**Update** Slightly edited, 12:27 a.m., 12/14/04
Sunday, December 13, 2004
7th and Pennsylvania Avenues, SE
Abigale stuffed her hands deeper into the pockets of her coat, tucking her chin into a fluffy black scarf as she wound her way through what was left of the early evening crowds of Eastern Market. The cold didn’t really bother her, of course, but dressing for the weather was a convenient way to stay low profile when out around town. Winter definitely made it much easier to be a bloodsucking creature of the night, she mused.
The Market was still a subdued bustle of activity as the shopkeepers finished closing up their stalls, packing away their wares for another week. The air smelled pleasantly of pine, cinnamon, and incense, the streets awash in that feeling of conviviality that exists around the holidays. So many people, each secure in their own safe little worlds, she thought, and I walk among them, trying to remember what that was like. When December meant shopping and lights and baking cookies, carols and candles and presents.
Now it simply meant longer nights and easier feeding. That wasn’t her world any longer. Her world was the politics of the things that go bump in the night, and dealing with those things that hunt the hunters. She shuddered, trying to banish the thought of massacred thinbloods from her mind. She’d seen destruction before, and caused more than her share to be sure, but such wholesale slaughter… That was more than even she was used to dealing with.
Suddenly the faces around her began to take on darker shadows, their expressions menacing instead of merry. Everywhere she looked, they seemed to leer at her, sneering at her confusion. The crush of people was suffocating, the smells in the air cloying and thick. She needed to get out, needed to get away. Shoving past a young woman with an armload of flowers, she pushed out of the market onto the sidewalk.
Her eyes half-closed, she rounded a corner and almost ran into an elderly black man who looked like Miles Davis, playing a dark, melancholy rendition of “We Three Kings” on a dented tenor saxophone. She stuttered an apology and dropped a twenty dollar bill into the case laid out in front of him, stumbling backwards and almost out into the street.
“Woah, watch yourself there, miss!” A man’s voice, right next to her ear, and a hand against the small of her back, steadying her. She whirled on him, growling. Young, dark-skinned, dressed well in a stylish suit and overcoat. Human. At the wild expression on her face, he raised both hands, stepping back. “Hey now, just trying to help. Relax!” He looked closer, eyes concerned. “Are you all right? You don’t look so good…”
She growled again, then turned and fled, ignoring his voice as he called after her. A spattering of cold wind-blown rain whipped her coat around her knees as she forced herself to keep to a steady walk, and she held her eyes on the cracked sidewalk beneath her, willing the rest of the world to ignore the nondescript girl in the long coat. Thankfully, they did so – another desperate lost soul was hardly an uncommon sight in Southeast. Eventually she looked up and surveyed her surroundings. Unbidden, her feet had carried her to the building Lazarus frequented, and she winced. Brilliant, she sneered at herself. But she let herself in through a boarded up window anyway, knowing that the place would at least be deserted. And all she wanted at the moment was solitude, and somewhere she could rest her eyes for a moment. It was still early, and the disorientation of waking still clouded her mind.
In an upper room that was slightly less filthy than the others, she curled up on a tattered couch, scattering the family of rats that had made their home between the springs. She pulled her coat tightly around her shoulders, closing her eyes. Just a moment’s rest, just until she calmed down a bit…
The ground in the park was frozen solid beneath four inches of new snow, the harsh Chicago winter already in full swing. She leaned her forehead against the cool glass of the lounge window, watching the pleasantly peaceful night outside, a welcome respite from the bustle and clamor of Kindred in the gathering beyond the doors of the darkened room.
She felt his presence before she heard the door open and close, but she didn’t turn. She could see the reflection of his boots in the glass as he came to stand next to her. For a moment, neither spoke, then his deep voice broke the silence. He sounded amused, as always. “Tired of the gathering already, Abby?”
She turned and scowled at him. “Don’t call me Abby. And yeah… I am. Everyone wants to meet with me, everyone’s got something they need from me. But none of it’s actually important, it’s just their petty squabbles and personal vendettas.”
He laughed, and she glared at him. “Welcome to the world of Camarilla socializing. And you wonder why I don’t frequent these little shindigs.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Funny, if I didn’t know you, I’d say you fit right in.” And he did, at least to the casual observer. The elegant mandarin-collared suit fit his tall, lean-muscled frame so well that it must have been custom-tailored, and his hair was styled in jet-black waves that swept back from a high forehead and shrewd, hawkish features. It was only on closer inspection that one might notice the unnatural pallor of the skin, the dangerously feral glint in his black eyes. Or the golden eyes of a wolf that lurked just behind them.
He laughed. “Don’t you like the suit?”
“No, the suit is great. Very dapper. It’s just… not you.”
He shook his head, and his voice grew serious. “Abigale, be careful. The more you get yourself involved in their politics, the more they get their hooks in you. We can talk big all we want to in our circles around the fire, but they don’t care about our definition of honor, or of justice. They’ll rip you to pieces and smile while they do it.” She looked up at him, and the intensity in his eyes startled her. “This suit, that gorgeous dress you’re wearing – they’re costumes. Play the part, if you want to, but do not become it. Remember that it’s just a role. What you truly are has no place in their courts and charades. You will always be apart from them, and they will always try to destroy what they don’t understand. Be careful.”
“I’m always careful. You know that.” She tried to laugh it off, but he was having none of it.
“I know your definition of ‘careful,’ little sister. It won’t be good enough. Not for what’s coming.” She found herself without a response, so she simply nodded. Until that intense gaze released her, she could do nothing more.
He turned away back to the window, reaching into the breast pocket of his suit coat. “Here. This is for you.” Not looking at her, he held out a small package, white tissue paper wrapped around something about two inches in diameter.
She cocked her head to one side as she took it from him. “For me? What is it?”
“A gift. Nothing more. I … thought of you when I saw it.” With that, he turned abruptly and stalked from the room, leaving her standing alone in front of the window with a response half-formed on her lips.
Shaking her head, she unwrapped the paper, revealing a circular silver brooch with a design of intricate celtic knotwork. Wonderingly she turned it over in her hand, marveling at the craftsmanship. She blinked and looked at back of the door that had closed behind him.
“You are a strange one, Cicero,” she murmured. “I really don’t get you. At all.”
She turned it over again in her hand, as if the unexpected gift might explain itself if she looked close enough. But it was just a piece of cold, beautiful metal, revealing nothing. Sighing, she pinned the brooch to her dress. Nicholas would be waiting for her, was probably looking for her now, if he wasn’t off flirting with some flavor-of-the-month Toreador. She took one last look at the peaceful night beyond the glass, squared her shoulders, and headed back into the fray.
Abigale bolted upright with a gasp, senses tingling, but the dilapidated building was silent around her, the only sound the biting December wind that whistled through the cracks in the walls. One hand went automatically to the hollow just below her right collarbone, where she could feel the slight silver brooch beneath the layers of her wool coat. She had worn it every night since that gathering almost three years earlier, but rarely in recent nights did she think about the one who’d given it to her.
So long ago… Before the debacle with Magnus and their attempt to garner the support of the Inner Circle, before she gained and lost the Praxis of Columbus, before a small group of friends and allies briefly became one of the most powerful coteries Clan Gangrel had seen in decades. Before she had any reason to connect the name Zeke Graves with the sarcastic and dryly sardonic cynic who called himself Cicero.
She laughed ruefully. So much had happened between then and now. Every member of that little band had died – some more permanently than others. Cicero, Kurran, Xavier, Orion, Raine… and her. The little sister of the group. The one they all tried to protect when they thought she wasn’t paying attention.
She closed her eyes, resting her head in her hands. “And I really thought we could make a difference… God, I was such a fool.”
“Weren’t we all, little sister?”
She was on her feet in the space of a heartbeat, claws extended, then froze as the figure standing in the shadows by the door moved forward, into the slice of yellow light cast by the streetlamp outside the window. She saw the eyes first, the feral yellow eyes of a wolf, glinting with a dangerous humor. He grinned at her, revealing wicked fangs that also seemed more wolf than vampire.
“What’s the matter – aren’t you happy to see me?”
She backed away, until her coat brushed the rough wood of the window sill. “I would be… if you weren’t dead. Oh, and if you hadn’t tried to kill us all.”
He clucked his tongue, shaking his head. “You should know me better than that. I didn’t try to kill anyone. If I had wanted you dead, don’t you think I would have left you to the gentle graces of that little party that wanted me so badly in Milwaukee so many years ago?”
She ignored the question. “You’re dead, Cicero. I have your ashes on my bookshelf.”
He regarded her levelly, those cunning golden eyes unblinking. “Why do you still call me that?”
“I… That’s just how I always remember you, I guess.” She shrugged. “You always told me Zeke Graves was dead.”
He laughed, a disconcerting chuckle. “So I did, I suppose. And now we both are.”
She nodded. “Now you both are.”
He drew closer, moving in a half-circle around her, looking her up and down. She could feel his gaze measuring her as he paced. Measuring, and finding her wanting. Finally he came to a stop before her and crossed his arms in front of his chest. “Why are you still trying, Abigale? They’ll turn on you, too, you know. Sooner or later. All the rhetoric in the world won’t make them see you as anything other than a useful soldier, a trained dog to jump at their bidding. We tried, and we failed. We threw our lot behind one Gangrel, and he turned out to be a traitor.”
She narrowed her eyes and glared at him. “You’d know a lot about turning out to be a traitor.”
He reached out until his clawed fingers hovered just above her coat, over the place where the brooch was pinned. She could feel a cold electric tingle in the space between his skin and the wool of her coat. Somehow she managed not to flinch. “Why do you still wear it?”
“I… I don’t know.” She tried to look away, but his eyes held her gaze and demanded truth. “I don’t want to forget. That you were … kind to me, once upon a time. I think, of all of them, you were the only one who truly believed in me. In us, and what we might have accomplished.”
“Believed? Maybe. In what you thought you could accomplish. Not that it would actually happen. I told you all that no one would listen. I told you that it wouldn’t happen, that we were chasing phantoms and idealistic pipe dreams.”
“But you went along with us anyway.”
His hand moved to her face, hovering just above the skin of her cheek. One clawed fingertip traced the air over the ragged line of scar from her cheekbone to jaw. She could feel the air move beneath his almost-touch. “You’ve been through so much, little sister.” His voice was low, raw and gravelly. “I didn’t want any of that for you…” She closed her eyes against a sudden swelling of tears. When she opened them again, he was gone, and she was once again alone in the ruined building.
She sat down heavily on the old couch, feeling as though all the strength had been drained out of her, leaving her a dry, empty shell. She shook her head.
“What. The. Fuck.” She held up her hands to the empty room. “Lazarus, if this is your doing, I don’t get it.” The room made no answer. “Damnit! What the hell are you doing to me?” A red haze colored the room, and she angrily blinked away the blood tears. Without thinking, she leapt to her feet and sprinted down the stairs to the ground floor, wanting only to get out, get away, forget.
The chill night air met her as she bolted at a run around the corner of the building and onto Half Street, and collided with a solid figure in a long grey overcoat. With a crash, they both ended up on the sidewalk, momentarily stunned. She blinked, trying to resolve reality with the remnants of the vision from inside the building. The man who was pulling himself to his feet looked familiar, but she couldn’t place the face. He held out a gloved hand to her, smiling.
“We’re just having a terrible time this evening, aren’t we?” His accent was vaguely foreign, though hard to place.
She opened her mouth to say something, but nothing came out. Taking his hand, she let him pull her to her feet, and suddenly she knew where she had seen him before: Eastern Market, not an hour earlier. She’d bumped into him then, too. She pulled her hand away as though burned.
“Why are you following me?” She spat the question at him like an accusation.
He shrugged, his eyes concerned, his expression guileless. “I was worried. You seemed so out of sorts.” He gestured to the run-down buildings and cracked sidewalks around them. “And this is hardly a safe neighborhood for a lovely young woman like yourself to be wandering around in alone, at night.”
She searched his aura for deception, but all she found was genuine concern. “I’m okay,” she said, uncomfortably. She hugged her arms to her chest, suddenly feeling very small and young. Cicero had always made her feel so young, so naïve.
But she was still alive, and he was ash in a vial on her bookshelf. Her face hardened for a brief moment before settling into a charming and innocent smile. “I’m afraid I’ve managed to get myself a bit lost, though,” she told the young man standing before her.
He brightened. This was back in familiar territory. Coming to the aid of a lady in distress was something he knew he could handle. “Can I offer you a ride home, then? I’ve only parked just a few blocks away.”
He offered her his arm, and she slipped her hand through it. “Thank you. I don’t know what I would have done if you hadn’t appeared… I don’t like this part of town.” She lowered her voice conspiratorially. “Too many ghosts…”
He chuckled and patted her hand. “Don’t worry, miss. I’ll protect you from them.” He smiled brightly, unaware of the feral glint that had entered her eyes, not noticing the sharp fangs that protruded slightly past her lower lip.
“I’m sure you will…”