "Now you die, mortal fool." Forcing me to my knees with one hand on my shoulder, his other forced my head to the side, exposing my neck. His fangs extended and he leaned down. Through the haze of pain my arm was radiating, I felt him tear at my neck before everything went dark.
I had no idea where I was. It was warm and comfortable, and that was all that mattered.
I must have said something, because I heard a voice say, "He's waking up."
A new voice murmured in my ear, "Ryan, honey. Wake up." I felt something trace along the artery in my neck. That coupled with the sudden realization that I was near another Immortal jolted me up and moving within a second. Ah, adrenaline is a wonderful thing.
My eyes took in the familiar warehouse that Nat and I used as a training ground as my hands scrambled for a weapon. I found my combat knife easily enough, but my sword was missing and my left arm was protesting any movement at all.
My right hand made it to my gun holster before a strong male voice cut through my confusion, "Ryan!"
I blinked and looked around again. Yep, training warehouse. Nat and Jen were sitting on the couch looking at me in amused tolerance. Nick was standing behind them, arms crossed and shaking his head slowly. "Ryan," he continued more calmly, "please calm down. Attacking one of us won't do anybody any good."
Taking a deep breath to calm my frantic heart, I took a personal inventory. In short, I felt awful. My left arm was sore around where it'd been broken. The entire right side of my neck had the tight feel of recently healed tissue. And to top it all off, I was nearly falling down weak.
Gingerly replacing the knife into my torn coat, I walked back over to the couch and took a seat. I leaned back and let my head go as far back as it could and closed my eyes. I could feel the still moist blood on my neck and over most of the coat. Figuring I had nothing to lose, I asked, "What happened?"
Jen placed a hand on one knee. "What do you remember?"
My right hand came up and waved at my neck. "Nothing after he bit me."
I felt Nat stand up from the couch. Nick said, "Apparently, Fredricks attacked you two as you were walking. I heard your shout and got to you in less than a minute to find you dead from blood loss and Jen standing over a decomposing corpse with a sword in her hand."
I opened my eyes and looked at her. She lowered her eyes in embarrassment. I cupped her face in one hand and gently raised her face until she was looking at me. "Thank you," I said simply.
She smiled timidly. "I couldn't let him hurt you," she answered.
I glanced over at Nick and said, "Looks like we finally found a way to get her to attack someone."
Nick chuckled as Nat came back over with a half gallon jug of Gatorade she'd apparently gotten out of the refrigerator. Twisting off the cap, she handed it to me and said, "Drink this. I keep it here just in case of emergency."
Nodding my thanks, I took it and drained half before coming up for air. Resting my head on the back of the couch again, I caught Jen staring at me out of the corner of my eye. Tilting my head to regard her, I realized she wasn't staring at me so much as at my neck and shoulder. Smiling, I closed my eyes again. "Jen, right now I need to rest and heal. I'll let you lick me clean later."
My comment had the desired effect. Nick and Nat burst into laughter. Jen swatted me on the shoulder and said, "Oh, grow up."
I smiled. "Don't wanna." I heard all three of them continue to chuckle.
I felt my body continue to heal, and I finally opened my eyes to find Nat kneeling in front of me, regarding my neck critically. "Healing nicely," she commented. She glanced down at my left arm and asked, "You going to be okay?"
I nodded. Holding up the rapidly emptying bottle, I said, "I'll replace this tomorrow. I'm glad you had it handy."
Nat shot a quick smile to Nick. Turning to me, she nodded. "You're welcome." Standing, she asked, "Tomorrow night still on?"
I nodded, but Jen said, "No." We all turned to her. She was shaking her head. "We'll all be busy tomorrow night."
Nick's frown reflected my confusion. "We will?" he asked.
Jennifer nodded and curled one arm around me as she leaned against my side. "After all, who else am I going to ask to help me move into Ryan's place?"
My smile blossomed as her meaning sunk in. Everything would be alright.