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Vampire Flower Language

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"Purple Lilacs" by Eric Kilby

"Purple and White Lilac Cluster" (CC BY-SA 2.0) by Eric Kilby 

Purple Lilac

𝒇𝒊𝒓𝒔𝒕 𝒆𝒎𝒐𝒕𝒊𝒐𝒏𝒔 𝒐𝒇 𝒍𝒐𝒗𝒆

Rome, Lazio, Italy

May 1944

Operas were dangerous as it was. Nothing less was to be expected, with a hundred powerful vampires gathered so close together for two long weeks. And during this opera, less than a hundred miles away, two human armies fought one another in a war that had begun four and a half years ago.

But the vampires paid it little mind; William had lived through countless wars himself. He had fought in several, even had occasion to command armies. The human war was not of interest to him; the opera was a rare treat.

There was no talk of cancelling it. No thought was paid to deferring to petty human squabbles. The opera itself had been planned for decades, and the city of Rome was a perfectly safe place to be, even though war was raging in Anzio some fifty kilometres to the south.

William had chosen to attend the opera not just because he was a great admirer of the librettist, but because it afforded him an opportunity to meet with other popular members of high society. He had been isolated in Australia for some eighty years, and he wanted to reacquaint himself with the Europeans with whom he had close ties. No doubt they would be clamoring to meet with him; he held a kingdom that was known to vampires as New Holland. Consisting of approximately forty percent of Australia’s western land mass, it was among the largest held by anybody. Admittedly, its population was far smaller than some cities that were controlled by lesser vampires elsewhere; but he had always been fond of having control over large swathes of land, and there was more than enough food for him there.

He had checked into his hotel the night before the opera began. Such operas were so intricately plotted that many of their stories could not be told in anything less than fifty hours - and this one had been scheduled for seventy-five. The night porter had picked up his luggage - three more-or-less ordinary suitcases and six heavy wooden trunks that were anything but ordinary - and carried them, item by item, into one of the specially-prepared rooms that the hotel kept for the patrons that requested them. There was something about the night porter that intrigued William. The way he kept running his gloved hands through his thick black hair, hesitating before he spoke. William could sense an odd, generalised fear in him. He was disappointed that the hotel still discouraged feeding on its staff; he would have loved to become better acquainted.

Were it not for the opera, William may not have thought any more of the night porter. However, like all of his kind, William was a slave to fashion.

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Halfway through the opera’s fifteen-day duration, William knew that it would be remembered for the ages. Its legendary librettist and composer had laid the groundwork for a beautiful tale, with hundreds of disparate elements coming together. The thread that William found himself drawn to was the story of a young vampire, some hundred years of age, who was pursuing the love of a human princess. Romances between vampires and humans were by no means unheard of, but it was a shameful secret of those that participated in it. It was the low-status sort of thing done by a young one who missed his old life, or - worse still - did not care for his reputation. No reputable vampire, especially one of such advanced age as William, would ever debase themself so.

It was revolutionary that such a relationship be included in an opera at all, let alone be a major element of one so prestigious. He eagerly participated in the discussion. The opinions varied. Some thought it was only sensible for a young vampire to bring himself into a powerful human political position and that the princess would be a pawn and discarded; others thought it was scandalous that such a relationship should be shown at all, and predicted it would end in tragedy.

William was a member of the cohort of the oldest vampires still living. In his time he had seen a great many of these performances, and had watched a great many trends in vampire society be born and die. The people in the audience speculating about the significance of the relationship with the princess seemed more excited than scandalised by it. And Vettori, the librettist, had a reputation as a trendsetter: an opera of hers had made the use of personal body doubles widespread amongst respectable vampires. Then, two hundred years later, a second opera had brought the practice into disrepute - a sign of earlier, less unified times. He thought back to his doppelganger, still hidden in a coffin in the basement of an Australian church. He had been caught up in it then, too.

William was coming to suspect that having a human lover would soon be in vogue. He had heard a human lover required a horrific combination of constant attention and patience: keeping one could well become a new display of extravagance. And vampires, who as a rule could afford most creature comforts, loved nothing more than austentatious gestures of luxury.

As he made the short walk back to his hotel, he imagined a rival Queen’s jealous glare if he visited her ten years from now with a human woman on his arm, fawning over him. He imagined how her Dukes and Duchesses would gossip amongst themselves, wondering what could be taking so much of their Queen’s time that she could not afford to win a human’s affections. He thought of how impressive his will, intelligence, and social integration skills would seem by comparison. He smiled as he crossed the threshold into the Albergo di Sole al Pantheon, thinking that the hypothetical Dukes and Duchesses might cede their allegiances to him, all over a human woman. He wondered if he might try to charm one.

In those early morning hours, the hotel front desk was staffed by the same night porter that had moved his luggage. Each time, the porter gave William a polite greeting in his heavily accented Italian. He had never thought it worth any acknowledgement.

But tonight, with his thoughts where they were, William couldn’t help but take note of the precise angle at which the night porter was wearing his hat this evening; the place he had rolled his sleeves up to, and the number of times he had folded each sleeve to do it. To a vampire, such aspects of attire were carefully composed, and each button, each fold, and each accessory added meaning to the outfit. If the porter had been a vampire, he would be signalling to a superior that he wished to discuss an allegiance. It was unambiguous. It was absurd; he had never heard of a human stumbling upon a coherent message like that. He wondered what reason another vampire would have to dress him up like this, to tell this message from a human’s point-of-view - and as humans went, this foreigner was as lowly as they came.

So this time, instead of continuing straight up the stairs, he paused at the desk for a moment and returned the young man’s greeting, meeting his brown eyes with a small smile.

William found himself hoping that the night porter himself had meant to signal him, rather than being dressed by another vampire like a doll. As he walked up the stairs to his room, William shook his head. Fashionable or not, it was a silly idea.

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The next evening, after the opera, William approached the desk with purpose, despite himself.

“Good evening, sir.” came the porter’s usual greeting in heavily accented Italian. He seemed young; William guessed the short, clean-shaven man was about twenty. There was still that faint anxiety about him, which made him seem older. William wondered if it was just his presence or if he was like this with everyone.

“I would like to receive the daily newspaper.” William said, his Italian spoken slowly and clearly for the porter’s benefit.

“Yes, sir.” He grabbed a piece of paper from the table and began reading from it in his broken, laboured Italian. “Do you prefer the Corriere della Sera or…” He paused, concentrating, his tongue feeling out the words before he said them. “Il Messaggero?”

“I will have the Corriere della Sera.

“Yes, sir.” He started writing something down in the hotel’s ledger.

“Where are you from?” William couldn’t help it. There was something odd about this man, and he wanted to find out what.

“Columbus, United States, sir.”

“Would you prefer that we speak English?” He switched to English, his speech fluid, but with an accent the porter couldn’t identify.

“Th-that would be very kind of you, sir. But no need to speak it on my account, sir.” He tripped up a little, the English syllables feeling rusty and strange after not speaking them in what felt like weeks.

“I’m Australian, so I would quite prefer it.”

“Ah. I thought I didn't know your accent. Sir.” He added hastily, remembering his choice of words. Learning Italian had forced him to overthink everything he said, so the English came out roughly. “There will be a newspaper left out the front of your room in a few hours." He forced a smile, making eye contact for just a moment.

As William considered his next course of action, he reached into his pocket with his gloved hand, fished out his coin purse and handed a few coins to the porter. Tipping was a rare custom, but it was not unheard of; and while the amount William gave the porter was generous, it was by no means extravagant. It was enough to buy the porter a modest lunch.

The porter looked at the money, almost confused. He hadn’t been tipped once since he had gotten to Italy. “Thank you, sir.”

William gave him a nod and started up to the stairs, wondering what it was about the porter that had possessed him to behave in such an impulsive manner. Like the rest of his kind, he only touched money - even money he knew was safe - when it was unavoidable. There were small dangers with doing otherwise, and over centuries, the smallest risks needed to be avoided. And yet he had given the night porter a tip. He shook his head, placing his hands in his pockets. It was that opera: not even over, and it was already putting ideas into his head.

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Red smiled to himself as he pocketed the coins. After three months in Italy, three months of his new life, he was finally beginning to feel useful, appreciated. He was doing his best to be worthy of the job he had been so lucky to get. Even if it was mostly carrying luggage and arranging newspapers and taxis for people who needed them in the early hours of the morning, it was nice to be appreciated. It was nice to have something to do.

He felt uneasy about speaking to the Australian man in English. Although it had been months, he was still scared of anything that could draw attention - anything that could slip if he got too comfortable. How many Americans would be here, now, with the war going on so close by?

He habitually ran his right hand through his shaggy black hair. After being neglected all this time, his regulation hairstyle was almost unidentifiable. He wondered if he should get a haircut: perhaps an Italian barber’s expert hand might make him look less American.

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For the next few evenings, when Red sat at the front desk, the Australian man greeted him politely in English whenever he passed by. Red found himself liking the attention, being acknowledged after feeling invisible for so long. Even though the invisibility was a necessity, he was lonely.

Then the Australian broke his routine: instead of arriving shortly before sunrise, he arrived not long after midnight, and approached the desk after the usual exchange of greetings. He stood about six feet tall, his posture impeccable, making Red think of a boy back home who had attended a prep school out of state. His curly blonde hair, sprinkled with grey, was cropped short. He looked to be about thirty, maybe thirty-five.

Red found himself less nervous than he had been the night he had ordered the newspaper. Perhaps it was because he knew there was no risk of him having to stumble through a conversation in Italian; or perhaps it was the slight rapport they had built.

“Are you able to assist me with something during your off hours?” The Australian asked.

“That should be no problem, sir.” Red replied. He had heard it was quite common for guests to request errands - deliveries, shopping trips, that sort of thing. Many of his colleagues had told him that they were often more lucrative than a full day’s wage; and he was not one to look a gift horse in the mouth, especially given his circumstances.

“Are you able to be at my room at eight o’clock tomorrow evening?”

Red nodded. He could easily find someone to trade shifts with. “Of course, sir.”

“Excellent.” The man paused, and held out his hand for Red to shake. “My name is Ryan. William Ryan.”

“Carlo Rossi.” Red lied, shaking the man’s hand. You couldn’t be too careful.

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The next afternoon, as Red made the long yet familiar walk to the Albergo del Sole al Pantheon, he paid special attention to the sights that surrounded him. This city was old---far older than his native Columbus. He reflected, not for the first time, how strange and fortunate he was in all this; that despite the magnitude of his sin, he could make a living in one of the world’s greatest cities. And now one of the patrons had expressed an interest in giving him additional work in his time off. Red hoped it was the start of a long-term arrangement: he didn’t know when he might be discovered, might have to run again. He needed to save as much money as he could.

When he reached the hotel, he took a moment to appreciate his surroundings: he was in an ordinary piazza that contained the Pantheon, an ancient temple with a Grecian pointed roof and thick columns, and a grand fountain with an obelisk coming out of the top of it. He often reflected on the wonders of the city - wonders he knew he had not yet seen the tiniest fraction of. He was grateful that Hitler’s armies would not defend Rome, lest the ancient buildings be destroyed in battle*. If the Americans reached it, the German army would withdraw, offer no resistance, and allow them to take full possession of it. He was glad, not just that he was unlikely to see battle if he stayed here, but that even Hitler himself agreed that the piazza and the ancient building it contained were too beautiful to risk their destruction. It was a strange thing to have in common with the leader of the armies that wanted him dead.

The hotel itself was small: an unassuming, earthy orange building opposite the Pantheon. When he had started working there, they had told him that it, too, was hundreds of years old. He entered the small lobby. The building was lit with soft light, the smell of roses in the air. Behind the front desk sat Adelina, the concierge: a young woman with long, brown hair swept back into a ponytail. He gave her a nod and a small wave. She knew he was working on a special project for a guest.

Red climbed the stairs and approached William’s room. He hesitated at the door for a moment, nervous for a reason he couldn’t quite place. He gathered his courage and knocked, and a few moments later, William opened the door. He was not dressed in a suit this evening; he instead wore navy blue pants with suspenders, and a perfectly pressed white shirt that was just a little bit tighter than it should have been. He wore simple black shoes and thin white gloves.

“Good evening, Mister Rossi. Please, come in.”

Red sharply moved his gaze to William’s deep blue eyes.

“Yes, of course, sir.”

William shook his head as he closed the door behind them. “Please, call me William.”

Red smiled, sitting in the chair to which William gestured. “Of course, sir.” He noticed a thick, black curtain over the far wall where the window must have been. Many rooms had them; some guests were sensitive to being woken up early by the sunrise and specially requested them. He didn’t understand it himself; before he started working nights, he had always woken up with the sun.

The room was appointed with deep red wallpaper, and fine wooden furniture: a four-poster bed, a dressing table, a wardrobe, a wooden chair at a writing desk, and the upholstered chairs they were sitting in with a small coffee table. There were neat piles of paper and pots of ink on the desk, along with a lidless wooden box containing sticks of coloured wax. Finally, the far corner contained half a dozen heavy wooden trunks that Red had neatly stacked into two piles two weeks earlier when William had checked in.

“Can I provide you with anything? Water? Coffee?”

“That won’t be necessary, sir.”

“You need not call me ‘sir’, Mister Rossi.” William paused for a moment. “I was planning on getting coffee for myself. It will be no trouble.”

“Oh, in that case, coffee would be nice, s-” He stopped himself. “William.” Calling a hotel guest, let alone one that was giving him extra employment, by his first name felt out of the ordinary; but he was already coming to suspect that this was not an ordinary man. The excessive tip, his origin in a faraway country, and now his apparent disdain for formality, despite seeming to be old money... Red wondered what other strange habits he might have.

William picked up the phone and spoke in fine Italian. The blonde, blue-eyed man didn’t look Italian by any means, but he spoke it fluidly. Red wondered how an Australian could be so proficient; no doubt he’d had an expensive education.

“Now, I am sure you wish to know what I require of you.” William said kindly, sitting in the chair opposite Red.

Red nodded.

“As you can see, I have several large trunks.” He gestured behind himself. “When I first arrived, they were stacked in two piles. Unfortunately, this is not the most practical arrangement if I want to use the things inside. I believe this room is sufficiently large to allow for all six trunks to be accessible, though it may require relocating some of the other furniture. I will also require you to purchase a seventh trunk, so that I may reorganise them.”

Red nodded. He had been expecting something along those lines, but was relieved all the same to hear it was a manageable task: manual labour was something he could do. The shopping trip would be harder, but he’d figure it out. “I can move the furniture right now. I can start looking for a new trunk tomorrow, if that’s alright by you?”

“There is no rush, though you are welcome to work through the night if that suits you.”

“Oh. Well, in that case, I might make a start on it now, and maybe come back tomorrow after lunch and finish up.”

William shook his head. “You may only be here after eight o’clock.”

Red nodded again. He had gotten used to Europeans - particularly Europeans rich enough to stay in nice hotels during the war. Working only nights barely even registered as odd at this point. “Sure, I can do that.”               

There was a knock at the door. William answered it and was handed a tray with two steaming cups of black coffee. Their heady smell quickly filled the air. William placed the tray on the coffee table. He picked up his cup, cupping it in his hands, smelled it, and blew at the steam. Red smiled, took his, and sipped it. It was heavy and thick, with an earthy taste to it. It was very different to the thin, watery brews he had become accustomed to since the war began.

“Thank you, sir.” Red murmured.

“You are doing me a service. It is only fair that I provide you with some small comforts.”

Red nodded, trying to hide his surprise at being treated this way by an employer. There was a brief pause as he tried to work out where he should direct his attention. He looked at William, but was worried about staring. After glancing around the room again, he settled on staring at his drink.

William broke the silence. “What is Columbus like?” He asked, placing his drink back on the table. Red shrugged, taking another sip of the first good cup of coffee he had had in months.

“It’s nice. Very different from Rome.”

“Did you live there all of your life?”

He nodded. “Never lived anywhere else, until I came here. My mother moved there when she was very young.” Red paused to take another sip of the coffee. “What about you, if you don’t mind me asking? Have you always been in Australia, sir?”

“I was born there, though my parents were Irish.” He said, the lie practised.  He picked his cup back up, and blew at the now diminished steam. “What brought you here?”

Red hesitated. He didn’t have a good explanation at hand. He had told others that he had been travelling, looking for his grandparents, and had become stuck when the war began. He had a feeling William wouldn’t believe him. William seemed to notice his hesitation, and gave him a kind smile.

“No need to answer. We all have secrets.”

Red nodded, relieved. “Thank you, sir.”

“Is there anything else you wish to know about me, or the work you are to do?”

He thought about it for a moment. Was there anything? Really? “No. Thank you, sir.”

“Excellent. Well, then, I suppose it is time we agreed on a price.”

“Well, I haven’t haggled for work before.” Red sat back in his chair, just in time to conceal the jerk of stiffening shoulders. He realised he couldn’t have been more obvious if he tried. He leaned forward to put his coffee cup down, suddenly self-conscious and fidgety.

William leaned forward, too. “I am not here to take advantage of you, Mister Rossi. Do you have a figure in mind?” He said with a small chuckle. He held his hand out to brush against the back of Red’s for just a moment in a comforting gesture.

Red hesitated again. Italians were very affectionate. Maybe Australians were, too. He didn’t want to draw attention to how odd it was to him, and especially not to the fact it had sent goosebumps up his forearm. He glanced up to meet William’s eyes, but immediately grew self-conscious and looked back to where his cup sat on the table. Red could feel his cheeks grow warm. He wondered what was coming over him.

“Er... The hotel is paying me one hundred and fifty lire each week, so...would three lire an hour be acceptable to you?”

“That will be fine.” William said immediately. “How long do you suppose it will take?”

“At least an hour, maybe two for the moving.” He shrugged. “I’ll have it done as soon as possible, sir.”

“I’m glad to hear that.” He smiled. “Thank you for your help.”

“Thank you for hiring me, sir.” He drank the last dregs of his coffee. “I can start right now, if that works for you.”

“That would be excellent. I have an appointment I must see to, and I expect to be gone for a while. If I have not returned when you are finished, please lock the door behind you.”

“I will, sir.”

Once left to his own devices, Red moved the writing desk, wardrobe, chairs, and coffee table to one end of the room. It made everything look far more crowded, but it meant that there was room for the existing trunks to be laid out, side-by-side, against the far wall, with room to spare for the seventh one that William had asked for. All in all, this took him only ninety minutes. When William had not returned half an hour after that, Red headed home. He didn’t want to overstay his welcome.

On some level though, he felt a little disappointed.

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Chapter Text

William folded a striped towel. «May I request information about one of your slaves?» Asked the angles of the creases.

Cassius sprinkled water onto it with his left hand. «What sort of information are you after?» Replied the arrangement of the droplets.

«I want one of them to serve me.» William replied by adjusting his tie, his left hand in front as his right tightened the knot. It was the left hand that indicated service and the right hand that spoke of personal service to him. Had he then gestured outward, the act would have suggested, instead, service to Cassius.

He trusted Cassius to fill in the gaps: had this been about a fellow vampire, his approach would have been entirely different, so there was a mortal whose services he wished to obtain.

Cassius laughed. “You mean you wish to have one of them served to you.” He couldn’t resist making a pun. He knew William was one of many who did not keep human servants for longer than a year or two. He lacked the patience and self-control.

William narrowed his eyes slightly. Cassius had something he wanted, so he had to accept some poor decorum. But William’s manners were beyond reproach. He grabbed a rose from the table, and expertly pulled out its petals, one at a time, deciding to be direct. «It is your hotel. Is the American one of yours?» He arranged the petals on the table into a kolam of sorts.

“Do you not think I can control myself, that you refuse to speak to me, your majesty?”

“I think you are being rude. I am asking a simple question, your majesty.”

“I know about whom you speak. I found him interesting, too. That’s why he works at my hotel.”

“He is one of yours?”

“I considered it. But I have too many. Do you want him?”

“Yes.”

Cassius laughed. “It’s a pity. You’ll ruin him when you get hungry or bored.”

William frowned, and picked up the rose petals. «I won’t ruin him. I can control myself.»

He laughed again, and retrieved the towel. «I don’t believe you. You are aware of your reputation.» The way he picked it up spelled out the retort. Left hand, picked up from the centre. He elaborated with some careful folds.

“I will have him, with your blessing, your majesty.”

Cassius grinned. “Now who is being rude, your majesty?” But William knew that meant the American was his.

“Will you tell me where he came from?”

“I expect this favour to be repaid.”

“Naturally, your majesty.”

Chapter Text

 

Coriander 

𝒉𝒊𝒅𝒅𝒆𝒏 𝒘𝒐𝒓𝒕𝒉

When Red arrived at the hotel the following evening, half an hour earlier than he was supposed to, William was already in the lobby, legs crossed, reading the newspaper. A full cup of black coffee sat on the table before him, the steam long since gone.

“Mister Ryan?”

“Mister Rossi. You did a fine job last night.”

Red bowed his head for a half a second before thinking better of it. There was something about William that made him feel like he needed to bow. Even though he had never bowed to anyone in his life, short of playing pretend as a child. “Thank you, sir. I just need to buy you the new trunk. But there should be enough room for it.”

There was a soft rustling as William neatly folded the newspaper. “Can you do it tomorrow, and bring it here at eight o’clock?”

“Shouldn’t be a problem.” He hesitated. “Sir.” He added, still not feeling right speaking so casually to a guest.

“Excellent. I will give you the money.” William placed the folded newspaper beside the coffee and got to his feet.

Red noticed William never straightened his clothes when he moved. He had never noticed that most people did, until he noticed someone who didn’t. “Of course. Thank you, sir.”

William started towards the room, and Red fell into step beside him. “Please, don’t address me so formally.”

“Sorry.” Red murmured. Although William seemed completely at ease, Red wasn’t.

“Do you know where you will purchase the trunk?” William asked as they reached his room. He pulled a key out of his pocket and unlocked  the door.

“The day is my own tomorrow, so I’ll have time to look. Any trunk will do, right—as long as it’s big enough?” As he followed William into his room, Red caught himself fidgeting, picking at the edges of his nails, and hastily stuffed his hands into his pockets. Perhaps he shouldn’t have made promises about finding such a specific thing in a city that he still didn’t know all that well.

William approached one of the trunks and pulled another, smaller key out of his pocket with his gloved hand. “Yes, most any will do. Though there is a particular district that I would prefer you buy it from.”

William unlocked the trunk, pulling the heavy lid open with ease. The faintly sweet odor of cedar came from inside. Red couldn’t help but take a few steps forward: he had not seen inside one before, and he was curious what this man had thought important enough to take halfway around the world. The trunk held an odd assortment of wooden items, ranging from simple kitchen tools, to ornamental carvings, and jewellery. It seemed as though more items were stuffed into the trunk than would allow it to close, but he figured that was just a trick of the eye. Maybe the style just made it look smaller than it was.

At the nearest end of the trunk, there was a medium-sized box, about one foot square, secured with a big brass lock patterned with branches with spoon shaped leaves. William picked up the small box and set it on the table, fishing a second key out of his pocket. He unlocked it and opened it: inside there were neatly stacked bundles of notes—a combination of the Allied-issued banknotes and the newer Biglietti di Stato.

“Take one of these. You can use it to buy the trunk.” He held the box out to Red.

Red carefully approached and grabbed one of the bundles from the box. It felt slick and strange; no creases. William closed and locked the box, placed it back into the trunk, and then closed and locked the trunk. Red carefully flicked through the notes, breathing in the smell of the cash as he counted them. Right there, in his hand, was more money than he had earned in his entire time in Italy.

“Sir?” He felt uncomfortable all of a sudden, like a child holding a bag of sweets he wasn’t supposed to have. “This... this is an awful lot of money.”

“I would like a quite fine trunk if you see one, and I would hate you not to be able to purchase it.” He said, simply.

Red had trouble wrapping his head around the idea that this man could trust him so easily with so much. But then again, from the contents of the locked box, he might not even miss it if Red ran off. And if he ran off, he might not find more work for a while: no doubt a man with William’s resources could track him down and ruin him, if he wanted to.

The thought of running left as quickly as it came. No. He liked the job. He liked the promise of stability. And, as odd as he was, he quite liked William, too. He seemed a little eccentric, but pleasant to be around. He spoke English with him and made Red feel like he was being listened to, noticed, seen. He felt comfortable. More comfortable than he had in a while.

“Thank you.” Red finally said. He carefully placed the wad of money into his pocket, suddenly aware of how he normally crumpled notes into his pocket without thinking. He would need to buy something to keep his money secure, especially if William planned to send him on more shopping trips in the future. His pockets seemed too open and obvious all of a sudden.

“Now, come. I will show you where to go for the trunk.”

“You don't need to go out of your way, sir.”

“Please call me William.”

“Sorry…” Red hesitated. It still felt odd to call an employer by his first name, especially one who was no doubt used to being waited on. “I’ll be able to find something somewhere.”

“No, I shall take you. There is no sense in you going somewhere that sells inferior merchandise.”

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It was hard to believe that such a place could have existed so near the hotel he worked at, and that he had never happened across it before. There were beggars who hid their faces beneath thick shawls; smells of spices and clouds of thick incense that almost choked him even in the open air; and the sound of discordant music that seemed to float through the windows of every other building.

People stared at him as he walked, half a step behind William, trying to take it all in. People stopped talking when they got close, some giving awkward bows when William was within a few feet and not looking up until he had passed.

Red was glad it wasn’t just him who had that urge.

He almost couldn’t find it again the next day. When he did finally find the alleyway that led to the strange street he could swear he had passed the two shops sandwiching it—a shop exclusively selling flower vases and another selling jewelry that had spikes on the underside—three times before he spotted the entrance. The archway to the neighbourhood somehow looked darker, more foreboding in the light of day.

The street was much different; there were fewer people about, and no music or incense at all. There was only the sound of people shuffling about, and the smell of the dirt they kicked up in their movements. Perhaps that had been why he had so much trouble finding his way back. Without William, the few people he saw neither stared or bowed. There were a few small glances out of the corners of their eyes, a few whispers behind cupped hands when they thought he wouldn’t see them. It made him feel exposed and awkward, just in an altogether different way than the night before.

He saw a grand concert hall, with large posters on the outside walls that proclaimed the upcoming shows. He did not recognise the names of any of them, but that was not surprising. He was not exactly a patron of theatres, even back home. He stood out the front, taking in the strange names and looking at the dates. Each performance seemed to have only one or two showings, but rather than being on consecutive nights, they were showing weeks apart. He wondered why they were organised like that. It didn’t sound very sensible.

As he gawked at the posters (one showed a woman stuffing a man’s mouth with cloth and Red could not figure out what the context of that could possibly be), he heard the shuffling steps of a woman coming up behind him.  She was wearing a heavy red dress that covered her entire body, including her face: the sun’s bright reflection glinted off a pair of black glasses she was wearing underneath. The top of her form was a funny cylindrical shape, as though she was wearing a top hat underneath the thick red fabric. The long-sleeved dress stopped at her knees; her legs were clad in thick black stockings and she wore gloves and heavy shoes.

“Who are you?” She hissed at him in broken Italian.  “What is your business?”

Red was quite surprised at receiving such an unprovoked, frosty reception—and in worse Italian than his own, no less. “I want to buy a...” Red searched for the word, but was not able to find it in his limited Italian vocabulary. He gestured vaguely, outlining a rectangle with his hands.  “A big box?” He said finally, weakly.

The woman’s manner seemed to soften, though it was hard to be sure with only the most basic outline of her form being visible.  “A-ha! On a job for your master?”

Red tried not to cringe; his master? Her Italian was definitely worse than his. He had to remind himself he was in no place to judge. “Yes. My boss needs one for… things.” Okay, he really couldn’t judge.

She touched him gently on the shoulder. It felt unpleasant, and made him think of swimming in the lake as a child, of when his foot scraped something unknown on the bottom. She gestured for him to follow her.  “Come to my shop.”

Red followed, wondering about the wisdom of the decision of following strange women in parts of town he didn’t know. He couldn’t even be sure that she had even understood what he was looking for. Moreover, he had never seen someone dressed anything like this woman was. It was beginning to get warm out. She would have to be sweltering under that thing; he could only imagine what it would be like in June. Maybe she didn’t wear it every day. Or maybe it was a religious thing. Maybe she was a nun. Red had never met a nun before. A nun would have to be trustworthy. He relaxed.

Her store was two stalls down, and was far larger inside than the modest door and minimal decoration let on. He stepped inside, and everything smelled of sandalwood; the stall was filled with items in neat rows but scarcely a hair’s width between them. There were old pots with elaborate paintings of scenes he didn’t understand. Hundreds and hundreds of mirrors, from tiny hand mirrors to one that took up most of the side wall: it had to be thirty feet long and ten feet high. It was easily the biggest mirror he had seen in his life. Red wasn’t a tall man to begin with, and this just made him feel even shorter.

A few grand swords hung on the far wall, clearly never intended for combat with elaborate designs carved into the blades, and handles so covered in jewels they would tear open the hands of anyone who tried to wield them.  And at the back of the store, with one end against that far wall, there were two—no, three—large trunks. Four, if you counted the great stone thing that looked more like a giant granite coffin. The woman led him towards them, and gestured for Red to examine them.

They seemed normal enough. Two of them were made of dark wood, with the third being slightly lighter in colour. He nudged each in turn with his foot; they seemed sturdy enough. He considered for a moment whether he should buy a wooden trunk at all. He knew steel would be stronger and cheaper; and getting a steel trunk would mean leaving here, which sounded quite appealing at this point. William had not specifically requested that it be made of wood.  Still, his other six were wooden, and this store was in the right part of town. And William seemed the sort who would like things to match, at least in colour scheme.

The shrouded woman watched Red intently as he ran his hand over the lid of one, feeling the smoothness of the well-varnished wood. “They please you?” She asked.

“Maybe.” Red didn’t know how to begin deciding. Apart from the differences in the carved designs and the colour of the wood, they seemed identical to him. He decided to open them and check the hinges and clasps. Those would be the most likely places for the trunk to fail, he reasoned.

He went to the leftmost trunk and opened it.  The first thing he noticed was how it was more roomy than he had expected it to be. He felt a small bit of pride for noticing, even though it had been something of a trend lately.

The interior was bare, basic, with no lining. He pulled at the heavy lid, trying to put some force on the hinges. They held firm. The musty scent of old, unaired wood reached him.

He walked to the right, to the rightmost trunk, one made of the lighter wood. He nudged the corner with the toe of his boot; although the wood was softer, the trunk less heavy, it was still plenty strong enough to withstand the bumps and jostles that it would be expected to endure in its life. The design on the front was an intricate geometric pattern—mostly squares and triangles, with a few flowers carved amongst them. He paused as a distinct discomfort began to rest in his stomach. He looked to the left, at the middle trunk. The second he allowed himself to focus on it, he immediately felt the urge to move his attention elsewhere. He frowned, forcing himself to look back at it. He focused on the way it made him feel. Once again, the urge to look away began to consume him.

Despite himself, he shuffled sideways, towards the middle trunk. As he got closer, the skin on his neck began to prickle at some unseen danger. He glanced back at the woman, hidden beneath her robe. Her demeanor did not betray the slightest apprehension; she was probably bored, what with how slow Red was being. He leaned forward; now the hair on his arms began to stand up, and he felt the vague terror, the imprecise apprehension, of watching a scary film or reading a suspenseful book. He grabbed at the catch, which felt colder than the others, and opened the trunk.

The effect was immediate and intense. The apprehension, the dread, it all vanished. He felt… ordinary, as though he was an ordinary customer in an ordinary shop examining an ordinary trunk with an ordinary shopkeeper standing beside him. And, indeed, it looked ordinary on the inside. Much like the first one, it was roomier than he’d expected. It was lined with a smooth, shiny, dark red fabric with pockets stitched into it with gold thread. He knew this was the trunk William wanted. He cleared his throat and lowered the lid with a soft thud. On some level he was prepared to have that funny feeling again, to want to get away from the trunk; but when he closed it, it just looked ordinary. The apprehension was gone, replaced with a feeling of slight embarrassment at having been so worried in the first place.

Now he could bear to look at it, it was beautiful. The dark wood was carved with an elaborate series of scenes: on one of the sides, a tower in a rainstorm; a baby floating in a chest, fished out of the water by a man in a small boat. On another side, a man being given a variety of things: a shield from a nude woman, a helmet and a sack from a group of three mermaids, and a sword and pair of winged sandals from a muscular man in a loincloth. The third side had the man walking through a crowd of statues, wearing the items he had been given. With a small pull he could pull it far enough away to see the side flush against the wall, a man throwing a discus. It had felt a little like a let down, given the rest of it.

The top of the chest showed two astonishing scenes each bordered by intricately carved serpents. The first scene was the man cutting the neck of a frightened looking snake-haired woman, holding the shield up in front of him. The other showed a winged horse half-emerging from the neck stump, as the soldier held the serpent-haired head in the air. Red had never seen anything quite like it. He ran his fingers along the intricate carving, feeling the sharp angles, and gave the shopkeeper a small nod.

“I’ll take this one.”

The shrouded woman moved her head up and down in an exaggerated mirror of his nod. “Very good. Carry it to the front. Do you want me to wrap it in paper?”

Red shook his head. “No. That won’t be necessary.”

She walked towards the counter at front of the store, making a small hiss beneath her cloak, apparently irritated with him for who knows what. Red bent down, picking up the trunk. Empty, it was not nearly as heavy as any of William’s had been. He placed it gently on the floor near the counter, and grabbed the wad of money to peel off the appropriate number of bills when she quoted the price. It was far more expensive than he thought was fair, but he remembered William’s desire for the finest trunk he could find. This was the one. There was a feeling of sureness about it, that even if he went elsewhere, this would still be the right one. The sun rose in the east, water was wet, and this was the trunk William needed to have.

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That evening, Red knocked on William’s door, the elaborately carved trunk in tow. It was still unscratched, which was more than could be said for Red, who was nursing some very uncomfortable bruises from carrying something so awkward all the way back. Even carrying it the short distance up the stairs from the cloakroom to William’s room, it had taken Red a minute to catch his breath before he had knocked.

William opened the door almost immediately, and Red lugged the heavy, awkward trunk through the narrow door, placing it down in the small amount of space that he had cleared for it. Mercifully, it fit. He looked to William, who was wearing a fine navy blue suit, shiny black shoes, and thin black gloves. Red felt suddenly aware of how his third-hand shirt stuck to the sweat of his chest.

“What do you think, sir?” Red asked, rubbing his hands together to ease the ache in his fingers. The ones on the left had gone numb from where he knocked his elbow on the stairwell. William smiled, approaching the chest. If he felt any apprehension as Red had, it didn’t show. In fact he seemed quite charmed by it. He opened it and caressed the luxurious red interior. He gave a brief nod.

“This is very nice.”

“Glad you like it.” Red said, trying not to smile. He started folding the long sleeves of his shirt to his elbow, attempting to hide how pleased he was at the validation. “I thought it seemed to your tastes. What I’ve seen of them, anyway.”

“I appreciate that. Given your background, I must confess I was afraid you would have chosen one of those horrible American metal trunks. But this one is excellent.” He said, silently closing the chest.

Red considered mentioning the feeling of dread he’d had when he first saw it. He decided against it; he knew it must have been his mind playing tricks on him. Maybe it was just that the shopkeeper had been vaguely unsettling.

“Oh, and before I forget.” Red pulled the money from his pocket. “This is what was left. It ended up costing more than I thought it would.”

“Deduct your fee and then place it on the writing desk.” William waved him off, not even looking at the money. He was focused on tracing the carved design on the front of the trunk with his gloved fingers, the same way Red had done.

Red pulled a few bills free, quickly stuffing them into his billfold and cramming them into his pocket. It still didn’t feel secure enough.  He placed the rest of the money on the desk and wondered what it was like to be so unconcerned about money that you wouldn’t even look. “Did you need anything else this evening?”

“I do not believe so. Does the hotel require your services?” William stood up, and moved to the trunk that contained the box of money; the one that was full of the wooden carvings. He opened it and began to delicately pick a few of the carvings up.

“I don’t think so.” Red shook his head. “They had me run a few errands today, so I was going to head home and catch up on sleep, if you didn’t need anything else, s—” He stopped himself, remembering William’s reminder about being called ‘sir.’ Instead, he let the sentence linger. That seemed worse, somehow.

William paused, gently placing the carvings down. He went back to the new chest and placed his fingers to the clasp for a moment. Red hesitated. William hadn’t dismissed him, but walking off seemed like it would be rude. He wished William would say something, and it seemed like he would, eventually, but there he was, running a thumb over the clasp like he was looking for something. Maybe he was expecting Red to keep talking. Should he say something? It seemed he was maybe supposed to, but what?

“If you are interested, I may have an opportunity for you.” William said, finally.

Red almost sagged with relief. “Yes?”

“I was planning on employing a valet in the next few weeks. I have errands that must be attended to: shopping, deliveries, that sort of thing. Much like what you did today.” He stood and wiped the front of his already spotless jacket with his right hand. It seemed deliberate, somehow.

Red considered it, but not for long. It sounded like a good deal. “Sure, I can do that.”

“Excellent. What is your weekly wage?”

“150 lire, sir.” Red replied. It was reasonable enough for a hotel’s night-porter. Really, considering his murky background and awful Italian, he thought the hotel had been generous. He couldn’t afford any luxuries by any means, but with some notable sacrifices he was able to eat three simple meals a day and still slowly accumulate a nest egg for the time when he would inevitably need to go on the run again.

“I will pay double that to have you on retainer.” There was no hesitation in William’s voice.

“Oh. Um. That’s very generous, si—Mister Ryan. Are you…sure, though?” He raised his eyebrows, almost skeptical. “That’s a lot of money, and I don’t think…I’m not quite worth that much money.” He said finally, hating how it sounded.

William smiled. “You are worth whatever someone is willing to pay you. Besides, it is not easy work. The hours will be long, and you will have to travel all over town. And, as you will be on retainer, I will need you to be available at my convenience.”

“I can do that.” Red held his hand out for William to shake. He found himself more than slightly motivated by the opportunity to work more closely with William, in addition to the wage. It would be nice to have someone to talk to, someone to see more than once, and to get to speak in English again.

“Excellent.” William pulled off his right glove, deliberately, slowly, leaving Red’s hand hanging in the air. When he finally shook it, it felt completely different to any other hand he had ever shaken. William’s skin was soft, his grip strong, and his palm slightly cold. He knew his hand would have had to be awfully clammy in comparison, warm and sweaty from having carried the trunk up the stairs.

William pulled his left glove off with the same amount of care, and placed them neatly on the writing desk. He then moved back to the carvings, picking them up and placing them next to the new trunk. “Where do you live?” William asked, feigning mild interest.

“Oh, uh…” Red hesitated, suddenly embarrassed. “I’m just staying on Signore Polidoro’s property, a few miles out of town.”

“Ah, in a spare room?” He opened the new trunk, and started placing the wooden carvings into it, as though they would shatter if he wasn’t careful.

“…not exactly.”

“Oh?”

Red paused, trying to think of how best to phrase it. “Technically speaking, I sleep in the barn.”

William’s eyes flickered to him, just for a second. His eyebrow raised, just barely. It was a tiny movement. “Is the pay at this hotel not adequate?” He asked, ceasing the business of relocating the carvings.

“It’s not the hotel’s fault.” Red added quickly. “Times are hard for everyone right now. And the barn’s not so bad.”

William frowned. “Well, I had best let you get back there. Give the hotel notice at once. I will have a job for you at eight o’clock tomorrow evening.”

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Red was never comfortable speaking to Paola Di Pietro, right from when he first met her. It had been three months earlier, back when he had been going door-to-door, trying to sell services—cleaning, repairing, mending… anything—in awful Italian that consisted mostly of the word ‘lavoro’ (job) and a lot of gesturing. She had approached him in the street, telling him that her hotel needed a porter urgently, and that she was willing to take a gamble on him. He’d been suspicious at first: Paola looked to be his younger sister’s age, with long, impossibly straight blonde hair, smooth skin, and a sharp look in her eyes. What authority could a young woman like her possibly have to hire a hotel porter?

But Red had been knocking on doors for hours that day: and it was nearly noon and he hadn’t even been able to do so much as sweep a floor for a crust of bread. If she was willing to take a gamble on him, then he was in no position to be picky.

And now, after working in her hotel for three months and seeing how perfectly suited she was to running it, he’d become intimidated by her—especially now he had to resign. He was worried she’d be cross with him, leaving after everything the hotel had invested in him: not just the third-hand uniforms, but the help with the language and the advice that Adelina had given him on how to lift things without hurting his back. He knew that if things didn’t work out with William, he’d have to try to get this job back. It wasn’t a bridge he wanted to burn—or smoulder even slightly.

“Singora Di Pietro?” Red murmured, knocking on her open door. Her office was small, sparsely decorated: tall, metal lockers that were never opened dominated the far wall and a pair of crossed swords hung on the wall by the door, glinting in the electric light. Red had always felt intimidated by those swords: they almost looked as though they had been placed there so they could be pulled off in a fight. Unlike the ones at the trunk stall, these swords were practical, with sturdy handles and blades that looked like they had been kept sharp enough to glide through a man’s rib cage. Finally, there was the window: it took up the whole of the back wall and showed the vertical columns of the pantheon illuminated in the soft moonlight. This was, to Red, the oddest part of the entire room: the window was not only unobscured but completely bare, not even sporting a curtain rod above the frame. Every other window in the hotel had shutters and layers upon layers of thick black curtains, but this one had no way to block out the sun’s glare.

“Yes, Carlo?” She asked, not even looking up from the letter she was writing. She was one of the few people who normally spoke English to him, but they were still the most uncomfortable conversations he had. She was never rude with him, but something about how she spoke always made him feel like he was interrupting something.

Red cleared his throat and began to pick at his cuticles. “I won’t be coming in for work tomorrow. Or after that. For the foreseeable future.”

That was enough to make her look up. “Why?” The question was sharp, firm and her eyes narrowed slightly.

“One of the guests has asked me to work as his valet full-time, so I won’t be able to stay on as a porter.”

Paola nodded, tapping her finger nail against her teeth. He wondered if it hurt. “Ah, yes. I had noticed Mister Ryan had taken a… liking to you.”

Red felt an unpleasant shiver run down his spine and into his belly, where it coiled like a snake. He felt scrutinised, like he was missing something; like the other staff were talking about him behind his back, gossiping in rapid-fire Italian they knew he wouldn’t understand even if he overheard. He knew that his work for William couldn’t have gone unnoticed: she had once seen he was missing a button on his shirt even though the button would have been tucked in anyway. Nothing got past her, not in her hotel.

“I’m sorry,” Red murmured. “It meant a lot—really, an awful lot—that you hired me, considering… my Italian and everything.”

“It is a compliment to the quality of our staff that our discerning patrons take such a liking to them.” Paola turned her attention back to her letter.

Red had never heard her compliment anyone. He wasn’t quite sure how to respond. “He wants me to start tomorrow night.” He said, deciding to act as though he didn’t find it odd. “But if you’re short, I can try to work something out with him so I can cover the desk when you need.”

Paola shook her head. “No, Carlo. You are excused.”

Red nodded, his chest almost deflating with relief. “Thank you, Signora Di Pietro.”

She waved him off, not even looking up to see him leave.

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“Good evening, Carlo. Are you ready to check in?” Adelina, the front desk clerk, asked when Red came through the door the next evening. While Red’s Italian wasn’t perfect by any means, the three months he spent working at the hotel meant he had a good command of all the relevant vocabulary.

“Oh, no. I still live at Signore Polidoro’s. I am here to see William Ryan. Did Singora di Pietro tell you I work for him now?” Red replied, a bit surprised by her assumption. She had to have known there was no way someone on his wage could possibly afford to stay at the hotel.

“Yes, she did. But Signore Ryan had us prepare you a room. He said you will check in tonight.”

“Really? Are you sure?”

“He was very clear.”

Red stared at her for a moment, mouth slightly open. He cleared his throat. “Well,  alright then. I suppose I will be staying here tonight.”

“Please sign here.” The clerk handed him a piece of paper, his name already filled in. Red took her pen and made an ‘X’’ on the dotted line. He would have to sort it out later; he didn’t want to be late for his first day as William’s valet.

“Is that everything you need?”

She nodded. “Yes, here’s your key.” He pocketed it—it was small, brass, and felt warm in his hand—but went straight to William’s door and knocked.

“Good evening, Mister Rossi.” He said, motioning Red inside. “Have they shown you to your room yet?”

“Ah, yes. About that. I do appreciate it, but even with the generous wage you’re offering me, staying here really isn’t a possibility for me. Financially.” He said awkwardly, not wanting to refuse William’s good will, but not wanting to spend so much of his income on a place to sleep. The thought that he may have to run again was itching at the back of his mind, and he wanted to save as much as he could in the meantime. It wasn’t a pleasant thought, but it was a necessary one.

“No, no!” William replied, amused. “Living so far out of town, in a barn that I can only assume has no telephone is simply unacceptable if you are to do everything I require of you. I will be paying the bill, of course.”

“Oh! That’s very….generous.” Red hastily tried to add up how much it would cost to pay for two rooms here on a long term basis. It was absurd. “Are you sure? That’s a lot of money for convenience’s sake.”

“Are you questioning my financial situation?” William raised an eyebrow at him; another tiny, barely noticeable movement.

Red’s eyes went wide. “No, of course not! I just meant that… it’s a lot of money.” He repeated weakly. The pressed on as William’s eyebrow twitched again. “And I understand your need for convenience, but… I don’t think my work is worth quite so much, sir.”

“If that is the case, then you will find I will not keep you on for long.” He replied, but with no threat in his voice.

“Well, okay. Then what can I do for you, sir?”

The corner of William’s lip twitched. “That’s twice now you’ve called me sir. Have you forgotten our previous discussion?”

“Right, of course.” That urge to bow was bubbling up again, like a gentle weight on his shoulders and a heaviness in his stomach.

William went over to the writing desk to pick up a thick, wax-sealed letter and a small parcel wrapped in brown paper and string. He handed each to Red in turn. The package was heavy for its size. He wondered what was in it.

“Deliver these to the address on the front.” He paused. “I do not trust the Italian postal service.”

“Neither would I.” Red agreed, studying the parcel and the letter. He turned his attention to the address. “I can be there and back in two hours. Should I report to you when I get back, or will you be asleep?”

“I am expecting a return letter, so deliver it when you return. I will not be asleep.”

How could someone already have the reply when the letter hadn’t been delivered yet?

He shrugged it off. Rich people were strange.

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Red made impressively good time. He’d gotten the hang of how the Italians built their winding streets and narrow alleys, and how to hitch a ride from drivers who would actually save him time instead of costing it with long stories and bad shortcuts.

He returned in ninety minutes with another envelope. It, too, had been heavy, made from a textured linen and sealed with an intricate design, stamped into black wax.

He spent the walk thinking about the hotel room that William had arranged for him. He seemed far too generous. Was he being foolish? Kind? Or maybe he just didn’t understand how expensive it was, or didn’t care? Was the work Red was hired for so important it justified the cost?

Or, maybe, did William like him enough to justify the cost?

The thought gave him a heaviness in his stomach, uncomfortable but not unpleasant. He tried not to dwell on it.

Regardless, he was determined to live up to the expectation that the man had set. He maintained a slow jog most of the way back, catching his breath as he entered the hotel. He was still covered with a thin sheen of sweat when he knocked on William’s door.

There was a short pause as William opened the door. “That was quick.” He said; clearly, he was impressed.

“I’m getting the hang of the city.” He handed William the envelope, trying to hide how pleased he was with himself. “The servant gave me this for you. She said it was important to tell you that her master is enjoying the current weather.”

“Thank you.” He took the letter. “Could you please go back and inform the servant that I found the rain rather charming?”

It had not rained in more than a week; and even then, it had been a mere spatter of rain that barely dampened the soil.

That was definitely odd. Was he delivering a code? Could William be a spy?

Perhaps being on the run had made Red paranoid.

Still.

Deserting was one thing; treason was another. But William had said he was Australian. Australia wasn’t allied with the Axis. Maybe William was a spy for the United Nations? But then he would have to be suspicious of Red, an American, here, now, with the draft in place. Maybe—

William was looking at him. “Are you alright?”

Red snapped out of it. It wasn’t a problem for now. He could figure out what to do later. It wasn’t likely. It couldn’t be. And if it was...it was a problem for later.

“Of course.” He muttered, trying not to think about how he was already a little tired. “Did you want me to take anything with me?”

“No. I hope to have a letter ready when you return.” William had clearly not been joking about this job being more challenging.

“No problem.” Red forced a smile. “Anything you need.”

Chapter Text

Yolande knocked gently on her master’s door. “My lord?”

“Yes?”

“The messenger said that his majesty found the rain rather charming.”

Cassius paused, taking a moment to compose a reply. “Have him tell King William that it has done my marigolds well.” He enjoyed the irony of the night porter sending a message predicting his own doom.

He picked a heavy, wax-sealed envelope off a shelf. “And have the messenger deliver this.” In the letter, Cassius confirmed that William could take the human for his own use, and outlined the sorts of favours that he would one day expect in return.

“As you wish, my lord,” Yolande replied.

He nodded. “You are dismissed.”

“Thank you, my lord.” She curtsied and rushed over to the drawing room where the messenger was waiting to receive the second letter and third cryptic remark of the evening.

Yolande pondered over what she’d just heard. She had worked for Cassius for a hundred and twenty years. Back in her youth, before she had gotten involved in all of this, it was popular for friends and suitors to send each other messages using flowers. Each bloom had its own meaning; there were dictionaries printed that kept track of them all. She fondly remembered giving a card featuring a drawing of a mimosa flower to an overly eager suitor: the flower, a symbol of chastity, had told him that she would not provide him with what he was after.

Marigolds were the flowers of grief, so she idly wondered if there had been a recent death.

She had known for a long time that Cassius’s letters and cards were full of symbols and hidden meanings, but there was no dictionary that could begin to decipher them.

Chapter Text

Narcissus by Bernard Spragg, on Flickr
"Narcissus" (Public Domain) by Bernard Spragg

 

Jonquil 

𝑰 𝒅𝒆𝒔𝒊𝒓𝒆 𝒂 𝒓𝒆𝒕𝒖𝒓𝒏 𝒐𝒇 𝒂𝒇𝒇𝒆𝒄𝒕𝒊𝒐𝒏

‘Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth’ had become Red's motto after he started working for William. ‘Don’t bite the hand that feeds you’ was another he occasionally thought of. He wondered if it was about horses too. It would make sense; he didn’t think much of horses.

The jobs had not been too odd to start with: moving furniture, delivering letters,  shopping—grunt work, mostly. Things he expected to have to do for someone upper-class.

Then he had to deliver thick stacks of handwritten documents sealed in wax, often paired with packages that ranged from smaller than his hand to so large they could hardly be carried. The deliveries were often to absurd villas that were full of displays of wealth, ridiculous for a city like Rome that was in the midst of rationing. He delivered a small statue of a bull to one apartment that had seemed refreshingly normal from the outside; but when the servant opened the door, the room was filled with peacocks. He couldn’t see the floor for the sheer number of them. They were huddled so close together that Red solemnly wondered whether they could move much at all. He felt sorry for them.

He wondered if he could sneak in and free them.

Then came the books. Red scoured small bookshops for peculiar old books that had been either kept in glass cases with absurd price tags or long-forgotten and used to prop up a wonky table. Red flipped through the books sometimes, the ‘spy’ theory still lingering in the back of his mind. The subjects of the ones that were in English ranged widely: religious poetry, a play about men competing for a woman’s heart, memoirs, one about the correct way to raise egrets. There were books of poetry, plays, and history in Italian, French, Spanish, and German as well. One was in a language he didn’t recognise, and included illustrations of hacksaws, corn, pottery, shrimp, and strange cats with pointy ears and short tails. None of the books had any suspicious markings or codes that Red could identify. If William was a spy, the code was utterly incomprehensible.

Red had apparently done well finding these things, because William started giving him more varied—and bizarre—shopping lists after that. Red didn’t ask why. That would be the ‘not biting’ part. He also wondered if this information could be useful to the United Nations one day; he bought a notebook and started recording what he bought, when, where and who from. He figured it couldn’t hurt; not biting the hand that feeds hardly applied if the hand belonged to a German spy, after all.

Red was glad he no longer needed to rely on the public kitchens that sold discounted meals; not only was his wage generous compared with what the hotel offered, but several of the houses he delivered to insisted he dine with them. He would be presented with elaborate meals and encouraged to eat as much as he could, while the masters of the house picked at their own portions and stared at him without blinking—if they bothered to join him at all. One time the lady of the house watched him from a balcony while he ate on the terrace. That had been especially odd.

William always seemed eager to hear about the details of the meals, wanting to know exactly what Red was served and in what order. He had started taking notes as soon as he was excused.

Red found the whole thing uncomfortable at first, but it seemed less strange after he had dinner with William and he did exactly the same thing. William had just sat and watched contentedly as Red worked his way through two glasses of wine, fresh tomatoes on small pieces of toast, soup, mushrooms filled with spiced polenta, beans, a salad, a plate of grapes and plums, a dessert of a dozen tiny cakes, a small glass of thick coffee, and a small glass of something that tasted like lemons and moonshine and made his throat burn.

He was definitely the strangest person Red had ever met; but he was always polite and friendly towards him. Red enjoyed the company—and he had developed that odd, heavy feeling in the pit of his stomach that made him not exactly hate being watched like that.

The hours were strange, too: William never had an audience with him before sunset, and seemed to be awake at all hours of the night without so much as a yawn or flutter of the eyes. Red didn’t want to ask. He was happy to allow William’s eccentricity, harmless as it was. Besides, his odd schedule was no doubt the reason William needed a valet in the first place.

He toyed with theories during the taxi rides and long walks that were part of the job. His favourite was that William and his strange friends were all acquainted through some religious sect. There were many religions that were superstitious about the movements of the heavens and encouraged their members to fast but to be generous to others. It was a more comforting version of events than that he was a spy; if he were with the United Nations, Red would be caught and charged with treason; and if he were with the Axis, Red was allying himself with monsters. Though, he reflected darkly, not monsters he hated enough to risk his life to fight.

He tried to push the second option out of his mind. If he had proof, he would leave, even if he didn’t want to, turn everything he had on William over to the army, and accept his punishment. Maybe it would assuage some of his guilt.

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One day, his shopping list included a deck of a specific type of  playing cards, along with stone statues, special plant oils, and farm tools. It had taken the full day to find everything, and he didn’t think William would be happy with the quality of the corn knife he had found, but overall he felt he had done well. But he still didn’t understand why anyone would need a fancy corn knife: it was for harvesting corn; how fancy could you get?

When Red arrived at William’s room at eight o’clock sharp (even slowing down on the stairs to be sure), there was a mug of thick, hearty coffee waiting for him in front of one of the comfortable armchairs. He started drinking while William inspected the shopping.

“I did not think you would be able to find a corn knife.”

“It took some looking, but I managed.” Red felt calmer for the first time in a while; just a week ago, he would never have been comfortable sitting and drinking coffee while William stood and examined the shopping. Red had come to enjoy the way William inspected his shopping, the way the corners of his mouth curled upwards ever so slightly when he was satisfied. Noticing small things made Red more comfortable; he felt like he was finally getting used to William’s strange, relaxed etiquette. Maybe even starting to understand him. Red held the warm cup of coffee in both hands and watched as William picked up a bottle of sweet-smelling oil in his gloved hands, and smelled at the cork.

“Are you going to make perfume with that, or something?”

William smiled. “No, it is for a friend.”

“Is he going to make perfume?”

“She might, yes.” William placed the bottle back on the table with the acceptable items— on the rare occasions something had been rejected, it had been placed on the floor—and picked up the deck of cards. The box was old, the cardboard fraying at the edges. The cards themselves had once been colourful, but time had dirtied and faded them in places. One had even been torn almost halfway through. Red managed to bargain the price down by almost a quarter for that.

“Do you play?”

“Play what?” William asked, carefully opening the box and sliding a few of the cards out.

“Bridge?” Red paused, realising that there were only two of them and that he didn’t really know how to play bridge, anyway. “Pinochle, anything like that?”

William grinned, examining the cards. “I haven’t in quite some time, but yes, I can.” He noticed the torn card, and gave a small frown.

“Are you any good?”

“I was.” He gently placed the cards back into their tattered box.

Red paused, worried about being inappropriate. William was smiling again and had a gleam in his eye.

“Would you… like to play now?” Red asked.

“If you wish. They have cards at the front desk.”

Red nodded. He knew that the expensive, decades-old deck of cards had not been bought to play. “I’ll go get some.”

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Four days later, Red had finished another of William’s strange errands. It had taken every single one of those days, tracking down all the items on the odd list that William had given him. This list had come with another purse full of so much money that Red was once again paranoid about pickpockets. When Red remarked on this earlier, just in passing, William had presented him with a stiletto that could be hidden in the sleeve of his shirt. Its handle alone looked like it was worth more than the contents of the purse it was meant for defending.

Each of the items had been carefully wrapped in sheets of thin paper and put carefully into the false bottom of a suitcase: a statue of a woman made from green stone, an idol of a long-forgotten god, a wooden cup lined with silver, the skin of a platypus, a basket woven from flax that adhered to William’s exacting requirements for thickness and colour, and a pendant with a stone that seemed to subtly change colour when handled.

It had taken days to track them all down, and it was with no small amount of pride that he realised he was actually quite good at it. Had a knack for it, even. It felt good to have a talent; there was nothing quite like the satisfaction of finding something after searching for hours.

“Shall I have someone take your bag, Signore Rossi?” asked Adelina as Red entered. Now he was officially a guest, she always offered. And he always refused.

“No, thank you. I’ve got it.” Red shook his head, holding the bag a little tighter on instinct. He went up the stairs, two at a time, and knocked on the door to William’s room.  

“Good evening,” William said, motioning for Red to enter. He was wearing a dark blue three-piece suit with a white shirt, suspenders, and a red and white striped tie. This was well within his usual style, though it seemed to Red that he had never seen William wear the same article of clothing twice. He wondered where he kept it all.

“Good evening.” Red held up the suitcase. “I found everything you wanted.”

There was a perceptible pause. That was rare with William.

“Everything?”

“Yes. I hope they’re what you meant.” He took the list out of his pocket, trying once again not to look too pleased. The paper was creased and beginning to thin, the writing fading away in places from being unfolded and refolded many times. “I wasn’t sure if you’d be happy with the female figure I got, so there’s a second one in there, just in case.”

William gently opened the suitcase, silently slid out the false bottom—he never accidentally grated at the side like Red did when he opened it—and silently scrutinised each object in turn. He placed them on the writing desk, one by one. It took almost ten minutes, but Red stood patiently: there was no coffee waiting on the table for him this time, so he thought he might be asked to go out again.

“These will do quite nicely. Thank you.” William said, as he placed the last item in position.

“There’s about a third of the money left,” Red added, pulling the purse from the hidden pocket in the heavy material of his pants. He had sewn it in himself a few weeks earlier. The stiletto wasn’t the only precaution he took. “The idol didn't cost as much as I thought. He seemed happy to be rid of it.”

“Take half for yourself, and place the rest on the bedside table,” William murmured, taking a small step towards him.

“Oh. Thank you. That’s… very generous of you,” he said, purposely not meeting William's gaze. He could feel the hair on the back of his neck standing on end, and the blood thudding in his temples, the way it always did whenever William stood that close to him.

“You have earned it. You’re very talented, Carlo.”

“Ha. Thank you.” Red enjoyed that William respected him and appreciated his hard work. It felt good, but also undeserved; he knew that the only reason he was working for William was because of his prior cowardice.

“I am lucky to have met you.”

“Because I’m good at finding strange knives?”

“That is not the only reason. I have enjoyed having you around.” William smiled, taking another step forward, still staring at Red. He was now definitely standing too close, but Red found that he didn’t feel as uncomfortable as would have expected. He didn’t know how to react. His cheeks were starting to burn. William was very close. Red could smell his cologne: lemon and lavender.

The heavy feeling was settling in his stomach again. He had gotten used to it, and realised it was not as unfamiliar as he had thought. It made him think of being fourteen, learning how to dance with the freckled girl in his class. He had noticed how she smelled then, too. Or being eighteen, kissing a different girl (also with freckles) on a dare at a party. The feeling was heavy, and warm, and uncomfortable, but not unpleasant.

It was the same feeling, yet slightly different. It had more substance now.

William took another small step closer, gently running his left hand down the length of Red’s right forearm. Red let go of the purse, letting it fall to the ground. He had no idea what was coming, what was expected from him. Was he supposed to go? Stay? Was William going to call for coffee? It was all happening so quickly, Red didn’t know how to react. William quickly moved his hand over to Red’s hip, watching for his reaction.

Red stood nervous, not quite sure if all this was really happening, as he felt his pulse thudding against the tense muscle of his throat. He leaned into William’s touch all the same, and with that, the tension seemed to ease.

That was all the encouragement William needed. He placed his right hand on the side of Red’s head, and moved them still closer together. Red’s hand moved to William’s waist, his rough calluses bunching on the smooth, soft material of William’s shirt. They were very close together, their noses almost touching, when—

William kissed him. It lasted for only a few seconds, but that was enough for Red to know beyond a shadow of a doubt that there was nothing in the world that he had never wanted anything more than to kiss him again.

William pulled back for a moment, studying Red’s expression, hoping that he wouldn't react badly to the advance. But there was no chance of that. Red moved to kiss him again, for longer this time, pushing his weight almost entirely against him.

Red had kissed people before—always girls. William’s face felt harder, more teeth behind his lips. Women had always gone slightly limp when he kissed them, following his lead on how to turn, how to kiss. Red would pull away often, check they still wanted to be there, hold back in fear of hurting them or making them uncomfortable.

But he had never kissed anyone like this. He didn’t have to check. He didn’t need to.

It was technically wrong in so many ways: he was his boss; he was a man. But kissing him felt good. Just as good. Better even. There was no pulling back, no checking if he still wanted to be there.

Kissing William was wonderful. It raised goosebumps up his arms. The smell of William filled him every time he pulled back for breath. William’s body was big and solid and strong in a way that was different and exciting and comforting and familiar all at once.

And then, just as quickly as it had started, William stopped him.

“It is late. You should return to your room,” he said, stroking Red’s cheek with his thumb.

Red shook his head. He didn’t know what to say or do, but he did not want this to stop.

William kissed Red’s forehead and broke the embrace, though he didn’t step away, still close, close enough to kiss again. “I am sure you did not expect this, Carlo.”

“No—I mean, I didn’t—but it was good.” The word was nowhere enough. He wanted to wrap his arms around him, to bring him in again, close what little gap there was. “You don’t want to?”

“I want you to think about this.”

Red stared at him, not understanding. “What’s there to think about?”

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Having had its fill, the vampire tossed the middle-aged woman to the side. She stumbled, falling to the garden path with a small thump. She lay there, her fingers tracing patterns in the cobblestones as she let out a sigh of contentment.

“Don’t stop for politeness’ sake. I am sure that one has at least a pint of blood left,” Cassius quipped, sitting at a wrought iron table. His white-gloved hands gave gestured orders at the servants digging up flowers in the garden, who only watched out of the corner of their eyes.

“It has been a long time since I’ve killed someone else’s janissary, your majesty,” William muttered, the inch-long fangs shrinking back into his dentition. The woman stood, curtseyed deeply, and walked away. The two vampires ignored her.

“Let’s not be too formal with each other tonight. I’d prefer to speak plainly.”

“Why, exactly?” William sat in the chair opposite.

“I know what I want in exchange for that human, and I don’t want to be bogged down with niceties.” Cassius paused. “Have you killed him, yet?”

“I have not even fed from him.” William held his shoulders proudly.

“Really?”

“Yes.”

“What other use would you have for him?”

“I have him go shopping.”

“Ah, I thought I might try him at that, after the opera, when the hotel wasn’t so busy.”

“He was very good at it. Better than any other I have seen.”

“Really?”

“He was able to find a flax basket that was suitable to present to a duke as amends for dispatching his janissary. Do you have any idea how hard it is to find a human who can do that?”

“I wouldn’t know, I have never needed such a gift.” Cassius laughed, before pausing and taking on a serious tone of voice. “And here I was thinking you were going to woo him, after what we saw at the opera. You were saying it might be fashionable soon.”

“Even if it were, it would be a lot of work. And you know how conservative Queen Kalina is. If I were to bother, I don’t know if she’d be impressed by it; and nobody else worth talking about lives on the continent.” William shook his head. “No, I plan on having him do some shopping, using him to get any official documents I may need, and making him into a janissary.”

“And when you get bored?”

“What I do with my janissaries is my business,” William smiled. “Now, what did you want in exchange for him?”

“Do you have a duchy one of my progeny could rule?”

“I have plenty of land; it’s prey that’s the problem. Do they keep janissaries sustainably?”

“You’re one to judge!”

“My city of three hundred and fifty thousand is more than enough for my habits. However, the town I am thinking of has perhaps ten thousand.”

“That will be fine for a pup.”

“Why do you wish to move them, if I may ask?”

“Politics. The town you have in mind would be isolated from the rest of us?”

“Extremely.”

“Then it will be perfect.”

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Red slept in small, fitful dozes that barely registered, between long bouts of staring at the ceiling, his mind running in circles. His bed, normally pleasantly soft, had been rolled about on so much the surface just felt damp and full of lumps. He couldn’t get comfortable.

That was the least of his worries.

William was a man. Red had never kissed a man. He hadn’t really entertained the notion. Kissing men. A man.

Red pressed his hands into his cheeks. It wasn’t that he hadn’t thought about it. It had come and gone. Every now and then, the image, the curiosity, would crop up; but less often than he thought about women.

—maybe because you let yourself think about women more—

And overall he had thought about women more.

He knew there were men who were… with other men. He knew of it. But he considered his own thoughts of it in the same way as thoughts of jumping off bridges and whatnot: weird ideas from the back of his mind that he didn’t entertain. Everyone had those strange thoughts sometimes. And sometimes those thoughts were dreams. It was fine. It didn’t mean anything. It didn’t have to mean anything.

But kissing William had been terrific.

Terrific wasn’t a strong enough word.

He grinned at the ceiling, his chest feeling like it was fit to burst. He pressed his hands into his cheeks again, feeling the stubble under the heels of his palms. His hands tingled. Warmth ran up his spine in small electric shocks.

It was like kissing girls in high school. But different. Better. There was more of this feeling, whatever it was, this time. And he knew it wasn’t for any other men, not even the ones who had crossed his mind back home. Just William.

Red’s grin faded.

Who was a man.

And his boss.

And possibly a German spy.

He pushed that last thought aside. No. There was no way. He wouldn’t acknowledge it. Refused to. It was impossible. It was illegal. Had to be illegal in Germany, too. There was no way William could have kissed him like that and been a spy.

Red knew that. But it niggled at him. Like a tiny pebble in his shoe.

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He went back to William’s room the next evening.

William answered the door, wearing his usual casual attire: pants, suspenders, and a long-sleeved shirt. Red noticed that he wasn’t wearing the gloves that usually went with it; but the thought only stayed with him a second, lost in the sea of nervous feelings that had consumed him the past day as he hoped and wondered what was going to happen next.

“Good evening.” William smiled, gesturing for Red to enter the room. William could sense there was something off about Red; the way he held his shoulders revealed a tension that had not been there last night.

“Evening,” Red replied, managing to force the word out as he stepped inside, his arms held stiffly at his sides.

“Would you like me to arrange some coffee?”

“That would be good, thank you.” Red fidgeted, clenching and unclenching his hands as William picked up the phone and made his request. The moment he hung up, Red was out with it. “I have to ask you something.”

“Of course.”

“Okay.” Red took a deep breath, thinking. He hesitated, opening his mouth and closing it again. “Will you be honest?” he said finally. It was barely a question, more a statement. He already trusted William more than he was willing to acknowledge.

“I will be honest, though there are some secrets I may yet keep.”

Red thought about it for a few moments, looking down at his clenched hands. “Will you tell me if you can’t tell me?”

“Yes.”

“Okay.” Red took another deep breath. “Are-you-a-spy-for-the-Germans?” he said, immediately cringing at himself. He wanted it to sound accusatory, strong, and powerful. Instead it came out like a child’s voice, rushed and tinged with hope and worry.

William shook his head. “Oh, goodness no. I am not involved with the war, on either side.”

Red visibly sagged with relief. He put a hand to his forehead. He felt like all the air had gone out of him. “But the letters, the packages… they’re nothing to do with the war?”

“No, they are not. Please, sit down.” He gestured for Red to sit in one of the chairs, the ones they had sat in when they first negotiated their working arrangement.

Red’s shoulders tightened again, but he sat all the same. The chair was firm and well-made, but didn’t make him any more comfortable. William sat in the chair opposite him, his movements calm, his posture straight, but relaxed.

“Is everything alright?” William asked.

“Yes. No.” He rubbed his forehead. He couldn’t stop touching his face. He wasn’t sure why. “Well. You being a spy would be… less than ideal.”

“I can imagine.” William gave another small smile, which faded as his voice became more serious. “I know I have put you in an uncomfortable position, and suspecting I was a spy must have made it all the more so.”

Red leaned forward in his chair, his hands on the arm rests. “No, you didn’t. You didn’t make me uncomfortable. Not like that, I mean.”

William opened his mouth to speak, but there was a harsh knock at the door. He sighed.

Entra!” he called. Adelina entered the room, carrying a small tray of coffee. She gave Red the same mildly awkward smile many of his former coworkers had been furnishing him with since he started staying at the hotel. Red returned it with the same awkward wave he had been furnishing them with. He wondered if he’d ever get used to it.

Metterli sul tavolo,” William instructed. Adelina obliged, placing one cup of thick, black coffee in front of each of them. She bowed, wished them a good evening, and left.

William picked up his mug and blew at the steam. He held it for a few moments and then placed it back down. Red gratefully picked up his own mug, and sipped at it, even though he couldn’t taste anything beneath the heat that burned his tongue. He needed something to do with his hands.

The pause started out comfortable, became awkward when it became clear neither of them was about to start talking, and then grew comfortable and familiar as the seconds ticked past.

“I regret what I did last night,” William said, finally, as Red started to take a second sip of his drink.

Red almost choked. “What?”

“It was unbecoming of a gentleman,” he said plainly. “One does not make advances on one’s employees.”

“Well, they could,” Red murmured, clearing his throat. “Depending on circumstances.” He took another shaky sip of his coffee. It had cooled enough that he could taste a hint of the rich bitterness through the overpowering heat.

“How do you mean?”

Red hesitated, trying to think of something witty. He gave up. “I liked kissing you.”

“I liked it, too.” He leaned forward. “But that does not make it appropriate.”

“I can handle inappropriate.” He rested his elbows on his knees, the coffee cup still in his hands. He hesitated. “As long as you’re definitely not a spy. I have standards.”

“I am not, but I don’t think you could trust a spy to answer honestly.” William picked up his coffee cup, placing it against his lips for a moment. He paused and placed it down again, leaning further forward.

Red considered this; the thought had occurred to him. “I guess not. But I trust you.” He wondered what to do with his cup.

William smiled. He let the pause endure for a few moments more than would be typical. “Is the coffee to your liking?”

“I want to kiss you again.” Red stared levelly into William’s eyes and placed his cup down. This time there was no cringing at his inability to keep his cool, though his rapid heartbeat seemed to fill his entire chest.

“Are you sure? It would be most inappropriate.” William grinned, meeting Red’s gaze, and leaned in further, placing his hand on Red’s upper arm just for a moment, as though he was brushing a piece of dust away. They both knew he wasn’t.

“I’ll live.” Red hesitated for a moment, wanting to lean further forward, but realising with frustration that the coffee table was in his way. His face was so close to William’s; there seemed to be only six inches between them. Red’s cheeks felt flushed, his throat dry. All he could think was how stupid he had been last month when he placed the coffee table between the armchairs.

William sat there, the grin still on his face, as though he wasn’t acutely aware of Red’s predicament with the table; or perhaps he was amused by it.

Frustrated, Red stood up, leaning forward and down to bridge the gap and kiss him, their lips meeting across the coffee table. Red pressed his mouth hungrily against William’s, wanting to enjoy the moment while he still had that first burst of courage in him. William leaned into the kiss, putting his hand gently on the back of Red’s head, firmly, but without the force of Red’s.

Red pulled at William’s shirt, urging him into a standing position as the kiss grew less frantic and more passionate, deeper. William stood, and Red shuffled himself closer to William; but, in doing so, Red bumped his shin on the coffee table. The pain of the bump meant nothing, but the high, hollow sound of the table sliding along the floorboards made Red’s skin crawl. He broke the kiss, just for a moment; but that was enough for him to see his coffee cup wobbling dangerously out of the corner of his eye.

The cup tipped over with a small thud, spilling the thick, dark liquid all over the table.

“Should we… do something about that?” Red breathed, that burst of courage almost gone.

William smiled. “No. A spill never hurt anybody.”

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It had surprised Red that William hadn’t known how to play poker; but perhaps it wasn’t popular in Australia.

He had learned quickly, and proved to be a worthy opponent: his countenance was often inscrutable, but sometimes Red would recognise the barest twitch of his mouth when he drew good cards. Red knew he had tells of his own, but that was fine: it made for a competitive game, one where they could share stories, discussions growing deeper and more intimate than they had been back before they had kissed, back when they were still playing pinochle.

Over the next week, they talked about everything: men, women, travelling, regional alcohol quality, and Red’s day-to-day struggles at the steel mill from before he had been drafted—though Red carefully avoided any mention of the army. William revealed that he dealt in antiques, and confided that he occasionally smuggled them, which was a good enough explanation for the shopping trips, packages, and strange codes to relieve the weight in Red’s chest. Not legal, but not treason.

Despite the new closeness in their relationship, William kept his quirks: he didn’t like Red visiting before eight o’clock, and sent him back to his room in the early hours of the morning. Red was so used to this that it didn’t occur to him to ask about it.

They played cards. They lay on the bed and listened to the radio. They even took walks around town—though Red didn’t like those as much, for he was too scared to touch William. And he wanted to touch William, to feel safe and warm and wanted the way William’s arms and lips and body made him feel when they had their private moments together.

Their relationship didn’t move beyond kisses, fond words, and long embraces. One evening William had gently moved his hands down the back of Red’s trousers, but Red had flinched, and William had moved his hand back to Red’s hip, whispering an apology. He never made an advance like that again. Red was glad for it: it was all so new, and wonderful, but there were things he wasn’t ready for. Things that weren't ready to be pushed. Not yet.

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Red lay there, on his side, his forehead touching William’s, for what felt like hours, as the melodious sounds of Italian music played on the radio. He dozed. He didn’t want to move. On some level he still felt this was too good to be true, and he didn’t want to think about anything else.

His stomach growled. He ignored it, trying to enjoy the feeling for a little longer. But it was too late: he’d entertained the thought of food, so the pain that dug diagonally into his belly grew sharper. William had clearly heard his stomach, too, for he moved, pulling away from Red. Red’s fingers impulsively grabbed at William’s shirt as he moved.

“Well, I suppose it is time we get you something to eat,” he said softly, running his hand up Red’s neck with feather-light fingers.

“You’re not hungry yet, are you?” Red asked, forcing his hands to relax. He didn’t want to get up. He didn’t want William to get up, either.

“I won’t be. I ate before you arrived.”

“One day I’ll actually get to see you eat,” Red murmured, propping himself on one elbow to kiss William’s cheek. Reluctantly, he got out of the bed. It had taken him more than a week to be comfortable getting out of bed, rather than holding onto William as though he had to savour every moment like he wasn’t going to get more. “I need something big. Something filling,” he added, as he adjusted his belt.

“Do you want lasagne again?” William asked, getting out of bed with the same care and precision he gave to everything.

“That’ll work,” Red said, moving over to kiss him again, at the edge of his eye. “And if you change your mind, I can share. I was raised right, you know—great at sharing.”

“Of that I am sure,” he agreed, making for the phone while Red grinned. William picked up the receiver and spoke to the concierge in Italian. Red didn’t bother trying to eavesdrop. He didn’t have the energy for it. William started undoing the buttons of his long-sleeved shirt. He often changed shirts two or three times a night, claiming they were dirty, even though this shirt was still whiter than anything Red had ever owned.

William hung up the receiver and went to his wardrobe to pick out a clean shirt from the dozens that hung there—this one bright yellow. “Your meal will arrive in five minutes. I told them I was rather hungry.” He shrugged his white shirt off, gently folding it and placing it into a basket at the foot of the wardrobe.

Red’s first thought was to say something sentimental and cheesy, but he thought better of it. “Thank you,” he said instead. It wouldn’t have come out right anyway. “You’re spoiling me, you know. My mother wouldn’t approve.”

William gave a small chuckle as he pulled on the yellow shirt. “Mothers never do,” he replied, moving forward to where Red was standing, placing his hands at Red’s side to give him a short kiss. As he was about to break it to put his shoes on, Red grabbed his collar, pulling him closer, embracing him with a kind of unbridled joy he wasn’t sure he had ever felt before he’d met William. When Red was finished, he released him, sitting on the bed to watch him finish getting ready: shoes, vests, coats, and ties felt excessively fancy for him, but seemed a necessity for William. There was a comfortable pause as William buttoned the yellow shirt, and then proceeded with his strange habit of removing the laces from his shoes and then putting them back on.

“Could I ask you something?”

“Always,” he replied, pulling on his socks.

“Do I still work for you?” he asked, trying to keep his tone light, even though the question had been at the edge of his mind for days. “I’m still happy to do things for you, but am I still under your employ? With… this?” He gestured vaguely to the bed, to the deck of cards on the table, to William, to the room in general.

“What would you prefer?” He tied the laces on his left shoe.

“Oh. Well.” He rubbed the back of his neck. Red wasn’t sure what answer he had expected, but that certainly wasn’t it. “I’m… not entirely sure. I think being with you and working for you is… strange. This is new to me. I mean, not…being with someone. I’ve had girlfriends, but…not with a man. Not an employer. I mean, obviously.” He hesitated, then gave a small, frustrated sigh. “Sorry. I’m not that good at this.”

“This, whatever it is, is rare. I doubt anybody is experienced enough to be good at it.”

Red scoffed, smiling again. “You are.”

William smiled. “Thank you.” He paused and pulled on his right shoe, carefully tying the lace into a bow. “I am experienced enough to be concerned for you.”

“What do you mean?”

“Remember when I told you that one does not make advances on one’s employees?”

“Well, yes?”

“In making advances on you, I may have put you in a position where you felt you needed to reciprocate, lest you find yourself without a job.”

Red looked about to argue, then stopped. “Well. That makes sense, I guess. I mean, in general.

“Which is why I wanted you to think about it, that first night. I should have… been clearer, that I didn’t expect anything from you.”

“What, not anything?” Red grinned, unsure of what to say, and attempting to lighten William’s seriousness.

He smiled, walking over to Red, sitting beside him on the bed. He placed a hand on Red’s knee, squeezing it as he spoke. “All I expect is to know you are spending time with me because you want to, not because you are afraid you will be back on the streets if you refuse me.”

“I am,” Red murmured, his hands encircling William’s wrists. “The first part. I mean. The ‘wanting to spend time with you’ part.”

He smiled, rubbing the underside of Red’s wrists. “Then, to answer your question, I don’t think you’ve worked for me for a little while.” He paused, pulling a hand free to gesture at his new trunk. “I will be honest. I will still ask for your help on occasion. But you are welcome to ask anything you like of me in return. But it will be out of good will, not obligation.”

“I’d love that.”

“Excellent,” he said, moving to give Red another firm kiss. Red pulled his head towards him, forcing their faces as close together as he could manage. They sat entwined like that until the knock at the door forced them to separate much sooner than either of them would have liked.

Chapter Text

“Bless me father, for I have sinned. It has been eight years since my last confession.”

“I am glad that you have come back to the Lord after such a long time.”

“I accuse myself of a great many sins. But there is one sin in particular that is on my conscience, and led me to return after so long. I have become interested in one of my employees to an inappropriate degree, more than is proper of a gentleman.”

“Many of us are guilty of that sin, my son. It can be a form of greed, where the pursuit of things in the mortal realm is done without regard for the eternal. Is that why you have come today?”

“Not precisely. I fear my… greed… will cause a scandal. It could ruin me.”

“You are speaking of material things. Think not what effect your sins will have on you in this world, but on your soul in the kingdom of heaven.”

“My soul may be unsalvageable at this point.”

“Nobody who seeks penance is beyond heaven. Have you acted on this desire?”

“Yes, though not to the point of committing the sin of adultery. However, I worry that my infatuation is excessive, even given the circumstances.”

“It sounds as though you are behaving as appropriately as can be expected. As greed is the enemy of charity, remember to give alms to the poor, especially in times such as these. Pray for guidance, make an effort to attend service and confession more often, and, above all, continue live in chastity until you have been joined in the sacrament of marriage.”

“I will.”

“Now, say the act of contrition, if you remember it.”

“O God, my God, I repent of all my sins with all my heart. I am heartily sorry not because of Thy just punishments, but above all because they offend Thee. I firmly resolve, with the help of Thy grace, to confess my sins, to do penance and to amend. Amen.”

“Our Lord Jesus Christ absolve you; and I, by His authority I absolve you from every incurred excommunication and interdict, so as much as I can, and your needs require. I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.”

“Amen.”

“You remember the act of contrition well, after so many years.”

“I appreciate the opportunity to confess the sin for which I am so ashamed. Though there was one thing I forgot to mention.”

“Please tell it.”

“I confessed my secrets to a heretical priest, and I plan to kill him very, very shortly. Do you suppose the Lord would forgive me that, too?”

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

Pennyrile 

𝒇𝒍𝒆𝒆 𝒂𝒘𝒂𝒚

Rome, Lazio, Italy
June 3, 1944

They were in William’s bed. There was nothing between their bodies anymore. No clothes, no separation. Not anymore. They were entwined, joined in primal and intimate way that Red couldn’t have known he needed until it happened. Red felt his heart beat in time with William’s, as they shared the very life-force that animated them. It at once felt like it took so long and not long enough, time and space being both irrelevant and all that remained.

All that remained apart from their bodies, together.

Just as Red had imagined, had hoped—familiar and terrifying and intimidating and comforting and so, so perfect.

They weren’t in the bed.

They were together in an alcove Altare della Patria. People were around—the vanishingly small number who cared to be there in these small hours of the morning. The darkness or the corner or their stealth concealed them from those passers-by. The lack of solitude made the acts all the more alluring for the fear of being seen, though they both seemed to know that hidden in this safe place, it was impossible.

They drank each other in.

No: they’d spent the evening on Gianicolo Hill.

The short hike afforded them total privacy and solitude—their groans and cries could be heard only by the star-lit sky as they joined together, and separated. After they’d lain together, they rested on the grass, watching the wine dark sky grow a pale grey in the east, a pale grey soon pierced by the blazing amber rays of the sun, bathing Rome in a glorious golden glow.

It was beautiful.

Red woke up.

He glanced at the clock in his room. Noon.

He yawned.

He looked at the book on his bedside table—A Farewell to Arms, on loan from William—but he couldn’t think of anything less exciting than picking it up again.

He wondered what the kitchen was serving for lunch today.

Red had long since gotten over the discomfort of those dreams: now the attraction had been acknowledged, accepted, nurtured—now he and William were together—he’d started to enjoy them. He had been so worried William would hate him for having them.

Now they were…

…a possibility…

…and he’d started to wonder if the reality would be as good.

He liked the way he felt in his dreams. He was not nervous and insecure and unable to speak, unable to put voice to those feelings, wishing that William would try and press on again, so Red didn’t need to say anything but let his wordless desire speak for him.

As though it hadn’t already.

He thought again, about those dreams, the feelings they awoke in him. He knew he wanted to ask for… more, to put this new longing into words, to face the nerves and the fear that the nerves had formed from.

Maybe he’d do it tonight.

 

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When eight o’clock rolled around, Red didn’t knock on William’s door; that routine had long since changed. It was kept unlocked now, so Red just walked in. William was lying on top of the bed, his long dark pants and long-sleeved shirt looking as though they had just been pressed. He placed the newspaper he had been reading on the bedside table.

“Hi, did you sleep well?” Red said, climbing onto the soft bed. He leaned over to kiss William, who returned the embrace, pulling Red closer. It was comfortable, familiar now. Red pulled away, to settle on the bed next to him, taking how safe and warm he felt for granted. He thought about his dream: was now the time? His stomach still felt full and heavy from his dinner, and he felt so very, very comfortable. He was in no rush. Later.

“I did, thank you.” William’s reply was short and clipped, borne from urgency rather than indifference. William sat up, picking up the newspaper again to show him the headline. “Did you hear the news?”

“What news?” he asked, propping himself up on his elbow to read. His Italian was nowhere near good enough to read in a position as relaxed as lying down, let alone with the other distractions that laying beside William in bed was likely to encourage. He scrutinised the thick black letters of the headline—Hitler autorizza la ritirata tedesca da Roma—and stiffened.

His elementary Italian was well up to the task of deciphering that headline: Hitler had ordered the German forces to leave Rome. What did that mean? Would the Americans take the city? It was good news. He felt a pang of guilt for the terror pooling in his throat. This was the worst thing that could possibly be happening. Perhaps they wouldn’t find him, surely they thought he had died, would anyone recognise him now after all this time? Or maybe—

“I hear the Americans will arrive any day,” William commented.

The tension in Red’s shoulders radiated to his hands, balling them into the fists and crushing the edges of newspaper where he had been holding it. William didn’t understand what a disaster this was. He couldn’t. Red threw the paper down, cursed under his breath and repeated it, louder, getting to his feet. He began to pace the room.

“Are you not happy that your countrymen will shortly have control of this great city?”

“Yes. No. I mean…” He ran his hands through his thick black hair. It was getting to ear length now—unsat. It was the longest it had been since he was a child. It looked nothing like the regulation cut in his photograph. They wouldn’t see him. Wouldn’t notice him. Wouldn’t even think to look for someone like him. Would they? “I mean, I’m happy the war is going well for them, but this isn’t… they’re not exactly who I would want to run into any time soon.” He swore yet again, sitting down heavily on the bed, his face in his hands. He pushed the heels of his hands into his eyes, feeling the pressure on his orbital bones, trying to focus through the rising panic in his chest.

“And why is that?” William said, getting out of bed and moving to sit beside him.

“I'm not…” He rubbed his eyes; he’d always known this would come sooner or later, but he hadn’t imagined it would be like this. In this situation. “My name isn’t Carlo Rossi. It’s Reginald. Reginald Wilkins.” The name felt strange to say again. Felt wrong. “I… I was a soldier. I left. I ran away.” He started wringing his hands, rubbing them anxiously over one another, feeling the rough calluses on his palms. It still hurt to think about, brought a deep pain into his stomach. “People had died, and I was scared, and I didn’t know what to do, and I… I panicked. And I ran. The rest of my battalion is probably dead. I don’t know if they had reported me missing, or if they knew I had deserted, or if they thought I…” His chest felt tight. Like he couldn’t breathe properly. Like when he broke that rib in the playground by the park when he was ten and he couldn’t breathe because it just hurt so much and the air just wouldn’t go in. “If they find me... they execute people, William. I can’t…” Red took another deep breath, trying to force the air into his lungs. “I can’t… they’ll…” He felt like—

— like before with the bullets and the yelling and the dirt and smell oh god the smell he was going to die he was going to die —

Like he did before, when he ran. His chest felt so tight and he couldn’t breathe in here and he had to run he had to go he had to—

Then William’s cool fingers interlaced with his, stopping his hands from going one over the other, stopping Red from rubbing them raw.

Red took a small, rasping gasp of air. He took a deeper breath. Another. His rib wasn’t broken. No one was shouting. He didn’t have to go anywhere. There was no smell of dirt.

“I’m sorry, William. This isn’t your problem. I shouldn't… I shouldn’t have said anything.”

"You have nothing to fear.”

He scoffed before he could hold it back. “Are you kidding?” Red looked at him blankly. “I'm an American in occupied territory! I’d be lucky if they don’t think I’m a spy! Of course I have something to fear!” He cringed the moment the words were out his mouth. He pulled his hands away from William’s, guilt pooling in his gut, getting to his feet. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean… I have to…” He ran his hands through his hair again. “I would have loved to stay with you, but I have to go. I have to go before the Americans, before they—”

For the first time, William looked away from Red to stare at the floor. “You’re not going anywhere.”

“Are you…” Red could feel his heart thudding in his ears. “Are you going to turn me in?” He felt fear rising in his throat, tightening every muscle, bringing a chill over him. He could feel it choking him.

“I would never hand you over to be executed.” William got to his feet, grabbing Red’s hands. Red hadn’t noticed that he’d started rubbing them together again. The burning in his palms that his fear had obscured began to fade, leaving behind the familiar, uncomfortable rawness.

“Oh thank god.” The tension in Red’s shoulders relaxed. But then… “But I can’t drag you into this.” A lump rose in his throat, separate to the fear. A different feeling entirely. One that made his eyes prickle and his cheeks burn. “You’ve been nothing but generous, and… if you’re caught with me, they could imprison you too. For—for all sorts of reasons. I can’t… I can’t let that happen to you.”

“Come.” He smiled, pulling Red towards him, bringing him tightly into his chest, holding him there until Red’s breathing slowed and the tightness in his throat began to fade. Until his heart thudded only in his chest rather than rattling through his entire torso. William pulled away from him just enough to look him in the eyes. “Reginald, you will be quite safe with me, I assure you.”

Red felt like he should argue, but relaxed further into the hug, clinging to William. Whether it was true or not, he wanted to believe William, he wanted to be told it would be fine, and that was enough. “God, I haven’t heard that name in a while. Everyone back home calls me Red.” He swallowed, the lump in his throat going with it.

He kissed Red’s temple. “I promise you shall be safe with me. I am more powerful than you think.”

“More powerful than the American army?” He believed in William, a lot more than he ever believed in anything else. But he was still one man. An upstanding and strangely secure man with considerable means, but still one man.

“I’m powerful enough to help you, Red.”

Red smiled. It was nice to hear from him, even with all things considered. He entwined his fingers with William’s. “Are we going to stay here? Or do we run?”

“I was planning on travelling Europe for a while.”

“But how are we going to get out of Italy? The Americans are coming, and the Germans…”

“I have my ways,” he said, with a calm completely at odds with the way Red was feeling, as though he didn’t know what it had been like, the fighting and the smell of the dirt and the sound of the aircraft and the scrambling and the waiting oh god the waiting for—

“Before we go, there is something I must tell you.”

“Oh?”

“Remember when I told you that all men have their secrets?”

“...Yes?” Would he need to smuggle Red out of Italy inside some antique cabinet? Or was it something worse? Was William a spy after all?

William gently placed his right hand on Red’s left temple and tilted Red’s head to the side. He placed his face against Red’s neck, inhaling deeply through his nose, feeling the warmth of Red’s skin.

“Your neck is beautifully shaped.”

“Thank you?” Red’s fingers encircled William’s left wrist, hesitant, but not fighting back. “What are you doing?”

“May I bite your neck?” he murmured, running his tongue along the underside of his teeth.

Red hesitated. “Sure.” It had been weeks since William had last asked permission for to bite him: he’d asked the first few times, but small bites to the neck, chest and shoulders had become well incorporated into their amorous routine. This hardly seemed the time for it.

“Thank you.”

Red caught the briefest glimpse of William’s canines—were they always that long?—before he plunged them into his neck.

The feeling was immediate and intense. A sharp, profound pain that had Red let loose a scream that was softened by the bare, pale hand that William had brought to his mouth in the same movement as the bite.

The pain faded away as quickly as it came. It felt as though every part of his brain was exploding, in a good way, and then going dormant, fully relaxed. His extremities tingled and then went numb. He felt as though the shadows of William’s mind were upon him: intoxication, confidence, lust, strength, and intelligence. He could feel that William was strong, that the American army put no fear into his heart. Red could feel his very life, the energy of his body, leaving him, and joining into William’s empty body along with his warm, wet blood. It felt for that moment as though they were one person, sharing a soul, sharing everything. It felt impossible. And the bliss —the numb feeling, his mind empty and clear all at once, it felt as though he was strong, as though he was smart, as though he was at the centre of—

It stopped.

After what seemed like only a moment, far too short a moment, William’s mouth left Red’s neck. William firmly placed the fingers of his right hand on the wound. It began clotting almost immediately. It stung, it throbbed, but the pain was too mild, beyond Red’s notice as the rest of him was still tingling so wonderfully, like the first stretch after a long sleep.

Instinctively, Red stepped back, out of William’s reach. Red’s fingers moved to his neck to feel the drying scabs that had formed there. He had expected to feel blood trickling down his neck, or… he wasn’t exactly sure what should be there.

He was expecting something.

He took his still-tingling fingers off his neck and examined them; they were smeared with blood, his blood, but not nearly as much as he would have expected. It was more like the small cuts he used to get when he was learning to shave.

“What… what was that?” Red touched it again, pressing in, expecting blood, expecting a bruise, expecting something. “What did you do?”

“Did you enjoy it?” William didn’t want to make a mistake, here, not after how invested he’d become in Red. He’d contemplated avoiding this revelation for now, but he knew the conversation would have to happen eventually, and their travel arrangements would be far less complicated this way.

Besides, it had felt good to finally taste him.

Red hesitated. He pushed down on the wound again, instinctively, still not sure what he should expect to have found there. “I did.”

“I’m glad to hear that.” William nodded, acting as though he hadn’t expected any other response. But on their first time, humans usually asked for him to continue. Some of them begged—Red’s reaction was one of the most restrained he had seen.

But Red wasn’t like the others. He hadn’t come to William, seeking out the rare thrill that was whispered about in disreputable establishments. No, he was here because he liked William; and William had found that he liked that.

William leaned slightly forward, almost imperceptibly, to monitor Red’s reaction. Red stepped back, just a little. It was a completely unconscious movement, born of confusion, not fear.

“Did you bite me? Did you really just bite me?” he demanded, more incredulous than scared.

“Yes.” William took a small step backwards. There was a slight slackening in Red’s shoulders.

“Why isn’t it bleeding?” Red asked, touching the raw scab again. There was an edge to his voice now. He was still confused, he wasn’t scared, but he felt… very odd. Agitated. “I feel like it should still be bleeding.”

William smiled. “It stops rather quickly, if it is done gently.”

Red stared, not having any idea how to respond. He had to close his mouth to avoid saying ‘who bites people?!’.As it was, he stood there, frowning deeply, still feeling where William’s teeth had sunk in.

William’s instinct was to relinquish Red, to accept he wouldn’t come back. There would always be others—any that didn’t want to come back weren’t worth thinking of.

But Red wasn’t involved with William because of the promises of boons or bliss; he probably would stay, even if he never got bitten again. Even if he never wanted to be bitten again. It was strange, to think a human might see beyond William’s nature.

He dropped that thought from his mind. Now was not the time for introspection; Red needed his attention.

There was no others like Red. None that William had met.

The silence was long, even by William’s standards. “I will need to make arrangements for our departure.”

Red considered it a few moments, his mind shifting gears from the confusion over what had just happened to practical matters. “Right. What do you need me to do?” He took his hand from his neck, clasping his hands in front of his stomach, suddenly too aware about what he did with them. They still tingled faintly; they didn’t feel raw anymore.

“Just be prepared to leave at a moment’s notice. I will take care of the rest.”

“I can do that.” Red studied his hands, looking at the rough, sun-damaged skin around his knuckles. He cracked them without thinking, “If you do think of anything… I could help. I feel good. I feel like I could do anything right now.”

William took a step towards Red, reaching to hold his hands. “Excellent. You will need that strength for the journey.”

“But… do we have a moment first? To talk?” Red pulled himself away. He couldn’t let the conversation end, couldn’t let William get away with doing… that, and then not telling him anything. Not helping him understand. He remembered how his mother had always told his sister Dorothy not to let men toy with her, not to let them treat her as though she didn’t deserve explanations. Red had thought he wouldn’t need that advice, until now.

“Of course.” William let Red have the distance he made between them, gently placing his hands in his pockets. He seemed relaxed, which made Red all the more agitated: first the Americans were coming, and now the one person he thought he could trust had bitten him like that. And he didn’t seem to appreciate the gravity of the situation.

“I’m not clear on…” His hands went to the dry scab on his neck. “What you did. Why you did it.”

“You told me your secret, I only thought it fair I tell you mine.”

Red stared at him. Was William being difficult on purpose? “You didn’t actually tell me anything.”

“I suppose I didn’t.”

He was definitely being difficult on purpose. “You bit me instead of saying anything, really.”

“Well, it speaks for itself.”

Red clicked his tongue. “You know how I like to have things explained.” Red smiled a little. It faded quickly. “You bit me. Don’t get me wrong, it was…” He looked for the word. He touched his neck again. It still tingled there, but the rest of his body was returning to normal. “Nice. But why? Were you really…” He gestured to-and-fro at his shoulder, letting the incomplete question hang.

“Yes, I was.”

“So you’re…” Red didn’t want to say it. It was too ridiculous.

“A vampire, yes.” William’s voice was smooth, level, matter-of-fact.

“Is this why you never eat anything? Because you eat… people?”

William frowned. “That’s a rather vulgar way of putting it.”

“And why you’re never awake during the day.” This wasn’t even a question, more a realisation. Red had never seen him during the day. He just thought William was odd. Why had he never thought about it before?

“We are nocturnal creatures.”

“Oh.” He looked at William again, then took another step away from him and sat down on the bed. “Oh boy.” He rubbed his face with his hands.

“Will you be alright?” William sat beside Red, leaving a few inches between them.

“Yes. Yeah. Fine. I’m fine. I will.” He rested his elbow on his knee, his chin in his palm. “It’s… it’s a lot. I would think you were joking if you had… ever joked. About anything. Ever.” He took another deep breath, and pressed his finger tips against the corner of his eyes.

William waited for Red to break the silence this time.

After a very long time, he reached for William’s hand, and kissed the back of it. “Okay. I’ll be fine. I will be fine.”

“I am sure you have heard many legends about my kind.”

Red smiled. “I saw Son of Dracula last year.” His smile faded and he let go of William’s hand, remembering how dangerous the vampire had been in the movie. “Is it… like that?”

“I don’t know. I have not seen any vampire films yet.” He paused. “I have read Dracula.”

“Is it like that, then?”

“Somewhat. I eat blood, and I sleep during the day.”

“Okay.” He tented his fingers and pressed them to his mouth. “Okay. I can deal with that.”

“I am glad to hear that,” William said, closing the gap between them, placing a hand on Red’s knee. “Now, go gather your things. I will spend the rest of the evening making arrangements for our departure.”

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All told, Red didn’t have much in the way of ‘things’.

There were his banal possessions: about a week’s worth of clothes in varying stages of disrepair, three formal outfits that William had bought for him, and his razor. He couldn’t fit all of the clothes into his rucksack, so he left a few of the tattier items out. They were still perfectly serviceable: a small stain here or there, the fabric rough and piled, but overall, better than many of the clothes he’d worn when he had started eking out a living in Rome. He’d give them to a beggar after breakfast.

His personal effects were even more sparse, because he had to keep them hidden for so long; first in his boots, then under whatever he was using as a mattress. Now, they were laid out on his writing desk: two photographs. The first was of his sister and his mother from just before he shipped out, the second was of Janet, an old school friend of his. That wasn’t entirely accurate; he blushed, rubbing the back of his neck. They’d been on a few dates, before everything had changed. It had been on one of those dates that they’d watched Son of Dracula: she loved scary films. It was just before he left for Basic, and she’d joked that nothing he was afraid of could be as scary as what had been in the film. He smiled at the memory.

He kept the picture of his family, but decided to leave Janet’s picture behind.

Then there were the less personal things: some handkerchiefs with landmarks embroidered into them that he’d bought, thinking his mother might like them if he ever thought of a way to send them to her. A small, imperfect wooden carving of Romulus and Remus suckling at the she-wolf. A few postcards. They went into the rucksack, too.

The packing done—all told it took fifteen minutes, including the time he spent reflecting on his family, and silently debating whether to keep the photo of Janet—he went to bed.

He couldn’t sleep.

Not because his mind was wandering; it wasn’t. In fact, he found himself uncharacteristically able to stop himself from thinking over everything William had said. It was easy to keep his mind quiet. It was as though he could will himself to leave a thought be, and his mind obeyed.

The fact of the matter was that he simply wasn’t tired.

And it wasn’t the frustrated alertness that comes from being unable to fall asleep. He felt as though it was the middle of the day, he’d just had a whole pot of coffee, and he was excited to go out somewhere. Sleep just didn’t interest him.

He got out of bed.

He was bored.

He went back to William’s room, hoping to ask more questions, or just to talk to him about anything, or just to lie in bed with him and listen to the radio.

There was no answer to his knock on the door. He must have left. Gone to visit one of his strange friends. Friends who must be stranger than antique smugglers. Stranger even than a spy’s network of contacts.

Red swallowed, thinking that last part through. Had he been in danger, when he visited William’s friends? If they were vampires, surely they could have killed him? Vampires had to be dangerous, didn’t they? But he felt he could trust William—really, he had no choice, and William had always been so kind to him. Perhaps William hadn’t been a vampire for long, so he was still kind. Perhaps vampires were kind in general, and the stories were wrong. Red thought back to the huge villas with pale, skinny servants, to the peacocks crammed into that tiny room: vampires probably weren’t kind in general. The legends were there for a reason, weren’t they?

He didn’t want to think about this. It was too much for tonight. One thing at a time.

He went back to his room. He looked at the bed.

He couldn’t even think about trying to sleep again.

He was too alert. Too… wired.

His gaze fell to the novel on his bedside table. William had loaned it to him a month earlier: A Farewell to Arms, it was called. He read it mostly out of obligation, thinking William would be impressed if Red could discuss fine literature. He’d made it about a quarter of the way through, each page a struggle. But tonight he was feeling good, focused, and there wasn’t much else to do, so he sat in the armchair, turned on the reading light, and started again from where he’d left off.

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He finished the book but, despite it being as dry and depressing as it had always been—how could anyone enjoy a book like that!— he never felt the desire to put the book down. He stood up, stretched his aching neck, and looked at the clock.

Eight hours had passed.

It didn’t seem like it had been that long. He’d been lost in the flow of the words, in the rhythm of the turning pages, even though he hadn’t enjoyed it.

He didn’t even feel tired.

At least it was morning, now. He could go for a walk, go have something to eat. Maybe that would take his mind off things, or at the very least, give him some clarity about what he should do next.

As he stepped out of the hotel, the early morning air fell crisp and fresh upon his senses in a way he never had before. He could smell the fresh dew, the faint scent of orange blossoms and gasoline. He heard the distant sound of automobiles being driven by those who could afford it. Everything felt sharper, crisper. He could even feel the cobblestones under his feet through the thick soles of his shoes. He wondered what this could be—was this what love felt like? Could he be in love with a man—and one he had known for not much more than a month, at that? Or was it just relief at finally finding somewhere where he felt safe? At there being someone in the world who didn’t want to work him to death, to march him towards enemy bayonets? Someone who just wanted to keep him safe. A vampire who wanted to keep him safe. Maybe he wasn’t safe at all. Maybe he was a larder, a snack being saved for later.

He didn’t feel like one. Though he guessed the apple doesn’t think about being eaten.

Red made the short walk to the small shop he had been eating breakfast at every morning since he could afford such extravagance. He went the long way around, through back alleys and slowly strolling through the gardens he liked the most, taking in the morning air, the half-opened flower buds, the birdsong. As he walked past wrought iron fences, he ran his hands over them, the cool, hard metal feeling good on his still slightly raw palms.

His thoughts were still racing, twisting between two in particular, and he hoped they would work themselves out during the long walk. They didn’t.

The Americans would take Rome soon. Red could hardly believe that the army had gone from so many failures—and dead soldiers—to taking one of the greatest cities in the world back from the Nazis. What did this mean for him? Would the Americans find him? Did they even know he’d deserted? From what he had been able to piece together from rumours and newspaper articles, his battalion had moved forward to Cisterna. They had failed, and the casualties were heavy. He knew somewhere deep down that if he had not run away—if he had not deserted— he would probably be dead. He thought back to his family and wondered if the army had contacted them. It had been five months, now. Surely there had been some news, even if just from his letters no longer arriving. Had they been told he had deserted and was a wanted criminal? Had they been told he had died at the hands of the Luftwaffe? Had they been told nothing, and been left in fear and uncertainty? He wondered what would be worst.

And in addition to all of that guilt and fear, he’d just found out that William was even more strange than he had thought. More than he could have imagined—who could imagine something like that? William was not just an eccentric wealthy man, not a spy, not even the member of a bizarre cult. Red felt the dry scabs on his neck. William had bitten him and eaten his blood, like something out ofSon of Dracula or campfire stories. This was not normal. This man was not human. He could be more dangerous than any spy. What did he say—more dangerous than the army. Did William really believe that? Or did he just mean he had friends from shadowy places who would hide him?

Red thought about Son of Dracula. He and Janet had seen it just before he left, one of the last things they did together in the week the draft office had given him to get his affairs in order. He didn’t realise at the time that it would have been relevant—and maybe, ultimately, more important than Basic had been.

He wondered if the film had had any useful information. He remembered that both vampires were ultimately dispatched when their coffins were destroyed. Red had been in William’s room a lot. He’d moved the furniture twice. There was no coffin at all, so the part about them needing to return to the coffin each night couldn’t be true. Nor was the weakness to crosses; they’d walked past churches with what had to have been reckless abandon if William could be harmed by the shadow of a cross falling on his body. He even stopped to admire the architecture, to point out details to Red. William possibly even liked churches.

What else—Red pondered. Bullets passed through them. That was one he didn’t want to test, but William’s body seemed solid enough, and could a human—vampire?—body really tell the difference between a bullet, which would need to pass through, and the wind, which wouldn’t?

The one thing he was certain about from his dim memory of the movie was that vampires were dangerous. Was William dangerous? There was a certainty and composure and strength to him that Red envied. But he struggled to see William as dangerous. He had fallen asleep next to him, after all. Shouldn’t some primitive part of his brain prevented him sleeping if William was really a threat?

But there were threats outside of William. Much bigger ones. Much bigger, much more immediate ones. Would traveling with him be more dangerous than risking discovery by the Americans? The Americans didn’t even know he was here; maybe they’d never find him. It was a big city and they couldn’t be looking, not for him, not specifically. Perhaps he should stay behind. He’d saved a lot of the wages William had paid before their arrangement had… changed. And he thought there was a good chance Paola would even give him his job back. As much as Red could figure out what she was thinking, she’d seemed impressed that William had hired him, not annoyed that he’d quit.

And yet... Red could not help but think about how it felt to be fed upon. The feeling as his own blood left his body and joined William’s. He had felt William’s presence within him. It was overwhelming, as though such a creature could not fit inside the vessel of Red’s mind.

He wondered if William would bite him like that a lot.

The thought… what was the word? Intrigued him. On some level it made him feel ill. Maybe a little scared. Worried. But it felt good all the same. It wasn’t like anything he had experienced before. He wondered if it should have felt intimatesomehow. And it did. Sort of. Not really.

The closest experience he could think of was vomiting after drinking too much. It was technically disgusting and uncomfortable, but there was a relief that came with it.

He scoffed. He imagined how disgusted William would be if Red told him that was the closest experience he could think of. It wasn’t even close to being the same, but it was the closest he had.

Red wondered if a more intelligent man would describe it better. William must have been bitten once. How would he describe it? Had other people been bitten the same way? What did they think of it?

He pushed the thought of his mind as he reached his destination, the small kitchen where Signora Cerrone made him polenta and a big pot of black coffee each morning. He equally appreciated her cooking and the fact she didn’t ask questions. They exchanged the usual shallow pleasantries and she poured him his coffee. It smelled far better than usual. When he took a sip he could taste something special. It was different. Stronger. The coffee was more subtly flavoured—hints of blackcurrant and cedar, and it lingered for longer on his tongue. And yet somehow it seemed even thinner and more watery than before. Had Signora Cerrone been able to get real coffee? Surely she would have mentioned if she had?

His thoughts went back to William. His lover. His predator? He frowned. He reflected again upon the bite. It hadfelt good. Better than good. He felt better than he had in months. He took another sip of the coffee.

What did it mean, even amid all his fears, that he could think of nothing else but doing it again?

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The next evening Red went straight into William’s hotel room with a new sense of purpose. William was normally in bed, reading the paper. Red had always imagined him eating breakfast before he arrived: maybe some toast and coffee, that was cleaned up without a trace.

But it occurred to him that he had scarcely seen William eat a morsel of food. An odd moment from the previous week came back to him: Red had forced William to try a few bites of his dinner one evening, putting the spoonful of pasta into his mouth despite his protests. He recalled William swallowing, giving a coy smile as though all was well. But Red could sense an uneasiness in him and, for the only time he could recall, William had later excused himself to visit the lavatory. Despite everything, Red couldn’t help but worry that he’d hurt William. He hadn’t meant to; how could he have known?

This morning, William was standing beside the bed, which had two of his trunks open on top of the richly patterned fabric of the bedspread. He was arranging the items inside them, with the same care he put into everything. Clearly, Red’s assistance in moving them had never been necessary.

“Good evening,” William said, taking a few steps towards Red. “Are you well rested?”

Red hesitated. He didn’t know how to answer. “Actually, I didn’t sleep at all. But I feel fine.”

“You probably won’t feel the need to sleep for a few weeks.”

Red frowned. “Because of…” He trailed off, not knowing how to say it.

William nodded. “Yes.”

“Oh.” Red wasn’t sure how he felt about that. He liked sleeping, curling up in warm bed on a cold night. He looked inside William’s trunks: one was full of clothing, neatly folded and arranged by colour, that he was carefully adding the clothes from the room’s wardrobe to. The other was filled with smaller boxes, and Red could see amongst them the box of William’s letter-writing supplies, the one that had been on the writing desk until now. “You’re packing?”

“Yes. I hear the Americans reached Rome today. And you have led me to believe that you have certain…” he paused for a minute, apparently searching for the word. “…responsibilities that you may not wish to face just yet.”

“Yeah. I don’t think the army will be happy if they find me here,” Red muttered, knowing those words were not strong enough to convey the consequences he expected.

“I won’t allow them to. We are heading to Corsica as soon as you are ready.”

“Corsica?”

“It is a large island between here and France. It was liberated back in October, and the Americans left shortly afterwards. It will be quite safe.” He said smoothly, confidently, as though he’d had this planned for weeks.

“I don’t want you to have to go out of your way. I’m sure I’ll be able to manage here, if I keep my head down.”

“It is no inconvenience. A friend of mine has a house there that will be suitable.”

“Okay, but…” Red bit his lower lip. “You can’t just… put all that… stuff… on me. And not expect me to have questions.”

“There will be time for all of that, my dear.” William took a step forward, to take Red’s hands. Red frowned, looking at William’s long, smooth fingers. They were warm. He wouldn’t have expected a vampire’s fingers to be warm.

“No, I need to know. I need to know now, not...” Red felt his shoulders tighten. “I—I like being with you. I care about you. But I need to understand. I need you to be honest. No more lies.”

William sighed. “What do you need to know?”

Red cleared his throat. He tried not to think about how ridiculous his questions would be. He felt like a child. “How long have you been…”

“No,” William cut him off before he finished the question. “I’m afraid I can’t tell you that.”

“What? Why?”

“This is why I said we should wait. This is a long conversation.”

“It really isn’t. I was born in 1920, so that makes me twenty-four. What year were you born?”

He sighed. “You must understand, there are things that I cannot tell you, not because I don’t want you to know, but because they would ruin me if they were found out. There are some secrets I may yet keep.” He let go of Red’s hands. “How old do you think I am?”

Red hesitated. He wasn’t good at guessing people’s ages, even when they weren’t monsters from scary stories. “I couldn’t know. A hundred? More?”

William smiled. “More like a thousand.”

“A thousand,” Red repeated. He had to sit. He sat down, his back against the cold wood of the trunks. “A thousand,” he repeated again.

“Older, but I hope that answers your question well enough.”

“How can you… how can you… a thousand?” Red tried to put the words together: William was so nice. So human. But how could he be human and… He rubbed his face, pushing against his skin and feeling the bone underneath. “You’re older than most countries,” he said finally.

“Yes.” He nodded.

“And you’ve killed people.”

William pushed the trunk further up the bed, to give Red more room to sit, so his back wasn’t pressed against the trunk, and sat down beside him. “You said no more lying, so I must admit I have.”

Red pushed his fingers against his eyelids. “Hell’s bells.”

“I’ve done many things I’m not proud of.” He placed a hand on Red’s back, gently, ready to take it back if Red didn’t like it. Red didn’t flinch away but didn’t take his hands off his eyes. After Red made no response, William continued. “When you were a child, did you pull the wings off of flies?”

That got his attention. Red pulled his hands away to look at him. “What?”

“Did you catch flies, and pull their wings off?”

“That’s not…” He trailed off, looking for an argument he couldn’t quite form. “I didn’t…” He sighed a little. “I pulled the tail off a lizard once,” he said finally.

William smiled, and took Red’s hand. “Why did you do that?”

Red entwined his fingers with William’s. “I don’t know,” Red murmured. “I suppose… I didn’t think. Curiosity, maybe?” William’s hand was so warm. If he was a vampire—was he dead? Could a dead man be so warm?

“Some of us hold power we don't know how to wield responsibly,” William replied softly.

“Yeah,” Red agreed. He didn’t let go on William’s hand. His other hand went to his mouth. After a long silence, he spoke again. “I thought… I knew you were… odd.”

William smiled, and gave Red’s hand a squeeze.

“I thought you were just rich. ‘That’s how rich people are! They’re weird!’” He gestured outwards with his open hand. “And everyone at the hotel was, so it didn’t even seem that strange. You were strange but there were other people who were…” Red’s eyes went wide. A little colour drained from his face. “Are there… other vampires? At the hotel?”

“Yes. In fact, it is specifically for our kind.”

“Oh. Oh wow. Ooooooh wow.” Red rubbed his temples. He could feel an uncomfortable warmth rising from his chest, but it wasn’t pleasant in the way it had been sometimes. It felt uncomfortable, like water starting to boil in his lungs. He didn’t want to think about this. Any of this.

But he couldn’t leave it either.

He was grateful, suddenly, of how William never interrupted him or rushed him when they were talking. He never had to fill silences. He always waited. All other things considered, that helped.

“Okay.” Red took a deep breath, calculating his words. “Are there… other people? Like me? Who you…” He gestured vaguely at his neck, not wanting to say the word. It felt… gross, somehow.

“To be sustainable, we rotate between ten people.” William paused. “Volunteers.”

“Volunteers…” It had felt good. And he could see how people would like not needing to sleep. “Because they like it? Because they want to?”

“Yes.”

Red swallowed. He became painfully aware of how sweaty his hands were, especially the one entwined with William’s. “And do you… do you have… do you have what we have? With them?”

“No, nothing like us. Not at all.” William paused. “For most, it’s a transaction. I have a meal. They are more alert and focused, like you were last night.”

Red rubbed the spot on his neck, thinking. He enjoyed it. He didn’t want to think about it. He didn’t want to ruin it by analysing it. “What happens to me? In the long run?”

“What would you like to happen to you?”

“Do I… change? Will it kill me?”

“No. It doesn’t work that way.” William placed his hand on Red’s knee. “I have a lot of experience. I wouldn’t do anything that would hurt you.”

“Okay.” Red took his hand back to hastily run them over his face. Everything was… too much, right now. “I will take your word for it. Last night was… I… I enjoyed it. I did. But this is a lot to process.”

“I know.” He took his hand off Red’s knee, and pulled it around his waist, giving him a kiss on the cheek. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know when to tell you. I didn’t want to lose you.”

Red leaned into him, just a little. “I don’t want to lose you either.”

“But, in light of all of this, I would understand if you reconsider our relationship. I will take you to Corsica regardless.”

Red considered it; he’d been thinking about it all day, but still wasn’t sure. The conversation had made him more unsure if anything.

But…

“I want to go with you.” Red said, finally. He knew he would regret it if he didn’t.

“Then gather your things. Our driver is waiting.”

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Chapter Text

Columbus, Ohio, United States
1937

“Get your things, already! We have to be at the station in an hour.” Red hissed. His sister was agonising over choices between different items from her wardrobe. It wasn’t normal for her, this sort of vanity and hesitation; he knew on some level that she was trying to stall, to avoid having to take the next steps on a trip neither of them wanted to take.

“Why didn’t you tell me we’d have to go to New York? I would have packed yesterday if I’d known.”

“Mom would have been able to tell something was up. This is safer.”

“Did you…?”

“Yeah, I grabbed the jewellery I could last night. I’ll pawn it when we get there.”

“Do you think it’ll be enough? For the…”

“It’ll be enough for the procedure and a place to sleep for a few nights. It’ll be okay.”

 She bit her bottom lip; Red could see the tears forming at the edges of her eyes.

“Don’t worry, Dotty,” He gave the best reassuring smile he could. “I’ll tell her I took it to play cards, remember?”

“Are you sure?”

“Yeah. And we’ll say we ran off to see a show on Broadway. We will, too. After it’s done. That way if she asks us about it, we’ll have something to say.”

“Thanks Red,” she murmured, pulling her bag’s zipper closed.

Red smiled, pulling his hat on. “Don’t mention it.”

Chapter Text

Jasminum grandiflorum by jccsvq, on Flickr
"Jasminum grandiflorum" (CC BY 2.0) by jccsvq

Royal  Jasmine

𝒔𝒆𝒏𝒔𝒖𝒂𝒍𝒊𝒕𝒚

Ajaccio, Corsica, France

June, 1944

By the time they arrived in Ajaccio, the largest town on the mediterranean island of Corsica, Red had no doubt that William was a vampire, as impossible as it had seemed before.

First, there was the fact that the ‘driver’ who was waiting for them in front of the hotel in a small truck had been none other than Paola Di Pietro, the young hotel manager who had offered Red his job. She greeted William with a reverent bow and loaded everything into the back of the truck. Red had tried to help, but she refused, bluntly informing him he’d only get in the way. With how she lifted each of William’s trunks with the same ease she lifted a pencil, Red knew she was right. As he watched her, he played through every interaction they had ever had.

And the thought of what she might be made him shiver.

Second, there was the way William had managed to satisfy one of the American guards that questioned them as they drove out of the city.

Red hid his face beneath his hat, pretending to be asleep as they had planned. He could hear the guard speaking to Paola in Italian better than Red’s, but still rough around the edges. He heard Paola wind her window closed, but the truck didn’t edge forward as it normally did at such traffic stops. Instead, he heard William unroll his window. Red’s pulse thudded in his ears against the blanket he’d placed under his head, desperately trying not to move, not a muscle, lest he give it all away.

“Can I be of assistance?” William asked through the window, his accent subtly different; to Red’s ear, he sounded more British. William stared at the guard.

The guard stared back, his eyes locked into William’s gaze. “I don’t know who the hell you think you are, but you can’t just up and leave the city, not today. Have your driver take you back to where you came from.” He spoke in a long southern drawl; Red was glad he didn’t recognise the voice. He was afraid he might have recognised him if he opened his eyes.

William smiled. “You will let us through immediately.”

The soldier nodded. “Right, yes, of course, sir,” he stammered. “Go right ahead.” He gestured. William rolled the window back up, and the truck went back into motion. Red breathed a sigh of relief, placing his hat back into his lap. William held Red’s hand, giving it a reassuring squeeze. Red smiled, feeling William's steadiness ease his own shaking.

They travelled mostly in silence, which suited Red fine. He didn’t want Paola to hear their private conversations any more than he guessed William did. What was Paola, that she was in charge of a vampire hotel, that her slim form could heft those trunks, that she could speak with enough authority to satisfy most of the soldiers that stopped them? Whoever—whatever—she was, Red sensed that she and William were not friends. The way he spoke with her, even chided her driving on occasion, it reminded Red of the way most hotel guests treated him—providing the bare minimum number of syllables to bring their point across. He’d always assumed it was because of his awful Italian, but maybe vampires just had bad manners.

The few short conversations Red and William had in the car were about their next steps: after this long drive, they would take a boat, and then another car to get to a cottage in Corsica where they would stay for as long as it suited them. Red felt a dry apprehension fill his throat when he found out that people mostly spoke French in Corsica, and that he was going to have to start from scratch again, just as he was beginning to get the hang of Italian. Then he remembered that his travel companion was a creature of the night that drank blood, and he wondered if learning a new language should really register as a concern at this point.

They discussed how William would need to be put safely to bed, so he could be secure during the daytime parts of their journey. This was what eliminated the last of Red’s doubt about William’s nature: there was no way a human could subject themself to what William and Paola were planning.

It was almost dawn by the time their truck reached Civitavecchia, a port town that had been the subject of heavy Allied bombardament in the previous weeks. A boat was waiting for them. Its three person crew loaded William’s trunks and suitcases onto what looked like it had been a merchant ship, once, but now flew the red cross of a hospital ship. The boat trip would go well into the afternoon; something definitely needed to be done to keep William out of the sun.

And so William was subjected to a bizarre process in one of the darkest holds of the ship, lit only by an oil lamp that was behind a thick glass panel in the far corner. Red helped Paola wrap William tightly in layer upon layer of thick, white bandages: he looked like a mummy, Red reflected, not able to stifle his grin. A creature from a horror movie. They piled on still more bandages, until the human form was invisible and the mass of bandages made a smooth cigar shape.

The bandaged body was lowered—carefully—into a coffin made of thick, heavy wood.

“Is this… his coffin?” Red asked Paola: even if William could hear him through all those bandages, any response he made would be muffled beneath so much fabric. Red would have to try to make small talk.

The coffin itself was lined with thick, dark fabric which was draped around the bandaged form inside, covering it from all directions.

“No.” Paola was as miserly with her words as most vampires were.

They closed the lid and ran several layers of thick, sturdy tape along the seal.

“Oh. I saw in a movie… that vampires need to go back to their coffins at night.” Despite everything, Red didn’t want her to think he was stupid.

“They don’t.” She ripped the tape with her teeth, and pressed down the last of it.

They placed another sheet of thick, dark cloth over the sealed coffin and taped it in place. And the whole lot was put into a heavy, metal box, the seal taped shut and a huge padlock placed onto the clasp.

When all that was done, Paola retrieved some weapons from the truck, slinging a BAR over her shoulder and holding a Thompson at her chest more naturally than Red had ever managed to in Basic, back when the war hadn’t been real to him, when he only had to worry about laps and pushups and not German soldiers hiding behind every corner.

Neither weapon’s weight seemed to bother her in the slightest.

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After landing in a town called Porto-Vecchio, carefully extracting William from his bandages once the sun set and climbing into a second truck, and enduring another long and mostly silent drive, they reached Ajaccio at the end of the next evening. Red was no longer worried about being in another country, going to a strange town where he wouldn’t know anyone and, again, wouldn’t know how to speak the language. He was just glad the running might finally be over.

Paola dropped them off at a small cottage that William had stated belonged to a friend of his. Red didn’t doubt it; the house was as strange as all of William’s friends were. For starters, there were no windows; to give the appearance of normalcy, window shutters were placed on the outside wall and stuck closed.

The ground floor seemed almost normal: a sitting room, study, kitchen, dining room and bathroom. But there was a door on the ground floor that William hadn’t opened, that he’d passed without acknowledging before they walked up the stairs together. Red wondered what secret things must be hidden in there: he knew that at least half of the house must have been behind it.

On the top floor, there was a small hallway that led to three rooms: one was completely empty but for some bare shelves and one contained six beds that were crammed so tightly together it would be hard to walk between them. The beds had thin mattresses and simple, scratchy-looking blankets.

Most interesting was the third room, which had a comfortable-looking bed, a bedside table, an electric lamp and a writing desk. The bed was made with nice linens, the bedside table had a small mirror on it and a few well-thumbed books, and the writing desk had a small basket of thread, yarn, and cloth neatly placed on one corner. There were no paintings or photographs on the wall, and no wallpaper to cover the whitewashed stone. The room looked a strange combination of bare and impersonal like a hotel room and personally stocked, as though someone had lived in it once and planned to return. It smelled dank and dusty, since it had no window. Still, given the circumstances, it seemed welcoming enough.

“And this,” William declared. “Shall be your room.”

“Aww, I’m not sharing with you?” Red replied, only half-teasing. He had been having thoughts of… more at the back of his mind, lately. At least, before his whole mind, whole brain had been taken over by the thoughts of vampires and running from the Americans and hiding from the Germans and taking ships to Mediterranean islands and how Paola Di Pietro got so comfortable with a Thompson. Quite frankly, the thought of sharing a bed with William was one of the more pleasant things to think about, even if it did make him nervous.

“You can have your pick of any of these upstairs rooms , so that won’t be necessary.”

Red hesitated. “You wouldn’t want to?” He tried to sound light and carefree about it, but William not acknowledging the subtext made him curious.

“You know I would,” he admitted. “But I respect your privacy.”

“Such a gentleman.” Red grinned, and fiddled with the straps of his rucksack. “Well, where’s your room, then?”

“Downstairs,” William said, gesturing for Red to follow him as he climbed down the stairs. The sitting room was at the base of the stairs, where it led off to hallways and to the entryway. But there was also the door William hadn’t opened: the heavy-looking metal door that led towards the centre of the cottage.

“It’s like a fortress in here,” Red mumbled under his breath as William unlocked it and pulled it open. The shape of the door flared around the doorframe, making what must have been a light-proof seal. There was another short hallway, tiled with cold grey slate like the rest of the house. There was a door to the right and a door straight ahead.

“It pays to be prudent,” William replied, stepping forward to unlock the second door. He pulled it inward, revealing a third door which opened outwards after William unlocked it. Red was expecting another door, or an antechamber, or even a pit with spikes at the bottom, but was relieved to be greeted with what looked like a normal enough bedroom: apart from the musty smell, it reminded him of the rooms in the hotel.

The bed was large, covered in pale green pillows and blankets that were embroidered all over with dark green leaves. The wallpaper was striped in rich greens and silver. The far wall was dominated by a series of wardrobes and full-length mirrors. Another wall had a deep bookshelf against it, though the shelves were bare. Next to the bookshelf hung a map in an ornate frame. The map looked to Red as though someone had drawn it from memory: the countries were the right shape, but in the wrong proportions, or parts of them were missing. The other wall had three tapestries hanging from it, decorated in what looked like scenes from renaissance paintings: seas of people cavorting over green countryside, captured in the middle of fluid and lively movements.

Red looked at William: his shoulders had slumped imperceptibly and his face was contorted into the barest hint of a scowl.

“You don’t like it?” Red asked. He couldn’t help but smile. It reminded him of one of his first shopping trips, where he had bought a bracelet he thought was close enough to what William had asked for because he had been looking for hours and he was tired and surely William wouldn’t care about having a diamond-studded banglethat was made of gold instead of brass, especially when Red had gotten the gold bangle for cheaper than William had budgeted for a brass one. But William had frowned at the bangle, rejected it, placed it on the floor, and Red’s next job had been to get rid of it and find a brass one. He’d learned to be more careful after that.

“It’ll have to do,” William replied. “Beggars can’t be choosers, as they say.”

Remembering how funny William looked when he was annoyed and seeing the big bed had brought those thoughts back into the forefront of Red’s mind. Those thoughts of… more. He hitched the strap of his rucksack. “It’s a big bed.”

“I suppose so.” William stepped towards one of the tapestries, scrutinising it.

Red shook his head, smiling at the tiny grimace on William’s face. He dropped his rucksack at the foot of the bed and sat down, leaning backwards with his hands behind his head to stare up at the canopy. The mattress was soft—too soft for a man to rest his back after a hard day’s work, but he supposed it would do nicely for a vampire. He looked at heavy green fabric of the canopy, which had birds embroidered into it with light thread. The birds were tall and skinny and had long, scythe-shaped beaks.

“Someone sewed little birds on the underside, here,” Red remarked, wondering if he could draw William’s attention away from the tapestries.

“I am glad somebody appreciates such a gaudy display.”

“Oh no, did they put fake gold thread in the tapestry?” Red asked with his good-natured sarcasm as he gave up on the bed, standing up to hug William from behind and see what he was staring at. It didn’t help: the tapestries didn’t look any different up close, and although they weren’t to Red’s taste, he couldn’t find it in himself to hate them as it seemed William did.

William sighed, covering Red’s hands with his own. “Some of us weave tapestries for one another in recognition of great achievements. She weaved these herself.”

“How can you tell?”

“A compliment from another is far more nuanced than the words one crows about one’s own greatness.”

“Oh, of course,” Red said, ever so slightly patronising. He placed a little peck on the back of William’s neck. “How humiliating for her.”

“Don’t make fun of me.” William smiled.

“I’m not making fun,” Red said, his face serious. “I am embarrassed for her. Look at the shoddy work on the… horse. That horse.” He let go of William, moving to stand beside him, to point at a brown animal standing off to the side of one of the scenes. “Look at that terrible horse.”

“That’s a dog.” William broke into a grin.

“It’s the worst tapestry-ed dog I’ve ever seen and I’ve seen at least three tapestries.” Red was grinning too, now.

“There are three tapestries in this room.”

“Yes. And I’ve seen them. All three of them. With their terrible dogs.”

“To be fair, the one on the left doesn’t have a dog on it. Just a misshapen wine barrel.” He turned slightly to stand facing Red.

“No, I’m pretty sure it’s a terrible dog. All tapestries about dogs, right?” Red grabbed William’s hands. “I’ve seen three tapestries.”

William shook his head. “Your first lesson on tapestries is that they do not always concern dogs.” He moved his left hand to cup the side of Red’s head for a moment, before placing that arm around Red’s shoulders.

“So only most of them are about dogs?” Red pulled William closer, his arms encircling his waist.

“I would say the minority of them feature dogs.”

“I’m going to get you a tapestry that’s all dogs.” Red brushed a bit of William’s hair like it was out of place. It wasn’t.

“I doubt you’d be able to find such a thing,” William murmured, now acutely aware of how little he wanted to discuss tapestries. He was finally growing aware it had been several days since they had spent time together, since the business of travelling and his revealing his nature to Red had kept them distracted from one another.

“I’ll weave you one.” Red grinned, his face now very close to William’s. “And it’s going to have terrible technique. And you would have to keep it because I made it for you.”

“You wouldn’t do that to me, would you?” He moved his other arm around Red’s waist. There was no gap between their bodies at all, now. There only remained the half-inch that separated their faces.

“There’s a lot of things I’d do to you.” Red bridged that last gap to kiss him.

Red didn’t realise how much he’d missed this level of closeness, of privacy, even though it had been only a couple of days. How he’d missed being so close and so warm and so wanted and so appreciated as William’s lips found his lips and face and Red’s responded in kind. The closeness, the flirting, the buildup and the longing had brought the other feelings back, stronger than they’d been in a while, and even though Red had built up a sort of dam over the past few weeks, built it up with thoughts of what his family would think, with worries about the future, with panic about what would actually happen, if he’d like it, if William would like it, if William would still like him, if he’d know what to do, if—if—if—

—all of those thoughts were still there, still mattered, but they’d been dwarfed.

His first dam had been built by beavers, made of mud and sticks and a few logs. The dam from the past few days was different: dozens of men had poured it out of concrete, thick and strong with the fears that this man was not just his boss, not a spy or a cultist or even a nazi, but a demon. An actual living demon who drank his blood. Who probably had a dozen secrets worse than that—what did Paola know, that had put her in the hotel, had taught her to drive and shoot and bluff soldiers? What could happen to him if he stayed? Some primitive protective instinct should surely stop Red from doing anything more, would have him make the prudent decision, to run the first chance he got, to take that room upstairs for now and then start planning his escape, to tell the newspaper, the president, the—

“Did you have something particular in mind?” William asked, his hand moving from Red’s hip to touch the base of his rib cage under his shirt.

—and yet, here he was, embracing with William, wanting nothing more than to take him to that bed and contend with whatever the small dam of sticks and mud had for him. The concrete monstrosity was too big, too abstract, too smooth and unreal for him to focus on, now. This, on the other hand, it felt normal—maybe not normal, but desirable, logical, satisfying. It was what Red wanted now, what some part of him had wanted for weeks—

“I thought I’d figure it out as I go.” Red’s trembling hands pulled at William’s shirt, started on the buttons. He’d done it before, but there was more force to it now, more finality.

“You want to go to bed?” William slowly stepped backwards towards the bed, Red moving in step with him, keeping his hands on their singular focus of removing William’s shirt.

“I really do.” All other thoughts had left Red’s mind. They’d be there afterwards, but this is what he wanted now. It’s what he’d be doing if William hadn’t bitten him, if they hadn’t run, if they were still in the hotel. William’s calves were pressed against the foot of the bed, and Red pushed him down onto the soft comforter, ready to climb on top of him.

William lay there, staring at the canopy, and the pale green scythe-beaked birds that were embroidered into it. “Ibises,” he muttered. “Those are ibises.” It made him uncomfortable, the symbolism was wrong for this, wrong for something like—

Red had climbed on top of him, now, and had started unfastening his belt.

“And ibises are bad?”

“They are not the bird one pictures oneself consummating one’s—” William paused. “It doesn’t matter.”

“I would hope not.”

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After his time in Rome and the surrounding countryside, Red had become adept at finding his way around new European towns, and felt as though he’d gained a decent overview of Ajaccio after his first day there. He and William had a stroll on that second evening, and it was with no small sense of pride that Red showed William the places he had found: the bakery, the market, the school, the old library. They’d stopped at a restaurant, ordered two meals and wine. Red ate both of them: his pasta, and the stew that had been ostensibly ordered for William. The excitement of travelling had left him hungry and unnourished, and he’d grown very used to being watched as he ate.

They talked and laughed, with Red sharing stories of his childhood and explaining the American education system and William responding to personal questions with a never ending supply of only vaguely related anecdotes. Red didn’t mind this; they were different and interesting as William had all of time and space to draw from now he didn’t need to keep any fiction for Red.

Red felt himself relaxing in a strange way, a little at ease but uncomfortable in a way like being in a too warm and stuffy room. Comfortable, technically, but agitated, antsy, waiting for something to happen, to reveal itself. The thick concrete dam of anxiety was still there, the worry of being seen as less than an equal, of less than even the less than he expected a man of high birth to see him as. It might always be there, he reasoned. He wasn’t going to let it dampen his mood.

The wine from dinner was crawling up Red’s neck, loosening his shoulders, and making him giddy all through the walk back to the cottage. William’s feather light touches at his throat and arms did the same. Red was letting the giddiness get the better of him, catching himself talking to William the same way he spoke to girls back in high school, flirting and enjoying the way it made them feel. William seemed to like it, with tiny twitches of smiles at the edges of his mouth and replying to his teasing with his own flirtations that made Red’s hair stand on end.

Finally, as they walked up the path to the front door, William grabbed him by the hand, pulled him close, and kissed him hard. After a few moments, Red pushed him away, grinning.

William pulled Red’s hand to his lips, kissing the back of it and smiling. “You don’t like me kissing you?” He murmured against Red’s knuckles.

“Oh no, the kissing suits me.”

“Good, because I have wanted to do this for hours.” He pulled Red towards him, hard. Red gripped him back firmly, Red’s short fingernails digging into the flesh on either side of William’s spine through the thick fabric of his shirt. They kissed, Red feeling every tiny movement in William’s body as he pulled his arms around Red’s neck. Red only pulled away from William to breathe, and then only for a few moments at a time. The fears had all left him, all put themselves aside for later as they had the previous night. He idly wondered if that was a problem, if one day he’d need to force himself to think it through. But now wasn’t the time; William didn’t scare him, had never scared him. What did it matter whether Red should be afraid or not? He kneaded at the muscles of William’s lower back, wanting more.

William ran his fingertips down the smooth skin of Red’s neck, the faint touch bringing a cascade of wonderful goosebumps over Red’s body. “You smell amazing.”

Red’s hands relaxed, and he took a small step backwards. William’s grip loosened comfortably, giving Red the space he had created. The serenity and desire left Red, and he raised an eyebrow and gave a small frown. “In a… good way and not a food way, right?” He asked, pulling William’s arms away from him and taking another step back.

“Both, to be honest.” William held his arms by his side.

Red considered that. “That’s… unsettling.”

“How do you mean?”

“Well, being thought of as food is… new.”

“Does that scare you?”

“Scared isn’t the right word, exactly.” He paused, collecting his thoughts. “It’s… an adjustment. It’s new. I mean, you’re not going to kill me, right?” His tone was light, but his face showed his genuine concern.

“I certainly don’t intend to. It would be such a waste.” William grinned, offering Red his hand. Red grabbed it, returning the grin, but then the actual words sunk in and he frowned. He pulled away.

“But you’re not going to kill me by accident either, right?”

“Of course not. Why would you think something like that?” William looked a tiny bit horrified.

“Felt like I might need to check.” Red could feel his shoulders relax, his breathing slow down. “This is all new to me, you know.”

“I know. Shall we go inside?”

“Great idea.”

William took a few steps forward, taking his key out of his pocket to open the front door. He returned the key to his pocket, pulling the door open. He gestured for Red to go inside. Red grinned and grabbed William’s hand. William didn’t follow; Red playfully tried to pull him in. William stood stiff as a stone; not so much as one of his fingers moved. Red let go of his hand, wondering what he was playing at.

“Are you coming in?” Red asked, chuckling.

“If you are lucky, I may.”

“What does that mean?” His smile faded. “You seemed pretty keen a minute ago.”

“I’m very keen.”

Red paused, it slowly dawning on him. He remembered stories about creatures, not about vampires exactly, but—no, it was silly. It was impossible. “You…” He paused, knowing he had to be careful with his phrasing. “Can, can’t you?”

“Can what?”

Red licked his lower lip, thinking over each word before he said it. “Do I need to invite you? Is that what’s happening?” He grinned. He liked the idea; perhaps he wouldn’t be completely helpless, after all.

“You believe such myths?” William grinned.

“Are they true?” Red leaned on the doorframe.

William frowned, crossing his arms. “This one is, yes. May I come in?”

Red grabbed William’s hands. “I invite you in.” He grinned, pulling William through the front door.

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Ajaccio, Corsica, France

July, 1944

William had told Red to keep an eye out for letters and packages, but it still came as a surprise when the first one arrived in the midday post: an ordinary-looking large beige envelope with William’s name and their address in Corsica written on it in clear cursive. It was as thick as a newspaper and the rich, solid paper smelled faintly of cinnamon. Red placed the envelope on a table in the sitting room for William to find, not thinking much of it.

When the sun started to set, Red climbed into the bed beside the insensible vampire, waiting for him to wake up. William’s… difference was most obvious when was asleep: he didn’t move—didn’t even breathe—and his body gradually grew cold as the day wore on. Red could’ve gotten used to the coldness, given time. But he wasn’t sure he’d ever get used to the way William’s whole body gradually grew stiff as a log before freezing in place several hours after sunrise, and how it remained so until William woke up.

Red snuggled close to William’s naked body and pulled the heavy covers over the pair of them. It brought a small amount of warmth to William’s rigid corpse, but if Red shifted, any skin that he hadn’t been in contact with was still unpleasantly cool to the touch. He let himself lay still for a few minutes, as he always did, enjoying the feeling of the soft bed supporting his side and the warmth from the blanket. Gingerly, he stroked William’s hair; it felt dry and lifeless. He was pretty sure that’s how it must always feel, regardless of whether he was awake or asleep—but at that moment it felt more like the hair of his sister’s dolls, after it had been taken by the dog and buried in the garden. Dull and stringy and lifeless, lacking the tiny movements of the scalp that would make it seem otherwise. Red took his hand away. He was sure he’d get used to it. Eventually.

He felt a muscle in William’s right shoulder relax. The somnolent curse was lifting. Red eagerly rubbed the shoulder, the only animate part of William’s body. The softening spread to the whole right arm, which Red pulled around his back, encouraging it to hold him tightly. Finally, the eyes fluttered open, the mouth contorting into the barest imitation of a smile as more and more facial muscles became engaged in the task and the smile grew softer and genuine.

“Hi.” Red smiled, moving his hand back up to the hair, the hair that now felt soft and smooth and animate as the minute twitches in William’s face and head made it make the tiniest lively movements.

“Hello.” William moved his right hand from Red’s waist to his face, cupping Red’s jaw, pulling Red closer to kiss him. Red enjoyed the moment of closeness; the coldness of William’s lips at the beginning of the evening was growing familiar, now, rather than shocking as it had been at first. “I trust you had a good day?”

Red nodded. “Yes, I spoke to the headmaster of the school. He said I could help with gardening and things like that, since they don’t have a groundskeeper anymore.”

“Ah, the war?”

“Yeah.” Red tried not to dwell on it; it would put him in a mood. “So I did some pruning, and some raking. It was good. Hard, but good.” He paused. “A letter came for you, by the way.”

“Really?” William pulled away from Red, throwing the heavy blanket aside. “Do you know who it’s from?”

“Um…” Red tried to remember the name on the back of the envelope. “Cassius... something.”

“Excellent. I have been expecting to hear from him.” William climbed out of bed. Red sighed; he had hoped the letter could wait a few minutes, even though he knew better. His experience in Rome left little doubt that, for William, the arrival of a letter was about the most important thing that there was.

“Well, I’m sure he had a lot to say,” Red said, climbing out of bed and putting his slippers on. He watched as William got dressed, moving with speed beyond human capabilities. William carefully selected a pair of heavy black trousers, a long-sleeved pale red shirt, a navy blue striped tie, and a pair of black suspenders.

William smiled. “Yes, Cassius is rather talkative.” He pulled on a pair of white socks, along with some shiny black shoes, which he relaced quickly. After this flurry of sartorial activity, the smell of laundry soap hung faintly in the still air. “Can you bring me the letter?”

Red nodded. “Sure, I’ll go get it.” He went into the sitting room—opening the two doors out of the bedroom to do so—picked up the envelope, and brought it to the bedroom. William had combed his hair neatly in the short time Red was gone, but stood admiring his reflection and making small adjustments to his hair. As Red held out the envelope, William turned to him and frowned.

“Ah, I should have mentioned. When my friends send me letters, there will be two envelopes.” He almost seemed self-conscious about the next part. “The outer envelope gets dirty, so I would like for you to remove it and present me only with the inner one.”

Red nodded. “Sure, I can do that.” William was obsessed with cleanliness, insisting his clothes were laundered after each time they were worn, wearing gloves whenever he left the house, and outright refusing to touch many things. It stood to reason that an envelope with even the barest smudge would be unacceptable to him.

Red gently tore at the envelope; William cringed. “Next time, use a letter opener. I will show you where they are.”

Red nodded. “Oh, right. Sorry.” He kept tearing, breaking the wax seal, revealing a second envelope, identical to, though slightly smaller than, the first. It, too, was sealed with wax, though the symbol was larger and more detailed than the one stamped into the outer envelope. The back of the envelope was written in a language that looked a bit like Italian (Red thought he understood a few words). He turned the letter over and examined the front of the envelope; it was covered in symbols he didn’t recognise: arrows, wavy lines, and a backwards ‘R’, to name a few. He was glad he knew William was a vampire, because otherwise all of this foreign script would have convinced him that William was a spy. Not that his silent debates about whether it would be better for William to be from Germany or the United Nations seemed like they mattered at all, anymore.

William must have seen the expression on Red’s face, because he grinned. “My friends and I write in a sort of code,” he said, by way of explanation.

“Of course,” Red murmured, staring at the back of the envelope. “What does it say?”

William took the envelope from Red, examining the back. “It is Cassius’ name, written in full.”

“In full?”

“We have titles, to recognise our accomplishments. Look, let me show you.” He read from the back of the envelope, “It says here… God-king Cassius of the Eternal City, respected advisor of Magnus, long-awaited child of Tibillus, he who listens with a patient ear, the...” William paused for a moment, to think of the best translation. “...the one who pranked the third council, the wolf, the one with the iron toe, thief of dignity, keeper of the text.”

“Wow,” Red murmured. “There’s… a lot.”

“Cassius is old and proud.” William replied. “I am afraid I must take some time to read this. Will you be able to prepare your own dinner?”

Red nodded. “Sure, no problem.”

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When William returned just over an hour later, Red was sitting on the settee, reading a well-thumbed detective novel. Red swung his feet off the couch to make room for William to sit next to him. He grinned.

“Any exciting news?”

William sat down, placing a hand on Red’s knee. “What would count as exciting?” he asked, smiling.

Red closed the book, considering the question. “Honestly, your definition of exciting is probably a lot more exciting than mine.”

“Really? I would have thought the opposite.”

“Well, your letters are written in foreign languages, so that’s already more exciting than…” Red trailed off, suddenly reminded that he would never get any letters, since his friends and family must have all thought him dead by now. He placed his book on the table, and changed the subject. “Was it good news? Is your… friend doing well?”

“He is quite fond of the book you delivered before we left, so I suppose so.” He took his hand off Red’s knee to clasp his hands in his lap.

“Oh, good, I’m glad.” He tried not to think about how the letter was thicker than the last newspaper he read so that couldn’t have possibly been all that it was. “Is there anything you’d like me to help with?”

“Now that I have begun to receive mail, I expect to have a few more letters next week. I will also need you to post a reply to today’s letter, once I’ve written it.” He paused. “But no, nothing too taxing for you, my dear. Fortunately, when one is travelling, one’s social obligations are lessened somewhat.” He smiled. “How do you like Corsica?”

Red shrugged. “It’s beautiful here. And I think I’m getting used to the French. I mean, the woman at the bakery only giggles a little when I come in now, which is an improvement.”

“It must have been disrupting, moving here so suddenly.”

Red picked up one of William’s hands to kiss the back of it. “It’s okay. Hey, it took me three months to have a conversation in Italian, and we’ve only been here, what? Two weeks?”

“About that, yes.” William nodded.

“And I can have at least part of a, well, somewhat stilted conversation. So that’s good.”

“The villagers should be honoured to have that much, my dear. I know I would be.” William squeezed Red’s hand.

Red hesitated. “You would be? Talking to me in my awful French?”

“If I didn’t speak English, I would have gladly endured your Italian.” William let go of Red’s hand, moving to stroke his cheek.

“Hm.” Red smiled, and shifted so he was sitting right next to William, their bodies touching, and he turned to lean his back against William’s arm. William stopped touching Red’s cheek, moving instead to rub his back as they sat silently for a few moments. Red considered everything, deep in thought, before speaking again. “Can I ask why?”

“Is it not enough that I wanted the newspaper?”

“You didn’t, though, did you?”

William smiled, kissing Red’s temple. “No. I just wanted to meet you. You seemed… interesting.”

Red grinned. “And why did you think I was interesting?” There was a curiosity to his question, though it was mostly flirting.

William paused, as though he had never thought this through before. “You were… different to other people. It seemed as though you might be…” He tried to think of a way to word it so that Red could understand. “More interesting than other humans.”

“Hm. Really?” Red was surprised at that answer.

“What were you expecting? That I smelled your blood and decided that I had to eat you?” He grinned, his hand stroking eagerly at Red’s neck.

Red smiled back. “Oh, well, that too.” He put an arm around William’s back to hug him, briefly. There was a pause as William’s arm moved back to Red’s waist and Red’s smile faded into a look of contentment. “I don’t know. I never really understood why you wanted me around. Even now.”

“Is it not enough that I like to spend time with you?”

“I don’t know.” Red considered it, looking away. “You’re more worldly than me. Smarter. I’m just a person. Maybe you would be better off with another vampire.”

William laughed, a hearty chuckle. “Oh, goodness, no! We cannot be trusted. There is only one vampire in the world who I count as a true friend, and even shewould dispatch me—or I her—if the reward was great enough.”

Red felt revulsion rise in the pit of his stomach. The thought of someone coming after William, someone that William considered a true friend...

“So, I appreciate that you do not yet have reason to betray me.” He smiled, tightening his arm around Red’s shoulders.

“Yet?” Red moved closer to William, placing his head in the hollow of his neck. “What do you think I would betray you for? I wasn’t planning on it.”

“You have pure morals, Red. Would you have betrayed your sister, if the police asked after her?”

Red pulled away to stare at him, or at the very least to be sure William saw his look of disapproval. “God no. I would never.”

“And that is one of the admirable things about you, my dear.” He smiled, kissing Red’s forehead. “But a man of good moral character like you… you can be manipulated by threats as easily as an impure man can be manipulated by bribes. You might be willing to betray me, one day, with the appropriate pressure placed.”

“...do you think about this a lot?”

He laughed. “It may be the only reason I’m still alive.”

“I guess that makes sense,” Red said. “If other vampires are like you say.”

“And, see, you are very perceptive,” William continued. “You respond well to education. You have lived an interesting life, in a land I have never been to.”

“You think it’s interesting?” Red straightened up a little, flattered.

“You think Australia is interesting, why wouldn’t I think the same of Ohio?”

“True.” Red didn’t quite believe him.

“And I enjoy being around you. You are always surprising me. Nobody has ever made me laugh the way you can.”

Red smiled, unsure of what to say. He had never thought of himself as funny or interesting before.

“So, I am perfectly content to spend my time with you,” William continued. “You are… connected to the pulse of the earth in a way that is no longer possible for me.”

Red considered this for a moment, and then smiled. “And I’m charming.”

“Extremely.” William kissed his forehead, thinking about Red, and all his obligations large and small, the possibility of all his family and friends and wives and children and occupations. He realised, really realised, not merely contemplated, how isolated he must be. “Are you content?”

Red didn’t answer straight away. That was another thing William liked. He never spoke without thinking it through first. They had that in common. “Yeah. Yeah I am.” He craned his neck to kiss William’s temple. “I miss home sometimes, but I’m happy here. With you.”

“I could send you back, if you would rather be there.” There was a note of hesitation in William’s voice: he knew cowards had been reviled all through history, and that Red’s home might not be a welcoming place any longer.

“...No. I can’t. Not now.”

“Why?”

“Virtually everyone in my battalion died, William,” he gave a heavy sigh, the warm feeling of contentment leaving his body like so much stale breath. “Men I knew. Some men whose families I knew, or heard about, or read letters from. I couldn’t just turn up, safe and sound, after deserting them.”

“I know. I shouldn’t have offered.”

Red smiled. “No, it’s nice that you’d do that for me.”

“I could give you a new name and new papers easily enough, but people would recognise you, wouldn’t they?”

“Yeah.” Red shifted a little more, wrapping both his arms around William and squeezing him tightly. William held him tightly, and kissed the top of Red’s head.

“Don’t worry. When the war is over, I will take you to Australia. Nobody will recognise you there.”

Red paused, considering this. “Okay,” he said, not sure whether to be sad or relieved.

Chapter Text

Columbus, Ohio, United States
July, 1944

She looked at the telegram, which was faded in places from having been folded and refolded too many times. She did it a lot, as though she hoped that in the past five months the words on the page may have changed into something more palatable.

The Secretary of War desires me to express his deep regret that your Son Private Reginald T. Wilkins, has been reported missing in action since Two February in Italy if further details or other information are received you will be promptly notified.

There it was: scant few details that gave her neither hope nor closure.

These five lines in a form letter was all the news she’d received of her son. Might even be all the news she ever would receive from the people who had sent him away: her young, bright, compassionate boy had never had a chance.

It had changed her: now, she was not just the widow who had to look after such a big house and two young children on her own. When Red had been drafted, it was almost more than she could bear: he’d looked so much like his father, the man for whom he was named, that having him taken away from her opened that old wound again. And with him missing in action—stuck in that limbo—meant her hope was clouded by grief, and her grief was clouded by hope.

But today she was going to leave the house. She wasn’t going to hide from the pitying looks, from the gossip, from the well-meaning offers of casseroles from mothers whose sons were spared. She wondered what the other people would see when they looked at her at in the church. Would they see a destitute widow who had lost her son a few months earlier? Or did they see a proud mother, delighted at the occasion of her only daughter’s wedding?

She was both, for they were each a part of her in their own way.

And today, at least, the happiness and pride would win out.

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It was a bittersweet day for Dorothy.

It was happy—joyous, even—for her, that was true: getting married to the man she loved, in the old church. She stood outside, admiring it.

It was the church she had been going to all her life, with her mother and with her brother.

Her brother, who was probably dead.

Why, oh why hadn’t they decided to have the wedding in November, when Red got his letter?

She took a deep breath, adjusting the borrowed white dress as she prepared to go inside.

She, at least, learned from her mistakes: when the doctors had gently told her that her mother’s illness was severe, she and her fiance decided to get married the very next weekend.

As she walked down the aisle, she saw her mother’s beatific smile.

She knew she had made the right decision. She forgot her mother was ill; she forgot she was walking down the aisle alone.

She felt the love that filled the church. From her mother. From her groom. And from the faces that shone upon her with their twinkling, smiling eyes.

She felt tears of joy pricking at the edges of hers.

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“Oh, I’m so glad we got it done!” Dorothy said, holding the wedding photograph close to her mother’s face so she could see it clearly.

Ida smiled. “Yes, I love how happy you both look.”

“We’ll have to get a frame for it…” She mused. “We could put it above the fireplace, next to the one of…”

Ida cast her eyes to the mantelpiece, where the last picture of her only son was. There was no use denying it anymore: he was never going to come home. She forced a smile. “That sounds wonderful.”

Dorothy followed her gaze, staring at the photo of Red in his army shirt and hat, and trying not to dwell upon the sour feeling it put into her stomach. “It will be nice to have a happy memory up there,” she added.

“He did his duty when his country called upon him. He was a brave boy, my Reginald.” Ida recited.

Dorothy chuckled, the type of hollow laugh that erupted as a respite from grief. “Mom, you and I both know he was terrified!”

“And yet he still went. Didn’t try to register as a conscientious objector or anything cowardly like that. Just hopped on the train and went off to fight the Germans!”

“You’re right. I guess he was brave, in the end.”

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

Purslane

𝒄𝒐𝒏𝒇𝒆𝒔𝒔𝒊𝒐𝒏 𝒐𝒇 𝒍𝒐𝒗𝒆

Ajaccio, Corsica, France
July, 1944

They walked through Ajaccio in the early evening. The cobblestone streets were still filled with the townsfolk, chattering amongst themselves as they went about their business: picking up bread to have with dinner, on their way to visit friends, or going on a stroll to enjoy the warmth of the short summer evenings. Red liked these walks with William, even though the need for privacy kept them standing apart from one another, kept their conversations a bit more short and clipped.  It was better than nothing.

Red had been looking forward to showing William the school, so he could see all Red had accomplished in his short time as the groundskeeper. He thought William would be impressed by the freshly swept paths, the neatly trimmed trees, and the roses that were beginning to take on new life after being treated with mulch and fertiliser.

There was garbage along one side of the street, piles of rags and paper and the smell of something rotting. There was a man there, too, outfitted in ratty clothes, his wrinkled, leathery skin stretched tight over bony hands that clutched the remnants of a cigarette. The other people in the street didn’t notice him, or at least pretended not to, as they walked past.

“It took three weeks to find the right type of fertiliser for the roses, you wouldn’t believe—sorry, just a moment.” Red stopped to pull some coins out of his pocket. “Bonsoir, Jérôme,” he said softly, crouching slightly to place the money in the beggar’s empty hand.  

Merci, monsieur.” Jérôme’s voice was rough and crackly. He gave Red a smile, full of black gaps in between his yellow teeth. 

When he looked up, Red realised that William hadn’t so much as broken his stride. Red had to hurry to catch up to him. 

“What were you doing?” William asked.

“Helping someone out.” Red shrugged. “What? Have… your people moved beyond charity?”

“Your people have, too,” he said, pointedly. “Nobody else bothered to look at him.”

“Oh.” Red glanced back at Jérôme, thinking. “You know, back in Rome, before I got the job at the hotel, things were… not great. I didn’t eat unless someone helped.” He hesitated, remembering that he didn’t have his own money now so much as an allowance from William. “I know my money comes from you now, but…” He let the question hang.

“Use it as you wish.” William smiled, and touched Red gently between the shoulderblades, lingering long enough for Red to feel the warmth of his hand. William pulled his hand away quickly, so quickly that most people wouldn’t have noticed that he had touched Red to begin with. 

His gaze, however, stayed locked on Red. 

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William reached out to to take his coat off its hook.

“So… you’re going out… for food?” Red asked, after finally drawing the courage to inquire about William’s unexplained outings. 

William pulled his hand back, instead taking a pair of gloves out of the small cabinet in the entryway. A question like that was best answered with one’s gloves on. “Yes. I will be about an hour.”

“So…” He didn’t feel right saying it, bringing this up. Mostly because he was afraid of the answer. “Do you… kill people?”

“No.” William wished Red had chosen a better time to voice his curiosity: his lungs had begun to strain, anticipating his impending meal. 

“So they’re all… like me? You only need a little blood?”

William pulled his left glove on, slowly and deliberately. “Yes, I require only a small amount if I have it often.”

“And if you have a lot?”

William frowned, quickly pulling the right glove on.  “I don’t. It’s far easier to maintain janissaries than it is to kill a human whenever one feels the urge.” 

“Janissaries?” Red asked, wondering, not for the first time, how much more there was to vampires that he didn’t know. 

“It’s the word for humans with whom we have a feeding relationship.” 

“Ah. And they, what, do it because they like it?” 

“Yes. And because of the increased alertness. It is not hard to find people; back at home, there are families I have been feeding from for generations.”

Red nodded; that made sense, that a father who found success by the grace of a vampire’s support might draw his son into the fold. “So why are the stories all about vampires killing people?”

William shrugged. “Why are your human books and films all about humans killing one another?”

Red smiled.  “Point taken.”

“Not that there aren’t those of us who find killing more expedient, but janissaries are so convenient, presenting themselves at one’s home on their feeding schedule.” 

“Wait, will they start coming here?” Red frowned; even though William had assured him it wasn’t anything like what they had, the thought of him eating from other people made him uncomfortable. He certainly wouldn’t want to see them.

William smiled and quickly pulled off his left glove to cup Red’s jaw in his hand. “Not if you don’t wish them to.”

Red pulled William closer to kiss him.

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July, 1944

Red was bored: he’d thought that going to see the school play with William would be fun, that he’d be able to follow the story well enough with tones of voice and body language. Besides, it was being performed by 11 year olds: how complicated could the plot possibly be?

Turned out: extremely.

He knew that someone was dead, someone was angry about it. Or they were angry that the wrong person was killed. Or angry that they themselves didn’t do the killing?  Even the odd French word he knew didn’t help much. The actors seemed to speak in sentences that were made from joining the words together, the end of one flowing seamlessly into the start of the next, all spoken in one breath. It was very different to the slow, clear speech that people used when they spoke to him.

And since he was in public with William, there was the subterfuge. He hated the subterfuge. That they had to keep themselves apart and play at being employer and employee rather than lovers when all he wanted to do was touch and flirt and laugh and be close

The theatre was dark. 

William put his hand in Red’s lap and held it open for him. 

Red took it, gave it a squeeze, and smiled.

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Demain, je… vais en la ville pour… acheter du pain et… envoyer tes lettres.” Red spoke slowly, hesitating between each part of the sentence as he tried to string the words he knew together. Even though he’d asked William to practise French with him an hour each night, he still felt embarrassed, vulnerable, and extremely stupid as the words often failed to come to him. 

“You should use ‘à’ for cities, towns; ‘en’ is only for countries, states, and other things of that nature.”

Red suppressed a groan. “It’s bad enough I have to learn so many different words, without them all meaning practically the same thing!” 

William placed his hand on Red’s thigh, smiling. “People will understand you regardless, and with experience, you will master it. Et qu’est-ce que tu as fait aujourd’hui?

Red smiled, and bit his bottom lip in concentration. What was the word for ‘sweep’, again? 

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August, 1944

They sat on a hill, Red’s head in William’s lap as William stroked his hair. It was getting too long again; long enough to get in Red’s eyes when he bent over. It was probably time to go through the ordeal of asking for a haircut in French.

They were staring at the stars, discussing constellations and astronomy. It had been a long time since William had seen the stars like this, had actually looked at them, had reason to remember the astrologers he knew a dozen lifetimes ago, back when portents of a bad harvest had meaning to him. 

“When I was a kid, I used to think about how neat it was that we could see the whole universe,” Red mused, staring at the thousands of points of light. “I remember learning about telescopes at school, and all I wanted was to see Saturn. Never did. Saw the pictures, though.”

“We can find you a telescope, if you’d like.” William smiled, enjoying the smell of the dewey air of the early morning and the dirt and Red’s sweat from the walk. 

“May as well. Considering we’ll be out at night a lot.” Red sat up just enough to grab William’s head and pull him down to kiss him.

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When William left his study, he followed the rich, sharp smell of coffee to where Red was sitting in the dining room, a steaming mug in his hands. He was wearing navy blue slacks that he had definitely worn yesterday and a white undershirt; it made William uncomfortable, and that discomfort unsettled him in a way he couldn’t quite place. 

William had come to learn that although sometimes Red would put together an outfit with meaning, most of the time he didn’t think twice about his clothing. And sometimes did not even bother to get fully dressed. It had started as an occasional thing, but as the weather grew hotter it now seemed he didn’t wear a proper shirt unless they planned to leave the house. Clothing was important to William, of course, but only on other vampires. It felt strange and foreign that he’d care so much about a human’s attire, even a human who had a strange, subconscious talent in that area. Now was the time to say something. 

“Is your letter finished?” Red asked, gesturing at the chair beside him to invite William to sit. 

“Yes, I have put it on the table by the door for you to put in the post tomorrow.” William nodded, but stood across from Red, on the other side of the dining table. He looked at the thin, white fabric of Red’s undershirt and considered what to say. 

“You okay?” Red gave him that look again, the look of thinly veiled confusion that he liked to employ whenever he wanted to indicate that he thought William was about to be over-dramatic. 

“Why aren’t you dressed properly, these days?” 

Red looked at William’s outfit: trousers and a long-sleeved shirt that were perfectly pressed. Shiny black shoes, and a belt that matched. 

“Just because I’m not in my Sunday best every day like you are doesn’t mean I’m not properly dressed.” Red always felt underdressed around William, no matter what he wore, and it made him self-conscious to find out that William cared about it enough to even bring it up. 

William frowned, sitting opposite Red. “I’m not talking about that. I don’t think I’ve seen you wear a proper shirt all week.”

Red pulled at the thin white fabric of his undershirt between two fingers. “This is a proper shirt.”  

“You know it isn’t.” 

Red frowned and sipped his coffee. “Fine, it’s not, but this is my—our—home, and it’s comfortable, and nobody’s going to see it.”

“I’m going to see it.”

Red grinned. “Oh? I could not wear a shirt if you preferred." Red found himself hoping that this was just one of William’s clumsier attempts at flirting.  

“You know that’s not what I was trying to say.” William placed his hands on the table, intertwining his fingers. “It’s disrespectful.” 

“What? How?”

“I suppose it’s a vampire thing,” he admitted. 

“How?” Red considered this. 

“We place a lot of emphasis on the way one attires oneself.”

“So. You want me to wear two layers of shirts in this heat in the middle of nowhere where nobody can see me, except you, a person who regularly sees me naked, because vampires think it’s disrespectful?”

“Yes.” 

Red pushed his mug to the side, exasperated. “William, I live here. This is my home. I can wear what I want.” 

“Does what I want not matter to you?”

Red squeezed his fingers together and pressed them onto the centre of his forehead. “Of course it does, but I’m not going to dress up and be uncomfortable where I live. It’s ridiculous.”

“It’s ridiculous to ask for some basic respect?” 

Red frowned, placing his hand back on the table. “Why is this about respect? It’s a shirt. You know that I respect you.”

“I put effort into my clothing every day, for you. And you don’t afford me the same respect.”

“I never asked you to! I know you like choosing your outfit and making sure your cufflinks match it and all, but I really don’t care. You’re doing it for yourself, not for me. You could wear slacks with holes in them and an undershirt with no sleeves and I’d be just as happy.” 

“You really don’t care?” He knew humans didn’t place much importance on clothing, but this seemed a bit much. 

“No!” Red sighed, rubbing his face with the heels of his hands. “Is it really that important to you?” 

“Yes.”

“Why? If you know how I feel, then why does it matter?”

William sighed, and picked up Red’s mug of coffee. He inhaled deeply, feeling the earthy aromas of the drink in his body, filling his lungs with the warmth of the steam. It was soothing: the heat and the condensation eased his slight hunger in a small way. “It’s hard to explain.” He placed the mug back down.

“But it’s a vampire thing, like how you were always adjusting my clothes in Rome.”

“Yes.” 

“You know I’m not a vampire, right?” Red picked up his mug of coffee again, and took a sip of warm, bitter liquid.

“Of course.” 

“So you should know that I’m not going to do vampire things like obsess over special outfits or give you vague, confusing gifts or write you long fancy letters.”

“I’m simply asking you not to walk around the house in your underwear.”

“No, you’re asking me not to walk around my house dressed the way I want. My clothes are clean, William. I’m comfortable. It’s hot out and did I mention there are no windows?”

“Not since yesterday.” William smiled and placed his hand on one of Red’s. 

“Look,” Red forced himself to take a deep breath before he spoke. “I’m not exactly thrilled with all the vampire things. It was bad enough when I was coming to terms with the fact I had romantic intentions towards a man without you being being my boss and then a vampire on top of all of it. But I—I do really care about you. I do. And I want to do right by you, but you can’t keep telling me what to do all the time. Like last week, when you said my shoes were too old. They’re comfortable, and I didn’t throw them out like you suggested.”

“I know.” 

“And I’m going to keep wearing them. And the undershirts. Because they’re comfortable.” Red put his other hand on top of William’s and squeezed it. “But, I won’t go out like this. And I’ll wear a proper shirt once it’s colder. And if we ever have visitors, I’ll wear whatever uncomfortable shoes you pick out.” 

William considered this. “Very well. I suppose you’re right.” 

Red couldn’t stop himself from smiling.  “You’re used to getting your way, aren’t you?” 

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William’s fingers put pressure on the point where his fangs had left the soft skin of Red’s thigh.

Red breathed in sharply, unsure of how long he had been holding his breath for. “You’re finished?”

“Yes. Thank you.” 

Red’s hand let go of the blanket that he’d been squeezing, and moved to take over from William. Not that the wound needed help clotting. “Could you…”  His thoughts wouldn’t gather. He took the moment to breathe, to relax. There was something about the feeding process, doing it in bed, knowing what was going to happen, that made it more intense in many ways. “Could you do it for longer?”

“If you want to do it every month, I can only take a minute or two. To go for five minutes…” William considered it. “We would have to do it every three months.”

Red tried to not let his disappointment show. He knew William wouldn’t withhold from him if he didn’t need to. “That’s all?” 

William cupped Red’s jaw with his hand, smiling gently. “You need it more than I do, my dear.”

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The next time William went out to feed, he brought a package of new undershirts back with him. 

Red grinned. “You shouldn’t have!” 

“Yes, I should have.” William smiled. “You needed new ones. Please remember to replace them when they begin to wear out.” 

“If it makes you happy, I’d be glad to.” Red knew his standards about the acceptable age for undershirts were a lot more lax than William’s were. But he realised he’d come to love his strange quirks. He wouldn’t be the same without his strange, strict standards in so many banal things.

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September, 1944

Red ate spaghetti on the settee, watching William as he rifled through the pile of letters he’d received that day. One of them had an ordinary-looking outer envelope, but when Red opened it to put the inner envelope on the table William liked his letters to be on, he was surprised to find a delicate powder-blue inner envelope. William’s name was written in harsh, dark letters on the front and the back was decorated with elaborate cursive and pictures of vines. 

When William saw it as he went through the small stack of letters, his hands slowed and he scrutinised the front. Red felt proud to have noticed it—whatever it was.

“Someone important?” he asked, curious now.

William nodded. “Yes, very.”

“You must be excited to hear from them. If they’re special.”

“No, she’s not fond of me at all.”

Red raised an eyebrow. “Why? What did you do?”

William waved his arm outwards. “That isn’t important. It was a long time ago.” 

“Ah. Secret vampire thing, then?”

William smiled. “I’m afraid so.”

“So, what, if she doesn’t like you, what does that mean?” Red paused, trying to think of what he knew about vampires so far. “Will her next letter only have one envelope? It would make your fingers dirty!”

William laughed. “No, I think all her designs on me have more stabbing involved.” 

“Stabbing?”

“It’s not the same as it is for a human to get stabbed.”

Red stared at him. “But it’s not great.”

William smiled. “Don’t worry about me, my dear. She’s hated me for a very, very long time. I’m sure it’s out of habit as much as anything else, now.” 

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Red had never been a very sentimental person, but for what he wanted to do, what he wanted to say, he wanted everything to be just right. He might never find the courage otherwise. The fact that vampires followed a staunchly regulated set of social rules did not help his nerves.

So he’d told William that he wanted to prepare some firewood for the school, before winter came, and it was much nicer to chop wood in the evening than under the heat of the sun. But really, he thought it would impress William to see him doing something kind and to see his strength. And if he got hot and had to take his shirt off, well, that wouldn’t hurt either.

So William sat on a bench by the school’s woodshed, reading a thick book in the feeble moonlight. Red collected a few dozen unsplit logs into a pile, decided he’d worked up enough of a sweat, and peeled his shirt off, folding it neatly on the floor (this was not something he’d have done before, but several months of living with William had made him develop several new habits). Red pulled his undershirt over his head, used it to wipe at the sweat on his chest and sides, and folded it beside his shirt. 

He finally picked up the axe, ready to begin chopping. He glanced at William, who for the first time since he’d started, was watching with interest. Red tried not to grin. He swung the axe high into the air, and let it come crashing down onto the wood. The log didn’t split, but that was normal: it would take a few more strikes. 

William put his book down. Red tried to think what he’d say, how the conversation would go. William stood up and walked over to him.

“Are you alright, my dear?” 

“Of course,” Red replied, trying not to sound nervous.

“May I have your hands?”

Red couldn’t suppress his grin this time, glad his plan was working so perfectly. He put the axe down to reach for William’s hands. William smiled and shook his head.

“No…” William picked up the axe, and put it back in Red’s hands. He adjusted Red’s grip. “You should hold it like so; it will give you more control.” 

Red nodded, embarrassed.

“And when you chop, it is best if you do not make such a large swing. You won’t be as likely to injure your back.” 

Red smiled tightly. “Thank you.” 

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October, 1944

William had received many packages since July—small ones, mostly. They contained little statues, paintings, even a few small tapestries (ones that didn’t feature dogs). He was always so happy to get them, opening them up and scrutinising each gift, sometimes muttering to himself. They always ended up in the storeroom next to the bedroom. Red didn’t like going in there, where the contents of William’s trunks and all his new gifts had been laid out neatly in long rows and tall stacks. It was so carefully organised and all seemed so fragile that he was terrified of knocking something over.

This package was a heavy wooden box, about three feet square. It was packed with less care than the vampire packages normally were: was this some slight? Was William in trouble? Red was still worried about the rival he’d mentioned a few weeks earlier.

But when William saw it, he grinned. “Ah, it finally arrived.”

“What do you think it is, this time?”

William smiled. “It’s for you. Open it.” 

Red unhinged the cold metal clasp, pulling the box open. It was divided into twelve long square compartments, each containing a wine bottle. He grinned, pulling one of them out to examine it. 

“This looks like good wine,” he said, though he didn’t really know anything about wine. But the bottle looked old, and he knew old was good, and he knew there was no way William would get him a gift that wasn’t of good quality.

“I thought you would enjoy it.”

Red grinned. “Oh, I will.” 

He poured himself a glass while William made dinner. 

He had another glass with his meal. He and William went through the newspaper together, discussing its contents as Red picked up new vocabulary. He had trouble pronouncing some of the words, and giggled as William tried to explain the finer points between different ‘u’ sounds.

Red poured himself a third glass as William cleaned the dining table and dealt cards for the night’s poker game. The alcohol was having its effect on him: his whole body felt warm and pleasant and his face was turning pink. It had been a long time since he’d had wine, and this one was strong as wines went. 

“Would you like to set the rest aside, for you to finish tomorrow?” William asked. 

Red waved his hand. “Nah, I’m alright. It’s good wine!”

Even though he was sure Red wasn’t appreciating the quality of the wine at this point, William decided to leave Red to drink the rest of the bottle. It was a harmless enough indulgence, after all. 

Well, maybe not entirely harmless: Red’s poker game suffered immensely, particularly because he couldn’t be bothered to ensure William couldn’t see his cards. And it was punctuated by his over-the-top attempts at flirting, as Red stared blatantly at William instead of looking at his cards, or touched him while making a mumbled comment about flies. 

As Red finished his fourth and final glass, he put his cards down. “I’m bored. Let’s do something else.” 

“What do you have in mind?” 

Red stood up. “First, I’m gonna grab another bottle—” 

William stood up, too, and went into the front entryway where the box of wine was. Red ran after him, but he knew there was no hope of him outpacing William when he didn’t want to be caught. But he felt it would be fun to chase him, and it was. When Red reached the front of the house he saw William sliding the heavy crate on top of one of the bookshelves in the sitting room, touching it only with his fingertips.

“Wow, you’re strong.” He’d noticed it before, but the wine had made it funnier and more impressive—made him more willing to comment on it.

“Thank you.”

“No, you’ve got… super strength!” Red grinned. “Hey, can you lift that couch?” He pointed at the settee, which was made of dark, heavy wood and was long enough that Red could lie down on it without his feet sticking over the edge.

“Yes, I could.”

“Come on! Do it. Please?” 

William sighed. “Very well.” He crouched beside the settee, lifting it with his knees. He held it up at waist height for a few seconds and put it back down.

“Oh! You can do better than that. Put it over your head! Throw it fifty feet!”

“No. Let’s get you some sleep.” He approached Red and grabbed his hand. 

“I’m not tired!” Red pulled his hand away. “Can you lift me over your head? Oh! Can you throw me onto the roof? Do you want to race? I’ll see if I can borrow an automobile, maybe I’ll even beat you!”

William sat on the settee. “Come here,” he said kindly, petting the cushion beside him. Red obliged, sliding into the couch and scooting against William’s side. William placed a hand firmly on Red’s thigh and kissed his forehead. “Now, my dear, let me tell you the story of how I once saved a fox kit from a badger.”

“I haven’t heard that one yet.” Red smiled, and closed his eyes.

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William was staring at his wardrobe, trying to pick out a shirt. It was taking him longer than usual. Nothing seemed right, today.

“I finished the ironing, by the way.” Red remarked from the spot he was lounging on the bed.

That explained why nothing seemed right: the shirt he wanted wasn’t there. “Perfect. Can you get me that brown striped shirt I wore two days ago?”

“What are you doing, wearing something twice in the same week?” Red asked with mock horror.

“I must be going mad.” William grinned.

Red went to the laundry room, and came back with the brown striped shirt. William turned around to take it from him, but started at what he saw.

Red was holding the shirt in his left hand, thumb held over the collar. The shirt had been unevenly folded in quarters, skewed to the right. The angle of the stripes relative to William was slightly off centre. 

It was beautiful. It was sincere. It was a declaration at once of love and devotion and of a regret that life was not more simple. 

William didn’t know what to say. 

“Is this the right one?” Red asked, wondering what had made William go all stiff.

“It’s perfect,” William replied. He started for the shirt but grabbed Red in a tight hug instead. 

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William had planned the visit for weeks: he would travel to a nearby town for two days, to meet with Elodia, the vampire whose cottage that they had been living in. 

Red was worried about being away from William for the first time since they’d arrived in Corsica, but he had plenty of books, and his French had almost grown good enough that he could stop picking the shelves of the bookshop for the few in English that remained (or enduring the children’s picture books) and instead start to peruse the French books. 

A few days before William was meant to go, Red had felt a scratch in the back of his throat, a weakness in his legs. It had gotten worse as the week wore on and his muscles grew sore and tired, and the night before William was due to leave, it was clear to anyone that Red was in bad shape.

“Do you think you’ll be alright while I’m gone?” William asked, as Red let loose a flurry of heavy, dry coughs. 

“Yeah, just a little cold. I’ll be a lot better tomorrow, I think,” he said, his voice hoarse and scratchy as his throat burned to produce each syllable. 

“Are you sure?” William frowned. He wondered if he should be feeding from Red more often; he knew his most favoured janissaries seemed to rarely fall ill. But he didn’t want to risk going too far. Red was too important to him, and he didn’t trust his self control. 

“Promise.” Red smiled, taking a sip of water that did nothing to calm the redness in his throat. 

When William awoke the next evening, Red’s warm body was in bed with him, his eyes half-closed and distant and his pyjamas damp from the sweat. William would have to get them washed. 

“How are you, my dear?”

Red’s response was mumbled, as though he was trying to swallow the words immediately after speaking them. “Fine. Jus’ a little nap. Have fun on your trip.”  

Despite Red’s obvious discomfort, William couldn’t help but smile. “No, you’re not fine.”

“It’s okay.”

“I’m going to remain here tonight. I can postpone the meeting.”

“No! You said it’s important. You have to go!” 

William smiled and stroked Red’s hair. “Someone has to make sure you have something to eat, my dear.”

Red spent the rest of the night in bed, feeling himself freezing under the pile of warm blankets in the moments of consciousness between his long bouts of sleep. During some of that wakefulness, William fed him hearty soups and warm water, when Red would accept them despite the fever that made him feel he was on fire at the same time that he froze. His head was pounding, and he felt as though he’d soiled every handkerchief in the house.                                

William sat there for hours in between preparing the soup and fetching spare blankets, holding Red’s hand. 

After a very long time, William lay down beside Red, stroking the smooth skin on his forehead. “I must rest now, my dear. I hope you will be all right.”

Red smiled. “I’ll manage.” He took a deep breath through his mouth, the cool morning air irritating his throat and lungs. “I know your… trip was important. Thank you for staying and looking after me.”

“Of course.” William kissed Red. “I love you,” he found himself saying. That was a shock. Why would he say such a thing, to a human, and admittedly one he had found himself uncharacteristically fond of, but surely not that fond, not so fond that he’d say something like that, when he was normally so careful with his words, and besides, his own thoughts in that direction had just been dalliances, anthropomorphising the human into something he wasn’t, putting—

The sun rose.

William fell limp.

“Love you too,” Red replied, and then started coughing. 

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November, 1944

William woke with Red lying next to him. Red lay on his own arm, eyes closed, gently stroking William’s hair. Red smelled of coffee and congealed blood and strong soap.

“Good evening,” William said softly as he woke, rolling onto his side to face Red. He placed a hand on his hip, feeling the soft movements of his breathing.

“Evening,” Red mumbled back. 

“How has your day been?”

Red smiled, putting his arm around William’s ribcage. He rested his nose against William’s cheek, feeling William’s cool breath on his skin. “I missed you. I chopped wood for the school. I bought extra hazelnuts. I went to the library.”

“Did you read anything interesting?” 

“I’ve finished all their books in English, not that they had that many. I’m reading an encyclopedia, and I use a French dictionary for the harder words. It’s fine.” He cracked open his eyes to put his chin on William’s shoulder. “You know there’s a math thing for how people sit around a table? If you want to make sure it’s all women flanking the men?”

“Where would be the fun in that?” he said, smiling.

“The French are into it.” Red grinned back. “The only thing I’m getting out of the encyclopedia is that people overcomplicate things, and a headache.”

“It is an ambitious thing for you to read.” He pulled Red closer, so their chests were touching; his body had started to warm up, and was now merely cool rather than disturbingly cold as it always was when he first woke up. 

“I should be practicing my French anyway.” Red wrapped his arms around him. “I still sound like a six year old.”

“Don’t be so hard on yourself, my dear. I think your French is very good.”  He kissed Red’s neck, just below his ear.

“That’s because you don’t see me in town. I’m embarrassing you constantly.”

William laughed. “Now, now. Your gaffes cannot be worse than the confusion it caused when an Italian nobleman’s valet spoke hardly any Italian.”

“I thought we were just pretending I took a bad blow to the head in my teens,” he muttered, shifting in between William’s legs and gently kneading his thighs.

“That would also explain your French.” William grinned. He gently rolled onto his back and pulled Red on top of him. Red laughed. They did not get out of bed for a while longer.

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It was lonely when the sun was up. The days were mercifully growing shorter, and Red’s regular trips into town and his work at the school helped to make him feel less isolated. It was especially difficult on days like today, when William had fed from him recently and he felt no desire to sleep, leaving him with a full day of sunlight to fill. 

He’d made a habit of reading the paper and drinking coffee at the local coffeehouse each morning. Even when he felt he needed to sleep a full eight hours, he would find himself awake before lunchtime, regardless of how late into the morning had stayed awake. He wondered if he would grow out of it. Perhaps, after enough time, he would be a creature of the night, though in a less literal sense than William was.

That line of thinking drew his mind to the future. If he had a future with William... would his life be like it had been the past six months? A couple of glasses of coffee, pleasantries with some villager with whom he couldn’t begin to dream of sharing the details of his life, a day’s work at the school, and then returning home to read until sunset… 

He was grateful that he was safe. He had never felt so secure, even back at home. His boss at the steel mill was certainly not as worried about Red’s health as William was. And all the dates he’d been on with Janet, all the time they’d spent together, they had been nice, but there was something about the easy relationship he’d had with William: watching him cook, going on long walks, the French lessons, the card games and William’s futile attempts to teach Red to play chess. Red was too sore a loser, and William’s attempts to play poorly too transparent, for that to have worked out. But it had been fun to find that out about each other.

Red was grateful for his relationship with William. But he felt there was something missing in his life. He didn’t know what it was, and he felt ungrateful for noticing it at all.

He was walking by the sea on this cool autumn morning. It was beautiful, the sort of place he daydreamed about visiting before the war began. It was hard to believe that the war was still happening, now that there was little reason for Red to think of it anymore. Palm trees grew opposite from tall, golden buildings and the sea was a pure blue and seemed to go on forever on this mercifully clear day.

Columbus seemed so distant, now. Yet he had been there only a year ago, with Janet and his mother and his sister waving goodbye to him at the train station. He imagined how they must feel now. Had he been reported as a deserter, or was his name camouflaged among the dead? They’d remember him as a hero. A sacrifice worth making to take Rome from Hitler. His name would be carved onto a memorial somewhere, like his great-grandfather’s. It would be better to be a martyr than a coward.

He shook his head; it wasn’t helpful to think about those things. It just made him feel worse. He diverted his attention back to the road, to the buildings he was walking past. After several minutes he noticed something moving in the alleyway, out of the corner of his eye.

His head snapped over to look. But it wasn’t a threat. No pickpocket sizing him up, not even a peddler trying to sell him something of questionable provenance. 

Just a dog.

She was fairly plain, with the muscular lean look—it was probably a Cursinu, a type of dog that was popular with the local farmers. She was dark brown brindled with tan, but some of that may have been dirt. Her ears were long and floppy and caked with mud. But he mostly noticed her eyes, wet and glittering and watching him as he stopped to look at her. Those eyes reminded him of Jack, the dog his family had when he was a boy. He felt a pang of something deep in his chest.

“Hey there,” he said quietly. She flinched when he spoke, but didn’t look away.

She stepped back when he crouched, even though he was still several yards from her. She gave him one cautious wag of her tail.

He took a step towards her.

And she bolted.

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The next day, she was in the same alleyway. This time she didn’t run, but Red didn’t approach. Instead, he left his sandwich near the opening of the alley and left.

When he looked back, he saw a snout cautiously come around the corner, enough to grab the sandwich and dart back into the darkness.

He smiled.

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On the fourth day, he sat down with a book and set two sandwiches down beside him, and read while the cautious brown eyes watched him from the shadows.

Passing strangers gave him scornful looks, when they didn’t just look straight through him. Maybe they thought he was a vagrant. He didn’t mind. 

He didn’t look up when she came up to him. She cautiously sniffed at the hem of his pants, took a sandwich, and ran.

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On the seventh day, she allowed him to pet her. Red could feel the bunched muscles in her neck. She leaned into him when he scratched her behind the ear. She ran when he attempted to examine the strange hairless patch over her leg.

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On the ninth day, she let him scratch her while she ate. A strange smell was coming from her leg: it was sickly sweet, like sugar syrup. He looked at the wound: it didn’t look like it should have smelled sweet. It was a pale-yellow green, swollen, and had raised red edges. Bolts of black ran through it. 

It was definitely infected. 

Red sighed. She looked at him, still cautious.

“Sorry, sweetheart. You’re not going to like this,” he whispered, and grabbed her around the middle.

She yelped in terror and squirmed in his arms, snapping at him in panic. She squealed again as he wrapped her in his jacket, covering her head and binding her limbs to her body, and carried her through the streets to his home.

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William woke up, alone in the bedroom. This was slightly unusual; Red was often there to greet him at sunset. More unusual still was the smell of dog that seemed to fill the house. 

And not a particularly clean dog, either.

He sat up, and could hear the rustle of the page of a book turning coming from the bathroom at the other end of the house. Ah, of course—Red had human needs, after all. William climbed out of bed, got dressed, and walked through the sitting room and past the kitchen. 

He could hear Red reading, and his calm, regular breaths. He could also hear another creature, not human, not calm. He could smell it, too. A wet dog. What had possessed him to...

William sighed, and gently opened the bathroom door. Red was sitting on the floor, legs crossed, a detective novel in his lap. He grinned at William and inclined his head to the cardboard box that was on its side in the centre of the room, which was now quivering from the force of the animal that was trembling inside.

William hunched to peer inside the box and examine the dog. Her ears were damp, she was quivering, and her big wet eyes were so vivid that they seemed to be the only thing in the box. Red’s jacket was lying underneath the wretched creature. 

“What are you doing?” William asked.

“I’ve been sitting with the dog,” Red replied softly, hesitant. “Her leg looked really bad, so I brought her here and cleaned her up, and I don’t want to leave her alone while she’s so scared.”

“Why?” William lowered his voice.

“I think she’s a stray. Her leg was definitely going to get worse out there, especially since she’d not been eating,” he paused, giving the box a plaintive look before speaking again. “Do you... do you like dogs?”

William thought back to the forests of Gaul, to horseback rides, to battles fought beside loyal soldiers and war hounds. He thought back to the mutts that begged for scraps in the kitchens of Spain. He sat on the floor beside Red. “I have not had one in quite some time.”

Red nodded, relaxing a little. “We could keep her, maybe. I don’t think... I mean, she won’t get in the way.”

“What use do you have for it?” William asked; he tried to dredge up memories of his past. What did he think of the war dogs, all those years ago? Did he like dogs? He must have.

“Use?” Red repeated, confused. He looked back to the dog. “Uh. She’s... well, maybe, if we kept her, she would probably be a good guard dog. If someone tried to break in, she could wake us, well, me, up. I’m sure she could learn. She looks... she seems like a smart dog.”

“We will have to get a kennel for it to sleep in.”

Red’s eyes lit up. “You’re okay with us keeping her? She can stay?”

“If you wish it. I suppose it can keep you company whilst I sleep, as well.”

Red considered this. He felt that hole inside him, that thing that was missing... maybe...

“Do, I mean…” Red hesitated, then moved to give William a hug. “I would love to keep her. Thank you.” He broke the hug to shuffle in front of the box. He offered the dog his hand, since it now smelled of William as well. “Do you want to name her?”

William shook his head, watching as the dog gave Red’s hand a tentative sniff. “You should name it.”

“I’m going to call her Chestnut,” he said immediately. He had decided on a name days ago.

Chapter Text

The short woman knelt before the small, furry winged creature that had landed in her courtyard, bowing so deeply her forehead almost scraped the floor.

When she sat up, a suited man was standing where the creature had been. He, too, was short, with dark eyes and black curls cascading from beneath his hat.

“Your majesty,” she said in Italian. “Thank you for your attention.”

“It’s been a very long time since I have had the pleasure of visiting your domain, your grace.” Cassius adjusted the black fabric of his coat with his white-gloved hands.

“I wish it were for better reasons, your majesty.”

“What did you want to discuss?”

“I recieved King William of New Holland gladly,” she began. “But he has not been a good guest.”

Cassius sighed. “How many janissaries has he dispatched?”

“None, your majesty.”

“Then what have you to complain about? That is more consideration than he gives most of us.”

Elodia frowned. “Last month, he failed to attend the Dipavali ritual as I had requested.”

“And he didn’t send reparations?”

Her frown deepened. “He did.”

“And he rescheduled?”

“Yes, we had a Dipavali ritual two weeks ago.”

“And it went well?”

“He was a paragon of decorum, your majesty,” she hissed. “As always.”

“So why call me here?” Cassius drummed his fingers on the lapel of his suit.

“I was reluctant to host him to begin with, and I fear that this may be the first of many slights I can expect to receive.” She said, allowing herself a polite, tight smile.

“I doubt that very much; it is not King William’s way.”

“Regardless, I want to send him a message.”

“I hope you are talking about posting him a reproachful letter.”

“I request castigation, your majesty.” She replied, her eyes narrow and her lips tight.

“Castigation?” Cassius didn’t hide his surprise: he wanted Elodia to know how ridiculous her request was. “You want to castigate a king?”

“I’m within my rights to do so.”

Cassius started; that was true, but it was more common for a Duchess to forgive a King’s indiscretion: they could expect to receive favours in return. “Why make an enemy of him?”

“Actions have consequences, your majesty,” she said, bowing her head once more. “As my monarch, can I count on your support?”

Cassius considered this. She lived far enough from his centre of power that she could defect to another kingdom. He was proud, and Elodia’s territory was large. He wanted to keep control of it.

“You have my support,” he agreed.

Besides, William could stand to be knocked down a peg or two. And Elodia could make herself into his enemy; that didn’t mean Cassius’s allegiance had to change.

Not overtly, anyway.

Chapter Text


Helleborus flickr photo by CALLEJERO ERRANTE shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

𝓇ℯ𝓁𝒾ℯ𝓋ℯ 𝓂𝓎 𝒶𝓃𝓍𝒾ℯ𝓉𝓎

Ajaccio, Corsica, France
December, 1944

Two figures walked along the beach by the moonlight. The short one adjusted his heavy coat and pulled his hat down further over his ears as a cold wind blew in from the sea. The taller man wore a light dinner jacket and relatively thin trousers. They stood too close together, except when the short one threw a ball for the brindled dog that splashed after it in the shadows.

Red never threw it too far, worried about her leg and that she might run off in the dark. He knew, logically, that he shouldn’t worry, that his companion would be able to chase the animal down, probably even sniff her out of any hiding place. But he couldn’t help it. He gave it a throw, about fifty yards away, at the place where the waves met the sand.

“Do you think her leg is holding up?” Red asked as he watched Chestnut bound after the ball.

“That patch of hair may never regrow, but I don’t think it’s painful.”

“Poor thing.” He threw the ball again. “Maybe she should swim. It might be good for her.” 

“Perhaps, though she may catch a chill.”

Red nodded, feeling guilty that he didn’t think of that. It was freezing; he wouldn’t want to swim right now, either. Though, as Chestnut walked through the sand with the waves lapping at her paws, he wondered whether it bothered her. She dropped the ball and wagged her tail, looking at him expectantly. 

“Wait, can you swim?” Red asked. “I could always teach you?” He smiled, teasing as he threw the ball again, farther this time.

“While I appreciate your generous offer, do you believe that I have not had occasion to learn?”

“I don’t know, maybe the ‘can’t cross water’ part extends to swimming.” He looked up at the stars, thoughtfully. “Wait, we’ve crossed water, haven’t we? So where does that one come from?”

“I don’t know. It must be related to your myths about holy water,” he said. Red could sense the sarcasm in ‘holy’.

“Would you like to swim?” he asked, taking the ball from Chestnut. He didn’t want to discuss religion with William; when he’d tried in the past, it had consisted mostly of rants about blasphemy, schisms, apostasy and words he didn’t understand, which just gave him a headache. 

“One of your heretic priests may have blessed it! I shall be turned to ash!”

Red laughed. The dog sat, wagging her tail, begging for the ball. “There’s probably a rule against blessing the entire ocean.”

“As I said, heretics.”

Red smiled. “But, if it was a heretic, it wouldn’t really be blessed, would it?”

William laughed; it was rare that a human surprised him like this. “You are willing to take that chance with my life?” He asked, his tone deadly serious as he grinned at Red. 

“I am afraid so,” he replied with mock sincerity, throwing the ball as hard as he could into the ocean. The dog paddled after it. Red pulled off his shirt and shoes and took several steps backwards into the freezing cold foam of the waves. “The call of the sea is too strong for me.”

William frowned, reluctant to get his clothes wet. Red grinned through his chattering teeth; William’s fastidiousness might just have been part of the plan.

With all the speed William’s vampire faculties allowed him, he removed his jacket, he pulled off his gloves, loosened his tie, unbuttoned his shirt, removed his undershirt, untied his shoes, removed his socks, trousers, and then finally his drawers. He folded them neatly on the dry sand, and approached the water’s edge. He felt the sand transition from soft and easily shaken off his feet, to wet and persistent, and wondered if he really wanted to put his feet into the ocean and thereby doom himself to walk home in sandy socks.

Red was standing with the water up to his shoulders, clearly suffering far more from the cold than William would from the sand. Moreover, he had gotten his pants wet.

William grinned at Red. “And alas, like Butes, I am drawn towards the charms of the siren.”

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After everyone had returned to the house and been rinsed of seawater and sand, William cooked. It was Red’s last meal before the sun rose, before it was time for bed. The rich smells of tomato and basil filled the air. It was routine. It was pleasant.

These were the moments that made him happier than anything else. Not the big moments, the little ones.

Red carefully buttoned his shirt, deep in thought.

“I never thought about it, but that’s a vampire thing, isn’t it? The holy water?”

“Do you honestly believe any of those heretics could do anything?” William asked, glowering at the sauce as he stirred it.

“I don’t know. These days I’m trying to keep an open mind.” He hugged William from behind, kissing the nape of his neck. “I don’t want you to get hurt,” he added softly, pressing his forehead against William’s back, as though being as close as possible could protect him somehow.

“Do not worry yourself.”

He let go of William with a small squeeze, grabbing a beer from the icebox. He folded his arms, leaning on the counter while he opened the bottle. “Can you indulge me something?”

“Always.” William smelled the bright green sauce; there was something missing. After a moment’s thought, he retrieved a small container of dried oregano and added some of it to the thick liquid. William had noticed that Red liked oregano the previous month, when he’d devoured a bowl of pasta at a restaurant which had positively reeked of the stuff. 

Red took a sip of his drink, trying to think of where to start, and how to phrase it. “How much of what peop—humans know is true?”

“A few things are right, a few are close, and most are very wrong.” William set a bag of flour and a mixing bowl onto the table.

“I know the basics aren’t right. The white skin and animal teeth was definitely off the mark.”

“Not entirely. Surely you have seen my teeth grow when I feed on you?” he grinned.

“Stop that, you’ll give me ideas.” Red smiled in return, and took a step forward to touch William’s shoulder for a moment. “So the sunlight is true, the running water isn’t… what about counting? I’ve never seen you count anything, but maybe you do it when you’re in the study.” 

“No, I’ve never heard of anything to do with counting,” William replied, measuring out flour. 

“And the garlic thing can’t be true, unless you’re making even greater sacrifices to look after me than I thought?” Red asked, meaning it to be a joke but the words came out with a pang of regret. He still felt guilty about all that William had done for him. 

William put down the flour and moved to stand next to Red, and placed a hand on his back. “Being with you has been my greatest pleasure in years.” His arm moved around Red’s shoulders to pull him close, to reassure him that he was wanted, and he rested his head against Red’s.

Red wrapped an arm around William’s back and placed his drink down. He didn’t say anything in reply; there wasn’t anything he could say to encapsulate how he felt. 

“Thank you,” Red said, softly. Leaving a final kiss on William’s forehead, he withdrew so William could continue cooking. Red took another sip of his beer as William began to make the dough. 

“What else… I know it doesn’t rain every time you bathe, otherwise we’d be facing a flood. What about werewolves?”

“What about them?” He added flour to the sticky dough. Red liked how much William seemed to focus on cooking, so much so that he seemed to ignore the faint flecks of flour that had started to colour his black coat.  

“Do vampires turn into werewolves when they die? Or the other way around? I’ve heard that one before. Do werewolves exist?”

“There are many secrets I may yet keep,” William recited, the way he always did when he didn’t want to answer Red’s questions. 

Red sighed. “Okay. Well. God forbid, if anything does happen and you turn into a wolf, I’ll look after you.”

“You are full of questions this evening, my dear.” William smiled, and, satisfied with its consistency, started kneading his dough. 

“I was worried it would be rude to ask, when you told me what you were,” Red admitted. “And then it never seemed like a good time, but the water thing got me thinking about it again.”

“I am surprised at how you came to many of the questions.”

“Well, those are just the ones I’m not sure about. There are a lot I already know if they’re true or not,” Red smiled, thinking about what he’d learned over the past few months. “Being unable to be seen in mirrors I know is untrue. You don’t have to sleep in your coffin. But the part about being incredibly enchanting is true.”

William laughed as he rolled the dough out. “You don’t know the half of it, my dear.” He wondered how Red would feel when he discovered the extent of his powers over humans. However, it was better to keep some things hidden than to risk losing him. 

“The fun part is finding out, right?” Red smiled, but it faded quickly. There was another thing he had been meaning to ask. “So. There’s something else. Not vampire-related.”

“You were just saying how dashing I was?” William grinned, trying to allay Red’s discomfort.

“That too.” Red paused. “What did you want to do for Christmas?”

“What is your custom?” William replied immediately, cutting the dough into noodles.

Red hesitated, not expecting that answer. “Uh. Family lunch, usually. My mother and her brother take turns hosting. Mom does a dinner Christmas Eve, too, just for Dorothy and me.” He took a long gulp of his beer, suddenly uncomfortable, a pricking in his neck muscles he didn’t like. “Or, now just for Dorothy, I guess.” Or maybe they wouldn’t be able to bear to celebrate without him. “What do you do?”

“Nothing, usually. Sometimes someone may throw a party, but those have been out of fashion recently.” William gently dropped the noodles into a boiling pot of water.

“Oh.” There was a comfortable pause as William watched the pot. He stared at it. He always stared. 

“Regrettably, I cannot prepare a lunch. But I would be delighted to cook you dinner, on Christmas Eve, if you wish.”

Red smiled, some of the tension going out of his shoulders. “That would be great. Thank you.” 

“You must miss your family a great deal.”

“Sometimes,” he admitted.  He started picking at the label of the bottle. “It will be strange. Not being there for Christmas.”

“What about it is so important?” William asked, wondering what he could do to ensure Red’s happiness. It was perfectly normal, he reasoned, to care about the emotional well-being of a human in one’s employ. He was sure many other vampires had such concerns. 

“The actual holiday?” Red wondered whether he’d have to fumble through a poorly-remembered rendition of the tale of the star and the three magi.

“To you.”

Red sighed, thinking. “I guess I’ve… always been with my family for the holidays. We don’t see our cousins much, so it’s good to see them, but I always liked dinner with Mom and Dorothy. It seems strange not being there. I missed one Christmas with them already, and… I don’t know. I hadn’t realised I would miss another one.”

William started fishing the now-cooked noodles out of the pot with his fingers and placed them into a bowl. “Would you like to send them a letter?” 

Red sighed; he’d thought about it too many times, always coming to the same decision. “They probably think I’m dead. That might be easier to deal with.”

“I’m sure they’d be very happy to hear you’re alive.” William replied, pouring the green sauce over the noodles. He handed the dish to Red.

Red didn’t say anything for a while, taking his meal into the dining room and sitting down, staring at the table. “I don’t want them to know I deserted.”

“You would rather they thought you dead?” William sat opposite him, imagining how worried he would be if he hadn’t heard from Red in months.

“Maybe.” Red thought about it, feeling the air go out of him. “Thank you for dinner. You are always looking after me.”

William hesitated, knowing Red needed to have his mind taken off the subject, to be distracted so the hurt wasn’t felt as strongly. “I think Chestnut enjoyed the beach. And I know I did,” he said, kind rather than flirtatious. He placed his hand on the table.

“Me too.” Red patted William’s hand and started eating.

“Did I ever tell you about the time, when I was very young, that I sent a queen a platinum goblet when I was meant to send a pewter chalice?”

Red smiled, the anecdote having its intended effect. “And what happens when you send a queen a platinum goblet instead of a pewter chalice?”

“A misunderstanding that takes a small herd of quagga to straighten out.” 

“And what’s a quagga?” Red chuckled a little.

“A type of small zebra.”

Red smiled. There was no thank you, no acknowledgement, but he felt better.

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There had always been an odd understanding between Red and William concerning William’s feeding habits: Red had made no attempt to become acquainted with the details apart from verifying that William wasn’t murdering someone every time he went out, and William never offered anything. By now, a routine was well-established: every three days, William would wake up, cook Red’s dinner, and leave him to eat alone. William almost always came back within an hour; on rare cases, it would take him two. 

One day, William came back after three hours., Red had originally been reading but had ultimately ended up anxiously turning between pages without ever managing to read them around hour two. He sprang to his feet to open the door once he heard William’s familiar knock. 

“Come on in,” Red offered automatically.

“Thank you, my dear.” William stepped inside.

“It seems nice out…” Although it had been six months, Red never knew what to say to him when he got back. Asking whether he ate well, or saw anyone interesting, seemed inappropriate.

“Yes. No sign of rain, despite the clouds.” William took off his long, heavy coat and placed it on the coat rack along with his hat. He removed his black gloves and placed them in the small cabinet at the doorway.

Red moved towards William, pulling him close. He knew it was silly, knew William’s comings and goings were probably related to routine vampire business just as often as they were to feeding, but he worried whenever he was gone for a long time. Red kissed him, long and hard, gripping his chin with one hand and sliding his other hand all the way up William’s back from waist to shoulder. It was at once a simple embrace of affection and a declaration that Red did not want to think of anything coming to harm him. William was his; he didn’t want anything taking that away.

There was something rough on William’s back. Red broke the kiss, eyebrows narrowed slightly as he focused on what he felt, slipping his right hand under William’s shirt. It felt as though William had some sort of awful rash. With the sharpened senses that were nature’s payment for allowing a vampire to feed from him, he could smell something was off: a faint, burned smell. He brought his right hand to his nose and he could smell it, stronger. The smell of a campfire, burning pine. And a rank smell that could only be burned flesh. 

“What…” He gently pulled out of William’s arms, and nudged at his shoulder, turning him. William let him; there was no point in hiding; Red would see it sooner or later. Red pulled up his shirt to get a good look. “Oh, Jesus.”

A gaping wound six inches wide and as much as two inches deep in places snaked down William’s back. The flesh had been burned so dark that it appeared almost black, except for glistening, moist, purple-red lumps and glints of white that Red didn’t believe could possibly be bone. The wound started at the base of his right shoulder blade, where Red had first felt it, and ran towards the top of his left shoulder. The jagged edges of the injury were bright red, and swollen blisters dotted the area where the dry skin met the black void.

Red had never seen anything like this before, not even during combat. He certainly hadn’t seen anything like this happen to William. He knew an injury like this should have healed within a few hours. And it looked fresh, minutes or seconds old. Red felt the familiar, long-suppressed fear well up in his throat. 

William stood there, silent, allowing Red to gingerly pull his shirt back down, careful not to touch the wound. William’s demeanour was different than usual: his head wasn’t held in the self-assured way it always was. He flinched away from Red’s touch, but out of shame, not pain.

“What happened? How did this happen?”

“Pay it no mind.” William turned around to face Red, looking almost bored.

“No, what happened?” Red insisted. “Why aren’t you… have you run it under water? It needs to be run under water.”

William smiled at Red’s earnestness. “All I can do is wait, my dear.”

“What happened?”

“I fed near a fireplace,” William replied tersely. He knew that Red wouldn’t believe him: he was well acquainted with William’s paranoia around fires. On some level, he still expected Red to be like the others: to only care about his welfare insofar as it allowed them to feed him. Others would have gladly accepted this explanation.

What happened, William?” Red repeated gently, an edge of pleading in his voice. “I need you to tell me.”

“Nothing you need to concern yourself with, my dear.”

“You’re kidding,” Red said flatly. “This is obviously something bad. If this is an accident I might be able to help next time. If this wasn’t an accident… do we need to go? I can pack now. We can leave tonight.”

“No. There’s no danger.” 

“You weren’t eating near a fireplace. You won’t even let me light a candle!” 

“I was.” William’s voice was harsher, firmer, but not louder.

“Tell me what happened. I—can I help? At all?” 

“There are some secrets I may yet keep.”

“This isn’t one of them. This isn’t—this isn’t whether you can transform into a bat like in Dracula, this is whether somebody’s out to get you!”

“Nobody is out to get me, my dear. Please, trust me.” William felt an odd tightness in his chest. Why was he so uncomfortable speaking to Red like this? It was for his own good, after all. The truth would worry him too much. 

“Fine.” Red sighed, realising he was not going to get anywhere; he knew William well enough to have learned that there was no chance of him letting go of this stubbornness. 

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When it was next time for William to feed, Red held him for an unreasonably long time before he gave him a final kiss goodbye and allowed him to leave. When he returned, the lounge room was drenched in the thick smell of coffee and littered with a pile of books that Red had tried, and failed, to start reading.

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Over the next few days, Red had been behaving differently. When William slept, instead of his relatively leisurely suite of activities (volunteering at the school, studying French, and visiting the library), he had been pushing himself. There were blisters on his ankles from sprinting in heavy boots and ripped calluses on his hands from chin ups. They were minor injuries, but they were noticeable. At first, William attributed it to boredom, to a desire for more physical activity. But they persisted too long to be the results of a change of routine: Red was pushing his limits, and William worried it would become unsustainable. 

After one hard day, Red sat on the couch while William kneeled on the slate tile floor. William had a small jar of scented oil, a bowl of water, and some clean towels on the ground beside him. William rubbing Red’s feet had been a normal enough part of their routine, but not the half hour every night that William had insisted on lately.

“Your feet are getting worse. You should rest for a few days.” William had nearly finished the massage; he was firmly kneading on Red’s calf muscles. The warm, earthy smell of the oil hung in the air.

“It’s fine.” Red smiled. The irony of the situation wasn’t lost on him. This extremely powerful man was rubbing his feet and worrying about him. He didn’t hate it. “It’s just my boots rubbing wrong. It happens.”

“Not before, not as badly as this,” William muttered, focusing on Red’s tired calf muscles. “And your shoes are not new.” Red heard the hint of judgement in William’s voice: he might no longer be insisting that Red replace his clothing the second it began to show the slightest signs of wear, but he was incapable of hiding his distaste.

“I’ve just been trying to do more while you sleep.” He cringed a little when William’s fingers found a sore spot. “Stay in something like fighting shape.”

“Did you not tell me that the Americans would put you in prison if they found you, rather than put you to war?”

“Well, yes.”

“Then you need not push yourself like this. Besides, you are safe here.” He picked up one of the towels and started gently cleaning the oil from Red’s calves, working down towards his toes. 

“Am I? If you can… feed in front of a fireplace and get burned like that, how am I safe?” 

“You don’t need to worry about fireplaces like I do. And I can protect you from them.” William stared at Red, making his displeasure of having the fireplace mentioned known. 

“Well, I wanted to pull my weight more,” he replied. He hesitated for a moment, considering whether he really wanted what he was about to ask for. “I would like to come with you, tomorrow. When you eat.” He still wasn’t sure he wanted to witness William feeding from someone else, but he wanted to see that William wasn’t in danger when he fed. 

William paused in surprise, the towel resting on Red’s foot.  “Why?”

“I worry,” he said. “If you don’t want me to, it’s fine, but… I want to be there for you.”

“You will not enjoy it.”

“Probably. But I still want to go,” he replied, leaning forward to gently touch William’s shoulder above where the burn was. It had been almost a week and it was only half healed.

William took the towel off Red’s foot, leaving Red’s right toes and entire left foot coated in a thin coat of oil. “You could not have stopped it from happening, my dear.” His gaze was fixed on Red’s and his body completely still. 

Red ran his hand up William’s neck, tracing fingers over his jaw. “What if something happens and I could?”

“What if something happens to you?” He picked the towel up again, and resumed the task of wiping up the excess oil, trying not to dwell on what he thought was the more likely consequence of Red following him on his excursions. “I have been beaten, stabbed, even trampled by horses. These things are only a mild inconvenience for me, but not so for you.”

“I don’t know. I worry.” Red sighed.

William softened. “You’re welcome to come tomorrow, if you wish to. But you must understand that it will be for your satisfaction rather than for my protection.”

“Okay.” Red leaned forward to kiss William’s forehead. “Thank you.”

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The next day, Red was waiting in the sitting room at sundown, nursing a mug of coffee. He wore clothing that was darkly coloured and more Corsican than his usual, more functional style, following William’s instructions to appear as ordinary and invisible as possible. 

When William entered the room, his expression was sombre. He was, as always, overdressed: black pants, a blue shirt, suspenders and his thick black gloves. Apparently it was not necessary that he blend in. 

“Are you absolutely sure you wish to come with me, my dear?” he asked, his businesslike tone reminding Red of the way he’d spoken to Paola when she had driven them out of Rome.

Red got to his feet to squeeze William’s gloved hand. “I’m sure.” 

William gently pulled his hand away and took a small step away from Red. “You will not find it enjoyable. It does not look as pleasurable as it feels.” 

“I’ll be fine.” 

“Then let’s go,” he replied, choosing a heavy black winter coat from the rack by the door. Red shrugged his own coat on, fastening the buttons as he walked out of the front door. In the cold December air, he wished he’d thought to wear gloves as well, but didn’t bother trying to go back for a pair: He half expected that if he did, William would use the opportunity to go without him.

They reached the centre of town after a silent fifteen minute walk. The uneven cobblestone streets made a maze of alleyways which Red sometimes had trouble navigating, even in daylight. William ducked into the entrance of a particularly cold, dark laneway, and Red followed close behind him.

Red scanned his surroundings, his hands buried in his jacket pockets for warmth. The buildings were showing their age: window shutters that were missing pieces of wood, front doors that were in bad need of varnish and a coat of paint. Piles of wood and debris leaned against the buildings, so that there was barely enough room for people to pick their way through on the path. The stale air was full of a sour smell from the water that pooled on the edges of the narrow cobblestone road, with bits of dust and scraps of food floating in it. A bony rat was gnawing on something at the edge of the water, and scarpered into one of the piles of wood when it heard Red’s footsteps. He could hear the chittering and movement of several of its brethren coming from somewhere nearby.

At the end of the alley, a man leaned against the wall, fidgeting. He was advanced in age, probably a grandfather many times over. He wore an old but well-kept heavy grey coat and a black hat with white trim. He kept on moving his hand to his breast pocket where the outline of a pack of cigarettes was visible. 

“Is that... him?” 

William nodded. “Yes, it is.” He stared at Red, waiting to see if he would change his mind now that the reality was before them. He found himself hoping.

Red stood in silence, not knowing that William was waiting for his approval. He realised with a start, and then gestured with one hand and nodded. He felt uncomfortable and unsure about what he should do, like he was at one of his sister’s parties. 

William smiled and clasped Red’s hand, giving it a firm squeeze. He walked deeper into the alley with deliberate steps, treading loudly enough that the old man could hear him. To Red, these exaggerated movements seemed almost comical on William. 

Red’s amusement was short lived. The old man saw William and gave what looked to Red to be a lecherous grin. It gave him a sour feeling to his stomach. He tried to ignore it.

William walked right up to the man, standing very close, their chests almost touching. They spoke a few words to one another, quieter than Red could hope to hear. He found he was glad for it. 

William grabbed the old man, pushing his head aside and burying his face in the wrinkled neck. The man cried out and gave a low, pained moan. Red knew that he made noises when William fed from him, but he never imagined that they sounded like that. William roughly placed his hand over the old man’s mouth, to silence his screams, in a gesture that had seemed tender and loving when he’d done it to Red during times when silence had been necessary, but from Red’s vantagepoint it looked as if William was suffocating him. As the man stood there, moaning into William’s glove, Red could see his bright eyes begin to go glassy as he struggled for breath. Finally, able to bear it no longer, Red looked away.

The ordeal lasted another two minutes—longer than Red had ever been fed from—and then Red heard the dull moan stop as William let the man go and walked away. The man sank to the floor, grinning stupidly. Once William was back at the entrance of the alley, the old man reached into his pocket, pulled out a cigarette, struck a match, and lit it. His movements seemed more fluid, more comfortable.

William took a step forward and hugged Red. After a moment, Red pulled away, giving William a small, slightly strained smile.

They began the walk home in silence. 

“You need not come again,” William said, finally.

Red considered it, this time being the one to draw out the silence. “How often do you get hurt? When you go out?”

“As badly as this? Not since Venice.” William replied too fluidly, too comfortably, without thinking.

“When were you in Venice?”

“Oh,” William hesitated, and Red wondered why he seemed rattled, the hardness in his mouth and the slight wideness of his eyes. “A few hundred years ago.”

Red thought that over. “You said you had been stabbed and run over by horses?”

“Those are minor inconveniences.”

“Hm.” Red paused, moving to take William’s hand. “I don’t know what I would do if anything happened to you.”

“You know where I keep the money and travel papers. You can do as you will with those, if it came to that.” 

Red frowned, trying to figure out whether William was making a joke. When he realised that he was serious, Red continued. “The money wouldn’t matter to me. I would… miss you,” he said, aware how the words weren’t quite enough.

“Better you miss me living in comfort than miss me working dangerous jobs for enough bread to get by.” To William, the thought of Red outliving him was fanciful.

“You are maddening, sometimes.” Red said, his voice full of affection.

“And you are too sentimental, my dear.” William squeezed Red’s hand.

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William awoke alone, to the sound of heavy breathing and the smell of sweat coming from the sitting room, and to Chestnut whining and scratching at the back door. If Red was not there to greet him at sunset, he was usually caught up in a book or in a radio programme; or perhaps he’d lost track of time and was still in town. But there was no sound of pages turning, no buzz of the radio. Just Red’s heavy and uneven breathing.

He climbed out of bed and dressed, quickly even by his standards, wearing only an undershirt and drawers. He appeared in the doorway of the sitting room; his shoulders tensed slightly and his legs stiffened when he saw Red.

Red was sitting on the settee, a half-empty bottle of whiskey on the floor, whiskey that William knew had been unopened that morning. Red’s left shoulder was lower than the right. Not by a lot, but more than it should have been. His right hand rested on his left elbow. His face was held in a stiff grimace, the kind that gave the impression that Red had long since accepted the pain. 

“What the devil are you doing?”

“Trying to get my shoulder back in,” Red muttered through gritted teeth. There are a few scratches on his bare arms, and on his left shoulder. Some were deep but congealed.

William paused, evaluating the situation. What was this injury? It looked like ones he had seen before. “What did you do to yourself?”

I didn’t do anything,” Red grumbled, his voice harsher than usual. He picked up the bottle in his right hand and took another swig. He didn’t flinch at the taste, even though the acrid smell of the whiskey filled the room as he spoke. “It was an accident.”

William gently took the whiskey out of Red’s grasp. “This is not going to help.” He sat next to Red on the settee. “What happened?”

Red narrowed his eyes a little. “I just need to numb the pain a little, to get it back in. It’s beginning to swell. Can I have that back please?” He knew William was just trying to help, so he tried not to sound harsh—but the pain in his shoulder was intense, and the whiskey was helping. Or, at least, made it easier to ignore.

William set it on the table, out of Red’s reach. “What happened?”

“I was climbing a tree and I fell and I tried to grab a branch and it—” He got to his feet with a pained grunt. “It yanked my arm out.”

“Why on earth would you…” William shook his head and stood up. 

“Training.” He leaned over and retrieved the bottle. William didn’t try to take the bottle away, this time; he knew it made Red feel weak and small when he did such things. Red took a swig. “God, this is awful. Why did I buy this?”

William sighed. “May I help you?” 

Red nodded. William picked up the settee, the coffee table, and the armchair and stacked each in the corner in turn. He gestured to the now-cleared floor.

Red lay with his back on the hard slate tiles. They were cold, but that soothed the pain in his shoulder better than the whiskey had. William knelt beside him, carefully reviewing what he was about to do in his mind. It had been a long time since he had dealt with an injury like this. 

“You must stop this training business,” he said, gently pulling Red’s left arm away from his side. “It is not necessary.” 

“Yes it is,” Red replied. “Have to do something while you…. Ow ow ow OW!” The pain stabbed at his shoulder, and he squeezed the neck of the whiskey bottle. 

“Would you like something to bite down on?” 

“Bite you.” He chuckled at his own joke.

Satisfied with the angle of Red’s arm, William pulled it outwards. He was gentle but very, very firm. “When I sleep, you can do anything but this. You could have been killed,” he scolded, though Red could only hear the worry in his voice. 

“I didn’t think. It won’t happen again.” 

“It will! You have been injured before this. Not so badly, but still,” he muttered, thinking of the week before when the human had come home with deep cuts from climbing over a barbed-wire fence. William hadn’t brought it up before, but it was clear that this was becoming a pattern. “There is no advantage to you doing this. No matter how hard you train, there is nothing you can do to protect me.” William placed a foot against Red’s hip to hold him in place as he pulled Red’s arm.

“Wow. You sure know how to make a guy feel special.” Red breathed in sharply as he felt the muscles in his shoulder give way, allowing the joint to softly pop back into place. The pain was suddenly gone, though the muscles were still tender. William made a small, satisfied noise. 

“I am trying to keep you from hurting yourself,” William got to his feet. He stood straight for a moment, before bending to offer Red his arm. It was the sort of thing he wouldn’t have done a year ago, the sort of tiny human gesture that most would take for granted. Red hadn’t noticed the change.

Red sighed and set down the whiskey to take William’s arm. “Thank you,” he replied, pulling himself to his feet. “But… I have to do something. I can’t just sit around.” He rubbed his tender shoulder. 

“What do you expect to accomplish, doing all this?” William walked towards the kitchen.

“It’s not about expecting, it’s just…” Red sighed, scooping up the bottle of whiskey. He followed William into the kitchen. “You couldn’t understand.” He pinched the bridge of his nose.

“What exactly?” William asked, leaning on the kitchen table.

Red frowned, setting the whiskey on the table. “You’re already as strong as you could be. It’s different.” 

William laughed. “You will not believe that if you see me fight one of my elders.” 

Red paused, his train of thought completely derailed. “Is that something you’re planning on?” he asked. William made remarks like this, sometimes, that made Red realise he didn’t understand the first thing about his culture and filled his head with a thousand new questions. 

“Of course not. I know my limits. And so should you.”

Red took a swig of the whiskey. “I’m not planning on stopping.” 

“Why?” 

Red considered his words. “I know I’m not as strong as you. I know that. But if something… if something did happen, if you were asleep, or… I don’t know.” He gestured, opening and closing his fist, as though he was trying to gather his thoughts out of the air. “And I could have done something but I wasn’t good enough? And I could have been. It’d kill me.” He took another sip of the whiskey. “It’d fucking kill me.” 

“If someone wants me dead, there is nothing you can do to prevent it. I have lived longer than you can imagine. Longer than I could have ever imagined. In all that time, I have taken every precaution. I still do. I always will. The longer I live, the less it seems like enough.” William took a breath. He didn’t need air to live, but talking took lungfuls of the stuff. “I don't need you to worry for my sake. You are only human. Every one of us has their routine for taming the sun. The only thing that brings fear into my heart is that another vampire wishes me ill, and there is nothing you could do to protect me from that.” 

“I can try.” 

“Anyone who could hurt me would be stronger than me. Do you think you could stop me, if I wished you harm?”

“Nope.” Red shrugged, taking another small sip of whiskey. He was starting to smile, enjoying William’s ranting. 

“Then please, I beg you, stop putting yourself at risk. Spend more time helping at the school, collect rare plants, take up sculpting. Anything else at all.” 

Red sidled up to him, cupping the back of his head to pull him down a little, enough for him to kiss his forehead. He was so earnest, even with all his paranoia. 

“I take that as a yes?” William murmured, placing a hand on Red’s face, pleased that he seemed to have cooled down a little.

“I’ll be more careful.” 

He put his other arm around Red’s waist. “I would never have forgiven myself, if you had fallen, hit your head, and been dispatched by the wolves.” He was surprised to realise that he meant it.

Red licked his dry lips. “Wolves?”

“They would find you soon enough, my dear.” 

“There aren’t any wolves here,” Red repeated, his face tightening as he tried not to laugh. “They have foxes. And tiny weasels.” 

“Wolves would be a far more dignified way to go.”

“I think I can take the tiny weasels in a fight.” Red grinned, leaning heavily against William, the whiskey hitting him properly now that the pain was gone.

“Not if that fall had made you insensible.” He pulled Red close and kissed the top of his head. The thought of Red being seriously injured had seriously hit him. He didn’t like it.

“Yep, that’s how I’ll end up going. Eaten by weasels.” He grinned into William’s chest. “Put that on my tombstone.”

“I don’t intend to do that for a while, yet.” 

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Christmas Eve, 1944

There hadn’t been much in the way of decoration, but that was fairly typical across all of Europe right now. People made do.

Red had relocated a small pine tree into the living room and decorated it sparsely. There had been more decorations before, handmade, but Red had thrown them away, embarrassed at their imperfections. William had noticed them, crumpled in the rubbish bin, and retrieved them, straightened them out and hung them throughout the house. Red didn’t mention it.

When William woke at sunset on Christmas Eve, Red was reading in the bed beside him. 

William looked up at him and smiled. “Good evening, my dear.”

Red set his book on his lap so he could stroke William’s hair. “Did you sleep well?”

“I did.” This nightly exchange was part of their ritual now. 

Red pulled something from the drawer of the bedside table. It was a package about six inches by three inches, wrapped in paper that was decorated in drawings of spindle flowers. Simple graphite on plain paper. It was obviously not something Red drew; perhaps he had asked one of the teachers at the school to do it for him. “I got you something.” Red tried to hide his nerves, knowing how important gifts were to William, and how fussy he was. He’d almost been too scared to get him a gift at all.

“Oh? Thank you.” William took the package, examining the paper as he untied the string. Under the paper there was a vase, six inches in height, porcelain covered in a dazzling glaze that shone in green, black and silver. Pewter leaves encircled the mouth and base of the vase.

His mind automatically interrogated each part of it for meaning: the colours (the shade of green: respect and affection; the proportion of black: something new; the hint of silver: something highly valued), the shape (a slight teardrop: matters of the heart), and even the size (proportional to a hand in height and width: a desire to work). Everything about it came together to tell of a young romance that the giver wished to pursue to its fullest extent. The angle of the leaves was even appropriately chosen for a gift given in recognition of the winter solstice. 

To Red, William was studying the vase closely, with the same care he looked over anything else he picked up on a shopping trip, or with the same keen eye he studied the array of letters and packages other vampires sent him. It was routine, but of the most nerve-wracking kind.

“This is absolutely exquisite. Thank you,” William said. From the way he held it as though it was a precious thing, the way he seemed to mutter silently to himself as he turned it around to examine it, Red knew that he was sincere. 

“You’re welcome. I’m glad you like it.”

William paused. “If you don’t mind getting out of bed, I can give you your gift, as well.” In truth, he’d not realised that Red would want to exchange gifts; he was surprised he hadn’t thought of it, but giving gifts to human attendants just wasn’t done. But he knew he had to have something that would be suitable. 

“Sure. Did you want me to get changed?” Red asked: William had a demeaning habit of making major or minute adjustments to his clothing on anything that William deemed an important occasion. But Red was happy to oblige from time to time, especially when he could do it on his own terms. 


William glanced at the extensive creases on Red’s shirt; he’d probably been wearing it all day at the school. It certainly smelled as though he had. “If you could change your shirt. The striped blue one, if it is pressed,” he said, climbing out of bed and pulling on a pair of navy pants.

“It is” Red nodded, unbuttoning his shirt.

“Good.” William pulled his own shirt on and selected a belt. Despite the cold weather, he wore short sleeves. 

Red pulled the new shirt on. “How do I look?” Red grinned, placing his hands on his hips and thrusting his chest out.

“Perfect.” 

When they had finished dressing, William led Red to the store room, where he kept his trunks, vampire gifts, and the dozens of little things Red had bought for him. He knelt beside one of the trunks, unlocked it carefully, and fished out what looked like a full Encyclopaedia Britannica. He pulled out five or six volumes at a time, stacking them neatly on top of another trunk.

“Unfortunately, I didn’t think to wrap them.” He was glad he’d remembered Red had wanted an encyclopaedia; it would have been humiliating not to have anything for him. After all, whatever the other vampires would think of him exchanging gifts with a human, he couldn’t very well not present his paramour with a gift. He expected better of himself than that.

Red was silent, one arm folded across his chest and the other pressed gently against his mouth. “How could you have? How many are there?”

“Twenty-nine volumes in all.”

Red walked up to William, and kissed him on the cheek. “I love it. Thank you.” 

William had been lucky this time; he resolved to be more attentive in the future.

Chapter Text

“How much longer do you think that friend of Cassius will be in one of my great cities?” Elodia sat at the loom, gloveless fingers working quickly as she wove the fabric at impossible speed. A plump woman with long grey hair stood beside her, watching for the smallest instruction.

“What, you’re not happy to have him?” the woman teased. In response to the minute twitches in Elodia’s eyes and the progress on the tapestry, she retrieved a shuttle—a long, boat-shaped wooden implement that held a spool of thread—from a box on the floor.

“You don’t think it’s a problem that an Australian king has decided to take up residence in one of my cities for almost a year?”

“You said Cassius gave you no choice.” The woman selected a new colour of yarn, inserted it into the shuttle, and handed it to Elodia.

“He never does, but I know my rights. I’ve been exchanging letters with Queen Zeïneb,” Elodia replied, placing the new shuttle in her lap and then using another shuttle to draw the pick through the lengthwise thread.

“And she has your best interests at heart?”

Elodia rolled her eyes. “Of course not, but I know she wants to embarrass Cassius. And that suits me fine.” She ripped the thread she was working on, slipping the frayed end under some stitches.

“Why not just declare yourself her subject, then? I’m sure she would like to take Genoa from Cassius.”

“You’ll make a terrible vampire.” Elodia smiled, and the woman acknowledged the remark with a small nod. “Cassius hasn’t done anything wrong, yet,” She continued, weaving, alternating between two colours. “But he’s got a strange fondness for William that I might take advantage of.”

“They’re both old ones, you were saying?”

“Yes, and that’s probably all it is. But I think I can push William, make him do something rash. I still don’t know what made him cancel Dipavali, but that was out of character for him. There must be something I can exploit.” The dark, brown-red thread ran out. She tied it off.

“So Cassius will like you, for embarrassing his friend?”

“So he’ll like his friend less, for embarrassing himself.” Elodia smirked, dropping her empty shuttle to the floor.

Chapter Text

Purple Rhdodendron
Rhdodendron flickr photo by Me in ME shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

𝒹𝒶𝓃ℊℯ𝓇. 𝒷ℯ𝓌𝒶𝓇ℯ.

Ajaccio, Corsica, France

February, 1945

Elodia Ferrari lived on Corsica, in the town of Bonifacio. This was all Red knew about her for certain.

The letters William had Red send were almost always addressed to her, and most of the letters that William received had her name written in elegant cursive on the back of the outer envelope.

Aside from letters, Elodia Ferrari sent gifts. This was not unusual, for William received a lot of those gifts-as-messages, to which he always responded. One of the more recent gifts Elodia Ferrari had sent was a tapestry. William had remarked that the threads were torn roughly, instead of delicately cut. He said it showed her impatience.

He hadn’t sent a tapestry back: he’d told Red that it wasn’t his style, to weave. So then, in response to that tapestry, he baked Elodia a cake. A more un-William-like activity, Red could not imagine. However, the cake had a variety of metal objects baked into it—a small toy car, half a dozen small spoons, a thimble, and a pair of glasses without lenses, to name a few. He’d arranged them carefully in the baking tray, poured the batter over it, and cooked it until it was soft and spongy and golden. It was almost certainly inedible—but still, it was a cake.

The following evening, William had given it an elaborate coat of icing: swirls and rosettes in subtle shades of colours that blended seamlessly together. Red sent that—and a letter—to Elodia Ferrari. It had taken some doing, to find someone who would deliver it without damaging it, but by now the delivery people in town had become used to the strange things that Red’s patron needed to send,

Red wasn’t jealous, exactly: vampires were a little strange, if they were all like William (and he assumed they were). He could imagine a perfectly innocent conversation requiring (in a vampire’s eyes) many letters and gifts, to fastidiously explain all the senders meant to convey (probably about some ridiculously simple thing). And she lived on Corsica, not even four hours from Ajaccio. Surely, it would be much simpler for them to discuss whatever it was in person? Yet, as far as Red knew, she had never so much as set foot in the town, let alone visited their home.

And William, of all people, had baked her a cake.

And so, Red couldn’t hold back his curiosity any longer: who on earth was Elodia Ferrari?

He asked William as much, at dinner.

“Who’s Elodia Ferrari?” Red asked.

“Duchess Elodia of Genoa.” William replied. As usual, he answered the question while providing Red with nothing of value.

“A friend of yours?” Red asked: if he had any doubts, with a title like that she had to be a vampire.

William shook his head. “This island is her domain. She appreciates updates on the state of the city, about the humans I make use of, and so on.” Updates on the state of the city was a strange way of saying ‘exchanging a lot of gifts’, including a giant, elaborately decorated cake that would have broken your teeth if you’d tried to eat it.

“Oh, so are we going to be staying here a lot longer?” After nine months in the cottage, Red had begun to wonder if it was going to be a long-term arrangement. He wasn’t sure if he liked that: he missed his life back home, even though he knew he would probably never be able to go back. And a 60 year stay in Corsica probably wouldn’t seem that long to William. There were worse places to be. And he was almost accustomed to not having windows.

William shook his head. “No. The war is looking better and better for the United Nations*. I would imagine it will soon be safe to move freely, perhaps as early as six months from now. We can go back to the mainland. Travel. I can show you Tournai, where I was born.”

“Where's that?”

“Belgium.” William smiled for some reason as he said it.

“Wow. You're Belgian?”

“It was not called Belgium when I was born, my dear.”

Red nodded. “Right.” He hadn't really thought about that; he wondered how long Belgium had existed. William hated answering questions about his age, so he would have to find out on his own.

The next morning he opened one of the volumes of his already well-used encyclopaedia. He looked at the entry on Belgium; ‘the name Belgium only came into general use with the foundation of the modern kingdom in 1830’, it said. He should have expected as much—William was too fastidious to leak information so easily.

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There was a loud knock at the door four days later. Red opened his eyes and was met with the perpetual darkness of their home. He hoped that whoever it was would go away; they almost always did.

The knocking continued. Red groaned. He looked to William, who lay there stiff, cold, and insensible in the soft bed. Nothing would wake William up. However, Red found himself hoping that the loud, repetitive knocking that rang through the house might do the trick. It certainly was ringing throughout his head.

Another knock. Red fumbled for the switch for his reading lamp. He squinted, sat up in bed and took a few deep breaths. He glanced beside him at William, who lay on his side, stiff and still. He smiled and absent-mindedly stroked William’s arm, firm and unyielding like the skin of a pumpkin.

The knocking continued. Surely their arm must be getting tired?

Red pulled himself out of the soft bed, pulled on a pair of slacks, and calmly walked to the front door, closing and locking all the interior doors between them. William’s daytime security precautions were long and tedious but for once Red didn’t mind. It served the visitor right, he reasoned, for the loud, incessant knocking.

Who would be knocking on their door in the middle of the day? Maybe a neighbour, or perhaps one of William’s ‘admirers’ had worked out where he lived (he called them janissaries, whatever that meant—according to his encyclopaedia, they were soldiers in the Ottoman Empire, which couldn’t possibly be relevant). Surely William was more careful than that; and if they were smart enough to figure out their address, they should be smart enough to realise that vampires sleep during the day.

He locked the door between the vestibule and the rest of the house as William had instructed him. Then he moved the peephole cover aside, and took a look at his visitor. She was a tall fat woman with dark brown eyes, carrying a basket whose contents were hidden beneath a piece of thick fabric. Her long grey hair was pinned into a bun, and she wore a simple, but high-quality, dress. She looked like a rich man’s wife, the sort of woman who never bothered walking her children to school because they had a servant who would do it for her. He didn’t recognise her from town.

He adjusted his slacks, wished he’d taken the time to put on a shirt, and swung the door open. “Bonjour.”

Bonjour. I have a gift and a letter for King William of New Holland, from Duchess Elodia of Genoa,” the woman said politely in French. She spoke with an accent, though hers was not nearly as thick as Red knew that his was.

“Oh, thank you,” Red replied, managing to stifle a giggle. ‘King’ William? He knew that vampires loved their titles, but William wasn’t like that. “We’ve never had a... visitor.” He studied her, wondering if she posed them any danger, and what he was meant to do about it if she did. She was taller than he was, and while her arms were soft and fleshy, underneath lay hard, dense muscle.

She smiled. “Well, it is my pleasure to be the first. Her grace wishes to provide his majesty with a small token of her esteem.”

Merci, Madame…” He held his hand out to shake. ‘His majesty’? Did she have any idea how ridiculous she sounded?

Signorina Raffali. Lucia Raffali,” she corrected him, casually moving the basket and letter into her left hand to offer him her right.

“Carlo Rossi,” he responded, shaking her hand. He had been using his false name around town—you could never be too careful. “Thank you for the gift. I am sure, uh, King William will be... most pleased,” he said, trying to match her style, even though he felt ridiculous.

When Lucia handed him the basket, Red almost dropped it. He could feel the wicker digging into his palm. It must have weighed a hundred pounds! How could this woman lift it at all, let alone in one hand, and so casually, too? He held onto it with gritted teeth.

“Not very strong now, are you? How old did his majesty say he was?” she said, chuckling to herself as though this was all some big joke.

Red hesitated, confused by the question, and realising all of a sudden that he didn’t have an exact answer. “Older than Belgium,” he replied, gently lowering the basket onto the floor.

Lucia chuckled again. “Ohh, that’s nice.” She paused, and straightened her shoulders and continued in a level tone. “I am sure I will see you soon, Signore Rossi.”

“Thank you, Signorina Raffali.” Red locked the door behind her as she left.

He rubbed his hand. By jove, that basket was heavy! What on earth could be inside? And what an odd woman: his majesty, really! He chuckled, and went back to bed. It could wait.

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Red slept a few more hours, waking up at about midday. He picked the day’s newspaper off the doorstep, though its complex French could still be a challenge for him at times. William happily helped Red make sense of the more difficult passages every evening.

With the radio squawking in the background, Red ate a few thick pieces of toast and jam before letting Chestnut inside and filling her food bowl. Then he decided to go investigate the basket.

He knew better than to meddle with it. William found it disconcerting when Red did such things. He picked the basket up from the floor, this time prepared for the effort. It definitely weighed at least a hundred pounds.

The letter was about average thickness: five or ten heavy pieces of paper and a hard wax seal, this one a deep forest green. William would be pleased with it. After displaying the letter and the basket neatly on the dining room table, Red decided to take Chestnut for a walk and see if he could find some wildflowers to put on the table, too.

As they walked, Red couldn’t stop thinking about the way Lucia had spoken about William. He knew William’s friends liked their fancy, ornate titles, but William wasn’t like that. He was down to earth. Honestly, his majesty? It was all he could do not to burst out laughing when she’d said it.

William was a bit eccentric, sure. He was a vampire, and a gentleman. But having people call him your majesty? He was too normal for that.

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When the sun set and William woke up, he found Red in the sitting room, reading a French detective novel with Chestnut curled up at his feet. William was glad that Red’s skill in reading had increased enough that he could enjoy the novels—he knew that Red was bored during the day.

“Good evening,” Red said, kissing William as he sat down beside him. As they embraced, William enjoyed the warm sensation. William took a deep breath: Red smelled of the outdoors, of sunshine, of pollen.

“How was the weather today?”

“It’s been getting warmer. Lots of sunshine today. Went on a nice, long walk with Chestnut.” Red smiled. “Also, we had a delivery. A lady named Lucia Raffali gave us a basket and a letter from her, uh, mistress. Duchess Elodia.”

“Excellent.” William smiled; as a hand-delivered package, it would be important news. Red frowned slightly, wondering whether William understood how weirdly reverent Elodia had been.

“She was strange.”

“How do you mean?”

“Just the way she spoke. Duchess Elodia,” Red said, extravagantly. “She must really be keen on this whole royalty thing. King William! His majesty! I mean, really.” He looked at William, grinning, expecting him to be in on the joke.

Instead of smiling or laughing, though, his face was motionless. Red hesitated, realising he was doing something wrong, but not sure what.

“I mean…” he continued. “King? New Holland? What the hell is that? Why couldn’t you be the king of the real Holland? Do you live in a windmill? How do you feel about tulips?” As William’s face worked its way into a frown, a horror came over Red as he realised he was making things worse.

“My position has been hard-earned. Lucia and Duchess Elodia are both right to treat me with the appropriate respect.” There was an edge of venom in the words.

“So, this king thing is… real?” Red had always assumed it was a daft vampire parlour game that William didn’t take very seriously, not a point of pride.

“Very.”

“Oh. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean… I had no idea.”

William felt uncomfortable seeing Red like this. “Hmm… I suppose it makes you my royal consort.” he mused.

“I’ll have to change how I sign my letters. And start using two envelopes.” Red teased, relieved that William had not been too hurt.

“Naturally.” William gave a slight smile, and Red saw the last of the tension leave his shoulders. “Where are the things that she brought me?”

“Right in the dining room.” Red gestured. William walked into the dining room, and saw the way Red had arranged the things from earlier: the basket, the letter, and a small vase of myrtle. He paused, caressing the white flowers with the back of his fingers. He brought his hand to his face and smelled it, smiling. Red tried to hide his pride.

“Thank you for the flowers. They are lovely.” This was not the first time Red had brought him small tokens of affection, but William was not accustomed to receiving such gifts. They usually contained only a single, simple shade of meaning. They were so pure, so unlike the things that vampires sent each other.

William took the cloth off the basket. Sitting inside was a statuette of a tree, about a foot in length, made out of a silvery metal. No doubt platinum if Duchess Elodia did not intend to offend. He picked it up, immediately able to identify it as platinum by its weight. He quickly counted the leaves and branches, and examined the angle at which each branch was held. Elodia was glad he was taking such careful care of her land; she was honoured someone of his status was staying in her domain; she wanted to visit him; and she wished to exchange news and information. He put the statuette down and broke the wax seal on the letter. He sat down as he went through the pages, studying each. It expanded on the tree’s message, providing the sort of details that were not better communicated by platinum statuettes. Finally, he placed the letter aside.

“Duchess Elodia shall be visiting very soon.”

“How soon?” Red could feel his body tense up: he had never seen another vampire before. He thought back to the preposterous estates in Rome. Well, not when he knew what they were.

“She shall be here in three weeks.”

Red relaxed. “Oh, that’s fine then.”

“You have much to learn in that time, Red,” William said, putting on an outward air of serenity. He was anxious that Red would not be able to learn enough etiquette to be passable when Elodia visited.

“I am smarter than I look, you know," he grinned.

“Even so, it will be years before you are familiar with everything you must know. Come, I must begin teaching you at once.”

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March, 1945

When Elodia was due to arrive, Red felt that he had only begun to scratch the surface of vampire etiquette.

The basics were simple, at least. Around vampires and their associates, he was not William. He was not even Mister Ryan, as he had been what felt like a lifetime ago when they had first met. He was King William or, in the second person, Your Majesty. The vampire visitor was to be addressed as Duchess Elodia or ‘Your Grace’. Red wondered whether that meant she was one of William’s subjects. If so, Red hoped William could order her to be patient with him.

What wasn’t simple was the exacting way he had to be dressed—though it wasn’t entirely unexpected, what with all the time William spent dressing every morning, and how he’d sometimes change outfits several times a day. Red had collected swatches of all the local tailor’s fabrics, which William scrutinised and compared before finally he settled on fabrics for Red’s brand new suit, shirt, and tie. When Red tried the ensemble on, William re-arranged each element (including relacing his shoes), and gently scolded him for the inexpert way he had knotted his tie. Red tolerated this patiently. He knew that this was important to William, from the way he flinched ever so slightly whenever Red unthinkingly smoothed his collar from the way that it had been set.

William went over the ceremony he would be conducting with Elodia, having him practise each part until he did it unthinkingly. It involved, among other things, the ritual consumption of carefully prepared cups of blood. Red had absolutely no desire to do anything to a cup of blood, careful or otherwise. Fortunately, one of Elodia’s servants would be doing the preparation work in the kitchen, so Red only had to worry about the serving. Even that consisted of taking a tray of delicate porcelain teacups to the dining table and placing them exactly, their handles angled just so, with precisely timed pauses between each.

Although his knowledge was far from perfect, Red did feel prepared. William had assured him that nothing bad happened at visits like these, though the fact he felt a need to reassure Red was itself rather unnerving. But at the end of the day, this was just one of William’s colleagues coming to visit. She would surely be patient and understanding, especially considering it was his first time participating in a ritual.

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The cottage was immaculate, the master bedroom vacated for Elodia and outfitted with the finest linen Red could find at the market. The upstairs guest dormitory had been appointed for Elodia’s servants to share with Red, with William moving into the other bedroom upstairs. Red was not excited about sharing a bedroom with five other people, but it would only be for a few days. He felt worse for poor Chestnut, who wouldn’t be allowed inside at all for the duration of the visit. Red planned to spoil her with longer walks than usual during the day.

Red was dressed in his new suit, his tie and shoes fastened in accordance with William’s exacting requirements. He felt ridiculous, and would have felt overdressed if it wasn’t for the fact that William’s outfit was more outrageous still.

William was wearing a full suit of a type Red had only ever seen in picture books: a fine pale pink linen shirt, with the collar standing vertically around his neck. It made Red think that he’d forgotten to fold it down after tying his tie. The tie was maroon, made into a simple horizontal bow—not the more complex, traditional bow-tie knot. This seemed like an odd departure from the usual, needlessly complex vampire traditions. There was a button up vest over the shirt, patterned in maroon and navy checks, and over the whole ensemble he wore a long white coat (with tails), and matching white pants. His shoes seemed positively ordinary in comparison: black slip ons with square toes. They looked more comfortable than Red’s shoes, but that was the only part of the outfit that he envied.

At exactly the appointed time, an automobile parked out the front of their cottage, and six people walked out: Lucia, a young man, an older man, two young ladies and someone who could only be Elodia. She was dressed in a fine seafoam ball gown, covered in flower shapes formed from shimmering jewels that had been meticulously sewn into the fabric. It had short sleeves trimmed with lace and a tight bodice that finished just below the heavy, diamond-studded necklace that clung tightly to her neck. The skirt was so full, so expanded by the number of ruffles that Red wondered if it would be able to squeeze through the door. Elodia’s hair was long, dark brown, and in curls that were pinned at the back of her head. Her attendants wore more modern attire; the gentlemen in suits similar to Red’s, and the ladies in gowns that were far less extravagant.

Red opened the door to ensure Duchess Elodia was invited in at once. “Welcome, please, come in, your grace.” He bowed deeply as he had rehearsed with William dozens of times. She pursed her lips and moved them sideways in what she must have thought would pass for a smile, nodded, and entered the cottage.

Elodia’s entourage followed her in, standing behind her in two neat lines. Lucia stood beside her, and they all looked at Red expectantly. Red stood there, on the cold slate floor, in his starchy suit. William was at Red’s side, which was enough to keep Red’s racing heartbeat to a manageable level, and to stop his hands from shaking too much. He felt safe.

Red hesitated, only for a moment, as he took care to recite the words perfectly. “On behalf of his majesty, I welcome Doge Elodia De Ferrari, the reclaimer of Corsica, the scourge of the three rivers, the destroyer of…” Red ran over the next name in his head, making sure he would pronounce it correctly. “...Norina, she who binds her enemies, footstool of... Mpenoi.”

William inclined his head slightly in a small bow. Red breathed a sigh of relief. He had done well. He stood a little straighter, and tried not to beam.

“And her grace is grateful to be received by King William, most high and most excellent King by the grace of God, conqueror of New Holland, the foundling, uniter of the five lands, the comprimario of Castile, soother of warring clans, the greedy diner.” Lucia spoke the words with the speed of an auctioneer, as fluidly as though they were a prayer she had recited since she was small. Elodia curtseyed, leaning much further forward than William had for his bow. Red realised with a start how short she was; she could not have been more than five feet tall, but the dress, the high-heeled shoes, and the gems that hung from her ears made her impossible to overlook. And although her body didn’t look much older than Red’s, there was something about her dark eyes that made it clear that they had very little in common.

William addressed Elodia in what sounded like rapid-fire Italian. She responded in kind. After a few moments, Elodia looked to Lucia and spoke to her in Italian that was slow enough for Red to understand.

“Take them to bed now.”

“Yes, your grace,” Lucia responded in Italian. She paused for a moment, gave Red a wry grin, and continued in French, to Red’s relief. “Would you please show us to the lodging his majesty has set aside for us? We would like some rest.”

“At once.” Red bowed deeply, his stiff posture and concealed grimace almost betraying how ridiculous he felt. He had to keep reminding himself that Elodia and her entourage were, by all accounts, serious players and that this was not some elaborate prank. He had learned a lot these past months. He knew what William was—intimately—but it was still hard to find this strangely-dressed woman threatening at all.

He escorted the party to the room that had been organised for them. The attendants, who were weary after what was no doubt a long and bumpy trip, eagerly stripped to their underclothes and climbed into the warm, comfortable beds. The older man put on a pair of spectacles and started reading a book; the two women brought out some embroidery hoops and began to work on them; and the young man seemed to fall asleep the moment his head hit the pillow. Apparently not as weary as the others, Lucia closed the door behind them and gave Red a conspiratorial smile.

“Could we have a cup of tea somewhere whilst his majesty and her grace meet? I’m not quite tired yet.”

“Of course. Is the kitchen okay?” Red asked, leading her downstairs. “I’m still... learning some of these things. I don’t want to be rude.”

She nodded. “That sounds fine.”

When they reached the kitchen, Red automatically went for the jar of coffee before remembering that William had advised him to follow her lead. “I only have black tea, is that alright?” he asked, fetching the sugar and going to open the icebox. “And, well, sweet tea, but William said that no one drinks that outside of the United States, but you can try it if you like,” he said, recalling the look of ever so slight disapproval when he had suggested to William that he ought to provide a pitcher of sweet tea as well.

“A local specialty? I would love to try some.”

“Well, not local here. It’s a big thing back home, though.” Red smiled, put the sugar away, and poured two tall glasses of sweet tea. This evening had been so strange already that this small taste of home was welcome.

“So, I take it you’re new to all of this?” Lucia asked, smiling as she sipped on her tea.

“Apparently, yes,” he said, pausing to take a sip of his own beverage; it was so sweet it hurt his teeth. Just the way he liked it. “And you? I assume you’re not.”

“I suppose not.” She laughed. “I’ve been working with her grace for nearly a century, now.”

Red coughed on his tea, the sugary liquid burning into his nose. “A century?”

“How new are you?” Lucia gave him a suspicious look; could the rumours be true? Was this man only as old as William’s tenure on Corsica?

“I've been with him…” He thought for a moment, but quickly realised she was not interested in a precise date. “Ten months?”

“Wow.” Elodia would be delighted by this new information.

“You would have been new, too, what, ninety nine years ago,” he offered, with a small, forced smile. “Wow. A century,” he repeated, still not quite believing it. “How old are you then, and how are you....” He paused. “Sorry. That was rude. My mom raised me not to ask a lady her age. Sorry.”

Lucia seemed not to have heard Red, still balking from his earlier remark. “Has his majesty really given you nothing?”

“No, he gives me things. He got me this suit last week. Spent a lot of time on it, too,” he said fondly, absentmindedly rubbing at the lapel with his thumb. He knew he was missing some important detail, but was desperately trying not to make it obvious. He thought of William and how badly he didn’t want to embarrass him. It seemed more impossible by the second.

She gave him another chuckle. “My, it has been a long time since I’ve spoken with an ordinary person. You’re just a janissary, aren’t you?”

“Well, I suppose so,” Red admitted, though he didn’t like the idea of being on the same level as the faceless people that William visited twice a week.

“Yes. But you work much more closely with King William than I would have expected for a janissary. He must trust you a lot more than anyone in their right mind should, or he’s too selfish to give you anything more than this.” Or, she mused, he has spread himself too thin with thralls elsewhere; or lacks the mental fortitude to subdue even one.

Red frowned, a bit taken aback by the accusations. “He’s not... what do you mean, give me more? He looks out for me plenty as it is, I wouldn’t ask any more of him.”

“I suppose he has time; you’re still rather young. Maybe he’ll be ready to promote you in a year or two. Maybe he’ll wait twenty, if he prefers the more distinguished look,” she grinned, gesturing to her long grey hair. “Then you can experience the many joys of co-ordinating janissaries, shopping for rare books, and the daily chore of waiting for sunset.”

“What do you mean, promote?” Red asked, furrowing his brow. “I hadn’t really thought... I’ve been taking things day by day since we left Rome.”

“It’s not really my place to…” she said obliquely, still grinning; she clearly had decided to tell him anyway. “One day, he will ask you to drink some of his blood.” With that sentence, she moved to the informal form of address.

Red wrinkled his nose. “Oh.” He wondered, idly, if the informal ‘you’ had just been a mistake; that happened, sometimes.

“You see, he feeds from you, right?” She continued to speak informally, as though he was a friend, instead of the more formal language she’d been using before.

“Yes, but… he’s a vampire. It makes sense for him to drink blood, but I don’t… ugh.” He took another sip of tea, trying to imagine what William’s blood would taste like. He wished he hadn’t.

She shook her head. “No, that’s not what I meant. You know how after he feeds, everything’s… clearer? You don’t really need to sleep?”

“Well. Yes?”

“If you get that just from him biting you, imagine what you’d get from drinking his blood…”

“I hadn’t really thought…” Red murmured. He was also acutely aware of how familiarly she was speaking with him, and how William had told him in no uncertain terms not to address anyone informally. For now, Red was trying to avoid needing to pick one ‘you’ or the other by not addressing her directly.

“That’s the real magic. It’s what’s kept me alive all these years. I’m surprised a king who is as old as her grace says his majesty is does not have two or three thralls.”

“Thralls?”

She laughed. “Blood-fed-people. We have a lot of names. Serfs. Vassals. Ghouls. The more modern ones call us thralls, and I prefer it. Sounds more civilised.”

“But what do they do with them?” Red asked, not trying to hide how confused he was anymore. “What’s its use? I mean, from their end?”

“They benefit very well from doing this to us.” She paused. “We can serve them better. I saw how difficult it was for you to lift that basket.”

“I guess so,” he replied, still not understanding. “Are you happy? All of you, I mean?” He felt quite clever, using the plural ‘you’ to get out of the whole formal/informal conundrum.

“Of course. She asks very little in return for what she gives us.”

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“Now we are far enough from the house we may speak freely,” Lucia told Red the next day; they were at the market together. The other four humans seemed to have no interest in going into town; they stayed at home, played cards, did embroidery or read books. Red was glad to be out at the market; the warm spring sunshine and the soft breeze made it a pleasant day for it.

“What?” Red didn’t look up from adjusting the fruit in his basket. There was a new hire at the market stall today who apparently wasn’t aware that strawberries could bruise; already their rough flesh felt too soft. “What are you talking about?” He’d decided, finally, to keep addressing her with the formal ‘you’: she was older than him, after all, so it was up to her to tell him to do otherwise.

“Do you have any idea what you’ve gotten yourself involved in?”

Red looked at her briefly, trying to think what she could possibly be trying to tell him now, here. “Was this about the woman giving me that bottle of wine? Because I know what people say about her, but she’s just a generous old lady and I brought her dog back once. That’s all.”

Lucia frowned, walking away from the fruit stall, where their conversation would be less easily overheard. “No. I am talking about the master of the house.”

Red returned the frown, his mind racing as he tried to work out how he could possibly respond to that without being rude. “What do you mean, exactly?” he decided on.

“He and Elodia aren’t…” She lowered her voice, for the first time not referring to Elodia as ‘her grace’. “…They aren’t normal. And I don’t think you understand exactly what that means.”

“I know about the… you know.” He put one hand just above his upper lip, tapping on the skin over his canines with the tips of his pointer and middle finger. He got the feeling that this strange new version of Lucia would flinch if he said the ‘v’ word.

“I think you don’t know the half of it.”

“I don’t doubt that,” Red agreed. “Did something happen? You seem… different.”

“They hear everything we say, even if they are talking in another room. Did you know that?”

“Wait, what? I knew their hearing was good, but I didn’t…” He studied her for a moment. “Were you worried about being heard yesterday? Is that why you’re talking about this now?”

“Yes. I don’t know what William is like,” she said, again not using the formal titles that William had made clear were not optional. “But I’ve seen a lot of young people like you… that don’t understand what they’re dealing with.”

“What do you mean?”

Lucia frowned. “They think they are going on some grand adventure, trying a wonderful drug, perhaps escaping something so horrible that the risk is worthwhile. But… I have seen many be killed.”

“Ah.” Red considered that for a few moments. “I thought that might be the case.” With the strange fixation on royal titles and the lavish displays of excess he’d seen in Rome, he’d long ago come to the conclusion that few vampires were as sensitive and caring as William was.

“So I try to make sure that you… were aware of all that. That they can always, always hear you. That they can give you commands that you are powerless to resist, just by looking you in the eye. And that once you outlive your usefulness, they will kill you and not think twice about it.”

Red thought about this for a long time, carefully composing his response. If Lucia was telling the truth, this was a big deal; had William given him commands before? Was everything he’d done over the past year the result of one? Regardless, now was not the time to show his concern. He could work it out later—he couldn’t afford to embarrass William. “Thank you for telling me,” he said. “I’ll keep it in mind. I’ll be careful.” He hoped that would comfort her if she was telling the truth, and not show disloyalty if this was all some strange test.

“There are advantages too, of course. Reasons that you or I may find it to our advantage to do these acts of service,” she added. “But it’s not fair that they have so many take these risks without knowing—or string them along with false promises.”

Red furrowed his brow. “But what about you? Are you… all right?” he finished, trying to find the words.

Lucia laughed. “I’m a hundred and forty seven years old and I can carry more than a young buck like you. I live in a luxurious seaside estate in Bonifacio. I want for nothing.”

“Okay.” He nodded, accepting, and patted the rough skin of her arm. “If you need help, you can tell me. Okay?”

“If it pleases you.”

They slowly walked to other stalls. As the sweet smell of fruit gave way to more wholesome, earthy aromas they tried to find the best-looking greens to have with dinner. Red looked at Lucia, hoping she wouldn’t notice him staring while he was deliberating his next words. He had so many questions, and she seemed willing to answer. Even though William had always been communicative, he refused to respond to so many questions.

“Is Duchess Elodia… is she really fussy about clothing?” Red asked, allowing himself to raise his voice over the din of people bargaining nearby.

Lucia laughed again. “Oh, yes, very. She had us sent to her tailor, insisted on choosing the fabrics herself. Made sure I pinned my hair up the way she wanted me to, and adjusted it before we got out of the car.”

“Hm,” Red said. “King William was just the same. He re-did my tie and my shoelaces, too.” He felt weird using the titles when Elodia spoke so casually, but he didn’t want to reflect badly on William. For all he knew, she was trying to get him to slip up on purpose.

“Oh yes. They’re all like that. Elodia tried to explain it to me, once. The way the laces cross and the number of holes in the shoes… it’s very important.”

“What about the ritual?” Red asked, having built enough courage to question her about it. “King William said you've done one before?”

“Dozens. It’s not as bad as you think. You’ll be the server, right?”

“Yeah. King William gave me a lot of instructions, things about where to put the cups.”

“As long as you remember everything he taught you, you will be fine. I’m going to be preparing the blood. I’ll try and explain it as I go. It will be very helpful if you need to do it in the future. It’s a lot of hard work, but they seem to really like it.” She paused to place put a bag of potatoes into her basket. “Well, as much as they seem to like anything.” She grinned.

Chapter Text

Red didn’t feel like he fit in with the janissaries. It wasn’t sharing a room: he’d done that in the army. Although he certainly would have appreciated privacy, he didn’t require it the way he used to. 

They spent a lot of the day playing card games he didn’t know from an Italian style of deck: it had only forty cards, and instead of the suits that he was familiar with, there were coins, cups, swords and staves. He’d started learning how to play the games, slowly getting the feel for the strategy. They told him he was quite good for a beginner; all the long evenings with his friends in Columbus, and the more recent afternoons spent playing cards at Olivier’s house in town had apparently given him some skills that transferred.

“So, Lucia says that you’ve only been in his majesty’s service for a year?” Jacques, a young man with bright green eyes, asked.

Red nodded, wondering if this was going to be a shameful rumour that he’d long to shake one day. “Yes. What about you?”

Jacques grinned as he played a card to the pile, winning the trick. “Eight years,” he replied, scooping up the cards. 

“Three,” added Odette, a blonde woman who couldn’t have been any older than Red.

“Twenty-six,” said Florence, Jacques’s mother, a middle-aged woman with hard brown eyes.

The fourth janissary was Victor, who never seemed to have anything to say. “Thirty-eight,” came his clipped reply. He wasn’t playing cards: he was sitting on his bed, reading a thick book.

“How come Lucia’s being doing it so much longer?” Red asked.

“I told you,” she replied, smiling. Like Victor, she wasn’t playing cards; she was embroidering flowers onto a piece of white fabric. “I’m a thrall, so I’m blessed with a long life. Janissaries aren’t.”

“So… the rest of you just like the way it feels, too?” 

Florence laughed. “No. Her grace has been a patron of our family for generations.” 

“... what?” Red remembered, a while ago, William mentioning that he did something like that. 

Jacques smiled. “When we come of age, we get the opportunity to serve her. I’d been looking forward to it since I was very young.”

“Her gifts have let us work harder than anyone else on the island. Let us learn our craft faster, given us more time to spend with family. It’s a great blessing for our family to have been chosen,” Florence finished.

“Oh, so you’re all… family?” He looked at Odette, who had much lighter features than Florence and Jacques, and Victor, who had dark, Sicilian skin. 

Victor snorted. “No, just those two. They’re the Rigal family; there are more of them in Bonifacio.” 

“Oh, so you…” 

“When I was younger, I started doing it because I was rebellious. I continue because I’m sensible.”

“What about you, Odette?” 

“None of your business,” she scowled.

Red was too taken aback by her sudden hostility to attempt to push any further, and the game continued for several minutes in silence before Lucia finally changed the subject to a much less personal topic.

Chapter Text

Wild Tansy: a plant with several small, round yellow flowers
Copyright-free image via pixabay.com

Wild Tansy

ℐ 𝒹ℯ𝒸𝓁𝒶𝓇ℯ 𝓌𝒶𝓇 𝒶ℊ𝒶𝒾𝓃𝓈𝓉 𝓎ℴ𝓊

Ajaccio, Corsica, France
February, 1945

The ritual was underway. Red had made the correct hand motions when seating Elodia and William, and had provided them with pewter goblets of water filled to a precise level—when Red had asked about it the previous week, William had said that it was based on the current phase of the moon. Red allowed himself to dwell in the room for a few extra seconds to see what they did with them, but they simply sat there, silent. His nerves eventually outweighed his curiosity and he ducked back out into the kitchen.

When he returned with towels, the goblets were empty.

Back in the small kitchen Jacques and Florence, two of the janissaries, were getting dressed in the most odd clothing Red had ever seen. It was decidedly Victorian—as seemed to be the theme of this whole visit. However, no self-respecting Victorian dressmaker would let such a ridiculous outfit out of their workshop. Or, at least, no one whose works had appeared in any book Red had seen.

The garments made out of a rich green material embroidered with gold, formed into a shapeless tube with long sleeves and pant legs. The cut was identical for both sexes, hiding the natural curves and form of both bodies. The tube extended straight above the shoulders, moving up to cover the face, stopping just below the eyes in the front; in the back, it extended all the way to the top of the head, held vertical with boning sewn into the fabric. Most striking were the two-inch wide oval cutouts in the fabric, on the neck, the inside of the elbow, and the inner thigh. The cutouts were heavily outlined with gold embroidery thread. They had clearly been designed for a different sensibility. Red tried not to think about it.

The two other janissaries sat on cushions at the foot of the stove, bandages around their wrists from where they had made their own contributions to the ritual. One of them was Victor, the oldest of the four, who leaned against the wall and read his thick book. He had approached this trip with the calm boredom of someone who had done such things many times before. Odette was pouting like a little girl. She was young, impatient and had been full of nothing but complaints ever since Lucia had given Florence the job of wearing the green garment.

“Don’t worry, Odette,” Lucia said as she carefully stirred the tiny saucepan of blood, its foul metallic odour filling the air as her dainty wooden spoon gently tapped the sides of the pot. “You’ll get your turn one day.”

“I want to do it tonight. They won’t have another one before we leave, will they?” she whined, curling a tendril of her blonde hair around her index finger.

Lucia shrugged. “I’m not sure. But her grace will need to eat, so you may be able to serve her then.”

Odette folded her arms. “I wanted to find out what it feels like to have two of them. And a man, too! I haven’t seen a man vampire before.”

Lucia frowned. “You are only young. There will be many others, Odette.”

Victor grunted in agreement.

“Do you think it will feel different, coming from a man?” Odette mused, running her tongue along her upper lip.

Red cleared his throat pointedly, deciding now was the time to make his presence clear.

“Hi. How are you feeling?” Lucia grinned, relieved at the interruption.

“Nervous,” he admitted.

“Don’t worry. You’ll do great. I’m just warming the blood up now. Come on, have a look.” She beckoned him over. He moved to stand beside her. The blood was thick and dark and he could feel its fetid copper odor sticking to the roof of his mouth. He wondered if he would ever get used to it. He glanced at Lucia, who seemed bored if anything. No doubt, after a hundred years, he would, too.

“I’ve never seen blood like that before.” Red tried not to pay attention to the images that came to mind at the sight and smell of this warm blood. He found he was better at it, these days.

“We reduce it until it is quite thick,” Lucia explained calmly. “It is important to get the temperature right. Come, I’ll show you how.”

Gently, she grabbed Red’s right wrist and held it near the tiny saucepan, palm facing upwards.

“Hold still,” she murmured, letting his arm go and placing her left wrist beside his. She grabbed a teaspoon from the counter and placed the tip into the viscous blood. She put a drop of blood first on Red’s wrist, and then her own.

“See how that feels warm, but not hot?” she asked, placing the spoon down on a towel.

Red nodded as Lucia rubbed a warm wet cloth along his wrist to clean the muddy red spot.

“That’s how you know it’s at about the right temperature. Just like making yogurt!” She grinned. Red, who had no idea how to make yogurt, just nodded as she continued. “Just a little warmer than body heat, but not so warm it would burn his majesty or her grace. Give me a moment and I will pour it for you.”

Lucia picked up the saucepan and took it to the antique pewter serving tray that had four dainty china teacups and saucers on it. With practised ease, she poured the warm blood into two that were diagonally opposite, then took another half-pint of blood out of the icebox and poured that into the other two. Red mentally recited the order to place them and the angles for the handles. Her warm one, three o’clock. Three seconds. His cold one, twelve o’clock. Eight seconds. Her cold one, seven thirty. Fifteen seconds. His warm one, three o’clock. Twenty-four seconds, bow three times, walk out left foot forward.

Lucia smiled at him. “There we go. They’re ready for you to take them to his majesty and her grace.”

Red nodded. “Thank you.”

“Don’t be nervous. You’ll be fine. After this, the hard part’s over,” she said casually.

He allowed his shoulders to slacken slightly. “Thanks.”

As he entered the dining room, William was reciting something in a language that sounded like Italian but wasn’t. Neither vampire made any acknowledgement of Red entering the room, not even the slightest movement of the eyes. Everything seemed still, cold. Red was glad for the heavy fabric of his suit.

He glanced at the table, and noticed that the towels had been folded into precise but abstract shapes, and set off to one side. He took a breath to calm his nerves, and placed the cups down. He started with Elodia’s warm cup, placing the handle at three o’clock as William had instructed him. He waited three seconds, and then placed William's cold cup, again taking care with the handle placement: twelve o’clock, not a hair to the side. He allowed himself another breath as he waited eight seconds to place Elodia’s cold cup. As he brought it down it caught on the tray and spilled, cold blood spraying everywhere. Droplets ranging in colour from maroon to scarlet splattered all over Elodia's dress, the meticulously folded hand towels, the table and of course Red himself. He put all his effort into not swearing and apologising: he knew that speaking without being spoken to was unforgivable. And William—who, sitting on the opposite side of the table, had been mostly spared from the deluge—was still reciting something in a thick accent. Elodia had not so much as moved her eyes, her expression remaining neutral.

It was eerily like nothing had happened.

It was all Red could do not to swear, but he knew that something was expected of him. He remembered William saying something about how to recover from mistakes, but that was more than a week ago. Terrified, he looked at William, and, not knowing what else to do, and with thirteen seconds just past, he moved to pick William’s warm cup from the tray. William’s reaction was immediate: his gaze moved to lock on Red’s. Red still had no idea what to do. Maybe he was meant to clean up, start over. He stopped moving for the warm cup. He stooped slightly to pick up Elodia’s cold cup.

Immediately, he knew. Elodia’s mouth twisted into a frown, her eyes narrowed. William's posture changed, too; he stopped his recitation, straightened his shoulders, and gripped tightly at the top of the table. Spilling the blood may have been forgivable, but taking Elodia’s cup away afterwards certainly wasn't.

Elodia stood.

“What hapless idiot do you deem worthy of serving us?” she said in French.

“I beg your forgiveness, your grace,” William replied calmly. “I shall be happy to provide you with the appropriate reparations for this inconvenience.”

“I want that thing destroyed.”

Red flinched, stepping backwards. He knew he shouldn’t have moved, that it could only make things worse, but if she was going to move on him he wanted as much distance as possible. Every second would count when it came time to—he wasn’t sure what he would do, if he could even do anything. But whatever he was about to do, he knew every second would count. All of a sudden, his warm comfortable suit felt stuffy and restrictive.

“Your grace, you should not give the most extreme penalty for a janissary’s first offense.”

“I am the wronged. You know I have the right to mandate the punishment.”

Red’s mind went to the front hallway, where he had a letter-opener that he had been using to open the outer envelopes of William’s letters. It was the closest weapon he could think of.

“You really wish to quibble over punishments with me?” William’s voice contained a menace that Red had never heard before. The letter opener would be useless; worse than useless. William had once offered to have Red to shoot him with a rifle to demonstrate his healing ability.

“Yes.” Elodia kept her gaze level. She may have been small, but Red knew he would be at her mercy if she so much as struck him.

“I will not dispatch with a satisfactory janissary just because he neglected to provide us with rainwater following a spill.” Rainwater. Red had thought that was just if he tripped.

“Why not?”

Red considered leaving, but he knew Elodia would be able to outrun him or maybe even literally sniff him out if he fled; he’d be safer with William nearby to defend him if she tried anything.

“I don’t wish to poach from your lands more than necessary.”

“If you refuse to mete out the punishment, King William of New Holland, I shall have my thrall do it in your stead,” Elodia paused. “Lucia! Come here at once.”

Lucia answered Elodia’s call, entering the dining room. She took stock of the situation and hung her head, bending slightly and hitching up her ruffled skirt to take a dagger out of a sheath that was attached to her thigh. Lucia’s eyes were full of pity as she approached Red.

Red looked to William. He couldn’t believe what was happening. Surely William would be able to stop Lucia? Her dagger didn’t scare him, did it? It looked silver—was it made of silver? Would that hurt William? Surely not? That was werewolves, wasn’t it? Besides, the entire American army hadn’t given him any pause, so what was one woman with one puny weapon?

“Don’t. I’m sorry, I…” Red tried to keep his composure, wondering how long his few weeks of training could hold someone as strong as Lucia off. “I didn’t mean anything by it, I didn’t…” He gave William a furtive glance, but he made no move to intervene. Had everything been an act? Was he just a favourite toy? What about all the tenderness, the nights spent in each other’s arms, the declarations of love? Was he stupid to have believed that someone like William would make the smallest sacrifice for someone like him, when it really mattered?

“I do not accept the punishment you have proposed. I offer instead full ownership of four janissaries, a prime duchy for yourself or one of your allies in my largest city, and my assurance that you will never lay eyes upon this human again,” William stated, still in that commanding voice that seemed to instill no fear in Elodia. “That is more than generous, for the life of a useful janissary that has never offended before.”

Lucia calmly grabbed Red’s shoulder, holding him with strength he knew he could not equal. He attempted to wrench his arm away to break her hold, the way he had been taught in basic, but knew he had as much chance of breaking her grip as a bird did to a cat.

“No. I have the right to declare the punishment,” Elodia said, louder, glaring at Red.

“Then I declare war,” William stated louder still, with a flat, confident voice. Not the tone of someone who expected eventual capitulation; this was the tone of someone who believed they had already won.

Lucia moved to stand behind Red, holding her dagger to his neck. He could feel cold sweat running down the back of his neck, soaking his collar.

“You would declare war? Over a useless janissary such as this?” Elodia shrieked, the corners of her mouth turning up minutely as gestured to red.

“Please, William. Please.” Red could feel the cold bite of the blade on his neck. He braced himself for what he knew he was coming, biting his bottom lip, and closing his eyes. Was this any better than if he had just died in the field that day? That, at least, might have been quicker. It would have been more honourable to die begging a god for his life than a demon.

“Yes. And my first act in this war is to kidnap your thrall.”

The pressure on Red’s neck disappeared. Red opened his eyes, and there was William, standing in front of him, gently holding Lucia’s wrist. The knife sat just above his neck, but she pulled it away from him, holding it by herside.

“Go to the servant’s quarters at once.” William barked.

Lucia looked to Elodia. Elodia gave a slight nod, her eyes cold.

“Yes, your majesty,” Lucia said, sheathing her dagger and going for the stairs. She made eye contact with Red and gave him a small smile. He looked away, not understanding what was happening, uncomfortable that she would smile at him after all that as though nothing had happened.

Elodia produced a small glass vial from somewhere under her preposterously poofy skirt.

“By providing you this sample of my blood, I declare that I wish to resolve this without immediate combat,” Elodia recited, the words full of venom. She gave William a withering look as she bit a small hole in her left wrist and bled into the vial. She handed it to him and went to the kitchen.

Red looked at William, his hand on his throat. His heart was thudding in his ears, his lungs burning as though he had just run for hours. “What... How…”

“Duchess Elodia is quite upset.”

“What just...?”

“I have forced her hand by kidnapping Lucia.”

Red could feel his throat closing, his eyes prickling. The situation was just beginning to register in the deepest parts of him. Lucia had her knife right there, she was his friend and she had every intention of killing him and William did not try to stop her, until...

Red didn’t understand what had happened. He didn’t understand what he had done that could have possibly worth killing him over. He didn’t understand how William could have kidnapped Lucia, so casually, like he was buying a sack of potatoes. Elodia just let him. And Lucia just went along with it, no screaming or crying. Who knew what vampires did to their prisoners. Despite everything, he admired her bravery.

He looked back up at William, who was standing there in his long black coat and white cravat. The small vial of Elodia’s blood was in his hand. And he was giving Red that look, the familiar look that said he wanted to grab him and hold him for hours, to show him that he was safe. That made Red’s chest ache even worse than before.

As Red was beginning to work up the nerve to run to William despite the fact that he knew it would be the height of indecorum right now, Elodia reappeared. Her four janissaries were in tow, all of them dressed in ordinary clothing—no ridiculous green victorian outfits. Odette’s face was even more sour than before, if such a thing was possible. Jacques and Florence also looked disappointed. Victor seemed irritated, too, but Red knew that was only because his reading had been interrupted.

Elodia stood in front of William, met his gaze, and with a dramatic turn, she escorted her entourage out of the house. The doors slammed shut behind them.

Red couldn’t resist now. He ran to William, who took a step towards him to hug him tightly, kissing the side of his head.

“I’m sorry, god, I’m so sorry.” He exhaled into the scratchy material of William's cravat, his breath only just starting to move past the knot of panic in his chest. “I’m sorry.”

“You have nothing to fear,” William soothed, burying his hand in the soft black hair at the back of Red’s head.

“What happened? Is everything okay?”

“Duchess Elodia and I are now at war.”

“War?”

“We shall negotiate the rules of engagement shortly. Now come, let us clean this mess.” William seemed calm as ever.

Red swallowed, trying to get his throat to relax enough to speak properly. “Did you just say you're at war?”

“Don’t worry, we won’t be mobilising armies. That has not been fashionable for some time.”

“But…” Red didn’t understand. “Why?”

“It seemed the easiest way to resolve the situation,” William said calmly, gently stroking Red’s hair.

“What happens if you lose?”

“I shall not lose.”

Red hadn’t doubted William when he said he did not fear the American army, but something about the way he stood… Red did not sense that same, unalienable confidence from him this time.

Chapter Text

William couldn’t believe it.

He had been so stupid.

Why did he trust that a human, so inexperienced, would be able to perform the cup service?

Why hadn’t he insisted on Lucia filling that role? Surely his human wouldn’t be able to mess up something as simple as heating blood? Why hadn’t that man—no, boy, what human can really be called a man?—why hadn’t that boy listened when he said what to do in the event of a spill?

He’d taught humans in less time. Never perfectly, but he hadn’t cared if they made mistakes. If they angled the cold cup too far to the left, he would let his counterpart take their prize; a small concession, perhaps a letter of recommendation, a small gift, a position of minor power in his kingdom, or his presence at an event he would otherwise have skipped.

He had not had someone request the human’s life as payment since—well, it had to be before Venice, back before they had reason to be concerned about stealth.

And any other time, with any other man—there he was, thinking man about the boy again—he would have let Elodia have her prize, held the boy still as she tore at its neck, drank it dry, maybe even demanded that pleasure for himself in the negotiation.

And he had declared war! A war, when he was travelling and did not have access to all of his supplies, when his opponent had every advantage but experience.

Why had he done that? Without even a thought?

His reputation—his precious, long-cultivated reputation—would be in ruin for his stubbornness. He was known for his lack of self control, for disposing of janissaries at twice the normal rate, so much so that people did not lend him their favourites. What would people think, if they heard he denied a reasonable request? The opera had changed no minds, brought forth no new fashion; his involvement with Red would be a high scandal.

Elodia had a reputation, too. She liked to flex her political muscle, and killing Red—which she had every right to do, despite everything—certainly would accomplish that. She must have been thrilled when he declared war on her. Was that her plan all along, in making such a demand? Did she know of the details of his relationship with Red? That he’d do anything to keep that boy’s—that man’s—heart beating?

He didn't care. Red was safe.

Chapter Text

Hibiscus 
Hibiscus flickr photo by jepoirrier shared under a Creative Commons (BY-SA) license

Rose Mallow

𝓅ℯ𝓇𝓈𝓊𝒶𝓈𝒾ℴ𝓃

If William’s behaviour was anything to go by, ‘war’ was less bloody battles and more reclusive letter-writing. At least for vampires. Or maybe even just for him: it wasn’t exactly out of character, after all. Maybe this was how he solved all of his problems.

William spent all his time secluded in his study, writing and receiving letters. If it wasn’t for his regular pilgrimages to the small table in the entryway, where Red would leave the letters he’d received that day, Red might have wondered whether he had run away in the middle of the night. He was so focused on the letters and sorting through the things he kept in the storeroom near the bedroom, that he didn’t go out on two of his usual feeding days.

He didn’t show any sign of starving, though: no shortened temper and no shakiness. Admittedly, Red had never seen William starving, but those were what he had been told to look out for. The idea that William might be hiding things from him made heat prickle at the back of his neck.

Red wondered how long William could keep this up, or whether vampires would even show signs of starving before it was almost too late. He wasn’t even sure if there was a ‘too late’. He barely knew anything about vampires, not really.

Red felt selfish, sitting around doing nothing, especially since he was the reason William needed to go hungry with this war of writing long, intricate letters. At least he had company, a distraction.

Lucia was pleasant enough to spend time with—she knew different recipes than William did, and she had a great sense of humour. Moreover, it felt good to have someone normal to share food with, someone who actually ate. Somehow, he’d forgotten what that was like; it was odd to have a dining companion with a warm meal set out in front of her, to see her movement from the corner of his eye and to hear the gentle clinking of her cutlery and her comments about the food.

Red was surprised at how little Lucia seemed to have been bothered by everything. She wasn’t angry or resentful about being kidnapped, and didn’t seem to be the least bit conflicted about cooking dinner for someone she had been ordered to murder a few days ago. She was far less cautious and wary of him than he was of her.

Red, on the other hand, felt guilt gnaw at him for fighting back, even though he knew he couldn’t have done anything differently, not when his life was at stake. She would have stabbed him where he stood and he still felt awful about fighting back or inconveniencing her. He felt ridiculous when he wasn’t feeling swallowed by his guilt.

“I’m sorry about all this,” Red told her, for what must have been the fifth time. It kept bubbling out of him, the words already out before he could stop them. “I hope you’re not too lonely, without your friends. Without Elodia.”

“Don’t worry. There are benefits to being a thrall.” Lucia chuckled. “They almost make up for being kidnapped from time to time.”

“This has happened to you before?”

“This is my third time. I’m just glad that it was for a good reason for once. I really didn't want to cut your throat,” she said, playfully ruffling Red’s thick black hair.

His hand cupped his throat, remembering the feeling of the knife. “You didn’t have to, you know. You could have said no,” he muttered. He thought of how she had done it, not flinching, and struggled to merge that image with the one in front of him now.

Lucia laughed, drifting further from the dangerous image of her in his head. “You’ll understand someday.” She was grinning, but there was a glassiness to her eyes. Something had shut down, shut him out.

It must have been what she had talked about before—only a few days earlier, but it seemed like a lifetime ago: the irresistible commands that she said vampires gave. He wondered whether William would order him to kill someone, one day, as casually as Elodia had ordered his death. He wondered whether William had already ordered him something. Would he know? Would he feel it?

“So, they do this a lot? Wars? Kidnapping?” He paused. “Killing?”

“They need to keep themselves amused, I suppose.” She shrugged. Now she wouldn’t meet his eyes at all. “You know how they are.”

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The next evening, Red was waiting for William when he woke up. He wasn’t in the bed, holding him or stroking his hair or reading, waiting, as he had done so often in the past. He was in the living room, sitting in one of the armchairs, holding a piece of paper. He’d scribbled his questions onto it, worried he might forget something. He had started chewing on the pencil waiting for William to get up. There were splinters in his tongue.

William entered the living room and evaluated the situation: Red was tense, more tense than usual, and the piece of paper held roughly in his hands did not bode well.

“Is everything alright, my dear?”

William was wearing a navy blue suit with a forest green shirt. He wore no tie. Red wished he had whatever vampire magic would let him understand the message William had no doubt intended to send with this ensemble, because any information about William’s state of mind would be welcome. He’d been stressed lately, Red at least knew that much. The way he seemed to notice things just a little later than he would normally; the way his muscles always seemed tense. It had been growing worse with each letter he sent.

Red tried not to think about how this was all because of him. He couldn’t dwell on it, especially right now.

He looked down at his little list of talking points. Thinking of how it was his fault, then this… he had to quash down a wave of guilt. Like he was being ungrateful just for asking. But he had to. It gnawed at him. He had to ask. He had to know.

Red frowned. There were pencil shards in his teeth, too. “Do you have a minute?”

William stifled a sigh; he felt like he didn’t, he had research to do and a letter to write. But he could tell from Red’s anxiety that there was no way he could delay this conversation. “Very well.”

“Okay. Well. I was wondering…” Red took a deep breath, as William sat in the chair opposite him. He would have felt silly, but William was looking at him without the tiniest hint of scorn or even boredom. “I have heard… things… about vampires. And I’m a bit worried. About… what you’re capable of.”

“You know I’d never hurt you.”

“I know, I know that, but… I still need to know what you can do, if that makes sense? Not that I think you would, just...” He couldn’t find the words.

But William did what he always did when Red trailed off: waited long enough to be sure he wasn’t going to finish the thought, then filled in the meaning. He knew what Red meant. He always did. William nodded. “I know. It makes sense.” He placed his hand, gently, on Red’s knee. “What did you need to know?”

He inhaled deeply again, looking at the note on his scrap of paper. Focusing on it. “Can you read minds?”

“No, I can’t.”

Red couldn’t tell if he was lying. There was no way to know whether he was lying. He didn’t bother to hide his frown. He looked at his paper, then back at William. “Tell me a lie real quick.”

“I am wearing a yellow shirt.” He said, with the same calm, patient manner about him as before.

Red tried to suppress a smile. “You know, if I was colour blind that would be really rude.”

William smiled. “Colourblindness doesn’t work that way.”

“What if it did? What if I have a new colour blindness and I am a marvel to modern science?”

“Firstly, if it did, or if you did, I would have noticed that, and chosen a different lie. Secondly, you are a marvel.” He said, in the same smooth way he gave Red compliments whenever he got too excited about something. He loved when Red got excited about something.

Red grinned, ducking his head in embarrassment. The compliments still always felt new. He crossed the first item on his list with his little chewed up pencil. “Okay.” He read the next thing. He hesitated. “So. I heard you can give people orders. Not… normal orders, but orders they have to obey. Is that true?”

He didn’t like asking it. No matter how William answered, he’d not be able to trust him. He wanted to. But he couldn’t.

Who had told Red that?

It must have been Lucia, perhaps on one of their shopping trips. William considered his options: if he lied, Red would find out sooner or later. He’d never done it to Red—of course not, who could possibly be content with a lover so ignobly acquired?—but he had controlled humans in front of Red before: maybe Red remembered, or had noticed. No doubt he’d need to do it in the future. If he told the truth, Red would never trust him again. And if he lied, Red might not believe him anyway.

“Yes,” he replied, simply. Red wanted the truth, and he found himself surprised that it had mattered enough to tip the scales.

Red started. He had expected a denial, or for it to be couched, at the very least. “What?”

“I can give people—well, humans—orders. And they obey. Remember when I spoke to that American soldier as we were leaving Rome? And then he let us through?”

“Oh,” Red replied. He didn’t really remember; he’d been so paralysed by terror the whole night felt like a fever dream. “So, does that mean…”

The situation, now, was more terrifying still.

“You want to know if I’ve done it to you?”

Red nodded. The guilt washed over him again. He knew William had done a lot for him, was doing a lot for him, but the thought that he might be… that his feelings weren’t…

It made him feel sick.

“No, I haven’t,” William said, simply.

He stared at William. He thought he had prepared enough for whatever he heard. He hadn’t. A small, very negative, part of him was sure that William must have done it at some point. Being loved and respected the way William seemed to love and respect him seemed unrealistic, too good to be true. “Why? Why not, I mean?” He said finally.

“I wouldn’t be happy, knowing that you were… compelled.”

Red felt his shoulders relax for a moment—only for a moment—before he glanced at his notes again.

At the bottom. Underlined. So he wouldn’t forget.

Can you be sure?

Could he be?

“Look, I… I want to believe that. I do.” He said earnestly, feeling like he was being cruel just by saying that. “But how do I know that’s true?”

He shook his head. “You don’t. I would be happy to tell you the limits, if you’d find that comforting,” he considered how to phrase it. “It’s… not as far reaching as you may think.”

“…go on.”

He sighed. William didn’t envision himself telling these secrets, but Red was so anxious that William wanted nothing more than to calm him down, to reassure him. It seemed worth the risk. “As near as I can tell, the orders I give last only a minute or two. And…” he considered whether he wanted to tell Red this next part, with all it implied. “It does not appear to be possible to compel a man to do something so against his nature that he would sooner die.”

“Wait, what do you mean by that?”

He sighed. “Say, for example, one were to order a man to kill his infant son.”

Red’s face contorted in horror.

William winced, guilty at the pain he’d just inflicted. “He will refuse, despite the strength of the order.”

“So, if you order someone to do something horrible, they won’t do it?”

“Yes,” he replied, knowing full well that none of this served to negate the possibility of everything that Red might be worried about. In fact, it probably provided very little comfort. But it was the truth. He hoped that would be comfort enough.

“Okay.” Red sat back in his chair, thinking. He rubbed his stubble, not looking at William, staring at one of the paintings on the wall, processing. “Is there anything else I should know?”

He sighed. “Of course there is. There are hundreds of secrets I may yet keep, and dozens of secrets I’m considering sharing with you.”

Red’s gaze slid back. “About this, specifically?”

For the first time that Red could remember, William looked unsure of what to say. His relaxed, straight posture stiffened; he crossed his legs; and he rubbed each of his fingernails in turn as he stared at a point above Red’s left shoulder. “It is not… something you should know.”

“Why?” He asked, sitting up himself. “If this is something you can do, other… people like you can too, right? Shouldn’t I know about it for that reason, at least?”

He sighed, putting his head into his hands. “I worry for you. I do. Particularly after… what just happened. But I can’t…”

Red chewed the inside of his cheek, the scarred part that never seemed to heal right, bitten too many times while eating too quickly. He wanted to touch William to comfort him, but didn’t know if he could reach out. It seemed too much like giving up—

and what if it makes it too hard to keep having this conversation

But he had to. He reached out and put his hand over William’s, squeezing it gently.

William let out another sigh, almost defeated. He returned the gesture, squeezing Red’s hand, relishing the care and the warmth contained in the gesture.

Finally, he spoke. “It’s a taboo of the highest order. Any secret I reveal, I reveal for all of us, forever.”

“Would it be so terrible if I knew things about you? Your kind?” He snorted with laughter, a little, suddenly struck by the absurdity of the whole situation. “What am I really going to do with it?”

He smiled. “Some fool once told a human servant that we were harmed by wooden stakes through the heart.”

“I assumed a wooden stake through the heart would kill most things.”

He chuckled. “Yes, but a knife to the heart does nothing, so it’s a useful distinction.”

“Huh. I always assumed it was a lucky guess. Medieval people working with what they had?”

“There are those, too,” William admitted, and sat quietly for a moment. He looked at Red’s hands, and then into his eyes, and smiled. He looked away, at the floor. “Are you still worried? Now you know that my power is limited?” He asked, knowing that Red had only his word that this limit even existed.

Red hesitated. He didn’t want to rush his answer. He had never been able to get this clear an answer about anything before, he worried about messing it up. About saying the wrong thing or missing something and regretting it later.

“I am,” Red said finally. “I am worried about me, about what could happen. From you, from others.” He lifted his eyes to meet William’s, hoping he would be able to tell if he lied. “I trust you with my life. I do. And I understand that you’re scared of telling me things, but don’t I deserve that kind of trust too?”

“And you have it: you could drag me into the sun any time you wished—”

Red laughed, not a real one, that little snort again. “When have I ever been able to physically drag you anywhere?”

“You have never tried. I’m no heavier than any human my size, and you’re strong. You would manage.” He paused. “Or you could pay a townsperson to help you. Or you could drag me onto a cart and pull me out. Or you could borrow an automobile and drive through the walls of the house. Or you could make a hole in the roof.” He gestured, his hand making a circling motion that gave the impression that these were just the first ideas that came to mind. “You have options.”

Red stared at him. “I had actually forgotten how much you think about this kind of thing. I can’t say I’ve ever spent so much time thinking about how people could kill me.”

“And that’s just how you could kill me by putting me in the sun.”

“Isn’t that tiring? Thinking about this?”

He laughed. “A vampire who is not paranoid rarely lives more than a few centuries.”

Red smiled and squeezed his hand. Red’s smile faded as he remembered why they were having this conversation in the first place.

He glanced back at the writing at the bottom of his notes.

Can you be sure?

Did he trust William to tell the truth now, despite all the power he claimed to have and all the secrets he was keeping? “So… do you understand why I’m being paranoid right now?”

William sighed. “What do you want? I have given you my word.”

“Can you tell me anything? Something to help me here?”

He bit his bottom lip, pondering this. What could he tell him? What would even be good enough? “If I told you something you could use—something reasonably common—that would render you immune to such orders, would you accept that? I’d need your word before I told you.”

Red sighed and ran his hand through his hair. “I can’t promise that I’ll be happy with it. I can promise I won’t ask again today, but I can’t guarantee I’ll be fine with this a month, a year from now. I can’t make promises for my future self.”

“I hope you understand that you are asking for something substantial.”

“I know. I know I am. And I hate asking, with everything going on, but… I need to know.” Guilt, anxiety, everything was gnawing at him. He hated this, hated asking, but he had to know. He had to know more. “So, where does that leave us then?”

It wasn’t what he meant to say. He meant to say ‘this.’ Where does that leave this then?

Where does that leave us then?

He didn’t want to think about it. What that meant.

“You trust me, don’t you?” William asked.

“Yes. Do you trust me?”

“I do.” He paused. “Do you still have those dark glasses of yours?” William asked, his tone of voice way too casual, as though he was just curious about Red’s fashion choices rather than what the context dictated they must be for.

Red hesitated. He wondered if William had just decided to change the topic now. “Do you… not like them?”

He smiled. “No, that’s not what I meant.” He placed his hand on Red’s knee. “If you wear them, you need not obey us.”

“What? How?”

He shrugged. “I don’t know. It requires eye contact, so it must interfere.”

“Wow, really? That’s all?”

He smiled. “Please don’t tell anyone.”

Red drummed his fingers on his chin. “Would it be strange if I tested it? Not that I don’t trust you,” he added hastily. “I just… want to see.”

“I’ve never done it to you. I always worried that if I did it once, there would be no coming back from that.”

Red smiled, and lunged forward to embrace him in a hug. “I love you.”

“I love you too.” William hugged him back. “It would be… uncomfortable to do it to you. But if you want me to, I will.”

Red pulled back to look at him. He pressed his forehead to William’s. “It’s okay. I trust you.”

He stroked Red’s cheek. “Thank you.” He kissed him, long and soft, full of tenderness and gratitude. “If you ever change your mind, let me know.”

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Markus3 (Marc ROUSSEL), Porto-Vecchio église St-Jean-Baptiste , CC BY-SA 2.5

A few days later, William went out to feed—or that’s what he told Red. Red was relieved that he was finally getting something to eat, instead of staying holed up in his study.

And he wasn’t being entirely dishonest: he did feed on the way, after all.

But afterwards, he went to Portovecchio, to keep the meeting he had arranged with Cassius soon after the war was declared. He knew the war would bring Cassius to Corsica, to aid and advise one of the Duchesses in his territory; and William hoped he could convince Cassius to talk Elodia out of her stubbornness.

Cassius was waiting when William arrived at the foot of the Church St-Jean-Baptiste, a hundred-year old stone building in the centre of the old town. Much like William, he was impeccably dressed in modern style: suit and tie, brown shoes and belt, black gloves and a black fedora. Cassius was leaning against the rough hewn stone wall, staring at an old man begging on the corner by the bakery. It was early in the night, so there were people making their way around, coming home with their bread for dinner, walking past the old man as though he wasn’t there. Cassius smiled when he saw William approach.

“Thank you for taking the time to see me, your majesty.” William bowed.

“It’s a pleasure. How have you been, your majesty?” Cassius bowed in return.

“I have been in the highest spirits. The stars are growing more beautiful by the day and I trust they portend a prosperous season for us both.”

Cassius chuckled. “What’s got you in such a formal mood?”

“I pride myself on my manners, your majesty.”

Cassius snorted. “I don’t.”

“You don’t need to.”

“Lighten up. Do you want to make a wager?” Cassius offered, a sparkle in his eyes.

William smiled; they had shared a fondness of betting games since long ago. “Did you have something particular in mind?”

Cassius nodded to the beggar. “I’ve been here since a few minutes after sunset. Nobody has given this man so much as a roll. I wager that he will still be empty-handed by the time we are done here.”

William looked over to the old man; his clothes were filthy, but in decent condition. He was thin but not emaciated. Weak but not frail. He found himself feeling sorry for him, thinking about how hungry he must be. Remembering how Red would buy blankets in the winter to give to people he saw sleeping on the street.

He didn’t like how uncomfortable this made him. He especially didn’t like that this made him uncomfortable in the first place. He took a breath to calm his nerves, enjoying the cool air entering his lungs. He retrieved some paper money from his pocket.

Cassius frowned. “You want to wager with human money?” He didn’t like human money; it made him feel like there was a film of something disgusting on his hands. Yet, William had reached for it so casually, without thinking twice. At least they weren’t coins, perish the thought!

William shook his head. “I’m not inclined to spend the whole evening watching your new favourite human,” he replied, walking over to the old man and wordlessly handing him the money. The old man stared at it—it was more than he would have hoped to receive in a month’s worth of begging—and stammered a quick thank you before folding it into his pocket. William wished him a good evening, and walked back to stand beside Cassius. He felt better; the uncomfortable dryness in his throat had subsided.

“That’s not a very gentlemanly way to win a bet.” Cassius grinned.

“I don’t have time for games. In case you didn’t hear, I’m at war.”

“I assume that’s what you wanted to speak to me about?”

William hesitated, moving to lean against the wall beside Cassius. “I am nervous.” He didn’t like admitting weakness, but he knew that it was obvious to Cassius that he’d called the meeting because he was worried he might lose.

“You were stupid to start it.”

“She’s a duchess. She is no match for me.” William replied automatically, almost defensive.

“Then why be nervous?”

“She wants to write operas. Poetry. Music. You know that creativity is not one of my virtues,” William muttered, knowing it had to have been Cassius who had told her as much.

“She tells me you want to have an axe-fight. It wouldn’t be fair.”

“Wars aren’t fair. Children should know that before they challenge their elders.”

“You challenged her.”

“She should have relented.”

She should have relented?” Cassius laughed.

“Yes.”

They stood in silence, staring at the beggar; an old woman approached him and gave him the remnants of yesterday’s baguette. He smiled and thanked her, and she left for the bakery. This, too, gave William an odd feeling of relief that made him shift his weight, relaxing his shoulders.

Cassius was the one who spoke first. “Were you taking me too seriously? When I told you to be careful with that human of mine?”

William bristled. Human of mine. Red wasn’t—

He held his tongue. He was in no position to be arguing that now. “The fact that I have a reputation for carelessness is a concern, yes,” he said, trying to sound unperturbed.

“What you’re doing is coming across a lot worse than having poor self-control at dinnertime,” Cassius paused, considering his words, like a parent explaining a child shouldn’t throw food. “You must know that if you cannot agree on how to fight, then as Elodia’s king I will choose for both of you. I will try to be fair to you as an old friend, but I will not send one of my subjects to a war she has no hope of winning.”

“Then tell her to surrender.”

“I have; she says she’ll take the human’s head and a duchy.”

William considered this. “Any duchy?” There was an uncomfortable knot in his stomach; it must have been because he didn’t want to divide his territory further. Human servants were bought and sold too regularly for it to be anything to do with Red. He glanced back to the beggar, who was eating the bread with a smile on his wrinkled face.

“It would need to be a good one. Better than the one you gave me for the human.”

“So I’ll have given up two duchies and not even get to keep the human.” The words felt hollow even as he said them. Who was he kidding? Red’s life was not a price he could pay.

“Better to lose two duchies than a war.”

“That’s easy for you to say. You have dozens!”

“A small price to pay to avoid a war,” Cassius said, pausing to place a gentle hand on William’s shoulder. “I say this to you as a friend, King William of New Holland: people are already spreading a rumour that your relationship with that human was inappropriate. It will be to your advantage to kill it, before people begin to take it seriously.”

“I don’t think I shall be doing that, King Cassius of the Eternal City,” William muttered. “Thank you all the same, but I believe that he may yet be worth the trouble.”

Cassius laughed. “Suit yourself, your majesty.”

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When William returned, Red was waiting in the doorway, backlit by the hallway light, glancing at a book but not absorbing the words. All the time spent shut in his study, and then going away for three hours to ‘eat’… Red was worried. He knew it had to be about the war. He smiled weakly when William came up the path.

“Good evening. Is there some trouble?” William asked; normally, when he returned home, the first words Red said were some sort of invitation. Instead, he sat there on the steps, his shoulders stiff, and his jaw clenched. William knew what that meant.

Red shook his head. “No, I just…”

William stared for a moment; Red had that faint anxiety, a tension, about him again. It was unfamiliar, after all this time. “I have a lot on my mind. I’ll be busy for a while.” The enormity of the risk he was taking with this war had begun to reach William, and his gross error in predicting the winds of fashion was beginning to have consequences.

Red rushed to him wrapping his arms around his rib cage, burying his face in William’s chest. William squeezed him back, holding Red’s warm body close to him. It brought with it a delicate warmth and joy. He knew, to his dawning horror, that he could never allow Elodia to get her hands on Red. He kissed Red’s ear, glad that he could quell the urge to cry.

“I missed you.” Red murmured, so softly it was barely audible. “And I’m sorry for… what happened. What I did. That you have to do this because of me. I’m sorry.”

“It is not your fault.”

“Yes it is. I… I spilled it. The blood. It’s my fault and you’re paying for it.”

“I shouldn’t have put you in that position.”

“But I still messed up.”

“It is my fault for putting you in danger, and I knew the risks.”

“You could have…” Red felt like the words were choking him. “You could have just let her kill me.”

William smiled. “Never. You shouldn’t suffer for my mistake.”

Red didn’t want to respond to that: after deserting, after failing, after everything, he almost felt he would have deserved it.

He couldn’t find the words. He stepped back, cupping William’s cheeks with his hands, staring, drinking him in. “What’s going to happen?” Red said finally, burying one of his hands in William's curly blonde hair.

“Everything Duchess Elodia has been sending me seems promising.” William started, deciding that Red ought to know the truth. It felt… lighter, somehow, not to avoid things. To tell the truth. “She also thinks amassing armies would be terribly old fashioned, and may cause unfavourable interactions with the volatile human political climate. She wishes for us to write operas, but I am not a creative sort as she is, and I was hoping for a quicker resolution to this as my lands will require my attention within the next few years if I wish to keep them.”

Red felt like he had been jerked out of the sombre mood like a cat being picked up by the scruff of the neck. “Write operas?” He repeated. “Writing actual operas?” He had to wonder if this strange story was one of William’s ways of keeping his vampire secrets.

Based on what he’d seen so far, he doubted it.

“It is one of the ways we could battle.”

“There are others? So, what do you want to do?”

“I would quite like to duel with axes,” William explained calmly. “However, I don’t think either of us will get our way.”

Red was baffled at the thought of William being the sort of person who would prefer to get into an axe-fight than write a play full of long songs. With all the outfits, the manners, the dignity he had, an axe-fight felt too… primal. He tried to avoid thinking about the realities of an actual axe fight. An actual axe fight between vampires. He kind of wanted to see it. At the very least, he wanted to see William throw an axe. He wondered how far he could throw.

“So what happens then?” He said finally. Asking William to throw an axe for him was not important right now.

“We’ll make a compromise. I have quite a collection of antiquities, many thanks to your help,” William kissed his forehead. “So I feel I may have an advantage in a tribute war. I believe she feels that this advantage may be hers.” He had come up with the plan on the journey home; Cassius likely did not know how well stocked William’s arsenal, such as it was, would be.

“A tribute war?”

“We exchange gifts, until the loser concedes that they have nothing of greater value to offer.”

“That doesn't sound like much of a war.” Red said, relieved. It would, at least, be much less dangerous than axes and much less time-consuming than operas.

“I have spent centuries accumulating my assets, and they all are uniquely suited for their purposes. In a war, the meaning of the tribute is irrelevant, only its value.”

Red nodded as though he understood. It made him think of when his mother had a perceived slight from his aunt so they started bringing each other meals and making passive-aggressive comments to show simmering hatred. He had found it odd, even as a child.

“The war will deplete my reserves considerably, even if I am victorious. Any items I receive from her will become publicly known, and will lose their value for quite some time.”

“Oh.” Red snuggled back into William’s chest, breathing in the musty smell of his shirt.

“I know it must be hard to spend your evenings alone, but I have much to do. I must get back to writing.” Now it was William’s turn to cradle Red’s face, pushing his hair away from his forehead. “Let me assure you that when I have finished you will once again have my full attention.”

Red smiled a little at this. “Thank you. You should come inside.” Reluctantly, he let go of William. “And I appreciate it.”

“It is worth every moment.”

Chapter Text

It had taken some asking—really, begging—but Red had managed to convince William to go along with it.

To show him the axe-fighting skills that he thought would beat Elodia.

To show him what axe fighting even was.

William looked at the pollaxes in his trunk, considering what to take; the electrum-coated ones would be the most impressive, for he was the most practised with them. He’d taken these in the event he was challenged by another.

Automatically, he went to grab the ordinary steel pollaxes, the ones he would use if he was teaching another vampire the art. He’d taken these because there was a chance that he might trade such lessons for a similar small favour.

It wouldn’t be prudent to take the electrum ones; the risks were small, but the consequences dire. Red could not yet be trusted.

William looked up, at the human who stood there, who had been trusting a monster with his life for months, who stood in the same room as that monster when he picked over his veritable arsenal. Red looked bored, if anything; completely unconcerned about the danger he was in.

William picked up the electrum-tipped pollaxes, wondering what it was that had made him use the word ‘monster’ to describe himself.

Red watched William smoothly pull two spike-tipped axes from a trunk with the astonishing calm that he would have expected from someone who had brought an armory with him on holiday.

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In a clearing, William handed one of them to Red. “Be careful. It’s very sharp,” William warned, moving to stand beside him, his hands held out as though ready to catch the weapon in case Red dropped it. He couldn’t chance being struck by his weapons, whether it be through malice or carelessness.

Red turned it slowly, feeling the weight. It was an axe like the one he used for firewood in the same way geese and finches were both birds. It was barely even an axe, more a pike with an axe-blade on one side and a hammer on the other, plated with gold. A fleur-de-lis pattern was engraved into the handle.

Red had assumed, at first, that there being two axes was part of a no-doubt one-sided sparring match that William had planned. But once he had stopped examining the pollaxe, William held out his hand for Red to give it back. Red felt a wave of relief that he wouldn’t need to figure out how to brandish something so big and heavy without looking like a fool, and eagerly handed it over.

William adjusted the pollaxes in his hands with the same familiarity with which he handed cutlery. He stood holding one in each hand, the long bladed part standing a foot and a half above him. The golden coating gleamed in the moonlight.

“So, do you both get two axes?”

“Yes.”

Red folded his arms, trying to pick which question to ask first. “Isn’t gold… not great for a weapon? It’ll mark and dent, won’t it?”

“It’s electrum, and it is only a thin plating. It gets reapplied after every use.”

“How many times have you replated it?”

He smiled. “These ones? Twice.”

“Huh.” He ran his thumb over the highest part he could reach. He grinned. “I still can’t picture you fighting someone with an axe. I really can’t.”

“I’m glad. It’s ugly and dangerous.” He sighed. “But if I’d fought Elodia, it would have been a swift victory with little chance of injury.”

“Because of the reach?” Red took a few steps back. “As soon as they’re within shouting distance you can start fighting?”

“If you’re confident in your aim, you can start fighting long before that.” He motioned with his right hand as if to throw the pollaxe.

“Wait, you can just throw it?” Red studied it for a moment. “How do you throw it without it… wouldn’t it just hit the ground? Or do you throw it in an arc?” He gestured for William to give him the axe again; he wanted to feel its weight, how it moved on an arc if he tried to throw it.

William instinctively pulled the weapon away, not wanting Red to touch it. It made him uncomfortable that he’d try. “It takes a great deal of practice.” He adjusted the weight of the axe in his hand. He immediately felt guilty about feeling uncomfortable; Red had surely meant nothing by it. “I can show you, if you’d like?”

“You’re going to… all right.” He took a few steps back. “How far can you throw it and still be accurate?”

William looked around; the clearing was small, maybe ten metres in diameter, and the trees rapidly grew thick. “Further than I can see here,” he said, not suppressing his pride.

“Oh, okay.” Red folded his arms. He squinted. “Okay. There’s a knot in that tree, the far one, with the exposed root. Can you hit that from here?”

William followed Red’s gaze. There were three trees between the edge of the clearing and the tree in question; it made a good twelve or thirteen metres. “I fear you may be disappointed.” He hefted the pollaxe in his right arm, holding it above his shoulder, and with a smooth movement threw it like a javelin.

It soared through the air, the golden spike on the end landing an inch above the knot.

William frowned.

Red jogged to the tree to check it. “Ooh, not quite. Impressive but an inch off. Do you want to try again?”

“You want me to try again over an inch?” He said, incredulous, but playful.

“Yeah, come on, do it.” Red wrenched the axe from the wood and leaned against the tree. “I believe in you.”

“If I must.” He hefted the second pollaxe into his right arm, and stared at Red. “Will you step aside? I would hate to hurt you.”

“I trust you.” He shrugged.

William nodded. He adjusted the weapon, feeling its familiar weight. It settled, at home in his grip. He looked at the knot in the tree, and stared at Red, about a foot to the right of it. He noticed only how Red was standing too close, not that Red was holding a pollaxe.

William shifted his weight back, and then forwards.

The axe flew, again like a javelin. However, this time, it landed true, the golden spike striking the knot.

William smiled.

“Hey!” Red applauded. “Well done. I knew you could do it.”

“Faith in me is never misplaced, my dear.” He smiled. Red pulled the second axe from the tree, having to wiggle it a few times to get it loose. “I could watch you throw axes all day. But I guess you have a few more letters to write?” He offered them back to William.

Without thinking, he grabbed the axes back, careful to only touch the wodden handles. “Quite a few. Unless you think I could convince Elodia to fight with axes, after all.” He stared at the weapons in his hands. How could he possibly have let Red approach him, holding them? Had he forgotten?

“Has she seen how well you can throw them?” Red kissed his temple, not noticing William was deep in thought. “Maybe you can pretend you’re terrible at it.”

He chuckled, trying to hide his unease. “She’d see through that,” he replied. He considered it for a moment; it wasn’t dangerous for Red to handle one of the weapons. He could be trusted. “The plating will need to be reapplied regardless. Would you like me to show you how to throw one?”

Red grinned. “I thought you’d never ask.”

The pollaxe, as it turned out, was not designed for throwing, and the human form was not so gifted with upper body strength.

The combination of these two facts bore predictable results.

Chapter Text

A white rose
(public domain image)

Rose Alba

𝕨𝕒𝕣

Indeed, they would not be writing operas or brandishing axes. Elodia accepted the compromise of a tribute war, and sent her first volley: a small wooden jewellery box, of the sort available at most markets on the island. It arrived one night in the hands of another of Elodia’s emissaries: a seven foot tall man with black hair combed into a neat part, pale blue eyes, and tawny-beige skin. Red was relieved. He still didn’t quite understand, but it was less dangerous than axes and no doubt less time consuming than operas.

William’s response was a small stone carving that Red had purchased in an Italian souvenir shop; he eagerly parted with it, glad to help in some small way. Elodia provided a large bowl in return, carved from a dark wood, decorated with an intricate vine pattern. William replied with an Australian textbook on collegiate gothic architecture. Red imagined it couldn’t possibly be worth more than two dollars and he thought it was much less nice than the bowl.

William tried to explain the reasoning for this, when Red had asked, but he lost Red when he tried to show Red that the curves on the bowl were nigh meaningless; it was a bowl. It was round. Red convinced William to go to bed with him instead of continuing.

Each night Elodia’s tall emissary would appear to deliver Elodia’s gift and to receive William’s. William would wait by the door from the time he woke up, eager to examine the gift and find the best match for it in his storeroom. It would sometimes take him hours, as he carefully tried to find something that was more valuable, but not too much more. When he eventually selected something, he’d leave the gift outside the front door, and it would be gone by sunrise.

The tall emissary would return the next evening, and the cycle would repeat.

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“Who’s the tall man?” Red finally asked Lucia one afternoon as they played Briscola, a card game that she was extremely good at while he seemed to be consistently terrible. “I tried asking but he brushed me off.”

“Elodia’s emissary?” Lucia grinned. “His name is Julias. He’s quite fetching, is he not?”

Red nodded, smiling a little. It felt odd to be asked something like that so casually. He had never acknowledged the… stirrings he felt sometimes back home. “Yes, but I was going to ask… is he okay? He never says anything when I ask him if he wants to come in for a glass of water.”

Lucia chuckled. “Oh, he’s just being professional. He’s very friendly when he hasn’t got his mind on the task.” She smiled. “After all this is over, we will have to have you visit us.”

Red’s blood ran cold. “Oh. No. No, I don’t think… thank you, but no.” What would Elodia do to him, if he went to her house? Delivered himself like that? “I mean… William would need me. To look after the house.”

“William can look after himself for a week or two, and you can see what a real vampire’s lodging looks like.”

Red bristled, both at the slight on William and at the thought of what Elodia’s manor would look like. He thought of Dracula, of heads on pikes, even though the people—vampires, no doubt—he’d visited in Rome had slightly more typical trappings of wealth; elaborate statues and thin plates they would never eat from. “William’s lodging is great, thanks. I like it here, and we don’t need more than this.”

She laughed again. “Oh, I’m sure you do. I think King William of New Holland has a far nicer place for you to stay in Australia,” Lucia said, sardonically emphasising William’s title. Red didn’t like how she always ignored the etiquette he’d been told was so important, except when she wanted to make William sound like an idiot. It was rude.

He was almost surprised how much rudeness bothered him now.

However, he had to admit that she was probably right. Red had never really thought much about Australia, though he knew on some level that he would probably go there someday. He figured that William would travel the world with him until he grew old, or that they might move to Ohio together if Red could figure out a good excuse for having deserted. It was a bit of a fanciful notion, he knew—after all, what would his mother say?—but his routine with William felt normal, now. He still felt the strange shame that came from a combination of survivor’s guilt, the feeling he didn’t deserve to be happy like this, and of course the unconventional nature of their union, but he hoped it would diminish with time. He hoped it would take the other lurking feeling too. The feeling that the other shoe would drop, that this would end, because that was what he really deserved.

“I’m sure his house in Australia is bigger than this.” Red acknowledged. “He was telling me yesterday that he wishes he was back there. He says he only took some of his stuff with him, didn’t think he’d end up in a war, so he’s not been able to make the most equal exchanges and that’s going to do something to his reputation... or... something." He rolled his eyes, then frowned, ashamed of the bitterness in his tone.

Lucia laughed. “I’m sure her grace would be the same way if she was caught in a war while she was travelling.”

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The gifts got larger, more valuable, and stranger as the days wore on. There were tomes with thick wooden covers, written in characters that resembled no human language. William even produced an Egyptian mummy, its bandages elaborately decorated with hieroglyphs, and left it outside for the tall man to take away, unseen in the dark. In return, he’d received a large slab of stone with the giant bones of an ancient creature half-exposed. William sent back a large painting of a haystack that Red did not understand the importance of. The items began to grow magical: a mirror that showed another vampire’s study and allowed them to speak with one another; a sapling that produced apples with emeralds where their seeds should have been; and a small vial that seemed to pour water forever without growing empty.

Red kept the vial on him while he gardened so he didn’t have to go in and out for water. The water tasted faintly of strawberries.

Then, it arrived.

Unlike the others, it was brought to them during the day, and not by the tall emissary but by one of the town’s local delivery men. Red thanked him, gave him a tip, and looked at the thing that was standing in the cart.

It was, at first glance, a rather unremarkable statue. William had sent and received several during this war, though this one was larger and no doubt older. It was not made of metal or marble, but instead of coarse sandstone that was tawny beige in colour. It was the hunched form of a creature that Red had never seen before; he guessed that if it were standing straight it would be more than ten feet tall.

Red gently ran his hand along the creature’s tail, the rough stone feeling like brushed concrete. He also had the most peculiar feeling he was doing something he shouldn’t. That in itself wasn’t too strange; William owned a plate that made people remember every time someone had been rude to them when they ate from it. The statue seemed ordinary enough, considering the strange assortment of gifts they’d received over the past month. Red wondered if there was anything more to it: maybe it laid jewel-studded eggs, or cried tears of fine oils.

He walked around the statue, examining its features. It was humanoid, with a torso full of rippling muscles. Its hands and feet were the size of dishes, tipped with wicked claws. Its tail was fifteen feet long, thick, and ended with a triangular spike.

Its face resembled a particularly gaunt human, sunken and wrinkled with a protruding brow. Its bat-like ears were smooth and pointed, with ridges lining the inside. Its eyes were studded with pale blue gems; the only colour apart from the pale, ruddy beige. Coming out of its head were spiraling horns like a goat or ram. Huge leathery bat wings were folded at its back.

Despite the monstrous appearance, it seemed oddly familiar.

For all the sculptor’s skill in carving the creature it was posed rather plainly: crouched, all four limbs on the ground, wings folded, its tail curled around the front of it, as though it was trying not to take up too much space. He’d expected a statue of a fearsome beast like this—especially one that was meant to be more valuable than the magic apple tree—would be standing on its hind legs and roaring. But maybe vampires thought that would make it seem like they were compensating for something? Or perhaps Red didn’t have an eye for the subtlety. Perhaps some ineffable part of its body language belied a creature lying in wait, to pounce?

Red noticed that there was an inscription on the side of the large stone pedestal the creature was resting on: squinting, he could make out the word "JULIAS", roughly-carved and worn with age.

He quite liked it, but it was off-putting. At the very least, because it didn’t quite seem to fit. A lot of this situation went over his head, but he knew it couldn’t just be a statue.

He went into the house to get Lucia. She would know what to do with it. She’d lived with Elodia for a very long time and might be able to tell him what secret vampire meaning this sculpture had.

“Lucia! There’s a—a statue outside.”

She looked up from her embroidery. “A statue?”

“Yeah, it’s…” He paused. “It’s a big… bat? Dragon? Human?”

Lucia stood up, placing the embroidery hoop down. “What?” She spoke the word softly, with none of her normal irreverence. This made Red uncomfortable; she normally seemed eager to find out what Elodia had sent, and would laugh as she told stories of how she came by some of the items.

“Yeah, made of some sort of stone. It doesn’t… it doesn’t look expensive.” Red rushed to follow Lucia, who had wordlessly started for the door.

She walked through the door to the entry foyer, and then the front door. She stared at the statue on the wagon in front of their cottage, eyes wide. “Mio Dio.”

"It’s huge, isn’t it?" Red folded his arms. "I have no idea where we’re going to put it. I don’t even know how I’m going to move… “

He trailed off. Lucia had sunk down on the steps, her head in her hands “I can’t believe she… she would… ”

“Lucia? Are you okay?”

“She’s... she’s giving him to his majesty.”

“It is a pretty nice statue?” He offered. It didn’t seem like enough. He patted her on the back. Maybe it was particularly important to her? Maybe she had made it?

Red squinted at its ugly face, wondering what he was missing. How valuable could it really be?

Lucia shook her head. “No. That’s Julias. The emissary.”

Red stared blankly for a few seconds, questions running through his mind. Had Elodia turned him into a monster, then turned him into stone? Was that what this was—a show of her power? Surely not—Red had seen magic amongst William’s things, but the magic was not powerful enough for this. “But.... it’s a statue. It’s made of rock.” Red said finally, with the familiar feeling that he must have missed something obvious.

“You’ll see.” She approached the statue, and ran her hand along its clawed feet thoughtfully.

“What does it do?”

“Do you know what a gargoyle is?”

“The little stone ones on roofs?”

She smiled a small, tight smile and shook her head. “Come on, let’s play some Briscola. By the time I’ve beaten you, the stars will be out.”

They returned to the house, playing the card game as they snacked on soft slices of baguette and chatted idly. Red knew better than to press her about it. Finally, during the third game, after she added a fourth caricho to her pile of cards, she declared it had been long enough and led Red back outside.

The sun had begun to dip below the horizon; from experience, Red knew it was still about ten minutes before William would awaken.

“See? The stars are out.” Lucia gestured eastward. Red followed her gaze and saw that the first hints of starlight were indeed beginning to peek through the grey.

The statue began to move. Red jumped, although on some level he knew he shouldn’t have been surprised. The tail came away from the base of the statue, and the creature straightened to its full height—a good thirteen feet. Its inhuman face regarded Lucia and Red, and it gave a small smile from its fanged mouth.

“Good evening, Lucia. Good evening, Mister Rossi.” It said with a bow; the voice was very similar to the tall emissary’s. Its gem-filled eyes had turned pale blue, the cornea white. The creature’s skin, though it remained tawny beige and still looked rough as stone, moved organically as the creature did. Its mouth was deep, dark, and wet looking.

Red waved after a few seconds, not quite sure what to say to a rock that had just turned into a person. “Hi.”

The creature climbed out of the cart, picking up the stone pedestal it was sitting on.

“Where do you want me to stand when his majesty wakes up, sir?”

“Wherever you like is fine.” He said, not quite sure what secret protocol might be called for here. “Do you want some tea, or water, or... I have beer if you want it?” He took a glance at Lucia, hoping she’d come in and start helping him, but she stood in silence, staring in awe at the creature.

It bowed. “I appreciate the offer, sir, but it is probably best that I get in position right away so that I am ready when his majesty wakes up.”

Red nodded, and ushered it… him into the house, indicating an empty part of the sitting room for him to place his marble slab down on. He did so delicately, making minute adjustments to the angle before climbing on the pedestal. The creature stood, this time at his full height, and made an impressive display; its gigantic wings were spread to their full width, claws held at the ready, and mouth open, revealing three-inch fangs. Once he was in position, the life left him, the eyes becoming dull gems once more.

“I’m… I’m going to go and see if William is up yet,” Red muttered, not sure what else would be appropriate. When he entered the bedroom, William was getting dressed. More accurately, he was rapidly relacing his shoes in a different pattern, as he did every evening. He had already put on his chosen pants, shirt, coat, and suspenders.

“What is happening?” William asked. He’d heard people moving around in the sitting room, and something heavy. He was eager for any information that would help him refine his attire for the day.

“I can’t just want to see you?” Red asked, grinning as he moved to kiss William on the cheek. William gave him his usual small, contented smile in return as he pulled his shoes on. Red continued. “But... you have been delivered a statue that came to life, walked into the lounge room, and then turned into stone again. He seems nice enough?”

“What?” William asked flatly. He pulled the suspenders down off his shoulders and started unbuttoning his shirt; obviously, this required a change in wardrobe.

“It’s about fifteen feet tall, it’s.... what did Lucia call it....” He snapped his fingers. “Gargoyle, that’s it! But moving around. He’s very polite.”

William seemed distinctly unsettled as he started putting his new shirt on—this one a slightly different shade of grey. Red had never seen him like this; he had always taken one look at the gift and calmly started scouring his seemingly bottomless trunks for what he knew was the perfect parry. Between him and Lucia, Red definitely felt like he was missing something.

“That is... a more extravagant gift than I was expecting.” He said finally. Why would Elodia give up such a prize to win back something far less valuable? No thrall, no matter how well trained, would equal a gargoyle. It made no sense. He could not have anticipated this.

“Is it a magic thing?” Red asked. He stroked his chin. “You could give her that cursed necklace I found in that sea shack. The one that makes your reflection change? That’s magic.” Red knew that the rules about gifts were stricter than he could hope to comprehend, more important than he could hope to appreciate, and that his suggestions were completely useless, but William would always listen politely and thank him seriously. So Red still made them. He felt it helped.

William shook his head slowly. “No. That will not be appropriate. Something far more extravagant would be the equal of a slave such as this.”

“Wait, slave?” He repeated. He hoped this was just a case of William being very different from him, and often didn’t understand that the things he said could be misinterpreted. Especially a word as loaded as slave. “I didn’t think he was… alive. I thought it was an... I don't know, an enchantment kind of thing. Like that music box you have.”

“I suppose it is, in a way.” William shrugged, choosing a pair of cufflinks.

“So he is a person? As in, he thinks?”

“Many do. I will need to see for myself. Come, let’s go.”

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When William entered the sitting room and saw the fifteen foot statue, he immediately sat on the settee, staring at the floor for several minutes. Red stood in the doorway, not sure what he should do. He couldn’t see Lucia anywhere; maybe she’d gone upstairs to read, or to the kitchen to for a drink, or had just decided she didn’t want to be in the room for whatever was about to happen.

Finally, when Red was wondering if it would be rude for him to leave and get a drink, William spoke.

“I cannot equal this.”

Red had a dozen questions to ask, but he knew this was certainly not the time for it. He sat beside William and gently rubbed his back. William’s lip switched into a slight smile, and his eyes met Red’s, soft and grateful. After a few more moments, William stood. His movement lacked its usual cat-like grace.

“Awaken.” He ordered, the commanding tone well-suited to his voice. Red tried not to let that bother him.

The creature obliged, its eyes turning back into a soulful pale blue. Its ears twitched, picking up unheard sounds. It bowed. He bowed.

“Good evening, your majesty. Duchess Elodia wished that I present myself to you.”

“Rise.”

He stood as straight as he could; the ceiling meant that he had to hunch over. William’s face betrayed a slight discomfort at this.

“Have you a... more convenient form?”

“I do, your majesty. Do you wish to see it?”

“Yes.”

The creature’s skin began to change its pattern ever so slightly, as though the skin was a pond that had had stones thrown into it, ripples propagating across it as the skin itself seemed to oscillate between being slightly closer and slightly further away. It hurt a little to watch, as Red’s eyes kept trying to make minute changes to the way they focused on this strange, vibrating skin.

The gargoyle’s tail began to grow thinner, as did the hands, horns, wings, and arms as the whole creature began shrinking. Soon, the wings were connected to his body by only a thin tendril that looked like it could not possibly support them before that too disappeared into nothingness, leaving the shapeless beige blobs that once were its wings floating in mid-air. The floating blobs grew smaller until they could no longer be seen.

Red felt himself getting a headache.

The creature stretched his body upwards, finally able to stand straight as it reached a more reasonable height. It shrunk to seven feet, and settled there. Its horns had now disappeared entirely, and its ears had migrated from the top of its head down to where one might expect them to be, changing from their previously chiropteran appearance into a familiar human shape. Thick black hair had begun to grow out of his skull, quickly settling on a fashionable short style with a prominent side part.

Indeed, the creature was looking mostly human now, and unclothed and clearly male. Red was tempted to look away, to allow him to preserve some dignity, but he could not avert his eyes. This was like nothing he’d ever seen.

Finally, a brown belt appeared around his waist, looped onto a piece of black cloth that was scarcely wider than the belt itself. A tie appeared around his neck, similarly attached to a shirt collar, but no shirt. A pair of brown shoes—tied with laces—appeared on his feet.

The scantily clad man grabbed at his collar, and the rest of the shirt seemed to come into being all of a sudden, rippling in an unseen breeze. Red’s headache got worse. The tall man performed a similar gesture on his belt, and the pants came into view in the same way as the shirt had. Red breathed a sigh of relief; he didn’t think any of his clothing would have fit such a tall man.

The man standing before them and Julias, the emissary who had delivered the other gifts, were one and the same, it was clear, now. He bowed respectfully before William.

“Oh.” Red murmured to himself. Now that was impressive; he guessed William didn’t have a statue that could transform into a person in his storeroom. Red considered this: a person? Was he? He didn’t look like a… golem. He definitely wasn’t a thing.

“What do you wish of me, your majesty?”

“Above all else, protect me and my retinue.” William replied automatically. He paused. “I think I shall have to write Duchess Elodia a concession letter. I was not expecting her to part with something so extravagant.”

“Miss Raffali is a most prized servant.” Julias replied, respectfully.

“Indeed.” William shook his head. This was bizarre; what duchess would send something more valuable than the things they were squabbling over? A gargoyle was easily worth two thralls and a good duchy. There had been nothing special about Lucia that he could see; she was less special than Red, for sure.

Red didn’t say anything, looking between the two other men in the room. William couldn’t really have accepted a real person—a slave?—as a gift? And act so casually about it? Was Julias real? He looked real? Another thought made Red’s throat feel dry: what did it mean for Red if William lost the war? Red was painfully aware that the whole business had started because Elodia had wanted him dead. But surely William wouldn’t let anything happen to him? Not over one spilled cup of blood? Not over one missed apology? Was his life really worth that?

“My dear, I am afraid you will need to give me some time to write my next letter.” William said, sitting on the settee beside Red to put an arm around him. Red felt the thoughts that were racing through his head calm themselves as he took in the scent of William’s hair. “Will you let it know the habits of the house, and the ways it can make itself useful? I am sure you have many responsibilities that it will be able to attend to.” He kissed Red’s cheek. “Perhaps that tree stump you had trouble with.”

“Uh. Yes. Sure.”

“Excellent.” William smiled, and made for the study.

Julias looked at Red expectantly, bowing. “Let me know how I can be of service, sir. I am good at housework, cooking, cleaning. Anything you need, honestly.” He smiled.

Red looked around the room, not sure what to say. He tried to think back to the family history his mother used to always tell him about when he was a boy, the civil war heroes. Surely in those, there was a lesson in how to act right now. But nothing came to him. He just felt uncomfortable and vaguely nauseated. “Um. I could use some help with the cleaning, I suppose.” He pinched the bridge of his nose, immediately regretting giving him an order. “Are you alright?”

“What do you mean, sir?”

“I mean, are you alright in general, but also, are you... okay with this?” He made a vague gesture towards William’s study.

“It’s not the first time this has happened, sir. I’ll miss Elodia, Lucia, everyone, but I’m sure you and King William will be even better company.”

“This isn’t the first time?” He asked flatly.

“Elodia bought me about a hundred and fifty years ago, sir. Before that I was in Greece, my master was a Centaur. I quite liked it there, sir.”

Red couldn’t quite get his head around that one. He put it aside, as he was getting far too used to.

“Okay, first off, please stop calling me ‘sir’, you don't have to,” he said, hoping he would not offend Julias. He already had one mythical creature who wanted to kill him, and he thought that was more than enough.

“Whatever you want.” Julias smiled. “Is there anything else you’d like me to do differently?”

Red cringed. “No, you don’t... don’t worry about what I want. You should…” He struggled with his words. He didn’t want to have anything he said sound even vaguely like an order. “Do you want something to eat? Drink? Or… read?”

“I’m fine, thank you. You are most kind,” he said. “Let me know if you need anything. I normally sleep during the day, but I can wake up if I need to. Nothing’s too small. Honest.”

Red sighed. “That’s fine, please don’t worry about it.” He ran a hand through his hair. “There’s a spare room upstairs. We can... you can sleep in there, until we... until this is sorted out. Okay?”

“Can I help? Is there a problem?”

“Yes, but it’s not yours. I’ll figure something out.”

“Of course. I will decline the bedroom, if I may. I do not sleep as humans do. I would prefer to stand outside until you call me. Does that sound okay?” He had started to get a feel for Red’s way of speaking, for the more casual cadence he liked, and tried to imitate it. He felt bad for having made him so uncomfortable.

“If that’s what you want.” Red said, defeated.

“I think that’s probably the best thing for me to do, what with… everything.” With a final bow, Julias headed back towards the back door.

Red sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose. The headache was spreading along the inside of his forehead. He did what he always did, tried to focus on what he could do rather than what he couldn’t and the questions he couldn’t answer. He remembered Lucia. She must have gone to her room. Was she just giving William privacy, or was she upset somehow?

He made her tea before he went upstairs. A big pitcher of black tea with strawberries, lots of sugar, and some ice. He knew she would like that.

He knocked on her door, a careful, measured tap. “Lucia? Can I come in?”

“Of course, of course.” She replied. Red opened the door quietly; Lucia was sitting on one of the beds, holding her embroidery hoop. She moved the needle up and down as she worked on the design: the outline of a horse’s head had begun to form from the brown lines of thread.

“Tea?” Red asked, setting the pitcher and two glasses down on the bedside table.

“Thank you.” She gave him a grin. “Is his majesty off writing a letter?”

“Yes.” Red nodded, pouring a glass of tea for each of them, but handing her glass to her first. All the etiquette lessons for the visit hadn’t been a total waste of time, after all. “Are you alright?”

Lucia grinned again. “Naturally. Duchess Elodia has won, so, unless King William is going to be extremely rude and kill me, I suspect I’ll be home, oh, tomorrow evening?”

“Oh! That’s great then.” Red cringed, realising what he’d just said. “As in, I’m happy for you. But I’ve liked having you around. I’ll miss you.”

“I’ll miss you too. But I’m eager to get back home.” She flipped the embroidery hoop over, gently running the needle under the backs of some finished stitches. “I’m glad I met you. I’m glad we got to talk. I’m not worried anymore.”

“Worried about what?” He sipped his tea, enjoying the cool sweetness.

She cringed, and, after a moment, put her right hand up to her mouth and tapping it with the tips of her pointer and middle finger, just like Red had done a few weeks earlier. Red couldn’t help but laugh.

“Okay, I would gladly go through the whole ordeal again in order to see you do that again.”

“Then next time I will kill you faster, so King William can’t save you.” She retorted, grinning. She grabbed a small pair of scissors and cut the thread, setting the hoop aside.

“That would be very rude of you.” Red said, with mock offense. He lightened his tone quickly. “So… anything in particular you’re less worried about?”

She hesitated, leaning over to pick up her tea. “You are not the only human that Duchess Elodia has asked me to kill. But you are the only one whose master was willing to do anything at all, let alone start a war, in order to save.”

“William’s great like that.” Red gave a small shrug. He tried not to dwell on what Lucia had just confessed to.

“I have never heard of anything close to it, in all my years. And you said you’ve only been in his service nine months? It’s incredible.”

Red smiled, taking a mouthful of tea to try and hide it. “I thought so.” He said finally, deciding that was a humble enough answer.

“I hope, after all this is over, I will be able to have tea with you again.” Lucia remarked.

“Me too.” He stared into his tea for a few moments, then looked at her and patted her knee. “I meant what I said, even though…” He made a vague stabbing motion. “If things are ever bad for you, you can come find me. Okay?”

“Of course.” She nodded. “I’d offer you the same, but I don’t think her grace would be accommodating. She never forgets someone who has wronged her.”

“I know. It’s okay. I still mean it.”

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Lucia returned to Elodia, carrying William’s concession letter, the following evening. During the next few days Julias flew between the two vampires’ houses as they exchanged letters that were by far the shortest Red had ever seen William send. Every time he received a new one, he would frown, or sigh, or throw it to the table in apparent disgust. Red had spent the better part of a year with William, and he was not prone to any big displays of emotion. Throwing the letter to the table was perhaps the most passionate display of anger that Red had yet witnessed. When pressed, he stated they were negotiating the terms of his surrender. Red couldn’t help but worry; did Elodia still want him killed? Had Lucia made good on her promise to put in a good word for him? Could Elodia send someone to take him, lying in wait in an alley? Would something happen to William?

Finally, one evening, William took a phone call from her. He spat at her in Italian, each syllable falling as loudly and quickly as lightning, flashing by faster than Red could hope to comprehend. After fifteen minutes of this, William hung the receiver up and began pacing up and down the entryway. He ran his fingers through his curly blonde hair. Red stood in a doorway, still watching him.

“How did it go?”

William jerked at the noise, caught off-guard by Red’s presence there.

That was a first.

“It went quite well.” He said, wearing the same calm smile as always. “We have arrived at a mutually satisfactory solution. Duchess Elodia has finally stopped insisting that I provide her with your head.”

Red rubbed his neck, frowning. “That’s good. I hope it’s not going to be too much trouble. With all the letters you got, I thought…” He didn’t believe William, but knew a direct accusation would not go well.

William chuckled. “No. Everything shall be fine. She has agreed to spare you in exchange for an artefact that I must obtain from Sardinia. I will be gone for several days.”

“I’ll pack my things.”

“No. You will need to stay here. Sardinia is not safe for you.”

“But…” It didn’t seem right. Although he knew how powerless he was, he wanted to be there with William. To help him in whatever way he could. But Red couldn’t find the words, not in a way that could convince William to take him. He didn’t want to be without him. And he didn’t want William to be alone either.

William embraced Red and kissed his forehead. “I am leaving you with Julias. You will be quite safe.” “What about you?”

He smiled. “It’s nothing I can’t handle.”

Later that evening, William headed out to travel to Sardinia with nothing more than the clothes on his back. Red wondered how he was able to charter a boat on such short notice.

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After a lot of uncomfortable insisting, Julias had managed to convince Red to allow him to do a few of his chores.

His favourite way of doing this was by watching Red until he started doing something that he clearly didn’t enjoy—washing dishes, ironing William’s clothing, the laundry, and so on—and then politely asking if Red wouldn’t prefer that he take care of those tasks instead. Red had considered ordering Julias to stop offering to help, or to stop watching him like that at the very least, but the thought of giving him such an order made him far more uncomfortable than the thought of accepting his help.

He had offered to help with the cooking, but this one, Red usually refused. Not only did the thought of someone who never seemed to eat doing the cooking for him seem dangerous, he had gotten into a routine of his own. After spending almost a year with little need for sleep and in the company of a creature of the night, Red’s mealtime habits had been altered significantly. When he woke up—which would be very early in the morning if William had fed from him recently—he would have breakfast, then he would take Chestnut into town and spend time with the people he had been getting to know, or help out with odd jobs where he could.

Now, after nearly a full year in Ajaccio he spoke French with a strong accent but was otherwise fluent. On these days, he would have lunch in town. His dinner would be either just before sunset—if he didn’t want to bother William with cooking—or just after, with William cooking for him more often than not. Finally, he would have another meal—supper, like he was making now—in the early hours of the morning. He liked cooking, he liked routine, and having someone else do it for him felt even more uncomfortable than giving orders.

The house had never been so clean; Julias had busied himself with all sorts of things, even when nobody asked anything of him. Red wondered where he found the time, considering spent all day as a garden ornament. Chestnut’s modest doghouse had been expanded, waterproofed, lined with thick fabric and had even had her name painted onto it with beautiful calligraphy. Rather than being perpetually a week behind, William’s clothing was cleaned each evening and ironed far more thoroughly than Red could ever manage with the house’s temperamental steam iron. He even ironed Red’s clothes, which felt bizarre to him. It felt too fancy for his walks with Chestnut and working on the garden. Red had to admit that Julias was useful, even if it made him feel kind of sick to think about. And Julias, by all accounts, seemed to genuinely enjoy helping out around the house and got fidgety when he had nothing to do, once even taking each book off the bookshelf and dusting each one two nights in a row.

On this evening, Julias was bringing in the latest load of laundry while Red made supper. The aroma of garlic hung in the air as the finely diced cloves sizzled in a thick layer of oil. He stirred the pungent concoction, sipping on a glass of red wine rather than his usual beer. Julias placed the laundry on the table in the lounge room, Chestnut following behind him and laying down on a cushion near one of the armchairs. The tall man walked into the kitchen and immediately went to where Red had placed two onions and a knife on the chopping board. Julias began to peel them.

“Thank you.” Red murmured automatically, taking another sip of his wine; heavy, soft, and smokey. “You want some of this? It’s pretty good.” He paused. “I think. I don’t really get wine. I like this one.”

“I’ll try some if you want.” He said, smiling.

“Do you want spaghetti for dinner? I’ve still never seen you eat, so I wasn’t sure if I should make you some or not.” He handed Julias the glass.

“I live on sunlight.” He replied, moving the glass in a small circle beneath his nose as he took in the ashy smell of the drink. “But I’m happy to join you for dinner if you want.”

“Oh, don’t eat on my account.” Red waved it off as Julias took a sip of the wine, the metallic earthiness stinging his tongue. “When you say you can eat, is it the same way I eat or is it more like William, where if you eat it you have to throw it up again?”

Julias shook his head, handing the glass back and dicing the onions. “No, I’ve got a much better deal. I absorb it into my body, much the same way you do. I can taste it, too.”

“That is a better deal.” Red smiled.

“And thank you. That was very nice wine.” Julias added, handing the chopping board with diced onions over. Red scraped them into the pot; they sizzled loudly, the sharp fumes making his eyes water for a moment.

“You’re welcome.” Red paused, stirring the mixture for a few moments as he thought how to phrase his next question. “So, the gargoyle thing. How does that…” He moved his hand in a vague circular gesture, before grabbing his wine to take another sip. “I’m still new to a lot of this stuff. How does being a gargoyle… work? If you don’t mind my asking.”

“What exactly do you want to know?” Julias asked, grabbing and some tomatoes, keeping out of Red’s way with practised ease.

Red really thought about this, unsure of where to start. “Well, how does your body work? Is it like a person? I mean, like a human. I know you’re a person.”

“Thank you, I appreciate that,” Julias said. “It’s very different from a human, or a vampire. Or, well, anything else I’ve met.” He shrugged as he diced the tomatoes.

“Huh.” Red murmured noncommittally. He sipped at his wine. “How different? Do you have bones, for instance?”

“No. There’s the thin layer of flesh that you can see, but underneath I’m solid stone.” He’d finished with the tomatoes, now, and was washing the knife.

“Wow, really?” Red studied him. He looked as soft and… well, skin-having as Red himself did. It didn’t look like he could be made of stone. He half wondered if Julias was making fun of him.

“Yeah. Do you want to have a look? William has something in his trunks that will let me show you.”

“Oh, yeah, if you can, that would be really interesting.”

Julias left, and Red had some more wine and added the tomatoes to the pot, stirring them so they didn’t stick to the bottom. He started when he saw Julias return, carrying one of Elodia’s war ‘gifts’: a knife with a handle made of smooth, cold stone and a silvery blade that was serrated with sharp teeth. It had come when they were exchanging magical items, though William hadn’t been entirely sure what it was for. Red worried for one terrifying second that Julias had been sent by Elodia to kill him, and all this posturing about losing the war and William’s cryptic phone calls were a smokescreen.

“Here we go,” Julias said calmly. Before Red could understand what was happening (or he’d have cried out for him to stop), Julias extended his index finger, as if to point at the wall behind Red, and started running the serrated edge of the knife back and forth where his finger met his hand. Blood seeped out from around the blade, and Julias had a focussed expression as he slowly and methodically sawed through his stone endoskeleton. “Julias, no!” Red held his hands out, not wanting to grab him for fear of making it worse: after all, it was a magical knife and he had absolutely no idea what might happen if he tried. “What are you doing?! Stop!”

“Don’t panic,” Julias smiled, his voice soft and soothing. “It’s nearly done.”

When he reached the other side, his finger didn’t fall to the floor; it just hung, as if magnetically attached to the stump on the other side of the blade. Julias’s mouth tightened as he moved the knife minutely, almost imperceptibly. Finally, he placed the knife down, and moved his hand a few inches away from his finger, which floated unsteadily in the air. Julias released the tension in his body with a deep sigh. “Here you go, come around and take a look.”

Red had covered his mouth, he wasn’t sure when. He really didn’t want to see the mutilated digit, but that was overcome by a mixture of the same fascination that made him want to look at people who had gotten into accidents at the steel mill and a strange fear of being impolite by refusing. Hesitantly, he moved to stand beside Julias and examine the floating stump of a finger.

Sure enough, there was a thin layer of skin—not more than a quarter of an inch thick—and it was bleeding. Underneath, though, it was the same russet beige sandstone his statue form seemed to be made of.

“Julias, Julias, oh my god, why…” Red mumbled, his mind still processing what he was looking at. “Doesn’t that hurt?”

“Of course it hurts, but don’t worry, I don’t mind.” He grinned. He ran a kitchen rag around his hand, to soak up some of the blood.

“You should mind! Why did you cut your finger off?”

“To show you how I look under my skin,” he replied as though it was the most natural thing in the world.

“I thought it was going to be…” He gestured at the knife. Something about looking at it made the hair on the back of his neck stand up. The teeth seemed too uncomfortably sharp. Why would you make a knife that sharp be serrated like a bread knife? What was it meant to be cutting? “A magic mirror or a magic magnifying glass or something. You didn’t have to cut your finger off!”

“It was the best way to give you a good look. Don’t worry, I’m fine.” Julias smiled.

Red sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. He took a deep breath, and immediately hated himself for his tone. “I’m sorry for shouting. I just—Are you definitely okay?”

“I promise you I’m fine. It will heal in a few months.” He said, his voice soft and soothing. “Are you alright? I’m sorry for startling you. Would you like to sit down while I finish dinner for you?”

“No, no, it’s fine.” Guilt started to bubble in his stomach—Julias was trying so hard to make him happy.

He cut his goddamn FINGER OFF—

“I appreciate that you wanted to show me,” he said finally. “Do you need bandages or do you hold it or… “

“No, it’s fine.” Julias shook his hand, and the stump disappeared from where it had been floating in the air and reappeared back where it was supposed to be. The cut where the finger had been detached was invisible; not the smallest mark or scar. Red could see small drops of blood still falling to the ground, although there was no logical place the blood could be coming from. Julias knelt to start wiping up the blood droplets that had spilled on the floor and around the kitchen. The index finger moved as though it had never been detached.

“No, no, I’ll clean up, it’s okay.” Red grabbed a damp rag from the sink. He felt a little bit sick. “You go sit, I can finish in here, it’s fine.”

“No, you should stir the tomatoes. They’ll burn.” Julias chuckled. “It’s very nice of you to worry about me so much. It reminds me of my son,” he continued, soft and light and friendly.

The tomatoes couldn’t have been further from Red’s mind. “... you have a son?”

“Didn’t I mention him before?” Julias remarked. “Yes, he lives in Greece.”

Red took a moment to wrap his head around this. A son. A son. A family. “Does he know you’re here?” He said finally.

“Yes, I sent him a letter a few weeks ago,” he finished wiping the floor, stood up, and started stirring the tomatoes. They had begun to stick to the pot, so he poured some water to deglaze them.

“And he knew when you were at Elodia’s?”

“Yes, and Hodites before that.”

“Is he... is he like you?” Red asked, and immediately cringed. He made Julias sound like he was... something wrong. Something to be ashamed of.

Julias laughed. “No, I’m special. He’s much like you, I suppose. He’s a shopkeeper.”

“He’s human?”

“No, half-Siren,” he sighed. “He has his mother’s feathers.”

“Feathers?”

“You know what a Siren is, right?” The sauce appeared to have been saved, and he stirred it expertly.

Red struggled with that one. “They... eat.... sailors?”

“Exactly. Human on top, bird on bottom. Agalope had these beautiful glossy brown feathers,” he explained.

Red carefully washed the knife that Julias had used to cut his finger off, trying to think of how to ask. “Was she... were you married or... ? No judgement or anything.” It seemed like a normal knife. He dried it.

“Oh, none taken,” he said, calm and casual. “Yes, we were married, but she died a long time ago.”

“Oh. I’m so sorry.” The words sounded shallow, even to him.

“It’s been more than two hundred years. These things happen,” he said with a slight light-heartedness in his tone. “But thank you for worrying about me.”

“Two hundred years?” Red repeated.

“Like I said, a long time,” he smiled. “Can you please pass me the spinach?” He knew it would make Red feel better, to help him.

Red handed the spinach over automatically, not even aware of doing it. “So... how old are you?”

He considered this, as though nobody had asked him before. “Four and a half thousand years, roughly,” he said mildly, using a clean knife to slice the spinach into thin ribbons.

“Four—” Red bit his tongue to stop himself from repeating things again. “You’re really that old?”

“Yes,” he replied, and then softened. “Are you alright? You seem... uncomfortable that I exist.”

“No, no, god, no!” Red threw his hands up reflexively, worried he’d offended Julias. “No, that’s not it at all. I’m just having trouble wrapping my head around it. I’m not uncomfortable about you.” He paused, unsure. He leaned against the counter, not looking at Julias. “You’re a four-thousand-year-old supernatural person, you shouldn’t be helping me with household chores.”

“What would I do instead? Sit in a cave on a pile of gold?” He rolled his eyes.

“I’m sure you could have a very nice pile of gold.” Red grinned. It faltered quickly. “I just mean... you deserve more than this.”

“More than what? Making new friends, doing simple, honest work that makes people happy, and getting to spend the daylight hours in the sun? I couldn’t ask for more.”

He considered this. “Well, I can understand that. You’re happy here? You’re sure?”

“Of course, aren’t you?” His expression betrayed just a little bit of concern, as though he would protect Red if he were to confide in Julias.

“I am, yeah.” Red smiled.

Four and a half thousand years old. Older than anything Red could think of.

He pictured his grandfather, if he would be happy following orders and being separated from his family.

Despite what Julias said, he still found it sitting with him into the night.

It didn’t seem right.

Chapter Text

Sardinia

A house burns to the ground. 

A blonde man is watching, an empty steel jerrycan at his feet. 

Chapter Text

Figs

"Colorful Figs" (CC BY-SA 2.0) by zeevveez

Fig

𝒶𝓇ℊ𝓊𝓂ℯ𝓃𝓉

Ajaccio, Corsica, France

May, 1945

Red leafed through the “S” volume of the encyclopedia. He wanted to learn about Sardinia, and what historical artefacts it might have that would be so important to Elodia. After all, she wanted him dead so badly that she’d go to war: it couldn’t be just any old thing that would change her mind.

The smell of unfamiliar spices hung in the air; Julias said he was cooking something called a tagine. Red was intrigued to try something different and so had consented to Julias’ offer to cook. Red knew that was all part of Julias’s plan, that he must have a long, drawn-out scheme that ended in him doing all of Red’s chores. He’d been trying to accept that Julias was not human any more than William was, and he clearly was made happy by very different things. It wasn’t going as well as he had hoped. He had a son. He’d had a wife.

Maybe he was lonely, without a wife right now.

Could he go find a new one, if he was always busy cooking for Red?

There was a knock at the door. Red placed the heavy book down to go answer it. William stood there, his clothing looking ever so slightly dishevelled. His shirt had hints of light grey powder on it, and his trousers were wrinkled. His tie was loose around his neck. He did not smile. Red thought he looked tired: not because of his unkempt appearance (by his standards), or his uncharacteristically neutral expression, but for some other, more hidden reason that he couldn’t quite put his finger on.

“Come in, please. Are you okay?” Red asked, concerned. William entered and began stripping as soon as Red closed the doors behind him.

“I am fine.”

“Do you have… a bag?” Red asked, not quite sure what William—who was now naked as the day he was born—was playing at.

“Why would I have a bag?” William asked, distracted, and then called out. “Julias!”

“For the… thing you had to get for Elodia.”

“Oh, that has already been delivered,” William replied. Julias appeared in the doorway, unconcerned by his master’s state of undress.

“How may I be of assistance, your majesty?”

“Take this clothing and destroy it.” He scrunched his clothes into a small bundle, which he handed roughly to Julias. There was none of the usual care with which he handled all his possessions.

“Of course, your majesty,” Julias replied, and his skin started rippling in that strange, hard-to-focus-on way that it did whenever he transformed. The bundle of clothing disappeared immediately. Red squinted. He’d never seen Julias do that before. Red resisted the urge to touch him where the clothes had been. Did he absorb them into his body, were they invisible, or…? William hadn’t expected it either. He raised his eyebrows and gave a small, impressed smile, the same way he had when Red had found everything on that shopping list of his all those months ago.

“I take it that you have destroyed it as directed, rather than transporting it somewhere else?” William asked, the pitch of his voice wavering slightly.

Red now had to consider other options. Did Julias eat it somehow?

“In a manner of speaking, your majesty.” Julias shrugged. “My magic is complicated. Rest assured that no trace of it will be found, your majesty.”

“Very well. You are excused.”

Julias bowed and returned to the kitchen. William walked into the bathroom, which was odd. He very rarely ventured into that part of the house.

“Wait, what did he do?” Red asked, following.

“He destroyed my clothing,” came the reply, in the characteristically accurate but useless way William liked to respond to questions.

“No, I mean, destroyed how?”

“I don’t know,” he admitted. It was comforting to think that there were mysteries that were beyond even William.

William stepped into the shower. He showered even more rarely than he entered the bathroom; perhaps a dozen times since Red had known him. As far as Red could tell he didn’t sweat, or at the very least didn’t smell of it, so he only washed when he had been dirtied in some way. And William was not a man who liked getting dirty.

“Hm.” Red wasn’t sure what to say, lest he say the wrong thing. “Do you want me to get you something else to wear?”

“Thank you.” William nodded. “The third pair of pants from the left, and the seventeenth shirt from the right, if you would be so kind.” They were long past attempting to communicate by describing the clothing’s appearance. Red attempted to learn the colour names but most of them didn’t stick. He was convinced puce should be green, and no matter what William said he couldn’t get past it.

“No problem.” Red gave a small salute, and went into the bedroom to fetch them. He knew from experience that William’s speed meant short showers. He could hear the deep throbbing of the water going through the pipes as he entered the bedroom. By the time he had opened the cupboard and selected the shirt and pants, the sound of the water had stopped. Red decided not to bother fetching a belt, suspenders, cufflinks or any other accessories—anything he picked out would be wrong anyway—and returned to the bathroom.

William was standing at the mirror, a towel around his shoulders. He fiddled with his damp blonde hair, making minute adjustments to the way it fell around his face. It was not the first time that Red had seen him so entranced by his reflection.

“Feeling better?” Red asked, setting the clothes down on a small table beside the sink.

“Very much so. Sardinia was filthy.”

“So filthy the clothes had to be destroyed?” Red asked with a teasing smile, leaning against the doorframe. “There’s a very nice family who does laundry down the road, you know. They’d appreciate the work.”

“You always say I have too much clothing.” He replied mildly, picking up the pants to slip them on.

“I have, but I think it’s part of your charm.”

William allowed himself a dry chuckle. “I did not know you found recently disgraced kings so alluring.”

Red couldn’t help but grin: the self-deprecating remark had come as a surprise, as a lot of William’s jokes did. “I have refined tastes.” He wound his arms around William’s waist and traced kisses up his shoulder.

“And for that I am most grateful, my dear.” William placed his hands on Red’s.

“Me too.” Red mumbled. He glanced at his reflection, his chin digging in just above William’s collarbone. He looked so different to William. It made him think of seeing… the other vampires, like him. Wondering how William and those strange friends of his fit together. How that must have changed somehow, with the war with Elodia and the trip to Sardinia that he was now convinced had nothing to do with picking up some dusty ‘artefact’.

It had to be something at least as bad as not killing someone. William had to be separated from them now. Because of what happened.

What he made happen. Guilt began to gnaw at the pit of his gut. He didn’t know what he could possibly say. “Anything I can do to help?”

It wasn’t enough.

“I am afraid my reputation is something I must repair on my own.”

“Okay.” Red squeezed him, reflexively, clinging, pressing his forehead into William’s neck to avoid meeting his own gaze in the mirror. William gently untangled himself from Red’s arms, giving him a kiss on the forehead as he picked up his shirt. “Thank you for bringing my clothes,” he said, shrugging on his shirt. It was a dark maroon that William had chosen because it signified relief and satisfaction, but just reminded Red of the thick blood that had been in the warm cups at the ritual.

“Happy to help.” Red shrugged. The guilt gnawed harder. He imagined it like those little green caterpillars that would invade his mother’s vegetable garden, just gnawing away with sharp little mouths.

“Was the gargoyle useful while I was away?”

“He was… good to have around,” Red replied awkwardly, watching as William buttoned his shirt. His mind started to stray to what he had talked about with Julias.

To how it didn’t sit quite right.

“It will be good to have a gargoyle. It almost makes the humiliation worthwhile.” Finished with the buttons, he straightened his shirt, staring into the mirror as he preened himself. Red watched him. The guilt crawled up his neck, but the questions were still there. He didn’t want to bring it up, it felt ungrateful to bring it up, after everything, but still—

“He said something odd.”

The words were out before he could stop them.

“They are odd creatures. I wouldn’t pay it any mind.” William replied calmly, moving towards the bedroom. Red followed.

“Creatures?” he repeated, incredulous. “But he’s still… what’s the word?” He snapped his fingers, thinking. “Where they feel and reason and talk. It starts with an S.”

“Sentient. Conscient.” He offered, giving Red the French translation as well; he’d done it before, when Red had asked about unfamiliar words in the encyclopaedia.

“That’s the one.” Red smiled, reaching to squeeze William’s hand without thinking, a completely unconscious action from familiarity. They had done this so many times. For a moment he even forgot what he was so worried about.

It came back with a rush. He let go of William’s hand. “Yeah, sentient. He’s sentient. I don’t think you can really call him a ‘creature’ if he’s sentient.”

“When did you become so precise, my dear? I meant only that he is not human.” William asked, moving past him to the cupboard to select a dark brown pair of suspenders. He buttoned them onto his pants.

“Not precise, just… thinking.” Red folded his arms, looking for the right words. Moral quandaries were never his strong suit, let alone trying to explain them or debate then. He didn’t have the right vocabulary for it. “We talked a bit, while you were gone.”

“Was it interesting?” William asked, adjusting his curly blonde hair with a comb.

“Yes.” Red muttered. He started picking at the frayed pocket of his pants. “You called him a slave.”

William hesitated, picking a grey pair of socks out of his drawer. Red’s manner had made his distaste clear, and William knew that he needed to navigate this conversation carefully. The constant and inscrutable human moral codes were one of the reasons he suspected having a human companion would be impressive, in the future. “And what do you think about that?” He sat down next to Red, to pull his socks on.

Red didn’t often regret not being better spoken. He had always figured that he was strong, and a hard worker, so it didn’t matter that he didn’t know what dead Greek men had said or what had happened in famous books or what a metaphor was or how to deploy long words in an exacting order.

He regretted not having those skills now.

He couldn’t for the life of him think of how he could possibly articulate how baffling that response was. William might as well have asked how he felt having his hand burned or why he cared about his mother. “You called him a slave, William. As in slavery.”

“What would you call him?”

“A person who works for you?” Red offered. “A porter? A servant? A valet, like I was. Am?”

“Very well. I will do that from now on.”

Red hesitated. That wasn’t the problem. He didn’t want to ask his real question. The one he was most afraid of hearing the answer to. “And it’s more accurate, anyway. He’s not a slave, right?” He tried to sound casual, but the words caught in his throat and betrayed how badly he feared the answer.

William sighed. “It’s not quite the same with gargoyles. They are not as… strong-willed as you are. They could not contemplate requesting something as small as being called a person instead of a creature. Such thoughts simply do not occur to them.” He picked up a pair of shoes from the floor, and removed the laces.

“Do not occur?”

He sighed again. “If I treated you badly, you would leave, wouldn’t you? Sneak off during the daylight, take the next boat to the mainland?” He began threading the laces back onto the shoe. He did it without thinking, threading a pattern that expressed his anxiety. “Why, if I acted badly enough, I would be lucky if you decided not to drag me into the sunlight.”

“And Julias wouldn’t?”

“Of course not,” he stated flatly, threading the second shoelace. He was uncomfortable, both at how anxious he was and at how willing he had been to telegraph it like this.

Not that Red would understand.

“What?” Red stopped, not expecting that. “He’s a person. He could leave if he wanted to.” He paused, remembering all the strange things he’d seen in the past year. Remembering the warnings Lucia had given him, and that William had confirmed, about the power of a vampire’s commands. “Couldn’t he?”

“Of course he could, if he wanted to.” William nodded, pulling a shoe on. “But he could never want such a thing. It is not in his nature.”

Nature?” Red repeated. The gnawing of guilt in his stomach was being replaced by something almost like nausea. “It’s not about… you said it doesn’t occur to him, but even if it doesn’t occur to him, that doesn’t mean it’s…” He gestured, his hand grasping at the air, feeling for the words. He felt like they had to be there, just out of reach, that he could grab and use to explain why the idea of this was so disgusting. “He wants things. He cares about things. He’s… he’s not a thing. Even if it doesn’t…” He was going in circles. “He can’t have being… not free in his nature. That’s not how people work.”

“It isn’t. That’s why I called him a creature.” William pulled on his other shoe and got to his feet. He gently placed a hand on Red’s forearm, a simple gesture he had done a hundred times before. He knew it would help. It would take the tension out of Red’s shoulders, make him relax, calm down, and smile.

It didn’t.

“But you can’t call him a creature! He’s sentient! He’s a person.” Red repeated. “That’s not how you treat people.”

“I don’t mind what we call him.” William shrugged. “He is a person, but a person whose nature would not allow him to leave my service, regardless of the circumstances. He is a creature built for this, but a creature with feelings and desires.”

“And a son!” Red added pointedly. He felt like what he said should have a different reaction. William was acting like...

“And a son.” William shrugged again, hoping that by appearing calm Red would calm down, too. “We can call him something different, if that would help?”

Red felt something rise in his throat, words he wasn’t sure what they would be until they started. He paused, pinching the bridge of his nose, breaking the eye contact. He couldn’t look at William, not right now.

He just wanted to find the right words. If he could find the words, William would understand. He wouldn’t talk like this or think this way. He had to. He wasn’t… “It’s not just about ‘what we call him’,” he said finally, drawing quotation marks in the air with his fingers, repeating what William said. He knew it sounded patronising. He couldn’t stop. He didn’t feel like he was talking to a person. He felt like he was talking to a… “It’s how you’re… it’s how you’re treating him. How you’re thinking of him! He’s a person and you’re talking about him like he’s… a thing. Like he’s property. You sound like a…”

Monster.

The word that had been at the back of his throat. He was acting like a monster.

He sounded like a monster.

He wasn’t a

He was.

Bile rose in Red’s throat where the word had sat. He stepped back without thinking, suddenly revolted. William’s hand fell from his arm. He was going to be sick.

When he read about the war, the one before the one before, he had been revolted. How could anyone think of people that way? Use them that way? They were monsters. Two hundred year old monsters.

And William...

He wasn’t even a two hundred year old monster. He was more. Older than that. He sounded like a slave-owning monster because he was.

William examined his rapidly paling complexion, puzzled. “I don’t think we are understanding each other. Can you explain what is bothering you? Exactly?”

Red didn’t speak for a long moment, trying to find the words among the nausea and the horrific acidic lump in his throat. “You are keeping a person, who can think and feel and has a family, as a slave. And you are saying it’s… it’s in his nature to be owned? That it’s just a part of him? And that doesn’t bother you? You really think that?”

“Is there a distinction between my saying it is in his nature and it truly being in his nature? Do you not believe me?”

Red stared at him, dumbfounded. “Of course I don’t. That’s not…. That’s not how people work. People can’t be slaves by nature.” The lump grew bigger. The bile burned. “But you don’t think of him as a person.” It wasn’t a question. Not anymore.

“I think the words are doing us in. What do you mean when you say ‘person’, my dear?”

Red stared at him. William… looked different. Red was seeing him. Really seeing him.

He pressed the heels of his hands against his eyelids. “I have to go for a walk.”

William frowned. “Can you please tell me what’s wrong?”

“I can’t, I don’t... I don’t know.” Red muttered. “I just… I have to go for a walk. I have to clear my head. I have to… I have to go for a walk.”

Without thinking, he kissed William on the cheek as he moved past him. It felt like muscle memory, and the feeling made his stomach roll.

He didn’t look back.

Chapter Text

Red walked, shoulders hunched, hands balled into fists in his pockets.

His head felt too full of thoughts. He didn’t even know where to start.

Even if Julias doesn’t understand or it doesn’t occur to him or if he doesn’t think of it that freedom was an option, it doesn’t make what William’s doing right or okay

Like a dog, the dog doesn’t understand that you could treat them better but you still owe them the best care you can give them

Oh no I just compared Julias to a dog I’m just as bad.

No, I’m not just as bad because I am not enslaving another human being

But he’s not human

Not human but a person

William isn’t human either and he’s a person how can he think Julias isn’t

Oh god Julias has a son he’s a father

He’s a father and his life is devoted to someone else who isn’t his son

How can William not see that as wrong?

How can he not have any empathy here how do you not have empathy for another person

Because he doesn’t think of him as a person

Good grief, and he was asking me about damn semantics like this was an issue of us disagreeing of a word meaning

Of course that’s what he thought the problem was it’s how he’s solved every problem with me

I ask a question and he gives me an answer and everything is hunky dory again because he’s always right and I’m always the idiot who doesn’t know any better

Of course he didn’t think he could be wrong about this because he’s never wrong or been wrong as far as he’s concerned

He doesn’t care what my opinions are he assumes I must be wrong or my perception must be wrong because he thinks he’s smarter than me

I thought he was smarter than me but he can’t even think of Julias as a person and that slavery is bad so what does that say about him?

That he’s hundreds of years old and has done

Oh god what has he done

He has slaves

He probably had more

He really is a monster

You would have to be to do those things

Would he even listen to me if I tried to explain it

I wish I was better at explaining things

Would it even matter if I was? He doesn’t even consider he might be wrong.

He doesn’t consider I might be right

Because I am just a human

Does he even think of me as a person too?

Could he?

Chapter Text

Michelmas Daisies

European Michaelmas Daisy - Aster amellus flickr photo by Björn S... shared under a Creative Commons (BY-SA) license

Michaelmas Daisy

𝒻𝒶𝓇ℯ𝓌ℯ𝓁𝓁

Ajaccio, Corsica, France

May, 1945

When Red came back, William was already waiting in the entryway. He held a thick envelope close to his body.

Red paused. He pinched the bridge of his nose, trying to hold in a sigh. He failed and felt cruel as soon as it escaped him. “A letter?”

“I thought it may help,” he muttered, suddenly feeling embarrassed for writing one to a human.

Red took a few steps forward, holding his hand out for it, guilt washing over him, despite everything. “I’ll read it. Thank you for taking the time,” he said, his voice stiff. It came more from manners than gratitude. He didn’t feel like he knew the right thing to say. He didn’t know if there was a right thing to say.

“It was no trouble,” William replied, handing the envelope over with both hands. It was surprisingly light, for one of his letters. Red turned it over in his hand, examining first the back—featuring one of William’s seals, the blue wax still warm and soft, giving way ever so slightly to Red’s touch. He turned it over to see the front: his name, ‘Mister Reginald Wilkins’, was written in cursive with elaborate flourishes.

Red smiled, appreciating William’s care in everything he did, even for him. He wasn’t a fancy vampire king who could beat him in an axe fight or out-gift him, but he still got the cursive, the wax seals, and the time. He felt sad in a way he couldn’t name, a creeping coldness crawling through his jaw like a toothache. “Do I read it now?”

“I think that would be best. When you are finished, I will be in the study.”

“Okay,” Red moved to kiss William’s cheek, pressing his lips to him for a little too long, his grip on William’s shoulder a little too tight. He went to make coffee, trying to delay the decision that had already bubbled inside him, already made, for as long as he could. But when the coffee was done, he sat at the table, sipping at his mug—he’d burned the coffee in his agitation, the bitterness almost stinging—and opened the letter, carefully, using the letter opener like William had taught him. They had rules even for that.

It was not a letter so much as a three page treatise on the subject of gargoyles.

It covered their physiology, their culture, but went into most depth about their psychology. The essay discussed in depth the well-observed need for gargoyles to please a master, to perform any task they were asked, even to the point of causing themselves harm. It then went on to assure Red that William had no intentions of having Julias harm himself in any way, listed the chores that Julias would be doing (which amounted to doing the ones that Red was doing, or avoiding doing, or had decided to pay other people to do).

Next, William discussed the concept of ‘personhood’: he stated that Julias was a different species, in the same way that a dog was, and that although Julias has wants and needs in the same way that a human or vampire does, his wants and needs were very different, with the principal among them being to serve.

The letter concluded that given that both Julias and William were comfortable with the arrangement, William wanted to keep Julias. It conceded that William was willing to consider the possibility of releasing Julias, if that would make Red happy (omitted was any allusion to Julias’s opinion on such matters). Finally, it invited Red to explain which parts of the essay Red didn’t agree with, so that way they could reach an understanding.

Red felt like the thoughts that had been circling in his head all afternoon, just far enough away that he did not have to acknowledge them, were now crashing into the ground in front of him.

It made him think of, even though it would mortify William to hear it, a middle schooler’s essay on a person they had never known or a country they had never visited. It was impersonal, detached, no empathy or concern or understanding. A series of facts, presented as so, and any disagreement with them could only be met with more attempts at argument, none of understanding why it wasn’t an okay way to talk or think about a person, no attempt to listen or try to change or even consider that they might be wrong. He’d clearly made no attempt to discuss this with Julias, just took for granted that because he was a gargoyle, that because of what Julias was, William understood him.

And the way William had always talked, about coming to arrangements, about exchanging gifts, about debt and letters and status and prestige—could Red need to repay that debt at some point in the future? He didn’t like to think of it, but he started to get the impression that was how William’s mind worked. Transactional. Unfeeling.

Inhuman.

William didn’t understand. Couldn’t understand.

Wouldn’t understand.

When Red went to the study, William had his back to him, and Red felt like he was seeing William, really seeing him, for the first time.

He had never felt so young in his life. William had never felt so different. He knew William was different; he was a vampire. It felt as though he had always known that. He’d thought, more like hoped, that a vampire would be better, with the years of experience and mistakes to learn from.

But he was worse. Dispassionate. Egocentric.

His mistakes, his past attitudes, his arrogance: had the passage of time solidified them, crystalised them into William for all time?

When they first met, Red thought he was meeting a man, a human, someone he was level with, even if he had admired William, even though William was rich and cultured and interesting, even after Red learned what William truly was, he always felt like the two of them were on the same level. Equals.

But they weren’t. They never were.

And the feeling sat in Red’s stomach like a sack of stones.

section break image

William was surprised at how he’d acted, first in saving Red from Elodia, then with what he’d been willing to do to make Elodia accept his surrender without handing over Red. It was perhaps noble, for a character in a play or an opera, but it had caused troubles to brew back home: his subordinates had been posturing amongst themselves from the moment they heard of his loss in the war. The edges of his territory had already begun to talk of changing their allegiances to Queen Kalina in the east, for she could offer better protection for those that needed it and was an ally with higher status for those that didn’t. He would not reach his former level of popularity for some time yet. He would need to build allegiances and support in his old homeland of Europe, or return to Australia and try not to let too much slip through his fingers.

He was shocked at what had been coming over him the past few months. He could not believe that he had just written a formal letter to a human. He’d finally begun to understand the opera he had seen in Rome: the young vampire who seduced the human princess had been genuinely torn between two worlds, two sets of obligations, two complicated and inscrutable etiquettes just as William now found himself to be. The character in the opera had to balance his vivid memories of human mores and the demands of his maker: and in the end, his love for the princess had been his downfall. Last year, William had taken it as a lesson: one should have pride in oneself, to rise to one’s higher station. Now, he understood why a vampire would debase themself so: the world of humans contained people just as worthy as any vampire he’d met.

And he had done far, far worse than merely debase himself for Red.

Courting Red had been harder than he thought, but more rewarding than he could have imagined. To spend time with someone who he knew was not there for fame, for status, for pleasure, for power; who was not trying to use him to their own ends. Just because he liked him. Just enjoying William’s company. Just as William enjoyed Red’s.

Red had been there because of what it was like to be with him. How he had loved William’s tales, limitless as their scope must have seemed to Red. But William was as deeply entranced by Red’s tales of the social politics working at a steel mill in Columbus as Red had been hearing William’s tale of falling in love with a vampire who had been a powerful Queen’s favoured progeny hundreds of years ago. William had never felt so interesting. It was power, of a sort. A benevolent sort of power. One he found himself liking more than he could have anticipated.

There was no thin undercurrent of rivalry, and what they had was not founded on what benefits they could each provide. Just the quiet enjoyment of one another.

William could not remember ever having been part of such a union.

And so William was sitting in the study, almost finished reading one of Red’s well-thumbed detective novels. He had found himself reading them from time to time, wanting to understand what Red liked about them so much. It was not something he was proud of—they were not high-status books, though in time they might prove to be so.

Whenever Red visited the study, Red would see him reading old letters, thick ancient tomes, inscrutable vampire books, or, when he did read something modern and human, something of repute: Steinbeck, for instance. These detective novels that had started to litter the cottage were not something William had ever wanted to be seen reading by other vampires and therefore not by Red, who might one day tell them about it. But William enjoyed them all the same, and needed to feel the strange sense of closeness to Red that the novels gave him.

Red entered the study and saw the cover, the red letters on the green dust jacket of one of the dozens of cheap novels he’d bought at the second hand bookstore. ‘LE MORT EN VISITE’. For a moment, Red felt a tearing at the centre of his chest. He hated it.

William looked up, saw Red’s expression, and his small smile evaporated. Red’s body language was odd. All his muscles were tight, each breath deliberate. For the first time in a long time, William could sense an odd sort of generalised fear in him.

For all of his effort, he knew that the letter was not well received.

“Are you alright, my dear?” He closed the book and placed it on the writing desk.

Red didn’t answer for a long time. He almost expected William to try and fill the silence. He didn’t. “I have to go.”

“Where?”

“I don’t know yet.” He closed his eyes and rubbed his hand over his face. “I don’t think I can… be here anymore.”

“Why not?” William didn’t know enough to anticipate what Red would do; that alone made him uncomfortable. He looked down at his navy shirt; despite knowing it would be lost on Red, he had tried to dress appropriately. Did he do it wrong? Should he have worn the pale purple shirt, to symbolise his status? Had he been right to choose this shade of navy, to show empathy, curiosity, and concern? Or would it have been better had he worn a slightly darker shade of blue to represent solidarity? William had only had his all too fallible instincts to draw from.

“I think a lot of things are landing for me right now. Things I wasn’t… things I was ignoring.” He still had the letter in his hand, not scrunched up, but held carefully. He knew it would disappoint William if he didn’t show care. It felt rude, on top of everything else. He didn’t want to be rude.

Politeness felt like the least he could do.

“What, exactly? That there are more strange things in the world than you expected? That I do not understand what the word person means to you?”

“Not just that.”

“Do you want me to release Julias?”

“It’s not just that, either. And he’s happy.” Red couldn’t look at William. He forced himself to. “You’re not a—you’re not like me. You never were. And… I liked it. I did. But… you’re never going to be on the same level as me, think how I do.”

“Given time, I can.” William was tempted to look Red in the eye, to order him to stay. He knew it wouldn’t work, the order couldn’t be made to stick for long. It would only make things worse. But one or two minutes of Red not being angry with him would be welcome. William stared at Red’s feet. “You are wrong. I was like you. That is why I love you.”

“Was.” Red repeated, biting his tongue, not out of trying to hold anything back but just because of how things hurt, how difficult the words were to say. “But you’re not, now.”

“Must I be, for you to stay? What has changed since we met? I am more like you now than I was then.” William looked at Red’s shoelaces, which gave no useful information. They were laced the same way they were laced every day. He glanced down at his own: carefully laced to signify a desire to have a stimulating intellectual discussion. The wrongness of it gnawed at him.

“I know. And I appreciate that you try but… ” Red pinched the bridge of his nose, unsure of how to say it. “I didn’t see it before. I didn’t see…” He held up the letter for a brief second.

“A year ago, I would not have imagined writing you such a letter.”

“That’s not what—”

“No, it is. We do not write formal letters to janissaries.”

“William,” Red said firmly. “I know you’re trying, I know. But, tell me, right now, honestly, do you see me as your equal? Do you see anyone that way?”

He let out a big, long, defeated sigh. “I feel that I will need another letter to tell you exactly how I feel about—”

“That’s not an answer.”

“The answer is that you have asked me a complicated ques—”

“It’s not complicated,” Red cut him off again. “You don’t see me, or anyone else, as an equal.” His expression broke, not angry, just sad. And disappointed. “In your head, Julias’s life, my life, no-one’s life, is worth as much as yours, right?”

“What do you mean?” William couldn’t stand it anymore. He bent his knee to start unlacing his left shoe. He needed to change it, to fix it. He tried to remember the pattern for contrition. He rarely had occasion to use it.

Red sighed. “You can’t understand. You couldn’t.”

“To reach an age as advanced as mine, even for a vampire, one has to place a very high value on one’s life.” He muttered. He knew Red knew this. Maybe that was the problem. He knew it wasn’t. He was relacing his shoe, into an approximation of an expression of regret.

Red sighed. “William. Can you stop with your shoe and look at me, please?”

“Yes?” He asked, hiding how annoyed he was; being dressed appropriately was important to him, and he was quite capable of paying attention to Red and dressing.

Red pushed his tongue against his teeth, not biting it, not clicking, just pressing on it, expressing his frustration in a small, harmless way. He sighed, walked up to the chair, leaned forward, and kissed William, very gently and sadly. He pulled back and sniffed. “I love you. I’m leaving.”

“Are you certain?”

“Yes,” he hesitated, stepping back. “I’m sorry. Thank you for everything. I’m sorry about… I’m sorry.” Red couldn’t find the thoughts, let alone the words to attach to them.

William looked above the door frame, thinking. “You will want to return to Columbus, yes? It will take a few days for me to make arrangements.” This situation was clearly beyond what he was capable of resolving. Now he had to make sure Red felt safe. The part of him that always focused on preservation knew that if Red didn’t need him, Red would have no reason not to kill him. Otherwise, he was sure he wouldn’t be concerned for such things.

“You don’t have to—”

“You said your army will imprison you, possibly kill you if they find you. I am not going to accept that on my conscience. I care about your life that much,” he said drily.

“Fine. Thank you,” Red replied, but it was not sincere. He knew he needed William’s help, but he felt like he wanted to keep his pride.

William didn’t say anything for a long time, even by his standards, but Red could tell he was about to speak, so stood and waited.

“I will have Julias prepare the room upstairs for you,” William said, finally.

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Red didn’t see William at all the following evening, with Julias being the one to bring him a plate of dinner. Red would have been happy to forfeit having dinner at all. Red could tell that it was William who had cooked it, though: the food was more to his style—delicate sauces, thin pastry—than the heavily spiced stews and soggy grains that Julias preferred to cook.

It hurt to think about.

On the second night, Red received another meal from Julias that clearly had William’s hand in it. As he finished eating it on the small writing desk, there was a knock at the door. Three firm, regular knocks, the same way William always did when he came home from his feeding trips. Red considered ignoring it, avoiding whatever discussion William wanted to have. But the thought left him as quickly as it came: that would be rude, and he owed William more than that.

When Red opened the door, William was standing there, his suit black, his shirt dark grey. His gloved hands held a small wooden box with a brass lock.

“Good evening,” William said.

“Evening,” Red replied awkwardly, keeping a hand on the door.

“I am planning to charter a boat to Marseille for you.”

“Oh. Thank you.” Red drummed his fingers on the door, uncertain of what to do. “I appreciate it. Thank you.”

“It is the least I can do.”

“I still… I still appreciate it.” Red felt like there was so much more he wanted to say, but he couldn’t find the words.

William cleared his throat. “From Marseille, you will need to make your own way to Lisbon, in Portugal. The central post office will have some papers for you, and you can use those to take a ship to New York.”

Red nodded. He didn’t know what to say. He defaulted to manners. “Should I pay you back, or…”

William laughed, just a small chuckle. He would miss Red’s earnestness. “Of course not. In fact, I came here to give you your wages for all your work this past year.” He handed the box to Red, and fished a small key out of his pocket.

Red’s jaw clenched. He looked away. “You don’t have to pay me. It wasn’t… like that.”

“I know. This is for everything else. The shopping. Mending.” William paused. “The ironing.” He smiled, remembering how much Red would whine about ironing.

“I didn’t do those things for money. Not even the ironing.” Red smiled weakly, staring at the box.

“I can’t in good conscience send you away with nothing.”

“You’re not sending me away, I’m leaving. You don’t owe me anything.”

“Yes, I do. I took you from the hotel in which you worked. Were it not for me, you would have money of your own.”

“You don’t know that. Anything could have happened.”

“Including, for example, a vampire taking you to Corsica for a year, and insisting you take a large, though by no means extravagant, sum of money when you left.”

Red laughed, just a little. He could feel himself warming up to William again, remembering how much he liked talking to him, how much he enjoyed the way he saw the world.

William smiled back, enjoying the moment, before the smile was replaced by a small frown. “You are still certain?”

Red’s face fell too. The warmth was gone as fast as it came. “Yes. I think it’s… it’s really been landing how different y—we are. You’re not human, and you’re not… I don’t know how to put it.” He pinched the bridge of his nose. “I love you. I do. But we’ll never be on the same page. And it’s not right. I can’t… I can’t get past it. Do you understand?”

He shook his head. “No, I don’t understand why it is important that we are on the same page, as you put it.”

“And that’s a part of it.” Red smiled sadly. “I can’t understand you, and you can’t understand me. And I don’t think that’s something I can deal with.”

He sighed. “Very well. I…” He paused. “I very much appreciated the time you spent with me. And the money… I only want to make your life easier than it would otherwise have been.”

“I appreciated your time too. I appreciated your attention, and you, and… ” Red sighed quietly. “Thank you. For everything.”

“The pleasure was mine.”

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Julias helped Red to pack his things the next evening.

William was out—he said he was feeding, but Red couldn’t help but feel that William just didn’t want to watch as Red went through the house, picking apart the scraps of their life together. He was surprised at how many things they’d acquired: shells or interesting stones they’d found on the beach, the dozens of detective novels, and the heavy encyclopaedia set were scattered on the shelves and tables of the building. And for each item he had to decide whether to keep it, or to leave it behind. A few of the novels to help pass the time. One or two of his favourite shells. His prized encyclopaedia set was clearly too big and bulky to make the journey with him, but William had insisted on posting it once Red arrived in Columbus.

Julias found one of Chestnut’s teeth, where it had been placed on the edge of one of the shelves in the living room after she had pulled it out chewing on a stick. He held it out at arm’s length for Red to look at.

“Do you want to take this with you?” Julias asked, not asking the question they both knew he meant: Chestnut wouldn’t be going with Red, so did he want something to remember her by?

A lump formed in Red’s throat. It took a moment to work words past it. “Yeah. Yeah I would.”

He took the tooth and ran his thumb over it, feeling the ridges.

“I’m sorry,” Julias said, choosing his words carefully. “If I did anything to…” He wanted Red to feel a little guilty. To reconsider somewhat. But he knew that he needed a soft and gradual approach to this.

“No, no, it’s not your fault.” Red forced a smile.

He hesitated. “May I ask you something?”

“Of course.” Red placed the tooth in his pocket.

“What… happened? William seems… ashamed. And I want to be able to help him, when you’re gone.” Julias was gently placing Red’s detective books into a box, to be stored unless he sent for them later. “We…” Red paused. He didn’t know what to say, how to explain. Especially how to explain in such a way that didn’t make Julias feel worse. “Things came to head. We are… very different, and I guess I had been avoiding thinking about it, and then I had to think about it.”

“Oh. Different, how?” Julias adjusted the books in the box, careful to arrange them by size.

“Fundamentally different.” Red laughed a hollow laugh. Empty as his shelf on the bookshelf was becoming. “I realised... he’s never going to see things the way I do, not because he doesn’t care, or that he’s not trying, but because he can’t. And that’s… I can’t… I can’t cope with that, I suppose.” He sighed. “Sorry Julias, I’m probably not explaining this very well.”

Julias smiled. “You’re doing great. Is it something like… that vampire arrogance?”

Red laughed, genuinely this time. “Sort of. He is very old. It’s less arrogance and more… I think he can’t understand how I think about things, and to be fair, I can’t really understand him either.”

“Any particular examples? Other than appreciating the differences between shades of blue.” Julias handed Red two detective books he knew Red hadn’t read yet.

Red chewed the inside of his cheek. “It’s… it’s not worth going into. It’s done. There’s not much to do with it now.” He angrily shoved the books into his suitcase, crumpling the corners. “He’ll get over it. He’ll be fine.”

Julias shook his head. “Vampires have long memories. He’ll be thinking about this long after you’re dead.”

Red stopped packing.

Julias pretended not to notice. “It will help me to help him, if I understand your point of view. Maybe he won’t dwell on it as long as he otherwise would.”

“He cares. I know that he does.” Red said finally, fiddling with the seam of the bag, thinking. “But he doesn’t…” He sat down with a huff, his elbow on his knee and his chin in his hand. “Should I even be talking to you about this? Are you sure you want to hear it?”

“Why wouldn’t I? Information about William’s life is only going to make it easier for me to help him move on.” The shelf was now completely bare. Julias dusted it, although it was already spotless.

“Yeah, but…” Red tried to find a kinder way to say it. He couldn’t. “I don’t want… I don’t want you to think less of him, I guess.”

He laughed. “You understand that I’m a magical creature, right? To me, he’s… not perfect, but everything he wants is… right. If he needs something, then the only right thing in the world is for me to fulfill that need.” Red stared at him for a moment. Revulsion formed in the pit of his stomach and made the lump in his throat worse. “Doesn’t that feel strange to you?”

“What is something that you want, right now?”

To not be so crushingly sad about William.

A lobotomy so I wouldn’t care if he thinks less of everyone around him.

For William to have a lobotomy so he thinks differently.

“Um. Cake?” Red said finally.

“You just ate lunch. You don’t normally eat cake, so it’s not habit. You’ve never asked for cake before. We’re packing your things, so you can leave forever. We’re talking about the sad circumstances that lead to this. You don’t want cake.”

“Wow. Good deductive reasoning. Did you want my detective novels? You might like them.”

Julias laughed. “Do you even know what you want? Or do you have a hundred little things floating around in your head, drawing you in different, even contradictory directions?”

“Honestly? Both,” Red admitted.

Julias gave him a small smile. “Doesn’t that feel strange to you?”

“It mostly just feels awful.” Red ran his hands through his hair.. “I don’t want things to end.” He said finally. “I don’t.”

“But if it’s the way things have to be, then so be it.” Julias shrugged. “For what it’s worth, I’m very happy.”

Red forced a smile. The revulsion rolled in his stomach again, like sea sickness. “I’m glad.”

“You don’t believe me,” he said flatly. The tone that said there was no arguing with him, that he had seen through you, like when Red knew his sister had eaten the last cookie. But the tone also said that he didn’t mind: like when Red knew his sister had eaten the last cookie.

“I just don’t get it. But that’s okay. I’m happy you’re happy.”

He sighed. “I just… I feel guilty that by existing, I’ve made you see something in William that’s made you both miserable. I wish I could undo it somehow.”

Red patted Julias on the arm, as high as he could reach. “Don’t feel bad, if it hadn’t been this it would have been something else. I think it’s something I knew anyway, deep down. It’s not your fault.”

Julias sighed. “I know. Thank you.”

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Red had been poring over maps of France, Spain, and Portugal, memorising the names of towns and copying possible routes down until he’d memorised those, too. It would be a long and difficult journey, and he wanted to be prepared. He asked Julias to teach him how to pronounce the names of the cities, and judiciously practised phrases in Spanish and Portugese that would help him get where he was going.

It felt odd, to trust William would look after him, that the money wasn’t counterfeit, that the forged travel documents would get him safely home given everything they were meant to hide. But Red trusted him, still. He felt he always would.

And if all else failed, he knew from experience he could scrape together a living in a strange European city if it came to it. At least now he could speak French.

There was a knock at the door. It was William, who gave his three taps so softly and carefully it seemed like he didn’t want to startle Red.

Good. Red was hungry. “Come in,” he called, still uneasy about the strange reversal of their relationship, now that William was waiting on him. He wondered if William had felt this uncomfortable about being waited on by Red, back when he was working at the hotel. Probably not: after all, William didn’t give being served a second thought, did he?

William had a warm stew, thick and full of mushrooms, potatoes and turnips. Delicately spiced and sprinkled with fine green herbs. Fresh bread from his favourite bakery was beside it. Collecting it was no doubt one of Julias’s many new chores. Tasks? Obligations? Drudgeries?

“How are you?” William asked, as he always did.

Red sighed. “I’m fine,” he replied, feeling guilty, as he always did. He wondered if William’s meek demeanour was all an act. Why do it at all? Did William really care? Could he?

“May I request a favour?”

Red tensed. That was not part of the usual dance. What could William possibly want from him? He wished he was wearing his dark glasses, but he looked at the floor, which he hoped would serve the same purpose. He did trust William. But he knew to be careful, all the same. “What do you want?” Red heard the harshness of his tone and felt that guilt again, bubbling in his stomach. He resented the guilt, this time: he was protecting himself. He had every right to be harsh. He had to remind himself of that, in the hopes it would stave off the unpleasant bubbling.

“After you’ve left, I will still require your permission to enter this house for some time.”

“Hm?” Red wanted to seem disinterested, but the crumbs of knowledge that William liked to leave on the subject of magic were rare enough that he couldn’t.

“The effect will persist for a few weeks,” he explained. “I could find a place to stay, or dig myself a hole to sleep in, until it fades. But I would prefer to keep hold of this house.”

“Can’t Julias invite you?” Red tried not to think about how funny it would be to see William dig a hole to sleep in, like a skunk.

“He’s not human.”

“Oh,” Red sighed, not wanting to get into that argument again. Besides, it wouldn’t help to get into an argument about the way that magic worked. “Well, fine, when I’m gone you’re welcome to enter the house whenever you want.”

“I’m sorry to trouble you, but it will need to be in writing.”

“Okay. I’ll make something up for you.” All things considered, it was a reasonable request.

“Thank you. Is there anything else I can do for you?”

Red considered this. His eyes flickered back to William, then settled on him again. If William was going to try anything… No. Red knew he wouldn’t. “The papers that you said you’d have waiting for me, in Lisbon. What are they, anyway?”

“Travel documents, under an alias, of course. And whatever identity documents are needed in your homeland.” William paused. “I don’t know exactly what you require, but I trust my source for these, as I’m sure you can imagine.” He seemed reluctant to admit that there were human things he didn’t know.

Red nodded, thinking. “Yes, well, when I’m back home, will I have a story? For where I was during the war? Why I deserted?” He didn’t like to speak of it so calmly, but he wanted to be direct. It felt easier, somehow.

“I had not asked for those in particular, no.”

“It’s all forgery, right?”

“Yes, but very reliable.”

“I know. Thank you.” He thought for a moment. “Can they have a note from the army saying I was... freed from a camp, or something? And another note saying that I have shell shock, or whatever it is they’re calling it now?” He hesitated. He felt awful suggesting it. “So I don’t have to answer questions.”

Red knew it was a horrific thing to fake. He imagined how he would feel if he had stayed home, and someone came back, and claimed such a thing. He itched to ask William for reassurance, that he wasn’t an awful person for doing it. He knew what William would say. He still wanted to ask. But he couldn’t. Not anymore. Red had no claim to the comfort of reassurance anymore. He didn’t feel like deserved it anymore, either.

William smiled. “I can arrange that.” He handed Red the stew. “Thank you, for writing me the letter.”

“You’re welcome.”

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8 May, 1945

Red took Chestnut for a walk on an ordinary Tuesday morning. It was warm, not yet too hot.

There were flags all around the town: the French tricolour and the Corsican white flag with a man’s head on it. There had always been flags, but it seemed as though there were ten times as many as there had been, with people displaying them in their windows or hanging them on their fences.

He heard music and people singing.

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William had taken to spending more time in the sitting room, as though he wanted to eke out every moment of Red that he could manage, without overstepping.

When Red arrived home from his sunset walk, there he was, writing a letter, his modern pen looking all the stranger for writing on paper that Red knew he had laboriously made by hand a few weeks earlier. As always, he was overdressed; a suit, including a dinner jacket, with a brown tie and matching smooth brown gloves.

Red startled, just a little, seeing him there. It still didn’t feel right, and the discomfort, the awkwardness, the pain, never felt any less every time he saw William. He half wanted William to stay away, be invisible, in the hopes the pain would numb a little. And he also wanted to see him, constantly, even if it was rubbing salt into the wound.

He thought William might have been feeling the same, and that was why he spent so much time in the sitting room. “Hello,” he said eventually.

“Good evening,” William replied, barely glancing away from his letter. “Did you have an enjoyable walk?”

“Yes. People are celebrating. It’s nice.” He started fiddling with his jacket buttons, not wanting to look at William either. Especially if he wasn’t looking. “You should go out later.”

“Is that what the noise is? What happened?”

“The war’s over. Officially.” He forced himself to take off his coat, if only to stop him fiddling with things, like a child convinced someone would punish them sooner or later. “The Germans surrendered. The allies won. It’s all over.” The thought did make him smile, despite everything.

William’s tight smile was forced, wanting to reflect Red’s enthusiasm with a shadow of his own. “You must be excited. It will make your journey home easier.” He started pulling his gloves off, carefully, deliberately.

“I… suppose it will.”

Chestnut slunk behind Red’s legs and lay down with a huff, looking up at him balefully with large brown eyes. She hated the tension.

William placed his second glove on top of the first, to the left of the letter he was working on.

“Are you certain you want to go?”

Red stiffened, stifling a sigh by clenching his teeth.

He was certain he didn’t want to.

He was certain he had to.

He wanted to explain. He had, on some level, on some deep, dark, needy part of him, hoped that William would come around. That William would understand. That Red hadn’t invested so much time and feeling into someone who didn’t have common decency.

To explain would be to indulge that feeling.

A feeling that he knew had no basis in truth. A feeling that indulged would just make everything feel worse.

“I’m certain,” he said finally.

William gestured at the letter on the table. “I’m writing to my forger, to get the things you require. The American identity documents. The note about the camp, and the combat stress reaction, which is what I hear they are calling shell shock these days.” He smiled.

It was funny, in a way, how his mind tried to fall back on earlier patterns. Water running through old grooves and paths during the rain. Red wanted to ask what William meant, if he had seen shell shock before, how long had he known the forger, how did forging work.

A sharp pain went through him, a thin needle sliding through the gaps in his ribcage. He would never get to ask William questions again. Just sit and listen while William talked.

“I appreciate the effort. I’ll send… money, or something back, as thank you.”

“I’d sooner have a letter, to know how you fared.”

“Of course, yeah, I can do that.” He swallowed hard. The needle was still there.

“Speaking of which,” William pulled one of the pieces of hand-made paper from the bottom of the pile, and slid it towards Red. It was rough and unevenly coloured, and the edges were crooked. William had made it especially, stained it just the correct shade of beige that would express love and gratitude. He knew Red wouldn’t appreciate it, but it provided him some comfort. “Can I trouble you to write that invitation for me?” He placed the pen down next to the page.

“It’s no trouble. It’s the least I can do after you…”

Were interested in me.

Made me feel interesting.

Made me happier than I thought I deserved to be.

Made me better.

Loved me.

Even though it’s me.

Red’s eyes burned. “Everything you did.” He pressed his tongue to the roof of his mouth as hard as he could. It didn’t stop his eyes watering.

William shook his head. “You are not beholden to me. If you don’t want to write it, I can live elsewhere. I will be able to return in time.”

“No, no, it’s fine, of course I will, it’s your house.” He snatched the pen and paper in front of him, hoping that if he didn’t look directly at William, maybe he wouldn’t notice. “Do I need specific wording or…?”

“If you could write it as formally as you are able, and state that the permission lasts for another year. I shouldn’t dictate it to you, or it may not take.”

“I can do that. I know a little about formality now.” He forced a smile. The needle shifted. It made it hard to breathe.

“Thank you.”

Red didn’t look up while he wrote in deliberate, hard letters. He was pressing on the paper too hard, trying to make it neat but not as angled and tense as his regular writing.

He paused. “It’s… ‘King William, most high and most excellent King by the grace of God, conqueror of New Holland, the founding, uniter of the five lands, the conpri… comprimario of Castile, soother of warring clans, the greedy diner’ and that’s all of it, right?”

William chuckled. “The foundling, but yes. I’m impressed you still remember that.” He tried not to think about whether the saga with Elodia would make its way into his title. If it did, it would be in the most unflattering terms Cassius could think of.

“Of course I did. Okay, glad I checked.”

He was focusing, more than he needed to. It felt good to focus.

Also because he could feel William watching him. He couldn’t think about that.

Dear King William, most high and most excellent King by the grace of God, conqueror of New Holland, the foundling, uniter of the five lands, the comprimario of Castile, soother of warring clans, the greedy diner,

I, Reginald Wilkins, am very grateful for all that you have done for me. You are welcome in my home, be it this home in Ajaccio, Corsica

Red hesitated. Ink started to pool on the paper.

“Is everything all right?”

“It’s fine, it’s fine.” Red waved him off.

Or any other home I might have. You will always be welcome and I will always be grateful for to you. Your

“How do you spell generosity?” “G-e-n-e-r-o-s-i-t-y.”

Red’s ears started to burn. He always felt embarrassed when he had to ask, even though William was always patient. William never made him feel stupid. The fact it would be the last time didn’t help.

Generosity and kindness has been a gift to me and I will remember and cherish it for as long as I live.

Red’s eyes started to water again. He swallowed hard. He could imagine the needle, sliding through his ribs, through his heart, his spine.

It was the last thing he would do for William. He wanted to do it right.

He wanted to ask William to leave. He couldn’t bring himself to get the words out.

You have made me happier than I ever felt I would be. You have made me happier than I feel I could ever deserve. There is nothing I could give you that would measure up to what you have done for me with this alone. You deserve every happiness, and I am sorry I am not the one to give it to you.

I am sorry that I am not different. I

He hesitated again. He remembered to take the pen off the page this time.

He crossed the top of the ‘I’.

Thank you.

Yours,

Red

“Is this enough?” He asked, pushing it at William.

William stared at the note. It was far less perfunctory than he had expected given the circumstances. He stared at the paper, the colour whispering love and gratitude as the words penned by Red’s own hand screamed them. He felt comforted, in the depths of his mind. He tried not to think about how the source of that comfort was about to leave forever.

He placed the paper down, and looked at Red. How trusting he was, despite everything. Deliberately, William looked at a bookshelf behind Red.

Normally, he did such things so he wouldn’t fall into his old habit of giving a human an order.

Today, it was so he didn’t have to look Red in the eye.

“It is beautiful, thank you,” he composed the next part carefully. “However, you are aware that as it stands now, there is a possibility that twenty years from now, I will be able to enter your household? Interfere with your wife and children, if I so chose?”

Red considered his words. “You could. But you won’t.”

“I wouldn’t dream of doing such a thing,” he agreed, smiling.

“I appreciate that you pointed it out though.”

“We can’t be trusted, as a rule. You must know that, by now.”

“I trust you.”

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It had been a horrifically cloudy day, which Red had felt was appropriate. It would have been worse if he had been doing his final packing and the sun had been out. It would have felt like the weather was mocking him.

Not that he could tell what the weather was like, while he was packing: the house had no windows, after all.

He had no doubt that William had specifically arranged for the boat to leave only an hour after sunset. The thought of it made Red feel like there was a weight in the centre of his chest that no amount of coughing would get out.

The past week had been tense to say the least. Red had kept his distance from William, except for the last night, when his resolve had weakened and he climbed into their bed at sunset and didn’t get out again until after sunrise. He was glad for it, but simultaneously regretted it.

It made everything harder.

Maybe it would have been this hard regardless.

The air was salty from the small waves crashing against the dock. Nobody had said anything for a while. Chestnut wasn’t even her usual self, picking up on the incredibly sombre mood.

Red swallowed.

“I should probably get on, then,” he murmured, avoiding William’s gaze, kneeling to take Chestnut’s face in his hands. “You be a good girl, okay?”

She tried to lick his face. He hugged her.

He got to his feet again, adjusting his knapsack. He held a hand out to Julias. “Thank you for looking after her for me.”

Julias nodded. “It’s my pleasure.”

After hesitating for a moment, Red gave Julias a hug. It was brief but strong. “Look after yourself, okay?”

“Of course.”

Red hesitated before turning to William. Today, he was wearing black: pants, shoes, shirt, tie, even suspenders. Red wondered whether the complex vampire codes held black as the colour of mourning, too, or whether William was in black for his benefit. Red stood in front of William for a moment, feeling horrendously awkward, but knowing that once he spoke it would be the beginning of the very end for them.

“Thank you. For everything.”

“It has been a pleasure. I was lucky to have met you.” William replied, moving his arms forward in the minute way he always did when he wanted to pull Red close. The heavy, constricted feeling in Red’s chest grew more severe. He hesitated, before taking a step forward, pretty much lunging at William, wrapping his arms around his neck and hugging him hard. Red pulled away to kiss him, at once both forceful and trembling as the weight in his chest lifted and all that was left was his furious heartbeat.

When Red finally let go, he ran his hands down William’s arms, Red’s calloused hands interlinking naturally with William’s soft ones.

“I will miss you,” William said, finally.

“I’ll miss you too.”

“I will send you letters?” There was a rare hint of uncertainty in William’s voice.

Red couldn’t help but smile, despite everything. He still found William’s formality very charming.

“I’d like that. Are you sending normal letters or do I have to ask you to keep it under a dozen pages?”

“They will be short, I promise. I will be sure to include photographs of Chestnut, as well.”

“Thanks.” Red’s smile began to fade. He hesitated again, as though he was about to speak, but he thought better of it. A horn blared out through the breeze. “I’d better go.” He reluctantly released William’s hands.

“You are certain?”

“As certain as I can be, being human and all.”

William forced a smile; he wanted Red’s last memory of him to be appropriate. Taciturn. Strong. With just an appropriate hint of tenderness. “I will never forget you. Have a good time at your home. Do not let anyone give you less than you deserve. Let me know if you ever require anything at all.”

“I will.” Red replied, trying not to let show how much his heart was breaking. A second horn sounded. Red gave William’s hand one last squeeze, petted Chestnut one last time, and jogged up the ramp to the boat.

He didn’t turn around once he reached the top. He didn’t want anyone to see him cry.

Chapter Text

As Julias’s stone form sat warming in the midday sun, he contemplated his next action.

William had been sad ever since Red left.

Of course, he hadn’t asked William about his feelings directly—he could tell that would embarrass William, and the last thing he wanted to do was to embarrass a vampire. It would have made him completely inconsolable.

The sadness was obvious enough: he spoke in more dour tones, spent more evenings in bed reading old letters or tomes, rather than making the effort to get dressed and do it in the study. And William didn’t go into his storage room at all, nor had he read any of the new letters that arrived most days.

As Julias saw it, there were four things he could do: he could mend the broken relationship; he could make William no longer desire Red; he could find another object for William’s affections; or he could do something to William, directly.

He gravitated first to the direct approach, but quickly discarded it. He knew of no substances that clouded a vampire’s mind, so he couldn’t go down that route: equally, he didn’t understand vampire physiology at all, so he couldn’t do the more direct route of directly changing William’s brain—through surgery, for example. Besides, even if Julias had the knowledge or ability to alter William’s preferences at the level of his brain, he doubted William would consent to such a thing. And Julias knew that he wasn’t fast or quiet enough to immobilise William before William could order him not to. Of course, there was the possibility of killing William: that was clearly unacceptable, he was not close to being in a state where death would be preferable.

Finding a replacement partner for William seemed like a better option, but the choices were limited. It would be almost impossible to find a suitable vampire, given how highly dispersed they were and how little power Julias had in that realm. There were a few candidates that Elodia corresponded with. Julias decided to encourage William to meet with them, if the topic came up. Humans were easier to come by, but finding a willing human would be quite the challenge. Doubly so to find one that William would approve of. Julias concluded that the best replacement partner would be himself: after all, he could act according to William’s stated and perceived desires and would be able to meet any unforeseen romantic or physical needs that William had. Julias himself didn’t find William an appealing partner, but that didn’t matter: what was fatal to the line of thinking was the high risk of Julias’s advances not being well-received, which might result in William declining to be open with Julias about his personal needs in the future. That was more than he could bear to comprehend.

He could do something to eliminate William’s desire for Red: killing him seemed the best option, and he probably could still catch up to him on the mainland if he needed to. Stage an accident, of course, and arrange for the body to be delivered to William. He could even do it without killing Red, if he forged letters indicating some slight on Red’s part; perhaps that he was in league with Elodia, intending to start the war from the beginning. Julias didn’t like that: too risky, William might be more upset by a death or betrayal than he had been by Red’s departure.

Finally, there was the diplomatic solution: take it upon himself to repair the relationship. Blackmailing, kidnapping and forgery he discarded: they were too likely to be found out, risking very high negative returns on William’s happiness and on his trust in Julias. It would have to be a genuine restoration. Julias felt very limited: he didn’t know why they had parted ways. He’d tried asking Red, but he had refused to give him a clear answer. William was even more secretive than that.

Julias would have to find out the cause, the root of it all, and then he could make some real progress.

So it was decided: he would try and bring the lovers back together. In the meantime, he would guide William towards vampires and humans who might be good replacement candidates.

And if none of that worked, well, Julias knew that William’s spirits would improve with time.

He felt the sun on his skin, and prepared for the day ahead.

Chapter Text

Zinnia
Zinnia flickr photo by elnudomolesto shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

Zinnia 

𝓉𝒽ℴ𝓊ℊ𝒽𝓉𝓈 ℴ𝒻 𝒶𝒷𝓈ℯ𝓃𝓉 𝒻𝓇𝒾ℯ𝓃𝒹𝓈

Ajaccio, Corsica, France

May, 1945

The biting hunger straining William’s lungs was finally enough to coax him out of bed.

Julias stood in the sitting room, eager for an order.

“Get me a human.”

“Certainly, your majesty. Any preference? Is there a janissary that is due?”

“No. Whichever you first see. Be quick about it. I’m hungry.”

Julias bowed, and went.

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William hadn’t eaten like this, hadn’t drawn so much blood since before he had met Red. But why bother with restraint now? He’d lost a war with Elodia, so he would lose no extra face from draining a human of hers dry, assuming she even noticed this one was gone. It wasn’t a janissary, after all.

He’d done worse than draining a human just to keep that ungrateful man alive. He had nobody to impress, now. He had been named ‘the greedy diner’ for a reason.

It felt good.

The human he was currently feeding from was making noise, as most did. He had so often ignored them, but now as moans gave way to shrieks something pulled at William. He stopped.

He watched his meal, curious.

It took some steps away, its back against the wall, as it stared at the monster that had violated it and the second, larger monster that had grabbed it from the street.

It was weak. Its legs crumpled and it hit the cold slate floor.

William took some breaths, feeling the air enter his lungs, pushing the blood deeper into his body. The male smelled good, still. William was far from satisfied: he could drink it dry, and then some.

He saw eyes, dilated and terrified. Familiar, for he had done this to many humans before this one. William heard its rasping breaths.

William heard his rasping breaths.

It reminded him of how Red looked in pain. The gasping he’d heard when Red had dislocated his shoulder.

He recalled Red’s horrified expression after he had watched him eat, so long ago. And that had been when he ate from a janissary, who knew what was going to happen. Who liked it. Who had not had half this much blood taken.

William felt that pull again, a weight on his neck like a noose.

He was still hungry, but he didn’t need to eat for a few more days. He didn’t need this man. He could go.

This restraint was unfamiliar.

He could still taste his blood.

And it was good.

It was the best he had felt in weeks.

He looked to Julias. “Take him away.”

Julias nodded. “Of course, your majesty. Where to?”

William contemplated his prone form. “A doctor.”

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June, 1945

William was weaving in the study.

“Can I be of assistance, your majesty?”

William nodded. “You know how to assist?”

“Of course, your majesty. Shall I prepare some shuttles?”

“Yes.”

They sat in silence, as Julias loaded coloured threads onto the shuttles in response to gestures as William weaved, changing between the colours fluidly.

“What are you working on, your majesty, if I may trouble you to ask?”

William sighed. “A tapestry of condolence.” It may not have been his style, to weave, but some occasions called for it.

“His majesty has my most profound sympathies.”

William snorted. “The dead child was loved by nobody but his maker.”

“Ah, so the tapestry is for them?”

“Yes,” William contemplated his design. Without thinking, he had started weaving a farm scene, and had begun the feet of three dogs. The colours were appropriate to the liturgical calendar, and the composition expressed the deepest regret and empathy, but something had possessed him to include dogs. He stood.

“What, your majesty?”

William scowled, and spat it out. “That ungrateful, worthless man!”

“His majesty’s human companion?” Julias knew using Red’s name would only serve to enrage William further.

“Yes! That thick-headed creature! Couldn’t even remember how to perform a simple cup service. He had so invaded my mind, he wouldn’t let me give him up!”

Julias stared, his face a carefully composed mixture of outrage and concern.

“And after everything I did for him, after giving myself cause to send one of my oldest friends such a tapestry, after all of that—he decides to just leave?” William’s hands had tightened a fraction on the yarn he was holding. “Because he doesn’t like that I accepted a gift that I couldn’t well refuse?”

“It was most selfish of him, your majesty.”

William glared at the nascent tapestry. “Why did I do this to myself? Why treat this human as more than the charming distraction it was?”

“If I may, your majesty, it appears that you cared for him. That is admirable.”

“Exactly!” William raised his hands, exhilarated. “I gave him from myself more than he could dream of another human giving him. From me he’d have eternal life if he wished it!” He felt self conscious, and added, “You must have seen how we keep our favourites with us, so we don’t have to teach new ones.”

“He was a fool not to appreciate all his majesty could provide him with.” Julias expertly stoked the fire he was building.

“Absolutely. What sort of… ungrateful, disgusting, uncultured monster would do that? After all I sacrificed for him? He has no idea.”

“He couldn’t hope to comprehend.”

William nodded, sitting down. He wiped some tears aside, glad nobody who mattered was there to see him like this. “I’m going to miss him.”

“Of course you will, your majesty,” Julias replied. “You gave him so much of yourself.”

William nodded. “I had best finish my tapestry.” He glanced at Julias, suddenly aware of his witness. “And you had best forget this conversation.”

“As you wish, your majesty.” Julias smiled in some deep part of himself; he was not capable of forgetting this, and his job had grown easier.

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Prague, Czecheslovakia

August, 1945

Duchess Patricie of Prague had provided William with lodging that he would not have wished on the youngest of their kind. The room was tiny: it could barely fit his trunks, even stacked into a single pile. The windows had only two layers of cover from the sunlight, the wallpaper had not been maintained, and it smelled damp. How could she think this was appropriate for someone of his status?

He already knew the answer; he’d been subjected to many lodgings of dubious quality, small slights, and the like ever since the war. There were Dukes and Duchesses who were glad to treat William as an equal, looking to forge an allegiance with someone who had little cause to be fussy. Then there were those like Patricie, who felt that such petty displays of power could bring them in favour with one of his many new enemies. After all, even Cassius, one of his oldest compatriots, had made a show of distance in support of Elodia.

He remembered what Patricie had said to him, when he arrived (for all her posturing, she couldn’t not greet a King who visited her domain).

“Your majesty,” she had said as she bowed, a full half inch less deep than was called for. “I trust you travelled well?” She glanced at Julias, who held Chestnut’s leash, and adjusted her red veil: ‘pity’ was all she could communicate with it, young and uneducated as she was.

William didn’t take her veil seriously; her clothing was crooked, but attempted to communicate a desire to be hospitable (so general that it was no doubt one of the dozen or so outfits her maker or Queen had taught her). Her skirt was puffed out a good three inches too much, and threatened to be closer to the form that would communicate ‘fear’ rather than ‘welcome’, and the green embroidery in her sleeves had been done by a human and so added nothing to the message. Duchess Patricie was young and inexperienced, and William regretted that he had bothered to put subtle flashes of pride, a long allegiance with her Queen, and hints of rebellion into his otherwise pedestrian display of dignified friendship that was befitting a visitor of his status. It was lost on someone so young.

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William’s main concern now was restoring his damaged reputation.

As he travelled, he visited the smaller and less desirable towns that were controlled by younger, weaker, less prestigious vampires. Disgraced or not, these vampires were always keen for the experience and lessons of their elders.

The Kings and Queens of his students saw he was doing this, and thanked him for improving the quality of their kingdoms. These thanks were perfunctory: a vampire’s loss of status was practically designed to force them to go on such a progress, after all.

He taught Patricie, as he was meant to: embroidered her a new dress, that communicated hospitality in a more personal way befitting the advantages she could offer her visitors. He showed her the subtleties in the shades of green and the lengths of the stitches as he did so. He spoke of her Queen’s weaknesses (she considered arablests better gifts than they were; she hated to take male janissaries whose voices were too deep; and once, long ago, she had stolen a human infant and raised it as her own, but killed it when she tried to turn it some thirty years later). The last was a rumour he knew was false (Cassius had started it), but it suited him to spread it further.

William was not an ally of this Queen, and all of it had been widely known, anyway.

Patricie took to the pollaxes when he taught her, the blades making swift arcs faster than the human eye could hope to track, but were child’s play for William to avoid with all his acuity and experience.

“Very good, your grace,” he said, striking at her with the practise pollaxe in his right arm, making slow, easy arcs that she was nonetheless barely able to bat away.

“You are too kind, your majesty. I don’t know if I’d be able to avoid you if you did not have such restraint.” She knew she could never defeat William, but was grateful all the same. She was not the only young vampire in Europe who had recently become proficient with pollaxes.

“You are a quick study,” he replied diplomatically.

“Thank you.” She struck at him, and he easily met the blade of her pollaxe with the hammer of his. “Are you staying much longer in my land?”

“Long enough to take one more janissary, I would say.” He spun low, aiming at her feet with his pollaxe.

She nodded and leapt over it, her skirt billowing like a child jumping rope. That would be three nights, or thereabouts. “As of this evening, I have an old manor available that might be more to your taste. Once we are done here, I will have a janissary tell the gargoyle where to move your things to.”

That night, William moved into an old house that had clearly not had anyone—vampire, human, or otherwise—living there in quite some time.

He was glad he was still able to win youngsters over.

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As the evenings wore on, William plied Patricie for more information, which she gave freely, lubricated by William’s cunning divulgations of old, well-trodden rumours that were not nearly so valuable as the information she had about his reputation.

The war built a scandal that was the greatest his corner of the vampire world had heard in a good decade: he lost a war in an old friend’s kingdom, to a Duchess, over a human, that he probably was inappropriately involved in (William of course denied this, when Patricie asked: he was sure she didn’t believe him).

Elodia must have been thrilled to spread such rumours, and Cassius too: after all, he would have done the same even to Cassius if the roles had been reversed.

William had hoped that Vettori’s opera would alter public opinion on the matter of being involved with humans, but it was not to be. The opera had only been seen by a few hundred vampires, and had yet to penetrate the culture in any meaningful way. He had always known it would take years at the rate most vampires communicated, and Patricie hadn’t heard of Vettori, let alone her most recent opera.

That was hardly a surprise: the youth cared not for high culture.

But everyone appreciated gossip, and William’s scandal had travelled on swift wings all its own, reaching all the corners of the earth. Or, at least all corners of Europe. Probably Australia, too: he would have to contact his Duchesses and Dukes and try to secure their loyalty. It would be costly, but he wanted neither to cede swathes of New Holland to other kingdoms nor to attempt to remove upstarts by force. He’d held an uneasy peace with the local vampires in the hundred years he’d been living there after he had arrived with the British invaders. He did not want that balance to be altered, even slightly.

In short: his attempt to style himself one of the pioneers of a new fashion had fallen very flat indeed. He was seen as weak, young, and foolish to be so stubborn as to get into this situation. This threatened to fracture his kingdom, which might attract stronger, more dangerous vampires, especially now his cities were growing bigger.

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Debrecen, Hungary

September 1945

William liked sitting on rooftops: it meant he did not have to endure the slight of being given yet another tiny room. He drank up the constellations of the northern hemisphere, some deep part of him anticipating the next harvest in a way it didn’t in his new home. He smiled. Times like this had become more common in the past year: times where he could feel old parts of his brain being used again. Times where he could feel Red’s absence most strongly. It was a coldness in his hands, even though he was wearing gloves, and he didn’t feel cold as he imagined a human did.

He heard Julias’s slow footsteps, felt the weight of him shift the roof tiles as he sat down beside William. He didn’t look away from the stars.

“How are you, your majesty?”

“I am well.”

It was plain that wasn’t true: William’s heart worked more furiously to push the thick blood through his veins than any physiological need would demand. He was unsettled. Julias placed his hand down on the roofing tile between them, the gesture signifying at once closeness and respectful distance. “If you’ll forgive me, your majesty, I sense unease.”

William frowned, but said nothing. Gargoyles were rare, and he knew very little about them. Least of all whether they could be trusted, with how easily their loyalty could be changed.

“You miss him, don’t you?” Julias asked.

“You have surely worked with us long enough to know that we don’t like our routines to be interrupted.”

Julias let himself smile at the obvious evasion: William was still staring at the sky, so it did not matter. “Your majesty, I know that’s not all.”

“Why would I talk to you? I know about your kind.”

“What do you mean, your majesty?”

“Your loyalty is temporary.” He paused, closed his eyes for a moment, and continued. “Admittedly, all loyalty is temporary, but yours is most insidious. Once Elodia gave you to me, all your devotion to her evaporated in an instant.”

Julias tensed up. He didn’t like thinking about those things. “That is not true, your majesty. I remain devoted to her grace as well.”

William chuckled. “And if I were to order you to kill her?”

“I would remind you that your obligations to your vampire society would make that an ill-advised course of action, under the circumstances. After all, if it was in your best interest to kill her, you wouldn’t have bothered with the war. Now, with your reputation as it is, having her killed will just make you look like someone who cannot accept defeat with the appropriate grace.”

William frowned. He hadn’t realised gargoyles were so clever; were they like djinn, who would twist your words to their own ends? “But, still, suppose I gave you the order regardless?”

“It wouldn’t be in your best interest, your majesty. I wouldn’t allow you to sabotage yourself, especially in a time such as this.”

“But what if it were?”

Julias sighed. “Then yes, I would kill her, if it were in your best interest and you ordered me to do it.”

“So your loyalty is temporary.”

“Maybe. But I can keep a secret, if that’s what you’re worried about.”

“Do you mean to say you won’t tell me Elodia’s secrets?”

“Of course not.”

William frowned; he’d planned to bide his time, to quietly probe the gargoyle for information. Perhaps being direct was worth a try, on the chance he could be pressed with a direct order. “I order you to tell me why she gave you up in exchange for my human prisoner. You are a much better prize. Any pup can see that.”

“I’m flattered, your majesty.”

“Don’t be cute.”

“I cannot tell you, your majesty. You know that if I tell you, that would mean that anything you say to me is not said in confidence. In the long-term, I am sure you would prefer to know your secrets are safe with me than to know the secrets of others.”

William frowned. “And that you’ll only kill me in the future if it’s unavoidable.” If gargoyles were like djinn, they could always twist orders to find a way to avoid harming a former master. That was a comfort.

“Exactly. So, can we talk about him? He told me you loved him. That he loved you.”

“This is not the sort of subject one discusses with one’s servants.”

“Then who do you discuss it with?”

“I think I shall visit one of my friends shortly.”

“And you’ll tell one of the most powerful creatures on the planet that you are pining over a human? Do you really think that will improve your social standing?”

“Why are you so insubordinate, all of a sudden?”

Julias grinned; he could sense the lack of malice in William’s voice. He was calmer, now. “Please accept my apologies, your majesty. I thought it would help his majesty relax, to feel as though his majesty was speaking to an equal. I can be more respectful, if it would please your majesty.”

William laughed. “I can see now why Red wouldn’t let you call him sir.” William frowned. Red and Julias and a great deal of social context that he couldn’t understand.

“Did you wish to talk about it?”

William sighed, and shook his head.

“I believe I can help.”

“What do you know about humans?”

“More than you’d think. And I know more about Red than you’d think, even though I only knew him a short time. It was clear how he thought about me.”

“And how was that?”

“Modern humans don’t have servants. Not often.”

“How ignorant must you think I am?”

“I made him uncomfortable.”

“He would have gotten used to you.”

“I doubt it.”

“Why should he mind? You certainly don’t.”

“How do you know that?”

William hesitated. “Do you mind?”

Julias laughed. “I only want your happiness, your majesty.” He put a hand on William’s shoulder. It felt sincere, even friendly, despite the astonishing weight behind the hand.

William laughed as well, as though this whole discussion was a joke that he was beginning to understand. “Is that true? Or is that a lie gargoyles tell?”

“It is true, I promise.” Julias took his hand away, and stood up. He felt almost giddy; he could tell he’d improved William’s spirits a great deal, and maybe had even helped him take steps towards a greater goal of his.

“Where are you going?”

“It is time to let Chestnut out, if it pleases his majesty.” Julias seemed to hesitate. “I am also planning on writing a letter, to send to my son when you next ask me to visit the post office.”

“Ah, yes.” Red had mentioned Julias had a son during one of the discussions—arguments?—about Julias. “Where does he live?”

“Greece, your majesty. Near the Albanian border.”

“It’s a beautiful part of the world.”

“Thank you.” Julias bowed. “Please let me know if you require anything else, your majesty.”

William paused, looking back at the stars. Julias imagined he could see the neurons firing as William considered his next statement. The gargoyle did not let his anticipation show.

“When we are not around vampires, you may call me by my name, if you’d prefer.”

“It would be my pleasure, William.”

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Perhaps it was better that Red had left. As the winds of fashion were blowing so strongly against close relations with humans, William would have had to deal with the business of ending things.

He wouldn’t have minded, of course. But Red had grown attached to him in the months they’d been together.

And he would have hated to hurt Red.

He wondered whether he could have even brought himself to do it, if things had gone that far.

He had not expected to become so possessed; he had thought it would be a sort of diversion, something that would command a small amount of his time and attention. Instead, being around Red had consumed him. Red had been so full of passion and devotion.

William got the impression that he had improved Red’s lot, with his experience, support, and resources. It had been so satisfying to see the timid hotel porter be turned into a man who would confidently dress William down when he thought he was behaving inappropriately. And that Red still consumed his thoughts, even now, when his centuries of experience were telling him that the timing of their parting had been auspicious for both of them.

Admittedly, he still was not quite sure how that discussion about Julias had led to Red wishing to leave. He did not want to focus on that thought, but he sensed it was important.

He let it idle in the recesses of his mind.

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When Julias came back from taking a Janissary home, he saw William studying a map and rifling through a sheaf of papers—letters, from other vampires.

“Where are we going next, William?” Julias asked, taking care to seem disinterested.

William didn’t look up. “I was considering making my way through the Soviet Union, but I am wondering if perhaps the monarchs in the region will remain hostile towards me. They never liked me.” He sighed. “Byelorussia may be a better option: it is close by, and King Siarhei owes me a small favour.”

“What for?”

“His underlings were fighting amongst themselves. Rather ghastly, to be frank. I smoothed things over for him.”

“That was kind of you.”

William chuckled. “Siarhei is a friend of Cassius, and the more of Cassius’s friends I have on my side, the better.”

“How long have you and Cassius been friends?” Vampire friendships were often a delicate balance between genuine affection, a desire not to be killed by one another, and a desire to have the option of deposing one another. Knowing that balance would help Julias manipulate it to William’s advantage.

“Oh, a thousand years or so. We met in Gaul when we were both quite young.” William said this with characteristic false modesty.

“That is a long friendship, even by vampire standards!” Julias made sure to seem impressed, as William obviously expected him to be.

He smiled. “Yes, though we didn’t speak very much until we met after… well, you know.”

“Venice.”

William shifted his weight uncomfortably. “We lost a great many friends, both of us.” It was strange to be able to talk so frankly; with other vampires, he could not be open with his emotions, and it was not appropriate to discuss these things with janissaries. But Julias knew what had happened, and would keep William’s secrets.

“I can only imagine.”

“Did you lose anyone?” William asked this automatically, before he realised what he had done.

Julias gave a small frown. “I’m afraid I did. My mistress, Philomena.”

“Ah, I did not know her.” It hadn’t occurred to William that Julias would have cared about a vampire.

“She was a wonderful woman, who enjoyed collecting beasts. I was the pride of her menagerie. Afterwards...” Julias hesitated. “Hodites realised something was wrong with me, and took me in. I got us out of there.”

“That was the Centaur?”

“Yes, your majesty.” Julias knew to seem exquisitely loyal in this moment. “A lot of important people were taken from us that day.”

William sighed. “Yes. I fear it may have been the beginning of the end, for us.”

“Nonsense. Enough time has passed,” Julias comforted him, knowing the small discomfort now was in service to emotional growth that William needed for future, greater happiness. “Enough that it’s clear that you’ll persevere.”

William gave a low chuckle. “After what happened, each moment I endure comes as a surprise.”

“You are living well, your majesty. Better than most vampires I have seen.”

“Really? I am wandering Europe, presenting my throat to puppies, and you think that is living well?”

“Your embarrassment is temporary. You’re old enough to know that.” Julias gestured dismissively, as if brushing William’s shame aside. “In Corsica, you had made a life where you were happy. You pursue your happiness despite the social cost. That, to me, is living well.”

William smiled: the gargoyle was right, his embarrassment would be temporary.

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William had written a letter to Siarhei, asking to visit Byellorussa in his journey north. It was enclosed in two envelopes, each sealed with wax, and ready to make its way ahead of him as he made stops in small towns along the way.

He handed it to Julias to be posted.

“If I may, your majesty,” he asked, making sure to appear deferent so William would not suspect his motive. “I shall send this first thing tomorrow evening, if you will forgive me that.”

William was in no rush, but Julias had never refused even the smallest instruction. “Why?”

“If it pleases his majesty, I will finish a letter for my son, and take them to the post office together.”

William considered this. “Your son, he lives in Albania, does he not?”

“Nearby, your majesty. Greece, but quite close to the border.”

William nodded. “In fact, I could do with a few more hours to work on this letter myself.” He took the letter from Julias. “I will give you a new one tomorrow.”

“Of course, your majesty.” Julias smiled, knowing he had threaded the needle. There was little doubt he would have; he had thousands of years of experience in so doing.

The letter Julias received the next evening was addressed to a Duchess Müge, who lived in the west of Greece.

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Niš, Yugoslavia

November 1945

They normally walked Chestnut in silence: Julias’s borne out of respect, and William’s borne out of wanting to keep up the fiction that he was not interested in speaking.

“Julias?”

“Yes?” Julias stopped walking, letting Chestnut sniff the base of a tree. She wagged her tail and scratched at the soft earth with her nose.

“I want you to find me a human.”

“Are you hungry already?”

William frowned. “No. One that I would enjoy speaking with.” He once again felt self-conscious for having asked.

“How would I determine that?” Julias knew better than to allow his tone of voice, his stance, or even the slightest tilt of his head betray how much this request intrigued him. He kept the part of his body William could see perfectly neutral, but he allowed the rest of himself to tense up with anticipation. William seemed to become more aware of his own pining with every night that passed, and Julias placed tiny needles of pressure whenever he found an opportunity. This new request would help Julias figure out a way to help William: either by having him win Red over again, or by finding him a more productive outlet for his passions.

“I’m sure you could figure it out.” William started walking again, Julias tugged on the leash and Chestnut fell into step beside them.

“Another young man?”

“No. A woman. Older. No husband or children.” William reminded himself that it wasn’t stupid; he’d gotten used to having Red around, and mistook that for more than it was. It wasn’t Red in particular that William missed: the lacking he felt was a want of company, and any human could address that. An older one would be less prone to flights of fancy and impulsive actions than Red had been.

William knew he possessed charms beyond any human, so getting his target to like him would be no challenge. After all, Red had been fond of him from the start.

“And one who would be willing to accompany you to the boudoir, I take it?” Julias knew what such requests meant.

William flinched. “Don’t be ridiculous. If that’s what I wanted, I’d have you find a professional. There’s value in experience.”

Julias considered his response carefully. “Why do you want a human friend, your majesty?”

William stared at Julias for a long moment, and then closed his eyes, taking a few steps with his eyes looking upward behind their lids. “I…” He paused, and gave Chestnut one of his rare glances. He put no visible emotion behind it, leaving Julias only able to speculate as to what that look meant. “Humans can provide companionship, as well as food. Often, they go together. I have become… accustomed to it, during my time in Corsica. It was…” He started to trail off.

“Mmm?”

“It was unbecoming of a man of my status. Such frivolities are beneath me, and for good reason. I believe that… I have placed an importance on my past—companion—well beyond what he required, simply because I forgot my own powers. Our abilities to bend our chattel to our will. I… held my mind in a mortal frame.” He paused, and ran his smooth hand along the cold wrought iron of a fencepost. “I assumed that if a human was convinced of its love for me, then I must love it in return. But any human would love me; my charisma makes that assured. It is why our janissaries are so desperate for our services.”

“Ah, I see. Thank you.” Julias smiled. Vampires had a way of deluding themselves when it suited them.

“So, I expect a human as soon as you can.”

“I will have one by the end of the week.”

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This hadn’t been going the way William had expected it to.

Julias had selected an appropriate human: her name was Katarina, a woman from a nearby town. She was from a family well off-enough to have had her educated, which meant that she could speak French (necessary because William didn’t speak any Serbocroatoslovenian).

Katarina was attractive: her curly dark brown hair was shiny and strong despite the strands of grey, and the wrinkles that lined her pale, rosy forehead and the creases at the edges of her deep brown eyes added to her character.

In those eyes, there was discomfort: not quite fear, but not the easiness of someone who was happy to be eating a decadent three course meal. Julias had made it, and William pretended to eat with expertise borne out of centuries of practise.

Katarina pretended to eat, too, but her inexperience was obvious.

William stared at her: he felt the distinctive sensation of her gaze locking on his, and she did not look away. He cleared his throat, wore a smile, and asked her a question.

“So, madame, tell me about your week.”

“I spent much of the week entertaining my cousin, who is visiting from Prokuplje.” She looked down to poke at her pastry with her fork.

“Do you enjoy her company?”

She looked back up at him, the wrinkles in her eyes crinkling as she narrowed them. “I would like to go back home. I am not hungry.”

William held her gaze, controlling it. “Eat.” He paused, and looked away. “Please.”

“Of course, monsieur.” There was a gentle clinking as she cut a piece of the pastry, the delicate golden layers interspersed with hints of dark green. She placed it in her mouth, chewed, and swallowed. There was a defiance to it, as though she was a toddler.

William kept his eyes on her plate. “Is there anything you want from me?”

“I want to go home. I don’t want your food.” Her voice was firm, but not strong. Her plate made a small chime as she placed her knife and fork roughly down on it.

That was enough. William stood, and walked into the kitchen, where Julias was waiting.

“Do you need something?”

“I can’t do this anymore. You were right.”

Julias smiled. “No, you were right to try it. You said so yourself: if you give it time, she must warm up to you.”

“She does not want to be here.”

“Has that stopped you before?”

“It’s never been an issue. There’s always ones that want to spend time with you.”

“Why not one of them?”

William frowned. “Janissaries are not interested in us. They only want to feed us.”

Julias bowed. “What should I do, then?”

“Take her home.” He paused, thinking of how Red would react to him taking a woman from her home and forcing her to have dinner with him. He liked neither the thought of Red’s complete and utter disdain for such a thing nor that he still cared for Red’s opinion in these matters. “And compensate her for the inconvenience, I suppose. Give her whatever she asks for.”

William’s discomfort was obvious. Now was the time for Julias to plant another seed.

“I suppose you were wrong, this time, your majesty.”

“How so?” His voice was dejected.

“Your companion in Corsica…” Julias knew better than to say his name. “He was special to you. You were special to him.”

William smiled sadly. “Yes.”

But it was too late.

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“Julias, can you stand a little bit to the left?” William asked.

Julias shuffled over, Chestnut dutifully following on her slack leash. “How’s this?”

“Perfect. Stay still.” William aimed the camera and pressed the shutter button. There was a long pause before the machine clicked. William gently placed the camera back into its carry bag, and took the leash from Julias, who went to pick up the lantern that lit the scene.

“I think that one will turn out well.”

“I hope so. Will your son know a place that will develop the films?”

“I think he will.” William wasn’t looking, so Julias grinned.

“Excellent. If he would be so kind as to take care of them for me, I would be most grateful.”

“Why don’t you ask him yourself?” Julias offered, the suggestion delicate, soft. The way he spoke made it sound like barely a suggestion at all, more a thought that William might consider. Through millennia of experience, Julias had perfected this exact tone of voice across a multitude of cultures.

William was not easily manipulated, but Julias was no ordinary manipulator.

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William had been writing to Red each month, each letter constructed with great care. He didn’t want Red to think badly of the situation that he had put William in; after all, William had appreciated the risks. It was not fair to Red to saddle him with any sort of guilt. So he ensured that the letters spoke of the best times; of the great sights he saw, of the luxury in which he travelled, of the wondrous adventures Chestnut had with them in the evenings. Any vampire would notice the omission of countless details, and assume that these omissions were unflattering. William knew that Red’s mind did not work that way; he would fill the gaps with grand hotels and inscrutable rituals. Red would always assume the best.

It was a comfort, to know that Red’s respect and awe would never falter even if his love had been so very fragile.

December was fast approaching and William could not help but remember that Red had surprised him with a gift last year. So William scoured antique shops until he found what he was looking for: a small pewter figure of a dog. The length of its neck, the angle of its ears; it held a suitable enough meaning for his purposes. It was a gift that spoke of longing over great distance, of regret and of a wish to understand. The dog even bared enough of a resemblance to Chestnut that Red would appreciate it for that alone. He was glad that he had found it in a human antique shop, where he would not have to receive looks of judgement, or worse still, pity from a vampire that would wonder why he needed such a statue, here and now.

He knew the meaning would be lost on Red, that such a gift was a silly, almost childish romantic notion. But that’s who Red had turned him into.

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Julias had gone to fetch William a janissary from the town the local Duchess used for her feeding activity, leaving William alone with Malik, Julias’s son.

From a distance, he had looked mostly human, with dark tan skin and what appeared to be brown hair that hung in thick, fuzzy locks. His ears were about the size of a hand, pointed, and stood at the top of his head and were the same dark tan as the rest of his skin. The wings, each three feet wide and covered in glossy brown feathers, were a giveaway, as was the four foot long catlike tail that was the same brown and looked furry from a distance but, upon closer inspection, was covered in tiny feathers.

The boy’s hair seemed different when William got close enough to see it, too: the locks were made not of individual strands but instead of delicate, long, thin feathers. They reminded William of the feathers of the emus that lived in the Australian countryside. He would have a harder time presenting as human than his father did, but clothing could hide most of it. The combination of his dreadlocked ‘hair’ and the medium tan of his skin meant he could perhaps pass for North African: Egyptian, maybe.

Malik was dressed simply: human trousers in which a hole had been cut for his tail to stick out, and sandals. He wore no shirt.

It had taken some gesturing and unintelligible sentences before they settled on which language to speak.

The default of the local human language was not workable: William didn’t speak modern Greek, and, besides the boy’s Greek was a patois of everything from the past three hundred years (these sorts of linguistic deficiencies were common in creatures who paid little attention to modern human speech).

When they had almost settled on Latin (Malik’s command was rather poor), as a matter of formality they went through their mother tongues. William’s gutteral germanic speech was met with a blank look from Malik, who went through something that sounded like shrill bird calls, then a musical language with trilled rs, before finally using something very close to the Koine Greek that William’s elder teacher had taught him 500 years earlier.

William excitedly responded, “Oh! I know that one.”

“Finally. Here I was thinking you were uneducated.” Malik laughed.

William felt the conversation was already off to a shaky start, not to mention the concept of ‘developing film’ was not something either of them would have had occasion to discuss in Koine Greek before. He decided to be direct.

“Your father said that I might ask you where we can have these pictures created?” William asked, holding up the camera.

Malik nodded. “I don’t know much about that, but I can ask some local humans.”

William smiled. “Ah, so you have a good relationship with them?”

He shrugged. “One must eat, as you’d be well aware.” He grinned. His teeth were identical sharp needles: his mouth looked to William more like a fish’s maw.

William nodded. “Yes, your father said that you and I share a food source.”

He chuckled. “Nah,” his accent was thick, here. “Not exactly. I mean, you drink the blood, right?”

William nodded.

“I don’t really care for it. Don’t think it would help me. I take after my mother: flesh and organs.”

The thought of consuming a human in that way disgusted William, but he tried not to reflect on it. It was not his problem that other creatures were less dignified than he.

“I suppose one could subsist on such things, if one were built that way.”

Malik laughed. Everything seemed to amuse him. “Wow, you’re a charmer. Just like that Elody lady. Not that she could speak to me.”

William bristled. “What?”

“Oh, I’m still not used to vampires. The centaur I liked. You guys are all…” He gestured, rolling his arm and bowing, folding his wings and lowering his ears and tail. “You’re, what, a knight or something? A prince, maybe?” He chuckled, his ears perking up, wings fanning out beside him and tail waving about like a snake possessed.

William thought back to how Red had reacted when he expressed his pride in his title: if this half-breed demon was not already privy to his rank, he didn’t seem the sort to be impressed by it. “Something like that, yes.”

He laughed. “Oh, gods! You guys love it. Think you’re so hoity-toity.”

“You are nothing like your father.”

“Of course not. I’m not magically bound to you.” He rolled his eyes and stuck out his pointed tongue. “So I don’t have to be nice to you. And I’m not pretending, not for Dad’s sake. Don’t get me wrong, if he’s around I’ll be a bit nicer, but that’s because I know how much it’ll hurt him. Not because I care about you.”

“Well, then, I appreciate you seeing to the pictures for me.” William was glad for his time with Red: it had taught him how to interact with people who cared not for decorum.

He guffawed. “Oh, you are so polite! I can’t believe it. Where are you taking my Dad? He said in his letter that you’re not Corsican, but he wouldn’t give me any more information than that. You know, in case I help someone come for you.” He rolled his eyes and folded his arms, his tail held up behind him and twitching slightly.

“Australia.”

“Australia. The other side of the bleedin’ world. Great! It was bad enough when I had to fly to Corsica to see him.”

“I took him here to see you.”

“Yeah, out of the goodness of your heart. What happened to you, bud?” Malik laughed. “You feel bad about something? Want to do a good deed for your poor little gargoyle? Doesn’t matter. He doesn’t like me as much as he likes you. I mean, sure, I’m his kid, I’ll always be here. But I’m nothing. You’re everything. You decide that I’ve offended you? He’ll kill me to make you happy. And I know it.”

William didn’t understand this strange creature, and the speed at which he spoke and the slang he used was the least of it. “So why are you behaving like this?”

“I’ve got your number. I’ve spoken to vampires, your majesty,” he said, making the exaggerated bowing motion again, though his tail seemed to have a mind of its own as it twitched in agitation. “My father was a piece in your gambling game, and you lost. And if you’re a vampire, you’re paranoid. You know he could come for you. Not directly, of course. But around the edges. With self-deception so strong even he didn’t know he was doing it. And you know I’d help him, if he needed it. I can lie to him.”

“I beg your pardon?”

His wings were spread wide, the feathers on his head and back sticking up. “He’s my father. I never asked for this. For any of it. I’ve not known any different. But I have eyes. Humans beg as they die, you must have heard it. Often for their children. But my father would call for you. Not even for you, would cry out in regret that he hadn’t completed whatever errand you had sent him on.”

William tried to change the subject. “What of your other parent?”

“My mother?” He laughed. He spat the words. “Have you ever eaten a siren, sire?”

“I cannot say I have, but a friend of mine has informed me they are a rare pleasure.”

His ears went down, held horizontally, looking for all the world like an enraged kitten. His feathers fluffed up.

William felt that feeling again, the tightness around his throat. “Elodia was not a queen. I’m a king.”

Malik didn’t look at William, his ears still tensed. “So what?”

“I have power she doesn’t. If you ever wish to live in my kingdom, I can facilitate it.”

“I’ve got a life here, not that it’s your business.”

“Well, if you ever wish to live in New Holland, you would be welcome.”

Malik chuckled again, a pale imitation of his earlier guffaws, but some of the tension had left him. “Vampires, vampires! You think you’re so much more important than the rest of us.”

“There’s more of us.”

“Because most of us want nothing to do with this place. Who is in charge, on this land?”

“Why, that is Queen—”

“Beeep!” He made a noise like the buzzers on the radio quiz shows Red liked listening to. “No, this part of the continent belongs to a sphynx whose name the little bones in your human ear are not equipped to hear pronounced.”

William tensed up; he was not human and he found the mere implication of being one unsettling.

Malik laughed. “You poor thing. You know what? I’ll take this,” he snatched the camera, breaking the strap off where it joined the body. “And I’ll give the photographs to my Dad when he joins me for dinner in a week’s time.”

“I was planning on staying only three days, and I will need your father’s services all that time.” It wasn’t true, but William was not deferring to a nobody like Malik.

Malik had already turned to walk away. He waved his hand dismissively and yelled. “Make the best of it, blood boy!”

Chapter Text

Two monsters were sat around a table, roughly hewn from rock. One was huge, ten feet tall, with draconic wings, clawed hands, and ram horns; the other was the size and shape of a human, with small wings covered in glossy feathers.

“So, your new vampire’s funny.” Malik was gnawing on a human hand that he was holding, his vibrant dark tan skin making his meal’s rosy flesh looking all the more pallid. It was cold, from having been defrosted only that morning.

Julias smiled, taking a green pebble out of a bowl of colourful stones that was set in front of him. “He’s my favourite yet. So passionate. So strong. So learned!”

Malik laughed. “You were just as proud of Elody.”

“Duchess Elodia.” Julias corrected, automatically.

He shrugged, chewing the raw flesh away from the bone of the index finger. “Whatever. I don’t like vampires.”

“I know. That’s why I appreciate you helping him out.”

He crunched the bones between his teeth, breaking them off at the knuckle. “Well, y’know, you’re my father. And he did bring you here, which was, like, vaguely decent of him.”

“He’s a good man.”

Malik laughed. “I wouldn’t go that far. He’s a vampire.”

“I don’t want to argue with you about this again, Malik.”

“Sometimes I wish you weren’t the way you are,” Malik muttered.

“Stop pouting. Tell me about B̴͢͞i̵̢͝l̵̢͡h҉̛͜ą̶͞w̸͜͝, how’s he going? I liked him.”

“We’re not getting back together so can you give it a rest already?”

“If you wanted me to put in a good word, I play bones with his father sometimes.”

“God! Can we talk about vampires again?”

“Now, now. I just want you to be happy.”

Malik rapped the hand against the back of his palm.

“Stop playing with your food. You’re getting blood on the table.”

Chapter Text

A photograph of a sweet pea

sweet pea flickr photo by Cathy andersen shared under a Creative Commons (BY-ND) license

Sweet Pea

𝒹ℯ𝓁𝒾𝒸𝒶𝓉ℯ 𝓅𝓁ℯ𝒶𝓈𝓊𝓇ℯ𝓈

New York, New York, United States

June, 1945

Red held the receiver of the payphone in his trembling hand as the operator tried to connect his call. He knew his mother and his sister would have gotten his telegram, that they’d be as nervous and excited to hear from him as he was to be making this call, finally, in the first phone booth he found in the port.

Still, Red worried that things wouldn’t be the same, that he wouldn’t be the same. He’d changed, in his time with William. He knew that. He felt he had changed. Would his family still know him? Still love this changed version of him?

“Hello?”

Her voice.

It was the same, a little deeper, a little more haggard.

But it was her.

Red felt his throat go dry. “H-Hi?”

“Red?”

“Yes, Dorothy?” Red couldn’t stop himself from chuckling; the relief at hearing his sister again, despite the quality of the connection, released a tension held through his chest, shoulder to shoulder. He could hear her joining in, the line making high crackling noises. His whole body warmed from the inside out.

“Red! I can’t believe it’s really you.”

“Me neither. I’m really looking forward to being back home. I think I should be able to get a train tomorrow, if everything goes well.”

“Are you all right? I was so worried, Mom, when she read the letter from the army…” Dorothy’s voice trailed off, seemed to go a bit higher. It might have just been the connection. Red hoped it was.

“I know. It’s—It’s a long story.” Red hesitated; he’d cooked up a passable story, though it didn’t quite explain everything, and he lacked the knowledge to respond to detailed questioning about it. His counterfeit papers would support the lie that he had been a prisoner of war, and among them was a forged letter from an army physician that diagnosed him with combat stress reaction, which he hoped could excuse him from the obligation to talk about anything. The idea filled him with guilt enough to nauseate him, but there didn’t seem to be an honest alternative.

Not a survivable one, at least. The counterfeits had been waiting for him at a post office in Lisbon, as he’d expected: William had told him they would be there, and despite everything that had happened and how they had left things, Red still trusted him. William always kept his word.

There had been a French birth certificate, too, under the name of Reynaud Dubois, but now he was back in America he planned to resume his original identity. He kept the French papers all the same, worried that having been declared missing in action might cause Reginald Wilkins problems. And something deep inside him told him to be prepared, in case he needed to run. It was good to have a backup plan, and it felt wasteful to throw away something that had a certain amount of effort behind it.

“I’m looking forward to hearing the story, if you would like to tell me,” Dorothy replied.

“Um. Maybe. How are you anyway? How’s Mom?”

“I’m well, thank you. James and I got married about six months ago. I’m—I’m expecting.”

“That’s great! Mom must be so excited.” Red grinned, remembering. “She was always talking about how excited she was to have grandchildren. Has she already decided what names you have to give them?”

There was thick silence on the other end, peppered by strange cracks that sounded simultaneously like they were coming through the roof of the payphone and the cables themselves. He almost wondered if he had been disconnected when Dorothy spoke again. “Red—I’m sorry, I didn’t want to, I didn’t want to tell you this over the phone—”

“What?” The warm, contented feeling in Red’s blood evaporated. Cold emptiness pooled in the back of his throat, pooling in his stomach like oil, thick and greasy and dark.

“But, Mom—she got tuberculosis last year. It was bad. The doctors, they tried real hard, but… she passed away. I’m so sorry.”

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Columbus, Ohio, United States

June, 1945

When he arrived home, there were already two letters waiting for him: one was from William, hoping he’d had a safe journey and offering help if he needed any more documentation. It was dry and formal, which was good, because Red felt he couldn’t have handled anything else. He didn’t deserve even as much as he’d gotten, or the comfort he now desperately craved but had walked away from.

The second letter was from Julias, who said that William seemed lonely and had taken to letting Chestnut sleep in the bed with him during the day. There was a photo of the two of them enclosed. William was asleep, in the familiar, fixed pose he preferred: curled slightly, on his left side. Chestnut had her head nestled in the crook of William’s waist. Red wondered if she was waiting for him to breathe.

He tried to focus on that, and not much else.

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Columbus, Ohio, United States

July, 1945

Despite everything that had happened, Columbus didn’t seem all that different. Men had been coming back from the war one by one, and although people were pleasantly surprised to hear that he had survived, this feeling just came as part of the general jubilation at the end of the war and having so many young men back in town.

Whenever he went anywhere: the bakery, the market, the bar, people would thank him for his service.

He was a fraud. An unremarkable infantryman who had run at the first sight of trouble.

The guilt rolled in him, like ocean waves thick with oil. The guilt came on strongest when people spoke to him—kind people, at the church or the market.

“So, where did you serve?” One well-meaning father asked.

“Italy. Anzio,” Red replied, the words dry in his throat.

“That’s where my son was!”

“Ah,” Red frowned. He knew what was coming next.

“He is with the Lord, now.”

“We lost a lot of good men out there,” he tried not to think about how he should have been with the others. He’d abandoned them. He was a coward.

“Dorothy must be glad to have you back.”

“Yes, she is.”

“She got the letter about you not long after our son’s came,” the father continued. “It’s nice to have hope again, that John might come back.”

Red felt like a hawk was trying to roost on his guts, clawed talons gripping tightly on something deep in the pit of his stomach. “I’ll pray for him.”

“What happened to you, to survive?” There was hope in the voice. The hawk’s beak tore at something higher in Red’s chest.

“Uh, I went to a camp.”

“Did many other men from your regiment go there?”

“No, I, uh... No other Americans were with me, just Frenchmen.”

“Ah, Dorothy said you had learned to speak French.”

He thought to the comfortable evenings spent with William, studying the French newspapers that grew gradually easier and easier to read. “Yes, not much else to do in that place to pass the time.”

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Familiar Columbus felt strange and foreign to Red. The bakery’s bread wasn’t hot and fresh from the oven in the afternoons: it was dead and cold, made hours ago. The people spoke with a familiar accent, but it felt strange to hear it after all this time. The way people gestured and walked and held themselves was unfamiliar.

He started working at the steel mill again, his back and arms painfully adjusting to the rigors of a day full of shovelling ore around the blast furnace. That, too, felt strange: he didn’t feel present when he worked, his body doing the once-familiar movements unbidden. He felt like one of William’s music boxes, that had been wound up with a key and would continue going on in the same motions forever, or until somebody closed the lid.

But at least this was something he could do. He felt good when he worked: the damning heat and the sweating were familiar, in that old, distant sort of way. It made him tired. It made him sleep deep and well. Dreamless.

After spending so much time in the cold and the dark with William, toiling each day by the glowing furnace should be like stretching and rubbing the crust from his eyes on a sunny morning.

He was home. He could live a good life, now.

Do the right thing.

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Julias sent another letter: this one, with a photo of William holding Chestnut’s leash as he posed in front of an old church. The note explained that they had gone to Prague, and that William had decided to walk Chestnut himself to be sure she was being well cared-for.

Red smiled. He knew that, deep down, William really cared for Chestnut.

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Red liked living with Dorothy and her husband, James. He needed the company, and enjoyed having breakfast and coffee with James every morning before they went their separate ways.

“Work going well?” James asked him one morning.

“Yes,” Red replied with a nod.

James nodded back. It was always like this: short and efficient, but comfortable. He had very fair skin, with a generous spatter of pale freckles that had slowly been growing thicker as the weather grew warmer. Red wondered if it would one day join into a tan. Was that how tanning worked if you had freckles?

His beard was like his hair: thick and russet. His blue eyes had a serious look to them, except when he was talking to Dorothy; that made them sparkle.

That made Red feel a now-familiar mixture of bitterness (for he knew he would never deserve such happiness again) and joy (for, if anyone did, it was Dorothy).

The serious blue eyes sparkled as Dorothy brought in a tray with three bowls of oatmeal.

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Red received a postcard from Belgium, with the image of a cathedral with five prominent spires behind a sea of townhouses. William’s note on the reverse simply said ‘la nouvelle cathédrale’—‘the new cathedral’.

Red had a story planned to explain the letters: they came from a Frenchman who had been in the same camp as him, and who had taught him the language. Dorothy didn’t pry. She had made a gentle attempt once, and Red felt his face collapse in a way it never had before, before he regained his composure and excused himself.

She didn’t try again.

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Red had always liked James, but had never really had the opportunity to know him before he had gone to the war. It had been one of the many small regrets that entered his mind when he was contemplating the reality of living the rest of his life in obscurity with William.

James was quiet. Stoic. He was kind. He treated Dorothy well.

It was everything Red wanted for his only sister.

They often sat on the front porch before dinner, drinking lemonade, sweet tea, water, or beer depending on their moods. James was kind, in his way. Red had always appreciated that he felt welcome in the house: it had been his and Dorothy’s parents’ house, after all, but James could have easily frozen him out.

But he didn’t. They had their drink every night while Dorothy finished dinner, working on the crossword or just exchanging stories. Red had been back at work for months, now: shovelling powder into the furnace and heaving bags of raw material for alloy making. The usual hard labour he was accustomed to before the conscription notice had arrived, with the thickened, ropey forearms and calluses along his fingers that always seemed to be yellow no matter how hard he scrubbed.

Sometimes, James would ask about the war. But he asked about it in his way.

“How are you feeling?” was the most he’d say.

“Fine,” was how Red would always answer.

He’d smile, knowing that Red wasn’t fine. Even though there had been no prisoner of war camp, Red was still scared. Jumpy. He had occasional nightmares, though James had no way of knowing about them.

So James would say something to Red, something like “I had a rough day. I messed up my notes, and my boss yelled at me,” something true and a little vulnerable.

Red would smile, and reply, “I know what you mean. My back’s in a bad way after all the shoveling.”

And on the surface, they were talking about normal things. Insignificant things. But deeper down, there was an unspoken understanding that life was not easy for him. It made Red feel better.

And when Dorothy called them in for mushroom and pea casserole, made with the same recipe their mother had taught her, he felt at home. He felt like he could get used to this.

He did miss William. The elaborate feasts he’d cook on occasion; the heavily seasoned things that Julias had started making before he left.

But this was home. He was being ungrateful.

He didn’t deserve even this.

He had no right to be sad.

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A letter arrived from Julias: William was apparently lonely enough that he’d tried to pay a woman to have dinner with him, and was disappointed when she didn’t like him as much as Red had.

Red smiled: that was so like him.

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“I was thinking of inviting Barbara over, next week,” Dorothy remarked, once.

“Oh! Who’s her husband, again?” Red asked, not looking up from the shoe he was trying to glue the sole back onto. He remembered a friend of Dorothy, whose husband Walter had been pleasant to look at, and to joke with. Pleasant enough that Red was able to imagine for a moment that maybe he’d be able to find someone—anyone—who would be willing to put up with someone like him.

“No, she’s not yet married,” she clarified.

Red rolled his eyes. “Why is it that you only want to invite unmarried women for dinner, these days?” The one last week had been beautiful and easy to talk to, but widowed by the war. Red couldn’t even consider being close to someone like that. It just made him think about how her husband should have lived, instead. He had not been a coward.

“I don’t need to have a reason!” Dorothy protested.

“You do!” He said with an accusatory grin. He brandished the shoe in her direction. “You want to marry off your little brother, the war hero, so that way you will have bragging rights for life.” He didn’t want to talk about this, and this was his attempt at avoiding the subject. Joking didn’t ease the oily feeling in the pit of his stomach, but it did often dissuade Dorothy.

Now Dorothy rolled her eyes. “I wouldn’t object to bragging rights, but I just worry you’re lonely.”

“I’ve only been back a few months! I’ve barely worked out how to be a human again.” The way Red said it, it sounded like a joke.

She frowned. “I’m still worried about you.” She knew him well enough to see the facade for what it was.

“Don’t worry about me,” he replied. “I’m fine. I don’t need anyone. I—I’m no war hero. I’m a screw-up.” He tried to keep the tone light, but his voice came out uncertain, wavery, and far too high. He knew he couldn’t talk about deserting, but he didn’t want to have to lie about a prisoner of war camp, either. His stomach twisted uncomfortably. He was a liar. He was a coward. He deserved to feel this way. “It’s fine.”

“Red, no. You’re very brave. Whatever happened.”

He sighed. The acrid oily ocean rolled in his stomach. “You know I don’t… exactly… get to have what other people have. What you have. I’m… I’m just not that person.” Even William, even the empathy-deficient monster that he was, had given him more love and attention in months than he deserved in a lifetime.

He thought of meeting with Dorothy’s friends, or any person at all, in the hopes of finding happiness. It was pointless and painful. He knew it wouldn’t happen for him. He wasn’t like James, or Walter.

It wasn’t for him.

Dorothy put her book down and stood up to sit on the couch beside Red, placing a hand on his shoulder. “Do you really believe that?”

Red chewed the inside of his cheek. He’d not felt vulnerable like this in a very, very long time. He could feel tears forming in the corners of his eyes.

He didn’t say anything.

She gave him a hug. “Red, honey, I know you must… I know it must be hard for you, right now. So many changes and so many… thoughts and feelings.”

“Mmm,” Red made a non-commital noise, but the hug did warm him, easing a little of the horrible acidity in his stomach. The ocean calmed, just a little. Dorothy let him go, and sat back in the rocking chair, picking her book back up.

“We’ll invite Mr and Mrs Cunningham for dinner next week,” she said calmly. They were a much older couple who lived down the road. Their children were grown and Red knew they appreciated the company.

“Sounds great,” he smiled.

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Another letter from Julias: this one with a photograph of him and another man—but this man had bat-like ears coming from the top of his head and wings with dark, glossy feathers on his back. No doubt the feathers were like his mother’s had been.

Julias’s note explained that William had decided to take a detour through Greece so that Julias could see his son.

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Erlis, the vampire Duke in charge of the town of Columbus, had been receiving letters from King William of New Holland since long before Red had returned to his family home. The letters had started out as the casual probes that one often received from strangers. Erlis had thought himself lucky that a king—especially one as aged as William—had taken an interest in him and his lands.

It was widely known that William and Queen Ursula of Atlanta had been lovers long ago, and Erlis had assumed his had been part of a more generalised flurry of letters that William was sending to Dukes across the country before paying her a visit. But when Erlis got a letter in May that announced the imminent arrival of a Reginald Wilkins, he realised that William’s attention had been anything but generalised.

The letter stated in no uncertain terms that Reginald Wilkins was a janissary of William’s and so was not to be interfered with. This came on the heels of his scandalous defeat in war by Duchess Elodia of Genoa. Rumour had it that William had fought Elodia to spare the life of a human servant.

Erlis wondered if this was the human in question. Had William sent that servant away to Columbus and given Elodia a substitute to execute in his place? Had William sent several humans to several different towns, to make the trail harder to follow? If such a subterfuge was discovered, the scandal would burn still hotter.

And if this was the human, then Erlis had an ace up his sleeve.

William wrote Erlis frequent letters, speaking mostly of alliances, of current events, and of scandals that weren’t his own and occasionally including gifts that even Erlis could tell were slightly more extravagant than called for.

And William would always include questions about his janissary.

At first, he tried to make the questions sound as though they were asked in order to evaluate Erlis’s ability to run the town. But as dozens and dozens of letters were exchanged, they became impassioned and personal: questions about whether Red was happy, whether he had any interest in the local marketplaces, and even a few thinly veiled inquiries into whether he was courting anybody.

If Erlis had a different sort of character, he would have used this knowledge to ingratiate himself with Elodia and her allies. If he played his cards right, he could use those bonds to gain control over a European town more prestigious than an industrial city in Ohio.

Erlis was an ambitious vampire, but his ambitions were grander than that.

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Dorothy had a little girl, and named her Ida, for their mother.

James and Red had cigars and whiskey that night to celebrate.

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Dorothy had convinced him to go to the Sunday market with her, James, and Ida. They had been going once a month, but this was the first time Red had joined them.

He didn’t really see the point; it consisted mostly of people from all around town selling old junk they’d found in their attics.

When he was there, though, it was an altogether different sort of thing.

Some reminded him of the antique shops in Rome, and in Ajaccio: items stacked one on the other, with almost arbitrary prices. Mixtures of old items from attics, sure, but also new wares, some handmade, some bought elsewhere. It was refreshing and familiar and comforting.

He was entranced by one of the candlesticks, one of a dozen that seemed identical. There was something about this one; it was different. It was perfect. It was ordinary; three arms, golden, with the metal hammered into leaf shapes at the base. But it was different.

He bought it. It was expensive, but he was able to get the price down by twenty percent through some careful negotiation.

He put it in his room, and lit it each evening. It felt like a triumph, and it felt rebellious, to have an open flame burning in his bedroom like that.

The golden light danced upon the walls.

The next week, he asked if they could go to the market again.

They did.

He was drawn to a forgotten, dusty painting, a landscape with trees and a pond with small water birds that were too small and poorly painted to determine a species. A meadow with little yellow flowers. It was only two dollars, a bargain for something that size. He didn’t even bother to negotiate.

He carefully cleaned the dust from it, and hung it in his room. He found himself admiring it every morning as he got dressed.

It was weeks before he realised that the leaves in the tree moved, subtly, each day. The ripples on the pond changed. The flowers, too, seemed to have swayed in an unseen, glacial breeze. The birds had started building a nest in the reeds.

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A letter arrived, with a photo of Julias and Chestnut. There was snow about and Chestnut was wearing a little cardigan, knitted with an intricate geometric pattern.

Julias’s note informed Red that he and William were hiking through the mountains, and that he was worried about Chestnut growing cold, and so had some warm sweaters made for her.

It made Red feel warm deep in his chest at the thought of William’s kindness, and then cold high in his throat for a reason he couldn’t quite place.

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As the months wore on Red began to fear that he’d amassed a collection of objects of the sort that vampires might be interested in: some had tiny bits of magic in them, and some were just things he knew William would have very strong opinions about.

Were there vampires in Columbus? William hadn’t warned him, but there had to be, right? William shared his Australian city with three other vampires, and it was about the same size as Columbus. So, it stood to reason that there were four vampires. Were any of them friends with Elodia? Were any of them friends with William?

Was he in danger? Did Elodia know he was here?

At night, he was suspicious of anyone new. He told Dorothy and James not to answer the door after dark, if they weren’t expecting anyone.

They took this strange paranoia as a consequence of his time at war, but humoured it all the same. They figured he would calm down eventually.

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A small wooden box arrived in the post at the beginning of January. William had sent trinkets in his mailings before: postcards, a pressed flower, or some other small thing that would fit in the envelope. This was different; along with a letter that wished him a Merry Christmas, there was a pewter statue, four inches in length, in the shape of a dog that looked just like Chestnut.

Red initially placed it on the dresser in his bedroom, but after a few moments he hid the dog away, not wanting to look at it. A minute later he felt that not looking at it was worse than looking at it, so he brought it out again, and found he liked it, he liked having it around, even if it made him think of William every time he saw it.

He wondered where William had got it. Had he found it on some long ago trip to a market, leaving the statuette doomed to never communicate some subtle signal by the angle of its neck and the shape of its tail? Had he had it commissioned, had an artisan create it, to serve as a token of his esteem? Had he happened upon it in his travels, thought of Red, and purchased it for him? Or, Red considered darkly, had he sent Julias to buy ‘something with a dog on it’?

Regardless, Red had spent enough time with William to know it would be the height of rudeness not to send something in response. And although his attitude towards William was… complicated, he definitely didn’t want to be rude.

Red spent an entire afternoon looking through his small collection. What would be appropriate? Certainly nothing he already owned.

He went to the market on Sunday. He needed to find something good.

He needed to think.

He tried to think of what sort of gift William would have sent after a statue. William had received a useless silver tree statue from Elodia just before the war that caused all their problems.

No, that wasn’t right; the war hadn’t caused the problems, it had just put into stark relief exactly how different William was. Not just that he was a creature that needed to live on blood, but that their values clearly were not compatible. William had been completely unperturbed at the thought of being given a person. Whenever Red felt that hole inside him, that loneliness, he tried to remember that.

But he found it harder with each month that passed. Dorothy spent too much time with little Ida, now.

Red hated himself for thinking that: Ida was Dorothy’s daughter. Of course she came first. For James, too. But seeing them happy for all this time just made him miss William. He wondered what they’d be doing together if Red had stayed: travelling Greece? Would Red have met Julias’s son? Would he already be in William’s Australian home, wondering how his Dorothy was doing?

He wondered whether William would want to visit him. He found himself drawn to a stall selling old kerosene lamps, and started browsing through them. He wondered if William would want to talk to him again. He sighed.

He respected William, he really did, and he wanted to be polite. The pale pink of one lamp drew him to it.

He knew William had hurt him, but he knew that William wasn’t a bad person. He examined the lamp’s brass base.

He was worried he’d been too quick to judge William. He was old; more than a thousand years old. Perhaps William just needed more time to learn how to… not be a monster.

He looked over the white shade, covered in flowers that were shaped like little four-leaf clovers with pink tips. He missed William. He wished he didn’t, but he still loved him.

He picked up the kerosene lamp, examining it: a pale pink shade with dogwood flowers, and a brass base. He didn’t know why, but there was something about this lamp that struck his fancy: it seemed right to him.

He idly thought that perhaps it was a subconscious desire to keep William away from him. After all, he was sending something that was designed to be set on fire to someone who questioned the necessity of every candle. But he bought it, and took it home.

He wrapped each piece carefully in paper and placed it in a wooden box that he carefully hammered shut.

He included a letter that he was, as always, not completely satisfied with. But he felt an odd sense of pride as he went to the post office to send the package to William’s proxy in Rome.

He wondered what William would make of it.

Chapter Text

Red woke up to a horrendous wheezing noise; like waves it moved in and out, but there was a low hiss to it. His head throbbed behind his eyes, his throat was dry. He’d had his fair share of hangovers, but this might be the worst yet. He yawned, trying to remember what had happened the previous night. He realised with a start that he wasn’t in his bedroom: a pale pink blanket, patterned with yellow roses. Pale blue walls.

The snuffling didn’t stop. What was making that sound? Something moved in the bed beside him; he had to stop himself from crying out in surprise. It was coming back to him now. The alcohol, the way she—what was her name again?—the way she had smiled and laughed at him, he remembered her freckles and her straight black hair. He’d liked her, liked being around her, talking about their favourite movies; she liked detective books, he remembered. He’d liked her in a way he hadn’t liked anyone in a very, very long time. He’d liked her even before the whiskey came out, though it had helped.

Helped both of them, no doubt.

But now, he regretted it. The unfamiliar gasping of someone breathing in bed next to him. The heat her body gave off was unbearable, it reminded him of the unpleasant warmth a stranger left on a trolley seat. And her body was so sticky, slick with what he knew was only the barest hint of sweat, but to his touch it was as good as slime. And the way her body was soft—he gently placed a hand to her shoulder and felt her flesh slide around beneath his touch like treacle. It seemed unnatural. And the way she moved, just a little, leaning into his touch and making a small noise.

Red felt he was going to be sick. It wasn’t just the warm, odorous, slimy creature beside him; the stench of the room—sweat, perfume—and the whiskey all filled his head. He climbed out of the bed, keeping his eyes half-closed, each movement reverberating through his aching skull. He pulled on his underwear, his slacks and shirt and carefully made his way down the stairs, out of the house.

It had been too soon. For whiskey, for women, for anything.

He wondered if he would ever get used to the sticky flesh, to the grunting noises in the morning, to the absence of solitude of daylight that he had come to miss.

He staggered out into the light of day, went around a corner, and threw up.

Chapter Text

The blossom of the raspberry

By Wo st 01 / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0 de, Link

Raspberry Blossom

𝒓𝒆𝒎𝒐𝒓𝒔𝒆

Bremen, Germany

February 1946

Bremen had been the best place William had stayed yet; Duke Alfons had been far more accommodating than most, even providing him a janissary to take care of Chestnut’s needs during the day. William was glad; he knew that the animal required more care than he and Julias were able to provide as nocturnal creatures. He hated how desperate Chestnut had been to go outside every evening when they first woke, before Alfons’ janissary had been made available.

It didn’t seem right for her to suffer.

Duke Alfons was young, and new to leadership. He still lacked the instinct to take advantage of William in his moment of weakness. Then again, perhaps this duke knew full well what he was doing: perhaps this was his way of forging a new allegiance with a powerful vampire who was only temporarily disgraced.

A package arrived, forwarded to Bremen by way of William’s proxy in Rome. There was no mistaking it: there was none of the the meticulous construction of a vampire, but rather the packaging and the handwriting had both been produced by careful but irredeemably human hands. William could not believe the excitement he felt when Duke Alfons’ thrall had delivered it to him, internal speculation running wild as he considered what it could mean. He thanked the human courier—another one of the strange habits he picked up from his time with Red—and closed the door. He couldn’t help but wonder how Red had felt it appropriate to respond to his gift. He had such an astonishing instinct for these things, and William missed seeing it.

In fact, William could not help but think that the young man would make a fine vampire someday. He frowned and shook his head as he walked to a dark, wooden table. Like most of his kind, he didn’t make progeny, as a rule. The three times he had tried were all unsuccessful. The deaths of those humans were no loss to him: they had been chosen almost at random. It had been during the desperate period when they had all seen it as their duty to replace those who had been lost. Detailed accounting of the many failed attempts at the time had helped to refine the method, but even today, it was far from reliable. Risking Red’s life to make him a vampire would be out of the question.

William placed the box on the table, and ripped away the nailed-on wooden top. The movement stirred up the air inside, and the hints of Red’s smell that emerged from the box awakened a feeling in the back of his mind. He felt the desire to cry, but did not yield to it.

Nestled amongst pages of crumpled newspaper were three components of a kerosene lamp: a round glass shade patterned with dogwood flowers, trimmed in pale pink; a round lamp base with the same dogwood pattern, with a brass font for the wick on top; and a simple glass tube that functioned as the lamp’s chimney. It was at least sixty years old, and in fine condition.

William ran his fingers along the dogwood flowers; it couldn’t be, could it? Dogwood meant regret for a decision made in haste. A kerosene lamp with a wick: travel, long journeys over the sea; the shade of pale pink: courtesy and respect; and brass: something that appeared hurtful but was not.

If Red had been a vampire, William would have thought the message from this gift was obvious: that Red regretted his decision to leave, that Red still loved him, but would accept if he was not loved back any more. The fact it was a lamp, symbolising a journey, and that it was sent to William, would suggest that Red wanted William to travel to Columbus to see him. And while Red wasn’t a vampire, his instinct with objects was beyond any young vampire William had known.

William put the lamp down and ran his fingers through his curly blonde hair. His mind, usually jumping between many lines of thought, was stuck on this. It sped itself along the same track with the force of a locomotive, the substrate of his psyche worn away under the strength of it. The thought that Red still loved him, that Red wanted him back was intoxicating as it broke its way through the machinery of his mind.

He wanted it to stop. This was not what Red intended. Even a young vampire, inexperienced in the language of gifts, even they would not know enough to be able to send something such as this. And yet… Red had a talent. Did he know what he was doing when he sent the lamp? Did Red know what it would mean to any vampire old enough to appreciate its subtlety?

The locomotive continued on its well-used rails.

surely Red had meant it, if only subconsciously?—

William shook his head, and placed the components of the lamp together to stare at it.

The accompanying letter did not indicate any desire to reunite: it spoke of Red’s family and sent Chestnut and Julias his regards. The gift’s meaning had certainly not been intended. But the locomotive’s well-worn path in his brain made William’s desire to visit loom large in his mind. Red wouldn’t need to know he was in the United States: William could have letters sent via his proxy in Europe—such favours came cheap. The thought of seeing Red again, with his own eyes, of getting an opportunity to witness the happiness reported in his letters…

He had never seen the New World, either. A former lover of his was now the Queen of Atlanta, and she would no doubt accept an official visit from him, which would improve his reputation. He had been considering such a visit for some time, but the lamp had settled matters in his mind.

Moreover, it would be nice to speak with an equal after all the time he had spent grovelling before dukes.

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“If you could post this, please, Julias.” William asked, handing him a carefully sealed envelope, addressed to a Duke Erlis in Columbus. Julias knew what that meant.

“What is this about?” He asked, keeping his tone light, as though he barely cared to hear the answer.

“I think I shall pay this duke a visit. The Americas are likely to have more respect for one of my stature.”

“So, we’re going to visit Red,” Julias remarked.

“No, he has not consented to a visit.”

“But you’ll just so happen to be in Columbus?”

“Yes. Duke Erlis is an upstanding young vampire who I would like to align with, so that I may one day befriend his queen.”

“You don’t have to lie to me, William.” Julias placed his hand on William’s shoulder.

William sighed. “Did you see the lamp he sent me?”

“Yes, but not in the same way you did.”

“I know he’s not a vampire, so I am likely taking liberties with his intention…” He held his hand to his forehead. “But, he asked me to visit.”

“And if you visited him, perhaps he’d want to be with you again.” After all of the groundwork he had laid, Julias was able to state such things openly.

“Nonsense. He has taken issue with my behaviour, and I can’t begin to understand why.” William preferred, even now, to think of the whole thing as a misunderstanding, rather than something he could put effort into resolving. He was afraid of what a resolution might mean for him.

“It’s clear,” Julias said softly, so William wouldn’t feel the disagreement as strongly. “He’s uncomfortable about our arrangement.”

“But what am I meant to do about that? This is how you’re the happiest! You’re a gargoyle!”

“Do you know that, your majesty?”

“Well, are you happy?”

“Yes.”

“And I’ve already ordered you to always tell me the truth, remember.”

“I know, and I’m quite truthful when I say it. But…”

“What?”

“You never asked before. Why?”

“I suppose I just assumed that, knowing what I do about gargoyles—”

“And who told you what you know about us?”

“...Other vampires,” William muttered, realising for the first time that they might not be the best source for such information at the best of times, and especially not when a gargoyle stood in front of him.

“Who may be mistaken.”

William nodded, his lips in a tight smile. “Yes, or lying to me.” He hesitated. “You’d lie to me, too, wouldn’t you? Despite my orders?”

“If it would make you happy, I would.”

“If you were unhappy, you’d not tell me, then?”

Julias paused, as if considering it. “I would have when we first met, because then I didn’t think you cared for my happiness. Now… I think you’ve changed.”

“Well, I have come to know you better as a person.” There was a flutter in his chest. Nervousness? Fear? No, it was a pleasant flutter. Excitement? Joy? Usually, he was so good at identifying his emotions.

“Well, whatever it is, I think Red would have been proud of you.”

The flutter in William’s chest expanded to fill him up to the shoulders. He still had no idea what it meant.

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William, Julias and Chestnut travelled slowly and with some indignity.

Zeïneb, the Queen of Paris, had not allowed him to sojourn in her city, nor did any of her dukes, and so in Amboise he had stayed with a vampire not even worthy of a title, who had consented to hosting William and his tiny entourage in secret in exchange for information she didn’t know was common knowledge and lessons in etiquette that her maker should have taught her years ago. They had travelled similarly through Spain until they finally reached Lisbon in Portugal.

William felt that his long land journeys had been of great benefit to him, despite this. For starters, no human was seen with him: he hoped that might go some way to abating the speculation that he had formed too close an attachment to one. Then there were the benefits of meeting with people, exchanging gifts, and performing the intricate ceremonies. It connected them to each other and reminded them of how in control each vampire was of their faculties, and gave him opportunities to learn new gossip. Finally, before his voyage to see the opera, it had been more than a hundred years since he had been on mainland Europe. There were many new faces, or old faces that had grown their hair longer, cut it shorter, or changed their preferred style of dress. It was good to become acquainted with the modern social landscape, even if from a distance.

From Lisbon, a grand liner ship took them to New York and a meandering train journey followed—with William sometimes going through the indignity of sending himself as cargo to best stay protected from sunlight. He made several stops along the way, usually meeting with younger vampires who were keen to know him. The culture around these parts seemed subtly different. The vampires were, overall, younger and grown from the local colonists, and the power differentials between a queen and her duchess were less stark.

This lack of formality was refreshing, not only because it was far easier for him to find lodging but because now even his equals—kings and queens—were happy to meet with him.

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As they left New York, Julias sent another letter, stating that William was doing a tour of America and wanted to know if Red would accept a phone call.

Red sent the reply to a hotel in Pittsburgh, as he had been instructed.

He said yes.

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It was Sunday evening; Dorothy, James, and Red had finished dinner and were listening to a radio drama that Dorothy and James had become hooked on while Red was away.

It had taken Red a few weeks to get caught up on the plot, but now he looked forward to their Sunday ritual. Ida would sleep while they crowded around the radio set to a low volume, and they discussed the action in whispers during the commercial breaks. It was a type of closeness and intimacy that Red sorely needed.

The phone rang. Red wasn’t in the habit of using the phone in the house, so James was the one who reluctantly got up, went into the entry hallway, and answered it.

Red and Dorothy had just about gotten immersed in the radio again when James came back into the room. “Red? There’s... a Frenchman for you? A monsieur Gillam, or something?”

Red had half a beautiful second of confusion before his heart leapt into his throat full of both excitement and dread.

He hoped James couldn’t see it, that the feeling wasn’t draining the blood from his face like he could feel it doing, blood rushing out of his face and his chest and plunging horribly into his feet. “Oh. Oh yeah, I remember him. Thanks James.”

He went into the front hallway and took the phone. His throat was dry. “Hello?” he croaked, his voice high and parched and nothing like it normally sounded,

William spoke in a French accent, one that Red had never heard him use before. “Is this Monsieur Wilkins?”

“Uh. Hi. Yes. Hello, William.”

William switched to French, knowing that Red wouldn’t want to be overheard. “Hello. It’s a pleasure to speak with you, after all this time.”

Red felt a tension leave his chest, one he assumed was just residual from the stress of the journey back home and all his lies about the war.

It wasn’t. It was something deeper and yet more easily quelled, and it was a huge relief after all this time.

“It’s good to hear your voice,” Red said finally, trying to swallow the lump in his throat.

He knew what it was.

Red continued, trying to sound carefree when he was anything but. “I almost expected you to shout down the phone. I didn’t think you really used them.”

It was the same feeling he would have when William had been away, or when he slept for longer on the summer days, and William would touch Red’s arm or his back or his face and it would just relax him, even when he didn’t know there was tension in his body at all.

Red had assumed he wouldn’t feel it again.

William laughed. “Do you think I am an opponent of progress? The day that modern pens became available, I threw out all my fountain pens. And quills before that... don’t get me started. Horrible things!” He realised he was getting sidetracked. “No, I’m quite happy to take advantage of modern conveniences.”

“Ah, okay.” Red wondered if William felt as uncomfortable and excited as he did. “Do you like it? The phone I mean.”

“It has its uses. It has the ephemerality of in-person communication, but the convenience of distance. It is most useful when one does not want to create a record of one’s conversations. Or, as now, when one wants to be sure that one is welcome to visit one’s counterpart’s city.” As always, William’s voice was calm, fluid, and betrayed little emotion, not that Red’s French was up to the task of picking up on subtext anyway.

The lump grew larger in Red’s throat. He rubbed at his neck, hoping it was a physical thing he could dislodge. He knew it wasn’t. “Are you checking out of politeness or because you have to?” He regretted it as soon as he said it. It wasn’t the right thing to say. But he didn’t know what the right thing was, anyway.

“You know the stock I place on manners,” he said simply. “I’ve spoken to the local vampires and know where you are living, and you did give me a written invitation last year, that, despite my recommendation, allowed me into any home of yours.” He paused. “You can rescind it now, if you wish. I wasn’t planning on entering your home, regardless, or visiting with you, for that matter.”

The lump disappeared, dissolving into a cold chill that choked him. “You’re not?”

“No, but Julias will. And Chestnut will also be quite happy to see you. She missed you a great deal when you left.”

He swallowed, and the chill became a prickling in his eyes at the thought of Chestnut. “I missed her too. So much. How is she?”

“She’s doing very well,” William said, and Red could hear the smile in his voice. “Julias and I have been taking care of her. I doubt she appreciates most of the sights she has seen, though.”

Red laughed. “Not unless it’s the sight of leftover breakfast. What have you two been giving her?”

“Julias has been cooking for her. Near as I can smell, much the same things he made for you. They’ve grown quite fond of one another.”

“I’m glad. How is Julias, anyway?”

“He’s becoming much more sociable. I have enjoyed getting to know him. We’ve been... having some interesting conversations.”

“Yeah? What about?”

William paused a second longer than he normally would. “Philosophy,” he explained. A word that at once said everything and nothing at all.

There was discomfort in Red’s jaw, like a seed he couldn’t get out from between his teeth. It took a moment before he recognised the roots as jealousy. He hadn’t felt it for a while. He dislodged it before he could speak again. It was ridiculous. “Oh. Good talks?”

“Yes, it’s interesting to speak to someone so different from me. From us. He’s been a good companion.”

“Oh. Good. I’m glad. And…” He hesitated. “What about you? How are you?”

“I’m doing very well. I miss you, of course, but I’m beginning to understand why you had to leave. I’ve enjoyed traveling and meeting with old friends. Australia is rather inconveniently located for maintaining allegiances, as I’m sure you’d appreciate.”

I miss you, of course.

Red heard the rest of William’s words through a wall of white noise. “Oh,” he choked out eventually. He felt more was needed from him, once he got air back into his lungs. “You’ve been travelling a lot?”

“Yes. We went to Greece, where I met Malik, Julias’s son. A fine young man he is, very devoted to his father. Germany, France, Spain, Portugal. I have been to New York, Wilkes-Barre, Hamburg, Allentown, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Pittsburg. Your countrypeople have been most welcoming.”

“That’s great.”

He wanted to say it. He didn’t want to say it.

I miss you too. I miss you so much.

But it wouldn’t do anything. It wouldn’t change anything. Some small part of Red had hope, still, but he had to keep it down. He couldn’t hope William had changed.

“I’m glad you’re having fun.” Red settled on, finally.

“Of course. So many new things to see,” William paused. “If I’m still welcome to visit your town, I expect to be in Columbus on Tuesday. I will have to dine with the local Duke, but I would be most obliged if you would meet with Julias on Wednesday evening.”

“That sounds great,” Red wondered if he should ask William to visit. If he should beg for William to come instead of Julias. But… William probably didn’t want to. He probably had found someone who deserved the love he had given to Red, before. Red swallowed. “You have my address.” His voice came out strained and hollow.

“I am sure Julias looks forward to seeing you. I will make sure he brings the rest of your things.”

That stung. Red wasn’t sure why. “I... I’m looking forward to it too.”

“I appreciate you taking the time to see him.”

“I appreciate you all coming all the way here.”

He hated this. He hated not saying what he meant.

It felt so uncomfortable, but saying what he wanted to say seemed worse.

I’ve missed you.

Did you miss me the way I’ve missed you? Are you just being polite?

I wish you were different.

I didn’t want this.

Did it even matter to you?

“I should let you go. This is probably costing you a fortune.”

“Worth every penny,” Red could hear the smile in William’s voice. “But, all the same, I understand you must be going back to your... copain.” In French, the word for ‘boyfriend’ and ‘friend’ were the same: ‘copain’. It was ambiguous which William meant.

“There isn’t... there isn’t anyone.” He said without thinking, and immediately cursed himself for it. Perhaps he should have pretended he had. “Have you... have you got someone waiting?”

He laughed. “I’m not keen on pursuing another human, not while I have so much to learn, and no vampire that I’d be interested in would have me. Ask again in ten years or so.”

Relief flowed through him, like releasing blood back into a limb that had gone to sleep. He hated himself for how strong it was. “Oh, I don’t know if there’s that much to learn. Not really.”

“I’m still only just beginning to understand that, regardless of what Julias wishes for, I should be opposed to his existence on principle. And I fear I’m not there yet.”

“Oh.” Red went silent again for long enough that William would have thought the line had gone dead were it not for Red’s nervous breathing. “I didn’t... I didn’t realise you were working on that.”

“As I said, I was discussing philosophy with Julias.” William paused, remembering. “I especially enjoyed meeting his son.”

“I... I guess I assumed you hadn’t taken it that seriously.”

“I always take you seriously.”

Why?

No. He couldn’t say that.

There had to be a better way to say it.

To ask.

If he should ask at all.

“If you keep going silent like that, I am going to think these telephones aren’t as good as I first suspected,” William remarked.

“I didn’t… I’m surprised. I guess. I mean… I’m not that smart, so I didn’t think you would… Sorry. I’m not explaining this well.”

“It’s not of great importance right now, in any case. I am sure you and Julias will discuss it on Wednesday.”

“Oh. Okay. I’ll see him then. Bye William.”

“Bye, Red.”

Red wanted to put the receiver down, but he couldn’t bear to sever the connection. William didn’t breathe, so all Red heard was silence for ten deafening seconds before he called forth the courage to hang up.

He went back into the lounge room and sat next to the radio. The episode was mercifully at its climax, the music loud and frantic as the hero climbed onto a moving train.

James and Dorothy were staring at Red, wondering why a Frenchman would phone Red on a Sunday evening and speak with him for a good ten minutes.

But they didn’t pry; they never did.

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When William’s train had arrived in Columbus, Duke Erlis was at the station with an entourage of one. William had heard Erlis did not take thralls.

Perhaps he was too young to justify the mental effort.

The janissary that he had chosen to bring with him also seemed a rather odd choice: a dark-skinned, wrinkled, waif of an old woman who walked with a cane.

William was glad to see that Erlis had dressed appropriately; the black man was wearing a dark grey suit, showing he was glad to receive a guest. The navy shirt he wore, with a slight white stripe to it, expressed solidarity and a wish to form an allegiance. The rest of his outfit—tie, cufflinks, a belt, shoes without laces—emphasised that he was pleased to be able to help one of his peers. They were relatively standard wardrobe choices for a friendly meeting such as this, but with enough personalisation that he knew that Erlis had either been taught well, or had capitalised on a favour. William, in turn, had carefully chosen clothes that signalled gratitude at being accommodated, but with no hints of submission.

He still had his pride, after all.

Julias stood slightly behind William, carrying a suitcase of William’s most important clothes and trinkets. Chestnut, who had long learned that William and Julias were the only constants in the ever-changing tapestry of people, sights, smells and sounds that had made up the fabric of her existence the past year, stayed close by without need of a leash.

“Good evening, King William.” Erlis held his hand out to shake, rather than the more customary bow.

William shook it with his own, his pale rosy hand looking almost white against Erlis’s very dark complexion. “I am most pleased finally to make your acquaintance, Duke Erlis.”

“I’m happy to receive you.” He paused, looking at Julias. “Are you Mister Julias, the gargoyle?”

Julias grinned, bowing deeply. “Yes, your grace.”

Erlis paused; William’s experienced eye could sense unease in the much younger vampire. “I have heard a lot about your kind.”

“I am glad. We are a proud people, your grace.”

Erlis gave a small nod. “When you have time, I’d really like to talk with you.”

“Of course, if his majesty doesn’t mind.”

“That should be no problem.” William said mildly. Many of the local vampires had been interested in the gargoyle, though that interest had usually taken the form of questions directed to William rather than to Julias himself.

“I am glad to hear that, your majesty. May I please be excused to find your trunks?”

“Of course.” William made a minute but pointed glance at Erlis’ janissary, though he doubted the old woman would be much help. It was odd that the other vampire had not brought someone along to assist with his luggage.

Erlis noticed William’s glance and gave a small nod of acknowledgement. “Sarah? Would you mind helping Julias find William’s accommodations when he’s ready?”

The old woman chuckled and pinched at Erlis’ cheek. “Of course, young man,” she croaked with a grin.

Erlis smiled slightly, not seeming to appreciate the indignity of being touched out of turn. William took care not to let his distaste show: the customs here were different, after all.

“Your majesty, let me take you to the place you’ll be staying.” Erlis gestured towards the exit. William, not knowing what else to do, picked up his own suitcase and followed. William had never seen anyone act the way Erlis and his janissary had. They had not so much as offered to help with the luggage. In ordinary circumstances he would have considered it the height of rudeness.

However, he could not afford to look down on anyone in his current situation.

Least of all the one who held Red’s fate in his hands.

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The townhouse Erlis had given them was excellent. Erlis clearly intended to be hospitable. It had been built with vampires in mind, with no windows on the inside (there was, of course, an external facade of windows with curtains that were always closed).

William sat with Chestnut in his lap, and stroked her as Julias started the now routine business of unpacking William’s trunks.

“So, I believe we will have a few hours before I must present myself for the welcome ritual.”

Julias nodded. “Yes, that seems about right. Did you want your cello?”

“No, I was considering that I might go past Red’s house, to see how he is getting on. It is not yet the customary time for humans to sleep, is it?”

Julias shrugged as he placed books onto the empty bookshelf. “I don’t believe so.”

“Good. I would love to see how he is coming along with his family.”

Julias knew that if Red ever found out about such a visit, he would feel violated. That would not do. “Are you sure that’s a good idea?” he asked. He was well-practised at manipulating William by now.

William shrugged. “Why wouldn’t it be?”

“He didn’t invite you.” The magical bond of an invitation on a vampire led to a particular cultural appreciation for them more generally.

“I have a written invitation to any house of his.”

“That doesn’t mean that he wants you to visit him, now, specifically.”

“He sent me a lamp!”

“He has no idea what that means. And, besides, even if he did, he might have changed his mind since.”

“I’m within my rights to examine any humans in this domain that I wish.” William said, bristling.

“Maybe as far as vampires are concerned, but if Red hasn’t requested your presence, you can’t just go to his house and watch him.”

“He won’t know, if all we do is watch.”

“You’ll know.”

William hesitated. Indeed, he didn’t like the thought of betraying Red’s trust. “Please, fetch my cello. And take out your arghul, let’s play together.”

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Several hours later, William went on to the restaurant that Erlis had designated for the welcome ritual.

William had never been so surprised by something he saw at a ritual, not even when Red had spilled the blood.

Spills, after all, were known to happen.

This, William hadn’t seen before.

Erlis had not chosen a ritual that required the serving of blood, even though that was the most appropriate both for the season and for subtly demonstrating superiority by showing that his attendants were superior to Red (after all, they would have been trained especially carefully in the art of recovery from mistakes, and a cunning host would do everything in her power to ensure mistakes occurred).

And Erlis, of all people, must have known that William had a special attachment to Red, what with his frequent requests for updates and the fact he had chosen to visit at all. Another vampire might think William was on a meandering journey to Atlanta, continuing his progress to repair his reputation, but Erlis was privy to information they were not.

And yet Erlis did not attempt to press his advantage. He had chosen for them to do The Dance of Dabbalemi. It was a complex ritual, but one William had been performing since before Erlis had been born. Erlis had been taught well: his motions were fluid and pure and his steps were timed perfectly. In one of his apparently regular breaks from tradition, the music was performed in a modern style by a modern band of musicians with infectious smiles and hazel-bronze fingers that danced up and down their brass instruments. Although liberties were often taken with the arrangement of the traditional music for The Dance of Dabbalemi, there was no doubt that the songs they performed the ritual movements to were modern inventions, especially given the prominent inclusion of a saxophone in the band.

When the dance concluded, William sat down in the provided chair as tradition commanded, waiting for attendants to deliver the customary goblets of water.

Instead, Erlis approached the band and thanked them for their performance as he smiled and shook their hands. He handed them an envelope from his inside jacket pocket, gave a small bow, and moved into the kitchen. The band began packing up their instruments, talking amongst themselves. William tried not to let that bother him.

Moments later, Erlis emerged from his kitchen, holding intricately carved conical horn goblets

full of water that was at the appropriate temperature (a hair warmer than ambient, but not close to the warmth of human blood). William smiled: although they had not been brought by any sort of valet, the curve of the goblets was true and the plants and animals that were carved into it indicated an appropriate amount of respect. He was comforted that Erlis was able to pay attention to detail when it suited him.

William stuck his third finger into the goblet before placing the finger on each of his teeth in turn. Erlis also performed the ritual cleaning of each of his teeth, and the order in which he did so expressed subtle signals of gratitude and of friendship. William was glad to finally feel respected again; Erlis’s minute gestures signalled that he thought of them as kindred spirits. It would have taken effort to learn, especially for such a young vampire. This message was obviously important to him.

After precisely placing the goblets on the table and standing, they performed the carefully choreographed series of bows that concluded the ritual.

“Thank you,” William said, as was customary when a ritual had been performed satisfactorily.

“I’m glad you liked it.” Erlis grinned.

“What did you give those humans?” William asked the question directly, as he expected to do to a subordinate.

“Excuse me?”

“The envelope. I trust you don’t write letters to janissaries?”

“Oh!” Erlis chuckled. “No, they’re not janissaries. They are a band of local performers. That was their fee for a job well done.”

“Ah, I see.” This was unconventional: thralls and janissaries would usually handle those sorts of mundanities, especially in a ritual done for a high-ranking vampire such as William.

“In America, we respect the power of commerce, you might say.” Erlis grinned. “Which is why I ought to inform you—the janissaries in my domain, I pay them.”

You pay them?”

“Yes, and I expect you to do so, too, your majesty. Out of respect for local vampire customs.” His voice was confident, but his shoulders were held slightly too low, his body too ready to flinch away. William intimidated him.

“I have never heard of such a thing.” He had visited with vampires who charged their janissaries for the privilege, usually the young who did not yet have investments they could draw from. Why pay for something that was so willingly given?

“It has been the case in Columbus for the past hundred years. I give them twenty dollars each time, and expect you to do the same when I send people by for you.”

William nodded. If he stayed as long as he was planning to, though, he would need to get some more of his outdated American money changed for the modern bills. “Of course.”

“Oh! And I’ve got something for you. I wanted to give it to you during the ritual, but I realised you might not have anything with you to give in exchange.”

“Although one does not usually give and receive gifts during The Dance of Dabbalemi, I am sure I could manage it,” William said proudly.

Erlis laughed. “All the same, I didn’t want to put you out. This is more of a personal gift, so I don’t want anything in return. It doesn’t really mean anything.” He stood up, and picked a small, modern notebook out of one of the bookcases. He handed it to William.

“Thank you.” William wasn’t sure what to make of it; the light blue cover indicated sorrow over an upcoming funeral. He doubted Erlis meant it as a threat, so he had no idea what to make of it.

“I’ve always liked writing, so I kept a diary,” he explained. “I thought you might be interested to learn about the family of that Reginald gentleman you seem to have such a liking for.”

William allowed his eyes to narrow, trying to indicate his displeasure at having his weakness probed in this way.

Erlis laughed again; he seemed comfortable, now. He had found his advantage in this interaction, after all. “I’ve heard a lot about you. You know people are talking, surely. But not everyone is like Elodia. Some of us think it’s a good thing.”

“Excuse me?”

“Some of us think they deserve our respect. The humans. They may not be our equals, but they deserve better.”

William frowned. This was the sort of naive attitude that came from a young vampire who still had a foot in the womb.

“And, of course, they get smarter all the time,” Erlis continued. “You heard about that new explosive. The flying machines must astound you. You were born when ships were new, right?”

“Ships have been around for ten thousand years. None of us are that old.”

Erlis chuckled nervously. “Sorry, sorry. I didn’t think— but still, it’s amazing, isn’t it? Can you imagine what they’ll be doing in a hundred years?”

“The past few hundred have had some rather interesting progressions,” he admitted.

“And when they have bombs that make sunlight? When they can make gold from lead? Do you want to be on their bad side when that happens?”

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The next evening, Erlis received Julias.

They spoke from sunset until sunrise, both the richer for it.

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Now was the time for Julias to strike.

“William?” his first blow came, subtle as it was.

William looked up from Erlis’s thin, blue notebook. “Yes, Julias?”

Julias had discussed the contents of the notebook with Erlis, and was well aware what William must have made of it.

“Are you beginning to understand what Red took issue with?” Julias was afforded both the social context to speak plainly, and the knowledge that this manoeuvre was likely the most direct way to William’s happiness.

“It has begun to occur to me,” he said dryly as he tried not to confront the thoughts that were entering his head.

Julias chuckled. “His family has a proud history,” he continued.

“That it does.” William paused, staring at the copied diary entries on the page in front of him. Red’s family had, in the past, been eager to help their fellow humans. To help them escape situations much like Julias’. “Is it possible for you to be freed, Julias?”

Julias felt his whole body cringe in pain and fear, all of it except the part that was facing William, which he composed into a look of surprise tinged with joy. “I have never considered such a thing, your majesty.” William needed to think Julias would enjoy freedom, for he had begun to care about Julias’ happiness.

“Well, you obey orders, do you not?”

“Yes, though only if they are in your best interest.”

“Do you think Red made me happy?”

“Of course.”

“And, on balance, would I be happier with him by my side, or with you at my service?”

Julias had been considering it for a long time, ever since he realised that this may be his best course of action. “I can’t answer that; it depends on too many future variables. My service is, on balance, less likely to bring you happiness; but his companionship may be short-lived, if only because humans tend to only live a few dozen years.”

“I could make him a thrall.”

“He is uncomfortable that I exist, and I’m a creature that craves service. You shouldn’t count on him agreeing to that.”

“True, true,” William waved his hand dismissively. “But I believe he’d do it, if he trusted me.”

“Well, then, I suppose just as Elodia ordered me to serve you, you could order me to serve nobody.”

“Would you not then go find someone else to serve?”

Julias nodded. “Yes. Without a doubt.”

“How?”

Julias hesitated; this was not a subject he thought about if he could avoid it. “Well, when Philomena died, I—I cannot choose someone, you see. But I can… extrapolate. Hodites said he was hungry, and that he would like to be out of the menagerie. I…” This whole line of discussion made his skin vibrate in an uncomfortable way. He could barely hold himself still enough for it to escape William’s notice.

“You took it for an order,” William offered.

“It was an order,” Julias said. He had to believe that. Believe? It was true. He knew that it was an order. “He wanted me to get him out of there, and I did it.” He felt relief through his body, the satisfaction of a job well done.

“But he was not your master, was he? It was Philomena.”

“He was my master. I was just… not yet aware.”

“Ah, I see.” William nodded. Gargoyles had a way of deluding themselves when it suited them. “So, with no master, you will—” he saw Julias tense up ever so slightly. “—seek out your true master, as you found Hodites.”

“I suppose so.” Julias nodded. “So, you can’t simply tell me to serve nobody; I’d find my true master, wherever she may be.” Julias’ organs twisted around each other like bloated tubers in a simmering soup.

“But a strong order, if I were to give it, to take no new masters—”

“Should you die, I would be freed of all your orders,” Julias offered.

William, who didn’t intend to ever die, waved a hand dismissively. “One cannot account for every possibility, and I would have no need of Red if I die.”

“Then yes, you’ll be able to order me to take no new masters. Perhaps give me a few orders that will make Red happy—things to do with family, community, and the like?”

William shook his head. “No, I cannot leave you under the influence of any orders, if I am to do this right. It’s not right for you to act only out of—I mean, Red would not like you to serve your community if it was only because I had ordered it. And I trust you would care for your son regardless of whether I order you to or not.”

Julias nodded.

“So, the order would be to take no new masters, and to cease following all orders other than that.”

“Yes, that would work well.”

“And then what? You will leave, I suppose?”

Julias felt hollowness all through his body, begging to be filled by the ocean of William’s need. “I would want to work for you still, your majesty.”

“That hardly seems like freedom.”

“Yes; Erlis doesn’t take thralls, for example. His janissaries are free, and paid for their service.”

“Pups are prone to such flights of fancy,” William responded automatically, then considered the implied request. “Do you want for much?”

Julias shrugged. “No, I need not eat and require no lodging. But perhaps I might find a use for human or demonic money.”

“Well, that may work, provided your terms are reasonable.”

“I’m sure something could be agreed upon.”

William nodded. “You would have most of the daylight to do with as you please, of course.”

“I must spend a great deal of time resting in the sunlight.”

“Of course. I would also provide you with recreation time for any religious observances you may have.”

“That would be most kind.”

William realised he had no idea what Julias’s spiritual practises consisted of. “Does your faith require frequent observances?”

“Yes, I would appreciate an opportunity to commune with my god every seventeen years, give or take.”

“And does that take long?”

“A few months.”

“You can have that, of course. Regardless of the outcome of this whole business.”

“That is most generous, your majesty.”

“And, should you become an employee, you will get one evening off each week for your own pursuits.”

“My own pursuits?”

“Oh, you know. Archery. Pottery. Crossword puzzles. Listening to radio quiz shows. Writing poetry. Practising the arghul. Mathematics. Whatever it is you find fulfilling.” William gestured.

“Oh! I have never considered any of that.”

“Well, depending on the outcome of this whole business, you may have to.”

Chapter Text

Columbus, Ohio, United States

July, 1839

Erlis’ new life was difficult: his maker had told him to stay out of the sun and to go straight to drinking human blood.

To avoid lingering too close to whatever remained of his humanity.

Not that there was much to linger close to: his six travelling companions had not survived the change, had not dug themselves out of the earth after their ordeal as he had done.

But for Erlis, humanity wasn’t something that he could merely linger close to. It was a part of him, respect for his fellow person was something he held dear, even if he had been turned into something altogether different.

He had been turned to resolve a territorial dispute he had no context to understand and his maker had no inclination to explain to him, but apparently such things were normal.

Being treated this way was no surprise to him, but he had no patience for oppressors.

He knew well, though, that it paid to abide the yoke, to play the part that was expected.

His maker was a hell-beast that drank human blood, that had killed five people—two men, three women—just to doom him to this life. But his maker was more than that: ancient and wisened and with centuries more experience than he could hope to comprehend.

If she thought he’d lose his humanity if he kept his distance, he couldn’t risk that.

Fortunately, he knew stealth well, too.

So, against the maker’s orders, he stayed around humans. Did more than merely linger close; he befriended them.

He spent time in the sun.

He spent three hours outside building homes for other newly arrived humans, humans who had not been changed as he had been. That evening felt the unfamiliar sensation of a sunburn on his hands, where his dark skin had been exposed. He had been sunburned only a few times in his life, during particularly long summer days, and never after only a few hours.

He ate human food, though it nourished him less and less as the months wore on.

So he just ate more of it; he had faith that he would not need to eat blood. He vowed to never taste it.

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September, 1839

He had started growing sleepy when the sun was in the sky, but with effort he could remain awake until just before sunset.

He spent an hour outside in the noonday sun, and within minutes his skin turned deep maroon, and within the hour started peeling. He had never had skin peel from a sunburn before, and it shouldn’t have been possible for it to peel after only an hour outside. But it came off in large patches.

Food was growing tasteless, and he spent hours every day eating.

Desperate, he chased down a deer, drank at its neck—he couldn’t bear even to murder that creature—and found it not one bit more satisfying.

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January, 1840

He slept through the day, every day. He could force himself awake for half an hour if he had to, but the effort it took had his hunger for blood rage harder.

He ate from sunset to sunrise most days, carrying bread with him everywhere he went. Children thought he was a monster.

The children were right.

The baker had no idea what he was: to her, he was the kindly, but very hungry man who offered her a good price for any of the day’s bread unsold when the bakery closed.

On this evening, he handed her the money—crisp bills and heavy coins, he insisted on touching them with his bare skin—and the sound of the blood going through her, the vibrations of her neck pulsating ever so slightly, the way her skin changed colour minutely with every tiny pulsation.

He had his mouth to her throat, his fangs extended in an indescribable slipping, he felt the blood on the other side of that tiny flap of skin that begged to be opened.

He pulled away. The baker screamed, dropped the money and ran back inside.

He took another mouthful of bread, swallowing a chunk the size of his fist.

He looked around: the townspeople were watching in horror as the strange, bread-hungry hermit appeared to have finally snapped.

As he ate more, he still could see the way human skin changed colour each time a heart beat.

His hunger grew stronger, and the bread grew less and less satisfying each day.

If he had been just a little bit less sated by the bread, he knew the baker would be dead.

He ran. As far from the town as he could.

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1841

He was committed to feeding from humans, now.

It still didn’t feel right to him. Might not ever feel right to him. It wasn’t right.

But he had to do it. He had given up on animals: their blood didn’t flow into his lungs as freely as human blood did.

If he did manage to get it into his lungs, he coughed it up for hours, with a sound like tuberculosis and a pain he seldom felt since the change.

If it went into his stomach as it preferred, he was left with an acrid, heavy feeling that begged to be released with cold, abrasive vomit.

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1851

He had made peace with the idea of feeding from humans: they enjoyed it, after all.

But the main thing was the letters he had exchanged with others like him, others who felt uncomfortable feeding on creatures that they had been so much like, so recently.

The young American vampires, who had not lived through the hecatombe that had blighted the old and rendered them cagey.

In the west, they had set their humans a wage: $10 for each monthly feeding.

It was generous, for something so often given so freely.

But it was the right thing to do.

Chapter Text

A photograph of a white rose

By Elph / Wikimedia Commons, Public domain, Link

White Rose

ℐ 𝒶𝓂 𝓌ℴ𝓇𝓉𝒽𝓎 ℴ𝒻 𝓎ℴ𝓊

April, 1946

Columbus, Ohio, United States

Oddly enough, Red felt the nerves entirely in his head. He felt light-headed, almost drunk, at the thought of seeing Julias again, seeing someone who knew him before. The worry that he wouldn’t know the right thing to say. That he would have changed too much, that Julias would have changed too much—changed into more of the perfect servant for William, perhaps? Would Julias even like him, now William’s happiness no longer had anything to do with him?

William hadn’t given a precise time for Julias’s arrival, so Red had told James and Dorothy that he was expecting a visitor after dinner—a friend he made in Europe—and left it at that.

They didn’t pry.

So on Wednesday, at half past seven, James, Dorothy and Red played pinochle while Ida slept in a wicker bassinet next to her mother’s chair and Red tried not to pick at the skin around his nails.

There was a knock at the door.

Red tensed in his seat.

Dorothy and James exchanged a look.

Red placed his cards down on the table as the lightness in his head collapsed down into his stomach where it rolled, heavy and churning.

He muttered an ‘excuse me’ as he stood.

The urge to rush into the entryway was there, but combined with hesitancy of seeing Julias again…

would it be uncomfortable? the separation was because of him but not his fault, would that be hard on Julias? Was Julias just reporting on him for William? Did Red want Julias to be reporting for William?

… meant he reached the door at a surprisingly normal pace.

It was almost surreal, seeing Julias stooping in the doorway.

The blur of knee height, red-brown fur came so quickly Red only saw it for a moment before it plowed into his legs, turning at the last second to slam and press its entire body against his shins.

“Hey! Hey, sweetheart, aww…”

Chestnut began whining loudly, her face contorted with joy, trying to keep her body against Red’s as much as possible even with her tail wagging so frantically it threatened to beat him away.

Julias smiled, a deep, genuine grin. “Red! How are you?” He asked in French.

“Julias!” Red stopped petting Chestnut for a moment to step forward to shake Julias’ hand. He caught on quickly, cursing himself for not thinking to speak French first. “It’s great to see you. Come on in,” he said, beckoning Julias inside. “Thank you for coming all the way out here.”

“It’s my pleasure. If only for Chestnut’s sake,” Julias replied, doffing his hat and coat and placing them on the hooks in the entryway. Chestnut looked up at Red, wagging her tail, with the indignant look of a creature who expected to be petted and could not fathom what could be stopping that from happening.

“Did you have any trouble getting her into the country?” Red asked, crouching down so he could pet her as aggressively as she wanted. She rolled onto her back and started making low, excited ‘woof’ noises.

“Hey, hey!” James ducked his head out of the sitting room. “Ida is asleep! If the dog is going to carry on, it needs to be out of the house.”

Red laughed. “That’s fair,” he said quickly in English, and then back to French, “There’s a…” Red hesitated. “…Bowling alley… in town, not too far. Want to go for a walk?”

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The fifteen minute walk to Olentangy Village Bowling Lanes carefully and somewhat conspicuously avoided any mention of William or their relationship. Instead, it covered the logistical issues of travelling with a dog, new favourite foods Chestnut had found (such as a sort of Slovenian pasta called vaseršpacli), the rules of bowling, and a few of Julias’s favourite anecdotes from his past year. In fact, by the time they were sitting at their bowling lane, Julias had just finished telling a story about his son. Malik had nearly been captured by a mob (whose town, Julias conveniently neglected to mention, Malik had been eating the inhabitants of).

“So, I’m worried about him, of course, but he’s a good man,” Julias concluded. “And he tends to keep away from humans if he can avoid it.”

“Absolutely rotten,” Red agreed as he laced his shoes, a little scornful. “Targeting him for his appearance. It’s an awful thing. I’m glad he’s alright.”

“It’s hard, not being there to look out for him.” Julias took his shiny black shoes off, now wearing only his thick black socks. His feet had been too large for any of the alley’s shoes, but it seemed that the $10 bill that he had produced when the manager came to tell them to take the dog outside had also given him permission to bowl wearing only his socks.

Chestnut was still absolutely rapt, the short walk having done absolutely nothing to tire her out. “How was the trip over?” Red asked, somewhat cautiously. Chestnut put her head on his knee, and started trying to subtly inch forward.

“It was fine. Chestnut was very well behaved—she’s been on a lot of trains and cars, so she was very experienced by the time we were on the ship.”

“Oh, yes, I can tell. Perfect manners.” Red grinned, very obviously ignoring her as she inched further onto his lap. “Thank you for bringing her. Has it been a burden, looking after her?”

“Quite the opposite. We love having her around,” Julias replied, the ‘we’ slipping out as though unintentional, though he was carefully gauging Red’s reaction to the mere mention of William.

Red tried very hard not to react, made slightly easier by the fact he couldn’t quite figure out how he felt. Excited? Sad? Worried? Embarrassed that he felt anything at all from Julias just vaguely alluding that William existed?

He settled for looking intensely at the wall. “That’s good. I’m glad.”

“I really like walking her. She’s so excited by everything,” Julias continued, smiling fondly.

“She’s pretty good like that.” Red grinned, trying not to look at Chestnut, now almost completely inched her way onto him. He knew it was very important to the game that he not acknowledge all forty pounds of her awkwardly shifting on his thighs and somehow managing to dig an elbow into him with each movement. “It’s a great outlook on life, truly,”

Chestnut wagged her tail, her whole body now slung over Red’s lap.

They sat there for a few moments, enjoying it. “It’s been great to see you again,” Julias said, eventually. ”I missed you.”

“I’ve missed you too.” Red sighed, relieved to acknowledge some real feeling instead of the tense, forced casualness. “It’s been really strange. Being here and not...”

“How so?” Julias stood, picked up a bowling ball, and examined it. He picked it up the way most people picked up a particularly ripe orange. As though it might have leaked on him.

“It’s almost…” He went to rest his chin in his hand but couldn’t because Chestnut was in the way. He settled for idly scratching her. “It’s almost like it didn’t happen, you know what I mean? Like I came back and everything is almost the same, I’m working, I tag along with Dorothy, the buildings are the same… it almost feels unreal. Like I never left. That I dreamed everything.”

“You’re right, it must seem… foreign. But it definitely all happened. You changed as a person, I know. Even though we only knew each other a short time… you changed me, too.”

“Thanks. It’s good to hear that actually—about me changing, I mean. Makes me feel like I haven’t just imagined things.” He stood up, slowly. Chestnut made a low, cranky rumble in her chest but jumped out of Red’s lap all the same. “You feel like you’ve changed too?”

“Yeah, I… It was less, directly because of you, I guess, but…” he put down the bowling bowl and took a step away from it, looking at Red. Theatre, to make Red feel he was uncomfortable.

“Here, you hold it like this,” Red said, demonstrating with his fingers and thumb.

Julias picked up the ball and imitated Red’s grip. Red noticed how the ball looked almost weightless in his hand, like watching a child pick up a balloon. Careful, but unaffected by its weight. A small reminder of the fact he wasn’t human.

Red snapped out of it. “You were saying?” he prompted as he stood at the end of their lane.

“Things have been… better for me, since you left.” He cringed, watching as Red sent the ball flying down the lane, knocking about half the pins down. “Not that I’m happy you left, I do miss you. But… I think he saw himself through your eyes. And he didn’t like it.”

Red waited for the slow mechanical pinsetter to clear the fallen pins and replace them with its little whirrs and clanks. When Julias stopped speaking, he looked at him and made a non-committal ‘go on’ noise, not wanting to betray how eager he was to hear more about William, how he had been, how he felt. Red felt a little guilty about it.

Julias sighed. “He thinks of himself as a great man, you know? Didn’t want to believe that…” he looked at Red, who stared at him and picked up the bowling ball, adjusting for the weight. “He is a good man, you know? He wants me to be happy.”

“He does. And he is, yes.” Red sent the second ball into what was left of the pins, leaving only two untoppled.

Julias picked up his ball again, his wrist not even bending from the weight of it, and placed his fingers in the holes. Red wrote down his score, trying not to think too much about what Julias was saying, or how to fish out more information.

Julias looked at Red, very carefully, wanting to get a good view of his expression as he said the next part. “I think he’s going to set me free.”

Red froze, his fist tightened around the pencil. “What? Really?”

Julias nodded. “Yes, he asked me if it would be possible. I think it would be, he’d just need to order it.” Julias sent his ball flying down the lane. It careened to the side, hitting only three pins.

“Oh. Wow.” Red sat down, suddenly not feeling like his knees would do their part in keeping him upright.. “I’m… surprised. I’m not… I mean... But… I’m sorry I can’t think of a nicer way to put this, but why? Did he tell you why? His reasons?”

Deep in himself, Julias felt like a mouse being born down upon by a kestrel, not sure what to say or do before the overwhelming terrible force that approached him. But, as always, he composed himself before the reaction made its way to the surface, so all Red saw was a counterfeit look of quiet reflection as he picked up his second ball.

“He has never seen a problem keeping a thrall—you know, the humans who drink vampire blood and become bound to serve—because they do it willingly. But, even though I am willing, my consent came after I was already bound. He considers that an important distinction about the morality of it.” He let loose, this ball only hitting one more pin.

“Oh.” He was surprised, to say the least. The way he remembered it, the way that conversation had played out in his head a hundred times since then, William had been so clear cut, so sure. To hear he was even considering the morality of it was surprising. Red tried not to entertain the thought it was because of him, because of what he had said. Thinking too much about that would open doors he had spent so long closing.

“I think there may also be a religious component to it,” Julias continued, sitting next to Red. “He will often excuse himself to the study after we discuss it, and pray.”

“He does?” Red couldn’t quite grasp that either. He didn’t get up to take his turn with the ball. Their game wasn’t on his mind, anymore.

William had always been so sure of himself. To be discussing it with Julias, getting his feelings and thoughts on the matter, and praying about it, showed a certain amount of… well.

Ability to change.

How human of him.

Red tried to snap himself out of it. He realised he was focusing on William, what he was doing, what he was thinking, when that was not the issue.

“How are you feeling about it?” Red asked Julias, feeling a little guilty he hadn’t asked that first.

Julias considered this question. He considered—only for a moment—being honest. He could tell Red that he was terrified, that he didn’t want to be free, that he knew nothing would make him more miserable than freedom, that if Red wasn’t going to make William happy then this would all be for nothing. He could say that this was a big sacrifice, the biggest sacrifice a gargoyle had ever made for its master—could ever make—and that the magnitude of the sacrifice was the only hope that Julias could cling to, right now.

Perhaps such a sacrifice could reward him enough that the eternity of emptiness that awaited him after would be bearable.

He felt there was a chance that it would work. That it would be enough to convince Red that he really truly did think differently, that what was anathema to Red was a basic necessity for Julias.

But there was a chance—at least one in ten—that Red wouldn’t believe him, or would find that all the more horrifying, or would think of Julias as foolish or misguided who needed to be taught and coddled and belittled by a human who was not a tenth, not a hundredth as old as Julias was. Red didn’t know better, and thereby could not be trusted with ensuring William’s happiness.

So Julias gave the safest answer.

“I’m excited,” Julias lied, smiling a small smile as the rest of him quivered in dread at articulating such a base falsehood. “I have never been free before. It will be nice to visit my son whenever I want. To attend religious services.” He hoped Red didn’t ask for more information about his plans, for he had no other ideas of how he might pass the time. Fortunately, he felt the question was more borne of Red’s guilt than genuine concern for Julias’s wellbeing.

“It won’t feel uncomfortable for you?” Red asked, a little hopeful. ”I think when we talked about it last, you said that you loved your life as it was?”

“I do, more than anything.” Julias smiled. “And I think I’d still work for William, but as an employee. So that should be enough to make me happy.” Anxiety rippled through him: Hollow and revolting, like how Julias imagined a human must feel before it vomited.

“Oh. Well. I’m glad. That’s a big step for him. And for you!” Red smiled, trying not to let on how much he wanted to ask more questions about William. He tried to think of a subtle way to pry, a way to figure things out without giving too much away. There was also that little seed of guilt, that he was so excited to hear about William, when he should be more excited that Julias had the opportunity for freedom. Wasn’t that what Red had wanted in the first place? Shouldn’t Julias’ potential freedom alleviated some of that guilt?

For a moment, Red wondered if he would always feel guilty about something or other. Maybe that’s just how he was.

“Yeah, it is. And it’s all because of your influence on him. So thank you for that.”

Red snapped out of it. “I’m surprised I influenced him at all, honestly.”

Julias made sure to look shocked. “You spent a year together. Of course you influenced him.”

“But he’s a thousand years old, a year is barely a summer romance, isn’t it?” Red said with a forced scoff of laughter, then immediately stiffened. It had been a thought that had circulated a lot over the last few months, something raw and uncomfortable that he hadn’t even put it into words, not even in his head.

He hadn’t expected it to just slip out like that.

“Maybe it seems that way to you, but you lack perspective,” Julias replied. “I’ve lived longer than William has, and it’s not like that at all.”

“Oh?”

Julias drew from all the humans he knew in his long life to phrase it so Red would understand. “It’s… you remember your childhood, right?”

“Yes…”

“But you don’t remember every moment of it. Because it was so long ago. And I know, you don’t remember every moment of yesterday either. But you remember it better. And, you’ve had a long time since your childhood. You’ve changed as a person, since you were a child or a teenager or since five years ago. So, a conversation with a particularly charismatic stranger at a dinner party two months ago will probably impact you, today, more than one of your elementary school teachers did, even if they taught you for a whole year.”

“Hm.” Red considered this. It started to ignite that little flicker of hope, the one that could open doors that he struggled to close. “That makes sense. So,” Red cleared his throat, clearly itching to change the subject. “William is in town as well, isn’t he? What brought you? You just mentioned ‘business’ in your letters.”

Julias vaguely gestured outward. “He told me business, but you know how he is. He’s been meeting with vampires up and down the country. He seems much happier here than in Europe, apparently people are nicer to him.”

Red laughed, genuinely this time. “Europeans can be pretty rude at times.” He stood and picked up a ball. “Don’t tell him I said that.”

Julias laughed as well, wanting Red to feel comfortable. More theatre. He was an effective performer. “I doubt he’d be offended by that. He says that he feels at home in Australia.”

“He did talk about it sometimes. It sounds nice.” Red let the ball go, knocking down all the pins. “Hey! Strike!”

“Oh! Congratulations.” Julias knew that a strike was good, if only because it made Red happy.

“William said it gets up to 105 degrees over there in the summer. I’d love that. I can’t even imagine.” Red went to the scoresheet to write down the big ‘X’ for his strike.

“Fortunately for William, and unfortunately for you, it wouldn’t stay that hot in the evening.” Julias smiled, liking that Red was imagining himself living with William.

“I could live with that.” He sat down next to Julias. His face fell, tense again. “I hate to ask, but… does he ask about me? Talk about me at all?”

“Of course. The other night, he wanted me to take him on a walk past your house, so he could see where you lived.” He paused. “Wanted to know if you had a dog. I told him to mind his business.”

Red perked up a little. “Really?” He then paused, realising that it was actually a little disturbing and probably not the best thing to be excited about.

Julias saw how Red’s face fell slightly. “He was born in a time when the powerful owned the land their serfs lived on, and never had anyone to disabuse him of that notion until he met you.”

“He took it surprisingly well, then.”

“The point is, he is lonely. But I’m sure he’ll be alright.”

“Oh. Well. I’m glad he’ll be okay,” Red said finally, trying not to outwardly show how he felt, which oddly felt like sulking. He didn’t know why he wanted to sulk. He felt bad, and couldn’t put his finger on what kind of bad it was. He wanted William to be happy, but also some part of Red wanted him to be sad.

He was angry William would get over it, but also relieved. He was pleased that William had wanted to see his home and know about his life, and the thought hurt him too. He hated it.

But it also felt… not good, but refreshing, almost.

Like a cold shower.

He didn’t know what to think.

Sometimes, he caught himself wishing that someone would just tell him how to feel and he would just do it. Then his feelings would be good and correct and he wouldn’t be so in his head about everything all the time.

“Are you okay?” Julias asked. “We’re worried about you, too.”

Red considered his answer, and tried to find the words.

He missed William. He missed Julias. He missed having Chestnut around, like this.

He felt uncomfortable and guilty all the time, when people looked at him with slightly averted eyes and asked a little too kindly how he was and if everything was okay.

He felt like he was intruding on Dorothy’s life while also wanting to be a part of it.

He felt like he had to move on but felt like there was nowhere to move on to. He felt like a plant in a pot that was too small, perfectly fine for water and sun but still straining and uncomfortable but with no options.

Then he felt guilty for feeling that way.

He was well fed and had a place to sleep and he was alive and able bodied and working and had a family, how dare he feel uncomfortable?

But there was no way to say that.

“It’s been fine. I can’t really complain,” he said, after a pause that was too long.

Julias examined the expression in Red’s eyes, trying to sense how much he needed to push. “William will be so glad to hear that you’re happy, if you don’t mind me telling him so?”

“Uh, yeah. That’s fine. That would be fine.” He said, stumbling slightly over the words. He felt uncomfortable again. Like he was lying. Well. He was lying, but now it felt like lying to William, which felt worse than lying to Julias.

“I won’t, if you don’t want me to. I respect your privacy.” Julias replied immediately, almost as if he had no choice but to say so.

“It’s not a privacy thing, it’s just…” He rubbed the back of his neck. “Honestly? I don’t know what I want him to know. It’s strange, for me, right now.”

“For him, too. But he’s glad you send him letters. He really liked the lamp you sent him.”

“I’m glad. It seemed like something he would like. I really liked the dog.” He added.

Julias laughed. “That dog! He looked high and low until he found one he was happy with, to send to you. Took him months.”

A smile snuck onto Red’s face. He attempted to stifle it. ”Really? Months?”

“What did he say?” Julias tented his fingers. “… he said he didn’t want to be too forward, the dog should indicate respect, but from an appropriate distance. It should be kind, but not too kind. Familiar, but as for a dear friend, not for a lover. He gave me a list when he asked me to find one, and after my nineteenth attempt he gave up and went himself.”

“Oh.” Red didn’t quite know how to feel about that. Kind but not too kind? As a friend? He found himself a little hurt by that. But William put in so much effort…

“He was very taken by your lamp,” Julias continued. He paused, grimacing, as he seemed to wrestle with whether to continue. “To be honest, I think that was why he decided to come here.”

“You think so?” Red leaned forward, extremely taken in.

“He was telling me, he said, ‘I am sure he meant absolutely nothing by it, but if one sends a lamp, it means one wishes the recipient to visit’, and he seemed happier than I’d seen him in a long time. A few days later, he told me we were visiting a friend of his in Atlanta.”

“Oh.” Red tried to think on this. He did know that he had a certain knack for choosing items. And he had missed William.

Maybe he… no.

No.

No.

He was being hopeful and ridiculous. His hands clenched on the table. He hastily unclenched them, putting one on the scorecard, long since forgotten, and the other around the pencil. “Well, I didn’t know that, but it’s good he’s travelling.” The hand around the pencil stayed clenched, and Red put it down for fear he might snap it.

“Yes, it is.” Julias paused, and gave Red a look of pity and understanding. “Should I ask him if he wants to see you, while he’s in the area?”

Red thought about it for a long time.

He appreciated that Julias doesn’t rush him or try to fill the silence.

Finally, he responded.

“Yeah. I think that could be good.”

Julias sensed his advantage. “We can go right now, if you would like. He should be finished with his appointment by now.”

Red felt his stomach roll.

Maybe it would be good for him. Pretending William didn’t exist hadn’t been helping.

Maybe it would be good to see him.

Maybe he would get closure.

Maybe he would see him and it would be fine and then Red could close that chapter of his life and move on.

Maybe it would be like ripping off a bandage.

Red wasn’t sure if he wanted to see William right this minute. Or even at all.

He had the peculiar feeling of having a lot of a feeling but being unsure exactly what it was. Excitement? Dread?

“Yeah, that would be good actually.” Maybe it would be the best way to go about it. “I think.” Maybe this way he wouldn’t have time to overthink anything.

Julias seemed to hesitate, to further the fiction that he was acting according to his own whims and not in service to William’s values. “I know that things did not… end well, with William. I hope you know that you are not bound to him like I am, if you have second thoughts.”

“It’s okay, it’ll be good to see him.” Red shrugged, then forced a smile. “We left everything… a little unfinished. It’ll be good to… wrap it up, I guess.”

Chapter Text

The house William was staying at looked refreshingly unassuming, for a vampire house: a tall townhouse with large windows covered in black curtains with an immaculately tended garden that grew flowers that by all logic shouldn’t be blooming for a few weeks yet. Julias knocked three times, and opened the door with a comfort and confidence that didn’t seem at all like the formal and submissive way he had always behaved back in Corsica. Chestnut stayed by Red’s feet, as she had since their reunion, leaning against his shins so much he had almost tripped over her more than once.

There was the sound of low conversation coming from further in the house, and they walked into the kitchen.

Red could hear a woman’s scratchy voice. “—wonderful over there, I hate the cold so much!”

“I hear that new transplants have difficulties adjusting to the hot weather during Birak.”

“Birak—that’s summer, right?”

“The first summer, during December and January.”

William was sitting at the dining table with a woman, her pale rosy skin gripping an almost empty mug of coffee. She had hair that was just as silver as it was brown and deep laugh lines in her eyes.

“Maybe not in summer, then, especially if there’s two of them! It would be nice to visit in, what was the one you were talking about, when the wildflowers bloomed?” she exclaimed, taking a sip of her drink.

“Kambarang, especially October. I might be able to arrange something, if Erlis would be—” William started when he noticed Red. His eyes narrowed ever so slightly as he looked at Julias.

Red stopped, his breath held by a lump in his throat that had taken only a second to form. It took him a few tries to get the words out. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to intrude.” The apprehension and nerves that had settled in his stomach were instantly overridden by the feeling he still didn’t have a name for, screeching in at full strength. “I’ll go. Apologies again,” he said formally, giving a small bow, a practiced one, like he had learned for Elodia’s visit.

Julias stepped into action, bowing as deeply as Red had ever seen. “I’m sorry, your majesty. I should have informed you of the visit.”

“It’s no problem,” William waved his hand dismissively. Red had almost forgotten how fluid his gestures were, so deliberate. It made his own hands sweat. “It will be wonderful to speak with an old friend. Sharon was about to leave, anyway.”

Red visibly flinched at the word ‘friend’, but he wasn’t sure if there was anything else William could have said that wouldn’t have stung.

The grey-haired woman nodded. “Oh yes. Thank you for the coffee.”

“Speaking of which…” William stood, opened a small wooden box on a nearby writing desk, and pulled out a crisp twenty dollar bill, which he handed to her. It was more than a week’s wage for Red.

“Thank you, your majesty. It was a pleasure to feed you—normally Erlis’s guests aren’t so gentle.” Sharon stood, bowing in the same practised way that Red had just done. It made him bristle. She looked at Red, and inclined her head slightly in a nod of respect. “Good evening, gentlemen.”

“Take care,” Red said quickly, trying to regain his composure. “Don’t feel you have to cut your visit short on my account.” He spoke too formally, too awkwardly, too fast, trying so hard not to look uncomfortable that it just made it worse.

“No, I should be getting home anyway. Thank you again, your majesty.” She smiled, and walked out of the room with purpose.

Julias walked into the kitchen and turned the kettle on to make Red coffee.

William stared at Red, seeming unsure what to say. “Good evening,” he settled on, finally.

“She seemed nice,” Red said awkwardly, finally. He clenched and unclenched his hands, suddenly painfully aware of them. The clamminess felt like it was getting worse.

William smiled. “As humans go, she was about average.” He gestured around the table he was sitting at, but not to a particular chair. “Have a seat, if you’d like to talk.”

Did he want to talk?

Did he want to talk?

Did he want to talk?

“Thank you.” For lack of a better option, Red sat down, carefully choosing the chair opposite William. “You look well,” he said finally, even though William looked identical to how he remembered. It was something you said.

“One of the benefits of my condition is that I always look well,” he smiled. He hesitated, taking in Red’s expanded arm muscles, his pale skin now tanned, his new haircut. The look in Red’s eyes that was at once vulnerable and lonely and lacking the anxiety that William had grown used to. “You look well, too. How are you feeling?”

“Fine.” He picked at the table for a moment, the tiniest scratch in the varnish, then realised the table was probably ludicrously expensive and stopped. “It’s been a little strange, being back, but it’s… good, in a way.”

Chestnut trotted happily to William to rest her head on his knee, wagging her tail. Red was surprised, but kept his expression as neutral as he could.

William started stroking her head, moving into scritching her hard behind the ear like she liked. She tilted her head, leaning into it. Now Red was struggling to hide his shock: William had always seemed to tolerate Chestnut’s presence purely out of affection for Red. But here they were, looking the best of friends.

William smiled. “I’m pleased to hear that. I was so worried you’d have an issue on the journey or on the return. I was so relieved when the local duke told me you were safe, and then when we got your first letter.”

“The duke?” Red repeated, his surprise overriding his discomfort.

“I just told him that you were under my protection and he wasn’t to interfere with you,” William reassured him. “Otherwise, if Elodia got wind of where you were…” William tensed up a little. He didn’t want to think about it. He wondered if he should have told Erlis’s queen about Red, as well, but he knew the more people that knew about Red the more people would be able to report his location to Elodia or Cassius. William’s reputation—no, William corrected himself—Red was safer this way.

“Oh.” The feeling Red couldn’t name intensified. He didn’t know if he was pleased or unsettled that William had been keeping an eye on him.

Julias entered the room with a cup of coffee for Red, prepared just the way he liked it: black with sugar. “Here you go, Red. You want anything else?”

William spoke before Red could respond. “You can go. Leave us alone.”

Julias shook his head. “If I may, your majesty, I would appreciate the opportunity to continue speaking with Red. It’s been good to see him again.” He sat at the table, next to Red.

Red looked to Chestnut, who had begun leaning her body heavily on William’s legs. He was petting her, absentmindedly. Red didn’t know if he had ever seen William do anything absentmindedly before. And then how Julias had spoken to William. That was new too.

There was a lot to take in, which felt absurd, because nothing had happened. Not really.

William didn’t seem to have found it odd that Julias had refused an order. “As I have said before, I couldn’t live with myself if you came to harm.”

“Why not? You’ve harmed plenty of humans,” Julias interjected.

A look of betrayal flashed across William’s face for a moment, before he regained his composure. “Excuse me?”

Red realised he was looking between Julias and William in a way that must have made his discomfort obvious. He decided to stare resolutely at his coffee instead.

Julias shrugged. “You know, eating them.”

William glared at Julias. “You of all people must know I haven’t killed a human in more than a year.”

Julias shrugged. “You’re a vampire. You might take a break from time to time, but it is who you are.”

“No, it’s not. Not anymore. Not—” William glanced at Red, and stumbled over the next few words. “Humans aren’t as different as I thought.”

Red’s eyes darted up again.

“But they’re still different,” Julias replied.

“Maybe so. Maybe they aren’t as smart or long-lived or capable of reason, but they are… they feel pain. They are intelligent—”

“Less intelligent than vampires, though,” Julias interjected. Red shifted uncomfortably in his seat: was this Julias’s ‘nature’ as a servant—slave?—coming to the fore? Did he need to validate William’s ideas like this? Was Julias from such an old time? Did he see humans as less, or had spending so much time with William changed him?

Why was Julias being like this?

“Just because a creature lacks intelligence doesn’t mean one should kill it if one has alternatives. One does not need to kill janissaries, and they are easy to come by.”

Tension bloomed into the room like smoke. Red noticed that Julias was eyeing him. He didn’t know if he was meant to say anything. William stared at Julias, with the quiet anger that had hitherto been reserved only for Elodia. Red really didn’t know whether or not it was good to say anything. His mind had gone blank with discomfort.

What could he have even said? Red just sat there, allowing the conversation to happen around him.

Julias’s shoulders dropped, and he looked away from Red and down to his own hands that rested on the table. “You know I’m concerned only for your happiness, right?”

“It’s strange, the way you show it,” William responded, the tension having dissolved from his voice by Julias’s display of vulnerability.

“Are you going to be happy?” Julias spoke softly, with great concern. “I did my research, when I heard Elodia was giving me to you. I sent letters to vampires, to janissaries, to thralls. I asked them how I might best serve you.”

Red decided that it was very important to be extremely interested in the tablecloth. How did they do the patterns?

“I would have expected nothing less than that sort of thoroughness from you,” William murmured.

Red wondered if they had to plan out patterns when sewing people made tablecloths. He could darn his socks and mend holes in his shirts but he had no idea how you made something so big.

Julias smiled, despite himself. It made the room seem warmer, more comfortable. The heaviness was gone, and wiped away so thoroughly Red that would have wondered if it had ever been there in the first place, were it not for the fact that his own discomfort remained. Was that what looms were for? Red had heard about looms. He hadn’t seen one. It was a funny word. He started picking at his nails again. He tried not to. Was it hot in here?

It felt too hot.

“I appreciate that, your majesty. My contacts painted a cohesive image of a great man,” William beamed, and Julias’s smile deepened. “A man who was nonetheless proud, but who had earned his pride by overcoming trials and torments that are beyond my ken. A man who had his joys—the opera, physical feats, and dalliances with ladies and men both, but those of his own social standing. And a man of vices: the pride, of course, the arrogance that comes with centuries of supremacy. But also the tendency to submit to his hunger, and not in the way that many of your kind will kill a human when they are unable to secure a janissary. You have a reputation—”

“I know,” William interrupted. “They take many decades to be undone.”

“And it was built over centuries,” Julias continued. Red considered whether or not he could peel off a hangnail quickly in a way that would not draw too much attention and also wondered if he had any books on how fabrics were made. “You have a reputation of deciding, in the moment, to drain a janissary who had served you well for years because you are more hungry than normal. Of draining the janissaries that others graciously give you use of for mere lack of self control. There are vampires who will drain those of enemies to prove a point, but you would—just for hunger, or boredom, or because the janissary was particularly tasty.”

“And you are saying to me, that with this reputation, these habits, how can I possibly claim to be the sort of man who does not harm humans when I have spent just one year abstaining after centuries of excess?”

“Yes, your majesty.”

William considered this. “You’re right. Thank you.” Julias had a point: he had once gone fifty years without harming a human, a long while ago. It had been the result of pacifism being in fashion and his having maneuvered himself into position to be worshipped as a sun-god by humans who were all too willing to provide blood sacrifices.

“It is my privilege, your majesty.” Julias radiated a joy that was palpable to Red, more palpable than the tension in the room had been earlier. Julias was—happy? Actually happy? This small sign of William’s appreciation seemed to have made him happier than any nice meal Julias had had, heck, he looked happier than he had in the photograph with his own son.

Red swallowed. Even if Julias was happy, this was wrong. It was inhuman.

—But he isn’t human, perhaps this is what is best for him?— —If given the choice, doesn’t it seem that he would choose this?—

“But, all the same, I have changed,” William continued. “In the past, when I have gone without harming humans, it was motivated out of… a lack of need. Now, having known Red…” He glanced at Red. “Humans are not as I had told myself they were. They are intelligent, they have complex emotional lives, and they—they need love and support, and provide it in return.”

Red felt his cheeks burning. He didn’t feel like that was something he had to ignore. He didn’t need to force himself to think about literally anything else. “That is…” He cleared his throat. “I’m glad you think so.”

“Of course I do. It’s true.”

Julias shrugged. “What do you mean?” He paused, knowing his next words might betray his motives to Red. He glanced at Red, whose cheeks were darkening just slightly under his heavy tan, who sipped his coffee to hide a small smile. Red was too affected by William’s words to be paying attention to the fact what Julias was about to say would contradict what he told Red not an hour earlier. “You lived with Red for less than a year. You won’t remember him twenty or thirty years from now, let alone a hundred.” If Julias got the response he knew he would, Red would definitely be too distracted by that to pay attention to Julias contradicting himself. Red’s hands clenched around the coffee cup. He looked at Julias.

That had stung. He wanted to argue, felt like he had to defend himself, had to say…

His shoulders slumped. The lump in his throat seemed to swell.

Julias was right. Of course he was. He wasn’t memorable. He knew that. It wasn’t… it hadn’t been… His cheeks kept burning, but in the horrible way they did when heat crept up his neck before settling in his cheekbones and making his teeth ache. He was ashamed. Of course he was. He was delusional for thinking that the relationship, his time, he himself, had mattered.

William would forget him.

As he should. The heat crawled into his eyes and he could feel the beginning of tears start to burn in the corners. He had to leave. He had to get out of here. He had to get up and he had to get out of here. This had been so naive, so careless, how could he have been irrational enough to come here, how—

Red was startled as William stood, his voice changed from calm to deadly. “That year was a shining beacon to me, and you bloody well know it. I don’t know what your game is, but I—” William glanced at Red and shook his head: although he wouldn’t want to make this pronouncement in Red’s presence, he couldn’t let Julias’s words stand unchallenged. “I loved him. Still do. Always will. Brought me more joy than any book or any opera or any—corpse I created. More than a hundred thousand of any of those things. I wish I had known then what I have learned since. I wish I had spent more of my time studying philosophy. But I didn’t, and for hundreds of years to come I will regret that. I am going to rectify it. If this situation repeats itself, I will not have these same regrets.”

The lump that had been increasingly difficult to breathe past suddenly felt like it was knocked clean out. Red hadn’t expected this. Hadn’t expected any of this. Didn’t deserve this. His whole body felt pleasantly hot and raw, like he imagined he might feel if acid had been spilled onto him, but that was a bad comparison because he felt good. It felt like little needles of feeling and joy pricked all along his skin. William was being so—nice? Had he changed? Was he really different now? Could he change? Not in a year, surely. But was this change in him real and sustaining, or just a whim? Was he lying? Had he and Julias choreographed this for his benefit? No—the thought left Red’s mind as quickly as it came. William wasn’t a manipulative person like that.

Julias afforded himself a glance at Red, who was staring at William with the beginning of a smile and eyes wide in pleased surprise, but overall had done an admirable job at maintaining the illusion of a man who was slightly uncomfortable about watching an argument that he had no part in.

Julias wanted to manage this interaction further, wanted to mould it like clay until it was the way he knew William wanted, but his instincts told him that he needed a lighter hand, here.

He stood. “Your majesty, I humbly apologise for my conduct.”

“What has gotten into you, Julias?” William asked.

“I don’t want you to go through all that again, your majesty.”

“I thought we discussed this: if it pleases you to address me like that, you may, but please, call me William when we are alone.”

Julias bowed. “I’m sorry, William. I will leave you to speak with your friend.” William flinched at the word ‘friend’, but Julias left without waiting for a response.

William looked at Red, and smiled the tight smile he used when he was uncomfortable. “I’m sorry about what Julias said. I don’t know what has gotten into him.”

Red laughed awkwardly, and it came out strangled. “That did seem a little weird, but then again, I haven’t seen him in a while, so…”

“Well, I have spent a great deal of time with him lately and this was unprecedented.”

“Really? With what he was saying about…” Red paused. No. He didn’t want to lead William into anything. “I mean, what in particular?”

He frowned. “Well, I have been telling him to be more… independent. Willful, even. But we have never argued like that before.”

“Do you think he’s being more honest? About what he thinks?” About you hung in the air.

William sighed. “I don’t know. He’s… I don’t know what he thinks. I can’t know. One must account for the fact that his every action is done to please me.”

“How do you mean?” Red prompted. He sipped his coffee, trying to hide his curiosity. William was trying to understand Julias? Actively?

“He will say whatever he thinks will make me happiest, which makes it impossible to know whether he means what he says.”

That attitude was new, from William. Red wanted to ask more, to learn more about Julias, but he couldn’t resist asking the question that had been weighing on him. “Did you mean the things you said earlier? About humans, about…” He struggled to get the word out. “About me?” He felt selfish to ask this.

“Yes, of course. I’m sorry if any of that made you uncomfortable.”

Red couldn’t help but chuckle a little at that. “Don’t be sorry, I feel like I’m always uncomfortable these days.”

He had meant it as a joke.

It didn’t sound as funny out loud

“Oh? I thought you’d be happy to be with Dorothy again,” William replied.

“Oh, I am.” He scratched absentmindedly at his forearm, both resisting the urge to fidget and to avoid William’s gaze. “It’s good to see her. And everyone else has been great, really nice about everything, it’s just…”

“I know what you mean. Everything is the same, but at the same time, unrecognisable?”

“Yes, exactly.” Red rested his chin in his palm, his elbow on the table. “It feels like I don’t… fit anymore. Not to mention the lying about what happened—don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful for how you constructed everything for me, it just feels… almost dirty, to lie about it. Everyone has so much pity for me, and I don’t deserve it.”

“For what it’s worth, I think you did the right thing.”

Red cocked his head. “The lying? Or coming back?”

“Oh! I meant the—what did you say the proper term was? Deserting?” William was so casual, the way he pronounced the word, as though the word and the shame behind it were nothing to him.

Red flinched. “Yes, that’s the term, all right.”

“You did the right thing. You would have died and it wouldn’t have helped anyone.” He said this calmly, simply, matter-of-factly. Was the shame nothing to him? For someone so obsessed with titles and manners, it seemed impossible.

Red looked at his coffee again. William had a point, but… “But I left because I was a coward. Everyone here thinks otherwise. Isn’t that wrong?”

“If it’s cowardly to want to live, then vampires are a race of cowards.”

“Huh, I didn’t think of it that way.” Red pondered this. “I wouldn’t think of you as a coward.”

“And you are not, either. War may be a necessary evil, but that makes it no less evil. A man who willingly gives his life for his kingdom is noble, but we are gone from the days when kings fought beside their subjects. Those kings command respect. Modern presidents and prime ministers… They would not have died for you.”

“That’s an understatement,” Red murmured. He had forgotten about William’s own history, who he might have been before now. Red’s problems felt petty in comparison. “But everyone thinks I was this brave hero who got caught, and I’m not. I feel like such an asshole.” He paused, suddenly straightening up. “God. Sorry. This isn’t your problem. I shouldn’t be complaining to you about this.”

William started forward, as if to grab Red’s hand, but pulled back before he had moved more than a few inches. “It is my problem. I gave you the papers that forced you to tell this story.”

“Well, what was the alternative?” Red asked, forcing a smile. “I’ve been trying to think if there was a different story, or… if I could have done things differently. Any of the things differently.” He paused, aware of the meaning that had snuck in. “I don’t think there was. Or that I could have done it differently. Or wanted to.”

“I think you had little choice in most of that. We had little choice.” William smiled, a sad, considered smile. “Would you permit me an egocentric observation?”

Red smiled, genuinely this time. “Go for it.”

“How familiar are you with deontology and consequentialism?” That was another thing about William: no matter how long the word or how obscure the concept, he never assumed Red didn’t know something just because of who he was.

“Never heard of it.”

“They are two different ways of looking at the morality of an action. Deontology looks at whether the action itself is right or wrong; consequentialism examines the consequences,” William started. He looked at Red, who was staring intently. “For example, you view your deserting as wrong, perhaps because it is illegal, or perhaps because it is cowardly, or perhaps because if everyone deserted there would be no army to defend your country. I view your deserting as right because it didn’t change the tide of the war, and almost certainly saved your life.”

“Huh.” Red looked away. He considered that for a while. It made him think of being a kid, how rules and decisions had been so clear cut. He remembered telling a girl at school that there was no such thing as Santa Claus. She had cried and told a teacher, who shouted at him for his cruelty. He had been honest about something, and it had hurt her feelings.

His intentions had been good, he had been honest, but the consequences were bad. The result hurt someone. He didn’t like that then, and he didn’t like it now. The idea that intent and results could clash so strongly.

“I think I see what you mean,” Red agreed, finally.

“I believe it is the reason we disagreed so strongly about Julias. You viewed owning another person as wrong, and so he should be freed. I agree that owning a person is wrong, but Julias’s situation is far more nuanced because he does seem, by all accounts, to legitimately want this.”

Red shifted uncomfortably. On some level, he didn’t want to talk about this. It was uncomfortable. It had ended in him leaving. He didn’t want to go over it again. But then, what was the alternative?

“That still sounds so wrong to me.” Red fidgeted with his cup, turning it against the table, the bottom making low scraping sounds. “Like if he knew better, he wouldn’t. But then that ends up being patronising, assuming I know what he should want, that I should know his mind better than he does.”

William nodded. “Questions of morality are not easy. There are dozens of books written on these subjects.”

“I’ll write another one. It’ll just say ‘good things are good and bad things are bad’ and I’ll solve morality forever.” Red sipped his coffee. “That was funnier in my head.”

William laughed. “Actually, that is pretty well what deontology says.”

“That’s the ‘you have to follow rules and consequences be damned’ one, right?” Red sipped his coffee again, thinking. “But you’re right, if I had done that, then I’d be dead. So, I should probably stop feeling so sorry for myself about living when I want to live, right?” He stared off into the distance, looking at nothing in particular. “When I think of it like that, it feels ridiculous. Feeling so awful about not dying.”

“It is quite normal to feel guilt for something like that. But it doesn’t make it right, or helpful. With time, you will feel better.”

“It doesn’t feel normal.” Red sighed. “I don’t want to die or suffer, but I feel bad about being alive and being fine. That seems inconsistent to me.”

“You have competing obligations. Your obligation to yourself says you must live, but your obligation to your people says you must die. That is all it is.”

“Huh.” Red stared off into the distance again. “Do you ever get comfortable with those thoughts? Or do you just have to pick one?”

“You never do. I still regret things I did when I was human, sometimes, even though I know they were right. It will fade with time, but it will always be a part of you. Instead of looking at it as a failing, be proud that you have both a strong commitment to your own welfare and a strong sense of duty to your people.”

Red’s eyes drifted back to William. “So… you just carry that regret forever?”

He nodded. “It does fade.”

Red thought about that. He thought about regret, about the idea of living with regret forever, hoping it would fade, hoping it would stop hurting, hoping he would eventually let go of the idea that if he were different, this wouldn’t be so hard.

He snapped out of it, shaking his head abruptly. “Sorry, I just realised I’m just complaining about my problems, that aren’t even real problems, really. Sorry.”

“No, they are absolutely real problems. I’ve always enjoyed hearing your point of view. I miss it.” William’s hand twitched, resisting the urge to reach forward again for Red’s.

Red paused for a moment. He had assumed that William would have been mildly put out, like a child losing a toy, and gotten over it quickly. He didn’t expect the genuine regret in William’s voice. “Really?” He felt his face growing warm again, the back of his neck beginning to itch. “I… Thank you. I missed these talks too, actually. Listening, and you listening, and talking about… concepts and whatnot. But I assumed...”

He half hoped William would cut in, the way other people did when Red hesitated, when the words didn’t come easily. He had noticed that more, once he got home, how people would fill in the gaps for him. Sometimes it annoyed him, sometimes he was relieved, but he had never thought about how William didn’t do that. William would wait, patiently, for him to finish his sentence, even when Red was struggling. Red would have to ask for help outright, if he really wanted it.

And wasn’t that just so typical? William wanted to hear what Red had to say. William wouldn’t assume what Red wanted. William would wait for Red to ask for it himself.

It was nice.

“I assumed you wouldn’t, because… because it would be…” Red took his time. William continued to wait. “I assumed you wouldn’t, because it’d be easier for you. With me not around.”

William chuckled, a kind, self-conscious one. “No, not at all. I guess you could say I’ve got two sets of obligations, just as you do. To myself, and to my culture. Yes, it would be easier for me not to have you in my life, but that’s because of my obligation to my culture. My obligation to my own happiness is far stronger.”

Red stared at him, trying not to get his hopes up. “… go on.”

“For me, it’s an easier decision. Better to have you in my life and to hell with the consequences. I chose that when I declared war on Elodia.”

“I guess I’m just… I’m surprised. I thought that… I assumed…” Red swallowed, trying to find the words.

He knew what the words were. He just didn’t want to say them.

William silently waited for Red to continue.

“When I left… I meant it, about… being uncomfortable about Julias. It also made me realise how different you and I were, how you’re… what you are. How I couldn’t understand you, and you couldn’t understand me, I didn’t think you’d… go to the effort.”

“I know what you mean. When you left I—” William hesitated. “I’m not proud, but when I decided to pursue you, it had been because I thought it might be to my advantage. Culturally speaking.” He hesitated, and continued with a sigh. “I don’t know. Maybe that’s not true. Maybe that’s a lie I told myself then. I remembered being drawn to you from the first moment I saw you. You seemed to have… a story. But my motivations weren’t pure, regardless. And I convinced myself that my feelings weren’t real, that I’d fabricated them in order to manipulate you, that I didn’t need you. But I did. I do. I love you, I always will, and that is real. You’ve inspired me to change, more than I’ve changed in a very, very long time. I’ll always be grateful for that.”

Red hesitated. Despite how many times William had told him he cared, despite everything that had happened with Elodia, despite this conversation now…

His eyes started to burn. Started to itch.

It felt like coming up against a brick wall. He still couldn’t believe it. He couldn’t believe it when William first started to talk to him, and he struggled to believe it now.

“I think you’re giving me too much credit,” he said finally, and immediately hated himself for it. “No, that’s not… that’s not what I meant. I meant...”

He only noticed his hands were shaking when he saw the dregs of his coffee forming rings in the bottom of the cup.

He opened his mouth to speak, the words there, for once, forming out of the incoherent mess that was his thoughts.

—I don’t deserve this.—

It had never felt so crystal clear before. He didn’t deserve it. He didn’t deserve to survive the war, he didn’t deserve William’s attention, he didn’t deserve his protection, he didn’t deserve the strings William pulled or William needing him now or William changing.

—but what if I do?—

—does it even matter?—

—‘My obligation to my own happiness is far stronger.’—

What was Red even doing? He meant to leave William back in Corsica, he did, but now, sitting here, hearing William speak, talking of morals and humanity and ethics and outcomes, and… and…

And he felt just as ridiculous as he did before. Feeling sorry for himself for surviving. Making himself miserable for no consequence. Being moral for morality’s sake.

And still, William waited for him to speak. He didn’t rush Red. William waited.

Red burst out laughing. The burning in his eyes, the tears that had pooled there, squeezed free, running down his cheeks. “Oh my god. I am so dense.”

“What? No. Don’t say such a thing.” William couldn’t hold himself back, he reached out for Red’s hand, but stopped short of grabbing it, realising what he had done.

Red reached out, faster than William had ever seen him move, and grabbed his hand. “No, I am! I am so dense!” He grinned. “And it’s okay, it’s fine. Better I get it now than in eighty years, right?”

William’s body felt empty, hollow, as though room had finally been made in it for him to hope. “What?”

“I have spent so much time torturing myself and feeling guilty about everything, about living and you and just… everything. Which you know.” He let go of William’s hands to wipe his eyes. “And don’t get me wrong, I’m still not going to give up on Julias, it’s weird and wrong and I still think he’ll figure it out, he’ll come around, but…” He took a deep breath. He grabbed William’s hand. “William. Do you want to be, together, with me?”

William stared at Red. He hadn’t expected this. “You know I do,” he said. “But…” He looked at their hands again. “Are you sure? Do you know what that would require of you?”

Red grinned. “I don’t think I care. I think… I know it’s not as easy as saying ‘I’m just going to stop feeling a certain way’ because… I know, logically, that’s not how it works, but… I don’t want to be the person who makes myself miserable because being happy feels selfish, because I don’t deserve to be happy. I don’t want to do that anymore. I’m sick of it.”

“No, but…” William took a breath. “There are practical matters. For instance, your family knows you’re alive now. And I cannot live here. You would have to come to Australia with me.”

Red entertained it, thought about it, just for a moment. It was too impractical. It was too hard. He wasn’t worth this effort, this was selfish, it wasn’t fair, he wasn’t—

No.

He was done with that.

“They’ll be fine.” He squeezed William’s hands. “I’ll miss them but… I wouldn’t make Dorothy stay somewhere she was unhappy. She wouldn’t want it for me either.”

It would take a while to unlearn. But it would be worth it.

“I’ll tell them the truth. Not the specifics, about you, but… some of the truth. A lot of it. She deserves that, I think.”

William nodded, a small half-nod, for he didn’t really believe. “She definitely does. But…” He paused. “Take a few days, alone. To think it over.” It felt too easy. As though Red hadn’t fully considered it. The fact that he had hope was enough for now.

Red squeezed William’s hand and opened his mouth to argue. He paused. “If that makes you feel better, I will.” He said, finally.

“Thank you. I… don’t want you to change your mind. It hurt when you left.”

Red paused. He hadn’t considered that. He had been so focused on his own pain, his own guilt, so sure that William would move on, easily, he hadn’t even…

He had assumed, with how he saw himself, how he saw William, that William wouldn’t have been hurt. Red had assumed only he could be hurt like this, which felt so obscenely selfish it just made him feel guilty again.

“I hadn’t…” He took a deep breath. “I… I still stand by why I left, but… I’m sorry for hurting you. I wish I hadn’t. I didn’t think I could hurt you, which I realise, now, sounds silly.”

William smiled a grim, tight smile. “It is not just fireplaces that can hurt me.”

“I just thought… that it wouldn’t affect you, much.”

He frowned. “You knew I loved you, though.”

“Yes, but...” He didn’t know how to say it. How could he say it?

—Sorry, you’re just so old I kind of feel like I am the equivalent of a child having a pet fly—

—I just assume I’m a burden and while you may like having me around, the alternative seems like a lot less trouble so relief would outweigh anything else—

—You are handsome and smart and rich and powerful. The idea of someone like me actually mattering to you that my loss would hurt you seems absurd sometimes—

William made eye contact with Red, inclining his head slightly. The silent signal that Red knew meant he was wondering if Red had finished speaking or not.

“I don’t really know how to explain it,” Red said finally. “Not in a way that doesn’t sound ridiculous out loud.”

“Well, you will have to take it on faith that I was affected. And that’s why I want you to make sure you have done serious reflection.”

“That’s… that’s fair.” He squeezed William’s hand. “I… I really want to kiss you, but I don’t know if that’s… appropriate, right now.”

“I want to kiss you, but I… don’t think we should,” William agreed, his voice strained and reluctant. The hope was enough, for now.

Red exhaled and closed his eyes, wiping them with the heel of his free hand. “I know, I just… I really want to. But it’s… not great right now. I know. Okay.” He slowly got to his feet, not letting go of William’s hand. “Okay. I will… go have some serious thought, just in case, but we’re… we’re good? And you meant what you said?”

“Of course.” He nods. “Let’s both take a few days to think things over.”

“Okay.”

Red squeezed William’s hand again, steeling himself to leave. He felt like if he left, William would leave. Permanently. That anything good Red had would slip away from him like sand. “Okay.”

He had to trust.

He let go of William’s hand.

“A few days,” Red said firmly.

William looked at Red. Red was standing uneasily, his gaze soft, a tiny bead of sweat forming at his temple. He was scared. Nervous. Like he was worried that he might not see William again.

William had to do something for him.

William stood and strode to the writing desk, pulling out a sheet of paper and a ballpoint pen. He wrote something undecipherable on the paper: characters made of vertical lines linked together, with dots and lines under, over and within them. It was only a small piece of writing—a few inches longbut it resembled nothing Red had seen before.

William folded it and put it into an envelope, and wrote Red’s name on the front in large, ornate, but quickly scribbled letters. He jotted a small note on the reverse. He handed the envelope to Red.

“Inside is one of my most shameful secrets. It’s in a human language so it should be easy to translate, should the need arise.”

Red looked at the envelope: it was ordinary enough. The note on the reverse side stated that the contents were written in the Thai language, and concerned King William of New Holland.

Red hesitated. It was one of those moments that felt heavy with meaning. This meant something, it was important, but…

What was it?

“Um.” Red stared at it. His eyes flickered back to William. His hand ached to hold William’s again. “Thank you. Why?”

“Now you will always have leverage over me.”

“Why… why would I need something like this?”

“You are worried that you might never see me again,” he replied matter-of-factly. It still astounded him that Red thought so differently. That he wasn’t always thinking about the social consequences of his actions.

“Well...” Red sighed. “Was it that obvious?”

He smiled. “I know you.”

section break image

Red left with awkward goodbyes and warmth crawling up his neck. He couldn’t stop smiling. He held the envelope in both hands the rest of the walk home. He couldn’t risk putting it in his pocket, in case it creased. It was too important for that. Too meaningful.

He propped it up against the lamp on his bedside.

He changed into pyjamas, brushed his teeth, and laid down to sleep. He was exhausted. He barely remembered how he used to stay up all night so he could spend more time with William.

Red smiled at the thought. He would have to get used to that again.

The residual light from the street lamps came through his window, illuminating only shapes.

Red stared at the shape of the letter until he fell asleep.

Chapter Text

September 14, 1752

King’s Lynn Duchy, Kingdom of Norwich

William hadn’t expected the duchess to visit today. He hadn’t realised that the humans had decided to excise eleven days from the calendar and that, worse still, the vampires had decided to go along with it. To be fair, there were precious few of them now, compared to what they had been.

And what could losing eleven days possibly change?

For William, a great deal. He hadn’t bought flowers for the ritual, let alone arranged those flowers correctly. Hadn’t prepared three janissaries to be fed from. Hadn’t even, really, thought about exactly what he wanted from the duchess.

It was to be an important meeting: she was in charge of Wisbech, the duchy next to his, and he was hoping they could work together. Maybe, in a few dozen years, they could defect their lands to the neighbouring kingdom of Peterborough and not have to deal with the foolhardy Queen of Norwich who didn’t appreciate how much jeopardy the recent events had put them in. Perhaps William could be a King by the turn of the nineteenth century.

If he had expected the duchess that day, he would have tried to make a better impression.

But he had had no warning whatsoever, and in fact had had his face deep in a janissary’s thigh when he heard a knock at the door. The surprise of the knock made him jerk his head, just a little, but enough that the blood from the thigh spilled onto the floor before an unseen magical force knitted the flesh together and quelled it.

William expected the knock to be from a janissary trying to visit a few days early, and so hadn’t bothered wiping the blood from his face.

He opened the door and saw the Duchess of Wisbech standing there. Her clothes screamed of a long-awaited meeting with one with whom she wished to forge an alliance.

—She may as well kiss me—

William held the thought, realising he hadn’t put on a particular outfit and had indeed had his collar pushed askew in the course of the feeding he had been doing not a minute earlier.

However, the duchess saw a vampire who had a clear message: a white shirt in that style expressed hunger, but it was dishevelled just so to indicate that he felt at ease with her. The off-centre collar pointed to the left, and therefore expressed a desire to do something sinister. So, he had a hunger to tell her of a sinister desire, one that he could only communicate because he felt so at ease with her.

There was blood on his chin, expertly applied below his lip, the right fang. This part of the face spoke of royalty, and blood... well, blood was blood.

The context made it clear.

The duchess smiled at his boldness.

“You want to kill our queen?”

Of course William had heard her; his ears could hear most everything that there was.

He considered asking her to repeat it, all the same.

Instead, he responded. “Why, yes. Do you think we could?”

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Three months later, the queen was dead.

William became king, and the duchess’s domain tripled in size.

A rumour spread that William was not only an expert judge of character but a savvy negotiator who was capable of making delicate deductions.

It suited him that nobody would ever know otherwise.

Chapter Text

A photograph of a four leaf clover

Four Leaf Clover

𝓑𝓮 𝓜𝓲𝓷𝓮

April 1946

Columbus, Ohio, United States

Red was fidgeting.

He went to the kitchen counter and stared out the window, out into the garden. There were birds. He and Dorothy’s husband James had been trying to encourage them. They put out water and seed and food scraps and would sometimes be rewarded with the sight of fat little wrens and swallows and something James said was called a ‘New World Warbler’ which he liked the name of, as well as liking their yellow feathers and funny little wings.

He saw a woodpecker once. Red didn’t fully understand how woodpeckers worked. Why were they like that? Why did they beat their heads against trees like that?

Did it hurt them?

Red clenched the edge of the counter with both hands. His time with William, then the last few months, made him more aware of his patterns, how he thought. Maybe he didn’t always understand why he thought the way he did, but he was aware of his thoughts like he had never been before. That was the only reason he could have come to the conclusion he did: that he was done making himself suffer, was done being miserable and guilty and tying himself up in knots. Red just wanted to be happy. He had been happy before, but even in those times, there was something bothering him, like a pebble in his shoe. He always felt like it was about to end. That the other shoe would drop, that it would pass, and he would be… not sad. Just… not happy. The real happiness, the kind he saw with Dorothy and James, he hadn’t felt like that was an option for him. He didn’t deserve it.

But maybe it wasn’t about what Red deserved. Maybe this focus on needing to earn happiness was bad for him. Maybe he needed to accept that he could be happy, and it didn’t matter how he had gotten there.

He knew that was easier said than done. He remembered all the times he decided to stop absentmindedly biting his nails. And all the times he had failed to stop absentmindedly biting his nails.

Was he sure? Was he just caught up in the excitement of having seen William again? Was he just tired of his life right now and looking for any path out, to escape it? Or was worrying now his mind looking for a way to escape taking a risk?

And what did this mean about how he felt about Julias? He could see William’s point of view a little more clearly than before, in no small part because William had taken the time to see Red’s point of view. Did that make him a bad person? Was he a bad person if he could be okay with Julias living the life he did? The idea that someone could be happy in Julias’ situation still felt… gross, to him, on some level. Vaguely nauseating, even.

He ran his hands through his hair. Red had never felt like he was particularly smart, but he wondered whether, if he had been slightly stupider, his thoughts wouldn’t bother him all the time like they did now.

His mother used to talk a lot about gut instinct. Red never liked gut instinct. When he was eight years old, gut instinct had told him that it was a good idea to drink the glass of brown water Dorothy offered him, telling him it was a “special grown-up drink.” It turned out to be pond water and it ended with him being laid up in bed for two days of vomiting. But the alternative was sitting here with his thoughts running in circles. So. What was his gut instinct telling him? His gut wanted to be with William. His gut wanted to see Australia. His gut wanted to be around people he could be honest with, not hiding behind a lie that made him out to be a better man than he was.

He would miss Dorothy and James and Ida. He would miss Ohio. But it didn’t mean he couldn’t come back sometimes, right? William travelled. And he could spend more time with Julias. Try to understand him better. Julias was completely alien to Red, but maybe Red could learn more about him, understand why he was the way he was, and either make peace with how bizarre it was or, more hopefully, convince Julias to embrace freedom. And after talking to William, he was sure William would embrace the idea too. At the very least, Red could ensure Julias was paid or something.

The more he thought about it, the more it clicked into place. No more thoughts circling in his head. He knew it was the right thing to do. The right decision. He was sure, more sure than he had been about anything he could remember. Red stared out the window. There were doves outside today. Pigeons? He couldn’t remember how to tell them apart.

Still. It couldn’t hurt to get a second opinion. Right?

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Red invited Julias bowling again. He had a mixed bag of reasons, really. He wanted to spend more time with Julias, to get to know him better, and he liked the comfort of being around someone who didn’t look at him with pity. And while he was there, he figured he may as well present Julias with the thoughts that fought for his focus, get some insight from someone who had direct experience.

Though, of course, it was insight from someone whose motivations he didn’t understand. Red wanted to, but still couldn’t put himself in Julias’s head. Julias wasn’t not only not human, but his values were incomprehensible. William, at least, had been human, had similar values and desires. Red could relate to William.

Julias… Julias resembled a human, but only because it was convenient. Julias operated on an entirely different set of—what word would William use?—incentives. Incentives so different and alien that Red couldn’t imagine it. Could Red really imagine having a child, a son, an adult son, who he cared less about than whether William’s books were arranged correctly? He couldn’t, no matter how much he tried. He couldn’t fathom caring about how neat his own books were more than he cared about the well-being of a stranger.

And that was the whole problem. He couldn’t understand Julias. If he understood, he could either convince Julias or at least stop being so bothered about it.

He was tapping the pencil too hard against the scoresheet. It wasn’t good for it.

“Is everything alright?” Julias asked. “Right. Yes. No. I’m fine. Just… thinking. About things.”

“Well, you know I’m always willing to listen.” Julias smiled.

Red pursed his lips. He wanted to ask about William. He really really did. But this was more important. “Actually, I think it’s less about listening and more about… can I ask you some things? Really personal things?”

Julias nodded. “Always.”

“Okay. Um.” He stopped tapping the pencil. “The whole… you being a slave thing.”

He winced a little. “Yes?”

“Are you… and please be honest with me, are you definitely okay with it? Really okay? You talked about freedom and how… working for people… is your purpose but… are you really comfortable?”

He carefully considered his response. “I want to assure you that I am comfortable. I am happy. I always have been, but I am particularly happy with William because he seems to want me to be happy.”

Red nodded along. “Okay. I guess that makes sense. But the whole… the concept of keeping another person. For instance, if it wasn’t you. If someone owned another person, is that a concept that seems normal to you? Do you understand why other people wouldn’t like it?”

“Of course. It hasn’t been acceptable in the human cultures I’m familiar with for more than a human lifetime.”

“I’m glad you get what I mean, but it’s not just about the acceptability of it, but the… How someone might feel about it? Can you understand how someone would hate it? Like…” Red struggled to find a way to explain it. “My uncle, he hates mushrooms. I like mushrooms, but I understand why he hates them, because he doesn’t like how they feel. I can feel it too, but it doesn’t bother me. Do you have anything like that? When you think about people being forced to serve someone, do you understand why they hate it? Or does that seem illogical to you?”

Julias paused, taking the time to consider both what Red said and how best to word the response. “It is important to me to know what people want. It helps me do my work. I have worked for humans before, and vampires hate being told what to do even more than humans do. I don’t have the feeling myself, and I can’t imagine feeling that way. But I understand that people don’t like being limited in their behaviours. It prevents them from pursuing their own ends. I don’t like being limited in my behaviours. It prevents me from doing my work.”

“Do you think it’s wrong? I know you don’t think it’s wrong for you, but for others? Do you feel it’s wrong?”

“I don’t think it is right to require people to spend time on things that don’t bring them joy. For example, requiring people to work all day at jobs they don’t like in order to earn enough money to provide for their family.”

“Okay.” Red ran his hands through his hair, thinking. “Okay. I get what you mean. It’s just… okay, here… you spent most of your time in Europe, right?”

“For the past thousand years, yes.”

The fact that Red didn’t feel any need to follow up on that was evidence that he saw the world very differently than he once had. “Well, I don’t know about their history but here… slavery was a big part of the culture here. And it was disgusting. No one really talks about it much, but what I did hear, what I read, it’s just… and to compare it to you, and it… feels wrong. To make you go through that. But it’s not like that for you, is it?”

Julias shook his head. “It’s not like that for me, at all. I don’t know much about American slavery. I’ve done some of my own research, but I’ve only just begun to scratch the surface. And I know it’s not my place to speak about these things. It wasn’t my world. I didn’t live through it, and I have never lived in America, so I don’t understand your culture.”

Red couldn’t help but smile. It was comforting to think that there were fantasy creatures who struggled to understand the way he saw the world.

It was less comforting that it was something he thought should have been so obvious.

Julias continued. “It’s clear that what people went through was wrong. Was horrific. I can’t imagine anyone who went through anything of that sort finding they had anything in common with me. I am not human. I am not close to human. I can eat stone. I don’t need to sleep or breathe or eat.” He paused, and looked to the ceiling, gesturing outwards with his arms. “Was it right to make dogs? To get a wolf, a fierce and noble animal, and change its mind into something that is irreversibly connected to humans? Perhaps not, especially if you asked for a wolf’s opinion. But Chestnut is here anyway, and it wouldn’t do her any good for you to send her into the woods to fend for herself.”

“That’s a… really good point.” Red thought of Chestnut, perfect as she was.

“I just feel as though… what makes me, me, would be forever altered if…” Julias trailed off. He didn’t bother keeping the fear from his voice, this time.

“If you don’t have anyone to help,” Red finished. He could feel the struggle in Julias’s words.

“Exactly. But the problem is, I know you can’t look at me and not think of people who lived under oppression I can’t understand. So I see why you think I’m so wrong, and it makes me sad to think that my existence causes you to feel like you might be like one of the people who treated humans as property. That you might be evil in some way. You’re not. I’m not human. I’m magic. Like the vial of water that flows forever.”

“That vial doesn’t talk to me about philosophy, though,” Red muttered.

Julias shrugged. “The same sort of magic makes the water flow and makes me talk.”

Red stared at his scoresheet. He’d absent-mindedly been tracing over the number 4 he’d written earlier, and it had grown thick and shone silver with the graphite of his pencil. He thought of how Julias had cut his finger clean off, just to show him his internal anatomy. How the finger had inexplicably floated in the air and bled far more than such a small appendage could have and how Julias had reattached it with a flourish of his hand with no sign that anything had ever been amiss. He wasn’t human. “Just… I wonder if your parents raised you differently, would you be different? You said your son doesn’t…” Red trailed off, not knowing how to finish that sentence, and looked to Julias for a response.

“Oh. I don’t have parents. I wasn’t raised like a human, or like I’ve raised my son.”

Red flinched, the lead of the pencil breaking off. He sighed and reached for the sharpener. “You don’t have parents? You weren’t… raised? Did you…” Red imagined Julias breaking out of an enormous egg and going forth in search of his purpose. He knew that couldn’t possibly be the truth, so didn’t dare say it.

“A mage carved me from stone and spoke a name to bring me to life.”

“Oh.” All things considered, it seemed as reasonable as anything else he could have said.

“Or, so I was told,” Julias added. “If a name was all it took to make me out of stone, there’d be more of us. I’m sure he left something out, to guard his secret. Not that I would have betrayed such a secret, of course.” He waved his hand. “Anyway, the first thing I remember is coming to, disoriented, in a room empty except for that mage. I felt empty, too. Hollow and…” Julias let out a choking cough, this one involuntary, not put on for Red’s benefit. It had been the most painful experience of his life. “He told me I was to serve him, and… everything made sense. I was fulfilled. I’ve been helping people ever since.”

“So…” Red considered this. “You are for real, legitimately happy with all this?”

“Yes.”

Red felt the conviction reverberate through every part of Julias. It was uncomfortable and gross but it was real.

Perhaps it was Red’s fault for being uncomfortable? Like when he started working at the mill again, and Caroline had stayed there, shovelling beside him with her arms that had been sculpted and strengthened from working at the mill while the men were out at war. It didn’t seem right, for a woman to do manual labour, to have to work in that way. It didn’t seem fair on her.

But Caroline loved it, she loved the heat of the furnace and the feeling of exertion and accomplishment that she got from the shovelling, which she hadn’t got at her old job as a seamstress. She didn’t feel like it was unfair. Caroline was happy, and it wasn’t her problem that it made Red uncomfortable. He knew that it was on him to change. And he had, because it was the right thing to do. Was Julias’s situation more like that?

Red realised Julias was simply watching him intently, in the same polite and curious way William did, waiting for Red to speak again. Had Julias picked that up from William? No. Julias was far too old for that, and Red could remember him doing it a few times, back in the kitchen in Corsica.

It was nice. Even though the relationships he had with each of them were so different, both of them wanted to hear what he had to say. They didn’t need to fill the silence. They would wait. They would let him find the words.

“Thank you, Julias. I think that’s all I needed to know.” Red said, eventually.

Julias couldn’t resist prying. He had to know whether the fear deep within him could be quieted, even a little. “I’m glad to help, but why did you need to know that?” If William’s relationship with Red would be secure, now, maybe Julias could use his social prowess to remain able to serve William in the future.

“After talking to William, I…” He ran his hand over his face. “I don’t want to say I acted rashly, because it wasn’t like that. It was like… I saw things as a lot more clear cut, ‘this is good, this is bad, and if you do the bad thing then you’re bad,’ kind of thinking.”

Julias nodded. “Yes, I noticed that.”

“Well, I felt that way about a lot of things. Then William talked about how he was trying to be considerate of you, but couldn’t figure out what you really wanted, and I realised I… I never actually asked what you thought. I assumed I knew better, and that wasn’t the right thing to do. So I am sorry for that. And I wanted to understand better, see it in a more… nuanced way, I guess.”

Julias’s shoulders slackened, a palpable sense of relief coming from him. “Oh, I’m so glad to hear that. It’s very considerate of you.”

“Ha. Thanks.” Red put his chin in his hand, relaxing a little himself. He stared off at the other lanes, the other people bowling, but not really seeing them. “I think I’ve spent too much time thinking of things like that.”

“What do you mean?”

“I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since I saw William.” He said idly, still gazing at nothing. “It was everything with how I felt about your situation, but mine too. I’ve spent such a long time feeling guilty about everything that happened because it felt objectively wrong, but I hadn’t even thought about how the outcomes weren’t that clear cut. Your situation felt objectively wrong to me, but you’re happy. D-Deserting,” he barely got the word out, but once it passed, it felt fine. It didn’t make him flinch, not like it used to. “Felt wrong, it is wrong, but I would have died anyway, so should I feel bad at all? I still do, but even that shows it’s not as clear cut as I thought. And I’ve always done that. About everything. And where has it gotten me?”

“Well, it’s made you feel guilty, and interfered with your relationships?” Julias offered.

“That, among other things.” Red snapped out of it, shaking his head. “Sorry. Going on about myself, sorry.”

“You really need to learn that what I want most in the world is William’s happiness. William loves you, so knowing what makes you happy will make him happy. I want to hear what you have to say.”

—William loves you.—

Red tried not to make it too obvious that his heart had started racing at that.

“Thanks. I… appreciate that.” He tried to remember where he was at, where his thoughts had been, among the many new thoughts that had started swirling around his head. “I think it just made me realise I’ve spent so much time trying to do the right thing, which was always whatever felt like the ‘good’ thing, but I still always felt guilty or selfish or bad or whatever else. Then… everything happened, and I didn’t want to die, and I felt bad for not dying, but then I met William, only because I had done the wrong thing, and I never… I was actually happy. For once.”

Red felt a little guilt pool in his stomach, small and heavy. “I mean, I shouldn’t say that. I’ve been happy before, but I always felt… bad about it, in some way or another. And then I didn’t. And then I left, because I wanted to do the right thing, but then I never even thought to question what the right thing even was!” Red paused to take a breath. He felt like he had never spoken so much at one time. “Does that make sense?” He said after a short while. “Do I sound wrong to you?”

Julias shook his head. “No. It makes sense. I… I always struggled to understand you. I know that it’s important that I do, because for William to be happy, you need to be in his life. So I appreciate you looking inward and seeing yourself clearly enough to tell me all that. For taking the time to teach me about… everything.”

Red ran his hand through his hair, feeling his bitten down nails against his scalp. “Considering how much I obsess about everything, I don’t think I’ve ever really ‘looked inward’ this much before.”

“Well, I’m happy you have.” Julias eyed Red for a fraction of a second, and spoke his next words with careful intonation that sounded like natural curiosity to Red. “So, do you think this new perspective will change much for you?”

“Honestly? I’m not sure yet.” Red put his chin in his hand again, thinking. “Did I tell you what William said?”

“No, you didn’t.”

“He wanted me to think about it before I made a decision. About wanting to be with him again. And I knew, when it came up, what I wanted, but I did what he asked, and I thought about it, just in case.” Red smiled. “And I have. We’re going to be together again.”

“Oh! I’m pleased to hear it. What—what made you decide that?”

Red thought about it, waiting for the words to come, and was surprised when he already had them. “Because I’ve never been sure about anything, but I’m sure about this.”

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The contents of William’s wardrobe were strewn around the room as he debated what to wear.

His first choice had been light grey trousers (loyalty), a dandelion-yellow shirt (affection that desired to be rekindled), and a white tie (apology for an action done out of duty), but he took the ensemble off almost immediately. It was too pedestrian and unambitious.

He kept the white tie but folded it differently, to express regret for an action he no longer found defensible. He paired it with white trousers (confidence of success) and a russet brown shirt (affection that had endured hardship).

This wouldn’t do, either. Too self-important. He didn’t want Red to see him like that.

Finally, he settled on navy blue trousers with tiny white dots (devotion), a pale green shirt (a desire to grow) with the cuffs rolled to the mid forearm (a desire for gentle physical affection; had they been rolled the same way, but up to the elbow, the desire would have been far more aggressively sensual). He finished it with a dark green tie with white stripes (love, unrestrained).

He had almost decided to change his tie when there was a knock at the door.

William took it upon himself to answer the door. He wouldn’t normally do such a thing, greeting guests was Julias’s purview, but he wanted to do it tonight. He knew it was going to be a night he’d always remember, one way or the other.

Red was standing in the doorway, clearly in the middle of fiddling with his sleeve when William opened the door. The shirt was a cream colour (a desire to be well-received), contrasting sharply with Red’s heavy tan, with brown stripes in a subtle plaid (a wish that a relationship would return to an earlier state). It didn’t fit him quite right, slightly too wide at the shoulder and slightly too tight at the wrist (unworthiness). The pants were high and heavy in brown (a much-anticipated reunion), but at least fit better. He looked a little taller—white and brown shoes (confidence in oneself), so different from his heavy work boots.

“Good evening,” William said, gesturing for Red to come in with a smile.

“Evening.” He smiled back, jamming his hands in his pockets to keep from fiddling with the buttons on his sleeves. He felt ridiculous. The man at the store had insisted the shirt was fine, it was meant to be buttoned at the wrist, but it just felt like it was choking his forearms. At least it was better than that green and yellow corduroy shirt the salesman had tried to rope him into. If you were going to wear corduroy, why have short sleeves? What was the point?

At least the cream and brown felt appropriate. Every other colour had felt wrong today. This was special. Hence the new outfit, the shoes, the shirt. It felt appropriate.

He wondered if William would notice.

“Thanks for—I mean, were you busy?” He added, feeling like it wasn’t enough, not yet.

“I haven’t been particularly busy here, no. It has been a welcome break,” William replied, leading Red into the dining room, to that same table they’d sat at—had it only been two days ago? Everything seemed so different, now.

Red sat, even though he didn’t want to. He wanted to hug William, to kiss him, to tell him all the thoughts he had and the conclusions he came to and how excited he was to go to Australia, but that wasn’t fair. Not yet. He still wondered, worried, that William would still reject him. After how Red had left, everything William had done for him—

No.

Red paused. He took a deep breath. He let the tension out of his shoulders. It was fine. They would talk, and it would be fine. He didn’t need to worry. “Have you done… the business? You came for?” He asked, awkwardly, trying to hide his nerves.

He shook his head, and sat in the chair beside Red. “My business is in Atlanta, this is just a stop on the way,” he paused. “Well, I wanted to speak to the local duke in person, to assure myself that you were safe here.”

“I appreciate that. Your looking out for me, I mean.” Red started fiddling with the buttons again. He couldn’t not.

“It’s the least I could do, after what I’ve put you through.”

Why did you even need buttons on your sleeves? It’s wasteful. “No, it was really generous. And I put you through a lot too.”

“Nothing I hadn’t known I was risking,” William replied nonchalantly.

“Yes, but… hell’s bells. Sorry, I just…” He unbuttoned the sleeves and started rolling them up his forearms to the elbow. Half first, then half again, the proper way, like William had shown him over a year ago. “I do not know how you wear so many layers all the time without needing to be put in an asylum, I swear.”

William chuckled. “I don’t believe I feel the heat the way I used to,” he admitted.

“It’s not even about the heat, it’s annoying.” Red muttered. “It feels too tight, like it’s going to rip. And it cuts off blood flow. Okay.” He breathed a sigh of relief and rested his free forearms onto the table. “That’s better. But doesn’t it drive you batty? All the layers and buttons?”

He considered this. “Sometimes. I miss tunics, but I can’t imagine suits will remain in fashion much longer.” Formalwear for European men, normally so quickly changing, had stagnated for more than a century, now. William looked forward to what would come next.

“Tunics? Like a dress?”

“Yes, with tights. Practical and comfortable.”

“Oh no, wasn’t there…” Red snapped his fingers a few times. “Wasn’t there a painting of you, and you were wearing this waistcoat, but your waist was really thin? And you had that high neck thing?”

“I’m honestly impressed you paid attention when I showed you those paintings,” he said, no malice in his voice as his smile grew.

“Of course I paid attention, it’s you,” Red said, easily. He half expected to feel embarrassed by his own earnestness, but nothing came. “Come to think of it, there were so many paintings of you with big high neck shirts. Wouldn’t it be suffocating if you weren’t, well… “ He gestured vaguely at his neck. Okay, that was embarrassing.

“I assure you that humans wore similar clothing at the time.” His smile had now formed a grin.

“Ugh. Awful. I’d rather the tunic.” Red grinned back. He paused. He reached over to take William’s hand. “I… um.”

And William waited. Like he did. He held Red’s hand gently.

“Did you think about… what we talked about? The other day?”

“Of course I did. Did you?”

“Yes.” Red rubbed the back William’s hand with his thumb. “Did you… have any… thoughts? About it?”

William took in a long, deliberate breath. “I am worried that we have not adequately addressed the issues that led to us being in this situation in the first place. Or that some future issue we have not anticipated will come to light, and you will find that intolerable.”

“That’s… that’s fair. That’s very fair. And I get what you mean.”

“I’m hoping that it won’t be an issue again…” William looked at their hands, at how Red’s hand sat in his. “I have been thinking differently. Thinking more. I feel… more pride in who I am, now.”

Red hesitated. “There’s something… can I ask you something? I can’t think of a way to phrase it that isn’t rude, but I don’t mean it to be.”

“By all means,” he gestured.

“Were you… not proud before?”

He smiled. “I know I’m not a terribly humble man.”

“See? It sounded rude!” Red laughed. He couldn’t help it. He still didn’t know what to say, how to make things go back to the way they were, but it was the most relaxed he had felt in weeks.

William laughed, too. It was infectious. “Let me finish!” he protested. “My pride before, it came from my accomplishments, or my possessions.”

“And now?”

“Now, I take pride in my character. In my morality. In how I treat others.” William paused. “I know I have a long way to go, to improve. But I worry that it won’t be fast enough for you, or that I won’t ever reach the standard that you require.”

“I feel like…” Red took his time, considered his words. He wanted to be honest. He wanted to say things right. William waited. “I don’t know if this is a bad thing, but… I feel like the fact you’re trying… it means a lot. A lot more than most things would. That you are trying, that you care enough to try, it means a lot to me. Even if it does take a long time.”

William looked down. It might take a long time. Time Red was unlikely to have, as a janissary. “I am pleased to hear that. It has been trying at times, emotionally. And no doubt it will grow trying socially as well.” He sighed. “And I appreciate how you, too, have re-examined your own perspectives.”

“I’ve tried.” Red murmured. He was a little proud of that, not that he would admit it. “Talking to Julias helped—the whole thing about… I assumed I knew what was best for him. And that wasn’t fair. I don’t know him that well, it’s not my call to make. It… it made me realise that I’ve been a bit…” He searched for the words. “Judgemental? Rigid? I don’t really know what the word is, just that… I’ve spent a long time trying to do the right thing, what I assumed the right thing was, and it made me miserable, and made me assume things, and… I mean, I’ve only just figured this out, I know that, and there’s probably a lot I need to think about, to re-examine, but I’m going to try and… be better. About everything. About Julias, and about me, and about you.”

William nodded. “I do love your sense of duty, but I have noticed that you make yourself miserable over rules far beyond what is called for. I recall once, when it had been bucketing with rain all day, and you insisted you had to go outside to chop firewood for the school, even though it didn’t matter, it could wait, you were insistent that you had said you were going to do it so you would, even though it could have waited and you hated it. There is no… honour in sacrificing to no end.”

“I think I’m starting to figure that out.” Red admitted. He reached out with his other hand to hold both of William’s in both of his. “Is this okay?”

William nodded. “Indeed, it is.” he paused, considering his next words. “I am not as concerned as I was, before. I believe, if we are both willing to make the appropriate effort, that we may yet have a future.”

“I hope we do.” Red smiled, stroking the back of William’s hand.

“Me too,” William smiled, but it had a grim edge to it. “I fear, still, that we may not have a present.”

Red froze. “What do you mean?”

“The immediate concern is the question of what to do with Julias,” William said, finally.

“I was wondering about that myself.” Red felt almost relieved it was at least being discussed now, and wasn’t something he would overthink and worry about.

“Julias will only tell me what he thinks will make me happy, not the truth. So I can’t trust him to tell me what will make him happy.” William let go of Red’s hands to expansive gestures as he often did when he was frustrated. “So, if I can’t trust him to be honest, what are the alternatives? I was considering, instead of freeing him, giving him to his son. But… his son doesn’t like me very much.”

Red laughed, more of the tension fading from his body. “Oh, really? Why could that be?”

He frowned. “For one, I own his father. Secondly, I have the sense that vampires are not his favourite people.”

“No kidding.” Red was smiling now, he couldn’t help it. Despite everything, despite the topic, it felt… a little more comfortable. A little nicer.

“And he threatened me,” William continued, gesturing outwards.

“Did you feel threatened, or was it a threat he made to make himself feel better?”

“You know me, I am constantly terrified,” William said dryly, placing his hands together again, feeling comfortable enough to sit in a more dignified, still way. “So yes, it was quite threatening, and for that reason I am not going to be willing to give Julias to his son, for fear that he’ll find a way to word an order strongly enough to kill me.”

“Why would the order have to be wordered strongly? I mean, if he wants you dead, and asks for it, shouldn’t that be enough for Julias?” Red asked, unable to contain his curiosity.

“Julias told me that it’s almost impossible for him to betray, let alone kill, a former master because it would make the current master fear that he may be used against him later on. And he’s right, as far as I can tell. He’s one of three gargoyles I know of, so there’s not a lot of precedent, but in my research I have not heard of a gargoyle harming a former master in any way. Not so much as divulging a secret.”

“So, it sounds like it would be safe? Give him to his son, even if he hates you?”

“Well, gargoyles tend not to be given to or inherited by people who have ill-will towards their former masters, so it’s hard to tell where a gargoyle’s precommitment will lose to a gargoyle’s desire to please their current master. Gargoyles keep the secrets of past masters because their present masters desire for their secrets to be kept in the future, but Julias’s son—who, need I remind you, doesn’t particularly care for vampires or for me in particular—may care more about killing me than about the possibility of being killed by Julias in the future.There are too many unknowns, which makes it too risky for me.”

Red considered this. “That’s fair.” His smile faded, and he could feel the tension creeping back into his shoulders. “It sounds like you’ve been… considering him, a lot. His… job, and all.” It was finally sinking in that William really had been thinking about it. He was thinking about it because it was important to Red. He had changed his mind.

“Indeed. I wish I could trust him to be honest with me, but I can’t. If he thinks I’ll be happiest with him free, then he’ll lie to make it seem like it’s best for him. If he thinks I’ll be happiest with him serving me, then he’ll lie to make that seem best for him.”

“Can you order him to tell you honestly?” Red paused. He scratched his head. “Wait. Maybe that’s wrong, ordering him to do that.”

“An order isn’t magic. Gargoyles strive to make their masters happy. The only reason Julias chooses to follow my orders is because I am an authority on what makes me happy—and if Julias thinks he knows better, then he’ll ignore whatever I have to say on the matter. Did you notice that he stayed even though I’d told him to leave, the other day?”

“I did,” Red replied. It had seemed unusual at the time.

“So I’ve got very little idea what his preferences actually are, about all this.” William made another broad movement, his arm sweeping across the room, as though the room was what frustrated him.

“Me neither, honestly.” Red put his chin in his hand, thinking. “He’s told me a few times, but with the whole… situation, I never know if he’s being honest or not.”

“I doubt we’ll ever know. I’m trying to trust what I know about gargoyles, but it’s hard to know what’s true and what has been invented because they’re convenient.” William sighed. “He went bowling with you again yesterday, didn’t he? Did he talk to you?”

“Yeah. We talked a lot, actually. About him, but… about us too. About me.” Red busied himself with looking at the ceiling, scratching the back of his neck, suddenly too uncomfortable to look at William at all.

“Oh? What in particular?”

“It… brought up some things for me. About why I left, about everything… everything I do, basically. How I think about things, how I act, about… now that... Wait, no, not that you’re a thing, or he is, I mean…” He took a deep breath. Took his time. He didn’t need to rush, not now.

William nodded, his hands now calmly clasped in front of him at the table. He made a tiny rolling movement with his finger, encouraging Red to take his time to think.

“But I get it, more than I used to, and the other day… I was scared, I think. I worried I’d just want to be with you because I missed you, and that’s part of it, but it’s also… you’ve been considering things too, right?” Red couldn’t keep the edge of pleading out of his voice. He needed William to have been considering things. He needed William to have changed. He wanted William so badly it almost physically hurt, but Red knew, underneath all the longing, he couldn’t be with William if he hadn’t been reconsidering things. William had been talking about it, Red knew that, but he needed to hear him, needed the reassurance.

“More than you can know,” William considered whether to continue. Of course he would: the time for hiding things was long past. “You can’t imagine the things I’ve done. The things I’ve seen. Many of them were horrific. Many more of them were wonderful. Some, both. I have done a lot of… recontextualisation. Realisation that I, too, am a flawed part of creation, and do not have the right to lord my power in the way I have been.”

Red smiled. “You’re my favourite person.” He loved the way William spoke, self-important and humble and with perfect words at once. Red cleared his throat, remembering the task at hand, and the gravity of what William had said. “Recontextualisation is the right word. I get it. I don’t fully understand Julias, and I might not ever, but it wasn’t fair for me to assume I knew what was best for him. But more than that, I was…” He paused to breathe again. To think. To consider. William waited. “It made me notice more… what you were. It made me think of you in a way that was… different. Less idealised. And it scared me, but mostly… it scared me, because I thought you didn’t care. And couldn’t change. I assumed I knew you better than you did. And that wasn’t fair either. I’m sorry.”

“It’s probably good for you to think of me in that way. It’s better if you know… how I’m different from you. Beyond the obvious.”

“I’m glad you think so. I don’t know if I would be so... understanding in your shoes.”

“I’m sure you would be. You’re a kind and empathic man.” William replied.

Red smiled, ducking his head, almost hiding in his collar. Those kinds of compliments still embarrassed him, a little, in a good way. “Kind of pig-headed though.”

“It’s impolite to refuse a compliment,” he said, smiling.

“Everything is always impolite.” He paused. He smiled. He stood, resting his hands, palm down, open fingers on the table, to lean over William. “Like, if I were to kiss you now, would that be impolite?”

He laughed. “I don’t think so, considering the circumstances under which I thought it was appropriate to first kiss you.”

“Are you sure? I can write a letter if you want. Wax seal and everything.”

“It would take at least three minutes to prepare the sealing kit, and another for the seal to set. I doubt either of us want to wait that long.” William smirked.

“Well, I’ve waited a few months now and I can probably—no, no, I can’t, that was a lie.” Red almost lunged to close the space between them, grabbing William’s face to hold him, faces very close together, their noses almost touching, and then to close the gap to kiss him.

The tension went out of Red’s shoulders as soon as he felt the softness of William’s mouth and the way William clung onto him as he stood, holding Red’s body close and firm, as though he was something precious.

It was quiet, intimate, reverent, gentle as they felt themselves come together again, after so long.

After too long.

William carefully pulled away, holding Red just as firmly, but now seemingly aware that Red needed to breathe. He stared at Red, his face gleaming with adoration.

Red gripped him, not wanting to let go all the more for not having to. “I love you.”

“I love you,” William replied, taking in the feel of Red’s soft skin through his clothing, the subtle plaid pattern that meant Red wanted to be with Willian. William had not wanted to get his hopes up when he first saw it, but that was indeed what it had meant.

Red took a few more deep breaths, breathing in William’s smell, finally relaxing in a way he hadn’t felt himself relax in so long. How could he have been so tense and not noticed? It felt like how his hands felt when he had been shovelling ore or slagging for hours and hours, how his hands would almost ache with the relief of being able to let go. Only now, it was his whole body. He felt it down into his gut. He never wanted to let go.

The knowledge that he didn’t have to was the only thing that could make him let go, but not after a good long while of just being there, being held and holding William back. “Okay. Right.” He cleared his throat.

“I missed you,” William said, so firm and earnest.

“I missed you so much!” Red smiled and cupped William’s jaw to kiss him again, the kind of small, brief kisses Red enjoyed so much, particularly just because they were so reassuring and plentiful. He would get to have that again. He was getting giddy with excitement at the thought.

Okay.

Red took a deep breath, smelling William. He knew he should focus on the problem he came to discuss. Then it would be over and they would be done talking about it and he could just be happy.

Okay. Focus.

“Okay. Right. I need to... I just need to… um.”

“Yes?” William asked, waiting for Red to gather his thoughts together, gently running a hand over his back.

“First…” Red hesitated. He had so many things to ask. There were so many answers he needed, if only to settle the circling questions in his mind. “What happened in Sardinia? What happened the time you came home with that horrible burn that you told me was from a fireplace, as though I would believe you for a second? You can’t… I mean, I don’t want you to be keeping secrets from me, William.”

William sighed. “There are some secrets I may yet keep. Sardinia is one of them.”

“William. Please.”

“Nothing about Sardinia puts you in danger, and my telling you would only serve to put myself in danger.”

“And the fireplace?”

“That…” William looked at him, shamed by the bare concern that filled Red’s eyes. “That, I can. It’s another ritual. It demonstrates trust, among other things. To allow someone to wound you in that way.”

“You were wounded. On purpose. Right. Right.” Red was beyond being surprised by vampire behaviour at this point; he couldn’t imagine doing something like that, but if William thought it was normal, who was he to doubt? Though the idea of William being hurt—on purpose, no less—made his stomach clench painfully. “And… after the war. You lost. You said that… other people like you, other vampires, would look down on you? Are you… is it... okay?” More than anything, Red wanted to assuage his own guilt. He wanted it to be okay, so badly.

“I have been through worse, let me assure you. It’s not… uncommon for something like this to happen. I am expected to go on a sort of procession, teach the young some of my skills. I did that while we were apart, and will continue to have obligations in that realm for twenty or thirty years.”

Red breathed a sigh of relief. “So, you’re not… permanently disgraced? I haven’t ruined your life?”

William’s gaze softened. “Of course not, my dear. Never.” He paused, a slight smirk forming. “It helps that Elodia has a poor reputation.”

Red smiled. He was glad that vampires didn’t think much of Elodia, either. But he had one more question, one he didn’t want to ask. The one he was most scared would shift the way he saw William, in a way he wouldn’t be able to undo. He steeled himself. “What’s going to happen with Julias? What’s actually best for him?” Red dropped his hands down William’s arms, to hold his hands, to focus on them. William always had such nice fingernails. Red’s were always broken and gnawed at the skin at the edges. He would have to stop doing that. Bad habit. Right, focus. “And not just, what we think but, what’s good for him in the long term. Do you get what I mean? His personal growth and all.”

William sighed. “As I said, he cannot be trusted. I believe him when he says he is happy as things are. I believe that he does love his son, however different that love might be. For now, I think it is best to give him some measure of freedom and see how that affects him. I was going to propose two evenings of leisure a week, and a month over summer, when the nights are short. He could go be with his son for the European winter.”

“Hmm.” Red considered this. “I think that sounds like a good idea. Maybe he’ll warm up to it, the idea of being free all the time, one day in the future. Or he won’t. Who knows.”

“It will give me more to work with, at least.” William shrugged. “Some idea of whether he is happier with free time, or not.”

“That’s what I was thinking.” Red moved his hands back to William’s waist. “Can I be there when you talk to him?”

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Julias ironed William’s shirts, which were slightly wrinkled from travelling. He feared if he was freed before he was finished, that the small wrinkles would still be there, and he didn’t want to shoulder the risk that William may require a shirt he hadn’t anticipated and have to arrange for a janissary to iron it, or worse still, have to iron it himself.

There was subtle but genuine joy radiating from William as he stood with his arm around Red, kissed Red’s forehead, and eventually broke the embrace to face Julias.

Julias tried to revel in William’s happiness, to appreciate it while he still could. He knew what was probably coming. He didn’t know how he would feel, after it was done. That scared him. But how could he possibly be happy knowing his only source of happiness—his need to bring about happiness in William—was anathema to William’s happiness, and so needed to be excised?

“Good evening, Julias,” William said, calm and soft, as though he didn’t understand the cruel act he was about to perform. A cruelty that Julias nonetheless wanted with the force of everything he was.

Julias smiled, a perfect facsimile as the unseen mass of him beneath William’s notice trembled in fear and anticipation. “Good evening, William. Red, I am pleased to see you’re well.” He smiled, seeming light and casual, wanting William’s social situation to remain comfortable for as long as Julias had control over it.

“Thanks.” Red smiled. Julias could see it there too, how happy he was. Red’s joy was far less subtle, radiating off him in bright waves. He wouldn’t have cared, would barely have noticed, but Red’s happiness was important to William.

“I can’t trust you, Julias,” William stated, direct and to the point—the way he always spoke to subordinates.

Red cringed. What was William doing? For someone so obsessed with politeness, he was being downright rude—no, awful.

William,” Red murmured, trying to not sound scolding. It was gentle, but came out a little chiding nonetheless. Julias saw that William didn’t like the guilt that Red had caused him to experience, how his normally proudly held shoulders slackened at the force of it.

Julias’s face showed hurt and concern. “Why do you say that, y—William?” He had started addressing William as ‘your majesty’, wanting to mollify him, to laud him, but the way William’s demeanor began to harden as the phoneme left his mouth had him change to the more casual form of address. Julias focused, now. Every part of him tried to anticipate William’s need.

“Why do you think?” William asked.

This was a trap. William and Red had spoken out of earshot, and now things more important than which honorific he used demanded his full attention. Julias trembled in all the myriad of his unseen places, so much so that some of it threatened to reach the surface. He hid it well, and only because he knew it would upset William to see Julias’s unease.

“It makes you uncomfortable that I am unable to tell you what I want in a way you can trust is honest,” Julias replied. William being unable to trust Julias made William sad for two reasons: because William cared about Julias (and wanted to know whether he was truly happy), and because without knowing Julias’s true motivations, William couldn’t be sure Julias wouldn’t harm him in some way. Julias couldn’t change either of those: Red had left in the first place because William didn’t care about Julias, so it was important that William continue to care. And vampires were too paranoid to take at face value anything that might affect their safety.

“Do you know of a way that I might be able to trust you?” William asked. Julias was older than he was, and might know about magics that William didn’t.

There was no guarantee Julias could give, of any of it. There was only the reputation of gargoyles as a people, as devoted and selfless servants who did anything for those they were bonded to. No potion that could make him truthful, no mind reading device that could see his thoughts.

Julias sighed. “No, and believe me, I have searched.”

William returned the sigh. “There is no magic that could verify your statements?”

Julias shook his head. “No, there’s no magic that would work on me, because I don’t have the same sort of brain as you.” He knew that his physiology was too different from a human, from a vampire, from a werewolf or a siren or a sphynx or a minotaur or from everything else he had seen. Gargoyles were different, fundamentally. It was no doubt the reason that Red and Erlis and William could not comprehend Julias’s values.

Red half-considered asking for more information, but this certainly wasn’t the time for it.

William put his fingers on his temples. “I can free you, if you wish it. Do you?”

Julias looked at Red. William had only started to consider this for Red’s sake, so it was Red whose opinion mattered the most. The fear reverberating deep within Julias was nothing compared to even a slight preference from Red.

“We just want you to do what’s right for you,” Red said gently. Sincerely. Julias believed it, deep within himself. Julias wasn’t like a human: he wasn’t capable of lying to himself, of using motivated reasoning to justify a falsehood. He believed Red valued Julias’s preferences in a similar way to how Julias valued William’s. Similar in kind, but different in degree.

Julias nodded. “In complete honesty, no,” he replied. Without magic, he couldn’t provide William with certitude, but he tried to offer something. “The only guarantee I can give that I’m not lying to be able to remain in your service is to tell you that I would sooner have you give me to your greatest rival than to be freed.”

William sighed. “Very well. I shan’t give you to Queen Kalina, for I don’t know if she would give you what I am about to give you.”

“That is very generous of you, to give me something,” Julias said, for he knew that William valued being seen as a kind man.

“I will pay you a wage, and provide you two evenings off a week. A month during the southern summer—January, most likely. And… let’s require you to make one selfish request from me each year.”

The thought of not being around William, of not tending to his every need, for even two evenings a week left a hollowness deep inside Julias. The month was unthinkable. But he could tell William valued feeling generous, even if he wasn’t being so.

It was a hollowness he could abide.

It was an amputation, but of a finger rather than a whole arm.

He tried to fill that hollow with the knowledge that William wanted this from him.

That helped, minutely.

“Is that okay with you?” Red asked.

Julias realised with a start that a response was expected of him. “Right. Of course, William.” He paused. “I would sooner work for you every day of the year, but I sense this is not what you want.”

“No,” William said. It was strange, he realised, that he genuinely was uncomfortable at the thought of having a person spend every waking moment devoted to him. Red had changed him. “It will make me happy to see you enjoy your leisure. And it will give you stories to tell me.”

Julias’s hollow filled an iota more, to know that his leisure could benefit William. “Then it would be my honour to serve you in that way, your majesty.” He bowed. He knew Wiliam would want there to be a sense of occasion, of formality to this interaction.

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The sun was coming up as Red started his walk home.

That was one thing he missed, and was looking forward to again. Often, he would stay up all night with William, and then enjoy the sunrise before he went to bed himself. There was something special about this time of the morning. The air was crisp, clean. There were many times he wouldn’t see anyone, and when he did, they were always on their way somewhere. They had a purpose. He liked that.

It also gave him time to think.

There was no doubt anymore. He wanted to be with William. He wanted to travel and be with him and live a good life where he made good choices. Choices not borne of duty, but of what would make the world better.

And part of that would mean being honest. With Dorothy. About everything. Well. Almost everything. Not the vampire part. But about what happened when he left. About deserting. About where he had been. About William.

The thought made his chest tighten in a way that no amount of crisp morning air would ease. He had hated lying to her, but… was telling the truth really better? It had to be.

She would probably be mad. Maybe she would be relieved that nothing horrible had actually happened to him. He tried to figure out how he would feel in her shoes. He would be hurt that she lied. Maybe angry. Probably shocked. But he thought he would be mostly relieved, and glad she had been honest. He would be excited for her, that she was in love and happy.

But maybe that was wishful thinking. Very wishful thinking.

He tried to practice what he would say. Nothing sounded right.

When Red walked into the house, Dorothy was already awake, sitting in the old rocking chair with Ida sitting in her lap, drinking from a glass bottle. It wasn’t unheard of, but it was inconvenient. Red would have really liked to have been able to sleep before he saw her.

“Good morning.” He closed the door as quietly as he could. “Ida’s up early again?”

Dorothy gave him a tired smile. “Unfortunately, yes. Did she wake you?”

“I was already up.” He shrugged, not technically lying. He moved to stand beside them. “Did you want me to stay up with her for a bit?”

She shook her head. “You should go back to sleep. No sense in us both being up.”

He smiled and rubbed her back gently. “What if I make us both coffee?”

“That would be great. Thank you.”

Red went into the kitchen to make the coffee, walking as quietly as he could. Had to place his hands on the counter, to steady himself. He was shaking, just a little, just enough to be a worry. This was just like that first day, when William had kissed him. That same nervous energy that came from not knowing what to do, what to say. Only this was far less fun. He was scared of the uncertainty that came with not knowing what was in store for him. He hated this feeling.

He drank a cup of cold water in the hopes the chill would steady him. It didn’t.

With trembling hands, he poured water into the bottom of his coffee percolator. He added coffee to the top, placed them together, and put the whole contraption on the stovetop to boil.

As the pot boiled, he thought of what he should say, how much he should reveal. The whole truth would certainly be too much for her. Admitting he lied and admitting that he was with someone and had been for quite some time?

No, that would definitely be enough for one day. And he was sure she wouldn’t believe him if he talked about vampires and gargoyles.

The water moved into the top of the percolator, the familiar aromatic, burnt smell filling the room. No, he’d only tell her the most important parts. Where he had been. Where he was going. And why.

He poured the coffee into two cups, and added enough cool water to Dorothy’s that it wouldn’t hurt Ida if it spilled. Red knew she would never let it happen, but he also knew that Dorothy would worry. She worried about a lot of things. Like he did.

He came back into the sitting room and set their cups on the table beside her, gently nudging her cup so she knew which to drink.

“Thanks.” She smiled, picking it up to take a sip. Red pulled a chair up by the table and picked up his cup, holding it in his hands and not drinking. Nobody said anything for a long time.

“So, a man I met in Europe is in town.” Red said, finally, still not technically lying. His hands still shook as he took a sip of his hard, bitter cup of coffee.

“Oh? Is that who you have been spending so much time with, lately?”

“Uh, yes. I have.” He resisted the urge to run his fingers around the rim of the coffee cup. He had become aware of how much he fidgeted. He wanted to stop. He didn’t want to be nervous. Maybe if he didn’t have nervous habits, he wouldn’t be so nervous anymore.

“It must be good, to be able to talk to someone,” she said, stroking the baby’s hair as it lay in her lap.

“It really has been.” Red’s fingers started circling the cup. He couldn’t not fidget. “I’m sorry for… for not… for not talking to you, more.”

She glanced down at Ida and smiled, and looked back up at Red. “It’s fine,” she waved her hand. “I can’t begin to know what it was like at the camp. None of us can.”

Red felt the guilt flow over him. Through all the discussion with William, about everything, about how he would have died anyway, about how lying spared everyone, how sometimes it was kinder to do immoral things than disappoint others, about… what were the terms he used? The philosophical ones? After discussing all of that, he felt like he could almost beat the guilt back, but now here it was again, almost drowning him with it.

“I… well…”

Maybe he should just keep lying. Lie about what happened. Dorothy could grow old and die and think that Red was brave and good and they would just never talk about it. That would be easy enough, wouldn’t it?

“The thing is…”

She shook her head. She didn’t let him finish. “Red, no. You don’t need to say anything.”

“That’s the thing, I kind of do.” His whole body felt hot. There was an unpleasant feeling crawling up his neck, not fear. Maybe shame, but white hot and sending tendrils of nausea into his belly.

It would be so easy not to say anything. Move away and leave on good terms. She even gave him a way out. She said he didn’t need to say anything.

Maybe it was even selfish telling her. He’d be including her in the lie. Then she would have to decide to keep his secret. Maybe that was selfish.

A dozen reasons to shut up, to walk away, to leave it, were circling in his head.

No. He had made the choice. He wanted to be honest. He chose to be honest.

“I need to tell you…” He took a deep, steadying breath. He set the coffee down on the table. All it did was shine a spotlight on how much his hands were shaking. “I need to tell you… that I lied about some things. A lot of things, actually.”

“What?”

“You’re going to hate me. And I want to ask you not to hate me, but… you can. And you should. And it’s not fair to ask you to not hate me.”

Dorothy’s face softened, her eyes growing hard and warm with concern. She didn’t glance back at Ida for a very long time. “There is no way you could have possibly done anything to warrant that.”

Red laughed, and that feeling alone was enough to break the seal, to make his eyes water. In a way, the horrible guilt, the horrible feeling that snaked up his neck and down into his belly had eased. It was inevitable now. He had made a choice. He could handle the consequences of it.

He wondered if this is how he would feel when he died one day.

“Oh, you would be surprised.” He wiped his eye with the heel of his hand. He couldn’t drink his coffee. “I deserted. I deserted, Dorothy. I panicked, and I ran as soon as I could.”

He was suddenly hit by the absurdity of why he had made the coffee for himself at all. He wanted to have something to do with his hands. Something to distract him. As though it would be possible to drink anything when he felt so awful.

“And instead of going back, to try and make up for it, I stayed hidden.”

Did he really think he could have drunk anything? With this heat in his face and his neck and the nausea in his belly and his neck and this feeling in his neck—

“And I didn’t write, I didn’t tell you I was safe, I let you and Mom think I was dead because that was safer, I didn’t know how to tell you but more than that, I let you suffer and grieve because I was scared they would find me and I was scared of them finding out and you finding out… ”

He hadn’t eaten breakfast.

The feeling in his stomach was worse.

Could he ever eat again?

“And I justified it to myself by thinking maybe it was better if you thought I was dead, and maybe that was true, maybe that’s true now but it was because I was scared. Maybe it would have been better if I had died, but I didn’t, and I ran away. I was selfish and I ran and I should have died and I said nothing and I hid and...”

Could anything ever go into him again without him throwing up from the guilt and the heat and this horrible oily feeling of dread in the pit of his stomach?

“And then I met William and… everything changed for me. Everything stopped being so scary. I was… I was enraptured with him.” The pool of shame and guilt in Red eased a little, just at the thought of him. “He made it feel okay. Made me feel okay, better than I’ve ever felt in my life even though I was still so scared of being found and I was lying and I was trying not to think of what I was putting you and Mom through, and I know that was selfish but I... I was the happiest I’ve ever been. I’d never been so happy, I’ve never been so happy.”

The horrible oily feeling gave way to relief. He had said it. He had told the truth. He wouldn’t be hiding things anymore. He was crying. He hadn’t even realised he was crying. Tears were pouring down his cheeks, burning hot, filled with months of nausea and guilt and hatred and relief.

“And so many things happened, so many just… horrible and wonderful things that I can’t wait to tell you about, that you aren’t even going to believe, and then the war was just over and…”

He hiccuped, and for a moment he wondered if that would bring up the vomit of bile and nothing in his belly.

“And I was happy the war was over, I was, I was so happy for everyone and then I was… I was scared again because it meant everything was over, that it had to change, that I would probably be caught and I’d be found out for what I was and everything would collapse, but… William protected me. Despite everything that happened, despite what it was… that it was me, and I wasn’t... he still loved me. He wanted me to be safe. He listened to me and he made everything okay despite… despite the fact that it’s me. He loves me and wants me safe because it’s me.”

He wiped his eyes with his hands again, breathing hard into his palms.

“And I wish I could make you understand because I know it was reckless, and I know it was selfish, but I thought… I was trying to grab everything with both hands because it felt like it would be taken away, that sooner or later the other shoe would drop and I’d have nothing and I don’t…”

His hands were pressing so hard against his eyeballs he saw flickering grey squiggles behind his eyelids. He took a deep breath and wiped his eyes again, pressing so hard with the heels of his hands that he could feel the hard edges of bone in his eye sockets.

“And then it did drop because… because of everything, because nothing’s perfect, and I had to figure some things out, but that’s a whole other long story and I want to explain it all, another time, and then… “ He swallowed. “I came back. I came back here, and… and… “

He lifted his eyes to meet Dorothy’s to see her expression, unreadable through his own blurred vision.

“And I lied. I lied about everything. I lied about the camp, I lied about what happened, I lied about William because… because I wanted to come home. I lied because I was scared.”

He felt a hiccup rising in his chest again. This time it burned in his throat. He knew he would throw up. He wrapped his arms around his ribs, feeling his heart pound against his forearms, like there was no bone there at all.

“I was scared of the army, I was scared of what you would think, I was scared about Mom, and… I thought lying would be easier. I’m sorry. I’m sorry for all of it. I shouldn’t have… I shouldn’t have done it, but I don’t know what else I could have done.”

He took a deep shuddering breath. The tendrils of nausea slackened, releasing their hold around his neck. The heat was slowly easing, though Red felt it had to be coming off him in waves. He took a hurried sip of his coffee. It burned.

“You can hate me if you want. You should. I want to ask you not to hate me, but I can’t ask you that. If it helps…” He laughed in relief, in a way that wasn’t funny. “If it helps, you probably can’t hate me anymore than I’ve been hating myself. I’m trying not to. William… he tried to talk me out of it. But…” He wiped his eyes again. “Sorry. Sorry. I know that was… a lot. A lot to put on you. A lot. At once.”

“What,” was all Dorothy could say at first.

“You… ran?” She stared at Red.

“Who is William?” She looked down at the baby in her lap.

“You… ran? What?” She stuttered out each phrase in turn, pulling the bottle away from Ida almost robotically, leaning her over her shoulder, and gently patting her back.

Red let out a massive breath, one he had barely managed to breathe in in the first place. “It’s a lot, I know. I ran. William, he… Well, he’s a lot too. He’s great, but a lot.” He gripped the coffee, taking another small sip. He needed something to do with his hands other than fidget.

“You weren’t in a camp?”

“No.” He sighed. “And I know I shouldn’t have lied, and I know how bad it is. I know it’s bad, but… it felt like the only option. Even if it never felt… good. Moral. Right.”

She stayed quiet for a long time, but there was a determination in her eyes that Red knew meant she was about to speak, that it would be harsh, and she expected to be listened to. He dreaded it, but knew he would deserve it. He knew she deserved the chance to say it.

Anything she said would be okay. Nothing she could say would be worse than what he had been saying to himself for the past year.

“I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I’m glad that Mom didn’t get to see you come back.”

Except that. His blood ran cold. The heat that burned his skin was definitely gone now. Even the coffee cup in his hands felt cold.

“What?” Red said finally, the word barely croaking out of him.

“She was so proud of you. We both were. How you were so brave and strong, when you got on the train. How handsome you looked in your uniform. James looks up to you.”

Red swallowed. He wasn’t sure what he had expected. He had expected Dorothy to shout, say she hated him, maybe he had dared to hope she wouldn’t, but…

No. He didn’t have a right to expect that of her. How she reacted was fair, whatever it was.

It still stung.

“I was terrified.” Red knew she would be mad, he knew that, but still felt himself explaining it all the same. Trying to make it okay. Trying to make her be okay. “I kept trying to convince myself it wouldn’t be that bad, and I believed it, right until… I’m sorry. I’m sorry I lied.”

“You always were a coward, weren’t you?”

“I don’t…” Red paused. He didn’t want to try and justify what he had done, despite everything William had said, the justification he had now. “I know. I know I have. I’m… I don’t want to be. I didn’t…” He took another mouthful of coffee, wanting a reason not to continue stuttering.

“So what were you doing, while me and Mom were reading news reports about the Italian campaign and worrying about you? When we got the letter that you were MIA?”

“I… kept busy.” The answer fell flat, even to him. He didn’t want to go into it. Not now. “I am sorry, Dorothy. I really am.”

“What with? Learning—god, who was that man who visited earlier this week?”

“That’s Julias. He works for William. It’s a long story.”

“So who is William?” She spoke softly, out of respect for the baby that had fallen asleep on her shoulder. But her anger was clear. She was almost shaking with it.

Red paused, unsure if even answering was a good idea. Maybe it would make her angrier. No, not answering would make her angrier. He had to answer.

“He’s my…” Red hesitated again. He didn’t know what to say. No word felt strong enough. “He’s… almost my husband, really.” He said eventually, quietly.

She jerked her head up and down in a way that would resemble a nod were it not for the look of disgust on her face growing deeper. “Why not. If you’re already bringing shame to the family, making your mother roll in her grave, why not have a husband too!” She let out a hollow chuckle.

Red took a deep breath, and let it out as quietly as he could—not to sigh, not to sound upset, nothing. “I know that you’re angry, and you have every right to be. I wanted to be honest with you, and I wanted you to know everything, and… I wish I could say something that would make it less awful than it is. Was.” Another sip of coffee. He drank it for comfort, now. For something familiar, normal. Like a baby with a pacifier.

“You can’t tell anyone. Any of this. You can’t do that to us.”

“If you don’t want me to, I won’t.”

“Good. And… I don’t even want to begin to think about… the rest of it. If any of this got out, it’d humiliate all of us.” She straightened her posture, but kept her eyes on the babe on her shoulder. “You kept my secret, so I will keep yours.”

“Thank you.” Red wasn’t sure if he meant it. He knew she had a right to be angry, but he had hoped… No. It didn’t matter what he hoped. “I’m sorry, for… for putting you through this. And everything. I… I tried to make the decisions that seemed right at the time.”

It was done. He had told the truth. He had said everything he wanted to say. It had been unpleasant, hadn’t been too awful, and now he could move past it. Both of them could. Hopefully. She didn’t say anything.

Red let his hopes get up, just a little. “And you could meet William, and he could meet James and Ida too. I’ll be out of your hair, I know you’ll probably enjoy not having your brother hanging around all the time.”

“I don’t want to meet your friend,” she said. The subtle tone she added to the word ‘friend’ said at once both that she was trying to believe William was just a friend to Red, and also that she desperately needed that to be all they were to each other. That she had chosen not to fathom anything else.

He paused. “I… um.” He didn’t know quite where to start with that. “Can I ask why?”

“What you do in private is not my business,” she replied simply. She placed Ida into her lap, still not looking at Red.

That didn’t help much. Red took a sip of coffee, considering his words before he spoke. “Well, it’s not about that. I met James before you got married; I just want you to get to know William too.”

“I don’t think that’s appropriate.”

“Why not?” Red had to keep asking questions. The creeping discomfort of doubt was starting to make the back of his neck itch.

She sighed, frustrated. “Surely it’s obvious?”

“I am… trying to assume the best, here,” Red said slowly.

“So am I,” she said stubbornly. “I’m not interested in meeting your friend.” There was more venom to the word ‘friend’, now. A defiance.

He pressed his fingers together and closed his eyes. He took a deep breath, not wanting to say anything he couldn’t take back.

He wasn’t even angry, not really. He had considered that she wouldn’t be okay with William being a man, but it had been so overshadowed by everything else. The fact of William’s gender seemed so minor in comparison. Honestly, he hadn’t seriously considered that this would be… that she would be like this. He could have accepted almost anything else.

“I thought you were better than this,” he said finally.

“So did I,” she replied.

Red chuckled. He couldn’t help it. Even he was surprised to hear it come out of him. “Well.” He got to his feet. “In that case, I suppose we don’t have to go into the specifics of me leaving then. All for the best, really.”

“Leaving?” She turned her head, looking at him for the first time in a while. Her eyes were red.

His heart went out to her. Even… even if she was being unfair, he didn’t want her to be hurting. “Well. I can’t exactly… no.” He could feel himself itching to justify it, to make it sound like it was something that was out of his hands. It wasn’t. He could choose to stay. He could stay and pretend like everything was fine and do what was expected of him. But he didn’t want to. “William lived in Australia for a long time. And he’s going back. And I’m going with him. I wanted… I wanted to take some time here, make sure things were okay with you, leave on… at least good terms. Maybe you could visit. Maybe I could come home sometimes. But… you would need to know William for that, and you don’t want to, and that’s fine.”

Dorothy shook her head. This was too much for her. “I know you’ve been through a lot…” She sighed.

“So have you,” he said, not unkindly. “I…” Red hesitated. He kept wanting to justify it, to keep explaining, to make it okay. “I’m going to go upstairs. I think… it’s probably best if I go now, isn’t it?”

“You don’t have to go. You can tell your friend to leave you alone.”

Red froze.

He had entertained, somewhere inside him, not with cohesive thought but with a general feeling, that if she had asked him to stay, he would. Not forever, but he would stay and he would try and make things better, make her see things from his point of view, and maybe she would come around and meet William and they would all have a good relationship and—

No. He was doing it again. The same thing he had done with Julias. It was almost funny, how he always felt so swept along with things, like he had always deferred to other people’s choices, assuming they knew better than him, and yet he assumed he would know better then the people he cared about. That if they could just see things from his point of view, if they would just understand, they would agree with him and everything would be fine.

But no. She didn’t understand. She might not ever understand.

And it wasn’t Red’s job to make her understand.

He took one last sip of coffee, finishing his cup.

“I’m going upstairs to pack,” he said, his voice firm but surprisingly warm, even to him.

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Red was surprised at how little time it took to pack. He had felt like he had a life here, even if it was one where he wasn’t completely satisfied. But what was a life, really?

A few changes of clothes, mostly things William had bought him back in Corsica. The little dog statue William had sent him. His ‘good’ shoes that he never really wore. A handful of thin books with paper that had been yellowing even when he bought them. The photo of his mother and sister and him before he had shipped out. The vampire blackmail envelope William had given him. The old coffee tin he had kept the letters and photographs from William in, because some of them smelled a little like

—home—

—how William smelled, and he had wanted to preserve it.

The suitcase wasn’t even hard to close. Room to spare.

He made the bed. He tidied up.

He looked at the painting on the wall, the landscape with trees and the meadow and the pond with little water birds too small and poorly painted to figure out the species. There were more of them now. One had a soft brown colour that was different to the other birds. It had the same tone as Julias’ skin. Red would have to show him. He took the painting too, careful not to touch the dry paint. He had got the sense that the painting wanted to be loved, wanted to be appreciated, wanted to be handled carefully, and he made sure to be gentle when he wrapped it in a blanket to protect it for the journey. He wondered if the birds would be confused or scared, in the darkness. He took the blanket off. He would carry the painting.

He tried to think if there was anything left in this room which he wanted to take, things that felt like enough of a part of him to be attached to. Old toys from when he was a kid, that other people had chosen for him? Books he felt he should read but never really felt interested in?

Were those things a part of him? Had they ever been?

Red dawdled for as long as he felt he could. It felt… disrespectful not to take a long time, and now that he had, he just felt silly.

When he went back downstairs, with his single suitcase and the painting tucked under one arm, Dorothy was in the kitchen, making oatmeal for James’s breakfast. The percolator had been refilled to make another batch of coffee. The baby was in a small wicker bassinet in the corner of the sitting room. Red had fixed that bassinet—there had been a hole. He had weaved in wicker and sanded down the edges so Ida couldn’t be scratched.

Dorothy heard him come down the stairs, and walked out to meet him. She sighed, full of regret and frustration. “Red…”

“Yes?”

“Can we sit for a minute?”

Red nodded. “Of course.”

They returned to the seats they’d been in before. The coffee cups were still there, along with Ida’s empty bottle. Dorothy had spent a long time considering what to say. She knew he was set on doing this. She doubted she could change his mind. “You’re going to Australia?”

“Yes. I think we’re going to Atlanta first, but… it’s not important.”

“You can’t stay? Not even with your…”

He sighed. He didn’t mean to. “I know I put a lot on you. I know it’s a lot to process, and it was a lot to take in, and you… You listened. I appreciate it. But I think… I don’t think it’s right for me to stay anymore. And I think you know that too.”

She nodded. “I have the feeling you made up your mind a while ago.”

“I think I did.” He hesitated. He resisted the urge to pick at his nails. “I’m sorry for… I’m sorry things aren’t… I wish…” He took another deep breath, to collect himself, to order his thoughts. “I wish I could, well, make you understand, I guess.” He had to fidget. He swirled the coffee cup, gently, with his fingers. “I wish I could make it better.”

Dorothy took a breath. She had already ordered her thoughts. “Do you know what happened to me last time? You left, off to do god-knows-what in a foreign country. But it was the honourable thing. Then you disappeared. Worse than if you’d died, because we knew you were dead, but couldn’t mourn you. We thought it was because you’d done the right thing, so there was comfort in that. Pride, even. Then you came back, and it was joyful, I was happy, but… after everything you’ve told me today…” She hesitated. “I don’t remember you being so selfish. And you’re going to put me through the same thing, go to a foreign country with a—a stranger, a criminal, and…” She paused. “You expect me to welcome that?”

Most people consider themselves reasonable, logical people most of the time. Most people try to do the right thing most of the time, try to be charitable to those they love. Most people come back to difficult conversations, to revisit those hard discussions, after everyone has had a chance to decompress, to think things over.

Nobody acts this way all the time.

Everybody has regrets, of times they weren’t more patient, or more understanding. Of times they didn’t swallow their foolish pride.

Red and Dorothy were no exception.

Red didn’t say anything for a long time, watching the miniscule pool of coffee move around the inside of his mug as he fiddled with it, turning it this way and that. “I am sorry, for… for everything. I am sorry I worried you, I’m sorry you grieved, I’m sorry you were here alone when Mom died. I am sorry for lying and I am grateful for how kind you’ve been since I came back. And I am not expecting you to welcome everything and suddenly be okay, but I wanted… I had hoped you would want to try.”

“After everything you’ve done, why should I?”

“Because I would for you,” Red said simply.

He kept expecting himself to be angry, to be frustrated, but he just… wasn’t. She had every right to be upset. He understood that. He also understood, knew, felt, that she had no intention of trying to understand him in return. And that was okay.

Red drummed his fingers on the outside of the mug. “I have spent my whole life just… going along with things. Doing the right thing because that’s what other people thought I should do. But you didn’t. You made choices for yourself.” He spun the mug again, a low twirl going into something faster, more pronounced as the tension uncoiled itself from his body and into the motion of the mug. “And I was always so jealous, because I never did that. I never felt like I made choices for myself. But I am now. And yeah, maybe that makes me selfish now, the choices I am choosing. It probably does. But I think I’m okay with that, compared with the alternative.”

The mug spun too fast, slipped out of Red’s hand, and started wobbling, falling almost horizontal. An instinctive panic was in Red’s body, the tiny hairs on his arms sticking up as gooseflesh as he reached his hand out for it, took control of the mug back, narrowly preventing it from knocking over. He made a small sigh of relief, before realising that the cup was all but empty, and would not have spilled anyway.

Red was still relieved he had caught it.

He looked at Dorothy with his smile, a combination of tension and relief. She returned it, quite accustomed to his nervous habit of fiddling with things. It made her remember who he was. How much she loved him.

“I will miss you,” Dorothy said, finally.

“I’ll miss you too.”

“Will you send letters?” The uncertainty in Dorothy’s voice was new. She had been so sure of herself, until now.

“I will.” Red couldn’t help but smile, despite everything. She still loved him. He still loved her. It was possible to love someone and not understand them. He hesitated again, as though he was about to speak, but he thought better of it. “I’d better go.”

Dorothy nodded. “Safe travels,” she said. She hesitated herself, before standing and motioning for Red to hug her.

Red stood to hug her back. He hugged her hard, not crushing, not clinging, but just to hug her. They didn’t hug much. It felt good to hug now. “Stay safe. Be happy. Make good choices.”

“You too, Red.”

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When William woke, he could already hear Red’s voice from the kitchen.

He couldn’t help but listen to Red and Julias talk as he got dressed. It wasn’t anything especially deep: Red talked about what it was like to work at the steel mill, about living with a baby (did William’s ears deceive him? Did Red hesitate, his voice a little too thick, when he spoke of it?), and about some of the local dogs and cats he knew and how one of his neighbour’s daughters had a pet rabbit. Julias spoke of his plans for January, of going to Greece, of visiting his son, of learning to knit so he could make his own clothing.

When William came into the kitchen, Red was crouching on the floor, one hand holding his coffee out of the range of Chestnut’s still furiously wagging tail and the other hand scratching her side. Red’s face lit up upon seeing him.

William felt he would never grow tired of that.

“Good morning—Evening.” Red corrected.

He smiled. “Good evening, my dear.” He bent over, first to kiss Red on the top of the head and then to scratch Chestnut behind the ear. She leaned into this new touch, her tail wagging ever more furiously as she was given affection from two places.

“It’s still so strange to see you two be such friends.” Red stood up to kiss William on the cheek. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad. Did you sleep well?”

“I did,” William replied. He reached out for Red’s hand, knowing he might need the comfort. “How was your day?”

Red carefully considered his answer. “Not great. Would you have time for a walk?”

He nodded. “Of course, my dear. Would you like to go down by the river?”

Red squeezed his hand.

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Red filled the conversation with small talk—about the weather, mostly, and the birds that he and James had seen at the feeder—as he got Chestnut’s leash and pulled his boots back on and as they started walking down towards the river. It wasn’t until he lapsed into a silence that William knew not to fill, that he started speaking again.

“I talked to Dorothy.”

William nodded. “I gathered that you must have. You seem…” he hesitated. He didn’t have a word for it. Red looked at him, waiting for him to finish. “...disappointed,” William finished, finally.

He thought about that. “Yeah. That is it, I think. Disappointed.” He watched Chestnut potter close to the river’s edge, her body freezing in place every time she stopped to smell something. “It went… better and worse, than how I thought it would. She… she was upset, about the lying, about the deserting, which I expected. She didn’t shout, though, I guess she did have Ida with her. She couldn’t have screamed at me even if she wanted to. Also the neighbours might have heard, can’t have that.” He couldn’t help the bitterness creeping into his voice. He didn’t want to be bitter.

William moved closer to Red as they walked forward, placing a tender hand on his back, between his shoulders, for just a moment. The sign of affection he offered on public walks such as this. “I doubt it is what she expected to hear from you,” he stated.

“Definitely not.” Red rubbed his face, planting the heels of his hands in his eye sockets and pressing until he saw grey lines go across his vision. It helped a little. “She was really angry. Not as angry as I… she was mad. She has every right to be. But she said she wouldn’t say anything to anyone, which… I understand. But I didn’t ask her not to say anything. Now I’m wondering if she was doing it for me or for herself, for own reputation.”

William smiled, his eyes full of melancholy. “Ah, yes. Her reputation.” What value was a human woman’s standing in human society? Did people quiver in fear before her judgement? Did others hold the power of her life and death in their hands?

“I wonder if… No, I think I would feel better if people knew. I know what I did was bad, well, not bad, but… it’s not looked upon positively. I know that, but I think people hating me and thinking I’m a coward, I think that would feel better than them pitying me for something that didn’t happen.” Red sighed.

“Why do you think that?” William asked.

Red really thought about his answer before continuing. “I think… I think being dishonest bothers me more than anything else. Which I… I would probably feel differently if this were a different situation, if I was in danger, but right now… being dishonest feels worse. Which… oh, and I told her about you, and she was just… dismissive. Completely brushed me off. Which I also wasn’t predicting.”

“It sounds as though you had a very difficult conversation.”

“It wasn’t great.” Red shrugged. “But I didn’t expect it to go well anyway.”

There was silence for a little while. Chestnut ran after a squirrel. She was too slow, and sat at the base of the tree, whining. William finally spoke. “You owe those people nothing. You do not owe them the truth. You do not owe them a comforting lie,” he placed a hand on Red’s shoulder, keeping it there for longer than usual. “What do you owe yourself? What would make you happy? Would it bring you joy to tell the truth to strangers? Would you prefer to be looked at with unearned contempt than with unearned pity?”

“I don’t want to go around broadcasting things to strangers, but I don’t want to actively lie either.” He smiled a little, happy for the comforting touch. He placed his hand over William’s. “And… being with you, that makes me happy. Whatever that ends up entailing.” He paused, thinking. “I’m ready to go, if you are.”

William nodded. “Of course.” He whistled, and Chestnut ran to stand beside him. “Did you want to take the route we came by, or would you prefer to go down the main road?”

“I meant…” Red waved his hand back towards town. “I’m ready to leave. Here. To Atlanta. To Australia. I’m ready. When you are.”

“Thank you. It will be—” he paused, something white moving at the corner of his eye. A tall bird, its long, pale red, scythe-like beak combing the water at the river’s edge. An ibis. He had never seen one like that before: the Australian ones that he was most familiar with had black beaks. He froze. “...is that an ibis?”

“No, we don’t get them here,” Red replied, automatically, looking in the direction that William had pointed. “Oh! Wow. I should get James, he’d be—” he hesitated, not wanting to finish that thought. He remembered the ibises on the underside of the bed canopy, back in Corsica. How William had been shaken by them when he’d first noticed them. “Are—are ibises bad? You never told me.”

William smiled. “For me, it appears they may be good luck.”

Image cropped from American White Ibis Standing flickr photo by Amaury Laporte shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

Chapter Text

January, 1955
Perth, Western Australia
(Boorloo Duchy, New Holland)

William fell asleep.

Red checked his watch—5:20 AM. On the dot.

It was funny: Red didn’t even need to look at William to know when he had fallen asleep. This morning, they had been lying in bed, reading. William had had his head on Red’s arm, his book propped up on Red’s chest while Red held his book above him. Around five he would usually adjust, shift onto his back, keeping one hand holding Red’s. And then when sunrise hit, Red would feel him go slack, and it would be like… almost like being alone in the room. No presence. Like he became part of the furniture.

Chestnut would worry at William sometimes. She would whine and nose at his hands for a little while. Checking if he was okay. On some level, she had accepted that William was fine and he would wake up again, but it was like on some days she had to check.

“Come on, sweetheart.” Red placed his bookmark and got to his feet. Chestnut wagged her tail, waiting. Red carefully scooped her off the bed, setting her gently on the carpeted floor. The vet had warned that she shouldn’t be jumping off the furniture anymore. She hadn’t damaged anything, but she was getting older. She had to be careful.

It was for the same reason Red loaded her carefully into the back of the car to drive her to the beach. The sand was easier on her joints.

The car had been a birthday present from William. It was a Holden FJ, an absolute beast of a thing that had a long waiting list to even get the chance to buy one. Its price was high enough that William had refused to tell Red how much he had spent, and it was a shade of cream that, while beautiful, had already proven to be impossible to keep clean.

It was an extremely typical William gift.

Red loved it.

The sun was coming up over the city by the time they got there. The faintest hints of the evening were still over the ocean. Chestnut trotted out happily into the sand, and to the water, just getting her feet wet. The sand was white here, like back in Corsica. Red wondered if she remembered that.

As he walked slowly along the beach, carrying a book, waiting when Chestnut got distracted by the water or a bit of sand that smelled particularly interesting or the odd other person who was walking down the beach, Red let his mind wander. It was already warm. It would be hot today. It would be mid-winter back in Ohio. He wondered what Dorothy and James would be doing. He hadn’t heard from them since July—his winter, their summer. They had gone to Lake Erie for a vacation. They hadn’t mentioned his inviting them to come visit him in Perth.

He wrote often, getting maybe one letter back for every three he sent. They were often short, to the point. “James is good, children are good, hope you’re well.”

Red tried not to let it bother him. Most of the time, it didn’t.

But he did get mail sometimes. A postcard or a letter from Julias would arrive every week. Julias had kept pushing back his holiday, always claiming there was more to do around their place, until there were no more excuses left. He was in France now, visiting his son. The latest letter had even included a photo taken on one of those fancy instant cameras William had insisted Julias take with him. It was an extremely dark photo: Red could only just make out a young man with extremely large pointed ears and… was he on a roof? William and Red had not been able to figure it out. They would have to ask Julias when he got back.

For all the cajoling it took, it did seem like Julias was enjoying having leisure time. Red was glad for that.

Usually, Red had no plans in the mornings. It was his own time. He would work on their home, or read at local cafes, or exercise, or go for long walks in the hills. This was one of the first mornings in a long while he actually had something he needed to do. Something he had been meaning to do for a while.

Carefully, he pulled the envelope from between the pages of his book. It was the same cream colour as his car, and had William’s elegant handwriting on it.

It contained a secret, William had told him. In case Red needed to blackmail him. So Red could have power over him. If he needed it. If he wanted it.

He took off his shoes so he could stand in the wet sand, the water only touching him on every third wave, far from the dry vegetation in the sand dunes. He placed his hat beside his shoes, and put the book on top of it.

He held the envelope in one hand, still without even the smallest crease on it. He didn’t want to crumple it, even now. It felt too important.

Chestnut had happily found a divot in the dry sand and was lying in it, watching him, panting a little.

With the other hand, he felt for the lighter in his pocket. He flicked it open, and called forth a flame.

The flame crawled quickly across the envelope and the letter inside, shielded from the sea breeze by his hand. The paper deformed, turning black, to amber, and into grey ashes as the flames took it. He even saw a little edge of green on the flames. Perhaps it was his imagination. Or oil in the paper.

He let go of the corner before the flame reached his fingers. The wind caught it immediately, pulling it from him, the ashes scattering into smaller pieces and whipped into the air, with the last bit of the envelope, just enough for his thumb, falling into the ocean at his feet. It floated, just for a moment, before a wave over the top pushed it down into the churning water and sand below.

The ashes were gone by the time he looked up again.

Would he ever have used it?

Red wasn’t sure. He would like to think he wouldn’t have. But then, there were a lot of things he had done that he never thought he would do.

Chestnut was pressing her nose to his shin. Her tail wagged when he looked down at her.

“You ready to go home?”

She wagged her tail again. She licked his shin.

“Yeah.” He reached down to scratch her behind the ear. “Me too.”