She hardly knew how to respond to the news.
"YouíveÖwhat? Repeat that?" she asked in an incredulous voice over the phone. Her grip on it was white-knuckled as she stared blankly out into the night outside her window. The glow of her bedside lamp warmed the room as her gut knotted suddenly with cold.
He sensed her unspoken denial and felt a small pang of pain in his gut. He needed her now more than ever. "Maybe weíd better talk about this face to face. It doesnít feel right over the phone."
She closed her eyes and nodded on her end. "Okay. Iím coming over now, okay?"
"Yeah, okay. See you then."
Hanging up, she took a deep breath. He did it. I canít believe heís actuallyÖ oh godsÖ no longer humanÖ
Out of her apartment and into her car, she felt the cold of her upholstered driverís seat as a confirmation that she was awake. Awakened by his phone call at midnight with the news he delivered with a calm voice.
He said that it hasnít even set in for him yet, she thought as she pulled out her the underground garage where her car sat protected from the morning frost everyday. Iím over reacting. I must beÖ but how else to react with this news?
Unreality set in on her drive down the road and up the hill. Langley lived about five minutes away from Matt, the difference between near the city to near suburbia. Silent shades of dark grey and blue, the rows of shuttered houses flowed past her like an old Hitchcock movie. She still hoped that she had consumed a little too much wine with her pizza for dinner and that she was somehow imagining the whole midnight drive.
His answer at her knock did nothing to dislodge that doubt.
Matthias looked the same as always. Clean with his thin frame silver glasses, rough with subtle chin stubble, and attractive with his young boyís frame just fleshing out into a manís. He opened the door of his section of the duplex condominium with an expression of calm, but Langley could see that the situation was really getting to him.
She stepped in, letting the heat from his body pull her to him. Heat? Halting a little away from him, she studied his features, looking for the physical changes that wouldÖ should have taken place by then. His dark blue eyes remained circular, not feline. His long blonde hair was still neatly kept in a short ponytail at the base of his neck. He closed the door behind her and she couldnít help but feel a little shiver of unease. Heíll changeÖ heíll need blood and Iím here for himÖ how many times has this happened in how many books and how many movies?
She entered further into his living room, all earth tones of brown and deep green. Theyíd stayed whole days in here, watching movies, debating over psychological issues heíd learned in college classes, and gazing into each otherís eyes. Would those times change? She hoped not, but she was afraid the future was lost already.
He watched her from the door, hoping the same things. He constantly thought about Langley and missed her. Seeing her in his living room, he wished again that she would be his, that she would love him as he loved her.
She turned and her level gaze made him remember that she was her own person first, with her own goals and ambition enough to attain them. Maybe enough to leave him. "How did this happen?"
He signed and joined her in the living room. Standing one and a half heads taller than her, he took her elbow and steered her into the kitchen. "Let me make us some coffee. Itís going to take a while. Not the story, itís rather short, but I know I need to learn a lot from you."
She allowed him to go through the routines of normalcy. He often drove to her apartment at night, helping ease her shaking after a violent, bloody nightmare. She knew the time would come when he would need her comfort for something equally serious. She sat at the small white Formica kitchen table as he settled his brand of coffee beans in the coffee maker and poured in some water. She watched him as he grabbed two mugs from a cabinet and set them on the table before sitting in the other chair at her side. She was about to prompt him with her question again before he spoke.
"It wasnít like I knew it was going to happen," he said in a voice that searched for excuses. "Chappy came over with a friend of his that Iíd never met before, a girl. He introduced us and before I knew it, my wrist was in her mouth and blood was dripping down to my elbow."
She sat there quietly, eyes full of compassion. "What did it feel like?" She hated her curiosity, but she had read so many books, studied so many theories from so many authors about vampires that she needed solid facts. She needed to believe and make it real. If it was real, she could accept it.
He licked his lips and narrowed his eyes. "It feltÖ strange. Thatís all I can describe it as. Almost like my head was swimming, kind of dizzy. A while after, my veins felt like they were heating up and tingling." He frowned. "I thought that there would be something more to it, but I can remember that her fangs were sharp."
She reached out gently for his hands and looked for the scabs. On his left wrist was a faint, shallow slash. She traced it with a fingertip as he continued, watching her. "Afterwards, Chappy told me that he told her that I wanted to be one. She was willing to give the gift to me."
Langley looked up dryly. "Thanks, Chappy."
Matt grinned slightly. "Thatís what I said. We sat down and talked about whatíd happen next. She told me that sunlight would start itching against my skin, but would start burning soon enough. I will need blood, but I could take it in the form of a very rare steak. The occasional craving for the taste of blood can be solved with salted tomato soup."
She blinked and slowly reached out for his upper lip. Lifting it up with her thumbs, she examined his teeth.
"Fangs," he continued after she settled back into her seat, "will have to be made. I donít grow them, somehow. I can either go to the dentist for calcium injections or have a cast made of my teeth and porcelain fangs made."
Langley took a moment. "Thatís definitely not in the lore." Taking a deep breath, she slowly absorbed all that he had said, perplexed at the simplicity. "Is that all? Would that be all?"
Matthias shook his head. "I donít know yet. I donít think we talked long enough to cover anything. She gave me the names and numbers of a handful of the real vampire community to talk to in case I needed more information."
And that was that, she thought, leaning back as the coffee machine beeped its readiness.
"Honestly," he remarked, pouring coffee into the mugs. "I had thought that you would become a vampire before me."
I never thought that they could be this real, right now, she thought to herself. "Yeah," she answered him, accepting her mug and stirring in the Irish cream. "I do hang around with those crazy Goth artists. Through all the posers, I shouldíve hit a real one by now, huh?"
He sighed and sat back down, wearing his regular street clothes for the night. He had been too caught up with things to even bother to change. After being bitten and talking for an hour about it, he had to rush to work as the sun had started setting for yet another irregular shift. When the streetlights had long since been burning at midnight, Matt came home from his job that night.
Today, though, he just had to call Langley. For her voice, for her support and advice, for her mere company. He needed help and Langley was the only person he could trust with the update of his life. He watched her sip thoughtfully at her mug of coffee and wondered what she was thinking.
She looked up, sensing his gaze. "I wonder if you could start reading minds now and flying and all that good stuff. Turning into a bat sounds too ridiculous to even consider."
He shrugged. "Who knows whatíll happen. Iíve only been a vampire for what? Less than twenty-four hours? Maybe someday, I can read your thoughts."
"But not now, huh?"
He shook his head and she looked slightly relieved. He frowned. "What do you think of all of this, Langley? Youíre not afraid of me are you?"
"Honestly?" She set her mug down and looked into his eyes, trying to read them as she sometimes could. "Iím scared of you and for you. This is too soon for us. Weíve just barely started drinking legally. I meanÖ I always thought that weíd become vampires when we were in our late twenties or something, not at twenty-one." She sighed and frowned out the kitchen window over the sink. "Right now, neither of us know what the hell to do. We canít handle it."
Sheís going to leave me. "But we have to."
"And youíre afraid of me."
"IÖ I guess Iíll get used to it."
"LangleyÖ you know I would never hurt you," he told her adamantly, reaching slowly over for one of her hands. It was cold and shivering under his, slightly jerking once when he made first contact. Oh no.
"Youíve told me that many times. But that was before you becameÖ inhuman." She continued in earnest. "Who knows what youíll do when you need blood so badly and Iím there. Every author Iíve read has depicted a vampire on the rampage, a vampire that has killed his or her loved ones. Thereís every possibility youíll do something without even knowing it."
"Not to you." If he was ever sure of anything in his life, he was sure about this. Biting her without her wanting it would be a violation, a rape. Something that he did not believe in.
Quietly: "So how will you go through the day?"
"Long sleeves, jeansÖ and plenty of indoor activity."
She tried a small grin, but it fell apart like her daydreamed plans for their future. "Youíre pale enough already from your job." Her voice was losing its inflections as she spiraled into sadness.
I still love you. You have nothing to fear. Iíll wait for you. All those things went through his head, but none came out of his lips. None of them seemed to truly fix what had been done. Nothing would. "Do you want to stay the night?"
She looked up at him. After a ten-month relationship, she knew his mind, his intentions, his eyes that were blue windows to his soul. Would a moment of blood change him so much that heíd hurt her?
"If you want me to, Iíll stay."
"I might need you to stay." Selfish bastard.
Matthias hated daylight.
When he was ten years old all the way until the weekend before, Matthias loved the sun. Rollerblading down the street, driving across town, swimming at his friendís pool party, hiking in Eaton Canyon, lying down to let the sun warm his flesh after studying in the shade. He liked sitting outside a small café and listening to the birds chirp and people talking on the sidewalks as they shopped around. He liked watching children play in the park and he liked any kind of sport on a wide-open grassy field. He liked watching Langleyís auburn hair glint dark brown fire as she smiled at him across the porch swing in his back yard. Most of his favorite activities were in daylight.
Guess thatíll have to change, he thought, haunched under a computer desk on his back at Banshee Engineering and Recording Studios. Fiddling with sheathed wires and circuit boards, he hoped he wouldnít get an unpleasant shock.
Not that it hadnít happened before. "Babe, inanimate objects are just out to get you," Langley had once said with a huge grin, looking at him as if she would wink. "Now electrical ones are joining in Matthias hunting season. The situationís unresolvable."
He had chuckled and reached over to play with her hair. "Itíll be resolved once Iím dead."
She had stuck out her tongue at him and wrinkled her nose. "How morbid."
So I guess Iíll never be free from pain, he thought tepidly as a little spark jumped from a junction of wires and singed a hair on his forearm. He ignored it. Matthias patched up the computer in automatic mode, the problem having been a routine hardware bug for internal switches. His mind was more situated on living forever.
Well, not exactly living forever, he corrected. Just aging at an extremely slower pace.
The rate of aging had never been completely acknowledged and studied. Vampires didnít exactly go to a scientist and asked to be a guinea pig. The girl who had given Matt the gift had told him that not many vampires actually worried about dying from old age due to the old tales of immortality dating past the stereotyped Dracula. Immortality usually meant living forever as long as a vampireís survival needs were met. Blood was the main sustenance, while keeping away from sunlight was another inconvenience. Skin did not blister or burn in the sun immediately; it just itched like hell and after a while, felt like burning as the transformation continued. Again, not many vampires stayed out in the sun long enough to see if they could die from a toxic sunburn.
Old age was not the number one cause of vampire deaths, but humans were. Throughout the Old World, there had been bounty hunters and family bloodlines that had hunted down vampires for trophies. Now that the mainstream culture of the world accepted science as fact and faith as myth, vampires had become a sort of symbol for an evil entity. Vampires were entertaining and fictional. Novels and books were made with pale make-up and plastic fangs. Children mocked their existence on All Hallows Eve. Teenagers posed as them in the name of gothic fashion.
But now Iím actually one of them, Matthias thought, edging out from underneath the desk and dusting off his crisp tan Dockers. He heard his stomach mumble irritably and frowned at the craving for something metallic, salty, and sweet.
Steak, huh? He sighed and saw on his wrist that it was seven at night. Maybe itís just myself convincing that I want to taste some blood.
There had been no maybes about the pain he felt at dawnís light that morning. As soon as he stepped out of his door, the light hit his eyes and he fell back into his dim living room. The fiery rays had sliced through his eyes, searing a painful trail into his skull; a battle-ax aimed at splitting his brain in two. The throbbing had even made its way into his molars as a harsh migraine began. Shutting the door quite hard with a foot, he hunted throughout his apartment for his dark blue sunglasses and baseball cap.
Making sure that his skin was exposed to a bare minimum, covered by long sleeves and pants, Matthias opened the door to his home again, hiding behind the wooden slab. Miniscule streams of light danced onto his living room carpet, shaded slightly by the waist high bush blocking his front steps. Looking at them, he experienced a small ache in his pupils and turned his eyes slowly to the street.
At seven in the morning, activity on the small suburban block was just starting up. Langley had already left his duplex at six with a gentle, half-remembered caress on his cheek as he was just waking up. Businessmen fathers stepped out to their cars, waving to their wives at the door as she went back into the house to eat her breakfast and prepare brown-bagged lunches for their children to take to school. Garbage men were making their way noisily down the street, clumsily skewering garbage cans with their cranes and lifting them to their open mawed machines, gorging on the grimy contents. Middle aged couples sliding into their Golden Years power-walked their lapdogs, huffing and deluding themselves of youth with fitness.
Through it all permeated the orange sunrise, filtering through leaves and morning dew.
Matthias hurriedly gathered his backpack and coat, shut the door behind him, and ran to his car. Turning on the engine and the radio in one smooth motion, he waited for his car to warm up from the cold it gathered in the night. Luckily, he parked his car facing away from the sunrise at an angle where it couldnít get at him with the mirrors. He forced his breath to a normal pace, shutting his eyes against the brightening world around him and absorbed the melancholy tunes of Ben Folds Five and the piano.
It was better at his morning classes as he sat under the high windows and let the light flow over him. Matthias had to concentrate harder on the lecture and squint his eyes to see the board. The light was just pinpricks on the back surfaces of his eye sockets.
Driving was another matter. In the Southern California weather, the afternoon brought down the full oppressive force of the sun beating down on the concrete streets and aluminum hoods of cars. The drive between the City College and Banshee Studios was at least half an hour and Matthias baked in his car even with the air conditioner on. The presence of light glinting off Los Angelesí reflective buildings was enough to make him scream. He blasted his music instead.
Work was a welcome hiatus from his tag game with the sun. In the maze of hallways and cubicles in the middle of the high rise building, there were little opportunities for windows to get at him. The air conditioning was all encompassing, keeping his skin chill as he buzzed from computer to computer, answering whatever calls he received about some software being corrupted or a file not registering in a program.
In the off times, when things ran smoothly, Matthias grabbed his pager and went over to the actual recording sessions that occurred with a different local band every hour. With every new face full of determined hope and perfectionistic dedication, he watched them pump out riffs and vocals in the room on the other side of the soundproof glass. Male or female, teenagers or middle aged rockers, they all pushed their efforts in that rented hour of recording or mixing. Violent motions on the guitar strings or drum skins seemed alive and vibrant to Matthias. Each day had instilled in him hopes for his generation, that knowledge that they werenít all slackers.
Today, though, the people who had acknowledged him with a nod and a smile made him lower his gaze sooner with sadness. He was no longer human even if he felt he was. The blood had skittered in his veins noticeably and even the mood lighting for the recording rooms had seemed far too bright for his sensitive eyes. The changes in his body made him feel distanced from who he once was.
It doesnít have to be, he told himself as he walked out of work, lugging his belongings on his back in the dark safely, making way to the Souplantation down the block. Iím still Matthias Carmichael. I still like salads and vegetables. I still like to drive fast and dance slow. I just need a bit more rare in my steaks now, thatís all.
He freed up his hands enough to pile a salad of greens and other interesting vegetables high on his plate and gather a large bowl of meaty minestrone soup from the self-serve counters. Setting them on his tray, he paid for the meal and ordered the main course of an extra rare steak. If the worker at the cash register gave him a strange look, Matthias ignored it. He had been born with an advanced metabolism and the onset of puberty and his final height of six foot three at age seventeen didnít diminish his appetite one bit.
Dropping his baggage on the plush brown vinyl seat next to him, he slid into a booth near the skylight windows to watch the stars shine as he crunched into his salad. I wonder where Langley is. I wonder what sheís thinking.
Often during his days, Matthias thought of his girlfriend. Currently, his reflections of her went along the lines of fear. The night before, she had slept in his bed while he stayed out on the couch. The looks she gave him, the emotions she could never hide from him, slipped into his heart to cut him like the edge of paper.
She doesnít trust me. He had a gut feeling about it. She had seemed to pull herself away from him emotionally as he embraced her in the hallway after she had dressed for sleep. Her arms went around him even as her body hesitated to be near his. His sleep that night had been disturbed with nightmares of her leaving him for another, more human man who was smarter, more handsome, and rich. He dreamt of her leading a storybook life without him in the picture pages.
From Matthiasí mind a song slowly emerged to accompany his pondering. Sad and somewhat regretful, he experienced the anxiety that it was a foreshadowing to his future. How much will this change me? How much will it change us?
He really had no way of knowing for sure, but the parts of lives they shared together had already changed and not in a way he had ever wanted. It had been hard enough to fight his doubts about his angle on their relationship and keep her with him before. Both of them had entered the relationship with issues unresolved in their lives: Langley with her learned wariness of males from her mother, he with his dark past of many regrets from his teenage years.
Amazing how weíve gotten this far, he thought as he politely thanked a waiter who brought him a bloody rare steak. Aware that there were people around him, he repressed his new instinct of ripping into the slab of beef with his teeth and hands and took up a fork and a knife. The only question now is if we can keep going.
Langley gave him a dry grin and twirled around with mock coquettish giddiness. "Thank ye, mílord. You like this that much, eh?"
"Yeah," he rolled out smoothly. His eyes roamed with obvious pleasure from her braided hair, black velvet coat that went to mid thigh, black jeans, and black combat boots. "But I thought that our date was next week."
She chuckled, secretly glowing in his praise. "Iíll wear something more girly for you, then."
His grin was borderline rapacious. Between two educated young adults, they shared extremely dirty minds. Matt had to purposefully concentrate on the thread of conversation. "Looking forward to it. But why are you dressed up so nice?"
"Weíre heading over to a party," she replied, stepping out onto her doorstep and locking behind her. "I talked to the first on the list, Marq, over the phone. Weíre meeting at some skater place on Colorado near the college."
"Are you sure about your plan?" Matthias asked, wary of her dramatic stunts. The day before, he had given her the list of vampire contacts. She in turn had phoned each of them, posing as a new vampiress instead of Matthias. Only after she had done so had she told Matt of her plan to protect him.
She turned to him as they walked to his car parked out on the street. It was almost ten at night and the lights outside her building lighted the walkways green and yellow. She had observed that his dress was more casual than hers with beige Dockers, a long sleeved dark crimson dress shirt that was tucked in, a black leather jacket, and his own scuffed combat boots. How they could blend into a crowd full of younger, scruffy skaters, she did not know.
"Not really," she replied, grinning. "But the other people on your list either wouldnít talk to me or were busy."
Matthias stared at her, trying to gauge her mood. "I meant your plan. Do you think this guy will fall for it? Who knows if older vampires can tell a new vampire from a normal human."
She forced a casual one-shoulder shrug. "Worth a shot." For you.
Theyíd reached his car and he opened the passenger door for her before getting into the driverís seat. He inserted the keys into the ignition, but hesitated to start the engine. "Langley, I can go alone, you know. You donít have to come with me."
"I know I donít," she responded, her demeanor serious as she looked at him with her clear brown eyes. "But I want to be there for you, in case of anything. Iíll probably always be here, if you wanted me or not."
Matthias felt like kissing her, just to assure himself that she was real and not some dream where he would wake up and find himself alone. He didnít even know if he could. He started to say so, but the bittersweet smile she gave him told him she knew.
She put a gentle hand against his cheek as a surrogate for her lips. "Letís go, Matt. Weíre already fashionably late."
She turned at her name spoken with such surety and had to lower her gaze a few notches to face the dark-haired adolescent boy two inches shorter than her five foot four stature. "Yes?"
"Marq. We spoke over the phone."
His business-like tone did not go well with the loud ska band playing on the foot-high stage a few yards away from them and the bright yellow and blue Hawaiian shirt he wore over a black, long-sleeved thermal. To even further the contradiction, Marq raised his arm in a long practiced gesture and popped a Rolo into his mouth, chewing the caramel and chocolate slowly with obvious enjoyment.
Langley didnít know what to do so she just stood there with her hands in her pockets on the outskirts of a huge mosh pit that opposed a small ramp where skaters gained a few feet of air. "Hey. Howís it going?"
He shrugged negligently and nodded to Matthias. "Seems like itís all goiní on without me." Tossing his head back to flick a long lock of orange streaked bangs, he gestured to another boy behind him with his shoulder. "My bud, Metro."
Langley nodded her head upward and lifted one eyebrow slightly at the silent teenager. He looked slightly older than Marq in years, but it couldíve been because of his black leather jacket and skater cap. "My boyfriend, Matthias," she said in reply, nodding her head to the observant bodyguard at her side.
Marq grinned, the small scruff of a mustache above his lips spreading wide. "Knew you had one. Wanna talk here or away?"
She leaned in close to catch the gist of his words. "Away would be nice since I can barely hear you."
Metro nodded and walked away, a few seconds later Marq followed. Taking no cues, Langley and Matt continued on their footsteps, exiting the closed down boarding store through the back entrance. The party had overflowed to the back parking and under-aged drinking went unchecked. Low throbs of bass and drums were reduced to a loud mumble as conversations broke like childrenís laughter above the roar of ocean waves.
Matthew observed the two boys above Langleyís head as they reached a far part of the small parking lot. Pegging them for sophomores in high school, he had to wonder how Marq had become a vampire so early in life. How long had he been a vampire? Why? Side by side, they looked like any other skater punks: bored with regular life and looking for a new thrill, be it snow or the other white powder. Matt wondered, How many vampires had I glanced at everyday and not even known it?
"Obviously," Marq began, turning around and leaning against some chain-linked fencing with a bush growing through the holes. "Your boyfriend is the newbie to the blood club. Why you didnít clarify the simple facts of identity is also romantically obvious. Now, what do you guys need to know?"
Langley had the grace to look unfazed by his bluntness. "Iíd expected you guys to know who was the real vampire and who was not."
Metro grinned, standing next to Marq so that he could observe the strange couple. "I like her."
"Thatís nice," she shot him down with her own brand of gentility. Matthias knew she could handle it all so he remained quiet. To Marq, she addressed with customary respect. "We just need to know what every new vampire needs to know."
"Demanding, too," Metro observed to Marq who had kept his smile in place during the conversation. Metro slid his hands into his pockets and winked charmingly at her, pulling a lewd twist to his lips.
Matt was about to respond with something guttural and violent, but Langley stepped in with a glare at Matt. She blatantly ignored Metro who pouted at her lack of humor. "Will you help us?"
The two boys exchanged a look that seemed more than just physical communication. Neither Matthias nor Langley expected less and kept their thoughts hopefully to themselves. They stared Langley and Matthias down, seeming to look straight through their hidden fears and wants. She gripped his hand a bit tighter and he threaded his fingers through hers.
Finally, the two boys returned to each otherís eyes and nodded somberly, splitting up the non-verbal chat session. Marq returned to his post at the fence while Metro turned to spark up a joint with a black Zippo lighter. "So who bumped you into our world, Matthias?"
He shrugged with his hands in his jacket pockets. He eyed Metro warningly as he said, "A friend of mine knew I wanted to be one, so he told this long time vamp friend of his. Just came over about a week ago and here I am. What of it?"
"Well, usually the maker educates their young," Marq replied, taking the proffered joint from Metro and puffing a breath. "You never saw her before? You have no idea who she was?"
Matthias shook his head. "None whatsoever."
"Sounds like heís someone for Damien," Metro slurred together slightly. His eyes were losing focus on them and Langley wondered how sound their advice was going to be from that point on.
"Damien?" Matthias asked with a raise of a questioning eyebrow, turning his ear forward to the quickly fading mentality of their sources. Maybe they should have waited another day for the other sources to get back with them.
"DamienÖDamien Frette, I think is the name heís taken with now." Marqís smile was slowly becoming a reflexive side effect as he leaned more heavily on the fence. "Really cool guy, everyone knows him or at least of him. Really good guy, helps everyone out all the time, yeah."
"In the vampire community?" Langley asked, slanting the question to continue the conversation.
Metro giggled. "Community, yeah. Youíre too cute. Weíre all just one big freakiní happy family. We even share the same blood."
That struck Marq as incredibly funny and he started to laugh insanely. Langley noticed that he didnít have a set of fangs in his mouth and glanced at Metro. He was rolling across the fence, swaying and laughing. Neither one of them were coherent anymore.
"Where can we find this guy?" Matthias tried, speaking a touch louder than normal and enunciating every word with exaggeration.
Metro breathed deeply to catch his breath and struggled to hold down a fit of the giggles. "Do you have it?" he asked Marq as he was breaking out a metal flask of questionable beverage from his pants pocket.
"Yeah, I think. Maybe, lemme seeÖ" He reached behind him with his free hand and felt around the back of his baggy camouflage pants. After a bit of fumbling, he figured out that his shirt was hindering his progress to his wallet and lifted it up. Flipping through the flaps, he pulled out a tattered-edged business card on black paper with red foil print. "This is his club, open all the time. Donít tell him I told you, okay?"
"Yeah." Langley took it from his hand before he could drop it and slipped it into her pocket. "Thanks, guys." She looked at the two boys, concerned. They couldnít be any older than her next door neighborís child who had turned fifteen the month before.
"Donít mention it, babe." Metro smiled at her and, for the first time, it actually looked somewhat boyish and innocent. So much like children, yet they would never grow up completely.
"Need anything, Marq knows us," Matthias said, starting turn his back and follow Langley back through the party. There was nothing they could do to stop that personal festivity between them.
"No, we wonít," Marq replied, taking a swig of hard core whiskey from the flask Metro handed him. "Why else would we need cheap human drugs to forget you two? Youíre all gonna be in such deep shit soon enough since you were not voluntarily gifted. With all thatís gonna sink you guys, we donít need to be dragged in with you."
The club was all that she had secretly hoped it would be.
All loud metal guitar, gyrating bodies in leather and chains, and sexual appetites being fulfilled in small grottoes for display, it was a scene out of a darkly loud cyberpunk movie. The bass thump of the drums on stage compressed her lungs, making her breathe heavier for air free of cigarette and marijuana smoke. What the skaters had been imitating on a juvenile level, The Dark Renaissance flaunted without inhibitions.
Completely decked out in her black velvet and suede leather finest, Langley was dumbstruck with perverse fascination. Matthias was stoically at her side in a dark blue long sleeved shirt and black jeans, steering her away from a distinctly raw display of bondage and looked around for the section Damien would most likely be at.
"So heís the owner," he yelled to Langley under the screaming guitar with matching singer. His hand was steadfast on her elbow as both of them took turns leading the other. "Doesnít seem like heíd be bartending, where else could he be?"
"Usually, thereís a restricted section for special guests," she called back, shoving amongst the hyper crowd and hitting groping hands away from her body. Looking around on her thick high-heeled boots, she noticed the soft mood lighting in certain booths nestled between display cages along the walls. "Maybe heíll be in one of those corners."
"If we donít get throttled by this crowd first." Matthias followed her the best he could as he frequently elbowed people from picking him as the next piñata for the horde on the dance floor. No one had room to fall on the floor, so they propped up against each other from his blows. No wonder there wasnít much resistance by the thugs at the door, Matt thought. Who ever wanted to be here has to fend for themselves against the freaks.
A human marionette in kitten garb was suddenly shoved between them by a rather violent man in a loincloth. Interested people in similar fetish fashion watched on and a handful even joined in on whipping the feline. Jostled, Matthias lost his grip on Langley as they were pushed in different directions. Fed up and frustrated, Matt was occupied for a few moments with shoving a number of "lovebirds" away from pawing him into their group.
Meanwhile, Langley had been handed to the outskirts of the crowd where she fell into a massive male body. Stammering a reflexive apology, she righted herself to only have a breast rudely grabbed by a meaty, no-nonsense paw.
She hissed with disgust at him in her mind. I was going to be polite, but since you asked so blatantlyÖ Remembering what Matthias had taught her earlier in their relationship, she threw her elbow into the drooling manís face, whipping his head back via his jaw. Grabbing his short dreadlocks, she brought his face down to her knee and broke his nose. The man was out cold as she kicked him unceremoniously under a vacated seat at the bar.
I might like to watch a little, but I never said anything about participating. She sighed with completion as she took stock of where in the club she was. Around her, the male patrons of the bar either looked nervously away from her glare or met it with the aroused begging look of a masochist. She turned from the young bartenders wrapped in leather strips and clear Band-Aids and looked out to the dance floor. There was no sign of Matt.
"Damnit," she muttered under her breath, leaning against the edge of the bar with a pissed-off frown at the unforeseen problem. "I donít want to hang out here alone for long."
"Then you wonít," a smooth, confident voice interjected. She felt a warm body sidle up and her mood darkened even more.
She didnít even give him the decency of turning her head to acknowledge him as she stared off into the crowd and the changing of bands on the stage. "Frig off, buttbanger," she warned in her low, tough voice. "Iím taken."
"The more the merrier." She raised an unamused brow as she sensed a grin behind his tone and pushed off the bar counter with her elbows to walk away. "Then again, thatís the motto I aim for with this gorgeous club of mine."
She paused and tilted her head up, turning her eyes to the figure cast in purple lightening effect lights. He was about as tall as Matthias with nose-length bangs and shoulder length sable hair. His eyes were a clash of green and yellow, clear and sharp, observant of everything around him and intelligent enough to estimate what event would prove most profitable to him. Dressed in a form-fitting black turtleneck and loose burgundy jeans, his darkness blended with the atmosphere of the club around him.
"Iíd prefer you call me Ďmasterí, but thatíll do for starters." He gave her a mock bow and what she assumed to be his socially disarming smile. Confident in either the poor lighting or the freakish nature of the club, he didnít even bother to conceal his fangs with his bottom lip. "Now that we know who I am, the question remains of who you might be. Might I know the name of the lovely maiden in front of me?"
She ignored the gallantly extended question and the topic in general until Matthias found her. She hoped that he would arrive to her rescue sooner rather than later. "Nice place you have here. A real smasher."
"Isnít she?" he asked, proudly fishing for compliments. He straightened up and admired his own handiwork. "Opened a little over five years ago and word of mouth spread like wildfire. LA is very much the place forÖ alternative lifestyles."
She scanned the throbbing masses for her man. Nothing. "You have Hollywood to consider," she answered, making an effort to have casual conversation and buy some time for Matthias. "The city of movie freaks and cyberpunks, youíd figure that it would be the cesspool of people living and thinking in abstracts and madness."
He eyed her with an impressed expression and shifted his body closer. "How poetic," he rolled out seductively with a quirked eyebrow.
"How disturbing." Langley turned to her other side to see that Matthias had approached them with an expression that made her eyes widen. With his hair tied back and wisps of blonde-highlighted bangs mysteriously obscuring his intense blue eyes, his look of possession struck an alarm in her human sanity. Vampire.
Damien recognized he had a good amount of competition in front of him and grinned devilishly. "The man who took you has arrived," he murmured to Langley, the derogatory tone he used with his underscored words offending both guests. Sarcastically cordial, he bowed gracefully in front of Matthias. "Welcome to my club, Iím your host, Damien Frette. Anything your appetites desire, I provide."
"Matthias Carmicheal. I see youíve met my girlfriend, Langley Shelby."
"Girlfriend!" Damien interrupted half way, laughing hearty and patronizing. "What a quaint term, not everyday you hear it here."
"I suppose not," Langley agreed mildly. "Excuse us while we revel with the majority of mentally healthy society."
He shook his head, still grinning with passive laughter. "Iíll say this, Matthias, mílad: your woman has some mouth on her. I temporarily envy you."
Flattered, Iím sure. "We came here on business, Mr. Frette," he said, stiffly formal as he eased his arm around Langleyís waist. She gratefully shifted to his side, keeping Damien in front of her and the door behind them, hoping that a quick getaway would not be easily blocked.
"Not pleasure? Iím crushed," he pouted, obliquely looking Langley up and down with feral eyes. "But I suppose Iíll live. What is it you wish to discuss? Nothing is taboo."
Matthias controlled the urge to backhand Frette so hard, he would suffer a broken jaw as well as whiplash. Bluntly to get the night over with, he said, "Vampires." He eyed Damienís unsheathed fangs to stick his point.
Damien nodded sagely, dropping most of his time-whittling attitude. "Shouldíve smelled your newbie scent earlier, but itís difficult lately with the heavier incense we use to mask all the aromas of sex and blood. How was your education?"
"Non-existent," he replied, relaxing slightly now that the innuendoes had currently ceased. "She bit me, licked me, then left me."
Frette chuckled at his phrasing. "Clever underplay, but a serious offense. Then again, you wouldnít know that." He looked to Langley, his eyes assessing her without directly looking at her. "She doesnít make your situation any better, mon amis."
"She isnít any of your concern," Matt defended as Langley was about to speak. The situation called instinctively for vampire to vampire. "Just tell us what we need to know to survive and weíll leave every vampire on this planet alone."
He shook his head, eyes an unreadable dark shade of old leaves. "If it were so simple, I would. The fact that this vampiress didnít take the time to tutor you for days on protocol is something akin to Catholicismís original sin. You must share the punishment for her crime. Iím currently curious if she looked to the Coven for permission to start gifting."
The terms gracefully flew over both of their heads like brown leaves on an autumn day and like children, they tried to run after them to catch them in their underdeveloped grasp. Langley hung on Mattís arm with a tenuous grip on his sleeve as he did all the talking and retelling. She had already mentally connected the similar questions from Marq and Damien and deduced that there was a protocol involved. An actual protocol for something that was thought of as fictional and moronically fantastic. Then again, there is documentation of protocol in many of the fictionÖ
Frette shook his head, dismissing their lost expressions. "Her name?"
"She didnít tell me her name," Matt was reporting factually. "She was a long time friend of a close friend and I had never met her before."
"And this was a human friend of yours?"
"Iíll most definitely have to check with the Coven," Damien said softly, half to himself. The forbidding scowl on his face didnít detract from his animal magnetism, but Langley was strengthening her resistance quickly.
"You mean youíre not the end all for the local vampires?" she asked, like a reporter trying to get all the facts, yet waiting to skew them to her own perceptions.
He turned to her, amusement slowly returning to his demeanor. "If youíre thinking in terms of the Masquerade, no. That author had his own biases on how to make his own world. He had not received or ever will have contact with any vampire."
"And for the real world where you dwell? Who exactly are you?"
Damien smiled non-committably. "Iíll just say that my status is a considerable one in the Coven." He turned towards the thrashing guests of his club, demolishing each other with a DJís violent mix of KMFDM, flashing a last smile to them. "Iíll get back to you, Matthias."
Matthias unlocked the front door to his duplex wearily. He was primed and ready for the nightís sleep; his day was full of idiot computer entry workers and snobbish clients. The other nightís inhaling of assorted air fresheners had not helped his concentration. Hungry for rest, food, and blood, he opened his door and dropped his coat and backpack to the couch.
"A might untidy, are we, young one?"
The disembodied voice startled Matt into immediate wakefulness and he looked up from the murky living room. The dim starlight filtered in through the wide living room windows and faintly illuminated the figure sitting at his kitchen table. To his vampiric sight, Matt recognized the arrogant form and contemptuous face half hidden in sharp shadows.
"Flattered. Then again, Iíd expect youíd remember me. Iím just that kind of guy."
A bastard sonuvabitch? Got that right. Matt snorted aloud with a smidgen of contempt and closed the front door, locking it with two flicks of his wrist. "Sorry, guy, I donít swing that way."
Damien chortled. "Who said anything about wanting you?"
Turning on the light was a reflex habit Matthias was used to. At the click of the wide paneled switch, the room was bathed with soft halogen lamplight and both men narrowed their eyes. Matthias was the only one who flinched. He immediately turned off the lights with a jerky motion.
"Very fresh," Damien remarked, a smile curving his ever so sensual lips. "You shouldíve been taught everything before you were given the gift."
"The curse, you mean."
He shrugged haphazardly. "Whatever your poison. In either case, you and your girl-toy are in a serious situation."
"What do you want here?" To prove to himself more than he needed to prove to Damien that he was fearless, he crossed the living room to the hallway where the answering machine was. No messages.
Damien grinned, his fangs hidden behind his lower lip. "I said you needed a teacher."
"Are you offering?" Matthias said with the same tone that he would acknowledge a wad of phlegm on the sidewalk.
"Maybe. It would prove amusing."
Matthias stared down at him coldly, standing in the center of his living room all in black, his figure a silhouette cutting through the moonbeams from the window. "Fuck off. I donít need help from any bastard like you."
Damien raised an elegant eyebrow. "Did I push a button last night, my dear Matthias? You must admit though, Langley Shelby is an arresting specimen for any male, alive or undead."
"Which is why she is mine."
Matthias frowned to himself and executed a quick analysis of his behavior. Why am I getting so pissed off? This is too clumsy to be me, he muddled in his head.
He smirked. "Temporarily. We of a different species live longer than any weakling mortal. The extreme length of time where we now exist changes many circumstances. She will die as you remain young. Do you think she has not noticed her short time on earth and wish to spend it with someone better than a young, naïve child like you?"
Tired of being passive, Matt started to develop an attitude himself. "Did you come here to start a battle for who has the most testosterone?" he asked with impatience. "Langley wouldnít be impressed and neither am I."
Damien languidly rolled his head around on his neck, gazing around the small kitchen with passive interest. "I stopped producing most of that primitive stuff a long time ago," he responded drolly. "Since itís obvious your maker didnít instruct you well when they gave you the gift, I guess I will."
Donít strain on my account, Matthias thought as Damien rose from his seat and reached into the pocket of his trench coat. He braced for any kind of physical attack as Damien produced a little booklet that looked computer printed. Dropping it casually on the table, he stepped into the living room, arranging his trench coat around his body more attractively and approached Matthias.
Matt still had not gotten a good look at Damien. At the club, the lights were too vivid and active; at his home, the starlight was too mysterious and dampening. All he could really record to memory was his eyes. Amused, coldly assessing a situation or a person, and hiding any thoughts that he did not want revealed, Damien was the classical vampire turned modern, almost stereotypical in his dark intelligence.
Which still made Langley the expert on his behavior. Matthias knew how to fight with his fists and weapons, but he didnít know what or whom he was fighting. From his martial arts training, he knew it was a dangerous situation to start something with unknown elements and it didnít take a genius to figure a vampire was the last kind of person anyone would want to mess with.
Well, if this all comes down to physicalÖ I might have a few tricks up my sleeve, Matthias thought. He made a mental check of all the weapons he had in his home. A well-stocked blade rack was hung near the hallway, a .22 slumbered in the bedroom that would not really do much good if the situation escalated quicklyÖ
Damien shook his head and grinned. "Oh, you poor young man. You should pay better attention to the scary stories your playmates told you in grade school, especially about monsters. Iím sure your lovely Langley knows all about them." He tilted his head questioningly. "Was she too busy flirting with me to tell you?" he asked with as much innocence as a shark.
"Leave her out of this, Frette," Matthias warned in a low voice.
"You should tell that to yourself, Matthias," Damien shot back authoritatively, leaving a hidden warning. "Now itís too late for her to back out of this and she must decide her fate. Itís all in there." He pointed to the papers on the kitchen table. "Those are our laws and you must obey them now that you are fully aware of our world. Read it all up. Meanwhile, the Coven meeting is on Friday, The Dark Renaissance." His lips twisted with inner amusement as his tone soured to sarcastic pleasantness. "You must meet the rest of your new family. Iím sure theyíll love you, especially your woman."
He came forward, his eyes alight with malice. Matthias stood still until Damien reached him and stopped a foot away. They measured each other, determined not to back down, determined to win one battle in what was most likely to be a private war.
"Such mortal hope in you, Matthias," Damien said with soft sympathy, looking upon him as an adult would condone a child fascinated by an ant march. "If Iím not the one destined to take her from you, then someone else surely will. Youíre not worth a classy piece like her, nor are you the only one who wants to be the first to taste her blood and body."
He clicked his tongue in mock reprimand at Mattís shoulder as Matt tensed his jaw, scruffy with overnight stubble. "I know my own way out, no need to bother. Good night and sweet dreams, brethren."
Matthias finally moved once he heard the door click shut a few feet behind him. Breathing slowly through his nose, he collected his rampant emotions with his mind as he threaded his fingers through his bangs. They fell towards his face disobediently as he slowly dragged himself to the couch and sat down, drained.
What issue to tackle first? he wondered with self-deprecation. The very difficult or the most-likely-not-to-have-a-solution difficult?
The Coven meeting. Matthias knew he had to attend. Not just because he was ordered to by Damien, but he had to find out what to do. He was living day by day, constantly being driven by a craving for any kind of blood, for something warm and sweetly metallic. It was inconvenient to go to the grocery store and want to buy up their whole meat rack. He needed someone he could trust to tell him if he was eating the right foods, drinking the right beverages, and tell him it was going to be all right, get used to it. He would be damned before Damien became his teacher.
He dug the pads of his palms into his temples and slowly slid sideways to lay on the couch. The perfect end to the perfect day, he would have thought if he could consciously remember the events of the past eight hours of daylight.
Reaching up and around a wall into the kitchen, he felt around the little table until he struck the small sheaf of papers left to him. On his back, in the dark, he gazed at the unassuming cover of the booklet, turning it around and around with his hands. Muzzy as the moonlight was, he could tell it was white with simple, black text and small, shaded lines under some text for sophistication in style.
Quit stalling and open it, he could hear Langley telling him. Get it over with and stop being so damned afraid.
Surprising enough, there was a table of contents behind the cover. Matthias had skimmed through it only four or five categories before he hit "Human Interaction." Quickly locating the first page of the article, he bent the booklet wide and tilted his head so he wouldnít block the moonlight. The inside text was set in a tasteful, classic font style with a modern flare for layout. Matthias shook himself from Langleyís rants about printing and started reading.
Therefore, the meeting invitation, Matthias put together, frowning beyond the booklet to his feet propped up on the other armrest of the couch. Loneliness, huh? Langleyís always been my cure for loneliness, always been there for meÖwould they think that all mortals are beneath vampires?
He glanced through other parts of the text that seemed to him like the Bibleís evil twin. Damien had said to bring Langley. They mean to make a judgement on her.
Matt debated about that as he absently flipped the edge of the booklet with his thumb, staring at the window that favored the street lights. I would do it if it meant getting them to leave us alone. But what if they mean to burn her or something? Drain her of her blood right there? His stomach churned at the notion. Would I be able to defend her against all those vampiresÖ Stronger vampires, at that.
But I canít go through it without her, his thoughts sped away as he stared at moonlit dust motes floating in front of the window. She can know if theyíre telling me the truth about something or are lying about something. I might be able to read people, but how good are vampires at hiding? I hadnít seen one until last week and nowÖ now I think everyone is one, but they just donít show it.
But how can she know when sheís never even met one, aside from yourself? a far off voice piped in with a reasonable doubt.
A fly buzzed suddenly, weaving in and out of the dancing specs of dust, disturbing their patterns in its wake. Flying too close to the top corner of the ceiling, it was pulled abruptly by a spiderís web. The drone of its buzzing sputtered and eventually stopped.
The wall clock stuck 1 a.m. in its apathetic, atonal beeps, taking the vacant sound of the flyís wings and filling it. Matthias sighed and turned to his side, crossing his arms over his chest to hold his shoulders and closed his eyes. I donít want to be aloneÖ
"Now itís my turn. Do you think we should go through with this?"
Matthias looked up from his raid on his closet. Leaning against the doorjamb of his bedroom, Langley was nervous with her hair swept from her ears with ribbon ties and her short dress and jeans. Her gaze had taken the hard sheen of wariness long before and her casual pose was stiff.
"You didnít even ask me if I thought that it was a good plan," he observed, skirting the question.
"Yeah, because I already know that itís a bad plan, if one could even call it that," she answered, bluntly honest. "Iím just wondering if Iím alone in wanting to just ditch this damn thing."
"If it were only that simple," he replied, turning back to his half-empty hangars. He had not told her of Damienís visit the night before and he didnít think would in the near future. He still had not found an opportune time to tell her about the booklet of laws. "I have to be at the Coven meeting."
"Why?" She frowned. "Canít you justÖ I donít know, Iím just not sure how to go on with this. We didnít know what to do with Damien and we sure as hell canít begin to fathom what the whole fricking society of vampires is like. Damien and Marq had mention something about your making, how it wasnít authorized or something. Odds are, they already donít like you just because you exist."
He looked at her from his full-length mirror, hiding his feelings in a mask of attention. She already got one part of the Law, but thatís only one reason why theyíre not too fond of me. He didnít feel right about blaming her for being the other. If anything, he felt it was his own fault for dragging her into all this, as Damien had voiced earlier.
"The thing is, I donít think that hiding from them would help either. Yes, they know I exist," he started listing, pulling a brown and maroon patterned sweater out of the closet. "And they should certainly have the power to track me down and kill me. If we hide, itíll probably get them more pissed off."
She sighed and dropped onto his bed, leaning forward to rest her elbows on her thighs. "I think we already pissed them off by just being together."
He hurriedly poked his head out of the collar and arranged the sweater around his jeans. "Why do you say that?" Damn, he cursed in his head, not at all at ease. She just said the rest of that law. How much does she actually know and how much of that is actual fact?
She looked at him, taking in his features and giving off fears and doubts. "Itís not a real secret that vampires always think theyíre better than humans. Maybe they want their own race and humans to be segregated."
"Maybe. But if they thought that they were better, why would they allow us to live?" He finished dressing and grabbed his boots from the floor. Sitting beside her, he started lacing them up. "Arenít vampires supposed to be able to live for centuries? Thereíd have been plenty of time to grab a few nukes and kill us all."
She sighed. "I donít know. I donít think that weíll ever know. Do you even want to know?"
He raised up and looked at her squarely in the eyes, thinking about it. "Yes. I want to know my new history. I want to know what exactly Iíve just become."
Her eyes softened and something else entered into her gaze. Sadness? "Then Iím coming with you."
He didnít argue. He drove them to the nightspot that never seemed without a crowd at the entrants, waiting for people to exit from a night full of morbid fantasies come true. He parked the car in a deserted lot across the street and opened the door for Langley. This time, they were seen immediately by a temporary bouncer and were let in though the back door.
Matthias looked at the heavyset man at the alleyway and resisted the urge to nod politely. Experience had taught him that rude was the only protocol enforced and scorn was sacred offerings at The Dark Renaissance.
Back here again, he thought, frowning at the half-empty corridors and hallways that they weaved through, escorted by a slave girl in an elegant silk corset. The few people that were exclusively behind the scenes looked either grumpy with a headache or just numb and desensitized to everything around them. The products of frequently exposed dementia. Too soon for my taste.
He looked back at Langley, watching her look at him with complete trust and gripped her hand tighter as he hurried along. He ignored the small stab of undefined emotion that loving her always seemed to bring to his heart. Mine. I protect whatís mine. Iíll protect you.
Past a few doors with signs varying from "S & M" to "Manage au trois" and different flavors of graffiti art depicted on their surfaces, they were led into a large chamber. Amazingly, it held no evidence of sexual appetites, in fact, it had the feel of old England with cushioned, delicate wood furniture. Scattered around the room on tables and hung on walls were metal disks with ancient etchings. As far as Langley could tell, they came from Egyptian hieroglyphics, African paintings, and even Celtic knot designs. Also hung over an ornate fireplace and pieces of furniture were classic Victorian oil paintings of elegant royalty and fashionable nobility in silk, brocade, and lace, smiling distantly as they never gazed at the viewer. Large mirrors also decorated the walls, making the room seem distorted and larger than it actually was. A Japanese paper screen stood in the far corner behind a set of deep sofas. The wallpaper was a soft off-white with a pastel flower bundle pattern and the air conditioning was especially chilly with the faint scent of sulfur and wood-smoke.
While Langley was admiring the considerable collection of artifacts, Matthias was drawn to the other people in the room. Openly looking at him as he was, their eyes held a force that drew him immediately. They were his new kin by the sole basis of blood and he neither liked nor disliked them. The feeling was disconcerting as they looked at him with eyes that were earthly colors, yet unearthly in intensity. He did not know that he already held that same intensity and reciprocated it.
Langleyís hand slowly turned cold in his and he turned to look at her. She was staring beyond him to another man, leaning up against the abandoned fireplace. At their attention, Damien turned and greeted them with a small, cunning smile. Unlike his flashy clothes the other night in the club, he was now dressed in a black velvet jacket and black slacks. At ease in his domain with more of his kind around him, Damien let go of mortal ideals about vampires and became himself. Neither Langley nor Matthias found this reasoning very logical and dropped it.
He smiled, this time without artifice, to the woman he was talking to. Burgundy eyed and milky blonde, she had been staring at Matthias as if he were a newly bought book, ready to be known from cover to cover. She turned to Damien and raised a sculpted eyebrow.
"Now that we have our honored guests," he said to her, a lilt of an old accent coming into his voice. "I am sure we can begin."
She nodded. "Aye. ĎTis your place we gather at this eve, Damien. Call it."
He formally bowed to her, deeply and with humility. He turned to the assorted people in the room and bowed to them in the same way, rising after to hold his arms aloft as if to embrace them. "Coven of Ages, if you would please, be welcome into my humble chamber. Be seated at your leisure. Ask anything of me, and you shall receive."
"So it shall be," they echoed in unison, moving around and taking seats either on furniture or on the carpet. It was a formal occasion where the informal was accepted. The rustle of starched skirts could be heard as a woman settled on a small couch with a man that nodded a greeting to her. The room now seemed like déjà vu, where anyone could have gathered with anyone else for a meeting, only the atmosphere was more elemental, more earthly.
Damien ducked to his own seat with a bow to the lady. She, in turn, clasped her hands over her stomach and nodded respectfully to an extremely young woman escorted by two grown men on the far wall. Rising above the assembly behind a small couch, she assumed the position of mediator over the gathering, her posture that of proper bearing and sharp intellect.
Matthias and Langley remained standing near the door, feeling like two children who had just stumbled into the ballroom at midnight, fearful of reprimands, but curious to watch on. Matthias nudged Langley to the left and leaned against the wall. She mimicked his pose and crossed her arms across her chest, trying to control the beating of her heart.
"Before we start, the Coven would like to thank Damien for the use of his chamber for this meeting." She tilted her head slightly to Damien and resumed speaking with a deep, resonant voice. "We all know what these meetings are for so I wonít go over it again. Our usual routine for this meeting will not occur due to the arrival of new kin."
The curious eyes swiveled to Matt and Langley as the arrogant ones smirked and paid attention to the woman. "Matthias Carmichael was gifted without consent by a vampiress without authorization. Langley Shelby is his significant other." Her gaze lifted from the assembly to the far wall. "How do you plead your cases?"
Matthias looked to Langley, it was obvious he would have to answer for the both of them. "Weíre innocent, if thatís what youíre asking. I didnít know the vampiress who attacked me, but she was my best friendís friend for years. I hadnít seen her before in my life. All we want to do is to be left alone, we donít want anything from you."
For a split second, the womanís face contained an ounce of sympathy, then glazed back into emotionless discipline. "If only matters were that simple, young one," she replied, echoing Damienís earlier words. "We must know whom it was that made you because she must be punished for her indiscretion. We also need to know why she did it and get to her before she gifts again. According to the ancient laws, until she is recovered, you must be held accountable for your own condition. Your affiliation with the mortal woman is not welcome."
Matthias sucked in a breath and repressed a shiver. No one else in the room seemed to be unruffled; some actually looked amused. "What do you mean by that?"
The woman leveled her gaze at him, a parent with a sophisticated mind instructing an eager child. "Either she must become one of us or we will destroy her."
"This was the judgement you wrote about in the Laws?" he demanded, fear inspiring his anger. "She is the most innocent in all of this! If itís her silence you need, she has not even told a soul about my vampirism. She has researched the occult for many years and even with her knowledgeÖ" He looked at her as she felt like a lamb for the slaughter. "Even with her knowledge, she denied the existence of vampires like us."
A man from the couch with a cynical twist to his lips stirred. "Even the Devil believed in the existence of God. Vampires are an accepted myth today, she researched us, she believed. She must be held accountable for that knowledge."
"So you would persecute anyone who laughs at black capes and plastic fangs?" Langley called aloud, tired of being ignored like a piece of furniture. She appealed to them, sure that it would be the one and only time she would plead with these monsters. "There must be something I can do to make youÖ" She faltered, grasping at the right words to articulate her request. "For you to know that Iím trustworthy."
The girl in the corner shifted, clearing her throat delicately. From her unfocused gaze behind lightly tinted glasses, she seemed to be blind. "The Promise."
The cocky man on the couch chuckled, then grinned condescendingly. "The Promise? That old thing? How could those words possibly binding in this day and age?"
The mediator shot him a reproachful glare. "Ancient ways are how we have always lived in every time of the earth. We will not reject it now."
"What is the Promise?" Matthias asked warily.
"She could be Promised to the Coven," the woman replied sketchily. She stepped forward from across the couch and coffee table and looked gamely at the assembly. "Anyone volunteer to do the honors?"
"Wait, what do I promise?" Langley interjected uneasily as the other vampires rose from their seats. "I promise to all of you?"
"You will be Promised to us, young Langley," the woman-child of a vampire said from the corner, stepping forward to the growing circle around her. "Your soul will someday be a part of the Coven. That is the only way to still be with your man and remain alive and well."
She looked at Matthias, the obvious escape slipping unbidden to her mind. To leave him and leave all of this Coven stuff behind as well. Just leave him and be free.
For a moment, she considered. He knew she considered and a part of him splintered. He watched her face the mediator who awaited her decision with a patience learned from stalking prey. Langley stood before her, looking her in the eyes with her back straight and proud.
Ever so softly, never so courageous. "I Promise myself to the Coven."
The tension didnít ease as Damien stepped forward and gripped Langleyís shoulders firmly. "I shall do the honors, great Lady." His gaze wanted to burn through her.
Matthias watched helplessly as Damien gently turned Langleyís eyes to his. She looked at him at first with naked fear and hate, then softened her eyes to a dazed, vague look. Her breathing which had been erratic and thready now evened out to solid puffs of air. Her shoulders and spine relaxed so it looked like Damien was some magician holding her up only by the tips of his fingers under her chin.
Every nerve in Matthiasí body stood at attention as the air in the room seemed to coalesce in the circle the Coven had formed. The others had started a faint hum as the mediator and the other heads of the Coven whispered incantations in a crisp, lyrical language Matthias could not recognize completely. It sounded like Latin to him, but it had the accent of the Celts.
Damien drew Langley further from the wall and she followed with as much attention as she would if she were asleep. The circle closed around her, but let a space for Matthias to join in. He stepped closer, but didnít join hands with the group. He watched as the circle closed without him and he moved to a space between two people to look into the circle.
Damien was slowly unbuttoning the top of her dress and Matthias would have stormed in the middle if the chanting had not risen to full melody. Weaving in and out of harmony, the voices chorused in an ethereal melody. The metal hangings on the walls started resonating in harmonic tones and Matthiasí newly sensitive ears made him dizzy and nauseous.
He stayed his ground, braced his feet, and watched as Damien stopped after the second button and bared the top of a breast above the covering of Langleyís bra. Bending slightly, Damien gently grasped the back of Langleyís shoulders as he kissed just above her heart. His mouth hovered for a second, then opened, baring his fangs.
Langley! Matthias wanted to reach out and grab her and damn the consequences, but he could not move. The melody had started creating strong notes for beats and the tempo was the exact pace of his heart. They said they wouldnít make her-!
Damienís fangs only grazed her as he nipped her flesh, leaving a small, diagonal red welt. Langleyís body jerked like a marionette and stilled. He tilted his head at another angle and nipped again, making a small "X" on her chest as if for a bulletís accuracy. Finally, he kissed her tenderly, letting the raw redness ease into the rest of her skin. No one would notice unless it was pointed out.
Damien rose to his full height and let go of Langley. She swayed and blinked slowly, waking up from her dream state. She looked around her, disheveled and disoriented. Looking down, she saw her dress partially unbuttoned and quickly pulled the fabric together. The congregation set free their eerie melody with their hands resting at their sides, looking at her as if to dispassionately watch a child iterate its first word.
She looked up at Damien, confusion and a remnant of his spell lingering in her eyes. He smiled.
"It is done."
Still dazed from her intense figure drawing class, Langley stood in line at a local copy center, staring through people milling about for address labels and students typing away on the rental computers as if their bodies were made of glass. Her mind was still rendering the nude female figure she had drawn with a cheap ink pen for the past three hours. She had been so studious that she had surrendered her break time to correct some disproportions.
Concentration was her process for becoming mentally and physically numb to the world and her troubles. Commitment. How many times had Mom warned me about that? she thought to herself as she mechanically placed her full-color, fiery printouts for her graphic design class on the cashierís counter. The people behind her in line proceeded to dispense like toothpicks to the next available cashier to pay for overpriced paper goods.
A promise is a promise. One of Langleyís many adopted ethics and long suffering moral curses. She had once promised to always be the designated driver in all parties and she didnít imagine she would start being a lush now that she was legal enough to drink. Since she had been fifteen, she had worn her own promise bracelet on her right wrist to remind herself never to give up her virginity until she had found true love and/or marriage. She had made promises to keep minor secrets for friends to her current vow to not talk about the Covenís existence.
Why couldnít they have just left it at that? she fumed. I might be a damn human, but Iím down with all that crap. I donít want to be a vampire nowÖ maybe not everÖ
She remembered the choice they had played in front of her face, a choice that she knew was incongruent with their rules. If they didnít want any mortal to know about them at all, why would they think by just letting me go, theyíd ensure my silence? It sounded like a game to them. It didnít make sense, so of course they wouldnít have let me go even if I had chosen to leave Matt.
The gist of it. A harsher person would have accused Matthias of keeping Langley to him with guilt, but the truth of the matter was that Langley had made a more meaningful, truthful promise to Matthias a long time before the Coven. She had promised to be with him through any kind of troubles, to help him face his barriers no matter what they were. Even if her emotions about Matthias had never been solidly defined, she knew they were stronger than the fear the Coven instilled in her with the mark over her heart.
Where did you think "cross your heart and hope to die" came from, my sweet Langley?
The voice jolted her from her musings as her sheaf of papers was snatched up roughly. The cashier flipped through her work and nodded, turning to the register to ring her up. Langley had been shaken with the replay of Damienís voice in her mind.
The man next to her on the next register opening glanced over at her stuff. "Nice."
She turned and tried to focus her eyes on his face and not over his shoulder. His features were vague, but he seemed like a harmless computer geek with stylish threads. She managed a weak, leave-me-alone-and-I-mean-this-in-the-nicest-of-ways social smile instead. "Thanks."
"Art Center, right?" He was not deterred.
Langley nodded indifferently, her eyes on the keypad the cashier tapped into.
"Hey, me too!" He grinned and paid for his copies, then slid over to her section of the long counter. "Whatís your major?"
Langley felt like either slamming her head against the Formica or grabbing his head and doing the same. In her current mental mode of sporadic mood swings, a bugging male trying to "bust a move" never helped. She answered him tersely. "Illustration." Go away, go away, go awayÖ
"Mineís transportation. You wouldnít believe the freebies the car dealerships give you if you just go in their dealerships and say that youíre doing research on a project." He grinned proudly. "I once got a free lunch."
"Uh-huh," Langley responded dully, wanting to punch the cashier in the jaw for his sluggishness in ringing up her papers and leaving her with the maniac. Iíd rather listen to my momís lecture on the birds and the bees, get me out of here, someone!
Oh Gods, now he knows my name and he can stalk me, she thought before registering that the exclamation-slash-question came from a female voice. Turning slightly, she saw that it was one of her classmates in her painting class. Upon reflection, the girl had two or three of her full time course load.
"Victoria," Langley answered after replaying the role call for painting that afternoon. It often amazed her friends that she could remember what they had for breakfast, but not what she herself had.
"Hey, chica, whatís up?" Victoria came forward to the counter, auspiciously easing into the small space between Langley and the obnoxiously single young man. As if just noticing her rudeness, she turned and looked at him with almost genuine surprise and embarrassment. "Iím sorry, Iím not cutting you in the line. I just want to talk to my friend here. Please, go on."
Properly put in his place, the man left without another glance at them, maintaining what sparse dignity he had left. Langley had to grin despite her unfocused mind. "That was mean."
Victoria grinned cheekily, brushing a lock of artificially dark crimson hair from her pale cheek. "But effective. As long as it gets the job done, huh?"
Langley thanked the man behind the counter and gathered her stuff. "You can say that again. I owe you one."
Victoria shook her head and followed Langley to the back of the copy store. "Just think of the time I had to borrow that gouache from you. All bets are off now."
Langley let out a giggle and placed her bundles on the cheap worktable near the computer systems. "Until that guy comes into class hitting on you." She collapsed her weight into a swivel chair and turned it with the tips of her boots to face Victoria. "And donít tell me youíre happy someone had that temperamental stuff. No one in any of my classes would want to work with gouache if they had a choice, it screws up too easily."
"Ah, but thatís the challenge!" Dramatically, Victoria placed her backpack on the table as well and rummaged through it, getting out a zip disk from an outside pocket. "And speaking of challenges, could you help me with a project? Itís for my graphic design class and itís due damn tomorrow."
"Sure." Langley scuttled closer to the console as Victoria logged onto the system. Under the handle "V-neck," she inserted a disk, opened up PhotoShop, and browsed around for her image on the disk.
Langley grinned. " ĎV-neckí?"
Victoria smirked with a corner of her lip. "My old high school nickname. I used to always either wear V-neck T-shirts or sweaters. It stuck and I still wear the collars so a few of my new friends in my classes started calling me that."
Langley nodded as she saw a V-neck sweater underneath her wool jacket. "So whatís your major? What do you want to do after you finish school?"
Victoria shrugged. "I donít know. Ah, here it is." She opened up two images, one seemed like a template and the other was a scanned painting.
Langley recognized it. "Hey, I remember you painted that last week. I liked it a lot and I think most of the class did, too. The teacher sure thought it was smashing."
"Thanks." Victoria beamed proudly. "It was a good day for painting. Itís still untitled, but my mom wants it on her wall and the few people whoíve seen it want to buy it."
"Congratulations. Seems like you can be a successful painter."
"Yeah, I guess. But I havenít thought of a future outside of getting assignments done on time. Okay," she said, her light tone shifting to business. "What do you think? I need to make a magazine cover that relates to a poster and Iím going to use that painting and another rendered drawing. Which one should I use for the magazine and which one should I use for the poster?"
She enlarged the images to their full sizes, making room for each on the screenís desktop. She gestured to the pieces with the mouse cursor and moved the images to overlap to illustrate her perspective on what she had planned. "And do you think the magazine copy is alright?"
Langley provided her some constructive input and they stayed at that console for almost an hour working on the projects. By then, they had become friendlier and open about their mutual artistic interests. Walking to her car, Victoria led Langley out the back door of the copy center to the rear parking.
"Címon, let me give you a ride home." She jingled her keys from her pocket while juggling her own sheaf of papers under her arm.
"No, itís okay. I came with my own car." Continuing their conversation, Langley cajoled, "But with the stuff you can do, Iím sure some graphic design company would take you on, at least part time and train you on whatever you think you need training on."
She shook her head. "No. You can have so much confidence because your stuff always gets the good compliments. Mine doesnít."
"Ah, so thatís it, is it?" Langley nodded sagely. Who bashed your work? Where do they live so I can beat them up."
Victoria chuckled as Langley continued. "I mean, you canít think that youíre the only person critics bash. Itís what they do best. Art colleges hated me when I was in high school and Iíll bet some of them hate me still. I really donít care because I made it to the Art Center." She was in full steam for one of her patented pep talks.
Victoria had reached her car and opened the trunk. "Well, what do you suggest?"
"Do you have a job now?" Langley put her packages on the ground, thankful that the rains had stopped that week.
Victoria slammed the trunk down after she dropped her backpack and packages in. "Yeah, kind of. Can you say Ďfast foodí?"
Langley shook her head and leaned her hip against the gas intake valve lid on the side of the car. "Well, I have a few business cards and contacts from the students and teachers that I have. If you need any helpÖ" Her voice thinned out.
She felt her hip slide off the side of the car and her vision fade to black.
Whispering and thready, she heard Victoriaís panicking voice as she went down. "Someone help! Call 911Ö!"
Matthias stepped into the hospital room and he knew why she denied his change that first time.
Harsh halogen lights illuminated Langleyís profile, emphasizing how pale she was against the shadows of the hospital room. Her eyelashes moved slightly as she dreamed and her lips were closed, small and delicate. Thankfully, she didnít need help breathing so tubes were not connected to her face. Matt thought that she looked as peacefully sleeping as if she were on his bed, taking a late afternoon nap after classes.
Promised to the Coven. Itís all my fault, he thought as he stepped to the edge of the halogen glow and sat on the chair perpetually at her bedside. On the other side, hidden by shadow, were beeping machines, measuring her pulse and who knew what else. Why her? Of all the people I know ÖI love her, she canítÖ
In the span of a short week, Langley Shelby had wasted away to a pale ghost of a young woman, baffling the doctors at the hospital in Pasadena. Since she had been admitted quickly and with Victoria who could not provide any valuable information, then transferred to receive special attention and testing, news had traveled slow to Matthias. He had hurried out from Banshee as soon as the phone call came to his desk and he received the news days before. Trying to speed through Los Angeles rush hour traffic had not been easy, but Matthias had looked to be another victim of road rage and did not meet up with much difficulty.
According to her chart based on several tests, her condition was far from calm. She had contracted a serious virus months before without knowing about it. The HIV had spread itself through her system and immediately developed into AIDS. How she had gotten the virus, no one had a clue. He and Langley had not had time alone after the tests came back positive to talk about the Coven and the serious suspicion they both had about its involvement for her condition. Instead, they went through the paperwork and waiting together in silence.
Is this the Promise at work finally? He gazed down at her with guilt anchoring his heart to his guts. Damn Damien, what did he do to her with that kiss?
Vampirism was discovered to actually be carried and transferred through saliva, not the blood exchange that classic and contemporary occult lore spoke of. Matthias and Langley had a few quirks of vampiric truths drilled into them after she had been Promised. He doubted that she remembered much of it, she had been so out of consciousness he had carried her to the car and drove her home.
They were able to do this to her because they couldnít care less. Cursing softly and fluently, he took her hand that lay on the covers and sandwiched it between his. Finding her fingers cold, he warmed them up with his lips, kissing them as if they would break in his grasp.
Langleyís bruised eyelids fluttered open and she blinked at the ceiling for a while. Gripping his hand in response, she turned her head and smiled weakly through chapped lips. "Hi."
"Hey, luv." He managed a reassuring smile as he stroked her palm with his thumb. "How was your sleep?"
"Good." She grinned and he was reminded of sunny days, flirting, and laughter. "Had you in it."
"Oh? Looking forward to hearing about it."
She closed her eyes and her smile faded. "You know?"
He nodded, their communication so deep, they rarely needed to elaborate. "Yeah."
"Whatís going to happen now?" Her voice cracked with beginning desolation.
"Shh." He smoothed out her limp hair with a gentle, trembling hand. "Donít get worked up about it."
"Should I rejoice about it instead, Matthias?" she snapped back with jaded sarcasm. "How could this have happened? To us? To me?"
He shook his head, the only answer he knew how to honestly give. "This happens to many people, Langley. But they donít let it get bring their souls down. They live their lives as best they can and enjoy it because itís all the more precious."
Her eyes were shut tightly closed as she bit her bottom lip. A tear streaked a heated path down her chilled cheek. "So I really donít have anything to lose now, do I?" she whispered, opening her eyes and looking at him with a strange tenderness and something else he couldnít read.
Matthias looked at her, fearfully silent as a strange light entered her eyes. "What do you mean?"
"The Promise." She turned over sluggishly, creaking the bed and tugging at the tubes and wires around and in her body. "I can become a vampire now and die tomorrow. The next day. Maybe next year. Iíll die anyways, I have nothing to lose now."
Matthias glared at her, knowing it was not her logical senses that were rambling. "Donít talk like that."
"Why not?" She dragged his hand to her face and kissed his already healed wrist. "Do you have any other ideas?" She tucked his hand so that the palm cradled her cheek. "I donít want to live with the constant pollution of drugs in my system as much as I donít want to remain alive if Iím brain dead. Please, Matthias."
He shook his head, adamantly spearing through her desperate gaze. "Iíd rather you die as a human than a monster."
Her expression turned hard. "Itís not your choice now, is it?"
"No. But itís my heart." He moved away from her, pacing around the room with its monitors and sterile white. Her recklessness made his heart ache and harden its resolve. "And itís my choice to give you the curse and I donít think I ever will."
She shuddered and withdrew her arms to her chest, wishing to recall her cold words. "Iím sorry, Matthias. I didnít mean it."
"You did, but it wasnít completely you that was talking." He frowned at the noisy monitors and tapped one with a fingernail. "I think I understand your feelings."
She turned on her back again, staring up at the ceiling and wondering how many people had it as the last image their eyes saw. "What can be done now? I donít want to be in and out of hospitals the rest of my life. I donít want to be tested and analyzed like some freak of nature. I donít want to walk around with people treating me like a ticking timebomb or a leper. I donít want to die with painful slowness."
"Then you donít want to become a vampire," Matthias said from the window. "You donít want to be hiding for the rest of your life. You donít want to be hungering and thirsting every minute for every hour of every day." He came closer and leaned over her, watching her eyes look through his and comprehend the growing torment. "You donít want to be looked at like a freak by the one you love. You donít want to live forever while the one you love dies without you."
She raised a hand and cupped his jaw. "So we canít win. Weíve already lost."
He shook his head with unrealistic slowness. "Not without the last ditch effort."
Langley watched him with rising unease as he got up from the bed and walked to the counter with disposable sterile medical objects, rolling up a sleeve on his way. "Matthias, I thoughtÖ you werenít going to gift me."
"Iím not." His broad back faced her. "I wonít be the one that damns you." He returned with a disposable scalpel.
Her emotions played between fear, apprehension, and morbid hope. She watched him return to her. "SoÖ what are you going to do?"
He sat back on the bed near her hips, his wrist exposed to her and the scalpel in the other hand. "Take action on a guess."
"If your guess is the same as mine, Iím hoping itíll work, too."
She closed her eyes as the scalpel approached his wrist. She couldnít watch as he cut himself for her. Then a small, hesitant, wet warmth bloomed on her bottom lip. She inhaled Matthiasí scent and opened her mouth as the weight of his wrist pressed down on her mouth. No evilly hypnotic eyes, no ghostly chanting voices, this moment was too primitive to be made into a sacrificial rite. The taste of his blood was seductive and she couldnít help but tease the cut with her tongue and suction for more.
Matthias gasped, but let her have all she wanted. Her lips and tongue were sweet on his skin and he closed his eyes against the pleasure of it. She was not the one who gifted him, her touch was gentle as she shyly grasped his forearm to steady his shaking. This was Langley taking him into her, Langley who nipped at his skin with her blunt, human teeth, Langley who he loved.
When he felt a twinge of pain in his shoulder and temples, he gently extracted himself from her grasp. She muffled a small moan in her mouth as the salty taste of his blood lingered on her taste buds. Matthias clutched at his wrist with his other hand, scalpel between his teeth, and looked around for a bandage. Getting up, he returned to the counter and picked up some gauze, hurriedly bandaging his wound. Locating a wastebasket with the biohazard symbol on its side, he threw away the scalpel.
Langley watched him with lazy, half-lidded eyes, her arms already resting at her sides. She felt no different aside from the warm liquid sliding down her throat. She licked her lips to taste the dull salt from his skin and noticed its difference from the more spicy flavor of his blood. If she didnít know any better, she couldíve sworn she was turned on.
"Stay," she asked more than said as he returned to the seat near the bed.
After a moment of wordless, visual communication. "When itís my time, I donít want it in a hospital on my back. I want to be standing strong in your armsÖ when you take meÖ" Her eyes closed on the stricken expression that marred his face.
He watched her as her breathing slowly evened out. He kissed her eyelids when they fluttered in R.E.M. sleep. Inching his chair over, he rested his cheek on the back of her hand and fell asleep. I protect those I loveÖ and no one is going to harm you again.
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