He came when I called. It was later than usual — normally, I wanted to maximise the time we had together, and tried to arrange things so that we met as soon as the sun went down, the whole night stretching before us, full of promise. The days were for my sunlight self — for feeding others, for family, for sustaining the fragile little community we had managed to build. The nights were something else. They were my time: mine and Con's. Whenever I saw him, I felt as if I were shedding my skin.
This night was no different. He appeared mere moments after I reached out for him, calling across our connection. One minute I was alone and then suddenly, boom, vampire in the kitchen, slipping through the shadows, the light of the moon pooling at his feet. As always, his arrival provoked an unsettling, involuntary flash of fear, swiftly followed by relief, the two emotions twisting around my ribs. He was silent, but I could read the question in his eyes, and answered it.
'I wanted to try something,' I said. 'I've been working with Yolande, on wards. Her wards are all various kinds of talisman — she put one in my car, once — and they're very, very powerful. When she offered to teach me, I jumped at the chance. There are so many people I wanted to protect: Mom, Charlie, Mel, all the bakery regulars.'
Con regarded me steadily. We were long past the days when I avoided his eyes, when his gaze disturbed me.
'But it was so strange,' I continued. 'I thought it would be really difficult to learn how to make my own wards, but it was as if the knowledge was there already, just waiting to be unlocked. I thought Yolande would teach me to make the same kinds of wards as her own — little trinkets, strange woven things, dried leaves tied together. But she said the wards had to be built from things that were meaningful to the maker, and then sat back and let me figure out what that might be for me.'
'I assume it was baked goods,' said Con, his voice cutting through the dark.
'You assume correctly,' I replied, unnerved by how well he understood me. He was quicker at finding the right answer than I had been myself.
'Yolande said that I'd already been latently weaving protection into the things I baked at Charlie's, but I just needed to be more conscious about doing so. And she said that because of my affinity with trees, and sunlight —' (here Con let out a little wince at the word sunlight, imperceptible unless you knew, like me, what to look out for when it came to vampires in motion) — 'that I would have most luck with baked wards that included fruit. Apple pies, cherries in chocolate, banana bread, that kind of thing.'
'And so that is what you did? Baked wards, and fed them to all the humans you care about?'
'Exactly. Except I couldn't tell them that was what I was doing, so I just made a ward of everything due to be sold at Charlie's that day, and every customer got protected. Mom and Charlie too. I don't know how long the ward lasts, so I've been doing it for every cake, every pie, every brownie and cookie and cinnamon roll ever since! It's easier when the stuff has fruit in it, though — like Yolande said. It takes less out of me.'
'I think you will find,' said Con, 'that the effects any ward made by you will linger for a long time. I am not your Yolande, but I know about consumption, and decay. A ward eaten is transformed, but it does not vanish. It changes — it feeds the person, and keeps them living. Its effects should last until the person is no longer alive.'
I nodded slowly. It made a kind of sense.
'I think,' Con said, from his place by the kitchen counter, 'that you did not call me here tonight, so much later than usual, to discuss the wards you made for others.'
'You're right,' I said. I reached into the oven, and pulled out the thing I'd been working on. The kitchen instantly filled with the aroma of oranges, and burnt sugar, all caramelised and delicious. It was a traybake — a simple enough recipe, one that I'd prepared many times at Charlie's over the years. I took a knife, and cut a slice.
'The wards I worked with Yolande got me thinking. What if they didn't just work for humans? There's no real reason they should — they're just protection. And humans aren't the only ones I wanted to protect.'
Con stood very still, but there was a flash of understanding in his inhuman eyes.
'So then I thought of all those times I was your ward, shielding you from the daylight. The flaw in that kind of protection is that we need to be touching for it to work. But if I took all my own power, and drew on my tree-self, and the sunlit power of fruit, of growing things, and pushed all that into a ward, maybe I could give you the same kind of protection, without us needing to be together. Not that I never want to see you again! But sometimes I might not be able to come when you call.'
'If I understand you correctly,' said Con, his voice like bitter chocolate, cutting through the silence, 'you would need me to eat a slice of this ward-cake. You know that I do not consume food. It will do me no harm, but neither will it give me sustenance.'
'You drank my orange juice once! I thought if I made something with oranges ... oh, it's no good!'
I ground my teeth with frustration.
'I did not say it was impossible,' said Con, drawing closer. He did not take care, these days, to keep his movements slow. We were far beyond my fearful human heart being overwhelmed by his uncanny vampire speed.
'Then how? The intention of the ward is protection through — well, through eating. You know that I show that I care by feeding people. If eating a cake isn't going to feed you, the protection won't work!'
'As I say, I have an idea, but I do not think you will like it,' said Con. 'Think about how your daylight protection of me has worked in the past. You have explained it to me before — it is as if you take your own affinity with the sun, and extend it over me. You reach into yourself, and you share that part of yourself with me.'
'And so if I eat a piece of the orange cake,' I said, in horrified realisation, 'I will be protected. And to give that protection to you ...'
'Blood, yes,' said Con. 'I did say that you would not like it. We do not have to do this. I have survived for quite some time without the need to go about safely in the daylight, and we can always do what we did before — holding hands in the sunshine — in any truly desperate situations. Even that is more than I could possibly have believed possible, before we met.'
'No, no,' I said, cutting him off, my voice trembling — though I tried not to examine whether from fear or from something else. 'I will do it. I called you here because I wanted to protect you, after all.'
I took the piece of cake in my hands, and bit into it. The oranges were an explosion of bitterness. Trying not to think about what would come next, I concentrated instead on sunlight, on the sun-drenched orchards where the oranges had grown, the fragrance of their blossoms, their colour against the blue sky. I thought of warmth, of life, of protection. The syrup ran down my fingers. Con watched me, wordlessly.
When I was done, I moved towards him as quickly as possible, before I could chicken out. My heart beat wildly in my chest. I licked the last of the cake crumbs from my fingers, and looked Con straight in the eyes.
'We've done this before, remember? I wouldn't call it pleasant, but we've done it before, and I survived. Just — just be quick. I remember how much it hurt!'
And I lifted my wrist to his mouth. He gave me a sharp look, as if to check that I was ready, and took my hand in his own, and bit.
The pain was like the sting of ice on a winter morning, far worse than I remembered. Perhaps it was one of those things that people tried to blot out, that became fuzzy with time. Then again, how many other people had been bitten by vampires and survived? My heart fluttered in some kind of a futile warning, and I tried to keep my mind from wandering. If this was to work, I had to focus on that sense of sunlit safety and protection. I thought of orange trees.
Con held my wrist in place with one hand, and with the other seemed to be keeping me from collapsing. The effect was that I ended up pressed against him. He was very, very cold.
I was suddenly deeply aware of my own human body. It was as if I could hear my blood moving through my veins, travelling within my beating heart, and onwards. My whole world shrank to the two of us: Con's sharp teeth, the biting sting at my wrist, the singing pain of my blood, the faint scent of oranges in the air. I felt dizzy, but not from fear, or from loss of blood — purely from the intensity of our connection, and the slow sensation of warmth and protection that radiated out from me to Con. I closed my eyes, and saw the pair of us, standing in an orange grove, under a burning blue sky. The image was so intense that I could feel orange blossoms falling from the trees and scattering against my skin.
All at once, Con let my wrist fall from his lips. He did not let go of me entirely, though, and I pulled myself even closer, drawing his arms around me. I could feel my heart thumping against his chest. Con was solid and still, immobile as one of the trees I'd been imagining all night. I raised my eyes to his, tangling my hands behind his neck, pulling his face to mine. His eyes were utterly inhuman, but there was a warmth in them that I hadn't seen before. I took a breath, thinking that this moment was one of those difficult things that had come into my life since that distant, terrifying day out by the lake, and kissed him.
It went better than the last time I'd tried something similar, back in Con's 'earth place.' This time, he didn't push me away. I felt him moving against me, flowing like icy water. His lips were cold, but it felt as if my own were warming them. I was hyperaware of his teeth, but their sharpness provoked something other than fear in me — a strange, shivering fierceness. I both did, and didn't want to touch them. I wondered what would happen if they cut my lips.
The sun rose through the window behind me. Its warmth filled my body, but I could feel it moving through me, reaching my lips and hands, and radiating outwards into Con. I sensed the exact moment that the ward took hold, but didn't trust myself enough to break the connection between the two of us. If I'm honest, I was in no hurry to stop touching him, protection from the sun or not. My skin sang, and his fingers traced ice down my spine.
Eventually, Con himself seemed to realise that the sun had risen. He pulled apart from me in wonder, turning his face to the window, and let my hands drop. I had a minute of panicked doubt that the magic had worked, and fought against the impulse to grab him and stop him from being destroyed by the light, but I shouldn't have worried. He stood, as unharmed and unscathed as he would have been in the depths of night.
'The ward held,' he said, 'as I knew it would. And so you save me again, Sunshine, and open up new paths in my world.'
When I had first met him, he would not have been able to say my name, nor my nickname.
'Shall we test the extent of your power?' he asked, and there was something dark and joyful in his expression as he turned to face me.
We left the kitchen, and I led him through the house. He followed me through the front door, and outside, into the early morning sunshine.