Armand lunged at me, and pressed me down, his hands on my shoulder blades. I tried to get to my feet, but the ground was slippery, and that I now was under water did not exactly help. Struggling to free myself from his grip, I squirmed under his hands, but he was as strong as I, maybe stronger. Water was getting into my mouth when I attempted to speak, I coughed, knowing that it was better not to swallow it.
"Have you had enough?" Armand shouted, his voice blurred under the water. Again I tried to escape, but it was impossible.
::Yes... let go of me before I drown here,:: I sent to him, not daring to open my mouth again. I felt myself pulled upwards, towards his face.
"Now we can't have that, can we?" he grinned. "I had no idea that you can not hold your breath longer than a minute." He drew closer. "You are growing old... no stamina anymore." After breathing in deeply and choking out the water I had swallowed, I met his gaze. He was smiling maliciously, his eyes glittering.
Within a moment I had pinned him under the water, kneeling on his thighs, my arms holding his chest down. He looked at me, his eyes full of surprise.
"Maybe you are stronger, but I certainly know some tricks too." Now it was my turn to grin at him, and watch as he tried to resurface. When he found that he was unable to free himself, he switched tactics.
::Please, spare me,:: he pleaded with me after he had stopped struggling, his face a vision of despair and submission. ::Mercy... I will do whatever you want...:: He blinked slowly, the embodiment of misery.
His show would have had a greater effect if he had not suddenly begun to giggle, tiny air bubbles rising from his mouth and nose. I let go of him and watched as he came up gasping for air. Reaching up with one hand to draw his hair out of his face, he stared back at me until we both burst out laughing.
"You know, I am only glad the others have not seen this," he smiled. "Imagine what Marius would have thought of us after seeing us trying to drown each other in a fountain."
"He would probably have assumed that either we have both gone mad, or that I am a bad influence on you," I answered and climbed out of the basin. Armand followed; his white silk shirt had turned a nice see-through, and his jeans could not have possibly been tighter. A puddle was forming on the pavement around his feet.
Patting my pockets, I finally produced an elastic band and tied my hair back. The disapproving look he gave me could have scared Lestat. I knew that Armand disliked this, but I felt uncomfortable having wet curls against the skin of my neck. He would certainly try to deprive me of the elastic band sooner or later, all I could hope for was that my hair was no longer dripping wet when he decided to take action.
The frown on his face disappeared again, and he smiled at me when I drew him into my arms. He settled in the embrace and leaned forward to kiss me, his lips so soft against mine as if they were made of velvet.
"I love you," he murmured against my lips.
"And I love you, ragazzo," I responded, holding him more tightly. "I cannot describe how much." He sighed with content and rested his head against my chest; his hands on my back sending shivers down my spine.
We had been together for more than a year now, months had passed since that unfortunate incident with Eric. Since that night neither of us had seen or sensed the fiend again, I hoped that he had lost interest or was too frightened of trying anything again. Lestat and Marius knew of what had happened, and while I was sure that at least the Roman held me partially responsible for it, they had told us to call them if something similar occurred again. Pandora had not said anything at all, but had given both of us a warm smile before she had left for Norway. Marius was still staying with Mael, they were renewing their friendship, it seemed. Lestat and Louis were back in New Orleans; from the others we had heard almost nothing, and I did not crave news of them. Life was peaceful at the moment, and I meant to enjoy it.
I sighed contentedly as Santino drew me in a tight embrace, resting my head on his broad chest and listening to the beating of his heart. Our clothes were soaked after our playful wrestling under the water, but I wasn't cold at all. I had fed plenty, and I couldn't remember being so happy in all my immortal life.
We had seen the others, briefly. Pandora had come to visit, followed a few nights later by Lestat. Santino had told me how Pandora had helped him to find me, and I was only grateful that she had been there for him. I still shuddered when I realized that I had been close to going to ground... or worse, just because Eric had tricked me into believing Santino had betrayed me and didn't love me anymore. Lestat had been quite concerned when he came to us, and he had stayed for nearly a week, driving Santino mad with questions about the whole incident. But we both knew it was out of concern for us both. Marius had not come, but both Santino and I had talked with him. He had assured me he wouldn't allow Eric to threaten us again in any way.
Santino was tying his hair back again, oblivious to the fact that he looked positively enticing with those wet curls around his face and neck. I so much wanted to kiss him, feeling his soft hair brush my face, so I frowned, showing my disapproval. But when he took me in his arms again I could only smile and look, mesmerized, into those beautiful eyes.
His closeness was so distracting, his silk shirt had turned into a barrier between my hands and his perfect body. I drew him closer and started nibbling at his neck, not caring at all that we were in the middle of the street. Nobody was here to see us at this hour of the night. Soon he was moaning softly as I sank my fangs in his neck taking a little drink from him. His eyes were glazed when I drew back, and when he kissed me, he bit his tongue, letting me drink more of his blood until I was shivering in his arms.
"Ragazzo, we'd better go back." Santino's voice cut into the haze I was submerged in, and slowly I came back to reality. We were leaning against a wall, our clothes still damp, and he was holding me close, his hands stroking my back, my neck, my hair. I sighed contentedly, barely suppressing a shiver. "Are you cold?"
"No." I smiled. "I'm just happy." Santino smiled too, peering at me closely. I knew he was wondering why I had not freed his hair from the elastic band yet. I had been about to do it, but then another idea had come to my mind. I looked at him, and giggled.
"What is it?" I knew I was making him curious.
"You don't mind if I cut my hair, do you?"
"Not really..." I smiled again, brushing a lock of hair from his face, careful not to untie the whole shining mass of black curls.
"Alright. I will cut it then." I kissed his lips lightly. "Let's go back, caro," I said softly, making to walk towards the car. Santino caught my arm, and when I turned to face him I could see a cautious expression on his face. I waited for him to talk, fighting the urge to giggle again.
"What do you have in mind?" I sent to his mind an image I had seen in a magazine two nights ago. His eyes widened in shock.
"Ragazzo, you don't mean to cut your hair like that, do you?"
"You said you didn't mind."
"Then why do you object? I understand that you like your hair short... or tied back..." Santino looked at me blankly for a moment, and then he sighed, drawing me into a tight embrace.
"Alright, ragazzo. What do you want?" I only smiled, playing with a lock of his hair. He ruffled my hair, and kissed the tip of my nose. And seconds later I watched, delighted, how Santino himself got rid of the elastic band.
When we arrived home the sky was already paling. I was feeling the pull of the death sleep, though Santino was still fully awake. We were pretty matched in strength, but Santino still slept later and awoke before me. I didn't really mind this, even though he liked to tease me because of it. I loved to see his beautiful eyes looking at me when I opened my eyes at dusk. I shivered in his arms while he undressed me, planting random kisses in every spot of skin. I would have taken him if the sun had not prevented it, but my eyes were closing already. I watched my lover as he got rid of his clothes, and when he slipped into bed with me, I snuggled closer, burying my face in his neck.
The next night I woke shortly after dusk, through the open windows of the bedroom I could hear the chirping of cicadas. Armand was still asleep, curled up against me as usual. He rarely slept in a different position, I would wake nearly every night to find his body pressed to mine, his head resting on my shoulder.
I remained quiet and shifted my position carefully so I would not disturb his sleep, though it was not very likely that he would wake if I moved. I was lying on my side now and watched Armand's face; the sight of him waking up was something I did not want to miss. The first weeks after the death of his children and the meeting with Eric he had frequently woken screaming and bathed in blood sweat. I had held him then, rocked him like a child and stroked his hair, but sometimes it had been nearly impossible to calm him. But he had gradually got over the experience, and now his dreams were a lot more peaceful.
He began to stir, his eyelids fluttered, and he buried his head in the pillows, unwilling to wake. Leaning closer, I brushed my lips over his cheek and temple, placed a kiss on the corner of his mouth where it would begin to curl into a smile. And smile he did; he snuggled closer, not opening his eyes yet. His hair smelled faintly of peaches, from his shampoo, presumably.
"Good evening, ragazzo mio," I whispered into his ear, and was rewarded with an unwilling moan. "Wake up, sleepyhead, the night won't wait for you." He rose his head drowsily, blinked a few times and lay back again; I would not have been amazed if he had pulled the bed sheets up over his head. If he was unwilling to get up, it could take hours to make him get out of bed. Over the last year I had become quite apt at coaxing him to rise, but sometimes, if everything else failed, I had to wait until he became bored.
I freed myself from his arms and left the bed, telling him that I would take a shower. Sometimes this worked, but when I reached the door and turned my head, I could see that he was still lying on the bed, now rolled up in the space I had vacated. Apparently he felt like dozing tonight. I thought of joining him, I did not mind at all to spend the night in bed, but I had promised Maria that I would visit her tonight. Armand I could excuse, she would not mind if he did not come.
She was growing old, and I visited her as often as possible now. Healthy as she was, she was still mortal, and time would eventually claim her. To think of this made me sad, but there lay no use in denying the fact that she would die. It amazed me a little that she was not afraid at all, she seemed to simply accept it. Dear Maria, I had known her and her family for so long, they had become a part of my life.
Stepping out of the shower, I dressed and reached for an elastic band. If the sight of my hair tied back did not rouse Armand, nothing would be able to do it. I still wondered how he had managed to make me take off the band myself yesterday; he certainly knew how to influence me.
Leaving the bathroom, I returned to him; the faint frown I saw on his face when he looked up made me feel quite certain that he would get up now, no matter what his former intentions had been. I headed for the living room and switched on the TV; Maria was probably having dinner right now, and I did not want to disturb her. I had come in time for the news, nothing extraordinary had happened. A few accidents, a murder in a small town in the south. Politicians discussing the use of a new highway. I did not pay a lot of attention to the news, most of the things that happened were completely unimportant; what did I care about traffic jams and inflation?
I was about to switch off when something caught my attention. A pretty young commentator smiled from the screen, standing in the Piazza del Popolo, in front of the obelisk. She had been talking already before, about the Easter mass the Pope had celebrated, but now she was speaking of something that had turned the world of all vampires upside down.
Leaning forward, I listened closely to what she was saying, that the Veil would finally be examined closer, and together with it the miracles that had occurred during the first weeks after its discovery. They meant to investigate the strange cases of self-combustion, and how the remnants of those who had died in the pillars of flames had disappeared. They were showing images of St. Patrick's now, and of the other churches in front of which vampires had stepped into the sun. A picture of the Veil, and of Dora, a terrific holy smile on her face.
A small sound made me turn my head; Armand was standing in the doorway, an unreadable expression on his face.
I had resisted Santino's attempts at coaxing me out of bed as long as I could. I was not in the mood for leaving the bed tonight. I wished to stay warm under the covers, lying contentedly in my lover's arms. But he had already left the bed and was heading to the shower. I thought of following him, of having a nice bath together, and maybe bring him back to bed. I still remembered the feeling of his lips on my skin when he had undressed me. But I was so warm under the covers that I decided to wait for him to come back.
I opened my eyes again to see that Santino had already dressed up, hair tied back included. I couldn't help myself but frown. I so liked to see those shinning black curls framing his beautiful face! I wanted to feel his soft hair brushing my face again, and I wanted to make love to him. But I remembered we were supposed to visit Maria tonight, realizing why Santino had left the bed so soon. He wanted to spend as much time with Maria as possible. She was growing old, and would eventually die. It made me sad to think of it. In the short time I had known her I had grown quite fond of her. I could just imagine how my lover would feel when she died. I decided I would go with him tonight.
Leaving the bed, I put on a robe, and walked towards the living room, still barefoot. I wanted to ask Santino to wait for me. I decided also I wouldn't get rid of his elastic band... not before we left Maria's house. My lover was sitting on the couch, and he had the TV turned on. He was listening to the news. I smiled. Most of it didn't really interest him, but he always listened to the headings at least. I was about to speak to him when I realized he was listening intently to a young girl standing in the Piazza del Popolo. I looked at the TV set and listened as well.
They were talking about the Veil. They were showing pictures of Saint Patrick and other churches, and talking about pillars of flame. I shuddered, groping unconsciously for the doorframe. I heard my own words again. Bear witness. This sinner dies for Him! This sinner goes to Him! I started to tremble. I was vaguely aware that they were talking now of the way the remnants of the ones that had sacrificed themselves had been stolen in one night. They were showing images of Santino and my master walking through those aseptic corridors, mesmerizing mortals and finally getting to the rooms where they stored all that was left from us. I closed my eyes and in my mind I saw them both again, this time burning my lace, destroying what remained of my clothes.
My mind was open, and I knew that Santino was seeing it all. We seldom talked about this, and though he should know I had been the one who touched his mind that night, we had never discussed it. He disliked talking about the veil, about those months when Lestat lay immobile on the floor, and when everybody believed me dead. When Benji and Sybelle had died, he had listened to me in silence, he had held me close and had given me his silent support. But it seemed that the time to talk about the veil had come. Mortals were going to analyze it, to investigate the "miracles". What did they expect to find?
They were showing the Veil now. I forced myself to look at it, waiting, fearing I would see that bleeding face again. But nothing happened. I saw only a face painted on a cloth.
"Ragazzo?" Santino's arms came around me and I realized he had switched off the TV. I looked at him, confused. Why was he holding me? I let him lead me to the couch, and I realized I was shivering. "You seemed about to faint," he said. He touched my cheek gently, peering closely into my eyes.
"I'm fine," I managed to say. I couldn't stop looking nervously at the TV set. I had the urge to switch it on. Would they show the Veil again?
"No. They were already talking about an earthquake somewhere in Central Asia," Santino said. "Calm yourself." I let out a shaky breath.
"I don't know what they expect to find on the Veil," I said softly. "They never saw what I saw. It was a bleeding face, not a picture on a cloth." I paused, looking at Santino. He was listening intently to me. "We have never really talked about this, beloved. I know you dislike it. But I wish you to know what I felt that night. What drove me to do it..." I opened my mind to him, letting him see, letting him feel what went through my mind that night. I had wanted to drink Lestat's blood, wanting to know if the tale he told us was real, or a creation of his mind. But that wouldn't have driven me to face the sun. It had been the face, the Ikon coming alive. I had never found that face in the Italian Churches, the face of my Christ, the face I painted in the Ikons. And it had been bleeding, looking at me, beckoning to me.
"I don't know if that was Christ's face or not. Maybe it was just a trick Memnoch played on me. We all come from an spirit after all. Maybe Memnoch was just that, one of those spirits, one amazingly powerful. Or maybe it was God. I don't know. But knowing they will examine the veil upsets me. What do they expect to find?" I stopped talking, feeling spent and sad. I remembered that Santino had wanted to break into the Vatican and get the Veil, but Marius had prevented it. He was looking at me, stroking my hair, maybe he was thinking of that night too.
There was so much to think of. Those videos showing Marius and me walking through the hallways, looking for what had remained of those who had stepped into the sun. Those ashes had to disappear, they could not be left in the hands of mortal scientists. It seemed we had not managed to get hold of all the ashes and remnants of clothes, and there were the reports of the investigations and experiments that had already been going on before the Roman and I had come to destroy what we thought was all evidence of vampires the scientific community had got hold of through this. Now I knew that there was more, that there had been things we could not have foreseen. Neither of us had thought of security cameras when we had broken into that laboratory. Somebody would have to take care of those things, make sure that mortals forgot about them.
And then there was Armand. I had seen him in worse conditions, and had expected that this would shake him a lot more than it apparently did. He seemed calm and collected, though he had been about to faint, but that probably had been the shock of being reminded of all this again. His mind was open to me, and all that I could feel was that he was tired and sad. He was not even trembling anymore, usually a sure sign that he was upset.
We had never truly talked about the Veil and what had happened in New York that day, Armand knew that it made me feel uncomfortable. Regarding religious matters I had become quite wary after leaving my coven, I knew exactly what zealots could do, and did not want to be involved in such things again. It had been painful to realize that God did not guide us, that there was no superior creature who cared about us; I had accepted it, but it still hurt when I was reminded of what I had lost. It had been something to believe in, and I had lost my faith, my religion.
Armand was speaking of what he had seen, or had believed to see, on that piece of cloth when Lestat had presented it. And from the sound of it, his memory of the Veil and the image he had seen on TV were not the same. Maybe he had hallucinated when he had first seen the damned thing, there were a lot of possible explanations for it. Armand said that there might have been a spirit behind everything, or maybe God had caused this, though I rather doubted this. What reason should God have to suddenly care about such things as the human world? He had never shown an indication that he was interested in what happened to his creation before, it would be very strange indeed if he suddenly decided we deserved his divine attention.
"What if you saw what you expected to see?" I asked. "After Lestat's tale of Heaven and Hell, you certainly pictured how the Veil might look like, and the fact that you painted Ikons maybe enforced the images." Armand pondered this, then slowly shook his head.
"I don't know what this was, and I doubt that we will ever find out." He leaned against me, deep brown eyes looking at me. "I don't like the thought at all that scientists are going to investigate what happened."
"Neither do I, and there are some things that cannot be left as they are at the moment." I felt safer talking of matters of security, here I knew what I was dealing with. "Somebody will have to take care of that video, and of the ashes we missed when we thought we had destroyed them all. And maybe it would be best to burn the Veil itself as well, there might be traces of Lestat's blood on it." I remembered the night Marius and I had destroyed the ashes, and that he had made me promise that I would not seek the Veil, and for the first time wondered if he had meant that I should not steal it from the Vatican, or that I should not look at it and then face the dawn.
I was thinking of calling Marius and telling him that he should take care of this, but somehow I felt that he deserved the peace he had in staying with Mael. What he found so interesting and amicable about the Druid was beyond me, but who was I to question his choice of friends. Maybe Lestat would go and do what had to be done, though I was not sure if he would really destroy the Veil, certainly it meant a lot to him. No, we could not rely on him, it was unpredictable what he would do once he faced the damned piece of cloth again.
"I want to see it again before it is destroyed," Armand said suddenly. I looked at him in surprise. "Would you go there with me, to look at it once again and then burn it?" I nodded, the thought of going there had been forming in my mind already, but I had not been sure what to do about Armand. That he actually wanted to go there, to see the Veil again, was something I had not expected.
"Of course I will come with you, ragazzo." I smiled at him, not sure at all if I really wanted him to go there. Perhaps it was best if he saw it burn to ashes, forgetting it might become easier then. But what if it unsettled him again; what if there was something supernatural about it that could prevent us from destroying it? But it was inevitable to do something about the Veil, what if scientists discovered any proof of our existence? That risk we could not ignore, and with modern technologies they might easily find traces of blood, of skin, of hair on the cloth and in the ashes. Who knew what they would see when they watched a drop of our blood through the microscopes.
Again I remembered the night Marius and I had disposed of the ashes, and that I had constantly felt watched. Now I knew that it had been Armand, but back then I had believed him dead. The presence had felt familiar, and so I had not blocked my thoughts as I would usually have done. There were so many other things to think of that were prior to veiling my mind. There was a question I had always meant to ask Armand, and now seemed as good a time as ever.
"Amadeo, why did you not call to me back then, when you read my mind?"
I looked at Santino, unable to speak for a moment, surprised that he would ask me that. I had thought about it many times, but I had never managed to arrive at any conclusion. Why had I not called to him then? Why had I stayed in that roof, alone, in pain, when my master and Santino would have helped me and given me their blood. Why?
It was true that I hadn't wanted any unknown vampire to help me, I had not wanted to be seen by unkind eyes. But even if I hadn't trusted Santino at the moment, there had been Marius... What had been going through my mind that I had stayed in silence? Why not call to them if I had called to Benji the very same night!
"I wanted to die," I said, almost thinking aloud, "I was waiting for it. I had been encased in snow for so long when you came to New York to burn the remains... Don't think that I still expected God to come for me... or Memnoch. I was just... empty, as a hollow shell, I was confused, certain than my death would follow the horrible pain I was immersed in." I paused, wondering if my words made sense, looking at Santino, whose soft dark eyes seemed so troubled again... the same as that night. I kissed his cheek, wanting to feel his closeness, wanting to ease any pain my words could bring to him.
"I still don't understand it completely," I continued. "When Marius asked you if you believed that the Veil would bring "him" back to his senses I realized he was talking about Lestat. And that was the first time I actually wanted to break free from the snow. I couldn't bear the thought of him being a prisoner inside his own body. He has always been my brother. Even when I thought I hated him, I knew I loved him too. I thrashed frantically within my case of snow, and the pain almost blinded me... that was when you sensed me. I was suddenly afraid, so I withdrew."
"You were afraid of us... of me?"
"I was afraid of both. I couldn't face any of you. I was more a dead man than anything else, caro. My mind wasn't working well. I had first been to that strange place, that open church where I had found all my brothers and sisters, and I had said Mass for them. I had then been at Sybelle's apartment and killed her brother. And then I had fell on that roof, my skin burnt and shriveled. Maybe I was mad then, I don't know." I closed my eyes again, feeling Santino's hands on my hair, on my cheeks. I would have never known his love if I had died then. I continued talking, my eyes closed. "It was as if I were walking towards my death already, unable to look back, unable to return. Nothing held me to life... I only called to Benji when I realized the snow was melting and that I was going to burn again. I couldn't endure that pain."
"I wish you had called to me," he said, still stroking my hair. "We would have helped you, I would have helped you." He paused, and I opened my eyes, looking at him. He was still troubled.
"I know," I whispered, feeling tears coming to my eyes. Why had I not called to them that night? I wouldn't have needed Benji and Sybelle's help. I wouldn't have brought them to see Lestat, and Marius wouldn't have turned them into vampires. They would probably be alive now, maybe Sybelle's brother wouldn't have really killed her. I shook the thought away, realizing that Santino was peering closely at me, brushing my tears away with his thumbs.
"Don't cry, ragazzo. I don't like to see you so sad." I nodded, swallowing the rest of my tears. I didn't want to trouble him more.
"I was just thinking of Benji and Sybelle... if I had called to you they would still be alive..."
"If you had called to me your pain would have stopped. Marius and I would have nursed you back to health. That's what is important, Amadeo. I know you loved the children, but now they rest in peace. You cannot start to feel guilty about their deaths again." I nodded, leaning again into his embrace. He always managed to bring me back to reason. His love was all I had ever wanted from life. We stayed like this in silence, I thinking of the Veil and the night I thought I was giving my soul to God, Santino probably thinking of the need to destroy it at once. I would go with him, and I would help him. The Veil had to be destroyed.
"We have to go to Maria's house," I said, suddenly realizing it was late. I was still dressing in a robe. "Would you mind waiting for me, caro? I wish to come with you.. and I don't want to be alone..." I managed a small smile. "When we come back we can call my pilot and arrange our flight to Rome."
While Armand dressed, I went through the newspaper in hope of new information about the Veil and the planned examinations. There was only a short article on rumours about another miracle in Greece, but nothing concrete. But as soon as scientists could present any results about the Veil, the papers would be full of it, retelling the old stories and searching for new. I had so hoped that this would not happen, that mortals would just forget about the Veil as they forgot nearly everything else after some time. The chances had been good that the memory of the incident would fade now that there was all this excitement about the new millennium and the wars that were fought everywhere. But nobody was interested in seeing dead civilians and bombed houses anymore, and the Veil was a welcome distraction from worrying about computer problems and where to spend New Year's Eve. There was an audience that hungered for miracles.
The great danger was of course that traces of Lestat's blood were on the cloth, or that genetic material could be found in the ashes of those who had gone into the sun. I was not sure what could happen if mortals suddenly had proof of the existence of vampires, but there was no doubt that it would hardly make our lives easier. We had to prevent that this happened, and though I was not that happy about Armand going there to see the Veil again, it was necessary to destroy the thing. And if he helped, saw it burn, he might be able to forget about it in time. At least that was what I hoped for.
Armand returned from the bedroom, wearing jeans and a t-shirt as most of the time when we visited Maria. She had no idea what we were, and thought him a charming teenager. I had the feeling that he enjoyed playing that role, even though he usually did not like it to be addressed as "boy" or "young man". He could get really angry about it, and most of the time people who made the mistake to call him "child" did not live to regret it. But with Maria it was different; she could get away with everything.
We did not walk this time but took the car, we were late enough already, and there lay no use in keeping Maria waiting for us. She would stay up past her usual bedtime to see us, and neither of us wanted to tire her.
"Have you called your pilot yet?" I asked, watching with a light nervosity as Armand completely ignored speed limits and traffic lights. My driving style is considered risky by most of the others, but compared to Armand's it is truly harmless.
"Yes, and he will have the jet ready by midnight. Do you want to feed before leaving?"
"It would not be a bad idea, but we can do it at the airport, that will be easiest. Tourists are never missed." Armand nodded in agreement.
"Are you really sure you want to go there?"
"Then why do you want to come with me?" Turning to face me, he touched my cheek with his fingers.
"Because I do not want to leave you alone in this." He hesitated for a moment. "I have to see the Veil again before it is burned."
"We do not necessarily need to destroy it," I said slowly. "It would be enough to take it out of reach of those scientists. If we gave it to Marius or anybody else, or hid it somewhere, that would be sufficient."
"And then it will land in the vaults of the Talamasca some time later." Armand shook his head. "No, we have to make sure that it is gone forever. What if somebody like Dora comes again, to start another crusade because of it? Do you want to be responsible for religious frenzy just because you thought that it would be enough to hide that damned thing somewhere?" I could tell that this agitated him more than he cared to show, and I had to admit that he had a point.
"Of course not." I smiled at him, trying to hide my discomfort. I did not really mind him coming with me to do this, it was the uncertainty of what he might do when he saw the Veil again. That he had only seen a face painted on a cloth on TV was reassuring, but still I could not be sure if it would be the same when he saw the real thing. Maybe I could persuade him not to come with me when I went to destroy it.
Maria was already waiting outside the house when we came, sitting on a small wooden bench, her cat curled up in her lap. Her flowers were blooming in the pots already; Armand and I had helped her to carry them all outside and repot them. The cat jumped down, flicking her tail angrily when Maria rose to greet us. She smiled warmly when she embraced us, and taking our hands she led us to some chairs in the small garden.
The Veil. I would see it again, and then I would help Santino to destroy it. This had to be done, we could not allow the mortal world to examine it closely, to have it not as a sacred relic but as a scientific proof of the existence of vampires. I still shuddered when I heard the legend of the blond angel who brought the Veil from Heaven into Dora's hands. And those videos of Marius and Santino walking through the laboratory, being allowed, strangely enough, even to forbidden zones. And finally, my master and my beloved again, this time taking into their briefcases every piece of cloth and bones that remained from us... from the ones that had faced the sun. We had to destroy those videos too.
But what if the Veil could not be destroyed? What if it had really been God? What if trying to burn it hurt Santino somehow? I was determined to destroy it, to help my lover. But at the same time I was afraid. And I was trying hard to hide this from Santino. I couldn't allow him to go there alone. And I wanted, needed to see the veil before it was burnt. I was aware Santino was worried, but there would be no force on earth to persuade me to leave him alone. I would go there with him.
We arrived at Maria's house, and she welcomed us with the usual warmth. Our skin was cold still, as we had not hunted yet, but a bit of spellbinding was enough for her to believe us to be warm. I was especially careful about this when we visited her. Since my "illness" she was always touching my cheeks and peering into my eyes, making sure that I was not sick again. She still insisted that Santino should have allowed her to take care of me. An she would scold both of us if the night was cold and I was wearing only a T-shirt. So I was always careful to bring also my jacket.
"I must apologize, Maria, for being late," Santino said. He glanced at me briefly and smiled. "Amadeo fell asleep and I had to wait for him to awake."
::Thank you very much,:: I send to his mind. But I was not really annoyed. Maria smiled kindly to me, but then her expression changed to one of worry.
"You look pale, child," she said, taking my hands in hers. "You are not about to get sick, are you?" She turned to look at Santino, and then back at me.
"Don't worry, signora. I am just a bit tired. I stayed in Siena until late last night." She frowned slightly, but then she smiled almost mischievously.
"Maybe you have someone special over there?" she teased. "A girlfriend?" I could feel Santino's mental laughter, though he managed to keep his face straight. I blushed. Maria made me feel like a boy of my mortal age.
"No. I don't have a girlfriend, signora. But Santino does." She turned her attention to him and I watched, amused, as my lover explained Maria why he couldn't bring his girlfriend to meet her.
We stayed with Maria until late, talking about her grandchildren who would come to visit her soon. She asked about Pandora. Maria had met her when I was missing, and then, when Pandora came to make sure we were alright, she had also come here with us. Maria had been delighted when Pandora had provided her with stories about me when a child. I had watched, speechless and blushing, as my lover added a couple of stories to Pandora's tale. Both would have been excellent fictional writers... and I had wanted to kill them. But we had had a great time, as always, at Maria's house.
Santino insisted on driving to Florence, though I assured him I could drive fast enough. That is exactly why I want to drive, he had said, taking the keys from my hand and kissing me. I was tempted to free his hair from the elastic band, but then I thought it better. I didn't want us to have an accident because some hair fell on Santino's eyes.
I settled at his side, watching the road as he sped through the highway. My mind drifted to the Veil again, and I shivered.
"Are you cold?"
"A bit. But it will pass when we have fed." He glanced at me briefly before turning his eyes back to the highway.
"Maria is right, you look pale."
"I always look pale. I was pale even when still mortal."
"You know what I mean. Are you feeling well, Amadeo?"
"Si. Don't worry about me, caro. I am fine." Santino nodded, saying nothing. I closed my jacket, still watching the road, and soon we were arriving in Florence.
Tourist season in Florence; traffic jams from time to time even at this hour, chatting Germans and Japanese everywhere. It was really amazing how many people traveled here at Easter, they kept stepping on each other's toes because there was not enough space on the pavements, and nevertheless enjoyed themselves greatly. Mortals could be so strange. Finding parking space was close to impossible, and I was seriously considering to simply leave the car in the middle of a street and get a new one if it was damaged or stolen until we returned from our mission. Finally Armand spotted a small gap, and even with immortal reflexes and skills it was difficult to maneuver the car inside.
We fed quickly on a pair of young Americans who had come looking for the "real Florence" away from the tourist routes. What they found was death, two more victims to add to the crime rate in this city. They had been fighting, neither of them had wanted to die. I did not care about this, but Armand was reluctant to take his victim. That he usually sought those who wanted to die was something I did not completely comprehend, but I respected his ways of hunting. This night though we had not enough time left to go scanning for his choice of prey.
The pilot was already waiting for us; he told us that we could leave whenever we wanted, all the permissions were already granted. He did not seem surprised that we didn't have any luggage; after working for Armand for nearly ten years now, he probably knew better than to ask questions.
"Where do you think they will keep the Veil?" Armand asked, fastening his seatbelt.
"I am not sure, but if I wanted to examine it without having journalists waiting outside the building, I would do it somewhere in the Vatican." Nodding, he ran a hand through his hair.
"I figured as much. We have to be careful about those security cams. Why didn't Marius and you destroy those tapes before?"
"We did not even know that they existed, or we would have taken care of them already. That there were cameras in the building where they kept the... the ashes of those who stepped into the sun was something we did not think of, or we would have been more careful. But there were so many mortals around guarding the place that we assumed they had no additional security systems."
Those videos were dangerous, a lot more dangerous than every other TV appearance of any of your kind. Lestat's video clips of his songs did not matter, they were believed to be fictional, based on the image he and his band had created. But this time it was not a game, not something that could be said to be the offspring of an inventive mind. Mortals had seen what had happened on the steps of St. Patrick's and everywhere else; they knew that this had been real, not a fantasy. And if they read the books of Lestat, Pandora and Armand, they would find plenty of descriptions of Marius and me, and that vampires had been heavily involved in the whole incident about the Veil. It did not take much for some people to figure out who the mysterious persons on the video tapes were, and then word would spread, and we would all be in a lot of trouble. The last thing I wanted to see were vampire hunters. Maybe I was becoming a little paranoid, but I had found that always assuming the worst and then trying to make the best of it was a rather safe way to live.
The jet took off, and soon the pilot announced that we had reached the necessary height and would land in Rome within half an hour. Armand left his seat to switch on the small TV set, searching for a news channel, but even when he finally found one, there was no mention of the Veil. Fortunately mortals did not think it important enough to inform frequently about the progress and latest news of the examinations. Maybe we were the only two beings who thought of the piece of cloth as worth of their full attention. I really hoped that it was this way.
Armand sank down on his seat again, I could not say if he was tired or simply weary of the situation. Maria had been right, he had looked paler than usual and had also seemed to be cold, but after we had fed this had worn off. I was glad that this did not unsettle him nearly as much as the death of Sybelle and Benji; back then he had been badly shaken, but this time he only seemed to be slightly disturbed. What the Veil meant to him I did not know, maybe it was only a reminder of an unpleasant occurrence in the past and nothing more.
Finally we landed in Rome. I stayed in my seat, not making the slightest effort to move or leave the plane. Save for a brief visit when Daniel was mortal, I had not been in Rome since Santino had sent me to Paris to rule the Coven with Allesandra. After I had left Paris with Louis, I had avoided Rome carefully, not caring to face again the city that had meant pain and loss for me in the past. And it had been painful to follow Daniel here. But so much had happened since then, I couldn't really know what would it mean for me to walk those streets again. I was sure the city was much changed, but old cities always keep something of their past, of the spirit that animated them once.
I looked at Santino, who was waiting for me to follow him, with a questioning look in his eyes. Should I tell him? I had troubled and worried him enough with my memories of New York and the Veil. I didn't want to distract him with the thought that being in the city could upset me. I could seldom hide things from him, he knew me well. But I wanted first to be sure if this was really a problem before talking about this with him.
"Ragazzo?" I smiled, leaving the seat and giving a nervous glance to the door.
"I'm sorry. I was just lost in thought."
"About the Veil?"
"No. Just letting my mind drift." He didn't press and I was grateful for it. We left the plane, and after passing all those boring mortal controls, we left the airport too. A brand new car was waiting for us. I had arranged for it after talking with my pilot. Smiling I gave Santino the keys.
"Would you like to drive this time?" He stared at me for a moment, and then he smiled, taking the keys from me. I took a seat at his side and concentrated on making my face a mask. I looked around as we rode through the streets, waiting at every corner for a bad memory to come. But nothing happened, and much to my relief and surprise I felt at peace.
"What hotel would you prefer?" Santino asked. I looked at him, smiling and still a bit distracted.
"You will have to chose, caro. Apart from a brief visit with Daniel, I have not been here since 1499..." Santino barely missed crashing against another car, so great was the surprise my words had caused to him. With great skill he managed to maneuver the car to safety, and after riding a few minutes in silence, he found a place where he could stop and park the car.
"Why didn't you tell me this before, ragazzo?" I smiled apologetically.
"It didn't seem of consequence. We had to come anyway." I could see he was not at all happy with this. "I followed Daniel here, but after that I never had the opportunity to return..."
"You avoided it." I sighed.
"Yes. But I had to come back at some time, and coming with you is the best I could think of." I leant on him and kissed his cheek. "Forgive me if I surprised you, caro." He looked at me in silence, and then he embraced me and kissed the top of my head. I was relieved when he started the car again.
"Do me a favor, ragazzo."
"Never surprise me like this again." I nodded, and stayed in silence while he drove us to the hotel.
Once in our suite we turned on the TV looking for news about the Veil. And this time we did succeed. It seemed the examinations would begin soon. The laboratory at New York had sent all the material to the Vatican, so we would be able to get rid of the remains after destroying the Veil. Santino pointed out that we should make sure that nothing remained in that laboratory anyway. But that we could do when he had finished our business here.
I wondered if anyone else had heard of this. Maybe my master? He had warned Santino not to come to the Vatican and get hold of the Veil. But maybe he didn't know anything about the new plans mortals had. And Lestat, would Lestat come? I certainly hoped not. He was unpredictable. He could either help us or try to stop us.
We spent the rest of the night trying to find out where exactly the Veil, the ashes and all the files concerning anything that was vaguely connected to them were kept. It was not that difficult to discover, a few phone calls to the right people were all it took, though the head scientist sounded not too happy about the fact that I called him at four o'clock in the morning. The promise that he would receive a great donation to support the researches made him sound a lot more friendly, and more willing to answer questions. Armand had been busy as well, he was better informed about security systems and the schedules of the guards than the guards themselves. He had also worked out a plan already how we could get into the laboratory without having to bother with switching off too many alarms.
I did not feel very good when I thought that Armand had been avoiding Rome until now; it had been my fault, and if anything about the city unsettled him, I was the one to blame. I should have known that he had never been here again except for that short escapade with Daniel, should have known that returning to this place would bring back memories. That he appeared to have put everything behind him was a great relief, but I still was wary in case something caused him to remember an unpleasant occurrence.
The next evening I woke as usual, feeling the familiar form of Armand curled up next to me. I moved closer to him, allowing myself the luxury of dozing until he woke up too. Maybe fifteen more minutes until he would open his eyes, then we would have to carry on with our plans. But until then I could let my mind drift, could enjoy this short moment of peace.
Something was wrong.
A draught was coming from the balcony of the suite, but I could not recall leaving the glass door open. The traffic sounds from outside were too loud... had somebody entered during the day? But that was impossible, wasn't it? We had told the reception that we did not want to be disturbed in any case, and combined with the Do not disturb signs outside the door and the closet that blocked it on the inside, nobody should have been able to enter that way. This left only one other possibility, though I wondered who would have managed to get onto the top balcony of a twelve-story hotel without being noticed.
I opened my eyes, only to find myself nose to nose with a blond-haired demon who was staring at me. Shocked, I backed away, hitting the headboard hard. Rubbing the aching spot on the back of my head, I closed my eyes and tried to convince myself that I was only dreaming this, that I was not fully awake yet. When I blinked again, he was still there, this time with a broad grin on his face.
"You sleep quite long, you know," Lestat said conversationally and sat down on the bed, cross-legged. "I have been waiting for nearly twenty minutes."
"Lestat, has it never occurred to you that some people might not appreciate it to wake up and see you?"
"No, why? Who else would they want to see?" I groaned and buried my head in the pillow, hoping that he would go away. When he had visited us after the incident with Eric, he had driven me crazy with his questions and comments; Lestat was about as apt at coaxing answers out of somebody as the Spanish Inquisition. At least he had more or less left Armand in peace for once.
"Come on, Santo, get out of bed." Shaking my head, I turned to look at him again.
"You're horrible." He gave me an impish, satisfied smile.
"I know. Good evening, Armand." I had not noticed that Armand was already awake; he was staring at Lestat with wide eyes, clearly showing his surprise at finding the Brat in our bedroom.
"What are you doing here?" he asked, stifling a yawn. "I thought you were in New Orleans with Louis."
"I was, and I was not planning to come here and make you happy to see me," Armand and I exchanged helpless looks, "until I heard that they are going to examine the Veil." So that was why he was here, I could have guessed that this was the reason for him to travel that far. "I want to know what those scientists are going to do, and what they find out." He came to his feet in one fluid motion and looked at Armand and me expectantly. "What are you waiting for, get dressed, we have to check out the situation."
We were walking through the darkest streets of Rome, Santino and I, looking for prey. Allesandra had not come with us tonight; she had gone alone her way as he often did lately. The night was chilly, and I was shivering in my already worn clothes. I needed badly to feed. Santino turned to me. "Are you cold, Amadeo?" I nodded, trying to still my limbs. He beckoned for me to approach him and placed an arm around my shoulders. I looked at him, puzzled. He never had done this before. I was his student and he always made sure that I was alright but this... I let him guide me through the street, his closeness so new and so welcomed at the same time. And suddenly he was cupping my face in his hands and he was leaning on me, kissing me. In a daze I realized that he was not dressed in a black robe but in modern clothes, his hair loose and falling over his eyes, brushing my face. He was holding me tighter, deepening the kiss until I was moaning softly in his arms. I clung to him, gasping when he sank his fangs in my neck, and when he pressed my face to his neck I felt his pulse and made two tiny punctures in the soft skin, taking his blood and savoring the taste of him... but suddenly a noise intruded in my happy world and shattered it...
I opened my eyes to find that Lestat was in the room. Santino was speaking, annoyance plain in his tone. Sleepy still I asked Lestat what he was doing in our bedroom and his answer made my heart sink in my chest. He had heard the news, that the Veil was going to be examined by mortal scientists, and he wanted to know what their findings would be. I was not happy with this. What if Lestat tried to prevent us from destroying the Veil? Or worse, what if he showed himself to the mortals and asked to be part of the examinations? I still could remember the stories about the blond angel that went to Heaven and brought the Veil back to earth.
"What are you waiting for, get dressed, we have to check out the situation." He stood in a swift motion, but didn't seem to be about to leave. "What?" he said, when none of us moved from the bed. I sighed in exasperation.
"Could you please wait outside the room, Lestat?" He looked at me blankly and then he started to laugh.
"Come on petit. Don't be so shy..." I was about to say something I might later regret when I felt Santino's hand on my shoulder. He was looking at Lestat.
"Why don't you check on the news while we get dressed, Lestat?" he said in a light tone. Surprisingly enough my dark brother nodded and left the room. I almost laughed.
"You are good," I said, kissing him playfully. Then the dream came to my mind and all I wanted was to stay in bed with him. I kissed him again, this time in a different manner, my pulse quickening just to feel him so close. He held me tight and answered the kiss. And we would have forgotten completely about the Veil if Lestat had not intruded in our minds.
::Can you two please behave?:: He was obviously amused. I blushed while Santino sighed, muttering old curses in Italian. It was clear we would not have privacy or peace until Lestat left.
Soon we were dressed and sitting around the TV set watching the latest news. A few more "miracles" had been reported, all having to do with poor ill people that had recovered health after praying before one of the many copies of the Veil. It was clear that copies of the Veil had been sent to every important church along Europe and America. Even in Japan, were Catholics were only a minority there was a copy of the Holy Face. I remembered reading in David's book, the one where Lestat recorded the experience from his point of view, that new copies could be obtained just by pressing white cloths to the original. I didn't know what to make of this, I had not been around when Lestat wrote that book. I had only come to read it shortly after I left Venice with Santino. He had found me one night, sitting on an armchair with the book on my lap. I had been trembling, unaware that he was there, and he had thrown it to the garbage can. That was when I had discovered that he disliked to talk about the Veil.
A hand against my cheek startled me. Santino's dark eyes were peering at me and I realized that I had been lost in thought again.
"I'm sorry...," I managed to say. "I got distracted. Are we ready to go?" The concern on my lover's face unsettled me. Had he noticed my increasing unease? We had been planning the whole thing last night, and then had been that the realization that I would really see the Veil again had finally hit me. I had managed to design a route we could follow without having to mess too much with the security cams, but I was afraid to see that Veil again. I had managed to hide it from Santino... until now.
"Are you sure you are alright, Amadeo? You've gone pale..."
"He shouldn't go near the Veil again." Lestat said suddenly. "We don't know what we will find down there..." I was enraged.
"What are you talking about? Of course I will go! Who has given you the right to decide for me?"
"Amadeo, calm down." Santino's hands were suddenly on my arms, restraining me. I had left the couch and I was trying to advance on Lestat.
"Let go of me!"
"No. Calm yourself." I sighed in frustration, allowing my lover to take me in his arms. Lestat had stayed silent all the while, but now he talked.
"Alright, cher. Forget about my words." I nodded, annoyed at myself for having lost control. Lestat's face was unreadable as we went through the whole plan on the paper. As for my lover, I dared not look at him. I was aware that my outburst must have alerted him about my increasing turmoil. I shielded my mind carefully, hoping he would think that I was doing it because of Lestat's presence.
We left the hotel and taking a cab we reached the Vatican. Even though it was night, the Piazza del Popolo was still packed with mortals, it would be easy to mingle with the crowd and walk around without being noticed. I had cut my hair short, and so had Lestat. But Santino had left it long and loose. He could not risk being recognized as one of the men in those videos. The Vatican Museum was open, which was unusual, but it allowed us to walk around, getting acquainted with the place, and checking on the presence of security cameras. We avoided them carefully, no need to provide the mortal world with more images of pale young men. We would do it next night. For now we were only three curious mortals, wanting to know more about the Veil.
The presence of so many mortals made me feel extremely uncomfortable; it increased the danger of us being discovered. The Piazza del Popolo was crowded, and we had to be careful when we made our way through the masses of bodies. A careless move, and a mortal could be hurt; I was especially afraid that Lestat would not mind this very much. But we reached the entrance to the Museums without any incidents, and were soon walking through the hallways tiled with marble.
It was so strange to walk through a museum that was opened to other visitors as well; if vampires felt like exploring cultures or just wanted to see if a few of our belongings had made it into a museum, we would pick the lock. This time Lestat bought tickets, annoying Armand greatly when he requested a student reduction for him. I rested my hand on my lover's shoulder to keep him quiet, the last thing we needed right now was the attention of the crowd that surrounded us. Folding the piece of paper Lestat handed me, I slipped it into a pocket fo my jacket, only to have to take it out again when a guard asked us for the tickets.
Once inside, we walked in the direction where most of the mortals appeared to be heading for. Armand had said that the Veil would be exhibited in the Sistine Chapel until tomorrow; the great number of requests to be able to see the cloth again had made the Vatican agree to show it to the public once again before it disappeared in the vaults and laboratories. In the future, they had announced, the Veil would be shown every twenty-five years, like so many of the other relics. Every Holy Year, it would be exhibited together with the Shroud of Turin. It amazed me a little that the faces on the Veil and on the Shroud had not been compared yet; maybe the Church was afraid to have to admit that the features were not the same.
Armand was unusually quiet tonight, I could tell that something was bothering him. At the hotel he had reacted so strongly to Lestat's suggestion that he should not see the Veil again, I suspected that this meant a lot more to him than I had believed. The damned cloth had caused Armand to try to commit suicide once already after he had only looked at it, who could say what would happen this time. What if he would not want it to be burned once he saw it again? I was sure that Lestat and I would be able to destroy the Veil even if Armand should try to stop us, but I did not want to think about the effects this would have on him. If we restrained him, he might not trust us any more, and I did not want to risk that to happen again. Maybe it would really be best if Armand did not come with us. Lestat had not explicitely agreed to our plan yet, but I assumed that even he recognized the danger the Veil presented. Probably he would rather destroy it than risk the exposure of our kind; and if he should not agree on burning it, I could always try to convince him that Louis would be endangered if scientists were able to discover the secrets of our kind.
As if he had read my thoughts - which was very well possible with Lestat, no matter how tightly I shielded my mind - he turned to look at me.
"If the museum is opened tomorrow night as well, we will have to wait with burning the Veil. We cannot destroy it in front of the mortals." Nodding, I quickly looked around to see if mortals had heard what he had just said. It would hardly help if we were arrested because bystanders had witnessed a talk about our plans. That the pictures of Marius and me were constantly being shown on TV and in the newspapers did not make our quest easier, I had to be careful in order not to be recognized.
"What do you think, how long will it take us?" I asked, pretending to be interested in a piece of tapestry that was shown in a glass case.
"Fifteen minutes at most," Lestat answered. ::Disabling the alarms will take up most of the time. If it were not for those damned security cams, we could just rush inside, burn the thing and be out before the guards could react.::
"I thought of that too, but the last thing I need to see are more videos of myself." We moved on with the crowd, guards were only admitting a certain number of visitors into the Sistine Chapel at a time.
"I am still amazed that Marius did not think of that. He has been securing the Shrine of Akasha long enough to know about such things." When Lestat said her name, his face darkened; apparently he still had not gotten over that episode completely. No wonder, he had loved her and had been forced to watch her death.
"We had not much time to plan our actions, or we would have been a lot more careful. ::Marius feared that the ashes of the dead would be taken away, we had to destroy them immediately.::
Again the crowd moved forward, we came to stand close to the doors when the movement stopped. The next time we would be among those who were allowed to enter. I turned to look for Armand, but could not spot him. Alarmed, I scanned for him, but he had to be shielding, I could not find him.
"Lestat, can you see Armand anywhere?" Lestat quickly looked around, then shook his head.
"No. Damn, why did he have to get lost just now?" His eyes unfocused, I could tell that he was searching for Armand. I hoped that he had not slipped into the Chapel without us noticing, I did not want him to be alone when he looked at the Veil. Lestat blinked a few times, then grimaced.
I was walking along with Santino and Lestat towards the Sistine Chapel, surrounded by the crowd of faithful mortals who wanted to see the Veil. My companions were talking about security matters and the time it would take for us to do our task; I could well see that part of their conversation was silent, and even though I could have picked their thoughts easily, I didn't even try. I was afraid. I was about to see his face again, the very face that had bled in front of me, calling silently for me to go to him. And I didn't want to do it again.
A scene at Saint Elizabeth's Orphanage came suddenly to me; the moment when I entered the chapel where Lestat was lying immobile on the floor. I had seen the Holy Face again. I had stopped in front of the altar, and looked up at the Crucifix above Lestat's head, and the image I'd seen on Veronica's Veil had overlaid the face carved in wood. Only Gabrielle's cold stare had prevented me from losing myself. I shivered. What if it happened again? What if it called to me and I couldn't resist? Had it been really God? I knew the Veil had to be destroyed, it was dangerous for us. But still I was afraid.
Lestat's presence was unsettling for me. He had been the one who showed me the Veil, he had seen me collapse on my knees. He didn't want me to go. Damn him! Somewhere in the back of my mind I knew he meant well, he wanted to protect me, maybe make up for not pulling me along with him when I announced I was going to die. But then he had been in a wretched state, the same as me. We both had been victims of whatever power the Veil had.
I sneaked my way into the chapel, while Santino and Lestat were absorbed in their plans. I had to see the Veil again without witnesses. I had to make sure it didn't affect me again. And if it did affect me, I had to make sure my lover never knew. I didn't want to let him alone in this. I wanted to help, to give him whatever support I could, even if it meant to stand silent as his side as he burnt the Veil.
I mesmerized the guards easily enough. They thought I was coming with an old lady that was walking in front of me. I was finally inside, looking up at the beautiful paintings on the ceiling, as every mortal around me did. I had never seen them before, but I was sure that even if I had, I would still stare in wonder at the magnificence of Michelangelo's art. But the same as the mortals around me, I looked now in front of me, to the altar where a severe God was imparting justice among the mortal souls. The painting was slightly darkened, due to the smoke of the candles so close to it. But it was beautiful anyway.
And then was that I saw it, on the altar, protected behind a glass, the Veil.
I froze at once. The whole chapel disappeared and I was in that ancient place again, in Jerusalem. In the very place where the Lord had carried his cross, stumbling and falling repeatedly on the dust. I closed my eyes, shaking and pressing my fingers to my temples. This could not be happening again. Not now, not in front of the mortals, not when Lestat or Santino could appear at my side at any moment. I heard someone talking to me, the same mortal woman that the guard had believed to be my mother.
"Child, are you alright?" I opened my eyes, forcing my body to stop trembling. The chapel was back. "Do you want me to call someone?" The lovely lady was still peering at me. Thanks God she didn't take my hands or the coldness of my skin would have shocked her.
"There's no need, signora," I said, exerting all my power to assure her I was alright. "Grazie. I'm fine." She smiled at me, and she turned to the Veil. I sighed in relief. But I didn't want to see the Veil again. It had been enough.
I let the crowd move me forward and then we turned and started our way to the exit, while a new group came into the place. I felt my lover's touch in my mind.
::Ragazzo! Are you alright?:: He was frantic. I wondered if any of them had felt my distress. I hoped not. I would have to explain myself anyway. I tried to assure Santino that everything was alright. But Lestat's mind voice intruded in my head.
::What did you think you were doing, Armand? Now stay where you are. We are coming your way.::
Lestat and I entered the Sistine Chapel, and slowly made our way towards the Veil. I did not look at the famous murals, though had I come on a normal night, they could have kept me occupied me for hours. Tonight I paid no attention to Michelangelo's work but to the security systems that were all around us. Cameras, alarms, movement sensors - switched off at the moment, of course - they had installed the full set. I had never before seen a room that heavily guarded.
I could sense Armand waiting for us at the exit of the Chapel, why had he entered without us? Had he been afraid that we would witness his reaction when he saw the Veil again? He had said that everything was alright, but something had been wrong. He had been trying to reassure me too hastily, had said that he had seen nothing extraordinary before I had even asked. I had the feeling that he had been lying to me, but I could hardly ask him if my suspicions were true.
"Have you seen anything in Armand's mind? Anything... unusual?" I asked Lestat, secretly hoping that the answer would be negative.
"He was unsettled," Lestat answered, his eyes on the glass showcase. "Who would have thought that I would see the Veil again under these circumstances..." I sighed, I had been prepared that Lestat would forget most things around him as soon as he saw the Veil again. Wonderful. Here we were, three vampires come to destroy the Veil, and two of them were mesmerized by merely looking at it. Really, really great. Armand must have seen something, or he would not have been upset. He certainly did not think that Lestat and I would be angry at him for not waiting for us before entering the Chapel. No, he had seen something in here, and was trying to keep it a secret.
The idea of taking Armand with us when Lestat and I came to destroy the veil seemed worse and worse with every minute. What if they both fell under the spell the cloth seemed to have over them? I doubted that I would be able to get both of them out again. Maybe I should go completely on my own, apparently I was the only one of us to whom the Veil only was a piece of linen that had destroyed too many lives. Suddenly I wished I had called Marius or Pandora for help, they would certainly have been unaffected by it too. But it was too late for that now, Pandora was off to Oslo, and Marius still was with that druid friend of his. It would take them several nights to come here, and we did not have that time.
I finally turned to look at the Veil, and was not surprised to find that it was nothing special. I had only seen it on TV and in newspapers before, but the impression was the same. A dirty piece of yellowish-white cloth, with a face of what could be blood imprinted on it. I almost laughed. This was what had rendered a fourth of the world's population ready to start a crusade. This tiny piece of linen with stains on it that would be gone as soon as the cloth was dipped into water, this thing had caused deaths. What had they all seen?
Shaking my head, I grabbed Lestat's arm and dragged him towards the exit. I did not want to stay in this room any longer, the sight of the Veil was disgusting. Lestat followed me without any resistance. He could have easily resisted or freed himself, but he let me do it and only shook my hand off seconds before Armand came into view.
Leaving Lestat's side, I went to Armand, trying to see if he was truly alright. I touched his hands, his cheeks, had to confirm myself that he was not hurt. He seemed paler than usual, perhaps because we had not yet fed tonight, though I doubted that this was the reason. I tried to carefully scan his mind, but he was shielding so tightly that he would have noticed if I had pressed to find out what he was thinking. This was unusual, he hardly ever found it necessary to veil his thoughts in my presence. Was he doing it because of Lestat? Then again, Lestat could easily read his thoughts if he chose to do so. There had to be another reason, and I strongly suspected that it had to do with the Veil.
I deliberately dropped my shields completely, which earned me a surprised look from Lestat, and again touched Armand's cheek.
::What is wrong? Why are you shielding?:: I asked him as soon as he turned his face to me.
"I am perfectly alright," Armand answered; I had so hoped that he would use mind talk, that would have enabled me to get a quick look at his thoughts. He didn't fall for my old tricks anymore, I realized; I would have to get some new ones.
Santino's arm was around my shoulder as we walked in silence through the streets of Rome. He was holding me close, and I welcomed the feeling of safety his mere presence was bringing to me. I was still disturbed. Why had I seen that face again? Had I been hallucinating? Had it been God? The devil? My head throbbed. I was confused and sad. I had believed myself strong enough to face the Veil again. Oh, I had been afraid. But at the same time I had hoped my fear was only a remnant of those dreadful nights in New York. I had been wrong.
My lover had tried to peer into my thoughts as soon as he came out of the Chapel, he had even dropped his shields in front of Lestat to have me drop mine. But I had assured him once more that I was alright. I was sure he didn't believe in my words. He kept stroking my hair, touching my cheeks and casting me questioning glances that I had ignored completely. I knew he wouldn't ask his questions in a direct manner until we were back at our room. And I feared that moment because I doubted I would be able to lie to him about the Veil. I was afraid. I had completely lost myself when I had seen it on the altar. The whole nightmare had come over me again.
We fed quickly and then we took a cab and returned to the hotel. We needed to make a couple of adjustments to our plan. Lestat had spotted a tiny security cam concealed behind the altar. It would take some seconds to disable it, and then we would be able to destroy the Veil.
Lestat would go with us. He had taken a suite not far from ours before we left for the Vatican. He has always been an early riser so he had arranged it all even before Santo was awake. I looked at him while he was talking about timing and similar matters with us. He didn't seem to be affected by having seen the Veil again. He just seemed sad, maybe a bit moody. But that was all. It had to be painful for him to relive those dreadful moments when he escaped from Memnoch's lair. He had lost an eye trying to bring it back to the Earth. At least he had it back.
A couple of hours before dawn, Lestat left for his room, not without trying to convince me, once again, that I should stay at the hotel. I had managed to hold my anger at bay, but his words had unsettled me. I failed to save you once, petit. This time I will make sure you are safe. My heart sank in my chest. Would he try stop me, to force me to stay? Santino had been silent all the while, looking at me warily as if ready to intervene if I lost my temper or Lestat upset me. I knew what was going on in his mind. He was as worried for me as Lestat was, maybe even more.
"Ragazzo..." Santino's voice brought me back to the moment and away from my musings. I turned to look at him and I realized that he would ask his questions now. I didn't wait for him to do it.
"I wasn't affected by the Veil," I said. "As you can see I am here, and I don't feel any urge to go out and face the sun." He didn't talk immediately. He looked steadily at me, studying my face, and seeming to be carefully pondering his next words.
"I want you to stay here, Amadeo..."
"Tomorrow when I go to destroy the Veil I want you to wait here for us. I will go with Lestat..."
"No!" I rose up from the chair and he raised a hand, asking for silence. When he spoke again his voice sounding so convincing that I would have complied if this had been a less important matter.
"It will be for the best, caro. It has disturbed you to see that cloth again... to see the Veil," he paused, placing both hands on my shoulders, and then he touched my cheek with his fingers. "You are cold even though you have fed, and that is because you are distressed."
"I'm not distressed!" I turned my back on him, breaking eye contact, not wanting him to see the trembling of my hands, of my lips. "I want to go there, I need to go." I felt my lover's hands on my shoulders, his soft lips brushing my temple.
"Ragazzo, try to understand. I am worried for you... I don't want you to be hurt."
"You don't trust me!" I was suddenly angry, so angry that I wanted to strike at him. How could he do this to me? How could he believe I would fail him? Santino came to stand in front of me and cupped my chin in a hand.
"Of course I do. This is not a matter of trust, this is..." I shook his hand off, walking away from him.
"Don't try to give me that crap now! If you don't want me there it only means that you don't trust me to help you with this!" Anger flared in his eyes now.
"Amadeo, try to be reasonable! You are acting like a child!"
"I don't want to be reasonable! We came here to do this together and now you dismiss me just because Lestat has said I shouldn't go near the Veil?"
"Lestat has nothing to do with my decisions!"
"Your decisions? You can't decide on my life! You can't prevent me from going there!"
"I will do it if I must." I stared at him, speechless. He didn't want me at his side! He didn't trust me. I walked past him and sat on the bed. I was feeling the pull of the death sleep in my limbs. I embraced a pillow and lay on the bed, still angry at him
"I will go, no matter what you say, no matter what you do. I will go." He was silent, looking at me with his beautiful eyes. I realized that I was more hurt than angry. "You think I'm mad. You think I will try to stop you from destroying the Veil. You don't trust me at all!" I stopped, catching my breath and holding the tears at bay. "Maybe I am mad. I tried to kill myself over it after all. And I saw that bleeding face again if you must know." I laughed bitterly. "I don't know what's behind the Veil, what power it holds over me. But I wanted to be there for you." I closed my eyes, unable to hold his gaze anymore, still clutching the pillow. I longed to be in my lover's arms, but I was not going to ask for it tonight. I was still hurt.
I watched Armand in silence, pondering my next move. That he accompanied Lestat and me was impossible, especially after he had finally admitted that he had seen the bleeding face again. The timing would be crucial, Lestat had calculated that it would be possible for us to slip inside without having to switch off more than three security cams and alarms if we were fast enough. If Armand hallucinated again, he would present a danger to the plan, and that was a risk we could not take.
It had shocked me to see Armand so angry, this had never happened before. Sadness, grief, confusion, these things I knew how to deal with, but anger and frustration were new. Whenever Armand was under control of his emotions, it was hard to know how he would react, and right now I was moving through uncharted terrain. I felt like crossing a minefield, and this annoyed me. Why couldn't he simply accept that I was worried for him, and that I feared for his safety?
"Ragazzo, please," I pleaded.
"No! What gives you the right to decide for me? I am not a child!"
"I would not be so sure about that, you certainly act like one." I was struggling to keep my voice level, this infuriated me more than I cared to admit.
"I thought you loved me." Irritated, I looked at him.
"What has that got to do with this?" Armand did not meet my eyes, only clutched to the pillow more tightly.
"If you loved me, you would not forbid me to go there."
"Amadeo, I do not want you to be there exactly because I love you!" He laughed bitterly.
"You really expect me to believe that?"
::Trouble?:: I sighed, having to keep Lestat out of my head while trying to concentrate on arguing with Armand was the last thing I needed.
::No. Haven't you got anything else to do? There must be some nonsense you haven't tried yet.::
::Oh, aren't we testy tonight... :: He sounded a little amused. :: I just wanted to know if Armand is going to come with us tomorrow.::
::Not if I can help it,:: I shot back. ::I will meet you as soon as I am awake.::
::And now get out of my head.:: Lestat chuckled, then broke the contact. I looked at Armand, he was still lying on the bed, had turned his back on me. He was occupying most of the bed, but I did not feel like sleeping next to him anyway. A little distance was what I needed, to form a few ideas into a suitable plan.
The hour until dawn was spent in awkward silence. A few times I was close to apologizing, to tell him that if this really meant so much to him we would find a way to take him with us. But on the other hand I was angry that he had accused me of not trusting him, of trying to control him. I had believed he would be able to understand why I did not want him to come with Lestat and me, but apparently he did not want to hear my reasons. The whole situation was frustrating, and not for the first time I wished we had not got involved into this at all. I should have told Marius to take care of this, if I had had my way that night in New Orleans, the Veil would have been burned long ago. It was never wise to ignore a danger just because it was not imminent.
I finally settled on the couch for the day, a half-formed plan in my mind. Armand would not like it at all, but I did not see any other way. Casting the already sleeping figure a last look, I closed my eyes.
The next evening I woke a little disorientated and with the feeling that I needed to shower; I had slept in my clothes, something I detested. The familiar pressure of Armand's body against mine was missing too. I had not noticed that I had already become so used to it. Quickly checking on Armand, who was still fast asleep, I showered, dressed and was knocking at the door of Lestat's suite five minutes later.
He looked a little surprised to see me alone, and I could see that he was scanning for Armand to know if he was alright. Smiling, Lestat shook his head.
"I did not think you would just leave him alone."
"Have you got a better idea?" I snapped; last night's fight still unsettled me. Lestat threw up his hands in exasperation.
"Peace, Santo. I was just commenting on an unusual occurrence." I shot him a warning glare, and hoped he would keep his mouth shut. Right now I did not want to think on what happened, or how hurt Armand would be when he discovered that he was alone.
"Are you ready to go?" I asked, trying to concentrate on what we were about to do. Lestat nodded, and we left the hotel. Yesterday night we had agreed that flying to the Vatican was not an option; there were so many people around that it would be impossible to land somewhere without being noticed. So we relied on the old-fashioned human ways of transport and got a cab.
Lestat produced a crumpled piece of paper from his jacket and showed it to me. A plan of the Sistine Chapel, with small circles that indicated the areas covered by the security cams. A small corridor remained in the middle, only open for a few seconds, but that would be enough. Only the camera installed behind the altar was giving us a headache, we needed to disable it. But when it didn't transmit its pictures any more, the guards would be alarmed. We had estimated that we had maybe a minute to get inside, burn the Veil and get out again before we were seen.
::You see, as soon as we have destroyed the Veil, we just run:: Lestat explained. ::It will be impossible to recognize us on videos if we move as fast as we possibly can. All that will be visible is a blur, nothing more.::
::We should leave a few traces behind to indicate that whoever burned the cloth is human and not anything supernatural. I do not want to start another wave of religious frenzy.:: Nodding in agreement, Lestat leaned back in the seat and closed his eyes.
"Armand is awake," he said finally. "And from the feel of it you should better think of a good explanation for why you left him behind." I sighed, I had expected that Armand would be angry.
"He will not believe me, no matter what I tell him. He does not want to listen to anything I say."
After a minute of silence, Lestat spoke again.
"You know that I lost a bet because of you." I gave him an inquiring look, and he smiled. "You seemed to get along so well, I thought you wouldn't have a serious fight for another year." He shrugged. "Pandora apparently knows you better than me, she gave you eight months." I was about to tell him that I did not like to be the subject of a bet when the cab stopped in front of the entrance to the Vatican.
I was bitter and sad when I finally drifted into sleep. I couldn't understand why Santino didn't want me to go with him. It was true that I had seen that bleeding face. But I had been able to snap out of it. Why couldn't he trust me! I sighed. I knew he was angry. I had said things hurtful to him, and I already regretted it. Somewhere in the back of my mind I knew he might be right in wanting me to stay, and I certainly knew that he was worried. But it hurt that he had thought of leaving me behind, even before knowing that I had seen that living face again.
My day sleep had been no relief for me. It had been plagued with nightmares, the same scenario repeated again and again in my dreams. I was walking in the same dusty path, in the same ancient Jerusalem where Christ had carried his cross. I had seen him one more time. And again he had rejected me, throwing me away with the force of his will. I shuddered, my eyes still closed. I had not told Santino about this. I had only mentioned the bleeding face. If he had known the complete truth he would have been reassured in his decision to keep me away from the Veil. Maybe he was right. Maybe I should stay at the hotel.
Eyes still closed, I extended a hand, expecting to find my lover's body close to mine. But I was alone. My eyes snapped open and I realized that Santino was not in the suite. He had left already for the Vatican! He had taken advantage of the fact that he awakes before me to leave me behind. Tears sprang to my eyes at once. Why had he left me alone? Why had he not waited for me to awake before leaving? But hurt was replaced with anger when I realized he had left with Lestat. I was furious. Lestat had been the one who had started this! He had been the one who said for the first time that I shouldn't go near the Veil.
I left the bed, trembling with anger and frustration. The rational part inside me knew that they had done what was best. Precision and speed were needed for our plan to be a success, and if the Veil affected me I would hardly be of help. I would slow them down. But what if the Veil was really something supernatural? What if it was really the face of Christ? What if it could not be burnt? Santino was in danger then. I didn't trust Lestat to take him out of there. He had done nothing when I had tried to kill myself.
I took a quick shower, and hurried out of the hotel. I didn't bother to cut my hair. It wasn't necessary anymore. I knew the path I had to take to avoid those security cams. After all I had made the first draft of their location in the Chapel. I had not paid much attention when Lestat had made a couple of adjustments after our visit, but I was sure I would be able to spot any unexpected device.
I took a cab to the Vatican. I remembered we had agreed on using mortal means to get to the Chapel. Too many mortals around, too many people had come to the city in hopes to see the Veil. I shivered as the images of the dusty path filled again my mind. I could not shake off the nightmarish images, could not shake off the fear. What was wrong with me? I was the only one who had seen that bleeding face. Not even Lestat, who had lain immobile for so many months had seen the face came alive. Maybe I was mad.
But what if the power behind the Veil was a real thing? What if it wasn't God but some sort of demon, some evil spirit with enough power to send these images to me? When I had been in the Chapel, standing in front of the Veil, I had not seen only the bleeding face, but the images that I had seen in Lestat's mind when I had drunk from him.
The cab reached the Vatican. Shielding my mind completely I made my way past annoying tourists and priests. I had to go inside! I had to be there even if Santino had wanted me out of this. I had to see the Veil for the last time. And I had to see it burn. It was not a matter of childish pride. My own sanity was at stake.
Lestat and I rushed through the empty corridors, our feet making no sound on the marble tiled floor. From time to time Lestat would take to the air, carrying me in his arms and flying close to the ceiling to avoid a particularly nasty camera or infra-red alarm system. It was amazing what devices mortals could think of to keep others out of their property. At the time when I had still been alive, all we had had were locks and mainly bolts. Security systems had improved tremendously, and usually I was grateful about it. They helped us to stay safe in our daytime sleep, after all. But tonight I could have gladly lived without them, the various alarms were an absolute nuisance.
We reached the entrance to the Sistine Chapel, and went through our plan one last time, trying to detect any faults before it was too late.
::As soon as I switch off the altar camera with my mind, we have to hurry:: Lestat said. ::We have a minute to do what has to be done and get out until the guards arrive.::
::I know:: I answered, we had mentally played through our plan often enough. ::Are you really sure that there are no additional protections around the Veil?::
::I couldn't see any.::
::Then let's hope your eyes are not deceiving you.::
One last time we scanned the surrounding rooms for guards or any others who might be around. We did not find any mortals. But there was a vampire near. Lestat muttered a curse, and I felt like swearing as well when I noticed who was here.
"I thought he would not be awake for half an hour," Lestat hissed, "How did he get here that fast?"
"Don't ask me, I have no idea. Lestat, we have to get this done before he is here! He probably does not even know of the security cams they installed yesterday." Lestat cursed again, this time in a French dialect that made it hard for me to understand what he was saying. But I could guess what it meant.
I scanned for Armand once again, and was not surprised to find him moving towards us so fast, he had to be running. Lestat must have sensed it as well, he nodded at me and closed his eyes.
"Are you ready?" he asked.
"Yes. Don't forget about the other cameras."
"I won't. Alright... altar cam is disabled."
Quickly we opened the door, the small security lock they had installed here presented no problem at all.
"Fifty-five seconds", Lestat told me.
I entered first, he was right behind me. Carefully I passed the other cameras, in my mind tracing the way I had to take to remain invisible. Half of the chapel we had crossed already when I felt a tentative touch of Armand in my mind.
::Ragazzo, stay where you are!::
Lestat suddenly landed in front of me, he had taken to the air again rather than maneuvering through the small corridor we could use. He quickly turned, and I could see that he was blacking out a hidden camera that had been about to turn into our direction.
"Alright. I can sense a few mortals coming our way."
"How many?" Lestat was concentrating on disabling an infra-red system, he could not let himself be distracted.
"Four, and three more are down in the cellars."
"Wonderful. Thirty-five seconds."
We were close to the Veil already, and would move behind the altar to avoid all danger of being hit by splinters should the glass showcase explode in the heat. We could not risk leaving blood behind.
Armand was coming closer, I could feel that he had nearly reached the entrance of the Sistine Chapel already. Why had he followed us? I had so hoped that he would understand why Lestat and I had wanted him to stay at the hotel once he had slept over it. But the urge to see the Veil again must be driving him.
::Santino, I want to see the Veil again, I need to see it!::
"Twenty-five..." Lestat counted, took one last look at the Veil and then moved behind the cover the altar would provide us with. I followed him, ignoring the damned cloth. I did not want to see it again, the only sight I craved right now was a pile of ashes in that glass showcase.
"Twenty. We have to hurry."
"Alright. Are you ready to burn it?" Lestat hesitated for the fraction of a second, then nodded. "Very well." I could feel the sudden heat the showcase was radiating, Lestat had begun his assault on the Veil. I was about to help him when I spotted Armand in the entrance.
"I told you I have to see it again!" He made his way towards us, skillfully avoiding the cameras.
Smoke was coming from the Veil, but it did not catch fire easily. The fringes were singed, and one edge was scorched. Lestat concentrated harder, and the first flames were appearing.
Armand sped up, he seemed to want to see the Veil from as close as possible. He ducked under an infra-red alarm, and ran fully into the second. In the whole building the alarms went off.
"Wonderful!" Lestat hissed, his teeth clenched. "Just what we needed! We have ten more seconds, then we have to be out of here!"
I was almost there, close enough to see the Veil for the last time. I had spotted the new alarms that had been installed, and so I easily avoided the first one. But then I looked up at the Veil, all in a fraction of a second, and that was when I ran fully into the last alarm. The face had come alive again. I froze, but the next second the Veil caught fire, and the vision disappeared. I found myself avoiding the glass shards that came directly toward my face.
Santino and Lestat came running from behind the altar and my dark brother caught me in his arms, taking briefly to the air while my lover sped through the chapel. Looking down, I saw Santino let something fall to the floor, a crumpled paper, and what seemed to be a pair of gloves. Something to distract the mortals. Let them look for the owner of that map, let them think it had been a mortal who had violated the peace of the Chapel and destroyed the Veil.
Once outside the place Lestat landed on the tiled floor without letting go of me. He was moving so fast that soon everything around me was a blur. I could feel mortals coming, rushing through long corridors, but they were not fast enough, and we had left before they had had the opportunity to even feel the cold rush of air we were leaving behind.
Once outside the Vatican Lestat set me on my feet and we rushed through the streets until we had left behind the frenzied activity my presence in the Chapel had brought about. I didn't dare to look at Santino. I was sure he was angry that I had come, and worse that I had ran into that alarm. He had been right all the time about one thing, I couldn't be trusted to help in this. The Veil affected me, had affected me again, it held some power over me. Or I was just mad. But it was over, the Veil was destroyed, and the risk that the mortal world discovered about us was gone.
We walked in silence for a while. I was waiting for Lestat to start talking, I expected him to say that I had almost ruined it all, that I could not be trusted, that I was mad. That I was a child. But he said nothing. I felt his gaze on me a couple of times, his mind touching mine gently. But the storm I was waiting for never came. I wouldn't have been able to withstand it.
Santino was silent. He had placed his arm around my shoulders, and I welcomed the comfort of his closeness. But I knew he would not talk in front of Lestat. I was too weary to do anything but walk at his side. I couldn't even form a coherent thought, or draw a conclusion about my own state of mind. I couldn't decide if what had happened to me in New York, at Dora's apartment, or now in the Chapel, was enough proof that I was mad. I didn't know.
"We have to take care of the ashes in that lab in New Orleans," Santino said suddenly. Lestat nodded, a knowing look in his eyes.
"I will take care of that.," Lestat said. "It has to be done tonight, so every trace of us is gone before the sun rises again." Santino nodded, and he fell silent again, seeming to be pondering about his next words.
"The videos. There must be copies of them all around the world," he said. "We will have to rely on mortals' forgetfulness. If we destroy some of them they'll just look for the others, and become more suspicious than they already are." Lestat smiled sadly.
"They will forget in time. They always do." He stopped walking and looked at the sky. "I should be going," he said. He turned to me. "It's over, Armand. Now it's really over. You must try to forget as I will try to put this behind." I looked away, saying nothing. It hurt so much, but then I knew Lestat was right. He approached me and kissed my cheek. "Good-bye, petit." Then he said farewell to Santino and swiftly took to the air.
As soon as my dark brother was out of sight, Santino turned to me, cupping my chin in his hand and looking attentively into my eyes. I held his gaze for a moment and then I closed my eyes, going into his arms. His hands stroked my hair, and his lips were soft on my forehead. I sighed.
"Are you alright, ragazzo?"
"I don't know. I am sorry. I almost ruined it all."
"It's over now." I shook my head.
"No. It's not over. I saw that face again, and that is why I couldn't avoid running into the last alarm. And yesterday, in the Chapel, I saw that place... Jerusalem. I saw Christ carrying the cross along that dusty path. That was the vision I had when I drank from Lestat." I paused, looking into Santino's beautiful eyes. "Am I going insane? I can't... I don't know what is happening to me. The Veil is gone, and seeing it burn has brought some measure of peace to my mind. But I am still afraid. I'm the only one that sees that bleeding face. I don't want to go mad." I started to tremble and my lover's arms tightened around me.
"You are not going mad, ragazzo. There are many possible explanations for what happened to you. Back then in New York it could have been exhaustion, or your previous life with the monks, or even the fact that you were worried for Lestat. And now," he paused, touching my cheeks, "you still carry the scars of what happened to you. You were lonely and hurt for months in that case of snow. You were afraid. But the scars will fade in time. I love you. I will be here for you." I felt tears coming to my eyes, but I swallowed them, I didn't want to cry. I rested my head on my lover's chest, and concentrated on listening to his heartbeat, trying to stop the trembling of my limbs. Everything was over. The Veil was no more. Santino was safe. I only wanted to go home.
I was holding Armand, trying to calm him once again. He was trembling, and seeking body contact, a sure sign that he was unsettled. This had happened much too often since we had been traveling together, one could only take so many emotional blows. Armand's nerves had always been raw, I hoped he would be able to get over this. It worried me that he said he was fearing that he was going mad; he would lose his mind if he only believed firmly enough in his own insanity. I tried to talk him out of it, to offer him an explanation for his visions that sounded not too irrational.
The thought of going home was coming from his mind; I was not sure if he meant the hotel or returning to our house. But right now it did not matter anyway; it was practically impossible to have the plane ready in time to reach Florence before dawn. No, there was no need to rush anymore, we had all the time of the world now. And Armand looked as if he could need some hours of peace to think about what had happened. I still was not sure how he had taken it that the Veil was gone; that it had upset him was clear, but I could only guess what he thought about it.
"Ragazzo," he looked at me slowly, "I am sorry for what I said last night. We should have taken you with us."
"You were right in not allowing me to come with you. I have almost ruined it all." I shook my head, trying to find a way to express what I wanted him to know and finally giving up on words. I dropped my shields, let him see how much I regretted what had been said between us and that I had simply left without waiting for him to wake.
Armand smiled a little, and reached to touch my cheek. I leaned my head against his palm, feeling his cool skin.
"I am sorry..." He laid his finger on my lips
"I know." There was a glitter in his eyes, and I noticed that he was paler than usual. He had not fed yet tonight, I realized, he must have rushed from the hotel directly to the Sistine Chapel. Immediately I started to scan for suitable victims; I was beginning to feel the hunger as well now that the tension was gone. There was no need to starve; we would feed and then return to the hotel to rest. And tomorrow we could leave the city and all its religious frenzy behind.
Hunting in Rome was easy, the city had not changed much since the sixteenth century. Thieves, whores, cut-throats, they all still lived in the same areas as always. They had probably already been there when Marius and Pandora were still alive. Maybe I would ask them sometime if I was right about this.
We soon crossed the path of a prostitute; she was looking for customers as we were looking for prey. The woman was more than willing to come with us. She was thinking that we looked rich, and if we took her to our hotel room, she might be able to steal a few things to improve her disastrous financial situation. And so she looked positively disappointed when she was dragged into a dark alley suddenly.
Armand and I shared her, he fed from the neck while I took her wrist. Soon she was swooning and would have sunken to the dirty ground if Armand had not held her upright. The more we drained her, the more intense I could feel Armand drinking from her; it was as if something was pulling the blood away from the wound I had created. I let him have most of the blood, he needed it more than I did, to soothe his nerves.
After she died we hid the corpse in the sewage system; the rats would make sure that there was not much of it left to identify the woman or to determine how she had died. We walked back to the hotel; my arm around Armand, his head resting against my shoulder. He was much calmer now, I did not have to touch his mind to know this; feeling his body was enough. The trembling had stopped, and he was as warm as he should be after feeding.
When we reached the hotel we went to our suite; for once I actually went to the reception to fetch the keys to the room instead of mentally picking the lock as usual. Armand was already waiting for me in the elevator, keeping the sliding doors open with his hand. I joined him, and he pressed the button for our floor.
"It is over," he said in a low voice when the door closed. "It is really gone." I took him in my arms and kissed him gently.
"Yes, ragazzo. No more Veil. No more religious frenzy about a piece of cloth." He gave me a blank look, then leaned into the embrace again.
It was over, really over. All that chapter of my life was gone, there were no traces left. First, Marius had taken Benji and Sybelle from me, then my children had died. And now the Veil was gone. It was as if nothing had happened, as if everything had been a dream. And yet I knew it had been real. I had seen the face on the cloth come alive. But it didn't matter now. It was gone and I was still walking the earth, as I'd been doing since Marius brought me through.
I sighed, still in my lover's embrace. This earned me a worried look from Santino, but I smiled at him. I wanted to put it all behind me, I wanted to live without chains. His words had had a calming effect on me, had made me realize that what really mattered was that I was alive, and that I wanted to live. What did it matter if it had been God or a demon? If it had been the Lord, he had rejected me. And if it had been an evil spirit, it was gone. Life here on earth was all that I had, all that I wanted was Santino with me. His love was all I needed to live. Holding him tight I opened my mind for him. I wanted to stop being afraid, I wanted to enjoy life, to be at home with my lover and forget about the Veil.
The sliding doors opened and we stepped out of the elevator. I waited for Santino to open the lock of our suite, faintly surprised that he was actually using the keys. He seemed to be tired. I started to wonder how much he had taken when we had shared the kill. His face was slightly gaunt. Was it from hunger? The paleness of his skin contrasted with his thick eyelashes and dark eyes. But his mouth was distracting me. I wanted so much to kiss him and make him mine.
We entered the suite, and Santino discarded his jacket, tossing it on a chair. His well formed body showed underneath the silk fabric, and again I found myself staring at him. He noticed and caressed my cheek. Then he drew me closer.
"I love you," I said. He smiled at me, and sliding a hand to the back of my neck he pulled me into a kiss. I shivered when his lips touched mine. I had so missed his closeness even if we had been separated only for a few hours, I had missed sleeping and waking next to him.
::Ti amo, ragazzo. Don't be afraid anymore.::
::We are together, that's all that matters.::
I slid my hands under his shirt, touching the now warm skin, I wanted to feel him closer, to lose myself in his arms, to close my eyes and feel his hands touching me. My jacket was being discarded and when Santino's fingers reached for the buttons of my shirt I shivered once more. Pulling me closer to him, he started planting kisses on my bare chest, sucking softly at my nipples. I was almost ripping his shirt off in shreds. Finally I managed to get rid of it, and when Santino gathered me close again my whole body trembled at the mere touch of his skin.
I bared my neck for him. I wanted him to take my blood, to make me feel that closeness that only vampires can feel, the complete union of bodies and minds. He sank his fangs in my neck and I moaned in pleasure, my knees weakening so fast that he picked me up in his arms, still drinking from me. Somehow we reached the bedroom and when I opened my eyes I was lying on the bed, and Santino was unfastening the buckle of my belt and sliding my pants down my legs. He made his way up kissing every conceivable place of my naked body, and when he reached my mouth he pierced his tongue with his fangs and let me drink from him. I was caught in a spiral of light and sensations, and I let myself be drawn into it until I thought I would die of bliss.
::Ragazzo...:: My hands were working on his pants and soon he was naked and on top of me, the feeling of his skin against mine rendering me helpless, unable to do anything but moan and pull him closer to me. His beautiful hair was loose, the dark mass of curls framing those mesmerizing eyes. He pulled me up in a loose embrace and again made his way down my chest and belly until he reached my organ and took me in his mouth. I almost screamed in ecstasy as he suckled gently, drawing the blood out of me.
::Santino... ti amo...:: He had withdrawn, and rolling over the mattress he had pulled me up to his chest and he was kissing me, letting me taste my own blood. His nails on my back were leaving small trails of blood and the scent of it surrounded us and I went wild, sinking my fangs in his neck and moaning as the first draught passed through my lips. His hands were now on my buttocks, drawing me close and letting me drink with complete trust. His blood was sweet, and his body was pliant under my hands. I kissed him once again, and the wave of sensations that flooded my mind almost overwhelmed me. Being loved like this was new for me, and I wasn't sure that I deserved it. But this happiness was the only thing that made eternal life worth living.
It did so good to know that Armand had got over this, that he no longer was afraid of the Veil, and of what it represented to him. Finally I could clear my mind of all that worrying about precautions, of the need to plan, to find a strategy. It had been so tiring, but now it was over. All that mattered was Armand, how he looked, sounded, tasted. Life had become simple and enjoyable once again. I had the feeling that we had really deserved peace after all we had gone through.
When Armand withdrew from my neck I moaned, disappointed that he would not take more. His lips, tasting of my blood, were on my mouth; hungrily I responded to the kiss, exploring his mouth with my tongue. His body was pressed against mine, he had me caught in a tight embrace. I loved the feeling of his skin touching mine, so reassuring, communicating that nothing mattered anymore but the slim figure I was holding in my arms.
Armand was shivering as my hands roamed over his body; he was raining butterfly kisses on my face, my throat, my chest until I drew him close for a kiss to stop those maddening lips. Rolling over again, I came to lie half atop of him. His hands were on my back, his nails scratching my skin from time to time. Armand's face was flushed, and when I brushed my lips over the hollow of his throat I could feel his pulse beat in a fast, enticing rhythm. Moving to his neck, I took a little drink; he moaned softly when I sank my fangs into his shoulder, just above the collarbone. But I contented myself with a few drops, just to have the taste of him lingering on my lips.
Gentle fingers were tracing my shoulderblades, leaving cool traces on my skin, then traveling up to the nape of my neck to keep my head at his shoulder, trying to prevent me from drawing away. His mind was completely open to me, I could feel his need, his lust, his love. Emotions were dancing between us, he knew exactly what I felt when he ran his fingers down my spine, finally leaving them just above my buttocks.
"Love you..." Armand whispered huskily. "Ti amo... Mi ami?" A simple question, two little words, and still so important. I kissed him deeply, scraping my tongue in his fangs; I tried to assure him with gestures alone that I loved him, that he meant the world to me. Something between a moan and a sigh escaped his lips, I felt he was content with my reassurances.
::Ragazzo... I love you... ::
::I know... :: He appeared to consider for a moment what he had just said, then complete and utter joy suddenly flooded my senses. ::You love me. You care...:: He sounded, felt so happy, I wanted to make him feel like this forever. There had been hurt enough in his life, I wanted to wrap him into my love to keep even the smallest pain away from him.
He was trembling underneath me, unable to hold back any longer I slid into him slowly, silencing his cry with a kiss. Pricking pain, then ecstasy as he sank his fangs into my neck and began drinking from me. I completed the blood circle, images tumbled back and forth between us, impossible to say what were his visions and what were mine. They were ours, shared freely.
I began rocking him, slowly at first, then at a faster pace. Armand was moving with me, matching my rhythm, his hands clutching my shoulders. A moan, a kiss... nothing that happened around us mattered; what was important was how he sounded when he gasped in pleasure, how it felt when he writhed beneath me. He was arching his back, pressing our bodies together; skin touching skin, lips touching lips. Nothing was more real to me than Armand, right now I would not have cared if the world were coming to an end. There was love, so much love that I felt as if I were drowning in it, and I could not imagine a more pleasurable death. I never wanted to lose this again, it was enough to keep me alive for all eternity.
We lay exhausted on the bed, holding each other and sharing small kisses until the sun forced us to sleep. My eyes started to close and I trembled a little, not wanting the night to end. But Santino's arms tightened around me, and he pulled me close, whispering soft endearments in my ears until I relaxed again. I buried my face in his neck, and extending an arm I reached for a strand of his hair, twirling it in my fingers until I fell asleep.
Nothing disturbed my rest. No nightmares, no pain to haunt me or chain my heart. I was safe in my lover's arms. Soft skin under my skin, a silken strand of hair around my fingers, the scent of my lover, his strong arms holding me to his heart. I slept nestled in love. And when my eyes opened again he was there still. I smiled. I moved closer if possible and his arms tightened around my body. A kiss on my scalp, an unshaven cheek against my cheek, and then another kiss, this time on the lips, parting them and allowing me to taste him. I sighed contentedly. Life would never be better than this.
"Good evening, ragazzo." I smiled at him. For the first time in all my life I had no doubt that I was loved. I almost cried but I was too happy for that. I went into his arms, burying my face on his chest. "I thought you wanted to leave the city."
"There's still time." He laughed softly.
"It's good to see you so relaxed, but I really would like to be home tonight." Sleepily, I reached for my cell phone and handed it to Santino, and snuggled closer, closing my eyes again. He sighed, but I could feel he wasn't annoyed in the least. I think I fell asleep.
The sound of running water awoke me, and I realized that Santino had carried me inside the bathroom. I blinked drowsily, looking around and finally resting my eyes on him. He was smiling mischievously and I wondered if he was about to throw me into the tub.
"I am awake," I said, clutching at his robe. I realized I was naked.
"Are you sure?"
"Then you won't mind taking a bath." And before I could voice my protest he dropped me inside the tub. When I resurfaced Santino was laughing, and I threw an angry glance at him. The water was warm but still... He just ignored me and taking off his robe he joined me in the tub, pulling me close. I tried to be angry still, but his kisses and his closeness were too much for me to resist. Soon we were kissing and wrestling playfully and spilling water all around.
Two hours later we were at last ready to go. Santino had tied his hair back, and this time I had resisted the urge to get rid of the elastic band. I was planning to do it later. I was just waiting for him to stop thinking about it. I even borrowed one of those things and tied my own hair back.
"What are you up, ragazzo?" he asked, taking my pony tail in a hand and kissing my neck. I shivered.
"Just trying to keep my hair out of my face for once," I trembled a little, "but you are making it difficult, beloved." More kisses, and that charming smile.
"Really? I'd say you are planning something. You have that look in your eyes."
"I have no idea what you are talking about." He laughed, ruffling my hair and getting rid of the elastic band. I stared at him, speechless.
"Why on earth did you do that?" I managed to say.
"Just wanted to do it." He smiled again and took my hand in his. "Let's go, ragazzo. I don't want us to be late."
Finally we were in the plane, flying back to the villa, to the peace of our home. Lestat had called to tell us about the seemingly accidental fire that had destroyed the lab where mortals kept the last remains of those who sacrificed themselves over the Veil. So that was already done. As for Rome, the city was in a frenzy, everyone talking about the sacrilege that common thieves had made breaking into the Sistine Chapel and stealing the Veil. No ashes had been found and so they had no evidence that it had been burnt. Let them look forever for the Veil. It's gone.
The plane had reached a safe height, but we had not left our seats. Santino's hand was on mine, such a simple gesture and yet it meant so much. The stars were beautiful in the sky and I let my mind drift to the time when I was a boy in Kiev, before my father took me to the monks. I had so loved to look at the stars, I used to imagine they were singing for me. And tonight I was listening to the same song and I was happy. I opened my mind to Santino and let him listen to the song. I had never shared this with anyone. It was only for him.