C2 Chapter 2
It takes three weeks to hear back from Shelly. Thanksgiving came and went with minimal fanfare. I've always celebrated that holiday by volunteering at a food bank. This year, due to my newly formed sun allergy, I couldn't safely do that, so instead Sebastian and I spent the day cuddling in front of a fire, reading, talking, sipping wine and blood and enjoying time together, and in lieu of volunteering, we donated a massive Thanksgiving meal to several food banks, complete with turkeys, mashed potatoes, stuffing, green bean casserole, candied yams, biscuits, cranberry sauce, and a variety of pies.
The letter arrives on a clear, cold day, the sky a bright blue, the land covered in snow, and everything at peace. Even Prince Ace's incessant tinkering and building has been paused today, as he is 'traveling for inspiration' as he calls it.
Sebastian hands me the card over lunch. "This just came for you," he says.
I tear open the envelope and see a photograph of Shelly, her husband and two kids posing in front of a Christmas tree, presents surrounding them. "From our family to yours," it reads. On the back of the photo is a short message scrawled in familiar handwriting.
Got your letter. Shocked doesn't begin to describe my response. Looking forward to catching up at Christmas. See you soon,
I frown and look up at Sebastian. "I think she's upset with me," I say, disappointed but not surprised.
He reaches over to take my hand, the contact sending a thrill of desire up my spine. "You'll be able to mend things in a few weeks. That reminds me, we need to figure out how we're getting there and when, and what our plan is for avoiding the sun. Do you know of any local mirrors you can take us through?"
I'd been giving that some thought myself. "It's not ideal, but I can clearly picture the mirror of a local pub we always went to. It's the one place I'm sure is still there. We can't very well appear in Shelly's bathroom, as that would raise far too many eyebrows." There will already be enough eyebrow raising as it is.
He nods. "When do you want to leave?"
"We normally meet at the midnight Christmas Eve church service, then head to the house for cider and wine. Everyone stays at Shelly's house these days, and we all celebrate Christmas the next morning."
The next few weeks whizz by in a blur. I spend considerable time putting together holiday gifts for the kids and each member of my surrogate family. I try to get what I can from Inferna, since I know those gifts will be high quality, rare, and intriguing. But I have to be careful not to be too wild with my choices. While my nieces would love magical dolls that dance and move as if human, it would certainly raise questions I don't have easy answers for.
So I settle for finely crafted non-magical gifts. A beautiful pendant for Shelly, who has always loved emeralds. A sword for her husband, Jared, who fancies himself a reincarnated knight. It will hang in his living room and never see a drop of blood, which is all the better, I suppose. For the girls, I commission Christmas dresses to be made for them, with pearls and red ribbon, and also dolls that look just like them, with the same dresses. They will have their own little twins, and they'll never know the dolls have been blessed by the Fae to watch over and protect the girls. That was as much magic as I could manage to justify, to myself and my husband.
For the rest of the family, I acquire the most mouth watering fudge from Prince Zeb's realm of gluttony. He definitely has the best food in the Seven Realms. I also pick up silks and luxurious fabrics for my soul-mom who loves to sew, sheet music for my soul-dad who can often be found at the piano, throw blankets made from the softest cloth I've ever felt, though no one will tell me what it is, and a few rare gemstones from King Fenris's realm, which boasts a garden made of crystals.
The gifts are wrapped in thick red wrapping and loaded into a leather bag, along with changes of clothes and personal items for us, and a few extra liters of blood.
Sebastian holds an expensive bottle of cognac, unwilling to put it in the bag for fear of it breaking. "For emergencies," he says, eyeing it.
I just laugh.
When Christmas Eve arrives, we both change into more ordinary clothes and head by boat to the closest mirror on Inferna. Mirrors are heavily guarded here, and hard to come by. It's a security measure, Sebastian explained. To keep enemies from transporting wherever they wanted and staging ambushes. All public use mirrors are monitored by two armed guards at all times, and passing through reminds me a bit of traveling overseas. "Where are you going?" "For what purpose?" "What are you bringing with you?" "How do you plan to feed while away?"
Okay, that last question is less typical of my previous travels, but still. Very similar, including long lines waiting times. It seems we aren't the only vampires traveling to Earth for the holiday. It makes me wonder what kinds of lives most vampires lead. We keep to ourselves mostly, and I haven't really made friends in Inferna, unless you count books.
When it's our turn, we answer the questions and are admitted through, after a brief search of our bags.
"What are they worried we will smuggle over?" I ask as we finally approach the mirror.
"Any number of things. Mostly magical artifacts that would put too much power in the hand of humans."
Sebastian holds my left hand, and I place my right hand over the mirror as I close my eyes and imagine the cracked bathroom mirror of Dusty's Pub. And then the magic of the portal sucks us in, and we whirl through an empty vastness that always leaves my head spinning after.
We come out the other side and land in the bathroom just as I pictured it.
I quickly pull Sebastian into an empty stall when I realize the second stall is occupied. I hold a finger up to my mouth and gesture for him to squat on the toilet so his head and feet won't be visible to anyone who might look.
"Eh, excuse me, could you pass some toilet paper. Mine's empty."
With a start I realize a woman is speaking to me. "Um, sure." I pull out a wad and pass it under the stall to her. A time honored tradition amongst women everywhere.
"Thanks. Too many beers got me pissing like a racehorse," she guffaws, flushing and stomping out with heavy black boots. She leaves without washing her hands, the bathroom door clicking behind her.
There's only one small mirror in the bathroom, too small for either of us to climb out of, so we will have to leave through the door and hope no-one questions how we got here.
I open the door slowly and peak out, scanning the hall for signs of other patrons. "All clear," I say softly. Sebastian and I make our way to the bar, trying to pretend we belong and didn't just magically appear in the bathroom. My husband finally relents and puts the cognac in our bag, since showing up with our own alcohol would look odd. We get lucky in that there is only one person drinking at the bar.
Our lucks ends there, though. Outside it is still bright and sunny. The blinds are drawn, so we are safe enough indoors, but we won't be able to leave for many hours.
We get a table as far from everything as we can, and I head to the bar to order our drinks, while Sebastian guards our belongings.
Carrying shots and a bottle of their most expensive liquor—which isn't saying much—I rejoin Sebastian and we drink in silence for a time. Both of us are anxious for the sun to go down and to be on our way.
"We're okay going into churches, right?" I ask, with sudden worry. I hadn't given thought to it. I'm not a religious person, but I do join Shelly's family for the traditional Christmas Eve service.
"We are," he says. "There are some holy objects that can harm us, but none that would likely be in a church here," he says, his expression not hiding his dislike of small country towns. To be honest, I don't blame him. There's a reason I lived in Las Vegas for so long.
After two hours, we both have a solid buzz, thanks to a potion Sebastian slipped into our drink to give the alcohol more kick. Vampire metabolisms burn through liquor too fast for it to do much on its own.
We talk about books, plans for our future, and I tell him about the family he will soon be meeting.
We weather the forced wait well enough, until a voice from the past sucks the blood from my face.
"Ember White. Is that really you? I didn't know you were back in town."
I turn in my seat to face a man I never wanted to see again.
"Hi, Pat. Yes, it's really me."