Shadow Plays by Rhi
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Author's Notes:
Disclaimer: Joe Dawson, Duncan MacLeod, and any other person or name from Highlander: The Series belong to Rysher: Panzer/Davis. Lucien LaCroix, Nicholas Knight, Javier Vachon, Tracy Vetter, and any other person or name from Forever Knight are owned by Tri-Star and Paragon. Any other characters (Aidan Logan under all her names, Alex, Xan, and Stengel specifically but there are others) are probably mine. Further notes, comments, and details from the story are at the bottom for those interested.
Rated: R for violence, bloodsport, and m/f... something. Sorry, the vampire and the immortal got involved and I came back later. Some things even I don't want to know about.

Silence poured over the night, dense and moving from spot to spot ahead of the rushing wind. The utter stillness became all the more startling in its contrast to moving trees, rattling leaves and moaning chimney flues. At last, the variance in the noise made the woman look up from the box she had carefully packed. Brown hair so dark as to be black in the dim light coiled an intricate path of braids around her head, carefully secured so that not a strand lay out of place. Grey eyes scanned the room to be sure no odd noise heralded an unwelcome intruder. Her gaze flickered over a clock, then swung back, startled.

"One in the morning? Ah, Gods! No wonder I'm tired." Aidan kept her voice low from habit as well as necessity. Slim odds indeed that anyone would investigate at this hour of the night, but sooner or later -- once the Seacouver police notified Toronto's finest that 'Wilhelm Clausewitz' (as Karl Gustav von Stengel had been known) was missing and possibly dead -- the police would scrutinize the house. When that happened she did not intend that so much as a strand of her hair or a partial fingerprint be found. Thus the carefully secured hair, the dark leather clothes which wouldn't leave particles, and the leather gloves.

Sighing softly as fatigue rushed in, once noticed, the young-appearing woman hefted the latest box to her shoulder and carefully worked her way back out of the room. The only light was a slim flashlight in her left hand; her right held the box in place. As she headed toward the back door and the path to her car, her hip brushed the weeks-old newspapers, dislodging something under them. The flashlight beam played across a blood-red matchbook lying on the kitchen floor.

"What's this?" Aidan set the box noiselessly on the counter and dropped into a crouch so that the light from the flashlight wouldn't be visible through the kitchen windows. Studying the cover, she realized that her attention had been caught by superb design. A black bird flew in silhouette across the cover, and the bird's eye reflected the red of the cover. Irony indeed that an eye had caught her eye. The inside of the matchbook read, 'The Raven', then gave address, phone number and the hours: sunset-sunrise. Someone, most likely Gustav, had circled the number in black nib pen from the look of it.

Aidan hissed softly on seeing that pen stroke. One of the first things she had removed from the house had been some notes pinned over the computer, written with that same style of pen. An investigation of the missing man would have found the notes and photos, sending the police to talk to Joe Dawson of Joe's Bar, Russell Nash of Nash Antiques, and Aidan Logan of Seacouver, once known as Elektra Mycenas of Milan, Italy. She could only hope there had been no phone calls. She had no way to erase phone company records. The files in his filing cabinets had been worse, and his computer....

Her back still hurt from carting out boxes of files, and she anticipated more pain when she spent hours in sorting and synthesizing data back in Seacouver. Say what she would of him, and that was quite a bit (all of it bad), the bastard had been very thorough in his hunt for other immortals and damned ingenious in some of his search techniques. Aidan knew she would be months sorting through what he had collected, trying to ascertain his patterns and learn how to protect against them.

Stripping his house of incriminating details and convertible wealth had already taken a night and a half. She didn't dare take more than three, by then someone would almost certainly notice something despite all her precautions. By the same token, however, she must not miss anything that would point anyone toward immortals. More than once in her long life Aidan had fled ahead of witch hunts and inquisitions. Not all the immortals had been lucky enough to escape. The mere thought of what CNN could do with this much accumulated information made her stomach clench.

Flipping the matchbook cover closed with one hand, Aidan tucked it into her coat pocket and picked up the last box of the night. Or maybe not? Her mind juggled options on the way to her parked car. Another load of boxes to store in the U-Haul van filled her car, and in the morning she would need to check out of her current hotel and move into another. Too much attention would be leveled at someone staying more than one night in a motel while moving, but she had ended up needing the extra space of the U-Haul.

Maybe I should stop by this place. If they're open 'til sunrise, I'll undoubtedly have to deal with the young Goths, but I should be able to get food and coffee. I could pack through the night, move the van, and then sleep all day. That would work.... Decision made, Aidan moved quickly toward her rental car, enjoying the sight of high, thin clouds scudding across the waning moon.

When she got to the motel, Aidan waited until the security guard passed her van and gave him another five minutes to be sure he wouldn't return. The immortal transferred boxes into the van quickly despite her fatigue, completing the task and locking the van again inside ten minutes. More than enough leeway to miss the guard, who never saw Aidan pull back out to park in the lot of the nearby convenience store and check her map.

"Ah, well, not the best part of Toronto, but then it wouldn't be. No problem." She glanced down at what she was wearing and grinned despite herself. No doubt black leather, from boots to pants, long sleeve shirt to gloves, would go over well with the Goths, but it would attract too much attention combined with the controlled, conservative hairstyle. However, there was no point in undoing the braids for food, only to have to redo them to go pack more boxes.

So, what long sleeve t-shirts have I got in the duffel bag? Ah, perfect! Bright blue and green, much more visible than the all black and more easily removed later. And a good omen, too: Dead Can Dance, Serpent's Egg. I mean to make Gustav dance to my tune even if his head is gone, but I feel like I'm waiting for the egg to hatch, hoping it will be a serpent rather than a dragon... or worse.

After pulling on the shirt, Aidan absently flipped her pendant necklace out to lie exposed on the shirt. The silver oak leaf, easily four inches in both height and width, gleamed on a white-gold box chain, dangling stem-upmost to lie just above her breasts. She stripped off the black leather gloves, dropping them in her coat pocket, and changed to blue leather half-gloves. The palms of her hands were covered, and the first two joints of each finger, but the backs lay open. Checking once to be sure her sword was still in place in her coat, she headed to the Raven for food and caffeine.

Walking from the parking lot to the door, coat swirling around her calves, Aidan appraised the place automatically. Her eyebrows drew down as she began to frown. This was not solely a bar -- a nightclub, at least, judging from the design and size and the volume of the techno music she could already hear. And why so many accesses to the second floor? Too many dark-clad people hovered in the edges of her vision and she could almost hear or feel movements in the shadowed alleys nearby -- too swift, too sure, to be human or animal. A rushing sound like the night's wind but with partial patterns such as never occurred in nature.

Old memories stirred in her, the oldest she had of such people. Once before she had known a man who moved with such speed and a similar sound, long ago when she had been in Rome, worn slave chains and served in a pleasure house. Then Aidan reached the door and wrenched her mind back to the present, for the past could only interfere with her survival now. The tall man in the doorway radiated predator; perhaps to a mortal he was impressive. Cold grey eyes measured, weighed, and found him wanting. The medallion around her neck lay under her coat flap and would stay there for now, but she flexed her hands in the air, unconsciously readying for the coming fight.

Pale, very pale, and the reflection of light from the eyes isn't quite right. Ah, Gods, he doesn't breathe, but he doesn't have that implacable stillness yet. So, not old for one of his kind or one of mine. Barely middle-aged by mortal standards, I would say, but a predator in training and by blood. There is no backing away from this, I suppose, so let it begin.

Her pace never slowed as she headed for the door he partially blocked. Arrogantly, he let the slender woman get five feet away before his hand blurred and his arm blocked the door. A small part of Aidan's mind noticed pale red hairs and freckles on the arm, noted bitten nails and smiled at the incongruity, wondering if he nicked himself doing that. Smoothly, too smoothly, she arrested her motion, stopping just outside reach of arm for either of them. A wise man would have read the signs and let her pass. No kind God had granted great gifts of perception to this redhead, though.

"This club isn't for your kind. Go somewhere else." His voice grated against her ears, slightly nasal with a lower-class accent, something in the word choice and tones. With his height, close to 6' 6", and his menace, Neil was used to being obeyed by mortals and the woman was not a vampire. As a final threat, he met her eyes with his own already gold with blood-lust.

Shock swept him as he realized that this young woman met his gaze without a trace of fear in her eyes, her body language, or her scent. Almost he bared his fangs to hiss at her, restraining himself only so as not to annoy the Master of the City, LaCroix. All the young vampires knew full well that if the Enforcers had to come remove certain knowledge of the existence of vampires from mortal minds, the fool responsible for the incident would regret any inch of skin the Enforcers left untouched by the time Lucien LaCroix was done with them.

"I'm here to get food, and coffee, and a seat for a half-hour or so. You aren't Master here nor like to make it that long, fool that you are. Move or be removed. Your choice, fledgling." Icy menace shimmered in her voice, almost as terrifying as a master vampire's in her inflections, her unstressed threats. Neil's eyes widened involuntarily, gold flickering back and forth with blue, as he realized just what she had implied. 'Master' used as a title, 'fledgling' used to insult him.... She knew he was a vampire, that other vampires were here.

However, no mortal cowed him. Mortals were prey, food and drink for the taking. Starting now.

"Fledgling? I don't think so." He growled the words and leaned toward her. Neil had the greater strength and speed of a vampire but his observation and comprehension did not yet match. As he moved out of position, the woman ducked under his arm and slipped into the building quick as a striking snake. He spun to see her standing just inside, grey eyes steady on him and a half-smile on her face. Her body position struck him as odd: leaning slightly forward, right shoulder dropped just barely below level.

"I don't give second chances. Move against me and be destroyed, child." Razors bit in her voice, ready to draw his blood. Neil shivered to hear tones wielded by a mortal that even masters seldom used, realizing that a mortal had just deliberately, knowingly, turned her back on a room of vampires.

From behind her, Neil saw what he most longed for and most feared at this moment. LaCroix slid from behind the bar, heading for the doorway with the sliding grace of a mongoose hunting a snake. The Spaniard Vachon had also headed for the disagreement, moving with a deceptively lazy loose-hipped slouch that still covered ground amazingly quickly.

LaCroix's caustic, aristocratic voice sounded. "Did I hear a threat? Surely I must be mistaken? I did not invite you in." He reached to clasp the woman's shoulder in one steel-strong hand; instead she dropped under his touch, arms raised and sliding from the sleeves to leave her coat in his hands. The pendant around her throat flared into white light that drove Neil back into the night, and she half-turned, still in her crouch. When she straightened to her full 5' 8", she held a boot knife in her left hand, blade turned to run along her forearm.

Even as Vachon hissed at the light coming off her necklace, grey eyes met grey eyes. An incredulous, surprised look crossed her face. "Lucius? Deiae Clementiae! Salve!"

As she flipped the pendant inside her shirt, which immediately extinguished its searing brilliance, LaCroix raised one eyebrow. "So different from when I saw you last, Phaedra. A knife against me? Really. You of all people should know better."

Soft laughter spilled from her with no cutting edges to burn along hearing. Her voice carried both amusement and pleasure as she said, "Oh, indeed I do. I mean no opposition to you this year either, Lucius, else I'd not have put away my medallion. Did you order that young idiot to guard your door?"

LaCroix turned a slow head to look out the door, seeing Neil on his knees beside the wall, arm still thrown up to ward his eyes from the actinic flare that had half-blinded him. "No, I did not. Your coat, my dear. Do not leave; we have much to discuss. Neil."

No one doubted the name was a command. The young vampire rose to his feet, already shuddering under the impact of that mild tone and the steady gaze. Aidan reached out and took her coat from LaCroix's hand, watching impassively as the fledgling went to one knee in front of the master vampire.

"Why were you keeping a paying customer from my door?" When no coherent answer came immediately, LaCroix sighed, sounding almost resigned. "Kneel, child, and learn an important lesson."

Instantly Neil dropped to both knees, terrified but equally frightened of the consequences of defiance. To his shock, LaCroix turned to the dark-haired woman who still held the knife.

"Do you care to handle this or shall I? I must apologize for insult offered you in my demesne."

Aidan shrugged, meeting LaCroix's gaze without flinching. "Now that I know you had not intended my exclusion, I take no offense for myself. You owe me no apology, old friend. Deal with your young fool as you have need for your own honor, but I wouldn't care to take price from him myself. His idiocy might be contagious."

Vachon choked suddenly, trying not to laugh, and his merry brown eyes caught the woman's grey gaze. Abruptly she thawed, looking more real, less like a master vampire in a rage. A brilliant smile crossed her face and she sheathed the dagger back in her boot, kneeling with the casual grace and athletic ease of a trained warrior. In sudden shock, he realized from the drape of cloth and familiar smell of oiled steel that she had a sword concealed in the coat LaCroix had just handed back. In the twentieth century?!

Meanwhile, the fledgling shivered under the cold, controlled tongue-lashing LaCroix delivered. Without ever raising his voice, LaCroix peeled hide off in strips. The final sentence was, "You are not to feed tonight, nor tomorrow. I will see you on the third night, to discuss this idiocy. I suggest you have an answer as to why you blocked someone from my bar. If it's good enough, you may be saved from my continued irritation."

He turned his back on the stammering redheaded vampire and reached one hand, palm up to Aidan. "Now then, I believe you and I have a few matters to discuss, but hospitality first." He waited, motionless, for her to move.

Aidan reached a hand out, also palm up, and placed it within his loose grasp. LaCroix lifted her arm and kissed the inside of her wrist. Only then did she shudder slightly as he asked in that same cool voice, "Will you have food or drink before we talk?"

Aidan inclined her head toward him, the deliberate gesture of an equal, and replied, "Both, if you will, and an introduction to the courteous one, here." With a swift jerk of her chin she indicated Vachon.

"Certainly. What name are you using this decade?" LaCroix collected the Spaniard with his eyes as he escorted Aidan to the bar, her hand on his arm.

"Aidan Logan, imperator, and you?"

"Lucien LaCroix." He regarded her with that arrogant restraint as she chuckled. "Is there something amusing?"

"If you're going to be so... contrary, why not be thorough? Shouldn't that be Delacroix?"

As Vachon laughed, LaCroix agreed, "You may well be right. I shall remember that next time. However, as you have gone from 'sun' to 'flame', I suspect you have little room to discuss it."

Aidan settled herself onto the bar stool and commented, "All my names have something to do with flame or light. How else would I keep them straight?"

One of the younger vampires flinched and moved away as the immortal sat down. Aidan tilted her head and asked, "Is there a problem?"

The pale woman saw LaCroix's face and flinched again. "No, lady, no problem, but... may I ask a question?"

From the quirk of Aidan's mouth, Vachon suspected that the deference amused her, but she kept her voice level as she replied, "Certainly. What is it?"

"That wasn't a cross. How did you...?" Her voice trailed off uncertainly at the unblinking regard LaCroix gave her.

"No, it wasn't. Nor will it ever be with me." Aidan's voice sounded amused. "There are other religions besides that of the White God. I recommend you spend some time in some of the libraries which are open after sundown. Start with Joseph Campbell or Mircea Eliade and go from there."

Aidan turned back and asked LaCroix, "Where were we?"

"Your introduction, I believe. Aidan, this is Javier Vachon, once of Spain. Vachon, this is the lady Aidan Logan, a very old friend of mine." The unspoken threat and possessiveness of his voice startled Vachon, but the Spaniard kept it off his face. Shoulder-length brown hair swung forward around his face as he bowed and kissed her hand.

"A distinct pleasure, lady. How far do you two go back? You're not one of us."

LaCroix smiled at Aidan, a look which Vachon did not want directed at him. "Will you tell him, Phaedra, or shall I?"

"Feel free, LaCroix, I would love to hear it from your side. However, before we begin, may I take advantage of the offered hospitality?" After she ordered, Aidan glanced up and locked eyes with LaCroix. As a courtesy to his power and the listening fledglings, she switched to Latin. "And we are old friends, assuredly, but I am not yours. Surely I misheard that?"

"Ah, but you would not wish me to abandon you among so many of my kind, would you? Did they know of your blood, you would never make it out the door."

"Were it to come to that, the entire building might yet be dedicated to Dana and they all find themselves on consecrated ground -- as I'm sure you would have nothing to do with such an event."

Vachon watched uneasily as the two pairs of grey eyes clashed, both unyielding. Times like this, he regretted paying so much attention to that lovely nun in church when he was young. He'd rather not have understood the 'theoretical' discussion in front of him. Finally they both smiled; much to his relief, it was truly humor and not bared teeth.

"Stubborn as ever, I see. You are, of course, your own and not a possession of mine. However, no one here will touch you, thinking you mine. Or shall I withdraw that as well?" LaCroix smiled to find her as strong-willed as he belatedly remembered. Old and foolish to recall things other than they were. But did her blood still taste as enthralling as he remembered, as sweet as fine aged wine?

"Withdraw it or not as you like, so long as the two of us do not confuse matters. I have not been a slave in quite a while. It would be a fool's act to assume I can be controlled against my will, my friend, and you were never a fool. You and I ever managed to find mutually satisfactory agreements, did we not?" Aidan leaned back in her chair, sipping coffee full of cream and sugar. Hooded eyes watched in amusement as the Spaniard pretended not to understand a word of this conflict, though his eyes narrowed briefly at the word 'slave'.

Switching back to English, she continued, "Shall we tell him a story of days long past and mostly forgotten?"

"A special wine for such an occasion, I think." LaCroix poured himself a glass of his personal reserve wine and gave Vachon an inquiring look.

"Please." Vachon took the glass and sipped, almost purring at the taste. God, the blood could almost be coming from the throat it tasted so fresh. Interesting. This Aidan or Phaedra had to know what they were drinking, although she never flinched.

"I first saw you in the eighth year of Aurelian's rule. That would make it 168 AD, I believe?" LaCroix cocked his head, waiting for her assent before he went on, savoring the shock on Vachon's face. "Phaedra commanded the highest fees in the Golden Lamp, which was itself one of the best of the pleasure houses. She was not the most skilled of the women, necessarily, but certainly the most... obedient, and by far the brightest and best educated. In several arts. The idea of an civilized Celt amazed me, and I bought an hour of her time -- more to appraise the services of the house than specifically to try her."

Aidan sipped her coffee again, a half-smile on her face, but the grey eyes were shuttered, letting nothing out. Telling this story, Vachon concluded, was LaCroix's punishment for her threat to a vampire within his territory.

"Imagine my pleased surprise when I found that she had the most exquisite blood and a truly incredible recovery time, in several senses. I bought her nights several times over almost a decade, as the brothel owner would never sell her. One night I returned from an excursion to find Phaedra no longer worked there and the owner would offer no explanation. He nearly soiled himself in his fear, trying to claim no such woman had ever worked there. Fool. Your perfume still lingered in the room. I'm gratified that you still remember me, my dear. I did look for you, I might add."

Aidan shrugged, a slight smile on her face, and then inclined her head. "Thank you for the compliments. I dare say he denied I had worked there. I did tell you my teacher would find me, did I not? Old Gracchus handed over the keys to my chains with my line-brothers' swords at his belly and balls. They were... upset. My teacher had spent half an hour explaining to him in precise, vivid detail what should happen to him for enslaving a free woman and ruining her good name."

She nodded her thanks to the server who had brought her salad and dug in with a will, looking only at her food for a moment. Old pains and humiliations rolled over her for a long moment, memories of endurance past everything she had thought her will could encompass, of lies spoken to men she loathed or merely misliked for that they were unknown to her mind and all too well known to her body, of a submission she had forced herself into lest her immortality be found out. Grimly she shunted the memories aside and forced her mind to fond recollections of her two line-brothers, Alexandrias and Xenokrates.

I wonder where Xan and Alex are anyway? I think Methos would have told me if they were out of the Game. I'll have to write and ask him. Oh, but they were in a rage that night. It was good to spend a few months in Greece with all three of them afterwards. What was the actor's name, the one who played Apollo so well in The Myrmidons? That voice and the mask-- I shivered in bright daylight, and hid against Alexandrias rather than See something for the God.

Aidan glanced up as LaCroix remarked, "Line-brothers? Then you are one of the swordsmen as I have often thought?"

"Yes. Do you know many of us, then?" She noted the quickly masked confusion in Vachon's face and smiled. "Your kind, night-runner, are not the only ones who do not die easily."

"There have been a few down the years. One fool comes in every so often; I suspect he is of your kind. Always he has a weapon. He does not, however, restrict himself to swords." LaCroix watched her face to see how this shot struck. Ah, not surprised at all. That would be why she is in the city then.

"About two fingers taller than me, gold hair with some white at the temples, and a scar running here?" Aidan traced a line down her cheek with one finger, fork in the other hand.

"Yes. He considers himself a hunter. Perhaps in another few hundred years." The older vampire's voice dripped disdain for such effrontery. "He's an amateur."

The immortal woman bit into her hamburger, tearing off a small bite almost savagely. After she had swallowed, she commented, "He will never make professional."

"Truly? Who's done it? Not that it were any great loss."

Vachon watched back and forth, not wanting to draw LaCroix's attention by leaving, but a bit wary at the turn this was taken. What was she? From the conversation, she was a good two thousand years old, but she ate solid food, breathed, and had a slight tan. Definitely not a vampire. So what was a swordsman? And he knew the arrogant bastard LaCroix meant; German idiot, one of the 'bloodsport' crowd. How in the hell was he going to live another few hundred years? Clausewitz or whatever his name was definitely did not live off blood -- well, not for food, anyway!

Aidan smiled at LaCroix, a sharp vicious expression he had never seen before. "I did."

The vampire blinked once, then raised an eyebrow. "I will confess to surprise. I had not thought it of you. However, you are still here, I see. Did you come to Toronto to challenge him, then?"

The bartender refilled her coffee, startled to hear what sounded like a thank you. By this time of night, the patrons were usually either arrogant, edgy vampires, or drunk humans.

Aidan sipped the hot coffee, then stirred more cream into it as she told LaCroix, "He came hunting me and lost. I came to investigate how he found me and have stayed to clean up after him. The man had stockpiled too much information the police would find... intriguing. We don't need more witch hunts, do we?"

Her wry voice and the quirk of her mouth invited commiseration and to Vachon's surprise LaCroix did. "No, we do not. Was he so careless as that, then?"

Vachon saw her knuckles whiten around the mug as she growled, "No, if anything, he was entirely too thorough. I'm starting to wonder if I will have to torch the house when I've removed what I can. I hate...." Grey eyes widened and then closed for a moment. She straightened and looked up into the mirror that LaCroix maintained to annoy the younger vampires.

"What is it, my dear?"

Aidan stood, pushing the food out of the way, and shrugged into her coat. "With luck? Nothing. However, Fortuna and I are not on speaking terms of late." She settled back into her seat and picked up her coffee again, for all the world a woman who'd felt a chill. But LaCroix observed with great interest that her eyes were tracking movement in the mirror and she did not take another sip of the hot liquid.

A small, self-confident woman whose hair was bleached almost white sauntered across the dance floor alongside an equally assured Asian girl with a intricate spiral tattoo running along one cheek, heading for the bar. They moved side by side, cock of the walk stride and gaze as people moved out of the way of that arrogance. They never noticed some of the vampires in the shadows smiling and licking lips. Vachon did.

When they were within ten feet of the bar Aidan swiveled around on her stool, still holding the coffee. "A fair morning to you both. This is a private conversation."

The smaller woman bared teeth almost as white as her hair in a predator's smile. "Oh, that's all right. This won't take long. We can finish it right now. No point in delaying the Gathering."

Aidan leaned back slightly, the backs of her arms against the bar, mug held negligently in her left hand. "Really? Never heard of subtlety, I see, or discretion. So be it. The rule is one on one. Who's first?"

The Asian immortal laughed, cold-edged mockery. "A conservative, huh? The only rule that matters is 'There can be only one.' That's the one we play by."

A small smile curled one edge of Aidan's mouth. "Javier, could you move over, please? So, assuming you get that far, what happens when it's down to the two of you?"

LaCroix raised both eyebrows, then waved Vachon to move. The blonde shook her head. "What the hell, we'll deal with it then. Won't be your problem."

Aidan laughed and said, "Ah, very true. So, should I assume logic is no longer taught in schools?"

The partners glanced at each other. "What the fuck does that mean?" asked the taller, tattooed woman.

In Latin, Aidan said coldly, "My fight, gentlemen." She smiled pleasantly at the two immortals, but her eyes watched them dispassionately. "Surely you know the concept? If A then B, proceeding in nice neat patterns down through time or problems. In this case, it's an organized way of going wrong with confidence. Your last chance -- shall we take this outside and make it one on one? I'll even provide the coin for you to flip and see who goes first."

Vachon's usually easy-going smile had faded into a grim expression that was beginning to attract the attention of the other patrons of the Raven. Around the room, people began to move back against the tables. As the vampires saw that LaCroix looked amused and pleased with the turn of events, they started to fade into the woodwork. That particular smile of his always preceded bloodshed.

"Oh, this is between us, of course. Wouldn't want the men getting in on it, babe. But we can do this right here, right now." The Asian woman began to reach into her coat and Aidan blurred into motion. Her left hand shot forward and hot coffee rained out of the mug, splattering burns across the tattoo. The taller woman doubled over, free hand trying too late to protect her face and eyes, and blocking the blonde from Aidan.

Using her right arm, Aidan pushed off the bar stool. Her left arm came back down from the throwing motion to slam the Asian immortal in the base of the skull. She dropped and did not get back up, blood pouring from the wound as the mug fragments spilled across the floor. Continuing her return pivot, Aidan dropped to one knee while bringing her right arm down and into her coat. The blond woman yanked a machete out of her jacket and swung, but she only laid open a thigh as Aidan threw herself to the right in a controlled shoulder roll over her own arm and sword.

Vachon started forward, unhappy with the two on one odds, but LaCroix's hissed command stopped him. "No. This is between them. Do not interfere, on pain of my extreme displeasure." So the Spaniard watched, appalled, as the odds immediately and decisively shifted.

Aidan came up onto her feet, shifted to the left to dodge a stool, and stopped the machete with her own saber. With her left hand, she reached into the neck of her t-shirt, drew and threw a stiletto. From four feet away, it sank into the blonde's solar plexus with all of Aidan's not-inconsiderable strength behind it. The smaller woman also doubled over, machete grating down and away from the saber. Aidan stabbed down once with her sword. The blade went into the woman's back, through her heart, and exited her chest dripping gore.

A single agonized scream tore from the blonde as Aidan let go of her blade and stepped forward. The smaller woman tried to bring the machete up, strength already failing, as hands wrapped around her head, pulled, and then twisted sharply. In the suddenly silent room, the sound of vertebrae separating echoed back from the walls. As the blonde fell, Aidan knelt next to the Asian woman, pulling a boot knife and stabbing her through the back of the neck before she could do more than begin to stir. Aidan reached over and pulled her sword out of the blonde, wiped it on her victim's jeans and sheathed it into her coat.

"I'll take them outside for the rest, LaCroix. I will return in a moment." Glancing up at vampires circling in for the fresh blood, Aidan snapped in Latin, "Control them, Lucius, I have no time for finesse."

LaCroix snarled at his vampires even as she spoke. "Hold! This does not concern us." When two of the youngest kept moving, he flew over the counter, slamming them into chairs. "Be still," his voice hissed, whipping them into obedience.

Aidan wrapped her hands around the collars of the two dead immortals and lifted. Vachon sighed and commented in medieval Latin, "What rest? They're already dead. Want some help?"

She contemplated him for a long second, then nodded decisively and replied in the same language. "Yes, I would appreciate it. I need to take them to the back alley and finish the job."

Vachon casually slung the Asian over his shoulder, grateful that his shirt was both dark and so old he didn't care what happened to it. Would be a hell of a thing to ruin one of the shirts Trace had given him. To his surprise Aidan hefted the smaller woman almost as easily. Behind him, the Spaniard heard LaCroix using the Voice to compel the humans in the room.

"Time you were gone, my children. This was simply an odd dream you will forget in the morning, a momentary frisson of horror in your little lives. Go home and sleep and forget." The other vampires joined in, creating a resonating murmur of "Go home, sleep, forget. Go home, sleep, forget."

Aidan never twitched, never slowed. Once out the door she sighed tiredly and said, "You know, your kind are all too good at that. Those poor people are never going to know anything hit them."

"They come here for the thrill of danger. They know that somewhere in the Raven the monster under the bed is sitting in a booth enjoying a cold one. So they got what they thought they wanted." Vachon shrugged. "These two came in to kill someone; I don't remember you holding still for that machete. How's your leg; do I need to get the blonde, too?"

Aidan flashed him a quick smile as she arranged the woman's corpse over the lid of a trashcan, head dangling. "Put the other one here, please." She indicated the next trashcan. "And I'm fine. See for yourself."

She ran a hand along the blood on her thigh, clearing the skin to show unharmed flesh. Vachon's gaze darted between her leg, exposed through the gash in her pants, and the still warm blood on her fingers. Aidan tilted her head to one side, studying him. She nodded once and held the bloody hand to his mouth. Vachon couldn't resist -- she smelled as tantalizing as aged brandy, and as intoxicating. He licked the tip of her finger and gasped at the rich, overpowering feel and taste of her.

"God, what are you?"

"Immortal and powerful. Take it. You've been a friend to me this night and I see no reason the blood should go to waste." Aidan held her hand steady as he cleaned each finger, careful with his fangs despite the pleasure he obviously took in it. She felt no revulsion; he did what he must to survive, no more than she.

When Vachon finished, he wiped his mouth clean with the back of one hand, looking embarrassed. Aidan caught his eye and smiled. "It's all right, Javier, I offered. No shame in what you are, and no blame to this." She studied him and then added, "Will you listen to me?"

"Yeah, no problem. What is it?" He sounded dazed but alert.

"In a minute, there will be lightning and Gods only know what else. It will be bad, and then it will get worse. I need to pull out my necklace so that none of the youngsters bother me; I'll be... vulnerable for a few minutes. Back away if you would."

She looked completely serious and he stared, then decided to take her seriously. Why not? Nothing else tonight had been normal, even for a four-hundred year old vampire. He never even blinked as she handed him her watch and shooed him away. Odd. The smell of ozone hovered in the air, but there was no lightning flashing from the wispy clouds overhead.

Aidan drew a deep breath, obviously preparing herself for something, then pulled her saber out again. She glanced over to make sure Vachon was out of the way, then pulled the oak leaf necklace out from under the shirt. Immediately it began to glow faintly from the proximity of vampires.

Vachon hissed at two men clinging to the alley wall, then saw a metal blur in the corner of his eye. He looked over in time to see blond hair falling to the ground... and the rest of the body still on the trashcan. No blood spurted, and the sword swung and descended a second time, decapitating the Asian woman as well. Aidan immediately shook what little blood there was off her sword and sheathed it.

Blue light condensed around the first body, tenuous, faint, much like ground fog soon after rain. Tiny lightning bolts ran along limbs like St. Elmo's Fire, and where they ran, the light grew stronger, obscuring vision more and more. Even as Vachon blinked, trying to clear his eyes, luminescence formed around the Asian's body as well. Lightning crackled and struck off the blonde, lashing straight at Aidan, who stood braced for it.

The first bolt struck her squarely in the belly, and she contracted around it, her face reflecting the blow in the steadily increasing light. A second lash of power caught her on the shoulder, throwing her back, arms spreading wide for balance, and then the storm truly began. Light and power played off the two bodies, alternating the attacks, swirling around the corpses and striking down again and again without pattern.

Aidan gasped as the lightning crackled and hissed across her, pouring in and down, arcing off her hands to strike the walls or the corpses and reflect back at her. Poised on her toes, back arched and head thrown back, her positioning reminded Vachon of a cliff-diver headed for the water, as if she could dive up into the energy and be done with it somehow. In the strobe effect of the near-continuous lightning, her face looked unreal. Emotions flickered and changed across it: rage replaced by shock, shock succeed by fear. At the last, there was only stubborn defiance.

For several endless seconds, all that could be heard was the crackle of electricity, the screams of the tortured woman, and softly rumbling thunder. When it ended suddenly, the last of the power soaking into Aidan's skin and vanishing as she collapsed, the rushing roar of the wind sounded unnaturally loud against the brief silence. She half-knelt, half-crouched beside the wall, seared by the forces that had assaulted her and as pale as any vampire, but she breathed yet. The glow from her pendant flared as a vampire moved closer.

Vachon hissed again. "Back off, or when she's feeling better I'll ask LaCroix to give you to her." The other vampire bared teeth at him, but moved away. One minute passed, two, and still the only sound came from the erratic wind.

Aidan finally pulled her head up and took a deep breath, then another. Slowly she forced herself up, clawing her way up the wall and holding on for balance. Vachon heard her despairing murmur, "My Gods, how much headhunting had they done?" The same breeze which brought her words startled him further. The scent was unmistakable; the lightning storm had undeniably hurt her, but he could almost taste her arousal from here.

"Hey, Aidan? If you'll put the necklace up, I can give you a hand." He waited to see if she could hear at all after being in the middle of that storm. To his surprise she turned immediately to face him, almost visibly regaining her strength.

"No, Javier, thank you. I need to walk on my own. If you truly wish to help, do you have any idea what I can do with the bodies? I'm well out of my normal territories here and have no notion how to dispose of them."

Aidan drew one last deep breath and pulled herself back up to her usual erect posture, shoulders back and down. She caught the watch he tossed her and buckled it back on her wrist, then quickly searched the women for their wallets. The machete was tossed aside as being of no use. The Asian woman's shortsword, however, drew an admiring look and vanished into Aidan's coat. Nothing else was worth taking and she brushed her hands off contemptuously.

"I can get rid of the bodies for you. LaCroix is waiting." The Spaniard grinned admiringly. Not many would have been cool enough to search the bodies and she obviously didn't cower in front of LaCroix.

"Yes. I'll go. Thank you, I will owe you for this aid." The dark-haired woman threw one last appraising glance around the alley, then nodded and headed back indoors, moving with an easy springy stride. Already the worst of the storm's effects had vanished. Aidan dropped her necklace inside her shirt as she walked in the door. This time Neil did not block her passage in.

LaCroix sat in a chair which had been placed in the middle of the room. Other vampires crowded around him, watching her with narrowed, speculating eyes. Aidan walked through them, expecting passage without demanding it. They melted out of her way and back into place as she passed, deliberately moving fast enough to blur in and out of her sight. Equally deliberately she stopped within arm's reach of LaCroix, hands out to the sides and empty.

"An apology is owed, City Master, for fighting within your boundaries. May I offer recompense?" Aidan kept her tone level and her face and body still as she waited. For long minutes no one moved and no sound was heard except her steady, unhurried breathing; she neither shifted nor fidgeted. Finally, LaCroix nodded once.

Without haste or fear, Aidan took a step forward, then another, and knelt in front of him. With that same slow deliberation she placed her arms across his thighs, hands empty and palms up. LaCroix wrapped his hands around her forearms with the unbreakable strength of an old vampire. She settled herself a bit more carefully on her knees, then raised her chin and tilted her head sideways, presenting her throat to him.

LaCroix hissed, fangs extended, and struck. He tore into her throat for the sole purpose of forcing a cry of pain from her, and he succeeded. Aidan's hands flexed, fingers extending out and apart, then curled into fists with a painfully slow motion. At no point did she try to draw away, though he drank so deeply that darkness began to roll across her sight, light-shot and red-edged.

He pulled back at last and released her arms; Aidan swayed on her knees but didn't fall. LaCroix leaned in and licked off the few stray drops of blood which stood on her throat. As he pulled away tiny electrical surges crackled across her throat; the punctures faded and vanished. She stayed there a moment longer, then pushed up to her feet...only to stagger from blood loss. Even immortal recuperation needed more time than she was giving it.

LaCroix reached out and steadied her with one hand, face impassive. "The apology is accepted." Pallor made her hair black, her lips the faintest shade of rose. He ran a finger along one of his lips, then licked the remaining blood off while holding her eyes with his own.

From behind her, Aidan heard a purring female voice ask, "And are you going to apologize to the rest of us?" Despite her fatigue the immortal woman chuckled, as soft and dangerous as the question had been.

"Are you claiming territory here, then, that I need apologize to two rulers?" Silence answered that query, and Aidan chuckled again: a predator in her own right, and restless. "I thought not. I am not a goblet for anyone's drinking. Believe it, else I shall prove it."

LaCroix said only, "That will not be necessary. Does anyone here truly wish to challenge me?" Silence dropped immediately across the gathering and again the only sounds came from Aidan: quick, shallow breaths, and a heart pounding a shade too quickly to compensate for the lower blood-pressure. LaCroix smiled, a vicious expression, and commented, "I thought that must surely have been a badly- worded wit of someone's. It half succeeded."

Still with his hand on her arm, he guided Aidan back to a bar stool. The bartender eyed them both nervously then poured a fresh mug of coffee for her and asked if she wanted another hamburger as she hadn't finished the first one. Aidan nodded, still silent, and drank off half the coffee immediately.

LaCroix watched her, pleased at both the draught of immortal blood and the careful show both of them had made. No one doubted her power now. The fact that she had willingly submitted to his territory and then stood his punishment so well added to both their statures. His people gave him deference more obviously now. From the ebb and spin around Aidan, they extended that respect to her as well. Good, they should learn to be cautious of the swordsmen. As well, he was pleased to see she remembered how to endure pain.

Outside, a car pulled up, one whose engine LaCroix knew well. His most stubborn child came calling. But on this night Nicholas should surely be at work. What then had brought on this unexpected visit?

The blond vampire walked in, for once without his human, female partner, Tracy Vetter. Nick saw immediately that only one human remained in the club, not that unusual at two in the morning. "LaCroix, do you have any idea what is going on? There were four different calls about a light show behind The Raven. One woman swore up and down it was a localized thunderstorm."

Aidan heard the voice and turned, startled out of weariness. "Kolya?"

"Sulwen? But that was...." Nick stared at a ghost, then stepped forward and hugged her. "How have you managed this? You aren't...."

Her arms wrapped around him automatically and Nick took some of her weight, feeling a bone-deep tiredness in her that shocked him. Sulwen had always been quick-moving and energetic. He glanced quickly to see if someone had been at her throat but the skin lay untouched, as creamy pale as always. He felt her head settle against his shoulder for just a moment. When she stood upright and backed away, it was done so smoothly he took no offense at her leaving his arms.

"One of you? No, I never have been, Kolya. How have you been? I haven't seen you in ages. Helsinki, wasn't it?" She settled back into her stool and drained off the cooled coffee.

Nick paused as a thought came to him. "You wouldn't know anything about a lightning storm, would you?"

Aidan looked at him, an amused half-smile on her face and replied, "Weather phenomenon involving poles of electrical current and clouds. Why? Working for the weather service?"

"No, Toronto Police. Will you be in town long? I'm on duty, but I'd love to talk to you later."

Aidan smiled and shook her head. "No, old friend, I'm in Toronto through tomorrow night, and then I'm headed home. I'll make sure you have my number and address first if you like, although you'll need to warn me before you come visit. My house is not... currently suitable for you, I'm afraid."

Nick smiled back. "Living up to your name as always?"

"Of course. Did you truly expect else? So, what's this about a lightning storm?" Aidan settled her plate into her lap and tore into the hamburger ravenously as Nick began to run through the phone calls, obviously speaking to both her and LaCroix. The older vampire handed her the coffee mug again and she sipped at it. To her surprise, it was half coffee, half milk, and laced with whiskey and sugar -- exactly the restorative she needed right now.

"When did you two meet, Nicholas?"

Aidan glanced up at LaCroix's tone and then she quickly finished the hamburger, worried and needing badly to get back to her work before this visit caused her any more trouble than it already had.

Nick meanwhile answered LaCroix. "You remember when we were in Helsinki, LaCroix, back in the 1440s. Sulwen was an unofficial student at the university. She was giving free massages to official students in the front room of the Green Pig in order to get some practice without being run out of town as a prostitute."

Aidan gave him a rueful look and swallowed the last of her hamburger. "Actually, as a female student, they assumed I was one, but at least in the front room they were less likely to try to rape me. I didn't have to kill any of the young idiots, thank the Goddess, but I did leave scars on a few before they got the point."

"Ah, now I remember. I was rather occupied with a young opera singer that year. However, Nicholas, if you truly wish to know about the lightning, I would suggest you take your badge off and talk to Aidan."

"LaCroix, what exactly is the relationship between you and Nick? Before I start answering questions." Aidan settled herself more comfortably on her chair, settling her face into a half- smile that both LaCroix and Nick recognized as a wary mask.

"Nicholas is my son, Aidan." Lucien watched in pleasure as she held to her careful fašade; her control was exquisite as he remembered. The arousal had begun to fade from her scent, unfortunately. Pity, he had had definite plans... perhaps later.

"Ah. I see. Now I begin to understand. Nick, will you please trust me that you want to take off the badge for this?" Aidan reluctantly loosened her controls, letting her concern and annoyance show just a bit.

"Make this quick, Sulwen, my partner should be in any minute and she's human." But he took off the badge and put it on the bar between them.

"I'm an immortal, Nick. My kind don't die except under very precise conditions, which, with no offense, you don't need to know. Two immortals came in and challenged me to the final death. I killed them, then took them outside and ensured it would last. When the deaths became permanent, they gave up their Quickenings to me. Most people would describe the effects as a lightning storm.

"I now have their knowledge, their memories, their power -- to a certain extent, their personalities. Those I am still throttling and shoving down and may be for a few hours yet. They weren't all that strong or old yet. I'd say not more than a hundred, hundred and fifty. More likely the Asian girl was in her fifties, the other just over one hundred. But they'd been head-hunting. Both of them were stronger than they should have been."

Nick stared at her, then at LaCroix. "You lied to me about the lightning in other words. Are you telling me that you just killed two people who tried to kill you? And you're sitting here getting a late dinner?"

LaCroix sighed. "Nicholas, we have no monopoly on immortality, and Aidan's is of a different kind, with its own rules and disadvantages. I discussed this 'Game' once, years ago, with one of her kind in Rome."

Nick replied thoughtfully, "So did I once, I think. It was in Paris, but he never mentioned the Game."

Aidan flinched at the word Rome. Old memories were stirring and shuddering around her; new minds and souls battered within her. The stress level hovered within her control but LaCroix's constant prodding might yet push her over an edge none of them wanted to see. She closed her eyes for a long moment, snarling internally as she burned her own thoughts into flame to chase away her two newest mental roommates. When she opened her eyes the grey had darkened to a smoky charcoal that startled the two vampires.

In precise Latin, she stated, "Lucius. For all our sakes, yours as well as mine, do not continue pressing me. My controls are thin just now. And Nicholas, I never said I didn't know. I evaded your question, nothing more."

LaCroix studied her, then nodded once. "My apologies. I had forgotten how unstable your kind can become after such a fight. Is it simply that there were two of them? Or anything else?"

"Old memories, new memories, teaming up on me, needs.... Gods. Another topic, I think." Aidan focused on her breathing, drawing air deep into her lungs, holding, forcing it out until her head spun from lack of oxygen and low blood, then beginning again. From a distance she heard Nick talking quickly with LaCroix in French.

"It was self-defense then?"

"Oh, assuredly. They walked straight to her and challenged. She even offered them a chance to withdraw. You need not worry that the bodies will be found, either."

The sardonic edge in the voice registered with Aidan, but she disregarded it, too intent on reconstructing disciplines and safeguards. Part of her mind kept trying to submit to LaCroix's domineering personality as old habits reasserted themselves under the swirling memories brought to surface by the Latin. The majority of her mind, however, chafed and growled to lunge for his throat, vampire speed be damned. The two personalities she had recently acquired spun and scraped in her mind: even Stengel, the hunter who had tried to kill her two weeks ago, seemed to be helping them press at her. Another deep breath, then another, and they began to subside at last.

"Will she be all right?" Nick picked his badge back up, already spinning a cover story for this in his mind as he saw his partner, Tracy, come in the door talking animatedly with Vachon.

"I'll be fine, Kolya, I promise." Aidan brought her attention back out of herself and looked at LaCroix thoughtfully, seeing a possible solution to her problem. Yes, she had some unpleasant memories from that time, but that had been the only point in her life where she had bedded a vampire. It was a unique experience, memorable, and all hers. That might just give her a strong enough hold on reality to win this war against the two women's quickenings. "Will you let me speak to Lucius privately for a moment?"

"Certainly. I need to tell my partner something, then I'll bring her over to meet you. Aidan, right?" Nick leaned over and kissed her cheek, disturbed by her color and pulse. Something is very wrong with you, Sulwen, but if you are old enough to know LaCroix well, I'll let you be. You should know how to heal yourself by now. He walked over to Tracy, smiling to see her trying to pretend nothing lay between her and Vachon.

Behind him Aidan stood and moved to LaCroix, stepping well within what most would consider a personal boundary. He tilted his head to one side, curious as to what she wanted. Very softly she asked in Latin, "Do you have any plans for the daylight, old friend?"

LaCroix smiled at her, pleased with this turn of events and, though he wouldn't admit it, flattered by the request. "Not the young Spaniard?"

Aidan smiled at him and shook her head. "I need a good fight tonight, well, today. You and I have played this game before. I don't know him."

"Shall I see you at dawn then?" LaCroix made no move to touch her, knowing from their shared past that she disliked revealing her affections among strangers. That was just as well; his vampires did not need to know that he was fond of this immortal.

"Yes, or a bit after. Do I come here or elsewhere?"

"Here. The third floor is mine; use the stairway behind the bar." He tilted his head curiously. "Shall I expect a fight or submission? Or shall we settle it then?"

"Nicholas is on his way over. I have things to finish tonight, but I will be here soon after dawn. A fight, I think, though we can sort it out this morning." As Nick and his partner approached, Aidan stepped away from LaCroix casually. She noticed the relief on the young woman's face as she did so and smiled approvingly. Ah, another one with enough sense to see Lucius for the predator he is. Wise. Wait, what...?

As Nicholas introduced them, "Tracy, this is an old friend of mine, Aidan. Aidan, this is my partner, Detective Tracy Vetter," Aidan reached out and caught her hand as if for a handshake. Startlement crossed her face, surprising both vampires, and then Nick moved on to cover the moment, turning to Vachon. "Have you met Vachon?"

"Yes, I have." Her voice sounded abstracted and then she lapsed into Gaelic. "Merciful Mother, why me? Why now?" Tracy Vetter was pre-immortal; the sensation was unmistakable. Switching back to English, Aidan shook and released Tracy's hand, saying, "My apology for such ill greeting. A pleasure to meet you, Detective Vetter.

"Nick, I wish you luck, but I suspect a few teenagers pulled a prank on this one. However, if you all will pardon me, it has been an unconscionably long day and the night has worn me to the bone. Shall I meet you both for dinner tomorrow, either before you go on shift or when you go for your meal break? I would very much like to talk to you before I leave, Nick. I'm afraid it's rather important." Aidan got to her feet and stretched to full extension, hearing her back and shoulders strain and creak as muscles loosened.

"Nick, I can cover for you if you need a few hours," Tracy offered quietly as she studied the very composed woman. How did she do that with LaCroix? He scares me to death, and she acts like he's no big deal. To Tracy's surprise, Aidan shook her head.

"No, t'were best you were there, Detective." Aidan looked back and forth from Tracy to Vachon, then took in LaCroix as well. "Here would be the best place, I think. When do you go on shift, you two?"

Nick stared as Sulwen took firm control of the conversation. While it had been phrased as a polite query she obviously had no intention of allowing them to escape the meal. "We start at ten, short of a mass murder. I'm still on that special diet, though, Aidan, so I'll beg off the food."

Aidan raised an eyebrow at him, a sardonic gleam to her eyes. "Oh, I know, Nick. We'll be discussing that, among other things. If I had had more sleep, or you two more time, we would review this now. As it is, Javier, I will want you there as well. Lucien, if you would also be so kind, I would appreciate it?" She tilted her head inquiringly.

"Umm, I don't want to intrude." Tracy found the idea of a dinner with two vampires, one of them LaCroix, a bit unnerving. The compassionate look from Aidan struck her as strangely reassuring.

"You won't be. I'm sorry, I should do this tonight, but I'm simply too tired. Please, will you be here at 7:30? I'm buying."

Aidan stretched again and changed her plans. Not for nothing had she scouted, spied and sometimes assassinated her way down the centuries. She would sneak into Stengel's house tomorrow and sort during the afternoon, pack the last of it tomorrow night after she talked to this young immortal, and torch the house just before dawn.

LaCroix considered her request and the time carefully. That just gave time for the three vampires to be up and moving after a seven o'clock sunset. Interesting indeed; why the three of them? And why insist on including the human? "Of course I shall be there, my dear. Will you be on your way now?"

"Half a moment, Lucien. Vachon? Will you, please, as well? It's important, I fear."

"Yeah, no problem. Some reason you're going to discuss Nick's diet, though?" Javier wondered if Aidan had finally given in to the overload from that electrical storm. Why did Tracy need to be there for Nick to catch up on news with an old friend?

"All the reason in the world, but tomorrow. I beg pardon for leaving you all dangling, but--" She yawned widely, belatedly covering her mouth with one hand.

Tracy smiled at the very human behavior. "I'd be glad to meet you for dinner. I haven't met many old friends of Nick's, I'm looking forward to it."

"I'm glad. Tomorrow then. Lucien, may I change my mind about that appointment?" She shook her head abruptly. "Poorly worded. May I change the time? Would now suit you?"

LaCroix did raise his eyebrows, then replied calmly, "Certainly, my dear. Shall we conduct our business so that you can sleep?"

Aidan smiled and replied, "Yes, by all means. Vachon, Nick, Detective -- I will see you at half past seven this evening. A good morning to you all." She placed one hand on LaCroix's arm and they headed upstairs.

Tracy shook her head in wonder. "How did she do that?"

"Habit of command, Trace. Aidan's always had it, I think." Nick shrugged. "Oh, well, we'll find out tomorrow what she's up to. I suspect she's right, though. It's summer, kids are out of school. One or two of the calls to the precinct may even have been from them."

"You could be right. There's no sign of lightning in the alley, although the lights are blown out. Roman candles, maybe? Come on, partner, let's get going. Didn't you want to look over the scene again on the Scapelli death?" Tracy went back to business as they headed out the door, throwing Vachon a smile as they went. The two of them had a date in a couple nights. She could talk this over with him then.

* * * *

Upstairs, LaCroix closed the door to his suite and locked it. "So, my dear, which is it to be? A willing slave or a struggle for dominance?"

Aidan sighed and stretched again, muscles still protesting the hours of packing and toting boxes. "Shall we start with the second and see if you can incline me to the first?"

Soft laughter was her only answer as a single strong hand caught both of hers over her head and the other arm pulled her firmly back against LaCroix. "Having that much trouble with your two new acquaintances?" The tone held only mild curiosity, but the hands around her tightened to a point just short of pain. Aidan abruptly relaxed into the grip, knowing that would ease the ache as muscles loosened and slid along the bone.

"Yes, actually." Muscles rippled along her back, tensing involuntarily and being forcibly relaxed as she tried to control the urge to fight him. Despite her intent, she found herself contesting his hold on her wrists, twisting and torquing against his grip. Vampiric strength countered each move easily, holding her up when Aidan tried to use her weight to escape, mastering her attempts to get leverage all too smoothly.

He tightened his grip enough to draw a shuddering breath from her and bit at her shoulder to add that extra note of pain, careful not to draw blood yet. "Ah. From my discussions with some of the other swordsmen, may I suggest?"

After a second she gasped out, "Suggest."

"Submit. They were incapable of it and by the dawn will be gone to the depths of your intricate mind. You are more than capable of assimilating such small personalities, if both sides are distracted." Her heart rate sped up and her breath came in quick pants. LaCroix smiled to himself when he heard, not letting it shade his voice. "Both of us know where your more normal preferences lie; you may still trust me to release you in the dawn. Agree."

Her body shuddered against him, but she forced out the words. "Are you sure that isn't more what you want than what I need?"

"Oh, assuredly it's what I want. That does not mean it is not what you need. I would be as happy to fight you, Phaedra, it's been far too long since I had someone worth the struggle who would give me a good bout. However, you have been a slave before; those memories and reflexes are yours alone, not theirs. I think it would ground you back into yourself, and I can ensure that it gives both of us pleasure. Tomorrow, if you like, we can indeed have that... competition."

Aidan held still in his grasp, then answered quietly, "I'll need to take care of an errand at dawn or just after. Will that be acceptable?"

"From you, my dear, the word 'need' is just that. By all means. Do you yield?" His question was purely rhetorical as she drew a long, shuddering breath and relaxed against him.

"Yes. For this night, I yield. What shall I call you, sir?" As LaCroix released her waist, she slid to her knees, back to him, arms still held over her head by his hand.

The vampire smiled at the sight. Too long since I've been served by a well-trained slave. That it should be this one again.... And the best of it is that I must keep her off-balance, riding the edge of pain and pleasure, at her need and mine. Outwardly he replied, "Master, or sir, or consul will be appropriate. Use Latin, slave." LaCroix released her hands and ordered, "Strip." The hours until dawn would be entirely too short.

* * * *

LaCroix pulled Aidan more firmly against his chest as the last of the orgasm shuddered through her. Propped on his side, he leaned in to drink her tears as delicately as he had drunk her blood earlier. The bruises his hands had left when he held her down were almost gone, already faded to yellow-green. Quietly he ordered, "Stay. Do not move. You may breathe, but keep your eyes closed."

"Yes, master."

Her voice remained steady, he noticed. Much better. If she could withstand both pleasure and pain to control her tone, she had recovered from the fight completely. Rising, he crossed the room, poured a glass of water for her and brought it back. "Sit up, eyes closed."

He wrapped his fingers around the glass and ran his hand down her arm and around her back to support her against her continued shuddering. "Drink." Without a word of question or protest, she lifted the glass in shaky hands and drank. LaCroix considered how quickly she had drained the glass and the demands he had made of her and took it from her.

"Stay. The same orders." He refilled the glass and put it back in her hands. When she had finished the second glass, more slowly this time, he began to clean her face and throat with a cool, damp cloth. "Better?"

"Yes, sir, thank you." Eyes still closed, she leaned in against him, tired and at peace. Her arms still ached slightly where bones were finishing their healing but the lingering ripples of pleasure more than offset that. Taking her cue from LaCroix's body language, she curled against him and let her mind drift, alert to any shift of his muscles which might require a response from her.

It was incredibly relaxing not to worry about anything except pleasing Lucius. No worries about the Game, about friends living or dying, or about witch hunts. The minds contesting with her own for dominance had fought both her and LaCroix, but they had faded away hours ago, ages ago, under the discipline he imposed.

The women had understood taking pleasure from another's pain, but they knew nothing of how to ride torment until it became rapture. As ever, LaCroix had allowed nothing except complete submission to his will, enforced by precise, calculated agony. He knew her too well, had in fact trained most of the responses into her himself centuries ago. Even now he remembered exactly how to hurt her with such exquisite care that it left ecstasy in the wake of torture.

Aidan had not tried to fight it, only to ride the sensations up and over into pleasure. Rather than learn how to abandon control, the personalities inside her mind had finally given way and frayed away to half- known memories, barely sensed skills. What had finally undone them was not her acceptance of pleasure from pain, but her leashing it until she received permission to come. Rather than be willing slaves they had gone their way to whatever afterlife awaited them.

Cool slender fingers stroked across her shoulders and arms, ran the damp cloth between her breasts. A puff of breath blew cool air across the nape of her neck, soothing her at the same time that she shivered from the contrast in temperatures. She thought she felt a kiss on her forehead but brought her attention back to him when he spoke.

"It's dawn, Aidan. I release you as promised." LaCroix watched the shift in her body language--muscles gathering and posture straightening a bit although she did not draw away from him. For another minute or so, she rested against him in a comfortable silence. When she did open her eyes, they were their normal clear grey and unstressed.

She stretched up and back over his shoulder, arching like a cat, then twisted around and kissed him gently on the lips. "Thank you, Lucius. You were right, that was precisely what I needed. Shall we get a shower before I go run my errands?"

LaCroix smiled at her. "Certainly. Have you a place to sleep for the day?"

"I need to check out of my motel for... various reasons you might be better off if you could disclaim to your son." She stepped off the bed and splashed cold water over her face at the sink, then glanced in the mirror. Paler than usual, circles under the eyes, but nothing too bad. The marks have faded and the wrists and ribs are healing nicely. And I don't look haunted, either. Good. Who'd have thought those two would be so rough to shake? Am I getting senile? Do we do that? I'll worry about it another day. Sufficient to the day are the evils thereof, as the Christians would say. I need breakfast, sleep, and then a good long run. All else can wait.

"My son knows better than to ask. Do you wish to sleep here? I have sufficient control not to drain you when I wake."

"Not today, thank you. Better I simply change motels. I'll be getting up again by two to finish stripping that house and you'll not want an alarm going off then. Tomorrow, though? And in the meantime, a shower, and I will see you again this evening?" Aidan looked around for her clothes and found then neatly piled on a chair where she had removed them earlier.

LaCroix stood up and walked over to her. "Yes, you will. What exactly is the point of this meeting?"

"There are things Nick and his partner need to know. That Nick is involved means it concerns you, and Javier is in love with her, and will also need to hear this." Aidan wrapped an arm around his waist. "Shall we get a shower? I had rather tell all of you at once."

"Very well. For you I will wait." Raising her wrist to his lips, LaCroix kissed the last of the fading bruises. "I had forgotten how exceptional your endurance for pain is. You're recovered, I hope?"

Aidan smiled fondly at him as she adjusted the water temperature for the shower. "I'm fine, Lucius, only the worst is still healing, and the bones are almost done. No one has pushed my limits so hard in ages. I had forgotten what cruel pleasure that kind of pain can be. Thank you, for everything."

"You're most welcome." They left it at that by unspoken accord.

* * * *

Aidan sat back in the booth as the first vampires began to straggle in, sipping cautiously at her soft drink. Discussions like this never got easier down through the centuries, but she had never believed in hiding options from adults. Thus the secluded booth in the back of the Raven and the non-alcoholic drink. She bided her time and honed the edge on her knife, part of her mind on the upcoming talk, part on the papers she had packed out of Stengel's house. The valuables had been the easy part, already completed; his papers and disks worried her.

T'would be a shame to miss any of it, but I'll be burning the place, definitely. At least if I don't get something, no one else will either. Gods, the man should have been a research librarian! He found things I would have never thought to look for and tied them together all too well. Thank the Lady he was too arrogant to take a partner!

Vachon walked in and, after a minute, spotted her. His eyes widened slightly when he noticed the knife, but all he said when he sat down was, "But I liked all the black leather."

Aidan burst out laughing. "Ah, Gods, Javier, if you ever come to Seacouver, let me know! I know people who would love your sense of humor. However, I didn't want to upset Tracy any more than will already be necessary, and I thought normal clothes would reassure her a bit more."

Faded blue jeans, black tank top, and hiking boots did look a good bit more normal, and a maroon sweater lay folded on the table. Vachon took in the four tiny braids running down from her temples to behind her shoulders and asked, "How long is your hair? You had it up yesterday."

When she stood up, smiling, her hair swung down just past her waist, a long sable mass confined by the braids wrapped around it. "Not long enough to suit my teacher, who remembers when it hit my knees. I may yet let it get that long again, who knows. That's terribly conspicuous these days, though. Have you eaten?"

"Not yet. I'll get some later. Why is Trace going to be upset? And who's the knife for?"

She studied his serious face. "The knife is for me. I'm not going to attack her, my word on it. But I'm going to have to turn her life upside down and that's always upsetting. Does she know about you?"

"Yeah, she does, and LaCroix. She doesn't know about Nick." Vachon slouched back against the seat. "You planning on telling her?"

Aidan waved to Nick as he came in the door. "You'll see. I plan on telling all of you several things."

"I heard about last night. LaCroix didn't drain you too badly, did he?" Vachon spoke quickly, wanting to ask before the two police types could get there.

"No, I've been tapped for more once or twice. He and I did what was needful." Aidan shrugged. "I had to shed blood in his territory; he had to force a public display of my respect. Not unusual, not a problem."

Tracy asked curiously, "What isn't a problem?"

Aidan grinned at her. "Oh, a discussion I had with LaCroix last night before you arrived. As I said, nothing unusual. Thank you for coming. May I call you Tracy? "

Tracy smiled back. "Detective Vetter is a bit long, yeah. Call me Tracy or Trace. Hi, Vachon." She slid onto the seat across from Aidan, ending up next to Vachon.

"Thank you." Aidan stood up and hugged Nick, then sat back down in the booth as Nick pulled up a chair. "Hello, Nick. Did you see LaCroix as you came in?"

Nick nodded. "He's on his way." Already concerned, he said very softly, "Is this a good idea?"

"Nick. It's necessary. I'm sorry, this will cause you some trouble I expect, but it must be done. There is no choice."

As LaCroix moved next to her, Aidan nodded to him. "Thank you all for your patience. This conversation usually takes place in a much smaller group, say one on one, but there are some unique complications to this."

"What conversation? Complications? Are you sure you want me here?" Tracy made one last try at giving them some privacy.

"The conversation with you, Tracy. Best I go straight to the proof and give you the explanation afterwards." Aidan had left the knife and whetstones on the table. She picked up the long slender stiletto and casually polished it clean on a paper napkin.

"Lucien? Guard me during this?" They looked at each other, the human immortal and the vampire, and he nodded slowly.


Aidan glanced at Nick. "Don't let her scream too loudly, all right?" Placing the knife point under one rib, the immortal drove the blade into her heart with one sharp thrust. Aidan didn't try to fight the death that rolled over her. Slumped against LaCroix, she slid away into blackness without a sound beyond the initial hiss of pain and expelled air.

Tracy stared, eyes huge, then tried to stand up. "Oh, my God, we need to call an ambulance!"

Nick shook his head and gently put a hand on his partner's shoulder. "Tracy...."

LaCroix pulled the blade out and cleaned it off on the same napkin. Then quite matter of factly he said, "There will be no ambulance. There is no need."

Vachon looked at the motionless body, then shook his head. "You know what's going on, LaCroix?"

"Yes, I begin to think I do."

"Is she going to start throwing lightning?" Vachon asked.

"Lightning? Vachon, she's dead!" Tracy reached across the table to check for a pulse; there was nothing to be found. "God, why did she do this?"

LaCroix replied sarcastically, "For your benefit, actually. Time you learned a few more facts of life, young officer. There are many types of immortality--this is one of them."

Tracy glared at him, too angry to be frightened. "Yes, I'll remember this for the rest of my life, but that's not a form of immortality I'd have thought she'd go in for!"

The vampires heard Aidan's heart start back up, pounding irregularly for a few beats, then settling down to a quick, steady pulse. A few seconds later she drew a sharp gasping breath, groaned, and opened her eyes. "Gods, I hate that." The immortal coughed once, a harsh sound as the last of the blood was reabsorbed out of her lungs. Tracy was still staring in disbelief.

"That is your proof, Tracy, and now I give you the story you would otherwise have ignored as madness, despite knowing about vampires. My name is Edana ni Emer. I was found near one of the circles of standing stones, in a portion of what is now Ireland, on February the 1st, 627 BC. I died the first time in 605 BC. I am immortal.

"And so will you be." Aidan stopped and waited to gauge the mettle of this newest player of the Game.

Tracy swallowed once, hard. Reverting to her professional armor, she leaned forward. Aidan held still as the younger woman examined her shirt for blood, looked at the still healing gash in her chest. "You were dead. Your heart had stopped."


When it was obvious Aidan was going to wait, Tracy snapped, "What happened? How? What do you mean you're immortal?"

"Good questions. We don't know how or why it works, but we are immortal. Only if our heads are separated from our bodies do we die the final death. Other than that, if we die, we come back. Well, sooner or later--variables involve such questions as trauma to the body, trauma to the mind, and relative power of the immortal involved." Aidan smiled and stopped again, sipping her drink.

This time Tracy recognized the finality of the tone and asked her next questions. "Do you mean if someone shot you or poisoned you, stabbed you or whatever, you'd still get back up?"

A smile. "Yes. I have died by all such means, more than once."

Vachon flinched inwardly at the casual attitude. God, she sounded so matter of fact. She'd have discussed the weather in that same tone. Urs said she bared her throat to LaCroix and never smelled of fear, never fought while he ripped at her. I hate pain.

"But if you're decapitated, you're gone?"

"Yes." The smile hovered, amused and pleased both.

The three vampires watched as Tracy explored this with the same stubbornness she applied to her police work. They could tell by Aidan's focus on the young policewoman that only Tracy's questions would be answered. Tracy continued, "Okay. Power in immortals. Go back to that. What counts?"

That got a wide smile. "The older you are, the stronger. The stronger you started, the stronger you stay. And the more heads you take, the more power you accumulate."

"What do you mean, the more heads you take?" Tracy went on ruthlessly.

"Once you become an immortal, like it or not, you are in the Game. There are three rules: The first is one on one combat. That one is often broken, but where we can we hunt down those who abuse it. The combat is to take the other person's head. When you take a head, you release the person's quickening. A quickening is the whole of your power, your knowledge, your personality. Its release creates a display much like an electrical storm. The impact on the immortal who won is... sizable." Aidan paused for a few seconds, trying to find a way to explain it.

"Try to imagine the most intense, gut-wrenching pain you've ever felt hitting at the same time that every inch of your body hovers on the edge of an orgasm, while your mind shifts the way it does the first time you start thinking in a second language and all of a sudden you understand the idioms they use...." Aidan saw the expression on Tracy's face and smiled. "That combination almost describes it. Almost. The whole experience is as indescribable as a Sufi's ecstatic union with their God, but very different--or so my Sufi friend told me once."

"That's a quickening I think you called it?" At Aidan's nod, Tracy said, "And this adds to your power?"

"Yes. If you're not unlucky."

Tracy stopped for a second, hearing something very unpleasant in the undertones and phrasing. From the corner of her eye she saw that LaCroix looked mildly surprised by the answer, which was shock from anyone else. "What counts as unlucky?"

"When a young immortal manages to take an older one or one with a strong enough--and different enough--personality, you can go insane. Sometimes, you change so radically you might as well have lost. It's usually called a dark quickening, because it's usually an immortal who's taken one too many evil personalities. However, there was once a light quickening, when one of our more deadly generals killed an immortal saint... and retreated onto holy ground for the rest of his life." Aidan kept her voice completely neutral but her hand tightened into a white-knuckled fist at the effort.

"Can it be reversed?" Tracy looked shaken now.

"Sometimes. With luck. Not often." Aidan shrugged. "It depends on who decides to help and your own strength of mind. A bad quickening can drop you straight into a second fight where your own mind and body are the battleground, your only weapons self-knowledge and will."

"Oh." Tracy sat silent for a moment, forcing down shivers as she had done more than once in the more intense police academy lectures. When she had her composure back, she went on. "You said three rules. One on one combat is the first, right? What's the second?"

"We never fight on holy ground. No matter what religion, no matter whether you like it or not, you never do it. I had to respect a Satanic church once."

"Why not?" Tracy had something of the old respect for religion, but it was mixed with the modern trend toward scientism and a refusal to believe what couldn't be seen. This sounded more like myth and courtesy than anything else.

"It happened once, that I know of. Herculaneum, 79 AD. Vesuvius went up." Aidan held her voice to the same level tone. "If you start a fight on holy ground, you will have no doubts. Energy will begin to flare, and the swords will chime and sing as if the very molecules are unwinding like a crystal keening its own death wail. Stop then and run, or be destroyed."

LaCroix started. "Vesuvius went up because of an immortal battle?"

Aidan turned and looked at him, caution in the set of her shoulders and tilt of her head. "Yes, so I'm told. I wasn't there myself. Why?" She resolutely moved toward him at the hiss that drew. "Lucius. If you're going to take something out on anyone, it will be me. What is the problem?"

"I became a vampire because Vesuvius went up. My maker thought it the only way to save me." His eyes glowed in a silvery rage, fangs out.

The immortal woman twisted, coming up onto her knees on the booth seat facing him. "And you have had two thousand years and a glorious son from it, too. Calm yourself, old friend, easy."

LaCroix yanked himself back under control and asked, "The immortals who fought?"

"Dead, the both of them, destroyed by the eruption presumably." Aidan studied him carefully, then nodded once and settled back into her seat. She gave Tracy an expectant look, cocking one eyebrow at the young woman to continue.

"Umm.... Yeah. Okay. Rule one, one on one. Rule two, no fighting on any kind of holy ground. What's rule three?"

For an endless age Aidan stared at her, grey eyes locking on blue, then she nodded once approvingly. "You will make a fine player in the Game. Most would have flinched by now. But you're not in shock. Good. The last rule is the most important to learn and remember. There can be only one."

Tracy waited for the rest, bewildered. "Only one what? One rule?"

Aidan shook her head, the expression on her face gentle, compassionate, but detached. "No. One immortal. Or so the rules say. I've been trying to work out a way around that for two millennia now."

"You mean this Game goes on until...." Tracy trailed off, face going white as some of the implications sunk in. "Only one. "

"There can be only one immortal left, and that one will have the Prize: All the knowledge, powers, skills, and strengths of all the immortals who have ever lived. Or so we think. No one's ever won it, obviously, so we're not sure. But if we're right....

"If it goes to someone good, there will be an era of light and love to equal the legends of Camelot. Should it descend to evil, the gates of Hell will look inviting. Some of us don't expect to take the Prize-- but we try our damnedest to keep evil from taking it." Aidan's smile grew as feral as LaCroix could have managed. "Our damnedest can be... formidable."

Nick flinched as he began to understand certain things in Sulwen's behavior. "No wonder you argued so fiercely that one night that good must win." And no wonder you will do what you must to survive. I remember, you argued as fiercely for adherence to duty as LaCroix ever did. He's old line Roman, I understood it from him. From a college student that surprised me. It doesn't now.

"Yes. I understand what can come if it doesn't. But the wrong good could be as disastrous as evil. Too rigid, or too lazy... well." Aidan sighed. "Manipulating the Game is an art, not a science. But it has to be done."

Vachon stared at her. "Manipulating? What about winning?"

"Do you want me to kill Trace? Just because she will be another immortal and competition?" Vachon hissed at her and the waiter hastily retreated at the expressions on the vampiric faces. "I thought not. I don't want the Prize, Javier. I don't want to win. To win the Prize, my friends, my line-kin, the only family I have, will all have to go down before I do. I would literally rather be dead. But I'm too strong a piece in the Game--too old, with too much power, and I command my own magics. I cannot lie down until we come to the end of this convolution."

Tracy reached impulsively for Aidan's hand. "You've been living with this for so long! How do you do it? How can you stand it?" Aidan clasped her hand strongly, then smiled and let go, settling back again.

"Simple to say, harder to do. You live. You enjoy what you have, while you have it, and you learn first endurance, and then joy, in events. Live long enough and you'll even learn to take pleasure from pain if there is nothing else." She traded a long level gaze with LaCroix who nodded once. "I've told you the worst of it, because you needed to know--but there are glorious sides to this, too.

"I saw London built. I heard Will Shakespeare act in his own plays that he had written and directed. I was there when Daniel Boone went out on his first long hunt, and I had been in those far wild lands first. I've been to every continent except Antarctica, and that's only because I don't love cold so well as that. But I hear the wind songs there are rare and fine... I may yet go. I've built and lost fortunes, had time for love and war, revenge and joy. I've taken husbands and wives both, helped them raise their children. In my time, I've been lover, teacher, warrior, thief, assassin, weaponsmith, witch, farmer, horsebreeder.

"This is the kind of time you have, if you keep your head. You are already a warrior, already strong. You'll get stronger, even before you become an immortal, because you're not a fool and because these two," and she indicated Nick and Vachon with her chin, "will push you to it. But you have the will, the strength of body and mind, to do what you must and stay yourself. We are not vampires. We have our own advantages, our own disadvantages."

Aidan drained her soft drink and fell silent, apparently startled by her own eloquence.

"I don't want to hear the advantages yet. Not yet. You say people come for your head. Vachon mentioned lightning. Is that what happened last night?" Tracy leaned forward, intent on the answer.

"Yes. Two immortals came after me and lost. I took their heads and their quickenings."

"Two on one and you still won?"

Aidan shrugged, amused and irritated all at once. "Yes. Not the first time, not the last. I was taught by two of the best of us and they put a great deal of time into me. Besides, the women last night were fools. It never occurred to them that if they disregarded rules, so would I. I struck before they had their blades all the way out."

"What are line-kin?" Vachon leaned forward when Tracy asked that, interested in this answer after Aidan's casual mention of line-brothers the night before.

"That's another disadvantage. We... cannot have children, not even as the vampires do. We are sterile. That's why I say we aren't really a race. Where we come from, none of us know. Always, we seem to be foundlings. But who knows? Maybe we're simply a genetic mutation of some type and human instinct drives them to send us away.

"Regardless, the only family we have is our line-kin. The students of my teacher are my brothers and sisters; his teacher's students are his sibs. We don't usually take it further than that, although in some lines it's like a huge sprawling clan of cousins and friends. Some of the older ones may be called 'uncle', or in rare cases of devotion, 'mother' or 'father', but it's usually 'brother' or 'sister' or 'cousin.' We reckon it much the way the martial artists do, naming ourselves the line of the oldest known teacher.

"And I mean a teacher, not someone you studied with briefly. Someone who changed you profoundly, not someone who taught you a few tricks or maneuvers. Usually, you only count one person as your teacher, but I'm something of an oddity there. I'm out of the line of Ramirez and another line I don't name."

"Why don't you name it?" Tracy caught amusement and what she would swear was love in Aidan's eyes before she carefully shielded her eyes.

"Because it's too dangerous, to me and to him. So far as I know I'm the oldest student left alive in either of my lines. Ramirez is dead; no one will seek me for leverage against him to gain a quickening older and stronger than mine. But my other teacher is much older than I am, and still in the Game. I will not be bait or pawn against him."

Tracy nodded in perfect understanding. LaCroix inclined his head to Aidan. "A formidable loyalty, Aidan, but no surprise from you. You have ever given in entirety."

That drew a smile from Aidan, but she gave Tracy her attention again. "Have you other questions?"

Tracy snapped, "Yes. Why? Why are you telling me this? Why are you telling any of us this? And how do you know I'm going to be an immortal?"

Aidan raised an eyebrow, respectful of and bemused by this spitting young kitten. "So. We come to that at last. Those are all much the same question, 'tho you have but little reason to know it. Immortals can sense each other at a distance. The stronger you are, the wider the field you put out and the farther out you can sense others. Usually if you can feel them, they can feel you."

Tracy interrupted, "What do you mean 'feel'? What is it, a headache? Some kind of high-pitched noise?"

Soft laughter spilled out from Aidan. "It varies from person to person. I'm told I have a unique signature, so I may be the wrong one to ask. Some feel it as a headache, some have a ringing in the ears. One young man, Kit, sneezes; swears he's allergic to this whole thing. For me, it sounds like ringing chimes or bells, and all my senses seem to become stronger, more discerning. Most of us have an automatic adrenaline trigger when we feel it. We go immediately into fight or flight mode.

"As to why I told you? Only the strongest, most sensitive, or oldest--which are not always the same thing, by the bye--can feel a pre-immortal at a distance, but almost all of us can feel one when we touch. However. When you become an immortal, any immortal in range will know about you. Most will come looking for your head. It's late in the Game, and the white hats seem to be fewer every decade." Aidan let her head fall forward as she bent to get her glass; she hid some of her grief, but not all of it.

"So how do I become an immortal, then? And why are you telling these three?"

"To the first question, you die without losing your head. When you get up, you will be an immortal. You will never age a day past that point, but any other immortal will know you for what you are. You will stand up wearing the equivalent of a sign saying, 'Eat at Joe's.' Mind, a vampire won't be able to tell unless he tastes your blood and even then he may not know what he's tasted.

"And I told Nick because he will almost certainly need to cover for you on the day you die. You are not in the safest of professions. One day he will have to help you guard your secret. Only fair; he needs your help with his."

Nick sighed and put his head in his hands, knowing where this was going. To his surprise, Aidan quietly put the revelation in his hands. "Nick. Tell her. You don't really want me to, Tracy will never forgive you."

Tracy meanwhile looked back and forth, saying, "What secret? We've been partners for months."

Nick rolled his eyes, aware that Aidan had decided to bring his vampirism into the open. "Do you ever keep secrets? Because one of these years, I'm going to get revenge for this."

"This is my secret, Kolya." She tilted her head to one side. "Speak or I do."

Nick nodded quietly. "I never thought it would come to this. Are you sure she'll be one of you, Sulwen? Could you be wrong?"

"No. It's unmistakable. I've already begun looking for a sword to suit her."

"Is there any way to stay out of the Game?" Vachon asked that one, worried already. Tracy had killed once in the line of duty and had nightmares for weeks. Killing because she had to might destroy her.

Aidan looked over at him. "No. There isn't. We can get away some times, hide for a while, or go onto holy ground in retreat... but Tracy isn't the kind to take up orders and live in seclusion. Are you?" She turned to Tracy.

"No, I'm not. Nick, what secret? Tell me." Tracy set her jaw in an all too familiar way; her stubborn streak had surfaced in full force at last. Her partner sighed, seeing trouble and no path around it.

"Trace. I don't have.... Oh, the hell with it. I'm not going to keep hiding from you. I'm a vampire, too."

Tracy's eyes widened, then her lips tightened and her face flushed with anger. "No wonder you've never asked me inconvenient questions about Javier. You could have told me! Did you think I wouldn't keep your secret? What did you take me for?"

"Trace, it wasn't that, it's just...." He never finished it as Tracy took out some of her temper over the night's shocks on him.

"What was it? I couldn't be trusted, or I wasn't strong enough to take it? The Commissioner's daughter would go running to Daddy? Why didn't you tell me, Nick? Everyone else seems to have known, even this immortal!" Aidan sat out the temper placidly, even when a waving arm came very close to her nose in passing.

"Damn it, Trace, I never told Schanke either! And what was I going to say? I didn't even want you as a partner at first, I was still in shock over Schanke and the Captain dying. Then I found out that the Commissioner's daughter was actually a damn good cop with too many people waiting for her to fail, and I didn't want to put my secret on your shoulders. You were already carrying too damn much! And after that it was never time, Tracy, for one reason or another. And the longer I waited, the worse I knew you were going to take it!"

LaCroix smiled to see his son explode for once, rendered defensive by a woman not even in her fourth decade when Nick was in his eighth century.

"Damn right I'm taking it badly! We're partners, Nick Knight! Is that even your name? And if I'd known why you kept vanishing, I'd have had more attention to spare for coming up with excuses for you, instead of wondering myself and being mad!" Tracy turned from Nick and looked to her other side, at Vachon.

"And you! You didn't tell me either! Are you going to tell me you didn't know?"

Vachon hastily put out both hands to ward off this line of discussion. "Whoa, whoa, Tracy, yeah, I knew what Knight was, but he's twice my age! Age is strength with us, too. I wasn't going to piss Knight off, not when he's that much stronger than I am. And with the Master of the City being his maker, and both of them legendary for their tempers--" Vachon caught her hands, and finished softly, "I told you as much as I could, honest."

Tracy glared at LaCroix. "What's so funny?"

He shrugged, eloquent in his sardonic disdain. "You, not even immortal yet, cowing two vampires before you. Perhaps I have misjudged you after all. Few would even have asked me the question."

Tracy looked over at Aidan. "Any other unpleasant surprises?"

"Not for you, I don't think." Aidan pulled out three pieces of paper and handed them out: one each to Vachon, Nick, and Tracy. "Keep these. When you become immortal, get to holy ground immediately and wait for me. These numbers will find me, one way or another, if I'm still in the Game. If I'm dead, call one of the MacLeods, or the Valicourts. You do speak French don't you?"

Tracy nodded. "I work for the Canadian government. It's a job requirement."

"Good. Nick, Javier, I'm aware you will have trouble getting her to holy ground. At the least, get her close and guard her until she wakes. Now then, gentlemen, we get to the nasty part so far as you two are concerned. This is not optional. Make no mistake on that." Aidan stopped and waited until they looked up from the papers, needing their full attention. Finally she reached over and put a hand over Nick's copy, knowing he would try to read and talk otherwise.

"Look at me. I need to be sure you're listening. This could be your death." That finally got the shocked attention of the youngest three at the table.

"Vachon. Nick. The Game is only for immortals. You may not fight for her. Ever. If the odds are higher than one on one, you may hold them off, kill them if need be in a way they will come back from--but the moment Tracy is finished and standing again from the quickening, you must step back and let the second fight begin. And the third or fourth, if necessary. This is not an option. This is how it must be."

Vachon looked up from under his lashes, wide-eyed rebellious innocence on his face. "Which is why LaCroix stopped me last night? So what happens it if we do interfere? If we decide that it should be two on two, or three on three?"

Aidan studied him, grey eyes pinning Vachon in his seat, cold and quiet and deadly as her knife. "Then I hunt you down myself, Javier, if Lucien doesn't beat me to it. Odds are he will."

Nick and Tracy both started. LaCroix sat up from where he had been slouched against the bench seat, fingers steepled. "She is correct. This is their Game. The Enforcers will kill you, Vachon, or I will. Vampires do not interfere in the Game, and immortals do not hunt vampires. If one side breaks the agreement, the other can. Both sides keep the secret of the other, but we do not fight each other's wars."

Aidan waited to be sure he had finished, then took it back up. "You may train her, you may help hide her, but you may not fight for her or take heads for her." She sighed and commented, "I can tell you both plan to push the line on this, so I will tell you how far it can be pressed. Do not take it further than this. I was quite serious. I would be one of the ones hunting you.

"If an immortal takes mortal hostages to force Tracy into challenge or make her give up her sword, you may rescue the mortal. If the immortal brings mortal henchmen with, say, guns, you can kill them. The combats are only between immortals, not vampires, not mortals. But note well: you may not fight for her. If she dies because of unfair odds, you may collect the attackers and bring them to one of the older immortals. We will fight them one at a time and take their heads. You may not. Essentially you can even the odds but you may not actively fight.

"Do not even think of making Tracy a vampire. Again, both sides will hunt all parties involved." Glancing at LaCroix, she asked, "Did I miss anything essential?"

"No, that sums it up quite well, I think." LaCroix pinned the two younger vampires against their seats with his will. "You will obey what she has said or I will take your throats. I will not have a war between the vampires and the immortals. They are centuries-old hunters who can move in daylight and are generally skilled in both finding and killing evasive targets. It would destroy both sides, if only through a truly unwelcome publicity."

Tracy had listened to this, slowly beginning to be unnerved by all this as LaCroix took it seriously. Finally starting to shake, she asked, "If I die of old age, do I come back as an immortal?"

Aidan reached across the table and caught her hands, chaffing them to lend some warmth. "Shh, shh, kitling, it will be all right. I don't know, I've never seen it happen. I suspect not. But in your job it's not likely."

"Do I have to decide immediately?"

Vachon wrapped an arm around her, holding her against him, and said, "Decide what, Tracy?"

"When to die. She implied that it can be my choice." Tracy watched the other woman to see if she was right and was rewarded by a nod.

"Yes. It can. Some lines simply keep an eye on pre-immortals until they die. Some of us think that if you're an adult, you're entitled to know what's coming and decide when to step into the Game. At the very least, I recommend you start working out more and begin to study sword work. Not fencing, nothing so formal. You need to study the down and dirty styles; I'd recommend a light saber, or possibly...." Aidan began to study Tracy's hands, extending them out, pressing between the bones to check the muscle tone. "You can shoot with either hand, can't you?"

"Yes. Why?" Tracy began to take some comfort from the calm assurance across the table.

"Good. It will make you more unpredictable. I suggest shortsword, either hand and eventually both. Most immortals can't fight an opponent using two weapons. Until you master both at once, focus on left hand. Southpaws are almost as bad to fight."

"Okay." Tracy drew a deep breath. "God, you said I needed to be here for this. You weren't kidding. All right, I'll look for a sword and find someone to teach me. If I die, I need to call you and you'll help. Anything else?"

Aidan smiled sympathetically. "I know, it's rough. But better that you have a chance to adjust before it happens. Much easier on the nerves, I assure you. If you do decide to step into the Game rather than be thrown, will you try to give me a little advance notice?"

"You mean if I decide to die and get it over with?" Tracy managed a very faint smile.

"Yes. Sorry, I thought you might have had as much death as you could cope with for the moment."

"I'm holding up. Come on, I do this for a living--sort of. Yeah, I'll let you know, but if you've told me all this, what do you still have to train me in?" Tracy settled in against Vachon. Well, at least I don't have to keep my relationship with Javier secret anymore.

That got a smile. "Oh, little things: investments, changing identities, relocating both how and when, who your friends are, how best to run from a fight and when to do it...." Aidan shrugged. "Sword play these two can start you on."

LaCroix glanced up and said, "I will provide the swords. Be here at this same time tomorrow to begin."

That stopped everyone cold, until Aidan laughed, a long gleeful sound. She said, "Thank you, Lucius, I didn't want to ask! Oh, that's perfect!"

LaCroix smiled and nodded to her. "For you, my dear, and for the amusement of tweaking the Game, it will be a pleasure."

"Tracy, you couldn't ask for better. Lucius could run me ragged with shortsword at human speeds and strengths. And you need to get used to being outmatched from the start." Aidan studied her, suddenly predatory and deadly. "There are things you can and will do when you know you're outmatched that will let you win a match. As the saying goes, 'Professionals are predictable, but there are a lot of amateurs in the world.' We're going to make you a permanent amateur who understands professionals."

"Do you always think in terms of winning?" Tracy sounded genuinely curious rather than accusatory.

"Goddess, no. I plan to survive, first; then I plan to win. I've run from fights in my day, more than once. And you're taking all this much better than I did. I kicked and screamed and argued for six years." Her mouth twitched in a rueful moue. "I was a very stubborn child, Tracy. Don't think I was always this calm about it. Trust me, I made my teacher's life hell on earth for a while."

The picture of a grubby and stubborn Aidan in braids and skinned knees, flashed across Tracy's mind and she started laughing. "Oh, God, I can just see it! When did you find out?"

"He told me when I was sixteen, killed himself the way I did tonight to get my attention, and then we... discussed it for six years or so."

Vachon laughed out loud. "'Discussed', huh? I bet! How many times have you held this talk?"

"Too many to count. Actually, not really. I've had... at least twenty students that I can remember immediately. I'd have to stop and think about it to be sure, it's been over twenty-six centuries after all, and I didn't always train the ones I talked to. Sometimes I just got handed the job by one of my line- brothers because they thought a female pre-immortal would take it better from another female. I do know that at least half of my students are still in the Game, so I'm certainly not the worst teacher you could have.

"Now then, Tracy, I promised you dinner tonight. Do you want to eat here, or shall we go somewhere else? Bar food is not the greatest," and Aidan grinned at LaCroix, "because it isn't exactly a priority for them."

"Right now, I don't care if I'm going on duty in..." Tracy checked her watch and frowned, ".. two hours. I want a beer. One beer will wear off by the time I report in, no problem. C'mon, I know this great pizza joint. And since Nick doesn't appreciate good 'za, he can buy the beer."

Aidan laughed, a clear ringing sound. "Done. Let's get you fed, and then I have some things to finish tonight, so that I can go home tomorrow. I'm sure I missed some things somewhere, but that's why you'll come stay with me or another immortal I trust when you're ready to be trained."

"Another immortal? How many do you know?" Vachon asked indignantly. "I thought you were going to train Trace."

"I know easily one hundred, and I would trust probably half a dozen offhand to train her. At the moment I'm planning on doing it myself, but I never train more than one student at a time; it isn't fair to them. So if I acquire another in the meantime, I'll pass you on to someone else, Tracy. But I'll escort you to whomever it is, should it come to that, and stick around long enough to make sure you can get along. Probably the Valicourts over in France or Connor MacLeod in New York. Duncan MacLeod is still working with his latest student, off and on, and probably will be for another couple years."

Tracy shook her head. "France? I always meant to travel, just haven't gotten around to it. But I'll trust you. Nick trusts you, so I will."

Nick smiled at his partner. "Does that mean I'm forgiven?"

"It means I'm still mad at you, but we're still partners. Yes, Nick, you're forgiven. But quit trying to protect me, will you?!" Tracy snapped it at him but both of them were smiling, understanding that the partnership was intact still.

"I'll do the best I can, Trace, but don't expect miracles overnight."

Aidan laughed and said, "Come on, you two, I'm hungry."

Vachon grinned and handed her the sweater. "Yeah, well, you also have blood on your shirt. You might want to put this on."

She pulled it over her head and in a quick series of motions she pulled the t-shirt off without ever removing the sweater. LaCroix reached over and lifted her hair out from under the sweater, arranging it to fall smoothly down her back.

"Thank you, Lucien." As the younger three got up to go, she waited for LaCroix to let her out of the booth. Absently she tucked the knife into its sheath at the back of her neck, picked up her jacket from the corner of the booth, and quietly said in Latin, "I'll see you in the morning, Lucius." Grey eyes met in perfect understanding. Aidan shrugged into her jacket over the sleeveless sweater as she got to her feet. "Well, come on, Tracy, I don't know where this place is."

Tracy gave her a hesitant smile and asked, "Do you always have a knife on you?"

Aidan widened her eyes, then used her eyebrows and an imaginary cigar to do a Groucho Marx imitation. "For one night, only, little lady, my celebrated impersonation of a flasher as equipped by Ginzu." She spread her coat wide enough for the saber and main gauche to be visible, one on each side in sheathes sewn down the side seams. Tracy's eyes widened and Nick shook his head in amazement.

"What do you do if the police pull you over?" Vachon grinned at her sheer gall.

"Why, I make very sure they have no reason to search me." She looked at Tracy and told her, "Before you have to ask, I always have a sword. Always. There are ways to make sure of it and we'll teach you those. Before I'm done, you'll take a sword to go jogging or get a shower. You'll feel less exposed naked than you will without at least eighteen inches of sharpened steel in immediate arm's reach."

Tracy shook her head. "Tell me as we go, I'll ride with you. Nick, how's Gino's Pizza Cafe sound?"

Nick nodded. "I'll meet you there, then. Come on, Vachon, I'll give you a ride."

* * * *

"Why, LaCroix? Why are you willing to train Tracy?" Nick paced restlessly in the Raven. It was six, close to dawn, but he would leave as soon as he got an answer. Already he had found one advantage to Tracy knowing his secret; she was waiting outside to take him home, in the trunk of the Cadillac if need be.

LaCroix looked up from where he sat sharpening a gladius, the universal equipment of a Roman soldier that he had learned to wield decisively so many centuries ago. How to answer this? "She reminds me of your sister, Janette. I respect such courage, such spirit, Nicholas. Besides, the idea of sending a woman of two decades into battle with tricks two millennia old amuses me."

Nick snarled in frustration, aware that LaCroix had only given him part of the answer. However he knew his master well enough by now to know that what he had heard was all he'd be told. Finally he bit out, "All right, LaCroix. Tracy will be here at 7:30 for her first lesson. Remember she isn't immortal yet; she still has to heal at human rates for a while."

"I will remember, Nicholas. Sleep well, my son." He bent back to honing a nick out of one edge of the short sword and made a mental note to replace the sheath soon.

"LaCroix--thank you for helping. I worry about her." Nick forced the words out and saw cool grey eyes look up and meet his gaze.

"That is the other reason. Sleep well."

Startled, Nick realized that he really had heard it. LaCroix waved a hand in a dismissive gesture. "The sun will be up soon. Go."

The younger vampire left, still surprised and wondering what other things LaCroix had done over the years simply to make him happy. Definitely something to think about.

* * * *

She hunkered on her heels in the woods and watched the flames reflected off the window panes. Wearing black leather and settled into shadow as she was, Aidan knew no one would see her for a little while yet. Soon she would be content that the entire place was going to go up. Always best to wait and be sure, despite the care she had used in setting the gasoline to wick flames straight through the airways in the house. Aidan had opened windows and doors throughout the place to ensure air flow, wedging them where necessary.

So Stengel's information becomes ash, as his personality has. Good riddance. I wish I hadn't had to burn books, though. There are times I think that's a sin, but I couldn't pack all of them in time. Ah, flame is showing in three of the upstairs windows. Time to go, then. And with any luck, the fact that gasoline was used in the fire combined with his disappearance without a trace may make the local police think this is a gang hit. I can hope, can't I? He may have been stupid enough to be involved with organized crime, come to think of it. Is there such a thing as disorganized crime? Hmm, I must be tired.

Silently, she moved through the oncoming dawn toward her parked car. As she went, Aidan straightened branches, dropped dirt behind her, swept leaves over partial foot-prints, and in general tried very hard to make it difficult to track her path. When she got to her car, which was packed to the windows with boxes, the immortal stripped off the leather halter and pulled on an oversized tie-dyed t- shirt. Moving quickly, she unlaced her boots and pulled them off as well as the leather pants, stuffing all of it into a paper sack which went behind the front seat. She pulled on jeans ripped out at the knees and high-top tennis shoes, then quickly unbraided her hair and pulled it up in a high ponytail. The whole process took four minutes; she started the car and left without ever leaving a track from the tennis shoes.

As she drove off, Aidan pulled on sunglasses, and looked like nothing so much as a college student moving home at last from a summer term. Hit the motel, load these last boxes and the computer into the U-Haul, then spend the day with Lucius to thank him for the help last night. After that, though, definitely time to head back to Seacouver. Have to drop off the rental car first. Maybe Nick will help while Tracy is getting her first lesson? Might be a good idea to have him somewhere else that first time. Those two do make a good team.

Gods, another bout with Lucius. It's a good thing immortals recover quickly, but it is nice bedding someone who knows my reactions inside out like that. Amazing--from famine to feast. I still miss Dani, but she wouldn't begrudge me Methos' love, I don't think. She certainly wouldn't begrudge me the sheer physical release Lucius provides.

Well, this time tomorrow I'll be well on my way home. Sweet Lady, it's already home. Gods, I'm glad. Hmm, it's almost six here, that means it's three on the coast. Joe may still be up at the bar. I think I'll call and let him know I'm headed back. If no one answers, well, no harm done at least. I wouldn't call him at home at this hour.

"Joe's. Whoever this is, do you know what time it is?" Joe's familiar rasp filled the line after interminable rings and Aidan smiled to hear it.

"It's the Wicked Witch of the East, and it's almost six here. What is it there, coming on three? Did I interrupt you at your practice?"

"Aidan! Damn, it's good to hear from you. When are you headed back?"

"Tomorrow afternoon, well, this evening really. I'll tell you about it all when I get in, but I'm afraid I'm driving so this will take a few days. I'll call again tonight." She glanced back in her rearview window as the flashing lights of the fire engines went roaring past. Too late, gentlemen. Far too late.

"You're driving? I will want to hear this. Call me when you can, or leave the story with Mac. Oh, I got a final bid today from a security company that'll do what you want. Installation should start this weekend, if you're gonna be home."

"I will be. Thank you, Joe, very much. Get back to practicing, I'm going to go get some sleep. Tell Duncan I'll want a rubdown when I get in; I plan to do this in three days again. I want to get home."

"Everything okay?" Joe sounded concerned even over a cellular phone connection.

"Everything will be fine, Joe, I'm just a bit tired. It's been a busy trip. There were some complications. I'll call you tonight and discuss this over a land line, when it costs less. Take care of yourself."

"You, too, Aidan. Talk to you later tonight." Joe hung up, wondering how to do a discreet query of the Watcher network. A busy trip? Wonder if anyone lost their head in Toronto lately? Have to check into that. Oh, well, time enough to get the full story out of her when she hits town again. It's a good thing I understand about immortal problems. That woman has missed more work!

Still laughing at the idea of an immortal punching a time-clock, Joe went back to practicing his guitar riffs.

~ ~ ~ finis ~ ~ ~

Comments, Commentary, and Miscellanea:

1. Clementiae Deiae - Merciful Gods. Salve - literally, be strong. Common salutation in Latin.

2. Lucien LaCroix translates to 'light the cross'. Lucien Delacroix would be 'light of the cross'. Either is a gloriously sarcastic name for a vampire.

3. In order as mentioned: Aidan means 'blaze' or 'torch'; Phaedra means 'sun'; Sulwen means 'sunchild'.

4. The Myrmidons was the classic Greek play about Achilles and Patrocles, a pair of sworn brothers and heroes. If you don't know who Achilles and Patrocles are, trust me, go hit a library. It's a great story, full of gore, revenge, treachery and sex, which takes place during the Trojan War. Also, I strongly recommend the works of Mary Renault for this time period and culture, in particular (for this scene at least) The Mask of Apollo.

5. Any opinions on line-kin, effects of a quickening, and relations between immortals and vampires--or anything else the characters discuss which doesn't quite fit canon for either series--are my theories. Feedback is appreciated.

6. Last and not least--magic. If you don't believe in some form of it, why do you read these kind of stories? However, while Aidan's opinions are not necessarily my own, the Damn Druid seems to think she's pretty much on the ball.