Actions

Work Header

Caïssa's Favor

Work Text:

The first time they met, Klaus asked Steven if he played chess.

"A little," he lied. "My grandmother taught me."

His grandmother had died screaming at visions of fire, encased in a tomb of ice. In her last moments, she'd sobbed prayers to Santa Esmeralda to no avail. She'd left bloody streaks in the path of her fingers. There were a great many things that she had taught him.

And what gaps she had left in his education, Bishop English had filled.

"Ah." Klaus brightened at that. He did not smile the way a normal man might, not with those fangs, but his body language spoke volumes. The idea of a chess partner pleased him deeply. "Do you think you might be interested in a game, later?"

Steven nearly laughed at that. They were at a Starbucks in the middle of downtown Austin, because it was convenient. He'd ordered something overly complicated to make the barista irritated, but Klaus only had water. Most people didn't even give Klaus a second glance despite his enormous size. Then again, there was no shortage of large burly men wandering around the area.

"The Reinherz has been compromised once in his life," Bishop English had said, when he'd told Steven about the arranged meeting. In theory it was to discuss a small coven of Blood Breeds that had taken up in the suburbs. In reality-- "There is a chance that he might be so again. If that happens ..."

He hadn't expected Klaus to be quite so tall. Or so large. Or to act quite so much like he was neither, politely offering his hand. His grip was steady -- not overly tight, like a man who wanted to show off his strength, or too loose, like a man self-conscious of the fact. He had a beautiful handshake, in fact, and that was not something Steven often thought.

What a strange man you are, Klaus von Reinherz. You have to know where I've come from. Is that why you want to play?

"Maybe later," Steven said. "Business first."

"Of course," Klaus said.

+++

"They feared her, you know. They had seen her fall and rise again, where no other person had. A full score of men fell, and here there was this woman who lived. Of course they were. You know how it was for women back then. They feared her, and so they fell upon her. They branded her as a heretic. A witch. As if they knew at all what a witch truly was!

"So they fell upon her. They concocted a trial and they condemned her, and they set her to burn. Ah, but do you know what happened after that? She called upon God as her protector, and every time they tried to set the wood beneath her aflame, it was simply doused. Ice swept in, though it was the middle of summer. Three times, they tried to burn her, and three times her blood turned to ice and put the flames out. After that, they declared it a miracle, and she was exonerated. Saint Esmeralda, the patron of those who must face the darkness. Take pride in that, Steven. You are part of a very important bloodline."

Steven scraped his shoe against the floor. It left bloodstains in its wake. One of the fallen men around him gurgled, low and wet; he wouldn't last another minute, from the sound of him. If Bishop English noticed, during his entire serene speech, he gave no indication. When he smiled, it was in the same way he greeted his congregation every week.

There was no blood on him, though Steven was covered with it. The lion and the lamb, Bishop English liked to call them. The hired help, Steven always thought.

He bowed his head. "Yes sir, Bishop English."

+++

A month and a half later to the day, they dragged themselves back from the burning wreckage of the coven den, the both of them battered and bleeding. It was late enough that no one was in the hotel lobby; the girl at the desk barely looked up from her magazine as they stumbled past. Steven ended up in Klaus's room somehow, following him through blind instinct, and once they were in the room, he ended up on the floor, flat on his back and staring at the ceiling. There were water stains.

"Don't you think," he said, "that as a Reinherz, you could afford more?"

"Mm," Klaus hummed. "There was no point in buying anything too expensive, was there? It does no good to waste money frivolously. It is clean and the bed is comfortable enough. What need is there for excess?"

Steven groaned. He covered his eyes with a hand. He thought about the expensive suits and the fine wines that Bishop English enjoyed. He thought about his grandmother's scarred feet and the soft slapping sound they made against the bare, grimy tiles of her kitchen.

He thought, as well, about the sheer ferocity with which Klaus threw himself into battle. There had been no hesitation to him at all; his battle instinct was truly amazing. He responded effortlessly to cues in his environment, he adapted immediately as things changed, and he was flawless in adjusting his style to work with someone whom he never had before.

In short, a fighting genius. Because of course a Reinherz was.

"Let's play chess," he said.

There was a pause. "Now?" Klaus asked. He'd sat down on the bed at some point, and now he leaned over the edge to look at Steven, still flat on the floor.

"Right now," Steven said. He tipped his head further back. "Do you have a board?"

"... I do," Klaus said. "But, Steven--"

"Then let's play," Steven said, and smiled.

+++

Bishop Thomas English was in his mid-sixties, a man of medium height and broad shoulders. He had a paunch that he mostly contained with a belt and a neatly trimmed gray beard and mustache. His voice was deep and booming, larger than seemed like would fit with his body. Over the years, he had taken to wearing halfmoon spectacles low on his nose, and he liked to look at people over them when they were being particularly foolish.

He liked to look at Steven that way. He was doing it right now.

"So, you ended up playing chess with him?"

"He won," Steven said. He wasn't particularly embarrassed by this: he had said he'd only known a little, and Klaus was far better at the game than expected. For all that he looked like he was nothing more than solid muscle, the man was quite shrewd. "He accepted my request for a rematch at a later date."

Bishop English laced his fingers together and set his elbows on his desk. He leaned forward and tilted his head, so he could look at Steven over his glasses. "And the situation?"

"Handled, of course." Steven shrugged. Bishop English didn't mind when he kept his hands in his pockets, but he was always required to remove his shoes and his socks both whenever he entered the office. "There were five Blood Breeds. Four were neutralized and one was captured, as you requested. Sir."

"So I noticed," Bishop English said dryly. "That was quite a nice touch, letting the Reinherz handle the actual binding."

"That's what the Brain Grid specializes in," Steven said. He stared at a point just over Bishop English's shoulder, letting his eyes unfocus just enough that he appeared like he was looking the man properly in the face. "There was no trouble in the transport, was there?"

"No." The good bishop sounded almost reluctant to admit that. "Between the ice and the rest, it held remarkably well. It will make a fine test subject."

Of course it will, you old ghoul. Steven nodded, fixing a pleasant bland smile on his face. He had his reservations about how actually useful Bishop English's little project was, but the man himself was convinced, and that was what mattered. You'd love it if you could do away with the dependence on the Reinherz in general. Him and his family both.

Aloud, though, he said, "Will that be all, sir?"

"There's rumors of a high-ranked vampire in Brisbane," said Bishop English. He didn't like to use the phrase Blood Breed, because he thought it was inelegant, and because that was how they referred to themselves, and Bishop English did not like to make concessions like that. "Why don't you and the Reinherz go and investigate?"

"The both of us, sir?"

"The both of you." The bishop picked up his papers at that; Steven was clearly dismissed. He did not look back as he turned and gathered up both shoes and socks and left.

+++

What they thought was a Blood Breed turned out to be a small colony of yara-ma-yha-who, and those were quickly dispatched of. Bishop English did not sound terribly impressed, but congratulated them anyway. Ghouls have been appearing at a rapid rate in Dayton, Ohio. Perhaps you check that out, as well.

Remember, though, your primary job is to keep an eye on the Reinherz. You mustn't let yourself be distracted from that. You've done very well so far, Steven.

They played chess on the plane back to the States. Steven lost again.

+++

"Please," the young man said. His eyes were wide and rolling; he couldn't quite focus on Steven. He'd already pissed himself, a dark patch at the crotch of his pants. He clasped his hands and raised them up, his arms shaking. His knee was shattered and the blood loss had left him very pale. "Please, sir, you don't understand, I have a mother, I have a daughter, I have people waiting for me."

Steven looked around the room. Three men were already dead, their ribs broken open and their hearts removed. A fourth was wheezing his last. The remains of many more people were piled in the corners of the room, in pieces of varying sizes; the two other Hunters who had come with Steven to this room had taken one look and fled to be sick in the bushes. Scorchmarks pockmarked the floor next to the makeshift little altar. The entire room smelled sickly-sweet. Blood was spattered all over the young man's hands. He didn't seem to notice, reaching to tug at the ends of Steven's jacket. "Please, sir, have mercy. Have a little mercy."

The man's family had been his first victims. By all accounts, the little girl had taken the longest amount of time to die. There were still faint scars on her father's face, around his mouth and on his cheeks, like the tracks of tears.

"I'm afraid," Steven said, "that I am the wrong man to ask for anything like that."

He put his foot down and watched ice cover everything.

+++

"It seems like the Reinherz is coming to trust you," Bishop English said.

He stood by the window with his hands clasped behind his back. Outside, the church garden was in lovely full bloom: the first warm rush of spring had swept across the area, leaving open flowers and soft green leaves in its wake. It was well-known that Bishop Thomas English had the best garden in the entire county, and he did his best to maintain that reputation. It was one of the few things he did himself; he liked that he could raise and direct things with his own hands, he said; it was like being a father.

Or like being God, Steven never pointed out. There was never a point to that. He nodded, knowing that the Bishop would see his reflection in the window glass. It had been nearly a year since the first incident in Texas; there was always something else to chase down, and so he and Klaus had never parted company.

"He trusts very easily," he said. "He's quite clever, but his nature is very simple. If you walk by his side, he trusts you, no matter what might be on your mind."

Bishop English snorted. It was a delicate little sound. "The whole family is like that," he said. "Except for the Madam. They're simple as beasts in that way, but she is the master."

"Even beasts have their place in the world," Steven said. That is how we are to you, those of us who use the bloodline techniques. We are the beasts of burden and the tools that you wish to cleanse the world with.

The comment got a low chuckle. BIshop English tilted his head back. It exposed his throat fully, but with his back to Steven, there was no way it was an actual opening. "That's true enough. You've done very well, Steven. I am proud of you."

Steven gritted his teeth, though he forced his expression to remain as neutral as before. He could recognize those words clearly for what they were: a reminder, and another link in the chain hobbling his ankles. Anything else he might have said dried up in his throat at that; in the end, he simply bowed his head low.

"Thank you, sir," he said. He thought about the way the bedroom had smelled, afterwards: not everything had been frozen. There had still been quite a lot of blood on the sheets and across the floor. His grandmother's fingers had been so thin and brittle, and yet she'd been able to claw gouges in the ice. Bishop English's glasses had been the only thing to reflect any light in the room, rendering his eyes invisible.

"I want you to stay with him," Bishop English said. Steven did not start or gasp at the sudden reply. That was his small victory. "The Reinherz. I want you to learn everything you can about him. I want to know everything about his movements. If you can arrange it so that you can meet the others of his family, I want to know about that. You're a clever man, and an observant one. I would be curious to hear about your insights on them."

"Sir." Steven inclined his head again. "As long as you give us leads to chase down, I don't think it will be very difficult."

He saw Bishop English's smile grow wider, in the window reflection.

"I can do that," he said. "Do me proud, Steven."

+++

When Steven had been six years old, he'd gone out barefoot into the snow. It had been over an hour before anyone noticed. While his mother had crossed herself and muttered about the blood, that demon blood, God take and preserve this child, his grandmother had gathered him up and pulled him inside. There, she had wrapped him in a coat, a scarf, and good thick boots.

"It is hard," she said, clucking her tongue, "but you must remember these. The world doesn't understand, and they will do worse than that fool mother of yours."

Twenty-five years later, he hadn't forgotten.

+++

There was an actual Blood Breed in Amsterdam, rumors that turned out to be bored teenagers in Tennessee, a colony of half-transformed victims banded together in Los Angeles, and an infant kraken that had somehow gotten released in Lake Tahoe. Between the creature reacting badly to the fresh water and the abundance of tourists, Steven ended up with a fractured leg that left him in the hospital for a week and bedridden for longer.

Klaus came every day, diligently, with presents of fruit and beef jerky. He drew the line at bringing in alcohol. He never said much during those afternoons, but his presence was a warm steady one.

They played chess after every incident. Steven lost each time.

+++

"You're doing very well, Steven," Bishop English said over the phone. His voice was tinny and distant. The reception was surprisingly poor in the suburbs. "I'm proud of you."

There had been a Stage 11 victim in the neighborhood -- a housewife whose affair had spun out of control. Klaus had wanted to reason with her, as if there was anything at all that could still be reached.

In the end, though, she'd snapped when he tried to hold out his hand to her. Maybe she thought he meant to trick her with it; maybe the last of her willpower had been sapped in trying to keep her predatory instincts at bay. When Klaus reached out to her, she went for his throat, and Steven had stepped in -- quite literally.

He considered saying a prayer later, when the cleanup crew came to deal with the body. Klaus was left with the unenviable position of talking to the woman's husband, but he completed that with surprising grace. Maybe that was the advantage of being a Reinherz. Maybe it was the unique sympathy he could bring to this sort of situation.

... or maybe it was because he was so huge that the husband didn't want to make it a fight. Steven wouldn't really blame him either way.

Instead of praying, though, he wandered a short distance and called Bishop English.

"You did what had to be done," Bishop English said, when the call finally connected. "Once they reach that stage, there is no way for them to recover."

There was a moment of silence. Steven did not point out the obvious.

"I don't think Klaus -- that the Reinherz liked it," he said.

There was a long pause after that. Steven could picture the look on Bishop English's face, completely bland and unsuggestive. He had certainly heard the slip. Whether or not he knew it was deliberate was debatable.

"Of course he wouldn't," Bishop English said at last. "But the Reinherz is ... predisposed to sympathy in this situation, even when he should not. He should know, best of all, just how precarious such control is."

"He's a very determined man." Steven half-turned so he could watch Klaus. He had finished his business with the victim's husband. The man was nowhere to be seen, and Klaus stood with one hand over his heart, his head tipped back to look up at the heavens. "It's rather admirable, really."

"If you say so." There was a lightness in Bishop English's voice that would have come with a smile on his lips and coldness in his eyes. "You mustn't forget what you're there for, Steven. The moment his reason shows any sign of slipping ..."

"I know," Steven said. He didn't bother to say good-bye or anything; he simply hung up and walked back to where Klaus was.

"Let's get dinner," he said, and then, "You owe me a game."

Klaus blinked. For a moment his eyes were distant, as if he were miles away -- and then he was there, grounded, by Steven again. He even smiled, though it was small and awkward.

"I do," he said. "Let's go."

+++

After a year and half, Klaus said, "Steven."

It was all he said, out of nowhere. It was early evening, and it would be a couple of hours yet before they would be heading out. The report this time around was that there a higher-ranked vampire had been spotted in Vegas, moonlighting as a dancer of all things. The next show wasn't until later, and so they were -- yet again -- playing chess.

"Hmmm?" Steven was distracted by the board, frowning at the position of their pieces. He was playing a better game than usual -- or perhaps Klaus was doing worse than usual. That seemed less likely. When Klaus said nothing else after that, though, he looked up. "What is it?"

"About Bishop English," he said.

Steven refused to react more than a slight tilt of his head, as if mildly curious. "What about him?"

Klaus's expression was serious. That was nothing terribly new: the man always looked serious, whether it was in the middle of a fight or looking over a cheap diner menu. He laced his fingers together and set his elbows on the table. It was a remarkably good imitation of how Bishop English liked to sit.

"He doesn't treat you very well," Klaus said.

"--huh?" Steven paused at that. Of all the things he had expected to hear, that had not been one of them. "What was that?"

"I understand that he is your patron," Klaus said, though there was a little twist to his mouth that said I do not, actually, "but he is not ... a particularly upstanding man."

"He's a man of God and the Church," Steven said. His tone was mild. He set his chin on one hand, staring at Klaus. "Are you suggesting that is not enough?"

"It is not," Klaus said. He sounded almost reproachful now. "You know that, Steven."

"Do I?"

"You do." Klaus frowned slightly at that, leaning further forward. It was amazing how a slight downturn at the corners of his mouth made him look that much fiercer. Even after a year, Steven still felt the back of his neck prickle and his heart pick up speed.

Fight or flight, and neither of those are things you can hope to win. No wonder the Bishop and his cronies are nervous about him. Steven cleared his throat. He pulled at his tie to loosen it slightly.

"Even if he is," he said, "and I am not saying that it's so, what do you propose I do about it? Bishop English has been my sponsor for years. He was friends with my grandmother."

Do not trust a man who speaks of hellfire as if he knows anything of it. The bottom of Hell is cold, though you must pass through flames to reach it. He does not know. We know.

"I owe him a rather steep debt, as well," Steven went on. His voice was smooth and calm; these were things he'd said so often that they rolled off his tongue with barely any thought. "There were some ... incidents surrounding the transfer of the Esmeralda School's mastery. It's only because of Bishop English that I am able to be here today."

Your grandmother was steeped in hellfire, and the ice in her bones kept it at bay. You would do well to remember that, Steven.

"He is not a good man," Klaus said. He said it so calmly -- almost politely -- that for a moment, Steven didn't even register that he'd said anything less than complimentary. A beat later, though, he leaned further forward, more intent than before, and the sheer weight of his aura was enough to make Steven push back in his chair. "He doesn't have your best interests in mind, let along the world's. You must be careful of him."

"Klaus," Steven said, and then, because he couldn't think of anything else to say, he made a noise of irritation in his throat. It was more than he had allowed himself in a long time. He rubbed his face with a hand and sighed. "... I know that. I'm not stupid. But it's true that Bishop English isn't terribly interested in letting me pay him back in full."

If anything, Klaus's expression grew more severe at that. "He won't let you?"

Steven sighed. He leaned back in his seat and let himself slump. He kicked out a leg, idly. There was no threat in the gesture: without actual pressure, the needle wouldn't go into his foot, and there would be no blood. "When I say I owe him a debt, it's not as simple as money or material goods. It's the sort of thing that can only be absolved when the person owed decides they're satisfied."

A low rumble rose out of Klaus's throat at that. His eyes narrowed. "What on earth--"

"Ah." Steven held up a hand at that. He didn't look at Klaus as he did; he was not entirely certain, anymore, that he wouldn't simply say, if he saw that face. Would it be fear? Or would it be--

"That's not any of your business, Klaus. Leave it be."

"I cannot," Klaus said. He said it with more passion this time, and he moved his hands to brace them now against the table. The tension was radiating off him in practically visible lines. "I cannot just stand aside and watch something like this, Steven. You are in trouble. You are my friend. I wish to help you."

"Your friend?" He didn't mean to say it quite as incredulously as he did, but there it was: it came out high and sharp. His eyes went wide as he stared. It was a good thing, he thought distantly, that Klaus was not like Bishop English, who would pounce on that expression and tear it apart. A beat later, he narrowed his eyes, and he smiled, wide and poisonous, close-lipped. "Is that what I am?"

"Of course," Klaus said. It was infuriating, the way he just stated that, without any hesitation or uncertainty. Most people would doubt themselves when answered with that, but not Klaus Reinherz. What a beast of a man, indeed. "So I don't think it's such a strange thing, to be concerned for you. Please, Steven. I want to help you."

"You--" Steven just stared for a few seconds, incredulous. Was this man for real? How was this man real? "Didn't you hear anything of what I said?"

"I did," Klaus said. "I also heard what you did not say. All of it, Steven."

And wasn't that a thing to hear? Steven rocked back in his seat. His heart was going too fast and there was a ringing noise in his ears. For the first time since his grandmother's death, it felt like someone was looking at him and seeing him, as he was, and ...

Well. He didn't like it. It made his skin prickle and his throat dry; his foot itched to slam down and put up a wall of ice between them and give him the chance to bolt. It might be foolish to run from a Reinherz, but for a few mad seconds, that seemed preferable than just sitting here and being looked at like that.

"You know that Bishop English is looking for the chance to kill you," he said. He didn't know quite why he said it: maybe he wanted to hurt Klaus with it. Maybe he wanted to hurt himself. "I'm here to gather that information on you."

"I know." Klaus's expression did not change. That was even more infuriating. "I have known since you first came to me. He is not the first, nor the only. He is only the most active."

"You knew?" Steven's voice rose further at that. He was shouting -- no, really, if he was honest, he was shrieking, and surely someone was going to come soon, but he couldn't make himself care. "You knew? But you still--"

"Your chess game is very good, Steven," Klaus said. He was calm now, as if Steven's mounting fury was enough to soothe whatever temper he'd had. "You play hard and clever, and you always play to win. You cast aside lower pieces without a second thought if you think it will get you what you want."

Steven stared. Klaus was trying to make a point, he knew, and he knew that he would likely be able to grasp it more easily in any other situation, but now -- right now -- it was slipping him entirely. "So?"

"But, when you are in an actual fight, you do not do that." Klaus picked up one of the pawns he'd captured. He gestured with it at Steven. "The incident with the kraken. The children in Tennessee. The golem in Romania. The caster girl in Utah. When you are on the field, you act very differently."

Steven continued to stare. His heart was roaring in his ears now, so loud that he could barely hear what Klaus was saying. "So?"

"In your own head, you are very collected," Klaus said. "You are cold, like your ice. When you do not have to see the faces of those people that must be discarded to ensure obtaining your prize, you have no problems in making that gamble. But when you see the actual people ..." He took the pawn and placed it down in the last row of his side of the board, right next to his king. "You adapt your strategy. You do not sacrifice those who have done no wrong, or who have only made mistakes."

A laugh bubbled out of Steven. It was raw and ugly; it made his throat ache. Was the man even listening to himself, the things he was saying? Who the hell would believe anything like that? No one who knew Steven Starphase believed anything like that.

"You're wrong," he said. "Those kids in Tennessee? I would have killed them all if you hadn't been there. I would have let them all freeze to death. That sort of thing draws the attention of real Blood Breeds too easily. We don't need more idiots in the world thinking this sort of thing is glamorous--"

"No," Klaus said.

Steven glared. "I would have."

"No," Klaus said. "You would not."

"I think I know my own mind, Klaus--"

"You are not terribly kind to yourself," Klaus said. He sounded sad about that. He kept one huge fingertip pressed to the head of the pawn, and finally he broke eye contact with Steven to look down at it. "But no matter how mired you think you are in the darkness, you continue to struggle towards the light."

"Klaus ..."

"As long as you do," Klaus said, and he looked up at that, "as long as you continue to struggle for it, as long as you face the light and make your way forward, even if it's only a single step, you are still that one step closer. Your spirit will never break."

+++

Steven was seventeen when it happened.

It had been both an accident and deliberate: his grandmother was sick, her once-powerful body withering and fading before his eyes. His mother was long-gone, having slipped out one night without returning, and he did not terribly miss her.

But his grandmother, though: even between his own small income and the checks that came monthly for his grandmother, there wasn't enough to take her to a doctor, and Steven had rapidly come to realize that there was nothing a doctor could do. She had always been a fighter, but there was one opponent that could not be beaten. The battlefield was her mind, and her body suffered as a casualty. He learned to be a light sleeper during those months, ready to dash to her room before she began to scream and the neighbors would complain.

He didn't want to say that there was anything noble about what he'd done. She had been suffering, but she was almost gone; it was just her body and her voice, and everything that had been her was fading away in bits and pieces. Those were true, but he had still made the decision, and it had not been for her sake, but his own.

One night, when she'd been sleeping peacefully -- for a rare once -- he went into her bedroom and he put his hands around her neck. At first he thought he might be sick, just seeing that. Her neck felt so thin, like it would take no pressure at all. He wanted to vomit -- he wanted to run -- he wanted to do anything but what he did instead, which was to take a breath and tighten his grip.

Her eyes opened. She stared straight up at him, without a single spark of recognition. Her mouth opened as well and her chin trembled. Steven tightened his grip so she couldn't even draw in the breath to scream. As he did, she kicked out hard with a leg -- not at him, though, but at the metal posts at the end of her bed.

Later, he would think back and realize why she had those. As a child, he'd been confused by their existence. As an adult, he had the same installed on his own bed.

He smelled the blood before he turned his head. Her skin was so fragile now, paper-thin, and it tore easily gashing up against the sharp metal. Once she did, though, a chill shot through him that had nothing to do with the gross weight of what he was trying to do -- it was an actual freezing bite, and when he snatched his hands away they were bright red with bits of frostbitten skin. Now freed of his grip, his grandmother opened her mouth and she began to scream, thrashing violently across her bed, and her blood was everywhere. It amazed him, actually, just how much of it there was. Hadn't she just cut her foot? How could there be that much?

Oh, Hellfire, oh, smoke and flames, oh, Holy Santa Esmeralda, saints preserve and protect! I am not ready for Hell!

As Steven stood with his back to the wall, ice crystals began to form, rising up out of the puddles of blood his grandmother left on her blanket, and these were clear and pure, wrapping her up in a strange coffin of ice spikes. I am not ready, I am not going to burn, I will not fall into the Pit!

And then the ice had closed up over her face entirely, muffling her screams entirely. He could see her still moving around, but the ice grew thicker and thicker, and then he could not see her at all.

+++

"My spirit will never break, is it? I don't know about that, Klaus. I think my spirit broke years ago."

+++

"What a mess," the man in the dark robes said.

He was tall and broad-shouldered, with salt-and-pepper hair and a thick beard. He clucked his tongue as he looked over the mess of the room, and then down at Steven.

"You could be in a great deal of trouble, young man," he said. "You forced our current Esmeralda master to suicide, didn't you?"

Steven turned his head slowly. He stared at the man without blinking. "What?"

The man frowned. He crouched down now, next to Steven, and reached out to take his chin in one broad-fingered hand. After a moment, he hummed.

"I see," he said. "Young man, I have a proposition for you." He leaned back now, enough that he could offer his hand. "My name is Thomas English. I was a friend of your grandmother's. I think we'll be able to help each other."

Steven looked at him. He looked at his grandmother on the bed.

He took that hand and let Bishop Thomas English pull him to his feet.

+++

"Because let me tell you, Klaus, the things I've done--"

"I have done terrible things as well," Klaus said. His voice was quiet, but it was heavy; there was something rumbling in it, just below the surface. "I have also committed sins against those who did not deserve it. I am also struggling to walk the proper path, Steven. I do not know where it will take me. But I mean to follow it as best I may."

Steven jerked at that. Klaus hadn't moved at all, but Steven still stumbled -- when had he gotten to his feet? -- as if he'd been physically struck. One of his hands came up to clutch at his chest. He couldn't breathe.

Things weren't that simple. They could not be. The world was too hard, too rough -- too angry and bitter and ready to tear into itself at the smallest provocation. There was no way that such a simplistic attitude could be right. It was only because Klaus had been so sheltered the whole of his life -- loved and adored by his parents, protected by them and his brothers, with all the weight of the Reinherz name behind their influence. He had never seen what it was like, to watch his only family die -- to have been driven to a point where it felt like killing her was a mercy, only to watch as that was ripped away from them both ...

His stomach churned. He wanted to be sick. Instead he swallowed hard, several times, and clenched his fists.

Klaus von Reinherz is compromised. He rushed in, when his elders and betters warned him against foolish action, and he is not the only one who paid the consequences for his actions. He must be monitored. There's no way of knowing if he will snap again, or if he will turn after all. The Brain Grid Technique is too valuable to lose, but we cannot risk that he may turn against us in time. He needs to be watched.

"You have no idea," Steven said. His voice was low and shaking. He was shaking. His foot lifted, though he just hovered like that, balanced on the other, with his head low and his shoulders pulled up tight. "You have no idea what sort of person I am."

"I know better than you think," Klaus said. "You may rage as you like, Steven, but I am not afraid of you."

"You should be. If you knew even a bit of what I could do--"

"I know," Klaus said. "Steven. We have been working together this long, haven't we?"

We have. Steven opened his mouth to agree. His voice, however, remained dried up in his throat. He stared at Klaus, and it took him a few seconds to realize he was gaping. When he gestured with his other hand, wildly, to say, We have worked together for a year and a half, but all we do in our free time is play chess, and you're a fool if you really think something like that is enough to know a person!

And Klaus nodded, as if he had somehow heard all of that. Perhaps he had.

"I trust you, Steven," he said, and so sincerely that it was impossible to doubt him. Steven tried -- he focused on his usual distrust, his dislike, all the things that both his grandmother and Bishop English had taught him -- and he found that he couldn't.

Who was this man, Klaus von Reinherz, to make himself so believable even here and now?

"I trust you," Klaus said again, "because I have seen the sort of person you are, when you are in your own head, and when you are with the world proper. I have stood by your side and put my back to yours. You have never faltered. When you haven't thought about it, you advance. That is more important, Steven, than making the calculated step."

"You ..." Steven sighed. He put his foot down -- gently, not enough to trigger the mechanism -- and rubbed at his face. "I'm going for a walk."

"Very well." Klaus began to gather up the pieces of the chessboard. "Please be sure to return before tonight's show."

"Tonight's show," Steven said blankly, before he remembered: ah, yes, the Blood Breed dancer. A laugh nearly choked its way out of him, too close to hysteria. He bit it down. "Ah, right. I won't be late."

He almost said something more. Good-bye, or perhaps just good evening, but neither of those seemed appropriate. Klaus only nodded to him, though, and continued with picking up the chess board. Steven stared at him for a few more seconds, and then turned to walk out of the room.

+++

He could call Bishop English.

No, really, he should call Bishop English. The Reinherz has realized what you're trying to do. He's not upset, but he isn't happy, either. I'm compromised. There's no other way out.

Steven did neither. Instead he walked.

First he went down to the lobby and hesitated there. It was reasonably full of people milling around. What were they doing with their lives? Did they realize there were things in the world that would and could easily tear through their fragile bodies without a second thought -- did they know that somewhere there was a thing in the shape of a human, putting on makeup and adjusting their costume, and that someone would end up with their throat torn out or worse?

... If they did, would they care at all, so long as they were safe?

Bishop English would say no. That was the lot of humans; that was why they needed the guidance of higher beings. God, perhaps, or at least the people that He had chosen.

His grandmother would have also said no. In the photos Bishop English had shown him, of her in her youth, her eyes had been hard and cold; she favored skirts even into battle, but she had always slit them up the side, all the way to her hip, to keep her legs free. "She did that to distract the men who tried to fight her," Bishop English had said. "She was often very successful that way."

And no, Steven himself would say. Humans were foolish and easily distracted; they were afraid of what they could not control or understand, and so they sought to dominate it ... or they chose to forget. They looked away. Steven's entire life had been looking away.

But--

"Yes," Klaus von Reinherz would say; he would also look at the question like it was a foolish one -- but his answer would be the exact opposite. Even staring the worst of humanity in the face, he believed.

How did a man like that exist in the world? How did he survive with that sort of attitude, never once giving up?

"We are here to protect the world for the children of God," Bishop English liked to say. "Our duty is to keep their innocence safe. It is a difficult lot that we have, but we are the ones who see. We are the adults in this world. We understand, and so it is our duty to preserve."

Steven lingered in the doorway of the lobby for nearly a minute. Then he turned around and went back: not by the elevator, but by the stairs.

How had this happened? Why had this happened? He kept turning the question over and over, and none of the answers he came up with were satisfactory. They were all too simple.

Because that is the sort of man the Reinherz is -- that, and just that? That might explain Klaus, but it did not explain Steven's own compulsion.

Because I also believe in people like that -- no, Steven had stopped believing in any sort of purity long ago.

Because I want to believe in his belief.

That ... might be more on the mark.

He hesitated on the floor where their room was. All of the doors were closed. Klaus was not wandering the hallways. He actually felt a little better for that. After a beat, he continued up the stairs, now headed for the roof. There were a great many -- the hotel itself was twenty-five floors -- but he kept his head down and his hands in his pockets and he walked.

There was a small gate at the very top of the stairs, a Keep Out sign that warned that guests were not allowed on the roof after hours. It barely came up to Steven's hip, and he climbed over it easily. Maybe there were cameras that would catch his face; he hardly cared.

He pushed open the door and stepped out. This high up, the winds were sharp and cold, immediately whipping at his hair and clothes. He stood there and tilted his head up. The sky was already a dark royal blue in color, the last bits of orange and pink sunset now mostly faded smears.

Down below, the entire city glittered like diamonds -- cheap ones, rhinestone glass pieces bought at a pawnshop and scattered across fake velvet. This high up, any people walking on the Strip were rendered invisible.

This high up, the entire world seemed rather terribly distant.

Steven walked to the edge. There was a fence in place, and he hooked his fingers in the fine mesh. It would be easy enough to climb over, if one was determined enough.

He set the toe of one shoe into the mesh and let it take his weight. If he just leaned a bit further, just a bit harder, it would give way entirely. It'd take more effort than if he had Klaus's bulk, but he wasn't a small man, himself.

For a moment he pushed. It wasn't really that much, just enough to hear the metal begin to groan, and then he pulled back. He put his foot down. He turned away from the edge and he went back inside, down ten flights of stairs to the hotel room.

When he went inside, Klaus was in the bathroom. He'd left the door open, and he was adjusting his tie in the mirror.

"Ah, Steven," he said. "Welcome back."

Steven stopped and stared. Welcome back, like it was no big deal. As if Steven hadn't spat all sorts of horrible things at him, as if there hadn't been something ugly and heavy in the air between them.

I trust you, he'd said. It seemed like he'd actually meant it. Steven snorted, and that quickly became a laugh. He dragged a hand down his face hard, then dropped it.

"I'm back," he said. "Are you interested in dinner before the show?"

"I made reservations," Klaus said. "I hope you don't mind."

"Not at all," Steven said, and for the first time in over a year, he found he meant it.

+++

After the Blood Breed in Vegas, there was a small zombie outbreak in south Florida, a stray herd of kelpie in Connecticut (how that had happened, Steven wasn't sure), and another Blood Breed in San Francisco. Bishop English sounded more exasperated each time Steven called him to report their movements.

"I didn't tell you about that one," he said finally, about a Level 5 victim in the middle of Wisconsin. His voice was clipped and short. "Where on earth did you hear about it?"

"Oh," Steven said, as if it was a surprise. There was a smile on his face, though, and he knew it was obvious in his voice as well. If anything, he tried to emphasize more of that when he spoke. It would be infuriating for Bishop English, whose presence, Steven had found over the course of the year, diminished when they weren't speaking in person.

Steven hadn't been back in months.

"That was one of Klaus's contacts," he said. He didn't bother to try and correct himself. Bishop English was the sort of man who would read precisely too much into that statement. For a rare once, he'd be completely correct to do so. "We were already in the area, so we thought it might be a good idea to check it out."

There was a long silence following that. At the end of it, Bishop English sighed. "Steven. You know."

"I'm doing as you've told me," Steven said. He almost laughed, though he bit it down at the last second. "I'm keeping an eye on 'the Reinherz,' and I'm doing a good job of it, if I say so myself." He glanced aside. Klaus was waiting patiently in the car, his hands folded over his chest and his eyes closed. Vivaldi was playing. "We're on our way to follow up on reports in New Orleans. We are doing good in the world, Bishop English. Isn't that nice?"

There was another silence; Steven imagined Bishop English setting his jaw and grinding his teeth. He was at least composed enough to keep the phone away from his mouth for that. Eventually, though, he said, "Steven, I don't want you to--"

"You don't want us to do good? Why, Bishop." He adjusted his grip on the phone as the gas pump jerked in his hand. The tank was full. "Isn't that the opposite of what you've always told me?"

"Steven," Bishop English said. Ah, he was angry now. There was a crackle of static over the line. The man had no bloodline powers of his own, but if he could be said to have any skill, it was his calm. He had to be trembling now. "You know that's not what I meant. You're a clever man. I wish you wouldn't play stupid."

"I don't know, sir," Steven said. Klaus glanced up as Steven replaced the gas cap, and and he raised a hand in response. It's done, I need to pay now.

Klaus nodded. Very well. I will wait. He bowed his head and closed his eyes again.

"Steven," Bishop English said. His tone was sharp, as if he'd been repeating himself. Maybe he had been. Steven didn't particularly care one way or the other. "Come, now. You know that we have quite the history. It would be quite terrible if--"

"We do," Steven said. He paused outside of the doors to the gas station. His reflection in the window was still smiling. "And I hope you know, Bishop, that it means that I know just as much about you."

He hung up on that silence. The cashier looked at him oddly as he picked up a soda (for himself) and a packet of mint gum (for Klaus) and came up to pay. Perhaps he did make a properly odd figure: a man in a sharp suit with an equally sharp scar cutting from his temple down across his cheekbone, smiling to himself.

--And whistling too, in fact. Not the Vivaldi that Klaus favored, or the other classical pieces he insisted on when they drove. He went for Piazollo instead, as his grandmother had favored.

Once he'd paid and was back in the car, Klaus opened one eye and looked at him. He accepted the gum Steven handed him without breaking eye contact.

"You've upset him," he said. "Your bishop."

"He isn't my bishop," Steven said. After a moment, though, he sighed. "He isn't happy, no. He doesn't like losing control of a situation. And he feels like he has, here."

Klaus rumbled in his chest. The tone was distinctly disapproving. "You are not a 'situation,' Steven. You are a person."

"And so are you," Steven pointed out. "But the Church is still worried about what you might do."

"They aren't wrong to worry," Klaus said.

"They aren't right, either." Steven started the car. "... He's going to hold that grudge."

"Mm," Klaus said. "He isn't the first."

Steven glanced at him sidelong. In spite of everything, Klaus still seemed completely relaxed, leaning back in his seat with his arms crossed over his chest. One finger tapped against his arm in time with the music.

"He's done some awful things," Steven said. "Bishop English."

"Mm."

"And so have I," Steven said. This part was a tired argument by now, but he couldn't resist it. It was like picking at a healing scab, or closing his fingers impulsively over the broken edges of a bottle. "And not just because he ordered me."

"Mm." Klaus closed his eyes. "And I have as well. Very few of us in this world live entirely blameless lives. But if through that, we can keep even one other person's hands clean ... then I would say that it's worth it."

Steven sighed again. "You're an unfair man," he said. "Saying things like that."

"It's only the truth."

"Still." Steven reached for the volume and turned it gently up. "How unfair."

+++

Two months after that, as they wrapped up an incident with a low-ranking Blood Breed in Rhode Island, Klaus's phone rang. That was a rare enough occurrence that Steven paused to look over, raising an eyebrow. Klaus turned away, but he didn't bother to lower his voice. He answered in English, but switched to German a beat later. He spoke much more quickly than he did in English, his shoulders set. Steven, whose German was passable but not his best language, caught only about half of the conversation.

A warehouse? Containing what? They have been doing things like that? What on earth did they think they would accomplish? Even if it is a war, my brother, I cannot understand the need for such things!

And Steven, standing off to the side, thought: aha, he's found out about Bishop English's little side project. Four Blood Breeds, collected carefully over the decades, frozen in place by their extremities through the Esmeralda Technique, while Church scientists cut into them, triggering the regeneration mechanism, watching how they responded to holy water and prayer and pain. It was for the good of the world, Bishop English had said, when he'd first explained it to Steven; they were gathering so much valuable information through this.

And now Klaus knew.

That was all he needed to hear, really. He wandered off after that, to stand by the car and wait for Klaus to finish the rest of the conversation.

When Klaus returned, he was frowning sternly. The distress practically radiated off of him in waves. He stopped about a foot away and said, "Steven."

Steven sighed. He found himself wishing for a cigarette, when he hadn't had one in years. I'm unhappy about this, Klaus had said in the single word of his name; I'm unhappy that I have become aware of this injustice in the world, and that it was done by people that I have known and trusted.

"It'll be faster if we fly there," he said. "Though he'll have guards waiting."

Klaus blinked, and said again, "Steven," by which he meant, thank you.

+++

"Why weren't you angry at me?" he asked later. "I knew about the whole thing. I could have said something earlier and stopped it."

And Klaus said, "Because I know the shackles a man's benefactor may have on his heart. And I know yours: it is in the right place."

+++

In the end, the confrontation was almost anticlimactic. Steven, who had been wondering about this day since he was seventeen, found himself nearly disappointed.

"Can you believe it?" he said to Bishop English, who sat on the ground with his head bowed. His hands were bound behind his back with Klaus's necktie, because they had nothing else to use. Other than his torn clothing and some scuffmarks on his face, though, he was unscathed. "He was so mad, I thought for sure we'd see some kind of greater reaction from him." He dragged the heel of his shoe against the ground. It made a small skidding noise. "But he didn't."

"Do you mean to gloat?" Bishop English asked. "I didn't think you had fallen so far from my teachings, Steven."

"On the contrary," Steven said. He tilted his head and glanced at Klaus, who was outside of the office on his phone. He was talking to someone in German again. "If anything, everything about this is something I've learned from you. Sir."

Bishop English glowered at that. His shoulders jerked, like the sudden burst of effort would be enough to free his hands. It wouldn't. Steven had tied the knot himself. "I am doing God's work, Steven. I thought you understood that."

"I understand you've been doing a lot of things over the years." Steven raised a hand when Klaus glanced back at him. It's all right, continue. "Did you really think no one would ever notice? I'm not the only Hunter you've had sending you back little souvenirs. Someone was going to notice."

"They don't understand," Bishop English said. His voice came out strained, the words forced out through gritted teeth. "It is necessary. These beasts have been allowed to run freely for millennia. It is intolerable, the amount of casualties we allow. I thought you, of all people, would understand that, Steven."

"Funny thing about that," Steven said. "I do now. I didn't before. But there's some things that I've learned over the past year or so, and it's given me a whole new perspective on things."

"The Reinherz?" Bishop English's lip curled. "Don't tell me you've bought into that way of thinking. It's soft, Steven. It will end up devouring them someday. When that happens, you'll be swept up in it as well."

"I might," Steven allowed. "That's fine. I've found something that I don't know you could ever understand, sir. Thomas."

The sound of his name made Bishop English jerk, as if he'd been touched by an electric current. His eyes opened wide and his nostrils flared. His face paled except for two bright spots of color on his cheeks. His mouth even fell open as he stared. He'd never looked so insulted in all the years that Steven had known him.

The gears were turning fast in his mind, that much was obvious in the look on his face. He could see the way Bishop English considered options and discarded them, flicking through them fast and frantic. He didn't like the idea of that. He'd never liked the idea of someone winning one over him. He was such a competitive man, even here and now.

It made Steven smile. He turned and walked closer now, stopping to lean down, until he could murmur it straight into Bishop English's ear. He could no longer hear Klaus's voice, but he could tell he was still there: a looming, inescapable presence in the doorway.

He wasn't watching, though. Another man might have said something to warn him, or come forward to stop him. Another man might have deliberately turned his back, knowing what Steven could do -- what he very much wanted to do.

But the odd thing was that Steven knew Klaus did not. He only wanted to give them privacy. Even here, even now, Klaus trusted him.

And that was enough to make Steven laugh a little as he said, not quite a whisper: "I've found something to believe in, Thomas. I hope to your God that you'll find the same, someday."

With that, he turned and he walked away. Bishop English said nothing -- he didn't sputter or protest or make any other sound -- but Steven could feel the weight of his unblinking stare the entire time.

Klaus looked at Steven as he emerged from the office. He stood at something close to military parade rest, his feet set apart and his hands folded behind his back. His expression was mildly concerned, though courtesy kept him from doing more than cocking his head and raising an eyebrow. Is it handled, then?

"It's done," Steven said. "You've contacted the authorities?"

"There will be police soon," Klaus said. "My brother has advised that we should not be in the area when they arrive. Shall we?"

"Of course," Steven said, and he made a sweeping gesture with his hands, an after you kind of movement. Klaus accepted this without question. He was the sort of man who had been bred to expect loyalty, and bedamned if he wasn't so very good at it. The thought should have annoyed Steven -- it still did, on some level, though he didn't particularly like to admit it.

But he still found himself smiling, as he followed Klaus out of Bishop English's modest little home-slash-laboratory, and out into the cool light of a late fall afternoon.

+++

"Check," Steven said.

It surprised him. Check wasn't entirely unusual for him, and less so with the passing months, but now it seemed closer to checkmate than ... well, he'd seen in a long while.

Klaus hummed. There was a very small smile on his face, with just the corners of his mouth turned up. "Mm. This is a good game, Steven."

As he said that, though, he took up his rook and swept it forward, neatly sweeping Steven's bishop out of the way. The gesture was so simple that it startled a laugh out of him.

"Checkmate," Klaus said. His smile widened at that; for the first time, he looked genuinely pleased by his victory. He studied the board for a moment, then looked up at Steven. His eyes were bright, even behind his glasses. The line of his shoulders relaxed.

You're so happy because of that, Steven thought. Is that all it takes? You're such a simple man. The world could destroy you.

Or is it that you'll change it? You might. I'd like to see that.

He held out his hand. Klaus placed his king into it.

Steven smiled.

"Good game," he said.