To live in this world:
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.
~'In Blackwater Woods' by Mary Oliver
“What’s a girl like you doing in a cheap joint like this?”
Had the man’s voice not set something in her on edge in a kind of alarm-bell way, she might not have even bothered to look up––there was, after all, no point in being in this room filled with choking smoke and flashing lights and ceaseless noise if she wasn’t able to drink herself into some measure of forgetfulness, preferably remaining uninterrupted while doing so. Besides, at first glance, this man was no different from the dozens of others she had met before: still young enough to think that every word he spoke carried enormous, profound power, too old for it to be endearing anymore. There were still many such men in the world, she had found, and though the customs of the times changed, some things stayed very much the same.
Yet there it was, that familiar note, and as she turned her head the thought flitted across her mind––and so it begins, again and again, and the ending is always the same–-
His eyes were grey today, much as they had been the first time (though darker, softer, more reminiscent of smudged charcoal than the distilled starlight they had once been), and she didn’t bother to suppress her instinctive shiver of utter loathing. Perhaps he mistook that for something else, because his smile widened and he leaned forward, propping his chin in one palm and winking at her.
“What do they call you around here?” he asked, hot breath gusting over her face, and she wrinkled her nose at the sharp scent of whiskey. His question was remarkably astute, for all that it was unintentionally so; it had been a good while (centuries) since any had called her by her true name.
“Tatiana,” she lied, flashing him a grin, and if he noticed her too-sharp incisors he was too drunk to think much of it. He opened his mouth and she held up a hand to forestall him. “No need to tell me your name––I don’t really care. Want to go back to my place?”
Yes, your name doesn’t matter––in the end it won’t matter much, will it?
He nodded a bit too eagerly and stood, nearly losing his balance and only just catching himself on the barstool. Once he had straightened up, he offered her his arm––he had always been quite the gentleman, none could fault him on that account.
“Come on.” She smoothed down the front of her dress, tugging at the hem, and then turned and swept out through the beaded curtain and into the heavy early-autumn air. The noises of the bar faded.
“Hey, hey, slow down!” he called, stumbling out and pausing with one hand braced on the doorway. In the stark glow of the streetlight, she could see the developing jowls on his cheeks and the deep-set wrinkles about his eyes, the orange light from above rendering him two-dimensional, like the first moving picture she had ever seen––a parody of a three-dimensional man rendered in monochrome.
She ignored his protest, continuing down the sidewalk at a moderate pace, and wasn’t really surprised when she heard his uneven footsteps gaining on her.
“Slow down,” he repeated petulantly. “You tryna kill me or something?”
“Do you want to come or not?” she replied coldly, and he frowned.
“You were a lot nicer back in there, baby.” The endearment was clumsy in his mouth, as though it were merely something he knew he ought to say in a circumstance like this rather than something that came naturally. “What d’you say we go back in for another round, you and me––I’ll pay.”
He followed her even then, still foolishly trying (trusting her, somehow) as she led him farther from the bright lights to a section of the city he had probably never been acquainted with, judging by the starched newness of his white shirt collar and the khaki slacks. He always seemed to be born into that sort of family––nothing special, but far from dirt-poor.
“Hey, where do you live, anyways?” he asked after a few minutes, glancing sidelong into the mouth of a nearby dark alley, then back at her. She shrugged.
“Close. There’s no need to worry.”
“Good,” he was saying, flashing her a relieved smile, “I mean, not that I was worried or anything. It’s just... kinda cold.” It was unbearably hot for an early September evening, but he was shivering. She nodded absently, then stopped in the middle of the sidewalk and set a hand on his shoulder, smiling up at him.
“You’re a very handsome man, you know that?” she breathed, stepping in a bit too close. As she had expected, he took a startled step backwards, into the shadow of the nearest building.
“Hey, what’re you––”
She tightened her grip on his arm, nails digging into him, and he flinched. “You don’t win this time,” she hissed, and saw the confusion in his eyes––he didn’t know, of course he didn’t know, he had never been led by anything but careless fate into the destiny the world had appointed for him, walking the same track over and over and always forgetting he had covered this ground before––
And you should be grateful to me for breaking the cycle whenever I can, for shattering the path fate marked out for you––you would be grateful, if you knew.
“Hey, I think––maybe you’re a bit confused––” Still playing the gentleman, still refusing to lash out at her and break her hold on him; chivalry like that had no place in a world like this.
“You won the first time,” she spat out over his rising protests, “and the time after that, and by the time I caught up to you, it had been untold decades and you had all the time in the world to spend––but I have found you before, and I found you again, and you will not win this time.”
And before he could speak again, before he could throw her from him (as though he had the strength to resist her), she rose up on tip-toe and set her mouth to his neck, felt a flash of star-bright pain from the front of her mouth––and then there was red heat sheeting down over her jaw, soaking into her dress. His eyes were wide with disbelief as she pulled away.
He tried to speak and faltered, choking. She smiled up at him, bland and innocent––something the matter?––and he wavered, hands scrabbling on the cold brick behind him. The sidewalk at his feet was darkening, a pool of black spreading in the dim glow of the distant streetlights.
You should be used to the sight of your own blood, after all this time––considering the number of wars you have been in. Perhaps I saved you from worse, in the end––because she remembered a time before, many times before––
(1919, and the end of the great struggle of the generation––he had survived, somehow, but he always seemed to, though he was always sucked into whatever conflict there was, as though conflict had a sort of magnetic pull and he were an iron filing, trapped helplessly. He lived through it all, always had, whether the war was a long defeat or a conquering of the shadows or merely a struggle between two powers, neither of them truly in the right. And now he fell, but not in battle––never in battle, she had learned that much over the centuries.)
“Goodnight,” she whispered, and thought she saw a flash of remembering in those eyes that were the wrong shade of grey. His knees buckled and she stepped out of the way, letting him hit the concrete with a thud.
She turned away and retreated into the night, leaving him on his knees in the shadow of the building.
She had learned long ago that it was a good idea to listen to her instincts––whenever she got a soft, insistent urge to do something, it was often for a reason; almost as though something wanted her to find what she was looking for every time.
This time, the niggling thought had struck her a few months ago, telling her that she really ought to register at the city college. That had been back at the end of last year. She had obeyed, knowing that the cycle was starting again. The application process was tedious, but there was never any real question of her being accepted; she was an accomplished hacker (which paid off when she had to supply things like high school transcripts and birth certificates), and she had had all the time in the world to learn whatever it was she wished to. She was more than qualified to apply, could, in fact, have gotten in basically anywhere.
And it had all paid off, hadn’t it? He was gone, neatly out of the way, and it had only taken a few months of hanging around the seediest bars in the neighborhood to pull that one off. Sometimes it worked that way––sometimes she got there first, though most of the time it was the other way around. Most of the time, it felt rather like she was struggling against an overwhelming current, as though her very existence violated some law of the universe––him and her, together.
Now, though. Now was the time she existed for, the one time in a hundred lifetimes she had a chance.
You must not fail.
And on the heels of that: If only she knew the lengths I go––but it is, in the end, all so that she does not know, is it not?
She’s likely to be a classics major, part of her said, and somehow this seemed true. Why shouldn’t she be, and why shouldn’t she be joined by someone like her? They were both, after all, relics of an ancient past, though only one of them was aware of it.
It was easy enough to secure a dorm room all to herself (the school’s computers were laughably unprotected), and the class roster happened to be available, too––and she had a few spare hours and nothing better to do.
She sat down at her desk and booted up her laptop, picking idly at one fingernail. She had painted them black, thinking it might help her fit in with the rising class of twenty-something-year-olds, but she had forgotten how much it irritated her skin. Nail polish was not among the greatest accomplishments of the mortal’s modern world, unless one was a three-year-old girl.
The screen flashed once and her background (neutral blue, easy on her eyes) appeared. She had already saved the roster file to her desktop; within seconds, she was scrolling through it, eyes flicking across the screen.
Face after face, male and female, most of them the same general skin tone, far darker than her eternally, stubbornly pale face. They were arranged alphabetically, of course, so she could have potentially spent hours scrolling, but she lucked out: her target lay smack in the middle of the fourth page.
Lucinda Alvarez had short, curly brown hair that fell about halfway down her neck, hugging her scalp. The photographer had caught her mid-gesture, bangs falling over one dark, laughing eye, but the playful light in the visible one seemed to catch and tug on the viewer’s gaze. Her cheeks were round and faintly scarred, vestiges of pre-teen acne. Her smile was wide and genuine, lips parted over slightly crooked teeth.
She was beautiful.
“Lucinda,” she whispered, trying it out, and smiled at the way it felt on her tongue. I found you, she thought, after all this time.
Some things about it all were simple. It was, for example, no hard thing for her to find the classes Lucinda was taking and to promptly sign up for those. It wasn’t all that hard to get there moderately early (something told her that Lucinda was not the kind of person to be late to class, and she was right) and sit down next to her.
What was a great deal harder was actually getting up the nerve to talk to her.
Look at you. Thousands of years old. You remember a time before the first humans walked the earth, and you fear speaking with a mortal such as this one?
She was saved from having to say anything by the sudden entrance of the professor, a young woman with long blonde hair and a sharp, commanding voice. The subject was one she had studied before, over the course of the centuries, but still interesting, even if it was not fascinating enough to keep her from shooting glances at the girl beside her all throughout.
Lucinda was bent over her notebook the entire time, hair falling in her face and pen scratching across the paper, but from where she sat it was rather evident that her diligent note taking was merely an illusion. Across her paper, a bird stretched its wings, the feathers clumsily blocked in with blue ballpoint, a few words scribbled in the margins.
She watched as Lucinda outlined the eye, over and over, pen digging into the cheap notebook paper, her tongue protruding slightly from between her lips, eyes narrowed in concentration. Everything about her was familiar, and yet at the same time utterly foreign.
Did you draw, when I first met you? I cannot for the life of me remember.
The bell rang, and she started––that had not felt like a full class period, however long they were now. Around her, the rest of the class was packing up. Lucinda closed her notebook, sticking her pen into the binding. She looked up and met the eyes of the girl watching her. A hesitant smile appeared on her face.
“Hey. I’m Luci.” Her voice was quick, nervous, and she was still only half-smiling.
“Rin.” What did mortals say in situations like this? “Nice... nice to meet you.”
“Rin,” Luci repeated, and she almost shivered at the way that sounded, spoken aloud. “It’s a pretty name.”
You told me so before, in Kyoto a century ago, when you were a daimyo’s daughter and I was a traveling merchant, but you do not remember. She could not tell her that she had used that name ever since, when she had to give a name, because it felt somehow right. Could not tell, but wanted to.
(If you knew––)
“What class do you have next?” Luci asked. “I don’t have anything, if you wanted to go somewhere, get something to eat...?”
She decided then and there that she had no class next period. “Sure. Wherever you want to go.”
“This is a lovely city. I grew up out in the country, did you know that? The biggest city I’ve ever been in was Philadelphia, where my grandparents live. I think I like this one better, because there are actually trees here––I don’t think I could live somewhere without trees, could you?”
Rin shrugged, a bit overwhelmed by Luci’s nonstop chatter. “I... I’ve lived a lot of places. But trees are always nice.”
“Yeah,” Luci agreed, taking a sip of her coffee. The logo on the cup was one of a prominent cafe chain; Luci was not the kind of pretentious coffee-purist Rin had expected of a college student in this day and age. “Have you moved around much, then?”
“I’ve moved a couple times, yes.” An incredible understatement, of course, but she doubted that even she could recall every time she had been forced to move on.
“I’ve always wanted to get out of where I grew up.” Luci set down her cup and folded her hands under her chin, eyes fixed on Rin’s face. “It never seemed big enough, know what I mean? Not that I wasn’t liked there or anything. But being in a place where not everyone knows my name, where I don’t recognize the faces of most of the people I meet walking down the street... it’s kind of nice.”
“Don’t your parents mind that you’re so far from home now?” Rin asked, fairly sure it was the sort of thing mortals concerned themselves with. Luci shook her head.
“They understand. Besides, it’s a big world, and they want me to be able to make my way through it on my own.” She smiled. “Not that I don’t miss them, of course. I had a dog, too––he was wonderful. My best friend, all through my childhood. I didn’t have many human friends, anyways.”
Rin watched her shift in her seat, uncrossing and recrossing her legs. She didn’t seem able to sit still for very long. There was a restless quality to her every movement, as though she had to move to let off some of the thrumming energy within her.
“Do you have somewhere to be?” Rin asked, half-hoping, and felt something in her fall when Luci nodded.
“Class. Y’know. I bet you do, too.”
“Yeah.” She stood reluctantly and stretched, glancing at the clock––they had spent nearly an hour there.
“Well, come on.” Luci grabbed her arm, pulling her towards the door with a breathless laugh, and Rin felt something in her spark to life, the rusty machinations of her heart whirring to life again after all those years of disuse.
This version of the one she loved had a soft curve to her hips that had been absent from earlier ones––a presence formed of more flesh than before, a far cry from the stick-thin girl she had caught a glimpse of in the shadow of a railroad bridge (1913 on a cold winter day, with a younger boy in a crisp suit). The most beautiful woman to have ever lived did not seem to consider herself constrained by much of anything––her hair had, over the years, varied from dark to blonde and every shade in between, and her skin tone had also passed through the whole spectrum. Perhaps that variability, in defiance of every classical (outdated) idea of beauty, had been a part of her all along.
(And it might have been her imagination, but she seemed only to gain beauty as the centuries passed, as she flitted from incarnation to incarnation, and this one was no exception.)
Sometimes, she had gone decades without once catching a glimpse of those shining eyes (eyes that, through it all, never really changed––went from grey to brown to blue, certainly, but retained that light, pure and clear like the burning stars), and only that soft tug, somewhere between her heart and stomach, told her that another mortal span had run short. And those she accounted him to have won, for he always seemed to find the reborn mortal first––born in the house beside her, appearing on her doorstep in the uniform of whatever petty monarchy had arisen in the interim––and it seemed so much easier for him.
And other times she arrived too late, but in time to see her looking into his eyes as if he were the only one in the world, in time to see her joined to him for the rest of her brief existence. One was always torn from the other, eventually, and tears marked a cold grey stone in a silent graveyard. She watched with the knowledge only she held, that there were dozens such graves, all over the world, a marble crypt in Rome and an urn of ashes in Kyoto, two skeletons in a wisp of a shroud at the bottom of the sea, bones forever mingled with the ocean floor. Because she had seen this story before, the same players in different guises, and knew how it inevitably ended.
But sometimes she reached her first, and sometimes he was removed, and she was free to approach the girl with a blinding smile and ask her to dance. And then it ended in only one way, for the one she loved would die but she could not, could not even age, and eventually she would flee rather than attempt to explain why she was frozen in time, ageless, while the other withered.
(But more often was the sudden tearing away, the automobile accident or enemy crossfire, and she was left to wander the night alone without even the comfort of knowing that the bed waiting for her at home was empty by her own choice.)
Sometimes she wondered if someone wished for her to never be with the one she loved, if the powers above had decided it was not for her to touch this shining being, to sully her with hands formed of darkness. And once upon a time she might have even agreed, might have hated herself for being so incredibly different from the only one she loved, for daring to seek that light, but she had changed. Centuries among the mortals, chasing a memory of starlight as all the other relics of an earlier time faded or fell or wandered the desolate world in search of something they felt they had lost long ago, had taught her some simple things.
There is no such thing as unsullied light, and no darkness is so profound that the light cannot shine within it. And there is no way you can be unworthy of love.
And perhaps the greatest beauty came not from the blinding, cleansing light, the shadow-killer, but from the thin line between shadow and illumination, where the borders blurred.
“I haven’t seen you recently. Where have you been hiding?”
“You saw me ten minutes ago.”
“Class doesn’t count, Rin. Some people think you’re getting to be antisocial.” Luci took a sip of her drink, shooting her an accusing glance over the rim. Their semi-daily visits to the café had become somewhat of a habit by then, and the heat of early autumn had faded to the chill wind of mid-October as the time passed.
“Getting to be?” Rin laughed. “Haven’t I always been?”
“I’m serious.” She almost looked upset––almost, but that was one of her little affectations, and Rin knew it.
“Maybe I have a lot of work to do.”
“Rin, I’ve seen you. You never have any work to do. What is it?”
You’re what’s the matter, you and your smile and your oblivious chatter, can’t you see––see that she was slowly falling apart merely by being close to Luci (because every time she said her name, she saw grey eyes in the moonlight and a whispered goodbye, remembered a time when the light had blinded her, wormed its way into her soul and stayed there), see that she couldn’t help but be entranced, because she always had been over all these years.
And Luci didn’t seem to realize that.
She smiled, but it felt fake even to her. “Nothing. At all. I’m perfectly fine, see?”
“Right.” Luci didn’t look convinced but let it go.
Oh, yes, nothing. Only the fact that she had gotten so far and did not even know if Luci even cared for her. The first time, when he had gotten there first, the one she loved who became Luci (and all the others in between) had not spared her a second thought, had left her with nothing but that brief, startling glimpse of true light and a feeling she hadn’t ever felt before. Was this time only an echo of that?
You are the only one for me, and if you knew––
Maybe she envied them for their blissful ignorance, for the grace to be born again and again, the past wiped away and a new life ready to be ruined by earnest, clumsy hands. The grace to burn in flames of your own making and think all the while that this was the way it was, this time and forever. She, though––she could not forget.
“Hey,” Luci said suddenly, setting down her cup and leaning across the table, a sudden gleam in her eyes. “Know what you need? You need to get out and do something fun. Know what’s coming up?”
She frowned. “What month is it, Rin?”
“What nationally celebrated holiday happens to fall at the end of October?”
“…you’re kidding, right?”
“What?” Luci grinned. “I didn’t even––”
“Aren’t you a bit old for Halloween?”
“Never! Besides, I didn’t really ever get to do it when I was young. There weren’t many kids where I lived, see, so it wasn’t ever really that big a deal.” She reached across the table and caught Rin’s hand, eager. “Come on, Rin, it’ll be good for you to come out with me! I’ve always wanted to go trick-or-treating!” She looked so childishly excited that Rin found herself nodding, something in her heart twisting at the sight of that grin.
“Fine. Fine.” She tightened her grip on Luci’s hand, pretending to be exasperated to hide the fact that all she could focus on was the softness of Luci’s palm against hers.
Despite herself, she found that she was ever so slightly excited for the mortal’s absurd holiday––looking forward to it, even. In a fit of irony, she ordered a vampire costume online, taking a savage delight in the ridiculous bat wings that came with it. Nothing like the real thing, of course, but for a festival such as this it would do. Chances were high that Luci would probably change her mind at some point, and they wouldn’t really end up going.
The 30th dawned clear, but it clouded up by evening, and the weather forecasters predicted a rainstorm the next afternoon through the night. All through the day itself, she found herself glancing out the window, cursing the clouded sky above. When the first stray raindrops hit the windowpane, she almost swore aloud in her native tongue (which would have raised several questions from her classmates, considering it was a language she could guarantee no one else had ever heard, as she was the only one still alive who spoke it).
But Luci came knocking on her dorm room door at six-thirty that night, and when she opened the door she almost burst out laughing. Luci was dressed in a head-to-foot fuzzy thing with long ears and a cottony tail.
“A bunny,” she explained, then grinned at Rin’s dark, ragged cloak. “Vampire, huh?”
“Yes. Let me just get one thing.” She retreated into the room and snatched the bat wings from where she had propped them against the wall behind the door.
“Perfect!” Luci exclaimed the moment Rin stepped out carrying the wings. “Put them on?”
“I don’t––” She turned them over and over in her hands, frowning. “Where do my arms go?” The last time she had had bat wings, they had been growing out of her back, which made it a great deal easier to use. These didn’t seem like they would be much use for flying, which was a pity––it had been a long time since she had flown with her own wings, and airplanes always felt too confining.
Luci plucked them from her hands and darted to the other side of her, lifting her arms. “Hold still,” she cautioned, and Rin closed her eyes, feeling Luci’s hands on her back, fastening the wings to her shoulders.
There were leaves floating in every puddle and the sidewalks shone, flashing lights from backyard displays casting liquid colors across the ground. Luci couldn’t seem to stop smiling, and every now and then would let out a breathless, disbelieving laugh, as though it wasn’t all quite real to her yet.
“Are you getting tired?” she asked as they paused at a street corner. She had a half-unwrapped chocolate bar in one hand and a bag in the other, and she was taking tiny bites from the chocolate as they walked. There was a smear of it at the corner of her mouth; Rin had to resist the urge to reach up and wipe it away.
“Not at all.” And it was true––she couldn’t get tired, not with Luci here beside her. “I think... I think you were right. Maybe getting out here is good for me.”
A gust of wind knocked a few stray drops of water from the leaves of the trees above them, spattering them both. Luci laughed.
“I had fun tonight, Rin. Thank you for coming.” She took a step closer, eyes shining with laughter, and Rin felt something in her cry out.
On a sudden whim she leaned in, heart stuttering, and when Luci did not pull away she closed the distance between them with an abrupt movement, their lips crashing together.
She brought one hand up to Luci’s shoulder and pulled her closer, tasting the sweetness in her mouth. The candy bar fell from Luci’s hands and she reached up and tangled her hands in Rin’s hair, kissing her back clumsily but enthusiastically.
Luci pulled away first, grinning. “I was waiting for that.” Her cheeks were flushed red with cold and excitement, and Rin’s eyes widened.
“You––you were?” No, that’s wrong, I was the one waiting for you, all this time––
“Of course.” Luci reached up and traced the sweep of one metal-rimmed wing, smiling. She grabbed Rin’s hand and squeezed. “Don’t you feel like it was meant to be? Maybe that’s weird, but...”
How could I not, when I was the one who made it that way?
“We should do this again next year,” Luci added, and went up on tiptoe to brush her lips against Rin’s cheek.
“We should,” she agreed, and smiled.