Macedonian Vampire in India"
DJ Clawson (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Rating: strong PG-13
Only with permission
Characters: Aristotle, Feliks, Larry Merlin, Janette, Qa'ra
Warnings: Slash (non-explicit), Het (somewhat explicit) Rampant cursing, vampires acting like vampires, rather frank discussion of vampire sexuality, excessive violence
Betas: Walt Doherty, Judith Cataldo
Nechung, Tibet, 1898
Though it was barely six miles outside of the bustling city of Lhasa, the enclosure of Nechung was a peaceful place, an idea summer residence for the country’s ruler. Since Thubten Gyatso, the thirteenth Dalai Lama, had chosen it as a personal retreat, it had been repainted and further beautified by both natural and imported flowers from Qing China and other botanical gifts from the monarchy of Sikkim, to whom the Dalai Lama was very close.
It was night and there were many guards – big monks, their clothing padded to make them appear more imposing, and actual secular guards with swords and shields. On the ledge Aristotle spotted one with a British rifle. Fortunately he had an invitation, but perhaps for not so late at night. Monks rose in the early morning and went to bed close to dusk, making vampire communications difficult. Still, an invitation – and that was a polite way of putting it – was not to be ignored. The monk who met him at the front door read the invitation scroll skeptically, sizing up the pale-faced man in British khakis, a heavy scarf, and a round safari hat before him before allowing admission.
Aristotle had been in Lhasa for three months
now, the first time since his departure shortly before the death of the seventh
Dalai Lama. After 1850, foreigners were banned from traveling within Tibet and
to be honest, it wasn’t the most hospitable landscape to wander about. In the
mountains it was far too cold and his blood might freeze because of his low body
temperature, and settlements were few and far between, meaning that he made more
than one meal of a wild yak. Still Dorje Choegyul insisted he come; there was a
new regime now that the Dalai Lama had reached his majority and it faced
invasion from the West. Only the Himalayas had prevented the British, now the
rulers of India and parts of Nepal, from crossing into the Tibetan plain, and
they were making considerable headway on the other side, deep into China. Dorje
was not so alarmist, but his master was, and asked
He wasn’t precisely sure what this summons was about, but he was ready to stumble into anything. His modern Tibetan was a little shaky; the Lhasa dialect had gone through considerable changes in a century, but he was a fast learner. There was considerably less ceremony than there was when greeting the Dalai Lama this time around; the young man on the throne before him was actually rather impatient about the complex kowtows of his servants and colleagues. Aristotle removed his hat and bowed his head, but that was all he would do. Fortunately they did not expect much of an ignorant foreigner. He sat, at last, on the long vertical mat facing the wall, so that he was not directly facing the living Buddha, and had to crane his neck to the left to address him.
“Can you understand me?” It was the first thing out of the young leader’s mouth in Lhasan Tibetan. He was twenty-two and small, even rather thin for a monk, dwarfed by his silk robes. His shaved head still revealed that what hair he had was steadily retreating.
“Palden Gyalto says you’re trustworthy. Is this true?”
“I will tell the truth as I see fit, Kundun.”
“What does that mean?” The leader was rather stern in his tone, but Aristotle’s feathers were hard to ruffle.
“It means everyone lies some of the time, to their own benefit or the benefit of others. As a statesman I am sure you are familiar with this concept. But when if you ask me if I have your country’s interests at heart and not those of the British, I will say for the most part, yes. This is true.”
“The British have conquered all of India, and now they will invade Tibet. Is this true?”
“The British seek glory and resources,” Aristotle replied. “Even if they won’t admit it to themselves. They believe they are good rulers but their army is already stretched. They won’t waste their time if they think there’s nothing to gain and they see very little for Tibet to offer them while they also see it’s so hard to reach. If it was, say, a rich kingdom with mines of gold and coal, they would make more of an effort. Or if it was accessible by sea.”
“China also, they will conquer.”
“China is very large. Many times the size of Britain. They don’t need to conquer all of it; they need to control its trade and its rich ports and maybe its government, and they already do all of that. Sooner or later they will overextend their empire. From there they will only shrink in size.”
“How do you know? Are you British?”
“No, Kundun. I am Macedonian.”
The Dalai Lama frowned. “Where is Macedonia?”
He chuckled. “It’s gone, Kundun. It will never be again. Just like everything we experience and see will never be seen again.”
“You are familiar with the Dharma?”
“A little bit, Kundun.” That was putting it mildly.
“Do you take refuge?”
“I do not take refuge.” On this he was stern. He did not take refuge in the Buddha, as the 4th Karmapa had pleaded with him to do. “The Buddha said, ‘Don’t follow me. Listen to my words and decide for yourself.’ So that is what I did.”
“You think you are smarter than the Buddha?”
“I think I am smart enough to understand his words.”
Whether the Dalai Lama took it as a direct insult was difficult to decipher. Either way he continued the conversation. “When did you first come to Tibet, inje?” The word meant “English” but also meant “foreigner.”
“A long time ago, Kundun.”
“Are you lying?”
“I am avoiding telling a lie or telling the whole truth. It would benefit me to do neither.”
“How old are you, inje?”
“Old enough to have known the Great Fifth, and young enough to know that I will know your successor.” He added, “If nothing kills me first.”
The Macedonian Vampire in New Mexico
Alex’s first instinct at seeing a flying lizard was to scream. Fortunately for his dignity it was not a loud scream, just sort of a yelp of surprise as a tiny green body came towards him, more of a leap than actual flight. “Hey!” He recognized Seleucus instantly; there were only so many vampiric green anoles in the world and even less that would be so eager to get to him. “Woah. Surprised me there. Hey, buddy.” Seleucus landed on his chest, holding onto the fabric of his shirt before skittering down to his hand, which Alex bit open so his fledgling could suck on his finger. “I missed you, too.”
“Wow. I have never seen him jump like that. He must be really excited to see you,” Amanda said. “So much for the surprise. Geez, he broke through the plastic wiring on his cage. Look at that.”
But Alex Nemcosky had no eyes except for his long-lost chameleon. “Ari says his brain’s too small, but he totally knows who I am. And yeah, hell of a surprise. Thank you.”
“I had very little to do with it,” Amanda said, averting her eyes. The lizard obviously still bugged her out. “LaCroix brought him over. I guess he heard you were coming to France and wanted to be relieved of his pet sitting duties. He said I would probably see you first. That and Elaine has better things to do than put blood in a gerbil water feeder. Still, he seemed to like him.”
“Seleucus is very likable.”
“When you get past the whole creepy-crawly thing.”
“He’s the most harmless vampire ever. Aren’t you?” He stroked the tiny lizard body, which was barely as long as his hand, even with the tail. “I was not expecting to be away from him for so long, or I wouldn’t have left him. Plus customs would have been a hassle.” Seleucus was sucking away, but Alex barely felt it. “He is totally excited to see me.”
“Aren’t you his master?”
“It was really because I couldn’t stand buying him crickets to eat. I could hear them everywhere in the house.” Alex looked up at Amanda. “Thank you.” Even if she claimed to have no hand in it, he had no idea how happy seeing Seleucus would make him. It was almost as if things were returning to normal, as slowly as they were.
Amanda returned the smile. Things hadn’t been normal for her, either, living in Paris with her recovering master and her ancient grandsire. She didn’t know why he had been in India, only how long, and that it was serious enough that one of her first comments was a mention of how he looked. Alex knew he’d lost weight – rare for a vampire – but had no intention of enlightening her on how much better he looked now, two months after Ari’s release from the hospital, or what Ari had been doing in that mortal hospital.
The injuries from Urushal’s attack and Ari’s heart transplant took its toll on them both, reminding Alex – as if he’d ever been capable of forgetting – how synched his own form was to Aristotle’s. A strain on his master came through the link as a strain on his own person, as if the stress of watching his master sinking into torpor and then feeling him almost die on the operating table wasn’t enough of a strain. With those memories behind him, there was the slow recovery. Ari’s appetite took a long time to return, the vampire stunned by the medical procedures. Everything about the vampire – down to how fast hair and nails grew – relied on blood intake, and a weakened hunger meant they both suffered, but Ari would only stand up to so much force-feeding. His body needed time, which fortunately he had plenty of, and after his release from Abaish-katal’s care they traveled to northern India and hooked up with the Tibetan exile community, where Ari long had ties. He did meet the 17th Karmapa, but did not reveal that he had known the 4th Karmapa. What he told the Dalai Lama, Alex didn’t know enough history to ask him, and Ari’s state was still too fragile at that point to be pestered. Everything in its time. Vampire India was fascinating and terrifying, with so many with such a high tolerance to holy sites (something Alex couldn’t boast). They visited the lush Indian state of Sikkim, once a Buddhist kingdom, where Ari’s monk/vampire meditation teacher Dorje Choegyul had a small monastery of about six monks, all of whom were oblivious to their abbot’s condition. Alex got to ride an elephant, made far more rewarding by his master’s over-enthusiasm. Mostly Alex found the ride bumpy and slow.
They could have stayed years, but they were both worn out, and after Ari admitted that to himself, they returned to Europe on their way to America. Unexplained absences were par for the vampire course; Alex expected that Ari wouldn’t be discussing his encounters with the two oldest living vampires to anyone unless he felt he had to, and even if people asked, they wouldn’t guess. Elaine might be an exception. Perhaps that was why Ari accepted her invitation to visit her in Paris. It was not the stated reason. Ari said it was high time Alex was introduced to the European Community, perhaps not formally but at the least informally. Ari had friends, acquaintances, and enemies on good terms who were curious, and Alex’s only previous visit was to Enforcer Headquarters in Germany and nowhere else. Elaine was still hosting her son Michael, now recovered from injuries he thought were inflicted by Aristotle but were in fact a result of biting a poisonous Alex, and Amanda was still with her master, another plus. Amanda was Alex’s best friend near his age, aside from Jimmy, who was either still in Japan or just returned to Los Angeles.
“You need to be with people your own age,” Ari said, and not for the first time, before letting him visit Amanda. He didn’t mention anything about Seleucus. Maybe he didn’t know. Either way, he knew now if he was listening in, but he often wasn’t. Alex would be eight this year, and his master said he deserved more privacy. “More” was really a relative thing; his ties with his master were deep and he would never fully or partially be free of the link between them. How Ari chose to use or abuse it was his own decision and he mostly kept his word.
“So how was India?”
It brought Alex back to the present. He didn’t dare tear Seleucus away from him yet, so he covered him with his sleeve. “Awesome. And terrifying.”
“You have to hunt most of the time. It’s very hard to get bottled blood. A lot of the Muslim vampires don’t drink wine and even if they’re Hindu, the wine is hard to get so they don’t bother. People are superstitious and it’s overcrowded – paradise, sort of, except it’s full of holy sites. There are tiny temples buried in the barriers between lanes on the highway. We drove past one and I flipped out. Thank G-d I wasn’t driving. Ari didn’t look so hot either, but Indian vampires have built up an immunity. Some of them are monks and priests. We met a guy who’s an abbot of a monastery. His monks have no idea he’s a vampire.”
“You’re lucky you go to go.”
He shrugged. Too many memories. “I went because of an emergency. The first half of the trip was ... not so good. You know, one of the fancy old vampire things I can’t talk about.”
She immediately accepted that as an answer. That was how it was. “I suppose it’s not true that Indian vampires have magic powers?”
“How do you define magical? I mean, we’re vampires.”
“Right. See anything cool you can talk about?”
“I think it had more to do with endurance. A couple guys claimed they used to do black magic, but they’d sworn it off. Also India? Smells way better than the States.”
“That’s not what I hear.”
“From mortals? Because that’s what it smells like.”
“I guess it’s perspective, then.”
“No big deal. Just same ol’ Paris. The same way it’s been since Elaine became Elder – and probably way before that.”
“I’ve never been to Paris.” It was his first full night in town. They arrived close to dawn, and Elaine had exquisite lodgings provided for them outside the city center. Ari said that the majority of private land holdings in Paris were held by vampires. “Hell, when I was mortal I’d never been outside of New England. I didn’t have a passport. Now I’m living it up in Paris.”
“It gets old.” But she had a smile on anyway. “It’s good to see you. After the fight, everyone just took off.”
“You, too. Have you spoken to Jimmy?” He wasn’t sure of the answer. He knew firsthand how jealous Michael could be and she was in his territory now.
“Over Skype, yeah. I like the video part. I didn’t talk to him for awhile – it was awkward and I didn’t want to and Elaine said I didn’t have to, but when I first checked in, he seemed to be okay. I think the Japanese Community is starting to accept him so it’s not so bad. The first time he went over, I remember he was miserable. He’s really into J-Pop, but don’t mention it because he will totally deny it, but it’s always playing in the background when he calls and forgets to turn it off first.”
“Michael’s been cool. Also he knows he’s on really thin ice with my grandsire so he’s on his best behavior.”
“That’s cool.” Actually, it was very cool. Elaine's assurances that Amanda would be well-cared for in Paris were not in vain, but very little Elaine said was in vain. Especially to Ari.
Seleucus was not happy to be put back in his plastic carrier, but Alex didn’t abandon him. He put him under his arm as Amanda took him to see the Parisian skyline at night. It was the first time seeing the Eiffel Tower, or anything, other than in a picture. Aside from the lizard in the box, they looked like two students, sharing a bottle of wine and looking for a youth hostel. They parted ways in time for Alex to fly home without worrying about the sun. He was eager to check on Ari, whose presence he’d rarely left since the surgery.
Ari was as he expected him, typing on his laptop. However many centuries old the manor house was, it was wired for internet. Elaine would never dream of putting them somewhere that wasn’t. “How’s Amanda?”
“Good. Much better than last time I saw her. You really haven’t been listening in, have you?”
“No. I am really addicted to this rpg. Hold on, I’m being asked to join a bigger alliance.” He finally looked up when Alex set Seleucus’s case on the desk. “Hey! General Seleucus!” He tapped on the plastic. “Nope. Still ignores me.”
“Didn’t you see? He twitched his head like, an infinitesimal amount. On a chameleon scale that means he cares about you and he’s happy to see you. He practically loves you.” Alex didn’t take him out of the cage just yet. Seleucus had definitely calmed down to almost normal levels after so much blood. “LaCroix brought him on a visit. You should have seen him – he broke through the cover and came flying at me. Not really flying, I guess. More of a really good leap.”
Ari smiled. “He is your fledgling.”
“So you really didn’t know?”
“I had no idea. Lucius was a responsible pet-sitter, I’m sure, but you’re the only person Seleucus is going to be excited about.”
“Unless LaCroix fed him.”
“He wouldn’t dare. He’s his cousin,” Ari chuckled.
Whether Seleucus jumped for joy at Ari’s presence or not, the point was there. Their little family was whole again.
It was noon. The hardest time for the vampire with the sun at its height. Even at twenty-three hundred years, when Aristotle could easily stay awake for days, he was always a bit moody at noon. The vampire in him was uncomfortably silent while the human world was noxiously awake – and he couldn’t hunt. Not that he actively wanted to, but the vampire was always there in his subconscious, waiting for the opportunity to hunt and feed. If Aristotle could overcome his mood, it was the best time to meditate, as the vampire would always resist a calming trance and it couldn’t put up much of a fight.
He was still debating if he had the interest and checked on Alex. The mansion was palatial by modern standards, and Alex’s room had a ceiling three stories high, but the bed was too old and too short for the modern man, who was taller, and Alex’s feet hung off the end of the bed. Kids – they could sleep anywhere. That included Seleucus, who was hanging upside down in his cage. Some human fledglings did like to sleep like that. Aristotle couldn’t speak for anoles.
Aristotle was serious when he told Alex he would try to stay out of his head, using the important modifier ‘try.’ It took only the most minor of probing to tell Alex was sleeping peacefully, without any nightmares plaguing him, not even the anxieties he had when he was awake about facing vampire society. Other than that, his dreams were his own, and Aristotle didn’t look. Satisfied, he left to return to the room he’d turned into his study. If the shades weren’t drawn, he would have a lovely view of the gardens, but he’d learned from experience that even a quick look could be deadly.
He felt as though he was full of energy, but in truth he was just feeling better. His recovery from heart surgery was long and his mind wasn’t given to periods of incapacitation. The vampire healed instantly or not at all. As always, it seemed, he was the exception. His body was supposed to be the same as the night he was brought across, but instead he had a new, jagged scar trailing from his neck to below his heart from Urushal’s attack and lines from where he was cut open for surgery. They healed to a certain extent, but otherwise remained intact. It made him feel old. He had glad his beard was back – a gray beard might have sent the opposite signals, but it restored his dignity. He admitted, only once, to being a little frightened it might not come back. Alex said he understood, and was close enough to his mortal years to relate. And then, a few days before leaving India for Turkey, they found red in his hair, just behind his right ear. It was only two strands, but it was new. He would have noticed something in 2300 years, when the only strands remaining with color were not in an area for public display. Yes, I was once young. He was overjoyed. If Abaish-katal had been standing in front of him, he would have hugged and kissed him and never stopped thanking him. Instead, Alex had to put up with his over exuberance.
Aristotle waited until he felt he had returned to what appeared to be normal - having lost some perspective – before rejoining vampire society in the West. Those who didn’t know better viewed him as a weakling; he didn’t want them to see him when he actually was one. And there was Alex, who needed the recovery time, too. Before he was conscious and could stop himself from doing so, Aristotle had projected his pain through the link. Another thing Alex shouldn’t have had to go through, Aristotle reminded himself with a familiar pang of guilt. Fledglings these days had it easy, maybe, but his son did not.
The doorbell rang. Only with his vampire senses could he hear it at such a distance. Knowing nothing short of the roof collapsing on him could wake his son (and maybe not, even then), Aristotle left him in order to answer it. It was a mortal, a thrall in the employ of a local ex-count. Using mesmerized humans to get things done during the day was still a common practice in the European elite. “Sir.” The thralls were trained to be very formal and it was all he said before handing over the package.
Inside was a particularly fine early Victorian desk clock, polished wood with gilded edges, that was working perfectly and even set to the right time. Barron – that was his name now, as he could no longer actually be nobility – remembered that Aristotle liked clocks, or had liked them when they first came out, especially in pocket size. There was a time when he wore three different pocket watches when he walked around Restoration France. It made him a target for muggers, bringing his prey to him, but he really just liked keeping time in his pocket. The European tradition of giving gifts had not faded with time, though the newer generations did not pick up the habit. Aristotle didn’t need or want an antique clock; it was the ritual that mattered. Also, Barron probably wanted something from him but was being customarily roundabout in his manner of approaching the subject.
Aristotle would have to get him something in return. It was irritating because his French collections were in storage and he would have to buy something. He surfed the internet then put the idea away and devoted the rest of the day to Worlds of Warcraft.
Alex was his usual disoriented self at dusk, stumbling around while trying to maintain some semblance of the composure he didn’t have in front of his master. “Was that clock here?”
“It’s a gift.”
“You like clocks?”
“About a hundred and fifty years ago.”
Alex grinned and continued drinking straight from the bottle.
“It was from Barron. Now I have to get him something.”
“I assume he has everything.”
“That’s not the point of it,” Aristotle said, “but yes, I imagine he does.” Barron had been present at the brief welcoming party for Aristotle and Alex. Other events would follow. This was informal and quick, just to make them feel at home. Elaine was a master of such subtleties, such as whom to invite to what and when. People were interested in meeting Aristotle’s child, especially the ones with some memory of his last son Matthew, but as always Aristotle was protective and Alex was shy. “Maybe I’ll get him an iPod. As revenge for saddling me with this clock. Then he can live in fear that I’ll ask him specifics about how he’s enjoying it and if he managed to figure out how to turn it on.” He scratched his beard. It was a bit on the long side, which meant it actually had some length to it, but since all his hair fell out during his illness he hadn’t taken a razor to a single hair that had grown back. “I used to be better at flummoxing people. It was a subtle art when there wasn’t a ton of technology around that people couldn’t understand.”
“I guess it does kill the hours. Figuring out what to buy people.” Alex understood at least on the surface, that elders had problems killing the hours. Boredom lead to suicide, the main vampire cause of death. He offered the last of the bottle up to his master. Aristotle knew he was still hungry, but it was traditional. Most fledglings these days didn’t even know about traditions like saving some of their own meal for their master, much less follow them, but now Alex did it instinctually. Aristotle refused it with a wave of his hand and let Alex finish his breakfast.
Getting dressed required more effort than usual. Alex wasn’t being presented, but he would be meeting a lot of vampires who were interested in seeing Aristotle’s new son and would judge him on appearance. European vampires were still the nobility of the vampire world, for the most part, and they dressed like it. Aristotle knew both their measurements and had clothes ordered, knowing Alex hated the tailor’s. Alex, at least, looked decent in black. It was his hair that helped. Aristotle himself didn’t care for the color. “You look good.” Considering Alex had never worn the suit before, he did a decent job putting himself together – not that Aristotle expected any less. And Alex needed reassuring. He didn’t know how well he got along with his elders and performance anxiety got the best of him. “You’ll do fine,” Aristotle said. “If anything, you’ll be bored.”
Aristotle would have been apprehensive himself if he had any reason to be there other than as a guest. As an Ancient and an Ex-Councilman he could have invited himself to a meeting of the European elders, no matter how formal, but he preferred the low-key approach and waited to for Elaine to mention it. He even made her nag him into coming. He’d left Europe sixty years ago, and local politics only held his interest for so long. He mainly wanted to see old friends and get introducing Alex to the Community out of the way. Alex was ready for it. After India, Aristotle was convinced Alex was ready for anything.
The car service arrived at eleven. “European vampires don’t drive,” he explained. “At least not in public. Being a quiet motorcycle enthusiast is very helpful when you can’t fly because of security cameras.”
“Ari, they ride on scooters. Bikers ride on motorcycles.”
“What, was there a big biker community in New Haven?” he smiled at Alex’s annoyed huff as they climbed in the limo.
“Will Marius be there?”
Alex knew privileged information, that Marius would be or was in town to meet with Aristotle. Even if Marius had helped save Alex’s life and then Aristotle’s, he still felt uneasy around the Chief Enforcer. Alex felt Marius was a danger to Aristotle. His master couldn’t convince him that Marius saw it as the other way around. “I don’t think so,” Aristotle answered. “He sends someone else to cover these things. He says he’s too busy for the limelight but the more secretive he is, the scarier he is. He knows that.”
Elaine owned more of Paris than she would admit to, but still used the old hall. It was renovated of course since 1947, the last time Aristotle had been down there, but it was still in the catacombs. The differences were subtle but convenient – the torches were now electric, the old chairs were refurbished, and the musty smell, particularly of the dead, was muted by better air flow. It still gave one a sense of its history, without the deadening chemical cleaners used in the floors above. This was a place that had never seen the light of day. It was only four hundred years old, but just being beneath the modern world made it seem older, worthy of its inhabitants.
“Welcome, Aristotle. Alexander. Thank you for coming,” Elaine said. “I hope you weren’t too put out.”
“Just pray I’m not wanted elsewhere because someone didn’t realize they needed a passport to go to Canada,” he answered jokingly. Cell phones were turned off and left upstairs for security reasons.
Since the meeting was more of a social gathering, with no major issues on the agenda, the crowd was slow to grow and relaxed by his measure. He introduced Alex to a lot of people he wouldn’t call friends but he wouldn’t call enemies, either, and a few that he would.
“Alex, this is Nureddin,” Aristotle said, and his son shook hands with a bulky, dark-skinned man in a sharply-cut tan suit. “Nureddin, my son Alex.” This is Constantine’s master, he reminded his son through the link.
The former Mamluk noble greeted Alex warmly. “So,” he said to Aristotle, “is my son behaving himself? I am hearing mixed reports.”
“He’s the only vampire I know that could rule Las Vegas so efficiently,” Aristotle said, which was the truth.
“He loves that city. I don’t know why. I thought it would bring out the worst in him, but I am now thinking I might be wrong.”
“I’ve never had a problem with him,” Aristotle said. Again, not a lie. He’d never opposed Constantine’s rule in Vegas, just helped him clean up more than a few messes, but most of them were caused by the atmosphere and not the impulsive vampire. “You could visit sometime. Otabek is still there.”
“I heard he was driving a taxicab?” Nureddin even glanced at Alex for some confirmation, and Alex nodded.
“What can I say? He enjoys it.”
Nureddin appeared to consider the offer but Aristotle knew he would reject the idea. It was his son’s playground, and he wouldn’t disturb it. Besides, he was Elder of Istanbul, and that came with a lot of responsibility. If he wanted to see Constantine, he would call him and Constantine would come to his master in Turkey, not the other way around.
There were the people there not for the meeting itself, of course, but because of some social obligation or in hopes of getting at Elaine’s private stocks of wine, and that included her wayward son Michael. It was going on six months since Alex accidentally poisoned him (which he didn’t remember) and Aristotle healed him (which he did remember), and he was restored to health, but clearly humbled in the presence of Aristotle. Something in him was still Michael, though, and he said some cursory words of acknowledgment instead of getting into a conversation where he might have to show respect.
“Sorry about Michael, Mr. Aristotle,” Amanda said, apologizing for her master as usual. Some things Aristotle didn’t expect to change. “I think he’s terrified of you.” In a stunning evening gown, she looked older and more mature than she normally did. She knew how to fit in. “He just doesn’t want to admit it.”
“I understand,” Aristotle said, and decided to relieve Alex of his duties of being carted around as the new kid – at least by Aristotle. Amanda would introduce him to the fledglings present. Such social proprieties came naturally to her. Aristotle was sure she would be an Elder one day, and he would likely live to see it.
The fledglings left for the actual meeting to start. No one in the room was under 500. The good wine was passed out and Aristotle took a seat at the end as the meeting began. As he predicted, it was mostly regular business – discussions of blood suppliers and international law, concerns they might have about the mortal world as it concerned them, and news about other Communities. A little of it was just gossip, and a few had criticisms that did not directly indict Elaine of anything, but implied it had something to do with her because she was the reigning Elder of Paris and they were bringing up the issues here. Elaine customarily handled any criticism with exceptional grace. A lone Enforcer sat on the end, facing Aristotle, but they didn’t look at each other much and the Enforcer didn’t say anything. It was one of Marius’s children, Aristotle was sure, but he didn’t know his name. He didn’t ask.
The Enforcer observed but had nothing to add to the proceedings. Things were running smoothly as usual and the meeting didn’t take as long as Aristotle imagined it would. It was just as boring as he remembered, though. He decided not to bother Elaine, who was avoiding eye contact with him. On the way out he ran into Barron, of course.
“Just the man I was looking for.” Barron had no hat to tip but he would have done it if he had one. “Aristotle.”
“Barron.” He called him by his current name, as was appropriate. He couldn’t even remember what name he was going by when he first met Barron. Probably Aristotle, but with a different last name. “Thank you for your welcoming present. It was very unexpected.”
“You’re welcome. I assume some antiques still amuse you in this modern age,” Barron said, his English still in a very aristocratic accent, a show he’d been putting on for five hundred years. He was Lithuanian. “I’m only sorry I arrived late and didn’t get to meet your son.”
“We’ll be around the next few days. He’s not going anywhere,” Aristotle said, “and I think he’s a bit self-conscious about being the talk of anything.”
“Not a terrible attribute in a fledgling. But I’m sure he’ll be making a name for himself sooner or later.” He didn’t linger on that, perhaps worried Aristotle would be annoyed at the reference. He wasn’t. “Whenever you have a moment ...”
“Of course.” Aristotle nodded to the people he was required to acknowledge before they left the main chamber, climbing back up into more comfortable surroundings. “What can I do for you?”
“I’m thinking of getting out of the antique trade and into real estate.”
“Real estate’s a tough market right now.” And he knew Barron already owned a lot. How much, Aristotle didn’t know. He wasn’t in charge of following real estate in Europe, if anyone followed it. “On the other hand, it is a buyer’s market. Any particular reason?”
“Security. I’d prefer to have my money in something less easily destroyable.”
“I see. And you’ve come to me because – “
“The European market is dead – deader than we are. The Communists ruined everything, you know. Then went and dumped nuclear waste everywhere before their government collapsed. Everything west of Berlin is worthless. I’m hearing good things about Canada.”
It didn’t come as any surprise to Aristotle that Barron would ask about North America. It was the only reason to come to Aristotle for a land deal. Canada was cheaper and bigger. Still, he pretended to be shocked. “It’s land and it’s cheaper than Europe. There’s tremendous natural splendor and a stable government, but that’s about all it has going for it. I don’t think people will be more interested in it in the long term than they are now.” He might as well say what was on his mind. “You’ve never struck me as anything but a European. The New World is a different scene.”
“I ... might be interested in a change of surroundings.”
So, there it was. “Everything seems normal to me.”
“I’ve been in trouble with the Enforcers enough times before,” Barron said, his voice lowered, “and now they’re doubling their forces.”
“I hadn’t heard that.” And he didn’t believe it. He would know about that. There was probably an increase, but not a doubling. That would be unwieldly. “And there’s always behaving yourself. You could try that.”
“No one’s perfect. Do you know what it’s like to be in Berlin, with the Enforcers breathing down your neck while they’re on edge over the Council? Don’t ask me – something with Marius. He’s been on edge with them for awhile.”
“You need a vacation,” Aristotle advised. “I recommend South America. Argentina, Chile ...”
“You’ll at least consider my request?”
Aristotle sighed. It was easier if he managed other vampire’s real estate. “Send me a proposal of what you’re looking for. You do have a computer, don’t you?”
When Aristotle returned to the mansion, Alex was already home, watching television with Seleucus perched on his chest. He nodded to his master but didn’t jump up. “How was it?”
“Not that different from sixty years ago,” Aristotle replied, sliding into the armchair. “How was your thing?”
“The catacombs were cool. There’s a room made of nothing but skulls. I can’t imagine someone would let their relatives be stacked like that.”
“It’s not something you’ll have to worry about.”
“True.” Alex smiled. When he died, he would turn to ash. No fuss, no muss. “Amanda introduced me to the Paris crowd. They’re really the same as everywhere else, but their accents are way snottier. Or maybe I just think that because I’m American. There was a party but Amanda said I wouldn’t enjoy it and she was right. The scene is ... kinda heavy.” In other words, drinking and fucking, not necessarily in that order. “If you told me this was all there is – parties and old people talking politics – I would have seriously reconsidered coming across.”
“People find different uses for their time.”
“Considering they don’t have to worry about money, you would think they would find better ones.”
“They have other things to worry about.” Boredom was one thing, the ever-increasing restrictions on hunting another. “For most of their history, finding dinner was a lot of their evening. And I mean that in a good way. I don’t think we appreciated it.” It wasn’t a subject to dwell on. They’d done a lot of hunting in India, and Alex had obviously enjoyed it – without the mad connotations of his pre-Guatemala experiences. He hadn’t said anything, but returning to the bottle was more than a little frustrating. He knew he didn’t need to say anything and Aristotle knew he didn’t need to respond. “Is there anything you want to do in Paris? I have to figure out when to meet a few people, so there’s scheduling around that. You can go to London if you’re really bored. There’s the Chunnel.”
“I’m okay.” It was late and Alex was fading, though he’d be the last one to admit it. He mainly focused on stroking Seleucus. Alex was the only one who could get any kind of response out of that miniscule lizard and its miniscule brain. “You want to go the zoo, don’t you?”
“I don’t have to go to every zoo in every city we visit.”
“That’s not an answer.”
Paris was stifling. He couldn’t believe he’d gone this long without admitting it to himself. Still, he’d had his temporary share of elephants in India. “There are other things to do. There’s history.”
“Not by your standards.”
“Important things have happened here – to me. I used to have this chateau. They bulldozed it for more urban housing. I don’t think anything would be standing if vampires didn’t keep buying up property.” He was still a little confounded by Barron’s comments, but Marius would sort that out in their meeting tomorrow. “We could go to Notre Dame and see how far inside we get.”
“I heard you did pretty well at the Golden Temple.”
“And I hope I never have to try again. Besides, I made it like twenty feet before I was screaming in pain. Whatever else Hajji told you was an exaggeration.”
Aristotle patted Alex on the head. “Think about it. I’ll see you at dusk.”
“Later,” Alex said, belatedly adding, “Good night, Master.”
“Good night, son.”
Again, Aristotle dreamt of his master.
The Russian steps were unforgiving. They bundled in fur and lit a fire when they were still to prevent their blood from freezing. Qum’ra made his young son light the fire each night, which terrified Aristotle and the vampire inside him, ruining quite a number of decent attempts until there were no more twigs to snap. The ground was frozen solid, making it nearly impossible find somewhere to dig a hole for the day if they couldn’t find shelter, and the land offered them few chances for it. Wild barbarians – even by Aristotle’s standards – roamed the land in search of food, and their blood was nutritious but uninteresting, offering him few insights.
All of this he only remembered. He knew he wasn’t reliving it. He knew it was a dream. In the past, maybe he’d kept up with his master, but this time Qum’ra was a phantom, disappearing into the horizon while Aristotle lagged behind, furiously trying to maintain the trail.
“Master, please!” Show mercy on me. Honor me with your presence.
Qum’ra turned, his eyes shining in the moonlight. “What is it you wish, Aristotle?”
“Don’t leave me behind.”
But Qum’ra wanted a more complex answer; Aristotle already knew that. Once again, he couldn’t give him what his master wanted.
Aristotle woke in the kind of fright that made him sit up, as if he was pushing himself headfirst out of something. He was alone, far away from the Russian steppes, but he was still shivering as he scrambled to the shower to wash off the blood sweat. He might as well stay awake. It was better than going back to that dream.
Ever since speaking to his long-dead master in Washington – and he was positive he did – the dreams had persisted, coming and going in frequency but never in intensity. Over the last twenty-two hundred years, Aristotle had scattered dreams – hallucinations and nightmares – that reflected his yearning for any hint of the comforting, demanding horror that was his master. They weren’t so constant and he could deal with them. Now he was assaulted, but he was sure it wasn’t Qum’ra trying to reach him. His master, in the sense that he still existed in the link, had made it clear he could contact him if he wanted to. It was all on Aristotle’s end. Hell, there was probably a mortal explanation for the psychosis and it was nothing more than that, but it didn’t change anything.
The only thing that could change anything didn’t know it. Or, Alex didn’t know the extent to which he meant everything to Aristotle, especially now. It was still light, and Alex was asleep. Aristotle didn’t wake him or even enter his room. He just tapped the link and Alex was there and Aristotle wasn’t alone.
Aristotle could never die. He could never do that to Alex, and leave him feeling so empty. It was his responsibility now to live, if only for his son.
He couldn’t stand idling the hours of the day away, so he put on a robe and meditated. The vampire was there with him, its strength growing as the sun descended, but he could overpower it. No, more like guide it to go the way he wanted, to cause him as little friction as possible. Facing the vampire head-on, he would lose. Ignoring it, he would be open to its influences. Millennia of experience and many teachings from many meditation gurus taught him to find the balance with the insatiable animal within, or he would never get anywhere.
He knew vampires who could sleep by meditating, going into trances that would last weeks without needing to feed. He went a few days at best, or worst, as it unnerved Alex. He could go so deep he lost track of time and the hunger faded to the background but never abandoned him. The vampire was always a part of him, both with its own consciousness and part of his own. He could never quite categorize the vampire correctly. He knew of no other parts of him that could act so independently, and yet at its heart that was what the vampire was – part of him.
“Lacking a solid definition, Aristotle?”
It was Plato – his manifestation of Plato, not the real thing, or even the real memory. The memory wouldn’t talk back. “No, Master Plato.” They walked together along the Aegean coastline. The sun was brilliant but he knew it was wrong and Plato would laugh at it. Aristotle the man had lost his conception of the sun. It happened quickly to vampires – Alex knew he was losing his already. “I want to stop having these dreams.”
“You cannot want your master and reject him at the same time.”
“I can,” he said defiantly. “I always do, but my master is not in these dreams. I just believe that he is. I have to rid myself of this notion.”
“Why is it, O Aristotle, that you wish to see your master so badly?”
He looked at Plato, horrified that such a brilliant man could ever produce such a stupid question.
“Yearning for the unattainable,” Plato said. “You’ve always set your goals high. What is a dream?”
“A manifestation of an unconscious thought or desire. I know that.” He scratched his head. He was irritated that Plato knew something that he didn’t. I want because ... He couldn’t finish the sentence. “There’s so much I want to ask him.”
“About ... about Alex. About fatherhood.” About all of things I thought Qum’ra wasn’t. A good master. A good father. He laughed. “Will I ever stop being terrified of failing as a father?”
“I don’t have the information to answer you – nor would my predecessor,” Plato said. He was right – he had no children in his lifetime. Aristotle had two. Society demanded that he wasn’t particularly close with his daughter, and his son was born when he was old. They would both make their own way, only to die, as mortals did. How, he never learned.
“All that ever was is gone, and never shall be again,” Plato said. It wasn’t something Plato would have said. This one was just a mouthpiece for Aristotle’s memories, and the knowledge he’d acquired from around the world.
“I suppose that includes my mistakes.”
Was it all just parental anxiety? Things were going so well with Alex. Or so he thought. No, he was sure of it – “Something happened to me in India.”
“I believe that is an understatement.”
“Abaish-katal said his blood might change me.”
“A thoroughly vague conclusion.”
Yes, that was true. He really didn’t know. Alex said he didn’t seem any different now that he was recovered, but the link would affect Alex, too. Was it worth worrying about? “Probably not,” he answered himself. He turned his attention back to Plato. “In India I had my suspicions confirmed. Vampirism is a blood-born pathogen with a patient zero, caused by genetic mutation. Thousands of years of speculation at an end. The mystery of my own existence, solved.”
“So then ... why do I have more questions?”
“O Aristotle,” Plato laughed. “When have you ever not had questions?”
There was no better place for Aristotle to leave it. He ascended back to reality, or what he called reality and Plato called illusion. He’d never agreed with Plato.
It was night. Not dusk, but real night. Lost track of time again. He wandered out to find Alex at the computer station, trying not to look alarmed. “Hey. Elaine called.”
Aristotle rubbed his eyes. “What did she say?”
“She asked if you could do midnight. I said you could. I don’t know anything else on your schedule and you weren’t available.” Alex poured the rest of the wine into a fresh glass for his master. “I didn’t tell her where you were.”
His reply was mostly guttural until he had blood. The vampire came alive once he smelled it. “Thanks,” he finally uttered, and topped off the glass. “I’m sorry I was out. I was intending to be awake before sunset.”
“I know.” But Alex didn’t know. He was putting up a good front of not looking like he was scared. “It freaks me out a little. Not being able to reach you.”
“If you really needed to reach me, I would know about it,” he said, not sure where his certainty was coming from, but certain all the same.
“What is it?”
Aristotle knew exactly what the question was asking. He didn’t have to probe. “I’m still dreaming about my master.”
“Does he say anything?”
“Not really. Most of the time I just chase him.”
“Didn’t you say in the hospital that if you really needed him, he would reach you?”
“That’s true.” That was what Qum’ra told him when he lay dying of his wounds from Urushal – that he’d come back if Aristotle needed him, where he hadn’t before.
“Then maybe you don’t need him.”
It was almost insult, however unintentional. The link was sacred to Aristotle. That didn’t make what Alex said any less true, he realized. “You’re right.” He kissed him on the head and finished off the blood wine. “Time to go. A lot to do before midnight.”
Elaine called again, and they had a lot more time than midnight. She had an emergency to deal with and Aristotle was accommodating. He decided to catch up with Nureddin after showing Alex some of the old vampire haunts, now defunct.
“So Aristotle left you alone again?”
Alex and Amanda were drinking some of Elaine’s stock on rooftop with an excellent view of the Siene. Alex felt guilty for monopolizing her time, but she was obviously happy to accommodate him. “As if I had something better to do,” Alex said with a smile. “I suppose I should be making friends and contacts in the Community.”
“So what? So they can kick you around? They wouldn’t, of course, but you know how it is. They wouldn’t give a ten-year-old the time of day if you weren’t Aristotle’s son.”
“Ouch.” Alex drank and passed the bottle. “Someone had a bad childhood.”
“I’m being dramatic. I just ... wasn’t well adjusted when I came to Paris. I was a week old! It didn’t make a good impression, and you never get a second chance at a good impression. Not that Michael helped.”
“What’d he do?”
She sighed. “Nothing, really. That was the problem.”
“At least you’re admitting it and not racing to defend him.”
“Michael doesn’t always need defending,” she said. “He’s not big on the scene here. He’s made too many enemies.”
“I can’t imagine how.”
She punched him in the arm. “I did not give you a free pass to take swipes at my master all night.”
He faked being hurt. “Ow! Okay, okay. He’s just an easy target.”
“I know.” She passed the bottle back to him. “And we’re bored.”
“So bored.” His response was instantaneous. “I don’t know why; Paris isn’t really any different than any other vampire city except maybe it has more history. You would think that would make it history. Maybe I’m just burned out on the world tour thing. And Ari has his meetings. You know, a few years ago I would have been grateful for the time alone. I think he lets me go now because he knows I’m not going to go anywhere or do anything.”
“At least you’re not freaking out. Like when we came over to Tahoe.”
“Oh my G-d, no. No, don’t mention that.” But she just giggled as he squirmed. “I was a baby. A twenty-four-year-old vampire baby.”
“I don’t know how anyone deals with the first like, two years.”
“It’s like prom photos. Something you never show and try not to mention. If you have prom photos.”
“You didn’t go to prom? Even I went to prom. Baked out of my mind but I went. In an awful paisley dress, too. Reefer cut into my prom budget a little bit. And don’t tell me you were too nerdy because even nerds go to prom.”
“I graduated high school when I was sixteen,” he said. “I went to prom with a girl a head taller than me. It was a pity date on both ends.”
“Somehow hearing that is both really impressive and really not shocking. The graduating early thing, not the pity date. Did you go for your MD, too?”
“Haha, I’ve never heard a Dougie Howser joke before. Though it has been awhile.”
“At sixteen I would have done anything to get out of high school.”
“Only I wasn’t that smart.”
“You’re smart. You don’t give yourself credit,” he said. “You’re organized. You’re responsible. Ari thinks you have a lot of potential – and he doesn’t say that about a lot of people.”
“He didn’t know me when I was young. We met when he was cleaning up the mess with my brother.” She faced him. “I know you don’t think anything of him, but Michael is the only reason I survived the first years.”
“Then I guess I do think something of him.”
It was instinctual. It wasn’t just the predator that swooped in for the kill, but Alex the person who kissed her, and Amanda the person who responded. Vampires used different chemical scents to attract their prey, but she didn’t hunt and wasn’t wearing anything offensive to his senses. She was as wonderfully unique as he’d imagined her to be. Maybe he’d forgotten what soft hands felt like, but hers seemed especially soft down his back. Her mouth tasted of the wine – and the blood that made the wine palatable.
The vampire surged. That dangerous vampire. It was so eager but it could be so angry –
He pulled away first. “I can’t do this.”
She growled – an intentional response of her own state – but she stayed away. Maybe the vampires didn’t, but the humans agreed.
“I’m sorry,” Alex said, shoving down the beast. He wanted to speak clearly. He wanted to think clearly. “It’s not you – “
“I know. It’s Aristotle.”
He squirmed. “Well, yeah.”
Her eyes, light red with desire, were now shut tight. She had the same struggle as him. That was a small comfort. “I’m not a slut, you know.”
“I didn’t think you were.”
“Michael and Jimmy – I don’t want to hurt them more than I already have. I love them both. Differently. G-d, I’m so fucked up.”
“I am!” She shouted, definitely louder than she meant to be. “I was fucked up when Michael found me, I was fucked up when I was brought across, I never recovered – “
“You’re not the person you were when you were mortal,” he said. He wanted to touch her shoulder to reassure her, but he couldn’t initiate contact again. Not yet. “You might not even have been that person then. You were on drugs – “
“I ruined my life, I ruined Michael’s life – “
“Shhh.” He didn’t hesitate to put his arms around her. She was crying, not aroused. “It’s okay.”
“It’s not okay.”
“Then it’s not okay. What do you want me to say?”
To his relief, she calmed down surprisingly quickly. It relieved a bit of his guilt for causing this. She had nothing to wipe her eyes with but her sleeve, staining the shirt with her bloody tears. “I’m sorry.”
“You don’t have to be sorry.”
“I shouldn’t have freaked out.”
“We all freak out sometimes.”
She still couldn’t look him in the eyes, even now that they were returned to normal. “If I tell you, you’ll look at me differently.”
“You’d be surprised,” he said. “Tell me what?”
She lifted her blouse – not all the way, but enough that he could see her stomach. The smooth, cool skin of the vampire was crisscrossed by jagged scars across her abdomen. If it was surgery, it was a messy one. Unable to contain his curiosity, one of his hands wandered across the scar tissue. Amanda flinched, but didn’t stop him. “When Michael brought me across, I was three months pregnant. He didn’t know.”
That was right – Aristotle said never to bring across children or pregnant women. The specifics of why evaded Alex, and this wasn’t the time to ask. He just knew it was very, very bad.
“I don’t know what to say. Except – if you made it through that, it might explain why you’re so strong.”
“I don’t feel strong.”
“You are. I admire you. Vampire society is so fucked up and you’re so ... not.” He pulled away and she adjusted her blouse. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t be screwing up your life just because I’m lonely and desperate.”
“Does Aristotle know you feel that way?”
“Of course. It doesn’t change any of his rules. And he’s always right about them.” He sighed. “Can we do this again in ninety years? I mean, if you’re not seeing anyone then.”
She giggled. “It’s a date.”
On his flight home, Alex’s terror returned. The link seemed normal, but he knew it could be misleading. The anticipation made it worse. Fully expecting shattered furniture or dishware again, Alex tiptoed carefully into the mansion, only to be greeted by the same situation that he left. The only sounds were creaking floorboards and the incessant typing at the keyboard.
Ari was at the computer, his face blue from the light of the screen in the dark. If he wasn’t actively concentrating on blowing up every pixilated enemy target, he might even seem impassive.
“Hey.” Alex stood in the doorframe.
“Hey. I’m trying to find the submachine gun. I know it’s here somewhere.” When there was no response to this, he finally looked up. “What?”
“That’s all you have to say?” He didn’t know? No. Alex dismissed the idea immediately. There was no way Ari didn’t know.
Ari hit the pause on his game and pushed away from the desk. “Did you do something wrong?”
Alex didn’t know how to answer that. The phrasing was peculiar. “I feel like I did.”
“Did you bite another vampire?”
“Did you let one bite you?”
“Did you somehow manage, despite it being physically impossible, to have sex without biting?”
“Then you’re good.” He was about to turn back to his game, but he had to address Alex’s disbelief. “I’m not going to punish you for breaking rules that don’t exist.”
This couldn’t be it. This couldn’t be his whole reaction when Alex felt so miserable. “I’m sorry.”
“Alex, you didn’t do anything wrong. You came close, but you didn’t. They’re not the same thing.”
Then why do I feel this way? he thought.
“Because you feel like you betrayed me by desiring someone else,” Ari answered, even though it hadn’t been spoken. It didn’t need to be. “Do you want to have an awkward ‘you’re a growing young boy and your body is going through some changes’ conversation?”
“No!” First there was horror and then just a little bit of laughter. “G-d no. Never again.”
Ari was smiling, but it was a sad smile. “I know some of it’s my fault.”
“No, Ari – “
“I haven’t been that attentive since India.” His recovery lasted months, something that was difficult all on its own. “I’m not enough for you.”
“That’s not true.” Alex wasn’t lying,
either. He was fairly sure he wasn’t. “It’s just ... it’s different.
Other people are different.” Even Ari, his near all-powerful master,
couldn’t be someone else. “It shouldn’t have happened anyway. For normal
reasons. Cheating on best friend-related reasons. And don’t wave it off like
it’s nothing because it’s a big deal to us!”
His guilt dissipating and the late hour exhaustion kicking in, Alex went for a final snack and checked his email, then spread out on the couch. He didn’t want to go to bed, not yet anyway, but he didn’t want to stay active either. “Ari,” he said as his master came in, “did you watch me the whole night?”
“No, of course not.” Ari said it like it was fact. “The emotional spike caught my attention. When it went down, I tuned it out.”
“Why can’t we bring across pregnant women?”
Ari, who was re-shelving a book, turned around slowly. “Because it’s usually deadly. Why do you ask?”
“Amanda was pregnant when she was turned. She showed me the scars. I couldn’t ask her to explain them. She was really worked up about it.”
“What, I would lie to you? Yes, really.”
Ari said, apparently dumbfounded by this revelation. “I had no idea Michael could possibly be that stupid.”
“She said he didn’t know. She was only three months pregnant.”
“He should have read it in her blood – or heard the heartbeat. I guess there wasn’t one.” He settled in the chair, pondering this for way too long. “In two thousand years I’ve known one vampire who made it across and didn’t go insane from the process despite being pregnant. Amanda makes it two. No wonder she’s so resilient.”
“She didn’t seem to think so.”
Ari indicated that Alex should pass him a glass and the bottle, which Alex promptly did. “No, this would haunt her. I had the misfortune of seeing it once – not the whole thing. I came in after. The master was trying to save his fledgling. She lasted a couple hours under observation and threw herself into the first available sunrise.”
“In the conversion process, the unnecessary organs shut down – intestines, kidneys, anything we don’t need to process blood. This includes the uterus.”
“So the fetus dies.”
“Yes. But if a fetus dies in the womb, the body’s natural response is usually to go into labor, or if it’s early enough, to simply reabsorb the fetus. There are all types of ways to miscarry but the vampire body can’t perform any of them. The reproductive system is no longer functioning, and the result is a huge stress on the body – which is going through the difficult conversion process anyway that can kill even a healthy person. The master’s only option at that point is to manually remove the fetus and hope the mother doesn’t bleed to death or turn to dust from the trauma. The survival rate is very, very low. Abysmally low. And even with survival, the trauma is extensive.”
“So Michael just – “
“Tore her open to save her, yes. That’s the only way to explain how she’s still here. And then he had to get her through the first few years – which, considering my estimation of Michael’s capabilities, is astounding. No wonder she’s so devoted to him.” He sounded shocked – and Ari was hard to shock. “I severely underestimated both of them.”
“Would Elaine have done something?”
“Amanda was brought across in the States, so there wouldn’t have been time for her to help, even if she wanted to. I’m sure she knows, but this is after the fact.” He shook his head. “Did you say something to her about it?”
“I had no idea. She was the one who brought it up. She said she was messed up and I would look at her differently if I knew. I’ve never heard her talk like that.” And he didn’t like hearing her talk like that, even if it made sense. It was still chilling.
“I’ve never been inside the head of the one vampire I did know,” Ari said, “but if my guess is correct, there’s not an hour of the day that Amanda doesn’t spend thinking about that baby.”
Alex awoke alone. It was not the way he fell asleep but not all that surprising. Ari rarely slept a full day. The decision to sleep in the same bed was spontaneous, just something they both wanted and didn’t need to express. It was best when things were like that.
After feeding Seleucus, Alex wandered in search of his master and found him in one of the parlors, fiddling with the clock from Barron. “Elaine’s avoiding me,” he said. “I don’t know why.”
“I thought she had an emergency to deal with.”
“I think she was going to have one tonight, too, but Marius arrived and she can’t put it off any longer.” He had the panel open to watch the clock’s inner workings, even though he knew precisely how it functioned. He liked to watch things function properly. “She didn’t say anything. I just know.” It bothered him; it was obvious on his face. “She seemed fine at the meeting.”
“You think it’s bad news?”
“She’s not the type to put that off. She deals with everything as quickly and expediently as possible.” He closed the panel. “Marius has his son Thomas with him. You remember Thomas?”
“He’s Marius’s oldest living son. And don’t piss him off because he’s immune to the family poison. I brought him back from the brink at Enforcer headquarters as a favor to Marius.”
“What does he have to do with me?”
“It’s not bad to have a friend in the Enforcers other than Marius. And how many times do you get to meet someone who was brought across the hard way?”
“I’m glad you admit it’s the hard way.”
Twenty minutes later they were in another one of Elaine’s holdings, though not one she actively lived in. Marius and Thomas arrived first, in standard Enforcer black, of course. Even though Thomas was probably about seven hundred, he didn’t look more than eighteen years old. Alex did vaguely remember him, which made introductions easier.
Whatever high level meeting was going on between the three formal Councilman, Alex and Thomas weren’t invited. They still had to stay in the area in case their masters needed them (unlikely) but other than that they were on their own. Even for a vampire Thomas was pale, so he probably was the same in life.
“What’s with all the black?” It was the only thing Alex could think of to say. “It’s to be scary, right?”
“That’s not the official policy but it works,” Thomas said as they walked down the master hall, which was filled with nothing less than masterpieces of ancient and modern art. “Not all Enforcers just enforce. That’s just all people ever see us do.”
“What do you do? Marius doesn’t make you follow him around?”
“No, I mainly do logistics and records retention. I even fill in for Aristotle when he’s not available – sort of.”
“I think he’d be happy to give you his job.”
“Nobody can do this job. We don’t have the brainpower. In case you didn’t notice, nobody does. Except maybe you.”
“Nope. I plateaued in quantum theory just like everyone else did. He’s still going. Maybe Stephen Hawkings is smarter than him. He says he thinks so but I think he’s just trying to sound humble.”
“They didn’t have quantum theory when I was growing up but I bet I wouldn’t have understood it.” He stopped in front of a painting depicting the Visigoth sack of Rome, painted in the Renaissance style. “This was a gift to Marius from someone he was having a political quibble with. He sent it off to Elaine the day it arrived and she accepted it without saying a word. I bet she got a good laugh out of it.”
“Aristotle could probably think of a ton of great gifts like that. Or he would have if they were on speaking terms for most of their lives.”
“My master mentioned Aristotle,” Thomas said. “He was afraid of him. He still is.”
“He said that?”
“Not in so many words, but I think I know my master pretty well.”
“Ari told me you were brought across the old way. The hard way.”
Thomas smiled. He wasn’t a typical Enforcer, despite being one of the oldest – he didn’t do field work and it showed. Instead of exuding menace and confidence, he was rather shy. “Is that what they call it now?”
“They don’t know what to call it. My friends just think Ari is weird and controlling, even if they like him. The idea that he can go in my head whenever he wants is ... terrifying. It’s not normal.”
“In the Enforcers, anything that makes you stronger is better than normal,” Thomas said. “The younger generation would be jealous of us if they fully understood it. Marius keeps the details from them when he stopped bringing people across that way.”
“Why did he stop? If I can ask.”
“You already did.” But he didn’t sound angry about it. “It was too much of a strain. The mental intimacy required for the link and the time for raising a child – he just didn’t have it in him to do it with every good prospect, especially with the rate of Enforcer burn-out and death so high. The Enforcers have an especially high suicide rate – double the average for civilian vampires. He told me he couldn’t spend his whole eternity grieving.”
“I can understand that. I mean no, technically I can’t because I don’t have a child of my own, but I can guess how Ari would feel if I walked into the sun. But the Ancients – somehow they handled it, because everyone was brought across that way.”
Thomas shook his head. “The Ancients had dozens of ways to bring people across. Vampire kings had whole armies of children – like assembly line – who were brought across without free will to be soldiers and nothing else. Some had tiered systems – the kings brought across generals, the generals brought across captains – all the way down to the foot soldiers. Imagine thousands, even tens of thousand vampires with a single sire.”
“The Enforcers have a lot of documents nobody else has.”
“Like from Ari’s hard drive?”
Thomas shrugged, embarrassed. “Yes, I went through your computers. If my master told me to do it I wouldn’t have hesitated, but he was on the run. On the other hand, I would have been killed if I didn’t do a thorough job. Fortunately Aristotle put anything in writing that would have helped the Council find Marius – or anyone else they were looking for, hopefully. I’m sorry about that, and everything that went with it. I stayed in the records room to avoid the new brass. They knew I was too linked to Marius to ever betray them. I expected them to kill me, but they didn’t. I was too valuable.”
“It was a hard time for everyone.” It was as much sympathy as he could work up for that situation, having been tortured almost to death just to annoy Ari. “I don’t remember a lot of it.”
“That’s for the best. I wish I remembered less. While Marius was gone, I obsessed about him ... well, like a fledgling. No offense.”
“He tells me I could manage losing him, but I’m not sure.”
“After eight hundred years you’re not sure?”
“When he was missing and being hunted, I panicked.” Thomas added, “I could leave the Enforcers if I wanted to. When my fifty years were up, Marius told me I could go my own way. I didn’t take him up on it immediately and when I did, it didn’t last. Not really because of my master but because I like my work. I take a decade off here and there – people don’t even know I’m an Enforcer and I don’t tell them. And I don’t think they’d believe me.”
“I dream about going out on my own – not being Aristotle’s son. Even if people don’t know at first they find out. They think I’m either his secretary or his lover. Aristotle has to have a reason for a son.”
“If it makes you feel any better, people look at me and they think Marius had to have a reason.”
“Maybe he needed a scribe. I was in charge of the monastery’s scriptorium. Pretty good for a novice.” Whatever the real reason was, Thomas wouldn’t give it, and Alex wouldn’t ask for it. Marius, like everyone else, made his decision for personal reasons. The scary Enforcer that he supposedly was, Marius was looking more human all the time.
Aristotle and Marius waited for Elaine, who was uncharacteristically late.
“Should we still do this?”
Marius was as confident as ever. “This is hardly an illegal gathering. Ex-Councilmen can speak to each other if they wish.”
“I just think we might be jinxed.”
“You don’t believe in such nonsense.”
Aristotle shook his head. Marius knew him too well. “You’re not going to talk us into any seditious, anti-Council activity, are you?”
“I don’t think so, but the night is young.”
Elaine arrived, dismissing the servant. “I apologize. Marius, I know your time is very busy intimidating people. And Aristotle ... you came all the way from getting high in India.”
“That was not the only thing I did in India ,” he said, taking a seat with the others. “And it was all prescription. You know, on the up-and-up.”
“I believe you because I don’t think you would bother to lie,” Elaine said. It was her house so she got the ancient oak desk – ancient by mortal standards only. The tree that it was made from hadn’t sprouted by the time Aristotle started considering himself old. “Technically, we are having this meeting as old friends.” She was ignoring the blood link between them, formed almost six years ago in Greenland. It was weak enough to be normally dormant, but it sprang to life when they were altogether. Not unusual for vampires, but their combined ages and political power made them a dangerous unit. The Council, if it knew about it, would not be pleased. “And as an old friend, Marius, may I ask you why you’ve been doubling your forces and refusing to work with Abasi or any other Council representative.”
“Exaggerations, though I understand that is the word on the street,” Marius said, and Aristotle could tell he wasn’t lying. He would know if he was. “I have the right to bolster my forces whenever I want, to meet the ever-increasing security needs of the Community. As to the Council, the only representative they’ve sent to speak with me is Abasi, and as he previously tried to set me up for sedition and force me into hiding while trying to trap Aristotle in Egypt - ”
“We don’t know that,” Aristotle said, perhaps a bit more forcefully than he would have liked, because they both flinched. “When they offered me a trip to Egypt to challenge the confiscation of my computers, I refused. There’s no saying what would have happened if I went. Speaking to Abasi is different than speaking to the Council itself.”
“But you weren’t willing to go,” Marius said. “You can’t write that all off on having an infant.”
“I was being cautious. If I had a real issue with the Council, I would speak to them. It would be different.” He was still linked to its too oldest members, Orpheus and Devana. The rest were all younger than him by centuries. It would be complex beyond normal negotiations, but if he had a case, he would win. He usually won cases when he sat on the Council – to Marius’s displeasure. “Marius, I know you think the Council has gone insane, but I haven’t seen any serious evidence of it.”
“Except attacks on both of us,” Marius replied.
“They hit me to get to you. And you probably got yourself into trouble.” He glared at Marius, who again flinched. Marius was waffling, which was odd. Aristotle could feel it.
“I warned you,” Elaine said to Marius. “He’s doing it.”
They both turned to Aristotle. He could feel their suspicion. He probed at its cause and Elaine shook her head, as if to push him out. “Stop!”
“Stop what?” He was legitimately confused. He pushed that through the link, and they only cowered – in their minds of course, and not in their bodies, but he could tell all the same.
“You’re manipulating the link,” Marius said. “You’ve been doing it to Elaine since you arrived in Paris.”
“I have not!” It was a defensive strike, but the others winched, as if it was a physical pain to resist his thoughts. Aristotle forced himself to back down. “I haven’t been doing anything – intentionally. This is the first I’ve heard about it.”
Elaine looked like she had a headache. “Have you been around anyone who’s linked to you?” Other than Alex, she meant. “Stop reading my mind!”
“I didn’t mean to –“
“You don’t know you’re doing it?” Marius didn’t believe, but he was ready to. Or so Aristotle thought. No, he knew. He knew what they both were feeling, and if he probed deeper, what they were thinking. “You’re changing the intensity of the link as you talk. It’s been going up and down this whole conversation.”
“It’s unnerving,” Elaine said, but she was being polite.
He really pulled back this time. He needed to think, however briefly, without interruption from their thoughts and emotions, but they were difficult to block out. He simply hadn’t noticed it until now. It wasn’t right. He was stronger, but they should have had as much control as him. He wracked his brain, ignoring their stares by turning away, looking down at the mala beads wrapped around his wrist, a gift from the Dalai Lama. “Abaish-katal.”
“What did he do to you?” Elaine asked; she knew less than Marius did.
“Abaish-katal can manipulate links. Even create those where there are none. He only needs proximity to draw blood, not contact.” He was sure Elaine had not been to Abaish-katal when she was a fledgling, but the tradition was still in place when Marius was brought across. That was why Marius was nodding and Elaine was leaning mentally on him. “My heart was damaged in the fight with Urushal. Abaish gave me a new one. He put me in the hospital for open-heart surgery and removed the old one on the table.”
“You can’t have a human heart. We would hear it beating.”
“And it wouldn’t have connected,” Aristotle explained. “My blood couldn’t turn the heart, so he put vampire blood in, then connected it. He’d never done it before, obviously – he wasn’t sure of the results. And it was his blood that went in the heart. Qum’ra will always be my master, but my heart was turned by Abaish-katal.”
“Did he say there would be lasting effects?”
“He didn’t know,” he answered Marius’s question. “If there were, I was probably too weak to do anything in India, and he never said anything. The only people I have links to in India are Alex, who wouldn’t know the difference, and Yengi, but that link was always weak and is practically nonexistent. Abaish did say there might be unintended consequences.” He looked up, more frightened than they were. “I really don’t know I’m doing anything.”
“It might be worse if you did,” Marius grumbled. He was angry a little bit, but it was because he was scared. Marius didn’t like to be scared. Neither did Elaine.
They were terrified of him.
Aristotle stood. “I’ll go.”
“No, Aristotle – “
He shook his head at Elaine’s diplomacy. “Please believe when I say I can’t control it.”
He looked at Marius. The Enforcer felt the same way. They trusted him, but they were scared of him. “I have to learn to control it – away from other vampires.” It was too much of a reputation to have. “I’m sorry for any inconvenience I’ve caused you.”
They wanted to stop him for the sake of propriety but in truth, they didn’t want to stop him. It would be better if he left. Neither would dare to suggest it, but they were elated that he came to the conclusion faster than they did and accepted it. “I think you can manage Marius’s hissy-fits well enough without me,” he said to Elaine before she could ask the question, then said, “Sorry.” He should have let her ask the question.
“I know you don’t mean to do it,” Elaine said. “You can stay – “
“No. I’ll go back to the States. Probably
Tahoe. I’ll try not to stay out of touch.” They hugged. “You have my
number.” He was walking out on her hospitality, but it was for their own good.
“Marius.” He nodded, and Marius nodded back. They understood each other.
That part felt good when nothing else did.
Ari was guarding his emotions. That was all Alex could tell – but he could see it pretty well on his face – when he came to collect him. “We’re leaving.” He acknowledged Thomas. “Nice seeing you again.”
And like that, they left. They weren’t supposed to fly in Paris but they did, instead of taking the limo service. Ari was eager to be out of there and Alex was eager to ask him why, but let the link do it. His expression said, ‘Don’t ask.’
“Pack,” was the first thing Ari said when they returned to the mansion. “We’re leaving tomorrow night.”
“Are you going to tell me what happened?”
Ari looked pained at the question. “It wasn’t a fight. We have nothing to fight about.” He rubbed the bald part of his head. “You haven’t noticed any changes in the link since my surgery.” It was not a question. It should have been, but Ari knew the answer.
Alex said it anyway. “No.”
“Abaish’s blood did something to me. I can alter pre-existing links I have with people. I couldn’t tell myself, and you can’t tell because I already control your link. Elaine was the first person to notice it.”
“Is that why she’s been avoiding you?”
Ari nodded as he paced. “She didn’t tell me. She had confirmed it with Marius – which was not the reason for the meeting, but sort of took over it.”
“And they told you to leave?”
“I offered. They tried to stop me, but ... not really.” He smiled grimly. “To them it’s frightening. It implies I could control them, if I really tried. I have to learn to control it.”
“I haven’t gotten that far yet,” he admitted. “We’ll go to New York and then Tahoe. By then I’ll have some idea. There’s either a way to solve it or there isn’t.” It was his approach to things. Either a problem had a solution and it could be discovered, or it had no solution and shouldn’t be worried over. Such a philosophy was always simpler on paper, or when Ari had more confidence in himself.
If Ari wanted to discuss the matter further, now wasn’t the time. Alex packed and went to bed, waking to find every last item ready to go. Ari hadn’t changed clothing and undoubtedly hadn’t slept. Again, it was not the time to ask. Ari didn’t want to be bothered and didn’t need his fledgling’s help. Ari had a problem and Alex knew he couldn’t fix it, and his master would retract from the notion that he could. After some goodbye emails with hasty excuses, they were on a plane to New York. Ari was deep in thought the entire seven-hour flight; Alex listened to music to look like he wasn’t obsessing over his master. Seleucus, stuffed in a cigarette box in his jacket pocket, didn’t add to the conversation.
It was easier flying West, into the night, but it required a day-long stop in New York. The scene was still dead and all Ari gave the Elder Dominic was a cursory email about his stopover, and made the hotel arrangements himself. He didn’t even want to be far from the airport. They roomed in Brooklyn, near JFK. They still had blood wine from France, enough to get them to Tahoe without raising suspicions at customs. Ari drank steadily through the remaining hours of night. Alex was tempted to play clueless and ask him something, but everything in the link said Ari didn’t want to be questioned. He would wallow in misery for a little while, then get over it. Hopefully in Tahoe.
Everything depended on Tahoe.
The lake house in Tahoe was the first place Ari had taken Alex after being brought across. It was their safe house, isolated from the vampire world by its remote location but not beyond the pale. With the exception of one Enforcer intrusion, nothing bad happened there. It was the closest thing Alex had to a home; the smell of the woods with his heightened senses was familiar, especially in the early days, when it had been so overpowering. He was basically a city kid, living in New Haven and Boston all his life. New England had its colors and mountains, but it lacked the isolation and raw sensibilities of the woods surrounding Lake Tahoe, dotted with expensive houses for wealthy urbanites who demanded just as much naturally intensity for a brief part of the year. Alex knew every road from when he learned to drive, and every inch of the woods from when he first learned to hunt, even if it was deer and the occasional lion (Ari warned him never to pick a fight with a bear). In Tahoe he became a man, Macedonian-style, by killing his first boar, even if it was with the car and completely by accident. At the time Alex was mostly terrified of what it did to the car and what it would cost to repair while Ari was ecstatic. The woods also contained Alex’s first creation, before Seleucus, a now-wild vampire labradoodle previously owned by their neighbors, who had the misfortune to bite him at a party. Ari said it was probably still alive; carouches were tough creatures and no one was hunting it.
Nature appealed to the vampire, and therefore to vampires, more than they knew it or could express it. The ravening beast inside of them could be controlled by a sterilized environment, alcohol-laden blood, and sheer force of will, but it could never be tamed. It saw its natural habitat and the opportunities it provided. Ari loved the wild. He never said it and he would never admit it. Others wouldn’t believe it, especially considering the fact that most young vampires only saw him when he was sitting at a computer terminal. If Alex made a comment about the “wild hills of Macedonia” Ari would merely grumble, hiding behind the sophisticated philosopher who’d spent most of his mortal life in cities. But then again, Alex nudged him about it because he knew Ari liked to be nudged. He wouldn’t have done it otherwise.
“Come on. You’ll like it, I promise,” Alex said as he pried Seleucus out of the box and dropped him into the makeshift plastic fish tank. For the past few years he’d lived in greater Los Angeles, and didn’t have facilities for the chameleon here. “I’ll get you something better tomorrow night. Stateline has got to have a pet store.” Seleucus climbed on the plastic treasure chest and stared at him indignantly. “I’ll buy you sand and a feeder and tons of plastic toys to climb on that you won’t go near. Just not tonight.”
After closing the tank by securing books over it, Alex went to check on his master. He knew Ari hadn’t slept since the meeting with Elaine and Marius. He could go a few days without sleep or maybe more, but it was starting to show. Alex would have handled it better if his master wasn’t so silent about the whole thing. Ari was on his bed, on top of the covers, but he wasn’t resting. He was thinking. “I’m just resting my eyes.”
“Sure.” Alex laid down beside him, looking up at the blank ceiling that was now so fixating to Ari. “I have to go to the pet store tomorrow.”
“We should go to Stateline anyway. More computer equipment.” That didn’t need explaining. At least he was actively thinking about it. Then he lapsed into silence, and Alex would have felt his despair even if he wasn’t in the same room.
“It’s not your fault,” Alex said. “I know that’s a dumb thing to say, but it’s true. Whatever Elaine and Marius said to you was bullsh – “
“They didn’t say anything that wasn’t true. And they were being polite, too. Because they were scared of me.”
“It doesn’t have to be bad thing. Some vampires like being frightening. It keeps away unwanted attention.” But Alex knew Ari wasn’t one of those vampires. “If they can’t deal, fuck them.”
“Don’t say that about your elders,” Ari said, but only in a half-hearted way.
“No, fuck them. They have no idea what you went through. They’ve never had to fight a second generation vampire like Urushal and then sort of win. They didn’t have to feel ... whatever it was you felt when you woke up in the hospital. If they can’t handle the fact that going through all that shit made you tougher, it’s their problem. They should just be grateful you’re on their side.”
“It’s not about sides.”
Of course not. It was about the few connections Ari had with the vampire world as it existed in the present, and how reluctant he was to sever them. Alex knew that. “You were the nice guy to walk out when you didn’t have to. They should be happy to have you as a friend.”
Ari finally looked at him, if only briefly. “I don’t want another thing that makes me different.”
“Do you think I want the things that make me different? Do you think I like being poisonous?”
“You’re not poisonous.”
“I can be. Even when I don’t want to be.”
“You wanted to be,” Ari said. “You hated Michael at that moment, and the vampire fueled your rage, so you poisoned him. It doesn’t make you a bad person. It makes you a good friend to Amanda and Jimmy.”
“So we’re talking about the same thing here.”
Ari smiled, just a little. “Maybe.”
“And we both don’t know how to deal with our problems.”
“Everything in its time,” Ari replied. “You might be too young to learn how to control it, but you’ve always managed to surprise me.”
“Ari, this isn’t your pep talk. This is my pep talk. It’s different.”
“Really? Because it seems like you cribbed a lot of notes from me.”
Ari, making a joke. A weak one but this was their longest conversation since Paris. They could be fighting and Alex would be happy just to hear his voice. “So I’m poisonous and you’re ... whatever you are. Mind-reading. Maybe mind-controlling. Do you think you could control Marius like a puppet?”
“Don’t tempt me.”
“It’d be funny.”
“He’s a terrifying person to the vampire world.”
“You can tick him off real easily by sending him some bad art. Or good art. I can’t tell. I never took art history.”
Alex nudged him. “Just look in my memories, crazy link-controlling person.”
“I was trying to be polite.”
“Besides, everyone cribs Aristotle’s notes.”
“Don’t remind me.” Ari sighed. “So. What do we do now?”
Though it was only mid-Fall, it was already biting cold in Winnipeg, enough for Aristotle to feel it again his skin when he stepped out of the car. “Nice additions.”
Nicholas was focusing on getting the supplies out of the trunk with Alex’s help. Aristotle was referring to the solar panels, the only real edition to the Lambert house beside a new coat of paint. Otherwise it looked the same as it had eight years ago.
“They’re not very good,” Nick confessed. “They can’t even reliably heat water for a shower. But it’s the thought that counts. And it will encourage people to make better ones.”
The visit to Nick’s was not quite overdue but steadily headed in that direction. Nick needed a new identity to interview at universities for their next move, timed so that his daughter Kate could move before she started junior high. The family could then stay in their new location until she went to college.
Over the phone in Tahoe, Nick brought up selling the house, a thorny issue between him and Aristotle. He didn’t want to do it, but Aristotle insisted. Pulling up stakes meant pulling up stakes and it made paperwork easier. Aristotle hadn’t spoken to Natalie so he had no idea of her sentiments on the matter, and Nick didn’t indicate either way. Kate was apparently pretty upset about the move.
“Hearing you’re adopted and your dad is a vampire in the same week – not easy news to take,” Aristotle told Alex on the plane. “Especially if you were really into Twilight beforehand. Which apparently she was.”
“Now she can only like it ironically.”
“I guess so.”
Usually Aristotle didn’t go visit his clients, but Nick was different, being both his friend and a far more complicated case. Natalie and Kate’s identities both had to be changed, Natalie needed a new job, and they had to decide where to live. Nick couldn’t pick up and move to Europe for a few decades. Besides, after a month in Tahoe, it was good to get out of the house.
Natalie Lambert greeted them at the door. “Hi. Kate’s still at field hockey practice.”
It was cold and it was dark. “In this weather?” Alex asked before Aristotle could. He was glad he didn’t have to make the comment himself.
“She needs extracurricular activities,” Natalie said, opening the door for them to enter with the boxes of Aristotle’s work material. “Come on in.” The eight years showed their toll on her – not tremendous, but steadily increasing as the gray was now more widespread and the wrinkles longer. She was getting old and Nick was staying young. Neither of them could be in denial of that or their marriage would be a disaster.
Around the kitchen table, they got down to business. Alex was more volunteering than included. He generally wasn’t involved in Aristotle’s work – certainly not to the extent that people thought he was – but he offered to accompany Aristotle on the relatively brief trip, even if he could have made it that long without his master. He was worried about him. Aristotle only knew about it because of the link and he wasn’t going to call his son on it, but it wasn’t his business to be worried about his master.
“Vermont looks good.” Nick was perusing the catalog from the University of Vermont, where he had an interview with the dean of the history department. Whether he got the job or not was not something even Aristotle could control, but he could put in a good word. “What’s the New England scene these days?”
“Quiet, I hear.” Aristotle hadn’t been back since he left with Alex. “Elizabeth’s still in charge of Boston and Dimitri runs New York. Both Communities are still small, but New York never stays that way for long,” Aristotle said. “There’s also the University of Arizona.”
“Phoenix is quiet?”
“Phoenix is quiet. Most of the Midwest is, except for Nevada and Chicago. And Dr. Lambert, you want something in research?”
“Yes,” Natalie answered. “Medical anthropology. Nothing too patient-heavy. And somewhere to study for my PhD.”
“You don’t want me to just make you one?”
“No, I actually want to earn it.”
Aristotle just nodded. “Let’s start with junior high. Public or private?”
“Public’s acceptable if it’s good enough,” Nick said. “But it has to be really good. Are private schools hard to get into?”
Aristotle already had a sheet of Katie’s grades, provided by Nick. “She should be fine. If she’s not, I can fix that. It depends on the area.”
“Something reasonable-sized,” Natalie said. “It doesn’t have to be a big city, but you know what I mean.” She was tired of living in the boondocks. A gesture from Nick meant he silently agreed with his wife, or at least thought it best to do so.
Alex was taking notes, mostly to be polite. Aristotle would remember everything that they said but he usually had to take notes to give his customers confidence. “Any unusual requests?
“What about them?”
“Don’t put us near one.”
“Okay.” He wasn’t considering it, but he knew Alex was writing it down anyway. “Is that the screaming I hear outside?” It was in the distance, but it was there. To a vampire, it was loud.
“Yes,” Nick and Natalie said at the same time. Nick continued, “There were some wild turkeys and our neighbors decided to raise them. I didn’t know birds screamed before.”
“Okay. No turkey farms.” He looked up at the front door slammed shut an a teenager entered. Well, not yet, but she was no longer the four-year-old he remembered. Kate was twelve. Her hair had darkened and she was not forever smiling.
Nick stood. “Kate, you may or may not remember Aristotle and his son Alex. Last time they were here, you were ... four?”
“Four,” Natalie confirmed. “Pre-school.”
She eyed them suspiciously. “Hello.” It was a good bet she was guessing whether they were vampires.
“We’re discussing the move,” Natalie said. “Do you want to join us?”
“I don’t even want to move,” she huffed, and took her backpack right up the stairs.
“Kids,” Aristotle said before her parents could be too embarrassed. “We think it’s different, but it’s the same in every generation.”
Even though Aristotle assured them they didn’t have to discuss it all tonight, the meeting went until Natalie’s eyelids were dropping. Usually Aristotle didn’t give his clients so many choices, but usually he wasn’t placing mortal families wholesale. Nick took Natalie up to bed and Alex went to relax and settle into the guest room. After almost fifteen years of contact, Aristotle still didn’t know Natalie that well, or fully grasp why Nick was so devoted to her. She seemed nice, and she was obviously intelligent, but as a scientist she didn’t meet Aristotle’s standards. She took dangerous risks during their police days with experimental drugs, injected right into her patient without careful clinical testing on an animal, and a few had almost killed Nick when she tried to kill the vampire in him. If she had managed to really do him in, even if Nick was consenting, aware of the risks, and begging for it, Aristotle would have never have forgiven her – not that it mattered. She would be dead at LaCroix’s hands long before Aristotle even heard about it. He saw no reason to discuss his difference of opinion with Dr. Lambert now that she was no longer, under Enforcer orders, searching for a “cure” to vampirism, though Aristotle knew she’d given that up mostly because Nick married her and they made their relationship work. Besides, when speaking in scientific terms, he noticed when he was very young that people either found him intensely interesting or abrasive. He didn’t want to start trouble with whoever made the ever-moody Nicholas de Brabant happy.
Nicholas returned. He had real blood for his guest, not the sewage he drank. “Sorry about Kate.”
“There’s nothing to be sorry about. Kids don’t like change.”
“She’s not taking the vampire thing well.”
“Either she was going to be scared or way too interested. Both ways were hard.” He accepted a glass of wine from Nick. The label on the bottle was familiar – it probably came from LaCroix’s stock.
“How did you tell Alex?”
“I waited until I absolutely had to. Almost caused a heart attack, right there in ICU. Other than that he took it well. Dr. Lambert?”
Nick wasn’t pleased that Aristotle rarely used Natalie’s first name, but he was determined not to show it. “I was a corpse that jumped off her table. That she didn’t run from the room screaming says something.” His drink smelled foul, but Aristotle was determined not to show it. “How have you been?”
“Normal.” He was not lying because he was referring only to the past month, since their return from France. “Which is very abnormal.”
“Last time you were here – “
“ – I was terrified of losing Alex,” he said. “I knew what was ahead. I think he’ll be fine, if the sheer boredom of listening to me discuss other people’s taxes doesn’t do him in.”
Alex liked Nick. He really did. What little he’d seen of Nick told him he was an interesting guy who could be trusted. He was also family. Alex tried to like his wife, but it was made harder by the fact that Ari obviously didn’t like her. His master thought he did a pretty good job of hiding it, but he didn’t. She’d come too close to killing Nick in her research. Ari had a poor tolerance for bad science, even his own. The feeling was unconsciously reciprocated – it was clear Natalie Lambert didn’t fully trust the vampires in her midst, with Nick as the obvious exception, and that was because she was in love with him. In their one discussion, Natalie seemed flabbergasted that a person with modern morals would actively choose to be a vampire and live the according lifestyle, not continuously suffer drinking animal blood. Maybe Nick wasn’t the best introduction to vampirism. Ari said he was a self-loathing guy, or was before he got married. Alex decided to just trust his master on this one.
After a few hours he checked on his master, who was out on the porch, about as loaded as Nick was. There weren’t a lot of people Ari liked to get drunk with so Alex left this on its own for the time being, with sunlight still hours away, and returned to the house. He sat down at the desk in the living room that constituted a sort of home office, not to snoop on the computer as to get a better view of the paintings on the wall. Ari had two of Nick’s paintings in Tahoe, done at different times, one of Isaac Newton and the other a Grecian landscape in daylight. All of the paintings on display, except for one of his daughter, were sun-related, usually in a metaphorical fashion. Talk about obsessed.
He looked up. It was Kate, of course. He could smell the sparkly glitter makeup from the top of the stairs. “Hey.”
“Did I startle you?”
“No. I heard you coming.” It was her heartbeat but he didn’t have to be so graphic. She was in pajamas with a robe on over them, and he stopped himself before saying something about her bedtime, which she was way past. “Don’t you have school?”
“Really? Wow, I don’t even know what day it is.” He took another sip from the wine bottle, not bothering with the glass.
Finally it came out. “Are you a vampire?”
“So you’re really, really old?”
“No. I’m thirty-two. I’ve been a vampire for eight years.”
“What’s it like? Dad won’t talk about
“My dad says that vampires are not sexy or cool.”
“Your dad’s a vampire. Do you think he’s sexy and cool?”
He smiled. She was trying to be sophisticated, but underneath she was just a scared kid. “We look like whatever we looked like at the moment we became a vampire. So if you were sexy and cool before you became a vampire, you’re going to stay that way. And if you were fat or bald or missing teeth, you’re going to stay that way, too. I will always look the way I do and your dad will always look the way he does. And the vampires who think they’re cool and popular are always lame anyway. Just like in high school and college and life.”
She did have a lot of guts. “Did you read Twilight?”
“I saw twenty minutes of the movie on a flight. It was all I could take. I don’t know why anyone would want to repeat high school over and over again. Just move around more often instead.”
“Like we have to move?”
“Yeah, it sucks. I’m barred from going to New England for the next forty years.”
“Because I died there,” he said. “There was a memorial service in New Haven. Ari made sure of it.”
“What happened to your friends?”
“I made new ones,” Alex said. “People are going to come in and out of your life no matter what. Things that seem really important at the time will be silly in retrospect. It takes awhile to realize but it’s true.”
“Are there any vampires that are, like, real vampires?”
“You mean sparkly and voluntarily in high school?”
She rolled her eyes. “Vampires who are scary. Who kill people and prey on the living.”
“What makes you think I don’t do that?”
To Kate’s credit she didn’t back away. Alex didn’t bare his fangs either, but mostly because he didn’t want to have her scream and wake someone up. “Go to bed. Or do whatever you want. I’m really the last person to tell you want to do.”
She did take his advice and scurried back up the stairs. Alex smiled to himself.
There was a lot of paperwork to do and signatures to get, but Ari did most of it while Alex slept. By evening they were done. Kate put in a brief appearance before they left, looking a bit less timid, and said goodbye. Next time they saw her, she would be headed to or in college. Natalie would be older and grayer. Nick would be the same.
Alex was friends with vampires because there was stability in their lifespan. He could blink and these people would be grown old. He supposed Nick didn’t notice it as much, having it happen in gradual stages instead of bursts, but Alex would never know that scared, rather innocent girl again unless he needed to.
“LaCroix didn’t want Nick to get married, obviously,” Ari said out of nowhere, clearly reading Alex’s thoughts on the plane while he was shuffling through paperwork on his lap. “It will only lead to heartbreak. But for you to have heartbreak, you have to have cared about something that was special to you. Nick’s old enough to know the price he’s going to pay but he wants the time to be happy. Experiences with mortals can be so engaging because we know, at least unconsciously, that they’re fleeting. They have to be treasured.”
“You think that way about mortals?”
“Not all mortals. You were an exception.”
It brought back a lot of memories, not all of them good. After all, dying was one of the most miserable parts of Alex’s life. “But you brought me across.”
“I didn’t want to go through losing you.” He added, “And I gave you the choice of being brought across. I would have honored your request if you said no.”
“Of course.” Ari was serious – and a tad irritated that the question was being asked. Alex settled in his seat and didn’t ask any more.
Only back in Tahoe did Ari give his assessment of his other reason for visiting Winnipeg. “I’m fairly sure I was manipulating my link with Nicholas, but he wasn’t aware of it.”
“He might have been playing a good host,” Alex suggested as he reset Seleucus’ feeding tank, which ran on auto while they were away.
“I think I would have known if he was aware of it. I was looking for it. Nick’s always had his head in the ground about a lot of vampire lore, anyway, even when it’s in his best interest to know about it. His knowledge of the link isn’t as cultivated as it should be. He told me once that LaCroix admitted to not teaching him things, so he could have better control over him. Nicholas was a problem child.”
That was an amusing, if slightly impossible image. “Yeah, sure.”
“For a master like LaCroix he was. And still is. We’re all relieved they’re getting along right now. Whenever the next calm breaks, everyone will know about it. Their fights were infamous.”
“Is there anything you’ve kept from me about the link?”
Ari didn’t hesitate to answer the question. “There are things I haven’t told you, but I’ve never hampered your progress or intentionally skipped a lesson. You won’t always be with me and you won’t always need me. Until then I have a responsibility to teach you everything that I know.”
“LaCroix doesn’t agree?”
Ari growled. “We have different opinions on parenting.”
Alex finished up the alterations to the now-elaborate tank for Seleucus and poured his master a fresh glass from the stock in the fridge. He did this unconsciously; Ari was his master and he deserved the respect, and he was the kind of master not to take it for granted. “What now?”
Ari sipped and pondered over the glass of blood for a few moments, longer than it usually took to reach a conclusion. “LaCroix is the only person I have a significant link to in the States and is trustworthy. He might even be interested in helping me if he can, if he thinks he stands to gain, but Lucius’s help always comes with a price. I’ll get worked up wondering what it is far more than necessary. I’ve never had a problem paying him.”
“What does he want?”
“Last time we had a sort of exchange, he wanted my memories of his grandsire Qa’ra. He knew of him only in legend and through the tales of people who encountered Qa’ra before his untimely demise. Lucius is far more interested in our ancient history than he lets on when he’s being the modern Elder.”
“He’ll want your memories of what Abaish-katal told us?”
“He doesn’t know about them and I won’t tell him. No, I don’t know what it’ll be. If it’s not worth it I’ll walk away. But I probably won’t.” He picked up the cordless but didn’t turn it on. “Do you mind if I invite him? I don’t feel like going to Seattle.”
“It’s your house?”
“It’s our house,” Ari said, but took Alex’s comment as a yes.
Lucien LaCroix was not immediately available, though Alex was sure he would have been if Ari asked for such. Ari wanted to be ready for something he wasn’t sure he should do, or how he should do it, but was necessary for him to reenter vampire society before people realized he was missing.
The other issue on the table, Alex’s poisonous blood, was evaded by Ari. “You’re not ready.” When that wasn’t a satisfying enough answer to Alex, his master said, “I’m not ready to put you through that.” It was brutally honest even for Ari, and a clear signal that made Alex more than happy to back off.
Alex took a course in the University of Nevada Carson City, where he used to audit as a post-doc. Computers moved on with him if he wasn’t careful, and he was expanding into robotics, something he hadn’t had the time for at Yale or MIT. There were the prerequisites to go through, so for the most part he was building robots made mostly out of lego, but it was still neat. Ari accompanied him, and spent the entire evening – and sometimes the next day and evening – in the library. “I guess there are still books I haven’t read yet,” he said sheepishly. It was an obsession that Alex didn’t lose any sleep on. Ari’s quest for knowledge would continued until he attained a higher form of being or his head exploded, whichever came first.
The constant exposure to humanity didn’t bother Alex like it did when he was an infant vampire. He was used to the cacophony of human hearts, not beating at the same time but always assaulting his senses. The students of Carson City were safe – relatively.
“You should teach,” Alex said one night, not flinching from Ari’s questioning stare. “Not philosophy. Biology or something.”
“Biology is philosophy.”
“You don’t have to say that in the interview.”
Ari shook his head, but he was at least thinking about it.
Lucien LaCroix arrived a month later. “Children.” That was the whole of his explanation to Aristotle, but it was more than enough. Alex was at class and it was snowing, so Aristotle picked him up at the airport. “I understand I may be relocating next year.”
“That’s your call.” Aristotle knew Lucius would follow Nick, or at least move to the same general area. That or move back to Los Angeles to be with Janette, as he had no reason to be in Seattle anymore. Aristotle still found him obsessive but wouldn’t call him on it. He knew better than to interfere in that relationship. “Thank you for coming.” And he really was grateful; LaCroix hopped on a plain with little or no explanation as to why he was needed in person. Perhaps the fact that Aristotle wouldn’t talk about it over the phone made it more enticing.
“My pleasure, of course.” Lucius’ voice was like silk. In a very irritating way.
The house was quiet. Nothing was every fully silent to them – they could hear the computers humming in other rooms and the boiler churning in the basement, and all of the sounds of nature through the glass windows, but it was as good as it got. Aristotle served his guest, then himself. He needed some liquor in him for this. “I wouldn’t bother you, but you’re the only person I know who I trust to help me.”
“And you are not without your friends.”
He was referring to Marius, Elaine, and the Indian crowd. “No.” Aristotle took a heavy gulp from his glass, not putting effort into appreciating the wine before sitting down. “When was the last time you spoke to Abaish-katal? I know you must have seen him before we met.”
Lucius was surprised at the question, but only showed it in a brief flash of his eyes, then let his expression return to a confident normal. “Oh, I don’t know. The calendars have changed so often, but we must be pressing two thousand years now.”
“You brought your children to see him – “
“And they were rejected. Or Nicholas was. I don’t know why but I didn’t speak to him. Hajji was sent in his stead,” LaCroix said. “I heard a rumor that Abaish briefly resurfaced earlier this year in Delhi. Can I surmise this to be accurate?”
“It’s not really a secret,” Aristotle answered. “He just didn’t want people flocking to him while he was out and about.” He tapped his chest. “He gave me a new heart.”
“Yes, really.” He rolled his eyes.
“Excuse me for being skeptical.”
There was an easier way to deal with this, but he had put it off. Aristotle undid the buttons of his shirt and pulled down the undershirt to reveal the long incision line from his collarbone to just north of his diaphragm. “It was a human donor. He turned the heart on the operating table with his own blood and when he had the surgeons hook it up, it took.”
LaCroix’s eyes were uncomfortably transfixed by the site. “I wasn’t aware he could do such a thing.”
“Neither was he until he did it.” Aristotle covered up again, not wanting to be gawked at longer than necessary. “My heart was damaged and it was the only thing that could have brought me out of torpor. It took me a long time to recover – the rest of the time I was in India. I let very few people see me in that condition. And since then, things have been ... different.”
Lucius merely cocked his head.
“Abaish can draw blood from proximity.” Lucius’ expression showed he was familiar with this concept. “I can’t do that, of course, but I can do something.” He focused on his meager link with Lucius, mostly a leftover from their sharing experience eight years before, when Aristotle was still debating bring Alex across. Through it he could sense LaCroix’s hesitation, and beneath it the intellectual curiosity and search for an angle of self-interest. How could this benefit him?
Of course all this took time to register with Lucius. “... I see.” And his initial response was fear, an odd thing to register in General Lucius. Aristotle enjoyed it, however guiltily.
“I suppose to Alex it doesn’t seem any different. Elaine was the first one to notice it. She didn’t say anything until she confirmed it with Marius. They didn’t say it, but it was very clear my presence wasn’t welcome until I sorted this out. Since then, the only person I have any link with is Nicholas, but he didn’t say anything. I don’t think he noticed. No – he definitely didn’t notice, even when I was trying to make him.”
LaCroix chuckled. “He is quite adept at ignoring the blood – especially that of those close to him – when he wants to.”
“Maybe he’s been doing it to you so long he doesn’t know he’s doing it. He’s on autopilot.”
“And his unhealthy diet doesn’t help,” LaCroix said. “I would be curious to know what he was thinking if I didn’t already know myself. Alas I cannot take better advantage of the situation. Nor am I able to find out for myself what you need from me.”
“I need to learn to control it and I need someone my age with a sophisticated understanding of the blood link to help me. Obviously my options are limited.” He added, “You stand to gain a lot. Memories I wouldn’t share with you even under coercion. And I already know your big secret. I knew it from the moment I met you.” Even the scheming Lucius, who had gone all the way to India to learn to hide memories in his blood from the Council, couldn’t hide from Aristotle, who knew the Qa’ra lineage too well and had met Divia before she died. Lucius was guilty of the worst possible crime, killing his own master. The precise circumstances of which, Aristotle didn’t know and honestly didn’t care to know. People didn’t kill their masters without a good reason. “When else do you get to peak around in my head?”
“I will consider your offer,” LaCroix said. “Further compensation may be required. Would you excuse me?” He wanted to think, and not in the proximity of Aristotle.
Alex arrived almost simultaneously as LaCroix’s exit, and they said hellos in passing.
Alex was tired after a long night in class, surrounded by prey. He wanted to hunt more. They hadn’t decided what to do about it yet. For the meantime, he tore open a new hospital packet of blood and devoured it. “He’s not running out the door. Could he tell?”
“Of course he could. He’s considering my offer.”
“What is your offer, really?”
“We reaffirm the blood link and I surf around in his mind until I learn control. If I do learn control.”
“Links go both ways. If he wants information from me, I’ll probably be rather complacent. Except for information on Abaish-katal, of course,” he said. “He’ll be living here for I don’t know how long. Days, weeks. It shouldn’t take longer than a month.” Meaning, Alex wouldn’t have the freedom of privacy and intimacy he usually had with his master. LaCroix would be a serious third wheel to their connection. “He could drain me dry – which he won’t – and he won’t have any control over you. It’ll mostly be a temporary inconvenience.”
“If he agrees.”
“He’ll agree,” Aristotle said. “Lucius hasn’t lived this long by walking away from opportunities like this.” He raised his eyebrows. “Are you cool with this?”
Alex shrugged. “If this is the way it has to be.” He wasn’t happy, but he understood. “Can you try not to show him memories of me?”
“They’re on the surface, but I’ll do my best.”
Alex gave him a rather grim smile.
LaCroix accepted, of course. It took him the night, or maybe he was just waiting for Alex to fall asleep. Neither Aristotle nor LaCroix needed much sleep. Aristotle lowered all the shades with his remotes, closing the view of scenic Tahoe. He checked on Alex for no particular reason and returned to the living room. He was already feeling guilty. Since bringing Alex across, the only links Aristotle had cultivated were with Marius and Elaine, and those were done under duress. As his son was exclusive to him, he was exclusive to his son.
“Your concern is touching,” LaCroix said. Aristotle hadn’t said anything. It must have been clear on his face. “Alex is your most likely prospect for survival?”
“I’ve never had a child live as long as him.” And he couldn’t bear to think what would happen if something happened to Alex now, after he’d gone through so much. It wouldn’t be fair. “Maybe I’m taking his survival for granted, but I have faith.”
“A good thing to have.” If LaCroix had children before Janette, they weren’t living. Clearly it took him a long time to master the art, and he was actively trying. He was also a generation younger and further away from Qa’ra’s poison. “Shall we begin?”
Aristotle rolled up his sleeve and the vampire sprung into Lucius, who bit down hard. Maybe the Roman vampire was overly curious. Aristotle intended to pace himself, but the pain and aggressive drawing sparked his own reaction. It was not him so much as his vampire that bit down hard on the vein in LaCroix’s neck. He wasn’t ready for the heavy, ancient blood going down his throat. It had only been nine years but they were a long nine years and he wasn’t used to sharing blood with anyone, especially someone so old and ... tasty. And beyond satisfying his growing appetite were the countless memories provided flashing in his brain, incomprehensible and still beautiful in its intensity. There was a richness to it that he wanted to enjoy. All of his feelings of guilt over betraying Alex on any level were gone, dismissed as he was overwhelmed by the growing link between him and Lucius. Time either flew by or dragged – it didn’t matter either way. When they finally pulled apart from exhaustion and the fact that they were now returning each other’s blood, he had no idea what time it was. He was too lost to even sense where the sun was in the sky. He didn’t want to speak or even breathe, just feel. All of LaCroix’s emotions, anxieties, and concerns were laid bare for him: his love for Janette, his unending concern for Nicholas’ well-being, his own obsession with appearing at ease when he never truly was. He was old and wise and he was, like Aristotle, alone, unwilling to gamble in politics anymore but unsure of where his eternity was taking him. What was so well hidden before was obvious now – and LaCroix felt the same way. LaCroix knew Aristotle thought night and day about Alex, his every normal concern about society and the passage of time overshadowed by what was best for Alex, what could possibly help or hinder Alex’s survival and what he could do with it. He was, in short, a parent with an infant, at least from their perspective. Alex had eight on their two thousand years each.
When he came down from the high – and he wouldn’t do it completely for hours – Aristotle tried to probe Lucius but honestly couldn’t tell if he was doing it normally or abnormally. It was still too soon.
He was surprised how much Lucius tasted like Alex. They were the first cousins – or maybe it was the flavor of the tainted line. But LaCroix couldn’t poison people.
“No one ever taught me,” LaCroix answered the unspoken question he still could hear.
“Could Divia poison people?”
“She could do all sorts of terrible things. As we never came across another vampire, I cannot say for sure, but how else would she overpower her master?”
“She took him by surprise. He would underestimate a 12-year-old.”
“Thirteen,” Lucius corrected. “No, I’m wrong. I thought she was thirteen when I returned from campaign. In truth she was still twelve. She’d past her birthday without aging.” He was only being so open because the link was so fresh and intense. Otherwise he would never talk openly about Divia. It was like pulling fangs with him. “I suppose there are so many fathers who would give anything for their daughters never to grow up. My son, for instance. He says he treasures every moment. I believe him, but it frightens me.”
“Because he’ll lose her?”
“Because he has to. The alternative is so much worse.” He meant that Kate might want to be a vampire; she might respond to her father’s insistence that it wasn’t glamorous by assuming it was the opposite. Not at this age, of course, when he could protect her, but when she was older and he couldn’t. But to Lucius it was all a jumble – young, innocent, loving daughters and terrible, demonic masters. “Did you hate your master?”
“Of course,” Aristotle responded. “And loved him. And he loved me – something I’m just beginning to understand.”
“And you believe he contacted you?” More information LaCroix was getting from the blood. It was horrifying to LaCroix, the notion that his master could be alive somewhere in his blood. “I’ll never be free of her. All of this guilt I feel – “
“Qum’ra doesn’t haunt me. He was only there when I needed him. It’s frustrating – even when I want him, he’s not there, even though I know he is. I dream about him all the time, since he spoke to me in the coma. I haven’t heard his voice since waking up a hospital in India – except in my dreams. I just want to stay in them and follow him forever.”
“I dream about Divia,” LaCroix said. Aristotle had a feeling he had never admitted that to anyone and never intended to. “The dreams are always horrifying and yet when I wake up, I feel such loss.”
“When I asked about my new heart, Abaish told me Qum’ra would always be my master. Nothing could ever change that, not even a heart from someone else. And Qum’ra would never leave me.”
“He felt Qum’ra was still alive in the link.”
“He didn’t know, but he saw no reason to doubt my theory. That, and I should add I wasn’t the most clear-headed person when we had this conversation.”
“I know the thought disgusts you, but we are always slaves to our masters, Lucius,” Aristotle said. “And our children think they’re slaves to us while we think we’re parents.”
“Alexander resents the way you brought him across?”
“No, but it’s hard on him. Especially when his friends have all the freedom in the world.”
“His friends won’t last the century.”
“You’d be surprised, but yes, you’re right about a lot of them. Alex knows that, too. It doesn’t change it. When I met Alex, he was so independent he would take the bus to chemotherapy rather than tell anyone he was sick and ask for a ride. It took him a long time to even accept a ride from me. Agreeing to be brought across was just another step. If he had any idea of how dependent on me he would become, he would have said no. I’m so glad he didn’t.”
“Have you ever regretted your decision? I remember you were so worried about it.”
“Of course I regretted it – in Guatemala, just before I called you, when my own poison was killing him. I regretted ever making him go through that instead of allowing him to die peacefully in the hospital. The doctor said he could make it painless, and Alex was in so much pain then, all because of me,” he said. “But otherwise, no. Never.”
“I think Alexander is an astute choice,” LaCroix said. “He compliments you.” Alex hadn’t said anything to LaCroix; he was just saying that Alex’s personality went well with Aristotle’s.
Aristotle focused. “You want to know about the real Alexander.”
“You’re implying that this one is less real?”
He smiled. “This one is Alex. They’re different. I know you love comparing them, but I wouldn’t have chosen Alex if he had any resemblance to any Macedonian king, even Philip.”
“You knew Philip? Oh yes, of course you did.” LaCroix was probing the link too. It was an area people didn’t usually ask Aristotle about if they ever learned his real identity. They wanted to know about Alexander the Great and maybe some of his generals. Or Plato. Or Theophrastus. Or Socrates, if they didn’t know their Greek history well enough. Never Philip.
“By the end of his life, we were friends,” Aristotle said, happy to say it rather then let LaCroix feel it. There were still things he didn’t want him to know. “Politics threw us together and I resented it, but not him. He was a better ruler than Alexander. Smarter, more cautious. But very bad luck with women.”
Lucius chuckled. He’d read Plutarch’s account of Alexander’s life, undoubtedly in one of the first editions. It was filled with family drama.
“I don’t know why he was assassinated, aside from the official reason.” King Philip was killed by his bodyguard and quarreling lover, that much was fact. Who was behind it was another matter. “Public displays of grief were rather inappropriate during the dynastic dispute that followed. Also we all felt he had it coming, but he deserved a better legacy. He was more than just Alexander’s father.”
“History is so unforgiving.”
“Yes, it’s a shame General Lucius didn’t make it into the history books.”
Lucius glared at him, but there wasn’t any real menace to it.
It took the rest of the day for the link to fade enough for them to be not actively reading each other’s surface intentions and interested in doing other things. Lucius took advantage of Aristotle’s considerable library and his host napped on the couch.
“This is all too startling to Alex,” Aristotle said in the late afternoon. “If we can do this mainly during the day, I would appreciate it.”
Lucius nodded, silently agreeing. He had no reason not to and at the moment he was sensitive to Aristotle’s concerns. Aristotle suspected he could have asked Lucius to jump out the window and he would have done it.
After recharging with dinner even though neither of them were particularly hungry, they sat down opposite each other in the living room. “I’m going to try to push forward as far as I can,” Aristotle said. “Try to stop me.” It wasn’t an easy request, but Lucius wasn’t a weakling, either. He’d fooled the Council when he was only four hundred. His mind was a fortress.
Aristotle closed his eyes and tuned out everything but the link between them. Alex was in the background, asleep, but he always was there. There was no way to define in human terms what Aristotle was doing to himself or Lucius; it wasn’t comparable to walking into a building, operating on so many more levels than that. First came the surface emotions and most recent memories, some of which were mixed with Aristotle’s, as his blood still flowed through Lucius’ veins. Aristotle stepped forward, mentally, only aware that he was ticking off a bead on his mala as he went. It was an easier way to pace himself.
There were barriers there. He could see and feel them, taking whatever incomprehensible shape Lucius created, but it was as if Aristotle was quietly passing by them, admiring ruins, instead of hitting them head-on. They were phantoms; Aristotle wasn’t breaking down barriers as he was taught as a fledgling so much as simply walking past them. He saw the plane ride, the apprehension, and the call from himself to Lucius in Seattle, working backwards. There was the visit with Nicholas, and the near-miss of a fight with Natalie for reasons Aristotle now completely understood even if he could have guessed them before. They were operating in a truce that was supposed to last until Natalie died (of natural, human causes) or was brought across, something Nicholas had no intention of doing and Natalie was not interested in. The pattern was the same as every visit – LaCroix and Natalie would spar, only verbally of course, and Nick would try and utterly fail to keep the peace. Exempt from this was Katie, as LaCroix still referred to her.
Aristotle could see clearly that even though they didn’t look alike or act the same, LaCroix equated Katie with the part of Divia he had loved, and still loved. She was one of the few, perhaps the only thing General Lucius loved in his lifetime besides himself.
LaCroix’s mind responded rather angrily to this notion, but couldn’t expel the intruder, so Aristotle looked away from the granddaughter to the son. Aristotle thought his love for Alexander had no comparison, but he found it easily in LaCroix. Nicholas was his golden child, perhaps his greatest creation, something LaCroix would never admit if Janette was present and Nicholas would never believe. The source of his unending affection for the errant crusader was still mystifying to Aristotle, but this was a recent memory, and not the place to find it.
He decided to tread on more familiar territory. Aristotle had just moved his permanent base to the New World, and Nicholas had lost his professorship to HUAC. Aristotle found a place for him on the West Coast, and LaCroix wanted to know where it was. Aristotle would never hand over that information, and they fought – physically. Aristotle hurled him across the room. Now he could feel Lucius’ terror at being confronted with something bigger than himself; he’d forgotten that Aristotle was older than him after so many years of them both pretending otherwise. When they first met, after the sack of Rome, Aristotle was working for the Council and a candidate for a seat on it, and Lucius was a mysterious young vampire of four hundred years (and only by counting his human years, too) with no master or interest in vampire politics. His communications with his own kind were restricted to a trip to India to speak to Abaish-katal; someone must have told him about that, otherwise the Roman wouldn’t have crossed the Persian empire and venture deep into mysterious India, as foreign as one could get, to find him. If Aristotle really wanted to know the details, he probably could learn, but he looked away. In fact, sending forward the search for Abaish-katal, he found the only serious wall he’d hit. Abaish could lock away other people’s memories better than they ever could; he didn’t try to breach that one. Somewhere in there was the reason Lucius killed his own master, but the very notion crossing Aristotle’s mind raised all kinds of alarms in the link, more than were already going off, and again he backed away. He was doing this to learn his own limits, not interrogate LaCroix, who was agitated enough at being unable to block anything from Aristotle.
In the back were Lucius’ memories in the sunshine – his army days, his relationship with Divia’s mother, his childhood.
Stop, LaCroix commanded, but he was really pleading. Aristotle stood on the precipice of the very sacred and could walk freely forward if he wanted to. He didn’t have to listen. He did stop, though, and waited.
Push me back, he said.
“I can’t,” Lucius said, standing next to him in the sand. Lucius was dressed in a toga, the way he pictured himself. “Perhaps I should make a trip to the East and see Abaish-katal myself.” He was using humor to hide his fear. At least he still had humor.
“I’m truly sorry for doing this to you,” Aristotle replied. The sun was still fascinating; how close was it to the real thing? How tainted were Lucius’ memories by millennia in the darkness? “You were the only one I could go to.”
“You are afraid of becoming powerful,” the Roman Lucius announced, even though it was the modern LaCroix actually thinking the words. “You’re convinced you will only do terrible things.”
There were things so deep in Aristotle that he wasn’t an open book, but things in him would be obvious to his mental host, too. Things even he couldn’t see, or just refused to. “No one should be beyond the system.”
“He ... is very old.” He was going to explain that Abaish had done it by accident, drinking his father’s blood, but he couldn’t possibly say that to Lucius, and all his instincts stopped him. That was beyond private. “And he’s been driven into exile.”
“Before or after he went to India?”
Aristotle realized he could answer him honestly. “I don’t know. He’s in hiding now because of his notoriety, and because he’s powerful enough to live without the rest of us, but he left the Vampire West a long time ago. Before my time, and my master rarely spoke of him.” He added, “I don’t think the Council knows much more than I do. If they do, they’re very good at hiding it.”
“So much of our history, lost.”
“It is a shame.”
There was nothing else to be accomplished here. Lucius couldn’t force him out. Aristotle had complete control over the link; the difference now was that he was at least vaguely aware of it from the feedback he was getting. He stepped back, retreating and at the same time trying not to take LaCroix with him. They were not two halves of a whole, but separate entities passing in space. LaCroix deserved that and Aristotle was tired.
He opened his eyes. Lucius’ were gold, the vampire surging now that it was free, but he controlled it. “You have great power,” LaCroix said, “whether you like it or not.” He stood and left the room, taking the bottle with him.
Aristotle waited until he was gone, leaned over in the chair, and wept.
It was already dark when Aristotle was ready to see anyone else, and Alex was awake and fiddling with his latest project for class. He was really just distracting himself, trying not to jump up and eagerly embrace his master to comfort him. Instead he just said, “How was it?”
“Like raping a friend,” he said, not mincing words. Alex did wince but that was his business. “Lucius believes I’m afraid of power.”
“Are you?” It was rhetorical even though Alex meant for it to be answered. They both already knew the answer. “Did you learn anything else?”
“I learned that Lucius can’t stop me.”
“Where is he?”
The link was still strong enough for him to tell. “He went hunting. I imagine he has a lot of frustration to burn off.”
“But he’s coming back?”
“That’s his current plan. After all, it’s in his interest for me to learn how to control myself. I wouldn’t blame him if he changed his mind.” He sat down at the workstation. Even though Alex was supposed to do the project alone, Aristotle still got some joy out of fiddling with the wiring. It was all so logical and the riddles solvable. Alex was trying to make the robot voice-activated, but was having trouble with the receiver.
LaCroix returned shortly before dawn. Aristotle knew without asking that he hadn’t partaken in the bounteous offerings of nature but gone to Stateline to feed on human prey, something LaCroix did with abandon and yet somehow manage to escape the Enforcers because he was old and exceedingly good at hiding bodies. Aristotle wasn’t critical of him; he just knew the population of Stateline, Nevada wasn’t very large and sooner or later he would get noticed. But that was sooner or later, not tonight. He could deal with anything, as long as it wasn’t tonight.
Alex spent an increasing amount of time at school, his retreat from the tension in the house. Even though LaCroix and Aristotle were never engaged in whatever they thought they were accomplishing during the day to accommodate Alex, the mood in the air was changed. Ari was lethargic or lost in contemplation, or a little of both. He tried desperately to pay attention to Alex, but watching him stretch himself to do it was like torture. LaCroix was not the very polite third wheel – Alex was. He wasn’t part of their connection and though he had no desire to be, it made negotiating even a normal conversation difficult. He was lonely and if he couldn’t have his master all to himself, he wanted to be gone.
He spent more time hunting, something his master did not encourage or oppose. Even though the snow was fairly set in the ground now, the animals were still about as if it was only early fall. Alex liked the snow. It could be dangerous to vampires if their blood froze, but that could take a day or more, and brief encounters of snow against his skin when he tackled a deer were intense because he could feel the cold much more than he felt the breeze in milder weather. The blood was terrible, but it was hot and fresh, and the only proper conclusion to the thrill of the hunt. Other animals were too small to be worth it except for foxes and deer, the mountain lions were difficult to find, and bears were just too dangerous. Sometimes he just smashed a tree, like a bear, for no other reason than because he could.
“Exhilarating, isn’t it?”
It was LaCroix, of course, walking around the cliff to join him as if the rather polished vampire belonged there, even if he wasn’t huffing and covered in melting snow and dirt.
“Don’t worry. Aristotle knows my every move, of course. Nor am I foolish enough to upset someone such as your master.”
Alex calmed the vampire inside him, still raging from the previous romp, and wiped his face of animal blood. “What do you want?”
LaCroix laughed. “Suspicion can make one so indignant. And I remember when you were terrified of me.”
“And I remember when Ari specifically told me not to be scared of you. You have a two-thousand-year head start, but we’re the same generation. We’re cousins.” He dipped his head a little bit in a pseudo-bow. “Mr. LaCroix. You never answered my question.”
“I confess to having some interest in your welfare. Not to imply you are in danger precisely, but I have an interest in rising young stars – especially cousins.”
“I’m not anybody special. I’m just an infant.”
“That, I suspect, is your master talking. Not through you, but you were repeating his mantra that he has been repeating to himself since the day he was brought across.”
“It is the way I feel. I’m not hiding any ambitious secrets.”
“Of course not. Nonetheless you will have your own thoughts, less entwined with your master’s. His values will become yours but you will be more inclined to pick and choose. You have a natural affinity for the hunt – as we all do but you will not allow it to be suppressed. And it is not, as you suspect, solely because of the family heritage. It is what we are.”
“I believe in evolution.”
“And how long does evolution take?”
Alex smiled. LaCroix was always clever. “Opinions vary.”
Alex awoke the following night to an eerie stillness in the house. LaCroix was not present. Ari was, standing over him, watching him sleep and now wake. “Hey,” Alex said, sitting up, his voice still more of a growl. “What’s up?”
Ari’s eyes glowed red, but not in anger. Before Alex knew it he was offering his wrist. Ari howled and tore into it, so deep that not just his long fangs but his front teeth cut the skin. Even though it didn’t hurt because it was Ari, who could somehow make it painless, Alex’s own vampire wasn’t ready. It was waking quickly now and it was hungry, and made hungrier by the second by the blood being drawn from his veins. His reaction was unconscious, tearing right through Ari’s clothing to get at the veins in his neck. The usual burst of ecstasy was accompanied by a desperation on both sides for blood. They couldn’t feed on each other for ever – they would just be recycling blood – but for the moment there was nothing but the blood and if it wasn’t endless, they would deal with it.
Ari did deal with it. His feeding slowed and he became more encouraging of Alex to take his fill, even if it was just his own blood cycling back now. Too overwhelmed and confused to truly enjoy the intimacy, Alex’s fangs finally retracted and he fell back against the pillows, wiping the blood from his face and licking his fingers. He felt in the renewed link Ari’s horror.
“I’m sorry.” His voice was shaky, but not because of the vampire. “I’m so sorry.”
“It’s fine.” It wasn’t the first time Ari had surprised him, but there was just a dreary urgency to it, as if Ari needed his blood. “It’s really okay,” he added when he saw his master wasn’t comforted. “You can have whatever you need.”
“I shouldn’t need it.” Ari was distraught. He sat on the edge of the bed but couldn’t look him in the eyes. “I shouldn’t have to hurt you.”
“It didn’t hurt and you know it. It was just ... kind of surprising.”
Ari scratched his head, visibly nervous. “I just needed something – someone – other than Lucius.”
“What did he do to you?”
“Nothing,” Ari said. “I’m just tired.”
Alex would be the last person to suggest to Ari what might be too much for him, but Ari would know if he was listening in on the link. “It’s okay,” Alex repeated. “I missed you.”
“I wasn’t gone.”
“You know what I mean. We all do these things but don’t mean anything.”
Ari laughed sadly. Alex tugged on his shirt until Ari agreed to lie down beside him. His posture gave away his exhaustion. It wasn’t all mental. His master needed rest, to be away from his unsolvable problem, and he turned to Alex. That was okay with him. He wanted to help Ari and so far he had been able to contribute nothing but his complacency. This felt better. He nudged him, partially burying his face in the good side of Ari’s shirt, with the delicious aroma of blood floating from the fabric. “LaCroix wouldn’t keep this up if he felt there wasn’t some value.”
“That or I’m influencing his decision-making abilities.”
“Then you would tell him to leave to spare him. You’re too good to do otherwise,” Alex said. “I know you, Master. You don’t want to hurt anyone unless you have to. You’re not like other vampires.”
“I’m scary to them.”
“Then they’re pussies,” Alex said. It was the first thing that came out of his mouth and he didn’t regret it, however undignified a statement it might be. “They’re convinced of their superiority over everything because that’s what they’ve been told they are. They’re not expecting to face something bigger than them. They’re not used to it. You’re not responsible for that. You’re only responsible for your own actions, and maybe a few of mine.”
Ari took his time sorting this out. Or he just had a lot to sort out. “You spoke to Lucius last night.”
“He said you knew about it.”
“Every word. I felt he had a right to say his piece. You’re old enough to make your own decisions.”
“That’s the opposite of what he said.”
“Well, Lucius and I disagree on a lot of things, in case you haven’t notice.” Ari was relaxing, his body becoming less tense. The force of their actions was hitting them in the good way. Alex tasted nothing unfamiliar – Ari hadn’t drunk anything from LaCroix during the day, taking the hours of sunlight to draw back instead. The result was panic.
“What is it inside you that frightens you so much?” Alex asked even though he might be able to find the answer in the link. That would take time, and might be invading his master’s privacy. And it was better to hear it in Ari’s words anyway.
“We are human because we reason, and only humans can reason. It separates us from the animal.” This was Aristotle’s basic vampire philosophy, one rejected by the Community in the rare occasions when he voiced it. “I thought I’d learned to live with the animal vampire, which doesn’t think or reason. It just reacts. But I don’t think it’s so innocent anymore, to the extent that it ever was. When we communicate, talking or through a link, we’re always forcing it down or calling it up. It’s a part of the way we communicate.”
“And as it’s evil, it must be bad? You’ve said that the vampire wouldn’t qualify itself as evil, just a natural predator. There’s nothing wrong with that.”
“Unless it comes into conflict with the human side. I don’t know why it would give me such power over the link, or why it would want me to be able to decimate Lucius’ mind. I don’t know where the line between human and vampire is anymore.” And Ari did not like not knowing things. “Yesterday – not this morning but the day before – I let him inside, to see what he could do, and he saw something he shouldn’t have stumbled into.”
“No, he could never get that. He saw my memories of being entombed for seventy years after being falsely accused of killing my master. There’s nothing much to see – unending hunger and the pain that accompanies it – so I wasn’t guarding it. I wasn’t even thinking, so focused on my control over the link, and he stumbled on it. It was the first time in two thousand years that I’ve seen LaCroix completely lose control. He threw me against the wall, destroyed a bookshelf. He would have done more if I hadn’t used the link to calm him, something I said I wouldn’t do, but I was afraid he might fly out the window and kill himself. He understood later, when I explained what he’d seen, but we haven’t tried anything since that. Since I found out my memories could send an ancient vampire into a frenzy.”
“It was the Staples home office bookshelf, right? No big loss.” Alex wasn’t making light of it, just trying to give it some bizarre perspective. Ari would know that. “And I think I assembled the backing wrong anyway. Maybe I should tell him that.”
Ari grinned, but it faded quickly. “To see the vampire for what it is really is, inside you or in front of you – after all this time, that can still frighten me. When I was mortal I believed in honesty in all respects except politics, and that was for survival. I knew who I was. I knew what I was. I might have thought the world of myself, but given my academic legacy, maybe I wasn’t wrong. Since Qum’ra drained that life out of me, I’ve been lying to myself.”
“We all lie to ourselves. It’s how we survive reality.”
“No. There’s another way. It’s just harder.” But he was certain of it – and Aristotle of Stageira never flinched from an intellectual challenge.
Alex kissed him on the shoulder, where he’d bitten him. That wound was long healed. “Then take it one lie at a time. It’s all I can bear. And besides, don’t you have all the time in the world?”
After they had something to drink, and were refreshed, they drank from each other again, the circle between master and fledgling serving as the ultimate comfort. Ari was unusually unguarded, his mind open to even a weakling like Alex if he wanted to explore, but there was no driving curiosity, just a check that his master was sane, and that some part of him was receiving comfort from this. He felt all of Ari’s fears – fears of failure on so many different levels, fears of alienating his friends and alarming his enemies, fears of somehow failing Abaish-katal by not learning to control his newfound abilities courtesy of the master vampire. Ari was there, in Alex’s mind, listening to all of his concerns about his master’s health, his own loneliness and jealousy of LaCroix, his feelings of alienation in his own home. Both were reassured by the other not in words but in blood. It brought a sense of calm not felt in the house since LaCroix’s arrival, and the euphoria that came with the physical connection.
Alex joked that he should be so lucky to get attacked more often. It was so good for them both.
Aristotle asked Lucius if they could resume the next day at noon, when the vampire was weakest and they were both fresh from at least a few hours of sleep. The Roman vampire of course agreed, still somewhat embarrassed from his earlier frenzy. Aristotle slept with Alex, Lucius in the guest room.
Aristotle sat cross-legged on the couch, again facing LaCroix. “I think I know as far as I can go. Now we have the matter of pulling back and staying there. In the past I haven’t been going in consciously, but I’m a bit more aware of my actions now. Are you willing to proceed?”
Lucius was finishing off his wine. “I doubt there’s anything you don’t know about me, so I see no reason not to.”
“A slight exaggeration. There are things I haven’t looked at and won’t look at, or can’t look at. Abaish’s memories are locked up tight. The man is a master.”
“But not a man precisely.”
“He is remarkably human. You didn’t see him in a Sikh turban and surgical scrubs. I think he rather enjoyed a sudden mortal occupation as a doctor.”
“But he didn’t stay.”
“Who knows if he did? Abaish can make himself unnoticeable, even if he’s standing next to you.”
“I have no doubt. Nonetheless it is an impressive feat.” LaCroix straightened up. “Shall we begin?”
It was amazing how confident Lucius sounded, but the Roman vampire never admitted defeat, not even after turning into a wild monster at a flash of Aristotle’s memory. Behind it were his insecurities – Aristotle could see those clearly, just below the surface. This time, he didn’t probe further, staying just on the edge on the massive consciousness before him, free and open for him to explore. “You have a lot of insecurities.”
“I suppose I do,” LaCroix answered, irritated by the pronunciation but too intelligent to deny it. “I don’t suppose you’re much different.”
Aristotle retaliated by drawing Lucius into him, pulling him in through the link, though it was really more like shoving himself in Lucius’ face. He couldn’t open himself up fully – he could never do that – but LaCroix would see what he wanted to see. What Aristotle already knew about.
“You still believe the vampire is evil, don’t you?”
Aristotle winced. “You would say the same thing.”
“I would not qualify it in terms of good and evil. But yes, there is madness in me, too much for me to control, there before but magnified when I was brought across. You have other assumptions. The vampire knows no morality, so it cannot be good or evil.”
“But it is a part of you, so you must be judged on its terms. If you are human, so it is the vampire. It thinks, it plans, it decides – “
“It’s an animal, incapable of reason.”
“You don’t know that. You’re supposing that,” LaCroix said. He was only able to make these assumptions because he was reading Aristotle, too – they both could see where the other stood. “You gathered your evidence based on what your master told you and what lies you had to tell yourself to survive. The idea that part of you – part of the real Aristotle – is the vampire, and therefore a human doing horrendous acts, incapable of sustaining itself without slaughtering its own human kind – that is what you will not see.” LaCroix was smiling. Aristotle could tell even though his eyes were closed. “I am familiar with the notion. Nicholas has the same problem.”
“Nicholas hates himself because of his medieval notion of Christian penance.”
“It ends there but does not start there. It is deeper. The very notion that in our hearts, what sustains us is an evil beyond human understanding – “
“That is not the entirety of what we’re about!”
“But it is so much of it!” LaCroix snapped back, not truly angry, just wanting to be biting. “I saw the vampire transform my child into a monster capable of acts beyond even our comprehension! Whatever Qum’ra was to you, when he beat you and drained you and raped you, he was not your daughter!”
There were memories there in LaCroix’s mind but Aristotle didn’t want to see him. Everything was telling him to look away and he did; in fact, he did it before he could even think about doing it. LaCroix’s mind, so overrun, was becoming anathema to him. He’d violated his friend over and over now for his own benefit. He didn’t know how to return the favor and he just felt as though he was digging himself a deeper hole.
And there were LaCroix’s words to consider. The vampire in Aristotle was an animal, but then again he treated it like one. He shoved it down or let it free. He didn’t try to communicate. It wasn’t so simple as talking – there were connections there between the human Aristotle and Aristotle’s vampire that he didn’t want to make. He told himself there was no point in making them.
“The vampire sustains you. The vampire allows your body to live on well beyond its due. You owe it a great deal,” LaCroix went one. “You may find my life hedonistic and self-serving, moving from one amusement to another. Only rarely do I reach for greater knowledge of myself, content in what I already know. And to some extent you are correct – I lack your obsessive nature of questioning. But then again, I have much fewer questions. I am a vampire. I am good at being a vampire. Is that not all that is required for happiness, to be good at what I am? To be a good vampire?”
He was pressing Aristotle on a philosophical point from Aristotle’s mortality. Aristotle should have been ready with a response but he wasn’t. He was overwhelmed by the strain of maintaining his distance in the link and the lurking vampire in the background, always ready to be unleashed. He was fighting the instinct to look deeper into the link for some ulterior motive from Lucius, or to use the link to overtake the conversation. It could all be so easy ...
LaCroix was reading him now as Aristotle retreated. “Your master told you that you were evil.”
“You challenged him because you were a fledgling and it was in your nature.”
“And because he did it in such a horrible way.”
“And you don’t appreciate someone knowing more than you.”
That brought a tiny smile to Aristotle’s face. “Yes.”
“Why do you think he needed to dominate you? Him, an ancient and you a weak infant?”
Aristotle knew the answer. “Because I was smarter than him.”
“Intellectually, yes. And imagine, if you had overtaken him, what he might have unleashed.” You have so much potential. Lucius thought it but Aristotle heard it without trying. “You are still trying to be your human self.”
Reaching an end to his ability to tolerate Lucius’ pronouncements, Aristotle blasted a memory through the link. He was lying on the hill outside Enforcer Headquarters after draining a guard to death and unleashing the poisoned dog. While he gazed up at the moon, his poison was running its course through the dog kennels. Within the next day, most of the Enforcers would be infected, and the day beyond that, the majority destroyed, either having flown mindlessly into the sunlight or killed and eaten by their own kind. It was a massacre to save Alex, and he enjoyed it not for that sake but his own. He lay there because he was too dangerous, because he might hurt anyone who came near him. Because his emotions were no longer in his control.
In the link Lucius could see all of his fear, all of his contempt for himself. This time, Lucius would pass no judgments. Whether he was overwhelmed or not, Aristotle didn’t care to look. He closed the link, wrapped his mala beads around his wrist, and left LaCroix to his own thoughts.
“Is he hurting you somehow?” was Alex’s first question when Aristotle went in to see him that evening. Alex was already up and clipping pieces of sponge off the square. He dipped them in blood and dropped them in Seleucus’ cage for the anole to suck on. Still partially a lizard, Seleucus liked to digest slowly. “I didn’t think he was capable of it but he is kind of a manipulative bastard.”
Aristotle chuckled instead of scolding Alex for not respecting his elders. “He’s helping me, but Lucius knows how to ask all kinds of painful questions.”
“I think he wants me to be a killer.”
“I think he believes you already are and you don’t know it, and you and I are wasted if we’re anything but our true selves,” Aristotle replied. “He trained his children that way. One quietly resents him and one openly defies him, but he doesn’t regret it. He just doesn’t understand why it came out that way.” He scratched his beard. “Why is it we’re so conflicted about our nature and yet pretend we’re not?”
“Are mortals any different?” Alex said. “Who was in the biggest denial of all time that he needed someone when he was sick? Me. Duh. And now I don’t know what to think. I think what you tell me to think.”
“You’re not giving yourself credit.”
“I don’t mean to insult you,” Alex assured him. “But it’s the way it is. You’re older and wiser and you control the link. Why shouldn’t I listen to your ideas when I’m beyond a range of experience where I can form my own? Ari, I don’t know how to handle the world anymore. You’re the only one who can tell me how to do it.”
Aristotle conceded, “I think you’re the only one here not lying to yourself.”
“And I think LaCroix is messing with your head.”
“And you’re probably right. But I need him.”
He turned to leave, but Alex kept talking. “A psychiatrist once told me that people get diagnosed with depression after they’re sick. They’re too busy while they’re in the hospital dealing with the responsibility of maintaining their emotions and getting well that all of their energy is used up, and when the other medical problem is alleviated, there’s a fallout.” He added cautiously. “I’m just saying.”
Aristotle nodded, but didn’t respond.
Lucius made his request, and Aristotle showed him what he wanted to see. There was so much he couldn’t tell him or didn’t want to tell him, but he could show him what happened in India – starting with the fight with Urushal in DC to his waking in the hospital in Delhi, under the watchful eye of Abaish-katal. He muted some of the conversations he’d had, but it was Lucius’ first view of the vampire he’d visited two thousand years ago, now casually walking around the hospital floors, doing rounds and attending lectures. LaCroix knew Hajji, too, having been friends with his master, and he commented that the Arab vampire seemed to be doing well. It was true – Hajji was now the third oldest vampire in India after Abaish-katal (who was almost never involved in politics) and Skandagupta. He had seven children, six of whom were daughters who lived in India or Pakistan and one obedient son in Toronto, so he virtually had an army for himself if he ever wished to flex his muscles. Officially someone else, a Hindu, was Elder of Delhi, but only because Hajji forfeited his chance on the city long ago, claiming an amused disinterest in city politics. For LaCroix, who had no permission to visit India and had been turned away on his last visit while still beyond the Hindu Kush, it was a bit like seeing old friends, even if they couldn’t respond to his presence in Aristotle’s memories. It was what Aristotle could give him, beyond the powers that might have already been transmitted from drinking so much of Aristotle’s blood.
It didn’t have to be spoken that they could not continue. Aristotle was increasingly exhausted. LaCroix would never admit weakness but he was reaching his end; Aristotle could tell that without reading his mind, something he was trying hard not to do. Most importantly, they found they could have a mundane conversation without Aristotle consciously or unconsciously probing the link, at least most of the time. When he did it, Aristotle recognized it and shut it down.
“Your abilities have improved considerably,” LaCroix said, no exaggeration. His silken voice was wonderful for giving compliments, and particularly biting when they were sarcastic. “And in such a short time.”
“Thank you.” But he still wanted to keep his distance from other vampires, just for the time being. He needed a break. He needed release.
Alex was of course thrilled to see LaCroix go, but did not give that impression when it was actually time to drive him to the airport. Alex had a certain amount of respect for LaCroix, even if he occasionally rubbed Aristotle’s son the wrong way, and not just because he was an elder. Anyone who helped his master earned points in Alex’s book. “Thank you for coming,” he said to his cousin, and meant it.
And with few words, LaCroix left them. Aristotle knew they were all secretly relieved. When they returned to the empty house, Alex practically threw himself on him, not demanding physicality or even blood so much as a moment to appreciate the physical contact with an intensity only they could share. After Aristotle assured him that he was not too weak, appearances aside, Alex drank from his wrist, mostly just suckling. It was to Aristotle, as always, an oddly comforting feeling. Someone needed him and he could provide for them. When he was so very tired, losing blood to Alex was actually invigorating. He didn’t want to run out into the hills, but he was happier, and he was calm enough to fall asleep with Alex clinging to him. Like his son, he slept the entire day, and they woke together to face the night anew.
“I’m thinking of going to New Mexico,” Aristotle said over breakfast. It gave Alex, who was sucking on a hospital blood packet, considerable pause. There was only one reason Aristotle had for being in New Mexico.
“Isn’t it the wrong time of year?” To the best of Aristotle’s estimates, Qum’ra died in the early summer.
“That date is just a guess. And I haven’t visited him in years.” His next question took Alex by surprise yet again. “Do you want to come?”
“Do you want me to come?”
“When you were just turned, I was afraid that somehow, contact with whatever remains of him would have some negative effect. As if he radiated evil. Even if it’s true, it would only apply to that room and the direct contact I have with him in the link which you don’t have. I don’t think he can hurt you. I don’t even think he would. So, yes, I’d like you to come. If you want to. The town doesn’t really have much to offer.”
“Of course I want to go.” They both already knew the answer to that. Alex was entirely dismissive of Aristotle’s concerns. “When do we leave?”
It was a twenty-hour drive, but Aristotle insisted on it instead of the plane. He had a lot of blood in the trunk, as New Mexico did not have a large vampire population and they would be on their own. Some of it was on dry ice and the rest was in bottles of blood wine. “You fly over too many things,” he replied to Alex’s impatient expression. “We’re hunters. We should enjoy nature while it lasts.”
“Says the guy who went nine days without sleep because he was stuck on Worlds of Warcraft.”
“I have a varied range of interests.”
As unsure as he was about the trip, Aristotle packed quickly, before he could second-guess himself. He spent too many days dreaming of his master – would it really be good to visit him now? He didn’t truly want Qum’ra to be alive and he knew he wasn’t. He even took comfort in it. But Qum’ra had saved his life in DC, and he felt he owed his master something that couldn’t be repaid.
And he desperately needed to get out of the house. He needed a respite from his refuge. Fortunately thanks to the advanced age, he could take his work with him for the most part. A computer and a printer could do most of his work until he could get home to replicate certain documents and no one in the New World seemed to be in great crisis at the moment. It took a day to straighten out the overflow from his agonizing experiment with LaCroix before he was ready to move on. Alex had very little to take with him, only his computer, his skateboard, and Seleucus in a travel cage. “We ready?”
Alex smiled grimly at him, the plastic carrying tank in his lap. Alex didn’t like long car rides. It was too much inactivity for his young vampire and he didn’t like driving like Aristotle did. Kids, Aristotle chuckled. No appreciation for anything. “I should make you spend ten hours on a horse. Then, I assure you, you would love cars.”
“I’m sure I would.” There was still a level of excitement below the surface. Alex expected something grand in New Mexico.
“It’s just a cheap motel. Hotel, technically. I own it now.”
“Feliks purchased it when it was changing owners and I was ex communicado.” Meaning, when they were in Guatemala. “I couldn’t risk someone buying it and tearing it up for some new building. They might find the ruins.”
“It’s been over two thousand years. Those ruins have to be pretty deep.”
“And so are foundations. Plus New Mexico has all kinds of laws about doing archaeological surveys. It’s just better if I own it.” He owned a large section of undeveloped Euboea, too, where his wife was buried. He didn’t visit it; he’d never been back. He sent a Turkish vampire to do a survey and purchase it for him. It was officially under the case of the Nicomachean Trust, with its well-documented but nonexistent board of directors. Every once in awhile an archaeologist would apply for a permit to dig, the Greek government would contact him, and he would deny access. Protecting graves involved so much paperwork. Fortunately he liked paperwork.
“Sooner or later they’re going to have one-way glass for cars,” Alex said. “You’re going to be able to drive during the day. Will you do it?”
“What about sunscreen?”
“SPF 5000? You’ve seen Blade too many times.”
“Since when are you so close-minded?”
“I’m just not holding my breath.”
“You don’t have a breath.”
“I can still think that I’m holding it,” Aristotle said. “Smart ass.”
Qum’ra was crossing the ice. He had such confidence while Aristotle only knew hunger. It was now three days since they’d eaten. The two of them managed to take down a bear with white fur, something they would never have attempted if there was any other food around. Each tiny island was barren wasteland with little to offer but sprouting plant life and snow covering yet more ice. Though Aristotle could not see the end of the world, he figured they could easily be close to it, or that it would be the end of the world for them. He longed for the steppe lands, where there were humans and boars and enough fuel for a fire.
“Master,” he pleaded, “I believe you. The world is an endless circle.”
“You were the one who wanted proof,” Qum’ra gloated, staring down at his fledgling from his perch on the ice. “I will show you, Aristotle, that you truly know nothing.” He disappeared over the horizon, a black swathe of fabric against the dark blue night sky.
Aristotle cried his name, but his master didn’t hear. Aristotle was sitting up in the motel bed in Arizona, not entirely sure if he’d shouted the name out loud or just in the dream. Alex of course gave no indication. He was dead asleep in the other bed, and he would stay that way until dusk. Aristotle envied him at that moment. He remembered what crossing the Bering Strait was like, but was not entirely sure if the conversation was real. It sounded like it had happened. It was certainly not preposterous.
Pondering this would get him nowhere. He needed to stop having these nightmares. It was easier to pick the psychological cause (hearing his master’s voice again) than put that information into action; he could not resolve his conflict. He would never see his master again. Qum’ra was dead, his only remaining ashes were buried under a Holiday Inn in New Mexico. Why couldn’t Aristotle let him go? Was it him or Qum’ra who was keeping the link alive? Was it a comfort or a plague?
He missed public baths. He knew they were terribly unsanitary even in his mortal lifetime, but sitting alone in a bathtub to short for him by a foot so his feet were sticking out wasn’t quite the same. Warm water was always calming, bringing back memories of other times he’d sought it for refuge or, in Roman times, conversation. It was day, meaning the motel’s few patrons were out and about, and he couldn’t hear much through the paper-thin walls except the woman on the phone behind the front desk. Night was filled with uncomfortable sounds, but they would be gone by night, on their way to New Mexico.
Maybe bringing Alex to New Mexico was a bad idea. This wasn’t the first time he reconsidered it and it wouldn’t be his last, but he couldn’t really say no to him. Alex had a right to be interested in his grandsire and his own heritage, especially with all the pain it caused him. Being a poisonous eight-year-old wasn’t an easy position for anybody but Alex took it in stride.
There was still plenty of time before sundown and Aristotle hated feeling trapped. He dressed, put on his sunglasses and hat, and emerged from the room. There was just enough shade from the building to give him a path to walk to the main building. The sunglasses weren’t enough; if he so much as glanced sideways his eyes would burn, so he didn’t, and just made it to the main office and tiny conference room. A stale continental breakfast of muffins and warm orange juice were on the counter next to a dented microwave. He didn’t know what either offering tasted like and he never would. Even the scent put him off.
“We’re checking out at seven,” he told the desk staff. “I know we have to pay for another night. That’s just the way it is.” It was the kind of place where they spent an awful long time checking that his credit card was both real and unstolen. They could have found a better place, but they were pushing daylight at that point and it was never good to risk it.
The woman behind the desk was pushing sixty and probably the owner’s wife. “Since you are paying, is there anything I can do to convince you to stay the night?”
He returned her smile. “We have to get back on the road.”
“Father and son road trip?”
“That’s so nice. You don’t see it so often these days.”
He honestly couldn’t remember a time when a father/son road trip was central to society, and he remembered a lot of societies, but he just said, “Sure don’t.”
“Are you going to Tucson? It really is beautiful this time of year.”
“No, sadly, we’re on our way to New Mexico. Maybe next time.” He was about to turn away when he decided to say, “You know the people staying in room 4 are drug dealers, right? Am I supposed to report that?”
“Please don’t say anything. I don’t want our hotel to get a bad reputation.”
“I understand. I run a small business, too.” He gave her a reassuring grin. “Besides, it’s just hash.” And come to think of it, he was tempted to buy some, but he had to drive later.
He turned to the cramped room. It was even stuffier than he remembered. Aristotle spent the rest of the day drinking blood wine, heavy on the wine.
Alex woke at dusk, when the scary sun was gone and he could lurch around like he was hung over until he found blood, the rest of the open bottle in Aristotle’s hand. “Thank you,” he mumbled. “Hi. Have you just been sitting around all day?”
“The life of a vampire is an exciting one,” Aristotle said.
“You had the dream again, didn’t you?”
Aristotle was impressed that Alex waited a full twenty minutes in the car before he said what he was thinking. “I do not have just one dream. I assure you I have plenty of other dreams where I wake up panicked. Most of them are about parenthood.”
“I don’t ask about other dreams.”
Aristotle sighed. “Yes, I dreamt of my master again.”
“What was he doing?”
“We were crossing the Bering Strait. I thought we really had reached the end of the world. I think if he knew we had a whole continent to cross before we reached Europe, he wouldn’t have been so confident about his grand plan.”
“What did he say?”
“He mocked me for my assumptions about the universe. You know, the usual. And then he flew away.”
Alex was considering a lot of possible responses, but discarded them all. Aristotle heard them through the link, but since Alex didn’t voice his various concerns, Aristotle let them pass. It wasn’t fair to call him on his thoughts.
They rolled into Luna, New Mexico six hours later. “I told you,” he said as Alex got his first view of the entirely unremarkable town. “Nothing special.” Even the infamous Holiday Inn didn’t bring any glamour to the town. “And don’t say anything about me owning the place.” He grabbed his backpack before getting out of the car, with Alex eagerly following.
The woman behind the desk was new, but it had been six years. “Can I help you?”
“Rooms five and six, reserved under Aris.” He was visiting in the off-season for him, so maybe they weren’t expecting him. They ran his credit card before giving over the key cards. “Thank you.”
Alex was excited again, so much so that Aristotle felt his disappointed when he actually opened room six. There was a new carpet and a fresh coat of paint, but it was the same.
“This is it?”
Aristotle ignored him. Yes, he supposed it was a normal hotel room if one didn’t know better. “Shut the door.” As Alex did as he was told, Aristotle set his backpack down on the bed and shoved aside the writing desk. Whether the presence was more or less he couldn’t tell. There was no reason for it not to be the same except that he was checking, searching for some hint of his master beyond the sensation emanating from the ground beneath the floor. His hands were shaking when he removed the silver libation bowl and bottle of his best wine from the backpack and carefully set it on the floor, adjusting it several times before being sure he had the right spot. “Kyrie!” (Master) He looked at Alex, who was watching him and not the spot. “You can’t sense him.”
Alex was embarrassed. “No. I’m sorry.”
“I didn’t know if you would. It’s for the best, really.” He sighed, and uncorked the wine bottle. Like his child, he didn’t know how to act. He had never done this with anyone else. “Come here.”
Alex quietly obeyed, picking up on the air of severity in the room. Aristotle put Alex’s hand on the bottle with his and together they poured out the best of the wine so every drop went into the libations bowl. Alex hugged him, but didn’t have to be told to leave, for which Aristotle was grateful. When alone, he bowed on the carpet to the only person he’d ever bowed to. He didn’t want Alex to see him cry.
There was a lot of work to do unpacking the car before dawn, and it was clear Ari hadn’t been up to doing it. Mere tension had exploded when he entered that room, his eyes transfixed on the floor and something that he so clearly could see – or at least feel – that Alex couldn’t. It was less disturbing to think of it as a visit to a graveyard of a loved one, which was what it really was, even if that loved one was an abusive bastard who was dead for almost half of written history. It occurred to Alex as he carried Seleucus and the bottles of wine from the car to room five that he’d never visited his mother’s grave after he moved to Cambridge for graduate school, and even before that, when he was in New Haven, he went a total of three times after her funeral. He was young then, not prepared to deal with death, and then overwhelmed by his own deadly cancer diagnosis.
He didn’t even know where his father was buried.
What seemed like an exciting trip now just seemed miserable; he didn’t know why he thought it wouldn’t be a downer, visiting a grave covered by two millennia of dirt and the foundation of a hotel. He wanted to feel some connection when he stood there, more to assure Ari that he felt his pain and could sympathize, but he didn’t and he couldn’t lie about it. Ari was alone – Alex couldn’t mourn Qum’ra as he’d never truly mourned his father, who died when he was three. He was just a stupid kid then and now he felt like one all over again. Alex was almost grateful as the sun rose and sleep overtook him, and he could stop thinking and start dreaming in darkness.
When Aristotle visited his master’s grave, it was like gently opening old wounds – but in a good way, to remind him they were there. This time, it was like tearing off bandages to reveal still-bleeding, unhealed injuries. His chest hurt. The wound from Qa’ra poisoning him itched. Even his Maker’s Mark, the two tiny scars from where Qum’ra first bit him to bring him into the night, throbbed as his body could find no other expression for what he was feeling. And beyond that there was the guilt – that after two thousand years, he should be past this. He should be strong and free, as his master designed him, busy with his own concerns and his own child instead of weeping over the burial site of his dead master’s ashes. That master, who might be still alive somewhere and was still unresponsive to his pleas. Aristotle wasn’t even sure what he wanted anymore – acceptance, approval, or just to be left alone.
After sunrise he laid rather heavily into the other bottle he had with him. His son was asleep. The human world was waking up. He was alone.
“What have you done to me?” It was more a whisper than a real plead. Even if Qum’ra could, he wouldn’t answer him. Out of choice. “Why can’t I let you go? Now, when I finally have someone else in my life. Because I thought I talked to you while I was bleeding to death? Because I can’t recognize a psychological coping mechanism when I see it?” He stared at the freshly-polished silver bowl. “What did you make me?”
Maybe Qum’ra didn’t know. Qum’ra was not aware of the origin of vampires, or if he ever was, he never let on. He was the original poisonous vampire, caused by feeding and consuming his brother. Raising children must have been trial-and-error, perfected by the time he got to Aristotle. Qum’ra was raised to be a mighty vampire king, but never got his chance. His father wouldn’t give up his territory and after they were cursed, both brothers fled into obscurity. He wasn’t anyone, either, just the wandering loner bound up in his own personal history but unable to make a life from its ashes. He wandered from place to place. By Aristotle’s time, Qum’ra’s name was almost unknown to the Community at large, except for the same old ones who would bring Aristotle to trial for killing his master.
Qum’ra had taken Aristotle, and made him all that he knew: himself. A dangerous vampire destined never to be satisfied by a single answer, to wander the earth in search of new knowledge, knowing full well there would be no end to his search for understanding. Like Qum’ra, when Aristotle succeeded in avoiding vampire politics, he spent centuries searching for the same answers he thought he’d found in life. He argued with people he knew he disagreed with for the sake of it, because their knowledge was new knowledge even if he would never accept it. He went to America before it was a known continent. He traveled deep into Asia again and again before European vampires knew what was on the map beyond India. He attached himself to philosophers and scientists, some failures and some now famous, never revealing his identity or his intentions. In India, Buddhists repeated the lessons of Plato to him under different names and different understanding and he rejected Plato’s ideas of reality all over again. In China he found people who seemed as connected to their ancestors, at least in terms of worshipping them, as he felt to his master. In Japan he found people who saw souls in all living things as he did, but also in rocks and other inanimate objects. When he’d lived long enough, he saw history repeat itself over and over, perhaps not because mortals couldn’t learn lessons but because of some psychological need for events to occur. They always seemed like good ideas at the time.
And now here he was, with scientific knowledge he could only dream of, on a horizon of a great awakening of mankind brought about by the technological age. He had everything Qum’ra had promised him. He had no reason to resent him; his difficult upbringing was to toughen him against the dangers that lay ahead. He could see that now. He knew that manipulative, sadistic Qum’ra had loved him and still did.
“I’ve always loved you,” he said. “I’ve never forgotten you. What else could you possibly want from me?” Aristotle knew one answer that came upon him quickly: not to wallow in sorrow. He was failing his master yet again. “If you can’t leave me alone for my sake or yours, do it for your grandson. He doesn’t need this. He should have a good eternity. He should be great.” That’s what you would want, isn’t it? For someone to carry on your line who is truly great indeed?
He sluggishly looked up. Alex was back, and his clothes were changed. It was night again. There was a crick in Aristotle’s neck; he must have fallen sleep while leaning his back against the edge of the bed.
Alex was very conscious of the tension in the room. “Do you want me to go?”
“No.” It was the first answer that came to him and it was true. He didn’t fear Qum’ra’s poison influencing Alex anymore. It had already tried and failed. He smiled – he had that.
Together they took the bowl out to the desert behind the hotel and poured out its contents, offerings for the earth. Alex was not unaffected, even if his sadness was just rollover from the link.
“I should have visited my mother,” Alex said out of the blue, or maybe Aristotle just hadn’t been paying close attention to the link for once. “I did, but I should have seen her more often. I was in New Haven for another five years. I didn’t have any good excuse.”
“You were a child.”
“I was fourteen. I could understand death. Maybe not on the level that I can now, but I had a notion of it. Especially after my own diagnosis – but then I really stopped visiting the grave. I had my own things to deal with. When I left for MIT, I never saw her again.”
“She was gone. There was no seeing her again,” Aristotle said. “Imagine there is some afterlife where people look down at their living loved ones in judgment. Would she really want you grieving when you could be living? Especially when you thought you had so little time left.”
“I wasn’t even really that connected to her. The last few years, she was just kind of someone who was dying, and it was her own fault for smoking herself to death. I thought that at least once, and I still feel guilty about it. Not every day, but I do.”
“It’s a normal human custom to both grieve and feel guilty about not grieving at the same time.”
“And you’re always saying that we’re human. So why does Qum’ra make you feel so terrible?”
Aristotle didn’t have an answer for that. Not immediately. He grappled for an old answer. “We can understand the cause of sorrow, but that alone doesn’t make it disappear.”
“Ari,” Alex said gently, “I don’t think Qum’ra wants to be found. I mean the part of him that’s still alive in the link, whatever tiny bit of him that’s there. Abaish-katal said he was there when you needed him, so you must not need him. I know you feel like you do, but what would he say if he was here?”
“Could he really answer my questions?” Aristotle asked himself. He already knew more about vampires than Abaish-katal ever did – he knew their origin and he knew most of the science behind their daily existence. Sooner or later, he would know it all. These were things his master couldn’t teach him. “No.”
“Lucius implied that I don’t understand the vampire. That the conclusions I’ve reached are wrong and his are right. I disagree with him in that I believe his are wrong, too. Beyond that, I’m lying if I say I’m sure of myself.” He looked down at the wet sand, stained by wine. “I’ve been afraid of the vampire for two thousand years. The idea that some part of me could be completely wild and evil was not something I could handle in Greece, and Qum’ra didn’t do anything to alleviate my distress because I was either too young to learn or he didn’t know himself.” He shook the last remnants of offerings from the bowl. “I’m tired of running from the vampire. It’s as much a part of me as my human side. Lucius was right – I have to understand it, for my sake and yours. And I can stop chasing Qum’ra for answers, because he doesn’t know.” He held his hands palm open to the sky and recited prayers in Greek.
It was not something Alex could understand, even though his understanding was otherwise comprehensive. “What was that?”
“Something I haven’t said in a long time: the prayer for the dead,” he said. “Let’s get out of here.”
Instead of returning to Tahoe, they ventured north. A mere fifty miles away was Chaco Cultural National Park, an archaeological site considered sacred to the Hopi tribe. Approximately twelve hundred years before, Chaco was a major center of civilization for the Anasazi tribe, who left behind great halls and multi-storied stone buildings. It was one of the oldest Pueblo Indian heritage sights in North America, and historians believed it marked the beginning of civilization in the region. Aristotle knew otherwise, but didn’t contradict the audio tour guide on the tape cassette. Guided tours were available, but only in daylight. Aristotle hypnotized their way into the museum to see reconstructed pottery in the off-hours of night. There they saw pictures of the The Great Kiva of Chetro Ketl worship site in daylight.
Nothing looked particularly familiar to Aristotle, but these ruins weren’t that deep in the ground. Some of them were only eight hundred years old. A color-charted timeline of the region on the wall near the gift shop didn’t put anything significant before the fifth century AD except “hunter-gatherers” (6000 BC-800 BC). Between that and basket making begun in the 400s AD, there was only a blank spot. Aristotle tapped it. “Historians don’t know how to dig.”
“You’re the one who bought the hotel so they wouldn’t find the grave.”
Aristotle shot him an annoyed look as the curator approached them to ask if they had any questions. They exchanged a few words about ancient Pre-Pueblo culture in the New Mexican basin before she said, “There’s a very interesting dig going on about twenty miles southwest of here. They found some glyphs but they haven’t been sent for carbon dating yet. I honestly don’t know that much about it, but I can put you in touch with someone who does.”
“It’s not on the dig map?”
“They never update that thing. You would think with the internet ...” She went into the office to find a card for someone at the Archaeological Society of New Mexico. “It helps if you’re associated with a university, if you’re looking for a grant ...”
“No, I’m just an amateur historian,” he said, and thanked her for her time. He waited until they were halfway to the car and far out of anyone’s earshot before he said, “That’s the last time I call myself an amateur anything.”
“You may have invented a lot of things, but history isn’t one of them,” Alex said. “Herodotus has that all locked up.”
“He lived a century before me. Unfair advantage.”
Aristotle didn’t explain his interest, just drove until they found the site, closed for night. They spoke to the night watchman and found a nearby motel to crash in for the day. Alex didn’t object; he was more relieved that Aristotle seemed to be recovering from whatever was bothering him, in truth a whole host of things, and Alex was willing to go along for the ride. Aristotle slept peacefully for a few hours beside Alex, then rose and dialed the number for the name on the card. There was indeed a dig, but they were convinced someone was salting it, because they were finding cultural artifacts in the wrong layers, some far too early. There was a pot with hieroglyphs on it, but so far the Hopi and Pueblo experts had been unable to decipher them.
“Can I see it?” He gave the best and most untraceable false credentials he could think of that he could also duplicate in a short period of time.
“I don’t see why not. It’s being kept in a school building near the site.”
He went on to explain he had very strange hours, and needed night access, a speech he’d given innumerable times over his eternity. He did get an appointment for seven in the evening after a few calls around.
The dig site was messy and aside from the mandatory government postings, rather unofficial looking. Coming straight from Chaco Canyon, where all of the debris had been neatly cleared away and the walls reconstructed, the small holes were mere piles of mess separated by string marking off the different areas. No one was at work but tools were out. Alex looked unimpressed, but so was Aristotle. Still he couldn’t help himself, mostly because this dig was only forty miles from his master’s grave.
The guard checked their IDs, both of which were fake but beyond his ability to tell, and let them into the old elementary school which had been re-purposed by the archaeological society and was slowly being renovated into a museum. They were introduced to a woman working late, Dr. Lindsey Graham, one of the resident archaeologists.
“I’m really more of a researcher,” she said. “And linguist.” She must have been in her late forties or early fifties, and obviously had some experience but not a lot of confidence about it. “And what’s your interest, precisely?”
“Oh, you know,” Aristotle said. “I like a challenge.”
She showed him into room with the reconstructed vase, which was still missing some shards. The ink on the clay was barely visible from the years beneath the ground, but it was there.
“We just haven’t seen writing before, at this level,” Dr. Graham said. “It’s very surprising. We sent some shards to the university for further testing. It may be a fake.”
Aristotle spent what the two other people in the room felt was a long time staring at it before thanking her for her time and leaving. They returned to the motel, where Aristotle further contemplated his schedule before saying, “Would you mind stopping for a few days?”
At this point, Alex was beyond being confused by anything. “Why?”
“Because I could read the script on that jar,” he explained, “and I have a favor to return.”
“More light,” Aristotle said, adding, “please.” Qum’ra saw it as a sign of weakness to acknowledge the servant, but Ani was more than helpful and polite. He was also in control of the lit torch and Aristotle was inclined to be polite to anyone wielding fire in his face. “This.” He pointed to the bent-over man either eating or playing the flue. “What does this mean?”
“Going to a place ... going up, beyond, to a better level.”
“Death? Not living?”
“No, Ari Tottle,” Ani insisted politely. “Going up – it’s like, you’ve accomplished something, you are higher than before.”
“Sort of, but not a small thing.” Ani gestured with his hands but wasn’t able to communicate what he meant. “I am sorry.”
“Not your fault,” Aristotle said in his own halting version of their language. “Understanding is very hard.” He was frustrated with being unable to express himself in his usual eloquent manner, but this was better than nothing. They were the only tribe of significance in this long, unending land of barbarians. Aristotle had them draw maps for him, but none showed any tribes he could recognize, much less anyone with his skin color, or even Qum’ra’s skin color. They both needed rest, and the tribe was happy to let them feed on the enemy tribe’s warriors in the area. They even venerated them for it. Aristotle wasn’t quite comfortable with Qum’ra’s maneuverings into the position of local demigod, but he was in no position to stop him.
“Thank you, Ani,” Aristotle told the painter, and dismissed him. It was now in the very late hours of the night, and only a few fires still burned, and the only remaining people up were guards of the eternal flame at the main hearth in the little temple. They nodded respectfully to him as he passed, this pale, white-haired, overdressed man. They wore loincloths and turkey feathers and he had the cloth they made for him wrapped around him, a halfway between them and Qum’ra, whose black silks were barely holding up but they were still covering him from head to toe.
Speaking of his master, Qum’ra was fresh from a kill when he returned to their house, a newly-constructed two story stone structure that adequately served the purpose of protecting them from the sun after so many months of caves and burying themselves in the ground. His beard still smelled of blood, making Aristotle hungry. He should have fed instead of insisting on a visit to the caves.
“Your mistake,” his master said, ever-present in the link, even if Aristotle could never feel him there. “You have your amusements and I have mine.”
Aristotle tried to make sense of the riddle Qum’ra was posing. His master was always playing games. Finally it came to him, in the scent. “We’re only supposed to be killing scavengers.” The scent in the blood was female.
“Even pleasure can become tedium if repeated too often,” Qum’ra replied. “What do they care? They would see all their enemies wiped out, just like any mortal tribe. They just have yet to say so.”
“And then we will be on to what awaits us next – and eventually, your beloved Greece.”
“And what if the world is endless, another parade of barbarians after another? When will we know to stop?”
Qum’ra sneered. “Doubting your master, Aristotle? Where has that ever gotten you?” He shoved him. Not very roughly, but he did. “A whole world of discovery lays before you and this is how you thank me?”
“I never said – “
“You think it. Say it, Aristotle!”
But he could not. It was too terrible to openly doubt his master. Hinting at it already had him in so much trouble. “No. No, I’m wrong and you are right. Are you satisfied?”
“Say it!” It was a command, blasted through the link.
The words came out automatically. “I think we’re lost.”
Qum’ra grabbed him by the beaded necklace Ani had given him and shoved him against the wall. It was hastily-built and came down even faster. Aristotle pleaded until his master rescued him with moments to sunrise, so that when he emerged from the rubble, his bones unable to heal properly, the morning light singed his skin.
“So what got you interested in linguistics?”
Aristotle looked up from the computer printout of a scan of the vase’s surface, as best as it could be reconstructed and laid out on a page. “I travel a lot. It’s a useful hobby.” He was circling various glyphs that he could identify, though he couldn’t tell her why yet. He was working on how to translate them without making it look too easy. Not that it would be – these were different from the ones he knew, probably from at least a few centuries later. It wouldn’t be an overnight job. He began writing corresponding numbers to the symbols he identified in his notebook. “What about you?”
Dr. Graham was almost embarrassed by the question. She clearly wasn’t used to a lot of attention, especially since she worked nights. “I like archaeology but I don’t like to get filthy. I guess I shouldn’t be living in New Mexico if I have a thing about dirt.”
“Dirt is pretty much everywhere.” He smiled at her. “Let the daytime archaeologists get filthy. I paid my dues when I was young.”
“You did field research?”
“On the Aegean coast. It was how I met my wife, actually.” More accurately, it was how he got to know his wife before their quick wedding to protect her from Hermias’ political enemies. “Best years of my life.”
“That’s so sweet! She’s an archaeologist too?”
“She had quite an intellectual curiosity.” Maybe she would have had more, if society hadn’t stifled her for being a woman (and stifled Aristotle for allowing her to participate in his explorations of the wildlife on Lesbos).
Dr. Graham doubled back. “Oh, I’m so sorry. I shouldn’t have asked.”
“It’s fine. She’s been gone a long time.” And that was putting it mildly. He pointed with the pen to a glyph on the top of the sheet. “Can I get that enhanced? I can’t really see it on this copy.”
“Oh, sure.” She smiled at him reassuringly, as if he needed comfort for being a widower. He had to admit that after twenty-two hundred years, the gesture still felt nice.
Alex was burning off steam at the construction site-turned-skate park behind the movie theater. Aristotle was always amazed that his son found excitement in a form of exercise made irrelevant by his vampiric abilities; Alex literally had to let his body slack to make sure it obeyed gravity and gave him any challenge whatsoever.
“How would you feel about staying in the area for awhile?”
Alex removed his helmet and sat down next to him on the pile of corrugated steel. “I thought you could read it.”
“It’s not from the precise time period, so it will take me a little time.”
“So a day, if you put your mind to it?”
“I have to make it look a lot harder than that.”
“You know I’ll go anywhere you want.”
“I’m still asking,” Aristotle said. “You could go to LA if you wanted to take a break from the tedium.”
“Ari, I have my computer and wireless access. I’ll be fine.”
Aristotle was relieved. There was still underlying tension in Alex, mostly just concern for Aristotle and his shifting moods. The only thing that would truly reassure him was a long, stable period, and Aristotle was ready to bury himself in research to achieve that. There was a considerable local library and archaeology, myth, and folklore that he didn’t already know about, and it was awhile since he’d invested himself in something like this. If he was happy, Alex would hopefully be happy, and vice versa. The link worked like that.
Back at the motel, Aristotle put his back into setting up a good living situation for them. The only decent hotel in the area was the Holiday Inn and one evening near his master’s burial site was enough. Since they were in the middle of nowhere, blood was also a difficulty, but nothing was impossible. The following night they looked at a loft to rent and drove to a larger town to accept a shipment of blood wine. Though Aristotle lodged a minimal objection, Alex purchased a dream catcher to hang in the window.
“You’re the one having bad dreams,” he said, and Aristotle decided not to contradict him. Seleucus got a gift of an increasingly complex habitrail that he never used but Alex enjoyed building so the tubes ran along the walls at eye level, so Aristotle could look up from the computer station and occasionally see a lizard crawling past him on his own private highway. They were settled, and for the time being, happy, though Seleucus didn’t openly offer his opinion.
Meanwhile, Aristotle began to translate the vase. It was actually fascinating to hack it backwards. He assigned numbers of increasing complexity to each glyph partially for his own research and partially to confound the other researchers so they were unable to follow his method of decoding. Alex pitched in with the quantum formulas so they were completely incomprehensible. They all made sense – to someone of Alex’s intellect, which wasn’t a lot of people. But they didn’t all have anything to do with the text, as if anyone on the dig could tell. While Aristotle made his way through the actual translation, he teamed up with Alex to work out increasingly complex equations. It was an area with Alex Nemcosky excelled in raw skill. There was inevitably a limit to his understanding, but it came close to Aristotle’s. He wasn’t a math theory major at Yale for nothing. When everything boiled down to deceptively simple numbers, there were no emotions but the frustration of calculation and the thrill of discovery.
“I know why you’re doing this,” Alex said one night, the cheap desk that came with the apartment covered in notes. “But I don’t really know why you’re doing this.”
“Anazi – that’s what they were called by their enemies at the time – freed me on the condition that I would remember them.”
“That’s how they put it?”
“I don’t really know. I was in a bad position when they pushed me out the door. Barely human. The vampire doesn’t know how to grieve. Maybe I remember exactly what they said and maybe I don’t. Does it matter either way?”
“You’re doing them a hell of a favor for a guy who won’t even admit which of Aristotle’s works he wrote and which he didn’t.”
“They’re two different aspects of history. Galileo proved Aristotle wrong,” he said. “He’s so five hundred years ago.”
“If the world ever finds out about vampires, they’re going to come after you for so many things,” Alex said.
“They’d ask me what Alexander looked like. He was blond and short. What else is there to say?”
“Really? How short?”
Aristotle held his hand up to just below his ear. “I think that’s as tall as he ever got. And you can’t blame the diet because he had plenty of protein in it. There, I’ve solved one of history’s great mysteries. How tall he was.” But Alex got a kick out of it so that made it worth revealing.
Aristotle spent his spare hours at the library, pouring over their collection of Native American literature that wasn’t wildly available otherwise. In his opinion, European vampires didn’t appreciate the New World and all it had to offer – they just saw it as a cheap piece of real estate. The archaeology department, with enough notice, provided him with all kinds of ancient maps. Granted there wasn’t a lot of pre-Colonial material that wasn’t a reconstruction, but it was still interesting to look at.
“This one is in Hopi,” the curator of a local museum said as she offered up more of her collection. “I don’t have an immediate translation. Do you speak Hopi?”
“Only Navajo.” After all of the business of the US military using it as a secret code in World War II, Aristotle briefly used it for his confidential notes, until he had to invent a new code because enough books on the language were published. “And it’s rusty. But I do very well with a dictionary.”
Using many maps of dig sites around the country, he tried his best to trace his own previous travels, but a lot of it was guesswork. “We went south when we realized there wasn’t a coast coming up,” he told Alex, pointing to the Bering Strait. “We needed warmth. We must have arrived in winter because we had to go all the way down to the New Mexican basin before we felt warm again.”
“Were there people along the way?”
“No serious civilization, but there were people. Which was great because buffalo blood is really terrible. Also there’s no sport in hunting a herd of giant animals. No challenge.” He drew in pencil along the bottom of the United States, starting from Chaco Canyon and going east. “I wandered for awhile after my master died – not in any particular direction. Eventually I started going east again. The weather was about the same. At that point I really didn’t care if I walked off the end of the world. And then I hit the coast, probably somewhere in the Carolinas.” He tapped the map. “Since if I went north I could still go east, so that’s what I did. From there it’s pretty easy to trace the rest of the journey.”
“You realize this makes you one of the greatest explorers in the world. Walking across the world – “
“Flying, technically. Most of the time.”
“It’s still impressive. You don’t give yourself enough credit.”
“It keeps me humble. You wouldn’t like me when I’m arrogant.”
“That’s not how that saying goes, but okay.”
As much as he enjoyed math, Alex did take him up on the offer for a trip to LA, courtesy of the private jet. “Take care of Seleucus.”
“Because he will break that plastic habitrail if he’s hungry. Don’t let him go hungry.”
“I won’t.” He kissed Alex on the cheek. “Try to stay out of trouble.”
“Yeah, like I don’t have an in with any elders,” Alex said, and waved goodbye as he crossed the tarmac and boarded the plane. It was the first time they’d separated in a year that didn’t feel like agony, and that thought alone made it great.
The following night, Aristotle was at the school again, pouring over his notes on translations as far as he could remember them. He was fairly good at reading the script at this point, but there were some significant holes in his understanding of certain glyphs that just wouldn’t fill themselves in by context. He remembered that the Anazi often mixed spiritual progression with mundane events in their expressions, which further complicated his most literal translation. On the page he showed to other people, he had only had one glyph translated, with a lot of question marks next to it.
“Burning the midnight oil?” Dr. Graham said – or Lindsey, as she insisted he call her.
He adjusted his glasses. “I’m a night person.”
She put a binder down on the table. “I asked someone at U-NM to look at your language theory. Where did you get these equations?”
“I wrote them,” he said. “My son helped. He’s very bright.”
“The assistant professor of mathematics couldn’t dissect half the equations. It’s just ... well, it’s brilliant.”
“I said he was smart.”
“You must be so proud of – his name is Alex, right?”
“Yes. He’s not that interested in linguistics, but he rarely gets to put his quantum mathematics training to good use.” Alex had only been to the school and dig site once, to collect paperwork. “Do you have children?” It was not too awkward a question, given her age and how adjusted she seemed to be, even though there wasn’t a ring on her finger.
She took it well because her heart rate didn’t jump up in embarrassment. “A son. He’s at Arizona State. Last time I checked he said his major was philosophy, but I think that’s because they wouldn’t let him major in ultimate Frisbee.”
“We had Frisbee when I was in school but it wasn’t quite the same,” Aristotle said. For starters, the discs were stone. The athletes were also naked. It was not an area he devoted much time to. “Kids these days.”
“We spoil them, but they’re worth it.”
“Something only a parent would say.” He put down his notebook. “I admit it. I’m stumped.”
“Then you can finally join the rest of us mortals down on earth,” Lindsey said. “Sorry. I couldn’t resist.”
He wasn’t insulted. “I’m only temporarily stumped. You’ll see.”
“Do you want to call your son?”
“He’s in Los Angeles, doing whatever kids his age do at this hour. Which, since he’s over twenty-one, I don’t want to imagine.”
“I like to think my son is safe,” she said, “but he’s in college. They have access to everything.”
“And an administration to protect them. I’ve spent a lot of time on college campuses. He’ll be fine.” Unable to get any more work done for the moment, he closed the notebook. “What’s your son’s name?”
“Brian. He’s a junior. They grow up so fast.”
Aristotle nodded. He could relate even if physically, Alex would always be twenty-four. “Soon they’ll be on their own.” He didn’t see a ring on her; he’d already guessed that Dr. Graham was a single mom, divorced. If she was a widow she would have mentioned it in a previous conversation, when it was applicable.
She was nervous, holding out on him. He didn’t need a link to that. He waited patiently until she finally said, “I’m not going to get anything else done tonight, either. Do you want to get some coffee?”
He surprised himself a little with his answer, especially how immediately it came to him. “Sure.”
Alex had his hands full – one on the keyboard and the other on his headphones. “Okay. Go.”
Jimmy began to play, and the guitar rhythms showed up on the monitor. He played for a total of forty seconds in total, enough to give the program to analyze. Not particularly musical himself, the lines didn’t make much sense to Alex, but he did understand computers. Jimmy removed his guitar and showed him. “It’s registering different notes from the ones I think I’m playing.”
“So this is why vampires think your music is good and mortals think your music is terrible?”
“Nobody thinks it’s terrible,” Jimmy said defensively. “They just think it’s off. This is why I stopped playing after I was brought across. I was told that I couldn’t play publicly for security reasons, but I could do whatever I wanted at home. Everything just sounded wrong.”
“The vampire hears at a different frequency.”
“I wish someone told me that earlier. It took me forever to figure out.”
“You could take up drums.”
“Hey, I’m just saying – “
“James,” Tetsuo interrupted from the kitchen. “Be respectful to your guest.” His tone was prompt but polite. Of course, he didn’t need to raise his voice to his son.
“Yes, Master.” Jimmy turned back to Alex. “Sorry. It’s not the same. You can’t just swap out instruments. I mean you can – if you’re really good, and you want it.”
“You’re the best musician I know,” Alex said. “Okay, the only musician I know, but the best.”
“Nice qualifier there.” Jimmy put away his guitar. “Do you want something to drink? That’s not sake? It grows on you, but it takes awhile.”
“Yes, please. The stuff in the apartment is totally coagulated.” Jimmy brought him fresh blood, but it was still served in a porcelain sake cup. “Pick up new stuff in Japan?”
“Tetsuo’s paranoid about clay and shipping. This stuff’s from Chinatown.”
“Sorry, I’m not supposed to tell my guests we’re serving them on what Tetsuo considers crap,” Jimmy told Alex. “Do you want me to get the really good stuff out? The stuff we did spend hundreds of dollars to ship?”
“No, really, it’s fine.” Alex was able to finish the cup in a single gulp without any trouble, and Jimmy refilled it. “This doesn’t need to turn into a tea ceremony.”
“Good, because I’m not a whore,” Jimmy said. “There is a Community member who’s been a geisha for as long as anyone can remember. She’s totally terrifying. It’s even worse when she smiles at you.”
“You should respect your elders,” Tetsuo said.
“She’s not here. I’m not being disrespectful. And she is really scary, isn’t she?”
Tetsuo only briefly looked up from the bowl of sake he was mixing into blood. “She is very intimidating.”
“It’s a good quality in the vampire,” Alex said. “Raises the heart rate, makes it easier to hunt.”
“Back when people could hunt. The Japanese police are serious business. If it wasn’t for the Yakuza creating some murders and the sex crimes I don’t think anyone would be able to get away with anything, even the elders. Who I guess aren’t very old, in comparison to Europe.”
“But there are vampires in Asia. Chinese vampires go way back.”
“It came late to Japan. Or it came earlier and the ancients died off. Lots of beheadings in Japanese history. The oldest guy that I met was maybe four, five hundred. And they still kick my master around as being the young guy.” Jimmy poured for himself and drank. “There was a Yakuza guy about thirty years ago who got turned, then turned his whole crew. For awhile nobody did anything about it because they were just grateful for the population increase. A lot of vampires committed seppuku in the sun either after the Meiji Restoration or Hiroshima. Then they got a little rowdy. Too rowdy. The elders had to call in the Enforcers to help round them up and shut them down. It was a huge loss of face, bringing in the white guys to handle a local problem, but they handled the hell out of it. No more Yakuza vampires – unless they’re out of the game.” He shrugged. “Things have gotten more interesting since my Japanese has gotten better. And, you know, time passing, them getting used to Tetsuo’s gaijin kid. I got a traditional tattoo. It was awesome for the whole day it lasted. Then it disappeared.”
“Imagine if it didn’t. You could be carrying around that tattoo for hundreds of years.”
“Yeah, I guess so,” Jimmy said. “So. What are we doing for Amanda’s homecoming party?”
“I don’t know. Show up. Bring booze. Maybe buy her a lamp. I remember her old one was smashed. Why, am I supposed to have some comprehensive plan? I don’t think she’s going to be very surprised by this party. I mean, nicely surprised maybe, but not like a huge shock. She has been gone for awhile and people have missed her.”
“Hey! No one threw a party for me!”
“Um, I wasn’t here to greet you? And I disappear for substantial periods of time and no one throws me parties. So Amanda’s just lucky. And she needs it. Her master’s a shithead.”
“Finally something we agree on.” Jimmy glanced at his master concerning the disrespectful comment, but Tetsuo had a rare lack of objection.
Aristotle checked his phone for the third time in the last hour, but still there was nothing. He wasn’t expecting anything, but it was so much more polite than looking in the link. “Sorry.” He looked back up at Lindsey. She had coffee and he had tea that was mostly water. He could hold that down for a long time.
“Not really. And I shouldn’t worry – he’ll be fine. But I worry anyway. I don’t know why.”
“You’re a father.”
“I’m not used to it.” He didn’t know why he was admitting this to her, but it certainly wasn’t Code-related. He wouldn’t know this woman for long and her memory was wipe-able. “Alex was adopted when he was already a teenager. Then he was sick for a long time. It’s made me very protective. Probably too protective for someone his age.”
“But he still travels with you.”
“We have a family business. Computer-related financial services,” he said. “I think he’s happy but ... it’s hard to tell.”
“Brian got into trouble when he was in high school. Nothing serious, but he did some community service. I talked to him, but I would have given anything to see what was going through his head.”
You have no idea how little that helps, Aristotle thought grimly. “It doesn’t change the pressure. Knowing they’re too old for you to make decisions for them. Hoping they’ll make the right ones.” He put phone away. “I do really have a life outside of my son. I just don’t know where it is right now.”
She laughed. It was such a natural, human laugh. The laugh of a mortal. “I know the feeling. But we have our work. As long as you can avoid the political stuff – you know, sovereignty issues between the Indian nations and the government. I just like to think we’re serving history, not a living party.”
“I just like a challenge,” he said, even though it wasn’t entirely true. He did love a challenge, but his motives were ulterior. “You can get too wrapped up in your work – forget to challenge yourself intellectually.”
“That’s why I retired from teaching. You know that saying that you learn as much from the students as they learn from you? It’s not the same type of lessons. Twenty years in the system can wear you out.”
“What did you teach?”
“Third grade English.”
“Teachers don’t get enough respect in this time ... in this country. But then again, when I was growing up, it was okay to mouth off to your teacher – as long as you were right and they were wrong.”
“Were you right?”
“I think I was. The debate is still open for the philosophers.”
She giggled, and it made him smile.
“This is some messed up shit, man,” Jimmy said, and turned his head to Tetsuo, slumped on the couch next to him, an empty sake bottle in his lap. “Master, your country is fucked up.”
“I can’t believe you’ve never seen Battle Royale,” Alex said, not quite as drunk as them, but on his way to catching up. “It’s a classic. I don’t think anyone in my college dorm missed it. Japanese ultra-violence that’s not anime? With high school kids?”
“Junior high school,” Tetsuo corrected. “The actors are older.”
Twenty-one students were hunting each other down in a survival game on Tetsuo’s television screen. There was an awful lot of talking, and only Alex needed the English subtitles. Jimmy and Tetsuo would occasionally laugh at the mangled translations. They were too disoriented to explain them all to Alex.
“I fuckin’ missed you, man,” Jimmy said. “With you and Amanda gone, it’s been the same old shit. I’ve only been back for two weeks and I’m already bored.”
“You could try making new friends.”
Jimmy scowled. “Everyone I know is an asshole.”
“You haven’t met the Paris crowd. I am totally going to appreciate everyone at the party tomorrow and their lack of snob. Even Amanda thinks the Paris people are assholes.”
“And she pretends to like everybody.”
“Yeah. She’s good at that.” Clearly, judging from Jimmy’s emotional state, Amanda hadn’t told him about anything Alex and Amanda might or might not have done on a rooftop in Paris. That was fine with Alex – he would prefer it stayed that way. Possibly forever.
On a logical level, Aristotle understood why he kissed Lindsey and why he let her eagerly return it. He was lonely. She was lonely. They were of comparable age – or so she thought – and they had a lot in common. And to be honest, he hadn’t had sex with a woman since he brought Alex across, something that his brain insisted on reminding him over and over at that exact moment. The vampire surged, but he’d fed before leaving for the night and he could hold it down. Maybe the whole time.
The response – some hesitation and confusion but an understanding of the stakes – seemed to be mutual as they drew apart to look at each other in the parking lot outside the diner.
“My place is ... not good. It’s a rental.” And he didn’t want the scent all over the place for Alex to find.
“Mine is better. No one’s home – except my cat. You’re not allergic?” She straightened her hair nervously.
He shook his head. “Listen – if we do this, you have to understand: this is not a long term thing. I finish the project and I’m gone. You’ll probably never see me again.”
She looked down, hesitating before answering, “I understand.”
He felt that she did. Or maybe the vampire was hungry and he didn’t care. She drove him, him having flown to work (she thought he was a big walker) and being without a car. They barely made it in the door before they were on top of each other. She was more eager but he was stronger even when he was being gentle. Though he didn’t see much of it, the house was pretty much as he expected it – Western and native décor and a lot of books. Somewhere in the background, a cat was running around but avoiding them.
He really didn’t want to kill her. Her death would be hard to explain – not that it was anywhere near a challenge for him – and he needed her on the project. And there was the small matter that he liked her. She was intelligent and she sympathized with him. There were so few people in the world he could talk to without the genuine candor of someone caring but unattached to all the complexities of vampire society. She just saw him as another parent and it was refreshing.
“Sorry,” he said as he removed his shirt before realizing it was too dark for her to see anything. “I’ve collected a few scars over the years.”
“Are they battle wounds?”
“Yes, I got in a fight with a heart surgeon.”
Beyond that there wasn’t a lot of time for talking. The vampire was persistent, and it would eventually have its way. He couldn’t complete anything without blood – her blood. It was just the way he was designed. He didn’t have a lot of time for hypnotic suggestion, so he wasn’t sure if he took when he said, “This won’t hurt.” He didn’t wait for confirmation before his fangs descended and he sunk them into her soft flesh. He was sucking so furiously it felt like the blood burst into his mouth, fresh and pure and with its own unique taste. There were the flashes of memory that came with it – beautiful moments in her life, beautifully sad moments, and all that came in between, too fast for him to process them but he could still enjoy them. He couldn’t imagine there was another kind of ecstasy that could be better. Her beating heart pounded in his ears, and then in a brief moment, that and her moan reminded him that she was a healthy woman and he wanted her to stay that way. Spent, he quashed the vampire with what took all of his remaining strength and collapsed next to her, his eyes furiously shut because his eyes were still glowing. She was still bleeding – just a little, but enough to keep the vampire ever-present and insistent. It was some time before he could speak again in his human voice, and kiss her without biting her, even if it was just on the cheek, and again as an excuse to lick her wounds closed.
She seemed content. He would have guessed she was actually sleeping but her heart rate was still racing. She rolled over onto his chest. He was going to speak but it was almost as if she could read his mind. “You don’t have to apologize for the scars,” she said. “I have a few of my own.”
“I just seem to be collecting them as I get older.” And that’s not supposed to happen to vampires. It seemed that he was always the unfortunate exception to the rule.
“Do you feel old now?”
He grinned. “No. Not particularly.”
They didn’t need to speak. Even though there was no link between them, Aristotle felt the elation of knowing her and having her blood in his veins, even if it would fade fast and she couldn’t say the same. He still felt a connection, perhaps the normal, human connection from sex that he couldn’t remember, those days being too far gone for him. They both dozed for awhile before Aristotle felt the sun on its way – still distant but increasingly present. “I should go.”
“You can stay if you want. I don’t want to push you out just because – “
“Alex isn’t coming home until Sunday night,” he said as he buttoned his shirt. “And yes, he still cannot find out about this. To be honest, our relationship has been kind of ... strained lately and I don’t want to upset him. But I really have to get home and get some work done.” And beat the sunlight. He kissed her rather passionately, inhaling her scent. “I had a great time. I know I said it’s not permanent – and that still stands – but if you want to, I don’t know, go out sometime.”
“I would love to.”
Some of that was the bite-induced euphoria she was feeling was part of the vampire’s natural seduction, something he could never completely turn off, but not all of it. A lot of it was genuine affection.
As he flew home, Aristotle was grateful for every bit of it.
As soon as the sun was down in California the following night, Aristotle dialed his son.
A bleary Alex picked up. “Hi.” He was disoriented but excited. “How’s everything?”
“Good.” Only he didn’t feel that way, talking to Alex, hoping his guilt wasn’t broadcasting over the link. Of course, it wasn’t. “Are you having fun?”
“Yes, Master,” Alex replied in the tone of voice he used for when Aristotle was being an overprotective dad. “Tetsuo’s really cool when he’s drunk.”
“Is that implying something about him when he’s sober?”
“No, Master,” he said in the same tone.
Aristotle chuckled. “What else is going on?”
“There’s a surprise party for Amanda. She gets back tonight, in like a few hours. I have to get her something that isn’t wine. That’s all anyone is going to get her. I was thinking a lamp.”
“I think I smashed her old lamp. If you don’t owe her one, I do.”
“Yeah, but she doesn’t know that.”
“I’m saying I will pay for it.”
“On principle I accept your offer, but it’s not necessary.” He was drinking in the background, which was making his voice more even. “How’s Seleucus?”
“He’s fine. He’s ... I don’t know where he is at the moment.” He walked around the room, checking the Habitrail. “He’s in the tube above the bedroom door, ignoring me as usual.” He tapped on the plastic, but the chameleon didn’t budge. “I should get to work.”
“Tough work. Faking not understanding stuff.”
“There’s a couple lines I don’t fully understand.”
On the other end, Alex was smiling. He could feel it. “Aren’t you going to tell me to behave myself?”
“You always do. Love you.”
Aristotle waited for Alex to hang up before putting down the phone. There was no reason, yet – certainly not at a distance – to be honest about the one night stand with Lindsey. If it had been the other way around, something Alex didn’t have enough control for, Aristotle would have known and either been furious or impressed, but it wasn’t the other way around. He was the master and he had the right to do anything he wanted, even with another vampire, which Lindsey wasn’t. He wasn’t sure why he did it, other than it seemed like a good idea, and it felt good. He was depressed and confused and she made him feel smart and young. She thought he was normal when the vampire world thought he was strange. Granted that was based on lies, but technically he’d almost never lied to her. They were single parents and they shared the same difficulties. They understood each other to the level that they ever would. As long as she didn’t fall in love with him, things would be fine.
And when Alex found out – well, he would deal with that when it came.
“Long time no see,” Amanda said to Alex after the surprise segment of the party was over, Amanda thoroughly shocked, and her guests addressed. Janette gave them access to Amanda’s apartment to set up the party. Alex wasn’t the only one with the gift but his was the only one box-shaped. “Thank you.” She accepted it and hugged him. “How are you?”
“Good. Visiting from New Mexico. Ari’s on a project.”
“Super secret stuff again?”
“He’s translating Pre-Pueblo Native American ruins.”
“...Or that.” She held up the wrapped box. “Should I shake it or be careful?”
“It’s a lamp.”
“Way to ruin the surprise.” But she didn’t sound disappointed, just amused, and set it aside - somewhere where it wouldn’t get broken in the sure-to-be-ensuing havoc.
The crew was the same. Not a ton had changed in eight months, a relatively short span of time even for fledgling vampires. Andrew was still putting the move on the wrong people and getting into trouble with Pavel’s kids, there was some new prick nobody liked from Europe, and Sharon was still the youngest, Alex only beating her by a few years. Everyone was happy to have Amanda back; she was a generous person and a stabilizing force in the fledgling community, which Janette didn’t always have time for. Janette was graceful, intelligent, and not a babysitter. She openly said so on several occasions. Even though she housed fledglings and other strays beneath her club, she would eagerly donate to any booze fund if someone would take the party elsewhere. It wasn’t the best of her stock but it suited them. A lot of them were into mixed drinks, specifically hard liquors that mortals now flavored. With enough blood, the chemicals weren’t too harsh on the throat, but it was a bit of an endurance test, as alcohol and blood were the only two things the vampire digestive system would tolerate and everything else came back up. The Russian brothers, Dennis and Mikhail, fought each other over who could down more straight vodka, a competition Amanda said they take to the roof. Eyewitness accounts varied, but Dennis hurling himself over the edge (or falling over) and landing in the dumpster ended the game.
Alex had his share of peppermint schnapps, though he had no idea why. The specifics of the original dare eluded him as he drained a blood packet to heal his throat on the way down from the roof. Back in the apartment, Amanda was nowhere to be seen, but it was her party and her business and he wasn’t about to go out searching for her. He looked in the fridge, but nothing appealed to him. Behind him, two people were arguing, and he tuned into it when he heard Sharon’s voice. She was quietly rebuffing the advances of the new guy. He said his name was Dan, and his accent was a smooth Franco-Italian mix. He was definitely older than her – everyone was older than her, but he was at least fifty or sixty, maybe a few decades more. He was putting the moves on her and she wasn’t responding the way he wanted. That much was clear just from the tone of their voices. Either she didn’t like him or she was intimidated by his age. She was what, three? Arguably too young for someone twenty times her age.
Alex waited for it to become apparent that she wasn’t going to fend Dan off herself and everyone else was either too drunk or busy to care before he said something. “Hey. Leave her alone.”
Dan turned around. “What did you say?”
“I said, leave her alone.” He had just enough confrontation in his tone to prove that he meant it. “Unless she’s fine with everything, and then I’ll be out of your way.”
“He’s being a dick,” Sharon said.
“Oh no. You are being a stuck-up bitch,” Dan said, “and you,” he pointed to Alex, “don’t know your place. Unless you’re looking to score as the protective boyfriend.”
“No, I’m just asking you to stop being a douche at Amanda’s party,” Alex replied. “And I’m asking politely.”
“You need to learn to respect your elders.”
“You need to learn to back the fuck away.”
It was inevitable. They were predators – drunken, horny, restless predators – and it wouldn’t be the first fight of the evening. Sharon really only put minimal effort into stopping them. It would have been an ordinary fight, too – red eyes glowing with anger, fangs bared – but Alex knew from the start he couldn’t have that. He knew that before he spoke up. He could never be too drunk to change that he couldn’t get bitten or bite, and there was simply no other way to fight. The panic brought about by the strategic problems he faced gave his enemy time for the first swipe, which Alex ducked with surprising ease. He needed a strategy. He needed to de-fang his enemy. He needed a weapon.
At which point he found the closest thing in the cabinet – a frying pan – and smashed Dan in the face. The quite audible sound of bones cracking meant the fight was over almost as quickly as it started. But he couldn’t finish – he couldn’t feast on the blood of his foe, as the vampire demanded. As Dan flew backwards, Alex stepped back and sat down on the bar stool, trying to calm himself. He closed his eyes and tried to block out the sounds, or at least not pay attention to him.
“Can’t we have one meeting without a fight? Holy shit, Alex!” Amanda’s voice was in the background.
“He was defending me,” Sharon said over the din and Dan’s attempts to scream with a broken face. “Dan provoked him.”
“Yeah, I saw it,” Andrew said, though it wasn’t clear if they weren’t just ganging up on the foreigner. Either way, Alex didn’t want to deal. He wanted to be sick. He’d never fought and won before, and he hadn’t even thought about it, but it’d been so easy.
Someone else worked out the details of getting Dan some help, far away from Alex. He was probably driven to the club. Alex gave it only a passing thought. He excused himself to the roof, which was now empty, to get some fresh air, as fresh as the air in Los Angeles would ever be. He ended up sitting on the ledge for an intensely long time (or it seemed that way) before someone came up. To his surprise, it was Jimmy.
“It’s all cool, just so you know,” Jimmy insisted. “Amanda’s not that upset and Sharon’s actually really grateful. The way you fought him was just kind of intense.”
“I didn’t want him to bite me,” Alex said.
“Oh, right. Aristotle’s rules apply to fighting?”
“They apply to everything.”
Jimmy shrugged. “Then I guess you’re pretty good at following rules and winning fights. Dennis saw you – he said you were like, twice the speed of Dan.”
“I wouldn’t know. This is the second time I’ve ever fought someone, and you were at the other fight.”
“When Michael pounded me into the ground? Yeah, uh, I don’t remember anything beyond that.”
“It wasn’t good.”
“So you won your second fight. And he’s what, like ten times your age? You should be proud. Though the humble act might not hurt.”
Alex smiled, if just a little. “I owe Amanda a frying pan. I bent hers.”
“What the hell is she going to fry? She said she doesn’t even know she owned one. It must have come with the apartment.” Jimmy gestured to the door to the stairwell. “Come on. Sharon wants to say thank you before she leaves.”
Alex was obliged to return to the party, which was winding down not because of the fight but because of the hour. Sharon was grateful and however apologetic Alex was, Amanda just shrugged it off. Vampires were vampires. “We fight,” she said, and that was that.
“You think I’ll be in trouble?”
“Dan was the instigator and made the first move, so no. You won’t.”
He sighed with relief and hung out for a little longer before leaving. He would have called his master on the way home, but he had experience with dropped calls if he was flying while he was on the phone.
Ari picked up after a couple rings, signifying he wasn’t sitting by the phone in an anxious state. He actually sounded tired, and Alex remembered it was an hour later there. “Good morning.”
“I’m really, really sorry.”
“I never said you couldn’t fight. Or that you couldn’t win. At least that’s what I have – I have to admit I wasn’t aware of it until the last minute and by then you seemed to be doing fine.”
“I didn’t feel fine.”
“Yes, I know.” When paying attention, Ari would know all about his inner turmoil. “What I ask of you isn’t easy. To be fair I never said it was going to be, but you couldn’t have possibly imagined how difficult it would be anyway. But you didn’t bite him and he didn’t bite you and everyone is fine. Except maybe him. What did you do to him?”
“Hit him in the face with a frying pan.”
Ari broke into laughter. “That took him down?”
“It was stainless steel.”
More laughter. Alex eased up as he paced the apartment hearing his master’s amusement. “Well, who was this guy?”
“Dan. Italian but I think he learned his English in France. He’s new. And he’s gotta be sixty, maybe seventy or eighty.”
“Red hair? Not real red but reddish brown. Like my hair.”
“His real name’s Dante. He’s the son of someone I know through the normal way I know people. Not anyone special and not a big shot. Did he know who you were? He should have been smart enough to back off.”
“Ari, I gotta confess, I had a few before I was even introduced to him. I don’t remember what was said.”
“OK, it was your first real fight – one you actually sort of brought on yourself, and you won. Congratulations. Just be a gracious winner when you see him next and everything should be fine. Anything else? Loves won and lost? Lessons learned?”
“Yeah. I hate peppermint schnapps.” He heard his master laugh again, but he was tired. Obliviously this wasn’t anything alarming to Ari or he would be wide awake by now. “Good night, Ari.”
Alex closed the phone and sought out some leftover blood in a tiny pack from the bottom of the fridge to calm his nerves. It worked, and he went to bed.
Early the next evening, Aristotle put a call in to Janette, and got the expected response.
“Oh, he definitely was the winner,” Janette said. “Dante was drinking through a straw for quite a while.”
“So it is Alberto’s son. Alex said his name was Dan.”
“Yes, Alberto cut him lose long ago. My understanding is he was burning bridges in England before coming here. Don’t pay him any mind.”
“Thank you.” He just wanted to be reassured and he truly was grateful. He didn’t take up any more of her time.
It was Sunday night and his only pressing item was laundry – the clothes he was wearing from Friday night. He wanted the scent of Lindsey out of everything it might have gotten into. Not that he wanted to rid himself of her, necessarily. On Saturday morning he sent her flowers. If she wasn’t regretting it, he wasn’t either. He just had Alex to deal with. He knew he was being reckless, but it seemed that both of them were a little reckless over the weekend.
Alex’s plane left LA and arrived early in the morning. There was still time before light, and Alex was as always grateful to see him. “Hi.” His greeting was understated but he gave himself away when he hugged his master tightly.
“I’m glad to see you, too. Did you have fun? During the non-violent parts or the violent parts. I don’t discriminate.” He punched him in the arm as they walked out of the airport.
“Yes, I had a good time. Except for the fight.”
“I’m glad you can hold your own in a fight. Don’t see that as encouragement, but it’s still good to know.”
Guilt aside, it was good to have Alex home. It was lonely without him. Aristotle probably took him for granted. It was a long way away, but someday Alex would be old enough to manage on his own and Aristotle would be alone again, though far less than he was before he met Alex.
Work on Monday night was far less awkward than he expected. Lindsey was far more friendly than she had been the previous week, but perhaps thanks to his warning, she was keeping her distance in emotional engagement. She made work more fun if a bit more stressful, as he began to reverse-hack the paragraph. He couldn’t read all of it, but the context was becoming as clear as it ever would be. The vase was made five hundred years after his departure from Anazi lands, so some of the nuances of culture would allude him. He came home to Alex on the couch, reading a Japanese language primer.
“Don’t tell anyone I’m learning,” his son said. “I don’t want Jimmy and Tetsuo to know I understand them when they talk over me.”
He grinned. “Okay.”
Aristotle tried to be patient as the mortals slathered the red paint across his face, but it was an irritating process. The smell of crushed rock and guano was not a pleasant aroma and the paint, while easy to wash off because his skin didn’t take to new pigments, usually found its way into his beard and could take a full hour to remove. When they were finished and the ink set to dry, he carefully turned his head to his master, seated on the throne next to him. If the situation wasn’t so serious, a befeathered Qum’ra, his visible skin painted shades of red, orange, and white and his beard braided would be an amusing image.
The blessing ceremonies began. The priest intentionally kept the language he used for blessing (or alternately, cursing) them obscure and would not teach it to Aristotle for any price. Only when the proper prostrations were performed did the real meeting start. They were initially far more informal, but the natives really took to worshipping the demons in their midst, and Qum’ra remarked that if he couldn’t be a king, he would settle for being a god.
“Lord Kam,” the elders addressed Qum’ra as such. He would not gift them with his real name. “The dry season is only a few cycles away. Soon the outer tribes will move north, to fresh water when the grazing lands dry up.”
“We have defeated their warriors,” Qum’ra said in a booming voice. “Their women and children are yours to take as slaves, or ours to consume.”
“We cannot support such a population. Not in the dry season.”
“Then I believe you understand us.”
But Aristotle thought he understood more. They were rapidly running out of prey, and Qum’ra would never go back to animals while humans were still available. He would drain every last mortal dry if he had to. The Anazi were beginning to understand the danger they were in, but not decided on what to do about it. The meeting did not go long and ended with more blessings. Out of respect for their hard work, Aristotle did not fly to the waterfall to cleanse himself; he let himself go a day wearing the dye until it stained his beard. It felt disgusting to sleep in face paint, but it pleased the people close enough to him to see it. Qum’ra, more concerned with modesty than cleanliness, wore it because it made him feel all the more the part of a god.
“Master.” Aristotle hesitantly approached him as Qum’ra inspected the latest offerings, all of which he would discard. The necklaces were by their standards masterpieces and by his standards little more than poorly-shaped beads on a string.
“What are your concerns?” The question was mostly rhetorical; Qum’ra knew his every thought before he thought it. “That these mortals will cast us out like lepers when they have no other use for us? That they won’t let us feast on their enemies merely because they were women or old men, incapable of fighting?” Even Qum’ra would not eat children. The villagers didn’t know that but he didn’t try to convince them of otherwise. “We are the gods, they are the hapless mortals.”
“We are not invincible and they know it.”
“Why? Have you been telling them something I have not? A foolish slip?”
“They are more observant than you give them credit for, Master.”
“They are barbarians. They walk about half-naked and wear the feathers of dead birds. Before us there was no unity, no determination. Now they stand to control all of their enemies’ lands.” But he was not immune to Aristotle’s concerns, even if he wouldn’t admit it. “When the well dries, we will leave.”
Aristotle didn’t express his further hesitation audibly, but his master knew anyway, and gave him a reassuring look. It must have been the link, because Aristotle was happy for the reassurance and fell asleep inches from his master, peaceful and content with his existence until the stake went through his heart.
Peace did not last long. The tension of keeping Alex away from Lindsey remained. Aristotle knew he would have to face it sooner or later, but it would probably mean the end of his relationship – whatever it was – with Lindsey, so he would prefer it to be later. Now that Alex was with him in the apartment with not a lot to do, it made arrangements near impossible, and it was clear after a few nights of working together that Aristotle and Dr. Graham agreed on one thing, that they did want there to be arrangements. Making out like horny teenagers in an unused room behind the research library might be at least mildly satisfying to her, but it did not thing for him but taunt the vampire, which would never be satisfied with anything less than blood and possibly her death. As reprehensible as he found the idea, Aristotle was haunted by visions of what it would be like to hear her final heartbeat as he drained the life out of her. That bothered him perhaps the least of all of the complicating factors. It was a natural part of the vampire. It demanded not just blood but death and so far Aristotle had denied it the latter and intended to keep doing so. He liked Lindsey as a person. She deserved better than him – someone younger and less likely to kill her. But she spoke to some human side of him that went ignored and he needed that, the only reason it didn’t break it off entirely.
Besides, Alex wouldn’t kill her when he found out. Probably.
Lindsey was only oblivious to the amount of danger she was in because she was mortal, and the vampire was an expert at making itself seem both seductive and harmless. Aristotle didn’t really have to work at it at all. It just came naturally to him. “I have to go.” He knew without looking at his watch that it was late. Late for her more than for him, but he had to wash up and change clothes before he went home.
“I know. I should go, too,” but her voice echoed his in how uninterested she was in doing so. “Do you want – “
“No. I mean, I don’t know. I have to think about it.”
“Have you talked to your son?”
“I already know his reaction.”
“So? You’re single. He’s an adult. He should know you have a right to date, even if it disgusts him. People always think what their parents do is gross.”
Aristotle smiled but he shook his head. “It’s more complicated than that.” But she deserved more than just a brush-off. “Do you have anything pressing for Friday night?”
“He’s going to believe you’re working on Friday night?”
“Why not? I would be if I wasn’t making other plans right now.”
“You’re weird.” She kissed him. “Don’t worry. That’s why I like you.”
Aristotle was not lying in saying that he would be working otherwise. It consumed his spare time. By now he understood almost all of the vase, possibly as much as he would ever understand, but he still obsessed over it. He took printouts home to doodle on in the apartment after the dig area was closed. He let Alex play around with his own ideas, but Alex was far less invested in it than he was. The text was mostly metaphorical, some fairly untranslatable mythic tale of either a real great leader whose events had been mythologized after his life or a mere work of fiction on the part of some storyteller that entered popular culture in Chaco Canyon. The king was great, he defeated great things, and then there was a list of his possessions. In other words, like most Egyptian hieroglyphs found in ancient tombs.
“See anything familiar?” Alex asked.
“No. I would be very surprised if I did, even if the people thought we were gods. That was hundreds of years before and people don’t generally write stories about overthrowing their gods and setting them on fire.”
“Unless they’re evil.”
“Yes, of course. Unless they’re evil.” He could sense Alex wanted to know more of the story that was so painful to Aristotle and now he was trying to seize the chance but was still unsure if this was the time to do it. “I don’t remember if it was Qum’ra who said we were gods of if they made the assumption and we went with it. Knowing him, it may have been a little of both.”
“You weren’t pretending to be human?”
“We were too hungry to pretend we were human. After we came across the ice into North America, we slaughtered everything we saw. This trip was the first time I had to subsist on animal blood for an extended period of time. I didn’t give a damn about whatever hunter-gatherers in animal skins we came across and what their culture might hold for us. I wanted to eat.” And he wasn’t embarrassed about it, either. He saw no reason not to be honest. “In New Mexico we found a sizable population for the first time – one we couldn’t just decimate at night and sleep in their caves during the day. We were both tired of traveling but we couldn’t pick off people without being noticed. And there was our appearance, which was startling. We did feel human, when we interacted with them instead of just hunting them. We had to learn their language. We had to make a case for them to respect us so we could live safely among them. And it worked, for a while.”
“Until we realized it was time to go. By then it was already too late.”
Aristotle awoke screaming, both as the vampire and himself. Fangs bared, he lurched towards his unseen attacker, but his body refused to budge and the entire process only brought him further pain. The second cry was not just of alarm but agony – pain in his chest, his stomach, his arms, and his legs. He howled, but it was so very human as the vampire retreated. It was too weak and he was all that was left.
They were talking to him but he didn’t understand. The language was still beyond him in his frightened state, distracted by pain and scared by the torches that were burning so close to him, especially now, when he couldn’t get away from the fire. But the vampire couldn’t panic any further – it was tired and his body was focused on trying to heal. He looked down, and when his eyes finally focused, he could see way.
Wooden stakes pierced his body in all of the places that hurt, even if the one in his chest wasn’t precisely through his heart but slightly to the side. They went so deep as to go through into the wood behind him. Logs were bound together to form a wall. Even if he could break through the rope, which he could, the stakes held him and them in place. The intricacy and care of the design was not something he was interested in processing or appreciating.
He didn’t recognize the woman in front of him at all. She spit on him, but that at least had no ill effects. She was not dressed like the others, and he realized he couldn’t understand her at all. It wasn’t a deficiency on his part. The language was different.
Someone waved one of the torches in his face, and he could barely avoid it. His head was soaked in his own blood sweat. Considering how much he was bleeding from other wounds and how his fangs wouldn’t retract, he must have been a terrifying figure.
“You are not a god,” the elder said, the one standing next to the woman. “You are a monster.”
He was not in the mood to argue the philosophical point, nor was he physically capable of it except in his head. “Please – what do you want from me?”
“You killed this woman’s family – her whole tribe. She is the only one left. Do you remember?”
He wanted to shake his head but the onus was on him to say the right thing, so he studied her. She was not familiar, but she was dressed in the heavy fur cloak like so many he remembered seeing in the north, before they reached the warm weather. “No. I don’t remember.” They flashed the fire in his face again and he felt the heat and screamed. “I don’t know her! I don’t remember!”
“But you did kill her tribe.”
He bit his lips, which made his fangs tear his bottom lip, but it was all he could do to contain the pain. “Maybe.”
“You don’t remember?”
He could not lie to them. They already knew the answer. They already knew he was a monster – they’d known since the beginning. He’d just been useful to them. That was all. “We killed a lot of people. We were hungry. Like you will kill your own herds when you are starving.” He wasn’t sure on his wording but he did hope it came out that way. “Where is my master?” He knew Qum’ra was somewhere, but the link was quiet.
“She traveled for many moons, to follow you and warn us. Would you kill us all?”
“No. No, not you.” He recognized some of the faces, but his vision was obstructed by the fire blinding his eyes. “We only killed who you wanted us to kill.”
“Now you are lying.”
With dread, Aristotle realized he was. His
master had started killing women and other non-warriors in the other tribes. He
couldn’t separate himself from that. “Only other tribes. Only because there
are no more warriors. We killed them all for you! To us it is only food but to
you it means you don’t have to fight them and die. You will rule these lands
“We know it wasn’t you, who killed those women,” the elder said. “It was Kam. We should kill him and let you go free.”
“No!” He could not have shouted harder or tried to move more, even if the results were so agonizing. “No! It was me! It was all my idea! We tricked you. We can disguise ourselves. It was me and not him!”
“That is what he said.”
Aristotle was just reacting now to a greater terror than anything he could imagine, a threat to his master. Even though they were lies he didn’t hesitate to use them. “It’s true! What he said is true. He may not be innocent but I am guilty. I couldn’t resist...” His voice went dry. “Please, I need something...” He needed blood but he couldn’t say that. Not that way. Besides, they already knew. They had figured out their strengths and weaknesses. The blood in his mouth was from his lip and it was his own, so it did nothing for him. “I killed them. I killed them all!”
And then the pain was too much. Shouting pushed against the stakes in his chest and stomach, and the pain was too much for him, and brought him comforting darkness.
When he woke there was no alarm beyond the terror of his situation. The others were gone. He sensed the sun had come and gone again. His skin had withered without nourishment, but his position hadn’t changed. There were still torches lit and in easy reach for anyone to come near, but he was alone. He reached out to the link, but it didn’t respond. Unable to control any of his reactions now, he began to weep.
He heard the second heartbeat and it made his mouth water even though he knew there was nothing he could do to reach it, and drain the life out of its owner. He couldn’t even wipe his eyes dry, and his vision was red through the haze of blood tears.
It was, of all people, his translator Ani. Ani, standing there, as unsure of himself as Aristotle was of him.
“What are they going to do to us?” He had no energy left to think of attacking Ani. It was an impossibility and he put it out of his mind and focused on human speech in their foreign tongue.
“I know you didn’t kill anyone we did not tell you to kill,” Ani said, his conviction firm even if he was as terrified of the blood-drenched Aristotle as he was of him. “I know it was your master.”
“You are willing to die for him?”
The response didn’t require thought. “Of course.”
“You hate him.”
This surprised him. He really hadn’t given them enough credit in observing their vampire guests. He’d never spoken against his master in public, or done anything less than be completely obedient. Did his hatred really radiate from him like some awful aura? “He is my master.”
“If they decided, you or him, you would say...?”
“Him,” he replied. “What do I have to say to them to convince them of that? Tell me what to say.”
“They would rather you be honest.”
“Fine.” His body was unable to move, only to slacken or sit up by the tiniest of measurements, and he sat up in that way. “He is my master. My life is forfeit before his. Nothing will ever change this, not my feelings for him or the way he acts or anything that we do. I will always offer myself for sacrifice to save him and I will never regret it. You cannot make me defy him. I am not capable of it.”
Ani stood up and turned away to leave. At the door he paused. “You know he said we should spare him and not you, and that he would do great things for us if we did.”
“What great things would you do for us?”
“Nothing. I will do nothing for you. It is to your advantage to kill me and spare him.”
Ani frowned. “You cannot change your mind?”
“Never,” he said. “He made me. He is my father. He is my master. That can never change.” He added, “I will die without him.”
Ani’s frown just deepened, and he left him alone.
“I can understand why you would do that,” Alex said, “but you must have known what the correct answer was.”
“That they were going to pick me to survive because Qum’ra was the real demon and I was just his loyal servant? On some level I must have known that.” He looked down at the familiar glyphs. “I didn’t know if they were just going to kill us both. To this day I honestly don’t know why they spared me when I was as vulnerable. There was no point in saving me, when I would just die without my master. There wasn’t really a choice for me. Either way, I thought I would die. Being killed by mortals would just be quicker.”
Alex crossed his arms, deep in thought. “Qum’ra must have known what the correct answer was, too.”
“If he blamed himself and asked them to spare me, would they have spared him? I don’t know. Maybe it wasn’t as clear as that. I never heard them interrogate him. They kept us separated. They knew we were stronger when we were together.”
“He was thousands of years old. He didn’t reach that age without figuring out basic human emotions. If you knew the answer, so did he.” Alex was more sure of himself than Aristotle expected him to be. Usually during these discussions he just sat back and let himself be overwhelmed. “He gave himself up by demanding that they spare him, and I bet he knew he was doing it.”
“Why? So you would live.”
Aristotle shook his head. “That’s not the way he operated.”
“You’re so devoted to him but you can’t imagine him doing something selfless? It’s the only solution that makes sense. You already said they knew who the real bad guy was. If you knew they knew, then he must have known that. Even if he didn’t realize it himself he would have gotten it from you in the link. Qum’ra knew all the questions they asked you and how you responded. He had to have known he could have saved himself by confessing everything and begging them to spare his son’s life. Or even if it didn’t work, it would have at least had a chance. His strategy doesn’t make sense unless he’s really not trying to save himself.”
Even though Aristotle heard the words, the thought was overwhelming. “No.”
“You’ve always wondered why they spared you. You just said it yourself. The only explanation I see, given all that I know and you’ve shown me of my grandsire, is that he said those things intentionally. He knew exactly what he was doing – he was giving himself up to save you.”
“No. He wouldn’t do that.”
“Would you do it to save me?”
“Of course.” Even though it didn’t make sense, he would. Alex was too young and too fragile for his survival to be insured and Aristotle was old and strong and would keep going, but he couldn’t imagine choosing between himself and his son. He never wanted to imagine it, not even right here and now, when it was demanded of him.
“The only two options that I see are that Qum’ra was too dumb to see something you saw in those people despite him having access to your thoughts as well as his own, or he chose to say what he had to say to spare you,” Alex said. “I know what he did to you, but is it really so impossible to imagine that he wanted you to survive? That he saved your life?”
There was so much preventing him from imagining it, and yet so much loyalty still tugging him in his master’s direction as much as it did 2200 years before. “Oh my G-d.” He could still feel the heat of the fire as he watched his master crumble and die, turning into a burst of ashes. “No.” It wasn’t denial of Alex’s statement, just a reaction to the event as he relived it yet again.
“No!” He tried yet again to fight and free himself, but at this point he’d hung there for three days, and his strength was really gone. “No! No, I told you no!” After dragging him out of the cage, they positioned his pole of bound wood against a rock wall so he could see his master on the pyre. “Take me!” He tried to pull his arm free but it just hurt. “Ani! Tell them to take me instead!” Or just kill me too.
No. When Qum’ra looked at him, the words didn’t have to be spoken. The link said it more clearly than words ever could. You will survive.
“It was the last thing he ever said to me,” Aristotle explained. “Beyond that there’s the fire ... and after the link died, I don’t remember anything. I was delirious for months. They knew how to keep me imprisoned, but they let me recover my health. It might have been earlier than I remember. I was in a stone basin, and they covered the hole with a stone except when they would drop in an animal – and that was always in daylight. Honestly it could have been any other way and I wouldn’t have cared. I just wanted to die. They didn’t even leave me the option to kill myself.”
Alex was silent. He wasn’t talking because he didn’t want to say something that would hurt him. He knew his master was in a fragile state. Aristotle appreciated the notion.
“I don’t know what Qum’ra really thought or really did,” he said at last, as much as it pained him to do it. “I never will. But I suppose maybe it would be nice to think that he saved me rather than saved himself. I just don’t know if I can yet.” There was still too much pain and it was still too fresh. He wondered if it ever wouldn’t be.
Alex nodded. He understood. At least this time, when Aristotle looked back and searched for meaning and his master’s death, he didn’t do it alone.
Friday night, Aristotle didn’t have to worry about giving an explanation for where he was going to be.
“Can’t talk. Must code,” Alex said after grabbing breakfast. “I kinda promised someone I’d have this anti-viral program up and running by Sunday.”
“Do you need anything from the outside world?”
“No.” Alex sat down at the computer with a bottle of wine. “I’m good. Thanks.”
Aristotle met Lindsey at a restaurant, what must have been the only decent one in the area. Not that he could speak for the food, but it at least had the atmosphere of something better than a diner. She initially offered to cook for him but he politely declined, giving all kinds of pseudo-feminist excuses, but really because she would be less invested in what he ate (nothing) and what he drank (wine) if it was not her food being served. It still took a little hypnotism for her not to notice wasn’t ordering, per se, but nothing beyond his abilities. Actually, he couldn’t remember the last time he’d had to hypnotize someone into thinking he was eating. He rarely interacted with mortals on this level.
“You seem down,” she said, “from when I saw you last.”
He debated whether to tell her, but he really had no reason not to. In fact the very notion that he could talk to someone about what he was going through was exciting. “I didn’t come to New Mexico to see the dig. I came to visit my father’s grave. This is the first time I’ve done it in awhile and the first time I’ve taken Alex. There’s a lot of things I haven’t told him about his grandfather ... however much he is his grandfather.”
“You visited the grave?”
“Not last night, but we discussed him. Now things I’ve believed for years about his parenting ... they might just be wrong. I might have been wrong about my father.”
“I’m sure he did the best he could. He was your father.”
“If you knew him, you really wouldn’t say that. And I’m glad, by the way, that you don’t know him. That he never had a chance to meet and terrorize Alex. And I still miss him.”
“Did you ever read The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins?”
“Of course. It’s a classic.” He was briefly impressed that she knew it, then scolded himself for assuming so little of her.
“This may seem very cold, but if you follow Dawkins’ theory, your connection to your father is merely genetic. Whatever emotions you have about him – and it seems you have a lot – you can’t eliminate the essential notion that half the genes you’re carrying came from him.”
It was not true, precisely, but it was true in a different way. Qum’ra’s blood flowed through his veins. It was a gift as well as a curse, and it allowed him to survive. What genetic material did the vampire pathogen carry? So much of his composition was altered. He was Qum’ra’s only remaining child, solely responsible for carrying Qum’ra on Qum’ra genes in whatever manner the vampire did so.
“I’m sorry.” He realized he’d been in silence too long. Alex was used to it but he was being a bad date. “I just lost track of things. I never looked at it that way before. Talking to my son and talking to you ... about things that I’ve never discussed with anyone.”
“Don’t feel obligated just because I’m here but – maybe you just need someone to talk to.”
Aristotle decided he couldn’t agree more.
The rest of dinner flew by and so did the drive to her place. This time he did see the cat, who of course didn’t like him. It hissed and ran into the dining room. Lindsey apologized.
“He’s just trying to protect you,” he said with a grin. She had no idea how true that was.
The vampire was surprising docile. He’d eaten quite a lot before he left his apartment and had a few glasses of wine at dinner, or maybe the vampire was just getting used to the idea that he wasn’t going to kill this one. He needed to bite her and drink her delicious life force, already replenished from last week, but the temptation to drain her dry was not impossible to resist. He knew vampires who really liked to draw out their kills, maybe feeding over several nights or weeks so that their subject was completely enthralled and willingly offered up her life to them, but Aristotle wouldn’t do that. It didn’t thrill him, a function of his personality more than anything else. Or was it the vampire, with its own personality?
He had time to think about it in the stillness of the night. He couldn’t shut his brain off and just be happy if he wanted to, but that night, he came very close.
The air must have been getting a little stuffy for Alex because he took off at the next opportunity, going to Los Angeles to hear Jimmy play for the first time since he was brought across. Aristotle sensed his son might have found another reason if there wasn’t already one, but he didn’t question him. Alex seemed happy. He just didn’t care for a ratty apartment in New Mexico. As much as he wanted Aristotle to finish the project, he also wanted him to take the time he needed to do it right and be done with it, knowing it would bring him some sense of closure.
“It’s just you and me, General,” Aristotle said to Seleucus. If he didn’t know better he would suspect that the chameleon perched on his knee was regarding him with a nod of understanding, but instead he was perfectly still. “Alex is all grown up. He doesn’t need us anymore.” He picked up the lizard, who squirmed between his fingers. “Of course you’ll always need him – and I think I’ll always need him. Now I know what Lucius is always going on about.” Seleucus nipped at his thumb, but wasn’t strong enough to bite through the skin and get the blood he wanted. “Sorry, buddy. Maybe you’ll get stronger as you get older and I’ll wake up to find my hand drained.” Seleucus eventually stopped and settled in his palm. “You know, the real Seleucus was a lot more talkative.” Seleucus didn’t respond. “Look at me. Talking to a lizard. I do just need to talk. Just not to vampires. No offense, General.”
He put Seleucus in his tank and dialed Lindsey. No reason to mope around the apartment went better things awaited.
Jimmy’s set was the following night. It was remarkably brief, but Jimmy wasn’t quite sure how it would go over. His music sounded fine to Alex, who grew up on grunge. The crowd was all vampires at the club, so they all heard on the same frequency that Jimmy did, and they seemed to enjoy themselves through the whole set.
“He says his playing is much faster now,” Amanda told Alex as they watched from the lounge. Jimmy was finishing up and soon they would switch back to the DJ. “He strums a lot faster since he was brought across.”
“The only one who knows that for sure is him. And Tetsuo I guess.” He was excited about it, but in general he was feeling listless, and for once, it wasn’t all coming from Ari, even if it was related to him. “He sounds good, I think. I’m don’t have much of an informed opinion.”
“You’re an average person. That’s what he wants to impress. Not to say that you’re average or anything.”
He smiled. “I know what you mean.”
The song ended, and after some cheering the band began working on getting their equipment offstage. The hastily-assembled group didn’t exactly have roadies yet. Amanda spoke first. “So where’s Aristotle?”
“Kicking up dirt in New Mexico.”
His smile turned into a frown. “He’s keeping something from me. I’m trying not to let on that I know he is but I can never tell if he’s in my head or not. He’s been very weird lately. Thank G-d Jimmy had this thing because I totally needed to get out from under. Yes, already.”
“I was going to say.”
“Now you don’t have to.” He stood to greet Jimmy. Amanda hugged him. Alex knew they were back together as a couple, though on what terms he was never quite sure. The relationship seemed to vacillate in intensity.
“Tetsuo’s just going to say I was awesome because it’s his job,” Jimmy said. “So you’re not obligated to say it.”
“I think you were good,” Alex told him honestly. “Your first time playing guitar in public in what, twenty years?”
“Make me old, why don’t you? It’s eighteen. Which is way old to you and way young to everyone else.”
“It’s a respectable age,” Amanda said, leaning on Jimmy’s shoulder. He liked being a rock star, that much was obvious.
The after-party was held in the VIP lounge while the normal club continued on. It was more of just a toast, and it wasn’t long before Amanda and Jimmy disappeared to who-knows-where. Alex chatted with some of the locals and a few he didn’t know, but eventually ended up at the bar, trying to chuck peanuts into the glasses on the wall. He didn’t know what other use peanuts could have possibly had other than that one so he didn’t worry about the consequences. It was late and Janette was at the end of the bar. By all appearances she was doing taxes.
“Ah, if only I had someone here who loved paperwork,” she said as her gaze glided knowingly up to meet his.
“Uh, totally a question for Aristotle. Not someone who just happens to be related to him.”
“Of course.” She was just joking with him. She was one of the people who could do that. After all, they were third cousins. “And perhaps it would not be too troubling if you were asked what was on your mind?”
“Not my mind.” He looked around, then said, “Can I ask you a personal question?”
“Lesser men have tried.”
He moved closer to her so less people would overhear them, but it was a vampire bar. “Do you ever wonder if you’re ever really alone, or if your master is there the whole time?”
“Hmm. It is an interesting question,” Janette said, only because she knew exactly what he was talking about when so many other people didn’t. “I suspect LaCroix is not maintaining a very close watch over all of his children because he has so many – and because he is focused on one. After all, he is only one man, and only capable of so much, even if that much is a great deal.”
“Nicolas needs constant attention,” she said. There was no reason to hide it. “Or so LaCroix believes. The very fact that Nicolas would rather be rid of him entirely – or so he thinks – makes them both dig deeper into these entrenched positions, leaving me alone. That is, when I behave myself.”
“So, not really.”
“I behave myself,” she said, her French accent making everything sound like silk. “It is a difficult fate, but I suspect your overworked master will find enough to do with himself when you are older and his presence will be less constant.”
“But I won’t know it. On my end.”
She lit a match from the bar match sets, but just let it burn up in the ashtray. “Aristotle is your master. If he has some concern, he will show it as any concerned father would. If not ... then I can only imagine what is going on in his head. Far too many calculations.”
“Yeah.” He smiled. “Thank you, Janette.”
“I am glad to be of service.”
“You have to go?”
Ari gave Lindsey a smile. “I have to be back by sunrise.”
“Or what, you’ll turn into a pumpkin?”
“UV rays. They’re very bad for my skin. You don’t want to see me broken out.” He was actually in a bit of rush. He hadn’t raced home for Alex so most of the night was gone already. “No desert hikes for me. Not in daylight anyway.”
“That must be tough.”
“I like working nights.” He put on his jacket, founds his keys, and gave her a final kiss. “Another time?”
He made it home with very little time left, even driving at his best. The sky was light, the sun would be up soon, and Seleucus was already asleep.
It was still night in California, so he dialed Alex, who picked up after a couple rings. “Hello?”
“Are you drunk?”
“Only a little. Dad. You used to be cool. Don’t you know you used to be cool?”
“Don’t be ridiculous. I was never cool,” Aristotle said. “Do you have a place to stay?”
“I could fly home if I wanted to,” Alex insisted with a little too much effort. “I’m staying at the club. Hopefully it won’t be gross.”
“It’s not gross. And besides, you’ll be asleep.”
“Yeah, I guess so. G’night, Master.”
“Good night.” He hung up knowing Alex was in good hands, as long as they were Janette’s. Hopefully.
Alex had forgotten that Janette’s club, with its rough interiors, stood above a more luxurious sanctuary for Community. They couldn’t come and go as they pleased, but people needed shelter for one reason or another, whether it was for the night or a few years. Los Angeles was quiet and Alex had a room to himself. Some of the other fledglings liked to sleep upside down or in the rafters like bats. He didn’t understand why but then again he never remembered crossing his arms over his chest but he always woke up that way. Vampires were strange creatures.
Above, the club had yet to open but there was movement to indicate it would soon. For breakfast he ate the first thing he found, a packet of hospital blood in the fridge in the common room. Not feeling particularly productive, he put his feet up on the couch and drained the bag dry. It was just straight blood and all he really wanted.
There was only one person who was slower moving than him. It was Sharon. “Hey.”
She took a seat. “I never really got to, um, thank you. For last time.”
“’s fine.” He didn’t really feel like sitting up yet. If he wasn’t a vampire he would definitely be hung over. “He was a douche. Whatever. At least I won and I didn’t get in trouble with my master or anyone else.”
“Your master’s Aristotle, right?”
“Yeah.” He was surprised she didn’t know that. Maybe she didn’t have a lot of interaction with Aristotle. He had been doing his work from a distance more and more. “Yours?”
“She ran off. Or died. I don’t know. I only met her once.”
“Damn, I should have guessed. Sorry.” Her being alone at her age and all. Even modern masters didn’t let infants go on their own unless they had to. “You just wound up at Janette’s? It doesn’t seem like a bad place to be.”
“Janette is cool, I guess. And it’s nice not to have a really overbearing person telling me what to do.”
She missed her master. That went without saying. Nothing would ever replace this person she wouldn’t name and Alex wouldn’t ask about.
“Yeah, well I definitely know what that feels like. The overbearing person, I mean.”
“Are you supposed to say that?”
“He’s in New Mexico. Also I’ve totally said it to his face a bunch of times.”
“I don’t understand this thing, like, how you’re supposed to treat your master.” Because she had no experience in it.
Alex considered his answer. “When you’re truly connected to someone by blood – if it’s your master or your child or someone you just drank from – you can say anything. Especially if it’s true, but it’s pretty impossible to lie in that state. They’ll smile and take it. Or maybe get really angry, but not permanently. It’s something I can’t describe – I never had a relationship like that before I was a vampire, not just because I was human. I didn’t have a lot of friends. I wasn’t close to my remaining family. I wasn’t ready for it. It still kind of terrifies me, being that close to someone and not being close to anyone else as a result.”
“Right. You have that thing.” She was probably referring to the fact that Alex didn’t share blood with his peers, and everyone in Los Angeles worth their weight in salt knew why. Aristotle said no.
“Old vampires are very territorial.” He heard the music turn on in the club. “Oh G-d. Do you guys ever get a break?”
“Some of the rooms are soundproofed, but no, not really.” She seemed more in tune with it than he did, and left him to go upstairs. He couldn’t imagine dealing with the club scene so early in the evening. He debated going back to the apartment now that he was awake and the sun was down, but Amanda and Jimmy would be by later, and he would just have to come back.
Yawning, he ascended the stairs to the club. He was still in the hallway when he saw a familiar face heading his way. “Oh. Hey.” He waved sheepishly, not sure what was required in this situation when facing Dan, or Dante, again. “Sorry about the party.”
Officially there were no hard feelings – vampires got in fights all the time - but Dan still looked like he was carrying a lot of them. “You shithead.”
“Hey, I said I was sorry. I was drunk, and I just reacted.” Besides, you hit me first.
“You smashed my fucking face in! Made me look like an idiot.” With his mixed accent it sounded more funny than serious, and Alex stifled a laugh. “What is so funny?”
“Look, dude, I just wanted to end the fight and I didn’t want to bite you.”
“Ha! Pussy American vampires, don’t know how to fight.” His English escaped him when he was really mad – which he was. “You wouldn’t last a minute in Rome. No weapons, just tooth and claw.”
Alex backed away. “I’m sure I wouldn’t. I’m sure I would be terrible at it. Will you just chill?” Seeing that he wouldn’t, Alex took another step back. “I’ll leave.”
“Yes you fucking will,” Dan said, and grabbed him. Faster than Alex could react, he was hurled through the one-way glass and landed behind the bar, knocking over whiskey and vodka bottles on the wall in his way. Miklos the bartender had a surprisingly mute reaction to this, especially after Dan followed him through the new hole and kicked him in the head. Alex had bonked his head pretty seriously on the hard floor and he was still focusing his eyes when Dan hoisted him up and threw him back over the bar itself and further onto the dance floor. Alex couldn’t get up, but he could grab the metal bar stool, which he held up to protect himself from Dan’s fangs coming near him. At the sight of Dan’s fangs so close to his flesh, Alex howled and with a fresh burst of energy from his already-healing wounds, whacked him with the pole of the bar stool. Dan dropped, somewhere outside of his peripheral vision.
There were noises and Alex tried to get up, but his right leg was numb and his back hurt. He wiped the blood out of his eyes – possibly his, possibly Dan’s – and looked up to what was barely recognizable to him as Janette. And somewhere else, there were a lot of people cursing.
“What are you doing?”
“I honestly have no idea.” However much effort he put into it, the words came out kind of slurred. “He attacked me,” was all he got out as someone dragged him behind the bar. The dim light still hurt his eyes, and he closed them.
“Woah. Way to start the party without us,” Jimmy said. Alex swallowed, trying to get the metallic taste out of his mouth. He was in another room now, with a towel under his head, and Jimmy and Amanda were standing above him, trying to get in his line of vision. He must have been asleep.
“Do you want me to answer your phone?” Amanda asked.
“That’s what that ringing is?” He wasn’t aware of it until she pointed it out. A lot of other things were ringing, too.
She took that as a yes, and took the phone from his pocket. “Hello? Hi, Mr. Aristotle. Yeah. Um, Janette says he has a concussion. And a broken back. Oh, and he’s supposed to be drinking but he’s been asleep.” She nudged Jimmy, who produced a packet for Alex to suck on. He didn’t feel like it, but once he actually bit down, the vampire sprung to live. “Yeah, that’s what Janette said, too.” Alex could have heard Ari on the other end of the line if he’d been concentrating, but he didn’t feel that compelled to concentrate. “No, nobody saw who started it but everyone thinks it had to be Dan. What? Um, do you really want me to say it that way?” She put a hand over the phone, as if that would do anything to affect Ari’s hearing. “Do you want to talk to him?”
“Um, sure.” He took the phone back but didn’t try getting up yet. “Hey, Ari.”
“I told her to tell Dante that if I see him, I’m going to fucking slit his throat,” Ari said, even though he didn’t sound all that pissed. It was hard to tell. Listening on the phone was kind of difficult and painful to his ear, but Alex was mainly listening to him through the link. “I don’t think she’s going to relay the message.”
“He’s just really angry,” Alex said. “I don’t know why. I don’t ... really know anything right now. Can you tell Janette I’m sorry about the bar? I don’t know where she is and I can’t get up.”
“She knows. I told her.” It only then occurred to Alex that this might not be Ari’s first call to LA. “You have a head wound. It takes longer to heal. Drink – and no alcohol.”
“Do you want me to come and get you?”
“No.” Even though the idea was appealing, he didn’t feel that inclined to put Ari out. “I’ll be fine. I’ll be back tomorrow anyway. You don’t have to come. Seriously.”
“I’m taking your word on it now but I might change my mind,” Ari said. “Get some rest. I’ll call you later.”
“G’bye.” He had some trouble finding the ‘end’ button on his phone because his eyes weren’t fully focusing, but eventually managed to close it. He really wanted Ari there, not just to talk to him, but he also felt like it wasn’t an emergency. Things were obviously under control. “Where’s Dan?”
“Recovering downstairs. You didn’t hurt his back but you gave him a pretty good brain-bashing,” Jimmy said. “You might want to throw out that shirt.”
Alex was able to look down, which meant tilting his head, which was an improvement. He couldn’t really see but he could smell. “Okay. Um, I’m sorry?”
“So you didn’t start the fight?”
“Why the hell would I do that?” It didn’t seem like they were doubting him, just asking. Dan hadn’t started things in public, just taken them there. “I barely know this guy. All I know is I see him and he attacks me. This time it wasn’t really over anything.” He tried to sit up, which ended with a lot of cursing and him returning to his position on the floor. He devoured the rest of the blood packet and Jimmy gave him another one to work on. “You don’t have to stay here with me.”
“Actually, someone’s supposed to,” Amanda said. “Head injuries are bad and we all know Aristotle’s paranoid.”
He couldn’t contradict either of them. “Am I in trouble?”
“Not a ton. Way less trouble than Dan is. Besides, vampires fight.”
“Yeah, I’m getting sick of hearing that.” His back was healing faster than his head. He could feel bones knitting, always a strange experience. “Okay. I really want to sit up now.”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
“Then can I be somewhere other than the floor?”
He eventually wound up on the couch in the waiting room to Janette’s office, resting his head on the arm cushion. The blood on his clothes was pretty dry, and most of it was his. Some of it was unfamiliar and smelled sort of like Dan, and there were some patches of ash marks from the brain matter dissolving on his shirt. Jimmy pointed it out with a sick sort of amusement and Alex said he preferred not to think about it. Some people came by, or found a reason to swing by the room, to say hello and he suspected to check on him. Dennis even congratulated him. Alex said he didn’t feel much like a winner. He nodded off again maybe twice, but by the time Janette showed up, he was sitting up and finishing his fifth blood pack. “Hi. Sorry.”
“Did you start it?”
“No.” He gave her a retelling of the earlier conversation to the best of his current abilities.
Janette’s answer was quick in coming. “I don’t have any reason to doubt you. If you had killed Dante, it would be a bit more serious. Keep aiming for his head and you just might do that someday.”
“I damaged your bar. That’s why I smell like vodka.”
“And very, very good champagne. I won’t bill you – this time. But you will have to apologize to Dante before he leaves.”
“He’s been testing my nerves. Not a wise thing to do.” She didn’t elaborate and he knew not to ask if there were other incidents. Fights, he might have known about, but then again, maybe not. He didn’t live in LA. “You told Aristotle not to come get you.”
“I’ll be okay.” He added, “I’m under excellent care.”
“You are a little charmer, aren’t you?” She smiled. “Stay there. Even if you feel like getting up, don’t. Or Aristotle will have my head.”
She let Amanda and Jimmy back in, who kept him company for the rest of the night. No matter how much he insisted they didn’t have to, he really didn’t mind their presence and would be lying if he said he did. His head was still throbbing but his back was fine by the time he got the final call from Ari.
“You’re sure you’re fine?”
“Yes, Ari. I’m fine.”
“I have a headache. Big deal.” He knew he should say something to reassure Ari, who was worried about him even if he knew exactly what was going on. “I’ll be fine. I just want to sleep for a really long time and not wake up to some crazy guy attacking me.”
“Call me when you wake up.”
“You don’t have to say it like that,” Ari said, but he sounded like he was smiling.
Alex woke feeling supremely better but ravenously hungry. He stumbled around the guest room of Janette’s private apartments, knocking over several things that looked expensive in the process, but he found the private fridge and relatively fresh blood. He devoured two packets and then set about replacing all of the items he’d moved. In the process he found the same photograph of LaCroix and his two children in the 1880’s that LaCroix had on his wall in Seattle. Janette always had spare shirts for vampires who ruined theirs, but of course all she had was black. Either way it was better than ash and brain matter on his chest.
After reassuring Ari that he felt fine, he thanked Janette for her hospitality. With her present, he met with Dan for apologies, and they shook hands. Neither had very much to say. Alex wanted to ask what he found so upsetting but didn’t want to instigate anything. They both wanted to be on their ways so they said what Janette wanted them to say. Alex said his goodbyes, reassured his friends that he was fine, and took a plane to New Mexico. This time at the private air strip, it was Ari who wouldn’t let him go.
“I’m fine, really,” he insisted to prevent being crushed by the hug into Ari’s rib cage. “He didn’t even bite me.”
“He was going to.”
“Would you have preferred me not to defend myself?”
“No. Of course not.” Ari kissed him on the cheek. “I just worry about you.”
Alex decided to let it ride and be treated like a prince for an evening. Not that Ari normally didn’t treat him well but more so when he was worried about him even though everything was fine. Alex was glad he wasn’t being punished, as he’d always thought beating someone’s brains in was a punishable offense. “He said something about Rome and fighting.”
“Like the movie?”
“Not like the movie. You can talk about them. It’s how fledglings burn off steam. And there’s a lot of blood sharing going on, so no elders are involved. They’re frowned upon because occasionally somebody dies.”
“We don’t have them here?”
“There used to be one in New York – the Elder shut it down. This was I think maybe after World War I. There’s a different culture here, and we try to shut them down. It breeds bad blood. Sometimes literally.”
“Yeah, he said it was tooth and claw. No weapons allowed. I think he was annoyed that I wasn’t willing to fight that way.”
“To him it might seem like a dirty fight, but that’s his problem. It’s his responsibility to know local rules.”
It was good to be home, as much as the ratty apartment was home. It was where Ari was, and now that he was by his side, Alex could tell how much he missed him. He was still proud of himself for not running home crying to his master, even though he would always return to him and Ari would always worry until he did.
Ari took him to work to show what was being done at the dig, which still looked like a dirty hole to Alex. The complexity of the backwards hack of the glyphs turned into numbers was amazing. “I gotta confess that I can’t follow some of these equations. But maybe it’s the head injury talking.”
“If you’re fine, you can’t use it as excuse.” Ari looked up as that mortal librarian or whatever she was entered. “Lindsey.”
“Ari.” She reacted very positively to seeing Alex, even though he had only met her once. “Oh! How are you? Are you feeling all right?”
Alex shot a glare at Ari. “You told her?”
“Your concussion may or may not have come up in conversation,” Ari said, looking especially guilty. “You know. We’re both single parents. We talk.” Well? Answer her at least. She’s been nice to me.
He couldn’t ignore his master’s call. “I’m fine, thanks. All better.” He waited until she found what she was looking for and left. “What the hell did you tell her?”
“She talked about her kid! What was I supposed to say? Lindsey’s – “
“What, you’re on first names now?”
“It’s called being polite. Try it sometime.”
Alex wasn’t sure that would bring on such a harsh reply, but he wasn’t eager to find out. He dropped it there.
Ari didn’t bring it up again. Back in the cramped apartment, they were running out of places to put their ever-increasing amount of stuff. Fortunately the project was almost over, even if Ari was translating the vase at a speed that was unbelievable to someone who didn’t know better. He still had to convince them to let his name be off the discovery, but he said getting others to take credit for his work would not be that big of a problem. People had been doing it for 2300 years.
Perhaps in anticipation of returning to Tahoe, Alex removed the segment of the Habitrail maze that Seleucus never seemed to be using, specifically the one in the laundry room. He needed the scrap for new designs and the pet store was completely out of tubing. “Fuck.” Some of it dropped, along with the nails, when it came off the wall, and went into the laundry bin. Scouting around inside, he smelled something odd. And he knew precisely what it was.
“What the fuck, Ari?” There was no ‘master’ there, but it was tempting. He was not entirely sure what he should feel, standing over his master in the living room with a dirty shirt. “What the fuck?”
Ari looked up and stared at the shirt. “Shit. I was supposed to wash that.”
“What the fuck?” He hurled the shirt at Ari. It wasn’t bloody or anything. It just smelled of perfume that he had smelled earlier, back at the school.
“It’s nothing,” Ari answered, rather defensively. “It’s over as soon as we leave.”
“What the fuck is over?”
“A relationship. Which it’s not. It’s just sex.”
“How can it be just sex? You’re a fucking vampire!”
Ari swallowed. “I’m an ancient. I have a lot of self-control.” Meaning, he didn’t drain her to death, but he did need to bite her. He had bitten her, and from the sound of Ari’s voice, multiple times. “You were away and she’s been really nice to me – “
“Jesus Christ, how depressed can you possibly be that you fuck anyone who gives you the time of day?”
Ari’s eyes flared. “It was more than that.”
“You just said it wasn’t! Christ.” He paced. He didn’t know what to do with his anger. The vampire was very angry but a little confused; this wasn’t a blood issue and even it would never attack Ari if it wasn’t going insane, which Alex wasn’t. “After all of this shit about how I have to be the celibate fledgling and I so much as look at another vampire and it’s a big deal – “
“I never said that.”
“ – and you go on about how you’re concerned about me, you want to fulfill me, I’m the only one who means anything to you and we haven’t fucked in a year and despite that you’re going behind my back with some mortal who you somehow succeed in not killing – “
“She’s not you,” Ari insisted. “There’s no comparison.”
“Apparently there is some comparison,” Alex snarled, the vampire very close to the edge. “Seriously tell me this is the only woman you’ve been with.”
“Since I turned you, yes. The only one. I was lonely.”
“I left you for three days! How lonely can you fucking be?”
Ari looked down. “I did it and it was wrong. I should have told you.” Not that, technically, he had to. He was the master – he could do whatever he wanted, either to Alex, with Alex, or without Alex. But the fact that he had gone through now-obvious lengths to hide it meant he did feel guilty, like he was doing something wrong, which was betraying Alex’s trust. Which he had. “It’s a poor excuse, but she was available to talk to about things I can’t discuss with other vampires. Yes, things concerning you, though I really didn’t have to tell her anything. She was there and it was convenient and I like her. And I didn’t look forward to calling it off, but I’ll do it.”
“I don’t want to ever see that ignorant slut – “
His master’s eyes flashed red with anger. “You will not call her that.”
“I’ll call her whatever I want. Why should I – “
“Alex.” The way Ari said it was absolutely unmistakable, even if the link wasn’t there to remind him that his master was not to be disobeyed. “Whatever your feelings for her or for me at the moment, you will not refer to Lindsey as a slut. Or anything else of a derogatory nature. Do you understand me?”
Alex nodded because he had to, but he said, “I don’t understand you at all anymore.”
When he left, Ari didn’t stop him. They both knew he wasn’t going far. Alex went out into the desert, not so much because he wanted to be alone but because he was afraid he might kill the next mortal he had to make eye contact with. But the desert was relatively lifeless, or the area he traveled in was, with all the noise he was making. Predators could sense other predators and they were keeping their distance from this one.
Aristotle’s first instinct when Alex left – other than to wallow in his own misery – was to call Lindsey and end it right there. He picked up the phone, realized it was two AM, and didn’t dial. It would have to wait far too long, and he would continue to feel guilty.
Admittedly, he had gotten off fairly lightly, at least from what he was expecting. Alex left but wouldn’t go far. He didn’t go insane or even say something they would both regret, as he had on previous occasions. He was just angry – and jealous – and called Aristotle on being a hypocrite even though he arguably wasn’t. It was not a finer point Aristotle wanted to debate. He just didn’t want Alex to be angry at him, especially when his son was already so distressed over the incident in LA.
When Alex returned, he didn’t say a word to Aristotle and gave every indication that he didn’t want a word attempted on the other side, so Aristotle gave him a knowing look and let him go to sleep in his room, alone and in silence. Only when Alex was fast asleep did Aristotle enter the room to watch Alex rest and ponder how much he might have fucked up.
He didn’t need Alex to trust him 100%. In fact, it was downright odd when he did, a sign of slavish devotion. Still, it was comforting when Aristotle had so much doubt about his own abilities to do anything right by his son, and now it was gone. Not permanently – the link would make it return – but Alex’s rejection was crueler than the end of any relationship Aristotle had had since his master died, no matter how intense it was or how long it lasted.
Alex awoke just after dusk. “I’m still mad at you.” But he wasn’t staying away. He hadn’t found shelter elsewhere. He was just establishing a fact.
“I know.” He sighed. “I have to go to work.”
“You don’t have to do anything.”
“I have to break up with Lindsey and she deserves to hear it in person. And don’t say she doesn’t.” He preempted Alex and it earned him an especially nasty scowl. “It’ll probably be the last time I speak to her. On a non-professional basis. Or maybe on any basis.”
Alex wasn’t satisfied but he would never be satisfied, not until he cooled off, so Aristotle went to work.
Lindsey was there and he made it brief. “Look, I’m almost done and I have to get back to my regular job – “
She didn’t look like she was ready but she didn’t look surprised, either. “Did something happen?”
“I had a certain conversation with my son.”
“You’re an adult. You don’t need his approval.”
“Yes, I do,” he said outright. “If you feel the same way about Brian and knew how upset he would be, you would never have started this relationship. You would have done what you thought was best for your son.”
She couldn’t deny it. “I knew it would end, but – “
“It never seemed so soon. I know.” His voice was soft. “I’m sorry. For what it’s worth, it meant something to me. It always will.”
“I feel the same way.” She felt so much more. It was evident on her face, but whatever sympathy he had for her – and he had quite a bit – he quashed it. This would have been much easier to do over the phone.
It took a few days for Alex to cool off. He didn’t have the rage of the first night, but he was actively fighting the link’s pull that would always bring him obediently back to his master. Aristotle couldn’t control it any more than Alex could. Alex wanted to stay mad, and he couldn’t, and he knew it.
“Maybe you just want to forgive me,” Aristotle ventured. Alex glared at him. “No? Can’t blame me for trying.”
Just as he was bundling the last of the documents on the vase, he got a call from Colorado. He hadn’t heard from the Elder of Boulder in a long time.
“Emergency in Colorado,” he said to Alex as he closed the phone. “Relocation, paperwork, that kind of thing.”
“Maybe. I didn’t ask. It should take a day at most.”
“Then go.” In other words, Alex didn’t want to go with him. He wanted to sit and stew.
“Yes, I’m sure,” Alex growled, but he did let Aristotle kiss him on the head before running out the door.
Lindsey Graham was determined not to cry. Caroline expected it; that was what friends were for. Still, she remained tough. Ari let her go softly and it was days ago now, just the first time Caroline could come by the house. “I should be over this.”
“There’s nothing wrong with break-up blues,” Caroline said. She certainly knew enough about them after two divorces. She wasn’t mean, just supremely unlucky. Lindsey felt bad for her in a way, but she also had younger children to keep her busy while Lindsey was alone. “I’m sure he’s miserable. Or he’d better be.”
Lindsey smiled, her fingers running up and down the stem of the wine glass. “I know he is. He was upset.”
“What, with his lame excuse about his kid? Divorced men have to learn to deal just like we do.”
“Widowed. And I told him that, but he told me on our first date that his son was going to come first. At the time I just thought it was adorable.” Next to her, Sadie leapt onto the table from his perch, in search of an early snack, but found only a bowl scraped clean of ice cream. “Sadie didn’t like him.” She rubbed his back as he started to lick the bowl. “Ari said he wasn’t a cat person. But he was nice about it. He was nice about everything.”
“It sounds like Sadie knows best,” Caroline said. “Nice guy, romances his way in, doesn’t like your cat – “
“He didn’t say that.”
“ – and he’s what, a biter?”
Lindsey blushed. “I never should have told you that!”
“It’s not normal.”
“It’s a little kinky but what do I know? It’s been a long time since I was on the market. Anyway, he never hurt me. He was wonderful.” Now she was choking up. It was better than being embarrassed, but not that much better. “I tried to prepare my self for this, emotionally. The sneaking around when his son was in town, the whole thing – we knew where it was going. But I miss him.” She tried to smile. “And to think, at first sight I thought he was too old for me. Maybe cute in a wizened professor sort of way but that was it.”
“You do hang out with a lot of wizened professors.”
“Oh, but they’re usually so much more desperate. Or just hit on the interns.”
“Your sense of humor isn’t totally gone,” Caroline said. “That’s encouraging.”
In the end Lindsey didn’t feel much better, but at least the tell-all ritual was her friend was finished and she could move on. By the time she was done with her phone calls and her work, it was late, and Sadie was meowing at the cabinet.
“I know, I know.” She opened the cabinet. “That’s right – I need more cat food. That ice cream is going to have to tide you over.” Cat food wasn’t the only thing she needed, so she grabbed her pocketbook and headed out. At this hour the only thing open was the 7-11, which was needlessly pricey but a good last resort.
She knew everyone in town – Bob behind the counter, who was sleeping on the job again, and the Native American teenagers who liked to hang out by the pay phone. There was the occasional tourist, on their way to Chaco Canyon, but she was a bit surprised to turn down an isle and see three teenagers staring at her. They weren’t locals – they were as pale as could be, and not even dressed for the warm weather, like they couldn’t feel the heat. “Excuse me,” she said. “You startled me.” In fact, they almost made her drop her basket.
“You’re Aristotle’s bitch.”
“Watch your mouth!” It took her a second to make the connection. Ari never introduced himself that way but it was the name on his business card. She corrected herself – they weren’t kids. They looked to be in their twenties, but no older. Early twenties, to be safe. The same age as Alex. “Leave me alone.”
The middle one cocked his head, like an animal inspecting its prey.
“I don’t know where Ari is,” she said, calculating how much effort Bob might put into protecting her.
“We know where he is,” he said. He had the faintest traces of a European accent. “We have business with Alexander.”
“I don’t know where he is, either.”
“That’s fine,” the middle one said. “He’ll come to us.”
The bolted for the end of the aisle, but there was already another one there waiting for her. He knocked over the snack stand to block her entrance. “If you scream, we’ll kill you. We might do it anyway, but you can make it a lot faster.”
Behind him, Bob was nowhere to be found. She looked back, and one of them quite literally jumped over the 6-foot tall shelving to make it the door, without even a running start. The remaining one, the one she’d been speaking to, grabbed her arm, hard.
“What do you want?”
He didn’t answer her until they were in her car. They had no apparent other means of transportation. “Drive.”
“I could drive to the police station.”
“You won’t. The two cops on duty are stuck at a crime scene. Someone lit a bar on fire.” When he spoke longer sentences, his accent was more apparent. “Just drive. I’ll tell you were to get off.”
“Who are you?”
He ignored the question and grabbed her pocketbook, retrieving her cell phone and scrolling through the contacts. “Ari home. Is this his apartment in town?”
“Yes.” He’d only given it to her once and she’d never used it. “I think so.” She was near the point of tears but he didn’t seem interested.
He dialed and began to speak in rapid French. She had some French from high school and college, but it was by no means perfect, and she couldn’t hear the other half of the conversation. There was something about finishing and meeting to fight, and her name came up, but she didn’t know what Alex’s response was. He had to be sympathetic. So far in the drive the three thugs seemed almost disinterested in her except for her driving capabilities, but that meant nothing, especially when the leader told her to pull off onto a dirt road. There were a lot of dirty roads in New Mexico, but this one went straight into the desert, they followed it for a long time.
“Stop the car,” the leader ordered, and she brought it to a halt in the canyon near a marker for a trail entrance. Aside from the abandoned ranger shack, there were no signs of civilization.
As if she needed another fright, one was provided. Something landed on the roof of her car, denting it. The figure in black then leapt off like an animal in the night. The leader of her kidnappers grabbed her keys out of the ignition and got out, the rest following him. They were all wearing black, but she recognized the crouching figure they were facing. It was Alex, appearing without means of transportation. “Let her go.”
“Go? Go where? To call the cops? Then we’ll have to kill her for sure,” the leader said. “That’s the Code.”
Lindsey was crying; Alex regarded her with some sympathy, even if it was passing. “Don’t try to run. They’d love to chase you. Just stay where you are.” He turned his attentions on the gang. “Dante, what the fuck do you want? Picking fights with me by messing with Aristotle’s shit?”
“I knew you would come.”
“Only because Aristotle couldn’t,” Alex said. “When he gets back he will tear you to fucking pieces. And you too, whoever you are.” He gestured to the others.
The one known as Dante was not put off. “Aristotle is hours away, on a plane to Colorado. By the time he gets here, you’ll be a pile of ashes.”
“And he’ll kill you anyway. He’ll hunt you to the ends of the earth. Your master can’t get you out of shit.” He cocked his head. “What do you want, anyway? Me to kick your ass again? I don’t want to fight you. I never wanted to fight you. I was drunk and you were being a dick the first time, and the second time you jumped me. Do you have like, some personal vendetta against me?” He obviously did not want to fight this guy, perhaps because it was three against one, but Ari had never described Alex as a violent kid. On the other hand, he had never described Alex as a kid who jumped on cars. He just said there were ‘difficulties.’ “Just what is your deal?”
“In Rome,” Dante said, “you fight, you don’t lose.”
“This isn’t Rome. Or Paris or Berlin. This the middle of the fucking desert, and it’s three on one. Which can’t be whatever your batshit rules are.”
Dante nodded to the others and they stepped away. “They’re here to make sure it’s clean. For when the Enforcers ask why I killed you.”
Alex looked at her, then Dante. “I’ll fight you if you let her go. She’s not involved.”
“She is until the fight is over.”
“The Enforcers will find out we made this agreement. We fight, however it turns out, she goes free.”
Dante removed his jacket. “Fine. You,” and he meant his goons, “keep an eye on her. I don’t want the Enforcers any more involved than they have to be. And you,” he turned back to Alex, “European rules. Tooth and claw only. No dirty tricks. No leaving combat until it’s over – until one of us is dead.”
Alex hesitated, assessing his options. “Aristotle already knows.”
“And what’s he going to do at 30,000 feet?”
“Fine.” He removed his outer shirt. “Let’s do this.”
Alex was still mad at Ari, as much as he could be, and even relished the idea that he would get some time alone. The weaker their link, the less likely he was to naturally revert to blindly loving his master, which was already happening pretty fast.
“Maybe I’m just staying angry at him because I want the ability to,” he said. “Maybe he should be forgiven. Or I’m just thinking that because he’s my master – Christ, this is such a mindfuck!” He stroked the top of Seleucus’ head, which was about all the attention the chameleon would put up with, and only from him. “What the hell am I going to do?”
And then the phone rang and answered the question for him. Rescuing a hysterical Dr. Graham was certainly not high on his list of preferred activities, but if he explained that to Dante, the other vampire might just kill her out of convenience – and then he would have to answer to his master about more than one thing. Besides, it was the right thing to do. “Stupid right thing to do.”
Ari couldn’t help him. Even if he made the plane land, he was too far away. How obviously Dante had calculated everything became apparent in the desert. Alex really didn’t want to fight him – he really didn’t want to kill him, but he couldn’t imagine another outcome. Maybe Dante would just give up?
Unfortunately, his fighting skills were limited to instincts and that semester in junior high where the school had a karate teacher subbing for the regular gym teacher. It wasn’t an area Ari excelled at or encouraged him to. All he knew how to do was how to hunt and tackle game. Maybe if he imagined Dante was a deer ...
Too late. Dante tackled him first, his eyes glowing red with anger, fangs barred. They crashed into the ground, tumbling into the dusty basin. Dante was snarling and Alex instinctively put his arms up to protect his neck. “No biting.”
“No, fuck you, this is exactly how we fight.” And he bit, hard, into Alex’s arm. Alex didn’t scream – he growled, and the vampire saw red. Lots of red. It wasn’t so much that the bite hurt but that being bitten hurt somewhere inside, other than his arm. What the other vampire would take, he would demand back, one way or the other.
The vampire was stronger than Alex was. He always forgot that, especially when he pushed Dante off him and sent him flying, even if doing so tore the flesh in his arm and dislocated his shoulder. He stumbled to his feet, not able to do anything other than snarl. There were no more human words.
By the time Dante was on his feet again, Alex’s wounds had already healed. This time, he didn’t wait. He struck Dante in the face, with only Dante’s own speed saving him from a greater injury. Dante swung around him and jumped on his back, his fingers tearing into Alex’s shoulder. When he tore into Alex’s throat, Alex lost it. He let the vampire respond – angrily flipping him over, smashing his attacker into the rock wall behind them with enough force to hear bones crunch, but still Dante wouldn’t let go. Still this monster was taking his life force and for that he deserved to die. For that Alex would tear him limb from limb, as soon as he could get away from the paralyzing feeling of the foreign fangs in his neck.
He did succeed in knocking Dante off, and didn’t give him a spare second. He tore into his arm with every intention of pulling it off if he possibly could. It was good to hear Dante scream, Dante growl. The blood, unfamiliar but warm, would refresh him. Blows were exchanged, bones were crunched, and the only thing that slowed him down as a kick to the head. Alex staggered back, eager for a minute to heal and collect himself, and he got it. Dante was having trouble sitting up. Alex literally licked his wounds, trying to get some nutrients from the blood on them, and looked up at the others. They were still standing on the cliff above him, keeping their distance. Would they really let their friend die?
Dante still wasn’t getting up. He eventually stumbled to his feet, crouching to disguise the fact that he couldn’t stand straight up.
It wasn’t because he was weaker than Alex. He was older and stronger. He just wasn’t healing. Small wounds that should have closed by now were open. Alex could smell the blood.
Alex knew – now he had to kill him. Dante wouldn’t live anyway, past this fight. It would just be a longer, more painful death.
Go for it, kid.
He knew Ari was watching but so far his master hadn’t said anything. The tone wasn’t egging him on so much as supporting him. Telling him it was all right.
But Alex didn’t need to be told that. Dante was up again but not fast enough. Alex clocked him and waited for him to fall. The vampire demanded vengeance. The vampire wanted to fight and now it wanted to kill. Not his fangs but his foot came down on Dante’s neck, shattering it. Dante could not scream. He had so little throat left. He had no time to be shocked, no time to be anything as he began nothing. With the spine broken, Alex grabbed the head and pulled it off, raising it high against the bright moon where it lingered for the few seconds before it turned to dust.
He was not prepared for the rush. He could hear Ari in the link, or the others talking in the background, or Lindsey crying. He could hear only the blood of his enemy pumping through his veins, and it was glorious.
Somewhere in the distance he heard himself talk – to yell at the others and tell Dr. Graham to stay away from him. She was little more than a heartbeat to him and he knew it, even if he couldn’t completely process his need to protect that which was living, or at least that thing which was living. There were other things, out there, that were living, and he wanted to destroy them all.
Lindsey passed out on her couch sometime before dawn, because one moment she was sobbing and it was dark and then the sun was streaming into her living room. The phone was still in her hands, but she hadn’t called the cops. She’d done exactly what the two kidnappers told her – go home and shut up. She didn’t want to argue with them. Now she was just tired and scared and she knew the police couldn’t help her, if there was anything to be helped. She was still trembling as she went in the shower, to wash the dirt off her even if it wasn’t there. Did she remember everything correctly? Had they done something to her? Had it all been a terrible dream?
She was just putting a robe on when the doorbell ring. She had to remind herself it was an ordinary thing, a doorbell, and it was day and maybe she was safe. Armed with her phone, she opened the door. Why she didn’t run or scream when she saw Ari standing there, she didn’t know. Maybe because he was so much his usual self, a harmless-looking old man, albeit in sunglasses and a terrible sun hat. “Can I come in?”
“I don’t know. Can you?”
His feet stood at the threshold. “What? Oh, right. The vampire thing. I can come in on my own.”
“Then why did you ask?”
“Because it’s not polite to go walking into someone else’s home?”
She smiled against her best instincts. “Okay.”
He entered, and Sadie ran into the bedroom, meowing defensively as he went.
“Sleeping. Not very well I imagine, but he is.”
“You made it home – and to my house? They said you were on a plane?”
“Planes land. Getting to your house was actually the most difficult part.” He didn’t take off his sunglasses, but she could see burns on his face. Even without his eyes visible, his face betrayed his affection. “I wanted to see how you were holding up.”
She smiled for him, trying to imagine all of the terror of last night against the image of the very friendly ex standing in front of her. “I ... don’t know. I’m still working it out.”
“What happened to you was because I was away and they counted on Alex’s inherent goodness – something he may not believe in at the moment but I’ve always been sure about. That’s why I wanted him for a son.”
“That’s – that’s why you made him ... what he is.”
“And because he was dying. Lymphoma in the major organs. I didn’t want to lose him and he didn’t want to die before his time.” He didn’t flinch. “The rest was mostly true, you know. I was married. My wife died in childbirth – a very long time ago. Centuries even. So I am a lonely single father wondering if I’m doing the right thing.”
“I didn’t know you were a vampire.”
“And you treated me like anyone else. Which I severely appreciated.” He had such a warm grin. “Sit down.”
“Because I know you wish last night was just a terrible dream,” he said so gently that she had to trust him. It just came naturally to her. “And I can make it so that’s all it was.”
After hypnotizing Lindsey – something was especially easy because Lindsey was so invested in him emotionally she could easily follow the instructions in his voice – he called for the cab and rode back to the apartment in the trunk, then hypnotized the cab driver and gave him an extra tip for his services.
Alex was still passed out in the tub. Aristotle found him deep in the desert, too far and too disoriented to find his own way home and covered in the blood of multiple human hikers and several different local animals. Alex was beyond talking, but he still welcomed the presence of his master, who took him home. Alex said nothing even back in the confines of civilization, just climbed into the tub still clothed and turned on the shower. When Aristotle left to get fresh blood from the fridge, he returned to find Alex asleep with the water still running. Aristotle turned the water off, wiped his son’s hair dry, and let him rest.
Only after returning from his painful trip to Lindsey’s and seeing Alex so peacefully asleep did he realize how tired he was. Aristotle said planes landed, but his wouldn’t – not fast enough for him. Even a vampire couldn’t, presumably, make that kind of leap, and he didn’t want to find out if his assumptions about the frigid air freezing his blood were right. He did hypnotize the captain into dropping fairly low before he took the emergency exit, terrifying the crew. He even bothered with the parachute, and he was in the air for a full five seconds before he realized he had no idea how to use it. Flying was much harder to control at those speeds and he took a pretty hard landing in someone’s garden near the Colorado border. From there it was a long flight, more than he could have done on an ordinary day, but rescuing Alex would never qualify as ordinary no matter how many times he had to do it. Now it was all starting to catch up with him, and no matter how much he consumed, his body was still heavy like he hadn’t slept in weeks. He didn’t want to leave Alex. Maybe that was why he passed out on the bathroom rug.
When he woke, Alex was awake, but not talking. It wasn’t because he couldn’t but because he didn’t want to. He was closed up, hardened to the previous night’s experiences, confused by what he felt inside.
Aristotle kissed him. “C’mon. Out. You’ll get a cold.”
“No I won’t.”
Aristotle smiled; it got him to talk. Alex did obey him, in that he dried himself off and changed his clothes. When a wrist was offered to him, he pulled away. “I can’t.”
“You can’t poison me. Even if you tried. I’m stronger than you.”
Alex wasn’t interested in being reassured, but Aristotle was good at it. Alex eventually accepted his offer and drank his fill from Aristotle’s veins, blood Aristotle was more than happy to give. There was still so much on Alex’s mind and so little of it that he wanted to say. He reclined beside Aristotle on the bed, thinking – more like processing the experiences of last night. The terror of the moment. The glory of the kill. There was some guilt there, but Alex felt, not enough. The vampire loved it too much, even if it meant killing its own kind.
“Do you want me to tell you what you already know?” Aristotle offered. “That you did nothing wrong? That yes, something in the vampire doesn’t hunt just for food, but for glory? That your feeling as though it’s too much evil inside you is a sign of the strength of your mortal side, the part of you that knows right from wrong?” He ran his hands through Alex’s hair. “That I’m proud of you? Because I would have been pretty damn upset if you lost.”
“I didn’t want to kill him.” Alex corrected himself. “At least at first.”
“I know.” And there was nothing he could really say to assure him that it was all right, that these things happened in their fucked up idea of society. But his presence alone could be reassuring; that was how the link worked.
He didn’t get up until the phone rang. He got up and left the room to answer it, even if Alex could hear him. He would have to be paying attention. “Hello?”
“I’m supposed to assign someone else to give you the news,” Marius said. “But I didn’t. Alberto is organizing a Tribunal for his son.”
“He works fast.”
“So do the Enforcers,” Marius said, not proud of it at the moment, just doing his job. “It’s just procedural. There are two witnesses and Dante had a record. That said, try not to grandstand and talk your way out of it.”
“Fine.” He wasn’t happy about it but it wasn’t completely unexpected. “Who’s sitting?”
“Constantine and two of my men. You know the rules.” Constantine was the closest Elder to their location and he had to be impartial; Aristotle couldn’t contact him before the trial. “Don’t go anywhere. They’ll pick you up.”
“Sunday. Good luck,” he added before hanging up.
It was two days away. Not that there was anything they needed to do before the trial. Vampires – ordinary vampires – couldn’t lie to the Enforcers, and Alex hadn’t done anything illegal. Speaking of Alex, the expression on his face when Aristotle returned to the bedroom indicated that he had been listening in. “It’s just procedural.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means at most, you’ll get a year’s probation.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means, don’t screw up unnecessarily in the next year. Maybe.” He nudged him. “Besides, you have a master to get you out of it.”
“Marius said not to grandstand.”
He didn’t scold Alex for listening in on the conversation. “Marius thinks everything I do is grandstanding.”
The trial was outside of Vegas, Constantine’s territory. As to what to expect, when Alex asked, Ari’s reply was, “Not much.” That didn’t do much to ease his fears but there wasn’t a lot to ease his fears, so they focused on packing. They would not be returning to New Mexico. After the trial they would be going home.
The proceedings ended up being postponed for another night while the Enforcers tracked down Dante’s associates, who were caught on a flight to Rome and interviewed upon their arrival.
The trial was held in the basement of a pawn shop Constantine owned, someone’s antique wooden desk serving as the judge’s panel. The Vegas elder sat in the middle, flanked by two Enforcers, and there was one guarding the door. Alex didn’t have a right to lawyer, but they didn’t have a right speak to him without his master present, considering his age and his master’s availability. Alex was ushered into the only chair across from the judges. Constantine was trying to look decidedly serious and neutral, but still came off as less intimidating than the Enforcers.
“Okay, Alexander.” Constantine looked down at his empty book, even if there wasn’t anything in it. “Let’s begin with your first encounter with Dante.” Last names weren’t used because they weren’t relevant, if one even had one.
Alex slowly went through everything from the party to the hikers he killed in his frenzy after killing Dante. They asked only a few follow-up questions to keep him going. They already had the story from multiple perspectives.
“All right.” Constantine squirmed as he said this. “We need your master’s consent to confirm your story.”
“You mean, drinking my blood.”
“Yes.” He looked up at Aristotle, who was standing to the side. “Aristotle?”
“No.” Aristotle straightened up. “I don’t consent.”
“Aristotle, this is standard procedure – “
“And most people don’t know the law as well as I do,” Aristotle said. “You can’t do anything to my fledgling unless I consent, and you can’t compel me to do so. If you try to overrule me, I’ll appeal – and I’ll win.” He was stern, but not harsh. Not to Constantine. Alex sensed things would have been different if he was facing down three Enforcers. “Alex is my responsibility. If you don’t believe his side of the story – which is completely consistent with all witnesses for all three incidents – you can have the story from my blood, and I’ll assume the responsibility and the punishment.” He crossed his arms. “It’s my right.”
Constantine knew he was beaten. He probably knew the law, too, if it was still on the books. Maybe he’d just never seen it invoked at a Tribunal. “Excuse me.” He conferred via notes with the two Enforcers, as they couldn’t possibly whisper at a level where Alex and Ari couldn’t hear them. Constantine swallowed. “Fine. The weight of the existing evidence is enough. This Tribunal rules six months probation and to keep the peace, you must stay over fifty miles away from Rome and/or Alberto. Court dismissed.”
Ari tugged Alex on the shoulder, indicating he should get up and follow him out. Ari looked at the Enforcers. “When you report to Marius, tell him I didn’t grandstand.”
Whatever they felt for themselves, the Enforcers decided not to contradict him.
“Would you really have done it?” Alex waited until they were back in the car to ask. “Given up your blood?”
“Of course. You’re my fledgling. I’m responsible for you. That means I’m answerable for your actions, if they want me to be or I want to be.”
“It might have been okay.”
“Even if they didn’t find out you poisoned Dante,” Ari said openly, because they both knew it, “they have no right to your blood. I kill people over that sort of thing. No one has had your blood and lived.”
“If Elaine wasn’t his master, things would have been different,” Ari replied, without any hesitation. “I think they do it to punish people. Tribunals, I mean. It certainly can feel like punishment.”
Alex squirmed at the memory of Dante draining him. That was what called up the vampire. “I didn’t want to poison him.”
“You wanted him to die. It’s basically the same.”
“Ari, I don’t want to be poisonous.”
Ari turned from the road and looked at him sympathetically. “I know.”
“You were going to teach me.”
“I wasn’t ready,” Ari admitted.
“I am,” Alex insisted. “If Dante could have bitten me and won either two fights in LA that probably would have been the end of it. I wouldn’t have had to kill him. Instead it just made him angrier. I need to be able to interact with my own kind in the ways that really matter. I’m ready to stop killing people.”
“Mortals, apparently not,” Ari said, chuckling. They hadn’t discussed the hikers. Ari didn’t seem to think it was necessary. He frenzied after the fight and did what a hungry, angry vampire did. Luckily it was in a desolate area where coyotes got to bodies before policemen did. “I’ll consider it.”
“You spent all that time with LaCroix teaching yourself to control the link not because you wanted to – because you had to. You put yourself through shit, and it hurt, but you did it. I can do the same. That is, unless you think less of me.”
Ari could only have one possible response to that. “I don’t.”
They sped off, on their way to the home in Tahoe - and their shared destiny.
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