Distance

by Natsuno Owari (夏野オワリ)

(mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/3447.html)

Prentice looked at the fifty-year old photograph he held between his thumb and forefinger, suddenly frightened that he’d damage it. They’d been seven at the time, constantly gathering experiences and memories with little thought of where they might lead.

In the photograph, Lucian looked at the camera, his eyes bright and his mouth all teeth. Prentice hesitated to refer to him as his childhood friend, because there was so much more to it than that. In the end, he settled on these words anyway; they were true at that one point in time and the memories felt comforting.

Side by side, they smiled, surrounded by all the other children on their street as they gathered for the coronation. The women all wore white aprons and the men wore suits and bow ties. Everyone wore a paper crown and some clutched Union Jacks.

Prentice glanced around the coffee shop, worried that someone might see the photograph and instinctively guess the truth behind it. He’d seen his face change from youngster to twenty-something over the years and knew that the boy in the black and white photograph was himself, so why shouldn’t anyone else guess the same?

His dress seemed to be that of a man that remained out of synch with the rest of the world. Narrow velvet trousers with winkle picker shoes made him look like a student who’d ramraided a Notting Hill charity shop.

Whoever saw would know. They’d look from the photograph and back to him. That would probably need to be done several times as they took in the unlined features and jet black hair of a man who was apparently still in his early twenties.

His imagination failed him for the next part. He couldn’t think what would happen beyond their utter bewilderment and confusion. Perhaps they would think themselves mistaken and carry on drinking coffee.

Prentice checked his pocket watch. Half an hour left until the meeting. He looked at the numbers, willing for them to stay static forever or to speed up. When the second hand remained ticking at a steady pace, he headed back to the counter.

“Coffee, please,” he said to the barista.

She smiled tiredly at him. “What kind?”

He was born immediately after the war, so he didn’t remember coffee rationing. He remembered drinking it in his teens, but the only decision to be made was the brand, and it always came out of a tin. These days, not only were the tins absent, but coffee came from all over the world and people insisted the flavour changed if you used beans from different countries, even if they shared a border. They made the same claim about the coffee beans ‘rescued’ from the regurgitations of weasels, although Prentice had less problems with that belief.

The barista was waiting for his response, her head tilted to one side and her blond ponytail swinging slightly. Their eyes met briefly and she turned away; Prentice knew his eyes were as much a giveaway as his photograph.

He scanned the board that hung above the counter, searching for something he might recognise. He hadn’t had the same problem when he came in, since a different person had served him. They had seemed to know what to give people who came in asking simply for coffee.

“An Americano,” he said eventually. “With milk, please.”

He knew he’d got it wrong, since his request was overcomplicated. Nevertheless, he soon found himself back at his table with a hot mug of coffee that was more or less what he’d imagined. He looked at his watch again: he had fifteen minutes.

Prentice wondered what Lucian was doing now and the idea struck him as odd, since he’d never once considered what it would be like to see him again. He’d considered how the anticipation might feel and how he would prepare himself and even what he would wear. He never once considered how it would feel to stare into old eyes and know that he wouldn’t last even another forty years.

When you were an Immortal, you realised the humans surrounding you were dying in slow motion. He remembered his mother in the 1960s, with her hair curled in rollers overnight that produced a wavy cascade over the side of her face the next day. He hadn’t considered her glamorous until he saw her obituary in the local paper, the front cover devoted to a ‘gutsy pillar of the community’ who’d survived the Blitz. Her face was wrinkled and her eyes blinded by cataracts, but she was beautiful. If beauty was the unattainable, then she was beautiful to him.

Prentice and Lucian had talked about the future as teenagers, but as the years went past, the further he got from who he’d wanted to be. And if that was the case, what of Lucian? Was he everything he should be?

Lucian would be approaching his sixties by now and, as far as Prentice could guess, the answer was a resounding ‘no’. He monitored the Nobel Prize every year, read up everything he could on the Turner Prize nominees and always carefully ran his eyes down the list of those receiving honours from the palace at New Year.

Lucian was never there.

Over the years, he’d cast his net ever wider. Library newspaper archives and public records gave way to the internet. Search engines had sprung up later and he’d used them too. He wondered if it would be like this forever — using his immortality to keep dredging up the past with the newest technology that the future brought.

Over the years, the landscape had changed. Prentice had been there when the idea of an ‘information superhighway’ had been proposed and when the phrase fell into disuse. The concept temporarily shaped his mindscape, but he soon went back to paper records and slides. It was clear that Lucian wasn’t drawing attention to himself and so it was safer to look to the past. It also removed the chance of finding his obituary.

Prentice watched history instead. In the early days, always each event would be mentally listed alongside what he’d been doing with Lucian at the time. By compulsively cataloguing it, he never had to adapt to it. Besides, he liked the winkle pickers.

He couldn’t remember where they first met though. As far as he was concerned, they’d played together for as long as he remembered. What he did recall was when their friendship changed and when it ended two years later. Although the Wolfenden Report had been published half a decade ago, the aftershocks were still being felt across Britain. Until he discovered his fondness for history, Prentice never recalled much about 1962 bar this and Lucian.

It had started with the smallest change. Instead of going back home after school, they’d walked to Regent’s Park and sat by a fountain in Queen Mary’s Gardens. He still remembered the look on Lucian’s face as the other boy claimed that the spray was getting in his hair. Lucian had reached over and ineffectively run his finger through the black strands. It hadn’t done much to the barely existent droplets, but it had made Prentice think he’d like to spend more of his time like this. Lucian had let his hand drop back down across Prentice’s. Prentice remembered that sick feeling despite the years, although he still struggled with whether it was due to Lucian or the knowledge that the kind of things this led to were illegal. He’d snatched his hand away, scared that the police would be called, but Lucian had understood what he’d really been trying to say. Next time, they went to Primrose Hill.

Primrose Hill was located in a quiet part of London, full of shops that could only be described as ‘quaint’, while the houses were brown-bricked and imposing. On the top of the hill, however, was a stunning view. They could see the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral and Westminster Abbey and the whole of London laid out before them. Lucian had remarked that it was better than Hampstead Heath and Prentice agreed, since he didn’t think they’d get nearly as nice a view there. Lucian laughed softly, then nodded.

When Lucian kissed him for the first time, Prentice hadn’t known what to do with his teeth or lips. He let his tongue rest awkwardly inside his mouth, while Lucian circled it enthusiastically like a washing machine. It felt funny, but not in a bad way. Fingers groped for non-existent breasts and came away empty-handed. It wasn’t like what Prentice had always imagined would be in an X certificate flick, but it felt so good.

It was their private encounters that made up his favourite memories, of their first youthful foray into adulthood. The fumbling of hands that didn’t quite know what to do and of bodies rising up uncontrollably; that was what he remembered of his teenage years.

With shaking hands, Prentice downed the last dregs of his coffee. He didn’t want to think about it anymore.

They’d broken up two years later.

Prentice hadn’t meant to remind himself of this, but it bubbled to the surface despite his best intentions. They were getting increasingly intense while the experiences he craved with Lucian remained as illegal as ever. Even after their separation, it took another two years before he completely cut himself off from Lucian as if he were an illicit drug that he’d needed out of his life. He’d had to. Every time they saw each other the feelings were as intense as they’d ever been.

He could feel the guilt in the pit of his stomach: so what if it had been against the law back then? Thousands across Britain had done it anyway and the ban couldn’t and didn’t last forever.

Truth was, he’d been scared. Worse, Lucian had known that and now Prentice doubted if he’d even want to see him again. The endless searching made finding him not something he’d ever had to consider.

He checked his watch again. Ten minutes, but it wouldn’t do to be early. He cradled his empty coffee mug in his hands, hoping that if the staff were watching him they’d think he wasn’t finished yet and so wouldn’t throw him out. The man sitting at a table a little to his right who’d been reading The Times since Prentice had sat down was testament to the fact that this probably wasn’t the chain’s policy, but you could never be too sure.

Prentice hadn’t really meant to stay twenty-four forever. It was 1970; he’d studied through the Summer of Love and worked at a bank instead of travelling to New York for Woodstock. If he’d still been with Lucian at that point, then perhaps he might have gone. He didn’t regret it though. By all accounts, no one who attended remembered much about what they did there, so he reassured himself that he didn’t miss much.

What he did miss was that there was no one around to spur him on to do those crazy things in the first place. When he’d heard about the sit-ins across the country in the late sixties, he wished Lucian were there to drag him along too.

Prentice’s chance came when someone at university knew someone who knew where the next big thing would be, and apparently it was in the Isle of Wight. He went down with them on the train, although he wasn’t sure what he looking for. Today, he’d narrowed it down to one of two thing: either he’d thought Lucian would be there too or he’d wanted to prove he could live his life without him.

Evening was the best time at the Festival of Music. Hundreds of small campfires dotted the site and a sweet-smelling haze hung in the air. Prentice had spent most of that time lying in a daze on his rucksack, not wanting to move. He had imagined at the time that it must be because his feet were far bigger than he remembered.

He’d closed his eyes and listened to the guitars and the shouting and the revving motorbikes, curled up against someone whose name he didn’t know. He couldn’t remember anyone’s name or if he’d even been told in the first place. It didn’t seem to matter there.

He’d been surround by many others, all of them smoking around the fire. He’d expected them to talk about peace and love, but they mostly talked about drugs and music. He didn’t join in and just waited underneath the slowly darkening and then lightening August sky for what seemed like no time at all. The experience seemed Important. He felt like he was part of something that would change the world. He thought of Lucian.

The man who’d been sleeping next to him stirred only when the sun peeked over horizon. He’d moaned softly then frantically scrabbled to hide himself under his black kaftan before dragging himself and Prentice into a nearby tent. Prentice had hoped it was his.

He was pretty, very pale and barefoot. He also seemed to be high on something, but drawing attention to that there seemed superfluous. Prentice could remember asking if he was cool, if he needed somewhere to chill. The other man had declared that once in every lifetime you met some special enough to keep for an eternity and bit him. Prentice recalled agreeing with the sentiment, if not the manner in which it was expressed. Then he’d blacked out.

Back in the coffee shop, he didn’t need to look at his watch to see that it was time to go, perhaps even a little over. He hurried out of the shop, down the road to where the meeting would be. The sun was below the horizon now, streaking the sky with orange and purple. He’d enough sunblock on for it not to have an effect on him.

Along the way, Prentice was reminded of why he stuck with the 1960s as his fashion template. Once the sun went down, the townies came out. If he had to choose between velvet jackets and trousers that hung around the knees, then he chose not to fit in.

These days, he had only a small number of acquaintances, but one of them had thought to tip him off about the existence of The History Council, a group of Immortals dedicated to researching the pasts they and others had left behind. Prentice had no trouble understanding that; he felt increasingly drawn to the people he’d known before his Siring since there was a sense of urgency behind it, the feeling that they’d fade out of existence if he left it too long.

Prentice stood outside the pub in which the meeting was to take place. The windows were blacked out and had bars over them. A rusty sign protruded from the wall above the entrance that named it The Red Lion. It was the kind of place you wouldn’t dream of entering without knowing what was inside. The Red Lion was a pub exclusively for his kind, although that was mostly because no human would willingly visit such a place.

The meeting was already underway. Some members sat on stools at the bar, while others gathered around stacks of papers at the back of the room. Although he knew himself to be in the right place, their clothes confirmed it, being a mixture of standard issue gothic dress and period costumes from the early 1800s. He knew and understood the reasoning behind it, that it attracted those who would allow themselves to be drained of blood, but he couldn’t see him doing it himself.

“Pleased to meet you.” Prentice offered his hand to one of the men sitting at the bar. He was muscular, stubbled and he wore a long coat with a frilled white shirt. He looked Prentice up and down, ignoring his outstretched arm. “The name’s Prentice Millar and I’ve got an appointment with your group.”

“Prentice Millar? Oh, the hippy vampire.”

Prentice wanted to point out that he was not a hippy vampire, merely that he’d been sired by one, but it seemed unnecessary.

“To whom should I speak?” asked Prentice, hoping to be directed to someone more his type.

“Me. Got a problem with that?” Even tipsy, the heavy-set man seemed to recognise Prentice’s hostility towards him. He returned to his drink and hooked another stool out with his ankle. Tall as he seemed, the boots he was wearing must have added another ten centimetres to his height. “I hate little shits like you,” he remarked as casually as he would comment on the weather.

Prentice took a seat and stared at the counter. It had wooden panels and was rather attractive for a glorified table, but it couldn’t hold his interest forever.

“Ya never asked why.” The man took a swig of what looked a little like cider and black, but probably wasn’t, since it was too copper-coloured. “Her name was Florence, we got married just before I had to go to war. That was when I was Sired. Ya know what I did next?”

Prentice shook his head.

“I went back to her. And I stayed with her. I…watched her grow old and I watched her die. Thing is, fucker, I never left her. We wouldn’t even need a society like this if our kind’s first instinct wasn’t to run away from the people we love and whinge about the crushing pain of it all.” He slammed his empty pint glass down on the bar.

He’d drawn the attention of many others in the pub, if not a crowd.

“Why did you wait so long?” asked a woman in a black mourning dress. American Civil War era, Prentice guessed. “The life expectancy of humans is so short.”

“Fact is, accordin’ to statistics, he should already be dead. Or married with kids. Same thing, innit?” The man Prentice had spoken to original was already halfway through his next pint.

A tumbler of rusty liquid appeared in front of Prentice, and he realised that he had gone back to staring at the counter again. Above him loomed the bartender. “Drink up, love. They’re taking their statistics from the Middle Ages, as usual.”

“He’d be fifty-nine now,” said Prentice decisively, as he drank from the tumbler. “Hardly like to be dead.”

“Anything can happen. Fuckin’ kids, they get all immortal and forget they have to spend some of that time growin’ up. Wasn’t like that back durin’ the Renaissance.”

“Oh… Fuck off back to Poe!” said the bartender, exasperated. She turned back to Prentice. “This guy here? He’s barely Edwardian. And drunk.”

The woman in the black spoke up again. “We did our research on him, all two minutes of it. He’s one of us.”

“Lucian…? He’s…?”

“Waiting for you upstairs in one of the guestrooms. Said you’d probably need at least a few minutes to get used to the idea.”

“Ya’d know if ya bothered to stay in touch w’ the rest of us.”

Prentice nodded once more. He had no interest in starting a fight, although the blood he’d just drunk flared inside him. His only interest right now, in fact, was running as fast as he could to where Lucian was waiting.

As dashed up the stairs, he could hear the drunk’s voice carry to him: “Bloody hell, he really shoulda guessed with a name like Lucian.”

Once he was on the landing, he was faced with a series of doors. This pub, and those like it, were considered contact points for the underworld where Immortals could get a room without concerning themselves with potential questions about their age. The doors were therefore not identical, but a mismatch of styles and designs. Some had posters ripped from magazines, while others simply had copper nameplates.

Prentice had never kept in touch with the groups of Immortals that dotted Britain and the rest of the world. Never felt he belonged; always considered himself an accident. He felt too cut off from everyone else to join the underworld networks that those like him seemed to thrive on. It would have never crossed his mind to make use of the cheap accommodation available to him.

He scanned each door, hoping that some aspect of Lucian’s personality would shine through, proving that he hadn’t changed that much and that Prentice was in touch enough to recognise his former lover’s tastes.

Nothing indicated that a room belonged to Lucian. Instead, Prentice found himself drawn to a heavy wooden door that had no other distinguishing features other than a single postcard of the view from Primrose Hill. He could even pinpoint the precise location where he and Lucian used to sit all those years ago, although he felt the Millennium Wheel marred the skyline.

The blood burned inside him and he pushed open the door.

He saw a figure on the bed, illuminated by the city lights outside. Every time a car drove past, it threw up a beam of light that travelled across the room and died.

The man on the bed, apparently in his late teens or early twenties, propped himself up on his elbows and looked at Prentice. His eyes reflected every light shard as it crossed the room. He wore much the same as those downstairs: a heavy cloak and leather trousers. He, however, was bare-chested and barefoot.

“So you came…”

Lucian hadn’t changed. His ash-blond hair was longer and his eyes shined supernaturally brighter, but he still carried himself the same proud way and his voice was still an attractive baritone.

Prentice drew up a chair that was near the door.

“What are you doing?” Lucian rolled over slightly and indicated half of the bed.

“Is that really okay?” When Lucian nodded, Prentice slipped off his shoes then eased himself onto the bed.

The bed was king-sized, but Prentice still found himself pressed up against Lucian. He didn’t mind. “I missed you,” he found himself saying.

Lucian ran his fingers through the black locks. Without meaning to, Prentice thought back to those times — the sun on his face, the spray from the fountains. He sighed softly and drew closer.

“I looked — God, I looked everywhere! You were neither part of human society nor the underworld. It was like you’d just disappeared.”

Prentice opened eyes he hadn’t realised he’d closed. “I didn’t want to have to answer the questions the human world brought. I– I didn’t want to be like this.”

“Didn’t your Sire tell you anything? About hunting? About our networks?”

Prentice shook his head. “No, nothing.”

“I heard from other Immortals who said they’d often see a lone hunter out at night, but otherwise… You seemed to be a myth…”

“A myth?”

“Yeah. Must’ve been lonely.” He let his voice rise slightly, almost forming a question, but not quite.

Prentice didn’t answer. He flushed at the contradictions in his life — of both realising you had all the time in the world and paradoxically none at all. It led to a feeling of apathy, when you could keep putting everything on hold mostly because it would be too late to do anything about the fate of those around you.

“I wanted you. I’ve wanted you for so long.” Lucian was sitting up now, his eyes blazing in the reflected light from the bright neon advertising signs outside. He drew his arms around himself and let out a soft yowl. “I figured you’d have got on with a fairly safe life. I always saw it as a race to get to you before that critical point where you couldn’t turn back.”

“I was sired at the Isle of Wight Festival of Music,” Prentice said by way of explanation. “I never even started down that path.”

Lucian snickered. “There? How lacking in poetry.” He paused. “Did you see Hendrix?”

It was Prentice’s turn to laugh. “Sorry, no.”

“Why did we ever…” Lucian faltered.

“You know why.” Prentice immediately wished he could’ve said it better. It felt like that instead of opening up discussion, he’d just closed it. He just wanted to move beyond the stupid, embarrassing reasons why and into what they could do about it.

He shuffled behind Lucian on the bed and rested his hand on his cloaked shoulders, the material plush and warm to his touch. He waited for some resistance, expecting it despite Lucian’s lack of outright rejection. Instead, Lucian turned around and looked at him, his eyes intense.

At first, Prentice couldn’t tell what it meant. He held his gaze, wondering what it would mean if either of them looked away. As he did so, he realised he wasn’t being warned off. He was seeing hope. He was seeing relief. More than any of these, however, he was seeing disbelief that he was still interested after so long.

Prentice leaned forward and kissed Lucian.

One hand slid down his arm and fell to cover Lucian’s hand, their fingers intertwining. With his other he reached out and undid the metal clasp that held the cloak in place.

Prentice felt Lucian relax into him as his cloak fell away. Gone, the other man’s skin was warm and firm against his. To imagine that these feelings were once taboo was unthinkable.

All barriers melted away. The flickering lights outside cast unreal shadows on his hands plunging him into a kind of dream world that he struggled to believe in. He pulled his hands through hair, ran hands across hard muscles, anything that would confirm the reality of what they were doing.

“Prentice…”

He knew. There were no words to describe how he felt. Just metaphors and clichés that sounded crass when voiced. He wanted more. He wanted more than reality could give them. He wanted to be inside and closer to Lucian than the physical plane would allow. His anger rose just thinking about the time they’d wasted.

With each touch, they made each other more real. With every caress, the years between them dissolved. Lucian arched his neck back, exposing his pale flesh and resting his nape against Prentice’s shoulder.

“I trust you…” Lucian breathed unevenly.

Prentice kissed him along his jugular, his tongue sensitive to the pulse underneath. He kissed the undersides of his wrists too, tracing the strips of pale blue.

Lucian’s neck strained, trying to turn his head to Prentice. His hands scraped at the cotton bed sheets beneath them as he tried to make contact with Prentice. The corners of their mouths met briefly for an awkward kiss.

Prentice played with the tight band of leather at his waist and slid his hands underneath, waiting for his hand to be pulled away. Instead Lucian moaned and pulled himself into Prentice’s lap, grinding down as his did so. Prentice gasped and pressed his mouth to Lucian’s back.

He worked the press-studs on Lucian’s trousers, each one popping open easily. It felt like this was the culmination of everything he’d been through since he’d ended the relationship. Like everything in the past thirty-nine years had been leading up to this.

The pressure on his cock was unbearable. Lucian kept calling out his name and every movement and flex of the other man’s muscles brought greater need. He grasped Lucian firmly and stroked steadily, trying to keep his breathing even but failing. Lucian pressed against him, all muscles tense and the name ‘Prentice’ on his lips. With a howl, he was silent.

Prentice still ached.

“We’re not finished yet.” Lucian rolled onto his stomach so they were facing each other and started to unbutton his velvet trousers, freeing him. Blond hair curled around Prentice’s cock as his partner leaned over him.

Lucian kissed him once, then descended.

Prentice felt the pressure inside himself building, aware all the time that he was still whispering to Lucian and digging his nails into the back of the man’s neck. He wanted more. More of himself inside Lucian.

Still calling for Lucian, he surrendered with a hiss.

Lucian rolled off him and the room felt colder almost immediately. He kissed him on the forehead, chill perspiration running down his spine.

“Hunting tomorrow evening. We’ll go for the late night crowd. The chavs,” Lucian told him.

Prentice agreed softly. “They taste of Burberry.”

He saw Lucian snicker, just as he remembered all those years ago. He grieved for those missing years, but anticipated an end to the solitary hunt.

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