"This was supposed to be from all of us. I'm sorry that I'm the only one here. Happy Birthday, Claire."
In the face of all that had been going on, Claire had completely forgotten that it was her birthday.
She took the box. Attached to the ribbon was a small card, and they'd all signed it. Michael, Eve, and of course, Shane. She opened it slowly, and inside was a silver key with a crystal top. It wasn't shaped like a house key, Claire looked up at Michael in confusion. He chuckled.
"That's only part of the gift. The rest of it is in the driveway." Claire ran for the door in the kitchen that led out to the driveway. She yanked it open, and there was a car, it was not the black hearse Eve had picked up during their travels to Dallas, it was not Michael's standard vampire issue, it was a modest little silver coupe that wasn't hip, or fashionable, and was never going to be the convertible red nightmare Monica drove. It was perfect though.
She turned around to see Michael looking out over her shoulder. Claire reached up and threw her arms around his neck and hugged him. Michael laughed and wrapped his arms around her, lifting her up into a tight hug.
"Thank you, Michael." she grinned, and kissed him quickly. They both laughed and he set her down.
"I'm glad you like it, Claire. Your parents helped with it too, but Amelie thought you should have your own car. I suppose its really her you should thank." He said soberly.
Claire was grinning like an idiot, and said, "Well, she's not here right now, and you are, so you're going to have to put up with my gratitude. She hugged him again, and before pulling back, she looked up at him.
"You've always been very good to me, Michael. You all have, but you were the hardest won of the three of you."
He looked down at Claire and smiled whimsically, "Well, you were so young when you first came here. I can't tell you how much that scared me." He chuckled deeply. "You've grown a lot since then. You're still pixie sized, but you've become such a strong force. Everytime you do something that proves it again, it amazes me. But I can't really say I'm surprised. I could see it, even that first day."
He lifted a hand up, and put it on the side of her cheek. "I really meant it, Claire. Happy Birthday, you deserve a little happy." and he leaned forward and kissed her. It was a very short, respectable kiss. Tender, innocent and sweet. After he stood back up, Michael walked past Claire and got himself a plate. Claire stood there gaping at his back. What the hell was that? She tried to shake herself out of it, but she just kept staring at Michael's back.
He fussed around with his plate, then lifted up the coffee pot. He turned around as he started talking, "I'm going to make a new pot, would you like..." he paused and stared at her. She was looking directly back at him, into his eyes. Claire?" He said.
She lifted a hand up and touched her lips. Then she shook her head and cleared it.
"I'll wait for the new pot..." she said, turning around to the door. As she walked away, she could tell that though his little kiss had flustered her momentarily, it hadn't meant anything to him. She felt embarrassed and stupid. He wouldn't think that way about me of course. I'm just Claire. she thought to herself. She chastized herself quietly as she walked out of the kitchen.
Michael watched her walk through the door and saw the look on her face. He felt guilt, sharp and swift, wash over him. He needed to remember a few things. Such as; no matter how she looked, or behaved, Claire was still young. That she was looking to him for support and guidance, during a time of need, but only because the one she normally would lean on wasn't here. He needed to stop giving in to foolish compulsions just because he felt tied to Claire, connected so closely through events.
He thought of how young she'd been that first night she'd shown up. Claire had looked like a crushed date in milk, her skin had been so heavily muddled by bruises. She'd stood before him with her lip bleeding and an expression like a scared deer in headlights. He'd been certain she'd run immediately, but she surprised him, even that first day.
The girl had inner reserves of strength. She didn't give in at the first sign of a challenge, and she wasn't impetuous the way their other two roommates could be. Thinking of these things led him to think of how she'd kept his secret until that morning when there'd no longer been any reason not to let them know what he really was.
Then she'd never questioned his decision to leave that ghostly, imprisoned existence. She'd stood nearby as he'd been changed. Amelie had chased her off, but somehow, he knew she was supporting him and it helped him through the horror of changing. She didn't get mad at him later when the others were so furious with him.
Eve got over it quickly. She loved him so foolishly and completely. He loved her too, but he despaired. She'd been changed by Frank Collins, the crazed lunatic, and he wasn't letting them return. He felt sure Claire hadn't thought about it, but he had. Frank was training them like fighting dogs, not letting them give in to a more humane lifestyle. They were being trained for visciousness.
It tore Michael up, and he didn't have the heart to devastate Claire's dream that Eve and Shane would come back. Michael had always been a realist on a very grim level. He would never have allowed himself to dream of meeting that music producer, and his trip to Dallas, if it hadn't actually happened. He didn't for one moment think Eve and Shane were going to return for anything but their final hours. He also didn't believe they would be his and Claire's, "Eve" and "Shane" again.
The second night Michael had watched as two vampires battled in the yard below. He chose not to tell Claire, but one of them had been Shane. Shane had attacked the other vampire, one Amelie had left guarding their house. The blank brutalness with which Shane had attacked the man was proof enough of what Michael feared. He was glad Shane had been the one who'd come. He wouldn't have been able to block a memory like that about Eve from his mind.
He had to be strong for Claire, because with all that was happening she was destined to find out how bad things were, and she would realize as Michael had, that Shane and Eve were gone. They weren't going to lose them, they were already lost.
Michael felt the anger boil inside. He usually managed to keep it inside until Claire slept and he could rage and seethe without her seeing him. Every night he watched out her window, afraid something would get in and get her. She was the only tie he had left to that beautiful, happy time the four of them had shared. He had to protect her, and be strong for her. He could not give in to whatever anguished thoughts he had.
He spent all night letting the anger and terror exhaust themselves inside him, but last night, he'd sought comfort. Claire slept so swathed in her ignorance. He envied her, and found he wanted to be able to hold on to that ignorance for himself. He'd crawled in next to her to still her fitful rest, and she'd settled in against him and curled up in his arms.
It was the first time he'd felt comforted since his last evening with Eve. He'd stayed there beside her for the better part of the night. Claire was naive in her innocence, but she'd grown up before his eyes. She was so self-assured, and aware. It was magnetic. The sun had risen, and Michael had let himself stay beside her for too long, telling himself he was doing it to keep her sleep free of distraction, but the truth was it was his distraction.
She'd finally awakened between two soft breaths. She'd caressed his arm, and pulled his hand under her cheek. God help him, it felt so nice. It took everything in him not to curl in behind her and let it all go. He felt her head swivel a little, as if to kiss his hand, and knew it would undo him. He said her name, tried to say it softly, but she'd moved something inside him. His voice was notably hoarse when he'd said her name.
Her reaction was immediate. The accusation in her eyes let him know she'd believed he was Shane, and that he'd taken advantage of her. Unable to bear that look in her eyes, he'd distracted her with talking about Shane. Her blush had been adorable, and he chuckled thinking of it, even now. But in the silence following that, he'd looked at her. She was now a woman, a young one most definately, but there was something that had changed about her. It changed how he saw her. It made him forget that she wasn't here for him, and he wasn't free to allow moments like the one which had just happened.
After awhile, Claire came back in, and the two of them worked around each other. Claire finished making breakfast, and Michael made a new pot of coffee. They sat down for another quiet breakfast together when the doorbell rang. They're eyes locked together for just a moment, then Michael moved to the door startlingly fast. He looked out the window and saw two vampires he didn't recognize, and Amelie.
He turned to Claire and mouthed "Amelie", she nodded and stepped back. He opened the door, "Good morning, Amelie."
"Were it only so, young one." Amelie walked in along with her usual group of protection. "It seems I've interrupted your breakfast. If I may trouble you for a coffee, I'll join you and tell you what news I have, though I doubt it will be a comfort to you."
Michael and Claire exchanged a glance of concern, and Claire said, "I'll get it, Michael. Take her to the table." she turned to Amelia, "Sugar, cream?"
"Black, please." Amelie said.
After a few moments the three of them were sitting at the table, Amelie's four guards were placed strategically around the room. Claire offered them all coffee, but they all smiled politely and declined. Shrugging, she pulled her chair in under her. Claire had barely taken a seat when Amelie began,
"Firstly, Claire I'd like to thank you for your research. It was invaluable, and entirely accurate. Every one of those who have been bitten are infected with a form of the virus Myrnin had. This new form is so strong and quick, that Morganville is under threat of our extinction . Those bitten turn violent quickly, and attack others. I've spoken with other protectors, and all their information concurs with my findings. There are many infected, or re-infected. Myrnin is once again suffering. He's terrified, he lived for so long with the affects of it. Also, to my great chagrin, Oliver has been re-infected. He's debhilitated, and the weakness of protectors is causing what I refer to as 'renegade vampires' operating on pure fear, to turn vigilante in order to protect themselves.
Sadly, this chaotic state seems to be the best defense. Small groups protecting themselves were the most effective against the attacks, all of which happened at night. We didn't understand this until we caught two of the attackers. We did what we always do with attackers. They were locked up in cells in Founders Square"
By this time, Claire and Michael had both finished eating, and sat sipping coffee as Amelie continued.
"At sunrise this morning, the two attackers burned to black soot as soon as the sun touched them. It wasn't the usual slow process of burning as before, they simply incinerated instantly."
Michael and Claire looked at each other with horror mirrored in each of their eyes.
"I wondered if it might be the new virus, and so took a blood sample from one of the afflicted held in the old cells," she glanced at Claire, who nodded in acknowledgement. She knew the cells Amelie referred to, they were below ground, she knew they'd be protected. "I walked into the morning light, and the sample turned to dust. It's incredibly effective, and terrifying. Claire, I still have some of Bishop's blood, and it still works as a counter agent, but it no longer cures. It works much like the crystals you created did. I want to know if you can take the sample of Bishop's blood, and synthesize it, and make it stronger?"
"I...I'm not sure, but I'll try." Claire said in a small voice.
"Good. I want the two of you to continue to stay here. I think your best protection is this house. Ada is running well enough to keep that up at least. I've modified the protections. Under no circumstances should you be anywhere but in this house when night falls. Now, far more than ever before, being on the streets of Morganville when darkness comes means death. The school has had a full curfew enforced. There have been four attacks there. Humans who are changed with the diseased blood do not survive the change. We've managed to cover these incidents up with the story of a rapist. But I can not afford to have authorities coming into town when circumstances are so dire."
"I received a letter today, from Frank Collins. He's responsible for all of this. He said he realized the only way to destroy us, was by leaving us to destroy ourselves."
Amelie looked at both of them in an appraising way. "I must go now. Claire, it is imperative you work tirelessly with this. Times are desparate, and you are our last hope. It's too quick, and we are out of time."
Wide eyed, Claire nodded in agreement.
Amelie stood, "Thank you for my coffee, I will be in contact soon."
She stood up, and walked out. She trailed her guards like the ends of a cape. Michael followed her out, and locked the door after them. Amelie's agents returned awhile later and the attic space was transformed. They brought lighting, tables, chemical compounds, and some very advanced equipment Claire assumed must have come from the Hospital were all installed in the uppermost space of the large house.
The windows were blacked out, but the blocking was only a by-product of the fact that Amelie had all the windows filled in so the room would be more secure. Once everything was situated, Claire walked inside and got to work.
Michael haunted the dowstairs all day, playing his guitar, video games, even watching tv for awhile to occupy himself. Claire came down a few times to make herself something to eat, and grab more coffee, which Michael kept full and fresh all day. Michael heard Claire coming down the stairs somewhere around midnight. He walked upstairs to her room. She was fully dressed, and lying in her bed. Her eyes were dark circles of exhausted stress.
She looked up at him, as he stepped into the room. She'd left the door open. She smiled a little, "I'm not sure I'm going to wake up tomorrow." she said softly. "Will you stay...again?" she looked at him trying to plead through her sleepy eyes. Michael walked in, and crawled into her bed, She turned around and lifted her head, so he could slide his arm beneath it. She melded her body against his, wrapping one arm across his middle. He curled his arms around her, and sighed.
Claire turned her head up towards him, and kissed his cheek and said a quick, "Thank you." Then she tucked her head under his chin, and was asleep almost instantly. Claire slept soundly through the night. It wasn't until very early morning that Michael heard anything.
It began small, the sound of the outer door knobs being rattled. Then the sound became banging against the doors. It wasn't until the windows and the walls were being pounded on that Claire began to stir. Claire stretched a little, but mid stretch one of the windows downstairs blew. The shattering glass threw Claire right out of sleep. She sat up, Michael sat next to her.
They heard another window blow, and Claire yelled, "The attic." They both ran out of the room, Michael hit the hidden switch to open the secret door, they slid it closed on their way up both flights of stairs and through the attic door. Amelie installed a second door which had seemed stupid at the time, but made Claire feel better just now.
Both doors locked, the attic was their only refuge now. They could hear banging on the outer door. Claire ran to Michael and he shoved her behind him. They stood there, Michael blocking her from anything that might come in, hoping that Amelie's additions would hold, when the one thing which could break down all the doors happened.
"Claire? Claire, let me in." it was Shane.
Michael swore judiciously as Claire made to run around him. He reached out and blocked her. Claire glared at him. "Let me go Michael, it's Shane. It's Shane!" she said, pleading.
Michael shook his head back and forth, "Claire, the guy out there is a brutal and viscious vampire. That is not your boyfriend, however much he sounds like him."
"No, Michael, no, it's him, he's come home. That proves he's fine. He was probably being held captive. He's just gotten free. Shane!" she called out to him, "Shane!"
Shane was completely quiet on his side of the door.
Michael quickly, and fearing Shane was listening to their exchange, quietly gave Claire the story of what he'd seen the second night he'd been in her room.
"That was against a vampire, Michael. Shane wouldn't attack me that way. He loves me, and I love him," tears started coursing down her cheeks. "Let me go, Michael. You're keeping me from him."
Michael pushed her back with one hand on the upper part of her chest, just below her throat. "Claire, I can't. You can't go out there, you'll die. Shane loved you, you're right, but the man out there isn't Shane, and he doesn't love you now. He is diseased, and infected, and doomed."
He knew saying it was going to hurt her, knew it would break her, but he wasn't prepared to see her heart break. He wasn't ready for her hate, and the vehemence of her anger. Her face crumpled, then a white hot anger widened her eyes.
"BITE ME MICHAEL, YOU DIDN'T KNOW WHAT YOU WERE SEEING. THAT IS SHANE OUT THERE AND I WILL SEE HIM, AND SAVE HIM!" she bellowed between sobs of anguish and anger. It took him completely aback. "That's what I do, damn it! Now let me go. LET ME GO, MICHAEL!"
He nearly did, but held her fast as Shane began yelling again. "Let me have her you selfish son of a bitch. Claire is MINE, and you can't have her Michael." Shane snarled, and began banging fresh against the door. Michael and Shane had fought occasionally throughout their friendship, but he'd never said anything in a tone like that to him. Michael's surprise allowed Claire to get past him. She ran to the door and started trying to open the inner door. It had a release that Michael had twisted himself. Claire would never be able to open it herself.
She banged in anger against the door, and called out wildly. "SHANE! SHANE! Michael, open the door...open it, let me out."
Shane was on the other side, snarling and screaming at them both. "CLAIRE! MICHAEL...let me in...open the door. She belongs to me, I can smell her. She is mine!"
Shane's words were beginning to make it through her blind anger. She stumbled back a few steps, away from the door, and tested him.
"Shane, I...I love you." she cried softly, broken hearted.
He went quiet. Shane said something quietly from behind the door, neither of them could hear.
Claire called out, "What? Shane, I can't hear you."
His voice went up, just a little. "I can't love you anymore, Claire. I'm dead," Shane said softly, and the noise stopped then.
Claire collapsed as the sound of a window exploding dowstairs sounded again, muffled by the double doors. Michael went to her. As he'd done before, he sat behind her and pulled her onto his lap.