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An October Picnic

An October Picnic September came and went far too quickly for Cindy. Its end heralded another month closer to graduation, and another month less to figure out what she was going to do with her life. This would have been stressful enough even if she was able to be subjective and didn’t have larger issues of a more unusual variety to worry about. At first, an uneasy peace had been established at the neighboring house. Niko and Lila stayed upstairs and Cindy down, and for the most part, tried to leave each other alone. True to his word, Niko had managed to get his hands on a few of the ingredients that Cindy had requested, and she had paid him in return, practically drooling thinking about all the things she’d been unable to try due to lack of resources that were now within her grasp. But this in itself made Cindy nervous. Where and how he had gotten his hands on a jar of Mormotomyia hirsute she didn’t quite want to know. But more than that, what really made her uneasy were Niko and Lila’s eyes. Both of them had this indescribable look about them. They had killed people. The objective truth was that neither of them were malicious, or bloodthirsty, Cindy knew that, of course. They had both only done what they’d needed to to survive. No, what really worried her were the people looking for them. The mafia may have been a business, but it attracted a lot of bad people. Yet, as September marched away with no sign of detection, she simply couldn’t help getting acquainted with the two of them. Occasionally, she’d run into Niko in the kitchen, and express greater levels of disbelief at the increasingly bizarre things he managed to obtain for her. “Where the hell did you get this from?” She asked as he pulled a drawstring bag of Komodo dragon claws from his suit pocket. He smirked, only the one side of his face rising into a smile. “A good dealer never reveals his sources. For all I know, you could just be a very dedicated Narc.” “Yes, I’m placing you under arrest for all those poor lizards you maimed,” Cindy only half-deadpanned. Usually, she preferred to not think about where her ingredients came from. “What I want to know is how you get all this money to pay me.” He narrowed an eye, leaning forward. Cindy nodded slowly, sizing him up. She didn’t see how it could hurt. “ATM machines,” she said finally. “Suggestion spells are a powerful thing, especially when the target doesn’t have any will to fight you with. It’s like magical code. I’ve literally bewitched a machine at the Kwik Trip to spit out eighty bucks every time I punch in a code. Don’t get any ideas, though, it only works for me. And you can’t get that much out of it anyway, or the manager puts up an ‘out of order’ sign. “That’s... vaguely disappointing.” “Beats getting a job,” she shrugged. “And it keeps me in eclectic t-shirts, so I’m not complaining.” Niko was easy to talk to. He had this certain confidence about him that made you feel at ease. It was a carefully cultivated act, of course, put up as a sort of wall after years of practice. Cindy wondered what could have caused him to erect such a barrier, and wished once again that she could turn off the Truth for once; she felt like she was trespassing on people’s private affairs. But regardless, that ease made Niko damned good at his job. Lila also had a sort of barrier, but her’s was of an entirely different nature. If Niko’s barrier let you through the walls for a brief stroll around the manicured garden before gently pushing you out without you actually having seen anything worthwhile, then Lila’s was a hundred-foot cement mound with barbed wire laid down every few feet. Also with a maze of spikes. She hardly ever talked unless spoken to, and her face seemed permanently etched into this intimidating frown. Of course, she had to be that way if she was ever going to make it as a body guard. Half the job was preventative, after all, but this understanding of Cindy’s still didn’t make her any easier to talk to. Eventually, however, Cindy learned that you couldn’t get over Lila’s barrier by climbing it. Instead, you just had to start slamming on it with a pickaxe, and eventually, you might be able to break through. It took a long time, more like working with a shovel than a pickaxe, but Cindy made progress nonetheless. “Where did you get that sword?” Cindy found her practicing with her katana in the backyard one afternoon. Lucky the fence was so high, otherwise someone would have seen her. But Cindy was sure that Lila would have already thought of that, so she didn’t bring it up. “It was a gift.” Lila replied after a moment, not looking away from the katana, which swung repeatedly through the air with a soft hum. After waiting, Cindy saw that she wasn’t going to illuminate any farther. “Well, who gave it to you?” she prompted. Lila paused, her eyes narrowing, and finally looked in Cindy’s direction. “Why so many questions?” “I don’t know,” Cindy tried not to flinch at her glare. “You’re just this mysterious badass that I can’t get a read on. I kinda wanna know more about you, since we’re gonna be so close for the foreseeable future.” “Oh,” Lila’s grip relaxed on the sword. “My apologies. I’m afraid I can be a little wary of strangers.” “I can see why,” Cindy said, plopping down on the lawn and patting the spot next to her. After a moment of hesitation, Lila joined her. “Though to be honest, I’ve never been very good at small talk, so you’ll have to forgive me.”

A hint of a smile began to form on Lila’s face. “I guess we’ll just have to muddle through together, then.” Cindy nodded. “So, the sword, then. A gift from...?” “My young master,” Lila confirmed, glancing briefly back towards the house. “It was a present he gave me when I had finally proven myself worthy of protecting him, to the rest of the family, at least. My appointment was... a controversial one,” she expounded when Cindy raised an eyebrow. “I’m clearly not the most outwardly intimidating person you’ll ever meet, and most would argue that a sword shouldn’t stand a chance against firearms.” “So, why do you use one then?” Lila stared her straight in the face. “I’m just that good.” She wasn’t bragging, Cindy could tell, just stating a fact. “Yeesh,” she gulped. “Remind me not to try to rob Niko in an alley.” Lila frowned. “That was a joke. I was joking.” “Oh,” Lila blinked, before she started chuckling. “It was very funny.” “Thanks.” After that, they started to talk more often, about many things: Cindy’s witchcraft, Lila’s love of samurai movies. They both tried to stay away from the subject of their pasts, something Cindy was needless to say slightly sensitive about and Lila didn’t seem too keen on either. Still, Cindy did manage to pick up a few facts in passing: Lila had lived on the streets for several years until the Borozovs took her in after she saved Niko’s life. From what, Cindy could only guess. It made Cindy feel a little strange whenever Lila talked about Niko. Not because it was them in particular, but because the way Lila talked about him, the way she seemed indebted to him, reminded Cindy of the other strange part of her life: Marcell. It sounded stupid, but in a way, Cindy knew how Lila felt. Hearing his stories had pulled her out of a dark place. In his own, unassuming way, he had shown her that she wasn’t alone. Yet the more time she spent with him, the more it became not the stories that helped her, but the man himself. She liked his slightly curmudgeonly manner, and his dry wit. Most of all, she liked those rare, knowing smiles that he seemed to save just for her. And suddenly, one day the fact made itself known to her: she liked him. Most people would have shook those feelings off, and shoved them in a box somewhere deep in the back of their minds. She was still a high school student, after all, and he was her teacher. But Cindy, of course, was not ‘most people’. She was eighteen, an adult capable of making her own choices, for good or ill, and physically, Marcell was only twenty. True, he often seemed older, the weight of centuries occasionally shown in his eyes. But at that point, what difference did it really make? The objective truth was that Cindy liked Marcell, and like Lila, she wanted to do something to repay him for everything he’d done for her. But she couldn’t think of what to do. What could she do for a man who had seen and done almost everything? “So, if you were going to give Niko a present, like for his birthday or whatever,” Cindy asked Lila one afternoon, “What would you give him?” Lila merely smiled. “To be clear, we’re not actually talking about Niko, are we?” “Uh, no,” Cindy glanced down at her feet, embarrassed. “Hmm....” Lila looked up at the pale, blue sky for a moment, thinking. “In that case, I would give him something that only I know he wants. It would be... special that way.” Something only she knew. Well, that was easy. Cindy knew a lot of things about Marcell that no one else did. But there didn’t seem to be anything he really wanted. Cindy followed Lila’s gaze up towards the sky. The wispy, white clouds seemed almost to chase each other upon the background of blue. She felt the sun on her face, and thought about how Marcell would often look out of the classroom window with a wistful expression, like he almost couldn’t remember what the sun felt like. She had it. Cindy knew what she could give him. After thanking Lila for her help—who merely looked confused and blinked: “I did?”—Cindy ran towards the house and skated into the den, where she kept all of her supplies. She didn’t give the shelves packed with jars and insects and drying flowers a second glance, instead going straight to the old, leather bag where she kept the Liberis Decipis. It had to be in here, she remembered seeing it just the other day, one of the Latin passages. Cindy once again thanked younger her for being wannabe hipster trash and opting to take Latin online instead of the usual French or Spanish. No, no, no... there. Yes. This was it. It would need some modification, and this elixir would be the most complicated, expensive thing she’d ever attempted. But she knew she could do it. She’d probably only be able to make it once, and it wouldn’t last very long, but it would be worth it. Cindy was going to give Marcell the sun. “Niko...” she called, thumbing over the list of ingredients. “I’ve got a biiig order for you...” ~~ o ~~ It took her the better of two weeks to make the mixture, two long weeks of toiling every night in the den. Once, she even had to pull an all-nighter. Occasionally Niko—“Jesus, all this for some guy?”—or more often Lila, would come to keep her company. Yet most of the time the work required isolation, and so Cindy worked alone. She silently wished many times that she could overthink this. At least it would give her mind something to do. But Cindy was objectively sure about her own feelings, and without those clouding her judgement, she could make a strong guess as to Marcell’s as well. Of all the people she had met, he was the hardest to read. Without her own perceptions getting in the way, she could often see what others were thinking and feeling, but she was no psychic, and Marcell was just so... ancient as to be almost unfathomable. The more time she spent with him, however, the more she was able to understand. Finally, as the sun was just beginning to glow past the horizon on a chilly autumn morning, Cindy held up a small vial of orangeish-yellow liquid triumphantly. It glowed even brighter than the garnet she kept around her neck. But Cindy’s smile gleamed brighter that all of these things combined. It was time to give Marcell something that only she knew he wanted. “What’s this?” He asked as she placed the vial on his desk that afternoon. “This,” she grinned, “is something I’ve been laboring over for two weeks.” A little coyly, he returned the smile. “Oh, is that why you’ve been falling asleep over the copier?” “Very funny,” she said, sticking out her tongue. There was a pause. “Well, don’t you want to know what it does?” “Sure. I’ll bite.” Cindy took a deep breath, letting the tension build. “It’s a little something I like to call ‘Supernatural Sunscreen.’” Jazz hands punctuated most of the syllables. “And that is...?” He looked vaguely amused. “A concoction invented by yours truly that should allow you to go out in the sun without melting or whatever it is that you do.” Marcell straightened, as if sure he was dreaming. “What?” “It’ll only last for about four hours and Mars won’t be at the exact right angle to the sun to do it again for about another two-hundred years, but for the rest of the day, you could go outside.” “And you spent the last two weeks making this... for me?” “Yeah,” she shrugged. “I wanted to... thank you, I guess. You’ve done a lot for me this past month. And it’s not like I had anything better to do.” He shook his head. “Everything I’ve done for you? I just told you some stories and made you grade a bunch of quizzes.”

“No, it was more than that,” Cindy insisted. “You helped me realize that I’m not alone, that I’m not the only one who’s k...” but she couldn’t finish that sentence. “Never mind. Do you want it or not?” “Yes,” he said, as she held it out. “Thank you.” Cindy didn’t give it to him just yet. “But, if I give you this,” she raised an eyebrow, “I want just one thing.” Marcell’s eyes narrowed playfully. “What’s that?” A smile broke out across her face. “Ice cream.” “Ice cream?” “Yup. The good stuff from the Ede Creamery. Your treat.” After pausing for a brief moment, Marcell’s smirk returned. “Alright. You’ve got yourself a deal.” He took the vial from her, and gingerly uncorked the top. The scent of citrus began to fill the classroom. “So I just drink it? And you’re sure this will work?” Cindy nodded. “99% sure, at least.” “Well, here’s mud in your eye.” He tipped his head back and downed the vial, then smacked his lips contemplatively. “That tasted... interesting. What was in it?” “You don’t want to know.” “Fair enough.” Marcell glanced up at the clock: 3:30, school had been out for about a half an hour. Then he turned to the window, where the sun was peeking out from between the blinds. “Are you ready?” Cindy asked gently. “I think so.” She grinned, marching towards the door. “Then onward to ice cream!” she cried, pointing dramatically. “Ice cream ho...” They walked towards the school’s large front doors silently, a few feet apart as the crowds of students jabbered away to each other on their way out the door. As the school began to empty around them, Cindy and Marcell stood just behind the glass doorway, out to the paved cement beyond. Cindy waited patiently as Marcell steeled himself, then grabbed the door, and opened it. He jerked back instinctively, as the sun touched his hand, but much to his amazement—and Cindy’s relief—he did not burn. Slowly, as if he was wading into cold water, Marcell stepped out into the sun, and smiled. It was the biggest, most genuine smile she’d ever seen him make, and Cindy’s heart expanded in her chest as she watched him tip his head back and close his eyes. She smiled back as she realized that she had made him smile like that, this ancient, unfathomable creature. It made her happier than she could possibly say. “So, how does it feel?” she asked, joining him outside on that rare, sunny October day. “Warm,” he replied after a moment. “I haven’t felt warm like this in almost two-thousand years.” She shook her head. “I... can’t even imagine.” “But, you wanted ice cream, yes?” He shook himself out of him dazed stupor, and held out an arm in his old-fashioned, gentlemanly sort of way. Smiling, Cindy took it. By now, the school was largely empty, and Cindy didn’t really care if the few stragglers saw them. Her reputation was down the toilet anyway. And regardless, nothing could ruin her mood right now. The Ede Creamery, a local mom and pop ice cream parlor styled after those fifties pharmacies that still occasionally existed in out of the way spots, was just a short walk from the school, but it still took the two of them almost twenty minutes to get there. Cindy didn’t mind in the least. She was far too amused by the gormless grin which was slowly but surely spreading across Marcell’s face to care. Cindy almost had to force him out of the sun for the two minutes it would take them to order, and even when they finally entered the small, bright parlor he stayed as close to the window as he could manage at all times. “Well, hello dears,” the cheery, older woman smiled at them from behind stainless-steel countertop. She nodded as she took their order, then turned to the nearly bald man on the far end of the room. “Scott,” she called, “One bowl of espresso, and a salted caramel cone, please.” “What’s that, Kate?” Sighing, she rolled her eyes. “One bowl of espresso and a salted caramel cone,” she said, a bit louder. The man nodded, and set about his rather slow way of making their ice cream. “You got a bowl?” Marcell raised an eyebrow. “Where’s your sense of adventure?” “Not on the floor, like yours’ll probably be,” she replied. “And besides, cones are kinda gross.” He shrugged. “They have their certain, slightly mushy charm to them.” Marcell paid for the ice cream and they thanked the old folks, who waved as they walked out the door. “Young couples like that are so sweet,” Cindy heard the old woman say. Neither of them bothered to correct her. They walked slowly though the nearby park, talking about not much of anything and listening to the birds perched in the thin maples above their heads. Marcell almost lost his cone as he glanced away and the fading sun began to melt it. But he caught it at the last second, and they had a good laugh. “See,” Cindy admonished him gently, “this is why I got a bowl.” Eventually, as the sun began to dip ever lower in the sky, Cindy and Marcell found a worn, wooden bench and sat to watch it set. Gradually, the space between them became smaller and smaller. After a brief few moments of silence, Cindy tentatively laid her head on his shoulder. “Cindy,” he mumbled finally, “is this very appropriate?” “I don’t really care.” She felt him shrug beside her, and sigh. Then he gently placed his head on top of hers. They sat there like that for a long time, watching the sun sink behind the horizon. Cindy closed her eyes. This was... right. There was no other way to put it. She felt whole for the first time in... well, a great while, sitting here with Marcell, feeling him close to her. It was comforting. “Are we really going to do this?” Marcell asked. Cindy glanced up at him. “Why not? I’m eighteen. And need I remind you that you are physically only twenty, old man.” “But I’m your teacher.” “Well yeah, technically,” she replied. “Does TAing really count, though?” “You know, I’m not sure,” he admitted. “And besides, I won’t be forever,” Cindy continued, following his gaze back to the last rays of the sun. “Your clock may be broken, but mine is still ticking. I won’t be young and beautiful forever, you know.” Marcell laughed, but there was a bitter note behind it. “You’ve really thought this through, haven’t you?” “I have.” He turned to her then, and stared straight into her eyes. His mouth tightened, and he almost seemed to be fighting with himself, though his gaze was calm. “Can I kiss you then?” he asked finally.

“Please.” And so, just as the sun slipped fully from view, continuing its ongoing journey to far-off shores and back again, they did.

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