It had been some time since the Congo. Enough time that Marlow should have been back to normal life, glad to be away from the insects and the cannibals and the drums sounding through the night like the heartbeat of some vast creature- or of the jungle itself- but he still wasn’t free of them.
He still heard the echoes of “The horror! The horror!” in his dreams.
Tonight he wasn’t in the jungle, instead he found himself facing Kurtz’s intended again. She stared as if into his soul, and the dusk echoed with the words loud enough that she should have been able to hear them, she must- she didn’t.
“His last word-to live with,” she insisted, and the phantom appeared behind her. Waiting. “Don’t you understand I loved him-I loved him-I loved him!”
“Tell her, Marlow. Just say it. She wants to hear my last words, let her.” The wind swelled under his voice, drowning out all the other noises of the city at nightfall.
It was too awful. She wouldn’t really want to hear them, she couldn’t. “The last word he pronounced was-“
He hesitated, and Kurtz cut him off. “Say it! Don’t you want it to stop pounding in your head? Just say it and you’ll be free, I’ll follow her until she takes her last breath and there will be nothing else left to say with it that will sum up all of life better than-“
“Your name!” He managed to block out the echoes long enough to shout the first thing that came to mind. “He said your name.”
“Wrong answer, Marlow.” The house was falling apart around them, whispers of the-horror-the-horror-the-horror picking up into a roar, drums beginning to echo in the night- and he woke up. For a moment, he imagined that he was still dreaming, but the sound of drums was replaced by a knock at the door.
No one ever came calling to his flat, and definitely not past midnight. “Who’s there?” He called out, cautiously making his way toward the door, his head still pounding with the horror, the horror, the horror and the feeling of being watched.
The knocking stopped, and he opened the door. For a second time, he thought he was still dreaming.
“Please let me in, Marlow. Not safe here.” Vitaly leaned heavily on the doorframe, then slid down the wall to collapse on the floor. He made no effort to stand, just took a shaky breath and glanced down the hallway like he was being hunted.
When Marlow picked him up, he was so much lighter than he should have been. He was also bleeding from some wound hidden under the collar of his shirt, but Marlow was distracted from that by the sound of someone pounding on the window. They were six floors up, and it was the wrong window for the fire escape. He set Vitaly down in a chair and moved towards the window, some instinct calling for him to let whatever was outside in.
Vitaly grabbed at his arm, tried to stop him as he passed by. “Don’t open it, don’t-“
He opened the window, and the thing that poured through it wasn’t human, it couldn’t be. The way it moved was hypnotizing, the long coat slid over the windowsill like water. He blinked, and in the next moment its face was turned towards him- that animated image of death unmistakable, even more haunting than the times he’d seen it in his dreams- solid and real and too close for comfort.
Kurtz walked past him and lifted Vitaly out of the chair. “You weren’t at the station when I came back for you.”
“I’m sorry! I was going to wait, but they would have killed me, I-“
Kurtz cut him off. “No, no, I’m not angry at you for being scared. I’m disappointed that you didn’t listen to me, but I was more concerned than anything else. Look at me, Vitya. I was worried about you. It took me so long to find you again...”
“But you did.”
Kurtz pulled Vitaly in closer, as if to whisper a response, then bit down on his throat like a hunting animal. It wouldn’t have looked out of place for him to shake his prey, the whole scene was a step back in time and away from the civilized world.
At first Vitaly didn’t resist, didn’t even seem to acknowledge it. His eyes glazed over, almost giving the appearance of drifting off, but then something snapped. He gasped, then tried to shove Kurtz away. “That’s enough! Please, don’t do this, I’ll do anything, just stop-“
Kurtz pulled him closer, muffling the words in his coat until he went limp and dropped to the floor. “It’s okay. You’re going to be okay. I’m sorry.” Kurtz sank to the floor next to him, and the room seemed to grow smaller. He looked over at Marlow like he was only just registering his presence. “He’ll be fine. Just wait a few minutes and-“
“No!” The trance broke and Marlow ran to Vitaly’s side, trying to stop the blood, searching for a pulse, finding nothing. They both stood up slowly, his eyes fixed on Kurtz.
“Check my pulse next, Marlow,” Kurtz backed him up against the wall. “Or are you too afraid of having all your little ideas and perceptions about the world blown out of the water?”
There was no way out even if he tried to run. Kurtz closed the distance between them and stared down at Marlow before kissing him. It was violent, animalistic even, and it wasn’t until he put together enough coherent thoughts to push him away that Marlow even tasted the blood filling his mouth.
“You’re intoxicating. Just as I expected. God, I’ve wanted to taste you for so long. Maybe just wanted you. I wish I could understand everything that goes on inside your head. Moments like these, when normal people would have already screamed for help- what are you thinking? You’ve been quiet.”
He was processing. Kurtz was alive- or something like it. There was blood on both of their lips. His head was pounding again, the room seemed to spin. “Did you drug me?” He leaned back on the wall.
“What? No, you’re in shock. I didn’t expect that, I thought you would just take it in like you do with everything else.” Kurtz put a hand on his shoulder. “You look like hell. Have you been drinking? Sleeping normally?”
He wasn’t in shock, he couldn’t be. Kurtz was lying. The grip on his shoulder tightened, and when he looked down, the fingertips ended in claws. He blinked, and they were back to normal. “I’m fine.” He snapped.
“No you’re not, there’s obviously something wrong. Let me help.” The claws were back, it felt as if they were holding him tight enough to draw blood. Kurtz would probably like that.
The pale eyes glittered in the dark. There were more of them every second, like watching the stars at night, and they drifted away from the face as if the body in front of him was only an illusion cast by something on another plane of existence, manifest in teeth made of iron. He couldn’t remember if Kurtz had asked a question, he was too busy counting eyes. Memorizing the sharp angles of the face.
Kurtz looked him up and down, then seemed to come to a decision. He released his shoulder and stepped back. “Fine. I’ll give you some time to be alone with your thoughts.” Before Marlow could say anything else, he was out the window again.
“Did he just leave me here? I’ll go right now, I am so sorry, I-“ Vitaly slipped on his own blood and hissed in pain when he hit the floor.
Some protective instinct reared its head out of nowhere, and Marlow realized that he couldn’t let him leave. “I really don’t think it’s a good idea for you to just walk out like this. You’ll get arrested as soon as you step out the door, you look as if you’ve murdered someone. At least let me help clean you up.”
“Oh. Okay. Thank you, thank you so much. I’ll leave soon.” He looked down at himself, as if he was only just noticing how much blood there was. “You can’t judge him for this, you know. I told you before. Not like you could with anyone else.”
They were both quiet until the room was cleaned up enough to make the whole scene look somewhat normal. A sense of unease weighed on them, as if Kurtz could have appeared out of the shadows at any moment.
The patchwork clothes were beyond saving, and there was something odd about picturing Vitaly in anything else. Marlow’s clothes would be too big on him, but they were the only option. He snatched up the offered stack of clothes and went off into a corner.
“Don’t look. I’ll be over here.” Vitaly changed quickly, leaving the shirt partially unbuttoned rather than trying to make his hands stop shaking. The bite had stopped bleeding, but reopened when he reached up to touch it and, lost in thought, began to scrape his nails over it.
Marlow approached him cautiously, trying not to startle him. “Do you want me to wrap that up?”
Vitaly glanced up at the bandage in Marlow’s hands and nodded. When it was covered, he leaned back against Marlow’s chest. “Sorry. It’s cold. Everything is so cold except you. Please don’t leave me, I don’t want to turn all to ice like him, just don’t let me get cold...” His voice trailed off into a whisper.
“I’m not going anywhere.” He tried to sound reassuring. Tried to ignore the dead stillness- no pulse, no breathing- and the wind picking up outside. The horror, the horror, the-
“At least you say it like you might actually mean it. That’s good enough, now. Thank you.” Vitaly smiled weakly, then returned to chewing the dried blood out from under his nails.
The silence was long past awkward again, and Marlow was thankful when Vitaly broke it. “I know that I keep saying this, but you can’t judge him. He’s different from the rest of us. He sees the world, then finds ways to describe it that no one else can even imagine.”
Even talking about Kurtz was better than silence. “So everything he’s said was like that? That’s how you always made him sound, ever since the first day.”
“Yes, always. So profound. I tried to write down things I thought of, sometimes. Little things. A bit of poetry. Never as good as his.” He glanced at the window. “That’s what most of my notes were, not anything to do with navigation.”
“I might like to hear some of yours. How long has it been since you’ve had someone to listen?”
“Oh, years. If you mean properly. Kurtz just likes to talk, and I listen, because he’s-“ Vitaly broke off suddenly. “Because his words are beautiful.”
“Yours could be too, if you would let them out.”
“The book fell apart. It was too delicate to carry for long.” He sighed. “They are lost with it.”
“Not forever, you can think of more. There are so many stories to tell- you were a sailor, you know about that. I told the crew of the Nellie about Africa, the whole story, all the way up the Congo and back to England. There are always some people who will listen, if you have a story.”
“Like the man from that poem. The Ancient Mariner, going on and on forever, and they can’t help but listen. I would like that, to be listened to. Maybe by a great audience. Not just my words, others’ too- I could be an actor, or something. I had a Shakespeare book once. I wouldn’t like to be one of his awful tragic heroes- someone happy, maybe Robin Goodfellow- I’m so tired of thinking of death.”
“Every sailor is the Ancient Mariner at some point in his life. It’s inescapable. Everyone who frequents places where sailors can be found will be the Wedding Guest, at least for a time. I would like to listen to you.”
“Anything you would like to talk about.” He tried to lighten the mood. “Love, too.”
Vitaly was quiet for a few minutes. Thinking. “I wouldn’t know what to say first. I trust you, though, so I’ll start again with Kurtz. Always with Kurtz.” He sighed, then continued. “You remember, how I told you that he threatened to shoot me? Over almost nothing. A load of ivory. I couldn’t tell you everything then because I was afraid that you would have left without him, he couldn’t stay there. You have to understand now, I gave it to him, but I wouldn’t leave like he asked me to. He shot me. In the leg, but I’m really not sure if he had aimed for my heart- he was ill. Seeing things. I stayed to take care of him when he was laid up in the station, shaking and crying out in the night that he saw devils and things with iron teeth... I suppose that I couldn’t have left even if I had wanted to, not limping around at a snail’s pace. That was nearly a year before you came, you wouldn’t have noticed anything by then.”
“After all that, you still didn’t want to leave him?”
“Of course not. Never. He enlarged my mind. Sometimes he would be harsh with me, or want to be left alone, but other nights we would sit on the roof of the station, and he would show me the stars. He knew their names, and stories that went with them. From Greek, Roman, a few that the tribes had- there was one about a demigod’s mother, singing and lighting candles to show her son the path home through the sky-which was still all dark, the world being new- and those were the brightest stars. He knows so much, about everything you could imagine. Love, too, if you can still believe it. If you want to hear it.”
“Love in general?”
“Not all of it in general, not really, you just made me feel foolish. He told me that I fell in love too easily, that I was too trusting. But he liked that. He said that he fell in love easily too, once.” Vitaly stopped for a moment, then continued as if he was reciting poetry. “Love, he said, was the equalizer of mankind, and there was always a place for it in the world. It could bring the strongest among us to their knees- then he laughed, that was meant to be understood in more ways than one- and it could lift up the weakest until he reached heaven on earth. It could pound through your veins as if it were the river at its highest point during the monsoon season, sweep you into the current and knock the air out of your lungs, crushing and powerful and overwhelming- but it could also be soft, barely able to be noticed... Shit. I can’t remember the way he said all of it, but it was beautiful. Like written by God himself.”
“It is. That’s incredible. I wish that I could have heard all of it.”
“I’m sorry. I’ll try to remember more.”
“Do you have anything else you’d like to talk about?”
“I used to be more afraid of dying than anything else. I thought it would be so horrible, painful, burning. Now I’m dead, and it’s just like being alive except colder and emptier. No wonder Kurtz looked so sick after he was changed...”
“Who changed him?”
“That woman. She had the whole tribe under her, attacking other tribes long before we even thought of going to Africa. Before anyone in Europe did, probably. She is ancient. Almost a goddess or something, to the others. She put a spell on him.” Vitaly paused, staring off into space for a moment before locking eyes with Marlow. “Don’t want to talk about her anymore. Not about anything, at least for a while. I’ve talked more in the past hour than in the whole two years I was in the Congo, can you imagine? Silence, always.”
Marlow held Vitaly’s gaze until he realized there was something predatory behind it, some challenge usually lost on humans but unmistakable in the animal kingdom. He blinked slowly, just as one would when facing a strange dog. When he opened his eyes again, Vitaly was still looking him over.
“Are you afraid of me,” Vitaly leaned forward, and his fangs caught the moonlight. “Or do you want to kiss me? You are hard to read, but I think one of those.” He sat back in anticipation.
Marlow raised an eyebrow. “Which one are you hoping for?”
Vitaly glared at him. “You’re no fun, being cryptic like that. I’ll make it easier.” He hesitated for a fraction of a second, then slowly leaned in again to press his lips to Marlow’s. It was fumbling, inexperienced, then over far too quickly.
“Sorry! I shouldn’t have done that, it’s just that... I don’t know. I’m so sorry. It’s just that people don’t usually want to have anything to do with me. You’re so different, you listen to me. The sailor is become the Wedding Guest.”
Marlow kissed him and Vitaly melted into it, but in the next moment he was tense and shaking.
“What’s wrong?” He turned over his shoulder, and his grip on Vitaly’s waist tightened.
Kurtz was sitting on the window ledge, watching with a mixture of amusement and something unreadable. “Don’t let my being here stop you. Keep going, I’m curious.”
“You came back. I thought that you would just leave me here, I’m no use to you now that you can’t feed off of me.”
“You were already dying. If I hadn’t done that, you wouldn’t have lasted a week.”
“Good. I would rather be dead and buried than like this- than like you. I trusted you! I-“
“Listen to me, just one more time!” Vitaly flinched, and Kurtz’s tone softened. “You’ve saved my life before, taken care of me when we were abandoned by the Company, showed me what it really means to love someone unconditionally... You were the only one left who understood. I suppose I just couldn’t go on without you.”
Vitaly stood still for a moment, then latched onto Kurtz as if he were drowning. “I’m sorry. Please don’t leave me again.”
“You’ll have to feed soon. Come with me, you must be starving.”
“Or, you could not go off into the city in search of some shady person in a back alley.” Desperate to find some way to keep them there, he spoke without thinking. “Take me instead.”
The look Kurtz gave him radiated an almost tangible sense of want, but it was held back almost immediately. “Are you sure you want this?”
“If the only downside is becoming a vampire, I’m sure I can get used to it.”
“You won’t turn unless this kills you. We’ll be careful, won’t we?” Kurtz looked pointedly at Vitaly, who nodded and wrapped his arms around Marlow’s waist from behind.
Vitaly’s fangs sunk into his throat, and the moan he let out when he first tasted the blood was almost orgasmic. The sensation was unsettling, but as soon as the pain even begin to register, it was replaced by impossible lightness and warmth and a strange out-of-body floating.
He didn’t remember most of it. At some point, Vitaly stopped feeding to kiss him and it was sweet like before until fangs scraped at his tongue, then it turned rough and needy and left him choking on his own blood.
Kurtz shoved them apart and pulled Marlow into his lap, but the sudden movement made him feel lightheaded and he fell backwards onto the mattress. He couldn’t recall when they moved into the bedroom. When he tried to sit up, Kurtz pressed him back down with a sensual kiss that shifted from his lips to his jawline, then trailed down, pausing at his throat when he shivered. He didn’t bite down, just mouthed at the existing bite for a moment and moved on, opened up his shirt, slipped his trousers down to kiss his thighs. He sunk his fangs in, but only for a moment, then licked over the bite. The motion was too quick to be certain, but his tongue might have been forked. No way of knowing. Motes of stardust blew through the window, and the curtains turned to gossamer wings.
He was too warm, feverish even, but Vitaly’s hands were pleasantly cool- Kurtz’s were like ice, brushing over his skin, then pinning his wrists above his head. Suppressed memories rose to the surface and blocked out the stars, hands closed around his throat, cutting off his air to keep him from screaming for help- “Stop.”
He had barely been able to get the word out, but Kurtz heard him. “What’s wrong?”
The memories had passed. “Nothing, keep going.”
“What happened? Are you okay?” Vitaly spoke from somewhere behind him.
“Yes.” His voice broke. “I’m fine.”
“I can tell you’re lying. You don’t have to say why, just let me know what you don’t like so I won’t do it again.” Something in Kurtz’s voice made it impossible to not answer.
“Don’t hold me down like that.”
“That’s it?” Kurtz looked down at him for a moment, then pulled him up into a sitting position.
“Yes. Thank you.” His breathing was normal again. Safe.
He was passed between them, floating and half-awake but at the same time incredibly aware in a way that went beyond seeing and feeling. When he spat out the metallic taste in his mouth, flecks of molten silver splattered the ground. Glittering. More stars. He tried to focus in on them, checking for eyes, and only found his own reflected back at him.
The sound of glass clinking brought him back to reality for a moment, enough to feel two slicked fingers press into him. Enough to register that Kurtz’s hands were still on his waist, and enough to wish that the small, careful hands prepping him would stay there a while longer before leaving him at Kurtz’s mercy.
The first moment of it was slow, almost agonizing- like an augury, I’m being torn apart, his mind supplied before it was all lost to raw sensation. He moved only as an extension of Kurtz, they were one being, then thousands of kaleidoscopic eyes that could see far beyond London, beyond Africa, beyond anything men had seen before. The formation of a nebula popped and flashed, left dark spots swimming through the night air like deep-sea fish that, instead of making their own light, swallowed up the light of anything that crossed their path. Fish turned to wood-carved masks, hollow eyes and sharp features, twisting vines, gaping mouths full of leopard’s teeth- then one face only covered by paint and clay, but with fangs to rival the leopard. The woman. Staring into his soul, taking his hands, then slipping one of her many copper bracelets onto his wrist. She said something in her sharp, clicking dialect, and shoved him away. As he hit the ground, the words seemed to echo, “Wake up,”
“Wake up.” Vitaly’s face was inches from his, and Marlow realized that he was pressed in between the two vampires. “You were drifting off. I’m not that boring, am I?”
Claws raked across his hips, and Marlow cried out. Kurtz seemed to be everywhere at once again and touching him with at least four sets of hands, he was starting to get lightheaded again, star-eyes flashed in his peripheral vision-
“Marlow!” Vitaly writhed under him, legs wrapped around his waist, and when he came, he arched up and bit his shoulder. The stars grew closer, constellations blotted out his field of vision, and all the lights in the room bled together into darkness.
Marlow woke up with his head in Vitaly’s lap, and reached up to wave his hand through the remaining dark spots flickering through the air. He faintly registered that someone had dressed him again, but the thought wasn’t as unnerving as it could have been.
“What are you doing?” Vitaly took his hand and gave him a questioning look.
Marlow had no idea. His limbs felt heavy and it was hard to focus on the words. “Your hands are warm again...”
Kurtz was talking over his head, but he sounded like he was some distance away. “He’s still out of it. Blood loss will do that.”
“Is he going to be okay?” Vitaly’s voice wavered. “Did I take too much?”
“No, you didn’t.” Kurtz glanced down at his face. “He just needs rest.”
Vitaly said something in response, but this time it was so blurred out that he might as well have been speaking through a wall. His eyelids were heavy.
When he woke up again, he wasn’t sure how much time had passed. Someone’s hand rested on his thigh, and fingers twisted in his hair as the conversation’s tone shifts.
“For the longest time, I had thought that you didn’t really care about me. It hurt at first, when you used to go off into the jungle and leave me alone for weeks on end. I still loved you. To think, all this time you couldn’t go on without me.” Coming from anyone else, it would have sounded bitter. Here, it was just empty.
“I missed you every time. You doubt yourself too much, Vitya.” The hand on his thigh shifted as Kurtz leaned forward to kiss Vitaly.
Marlow almost let them know he was awake, but he wanted to know what they were going to say next.
Vitaly broke away from the kiss to speak again. “You’re not leaving after this, are you? Don’t say no if that’s not the truth. Not again.”
“It’s okay, you’re safe now. I’ll stay. Sleep. I can tell that you’ve been staying awake for too long again. Besides, it’s almost morning. You’ll have to get used to sleeping during the day.”
“How many times will you promise to stay, and then leave again?”
“No more. We’re not in Africa, I don’t have to leave. We’re safe.”
“Wake me up when he comes around. I’ll sleep, but only if you promise and mean it.”
“I promise. Please, just go to sleep. Tomorrow night I can take you out into the city. There are so many people here, we could feed off someone different every night- give him time to recover. We could go as far away as you want to, maybe somewhere where we could watch the sea and the stars... God, I miss the stars. Here in the city, they’re not the same. Out there, you can hear them singing.” Kurtz paused for a long while, then glanced down at Vitaly. He had already drifted off, curled up against Marlow in a tangle of limbs. “Singing you to sleep, glowing softly to guide you home.”
Marlow half expected Kurtz to lean back and go to sleep with the rest of them, but it wasn’t surprising when he slipped off the bed and moved for the door. Marlow followed him, cornering him as soon as the door closed behind them. “Where are you going?”
“Away from here, at least for a while. Neither of you really want me here. I can tell what you’re thinking. He might think that he needs me, but it would be better for all of us if I left.”
That was surprising. He admitted that he cared, at least somewhat. “You’re an awful narcissist if you really think you can tell what people are thinking all the time. He really does love you. I can’t tell if I do yet.”
“Don’t. It’s a terrible idea. Loving anyone is, really. Too many things can go wrong, this world isn’t safe for delicate little notions like love. That’s what I told him. He said that he loved me anyways, and that someday I would see that there was always a place for love, no matter what.”
Marlow didn’t let on that he knew what Kurtz had really said about love. He played off of the lies, wanted to know where the story would go next. “Stay here. This can be a place for love.”
“You’re starting to sound like him.” Kurtz sounded anxious.
Starting to sound like you, more like, Marlow thought. “Good. We could both use some optimism once in a while. People like us think we know everything, but maybe it’s him who’s the enlightened one.”
“Maybe so. He’s not like us, but close enough. I would have gone mad out there with no one to talk to who would understand.”
Marlow nodded for him to continue. His first assumption had been correct, Kurtz needed an audience.
“You don’t get it, do you? The first time I bit him, he was terrified. He tried to get away, and I held him down and just- ugh. I nearly killed him that night. I was recently changed, not thinking straight. I wasn’t able to feed off of the tribes, that would ruin all the work I had done getting them to listen to me. He was my only option. I hurt him, more than he’s ever going to tell you about. Even after all that I did to him, he stayed with me. I was almost curious then, I wondered how far his devotion would go. It took me too long to realize that he didn’t have anyone else. He’ll do whatever I ask him to, even if it kills him.”
“It doesn’t have to. Just be there for him when he wakes up. Listen when he has something to say. Whether you like it or not, he loves you.”
“Like a drunk loves his next bottle.” Kurtz glanced at the window. “I’ve kept you up all night.”
“That’s fine. I don’t sleep much anymore. Besides, it was nice to hear you talk. I liked the bit about stars the most.” He leaned up against Kurtz, still half expecting him to get up and leave. “You don’t have to keep pushing people away.”
“They push themselves away.” There was no conviction in his words.
“I’m sorry.” There was nothing else to say, anyone reasonable would have left as soon as Kurtz entered their flat, but the two of them had an understanding now. People push themselves away from the other- whether it be ancient mariners or even more ancient creatures that contained multitudes and carried universes.
“Don’t be. You’re not leaving me. You’re the one who came back for me.” Kurtz slipped an arm around his shoulders. “Thank you.”
Then Dawn rose up from bed with Lord Tithonus, to bring the light to deathless gods and mortals,