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Talking to Con had never been easy, and never would be; and yet ease was the best word I could use for the pattern we fell into, some nights.

Nights only - there were no days again. After Bo, and after I began, a little, to recover from Bo, I started to realise what kind of gesture it had been - and what kind of desperation it would again require, on my or on Con's part, in future - for Con to spend the day with me, rather than in his earth-place or in some other place of constructed defence.

The old Sunshine, the person I'd been before Bo - before the lake - would have preferred desperation to be a necessary condition for any rendezvous between Con and me, but that was no longer true, nor was it possible to pretend it might be true.

We had no common enemy. That wasn't what bound us. Exactly what was... I was still untangling that.

I never went more than a week without thinking of him, and every time the thought of him came back to me, it felt like - not an idle thought, but a deliberate reminder. Even, a little, like a kitchen timer buzzing, a cosmapp blinking - only sterner, and of course, weirder. I'd felt it, too, when my family and I had driven back from a vacation by the ocean - an awareness that Con and I were coming closer.

It was like missing a friend, or a lover, and I was glad for all the ways in which it wasn't like that at all.

One of the ways I'd reconciled myself to the regularity of meetings with Con was, admittedly, kind of inane. It was this: with Bo gone, there was (or so Con assured me) no other equal doom hanging over either of us. I still had a hundred questions I did and didn't want answered - about our bond, about Con's past dealings with my father, about vampire nature - and I couldn't use more pressing matters to justify, to myself, why I wasn't asking them.

But I could dollop them out, like batter into muffin tins, put space around them. This week: ask about whether all of Bo's gang were definitely (probably) gone. Next week: ask about vampires and sorcerers, maybe with regard to my personal vampire, and my personal suspected-sorcerer, connections. Week after: solicit Con's opinion on Pat's theory that vampires were going to win against humans in a century, tops.

There were things I put on my mental list that I was never going to be brave enough to ask. Maybe this was why the corporate types complained about having meetings to have meetings. (You didn't get so many middle managers at Charlie's, but I could extrapolate from Aimil's stories of library politics.)

The questions I did ask were bad enough.

I became used to Con's silences. I began to value, in a strange way, the pauses before Con answered a question, the lacunae that opened up in the middle of his sentences. I tried to fill them not only with awkwardness and dread, but awareness of the dark seconds - and minutes - slipping on towards daylight - the daylight that would make answers easier to bear. I learned to fill Con's ominous pauses with my own breathing. You would have thought awareness of mortality was the worst way to cope with the unwelcome wisdom I was just about to receive, but it helped with perspective. Somehow.

I spent a lot of time looking into his eyes.

It wasn't entirely conscious. Con's gaze held no threat for me. But that was because I'd changed, not - really - because he had, and the lure of vampire eyes is something inherent. I could pull back, but I was still pulled in. When I looked into Con's eyes, it was like finding an alignment. Sometimes we were walking while we talked, or holding hands and running between realities - and sometimes sitting in his earth place. When I sat, I found myself arranging myself so that I could look at him directly.

It wasn't entirely unconscious, either. Humans don't hold each other's gazes for long, except in the throes of besotted adoration, or to make an exceptionally aggressive point. I wondered if vampires did it (add that question to the list). There's a reason we say eye contact. I was kind of glad of that contact. It was less awkward than the other kind of contact. Though, perhaps, requiring of more trust.

I wonder if Con appreciated it for the sake of novelty. He didn't protest.

Instead, he answered some of the questions I asked, and some of the questions I didn't.

"It is not blood... itself," he said, one night, 'that our kind require. Nor is it life. It is death."

I hadn't asked him about this. "I don't quite understand," I said bravely anyway, "what the difference is: between needing someone's life, and needing someone's death."

If I hadn't been looking into his eyes, I wouldn't have recognised his expression as a twitch of amusement. It was very dark amusement.

"A vampire is.... created," he said, after another pause, after that amusement had faded away, "by a death that is - not realised. An act that should be a death."

Turning: my imagination supplied scenes from a hundred lurid books and serialised stories. I tried to quiet it.

"There is no reconciling that ... variance. Except, of course, by the end of the existence of the vampire," Con continued.

I blinked; this had become more customary for me, in our conversations, than nodding was. Nodding broke eye contact, which no longer felt as natural as keeping it. Cats, I had heard, blinked to show friendship. Cats were also associated with vampires, though that was because of how they treated their prey rather than because of their body language. Or so I'd thought.

"The natural law demands a death to balance the equation. It may not be satisfied, but it may be - fooled, allayed - by the offer of a different death."

"Like a down payment," I said, horribly enthralled. "Or - just paying the interest on a loan."

Con shrugged without agreeing. These were clearly not concepts that spoke to him.

"Like saying," I said, meeting him a little more in the middle, stepping away from safe similes, "to Death. Don't take me. Take him.... Take her."

"Yes," Con said.

He could say quite a lot with just Yes.

I wasn't inclined to ask him to say more.

It wasn't an entirely new theory to me. I'd read, heard, and exchanged several variants of it during an adolescence and early adulthood of Other obsession. But I'd never taken it further, because it hadn't been the one I believed. It was easier to believe that vampires ate in ways that were more analogous to human eating. Molecules rearranging. Energy in, and energy out.

But no: a vampire's life was a broken bargain with Life.

It went some way to explaining why sunlight destroyed them.

And right now, it was going some way towards answering questions that were right at the end of my list. Like: now that I was bound up with Con, was there a way to unbind us? To settle the score entirely?

(The question even further along than that one was, did I want to.)

And the answer that was forcing itself on me - for the nearer question, at least - was: no.

There were no clean bargains between a vampire and a human: no simple alliances, and no deaths. I could look away from Con's eyes, but that didn't mean very much after all. The slack in the chain of the shackle I was still wearing.

Con was watching all this go through my eyes. He probably thought I'd figured it all out already. I could only lay so much blame on him for the glacier pace of my comprehension when I asked him one question at a time.

At the lake, I'd asked him if there were anything good, redemptive - reconciled - about the death of the victim of a vampire, after that victim's will had been bent so that he or she invited it. Asked for it.

I'd already known the answer was no then, too.

But the redemption I'd been asking about - for - was the the redemption of someone whose choice has been made for them - and then chooses it, too.

That was still a choice left to me.

It wasn't - yet - in front of me, the way I hadn't - yet - asked if Con and I could ever be unbound. (Rearrange the letters - it almost came to Bo undone. Concentrate, Sunshine.)

I was asking my way to it - thinking my way to it - breathing my way to it, each breath taking me on to the next night, the next day, the next choice. To my death, or to the next terrible thing I would do to prevent Con's death, or my own.

I guess you could say I was opening my eyes to my situation. The metaphor didn't work very well: you can't open eyes that are already open. (Naga demons, etc, aside.) But I didn't close them again; I didn't even blink. It was Con who looked away.

I had to wonder what he found to fear in my eyes: perhaps, only, the stark awareness of mortality. I already knew he didn't want to watch me die.