PART FOUR

Perhaps the flakes of light had settled in my eyes too when Yolande’s web had fallen around me. Sitting still and waiting, watching the sun set, I hadn’t thought much about the way the shadows fell and moved; it was always easier when I was motionless myself. But I saw him clearly, this time. I saw him, and not merely by a process of elimination, one wiggly shadow moving in a specific direction. He was a dark figure, human-shaped. Vampire-shaped. He was Con.

A dark figure: dark with glints of gold, as if lightflakes fell on him, sparked like struck matches, and fell away.

Did I hear him or not? I don’t know. I had a feeling like sound of him, as I had a feeling like sight. I saw him disappear around the corner of the house. He would be coming up the stairs now; I felt his presence there. He would be opening my door—hmm, did he open doors to walk through them? No, wait. Vampires couldn’t disintegrate themselves—I didn’t think. A few sorcerers could, but they were the really crazy ones. If you’ve invited a vampire across your threshold, maybe the door simply didn’t exist for him any more? Or anyway why did the front door always whoosh gently when I opened it but not when he did?

And I knew when he was standing behind me. It wasn’t that I heard him breathing. But the vampire-in-the-room thing was unmistakable.

I stood up and turned around.

He looked different. It might have been the lightflakes but I don’t think so. I probably looked different too. If you’re going into what you know is your final battle maybe the preliminary loin-girding always is visible. My experience is limited. I don’t know that I would necessarily have identified the way Con looked as a vampire prepared for his last battle, but as a thumbnail description it would do.

I was always surprised at how big he was. That’s probably something about the way vampires move—the boneless gliding, that human-spine-unhinging creepy grace. You didn’t believe it, so you made the vampire smaller in your memory to make it a little more plausible. (Uh. I don’t know about the generic you in this case. So far as I knew I was the only human, so far, who’d had the opportunity. Or the need.) It’s funny, vampires have been a fact of human existence since before history began, and yet in our heart of hearts I don’t think we really believe in them. Every time one of us meets up with one of them we don’t believe in them all over again. Of course in most cases a human meeting up with a vampire is looking at their immediate death and so not believing it is the last forlorn hope—but I’m here to say that being acquainted with one doesn’t lessen the feeling much. I didn’t believe in Con.

Tricky.

I believed in my own death more.

I stretched my hand out and put it on his chest, where no heart beat. He was wearing another one of his long black shirts. It might have been the one I had worn a few nights ago, except that that one was hanging in the back of my closet with the cranberry-red dress. My vampire wardrobe.

I let my hand drop.

But he reached out and picked it up. There was a fizz, a shock, as his skin met mine. I felt him twitch—ever so slightly—but he didn’t loose my hand. He turned it over instead, and then laid it gently, as if it had no volition of its own, in the palm of his other hand. The invisible spark happened again, but he didn’t startle this time. My back was to the fading twilight, but in the shadow of my body the occasional gold glints of the web were just visible.

“What is this?” he said.

“Yolande gave it to me. She said it would help me draw on the source of my strength.”

“Daylight,” he said.

“Yes. Does it hurt you?”

“No.”

I thought about that no. It sounded a little like the “no” of the kid playing so-called touch football who has just had the three biggest kids in the neighborhood tag her by knocking her down and sitting on her. They asked me after they let me up if I was hurt. I said no. I was lying. “Let me rephrase that.”

A small shiver in his breath. Really quite a human noise: audible breath with a catch in it, like a muted laugh. “When you are a little too hot, a little too cold, does it hurt?”

Old Mr. Temperature Control, I thought. What do you know about too hot and too cold? No, I still wasn’t thinking about any of that. Delete that thought.

“Or if you pick up something a little too heavy for you, does it hurt? It is only a little pressure on the understood boundaries of yourself.”

I liked that: a little pressure on the understood boundaries of yourself. Sounded like something out of a self-awareness class, probably with yoga. See what kind of a pretzel you can tie yourself into and press on the understood…

I was raving, if only to myself. I took a deep breath. Okay. My new light-web was to Con no worse than hauling an overfull sheet of cinnamon rolls out of the oven and making a run for the countertop before I dropped them was to me.

I looked into his face, dully lit by the last of the twilight, and realized, with a shock, that I had no doubt: the shadows there lay quietly too.

“Ready?” he said.

I smiled involuntarily. Are you joking? “Yes,” I said.

“I have taken what you showed me and…measured it, by the ways I know. I believe that between us we shall…attain our goal.”

Our goal, I thought. I didn’t translate this into practical terms.

“We do not travel in your nowheresville, but I fear the way we are going is nonetheless…unpleasant. I will need your assistance. It will not be easy both to travel that way and to guard our presence from too-early detection.”

I closed my eyes—hurling myself into this, to stop myself from thinking about it—took a firmer grip on his hand, and began to search for the alignment. This was very different from the fuzzy non-telephone line I had used to talk to Con; for that I could just go to the edge of whatever it was that was out there, and grope. This was more like walking through a snake pit with a forked stick, hoping you could sneak up behind the snake you wanted and nail it with the stick before it nailed you. Meanwhile hoping that none of the other snakes saw you first.

I glanced apologetically at the ever-so-slightly-like-the-back-of-a-snake pattern glinting faint gold against—in—my skin. I said one of my gran’s words: it was only a little word, a little word of thanks and of settling, settling down, settling in, but I thought the light-web might like it. Then I closed my eyes again.

There.

This may have been the light-web too, or it may have been that I’d now done my compass needle maneuver several times and was getting the hang of it, or it may have been Con. Some of it was Con; I could feel the faint scritchy buzz of connection through our palms. There seemed to be a variety of paths laid out before us: there was the totally evisceratingly worst, the slightly less worst but worst enough, the still really bad, the only basic deadly dire, and probably a few others. I was looking at the Catherine-wheel glitter of the way that had blown out SOF HQ and at the looming thing that was our destination as Con arranged us on the boundary of one of the other, the quite-awful-enough-thanks ways. The looming thing and its guardians didn’t look so much like an aquarium this time—or if it did, those fish were sick—more like the special effects in one of those postholocaust movies. Any moment now the ghastly mutants would come lurching on screen and wave their deviant limbs at us.

I wished it was a movie.

“Come,” said Con, and we stepped forward together.

By the time we’d walked off the edge of the balcony we were firmly—if that’s quite the word I want—into Other-space. Vampires probably can bound lightly down from third stories, but I didn’t want to try it. As it was I was immediately having a precarious time keeping my feet; there didn’t seem to be any up or down—although this is a good thing when you’ve just walked off a balcony—or sideways or backward or forward for that matter, other than the fact that we had backs and fronts and our faces were on one side of us rather than another. This path, whatever it was, was a lot worse than Con’s short way home the other night. At least I had feet, which was an improvement on nowheresville.

Hey, not only did I have feet, I got to keep my clothes on.

I could still see the looming thing that was what we were aiming for, and since I didn’t know anything about the protective detail I assumed that my function was to keep watching it. Con propelled us. Presumably forward. He seemed to know up from down and sideways from sideways. I felt things whiz past me occasionally, and while I couldn’t’ve told you what they were, I could guess they weren’t friendly. Every time I set my foot down it seemed to resolve the place I was in a little more, as if my invading three-dimensionality was making my surroundings coagulate, and little by little there seemed to be another sort of stepping-stone system after all, although rather than the ordinary world sluicing by between the stones it seemed to boil up, and become part of the no-up-no-down-no-anything-else. I felt as if I would like to be sick, but fortunately my stomach couldn’t figure out which was up either, so it stayed where it was.

After some kind of time there began to be half-recognizable ordinary things in the careening entropy: a street lamp. A corner of a dilapidated building with a revolving door, one of whose panes was broken. A stop sign.

A road sign: Garrison Street.

We were in No Town.

As we went on (“on” still used advisedly), we flickered more clearly into No Town. Sometimes we took a step or two on broken pavement as if we were actually there. Maybe we were.

There were now other people sporadically present also. I didn’t like the look of any of them. We passed several nightclubs with people wandering in and out. There were bouncers at the doors of some of them, but that mostly wasn’t the style in No Town. If you could walk, you could walk where you wanted to. Even the seriously flash spartan clubs, the places where people who lived in downtown high-rises went when they wanted to feel like they were slumming but were still willing to pay thirty blinks for a short glass of wine to prove they were slumming only because they wanted to, had more subtle ways of getting rid of you.

Meanwhile, outdoors, if you fell down, you lay there, and people still ambulatory stepped over you: horizontal bodies were part of the ambience. Maybe you got rolled, while you were lying there being ambient. Maybe you got taken home for dinner. To be dinner. It wasn’t a good place to linger in for anyone—anyone alive, that is— but there was another myth, that if you were high enough, the suckers would leave you alone, because your blood would screw them up. I don’t think this is something I’d want to rely on myself. There are ne’er-do-wells among the Others like there are among us humans, and my guess is there are suckers who have developed a taste for screwed-up blood. Also, if you’re hungry enough, you’ll eat anything, right? And a still-breathing body facedown in a gutter is real easy to, you know, catch.

I was having trouble staying upright as we winked back and forth between worlds. If when visible I was staggering a little, I would fit right in.

I was a little afraid I might see someone I knew. Gods and angels, never underestimate the power of social conditioning; even under the circumstances, when I was fully expecting never having to face or explain anything to anyone again after the next few minutes or hours or time-fragments splintered by chaos-space, I was worried about this, that I might see Kenny, or his friends, or some of the younger, dumber regulars at Charlie’s; or even what remained of a few of the guys my age I knew who hadn’t got back out of drugs again. What was I afraid of? That they might see me too—holding hands with a vampire? That I would look as if I was merely under the dark and going to the usual fate of a human seen in the company of a vampire? I was supposed to care?

I didn’t know what any humans might be making of us. But I began to see vampires looking back at us. I didn’t have any trouble recognizing them. I didn’t know if this was because they weren’t bothering to try to pass, or if I just knew a vampire when I saw one these days.

I didn’t notice when the first one did more than look, when the first one came at us. I didn’t notice till Con had…never mind. He did it with his other hand, and with the hand that held mine, jerked us back into chaos-space. He wiped the splatter of blood off his face with his forearm, except there was blood on his arm too. I was afraid I’d see him lick his lips. I didn’t. Maybe I didn’t watch long enough. Maybe, you know, used blood isn’t of much interest. My hand trembled in his: in the hand of my lethal vampire companion.

I was alive, human, with a beating heart. I was all alone.

The next time there were several of them. This time Con jerked us out of chaos-space, because he then had to let go of my hand. I was glad I didn’t have to find out what would happen if I got left there alone without him. I wasn’t glad for very long.

I didn’t know what I was supposed to do: note to myself, in my next life, get some martial arts training—get a lot of martial arts training—just in case. Again, as with the first vampire who attacked us, something happened—quicker than I could follow—quicker than I wanted to follow, and I yanked my gaze away, afraid of what my dark vision might make out for me. There was blood, again, but there was also at least one vampire left over while Con was otherwise engaged, and he was looking at me. I looked at him, not thinking about anything but my own terror, my eyes wide open, open so wide that they hurt. He met that gaze—hey, he knew a human when he saw one, and he knew he was a vampire—and I saw him falter, and then Con had turned from whatever he was doing and…took care of that one too, too fast for me to look away. I think I probably cried out. Jesse wasn’t going to rescue me, this time. I wasn’t going to come to myself with human arms around me and a human voice shouting in my ear, It’s all over. You’re all right.

There was now quite a lot of blood, and…bits and pieces. I had blood on me too. Con seized my hand again, and said sharply, Come. I didn’t dare look in his face. There would be no comfort, no reassurance, in the face of any vampire. When I took a running step to keep up with him, my shoes slipped. In the blood. There was so much blood on our hands that as it dried, our fingers stuck together. The meaty smell was a miasma, a poison gas.

We didn’t duck back into the chaos-space. I had half-forgotten my alignment, but it was now as if it was tied to me—or I was tied to it. It was pulling us along, through these dark broken streets where the shadows lay twisted and crumpled like dead bodies, pulling as if we were on a leash. I wanted to untie it, but I couldn’t, I mustn’t— I wanted to—no, it was too late; even if I had funked it now, at the last minute, after the last minute, all it would do now is get us killed. Sooner.

I could hear them—someone—keeping pace with us—why didn’t they close in, cut us off, attack us? Con said quietly, as if there was no urgency whatsoever, “Bo will not be able to say your name. Either of your names.”

What? Sunshine. Rae. Daylight names. Old vampires can’t say daylight words either? The very old vampires that can’t go out in the moonlight that is only faint reflected sunlight? The academics would have said Con counted as very old, and he didn’t even wait for full dark: twilight was good enough for him. And he called me Sunshine. There are different ways of being what we are. Apparently Bo hadn’t aged so well. Something to talk to the academics about. Variability of Aging Among Vampires. Usage of Certain Words Pertaining to Daylight by Aged Vampires. Maybe I could get my pass into the Other Museum’s library after all. No, wait. I was about to die.

I didn’t immediately see what good Bo’s not being able to say my name was going to do me. Bo wasn’t going to need to say—or know— my name to kill me.

Okay. Names are power. We’d had that back at the lake. Big deal. Fangs are more power. We’d had that at the lake too. Con had chosen to let me go. Bo wasn’t going to.

Why had I agreed to this anyway?

“You feel the pull strongly?” Con went on in that infuriatingly calm voice. “Bo has connected to our presence here. If we are separated, go on. Follow that connection to its end. Leave me. I will catch up with you when I can.”

Oh good. I was so glad he would make the effort to catch up with me later. Although I wished he’d used the word goal or aim rather than end.

“I recommend—” he added, dispassionate as ever—I was trying to remind myself that he always sounded unbothered, not to say dead. Or maybe that it was a good sign he sounded so unflapped now, as if this was still all part of the normal range of vampire activities. I almost didn’t hear the rest of what he was saying: “—you do not attempt to retreat into any Other-space, including the way I have brought us both. You would only draw some of Bo’s creatures after you, and their advantage there would be greater than yours.”

Right. Like it wasn’t greater than mine everywhere.

I realized that while we were no longer in the chaos-space, we weren’t exactly in No Town either. Or at least I hoped it wasn’t No Town, because if it was, our human world was in even more trouble than most of us knew about…than I knew about…again the thought came to me: What did I know? Pat said a hundred years, tops, before…And the people who came to No Town for thrills weren’t likely to notice that the whole scene was sliding over the edge of normal reality into…

I felt the pull strongly all right, like a hand around my throat that was slowly tightening. If I was a dog on a lead, I was wearing a choke collar, and my master didn’t like me much. Maybe it was that sense of pressure that made my vision go funny; but then, my vision had been funny for two months now, and I was kind of used to funniness. But this was a new kind of funniness, where things seemed to dance in and out of existence, rather than merely in and out of light and darkness.

There were streetlights where we were—some of them still worked—and great swathes of darkness. There was the uneven pavement under our feet, the potholed roads, the crumbling curbs. Once I stepped unawares on a manhole cover and the sound this made, even in this night of horrors, made my heart leap into my throat. There were tall buildings that seemed to prowl among the shadows; a few of them had dim lights burning that gave the old peeling posters on their walls an undesirable life: huge painted eyes winked at me, fingers as long as my legs beckoned to me. The way the clubs leaped out of the night with their noise and bewildering lighting, stabbing and erratic, rhythmic and dazzling, rainbow-colored or this week’s fashion match, heightened that sense of Otherwhere: hey, I wanted to say to some of the humans we passed, you don’t need drugs, let me tell you, there are spaces between worlds, there are master vampires that loop invisible ropes around your neck and drag you to your doom…

We are running through No Town. I hear our footsteps—no, I hear my footsteps, and the kind of unmatched echo that chills your blood, because you know it means you’re not alone, and what you’re not alone with isn’t human. I remember when hearing and seeing were simple, it had to do with sound and light and the manageable equations they taught you in school. I am wondering if anyone notices us; the only kind of running that goes on here is the furtive kind, no joggers out to burn off last night’s burger and fries or reach the buzz of an endorphin high. No one, hearing running footsteps—especially running footsteps with an unmatched echo—is going to look up if they can help it. I guess I can stop worrying about seeing someone I know…

A few people do look up, though: bad consciences, old habits, a momentary—or drug-induced—forgetfulness about who or where they are? I think I meet the eyes of one young woman: I see her take me in, take Con in, disbelieve us both…and then we’re past her, running out of the light-surf, back into the ocean of darkness.

Into a fresh seethe of vampires. They didn’t want to connect with me. Lucky me. I winced and twitched out of the way of anything I saw, anything I half-saw; I stopped trying to see anything, and let my instinct—whatever instinct this was—keep me moving. Where was Con? No, I still knew him from the rest of them. For one thing, he was the center of the seethe. If there’s only one guy on your team, he’s the one everybody else is jumping on.

It went on in a horrible almost-silence.

There was a hot circlet around my neck and across my breast; there were two small fires burning in my two front jeans pockets. Apparently they’d learned their lesson that first time, when the sunsword had hit the pillow; they didn’t set my clothes on fire this time either. And it wasn’t because they weren’t really putting it out: they were. The evening we’d blown SOF HQ wasn’t even a dress rehearsal for what was going on now.

Even with my talismans going full throttle my luck didn’t hold for long. Something—someone—crashed into me, tore me away from Con, out of the seethe; it was taking me somewhere. It was, in fact, the same direction I was being dragged by my invisible leash, but I didn’t feel I wanted any help getting there sooner; besides, whatever Con had said about going on without him, I’d rather not, thanks.

I saw a shape, and ducked away from it. It seemed a little uncertain of its own bearings; it missed its grab, and teeth ground down my arm, strangely fumbling, if teeth can fumble. Hey, my jugular is up this way. I wished for a nice apple-tree stake, well impregnated with mistletoe, except I didn’t know how to use it; staking takes training. The table knife had been a one-off…I put my right hand in my pocket, braced the butt end of my hot little knife against my palm, and pointed it up between my fingers: not with the blade open, just the hard blunt end of it, like a single fat brass knuckle. I saw it momentarily, shining like a tiny moon, like a slightly misaligned gem-stone in a ring.

Then I swung it, with my paltry human strength, up in the general direction of where the base of the breastbone that belonged to the teeth in my other arm might be.

I connected. The wide blunt end of my knife…sank in. As it did it blazed up, no longer moonlike but sunlike, golden, shining, a tongue of flame, and in its light I saw a golden lattice extending up my arm.

I had just time to remember what had happened in an alley when I had used a table knife.

The noise was different. There were no narrow alley walls for the gobbets to smack against. Instead I heard the thick heavy splat, like loathsome rain, as they fell around me. I’d forgotten the smell—the smell of something long dead and rotten. I thought, they’re not even a little human any more when they explode: they shatter so easily, like throwing an overripe melon against a fence. No melon ever smelled like this…

Con rematerialized from wherever he had been, from whatever he had been doing. I just managed not to wince out of his way too. The problem was he looked like a vampire, and at the moment he looked a lot more like a vampire than he looked like Con. One of the even-more-comforting-than-usual stories about vampires is that sometimes, during vampire gang wars for example, they go into berserker furies and tear anything they can get their hands on apart, not only their enemies but their comrades, the guys on their own side. Supposedly the berserker fit can last quite a while, and if a particularly effective dismemberer gets to the end of the bodies around it before the fit wears off, it will tear itself to shreds too.

Maybe this is a consoling story when you’re at home with a book or reading it off your combox screen: the idea that there are that many fewer vampires in the world, that they had done each other in while we humans cowered safely behind closed doors with a hell of a lot of wards nailed over them. (If you find yourself so unlucky as to be living somewhere there is a sucker gang war going on, you pin a lot of wards around your house, and you do not go out after dark or before dawn for any reason.) I didn’t know what a vampire running amok looked like, but it might have looked like Con. It wasn’t just…it wasn’t…Look, if you ever have the opportunity to choose between being eaten by a tiger and bitten by an enraged vampire, take the tiger.

I was probably off in my feeble little human she’s-in-shock-wrap-her-in-a-blanket-and-get-out-the-whisky space. Humans don’t deal with extreme situations very well. Our pathetic bodies freak out. We freeze, and our blood pressure falls, and we can’t think, and all that. I stood there, staring, while Con snarled and showed me his teeth, and didn’t offer me the blanket or the whisky or the hot sweet tea. Then—maybe he remembered I was his ally, maybe he’d remembered that but had momentarily forgotten, seeing me as soaked in blood and sprinkled with the remains of a mutilated enemy as he, that I was a mere human. Maybe the snarl was the vampire equivalent of “Hot damn! Well done!”

Whatever. He stopped snarling, and…drew his face together. When he seized my slimy hand and pulled me along after him again I didn’t gibber, I didn’t collapse, and I didn’t throw up. I stuffed my knife back into my pocket, and went.

I wish I could forget how it feels, your hair stuck to your skull with blood, foul blood running gummily down inside your clothes, invading your privacy, your decency, your humanity, till it chafes you with every breath, every movement, the tug of it as it dries on your skin feeling like some kind of snare. Blood in your mouth, that you cannot spit the vile taste of away. I think I must have gone into some kind of berserker fury myself. There are things you don’t want to know you can do, aren’t there? But if you’re lucky you never find them out. I found out too many of them, all at once. I, who had to leave the kitchen at Charlie’s when they were whacking up meat into joints or putting slabs of drippy pulpy maroony-red stuff through the grinder.

Blood stings when it gets in your eyes. And it’s viscous, so it’s hard to blink out again. It may not only be because the blood stings that you’re weeping.

I have always been afraid of more things than I can remember at one time. Mom, when I was younger, and still admitted to some of them, said that it was the price of having a good imagination, and suggested I stop reading the Blood Lore series (which was past thirty volumes even then) and maybe retiring Immortal Death and Below Hell Keep from the top bookshelf for a while. I didn’t, but it wouldn’t have done any good if I had. Reading scary books is weirdly reassuring, most of the time: it means at least one other person—the author— has imagined things as awful as you have. What’s bad is when the author comes up with stuff you hadn’t thought of yet.

I’d thought it was bad when I was just reading stuff I hadn’t thought of.

And even then I’d known that sometimes it’s worse when the author leaves it to your imagination.

I stopped using my knife. I found out I didn’t have to. I found out I could do it with my hands.

It was still mostly Con, that we got through. Even warded up the wazoo and covered in bright gold cobweb I was still only human. I was still slower and weaker than any vampire. But I had Con. And I was warded and webbed, and the vampires didn’t like tangling with me. They kept choosing to tangle with Con, even though they could see—graphically—what had happened to the last vampire or twelve or twenty-seven or four thousand and eight vampires that had tangled with Con. If we ever got to the end of all this, ha ha and so on, and wanted to find our way back out of the maze, it wasn’t a thread we would have to follow but a path paved with undead body parts.

Maybe they thought they’d wear him out or something.

I still got a few. You’d think offing a few vampires would feel like doing a community service, wouldn’t you? It doesn’t. Not even when they don’t explode. That’s why I started doing it with my hands. They didn’t explode, I discovered, if I merely jammed my fingers in under their breastbones and pulled.

My vampire affinity.

I lost track. There was gore and gruesomeness and then more of it and I hated all of it, and was ready to be killed, just to get away from it, if someone would promise me, cross their heart and hope to die, very very funny, that I wouldn’t rise again. In any semblance. I still wasn’t sure about the mechanics of turning and it seemed to me that dying in the present circumstances probably wasn’t the best recipe for staying quietly in my grave afterward. Supposing someone found enough of me to bury.

I would have liked to give up. I meant to give up. But I couldn’t. Like I couldn’t stay at home and hide under the bed, I guess. Maybe it was promising Con to stick around as long as I could. Stick seemed the right verb under the circumstances. Every time I lifted one of my blood-clotted shoes there was a sticky, ripping noise.

And then everything went quiet, at least except for the noise I was making. Mostly it was just breathing. Maybe bleating a little.

One of the things that had happened during the business of savaging our way through Bo’s army was that I’d begun to know where Con was, like I knew where my right hand or my left leg was. It was a bit like unwrapping something from swathes of tissue paper, or following an idea through its development to a conclusion. You have an inkling of something, some shape or concept, and it gets clearer and stronger till you know what it is. It happened while the occasional shrieks and dead-flesh noises went on, all those near-misses with my own death. I understood that I was crazy, crazy to be still alive, crazy to be doing what I was doing to stay alive, crazy to be trying to stay alive. This knowingness about Con was a strange island in a strange ocean.

That sense of Con’s presence, of his precise location, had undoubtedly saved my life several times in the carnage, if it hadn’t done much for my sanity. But it meant that when things suddenly went quiet and I felt someone—some vampire—coming noiselessly up behind me, I knew it was Con.

Well well, said a silent voice from an invisible speaker. This meeting has heen much more amusing than I anticipated.

I didn’t have to hear Con snort. He didn’t, of course. Vampires don’t snort, even with derision. But I knew as Con knew that the voice was lying when it said amusing.

I also knew who this was. Bo. Mr. Beauregard. The fellow who had got us in all this. The fellow we were here to have the final meeting with. Him or us. I was pretty sure things had only started to get amusing, even if they hadn’t gone quite as Bo had expected so far. And while I knew vampires didn’t get tired, exactly, I knew that they could come to the end of their strength. I’d seen Con coming to the end of his, out at the lake. I didn’t know how one evening of tearing up your fellow vampires limb from limb matched against having been chained to the wall of a house with a ward sign eating into your ankle and the sun creeping after you through the windows every day, day after day, but I doubted Con was feeling bright-eyed and bushy-tailed now. I sure wasn’t. I was missing my nice sympathetic human emergency room tech saying, “There’s nothing really wrong with you, we’re giving you a sedative and you can go home.” I was also so tired that the weirdness of my dark vision was starting to bother me again, like new shoes that aren’t quite broken in yet that you’ve been wearing too long. I couldn’t tell how much of what I seemed to be seeing was happening, and how much of it was my overstressed brain playing tricks on my eyes.

I stared around, trying to make sense of what I was…okay, not seeing, it was dark in here, wherever it was. When had it become in here? We’d started out on the streets of No Town, more or less. Well, we weren’t there any more. Given the…mess…I was glad no humans were likely to stumble across us. I tried to settle down, settle back into my skin—except I didn’t want to be in my skin any more. I didn’t want to be me. I didn’t want to know me.

But the animal body was overriding the conscious brain, the brain that ground out concepts like worthwhile and not worthwhile. My medulla oblongata was determined to stay alive, whatever my cerebrum said. For a moment I seemed to be floating up above myself, looking down at the bloody wreckage, at the two figures still standing, Con and me, standing next to each other, facing in the same direction.

When Bo spoke again, I snapped back together, body and mind. I could almost hear the clunk, as the bolts slotted into place, trapping me with myself again. I may have hated and feared myself now, but I hated and feared Beauregard worse.

Welcome, welcome. Do come in. Welcome between us, Connie, has been a curious affair for some years now, eh? I imagine you haven’t been too surprised. Perhaps you explained it to your companion. I hope so, Connie. It would have been rude of you to omit explanation, I feel, and you have always been the soul of courtesy, haven’t you? Your little human, Connie, is very enterprising. She has been nosing around me for some little while. I’m surprised, Connie, that you would allow a human to do your, shall I say, dirty work? You must have found your experience a few months ago more debilitating than I realized. Or perhaps more corrupting.

And I had thought Con’s laugh was horrible. I blanked out when Bo laughed, like you blank out when you’re conked on the head. It’s not a voluntary response.

Maybe I should have been insulted that I was being ignored. I wasn’t. I didn’t want him to say anything to me. The mere experience—I won’t call it sound—of his voice was like having the skin peeled off me—the skin I hadn’t wanted to fit myself back inside a few moments ago. Very, very distantly it occurred to me that if I was feeling a little brighter I might find it funny that Bo seemed to be accusing me of being a bad influence. On a vampire. But I wasn’t feeling brighter.

Oh yes, I am here, waiting for you. Do keep coming on. After all, you have worked quite hard to progress so far, have you not? It would be a pity to waste all that effort. And I really don’t feel I could let you go now without paying your respects to me personally. It would be so rude. And wasn’t I just saying, Connie, that you are the soul of courtesy?

The voice itself was flaying me alive. What was left of my mind and will were addled with the effort to remain—myself. Slowly, painfully, I moved my right hand, slid it stickily into my pocket, and closed my gummy and aching fingers around my little knife. It wasn’t hot any more, but the painful pressure of the voice eased a little. I dropped my eyes and through the smeary muck on my forearms I could see the occasional gleam of golden webbing.

Do walk on. Please.

That please seemed to last a century.

Walking on being precisely what he was trying to prevent us from doing, by the nonsound of his voice. I squeezed my knife till I could feel it grinding into my palm, and took a step forward. So did Con. He didn’t take my hand again, but as we moved, his shoulder brushed mine. I realized it was important not to appear to be struggling. Con could probably have moved faster without me, but he didn’t; he waited. So I raised my other foot and took another step. And another. Con matched me, and with every step we touched, briefly, shoulder or arm or back of hand. There was a sort of quiver against my breast, as if the chain that hung there was rearranging itself.

You must be tired, said the voice. You are walking so slowly.

But I heard it too. He was losing this round, as he had lost the first one, because we weren’t paralyzed and helpless. Because I wasn’t dying under the scourge of his voice.

I wondered how much worse it would be if he said my name.

It became easier as we went on; he’d withdrawn, I guess, plotting his next move. We didn’t get rushed by any minions trying to kill us either. I kept my hand wrapped around my knife, and I felt the little hard lump that was the seal against my other leg. The chain felt stretched across my breast like a rock-climber spread-eagled across a particularly tricky slope. I pretended I was going forward bravely, ready for the next challenge. But I’d been wounded by that voice: the bitter burning of acid. My body throbbed with it, despite the talismans, despite the light-web. Every step blew a little gust of pain through me. I tried not to shiver, which would only make it worse; and besides, pathetically, I didn’t want Con to despise me. As our shoulders brushed, I felt him helping me, offering me his strength. I forgot again that he was a vampire, that I was afraid of him too, that I hated what he could do and had done, tonight, hated him for making me find out what I could do. He was also all I had. He was my ally and if I was going to let him down, which I probably was, at least let me not do it because I just lost it.

The silvery luminescence that began eerily to come up around us was genuine light of some sort, light that a human eye could respond to. But there was nothing here I wanted to see, that I wouldn’t rather be able to trick myself into half-believing I wasn’t seeing, that my human neurons were confused by the vampire thing I was infected with.

We were in a huge room. There were enormous pipes, and the remains of scaffolding, and machinery, all round the walls, and more overhead. Some kind of derelict factory; No Town was full of them. This one had been renovated, in a way; the sickly wash of marsh-light gleamed off knobs and rivets, dials and gadgetry that no human had ever invented, let alone put together. I wondered, dimly, if there was any purpose to them, or if they were merely backdrop, window dressing, the latest vampire version of Bram Stoker’s febrile fantasy of ruined castles and earth-filled coffins. Big or important vampire gangs always had a headquarters, and headquarters usually contained some accommodations for those nights they wanted a change from eating out, and they felt like throwing a dinner party at home. Such a space would be suitably decorated to inspire further adrenaline panic in their visitors, and the word was that techno degeneracy had been the staging of choice since the Wars, although how anyone found this out to report it on the globenet was a mystery. Stoker and his coffins had always been nonsense, but the vampires had borrowed the idea for a century or two as a ruse-en-scene because it worked. The lack of scarlet-lined black capes and funny accents tonight wasn’t making me happy.

I knew immediately that I didn’t like techno degeneracy either, but I wouldn’t have liked earth-filled coffins any better. If there was any surprise, it was that I had any energy left to dislike anything.

I was much better off disliking the decor, and trying to convince myself I wasn’t seeing it anyway. At the far end of the big room there was a dais, and on that dais sat Bo.

I felt his eyes on me. Look at me, they said. It wasn’t a voice this time, or even a compulsion, like the drag like a rope round my neck I had felt earlier. Not looking into his eyes felt like trying to prevent my heart from beating. But I didn’t look, and my heart continued to beat.

The dais was a tall one, and on the steps up to it lounged several more vampires. They were all watching us with interest. I could see the glitter of eyes. I wondered if vampire eyes really do glitter, or if it was something to do with the marsh-light, or with my dark vision, or with the fact that I’d gone crazy and hadn’t figured this out yet. So, okay, chances were I wasn’t going to stay alive long enough to do any figuring, but I was still alive at the moment, and I was…it seemed ridiculous even as it occurred to me, but I was angry. I’d had my life ruined by this disgusting, undead monster. I had nothing to lose. All the best stuff in the books—and sometimes in history too— gets done by people who have nothing left to lose and so aren’t always looking over their shoulders for the way out after it was over. I thought, wistfully, that I’d rather be looking over my shoulder for the way out. But I wasn’t. I was about to die. But if I could take him— the Bo-thing—with me, it would have been worth it.

The thought flamed up in me, like the sun coming up over the horizon. Yes. It will be worth it. I took my hand out of my pocket.

Now all I had to do was do it.

We reached the bottom of the dais. Those eyes were still pulling at me. Deliberately, consciously, voluntarily, I lifted my own eyes and met them.

Monster didn’t begin to cover it. Ironically the greeting we’d had from his guard corps had done me a service; I think if I hadn’t already been shocked beyond my capacity to handle it I wouldn’t have survived the initial blow of looking into the eyes of the master. Maybe it was a good thing I’d already lost my soul, that I was already half out of my body, my mind, my life. Because it meant I wasn’t there to meet the full force of Bo’s gaze.

It was bad enough anyway. The distillation of hundreds of years of evil shimmering in those eyes, and his enjoyment of my looking at it.

But he also expected me to crack, to disintegrate, immediately. He thought that as soon as I looked into his eyes it would be all over. Never mind that I could, apparently, look into ordinary vampires’ eyes. That had happened occasionally. (I saw this in his eyes too, and thought, it did? Remember this. The part of me that was looking forward to finishing dying said, What for?) Bo was a master vampire. He could destroy vampires with his glare. A mere human would incinerate on the spot.

Oh, and his eyes were colorless. Did I say that? I hadn’t thought of evil as being without color but it is. Once you get past plain everyday wickedness, the color is squeezed right out of it. Evil is a kind of oblivion, having destroyed everything on its way there.

I did go up in flames. But they weren’t the flames he had anticipated. The light-web blazed up, like a lit fuse running back to the detonator, the bomb, snaking along the ground as it had been laid out: a slender tongue of fire began in a curl on the back of each of my hands. They ran up my arms, licking along the lines of the lattice, across my breast—the chain around my neck flared—into my scalp; I could feel my hair rising, waving in the fire, or perhaps it became fire itself; running down my back, my belly, my legs. The lighting of that fuse was looking into Bo’s eyes.

I was on fire. I put one flaming foot on the first stair of the dais, and stepped up. I was still staring into Bo’s eyes.

I felt, rather than saw, the vampires on the dais slither together and descend on Con. I don’t know if they saw me burst into flames or not; I don’t know if they were the sort of flames that anyone sees, even vampires. If they did see the light-web ignite, presumably they thought it was to do with their master having me well in hand, and they could afford to concentrate on Con. But Bo gave me another gift, as I toiled up the dais stairs toward him, letting me see, briefly, out of his eyes, to the bottom of the dais, behind me. I saw the other vampires pull Con down. The vampires around Bo’s dais would be the elite, of course, as the welcoming committee had been the cannon fodder; and as I say, I’m not sure that vampires get tired, exactly, but they can come to the end of their strength. I thought now, as I flamed (I seemed to hear the roaring of flame too) that Con might have given me more of his remaining strength than I had realized, to get me this far. More than he could spare.

Which meant I had to…

I saw one of the vampires bend over him, as they pinned him down, its mouth open, fangs shining: it buried its face in his throat. I saw him jerk and heave, but they had him fast. I saw another vampire delicately unbutton the remains of his shirt, stroke his chest…

I saw its fingers reaching under Con’s breastbone for his heart.

It wasn’t anything so clear and noble as a decision that since I could do nothing for him I might as well get on with what I was doing. That Con was dying in a good cause if I could finish it before I died too. It wasn’t a meeting of my strength against Bo’s either, because Bo was still the stronger. He was going to stop me before I reached him.

I was two steps from the summit, the crown where Bo sat enthroned, and I couldn’t go any farther.

But I still couldn’t watch Con die. I couldn’t.

Think about cinnamon rolls. Think about the bakery at Charlie’s. Feel the dough under your hands and the heat of the ovens. Think about Charlie cranking down the awning, Mom going into the office and flicking on her combox before she takes off her coat. Think about Mel in the kitchen next door. Think about Pat and Jesse sitting at their table, eating everything that Mary puts in front of them; think about Mary pouring hot coffee.

Think about Mrs. Bialosky sitting at her table, and Maud sitting across from her.

…And for a moment I saw them, Mrs. B and Maud. They were holding hands across the table, and their faces looked haggard and strained and awful, as if they were waiting to hear the news of someone’s death. News they were expecting. And then Mrs. B looked up, straight at me, as she had the day I had been watching her from behind the counter, and Maud looked up too, over her shoulder, as Mrs. B was looking. Their eyes met mine.

Standing behind them I seemed to see Mel. He held out his arms toward me, and flames leaped from his skin, as if his tattoos were a light-web.

I took the last two steps. I was standing in front of Bo.

But I couldn’t bring myself to touch him—to try to touch him. I said that monster doesn’t cover it. There is no word for a several-hundred-year-old vampire who has performed every available wickedness over and over till he has to invent unavailable ones because he’d worn the others out. His flesh was not flesh; it was a viscous ooze, held together by malice. His voice was a manifestation of malignancy, for he had no tongue, no larynx; his eyes were the purest imagination of evil: flawless in a way that flesh could never be.

I knew that if I touched him I would be re-created into such as he was.

The scar on my breast burst apart, and my poisoned blood ran down.

I stopped. I stopped trying.

But Bo made a mistake. He laughed.

I reached into my left-hand pocket, and took out the daylight charm. I didn’t look at it, but I felt the tiny sun spin and blaze, the tree shake its leaves—yesssss—the deer raise her head, acknowledging her own death, watching it come toward her. I felt the moving line of the water-barrier around its edge. As Bo laughed, I threw the charm down the noisome hole that indicated his mouth. A little tracery of fire followed it, like an arrow carrying a rope across a chasm. The mouth-hole closed with a sucking sound—something an ear could hear. What there was that was left of him in the real world wavered and became vulnerable to reality again, as the force and concentration of his will faltered in surprise.

Surprise and pain. The fire—my fire—ran up his face; his eyes

No no I can’t say

But he had been strong and evil and undead for such a long time, and I had been alive and human for such a short time. My little fire wavered, and began to ebb. His face writhed: he was about to speak.

Ssssssss

A hiss? I’d heard Con hiss—vampires did hiss. The giggler had hissed. It was a horrible noise even from a…an everyday, an every-night vampire. It was much worse from Bo, as everything about Bo was worse. But was it a hiss? Or was it his attempt to say my name?

I was back at the lake, where it all began. The sun flamed outside the house. The lake water lapped at the shore. For that first time I heard my tree: Yesssss. Perhaps there had been a doe standing in that forest, looking through the trees at the house, on her way home, to some dappled place where she would doze till sunset.

Beauregard! I shouted. I destroy you!

And I put my hands into the mire of his chest, and wrenched out his heart.

The sky was falling. Ah. Okay. Skies don’t fall; therefore I was dead. I’d kind of expected to be dead. I felt rather comfortable, really. Relieved. Did that mean I’d succeeded? Succeeded in what? There’d been something I’d been desperate to do before I checked out for the last time…couldn’t quite remember…

Sunshine

Why can’t you leave me alone? There is a lot of noise. Shouldn’t be able to hear anyone saying my name. So, I’m not hearing someone saying my name. So go away, damn it. I don’t want to be here, shivering in this polluted body. My hands…my hands…touched…I won’t remember.

I’m not dead yet, I thought composedly, but I am dying. Good. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life being careful not to remember.

I hope I did whatever it was I wanted to do first.

Maybe I could go back just long enough to find out.

Sunshine

Con, on his hands and knees, crouched over me. The floor shook under us, and there was a lot of…stuff…falling down and flying around. Not a good place to be, unless you were dying, which I was. Con, I wanted to say, don’t bother. Let one of these flying chunks of something or other finish the job. I’m tired, and I don’t want to hang around. My hands…

“Sunshine,” he said. “We have to get out of here. Listen to me. You have undone Bo; he cannot put himself back together. You have succeeded. This is your victory. But there is much of his—his animus—released by the final destruction of his body. This place is being pulled to pieces. I cannot carry you through this. Sunshine, listen to me…”

I was drifting off again. I paused in the drift, momentarily caught by the sound of Con’s voice. He sounded positively…emotional. I wanted to laugh, but I didn’t have the energy. I began to drift again.

I felt him lift me up—I wanted to struggle; leave me alone—but I didn’t have the energy for that either. He rearranged me, leaning against him, one arm around me, the other hand cradling my head, tipping it toward his body…

Blood. Blood in my mouth.

Again.

No

I wanted to struggle: I did want to. I could have not swallowed. I could have let it run back out of my mouth again: Con’s blood. This wasn’t the blood of a deer, this time, a mortal creature, killed for me, killed because she was like me, more like me than a vampire. Less like me than a vampire, perhaps, by the fact of her death, by the fact that the recently life-warm blood of her had saved my life. That had been a long time ago. I hadn’t known what was going on, that time. I knew well enough this time. This was Con’s heart’s blood. The heart’s blood of a vampire.

When did I cross the irrevocable line: when I drove out to the lake, when I tucked my little knife into my bra, when I transmuted it into a key, when I unlocked my shackle, when I unlocked Con’s?

When I took him into the daylight, and stopped it from burning him?

When he saved my life by the death of a doe?

When I discovered I could destroy a vampire with my hands?

When I destroyed Bo with those hands?

Or when I agreed to live, by drinking Con’s heart’s blood?

I don’t know what happened at the foot of the dais, when Bo’s crack troop set on Con while I was climbing the stairs. I don’t know if what I saw was entirely some mirage of Bo’s, to confound and weaken me, or whether something like it did happen. I would rather think that some of it did happen. That the wound in his chest was already there when he pressed my mouth against it. This was no mere flesh wound, this time, no tiny slash from a tiny blade. I did not want to think of him sinking his own fingers, tearing his own…

I lifted my head with a gasp, and began to struggle to my feet. He eeled up beside me: still that vampire fluency, even after everything that had happened. Even with that wound in his chest.

He took my hand again, and we ran.

It takes some coordination, running while holding someone’s hand, but if you can get it right, every time your linked hands swing forward you get a little extra force for that stride. Some of that was the vampire cocktail I had just swallowed; it coursed through me, giving me a strength I knew didn’t belong to me, shouldn’t belong to me—shouldn’t be letting me keep struggling, letting me run, letting me use my poisoned hands. Clinging to his hand too, or perhaps his clinging to mine, let me stop thinking about what my hands had recently been doing.

So, would it have been better to die?

Too much has happened since my last sunset. Con may be right that I cannot be turned, and that it won’t be the daylight that kills me, but the touch of the real world will, whatever the sun is doing.

I missed the little hot lump of the seal against my leg. The chain swept back and forth across my breast in time with my running footsteps, but slowly, weighted by the thick poisoned blood of the reopened scar.

My sun-self, my tree-self, my deer-self. Don’t they outweigh the dark self?

Not any more.

We ran, and a wind like the end of the world howled around us, and huge fragments of machinery, having crumbled apart and fallen, were yanked up again and tossed like bits of paper. I think the roof was caving in as well; it was a little hard to differentiate. There was no trail to follow, of dismembered vampire remains or anything else; I don’t know how Con knew which way to run, but he seemed to, and I ran because he was running, because it seems like a good thing to do when hunks of flying metal the size of small buses are razoring through the air around you, even though I suppose you’re as likely to run into the wrong place at the wrong time as you are to have lingered in the wrong place at the wrong time if you were moving more slowly.

For the moment, for just this moment of running, I seemed to be committed to the idea of trying to stay alive.

Then we were actually running down something that looked like a corridor, toward something that looked like double swinging doors. We put our unlinked hands forward to push through, and for a miracle the doors swung back, like normal doors in the real world are supposed to do. We were outside, outside, in No Town, under a night sky, breathing real air.

Maybe I didn’t have time to die, when I ran back into the real world. Or maybe I was too surprised.

We ran straight into the arms of a division of SOF.

In a way I was lucky: they recognized me almost immediately. I was hysterical; this was definitely one thing too many, and when I got grabbed by three guys I did one of them some damage before the other two got a bind on me. I couldn’t bear the touch of—well, of flesh—against mine, especially against my hands, so it’s a good thing they had a bind ready, rather than the old-fashioned routine of spread out on the ground with my hands twisted up behind my back. The bind should have stopped me cold, but I was still full of adrenaline, or dark blood, or the remains of the strength the light-web had gathered for me, or poison, or whatever you like, and I thrashed and squirmed like someone having a fit for a minute or two before it stopped me. By which time I’d heard a half-familiar voice say, “Wait a minute, isn’t that—that’s Rae, from Charlie’s, remember, she—”

You have to hand it to the SOF training drill. A madwoman covered in blood runs out of nowhere, promptly tries to maim one of your teammates, and then goes off in fits, and this guy had enough presence of mind to make an ID. And then a completely familiar voice, now kneeling beside me as I panted inside the fully expanded bind, saying, “Sunshine. Sunshine. Can you hear me?”

I could. Just. His voice sounded like it was coming through a filter, or a bad phone connection, which might have been the bind. I don’t think it was, but it might have been.

The person saying “Sunshine, can you hear me?” was Pat.

I nodded. I wasn’t ready to try and say anything. I’m not sure a nod from a person in a bind is very recognizable, but Pat got it.

“I can let you out of the bind if you promise—if you’re okay now.”

I thought about it. I was lying on the ground. A good bind will prevent you hurting yourself as well as hurting anyone else, and I didn’t seem a whole lot worse than I’d been before SOF grabbed me. And from inside a bind you don’t have any responsibilities. Did I want to be let out?

Gods and angels, what was happening to Con? SOF knew me; they might listen to me. I couldn’t do Con any good foaming at the mouth and being a loony. Couldn’t afford to die yet either. First I owed it to him to get him out of this. If they hadn’t staked him already. Urgency shot through me, tying some of the scattered bits of my personality and will together again. Granny knots probably, but hey.

I said as calmly as I could, “Yes. Okay. I’m a little—dizzy.”

Pat patted the bind where my shoulder was, and then pulled its plug. It twumped and collapsed. He made to take my arm, help me to stand up, but I flinched away, saying, “Please don’t touch me.” He nodded, but I could see he was worried—the way I must look would worry anyone—and the way the little ring of SOFs around us moved, they were ready to drop me again at the first sign of new trouble.

I turned slowly around—I was dizzy, and I didn’t want anyone alarmed into doing something I would regret—and looked for Con. He’d apparently taken capture more quietly. He was standing, watching me. They had handcuffs on him. Handcuffs. You don’t handcuff a vampire—well, there are sucker cuffs, but these were ordinary ones. From where I stood I didn’t think there were even any ward signs on them. A vampire could break out of ordinary cuffs like a human might break out of a doughnut.

I’m not usually a very good liar. Whatever I’m thinking shows on my face. I hoped it wasn’t on my face Hey you halfwits you’ve put cuffs on a vampire. I hope I only looked confused and dizzy. I certainly felt confused and dizzy. “You okay?” I managed.

Con nodded. He looked a little peculiar, but it had been a peculiar evening.

“Friend of yours?” Pat asked neutrally.

I nodded. They must have seen us running…

I turned to look at what—where—whatever we had run from. I’d registered that we were in No Town.

We were in what remained of somewhere in No Town. A lot of it seemed to be lying in pieces on the ground around us. The doors we’d run through led from a building that ended in a jagged diagonal rake of broken wall about eight feet above the doors at its lowest point; there was no roof. Neither of the buildings on each side had any roof left either. One of them still had some of its front wall standing, which was nearly as tall as I was; the other one had a bit of side wall still in one piece. Not a very large piece.

I turned back to Pat. “What—happened?”

He almost smiled. “I was hoping you might be able to tell me. Since you’re—er—here. We got a report that it was raining—um—body parts, in No Town. Really freaked some of the clubbers. We sent out a car to take a look and they were radioing for help before they arrived. By the time we got here it was raining exploded buildings as well. And more body parts. The—er—body parts appear to be vampire. Ex-vampire, as you might say. The ones we’ve had a closer look at.”

I nodded. I glanced again at Con. My brain was slowly beginning to function. I realized that the reason Con looked peculiar was because he was passing. Don’t ask me how he was doing it. But SOF thought he was human.

“I can take the cuffs off your friend too, if you say you know him,” Pat said, a little too neutrally. “He was a little—upset, when you, er—”

“Went nuts,” I supplied. “Sorry.”

Pat looked at me. I saw it registering with him that the way I looked, whatever had caused it, I had reason to be a little on edge. He looked away again, and nodded, and someone stepped forward and released Con. He joined Pat and me. The circle of SOFs unobtrusively rearranged itself again to keep us under guard. Pat the lion tamer, in with the lions. Con moved a little stiffly, like a man who’d had a hard night. Or like a vampire trying to look human.

He looked a lot better than he had the afternoon we’d had to walk back from the lake. He didn’t look like any one you’d want to take home to meet the family, but he didn’t look like a mad junkie either. Or a vampire. And I didn’t look like anyone you’d want to take home to meet the family. We were both beat up, ragged, blood-saturated, and filthy, and my nose was as stunned as the rest of me, but I guess we stank. Con’s black shirt stuck to his body in such a way I couldn’t see the wound in his chest. If it was still there. My own breast ached and burned, but if I was still bleeding, it had slowed to an ooze.

I crossed my arms, but with my elbows well in front of my body, so that my hands hung loosely from my wrists out to either side, without touching any of the rest of me. I wasn’t remembering any more of what had happened than I had to, but I knew there was something wrong with my hands.

I wondered where Con had picked up passing for human in the last five months. Was that one of the things I had given him, the night he had given me dark sight? Or was he taking his cue off our jailers somehow? Not that anybody had said they were our jailers. Yet. I didn’t want to say anything like, can we go home now?, in case they did. Besides, I didn’t know that I wanted to go home. I didn’t know that I wanted to do anything. My pulse seemed to throb in my hands.

There was a tinny buzzing from someone’s radiowire: Pat’s. I saw his expression get grimmer, and it had been pretty grim already. “Yeah. Okay. No, my guess is things are going to stay quiet now. Yeah, I’ll leave a few to keep an eye out, and you can send any clean-up crew you can find. Yeah.” He looked at me. “Deputy exec Jain wants to debrief you.”

My heart sank. The goddess of pain. And you don’t debrief civilians.

“You and Mr.—” Pat turned politely to Con.

“Connor,” Con replied.

“Mr. Connor. You and Sunshine can ride back in my car, and Sunshine can tell you a little about our Depex Jain.”

I almost managed to be amused. The intrusive presence of the goddess had just put Pat on our side. I guessed we’d need him there. The effort to be amused faded, leaving cold exhaustion.

Pat did the best he could for us. The goddess wasn’t going to wait for us to have showers, let alone food and sleep. (I would have liked to see Con in one of their fuzzy khaki jammy suits though.) Pat radioed ahead from the car, and Theo and John met us with blankets and tea. (I wondered who got to hose down the inside of the car.) We were also offered the opportunity to have a pee. Such magnanimity. I accepted. Con did not. Don’t vampires pee? It had been one thing on the walk back from the lake, when he’d been on short rations for a long time. Okay, do they have a digestive system? Maybe it all goes straight into…never mind. At least I could wash my hands, although I felt the soap only slide over what I most needed to scour away. I cleaned my face with a paper towel, so my hands never touched anything but paper.

Con hesitated no more than a moment when offered tea or coffee, and chose tea. He wrapped the blanket around himself. It was yellow, and didn’t help his complexion. He was impressive as a vampire but mostly just ugly as a human. There was a kind of threateningness to his ugliness but you couldn’t have said why. There was a study once about whether ugly or good-looking people are more imposing. Generally the uglier you are the less imposing, till you reach a sort of nadir of ugliness and then you get really imposing. I thought Con just missed the nadir. Just. He was also shorter as a human. I didn’t get this at all. But if it meant the goddess would underestimate him that would be expedient. Possibly even life-saving. Although I wasn’t sure how I felt about going on having my life repeatedly saved. My thoughts were moving slowly and indistinctly, and they stumbled a lot. I’d had to take the tea mug into my hands to drink from it, but I kept my fingers well away from the brim where my lips would touch. They offered us food, but I refused; it would be sandwiches, something you’d have to touch with your hands. And my refusal made Con’s look less odd, maybe.

When Pat took us up to the goddess’ office, there were seven of us. Pat, Con and me, Theo and John and two people I didn’t know beyond occasionally seeing them at Charlie’s: Kate and Mike. The goddess wanted to dismiss everyone but Con and me—she had her own people present, of course—but Pat, going all formal, declined to be dismissed, and began reeling off some directive or other. I’d heard him asking for some SOF reg book and seen him poring over it in the little turnaround time between the car and the goddess’ office, but I hadn’t thought about it. He was now proving that since he’d nabbed us in the field, he was responsible for us, even in the presence of a superior officer, because he was a field specialist and she wasn’t, and the situation was insecure.

One for Pat. But the lines around the goddess’ mouth got harder, and her mouth more pinched. And we were all going to pay for it.

Mainly she went for Con. Because she knew there was something wrong about him? Or because he was the stranger? If she hadn’t done it before I skegged the HQ com system, she would have read any available file on me after, which wasn’t a happy thought, especially the presumption that it would get fatter as a result of her interest. I wondered if Yolande could make a ward against SOF ‘fo-collecting techniques. A ward that didn’t proclaim itself as a ward, that only made me look boring. Because my natural boringness would have taken a fatal injury tonight. Nobody—certainly not Pat or the goddess—was going waste any more time believing my story about having blown myself out the night I blew out their com system.

But there I went again, planning as if I had a future, and I hadn’t decided about that yet. The future would be difficult without usable hands, and the old wound on my breast…But I wanted to get Con out of here. His future was his business.

There were more voices. The goddess’ voice made my head ache. I had to listen, to pay attention, and I had to think, to be careful, to be ready…ready…The effort was making me start to disintegrate again…I was drifting, it was so much easier to drift…

What is your name? asked the goddess.

Connor, Con replied.

First name?

Malcolm.

And you live?

I have only recently come to this area, and have not yet decided if I am staying. I rather think that I am not.

But your local address?

I am renting a house by the lake.

Loud intake of breath from everyone except me and Con.

No one lives by the lake any more, said the goddess, as if she had caught him out in a lie.

Con shrugged gently. Yes: my rent is very reasonable, and I like the solitude.

There was a momentary pause. It was true that nobody lived by the lake any more, but there wasn’t a good reason why not. There were bad spots, but there were bad spots everywhere, and there were perfectly good not bad spots by the lake too. The goddess might think no human could bear the hauntedness of the lake, but she couldn’t nail him as an unregistered partblood or illegal Other on it. Let alone a vampire. And my little trouble five months ago had been the first of its kind in years. Con’s choice of location would bring that trouble to mind, of course, but there wasn’t any way that my presence in the middle of whatever had happened tonight wasn’t going to bring that trouble back to center focus in everyone’s mind. Maybe Con even had a plan. Which was a lot more than I had. I wanted to rub my aching head but I didn’t want to use my hands.

Who is your landlord?

I do not know. I pay the rent to a post office box in Raindance. The rental was arranged through an agent.

What agent?

I do not remember; the papers are at home.

You could produce the papers.

Yes.

What brought you to this area?

Its natural beauty.

That stopped her for a moment. She wasn’t a trees and sunsets sort of person. I wondered vaguely where she lived. She wasn’t a downtown high-rise sort of person either. Nor could I see her in grotty unorthodox Old Town. I couldn’t see her redoing one of the houses in Whiteout. I couldn’t see her as a person with a life. I imagined her spending her off-duty hours folded up in a drawer. If she had any off-duty hours.

What do you do for a living?

I am fortunate in not having to work for a living.

This startled her—well, he hadn’t been found in circumstances conducive to guessing he was a member of the independently wealthy—but you could see her shift her view to relishing despising this already-suspicious character now revealed as a parasite on the body of society. A mosquito or a leech or something bloodsucking. Ha.

And how then do you support yourself?

My father left me comfortably off.

And your father was?

He dealt in rare and valuable objects.

She was hoping she’d got him, or soon would. What kind of rare and valuable objects?

Con shrugged again, gently. Anything he could buy and sell. Jewelry, bric-a-brac, other ornaments. Small things mostly. Sometimes paintings, sculpture, larger furniture. He was very clever at it.

I thought of his earth-place, and wondered if he was plugging in his master in the necessary role of human father. I wondered if his earth-place was anywhere near the lake. I wondered if vampires also felt that the best lies stick as near to the truth as possible, because it’ll be easier remembering later what you said. I wondered if vampires really shrugged, or if this was verisimilitude, like having a father. He did it pretty well.

The cross-examination went on. I wondered how much Con knew about human law; he could protest being held without explanation, he could protest the questioning. Perhaps he didn’t want to. Perhaps staying human was enough of an effort, and he wasn’t going to make waves. Perhaps he didn’t mind. He certainly gave no impression of minding. I told myself that he was a vampire, and vampires don’t give the impression of minding things, perhaps even when they are pretending to be human.

It didn’t occur to me that I might protest being held without explanation. I didn’t want to encourage them to think about why they might want to hold me. It seemed to me they had too many good choices.

But with a sudden cold drench of antidisintegration fear I wondered what time it was. How long had we been—occupied with Bo and his gang? It had still been deep dark when we’d run through those doors and straight into the SOF div waiting, presumably inadvertently, for us; but which end of the night was that deep dark? And how long had we been here?

When was sunrise?

When the goddess started asking me questions I had to come back a long way to focus on her words, to try to answer her. I was too shattered to be frightened at the same time as I was too shattered to be anything but frightened: to be able to think of a story to tell her, since I couldn’t tell her the truth. In theory I had a lot less to lose than Con, but it didn’t feel like it. I mean, all I’d done was destroy some vampires. Maybe I hadn’t gone through the proper channels, but nailing vampires is always a plus. She should pin a medal on me. I didn’t think she was going to.

Watch your back, Sunshine.

When Con and I had planned our confrontation with Bo, we hadn’t thought about what happened after. Well, he may have, but if he had, he hadn’t let me in on it. He wasn’t a big talker. Also, after Bo, assuming that there was an after Bo, our reason for alliance was over; he probably hadn’t thought there was anything to discuss.

I sure hadn’t thought about needing a good cover story. Who investigates the extermination of vampires? If we escaped, we’d’ve escaped, and it’d be over with. Of course we hadn’t planned on blowing up No Town.

The thought returned: after Bo, if there was an after Bo, there would be no reason for Con and me to have anything more to do with each other.

The goddess was talking to me.

Yes, Mr. Connor and I had met five months ago, during my— our—involuntary incarceration at the lake. No, I hadn’t mentioned him before. Yes, perhaps I should have: but I had wanted to forget everything about that time, and I had not guessed I would meet him again. No, our meeting tonight was not planned, but no doubt it had something to do with our being drawn back, together, by the vampire we had escaped from those months ago.

With crushing scorn the goddess declared, People don’t escape from vampires.

I had my one great moment then. I said that I guessed the vampire must have planned for us to escape, because it wanted to pull us back again later, after we thought we were safe.

Even the goddess had to pause. I didn’t think vampires played cat and mouse with their victims to such an extent as to let them run around loose for several months before putting a paw over them again, but vampires are indisputably unpredictable. And it maybe made a sort of teeny sense out of my com-system-exploding habits.

Then how, she said between her teeth, do you explain how you escaped this time?

All due respect, ma’am, said Pat, crisp and formal, not sounding like Pat at all, Some big sucker gang war, obviously. These two in the wrong place at the wrong time. Might explain how they got away last time too; some kind of sting, maybe.

And why didn’t we know about a gang war important enough to raze better than a third of No Town? snarled the goddess.

Don’t know, ma’am, said Pat, but we’re going to find out.

The goddess’ next few questions to me were positively gentle. No, I couldn’t remember how I—how we’d—escaped, five months ago. I didn’t precisely remember that we’d escaped at all. The entire experience was very blurred in my memory. Shock no doubt. Ask Pat. I’d told him as much as I remembered. I guessed I remembered even less now.

She didn’t ask Pat. She’d read the file.

She didn’t mention the other night, and the circumstances under which I’d met her the first time. This should have felt like a respite. It didn’t.

She turned back to Con. What did he remember of the two days he’d spent chained up in the house by the lake? Or perhaps it had been more than two days in his case?

No, he didn’t remember it very well either. He thought it might have been longer than two days. He thought he remembered the young lady being brought in after him. He had been hiking, and had planned to be away from home for some time anyway. No, he didn’t remember precisely how long he was gone. He had spent several days after he returned in something of a daze. He lived alone and had, thanks to his father’s bequest, few responsibilities. No one had missed him. He had contacted no one after his ordeal. No, he apologized, it had not occurred to him to make a report to SOF either. He understood he should have. He would be happy to make a full report now, yes, but there wasn’t much report to give. He remembered so little. No, it hadn’t put him off living by the lake. He lived by a different part of the lake.

And where was that again?

On the southwest side.

Near No Town.

Not very near.

The goddess let this pass, maybe because it was true. But then she began on this evening’s events. Con was very sorry, but he didn’t remember them clearly either. The notorious vampire glamour, he suggested, had confused him.

He must remember something.

He remembered standing at his front door, breathing the autumn-scented air, and watching the sun set.

He must remember more than that.

Con paused and looked thoughtful. He did this very well: understated but clear. Like the tone of his voice: not inscrutable vampire but reserved human male. Reticent as opposed to undead. He could have a great future in the theater, so long as no one expected him to do matinees.

He remembered a great deal of confusion, and fear, and pain, and er—blood. He touched his blood-stiffened hair apologetically. And explosions. At some point he discovered Miss Seddon there with him amid the—er—uproar. He did not remember any other humans present, but he had not been looking for them. He had been looking for a way out, as had Miss Seddon. Naturally.

Con closed his eyes momentarily at this point. I almost wanted to tell him not to overdo it.

Naturally, said the goddess dryly. Mr. Connor, you seem to be taking all the uproar, as you put it, very calmly.

Con spread his hands, and smiled faintly. He smiled. Really.

It is over now, he said. What would you have me do?

I would have you tell me the truth! she shouted.

I jumped in my seat. I hadn’t been watching her. I’d been watching Con, and the window blind. It was hard to see much; the blind was closed, the proofglass behind it would dull any light trying to come through it, and the goddess’ office was brightly lit. But I was pretty sure the corners of the windows were a paler gray than they’d been when we came in.

I looked at the goddess. I tried to look into the glaring shadows on her face, but I was very tired, and the shadows were layers thick. I could see nothing through them except more shadows. My head throbbed.

But I could see her eyes. I didn’t like what I saw. She couldn’t have guessed, could she? She couldn’t.

What was there in some secret SOF archive? About vampires? About vampire-human alliances?

Watch your back, Sunshine.

Why would she be watching me? What was there in my file that had caught her eye? Something important enough to lay a fetch on me for?

Something she had, after all, picked up during her illegal troll of me the night we met?

Was she trolling me now? My head hurt so much I couldn’t tell how much of it was her godsawful aura and how much was…just the way I was feeling. Had she tried to troll Con? If she had—no, wait, she couldn’t’ve or he’d be staked and beheaded by now—okay, even if he had blocked her—what might the block tell her? Wouldn’t a vampire block look—taste, smell, whatever—different than a human one? Or did Con’s passing include the shape of his mind to a mind search?

But being able to block a mind search was illegal too. Ordinary humans couldn’t do it. Which meant anyone who did wasn’t an ordinary human. And if you know something, you know it, even if you got that knowledge by proscribed means. Like by trolling without authority.

It wasn’t my back that needed watching at this moment. It was Con’s. As well as his front, sides, top, bottom, and any other attached bits.

I stared at the window. In the lower corner nearer me there was a tiny gap where the blind didn’t fit true. I was sure I could see light coming in.

The goddess had her back to the window. She had a huge desk—of course—that sprawled in front of it, but it was a big room, and there was plenty of space for her minions and Pat and his lot plus Con and me. Her desk was empty. Even her com gear was all shut away in a wall closet; I knew this because one of her vassals folded the doors back and sat down in front of it. There was a lot of it; it looked like it would take up the entire wall if the doors were pushed back all the way. I was glad I wasn’t a techie. If I’d understood any of what I could see, I would have been even more jittery than I already was.

There were now fifteen of us. She’d only had three flunkies when we entered, but when it turned out she wasn’t going to be able to get rid of Pat one of them muttered into her wire and four more people had entered almost as soon as she’d finished speaking, marching nearly in lockstep. The goddess must keep them in a cupboard right outside her door for those moments when she needed to oppress a situation quickly. Maybe she chose people who wanted to spend their off-duty hours folded up in a drawer too, the better for rapid retrieval.

We faced each other over her desk, them and us. Con and I sat in two chairs about six feet apart. Pat, keeping up the pretense that we were under defensive surveillance, had a pair of people behind each of our chairs. He leaned against the wall behind us, but off to one side, nearer Con; I could see him out of the corner of my eye without turning my head. His wire squeaked at him periodically; occasionally he muttered back. Once I saw him jerk his head up and stare at us—Con or me, I couldn’t tell—after some very agitated squeaking. I wondered what his field people might be telling him about what they were finding in the remains of No Town. I wasn’t used to seeing Pat wearing a wire. He hadn’t any time I’d seen him at Charlie’s. He hadn’t when I visited his office downstairs here. He hadn’t even when we drove out to the lake. The wire made him look a lot more threatening. More like a regular member of SOF, the huge national agency dedicated to protecting humans against the Other threat, which as one of its minor local operations had planted an illegal fetch on me.

Even with a wire, Pat wasn’t nearly as threatening as a vampire.

Or as the goddess.

Several of the flunkies’ wires squeaked at them too. I saw them glancing at each other worriedly. Perhaps they always looked worried. Being the goddess’ flunky can’t have been an easy job, even if you have the personality for it.

The goddess paraded up and down behind her desk, occasionally leaning on it for emphasis, occasionally coming round to the front to sit on the edge and stare at us. She ignored everyone else.

I thought I saw her glance at the window too. Okay, I could make a dive for Con the moment she touched the blind, but that would give two things away simultaneously: what he was. And what I could do.

The air in the room seemed to press against my skull like a tightening vise. Maybe it was just the goddess. I looked at my hands. I thought I could see tiny filaments of green or black running up the backs of them, running up my arms, like gangrene spreading from the site of infection. I couldn’t see any sign of the golden web, even though the blanket wrapped around me had rubbed a lot of the blood off. I could see only green and black. Death as an infection. The infection had begun five months ago. Maybe I’d already died back at Bo’s headquarters—perhaps when the scar on my breast reopened— and it hadn’t quite caught up with me yet. Maybe Con had delayed the inevitable by making me—offering me his blood to drink. Undead blood was used to keeping dead people moving, after all. So maybe it didn’t matter if I gave myself away. I was worm fodder as soon as the green and black filaments reached my beating heart.

It did matter. I would be giving Con away too.

I’m very sorry, Con was saying to the goddess. I know how thin my story sounds. But there is nothing else to tell you. It was all very baffling to me—to Miss Seddon and me—too.

There was a little silence. I set my tea mug down on the floor, and groped in my pocket for my little knife, the knife that glowed with daylight even in the dark, the knife that burned Con if he touched it. I held it a moment before I pulled it out, wondering if I was dead—not undead, Con promised me I couldn’t be turned, just dead, a new form of zombie perhaps, which would explain why my brain was refusing to work properly, why nothing seemed quite real, not even my fear. A zombie’s brain always goes first, while sometimes their hearts go on beating. If I was dead, perhaps I couldn’t save Con from the daylight any more either. The knife was warm in my hand. Body heat. But zombies are usually cool. Like all the undead. My knife was warm like the touch of a friend, against my gangrenous hand. Suddenly there were tears in my eyes. Do zombies weep?

I pulled the knife out. I made all the effort I was capable of, to be here, to be present, in this room, with Con and Pat and the goddess of pain.

“Pardon me,” I said. “I want to return your knife before I—er—forget.” I should have said something about why I was remembering now rather than at some other moment, why I had Mr. Connor’s knife in the first place, but I couldn’t think of anything. I was at the end of my thinking. It was taking all my energy to be here.

And I didn’t know that it would work. It was merely the only thing I could imagine to try.

Con turned toward me. He almost forgot to be human. When I tossed him the knife his hand moved toward where it was going to be…I felt him check himself. He plucked the knife out of the air a little too neatly, but not impossibly so. Not inhumanly. He caught it, and closed his fingers around it, rested his hand on his knee. The knife had disappeared. If there was anything to see as it burned him, if it burned him, if it was still full of daylight—of my sunshine—no one in the room would see. He set his tea mug down, so he still had one hand free. “Thank you,” he said, and turned back to the goddess as if for her next question.

We had our one bit of luck then. There was a wire-squeak so momentous, apparently, that one of the goddess’ minions risked whispering it to her, and she was distracted, perhaps, from this curious business of Mr. Connor’s knife. She wasn’t very happy about whatever news the minion gave her, whatever it was.

Then she sighed, elaborately, as if releasing tension. As if asking everyone in the room to relax. I didn’t relax. Con didn’t, but then he was never relaxed, any more than he was ever tense. He was just there. Pat didn’t relax. I couldn’t see any of the rest of us. The minions didn’t relax. I’m sure there is a regulation in their contract that forbids them to relax. The goddess looked around at us and smiled. It wasn’t a very good smile. If I had to choose, I would say Con did it better.

“Well,” she said. “It has been a long night and everyone will be better for a rest. And you two warriors”—she tried to make this sound unironical, but she failed—“according to the latest report, have been a part of the destruction of a major vampire sanctum—perhaps an instrumental part of that destruction. You must forgive what may appear to be my excessive zeal here tonight; but occurrences like this are rare, and SOF must know as much as possible about any event concerning the Others, especially the darkest of the Others, to be as effective as we can be. And we have found, over and over again, that the sooner we speak to any and all witnesses, the better.

“I would appreciate it if you would return, later, when you are rested, and fill out formal statements, which we can keep on file. I would also appreciate it if you would make yourselves available for further discussion, at some future time. Occasionally it has happened that witnesses do remember later what they were too shaken to comprehend at the time; perhaps as we learn more about what happened, some detail we can describe to you will loosen something in your memories, something we can use.

“You must see that to the extent it is possible you had a crucial role in tonight’s events we must discover what that role was.

“And in the meanwhile, perhaps”—she was moving as she spoke—“after the night that has passed, the light of morning will make us all feel better.”

With better she pulled the blind. Daylight, filtered by proofglass but unmistakably, undeniably daylight, fell full on Con.

How long after sunlight touches him before a vampire burns? The stories say immediately, but what is immediately? One second? Ten? I sat still, rigidly still, my nerves shrieking. Con, of course, looked as he always looked: neither tense nor calm. Twenty seconds. Thirty. Surely thirty seconds was longer than immediately?

What is the algebra of how long one live person with an affinity can protect one vampire from the effects of sunlight as compared to one small inanimate daylight-charged pocketknife? Supposing that the person is still alive and the affinity is still functioning, the pocketknife still charged, and the fact that the vampire was presently passing for human didn’t morph the process so that Con was about to collapse in a little heap of cold ashes with no gruesome intermediate stages.

Forty seconds. Fifty.

Sixty.

That’s good enough.

I burst into tears, and Con was up off his chair at once—as immediately as the fire that hadn’t come—and kneeling beside mine, one hand on my shoulder. My blanket had fallen off. I felt my affinity yank itself from wherever it lived—somewhere around my heart apparently—and throw itself toward the shoulder he was touching. It was still there. Still live. I heard a rustle, like a sigh of leaves.

Trees are impervious to dark magic.

The hand that held my knife still hung by his side.

It seemed to me that as a performance it wasn’t too unlikely that he’d put his hand on my shoulder, after whatever it was that we’d been through together. Maybe we were calling each other Mr. Connor and Miss Seddon, but we’d come out of whatever it was holding hands. I turned my head and stared at him, into his leaf-green eyes, into the face of the monster I had saved, and been saved by, probably too many times to count, now, any more, even by what he had called that which binds. Perhaps that was why I could feel my affinity working its way through his body, through the vessels that carried his blood, a special little squad of it racing down to his burned hand. I put both my hands—my contaminated hands—on his shoulders, and leaned my head against him, and wept and wept, and the warmth, the human-seeming warmth of his body through the tattered, filthy shirt against the palms of my hands felt the way my knife had felt: like the touch of a friend. The healing touch of a friend.

I had meant to burst into tears, to break the scene, to give Con a chance to move, and to put up his sun parasol sitting in the next chair, but it had been easy—too easy, and it was hard to stop crying, once I’d begun. It took me several minutes to get to the gulping and hiccupping stage, by which time all of Pat’s people were rushing around holding boxes of tissues and bringing damp towels to wipe my face with and brandishing fresh cups of tea. The goddess and her people hadn’t moved at all. She looked like a naturalist observing faulty ritual behavior: not at all what she had been led to believe was the norm for this species, but was therefore interesting precisely for that reason, and how could she turn it to her advantage? I didn’t like it, but I’d worry about it later.

Her people stood and sat around looking stuffed. Working for the goddess didn’t encourage the acquisition of damp-towel-fetching skills.

I would worry about it all later. I was getting used to the idea that I might have a later to worry about it in. Maybe. I was so tired.

I had dropped my hands from Con’s shoulders to juggle tea and towels and tissues. I looked at them, my hands, going about their usual business of grasping and manipulating. I couldn’t see the green and the black any more. But I couldn’t see the gold either. I knew the seal was gone forever, and the chain—I couldn’t feel the chain against my breast any more, although the reopened wound had stopped aching. Had I heard the rustle of leaves when Con touched my shoulder? Sun-self, tree-self, deer-self. Don’t they outweigh the dark self? Not any more. I would worry about me later too. About my hands. I would ask Con…I hoped I would have a chance to ask Con. Because after I got him out of this daylight, our alliance was over.

Con. He still knelt beside me. An ordinary man might have looked silly, doing nothing, but even as a relatively successful human-facsimile he looked so…unconventional? Unsomething. Silly didn’t come into it. Or maybe that was just how I saw him. It was day again, and Con was my responsibility, and we were surrounded by people who must continue to believe he was human. I looked at him. He’d dropped the yellow blanket when he left his chair. He looked better without it, even blood-mottled and with his clothes hanging off him in sodden-and-dried-stiff rags.

“Pardon me, Miss Seddon, but I think I must beg you to keep my knife for me a little longer. I don’t believe any of my pockets have survived the night’s encounters.” He held it out to me, turning and opening his hand: the palm was unmarked. I felt that my affinity emergency-squad was dancing around in some little-used synapse somewhere, giving each other teeny microscopic high-fives.

I put down a towel and accepted the knife, slipping it awkwardly back into the pocket it had come out of. I was careful not to look at the goddess as I did this: as if it was just a little jackknife. I wondered if vampire clothing had pockets. What would vampires keep in pockets? Handkerchiefs? House keys? Charms against being grilled (so to speak) by angry, high-ranking SOF officers?

I’d managed to move my chair a little during the commotion after I burst into tears. Con was safe for the moment, in shadow. I stood up and looked at the goddess. She was taller than I was, of course. There are spells to make you appear taller than whoever you are talking to, but they are expensive, and all but the best have a nasty habit of revealing you as your real height the minute you turn your attention to someone else. I guessed the goddess was just tall. “I apologize for making a fuss,” I said, as respectfully as I could. Maybe she was so accustomed to reeking hostility from most of her colleagues and interviewees that she didn’t register it any more. Maybe she would assume I didn’t like her because she’d intimidated me successfully. Well, she had.

“May we leave now, please?” I continued, holding my poisonous hands out placatingly, palms up. “I will come back whenever you like, but I’m so tired I can’t think. And I want a bath.” Several baths. And what I was wearing—the remains of what I was wearing—would so into the trash. No, the bonfire. I would start running out of clothing soon if I wasn’t careful. If I had a future it would have to include some shopping.

She made gracious-cooperation noises that were about as sincere as my respectfulness, and we were allowed to leave—Con and I, and Pat and John and Theo and Kate and Mike. In the windowless hallway Con and I drifted nonchalantly apart. I was trying to remember if there were any unexpected windows around blind corners. I hadn’t been at my best when we’d come through the first time. I wasn’t at my best now, but against all odds, I was improving.

Pat expelled a long noisy breath. “Well held, you guys,” he said. He glanced at Con. I could guess he was torn between wanting to celebrate a partial victory against the goddess and wanting to know who and what the hell my apparent ally really was. He caught my eyes and I watched him decide to trust me. I watched him watching me watching him decide to trust me. It was true: I owed him. That was something else I’d have to figure out later.

“Can I give you a ride home, Sunshine?” he said casually.

“That would be great,” I said feelingly. Even supposing I had bus fare in my pocket, which I didn’t, I didn’t yearn for the experience of getting Con and me anywhere in public. Any sane bus driver would refuse to let us on board, the way we looked, not to mention the nearest stop was a mile and a half from Yolande’s and I didn’t think I could walk that far.

I doubted that any nowheresville way was available in—from— daylight. And if I was too tired to walk from the bus stop I was way beyond too tired to deal with any nowheresvilles.

And turning up at Charlie’s, looking like this and with Con in tow, wasn’t an option.

“John, you want to take Mr. Connor—”

“He can come with me,” I said firmly. “We have to—talk.”

“I bet you do,” said Pat. “Okay, Sunshine, I won’t ask, but take notes, okay? I’m not going to do my heavy SOF guy trick and make you do your talking here because you’ve already had that from the goddess, and besides, if she found out I’d taken you to my office and got more out of you than she did she’d bust my ass back to Tinker Bell patrol.”

There is a legion of little old ladies (of assorted ages and sexes) who manage to believe that the Others are mostly small and cute and harmless, and live under toadstools, and wear harebells as hats. A lot of them ring up their local SOF div to report sightings, because that is the citizenly thing to do, and since there are a few ill-tempered Others who sometimes pretend to be small and cute and harmless— I’d never heard of any of them wearing harebells, however—these have to be checked out. But it is not a popular job.

“I’ve been getting reports from No Town right along, you know,” continued Pat, “and I want to know what you guys did. And I want it in triplicate, you got that? But I’m a patient man and I’ll wait. I won’t even tell the goddess I took you home together.”

“He’s lost his house keys anyway,” I said glibly, “and we can call a locksmith from my house.”

“He keep a fresh change of clothes at your house too?” said Pat. “Does Mel know? I didn’t say that.”

No windows yet. The other SOFs went their own ways, and it was just Pat and Con and me. Down a few more corridors, and now we were walking toward the glass doors into the parking lot. Con unobtrusively moved near me again and I tucked my arm under his arm and pretended to lean against him. It didn’t take a lot of pretending, any more than my tears for the goddess had.

Pat’s glance flicked over us again and I realized he was having to make an effort not to go all, well, male. He wanted badly to try to put Con in his place and thus find out what his place was. He wanted this as a pretty high-ranking SOF officer, he wanted this as my friend and self-designated semiprotector and semiexploiter, and he probably even wanted this for Mel, who he was at least sure was genuinely human, although ordinarily he would consider my private life strictly my own business. And he’d be having mixed feelings about suspecting Con as some kind of freaky partblood for the obvious reasons. But I recognized the signs in this (comparatively) respectable middle-aged SOF agent from the staring and grunting contests we got occasionally at Charlie’s, and from some of the biker bars I’d been to with Mel. I had a sudden frivolous desire to laugh…as we walked through the swinging doors and out into the morning.

The sun was still low but the sunshine on my face felt like the best thing that had ever happened to me. I couldn’t help it: I stopped, and raised my face to it. Con stopped with me of course. “Sunshine for Sunshine,” Pat said mildly. “I’ll get the car,” and he went on, running his hands over his head as if smoothing down feathers from his frustrated dominance display. I hadn’t picked up any response from Con—I could always feel Mel not responding—but then Con didn’t noticeably respond to much of anything. And it wasn’t that vampires didn’t have their own shoving competitions—we had, after all, just survived a particularly extravagant one of these. I didn’t feel like laughing any more.

I put Con’s arm around my waist so I could raise both hands to the sun, as if an extra twenty inches of extended arm was going to make a big difference to its curative properties. I didn’t care. I held them, palm up, till I saw Pat’s car coming toward us, and Con handed me carefully into the back seat, and slid in after me.

I curled up and pretended to go to sleep on Con’s shoulder so we didn’t have to make conversation and Pat wouldn’t try. This really was pretense: I couldn’t go to sleep, at least not yet, and was afraid to try. Even keeping my eyes closed was an effort, but I listened intently to all the normal noises of morning in the city, smelled gas fumes and early coffee bars, and felt Con’s arm around me—and his spiky hair occasionally brushing my face—and managed to keep the sights of the night before from replaying themselves against my eyelids. The smell of coffee—penetrating even through the smell of us—reminded me of Charlie’s, and there was one of those weird bits of mental slippage that trauma produces: I thought, oh, what a good thing I’m not dead, I never did write that recipe down for Paulie…

It felt like a long drive, although it wasn’t, still well before rush hour, and in a real car instead of the Wreck. “Check in as soon as you can,” was all Pat said when he dropped us off.

“Thanks,” I said.

“Thank you,” said Con.

Again that flick of gaze to one, then the other of us. “Yeah,” said Pat, and drove away.

I had avoided losing my house key by not taking it with me. I fished it out from under the pot of pansies and the crack in the porch floor and opened the door, half-watching my hands still, as if they might turn on me and try to tear my own heart out. Con followed me up the dark stairs. My apartment was full of roses. I’d forgotten about the roses. None of them was more than half open. It felt like some kind of miracle: it felt like centuries since I’d bought them, two days ago. I was supposed to be dead. I would be going to work tomorrow. Cinnamon rolls. Roses. They were from another world. The human world. I glanced at my hands again. Hands that earned their living making human food. There isn’t much that is a lot more nakedly hands-on than kneading dough.

The ward wrapped around the length of the balcony railing had a big charred hole in the middle of it. When we’d walked through it last night, into Other-space, presumably. The poor thing: it had probably felt like a garage mechanic presented with a lame elephant: wait just a sec here, I never said I did all forms of transport. It had been a good ward, and it had survived my smoke-borne passage on my way to find Con. I’d find out later if it could be patched up or if it was blown (or squashed) for good.

I left Con in the middle of the shadowy floor and went out into the daylight again, holding my hands out in front of me like sacrifices or discards. Con moved forward till he was standing at the edge of the shadow. “There is nothing wrong with your hands,” he said.

I shook my head, but I lowered my hands till they rested on the balcony railing. There were scorch marks on the railing. On their backs, with the fingers curled up, my hands looked dead.

“Tell me,” he said.

“I had to—touch him,” I said in a low voice. “I tried not to, but he was too strong. He was winning. I put my hands…I touched him. Bo.” As I said it all the other things I was trying not to remember about the night before came racing back, bludgeoning their way into my mind. I felt myself begin to fragment again. When I’d been facing the goddess, I’d known what I was doing for a little while. Now that there was no immediate threat to organize myself around…I shivered, even in the daylight. Thin, cool, autumn sunlight, with winter to come, with its shorter, colder days, before the baking heat of summer returned. Autumn daylight wasn’t going to heal my hands.

Or the reopened wound on my breast. I hadn’t had to look at it yet, accept its reappearance yet, while all of me was covered with crusted blood.

“Sunshine,” said Con gently. “He had no power to hurt you physically. He had had no such power for many years. His strength was in his will, and in the physical strength of those he controlled by his will. If his creatures—his acolytes—had not hurt you, he could not.”

I wanted to say, he did hurt me—his creatures did hurt me—they taught me what I could do. I would never have done what I did to Bo, if I had not already done it to his followers. “He almost killed me!” I said at last, aloud, feebly. This was an unendurably anticlimactic way of describing what had happened. Merely dying seemed like a minor difficulty, like an alarm clock that had failed to go off or a car that wouldn’t start. Maybe I had been hanging out with vampires too much.

“Yes. By sheer force of evil. Only that.”

Only that,” I said. “Only that.”

“Yes.”

I turned my head to look at him, leaving my hands awkwardly where they were. The Mr. Connor of the goddess’ office had gone; my Con was back. There was a vampire in the room. He looked tired, almost as a human might look tired, as well as ragged and filthy. My vampire looked tired. I took my hands off the railing so I could go back into the shadows to Con. I reached out to touch him, twisted my hands away from him at the last moment. But he took my hands by the wrists, and kissed the back of each fist, turned them over and waited, patiently, till the fingers relaxed, and kissed each palm. It was a strange sensation. It felt less like being kissed than it felt like a doctor applying a salve. Or a priest last rites. “There is nothing wrong with your hands,” he said. “The touch of evil poisons by the idea of it. Reject the idea and you have rejected the evil.”

I was being lectured in morality by a vampire. I wanted to laugh. The problem was that he was wrong. If he’d been right maybe I could have laughed. “My hands feel—they’ve been—changed. I can feel this. They—they don’t belong to me any more. They are only—attached. They feel as if they may be—have become—evil.”

“Bo’s evil was a very powerful idea.”

“I thought I was coming to pieces. I am not sure I’m not. My hands—my hands are two fragments of what is left of me.” Two ruined fragments.

There was a pause. “Yes,” said Con.

“How do you know?” I whispered.

I waited for him to drop my hands, to move away from me. The pleading whine of my voice set my own teeth on edge. He was only still with me because the sun trapped him here till sunset.

He didn’t move away. He said, “I see it in your eyes.”

This was so unexpected I gaped at him. “What—”

“No. I cannot read your secrets. But I can read your fears. My kind are adept at reading fear. And you look into my eyes as no other human ever has.”

I looked away from him. War and Peace, my fears. All fifty-odd volumes of the Blood Lore series. The complete globenet directory. For sheer length and inclusiveness my fears were right up there. I hoped he was a speed reader.

He dropped my hands then, but only to put a finger under my chin. “Look at me.”

I let him raise my chin. Hey, he was a vampire. He could break my neck if he wanted to. This way he didn’t have to.

“You are not afraid of everything,” he said.

“Nearly,” I said. “I am afraid of you. I am afraid of me.”

“Yes,” he said.

There was a curious comfort in that “yes.” I had definitely been hanging out with vampires too long. This vampire.

I remembered standing in the sunlight in my kitchen window, the morning after my return from the lake. That moment when I first began to feel I might recover, from whatever it was that had happened.

The splinters that my peace of mind had been smashed into—if not, perhaps, after all, my sanity—were sending little scouting filaments across the gaps, looking for other pieces, whether I’d sent them out to look or not. Where the scout-filaments met, they’d start winding themselves together again, knitting themselves back into rows…They were probably building on those first granny knots from when I’d agreed to be let out of the SOF bind and be responsible for my behavior.

No: from the first granny knots of the morning after Con had brought me home from the lake.

I was going to have some more scars and the texture of the final weave was going to change. Was changing. It was going to be lumpier, and there were going to be some pretty weird holes. I never had been able to learn to knit. I don’t do uniformity and consistency. Even my cinnamon rolls tend to have individual personality. I could probably cope with a few more wodgy bits in my own makeup.

Maybe my medulla oblongata was refusing to take any crap from my cerebrum again. Shut up and get on with the reconstruction. If you can’t find the right piece, use the wrong one.

I took a step backward, still facing Con, still within reach of him, but so that the sunlight touched me.

There was something struggling out of the murk here, trying to make me think it: If good is going to triumph over evil, good has to stay sane.

Say what? Oh, please. I’m still thinking about breathing. Now I’m supposed to start in flogging myself to go on fighting for the forces of…well, “good” is some freaking mouthful. It sounds like some Anglo-Saxon geek with a big square jaw and a blazing sword, any vestigial sense of humor surgically removed years before when he was conditionally accepted to Hero School.

But that was kind of where I’d wound up, even if I’d missed out on the jaw and the training. Because I was definitely against evil. Definitely. In my lumpy, erratic way. And I knew what I was talking about, because I’d now met evil. That was precisely the point.

I’d touched it.

And I was going to have to remember for the rest of my life that I’d touched it. That these hands had grasped, pulled

But us anti-evil guys have to stay sane. Lumpy and holey, maybe, but sane. Listen, Sunshine: Bo was gone. He wasn’t going to get the last word now.

I hoped.

At least not until later this morning.

“I’m going to run a bath. I’ll flip you for who goes first.” I had a jar on my desk, next to the balcony, that held loose change.

“Flip?” Vampires. They don’t know anything.

I won. I was almost sorry. I felt obliged to have only one bath, and a fast one, but I made it count. If I rubbed my palms a little rawer than I needed to for an idea, at least my hands felt like my hands while I was doing it. Perhaps the touch of the rose petals, when I’d had to move all the floating roses out of the bath so I could get me into it instead, had helped.

There was no wound on my breast. I hadn’t believed it at first. I kept rubbing the soap all over my front, from throat to pubic line, as if maybe I’d mislaid it somehow. But it wasn’t there. The scar was. I thought it looked a little…wider, shinier, than it had, the day after Con had closed it the first time. But it was a scar.

But my chain was gone too, and there was a new scar, which dipped over the old one, in the shape of a chain hanging around my neck. Together they looked like some new rune, but I couldn’t read it.

There was no sign of the golden web, no matter how hard I scrubbed.

What had I been saying about going on fighting for the forces of good? In that mad little moment right after Con had said something comforting? That a vampire had seemed to say something comforting should have told me I was having a crazy moment, not a returning-sanity-and-hope moment.

Going on doing anything like what I’d been doing these last five months—horribly culminating in what I had done last night—was approximately the last thing I wanted.

Especially when it meant bearing the knowledge of what I’d done. And that going on doing it would mean bearing more of doing and more of knowing.

But Pat had said we had less than a hundred years left. Us humans. No, not us humans. Us-on-the-right-side. And there aren’t enough of us.

Okay, here’s the irony: if I went on with this heavy magic-handling shtick I was likely to be around in a hundred years.

I pulled the plug and started toweling myself dry. I rubbed violently at my hair like I was trying to friction-burn undesirable thoughts out of my head. I washed and dried my little knife tenderly, however, and put it back in my fresh, clean, dry pocket. I was dressed in the first thing out of the top cupboard in the bathroom, where all my oldest, rattiest clothes lived. Then I started another bath and called Con.

I found a one-size-fits-all kimono in the back of my closet that Con could get into, or rather that would go round him; at least it was black. I could give him the shirt in the back of my closet but it wouldn’t be long enough on him.

Right. I was clean. Con had something to wear. On to the next thing. Food. I didn’t have to think any more long-view thoughts yet. I still had small immediate things to organize myself around.

I was frying eggs when he came out, looking very exotic in the kimono. I stood there holding a skillet with three beautifully fried eggs in it and said miserably, “I can’t even feed you.” How I’d organized my entire life: feeding other people. I heard what I was saying—or what I was saying it to—a moment after the words came out, but his gaze did not waver.

“I do not eat often. I do not need food.”

I shook my head. I’d narrowly avoided mental breakdown as a result of facing ancient all-consuming evil, and now I was about to lose it over giving a vampire breakfast. I felt tears pricking at my eyes. This was ridiculous. “I can’t eat in front of you. It’s so…I feed people for a living. If I don’t do it I’m a failure. I identify as a feeder of…”

“People,” said Con. “I am not a person.”

I’d just been having this conversation with myself in the bathroom. “Yes you are,” I said. “You’re just not, you know, human.”

“Your food grows cold,” said Con. “It is better hot, yes?”

I shook my head mutinously. He was right, though, it was a pity to ruin such ravishing eggs.

“I will drink with you,” said Con.

“Orange juice?” I said hopefully. It had to have calories in it. Water didn’t count.

“Very well. Orange juice.”

I moved three white roses out of one of my nice glasses, gave it a quick wash, and poured orange juice in it. It was one of the tall ones with gold flecks. Silly thing to drink juice out of. I didn’t see him drink—it occurred to me I hadn’t seen him drink his tea in the goddess’ office either—but nearly half a gallon of orange juice disappeared while I ate my eggs and two toasted muffins and a scone. (What a good thing that it hadn’t occurred to me to empty my refrigerator before I died.) Did that mean he liked it, or was this his demanding standard of courtesy again?

“What does it taste like?” I asked.

“It tastes like orange juice,” he said, at his most enigmatic.

How was I planning on putting us-on-the-right-side, anyway? Con had been on the right side as compared to Bo. Con was still a vampire. He still…

I did the dishes in silence while Con sat in his chair. The kimono made him look very zen, sitting still doing nothing. I’d seen it first at the lake, that capacity for sitting still doing nothing with perfect grace: although that wasn’t how I’d thought of it when we were chained to the wall together. And it was interesting that he retained it when he wasn’t under the prospect of immediate elimination with no way out, which might be expected to focus the mind. If it didn’t blow it to smithereens.

I did the dishes slowly. We’d done washing and eating. There wasn’t anything to come except to figure out sleeping arrangements. Con had acknowledged that vampires did something like sleep during the day. And my body had to have sleep soon or I was going to fall down where I stood. But my mind couldn’t deal with it. I’d tried to convince myself to haul some laundry downstairs but I couldn’t face the effort: stairs: the assault on Everest, and where were my Sherpas? I rescued Con’s trousers from where he had rinsed and wrung them out and draped them over the towel rack (you don’t think of vampires in domestic-chore terms, but I suppose even vampires have to come to some arrangement about getting their clothes washed), and hung them on the balcony for the sun and wind to dry them; at least they were still trousers, if a trifle ravaged by events, which was more than could be said for the remains of his shirt. I scuffled around in my closet again—at some peril to life and limb, since my com gear tended increasingly to get left in there—and pulled the spare shirt out, and left it on the closet doorknob.

Every utensil was scoured within an inch of its life and dried and put away too soon.

Sleep. No way.

At least, being this tired, and still half-watching my hands for renegade moves, I wasn’t interested in—or maybe I should say I wasn’t capable of brooding about—what else might happen in a bed-type situation. Or could happen. Or wasn’t going to happen.

I was capable of brooding about being afraid to be alone. Afraid to sleep.

“You’ll have to have the bed,” I said. “There are no curtains for the balcony, and the sun gets pretty much all round the living room over the course of the day. I’ll sleep on the sofa.”

He was silent for a moment, and I thought he might argue. I’m not sure I wasn’t waiting hopefully for an argument. But all he said finally was, “Very well.”

Of course I couldn’t sleep. I would have liked to pretend—even to try to pretend—that it was because I wasn’t used to sleeping during the day, but with the hours I sometimes kept at the coffeehouse I had to have learned to take naps during the day or die, and I had learned to take naps. Up until five months ago “something or other or die” had always seemed like a plain choice in favor of the something or other.

Sleep was no friend today. Every time my heavy, aching eyes closed, some scene from the night before shot onto my private inner-eye movie screen, and I prized them open again and lay, dismally, in the soft golden sunlight of early autumn, surrounded by the smell of roses.

I don’t know how long I lay there. I turned on my side so I could watch the sunlight lengthen across the tawny floor as the sun rose higher, as the light reached out to pat my piles of books, embrace the desk, stroke the sofa, draw its fingers tenderly across my face. I was comfortable, and safe: safer than I’d been since before the night I drove out to the lake, and met Con. Bo was gone, Bo and Bo’s gang. But I couldn’t take it in. Or I couldn’t take it in without…taking in everything it had involved. We’d done it, Con and I. We’d done what we set out to do, and, furthermore, what we’d known, going in, we wouldn’t be able to do. Or I had known we wouldn’t be able to do it. What I hadn’t known was that I’d been counting on not being able to do it. And I’d been wrong. We’d done it. Done is a very thumping sort of word. I felt like I was hitting myself with a club.

I didn’t feel safe. I felt as if I was still waiting for something awful to happen. No. I felt as if the thing I most dreaded had arrived, and it wasn’t death after all. It was me. I’m afraid of you. I’m afraid of me.

As little as three months ago I’d thought that finding out I might be a partblood, and might as a result go permanently round the twist once the demon gene met up properly with the magic-handling gene, was the worst thing that could happen. It was the worst thing I could imagine. I’d pulled the little paper protector of disuse off the baking-soda packet of my father’s heritage and dropped it into the vinegar of my mother’s. The resultant fizz and seethe, I’d believed, was going to blow the top of my head off. Now those fears seemed about as powerful as the kitchen bomb every kid has to make once or twice to fire popcorn at her friends. I felt as if mere ordinary madness would have been a reprieve. I’d known about the bad odds against partbloods with human magic-handling in their background. I hadn’t knovn anything about Bo. About what a thing like Bo could be.

Black humor alert. And I still didn’t know if my genes were getting ready to blow the top of my head off. Although it seemed to me they’d had the best opportunity any bad-gene act could possibly have wanted, and had let it pass them by.

I wrapped the blanket closer around me and stood up and went into the bedroom. I’d drawn the curtains tightly together and the bed was in heavy shadow and I wasn’t paying attention, so it took me a moment to realize he wasn’t in it.

He couldn’t have left. It was daylight out there. Panic rose up in me. I would have guaranteed I didn’t have the energy for panic. One more thing to be wrong about. And what was I panicking about anyway? Being left alone with myself? I’d rather have a vampire around?

Well. Yes.

I didn’t have time to finish panicking. He stood up—or more like unfolded, like a particularly well-jointed extending ladder or something: stood up doesn’t really describe it—from the far side of the bed. “What are you doing on the floor?

He just looked at me, and I remembered the room I had once found him in. The room that wasn’t his master’s. At least he was still wearing the kimono.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I can’t sleep.”

“Nor I,” he said.

“So you do sleep,” I said. “I mean, vampires sleep.”

“We rest. We become…differently conscious than when we are…awake. I am not sure it is what you would call sleep.”

No, and orange juice probably doesn’t taste like orange juice to you either, I thought.

I couldn’t sleep, but I was too tired to stand up. I sat down on the bed. “I—we did it, you know?” I said. “But I don’t feel like we did it. I feel like we failed. I feel like everything is worse now than it was before. Or that I am.”

He was still standing. “Yes,” he said.

“Does it feel like that to you too?”

He turned his head as if he was looking out the window. Maybe he was. If I could see in the dark, maybe a vampire could see through curtains. Maybe it was something you learned to do after the first hundred years or so. One of those mysterious powers old vampires develop. “I do not think in terms of better and worse.”

He paused so long I thought he wasn’t going to say any more. It’s probably an occupational hazard, becoming a fatalist, if you’re a vampire.

But he went on finally. “What happened last night has changed us. Yes. Inevitably. You have lived—what? One quarter of one century? I have existed many times that. Experience is less to me than it is to you, for I have endured much more of it. And yet last night troubles me too. I can—a little—guess how much more it must trouble you.”

I looked down, partly so he couldn’t read anything in my eyes, although he probably already had. Maybe that was why he had been looking through the curtains. Vampire courtesy. Previously observed.

Troubled, I thought. Okay.

“Sunshine,” he said. “You are not worse.”

I looked up at him, remembered what I saw him do. Remembered what I had seen myself do. Remembered Bo. Tried to remember that we were the victors.

Failed. If this was victory…

I was so tired.

“I will do anything it is in my power to do for you,” he said. “Command me.”

A vampire, standing on the far side of my bed, wearing my kimono, telling me he’d do anything I asked. Steady, Sunshine.

I sighed. I wasn’t up to it. “I don’t want to feel alone,” I said. “Lie down on the bed and let me lie down beside you, and put your arms around me. I know you can’t do anything about the heartbeat, but I know you can breathe like a human if you want to, so will you please?” I looked at his face in the shadows—the shadows that lay motionless and fathomless across it—but it was expressionless, of course. He lay down, and I lay down, and he put his arms around me. (Note: do vampire limbs get pins and needles?) And breathed like a human. More or less. It was a little hard to ignore the lack of heartbeat that close—no, you may not think you’re aware of a pulse in the body lying next to you, barring your actual head on an actual chest, but, trust me, you are—but he was the right temperature and that helped. And somehow the solidity of him, the fact that my open eyes could see nothing but his throat above the folds of the kimono and his jaw above that, felt strangely as if he was protecting me, as if he could protect me from what I had brought back with me, had roused to consciousness within me, the previous night. I curled my deceitful hands under my chin. And I found myself falling asleep after all.

I dreamed, of course. Again Con and I were in Bo’s lair, and there were vampires coming at us from all directions, flame-eyed, deadly, horrible. Again I saw Con do the things I would rather not have seen anyone do; again I did things myself I would rather not have done nor know that I had done. It does not matter if it is them or us, after a certain point. It does not matter. There are some things you cannot live with: with having done. Even to survive.

Again my hands touched Bo’s chest. Plunged within it. Grasped his heart, and tore it free. Watched it burn. Watched it deliquesce.

And again.

And again.

I felt the poison of that contact sinking through my skin. It did not matter if it was only the poison of evil, the poison of an idea: it was corruption, and it corrupted me. I felt the fire of the golden web rise up in me: through me: and lift away.

I wept in my sleep.

When Bo caught fire and burned, I too burned: my tears left little runnels of fire down my face, not water. They dripped on my breast, where the wound had reopened. They burned especially terribly there. My tears and the light-web burned me, and then left me.

For a little while after this I blew on the wind as if I were no more than ash. But I was blown eventually out of darkness into light, and as the light touched me I began to take shape again. I struggled against this—I was fragments, bits of ash. I was nothing and no one, I had no self and no responsibilities. I did not want to be put back together again, to face everything I was and had done, and could do again. Another hundred years, tops, and the suckers are going to be running the show. The Wars were just a distraction.

I did not want to feel the poison eating through me again, to see those gangrenous lines crawling up my arms where the golden web had once run, toward my still-beating heart; to see myself rotting…I would rather be ash, dry and weightless, without duty or care. Or memory.

Or severed loyalties.

Here was a memory: I was sitting on the porch of the cabin by the lake. It was night. I could hear behind me the ping of my car’s engine as it cooled. It was a beautiful night; I was glad I had come.

But my life was about to change irreversibly. Irreparably.

My death was about to begin.

I listened for the vampires, knowing I would not hear them. It was too soon in the story of my death for me to hear them.

Instead I heard a light, human step rustle in the grass, in last year’s half-crumbled leaves. I turned in amazement.

My grandmother walked up the steps to the porch, and sat down beside me. There was more gray in her hair than there had been fifteen years ago. She looked worn and discouraged, but she smiled at me as I stared at her disbelievingly.

“I do not have much time, my dear,” she said. “Forgive me. But I had to come when I heard you weeping. When I understood what you wept for.” She picked up my hands—in a gesture very like Con’s—and then held them together, as she had done long ago, when she had taught me to change a flower into a feather. “Constantine is telling the truth,” she said. “There is nothing wrong with your hands. There is nothing wrong with you. Except, perhaps, that you came into your strength too quickly, and all alone, which is not how it should happen—if it is any comfort, this is not the first time it has happened this way to someone, and it will not be the last—and yet if it had not happened that way to you, you might not have done what you did, partly because you would have known it could not be done. And so you would have died.”

“Would that have been so bad?” I said, trying to keep my voice level. “Mel would have mourned, and Aimil, and Mom and Charlie and Kenny and Billy…even Pat, maybe. Even Mrs. Bialosky. But— would it have been so bad?”

My grandmother turned her head to look out at the lake, and again I was reminded of Con, of the way he turned his head to look through the curtains. She was still holding my hands. “Would it have been so bad?” she said, musingly. “I am not the one to answer that, for I am your grandmother, and I love you. But yes, I think it would have been so bad. What we can do, we must do: we must use what we are given, and we must use it the best we can, however much or little help we have for the task. What you have been given is a hard thing—a very hard thing—or you would not have to ask if your failure and early death would be so bad a thing to happen instead. But my darling, what if there were no one who could do the difficult things?”

“Which difficult things?” I said bitterly. “There are so many of them. Right now it feels as if they’re all difficult things.”

I waited for her to tell me to pull myself together and stop feeling sorry for myself, but she said: “Yes, there are many difficult things, and they have been almost too much for you—too much for you to have to bear all at once. Remember what Constantine told you: that he too is shaken, for all that he is older and stronger than you are.”

“Con is a vampire,” I said. “He’s one of the difficult things.”

“Yes,” she said. “I’m sorry.”

“Pat says that we have less than a hundred years left,” I said.

And for a third time she reminded me of Con, in the quality of the silence before her answer. But she sighed like a human. “Pat is perhaps a little pessimistic,” she said.

“A little!” I said. “A little!”

She said nothing.

We sat there, her warm hands still holding mine. I was waiting for her to tell me everything was all right, that I would be better soon, that it would all go away, that I would be fine. That I would never have to look at another vampire again. That we had all the time we needed, and it wasn’t my battle anyway. She didn’t. I heard the little noises that the lake water made. I felt the pieces of my severed loyalties grinding together. Of the fragments of me.

I thought about the simplicity of dying.

At last I said, and surprised myself by the saying: “I would be sorry never to see the sun again.” I paused, and realized this was true. “I would be sorry…never to make cinnamon rolls again, or brownies or muffins or—Sunshine’s Eschatology. I would be sorry never to work twenty hours straight on a hot day in August and tear off my apron at midnight and swear I was going to get a job in a factory. I would be sorry never to leave my stomach behind when Mel opens the throttle on this week’s rehab project. I would be sorry never to tell Mom to mind her own damn business again, never to have Charlie wander into the bakery and ask me if everything is okay when I’m in rabid-bitch mode, not to make it to Kenny and Billy’s high school graduations, supposing either of them manages to graduate. I would be sorry never to reread Child of Phantoms again, never to argue with Aimil about Le Fanu and M. R. James, never to lie in Yolande’s garden at high summer…” Wonderingly I said, “I’d be sorry never to hear the latest SOF scuttlebutt from Pat again.”

I paused again, longer this time. I almost didn’t say it. I whispered: “I would be sorry never to see Con again. Even if he is one of the difficult things.”

I woke with tears on my face and Con’s hair in my mouth. I don’t think any of me moved but my eyelids, but he raised his head immediately. I sat up, releasing him from dreadful servitude. He rolled to his feet at once, and drew the curtains back. Night had fallen.

“It’s dark out,” I said unnecessarily.

“Yes,” he said. I didn’t see him shed the kimono or walk out of the room, but suddenly he wasn’t there, and the kimono was a black puddle on the dark floor. When he reappeared he was wearing his own clothes. The black shirt looked much better on him than it had on me. The trousers looked pretty bad, but they were better than nothing. They had to be damp still, but I told myself he could raise his body temperature to steam them dry if he wanted to. Another of those little perks to being undead.

He hadn’t buttoned the shirt.

There was no wound on his chest.

I’d been here before.

But there was a scar.

I climbed off the bed—standing up, a little dizzy—went to him, touched it. “That’s new,” I said.

“Yes,” he said.

I wanted to know why: what would scar a vampire? Another vampire’s try for your heart? Or the touch of live human lips on such a wound? But I didn’t ask.

“You slept,” he said.

I nodded.

“It is over. Last night is over,” he said. “And Bo is gone forever.”

I looked up at him. There was no expression on that alien, gray-skinned face. If it wasn’t for the eyes, he could be a statue. One carved by a particularly lugubrious sculptor.

Ludicrous, I thought. Insane, grotesque, impossible.

I looked away, so he couldn’t read my eyes. But he’d said he could only read my fears, not my secrets.

I would be sorry never to see Con again.

“It is beginning to be over,” I said. “Last night is beginning to be over. I dreamed—I dreamed of my grandmother.”

“She who taught you to transmute.”

Yes.

He nodded—as an articulated statue might nod—as if this made perfect sense. And as if this were the last, perfect stroke, and the story—or the statue—was complete.

I wasn’t going to cry. I wasn’t.

“We are still bound, you and I,” he said. “If you call me, I will come.”

I shook my head, but he didn’t say any more. “You could call me,” I said. Spectres of the sort of black Bakelite phone fantasy that Con’s master might have tucked away in a corner gyrated briefly across my mind’s eye.

“Yes,” he said.

I touched the new scar on my neck, the one that crossed the old scar, the one in the shape of a necklace. “I have lost the chain you gave me. I’m sorry. I couldn’t find the way, even if you did call me.”

“You have not lost it,” he said. There was a pause. “The necklet is still there.”

“Oh,” I said blankly. I suppose if a pocketknife can be transmuted into a key a chain can be transmuted into a scar. Maybe on the same grounds as that it’s hard to leave your head behind because it’s screwed on. Although it had been as well for Con a little earlier that my pocketknife was still detachable. Carefully I said, “I would not want to call you if you did not want to come.”

Another pause. I bit my lip.

“I would want to come,” he said.

“Oh,” I said again.

Pause.

“Would I…do I need to be in danger of dying?” I said.

“No,” he said. But he turned his head, and looked through the window, as if he was longing to be gone.

I stepped back. I took a deep breath. I thought of cinnamon rolls. And Mel. I thought of trying to help save the world in less than a hundred years, doing it Pat’s way. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m trying to turn this into some kind of human good-bye thing, you know? You’re free to go.”

“I am not human,” he said. “I am not free.”

“I am not some kind of trap—or jail cell!” I said angrily. “I am not a rope around your neck or—or a shackle around your ankle! So—so go away!”

Perhaps it was the wind of my anger. I heard a rustle of leaves.

He looked again at the window. I wrapped my arms around my body and leaned back against the end of the bed, and stared at the floor, waiting for him to vanish.

“When do you again make—cinnamon rolls?”

Gaping at him was getting to be a bad habit. So was saying, What? I gaped at him. I said, “What?

Patiently he repeated, “When do you go again to your work of feeding humans?”

“Er—tomorrow morning, I guess. What time is it?”

“It will be midnight in two hours.”

“Six hours then. I leave here a little after four.”

Slowly, as if he were an archaeologist deciphering a fragment of a long-dead language, he said, “You could come with me. Tonight. I would return you here in time for your leaving to go to the preparation of cinnamon rolls. If you are sufficiently rested. If you…wished to come.”

What does a vampire actually do at night? Go for long invigorating walks? Research the habits of badgers and owls and—er—I wasn’t very up on my nocturnal wildlife. “Aren’t you—er—hungry?”

Another pause. Time enough for me to decide I’d imagined what he’d just said.

“I am hungry,” he said. “I am not so hungry that I cannot wait six hours.”

I thought of how totally, horribly difficult tomorrow was going to be. I thought of all the stories I was going to have to tell. I thought of all the truth I was going to have to not tell. I thought of lying to Charlie, to Mel, to Mom. To Mrs. Bialosky and Maud. To Aimil, even to Yolande. I thought of facing Pat again. I thought of having to talk to the goddess again—among other things about the disappearance of Mr. Connor, whose address would turn out to be false. I thought of how much easier all these things would be if Con vanished into the night, now, forever. They wouldn’t be easy—nothing was ever going to be completely easy again, after last night. And I hated lying. I had been lying so much lately.

Almost everything would be easier, if Con went away forever.

Con said, “I would rather bear you company a few more hours than slake my hunger.”

I didn’t make up my mind. I heard my voice say, “I’ll get dressed.” I turned—like a walking statue, a badly made puppet—and went to the closet. I managed to turn the knob and open the door before my brain caught up with me. By that time the decision had already been made.

Since my living room closet was now full of com gear, my bedroom closet was impassable. Where, or for that matter when, had I last seen my black jeans? As I say, I don’t do black, and my wardrobe isn’t based on the concept of dematerializing into the shadows. “This may take a minute,” I said. I hoped I didn’t sound like I was begging.

“I will not leave without you,” he said.

His voice was still expressionless, and I could not see him now, as I was, on my knees on the floor of my closet, fumbling through a pile of laundry that might have stayed folded if it had had a shelf to go on, but it didn’t and it hadn’t. Maybe it was because I was thinking about self-unfolding laundry that made it so easy to hear that he was telling the truth. I will not leave without you. I looked at my hands, the hands that had touched Bo and held his heart while it melted and ran stinking down my wrists and dripped sizzling to the disintegrating floor, and which were now efficiently sorting wrinkled laundry. I saw my hands clearly, although it was dark, because I could see in the dark, and they did not look wrong or strange or corrupt to me; they looked like my hands. Deeper in the closet—where were those damned jeans—where it was really very dark, and while I was thinking about jeans, I saw the faintest glimmer of gold on the backs of them, on the backs of my hands, and on my forearms. I had not lost the light-web either.

This was now my life: Cinnamon rolls, Sunshine’s Eschatology, seeing in the dark, charms that burned into my flesh where I could not lose them. A special relationship with the Special Other Forces, where not everybody was on the same side. A landlady who’s a wardskeeper. Untidy closets. Vampires.

Get used to it, Sunshine.

I came out of the closet wearing black jeans and a charcoal gray T-shirt I had always hated. And red sneakers. Hey, red turns gray in the dark faster than any other color.

He held out his hand. “Come then,” he said.

I went with him into the night.

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