A More Peaceful Endeavor

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Xanadu story universe

(aka Milk and Chocolate)

Author: Joysweeper

-turn it on, I said. Oh, okay. Weird how I don't show up on camera, but my voice is fine.

Everyone's here that's going to get here, right? Good. I can start. Now, I was a drama major. Not likely to get my degree now, but two years is two years. It's much more comfortable if I tell it like a story. If it's just a summary I feel like I'm leaving something out. Any objections? Here goes.

I resettled my hooded cloak - a bargain at eight dollars the day after Halloween - across my shoulders. It kept slipping back and pulling at my throat. Not very vampiric - not that I was trying to be, but even a vegetarian vampire doesn't want to stop and adjust his cape-clasp in mid-feed, does he?

"Co-dy," Dove half-sang. "Put your teeth back in. You look stupid."

I did so, popping the hinged glow-in-the-dark fangs in over my braces and biting down as best I could. I bared them at her and summoned up my cheesiest Transylvanian accent. "Don't call me Cody. I'm Durinnial, the vampire."

In response Dove smirked, whitened cheeks pulling up. Her true skin color was barely visible beneath the makeup, I remember. "All right, 'Durinnial'. Aren't you a little rosy for a vampire?"

"It's this new milk-and-supplements diet," I told her around the fangs, deadpan. "Does wonders for the complexion, and doesn't shoot up the cholesterol levels the way blood does." She smirked again and I continued more earnestly. "Besides, I'm allergic to the cheap white makeup, like what you've got. Amazing how hard the expensive stuff to find at this time of year. And you're a bit articulate for a zombie."

Following my lead, she smoothed her face into seriousness. "I'm not just a zombie. I'm an Undead Gothic Lolita. I've only been telling everyone since Devil's Night." Dove used to act crazy now and again, but she's never been stupid. There'd been some partying, but she was always careful not to get carried away.

"What's the difference?"

"It must be the diet," she said, making a show of examining her black-painted fingernails. "Chocolate has phenethylamine, just like brains, and without all that work to open up a skull. Plus, I don't have to rot. Ew. Big shitty mess."

A hairless hunched-over man with enough white makeup pancaked over the latex mask on his face to satisfy two Doves, and with enough darker makeup to turn the spaces under his eyes into black silk purses, apparently heard us and scowled, baring yellowed crooked false teeth that probably had a price somewhere in the triple-digit range. He turned away, muttering something to himself. It sounded like "Damn kids never taking these things seriously..." but we could have misheard. Yeah, he was probably mugging for attention just as hard as we were.

Dove, taking her improv classes to heart, cupped her hands around her mouth and called out mockingly, loud enough that people turned to stare. "But we are serious! You don't have to kill people to be happy!" Someone in the crowd around us cried a return sally of "But it's fun!" and a couple people laughed.

I may have a memory for dialog, but I've never been the most observant member of our group. When we'd first walked into the convention center, I'd gaped and gawked at all the pretty costumes, trying to pick out who'd come from Midtral, trying to fix things in my memory. After a half hour or so, though, they started blending together. It was easier to snark around with Dove than to play tourist.

"So where's your sister, anyway?" I asked my friend. The glow-in-the-dark fangs almost slipped out of my mouth. I shoved them back in, firmly. "She said she'd meet us here, next to the Ipod vending machine. Was it eleven forty she wanted, or sometime in the afternoon?"

"I don't really know. She's entering her costume into one of the contests, I don't remember which one. Wants to get the cash prize." Dove sighed. "Art students, always starved for money... or pretending to be."

I raised my eyebrows. "She is? But at the big party on campus she was just a witch. Didn't look like anything special, not like that guy in the Star Wars robot tank thing."

My friend shrugged, rustling her uber-Gothic dress. "Isabelle told me that she wore that because she didn't want 'it' to break or get spilled on. Which makes sense, considering Midtral and some of the stupid assholes at the party, but we're in the same apartment and I haven't seen it. She told me that her face is in the open, so we'll know her, but she wants the costume to be a surprise."

In response, I winced. "Dove, you know I like your sister. You're a pair. But she's too reserved. I don't have the faintest idea what her notion of a 'surprise' is. Unlike your notion, which is leaping out from behind curtains, screaming."

Dove chuckled evilly, as well she should have. "Still haven't forgiven me for the Great Flan Incident?" I'm not going to describe that one. Suffice to say that it was messy and embarrassing.

"How could I?" I asked, remembering the Transylvanian accent. "I vhas vheeks kleaning hthat up." The fangs, nudged by my tongue, tried to pop out again, and I clamped down. It's funny how I always remember that. What it feels like to hold cheap plastic teeth in my mouth.

Right on cue, Isabelle appeared in a doorway, head to toe in pale green. My eyebrows raised again as we came towards her, maneuvering around the various conventioneers. I recognized a few casual friends from the Art Department. Not much of a surprise, really - Midtral had let out for the week so to let everyone get to the various events scheduled around now. Xanadu was a bigger draw than that ceramics thing closer to campus.

Isabelle was the first to get a word in, immediately taking charge despite having a voice quiet enough that I had to focus to hear every word. "Hello, Cody. Are you wearing my black slacks? If you wanted to crossdress, I would have just given them to you."

Her sister, driven by that sisterly urge to be as contrary as possible, immediately started arguing, telling her that they weren't Isabelle's, they were Dove's, and I wasn't crossdressing. Sometimes I thought that if Isa stated that the sun rose in the east, her sister would immediately claim that it came from the north. Dove loved making a scene, Isa not so much.

This gave me a chance to figure out what Isa was wearing. It didn't exactly take long. I didn't bother to hide my skepticism; did Isabelle really think that she'd win a prize as the Statue of Liberty?

But as the argument wore onwards, Isa displaying exaggerated patience in the face of Dove's near-histrionics, I changed my mind. The layered green toga-looking thing that she wore had obviously taken a long time to make, and it had been carefully textured. The spiked diadem fixed to her dyed, pinned hair didn't so much as quiver when she moved her head. Both the torch and the tablet had been transferred to the crook of her right elbow, and they too had the same texture. At some point she'd also subtly changed the shape of her face, with cheek-pads or something, so it looked surprisingly Roman.

The makeup on her skin covered everything. Lips, eyelids, eyebrows, fingernails - everything. Somehow it looked textured rather than caked. Also, as I saw when she gestured, she'd somehow gotten tiny seams and rivet-imprints in all the right places. It was a surprisingly subtle effect. I still don't know what she used or who helped her, but then, I haven't asked.

A furry pantomiming wild laughter backed into Dove, almost knocking her over. I sighed and spoke up, getting the attention of both sisters. "Maybe we should move this to someplace a little quieter?" They quit heckling long enough to follow me out into a hallway. "Sisters," I muttered to myself, flamboyantly folding the edges of my cloak around myself so that it didn't billow too much. It never hurt to play to a crowd. "Making me glad that I'm an only child."

"Wait up, 'Durinnial'," Dove announced a few minutes later, tugging at my cloak. I turned to regard Isabelle, who was walking in a slow and stately manner. "Isa, can't you go any faster?!"

"I'm 'Liberty Enlightening The World'," she informed us with great dignity. "Of course I can't. It isn't seemly. I am not an undead Gothic punk." She was wearing her poker face, but I knew Dove's quiet, composed sister better than that. Hadn't we grown up in the same neighborhood?

While Dove sighed in vexed frustration and struck up a debate with a random stranger, I hung back to talk to Isabelle. "So, how'd the judging go?"

She smiled thinly, the skin around her eyes remaining smooth and uncrinkled. "As well as can be expected, I suppose. I don't think I'll be awarded any prizes - you should have seen the other contestants. I did get a compliment on my attention to detail, but I'd just as rather stay away from the awards ceremony altogether. I left before it could start. The other contestants just make me feel so... inadequate."

"Then we will avoid the awards ceremony, my dear," I told her, smoothly, looking the short distance down into her eyes. "I'm sure someone's taping it and will make a montage. You do look good. How long did it take to set that costume up?" For once, my glow-in-the-dark fangs didn't try to pop out.

"Oh... I've been planning it for more than a year," she said, voice faint enough that I had to lean towards her. It sounded vaguely... hollow. I frowned, uncomfortable. Just a little bit nauseous. "Isa, is something wrong?"

Her pale green eyebrows had just drawn together in a frown when the world seemed to lurch; a migraine built and faded between my ears. My vision grayed out and returned in a split second as a woman that I didn't know shrieked.

The woman shrieked again, a high-pitched horror-movie type scream. I turned and stared at her. My eyes went, first, to her throat. She had a healthy neck, with good color. I admired it briefly, noticing that she smelled - she smelled nice. Warmed peanut butter was my first impression.

Her white hands clutched at the red velvet of her round, plunging neckline. My gaze followed the movement, and I found myself staring at the exposed cleavage, flushed and vibrant. Warm peanut butter, bananas sliced into it, spread over steaming fresh bread. I turned my head and looked away as soon as I realized what I was doing, but the damage was done; I was suddenly hungry, so hungry, and my teeth ached. I ran my tongue over them and winced, surprised to encounter sharp points.

From the sound of things, the shrieking woman ran off then, staggering on stiletto heels. The overall noise level had kicked up a notch or three, and I heard a note of panic that hadn't been there before. I inhaled and tasted a banquet of mixed smells, many of them deliriously appetizing. Beef jerky, tough and stringy, teriyaki style... Peeps, just slightly crushed, left out to get stale... authentic root beer made with sarsaparilla, poured onto a great soft scoop of double-churned hand-dipped vanilla ice cream... Tomato soup with cut-up onions and some parsley... Sweet-and-sour chicken on fried rice, extra egg... No, I reminded myself forcefully, swallowing hard. Not for you. The diet, remember?

The scent I identified as Dove's, while not unpleasant, was bracing enough to distract me from the other, more foodlike smells. Chill and earthy, hint of earthworm, smallest trace of sweet decay and hot cocoa powder. Her voice was oddly raspy, and her face was, if anything, paler than before, eyes both larger and slightly redder than they should have been. She was hugging herself as if cold. "What in Hell? I know I didn't drink the punch..."

"Neither did I," Isa's voice was somehow brassy and hollow, like she was talking into a pipe. Instinctively tasting for scent - cold, cold like nothing living, like nothing that had ever been alive, copper and metals and oils - I glanced at Isabelle. She didn't look all that different, even maintaining the same serene expression. It was something subtle. It was-

I blinked. "Are you wearing sandals?" My voice, too, had changed, smoothing out with a touch of accent that hadn't been there before. It was neither as exaggerated as my Transylvanian attempt, nor as free as my normal speech. Or so I decided later, anyway. At the time I just thought there was something wrong with my ears.

In response Isabelle raised her bare foot in a stately manner, the folds of her outfit rippling slowly. It was green, and there was a shackle on each with a few links of chain. Hesitantly, I reached over and touched her shoulder briefly. It was cold, and although the cloth gave and rippled under my fingers, it felt like metal. I looked into her serene pupil-less eyes, both the white and the iris the same textured green as her skin. They were level with mine. And then, somehow, they became just a little bit higher.

Thoroughly unsettled, I withdrew. "Let's... let's get out of here."

"Agreed," Isabelle murmured. "No shit!" Dove added hastily.

We fled the scene. Luckily for me, we took an exit that wasn't completely packed. As it was, I was once almost overwhelmed when we got swept up in a crowd. There is nothing quite so cruel as being hungry and on a diet when there are such mouthwatering people around! Baked wild salmon, grilled in butter and its own soft white fat, still hot enough that the juices, spilling out around it, bubble and crackle. That one was the worst, the spiky-haired man in the hoodie who almost knocked me over. I was hungry, and he was so close. I'm just glad Dove was there. We distracted each other by breaking into furious arguments about the stupidest things, I don't even remember what. Isabelle stayed mostly silent.

There was a bigger problem when we got out. It's called the sun. Yeah.

Unlike some, I didn't burst into flames or start smoking at the edges. Nor did I turn to ashes, stone, a pillar of salt... I'm lucky in that, I guess. I don't think anyone who hasn't felt it themselves could understand, but I'll make an effort for you two or three who don't know why the rest of us are wincing.

Ever been out for several hours on a very bright, hot day, and gotten sunburned to within an inch of your life? To the point where every inch of exposed skin is red and blistered and shedding, hurts like a bitch, and it's like the sun's radiation is this hot, painful pressure? And then someone with long nails gives you a good hard slap across the face? And the light is stabbing into your eyes? Pretty much like that. Only worse.

It's hard to move, in full sun. I freeze up and want to curl into the fetal position. Yeah, that's kind of a bad instinct; it'd make more sense if I tried to get back into the shade instead, but what can you do? My arms and legs locked up, I could barely see for the brightness, and I think this was a good candidate for the scariest moment in my life. I couldn't even tell it was sunlight

Dove saved me there. Got me to her station wagon. Turns out she still had her keys. We're lucky that everything was as bad as it was; nobody bothered us as far as I can recall. In my next coherent moment, we were a mile away on the highway. Later, it turns out that was the same highway everyone saw on Channel Six, but this was before any of that happened, so I can't tell any stories about almost getting stepped on or turbolasered.

I was curled up in the legwell of the seat next to the driver's with a towel over my head to try and block some of the light. It still hurt, but it wasn't driving me crazy. I asked where we were going.

"Back to Midtral," Dove told me. You know it's interesting. She's always been the crazy one to Isa's steadiness, but Isabelle's the one who drives like a kamikaze pilot. Drove, anyway. Dove's always been a really good driver. I know we were breaking the speed limit, but the ride was pretty smooth overall.

"You do realize that they're not going to like this," I told her. "I don't know what this is, but they're not going to like this at all." The sun, even filtered like it was, was giving me a migraine, but I felt like I was thinking clearly. I was making plans for living on the run, thinking that the government was going to be chasing us to be dissected or something. I know, I know, it sounds stupid now. But it didn't really register at the time that this was bigger than us.

"I know, I know, I know!" Dove took what I said as criticism. "D'you have a fucking better idea?"

I didn't. Isabelle, in the back, did.

"If we can make it back to Midtral, we can claim what belongings we can take with us," she said as dispassionately as if we were trying to identify a weed growing in the cracks of a sidewalk. "Cody can clean out his bank account. I believe he has saved more than Dove or I." At the time, her voice hadn't changed completely. She sounded like the pipe she'd been talking into earlier had gotten longer and more echo-y.

Neither of us had a response to that. So that was the plan, really. I haven't gone over it, but I think all three of us thought that we were fugitives. It's a pretty awful plan, I know, but it made sense at the time. It's just as well we never got the chance to carry it out.

Another few minutes in - I'd guess fifteen or fewer, personally - and Dove noticed that the car was slowing, as if someone was putting lead balloons one by one in through the window. Her words, not mine. I don't know how she came to that conclusion - I guess I can understand noticing that it's not responding as well to the accelerator pedal, but I would have thought it was engine trouble. I guess she's a mechanic or something now. A zombie mechanic. The world is - Ow! Okay, okay.

In the legwell with the towel on my head I really couldn't see anything, but there was nothing stopping Dove from looking back. Which she did.

"Oh, God, Isa," she cried, and the station wagon swerved. I felt that, heard horns honking outside, and yelled, "What is it? What is it?!" Yeah, not my best moment.

By this point the Isa I'd grown up with would have had her composure shattered completely. This Isabelle's composure was only cracked. "It- it looks like I am gaining mass. Growing bigger. Dove, you'll have to pull over soon. The warranty won't cover this." Her voice just got less human with every passing second - now it was like a great bell, with barely any Isa in it at all. Her sense of humor's pretty much always been dry like that, though.

I don't know what's with the different growth rates. I mean, there was a fifty-foot walker charging down that very highway only a few minutes later, and he didn't get big gradually. I guess he's the exception, he and those two Zentradi lovebirds who keep showing up in feel-good stories. I've heard of a few Godzillas who are still growing, and we know how long it took for the giant transforming mecha, not to mention - well, enough of that. Don't kick me again, I know what a glare means.

Anyway, we did pull over and Dove got me into some shade. The trees, plus my cape and the towel wrapped around my head and a pair of sunglasses she took out of the glove compartment, meant I could function. I probably looked ridiculous, but what can you do? I saw from the shade that Isa had had to scrunch herself up to fit into the backseat. She got Dove to hold the torch and the tablet while she extricated herself - if Dove's swearing was any sign, they were really heavy.

Standing, Isa had to be nine feet tall at least. I remember the passing traffic slowing down and honking. We got spooked by that, I'll admit it, by that and the military choppers that started flying overhead. We just ran off into the woods. Missed all the excitement.

Isabelle doesn't move very fast, but she doesn't tire either, and with legs that big she could cover a surprising amount of distance. Dove gets fatigued, but only needs a few minutes here and there to recover. The pace was limited mostly by me and my sun-struck pain. I now know what arthritis must be like. Even so, we got a lot farther than we would have as humans, I think. We also got completely and totally lost by the time it got dark.

Which was also when the hunger started. Yeah. Not fun. I can't say whether it's better to be hungry like that in the midst of potential food sources or out in the woods, surrounded by things that can't be thought of as edible. There weren't even any cats, and all that crashing around drove away whatever other animals were there. And none of us, apparently, had senses keen enough to guide us back to civilization. Who knew the woods around Orlando were so big?

There was a brackish pond that we came across. I know brackish is bad, but I drank as much as I could hold, trying to pry my stomach away from my spine. It didn't really help.

Hunger and thirst are the same urge, to one of us, and it isn't really the same as human hunger or human thirst. It's a little like getting a really bad itch when you're out in a very public space, where enough people are looking your way that you don't dare scratch. You tell yourself that if you ignore it, it'll go away, but all it does is get stronger and stronger. I see heads nodding. You know. It's like not blinking - effortless at first, and maybe you can keep it up for a while, but you know, eventually, that your eyes will close, and they start to sting and water. It's like being very conscious of every breath. Can't keep it up. Eventually you fail. Eventually, what you're trying to keep from happening happens. And there's always that element of hunger, of need, strong enough that you'll swear that you're about to die. Not remotely fun.

From what I've been told, Dove was getting hungry too, but I don't think it's the same for her. She complained about feeling empty and cold, and moaned more often. I know I saw once that her upper lip had peeled back or withered or something to show her teeth, and her skin, pale as it was, started to look mottled. She walked normally enough, though. I don't think I've ever seen Dove doing the typical zombie-shuffle. I don't think I ever want to.

Isabelle was the only one who didn't start acting oddly. Of course she felt no hunger. She doesn't eat. I think that she sleeps, but she doesn't seem to have anything like the usual day-night cycle. She was also the only one to keep any composure - although, once, while I was complaining, she snapped, "This isn't helping!" I'd say she was around twice my height by the time the moon came up, and heavy enough that her feet sank into the loam. If she got any taller in the night, I never noticed. Maybe she's solar powered.

My memory of that night is pretty hazy. I moved around a lot once the sun was gone, leaving the girls. When the sun isn't up, I move much more quickly and quietly than either of them - which, admittedly, isn't saying much, but still. Mostly I went in circles; I know that I passed them again and again. It's really hard to miss that torch, glowing the way it does. Dove kept telling me to stop, but hunger doesn't let me hold still. I have to keep moving.

I think it was midnight when I came back and stopped. That was when I could feel something inside myself, small and quick and not part of the hunger. Now, usually I wouldn't have done anything. But I wasn't at my best, so I reached out. And turned into a bat.

Yeah. I know it sounds stupid, but there's no getting around it. I turned into a bat. It felt weird, of course. Happened fast enough that I felt like I was falling, and everything was getting farther away, and then I couldn't stand up, and then- well, my bat form is just a bat. Not any specific species, I can assume some kind of vampire bat because, well, that's obvious. But just a bat, not a lot bigger than a pigeon. And since I'm just a bat in that form, and my mind is just a bat's, I don't really think. It's all sort of a mad sensory rush. So again, my memory there is hazy. Hard to puzzle out. A bat's sense of time isn't like ours. Pity, really. I'd like to know how it is to fly.

My next real memory was of opening my eyes and finding out that I was in a jail cell. This was more than a little alarming, particularly when I realized that I wasn't wearing anything. Some of you are lucky. You can change into bats or fog or wolves or whatever, keep your mind about you, and then when you change back your clothes are still on you, not even wrinkled. Not me.

Anyway, I was in a jail cell, bars and concrete bench and all, and Dove was on the bunk writing in a pad of paper. She saw me and got me my clothes before I could start panicking.

"We're in jail," she said, winning the award for most obvious statement all year. Ow! No, it couldn't have been a research facility, we'd be in paper gowns and everything would have been white. Because there were pictures of it in Newsweek. No, I - Anyway.

She told me what had happened, about catching me, and how the helicopter found us by the light of Isa's torch. We'd been put in a little local jail. Well, Dove and I. Isa had to stay outside. She would have had a lot of trouble getting in the door.

We'd been held for a full day, and it had been a good twenty-four hours until I had turned back into a man. A vampire. Whatever. They'd kept the two of us locked up on some pretext, trespassing maybe. "They" meaning the local cops. Small town guys. They really didn't know what to do with us, Dove guessed. Really, the people from the helicopter had just sort of foisted us on them. So they locked the two of us up, and I guess left Isa outside. I think they tried to attach something to her shackles, but I don't actually know. They must have had trouble when she cleared eighteen feet.

And then the guy I guess was the warden ran in and freaked out and turned a bunch of interesting colors. He smelled like... hmm, I think macaroni and cheese with tuna mixed in. When he calmed down he was okay, though. He was very good at remembering to feed us, and remembering what to feed us. I guess he wasn't really the warden, since he was the only one we saw up close.

We made them nervous. I didn't really understand why. Yeah, Dove was a weird dark gray and tended to be cold to the touch, but she talked in full sentences and moaned only occasionally. I didn't know why they were afraid of me at all. Other than how they hadn't really believed that bat-me was more than a bat that drank milk, because they hadn't believed Dove. I can do cool things with my cloak, but it turns out I can't even turn into a bat unless it's midnight. And then I'm a bat until next midnight. Compared to some people, I'm a kid with a squirt gun.

Of course, logically I do know why they didn't like us. We identify ourselves as what we are. And what we are scares people. I know I should be worried too, but I'm not. She's technically undead, and it starts to show a lot more when she goes a while without eating. I've got a pulse and a few more functioning organ systems, but apparently I count as undead too. So what?

Isabelle, though... Don't tell her, but I can understand being nervous about her. She doesn't eat or drink, you know, and I'm not sure if she sleeps. Nobody knows when she's going to stop growing. Maybe not until she's as big as the real one. She spends a lot of time staring proudly into nothing, and the way her head turns when you get her attention is downright disturbing. It would be better if she blinked, or if her mouth and nostrils went all the way into her inside, instead of being just dents in the copper.

They were nervous, but we weren't mistreated or anything. A few days later they had us trucked back to Xanadu. It was that, or go to that warehouse where they've got the famous Garrett and all those stormtroopers.

Turn out that Midtral kicked us out, us and everyone else who went to Xanadu. We got our stuff back, and some of the tuition money was refunded; some of the others weren't so lucky. I've heard stories.

That's pretty much our story. I guess we're the token vegetarians. I haven't even touched bagged blood - milk generally tastes like feedlot corn, by the way, but you get used to it - and Dove likes raw hamburger that's been doused with chocolate syrup. We get by. I don't know if anyone else can live on these things. It can't hurt to try though, right? It can't hurt to hope that some of us can shake off that need for bloodshed and work on a more peaceful endeavor.