His hand burned in my grasp. The skin stretched taught over bone and sinew was papery with age and flaming with fever. My thumb worked restlessly against his palm as I counted his breaths. How many remained? How many would pass before he left me?
"It was a good life, Sasha, my love," Michael whispered.
"Aye, my darling." I stroked his cheek and felt the fever burning there as well.
Michael's hand cupped my face. "Dinna grieve, Sasha. I'll always be within your heart."
Pain at the thought of his loss burned my throat in a way my thirst never had. Though the man on the bed was grey and shrunken, my eternal eyes still saw the merry young Irishman who had bullied his way into a club in Dublin and stolen my still, cold heart. I remembered the blazing flame of his hair and beard, the booming bell tone of his laugh. Even now, the whispered words of comfort echoed faintly with the past.
"Rest, Michael. You need to rest," I said, pressing my lips against his temple. His skin was so hot I though surely my cold lips would leave a smoking impression there, but there would be no trace of me left when this man's soul fled this world. Certainly not one as fanciful as the outline of my lips upon his forehead.
"Sit with me, my bonnie girl," he begged. "Tell me stories and let me leave this world with your voice in my ears."
I swallowed over the stone in my throat. What stories could I tell? I wasn't Sheherezade, able to hold death at bay with a tale or two. I could think of only one tale I wished to relive in an effort to find the beginning of his life rather than face the end.
"You were so handsome when Thomas brought you in," I began. "Fire and ice."
"Release me, mon," Michael cried.
"Sasha, this one was prowling the street in search of our door. Shall I dispose of him?"
I looked up from the papers spread on the table in front of me. The man in Thomas' grasp took my breath away, something not easily done. His hair flamed red while his blue eyes pierced the darkness of the club.
"Why do you seek us?" I asked.
Michael's struggles ceased. "I came to seek out the bonnie lass who visits my dreams," he said. "The wretch down the road who believes in the fairy tales and horror stories tells me she is here."
I rose and crossed into a shaft of light thrown from the wall sconce lights. Michael's gasp sent shivers across my skin.
"So the wretch was right," he whispered.
"I've not visited anyone of late," I said. "I have no memory of you."
"But I have seen you, my lass. For night upon night, you've tormented me with your whispers. I've come to ask to be yours, to end my torture."
"You don't know what you are asking."
"But I do, lass. I want to be your companion. I want the love I see already in your eyes to be mine. I want to be what sustains you for as long as you'll have me."
Michael reached for me and I recoiled. No human had ever come to me thus, begging to be food. Companions from my past had all begun as meals, not lovers.
"Why?" I whispered.
"Because you've already chosen me, my bonnie lass."
"You were so sure of yourself, my darling," I said, stroking Michael's forehead, pushing the grey hair back and laying my chill hand against his cheek. "You never doubted I would take you."
"Ah, the places you took me, my bonnie lass," Michael whispered. "I'd never been out of Dublin before you. I've not been back since."
"Do you regret it?" I asked. "Should I have taken you home?"
"Nay, love. You've been what makes my home for sixty-five years. Dublin be just a city from my youth."
I lay my lips against his neck, drawing a deep breath through my nose and drowning in the scent that had been with me since his brave and foolish request. Michael's hand settled on my head and stroked the length of my back.
"Lay with me, lass."
"You'll be chilled."
"I don't think it will matter."
I lay beside him, wrapped in the arms of the man I had loved enough to allow his humanity to overrule my desires. I should have changed him, taken him into eternity. If I had, I would not now be in such agony watching the vibrant man I had loved fade slowly away.
"Nay, my bonnie lass," Michael said, reading my thoughts, "we made the right choice. I was never meant to be more than a companion. You are the immortal. My poor soul would never have survived eternity."
"I don't want you to leave me, Michael. How will I replace you?"
"Another will come. I did."
I shook my head. No matter what he said, I knew the love, the friendship, the companionship I had found with Michael was a rare thing for anyone, let alone an immortal who lived on blood. How many gifts could I expect from a God who had turned his back on me centuries before? That I had found Michael was a miracle and I didn't believe a wretched creature like myself deserved more than one miracle in all of the eternity of its life.
I lay with my love, again counting his breaths. It amazed me to think of how many had come and gone through the years we'd been together. Breaths which had drunk the air from different cities around the world. Breaths which had comforted me. Breaths which had angered me. Breaths which had brought us ever closer to the coming moment when they would cease. I had done nothing through all those years but listened and counted, just as I could do nothing now but listen and count. Michael's breath became softer and I jerked my head up to meet his gaze. His smile was sad and his hand trembled as he reached for my face.
"Lass, I must ask one more thing from you," he said, kissing my lips lightly.
"No." I had known he would ask, but I could not give him what he wanted. How could I?
"Please, my bonnie lass. Give an old man peace."
"I can't, Michael. Please do not ask that of me."
I tried to pull away, but his hands were suddenly strong on my face.
"Lass, a last kiss for us both, please."
His blue eyes burned with a fire I hadn't seen in many years. "Michael..."
"Sasha, I've fed you, loved you, held you for sixty-five years. Let this last moment of my life be lived as those years were. Kiss me, lass and let this all end."
I felt the blood slip down my cheeks as the tears finally broke through my iron control. His beloved face blurred behind a red haze as I leaned forward to capture his mouth.
As our lips touched, the years vanished. The papery texture of his skin under my hands transformed to the firm and tender flesh I remembered from Michael's youth. His lips were firm beneath mine. His tongue rough velvet beckoning to mine. When the blood flowed sweet and hot into my mouth, I sighed, pleasure rushing up to surprise us both.
"Ah, lass. Is it nay better this way?" he asked.
I pulled more strongly upon his mouth, swallowing the blood, holding his face between my hands. His breath was sweet in my mouth. The tears poured down my cheeks to stain his blanket.
When the last fluttering thump of his heart sounded, I lifted my lips from his. I had missed the count of his last breath, so engrossed had I been in the hot, familiar taste of him. Michael's face was serene, a small smile still held upon his lips. His fiery blue eyes faded and with the fleeing of his soul I felt the wrenching agony as my long-still heart tore asunder within my chest. I prayed to be taken with him, to follow him into oblivion rather than stay to live without him, but God had stopped answering my prayers long ago. What better torture would there be for one such as me than to be given the gift of the love I had shared with my companion only to be left behind as he went on to join the angels?