Kate blinked, opened her eyes… on sunlight?
She was still curled up on the futon, though she had stretched out along its full length. The soft light blanket that had been on the back was now tucked over her. The heavy curtains across the patio doors had been drawn back far enough to allow a pleasant amount of sunshine in, though not directly enough to have woken her.
She remembered the end of the movie, remembered her pleasure in it and the need to find out how it would end combating her increasing tiredness—it had been a long day, after all, starting early and with a lot of adrenalin. She had a more vague recollection of talking to Damon about the movie… then nothing. She must have been so worn out she’d simply fallen asleep. Hardly the behaviour of a gracious guest. Please don’t let Damon be offended or angry, she thought fervently.
She sat up and stretched, not surprised that the apartment was silent except the humming of the computers. Damon must have long since gone to bed.
Her shawl was lying neatly over a couple of pillows right next to her, and on it was a small piece of paper. She leaned down to pick it up.
Good morning! Make yourself at home, and I mean that. I normally wake up around noon or shortly after.
Kate set the note down, and looked around for a clock. After a detour to make use of the bathroom—noting that the door of one bedroom was mostly closed with darkness behind it, and the other was open—she finally found one in the kitchen. Shortly past ten am, so she had a couple of hours to herself. Well, breakfast of some sort would be an excellent first step. Not everything in the kitchen was meat-based; there was half a bag of baby carrots and a recently-opened bag of apples in the fridge, along with multiple kinds of fruit jams. She dropped a couple of slices of bread in the toaster and took the jar of raspberry jam and the pitcher of orange juice out of the fridge.
Just outside the kitchen, in the arm of the living room’s L-shape that was not occupied by the computers, was a small table with a couple of chairs, and against the walls were shelving units. She left her breakfast on the table long enough to explore the books. She didn’t speak Tenebran or the mixed Riverwood creole enough to do more than identify a number of the books as being most likely in one or the other, but the rest, Darkside and Brightside both, were in English. She chose a history of the Riverwood area, since she knew little about it, and brought it to the table with her, taking great care not to get jam or juice on the pages.
Her breakfast finished, she washed her plate, left it to dry, and took her juice and book to the balcony. It was large enough to not feel crowded, holding a couple of chairs and a lounge, all with wooden frames and the seats and backs made of some fibrous cord woven into a tight mesh. She made herself comfortable on the lounge with a couple of pillows from inside, and settled down to read until Damon woke up.
She thought she heard motion, but decided to wait and let him find her when he was ready.
“Good morning,” he greeted her from the doorway. She looked up, saw him pause and close his eyes, wincing slightly, then reach back inside for something—sunglasses, as it turned out. “That’s better. Sunlight feels wonderful, in moderation, but it’s entirely too bright. Did you sleep all right?” He sprawled casually in the chair nearest her. He was wearing lightweight black cargo pants, today, and a dark blue tanktop. Her hands remembered exploring the lean muscle she could see, and everything under his clothes as well.
Kate felt herself blush. “I’m sorry I fell asleep.”
“Why? It was late, you were tired. If anything, I’m more flattered that you felt comfortable enough that you could just doze off. Did you eat anything before you started reading…” He leaned forward and tipped the book up to see the front. “The history of Riverwood? First thing in the morning, that’s heavy reading.”
Kate shook her head. “I know a lot of history from some other areas, but only a very general idea about how Riverwood ended up with some of the most diverse towns on Darkside.”
“So borrow the book. Did you eat?”
“I had some toast when I woke up a while ago.”
“Do you like eggs? Bacon? Sausage?”
“Yes, yes, and as long as it isn’t spicy.”
“Hm. Relax and keep reading. Would you like more juice?”
“No, that’s okay. Where are you going?”
“To make breakfast.” He grinned at her, and went back inside.
A bit bemused, she resumed reading.
Riverwood shared a northern continent with the fertile grassland and oak-and-beech savannah where the luminals had evolved. Luminals had little use for hunting, so other than venturing at most a day’s trek into it to forage and fish, they mostly ignored it. There was plenty of land easily farmed, to the east and north, to feed themselves and the poultry they kept mainly for eggs and goats mostly for milk.
The tenebrans had developed on a continent to the west dominated by rocky cave-laced highlands and deep green valleys between. Animal life was abundant, but much of the vegetation was tough to digest and of low nutritional value to anything but ruminants. Anything more easily digested and nutritious was highly seasonal, difficult to harvest in quantity and tricky to store. Tenebrans had, instead, adapted by becoming more and more intensely carnivorous, with a substantial sideline in blood, even though hematophagy was usually a separate evolutionary track.
Within the past thousand years, tenebrans had crossed the strait between continents and ventured into Riverwood from one side, searching for game and fish, and luminals had begun to explore from the other, seeking new medicinal plants and foods. Both groups had also been exploring out of simple curiosity: what was there? The easiest way to navigate the untouched old-growth forest was along the rivers, in narrow shallow boats. Both had hydran allies, and if you were following rivers, having hydrans around was helpful.
Inevitably, they’d encountered each other.
While some groups were antagonistic, many used that same curiosity, the drive to understand the world, as a bridge. Language was a significant barrier: Tenebran and Luminal each had multiple dialects, some of which were virtually unintelligible even to each other’s native speakers. With the help of the hydrans, who had a common language with each other regardless of which side they accompanied, they fumbled their way into the rudimentary foundations of a creole language that mixed everything, called Ashdryn. Some groups even teamed up, taking advantage of their differences to keep the newly-expanded party safer and more effective by day and night.
By the time humans had showed up, crossing over from Brightside, Riverwood was spotted with riverside and lakeside communities of varying size that welcomed anyone: not only tenebran, luminal, or hydran, but wolflike wargs and the great spotted feline pards and humans and the rarer sentient species. And it was one of the few areas on Darkside that openly welcomed crossbreeds of any sort without any social stigma.
They thrived, producing trade goods and artists and mediators that were in demand the world over.
Damon came back outside with the pitcher of orange juice and a second glass, and set them both on the wooden table with hers. “Close the book?” he requested, already on his way back inside.
This time, he brought out two plates, and once she was sitting up, he handed her one. Eggs, scrambled with crumbled bacon and loose sausage, and homefries, and toast.
“That looks delicious!”
“So eat it,” Damon laughed, taking a bite of his own identical meal. He paused to fill both glasses with juice, and used that to toss down what looked like a fairly large tablet of some kind. He answered her curious glance with a shrug.
“You’ve heard of mixed-blood tenebrans going blood-mad sometimes? I did a lot of research, with help from a bothsider healer, and it’s actually caused by a nutrition imbalance that’s really hard to correct by diet alone. You’re crossing a human omnivorous digestive system with one that’s closer to a feline’s than a human’s. There’s individual variation, just like in any other hybrid, but for most of us, there is some conflict, and now and then, that manifests as a compulsive hunger for what we’re missing. On the other hand, I take my vitamins, and I don’t need to worry about hurting anyone.”
“Something so simple,” Kate said softly. Everyone had come across stories of halfbreeds berserking in pure blood-hunger without any of the normal triggers. “And it works that well?”
“It’s been something like ten years since I lost control without a clear and unquestionable reason for it. It’s a huge relief. I don’t like doing harm to people, especially since the people around me most often are generally friends.”
Kate blushed, and looked down. “Sorry. It’s not actually any of my business anyway.”
Damon’s hand under her chin tilted her head up, and he smiled, meeting her eyes. “Honest curiosity I do not mind at all. It’s much easier for me to be familiar with humans than for you to be familiar with tenebrans. Even on Darkside, lots of places, there are lots of people who don’t really know much about us. Or think they do but what they know is inaccurate at best. I am rather hoping that I’ll get to spend more time with you, and understanding biological quirks tends to make them less of an issue. That particular quirk can be a scary one all around and if our positions were reversed, I’d like to know what to expect. The worst that can happen, ever, is that I will refuse to answer. All right?”
Kate nodded, answering the smile, then let her eyes drop below his, feeling oddly shy, despite her instinctive sense of comfort and safety near Damon. “I hope we get more time together, too.”
The reassuring smile turned into an outright grin. “Then there’s not much in two worlds to stop us, hm?” He took a bite of eggs. “So, milady, where lies your fancy this day?” he asked, his trace accent suddenly much stronger, a very pleasant sound indeed that sent a small shiver down her spine. “Shall I escort you home to your heart-sister? Or shall I seek new ways to delight you?”
“You need to work,” Kate argued, halfheartedly.
“That’s one of the wonderful things about being self-employed, I can take a day or two off when I choose, as long as I can still meet deadlines. And I know I can. If you’d like to go back to Magda, and to have a break from my company, I can give you a ride back anytime. Or we can find something else to do. Indoors, outdoors. We can visit tourist traps in the city, or go for a walk in the conservation area, or wander around the mall, or sunbathe on the balcony. We can go out to a nightclub tonight, for a drink and to dance, or stay here. Anything that appeals to you.”
“But what do you want?”
“For you to enjoy yourself. And for you to eat your breakfast, so you have energy for the day.”
Kate obediently took another bite, pondering. “I should at least go back to Magda’s for a change of clothes, and to leave her a note so she knows I’m okay.”
Damon nodded, then said nothing for another two or three bites. “Will you give me an honest answer, without worrying if it’s polite, if I ask you something?”
Kate paused for a heartbeat, then nodded. “Since I think you actually mean that, yes.”
“Would it make you uncomfortable if I were to point out that I have a guest room, and here you’d be able to keep your own hours instead of Magda’s—or mine, for that matter?”
That deserved some thought, not an off-hand reply. Would it? “No,” she said finally. “It wouldn’t make me uncomfortable.”
“Good. The point of having a guest room is to be able to offer it to friends who are between homes. It’s yours if you want it, all the time or splitting the time between here and Magda’s. I am farther from downtown than Magda, but I’m quite willing to drive, or we could see about the bus, there’s a stop not far away. There are no conditions attached.”
“Let me think about it, and talk to Magda?”
“Consider it an open invitation.”
“I should call her anyway. She’s at work, so not really to talk…”
“All things considered, it would be ridiculous to take it personally if the two of you set up some version of a safe call. Actually, I tend to encourage people to arrange that sort of thing, just in case. Although I suppose it would be complicated to do with a luminal who has a day job given how late we were out.”
“It wasn’t anything that organized.”
“Hm. If it comes up again, keep it in mind. For all you knew, I was trying to get you alone with genuinely bad motives.” He grinned at her. “Instead of an unexpected moment of weakness. Since she’s at work, it might be simplest to send her a text message.”
“Which? Sorry, I really am badly behind.”
“Phone to phone, a short typed message. She can read it whenever she has a minute and reply if she wants to. For the record, just because I’m paranoid, I did send Clea a quick message last night to let her know you’d come back here with me, and one while I was making breakfast just to tell her all’s well. Not a question of not trusting you, just old habits. I was clicking Send before I even realized I was doing it, actually.”
“Oh, okay. That sounds good. And that’s no big deal. Just sensible.”
They finished eating while comparing thoughts on the movie last night, then Kate gathered up the dishes and took them to the kitchen to wash, against Damon’s protests that she didn’t need to do so. He finally gave up, and when she finished, she found him at his computer.
“Nothing in the list yet about jobs,” he said, his eyes never leaving the screen. “A few are checking with contacts, though.”
And if someone found her a job, it could be anywhere, more likely on Darkside. An old, firm friendship like she and Magda shared could withstand their daily lives being in opposite worlds, but no new fragile connection was likely to survive. She needed a job, obviously, and sooner might end up being less painful in the long run, but she had a feeling she’d always be wondering what could have happened.
“That’s good,” she said, trying to feel like she meant it.
Damon spun the chair around and picked up his phone from the desk. He did something on it, then offered it to Kate. “You have a hundred and sixty characters, including spaces and punctuation. Although if it runs into a second message, it’s not a problem, it will just send it as a second message.”
Kate tentatively typed out, on the tiny keyboard that was part of the screen, This is Kate. All good. Fell asleep after a movie, and no I did not!
She passed it back to Damon, who tapped the screen a couple of times. Absently, he tucked his phone into a pocket of his cargo pants as he stood up. “All sent. Ready to go to Magda’s?”
The phone chimed while they were on the way, but Damon waited until they were parked before checking.
“Magda says, Glad you’re having fun, it’s about time.”
“At moments, she’s more like my mom than my mom is.”
Magda’s apartment was, of course, quiet. Damon made himself comfortable on the couch, while Kate searched quickly through the end of Magda’s bedroom closet that Magda had cleared for her, and dug into one of her packs for clean underwear. Unsure what they were going to be doing today, she chose a pair of linen pants sufficiently loose in weave to breathe well but not enough to compromise decency, all in variable gradients of soft brown, and a short-sleeved top of undyed creamy cotton. She took it all to the bathroom so she could get cleaned up while she changed, although she decided against a shower right now, not sure she was comfortable with that with Damon in the living room and not sure what the reason for the discomfort might be. She pinned her hair up off the back of her neck with one of Magda’s plastic hair-clips, shook her head to make certain it would stay, and decided she liked it. Just in case, she threw together a quick overnight bag in her smaller pack to bring with her.
Damon regarded her with open appreciation when she rejoined him. “Intelligent and beautiful both. How did I get so lucky?”
Kate blushed. “No I’m not.”
“I think you are.”
Phone message or not, Kate tore a sheet of paper from the half-sized notebook next to the phone, and wrote Magda a slightly longer explanation. “Am I coming back here tonight?”
“That is entirely up to you, and probably depends on what we decide to do.”
Kate added, Might not be back tonight, might come change if we go out later. She stuck it on the fridge door, where Magda would see it when she got home.
“Well, I’m yours for the day,” Kate said teasingly, returning to the living room.
Damon grinned at her as he stood up. “But you have it backwards, Lady Kate. For the day, I’m yours.” As she came into reach, he caught her hand and drew her closer. He pressed a gallant, chaste kiss her fingers. “For the night, however…” He turned her hand over and kissed the underside of her wrist, his teeth just grazing the thin skin. “That might be another matter,” he murmured, his breath warm on her wrist. Kate shivered, aware of her heart rate abruptly jumping. She remembered what Magda had said, about tenebrans and the pleasure of the hunt. She’d be lying to herself if she denied her own response to the tantalizing glimpses of sensuality spiced with a hint of danger. Sex was, to her, always an act of trust, which was why her experience had been sporadic; with Damon, the necessity of trust had a new layer, yet unlike anyone else she’d ever been attracted to, he was aware of it, which actually made her feel safer.
She just wished she had some idea how to react, instead of freezing like a rabbit seeing a fox.
Damon raised his eyes to hers and smiled as he released her hand. “Are you in the mood for history, mallwandering, nature, exploring downtown while stores are open, lying around in the sun, a movie—at my place or the theatre, or something I haven’t thought of?”
“I haven’t been in a shopping mall in a long time. Would that be all right?”
“Of course it would.” He opened the apartment door and gestured for her to go ahead of him; Kate made sure the door was securely locked before they went down to his car.
They roamed the mall, pausing to investigate anything that caught the eye of either. When a dress on display in a window drew Kate’s attention, Damon urged her to try it on.
He was waiting patiently when she opened the door of the fitting room; a bit shyly, she did a slow pirouette to show him how it looked.
“Hm. I don’t believe that style really suits you, it emphasizes and downplays the wrong way around. Try this one?” He held out a white one.
Kate accepted it and retreated to the fitting room.
The dress was very simple, ankle-length and short sleeved, with small buttons all the way up the front, and shiny white-on-white embroidery down the front panels. She pulled it on, tied the ribbons at each side of the waist behind her to gather it without making it tight, and inspected her reflection. The wide round neck exposed a fair bit of skin, she observed, and had it been of filmier material, it would probably have made her look like she’d stepped out of a vampire movie where she was playing the part of the innocent victim.
But what if the victim isn’t so innocent, and is willing? she wondered in amusement, as she turned to open the door.
Damon regarded her in appreciation. “Now that, on the other hand, suits you. Is it comfortable?”
“Very. I don’t normally wear white, but…” she shrugged.
Damon came closer, ran his hands lightly down the sides, which made Kate’s breath catch. All it took to bring them into full contact was for him to shift his weight forward, and he lowered his head to kiss the side of her throat, nuzzling gently.
The store clerk is right there! Kate thought wildly, even while that kiss sent a jolt right through her and down to her groin, her heart pounding in rhythm with the throbbing. Damon slid his hands down her arms to her wrists, and pinned them behind her, holding her tight against him, and she felt teeth graze her skin. Kate closed her eyes, shivering, unresisting.
“I’m not a shapeshifter,” Damon murmured in her ear, “but some emotions do have a scent, and the strongest are fear and arousal.” He nipped her earlobe gently, and let her go; she opened her eyes, blushing with the thought of what he could smell, to find him grinning mischievously. “I think we need to get you that dress,” he said, normal volume. “It looks wonderful on you.”
“You can’t keep spending money on me,” Kate protested.
“As long as you’ll wear it at some point while I’m with you, then believe me, I’m spending money on myself. Go change, unless you want to leave it on now.”
Kate switched back to her brown pants, and the white dress was duly paid for.
“You,” Kate said, once they were out of the store, out where they’d be less likely to be heard, “are going to drive me half mad. Are you planning on doing anything but teasing me?”
Damon glanced sideways at her. “That’s your decision, not mine.”
He shrugged, caught her hand in his, and drew her over to a jewellery kiosk in the centre.
A little later, while Damon was checking out something in a computer store that he promised would take him only a moment, Kate spotted a rack of gauzy long scarves in the next store. One was the vivid red of fresh blood. Impulsively, she bought it, and tucked it into the bag holding the white dress, where Damon wouldn’t see it.
When they ran out of mall, they headed back to Damon’s apartment, stopping to pick up Chinese food on the way home. Damon set his computer to play music, and they sat on the futon with the various dishes between them, sharing indiscriminately.
Damon licked plum sauce from his egg roll off his fingers, and looked at Kate thoughtfully. “Any idea what you’d like to do? Go back to Magda, relax here, go out for a drink?”
Kate finished her bite of chicken fried rice slowly, thinking that through, then grinned at him in sudden mischief. “It’s twilight. You said the day was up to me, and the night was yours. Which would make it your choice what we do.”
“Not precisely what I said, but fair enough.” He pondered that for a long moment. “I think, given that we did a lot today, a quiet night might be best for both of us. Oh.” He chuckled. “I know just the thing. You’ll either laugh yourself sick, or refuse to ever speak to me again.”
“Refusing to speak to you is very unlikely. What would make you think that could happen?”
“It all depends on your sense of humour, of course.”
“It’s generally in good health, and I find some odd things amusing. What are you talking about? A movie?”
“In a sense.”
She kept trying to coax more information out of him, in vain, while they finished off the food. She cleaned up, took the garbage to the kitchen, refilled both glasses with Pepsi and ice, and came back to find that he’d turned the futon ninety degrees and folded it out into a bed, on which he re-piled all the assorted pillows. He pulled the end-tables closer, so one was accessible on each side, then went looking through mysterious screens on the computer again.
“Aha. There it is.” He joined her with that little control pad in his hand. “How do you feel about bad movies? That they should never have been made, or that they can be so ridiculous they’re funny?”
“That depends on the movie.” Kate settled herself on one side of the expanded futon, leaning against pillows braced against the wall, and set her glass on the table.
“Hm. Well, this is part of a series, although the continuity between isn’t vital. The idea is that there’s one person trapped on a satellite by mad scientists who are experimenting on him by forcing him to watch terrible movies. Through the whole movie, he and his robots make comments on the movie. It’s a lot better than it sounds, it has a very large fan base.”
Kate considered that, then shrugged. “I have an open mind.”
“Good.” Damon arranged himself beside her, and started the movie.
The movie was terrible… and hilarious. Damon, who was groaning and laughing right along with her, handed her a box of tissues when her vision blurred from the uncontrollable tears in her eyes. By itself, the movie would have been simply bad; the commentary made all the difference.
“Oh gods,” Kate said breathlessly, when it finally ended. “I can’t remember the last time I laughed so hard.” She sprawled on her back, tired but feeling wonderfully relaxed.
“It doesn’t matter how often I see that, it’s still insanely funny.” Damon stretched, long and lazy like a cat, and rolled to his side to look at her, smiling. “I’m glad you liked it. Maybe you’ll be able to put up with my weird sense of humour. A smart and sexy woman who even likes a lot of the same things I do… where’ve you been all my life?”
Impulsively, Kate twisted to face him and kissed him.
Damon made a small sound that was almost a purr, and responded instantly; she shivered, closing her eyes, conscious of nothing but the warmth of Damon’s body, his lips on hers, his fingers stroking her shoulder and arm and sending delicious sensations along her nerves that set her pulse racing—how could she ever get enough of that wonderful touch? Tentatively, she ran her fingertips down his spine and back up, eliciting a low growling noise as he arched into her hand like a cat. The layer of fabric between his skin and her hand felt wrong, intrusive, so she groped for the bottom of his t-shirt and slid her hand up under it, stroking his back, loving the sensation of his skin under her fingertips as she traced out vertebrae and ribs, shoulderblades and collarbone. She smiled to herself as Damon’s breathing accelerated and he pressed into her hand. She wanted… what did she want, anyway? More of his touch, more of feeling him so close to her… did she want sex as such? She couldn’t remember her entire body reacting like this to anyone before, all longing for more, but she wasn’t entirely sure what more meant.
Damon moved, with the speed and precision tenebrans were so well known for, and before Kate could register the fact that he was moving at all, he had her on her back and was kneeling straddling her legs, looking down at her mischievously.
“There, now you have both hands free to do that.”
“Are you sure you aren’t a cat?”
“Do you enjoy petting cats?”
Kate giggled. “I used to pet my mother’s cat for hours.”
Kate slid both hands under his shirt, stroking his back. “But you have no hands at all free.”
He shifted his weight to his right arm, used his left to brush her hair back from her eyes—she’d long since taken the clip out, while watching the movie. “Oh, I’ll manage.” He lowered his head and left a trail of kisses from her lips along the line of her jaw to her ear. “Besides,” he murmured, “I do tend to have a bit of an oral fixation.” The kiss wandered down the side of her neck to her shoulder.
Kate’s experiences with sex so far suggested that within moments, he’d be trying to get her out of her pants and underwear. Right now, she wasn’t at all certain that she didn’t want that herself.
They simply… played, and explored, and laughed, and teased. Enjoying themselves and each other with no sense of pressure or urgency or expectation at all. Confronted with that, Kate’s usual caution stood no chance at all; the observer part of her mind that was always taking notes gave up, and she lost herself in the moment and the pleasure.
Until, to her utter dismay, she yawned.
Damon chuckled and kissed the end of her nose. “Don’t look so horrified. It’s been a long couple of days, and it’s late. Roll over.”
“Roll over on your other side, so your back is to me.”
Puzzled, Kate obeyed, all too aware of the creeping fatigue she’d been distracted from until now. Damon readjusted pillows, and a moment later, they were lying with Damon pressed against her back, one arm over her.
“Comfy?” Damon asked.
“Good. Go to sleep.” He kissed her shoulder, and began to sing softly in what might have been Tenebran or might have been Ashdryn. It sounded like a lullabye, low and soothing, and his voice was pleasant and fairly well-trained—normal for a tenebran, she’d heard they typically placed high social value on both music and dance, and Riverwood must have kept at least half of that. Kate closed her eyes, enjoying the warmth of him against her, the security of his arm over her, the sound of his voice.
It was, she thought drowsily, a wonderful way to fall asleep.
Continued in Brightside 5, in which we learn unexpected things about Clea, and her history with Damon.