It is done! Finito! :-) Just like to say thank you to all of you reviewed last part - it was muchly, muchly appreciated. Thanks you: Night Goddess, Persphone, Starwisher, Dark Princess, Eleyne, Linnet Jo, Meg, Cynical Leaf, Kitty Katt, Angelic Angel, Aquilla and the magnificent Me.
Thanks to all of you who've commented - it's much adored, I know you take time out of your day to read and tell me what you think and you don't have to - so thank you, Persephone, Dead Flower, Painted Empathy, Starwisher, MyosotisLuv, Stargazer, Kitty Katt, Me, Kitten, Night Goddess, Tough Fluff, Dark Angel, Myst, Aquilla, WolfGrrl, Keya, Delphine, Cyncial Leaf, Cathan White, Diomede, Jen, Fin, Angelic Angel, Linnet Jo, Gwenseth, Jezebel, Danel, Starseeker, Angelphire, Meg, Ice Princess, and last but certainly not least, Eleyne - you have been absolutely stupendous, I was floored by the response! Thank you!
I love knowing what you think - it makes my day! Criticism is welcomed with open arms, it improves the story.
The song is, of course, the gorgeous 'Hands' by Jewel, which I had to put in here.
Remember Part Ten
We'll fight, not out of spite but 'cause someone must stand up for what's right
And where there's a man who has no voice, there ours shall all sing.
It was a rare day when anyone surprised Blue Malefici.
Aspen managed it by running over his foot.
Blue was staring thoughtfully into the distance, over in the direction of Chatoya Irkil who was sitting with her bizarre friends. Aspen saw her grin as he hit the brakes and, by good aim and timing, Blue.
He was quite pleased at the momentary narrowing of Blue's eyes and the high-power glare.
Let me handle this, he said without looking at Tam. She was sat beside him, uneasily tracing the black symbol on her arm. Blue's less likely to hurt me.
All right, she said softly, touching his hand. You be careful. Don't go all crazy.
I'll try, he said, and that was more than he had ever done before.
"Hi," he purred, leaning out to flash a neon-bright, crazed smile at Blue. Anger felt good, warming him. "Want to tell me why the hell you marked my girlfriend for any assassin out there to hunt?"
"I'm sorry, you ran over my foot to discuss trifles?" Blue said, raising an eyebrow. The guy was an iceberg, Aspen often thought, with nine-tenths under the surface and the ability to sink anyone stupid enough to try and take shortcuts with him.
"It's not a trifle," he said flatly. "I don't want her killed."
"Diddums," the vampire drawled. "Do really think I give a damn about what you want? She's vermin, Martin, and people like us do not date people like her."
"Tasted her yet?" Blue asked wickedly, innuendo on every word.
"That's none of your goddamn business!"
Furious, Aspen leapt out of the car, not knowing how his eyes had lit up, one an oozing crimson, the other icy-pale grey.
"Aspen!" Tam shouted, and he could sense her fumbling with her seatbelt, about to jump out and rescue him.
You stay there, he shot at her. He's my kind, okay, and this is how you have to deal with Blue.
"She looks sweet," the cobalt-haired boy drawled, his voice sounding like a lion's purr to Aspen's ears. "How is she?"
An incensed Aspen slammed his fist at Blue's infuriatingly arrogant face.
With most people, that would have been a seriously fatal error. However, he wasn't quite sure why, but Blue seemed to like him.
It didn't stop him hitting Aspen against the car so hard it left a dent.
"My, aren't you quite the antagonist today," the lamia remarked, stepping back and in his usual effortless and cavalier manner, telepathically coercing every human that was staring to look away. His lip curled slowly. "Remnants of a lost life? PMT perhaps?"
Aspen glared. "Would you just shut up about that? It's not my fault I used to be a girl!"
He didn't realise how loud he had said that until he looked around and saw Chatoya Irkil's wide eyes and open mouth.
"I was born that way," he muttered more quietly
That sinful, annoying smile was beginning to curve. "Are you sure? Maybe it's Maybelline."
"I hope someone tortures you horribly," Aspen snapped.
"Therese made me sit through The Sound of Music," the vampire said, with a roll of his eyes. "Does that count? Honestly, her passion for all things vermin is ridiculous. How on earth am I supposed to prepare the next stage of the scheme while she's trying to solve a problem like Maria, and incidentally, brown paper packages tied up with string contain small metal surprises that will blow you into string, in my experience."
"In which case it's so long, farewell, auf wiedersehn, goodnight?" Aspen said with false brightness. "I want you to take that mark off Tam's arm."
"One should always aspire to the impossible," Blue said coolly. "It's good for the soul."
He bared his teeth at the lamia. "You can't push me around like vermin, Malefici. I want that mark off now. I don't even know how you managed to burn the damn thing onto her arm-"
It was like time stopped, and there was an awful, dead silence before the boom of his heartbeat sounded in his ears. No, no, no, Aspen thought, don't let me have heard that because if it's true, this could change everything.
That much power in Blue's hands...no, that can't be right.
"There are spells which will steal a dragon's powers from it while it sleeps," Blue said patiently, that cunning face that he had known for years and years becoming strange once again. He searched the sharp lines of it, looking for signs that there was a supernova sleeping there, for anything but the detached ice that was all Blue had ever showed to the world. "I invested in one."
"Whoa..." Aspen said slowly, trying to wrap his mind around the idea. Dragon powers. What he couldn't do with those. In fact, never mind what he couldn't do, what he could do. "I thought I was the crazy one round here."
"You're the crazy one," Blue agreed. Flash of the smile that meant only trouble. "I'm the smart one. Now, you were about to start threatening me...?"
He knew why Blue had told him. To make it clear that as he always damn well did, Blue Malefici would carry on in his merry, destructive way and woe betide anyone who crossed his smouldering path.
But Blue thought he knew him.
He doesn't know what I'll do for Tam, Aspen thought. He doesn't realise that even if he harnessed all the powers in the universe, I'd still risk fighting him. Just for her.
"If she dies, I'll kill you," he said quietly.
Blue flicked his fingers. "Be still my beating heart."
The passenger door opened, and Tam stomped out, her eyes wide and exasperated. He could tell without looking at her that she was wearing her mother's skunk-eye glare, the one that meant heads would roll.
"You don't have a heart," she said. Her anger fizzled inside his head like a smoking barbecue and Aspen tried to warn her that annoying Blue was never a good idea, especially if you were human, but she wasn't listening.
"Of course I do," the lamia said scornfully."In fact, I have a collection. They keep so well."
"Don't be revolting!" Tam snarled, so angry Aspen decided he had better get hold of her before she took a swing at Blue. And of course, it meant he got to touch her. Either way, a good idea.
"Tam," Aspen said in her ear, "Don't lecture him. He really doesn't like being lectured. It gets him all homicidal."
What'll happen if I'm polite? she asked, a little calmer. Her mind was a strange combination of feelings he had never seen as fitting together; the scent of daffodils, the texture of melted chocolate, the brightness of light in kaleidoscope, the ferocity of sunlight in the desert.
We'll get to grow old together. Older, anyway.
He hadn't told her, or let her know, but he was planning on growing old with her. It had been a month, four blissful weeks since Eleanor Saxoine had been dragged out of Tam's room by Blue.
Four weeks with Tam's family. He had been walked in on by Celia in the bathroom (happily, he had a towel on), wrestled by Billy over the TV remote (he lost), glared at by Tam's mother for leaving his plate out on the side and he was even trying to eat a little more than he usually did, because Mrs Slone put the fear of god into him.
And she had moved him - pointedly - into the spare room at the other end of the corridor.
She might be bespelled to accept him in the house, but in the same room as her daughter was a little too much. He didn't mind though - every night, Tam hopped across the corridor (literally, to avoid the squeaky floorboards) and they talked and kissed and sometimes a little more.
He was starting to feel better about being touched. But some things still scared him.
He still woke up screaming a lot.
But one of the Slones would always trot in. Last night, it had been Billy, explaining that he got bad dreams too sometimes. Before that, it was Tam, accompanied by Celia, who told him stories about each other until he was laughing so hard he couldn't even remember the dream. One night, it had even been Mrs Slone who had told him to stop making such a bloody racket.
He might have been hurt if she hadn't brought a steaming cup of some vermin stuff called hot chocolate with her, and told him that she thought he might not turn out to be the worst thing that had ever happened to Tam, and left a tea light burning by his bed.
The Slones were his family. And Aspen intended it to stay that way.
So now, before Tam could open her mouth and attempt being polite, he jumped in.
"You do know," he said, watching Blue's reaction, "that I'm giving up the day job."
He knew Tam didn't like it when he talked about killing people.
Blue's eyes held an assessing, thoughtful quality as he looked at Tam that Aspen didn't like at all. "For her?"
Gold was flowing into Blue's eyes like raindrops down a pain of glass, pooling at the bottom of his iris. Uh-oh. "Just like that?"
"No..." he said slowly. "When I've found someone to take over."
"And the plans?" Blue said with an icy, worrying composure.
"You can let whoever I choose in on them," Aspen said. "They'll be an outsider anyway. No one in Pursang's good enough."
"All right. Fair enough."
What? No calculated nastiness, no deceptively subtle threats? "What do you mean 'all right'?"
"One condition." Blue must have seen his hesitation, because he added, "Agree, and I'll do something about the mark on your sweetheart's arm."
"What?" Aspen said guardedly.
Flash of a smile. "You do it the traditional way. Rite of conquest. Fair single combat."
He wavered. It would take longer that way...but he'd get rid of the damn mark... "You're on."
"Good," Blue said, and snapped his fingers. "Ms Slone, your arm."
Tam held out her arm, and Blue wrapped a hand over the mark. Aspen watched, fascinated, as oily blacks sparks sizzled around the lamia's flesh. So that was how Blue had kept him alive after he'd been shot.
He let go.
"The mark's still there," Aspen said sharply. Tam was rubbing her arm like it itched, biting her lip.
"It is. But I've added a little something to it." Blue looked alarmingly smug. "It'll start tingling whenever danger gets within a hundred metres of you."
Tam was still clutching her arm. "Are you telling me I've got a spider sense?"
"I am indeed," Blue said cheerfully. "I'll be interested to see how you survive. Au revoir, mon ange."
Both of them froze at the endearment. The question formed on Aspen's lips-
Next thing either of them knew, he had hijacked the car and gone.
The question went unasked. He and Tam stared at each other, and he could see his own shock echoed in her eyes. How had Blue known?
"Bastard," they said in unison.
X - X - X - X - X
Late evening, and Aspen was holding Tam's hand and listening to Celia's running commentary on the television programme he was being forced to watch. The only comfort was that he was squished on the big sofa with the person he loved most in the world, and Tam's mother was nowhere in sight.
"And he got her pregnant, only she's married to his brother, who used to be a woman who dated her cousin's boyfriend's uncle, who ran over his dog that he was bought by his ex-girlfriend's first cousin who performed open heart surgery on his fifty-sixth half-step-cousin-in-law-nine times removed..."
Or something to that effect. All Aspen knew was that there was much clutching of men, swooning of women, gasping, general shock-horror factor and possibly the worst dialogue he had ever heard.
"I don't think we need this soap musical when we have our own," he whispered in Tam's ear.
"Soap opera," she murmured back. "Aspen, I'm worried about Rob."
"I know," he said simply, stroking her hair. "But he'll come back. He was probably just upset when Therese changed him. She shouldn't have done that."
He didn't really know Rob Slivan, the jock who'd fought him, Tam's best friend, but she seemed to like the guy. He'd run off a month back, and Tam hadn't seen or heard anything of him since. He didn't like how it made her face cloud over, and decided he'd try searching for this vermin...no, ex-vermin, soon.
Ellie Saxoine was gone too. And with her gone, the hunts had ended.
Plus the fact Blue had methodically and precisely mind-wiped every last one of the group and given them a sudden compulsion for long, quiet evenings spent playing canasta.
Which had seemed a little nice of Blue, until Aspen discovered the contract that had been not-so-subtly distributed about the Nightworld, with a very specific, unique and vicious death arranged for each one in years to come. The first in five years, the last to occur in thirty. All those vermin would die.
He didn't tell Tam.
"-and he's about to declare his true love for her..." Celia wound down suddenly. "Aspen?"
"Yeah, brat?" he said, grinning as she threw a cushion at him.
"Do you love Tam?"
"Yeah," Billy said, with the big toothy smile that usually meant he was about to pummel Aspen. "Are you in looooooove?"
"'Course I do," Aspen said briskly, hoping they would leave it alone.
"Shut up," his soulmate muttered through gritted teeth. "Cee, leave it."
"Why don't you tell her then?" the smaller, more annoying version of Tam said.
"Is this what our kids will be like?" he asked.
"Kids?" Tam said in horror. "We're having kids?" She lowered her voice, seeing Billy and Celia listening intently. "We haven't even got to the...you know..."
"Loads of them," he confirmed quietly. "And we'll get to the...you know... You're the only person I want to with, and if we're going to get married-"
"Married?" Tam shrieked.
"Yeah, in a couple of years, of course. You know, when we're both eighteen-"
"You sure you got a girlfriend and not a parrot?" Billy inquired innocently. He and Celia were grinning hugely. "You really going to marry Tam?"
"Mom'll flip!" Celia said gleefully.
"'Mom'," Mrs Slone's cool voice said and she strode in, and set her briefcase down on the floor, "is back."
"Mom," Billy said, "Aspen wants to marry Tam when they're eighteen!"
"Is this true?" Mrs Slone demanded, sitting herself on the edge of a chair. In her shoulder-padded business suit, she looked like she was a piece of Kevlar short of the All-Stars. Aspen couldn't shake the unnerving feeling that the wrong answer meant she'd charge him down.
"Uh...yeah..." he said meekly. He gripped Tam's hand tightly, wishing she was a little taller so he could cower behind her.
Aspen quailed under the stare he got. "Nineteen?" he offered. The stare deepened. "Twenty-"
Mrs Slone blinked, and then looked at her daughter. "I didn't think I'd ever say this, honey, but I think you might have found one that's worth spending time with." She scowled at Aspen again. "Once you start going to church and eating properly and dressing less like a hoodlum."
Aspen could only nod in the face of such authority.
As Mrs Slone strode out, Tam collapsed into helpless giggles. "She'll make you sign a contract," she warned.
He shrugged. "I'll sign my life away for you," he said in an attempt at gallantry.
"Thank you," she said, and that look appeared in his eyes that Aspen loved so much. The one that was heavy and potent, like the air before a storm, and meant she was going to kiss him-
A cushion hit them, and Billy howled. "Oh, cut it out!"
"Later," Aspen muttered to her, and strove to look innocent as Tam's mother came back in.
X - X - X - X - X
"Occasionally we're disturbingly normal. The rest of the time...disturbing."
Rewind. Squeals as the tape flickered backwards, as the figures in it moved in swift reversal.
The camera was focused on the face of the boy with the spiky, short cobalt hair and eyes that were a soft fluid gold. He was flanked on either side; Aspen on his left, and a girl with a tumble of wild, gypsy-black hair that was streaked with impossible gold and copper bands that cluing to the round swell of her cheekbones and chin.
It would have taken one who knew her well to know it was Therese Orage.
But Rob Slivan knew her so, so well.
"Back more," he said in a voice that was a rasp. He couldn't remember how long it had been. Only that he had run off when he had realised what she had made him. Out into the ghost roads of Ryars Valley. Starving, thinking he could kill himself because he wouldn't drink blood, he wasn't some inhuman animal.
When your lungs felt like a mass of bubbling acid, when your limbs ached like they were filled with wet sand, when there was only the hunger and you in all the world...you were just an animal.
"Here," Rob said curtly.
He missed his family, but not as much as he thought. They'd had a human son, not a vampire. That Rob Slivan had been another person. One who cared about stupid things, like tennis games. One who'd been stupid and chivalrous and innocent.
That got you nowhere.
Play. The girl leaning forward and licking her lips slowly. He stared into her unaware, oil slick eyes and made her a promise.
"We are not your worst nightmares. You won't fear us, or think about us, or even see us if you pass us. We're the things you haven't even dreamed of." A long pause, while he looked at her satisfied, triumphant eyes. "That's why we'll kill you before you even know."
She was very stupid, Therese Orage.
Leaving her house so trustingly unlocked. Not bothering to investigate her cramped, dim attic. Leaving this video where a pair of intrepid, cunning people could find them.
He looked at Ellie Saxoine. As a vampire, she was beautiful beyond anything a mortal man could bear to see. But he wasn't mortal, and he didn't give a damn how pretty she was.
"I don't want to kill her," he said. "I want to take away all her power. I'll make her helpless like she made me helpless."
Ellie laughed. Frenzied joy filled her now, he could see it in her feverish eyes, her ever-present smile. She was a lot nicer this way. A lot more useful. She spun the credit card between her fingers. "I'll look into it," she promised.
I'm going to haunt you like you haunted me, Rob Slivan thought. You'd better look out.
I'll make you regret what you made me.
But that would be another tale.
X - X - X - X - X
The middle of the night was cold and dark, but Tam was warm. She was huddled up against Aspen's side, and the talk was drowsy and infrequent now. Her head was tucked on his chest, hair half-hiding her face. The only light came from the liquid diamond glow of his eyes, for once the same colour.
She had said the words to him so many times in the last month. Casually, off-handedly, intimately. I love you, she had said, and smiled at his childlike joy. He had never answered, only been enchanted and elated.
She knew how hard he found it to say the words.
It was part of the desperately broken creature he was. The one who was scared of the dark. The one who touched her so hesitantly, and was so incredibly sweet and careful of her. Whose gifts weren't flowers or teddy bears, but a kitten and a hand-carven box inlaid with ivory.
He was a strange boyfriend, and he hated her friends as much as they detested him, and he still had the scary, mad moments, and he wasn't the brightest candle in the chandelier, but he had an intelligence that dealt with the real world, not with history or English or maths.
And Tam found that his friends - not Blue or Therese, but the grungy, carefree kids who were into extreme sports, were a lot nicer than any of her friends. Aspen had even persuaded her to go rollerblading on the halfpipe built in one of the fields. She had screamed all the way down, and then fallen over.
She had broken her nails, and cut her face, and to the surprise of his friends, she laughed herself stupid.
They had liked her a lot more after that.
And then she had gaped as her boyfriend did the kind of stunts she'd only seen on TV.
But now he was simply looking at her. In any one else, she would have found it intimidating. In Aspen, she knew it was adoration.
Not halfpipes or lessons or wild moonlight hunts. No guns, no people, no problems. Just them. She heard his soft whisper, and it made her shiver delightedly.
"I do love you."
"I'll remember that," she said, and did. Forever.
My hands are small I know, but they're not yours, they are my own.
They're not yours, they are my own and
I am never broken.
- FIN -
Thanks for reading - I'd be thrilled if you'd tell me what you thought! Love ya do :-)
Next up, Chimera.