by Raven Blackmane
©2003 Raven Blackmane -- all rights reserved
The soft, gentle tones of an alarm clock rouse me from the darkness with the suddenness of a gunshot.
I can't quite call it sleep anymore. There is no lazy drifting from one state of consciousness to another, no gradual shifting of perspectives. I never dream -- at least, not here, not in these times. There is only darkness and silence, like floating in a sea of black ink. In one moment all is still, calm, muted... and then my head breaks the surface, and the five senses come rushing back, flooding my mind with sight and sound, scent and taste and touch.
Before I can check myself, I strike out at the clock's snooze button with a quick chop, putting enough force behind the blow to crush a man's windpipe. The clock, being made of stainless steel in the most rugged design I could find, simply shuts off, well-accustomed to such abuse. For several minutes I simply lay there, willing my body's hair-trigger reflexes to relax. I remember the meditative exercises that were taught to me and begin putting them into practice, slowly breathing in, out, one useless breath after another. I feel the tension in my limbs fade, then vanish entirely. Then, only then, do I rise from my bed and make my way, with slow, deliberate steps, over to the bathroom of my apartment.
So begins another Friday night. Hello, weekend, darling, how I've missed you.
I start running water into the extra-large tub, as hot as it gets, then splash some of it into my face to moisten my eyes. As the tub fills, I spread out the bath mat on the floor, lining up the edges with the grout between the tiles. I glance upward at the towels hanging on the bar and wince in disgust -- one of them is at least two centimeters out of alignment with the others. I carefully fix the rogue towel, then go back into the other room to make the bed. By the time I come back, the tub is full of hot water and a cloud of steam is hanging overhead. I disrobe, carefully fold my nightclothes and set them aside, and then slip into the bath, letting my head sink below the surface.
I stay under for a long time, feeling the warmth work its way back into my body. When I can feel that heat deep inside my chest, at my very core, I rise to the surface again and reach for the washcloth and soap. My skin is still pale, like porcelain, but at least there is warmth in me again.
And with that thought, a familiar pang awakens inside me, reminding me that my body must soon be filled with a very different sort of warmth.
Once clean, I let the water drain out of the tub while I dry myself and get ready for another Friday night out. The hair comes first; fortunately, mine is notably cooperative, and needs relatively little help from me to dry into its usual silky black waves. Clothing is a tougher choice -- any given style will have varying degrees of success, depending on the venue. After standing in front of my open closet for a few minutes, I decide on the direct approach: a body-hugging black gown, with a low lace-up back and an uneven, tapered hem that drapes down over the left leg while exposing the right one almost completely. I match it with a pair of sheer pantyhose with a stylized black dragon snaking up the right leg. A leather choker with garnet accents, matching earrings, and eight-centimeter black pumps complete the ensemble.
Now comes the hard part.
Sitting down on the edge of the bed, the necessary implements in hand, I close my eyes and take a few long, deep breaths. It's pointless, of course, but it does help me to steel my will for what comes next. Then, gritting my teeth, I open the compact and begin applying my makeup.
I'll never get used to doing this: Carefully focusing on one small section of my face at a time, holding the mirror at strange angles so that my eyes never meet their own reflection. Once, early on in this new life, I made the mistake of catching my own gaze in the mirror. The sensation is hard to describe -- like tumbling end over end into a bottomless pit, while hearing my own thoughts reflected back at me a thousand times over. Between the gut-wrenching vertigo and the stark, blinding terror that followed fast on its heels, I quickly learned my lesson: the next day, this compact was the only mirror left in the apartment.
I have to take a break every few minutes to calm my nerves, but eventually I get the makeup applied to my satisfaction. A light blush puts just a touch of color in my pale cheeks, while dark mascara and violet eye shadow provide a fitting match to my outfit. I put the compact away in one of the pockets of my coat, a glossy black duster made of crocodile hide that fits close against my upper arms, flares out near the wrists, and widens below the waist, billowing out behind me if I move at anything faster than a slow walk. After checking the pockets of the coat for a few other essential items I head for the door. On the way out, I stop to straighten the tassels on the rug in the entry hall, and adjust a picture frame that's hanging a few millimeters too low on one side.
No matter what I do, it seems like it's always messy in here.
It's another typical Friday night at Station 53.
The music thrums, deep, slow, and sensual, and blue, amber and purple lights pulse and swirl before my eyes as I glide through the doors of the nightclub. The bouncer saw me coming from fifty yards away and held the door open for me, bypassing a waiting line three blocks long.
"Ms. Drauling," he said, nodding to me.
"Hello, Toz," I replied, flashing a smile at him. His blocky, brutish features crinkled up in an adorably bashful grin at the attention.
The club is full but not overly so. The entire building is circular in shape, with eight ring-shaped tiers of dining space descending down to a dance floor with four large whirlpools set in a square around its perimeter. A haze of carbon-dioxide fog hangs over the floor, mostly filled with couples writhing and grinding to the steady, pounding beat, while others frolic in and around the hot tubs, laughing and giggling when the pumps turn on and the water becomes a vortex around them. Somewhere against the wall of every other tier is a bar where beautiful young men and women in tight outfits will serve up every intoxicating beverage imaginable, including several that cater to more... exotic appetites.
But then, to me, some things just don't taste right out of a bottle.
Everyone here is rich, powerful, or beautiful -- often all three. The people get dull sometimes, but I like the atmosphere.
I float down the steps to the second circle and over to the nearest bar. It's a two-drink minimum and, while they can't sell me what I really want, they have a number of more mundane concoctions that still interest me.
"Evening, Ms. Drauling," says Daniel, the tow-headed young man behind the counter. "What'll it be tonight?"
"Red Dragon," I say, removing my coat and hanging it over a chair. I turn away from him and lean back against the bar, looking down at the crowd below. The smell of fresh sweat wafts up from the floor, tinged with an aura of excitement and lust. Daniel puts the drink at my elbow a minute later, and for a while I simply stand back and observe. The hunger inside me is growing, but the fruit juice and alcohol in the cocktail will abate it for a time.
I hear the man coming from halfway across the club. He's a few centimeters taller than me, with stylish brown hair and clothes that wouldn't look out of place at any casual office -- unless you read the tags and realized how much they cost. He speaks to the barkeep for a moment, then leans up against the bar beside me as he waits for his drink. "Looks lonely down there when you're by yourself, doesn't it?" he says.
I slide my eyes over to give him an appraising look. He's clean-shaven, with eyes of some light hue -- grey, green or blue, it's hard to tell in here -- and a gently friendly demeanor. My eyes drift down to his neck, exposed where he has unbuttoned the collar of his cornflower-blue shirt. He's not wearing a tie, handkerchief or necklace of any kind.
"I wouldn't think that would be a problem for someone like you," I say, coloring my voice with mild amusement.
He chuckles. "Maybe you haven't seen the competition here. But then, I would say the same thing about you, so maybe the masses just have no taste." He offers a hand. "I'm Leo."
"Morgan," I say, taking it briefly and offering him a smile in return.
"Would you care to dance, Ms. Morgan?" he asks, bowing to me in a slightly overstated gesture of chivalry. "Or are you here on... other business?"
My smile twists into a smirk. "Don't make offers you aren't prepared to keep, Leo. You aren't wearing red tonight."
He is puzzled for a moment, until his eyes widen in sudden understanding. "Ah. I see," he says, his hand going unconsciously to his neck. He maintains his composure well, but underneath that designer shirt he just broke out in a cold sweat. I can smell his fear, a palpable, living thing that creeps up behind his eyes and into his chest, instincts countless millennia old telling him to run. The stimulation is electrifying, and my pupils dilate and my nostrils flare at the thought of the chase. I can feel the muscles in my arms and legs coiling like vipers, waiting for the perfect moment to strike.
But this is the twenty-first century and Imperial City, not the primeval wilderness. I rein in the hunter's impulse, forcing my body to stay where it is, just as he restrains the primitive instinct that tells him to flee.
"My apologies, Ms. Morgan," he says, trying to bow again while simultaneously keeping his eyes on me and avoiding my own. Given what I see when I look in my own eyes, I can't blame him, even though I've heard it's not quite the same for others as it is for me. "I didn't realize." He looks up and down at my outfit. "Though, in retrospect, perhaps I should have."
"It's all right," I say, my tone light in spite of the tension inside me. "You can't always tell, you know. Especially in dim light."
He's started to calm down a little bit, now that he's realized I'm not going to pounce on him. "And especially with you drinking that," he says wryly, gesturing at my drink. "I would have expected something darker."
"Well, it's true, I don't really need this," I say, taking a sip of the Red Dragon. "But, then, you don't either." I nod over at the drink that Daniel just put on the bar for him. It's turquoise-blue and has an orange slice and a maraschino cherry in it, impaled on a little plastic sword. "You're not going to try to tell me that's water, are you?"
He grins, perhaps a bit sheepishly. "Good point." Collecting his drink, he slides a few bills over to Daniel and takes a sip. Nodding in approval, he raises it toward me in a casual toast. "Well, good evening, Ms. Morgan. I hope you find what you're looking for."
I raise my glass to him in return. "You too. Just remember what your mother told you about talking to strangers."
Another grin. "I will."
He leaves, and I turn my focus back to my surroundings. I can afford to bide my time. It's a natural law that the best place to wait for prey is at the watering hole. If they're here, they will come.
They aren't here.
After two hours I leave Station 53, feeling disappointed and rather annoyed. There were precious few candidates on offer tonight, and none of them met my standards. I don't like poseurs and groupies, and my kind have them in spades. Older men looking for a new lease on life, disaffected youths who don't appreciate the lives they have, thrill-seekers who think it's all just a game -- I have no patience for any of them. And that limits my choices rather a lot.
I won't do it. I won't make someone else into what I am -- no matter how much they want it. They don't understand what it would cost them, what the Change can do to you. Yes, it's true, you are still essentially you after you Change. You don't lose your soul, and you're not damned to the bowels of Hell. You're not a demon. But now you have a whole new set of drives, urges and abilities to contend with. There's a beast inside of you that you'll never be rid of. Not ever. And that changes you, whether you want it to or not.
Some people are strong enough to stay true to themselves, in spite of it all. Many aren't. I won't have that on my conscience. I won't risk making someone else into a murderer.
Contrary to what some believe, those who choose to Share with us need not be Changed or die. In spite of our predatory instincts, every one of my kind knows that the beast can be controlled -- that we can feed, and be sated, without provoking the Change and without causing lasting harm. This is the way it must be, if they are to continue to tolerate us living alongside them -- and indeed this rule is enforced all through the hierarchy, by order of the Queen Herself. Those who disregard it, gorging themselves on the flock of humanity and leaving bodies in their wake, are quickly dispatched, either by the Queen's own agents or by others. No tears are shed for them.
Still, merely avoiding lasting harm is a low standard to set for oneself. With our powers of persuasion, we can compel almost anyone to Share, and either make them forget it afterwards or convince them that it's what they wanted. I won't stoop to that. I try to choose people who aren't interested in Changing, but choose to Share out of their own free will -- those who understand the risks and offer themselves anyway. Sharing is a powerful, intense act, and it can be greatly enjoyable and fulfilling for both parties, when it is practiced responsibly and with restraint. Sadly, that's a hard standard to live up to, and most of my kind would rather not bother. It's difficult to stand on principle when the beast inside you is demanding to be fed.
Difficult, but not impossible. I am beast, but I am also woman. I will not let myself forget that.
I drift around the city to a few other clubs, looking for anyone who might meet my exacting standards for a Sharing partner. Some of them are gothic establishments, where the poseurs and wannabes swarm thick as flies on a carcass, wearing bright red scarves and black tee-shirts emblazoned with the words BITE ME and other, equally inane puns and slogans. (The bit about wearing red to attract us was deliberately leaked out to the mundanes around ten or fifteen years ago. Word has it that the fellow who started the rumor just wanted to get the goths to start wearing some color.) Others are mid- to upscale establishments with predominately mundane clientele. None of them turn up any good prospects tonight.
I've been on the prowl for hours, the hunger growing inside me until I can think of little else. I'm going to have to find someone soon or I could be in trouble. There's nothing in the refrigerator back home, and the bars still close at three a.m. As I've said, I really don't like the bottled stuff, but I may have to just deal with it if my luck doesn't change in too much longer.
It's a little after two, and I'm just leaving club number six for the evening when I hear the sound of a woman's scream somewhere nearby.
"Oh god! Oh god, someone help me please!" Her voice climbs higher as she grows more frantic, rising into a screech that would have sent a chill down my spine if that were still possible. I take a second to pinpoint the sound: Somewhere behind me, around the corner, and down.
Imperial City, by dint of overcrowding and cramped geography, is built like a layer cake, with four levels of magically-suspended skyways sitting above the shadowed environs of the Street, all joined together by massive skyscrapers that routinely exceed three hundred meters. Generally speaking, the farther you are from ground level, the wealthier and safer the neighborhood; the Street itself is home to little besides heavy industry and the desperately poor. The screams I'm hearing are coming from the first level of skyways, one layer below where I am now. Which is about fifteen storeys down, more or less.
I run over to the edge of the skyway, roughly above where the screams are coming from, and hop up on the railing and look down. A narrow service alley leads back from a lonely street, past a couple of small shops, and into a cleft in the supporting skyscraper, where I can see a cluster of pay phones and one of the lift tubes that connect the levels of the city. A young woman has been cornered in the alley by three unpleasant-looking gentlemen -- and from way she's moving, it looks like her right leg is injured. There's no way she could run, even if she had an opening. She's trying to ward them off -- holding something out toward them at arms' length, shifting her focus among them every second or two -- but they're gradually inching closer and don't look like they have her best interests at heart.
It doesn't take a genius to figure out what they are, of course. Fortunately, I've come prepared. I carefully remove my 8-centimeter heels and set them on the sidewalk -- I don't really need them, and they wouldn't survive what I have in mind now, anyway. Reaching into my pockets and pulling out two of my special personal items, I hop off the edge of the railing and fall in a straight shot, down through the cleft in the skyscraper, toward the alley below.
This is one of those times when a great, billowing coat like mine comes in handy. Not only does it give me a bit of steering control during my descent, but it makes for one hell of an entrance.
I come down between the woman and her attackers, with a bit over a meter to spare on either side. I land on the balls of my feet and let myself fall into a kneeling posture, the force of the impact rattling through the skyway's hollow metal substructure.
"What the hell?" one of the men growls. Another one manages nothing but a guttural snarl.
I rise to a half-crouch as quickly as I can while maintaining an air of confidence and power, looking the attackers directly in the eye one by one. As soon as each contact is made I can feel his presence in my mind, his will testing itself against mine. One of them is stronger than the other two, but all of them eventually flinch, breaking the contact. The first contest is mine.
Unfortunately, it will probably take more than that.
I raise the polished wooden stake in my right hand, making sure they all get a good look at it. I keep my back to the girl with the crucifix -- it would be rather embarrassing for her rescuer to end up cowed right in front of her. Instead, I keep my eyes on the villains in front of me... and keep my left fist closed and the arm stretched out behind me, as if to counterbalance the one holding the stake. I place my feet in a slightly widened stance, ready to move in any direction.
"Good evening, children," I say, putting every ounce of the contempt I feel for them into the words. "Looks like someone is having a bit too much fun with the humans tonight."
The strong one snarls at me, eager to attack but wary of the dangerous weapon in my hand. It won't kill him, but a solid blow to the heart will leave him as senseless and immobile as any corpse. Like the others, his face has grown feral and predatory, his brow wrinkling with rage, his eyes flashing yellow-green with undisguised bloodlust. "Get out of here, bitch!" he snaps, his fully-extended fangs interfering with his speech. "Go find your own human!"
I pause half a moment for effect, as if considering it. "No," I say, evenly. "This doesn't look like mutual consent to me. And anyway, look at her." I nod back over my shoulder. "She couldn't possibly have enough blood to feed more than one of you." My eyes narrow. "Unless you were planning to bleed her dry."
"What the hell do you care?!" He sounds deeply frustrated.
"Have you forgotten the law of our Queen? 'You shall drink of the mortal, but you shall not kill unless I bid it'? Who is your sire?"
"He's dust," the strong one says, slapping his chest once. "I'm the master now! These two are mine!"
"What a proud father you must be," I say dryly. "Still, it makes me happy."
The self-described "master" cocks his head like a dog and stares at me, confused.
"It means no one's going to miss you when I send you straight to hell." Even as I say the words, I open my left hand, letting the wand fall from the sleeve of my coat until I can grasp the handle. Raising my arm in one smooth motion, far swifter than any human, I point it squarely at the "master" and shout, "Yaja!"
A blast of flame erupts from the tip of the wand, heading safely away from me and into the face and chest of the thug. My kind tend to burn very fast when exposed to fire, especially if it's magic fire that has been blessed by the right people. The unlamented master disintegrates into a cloud of ash.
I turn to the other two, who are cowering on the ground. "Your sire is dead," I tell them. "No other can now control you, save for the Queen alone. I suggest that you make better use of your freedom than he did, and respect the Queen's laws. Otherwise you will share his fate." My eyes narrow again. "Go."
They nearly fall over themselves to obey me, scrabbling to their feet and running away. They must be quite new to the Change -- they could have simply dissolved into mist form and floated away, if they had stopped to think about it. For a long moment all that can be heard are their panicked footfalls and the quiet, terrified whimpers of the girl behind me.
I turn slowly to face her. She's sitting on the ground now, backed up against the wall, looking up at me with a mixture of confusion, wonder and raw terror. She's still holding the crucifix in one hand, but she's not trying to wield it; her arms are wrapped close around her body, either as a defensive gesture or to ward off the cold. Her left leg is tucked up close to her chest, the right one stretched out awkwardly in front of her. Tears are running freely down her face.
She's a lovely young woman -- likely in her late teens, with fair golden skin, hazel eyes and russet-brown hair -- but she's obviously fallen on hard times: her clothes smell like she's been wearing them at least a week, her hair is matted and stringy, her face is smudged with dirt, and the backpack lying next to her looks as if it might well contain all her worldly goods.
I put away the stake and wand and offer her a hand. "Are you all right?" I ask.
She flinches away from my hand and shakes her head.
"Is it your leg? Can you speak?"
"Y-yeah." She nods toward the street, where a smashed-up bicycle is lying near the curb. "They jumped me on my bike -- I fell. My ankle hurts."
I get down on my knees by her wounded leg. "All right. I'm going to take at it, okay? I won't hurt you, I'm a doctor." Technically true, even though I work as the chief medical examiner at the local morgue.
She looks surprised, and who can blame her. "You? You're a doctor?" she says. "Aren't you..." She gestures in the direction the other two assailants had run off in.
"A vampire?" I ask. "Yes. But I've been a doctor a while longer, and I still believe in our old motto: 'First, do no harm'." I carefully remove the girl's shoe and sock, and feel gingerly around her ankle, which has already turned black and blue. After asking her the time-honored question -- "Does this hurt?" -- a few times, I feel fairly confident in my diagnosis.
"Well, it's sprained, it's bruised, and I think you might have a hairline fracture, but that's about it," I tell her. "If we get it bandaged up, and you're careful for a few weeks, you should be fine. Do you live nearby?"
She shakes her head. "No. I... I don't really live anywhere anymore." She sniffles and fights back the emotion in her voice, her words coming faster and faster. "I had a place, but then I got fired from the restaurant where I worked 'cause this guy grabbed my ass, and I slapped him, and then Joe says I can't go around slapping customers and it's like he doesn't even care what the bastard was doing to me and... and... a-and then he wouldn't give me my last paycheck and the rent was due and I couldn't find another job in time --" she takes a long, shuddering gasp "-- and they kicked me out and now I don't have anywhere to go." And then she can't say any more. She's just sitting there sobbing, her face buried in her hands.
I take her in my arms and hold her close in a comforting embrace. Her neck is so tantalizingly close that I can hear the blood pumping through her carotids, and for a long moment my mothering instinct fights a fierce battle against my appetite. Mothering wins out, and I just sit there with her for a long while, rocking her back and forth, whispering, "You'll be all right. You'll be all right."
When she's calmed down a bit, I decide to try this again. "What's your name, dear?"
She sniffles. "Kelly."
A small smile. "Hey."
"Do you have anyone you can call? Parents, grandparents?"
"Oh, god," Kelly moans, though her tone sounds more like weariness than actual distress. "Yeah, I have a mom and dad. I ran away two years ago to become a fashion model in the City."
"Didn't work out, eh?"
Kelly makes a disgusted sound. "Bastards said I was too short. I'm one-seventy-six tall and I'm too fricking short to be a model."
"Terribly unfair, isn't it?" I've had some experience with the fashion industry, and I'm about the same height, so I know she's not joking. I do know a couple of photographers who will work with shorter models, but I decide not to mention it. This girl belongs back with her family, not in the big city where somebody could make a meal of her. "It's rather perverse to think that every style we consider fashionable was designed for women who are taller than most men."
"Where do your parents live, Kelly?"
"In Meriton. It's southeast of Cardale."
I wince. "Blast. That's a bit far for me to drive, I'm afraid."
"Yeah, I guess the whole daylight thing would be a problem, huh?"
"Afraid so. Do you know anyone else in this city?"
"Not really. It was mostly just the people at the restaurant, and they won't have anything to do with me since I got fired."
Sigh. "All right, here's what we'll do. I'll take you to my apartment. We'll get you patched up, and then tomorrow you will call your parents and ask them to come fetch you. Or buy you a ticket home, or whatever they think best. All right?"
She nods weakly. "Okay. Um... do you have any food at home? 'Cause I don't think I've had a decent meal in, like, three days." She frowns. "But I guess you wouldn't really have food at home, would you? Unless you, like, take people home to fatten them up or something."
I can tell from the laughter in her voice that she's kidding. But I can't resist. "Oh, but of course. Have you any idea how much richer a person's blood gets after they eat ice cream? Dear gods, it's better than chocolate."
She gives me a look like she's not sure whether to believe me or not. She carefully avoids making full eye contact, letting her gaze fall somewhere around my mouth.
"Relax," I say, putting my hand on her shoulder. "I'm not going to fatten you up to eat you."
Kelly's lips twist into a smirk. "The way my stomach feels right now, it might be worth it."
I know how you feel, dear. "We'll stop at the grocer's and get you some food," I promise. I pick up her backpack and sling it over my own shoulders. "Come on," I say, helping her up. "You can lean on me. My skimmer's one level up and not far away."
We hobble into the lift tube and ride back up to the second level. Inside the lift car it's quiet enough that Kelly can hear my stomach rumbling. (Yes, it still does that. Don't ask me how -- I'm a doctor and I still haven't a clue.) She looks at me warily.
"Maybe we'd better get you some food while we're at it," she suggests.
I snort. "I've been working on that all evening, dearie. Without success, I might add."
She frowns. "How hard could it be? You're, like, totally super-strong and stuff."
"True," I agree. "But I won't take from people unless they offer it willingly. And I won't Change anyone else to make them like me, even if they wish it." I shrug. "That cuts down the list quite a bit."
She looks up at me and briefly meets my gaze, a strange expression in her eyes. It's almost like she sees something that she couldn't before. "...Yeah," she says quietly. "I guess it would."
Once we reach my skimmer, I do some preliminary first-aid work on Kelly's ankle, using the rather extensive emergency med-kit I keep in the trunk. I pull out an instant ice-pack, give it a firm twist to break the seal between the two compartments, and feel it go suddenly cold in my hand as the chemicals inside react with each other. I wrap the ice pack around Kelly's ankle and then tape it in place with a long bandage, which also serves to immobilize the injury. Moving the seat back, I help her into the skimmer and prop her leg up on the dashboard.
"I do realize it's a bit uncomfortable, but you'll thank me in the long run," I tell her. "Now, let's see about getting you some food."
We stop off at the supermarket, as promised, and I let Kelly push the cart, leaning on the handlebar to keep the weight off of her wounded ankle. I give her free rein to buy what she wants. For the most part, she's fairly sensible in her choices: two frozen dinners, a few different kinds of fruit, bread, meat and cheese for sandwiches, some condiments, milk. She also picks up a half-liter of praline fudge ice cream, giving me a furtive glance and a little smirk as she sets it in the cart. My stomach groans again, and I have to close my eyes for a moment and turn away. The hunger is becoming so strong now that I can feel it through my whole body, telling me to reach out and grab the girl, to rip out her throat in the middle of the grocery store. The scent of dried sweat clinging to her calls to me like the smell of a steak on a grill.
"I'll be back in a moment," I say, walking stiffly away from her, eyes still closed. "Wait for me by the register."
"Okay," Kelly says. "Are you all right?"
"I'll be back," I promise, still not looking at her. Sweet of her to care, really, but it's her she should be worrying about, not me.
I head straight over to the meat department and find the lone staff member on duty at this hour. They don't get much business from my kind, but he manages to scrounge up a liter of beef blood for me. This is even worse than what they sell at the nightclubs, but also a good deal cheaper, and I have little choice in any event. I thank him for his help and head back toward the registers, stopping in an empty aisle to gulp down four large mouthfuls of the stuff. It's chilled, at least several hours old, and horribly bland; human blood is like wine, ogre like stout beer, and Elf like sweet liqueur, but beef blood is like drinking unsalted chicken broth. Still, it quiets my stomach and soothes the beast inside of me, at least for the moment.
Kelly's eyes light up with understanding when she sees what I'm carrying. She nods faintly, asking, "Guess you were getting pretty hungry, huh?"
"Extremely," I agree, setting the container of blood on the conveyor belt for the employee to ring up. "This stuff is rather awful, but it's better than nothing."
Kelly gestures at my face. "You have a little on the corner of your mouth."
I reach up and dab at it, my fingers coming back touched with red. "Oh, forgive me," I say, pulling out a handkerchief.
The store clerk looks from me, to Kelly, to the container of blood, and back again.
"Cash, check, or credit?"
Kelly has worked her way through a pear, an apple, and half a carton of milk by the time we reach my apartment. With her hunger momentarily abated, I prop up her leg on a chair and remove the ice-pack. After giving it a few minutes to warm up, I take another look at the injury.
"All in all, it doesn't look so bad," I say at last. "The ligaments should heal fairly quickly, as long as you're careful."
"Good to know," Kelly says, as I tape up the ankle again. "Now I think I'll go and carefully take a bath, if that's all right."
"By all means," I say, smiling. "If you need any help, just call me."
"Thanks, but I think I got it," she says, leaning on the walls and furniture for support as she gets up and hobbles over toward the bathroom. "Do me a favor and heat up one of those dinners for me, okay?"
It takes her a while, but Kelly does indeed manage to bathe and dress herself without any assistance. Most of the few clothes she has in her backpack are only marginally cleaner than the ones she was wearing, so I offer her the use of my wardrobe. I wait for her in the kitchen, nursing a cup of reheated blood with little enthusiasm while her frozen dinner heats up in the microwave. I arrange her remaining groceries into neat rows on the counter and inside the refrigerator, polish a few smudges off of the windows, and set out a plate, bowl, napkin and silverware at the table.
She comes out of the bedroom wearing a wine-red kimono and matching slippers. Her hair is still damp, combed out and hanging loosely around her shoulders, and smells faintly of apples, thanks to the shampoo I use. She looks clean and relaxed, two things I'm sure she hasn't been for some time.
"That looks good on you," I say, smiling.
She smiles in return, a bit shyly. "Thanks. It feels good, too. Feels good to be clean." She pulls her food out of the microwave, serves up two scoops of ice cream in the bowl I provided, and sits down at the side of the table nearest the bedroom door, where she can keep her eyes on me while she eats. She meets my gaze without hesitation now, and it is I who must compel myself to keep the contact from growing too long.
"Can I ask you something?" she says a few minutes later, as she alternates between mouthfuls of ice cream and more substantive food. I nod. "Why do you carry stakes and fire wands and stuff? I thought that vampires weren't supposed to kill other vampires."
"Not unless the Queen commands it, no," I sigh. "But I'm something of a renegade among my kind. My sire is dead; I have no master. I've made many enemies in the local community, and while I believe that the Queen has no knowledge of my existence, I can't be sure that she won't someday sign my death warrant." I gesture toward my coat, hanging on its hook over by the door. "The wand was a gift from concerned friends, who want me to be able to protect myself if I'm ever targeted."
Kelly frowns. "But won't they hear that you dusted that guy, and come after you?"
"It's unlikely. The two survivors are cut off from the hierarchy, like orphaned children. Judging from what their master said, they were turned without authorization, so there's no reason to expect anyone to come looking for them. And given their master's delusions of grandeur, he likely saw no need to tell them how to contact others in the hierarchy."
She nods, slowly, as she chews on a bite of meat. "Still," she says, swallowing, "you took a big risk for me out there. Thank you."
I glance up at her. She's looking straight at me with those serious, beautiful eyes of hers. "You're welcome," I say, casting my eyes down into the cup of blood in my hands.
A long silence passes as we finish our respective meals. Kelly carries her dishes over to the sink, and I straighten up the place-mat on the table and push in the chair.
"It feels good to really eat again," she says, making a tentative and rather obvious stab at conversation. "I don't think food ever tasted so good."
"I'm pleased that one of us enjoyed it," I say dryly, as I put the container with the rest of the blood in the refrigerator. "I've had about as much of this as I can stomach tonight."
"Would you like... some of my food?" Kelly asks. She's rinsing off the dishes, keeping her eyes on her hands, and there is uncertainty in her voice. "I mean, I know it's not the same, but -- do you eat? People food, I mean?"
I smile, taking a moment to straighten up the contents of the fridge. "I do, but you're right, it isn't the same. Trying to sate my hunger by eating mundane food is like a human trying to do it by drinking water. It may fill your stomach for a while, but it doesn't satisfy."
"Oh." She shuts off the water and dries her hands. "Well, you know," she says, the words coming out slowly and carefully, "if you're still hungry... I kinda got that ice cream so I could share it with you." I hear her swallow, once. "You know. If you want to."
Inside me something leaps up, like a lion being offered a truckload of steaks. I close the refrigerator, straighten, and turn around in one smooth, fast motion, fixing my eyes on her. She takes half a step backward, wobbling on her bandaged leg, then holds her ground. Even though we are the same height, she suddenly looks very vulnerable and small.
"You don't know what you're offering," I say quietly.
Her lip trembles, but she nods, firmly. "I think I do," she says. "I'm not stupid; I don't want you to make me like you or anything. I know that it's gotta be hell to live like that -- I can see that in your eyes. But you saved my life." She almost laughs, but it doesn't reach her eyes, which are welling up with tears. "You don't even know me, and you did that for me. And I am so... grateful--" her voice falters for a moment, as she gasps for breath "--and I just want to give something back to you, to say thank you." She blinks once, hard, and unties the sash of her robe, spreading it open to expose more of her neck. "If you'll have me."
For a moment, I am torn. It is a gift offered so honestly, so selflessly, and so innocently that I almost feel unworthy to take it. But at the same time, it is such a gesture of vulnerability that to refuse it would hurt her deeply. For a moment, I am unsure what to do.
But only for a moment. Then the fire inside me rises up, instinct seizes hold of me, and the huntress within drives me forward. I am woman, but I am also beast, and that hunger cannot be denied.
My human will, my care for this lovely young stranger, guides and channels that primal impulse, restraining me from pouncing upon the girl and dragging her to the ground. Instead I reach out to her gently, taking the hem of the robe in my left hand and pulling it back as I circle around to stand behind her. With my right hand I brush her hair aside, over her shoulder, exposing the soft, honeyed skin of her neck. I run my hands over it, lean close and breathe in her scent, listening to the thud of her heart, the quickened, shallow breaths of her lungs. Putting my hands on her shoulders, I place a tender kiss on the side of her neck. Then, with sudden fire singing in my veins, my fangs extend, and I drive them into Kelly's flesh.
Muscles contract somewhere above the roof of my mouth, pumping venom into her bloodstream. Kelly cries out, a gasp of pain that turns suddenly to moans of euphoria as the carotids rush the narcotic serum directly to her brain. Her knees buckle, and I reach down to steady her -- one arm over her breasts, the other around her waist as I hold her tightly to myself. Then the blood begins to flow, seeping out of the wounds I have made, and I put my lips to her skin and drink.
There are no words adequate to describe it. My mind explodes with a wash of light and color, swirling and dancing before my eyes. Then the Sharing truly begins, and I can see inside her: images of her memories, her thoughts, her hopes and dreams, the way she remembers her past and how she imagines her future. Her joys; her grief; that which she loves and that she despises, what stirs her fire and chills her bones. And through it all, I feel the touch of her presence, and I know that she sees the same things inside of me.
Blood is more than matter, more than plasma and hemoglobin. Blood is life, the river on which the spirit flows. And as Kelly's blood flows into me, it carries her life with it, until my soul entwines with hers. She has given a part of herself to me, and from this day forth we are bound to each other.
She stirs, reaching up to place her hands over mine, but she is weakened and dizzied by the venom and cannot even find the strength to stand. Taking her in my arms, I carry her into the other room and lay her on the bed. I lie down next to her, facing her, and for a moment I just look at her, tracing my hands over her skin. Then she opens her eyes, gazing into mine, and shrugs off her robe completely. Reaching out, she caresses my cheek, my chin, my neck. Then, running her fingers through my hair, she places her hand behind my head and draws me forward to the site of the wound, bidding me to drink again.
"Take it," she says breathlessly, kissing my neck, running her hands down my exposed back and pulling up the hem of my gown to caress the skin beneath. "Take more. Take more of me. I want to be with you forever..."
And so she gives, and I drink, as hearts and bodies alike entwine and join as one. One soul submits to another, offering itself freely, and in so doing both are bound together... a covenant of blood that cannot be broken.
Kelly leans on her crutches and adjusts her backpack on her slight shoulders, shrugging it up in an effort to redistribute the weight. She is dressed simply, in a thin pink sweater and jeans, but the outfit is accented by a white scarf she wears around her neck, hiding the scars beneath. She checks the time again, tapping her uninjured foot with nervous energy.
"I'm not sure how I'm going to do this," she says, biting her bottom lip. "I kinda screwed things up."
"You'll be fine," I say gently. "It may be awkward at first, but you'll find your way. You have a family who loves you; that counts for a lot." I put a hand on her shoulder. "And you have the most selfless, giving heart I have ever seen."
She turns and looks straight into my eyes. "I know," she says quietly.
A chime sounds over the loudspeakers, and a rush of air comes blasting out of the tunnel to my left, soon followed by the mag-lev train behind it. The long chain of white-and-silver cars slows to a stop, and then dozens of doors open all along its side, disgorging passengers into the huge underground terminal.
Kelly gives me a small, sad smile. "Guess it's time for me to go," she says.
I give her shoulder a gentle squeeze. "You're going to do it the right way this time, right? No running away, no quick and dirty shortcuts?"
She grins. "I promise."
I draw her into an embrace, kissing her softly on the forehead. "Then go follow your dreams. And when you get the chance -- when it won't interfere with the important things in your life -- then come by and see me again."
She hugs me tightly. "You are one of the important things in my life," she says. She steps back, until we're looking each other in the eyes again. "And I will come and see you again. But we'll always be together, in here --" she places her hand over my heart "-- and in here --" placing it over her own.
My heart may no longer pump blood through my veins, but my eyes can still cry. Right now they're filling with tears, and I feel my voice go hoarse as I say, "Go on, Kelly." I nod to the train behind her. "You're going to miss your ride."
That same sad little smile again. "Okay," she says softly. "Good-bye, Morgan."
She turns and boards the train, taking a seat near the window. Less than a minute later the doors close and the alarm chimes sound, warning pedestrians to stay back from the vehicle. Kelly puts her hand to the glass, looking down at me, and I reach out my hand toward her, as if our fingers could touch. Then she places her hand to her neck, smiling through her tears, and I see her lips form one word, Forever.
Then the mag-lev engines whine, and the train is whisked away in a blur of sound and motion, a rush of air following in its wake. I turn and walk to the steps that will take me out of the terminal, as a piece of my soul is carried away -- and as I carry away inside me the piece of another.