Black Water, Chapter 32:

The thrum of the equinox moved through Johnny's bones as he sat in the crowded hall at the kid's table. If it were any other day, he would not have been able to function this early in the afternoon. He had made it through the wedding, barely, as Kenny and Lisa exchanged vows in a little white church on the outskirts of Lockwood. Then he drove over to the banquet hall with Cara and Ellie, because Crystal was in the bridal party and had to have pictures taken first.

He pushed his food across his plate and stared at Crystal where she sat at a raised table with the bride and groom. She had on a full-length gown, burnt amber, and her yellow hair was piled on her head with little curls hanging down around her face. She looked lovely, but all he could focus on was the small movements of her throat as she swallowed, raising her champagne glass in toast after toast to the happy couple. In a few more hours, when the day turned to night, he would exchange blood one last time with Crystal before he went under the lake until Spring.

He turned towards the other guests seated at his table. To his right sat Ellie and her grandmother, one of two adults at the kid's table. Crystal's cousins also sat at their table, although they were currently running around the hall with Ellie's two younger brothers. The other adult who had been placed at their table kept casting him puzzled looks in between bites of her meal. He caught her eyes and grinned, and the woman hurriedly looked down at her plate.

"Betty, isn't it?" he asked, grinning wider when she paled. "You don't remember me, do you?"

"N-no," Betty stammered, keeping her eyes glued to her plate. That was the problem. She did remember, and what she was seeing now was impossible. Johnny watched her emotions flit across her face. She was one of the ones who had thought she killed him five years ago. So the teenager who now sat across from her could not possibly be him—could he?

"Johnny!" Crystal came up to the table, smiling and holding out her hands. "Will you dance with me?" Her cheeks were flushed from the small glass of champagne she had been allowed to drink.

"Of course." Johnny stood easily, glancing back once to catch the look of horrified recognition on Betty's face. He smiled in grim satisfaction. Betty was a loose end he would enjoy taking care of before he left.

This kind of dancing did not involve touching, and the music was a little on the loud side, but Johnny danced with Crystal, like he had danced with her and Ellie in Ellie's basement, keeping to the side of the room without windows and away from certain relatives who might figure out who, and what, he was. As it was, Kenny's father kept glancing at him from across the room, but maybe that was because he was dancing with Crystal.

"My turn!"

Johnny looked down at Bethany, Crystal's cousin, in her buttercup flower girl's dress. He made room for her, and she grabbed one of his hands and one of Crystal's and pushed them towards one another so that they made a circle on the dance floor.

"Me too!" Eddie chopped through Crystal and Johnny's joined hands so he could be part of their circle. Ellie's two little brothers followed, and Crystal motioned to Ellie, who quickly got up and took both her brothers' hands. It wasn't dancing as much as it was careening around the dance floor getting dizzy with each circle, but it was fun. All the kids in the group knew Johnny, and on some level, they even sensed what he was, and they were fine with it. It was the grown-ups who presented the problem. Johnny realized that most of the eyes in the room were drawn to their little group. Wonderful.

"May I cut in?" Lisa, in her bridal gown, held out her hands to Johnny and he bowed out of the circle, letting it continue on without him, as he danced with the bride.

"Thanks," he said with a smile. "I'm getting too old for that!"

Lisa giggled, as the music changed and they began a slow dance. She rested her head briefly on Johnny's shoulder before looking up and gazing searchingly into his eyes. "Are you all right?" she asked.

"I'll manage," Johnny replied. They moved slowly across the dance floor, keeping to the shadows as much as possible. He studied Lisa, aware again that everyone was watching them. She really had invited half the town, the half that were related to them in one way or another. It was disconcerting, to say the least, knowing that there was so much family blood right there for the taking, yet he couldn't—no, shouldn't—take any. "You look beautiful," he told her, meaning it.

Lisa blushed. "Thank you," she said. "Johnny . . ." She hesitated. "I'm glad you came."

"Time's up. Quit hogging my wife," Kenny said as he came in. With a toss of his head, he indicated his father on the other side of the room who had been staring at Johnny intently for the last several minutes. "Why don't you take a break?" Kenny suggested, adding, "Don't do anything I wouldn't do."

Johnny grinned at that, but he relinquished Lisa to her new husband. "Be careful what you ask for," he commented, before he threaded his way through the dance floor, away from Mr. Brown but, unfortunately, nearer to the windows. He sucked in his breath as the light hit him, and quickly crossed to the back of the hall, near the bar.

He avoided one Mr. Brown only to run smack into the other. Robert Brown stood at the bar sipping a short glass of golden liquid. He raised the glass as Johnny approached, then signaled to the bartender, who put another glass out and poured more of the golden drink into it.

"Water?" he asked, and Johnny shook his head. Uncle Robert took both drinks and led Johnny a short distance away before he handed the young-looking man his drink. "To the bride and groom," he said. "Slainte."

Johnny raised his glass. "Slainte," he agreed, and took a sip. It burned, but that was good. What would have made it better would have been a drop or two of blood mixed with the scotch, but that wasn't going to happen today, with all these people surrounding them. His throat ached, and it wasn't only from the taste of the liquor.

Uncle Robert gave him a knowing look, and backed him up further into the corner. He used his tie pin to pierce a small hole in his finger and he held it over Johnny's glass. The few drops of blood swirled through the golden liquid and disappeared. "Blood of my blood," Uncle Robert murmured. "It's not much, but I want you to know I won't betray you."

Johnny hadn't even considered that. He narrowed his eyes, but took another sip of his drink. Even the small amount of blood that was now present added an extra dimension to the flavor and took the edge off Johnny's hunger. "I'm counting on it," he replied, downing the rest of the glass. The alcohol burned, offset or maybe intensified by the blood offering mixed in with it. How did Uncle Robert know he would drink the scotch? How did he know to put blood in it? There were still too many unknowns about Robert Brown.

He handed the uncle his empty glass and made his way back to his table, where Ellie's grandmother and Betty still sat watching the dancing. The dinner plates had been cleared away and replaced with cups and saucers for coffee and tea. Cake was making its way around to go with it. Johnny smiled at the two ladies, letting his smile grow malicious as he turned it upon Betty. "I'm thirsty after all that dancing," he commented. Betty paled. He leaned towards her. "What do you suggest? Coffee? Tea? Or something stronger?"

Cara laughed, not noticing how her cousin shrank back in terror at Johnny's comments. "You're not old enough to drink, young man, so don't even try. You shouldn't even be drinking coffee at your age. Tea, I think."

"Sure, if that's what you suggest," Johnny replied, still smiling. He wondered if he could get Betty to leave the table. A little drink, on the way to the restroom, and she wouldn't remember what had happened. However, he didn't think she would leave her seat any time soon. That, alone, was worth it. She hadn't been the only one who had hurt him that day five years ago, and he had forgiven Kenny already. The others in their little cabal hadn't yet caught on, and he didn't intend them to. He didn't intend to really hurt Betty, either. But it was fun scaring her.

He left the ladies to their cake when he noticed Kenny's father heading towards their table. He sighed. The man was persistent. When he moved, George Brown changed directions and moved with him, so Johnny stopped and waited for the man to catch up to him.

"Hello. You must be Crystal's friend," Mr. Brown began. "I'm Ken's father, her new grandfather. . . ." His voice faded away as he got closer to Johnny. His eyes widened, and he took a step backwards. Johnny didn't move. Mr. Brown glanced quickly around the room, seeking his son and his brother, only to find half the hall watching him expectantly.

Joanna Brown crossed the dance floor to stand beside her husband. She put her hands on his arm, looking worried, but she gave a short, polite nod to Johnny.

George Brown sighed, then held out his hand. "I should have guessed," he said resignedly, shaking hands. As soon as they touched, a shiver of recognition ran down his arm. His blood knew immediately what Johnny was. "I take it you're not holding the past against us?"

Johnny smiled, letting the tips of his long teeth show. "Not the past, no." He indicated the newlyweds with a jerk of his head. "I gave them my protection—and they gave me theirs." There was a challenge in Johnny's eyes.

Mr. Brown nodded, then pointedly looked around the banquet hall filled with tables of relatives and friends. "All of them?"

This time Johnny sighed. "It might as well be," he complained. "Every single one of them is either family or friend to one of those four." He gestured to Lisa, Kenny, Crystal, and Uncle Robert, who caught his eye and raised his glass.

Johnny drove with Cara back to Lisa's house where everybody was gathering once the banquet was over. The sky was just beginning to darken, which was good news for Johnny's reddened skin. He needed blood, soon. Betty had quickly disappeared after the reception, declining to go to Lisa's with the rest of them. It would be a simple matter to follow her to her home and sate his need for blood with hers. He didn't do it. Let her cower in her bed in fear. He would complete the exchange with Crystal at dusk, then hunt in the woods to sate his hunger before he went under the lake.

So much was left unfinished. So many questions still unanswered. He hated to leave, and not only because of Crystal. He was theirs as much as they were his. He would miss them all, even the uncle. Johnny wasn't sure what they were becoming, but none of them, including Kenny's father, was out to kill him anymore. So he felt sort of obligated not to kill any of them either. That thought didn't bother him nearly as much as he had thought it would.

In the Spring, Crystal would be older, though still not old enough, and he could resume their life in Lockwood where he had left off. Only this time, he wouldn't have to hide quite as much. He still needed to train his people, however. He had no intention of abstaining from human blood, or even killing if the need arose. Family blood was still debatable.

He still needed to confront Uncle Robert, and the mystery of his Scottish relatives. If there was a possibility that another true blood-drinker survived in Scotland, then he needed to go there. He still did not remember everything about his past. Perhaps this enforced sleep would help him to remember more bits and pieces from that time.

Guests milled inside and out of the house. Lisa had spent the last two weeks cleaning, and had Kenny and Johnny doing yard work for the occasion. They had strung rows of colored lights outside, praying for nice weather, which they had gotten. A table set up with plastic champagne flutes and several bottles of champagne was set up next to the shed. Johnny snagged two glasses.

"Here." He handed one of the glasses to Crystal and settled down beside her on the side steps, away from the crowd. "Don't let your mother see."

"It's okay, we're going to do a toast," she said, accepting her glass. She didn't wait for a toast, though, and sipped at it lightly.

"Blood of my blood." Johnny looked up as he heard Kenny speak the words in their old language. Lisa stood beside him. "We couldn't do this at the wedding, but we wanted to send you on your way knowing we've got your back," Kenny said. He handed Lisa his plastic glass and took a pen knife out of his pocket so he could make a small cut in his hand. "Uncle Robert showed me this trick." He let a few drops of his blood fall into Johnny's glass. Then he took back his own and let Lisa do the same thing. "I understand Crystal's going to donate more directly," Kenny said. He raised his glass, and all four of them clinked the glasses together. "Cheers."

"See? A toast," Crystal said, when they had all downed their champagne. "We'll miss you, Johnny."

Johnny didn't understand the sudden tightness in his throat. It wasn't bloodlust. It felt—strange.

"Crystal will be staying with Ellie's family while we're on our honeymoon," Lisa said. "Cara will take her over later tonight. You have a few hours still." She hugged Johnny. "Take care."

Kenny clapped him on the back, then put his arm around Lisa and led her back into the party. Johnny felt light-headed, from the champagne, or the scotch, or maybe from the blood mixed in with the alcohol. The air seemed to thicken around him as dusk dropped visibly from the sky.

"It's time," he said. He scooped Crystal up and dodged quickly around the back of the shed, away from the lights. He didn't want to do the exchange here. Too many people, too much noise. He ran silently with her through the short stretch of woods to the road, past the cemetery, past the cottage, all the way to the beach. Her autumn gown looked black against the dark lake as he knelt, at the edge of the water, with her still in his arms.

Crystal was stronger than she had been a year ago, strong enough to endure what he intended. He cut his wrist rather than his palm and gave it to her to drink, watching her face as her eyes first darkened, then fluttered closed with pleasure. He let her take as much as she could. When she was done, she smiled up at him, that knowing smile, and turned her head slightly away.

With a groan, he bent his head to the juncture of her neck and shoulder, and bit, not allowing her to feel any pain as he drew her life's blood into himself. He would have to carry her back to the party, and put her to bed, because she would be in no condition to do anything until tomorrow. "Mine," he murmured softly as he stroked the curls away from her sleeping face. "Wait for me, little vampire."

THE END

Hope you enjoyed it. The story's not over yet. Look for Part 3, "Crystal" soon. Till then. Bye!