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I Shall Send My Four Fastest Ships

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Messages came to Armand’s oldest cellular phone, one by one and never earlier than eleven, his time. Never later than three. They were always cut off by a dawn he wouldn’t feel for hours yet, time meaning so little on a globe that turned without their leave.

[I’m alright] , one said.

[He was careful] , another. It might refer to a trans-Atlantic flight without an aeroplane.

[Gifts, tonight. Generous. I’ll send you some trinkets from shopping, little notions for the family.

How are you all? Is Daniel well, there?]

Some nights they were less coherent, mangled by what Armand imagined to be shaking hands and shattered faculties. From drink or otherwise? He never asked, just responded circumspectly, piecemeal,  and deleted the threads. He trusted his flawless memory to hold them eternal and out of reach of any who might snoop on a pair of ancient Nokias hidden in the back of sock drawers on opposite sides of the Atlantic Ocean. If he were given any longer to the act of prayer, he would issue some for the other to take similar care with the traces if not the outpourings.

[Is Daniel well, there?]

As though Armand could know.

He had cultivated many talents over the centuries. A fair hand at painting, though he'd never be what he was bought for. A competent presence on the stage. A figurehead, when a leader was absent. But he didn't understand others, and his one and only fledgling least of all. Even before the wall of silence had come down between them, Daniel had been a source of vibrant and ever-changing delight. Even when Armand had killed him, there had been that beautiful spark.

He hadn't been able to look at his beloved creation when it seemed that light snuffed itself out. He'd been no better than blind, foolish, naive Lestat then, and it had made him laugh to think how naive he was. How little he understood anything, and never would.

No matter how Armand studied, he was always at a loss compared to those around him. He could see the great wheels at work as they all turned like clockwork figures, and bend the unwitting to his whim. But what had made Daniel look at him like that, unshed tears in violet eyes? He couldn't comprehend it.

And here Daniel was now, without his protector—of his own choice, apparently, given Marius’ bitter smile and careless words on leaving.

Daniel had hunted with Armand early on, before Louis had even left, and his eyes had been hooded and strange to see, strange as his unhurried movements and coiled poise. Comportment, trained. Surely Daniel knew how to pose now as he never had when his picture was requested in Studio 54; surely he’d at some point bitten his tongue bloody controlling the fidgets Armand had always allowed to run wild and earth away the excess electricity in his frame.

He was sane now, or near enough, so who could say what was right?

(Armand had tried to feel nothing on that hunt, juste pleasure at Daniel’s presence without reaching for more than he should; nothing owned by another. Practice, that. Louis had certainly shown himself capable, placid smile betraying no thought more intense than camaraderie. Armand felt nothing beyond relief that Daniel still lived, or near enough. Nothing beyond lust for his own kill.)

But then Daniel had stayed, installing himself in Benji's studio without ever making his voice heard over the airwaves. The two would talk for hours at a time, some nights, and Armand would savor the sound of Daniel's smoky, crackling laughter. It was enough to hear him live, as it had been enough not to let him die all those years ago.

It left him uncertain what to do when Daniel would sidle into a room and catch his attention, watching but not looking at him.

"You been out?" He'd say, and Armand would get up in lieu of answering, and together they would wander the city for hours without speaking more than a handful of words.

Daniel was the one who asked him questions now, about the island of Manhattan and all that had changed since he had broken (he was whole now except when he wasn't, when he was too sharp and fearful without reason, or when his eyes went dull and distant in a way Armand recognized too well).

They had passed along a street where Daniel turned to walk into a bar that no longer existed, and he had stood at the spot for almost an hour, a thin and colorless keen barely escaping him. Armand had led him home, gently, and left him on his own in a soft room. What more was he to do?

He was not skilled at care.

(Louis had been that for him and his children. Cold, distant Louis, an orbiting planet unconcerned with the world below, so the stories went. Louis had come when called, when Armand was at the end of his understanding and in need of someone who could see another path for his dear Benji, any, away from what happened to those with bodies like his and the girl-child’s of whom they never spoke. Louis, heartless Louis, had stayed and changed their scripts and taught Benji to grow. Passionless Louis had leaned in and kissed Armand with no push or prompting at all, on an ordinary night with clean blood in his veins.)

Louis was gone, and so it fell to Armand to remember those rituals and roles.

It fell to Armand to be anything but what he once was, and so he resisted his urge to place Daniel in a hot shower and scrub his nude form until his skin sang and his mind blanked; it was surely blank enough already.

Benji’s eyes tracked them, dark and bitter with a false betrayal, and now with some disappointment, too, whenever he sent Daniel off on his own recognizance, though Armand was no jailer.

"He's making himself at home," Benji observed one night, his voice colored by sardonic youth.

"At your request, I hear." Armand didn't look up from his book.

"His technique is good," Benji acknowledged. "And the things he saw! He told me stuff none of the rest of you would about Cow Palace."

"It's all there, in Lestat's little book. Scrupulously described." As was all that he had done.

"Yeah but that's…" Benji's face twisted, and Armand felt uncertainty from him. "It can't all fit in a book."

Armand closed his eyes as Benji went on, discussing the broadcasts, so like Armand in his unshakable focus and passion. Armand kept himself at arm's length from those too, his true job to keep their little island safe. Or so it had been. He had no purpose even in that, now. He'd had no desire to lead, but it left him in terror to be useless.

Because he was useless, it had fallen to Louis to leave them. Because of him, Benji's eyes were full of suspicion.

Armand had never once aspired to the career of chatelain, certainly not in a home he’d purchased himself. Yet here he was.

Funny, how his charms failed at every turn with Lestat. Funny how he’d once regretted that for its own sake, rather than for another’s.

Little Man was the man of business, now. Sybelle the blushing bride, Antoine the dumbfounded swain. Daniel was—

Armand was—

Not grieved, surely, for that would mean something—unseemly. And he was no longer the imp who’d run wild, defiant purely for the Hell of it all and enraptured by the consequences and forgiveness. He’d learned duty since.

[Listened to Benji tonight. He sounds different—familiar, somehow. Old friends helping him?]

Armand’s answer was curt.

[Daniel is finding his feet, then], Louis’ messages continued. [Do you enjoy having him there?]

These words on a screen were so very difficult, without the face and voice he’d spent sixty years controlling and ten learning intimately. He could think of a thousand nuances that might be present in that last question.

Dawn came to France long before he was able to construct a suitable reply. He trusted Louis would understand that he’d been busy with all the nothing left to him.

[He chose this place], he returned at last, for Louis to see when he woke.

Choice had become an enormous word  for their kind since the rise of their prince. Though Lestat had left the cheap wooden stages behind and come to play director, the books he sent forth to all and sundry adored that word. Choice, he'd said, when he collected Louis to go across the sea.

Ah, but Louis had chosen, hadn't he. He'd done it for the sake of all the rest of them, and their uselessness, their loudly touted weakness. But he had chosen anyway. And it was the word that held the magic.

He pondered that thought in his coffin, turning it over and over as he had decades ago, when every night held new promise through Daniel's eyes.

"Did you choose to stay here?" He asked the next night, catching Daniel on the way to the studio.

"Are we doing this again?" Daniel's voice lilted, but his muscles were tense. "I didn't do it just to fuck with Marius, you know. I…he took care of me. In his way."

“I know.” Armand knew well those strong, faithless hands which would hold you for a time, before dropping you to the ground. He would hate to be his creation’s fall. “Did you want that care to end?” He tilted his head, pressed his lips and wished for the thousandth time that he could be Heard. “Or…did he wish it to be over?”

“He didn’t abandon me,” Daniel said sharply, leaning down and into Armand’s orbit as though waiting for some sort of chastisement. “And he didn’t palm me off on somebody else, either. It’s my decision.”

His lips were thin, almost sharp under a nose that ran to a clean straight point, and his jaw was stubbled as ever. How Armand would love to be—familiar, again. Close. But as Daniel said, he hadn’t been palmed off.

“So it is,” he said instead, and opened the door to the studio with its noise dampening walls himself. He’d not hear Daniel again until broadcast ended, not unless he chose to truly speak outside of handing Benji his words. “Let us hope it’s not one you regret.”

Regret had no taste, not for one who’d had only the flavor of blood for so many centuries. So Armand told himself when he hunted, proper phone streaming their program in his ear all the while.

 

***

 

For once in his life, Daniel had made a bet that panned out. Benji was still leashed by prying ears, and optimistic in a way that hurt Daniel down in his guts, but he was sharp. And for every rebuke he couldn't voice, Benji at least lifted up the voices of the small among them. Kept offering his hand, when it would've been easy just to stay slumped on his knees reporting the glories of the court formed across the waves.

It was just as well Daniel'd left Marius. He hated the idea of sitting through meeting after meeting where his questions were ignored and his opinions dismissed as worthless, being hauled to formal balls where he could dance, but not the way he liked it. Where he was the very expensive pet he'd convinced himself he wasn't. It left a sour burn like malt liquor in his stomach.

Coming back to Armand, part of him had assumed things would fall back into the old patterns. He'd wake up and clothes would be laid out for him, like when he was alive and again when he was in Rio. Someone would lead him from place to place and it wouldn't matter if he started walking a few paces behind his body on a bad night. But of course, because that was what he'd hoped for, Armand refused.

So in a way, maybe it was like old times. God knew nobody could play out refusal quite like Armand, back when he’d been Daniel’s (other way, other way round—)

Armand was a little devil, a masterful, controlling creature, and Daniel had loved him for it long before he’d ever hated, but that seemed to be over now, replaced by something…

Tentative.

Who took your confidence? Daniel wanted to ask one night as the streetlight cupped the curve of a round cheek and set curls aflame.

(He hadn’t been there when Armand had finally faltered and fallen. Benji and Sybelle had been the ones present for something Daniel still didn’t understand. Marius had told Daniel to hush when he’d asked about that, and he’d stopped his own questions, but not the nightmares.)

But Armand’s face turned to his so suddenly, it was almost like being Heard, and his razored smile was almost like being alive again. There were inches between them.

Fuck it . Impulse was how he'd wound up a vampire, a millionaire who never spent his money, and a wasting corpse, too. He leaned in and smashed their lips together, working what element of surprise he had.

Armand was still cold, the night young. His hair was thick and wiry and spilled over Daniel's hand as cupped the back of his maker's head. He'd kept his own physique spare in life—no one wanted a fat club kid, and then the disease had taken care of things without his help, left him rangy and stretched in death. Maybe that was why he found Armand's body, small and muscular and plump, all the more a fascination. Daniel'd lived in terror of being rejected for not fitting those exacting, hard-bodied standards. But all comers fell at Armand's feet. He'd wanted that. That ease. That enlightenment.

Lost in his thoughts, he didn't notice Armand's stillness until a rangy forever-teenage hand rested on the crook of his elbow.

"You owe me no favors," his killer said.

The words made no sense, at first, meaning creeping in only slowly to curdle the taste in his mouth as Daniel gaped like the ungainly stork he was.

Stupid .

Useless .

One-trick pony .

He stepped back, out of the circle of the lamp as though that would cover the roses of shame in his cheeks (Marius had painted them once, literal and beautiful in some abandoned hovel set to be demolished just like the real Daniel—)

“Of course I don’t,” he bit out tightly, arms holding himself in poor imitation of what he’d sought. His elbows were pointy through his sweatshirt. “And here I thought you liked me.”

“I love you, Daniel,” said the thing he’d been driven to his limits by, hands clasped primly behind its back. “That is why you are welcome in—Lestat’s—home, no matter what.” Daniel had drunk deeply enough of someone old enough that Armand’s tricks weren’t what they once were, but those amber eyes would always hold the same magic. So strangely earnest, as they put him down easy. “No strings attached.”

Whatever the hell that meant. He'd never met someone so invasively blunt and simultaneously inscrutable in his whole life. Marius, he got. Marius was smooth, that hand on your back steering you here and there before you ever caught wise.

Armand was one of those rattletrap setups at a touring carnival, a penny for the thrill with no limits until all of a sudden you found yourself suspended and stuck as the mechanisms broke down.

"Fine. I get it." He stepped further into the dark.

"We haven't—" Armand started.

"I'll find one on my own." He was going to have to get used to that.

Armand didn’t stop him.

The next time he wanted company, he asked Benji instead. Not because he didn’t get enough of the kid in the studio, talking away night after night, but because that was so much persona.

(And because Daniel had never dealt well with being alone. He’d been the boy who would follow a stranger back to his apartment on the promise of conversation, trusting that the man wasn’t a killer.)

The streets of the city were different: unfiltered. Unwatched, at least by Benji’s fawning public.

"What happened with Armand?" Benji was becoming a real reporter, damn him, cutting right to the quick.

"I wanted a change of pace. Didn't see you turn it down." No rookie was going to beat him at interview judo.

"Sybelle doesn't need me around all the time. The music geeks are fine on their own."

Daniel raised an eyebrow. "Aren't little brothers supposed to protect their sisters?"

Benji's ears went red, and he scowled under the brim of his hat. "I'm not worried about Antoine."

"Her family's dead, aren't they?" He played dumb, warding off another one of Benji's bitter asides about the absent Louis.

"Yeah," Benji agreed darkly. "They are."

They were all some achievement in fuckups, that a house of killers made for better company than where they'd come from. Gun to his head, Daniel still wasn't sure his mother'd ever put out a Missing Persons report for him.

It made Daniel itch, somewhere inside his head, to think of how he’d gotten a vacated spot in the household. He suspected…so many things. Chiefest among them was that Armand would always see to his former lovers’ care.

His room was far off down a hall, away from the Master bedroom from which Armand had removed his own things in haste, plus unremarked boxes of clothing that found their way into the garbage or thrift stores or, for a chosen few items, into trunks for transatlantic shipping.

Daniel thought he knew why, but sometimes—sometimes it was difficult to tell which suppositions held merit.

He'd thought, for example, that he and Benji would click. The kid was so sharp, burning with a sense of purpose Daniel hadn't had even when he was young and mortal and believed in something. That was a dangerous thing for a vampire, burning. Daniel had long since become one long cylindrical ash, flickering with coals now and then that he protected jealously. Little fires worth living for.

They'd get together some nights, to talk about the show. Daniel listened to the broadcast, eyes closed and picking over the cadence. There wasn't much actual meat to sift through. Now that the Troubles had passed, there were fewer vampires calling in out of fear for their lives; without that beating heart, the news had taken a turn for the state-sponsored. Daniel knew all about the galas being hosted, but he didn't know a damn thing about what was going on.

"Are you really okay with this?" he asked one night, after the musicians had returned to their own little world and it was just the pair of them, ostensible journalists both.

Benji's eyes narrowed, his internal monologue no doubt calculating all the potential meanings of the question. "It's what our brothers and sisters want to know."

"So you told them, anyway. Who told you?" Daniel played with an unlit cigarette, fingers still following the old habit. "The stuff you were doing before was real. This is just vampire community calendar. Over and over, forever. All hail our glorious leaders."

"I report what I hear."

"Yeah, but what about what you don't hear?" he pushed. "I don't mean making stuff up. I mean finding new eyes and ears."

“I go where the information is. People outside the court won’t have access.”

Daniel pursed his lips. “And so you don’t want to alienate your ‘sources’? What about information on how the other half lives?”

“We’re all one family, now. One Tribe. It’s the same,” Benji replied, voice rich with the confidence of someone who knows he’s talking out of his ass.

Bull-shit ,  a smiling voice echoed in Daniel’s memory.

“So all those people you helped aren’t worth a check-in? Now that you’re in with Le Grand Fromage?”

At that, Benji’s eyes snapped, along with the Waterman pen he held carelessly in his left hand. Lucky it was cartridge ink; Daniel still remembered a school pen breaking in his breast pocket after a too-hard shove from Roger Wallace’s gang in the sixth grade, the wide black splotch over his heart seeming to mark him more deeply than the hiding Mom had given him over the ruined shirt.

“I would speak to them if they would call,” the not-really-boy said at last, tossing the fine resin shards into the wastebin unremarked.

(It was the cleanest radio studio Daniel had ever seen, owing to the lack of food wrappers and soft-drink cups. No ashtrays overflowing onto the desks. Hardly even real.)

And the clean, murdering Little Man at its center sat with arms crossed stiffly so as not to lose shoulder breadth through a hunch. His glittering black eyes were downcast, and at the edge of his thoughts Daniel felt—something. A sliver. A request, maybe.

Help me—make them come back—

“Well,” he said flatly, because what was there to explain? “I guess you have to choose between ingratiating a source or alienating listeners.”

"Nothing's changed!" Benji snapped, and Daniel let the obvious lie die without remark. Not yet experienced on the famed vampiric silence, Benji cracked first. "I…before they were hiding, but. Now it feels like they're hiding from me. I don't know why."

Daniel felt a pang of sympathy. "Look, it…it's not all you. But you're a stand-in for the people you talk to. If they don't trust them, they'll assume you'll narc to 'em."

"So what do I do, then? If I travel, they'll think I'm trying to root them out."

Daniel shrugged. "There are other voices at court. Start small. Some people might talk anonymously." He paused before floating the idea. "…What about Louis?"

Benji's tired face closed up. "No."

"He's right next to Lestat, he definitely—"

"He'll say whatever he needs to if it secures his own position. He's not a trustworthy source." Benji's voice was cold and clipped.

"Wha…" Daniel snorted as the thoughts clicked together in his head. "What, you're still pissed he's not here?"

"I value your expertise on journalism, Daniel." Benji pulled his hat low over his eyes. "I'd appreciate it if you'd do me the courtesy of not offering advice on things you know nothing about."

It was so easy, at times, to forget age. And youth.

Daniel had had decades to get used to a child’s face hiding a mind whose strangeness was beyond age in the human scale. His first brush with immortality had been the recounting of just such a cautionary tale—and so, when faced with a Little Man with a baby’s face and a professional’s business acumen, he accepted the inside as the reality.

Therefore, it was jarring to realize that this man was half his age, and an oddly sheltered half, at that. Emotional, impulsive, and untrained .

Daniel was used to being the kid in this new world.

(His dad hadn’t ever actually “gone out for a pack of cigarettes,” but his classmates had believed the joke flat-out when he made it, ruining the fun. The breakup must feel weirder when the cracks hadn’t been so evident, and the vows not visibly tearing.)

He put up his hands. "Look, I'm not…I don't wanna make trouble."

"I appreciate your help," Benji ground out, the veneer of professionalism growing more tattered the harder he clung to it.

"Honestly, I figured you'd want me out. Given the whole…" he waved a hand to fill the space in his thoughts, "recent vacancy thing."

"You said you wanted to help with me show. Did you mean that?"

"Yeah, sure. Just—"

"Then we're good," Benji said.

Daniel pinched the bridge of his nose. "So we're just not gonna. Talk about the whole. Ex-whatever thing. Cool. Coooooool."

Benji laughed. "I'm not worried about that."

"Thanks for the vote of confidence, kid."

"Are you interested?" Benji didn't seem snide so much as…surprised. "You've been avoiding him. I just figured. I mean. You'd be a better choice than some."

Are you interested? The question haunted him out of the room, down the hall, through the night. It followed him relentlessly into his coffin and battered around his head. He was interested. He had never stopped being interested. He'd started being suspicious, and scared, and bitter. He'd started being rejected and started floating outside his body, too overwhelmed by sensation to keep track of who "Daniel Molloy" was. Those things had been loud, louder than the little core that had started him down the road to death.

But interest? He sure as hell wasn't lacking in that.

 

***

 

Old things became new again, without fail. Before he had been the coven master, trusted by the leaders of the Children to shepherd the new initiates and keep the laws. Now he heard missives from the Court and kept to himself in Manhattan, protecting his little territory and quickly eradicating any signs of violence in it. They feared him. They thought him the torturer, just as he’d been of old.

Armand will do it. He’s wicked, that one. A fanatic.

Armand will do it. He’s evil, that one. Outdated.

He was used to it now. Lacking the strength to lift himself above the gears of fate, he’d made himself malleable enough to become what was needed of him. He’d thought it would be different, for a time. All of his rules had been broken one after the other in the twilight of the 20th century, resulting in the one child of his blood. The one who had left him behind, whom he had left behind when he could no longer bear the sight of his sin.

Everything came around on the wheel, eventually.

Louis hadn’t messaged him in several weeks, the silence of the little phone casting a pall over the house. And Daniel was silent too, at least to him. He saved up all his noise for Benji’s recording studio, talking with sharp staccatos or low lulls and sometimes even breaking out in familiar, wild laughter.

It was music, as surely as the piano Armand sat beside every night.

Always piano, when Antoine had the choice, despite the way the young vampire’s long, pale fingers had danced upon the strings of the violin not so long ago.

Armand had been shaken that night, hearing the frenetic music. Seeing the hands and the dark curls obscuring a bony face just enough—just enough to bring doubt, now that ghosts walked the world and apparently always had done.

Antoine still shook him at times, though there was no similarity whatsoever to the man whose hands Armand had been forced to take and then return, hands that had done so many thrilling and cruel things on long nights after their mutual abandonment. Armand preferred the piano, over all.

Antoine’s hands were gentle and constrained, their play restricted to the whiteness of keys rather than the ivory of Sybelle’s skin when they sat together. Sybelle’s face was different from Armand’s experience of her, but he did not disapprove.

Not that it would be his place to do so, anyway.

She and Antoine spent more time with Daniel than Armand did, most nights, playing their music for the mortals who did not hear Benji’s words beneath.

He was contented like this, after a fashion. He loved them all, the wayward children who’d come to his door and to his heart. He lavished them with gifts, and he shielded them from the endless, gnawing ache in his empty chest. His desperate craving for love had lessened not a drop, but he’d learned something of hiding it. He had, at last, learned to value those he loved above his need for them.

The one who had taught him that was walking into the room, eternally rawboned and fair and beautiful beyond description. Armand accepted the glare his fledgling sent his way, and made no comment on it. He’d welcomed Daniel into his house to shield him, and to love him, and to accept the deferred rage for all he had done and failed to do (mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa; pray a thousand Hail Marys for each sunrise you robbed him of).

“Can I talk to you?” Daniel asked. He hovered near the door, right hand on his left arm.

“Of course.” Armand leaned forward where he sat, focusing his attention. He waited.

“Forget it.” He stormed  out in his faded crop top and shredded jeans, though outside mortals wore thick coats.

Something had fallen between them and shattered. Armand sensed these moments, but every time only after they had passed. The shattered remains of some lost chance would be with him, and Daniel would be gone.

And each time, as they were doing now, Sybelle and Antoine would beckon him near and nestle him between them on the bench. They knew he had no ear for music, that his mimicry could only yield dead imitation notes and not the lively pulse that flowered from their hands.

( “So music does reside in the soul, my empty friend.” Nicolas had laughed as the coven master humored him, plucking out a succession of strings that meant nothing to him. Noise, it was all noise. The music was in that mad voice. )

They were always patient with him. And so it fell to him to be patient with them, when the letter came.

Letters, in this day and age—but Armand supposed that this was, after all, something too significant to be sent by text through the rose-gold iPhone Lestat constantly claimed to forget the use of. The paper was creamy 90-pound linen, the deckle edge and woven texture such a feast to his fingertips that for a few moments he allowed it to distract him from the words.

(Typed and printed—had he seen Lestat’s handwriting even once, since those letters Eleni received so sporadically? This was sharp, easily legible, with none of the unevenness and inkblots of an inexperienced quill.)

What it said was sharp, too.

Flippant and assumptive, as every time Lestat upset his household.

He felt his face set and his heart harden at the words, yet Antoine seemed little bothered by any implication, smiling shyly at the thought of visiting his maker and playing “at Court.” It was Sybelle who reacted to Armand’s undercurrents.

“Are you going?” she asked.

“I have to, don’t I?” Antoine’s brows knit together. “He asked.”

They all considered it, mute. It was sensible and utter madness at once. But Antoine knew Lestat, though he lacked Armand’s history with the blond devil. If he wanted something, there was nothing to do but go or be prepared to fight. And thin-fingered Antoine was in no condition to fight. Armand could see his mind, poison-sweet with longing. It was a fine mist over his thoughts, and it would take some time before regret could come to the fore.

“Do you wish to go?” he asked.

I want to be both , Antoine was thinking. Here and there. In his arms and at her side. I want… He was a clutch of string pulled tight, leaving a strangled knot in the center.

Four was some immutable number for their house, it seemed. The second a fifth breached their home and stayed, the great calamity Lestat would descend in some manner.

Sybelle was crying, her fists clenched in her lap and shaking. She hadn’t said a word since receiving her answer, removed now to a place where she could drown in her emotions until she once more had the strength to sort through them. She would speak again, when she was ready.

Armand brushed her mind with his, gentle as he could, but it was Benji who went to her and held her hands for safekeeping, afraid of what they were capable of. It was an old habit from when they lived and Armand had watched over them, but they all went through the motions of it now.

“I could always…” Antoine offered, small and too late. The three lost children were already gone, Armand barely aware of thoughts and needs beyond these two he had pledged himself to.

But Daniel’s voice cut through clear, quiet in his mind and loud in his ears. “You’re gonna need tickets.”

Practical.

Back at the beginning, before Armand had ruined Daniel for the simplest of human interactions, he’d relied much on Daniel’s grasp of the fundamentals of living and how they conflicted with the needs of the dead.

So many, many planes and trains Daniel had booked for Armand over the years, plotting the paths and changeovers to avoid the dangers of the sun; he’d gotten good at working in short stopovers at night, time to play and make love and, in Armand’s case, to hunt.

Armand had watched Daniel at sex, and Daniel had in turn watched him at murder. It had seemed equitable at the time.

It felt selfish, now, to rely on Daniel in this capacity. After so many years, he should feel like more than merely Armand’s mortal thrall, kept on for practicalities.

“You needn’t—” he struggled for words with a mouth never skilled at them, and sure enough Daniel was again peeved by the lack of his mental touch to shortcut.

“It’s something I can do, isn’t it?” Brows beetled, skinny arms crossed pugnaciously across his chest; he looked so real, he should have been smoking. “I mean, Travelocity isn’t exactly great with sunset times. Unless you don’t want my help.”

“Do as you like.” He was slipping. The rift that had killed them was opening up again, driving Daniel away from him no matter how Armand wished it otherwise. He would get angry, and he’d run away again. Maybe this time he’d be stronger, and—

“Make sure you get enough for all of us.” Benji stepped in, still holding Sybelle’s hands even though they’d steadied out. Something passed between the two. “This is a perfect opportunity, wouldn’t you say?”

Whatever it had been, it pulled Daniel back toward them. His lips pulled into a grin. “Could be. You gotta go where the action is.”

“Not yet,” Antoine said, startling all of them. He’d become little more than the trigger for their chaos. He shrank under Daniel’s fierce expression, but didn’t budge. “Lestat asked for me. He’ll want to see you all, I’m sure. But. If I go alone, for a while, then when you come I might be able to come home with you. He tends to tire of me quickly, as  I remember.”

Don’t come home, Sybelle felt, flowing out to all of them. W hile you’re feeling sorry for yourself. Don’t come home unless you’re thinking of us .

“Guess that settles it.” Daniel clapped his hands together. “Where’s the laptop?”

“There’s one in the study,” Benji muttered.

They moved like dolls reminded of their strings, all but Daniel. He was all broad motion, long strides and slamming doors as he went about making plans in the hours that followed. It was the same way he’d moved as a mortal on Night Island, stewing with rage at being near Armand and denied his demands for death.

Now as then, Armand followed after him, watching. Apart.

“Thinking about getting myself a ticket. See someplace new,” Daniel said to him, his face turned to the glowing screen.

Armand’s hands lifted of their own accord, but he grasped the back of the chair, not his once-lover’s shoulders.

They looked loose. Relaxed. Casual, even, lacking poise in a way of which Marius would not have approved unless he’d taken the composure away himself. Armand wondered whether this, too, was a pose.

The screen gave off a blue light which shone through grey-blond hair shot with silver, shaggy and unkempt in the same way and for the same reasons as Louis’s was. Beautiful, suicidal drunkards, letting their bodies waste in advance of their spirits, or vice versa.

“As you wish,” he said again, so soft that no human would have heard it. As he’d said it so many times, before Daniel was dead.

This trick was for more than radio.

And Daniel’s sharp inhale there—sniffed through his nose like a line of pure cocaine that would burn and lacerate to bleeding—was so very human, still.

“That’s it?” Daniel said. His face was as much a mystery as his voice.

“I don’t know what more to give. I never wanted to trap you.”

“Listen.” Daniel swung around, almost tipping the little computer to the floor. “I’m used to your bullshit, but I can’t stand around and listen to you quote movies you don’t even get.”

They had done this in Daniel’s apartment, the pair of them seated side by side. Armand had pored over filmstock again and again, trying to capture the feeling of them anew. But Daniel had understood them, going on long half-exhausted soliloquies about the merits of this or that decision, as if he could see all the strings of a story like shining things waiting to be plucked.

“Westley never stopped fighting to get home.” Daniel’s hands were oddly tight on Armand’s shoulders. “So what the Hell are you doing quoting that to me?” His lips curled back, baring fangs. “You couldn’t wait to throw me away.”

“I knew you would hate me,” Armand said. “I suppose I wanted to hasten it. To lessen my pain.”

“What about my pain, huh? You bastard, you cold-hearted son of a bitch,” Daniel growled. “You lit up the world, then you took the sun away.”

“I couldn’t keep you safe.”

“She didn’t hurt me!” He shook Armand, and they were so close, now, in what they’d drunk from whom that Armand was physically moved. “She didn’t—Akasha scared us all, but it stopped, and you held me through the worst parts. And Amel didn’t care. Nobody’s ever really hurt me.”

And in that moment, it was as though the walls came down, and Armand could hear again the words written on Daniel’s face: Nobody hurt me but you.

The noise Armand made then was not human; likely his face was not either. He controlled his body, wrapping his arms around his midsection rather than lashing out at this fledgling no longer weaker than himself. His fingers wormed and worried as he cast about for meaning within the feeling.

“Makers always hurt,” he managed. “That’s why I didn’t want to. I knew that this would happen.”

“Dammit.” He was panting the filtered air, face framed against the painted facsimile of a cloudy Seattle afternoon, before the rain. “You’re still hurting me, you dumb bastard.”

Armand’s mouth was open to shape words of rote apology when Daniel’s crashed over it, body soft to show no threat when Daniel’s pulled him near.

Oh.

This was a familiar thing, stolen a thousand times over a decade and then some. But his mind catalogued the differences obsessively: all he had done, all he had sworn to do as the so-called protector of Manhattan, and now it was his fledgling who held him up. Who could crush him, and whose fangs brushed eagerly between their lips. It was Armand who was all but shaking, ravening, and it served him right.

Daniel’s kiss was probing and rough, his teeth catching Armand’s lips over and over as if to draw blood. He laughed at that.

“You could take it from me, now. You needn’t beg as you once did.” The ancient ones of Lestat’s council had called him weak, and here was the proof of it. He wouldn’t be able to fight against his own creation. He didn’t want to.

“Shut up.” Daniel buried his head in the crook of Armand’s neck, and the eternal youth closed his eyes. But no bite came, only a low moan and the tickle of unnecessary breath.  “Why?” his great creation was saying. “I was waiting for you to steal me back. What the hell were you waiting for?”

“Nothing.” There was no good answer. Anything he said would seem insufficient; as the author of his own sins of omission, he knew that too well. Still, he could try, since Daniel demanded and deserved it.

“There was nothing to wait for. As I grow stronger, slowly, so does everyone else. I would never be able to compete…” Now he pushed Daniel back, forcing contact with those frightening violet eyes. “Especially not with whatever you really wanted.”

“I’m real tired of being told what I want.” Daniel’s gaze didn’t waver. “Do you want me here or don’t you?”

“I’ve missed you,” he confided. Even at the depth of his frustration, Daniel had felt like a piece of himself. Now that piece had returned, demanding better of him.

Daniel’s mouth became a long, thin grin. “I missed me too,” he said. “Feels like I’m awake after a long dream.”

There was a certain sadness to that. “You were always our dreamer.”

“What else would you call me being here, expecting you to tell me things. Expecting you to change?”

“Foolish,” he breathed. He wished he could change. He wished—

Hadn’t he changed for Louis?

“Prove me wrong.” Daniel held his face again, devouring him with tongue and teeth and need. “You love proving me wrong.”

Only Daniel would say that. Not child, torturer, imp, though he had been all those things to his love and more. Daniel demanded things of him: understanding. The unknown.

Change.

He couldn’t form his tongue around promises. But he clung closer to Daniel, the lost treasure back in his arms.

[Does S ms me

Does B stil h8 me

Do you

I

I love him im sorry i have 2. Hes good 2 me. U kno how that is. So often nvr done it so often b4. He loves me. I sometimes thnk the other 1 doesnt. I think it {1/2}

watches. He doesnt let it hurt me more than he does. He takes care of me. In control. {2/2}]

There were no answers. Nothing to solve. And Louis was so far away, across oceans of space and daylight—and power.

Armand grew only slowly, the trade for his small semblance of autonomy. He increased by time, rather than blood.

So he checked the little phone each night, and gathered Daniel close every morning, and waited for it to all come to a reckoning.

It always did, after all.

[Pls b happy

How r u

?]