She fell asleep as the sun set.
Even a hunter can't stay awake forever, and her day had been a long one. She felt like she had been awake forever.
Her cousins had left not too long after he had gone. Maybe… maybe an hour after. They had congratulated her and patted her on the back and urged more food on her and then they had trickled out—some back to their homes, some back to the airport, some off to heaven knew where. She had gone up to her room, leaving Mom and Papá to deal with the leftovers, and spent the next few hours laying on her bed and trying to process everything that had happened. Her body had still tingled and hummed with sensation, making it impossible to fall asleep as she so desperately wished she could.
It wasn't the ever-present light in the world that kept her awake, though. It was the sheer bombardment of sight and sound and smell and taste. She could hear her parent's soft conversation downstairs as they cleaned the plates. Sight or no sight, she could have pointed to where they stood in the living room, in the kitchen. She could smell all of the food—oh, the food—and the faint whiff of decay as the trash can was opened and closed. She could smell the flowers outside, and the musk of a squirrel chattering in a nearby tree.
She could practically smell the sun setting.
Finally, though, exhaustion had overtaken her. When she woke again, the sun was just dawning. She could hear her parents quietly moving about downstairs, getting dressed and eating breakfast. She heard her father leave for work, and her mother run a hand over her beloved violin before tucking it under her chin to play.
Still she didn't get up.
She didn't see much reason.
In the end, it was hunger that drove her downstairs. Insatiable hunger, it felt like, despite everything she had eaten the day before. Her body had spent an entire day reworking itself from the inside out, and the energy required for such a feat had taken its toll on her appetite. No wonder Talia could eat so bloody much and never gain a pound. Even her brother—
She snubbed her usual bowl of cereal in favor of a toaster pastry fished out of the freezer. A moment later she changed her mind and added a second pastry to the toaster. She grabbed an orange out of the refrigerator as an afterthought.
There. That might do it.
She had never noticed it before, but her mother's peaceful playing helped to drown out some of the heightened sensations that now clamored for her attention. Helped to drown out some of her own thoughts, too. It was enough that she could eat her breakfast in relative peace and maybe only notice the musky freshness of a thunderstorm coming far from the southwest.
As it turned out, though, there was plenty to distract her after her plates had been returned to the sink. She only had a few hours to get ready, and while she could honestly say she was not nervous in the least, it still gave her something to occupy her mind for most of the day.
The ceremony started at one.
All of the graduates had to be there an hour before, though. Time to get themselves all sorted out and put in order and remind them all not to talk or chew gum or drink. She wondered how many hip flasks would end up confiscated—
Her mom had bought her a new dress for the occasion. Well, new to her, anyway. Mom had found it at a consignment shop and it fit well enough and looked nice even though she'd have on her graduation robe over top of it. She would have been just as happy in jeans, at this point. Which reminded her—she would have to ask Val if she had worn anything… nontraditional… under her robe. Aleda had heard of guys wearing absolutely nothing, on a dare, and she certainly wouldn't put it past Val or any of her friends to try something similar.
She killed the paltry rest of the morning painting her fingernails and trying to persuade her hair not to frizz out like a massive bird's nest, despite the coming storm and rampant humidity. Her weapons were a brush, a comb, and a bottle of something that promised smooth, shiny curls in three simple steps. So far her hair had won against the comb, but was slowly losing ground against the brush and the serum. At one point she even resorted to threats with scissors and rubber bands. It was something to distract her.
Somewhere downstairs her Mom called out to her. Not that it was terribly necessary, after yesterday. But she did.
"Honey!" she said. "Are you almost ready? We have to be at the school in half an hour!"
"I'm almost done, Mom," Aleda replied. She scowled at her hair, which she might as well admit she was taking out her frustrations on. She had just about beaten it into submission, even if it was turning out a little too shiny, and a few more well-placed tugs with her brush took care of the rest of it.
And of course she was hungry again.
The trick was finding something quick and filling that still managed to be at all appetizing. Sure, it would take five minutes to drive to the high school, but that only left about twenty to make and eat whatever she managed to dig out of the refrigerator. A sandwich wouldn't do the trick; eggs took too long; she'd just eaten toaster pastries a few hours ago; fruit wouldn't hold her longer than an hour, tops. She poked through the pantry on the other side of the small kitchen. Well, if nothing else, there was oatmeal. She'd eaten that for breakfast often enough over the winter to know it was filling enough—
Mom found her a few minutes later, still in the kitchen, the pantry doors still open, leaning all of her weight against the shelf and crying mascara-black tears.
"Oh, honey!" she exclaimed, and wrapped her arms around the girl. "Are you alright?"
She couldn't even shake her head coherently. She could only shake. One trembling hand came up to wipe against her streaked cheek, doing nothing but smearing the salt and black. She couldn't bring herself to talk. Even breathing hurt.
"I know, honey. I know," Mom soothed her, rubbing her back. "But he'll come back. I know he will."
Aleda sniffled back the tears that had drained down into her nose. "B-but what if he doesn't?" she choked out. "What if… what if he gets h-hurt… or d-decides he likes it better down… down there?"
"Shh… of course he'll come back. He loves you, honey."
"Then why did he leave!?" She turned to face her mother, her stained cheeks flushing red. "He promised! He promised he wouldn't leave, but he did! He left! He—" She had to cut off as the knot in her throat became too much to fight, and her hand went unconsciously to the pendant at her neck.
"Hey, shh," Mom continued to try. "Just breath. Just breath. It'll be alright, you'll see. Shh…"
Aleda turned to her mother and let her hold on tight. Only yesterday she had been called into immortality, and yet now, for the first time in so many years, she felt like a small child again. All she wanted to do was curl up in her mother's lap and let her make everything better.
"There's still a little bit of time before you have to be at school," Mom said as she stroked her daughter's hair. "Do you want me to heat you up some soup?"
Sweet mercy, the thought of it made her nauseous.
"N-no thanks," Aleda croaked out. "I… I don't really want anything anymore." Her stomach was too full of knots to even consider food.
After a few more minutes she pulled herself away and took a deep breath. "I'd… I'd better go fix this, I guess," she said, motioning towards her blotchy face. She must be a mess. Mom nodded and sent her upstairs, although she tucked a granola bar in her purse just in case.
Ten minutes later she was, once again, presentable for graduation. Her makeup was repaired, and her face had returned to its normal coloring remarkably fast. Even her hair had survived its mild battering and too many hands running through it. She adjusted her dress, knee-length and white, and checked to make sure she had everything. Purse, wallet, extra makeup, brush. Well, then, that was it. Nothing left to do but go through with it. And maybe, just maybe, she could block everything else out for the few hours that she would be out of the house.
School—or, more precisely, the gymnasium—was a riot of activity. All of the chairs and stage and sound system were out in the football field, but the gym was where all of the graduating seniors were congregating. Some in robes, some in dressed. Some even in shorts. Various teachers—in robes—were trying to organize them by last name. At the moment, it was a fairly fruitless venture.
Aleda saw Val and Jess and hurried over to them, her cap and gown still tucked under her arm despite her mother's admonitions not to wrinkle them.
"Hey, Chica!" Val called out. Aleda had to bite her cheek to keep from smirking. Even the girl's light had a pinkish hue. Faint, though, compared to her family. It made her a little sad. Still, though, she smiled and joined in their laughing conversation about all their plans for after graduation.
"Well, I'm going to Key West for a week," Val said, twirling a lock of fuschia hair. "I've got to get nice and tan for college in the fall!"
"Just don't get your ass sunburned!" Jess said. "You'll wind up with your face and your hair matching!"
"Oh, shut up Jess. I won't get sunburned," Val retorted. "I'll have the hot cabana boys keep me nice and lotioned up!"
Jess whooped in approval, and Aleda joined in their laughter. "Aw, Val!" she said. "What happened to Chad?"
Val waved her hand. "Old news," she said. "I'm after college guys now!"
"Yeah, right!" Jess said. "Didn't you hear? Chad's going on a roadtrip to California starting, like, tomorrow!"
"Oh." Aleda blinked. "Well, darn."
"Hey, speaking of which!" Val said. "Where's your college boy! Is he coming today?"
Aleda swallowed. Shit. "Yeah, um, actually no. He…he had to—"
"Oh. My. God!" Val said. "Check out who just showed up with a cast!"
Aleda turned to look and her mouth dropped open. Nate had just walked through the doors wearing a cast on his leg and limping on a crutch. Rather theatrically, she thought. Even his left arm was wrapped in some kind of bandaging, although he obviously wasn't favoring it at all. She ignored her friend's catcalls and ran to meet him.
"Nate!" she hissed at him. "What the hell are you doing here?"
"Hey, I couldn't miss graduation, could I?" he asked, a cocky grin spreading across his face. He tapped his cast with his crutch. "You like it? Had that guy who bailed me out of the hospital whip it up for me. He's got ID's at, like, five different hospitals around here."
"You were in a really bad car crash!" she scolded. "You're not even scratched up! What are you thinking!?"
"Hey, now, come on!" he protested, frowning. "It's graduation. I mean, it's bad enough I had to miss prom! Why the hell should I have to miss graduation, too?"
"Geez, I don't know. Maybe because you were showing off for Lizzy and wrapped your car around a telephone pole?"
"Hey, how did you…!?"
Aleda rolled her eyes. "Ryan told me," she said. "You should know better than to try to lie to one of us."
"Wait, wait, wait… 'One of us'? You… You're called!"
"Damn straight I am," she snarled. "Just… Gah, just keep quiet, alright? I've seen better 'injuries' on middle school actors."
"Bu- Hey! Wait a minute!" he called after her.
She waved behind her back and kept walking. Kept breathing. If this kept up, she wasn't going to make it until the ceremony was over. And somehow, in the middle of all of it, she was going to have to get up and sing with the rest of the Chorus. Maybe she could just move her mouth, and not deal with the pesky breathing and singing part.
She found Mara. The girl was scoping out the field from the gym exit.
"Hey, Mara. What's up?"
"Heya Leda. Say, I had a really sweet idea. See those bleachers out there?"
Aleda sighed. "No, Mara. No setting the bleachers on fire."
"Aww, come on," Mara whined. "Please? I mean, everybody'll be sitting in the chairs, on the field. Nobody will be using them."
"They'll cancel graduation!" Aleda said. "…Just… just promise you won't do anything until after we've got our diplomas. Right?"
"Okay, okay!" Mara said. "I won't do anything until after we're all graduated and shiny."
Aleda sighed. She could actually see the girl's fingers crossed behind her back. However, she could also see a small spot of shadow that was shaped suspiciously like Mara's lighter, tucked into her waistband.
"Hey, Mara, look over there," she said, pointing into the middle of the gym. "Nate showed up."
Aleda used the opportunity to swipe the lighter and tuck it into her purse. Mara didn't even notice the movement. Actually, she ran off almost immediately to go find out all of the gossip about Nate and why he hadn't shown up to Prom. In retrospect, pointing him out might not have been the best move. Oh well. No point in worrying about that now. She followed the other girl. Maybe she could distract her before she looked too closely at Nate's complete lack of visible injury. Didn't even have scratches on his face, the idiot—and he'd been in at least one play! What did he think stage makeup was for? Sheesh.
As luck would have it, though, the teachers had finally managed to get their hands on a megaphone.
"Alright, everybody!" they announced. All around her, students groaned their disappointment, and Mara had to stop in her tracks before she made it to Nate. "You should all have your caps and gowns on by now. Line up at the doors by last name! Chorus at the front!"
Nate would be safely up at the front of the line—well, as safe as he could be in a crowded gym after a car accident, a trip to the hospital, and no legitimate injuries—while Mara Thompson and Valentine Legrand were safely back in the middle of everybody. Aleda found her own place quickly enough, at least. Everybody in Chorus lined up the same way they always lined up at concerts. It was second nature to her now. Right behind the blonde field-hockey player and right in front of the mousy girl who always brought a book to class.
Somewhere behind her, Mara was realizing she'd lost her beloved lighter. Aleda could hear her whispering to the girl in back of her.
"Psst, hey… have you seen a lighter? It's got a monkey on the front of it…"
The girl behind Mara shook her head. Aleda couldn't help but smirk to herself as she twirled her prize between her fingers. Sure, she'd give it back to the pyro… after graduation. After that, the girl was on her own.
A quick glance at the clock on the far end of the gym told her it was about fifteen minutes until one o'clock. Mom had already headed out to find seats on the field, and if Aleda could tell anything after just a day of being a hunter, her father had made it back from work. No Talia, though. Even if… even if her brother had decided at the last minute to go gallivanting around South America at least she could have shown up. She'd sent them formal invitations and everything. Damn it. She sighed and wished Mrs. Dodges hadn't decided they should sing without any music for the ceremony.
She fidgeted. Still ten minutes until they walked out in front of everybody, all formal and proud. She twirled the lighter and flicked it on and off a couple of times. It was strange to see the flame of the lighter flickering among the rest of the light in the air. In a way, it was hardly brighter at all. She flicked it off again and tucked it up her sleeve.
Somewhere outside a recording started playing "Pomp and Circumstance".
Shit, couldn't they every play something else at graduation ceremonies? Seriously! Every bad American high school flick she'd ever seen had a graduation scene with that damned song playing.
Regardless, the start of the music meant the start of their progression out onto the field to the chairs waiting for them just in front of the stage. She shuffled along with the rest. At least the grass was nice to walk on. It sparkled under her feet as she passed over it, while the floor of the gym had merely glowed. Faintly. The sky was nice, too. Again her hand reached for the silver pendant around her neck. This time, though, she caught herself and jerked her hand away, curling her fingers into a resolute fist at her side. When she got to her seat she sat on her hands, just to make sure.
This whole graduation ceremony was going to be plenty long as it was.
The principal said a few words. Then the vice principle. Some guest speaker who must have been an alumnus or something said considerably more than just a few words. Something about responsibility and fresh challenges and making a mark and honestly the only challenge Aleda could see was staying awake through the whole thing. And with any luck, those clouds coming in from the southwest would behave themselves for another hour.
Finally, thank the merciful heavens, the guy stepped down from his podium and Mrs. Dodges gestured at the Chorus to get off their sleeping butts and get up onto the stage. Someone had actually gone to the trouble of setting up graduated platforms for them to stand on. Because she was just dying to be able to see the hundreds of people assembled in front of her.
Up ahead of her, the first row of the chorus was walking up the makeshift stairs onto the stairs. Nate, she noticed, still had his crutch, although he wasn't exactly leaning on it anymore.
"Hey, man," the tenor behind him whispered. "What's going on with your leg?"
"What are you talking about?" Nate asked, swinging the crutch a little too freely.
"Isn't your leg busted? I heard there was a car crash."
Nate looked puzzled for a moment. "What? Oh.. Oh! Shit! Yeah, man, it's freaking killing me!"
To prove his point, he deliberately lurched on his next step. If he'd had any intention of catching himself with his crutch, though, he failed spectacularly. One misstep led to another, and his right foot landed awkwardly and sideways on the thin carpeting of the portable stage. Aleda watched in slow-motion as his crutch hit the edge and ricocheted off to the side. His arms flailed through the air but he was already gone, flying off the stage to land flat on his back on the damp grass.
There was a gasp.
There was a swell of murmuring.
And then… there was laughter.
Nate pushed himself up off the ground, and the proof against injury was enough to set off the entire four hundred seniors now that they knew he wasn't dead or anything. The entire line of chorus members had frozen in their tracks to watch, and now the one that stood nearest where his crutch had fallen picked it up and tossed it onto the field next to him. He stood with difficulty—because of his useless cast more than anything—and scowled at just about everything as he made his way back up to the stage. They shuffled to the side to let him by and Aleda had to hide her mouth with one hand when he passed. Bright green grass stains covered his red robe from hem to collar.
"Are you alright, Mr. Burns?" Mrs. Dodges asked. He nodded, sullenly. "Then let's keep going. Come on, people, show's over," she told the Chorus. They continued shuffling obediently into place, although every so often another would snicker softly. She just glared at them and took out her pitch pipe to give them their first note. The wind was starting to pick up. Their first song would, of course, be the alma mater. Standing near and yet so far; Through the days and endless nights… Yeah, that was for damned sure.
Satisfied, Mrs. Dodges raised her arms for them to begin.
Unfortunately, a loud voice echoing across the field interrupted her on the downbeat.
"For the love of… Now what?" Mrs. Dodges grumbled.
Aleda looked up sharply at the familiar voice. Across the field, under dark gathering clouds, Talia Kavanagh was jogging from the parking lot and waving something in the air. Aleda squinted to see what it was, and gasped.
A plane ticket, and a boarding pass.
"You'd better move it, Little Leda!!" Talia yelled out again. "You're going to miss your flight!"
She stared at the little blonde. Mrs. Dodges stared at her, utterly bewildered and more than a little annoyed.
"Excuse me," Mrs. Dodges said. "This is a graduation ceremony!"
Talia said nothing to her. She simply winked at Aleda and held up a keychain that glittered in the breeze. "Well?"
Half of a moment. That's all the longer it took for Aleda to push through the kids in front of her and jump from the stage that landed her several feet into the audience. She hit the ground running. Mara's lighter was rescued from her sleeve and tossed at its owner, and a second later she was pulling off her cap and unzipping her robe, even as she ran.
Talia handed the ticket off to her and grabbed the robe from her hands. But she made no move to follow. Aleda hesitated.
"Aren't you coming?"
"Me? Na-ah. You get out of here, and I'll grab that diploma of yours for you. I promise to take good care of it until you get back," Talia said, winking at her again. "And you'd better hurry, the flight's at three!"
"..Wait, three?" Aleda exclaimed. "But…! Talia, cops!"
Talia shook her head and pulled a dented license plate out of thin air, apparently. "Not a problem." She made a shooing motion with her hands. "Go on, git!"
Aleda laughed, and finally turned to jog towards the parking lot.
"Hey, Mara, have fun burning down the school!" she called over her shoulder as she ran. "Sorry, Mom, Papá! I'll be back… eventually!"
Talia shook her head affectionately at the retreating figure and set Aleda's yellow cap on her head. She'd always wanted to go to a graduation ceremony.
Talia's car was… not hard to find. The rusted hulk had been left in the middle of the first aisle of cars with very little regard for parking spaces. Aleda made it into the car in time with the first faint echo of thunder rolling in from the south. She gunned the engine and wished fervently that she wasn't wearing heels. Seconds later she was squealing out of the parking lot and down the road that would take her to the interstate.
She checked the ticket and boarding pass. Baltimore Washington International. Quarter after three in the afternoon. She had an hour and a half to get on that plane. Thunder rolled again just as she made it to Route 95. Aleda swore. A thunderstorm, coming in from the southwest, and she was headed straight into it.
She gave the car as much gas as she dared. If she didn't wrap herself around a telephone pole, she just might find herself driving a disintegrating pile of rust. But the car kept accelerating. How…?
Ryan. Talia had said that her brother had "fixed up" her car a bit. …The same man that had given his motorcycle a turbo boost and racing shocks.
Bless him, even if he did make an ass out of himself.
She sped up. Other cars became fire-streaked blurs, often honking their disapproval at her. One cut in front of her unexpectedly, cutting off her open lane. Faster than she would have believed she dodged the renegade automobile and found herself on the other side. Another peal of thunder rumbled all around. Rain pounded the world in a glittering storm.
"Oh sweet fecking mother, you have got to be kidding me!" Aleda growled. All around her the other drivers were panicking at the sight of moisture from the sky… and slowing down accordingly. She swerved and ducked between the cars, even riding the shoulder when she had to.
She had to make that flight.
By two-forty she had made it to the outskirts of Baltimore.
By two forty-five she found herself hurtling towards a line of toll booths.
Oh, shit. The tunnel! All she had was her driver's license! Who needed money at a high-school graduation? For nearly two seconds her heart froze beneath her ribs. She had just made up her mind to blow through the electronic pass lane when a bright flare of light caught her attention, wonderful in its familiarity. One of her cousins. She drove to that booth, which was well to the side and missing most of the traffic.
Her cousin recognized her as soon as she drove up. He grinned and waved her through even before she could roll down her window. Yes, there were some definite and distinct advantages to being immortal. Well, besides the obvious.
It was five minutes before three o'clock when she skidded into the parking lot of the airport. The lot itself, unfortunately, was somewhat removed from the actual airport, and Aleda didn't think Talia would look to kindly on her losing the rental car. She had to bite her cheek to keep from crying. There were shuttles that supposedly ran from the lot to the airport, but she didn't see any coming. She was out of time.
Time to take a chance.
She locked the car and slipped off her heels, gripping them in one hand and her purse in the other, her precious plane ticket inside. She was drenched in seconds. The pavement under her feet did not hurt, though, as gravelly as it was. And there was nobody else around. She took off towards the airport in a dead run, nearly flying over the pavement. She cut across a strip of trees, and around the busy road that looped through the myriad of airline terminals, hoping against hope that nobody noticed she was running much faster than most people could ride a bike.
She dashed through the doors, through a crowd of startled travelers, and nearly crashed into the security officer, her dripping hair showering the unfortunate man with water.
"Hey, now. Easy there," he said, a hint of protest in his voice. "Ticket and ID?"
She fished both out of her purse and handed them over, fidgeting anxiously while he inspected both. The boarding pass worried her. The fine print at the bottom said it was an electronic copy, but it didn't really look that legitimate. An eternity later, though, he handed them back and waved her in the direction of the metal detectors and x-ray machines. Three-oh-nine. She was nearly jumping out of her skin.
She had to remove her earrings and bracelets and even her silver pendant, though it put a sick knot in her stomach to take it off, and wait impatiently for them, and her purse and shoes, to pass ever so slowly through the damned x-ray machine. The guard attending that particular metal detector frowned at her, and she forced herself to calm down. The last thing she needed was to be hauled off by security on suspicion of being antsy.
Finally finally finally they sent her through and she grabbed her things and hooked the pendant back in its place and took off at a run in the direction of the gate.
By now she didn't even need to look, to see where the gate would be. She was close. So close. She could feel him getting nearer and nearer. She followed the curve of the hallway and found herself looking at an endless row of departure gates lining both sides of the winding hallway but she knew immediately. That one: there. The gate attendant was leaving, but Aleda shoved the boarding pass under her nose.
"Please!" she gasped. "I have to get on that plane!"
The gate attendant raised her eyebrows but scanned the pass. Aleda didn't even wait for the machine to beep.
There were voices at the end of the ramp. Raised voices, and she perked her ears to hear even as she ran towards the plane.
"Get th' bloody hell out o' my way, y'incompetent headers!" one of the voices roared, amidst a row of frustrated scuffling. "Or I swear to all I hold dear an' true…"
Aleda grinned ear-to-ear in relief.
The flight attendant who was supposed to be greeting passengers ignored her, but the man they were about to take into custody did anything but. Joy flashed behind his eyes the instant he saw her, and he gathered her into a tight embrace. Neither one said a word. Neither one had to.
Some of the passengers applauded… but neither one noticed. Not even when the woman who had occupied the seat next to him got up and found herself somewhere else to sit, and the flight attendants herded them back to their seats with a trace of amusement.
She rested her head on his shoulder and sighed contentedly while the plane's engines rumbled to life. His strong arm curled around her, holding her close, and she smiled to herself as she breathed in the familiar scent of musk and leather. Soon they had broken free of the ground, the grey clouds parting to reveal bright, golden sunlight shining all around them. The clouds that had been dark and sinister from the ground glowed white in the afternoon light.
The sky was the bluest she had ever seen.
It looked like heaven.
And that's all she wrote, folks. Well, not really. I've still got a lot of stuff that I want to post on this site; some of it is done, some of it is still in progress, and all of it is just as awesome as this. I'm going to try not to leave too much time between this and the next updates, although obviously I won't be able to continue the updating-every-day schedule.
And yes. Yes, there is a sequel in the works. Stay tuned ;)