Kate considered her reflection in the full-length mirror uncertainly. “Are you sure about this?”
Magda nodded firmly, though her back was to Kate as she searched through her closet. “It'll be fine, Kate. You came to visit because you needed a change, right? Well, going out for dinner is definitely a change. Honestly, you were practically living like a cloistered nun in Tullovar. It's just a few of my friends, you'll like them. If you relax and let yourself, anyway.”
Kate sighed. “I'm sorry. Just nerves. It's been a while. I'm a bit out of touch with what's in style Brightside, do I look okay?”
Magda turned around, shrugging into the dark blue and silver bolero jacket that matched her pants. “Black ankle boots, long black skirt, unbleached peasant blouse, chain belt? That's a pretty timeless classic. And it suits you. It's not like we're going anywhere formal, anyway. It's a bothsider hangout, for heaven's sake.” She scooped up a small grey purse that Kate knew held money, keys, and cellphone, and gestured to the door of her bedroom. “Come on, before you can get yourself any more worked up than you are. Honestly, Kate, just trust me, please. You're going to have fun, all right?” She herded Kate through the apartment's living room, and out to the common landing.
“If I didn't trust you, I wouldn't be here,” Kate laughed. Magda was right, and she knew it; it hadn't been so hard to bury the sense of something missing, while she'd been keeping herself busy. But without her job, she was uncomfortably aware of creeping loneliness. Of course, making friends here wouldn't help, unless a job turned up locally, which she doubted; Magda was a good friend, but she couldn't sleep on Magda's couch forever. But at least they were bothsiders, and she wouldn't have to carefully avoid mentions of Darkside while trying to find plausible excuses for how little she knew of recent Brightside events.
“Precisely. Are you okay walking? It's only a few blocks.”
Kate nodded. “Walking is fine. It's beautiful out.”
“Done any more thinking about what you want to do now?”
“Yes, but without any answers. I'd like to move back here to Brightside, but I don't see how. My archivist and librarian and bookbinding skills are a lot more practical on Darkside, and I can't really put my recent experience on a resume or give someone my reference letters. No matter how much time I spend thinking about it, I can't see any reasonably likely solution. Probably I'll have to go back to Darkside. Maybe I can at least find a place with a larger bothsider community. If it weren't for at least a few English-speakers in Tullovar, I'd probably be having trouble right now. Wouldn't that be great? Being unable to speak my own mother's language?”
“You do have more of an accent than you used to,” Magda admitted. “Don't give up yet. We'll get the networking thing started, and see what comes up. I'd love to have you somewhere I can reach you by phone, instead of rather irregular mail and very occasionally seeing you. What about school?”
“To take what?”
That subject kept Kate distracted until they were at the restaurant. A painted wooden sign over the door identified it as the Gryphon's Nest Pub; subtly, within the painted image of a green-feathered, red-furred gryphon perched on a grey ledge against a blue sky, she spotted several glyphs that represented Brightside, Darkside, bothsiders, and hospitality. It actually relaxed her more than she expected, as Magda pushed the heavy wooden door open and shooed her inside; she'd spent her entire life around other bothsiders and knew the territory, even if not this specific hangout or this particular crowd.
There was a lot of wood inside, the walls decorated with a mixture of nature posters, framed prints and paintings, and handmade craftwork. There was music on, audible but not deafening, currently the group Moons of Uranus, who slipped so many Darkside references into their lyrics and videos that all bothsiders knew—as though a good look at Titania or Ariel weren't enough evidence. Some tables had people at them, but it was much less crowded than she had feared.
“Towards the back,” Magda said, and then a moment later, “There, in the corner.”
At a corner table, four people were talking with a great deal of laughter; they broke off, and one hailed Magda cheerfully. Two square tables had been pulled together to make a larger one; three of the people waiting were on the bench seat built against the wall, and the fourth in one of the three chairs, leaving the remaining two chairs along one side free—that was a relief, she wasn't sure she wanted to be as close to a stranger as the bench seat would have put her, although the proportions here looked more generous than most Brightside establishments felt any need to provide.
“Hi, guys,” Magda said, leaning down to steal hugs from the two she could readily reach. “This is my best friend Kate. Kate, starting from this side, these are Nicole, Damon, Clea, and Gabriel.”
“It's good to meet you,” Clea said, with a welcoming smile, from her seat in the corner. Kate noted the short-sleeved top of some dark green slinky knit fabric, over a slender small-breasted build, and the elaborate gold earrings that dangled something like two inches. Her skin might be tanned warm deep gold, nearly as dark as a luminal's though the tone was different, or naturally that shade, and her unbound cascade of thick sepia-brown hair could be an excellent dye job or natural. Given hair dye, coloured contacts, cosmetics, and illusion jewellery, no guess about Darkside origins was ever certain anyway, but it was always interesting to try to work it out, and could help with subtle courtesies. Nothing she saw hinted that Clea was anything but human, or pointed towards a particular Darkside region. “Have a seat. I hope you have a good appetite, the food here is wonderful.”
“It's just uncanny, how bothsider hangouts always find the best cooks,” Kate said, taking the chair Magda had left her, at right angles to petite Nicole, whose candy-apple-red hair had distinctly magenta roots and whose fingers were webbed to the first joint. Her sea-blue blouse was batiked with a sinuous design that Kate was sure was from Darkside's southern-continent archipelago where the semi-aquatic hydrans had evolved.
That put Kate directly across from Damon, whose lean build and very fair skin and black hair strongly suggested non-human blood: Darkside's tenebrans had that sort of romantic-poet-vampire look that gave Goths wet dreams. Kate had heard women claim that the lack of bulky muscle or facial hair meant male tenebrans were less manly than male luminals, who had both, though Darkside's history made it clear that the two most common dry-land species were comparable in any arena one could name. Some, on Brightside, made an effort to downplay the pale skin that had evolved after countless generations of nocturnal life, skin that refused to tan, only burn, and she'd seen a few bleach and dye their hair. Damon, on the other hand, dressed to accentuate it rather than minimize it, in a black long-sleeved dress shirt of soft and slightly shiny fabric. Red glittered in one ear, a red stone dangling from an earring of black metal.
Gabriel, in the chair at the end of the table, past Magda, unequivocally had quite a lot of luminal blood. Their skin had remained dark to protect them from the relentless sun of the southern grasslands—though why they had evolved bright blonde hair and eyebrows and facial hair, she had no idea. Gabriel's hair was long enough to be pulled back, and he had a short, neatly-trimmed beard. Even sitting down, he was clearly a tall man, and broad shoulders and considerable muscle showed under the plain sky-blue t-shirt.
That was typical. Bothsider communities on Brightside generally had high diversity.
Damon laughed. “Very true, they always seem to, despite the challenges of feeding such a wildly eccentric and varied community. Or maybe they like the challenge. As though we needed more motivation to use them anyway. But who's arguing?” He had a faint accent, not surprising at all. More noticeable was how fluid and expressive his voice was, the exact opposite of a monotone, though it stopped short of melodrama. After living so long in an area where the local Luminal dialect tended towards flatness, it was very pleasant.
A waitress, a young-looking curvy blonde woman in a fanciful red dress—at least, fanciful locally—brought two more glasses of water clinking with ice and an armload of menus. “Can I get you two something to drink? Any refills for the rest of you?”
Magda grinned. “I'd better pass on the heavy caffeine and sugar, or I'll be talking so fast no one'll understand it. Cider, please. Kate?”
“Mmm. I haven't had anything carbonated in a while. Cider's a good idea.”
A couple of the others requested refills.
Clearly, everyone else at the table knew the place, and the menu, well. They were quite willing to offer opinions and information.
Only after orders were placed did the conversation shift.
“You've been in Tullovar, up on the Great Bear River, haven't you, Kate?” Clea asked. “I've dropped letters in the mail for Magda a few times, they were to you, right?” Her subtle accent matched Damon's, though it was even harder to hear.
Kate nodded, took a sip of her cider. Brightside apples, she thought, there was a slight difference in flavour, but Darkside spice. “I worked in the town library and archives for the past, oh, six years? Something like that. Some of the older volumes were practically falling apart, and needed to be rebound, and the catalog system was seriously out of date. Somehow never managed to get much time off, although I certainly learned a lot about regional history and law.”
“Past tense?” Nicole said quizzically.
Kate shrugged. “I got displaced by a member of a wealthy and influential Tullovar family who was away at a university somewhere and decided to come home. They're one of the founding families, I'm just an outsider.”
“That's hardly fair,” Clea said sympathetically.
“It's not all bad. Tullovar is emphatically one of the luminal-human cities, hardly any hydrans or tenebrans or shapeshifters, and there aren't many bothsiders around.”
“Sounds nearly as monotonous as Brightside. So you'd be job-hunting now?”
“We'll start spreading the word,” Gabriel said. “It takes a lot less than six degrees of separation for most bothsiders.”
“Just you?” Damon asked. “Or did you have a whole household that got thrown into chaos?”
“Just me,” Kate said. “Which I guess is lucky. Not quite as bad for one person to pack up and relocate as for a family. My parents are in Rainspinner's Valley, that's on the other side of the continent, and that lack of time off...” she trailed off, shrugged again.
“At least you know where they are, and they've been in the same world with you,” Gabriel sighed. “My entire extended family are all active bothsiders. Trying to keep up with friends back and forth is bad enough, but trying even to remember all the major holidays for three different countries in two worlds, let alone make it home for all of them, to say nothing of birthday presents for a dozen nieces and nephews, is just a nightmare sometimes.” Again, a different accent, though not one that would interfere with communication, and Kate even recognized the Luminal dialect behind it.
Gradually, Kate felt her apprehension fade, while they all commiserated about the headaches of a life spent straddling both sides. There was nothing here to worry about, no need to watch every word to keep from letting something slip to someone with no idea that the other side existed or saying something that would sound offensive or nonsensical to one of the respectable townsfolk.
Apparently this whole group, while they maintained close ties with their families, had established jobs and homes and a social circle right here, and considered this their primary residence. Not so unusual: both sides had advantages and disadvantages, and many bothsider families were split between. That might explain why the various accents were so faint, and could mostly pass as personal idiosyncracy: English had been a first language, even if not the only one. Her own was probably one of the strongest, though she expected that to fade quickly.
Her plate of chicken wraps, when it arrived, looked and smelled delicious. Nicole, she noted without surprise, had fish and wild rice. Damon's choice of rare steak, combined with his appearance and that voice, more or less confirmed Kate's suspicion that he was at least partly tenebran. Clea's honey-glazed chicken with vegetable rice supported Kate's guess that she was probably human, unless she actually belonged to one of the rare Darkside sentient species that were frequently declared extinct just before another community was discovered.
Magda, with her luminal metabolism that tended towards vegetarian and generally needed substantial volumes, had sweet potato fries and vegetarian faux-chicken nuggets and a large salad that included croutons and hard-boiled egg and shredded cheese along with a wide array of vegetables. Gabriel's was similar, though he had a vegetarian burger instead of nuggets.
She learned, over the course of the meal, the various Darkside homes of the others. That Nicole was from one of the hydran islands, lush but fragile, surrounded by broad shallow seas teeming with aquatic life, fit everything Kate had observed. Damon and Clea were from a heavily-wooded temperate zone laced with countless small rivers and freckled with villages and small towns, a region simply called Riverwood but notorious for having the highest concentration of extremely diverse settlements anywhere on Darkside. Gabriel, or at least his family, lived in one of the more north-eastern grasslands farming communities, most of a continent away from Riverwood and half a world from the Coral Sea, but not all that far north of Magda's other hometown.
Still, that was one of the things that fascinated her the most about the bothsider community, and one of the things that made it so strong as a network: here, Gabriel had this group of local friends, none of whom were local on Darkside, but a similar group of local bothsiders in his town would give him friends from diverse areas on Brightside. Word spread quickly and thoroughly through the active community.
Eventually, even though they lingered for quite some time, they had to call an end to the evening.
Magda and Kate decided to walk home, letting the cool night air refresh them.
“You see? I told you that you'd have fun,” Magda said.
“You were right,” Kate conceded. “I'm glad we went.”
“I wonder how long it'll take Damon to think of something to invite you to.”
“Oh, come on. One of the first things he did was ask if you're single. And he spent a lot more time tonight looking at you than he did anyone else at the table. Didn't you... oh gods, Kate, you seriously didn't even notice, did you?”
Kate fixed her gaze on the pavement ahead of her, one step at a time. There was no way she was going to tell even Magda that she found Damon more than a little attractive, both personally and physically. Could Magda be right?
No, there was no point in hoping for any such thing. Who, on either side, would have any interest in an average-looking human archivist in her mid-thirties?
“You're imagining things. But even if, for the sake of argument, you weren't... you know I don't have any interest in one-night stands. He's tenebran, they're not known for settling down with humans with any great degree of success. And on top of that, I could end up taking a job anywhere in two worlds at any time.”
“Very nicely reasoned out excuses. For the record, since I know you pride yourself on accuracy and completeness, his tenebran mother is living quite happily with his human father, last I heard—Damon's half tenebran, not full. And for all you know, there might be a job waiting for you right here, or for that matter in Riverwood, which I bet would be an amazing place to live. And personally, I think anyone'd be lucky to have you. Are you really trying to tell me that Damon, with those lovely dark eyes and beautiful graceful hands and gorgeous buns, wouldn't be in the running for a fling, no matter what your usual rules are? I know Tenebran really isn't the same as anything Brightside, but that little bit of an accent that's just a hint Scottish, a hint Welsh, all in that amazing voice of his... you know how singing is such a big thing in tenebran culture? You should hear him sing, it's enough to make a vestal virgin weak at the knees.”
“He's good-looking,” Kate said, trying to keep her tone nonchalant. “And he does have a nice voice, although I can't imagine I'd have a chance to hear him sing.”
“Good-looking? Nice? Oh, what am I going to do with you?”
“You sound like you've known him for a while.” As soon as it was out, she groaned to herself. Magda did not need encouragement.
“A couple of years now.”
“I notice you didn't pounce on him.”
“Seriously? Can you imagine a luminal and a tenebran, even both halfbreeds? Major issues. Sticking strictly to humans and luminals, thanks very much. Y'know, maybe Gabriel, once he's over his last breakup and looks like he might be interested in dating again. Damon's a good friend, the kind who's always ready to help out just as fast as getting together for fun, that's enough. I'm no competition.”
“Competition? I still think you're imagining the whole thing.”
“Am I? You're awfully curious about him.”
“I am not!”
“Know what else I saw? I saw you looking at him more than you did anyone else at the table. So, when he calls, are you going to play hard to get? I'm told tenebrans can really get into the whole thrill of the chase thing.”
“Magda! He's not going to do anything of the sort!”
“You're right, better not to play hard to get, what with not knowing what's going to happen job-wise. He knows you're staying with me and he knows my phone number, and for that matter where I live, so he won't have any trouble finding you.”
“Magda, stop it!”
Kate refused to say another word on the walk, the only defence she had against Magda's merciless, cheerful, and entirely too accurate teasing.
She couldn't help thinking, though, as she curled up on the couch in the dark... what was Damon doing now, at home in the night?
* * *
Kate laid down the knife she was chopping onions with, wiped her hands on a towel, and went to the hall intercom to find out who was buzzing. “Hello?”
“Kate? It's Damon.” Even distorted by the intercom, that voice was unmistakable. She felt something tie itself into small knots somewhere inside.
“Magda's still at work.”
“I know. She'll be done in an hour or so.” She heard him turn teasing. “If I were going to vamp you, I'd have allowed longer.”
“Sorry. C'mon in.” Biting her lower lip, she pressed the door release button, and retreated to the kitchen. She was still washing onion off her hands when he tapped on the door; she repeated, “Come in,” while she hastily dried her hands and returned to the living room.
Damon did not lock the door behind him, she noticed in relief. Magda might know him, but Kate didn't, and she had no intention of doing anything stupid. No matter how much her body urged her and her instincts insisted that it was safe. Magda was right; Damon, in faded black jeans and a plain black T-shirt, looked unspeakably more attractive than many men who had gone to far greater effort.
“I hope you don't mind,” he said. “I suppose I should have phoned first. I had errands to run after breakfast, and I thought, since I'm out, I would come here to see you.”
“See me?” It emerged with a bit of a startled squeak to the second syllable. “What on earth for?”
He tilted his head a few degrees to the left, regarding her. “Because I think you're interesting, and I'd like to learn more about you. If you aren't comfortable being alone, or you have no interest in talking to me, tell me, and I'll go.”
“No! Um, no, it's okay.” She laughed. “Listen to me. Sorry, it's not a lack of comfort or interest, you just caught me by surprise.”
He grinned at her, and she caught a glimpse—again—of the narrow gap just inside his eyeteeth on each side. “I hear that often. I smell onions. Making supper?”
“Yes. Since I'm here while Magda's working, at least I can make supper and do a little housework.”
“You shouldn't let me stop you. Can you use an extra pair of hands?”
She must have looked as startled as she felt, because he laughed and bowed to her with an elaborate flourish in the direction of the kitchen. “After you, milady.”
“I'm hardly a lady.” She did go back to the kitchen, though, acutely aware of him behind her, just far enough to be out of reach.
“All a matter of perception.” He surveyed the kitchen counter. “Stew?”
“Eventually. Magda's fine with the odd bit of chicken or fish, and I can only handle vegetarianism for so long.”
“Good—chopping vegetables I can do tolerably well. Being half tenebran simplifies my diet but has limited my cooking skills sadly.”
Kate couldn't help laughing. “I'm the mistress of single-dish meals that reheat well, much to my mother's dismay after the time she spent teaching me to cook.”
“That sounds entirely practical to me. So, how can I be of use to you, milady... hm, is Kate short for something?”
“Yes, but I don't much like it, so please, just Kate.”
“How can I be of use to you, milady Kate?”
To her surprise, the extra hands, and better still the company and conversation, made the rather boring work lighter and less monotonous. He gave every indication of being genuinely interested in who she was and what she'd done, but was ready enough to answer her questions in return that she didn't feel like she was being interrogated. With the stew safely in the oven, they cleaned up the kitchen and did the dishes; Damon washed while Kate dried them and put them away, as best she could remember where they belonged. Damon finally reached the silverware that had been soaking in the bottom of the sink.
“Silver! Alas, I am doomed!” He flung an arm across his eyes theatrically. “My mother lied when she told me washing dishes had never killed anyone!” He fished out a tablespoon and cradled it in both hands dramatically. “What a sad memorial to put on my grave: Here lies Damon, ambushed by a silver spoon, a promising undeath cut short.”
Kate tried her best to give him the sceptical look he deserved for the silliness—he was no more undead than she was, and no more sensitive to silver—but just couldn't keep from laughing.
She started when she heard the apartment door, and spun around, laughter cut short.
“Just me,” Magda called. “Hi, Damon, I saw your car downstairs. Should I ask what's so funny?”
“The answer would be, 'washing dishes,' but you'd have to have been here for that to make any sense,” Kate called back. “How was work?”
“Normally, I'd say it was more fun than washing dishes, but I'm no longer so sure of that.” Magda joined them, sniffing at the air. “Hm, I'm thinking I smell food. Stew... chicken, maybe? You're an angel, Kate. I'm starting to like this whole business of coming home to meals and never doing laundry. Maybe I'll marry you and keep you.”
“We'd be living on love before long,” Kate laughed. “And I never heard of love keeping a luminal from starving.”
Damon gave her a speculative look. “Hm, perhaps Magda could have you during the day, and I could have you at night.”
Magda's blonde eyebrows rose, as Kate blushed. “And what would you want Kate for at night, hm?”
“I could think of a few things. However, I think that would be a sad waste of your abilities, Kate.”
“Too true,” Magda sighed. “Well, maybe someday I'll meet a cute guy who has no ambitions beyond housework and keeping me happy in bed.”
“I'll keep an eye out for one,” Damon chuckled. “They do exist.”
“I doubt it. So, are you staying for supper? Or whatever?”
“I would, but I have a website I need to finish and I should really get back to work on it.”
“Figures, I get home and you leave.” Magda shook her head wearily, and crossed the room to the cupboard to get a glass. “Oh well, all the more food for me.”
Since Magda was occupied looking in the fridge for a drink, Kate walked with Damon to the door.
“Do you have anything planned for tomorrow evening?” he asked.
“Would you be interested in a quiet dinner at the Gryphon's Nest? If the weather allows, I could show you how the waterfront looks at night, afterwards, or we could see a movie, or whatever seems appealing at the time.”
She met his gaze, close enough that she could see the green and gold streaks in the midnight blue of his irises, close enough to be acutely aware that he was something like three inches taller than her. “You realize I have next to no money right now?” Part of her mind was singing, Oh yes! but the rest insisted that she had to make sure everything was clear up front.
“All you need is yourself. Mm, and perhaps enough clothing that we don't get arrested.”
Kate laughed. “I'd love to. When?”
“Six? I'll come here. Magda has my phone number, if anything comes up that we need to change plans.”
“It does indeed. I'll see you tomorrow, then.” He raised his voice long enough to call a farewell to Magda, gave Kate a smile that made her heartbeat accelerate, and left.
“Told you,” Magda said smugly from the doorway to the kitchen. “And you can tell that terminally cautious part of your mind that Damon is not a serial killer or the nasty kind of vamp or a date-rapist or anything like that, and you don't need to keep watching for danger the whole time you're with him. You think I'd let my best friend go out with anyone who'd hurt you?”
Kate blinked. “Oh dear gods. I can't remember the last time I was on a date.”
“Then it's about time, don't you think?”
“What if I do something stupid and totally embarrass myself?”
“That's life. Everyone says the odd stupid thing. There's no point worrying about it. So, how long until that stew's ready? I'm ravenous.”
Kate accepted the change of subject gratefully. Nervous or not, she wasn't sure she wanted to go any farther with this discussion. About all she could do was pray to whatever gods could hear her here that she not make a complete fool of herself.
Continued in Brightside 3, in which Kate and Damon go out for the evening, although being out with a tenebran may mean it isn't entirely a typical date...
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