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The brightest light

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She is tiny, small and delicate, and so, so pure. Benny feels that his big, rough, clumsy hands might slip and accidentally break her, and so he is shaking as he reaches out to take her. But the moment the midwife lets go of her and it's only Benny holding her, he knows that he could never do anything that meant any harm to her.

His wife, Margaret, is resting in the next room, having falling asleep from the exhaustion after having forced herself awake long enough to look at their child. The midwife, her sister, had cleaned up the baby and put clothes to her before bringing her to an anxious Benny, wearing a smile that said Margaret was just fine.

Benny is relieved about that, he really is, but right now he has problems thinking of anything that's not his daughter. He holds her close to his chest with the utmost care, and she opens her big, bright, hazel eyes and looks up at him curiously. They are so beautiful and Benny falls in love just a little more. He falls deeper when he brings her up to gently kiss her forehead and the response he gets is a happy coo and a wide smile.

He and his wife, they have thought names. If the baby was a boy, his name would have been Stephan. But she was a girl; a precious, beautiful, perfect girl.

At first they had agreed on Clara, a name they considered as beautiful as she would surely be. But then, a couple weeks before her birth, Benny's mother had died. She was very close to the couple, and since Margaret hadn't had a mother since she was 12, she had come in and guided her through all the complications pregnancy implied. If it wasn't for her, maybe his wife would have gone mad.

That's why, when Benny had asked Margaret to name their child after her if she was a girl, soon after coming back home from her funeral, his wife had immediately agreed. And now, Benny knows what his baby's name is.

“Hey, baby girl, hello” he whispers in a most adoring voice, rocking her gently into sleep. She coos again and tries to reach for his face, eyes wide and shining with curiosity. “You're very beautiful, you know that? Like the sun.”

He kisses her forehead again. He's done that seven times in the last five minutes, and he knows he could do it over and over again until the day he dies. The life resting in his arms will be the centre of his existence from until the end of time.

“Thank you, Miranda. Thank you for being born.”

-0-o-0-o-0-

Benny chuckles as his baby Miranda attempts to eat the sleeve of her mother's blouse, and then pouts when it's put away, out of her tiny mouth and tiny hands' reach. Margaret laughs too and coos at the baby, who suddenly looks like she's threatening to throw a tantrum if she isn't allowed to put the cloth in her mouth.

It takes a couple minutes, but the toddler eventually calms down after her mother hums a little song to her, smiling and showing the little gap on her upper teeth and laughing at the familiar tones. Benny's smile as he watches the scene and his heart warms up is just a mirror of hers.

Now that she's calm, Benny makes the camera ready as his wife raises Miranda a little more. He doesn't know much about how the thing works, other than there's a button to press, but he needs to be no expert to know that the result is going to be the most beautiful picture ever taken. Margaret smiles in his direction, warm and loving like every time she and her husband look at each other. Miranda, on the other hand, doesn't know, or doesn't care, that she's supposed to look at her father, instead deciding to inspect a spider on the wall.

Benny presses the button, waits a moment, there is a flash that has both of them blinking a few times, and then the picture is taken. The man smiles, proud of himself; the most beautiful picture ever, indeed. It had the two most beautiful people in it, after all.

Now it's his turn, but by the time Margaret hands Miranda over to him - and like every time he holds her, his mind goes to that first night, when he had first held her and she changed his world, and he shakes just the littlest bit - she has decided this isn't fun anymore. Maybe the flash has upset her, although it doesn't seem likely that's the reason. Still, she looks upset, and they're not about to take a picture with that face on their jewel.

Benny pulls a chair closer and sits there, Miranda on his knee. He asks her if she wants to ride a horse – a pony, he corrects himself, she likes ponies – and while she's not talking much yet, she does understand enough to make a excited squeal. Then, Benny starts moving his leg up and down, imitating the sound of a horse's steps to the best of his mouth's ability and holding her carefully so the movement doesn't make her fall.

It does the trick; whatever had her pouting, it's gone now, replaced by smiles and laughs, and from this close the gap is more evident and even cuter. Her laugh's a sound so beautiful Benny almost wants to cry, and he can't help pulling her up to kiss her head before taking the picture. He sets her down again, and this time she understands what she has to do and looks at Margaret. Benny is going to do so too, but he takes a little longer to admire his beautiful daughter, face full of adoration. Just a moment before he looks at his wife, the flash comes and the picture's taken.

He complains a bit, says he wasn't ready, but Margaret hushes him saying that the smile he was wearing was worth a thousand looks at the camera.

-0-o-0-o-0-

There's no way of making the four-year-old look at the camera. She's a shy girl, their Miranda, and now she's hiding her face against her dad's shirt rather than look the other way around.

Benny smiles fondly as he remembers a couple days earlier, when he had taken her to go play with their neighbors’ kids. The boy, same age as his girl, had come to her at some point, when his sister had gone away for a second, and offered her a flower, and all he got was the girl running to hide behind her dad's legs. It was both sad and funny to see the utter heartbreak in the boy's face at such a gesture, and Benny had good-naturedly kneeled to talk to his daughter and tell her to appreciate when someone did something nice for her, and that the boy just wanted to be her friend. It had taken some convincing, but she had eventually gone to talk to him and then they were both playing under Benny's and the boy's mother's fond gaze.

But right now, she is being shy again. This is their first picture of all three together, however, and they want her to look good. The cameraman looks mostly amused by their failed attempts to make her look at him. Her parents, however, are mostly annoyed right now, although with that underlying ever-present amazement of just how adorable Miranda is, even with her face hidden and her little hands grabbing her father's shirt.

Benny tries to stand up, but the mere movement makes her complain and say a very loud 'no!' , so he has to resort to his wife to get up in his place and go get the little tiger plush toy lying on her bed. They got it for her a year ago and she absolutely adores it; he's called 'Lil'ger' and she cannot fall asleep anymore if she's not hugging him. The sight of him takes any shyness out of her, and the cameraman laughs when it's given to him. Margaret sits beside Benny again, they look at the camera, and since the man is holding Lil'ger just above the device, Miranda looks at it intensely, almost without blinking until the flash comes.

She takes the toy from the man as soon as he puts it within her reach, and then, when Benny puts her on the floor, she runs for her room to hide under the sheets and talk to him. The three adults laugh as she goes and then proceed to look at the picture.

-0-o-0-o-0-

It's starting to get dark when Benny gets ready to leave. He's going to meet with a few friends in the harbor and talk some business, then probably go spend a while in the bar and drink a few beers. He'll be home half an hour before midnight at latest.

Miranda knows this, because this is far from the first time Benny's gone out. Still, she clings to him and wraps her arms around his legs, in an attempt to stop him from moving, and tells him not to go. Benny chuckles at her and kneels, promises he'll be back extra soon and kisses her forehead. She pouts petulantly and stomps her feet, but after a few seconds of Benny smiling at her she nods and says she forgives him. She kisses his cheek and runs to her room.

Benny laughs as he stands up. She is just as cute as when she was born, their girl, although in a different way. He actually misses it, the feeling he got when he held her and she was no bigger than his hands. He and Margaret have been talking about it; they're doing alright money-wise, and it wouldn't be extremely easy but they could afford another kid. Benny's heart goes faster at the thought of another baby in the house – they've even talked names already: James or Violet.

He walks over to Margaret and kisses her gently, and whispers against her lips that he'll be back soon. He kisses her a second time, because he can never kiss her enough, and then he leaves.

He never comes back.

-0-o-0-o-0-

It's three and a half years before he even remembers he has a wife and a daughter.

The moment he realizes it, horror fills him to the deepest part of his soul. He steps back until he bumps into the wall of the room. He brings his right hand to his forehead and his eyes widen. If he still needed it, his breathing would be erratic and panicked, very much like his soul.

How...? Why...? He doesn't understand. He can't. In almost four years, he has been so busy traveling, killing people, drinking blood, losing everything he once was, that he wasn't even aware that he had had a life before that. A better, more beautiful life.

Miranda is almost twelve years old, he realizes, and the oppression in his chest makes his legs weak, forces him to slip down along the wall until he's sitting on the floor, his gaze lost in some point of the opposite wall. She must have changed so much, she must have laughed so many times, and Benny wasn't there to see it. She must have cried so many times – surely because of him, his mind supplies – and her father wasn't there to hold her.

He feels the memory of bilis in the back of his throat. This can't be right. This isn't right. He needs to fix this. He stands up and runs to the door, but the second he touches the doorknob he lets go of it like it burns and steps back, falls on the floor. He's hyperventilating now, a mere physical response to how he's feeling, out of habit, that fulfills no physical need.

What's he going to say to them? That he left them behind because he wanted to feel human blood in his mouth so much that he forgot his family existed? That he's human no more, that he's the kind of monster he used to tell Miranda didn't exist? He can only imagine the look on their faces if he did.

He takes his hand to his brow again, and for the first time in three and a half years he feels a sting in his eyes. He doesn't understand what it is at first, but a moment later it dawns on him – he's about to cry. He can't cry, not really; he feels the sting, he wants to, but the tear just won't fall out of his eye, denying him the relief of letting it out.

He doesn't know how long he stays there. It might be five minutes, it might be three hours. But eventually he's recovered just enough to be able to stand up. He has made a decision; he opens the door and leaves without telling anyone.

His nest isn't far from home, the Old man seems to have some sort of fondness for Louisiana, and it only takes Benny three hours to get there. The sun's starting to rise on the horizon when he arrives, so he goes to a shop and steals a coat and a cap to block as much sunlight as possible. The owner finds him, and Benny doesn't hesitate to kill him and drink him dry.

The sun that filters to his face stings, makes him growl lowly and his skin burns, but he doesn't hide away from it. He stands near his house, hidden between some trees: he can see the house, but he can't be seen from it. He knows there are people inside it, his ear tells him about two heartbeats within in.

He realizes after a couple minutes that he's wondering how that blood tastes. He goes still, stiff, and something breaks within him, perhaps the only thing that hadn't been touched by the poison going through his veins. Because it's in that moment that he realizes what he has become, that he becomes truly aware of it. He shakes his head and steps back, about to leave.

And then the front door of what had once been his home opens. Benny's mouth goes dry when a little girl walks out. He had thought about it, knew Miranda had grown up, but in his mind she still looked like she did when he left home that night; therefore, it takes him a moment to recognize that girl as his daughter.

She's smiling, Benny realizes, talking to her mother who is still inside. She looks happy. These years have done nothing to diminish the adoration Benny feels for her, he realizes, and a mix of love and relief settles on his chest. He wants to walk up to her, kneel and hug her, kiss her forehead, and for a moment he's going to do so. He thinks the nest is just a nightmare on the back of his mind, and nothing at all has changed in his life.

But then he reaches out, and his hand leaves the protection that the shadow of the tree provides. He hisses and steps back, eyes widening as he comes back to reality. His eyes fill with desperation as Miranda walks down the road towards town, away from him. He could do it, rush towards here, stand the burn and hug her, but he doesn't. He doesn't have the right anymore, and he's just been sharply reminded of that fact.

His eyes linger one more second, and then he turns and walks away.

-0-o-0-o-0-

He goes back home a few more times after that. Doing so makes his chest hurt like nothing had ever hurt before, far worse than going without blood for a week, but he can't stop himself from doing it. He needs it like he needs what he drinks.

The second time he goes, he finds out Margaret has a new husband. He doesn't know how to take it at first. He's hurt, but he can't find any reason to blame her; she's been alone for six years, and Benny isn't selfish enough to think she should wait for him forever. He doesn't know what they think of him, either; in the best of cases, they think he's dead, and the other option is that they think he ran away, willingly abandoned them, perhaps with someone else.

Benny wants to run to her, hold her in his arms, smell the scent of her hair and say he's sorry, that he still loves her. But he knows that if he did that he would probably end up with the taste of her blood on his tongue, and Miranda would be screaming, the last memory of her father the one of a monster. Benny can't do that to either of them, and even if he could stop himself, what could he do? Tell them to join him in his new life? He snorts bitterly at the thought. They seem happy, and that's the least Benny can wish for them.

And it's not like Benny can be resentful to Margaret for it. He's slept with plenty of people these years, with nestmates and with humans. Sometimes he lets them go, and other times he drinks them dry afterwards and drops their bodies into the nearest lake or river without a hint of guilt. When he's having sex, only rarely he thinks of his wife, because when he does, he feels guilt.

He's become a monster who isn't able to care about anything that's not his own pleasure. He wants blood, luxury, sex and the freedom to sail and kill. And while having the two people who once were all in his life would indeed bring him pleasure, he's happier knowing they are alright.

He wonders what Miranda thinks of him. If she misses him, or if she holds nothing but resentment towards him. He wonders if, when she thinks of 'dad', it's Benny's face that shows up on her mind, or it's this man's.

It hurts. But she's happy, or at least that's what she lets the world see, and that will have to be enough for her father.

-0-o-0-o-0-

Miranda is nineteen the last day Benny ever sees her.

It's a mostly cloudy day, so he puts on the coat and cap and ventures out of the shadows, keeping the little groans to himself. She's in the town's little square, with her mother, step-father, and some friends. He hesitates when he sees that there are plenty people around, but the temptation of hiding in the crowd and actually coming close to his daughter is too much. He goes in.

Warm blood is everywhere, filling his nose and blocking any other smell. The sound of hearts pumping blood through veins is so very loud on his ears. He almost turns around and runs away. He almost gives in and feeds right there. But he pulls himself together, greets his teeth and tunes it all out. All that matters is Miranda.

He pulls his cap as down as it'll go hoping it'll be enough to hide him in case he bumps into anyone who might recognize him. At first he acts like he's interested in a shop while he forces his ear to catch their conversation, but it's not good enough. Risking someone noticing him not moving, just staring, he stands still in a corner of the square and looks at his daughter.

She's beautiful, so very beautiful, as she's always been, he can tell that much. But she's not facing his way and there are people walking between them, so he can't get the look he deserves. He bits his lip and steps a little closer.

He's never been this close to her, not since she was eight years old and he was human. If he tries, he can almost feel her presence. His eyes water a little as he watches her longingly, yearning. After all these years, she's still the most important thing in his life, the most brilliant and shining, but he knows that stepping closer would break it all.

He wants to do it, though. He almost does, walk up to her, say her name. Maybe she'd be too surprised to react, maybe she'd be angry, or maybe she'd cry and hug him. Perhaps it would take her a while to recognize him, he thinks with a pained wince. But in any case, she'd remember him, she'd know he wasn't just gone, and maybe that's worth risking them find out what he has become.

He's actually thinking about it, weighing it in his mind, when he sees Margaret prepare a camera. His deal, cold blood runs even colder, and he can't make himself move. He still can go forward, but... he's too much of a coward. He couldn't stand it if he's met with rejection, so he turns away and flees. The camera flashes before he's managed to turn away, though, and he just hopes that they never look too much into the background.

He doesn't intend that to be the last time he sees her, his intention is to keep coming see her for as long as he can. But on the way out of town, he finds Sorento. He's in the woods, with a young woman pinned against a tree and struggling as blood is sucked out of her. His nestmate's smile is bloody as he drops her dead body. Benny would have puked if he could do so, because he recognizes the girl: she's the neighbors' daughter. As far as he knows, she's Miranda's friend.

It turns out Sorento and a few others have noticed him coming here and have been following him into town for a few years, curious. The others are already on their way back, but Sorento decided to stay and ask what the deal with this town is. They don’t even remember this was where they had taken him.

It takes Benny some moments to mutter a gruff 'not your business' , because he's too busy looking at the dead body. What was her name? Rose, Sarah, Isabella? Benny can't remember, but every moment he spends looking at her he's surer and surer she was indeed Miranda's friend. His daughter will later find out she's dead, and she will cry.

But what really has him shivering in fear is that it could have been her.

He forces himself to stay nonchalant as he tells Sorento they should leave already. The man would turn Miranda into a target if he finds out Benny cares about her, and wouldn't see it as nothing more than a fun game. He isn't smart enough to figure out Benny's lying, so he rolls along and amiably chats with him as they head back to their sire.

He never comes back. As long as he stays away, his daughter will be safe.

-0-o-0-o-0-

The diner has changed a lot since the last time he saw it. Some walls look older, others have been replaced. Many little details have changed, adapted to the new times, and they are completely foreign to Benny, making him feel once again like he doesn't belong in that place anymore. Still, it's the same place it was a century ago, and walking towards it makes Benny smile and feel a happiness in his chest he had completely forgotten existed.

It's only starting to get dark, but it's a Tuesday and most people can't stay out for long, so the place only has a few patrons when he walks in. Some of them spare him a quick glance, but he goes unnoticed.

There is a woman at the counter, and even if Benny hadn't already done some research these last few days he would know who she is. The woman looks up at him and smiles, her eyes shining with that light he used to see in different eyes, and her sweet voice asks him how she can be of help.

She's Elizabeth, and she's Benny's great-granddaughter. Miranda's granddaughter. By the time Benny is in front of her, he already loves her. He recovers too quickly for her to notice, but he spends a moment inspecting her face in amazement. Last time he saw his daughter he hadn't been able to get a clear look. Now, however, looking at Elizabeth, he knows what she had looked like. The likeness is simultaneously a dagger and a balm for Benny's heart.

He lies smoothly and says he's been told there was a job offer at the dinner. The human looks confused and answers that there’s no such thing in that moment, but after a couple minutes of friendly chat she admits she could indeed use some help there. Benny grins happily and a few moments later he's shaking her hand and promising he'll be a great worker.

He's happy these weeks, honestly happy. It hurts a little not being able to tell her who he is, how much she means to him, but it's good. His partnership with Dean has been rocky, first with the constant dangers of Purgatory and now with the hunter's brother being opposed to their friendship. Benny hopes it works out, but until then he's not going to make things more complicated for his brother-in-arms by depending on him. And Andrea, well, that still hurts and makes him flinch when he thinks about her.

But things are actually good with Elizabeth. He ingrains himself back in the diner, like he had when he had a beating heart, and slowly begins to be friends with his only relative. They joke, they tease, they work together and it sends Benny into bliss.

He's helping Lizzie on the kitchen when she first mentions Miranda. He goes still for a second, becomes tense as he feels his heart become even more unmoving, before forcing himself to go on and act natural, as if the mere mention doesn’t have him about to shake.

It turns out Lizzie's going to do her grandmother's recipe. Benny forces his voice to be nonchalant instead of strangled as he asks a bit about it. Miranda had always been proud of that recipe specially, although she was generally happy with her cooking skills. The fondness in Elizabeth's voice as she speaks is clear, although she seems careful too, and Benny wonders if she can somehow sense how those words make Benny want to laugh and cry at the same time.

All of Miranda's recipes had been learnt from her mother, and oh, isn't that ironic, because now Elizabeth is teaching him a recipe he had taught to Margaret a lifetime ago. The motions are simultaneously familiar and strange on his hands, but as he goes on, his body starts moving on its own as it remembers all those little details. Elizabeth praises his skill and all he can offer is a smile. His voice will break if he attempts to speak.

-0-o-0-o-0-

Benny closes the album with the utmost care, his hands shaking uncontrollably, and he realizes there are tears running down his cheeks. He doesn't know what to say, and even if he did, he doesn't think his voice could work in that moment.

Elizabeth is resting her cheek against his shoulder, having been seeing the album she had just gifted to Benny with him. The book is old, far from being in its best state, and yet it's extremely clear it has always been treated with care and love. Benny will take care of it like it's his own life, or even more important, because inside of it he can see the life of his daughter in pictures. He can see the life he missed.

“Thank you” he mutters brokenly, after turning to face Elizabeth. He pulls her into a tight hug before she can answer, and continues shaking and crying while she hushes and comforts him. A few minutes later, he feels strong enough to pull away, and smiles at her as composed as he can.

“As I said, it means more to you than to me. It belongs with you.”

Benny had loved his great-granddaughter before, but now he loves her more than ever. He doesn't hesitate in pulling her towards him again and placing a gentle kiss on her forehead. This is the closest he'll ever be to kissing Miranda again, he thinks as he does so.

“I'll see you again very soon, Lizzie” he promises.

“I'll be waiting, grandpa.”

And then, Benny is inside his truck, still struggling to pull himself back together. The book lies on the seat next to him, as he doesn't dare to put it out of his sight.

That night, although he doesn't really need to sleep, he stops the truck on the road. He waits for a few minutes, steeling himself, and then reaches for the album. He's crying again by the time he reaches the end, but he goes through it again, and again, and again.

“I love you, Miranda” he whispers, tracing his fingers through her face, when she was a baby. He panics when a tear falls on the picture and pulls it away, drying it to the best of his ability without harming the image. Then he sighs and carefully puts the book away.

“Thank you,” he continues in the same reverent voice, “thank you for having been a part of my life. Thank you for being born.”