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In the Trials of the Heart

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A large package had arrived at Trinity Gate during the daytime hours. One of the mortal servants had left it leaning against the desk in Armand's study. When he rose that evening and looked it over, and saw his alias in the familiar handwriting, saw the Rio return address, he turned and left the room, left the building, went out into the chilly New York night. It took cold air on his face and warm blood in his body to clear his head enough to return.

A package from Rio.

Even as he tried to steel himself against it, staring at the box made the color fade from the room. There was a part of him that was so deeply thrilled, that yearned for them constantly and always would, but news always came entwined with such bitter disappointments. Giant stickers were on every side of it, bright red with bold white text. FRAGILE.

He sat still for a long time, tilted back in his chair, fingers steepled under his chin and ankles crossed atop the desk. There was movement in the rest of the house. Benji was chatting with the staff in the kitchen; Armand could see him in their minds, smiling and waving his arms as he babbled, sitting up on the counter. Sybelle was on the top floor, hard at work translating Tchaikovsky's 6th into a piano piece for herself. He'd hear her noodling and contemplating on a certain section, then begin to tear into it over and over, making little variations each time until it was where she wanted it. All in all, a quiet night. He'd come to enjoy quiet nights. They felt normal. And there was some brooding resentment hovering over him now, thinking that this parcel had locked him down into this room and this mood. Leave it to Marius to completely upend his evening, from halfway around the world, with even the smallest of gestures. Not even a call, or so much as a text, to warn him?

Amazing how human it felt to be blindsided like this.

The mortals in the house had mostly all gone to bed by midnight. Sybelle was still pounding hard at the piano; Benji was somewhere watching the news. Quiet. Eventually Armand gave a heavy sigh into the room and stood. He stared at the box for another moment, uneasy still but finally feeling impatient, then tore the tape open with his fingernails. Upon opening the top flaps, a dusting of packing peanuts spilled out over his feet. He could already smell the paint.

There were two inside, each encased lovingly in fabric and bubble wrap. Large, waist high. His heart was pounding as he lifted the first one, laying it flat on his desk to peel away the protective covers with the care and attention of a surgeon. And when the shock of blue from the canvas came into the light it hit him like a physical blow. For a moment he didn't breathe.

Only a vampire, his Master, would've emblazoned in such heartbreaking detail the face and form of this tender fledgling. And how had he known all these small human features? Fetched them from Daniel's mind, perhaps. It wouldn't have been a stretch for Marius to have painted something from memory, even someone else's memory, but Armand wondered if Daniel had sat for this. Sat just like this, shoulders hunched, fingers clasped around the empty glass, the old longing in his eyes as he gazed out of the frame. Would Marius have set him up with fake glasses or did he add them on his own? It made Armand feel like a weak mortal child again to regard Marius with such awe and wonder, as if he were a magician, as if this were some type of sorcery.

In the painting, against a blue night sky, Daniel leaned forward against his knees, drink and smoke in hand, face etched with the typical dejection that Armand had so grown to cherish. He looked utterly human--jaw adorned with the light layer of stubble, lips chapped, messy blonde hair falling over his eyes--and so frail, so vulnerable. There was even the barely perceptible spatter of freckles across his face which the Blood had long ago erased. And there came, like a flood into Armand's heart, the mix of desire and hurt, and the rush of memories which always somehow knocked him down. This was his Daniel. The Daniel that he'd stalked across the world, that he'd pestered relentlessly with absurd late night conversation and experiments with kitchen appliances, that he'd dragged to opera after opera. The green twill jacket and jeans, the nondescript gray sweater. Marius had even graced him with a yellow highlight at his back which lifted the edges of his pale hair.

Armand lowered himself back down into the desk chair, his fist at his mouth. Visceral, these details. The glowing tip of the cigarette and faint wisp of smoke curling into the air. The dark circles under the eyes.

Why had he done this?

It wouldn't be the first time that Marius had misjudged Armand's emotions, but this seemed to be especially brash. Did he not remember the desperation and shameful amount of tears when Armand had asked, no, begged, for him to look after the boy? In the long list of grave mistakes, sure, maybe this one wasn't as consequential. Maybe the intentions had been good. But what purpose could this painting serve? Thank you, Master, I do so love being reminded of my most painful blunder. I'll hang this amongst my other favorites so that I can look upon it every night.

Before he realized he was doing it, he was out the door of the office, and then down in the street, and Sybelle's music was becoming fainter and fainter as he crossed into Central Park. The Christmas lights were up, glittering in every tree. But with the too-real and too-human image of Daniel hovering at the forefront of every thought, he couldn't even enjoy them. Every inch of this city was infused with such vivid and painful memories. It had taken years to re-learn New York, to reprogram it to a new map. Daniel had, for a long time, been the point of reference for everything. Central Park was where he'd taught Armand to ice skate. Midtown was where they saw plays. They'd haunted the East Village to meet punks, and Alphabet City to attend the dark, underground drag shows. And they'd watched the skateboarders on the steps in Union Square,  spent hours in the labyrinthian rows of The Strand, and gone to rock concerts at Irving Plaza.

These were the same white lights, sparkling against the eternal pink light pollution. And there on the benches along the walkways he could see their ghosts, the way his small frame could fit into Daniel's lap, how he'd slip the glasses up over the boy's head to kiss him. How lovely to be reminded by Marius's brutal and preternatural attention to detail that there had been such a deep love here, one which had been ruined. He'd captured so perfectly the way Daniel had begun to wilt in the later years, his face so worn by disappointment, skin sallow with illness. Come on, Daniel. You made it hard for me this time, didn't you, so hard.

From within the darkness of the park, with no one to witness, he took to the sky. He wasn't hungry, he had killed already once on this night, but he felt the urge, that deep and terrible need for violence to calm these memories, to distract him. This time he found one in Bushwick, and he waited at the curb for the man to come down, wiry and damaged, with thick black glasses like the ones in the painting. And Armand took him by the hand, lead him into the alley, and drained him. Slowly at first, but then viciously, snapping bones and ripping away fistfuls of shaggy hair. Such a life of misery he saw through the blood, but so full of misguided anguish. It was always so disheartening when humans couldn't appreciate the gift they'd been given. Not a single one of them understood.

He brought the body back into the sky with him, disposing of it in the marshes around Little Neck Bay. He tore the limbs away, seeing the torso that had been carved with as many surgical scars as tattoos, and punted the head way out into the water. It felt humiliating and ironic that vampires were so afraid of death. He could dismember these faceless strangers every night of his life, but had committed his gravest sin to keep the one he'd loved.

Back at Trinity Gate, holed up in his study once more, he paced the room, stealing quick glances at the painting again but not able to stare at it anymore. Amazing how, at times, it felt like he had no grasp of decades at all. That thirty years ago was so painfully close to the surface, as if on this very night he could go wake Daniel out of bed, drag him to a movie, bring him to a bar to flirt with strangers. He could feel the old memories so keenly, how they used to taste each other, and the partners they'd invite to bed, and the pitch of Daniel’s voice when he’d orgasm. And of course, this vision of him, weathered and desperate, made Armand think of the times he'd have to remind the boy to eat, had to help him shave because of the tremors in his hands, and their cutting arguments, the tears. All of that so painstakingly recorded to this canvas, down to the frayed fingernails and chewed cuticles. Not made by human hands.

Yet, there had been a second, had there not? And Armand felt sickened by the thought. Worried that it would be even worse than the first. What next? Daniel and Armand kissing beneath the lights of Times Square? Daniel passed out drunk on a couch? Daniel lost, cold and shivering in the rain on Michigan Avenue? What could possibly hurt the most?

Part of Armand was even ready to just seal the box back up and return it. He could throw it out, but Marius would never get the hint. What had he said last time Armand had confronted him with such a mistake? That is so very very far from the truth it breaks my heart.

Was it?

He was muttering and cursing under his breath as he gave up and went back over to the package. At least if he got it over with he could make a decision and put the paintings away forever, and come up with a plan on how to deal with all of it. He propped the first one against the wall behind the desk, backwards so he wouldn't have to look at it anymore, and reached for the second. His heart was fluttering as he lifted it, spilling more styrofoam on the floor, and kept his eyes averted until he could lay it flat on the desk and get it unwrapped. There had been a note taped to the back, which he put to the side. For a moment he didn't breathe, just trying to collect himself for the second cruel onslaught.

But… oh.

His hands trembled above the canvas, wanting to touch it but afraid to, like it would break if he did. He could see in so much detail the peaks and valleys of the brush strokes, the loving regard in every color.

This was his Daniel as well, but the one that had never truly existed. This was the Daniel that Armand had hoped for when it was all said and done, healthy and robust, thriving. He had known this version of the boy in such short phases, and it had never ceased to break his heart that the Blood hadn't brought him back in this way. There had been so much potential to roam the world with this beautiful creature, now that he finally had what he wanted, now that he wasn't weak and sick anymore. There had been the promise of centuries together, a companion to learn with, to discover anything and everything. Yet this portrait was no fantasy, not some murky human memory either. This was a painting of a vampire. Skin clear, eyes gleaming in the light. His hair, same as the night he died, golden and soft. Looking out of the frame again, but not so dampened by gloom this time. Inspired, entranced, a set of headphones around his neck. What had he been listening to that had so elevated his spirits?

Such an easy look of calm. He seemed almost sane.

Marius had included his glasses again in this painting, and Armand had to wonder why. Trying to tempt this beautiful boy's Maker? This simple touch to remind him of the human he had desperately needed? But it was incredible the texture it added, how it brought out the light in the gorgeous ethereal eyes. Armand had to sit down once more.

Again, he studied this painting for a long moment.

He grabbed the letter from where he'd discarded it to the corner of the desk, hands still a little shaky, having trouble taking his eyes away from the mesmerizing portrait. There was a dramatic wax seal holding the thick paper closed, of course it was red, and stamped with the letter R. Armand peeled it back and let his eyes roll over the words. Marius's handwriting, as always, was in severe capital letters, perfect enough to seem like it had been typed.

 

                             Young One,

              Saturnalia approaches and we would be honored if you graced us with your presence.

              Daniel's condition has dramatically improved and he would love to see you. He insisted

              I gift you this ghastly portrait of him as a tormented human; he said you would know

             what it meant.

                                                                                       Eternally Yours,

                                                                                                    M.

 

I would know what it meant?

Armand swiveled around in the chair and looked at the back of the painting. He didn't want to see it again, but he had to admit how comforted he felt by the simple words. He could hear Marius's voice in his head as he read them, even and soothing. It relieved some of his suspicion, some of the hurt. That is so very very far from the truth it breaks my heart.

He leaned forward and turned the canvas back around, looking at Daniel's forlorn mortal form once more, glowing and lifelike enough that he could smell the cigarette burning, and the smoke that had constantly hung in Daniel's clothes. He said you would know what it meant?

And, his head tilted to the side in thought, amber eyes narrowed, it struck his heart in dizzying force. Of course.

Of course.

That this image evoked such painful memories was secondary. That he looked at it and remembered how bony Daniel had become, how his shoulders had poked out so severely when they'd embrace, and how little energy he'd have, how utterly joyless he'd been--this was all secondary. Marius hadn't meant it as a taunt at all. Looking at it now, he could remember hearing Daniel's calls. Sometimes, when he was especially lost, it was a psychic cry, like a prayer, over and over from some strange corner of the world, and no matter where Armand was he could feel it raising the hair on his arms. Other times, if he could manage to find a phone, it would be his broken, tearful voice, garbled by the bad long distance connections. "Please, Armand," he'd beg, "I'm sorry, please come get me."

That tiny voice, so sweet and slight. It always stoked so much hunger, so much affection. Then the strange, overpowering sense of ownership, of protectiveness. It made him a slave to this boy.

The painting certainly was his Daniel, the very one he'd always been able to find. And Armand did know what it meant.

Come find me.

 


 

There was a text message waiting for Marius when he rose. Armand. It had been sent at 6:34am, New York time. He must have waited until the last moments before heading to sleep. In Rio, Marius had already been out for the day.

"how is daniel" it said. Marius had to smile at the atrocious grammar. It seemed to reflect the ease and laziness of this new technology, but he could also hear his Amadeo's voice in it. Deadpan, dull. It was a mask, of course, but one that Marius was happy to let Armand wear.

There were still deep shades of red in the sky when he came upstairs and onto the terrace. Vermillion by the horizon, cerise on the underbelly of the clouds. It hurt his eyes but he savored these few moments every night. Daniel was still too young for such experiences, and would remain in his crypt for another hour or so, but with the early winter sunsets, Armand might be up already, even accounting for the time difference.

"Call me when you're awake," Marius texted back, and slipped his phone into his pocket. He leaned his elbows on the balcony, watching the sky. He could see the colors shifting and changing by the minute, and with each degree and tint he could feel his body relaxing. When it was dark enough, when Daniel was up, they would go hunt, and maybe Daniel would go explore the nightlife while Marius would go paint. He hadn't decided yet, and didn't need to. The phone vibrated against his hip, and he dug it back out.

"will he hear us" Armand's message read. Marius chuckled under his breath and pushed the button to call, holding the glass up against his face. He heard Armand pick it up, but he hadn't said anything yet. Marius waited.

Finally, the voice came through, from so far away. "Well?" he asked. And that voice, that all those years and miles couldn't blunt, not even with the way it was distorted by the phone speaker. It warmed him, as it always had.

"No, he won't hear us," Marius answered. "He isn't awake yet."

"He wants to see me?"

Marius turned, looking into the apartment, leaning his back against the railing. With one hand he pushed his hair away from his face. "I think he'd like to. He's been asking a lot of questions about you."

"Questions?"

"I think it would be best if you answered them yourself."

With the Mind Gift, Marius started the stereo inside, but remained where he was. Bartók began to flow gently through the speakers. Armand wasn't saying anything, but Marius knew he was still there. He could hear, faintly, too faintly for a mortal to have noticed, the sounds of Manhattan that constantly filled Trinity Gate. The car horns, the soft riffs of sirens. There was no usual human noise, not from Armand. No breathing or shuffling. He was completely still, wherever he was.

"Armand."

"I'm here," Armand mumbled. The petulant, murky quality to his voice made Marius flash back on Venice, when Armand had been alive. How susceptible he could be to childish moods at times, and how Marius had so cherished it. It was something to be combatted, yes, something he worked hard to put into submission, but it was still something so irresistibly human and precious.

"I think the holidays are helping Daniel make sense of time," Marius said. He began to pace back and forth outside the open French doors. "He's been very… festive."

"Oh?"

"You should come see him."

There was a long pause, again, in which Marius knew that Armand was still there, but he wasn't speaking. To what end? Marius stopped pacing and turned to stare out over the water. The sky was sinking into a rich indigo now, a perfect gradient blending down through pale yellow haze to the deep orange by the horizon. Daniel would be awake soon.

"I take it you received the paintings."

"Yes, thank you," Armand said. "He looks… healthy."

"He is."

Another space of heavy quiet. Marius could feel the tension behind it. It would be easy to ignore it, to coax Armand away from it, but he knew it was not his silence to break. He would give Armand that much. Eventually Armand let out a quiet sigh.

"You should come," he finally said, again. He kept his voice warm and pleasant. It was not his intention to make demands. "I think it would be good for both of you. And I'd like to see you as well."

"I'll come."

"When can we expect you?"

"Tomorrow," Armand said. He sounded distant, distracted. "I'll come tomorrow. Not tonight."

"Benji and Sybelle are welcome to come, as well. Of course."

"No… it's better if I come alone."

"As you wish. Give them my love."

"Sure," Armand said, and he hung up before Marius could say anything more. There was something so endearing about Armand's attitude at times, though always colored by something quite dark and uncomfortable. Marius supposed he could call it guilt . He stared down at the phone in his hand for a moment, seeing his white face glowing against the black screen. So Armand would come tomorrow. He put his phone back in his pocket and went inside.

Daniel had been decorating their rooms, stringing up colored lights and spraying the windows with fake snow. He did so with the attention and care that he used to treat his model cities. He'd even put up a tree in the corner, and every night had been painting ornaments to hang. He'd invited Marius to paint some, as well, and he had obliged. "Maybe Armand will make some," he said, but so nonchalantly that Marius knew he wouldn't be offended if Armand declined.

Marius had to admit there was a certain charm in all of it. Human rituals and holidays were something he'd given up with the sun, only having experienced them a handful of times with companions. The drunks in his house in Rome had surely acknowledged holidays, and he'd always tried to make them nice for the boys in Venice, throw them birthdays. But now, of course, there were twentieth century things, things Daniel had been raised with. He was still within his normal lifespan; maybe he would've still been doing all of it if he were alive. Whatever the case, Marius wasn't going to stop him. It seemed to make the boy happy. He'd even laughed, a real and unironic laugh, when Marius questioned him. "You need to lighten up," he'd said. Lighten up! "Stop asking so many questions, Marius. It wouldn't kill you to just have fun sometimes. Everything is a forum with you." But it was said without malice.

It was... nice. It felt light. That Daniel had finally shaken off some of his mania was part of it, but there was a transformative effect around the house. Marius felt enthralled by the colors in the electric lights, and he liked the way the tree smelled. And Daniel kept dragging him around the city to see the different holiday installations, and they'd gone to see the tree in the Lagoon almost every night since it had been lit. Daniel would dance beneath all the lights, unable to help himself. It had been a long time, years (centuries?), since things had felt this easy.

When Daniel had finally risen and entered the room, Marius was standing by the tree, holding up one of the ornaments. It was a frosty, opaque glass ball. Daniel had painted tiny snowflakes all over it in silver and blue. There was an attention to detail at play that only a vampire would have.

"Armand used to paint ikons," he said, without turning. "I always tried to have him paint again, but..." He gave a small shrug and put the ornament back.

"What kinds of ikons?"

"Eggs. He slaved over them in a monastery. You should ask him, though. I suppose it's his story to tell you."

"Is he coming?"

Marius turned to watch Daniel's face as he answered. "Tomorrow."

The smile made him seem so sweet, so young. It was easy to see why Armand had fallen for this one. Even having lived past thirty, he had never outgrown the boyishness. The large eyes, the easy way he could laugh. Before the Blood had smoothed over his skin, he'd had a sprinkling of freckles across his nose. Even his lean frame seemed perpetually adolescent; he'd spent so much time malnourished and unwell that he'd never truly grown into himself. As a mortal he had been prone to bouts of ill temper, desperation and self destruction--but hadn't Armand, as well? Had things been different, they might have been good for each other.

And was this feeling… jealousy? Watching the way Daniel's face lit up, and the way the Christmas lights drew the iridescent purple from his eyes. Marius pet the back of his head and began to persuade him away. They would hunt, and look at the lights, and go see the tree in the Lagoon. If they got to the tree early enough there might be musicians. Daniel would dance. And Daniel could do anything. Marius would take his lead.

Armand tomorrow.

Throughout the evening he stayed close to Daniel's side, studying him. There was something bitter and ugly inside, the truth he'd always known. One day Daniel would get better, and he would move on. One day he and Armand would want each other again, wouldn't they? Despite Marius's constant failures with all of his fledglings, he couldn't help thinking they would always want each other again. One day. Because it hadn't happened yet wasn't important. They had eternity. There was time. And he wanted this for Armand, didn't he?

Looking at Daniel now he could see the difference from when he'd first taken the young one into his care. It wasn't the usual tricks that the Blood played; he'd always had this glow in a way, the stunning quality in his skin. But he'd been hollowed somehow, lost. Hair disheveled, shoes falling apart. And with those images always came the memory of Armand, the way he'd begged. Marius had never seen him like that and it still chilled him to remember. Marius, you owe me this much .

What had Daniel ever truly needed aside from patience, and a safe place to stay? Just time. All it had taken was time. And Marius could never judge Armand for not taking the time, could he? No. That would not have been fair.

Daniel had Marius by the hands and was dragging him through a throng of dancers on the floor of Circo Voador. "You need to loosen up," he was saying, right up next to Marius's ear as if they were human like everyone else. "You're dressed like such a dad but you'll fit in if you dance with them!" They both laughed and laughed. Daniel was weaving in and out of the bodies, stopping here and there, hands to their ribs, swaying in time with each as he took drink after drink from them, none of them noticing. It was graceful, skillful. Impressive, even. Marius still wasn't accustomed to the volume of electronic music, it still put him on edge. It was the helplessness of the way it masked all other noise, even for a vampire, but also the threat that he could dissolve into it so easily. Daniel seemed to love it; none of this was new to him. He was thriving in it. This had been normal in his mortal life. It was something he'd even done with Armand thirty years ago, going to clubs and concerts. Marius saw it sometimes when they would share the Blood. He lived for those images. Armand smiling and laughing and lively in a way he'd never gotten to know well enough.

Things were changing, getting easier now. He reflected on it as he watched Daniel losing himself, not drinking anymore, but alone in the crowd, neck rolling back, eyes closed. His forearms up at the sides of his head, body twisting languidly with the music. There was a pink, human flush in his cheeks--it always brought the freckles back, just a little. Just enough that Marius could see. There had been a time when looking at the boy filled Marius with such intense dread, reminded him of everything he'd lost… but it was getting easier. And it was so interesting how this always seemed to work with immortality. That Daniel had come around in time to usher Marius into another century seemed such a blessing. Who else would have dragged him to clubs, and made him hang up Christmas lights?

He came up behind Daniel, laying his hands on Daniel's hips, moving with him and leaning in to kiss his neck. The strobes in the club made his skin flash. He looked so set apart from everyone else there, so clearly more magnificent, but no one seemed to notice. Everyone was distracted, in love, high. Hands in the air, jumping up and down. Their eyes were so dilated from the drugs and from the dark. It was so obvious that Daniel was not one of them, and Marius was sure he looked even further apart. But it didn't matter.

Daniel leaned his weight back against Marius's body, still moving, rolling. The band had giant animatronic mushrooms on stage, and Marius had locked his eyes on them when he bit into Daniel's neck. And the Blood was so rich, and he felt like he could taste colors in it, and Daniel was remembering this very experience again, dancing with Armand, and Daniel had been so wasted, so drunk he could hardly stand, so when Armand drank from him Armand was drunk, too, and they were holding hands and laughing, and Armand looked so human and young when he would laugh, and Daniel had forgotten to be afraid of him for a moment. And Marius could taste it, the ecstasy and the booze and the opiates, all the things Daniel had taken from these people all around them. The mushroom on stage was glowing red, and it had a face, and Marius had to pull away and stare, entranced. His hesitation about the loud music was dissipating and he could feel it all around him, within him. He felt Daniel's blood moving through his spine and down to his fingertips, felt it uncurling in him like an orgasm.

Armand would come tomorrow. He had spent all night uneasy about it, but now it seemed right. Whatever the decision was would be the right decision. Armand should come. They each wanted to see him more than they could admit. That Armand would come was a revelation, it was the best thing. The mushroom had a bear trap jaw that was opening and closing, shining metal teeth glinting in the strobes. Its tentacles waved through the air. Armand just needed time, and it was something Marius had plenty of. He'd made mistakes, grievous mistakes, but they had time. There were laser lights coming down in straight lines over the crowd, and Marius reached his hand up as if he could touch one. The green light splashed on his stark white fingers, and he took in a tiny, amazed gasp. Daniel opened his eyes and did the same. He turned and looked at Marius over his shoulder, and saw the dreamy, drunk look on his face, could see his sharp teeth behind his parted lips. A net of blue laser light came down over them, filling Marius's hair with highlights, making his eyes shimmer. Marius saw the look on his face through Daniel's thoughts, and looked down at him. The boy's eyes were glassy and bloodshot and completely elated.

How could he explain what these things meant to him? The lights, the loud music. Daniel was a guide and a link but he couldn't possibly understand. It would be centuries before he would feel this way, when he would see such unfathomable miracles, technologies that he couldn't possibly imagine right now, and yet there was still always this human core, these unbreakable traditions. Why music? That they were at this concert was such an evolution of hearing organs as a child, and the deafening trumpets that had played him to his death in the Grove, and Armand and Riccardo playing lutes while Marius painted. And now this. And it would continue to grow. Daniel would understand one day, but not now. It would take time.

Daniel slid beneath Marius's hands, movements fluid and sensual as he turned, in one motion pressing their chests together and bringing his hands down into Marius's hair. He kept his forearms still against Marius's shoulders, hips coiling and curving as the music panned into an eerie melody.

Take me away, shattered my hopes today, the singer was crooning, and his voice went straight into Marius's head, into his heart. The colored lights were everywhere, and he was moving his eyes in every direction to watch them. Daniel leaned in close, lips touching the outer rim of Marius's ear.

"Nothing can be done, I see," he sang along with the music. His breath was warm and his voice made the hair rise on Marius's neck. It made his heart ripple in his chest. "All will end so tragically for me."

 

 

 


 

 

Armand arrived too early and looked too well put together for him to have made the trip that night. At least, that's what Daniel thought. And it wasn't that Armand looked nice , because he really didn't. It was like a perpetual rebel streak, a show of defiance, that he was wearing a hoodie and that his hair was a little messy. But, it wasn't that messy. Not just-flew-across-the-world messy. No. Maybe just-woke-up messy. Besides, there was no way he could've made it all the way here in time, this close to sunset. Daniel thought Armand must have come the night before, and maybe he had followed them, spied on them, to prepare himself. He was the only vampire in the world that neither Marius nor Daniel would have been able to detect. It was possible.

He thought that was fair, though, because now he was doing the same.

Daniel hadn't embraced a lot of the vampire trickery yet. Marius would push him to learn things here and there, and he was starting to understand the scope of the gifts, but he still preferred keeping his feet on the ground, staying anchored somehow. So coming down to the apartment from the roof was unusual for him. But Marius had opened his mind enough for Daniel to see that Armand had arrived, and they were talking, and Daniel needed to prepare himself, too. So he hung back on the balcony, in the shadows. He could hear them clearly through the open doors, and he edged along the side of the building until he could see through the window.

Armand.

Thirty years in the Blood and he was finally starting to grasp the enormity of what Armand had given him. Marius tried to explain it sometimes. Sometimes Daniel just felt it coming out of Marius's thoughts in a wordless frustration. In so many ways he still looked at time the same as he had when he was alive, and he didn't need to anymore. This is what he was learning now. He hadn't seen Armand in, what? Twenty years? Twenty-five? And he knew Armand would look the same. Exactly the same. But it still came as a shock. And it made his head swim. Seeing Marius every night made it different, made it feel more natural. There was also the matter of Marius's effortless poise, that he exuded power somehow, that you could feel his age when you were near him. Armand, though. Seeing that face again.

He put his fingers up to the glass, leaning in close. Marius turned his head, his gaze sweeping over casually. He knew Daniel was there, but didn't give it away yet. Yet their eyes met, and Marius gave him a private little smile, gone before it was even there really, and nodded along to what Armand was saying. Daniel had never seen this look on Marius's face before.

That he hadn't grown up, not at all, not even a little bit, had Daniel reeling. And he'd been told this would happen. He hadn't aged in all this time, either. And Louis had told him all about the child, Claudia. Every story he'd heard about Armand spanning hundreds of years told the story of this timeless thing. And still . Seeing him there was so startling. He looked exactly the same as the night Daniel had been made, and the same as all those times they explored New York together, and the times he'd sneak up on Daniel on a train car, on a bus, sneak into a hotel room on some obscure corner of the planet. The same Armand. Unchanged.

And knowing that they wouldn't age didn't feel the same as seeing it. He felt like pieces were being ripped away from his chest as he braced against the realization.

Of course, he couldn't read Armand's thoughts. And he understood that now, too. What it truly meant. How Armand had tried to warn him, all the arguments. When he'd plead, and cry, and beg Daniel to understand what he was asking. There was no way he ever could've known. And in the years after, as Night Island had become more and more deserted, as Daniel withdrew further and further into himself from the shock, he'd felt the rift so keenly. Now, looking back, he could see plain as day that communicating was never Armand's strong suit. Even watching how tense he was around Marius spelled it out. And maybe his ability to read Daniel's thoughts as a human had been the only thing holding the relationship together.

It was an incredible illusion that Armand could still appear so young, so nearly frail. His posture didn't help, his tension. Daniel knew that there were entire worlds between Armand and Marius, and that he only grasped a tiny part of it. Armand's face was blank, and he had his arms folded over his chest. Suspicious, worried. His expression didn't betray this, but what else could its careful arrangement mean?

He was wearing a black hoodie with a picture of a feather over the breast. Halfway unzipped. Sleeves rolled up to his elbows. And jeans tucked into lovingly worn Docs. Marius probably thought Armand was dressing so casually just to make a point, but was he really understanding? It was a message, wasn't it? Wasn't this the way he used to look in New York, stomping around the Village at night, making friends with all the punks? This hoodie seemed to fit him well enough; back then he'd steal Daniel's flannels and denim jackets and they were always hanging off of him. Maybe it actually belonged to him this time.

Why don't you come join us, Daniel? Marius asked. He didn't look back over towards the window, gave no indication to Armand that they had communicated. To Armand, he was still nodding his head, listening to every word. Armand was telling him how Benji was putting together something called a Podcast.

But Daniel stayed put. He just wanted a little longer to watch this creature, this thing that had killed him. Their time together before had consumed his life completely. He had forgotten about his family, his friends. Everything was measured by when he would see Armand next, and when he could taste the Blood again, and it had seemed like ages and ages waiting to be brought over. And now... it made sense. And these thoughts were fluttering around the edges, threatening to topple what he'd worked so hard to build, the structure he'd created that had pulled him out of the void. Was it shame? That he could've been so foolish? That his early years in the Blood had been such a disaster?

No, not shame. He took a step back from the window and tilted his head. Not shame at all. It had taken time to get here, but he was here now. And he was feeling... joy. Love. Excitement? Wanting the Blood had once been an obsession, and he hadn't even known why he wanted it. But this. This was it. He approached the doors, as silently as he could, drawing on the way Armand used to move. And he hovered there, away from the light still, needing another moment. It seemed strange that now, all these years later, Armand was more beautiful than he'd been before. Seemed impossible. As a mortal he'd been so mesmerized, and part of the attraction was that Armand was strange and dangerous. But now, not so. Now just… beautiful. And the Blood in him could see the Blood in Armand.

He came a little closer, still not entering the room. Drawing near enough to lean against the open doorway. Armand was telling Marius about a book now. His demeanor had warmed up a bit, and he was animated, gesturing with his hands. The book was on the coffee table between them. An antique, ancient looking tome. One of those things Armand was always able to just "find". An offering to Marius? A Christmas present? The look in Marius's eyes was so warm, so completely changed. The cover of the book was in Latin. Daniel wasn't sure what it meant.

We'll need to work on that, Marius scolded. And Daniel couldn't help chuckling. He went to cover his mouth but it was too late.

Armand stiffened, back straightening, face becoming a mask once more as he turned his head to the open door.

And there it was.

Daniel took a step into the room, suddenly nervous, not sure what to do with his hands. Armand stood up to greet him. But he didn't.

Marius had a little smirk on his face as he looked from one to the other, and Daniel wondered if he would intervene somehow. But he just leaned further back in his seat, fingers curled under his chin.

"Hi," Daniel finally said. And God, how humiliating the tiny voice that a mortal wouldn't have been able to hear. Armand put his hands into his hoodie pockets and gave a half smile in return. A rogue curl was falling over his eye.

There was a moment of nearly stifling tension, and words were rising and drying in Daniel's throat, but then Armand had closed the space between them, and grabbed him, and had gone up on his toes to kiss Daniel on the cheek. He stayed still, forehead against Daniel's jaw, the strength in his arms staggering. Daniel wasn't a delicate mortal anymore, and the embrace wouldn't break him, but it was another surprise, another icon of this creature's power. He returned it, gentler, and touched Armand's hair with his fingertips, not quite bold enough to lay his hand on the back of Armand's head yet.

"Daniel, why don't you take Armand out to hunt?" Marius suggested. Daniel looked at him over the top of Armand's head. "Neither of you have fed."

"You don't want to come?" Daniel asked.

"No," he had a knowing smile on his lips. Will you be all right?

Daniel nodded. Armand noticed and looked between the two of them, eyes narrowed.

"Armand brought me this rare edition of The Metamorphoses . I'll be quite occupied."

Daniel snorted and gave Armand a light punch on his shoulder. "Really? Like this guy needs more books."

And there was the smile. Armand's eyes lighting up as he tried to suppress it. Marius was shaking his head as Armand took Daniel's hand and began leading him away, not bothering to say goodbye. Daniel found himself watching their clasped hands as they walked, not speaking for a little while. The sleeve of Armand's hoodie said Les Voyages de L'Âme.

"We… don't have to hunt," Daniel said once they'd gone a few blocks. "If you don't want to. I'm fine. Marius was being polite."

Armand cocked an eyebrow and smiled. Playful smile. "I want to."

It gave Daniel a chill to remember the eerie way that Armand had of hunting, but was it possible that he was playing nice tonight? He was bringing them towards one of the run down favelas. Evildoers. He was hypnotic to watch.  He had pulled the hood up over his head, loose strands of hair coming through and framing his face. And the face, so clear and white. Daniel remembered how he'd always begged to watch, and how Armand would never let him. He'd fetishized it, romanticized it to a point of crushing heartbreak when he'd finally been turned. Armand had been so… cruel. And Daniel so unprepared for it.

But now it seemed something magnificent.

It was easy enough to find a nest of scumbags in Rocinha, and although Armand had lead the way, he gestured for Daniel to go first. It filled Daniel with a charged excitement, he could feel it in his nerves the way he'd felt it when Armand used to watch him do any number of intimate human activities. And he knew Armand didn't usually do it like this--was it an offering? A Christmas present? Either way it had him reeling as he drank and drank, feeling Armand's calm gaze at his back as he shuddered against the body. It had been a long time since he'd taken a life, since he'd indulged in this way. When it was Armand's turn, and he watched the charming and vicious way he fed, it only made Daniel want to keep going.

So two each, then three. Other dwellers in the house would come into the room, right into the trap, and they'd even share. Daniel at the throat and Armand at the wrist, each feeling the heartbeat relax until it was barely audible. When Armand embraced him again, when they were done, his skin was so feverish and pink, eyes glazed and colored with lust. He had pulled out one of their hearts, so when he touched Daniel's face, blood smeared across his cheekbone. But then he put his fingers to Daniel's lips, and Daniel began to lick it away.

Normally making such a mess seemed repulsive; one of the only things Armand had taught him in the beginning was how to be neat, and it was something Marius pretended to follow religiously, though Daniel knew he did this in private sometimes. But the sight of it, the heart leaving a red stain on Armand's lips and down his chin, was arousing him more than he could explain. When he was done cleaning Armand's hands, he leaned down to take care of the mouth as well.

Then it was like the past again, and it happened so fast Daniel wasn't sure how it started, but Armand had pushed him against the wall, and pinned him there, and they were kissing so furiously that they kept nicking each other's lips until their mouths were filled with blood. Daniel might have been moaning but wasn't sure which one of them was making so much noise. The back of his skull hit the plaster wall hard enough to crack it, but they didn't stop. If he were human it might have killed him. And, Christ, it still made him feel so weird and humiliated to think about before. He'd never truly understood how much Armand held back with him, how weak he'd been. Even now, Armand's hands on him would leave bruises; he could feel the pain blossoming beneath his skin, but it felt so rich and colorful and right. If he'd been human, this grip would have crushed his ilium.

When Armand pulled away, Daniel's bottom lip was still between his teeth, and the flesh tore. He prodded the gash with his tongue; the Blood was mending it already, stitching it back into place. Armand swooped back in to lick up the mess.

"Can I taste you?" he asked. Whispered. One hand went up into Daniel's hair, fingers stroking the scalp, coaxing away the hurt from before, lips kissing softly against his jugular. Daniel was shaking when he nodded, not even sure where his voice was. Yes, yes , he wanted to say, tried to tell him without speaking, but had forgotten about the silence for a moment. He hissed in his breath and grabbed the back of Armand's head when he felt the bite.

"Armand…" he mumbled, at the back of his throat. His legs were giving out beneath him, but Armand held him up. He could feel every bit of it, every sensation. The sharp teeth teasing the wounds open, the lips, the gentle suction. The tip of Armand's tongue probed into the holes, and it went through Daniel's body like a shock, riding the still-tingling heat of the human blood, lighting up every nerve. It was making him so dizzy. One hand tangled into Armand's curls, the other bunched the back of his hoodie into a fist.

He shut his eyes against the ache, deep but sweet, trilling in every vein. He was getting images from Armand; how he had missed this. He saw New York City, and what must be Trinity Gate, and the pretty black eyes of Benji Mahmoud, and Sybelle's lithe figure bending over the piano. There was still so much love; every scene permeated with memories. Christmas lights in Central Park. There was a holiday village set up in Bryant Park now, little glass cottages filled with crafts and foods and teas, soaps and sculptures and scarves. Armand wanted to take him there. There was a hot chocolate bar and an ice rink. And he flashed on Daniel teaching him how to skate, so long ago, and how silly it was because vampires can do anything, he had the grace of a god, but he humored Daniel by holding his hands and not letting go. He had the sense of how inextricably twisted the old and new memories were; how Daniel haunted every corner of the city, no matter how hard Armand tried to purge all of it. So much pain there, so much guilt. And then he could see himself, and Marius, he saw them at the concert again, holding each other, drinking from each other. Armand had come. He had watched them. Daniel could feel the cold squeeze of insecurity, uncertainty, that Armand had felt. His heart was pounding.

"Don't be afraid of us," he whispered, and Armand came up for air so abruptly. Plain shock on his face. Cheeks flushed red. The air in the room was so warm and heavy, hovering like a second skin. Breathing it in made him feel like he was drowning.

"I'm not," Armand said, mouth curling almost into a pout. Bratty little scowl. Daniel pet his hair, pushed it out of his eyes.

"You are. It's okay. But don't be."

Armand's lips parted, about to protest, but Daniel silenced him by coming in to return the embrace. He spread his fingers out at the small of Armand's back, leaning over, balancing the two of them as his teeth pierced through the pale flesh at Armand's neck. And the images came back once more as he pulled, feeling Armand's muscles seizing beneath his fingertips. He saw the night they'd ridden the Wonder Wheel in Coney Island, when Armand made Daniel give him a piggy back down the boardwalk. So much laughter. Then the endless selection of lovers that had come through their bed, and all the times Daniel had stared across the room into Armand's eyes as he came, the times he'd cried out Armand's name. The hours spent coiled together watching TV, and the endless explorations of the Met and the MoMA. All of it, all of it. He had spent years disconnected, unable to make sense of it. But it was coming back now.

When he pulled away he kissed Armand again, gently, cupping his face with both hands. The energy was calming now, fizzling out of the room. They were both still trembling.

"We should clean up," Armand said when Daniel was finished. He reached up to peel Daniel's hands away, and took another quick moment to stare before turning and busying himself with the bodies. It made Daniel laugh. At first it was the smallest trickle that he tried to contain, then it built until he was bent over, nearly howling. Armand just rolled his eyes. But, even as they dragged the bodies down into the graves they'd dug into the earthen floors, he couldn't help grinning along as well. Daniel's amusement was contagious.

"I want to show you something," Daniel said as they were leaving.

Armand shrugged. "Show me."

Once they were outside, Daniel grabbed Armand by the waist and brought him upwards. The Cloud Gift still freaked him out, and he never used it for long distances, but he’d been practicing, and it felt safer with Armand there. Armand wouldn’t let them fall. Panic spread through him, threatening to ruin the glow that was still hovering, but he tried to relax into it, to close his eyes and let the Blood take them where they needed to go. He had Armand in a vice grip. The relief was tangible when they finally came down on solid ground. It was a rocky ledge jutting off the side of Pão de Açúcar , enough space for the two of them to sit side-by-side, shoulders touching. They were somewhere beneath the path of the cable car, though it had stopped running for the night. It was silent aside from the faint thrum of generators way above them somewhere, up at the station.

“I like it up here,” Daniel said, once they settled down. Armand just nodded. They could see the city, the Lagoon, the blackness out over the ocean. In the distance, with their keen vision, they could see Christ the Redeemer, lit stark white against the sky. Daniel pointed out the Christmas lights he'd been going to see. Armand still had nothing to say, but he reached out to hold Daniel’s hand.

Daniel turned and looked at Armand’s profile, faintly illuminated by the moon. Just enough. “I missed you, you know?” he said. Armand stirred and turned to meet his gaze.

He had that look again, the one he used to get. So incongruous on the young face. So full of profound meaning, etched by centuries. He was trying so hard to remain expressionless, but Daniel knew him too well, even after all this time. There was the urge to kiss him again. It had felt so familiar. But Armand turned away, and pulled his hand back into his lap, and Daniel watched as he was tearing away little pieces of his cuticles. They grew back nearly instantly, mending in front of his eyes.

"Come back to New York with me," Armand mumbled. He dug into the skin beside his thumbnail, peeling it back in one long strip. Blood welled to the surface only for a moment, then dissipated, sinking back in as the wound closed itself. He went to do it again but Daniel reached out to stop him.

"Armand…"

"What?" his voice was clearer now.

"You know I can't."

"I know?" he lifted his head to look into Daniel's face. Bratty scowl again. Old accent coming back. "Don't tell me what I know. Come back to New York with me."

"I think…" he trailed off for a moment, trying to collect himself. He was realizing that, even though they'd been away from each other for such a long time, he'd been seeing Armand's image nearly every night. He could always catch it from Marius. Marius tried to hide it, keep it tucked away somewhere secret, but Daniel could always see it through the Blood. Warm wind was tousling Armand's hair into his face, and Daniel reached up to tuck it behind his ear. "I think Marius needs me still."

"Marius doesn't need anyone."

Daniel leaned forward to put their foreheads together. He held the back of Armand's neck. "He needs us both."

He wished he could transmit the pictures, the feelings, wished he could even get a whisper of what Armand was thinking as he still tried to keep his face arranged. Because words wouldn't do it. He could feel Armand becoming tense beneath his hands, but he wouldn't let go. He leaned in closer, tilting his head so that their cheeks rubbed against each other.

"It would be different."

"I know that."

"So come with me."

"Armand…" Daniel kissed his brow. "Not yet. He needs me. I owe it to him."

Armand sighed, and his shoulders were slouching. His fingers made idle circles on Daniel's biceps. Then, like the old times in Central Park, on benches beneath the Christmas lights, he crawled into Daniel's lap. Daniel had seen this, this very picture, in Marius's blood. Collecting Armand like this, stroking his red hair. Armand sulking with that dead, defeated look in his eyes. It used to loop over and over in his mind sometimes before he'd come back to himself, as he obsessed over the model houses, as he painted tiny fake trees and arranged the little trains. The hair rose on his arms when he thought of the especially dark time, after Armand had gone into the sun. How Marius had been so helpless to mask the pain, how it had rolled off of him like heat and invaded every corner of the house. He did his best to cloak the thoughts; tried to keep the same placid cast to his face, the same calm smile that barely creased the perfect white skin. He went through the same motions, setting Daniel up with his paints at dusk, giving him the tender praises, the approving pats on the head when he'd come in to check on the progress. But then Daniel would drink from him and could see it all. You're the only part of him that's left, Marius would think, and he could see Armand as the mortal boy again, the night they'd found each other, when Armand had been so fragile and damaged like a little bird, and how devastatingly gorgeous he'd been once he'd been nursed back to health. Even as a human, so striking.

"I wish I could explain. I wish I could show you…" he said. He put his chin down on the top of Armand's head, staring down at the harbor, the lights drifting out of focus.

"I know."

Marius had begun to take the rage out on his victims. He pretended he didn't, but Daniel saw it in the Blood again. He'd tear them apart. He'd be screaming. The blood would be everywhere. There was something so hurt and ugly inside, so furious, and focusing on Daniel was the only thing keeping him above ground. Daniel hadn't been able to grasp a lot of it then, in those moments, operating somewhere at the surface the way he used to when he'd have drunk blackouts, but it all registered somewhere. He came out the other side remembering all of it. Marius would hold the back Daniel's neck so gently as he drank, so lovingly. But possessively, too. He was the only piece of Armand left that Marius could keep. And the guilt. The guilt. It would make him sick. He kept telling himself it had always just been about time. Should've given Armand more time. Should've had more time.

"He… waited for me," Daniel said. He hesitated, because he didn't want it to seem like an accusation. It wasn't, not really. Daniel didn't blame him, anyway. “I’m not rejecting you. I’m just saying… not yet. I’m not ready.”

"You love him?"

"Of course. Don't you?"

There was a little grunt of agreement, but no words.

"I still think like a human sometimes," Daniel said. He ran his hand up and down Armand's thigh. "Like, I need to remember that there's no rush."

"Why?"

"Because we have all the time in the world. You gave me eternity."

For a long time Armand said nothing. Then, as he pulled himself tighter against Daniel's body, arms around his shoulders: "Do you regret it yet?"

“No…” he trailed off in thought. Kissed the crown of Armand’s head. “I think I did. For a while. But I don’t anymore.”

“You will again.”

He sighed, but didn’t argue. No use just now. After everything he’d learned and seen, the visions in Marius’s Blood… he couldn’t really fault Armand for being jaded. He felt Armand’s weight against him, the solid form and shape of his body, and pictured the boy in Venice, and the one in the snow in Kiev, and the one screaming and being torn away from his burning Maker. Then the one in rags, spied upon in Paris, hollowed and lost. The same Armand he had known himself, seen with his own eyes. The one who had stalked him across the world, and pestered him relentlessly with absurd late night conversation and experiments with kitchen appliances, that had dragged him to opera after opera. The one he’d loved, who had killed him, who had given him this perplexing gift.

“What did the painting mean?”

“What do you mean?”

“If you didn’t want me to come get you. What did it mean?”

“What painting?”

Armand sat up so that he could look into Daniel’s face. Weird mix of love and distrust. “Daniel.”

“What?”

“The painting.”

“Armand. I don’t know what you’re talking about. Seriously.”

“Marius…”

“What about him? What painting?”

The look on his face was so far away. He stared off towards the ocean. “He mailed me paintings of you. He said…” Armand shook his head. “He lied to me.”

Daniel was a little lost, but tried to fill in the blanks the best he could. “Why would Marius lie to you?”

“He wanted me to come see you.”

They both stayed quiet for a moment. “I don’t think he did it to hurt you,” Daniel said finally. “It’s a white lie. Like a Christmas lie.”

“Christmas lie?” Armand snorted, but he began to relax again, leaning back down against Daniel’s chest.

“I think….” his eyes swept over the expanse of the city, lights twinkling. “I think. We all just need time. And you gave me all the time in the world. And Marius gave you the same. And I think he’s going to spend eternity trying to make it all up to you.”

“I’m not going to stay here.”

“I know,” he smoothed back Armand’s hair. “And I’m not going to go with you. But we have time. We have eternity to grow.”

“Eternity…”

“I’m really glad you came,” Daniel said. He leaned his head down against Armand’s. “It doesn’t matter why you came. I’m glad you did.”

Armand sighed, heavily. But he sounded content. The night air was beginning to cool off, and Armand snuggled in closer. He buried his face in Daniel’s shirt.

“Merry Christmas, Daniel.”

He put a finger beneath Armand’s chin to lift his gaze, and kissed the tiny pouting mouth.

“You too, Boss.”