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Like Bitter Chocolate

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I. Mel

I realised right away that I wasn’t going to tell him, and he wasn’t going to ask me. This was what had drawn me to him in the beginning — his calm, undemanding presence, and his refusal to push at any boundaries I might put up — but now I found myself standing on the other side of an almost unbridgeable gulf, leaving so many things unsaid. As always, I turned to baking to smooth over any difficult situation, showing up at Mel’s place a couple of days after the confrontation with Bo, bearing the ingredients for a new kind of brownie that I wanted to try. It looked sugary and chocolaty, and rich and over the top, and, most importantly, was going to give me something to focus on, and an excuse to disappear into the kitchen at awkward moments.

Mel’s flat was tiny and comfortable and lived in, the architectural equivalent of a warm blanket. He sat in the kitchen with me in companionable silence, occasionally reading off the quantity of a particular ingredient from the recipe. They differed from regular brownies in that they were covered with a thick layer of melted marshmallows and Rice Krispies, which I was going to have to prepare over the stove and then pour over the still-warm brownies. It would be ridiculously sweet.

As the brownies baked in the oven, Mel and I drifted out into his living room, which was crammed with the eccentric collection of ornaments, artwork and souvenirs he’d picked up at various points during his long years on the road. If you asked him about any object in the room, he’d be able to tell you a lengthy and detailed story about the circumstances in which he'd found it, the people he’d met and place he’d been visiting at the time, and where he had headed next, without ever letting slip exactly why he’d chosen to go to that particular spot. I wondered if that was the approach I was going to have to start taking when people asked me uncomfortable questions about No Town, vampires, blood and disappearances.

The flat slowly filled with the smell of sugar and cocoa. I’d replaced dark cooking chocolate with milk for maximum sweetness, and it mingled with the almost overwhelming aroma of marshmallows, which we were eating whole out of the bag while the brownies baked. At some point, I was going to have to make a whole lot of difficult decisions — about what to tell Mel, about magic, about my own safety — but I pushed all that aside. I had a kitchen, a stove, an oven and a recipe, and for now, those things were enough.

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II. Pat

I think the SOF thought that if they approached me at Charlie’s — when I was working — I’d be too busy to think about lying and would finally come clean about what had gone down with Con and Bo. I think they thought of the coffeehouse as a kind of neutral ground, and imagined I’d be more responsive to their questions.

Instead, what happened was that I chased them out of the kitchen — ‘no customers behind the counter when I’m baking!’ — and spent half an hour putting the finishing touches on the two apple pies I’d been making, carefully pressing the pastry into the pie dishes, and sprinkling sugar all around the top. Although I could make apple pie in my sleep, I always kept the recipe — something I’d inherited from a baker at Charlie’s last place, written in a messy scrawl on the back of an old envelope — out in front of me on the counter. The scribbled letters were comforting, somehow.

When the pies were in the oven, I came out into the shop area. Someone had given Pat and his colleagues from the SOF large mugs of black coffee, which they were drinking enthusiastically. Pat gestured for me to join them at their table.

‘You’ve got me for twenty minutes,’ I said, brushing flour from my hands.

‘We looked up your Mr Connor,’ said Pat, ‘but it seems he’s moved on. You wouldn’t know anything about that, would you?’

‘I told you everything I knew about Mr Connor that night when we escaped from the vampire in No Town,’ I replied firmly. ‘If he’s moved on, that’s his business.’

Pat sighed, and exchanged a weary look with Theo and Mike.

‘We’re only trying to keep you safe, Sunshine,’ he said.

‘I know,’ I said, brightly, cheerily. ‘I wish I could help you, but I can’t. Now, how many of you want a slice of apple pie?’

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III. Aimil

‘What are you working on, Rae?’ asked Aimil, sidling into the bakery area in the late afternoon. She looked worn out from a long day of dealing with customers.

‘I’m testing a new recipe,’ I replied.

We’d had a shipment of fresh strawberries come in — some friend of Charlie’s had apparently given them to us by way of payment for some unspecified favour in the distant past — and I was trying to use up as many of them as possible before they went bad. So strawberry lattice pie it was.

Aimil watched me as I rolled out the dough, which I had prepared earlier, tossing flour across the benchtop with more force than was perhaps necessary.

‘I know everyone must keep asking this, so I won’t ask if you’re okay, but I will offer to take a look at your magic-working, if you want,’ she said.

The pie filling was bubbling away on the stove. I concentrated on fitting the dough into the pie dish, pressing everything down smoothly.

‘You know a lot of the magic you work is unconscious, right?’ Aimil said.

‘What do you mean by that?’

‘I mean that you’re doing it even now, without really thinking about it. It’s woven into the food you make — a sense of sustenance and safety, mixed with a sort of protectiveness for the coffeehouse, a desire to keep conflict outside its walls. All that is going into your cooking, and it’s done a lot, over the years, to make this place what it is: a sanctuary, where all arguments are left at the door and all danger is swiftly ejected.’

I considered her words.

‘All that and I’ve never even noticed? You can’t be serious!’

She looked at me steadily, as I spooned the strawberry mixture into the waiting pie dish.

‘It’s not very powerful magic — you need conscious thought, and better still you need a source to draw from, not just a vessel, which is what your cooking is — but it’s been enough to keep this place safe. Just think what you could do with a bit more guidance.’

‘I want to take you up on your offer,’ I said at last, ‘but not here, and not now. I’ve always thought of the coffeehouse as somewhere predictable and ordinary, a place to go to escape the stranger parts of my life, where I can hide away from magic and supernatural threats and my own powers for a while, and just feed people in peace and quiet, you know?’

‘I know exactly what you mean,’ Aimil said. ‘The coffeehouse has been like that for me, too. It doesn’t have to be now. Just know that the offer stands. But you need to know your own strength. You never have to tell me what went down, why the SOF officers want to speak to you, or who you’re working with. But you need to know that it’s unlikely you’ve seen the end of this. Now that you’ve stepped into that world, it’s not going to let you go, even if all you want to do is hide out in the bakery and make baked goods forever. Better to be prepared, and bring more of your magic to your baking.’

I finished up the lattices of the pie before I answered her, brushing them with egg and sugar so that the dough would turn a lovely golden brown colour.

‘You’re right. I know you’re right, and I need to get better at taking help when it’s offered to me, but it’s hard. I’m not good at working with other people, at being with other people, unless it involves preparing food!’

(Well, if ‘other people’ meant Con, I could work with them just fine, but that was another complicated, troubling thing that I didn’t have the words to explain to anyone just yet.)

Aimil held open the oven so that I could slide the pie inside.

‘Who says magic and muffins are incompatible? You can come and bake for me in my home kitchen if that’s what it will take for you to be comfortable with this!’

We stared into the oven. It would be a good hour before the pie was ready to come out, but already the smell of it filled the bakery. Aimil went over to make us both a cup of tea, and then swung herself up onto the benchtop to wait for the kettle to boil.

‘While this is baking, why don’t I try to come up with a good name for your latest creation? Something full of puns, I think.’

I smiled at her.

‘Just for a change,’ I said.

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IV. Mom and Charlie

I should have been suspicious when I showed up at the crack of dawn to work, and Mom was there as well as Charlie. They claimed it was because they wanted to try out a new recipe with me, something complicated involving sour cherries, filo pastry (thankfully I’d made some earlier, as there was no way I was going to make filo from scratch at a moment’s notice) and ricotta cheese. Charlie said it was an old one from his family, and that if it worked out, we might add it to the regular morning repertoire. Whichever of his relatives had created the recipe had a tendency to include little asides and references to other pastries, filling the page with spidery handwriting and detailed descriptions of the baking process. They’d clearly not trusted anyone else to follow their instructions.

Once I’d got the regular pastries, cakes, cinnamon rolls and muffins baking, I tackled Charlie’s recipe.

‘It’s going to be hard to get enough sour cherries to make this every day,’ I said, beating eggs into a cream cheese and ricotta cheese mixture.

‘Don’t worry about that — I know a guy,’ said Charlie, exchanging a glance with Mom.

Of course he did.

Mom was pacing around the bakery in a way that would normally irritate me, but I got the sense that she was trying to find the right way to say something. She kept picking up her mug of coffee and putting it down again.

‘Mom, if you’re here, you can make yourself useful,’ I said. ‘I need you to scatter those almonds on a tray so that they’re spread out evenly, and then put them in the oven to toast.’

She picked up one of the larger trays and took it over to the counter.

‘Sunshine, I’ve been sitting on this for quite a while — since your ... your disappearance — but I’m just going to tell you, and you can decide what you want to do about it,’ she said, in a breathless, agitated rush.

‘Well, that sounds vaguely ominous,’ I replied, taking the tray of almonds and pushing it into the oven to toast.

‘I’ve been in touch with the Blaises, and I think you should meet them,’ she said, avoiding my eyes.

Of all the awkward fallout from my adventure with Con, my father’s family trying to reestablish contact was the last thing I expected.

‘And how did that come about?’ I asked, doing my best to keep my voice even and neutral.

‘They always had my phone number — you know that, Sunshine, it’s how you were able to meet up with your grandmother all those times when you were younger — but they’ve mostly kept their distance. But with what’s been going on — oh, don’t look at me like that, you know I’m not going to ask and you never have to tell us the details — I thought they might be able to help in a way that no one here could.’

She reached into her pocket and took out a piece of paper.

‘That’s the number they gave me,’ she said. ‘You don’t have to make up your mind now. Just take it, and think about it.’

By now I was spooning the cherries onto the cheese mixture and folding the whole lot inside the pastry for baking. The almonds were toasted to a golden brown colour, and ready to scatter on top. I checked that the oven was heated to the right temperature, and the slid the whole lot inside, curious to see how Charlie’s family recipe would turn out. My timers were going off, as the muffins and pastries I’d started baking earlier were ready to go out to the store.

The phone number lay on the counter, an innocuous scrap of paper. I picked it up and put it in my pocket.

‘This doesn’t mean I’ve made a decision,’ I said.

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V. Yolande

Yolande cornered me on the driveway as I was returning home one afternoon after work. It’d been a long, gruelling day, but thankfully free of interfering SOF officers, supernatural peril, or my mom dropping awkward bombshells about my father’s relatives.

‘Do you have a moment to come inside?’ asked Yolande.

I had been looking forward to nothing more complicated than a hot bath and a reread of one of my favourite novels, but I thought that given Yolande was my landlady I should probably make time for her, and followed her through the door.

‘I’m not going to ask you about vampires, SOF politics, or epic battles with the forces of evil, so don’t worry yourself about that,’ she said, without any preamble. ‘You’ve got more than enough of those kinds of questions from everyone else.’

When I didn’t respond, she went on.

‘No, I called you in here tonight because I want to talk to you about magic. Now, I’m sure you’ve got your own tricks and charms, and no doubt that vampire has taught you a thing or two, but I’m going to help you with the one thing I do best: wards.’

‘What makes you think I need help with wards?’ I said.

‘Oh, believe me, you’re going to need them in the future,’ she said, grimly.

I didn’t like to ask her why she was so certain about that.

‘Now, all of us — all of use magic-users, I’m not going to be coy about that — have different ways to approach our magic, and there’s no one right or wrong way to go about making wards. It’s likely my wards would be very different to yours, and I’m not going to tell you that you should do things my way. I have my suspicions about what would work best for you, but we’ll see.’

‘I have made wards before,’ I said, ‘back when I was a child. At least I think that was what I was doing.’

My grandmother had never been exactly forthcoming as a teacher, sadly.

‘Trinkets,’ said Yolande, scornfully. ‘I’ve seen them around your house. Trinkets made to hold a ward for a set amount of time. They don’t have the lasting power of something made by your own hands.’

She gestured around the room, and I suddenly noticed all the handcrafted, mismatched ornaments, some of them woven out of cloth, others constructed from wood, and still more made from strange combinations of twine and metal.

‘Did you make all these yourself?’

‘Right down to blacksmithing the metal,’ she said. ‘It’s the only way to be sure.’

‘Are you going to make me melt down metal and spin my own wool?’

‘That wouldn’t work for you, Sunshine. No, with you we’ll take a different approach.’

She walked me over to her kitchen, where she had laid out various ingredients and baking implements.

‘Where do you draw most of your power from — apart from the sunlight, which I already know about — what’s your main source of supernatural strength?’

‘Trees,’ I said. It felt weird to tell her. It was too personal, somehow.

Yolande nodded, as if something she had long suspected had been confirmed.

‘So we’ll find a way to marry that up with baking, and you’ll bake yourself a bunch of wards. Have a look at the recipes, and pick the one that seems to you to draw on trees.’

I flicked through the collection of recipes. There were five of them, and it took me a while to figure out which had the most to do with trees (I’d never thought of trees as a feature of the baking process, after all!), until at last I settled on a simple recipe for apple cake. Its combination of apples and hazelnuts made me think of orchards and sustenance, and fruit ripening in the sunshine, and I loved the combination of cinnamon and caramel. The recipe was printed on faintly yellowed paper, and looked as if it had been torn from a magazine.

‘This is the one,’ I said, gathering the ingredients from where they were scattered around the kitchen.

‘That’s a good one,’ said Yolande.

‘So, what makes this a ward as opposed to just a cake?’ I asked, not quite daring to begin, although my fingers itched to start cooking the apples on the stove.

‘The secret is the state of your mind,’ Yolande replied. ‘I want you to really focus on the path these ingredients have taken before they got here. Imagine the hazelnuts ripening on their trees, being gathered and shelled and packed in bags, and the roads that carried them to you. Think of the eggs, the butter, the sugar and cinnamon, and imagine their journeys as something from which you draw strength. Pull all that into the recipe. And as you combine the ingredients, think about your home, your space, the place you want to protect above all others, and visualise all that power from all those journeys pouring into the boundaries around your house. You can make those boundaries as wide as you want, although I’d thank you not to let them extend into the area around my own house!’

I started with the apples, because they were the easiest. As I chopped them, I thought of orchards, of fruit ripening on rows and rows of trees, of that sharp taste that only came out if you cut an apple at exactly the right moment. I thought of fruit bumping along winding country roads until it found its way to Yolande’s hands, the exchange of money, the apples sitting in a paper bag as she carried them home. There was no sound apart from the slice of the knife, and the hum of the oven after I turned it on for preheating. I dropped the apple slices into a pot on the stove, and poured sugar over the top, repeating the process I’d begun with the apples and their journey with the sugar. The webs of light glowed faintly on my hands.

‘Don’t forget to think about your home and the lines you won’t allow to be crossed,’ Yolande said, so I forced those thoughts into my head, where they warred with images of sugarcane waving in a faint breeze.

But after a while, I got into the right frame of mind, and was able to hold two images in my head — the journeys of hazelnuts, flour, eggs, butter, vanilla and cinnamon, and my home, from welcoming wide door to the chimney above the fireplace that I never used. By the time the cake was in the oven, I’d got the hang of it.

‘It’s not finished until the cake has been cooked,’ said Yolande, ‘but the ward spell won’t be broken by us talking about something else while we wait for it to finish baking.’

‘All your wards are durable,’ I said. ‘They’re made of non-perishable materials. How will the protection of a cake last?’

‘You’ll eat it, of course! Think about food: you digest it and absorb it and gain strength and sustenance from it, and continue to make use of it as long as you remain living, even if the item of food itself is no longer being consumed by you.’

‘My favourite type of ward!’ I said. ‘I always like a kind of magic that involves baked goods.’

Yolande laughed.

‘We have to take power from where it offers itself,’ she said. ‘You could make a ward out of anything, as long as it was built, cooked, crafted, or constructed entirely by your own hands. Anything will do in a pinch. But your wards will have the most power if they’re made from materials that are comfortable to you — hence the baking.’

The cake would need at least fifty minutes in the oven, but I had followed the recipe exactly, so I was pretty sure it would turn out fine.

‘There’s just one thing I have to ask,’ I said. ‘This ward is going to keep out the supernatural, right?’

Yolande nodded in confirmation.

‘Is it going to work on vampires?’

‘Only if you want it to,’ she said.

Chapter Text

VI. Con

‘You’ve got new wards up.’

That was the first thing Con said when he showed up unannounced one clear, wintry night. I hadn’t called for him, exactly — I’d just been unable to sleep, and, after pacing blearily around the living room for a while, gave up, went to the kitchen, and cranked up the oven. My thoughts were drifting all over the place, and they eventually settled on Con, and the fact that I hadn’t seen him for a really long time. That was all it took, apparently — and then, boom, vampire on the doorstep.

‘If you’re here, you might as well do something to help,’ I said. ‘Take that knife and chop those blocks of dark chocolate finely.’

He picked up the knife and started cutting with the same exaggerated slowness I’d come to associate with him, reining in the natural fluidity of movement that could be so unnerving to human observers. I imagined this was out of courtesy more than anything else — I’d gone way beyond ever being afraid of him, but when faced with a vampire wielding a knife, panicked instinct might have kicked in.

‘I’ve been working on wards with Yolande,’ I said. ‘I guess it’s okay to tell you — they’re not to keep you out, after all!’

‘They are certainly strong wards,’ Con said, the knife whirring in his hands.

‘You’ll never guess what I housed them in,’ I said, getting the stove ready to melt the chocolate.

‘I have no doubt that the vessels for your new wards will be something as creative, original, and unexpected as you,’ he said, handing me the mass of finely sliced chocolate.

I gave him a bowl of cherries to deseed. Their red was so rich and deep that they almost vanished into the darkness at the edges of the room. He bent his head to this new task, moving deftly and uncomplainingly. The chocolate was melting quickly; I’d become distracted and turned away from the stove, and would have to be careful if I didn’t want the mixture to burn.

‘If I asked you what you’ve been doing since I last saw you, would you give me a straight answer, or would you just say something cryptic?’

Con froze, paused, with a heaped scoop of cherries in his hand.

‘It is hard, as I am sure you know, to adjust, after long years of being alone, when you only needed to care about yourself and your own actions. I am still trying to figure out how to be now, when so many things have become blurred and complicated, after we met each other and walked away changed. I need to think of all kinds of new things — keeping you informed of my movements and actions, asking permission, being in others’ spaces, allowing others into mine.’

It was frightening, sometimes, how much his patterns of thinking mirrored my own.

Con continued.

‘I think right now we are living in a pause, a moment out of time in which we can gather our strength, and plan our next move. That you are working on your magic-handling is good — it will be sorely needed. I, too, have been working, trying to anticipate where the next blow will fall, and where to direct our energies —’ the word, our, was like a flash of lightening, reverberating with implications I still wasn’t ready to consider — ‘but it is hard. We have so many enemies, and I cannot tell which of them will move first.’

‘I’ve been worrying about that, too,’ I said, taking the melted chocolate off the heat.

‘I mean, I’m not naive enough to think that things were going to end with the business with Bo, but I’m not sure I want to be pitched into some kind of epic, all-consuming supernatural war. I don’t think I signed up for that! Sometimes I wish I could just sleep for five years, dreaming of coffee, caramel and cinnamon, and wake up after someone else had taken care of all this.’

Con said nothing.

‘But then,’ I said, ‘I remind myself that right now, I feel most comfortable, most safe, and above all most alive, standing here in my kitchen, instructing a vampire in how to deseed cherries.’

‘What are you making, anyway?’ he asked.

‘I don’t know yet,’ I said. ‘It’s an experiment. I needed to use the ingredients up, so I’m trying something different, without a recipe. I still don’t know how it will turn out.’

I took the cherries from his hands, helping myself to a few of them before dipping them in the dark, melted chocolate. The light from the moon pooled on the floor of the kitchen. Con stood utterly upright, without slouching or leaning, motionless and half-shadowed.

‘Well,’ he said, ‘I had better stay with you until they’re finished.’