As it turned out, Vampires weren't all that much different from humans when they went about their day (er, night).
They stretched, made some polite conversation, had a bit of coffee (I didn't think Vampires needed caffeine, but when I asked him that, he just looked at me with this blank look in his face and then went off on some weird tangent about body mechanics and how there were things called 'ghost memories' that some Vampires had and some didn't. It was interesting; I made a mental note to ask him more about that later), take a walk around New Arcadia... it was so mundane, I wasn't sure whether Con was just being aimless or whether we actually had a goal in mind. Or rather, whether he had a goal in mind.
Either way, after we stepped onto the balcony, he stared at me without seeing me and seemed to be thinking. He came to a decision pretty quick, though, since he offered me his hand and I looked at it for what seemed like forever. This was it. Somehow, this would change my life way more than anything we'd, I'd, done in the last few months. This was going to be my lightening-bolt-on-a-kite. Though probably less painful.
Con's hand wavered (it could hardly be called a flinch) and I grabbed it. It still felt strange. For all the naked skin we've groped each other with, we were still incredibly awkward around each other. I was always the odd one and now with him, it was like someone blew up my oddities and melted them with eccentricity before baking it into... well, more awkwardness. My metaphors were getting worse every day. Seriously, Sunshine. Just because you're the best baker in New Arcadia doesn't mean you have to relate everything to it.
He helped me off the balcony. Literally. I'd call it jumping but it was more like one moment I was on the balcony and the next I was in Yolande's backyard. I didn't even feel dizzy or nauseous. Maybe it was a special Vampire trick, some sort of teleportation. As soon as I was safely on the bottom, he let go of my hand, which I kind of regretted. Stupid thing to regret, but there you go. You can tell a lot about a person, with what they regret.
We ended up walking around New Arcadia and I wasn't really sure what the point was. I kind of thought we'd do something that'd turn my vision of Vampires upside down, but nothing really interesting happened. He didn't pick me up and run like a deer, he kept a steady but slow pace so I could keep up without getting out of breath. We didn't even get mugged.
(can Vampires get mugged? Con always seemed to know where I was, what I was doing, even what I was thinking; maybe they have some sort of sense about others that isn't visible to the rest of us. Even after all these years, Vampires are still somewhat of a mystery; half of what we know about them is still conjecture and theory. It's not like there are live Vampires to question and get a straight answer out of.)
It wasn't bad, I mean. We stuck to our alleys and shadowy areas and he was silent except when he was't. I asked a few awkward-sounding questions (I guess 'weather' is a stupid topic no matter who you talk to) and he answered me in that whole I-could-answer-but-I'd-rather-not tone he does so well and I kind of got the feeling he wanted to walk with me in silence.
Okay, sure, I can do that.
I snuck a few looks at him while we were doing our silent-but-comfortable thing but it was like he was walking all alone in the world and never you mind about the fact that we'd just, well... I shook my head. I'd told myself, before I walked out into the night with him, that there'd be a time and place to remember the horror and grief and now was not the time.
I noticed that we were getting more and more into the edges of the city and the woods that were encroaching into city territory. Inexplicably, I felt better. Maybe Con did too; the city has an ability to press around you until you're feeling like the whole world will come crashing down if you're not far away enough to open air and starry skies. (Not that we couldn't see stars in the city; maybe that was true before the Wars, but now, even in the center of New Arcadia, you could see stars twinkling above like safety beacons.) There was a reason why Mel and I hiked so much on our days off together.
We made our way south, as far as I could tell, and when he stopped in a clearing, I found myself getting curious. Con didn't seem like the type of, er, Vampire to do anything on random, so the clearing must have meant something.
When he started up again and bypassed the clearing after cocking his head to the side for a few moments, I realized the clearing was a bit of a coincidence. We were heading somewhere else. He continued at his unhurried pace. And I didn't have much choice but to follow him. The silence was starting to grate, just a little.
“So, Con. Um, do you know where we're going?”
“Mmkay. So. Are we getting close?”
The man is a master of unsaid words. Really.
Con slowed to a stop and looked at me. “Sunshine. Do not worry. We'll be there soon.” The corner of his mouth quirked, just barely. No one could call it a smile, but from Con it was like that laugh of his when he was truly amused. I'm not an idiot; my heart certainly did quicken a little and, and, and gosh, what a hormone-bound idiot I am. I so hate myself right now.
“It is a nice night. We are both here and the skies are clear. We are not chasing anything and nothing is chasing us. I thought it might be pleaseant... if we took our time.”
I realized I was gaping at him. I closed my jaw with an audible click and our eyes met. Though nothing changed or flashed between us (I think those Vampire/human stories were starting to get to me) I realized that, in his own <i>awkward</i> way, Con was being a bit of a romantic. Though not, because no Vampires, even 'good' ones, were truly romantic.
“Oh. Well, sorry, I didn't mean to push, but uh...” I trailed off.
It was a nice night, as nice nights go. But it was late and though I'd gotten plenty of rest, the <i>knowing</i> of what tomorrow would bring, what stepping into the bakery would be for me, I knew I would need an hour or two to compose myself. Have a nice hot cup of tea. And realize that starting tomorrow, there would be enough secrets between me and my family to drown the restaurant. And...
“... nevermind. Onwards march, oh fearless leader.”
Con didn't respond and I could tell from the minute way he arched a hair on his eyebrow, he didn't get the reference. He turned and picked up his pace again. But this time, he reached and grasped my hand and it was like he had a little heater going on. Vampires and their self-regulating heat. They'd make an even bigger fortune if they could figure out a device to simulate that for human bodies.
It did cause a small tendril to snake its way through me. It was a queer, queer feeling. And not just because, in some undefinable way, I knew Mel and I couldn't go back to what we had anymore.
That thought brought a lump to my throat. I swallowed it because who wants to hold the hands of someone about to burst into tears? And I'd be mortified if I started sobbing right then and there. So I made the conscious decision to think about it later. Someday, soon, I would need to pull Mel aside and we would have a long heart-to-heart. Not least that I needed to tell him I was a traitorous bitch who didn't know what she was doing and probably never would and he needed to find someone else. It would be the classic it's-not-you-it's-me speech. And I'm pretty sure half the people at the restaurant were going to hate me once all the smoke cleared. Mel's not super friendly or talkative but most people seemed to have a natural affinity for him that I couldn't match even if I tried.
“You seem troubled. Why?” Constantine said, without turning to look at me.
I shook my head before realizing that he wouldn't have seen that. “Uh, no. Nothing. Nothing at all.”
“You are thinking of something. Perhaps of someone. Does the thought of seeing your family tomorrow trouble you?”
Well, psychic. “It's not that. It's more like... well, it's like being this one person all your short life and then being told to be someone else for a long, long time, and then someone suddenly telling you that the first person had more of a hold on you than you thought and the second life is suddenly in danger of morphing into the first one though you don't want it to... and this is making no sense.” I tried to think of a better metaphor. Something he might understand. “Well, you know how I'm the baker at the restaurant?”
He nodded, once.
“Well, I'm the baker, and that's been my role for as long as I remember. People knew me as the baker, they spoke to me as the baker and I liked that. I really did like that and I didn't mind I had no life, or that the only people I talked to were all from the restaurant, whether as staff or as customers. It was home you know?” I was babbling, a little. We didn't slow our pace and Con didn't say anything, but I felt him listening. It was very focused, his listening. “Everything's going to change now. But not really, because we're going to separate my bakery life and this, this, um...”
“Our life?” He supplied. I felt my stomach flip over. Con and his lack of understanding on human subtext was both a relief and a pity.
“I'm never going to tell mom because she'll have an aneurysm and then come back from the dead to kill me. Charlie can't know because he'd tell mom. And... well, Mel.”
Con was silent. It was a considering quiet. It was a quiet that meant he was absorbing all the information I'd tossed haphazardly at him and organizing it in his slow, methodical way. I almost laughed. Reticient, reserved Con.
He spoke slowly, like I was dragging history out of him with a chain and truck. “I cannot profess to understand; it has been uncountable years since... I turned. When Vampires turn, an unusual side-effect is the fading of memories during their human time.” He paused. “It is a little like painting over another painting. The under-painting is still there, but we are no longer aware of it. What family I might have had, I do not remember.”
“Oh.” Looking at Con, I knew he didn't feel anything particular about what he said. He was only stating the facts and he'd probably be surprisd and curious if I did try to comfort him. (Not to mention really, really amused. He has a weird sense of humour, I think.)
“Vampires have theories for it, but they are what they are. Theories that Vampires have created to fill this void. Most do not care, though a rare few do.”
“Do you?” The question fell out of mouth quicker than I could stop it.
He was silent. “No, not really. I am, as I have said, centuries older than you. Even the memory of the first few weeks after my turning are nothing more than a fading blur.” He didn't seem concerned. “Vampires do not value memories and family the same way humans do. Therefore, your troubles with your family at the human-feeding place is something I cannot know, but I do understand obligations and loyalty.”
At this he slowed down and I noticed we'd gone into a small clearing – barely one, at that – with a small wooden house. It was nothing interesting, it didn't even have a second floor. It was ordinary, boxed, and made of gray wooden planks, like the weather had come in uninvited and then squatted down for the long haul. He reached into a pocket in his black pants with his spare hand and fished out a single key. It was brass and plain-looking, no etchings in its sides to denote what it was and where it was for.
After the door was unlocked, we stepped inside and I found myself staring at the inside of a wooden box. There was only one window and there was an enormous shade on it, perfect for blocking out any rogue sun rays that might get through the forest. We weren't far from the city yet, so the woods had a careworn look to it, like one too many people had trekked through the underbrush. But it was still woods and the trees were dense and familiar with each other. I wondered at the location of such a building; did Con build it himself?
As if sensing my question, he said, “no, my Master created this as a retreat and distraction.”
“A distraction?” What, like at trap?
“As you've seen, my home is the abode you... fell into.” Wonderful. It's like those ten-seconds-of-lust never happened. “This was a second spot which is easier for Vampires to track. For those who are looking.” He hastened to add after he saw the alarmed look spread on my face. “They would follow us here while we're going in another direction. It's worked more than once.”
Well. A Vampire trap. I didn't realize Vampires even set traps for each other. I smiled; finally, something new about Vampires that I didn't know.
He shut the door behind him and as my eyes adjusted, I saw that there were some basic furniture. A table, a few chairs, a cupboard for storage and an empty fireplace with two armchairs positioned in front of it. It was a little Sherlock Holmes for me, but there was a a little pile of oranges and a loaf of bread and even a jug of water. It was not very varied (Con seemed to have a thing for fruit, bread, and liquid) but it was substantial since it was only going to be me partaking.
Which was a little annoying. “Um, thanks for the food, but what are you going to eat?”
Con gave me a blank look. “I will not be eating.” He said this very slowly and was eyeing me like I'd bolt any second. Oh. I guess how that question might sound to a Vampire with a human about.
“Hold on. Don't tell me you've forgotten what just happened in my kitchen a couple hours ago.” He cocked his head. “The orange juice,” I clarified.
“The orange juice. Yes. I apologize, Sunshine. I forget about your job as a human-feeder.” He didn't sound really sincere, but it was in that tone of voice he always used, so I couldn't be sure. Huh. Human-feeder; sounds a lot more glamorous than Best Cinnamon Roll Maker This Side of the Rocky Mountains. “I will eat later, as I have said. I do not mind being hungry for a few more hours.”
I guess I could accept that; after all, not all our customers were about the food. For some it was more about being fed at a cheap price and surviving. (With the cost of food as it was, it really was cheaper to go to Charlies and eat there. We always had some sort of special going on.) I sat down at the table and sniffed at the bread. Now that I wasn't starving, I'd only eat part of it out of politeness sake (after all, Con has gotten this food somehow. When, I didn't even know. Maybe he thought he could stash me here if something went horribly, horribly wrong. Which was kind of a sweet thought until I remembered that Con tended to be a little pessimistic about certain things...)
The bread was good stuff. Maybe not quite as good as mine, but it was baked from golden flour with fresh eggs and other things that didn't come from a chemical plant. Maybe Con was learning my tastes.
It was stale, but something seemed to make it taste fresh. My eyes wandered over to Con who had taken to stand by the window, like some sort of gargoyle. He did look the part. The restaurants would have no more troubles if Charlie or Mel could somehow learn and match that. The looming thing Vampires instinctively do is frightening as shit, but if it could be bottled and marketed... well, Vampires would own more than a fifth of the economy.
I still hadn't asked him whether he'd be, y'know, drinking his meal, but frankly, I didn't want to know. Somehow I felt like he avoided it when possible, but that he wasn't so firm on his stance that he wouldn't die just for the sake of it. My predicament was a bit different, and I feel like it was more a rebellion against Bo than anything else. I'd have to get more of that story from him someday.
“So, is this cabin both a retreat and a trap then?”
“Yes, I suppose, if you want it call it that. It is difficult to trap Vampires, even new and inexperienced ones, but there are some things Vampires cannot resist and if they catch scent of it on the winds, they will chase it. My Master took advantage of that and crafted this house to reflect that.”
“Why did he do that?”
“Because it amused him.”
“Oh. Your Master sounds like he was a funny guy.”
Con's voice was dry. “Hilarious.”
I laughed. I couldn't help it. I was halfway through the loaf when something occurred to me. “You know, out of all the times we've met, I'm always eating. I wonder why?”
“Humans tend to have a difficult time avoiding sustenance, I've discovered. Even with only a few hours, most will need a form of food in some fashion to avoid weakness and pain. It is curious.”
Wow. I'd never thought of it like that way. Though for me, it wasn't so much the act of putting food into my stomach, but the act of eating through delicious, well-made meals.
“And... I do take some pleasure in watching you eat and drink.” He said without turning from the window.
I froze at that, bread still half-chewed in my mouth. That.... that was like a declaration. Of what? Not really sure, but there was something momentous in the way he said it. All... monotone. And blank. And not-watching-me-because-it-didn't-mean-anything. Maybe this was something Vampires said; maybe it was like their way of saying 'thanks'.
But then again. Maybe it did.
“Oh.” I swallowed my bread. “That's... well, you'd do great in the restaurant business.”
He finally turned to look at me and even in the dark, with only the faint shine of reflected moonlight coming in the window, his eyes were green like grass still well-watered. It wasn't beautiful. It wasn't very flattering with his gray, gloomy skin and dark hair, but I'd come to get used to it. I picked up the peeled orange in my hand and weighed it for a moment. Then I got up and went to the window with him. In between, the orange came apart in sections and before the little voices in me could wail that I was insane and crazy and stupid, I offered him a slice of orange from my hand.
(Con drank orange juice. Maybe he'd eat oranges.)
The look again. He stared at the orange like it was a block cement and not the appetizing tangy thing it was. Then he dipped his head, slow and fluid-like, and the orange slice disappeared like it had never been there. My fingers still tingled a little from the citric acid, but more, they tingled from the fact that I'd felt his lips brush over the barest tips of my baker-calloused hands. The way I felt my stomach knot was the stupidest thing in the world and I just about wanted to beat myself up for it. I'm not a stupid girl who just fell for tall, dark mysterious strangers who happened to be a Vampire.
“It is... interesting.”
I made a sound that sounded like, 'unnnngh.' And didn't snatch my hand back because it would mean that he affected me and I didn't want him to know. I'll get used to it, I thought.
Con didn't seem to see my inner turmoil. After he swallowed that orange slice (with a little difficulty, I noticed, so I didn't offer him a second piece), his hand came up and very, very gently, placed itself at my waist. The pressure was so light, I almost shouldn't have noticed it. But it was Constantine. I wouldn't not-notice him even if the sun came crashing down. It wasn't casual, nor was it romantic. It just was. Like an anchor (for who?) on the open ocean or a reminder for both of us that everything had irrevocably changed, even as it had irrevocably changed five months ago.
He was silent at first, but the reason why he brought me all the way out here was there.We were all out there, faraway from the wards of my landlady, far from Mom and Charlie and Mel, from Aimil, SOF, all the regulars. He was telling me the truth on his grounds.
“Things will be different now, Sunshine. Though the bond remains, they have changed. I sense it and you sense it. But.” He hesitated, which was something I couldn't abide. I wanted to stop up my ears and hum loudly so I wouldn't hear him say something like, good knowing you, bye.
Which he didn't.
“But. As I have said, if you call, I will always want to come. And that bond will never be completely severed, no matter how hard anyone tries.” He said it all in his slow, methodical way and I know it was stupid, and I know I shouldn't feel more about it but I did. The sheer relief in his words were staggering and I felt almost like weeping and it such a stupid, stupid, stupid thing to get weepy about. I was tired and thought I wasn't alone, I sure felt it. And yes. That's why.
“There will be others.”
“Others! We just finished with Bo!” Can we not have a break?
“There will be others,” he said implacably. “Not right away, perhaps not even soon. But there will be others. Bo was not the strongest, Sunshine. Nor was the he the oldest. I do not know what fate tied us together, but it has and you will need to understand that. As well as I. We will need to learn our bond together if we are to fight others.” He looked at me in the eye, for all his warnings not to and I stared.
“I will ask, Sunshine. Because if you say no, I shall make sure that no one will ever discover this tie between us. We will go our separate ways and you need never be in that same danger again. I cannot promise safety; it is not mine to give. But you will be with your family and you will not need to lie.” I realized what this was.
This was Constantine's way of letting me off the crazy train. I felt a little insulted; I'd already come with him, didn't I? But Con was giving me a choice, something Bo had not when his gang had captured me at the lake. He would let me go and though he said he wouldn't protect me, I had a feeling he would, just for the heck of it.
I thought about it. I'd be a liar twice over if I said I didn't.
If I backed out, it would mean the end of constant SOF pressure. Pat and Theo and them would go back to being vaguely odd, but useful regulars. Mr. Bialosky would continue her flower campagin amid the peaceful din of our shabby area. Paulie would learn the entire line of Sunshine baked goods and help out three mornings of the week. Mom and I might not end up seeing eye to eye and with daisies in the background, but at least she wouldn't be forced to feel like a failure. Charlie and Charlie's would go on being successfull and delicious and Mel. Mel would be easy. We could go back to the way things were, no worries, none of this heavy light vs. dark stuff I've been worrying the last few months. It would be blissful and free and...
And in a hundred years time, the dark would swallow us up and nothing would matter again.
I looked up at Con.
He looked down at me and without breaking eye contact, I put my hand on the edge of his waist. So lightly, he might not have felt it, except that he was Constantine and I was Sunshine and we were basically doomed to the rest of our lives being aware of each other.
In a plain looking house in the middle of a not-clearing, with a Vampire who I could touch and look at without utter fear swalloing me whole, I changed my life yet again. I was agreeing to more than just meetings. I was agreeing to more killing, to nightmares that would never end their reign, to lies and heartache between me and the only people I could call family. It wouldn't be easy and my mom was probably going to butcher me once she found out, but...
This time, as Con took my hand and kissed it on the palm (right over the symbol burned into my skin), it finally feels like my own choice.