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learning to fly

Asher gains self-confidence.  (Takes place after CS)
Rated R
Disclaimer:  In no way, shape, or form will I ever profit from this fanfiction.  All is property of author Laurell K. Hamilton.  This was written for entertainment purposes only.



~Friday evening 7:36 pm ~

Asher scowled fiercely at Anita, hoping to convey the extent of his displeasure, but found he could not maintain it when she bent over in front of him, wiggling that delectable ass of hers in an attempt to free a piece of luggage from the debris on her closet floor. The jeans she wore were just this side of tight and were stretched enticingly over the shapely curves of her backside. The corners of Asher's mouth turned up in an appreciative smile and he sighed, somewhat wistfully, in spite of himself.

"It's only for the weekend," Anita was saying, her voice slightly muffled from inside the closet. She managed to free her bag and straightened, kicking the shoes she had displaced back into the closet before turning around to face Asher again.

Asher's lascivious smile was quickly replaced by a frown. "It is not a good idea for the two of you to go away like this alone together," he grumbled.

Anita walked over to the bed and flung the bag on the comforter beside Asher. She opened it, and determinedly stalked to her dresser. Grabbing a handful of lingerie from the top drawer, she walked back to the bed, and tossed them inside the bag.

"Unfortunately, we won't be completely alone all the time," Anita continued. "We're bringing Stephan and Nathaniel with us. I know what you're thinking, Asher, but we'll be just fine." She returned to the dresser and pulled open another drawer.

Asher peered into her bag and lifted out a lacey black bra. His frown deepened.

"Oh, and what am I thinking, ma cherie?" he asked, running the slinky material of her bra through his fingers. "That I am only pouting because I was not invited?"

Snatching the bra from his hands, Anita stuffed it back into the suitcase along with some shirts.

Asher blinked up at her unhappily. "It's true," he confessed.

Anita sighed and put her hands on her hips. "Silly me. I figured you would be worried about our safety, since we are going off without a full entourage for the first time. Ever." She turned and went back to the closet, this time, tugging a few pairs of jeans from their hangers. "But that's the whole point of this trip. Mussette's visit was a teeny bit stressful for us. Jean-Claude and I need a chance to be alone together. We talked about doing this before and now that everything is back to normal--well, as normal as it gets anyway--this just seemed like an opportune time."

"Is that so?" Asher muttered. "Dear Mussette's visit was just a teeny bit stressful on me too, cherie. Or did you forget Belle nearly killed me? If you two really talked of going away before Mussette's visit, why didn't anyone bother telling me about it? It would have made more sense to me then. Things are different now."

Anita shoved the jeans into the bag with a little more force than necessary. Asher could tell she was getting pissed.

"Believe what you want, Asher," she said tightly. "This was planned before you decided to jump in the sack with us."

"I was invited," Asher replied, knitting his brow in irritation.

"It doesn't matter!" Anita shot back. "Jean-Claude and I are still trying to have something resembling as normal a relationship as possible. Lately, it has been anything but. We really just need to get away from it all, and focus on each other for a little while. One measley weekend. That's all we're asking." Anita turned away from the vampire sitting on her bed and stormed across the room, back to her dresser.

Asher bowed his head and studied the plush carpeting in front of his feet. "I am a little worried too," he mumbled. "How can I not be? The two people who mean the most to me in all the world are going out of our territory without a proper show of power should the unexpected occur." He paused and took a deep breath. "Why isn't Jean-Claude taking Jason at least?"

Anita stopped rifling through her drawers and turned around to face Asher. She sighed heavily.

"Because Jason isn't free to go out of town this weekend and everyone else is," she explained. "Look. Jean-Claude knows the Master of Kansas City well. They've been on good terms for a long time now. He even owed Jean-Claude a favor. Now we're cashing it in. All we want, is to be left alone while in his territory, and the Master of Kansas City has granted us that. He's made arrangements for us at a really nice hotel downtown with lots of amenities. There's a great little ethnic restaurant off the main lobby, lots of exclusive little shops and a heated indoor pool. Our suite is on the top floor with a balcony overlooking the city. It has a Jacuzzi and a fireplace and--"

"Please," Asher said, holding up his hand to quiet her. "Spare me any further details, if you would." He sighed and crossed his arms over his chest. "Are you sure you're going to be able to stand a whole weekend with just him?"

Anita grinned unexpectedly. "I doubt I'll be standing very much," she said and winked at Asher mischievously, then laughed at his peeved expression.

"Of course," Asher went on, his tone less than enthusiastic. "I can only imagine what the two of you will be doing to pass the majority of the time."

Anita walked over to Asher and took his head in her hands, raising his face to hers. She smiled at him sympathetically, then leaned down to kiss him, running her fingers through his long hair.

"Please, Asher, try to understand," she whispered.

Asher nodded reluctantly, placing his hands on her hips and kneaded her flesh.

"I am trying, ma cherie," he said quietly. "You don't know how hard I'm trying."

Anita smiled then and turned away from him, but Asher wrapped his arms around her waist and leaned back, pulling her down on the bed on top of him.

"No, now stop!" Anita protested, squirming in his grasp.

Asher ignored her protests, nibbling her neck, and dotting her face with urgent little kisses.

"Make love to me, Anita," he murmured in her ear, entwining her legs with his to effectively imprison her against him.

Anita wedged her hands between their bodies and pushed against him. "No, Asher! I don't have time," she argued.

But Asher could feel her resistance wane as he continued kissing her. She wasn't really struggling anymore and Asher knew that, if she truly wanted to get away, she could. His hands shifted down to her rear and he squeezed her blissfully, moaning seductively against her skin.

"One hour," he whispered. "That is all I ask. Jean-Claude will have you all to himself for the next three nights. One little hour."

"Asher, no, let me go," Anita persisted. "The limo will be here in an hour. I have to finish packing...and I have to take a shower."

"Let me join you in the shower then," Asher entreated, slithering his tongue along the curve of her ear.

"No! I'll never get out if you're in there with me."

Asher grinned, pleased to hear she believed that, but frowned again when she broke away from him and half-skipped across the room. Asher propped himself up on his elbow and fixed his gaze on her. Her face was slightly flushed now, and she had to take a few breaths before she could speak normally.

"You need to go," Anita said, pointing at the bedroom door. "Go...bug Jean-Claude."

Asher sat up, frowning. "Bug?"

"Yeah, as in pester."

Slowly, Asher got to his feet. "Ma cherie, you are heartless and cruel," he pouted.

Anita actually laughed. "Flattering me will get you nowhere!"

"Fine," Asher mumbled and sighed. "I will leave you now if that is what you wish. Au revoir, Anita. Have a...wonderful time."

Anita raised her brow. "Oh, there's no doubt about that." She moved to the door and opened it. Asher slunk out of the room and Anita forcefully closed the door behind him.


The fact was, Asher had already "bugged" Jean-Claude just before coming to see Anita, and had gotten a similar dismissal.

If that was the way they wanted it, that was fine with him, Asher thought. He'd just stay behind and look after the city. And there was plenty for him to do, though truthfully, at the moment, nothing in particular came to mind. It occurred to him then, how much of his existence revolved around Jean-Claude and Anita. Now, more than ever, since they took him into their bed. They were his only real friends, confidantes, and lovers. There was no one else, and that realization made Asher feel incredibly lonely now that they were going away and leaving him behind.

Restless, bored already, and feeling sorry for himself, Asher prowled the streets down by the riverfront. There was no where in particular he wanted to go and nothing of any interest he wanted to see, but he walked on, keeping mostly to the back alleyways and darkened edges of the streets. He could just go back to the Circus of the Damned, but then what? Watch the dust fall?

Asher purposefully kept away from the more tourists-oriented places. He was too easily recognizable as a vampire, and did not care to have people gawking at him on the street. What made their stares even more unbearable was the underlying repulsion in their eyes. They could not help themselves, it was only human nature--this morbid fascination.

Asher rarely walked anywhere. But tonight, walking gave him something different to do. He could tune into the rhythm of the city down among her streets. He could feel the energy of her people all around him. The night life. This district of the city was more businesses than residents. There were few people around in this part of town at this time of night. Most of the businesses were offices which closed by seven. Only a few showed some flicker of life. A janitorial service and a print shop. Farther on down the block was an old hotel and a coffee house. Nothing very interesting, to say the least.

Asher made his way towards the river. There were more people on the streets the closer he got but he was careful to stay in the shadows and keep his head down. It was just rather nice to let his mind wander in much the same way he was letting his body wander. He immersed himself in thought, thinking all manners of things from folklore to musical scores, conversations and past liaisons.

Asher was so deep in thought; the first scream he heard didn't quite register in his mind. It was the second ear-shattering scream, the one that was stifled mid-breath that caught Asher's attention. He could feel the fear now. The air around him was permeated in it. The source was just ahead of him around the next turn. Someone, a woman from the sound of it, was in the alley behind this building looming in front of him.

Cocking his head in the direction of the now muffled sounds, Asher glanced around him at the few people passing by. No one else seemed alarmed. No one else seemed to have heard anything. There was a policeman just across the street giving directions to some people holding a map. Surely if he had heard the scream, he would have at least looked up from the map. Maybe the scream hadn't been as loud as Asher first believed. Being a vampire is what most likely allowed him to hear it. Either that or the people on the street were simply choosing to ignore the poor woman's plight. Whatever it may be.

Moving swiftly now, Asher glided along the side of the building, using his power to wrap himself in the kind of supernatural silence and stealth he normally reserved for hunting. The alleyway was dark. The only light visible was high above in the building from a single illuminated window. Asher didn't need light to see and used the darkness to his advantage, creeping closer, entirely undetected.

He could see them now. A woman and a man. The man was beating the woman, punching her while simultaneously trying to tear at her clothes. The woman was trying to fight him off, but the man's brutality was beginning to take its toll. She'd stopped screaming and was only whimpering now, and the few blows she managed to strike, landed ineffectually on the man and failed to deter him.

At first, Asher considered merely returning to the street and hailing the policeman, but the woman was crying and the sound of it tugged at Asher's heart and stirred his deeply ingrained sense of chivalry.

He sighed heavily, watching the man rip open the woman's blouse and smack her across the face. It was sickening to witness and made Asher hate the man instantly. Why bother with the police when he could more than handle this situation on his own in a matter of minutes? he decided.

Resolutely, he started forward, staying in the shadows, but dropping the silence he had cloaked his approach in to let the man know he had company. Asher fixed his gaze on him. He was only ten feet in front of the pair now. As expected, the man heard him and faced him, staring intensely into the darkness, but Asher knew he could not see him. Then, to Asher's dismay, he reached inside his jacket and pulled out a long serrated-edged hunting knife and waved it threateningly in the air.

"Beat it, Pal! Mind your own business!" the man shouted at Asher.

Asher considered taking the man's mind, but he wasn't sure if this kind of situation would justify his breaking the law in that way. And he knew Anita would be hard pressed to forgive him such trespassing if it wasn't considered justified. She could be such a hard-ass about things like that. Better to exhaust all other options first.

"Monsieur, I will give you exactly three seconds to let the lady go," Asher began softly. "Do so and I will let you go. If not...I will hurt you." Reasoning with him seemed like a good place to start. Asher didn't want the man to react rashly and use the knife on the woman. Or him, for that matter.

The man shook his head furiously. Asher sighed. Perhaps a little intimidation would be enough to get him to drop the knife and flee.

"Very well, Monsieur. It was your choice."

With a toss of his head, Asher flipped his hair off the right side of his face, let his eyes bleed out to a solid pale blue, and used his power to whip up a slight whirlwind around him. He emmerged from the shadows as if he had been born from them, his features evolving in the murky artificial light from above. His hair and long black coat billowed out behind him as he drew nearer. That combined with his pale complexion, probably made him look like an apparition...from hell.

If the man had been unnerved by Asher's sudden presence before, now he was visibly shaken, seeing that the person threatening him was actually a vampire. But he still refused to back down. Asher noticed the woman was staring at him too, even more terrified. Her whole body was trembling in the man's clutches and now her fear seemed directed more at Asher than the man who had been trying to rape her.

This bothered Asher more than he would have liked to admit. The poor woman had probably been scared more tonight than she had in her entire lifetime. There was a time when he would have reveled in the fear he caused others. It was a way for Asher to distance himself from them. Now he found it disheartening.

"Three seconds, Monsieur," Asher reminded, lowering his voice to an ominous whisper.

"Get lost, you fucking blood-sucker!" the man seethed. "Go find yourself another piece to munch on! This one's mine!"

Asher took a deep breath and then wished he hadn't. He could smell the blood from the woman's open wounds. Combined with the scent of fear, it was more than a little intoxicating, and made Asher's hunger rise. If he was going to do this, he needed to do it quickly.

"Un," Asher counted shakily, and took a step closer. "Deux."

"I said fuck off!" the man bellowed, backing up and dragging the woman with him.

Asher bared his fangs and hissed, enhancing it with his power to chill the blood of any mortals within hearing distance. For a moment, it worked. The man seemed momentarily paralyzed with fear, but quickly regained his nerve and hauled the woman in front of him, using her like a shield.

"Give her to me," Asher murmured menacingly. He raised his hands slightly, stilling the wind and wrapping himself once more in the darkness and silence. The tension in the alley was so thick now it hung heavily in the night air.

"I'll kill the cunt before I let the likes of you have her," the man threatened.

The man pressed the point of the knife against the woman's throat. She gasped and a thin line of fresh, hot blood slowly trickled down her neck. The sight of it made Asher salivate, and he closed his eyes momentarily to bolster his control.

Asher's plan was to get close enough to take the woman from the man, and then simply knock him unconscious--all quite lawful considering the circumstances. Moving closer towards them, Asher told himself to calm down and concentrate. He was having a hard time keeping his attention on the man, and not the bleeding woman. If he couldn't focus better than this, things could go badly. The man was as tall as Asher, and twice as heavy. A weight-lifter, no doubt. And he had a knife. But Asher was a vampire. He was faster and stronger than this man was, even at his weakest.

"Trois," Asher concluded. "Your time is up, Monsieur."

His plan would have worked, but when he sprang forward and wrenched the woman from the man's grip, she promptly fainted, collapsing in the Asher's arms. The man, in a rush of foolish bravado, came at Asher with the knife.

Caught momentarily off guard, Asher grabbed the blade in his hand to stop its descent. Its serrated edge bit deep into his palm as he tightened his grip. Ignoring the near-blinding pain, Asher tried to twist the knife away from the man, but his blood was coating the blade, making it slick and hard to hold onto. The knife slipped suddenly, slicing open Asher's hand, forcing him to release his grip on the blade.

Asher half-screamed, half-snarled as white hot pain shot up his entire arm. He only had a moment to refocus however. Now that he was no longer holding the knife, the man's great bulk drove it down towards Asher's chest. Asher immediately tossed the woman aside like a rag doll, and dodged the knife, but the tip of it still caught him across the upper part of his chest.

Unlike the severely deep cut on his hand, this was a fairly superficial, but large wound, and it soaked Asher's shirt with blood in seconds. To make matters worse, the blade must have consisted of some degree of silver, because neither wound was healing as quickly as they should have.

Carried by momentum, the man had tumbled heavily to the ground at Asher's feet and had dropped the knife on impact. It went skittering across the pavement. The man suddenly seemed to know he was in real danger now, and tried to quickly crawl away, out of the vampire's reach. Probably so he could get to his feet and run.

But in a fit of rage, Asher swooped down on him, smashing him back to the pavement, and seized both his wrists. He snapped them in two like dry twigs, then picked the sobbing man up, and threw him against the side of the building. He collided with a dull crack and a muffled thud and was suddenly silent. Slowly, the man's limp body sunk to the alley's pavement in a contorted heap.

At one time, Asher would have felt a deep satisfaction from bestowing such justice on someone so deserving, but the grotesque sound of the man hitting the building all but stopped Asher's heart now. Cursing under his breath, he hurried over to the man. He had probably killed him. The man had been lighter than Asher had estimated and he hadn't really meant to throw him quite so hard. If Asher had killed this human, he was in a lot of trouble now.

But the man was still alive. He was still breathing, and Asher could hear the man's blood pumping forcefully through his veins. His eyelids even fluttered a few times, and he moaned faintly. He was hurt, but he was far from dead.

Asher closed his eyes and sighed in relief. That was too damned close for comfort, he thought. One of these days, his temper was going to be the end of him. He took a moment to examine his wounds. They had yet to close and still burned fiercely.

"Sacre bleu," he muttered to himself.

A small rustling sound behind him suddenly captured his attention. Turning around, Asher faced the woman. She was struggling to her feet. Asher wondered how long she had been conscious. He took a step towards her, but she staggered back, holding up her hand as though to ward him off.

"Oh God, please," she begged, tears streaming down her ravaged face, mingling with the dirty blood.

Cradling his useless, wounded hand against his abdomen, Asher tried to look as harmless as possible. "Do not be afraid," he soothed. "Let me help you."

The woman only cried harder. Clearly to her, a cruel twist of fate had saved her from one evil fiend only to deliver her into the hands of another.

"Please...don't hurt me," the woman pleaded. She tried to back away further and only tripped and nearly fell.

Asher moved to catch her, to keep her from falling, but the woman let loose a blood-curdling scream, and this time, Asher was sure the policeman across the street, as well as all of St. Louis, heard her. Panicking, Asher pounced on the woman, crushing her against him, and clapped his uninjured hand over her mouth.

"Mademoiselle! Listen to me!" he half-snarled, tightening his grip on her as she struggled fitfully. "I will not hurt you. I swear it. You must not cry out! I only wish to help you. But if you summon the police, they will take one look at what has transpired here and shoot me without hesitation. And if by chance they have silver bullets in their guns, one shot between my eyes could put me in the grave for good." The woman abruptly stopped struggling and became very still in his arms. Asher lowered his voice. "I only sought to free you from that villian's depravity. Do not repay my intervention on your behalf by having me shot."

Asher listened for the impending sound of running feet, but had yet to hear anything. Perhaps, like before, her scream did not carry as well as he had believed. Asher swallowed hard, telling himself to relax--that panicking in this kind of situation never helped anyone, and his tension was probably frightening the woman even more.

The woman's body felt like a stone against his. She was so tense, she was barely breathing, but her heart was pounding like a rabbit's. She was sweating profusely, despite the chill in the air, and despite the fact only a few mangled and tattered scraps of her blouse still covered her. Her grip on his arm was so strong, her long painted nails dug into his skin and would probably leave ten little crescent moon-shaped marks, but Asher refused to release her. She was still too frightened, and might scream again if he let her go.

Asher frowned deeply. There was blood everywhere. The woman's blood was dripping from her nose and the cuts under her eyes over his hand, and her tears were pooling between his thumb and index finger. Blood from her mouth was making his palm hot and sticky.

Asher also noticed blood from his ruined shirt was smeared in the woman's short blonde hair and the back of her neck. With his arm was around her chest the way it was, blood from the wound on his hand was streaming down towards his elbow, and running onto the woman's exposed skin, down her cleavage.

The smell of so much blood was making Asher light-headed. Or maybe that was because he was the one doing most of the bleeding now.

"Mademoiselle, I'm going to release you now," Asher whispered in her ear. "But you must promise not to scream. Do you understand?"

The woman hesitated only a moment, then nodded. As she did, Asher's keen ears picked up the distinct sound of people running. Someone had heard her after all. Now they were heading this way.

At the mouth of the alley, Asher saw them. There were three in all. Police. Two of them brandished guns. There must have been a patrol car nearby. Perhaps the map-reader's partner and a rookie tag-along. In any case, Asher knew he was in trouble and had to leave right now. There would be no explaining this. He wouldn't get two words out of his mouth before they opened fire on him. He had to leave NOW.

The woman was squirming to get away from him again. She must have heard the approaching police as well. With a heated curse, and a vow never to let himself get involved in anything like this again, Asher released the woman, flinging her across the alley away from him, and took flight.

He was half-expecting the woman to scream again, but she didn't. She merely lay on the ground, propped up with her hands, staring up at him, open-mouthed, as he quickly disappeared into the night sky.


Asher spent the rest of the night sequestered deep underground, beneath the Circus of the Damned, nursing his wounds in his room. Watching dust fall had never held the appeal it did now, and he only wished the prospect had appealed to him much earlier.

He almost expected the police to come barging in at any minute to haul him away. It didn't matter that he hadn't done anything wrong. He could only imagine what the woman had told the officers when they had arrived. How some horrible, blood-drenched vampire had swooped down and nearly killed the man and then tried to carry her off to feast on. Actually, all the woman had to say was "vampire" and all of law enforcement would be scouring the city for him. When the man regained total consciousness, he might even press charges. He could say Asher was the one attacking the woman--that he was the one trying to save her. It would be the human's word against his. There was no doubt in Asher's mind who the police would believe.

Sitting at the foot of his bed, Asher buried his face in his hands, drawing his knees up to his chest and moaned miserably. He should just go to the police. Hiding from them only made him look guilty.

If ever there was a time he wanted to talk to Anita, this was it. Anita knew a lot more about this city's justice system than he did. She had clout, too. If she told her police friends that she agreed that Asher had done the right thing, they would think twice before arresting him. After all, he had spared that woman considerable grief. Attacking that miscreant was entirely justified. Surely Anita would have done no less.

If only he had been able to calm the woman, Asher thought. Instead he had only frightened her more. If he had had any sense at all, he would have simply left her alone after he got her away from the man, but she had been hurt and could barely walk. She needed to go to a hospital, and Asher would have taken her, if she would have let him. He would have even stayed by her side, and held her hand, if she had wanted him to. However, she had made it clear that she did not want his help. He couldn't really blame her. He was a wretched sight even when he wasn't covered in blood and baring his fangs.

Slowly, Asher unfurled his body and slid off the bed. He walked into the bathroom and stared at himself in the mirror over the small sink. Carefully peeling away the swath of gauze covering his chest, Asher examined the wound and frowned. It wasn't bleeding anymore and had nearly sealed, but the new skin was discolored and puckered slightly. It looked like it would scar. Just what he needed. Another scar. Part of Asher wished he had killed the man now. But hell, what was one more little scar amid this myriad scope of ruined flesh? Disgusted, Asher balled the gauze up in his fist and tossed it aside.

An urgent knock on his door made Asher's heart stop. He turned and stalked out of the bathroom, not daring to breathe. But the presence on the other side was not the police. Only another vampire. Damian, to be precise.

Asher threw open the door and without waiting to be invited in, the tall, red-haired vampire strode inside and began speaking before Asher had even closed the door behind him.

"The police are looking for you," Damian began. He had apparently come right from Danse Macabre, because he still donned one of the rather risqué and elaborate costumes he often performed in--something he would normally never be caught wearing on the street.

Asher swallowed down the thickness tightening his throat. "How do you know this?"

Damian licked his lips slowly and looked Asher up and down. His eyes fixed momentarily on the reddish wound cutting across the span of Asher's chest and down to blood-stained bandage wrapped around his hand, before focusing back on Asher's face.

"Two officers came to Danse Macabre asking the whereabouts of a certain scarred vampire," he continued, using his hand to gesture down the right side of his face. "They said they needed to talk to you. That you had been involved in some sort of assault. There was a woman with them. She was wearing dark glasses, but it was obvious she had been injured. Her face was cut and bruised."

"What did you tell them?"

Damian looked away. "Only that I hadn't seen a vampire fitting the description they gave tonight. Pretty much what everyone said." He glanced up and frowned at Asher. "It was the truth anyway."

Asher shook his head. "What is the use? They will find me soon enough."

"Asher," Damian said, lowering his voice. "What happened to you tonight?" He stepped closer to his friend and raised his hand to touch the cut on Asher's chest but stopped, and let his hand fall back heavily to his side.

Forcing a smile, Asher shrugged. "I was playing superhero," he said. "Fighting crime and injustice--single-handedly saving a beautiful damsel in distress." He paused and held up his injured hand. "But I got a little carried away with the fantasy."

Damian knitted his brow and sighed. "Must you be so facetious?"

"What else do you want me to do?" Asher shot back. "If I don't laugh about this, I'm going to fucking cry!"

Turning away from his friend, Damian paced slowly about the room. "I think you should go talk to the police. If you've truly done nothing wrong, what is the harm in that? Truth will be on your side."

"Truth?" Asher all but spat the word. "The truth will not matter. My noble--if somewhat misguided--attempt to do the right thing has the police out searching for me now. They're not looking for a hero to congratulate. They are looking for a vampire to burn."

"Call Anita then."


"Why not?" Damian persisted. "It sounds to me as if she is the only one who can get you out of this. You need to go to the police, Asher, and if she is there with you, they'll think twice before they jump to conclusions."

Asher bowed his head. Despite the fact he would desperately love to have Anita with him at the moment, he vowed to exhaust all other options before resorting to contacting her. She and Jean-Claude had only been gone a few hours and after all the pouting he'd done before they had left, they would probably think he had only caused this trouble to get them to come back to him.

"No," Asher repeated firmly. "I cannot call her."

The tone of Asher's voice was apparently enough to let Damian know the subject was to be dropped. The red-haired vampire nodded in assent.

"All right. We'll just have to think of something else then," Damian went on. "But fast."

Asher was grateful for Damian's rather amenable nature tonight, and somewhat surprised by his use of inclusive language. It let Asher know the other vampire was willing to join forces with him and stand beside him, no matter what. It stirred Asher's heart.

He sighed and looked up at Damian. "The woman with them," he continued softly. "How was she? What did she say? Anything?"

"No. She didn't say anything. She was probably there just to identify you to the police." Damian paused and peered at Asher curiously. "By chance, does she think you assaulted her?"

"I tried to help her, but she was so frightened, she may have thought I was going to attack her too--that I had only fought with the man who was trying to rape her to have her for myself."

Damian stopped pacing and dragged his hand through his long hair in frustration. "I doubt she would be fingering you for the assault if you saved her from that. I still think you should go to the police, Asher. I'll go with you if you want, but you have to talk to them and set the record straight."

"I must talk to the woman first," Asher countered. "I have to know what she told them." He also wanted to know if she was all right, but he didn't bother mentioning that.

Damian appeared to be considering Asher's idea. Shifting his weight to one leg, he put his hands on his slender hips and looked Asher squarely in the eye.

"How can I help?"

Asher smiled. That's what he liked about Damian. He was practical, unpretentious, and resourceful, not to mention very easy on the eyes. Asher would have kissed him just then, but he knew Damian would probably punch him in the mouth for it.

"Would you recognize her if you saw her again?" Asher asked him.

Damian nodded. "I believe so."

Images of the woman flashed in Asher's mind. Details of her he had not realized he had noted. She was tall, early forties maybe, with a fair complexion, and blonde, with big brown eyes. Pretty, shapely to the point of being somewhat Rubenesque, very feminine. Bruised, bloodied, and terrified. Asher took a deep breath and cleared his throat.

"Will you help me find her?"

Damian glided over to Asher and placed his hand on his shoulder. "Of course," he said quietly. "Meet me tomorrow night at Danse Macabre after midnight. That's when my shift ends." He patted him encouragingly, opened the door, and slipped out of the room, closing it gently behind him.


~Saturday 10:15 pm~

Asher rarely smoked cigarettes anymore. Smoking had never become a habit with him, he only indulged in cigarettes because he actually enjoyed smoking. He found it relaxing and since he never had to fret the adverse affects of it, he smoked relatively guilt-free. Relatively because Anita depised the practice and Jean-Claude found it distasteful. If Jean-Claude knew Asher was smoking in his office now, he'd have a fit.

But neither Jean-Claude nor Anita were here and Asher felt his present situation was stressful enough to warrant a few cigarettes. Waiting for Damian to get off work, Asher was biding his time in Jean-Claude's secluded office, sorting through paperwork, reading the junk mail, filing stray folders, and smoking cigarettes. Damian wouldn't be off for another two hours, but Asher did not want to wait around at the Circus until midnight. He was feeling a little restless and anxious, and being here helped. His room at the Circus was just too damned quiet. Oppressively quiet.

Asher had just lit his third cigarette when Damian opened the office door slightly and peered inside. Asher looked up at him expectantly, taking a deep drag off the cigarette.

"I have a surprise for you," Damian said, lingering half-in, half-out of the office.

Asher sat forward, leaning over the desk. "I don't particularly care for surprises, mon ami."

Damian smiled, crookedly. "Oh, I think you'll like this one." With that he pushed the door completely open and stepped aside.

The woman Asher had rescued the night before was standing just outside the office door, behind Damian. She was wearing the dark glasses and her hair was styled differently, but Asher knew it was her. He rose from the desk and glanced at Damian.

"Asher, may I present Miss Sydney Carlton," the red-haired vampire began by way of an introduction. "Miss Carlton, this is Asher. Though I believe you two have already met."

Sydney Carlton nodded and stepped tentatively forward, her eyes fixed on Asher. "Yes, we have," she replied quietly. She removed her glasses, revealing the black bruises around her eyes. The same big brown eyes Asher had readily recalled from the night before.

Sydney Carlton. The name sounded vaguely familiar to Asher, but at first, he couldn't remember why. Then it came to him.

"Sydney Carlton? From A Tale of Two Cities?"

A shadow of a smile passed over her battered face. "Yes. Most people don't recognize it. It was my mother's favorite movie. Did you see it?"

Asher shook his head. "No. I read the novel."

Sydney Carlton looked up at him, gazing deeply into his eyes. "Oh," she said simply. Then: "You look different somehow."

"I am not trying to terrorize anyone tonight," Asher replied quietly and gestured at the right side of his face. "Not trying to anyway. This is as un-gruesome as I can be."

Sydney Carlton continued staring intensely at him, then she slowly lowered her eyes.

Damian tactfully cleared his throat to break the awkward silence settling over them.

"Miss Carlton showed up ten minutes ago," he explained. "She has been looking for you all night. She came here because she thought I might know a little more about you than what I led the police to believe yesterday." He paused and looked over at her. "She thought I might know where you were."

"Clearly, your womanly intuition has paid off," Asher said. He took another drag off his cigarette, then dropped it in a quarter-full bottle of Corona that had been left on the desk, which Asher had been using as an ash tray. The cigarette went out with a little hiss of protest as it hit the amber liquid.

Sydney Carlton took another step closer to Asher. "I wanted to talk to you, Asher," she began hesitantly. "I needed...to talk to you. I'm so glad I found you."

Asher raised his brow. Slowly, he stepped out from behind Jean-Claude's desk. He nodded at Damian, who bowed in acknowledgement and turned to leave.

The sound of the door closing seemed louder to Asher than it actually was. He sighed heavily and focused his attention back on Sydney Carlton.

She opened her small purse and took out a pack of cigarettes. Tapping one out, she held it up to her lips. "You don't mind, do you?"

Asher shook his head, reaching for his lighter. With the camaraderie of a fellow smoker, he flipped the lighter open, and leaned forward to light her cigarette. Then he took the beer bottle and set it on the edge of the desk.

"My apologies for lack of a classier ash tray."

Sydney inhaled her cigarette deeply and shrugged. "It's fine," she assured him, edging a little closer. She stared at him like she was drinking him in. Asher noticed her eyes slipped down the length of his body and back up again before settling back on his face.

It made Asher feel a little self-conscious, but he also found her gaze somewhat titillating as well as shocking. How long had it been since a woman looked at him that way? He cleared his throat softly.

"I needed to speak with you as well, Mademoiselle," Asher went on. "As you know, the police are searching for me. I need to know what you told them about last night. About your assault."

"Please...call me Sydney," she amended. She looked upset suddenly and puffed nervously on her cigarette. "You've been worried," she added knowingly. "You think they're going to arrest you."

Asher nodded reluctantly. "I know I frightened you last night. I know you were in shock. I was afraid you may have told the police I tried to attack you."

Sydney was already shaking her head. "No. Of course not. You saved me. That's what I told them. They only want to find you to get a statement from you as a witness to my assault." She took a long, forceful drag off the cigarette she was smoking, then popped it into the bottle of Corona. "I'm sorry the police scared you." She paused and licked her lips. "I'm sorry I scared you."

Asher's relief upon hearing those words was monumental, but he tried not to show it. Instead, he merely smiled thinly and inclined his head at her in thanks. "Last night was harrowing for all involved." He leaned back, resting his hips on the edge of the desk. "I shall go to the police station tonight and give them my account. Thank you for seeking me out to reassure me. I cannot begin to adequately express my gratitude."

Smiling genuinely for the first time, Sydney moved to stand directly in front of Asher. "I'm the grateful one, Asher. You didn't have to help me, but you did. I can't thank you enough for that. If you hadn't stopped him...." She broke off abruptly, as if the rest was too difficult for her to actually give voice to. Tears suddenly welled in her eyes and she sniffed softly. "I'm sorry. I'm still a little shaky."

Asher gazed down at her sympathetically. He fought the sudden urge he had to take her in his arms and comfort her--hold her tight, stroke her hair, and tell her everything would be all right.

"Please. There is no need to apologize," Asher said gently. "After I left you, I thought about you, and wondered how you were. I am pleased to see you were not seriously injured. No broken bones or the like." He could feel the pain she bore however. Not from her wounds, but inside her heart. In a sense, she was scarred too. Asher knew Sydney would never be the same as she was before her attack.

Sydney shrugged slightly. "I'm as good as can be expected," she replied. "I'm a little sore, but I'll be all right in a couple of weeks." Her brow furrowed and her mouth fell open as if she suddenly remembered something important. "You were hurt too. Your hand was bleeding. And he stabbed you..."

"He cut me," Asher told her. "I am healed now. Being a vampire sometimes has its advantages." He offered her a rather coy smile, extending his hand towards her for her inspection. "I am touched by your concern however." He was. It meant more to him than he would have liked to admit.

Sydney took his hand and studied it intensely, turning it over a few times. Her hands were warm and soft and the sensation of her long nails tracing the lines on his palm sent little tingles up Asher's arm. Then she sandwiched his hand between both of hers and gave it a small squeeze.

"I don't know very much about vampires, I'm afraid. Not a good thing in this town, huh? But then, you're the first vampire I've actually met," she said in a breathless rush.

Asher's smile widened. "You have probably met more vampires than you realize," he said matter-of-factly. "Many are quite adept at passing as humans."

"I don't think so," Sydney continued. "Where I come from, vampires are pretty scarce. The ones we do have pretty much keep to themselves. It's not like it is here."

Asher raised his brow. "So you don't live here? Where are you from?"

"Mount Vernon, Iowa. I came here for a business conference and thought I'd take a few days afterwards and play the tourist. My plane leaves Monday morning."

Asher felt a tinge of disappointment upon hearing that. She was leaving the day after tomorrow and he would probably never see her again. He peered down at her feeling strangely wistful and realized they were still holding hands. He gently pulled free of her grasp.

Sydney released him with a faint smile. "Sorry," she murmured. "That's amazing really. There's no mark at all." She stared at Asher's chest as if trying to see through the material of his shirt to examine the wound for herself, then she looked up. "Is that cut healed too?"

Not really thinking, Asher unfastened another button and pulled open his shirt for her. Her eyes widened and fixed, not on the healed knife wound, which was barely visible now, but the scar-ravaged skin Asher had unwittingly revealed to her.

"Oh my God," Sydney whispered, averting her eyes just as Asher slid away from her, crossing to the other side of the room.

For a long while neither one of them spoke or moved. Humiliated, Asher wished he could just disappear. Now she knew his body was as hideous as his face. He closed his eyes tightly and cursed under his breath.

"Asher?" Sydney began tentatively. "May I ask you something personal?"

Forcing himself to open his eyes, Asher reluctantly peered over at her. He was expecting to see horror, repulsion, sorrow, or sympathy. Sydney did look sad, but also intrigued. She walked over to him, swallowing visibly, and gazed up at his face. Asher already knew what she was going to ask and it made his heart clench inside him. He nodded anyway.

To his surprise, Sydney reached up and pushed his hair back, uncovering his facial scars. She sighed deeply.

"What happened to you? Why do you look like that?" Her voice had become very soft.

Asher turned his head to let his hair fall forward again. "There are some things that wound only vampires," he told her. "When those kind of wounds are inflicted upon us, we cannot heal them."

"God, I'm sorry," Sydney whispered. "I'm so sorry."

Asher raised his hand to still any further expressions of remorse from her.

"Please. Your sympathy has been duly noted," he said tightly. "I think, perhaps, it is getting late. You should leave. I need to go to the police station and you...have better things to see to, I'm sure."

Sydney shook her head, her expression mirroring Asher's own shame. "No. I meant, I was sorry I asked such a thing. I didn't mean to upset you. Don't send me away." She looked down, blinking back fresh tears. "I wanted so badly to find you. Of course I wanted to thank you properly, but I also wanted to meet you. I couldn't stop thinking about you." She paused and took a deep breath. "When I first saw you last night, I could hardly believe my eyes. You were so frightening and powerful and so...beautiful all at the same time. I'd never seen anything like you before."

"And now you probably wish you never had," Asher murmured.

"No. You were my avenging angel last night, Asher," Sydney countered with abject adoration in her eyes. "You were amazing."

Asher sighed, crossing his arms over his chest. "I am no angel, Mademoiselle. But I am the writhing creature beneath Saint Michael's sword. Wasn't that what you saw last night? Wasn't that what made you scream?"

Sydney frowned. "I screamed because I was out of my head with fear. Anyone trying to touch me would have gotten screamed at. And you have to admit, you looked pretty scary last night. I told you, I haven't had much experience with vampires. In my wildest dreams, I never imagined a vampire would risk all that you did last night, to rescue me. I guess I believed what that son-of-a-bitch had said. That you were there because you wanted to...feed on me."

"Ah, that makes your fear entirely understandable," Asher said sarcastically. "After all, who would want such a thing feeding at their throat?" He sighed heavily. "Unbelievable as it may seem, there was a time when women begged me to pleasure them with my bite."

Asher looked down at Sydney and she gazed deeply into his eyes. She was looking at him longingly now, with a kind of provocative fascination that made Asher's breath grow still in his lungs. He turned his face away from her again and told himself to breathe.

"Why do you keep turning away from me?" Sydney asked, inching even closer to him until she was practically leaning against him.

"You should not gaze so intensely at a vampire, Mademoiselle," Asher murmured. "They can entrance you...if so inclined."

"My name is Sydney, remember. Like in A Tale of Two Cities? And I think I'm already entranced," she whispered breathily. "You're not as horrible-looking as you seem to want me to think you are. To me, you're very handsome. And I want to look at you. I want to be close to you and touch you. I can't seem to help myself."

Startled, Asher turned his head to look at Sydney again and as he did, she kissed him, grasping the front of his shirt to pull him closer to her.

Asher froze, too shocked to move. His mind commanded him to pull away from her, but his body would not comply. The warm, sinking pressure of her soft lips moving over his was simply too sweet. In moments, he was all but intoxicated by her kiss, and found himself kissing her back, opening his mouth to her in a something close to surrender. His tension began to dissipate and he tentatively placed his hands on her shoulders. Sliding them up and over her neck, he grasped her head, and delved his fingers into her hair.

Sydney's hands flattened against his chest and she leaned into him, moaning faintly into his mouth. Asher could sense her desire for him and marveled at it. He knew he had not bespelled her, yet he tasted the passion in her kiss and keenly felt the way her body was responding to him. The sensation was so astonishing, he could not resist indulging in it. He also knew he had not stirred such unprovoked desire in a woman in a very, very long time.

Then he knew why she seemed so attracted to him. She couldn't help herself, she had said. She only felt that way because they had both been subjected to a rush of immensely potent emotions last night. He had heard of such things. The shared experience often led people to develop feelings towards each other. Sydney had become enamored of him just as he felt strangely protective and intrigued by her now. It made sense. Much more sense than her actually wanting him did.

Asher pulled away from her then. He could not encourage these misplaced emotions of hers and he would not take advantage of them either. He didn't wish to hurt her. She was in a very delicate emotional state following her assault and if he was not careful, his rejection of what appeared to be very real feelings to her, may cause her considerable anguish.

He gazed down at her and lifted her hands in his, taking a deep steadying breath.

"That was incredible," Sydney murmured. She beamed up at Asher in unabashed adoration. "I've never...been kissed like that before." She smiled, squeezing his hands. "Come out with me tonight, Asher. Even if we just go for a walk or sit on a park bench or something. Say yes, please."

Asher raised his brow. "One would think, after your ordeal, you would be too afraid to stroll about these streets at night."

Sydney shrugged. "I wouldn't be afraid as long as you were with me."

"Sydney," Asher began gently. "What you are feeling...for me, is not what you think it is. You are misinterpreting your gratitude towards me because it feels different, more intense perhaps. It is unrecognizable to you in this new package, but you must accept it for what it truly is. Gratitude. That is all."

"But, I know I feel grateful," Sydney replied, her eyes narrowing in confusion. "What do you think I'm feeling that I shouldn't?"

Releasing her hands, Asher lowered his eyes. "Infatuation. Maybe even a little desire?" He crossed his arms over his chest again. "I am feeling things towards you too. It often happens after such occurances like last night and it is a very natural response, but it is not real. It is not true. And it would be wrong for either one of us to...come to certain conclusions and act on these feelings."

Sydney put her hand on Asher's arm. He did not pull away.

"What are you feeling for me?" she asked quietly, almost hopefully. "Why don't you think it could be real?"

Asher looked into her eyes. "I know what I am feeling is not real, based on the very nature of the feeling itself." He sighed heavily. "I am somewhat taken with you too. I want to protect you now as though you were my responsibility somehow. I find myself longing to hold you, and touch you...yet I know nothing about you. Not really."

Sydney stroked Asher's arm almost unconsciously, like someone would stroke a cat in their lap when they talked on the phone.

"But if that's what you are feeling, how can it not be real? I guess I don't understand and besides, what's wrong with feeling that way towards me? What's wrong with me being infatuated with you? I think I am. I'm not going to deny it."

"It is wrong because it makes you do things you would not normally do," Asher argued. "You would have never considered kissing me if your infatuation wasn't blinding you beyond reason." He swallowed hard and took a deep breath. "It is best not to give fuel to regrets."

Sydney backed away from Asher and lowered her eyes to the floor. "What will there be to regret? They're good feelings, Asher. Enriching and comforting. I need these kinds of feelings right now. I'd like nothing more than for you to take me in your arms right now and hold me. I can promise you, I won't regret it if you do, because it will make me happy. I'll save the regrets for much more...unpleasant things, like taking a short-cut through that alley to my car last night. That I regret. I think...since we both have our eyes wide open, we will accept our feelings for each other at face value. So, why try to ignore them? Why fight them? To me, that doesn't make sense."

Asher rolled his eyes in exasperation. "Oh to be so young and idealistic."

"I'm older than you are," Sydney muttered indignantly. She reached into her purse and took out her pack of cigarettes. "And as for being idealistic, I prefer to think I'm open-minded and a bit of a romantic. But whatever it is, it's better than being jaded and cynical."

"I am being realistic, Mademoiselle," Asher sneered. "And you are not older than I am. It is only that I died younger than you presently are." He reached into his pocket and automatically withdrew his lighter for her. "You'll be leaving in a couple of days. Our paths will not cross again, of this I am certain. Take my advice in these matters. Forget about what you feel towards me."

Sydney put the cigarette to her lips and leaned forward so Asher could light it. Then she drew back, inhaled it deeply, and shook her head.

"I'm not afraid of a few regrets, Asher," she said, smoke billowing from her mouth as she did. "You risk regrets every time you venture into unfamiliar territory. Sometimes the experience is worthwhile, sometimes it isn't. But if you won't even try, how do you ever learn who you are?" She took another drag off her cigarette. "I can't just forget about you, Asher. I don't want to."

"So now you wish to experience me?" Asher said, replacing the lighter back in his pocket. "You have no idea what that entails."

Sydney grinned then. "I'm willing to learn, if you'll teach me. You said it yourself, I'll be leaving Monday. Our paths will probably never cross again. If you and I come to regret the time we decide to spend together, the miles between us will surely ease the discomfort."

Asher stared back at her intensely. Her reasoning was impeccable, he had to admit, and it did give him food for thought, so to speak. Then, he couldn't believe he was actually considering her proposition. There was a time not too long ago when he was too filled with self-loathing and hatred, to even dream such a possibility for him like this could exist. But many things had changed for him these past few months and Asher was beginning to regard himself in a new light now. He still had a long way to go, and he doubted he would ever feel completely at ease in these kind of situations, but just the fact he was giving serious thought to socializing again, gave testament to just how far he had come.

Then how could he not consider it? Here was a woman willing to be with him--wanting to get to know him, after centuries of being rejected by others because of the way he looked. Sydney didn't appear to be particularly deterred by his scars, and she had already seen him at his worse last night. In that sense, she didn't seem so much a stranger as she did a long, lost friend. They already had things in common, and experiences they had shared.

Asher licked his lips and nodded suddenly, even before he had entirely convinced himself to agree with her. "What the hell? Carpe Diem." He sighed and reached for his own cigarettes. He just didn't want a cigarette now, he needed one. He lit it, and took a long restorative drag off it.

"Exactly!" Sydney said and flashed a dazzlingly smile. "What have you got to lose?"

A reluctant smile tugged at the corners of Asher's mouth. "I believe I have much more to gain than lose. This could be a significant turning point for me, Sydney." If we let it get that far, went unspoken.

Syndey leaned forward and pressed a soft kiss on Asher's lips. The tenderness of it made Asher's heart miss a beat. He gazed down at her, letting his rapidly increasing affection for her show in his eyes.

"So where would you like to go?" Sydney asked after a long moment had passed.

Asher frowned suddenly, realizing his civic duty still beckoned. "I need to get to the police station if I am to give them my account of last night," he stated quietly. "Would you consider accompanying me there? To be truthful, I would rather not go alone."

Sydney nodded wholeheartedly. "Come on. I'll drive."


It was Saturday night, so business at the police station was booming. Luckily Sydney had called ahead on her cell phone and alerted the detective handling her case that she was bringing Asher in to speak with him.

Asher stood very close to Sydney as she spoke with the officer at the front desk. Asher looked around, taking in the chaos and noise, and took a deep steadying breath. He didn't like being here, and the way people were staring at him was only making him more uncomfortable.

He had only been to the jail once before, when Jean-Claude had been arrested. Asher had tried to collaborate Jean-Claude's story, but no one would listen to him. There had been no real evidence against Jean-Claude, but that didn't seem to matter. They had grainy pictures of a vampire covered in blood and that was all they needed to imprison him. Asher shuddered slightly at the recollection. He was very glad Sydney had come with him here tonight.

As it was, the detective in charge of her case approached them right away. He looked Asher up and down and then held out his hand towards him.

"Detective Byers," he introduced himself. "Vice."

"I am Asher." Asher tentatively took the detective's hand and shook it.

"Yes, I've been looking for you," Byers said. "I understand you've come to give me your account of what happened to Miss Carlton last night."

Asher nodded. "Yes."

The detective smiled broadly and glanced at Sydney. "Follow me, please." He led Asher and Sydney to his desk and motioned for them to sit down.

Asher would have rather stood--would have rather paced, but the confines of the detective's allotted area would not permit it. Reluctantly, Asher slid into the chair across from his desk as Sydney took the chair beside it.

He glanced over at her and she smiled at him reassuringly. He must have looked as tense as he felt.

The detective cleared his throat. "If you could just give me some basic personal facts first," he began. "Start with your full name, address, phone..." He paused and looked up from his computer as if he just realized something important. "Ah, well, just give me somewhere you can be reached if we need to get in touch with you."

Asher fixed his eyes on the pen holder at the corner of the Detective Byers' desk. "I just go by the name, Asher. You may reach me through any business management owned by the JC Corporation."

Detective Byers frowned, but typed the information Asher had given, then looked up again. "That'll do. Now if you could start by telling me your version of the events which took place on the night of November 6th. What were you doing when you happened upon Miss Carlton and her assailant?"

"I was out walking. I heard a scream."

"Go on."

"I was curious. I went to investigate."


"I saw a man beating Mademoiselle Carlton. I stopped him."

Byers looked up again. "Stopped him, how?"

Asher tried to think of some way to relay what he had done without incriminating himself. He gazed up at Detective Byers with a carefully passive expression. "I approached him, and pulled Mademoiselle Carlton away from him."

Detective Byers sat back in his chair. "Just like that? Pulled her away? There wasn't any scuffle or anything?"

"A scuffle?"

"Yeah, like a fight, a struggle."

Asher had the overwhelming urge to lick his lips but fought it, not wanting to appear as nervous as he was. "Yes. He had a knife. We struggled over it." Asher noticed the detective wasn't typing any of this information down. Slowly Asher let his eyes drift over to Sydney. She seemed to sense his unease and spoke up.

"That son-of-a-bitch attacked Asher. He was trying to kill him. He had threatened to kill me."

Detective Byers peered over at Sydney. "I'd like to hear Asher's account, Miss Carlton, if you don't mind. We already have your account on file."

Sydney sighed and sat back in her chair. Detective Byers faced Asher once more.

"He attacked you first?"

Asher frowned. "Non. Not if you view my rescuing Mademoiselle Carlton from him as an attack."

Byers took a deep breath. "Try to be a little more specific, if you would. You said you simply pulled her away from him and then what? Did he attack you or did you attack him?"

Asher lowered his eyes, trying to think of the right words in English. "He...went for me, I believe is the correct phrase. I was only trying to...defend myself."

"I see," Byers replied, nodding.

Asher slowly gestured at the computer. "Why aren't you copying this?" His nerves were starting to get the better of him now. His English was getting more fractured and elusive with each pasing minute.

Byers smiled condescendingly. "I just want to make sure I understand what you're saying first." He leaned forward and folded his hands together on top of his desk. "After he...'went for' you, what did you do to him?"

"I..." Again, Asher had to pause to think of the word. "I rendered him unconscious." The detective nodded thoughtfully, so apparently it made sense to him. Asher sighed.

"To defend yourself?"

"And Mademoiselle Carlton, of course," Asher went on.

"Of course," Byers agreed. He picked up a file folder and opened it, then skimmed its contents. "According to the suspect, he tried to flee after freeing Miss Carlton but YOU attacked HIM. He suffered two broken ribs, a mild concussion, and his hands were nearly torn off at the wrists." He closed the folder and looked at Asher expectantly.

Fear seized Asher's heart, but he tried to mask it with annoyance. He knew what the detective was implying. He sat up a little straighter in his chair and scowled. "Were such injuries not warranted? I told you, Monsieur. We...scuffled. I was wounded. I fought back to keep him from wounding me further."

Byers raised his brow. "But you didn't seek medical attention?"

"There was no need."

"So it wasn't all that bad then?"

"Vampires heal very fast, Detective," Sydney spoke up. "But Asher was badly injured. I saw that much when I came to again. He was cut across the chest and his hand was bleeding."

Detective Byers glanced over at her. "Yes, Miss Carlton, I remember you told me that before when I asked how you came to be covered in vampire blood."

"And I told you how badly he was hurt and that we needed to find him, but no one seemed to care!" Sydney shot back. "He could be dead right now!"

Byers rolled his eyes in exasperation. "He is dead, Miss Carlton."

Sydney seemed to shrink back in her chair and glanced up at Asher with a chagrinned expression. "You know what I meant."

Asher peered back at her, his heart warming at her indignation on his behalf. He wished he was sitting closer to her. He would have squeezed her hand just then, if he could have reached it.

"I have to confess," Byers continued. "I don't know very much about vampires, but if you were hurt that badly, surely there'd still be some...evidence of it somewhere? A bruise, a cut, a scrape? I don't even see a band-aid anywhere."

"Well, isn't there somebody around here you can consult?" Sydney piped up. "He's telling the truth!"

Byers frowned. "We haven't been able to get ahold of our preternatural expert, Anita Blake. She left a number where she could be reached in the event of an emergency, but this hardly constitutes as an emergency, I'm afraid."

"She is on holiday," Asher told him quietly. "She will be back Lundi."

Byers furrowed his brow. "How do you know that?"

Asher shrugged. "She told me."

"You know her?" Byers said, his voice jumping up an octave in surprise.

"Yes. We are...quite close," Asher replied earnestly. He resisted the urge to tell the startled detective that they were lovers. It would have been interesting to see the look on his face if he did, but Asher preferred to practice the better part of discretion when it came to his private affairs.

Byers cleared his throat, eager to move on. "So what really motivated you to intervene on Miss Carlton's behalf? If you don't mind my saying, vampires normally don't go out of their way to assist human beings in trouble."

Asher shook his head, feeling genuinely irritated now. "You are being prejudice, Monsieur. Just because I am a vampire, does not mean I not a gentleman. I intervened because I knew what that...degoutant fripon intented to do to her. Forcing humiliating intimacies on someone simply to demonstrate your power over them is an act I find particularly unconscionable and most vile."

Dubiously, Byers raised his brow. "A lot of men do, Asher. But a lot of men would have simply called the police."

"A lot of men have not experienced such a thing personally," Asher fairly growled. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Sydney slowly cover her mouth with her hand, reacting with a kind of numbed shock at what he had just said. He glanced over at her and sighed.

Byers eyes widened. He leaned back in his chair, regarding the vampire sitting across from him in a new light now, and his expression softened considerably.

"I see," he said quietly, then sighed heavily. He chewed on his lower lip for a moment, then focused his attention on his computer. He placed his hands on the keyboard and nodded. "All right, Asher. Let's back up. Take it again, from the top. Tell me as specifically as you can, what happened after you came across Miss Carlton and her assailant." He paused and glanced up at Asher. "Don't worry. This is just for the record. We're gonna nail this bastard. He's got priors. Maybe this time we can put him away for a long time."

Feeling the shift in the detective's demeanor, Asher found himself relaxing somewhat. He nodded and leaned forward, beginning his account once more, with a deep, cleansing breath.


Sydney pulled her car into the parking lot of the Hilton Hotel. She turned off the ignition and faced Asher with a hopeful expression.

"Would you like to come up for awhile?" she asked him softly.

Asher peered out the car window at the towering hotel and couldn't help thinking about Anita and Jean-Claude and what they might be doing right at this moment in their hotel in Kansas City.

"We...could just sit on the balcony and talk for awhile," Sydney went on. "I'm on the 14th floor and the view is really breathtaking. It's a nice suite. My company is paying for most of it, but I paid extra to get an upgrade. It'll give you a chance to relax and unwind a little and frankly, I could go for a good stiff drink right about now."

Asher wondered if her room also had a fireplace and jacuzzi bathtub. He faced her, fighting a smile. He was tempted to take her up on her offer, but he did not want to rush blindly into things. Her intentions were not exactly clear to him and he would hate to make any false assumptions. Just because she was inviting him up to her hotel room didn't mean she wanted to go to bed with him. He still found it hard to believe she'd actually consider doing such a thing with him, and he still wasn't quite certain he'd be able to go through with it if she were.

"I will come up with you," Asher murmured. "I will see you to your door."

Sydney frowned, but nodded. "All right. I appreciate your thoughtfulness." She slid out of the car and started across the parking lot. Asher followed her closely. They walked into the hotel and down a long garrishly-carpeted hall.

The elevators were located in a small recess just off to the left of the hall. Asher would have passed right by them if Sydney had not been leading the way. She pressed the button to summon one, and the doors opened immediately to admit them.

Once inside, Sydney peered over at Asher and smiled rather coyly. "I know what you're probably thinking."

Asher raised his brow. "You do?"

"I just want you to know, I don't make a habit of inviting strange men into my hotel room when I'm on business trips."

Asher couldn't help feeling a tinge of disappointment upon hearing that. Perhaps she did simply want to talk for awhile and enjoy the view from her balcony with him.

"I would never presume such a thing," he told her quietly and raised his eyes to the blinking numbered lights counting the passing floors.

"It's just that I feel safe with you," Sydney continued. "Comfortable. I feel like I've known you a lot longer than I have."

Asher glanced down at her. He wasn't sure what she meant by that, or just what she was expecting of him now. He opened his mouth to reply, but the doors opened suddenly and he lost his nerve to come right out and ask her.

Sydney stepped out first and smiled again. "My room is at the end of the hall," she said and fished her key out of her small purse.

Asher followed her slowly. The hallway was deserted and oppressively silent. He walked on, sensing only a few people behind the doors he passed. It was late and they were sleeping. At least he didn't have to worry about someone popping unexpectedly out of their room and "bumping" into him.

Stopping in front of room number 1440, Sydney slid her credit card-like key into the lock and pushed the door open. She held it and turned around to face Asher.

"Are you sure you don't want to come in for a little while?" she asked.

Asher looked past her into the dark suite. It was a very nice room--elegant even. He could see the lights of the city below them through the sliding glass doors at the opposite end. She was right, the view was breathtaking.

He suddenly felt Sydney's hand resting on the middle of his chest and turned his eyes on hers.

"Asher," she said, practically breathing in his name. "I know you have been deeply hurt by others before but I want you to trust me. I won't hurt you. I promise."

Leaning away from her hand, Asher licked his suddenly dry lips apprehensively. She really was inviting him in for sex. He could smell her desire now, and the look in her eyes was both compassionate and provocative. Asher suddenly felt as if he were facing one of the most difficult decisions in his life. He warred with his own desires for her, his need to experience her acceptance of him so wholly, and his abject fear of her possible rejection. A rejection that would most likely tear his heart in two.

"Cherie," he whispered breathily. "You would not mean to hurt me, I know. You may say all the right things, even touch me, but you will not be able to keep your thoughts from coloring your eyes--your true feelings about what it is you are touching. And if I were to see such shadows, my pain would be indescribable." He lowered his eyes and took a small step back. "I...do not feel quite ready to risk such a thing."

Sydney reached out and touched his cheek, drawing his gaze back up to her face. "Look at me, Asher. Take a good look. I'm not exactly gorgeous, especially right now with my swollen cheeks and my two black eyes. And even when I haven't been beaten to a pulp, I hardly turn men's heads. I'm middle-aged, overweight, and I have frizzy, fly-away hair. But I know that won't really matter to you because...we're beyond that with each other. We're already on the next plateau that has more to do with how we feel and care about each other, than how we think we look to other people. And it's not that I don't find you incredibly attractive. I do. But I also really care about you, and I want to be with you tonight more than anything."

A small, sad smile tugged at the corners of Asher's mouth. "I do not know what fly-away hair is, but if that is what you have, I think I like it." He leaned forward slightly and took a deep breath. "Sydney you are a lovely woman. I see nothing wrong with you. But I am a monster. You cannot deny the fact I aptly look the part."

Surprisingly, Sydney swore under her breath. "Who was she, Asher?" she asked unexpectedly. "Who was the woman who rejected you so cruelly, she scarred your heart deeper than anything you bear on the surface of your skin?"

Asher's eyes widened. "All my scars run deep. They have not healed with time and they never will."

"Then you need to just accept them and get on with your life!" Sydney snapped. "When I was a teenager--many, many moons ago--I realized I wasn't going to be thin, or beautiful, or have Cindy Crawford's body. So, I had to just accept what I was given, and stop whining about what would never be."

Narrowing his eyes in irritation, Asher leaned towards her slightly. "It is not the same thing. You are not grotesquely disfigured. I am."

"It is the same! It's all about self-image and accepting who you are and realizing other people may not see you the way you see yourself. That maybe what they see appeals to them. Maybe your positive attributes outweigh your negative ones to the point of making them invisible to that person!" Pausing momentarily, Sydney closed her eyes and took a steadying breath. "You know, we can continue this argument inside, there's no reason to stand here in the hall. And besides, I'd rather not clue the entire floor in on what I'm trying to get you to do, if you know what I mean."

Asher swallowed thickly and bowed his head. "I should leave. I have seen you safely to your door, Sydney, which was the only thing I intended on doing tonight. Having done so, I bid you adieu." He turned to go, but Sydney grabbed his arm.

"Wait! Please, don't go!" She pushed the door completely open and hauled him inside the suite.

Asher could have resisted her if he truly wanted to. When she turned and locked the door behind him, he made no move to stop her.

"What do you want from me, Sydney?" he asked, his voice low and barely audible.

"Just hear me out for a minute, okay?" she said, earnestly.

Asher nodded and crossed his arms over his chest. Sydney approached him, but made no move to touch him.

"Look, I'm sorry," she went on. "We don't have to make love. We can just talk. I have no right to pressure you this way. I'm not on any power-trip, I swear it."

"You are not pressuring me," Asher admitted to her. "But your conviction does tempt me. If you are concerned about what I said back at the police station, don't be. You are not forcing me to do anything I do not want to do."

Sydney swallowed visibly. "Still, I don't want to make you feel uncomfortable. It's just that I honestly thought you wanted to from the way you kissed me back at the club, and the way you were staring at me in the car." She took his hands in hers and squeezed them gently. "Just stay with me for a little while. Please, Asher?"

Asher sighed heavily. He had been staring at her in the car and imagining--fantasizing perhaps--what it would be like to be with her. Imaging the feeling of her body moving beneath his as he loved her. Her own, quite obvious intrigue, was allowing him to daringly dream of such things after so many years of solitude. Sydney had been forthright and open with him all night. It was time for him to admit some things to set her mind at ease. He squeezed her hands and looked her in the eye.

"Sydney, you did not misunderstand," he informed her. "I was considering the possibility. I can feel your desire for me. I can smell it and taste it in my mouth. Such a thing is somewhat of a novelty for me these days and knowing you want me the way you do has stirred my own desires and let me dare to dream again. I do want to be with you. Being loved by a beautiful woman tonight would be more fulfilling for me than you can possibly imagine. But I must confess. I have only been with one woman in the past two months. Before her, there was no one--for many, many years because no one would have me. So...the idea of giving myself to you, is both tantalizing and terrifying."

Sydney edged closer to him and raised her brows. "Only one woman in the past two months?"

Asher nodded. "She is the only reason I'm still standing here considering this."

"I'm going way out on a limb here tonight, Asher," Sydney confessed. "I haven't been with a man in over a year. I don't attract very many men per se. So, I'm actually tantalized, but terrified, myself."

Asher cocked his head at her in curiosity. He looked her up and down, scarcely believing a woman as lovely as she, would be scorned by men, but he knew she was telling him the truth.

"I must admit, I find such a thing incredulous," he said softly. "I would have thought a woman as beautiful as you are, would entertain men on a regular basis. Especially in this day and age."

Sydney grinned and blushed prettily, leaning towards him. "You haven't even seen me without all these bumps and bruises, yet you can look at me and really think I'm beautiful?"

"I know you are beautiful, Sydney. I don't have to see you without those marks to know that you are," Asher whispered. He reached up and placed his hand on the side of her face. "Your bruises do not matter. All the faults you ticked off on your list, I cannot find. You are fair," here he paused and ran his fingers through her hair as his other hand rose to cradle her chin, "and fine. Soft and womanly." He raised her face up to his and looked deeply into her eyes. "I am thinking I would very much like to make love to you tonight." With that his mouth descended on hers in a soft, but provocative kiss.

Sydney whimpered at the touch of his lips on hers and her body slumped against his in complete surrender. She wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him back, softly at first, but as her passion flared, her kiss became more aggressive. She was kissing him now so fiercely, Asher was forced to pull away from her.

"Careful, ma cherie," he cautioned. "I do not want you to cut yourself on my fangs."

Blushing again, Sydney smiled shyly. "Sorry. In case you haven't noticed, I get a little carried away by your kiss. You have the most sensuous mouth," she murmured, pulling him down towards her again. "Teach me how to kiss you." She brushed his lips lightly with hers, then languidly swept her tongue over them. "I have to kiss you."

Asher nuzzled her cheek. "Start slowly," he said and trailed his mouth over her brow and forehead. "Do not push against my teeth. I will open my mouth for you and should you want to come inside, go under my tongue." He slowly kissed his way back to her mouth, keeping his lips hovering over hers as he spoke. "And if you want to take me inside you, draw on my lower lip and taste me. I will offer myself to you."

Sydney swallowed visibly. "Oh God," she sighed. "Kiss me. Teach me more." She delved her hands into his thick hair and ran her fingertips over the back of his scalp.

Asher closed the diminutive distance between their lips and kissed her, his heart pounding in his chest. Their kiss was passionate, but it also felt right and real and true. There was no denying the feelings this woman had stirrred inside him and unlike before, Asher had no interest in depriving them now. But this was just a kiss. The night's desires had yet to be fulfilled and might not be fulfilled once he revealed himself to her. There was still that chance, perhaps a remote possibility now, that Sydney would turn him away. There was only one way to find out.

He eased back from her and let his hands fall to his sides. Sydney took a shaky step back and fanned herself with her hand.

"Oh my," she breathed. "That was very...French, wasn't it?"

"French and vampire," Asher replied, matter-of-factly.

Sydney grinned and moved towards the bed. "That's what I call sampling the night life." She bent and pulled the bedspread off and piled it unceremoniously on a nearby chair. Then she faced Asher and turned down the sheets. "It's very dark in here. The cityscape is beautiful, but it doesn't give off much light. I can turn on a lamp if you want me to."

"No," Asher said softly, stepping away from her to the other side of the bed which was covered in shadows. "For our first time together, let me stay in the darkness. You will still be able to see me, but maybe I won't look quite as ruined to you as I really am."

Sydney turned and looked out the glass doors at the glittering lights. "I know you're frightened," she said simply. "Just tell me what you want me to do and I'll do it. I'll turn around if you want me to. I'll leave the room even while you undress."

"That won't be necessary," Asher said, lowering his voice. He had already pulled off his shirt and was unbuckling his belt when Sydney faced him again.

She peered intensely into the shadows, her eyes searching. Then she began unbuttoning her blouse and kicked off her heels. She lost two inches in height when she did and seemed younger and more vulnerable suddenly. Looking tense and unhappy, she hesitated just a moment before taking off her blouse and reached around behind her back to unzip her skirt.

"I'm sorry. I'm not really into frilly lingerie," Sydney lamented, peering scornfully down at her white cotton bra. "I'm a little too heavy and a little too practical for such things. If I had known I had a snowball's chance in hell of getting sex tonight, I would have gone out and bought something nicer." She quickly wiggled out of her skirt to reveal matching white cotton panties.

"What you are wearing is very pretty on you," Asher chided her from the other side of the bed. "Slow down, ma cherie. Heighten the anticipation. I am watching you."

Sydney frowned. "I'm not very good at this kind of thing, Asher. I've just never seen myself as particularly sexy. The sooner I'm under the covers and in the dark, the more comfortable I'll feel." She glanced up. "But you're sexy. And you know it, deep down inside. Why can't I watch you undress?"

"Because I am trying to make this easier for you. And me too," Asher confessed. "Indulge my eccentricities this one time."

Sydney sat down to strip off her hose. "All right. All right. Stay in the dark if it makes you feel better." She was down to her bra and panties now and stood up, gnawing her lower lip fitfully. "Would you mind very much if I asked you to turn around?" She squinted in Asher's direction.

"If I said no, how would you know if I kept my word and turned around?" Asher was standing, facing her. He was nude except for his pale blue briefs. He refused to undress entirely until he knew how she'd react to him.

Sydney put her hands on her shapely hips. "Because you call yourself a gentleman, and besides, I can just make you out over there. Your skin is...very white."

Asher took a deep breath. "Then come to me," he whispered. "Give me your hand."

Sydney climbed over the top of the bed to reach him, instead of going around. She knelt at the opposite edge and extended her hand towards Asher.

"I want to see you, Asher. You come to me now," she said softly, encouragingly. "Meet me half way."

Taking a hesitant step into the dim light at the side of the bed where Sydney was kneeling, Asher reached out and grasped her hand in his. He squeezed it gently before placing it lightly on the right side of his chest. He kept his eyes locked on hers, silently praying to whomever would listen to him that Sydney would not pull her hand away in disgust. Her face was blank however as she stared at him in something close to shock, but her eyes were watering slightly and her mouth was tight. Her hand spread out and began to move over him. At first she slid it up and over his shoulder, then slowly down to his waist. Her fingertips followed the length of one particularly deep furrow just above his hip and she sniffed then, softly, delicately.

Asher's heart began to sink inside him. He inhaled deeply, slowly, letting the oxygen fill his lungs and clear his mind. Part of him wanted to pull away, but part of him wanted to move closer to her and told him she had not exactly rejected him yet.

"I told you it was horrible," Asher said, his voice tightening with emotion.

Much to his surprise, Sydney nodded in wholehearted agreement. "It is horrible."

Sydney was looking down now, leaning to the left slightly, her eyes drifting down the length of Asher's leg. Her hand passed over his hip and slid to his thigh.

Asher suddenly seized her wrist to stop her. He could not bear it anymore. He was sure she was only touching him now out of curiosity. She was only looking at him out of morbid fascination. There was no desire in her eyes anymore and her tender explorations of his flesh were not meant to please.

"I think you have seen enough," he grumbled, masking his deepening sorrow with anger. "And now that you have, do you still want to fuck me?"

Sydney blinked back at him unhappily, then pulled her wrist free of Asher's grasp and frowned.

"Well, what did you want me to say, Asher? Gee, it's not so bad? It is bad. What happened to you is horrible. It's inconceivably vicious and to think of the agony it caused you and is still causing you here--" she paused and thumped the center of his chest, "--is heartbreaking. But you know what? I don't care about your scars. They don't make you horrible. And it's not just because it is dark in here either. I'll never see you as horrible, Asher. Then like you said to me, I don't need to see you without these marks to know you're beautiful."

Asher stared back at Sydney dumbfounded. For a moment, he couldn't move and couldn't think of anything to say. Then he felt both her hands on his chest. She leaned forward until she was resting against him and laid her head upon his shoulder.

"It'll be all right," she whispered and pressed a soft kiss on the side of his neck. Her index finger lazily circled his right nipple and traced the surrounding scars.

The tension in Asher's body slowly eased away, and he raised his arms to wrap them around her back. He hugged her tightly for a long time and then kissed the top of her head, burying his face in her hair.

"Fair Sydney," he whispered. "If you only knew how I've yearned for a moment like this."

She raised her head slightly and peered up at him. "I still want you. Do you believe me?"

"Yes. I can sense it." Asher rubbed her back soothingly a few times, reveling in her warmth and the feel of her in his arms. He wanted her too, there was no denying that, and he was certain he didn't need to tell Sydney this, since her body was pressed so tightly against him. Tentatively he traced the soft edge of her bra. "May I?" He twisted the elastic and hintingly toyed with the clasp.

Sydney tugged at the strap on her shoulder. "The honor's all yours."

Asher immediately snapped the clasp and leaned back to look at her. "An honor, indeed," he said and captured her mouth with his in a fleeting, teasing kiss. "Disrobing a woman is like peeling back the petals of a rose to expose the glowing and fragrant sex of its core." He slipped the straps off her shoulders and down her arms.

Sydney squeezed her eyes tightly closed and smiled broadly. "Jesus God, you have a way with words."

Asher's eyes settled on her exposed breasts and he sighed in appreciation, lifting her arms out to the side for a more unobstructed view. Her skin was a creamy white and her nipples were pale and taunt. To him, her breasts were simply beautiful, soft and naturally large. Her few excess pounds enhanced her endowment in a way Asher found very appealing. He released her arms and tentatively reached out and touched her, then cupped her with his hands and kneaded her gently.

"I suppose it's only fair you get to see me now that I've seen you," Sydney said and placed her hands on his arms. "Just try not to ogle me quite so obviously. It makes me a little uncomfortable."

"Forgive my insensitivity, cherie, but these are enchanting," he breathed. "So perfectly pert, but nice and round." He paused and licked his lips. "Do you like to have them suckled?"

Sydney seemed startled by his question at first, but nodded and seemed to hold her breath in anticipation. Asher lowered his right hand and covered her nipple with his mouth and laved it thoroughly with his tongue. Sydney gasped and clutched his shoulders, digging her long nails into his skin, and arched her back.

With his mouth still attached to her breast, Asher supported Sydney against his arm, and eased her down on the bed, carefully positioning himself beside her. His long hair spilled over her body like a golden, silken veil. Sydney buried her hands in it, rubbing it over her skin with a decided relish.

"Oh God," she sighed. "You have the most glorious hair I've ever seen on a man. Women would kill to have hair like this. Not to mention your waistline." Sydney paused and passed her hands over Asher's back. "I love narrow waists on men. It's so sexy. Especially with those flat, washboard abs of yours. And don't get me started on your ass. I'll never shut up if I do."

Asher peered up at her, his eyes twinkling with amusement.

"Oh, those eyes," Sydney went on. "They're stunning." She took his head in her hands. "You're gorgeous, Asher. I mean that."

"I know you do, cherie, and it warms my heart."

Asher leaned back a little and smiled. She had told him she was nervous and he sensed it now. She was trembling slightly and her heart was pounding so hard, Asher could feel it against him. He reached up and ran his index finger down her cheek to her lips and sought to calm her with flattery.

"Shall I rhapsodize your loveliness as well? Shall I tell you how utterly beguiled I am with you?" He shifted slightly and nuzzled her neck, nipping delicately at her skin. "Or shall I show you?"

Sydney grinned and turned her head to kiss him. "Show me....Slowly."

Nodding, Asher stroked her hair reassuringly and let the weight of his body press her into the soft mattress.

"Do not be nervous. I will go slow," he replied gently and kissed her deeply.

Sydney encircled his neck with her arms and raised her leg to lay it against his hip. Asher slid his hand down her side and behind her. He grasped the waistband of her panties and slid them slowly down over her hips to expose her buttocks. He squeezed her bare flesh and pressed her tightly to him, moving his hips slowly to rub himself against her.

Sydney moaned softly, but her whole body suddenly tensed. Asher eased away from her and gazed into her eyes.

The blush coloring her cheeks was visible to Asher even in the darkness. He took a deep breath and took his hands off her.

"Am I still moving too quickly for you?" he asked quietly.

Sydney gnawed her lower lip. "Not really," she admitted. "Actually, you're being very considerate and patient."

"You were patient with me," Asher pointed out. "You soothed my apprehension and eased my fears. I will do no less for you. But I must confess, I don't understand why you are so worried." He paused and took a deep breath. "Are you having second thoughts?"

Sydney shook her head vehemently. "It's just that it's been a long time for me. I'm a little out of practice. And then, I've never been with a...vampire before, Asher. I guess I'm not really sure what to expect."

Asher shifted completely off of her and lay on his side, propping his head up with his elbow. "But you have been with a man before, oui?"

Sydney lowered her eyes and nodded. "Yeah."

"I am basically a man," Asher assured her. "Physically there is no difference. I will make love to you just as a man, if that is what you prefer. But I am also a vampire, and am endowed with powers no mortal man has. I can do things for you--take away your apprehension and make you feel sensations as no mere human male can. I can touch you in places no mortal can reach, in ways unimaginable. If you allow me to love you as a vampire, cherie, I guarantee you an erotic experience of your wildest fantasies."

Sydney raised her brow, clearly intrigued. "Is this going to be one of those deals where once I've done it with a vampire, I'll never go back to humans again?"

Asher smiled slightly. "It is unlikely, but it is possible. I do not intend it to be as such, but it does happen." He reached over and trailed his finger over her breast.

"Are you going to bite me?" Sydney's expression sobered. "It doesn't hurt or anything, does it?"

Leaning towards her, Asher bestowed a soft kiss on her shoulder. "Non. More often than not, it is part of the sex act for a vampire, but I will not bite you if you do not want me to. If you do however, it will not hurt you, I promise. It is all about sensuality and pleasure. There will be no pain."

For a moment, Sydney lay back flat on the mattress staring up at the ceiling. Then she took a deep breath and rose up partially and stripped off her panties.

"All right," she whispered, beckoning Asher to her. "I want the vampire version. I want you to make all my wild fantasies come true."

Fighting a smile, Asher leaned against her, his eyes sweeping down the length of her now completely nude body. He reached down and stroked the downy blonde curls between her legs with the tips of his fingers.

"So you have fantasized about being with vampires before?" Asher asked her, running his index finger tantalizingly over the cleft of her sex.

Breathing through her mouth now, Sydney turned her head and looked up into his eyes. "No. But then, I never, even in my wildest fantasies, imagined I'd wind up in bed with a dashing French vampire who's powers are like some supernatural sex toy."

Rising fluidly to his knees, Asher slipped gracefully off the bed. He took a long, deep breath and slowly slid the pale silk briefs down his long legs, and stepped out of them, revealing himself to her.

"You are very certain about this?" he asked sincerely. "This is the moment of truth, ma cherie. Before you are in the throes of passion and before I place my power over you, tell me yes, or tell me no."

Sydney's jaw slackened and dropped, her eyes all but devouring the sight of him. She began to nod slowly at first, then with more conviction. "Oh God yes, Asher. I want you. I want every glorious last inch of you. I've never been so sure of anything in my life."


~Sunday morning 5:10 am~

Wrapped in the bedspread against the night's chill, Sydney and Asher stood holding each other on the balcony of her suite, smoking cigarettes, and gazing out at the glittering lights of St.Louis spread out as far as the eye could see.

Sydney shivered slightly and Asher tightened his arm around her, drawing her closer to him. She smiled and placed a soft kiss on his chest.

"I am sorry I am not warmer for you," Asher told her, crushing the tip of his cigarette into the railing and flicking it over the edge.

Sydney grinned, passing her hand over his buttocks with undisclosed savor. "Oh you were plenty warm, darlin'," she teased. "You were sizzling."

Asher closed his eyes and moaned softly. "I can still feel you around me. Feel myself sinking into the deep heat of your body...so soft and moist. Luxurious as velvet." He drew in a deep breath through his teeth and growled sensually. "I swear, I could come again just thinking about that."

"Well, don't get me started again, Asher," Sydney warned, taking a frantic puff off her cigarette. "If I have one more orgasm, I think my mind is going to explode."

Asher bent to kiss the top of her head. "Perhaps I should have warned you about that particular aspect of my power, before I rolled your mind, but I held back. As it was, I gave you just a taste of what I could do because I was afraid to unleash all my powers on you." He frowned suddenly and sighed. "I have gotten myself in trouble for doing so before."

Sydney rubbed the two small puncture wounds on her neck, and smiled up at him reassuringly. "Nooo, don't apologize. I wasn't bitching, honest. The flashbacks are extraordinary." She raised her face to his and touched his lips gently in a feather-soft kiss. "I do feel totally beguiled by you now though. But I don't think that has anything to do with your powers."

"I would hope not," Asher replied. He stared out at the horizon for a long while, saying nothing, then he faced Sydney and offered her a somewhat apologetic smile. "I would like nothing more than to stay with you, but I fear the dawn is approaching. I will have to take my leave of you now. But...I promise I will return tonight if you so wish."

Sydney put out her cigarette and tossed it aside. "Oh yeah, I wish." She snuggled closer to Asher and laid her head on his chest. "I can't hear your heart anymore," she murmured. "Is that an indication?"

Asher nodded. "Yes. My blood pressure grows faint. My heart will stop entirely soon." He hugged her tightly, then took her hand and guided her back into the hotel suite. He unwrapped himself from the bedspread they were sharing, and stalked about the room, collecting his clothing.

Sydney stood in front of the glass doors watching him. She shook her head slowly. "I think you are really beautiful, Asher," she whispered. "You are so beautiful, you make me want to cry."

Asher looked up from fastening his pants and fixed his eyes on hers. "Thank you, cherie," he said softly. "Perhaps that is just a little of my power talking, oui?" He walked over to her and cradled her face in his hands. "You are beautiful, Sydney. Belle au dela des mots." He kissed her lingeringly, then pulled away from her and smiled warmly. He retrieved his shirt from the bed and slid into it.

"God, I'm lonely for you already," Sydney murmured.

Asher peered over at her and smiled sadly. "I am sorry to leave like this. If I could stay with you, I would. I would love you throughout the day and deep into the night. Then I would love you over and over until the morning comes to carry you away from me."

Sydney swallowed thickly and shook her head. "Oh, I don't even want to think about leaving Monday. Not now. I'll just think about seeing you tonight. I'll dream about it." She nodded, encouragingly. "Go on. I don't want you to tempt fate by lingering here."

Having finished dressing, Asher strode towards the door. "Till tonight, ma cherie." He turned, and blew her a kiss. She smiled and pretended to snatch it from the air in front of her. Asher grinned, opened the door, and slipped out.


~Sunday evening 6:45 pm~

Looking rumpled and sleepy and basking in the afterglow of an intense orgasm, Jason watched Asher move about the room, getting dressed. He was naked, and lay provocatively sprawled on the vampire's bed with the ingrained casual inhibition of most shapeshifters Asher knew.

Asher could feel the weight of Jason's stare and it was starting to irritate him. Jason was too quiet now, and Asher wondered just what he was thinking. Finally, Asher turned and faced the handsome young werewolf.

"What?" Asher all but demanded, pulling on a blue silk shirt. "No snide remarks?"

Jason looked startled. "I haven't said a word."

Frowning, Asher turned his attention back to his wardrobe. "And why not?" he grumbled, tucking the shirt into his pants. "In your twisted little mind, you seize every opportunity you can to make someone uncomfortable about sensitive matters." He glanced over his shoulder at him. "It amuses you to no end to do so."

Jason laughed, holding up his hands. "Whoa, Asher. What do you expect? I guess I'm still kinda shocked. I mean, let's face it--it isn't every night you summon me to your boudoir."

Asher grinned then. That was better. At least now he knew he had not shocked the young wolf too much with his invitation tonight. "I thought you might be lonesome. Don't make yourself so comfortable however. I never said you could sleep here afterwards."

Jason smiled and stretched, running his hands down his bare torso, and gathered up the sheets. "Well, hey, if you don't mind. My knees are still shaking. I could go for a little nap now. Beats getting dressed again and traipsing all the way back to my room."

"I told you there was no need for you to undress completely," Asher went on, "--that I would be satisfied in a matter of minutes."

Moving his shoulders in something close to a shrug, Jason gestured at his discarded clothes. "I didn't want to sully my duds. Since I wasn't real sure what to expect, I just figured better safe than sorry." He propped his head up with his arm to watch Asher more comfortably. "Can't I hang around here and sleep for awhile? I really like this bed." He bounced up and down on it a few times. "I never dreamed you'd actually invite me to get in it with you."

Asher sighed and turned away from him again to sort through his ties. "Non? I thought you knew me better than that, Jason. I was trying to be considerate. Due to our difference in height, I merely believed you'd be more comfortable if we did it on the bed. Besides, it is about time I got some use out of it." He heard Jason chuckle behind him.

"You mean we christened it tonight? Asher, I'm honored."

Asher had a brief mental image of a ship being christened for her maiden voyage. It made him smile, thinking of the bed that way. It had been christened all right, but not with champagne and not by him...for a change.

"Honored? By me?" he murmured. Selecting a tie, Asher turned up the collar of his shirt, and draped the tie over his neck. "Just do me one favor, if you would, and see that the sheets get changed." Asher walked over to the bed, effortlessly manipulating his tie into a perfect knot at his throat. He looked down at Jason and raised his brow.

Jason laughed again, his face flushing slightly. "Sorry 'bout that. No way could I control myself. I didn't even want to try." He paused and batted his eyes up at Asher facetiously. "Was it as good for you as it was for me?"

Asher emitted a light, low laugh. Two could play at this game. Leaning over the shapeshifter in his bed, Asher placed his hands on either side of him, and lowered his head until his lips were practically touching Jason's.

"Oh, tres bon, mon ami. Tres, tres bon," he told him in a soft, breathy voice, his eyes glittering with seduction. "You gave yourself to me so willingly. How could I be anything but...fulfilled?"

Asher noticed Jason had become very still beneath him. He stayed hovering over the shapeshifter a moment longer. Asher slowly turned his head as if to kiss him. Jason's eyes fluttered in anticipation. A triumphant smile slowly turned up the corners of Asher's mouth.

"The next time you peak in my bed, Jason, I'd prefer to be doing more to you than just holding you in my arms. If you are so inclined some night, you would be more than welcome."

Jason pressed his head deeper into the pillows to avoid touching Asher's lips as he spoke. He cleared his throat slightly, obviously flustered. "I'll keep that in mind," he murmured thickly.

Asher abruptly straightened, and turned away from the bed to fetch his coat. He couldn't see Jason's expression, but he knew he had unnerved him. For once the brash young wolf had no snappy comeback. Smugly, Asher pulled on his coat and headed for the door.

"Adieu, mon ami and merci. You have warmed me up well."

Jason suddenly scrambled to get out of the bed. "Wait! This is too bizarre. What's gotten into you tonight?" he asked, his brow furrowing in genuine confusion.

Asher flashed him a disarming smile. "Your delicious blood," he retorted and passed his tongue over his upper lip. "It was just what I needed for tonight. But I am somewhat pressed for time and must take my leave of you now." He paused and let his gaze drift slowly and appreciatively over Jason's nude body. "C'est dommage."

Jason pointed his finger at Asher. "You see! That! Right there!" He stalked over to him. "You've never ever come on to me this strong before. You've never come on to me at all. It's like you got a shot of self-confidence somewhere. And you're in an awfully good mood. I've never dared to tease you before, because no way would you have put up with half of what I dished your way tonight. But you seemed open to it, and you just took it all in stride for a change. You even teased me back. That is so not like you." He paused and looked the vampire over from head to toe. "And look at you. That's the most you've dressed up since Mussette's visit. If I didn't know any better, I'd say you had a hot date tonight..." His voice trailed off to a long drawn out breath. "You met somebody, didn't you? You got some last night...."

Placing his hands on his hips, Asher leaned towards Jason, and narrowed his eyes. "What do you mean: 'if I didn't know any better'?" Asher growled. "Why do you find such a thing so hard to imagine?"

Shaking his head, Jason grinned and backed away from him. "Whew! For a moment you had me worried. Now that was the Asher we all know and love."

Asher found he could not maintain his anger and grinned back at Jason. He had to admit, he was in a good mood. He had been dreading this weekend: all those long, lonely hours, night after night, with no one to talk to and no one to hold. Circumstances had granted him the exact opposite however. Not only had he become more aware of other people around him, like Damian and Jason, whom he would have normally never given the time of day to when Jean-Claude or Anita were around, but he was also more aware of their understated affections for him now. He wasn't as friendless as he had first believed.

What mattered even more, was the fact he had found a lover on his own merit. Sydney was a rare jewel, but where one jewel could be found, others could be found as well. He would just have to be particular and cautious, but at least now he knew the idea wasn't as far-fetched as it had once seemed.

"For your information, mon ami," Asher began, reaching up to pat Jason on the cheek. "My comings and goings are none of your business."

"Comings. Now there's a Freudian slip if I ever heard one," Jason teased, his eyes twinkling in amusement.

Asher peered at the handsome young werewolf for a moment or two, then pulled him closer and bent to press a soft kiss on his lips. Jason didn't resist, but made no move to kiss him back. Asher released him and sighed somewhat wistfully, then turned again towards the door.

"Go back to bed," he murmured. "You are distracting me." He opened the door and heard Jason mumbling behind him.

"Hey, what are friends for?"

Asher grinned and continued on down the hall.


There was no answer when Asher knocked on the door of Sydney's suite, and he got no sense of her presence inside. At this time of night, she should have been here. Asher knew she was expecting him tonight, and he couldn't understand her absence.

He suddenly wasn't sure what to do. He could wait awhile and see if she showed up. Perhaps she was just out to dinner. She could return at any moment, but Asher didn't like the idea of lingering in the hall. No doubt, after awhile, the hotel's security would find it suspicious and send someone up to investigate. He was going to have to leave and return later.

But if she had just gone out to dinner, wouldn't she have left him a note on the door? Wouldn't she have mentioned something about possibly being out late before he had left her this morning? It was as if she didn't want him to know where she had gone...or when she'd be coming back. IF she was coming back, that is.

A nagging little voice started rattling in Asher's head. He considered the possibility that Sydney had left for good, and would not return--would never return. The thought of never seeing her again twisted his gut.

Maybe she woke later in the day filled with shame and regrets. Maybe the gratitude-induced infatuation she had felt the night before had already waned, and now, the idea of being with him was unbearable. Maybe she only had sex with him last night because she felt she owed him something, or worse, felt sorry for him. He didn't honestly believe she had slept with him out of some pathological penchant for the morose. Whatever the reason, she had most likely checked out of the hotel, and taken an earlier flight back to her home in Iowa to avoid having to see him anymore. She had had the entire day alone to put matters in perspective. In Asher's experience, absence did not make the heart grow fonder. Rather, it made the heart forgetful.

Asher leaned against the door and pressed his palm against it, overcome with misery. He tried to console himself with the memories of their one enchanting night together, but it only made his heart ache more. He realized too, in that instant, that he had come to care for Sydney far beyond the strange sense of responsibility he had initially felt for her. Unlike her feelings for him, his feelings for her had only gotten stronger. She had given him so much the night before. She had made his dreams of indulging in unconditional love once more, come true. Now she was gone and had taken them all away.

Having more or less convinced himself now she wasn't ever coming back, Asher grew angry at her callous cruelty. He should have known better, he thought. When was he ever going to learn? Cursing under his breath, Asher pulled himself away from the door and paced the hall a few times, before turning towards the elevators to leave.

Just as he was about to push the down button, the bell chimed, and the doors began to open. Not wanting to be detected by some family of unsuspecting tourists, Asher cloaked himself in silence and retreated back down the hall. He ducked into the small room off to his left which housed the ice and vending machines. It occurred to him too late, that they might want to get some ice and drinks before heading to their room.

Quickly, Asher turned his back on the entrance and pretended to be perusing the selection of soft drinks just in case they saw him. He heard someone hurry pass the vending room--a solitary figure whose familiar presence made Asher's heart practically leap. He spun around on his heel and glided out of the vending room in pursuit of her.

Sydney was almost to her door. Her hands were full of shopping bags and she was fumbling to retrieve her room key from her purse.

Asher was directly behind her now. He took hold of her arm and turned her around to face him, wanting only to hug her and cover her face with kisses. He realized too late just what he had done when Sydney screamed at the top of her lungs, dropped everything, and jerked away from him in obvious terror, slamming her body against the door.

Startled by her reaction, Asher jumped back and held up his hands. "Ma cherie, c'est moi. Ne pas a peur! C'est moi!" Then he realized he was speaking French to her and she probably did not understand him. He closed his eyes momentarily, took a deep breath, and tried again. "Sydney, it's me."

She was staring back at him, wide-eyed and trembling, her hands covering her mouth. For a long while she couldn't seem to move or speak, then finally, she lowered her hands, and burst into tears.

"What in hell were you thinking?! Sneaking up on me like that?! Jesus Christ, Asher! You nearly gave me a heart attack!"

Asher bowed his head, shrinking away from her. He had forgotten about the supernatural silence he had shrouded himself in. "I am so very sorry. Please, please, forgive me. I was not thinking. I was just so relieved to see you. Overjoyed. I did not give my actions adequate consideration."

Sydney roughly wiped at her eyes and furrowed her brow in confusion. "What do you mean? Relieved?" Her hands were shaking so badly now, she clasped them together in front of her to stop them.

With a slight shrug, Asher glanced up at her, then lowered his eyes again. "I am loathe to admit, I had been thinking rather uncharitable things about you earlier. When I saw that you had returned after all, I was overcome with relief and I could not contain myself." He looked up at her again and sighed heavily. "Again, I am so sorry."

Sydney looked angry now, and had recovered enough from her initial shock to gather up her things. Asher bent to help her, but she glared at him, and yanked the package he had picked up from his hand.

"What are you talking about?" she said and sniffed loudly. "Why were you 'relieved' to see me? Did you think something bad happened to me? And just what 'uncharitable things' were you thinking about me?" She turned away from him and slid her room key into the lock.

Asher gnawed his lower lip nervously. Now, not only had he done the wrong thing, he had said the wrong thing as well. He dragged his hand through his hair in frustration, pushing it momentarily away from his face. "Isn't it enough to know how happy I am to see you now?"

Sydney pushed open the door and turned around to face him. "No." She slipped inside the room and tossed her bags aside. "Look, why don't you just go take a little walk for awhile? When you're ready to be honest with me, come back and we'll try this again. Maybe I'll be feeling a little more 'charitable' then as well." She turned and went to close the door.

Asher stopped her, putting his hand on the door above her head. He didn't want to leave. He wanted to take her in his arms and kiss her until her body melted over him with desire. He stared down at her longingly, but her angry expression held him at bay and took away his hope of making amends.

"I will leave if you truly want me to, but I will not come back."

Sydney peered up at him, somewhat stunned. She shook her head slowly, her eyes searching his face. "Not come back?" she asked, her voice soft and low.

Asher nodded with newfound resolve. She seemed to have softened given his ultimatum. "I have begged your forgiveness. I have tried to explain what I was feeling, but you will not listen. So why should I expend the effort?"

"I was listening, but I don't understand you." She paused and covered her bruised eyes with her hand and took a deep breath as if trying to calm herself enough to think clearly. "At least tell me what I did to make you angry with me?"

"Nothing," Asher whispered. He gazed down at her, suddenly shamed. "You did nothing, but I could not stop myself from thinking the worse. I thought you had left me--left St. Louis. It would not have been as unlikely as it sounds. Perhaps you regretted what we did, and did not have the courage or desire to face me tonight so you fled....Then, I have been with others who took me into their bed out of morbid fascination. In their twisted, degenerate minds, fucking something so vile-looking actually turned them on. When I arrived here and you were not in, my insecurity only fueled my imagination."

Sydney stared up at him aghast, now. "How could you believe I'd do such a thing? After last night, is that the kind of person you think I am, Asher? I thought what we shared was glorious. You were glorious, and I haven't regretted one second I spent with you and I sure as hell didn't have sex with you because I get turned on by morbid and vile things! God, didn't you believe anything I told you?" Her large brown eyes were brimming with unshed tears and her fair skin was flushing with emotion. "Just answer me one question, Asher. Why should I believe anything you told me? Maybe you just 'fucked' me out of pity. Or maybe bruises turn you on."

Asher shook his head, but could not think of anything reassuring he could say to her that she wouldn't turn around and throw back at him.

Finally, Sydney pulled the door back, away from Asher's hand, then slammed it shut before he could stop her again.

Exasperated and more angry with himself than anything, Asher covered his face with his hands and screamed into them. He raised his fist to pound on the door, but stopped himself before he did, and merely stood there thinking, trying to determine his next course of action. He could simply break down the door--it really wouldn't take much effort on his part--but he had already scared her once tonight and breaking down the door would have hotel security bearing down on him in the blink of an eye.

His ears suddenly picked up the softly muted sounds of her weeping on the other side of the door. It pricked his heart with sorrow and Asher slumped dejectedly against the door, leaning his forehead on the cool painted wood.

"Sydney?" he called softly. He cleared his throat and tried to make his voice as soothing and sincere-sounding as possible. "I cannot leave knowing I have hurt you so," he went on. "Open the door. Please, let me try again to explain." There was a long pause. Nothing. "Can you hear me, ma cherie?"

Sydney opened the door so suddenly, Asher nearly fell into the room. "Just go away!" she yelled back and slammed the door in his face again.

Well, Asher thought. At least that was an indication that she had heard him. But enough was enough. She did not want him tonight and had made that quite clear. He had been honest with her, but he realized now, he should not have been AS honest as he was. Jean-Claude was fond of saying something to the effect of how he often expected to be punished for telling the truth, but usually not this quickly. Asher didn't know what to do now. Then, as much as it pained him, there was really nothing left to do, except leave. He wasn't about to force his company on anyone.

His mind made up, Asher turned around, but something snapped his neck back, and a sharp pain suddenly tore at his scalp. Carefully he rotated himself around to once more face the door, and noticed Sydney had closed it on a sizable hunk of his hair.

Asher's mouth fell open. His gross misfortune in things big and small never failed to astonish him. He closed his eyes and leaned on the door again and banged his head on it a couple of times in frustration.

"Sydney," Asher moaned. "You have to open the door again."

"Why?" she shouted back from the other side. "So you can tell me again what a spineless, inconsiderate, lying degenerate I am?"

Asher winced at her words as if he'd been struck by them. He knew he hadn't actually called her those things, but apparently she must have assumed he had implied them.

"I guess I cannot fully expect you to understand what I was thinking and why my mind was blackened by such thoughts, but I will try to clue you in on what it has been like to be me for the past few centuries," Asher began.

"Imagine, if you can, my face without these scars. My body whole and nearly perfect in its form. I was beautiful then, and I knew it. I could walk into a room and have everyone's eyes on me and their gazes all but worshipped me." He paused and leaned his cheek against the door, lowering his voice slightly. "After I was...captured and disfigured, I could still walk in a room and command people's attention, but they stared for a different reason now. I was revolting to look upon, so I was scorned by all of my society, past and potential lovers. All of my friends." Asher paused again, his throat tightening with emotion. "That isn't entirely true. There was one who still loved me, but I hated him...because I blamed him. And I hated myself. Deep down inside, I did not feel worthy of his love anymore. I believed what other people said of me. The rejection and disgust I saw in their eyes when they looked at me, sunk into my psyche more than their cruel insults. Suddenly, I was no longer beautiful. I was grotesque. And no one would love me. It has been that way for me for hundreds of years, Sydney. So forgive me if I doubt your sincerity. Forgive my suspicions. If you choose to mistreat me, I would not blame you for it. I have come to expect it. It is what I'm used to."

There was a long moment of silence on the other side and Asher wondered if Sydney had even heard him. Maybe she had gone out on the balcony to smoke a cigarette or gone into the bathroom to wash her face.

He sighed heavily and squeezed his eyes shut. "Fuck...."

Desperate to be free now, he grasped his hair and pulled hard on it, but it wouldn't budge. He thought about tearing it, but he hated the idea of ruining so much of his hair--one of his better features. He slapped the door with the palm of his hand.

"Damn it, Sydney!" he called to her, raising his voice in hopes she would hear him. "I would leave you as you wish, but I cannot." He paused and took a deep breath. "My hair....is caught in your door," he told her, slightly embarrassed by the fact.

Just when Asher was beginning to think his pleas were falling on deaf ears, Sydney threw open the door and stood staring at him with a peculiar expression on her face. Something between adoration, tenderness, and guilt.

"I know," she confessed and tried to smile. "I saw your hair in the door, but I didn't really want you to go away. I think fate kind of intervened on my behalf there. Oh, Asher. I'm sorry."

For a moment, Asher was too stunned to say or do anything. He stared down at her, trying to digest what she had just told him, but before he could think of a fitting reply, Sydney all but threw herself into his arms, and covered his mouth in a deeply passionate kiss.

The sweet sensation of it began to thaw away his initial shock and he wrapped his arms around her back and crushed her against him, lifting her off the floor. He walked her into the hotel room, still kissing her as hungrily as she was kissing him, and leaned back against the door to close it once they were inside.

Slowly, almost reluctantly, Asher relaxed his grip on Sydney and eased her back on her feet. She kissed his face, her mouth trailing over his scars to his eyes, then back down to his other cheek and along his jaw. Asher closed his eyes and half-sighed, half-groaned, leaning his head back against the door as Sydney kissed his throat. Her hands tugged at his tie and loosened it, then started unbuttoning his shirt.

Asher couldn't help but smile at her urgency. He should not have bothered to dress so carefully. He grasped her hands in his, and gently lowered them, backing her away from him a step.

"Wait," he said a little breathlessly. "I want to talk to you."

Sydney leaned forward and kissed him again. "We've lost too much valuable time already," she pointed out. "We can talk in bed."

Asher pushed her back again and shook his head. "At the rate you are going, we will not make it to the bed."

"Then let's do it on the floor," Sydney suggested. She dropped to her knees in front of him and worked to unbuckle his belt.

Asher's eyes widened, and for a moment he considered letting her continue, but he really did want to speak with her before they got...too distracted. Again, he clasped her hands in his to stop her and pulled her to her feet.

"Cherie, please. If you go much farther, I will not be able to think coherently, let alone speak and make any sense."

Sydney peered into his eyes and her expression grew concerned. "Asher, what is it?"

Asher squeezed her hands. "How much of what I said did you hear?"

Sydney lowered her eyes and sighed. "Everything," she admitted softly. She squeezed his hands back. "I do understand now. I guess I didn't before because I couldn't imagine people being so wretchedly cruel to you." She swallowed thickly and blinked back fresh tears.

Asher raised her chin with his hand to look her in the eye. "Do not cry for me, Sydney. I honestly believe such things for me have become part of the past. I am safe now and I am surrounded by people who value me. People like you who look past my scars and see the man I once was. The man I could be again. You were right when you said the scars upon my heart were the deepest of all, but those are also the scars that could heal with a little more time and understanding."

Sydney wiped her eyes. "Time," she muttered. "Asher, there's something I wanted to talk to you about too," she began.

Asher shook his head. "Wait, let me finish before you say anything." He paused until she looked up at him again. Then he took a deep breath and continued. "When I was convinced you had left me, I was deeply hurt, but more by the fact I would never see you again than by what I had imagined you'd done. I realized then, how much I care for you and I know I cautioned you last night about taking our feelings for each other too seriously, but I do believe I truly feel something for you now that is beyond our initially circumstantial rapport...and our quite obvious physical attraction to each other."

Sydney continued to peer up at him, but said nothing. Asher released her hands and slipped away to pace the room.

"What I am trying to say is I do not believe my affection for you will wane once you've returned to your home. And I would ask you to consider making the effort to see me again. If...you want to." Asher stopped pacing and looked over at her expectantly.

"Yes," Sydney said without hesitation. She nodded and smiled brightly. "Oh God, yes." She hurried over to him and hugged him tightly. "If you could have seen me packing earlier, you wouldn't have had to ask. I was sobbing uncontrollably. That's why I went shopping--to try to cheer myself up a little. But I couldn't stand the thought of not seeing you again, Asher, and I was going to ask you if I came back to St. Louis, if maybe you'd like to see me again too. I knew the way I was feeling wasn't because I was so very grateful to you for rescuing me." She laid her head on his chest as Asher wrapped his arms around her and softly kissed her hair. "It never was."

Asher peered at her thoughtfully. "I do not know where Mount Vernon, Iowa is, but I don't suppose it is very, very far?"

Sydney grinned. "It's about an hour or so by plane. Still drivable however. I wouldn't object to driving up here for the weekend. Especially if I knew you'd be waiting for me when I arrived. I could make reservations here ahead of time. Maybe I could even get this room again. I really love it. The king-sized bed, the balcony, the jacuzzi bathtub...."

Asher placed his hands on her cheeks and tilted her head back to look into her eyes. "The bath has a jacuzzi?" He smiled broadly. "Ma cherie, why didn't you mention that before?"

Sydney raised her brow, clearly intrigued. "Are you thinking what I think you're thinking?"

Asher bent to kiss her. "Oh most likely." He sank his lips against hers and gathered her up tightly to him, sweeping her off her feet. He swung her around the room a few times, unable to contain his happiness.

Sydney laughed and encircled Asher's neck with her arms. "Oh God, I feel like I'm flying!" she exclaimed. Then she threw her head back and stretched out her arms. "Teach me how to fly, Asher. I want to learn how to fly."

Asher whirled her around again, this time levitating off the floor. He laughed at her startled expression of delight, and spun her through the air a few more times before settling back down on the floor. Sydney stared at him, her eyes twinkling with enchantment.

"I am the one learning to fly, cherie," Asher whispered in her ear. "My wings were broken, but now they are on the mend. Their strength remains untried as I attempt to reclaim the heavens, but your gentle instruction will see me through even the darkest of storms." He hugged her tightly and nuzzled her cheek.

"You saw me through my own dark storm," Sydney whispered back. "The least I can do is see you through yours." She paused and kissed his ear. "I don't know what I would have done without you. Just having someone hold me close through the night. You took away my misgivings and made me feel warm and safe and cared for. I want to feel that way tonight too. Make love to me, Asher. Right here, right now."

"I want to make love to you," Asher told her and kissed his way down the side of her face. "But in the bath. It can be quite sensual in the water. Imagine its warmth pouring over your body, touching you everywhere. You can see the way it moves around you and be soothed by the soft bubbling sound it makes." He paused to give her a rather smoldering gaze. "I want to see the way the water clings to your skin, shimmers in your hair, and trickles over your curves. I want to feel you around me in its heat, your touch caressing me like the flow of its pulse. Say yes, cherie. Please."

Sydney smiled tenderly and pointed off to her right towards the suite's spacious bathroom. "It's that way," she whispered, curling herself up in his arms.

Asher smiled warmly at her in return, then bent his head and kissed her sensuously, holding her like he'd never let her go. Their kiss was soft, enticing, and provocative. Then it seemed to Asher as if time itself stood still, and he knew above all else, this was a moment he would treasure forever. One of those rare instances--which truthfully were happening with increasing frequencies these days--that he used to seal over the wounds upon his heart. One painful scar at a time.

At the rate things were going for him lately, maybe one day soon, he'd be whole and fully healed. Perhaps not his body, but for his heart he still had hope. In time, its tattered wings would spread wide, strengthened by understanding and trust and compassion of friends and lovers, old and new. His heart would grow strong and his love would take flight to soar once more with his dreams among the stars.

For now, Asher was still learning.









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