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steady wit and ceaseless plans

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If anyone had ever asked Declan how he was handling running a criminal enterprise in the wake of his father’s death and his mother’s mysterious health crisis, he would have said, “I have things under control,” with, it could be argued, an excessive degree of false confidence. Fortunately, no one ever has, so at least he doesn’t have to die with that ironic indignity hanging over his head. His gun has been kicked out of reach, and his nose is bleeding freely, and someone his father called a friend is winding up to pistol-whip him. Declan has never worried that he might be depressed—not attractive, not productive, not an option—but he’s surprised now by the very strength of his will to live, even with no way out, no way forward. If he has to schlep around stupid little fantasy weapons until he’s eighty years old, and Ronan never speaks to him again, and he can’t even manage to get elected to city council, he wants to live. Just like everything else in his life, what he wants now doesn’t matter. A blow to the temple sends him to the ground, and he’s all about realism, so he stays down, one perfunctory arm flung over his face, and waits for his life to flash before his eyes. Instead, the alley falls silent, so that he can hear very clearly the blare of a siren that won’t do him any good. Lurking underneath it is something that doesn’t match the man-made sounds of a city, something raw and animalistic.

Declan means to keep his eyes shut. His life has been one horror after another, and there’s no reason his death ought to be as well. But he’s never been good at letting things lie, and before he can think about it, he’s diving for his gun despite the twinge in his ribs.

He doesn’t fully take in the scene around him until the gun’s recoil jolts his hand. The men who were on him are down, limp and drawn in a way that means they won’t be getting back up. Standing over them is something hunched and feral and inexplicably beautiful even with its lips dripping red. When it doesn’t fall, Declan fires twice more before realizing that the lack of reaction doesn’t mean a lack of contact. It’s satisfying, in a weird, very-last-thought-of-his-life sort of way—he's always prided himself on being a good shot. The creature turns toward him, and in the second before it gets a crushing grip on his windpipe, he manages, “Please.”

When Declan first got involved in the business, he sat down and considered what he would do when his luck ran out. He meant to die with dignity and a minimum of weeping or begging. He wrote a will too, and had it notarized; it boiled down to, “I don’t want Ronan touching my stuff.” He’s never had trouble sticking to the plan, but he’s never felt so truly hopeless, unable to even imagine a version of himself that might have been strong enough, or smart enough, or simply good enough to avoid this. There will be no last-minute burst of inspiration, no witness to interrupt what’s coming next. Instead of feeling like bad luck or bad strategy, it feels inevitable, like he’s been moving inexorably down this path since his father first recruited him. As his vision fuzzes out at the edges, he thinks of Ronan and Matthew, who have no idea how much danger they’re in, but thankfully no idea how badly he’s failed them.

The creature stops, its hand frozen on Declan’s throat. He looks into its cold eyes and watches them soften, watches the savage grin melt away. His feet find the ground, and his knees promptly follow, violating every rule of self-preservation his father taught him. He clutches his throat and tries to breathe, to understand why he’s still alive. The creature takes one step back, and then another, a hand pressed to its cheek. It looks more like a man at a distance, when Declan doesn’t have to choose between looking at its blood-red eyes and its blood-wet lips. “I’m so sorry,” it says, and disappears into the shadows.

Declan waits for relief to flood his body, but nothing happens. He's alive, which certainly didn’t seem like a guarantee less than a minute ago, but he’s standing in a sea of corpses and his own DNA, and he didn’t even get the pleasure of killing them to keep him warm during the years he’s about to spend in jail. It strikes him as a tonally consistent addition to his life, so he can’t say why he’s surprised. He’s still mired in this admittedly unproductive thought process when the creature returns.

It looks more man than monster now, though it’s possible that Declan was too busy suffocating before to notice the cashmere sweater and nicely-fitted slacks, both spotted with blood. “I seem to have created a complicated situation for both of us,” it says, melodic and clear. “You've seen my face, and I've seen yours. Neither of us is what he's pretending to be.”

Declan’s voice is just slightly raspy when he asks, “Why am I still alive?” There’s no square inch of the alley that isn’t horrific, so he forces himself to look the monster in the eye as he waits for an answer.

“I don’t kill innocents.” It continues, a pained expression marring its beautiful face, “I suppose you don’t owe me anything, but I’d appreciate if you could stop referring to me as ‘it.’ You have no way of knowing this, but it does bring up some preexisting insecurities.” Declan takes a step back with the intent to retreat further, but he hits the wall, a jagged brick piercing his shirt. “Would it help if I introduced myself? My name is Edward, and I can read your mind. I’m sure you aren’t thrilled about the violation, but that’s how I knew I couldn’t kill you. You’re doing all of this to protect your brothers. I think—I have to believe—that doing the wrong things for the right reason makes a difference in the end.” The thing—Edward, Declan corrects in response to the way his lips turn down—pauses dramatically. “For those of you for whom the end ever comes.”

The terror and despair of the moment fade, replaced by irritation. Declan’s grateful to have been spared, but he is not going to stand in an alley and get philosophical lectures from something that just exsanguinated several grown men. His life may be ridiculous, but he doesn’t have to wallow in it. “And that’s it?” Plenty of people have tried to kill him before, but none of them have ever stopped just because they felt bad. “You think I’m—'innocent,’ so you're letting me go? Even though I’m a loose end?”

“I'm not going to kill you to keep my secret. That isn’t the kind of—” Edward lets a weighted pause fall between them. “—person I want to be.” Declan’s hand finds his throat, tracing the bruising he’ll be trying to explain away tomorrow, and Edward’s frown grows ever deeper. “I am sorry about that.”

“It's fine.” Declan scans the alley for his briefcase and finds it wedged halfway beneath a Dumpster. He fishes out a pack of baby wipes.

Every expression that crosses Edward’s face has the overwrought intentionality of a stage-trained actor’s, like it’s meant to play in the cheap seats. Now he looks like he means for his concern to be legible from space. “It isn’t fine. It’s distressing to me that you don’t seem to know that.”

Declan’s cuts sting as he wipes at them. If he doesn’t look at anything but Edward’s face, this whole situation almost feels normal. “Vampire, philosopher, and psychoanalyst? That’s impressive.”

Edward laughs. It’s a disconcertingly musical sound to hear from a man whose loafers are less than an inch from a puddle of blood. “Immortality offers a lot of time for self-improvement.”

Declan rolls his eyes. “Good for you.” If tonight has taught him anything—and that’s up for debate—it's how truly he’s living on borrowed time. Every second he spends listening to Edward soapbox about morality and mental health is a second he can’t spend workshopping new tie knots or flirting with beautiful women. “So we’ve landed on mutually assured destruction, right? We mop the scene and walk away?”

“I believe that’s the most reasonable solution. I won’t kill you, and you certainly can’t kill me. Why make things more difficult for each other?”

Without waiting for a response, Edward hefts all three bodies onto his shoulder. He looks at Declan solemnly, like he doesn’t have a corpse’s limp hand mussing his hair. “I’ll be right back. Stay here.”

Edward is gone before Declan can ask where he’s supposed to go with clothes painted with blood and one eye well into the process of swelling shut, and back before Declan can work up to a decent sense of irritation. Edward tosses over a bundle that hits Declan’s stomach with surprising force considering that it unfurls into the softest sweater he’s ever seen. “I brought a bag for your clothes.” Declan stares. Edward doesn’t look like he just disposed of several corpses. He might actually have changed, which seems insensitive somehow.

Declan forces himself to stay focused. He bunches his shirt so that he can pull it over his head in one smooth motion, minimizing the time he spends blinded by fabric. “What did you do with the bodies?” he asks.

“You don’t need to know. Suffice to say, they won’t be found.” Edward looks around the alley. “You shouldn’t concern yourself with my sloppiness. I’ll take care of the cleaning. Why don’t you sit down?”

The only parts of the alley not covered in blood are smudged with dirt. “That isn’t necessary. Let’s just get this over with.”

Edward pulls out a pair of dishwashing gloves that will stretch past Declan’s elbows. “So you don’t leave fingerprints.”

It’s indicative of a major personality flaw that, standing in an alley that has seen three brutal murders, Declan’s first thought is that he has no interest in looking like a 1950s housewife. Edward quirks an eyebrow, and that simple movement encompasses the absurdity of the situation. Declan takes the gloves, and they work in silence.

When they’re mostly done, Declan having buffed the backside of a Dumpster and then smeared dirt back onto it for the sake of authenticity, Edward says, “Most people would have more questions. Failing that, any questions.”

Declan looks down at his hands, which haven’t felt like his own in a long time, and certainly don’t now, clad in pink rubber. “Most people haven’t been drowning in supernatural bullshit their whole lives. I don’t have the time to do a deep dive into modern vampirism.” He uses a flashlight to examine what he thinks is a blood spot. Edward swears the alley is clean, but he isn’t the one risking consecutive life sentences. Declan isn’t going to apologize for doing his due diligence.

After a minute, Edward crouches down and takes the flashlight. Now that he isn’t choking the life out of Declan, he seems almost apologetic about his strength. “There isn’t any blood. I would smell it.” He does one last sweep before turning the light off. “You’re much calmer than I would have expected.”

“This isn’t the first fucked up thing that’s happened to me lately. It’s barely even the most fucked up.” Having had the flashlight confiscated, and his gloves tucked inside-out into an industrial-looking trash bag, Declan turns his focus to his briefcase, which would be ruined by association even if it weren’t ruined by dirt, mysterious stains, and a dented-in corner. He occupies himself with brushing at a few of the more manageable spots.

Edward’s voice softens. “Your hands are shaking.” Declan looks down and realizes it’s true. He presses them more firmly against the leather of the case, which does little to obscure the tremor. It’s hard to justify. He’s still alive, which means nothing really happened, and he has no reason to be freaked out. “It’s distinctly possible that you’re concussed, to say nothing of what you’ve seen. I would be happy to drive you home.”

Edward moves them both toward the mouth of the alley before Declan has the good sense to pull free and snap, “I’m not getting in a car with you.”

“If I wanted to kill you, I believe I’ve proven this to be a satisfactory location.” Declan freezes in place, and Edward frowns. “I’m sorry. It’s been a long time since I had practice socializing with humans.” He looks around as if someone might appear and rescue him from the need to say what he’s about to say. Or maybe he’s checking for witnesses before he knocks Declan out and drags him away. “I apologize in advance for how uncomfortable this will make you, but I’ve already seen your apartment, your childhood home, and both of your brothers in your mind.” He winces, then says gently, like Declan might not know, “You think about them a lot. I don’t see that allowing me to prevent some kind of incident will make you any less safe.”

It’s a good point, and Declan has always found the crash from an adrenaline high to be regrettably fast. He can feel himself coming apart at the seams, the quiver in his hands that won’t be tamed, the burn at the back of his throat that means he’ll be throwing up inside of a half hour, both at odds with the eerie, determined calm that overtakes him in scenes like this. Niall dedicated much of his limited time with his sons to boxing lessons. Despite those sessions, fueled in his absence by the all-consuming desire for his approval, Declan’s body tends to betray him, not when he needs it most, but in the moments right after, when the weight of what he’s done slams back down on his shoulders. “Fine.”

When they reach Declan’s car, parked on a dimly-lit backstreet behind a falling-down warehouse, Edward says, “You have good taste,” smirking like there’s some joke inherent in Volvos that Declan just doesn’t get. In any other circumstances, it would be annoying, but now Declan sinks into the passenger’s seat of his own car and feels the give of the cushion beneath him, the mechanical smell of the air conditioner clicking on, and nothing else.

Despite the many lectures Declan has delivered on the dangers of racing, he has more than his fair share of speeding tickets. Still, when he looks at the speedometer and sees it edging past 120, he clutches at the dashboard, his heart in his throat, and says, “Jesus.” He’s had an exceptionally long night in a series of exceptionally long nights, so the oath comes out on the verge of hysteria.

Edward turns toward him, one hand on the wheel, zero eyes on the road. “You just watched me slaughter three men, and your complaint is my driving? How interesting.”

Declan says, very conscious of Edward’s ability to read his mind, at the moment a writhing mass of horrors and insecurities, “It’s kind of badass, actually, but you’re not on my insurance, so maybe cool it.”

Edward laughs, a sudden, delighted sound. The needle ticks to 100, 90, 80, and stalls at 75. Declan has the feeling that he’s hit upon the one scenario in which Edward would agree to slow down: chauffeuring the man he almost killed away from the scene of the slaughter. “Thank you,” he says, aiming for sarcastic and falling short.

They don’t talk again until Edward pulls into Declan’s parking spot. He turns the car off and tosses the keys over, but doesn't get out. Instead, he turns to Declan, his face folded into a mask of concern, “You really don’t have any questions? You’ve just discovered that vampires are real, and your plan for the night is to get caught up on Meet the Press while drinking expensive scotch you don’t even like?”

Declan rolls his eyes. “You can read my mind, so you know what I’m dealing with already. I want to know as little as possible about all of this.”

Squinting doesn’t harm Edward’s looks at all. “You really are remarkably calm.”

Declan works to clear his mind of the terror he felt earlier, of the undeniable fact of his mortality, so that he’ll sound cool and collected, nearly bored, when he says, “I’m sure this is a blow to your supernatural cachet or something, but you aren’t all that scary with that cardigan on. I think I’ll be all right.”

Edward watches him for a long moment, then breathes, “Fascinating,” and disappears into the night.

 

 

Declan is a believer in not borrowing trouble, not looking a gift horse in the mouth, and any other cliché that boils down to, “If things are going well, thank God and mind your own business.” When a week passes without any messages on his burner, he calls it good luck and focuses on all the schoolwork he’s been subordinating to his criminal pantomime.

At two weeks, the tropical-vacation sense of bliss has started to fade, and he calls Matthew every morning to make sure things are normal in Henrietta. Matthew isn’t the best source of information, but his chatter about flower-picking and butterfly-catching establishes that he’s still alive, which is all the “normal” Declan can really ask for.

At three weeks, it’s undeniable that something’s gone wrong.

Niall dreamt a lot of things Declan has sworn never to sell, things too obviously dangerous to allow in the hands of anyone who would want to own them. Despite his pledge, he’s been unwilling to destroy them, which he likes to think of as cold-minded practicality: he can’t guarantee that principle will always stand tall over necessity. His motivation, in fact, has been raw, unfocused sentimentality, the ill-conceived conviction that by hoarding the fruits of his father’s mind, he can somehow fix their relationship from the wrong side of the grave. As he calls Greenmantle, prepared to offer up something terrifying to reassure himself that they’re still on what passes for good terms, he takes comfort in the fact that he’ll never have to own up to this continued insecurity about his place in his father’s heart. He’s just about to hang up, having gotten Greenmantle’s voicemail and not wanting to offer up a recording of himself arranging an illicit sale, when his phone is snatched from his hand and snapped shut. He reacts on instinct, diving for the gun stashed in the third drawer of his filing cabinet, and only slows when he has it pointed directly at Edward’s smug face. He holds it steady. “What the fuck?"

“I’m sorry to intrude, but you were about to do something very foolish. It would have been equally futile, but you had no way of knowing that.” Edward nods to the couch. “May I sit?” As the social contract against trespassing has already been violated, Declan sees no benefit to refusing. Edward’s smile drops as he gets settled. “Even I can tell that this couch is incredibly uncomfortable.”

He isn’t wrong, but it looks good, and that’s the point. “You aren’t here to give me interior design tips. What do you want?”

Edward pokes at the couch, which is more like a slightly avant-garde bench someone clothed in white fabric. “I want to know what you were thinking when you made that call.”

Declan turns his attention back to the papers on his desk, keeping Edward carefully in his peripherals. “Don’t you already know what I was thinking? Isn’t that the point?”

“Then I would like to understand what you were thinking. The man you were about to call is very dangerous, and what you were going to offer him even more so.”

“It’s none of your business,” Declan says. Even as he speaks, he realizes, “You have something to do with this. No one has contacted me in weeks, not even to spout pointless threats.”

“And so you wanted to seek out the worst of them?”

“And so I wanted to get ahead of whatever’s about to go wrong. But it’s nothing I did, is it? It was you.”

“Yes.” Edward looks away. “As a vampire currently occupying the District of Columbia, I have a vested interest in keeping those preoccupied with the supernatural out of the city.”

It makes sense, but Declan is good at telling when people are lying to him—that, a mean right hook, and thick hair are the only things of value Niall ever gave him. Edward doesn’t defend himself, doesn’t say that he might be a blood-sucking murderer, but he draws the line at dishonesty.

It’s hard not to imagine gears grinding behind Edward’s perfect face as he frowns. “I wanted to show what respect I could for your privacy.” Having been caught in one lie, he puts all he has into the second, making it fall even flatter.

Declan says, “Sure,” and holds out his hand for the burner. Edward doesn’t react, and since Declan has, for reasons he can’t quite make sense of, taken the stance that he’s going to antagonize a vampire, he has to follow through. He joins Edward on the couch and says, “I’d like my property back.” He isn’t stupid, so he doesn’t try to take it, but he keeps his hand out and works to feel nothing but righteous indignation.

“It won’t do you any good. He isn’t going to pick up.”

Declan understands the implications of Edward’s words—his inexplicable presence—all at once. “You killed Greenmantle?”

“I did,” Edward says, his voice carefully neutral.

For about five seconds, Declan feels the way he imagines it feels to be free. Everything in him lightens, and just as quickly, he comes plummeting back to earth. “And when the people left want retribution? When they figure out that the catalyst for all of this was a meeting with me?”

Edward stares at his hands as they twist together in his lap. “Retribution—is not a concern.”

Declan leans back against his admittedly under-stuffed couch. He can feel his heart in his throat. “All of them?”

“All of the vengeance-minded ones.”

“And I’m supposed to just trust your judgement?” Declan demands, his voice edging toward hysteria. It’s too tempting, the wide-open expanse of possibility. “You expect me to put my life and the lives of my brothers in your hands?”

“Not at all. I would ordinarily have moved on by now, but I’m going to stay until I’ve made sure you aren’t in any danger because of my actions. Until you believe it.”

“That doesn’t make me feel any safer,” Declan says, realizing as he does that it isn’t true, despite all logic to the contrary. He continues, optimistic about the obfuscating power of a smooth transition, “Why would you do that for me?”

Edward walks over to the window, watching the setting sun with a mournful look on his face. Declan rolls his eyes. If he wanted his life to be saturated with melodrama, he would move back to Henrietta and let Ronan call him a man-whore to his face. “I’m a vampire,” Edward says, right when he’s exhausted the bounds of human patience. “Killing is in my nature. But I was human once, and I would like to believe that some shadow of that person remains.”

Declan tries to think this through, unburdened by either optimism or cynicism. He wouldn’t have bought genuine kindness as a reason, but guilt is a notoriously good motivator. Edward’s selling a fantasy, something that’s inevitably going to blow up in Declan’s face and probably end with him bled-out in a gutter somewhere, but it should be nice while it lasts.

Edward is still enjoying Declan’s partially-obstructed view of the Potomac when he says, “I’m going to leave you my number so that you can contact me if you have any trouble. I already have yours because I heard you give it to a barista this morning.”

By the time Declan has finished groaning, “Jesus,” his apartment is empty. Next to him on the couch is a creamy white business card, just thick enough to draw attention without being cumbersome. On top of it, liberated of its battery, is his burner.

 

 

Declan has always thought of himself as a practical person, his indiscretions scheduled and well within societal boundaries. But after Edward disappears from his apartment, the practical concern is what it means to be under the personal protection of a bloodthirsty vampire. Slightly less so, but ideologically pressing, is whether it's all right to accept aid from an admitted murderer. Decidedly impractical is thinking about how Edward has kind eyes for a serial killer. Declan doesn’t even date nice girls, so he can’t imagine where that thought is coming from.

The moony feeling fades quickly enough, supplanted by the sensation of being hunted. It’s just that nothing in his life has ever been this easy . Almost dying a month ago doesn’t feel like a suitable price to pay for total liberation. There has to be another shoe, ready and waiting like a guillotine's blade. It might be Edward, belatedly conscious of the need to tie off loose ends. It might be an enemy he missed while he was busy crying over what a monster he is. Declan feels on-edge like he hasn't since the first night after Niall died, thinking of what had come and what would come next.

He calls in what little credibility he has with Ronan to tell him to lie low for a couple weeks, and it maybe, probably, definitely falls on deaf ears. The nice thing, though, about being a little over two hours away is that Declan sometimes allows himself to seek refuge in ignorance. If he can’t see Ronan being needlessly contemptuous, he can pretend it isn’t happening.

He calls Matthew so many times that even his angel of a brother tells him he’s being needy. That isn’t what Matthew says, obviously; he says, “Declan? Did you need something? Because we can totally stay on the phone, but John got fireworks? From Mexico? So it might get kinda loud?”

It isn't the first time Matthew has communicated, in his gentle, tactless way, that Declan is holding on too tight. It's the first time Declan has heard it. If Edward can be trusted—and this is a big, glaring if—then Declan doesn't want to be another thing standing between Matthew and a normal adolescence.

Edward picks up before the phone has the chance to ring, which is as gratifying as it is unsettling. Declan doesn’t waste time with greetings. “I get that you’re doing a noble anti-hero sort of thing, but I can’t have you just lurking on the outskirts of my life. Unless—can you read my mind from where you are right now?”

“Yes,” Edward says flatly.

“Then I’d really rather be able to see you.” Declan winces and tries not to think anything about Edward’s hair or eyes or insufferable but attractive smile. “I mean that I don’t like the mystery.”

“I’m not something you want to invite into your life,” Edward says. He can work more pain into his voice than anyone Declan’s ever heard.

“You’ve already invited yourself. I’m just saying that I don’t enjoy being surveilled. If you insist on being here, you might as well be here.” In the silence that follows, Declan hears the trill of a bird that’s taken up residence on his windowsill. It’s even more annoying in stereo. He sighs. “Please come inside.”

“It’s better for you if I keep my distance,” Edward says, grim and serious like he isn’t, probably, hanging from the underside of Declan’s balcony.

“Seriously, what is the benefit to taking the creepiest of all possible paths?”

“If you insist,” Edward says, still into the phone despite the fact that he’s materialized by the kitchen counter.

Declan tries to look like monsters appear in his apartment every day, a smile stretching unconvincingly across his face. He hasn’t had many occasions to host, having lived first in a semi-secret farmhouse and then in a boys’ dorm half-occupied by his little brother, so he doesn’t have much of a frame of reference for anyone appearing in his apartment, not counting women he intends to sleep with. He can’t exactly offer Edward something to drink. “Do you eat human food?”

Edward is eying Declan’s couch with a truly impressive amount of disdain. “You were very clear about your disinterest in the intricacies of vampirism last week.”

Declan opens a cabinet, stares at his rarely-used plates, and closes it. “I’m not asking if you turn into a bat; I just want to know whether I should put out some chips and dip.”

“I don’t eat human food.” Edward cocks his head, a thoughtful look on his face. “And while I don’t speak from experience, it’s my understanding that kale chips are a universally unpopular offering.”

“Well, we can’t all be on an all-liquid diet."

Edward doesn’t laugh. “And vampires can’t turn into bats, for the record. That was just some human fantasy.”

“I never had a vampire phase, but that’s still pretty disappointing. I’m guessing I shouldn’t buy you a coffin to sleep in, either.”

“I don’t sleep,” Edward says, sounding once again like he’s suffering a million agonies all at once.

Declan shrugs. “Who does?”

 

 

They settle into a routine with disconcertingly domestic ease. It helps that Edward doesn’t do much but glare out the window from a chair he’s moved out of the reach of the sun’s rays. Declan doesn’t own a piano or any books that aren’t presidential biographies, and Edward finds TV and the internet to be “shallow, insipid, and predictive of the downfall of society.”

Declan shuts the front door and triple-locks it behind him. “How was your day?” he calls out.

“Exactly like every other day of my interminable existence,” Edward says. “But at least I haven’t detected any threats to you or your brothers. And you?”

They go through this seven days a week, except when the rain gifts Edward with a small bit of freedom and they conduct the same conversation on a street corner, Declan under a heavy umbrella that can serve as a bludgeon in a pinch, Edward getting soaked. Declan always says, “Fine,” despite the knot of tension in his neck that hasn’t loosened as much as he’d hoped, and Edward always just looks at him. Now, not in the mood for another lecture on how very readable his mind is, he says, “Total shitshow. Apparently, Matthew wants to get into competitive eating, so he bought three hundred dollars of frozen hotdogs for practice and then forgot them overnight under his bed.” He rubs at his temples, hard, until they match the pounding in the back of his skull. “Ronan... It doesn’t even bear talking about. God.” Declan figures that because Edward’s skin is impenetrable, no one’s ever slugged him for always looking like he’s on the verge of laughing at someone when he smiles. It’s a shame.

Edward’s smile widens. “I was just thinking that Matthew would get along quite well with my brother, Emmett. I always admired his carefree nature.”

Declan grins despite himself. “Do you have one for Ronan?”

“He and my sister Rosalie might enjoy sitting silently in a room together, each thinking their solitary contemptuous thoughts. But probably not.”

“Sounds about right. Hey.” Declan pauses. “I’m going out with some of the less annoying people from one of my classes. Do you want to come?” Edward’s head shoots up. He looks so shocked that Declan wonders whether he’s committed some kind of a vampiric faux pas. It is, arguably, pretty rude to invite someone to watch other people engage in an activity he’s incapable of.

“I can drink,” Edward says. “Alcohol simply has no effect on me.”

“Whatever. Be honest. If I take you out with me, are you going to be a drag? Like, in the corner praying for our souls all night?”

"I won’t be a ‘drag,’” Edward says, his elegant voice perfectly forming the air quotes. “I would like to come with you. If you were sincere in your invitation.”

Declan scoffs. “Yeah, man, I’m ‘sincere.’”

Edward’s face doesn’t change, but he sounds pleased when he says, “Good,” before disappearing into the bathroom for an hour. Declan times it, periodically throwing out irritable thoughts about how Edward is holding all of his hair products hostage, not counting the emergency stash in the hall closet. Finally, he comes back looking exactly the way he did when he went in.

“Not exactly the same,” Edward says, running one hand through his hair. Declan has to concede that it does look a little more carefully styled than it did before. His sweater, though an identical ivory, is cashmere, not merino.

Declan recognizes his mistake as soon as he walks in with Edward at his back. It’s pretty inconsiderate to show up with a black hole into which all female attention will be inexorably drawn. The other guys figure out pretty quickly that bringing girls to the table is a bust with Edward there, but no one is drunk enough to ask him to leave. Declan doesn’t really get intimidated, on principle, but he can see how if he were just a regular frat guy, used to living off the strength of his father’s reputation, he might balk at calling Edward a cockblock to his face. He’s going to have to answer for this later, but he finds he doesn’t mind as much as he should.

Once they’re alone in the VIP section, everyone having conceded that bottle service isn’t more attractive to women than a face that looks like it was hand-sculpted one perfect feature at a time, Edward asks, “Is this what an ordinary night out for you looks like?” Declan looks out at the dance floor, then down at his scotch on the rocks, the ice spheres mostly melted. “You shouldn’t feel obligated to keep me company. I don’t have to stay.”

“No!” Declan clears his throat and repeats, more sedately, “No. I’ve been wanting a calm night.”

Edward stares into his eyes. “If you’re sure.” Declan nods, momentarily struck mute. “Good.” Edward flags down a waiter and orders a vodka cranberry. When it comes, he presses it into Declan’s hand, his skin the same temperature as the frosty glass. “You should drink things you enjoy.”

Declan takes it because he’s already tipsy, and because it does feel a little insane, packing heat and sitting next to a vampire, to be worried about the masculinity factor of mixed drinks. “Thanks.” He leans in closer to Edward, realizing only once it’s done that he doesn’t need to. “So, what’s everyone thinking?”

Edward raises one manicured eyebrow. “Privacy only matters when it’s yours then?”

“Yes. Obviously. When have I claimed otherwise?”

“All right.” Edward leans in as well, so that their shoulders bump against each other. “Do you see that woman by the door? The one with the oversized sunglasses even though there seems to be exactly one functioning light fixture in here?” Declan squints. He doesn’t, but Edward continues, “She’s picked the pockets of a half-dozen people in here. The man by the bar is getting ready to call his ex for the fifteenth time tonight to beg her to forgive him for sleeping with her sister. And your friend Geoff—” Edward goes suddenly rigid.

Declan laughs into his glass. “What is it? I could have told you that you didn’t want to hear anything going on in Geoff’s head.” Edward keeps his mouth resolutely shut, and Declan says, “Come on,” disturbed to hear a wheedling note in his voice.

“He thinks.” Edward purses his lips. “He’s wondering if perhaps there’s something between us.”

The pleasantly light-hearted feeling drains from Declan’s body. He shoots upright, conscious of how little space was between them. He opens his mouth to protest, but remembers before he can that it’s the 21st century, and that he has a gay brother, and that Geoff has never once gotten a woman to agree to a second date and certainly isn’t the arbiter of heterosexual masculinity. He clears his throat. There’s still some color in his cheeks, but he thinks he manages a convincingly cool tone when he says, “Whatever.” Edward just looks at him. “I mean, I’m not gay. What’s it matter if some asshole thinks I am?” Edward still doesn’t react, and Declan finds himself getting a little bit irritable. “Unless that’s a problem for you. Look, I don’t know when you were born, but—”

“1901,” Edward says. His face gives nothing away.

“Really? Jesus. I mean—What I’m saying is—”

“I don’t object to homosexuality,” Edward says gently, his lips curved into a smile. “I was born in 1901, but I’ve lived quite a while since then. It’s sweet of you to be defensive of your brother.”

“I need another drink.” Only once he has a fresh glass in hand does Declan say, “I wasn’t defending Ronan; I was defending my claim to the moral high ground. If I go around letting people shit on gay people, that gives him a legitimate reason to resent me. Which would give him exactly one legitimate reason.” Edward raises an eyebrow. It feels equal parts crucial and futile that Declan convince him, so he decides to err on the side of doing nothing. He’s had more to drink than he ordinarily would, and for the first time, he doesn’t feel the need to keep his guard up. “How do you deal with it? I mean.” His tongue chases the swizzle stick around his glass. “I’d totally lose faith in humanity.”

“Well, it hasn’t exactly turned me into an optimist.” Edward flags down a waiter and accepts a bucket of ice holding a bottle of sparkling water. He pours a glass with something of a flourish. “I did some reading on ‘hangovers’ while you were in the bathroom.”

Declan stares into the glass Edward hands him after confiscating the other. He typically only drinks enough to blunt his edges: you never know when you’re going to run into someone you need to charm, or when one of your so-called friends will spill a stock tip that technically qualifies as insider trading. When he gets up, Edward puts a hand on his arm to steady a largely nonexistent wobble, and Declan lets him. It’s a little warm, and his fingers provide a welcome contrast.

When they step outside, the cool air sobers Declan up nicely, and he shakes his arm free. “Sorry for dragging you out,” he says, waiting for Edward to unlock the Volvo door. For someone with superhuman reflexes, he’s always slow with things like this.

Edward smiles at Declan over the hood of the car. “No, I had a nice time. The way I’ve been living—there aren’t many opportunities for nights out with good company.”

 

 

Everything Edward owns is cream or beige or taupe, and impossibly soft—Declan imagines—so it isn’t unreasonable that it takes him a month to realize he’s never seen the sweaters repeat, and that none of them are ever in his apartment when not hugging Edward’s torso.

His curiosity boils over while he’s eating, a bit self-consciously. Between Edward's lack of appetite and his steely gaze, Declan feels strange sitting across from him. The first time Edward noticed, he said, “You’ve seen me feed; table manners are simply not on my radar.” Declan puts a forkful of zucchini noodles in his mouth and chews, and chews, and chews, and washes it down with a gulp of water. Only once he’s totally sure his mouth is empty does he ask, “So, do you have a lair?”

Edward’s face shifts seamlessly from neutral to bemused, the skin around his eyes crinkling as he doesn’t quite smile. “Pardon?”

“Your clothes. You don’t keep them here.” Edward raises an eyebrow, and Declan adds, “I checked,” feeling foolish after he does.

“I don’t ordinarily stay in one place this long,” Edward says, and then goes so silent and so still it’s hard to believe he’s ever spoken at all.

“And?” Declan prompts.

“I don’t have a lair.” Edward taps his fingertips against the table. “I do have climate-controlled storage units all over the country.”

Declan takes another drink to buy himself time to generate a response. He lands on an unsatisfying, “Naturally.”

“Most of my clothes were bought by my sister. Vampires who follow my chosen path don’t tend to wear designer clothes or rent apartments. Only my own vanity keeps me dressing this way.” Edward plucks at one of the cuffs of today’s sweater, a cowl neck that exposes the notch of his sternum. “But I suppose sentimentality is in play as well.”

Declan nods, smiles blandly, and blurts out, “I have a spare room.” A three-bedroom apartment seemed too foolishly, obviously optimistic, but two, he thought, was reasonable. Matthew could be prevailed upon to visit, and to be pleasant while doing so. But Declan’s life in D.C. has been so busy, and the one time Matthew was supposed to make the drive on his own, he ended up in Ohio and missed three days of class meandering his way back. It was just as well, since Declan has never actually gotten around to furnishing it. The room sits empty, the door shut tight so that Declan doesn’t have to think about it.

It’s satisfying to be able to shock someone who can read his mind, even if Declan only pulled it off by not thinking. Edward’s mouth actually hangs open for a moment before he comes back to himself and says, prim as ever, “I wouldn’t want to impose.”

If Declan were the kind of person who could back down, ever, he might not have two concussions on his medical record just from Ronan slamming his head into parts of his car. He says, “It’s fine. You’re here anyway, might as well keep your clothes nearby.”

Edward, who has always been effortlessly graceful, doesn’t seem to know where to lay his eyes or his hands. He gets up from his stool in the breakfast nook and moves toward the window as if in a trance. He stops just short of stepping into the patch of light in the center of the room. “That’s very kind of you.”

Declan rolls his eyes. Feeling small and flayed-open and vulnerable, he jams another forkful of noodles into his mouth and says through it, “Yeah, I’m basically Mother Teresa. It’s an empty room.”

Edward doesn’t turn back right away; by the time he speaks, Declan has finished eating and is wondering if he could get away with setting up a chore wheel. "I don’t run into much kindness anymore,” Edward says. He moves toward the door and away from it again. “Allow me to appreciate it.”

Declan rubs at the back of his neck, fighting down the urge to say something biting. If he accepts that it means something to Edward, he’s one small step from letting it mean something to him too. The best he can do is leave the room entirely.

 

 

Declan didn’t realize how much time being scared for his life took up until he got to cut way down. It isn’t just reclaiming the hours he would have spent waiting around at abandoned carwashes or drive-ins or, once, a very much not abandoned farmers’ market. It’s getting Matthew’s voicemail, getting Ronan’s voicemail, and not going into a panic spiral about them both being dead. It’s seeing the same woman three different times on three different days and only being slightly worried about a tail.

It’s like being the protagonist of a sci-fi movie where someone’s unlocked the unused 90% of his brain. Everything is just so easy. His romantic life has never been better. School is barely worth noting. He schmoozes a Congressman over a hungover breakfast and still gets a business card with a personal number scrawled on the back. He’s pretty sure he’s seeing one or two new colors.

The only problem is that he still can’t sleep. It’s like he needs to reach a certain quota of horror in his life, and now that his waking hours have calmed to a manageable, almost boring level, his dreams have decided to pick up the slack.

He wakes up to Edward’s hand bruising his wrist, but that discomfort is preferable to shattering his fist on Edward’s jaw, which, he realizes as he blinks sleep from his eyes and lets his fingers unfurl, he came very close to doing. He pulls back, regretting that he let Matthew talk him out of buying silk pajamas. Edward is wearing a different violently neutral outfit than he was two hours ago, and Declan is tousle-haired and bare-chested in a pair of boxers. Edward stares hard at the wall behind his head. It’s painted a custom shade of slate. Declan spent hours on color palettes, and he’s proud of it, but it isn’t that interesting.

“You were having a nightmare,” Edward grits out after a moment of silence.

Declan’s dreams slip out of his head by the time his eyes open, but he can feel the truth of that by the way his heart jackhammers in his throat. He focuses on the more relevant issue. “You can see my dreams?”

“Apparently.” Edward’s eyes turn wide and childish, like he’s seen something wondrous. Just as Declan's about to snap that he has HBO and Showtime if it’s just a matter of late-night entertainment, Edward’s face smooths out. “I’m sorry,” he says, now to Declan’s hardwood floor. “I haven’t been around someone who could dream in a very long time. It’s—” He sighs. “I miss it.”

“I’m glad I could let you indulge in a bit of nostalgia.” Declan’s never particularly wanted to remember his dreams, but it rankles that someone else knows what’s in his head better than he does. He tugs the sheet covering him a little higher.

“I majored in psychology at Cornell,” Edward says. He’s removed himself from his perch by Declan’s bedside and has started to rummage through the closet. It should be irritating, and mostly is, but Declan can’t work himself up to a proper reaction.

“Excuse me?” When Declan was young, he very briefly had an issue with nail-biting, one that resurfaced when Niall first drew him into the business. He has himself too well-trained for any such relapse now.

“Of course, that was quite some time ago. Many of the specifics have changed, but even back then, it was well understood that talking about upsetting experiences could help you to process them.” Edward tosses over a button-up and a pair of ironed jeans, the exact ones Declan was picturing. He doesn’t move any closer. “There’s nothing to be ashamed of.”

All Declan has ever wanted is to be normal, at least since he gave up on turning out abnormal. This is very much not normal. “Are you offering to be my therapist?”

“I’m offering to lend a sympathetic ear. I understand that between your professional goals and your—extracurriculars, having vulnerabilities on record is less than desirable. But you can talk to me, if you want.”

“You can read my mind. Why would we need to talk?” Declan pulls on the shirt he was offered.

“As you surely know, speech has a cathartic power all its own.” Edward is standing practically inside Declan’s closet, like the boundary will protect him from something. “I won’t be offended, of course, if you don’t take me up on it. But the offer stands.”

Declan nods. He can’t remember a time when he was ever well-rested, but the fog is getting heavier and heavier. “That isn’t going to happen. Now can you put on some coffee?”

Edward’s nose wrinkles. “Caffeine is a clearly counterproductive response to your particular issue.”

Declan gets up, Edward turning away obligingly so that he can step into his jeans. “I’m going for a walk.”

“It’s late!” Edward says with what strikes Declan as an unnecessary amount of wide-eyed horror.

“I’m a talented boxer and I own literally dozens of guns. I think I’ll be okay.”

Edward watches him for a moment, managing an impressive gravitas considering that he’s nestled amongst Declan’s button-ups. “I’ll come with you.”

Declan opens his mouth to say that he wants to be alone, but realizes quickly that it isn’t true. He shrugs.

Edward apparently feels that a walk requires yet another outfit change. He disappears into his room and comes back fifteen minutes later wearing jeans and a Georgetown sweatshirt. He looks almost like a real teenager. He looks no more awake than Declan feels, the bags under his eyes stark and miserable.

“Yeah, so.” Declan jerks a thumb toward the door. “Let’s head out.”

The sky is blank, stars overpowered by light pollution. It's nothing like the sky Declan grew up looking at, or even like his bedroom ceiling at the Barns, festooned in glow-in-the-dark stars until he was tall enough to take them down without help. Nothing in his life is what it used to be. The logic was that he wouldn't be either, that all of the injuries and insecurities of his childhood would fade if he simply failed to make room for them.

Edward's presence is heavy beside him, despite the inhuman grace of his steps. He seems most real at night, when he isn’t haunted by a sun he can’t see, a world he can’t touch. Declan asks, “So tell me about your—what do vampires have? Covens? Packs?”

“I have a family.” Edward’s hands clench and unclench at his sides. It’s the closest he’s come to seeming human, to seeming out of control, but Declan remembers the feeling of a stone-cold hand against his throat, remembers the ping of ricocheted bullets. He thinks of the last time he slammed his fist into Ronan’s jaw, the burst of adrenaline, the thrill of split knuckles. It must be exhausting to live so gingerly. Edward nods, half to himself. “The present tense may be optimistic, considering what I’ve done. I may never go back.”

“What you’ve done?”

Edward scoffs. “We met when I tried to kill you; you can’t imagine what I might have done to disappoint them?”

Declan tries not to tense up. He forgets, sometimes, that the Edward who frowns whenever he takes a study break on Buzzfeed is the same one who nearly killed him, who still goes out and kills others. "Aren’t they vampires too?”

A street light illuminates Edward’s tormented face as they pass beneath it. “The man who turned me—my father figure in this new life—sought out a gentler form of vampirism. It is possible to subsist on animal blood. But it’s misery, living with a throat perpetually on fire and the knowledge of something missing. I believed that because of my power, I could find ethically-sourced sustenance. I thought it would be better than an eternity of deprivation.”

“You thought?”

Declan watches a frown crease half of Edward’s face. “I thought.”

Declan nods. Something in him, some instinct for kindness, wakes up. “But they won’t forgive you for leaving.”

“That isn’t it. My father is a kind man. He would forgive me without question or hesitation, and the rest would follow suit. Eventually.”

“So you could go home, and they would welcome you with open arms, full prodigal son, but instead you’ve been moping around my apartment because...” Declan bites his tongue, rather pointlessly, against the exclamation that some people have real problems.

“I’m ashamed,” Edward says, voice rough. “Besides, I have an obligation here.”

Declan puts as much distance between them as he can without ending up in the street. This isn’t the kind of position he allows himself to be in. He doesn’t have a single friend he wouldn’t drop for even the possibility of professional advancement or romantic success or, honestly, a suitably large Whole Foods gift card. “I’ve never asked you for anything. I’ve never asked anyone for anything. If you want to go back, I’m not stopping you.”

Edward closes the gap between them. His hand is gentle on Declan's arm, so that he could pull free if he wanted to. He allows himself to be turned instead, so that they're face to face, but then trains his eyes on a neon sign flickering in a darkened storefront. “I didn't mean to hurt you,” Edward says, continuing over Declan's protest, “I should have said—I wouldn’t like it if anything happened to you. And not because I would feel responsible, although I would. I’m here because I want to be.” His voice is dripping with sincerity. Declan fights even harder to avoid looking him in the eye.

Declan has never had trouble hanging onto his anger, but now it drains from his body too quickly, leaving nothing but exhaustion in its place. “Good,” he says, and then, because he feels like he has to, “I can take care of myself. I’ve been doing it for years.”

Edward nods. “I’m well aware.”

Declan could walk for miles still, but he fakes a yawn, pointlessly. “Let’s head back, all right? I’m betting I could sleep now.”

Edward looks into Declan’s eyes like he’s waiting for something, some sign. After a moment he nods and turns toward the apartment, letting space open between them again. Declan can’t tell whether that means he found it or he didn’t.

 

Declan's never lived with someone who wasn’t family, and coincidentally, he’s never lived with someone observant or invested enough to track his comings and goings, to say nothing of the actual mind-reading. Edward reads his mind like it’s that New Yorker article everyone’s talking about, and Declan doesn’t get why. He has a healthy ego and all, but he knows better than anyone that he’s empty at his core. When he was a kid, he was wide-open and earnest and stupid, and look what that got him. Now he only wants things that are actually within reach, like money and power and a hot, mean trophy wife. He thinks that’s just good sense, but it means most of the time, Edward is tuning into a twelve-hour podcast about whether Ronan was fucking around when he said he heard from Gansey that silk ties are out and everyone knows you’re new money if you wear them.

"Hey,” Declan says suddenly. Edward is watching him order takeout with a look of disapproval that means he’s going to start whining about nutrients soon. “You can read my mind, so you know my brother’s an asshole, right?” Ordinarily, Declan believes in putting his best foot forward. Engaging in an apparently life-long feud with his little brother is trashy, and the fact that he’s objectively in the right can only do so much to rehabilitate his reputation. With Edward, there's no point in trying to obscure the embarrassing parts of his life.

Edward purses his lips like he’s somehow lived a hundred years without hearing anyone curse. “I know you and he don’t get along.”

“Good enough.” Declan is almost entirely certain that Ronan deletes his voicemails without listening to them, so he mostly pulls out his phone in search of catharsis. He takes a breath as the phone rings, then jumps in, “Ronan, what the hell is your problem ? How did you spend five hundred dollars at the food court at the mall? I get that you’re just doing this to fuck with me, but do you understand that three million dollars is actually not an infinite amount of money? I know you aren’t a complete idiot. I have to believe that. But you don’t just hurt yourself when you pull this shit. I mean, it’s not like Matthew is going to let you starve to death in a gutter. Grow the fuck up.” Having made what he would describe as a cogent, well-reasoned argument, Declan hangs up, mourning the satisfaction of a slammed receiver.

Edward looks at him from his post on the hated couch. Despite his protests, he looks at home there. It’s making Declan feel seriously smug about his decorating skills, how smoothly Edward blends into his apartment decked out in creams and greys and hard angles. “Do you feel better?”

“Yes,” Declan lies. He looks at his phone, still open to Ronan’s contact page. He can feel the threads of an idea weaving together. He repeats, “You can read minds,” the fact taking on new significance.

Edward looks at him, one eyebrow quirked. “Yes,” he says. Then, more gently, “Are you all right? I knew I should have insisted you get checked for a concussion the night we met.” He half gets up like he’s planning to drag Declan to an urgent care center.

“What? No, that’s not it.” Edward doesn’t sit down. “I’m not concussed, relax.” Loyalty is the Lynch family lifeblood. It’s everything. When Niall bothered to appear in their lives, every story he told was about how All You Can Count On Is Family. Not trusting his sons to pick up on subtext, he would sometimes stop right at the most suspenseful part, lean in like he was going to tell them a secret, and say, “Always remember, boys, all you can count on is family.” It was a self-serving lesson, but one Declan took to heart. “I just mean— You know about all the dream stuff already, and you aren’t going to tell anyone, because you have no incentive to blackmail me or threaten me or otherwise ruin my life?”

“No!” Edward once told Declan that his conception of normalcy is “seriously, debilitatingly broken.” Declan is pretty sure his shocked reaction now is in service of recalibrating his brain. It’s annoying, but Declan decides to breeze past it.

“Yeah, so.” Declan clears his throat. “I mean, I guess Ronan’s pissed at me for not being as much of a headcase as he is.” Edward’s disapproval seems to have a physical weight. Declan drags a hand down his face. It’s a squandered opportunity and he knows it; that’s something he could say—and has said—to pretty much anyone.

Edward says, “Take your time. I’ll wait.” There’s just a hint of impatience in his voice, as if he has anywhere to be or anyone to see.

Declan orders the first thing on the menu that will let him add extra extra avocado, and looks up to see Edward watching him. He grits his teeth and finally manages, “My father was a conman, and not nearly as smart as he thought he was. If he hadn’t been a dreamer, he would have been fixing card games and selling knock-off handbags. It was the only thing that made him special. I wasn’t a dreamer like Ronan, and I wasn’t a dream like Matthew, so.” Declan shrugs. His words feel like they’re coming from someone else’s throat. “Everything in our lives was about what he could do. And I—couldn't do it. I wasn’t a part of it. But it turned out I could be of use anyway.”  He stares down at his phone, clad in a distinctly not-sleek case—he spends too much time getting thrown around for anything meant to preserve its looks. “I thought it mattered. I thought it would be my way in. I was wrong.”

Edward doesn’t speak for a long time, long enough that Declan feels stupid for having brought it up. He’s just about to say, “I mean, not that it matters,” when Edward holds up a hand. He shuts up. After another beat, Edward says, “That sounds incredibly difficult. I’m sorry.”

Declan has been waiting for someone to say exactly that to him since before he hit puberty. He’s surprised by how little it matters. “It is what it is.” He feels ridiculous now, for thinking a couple of platitudes would make a difference.

“That shouldn’t have been your responsibility. It was—” Edward seems to struggle for words, his mouth screwed up, his eyes on something in the distance. “It was unjust.”

The thing is that Declan knows it was unjust. He’s known that nearly the entire time. He wants to hear it from someone who matters, from someone who can fix things, but there’s no one left like that, and no way back. “Thanks,” he says drily. It isn’t fair to want more. Edward is the only reason he’s sitting here right now, wasting time on his feelings, instead of driving out to the middle of nowhere to wait while some asshole haggles and powertrips over a relic from his father’s mind. He pushes his stool back with a screech. “I forgot that I have—errands to run. I tipped on my card, so if you could just take the food when it comes, I’d appreciate it.”

Edward could stop him, could say something, but he stays quiet. Declan slams the door behind him.

He comes back still drunk with lipstick staining the collar of his favorite shirt. Edward's door is shut tight, the apartment cold and empty, which is what he wanted. He checks the counter for his sandwich, checks the fridge, and finds it finally in the oven, warmed by its lowest setting. The bread is rubbery from being in the heat for so long, but he eats it anyway, one torn-off piece at a time.

 

 

Edward’s car is a near-perfect replica of Declan’s, except that it doesn’t have seat warmers, and it’s missing the not-quite-matched headlight that had to be replaced after Ronan kicked it out last week. Declan says, “Great minds, huh.”

“It’s a sturdy vehicle,” Edward says, smiling. Declan misses the door handle on his first try.

They drive in silence, Declan uncomfortably aware of Edward’s ability to hear his every thought. He should thank him for coming, for tracing over his weekly route to Henrietta to make sure Ronan and Matthew are safe, that no stragglers have found their way home. He leans against the window instead, his cheek pressed flat against the glass. The sky outside looks ominous: clouds heavy on the horizon, everything a filtered shade of blue. It carries with it the air of expectation, like something more is going to happen than a downpour Weather.com doesn't anticipate until late evening. For a moment, watching the sun wrestle with the clouds throttling it, Declan feels perfectly at peace with the world around him. Just as his eyes drift shut, his phone buzzes against his hip, and the guilt and fear and adrenaline of his life come crashing down on him. It turns out to be an app reminding him to drink more water, but the moment has passed.

“You should try to sleep. You’re exhausted,” Edward says as Declan forces his eyes to stay open. “Nothing is going to happen in the next forty-five minutes.”

Declan focuses on reshaping his hair where it’s been dented by the window. “Oh, I didn’t realize I was in the presence of a fortune teller as well as a mind-reader. Excuse me.” When Edward isn’t as impassive and unreadable as a face carved into a mountainside, he’s almost embarrassingly transparent, and now his face crumples. Declan slumps in his seat. “ Sorry.”

Edward’s face shutters again. “It’s quite all right. I shouldn’t have said nothing would happen; you’re right that I can’t make that promise. But I’m getting you to Henrietta as quickly as I can, and you monitoring your phone instead of getting some dearly-needed sleep benefits no one.”

Declan stretches through a yawn, arching his back until it cracks. When his eyes open, Edward is still watching him, a strange look on his face. “I’m fine. I don’t need a nap.” Edward nods, but his face doesn’t change until Declan rolls his eyes and gestures to the road wide-open in front of them.

Edward nods, and Declan allows them to lapse back into a silence so steady he feels it will never end. Then, just when he’s wondering how he’s supposed to track their progress when he can’t make out a single sign before they’ve passed it, Edward says, “You drive four hours round-trip to attend Mass with your brothers every week. But you aren’t close.”

Declan pulls his phone from his pocket but doesn’t unlock it. “I don’t want to talk about it.”

“I was just going to say that it’s kind of you.”

Declan prefers to think of himself as long-sufferingly heroic, but “kind” is acceptable. “Yeah, right. Look, after this, you should go home. It doesn’t seem like anyone’s coming after me, and I’m sure your family misses you.” He’s been thinking about making this offer since the word “obligation” slipped from Edward’s lips, and is only embarrassed that it didn’t occur to him sooner.

Edward keeps his eyes on the road, which feels like a kindness. “I’m sure they do.”

Declan waits, but Edward seems to feel that he’s said his piece. “So if you feel guilty—”

Edward’s hands tighten on the steering wheel with an ominous creak. “If? Declan, I nearly killed you, and my unplanned vengeance may have endangered you and the family you’ve given so much to protect.” Before Declan can put together a protest, Edward says, “Please, I’m not seeking reassurance. I feel guilty because I am guilty. But that isn’t why I remain.” He turns his head, finally, and captures Declan’s gaze with his own. His eyelashes are stupidly, almost distractingly long. “Immortality can be lonesome. I have connected with so few people over my half-lived years, and never truly. And that, Declan, is why I am still here.”

Declan can't think of a single thing worth saying that isn’t humiliating. He can feel Edward’s eyes on him, waiting. He turns toward the window and lets his mind go blank with the blur of the scenery.

 

The plan is for Edward to drop Declan at the church and then roam stealthily through Henrietta, combing people’s minds for ill intent. Because Declan isn’t allowed to have things go simply, what happens is that Edward slows to an eminently reasonable 65 mph as they pull off of the highway, and in so doing, ends up directly next to the Pig. Demonstrating the poor instincts that have gotten him locked in more than one car trunk, Declan looks to his right and makes eye contact with Ronan, self-satisfied in the driver’s seat. Declan rolls his eyes. Ronan takes both hands off the wheel to flip him off.

“See?” Declan says, enunciating his next words so that Ronan will be able to read his lips. “He’s the worst.” Edward laughs. The Pig’s engine revs in rebellion against the red light in front of them. “You know how I’ve been complaining about your driving?” Declan asks, keeping a careful eye on the violently orange vehicle next to them.

“Yes.”

“Forget all of it,” he says, just as the light turns green and the Volvo surges forward.

The Pig shrinks to a pinprick in the rearview mirror. Declan knows he’s permanently sacrificed the ability to lecture Ronan about racing, but since speeches about public safety and their insurance premiums weren’t landing anyway, he tries not to feel too torn up about it. He looks over the church’s half-full parking lot as Edward slows to turn into it. “I have never,” he says with feeling, “been so happy to know you.”

Edward raises an eyebrow. “I saved your life.”

Declan watches the Pig roar belatedly into the lot. “I said what I said.”

Church is the only place where Ronan doesn’t park like an asshole, as if God’s vision is limited to this one patch of land, and he takes a moment to maneuver neatly into a spot before getting out. His hands are curled into fists at his sides. Declan would never admit it, because it’s an embarrassing thing to think about his little brother, but sometimes he looks at Ronan and is impressed by how thoroughly he’s remade himself into something that screams dangerous. Now he mostly seems petulant, his ego bruised.

Unable to resist, Declan rolls down his window and calls, “No wonder Gansey never lets you drive.”

“We both know I could take you, you prissy fucking—” Ronan freezes when he sees Edward through the windshield, his entire body flushing red. Gansey follows Ronan’s exact trajectory, but calmly, including stopping dead within inches of him. It’s the best moment of Declan’s year.

Ronan recovers first, but Gansey recovers more productively, meaning he does something more than glare from a safe distance. He thrusts out a hand as Edward slips from the car. “It’s nice to meet you. I’m Gansey.”

“Edward Cullen.” Edward doesn't seem exactly like the monster that nearly ended Declan's life, but neither is he the overly formal but earnest guy who's been squatting in Declan's apartment wanting to talk about feelings. The hard lines of his face radiate contempt, and he takes Gansey’s hand like it’s a used tissue he’s too polite to refuse. Gansey, who has probably never met someone who didn’t fall at his feet, seems to lose at least three inches of height. It’s almost hard to watch, in the way that cake is sometimes too sweet. Gansey grins harder, the handshake going on longer than it should, like he means to salvage it somehow. Edward pulls free and turns to Ronan, shifting his body just enough to exclude Gansey. He holds out a hand that goes unacknowledged.

Ronan doesn’t seem able to marshal the amount of aimless rage he’d ordinarily have on tap, but he makes an admirable effort. “Declan doesn’t have any friends who would drive him here just to be nice. What does he have on you?”

Edward laughs, loud and insincere. “Declan, you didn’t tell me your brother was so funny. And this is—Matthew?”

Ronan looks like he’s going to explode. Gansey puts a restraining hand on his arm, which has never once worked but now stops him from lashing out, verbally or physically. It’s borderline miraculous. Still holding Ronan back, he looks around the parking lot for something that will distract from the still-imminent fight. “Have you heard from Matthew?”

Declan checks his phone to see that while he was caught up in the kind of pettiness Ronan brings out in him, Matthew sent a string of emoji. It seems to translate to a notification that he’s lost his shoes. Declan does what he can to read it aloud, finishing, in the slow sort of way someone would read their own death sentence, “So I guess we should go in without him.”

Ronan says, “Ugh,” with great feeling. Gansey whispers something in his ear, and his stance loosens slightly, so that he looks less like he’s going to hit someone, but only barely. Gansey pulls back after a moment, his hand lingering on Ronan’s arm until the last second. “I’ll see you after, all right?” Ronan would be mortified if he could see the moony look on his face.

They sit in awkward silence, enough space between them for an entire football team of Matthews, as the last of the parishioners trickle in. Finally, just as they’re getting ready to pray, the doors spring open and then shut with a bang. Declan turns to look, and Ronan takes the opportunity to slam the kneeler into his calves.

Matthew settles in between them, looking blissfully happy as always. He’s wearing one garish basketball sneaker and one Adidas slide over a flowery kneesock. He asks in something that doesn’t even approach a stage whisper, “Why is Gansey in the parking lot with a supermodel?”

Declan falls into the rhythm of the service. It doesn’t bring him the comfort it once did, but there’s something soothing about it still. Familiar words in a familiar voice, the thick air of a room cooled only by decade-old fans, Matthew piously fidgety at his side, he can almost feel what it would be like to have a normal life—to have always had a normal life. It’s over too quickly, and then comes the miserable part, when he and Ronan come back to themselves and lose the sticky peace born of silence and a healthy buffer.

In the lot, the Volvo doesn’t seem to have moved, counter to the plan they laid out before they even got here. Declan grits his teeth. He was clear, he thought, about the fact that he has no interest in lingering in Henrietta. Edward and Gansey are in their respective driver’s seats, not talking to each other. Gansey has his Glendower notebook open and a map spread across the dashboard. Edward is sitting with his hands at ten and two, his eyes locked on the church’s steeple. As they exit the church, he slides out of the Volvo in one fluid motion and rushes forward to shake Matthew’s hand. “It’s nice to meet you,” he says, wearing a smile more sincere than the one that greeted Ronan. “Declan talks about you a lot.”

Declan rolls his eyes, but Matthew beams. “Really? Cool! He doesn’t talk about you at all. Who are you?”

Edward laughs and introduces himself, concluding, “I’m a friend of Declan’s.”

Matthew seems to absorb this statement with a good deal more thought than it really merits. “Declan only ever introduces us to his girl friends. I’m glad he isn’t lonely in D.C.” Then, with no warning whatsoever, he pulls Edward into a hug. It’s only possible because Edward allows it, but from the shellshocked look on his face, he seems to have forgotten that as Matthew pats his back. “Ronan and Gansey were going to take me for lunch. Do you guys want to come?”

Ronan, penned in by his intense, unwittingly paternal love for Matthew, is reduced to muttering, “What the fuck?” and sharing an insultingly distraught look with Gansey. Declan almost accepts just from the strength of his spite, but he doesn’t want to have lunch with Ronan and Gansey any more than they want him to, and he certainly doesn’t want to worry about what’s floating to the surface of their minds the entire time, so when Edward looks at him, he shakes his head.

“Thank you for the invitation,” Edward says once Matthew has seen fit to release him. There’s something off about his voice; usually velvet-smooth, it comes out now with something of a hitch. “But I can’t stay in Henrietta very long, and your brother and I have a lot to accomplish today.”

Matthew frowns for a millisecond before breaking into another smile. “All right. Next time?”

Declan doesn’t know what about his social patterns would make Matthew think there’s going to be a next time, but he lets it go. “Yeah, next time for sure. We need to go, okay?” He allows himself to be drawn into a similarly suffocating hug, jerks his chin in Ronan’s general direction, and turns away.

“So what was that?” Declan demands once he and Edward are back in the Volvo.

Edward sighs. “That was not my best moment. Matthew— Because of the way he was created, his thoughts are purely good. I’ve never heard a mind like his.”

“He’s a good kid,” Declan says, unreasonably proud of something he had no control over.

“Undoubtedly. To address your unspoken but fairly aggressive concerns, I made several circuits of Henrietta while you were inside. I didn’t think you would appreciate being made to wait in the lot, so I was careful to return well in advance of the conclusion of services.” Declan opens his mouth to retort, shuts it, and opens it again, but before he can speak, Edward says, “You shouldn’t feel embarrassed for jumping to conclusions. I understand what a fraught subject this is for you.”

“I’m not embarrassed.” Declan looks out the window so he won’t have to see the look on Edward’s face that means he knows Declan is lying and finds it amusing. “Did you learn anything worthwhile?”

“I didn’t find anyone harboring negative thoughts toward you or your brothers.” Edward pauses. “Well, no one dangerous. No one particularly dangerous.” He looks to be on the verge of telling Declan again that his life is abnormal. Declan focuses on emanating impatient, closed-off energies. “But your brother and ‘Gansey’ are dating. It’s been two months. They’re very happy, and they aren’t planning on telling you.”

Declan scoffs. “Yeah, tell me something I don’t know. The real surprise is that it's only been two months.”

“All right.” Edward waits until Declan has his seatbelt on, then says, the car still in park, “Ronan loves you. He’s just in a lot of pain.”

Declan freezes. He can tell he’s feeling something, but not exactly what that something is. Probably embarrassment.  “I didn’t ask.” It’s a ridiculous thing to need to be told, even more so because it isn’t true.

Edward sighs. Around them, the lot empties out. Declan wonders what he needs to say to be allowed out of this situation. “I read minds, and you doubt me?”

Not even ten minutes ago, Declan felt restful and well-suited for the world around him. “I think you’re trying to be nice. Ronan and I were never close, and we certainly aren’t now. It doesn’t bother me.”

“Your commitment to deception is almost admirable.” Edward’s voice is gentle as he says, “Declan, I can read your mind.”

The feeling comes clear all at once. It is, unsurprisingly, embarrassment. Declan tugs on his seatbelt, which feels suddenly too tight. “Ronan is an asshole. I don’t need any greater insight than that.”

“If you insist.” Edward pulls out of the lot, finally. “I just thought you might like to know.”

Declan stares hard out the window as Henrietta flashes by. It doesn’t matter if it’s true. This totally theoretical love hasn’t stopped Ronan from being a miserable, insufferable brat achieving new and unforeseen heights in the field of complicating Declan’s life. He might actually love Declan, deep, deep down, just because they were raised to think of family as everything, but that hasn’t done anything to improve their circumstances. He pulls himself away from that train of thought, tucking it away in the cobwebby part of him that stores the entirety of his childhood.

“So, you didn’t like Gansey,” he says, pulling down the visor to check his hair. The church’s humidity hasn’t made it droop too terribly, but when Edward is his basis for comparison, every imperfection stands out. He presses, “Everyone likes Gansey.”

“Not everyone, clearly. I’m embarrassed to admit that I got a bit defensive.” Edward makes eye contact with Declan in the rearview mirror. “I think you’re a good man.”

Declan’s hand twitches and promptly flattens his hair. “You gave Gansey an identity crisis because you read his mind and found out he thinks I’m a dick?”

“My existence has been a solitary one since I left my family. My ability, perhaps counter-intuitively, makes it harder to get to know people. When you can hear all of the ugly things those around you would prefer to hide, it’s difficult to feel motivated to look deeper.” Declan nods like he has any idea what that has to do with him. Half the time, he’s thinking about how to keep his life from devolving more fully into a murderous shitshow, which he guesses is pretty compelling, but the other half, it’s easily just his hair. Edward must hear the implicit question, but he doesn’t address it. Instead, as they pull up to a stoplight, he says, “I thought you could show me where you grew up.”

Declan looks over, foolishly, and is immediately drawn in by the warmth of Edward’s eyes, so that he’s halfway through mumbling something agreeable when he comes back to himself. “Absolutely not. I’m not allowed to, first of all.” Edward smirks, secure in the knowledge that Declan’s first excuse is a dud. “Regardless,” Declan says. With the way Edward drives, they could cover every specter of his childhood in a half hour or less. “It’s not exactly a place I relish revisiting.”

“I understand. Something else, then. Your old school. Your favorite date spot. You wanted me to check out the town. To do that, I need to spend more than an hour in it.”

Declan shrugs. He never felt at home in Henrietta, and he certainly doesn’t miss it. There’s nothing he did here that he’s proud of. Edward makes a noise that Declan chooses to hear as sympathetic, and then to get offended about. “It’s not a tragedy or anything. I just don’t feel nostalgic about it.”

“How very practical,” Edward says, like he thinks it’s a lie even though he should know for a fact that it isn’t. “Are you hungry? Can you at least choose a place to eat?”

Declan picks Nino’s, not because he was ever particularly fond of it—he’s never been the kind of rich to want to dress down—but because he’s reasonably sure the sight of Edward’s Volvo in the lot will ruin Ronan’s day. He regrets it the second the bell over the door rings. He puts himself between Edward and the booths full of people who would be the worst thing about his life in Henrietta if it weren’t for everything else about his life in Henrietta. “Can you grab us a table?” There’s no actual benefit to sending Edward away while Declan subjects himself to the endless ritual of bro-y handshakes and backpats, but it makes the performance feel a little bit less ridiculous. Once he’s extricated himself from a conversation about problems that seemed embarrassingly high school when he was in high school, he turns toward the back, where Edward is smirking at him from the only booth that doesn’t have the vinyl peeling off in thick strips. The table is covered in paper plates, double-layered to protect against grease spots, as if anything in Nino’s is worth saving. “I can’t imagine why people think the service is bad here.” He gestures to the over-laden table. “I wasn’t sure what you’d like. Which was novel.”

The source of Edward’s ignorance is that Declan doesn’t eat pizza. He likes steamed vegetables and quinoa and anything that’s ever been marketed as a superfood. He accepts the closest slice that doesn’t look like it could kill him, picking off a slice of mushroom with a fork and bringing it gingerly to his lips.

Edward’s eyes narrow. “You chose this place.”

“Sure.” Declan spears a strip of what was once red onion but is now somehow both burnt and colorless. “But I was being an asshole. I certainly didn’t ask you to buy all of this.”

Edward sets a tub of soda down with a thud. His eyebrows knit together. “Humans need to eat exhaustingly often. We have a long drive back.” Declan shrugs. He’s beginning to get an idea of how comprehensively Edward takes his pledge to keep him safe. “I have to admit that—” Edward’s voice dips low, “Human food seems largely indistinct to me. I wouldn't have guessed you would have such an aversion to the offerings here.” He looks around Nino’s with disdain. Half of the other customers are staring at him. “An establishment that, once again, you chose.”

Declan waves a dismissive hand through the air, a strand of mozzarella streaming from the end of his fork. “Forget it. Have you picked anything up?”

“Nothing but the relentless inanity of adolescence.” Edward nods toward one of the tables Declan stopped at on their way in. “Would you like to know what your friends are thinking?”

“Not particularly.”

Edward smiles. “That’s the correct answer. If you aren’t going to eat, we should go. You have an interview tomorrow morning.”

He shouldn’t get credit for skimming details off the surface of Declan’s mind. It’s cheating. “With the way you drive, we’ll be back at the apartment before this cheese congeals.”

Once they’ve left Nino’s, the extra pizza boxed up and ruining the lining of Edward’s trunk, Declan says, the seed of an idea unfurling, “You could read my mind when I was asleep, right?”

“I could.” Edward flicks on his turn signal, a gratifying, worthless gesture considering that he closes the distance to the next exit less than a second later. The Barns doesn’t exist as a fantasyland for Declan like it does for Ronan. He went through their childhood with his eyes wide open. Still, something young and hopeful and foolish blooms inside of him when he sees the familiar exit sign, sun-bleached to the point of illegibility. He catches himself digging his nails into the leather of the armrest, and forces himself to relax.

“If you could pull around the back—” Declan says, just as Edward turns onto the dirt path that will allow them to approach the Barns from behind.

“Your father’s will. I know. I won’t let you get caught.”

When Declan was thirteen, he taught himself to forge both of his parents’ signatures not because they would have withheld them, but because he didn’t like having to ask for anything. Now he says, “All right,” and forces himself to relax against the back of his seat.

“You really don’t miss it?” Edward asks, flat all the way through like he already knows the answer.

A yawning chasm opens up in Declan’s chest. He doesn’t miss it. Or he misses it the same way he’s always missed it, in the only way it’s possible to miss something that was never actually within reach. "No,” he says. “I really don’t.”

They walk the last stretch at a decidedly, almost absurdly human pace. “I could carry you,” Edward offers, after they’ve gone a quarter of a mile in ten minutes. Declan pulls a branch back farther than he needs to, and sends it springing toward Edward’s face. Edward doesn’t dodge, or catch it, instead letting it hit the bridge of his nose and snap in two. “The polite thing would have been to simply say no.”

When they finally reach the house, Declan uses his shoulder to open the back door, swollen in its frame, and remembers all at once being five and pouting on the back porch, ten and spotting Ronan and Matthew as they climbed trees, fifteen and hiding bizarre whirring gadgets behind the latticework. The warming scent of their childhood hits him hard, and Edward’s enhanced reflexes barely prevent a collision. “Are you all right?” Edward asks, his hand radiating cold comfort an inch from Declan’s elbow.

“I’m fine. My mother’s room is upstairs.” Declan keeps his eyes on the floor as they walk the halls. He can physically hear Edward’s urge to intervene, to say something searching and invasive. He repeats, a preemptive attack, “I’m fine.”

“So you’ve said,” Edward observes.

Declan slows even further as they approach his mother’s room. He’s been back dozens of times, but rarely sets foot in the house, and certainly never breaches the second floor. Edward makes contact then. “I’m fine,” Declan says again, without pulling away.

“It’s getting more convincing every time, you know.”

Declan rolls his eyes and opens the door, bolstered by the indignity of the situation. He regrets not taking more time as soon as it’s too late, though he can’t say how he would have dragged the proceedings out further. Aurora looks just like he remembers her, but reduced, somehow lesser. She was always so alive during his childhood, even if it was a kind of life that didn’t seem able to accommodate him. She moved restlessly whenever she told them stories, her hands fluttering from Declan’s cheek to Ronan’s back to the top of Matthew’s curly head. Now she doesn’t look like she was anyone’s mother. If Ronan gets what he seems to want, Matthew will end up like this, lying with his strings cut, never to be roused.

“I’m sorry.” Edward remains framed in the doorway. Declan only recognizes his absence when he regains sensation in the arm Edward was touching.

“Yeah,” Declan says, voice brusque and over-deep. Only once the word has slipped out does he realize how meaningless and inappropriate it is. The English language wasn’t made for situations like this. He asks, feeling an urgency that seems out of place in the stagnant peace of the room, “What is she thinking? Is she thinking? Does it hurt?”

“Give me a moment.” Edward tilts his head. “Her thoughts aren’t like those of ordinary humans.” A ray of light slants across his face, making him look like a Renaissance painting of an angel on its way home from Pride. “She’s dreaming. About you—all of you. When you were younger. She’s happy.”

Declan nods, his arms crossed. “Okay.” Something inside of him loosens but doesn’t totally unravel. Now that he has his answer, they should leave. He has that interview in the morning, and even with Edward’s bat-out-of-hell driving style, they’ll be returning later than he’d like. He doesn’t move. He could reach out and touch Aurora’s naturally rouged cheek—Niall was either unaware of or uninterested in the limitations of the human form when he made her. “Could you tell me more about it?”

“Of course.” Edward has the same blissfully tormented look in his eyes that he did on the night he woke Declan up. He doesn’t speak for nearly a minute—Declan counts, each second stretching out between them. “It’s difficult, I’m sorry. Dreams can be so fluid. When we walked in, she was dreaming about you and your brothers as children. A Thanksgiving dinner that turned into a food fight. Did that really happen?”

Declan groans. He’s almost impressed with himself for, even in these circumstances, making space for his own practiced, artificial dignity. “Yes, it did.”

“You held your own. Very impressive.” Edward watches him for a moment, like he’s waiting for something that isn’t going to happen. “The longer we stay here, the more her thoughts shift toward you. Your first field trip, the one where she lost three students at the zoo and you helped her find them. When you lectured her about the nutritional value of her packed lunches. How you always fell asleep last, so she would read you an extra story. I think she can feel your presence.” Declan takes a stuttering breath. “You should talk to her.”

“Jesus.” Declan jams his hands into his pockets to obscure how badly they’re shaking. He didn’t come here intending to have a conversation with his comatose mother while Edward watched.

“I can give you some privacy if you’d like,” Edward says, halting, like it costs him everything to make the offer. “Or at least the illusion of it.”

“No. I need to know what she’s thinking.” Declan wonders if his life would have turned out differently if he’d always had a safety net like this. He takes another step, his heart hammering against his rib cage, and then he’s by his mother’s bedside. He takes her hand. It’s soft and plump, not at all the hand of someone who’s been lying unmoving for a year, being turned by a parade of home nurses. Edward nods encouragingly.  Declan clears his throat. “Hey, Mom.” She smells like lilacs, which Declan always thought was perfume but now realizes must be something Niall dreamed into her. He can feel her pulse in her wrist, slow and steady. “Um.” Despite the shape of his childhood, he doesn’t believe in false hope. It hurts now to imagine all the things he would say to his mother if she were actually there. “It’s good to see you.” This comes out flat, an obvious lie. He tries again, reaching for anything inside of him that will allow for vulnerability, or failing that, something less gratingly insincere than his usual personality. “I miss you. We all do.” If she could speak, he would tell her how unfair it all was. How lonely he’s been. How badly she let him down, and how much he loves her anyway. Instead, he stands quietly, her hand in his, while Edward describes the fuzzy landscape of her dreams.

Edward freezes in the middle of a story Declan half-remembers from his childhood. “Someone’s here.” A car door slams only seconds later, well short of the buffer Declan would have expected from a mind-reader with superhuman hearing.

“Jesus! What happened to not letting me get caught?” The hand not holding Aurora’s goes for his gun. “Is she in danger?”

“No. It’s her superfluous home nurse.”

“Oh, so now you can read minds. Where was that power five minutes ago?”

Edward finally moves out of the doorway to stand on Aurora’s other side, his face drawn and weary. “Declan, we need to go. My car—which is identical to your car—is parked just a mile away. There will be time for recriminations later, but we have to leave right now. I’m sorry.”

Declan has always prided himself on practicality. He tucks Aurora’s hand under the blanket and, with the paranoid imagining of boots stomping up the stairs, presses a kiss to her cheek. “Let’s go. How are we going to make it to the door?”

“We aren’t going to be using the door.” Edward slides the window open in one smooth motion. Aurora’s room is on the second floor, in the one area of the property not blanketed in trees. “I can catch you, if you so choose, but my arms aren’t much softer than the ground. Or you could jump with me. On my back.”

Declan can feel the tips of his ears burning red. “Because that’s not humiliating.”

“I suppose it isn’t the most dignified of exits, but is your pride worth three million dollars?”

Declan meant it when he said he didn’t miss being here. He was never going to fix things with his family. “Fine.” He pushes down his sorrow, his hesitation, his unnamed and unnamable feelings for Edward. “Okay.”

Edward crouches down, silent and business-like, and Declan climbs onto his back with as much dignity as possible, which is approximately none. “You’re going to want to hold on tighter,” Edward says, his arms like vises around Declan’s legs.

In a life riddled with indignities, this is a new low. “Can we please just do this and not talk about it?”

“Helping you execute a daring escape is rather pointless if you break your neck in the process.” Declan tightens his grip regretfully, grumbling as he does that a second-story fall probably wouldn’t kill him. His nose is practically buried in Edward’s hair by the time his perch is deemed suitably secure. It smells like cotton and fresh air and Declan’s fifty-dollar shampoo. “I’ll pay you back,” Edward says drily.

Declan opens his mouth to say that he wants the money back with interest, but before he can get the words out, they’ve cleared the sill. The fall is over too quickly for Declan to feel anything but the rollercoaster swoop of his stomach, and then Edward is running them through the forest, dodging trees that seem to come out of nowhere.

Back at the car, Declan slides off of Edward’s back with an odd mix of relief and regret. “That was exhilarating,” he says once he can open his mouth without worrying about bugs flying into it. “Wildly, fundamentally humiliating, but exhilarating.”

Edward must realize that this isn’t the time to force a debrief because he pulls out as soon as Declan’s seatbelt clicks into place, his grip tight on the wheel, his shoulders up by his ears. He looks more upset than Declan feels. As the trees bracketing them thin and the road smooths out, he says, “I apologize. You should have had more time to say goodbye, but I lost focus.” He turns to Declan, eyes pleading. “I have been conscious for every second of the last century. Constantly, unendingly conscious, and I— Are you all right?”

Declan opens his mouth to say yes, obviously, he’s fine, but nothing comes out. Edward reaches out, but must remember all of the admonitions about basic vehicular safety, or maybe just loses his nerve, because he returns his hand to the wheel.

By the time Declan manages, “Can you pull over?” he finds that Edward has already shifted into the right lane, and then onto the shoulder.

Edward stays behind while Declan climbs over the metal barrier between the road and the trees beyond. He walks far enough to lose sight of the car, feeling a sense of purpose that rivals anything in his life. Once he’s alone, or doing a good job of pretending to be, he stops. The trees around him are lush from rainfall he wasn’t here for, the ground squelching beneath his feet like it means to drag him under. Dirt and scratches streak up his arms from grapples with trees he can’t remember but clearly lost. He palms a rock and throws it with all his strength, but the thud of stone against damp bark is distinctly unsatisfying. His breath comes in sharp bursts that scrape at his throat. He reaches for another rock and finds that his hands are shaking too badly to pick it up. He didn’t cry when he saw Niall’s body, or when the will was read, or when he was led to his dorm room, one bag over his shoulder, and saw how his life had been circumscribed. He doesn’t cry now, either.

He leans against the nearest tree and slides down the trunk until his head can rest comfortably on his knees. It isn’t news to Declan that life isn’t fair, or that bad things happen and, more often than not, there’s nothing to be done about them. But he’s always had something, some small, usually false hope that he might be able to mitigate the worst of what’s coming. This, his mother lying silent and unmoving in what will become her tomb, is surely the worst, and there’s nothing he can do about it except try to keep breathing.

He’s always made a point of not picturing it. This is what he tried to explain to Ronan, just after, one of many missteps that unraveled their already frayed brotherhood. He’s annoyed with himself for forgetting something he’s known for years: there’s no point in poking around in things you can’t change. Now he can’t shake the image of her lying in a hospital bed, hooked up to machines she doesn’t need, dreaming of lives lived.

It's raining. Declan doesn't know when it started raining, but he knows, belatedly, that he's soaked. His hair hangs around his face, so heavy with water and product that it hasn't even begun to curl. He’s standing, though he can’t remember deciding to get up. Having cleared that hurdle, he decides he ought to go back and get Edward’s anemic but earnestly-meant comfort over with. He picks his way back to the car with some difficulty and slides back over the divider, conscious this time of the rust staining his pants. He brushes at them because it seems like the thing to do, a way to signal how completely normal he is. “How much of that did you hear?”

Edward smiles gently. “None of it, actually. There’s a police officer parked a quarter mile up waiting to catch careless drivers. He’s a surprisingly incisive political commentator.” Declan would never let someone in his car who’d just been rolling around in the dirt, but Edward doesn’t flinch as he approaches. “Are you all right?”

Declan makes himself smile. “Of course. Hey, do you have a towel or something? I’m—” He gestures to the whole of himself, limp with exhaustion and humiliation.

Edward frowns. “It’s fine.”

It isn’t fine, but it also isn’t Declan’s upholstery, so he shrugs. “Okay, but I don't want to get a bill later. It’s on you.”

“If we were to start sorting out debts, I believe a good deal of rent would be owed. It’s simple enough to have the car cleaned.” Edward pauses. “You are the only person to use that seat, anyway.” Once Declan is back in the car, the heat turned up so high he can feel his skin drying out, Edward says, “We could go back. The nurse is gone.”

Declan checks his watch. He doesn’t know how long he spent in the woods, and Aurora doesn’t actually need a nurse, but it still seems like an irresponsibly short home visit. He makes up his mind to call the agency later, then evaluates his mental state and adds it to his phone calendar, just in case. When he’s done keying in the note, he looks up and realizes the car hasn’t moved. He rolls his eyes. “ No, I don’t want to go back.”

“Are you sure?” Perhaps picking up on Declan’s impatience, Edward turns his key in the ignition. Classical music plays quietly from the speakers. They still don’t move. “It doesn’t have to be today. We can come back another time. It isn’t such a long trip when I drive.”

“No,” Declan says. Edward’s doubt is a tangible thing, suffocating. “No. I wanted to know she wasn’t suffering, and she isn’t. The rest of it...” He forces himself to relax, to uncross his arms from where they’re tight across his chest. “What difference does it make?”

“People often say that ‘closure’—”

Declan scoffs. “It doesn’t matter. My father’s dead. He isn’t coming back. She isn’t coming back. It’s a waste of time. Now can we go? You apparently know my schedule better than I do, so you know I don’t have time for this.”

Edward must realize that he isn’t going to talk Declan into an impromptu counseling session on the side of the road, because the car comes belatedly to life. As he speeds up, Declan rolls down his window, heedless of the heat blasting from the Volvo’s vents, the rain streaking across his face, the wind threatening to burst his eardrums. It should be easier to say thank you like this, when the words will be torn away the second they pass his lips, but he feels like he might choke on them.

Chapter Text

When Declan's phone starts blinking, red and desperate, in the middle of his second class of the day, he evaluates his circumstances: his primary charger is in Henrietta with Matthew's new girlfriend who makes something she calls “found jewelry,” which apparently is what you get when you douse perfectly useful items in glitter after asking your boyfriend to scam them off his responsible older brother. Also in Henrietta are his earbuds, his pocket hand sanitizer, and his third-favorite watch, which, though his masculinity chafes at the admission, is already jewelry. His spare charger is trailing off of his bedstand, from which he should have had time to grab it except that he slept through all six of his alarms and ran out the door with half a Clif bar in his mouth.

He waits out the last forty-five minutes of class in a haze of anticipation, running through the route to the nearest drugstore, where he's going to buy a dozen of those cheap cords sold by the bin and stash them everywhere he can think of. He bursts out of his seat the second class ends, just barely avoiding a collision at the door. “Sorry,” he says, resting his hand on the arm of the person in his path, a gesture he hopes is both gallant and herding.

“Hey! Declan, right?” The arm turns out to belong to Brooke Almeida, the hottest girl in his class, the person who's broken the curve on a half dozen occasions and positively tore Declan a new one in their very first discussion section of the year. If he weren’t spending the majority of his free time with someone whose beauty is meant to be used as a weapon, she would be almost distractingly attractive, wide eyes and full lips,  dramatic cheekbones framed by a riotous mass of curly hair. She hitches her bag higher on her shoulder, smiling up at him. “I just wanted to say that I really liked what you said in class last week, you know, about the purpose of government.”

“Oh, yeah?” Declan grins, his dying phone nearly forgotten. The major downside of an all-boys school is that there's no one to preen for, recent confusion aside.

“Yeah.” Brooke's smile is wide and innocent. “I thought it was really brave of you to come out with such a dumbshit answer and not care at all that you sounded like a fascist.”

“Okay, look.” Declan moves to the left, and Brooke mirrors him, now looking decidedly smug. “Not that this isn't fun and all, but—”

“I was thinking…” Brooke steps out of the way, finally, but Declan finds himself following her into the hall. She stops under a poster for an open mic that was held two months ago. “I was thinking we could talk about it over drinks. My last class ends at four-thirty. Meet me by the library at five?”

Declan learned a lot about himself in high school: he's great at stunt driving, passable at high-stakes negotiating, and not as talented at compartmentalizing as he thinks he is. Mostly, though, he learned that he has sort of a thing for pretty girls who don't like him very much. “Sure,” he says. “Five.”

He checks his watch after Brooke disappears down the hall. His classes are scheduled in a tight block, which seemed like a good idea at the time but means now that he has exactly twelve minutes of free time left in his entire day. He's sure he has plenty of classmates who could lend him a charger, but the only thing worse than needing help is actually asking for it. He makes up his mind to get over it, but when his phone blinks off at the start of his next class, he does have to talk himself out of a mild freakout like the very worst of millennial stereotypes. He has his laptop, but the campus WiFi is abominable, and anyway, he isn't expecting a ransom note to come in via Facebook. He limits himself to taking notes, with only the very occasional Youtube diversion, and once he’s out of class, he congratulates himself on a productive, off-the-grid day.

Brooke is stretched out on a bench in front of the library. She has a heavy book open in her lap, but her head is tipped back, her eyes shut against the sunlight. Her shimmery green eyeshadow, so vibrant at the beginning of the day, has only survived in the creases of her eyelids. Declan is struck by the very humanity of her, beautiful and jarring in equal measures.

Her eyes open as he approaches, her smile so wide and unguarded that he doubts for a moment that it’s directed at him. “I know this bar that never cards me. It's just a few blocks away. Unless you had a specific place in mind.” As she's saying this, she stands up, forces her book into a purse that shouldn't be able to hold it, and takes off at a brisk pace.

Declan catches up easily enough, though it's something of a challenge to do so without giving off a desperate, puppyish air. “That sounds fine.” He looks at Brooke, who has one foot resting in the crosswalk as she waits for the light to turn green. “Which I guess is pretty lucky, considering.”

“Hm? Oh, sorry!” Brooke turns her back to the street just as the light changes. She looks genuinely stricken. “God, that's my thing. My friends are always saying I steamroll people, and I guess it's true, huh? Well, I'm a work in progress. Aren’t we all, right? But just tell me if I'm doing it to you, okay? We can make up a signal or something.” She pats his arm. “So if you had a different bar in mind, you can tell me. Or we could do coffee, gelato, whatever. It's totally up to you.”

Declan grins. “I’m sure your choice is fine. And you aren’t going to steamroll me. I promise.”

“Okay, great!” Brooke turns around just in time to see the walk signal tick down to three seconds, and she tugs Declan into the street, talking as they go as if a red-faced man isn't laying on his horn three feet away from them. “Tell me about yourself!”

Brooke conducts a brief, slightly tortured interview on Declan's family and childhood, in which he gives what he thinks of as his stump speech answer, that he had an idyllic childhood rich with baseball and apple pie and general Americana. It is, to his ears, a little less convincing than it ought to be, perhaps because they're moving through the streets at a steady clip as he delivers it. Brooke fills the dead air that follows with an impromptu lecture on the seedy underbelly of American iconography. It involves several pictures of racial caricatures that she seems to have already saved to her phone.

The bar turns out to be an unimpressive little building tucked between a barber shop and a dusty looking grocery store. They do go uncarded, which is something. The inside of the bar is remarkable only for its shabbiness; Declan rests a hand on a nearby table and comes back with a splinter. Brooke leads him to a booth in the corner, and he slides across torn vinyl.

After ordering her drink and three different kinds of nachos, Brooke resumes her scattershot conversational style, veering from asking about his hometown to asking what he thinks about school vouchers. It isn't an unpleasant outing, but it isn't a date, either. Declan chooses to read her disinterest as a response to his own, just for the sake of his ego. Still, it’s sort of nice to be totally without a goal for once. He isn’t in the market for friends, so there’s nothing at stake except a bit of conversation and maybe an offer to share class notes if he’s ever out.

Without his phone, it’s nearly impossible to keep track of time, especially in the corner of a dimly-lit bar, so he has no idea how long they’ve been talking when Brooke says, “I think the real strategic failure of the midterm elections was— Oh my God, Declan, don’t look now, but this guy has not stopped staring at you since he walked in.” She rubs at the back of her neck. “He’s kind of really hot, in like, a sickly sort of way. Do you know him?”

Declan has never gone on a date and had a girl call another guy hot to his face; it would be a real blow to his confidence if he didn’t know who he’d see upon turning around. Edward is leaning against the bar, unconcerned by the crush of people trying to order drinks. He’s wearing a baseball cap pulled low over his eyes, which are redundantly covered by a pair of aviators pushed slightly down his nose so that there can be no confusion about who his glare is meant for. All of him is hidden except for the sharp line of his jaw and his ever-changing eyes and his eyebrows drawn down in furious diagonals. It isn’t an unattractive visual, limited though it may be. “What a dumbass,” Declan says. He turns back to Brooke and pitches his voice low. “That’s my—I guess you could call him my roommate, but it’s sort of a charity thing. He’s, you know, troubled.”

Brooke frowns. “You should probably talk to him then. He might need something.”

“You're right,” Declan says, which he guesses is what he would say if he were really counseling disadvantaged youth. “Can you just give me a second?”

“Actually…” Brooke runs a finger along the rim of her half-full glass. She's watching Edward, her lower lip between her teeth. After a too-long silence, she shakes her head, managing to look almost entirely present when she meets Declan's eyes again. “Whatever he has to say is probably important, and I should be heading out anyway. But you seem like a nice guy. Are you going to be all right? He seems pissed. And he is—” She trails off, eying Edward appreciatively. She winces then, presumably remembering that she isn’t talking to one of her girlfriends. “I mean, not that you aren’t, like— Obviously you're in good shape. Uh, do you want me to stick around?”

Declan will never forget what Edward looks like when he means to seem dangerous, eyes dark and empty, and this isn’t it. “Naw, he’s harmless. Text me about that study group, all right?”

Brooke looks between Declan and Edward one last time. “If you’re sure. So I’ll see you next week, assuming he doesn’t murder you and dump your body out back.” She claps a hand to her cheek. “Oh my God, now you definitely can’t die; I would feel so guilty.”

Declan is a modern, enlightened man, and Edward is a vampire who could twist his head off his shoulders if the mood struck, so his ego absolutely isn't bruised. “It’s fine.” He rests his hand on Brooke’s as she stands up, only the second time he's touched her since they left campus, the first being an inexplicable punch to the shoulder that set the tone for the night. “Are you calling a car? Do you want me to wait with you?”

“Aw, the Southern gentleman is real . Declan, it’s barely eight, and I’ve had half a rosé. I think I’ll muddle through. But you’re sweet.”

Declan, reeling from having been called sweet for the second time in six months, makes himself laugh and wish Brooke a good night. When he sees Edward's shadow fall across the table, he says, “You are the biggest cockblock of all time.”

Edward’s nose wrinkles the way it always does when Declan curses or is otherwise crude. “That date wasn’t going anywhere, and you both knew it.”

“That isn't the point.” Declan gets to his feet, pleased to reclaim his slight height advantage. From this angle, he has a better view of Edward's baseball cap, which has a disconcertingly muscular turtle stitched on the front. Between this, the general supernatural look of him, and the beer-and-a-half on his tab, Declan has to take a moment to regroup before continuing, “So is this what you do with your time? You just follow me around the city, eavesdropping on my dates?” The addendum is a misstep, and Declan knows it just as soon as he can't take it back; he hasn't been going on many dates at all since Edward came into his life.

Edward, fortunately, is too mired in righteous fury to notice the comeback Declan has dropped in his lap. “When you didn't answer your phone, I was worried that something had happened to you. Or have you forgotten how we met?”

Declan flinches at the memory and is immediately annoyed with himself for doing so. He snaps, “Well, someone let me sleep in this morning; I didn’t have my charger. And I’m supposed to be safe now, aren’t I? That’s what you said.” Despite himself, Declan finds that he can’t be as annoyed as he’d like. Historically, if someone’s been upset about not being able to get in touch with him, it hasn't been out of concern.

“Yes. And I do believe that.” Edward picks up Declan's beer bottle and twists it between his palms for a moment before returning it to the table with a thunk that isn't so loud in the din of the bar, but is still startling coming from someone who usually seems to feel guilty just for existing. “Well, now that I’ve confirmed your continued good health, I should leave you in peace.”

Declan shrugs, working to keep his stance loose. “I mean, you’ve already chased my date away. Might as well clear out. Besides, I have missed checking my emails.”

Edward nods curtly and heads for the door, not even waiting for Declan to settle his tab. Upon catching up, Declan says, smirking, “You were worried about me.”  

“I was concerned,” Edward says, sweeping dramatically onto the street. He's moving at a just slightly inhuman pace, so that Declan is stuck a few steps behind. “I don’t consider that to be unreasonable.”

Declan blinks, recalibrating as the rigid line of Edward's back gets further and further away from him.  “Are you seriously pissed at me?”

“I am not angry,” Edward says, angrily. Declan's has no patience for what strikes him as rank irrationality and is about to say so when Edward continues, “You could have called.”

“My phone —”

Edward says over his shoulder, “They make payphones, Declan.”

Declan’s mouth falls open. “ No , Edward, they don’t.”

“Of course they do. They’re everywhere. I’m certain there’s one by the apartment.”

Declan wonders when it became the apartment, not his apartment. The article is preferable, though, to our apartment. “I don’t think so.” He backpedals, remembering that Edward's primary hobby is gazing wistfully out the window. “If there is, I guarantee it doesn’t work. And even if it does, no one memorizes numbers anymore.” Edward ignores this with the confidence of a man making a bet he's been told is a sure thing, continuing to walk just out of reach.

After fifteen silent, uncomfortably brisk minutes, Edward says, “She wasn't attracted to you.”

Declan rolls his eyes. “I get that you're technically seventeen, but you don't have to act like such a high schooler.”

Edward freezes mid-stride, his head turning slowly. “I have six bachelor's degrees,” he says as Declan draws even with and then moves past him.

“Whatever.” Declan wonders whether he ought to mention his car, trapped in campus parking, but decides against it.

Edward catches up easily. “She wasn't attracted to you. Would you like to know why?” Without waiting for Declan's answer, which would have been a grudging Absolutely, he says, relishing it, “She thought you were too nice.”

This is the first time anyone has ever thought Declan was too nice; he decides to appreciate the novelty, if nothing else. As they wait at the next corner for the light to change—for all his daredevil driving, Edward is an excruciatingly cautious pedestrian—Edward says, “I didn't mean to imply that you aren't nice. I'm just aware that the evaluation runs counter to your self-image.”

Declan rolls his eyes. “Yeah, I got the joke.” Edward nods, the lines of his face relaxing.

They don't talk any more after that, but the silence feels close enough to companionable that Declan's mind drifts from how annoyed he is. Usually when Edward dares to venture out during the day, the sky is grey, the weather wet and miserable. But today, the sun setting pinkly just beyond the skyline, is perfect. When Edward forgets himself and ventures out from the shadows of awnings, parts of him sparkle in the waning light, the tips of his fingers and the point of his chin.

There is, in fact, a payphone across the street from the apartment. It’s tucked away in a grim-looking alcove, an appealing target for public urination. Edward's nose wrinkles at the stench, but he reaches out, feet safely on the pavement, and pinches the receiver between his fingers. The spiraled cord comes with it, leaving the box with a shorn, empty look.

“See?” Declan says. He turns toward his building, calling over his shoulder, “Wash your hands before you touch anything.”

Edward mopes his way into the elevator and stands, deflated, in the back corner. “I didn’t realize how much the world had changed while I wasn’t paying attention,” he says, eyes trained on the button panel. “I apologize for my reaction.”

“It’s not a big deal,” Declan says, made generous by the thrill of being right. “Kind of embarrassing, I guess, to be picked up from a date by my babysitter, but you meant well.”

“I did,” Edward says. “I truly did.” Once the front door is unlocked, he heads obediently for the bathroom. Even with the door open, his next words are barely audible. “I wouldn’t want anything to happen to you.”

Declan thinks he probably shouldn't be fighting the urge to smile; I wouldn't want anything to happen to you is fairly underwhelming, as well wishes go. “Yeah, thanks.”

Edward emerges from the bathroom smelling strongly of lemon soap. “Did you have a good time? Before I interrupted?”

Declan shrugs. “Like you said, that date wasn’t going anywhere.” He plugs his phone in, the tension in his back loosening as it lights up. His calm is short-lived: he has twenty missed calls and twelve voicemails, all from Edward.

“You don't need to listen to those,” Edward says from directly behind Declan, where he wasn't two seconds ago. “I was worried, and I spoke rashly.”

Declan moves out of reach. “I don't know, I mean, they're my voicemails. I really should check them. It would be irresponsible not to.” Edward could stop him, but slips easily into the illusion of humanity, watching from a mournful distance.

The first message is normal enough, Edward talking about a lecture at a nearby college that he thinks Declan might enjoy, mentioning at the last second that the forecast is supposed to be “quite dreary,” and it might be nice to go together. They spiral after that.

Declan, this is Edward Cullen calling you at 5:15 p.m. I don't mean to disturb you, but it's unusual for you to be out of contact like this. Please call me.

The real Edward has taken up his favored position by the window, one hand pressed to the glass. Declan would complain about the smudges, except that he capitulated to the chore chart with a level of agreeability that made Declan doubt that he'd ever really lived with siblings, and wiping the windows has been made permanently his domain.

The messages proceed on a predictable script. In each one, Edward identifies himself, cites the time, and goes on to produce a concise, deceptively calm recording. Declan works his way through eight with increasing joylessness.

Declan, this is Edward Cullen calling you at 6:45 p.m. I know I'm likely overthinking things, one of the many curses of an eternity of some approximation of life, but— And then, horribly, a hitch, a wobble. Pardon me. Please call me back.

It seemed funny at first, a documented overreaction, but Declan can't stop replaying the break in Edward's voice. He puts the phone down, several messages still unheard. “I could have texted,” he says finally. “After I knew I was going out.”

Edward shakes his head, more relaxed now that Declan's phone is safely unhanded. “The last thing I want is to stand between you and a contented human life.”

“No, I mean, I could have texted. I would have texted. If I'd known you'd be worried.” This comes too close to sincere for Declan's tastes, and he adds, “If I'd known you'd freak out so bad.”

Edward's face crumples into something soft and sincere, but all he does is raise an eyebrow. “I'll be sure to temper my concern next time.”

Declan rolls his eyes, and then, searching for a segue, “How did you find me, anyway?” Edward turns back the window and stares forlornly at the street below. “Oh, good,” Declan says. “Something weird.”

Edward draws a finger across the windowsill, his eyes glinting strangely in the glare of the streetlights. “I followed your scent. I started at the campus and searched the streets until I picked it up again.”

Declan nods, and then again, waiting for this information to filter through the layers of his psyche. “Sure,” he says finally. “My scent. Why did I even ask. Christ, how is this my life.” He turns toward the kitchen. It makes no sense to attribute the odd feeling in his gut to the little bit he drank, but it makes no more sense to attribute it to anything else. Either way, it can't hurt to eat something other than a few of Brooke's bar nachos divested of their meat and cheese.

When he next looks over, Greek yogurt in hand, Edward has moped his way over to the couch and collapsed onto it. Only his feet are visible, hanging over one side. “I have never wished to make your life more difficult,” he says in a near-whisper. “It was kind of you to house me this long. It was—” Declan circles the couch to see Edward lying with his hands folded over his chest. “You have shown me greater generosity than I deserve. If you would like me to leave you in peace—” Declan peels the top off his cup as loudly as possible, crunching the foil between his fingers. Edward opens his eyes, enlivened by reproach. “If you understood how grating these little noises were, you wouldn’t take such joy in tormenting me.”

Declan shrugs one shoulder. “Maybe. It’s a nice thought, anyway.” He gestures with his spoon, saying after a moment's thought, “Look, I'm not going to say I was joking. I honestly can’t believe what a freakshow my life is. But I’m also not saying you should go anywhere.”

“I don’t wish to complicate your life further. If I’ve overstayed my welcome—”

“You haven't.” Declan moves backward toward his bedroom door. If Edward offers to leave again, Declan will have to tell him not to, again, and that brings them dangerously close to a conversation Declan had assumed they were united in wanting to avoid, the one about why Edward is still here in the first place. “I'm going to bed. Chill out.”

Edward must know that Declan won't have even a chance of falling asleep for hours, but he doesn't protest. He also doesn't move from his position, wishing Declan sweet dreams without lifting his head from the couch.

Declan has a well-earned appreciation for downtime; he works his way through a few chapters of an Eisenhower biography he's reading for class and a Wilson biography he's reading for fun before trying to settle in for the night.

Two hours after that, he's staring at the ceiling and missing his sleeping pills. When he told the university physician that he had trouble sleeping, she looked him over, tapped a pen against a carefully-edited version of his family medical history, and asked, “Have you tried yoga?”

It's not like he couldn't get a prescription if he wanted to, if he really needed it. But by the time he ran out of refills, Edward had already solved his main problem, and it seemed unreasonable, then, to spend his newly-realized free time scheming for sedatives. So when he's still awake at one in the morning, which is not even, demographics considered, especially notable, he pushes himself out of bed and returns to the living room.

Edward is sprawled across the couch, more rumpled than Declan has ever seen him. One of his socks droops around his ankle, and the other peeks out from under the TV stand. Onscreen, a pretty but not extraordinary woman with an irrepressible Canadian accent does a bad job of pretending to cry. Just as Declan processes this, the screen goes black. The remote, apparently untouched, sits next to Edward on the couch. Declan considers this display and shrugs. He shuffles into the kitchen and starts to rummage for he-doesn't-know-what. He opens a cabinet that's usually empty but sometimes, mysteriously, holds Craisins, and finds it stuffed with box upon box of Sleepytime tea. He looks at Edward, who doesn't look at him.

It’s nice. It's a completely useless, very nice gesture. Declan allows himself a moment of especially tortured eye contact with the cartoon bear in his sleepcap and then sets about microwaving some water.

When he turns around, mug in hand, Edward is sitting upright, dress shoes back on his feet, staring at the black screen with narrow-eyed focus. “So,” Declan says, theorizing incorrectly that his brain's defense mechanisms will provide him with something suitable once he's in too deep to turn back. “I thought you hated TV,” he manages after a long silence.

Edward doesn’t relax, and he doesn’t turn around. “I've come to appreciate it for what it is. It can be helpful when one needs one's mind occupied.”

“Way to finally catch up to the 20th century.” Declan fishes the teabag out of his mug and disposes of it with some distaste. The tea he’s produced is an uninspiring pale brown, but he carries it with him back to the couch, which looked normal when he left a few hours ago but is now covered in throw pillows edged with delicate gold lace. He glances at the one that's ended up under his arm and decides not to care about this either. “Don't let me interrupt. You can watch your show.”

“I wasn't watching it, particularly. It just came on. You know how that goes.” Declan is sort of disappointed to see that after all this time, he hasn't rubbed off on Edward at all: he's still an awful liar. Edward frowns. His fingers trail along the edge of the remote. “I understand that it isn't the most intellectual of pursuits, but it can be relaxing.”

Declan waits for Edward to make eye contact, smiles, and says, “I'm pretty much going to laugh no matter what it is, so you might as well just get it over with.”

In a movement so fast that Declan doesn't catch it even with his eyes trained on Edward's hands, Edward flicks on the TV. It comes to life with a close-up on a woman's face mid-scream, the volume turned mercifully low.

Declan stares at the screen before saying,  “Jesus, Edward, Lifetime? This is like, suburban housewife TV.”

Edward sniffs haughtily. “Well, it isn't as if I asked you to watch it with me. You're free to return to your room at any time.”

“I didn't say I wasn't going to watch it. I'm just obviously going to make fun of you.”

The camera is focused on a woman in a tight shirt with a plunging neckline, her lips painted a matching blood-red. Declan pegs her as the villain and is proven right five seconds later when she pulls a sledgehammer from the trunk of her car and smashes in the glass door of a nondescript suburban two-story. They’re treated to a lingering shot of a wholesome family photo, a crack spiderwebbing over the wife’s face. When the movie cuts, blessedly, to a commercial, Declan asks, “So what's doing it for you, exactly? The old-fashioned sexual mores?”

Edward frowns. “Very funny. It's just… Well, it's so human, isn't it? Right triumphs over wrong in the end, and the heroes get a happy ending despite the ugliness they've been through. Their families are made whole. It's—” He averts his gaze as a woman on TV gushes about a bra that changed her life. “For films that revel in the worst of humanity, they can be incredibly hopeful.”

Declan wastes nearly a minute feeling like a jerk before his common sense kicks into gear. “Do you actually believe that, or are you just trying to get me to stop making fun of you?”

Edward doesn’t break immediately, his face solemn and still, but finally he laughs. “A bit of both, I suppose.”

Declan is, despite himself, a little bit proud. “Well, good effort.”

“It worked, did it not?”

“Yeah, for maybe five seconds.”

Edward stares wistfully at nothing and says with some emotion, “When you're cursed with eternal existence, you learn to appreciate moments of peace, no matter how fleeting.”

Declan snorts. “Man, shut up.”

Before Edward can respond, the movie returns, drawing his gaze back to the screen. It seems that Declan's come in toward the end because the story is wrapped up in a five minute flurry of action: a threatened daughter, a gun wrested away by a heroic mother, and a montage of happy family scenes in a vague, temporally-ungrounded future. The credits roll right into a new movie that prompts Declan to ask, “Isn't that the woman from the last one?”

Edward's eyebrows scrunch together. “No,” he says frostily. “It isn't.”

Declan shrugs. “Just asking.” Edward eyes him a moment longer, then turns back to the TV.

The movies drone on, steady, predictable. A woman or a man or blondely-coiffed teenager does something sinister, and everyone else scrambles desperately to contain the damage. Edward watches avidly, reacting aloud to dramatic moments, occasionally pressing a hand to his mouth or his chest. Declan half-follows the plots, the rest of his attention split between Edward's scandalized reactions and trying to use the throw pillows to transform his couch into something comfortable. The movies are, despite themselves, sort of soothing. He can see the appeal of a bit of predictability.

“So,” he says, on the wrong side of a thirty-second yawn. “Is this what you do when I'm not around?” Onscreen, a crazed babysitter is trying to run another woman off a winding mountain road as part of a scheme that also involves arson and faked nudes for reasons he can no longer recall, or perhaps never understood in the first place.

“Occasionally,” Edward admits, watching Declan watch him. “We can talk about this in the morning. I'm sure you'd like to sleep.”

Declan knows how stupid it is to have sleep within reach and snub it, but he's left off-balance by the revelation that he knows almost nothing about Edward's life outside of his direct line of sight. He isn't sure what that says about him and his capacity for genuine human connection, but he knows it can't be good. He sums all this up by showing Edward the analog clock on his home screen and saying, “It is morning.”

Edward frowns and moves to the kitchen, fiddling with the kettle that sits on the back burner and never gets used. The goal, clearly, is to outlast Declan, who shifts so that the couch’s angular armrest is pressing into his back. The tea-making process drags on, involving, somehow, a thermometer and three separate spoons. For all that, the result is a mug of the same unappealing liquid Declan made for himself.  “You're at your worst when you're pedantic, you know,” Edward says, pressing the mug into Declan's hands, the handle turned out so he can grab it without their fingers brushing.

Declan takes a sip, makes a face, and takes another sip. “So when I'm not around,” he prompts.

“Yes, well.” Edward squints at the TV, now flashing mutely in the background. “I do enjoy these films. The cinema I'm not quite so fond of. I've spent enough time alone in the dark, after all. I find pleasure in solitary walks through the city, weather permitting. I’ve recently taken up a rather enjoyable correspondence with a woman I met at the post office.”

Declan's eyes slip shut despite his uncomfortable position and a burst of possessiveness he can’t explain. He asks the blacks of his eyelids, “Why were you at the post office?”

“To experience the hustle and bustle of modern life.”

Declan opens his eyes. Absent the stimulus of sight, Edward's voice is too easy to get caught up in, even when he's using it to say bizarre things. “So, what's your girlfriend's name?”

Outside, the sky is lightening. Edward adjusts the curtains to protect himself from the sun’s eventual incursion. Upon his return to the couch, he says, “I assume you mean to ask the name of my friend, who is an adult woman. Her name is Bertha.”

Declan snorts inelegantly. “Of course it is.” He considers taking a sip of his tea, but decides against it. The warmth Edward’s hands leeched out of the ceramic is returning, and he adjusts his grip. “Why didn't I know about her? I mean, you don't do any of that stuff when I'm around.” He tries not to wonder, because Edward will hear, what it says about him that they've had half a friendship this whole time and it felt normal to him. Not just normal: the most fulfilling relationship in his life.

Edward sits as far away from Declan as he can get without ending up on the floor, his hands folded in his lap so tight and unmoving that they look like the hands of a statue, clasped in prayer. “My struggle to fill twenty-four hours a day doesn't interest me,” he says, watching Declan with such wide-eyed focus that Declan shuts his eyes again. “I like hearing about you.”   

Declan gulps down a mouthful of tea to create an excuse for his silence. He wonders at the way he's cast himself as both much more and much less important to Edward's life than he actually is. “Tell me about Bertha,” he challenges.

Edward doesn’t speak immediately, but when he does, it isn’t worth the wait. “She’s teaching me to knit. It isn't an activity of particular interest to me, but it does feel nice to create, and it brings her joy. I attended her ninetieth birthday party recently, on a conveniently overcast day. It was held at an exuberant establishment called... Thank God It's Friday, I believe.”

Declan waits a moment before responding, hoping to come up with a way to ask that doesn't make him sound jealous of a geriatric, which he isn't. It's just weird that Edward has a whole secret life he doesn't know about. “Did you tell her about me?” Edward averts his gaze. Declan says, sounding whiny even to himself, “So, yes. Well, that's great.”

“It wasn't my intent to deceive you. It's just that—” Edward's fingers tap against his forearm with an inhuman click. “Declan,” he says, so agonized that Declan wants to say it isn't a big deal, which it isn't, or shouldn't be. He keeps his mouth shut. Edward clears his throat three times in a row, straightens the cuffs of his sweater, and says, “This isn't a phrase I've had occasion to use in my century of life, but you should know. It was only natural for me to tell Bertha about you because since we've known each other, you have become my best friend.”

Declan's eyes slip closed and stay that way. He says, cheek curved into a smile against the hand propping him up, “What are we, twelve?”

He wakes up stretched across the couch, two pillows under his head, Edward's lap under his feet. It is, Declan's learning, impossible to look dignified while removing your possibly frostbitten toes from another man's thighs, but he gives it his best effort. “You slept well,” Edward says, smiling.

Declan struggles upright, groaning at the ache in his lower back. “People usually phrase that as a question.”

“Well, as you know, I am burdened with great knowledge. But good morning, I should have said. How are you, and so on.”

Declan tugs at the blanket that was draped over his midsection and is now making a break for the floor. “Morning.” When he turns to glare at Edward, his neck clicks ominously.

It seems to Declan that a century of life should have left Edward less sensitive to misfortune, not more, but he frowns, face slack with misery. “I didn't want to wake you up, but perhaps I should have moved you to your bed.”

“No,” Declan says, his cheeks faintly red. “No, you definitely shouldn't have done that.”

“Yes, I see how this is preferable.”

Declan takes a breath and then, with focus and determination, turns to look at Edward, pulling his head roughly even with his shoulder. “See? I'm fine.”

“Clearly.” Edward's lips thin nearly to nothing just as Declan is crafting a comeback. A second later, a chirp sounds from Edward's phone, an uninspired little thing that Declan has never seen in use.

Declan says, “Huh. Is Bertha calling to invite you to bridge?”

Edward slips the phone into his pocket after barely glancing at it. “No.”

“Who was it, then?” Declan asks, feeling a bit like Ashley all those times he took calls in bed.

“No one,” Edward says, which is exactly what Declan used to say, and which he now realizes is obnoxious.

He slaps the half-folded, half-wadded blanket down on the couch and says, “You know everything about me. Everything. All I’m asking for is a bit of reciprocity.”

“This would be a very embarrassing moment for you if I said that was a telemarketer.” Declan lets out a startled bark of a laugh, and can hear in it his father, and tries hard not to resent it. “But you’re right. It isn’t fair. That was Alice, my sister. For a very long time after I left, I moved constantly. It’s a nomadic life, this one I chose.” Edward's face twists on that last word, a disgust so intense that it leaves Declan unnerved. “When I began to suspect that I would be here a while, I bought a phone. I gave her the number so she would know I was all right, but I told her not to call. She hasn’t until today.”

“You don’t think it might be important?” Declan doesn’t consider himself family-oriented, but only because it’s embarrassing to do so when his family is in shambles. All of this is foreign to him, the leaving, the staying gone. He wishes he had the nerve.

“She would call me more than once if she needed me. I have no reason to think they’re in danger.” But Edward pulls the phone free and says in a voice thick with apprehension, “She did leave a voicemail.” He takes a few careful steps away from the couch and stands with his back turned.  Declan feels sure that he was right, that something’s happened, and regrets having brought it up. There's nothing wrong, after all, with a little blissful ignorance. Edward doesn’t end the call; his arm drops limply to his side, phone clawed between his fingers. Declan has never had to comfort someone, not really. He hugged Matthew before the funeral, but he doesn't count that because it was largely for his own benefit and was, anyway, a fairly tepid and unconvincing effort. Ronan, by then, was already a live-wire of agony Declan could barely stand to look at, to say nothing of touching.

“Reciprocity,” Edward says. Declan, still caught up in wondering how he’ll talk to someone he doesn’t understand about something he understands all too well, can’t switch gears quickly enough to question this before Edward continues, “That’s what you asked for. Alice says hello.” These seem like two unrelated but equally fantastical statements: that Declan asking for something means he stands a chance of getting it, that Edward’s adopted vampire sister is leaving voicemails about him. Edward smiles. “Alice has visions. She must have seen you in one.”

Declan's mind populates with fevered fantasies of surveillance cameras. “So I haven’t had any privacy, then. From the moment we met.”

“I suppose not.” Edward stares off into the distance. Declan expects an apology or an explanation, something to address the way his heart’s racing in his chest, but Edward continues, “Surely she’s been having visions all along. I can’t imagine what prompted her to reach out.” A line appears between his eyebrows, the only fissure in his otherwise perfect skin. “I’ve always prided myself on my ability to read people, but I fear I’ve grown too dependent on my power. It’s useless at such a distance.”

There’s no point, with Edward, in pretending to have been listening, but Declan makes sure to nod and mumble something about complacency before pushing toward his real concern. “What did she say about me?”

“Nothing. Uh, to tell you hello.” Declan raises an eyebrow. “Here. I’ll show you.” Edward fumbles with his phone, which has been playing through his voicemail menu. He seems less than graceful now, pressing the phone to his ear and then pulling it away to jab more forcefully at the buttons.

Declan pushes himself off of the couch. “Let me,” he says. Edward is over a hundred and looks it just then, hunchbacked over a defiant piece of technology. Some awful affection rears its head, and Declan does what he can to push it down as he takes the phone from Edward’s slack hand. He gets the message to play and sets it to speaker, holding the phone flat in his palm between them. Edward has the ungrateful air of a drowning man who, having been rescued from the choppy waves, is now concerned with the indignity of the save.

“Edward!” Alice's voice is cheerful, but it slides flutishly into sarcasm. “Sorry to bother you on your journey of self-recrimination, but I just wanted to say hello. To you and to Declan.” There’s something off about the way she says Declan's name, like a classful of kids ooohing when someone gets called to the principal's office. He looks at Edward, meaning to exchange confused glances, but Edward is staring at the phone like it represents a threat to his very existence. “I don’t want to push,” Alice continues. “I know you’ll call when you’re ready. But we miss you.”

Declan’s fingers close around the phone as the message ends; he’s thinking that he’ll just call back, but as soon as he’s had the thought, the phone is gone, disappeared into Edward’s pocket or maybe off a cliff. “I have a right to know what she’s seen about me,” Declan snaps. “You don’t want me to talk to her, fine. You do it. I’ve made my peace with the mind reading, but this is completely unacceptable.” He has never thought of his future as his , particularly, so he’s surprised by the possessiveness that overcomes him now. “You should have told me.”

“I understand how you feel,” Edward says, slowly, like every word costs him something. “But I haven’t spoken to Alice in years. Even when I gave her my number, I did so via SMS text message. If I call, it will only give her false hope. It’s cruel. I need you to trust me, Declan. If Alice had seen something dangerous, she would have told me. If I thought there were any chance she meant her call as a warning, I would contact her in a heartbeat. One of yours, of course.”

“I don’t—” Declan realizes with no small degree of shock that safety wasn’t his concern, that for the first time in a half-decade, danger wasn’t at the front of his mind. He doesn't allow himself much time to bask in this psychological triumph. “That’s not my problem. You’re telling me that the whole time we’ve known each other, someone’s been watching me. In addition to you. And you won’t even let me talk to her. That’s bullshit.”

“Yes. You’re right.” Declan waits for Edward to continue, to produce the phone from where he’s hidden it, but he doesn't move.

“So that’s it? I’m totally right, and it doesn’t matter at all?”

“Unfortunately. Declan, this is very painful for me. I am so—” Edward ducks his head, saying to his empty hands, “I am deeply ashamed of the choices I’ve made. I don’t understand how you can tolerate my presence, but I'm grateful. I can’t face Alice. I can't face the rest of my family. I understand that it is less than ideal.”

Declan’s future feels more secure than it has since he was too young to conceive of events more distant than dinnertime. That’s a miracle he owes to Edward. He rolls his eyes, and then again, and finally sighs. It isn't like he's such a bastion of forthrightness anyway. “Fine. But I don’t like this.”

The tension drains from Edward’s shoulders, slowly and then all at once, so that Declan’s concerned he might collapse. “Thank you. Your understanding means a great deal to me.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Declan carefully avoids the weight of Edward’s grateful gaze.

It doesn't occur to Declan until later, when he's thinking about how valuable Alice would be on a political campaign, that things would have been very different if Edward were in touch with his family. Alice's visions could have determined Declan's security with no need for contact. There would have been no business card. There would be no quiet occupation of the spare room. There would just be him, at peace without understanding why, and no less alone for it.


 

“Carlisle. Esme. Alice. Jasper. Emmett. Rosalie.” Edward says the names like an incantation, like they carry some special weight. Declan has heard them all in passing, but never like this, stripped of the casual air imposed by conversation. He feels, just for a moment, the weight of what Edward's lost. “Carlisle is a doctor. His chosen career is indicative of his generous spirit. It is nothing short of miraculous that you and I have been able to live in such close quarters without incident. The fact that he is able to provide care to an endless stream of the wounded and the suffering—his control and compassion stagger me to this day. Esme, though she was turned after me, has become a cherished maternal figure. She is kind and patient and very good-natured about being stuck with a house of perpetual teenagers.

“I’m closest to Alice, or I was. She’s—energetic. You probably got some sense of that from her message. I believe I said before that she bought much of my wardrobe? She had a brief stint as a fashion designer. We shouldn't engage in high-profile behaviors, of course, but haute couture is a field known for eccentricity, so she was able to get away with using intermediaries and wearing disguises when there was no choice but to be seen.” Edward sighs, dramatic, overwrought. “I hope this doesn’t make me sound callous, but I’ve been surprised by exactly how much I miss her. I’ve said before that I often felt isolated within my makeshift family unit, but I had no idea how much deeper that feeling could run.”

Declan tries to process this burst of information. He asked for reciprocity, and what Edward heard, apparently, was that he should wait for a distracted moment and then accost Declan with personal details. “When did you last see her?” Declan asks finally.

A heavy breath in, a heavy breath out, and then, tortured, “I left my family ten years ago.”

“Holy shit.”

“That isn’t very long, for us. But the days did stretch on. Until recently.” Declan makes a point of not smiling, which becomes a lot easier when Edward continues, “Have you ever done something so wrong that you couldn’t see a way back? I realized very quickly that I had made a mistake, but by then I felt that I had lost— Well, I didn't have a soul to lose, of course, but whatever little fragment of decency had allowed me to fit, however uncomfortably, into my family. I feared that they would see the emptiness inside of me. That shirt looks nice on you. I hope you’re planning to buy it.”

Declan stops admiring the way his forearms look with the sleeves rolled up and calls through the dressing room door, “I was listening.”

Edward laughs. “I know you were. It was a genuine compliment, not a bid for attention. We came here to add to your wardrobe, not so I could work through the very foreseeable consequences of my actions.”

Declan fidgets with the buttons near his collar. “You should pick up the next time Alice calls. I mean, they all know why you left, right? And she’s still trying to contact you.” He means to continue with something about forgiveness and the meaning of family, but can feel the words falling flat before they leave his mouth. He says instead, so that Edward will know to occupy his mind elsewhere, “I’m changing shirts now.” Edward lets out a small, uncomfortable ahem. Declan tugs on a different button-up and tries to imagine it with cufflinks he’ll claim were inherited from some illustrious ancestor. He again reaches for something meaningful, again plumbs his internal depths, and again comes up empty. He offers instead, “I mean, Ronan’s a miserable asshole, and I still care about him. Inconveniently.”

Edward huffs out a laugh. “That is—more comforting than perhaps it should be. Thank you.”

Warming slightly to the subject, Declan continues, “And it’s not like you haven’t done some good since you’ve left. I’m grateful, anyway.”

Edward sounds very nearly happy when he says, “Your simplistically utilitarian outlook is as reassuring as ever.”

“Hey!” Declan bangs the flat of his hand against the dressing room door. “That's the last time I'm nice to you.”

“I said that with nothing but respect and affection, of course. That shirt is washing you out.”

Declan looks in the mirror again and has to concede the truth of it. “I thought it might be fun if we matched.”

Edward doesn't acknowledge the joke, continuing, “Perversely, I’ve grown more interested in fashion since leaving Alice behind. She spent so many years dragging me along, and now that I’m no longer around to serve as a clothes rack, I’ve begun to see the appeal. Perhaps it makes me feel closer to her.”

Declan opens the door so that Edward will be hit with the full force of his admittedly charmed scorn. “You’d say you’re fashion conscious?” Edward’s wearing a sweater in his signature beige, appealingly fitted but still completely and utterly unremarkable. He glances at Declan’s chest, exposed four buttons deep, and makes a noise halfway between a scandalized church woman and a cat thrown in a bathtub. Declan ducks back into the dressing room, laughing but a bit warm in the cheeks. “Yeah, yeah, prude.”

Edward doesn't speak for so long that Declan checks under the door just to make sure his loafer-clad feet are still there. “What’s wrong with my fashion sense?” Edward asks finally.

“There’s nothing wrong with it. But you could mix it up a little. Buy something that isn’t beige.”

“I do not only wear beige.”

“Sure, like tan, maybe? Khaki if you’re feeling wild?” Declan can imagine the frown on Edward’s face just from the tenor of his silence. “I'm just saying—”

“I hadn’t realized my clothing was so objectionable to you.”

The hint of guilt blooms in Declan’s chest. He pokes at it for a moment, then makes up his mind not to care. It really is kind of a personal favor, to say nothing of community service, to force Edward to develop thicker skin. “Well, I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings. Hey, could you grab me—” Before Declan can get the question out, the pants he was about to ask for come flying over the dressing room door and hit him in the face. He grabs at the hanger to keep them from slithering to the floor. “Thanks,” he mutters.

Slungshot clothing aside, Edward's turned out to be an asset. Despite Declan's totally justified mockery, he does have an eye for color, and the mind-reading means Declan doesn't have to leave the dressing room if he wants a second opinion. After trying on a few more things, Edward now conspicuously and grumpily silent, Declan changes back into his own clothes and pushes the door open. Edward is standing in front of the trifold mirror by the entrance, watching his reflection as if it might change. Guilt makes a second attempt at overtaking Declan as he moves into the hall separating them from the body of the store. “You don't dress badly, just consistently. Nothing wrong with that. And as far as your family, I'm not good with—feelings.” He does his level best not to put a negative inflection on the last word. “Sorry.”

“On the contrary. This conversation has been very comforting.”

Declan snorts. “Well, that isn't true.”

“Declan.” Edward reaches out and doesn't make contact, his hand hovering by Declan's arm. “It is true. That you are able to speak to me so casually, knowing what you know, knowing it how you know it, means a great deal to me. It is a source of tremendous reassurance.”

Even with his eyes trained on his phone, Declan can tell that Edward is watching him, hoping for reciprocation in some display of emotion. Declan navigates to his to-do list instead, saying flatly, “Dish towels.” He used his to clean up a head wound he probably shouldn’t have driven himself home after sustaining, and his failure to replace them makes him feel like a college student in the very worst way, like he’s living off ramen packets and sticking bar soap in his washing machine.

“Of course,” Edward says, his voice heavy with emotion the topic doesn’t merit. "Dish towels."

 

 

Declan should be immune by now to the embarrassment of trying to shop next to a public spectacle. Matthew has never seen a store he doesn’t want to run through at top speed, and Ronan thinks family gatherings are best punctuated by fistfights. The primary draw of D.C., strategic value aside, was the possibility of being allowed to move through the world with dignity. Edward shouldn't get in the way of that, considering that he’s usually the very picture of polished repression, but he’s turned what should have been a quick trip to Williams-Sonoma into an hour-long chore, picking up every third display item and saying something like, “How ingenious!” It wouldn’t be too terrible, but he occupies the exact intersection of beautiful and strange-looking that makes people feel justified in staring at him, so that a small audience has gathered to see what he’ll be shocked by next.

Declan retraces his steps to find Edward transfixed by a gravity-activated pepper grinder. He inverts the display model, watching with wide eyes as the miniature blades grind fruitlessly at nothing. “Edward, what the hell.”

“It’s just.” Edward looks around, finally, and a few of the sales staff and customers turn away. He steps closer to Declan, bringing with him a sweet, unplaceable scent that is somehow more overwhelming in the artificial cheer of the store. “My family—in theory, we live alongside you. We attend schools, and we hold down jobs, and we move when our agelessness becomes impossible to ignore. It’s more than most of our kind can manage. But I never realized how much we were missing. All the extraordinary aspects of humanity we don’t see because we hold ourselves apart.” He clutches the shaker in both hands, protective as if Declan threatened to snatch it away. “It’s incredible, the strides you all have made while we stagnate.”

Declan takes a long breath and lets it out. “It’s a pepper grinder.”

Edward rolls his eyes. “I understand that, Declan. I’m referring here to the spirit of innovation the pepper grinder represents.”

Declan does reach for the pepper grinder then; he’s cultivated his image too carefully to want to be seen with someone cradling a kitchen implement like an infant. Edward relinquishes it slowly, fingers uncurling one at a time. The saleswoman who beamed at them when they walked in has now taken on the jumpy, watchful air of someone who's already dialed 9-1 on the desk phone. “They didn't do it for the joy of discovery. They did it so they could charge—” Declan flips the tag over and lets out a low whistle. “A hundred dollars for a hunk of glass.”

“Is that a lot of money?” Declan puts the grinder down and continues moving through the store without looking to see whether Edward is following him. “Is it?” Edward asks again.

Declan wishes, not for the first time, for friends who are poorer than him. “A lot for that. Is this a vampires-don’t-eat-thing, or a vampires-have-a-lot-of-time-to-build-wealth thing?”

Edward takes the question seriously, pausing in the middle of the napkin ring nook with his head cocked. “A little of both, I suppose. We don’t have occasion to make small purchases very often. When one’s primary expenses are sports cars, I suppose it’s possible to lose perspective.”

Declan rolls his eyes. “We drive the same car. It’s nice, but it definitely isn’t a sports car.”

“Oh…” Edward conspicuously avoids eye contact, staring directly into the lights overhead. “I’ve never told you. We attract a lot of attention, so we try not to be more ostentatious than is necessary. But the Volvo is not my only vehicle.”

“So, what, you have a decked-out minivan in a parking garage somewhere?”

Edward clears his throat. “More like a Ferrari.” He looks at Declan and then away again. “Or two.”

Declan says, “You asshole,” and smacks Edward without thinking. Fortunately, they've outpaced their audience by now; Declan would have a very difficult time explaining the way his hand crumples against the wall of Edward's chest. He stifles a curse, and then another, and finally mutters, “Shit.” Despite himself, he's always been sort of a baby about pain outside of the blood-pumping, adrenaline-fueled context of a fight. It isn't that he can't take it; it's that he doesn't want to.  

Edward reaches out, his face contorted in agony, but Declan moves away, ducking around a display of crepe pans. Edward trails behind. He looks like he would cry if he could. “Are you all right?”

Declan picks up a blender cookbook in his bad hand, hiding a wince. Before he can get very far past the glossy cover decked out in jewel-toned fruits and vegetables, Edward takes it gently.  “I was looking at that,” Declan snaps.

“You were not.” Edward props the book back on the shelf, framed by a book advertising one-pot meals and one touting three hundred different ways to cook eggs. “You were being difficult and you were being avoidant, as you tend to be. Now may I please see your wrist?”

Declan looks around, judges them to be suitably shielded from view, and flops his hand out irritably. “This is completely unnecessary,” he says, a protest lodged purely on principle since he knows it won’t make any difference.

Edward's fingers trail unnecessarily along the reddened skin of Declan’s hand before resting against his wrist. “You might have a sprain,” he says softly.

“I do not.” Declan tugs on his arm, and Edward moves with him to keep from tweaking his wrist further. It brings them uncomfortably close together, Edward’s eyes bright and golden. Declan allows himself a moment to adjust to this new proximity, then says, “I'm pretty sure M.D.s aren't something you can inherit.”

Edward beams like there's something impressive about Declan retaining information for a grand total of twenty-five minutes. His smile slips, and he prods at Declan's wrist again. “I've been alive for over a century now, Declan. You pick things up.”

“I just watched you learn about pepper grinders, so excuse me if I don't buy that.” Edward's hands are delicate next to Declan's, long-fingered and never-broken. The nail of his left pinky is bitten down to the quick, a startling contrast to the other nine, neat and short.

“Again you demonstrate your capacity for difficulty and avoidance.” Edward presses against the knob of Declan's wrist and watches him carefully for a flinch. Declan doesn’t react, but Edward’s frown deepens anyway. It doesn’t seem fair that Declan has spent years—his entire life, really—studying a discipline of deceit that’s worth nothing here. “I hurt you,” Edward says, staring down at their joined hands with a level of despair Declan thinks would only be warranted if there were a baby bird actively dying in them. “I have never meant to hurt you.”

“With that one notable exception, right?” Every so often, Declan has a burst of the sort of self-awareness he would prefer to avoid. It's been happening more since he met Edward, which might be personal growth but is more likely the result of Edward's tendency to provide a running commentary on his feelings, as if Declan can’t read his own mind just as well. Now Declan thinks, in a mockery of Edward's honeyed tones, that he's lashing out because this level of concern has left him off-balance.

Edward, consumed with his self-indulgent misery, doesn't seem to pick up on this, although after dragging his thumb across Declan's wrist, he says, “If that's a genuine rebuke, I am, as ever, unendingly sorry. If you mean to be funny, you aren't.”

Declan grins. “Sure I am. Anyway, you didn't hurt me. I'm fine, first of all, and it's not your fault I forgot you're—you.”

Edward nods without seeming to take in what Declan is saying, his face cold and impassive. He steps back, once and again, and he says, his hands now firmly in his pockets, “I need to go.”

There’s something startling to Declan about having to support the weight of his own hand again. It feels numb, frozen solid, and for a second he rests it in his other palm. Edward’s words come to him on a delay, but after a moment, he snaps to attention. “You what?” He has the feeling that there’s something he could say here that would fix this, but what he lands on, ever practical, is, “We took your car.”

“Of course.” Edward takes Declan's hand again, this time to shove his car keys into it. “It's the sun,” he says, lying unconvincingly but smoothly, which really is half the battle. “It's going to come out earlier than expected. I can't be caught in it. I’ll make my own way back.” Then, just as soon as the rapid-fire words are out of his mouth, he’s gone.

Declan says, “What the fuck,” into the emptiness around him because he thinks it might make him feel better. It doesn't. He taps out and promptly deletes a line of question marks as he moves toward the store entrance, settling eventually on a single ? He can see immediately that the sun has not come out early by any means. In fact, the downpour that was only a distant threat this morning has now materialized with a vengeance. It’s clear from the wind-blown slant of the trees out front that there's no reason bothering with an umbrella, so he tucks his phone into an inner pocket and plunges into the world. He wasn't paying attention while Edward parked, which he should have been, of course, except that he'd taken it on faith that Edward wouldn't disappear on him. Which he shouldn't have. Of course.

He's soaked through and murderous by the time he makes it to the Volvo, which is tucked away on a side street he swears he's never seen in his life. The windshield has two tickets, already melding into one crumpled mass of neon mush. He lets the wipers deal with them.

Water has worked its way into his phone case, resting in a puddle against his screen. He can see immediately, preoccupied as he is with cracking it open, that Edward hasn't texted him back. This isn't such a surprise—Edward has rather belligerently refused to learn that most basic aspect of cell phone etiquette, that only sociopaths and the elderly call in response to texts. But he hasn't called, either. Declan calls him; the phone rings once before going to voicemail. Words burst out of him at the beep, with no opportunity for strategy or rational thought. “Hey, asshole. What was that? Who does that?” Then, irritably, “This isn't like you. Call me back.” It really isn’t like Edward, and something like concern settles in Declan’s gut, very nearly smothered by indignation.

When he makes it home, ego and wrist bruised, he finds a sheet of paper tented on the kitchen counter. It’s creamy and smooth, nothing out of the printer in his bedroom. He eyes his name on the front with some suspicion. Edward’s handwriting slants across the page, not quite as neat as he would have imagined. He expects something long and self-conscious, something that matches the way Edward speaks, but the note just says, “I’ve gone hunting. I will return next week.” The will is underlined three times, so heavily and haphazardly that it’s been nearly obliterated. Declan considers being touched, considers being insulted, and decides on the latter.

He eyes the door to the spare room, behind which, for all he knows, Edward could be sitting in regretful silence. He hasn’t been inside since he made an impulsive gift of it. He considers the fact that he's in his own apartment, and that Edward ditched him, and that morality, anyway, is relative, and decides that he doesn't owe Edward any particular courtesy. He pushes the door open and is struck immediately by the massive ebony piano in the center of the room. Once the shock of it has worn off—another thing about Edward he’s somehow missed—he’s able to take in everything around it.

Despite the personal touches—skeins of yarn huddled on a shelf, unscented candles in ornate glass holders, novels with cracked spines crowding a side table—the room looks as soullessly beautiful as a spread in a magazine. Declan grew up in a house with “character,” mismatched furniture and knobless cabinets; he likes soulless. Nothing in this room looks like it came from a garage sale, or a church bazaar, or the dreams of a man with no interior decorating bona fides to speak of. Something in Declan settles at the sight of it, something that wasn’t soothed by the emphatic will in Edward’s note. It would be simple for Edward to move all of this out as unobtrusively as he moved it in, but that means he could have done so already. If he wanted to. If he were gone for good.


 

Declan wants to be angry. Anger would feel productive. Anger would give him some sense of control. But after the initial flush of indignation fades, he’s mostly just tired and confused. Edward left, maybe because of his own glaring personal flaws, maybe because he finally realized that Declan has been having some very 1901-unfriendly thoughts. Either way, he left. And the promise of him, the irrational, impossible promise of him, has always been that Declan could count on him.

Declan doesn’t talk about his feelings. Whining doesn’t change anything, and it gives someone leverage to be used against you in future confrontations. It’s the definition of lose-lose. But as Edward’s one-week hunting trip stretches into week two, he starts to see the appeal of it. Ignoring this hasn't worked. Giving in to it is even less of an option than it was before. He might, possibly, need an outside perspective.

His longest and most successful relationship was with Ashley, and what worked between them was that no matter how many lies he told, no matter how many secrets he kept, she knew the score when it counted. She went to his graduation, and he went to hers, and after she tossed her cap in the air and had him take a million pictures of her duckfacing with her friends, she turned to him and said, “So we’re done, right?” Declan has no idea what made their situation appeal to her, but he knows that sometimes you just need to trust that someone cares about you—dead or alive, horribly maimed or intact—without having to labor under the delusion that you really matter to them. What they had was good. Low risk, low reward. If he were smart, he’d leave it at that, but when he sees on her Instagram that she’s visiting D.C., he asks her out for coffee.

“Declan,” Ashley says once they’re settled at a table that is, according to a burnished plaque bolted to its surface, made of reclaimed sailboats. “I came out of respect for you, and because the shop wasn't too far out of my way. But if this is like, a pine-y, ‘I want you back’ type deal, that’s so embarrassing.”

“That’s not it.” Ashley looks at him, blank and unblinking. It’s like trying to have a heart-to-heart with a Terminator. Declan braces his hands against the walls of his cup. This is his last chance to turn back. Ashley even volunteered the perfect lie. It would be a blow to his dignity to say he wants to get back together, but it’s unlikely he’ll have much dignity to speak of by the end of this conversation either way. “I met someone."

“Like...okay?”

Declan shuts his eyes. “And I was just kind of wondering—how you tell?”

Ashley’s lips pucker, her lipstick creasing. “Declan, are you asking me how to tell if you like someone? We dated, you asshole. I mean, that would be insulting, honestly, if I hadn’t dumped you.”

Declan's head jerks up. “It was mutual,” he protests.

Ashley looks around, her face molded into an artful combination of shock and pity, as if she wants the café's early-morning occupants to experience this with her. Everything's theater with her, which is why they got along so well. Once she’s done mugging for their nonexistent audience, she leans in. “Okay, okay. I’m here already, so go for it. What’s her deal? The daughter of a Supreme Court Justice? The heiress to the Lay’s fortune? What makes this girl so special?”

Declan's mouth goes dry, his tongue like lead. After a split second of anticipation, Ashley turns to her drink, using her stirrer to trace shapes in the sea of whipped cream. Declan has always done well with an audience, but now he appreciates the opportunity to formulate his thoughts unseen. “He,” he manages, his throat closing up.

It’s enough. Ashley breaks into what is possibly the first genuine smile Declan has ever seen on her face. “You have literally never been more interesting to me.” She pauses, forcing her face into something more supportive. “Sorry, that was insensitive. I guess you want to like, talk? About your feelings?”

Declan shudders. “God, no. I was just thinking—” Ashley leans forward, chin in her hands. “Okay, stop looking at me like that; you’re not special. It's just that I don’t know a lot of gay people, and I obviously wasn’t going to ask Ronan.”

“Aw, why not?” Ashley asks, candy-sweet. “You finally have something in common!”

Declan pushes his chair away from the table with a screech. He has never regretted the particular way he’s shaped his life, but now he would like—sue him—to have a single friend he can trust with this, someone who would listen to what he has to say with a minimum of mockery. Not even exactly none; he’s a realist. “Forget it. This was stupid.”

Ashley startles at the sound of his chair grating against the floor, but her emotions slip back beneath the surface by the time she meets Declan's eyes. “Oh, don’t be a baby. Sit down, sit down.” Declan doesn’t move. Ashley rolls her eyes. “Okay, I’m sorry; is that what you want to hear?” It’s the first time she’s ever apologized to him—when he was teaching her how to drive stick, she steered his car into five different mailboxes, shrugged, and said he probably had good insurance. Declan returns his jacket to the back of his chair. “Look, babe. I’m not going to beg you to bore me with your feelings. But I know how personal this is, and how vulnerable you feel, so I’m sorry. No more messing around, okay? Now sit.”

Declan sits, and Ashley’s face immediately returns to something more in her usual range, which goes from bored to superior and no further. He rests a hand over his heart. “Ash... That was downright touching.”

“Okay, I’m not the one who like, almost tantrumed my way out of here, but whatever. Mock if that makes you feel better. We’re just like. We don’t have that kind of relationship, you know? So I’m trying to switch gears, but you need to give me a second.” Ashley cracks her knuckles, one at a time, a habit Declan could barely stand when they were dating and can’t believe he’s still having to tolerate now. After a long silence broken only by the sound of her joints protesting, she says, “Okay, so. Let’s just pretend I said all the stuff I’m supposed to say. Thank you for trusting me, you’re so brave, blah blah. Why are we here? I mean, now that I know you aren’t trying to get back together, I’m thrilled, but like, what are you looking for?”

The question sounds so stark like that, so undeniable. Declan wrote himself a script, but the truth is that he never thought he’d actually go through with it. He stares down at the table, gritty with spilled sugar in the raw. “Like I said. How did you know?”

Ashley spins her mug between her hands, watching with almost trance-like intensity as her drink sloshes nearly up to the rim. She looks up and says, in a voice scrubbed free of her usual dramatic affect, “I have you to thank, actually. Our relationship was so coldly transactional that it made me realize how inauthentic all of my romantic entanglements were. I mean, when I first met you, a lot of my friends thought it was cool. A rich, passably attractive guy who’d buy me jewelry and nice dinners, and all I had to do was look pretty and not be too much smarter than him.” Declan cultivates and discards several possible retorts before giving it up as a lost cause. Ashley frowns. She has this spoiling-for-a-fight energy that Declan doesn’t remember from high school, though he has to concede that he wasn’t paying very close attention. “But a couple of them thought it was unhealthy, that you were using me. Which, like, duh. That was the point. But to me it seemed normal. Like, I wasn’t dating guys because I liked them; I was dating them so people would look at me and like.” Ashley pauses, head cocked. “I’m trying to be real 101 for you right now. When people look at you—I mean, you know this—they make assumptions and they assign values to those assumptions. It was important to me that people make—I hate to say the right assumptions, but the most expedient ones.” She shrugs, her shoulders so tense that the movement is barely detectable. “And that's what we were. The whole thing was just so patently, pointedly false that I couldn't explain it away. Once I was forced to think about what I actually wanted, it all sort of unraveled from there.”

Declan nods, hoping to look reflective so that he won’t have to admit that every relationship in his life is transactional, not just the romantic ones. He never, before a few months ago, thought about what he wanted except in resentful, petty terms—things he knew he couldn't have.

“It was hard work.” Ashley pauses, adding, “Is hard work. But it's worth it, to know who you really are.” Declan doesn't think he believes in the concept of a self like Ashley is implying, one that exists regardless of context or convenience. And if he does, he's not sure he sees the value of it. Ashley’s nails click frantically against the table as she says, “So I’ll let you...think about that.” After, at most, thirty seconds of fraught silence, she asks, “Is this...new for you? I mean, have you ever liked a guy before?”

“No,” Declan says, without bothering to determine whether he means it. He's never been an introspective kind of person, and he can see no benefit to wondering now whether there was perhaps a bit more homoeroticism in the Aglionby locker room than he'd like to admit to. In his experience, the right answer is often the most convenient one, and it would be very convenient to label Edward an anomaly and move on with his life. The fact that it hasn't yet worked is irrelevant.

Ashley waits again, and asks, “Is that it? I mean, not to be insensitive, but you dragged me here, so you might as well actually talk to me. What's different now?” There’s an obvious, easy answer to the question of what’s changed; it’s a shame he can’t give it. He shrugs instead. Ashley huffs. “Dear God, okay. What's he like, then?”

“He—” Declan falters. “A group of guys tried to—mug me, and he helped me out. He made sure I got home okay, and he—” Declan imagines how the truth would sound: he murdered all of my enemies so that I could live something approaching a normal life, and I don't know what it says about me that I think that's kind of romantic. “He checked up on me a few times, I guess. He wanted to make sure I was all right. He's a good guy.”

“Okay, so what I need you to get is that I asked you to tell me about him, and you said that he’s nicer to you than like, criminals? And then you just stopped. Like that was an answer. Like, literally all I’m hearing is, ‘My dad didn’t love me, so now I neeeed positive attention. Which—” Ashley waves her hand to stop Declan’s protest in its tracks. “No, no, that’s fine, but I’m not helping you pick out your wedding china until you tell me one good thing about this guy that’s actually about him, you get me?” Declan turns away, watching his reflection in the window until it appears suitably unruffled. When he looks back, Ashley is smiling at him. She says, “I’m not trying to be mean.”

Declan checks his phone, which has buzzed several times during their conversation but is perversely silent now. He has a few emails about store loyalty programs and a text from Matthew with one emoji and a dozen boxes with question marks in them. “I’d hate to see what it’s like when you are, then.”

“God, okay.” Ashley reaches across the table and takes Declan’s hand, smacking the phone out of it.  Her nails, shaped into blood-red talons, press into his skin. “Look, what I’m trying to say is that your feelings matter. I mean, not so much to me, and unfortunately not very much to you, but like, objectively. Because you’re a person. And it’s nice that you’ve found someone who agrees, but it’s like. Bare minimum, you know? So what I’m asking is, is he a good guy, or is he just better to you than most people have been?”

Declan winces. He doesn’t think it would be the worst thing in the world, really, to like Edward for liking him, but it’s frustrating to have no idea how to explain that it isn’t the case. “He’s— I don’t know what you want me to say. He’s smart. Nice. Almost too nice, honestly? Prissy. Kind of funny, I guess. Reliable.”

Ashley watches Declan after he stops speaking, and then, just when he feels like the silence might break him, she pulls back, her nails scraping against his skin. “Okay, so some of those count. I mean, you don’t have a romantic bone in your body, but you seem happier. That’s nice to see.”

“I’ve always been happy,” Declan says, which is the kind of thing only deeply unhappy people need to say.

“Just for that, you’re buying me another coffee.” Ashley drains her mug and stands up, hand out with such confidence that Declan’s worked some bills of his wallet before he can think.

When Ashley comes back, holding a bag of pastries and something swirled through with caramel, she says, “Maybe this guy could be good for you. Maybe you could finally stop being so emotionally stunted. Don’t say you aren’t, Declan; the main perk of breaking up with you, bigger than being literally a lesbian, was not having to listen to your unconvincing lies anymore. Like, do you know how smart I am? Do you know how annoying that was?” She takes a breath, and for just a second, Declan means to apologize. Neither of them had any illusions about what they were doing, but he still could have been better to her. Ashley must pick up something of this impulse because she waves it away. “Forget it. Your whole thing, I mean, as exhausting as it is to be around, must be even harder to live inside of. So I just hope, for your sake, that this guy is as good as you think he is.”

Declan's juice has by now separated into two discrete layers of green, neither especially appealing. “He came with me to Henrietta a few weeks ago,” he says, knowing as he does that he can't offer the context that will make this anything but dishonest.

“Declan, oh my God.” Declan chose a table well out of hearing range of the front counter, but that doesn’t do much when Ashley yells. She continues in a strained whisper, “So when I said wedding china, I wasn’t far off.”

“It wasn’t like that. I was having car trouble.” Ashley doesn’t need to say anything for him to know how unconvincing this is, but he tries anyway. Having already jumped off the cliff, he finds himself clinging to the edge with both hands.“It wasn’t a big deal.”

“No, you just took him to meet your brothers because it’s a casual thing. Whatever.” Ashley leans in, her eyes alight with prurient interest.  “So, when do I get to meet him?”

“Never,” Declan says immediately.

Ashley makes a cartoonishly wounded face, eyes wide, lips a perfect O. “Rude! I’d be nice.”

“You really wouldn’t.” Ashley nods, conceding the truth of it. “Anyway, he’s not my—” Declan lowers his voice. “He’s not my boyfriend. He’s just some guy.”

“Who you have a crush on.”

Declan wants desperately to be anywhere else, but he squares his shoulders, grits his teeth, and admits, “Yeah, I guess.”

Ashley beams. “I’m like. So proud of you right now. Actually.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Declan grins despite himself. Admitting it doesn't feel good, exactly, but it certainly doesn't feel as bad as he'd thought.

Ashley must feel that they’re done with the emotional proceedings. She leans in and asks, “So do you think he likes you? Is it mutual?”

Declan grimaces. He’s never thought about this, or not in these terms. He’s only ever framed it as a mitigating factor in his own humiliation, the thought that they might be in this mortifying, impossible thing together. Now that Edward’s gone, the answer seems pretty obvious, but he can’t make himself say it.  “I don't think it matters. He has his own shit going on. It wouldn't work out.”

“Bummer. But that might be for the best, really.” Declan raises an eyebrow, stung despite himself. “I just mean that it’s like. It’s hard! Figuring all of this out. And it can be nice not having to go it alone, but you can't figure yourself out if you're trying to make someone else happy. Sometimes you have to be selfish, Declan, which in theory should be pretty simple for you, but you actually have like, no sense of self, so, you know, if you’re going to work through this, it’s better that you do it for yourself, not some guy. No matter how hot he is. How hot is he, by the way?”

Declan goes into a coughing fit that ends with him nearly choking on a reluctant sip of his rapidly warming drink. Ashley watches dispassionately. Once he can breathe again, he says, “I’m not answering that.”

“Oh no, he’s ugly? Declan, as my ex—and friend, apparently—you are duty-bound to have good taste. It’s a reflection on me.”

“He’s not ugly.”

“I’ll be the judge of that. Do you have pictures?”

Declan shudders at an unbidden flash of himself trying to explain ‘selfies’ to Edward. “You’re really into this guy for a so-called lesbian.”

“I’m just trying to look out for you! We know you have good taste in women, but this is a whole new demographic. Declan, seriously, how do you not have a single picture? Facebook? Instagram? A Snapchat you took an illicit screenshot of?”

Declan snorts. “Yeah, no. Edward's kind of old-fashioned.”

Ashley wrinkles her nose. “Ew, babe, is ‘old-fashioned’ code for plain ‘old’? Is this a daddy issues thing? Please don’t like, implicate me in your self-destructive behaviors.”

“No!” This comes out a bit louder than Declan would like, and a man sitting by the front door looks away from his laptop for a half-second. “Jesus! If I tell you he’s really fucking hot, can we please stop talking about this?”

“I would kind of like to see proof, you know? Declan, seriously, if you’re telling me this guy doesn’t have any social media you can show me, what I’m hearing is he’s either ancient or a serial killer. Or both, probably. So now I’m concerned.”

“He’s not—” Declan falters, his reputation for lying abandoning him just when he needs it most. “Don’t worry about it.”

Ashley slurps the last of her drink, then wipes away the whipped cream mustache it leaves her with. “Declan, be careful. Despite myself, I don’t want you to get hurt.”

This is easily the nicest thing Ashley has ever said to him, and he finds himself annoyingly touched. “I’m fine.”

“Because all the shit with your dad—”

The unfamiliar warmth fades, right on schedule. “Ashley, come on.”

“What? It’s super common! You never felt like you had his approval, and now you’re—”

“That isn’t funny.”

“Good! It isn’t supposed to be. Declan, you forget that I know you. Not everything, maybe, but I know enough. So be honest with me. For once.”

Declan has made it this far in life because he doesn't sit with things, doesn't make room for them to take root inside him. He doesn't now either, saying smoothly, “I’m fine.” Ashley raises an eyebrow. “I promise.” He thinks she actually does mean to be kind, but even that calls attention to the abnormality of what they're doing here. He decides to try for some reciprocal, conveniently distracting courtesy.  “How are you, though?”

“Oh my God. Did you just express interest in someone else's life? Is love making you a better person? Babe, that is so romantic.”

Declan carefully doesn't flinch at the word love. Ashley's eyes are shrewd despite her apparent enthusiasm. He repeats, “How... are you... doing?”

“I'm good.” Ashley's face lights up. “Really good, actually. That's why I'm here. I'm meeting my girlfriend's parents.” Happiness changes her face, something structural. Even when she was playing dumb in high school, she had a mean, sharp look to her, but her smile blurs that out. She doesn't look at all like someone Declan would date.

“Tell me about her?” Declan asks, but Ashley has already launched into the story of their meet-cute.

When she’s finished stretching “we met in class” into a love story worthy of Nicholas Sparks, she pauses, squints, and says, “You deserve to be happy, you know.” She says this so flatly, so without sentiment, that Declan is actually inclined to believe it, just for a second. But happiness hasn't ever been one of his goals, and the implication that Edward would make him happy is, anyway, totally unfounded. He isn’t going to risk everything he’s worked for just for a chance at happiness, which probably isn’t any better than professional satisfaction anyway.

Ashley looks him over and sighs. “I should go. I don’t know how you talked me into doing anything before noon. But you can text me, okay? If you ever feel like actually talking. Or we can just do this again, if that helps.” The look on her face makes Declan feel like he’s let slip some vulnerability even more humiliating than the one he meant to admit to. She pats his hand one last time and disappears, leaving him to take her mug back up to the counter.


 

Declan's weekly trips to Henrietta barely felt worthwhile when he thought he was going to be dead sooner rather than later; now that he's facing down the prospect of decades more of this, he's struggling to see the point. It would be nice to blame his black eye on Ronan, but the truth is that Declan has been—for no particular reason—especially on-edge lately, and he has to concede his part in the fight they had today. He'd been running late, which pissed him off, and Ronan pointed it out, which really pissed him off, but free of the hotbed of emotion that is Henrietta, that doesn't seem like an especially good reason to have punched anyone in the face. Not, all things considered, the worst reason, but not a particularly compelling one. Justified or not, it was a strategic misstep; he had to sit through the whole church service with blood on his collar, and the drive back wasn't any easier with one eye swelling shut.

When he finally makes it back to his apartment, he can hear the sound of a piano, mournful and slow, before he even unlocks his door. It feels almost like a gift. He’s able to brace himself while he still has the illusion of distance. He pushes down his initial reaction, which is, annoyingly, relief, and marshals the weeks-old irritation of hunting for Edward's Volvo in the rain so that when he storms into Edward’s room and snaps, “Welcome back,” it’s convincingly vitriolic.

Edward doesn't look up, as if there's something especially interesting about his hands no longer moving on piano keys. “Knocking may seem superfluous considering my abilities, but, being nearer to monstrosity than most, I've come to realize that social niceties are all that separate us from the beasts.”

Declan’s anger, which no longer needs to be stoked, flares up. “You can’t ditch someone at a mall, disappear for weeks, and then show up to deliver a lecture on manners.”

Edward frowns down at the piano keys. “Well, it isn’t as if I stranded you,” he says, waspish. He meets Declan’s eyes then, and the frown slides of his face. He half-rises off the bench and collapses back onto it. “What happened to you?”

“It's three p.m. on a Sunday; what do you think happened?” Declan carefully doesn’t touch his eye, or his ribs, or the tender spot on his head. He’s pretty sure he would find Edward’s concern suffocating even if he had more practice with the concept. He doesn’t need someone bursting into tears every time he bumps his elbow, even if the first few seconds of furrowed brows and frantic attention do feel sort of nice. “I’ve had worse,” he says just as Edward is muttering something about urgent care.

“That doesn’t make it better, you know.” Edward must give this up as a lost cause, perhaps thinking of the last time he asked after an injury, because he looks Declan over and smiles. “I’ve missed you. It’s good to be back.”

Declan waves this away without allowing himself the time to feel any particular happiness or relief or beating back of chronic abandonment issues. “Yeah, whatever. Why did you disappear like that?”

“Like I said. The sun. There was an amateur meteorologist in the store, and from her mind I gleaned that the sun would be coming out earlier than anticipated. I had to leave quickly to preserve my secret. And then, as I said in my letter, I thought it prudent to go hunting.”

Edward avoids eye contact so conspicuously that Declan loses interest in calling him out on the lie. “Fine,” he says. “Don’t tell me.”

“I’m not lying.” Then, unjustly sanctimonious, “I don’t lie.”

Declan is getting really sick of people calling him a liar. He’s the son of a conman. He wants to get into politics. With the exception of last semester, he’s spent his entire young adulthood scrambling to keep his brothers alive. He thinks he lies a situationally appropriate amount. He says, already turning to leave, “If you’re going to lie to my face, at least be good at it.”

Edward says, “I got you something.” He nods to a package resting on the edge of the piano. It's wrapped neatly but uninspiringly in a layer of white tissue paper, its orderly appearance at odds with the twig tangled in the hair behind Edward's ear, with the dirt caught between the stitches of his knit cardigan.

The package flops over when Declan picks it up, and he goes from mostly to entirely certain that he knows what it is. “Do you seriously think dish towels make up for the shit you pulled?”

“Not at all.” Edward plays one solemn note that hangs in the air.

He isn't any fun to needle because he just gets all morose and tragic like he is now, hunched over the piano. Declan doesn’t like to think of his upbringing as having shaped him, but it is true that he comes from a family of fighters and generally sees the appeal of a good confrontation. Edward just droops like a sun-starved plant. He looks so miserable that Declan says, “I was kidding,” though he wasn't. He moves toward the door, pauses, and turns back. “Did you go home?”

“No,” Edwards says, unsmiling. “I didn’t go home. But if you could spare me a moment… I have something to tell you.”

“Fine.”

Edward nods and smiles and doesn't speak, his hands ghosting along the keys. “I haven't wanted to say anything. I felt that I should be sure my will was strong enough.” He takes a long breath. “The last human I fed on was one of Greenmantle's lieutenants. Since that bit of housekeeping, I’ve subsisted entirely on animal blood.”

Declan can tell Edward is searching for a particular reaction, but he can’t make himself have it. He shrugs, tissue paper crinkling beneath his fingers. “Okay?”

“'Okay’?” Edward repeats. “Is that all you have to say?”

“Congratulations? Is this an Al-Anon thing? Am I supposed to give you your six month chip?”

Edward's lips purse. “I thought you would be pleased to know you were no longer cohabitating with an active killer.”

“Well, it's not like you were going to eat me,” Declan says. “Are we done?”

Edward nods, but almost immediately, before his chin has even finished dipping, he asks, “May I ask you a question?”

Declan’s head is starting to throb. He’s only just stopped letting paranoia fuel his workouts, and it really showed in his fight with Ronan. He’d thought generalized resentment would be a good substitute, but apparently not. “You still haven’t answered mine, but sure. Why not.”

Edward runs a thumb along the page of sheet music in front of him. “You don't think I'm a monster.”

No one's ever looked at Declan quite the way Edward does, all fraught and earnest and weighted, like everything he says is important just because he's the one saying it. It's awful. “That isn't a question.”

“Don't be difficult. My question, fairly self-evidently, is why not? You not only invited me to live with you, but thought nothing of coming near me in your current state.”

Declan looks down at his shirt, which by now has browned with a mix of his blood and Ronan’s. “In my defense, I sort of thought you’d moved out.” Edward winces. There’s a face he makes that means he’s about to launch into an overwrought apology, and Declan interjects, allowing himself a moment of nostalgia for when he lived in constant fear of a brutal death but at least wasn't responsible for anyone's emotional well-being. “Is there any chance at all that you'll accept ‘Because’ as an answer?”

“None,” Edward says solemnly. “And please try to be less flippant. This is a serious concern.”

“I mean, yeah, but should it be? I let you move your humongous fucking piano in here; how is that not enough?”

Edward looks at the piano as if it’s startled him, as if it climbed up the stairs and settled in front of him all on its own. “I'm nearly certain you didn't know about this until today.”

“Shut up,” Declan says, more affectionately than he'd like.

Edward continues speaking to his hands. “I fear that you’ve acted out of a misguided sense of obligation. Or due to a lack of options. Of course you would trade a bit of discomfort for assurance of your lasting safety. Of your brothers’ safety. I know how selfless you can be.” Declan nearly goes into hysterics at the thought of how that line would play in pretty much any room in Henrietta. Edward frowns. “How would you describe, then, nearly losing your life to protect others on multiple occasions?” Declan's laughter dries up. He likes the story he tells himself about his family, the one where he's brave and noble and never did a thing wrong, and he believes it more often than not, but he doesn't know how to feel about having it parroted back to him. Edward looks him over, his frown drooping into something gentler. “Making mistakes doesn't render your sacrifices irrelevant.”

“Hey, I thought we were talking about your deep-seated emotional issues.”

“We were, weren't we? My point, Declan, is this: you're safe now.” Declan has never been superstitious, although superstitious would be a very sensible thing to be, but this feels like tempting fate. Edward pushes on. “It is my belief, my hope, that as you live a normal life, your hypervigilance will fade, and your thinking will begin to align more closely with that of the average human. As such—”

“First of all, I’m fine with my thinking.” Declan leans against the piano, watching with some satisfaction as Edward’s eyes are drawn to the spot where his palm meets the polished wood. “If I promise I don’t think you’re a monster, can I go?”

“I just don’t understand how that can be true!” Edward says, voice bursting with despair. “Everything about me is unnatural. I shouldn’t exist, and I certainly shouldn’t exist in your life. I—” He breaks off suddenly, biting his thin lower lip hard enough that Declan expects him to bleed.

Declan is about as tolerant of other people’s vulnerability as he is his own: not at all. It’s not that he means to be a jerk, but it always seems to demand something from him, usually something he isn’t willing or able to give. He can’t imagine why this display, as pointless and histrionic as it is, is getting to him. “Fine.” He takes his hand off the piano to yank it thoughtlessly through his hair, and is pleased, through his frustration, to see a police-booking level thumbprint right on the lid. Edward watches him, unblinking. “Fine. You saved my life, okay? And yeah, I get that it wasn’t the most altruistic thing in the world, but you still did it. And then.” Declan pauses to evaluate. There’s no way to retain his dignity while saying that Edward didn’t just save his life, that he created a life worth living. But, of course, he doesn’t have to: Edward looks at him with that familiar, searching gaze. “So no,” Declan says, nearly grateful for Edward’s power for the first time. “I don’t think you’re a monster. How could I?” He realizes his mistake just in time, holding up a hand when Edward opens his mouth. “Rhetorical question. Shut up.”

Saying nice things brings out Declan’s fight-or-flight much like a gun to the head, and when he sees Edward’s lips part again, he tugs open the blackout curtains, allowing sunlight to slant delicately but surely into the room.

Edward jumps away from the ray of light with the disgruntled grace of a cat avoiding a splash of water. Once he's righted himself on the far side of the room, he demands, “What were you thinking?” Declan, who they both ought to know wasn’t thinking very much at all, shrugs, which only incenses Edward further. “And what would you have done if someone had seen me?”

Declan shrugs. He feels a bit more like himself with some distance between them. “Told them you were the sole survivor of a tragic glitter factory explosion?”

“Very funny. I’m trying to have a serious conversation with you.”

“We had it. I don’t think you’re a monster. Conversation over.”

“I just want to be sure that you’ve thought through the ramifications of having me in your life.” Edward steps closer, wringing his hands, but stops short at the patch of sunlight. “There are risks. I just want to be sure… You are safe now. I'm grateful to have been able to do that for you. But if fear was the reason you were able to tolerate my presence, or perhaps gratitude, that will begin to fade, as it should.”

“Look, everything you've done for me, you couldn’t have done any of it if you weren’t a vampire. Well, the murder, I guess, but it would have been a lot harder and a lot—” Declan remembers the Pollock splatter covering the alley. “Maybe not any messier, actually. But I can’t really complain, can I?”

Edward's face shutters. He turns away, moving toward the bookshelf that spans the back wall. When he speaks, he sounds cold. “Although I’m pleased that I could perform those services for you—”

It won’t occur to Declan until much later to point out the absurdity of this, that Edward has swung from weepily calling himself a monster to accusing Declan of cold opportunism. For now he says, fighting back some actual guilt and carefully not thinking about Ashley, he says, “Oh, don't pull that. That's not what I'm saying.”

“That is, pardon me, exactly what you're saying.”

“Then it's not what I'm trying to say, okay? I'm trying to say—” Declan pauses. He doesn’t actually know what he’s trying to say, and he definitely doesn’t know how to say it without saying something else, something potentially ruinous that has fortunately stayed jumbled enough in his thoughts that he has some amount of plausible deniability.

Trust was one of the first and most decisive casualties of his childhood. Having been raised on a steady diet of paranoia and emotional neglect, he has no context now for the kernel of a feeling trapped somewhere in his chest, for the terrifying blankness that is the absence of doubt. All he has is the transactional language that’s gotten him this far. “My mother,” he says, and Edward’s irritation slips away. Every time he’s tried to bring up Aurora—to offer a do-over, to apologize for the embarrassing exit, to ask whether Declan is really, truly sure he wouldn’t like to talk about it—Declan has glared him into submission. “We’re doing this once,” he says now, holding up an illustrative finger. He has been trying, mostly, not to think about it. His control over his emotions isn’t as absolute as he likes to pretend, but the theory is that there’s no point in wallowing. In practice, when he gives in, he wants to cry or put his fist through a wall, and he’s really counting on getting his security deposit back.

Now, in the face of Edward’s relentless, illogical, affecting insecurity, Declan reaches for the emotions he's been keeping locked up. When Aurora was alive, she twitched and talked in her sleep. Declan and Ronan and Matthew, back when it made any sense to refer to them as a collective, got hours of enjoyment from interpreting her unconscious words and repeating them to her once she woke up. The body in the Barns was still, quiet, nothing to do with the woman who'd occupied the master bedroom in better days. Except that Declan knows now that she’s in there somewhere. It isn’t cheering knowledge, really. She’s still out of reach. She still isn’t coming back. But she doesn’t owe her existence to Niall as wholly as Declan used to think.

When he’s tried to picture it—on those few occasions—he’s pictured a void, and her alone and quiet inside of it. Edward rescued her from the horror of his imagination, a gift just shy of resurrection. Declan says, throaty and quiet, hoping to express that this is beyond favors, beyond tit for tat, “Taking me to see my mother was the nicest thing anyone has ever done for me.”

Edward looks him over, and must see, as he tends to, some sincerity Declan doesn’t ordinarily credit himself with, because he nods. “I was honored to do that for you.” Declan, made stupid by emotion and a pounding headache, thinks for a moment that he’s averted disaster. “But—” The word hangs in the air. Edward prowls along the swathe the light cuts through the room. “You didn't get to say a proper goodbye because of me. Because I lost focus.”

“Yeah, and that sucked.” Declan makes a face, conscious of the inadequacy of his vocabulary. He got his way with words from Niall, which would be an unsatisfactory inheritance, a consolation prize compared to what Ronan got, even if it helped him navigate situations that matter. It seems especially unfair that he can schmooze and he can network, but he can’t figure out how to convince anyone he cares about that he cares about them. “But I still don’t know what I could have said that would have felt right. I don’t think that thing exists. But I got to see her. I got to know she was thinking about me. It meant a lot to me to be there. It meant a lot to me that you took me there. You didn’t have to.” Edward opens his mouth, and Declan speaks over him, “You didn’t have to.”

Edward takes this in slowly, his face unreadable. “That doesn’t prove that I'm a good person.”

This seems to Declan like an unfair shifting of the goalposts. He doesn’t see what his opinion of Edward has to do with moral absolutes. “Okay, well, we're not going to have a Philosophy 101 debate about what goodness is , so you're going to have to live with examples. I'm sorry if my ‘simplistically utilitarian outlook’ isn't doing it for you.”

Edward holds out a hand, watching the light twinkle as it hits his fingers. “What I mean is that it says nothing of my fundamental character. I didn't do it out of some sense of duty toward my fellow man; I did it for you.”

Declan carefully doesn’t react, mostly because he isn’t entirely sure how he’d react if he gave himself the option. He isn’t sure whether he thinks this is weirdly touching or just another example of Edward overthinking. He says, strained, “If I say that’s good enough for me, can we call it a night?”

Edward watches him like he thinks a few more seconds will finally make Declan run screaming. He says eventually, his expression unreadable, “If you really are opposed to looking out for your own best interest, I suppose I can’t change you.”

“Great,” Declan says, moving quickly to the door. “Awesome. Really great, not at all circular and draining talk. Thanks for that. Excuse me while I go ice my entire face.”

He shuts the door behind him with a little more force than is strictly necessary, and instead of going to the freezer, he walks back out the front door.

 





Edward is going to leave. This is the kind of thing that probably shouldn’t need saying. An immortal vampire is not going to live in a D.C. guest room forever, and that's fine. Declan and all of his high school friends swore they would keep in touch, and he was lying, and they were lying, and everyone knew it. This should be a lot like that, an effortless goodbye to someone who was once expedient. The problem is that Edward's the kind of guy whose goodbyes have stages, each more cloying than the last. It probably took him a year to tell his family he was running away to eat people. Declan anticipates several more talks about the nature of monstrosity before Edward finally packs up his baby grand and goes.

In the meantime, busy scripting his next self-deprecating freakout, Edward practically disappears. Again. With his hearing and speed, he’s well-suited for avoidance, and Declan only knows he’s still in the apartment because his half of the chore chart is full of tidy checkmarks. He even takes to doing extra tasks, which arguably makes him the perfect roommate: solicitous and invisible. It’s just that in the last few months, Declan has gotten a taste of what it’s like to control his own life, and he's not willing to relinquish it. If Edward wants to leave, he should, but the least he could do is get on with it.

Declan considers himself a man of many virtues, but patience isn’t one of them. After a week of this treatment, he gets home from his internship having decided that he’s going to tell Edward, as nicely as he can, to grow a pair. When he opens the door, he’s struck by the smell of freshly-baked bread. Edward, wearing an improbably ruffly apron, doesn’t look up from the massive stockpot he’s fussing over.

The kitchen is uncomfortably warm from hours of baking; Declan marvels at Edward’s thick sweater for a moment before coming to his senses. “What are you doing?”

Edward turns to Declan just to raise an eyebrow at him before turning away again. He fusses for a while with something Declan can’t see from his angle, then, with a satisfied smile, holds out a disk of toasted bread topped with steak tartare. “I understand that this is something of a delicacy. It is, I admit, closer to something I might find appetizing than the typical human fare.”

Declan looks at the delicately-sized patty that has somehow ended up in his hand. It’s a slightly unappetizing pink, flecked through with bright green herbs. A raw yolk is centered on top. “Should I trust that whoever taught you how to do this also taught you about food safety?”

Edward rests both hands on the cutting board, a thick slab of wood that Declan is certain he didn’t own before today. “That you think I might let you come to harm though sheer carelessness—”

Declan takes a bite because food poisoning seems like an acceptable price for getting Edward to stop whining. It works: he switches gears mid-sentence to ask, “Is it acceptable? I, of course, have no way to tell.”

Declan swallows hard. “Why— how is it this good?”

“It isn't especially difficult to find instructions and follow them, you know.” Edward's sarcastic tone is blunted by the way he's beaming.

Declan takes another bite, savoring it this time. It could use more salt, he decides, which is sort of a relief. Edward, despite his snotty comment about recipes, absolutely shouldn't be allowed to be an accomplished chef on top of everything else he has going for him.  

Edward watches him chew with off-putting intensity, saying as he does, “I’ve been reading about human nutrition—the field has advanced so much since I was bitten—and you need to take better care of yourself.”

Declan considers his kitchen, which has been scrubbed conspicuously clean. With the unerring instincts of someone used to being the only responsible person in a house full of weirdos, he flips his trash can lid up and stares down at what he’s almost entirely sure is a stripped cow skull. “Did you...butcher a cow in my kitchen?”

“I put a tarp down,” Edward says blandly.

“Oh my God.” Declan nudges the can with his foot, and the bones slide against each other. “You bought me an entire cow?”

Edward crushes several cloves of garlic between his fingers and scrapes the pulp into the pot bubbling in front of him. He says, a bit smugly, “I didn’t buy it.”

Declan looks at his kitchen and tries to see it as a place that recently had a freshly-killed cow in it. He wouldn’t have survived this long if he were squeamish, but something about Edward’s nonchalance leaves him feeling off-balance. He latches onto something smaller. “You stole livestock?”

“Of course not! I was hunting. I happened across a picturesque farm, and, well, you know that saying, to a hammer, everything looks like a nail. I left payment, of course. Well above market value.”

Declan opens the refrigerator, which looks much the same as it did when he grabbed a La Croix out of it this morning. The only addition he can detect is a lump of dough on one of the lower shelves, bulging where the layers of plastic wrap gap. “Where's the rest of it?”

Edward, now looking distinctly squirrelly, says, “Pardon?”

“I grew up on a farm; I have some idea how much meat’s on a cow. What did you do with the rest of it?” Declan closes the door and straightens up. “Please tell me there isn't a deep freezer in my bedroom.”

Edward says, “There isn't a deep freezer in your bedroom,” with the sort of crisp precision that seems to imply he's moved the appliance into his own room. He laughs before Declan can get too frustrated. “I'm joking. While I did freeze a few prime cuts, I donated the majority of the meat.”

Declan blinks. “Do soup kitchens accept donations of raw meat from random weirdos?”

“I couldn’t say. But tiger sanctuaries do.”

Not asking questions was a strategy that served Declan well for years; he decides now to return to it. He picks up another piece of bread and holds it up to the light. “So this is…nice of you.”

“Well, as I said. Nutrition is a field of some interest.”

“Sure.” Declan gives up on the kitchen for a moment, ducking into his bedroom to change out of his suit. He puts on his favorite jeans and a black V-neck that, according to Ronan, makes him look like a douchebag. (Matthew winced and shrugged and didn’t say anything one way or another.) He spends longer fixing his hair than he means to, and by the time he comes out, Edward is setting a bowl on the now spotless kitchen counter.

“What is this?” Declan asks as he approaches, meaning it in the grander sense than what Edward’s cooked up for him.

“If I haven’t messed up too terribly, you ought to be able to answer that yourself.” Declan rolls his eyes, and Edward says, “Stew. It’s hearty. Healthy.”

Once he's seated with a bowl in front of him, Declan decides that the most dignified way forward is to just lean into it. “So this is good and all, but there's no way you're leaving without letting me drive one of those Ferraris.”

Edward ladled himself a bowl as well, set out on a matching placemat but without the polished silver spoon, demonstrating the limits of the charade. He holds his hands to the sides of his bowl, seeming to appreciate the warmth. He says to the surface of his soup, eyebrows working overtime, “I have no intention of leaving. Quite the opposite.” Declan likely wouldn't think much of this, except that the residual happiness drains from Edward's face, and he stutters, “What I mean to say, of course— My intention— Well, as I've said, I’ve appreciated your hospitality.” Having forced this out, he falls unhappily silent.

Understanding hits Declan with all the grace of an eighteen-wheeler on black ice. He freezes with his spoon hovering over the bowl. After a silence that’s much too long, but still not long enough to let him think it through, he blurts out, “Is this meant to be a date?”

“No!” Edward says, a declaration as loud as it is unconvincing. Declan raises an eyebrow. “It isn't,” Edward insists. “That would be presumptuous. It might be fair to describe this dinner as an overture.” He looks around, lost, aimless. “If that's undesirable…”

Declan uses the back of his spoon to hold a cube of potato under the surface of his stew, then watches it bob back up, irrepressible.  He is, frustratingly, the slightest bit dumbfounded. He'd figured if either of them worked up to making a move, it would be him, and he hadn't been planning on it. “So this is like, seduction stew.”

“It isn't—” Edward pushes his chair back, his hands balled up at his sides. “I'm sorry if I've upset you, but there's no need to be unpleasant. In my defense, I didn't think you were observant enough to detect my motives.” His voice comes out wobbly and delicate. His hair is drooping from the heat and humidity, an entire inch higher on one side than the other. He’s still wearing his apron, a wooden spoon sticking out of the pocket. He looks sweet and vulnerable, and Declan really, really wants to be the kind of person who deserves to have someone do all of this.

Declan isn’t, has never been, and has never pretended to be that person. “So if this was just an overture, what was next? Did you write me a song?”

A muscle in Edward's jaw twitches. “I made this for you,” he says flatly. “And I hope you enjoy it for what it is, if not what I intended it to be. Now if you'll excuse me—” He turns, and something about the sight of his back, the knot of his apron rucking up his cardigan, leaves Declan unaccountably frantic.

“Can you just give me a second to think?” The words rip themselves free from some part of Declan he hadn't known existed. This request, on its own, would mark the ceding of any strategic advantage, and is made worse by the way his voice cracks halfway through it.  He clears his throat. “I just mean—”

“I was only going to my room. This is, not to unduly influence you, excruciating. But I suppose it's true that I allotted myself nearly a month of reflection and then sprang this on you. It could be argued, of course, that you sprang it on yourself, but regardless—” Edward rises up on his toes and then rocks back, an odd, thoughtless gesture that leaves Declan very near to smiling. “And I am sorry. If my leaving upset you more than I anticipated. I hadn't taken into account—” He stops here, blessedly sparing Declan the psychoanalysis. “Well, I am sorry. I was struck in the moment by the depth of my feelings for you, and struck again by the implications of those feelings. Combined with the horror of having hurt you, I was left feeling unmoored. I thought it best to remove myself until I had developed some sort of strategy.” He glares at the pot on the stove, now loosely covered and steaming determinedly. “I had a timeline.”

Declan repeats, “A timeline?”

“Yes.” Edward frowns. “Your mind—and I mean no offense—is a confused place. Your physical attraction has been unambiguous for some time, but I haven’t been able to determine whether it holds any larger significance. As I said, I didn't want to push, so I anticipated taking a reasonable amount of time to make my intentions clear and to gauge yours in turn. Nothing ridiculous. Six to eight months.”

Declan considers this. Six to eight months of being trapped in a climate Edward finds intolerable. Six to eight months of sifting through mixed signals. Six to eight months of things like this, elaborate, slightly unwanted gestures. For a split second—and no longer—everything seems simple. A split second, as Declan has always known, is just long enough to do something irreversibly stupid. In this case, the split second takes him around the table and close enough to grip the front of Edward’s ridiculous apron.

Edward watches him, eyes bright beneath his feathery lashes.  For a moment, Declan experiences time the way Edward must, thick and slow, and he sees that he could turn back, and Edward wouldn’t blame him, and he probably wouldn’t leave, either. They wouldn’t talk about it, just like they haven’t talked about anything that’s come before it. As insane, as cliff’s-edge as this feels, it shouldn’t be such a surprise. Then, somehow, while Declan means to be weighing the pros and cons, he closes the distance between them.

With the press of Edward’s lips against his, inhuman and undeniably alive, he feels the survival instinct that ought to have kicked in much sooner, his body raising the alarm. It makes him defiant. For once in his life, he has exactly what he wants, and he won’t let it be ruined by practical concerns about what comes next. In response to the hairs standing up on his arms, he tightens his grip and leans in. It isn’t such a good kiss, really. It’s Edward’s first, which Declan could have guessed from every conversation they’ve ever had but can now tell for sure from the way one of Edward’s arms hangs limp at his side and the other hovers about two inches from Declan’s shoulder.

Edward pulls back too quickly, and Declan follows his lips for a moment before catching himself. Edward's pupils are dark and large against the bright of his irises. His hair is sticking up on one side from Declan's hand running through it. He's beautiful in a way he will never be again, appreciation that isn’t flecked through with insecurity or resentment or the fear of loss. It’s a perfect moment, a moment that makes promises the world isn’t going to let them keep. Edward takes Declan’s hands in his and says, “When I left home, Esme told me she valued my happiness above all. She said she would support me in seeking it out, no matter what form it took.”

Declan groans, but he can’t help being a bit relieved. He’s never felt like this before, and he doesn’t think he’s built for it; he can feel himself coming apart at the seams. Quiet exasperation feels much more livable. He laughs, still slightly giddy with the knowledge of how he’s torpedoed every principle he’s lived his life by. “Why, why, why are you talking about your mother right now?”

Edward continues speaking as if he wasn’t interrupted. “When I left, I didn't delude myself into believing I had a reason as unimpeachable as seeking out happiness. Truthfully, I didn’t believe I was capable of it, but—” He takes in Declan's glazed-over eyes and smiles, pressing a chaste kiss to his lips. “I'm trying to say that I'm happy.”

 Declan rolls his eyes, searching for an irritation he doesn't quite feel. “You could just say that.”

“Fine. I’m happy.” Edward’s smile is the only uncomplicated thing about him, small and sweet and only vaguely mocking.

A reciprocal joy bubbles up in Declan’s chest, bright and fragile and unfamiliar. “Yeah,” he says. “Me too.”

 

Chapter Text

Cuddling with Edward is a lot like lying on a park bench in the dead of winter, except that park benches don’t ask if you really, truly like them; and park benches don’t require near-constant reassurance that they're “doing it right;” and park benches don’t ever sniff your hair and refuse to admit that’s what they’re doing. On the other hand, park benches don't ask about your day and seem to genuinely care about the answer, and they don't talk about U.S. presidents they've met and things they've made out of yarn with the same amount of excitement, and they don't cook you dinner at least three times a week and then watch you eat with hungry attention that should probably bother you more than it does. So Edward is, Declan has to concede, preferable.

The ultimate relationship perk, though, is that none of it matters, at least not by any of the metrics he considers when evaluating his life, something he tries to do in earnest at least once per fiscal quarter. Edward doesn’t know someone who knows someone who could make or break Declan’s political career. He does have money, but he doesn't seem inclined to use it to gain influence, or really to do anything at all beyond purchasing dowdy cardigans. It's the perfect safeguard for what would otherwise be a life-ruining mistake.

The only problem is that Declan has never been more sexually frustrated in his life. Even back in the throes of puberty when his body was sending signals he didn’t have the know-how to follow through on, things weren’t quite this dire. Edward won’t so much as make out with him for more than five minutes at a time, and those five minutes are reliably followed by ten to fifteen minutes of self-recrimination and pledges to be more careful.

After an especially short session capped with an especially long bout of apologies, Edward pulls away to the far end of the couch, knitting project already in hand. Declan sighs and then feels like a jerk for it. He hasn’t tended to date people long enough—or monogamously enough—to consider sexual incompatibility a problem worth talking about, and he struggles over the phrasing of what he wants to say for several agonizing minutes. Edward’s knitting needles click against each other unhelpfully. “I’m not asking you to do anything you’re not comfortable with,” Declan says finally. The knitting needles still, and then the whole project is tucked away so quickly that he doesn’t see where it ends up. “It’s fine that your pace isn’t my pace. Really, if you just stopped apologizing after, that would be.” He scratches his cheek. “That would be better.”

Edward, who presumably heard several drafts of this speech in Declan’s mind before he said a single word, nods and doesn’t stop nodding for some time. “I regret that I have been frustrating you,” he says flatly. “This is all just very new to me, as you know, and in addition to the usual distressingly adolescent concerns, there are the complications you seem inclined to disregard.”

Declan rolls his eyes. He’s made up his mind to be as gracious as possible, but that’s not turning out to be especially impressive. “I’m very aware of the complications, thank you.”

His non-texting hand is flat on the couch, and he pretends not to notice Edward’s fingers inching toward his. With an entire cushion still separating them, Edward says, “I couldn’t live with myself if I hurt you.” He’s said this before, and he always sounds like he means it, like he’s considered it carefully and knows exactly what he would do in the bloody aftermath. Declan knows he ought to be scared off, but considering how many people Edward has been able to live with having hurt, he thinks it’s kind of nice. Edward’s hand finally lands on his, pressing it against the unforgiving surface of the couch as he stares straight ahead. He’s easier to look at like this, when he isn’t looking back. He says, “It’s very difficult to worry about the placement of my hands when I’m worrying about what my hands are capable of.”

For reasons Declan doesn’t care to acknowledge, his current dry spell is a good deal older than their fledgling relationship, old enough that he gets distracted for a moment thinking about what exactly Edward’s hands are capable of. He clears his throat. “No, I get that. I don’t need the constant lectures.”

Edward is so still that it’s a bit eerie to watch the way his lips curve up and then slowly flatten back out. “I appreciate and despair of your confidence in equal measure." His thumb twitches against Declan's. "You make it seem so simple. But even if it were, it wouldn't be the only stumbling block.”

“I know.” Declan means for this to sound just slightly dismissive but finds that he doesn’t have the heart to follow through; it comes out on the edge of despair. They haven't talked about sexuality even once, Edward falling into a gay relationship with no apparent qualms despite his otherwise relentless moralizing. Declan has been hoping to edge around it until something else tears them apart.

“It’s just that I— Well, I was raised to believe certain things.”

“So was I.” Declan makes up his mind to ignore the feeling that he isn’t being totally fair. He wasn’t born in 1901, after all. He didn't escape his conservative Catholic upbringing without his share of masculinity issues, but he hasn't amassed quite as many as one might expect. He knows doubt though, and fear, and the visceral sense of wrongness that sometimes leaves him a bit relieved that he didn’t pick someone willing or able to touch him for more than a few minutes straight. A better man would encourage Edward to talk about it, would even talk about it himself. Declan isn't that man, but he knows he doesn’t want this to be the end of them. In a relationship stunted by bigger, deadlier problems, it seems ridiculous to lose Edward to religious guilt.

“I understand that time marches forward, that attitudes have changed. I do believe that they’ve changed for the better, but I can’t shake off the way I was raised so easily.” Edward’s thumb rubs slow circles into Declan’s hand. “Most of my memories of my mother have faded. If I can’t remember her, it seems the least I can do is not let her down.”

Most of the time Declan feels more like he's living with a ghost than a vampire, but now Edward’s hand is heavy on his. The pressure makes him realize that Edward has never really touched him before, that he’s always been holding back. “I didn’t know your mom, obviously, but she probably wanted you to be happy. She wanted you to live more than she wanted to live herself.” He thinks with an ache in his chest of Edward’s story, of his mother using her final moments to secure him a future. “If she’d made it too, I'm sure she would have changed just like you did.”

“That is a comforting thought. I suppose I’m just afraid of turning into something she wouldn’t recognize.” Edward laughs bitterly. “Isn’t that ridiculous.”

“No,” Declan says, trying not to think of anything in particular. “No, it isn’t.”

Edward continues, voice deceptively casual, “It isn’t as if I’ll ever see her again. I don’t know what happens to vampires after death, but as we don’t have souls, heaven is forever barred to me.”

Declan freezes. For someone who thought he would be dead by now, he’s spent shockingly little time teasing out his beliefs on the afterlife. Over the years, his faith has wavered and fallen and gotten back up only to be knocked down again. All he knows with any certainty is that if there's anyone out there keeping track, he's very much on the wrong list. Forgiveness has always seemed like a fantasy; repentance, like recovery, requires a level of honesty he doubts he’s capable of. But that isn't helpful. He can't keep Edward from knowing about his doubt, but that doesn't mean he needs to put it on display. He means to say that Edward is a good person, that he’s at least always trying to do the right thing, that he cares more than anyone Declan knows about not leaving pain in his wake, and if none of that makes a soul, then souls can’t possibly matter. What he actually says is, “You’re probably the only person in the world who thinks I’m more likely to have a soul than him.” 

This brings Edward to Declan’s side of the couch so quickly that it’s hard to believe he took several minutes to work up the nerve to hold hands. Now he kneels and holds Declan’s face in both hands. He’s being as gentle as ever, but Declan can feel the strength he’s holding back. His eyes are wide and earnest and golden, and he says in a voice trembling with emotion, “If I could find the first person who made you feel inadequate, I would kill them.” When he says it, he has some of the ferocity of their first night, a snarl on his lips and fire in his eyes. One of Declan’s hands, entirely without his permission, reaches up and tangles in the short hairs at the nape of Edward’s neck. Suddenly he gets it in a way that’s simultaneously more and less than intellectual. Whenever they’re close, Edward is smelling his blood just under his skin, hearing his heart beat, imagining it stopping. Beneath his cardigans and careful mannerisms, there’s real hunger. 

Edward’s gaze flickers from Declan’s eyes to his mouth and back again. “I—” He licks his lips. He leans in close enough that Declan can feel the cool gust of his breath, and then all at once he's gone, a familiar retreat. The knitting needles stay wherever he’s stashed them, which Declan decides to consider a positive sign. He slumps back against the couch with his eyes shut.

“That was inappropriate,” Edward says quietly. “I—”

Declan opens one eye to see Edward staring at him. “If you apologize one more time, I’m going to freak out. It was fine.” It was, in fact, a little more than fine, and Declan can’t help but feel that he owes Edward some reciprocal reassurance. “Look, about the soul stuff—”

Edward rests a hand on his arm. “I’m perfectly all right. There’s no need to discuss it any further.”

Edward makes Declan want to be a better person, but wanting something doesn’t make it so; he takes the out. “Fine. But for what it’s worth, it doesn’t make any difference to me whether you have a soul.”

“Well, I do appreciate that.” Edward curls in on himself, turning away. Declan can tell something is coming, so he waits, resisting his avoidant instincts. He barely even looks at his phone, which strikes him as something worth lauding. After several long minutes, Edward says haltingly, “It’s possible that all of this isn’t as unfamiliar to me as I’ve previously stated.” His arms wrap around his bent knees. Declan feels a stab of affection, and with it the urge to help. But it’s like wanting to fly or breathe underwater; he wasn’t born with the right parts. “I was a teenager, as you know, during the Great War. I wasn’t a lonely child, but neither was I an especially popular one. I was finicky and overly serious and fond of bombastic speeches.”

Declan interjects, unable to help himself. “‘Was’?”

Edward’s lips twitch briefly upward. “As I was saying, things were bad enough even without any forays into romance. Of course people were a good deal less brazen than they are now, but it was obvious even then that I was somehow atypical, that I was lacking some impulse that seemed to drive the people around me. But I did have this friend.” A smile spreads across his face in a slow, sure way that has Declan indulging in a burst of bitter jealousy toward a dead man. “He had a father like my father and a mother like my father, so when he lied about his age to enlist, there was no one to stop him. No one but me, and I thought it was noble. If I hadn’t been worried about leaving my mother alone with my father, whom a generous person might call ‘distant,’ I would have gone with him. It was the opportunity I had been waiting for my entire life. I knew war was a brutal business; I didn’t relish it, but I’d always felt the need to prove myself. More, to prove that I belonged, that I was an ordinary man with all the ordinary feelings and an ordinary capacity for masculinity.”

Edward laughs. It sounds totally insincere, but Declan respects, as always, the impulse to deceive. “This is all, of course, an explanation imposed well after the fact. At the time, I simply thought that he and I would enlist together and train together and fight together. It seemed to me like an entirely separate world, one where things would be different. What ‘things’ I was chafing against I couldn’t possibly have expressed." Edward reaches for Declan’s hand, more efficiently this time, and Declan allows it to be taken. “We don’t quite lose our human memories, but they do begin to fade, to fuzz around the edges. From what I understand, it’s a bit like trying to recall a dream; if you don’t focus, the details slip away. Even our feelings dull, but when I think of you, and I think of him, I find that there’s something familiar in it, something newly recognizable.”

Declan nods. He doesn’t know what to say so he squeezes Edward’s hand. He wonders for a moment whether he has something like this in his past, something he shoved in a box and never pulled out to look at in the right light, but it seems unlikely. His relationship with Edward is the first significant non-biological one in his life, if he doesn’t give his time with Ashley retroactive credit it doesn’t deserve. “What happened to him?” 

“I don’t know," Edward says softly. "He enlisted in—" His forehead creases. The hand holding Declan’s tenses, and his knuckles crack. He holds on. "It must have been 1917. November, I believe. He had never been especially cerebral, which was one of the things I most liked about him, a welcome respite from my own company. As a result, he wrote briefly and infrequently, and not at all in the final months before I was turned. When I finally overcame the bloodlust and returned to myself—to what was left of myself—the year was 1920. The war was over, my mother and father were dead, and I couldn’t face the possibility that there wasn’t a single person left in the world who had really known me. I wanted to imagine him alive and happy, even knowing that I couldn’t go to him as I was, a monstrosity. Though…” Edward’s grip loosens as he stares at their joined hands. “Perhaps I did have some inkling of what was between us—what I had wanted to be between us. Perhaps I didn’t want Carlisle to see me as a monstrosity either.”

Declan leans forward and snatches his laptop off of the coffee table. “What was his name? There are all kinds of archives out there. It would be easy to find out.”

Edward looks at the computer with undisguised longing before pressing it gently but firmly shut. “I don’t think that’s a good idea. My past is, to put it simplistically, the past. There’s no need to dwell on it. Besides, this isn’t a sad story. Rather, it isn’t only a sad story. I hope it won’t surprise or offend you to know that when I first recognized my feelings for you, I struggled not to attribute them to the loss of my soul.” Declan winces. He’s neither surprised nor offended, but he feels the familiar, childish urge to demand to know why some people have it easy and he can't be one of them. “It was in some ways terrifying to realize that I couldn’t blame this on my curse. I had to recognize it as a part of me, something that had dogged me through the decades and would for centuries more. I believe that helped me in the end, once I moved past a sense of horror. And I thought—I’m oversimplifying dreadfully, of course, but I realized that I had never been happy, not even as a human, and that I wanted to be. I sometimes began to feel that I might even deserve to be. Such a simple idea, but it changed everything.” Edward lifts Declan’s hand and presses a kiss to his knuckles. “We both deserve to be happy.” It seems impossible that Edward has lived over a century without realizing that the universe doesn’t care what anyone “deserves,” but since he has, Declan doesn’t want to be the one to strip him of his idealism. Edward continues, his lips still hovering over Declan’s hand, “I suppose what I mean to communicate is that I’m trying. I hope you’ll be patient with me.”

Declan nods, struck by the degree of faith Edward is placing in him. No one has ever trusted him with their emotional well-being before; it kind of makes him want to run. "I can do that," he says, working to project a confidence he doesn't feel. Edward smiles and squeezes his hand, apparently deciding not to see through the lie.

 

——

 

When Declan gets back from his morning run, there’s always a steaming cup of coffee sitting on the kitchen counter. Next to it is a travel mug, also full, and then a granola bar, and then a piece of fruit. Today’s fruit is a pear, its deep red skin totally unbruised, and to its right is a furniture catalog. He recognizes the store being advertised; its designs feature heavily on the dream board he would never actually make but which is constantly being updated in his mind. Even the paper the catalog’s printed on feels luxurious and out of reach. On the cover, a man and a woman gaze into a lake with quiet dignity. There isn’t a stick of furniture in sight because it isn’t about furniture; it’s about selling a life. A life of ease and simplicity, a life without fear.

He puts the catalog down with a smack. Edward is nowhere to be found, which is theoretically a kindness. Declan doesn't want to be confronted with his perfect, poreless boyfriend when he's gasping and covered in sweat, but now the absence feels pointed. “What’s this about?” he asks the empty room.

Edward appears suddenly by his left shoulder. Declan doesn’t flinch, but his heart rate, which had been coming down, ticks back up. “I hate when you do that!” he says without much heat, even though he does hate it. He hasn’t shaken off the hypervigilance life trained into him, and the way Edward appears in his space without warning reliably sets him off, especially because there’s no defending against it. It hits him in a place below thought, feeding the pool of dread in his gut that still, after months of peace, hasn’t gone away. Edward either doesn’t know or doesn’t care, and Declan hasn’t wanted to find out which it is.

“I’m sorry, darling.” Edward kisses his cheek. “Did you have a nice run?”

Declan is freshly conscious of the sweat dripping down his tomato-red face. “It was fine,” he says tersely. He steps back, holding the booklet like a barrier between them. “What is this?”

Edward pretends to examine it. “If I had to guess, and of course I’m not current on all of humanity’s ingenious inventions, I would say it’s some sort of catalog.” 

A drop of sweat falls from Declan’s hair clear to the small of his back. He concentrates on keeping his words from coming out unkindly. “I don’t think it’s a good idea for us to buy furniture together.”

“Oh!” Edward winces. His hands flutter for a moment against the cover of the catalog before pulling away and leaving it in Declan’s grasp. “That wasn't my intention. I would pay for it, of course. I just wanted your input as whatever I purchase will occupy your living space for—well, for some amount of time.” He pauses, pressing one hand to his chest and taking a large, unnecessary breath. “Allow me to start over. As I am occupying your living space, I would like to buy a couch that doesn’t manage to cause me, an invulnerable, immortal being, actual back pain.”

Declan rolls his eyes. “Don't exaggerate.” Knowing it’s a bad idea, he opens the catalog and is immediately drawn in by sleek lines and muted colors. None of the pieces have prices or indicate in any way that they’re available for purchase. “And you’re going to pay for this?” He flips to the next page and sees a tri-level couch composed of diamond-shaped cushions connected by thin metal bars. He can’t make out all of the details because of the way the ivory fabric fades into the ivory background, and because Edward has drawn a thick red X through it. Under the long product description emphasizing the supple fabric and brushed steel legs, he’s written, “Absolutely not.” Declan knows it's gauche to talk about money, but he's pretty sure it's also gauche to talk about how much you want to eat your boyfriend, and Edward does that all the time. “How rich are you?”

Edward looks away. “I took the liberty of flagging a few options that looked both stylish and comfortable.”

Declan obligingly flips to the first marked page, and then past it, and again, and again. It isn’t that Edward has bad taste. It is, actually, disconcertingly in line with his own. The problem is that moving in together has been eliminated as a relationship metric, and this is a rather obvious attempt to replace it with buying a couch that costs mid-five figures. Declan has dumped several girls using the accusation of clinginess—meaning: wanted to know about his life, interests, associates; invited him to more than one activity with her friends; asked him too many times if he missed his father—and while he doesn’t want to break up with Edward, it's better for both of them if he keeps them on safe footing.

“It wouldn’t be a gift or a joint purchase.” Edward smiles, apparently recovered from his bout of nerves. “It would be my couch. I’m just asking your leave to keep it out here, and as the room doesn’t require two couches, I could put your couch in my storage unit at no cost to you. It is an exceptionally sensible offer.”

It is. It’s also a trap, Declan thinks, gazing longingly at what appears to be the barest outline of a sofa. It is, the description explains, a wire sculpture carefully overlaid with glass. This is a big step he won’t be able to take back. He looks at Edward, who isn’t looking at him, and then at the catalog. “All right,” he says, breathing past the feeling in his chest that tells him he’s doing something incredibly stupid. He stays standing as he flips through the booklet that represents the life he’s always wanted. Edward watches patiently, not complaining about how long it takes him to settle on a sleek couch in gunmetal grey with one arm higher than the other and a stone back covered in delicate carvings. 

Edward smiles. “That was my favorite too.”

Declan holds out the catalog and, when Edward doesn’t take it, slaps it against his chest. “No, it wasn’t.”

Edward smiles harder. “No, it wasn’t, but it is both suitable and the one I anticipated you picking. Unacceptable options notwithstanding.  You are, I’m sorry to tell you, fairly predictable.”

Declan has been called predictable before, but never with such undisguised affection. As he finally escapes to shower, he takes a moment to be grateful that his face is already as red as it gets.

 

 

When he gets back to the apartment that evening, the couch has arrived, which seems fast even though he knows well how money greases the wheels of life. He wonders if Edward was so confident in his choice that he placed the order weeks ago. He ought to be annoyed—by the presumption or the morning’s mind game or both—but he isn’t. Edward watches him from across the room, not on the couch but behind it, the fingertips of one hand trailing along the back of it. He has his lower lip between his teeth, and his gaze is jumping around, never landing squarely on Declan. It’s novel to feel protectiveness that isn’t bound up in resentment and obligation, and that novelty shocks Declan into honesty. “It looks good,” he says, feeling a significance in the moment that probably doesn’t exist.

Everything about the couch screams money in a way he could technically afford if he weren’t practical to the point of paranoia. He mimics Edward, dragging his fingertips along the upholstery. It looks suitably rigid, but he can’t feel the bones of it, his fingers sinking into the plush surface. Edward intertwines their hands when they’re close enough, then lifts Declan’s and presses a kiss to the back of it before gesturing to the couch cushions. “Shall we?”

Declan allows himself to be led around to the front of the couch and tugged gently to a seated position. It’s perfect, soft enough to settle into, but not so soft as to seem undisciplined. He leans back, not missing the way his head would clunk against the unpadded surface of the old couch. "Okay," he says after a few minutes that pass like a dream. "You were right."

When he opens his eyes, Edward's smirking face is only a few inches from his. "And if I was right, you were?"

"Justifiably concerned about the aesthetic value of my apartment," Declan offers.

"I'm going to let you have this one," Edward says, closing the gap between them before Declan can respond.

 

——

 

Nearly a month after their first kiss, they still haven’t gone out together. Declan knows this because Edward brings it up once a week, usually with a suggestion that he shoots down for being too public. Once, arguing for orchestra tickets, Edward promised to keep his hands to himself, which was so not Declan’s concern that he couldn’t keep from laughing. The problem is that Edward tends to look at him with such undisguised adoration that it’s hard to imagine how they could leave the apartment for more than five minutes without outing themselves. Worse, Declan can sometimes feel the reciprocal expression on his own face, the glazed-over eyes and the stupid, unguarded smile. He's worked too hard to get where he is—nowhere, yet—to mess everything up.

“I understand the significance you place on your reputation,” Edward says gently, holding a pair of tickets to a temporary exhibit at a museum Declan has never heard of. “I do. I’m just asking you to meet me partway. I’ve only recently realized, largely due to your influence, how much the world has to offer. I would like to discover some piece of it with you, no matter how careful we need to be.”

Declan used to consider his will power one of his best traits, on the list somewhere between his hair and his abdominals, but now he can feel himself giving in as Edward watches him. “Fine. But I get to pick where we go.” 

Edward smiles. “I think I can live with that.”

After a lot of research, Declan picks an independent theater in Baltimore showing a critically panned Hungarian art film. The combination of distance and mediocrity ought to mean security. It’s a sound theory, but in practice, Edward reaches out to hold his hand in an empty theater and he flinches away so violently that his folding chair nearly capsizes. Edward slumps back in his seat, his wounded disappointment palpable.

Declan resists the urge to flee to another row. He’s being stupid. He knows that, but the room, despite being only a bit larger than his living room, feels too big, too open. Next to him, Edward fidgets, his chair protesting beneath him. Every squeak makes Declan’s heart jolt in his chest. This is the only thing Edward has ever asked of him if he doesn't count an exhausting amount of emotional support. It isn’t so much, really. This is paranoia, not caution. The screen is so dark that even if they weren’t the only people stupid enough to pay for these tickets, no one would be able to see them. Still, he keeps his hands in his lap.

When the lights come on at the end—dim, flickering, disconcertingly red-tinged—they stare at each other in silence. Declan doesn’t expect Edward to get mad at him; Edward’s anger meter seems incapable of going past "haughtily annoyed." He expects some complaint though, not a wobbly smile and an apology. Edward stands several careful feet away from him and says, “It doesn’t matter to me where we are, as long as we’re together. I don’t have to live in this world the way you do. It was unfair of me to ask you to risk your dreams for me.”

Declan would agree if that were what Edward was asking of him, but he knows it isn’t. Edward just wants, reasonably, to spend time together outside the confines of his living room. He clears his throat. “I’ll see you at the car. I need to run to the bathroom.” He doesn’t stick around for a response, turning even before he's done speaking.

Under the bathroom’s fluorescent lights, he looks sallow and tired, the bags under his eyes almost as pronounced as Edward’s. He splashes a bit of water on his face before realizing that the paper towel dispenser is empty. Wiping his face on his sleeve makes him feel even more like a child than this inability to control his emotions. He steels himself. He can handle this. He’s faced off against sociopaths and assassins. He can take another guy to the movies.

In the car, Edward is sitting with both hands on the wheel and staring straight through the windshield, pretty much the opposite of how he drives. Declan lets himself in and says before Edward can speak, “We’ll work on it.”

“You don’t owe me—”

“I didn’t say I did. I said we’ll work on it.” Declan lets a split second elapse and then says, “Were you planning on driving at any point tonight?”

Edward floors it so that Declan’s head snaps back into his headrest. He’s smiling—and doing 110—when he turns to Declan. “Was that too fast? Just making up for lost time.”  

He does seem fine now that the initial disappointment has had time to fade. Declan can’t believe it’s possible for anyone to be this nice. He sometimes feels slightly awed in the face of it, and he shuts his eyes and leans his head against the window rather than confront it. 

He sleeps better with Edward around, which is one of those embarrassing things they both know but will hopefully never talk about, and after fifteen minutes of gritting his teeth and pretending not to notice every time they lurch over a bump, he drifts off. He wakes up what feels like a few seconds later, but the world outside of the car is pitch-black rather than the dull grey of dusk.

Edward is hunched over the steering wheel, squinting into the night despite his professed superior vision. “Bear with me,” he says before Declan can ask where they are. “When we arrived back at the apartment, you looked so peaceful, so sweet.” Declan groans. “I couldn’t bear to disturb you, and I suspected you would object to being carried, so I waited. Watching you sleep, I began to think. As you know, too much time to think is my ultimate curse. It was a good idea to look outside of the District of Columbia for entertainment. Perhaps we simply didn’t go far enough.” He adds, a bit defensively, “Even if it doesn’t make you feel more secure, I thought it might be nice to get away, if only to a hotel. As I said before, I’m happy just being with you.”

Declan blinks, his head still fuzzy. He considers, not for the first time, how much easier his life would be if Edward didn’t communicate exclusively in nervous monologues. “Where are we?”

He’s prepared to hear something crazy, something like Alaska or Mexico, but Edward say, underwhelmingly and with unprecedented efficiency, “Harrisburg.”

Why?”

“Well…” Edward’s fingers click against the steering wheel. “Do you know anyone in Harrisburg?”

“No.” Declan’s eyes cross as he watches a raindrop slide slowly down the window. “I mean, I’d assume there are politicians somewhere, but not on sight.”

“Then it’s perfect, isn’t it?” Behind the droplet, a whole world whizzes by, tiny, unfamiliar, contained. Edward stops in front of the tallest building on the block, a dubious honor here, and Declan puts together after a sleepy pause that it’s a hotel.

After they park, Declan turns to find the passenger-side door open and Edward just beyond it, loaded down with suitcases. He allows himself a moment to take this in. “Did you plan this?”

“Not at all. You seemed likely to remain unconscious for some time, so I felt free to make a few stops.” Edward nods to a hefty bag improbably balanced on the extended handle of a rolling case. “I was able to perfectly replicate the contents of your medicine cabinet.”

“Right,” Declan says, resolving not to lose any more time thinking about how sweetly strange this is. “How long was I asleep?”

“Three hours. Perhaps four.” Edward’s face settles into a frown so dramatic that even having known him this long, Declan briefly entertains the notion that he’s going to say something like, “You even slept through the burial of the vagrant I ran over.” He says instead, “You’ll likely have trouble sleeping tonight.”

Declan scoffs. “I think I’ll be all right.”

Now properly awake and irritable about it, he elects to wait outside while Edward gathers what must be his estimation of a human load of suitcases and goes to check in. He calls with the room number and then stays on the line for the duration of Declan's trip through the hotel, his chatter a pleasant sort of background music. The room turns out to be a spacious suite with two bedrooms at opposing ends. Edward, hovering just inside the doorway, says, “I can always get myself a separate room if you would be more comfortable with that. It wasn’t my intention to be overly forward.”

Declan’s fondness for Edward still tends to startle him, coming as it does in sharp bursts, sort of like a toothache. It comes now entirely without his permission and accompanied by warm laughter. “This definitely is not too forward,” he says once he’s recovered.

Edward pouts down at his room key, still pressed between his fingers. “This is my first relationship. I’m sorry if I’m not doing it correctly.”

Declan rolls his eyes. He takes the key from Edward’s hand and sets it on the table, where, warped beyond repair, it rocks back and forth before eventually settling. “You’re doing great,” he says, drawing Edward into a kiss. When he pulls back, he smiles. He’s been smiling a lot lately, not faking it, not smirking. He hasn’t decided yet how to feel about it. Edward smiles too, sweet and unguarded. Sometimes Declan can’t believe he’s immortal; it seems impossible that life, given so many opportunities, hasn’t pounded the naivete out of him. Other times, Declan reasons that no one but an invulnerable being could possibly stay like this. If Edward could die, the world would have snuffed him out by now. 

The room has very little to recommend it besides its size and some admittedly luxurious red drapes. The soulless hotel art scattered throughout is doing its best to appear not to be soulless hotel art by eschewing the safe realm of landscapes and shooting for abstraction. The frame above the couch features a swipe of sky blue that’s almost appealing until Declan gets closer and realizes that it’s a print, the raised brushstrokes coming from the textured canvas. Still, the beds are soft and large, and the TV was left on C-SPAN by the last occupant, which has nothing to do with the quality of the hotel but leaves him feeling fond anyway. As he walks through the suite, evaluating, he realizes that he doesn’t want this to be his life. He’s spent enough time in the dark; he has plenty of practice hiding. It’s not that he wants to be out—he has career goals that don’t involve explaining the clearly superhuman pretty boy he dated in college—but he doesn’t want to live holed up in a fortress waiting to be uncovered. “So what is there to do in Harrisburg?” he asks. With the sun long since set, he feels safe spreading the drapes wide to look down at the city.

Edward doesn’t speak for a long while. “I would never ask you to do something you aren’t comfortable with.”

Declan’s skin prickles. No one has ever treated him this gently before; he has no idea what to do with it. “I know that,” he says, trying not to sound any harsher than is absolutely necessary. “And I’m asking, what is there to do in Harrisburg?”

He turns to see Edward smiling at him like he’s done something incredible. “I can certainly find out.”

After Declan finishes making a fuss about the dearth of good delivery options in Harrisburg at this hour, they settle onto the couch. Edward has taken to wearing two sweaters at a time so that they can sit together without Declan risking frostbite or a concussion. This caution has the unfortunate side effect of making him look rather like a marshmallow, which seems to Declan like a very bad trade-off. He probably shouldn’t validate it, but he allows Edward to wrap an arm around him and gets comfortable on his padded chest.

Declan drifts off slowly and wakes up all at once, his eyes popping open. He doesn't know where he is, the unfamiliar landscape of the room taking on an ominous air in the dark. He takes a gulped breath and Edward’s now-familiar scent washes over him, bringing him back to reality. That he’s lying in a bed gives him a moment’s pause, but he can’t make himself focus on it.

“You were having a nightmare,” Edward whispers, an arm like steel draped over his waist. “It’s all right. You’re all right.” His hand flattens against Declan’s stomach. It’s rare for him to touch Declan without at least one layer of fabric between them, and the shock of his skin is grounding. “It was just a dream.”

“I know that,” Declan says, shooting for indignant and falling short. When he closes his eyes, he's lying bruised and bloodied on the side of a Henrietta road. 

Edward pulls him closer. “Do you want to talk about it?” 

“No.” Declan can feel Edward’s chest moving in and out in time with his, and his breathing starts to slow.  “There’s nothing to talk about.” He can’t remember if his hand was clutching Edward’s when he woke up, but it is now. The feeling of fingers interlaced with his makes it easier to say, and to mean, “I’m fine.”

“If you insist.” Edward kisses the back of Declan’s sweat-slick neck, apparently not at all bothered by how disgusting humanity is. “In that case, you should go back to sleep.”

“Maybe if you quit talking to me,” Declan mumbles, eyes already drifting shut.

When he next wakes up, he rolls over to see Edward gazing at him adoringly. He covers his mouth when he speaks, conscious of his morning breath. “Have you just been lying there all night? Aren’t you bored?”

“Oh, hideously.” Edward smiles. “But you just looked so comfortable.”

On the other side of what passes for a full night’s sleep, Declan remembers falling asleep on the couch and waking up in Edward’s arms a split second before he was being tumbled onto the mattress. He remembers trying to tug Edward down with him and frowning when his efforts failed. He groans. “You didn’t have to stay.”

“It was nice. You make me peaceful.”

“If you say so." Declan uses their intertwined fingers to pull Edward’s hand away from his stomach and slip free. In the bathroom he finds the exact model of electric toothbrush he uses at home along with his preferred brand of toothpaste. After an hour, most of which is spent on his hair, he joins Edward at the table, on which there is a very welcome cup of coffee and a distinctly less welcome map of Harrisburg, the latter marked up with potential destinations. He squints at the red dots spreading across the map like a pox. “How long did you think we were going to stay here, exactly?”

“Only today.” Edward refolds a twelve-panel brochure and then circles something in a remote corner of the map with such fervor that he goes through the paper entirely.

“Right. And you remember that unlike you, I can’t actually move at the speed of light?”

Edward doesn’t look away from a poster describing the supposedly numerous virtues of Amish country. There’s a staple still stuck in one corner like he tore it from a wall somewhere. “Drink your coffee,” he says. “You’ll be less cranky.”

“I’m not cranky.” Declan considers refusing on principle but can’t pull together the motivation in this pre-caffeine world. He takes a sip. His palate isn’t nearly as refined as he pretends it is; as far as he's concerned, coffee is coffee. He’s pretty sure, though, that this is the same blend he drinks at home. Warmth floods his system along with a desperately needed burst of energy.

Edward is wearing the same clothes he had on yesterday and looks, for once, rumpled, his hair drooping over his eyes, one sleeve shoved up to his elbow and the other dangling unbuttoned at his wrist. Declan occupies himself with his coffee for as long as he can, but finally has to ask, “What’s wrong with you?”

Edward slumps, his hands braced against the table. “I just want this to go well.”

Declan considers himself a fixer, but only when it comes to tangible problems, and really he doesn’t fix things so much as hold off catastrophe for as long as possible. He ought to say something like what Edward said to him, that he enjoys spending time together no matter where they are, which is rather embarrassingly true, but he isn’t built for that kind of honesty. “Fine, look, let’s go for a walk.” He gestures to the Susquehanna, whose banks are highlighted in eye-searing pink. “We can figure out the rest later.”

Edward looks up, startled. “You really want to?”

Declan rolls his eyes. “Yes, I really want to. Come on.”

Edward almost smiles, but then his lips collapse back into a frown. “But you haven’t had breakfast.”

“Well, if I pass out, you get to carry me. It’ll be romantic.” Edward holds still so that Declan can tug a baseball cap onto his head and slide sunglasses over his eyes. Even covered up, there’s something startling about him, something unnatural and captivating. Declan runs a hand along his jaw, which, he concedes, may only seem distinctive because he’s spent so much time looking at it. “I guess growing a beard is out of the question.”

Edward catches Declan’s hand in his own, intertwining their fingers. “You aren’t as funny as you think you are.”

“Sure I am.” Declan drops Edward’s hand as they step into the hall, but he doesn’t stagger their exits or insist Edward take the stairs while he rides the elevator. He decides to call that progress.

The streets of Harrisburg are mostly empty this early. Someone rattles by in a white van with the bumper just barely clearing the pavement, but otherwise, they have the world to themselves. The sun hasn’t even attempted an appearance yet, the sky dark and choked with clouds, so Edward walks the streets with confidence.

The river path is only a few steps from the sidewalk, but it feels like another world, shaded by a thick row of trees on one side. On the other, the river runs, opaque in the dim light. After a mile—during which they see no people but several geese—Declan nods to a bench. “Let’s sit down.”

“Are you feeling faint?" Edward presses two fingers to the pulse point in Declan's neck. "I knew I should have insisted you eat breakfast.”

“I'm fine. I just want to—” Declan shakes his head, unable to put it into words. “Let’s just sit down.”

Edward acquiesces with a minimum of fussing, and they sit side by side facing the river. Its depths look murky, but small waves rise from the surface, brilliant and clear as glass, and shatter against the banks. The wind is on just the right side of chilly; Declan knows from experience that a dip of a few degrees will have Edward stripping off an extra sweater and trying to shove it over his head. He focuses on the steady motion of the river, on the in and out of his breath, on Edward's leg pressed against his. Something settles inside of him, something he never noticed grating at him until it stopped. His entire life has been lived through layers of deception, and he's been afraid to find out what would happen if all of it was stripped away. But now he knows. There’s this. There’s him. He takes Edward’s hand and holds it tight. Edward, who has been chattering about the Susquehanna’s history as a trade route, falls silent.

It's a good moment, one characterized by the sort of quiet peace Declan only recently realized was possible. After a few minutes in which the world doesn't come crashing down, he leans his head against Edward's shoulder.

The peace is broken when Edward drops his hand, sliding to the far end of the bench just before an elderly woman in a velour tracksuit shuffles onto the path behind them. Instead of thinking about how they could have been caught, Declan thinks about how Edward made sure they weren't. As he watches the woman make her slow, determined way out of view, he sees the start of the sunrise, muted and obscured but still beautiful, and says, “That’s the exact color of your eyes today.” He doesn’t know what he means to accomplish with this; it stops short even of being a compliment but causes Edward to let out a hum of contentment. He would be happy to let the moment drag on a bit longer, but his stomach growls, and since Edward treats his every human need like a crisis that could put him six feet under, they hurry back to the hotel.

After breakfast, they go to the State Museum because it's closer than the other boring things Edward won't stop talking about and at least doesn't involve learning to churn their own butter. Their tickets are seven dollars a piece, which strikes Declan as absurdly, provincially cheap yet still somehow more than they’re worth. He trails Edward through a seemingly unending labyrinth of exhibits, calling on reserves of patience he never realized he had. Edward reads every plaque, even the ones in the room dedicated to the history of the Pennsylvania Turnpike. He looks so blissfully happy that it’s hard—though not impossible—to be annoyed.

He replies to a few work emails as Edward leads him into the mammal hall, a massive dome lit only by the glow from the glassed-in displays. There are very few other people around, families hovering on the outskirts of Declan’s consciousness. They pass a few exhibits—birds of prey circling, deer grazing, baby foxes practicing their hunting on a turtle the informational panel claims will be just fine—before Edward freezes in front of a mountain lion skulking along a log, its body stretched long, its belly dragging through the snow. Declan gets bored quickly and, as often happens, finds himself turned toward Edward, cataloging his good looks. He catches himself and turns away, but when he checks, no one is watching them. A few kids are playing hide and seek, spurred on by the dim lighting despite a lack of good hiding spots, and their parents are mostly occupied with being ineffectually disapproving.

“You would be better off if you had the sense of that deer,” Edward says suddenly, yanking Declan back to reality. He notices the animal for the first time, pressed into the corner of the display, its posture cramped and frightened.

He yawns. “That deer is going to die.” He can’t believe people just walk around feeling like this all the time, warm and happy and stupid. “See? The panel says so. The mountain lion’s close enough to pounce.”

Edward’s frown deepens. “My meaning—”

Declan bumps Edward’s shoulder with his own. “Relax. What was the point of kidnapping me if you were just going to ruin our trip?”

“‘Kidnapping’ is perhaps too strong a word,” Edward says, smiling despite himself. “Are you having a good time? We can move on if you’d like. I’m sure we can find something more age-appropriate.”

Declan looks around the room. A few of the parents have begun to corral their kids with a bit more verve, which is disruptive in the short-term but makes him hopeful for long-term peace. He bumps Edward’s shoulder again. “No, this is all right. The farther we are from respectable society, the better.” Edward nods, and they move on to the next display.

They make their way through as many exhibits as Declan can bear before finishing up in the gift shop. Edward wrinkles his nose at the brightly-colored novelties like he isn’t the one who insisted on coming in, saying it was important to him that Declan have a positive and complete human experience. By the counter, a little girl jabs at the stomach of an animatronic lamb over and over again, forcing it to restart its bleated song every few seconds. After the fifth aborted rendition, Edward no longer looks quite so enamored with the glory of humanity. Declan leaves him to adjust, distracted by a set of Civil War hero statuettes.

After deciding against the set, which doesn’t fit his aesthetic, he looks up to see Edward watching him grimly, both hands behind his back. “I got you something.” Before Declan can ask, he holds out a stuffed mountain lion. Declan takes it because he doesn’t have much of a choice; anything else will cause a scene. He holds it gingerly, gripping it by one arm and letting the rest hang free. One of its ears is already slightly ratty from being manhandled by passing children. He squeezes its stomach to make sure it doesn’t squeak or sing or anything else that will make this more embarrassing than it already is. As he examines the uneven stitching on its paws, Edward says, “My very nature—”

“You can’t give me a toy and expect me to treat it as a serious metaphor for our—” Declan lowers his voice as he looks around the store. The little girl is gone, hopefully dragged away for whatever normal families do for discipline, but he would bet the old man behind the counter is sharper than he looks. “For anything, frankly.” He stares into the creature’s expressionless black eyes. “What do you want me to say?”

Edward looks small and miserable; Declan would feel bad for him if he hadn't created this problem for himself. “That you understand what you’re getting into, I suppose.”

Declan frowns down at the toy, which he's no longer holding like it might carry some disease. It is kind of cute. He doesn’t remember ever being stuffed-animal young, but he guesses he can see the appeal. It’s soft, and cold where Edward was holding it, and perfectly fitted to his arms. “Well, I do.”

Edward looks up at that, his eyes seeking something in Declan's face that he must find because he nods and smiles. “I apologize. You’re right that my penchant for melodrama got the better of me. I can return that, if you would like.”

Declan considers it. This is the first gift Edward has gotten him if he doesn’t count dishtowels or peace and security or the couch they're both pretending Edward didn't buy for him. It’s a bad gift, but it’s his. “You can't return a present, jerk." He shoves it into Edward’s arms and turns to the door, saying over his shoulder, "That doesn't mean I'm going to be caught dead carrying it."

 

 ——

 

Back in D.C., they watch for overcast days and do all of the touristy things Declan pretended he was too worldly for when he first moved to the city. They gawk at the White House and lose entire afternoons in the Smithsonian. They hop on a double decker tour bus and ride on the exposed upper level on a day that threatens rain at every turn. When the sky finally opens up, the tour guide disappears below, saying that she doesn’t get paid enough to risk pneumonia, so Declan lets Edward put an arm around him.

After less than a minute, Edward pulls back and asks if pneumonia is a legitimate concern. Declan says no, but having a sodden jacket tucked around him rather effectively ruins the mood, so they get off as the bus pulls up to its next stop even though they’re nowhere near the apartment. Nothing seems to matter quite as much as Declan used to think it did. Even the possibility of being spotted with Edward and ruining his newly-possible future, while enough to keep him jumpy and distant much of the time, doesn't seem quite so catastrophic.

They end up in a garden waiting out the rain, Declan on a bench beneath the branches of a tree so that he stays mostly dry. Edward sits a couple feet away, water flattening his hair and rolling down the planes of his face. One drop lands squarely in his eye and, after quivering for a moment, drips down his cheek. “I can’t help but feel that this is my fault,” he says quietly.

"I wasn't aware that you controlled the weather." Declan kicks at an inside-out umbrella that’s been abandoned under his bench, rolling his eyes when Edward darts forward to toss it into a trashcan.

Edward wipes his hands on a damp handkerchief, saying haughtily, “As an immortal creature, I have a more than typical interest in the well-being of the planet.” Declan rolls his eyes again. “Anyway, I meant, and you knew I meant, that if you didn’t have to plan excursions around the sun, you would be a good deal less likely to be reduced to seeking shelter beneath an oak.”

Declan squints up at the leaves above him. "This is a maple, are you serious? Anyway, I like the rain.” This wasn’t true until very recently. Rain can ruin a perfect outfit-hairstyle combo in a second flat, but he’s begun to see the appeal. The city streets never really empty out; between political operatives and tourists with tightly-scheduled vacations, there’s no one in D.C. who’s going to be stopped by a bit of precipitation. Still, rain makes the world feel small. When it rains, people look down at their malfunctioning umbrellas or at the bags they’re beginning to suspect aren’t waterproof after all. No one looks up. No one cares about two men they’ve never met before. “Besides,” he says, gesturing for Edward to join him on his bench, “I don’t get sick.”

 

He wakes up the next day with a cough that rattles through his chest, and things only deteriorate from there. Edward, it seems, has spent the night doing just enough reading on the topic of pneumonia to freak himself out, but not enough to be capable of distinguishing it from the common cold. When Declan tries to go for his morning run, Edward scoops him up and deposits him back in his bed, which is embarrassing enough that the possibility of a repeat performance keeps him in place, not least because being carried in Edward’s unforgiving arms is the most action he’s gotten in weeks and therefore distressingly enjoyable. Deprived of an exit strategy, he sits up in bed and allows Edward to drape him in blankets and ply him with soups and teas. It isn’t horrible, even if the soups are surprisingly bland and the teas taste like dirt. He likes the way Edward makes tea, loose leaf with a strainer, a thermometer, and a laminated chart laying out temperatures and steeping times for different blends. He sometimes can’t shake the feeling that all of this is just something for Edward to do, a desperate bid to fill the endless expanse of existence, something like knitting or composing music or trolling municipal buildings for elderly female friends. He appreciates it anyway.

He wouldn’t ordinarily let someone hover over him like this at all, not that he’s been batting away offers. It’s only bearable because the differences between them are so stark already. With Edward, he can’t help but be vulnerable. He needs to sleep and eat and choke down a collection of vitamins and supplements every morning. He’s learned by now to shield the worst of his thoughts, but Edward still knows more than anyone else. Considering that, being sweaty and rumpled in front of him isn’t so bad. 

He enjoys the cloying attention for longer than he should when he knows very well that the whole production is unnecessary. To his credit, he does say this more than once, but he could stand to say it with more vigor. Around mid-afternoon, it occurs to him that Edward has been maintaining a careful distance, only darting forward to deliver mugs or bowls or megapacks of lozenges. It’s sort of insulting. He feels gross enough without Edward, who can’t even get sick, treating him like he’s radioactive. His ego takes a hit on regular days, but the comparison now is unbearable. After Edward practically throws a box of tissues onto the bed, he’s had enough. He's been slumping against the headboard, but now he pushes himself upright, layers of blankets sloughing off. “It’s not like I’m contagious to you, you know. Unless vampires are even less cool than you've made them seem.”

Edward, already well into the hall, turns back but doesn't cross the threshold. “Pardon?”

Declan can feel his face turning red. “I can take care of myself, so if you’re that grossed out—”

Edward smiles. It’s very often a patronizing look on him, and it certainly is now. He looks like he’s thinking about how sweet and dumb Declan is, perceptions Declan finds equally insulting. “I could never be ‘grossed out’ by you.”

“Right." Declan regrets the confrontational tone he's struck; Edward has done a lot for him, even if he only counts this morning, and can certainly be forgiven a little squeamishness. He tries again. "Look, I’m grossed out by me right now, so I get it. You’ve done enough, okay? I have tea and soup for days. You don’t have to stick around.” 

The patronizing smile drops away. “This is really bothering you, isn’t it?”

“I mean…" Declan shrugs. He still hasn't gotten used to being so mortifyingly transparent. "I wouldn’t say that. I’m just saying you can go since you so clearly want to.”

Edward ventures into the room but stops short of the bed. He fidgets with the things on Declan’s desk, pushing his laptop away from the edge and gathering up loose pens. “Nothing about humanity is more off-putting than anything else,” he says to a paperclip that’s been bent out of shape. “It’s all so foreign to me. It would be illogical to pick and choose.”

“So I’m just fundamentally gross to you. That’s great.” Declan can’t figure out if it’s more undignified to blow his nose now or to continue the conversation sounding painfully congested. He lands on the latter because it’s the path of least resistance and because Edward darts forward to grasp suddenly at his hands.

“I don’t want you to be frustrated with me.” Edward stares for a moment at their hands, then pulls one of his free to press against Declan’s forehead. “You’re burning up.”

Declan smacks ineffectually at his hand, although he has to concede that the cold has dulled the low-grade headache that’s been plaguing him for the last hour. “How would you know? Now what’s your problem?”

Edward bites his lip. “I just feel like all of this is my fault.” Declan groans and promptly lapses into a coughing fit. Edward flinches but doesn’t move away, instead shifting so that he can rub Declan’s back until the coughing subsides. It doesn’t make a difference, but he doesn’t mind. Only once he’s recovered does Edward say, “See? You’re annoyed with me.”

“Well—” Declan clears his throat, an extended, slightly phlegmy process. “You’re being really annoying.”

“It’s just that you wouldn’t have been out in the rain at all if you didn’t have to accommodate my unnatural needs. I’m sure your immune system wasn’t helped by my inability to keep my hands off of you.”

Declan’s pretty sure Edward touched him maybe twice over the course of the entire day, but he decides not to address it, thinking instead about the tips of Edward's fingers still pressing against his back. “Look, can you just—” He pinches the bridge of his nose. “I got sick probably dozens of times in my life before I even met you. Not everything is someone’s fault. Now can you relax? Sit with me. Distract me from how my body’s falling apart.”

“You said it wasn’t serious!” Edward hisses, his frantic expression slipping quickly into a frown. “Oh, I see. You’re joking.”

Declan grins. “Yeah, I’m joking.”

Edward chuckles mechanically. Then, gratifyingly, he shifts closer, although he rearranges the blankets so that there’s no risk of skin contact. It’s good enough. Declan can feel the pressure of the arm Edward puts around him, if nothing else. He hasn’t had anything stronger than green tea all day, and between that and the comforters draped over him, he’s feeling warm and sleepy and unusually affectionate. That is, until Edward says, “I had no idea the human nose could get so red. You look very cute.”

Declan slumps down in his blanket nest. "I liked it better when you thought I was dying."

 

—— 

 

Sitting in an optometrist’s chair and being asked to choose between two seemingly identical lenses struck Declan, age eight, as the worst injustice he would ever face. Over a decade later, having been neglected and mistreated and grazed by more than one but fewer than three bullets, he still thinks he was right. Ronan and Matthew have 20/20 vision and soft, golden-hazed childhood memories while he has misery and resentment and a wastebasket full of single-use contacts. Edward, intrigued by the collection of mundane and often undignified tasks that make up human life, enjoys trying on the emergency glasses hidden deep in Declan’s bedside table. He looks very good in them, even considering the squint caused by the lenses trying to correct his more-than-perfect vision, but instead of getting turned on, Declan usually ends up distracted by the injustice of it all. 

Tonight he looks up from taking out his contacts to see Edward standing directly behind him. He doesn't jump, but it's a near thing. He says as his heart rate returns to normal, "If there was ever a good time to startle me, this isn't it. I'm a big fan of my face with both eyes still in it."

"You shouldn't joke like that." Edward rests his chin on Declan’s shoulder, their bodies otherwise carefully separated. Declan eyes his reflection suspiciously, but after a few seconds pass without interruption, he returns to the task at hand, flicking his contact into the trash. Edward’s breath ghosts across his skin. "Doesn't that feel strange?"

Declan doesn't shiver, which he knows from experience will cause Edward to start whining about how he's toxic and unsafe and ought to go live in a cave somewhere for the good of humanity. Declan will have to listen to the whole thing with one contact still in, and him getting a headache isn't going to help anyone. "Maybe at first, but I've been doing it for years."

"Hm.” Edward’s arms wrap around his waist. Being touched by him is like nothing Declan’s ever experienced. He thinks he might adjust to it if given the opportunity, but he hasn’t had a lot of practice. "May I try?"

"What? No!" Most of Declan's problems in life come from his father's poor planning, but some of them, admittedly, are a result of his own inability to let things go. He asks, "Why?"

"Well… You did express dissatisfaction with the level of physical intimacy in our relationship."

Declan can nearly always tell when Edward is lying, but he still struggles with picking out the jokes. In the absence of any evidence to the contrary, he decides to assume Edward is being sincere, as he usually—unbearably—is. "That isn't what I meant and you know it."

"Maybe so." Edward's cool lips press against the spot where Declan’s neck meets his shoulder. "I suppose my true motive is that there's such a gulf between our experiences. I'd like to bridge it. I want to understand you and the work that goes into making your life. I want to know you. Truly. Wholly." 

This ought to be an easy no; it’s weird and more than a little unsanitary, but it's difficult to give these arguments the appropriate weight while looking into Edward's golden eyes. Declan can feel his resolve weakening even as he says, "No. That's bizarre."

Edward nods solemnly. "I understand. I apologize if I’ve made you uncomfortable at all." He nuzzles against Declan's neck. “May I watch?”

He looks sweet and wistful and like he's trying not to look disappointed. Declan sighs. It isn't, he reasons, especially high up on the list of strange things he's done, and unlike most of them, it carries no significant risk of bodily harm. “Fine. You can—" He waves his hand dismissively, as if it's possible for him to retain his dignity as long as he doesn't say the words. "Just wash your hands first. I don't want to end up with some weird vampire parasite."

Edward’s eyes go wide. “Are you certain? I don’t want you to feel pressured.”

“Of course I’m sure.” If Declan had realized that having someone care about his feelings meant needing to talk every little decision to death, he might not have spent so much of his life wishing for it. “Can we just get on with it, please?”

Silently, Edward leans in to turn on the hot water, pressing Declan between the hard surface of the sink and the hard surface of his body. He continues, as if nothing about what he’s doing is strange, "I would never want to hurt you." Declan breaks eye contact, watching Edward’s hands as they draw soap from the pump bottle and lather up. If it made any sense to rank Edward’s uniformly appealing features, Declan would consider his hands one of his best. They’re long and graceful, delicately-shaped and deceptively strong.

When space opens up between them, Declan turns around and is promptly crowded against the sink again. He raises his eyebrows as Edward rests a hand on his hip. He asks, his voice a bit hushed, “Where is this confidence coming from all of a sudden?”

He regrets this as soon as the words are out; more likely than not, it will throw Edward off his inexplicable rhythm and cause him to apologize for being presumptuous. Doubt flickers in Edward's eyes, but instead of giving into it, he leans in even closer and cups Declan’s jaw, thumb resting against his lower lip. "I’ve been thinking about doing this for a long time.” This is not at all sexy, and Declan would ordinarily tell him so but elects now to stay silent so that he can watch Edward stare into his face like he’s looking for something beyond the skin and bone, something no one has ever thought he had to offer before.

Edward’s finger brushes against his lower lashes, making him shiver. Then, with less fanfare than expected, he presses that same finger against Declan’s eye. Declan has spent every Sunday of his life in church; he knows what religious ecstasy looks like. It looks, in fact, a lot like Edward’s face right now, open and wondering, his lips moving as if in silent prayer. So that’s flattering.

Edward pulls his hand away, staring down at the contact balanced on the tip of his finger. Declan’s eyes are drawn to it too, although the object itself holds no special mystery for him, except that it forces him to consider how they got here, to wonder why he let that happen and why he doesn’t regret it. Edward’s hand migrates to his hair, twisting into his curls and pulling him into a kiss, and now there's none of the stilted choreography or nervous commentary of their earlier attempts. His chest crushes against Declan’s, leaving his breathing shallow.

He pulls away too soon, but instead of stepping back, he trails icy kisses down Declan's neck, sucking for a moment at his collarbone. Declan turns his fractured attention to Edward's cardigan, which has about a thousand delicate buttons that would be a pain at the best of times and are torture now. His fingers work clumsily in the small space between them. Finally he gives up and breathes, “Take that off.” Edward, like he was waiting for permission, rips it from his torso and throws it aside in a cascade of popped buttons. He’s still wearing a shirt buttoned up to the neck, but it’s a step in the right direction. Declan runs a hand up his well-toned arm before moving to remedy the situation. 

He doesn't pull away until well after his hands and lips have gone entirely numb, but finally it's too much to take. He crosses his arms, tucking his hands practically into his underarms, which is undignified but unfortunately non-negotiable. Edward frowns. “I’m sorry.”

Declan licks his lips. “Don’t be.” When he can feel the tips of his fingers again, he reaches out and runs a hand through Edward’s mussed hair, smiling as he leans into the touch.

One of Edward’s sweater sleeves didn’t make it all the way off his body and is instead bunched at his wrist. His shirt is unbuttoned to the waist but still disappointingly on. “That was nice,” he says shyly.

“It was.” It’s strange to look at Edward, winded and wrecked, and know he’s the one who made it happen. Feeling is starting to return to Declan’s extremities, and as Edward still has him pressed against the sink, he has nothing better to do than kiss him again, softly this time.

Edward kisses back briefly before stepping away, gathering up his ruined sweater and as many buttons as he can find. “I should let you—finish with your routine.”

Declan leans against the counter, his skin thrumming with whatever the opposite of anticipation is. “What, you don’t want to brush my teeth for me too?”

 

——

 

Happiness turns Declan into a person he doesn’t recognize and isn't sure he especially likes. On one of his trips to Henrietta, he asks Matthew, quite belatedly, how finals went, and Ronan takes it as a passive-aggressive dig at his academic complications. Before Edward, it probably would have been, but now Declan’s mind is working on only one level, bogged down by joy. He even grins when Ronan calls him an asshole, which doesn't turn out to be such a helpful thing; Ronan takes it as a challenge and starts slinging insults.

During the barrage, Declan’s phone buzzes. Edward hasn’t quite mastered texting, but he’s become a proficient and prolific emailer, with most of his messages landing somewhere between three and five thousand words. Declan skims an extended outlier now, picking out what he can—mostly charming things like I miss you and thinking of you and then the annoying be nice to your brother.

Just as he's getting to the first of several postscripts, Ronan demands to know who the fuck he thinks he’s smiling at, and Matthew tries to grab his phone to find the answer. It turns out that the only practical impact of happiness is that Ronan gets the first punch in. Still, as bruising as it’s turning out to be, Declan can see the appeal.

Back at the apartment, Edward is hovering by the kitchen island trying to look like he hasn't been waiting. His anticipation is novel. Declan imagines it will get overbearing at some point, but for now he doesn’t mind a little neediness. No one has ever been this desperate for his company. The counter is scattered with the fruit of nervous hands, among them a loaf of bread studded with seeds, an entire vat of green juice, and a baking sheet covered in dried herbs. Edward takes in Declan’s bruised face and torn shirt and says, “You don’t have to take the bait every time, you know."

Declan grins, and the split in his lip that clotted over on the drive opens back up. Edward moves before Declan can realize what he’s done, nearly slamming into the opposing wall in his haste. He hunches over, both hands pressed to his chest, his lips pulled back from his deceptively ordinary teeth. He lets out a long, low growl that settles in Declan's bones. Declan watches, showing nothing of his well-honed instinct for self-preservation, as Edward works to get himself under control, straightening up so slowly that it looks painful. He grits out, “You need to be more careful.”

Declan rolls his eyes as he presses a paper towel against his lip. “Right, I guess I'm supposed to call ahead every time I get a papercut?” Scorn is the only thing between him and the realization that he’s done something very, very stupid. Getting what he wants has made him greedy; now he wants it, and he wants it to be easy.

“It wouldn’t be an unreasonable precaution.” Edward is deathly still in a way no human could ever be. Instead of scared, it mostly makes Declan feel lonely. “You’ve survived so much, but you are not invincible.”

Declan decides to stop watching. If this is a mistake, he’s too deep in the making of it to turn back. He cuts himself a slice of bread. It’s still warm, but he can tell it’s going to cool to be roughly the consistency of a brick. “Trust me, I am very aware.”

Edward’s voice floats over from somewhere beyond the loaf that has become the center of Declan’s world. “Then why do you persist in taking these risks? You should ask me to leave.”

Declan takes a bite. The slice is dense and dry and—he sees when he puts it down—bloody. “It’s just a tiny cut. The bleeding will stop soon.”

“I don’t mean—” Edward’s voice hitches. “I don’t mean that you should ask me to leave until you’ve healed. I mean that you should recognize that my presence here will cause you nothing but pain. I’m too selfish to leave of my own accord. That is a stain on my soul that will never wash clean, but I would go if you asked me to.”

Declan stares down at the spot of blood, bright against the brown crust of the bread. He looks at Edward, hunch-shouldered and miserable. He doesn’t know what he’s going to say until it’s already out. “No.” Dating a mind-reader has taught him to live in the realm of instinct, the sort of thoughtless action he always feared would ruin everything. 

Edward’s mouth falls open. He seems to have recovered a good deal of his composure, but he still isn’t breathing. As this is an affectation that Declan finds intolerable—he didn’t have a choice when it came to dropping his facade—he doesn’t think much of it. “No?” Edward repeats. “Even though you must know—”

“No,” Declan agrees. He gestures to his banged-up face. “All of this aside, I was actually having a pretty good day. Do you have to ruin it? I mean, is this enjoyable for you?”

“Of course not! Declan—” 

“Then can you give it a rest? Because it isn’t all that fun for me either.”

Edward starts forward, arms outstretched, but stops after only a couple steps. “This is more important than fun. This is about your well-being. And besides the dangers…" He turns away. "You should be with someone who can comfort you when you’re hurt. Someone who isn’t battling his base instincts at every turn. You deserve something simple. You deserve to stop fighting.”

Edward is constantly backing Declan into corners from which the only escapes are a break-up or something hideously sappy like, “I don’t want simple if it's not with you.” Declan checks his pockets—keys, wallet, phone—and says, “I’m going out. You should stay here. If I come back and you’re off crying in a forest or whatever it was last time, I’m going to be pissed off. Okay?”

Edward’s head jerks in Declan’s direction. “We should really be able to talk without you running off and—” Declan slams the door shut behind him.

He makes it to his car and out of the garage before his lack of a plan catches up with him. He just knew that he wasn’t going to stick around and watch Edward work up to walking out. Most of his friends are still in D.C. for the summer, but he can’t even begin to imagine how he would explain what’s at stake here, and anyway, his friends are, after all, his friends and therefore not the sort of people one ought to go to with anything bigger than needing class notes, and maybe not even that. He scrolls through the contact list on his phone three times, his heart jolting as he moves past the spot where “Home” ought to be. He deleted the entry as he was getting settled into his Aglionby dorm the day after the funeral. The act seemed to embody cold practicality, which was what he wanted to bring into his new life since he couldn’t bring anything else.

He wishes for some of that now as he thinks of Edward watching him with a look between hunger and loss. Their relationship is ridiculous and frivolous and undeniably doomed. He’s known that since it started, since the comedown from their first kiss. He should be able to go home now and let this journey reach its logical conclusion. He drums his fingers against the steering wheel, stares at the strip mall in front of him until he has the stores memorized, and arranges the change in his ashtray by year of production. He’s putting off the inevitable, but finally, dread mounting, he makes the call.

Ashley’s voicemail message is the same blandly professional flavor as his own; he sits through the whole thing and hangs up at the beep. He slumps down in his seat, his phone slipping out of his hand so that he has to scramble for it when it starts buzzing. He retrieves it from under the seat just in time to catch the call before it goes to voicemail.

“Hey, so, I didn’t answer because I’m like, young and hip and not an elderly maniac? I mean, who calls? Like, are we scheduling a job interview? Are you scamming me? Are you my mom? But yeah, whatever, this is me returning your call. What’s wrong?”

Declan hesitates. Ashley was nice to him once. Maybe, if he's being either generous or pathetic, once and a quarter, because about an hour after they left the cafe where he came out to her, she texted good luck w/ yr feelings lol and ten minutes after that, genuinely. Apparently that makes her the person he most trusts to give him relationship advice, and he knows exactly how sad that is. “Who says something’s wrong?”

“Um, common sense? My genius-level IQ? Women’s intuition? Which, I mean, take that in the ironic spirit in which it’s meant because obviously the idea of women as inherently more sensitive than men is super misogynistic, but you get me.”

Declan squints at the neon lights flashing across the parking lot. He knows that Ashley, even this new, slightly kinder Ashley, is a woman of limited patience, but he can’t make himself explain. The untrusting part of him—so 95%—wonders if she has him on speaker phone and is laughing about him with her girlfriend, who probably has never tried to eat her and therefore isn’t harboring any boring, relationship-ending guilt about it. He forces out, after a series of passive-aggressive groans and grumbles from her, “Can I talk to you? In person?” 

“I mean, yeah, but I’m not going to be in D.C. until next Saturday. You could come to Henrietta if you—” Declan lets out a sigh, and Ashley snaps, “Look, don’t get pissy with me when I’m offering to help you. I have my own life, you know.”

“That’s not what I’m—" He can feel a headache gathering like a stormcloud. “I know. It’s just that I was in Henrietta this morning and it’s been a long day. Forget it.” 

“Well, you should time your freakouts better. Like, how is this my fault." Ashley goes silent but doesn’t hang up. Declan doesn’t know what they’re waiting for, but he stays on the line and is eventually rewarded by her saying, "Look, maybe I could meet you partway. How far would you say the outlet mall is from Henrietta? A half hour?”

“Forty-five minutes,” Declan corrects. “Probably an hour at this time of day.”

“Ugh, you make it so hard to be nice to you. Look, first and final offer, I’ll head out there, which I’ve been meaning to do anyway, and you can meet me. How’s that sound?” Declan tries to think this over, but his mind seems determined to remain out of his control. He wonders if Edward is packing up his piano right now. “Hellooo?”

“Um, yeah," Declan says, struggling to get his thoughts in order. This is so kind that he thinks it must be a trap. "That sounds good.” He bites his lip, letting out a hiss of pain that Ashley ignores. “Look, uh. Thank you.”

Ashley lets out a thoughtful hum. “Hearing you be sincere is like watching an animal walk on its hindlegs. Like, it’s cute and all, but who's making it do that? Feels kinda mean.”

Declan takes a deep breath and miraculously doesn’t say anything rude. “I’ll see you there.”

A burst of last-minute paranoia causes him to direct Ashley to a rest stop a few miles from the outlet mall, a change of plans that she accepts with uncharacteristic grace. A few minutes after he gets there, she comes roaring up in her father's old truck, rusty and dented. He can see through the window of the cab that she doesn’t have a single shopping bag. She’s wearing a wrap that stretches well past the distressed ends of her shorts, and her legs are long and tanned. He thinks for one wistful moment of how easy it was to be with her, if only because they were both pretending to be something they weren’t. She stomps across the parking lot in heels high enough to bring her to his eye level, stopping in front of him with her hands on her hips. “Guess how many pretzel dogs you’re going to buy me to make up for dragging me all the way out here.” 

Declan’s lip has stopped bleeding and mercifully doesn’t start up again when he says, “Six?”

Ashley tilts her massive sunglasses down her nose. “I like the way you think. But look, are you...okay?”

Declan winces. In the still bright light of the summer sun, he feels a bit ridiculous for setting all of this in motion. “Yeah, I’m okay. Why don’t we get you those pretzel dogs?”

Once they’re set up in the back of the lot, Ashley perched on a concrete barrier and Declan leaning against a burnt-out light post, she says, “So? Declan, let me just say now that if you lured me here just to pull the same avoidant crap as before—”

“No, I—” Declan hands Ashley a pretzel dog when she gestures for it. There’s a car parked a few yards away, but it’s empty; he checked on the way over. Still, he finds himself scanning the lot several times before saying, “Edward and I are—dating. I guess.”

Ashley’s smile grows unnervingly wide. She reaches for his hands and holds them for a moment, the paper around her hotdog crinkling greasily against his skin. “That’s awesome! For how long?”

“A month.” He pauses, then adds, “And a half.” They have, in fact, been together just over two months, meaning this is now his second-longest relationship, but he doesn’t think Ashley needs to know that on top of everything else. “It’s been—” He can feel his face splitting into a smile despite the last few hours. “It’s been good. It’s been mostly good.”

“Aw.” Ashley takes a bite of her hot dog and says as she chews, “Lovey-dovey Declan is super cute by the way. Tell me about it. Tell me about him. Oh my God, tell me you have a picture.”

“Yeah, actually. It’s, uh—” Declan didn’t end up having to explain selfies to Edward after all. Shortly after he conceded that the new couch was better than his old one, Edward smiled and said, “This is a moment worth commemorating,” pulling away to a platonic distance and snapping the photo before Declan had a chance to protest. The picture itself is low-quality, poorly-staged with a pay-as-you-go flip phone. Declan is grimacing, and the harsh flash makes Edward look even paler than he actually is, but it gets the point across. Declan has been trying to avoid photographic evidence of this very stupid mistake he’s apparently committed to making, but there’s nothing damning about this particular image, and he likes it, not for what it is but for what it reminds him of.

“Hm,” Ashley says. Declan is surprised by how badly he wants her to be impressed. “I mean, he’s cute. He is! But didn’t you get enough of the, no offense, mystical bullshit when you were being all cloak and dagger in high school? Why not explore your sexuality with a nice boy who isn’t like, cursed or a zombie or whatever?" Declan freezes. He should have known better. All he’s done is give Ashley ammo and Edward another reason to pull away. Ashley continues, her tone slightly pitying, "But no, he’s cute. He’s obviously cute, and you look happy. And that’s what matters!”

“Hold on, hold on.” Declan’s head is swimming. It shouldn’t surprise him that Ashley knows more than he’d like her to, but he never expected to hear it stated so explicitly. “What are you—”

Ashley throws up her hands. “Oh my God, can we please skip over all the ‘ahhh I have no idea what you’re talking about; I had a totally normal high school experience and that’s my totally normal boyfriend’ stuff? There’s no reason to lie to me. I don’t know details. I’m not asking for details. I’m asking, are you okay?”

Declan forces a laugh, a belated and unconvincing recovery. “You really are softening with age, aren’t you? I’m fine, and I, not to be unoriginal, have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“No, sure, of course. Look, whatever. You’re very happy with your very human boyfriend. What’s up then?”

Declan, who’s very used to having to take what he can get, says, “Relationships,” and then stops. Using the word makes all of this feel too real. “Edward is just a bit—” He scratches at his cheek. Ashley’s slipped one of her sandals off and is dragging her salmon-painted toenails through the dirt, thick with cigarette butts. He has never been happier that they not only aren’t dating but will never date again. He tries, “I mean, you’re not...nice. So how do you deal with it when your girlfriend wants to talk, or gets insecure, or, you know, stuff like that?” He expects her to laugh. He certainly feels ridiculous enough, but she nods thoughtfully.

Her face is solemn even as she unwinds the soggy pretzel coating from her third lank hotdog and dangles it over her mouth. “So, first of all, I’m very nice. I talk to you about your feelings, don’t I? Second—” Having swallowed the dough in one unbroken piece, she turns her full attention to Declan. “I guess I think it’s worth it, and that helps me push past my own stuff. It’s awkward and undignified and really difficult, but it’s all worth it if you have a shot at love—at happiness.  Not that happiness should be this guy.” She levels Declan with a look that makes him feel like a scolded child. “Your happiness should not be this guy. But we’re human beings. We aren’t meant to live in isolation. If you want to connect with people, you have to make room in your life for them. You have to let them see you as you are. Which, again, sucks. I seriously can’t emphasize enough how much it sucks.” Her face goes slack and sincere. “Love is very humbling, and I don’t mean in some dopey, faux-deep way about the awe-inspiring grandeur of it. I mean it’s embarrassing and it hurts. But what you get makes up for it.”

It’s a good answer, sappy enough that he would doubt it coming from anyone but Ashley. Despite himself, he trusts her. The fact that she’s come this far makes him feel like an idiot for needing to say, “That’s why. I’m asking how.” 

“Oh.” Ashley goes quiet. A pigeon hops forward to peck at her crumbs, and she finally puts her feet back in her shoes. “I don’t have an answer for that except practice. There’s no trick to it; just start small, with the stuff you can say, and keep working on it. It gets easier.”

Declan slumps down next to her. He bought a change of clothes on the drive westward, but his new shirt is as stiff and uncomfortable as the muscles beneath it. He can’t do this. Ashley should know that. Edward must know that. He was stupid to let things get this far. Ashley says, voice softer than he's ever heard it, “Look, we can practice. Say to me what you can’t say to him.”

Declan takes a breath. He’s here. He can’t undo that, and he can’t unsay any of what’s been said. He might as well make it worth it. “Edward’s involved in some stuff that could have complications. He was talking about leaving for my own good, but—” He pauses, mentally testing out different endings. “I don’t want that.”

Ashley turns to glare at him, elbowing him hard in the process. He isn’t sure whether he’s meant to think it’s an accident. “Okay, do you remember like, five seconds ago when I asked if I should be concerned and you lied to my face? Because I do.”

Declan doesn’t allow himself a moment to marvel at the luxury of having two people to worry about him. "It's nothing. He's overthinking things. I mean, it's dangerous, but no more than anything else."

"Okay, well, your perspective is like, totally effed, so I can see why Edward's concerned." Declan is struck by the sound of Edward's name in Ashley's mouth. Their relationship has existed almost exclusively in their own private bubble; by telling Ashley, he’s endangered it and made it real all at once. “I’m going to trust your judgment because I don’t actually have another choice. So. You're aware of the risks, and you want to be with him anyway. Why can’t you say that to him?”

"I have. We've had this conversation about a dozen times. He's not listening, and I'm not going to beg him to stick around.”

Ashley sucks her teeth. "So I'm only asking this because I know you actually, like, pretty well, but have you ever said, in any of those dozen conversations, that you're aware of the dangers and you want to be with him anyway? Explicitly? Using those words or similar, not-soulless ones?"

"Of course I have!" Declan snaps automatically. Ashley levels him with a look so knowing that he's forced to admit, "I mean, maybe not those exact words, but—"

“Uh-uh, no buts. It’s going to save you a lot of time, energy, and heartache if you just say what you mean the first time instead of beating around the bush trying to sound appropriately cold.” She raises her eyebrows. “Look, here’s how I think of it. You’re right that he should probably be able to tell that you want him to stick around. That’s what your actions are saying, right? You did the hard part, you let him in, you probably let him see you at least kind of vulnerable?” Declan nods, thinking of Edward’s icy hand pressed against his forehead. “Right, so you’re already out there. Like, you’re off the cliff, all you have to do now is use your words to tell him what your actions are already saying.” She shrugs, frowning down at the dirt at her feet.

Declan suddenly appreciates how uncomfortable this must be, but he can’t stop pushing. “And that works for you?”

“I mean, sometimes. It’s not magic, but it helps. Look, I’ve never been this happy before. I get, statistically, that it won’t last, and I could let that make me bitter and careless, but I choose not to. If my relationship has to end, I don’t want to be the reason. So I’m trying my hardest, and I’m giving it my all, and when it’s over, I guess it’ll bruise my ego pretty badly, but at least I’ll know I didn’t stand in my own way.”

The dissolution of his relationship is already going to be his fault, but he can’t tell her that. He should have been more careful. He knows that. It’s just that he’s lived his entire life trying to anticipate the next crisis, and he’s tired. He thinks of the broken-hearted way Edward said, “You deserve something simple,” and concedes that that is what he wants. It’s just that he wants Edward too. Ashley slips an arm around him and squeezes. He tries not to sound suspicious when he says, “You’re being really nice.”

“Yeah, well.” Ashley leans her head against his shoulder. “Apparently once you’ve had a relationship based in emotional honesty and mutual support, it’s the only kind you want.”

Declan considers this. “That sounds awful.

“Pretty much.”

——

 

When Declan walks into the apartment, the first thing he sees is Edward sitting on the edge of the couch, still and silent. He doesn’t turn when the door opens, doesn’t smile when Declan walks through it, but he’s there. Relief floods Declan in a rush that nearly knocks him off his feet. He turns to lock the door to buy a moment to regain his composure. To the second of three deadbolts, he says, “I’m glad you didn’t leave.”

“If I were a good man, I would have. I am, as it turns out, selfish and weak-willed and preoccupied with my own happiness.”

Having wrung all of the stalling potential he can out of home security, Declan turns to find Edward watching him. He swallows hard. “I don’t think that’s such a bad thing. Wanting to be happy, I mean.”

“Of course not,” Edward says in the unconvincing tone of someone who thinks misery is a virtue. “Only when it comes at the expense of another’s well-being. I could have killed you tonight.”

This is a complaint Declan should be prepared for but somehow isn’t, so mired in the abstraction of how to talk about this that he hasn’t really figured out what he ought to say. “But you didn’t.”

“But I could have.” Suddenly Declan is being crushed against the wall of Edward’s chest. He thinks it seems like a weird though not totally unwelcome time for a make-out session, but Edward just buries his face in Declan’s neck, hair tickling his earlobe. “I could have," he whispers, the words barely audible. He's shaking very slightly, a tremor Declan can feel in his own body as he holds him close. After several long minutes in which Edward seems to be trying to inhale him, he pulls back just far enough to make eye contact. “I haven't wanted to ask you this. I've been afraid to face the answer, another display of unforgivable selfishness. Does it not matter to you whether you live or die? Is that why you’re able to stomach my presence?”

Declan pushes Edward away from him—or he puts his hands on Edward’s shoulders and Edward moves, graciously, in the direction indicated. Declan walks deeper into the apartment, keeping his back to Edward so he doesn't have to see the pitying look on his face. “Of course I care. Why would you even—who says that?”

Edward, whose voice has been painfully soft throughout this confrontation, now reaches new heights of gentle condescension. “Because, darling, most people would have screamed. They would have run.”

Declan stops in the doorway of his bedroom, knowing the impulse to walk away has taken him as far as it can. He turns back, grateful despite himself for the distance between them. “Would screaming and running have helped? If you’d really lost control, would it have made a difference?”

“No, but—”

“Then what’s so bad about dying with a little dignity?" Declan jokes. Edward's face hasn't changed; he looks like he's already in mourning. Declan sighs. "Look, if I wanted to die, I'd be dead. I've had plenty of chances.”

"I didn't ask if you wanted to die," Edward says. "I asked if you care whether you live or die."

"You're splitting hairs now. Look, you didn't kill me, okay? You didn't even come close. It was dumb of me to come home bloody; I can admit that. It won't happen again. But I'm not going to stand here and listen to you act like it means something it doesn't." 

Edward frowns. “I won't apologize for worrying about you. You either don't grasp the severity of the danger you're in, or you simply don't care. Which is it?”

Declan averts his eyes. This is the moment. This is when he ought to be honest and vulnerable, when he ought to talk about trust and faith and the risk-reward ratio of their relationship. He could admit it if he could be sure it would work, but Edward has had hours to talk himself into a paranoid, self-hating fit. He drags his hands through his hair. "That's a bullshit question. I screwed up, okay? But I don't need you acting like you know what's best for me, and I definitely don't need the psychoanalysis. I'm perfectly fine. I've almost been killed before. I know exactly how much my life is worth to me, and I take it seriously." Edward looks distinctly unconvinced, and Declan's patience, never his greatest resource, runs out all at once. He snaps, “If you’re looking for an excuse to leave, you should just go.” This comes out sounding much more brittle than he intends, and he winces at the stricken look on Edward’s face.

Edward closes the distance between them all at once, leaning in to draw a finger down Declan's cheek so gently that he can barely feel it. It's miserable, like they're ending right back where they started. “That is not what I’m doing," he whispers. "How can you possibly believe that?”

Declan rolls his eyes and tries not to sound as stupid as he feels when he says, “Maybe because you’re always talking about how you want to?”

“How I should leave. Never once have I professed to want to.”

Declan bites his cheek, careful not to break the skin. It’s good that they’re having this conversation, even if it feels like having some crucial organ removed sans anesthetic. He can’t live like this, knowing Edward is always on the verge of losing his nerve. “It doesn’t matter. I don’t care how noble you think you’re being. You’re in or you’re out. You’re here or you’re not.”

“It isn’t that simple," Edward says gently.

Declan sets his jaw and looks him in the eye. “It is exactly that simple.”

He'd like to look away. He doesn't want to watch Edward think it over, weighing the pros and cons of being with him. He makes himself hold steady as emotions flicker across Edward's face, surprise and guilt and finally determination. After much too long, his hand trails along Declan's jaw, drawing him into a gentle kiss. When he pulls back, he smiles. “I’m here,” he whispers. The declaration does little to ease Declan's sense of foreboding, but he allows himself one moment more of denial. Edward kisses him again. "I want to be here."

 

 ——

 

Declan wakes up the next day to the smell of pancakes. He has no idea where Edward got his pancake recipe, but it’s killer, somehow turning whole wheat, bananas, and walnuts into something decadent. He puts off waking up until the smell gets too tempting to bear, and then he rolls out of bed and runs through an abbreviated version of his morning routine, which still takes about a half hour but leaves his hair disheveled and unruly.

In the kitchen, Edward is hunched over a skillet. He usually hums while he cooks, but now he’s so quiet that Declan can hear each time the spatula scrapes against the pan. There’s a smear of batter high on the back of his neck and an intimidating stack of pancakes on a plate next to him. Declan hangs back. It makes him feel strange to see the care with which Edward's hands move and know it’s for him. Now Edward fishes a fistful of coffee grounds from a bag on the counter and crushes them between his palms, the motion so smooth and effortless that Declan’s mouth goes dry.

He takes a breath and lets it out and says from across the room, ”We have a coffee grinder, you know.” Edward’s hands still. Declan hears the we too late and makes up his mind not to care.

“You never replace the grinder in the correct cabinet,” Edward says, somewhere between distressed and accusatory.

Declan raises an eyebrow. This is the first he’s hearing of any grinder-themed discontent, but he’s willing to believe that the one time a month he makes his own coffee instead of letting Edward do it and supplementing with Starbucks, he leaves it out or otherwise misplaces it. He’s not especially willing to concede that this is his fault, as Edward has spent his hours alone in the apartment refining an inscrutable and ever-changing organizational system that no one could possibly be expected to intuit. He offers unconvincingly, “Sorry?”

“No, it’s—” Edward shakes his head and pastes on a smile. “I’m being absurd. Don’t worry about it. Please.”

Declan yawns into the crook of his elbow. “I wasn’t going to." He nods to the stack of pancakes and to the egg-white omelet hidden behind it. "Thank you." He doesn’t usually have time for a sit-down breakfast, even with Edward’s unexplained culinary talent paving the way, but there’s a luxurious and unheard-of week of freedom between his summer internship and the start of classes, and he’s happy to make the most of it.

“It’s my pleasure.” Edward watches as he gets himself a plate. “I like your hair like this.”

Declan rolls his eyes, resisting the urge to fidget with his mussed curls. “Slept-on, you mean?”

“Yes.” Edward’s smile looks a bit wistful, and Declan feels a tendril of dread snake down his spine. “You’re always so put-together. It’s novel to see you unwound. To see you as you are.”

Declan isn’t sure what kind of response that merits, so he doesn’t bother providing one. Instead he carries his plate to the table and stares down it. He can tell what's coming, but he doesn’t see any reason to confront it before he has to. “If you say so.”

Edward waits until Declan’s taken a particularly large bite to say, “We should talk.” It’s cheap, the closeted vampire equivalent of dumping someone in a restaurant so they won’t make a scene. Declan means to say so but finds that he can’t force the words out. He takes in a shaky breath. “Can it wait?” He doesn’t want to be dumped like this, messy-haired in a stretched-out t-shirt. There’s no dignity in it.

“Time won’t change what needs to be said. I’ve already put this off too long.”

“Fine.” Declan chugs what’s left of his still-hot coffee, which doesn’t help with the feeling that he’s about to throw up. He gestures impatiently. “So? Talk.”

Edward turns away, fidgeting with the plastic wrap he’s stretched over the pancakes. “I should leave.” It’s far from the first time he’s said this, but now there’s no give to it, nothing to grab hold of to pull him back. The gentle, pitying smile on his face makes Declan’s skin crawl. "What is that trite human expression? ‘It's not you, it's me'?"

Declan bundles up his hurt and his misery and his totally unwarranted surprise, but before he can shove it all down deep where even Edward won't be able to see it, he remembers Ashley saying with improbable earnestness, "I've never been this happy before." At the time, part of him thought her advice was the dumbest thing he’d ever heard. He’s always believed that if you can't win, you have no business playing the game. Now, looking at Edward not looking at him, eye-to-eye with an ending, he thinks he sees her point. With futility running through his veins, he says, what he couldn't the night before. "You should stay." Then, knowing that at any second his ego might yank him back, "I'm asking you to stay. With me." 

This shouldn't be a big moment. As romantic gestures go, "I want you around" isn't an especially grand one. He can feel his muscles locking up, his heart calcifying, but when Edward reaches for his hands, he allows them to be held. He doesn't consider himself sentimental, but he gives himself this moment, thinks of nothing but Edward's hands in his, Edward's fingers pressed against his wrists. This isn't something he's going to have again. "It was selfish of me to endanger you," Edward says softly. “No one ever taught you to look out for yourself. I’ll have to do it for you.”

Declan tries, one last effort, “It’s worth it to me—the risk.” He shuts his eyes for a moment. He can’t humble himself any further than this. Not for Edward, not for himself, not even if it would bring his parents back and reassemble the jigsaw pieces of his life. 

For one vanishingly brief moment, he thinks it’s worked. One of Edward’s hands hovers by his cheek, close enough that cold seeps right into his skin. He moves as he speaks, his thumb brushing across the skin under Declan’s eye like he’s anticipating tears, his fingers curling along the curve of Declan’s skull. His voice is soft, which is worse. “It isn’t to me.”

Declan pulls away so quickly that his skin feels raw where it’s rubbed against Edward’s. “Got it.”

Edward’s face crumples pathetically. “Darling, I didn’t mean— You must know I didn’t mean—” He reaches out again, but Declan pulls away, and he doesn’t follow.

Got it,” Declan repeats. The warmth in Edward’s eyes doesn't look any different now that he knows it's worthless. He takes a careful breath and lets it out, letting himself remember the person he used to be, the person who never would have let this happen, the person who might have been stupid enough to kiss Edward but would have known to walk first, the person he's let slip away inch by inch. It's in the neglected voice of the man he once was that he says, "Get out."

Edward flinches. "I can't leave knowing you don't understand—"

"I understand perfectly," Declan says, and he does. It doesn’t matter how many nice things Edward says, how many thoughtful favors he does. It doesn’t matter how nice darling sounds in his melodic voice. He’s been leaving practically since he first arrived, and in that respect he’s just like everyone else. “Get out of my apartment.”

Edward nods, but he lingers a moment longer, lips parted as if there’s anything left to say. Declan turns away in disgust, and when he turns back, he's alone.

When he first moved into his apartment, he was thrilled with the size of it. He’s never wanted for space, but everything in the Barns belonged to someone else at least as much as it belonged to him. The apartment was his and his alone. Both bedrooms, the den, the balcony from which he could stare down at the lights of the city. Now he’s struck by how it sprawls, all the space he’s going to have to get used to filling on his own. His entire life has been a study in loneliness, so he ought to be prepared for it now. It’s just that what he’s used to is a dull ache, made quiet by its constancy, and this is more like a stabbing pain. He gives it his best shot. He washes out his coffee mug and leaves it on the drying rack; sticks the pan and mixing bowl in the dishwasher; throws the pancakes and the half-omelette, with carefully modulated aggression, into the trash. Having accomplished those tasks, he looks around for more, but the apartment is as clean as it’s ever been. He realizes then how many everyday chores he allowed Edward to take over for him. He’s always prided himself on being self-sufficient, but now he doesn’t even know which cabinet his own coffee grinder is in.

There isn’t an inch of the apartment that doesn’t have Edward’s mark on it. There are throw pillows on the couch and framed needlepoints on the wall. There are doilies on the coffee table. Even Declan’s bedroom has a stack of books he would never read sitting on the nightstand. He slumps for a moment on the couch that isn’t his, cushioned by a pillow he didn’t buy, and can’t quite believe he’s let this happen. He allows himself five minutes of self-pity—it stretches to ten—before forcing himself to stand. Nothing has happened that he’s too weak to bear. Back in high school, this would have been a good day because he didn’t fear for his life even once. He might have let himself go a little soft, but he isn’t totally lost.

He lets himself into Edward’s room, wondering if it will be empty already. He hasn’t been inside since before they first kissed, since the last time Edward left. It looks much the same as before, somehow homey and rigid at the same time, but where the far wall once housed a bookshelf, now it’s covered with dozens of photos. The frames match the pictures they hold, studies in grey with heavy clouds and dull light. In one, the Washington Monument juts out of the ground only to be swallowed up by a stormy sky. Another centers a flowering bush, its blooms washed out and indistinct. A third zooms in on drops of rain clinging to the slopes and valleys of a massive tree trunk. It’s this last that jogs Declan’s memory. He remembers those bits of bark sticking into his back and how they reminded him of the night he met Edward, the rough brick wall tearing at his shirt, and how he dug his nails into the cowl-neck of Edward’s sweater to keep him from recoiling and retreating into himself. They kissed there, the only people dumb enough to be out in what was shaping up to be a storm for the ages, shielded from any security cameras by the bulk of the tree. These are all pictures of places they went together—Declan refused to call their excursions “dates” at the time and certainly won’t now. Edward must have gone back to each spot on his own, lurking until he could get just the shot he wanted.

Declan steps back so he can see all of the photos at once, and they blend immediately into an indistinct, colorless mass. He doesn’t have an eye for photography, but he can tell none of them are especially good, the one talent Edward doesn’t have. It feels worse somehow, this earnest foray into a field that didn’t want him. He can’t figure out what any of it’s supposed to mean. He can’t figure out why he didn’t know.

He pulls a frame from the wall and swings it into another, which doesn’t make him feel any better but, to its credit, doesn’t make him feel any worse. Most of the glass falls neatly to the floor, but one shard slashes his palm on its way down. He learns this when he checks his feet, clad only in thin socks, and notices that his hand is a good deal redder than it used to be. When he was working for Niall, pain used to make him feel regrettably present in his body. He remembers being beaten by a hitman and lying on the floor of his dorm room when it was over, feeling every ache his body had to offer down to a scrape on his arm from a wayward badminton racquet two days prior. Now he flexes his fingers and watches in fascination the split edges of his skin pull apart and come back together. It’s a shallow cut, but long enough for blood to start inching down his arm. He has the perverse urge to lick it, as if Edward’s inhumanity was as contagious as he believed it to be.  Instead, he wipes his hand against the glass of another frame—a river dark like an oil slick—and shuts the door behind him.