Interlude: Spring Training (original story by Colleen)

During our first in-game time jump, all of our characters took time to take care of various accumulated business. The following scene illustrates just some of the shenanigans Tom got up to on his week off.

***

“Dude, could you just stop?” Slayer whines nervously.

“Stop what?” I say innocently.

“That…shadowshit, man!” he says, staring at his feet. Or, more specifically, at the shadows creeping up from the row below us, lapping at his sneakers as he scoots them away. I meet his gaze. “I don’t know what ‘shadowshit’ you’re talking about, son, and if I did, I’d know you’d better not be talking about it.”

Slayer groans. “Look, man, I told you I’m not gonna tell anyone–”

“You’d better not, cause if you do, you know who the first people I’ll tell will be.”

He slumps in his seat. “Isarnbjorn and Sertorius,” he mutters. I nod grimly, carefully neglecting to tell him that the latter is out of town for awhile, and the former is perhaps out of town permanently.

He’s right, though. I need to practice, but now is probably not the place. I let my mind relax and the shadows shrink back below the seats in front of us. I’m trying to think of something else to irritate him, or entertain me–though really they’re the same thing–when the crack of a bat and the gasp of the crowd snaps my head up. The ball rises high, almost level with our third-tier seats, but pulls right and lands foul on the bottom deck. The crowd sighs and settles itself again.

Battle of the Bay, top of the ninth and the Giants are down by two. It may be just a pre-season exhibition game, but the crowd at AT&T park is no less invested. Veins of Oakland’s green-and-gold streak the usual sea of black-and-orange, and even this late in the game, every seat is filled. These games always sell out, but Slayer picked up the tickets somewhere. Not sure how. Not sure I want to know.

But the score isn’t the only thing stirring tension in the crowd. Normally these games don’t happen till later in March, but with things around town being how they are, the city wanted something positive to focus everyone’s attention on and urged the team owners to move up the schedule.

Still, though, with the latest “terrorist attack” on the Richmond-San Rafael bridge fresh in everyone’s minds, no one is taking things lightly. Armed National Guardsmen patrol the crowds, from here I can see them walking the edges of the bleachers and the skyway on the far side of the field. More soldiers were at the entrances when we came in, helping with extra security checks, and armored humvees were stationed along King Street in front of the park. I had to force myself from staring covetously at them as we passed.

Slayer has been engrossed this whole game, but baseball isn’t really my thing, and we’re sitting too high up to really ogle the players. I’ve been playing with my phone and practicing Obtenbration to fill the time, but there aren’t many shadows under the bright stadium lights.

I peer up at them, and to the darkness beyond. Seagulls whirl against the sky, sensing the end of the game well before the crowd seems to have accepted it. I half hope to see a darker, raptorial shape swirling along with them, but of course I don’t.

Another crack. The crowd swells, then roars in frustration. The ball bounces deep into the outfield and Oakland’s runner advances to second. I shrug, but next to me, Slayer is on his feet, yelling insults that veer a little too close to homophobic. It’s probably not great for my image to be seen in public with him, wouldn’t want people to get the wrong idea about my standards, but he seemed so keen for me to come with him. Maybe this is supposed to be a peace offering or something.

To his credit, the evening is a nice change of pace. I haven’t even been giving him as much shit as I usually would. In fact, I think, leaning back in my seat, I am dangerously close to having a good mood. Once the game finishes we can continue our errands for the night–mostly some small-arms shopping–and so long as we get out of here before anybody sees–

“Hey now, aren’t you two the couple! Somebody shoulda put you on the kiss-cam!”

Next to me, Slayer suddenly tenses and sinks down into his seat, revealing the aisle just on the other side. Three men are standing there, two hispanic and one white, dressed in dark suits cut like a modern reboot of Miami Vice. The guy in front, a lanky man with slicked dark hair and handsome face dripping with overconfidence, grins as he sees me. “Well, you must be the legendary Tom Lytton! What are you doing here with our little Maurice?”

I glare at Slayer. “Friends of yours?”

Slayer slouches down. “Hey, Rafael.”

Rafael chuckles and claps Slayer’s shoulder. “Naw, Maurice here and I are more than friends. We go way back.”

I eye Rafael and the other two men carefully. They look a little pale–though in San Francisco that isn’t saying much–but the waves of entitlement flowing off them scream vampire just as strongly as any aura-read could.

Rafael grins at me. Sure enough, there’s a hint of fang. “But this ain’t a social call. We’re with the Baron,” he says.

I look at him flatly. “Which Baron?”

He points below. Diagonal from us, at the front of a club-level box seat, is a bearded man in a pale linen suit, ostentatiously underdressed for this foggy night. Don Esteban de la Vega. He sees me staring and raises his cigar.

“Oh, the good one.” I turn back to Rafael. “Didn’t realize he was a sports-fan.”

“He’s not, really, but now that Oakland is just a few rolled heads away from going Anarch, he thought it’d be a good idea to come and show his support.”

Looking again, I can just make out the a of green-and-yellow dyed carnation tucked into Esteban’s lapel.

Rafael and his men are still looming in the aisle, and finally attract the notice of one of the ushers, who hurries up the stairs. “Gentlemen, the game is almost over, but I need for you to find seats–”

Rafael turns to him and flashes his razor-tipped smile. “Actually I think we have this under control. Run along.” The usher’s face goes blank and he walks back down without a word. Rafael turns his smile to the people sitting behind us, a family of three, watching him perplexed. “These seats will do just fine.” He looks at each of them in turn, then snaps his fingers. They instantly move to gather their things and leave, faces just as blank as the usher. The three vampires climb in, Rafael sitting directly behind me.

Slayer leans over, hissing in my ear, “Seriously, man, don’t fuck with this guy,” but I wave him off, turning half-around in my seat. “That was rather…efficient,” I say to Rafael. His entire demeanor screams Brujah, but that was suspiciously more effective than any time I’ve tried to influence people.

Rafael chuckles and folds forward to rest his arms on his knees. “Some of us aspire to be more than what we’re given. Improve our skills, so to speak.” He winks. “Which you would know if you ever branched out of your comfort zone, there, baby Brujah.”

Cold understanding settles on me. Dominate, the same bullshit the Prince and his Ventrue cronies like to pull. A toy for politicians and thugs. No wonder someone taught it to this asshole.  But discussing out-of-clan disciplines isn’t really something I should be getting into, considering….

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I lie flatly, turning away.

“I know you don’t, your innocence is written all over you, I can see it.” I toss a glare at him, but he chuckles and lays a hand on my shoulder companionably. “You’re young, Lytton, but if you ever want to improve yourself, you can’t just wait around for people to hand opportunities to you, or find a polite trade. You’re gonna have to be a little more…aggressive.”

The understanding from earlier turns to ice. Diablerie. The “soul-bite” I’ve been warned about. And tempted with. “I don’t do that shit,” I growl.

“Yet.” His hand tightens. He leans down next to my ear, cheap cologne clogging my nostrils, and whispers, “You ever want to pop that cherry, come see me. I can set you up with someone real nice for your first time.”

I keep my gaze fixed on the field, but the plastic armrests crack under my grip. Sickening as that suggestion is, I’m more infuriated by his arrogance. Things churn within me, emotions twisting like snakes, aching to prove that I’m not like him, I’m better than him, that there’s nothing any of them can do to stop me and they should just stay the hell out of my way. They’ll never see it coming.

I feel the shadows at my feet start to flicker–

“So, what do you want, Rafael?” Slayer says hurriedly, louder than necessary, snapping me back to reality. I feel my grip on the darkness recede, and slowly the demons within me settle. Someday there will be a time for that, but not here, not now.

Rafael chuckles and leans back, kicking his feet up on the back of our seats. “Well, the Baron sent us up here to talk about that shit you ran recently off the coast. He says he hasn’t gotten his share.”

I snort. “If he’s looking for the Semtex, he should get in line.”

“When it comes to the Semtex, he was first in line. But this isn’t about that. Remember the deal you struck before, when you came out to the Sunset looking for dragonsbreath, with that little bird of yours?”

Luckily I’m still staring down at the field so he can’t see my face as it falls. Son of a bitch…. Esteban did ask for something from the Boat Job: Accio’s fangs. I totally fucking forgot about that too.

“Look, man,” I say, leaning back and lowering my voice, “Accio had a run-in with a torpedo, so anything that’s left of him is at the bottom of the Pacific in about a billion pieces.”

Rafael leans forward again as the men on either side of him chuckle. “Well then, your deal hasn’t been finished yet, has it? And from what we hear, you’ve been making good use of our merchandise around town, so you can’t exactly return it for a refund.”

I glance back down at Esteban. He’s still watching us, calmly pulling at his cigar. For a moment, I wonder if he used Rafael to “convince” the concierge staff to let him smoke inside the park. “What does he want?” I grumble.

“Right now? All he wants is to talk about it.”

I grumble and move to get up. “Fine, it’s probably a better view from down there anyway–”

“No, not here. At his bar, back in the Sunset.”

I hesitate and slowly lower myself back down. Something about this doesn’t feel right. Esteban saw me at the Flyting, why didn’t he bring this up then? It’s more than a little suspicious that he waited until Marcus was out of town to make his move.

I glance at Slayer. His eyes are wide with fear, but that’s not saying much; they usually are, these nights. I clear my throat and half-turn toward Rafael. “Look, I’m a busy man, lately–

“Yeah, we hear you two are playing house down there in Bayview.”

I glare. “–So I really don’t have time to come by this week. But I don’t like having unsettled debts hanging over me, so would Esteban take the promise of a favor instead?”

Rafael grips my shoulder again, fingers digging under my collar bone, forcing me deeper into the seat. “The Baron is tired of trading in favors,” he whispers roughly. “Favors are for better times, not times when the National Guard has the entire bay on lockdown and everyone in the city is looking over their shoulder. Times like these need results.”

My mind races, clouded by the pain of his grip and the anger it’s spawning. Dammit, I really should pay more attention when Paul does his negotiation routines, cause–as recent experience has shown–I’m really shit at this.

Distantly, the roar of the crowd rises around me, and with it, an idea floats up through the haze; the barest wisp of a plan, but it’s a beacon in the dark. I shrug Rafael’s hand off and lean back in my chair. “Well if he wants immediate results, there’s nothing more immediate than this.” I gesture, taking in the field spread below us. “How about a bet?”

The men laugh. “Perhaps you’ve mistaken the Baron for Doc,” one says.

“No I’m serious.” I turn to face them, ignoring the cheers of the crowd around us. “If Oakland wins, I’ll send…Maurice…here home and come with you guys right now, no questions asked. But if the Giants win, Esteban agrees to take my favor.”

They look at the scoreboard. It’s the bottom of the ninth, and the Giants are now down by three. There’s two runners on base, but two outs as well. “That’s a pretty poor bet,” Rafael says.

I shrug. “Then what do I have to lose? Go ahead, go down and ask him. Or text him, if you don’t want to get up.”

Rafael trades an amused look with the other men. None move to take their phones out. Instead, they turn and look across the park at Esteban.

The older man stares a moment, puffing his cigar, then gives one clear nod.

“Agreed, then!” Rafael claps my bruised shoulder. I fight back a wince. “I’d say don’t try anything funny,” he says, “But you can’t punch the Giants to victory, and I promise you, you can’t run as fast as me.”

I ignore his laugh and Slayer’s nervous face, leaning forward to study the field. My skill with the shadows is still pretty weak but maybe I can figure something out. My vision blurs as I drift into my mind.

I don’t know exactly what Marcus feels when he uses his powers, but the more I’ve practiced over the last week, the more I’ve felt the Abyss lurking at the edges of perception, like the dark waters of the bay surrounding the park. I’ve started to visualize the world as a veneer above the darkness, like foam adrift on an endless sea. I can feel the depths swelling up in hungry desire, but our light holds them back, forcing them into the shadows. As Marcus said, maneuvering that force within these shadows is a matter of command, but I’ve found it’s also a matter of encouragement to pull it further into our world.

Inviting in the darkness. Maybe that’s where the legends about vampires and thresholds comes from.

A roar rises around me and my vision snaps back into focus. The Giants’ batter just bunted and made it to first, advancing the other two runners. The bases are loaded and, with a miracle, San Francisco just might win this. Slayer is on his feet, yelling and clapping with the crowd, but I stay seated, watching….

The stadium lights beating down from all four sides shove the Abyss away like a lead weight, but each light does cast a mild shadow on the players, making them appear to stand in a four-pointed star that follows them as they move across the grass. Individually, these shadows are too weak to even ripple the Abyss. The only place deep enough is the overlap at center, directly under the players’ feet, where all four lights are blocked out at once.

I smirk. X marks the spot.

A crack, and a pop-fly shoots deep into center-field. The crowd yells, then sighs in frustration as it becomes clear it’s arcing to an easy catch. Oakland’s outfielder backs up lazily, timing himself to the ball with professional confidence.

The noise and lights around me fade as my gaze focuses on him, intent as Aquilier. I will my mind as far as I can, touching at the shadows directly under his feet, feeling the dimensional ripples at the surface, urging the darkness through and commanding it to ever, ever so slightly, thicken–

The outfielder trips. He falls back on his ass, and the ball bounces to the grass next to him.

The park erupts. Men fly around the bases, their fans and teammates shrieking them on. The outfielder grabs the ball and scrambles back to his feet, but as he moves to throw, his feet catch again and he stumbles. By the time he’s recovered, two runners have made it home and the last ones are rounding second and third.

The ball missiles toward the infield. Oakland tries throwing to third to stop the last runner, but in the panic and frustration it overshoots the baseman. The Giant’s third runner scores and the last man pounds down the baseline, riding the incoherent roar of the crowd. Oakland’s third baseman recovers the ball and chases him down, throwing to home, but he flattens into a dive at the last moment–

Safe.

If the park was loud before, it’s nothing compared to the noise that follows. Music blasts,  fireworks flare over the outfield, and the crowd pulses with joy. Slayer yells and trades high-fives with everyone around us. Still seated, I applaud and turn to smirk at Rafael.

He and his men are also still sitting, but they’re not clapping. Rafael glares at me, then, as one, the three men turn to look toward Esteban. I follow their gaze.

To my surprise, he’s applauding too, with restrained politeness, but he’s not looking at the field, he’s looking at me. He raises his cigar in another salute. I smile grimly and nod back.

Rafael grunts and gets to his feet. “Well, guess that’s it then. Nice job there, Cammy, that was some luck.” He glares at me suspiciously, then shrugs. “Too bad we can’t have some fun back in the Sunset, but I’m sure I’ll see you around, sooner or later.” He winks at me, face hovering somewhere between threatening and lascivious, sending sick chills down my back either way. With that, he and the other two men stalk off, making their way through the swirling crowd.

Slayer plops down into his seat. “Dude, that was close.”

I assume he doesn’t mean the game. “Yeah. I mean, a favor might still be bad, but we’ll see.” Across the park, Esteban gets up and disappears into the shadows of the club box.

“No, I mean with Rafael. Nobody fucks with Rafael!”

I turn to catch a last glimpse of him and his men. For a lanky man he moves with surprising grace, a confidence suggesting hidden power he doesn’t even bother to restrain. “With a flat ass like that, I can see why.”

“No, man, I mean he’s a diablerist,” Slayer hisses, glancing at the humans around us, “And he doesn’t give a fuck who knows!”

“I got that impression,” I mutter. I rub my shoulder where he clenched it, so tender I think the bone may have cracked. Outrage flares briefly at the offense. “Why does Esteban keep him around, then?”

Slayer glances at me, face serious. “Cause he gets shit done.”

Something tells me I don’t want to ask what that “shit” entails. Instead, I heal my shoulder, then stretch and get to my feet. “Yeah, well, speaking of, we should get moving. Grab the helmets and bring the Vespa around, we have shopping to do.”

END

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