"World Without End, Amen"
copyright © 1999, Dominic A. Wilde, all rights reserved

Disclaimer: This is a work of speculative fiction, and is not intended to infringe on the rights of Anne Rice, Knoph, Random House, or anyone else for that matter. These characters don't belong to me, I just borrow them from time to time. The character of Erik, however, *does* belong to me.

Spoilers: All of the Vampire Chronicles, up to and including TVA.

~Armand~

Perhaps two months had passed since it had ended, and we had all parted company. Such a quiet ending for something that had encompassed so much of our lives. Lestat was recovering. I never really doubted that he would, although he had fooled the others nicely. He still wasn't quite himself, but he was moving about, and trying to talk about the ordeal with David and Louis- trying to make some sense out of it. He needed it to make sense. Needed it more than he had ever needed anything before.

The whispering had begun only moments after Sybelle's song had roused him from his stupor. David had stumbled into the courtyard, no doubt shocked to find the fallen Brat Prince once again amoung the ranks of the undead- no longer a decorative ornament lying on a chapel floor, content to take shelter inside his own confused and dazed mind. There had been so much rejoicing- so many of them thinking that this was finally *it*, the last straw- the one adventure that our brat couldn't possibly recover from.

He was stronger than that. I knew it. They should have known it as well.

As soon as Lestat had set eyes on David, his silence had been broken. He wanted to know what David thought, what he believed. It seemed that as soon as the first hesitant words had been spoken, the power of speach came back to him in record time- and before long, he was coralling every member of the coven that he could catch. And always, the questions were the same.

"Why?" "What did it all mean?"

I wasn't worried for him any longer. David and Louis would see him through.
Gabrielle had stayed for a week, perhaps two, before taking her leave of human civilization once again. As usual, she left silently and without warning- leaving her son dismayed and saddened by her departure. It made me angry sometimes, the causual way with which she abandonded him. And it never ceased to amaze me how suprised he was, when this happened. It was almost as if each time she came back to him, he expected that this would be the time that there would be no need for goodbyes.

Truthfully, I couldn't understand how he could tolerate her company. Mother or not, the woman was impossible to stomach.

And then there were my two new companions.

Little Benjamin, and Sybelle. I should be grateful, I suppose, for the fact that Sybelle's Appasionata had seemingly woken Lestat from his slumber. I should be grateful for the fact that they helped me in my hour of need, asking no questions. I should be ultimately grateful for the fact that they accepted me for who and what I am, something that even I don't understand all that often.

I should be grateful for the fact that my Master, Marius, bestowed upon them the Dark Gift...giving me two companions who would love me for all of eternity.
But I wasn't grateful. Far from it. The truth of the matter was, I could hardly look on either one of them any longer.

Marius had tried to explain, in a halting and hushed voice, that he had given me a great gift. Two children who would be my loving and faithful companions for eternity. I, of course, saw it in an entirely different light.

I did love them once. I did. But not in the way that I loved my wayward fledgling, Daniel- the one being whose absense in that chapel was keenly felt. With Sybelle, I had found some sort of quiet companionship. We could sit together for hours on end, without necessarily having to utter a single word. She didn't try to delve into my past, or demand explanations for words or deeds that were better left alone. She didn't want me to expose all of my deep, dark secrets to her. If we spoke, it was enough to let the conversation drift to such trivial topics as the sound that the rain made against the window, or perhaps how a sunset differed in New York, compared to Paris. And Benjamin- he was a small, boisterous ball of energy- constantly into something or another. He was endlessly fascinating, and so much the little adult- more so in many ways than Sybelle would ever be.

I loved them, yes. But not in the way that mattered most.

I had been struggling for some time with the idea that Daniel didn't *need* me any longer. He was more than self sufficient, and utterly capable of standing on his own two feet. It was a hard adjustment to make, and one that left me feeling without direction. I was afraid that if I held on too tightly, if I kept trying to make my fledgling rely on me the way that he used to, that I would lose him forever. And somehow, as these things always do, it backfired on me. Daniel wandered off on his own, disappearing one night not long after sunset...walking out the door of the villa to *hunt*, and simply not coming back.

In Sybelle and Benjamin, I found two beings who relied on me, who needed me. And for a short time, I allowed myself to forget the fact that I was lost without my fledgling.

The parting with Marius had not gone well. I was still angry with him for what he had done, although I couldn't seem to find the right words to make him understand. He had not only overstepped his bounds by making it his decision to pass on the Dark Gift to Benji and Sybelle- but he had shown me that I had been right all along. I was his biggest mistake, one that he would always regret making. In Benji, he had found the perfect little pupil- one that would thrive under his leadership in ways that I never had. Benji devoured books almost as if they were nourishment, eating up every word that his eager eyes scanned. They would pass many pleasureable hours together, the two of them.

And Sybelle would be perfectly happy in the company of Pandora. They could share their love of music together, and perhaps Pandora could teach Sybelle to come out of herself...to be a part of the world around her.

I was not sad, leaving all of them behind. The bonds that we had forged were broken the moment that Marius took the situation into his own hands.
And so, I had gone the only place that I could think to go: Miami. I wouldn't admit to myself that I harbored some vague, secret notion that I would stumble across Daniel some night down at the docks- or perhaps, one evening- he would simply walk through the doors of the villa again, almost as if no time had passed between us at all.

I didn't want to think of how much it hurt that he hadn't even made one appearance since the entire ordeal had begun. I had caught stray bits and pieces of thoughts from the others, while we were still gathered together under the same roof- in moments of unguarded reverie- as they reflected on how it had come to this, Daniel absent from the equation altogether. I was suprised to see that not many of them found this situation odd at all, believing that I had finally driven him away- as they knew would happen.

But, there was no sign of him. And soon enough, I fell into a pattern again...living, breathing. Such simple little things, but it was not easy. Not when he was all that I could think of. There were so many questions that I wanted answers for....
And one evening, when the pattern seemed to be endless and unchanging, the earth tilted on it's axis.

I hadn't been seeking company, but it had found me none the less. Santino and I were passing the hours at a small outdoor cafe- engrossed in polite and utterly meaningless conversation. We were two strangers, really- nothing more. No one that walked past on the street would have ever guessed that such a volatile history had passed between us. I listened to his stories, and nodded at all the right times, offering the occasional murmur of approval when the moment required it. In truth, I was more fascinated by the lighter that he incesstantly toyed with in his right hand, the speed with which he would open it and close it, and the way that the street lights winked off of the polished metal.

But in the middle of a particularly gruesome story that he was telling me- something that had to do with a teenage hitchhiker named Flora- the older vampire stopped, and grew as still as a statue, tilting his head to the side, listening with concentrated effort. I saw the small smile that twisted at his lips- it was the same smile that I had seen countless times in the past. And as it always had, it made the blood in my veins turn to ice.

"Daniel is looking for you, Armand. Something has happened."

Would I go to him? Was there ever really a question?

Obviously, in Santino's mind at least, there were a few. He leaned across the table, snapping his lighter closed one final time, almost as if for emphasis.

"Do you want to know where he is, Armand?"

It was nearly impossible to keep my calm under such circumstances. Did I want to know? He was doing this on purpose, I realized. Teasing me, holding the information just out of my reach- trying to see how long it would be before I lost any semblence of control. But I was not in the mood to serve as another lonely vampires source of amusement this particular evening. Santino had to know why I had come back here, of all places. The only thing I wanted was to find Daniel. I certainly hadn't come back to Miami for the scenery. The urge to delve into his mind and pluck the information out myself was maddening. I could have done it easily, of course- not even Santino could keep me out of his head if I was determined. But, for some reason, I found it necessary to keep up the pretense of civility for a little while longer.

I smiled back at him, resisting the urge to pull the lighter out of his hands, and throw it into the street.

"If you would be so kind, Santo. Tell me where he is, and I'll be on my way. I'm sure you'll be able to find more pleasent company with which to spend your evening, in no time at all."

All night, he had been eyeing the group of boys and girls that gathered across the street- young gothic lovelies, all of them- and I knew that he was literally squirming in his seat to be near them.

He shrugged, and cast one last appraising glance across the street.

"Los Angeles, somewhere near Hollywood. That's all I could get from him. He seems to be in quite a state, Armand. If you need me to...."

I broke him off abruptley with a wave of my hand, as I stood up and mentally tried to calculate the quickest route back to the island.

"I'm sure I can handle this very nicely on my own, but thank you for your offer."

I wondered fleetingly which one of us left the cafe quicker.

Settled comfortably on the plane, it was easy to forget about all that had happened. It was like slipping back into some well worn and all too familiar groove, going off in search of Daniel. Perhaps his immortal life was to be spent in the same way that his mortal life had been- wandering, refusing to admit that he wanted to come home...he had to know on some level that I would always come after him.

But I wasn't sure if that would be a comforting thought, or not.

Once in Los Angeles, he hadn't been as difficult to find as I had feared he would be. Scanning the minds of mortals, I picked up his whereabouts from the mind of a hotel clerk. I saw him through the young womans eyes, and found myself filled with a strange mixture of amusement and pride when I realized the thoughts that she had been having about him. It was the eyes, of course. No one had ever seen eyes quite *that* color before. And he was so unaware of himself, of the way that others looked at him. It never ceased to make me smile a bit, to myself.

I had been wrong on one count, unfortunately. This was no hotel, not by any stretch of the imagination. It was the type of establishment that was commonly used as a clandestine meeting place for cheating husbands and their secrataries- or perhaps, more accurately, prostitutes and their *Johns*.

Gathering every ounce of my courage, I opened the door and let myself in.
There he sat, my vagabond child, in a rumpled grey t-shirt, and a pair of worn out jeans that looked older than he himself was. He was staring blankly at the television screen, the last traces of blood tears drying on his alabaster cheeks.
There had never been a more beautiful sight in the world.

As soon as the door opened, he looked up- and the moment that his eyes met mine, my heart- the heart that had not stopped hammering since the moment that Santino had passed on his message- suddenly froze in my chest. I had so many things that I wanted to say, questions and recriminations forming so fast on my lips that I could scarcely keep track of them all. It was desperate, this need to know. This need to know what it was that I had done, that had driven him away. In that instant, I knew that I would promise him the world if he would come back with me.

But there was no time to say a single word, so quickly was he on his feet and in my arms, holding me as if I were some fragile thing that would break if he weren't careful. He was the one that spoke first, and it was impossible not to detect the strain in his voice.

"I thought I was going to die when I heard that you were gone. You don't know how much time I spent, thinking that it was my fault- you know, for not being with you. I thought that if I had been there, then maybe I would have been able to stop you from doing it."

There was real emotion in his voice, but it wasn't making sense to me. These words, what did they mean, when he hadn't bothered to come to me once? Not once. And there was something else. Something in his manner that greatly disturbed me. A coldness, almost as if he were holding himself back. It was as if he were greeting an old friend, not a former lover...

"I was afraid that you wouldn't come- and really, I wouldn't have blamed you for not showing up. I mean, you have a new life now..."

I moved out of the circle of his arms, the grip of ice around my heart tightening with every word that he spoke.

"Daniel, how can you honestly say these things? Is it because you think it's what I want to hear? Don't humor me. I believe I've had enough of that, already. You left me before it happened, and you stayed away once you knew that I was alive. To me, that doesn't give the impression that you were affected so greatly by my...experience."

I tried to keep the iciness out of my voice, but I was sure that he heard it none the less. As soon as the words were spoken, he looked as if I had slapped him across the face.

"Dammit, Armand- don't make me out to be the bad guy in all this. I know I left you before. I needed to see if I could do it, survive on my own. And I knew if I told you I was going to go, you'd find a way to stop me. I didn't want to start resenting you- so I just left. Maybe it was wrong, but it was the only thing I could think to do. And then, when I heard that you were alive and at St. Elizabeths, I came as fast I could, hoping that I could explain everything to you..."

Was I hearing this right?

"You were never there, Daniel. Everyone knows that you never bothered to..."

It was all becoming a terrible jumble of words and interuptions.

"Will you wait a minute, Armand? Let me finish. When I came to St. Elizabeth's, you were off somewhere talking to Marius. Gabrielle told me that you had brought along your two new mortals, that you were happy...and I didn't see much point in staying. That hurt, although I guess I deserved it for walking out the way that I did. But I finally decided that as long as you were happy, that was all that mattered."

If I only had Lestat's power to set things ablaze, I have no doubt that Gabrielle would have been nothing but a torch burning in some godforsaken jungle at that particular moment in time.

My power of speach seemed to have deserted me. All I could do for the time being was stare in amazement, and try to put all of the pieces together.

"Daniel, Gabrielle had no right to tell you anything at all...she didn't understand the situation...you were there? I thought that you didn't care, and weren't coming back."

I wasn't sure if the tears that filled my eyes were tears of frustration, or tears of renewed hope- but whatever they were, wherever they were coming from, they felt wonderful.

"I love you. Of course I was there. I might have wanted to do a little exploring on my own, but I never intended to stay away forever."

Actually, the only words that registered in my mind were *I love you*- the three words that I had been waiting to hear, believing that I would never hear them again. That was all the encouragement I needed.

I doubt that Daniel had any idea of what hit him. In the blink of an eye, I had him pinned to the floor- and we were kissing, and laughing, and talking all at once- almost as if we could make up for all of the time that we had lost, if we tried hard enough.

And I, for one, was incredibly determined.

It felt so good to have him in my arms again...

But suddenly, he stopped- the expression on his face turning from utter joy to complete despair in the course of a few seconds.

And only then did I remember that I had come here for a reason. Something had happened. And I still didn't know what it was.

"God, Armand...I really screwed things up this time. I thought that you didn't want me anymore, and he needed me. I did what I thought was right...but now...just promise me that you'll listen, ok?"

As Daniel spoke the last word, almost as if on cue, the door to the room opened and in walked Jessica- arm protectively thrown about the shoulders of a young boy. The child couldn't have been more than 15, with shaggy ink-black hair that fell down over luminous blue eyes.

A striking child. And one that I immediatly recognized as one of us.

"I'm listening, Daniel. You have my *full* attention."

~Daniel~

I had myself convinced that I was ready for this. I really did. After all, I didn't *really* have anything to be afraid of.

Jesse had been the first one that I called after it was done, and the full implications started to hit home. I wanted to call Lestat- after all, he was the one that had the most experience with fledglings. And as an added bonus, he had centuries of dealing with Armand and his temper under his belt. But I couldn't ask him for help- saying that this was a bad time was a serious understatement. So, the only other choice for me was Jesse.

Unfortunately, she had experience with Armands temper as well- but she was usually on the recieving end of it.

All I was looking for was someone who would listen to the story, and not judge me for my actions. Maybe someone who would agree with me, that it had been the only thing to do- even though now, it was starting to look like I was using that as an excuse. In my own head, at least.

Nothing made sense anymore.

But Jesse had been great. She listened to the entire story, even though I was probably rushing through it, and tripping over every other word- waiting until I was finished before she gently brought up the fact that I was going to have to tell Armand eventually. She had taken to Erik right away, and promised to keep an eye on him while I had my little talk with the Boss.

But, I could do this, dammit. I could face him again, even though he had made it abundantly clear in that not so subtle way of his that he was finished with me. I had gotten pretty damn good at begging and groveling through the years, hadn't I? Damn straight I had. No one did it better. Daniel Molloy, Class A Groveller- that was me.

But then, he had to walk through that door and shoot everything down in flames.
It hadn't been over- it had just been some kind of epic misunderstanding. One that, when I thought about it, left me feeling powerfully ashamed of myself. I shouldn't have walked away so easily. No wonder Armand was always wondering if I really loved him. When the chance to prove it finally presented itself, what happens. I walk away without a backwards glance. I couldn't believe that so much time had passed- had been *allowed* to pass, while I sat around feeling miserable.

A mistake. An epic mistake that only a vampire could make. The only thing that I had to be thankful for was the fact that we weren't Lestat and Louis. Otherwise, the misunderstanding could have gone on for the better part of two centuries.
And now, he was here- and instead of being able to move on, and put the past behind us, I had to explain my part in something that was undoubtedly going to change us, forever.

I wished that I could get some clue from his expression, anything at all, just so that I would know how he was feeling- but he was good at keeping the mask up. Eventually, it would slip, just the smallest bit- and only then would I get the chance to see what was *really* going on behind that eternally calm exterior.

I was about to think of how to start, when the door opened. The minute that Armand caught sight of Erik- or maybe it was Jesse that made his eyes narrow the slightest bit- I had to remind myself how to breathe.

I'm not sure that anyone even noticed my momentary gasping for air.

Erik and Armand were both looking each other over, openly sizing each other up. I had tried to prepare Erik. I mean, I knew the kid was going to think that Armand wasn't much older than he was, and that could be one hell of a mistake to make. Good first impressions do not consist of gleefully shouting, *Look! I'm taller than he is, Danny!* I could only hope that Erik took my advice, and stayed quiet until I finished talking. I didn't need anyone else making this any worse than it was going to be.

As soon as Jesse saw me, and the expression on my face, she gave me a not-so-reassuring wink. She had been teasing me mercilessly, reminding me of how Armand had been in the past- out and out destroying any fledglings that dared upsurp his territory.

If I didn't know any better, I would bet my life on the fact that she was enjoying this.

:::You want me to stay for moral support, Danny?:::

Nice thought, but it was time to face the consequences, on my own.

:::No, it's ok, Jess. I can scream really, really loud if I need any help:::

I felt her answering laughter inside my mind, and I couldn't help but smirk. She nodded politely to Armand, and quietly withdrew from the room as quickly as she had entered it. Leaving just the three of us together.

Erik winced suddenly, and I felt the familiar surge of protectiveness start up again. I was going to ask him if he was ok when I suddenly remembered that he was better now, he wasn't in any more pain. It was hard to forget sometimes, that all of that was over.

He picked up on my concern right away, and gave me a radient smile.

"It's ok Danny, just a headrush. I think I still have alot to learn about feeding. I don't want to say anything bad about Jesse, but she wasn't a very good teacher. I think she was nervous. Maybe I asked too many questions."

Armand had disentangled himself from my arms long enough to settle himself in the tacky, overstuffed chair in the corner- where he was free to watch the procedings with a practiced eye. I caught the little twinkle in his eye at the mention of Jesse's name. Erik didn't realize it, but he had just scored a small point in his favor.

My breathing started to come a little easier.

"You two don't mind me. I know you want to talk. And even though it's about me, and I should have some say in this, I'm going to stay out of it."

Very unceremoniously, Erik lay down on the bed, and pulled his jacket over himself- turning his back on both of us. I couldn't blame the kid for being tired. It had been one hell of a long night.

Armand shifted in his chair, until he was sitting crosslegged- obviously trying to get comfortable before the *long talk* began. He nodded once towards Erik, the slight sparkle in his eyes still evident.

"Smart boy."

A muffled voice from the bed replied, "Thanks. I was at the top of my class once, I think."

I sat down on the bed, and gave the boy a slight nudge.

 "You, hush."

A quiet sucession of muted giggles was the only response.

We both knew that the stalling had gone on long enough, and Armand was the first to break silence- looking at me with his big brown eyes, eyes that sometimes gave the impression of holding all the sorrow in the world just behind the surface.

"Do you love him?"

"Yes. No. Not in the way that you think. Look, Boss- let me tell this my way, alright?"

And he did.

I started at the beginning, or as close to it as I could remember. Telling him how I had decided to come to Los Angeles for a little while- for no real reason other than the fact that I had gotten a little homesick for California.

It hadn't been a particularly memorable trip. Just the usual- trying to deal with the death of my lover, and then finding out that he was really alive, and in the company of two new mortal *pets*. It was hard not to be sarcastic as hell when I talked about those two, and how I felt when I saw them both for the first time. I'm afraid that when I mentioned how the mindless droning of Sybelle at that piano almost drove away the last of my sanity was enough to let Armand know that I didn't hold her in very high regard.

It happened when I came back to Los Angeles for the second time.
 
I enjoyed stalking the bars, and the seedier parts of the city. I was used to the standard attempted mugging. Those were the most fun, I think- being able to suddenly turn the tables on your attacker. But one night, someone definately turned the tables on *me*.

My wallet (which was filled with the discarded credit cards of previous victims- something that I declined to mention to Armand. He hated that. And I wasn't in the mood to be given a lecture about how I didn't *need* them. Maybe I didn't. But I thought of them as little trophies.) had been quietly and efficiently lifted by a little street urchin.

It had happened so quickly and easily that it took me a few minutes to notice. It wasn't until he turned around and smiled at me, that I started to realize what he did.

I caught him, of course. And I got it back. But the damage had already been done.
He was just a waif of a kid- originally, I had judged him to be much younger than 15, because he was small for his age. Nothing but a little hustler, with huge, expressive blue eyes that looked too large for his face. Painfully thin. The streets were crowded with these kids- they were everywhere that you looked. And most of them would kill for a hot meal, or a place to sleep. The streets had taken their tole on all of them.

But not Erik. That was the first thing that I noticed, I think, after the eyes. His optimisim, and easy smile. This wasn't a sad circumstance, this was some sort of big adventure. He wasn't jaded and cynical, at all- although, after casually slipping into his mind- he had every reason to be.

He reminded me of a ray of sunlight that someone had tried to harness.
I started to seek him out unconciously when I would be out hunting. I would buy him dinner, and we would talk. Every night, he would tell me a little more about himself, without even realizing it. He didn't seem comfortable talking about himself, or how he had gotten where he was- he was more interested in hearing stories about Miami, or Rome. But his gestures and facial expressions gave away more than he could have ever guessed.

But always, I had the impression that there was something else. Some enormous dark cloud that was threatening to swallow him whole.
It would have ended right there. It probably *should* have ended right there. I loved the kid, but I loved him the way that you would a little brother.

Or, a son.

I was ready to take my turn playing the silent benefactor. I had already set up a trust fund for the kid, and I was trying to think of how to go about getting him away from the uncle that he lived with. His parents had both died when he was an infant, and he had been raised by his fathers brother. He had no other living relatives. I didn't want to set them both up in a nice place, because it would have defeated the purpose. The guy was the root of the entire problem. He had seen a gold mine when he looked at the kid- a way to make some easy money, and feed his growing drug habit.

He had put the kid on the street when he was 11.

I was toying with the idea of a private boarding school- anything to get him out of there, just long enough to pay the guy a little midnight visit of my own. It seemed perfect.

But when I had gone to find Erik, to tell him about my idea- it was almost as if he had fallen off the face of the earth.

He was nowhere.

I tracked down a group of kids that he sometimes spent his time with. Not really friends, exactly- but there were a few that looked out for him. And even then, it seemed like I was just going to hit one dead end after another. Until finally, one of the older boys cornered me.

No-one really knew the details, but Erik was sick. He was in the hospital, and no one had seen him around in a few days.

I thought I was prepared to deal with anything.

But even I couldn't kid myself on this one.

He was dying, there was no doubt about that. And the dark cloud that I had always suspected, it was very real. AIDS.

I didn't know what to do. I stayed with him at the hospital when I could, convincing the doctors and nurses that I was his father. But it was hard, sitting back and watching, feeling so damn helpless.

He had accepted that he was going to die, and he tried to convince me that it didn't bother him much. But he was lying to himself. I could see it in his eyes, and the way that they had changed. The smile wasn't quite so quick to show itself. And seeing him in pain every night, knowing that there was nothing that I could do about it- it was killing me, just as surely as the disease was killing him.

But there *was* something that I could do, wasn't there? It started off as a tiny little flicker, before it grew into a full blown flame. Not to mention obsession. I could make him one of us. I could give him his childhood back, along with everything else that had ever been taken away from him.

And at first, it felt so damn right, cheating death. There was no denying that.
He didn't even question it. He fixed those blue eyes on me, and told me that he had known I was different, from the beginning.
 
It didn't phase him, or scare him. And it didn't particularly impress him, either. He just accepted it, like he had accepted everything else that had ever been done to him.

That had only been a few hours ago. And when it was finished, and I had a chance to think about what I had done- I panicked. I didn't know if it was right or wrong anymore.

And I was worried about Erik. I had no way of knowing how he was going to react to this, once the novelty wore off. I had been trying to give him back his childhood, and what I had actually done was take away what innocence that he had left. Even I had had my qualms about suddenly being turned into a nightly killer- and I had begged for it for the better part of a decade.

Armand listened to the entire story, thankfully not interupting once. But he looked so damn sad, and I knew that what I had done was part of the reason why. I never intended it to be like this.

He exhaled slowly, and stole another glance at the bed. Erik seemed to have fallen asleep somewhere in the middle of my story- and truthfully, I was glad. This had to feel like an episode of the Twilight Zone to him.

"I understand why you did it, beloved. But I believe it's time for Erik and I to have a talk of our own."

~Armand~

Sometimes I wondered if Daniel was capable of the occasional rational thought. There was no doubt that I loved him with the entirity of my being, but at times, I felt myself on the verge of killing him.

This was one of those times.

I wasn't lying when I said that I understood his actions. But the world is filled with mortals who are going to be touched by death and tragedy. We couldn't fall into the cycle of trying to save each one that crossed our paths.

Of course, I couldn't possibly use this as an argument...hadn't I used much the same reasoning, when I finally gave in, and made Daniel one of us?

There was a nagging voice somewhere in the recesses of my mind that refused to be silent. You did it because you loved him- because you were in love with him. And no matter what excuse that Daniel wants to give, he did it for the same reason. Don't delude yourself.

Perhaps that was what bothered me most about the situation. Either he didn't see it, or he refused to. I was sure that he wasn't lying to me intentionally- on the few occasions that he had tried, he was terribly easy to see through. There were always the outward signs, just little things- but unfailingly easy to pick up. The way that he drummed his fingers nervously and incesstantly on his thigh, the way that he had of looking around the room, letting his eyes rest on every imaginable surface- anywhere, as long as he wouldn't have to meet *my* eyes.

He had done both this evening, as he told me the story of Erik's creation. At one point in particular. When I had asked him if he loved the boy.

He was simply nervous, I tried to tell myself. That was evident from the way that he continually cleared his throat, and kept reaching up to brush the hair out of his eyes, even though the need wasn't truly there.

Yes, that had to be it. This was a new experience for Daniel, and one that had to be very unsettling. The weight of a decision such as this one was enormous, and he was simply feeling the aftershocks.

I could convince myself of anything, if I tried hard enough.

I knew what I wanted, and it was to speak with the boy alone. Daniel was immediatly unsure, the excuses of why such a thing shouldn't be permitted doing nothing but fueling my anger...and my suspicion.

"What do you think, beloved? That you're going to step out of this room, and I'm going to destroy your fledgling out of sheer spite? I let you have your say, now it's time for you to allow me mine. I want to talk to him. And I want to talk to you. But not here, and not now."

If he thought this was over between the two of us, he was sadly mistaken. But there was a time and a place for everything- and a cockroach infested motel was simply *not* the place that I wanted to continue this discussion with my child.
His eyes wandered one last time over to where Erik lay, supposedly asleep. When he looked back at me, violet fire danced in those eyes.

"Yeah, alright, fine. You go right ahead and talk to him. But dammit, don't blame him for my actions. If you want to take it out on someone, then take it out on me- because I'm the one that deserves it."

How noble, Daniel.

I didn't know where he would go, or where he would wait- at this point in time, it didn't matter. I had too much on my mind, and I wasn't particularly fond of the directions that my thoughts were taking.

Watching him leave, I was struck again by how much all of this had taken it's toll on him. No matter how angry or hurt that I was, I didn't enjoy seeing him in this much anguish. And I was only making it worse. If anyone else had been with us- if Jesse had stayed, and thank the gods that she had *not*- and had dared to rebuke Daniel for his actions, undoubtedly, I would have been the first to viciously defend him.

And yet in private, I was all too eager to hurt- not just with words, but with looks and gestures. It was infuriating sometimes, and it was nothing that I could ever hope to control.

A voice from the bed suddenly broke through my thoughts. The voice was soft and seductive- the voice of one that knew well the effects that different timbres and speech patterns could have on the senses.
 
In short, it was the voice of a practiced artist. And with the un-natural resonance that clung to every sllyable, I could feel one delicate shiver run down my spine.
"So, you understand why he did it. But is that enough? Are you going to let the decision stand- or should I consider Daniel's gift temporary?"

He sat up and stretched- a slow, catlike gesture, swinging his legs over the edge of the bed. He was watching me with an intensity that I wasn't sure that I liked...and for one instant, I had the impression that this boy...this *child*, who had only been one of us for nothing more than a few short hours, could see past all of my masks.

It was as though he could see through every artful facade that I chose to present. Perhaps because he had experience with such things, himself.

But, of course, that was impossible. He was just a boy- and one that seemed to be taking pleasure in being impudent.

He obviously didn't realize who he was dealing with.

"Are you begging for your life, cher?"

I had hoped that the tone of my voice conveyed the fact that I was not in the mood to be trifled with. I had no real intention of destroying the child, but he had to know that it was in my power to do such a thing...if I wished it.

But my veiled threat had been misinterpreted entirely. Intentionally.

I was graced with a smile that was thoroughly un-nerving. It was not the smile that Daniel had recieved earlier- one filled with adoration and wonder. No, this was nothing short of predatory....sending another delicious shiver down my spine, raising the hairs on the back of my neck.

As he crossed the room to where I sat, sliding nonchalantly onto the arm of the chair- I realized something.

I was being seduced by a baby.

I was being seduced. If I hadn't been so taken with the moment, I would have found myself tempted to fall into one of Lestat's patented laughing fits.

Very casually, he slipped an arm around my neck- obviously testing his new boundries. Waiting to see how far he could go before he was pushed away. And when I made no move to stop him, he brought his other hand up to my face, tracing my jawline with one tentative finger.

I wasn't enjoying this, of course. I was simply in shock, that this child could be so brazen.

As I said earlier, I could convince myself of almost anything...

The same husky voice, only this time- nothing more than a whisper. As soft and as sweet as a kiss.

"Was that a threat, or a come-on?"

I was beginning to understand Daniel's attraction to this boy. And as I did, I was more convinced than ever, that his feelings were far from paternal.

Finally, I reached up and snatched his hand away- deciding that it would be a much better course of action if I kept hold of it.

Much better, indeed. For myself, if no one else.

He pulled his hand away from mine long enough to push the hair back from his eyes- a very mortal gesture, but one done with exceeding grace, and a lingering undercurrant of calculation. He was aware, this boy. He was very aware of his appearance, and the effect that it could have on people.

Vampire or no, he exuded a power...and more importantly, he knew how to use it. I was starting to wonder what it would be like, to teach this boy. What it would feel like to hunt with him, and teach him the lost art of seducing one's prey. So few of us took the time anymore, to savor such a thing...

"A threat or a come-on? Honestly, I have *so* much trouble telling the difference between those two things sometimes...Erik, let me ask you a question- and answer honestly. Are you as innocent as Daniel would like to believe, cher?"

As suddenly as it had begun, his gentle explorations stopped- and he grew pensive, serious. He chewed his bottom lip for a moment- for the first time, looking like the child that he should have been. Like the child that Daniel had convinced himself that he was.

"Danny only sees what he wants to believe. He wants me to be innocent, so I am. He's been good to me- maybe I haven't known him very long, but he's treated me better than anyone else ever has. He gives without taking. And I wouldn't want to hurt him. Ever."

Said with such finality and conviction that I had no choice but to respect the honesty behind it.

Following close behind, almost as an afterthought, "He loves you, you know."

The seduction had been abandoned, perhaps- but the look behind his eyes still un-nerved me. And again, that feeling of being *read*, of being understood...even when I didn't want to be, suddenly resurfaced.

I was no mystery to this child. And just as with everything else, he was perfectly aware of it. Quietly aware.

I cleared my throat, wishing for some sort of distraction.

"And what would you know about Daniel and I?"

I felt some of the earlier anger coming back, in a warm wave. I didn't want to talk about this, not right now.

He seemed nonplussed by the tone of my voice, still watching me with that unwavering gaze.

"Anybody with a pair of eyes can see that he loves you. Does it scare you? Because I can be that way sometimes. It's scary when someone loves you, and you don't think you deserve it. It makes you want to shock them sometimes, so they'll stop."

It had almost happened. I had momentarily forgotten about my reluctance to talk about my relationship with Daniel- and it had seemed such a natural thing to do, such an *easy* thing....I was on the verge of carefully responding to Erik's well meaning and insightful comment, when the door opened again....thankfully putting a stop to my foolishness.

Daniel hadn't been able to stay away. And from the look on his face, he was rather suprised to see Erik and I sitting in such close proximity to one another.
This was definately a night for suprises.

Before the door was even closed, Erik was up off of the arm of the chair and in Daniel's arms- talking so quickly and excitedly that it truly took a vamires enhanced sense of hearing to make sense of the jumble of words.

"I missed you, Danny. Where did you go? Did you hunt? Is anyone going to show *me* how to hunt? And what happens next? Where do we go from here?"
Seeing the way that Daniel looked at the boy, the way that he carefully smoothed his hair, the gentleness with which he looked into his eyes...it made me hope that Erik had meant what he said earlier. I couldn't help but feel that this situation was dangerous.

Finally, Daniel's eyes met mine- looking to see if this was to be accepted. He needed my approval.

For the first time since learning of Erik's exsistence, I smiled- and the smile was genuine.

"You do have quite a bit to learn. I suppose we can get started here...that way you can say any last goodbyes, if that's what you wish to do. But I think we should go back to Miami before sunrise. I want to go home."

We would take the boy out, and see how he reacted to the kill. But I didn't wish to stay in this city any longer than I had to. And I believe that Daniel had begun to mirror my sentiments.

As we left the motel behind, I couldn't help but overhear Daniel's confidential whisper, meant for Erik's ears only.

"So, how did it go? Everything ok?"

I pretended not to notice.

I wondered if Daniel noticed the way that Erik's eyes darkened, just the slightest bit, before he answered. I wondered if Daniel was aware of his chameleon-like qualities, at all. Or, the tone of his voice...as if he knew and understood perfectly that his place in our lives had been cemented, permanently.

It was that impudence, again.

"It went ok. Armand and I understand each other, I think."

In more ways than he could ever fathom.

~Erik~

Armand was everything that Daniel told me he would be. Intimidating, beautiful, deadly. But casual descriptions didn't do him justice. It was the eyes that drew me in and held me prisoner. He could have been any other beautiful kid, if it hadn't been for the eyes. It had been hard to grasp, before I had seen him in person...someone that had lived for centuries, the way that he had. Daniel explained what they were- what I had become- but it still seemed like some sort of fuzzy dream.

I started to think it was some kind of fantasy, brought on by all of the drugs that the doctors and nurses pumped into my system. A morphia dream of sorts.
But when Armand joined us, there was no way to dispute it any more.
In his eyes, you could still make out the shadows of the centuries- ghosts of memories that lingered there like old friends. Age and wisdom. Not to mention jealousy, possessiveness, and more than your usual hint of malice.

For all of his power and self assurance, he was afraid of me. Not that I could have hurt him physically. But there were other, less obvious ways to hurt someone. And sometimes, that could be much, much worse.

He was stubborn, too.

He was angry, because he thought that Daniel wasn't being honest with himself about how he felt about me. I wondered if he was blind, or if he did it on purpose, to torture himself. I mean, it was so obvious that there was no way that it could have been any clearer.

Daniel had been lonely. And when he found me, there was obviously something about me, that reminded him of Armand. End of story. Well, that and maybe Daniel felt a little sorry for me. Alot of people did- he wasn't the first, and I doubted that he would be the last.

Daniel struck me as the kind of person that let things affect him, deeply. And I wondered if it was really me that he thought he was saving. Sure, he had himself convinced that I deserved *better* than what I had been dealt...and maybe I did. I didn't know the answer to that one, and really didn't care to find out. But one look at Armand, and I knew that I was looking into a mirror. There were some things that you couldn't hide, no matter how much you wanted to...and definately not from a person that shared some of the same experiences. It marks you, in ways that you yourself can't see. I had a funny feeling that Daniel let the lines get blurred, and when he gave me the Gift- it was really Armand that he was saving.
Not that he didn't love me, because I knew that he did. Just like I loved him. For being *good*, and fair, and angry, where other people just didn't care. And if he wanted me to be the little boy lost for the rest of my life, then that was a role that I would play willingly.

He was the innocent one. Not me. Real innocence had died a very long time ago...
Armand knew. He understood. And maybe that would be enough for now. If I could let it be enough. I didn't want to hurt Daniel- if he had asked me to die for him, I would have done it without asking any questions. But I couldn't deny the fact that I wanted something- something that wasn't mine to have- and Armand was part of it.

It was time to push everything to the back of my mind for the time being, because they were taking me to hunt. To see how the kid handled death, no doubt. But they shouldn't have worried- because any hangups that I might have had about life and death died with my body.

Daniel seperated from us early on- there was something that he wanted to do on his own. I knew what it was. Something that I should be doing myself- something that I *wanted* to do myself...but he had no way of knowing that. Another reason to be indebted to him, for the rest of my life. And another reason to feel silently guilty for the fact that he was leaving me alone with Armand, and that was what I had wanted him to do all along...

The night was beautiful, and I did my best to keep up with Armand as he eased through the crowds of people. I wished that he would have gone slower...didn't he see how beautiful that the stars were? I wanted to stop right in the middle of the street, and just look up at the sky forever. But every time that I would try to stand still, he would laugh softly, and grab my hand. We'll have plenty of time to look at the stars later, he would say. Was he saying that out loud? Funny, his lips didn't seem to be moving.

Even better than the stars though, were the looks of admiration that people were giving us. It seemed that everyone we brushed past had to turn around for a better look. And they all looked so...I wasn't sure what the word was that I was looking for. Inviting? I wanted to touch them all, and hear the sounds of their voices. I wanted every pair of arms that I saw. And I didn't understand why Armand didn't want the same thing. They were here, all around us- why didn't he just choose one? Any of them would have been willing, you could see it in the expressions on their faces when they looked at him. But he kept up his relentless pace, almost as if we were the only things that were real, and they were the illusions.

We had drifted away from civilization finally, it seemed- I wasn't sure how far we had gone, or how much time had passed. Surrounded by nothing but trees, and darkness, and silence. And the pull inside of my veins was so sharp that it almost bordered on pain. I was used to being hungry, but it had never felt so good before....

I felt it before I heard it. A low, rhythmic thumping that made my own heartbeat step up it's pace. And it felt like as soon as the sound reached my ears, every vein in my body constricted violently. Where was it coming from?
I looked over at Armand to see if he heard it, too...his eyes were closed, and there was the most serene expression on his face. I had no doubt that he heard it, but what did it mean?

:::You're not listening the way that you should be. You only hear the heartbeat itself. Listen more closely for what lies hidden inside it. I want to see if you can.:::

This time I was sure that his lips didn't move, but what did that matter. The only thing that exsisted was that sound, the throbbing that seemed to encompass the whole of the universe. I wanted to do what he had asked me to do- I wanted to make him happy, because this was some kind of a test...not to mention that I was interested to see if I could do it.

It was frustrating, because I didn't know what I was supposed to hear. But just as I was about to give it up as a lost cause, there it was. Nothing that I could put into words, just a feeling. Pain and disappointment. I wasn't sure what it meant, but from the slight nod that I recieved from Armand, I was on the right track.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
~Armand~

He was an eager student, and one that showed as much potential as I had been hoping to find.

We had ventured away from the brightly lit streets, and suddenly, the only light came from the moon itself, lightly dappled by the trees that surrounded us. We stood in the presence of a small dwelling- nothing extraordinary, but from inside came the most beautiful sound. Surely, Erik only heard the faint music of a lone human heart...but to my ears.....

It is completly indescribable, that sound....there is no way that any of the others could know what I hear when that special heartbeat reaches my ears. I myself am not even sure anymore...it is more of a feeling than a sound, the sweet tugging at my veins, the pull of a perfect, wounded soul against my own.

I wanted him to hear it. Wanted to know if he could.

I could feel my pulse quicken as I listened to the beautifully human sound of that heart, pounding out it's merciless rhythm into the night. Suddenly, the night was unbelievably hot- the air seemed to grow closer until it was a tangible thing, pressing in on me. And across the courtyard, I caught the scent like a whisper on the breeze.

Life.

It was like a drug, knowing that she was so close, the mortal behind those four walls. And she would be ours. I closed my eyes and inhaled deeply, feeling the tension that I had been holding inside begin to drain away instantly.

"She calls to us- she asks for an end to her suffering. That is what I wanted you to listen for. In time, it will get easier to recognize."

He was eager to please, but the hunger was clouding his judgement. I wanted this to be a memorable lesson, and not just a means to an end. I took his hand, and lead him closer to the house.

And inside, our prize slept- unaware of the intrusion. She lingered in her dreams, longing for them to be a reality....hesitant to give them up to the waking world. And she was beautiful, as I knew that she would be.....with skin the color of warm caramel, and hair of the deepest ebony. The room was warm- too warm, a fan in the nearby window turning restlessly. It had an earthy scent- dust, cinnamon, and human perspiration. Not unpleasent at all. I sat down beside her, and stroked her cheek- feeling her warm and fragrant skin beneath my fingertips.

I murmured to myself, unsure if Erik was listening to me...unsure if I wanted him to hear my thoughts- but unable to keep them to myself, none the less. "There is no such thing as an unattractive mortal. They are all beauty beyond words, each simple gesture serving to endear them further to this monsterous heart. And we must love them, these tender creatures- for if we don't, then their deaths will have been for nothing."

The mortal stirred in my arms, slowly struggling to the surface of her dreams- eyelids fluttering open to gaze fully upon her demon lover. Recognition of what I was registered in those jade green eyes.....and perhaps, something more. Relief. Happiness, that her dreams had been answered. I traced the contour of her full lips, urging her to be silent. The night was young, there would be time for talking later. I watched as her eyes took in Erik, as well...but still, I could sense that she felt no fear. Her heart was beating faster, in anticipation perhaps. I kissed those full lips, savoring her taste, before turning back to Erik.

"Our hostess wishes to greet us properly. Join us?"
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
~Erik~

I had hunted with Jesse, but it was nothing compared to this.

I was afraid to move from my spot at the foot of the bed, because if I made a sound- the dream might disappear. It was as if she had known him all her life...or at least had been waiting for him that long, the way that her hands moved up to explore his face. As if she was reminding herself of the contours- something that she had committed to memory. And the way that he lay back in her arms, giving himself to her. He was enjoying the touching, and the womans fearlesness.
And then, the invitation to join...

I slid onto the bed beside the woman, still looking to Armand for some kind of guidance. I wanted...I wanted...what I had wanted earlier, the blood...but I wasn't sure to go about taking it. This wasn't the rush that it had been earlier, speed didn't seem to be encouraged. And I was trying to learn...

I could hear his whisper perfectly in the stillness of the room, and at first I didn't realize who it was that he was asking. Whispered against her throat, but eyes locked on mine.

"Do you love me?"

I wasn't sure who the answering moan belonged to, because I was as lost as she was.

Surrender wasn't an option. It was being commanded.
 
One last look to me before he gently popped the skin of her throat with his teeth, and as the woman moaned again- louder this time, arching further into his arms- I found myself angry at the way that my first kill had been made. Sloppy, unforgiveably sloppy. This felt almost spiritual, in some undeniable way. I wanted every time to be like this....

But it wasn't finished. With a groan of his own, he pulled himself away from her, one small rivlut of blood spilling down his chin.

She was still alive- I could see the slight rise and fall of her chest.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
~Armand~

The evening had taken on a surreal, dreamlike quality- the edges of my vision clouded by this angel, this sleeping beauty in a fairy tale of our own making. I wondered if our beloved found it as magical as I did, this soft press of warm flesh against the cool marble of my own. The slender fingers that explored my flesh fearlessly, almost reverently...as if she thought that we had to be a part of the dream, for no two creatures as beautiful as ourselves could possibly be real.
But on a deeper level, she knew. She believed. She had been waiting. I could see her internal struggle- as conscious awareness fought with impossible fantasies. The need to believe, to be loved.

And I loved her. Completely.

The innocence mingled with carnal desire in those fathomless green eyes. And what did she see, mirrored in my own eyes? Could she possibly understand the tenderness that I felt for her? The adoration? My own burning desire to be joined with her, to take her in the only way that the vampire is able?

As I eased her out of the cheap cotton shift that she wore, I believe that she did.
That was the beginning of her total surrender, her mind deciding once and for all that it didn't matter if this was dream or reality. If it was a dream, it was the most realistic one that she had ever experienced. And it was far, far better than the drab reality of her everyday life.....where she was unknown, unappreciated. Unloved, even though she knew that she deserved much better.

I listened to her heartbeat grow impossibly fast, drumming out it's tireless mantra as Erik joined us- the boy that had been so sure of himself earlier, now suddenly realizing that this was only the beginning of what he had to learn.

With each beat of her heart, I could hear the blood as it rushed through her veins- could smell the living perfume that made up the burning elixer. I knew that it would be impossible to resist such temptation for much longer.....my body didn't need the blood, but my soul craved it. Just a taste of this creature.....that was all I would allow myself. Those slender fingers tangled in my hair, drawing me closer to the delicate skin of her throat.....it was all the encouragement that I needed.

Cool lips brushing molten fire. My whispered plea was not met with an audible response. Her lips tried to form the words, I could see them struggling against the tides of passion that raged through her- but the tremors of excitement that rippled throughout her body silenced them. Instead, as my lips once again rested against that hot, delicious flesh- my mind was filled with a casscade of devotions, every emotion that our beloved could not give voice to.

I gently sucked at the skin of her throat, drawing the blood to the surface. This would make the experience more pleasureable for her, eliminating that one moment of white hot pain as my teeth entered her. Her breath came in ragged gasps, as did my own- and we were caught in a momentary frenzy of pushing and pulling, bodies straining against one another.

Her skin gave no resistence as my teeth found their mark, breaking smoothly and easily under the firm pressure. Her hand grasped convulsively at my shirt, and as the sweet font of secrets poured into my mouth, I felt her push forward with her hips, melting into my embrace with a guttural groan.

Instantly, the triphammer that was her heart locked with my own- pulling me along with her into a vortex of sublime pleasure, and secrets shared. But she was too eager, my tender fairytale princess. She was willing to give herself to me, believing the dance to be over, so soon after it had begun. With a low moan of my own, I pushed myself away from her, withdrawing completely from that small, soft throat. Carefully, I caught the few remaining droplets of crimson with my tongue. As I withdrew, my eyes caught those of my eager student, and locked.
I loved seeing him unsure, desperately looking for some sort of stable footing to cling to.

Slowly, my breathing returned to normal- the silence of the room prevading every fiber of my being. Our beloved lay beside me, nestled in the crook of my arm- dozing as lightly as when we had first found her. It gave me the chance to admire the slight blush that ran across her thighs, her breasts, her taught little belly- the last outward sign of her spent mortal passion.

I let her slumber, regaining her strength. Erik lay motionless beside our beloved, langorously stroking her hair. I could see the way that his eyes sparkled, reflecting the moonlight that streamed through the open window. He was curious, anticipating what would come next. And for the first time, I realized that I had found another that savored the seduction as much as I myself did.

The time for rest had ended.

I leaned over, running my tongue lightly across my fangs, drawing a small amount of blood. Just enough to awaken our beloved, so that the dance could continue. I favored those perfect rosebud lips with another kiss, letting the blood drip into her open mouth. I could feel her begin to awaken, gaining strength slowly at first- the kiss growing more desperate as she struggled back into her living fantasy.
"Wake up, my beauty. This must be done properly. You have given me everything that I could have asked for. And now, it is time for me to do something for you."
I helped her step from the damp tangle of sheets, the cotton shift falling from her body entirely. She made no move to cover herself, or hide her nakedness with any gesture of false modesty. She loved us. She trusted us implicitly. I took her hand, and smiled my approval. I glanced back at Erik with another smile. "The time is coming for me to see if you've learned this lesson. I don't want to be disappointed."

Our beloved allowed me to lead her to the bathroom, where I searched through the cabinets until I found a small bottle of rose scented bath oil.

She was meek, compliant with all of my wishes- stepping into the tub, allowing me to wash her like a child, little tremors running through her body each time my hands brushed a sensitive spot. She was so eager to please, to give me what she thought that I wanted, that I rewarded her with kisses. The heat of the water, on top of the already uncomfortable heat of the small house was causing my shirt to cling stubbornly to my chest, the material going limp in the humidity. But I savored the heat, the closeness of the small room. It was all very pleasent, indeed.

I washed her hair for her, helping her out of the tub when I had finished. She sat patiently as I brushed her damp hair- the warm air drying it quickly so that it hung around her shoulders and down her back like a shining curtain, ebony to rival the night sky.

She looked at me questioningly as I reached for another vial of sweet scented oil. But she relaxed easily under my touch quickly enough as I continued the ritual, my fingers massaging the oil into every inch of her skin, until it virtually gleamed.
The annointing of the chosen.

As I lead her back into the bedchamber, her arms found their way around me, impatient for another kiss, another taste. Not that I wasn't tempted. But there was more, so much more. "Patience, my beauty. You will have everthing that you desire."

Almost as if in a dream, she wandered back over to the bed and sat down, her hair falling around her like a halo, green eyes locked on mine. I called Erik over to me.
 
It was time for the next step.

He was trembling as I came up behind him- whether it was from hunger or from anticipation, I couldn't be sure. I wrapped my arms around his slender waist, brushing the back of his neck with my lips. Not cold, not even close to it...and every bit as desirable as our beloved.

"Show me what you've learned."
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
~Erik~

If this is what it meant to die- if it could always be like this...then I was ready to die every night, for the rest of my life.

I knew that he wanted me to be the one that ended it- and I wanted to, so badly that I could hardly think any more. But more than that, I wanted to make him proud of me. If I could do that, then I knew I would have accomplished something worthwhile.

But how could he be so damn restrained? He made it look so easy...like it had been second nature for him, and something that he had never really had to learn, himself.

I thought I had known what I was doing earlier. But I began to get the idea that he had been playing with me...more than I had been playing with him.

He made me dizzy.

Or was it the scent of the blood?

The woman had settled back on the bed, waiting. And I knew that it was time to finish it, even though I knew that if I moved, Armands arms wouldn't be around me any more.

He stepped back as he watched me lie down beside her, and for the first time I really let myself admire her...the color and texture of her skin, which I sampled with delicate kisses, and light strokes. The way that she responded to every touch. And she really wasn't afraid, not one bit- I knew that when she reached for me, pulling me closer...the way that her head dropped back, and she offered her throat.

When I took her, I thought I was the one that was dying. Nothing real could feel like this, not even death...

His hands on my shoulders, pushing me back and away from her.

"I know that it's hard, but you have to know when to stop."

Little demon with the face and voice of an angel. I wondered what it would be like, to take him the way that we had taken her.

"I want you." No reason to hide it, was there? He knew it as well as I did. And at the moment, I wasn't afraid of the consequences.

"I know." He seemed pleased by the fact that I had admitted it. But he didn't let it go any further. Maybe that was all he wanted, just for me to drop the act and say it out loud.

There was no more talk about it. He showed me how to dispose of the body, and made sure that I knew that one was never to be left where it could be found. We had to get back to Daniel.

Daniel. I wondered if I was going to be able to do it. Look him in the eye, that was. He wanted to be my savior, and all I wanted was everything that mattered to him.

~Daniel~

I had thought about how it would feel to go home again, constantly. To be with Armand again. I had taken so much of it for granted, always believing that he would be there for me whenever I returned from my travels. Like he had always been there for me in the past. Not pleased that I had wandered off, but secure enough in his knowledge of the hold that he possessed over me to realize that I would come home again.

But none of my judgements had hit the mark this time. He wasn't supposed to think that I was never coming back. And he certainly wasn't supposed to try and destroy himself.

It was still something that we hadn't fully discussed. As a matter of fact, since returning to Miami, we really hadn't done much discussing of anything. He was glad to have me back, I could tell- but a sort of rigid silence seemed to have come down between us. In some ways, this silence was worse than the boundry that seperated Maker from Fledgling...I had long ago accepted the fact that I could no longer share his thoughts or visions. But together, we had begun to move past that. It had taken an amazing amount of time, of course...everything took an amazing amount of time where Armand was concerned. When the little revelations had begun, and he saw for himself that nothing he could say or do would be enough to drive me away- it was almost as if centuries of pain and mistrust had been wiped away, and he slowly began to grow into a new person.

Not that I wanted or expected him to change. I had fallen in love with all of him- the cruel and calculating side every bit as much as the vulnerable, childlike side. The two halfs together was what made him unique, and mine.

But that had fallen apart on the night that I chose to walk out. Trust had crumbled to dust. And it was going to take time to be rebuilt. He wouldn't be satisfied with words of devotion...he never was. In the end, it would be my actions, and my actions alone, that convinced him he wasn't going to be left alone again.

I had known from the beginning that I had wanted to be one of them. Hearing Louis' story had been like a drug. What human that stumbled into such an erebus of dark aristocricy wouldn't have wanted it? Immortality, to live forever. To have the chance to learn and experience things that the mortal mind only dreamt of. Things that were relegated to the realms of fairy tales and fantasy.

I wanted it for the same reasons that anyone else might, in the beginning- because it was as impossible as it was real...but when Armand appeared, my reasons began to change drastically.

Did Armand use me as a way to connect to the twentieth century? Of course he did. But I wasn't above a little using myself, when it started. I had never managed to stumble across Louis again, and I had never set eyes on the mysterious Vampire Lestat. Here was a being who held it within his power to give me what I wanted, and I couldn't get away from him. Every night was a study in terror and exhilaration- not knowing exactly when or where...or even *if* he was going to turn up. Not knowing if this was going to be the last night that I spent on earth.
But even that changed- although at precisely *what* point, I'm not sure of any more. Armand likes to think that it happened in Pompeii, at the Villa of the Mysteries- when the first exchange of blood took place. But he *would* like to see it that way, believing that the only way that I could love him was because my mind was clouded by the first taste of vampiric blood. That was part of the reasoning behind it, I think- part of the reason that I stopped being afraid of him, and started loving him. Because he was so determined that no one *could* love him. That he didn't deserve it.

Of course, I liked to throw it back in his face that there was no way under creation that he could possibly love *me*- because if he did, as much as he claimed to, he would have given me what I was so desperate for in the first place. But this was just my temper and frustration showing itself. After a while, I don't believe that I was in control of my thoughts or actions anymore. All I wanted was tangible proof that he loved me- that I meant more to him than any silly vow that he had made centuries before, to a deity that obviously wasn't listening.

That's what it came down to, in the last few months of my mortality. It wasn't about being given a chance to explore and learn...it was about him proving his feelings for me.

I didn't understand at the time the position that I put him in, with my over anxious demands. How much I hurt him every time I disappeared, and stubbornly refused to see his side of it- why he continually turned me down. He tried to make me see the horror of it all- but all I could see was him...

Of course, I got what I wanted- and it was everything that I had dreamed that it would be. Maybe more. But I knew that Armand would be silently sure that it was a mistake, one that I would come to resent him for. There was no way that he could fathom the fact that I had long ago lost interest in mortal life. *He* had become the sole focus of everything that I was. Killing on a nightly basis? What did that mean to me, when all I wanted was an eternity to spend looking into his eyes?

If anyone was prepared for immortality- groomed for it, one might say- it was me. I was perfectly aware of what I was getting myself into. No matter what Armand would like to tell himself, I knew. And I accepted all of it.

But the transformation from mortal to vampire is a hard one, for all of us. The moment that you realize that time has no meaning anymore, and you see the centuries stretching out before you...you really understand the meaning of the word *endless*. And in this new *endless* world, how long would I be able to hold Armand's interest? I didn't want us to become like so many of the others, nothing more than polite strangers who came together every once in a while out of a need to be reunited with one of their own kind.

We were more than that. True, a major dynamic of our relationship had changed. I was no longer totally dependent on him, the way that I used to be. But that didn't change the fact that I still needed him, and wanted him, and loved him.

That was when I decided to leave. Just a little excursion on my own- a chance to spread my wings, and taste everything that this new world had to offer. But more importantly, a chance for him to be seperated from me. I was terrified that he would start to resent *me*- for making him break his vow. I wouldn't let that happen. And I knew if I discussed it with him in advance, he would let himself become convinced that I was the one who wasn't happy.

He was just looking for an excuse to believe that I had come to hate him for this wonderful gift. It still weighed heavily on his conscience...no matter how many times I tried to tell him that he couldn't be farther off the mark.

I should have known that walking out wasn't the answer. I should have known that he would think it was permanent. Too many others had left him in the past...
But nothing could have prepared me for the news of his *death*. My first reaction had been to believe that it was someone's idea of a joke. Armand, dead? That wasn't possible. Not the Armand that I knew, the one that had suffered through centuries of lonliness and *still* refused to give in. But the first visit from Marius confirmed everything that I had been trying to deny.

I had never seen him look so old, and so defeated. It was worse than I had first believed...not only was my beloved dead, but Lestat was left unable to speak or move, on some chapel floor. This all seemed like some hideous dream, one that I couldn't awaken from. The vampiric world seemed to be coming to an abrupt and violent end.

I blamed myself for all of it. For not being there with him. He wouldn't have done it if I had been there, he couldn't have done that to me.
And now, we were together again in Miami- almost as if nothing at all had happened. He didn't speak of it, and I didn't push the issue. The only reminder of the months of torment was the fledgling that I had created. The one reminder that would never go away.

Two months had passed since the night of Erik's creation...two months in which I had all the time in the world to look over my decision, and wonder if it had been the right one.

There was one question that was eating away at me. Would I have made him one of us, if Armand and I had still been together, at the time? If I hadn't had it so set in my mind that he had finally gotten tired of me, and moved on to two new mortal playthings?

Erik seemed to take to immortality in the same way that I had. There seemed to be no regrets- only one discovery after another. He was more than willing to learn, and Armand eagerly fell into the role of *teacher*- even though he claimed that was my job, my responsibility.

I had tried to live up to my end of it, but what could I teach him that Armand couldn't? He didn't care for the way that I hunted. He preferred Armand's way- had a knack for it, as a matter of fact. Every night, the two of them would slip out together for a few hours- leaving me alone, with too much time to think.
About Erik, and what he was. I knew that I had been in state of denial when I made him. Refusing to acknowledge the fact that he reminded me of Armand...who I missed almost viciously. Everything about him reminded me of Armand, including the way that he was so adept at playing on peoples emotions. I still wanted to believe that I was wrong...but all the signs were there.

And seeing the two of them together! That had to be the worst of it. Walking into a room, and seeing the two of them sharing a private joke, or whispering about the events of the night...it reminded me of the fact that they could share one anothers thoughts. It never bothered me that Armand and I couldn't do that anymore. Why should it? Mortals couldn't do it, and they managed. But now, I was starting to feel that loss very acurately.

But Erik was trying- I had to give him credit for that. He went out of his way to make sure that he didn't exclude me. When I walked into a room, he would leave Armand just to come and sit beside me...ask me what I was doing...or just to con me into a *cuddle*.

And each time that he did...I became more and more convinced that he was playing us off of each other. When he was with me, he was trying to get a reaction out of Armand. And vice versa. The radient smiles, the feigned innocence- it was all part of the act.

He wasn't nearly as innocent with Armand, I was sure of that. Although, if I was watching- he made sure to make every little gesture *look* innocent, and unplanned.

I should have known on the night that I made him- the night that Armand had taken him to hunt. I had gone off by myself, because I had something *important* to do. And I thought it *was* important...but now, looking back on it, I can see that it wasn't done for Erik at all. I had searched the city for his uncle- the man that I thought had stolen his childhood. I wasn't about to go back to Miami before I killed him. As sadistically and as brutally as I could.

When I gave him the souvenier- a large, diamond encrusted monstrosity of a ring that the man wore on his pinkie- he had thanked me. Over and over again, of course. But when he had smiled up at me, the smile didn't reach his eyes. His expression told me that he didn't want to be indebted to me. He would have done it himself, if I had given him the chance.

And what could I say, in return? *I didn't really do this for you, kid. You were just my excuse. I did it for him.*

Tonight, as Armand sat across from me, engrossed in my copy of Stephen King's *Wizard and Glass*- I wasn't sure if I could take the silence any more. We talked, yes- but not about anything worthwhile, or important. It was still too soon to bring up all of the questions that were swirling around inside my brain, but if I let it keep on this way, the gulf between us was just going to keep growing. But how to do this, without making things worse? All I needed was a start, a way to let him know that I was still here.

I had an idea...

I switched off the tv, and rooted around on the endtable until I found what I was looking for. I stood up and walked over to where Armand sat, casually running my fingers through his hair- examining the auburn strands critically.

"You have beautiful hair, you know. Why you let it get into such a state, I'll never understand. Why don't you let me brush it for you?"

He looked up at me and quirked an eyebrow. "I'm in the middle of a particularly interesting chapter..." Thoughtful pause, slight wrinkle to his flawless brow. "What's wrong with my hair? I thought it looked fine."

I pulled my hand away, and wiped it on my jeans. "What's wrong with it? Nothing, I guess, if you like dust and tangles." It was almost impossible to keep myself from breaking into an ear to ear grin. He had taken the bait. "Really, Boss. You like going around looking like a dirty little cherub?"

The pout was almost priceless. There was a trick to this, to catching him totally unaware...the Coven Master was nowhere in sight at times like this.
He sighed, and layed the book aside. Another small victory, and the grin was getting harder and harder to keep in check. "Really, Daniel. Both you and Lestat are far too concerned with my appearance."

I nudged him until he leaned forward, letting me slide into the chair behind him. Carefully, I ran the brush through his hair, taking care not to pull too hard. I snorted. "Someone has to be concerned with your appearance, because God knows you're not." I gave the brush a good shake. "We ruin more brushes this way. You could at least *try* to pretend that you don't like getting all dusty."
The only response that I got was a sharp elbow to the ribs. He had relaxed against me, and I continued to run the brush through his hair, as carefully as I could.
"Where's Erik?" I had to stop and fight with a particularly nasty snarl...I might have been joking about the dust, but the tangles were still there.

"Out hunting. He likes to hunt the clubs in South Beach. Fledglings are always hungry." Another thoughtful pause, as he rested his head against my chest. "You were, in the beginning."

The brushstrokes were getting easier, and longer. I loved the way the light reflected off of the strands, making them look like dying embers. "Was I? I don't remember."

Short, velvet laugh. "You were delerious."

I tossed the brush aside, and wrapped my arms around him. If I started to think of how close I had come to losing him..."I wasn't delerious, I was happy. There is a definate difference, beloved."

He took my hand and measured it against his own, before entwining our fingers. "You were delerious. The vampire world was facing certain extinction, and you were enraptured by fog. Nothing that I could say would make you take the threat seriously. If we survived, I doubted that I was going to come through the experience with my sanity intact." He shifted slightly, just enough so that he could study my face. I could see all of the emotions that were openly at war there, wondering if he could let himself trust me again...wanting to, but being so unsure.

"And are you still? Happy, I mean."

The wall was still there, but it had lowered itself just enough...he was choosing his words with extreme caution, but at least he was talking. This was the start that I had been hoping for.

"Yes. Happy with what I am...unbelievably happy that you're alive, and we're here together now." I wanted to say much more- wanted to tell him to never pull a stunt like that again...but I was afraid of pushing things into an unexpected argument. He started to open his mouth again, but I silenced him with a kiss. "You have to stop making my decisions for me. It isn't your right to decide if what you did was a mistake- I think I have some say in that. And no matter what you may think, I'll never view this life you gave me as anything but perfect. Get used to it, Pipsqueak."

He hated that, of course...I had heard about it often enough before. But sometimes, the urge to tease a good natured barrage of reprimands out of him was too much to resist.

The gleam in his eyes could only be described as evil- and in an instant, he had flipped both of us over in the chair so that our positions were reversed, and he was sitting quite haughtily on top of me. Positively leering down at me. "Could a Pipsqeak do this? I will have you know that I would have punished others severely for such a display...."

I was about to break in and chide him about the *punishment* comment, when I realized that we were no longer alone. Erik was standing in the doorway, watching us with a mixture of of envy and anger. Before either of us could say a word, he turned to leave the room.

"If I interrupted, I'm sorry. I'll be upstairs if either of you want me."

Funny, but he didn't sound very sorry. And I had the feeling that this was far from over.

~Armand~

I had been aware of Erik's presence long before he spoke. I didn't care if he stood and evesdropped all night- as a matter of fact, I was secretly pleased by the fact that he had chosen to walk in at a moment such as this.

He needed to be reminded that Daniel was *mine*.

Forget the fact that we hadn't spoken in months- he still belonged to me, and always would.

Not that Erik had made any overt advances. No, those seemed to be reserved for me, and me alone. There would be nothing as forward as the casual brush of a hand against a thigh, or the words themselves, spoken aloud. They were still imprinted firmly into my consciousness, and in quiet moments of retrospect, seemed to jump out at me all the more clearly. *I want you*.

With Daniel, it was always a more subtle form of the same game. Balancing on the tightrope carefully, wanting to let go of the act altogether, but surely...he was afraid of what would happen if he did. But if this was allowed to go on much longer, he would slip up...all I had to do was wait for the inevitible to happen, for itself. After all, he was nothing more than a mortal child- a few months dead. He was skilled in his game, but it was far from being perfected.

I listened as he climbed the stairs, and waited to hear the answering slam of his bedroom door. I wondered if Daniel was going to follow him. But he made no move to rise from the chair...which suprised me. I knew that he had been feeling the need to act as mediator lately. But he only settled more deeply into the chair, taking both of my hands in his.

There was a slight frown beginning to play on his lips, and he looked as though he were a million miles away. Our lighthearted banter from a short while ago had disipated like smoke.

"Do you want to go after your fledgling? Perhaps you would like to be teasing *him* about his grooming habits, or lack thereof?"

A quick smile, like sunshine peaking through the clouds, and an immediate shake of his head. "No, let him sit up there and pout. I was enjoying our talk. Why? You trying to get rid of me already? I didn't even finish getting all of that damn dust out of your hair."

There was no dust, of course. It was something that Daniel had picked up from Lestat, this teasing- and the two of them together could be enough to try the patience of any saint. But it was my turn to laugh, pulling a hand away long enough to brush his hair back from his eyes.

"Oh, very fine, indeed- coming from someone who can't manage to keep his own hair out of his eyes. You always look like you've just stepped inside, after being caught in a terrible windstorm...and those jeans! Do you ever change them? Do you even *own* another pair? I would buy you as many as you could ever want...and they would be *new*. Imagine that, Daniel..."

He was horrible at pretending to be offended. "Hey! It took me a damn long time to get these jeans *just right*. They might not be new, but they're comfortable...besides, I've seen you, when you think I'm not looking, checking out my ass. For that reason alone, I can't get rid of 'em."

I was sorely tempted to pinch him. He did make the most adorable sound- something that was in between a squeal and a squeak. But the clouds had come back, making his brow furrow in unconcious concentration.

"Armand...if I ask you something, will you give me an honest answer?" Said with uncharacteristic slowness, as if he were choosing each word with extreme care. As if he were treading on very dangerous ground.

For one horrible instant, I was sure he was going to ask me about my sojourn into the sun. Something I wasn't sure I would ever be able to fully explain to him. But still, what choice did I have? If he asked, I would answer. I leaned forward and kissed the curve of his mouth, hoping to reassure him, to let him know that I didn't mind. "For you, beloved- anything."

"It's about Erik..." I let out an almost audible sigh of relief. Not yet, then- but it would still be coming. Sooner or later. Gently, I nodded at him, giving him my permission to continue. "I want to know how you really feel about him. What you think of him."

So that was it. Now it was my turn to choose my words carefully.

"I think he was a very confused child in life, and an even more confused child in death. This is a very difficult adjustment for anyone to make, and he was completely unprepared for it. If you want to know if I think he will go mad in a few short years- no, I don't believe he will. There are reserves of strength inside that boy that haven even begun to be tapped yet. I think in time, the confusion will pass...."

It was, for the most part, an honest answer. There was no need to tell Daniel that even I didn't really know what to make of the boy, or what to expect next. His behaviour, not only with us, but with mortals, was highly unpredictable. He had begun to hunt the nightclubs that seemed to be the lifeblood of South Beach with an intensity and singlemindedness that was almost overpowering. He had learned the trick of calling out to those who wished to die...he enjoyed it, seducing his victims- simple souls who were already so in love with death that they could barely see the life around them. But he had even overstepped *my* bounds. Instead of taking his victims wherever he found them, he had begun to bring them home. Just the previous night, Daniel and I had awakened to find the bodies of a boy and a girl- not more than children themselves, dead in his bed. His excuse? It was too close to dawn to dispose of the bodies properly.

I didn't like him bringing them into the house...and I also didn't like the fact that he seemed to enjoy studying death, in all it's forms.

Daniel seemed satisfied with the answer.

"I hope you're right. He just...worries me sometimes."

He worried me, too- but for entirely different reasons.

I could feel the tentative fingers of another mind, pushing at my own. Ah, so he was curious, was he? He tried frequently to get into my mind, and when I was in the mood, I let him. This generosity didn't strike very often, and tonight was no exception. Carefully, I put up all the barriers...and resolved that Erik and I were going to have another talk.

With a little urging from me, Daniel readily agreed to go out and hunt. I only needed a short time to be with Erik, alone. Long enough to make my point, and see that he understood.

I found him upstairs on his bed, flipping idly through a comic book.

"You have to curb this habit of prying into others thoughts. If you don't, there's no telling what you might see."

He didn't even bother looking up, although he closed the comic book, and laid it aside. "Why can't you love me?" He was good at that, cutting right to the heart of the matter. It was something that I would never get used to.

I leaned against the doorframe, and crossed my arms over my chest. "Perhaps if you stopped acting like a spoiled brat, I could."

He sighed with frustration, and sat up. "No, you know what I mean. You're never going to love me the way that you love *him*. And I don't understand why."
There was a note of melancholy in his voice, but I wasn't sure if it was genuine or contrived. He made me doubt everything, sometimes.

"No, I'm not- and the reason is simple. You are not Daniel. And besides that, I don't trust you. At times, I don't even like you. I don't like the way play with Daniel. He has eyes, caro- and he is beginning to see exactly what you are. And if you wish to remain a part of this household, you will do as I say, and stop playing these silly little games." I could use honesty just as effectively as he could, if I wanted to...

The apparent sadness was gone as quickly as it had appeared, instead being replaced by unadulterated venom. As strange as it may sound, I was glad for the change. This was the first time since I had set eyes on the boy, that I was sure he was being honest.

"I didn't ask for this, damn it! Did anyone ever think of that? Did Daniel ever stop to think that maybe I wanted to die? No! He took any choice that I might have had, and all because *you* were gone, and I reminded him of you. He's never given me any choice. I tried in the beginning, to be grateful, because I thought I should be. But this isn't any *gift*- it's a fucking curse." Tears of frustration began to spill down his cheeks- and he quickly swiped at his eyes with the back of his hand. "I thought, when I met you, that maybe this would be bearable after all. Because you were like me. Because you *are* like me."

I was too suprised to answer. I hadn't suspected that he felt this way...

Taking my silence as his cue, he looked up at me defiantly. "You don't want me? Fine. But I can make you sorry. I can make you feel dead inside, just like I do right now."

I walked over to the bed, and tilted his chin towards me, until our eyes met. "Don't threaten me. Or you are going to be the one who is very, very sorry."
I left him up there, brooding and furious. But he was not ready to let the matter drop.

:::We'll see about that:::

Oh, most definately. If that was a challenge, Erik- it is one that I eagerly accept.

~Erik~

Dancing with the devil....

That was exactly what I was doing. And the funny part was, I didn't give a damn. All I wanted was a place to belong. And the fact that Armand had flat out denied it infuriated me.

I was tired of being on the outside looking in. I had let myself hope that part of my life was over, when I met Daniel. And it was good in the beginning, wasn't it? He gave me anything that I could ever want, or need. I didn't have to go home anymore, if I didn't want to. I didn't have to do anything. He just gave and gave....and let me think that it would be like this forever. Stupid. Nobody gave without taking. Nobody.

And that last gift, that had been the best, hadn't it? The gift of forever, all wrapped up and sealed with a Kiss.

He should have let me die. It would have been kinder.

But the problem was, my black winged savior hadn't been thinking with a clear mind. And it was time to talk to him about that.

Armand had gone out not long after our brief *exchange*- slipping out of the villa so silently that it would have been easy not to notice. And I was glad he was gone. He would only have found a way to stop me from saying the things that needed to be said. I wasn't looking forward to this, not at all. I had tried from the beginning, to keep this inside- but there was just no other way. How could I hurt Armand? He didn't care enough about me to be hurt by anything that I said. I couldn't do him any bodily harm. And I sure as hell couldn't take Daniel away from him. But I could most definately hurt Daniel. If I told him exactly how I felt.....the damage would be done. And if Daniel was hurt, then Armand would be, too. And really, right now- that's all that mattered.

I just wasn't going to listen to that nagging voice that kept trying to remind me of the promise I had made. Why should I? Neither one of them seemed to care how much they hurt *me*. I wouldn't let myself feel guilty about this....

Sound of a door opening, and swiftly being shut. Carelessly. The fact that there was any sound at all confirmed that it was Daniel- Armand was never anything but perfectly silent. You would just look up, and there he would be- watching you, with the same expression on his face. Half musing to himself, wondering how long it would take you to notice that he was there. Perfect little cupids bow of a mouth turned up in a half smile, angels mane a tousled mess of tangled curls, falling down over his shoulders. Always looking as innocent as an angel out of a painting, and just as perfect. Sometimes, I would sit and wonder if he was real. If I touched him, would my hand meet with solid flesh? Or, would I pull my hand back to reveal nothing but smears of paint?

This was insane....thinking about him again.

"For a minute, I thought you were Armand- sitting in the dark and brooding. Want some company?" So, Daniel could be quiet when he wanted to be.

"Nope, not Armand- just me. I like to sit in the dark and brood, too." If this was supposed to be so damn easy, then why were my hands shaking? I wished I had a cigarette, anything at all- but we didn't really have much use for smoking now, did we? "Danny, you and I have to have a talk."

This was great. Now my voice was shaking, too. Dammit, this was not supposed to be a big deal. But watching the expression on his face change from it's usual good humor to thinly veiled worry made my heart jump up into my throat. He sat down next to me on the couch.

"Hey, you ok kiddo? You and Armand have a fight or something?" The back of his hand brushed my cheek, and I quickly brushed it away. The concern in his voice was so real, so tangible, that I could almost imagine it clinging to every word. Liar. He was almost as good as Armand. Maybe this wouldn't be so damn hard, after all...

"Why am I here? I mean, why did you do it? Was it because you thought fifteen was too young to die? Was it because you thought you were doing me a favor? Because if that's the case, you were dead wrong." I leaned back, and savored the look of suprise on his face. One that quickly melted into blatant resignation. He had been expecting this, sooner or later.

"Erik, I cared about you- care about you, I mean. Watching you die, that was probably the most horrible thing that I've ever had to witness. I had to do something....and there was nothing else. No other options. You know that." He sounded like he couldn't understand why I was asking this, like he was being forced to explain it to a very dimwitted child. Again, the hand came back- reaching, touching, trying to get me to look at him.

I wanted to keep my voice calm, the way that Armand always did. Calm, and even- no emotion there at all, just words hanging in the air, spoken by some phantom voice, attached to nothing. But I couldn't do it. The tremor in it was impossible to control. "Liar. Oh, I don't doubt that you *cared* about me, but not because of who I was. The only reason that you cared at all was because I reminded you of him. You never even saw *me*." He made some small sound in the back of his throat- some soft, strangled little cry- but what did I care? He had what he wanted. And I had nothing. "Don't bother trying to deny it, because I know. I think I've known since that first night. I knew it as soon as I looked at him. I was nothing but his reflection. Something that you thought was gone from you forever. So, you reached out and grabbed something that was never yours to take in the first place."

This time, there was no attempt to touch me. No, he kept his hands in his lap- clenching and unclenching them. It was almost fascinating to watch, the way that the light from the hallway reflected off of his fingernails, making them look like glass. He had strong hands. And the ring on his left hand...amethyst stones, in a platinum band. Probably a gift from Armand. But the stones matched his eyes perfectly....

"So, what you're telling me is that you would rather be dead right now? Because don't doubt it, you would have been. A couple more nights at the most, and it would have been over. Est consummatum- no second chances." Real anger there now, coupled with a bitter edge of fear. He was afraid of the answer. But I think he already knew what I was going to say before the words left my mouth.
"Would it have been so bad, to die? I was ready for it- I think you know that. Or you did, once. I was prepared for it, Danny- how could I not have been? I had a few years to get used to the idea. Not everyone is afraid of death. Some of us don't waste our time worrying and wondering about what's going to happen when it's all over. Because you know what? I'll tell you a little secret. There is no hell. See- that's what this life on earth is. There couldn't possibly be a place that was any worse. We spend our time suffering through one trial after another- each one worse than the last. And when we die....well hell, there has to be something better."

This time, I was the one who reached out and touched *his* cheek, wondering for a moment if he was going to slap my hand away. "So, you see what you did? By giving me your *gift*- you sentanced me to a life that's never going to end. I'm never going to get the chance to see if there's anything better."

The truth wasn't supposed to hurt this much. I was supposed to be getting some sort of satisfaction out of this, out of pointing out just what he had done...but then why did it feel like I was ripping my own heart out?

He knew that I wasn't lying- there were no false faces, or bright and cheery smiles to take the sting out of my words. And there was no mistaking the fact that every word that I said found their mark, just like so many razor sharp daggers. It was written all over his face.

Voice so soft that I had to strain to hear it, almost like the rustle of leaves on an autumn night. "You're right. You did remind me of him. So young, and full of so much pain. You have no idea how much time I've spent over the years, wondering what it would have been like if I would have been alive back then- if I would have been the one that found him, and not Marius. Marius loves him, I know that- but there are so many things that he did wrong! And when I found you..."

At least he finally admitted it. Funny, but all of a sudden, I felt like I was trying very hard to choke back tears. "So that's what I was? An experiment? Well, Armand should be honored. You made me one of you because you loved *him*. I bet that's not something that happens every day. I hope you're happy with the way things are right now, Danny. You love him, and he doesn't love anyone. I don't think he *can*. Don't try to tell me that he does- because you're just a possession to him. And me? Shit, thanks to you, I don't belong anywhere now. I'm a fifteen year old kid who's never going to die, who has absolutely nowhere to go."

I think Daniel knew how the conversation was going to end- and to his credit, he didn't stop me. Why should I bother staying there? I didn't want to look at either of them ever again, if I could help it. I didn't know where I was going, but anywhere would be better than staying in that room for another minute.

So much for brutal honesty. I think I did a damn good job of hurting Daniel- but I hadn't counted on how much it was going to hurt *me*.

There were only a few hours left, before dawn. Time enough to find some shelter...a place to crash for the day, until the sun went down, and I could figure out just how far away I wanted to get.

Find a nice, safe place to spend the day...

Away from the sunlight...

But was that what I really wanted to do? It wouldn't be that hard, to end it now. The longer that I let this go on, the more that everybody was going to suffer. I couldn't see where I was going, dammit- I reached up and pushed the hair out of my face, and when I pulled my hand back, I was suprised to see that it was streaked with blood.

I hated letting anyone see me cry. And so far tonight, I had made that mistake twice.

Damn them both. For making me want something that I could never have. For making me start to hope again.

~Daniel~

So there it all was, neatly laid out before me in a way that I could no longer dispute. Erik was miserable. And I was to blame. Not only that, but he was gone- and I wanted to go after him.

But was it my place to step in yet again, where I wasn't wanted?

Yes, I kept telling myself, it *was*. He was in no condition, mentally, to make any decisions right now. I didn't have to be able to read his mind to know what he was thinking as he walked out.

It was only a few hours until dawn...he wouldn't have any problem putting an end to the exsistance that I had forced on him. Unless, of course, I found him first.

"So, he's gone then."

Voice so soft and precise that it never ceased to amaze me, the way that he had of entering a room un-noticed. It was almost as if the wind had somehow been given a human voice.

I looked up and there he was, the little demon- arms folded neatly across his chest, head tilted to one side- eyes narrowed the slightest bit, as if he were studying me, trying to gauge my reaction to his statement. Because that was what it was, really- a statement, not a question- said with the undeniable strains of finality.

I began to wonder, suddenly, if I was going to be *allowed* to go after Erik, at all. It was the look in his eyes, of course. Armand had no need to come right out and say *I forbid you to do it*- and he never would be so blunt, to put it into words like that. He didn't need to. Every word and gesture carried some hidden meaning- it had been like this since our first meeting, but lately...lately...I was beginning to feel as though we were speaking a language of our own making, one that only we could understand.

I sighed heavily, and met his eyes for the first time. "Yes, he's gone. For good, I think."

Let him read whatever he wanted into the last part, I didn't care. I didn't know if I could stand the humilation of having to explain to him that I had made a terrible mistake by making Erik one of us. Then again, I knew full well that if he wanted me to, I would gladly tear my own heart out and serve it to him, to dispose of at his own discretion...

But much to my suprise, there was no savoring what I was sure had to seem like a victory of sorts to him. He wanted Erik gone, I was sure of that- but he didn't seem to be enjoying this any more than *I* was. Either that, or I was too upset to care that he was feigning concern. He was so good at it sometimes that he made me dizzy, this gift that he had for being just what you wanted him to be at the time when you needed it the most.

He sat down beside me on the couch, his eyes never for a moment leaving my face. He was so warm from the recent kill that his body radiated the heat like a furnace, and I found myself leaning into him, to steal some of that warmth for myself. Slowly, expertly, he tilted my face towards his own, so that I had no choice but to look at him.

"Will you tell me what happened? What he said to you?"

Not demanding, far from it- but said with the same persicion and exactness as before. Again, these weren't really questions...he was just going through the motions, letting me pretend that I had a choice, that I had the ability to refuse him.
 
"He told me the truth, Armand. I didn't give him a choice. I keep going over and over it in my mind, trying to remember exactley how it was- and I know that he's right. You would have known from the beginning that he was dying- I've seen you do it before, the way that you have of picking someone out of a crowd *knowing* that they don't have much time left. Sometimes, you even know before *they* do. But I ignored it. I think a part of me *did* know, but I refused to acknowledge it, the same way that I refused to believe that Erik was anything but an innocent little boy. I didn't let myself believe it until I was there, in the hospital with him, where it was impossible to deny it any more. You would have been able to tell just by listening to his heartbeat. But I couldn't accept it until I heard it for myself...you know what I'm talking about. The rattle, the way that the lungs seem to fill up with fluid when death is imminent."

I shuddered to myself, remembering. No one deserved such a long and drawn out death, full of pain and suffering. It was no wonder that most mortals chose to view us as angels of mercy. And as I spoke, the words seemed to ignite the rest of the memory- especially the smell, almost as if something sweet had been left in the sun too long, to rot. Things that any mortal would have been able notice. Anyone with any perception at all. A vampires heightened senses do no good, if the vampire in question is in denial.

"He says he was ready to die, Armand- and I took that away from him. I let my feelings get in the way...but I *still* don't understand what I was feeling! You were all tied up in it, that much I'm sure of....but that wasn't all. It's complicated...but I thought it was what he wanted! I don't care what he says. He can try to convince me until he's blue in the face, but he was afraid. I might not have been thinking clearly, but I know fear when I see it."

Armand listened patiently, obviously waiting until I had finished my explanation before he spoke.

"You know, Daniel- the things that he said...have you considered the possibility that he was only trying to hurt you? I have a feeling that Erik is very good at wounding, when the purpose suits him."

There was much more that he wanted to say, I could tell- but he was measuring each word very carefully.

"No, Armand- he meant every word. I mean, I'm not stupid. You didn't see the look on his face, when he told me. Erik might be many things, but I don't think he's *that* good of an actor. I think he wants to die- and I have to go out and find him before he does anything about it."

The voice changed, even though the expression on his face remained totally passive- there was steel in that voice, even though it seemed to be hidden in silk.
"You can't go after him, beloved. This is entirely his choice to make, not yours."
I started to say something in protest, but he gently laid a finger against my lips.
"Your determination is touching, but hear me out. Undoubtedly, Erik expects either one of two things. The first being that you will come after him. The second being that he has decided to end his life. And while I know that you don't want to see that happen, it's a decision that is entirely *his* to make. If what he said was true, don't you think you owe him the chance to make up his own mind, once and for all?"

Before I could even begin to argue about the fact that I didn't think Erik was in any state of mind to be making decisions, both of us became aware of something else. We definately weren't on the island alone- there was another immortal outside, carelessly walking up the beach. Whoever it was, they weren't being particularly careful about being quiet- the steps seemed deliberate, almost as if they were all the warning that we would need.

*Good evening, Daniel- it's been a long time since we've spoken, and I trust that you are well.*

Measured and polite, obviously hating to intrude, but doing his best to make his presence known none the less.

Marius.

I wondered why he was here, steadily making his way up the beach- every step bringing him closer and closer to the villa. There was an irrational fear starting to build inside me- some nagging voice whispering in my ear that he had found out about Erik, and *someone* was going to be punished for it. After all, hadn't he made the rule, that no new vampires were to be created?

"Armand, if Marius finds out about Erik..."

Already, he was standing up and going towards the door- steeling himself for this unexpected meeting with his maker. You could see the immediate change in his demeanor, drawing on some invisible reserve of strength, almost as if he were meeting some old enemy- and not the being that had given him his immortal exsistence.

I knew that he still loved Marius, almost desperately- but would he ever admit it to his Maker? Right now, it seemed doubtful.

Hint of a sardonic smile playing on the perfect cupids bow of a mouth.

"I don't think you have anything to worry about, beloved. Marius is in no position to pass judgement on you, for your creation of a fledgling."

I wanted to ask what he meant by that, but there was no time. Marius was here already, and Armand was at the door to welcome him. If *welcome* was the proper term to use...

"Padrone, I'm suprised to see you here. It must have taken an extreme act of will for you to leave Lestat, not to mention your two doomed fledglings. Who is watching them this evening, if I may be so bold?"

Armands voice dripped with ice- the tone that he used suprised even me. I had never seen him be this openly hostile with Marius before, and right away, I felt my fear begin to disappear. This wasn't the Marius that I had seen before. He looked like he had after Armands supposed *death*- old, and very tired. But what was this about the two doomed fledglings?

Marius attempted a smile, and a nod in my direction.

"Daniel, it's good to see you again. I was worried for you, young one. And Amadeo..." He stopped himself for a moment, intent on getting his bearings before continuing. "I see that your mood hasn't improved very much since our parting. Benjamin and Sybelle are well- they are both with Pandora, if you must know. As for Lestat- that is precisely why I am here. He asks for you, Amadeo. He wants to talk with you. If you would be so kind as to invite me in, I would greatly appreciate it."

Benji and Sybelle....fledglings? Fledglings of Marius? I was definately missing something. The last I had seen of those two, they had been mortal still. This was a conversation that I definately wanted to hear more of.

Armand noticed the puzzled look on my face, and reached over to squeeze my hand, before closing the door behind Marius.

"Of course, please excuse my apparent lack of hospitality- you must come in, and explain to Daniel what you've done in his absense. I think he deserves to hear your explanation for it. I know that I would love to hear it again."

Together, the three of us retreated to the den- Armand settling himself comfortably beside me, Marius looking terribly uneasy across from us, in one of the overstuffed wing chairs. And I have to admit, Armand put on a fabulous show for his maker. I knew exactley what he was doing- every gesture enforced it even more. It was as if he were trying to say, *This is my fledgling, this is my home. I am perfectley happy, and I do not need you.* Of course, I knew differently...and I suspected that under normal circumstances, Marius most definately did, as well.

Tonight, though...I wasn't so sure.

"So, what have you been up to, Roman? I have to say, you look pretty good, considering that you're older than dirt." Usually, that little joke worked...at least, it never failed to make him crack a smile. Tonight, though, it only seemed to make him even more somber. If such a thing is even possible.

He seemed to be having a problem looking me in the eye. "So, I take it that Amadeo hasn't told you of Benjamin and Sybelle?"

I looked back at Armand, needing some sort of direction- this was all getting too confusing to follow. But from the way that his jaw was set, I could tell that this line of conversation was far from over.

"He only saw them as mortals, the way that I intended them to stay. He has no idea of how you altered their lives. Not to mention ours. Master."

There was so much tension in the small room that you could almost feel it, pressing in on you. There they sat, eyes locked on each other- with me in the middle, wondering just what exactley had happened. Marius was keeping his temper in check, that much was obvious- but one more outburst from the cherub from hell, and he was going to snap.

"Will one of you *please* just tell me what you're talking about?"

Marius bowed his head again, and took one last deep breath.

"It seems that Amadeo is intent on making this as painful as possible. I'm suprised that he hasn't told you himself, glorying in revealing just how flawed that my judgement can be at times. Benjamin and Sybelle are vampires, Daniel- made by my own hand, as a gift to Amadeo. One that he has made clear that he did not want, or ask for. I only did it because I thought it would make him happy...you were gone..."

The lunatic with her piano, and that little boy- vampires? Vampires that Marius had made himself, for Armand? Marius had actually done this just because I tried to stand on my own two feet for a short time? I hadn't been gone *that* long, had I?

Someone was laughing. It took me a few minutes to realize that that someone, was *me*.

"I saw them at the orphanage when they were still mortal, did you know that Marius? Did you even know that I was there? Obviously not, since everyone was so willing to believe that I was gone for good. But you see, Marius...I'm not like you. I don't leave people that I love, for centuries at a time."

There was so much more that I wanted to say- so much more that I wanted to *scream*- but the words wouldn't come. I was tired...it had to be getting dangerously close to sunrise by now, from the way that my body felt. Each limb felt like it was infused with stone, and moving was becoming more and more of a challenge. And Erik was still out there, somewhere.

I didn't realize that I was crying until I felt Armand lightly kissing the tears from my cheeks.

"You want me to see if I can find him for you, beloved?" The concern in his voice was staggering- it never ceased to amaze me sometimes, the way that he could switch gears so easily.

"But what you said, about letting him make his own decisions..." The words sounded as though they were being played back on a phonograph, at the wrong speed.

"Yes, yes- he will still have that decision to make. But if he wants to die, there are better ways than going into the sun."

I didn't know how much longer that I could keep my eyes open. But I distinctly remember the sound of Marius's voice- every bit as commanding and precise as Armand's had been, earlier.

"We will talk first thing tomorrow evening, Amadeo. This matter will not be left unresolved."

~Armand~

Erik wouldn't be difficult to find. Every mortal that crossed his path was a thing of beauty still- and what better place to drown yourself in the savage pagentry of it all, than the nightclubs of South Beach? Gorgeous neon lights, throngs of mortals all decked out in scant costumes of tightly molded leather, and more bare flesh than any one lustful vampire could ever wish for.

It was no wonder that Santino claimed this as his hunting ground, when he chose to reacquaint himself with the area. I only hoped that he had since moved on, because I was in no mood to deal with petty squabbles over *territory* this evening.

Time was getting shorter- Daniel had already succumbed to the death sleep even as I was preparing to leave the villa. And Erik, undoubtedly, would be fast asleep himself, in some darkened corner by the time that I found him. I had no doubt that he would be safely tucked away from the sun. The boy simply took too much pleasure in his exsistence to end it so soon. His words had simply been designed to hit the mark with unfailing accuracy- to make Daniel suffer in the way that he believed that *he* suffered.

But, I couldn't fault him for that, could I? When pressed, I had displayed the same need to hurt that he himself had.

I was ashamed of myself for it, of course. Marius hadn't deserved my acidic tongue. But seeing him again, so unexpectedly, stirred feelings that were much better left untapped. To release them now, after so long...

As much as I love you, Marius...these feelings are mine alone. I offered them to you once, willingly- and you took them just as eagerly. Leaving me with nothing. No, I will never be foolish enough to make the same mistake twice in one lifetime...
How I wished that just once, he would come to me for the sheer pleasure that being together could offer. Not out of some need to pass on a message from the Brat Prince, but of his own accord. A desire to spend a few moments in my company. Was it so much to ask?

There would be time enough for dwelling on the past later. Right now, there was a fledgling out there, who I was very interested in having words with...
 
I deliberately made my way through the crowded street, watching everyone that passed me by. How easy it would have been to use the vampires superior speed to rush through the crowds- but that in itself takes away some of the pleasure. Adrift in a sea of soft and pliant bodies, the musk of their skin- the sound of their heartbeats, so casually pounding in time with the throbbing music that came from each and every open doorway. All around me were men and woman enshrouded in what Louis had referred to as *Vampire Drag*- blacks and blood reds, with delicate rings of kohl outlining their bright and shining eyes.

How confident they all were, set fast in their determination that nothing could hurt them- certainly nothing that walked so softly behind them- something that resembled nothing more than another mortal boy.

The shadows were only shadows, the paranoia of being followed attributed to the artificial stimulants that they pumped into their overwhelmed systems. Vampires weren't real- they were nothing more than hopeful fiction.

Pity that I had already fed. Although, a vampire is never truly satiated. The need for the blood diminishes in time, but not the desire for it. And in such a placid, changless exsistence- desire is the most important thing of all.

So hard to remember that there was a purpose behind this early morning foray into South Beach...

If there had been more time, I would have found my way into every club along the strip. It seemed that I had forgotten the pleasure of being near them, these eager mortal children- although, the memory had been sparked easily enough. I would have to tell Daniel about this- introduce him to this dark and hidden world of sin and salvation, a world where the only rule was to find pleasure, in whatever form that it chose to show itself.

The purpose, Armand- remember the purpose.

I scanned the minds of the mortals that surrounded me, looking for a glimpse of Erik. It seemd as though the boy had made quite a night of it, not staying in one place for more than a few moments at a time- but everyone that laid eyes on him certainly remembered. And I was not suprised to discover that the lot of them most definately had less than honorable intentions in mind. How suprised they must have been when the innocence in those blue eyes clouded over, into blood lust.
Into the crush of mortality I pushed myself further, the bass from the music all but drowning out everything else. There was a woman here, in the depths of this club, that had seen Daniel's wayward fledgling only a few short hours ago. She was the one that I would speak with, then. Even if it *would* be easier to read her mind...surely, there was enough time to go about this in a more civilized manner?

Outside, the heat had been oppressive- but once inside the four close walls, it was simply everywhere at once, pushing in on me with a relentless force. The air was heavy with the sweet smell of hemp, sweat, and alcohol- each one battling for recognition, and adding to the all too human tapestry around me.

I stood motionless at the bar, drinking up the atmosphere- letting each sensation wash over me in slow, delicate waves.

She was here, I could see her. A small, willowy creature with ebony hair, and skin the color of the finest porcelin. I couldn't doubt that Erik had very good taste...but I wondered why he left her. She was surrounded by a group of friends, three similarly clad females- and as she turned towards me, I gave a brief nod of my head, enough to encourage her to come closer.

Mortals can move very quickly indeed, when the mood strikes them...
Her gracefulness was hampered by the hemp that she had obviously smoked earlier, but she easily made her way through the crowd- and I watched, openly fascinated, as it seemed to open up before her.

I reached a hand up to touch my forehead, to rub at the thin sheen of blood sweat that had begun to cling to my brow- and carefully, with a smile on her face, she reached out one delicate fingered hand to do the same, dark eyes luminescent and full of mischief.

"I'm looking for a boy..."

Immediately, I was greeted by the metallic ring of her laughter, and she leaned even closer, so that our bodies were touching. "Aren't we all?" Her words were coherent enough, although it was obvious that she was on something.

I smiled at her indulgently, not really wanting her to move away just yet. "No, love- you misunderstand me. I'm looking for someone in particular. A boy that calls himself Erik. A few inches taller than myself, perhaps...thin, with black hair and blue eyes. I know he was here, and I know that you've seen him. I was wondering if you could tell me where he went."

Recognition flared in her eyes, although- for the moment, the beat of the music seemed to demand her full attention. She began to move in time with it, slowly swaying back and forth- each time, coming close enough to brush against me in a most deliberate way. This one was going to require a bit of a mental push, unfortunately...

*Tell me.*

Another wistful smile. "Oh yes, him. Very cute, but way too young for me. I think I saw him leave with another guy. Tall, black hair, very serious. Wait- that might be him over there."

I should have known, of course...but the thought hadn't even entered my mind. Erik might have been a master manipulator in training, but there was no way that he could have been prepared for this.

In the midst of a throng of mortals all his own was Santino, looking decidedly *unpriestly* in his black velvet, leather encasing his long legs like a second skin. I hadn't been prepared to see him like this, looking so alive...looking like he belonged here. With a casual nod of his head, he acknowledged me- the king holding court amoung his faithful. When I made no move towards him, grudgingly, he came to me...

"I had no idea that Daniel's fledgling was so young, Armand. He seems to be liking them younger and younger these days, no?" Mocking, always mocking- he kept his words light, but there was something lingering just underneath the surface that I didn't like. He was baiting me.

I let the false smile on my face mirror his own. For the first time since leaving the villa, I became aware of just how close that sunrise really was. "Very young, Santo. And troubled. If you wouldn't mind, our time seems to be growing short and..."
He was watching me with those great black eyes of his, narrowed- I could feel him pushing at my mind, trying to force his way in- but my barriers were too strong for him to budge. Finally, he threw his head back and laughed, too loudly, perhaps- judging by the glazed and inquisitive looks that we recieved from the others. "And you hate him, don't you, little devil? Why are you here, Armand? You hate him, and yet you're here- and so close to the dawn! Please don't try to tell me that you feel sorry for the child. Remember that I know you, better than anyone else, perhaps. You could care less what happens to that boy."

Subtlety never did much good with Santino.

"How I feel about him is no concern of yours. Daniel is worried about him..."

Another burst of laughter, louder than the first. "Ah, of course- I should have realized as much. You know, Armand- it's been such a long time since I found a fledgling like this one, so full of self hatred! So much like you." He had lowered his voice to nothing more than a hiss, reaching out to caress my cheek with the back of his hand. "I couldn't resist. But keep in mind that he came to me willingly. All of them do, eventually." He turned, and waved a hand dismissively towards the small circle of mortals that had been hanging on his every word before my interuption. "They are all my children. I love them all."

A thought was becoming clearer and clearer, in my mind. Erik hadn't left us to punish Daniel, or myself. Punishment was indeed on the agenda, but the target had been himself.

"If you only answer one thing truthfully, Santino- answer me this: Did you hurt him?"

Time seemed to have slowed to an impossible crawl, and I was sure that if he didn't answer immediatly, I would tear his throat out.

"Only because he wanted me to, Armand. Pleasure and pain are the same thing, sometimes. So few realize that in this day and age."

He was still fond of his games, then...but he had obviously forgotten just who the teacher had been...

I reached up until my hands were resting on his shoulders, and with firm pressure, forced him to his knees. The look on his face told me that he was suprised by my actions, but he complied willingly enough. Watching, studying, wondering...but not fighting. So disappointing, Santo. You never know when to fight. I kissed him lightly just behind his left ear, letting my lips rest against the flesh a few moments longer than was really necessary, but enjoying the way that he responded to the unexpected intimacy.

His arms came up to encircle my waist, gripping tightly to my shirt. Another kiss, this time punctuated by a bite, not hard enough to break the skin- only enough to mottle the flesh.

"And who taught you that lesson, Santo? Pain and pleasure...you weren't always the teacher, remember?"

He was straining to get closer, not caring who saw- twisting and pulling, wriggling in my grasp to rain kisses on my throat. His voice was nothing but a guttural growl.

"Just a little taste, angel..."

I pulled back long enough to slap him across the face, and I didn't try to disguise the look of amusement when I saw how much it had suprised him. He remembered humiliation quickly enough, when pressed.

"You've forgotten the lesson, Santo. You feel nothing that I don't *tell* you to feel. Maybe one day, you'll remember without having to be prompted first."

I didn't give him the chance to respond- I had already wasted far too much time already.

I chastised myself as I searched along the beach, for cutting this too close to the bone. I hadn't really been worried about Erik- realized that I hadn't even necessarily been expecting to find him. But things had changed...

From the mind of a passing mortal, I caught a glimpse of the boy finally- a wharehouse not too far away...a place where numerous other children of the streets spent their nights. Or days, as the case may be. This time, I didn't take the time to enjoy the company of mortals as I made my way there...

And there he was, at last- just as I had expected, curled up in a quiet corner of the basement- very much asleep. There seemed to be blood congealing on every visible surface of his body- I wasn't sure if it was his own, or the blood of some unfortunate victim, who had picked the wrong child to proposition. I stretched out beside him, deciding that there would be time upon awakening to see just how much damage had been done.

I'm ashamed to admit it, Erik- but I've hated you for all the wrong reasons. I've hated you for being too much like me...

~Erik~

Sometimes I hated the way that the memory of the previous night played itself back in my mind. The more humiliating the experience, the more perfectly that I seemed to remember.

If that was the case, last night was going to be remembered for a very long time- in full technicolor, with digital dolby surround sound, no less. Santino's face already seemed to be scarred permanently into my retnas...the tighter that I squeezed my eyes closed, the clearer it became.

But the funny part was, I didn't hate *him*. I hated myself for going to him. For having the need to still do it, to be the whore that everyone expected me to be. Most of all, myself.

Well, Danny- you got more than you bargained for when you found me, didn't you? Give me your unconditional love, and I'll twist it into something totally unrecognizable. And I'll drag you down with me in the process, if you just give me the chance.

Laughter, from somewhere in the darkness. I knew he would be here, somehow- even before I opened my eyes.

"Such a sense of drama, not to mention self pity. You would get along famously with Lestat, you know."

Not a shred of human emotion in his voice- nothing at all. Not hate, not love, not even annoyance- just words, hanging heavily in the air, with the focus suddenly being laid heavily upon me...he was waiting for my reply. Well, let him wait forever, because I wasn't in the mood to answer him. I didn't ask him to find me.
As my mind began to clear, I wondered just where I was. This wasn't the beach, at sunset- the last place that I could remember stopping. And this certainly wasn't Heaven, so I wasn't dead. The dull ache in the back of my head testified to that- not anything sharp or immediate, but something to keep me anchored to conscious thought. I could smell damp earth all around me, and I could feel it against my cheek- slippery and cold.

More than that, though- there was blood. Dried by now, but it was still there- soaked into my clothes, crusted on my skin. And every last drop of it was mine.

"So, you planned to end it on the beach, at sunrise? How poetic. But our bodies betray our wishes sometimes, don't they? Then again, maybe your resolve to end it wasn't as firm as you had believed it to be."

I never thought it was possible for a voice to be so devoid of emotion, and it was making me furious. He didn't know me, not at all- even if he did, he didn't understand. I wanted to scream at him. Shut up! You don't know what it's been like- fifteen years in hell. Give me a chance, and I'll make you feel. I'll make you feel so fucking much that you'll be begging me to stop. But there was no point, because he didn't care, and never would. Hell, *I* didn't even care any more. I turned over, and covered my eyes with my arm. All I managed was a pathetic "Go away." Leave me here, in the dirt, with the other dead things. Go back to Daniel, and let me get on with this already.

That laughter again, only it sounded closer than it had before.

"Give me reason to feel one honest emotion, fledgling. That's all I ask."

That's right, go ahead and laugh...no different than everyone else. It suprised me sometimes, how strong the hatred could be if I let it. And it got so confusing, trying to figure out just who it was that these emotions were directed at. I had tried to project them onto Daniel, but that definately didn't work. Daniel hadn't really done anything wrong. But Armand...well, he was much easier to despise. He made me feel stupid, like I could never measure up to his standards...but worse than that, everything he said hit some kind of nerve, and made me want to curl up into a ball and cry until there were no tears left.

And that was the root of it, wasn't it? He made me feel everything that I wanted to bury. He knew exactly what was an act, and what wasn't. I couldn't fool him, or gain the upper hand. And being at someone elses mercy...well, I had spent too much time in that position, when I was still breathing.

I realized, as I was thinking all these things, that he was probably going to do it again- read my mind, as if it were his right to invade any private thoughts I might have. But this time, thankfully, there was no laughter. Just the sound of what might have been him moving closer. Or was it the rats? I could hear them, hear the scrape of their tiny feet inside the walls- running, falling. Worse than that, I could hear the slithering creatures that lived in the dirt, and in the rotted wood that still held this building together, whatever it was. This place was alive with things that thrived in darkness.

That was ironic, wasn't it?

His hand brushed my cheek, and for a moment I was sure that his fingers had to have left scars wherever they touched- it was like being caressed by fire, deadly and painful, but so warm...I cracked my eyes open, finally- giving up my daydream of being dead once and for all. Wishful thinking wasn't going to get me anywhere, obviously.

It was so easy to forget that they weren't human, Danny and Armand- two of the three only immortals that I had ever seen. For Danny, it was a natural thing...he hadn't been dead that long, so he still hung onto the gestures and mannerisims that he had used while he was alive. But for Armand, it must have been an effort that he made, to look like any other gorgeous mortal boy. Tonight, it was gone- and I knew this was how he must have looked the first time that Danny had ever set eyes on him- a brilliant outline in the dark, a being perfectly preserved and incased in marble. Not moving, no hint of breathing- just kneeling beside me, the only spark of life coming from his eyes, two swirling black orbs that held secrets that I could only dream of. It was almost as if he wanted me to see him this way, as if he were saying *It's time to be truthful about who we are. About what we are.*
Love me, and you can have anything that you want. All the truth that you could ever ask for. I would gladly sacrafice my soul, but I can't do this...I can't be alone any more.

He still stroked my cheek, and I didn't mind how much it hurt- every inch of my skin seemed to be alive, and screaming for mercy. But he had heard me, I knew.

"We're getting ahead of ourselves, Erik. I would like an explanation for your actions, although I think I can put the pieces together on my own. We are going to talk, you and I- but not here." His brows drew together in an expression of revulsion, one that he didn't try to hide. "This place makes me think of things that are best off being forgotten. You and I will have our time together, before you go back to Daniel. And make no mistake- you *are* going back to Daniel. I'm sure he's been worried sick."

Not here? "I don't know if you've noticed or not, Armand- but I'm not exactly in any state to be seen in public. Where will we go?"

The simplicity of the question caught him off guard, and I felt the color rising in my cheeks, when I realized how silly that it sounded.

"True, you aren't exactly presentable, are you? I am dying to know just what Santino did to you, to leave you in this condition. But, I know of a place."

For the first time all night, I tried viciously to block my thoughts. I realized that if he had wanted to, Armand wouldn't have had any problem trying to get into my head, but up until now- he didn't have to try very hard. I knew that I wasn't *sheilding*- chances are, I had been practically broadcasting my thoughts. Every vampire in a 30 mile radius probably knew what I had been thinking. But this seemed like the first thing that popped into my head, that was important to keep to myself. Santino hadn't left me in this condition- I had taken care of that, myself. It wasn't that different now, than when I had been mortal. A little harder to cut, maybe- but the blood still came. The cuts healed too quickly, though. And they didn't leave scars.
Not the kind of thing that I wanted to confess to Armand.

Walking proved to be a little bit of a challenge, because I was a bit on the wobbly side. I remembered once, being very young and having the flu. My uncle had left me alone in the apartment- supposedly just going across the street to buy cigarettes. But he had been gone an awfully long time, and even *then* I was terrified of being alone. Cautiously, I had gone outside to see if I could find him, see if he was coming back...or if maybe he had disappeared...fallen off the face of the earth, so to speak. This was very similar, stepping outside on legs that felt like they were made of rubber- and the way that every sound seemed to echo in my head- it made that memory come back, with suprising clarity. I turned to Armand, who was watching me with a wary eye.

"I feel like a six year old with a bad case of the flu. It's hard to stand up."

Flicker of recognition in his eyes, maybe even the hint of a smile.

"You remind me of Daniel, when he was drunk. Didn't you feed last night?"

Did I? I didn't think so. And even if I had, the ritual I had performed after playing with Santino had definately cancelled out the effects of a meal. I shrugged.
"I wasn't hungry. I'm still not- not really, anyway. Give me a few minutes- I'm sure walking will get easier, once I'm standing up for a while."

He ignored me.

With one arm wrapped around my waist, undoubtedly to make sure that I didn't fall flat on my face, he lead me to an apartment building. Nothing fancy this time, none of the drawn out drama of calling out and waiting until the perfect victim came to you, practically forcing their way into your arms- this was something done out of necessity. Fast food, you could say. And someone was going to die tonight, because of me.

Maybe I never really thought about it before, because all of the others had made up their own minds. They were already so in love with death, that they were technically already dead...in my eyes, at least. But this would be different. This one didn't get to make any sort of choice. They would just be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

It didn't bother me, the way that it should have.

I didn't care to know much about the man inside apartment 4B- didn't care if he had a life, or a family- didn't want to know that he might have kids out there somewhere, kids that maybe he only got to see on the weekends, whose father wouldn't be making his usual Saturday morning visit this week. All that mattered was the fact that he was alive.

I don't think that there is such a thing as a graceless kill. Even at it's most clumsy, taking another life is done with the most extreme precision. It's not done for the victims benefit, of course- it's done for ours. To make sure that not a drop is spilled, or that a beat of the human heart is wasted. It's all about timing.

He was a great fleshy thing, with beefy arms and thighs the size of tree trunks. And I enjoyed being the one to bring him down- me, nothing but a skinny little kid who had never been able to fight anyone else off. Ever. It's so easy to let yourself slip into it sometimes, the daydream of what it would be like to be *them*- the one in your arms, the one whose life you're so effortlessly draining away. It happens to me every time that I kill. There's one moment where you are the most connected to your victim- your hearts beat in perfect tune with one another, and you're drawing into yourself everything that made them unique- their thoughts and feelings, hopes and fears. Even their scent starts to cling to you...and it's almost as though, for an instant, that you actually become one being. And I wondered, what it would be like to be this hulking man. Someone that had never had to be afraid of another human being, a day in his life. I wondered what it was like to be this powerful. But then, I realized that it didn't make much difference in the end, did it?

I also realized that he had been blissfully drunk.

It struck me as terribly funny, because I had never tasted alcohol before. And I could definately feel it, the way that it warmed the blood even more, and added to the dull throbbing in the back of my head. It wasn't unpleasent. Just strange.
I wasn't sure if my walking had improved- my legs still felt like rubber, but at least I was fairly sure that I could support myself.

Before I knew it, we were inside a deserted house, and Armand busied himself with making a fire, in the fireplace. There had been a family here once, I was sure of it- and judging by the way that things had been left, books and magazines scattered haphazerdly here and there, they had been here up until fairly recently. It made me nervous. What if they walked in?

I cleared my throat a few times, trying to get his attention- but he was awfully involved with getting that fire started. The fact that this was Miami, and it was almost stifilingly hot outside didn't seem to make much of a difference to him.
"What if they come back and find us here?" Another question that sounded incredibly lame, as soon as it left my mouth.

Finally, the blaze roared to life- and he leaned back, rubbing his hands together- almost as if he were trying to coax the heat of the flames into himself.

"No one will be coming back." It made me wonder just how he knew, but I didn't bother to ask. "We are absolute fiends for heat...even if you never thought about being warm as a mortal, you'll find that it's something that you simply cannot stop thinking about, now. And you look like you could use a chance to warm up."

Official invitaton, judging from the timbre of his voice. And he was right. The idea of settling down in front of a roaring fire seemed perfect, somehow. The blood had warmed me, but even now- I could feel that warmth slipping away, little slivers of ice already starting to work their way from the inside out. I lay down on the floor in front of the fireplace, stretching out on my stomach- resting my head on my arms. If it could only be like this all the time- just quiet. But that wasn't going to last, was it? He wanted to know things....no, strike that. Armand wasn't going to be content with *things*. He was going to want to know everything, and I wasn't sure that I had it in me, to dredge all of it up.

But was it really so hard, talking to someone that felt nothing for you? No, not at all. There would be no pressure to impress, or gain sympathy......God, if I could just stop *thinking* for a few minutes, stop trying to overanalyze every little thing, then I would be fine. Who cared why he was here, why he brought me here....it didn't really have anything to do with *me*. He was probably furious with me for the way that I had run out on Daniel, and I would hear about that soon enough.
This immortality thing, it was almost worse than being alive. I wondered why, in the beginning, that I looked on this as a chance to belong somewhere. If I hadn't fallen into the same traps that I always had before, then I could be enjoying this- *really* enjoying this right now, and not feeling sorry for myself because I was even more of an outsider dead, than I had been alive.

"Too much introspection can be a bad thing."

He was still on the floor, a comfortable distance away- but close enough to be able to reach out and touch, if the mood struck. God, why couldn't I keep my mind focused on one thing! Talking. That was what it was supposed to be, just talking. It made me want to scream, this frustration.

"Well, I'm sorry- but deciding to end your life seems to be a pretty good excuse for being introspective, you know?" Very easy to get defensive, and hide behind an attitude.

No answer, not even a bored little sigh. And if I opened my eyes- which I didn't necessarily want to do, because it felt nice to be drifting, in front of the fire- he would be watching me- the corners of his mouth turned down a little, in disapproval. It was an irrelevant thought, but wouldn't it be fun to get a reaction out of him? Just once? A real, genuine reaction- seeing him as a deliciously pissed off angel out of a Botticelli was almost too tempting to resist. But it wasn't going to work this time. He was waiting, with a definate purpose. And all I was doing was stalling.

"You know what I want to hear."

Yes, exactly. Daniel had been happy with the abbreviated version, condensed and whitewashed- and even *that* had been a challenge to tell. I had been honest, but it had been like walking on eggshells. Probably the only reason that I told him anything at all was because I thought I had nothing to lose.

Dying can be a very liberating experience. Too bad I had to meet up with a demon with a conscience.

"I don't know if I can do it. I've never been good at talking about, you know, that stuff." Amazing how closed in that I felt suddenly, almost as if I were surrounded on all sides, and backed solidly into a corner. It wasn't a particularly nice feeling, and the urge to come out snarling was hard to control.

"Come now. You've had no problem pushing me into confrontations- I'm sure you can find the courage to speak to me with honesty. You've used Daniel. He cares for you, and you've done nothing but throw it back in his face. You owe me this courtesy. I want the chance to understand you."

I could have laughed in his face. Armand wanted to understand, even if that meant tearing out the last little bit of my soul that I could still call *mine*. Well, if he was so determined to have it, then I refused to disappoint him.

"And I'm sure that you've never used Daniel, right? That's not what I picked up. He *does* talk to me, you know. Tells me all kinds of stuff. You've done plenty of damage in your own way, so don't make it sound like I'm the only one that's ever done anything wrong."

Oh, that was epitome of intelligence. Childish, childish and stupid- but the first thing that popped into my head, and it *did* make me feel better.

"Look, Armand- I know what you think of me. I know that maybe I got a little carried away with the things that I said, but did you ever stop to consider the possibility that I was telling the truth? I'm tired. Tired of feeling too much, and being alone. This wasn't a ploy for sympathy- it would be finished right now, if someone else hadn't intervened."

I could tell that he was curious, he wanted to know who this mysterious third party had been, and truthfully- so did I. But I didn't want to let myself get too off track. If I did, I would never find my way back, and this seemed like it was going to be one shot, and one shot only. No second chances.

"Maybe at first, I wanted to hurt Daniel a little bit- but as soon as the words were out of my mouth, I regretted it. And I saw it so clearly, right then! I loved him...hell, I even loved you, even though you make me crazy- but I was never going to belong with either one of you. And even if I did, I'm not good for anything but hurting the people that I love. So, why bother dragging it out? You can laugh, and call me melodramatic- but I meant to go through with it. It would have been my way to repay Daniel for caring. But I couldn't even manage to pull *that* one off. Pretty sad, when someone can't even die right."

I was talking, and the words were right- but there was no feeling in them. I couldn't get past the wall that held everything else inside, all of the *real* feelings- because I did, then I would truly be lost.

He was beside me, watching me with those eternally calm eyes- all traces of amusement gone. Gently- one hand was caressing my cheek, and I knew that I would die for that touch, over and over again, if I had to. I was suddenly aware of the fact that I was filthy, and I wanted to pull away- go somewhere where no one could see me. But running away wasn't an option.

"Those are honest words, fledgling- but you still haven't touched on what I want to hear. We have all night, you and I- and I refuse to stop until there are no more secrets between us. But, I can't talk to you while you look like this, like something stepped out of the frames of some horror movie. Before this continues, we'll get you cleaned up."

Every word that he spoke sent little shivers throughout my body...I had known that this wasn't going to be easy.....but why couldn't he just be happy with what I was willing to say? Why did he have to keep pushing for more?

It wasn't until he was tugging at my hand, pulling me to my feet, that I realized what he intended to do. And it was only then that I felt the first real stirrings of panic....

Such a sweet voice, when he wanted it to be...when he knew that it could get him what he wanted.

"I used to do this for Daniel, all the time. Indulge me."
 

~Armand~

I wondered, as I watched him feed, how I ever could have considered this child a threat. He was not the sturdy boy that I had been, when Marius gave me his Kiss...no, this one was more of a waif- a study in fragility...something like a small, dark bird. But, a threat was a threat. It had never mattered to me a great deal, if the person posing said threat was worthy of it, or not.

Weakness. I grudgingly accepted it in others, but the one thing that I could not tolerate were my own weaknesses. And this boy had made me see all of them, in a way that no one else had, before. His dependance, his need for companionship and love.....I hated with a passion these areas of my own character, but seeing them reflected in anothers eyes had almost pushed me to destroy what I had never been able to destroy, in myself.

He could have been Claudia all over again.

I wanted to understand him. I wanted to know what it would feel like to crawl inside his head, and see the world through his eyes. It was almost a travesty, this- allowing myself to think that I would be capable of learning more about myself from a child who had only been dead for a few months. It was an urge that was nearly impossible to explain...just a small spark, hinting at possibilities that I could only imagine.

I made the fire for him, of course. He was still suffering after the previous night- the blood of one victim wouldn't have been enough to dispell the cold that had to have seeped into every limb. But he didn't complain- indeed, he seemed determined to suffer in silence. Maybe he thought that this was his way of doing pennance.

Or perhaps, more acurately, yet another way in which to punish himself.

One thing that we share in common, caro. No outside force could ever hope to do the damage that we are capable of doing, to ourselves.

He was hesitant to open up in the beginning, instead being more concerned with the occupants of the flat, and where they had gone. I knew that he had convinced himself that I had killed them- but truthfully, I never acquired the taste for entire families. How ridiculous it would sound, to tell the truth. This particular flat was a favorite of mine, because it was one of the only places in Miami that contained a fireplace.

Too simple to be believed. So, I did nothing to ease his worries. Let him think that the family had met their end at my hands...what did I care for such details?
But I knew that we couldn't continue on this was. I was finding it increasingly difficult to concentrate on his words....I wondered how he could stand it, being covered in such an exorbitant amount of gore. As a rule, we cannot tolerate such a thing, any more than we can tolerate being close to the bodies of our victims, once we finish the meal.

It was too distracting. And if he refused to do anything about it, then I would certainly take matters into my own hands.

Nothing so bold as an out and out refusal as I lead him towards the flats small bathroom, but the beating of his heart and downcast eyes let me know more than any words ever could.

Fear.

But, fear of what? Surely, he had to know by now that he was safe with me. If I had intended to do him harm, it would have been finished by now. I had been enjoying it, I grudgingly admitted to myself- enjoying playing with his emotions, letting him know in a subtle way that he *should* fear me. And he had been doing an admirable job of pretending that he *wasn't* afraid.

Up until now.

As I ran the water for the bath, I kept a watchful eye on him- the way that his hands shook, the slump of his shoulders...the way that he seemed to have quietly drawn into himself, in a manner of moments. My curiosity was overpowering me. I wanted to know what had brought about this abrupt change.

He seemed frozen to the spot as I reached to pull the shirt over his head, refusing to meet my eyes. As I tugged the material loose from his jeans, there was a moment where I could almost see the conscious decision form in his mind to run away- not a rational decision, considering the fact that I would have been on him the instant that he fled the room. His entire body was tensed, and waiting...and as I gave the shirt it's final *tug*, easily slipping it over his head...I finally understood why.

His chest and stomach were nothing but a roadmap of scars, some faint, silvery white outlines...while others were fatter, meaner looking. Vicious. I could do nothing at first but stare, as the thoughts churned in my head. There had been a time when I had wondered if perhaps he had artfully constructed the story of his life for Daniel's benefit- seeing in Daniel a soft heart...I hated to say it, but an easy mark. But this vanquished what was left of the doubt.

He kept his eyes downcast as he finished undressing, sliding out of his jeans and kicking them aside, brushing away my hands when I sought to help...instantly picking up on the fact that I was momentarily at a loss. He stepped into the tub of steaming water, pushing my hand away as I offered him a washcloth, muttering just under his breath an angry "I can do it myself."

I sat down next to the tub, leaning against the cool, damp porcelin- trying to get my thoughts in some semblence of order. The silence in the room was leaden, too many unspoken thoughts hanging between the two of us to let it lapse into anything that resembled *comfortable*. He drew his knees up to his chest, and wrapped his arms around them- turning his face away, and resting his chin on his knees. Obviously trying to keep me from seeing anything *else*. I wanted a closer look at the scars...wanted to know what had caused them. But for the first time all night, I couldn't think of a thing to say.

"If you're trying to figure it out, it's pretty simple. I wanted to make the outside as ugly as the inside." Flat and defensive, still refusing to meet my eyes. Shift of one delicate shoulder as he reached out to finger the terry of the washcloth, quickly drawing his arms back around himself. Finally, turning back to me- cerulean blue eyes locking on mine, daring me to speak. Daring me to say one thing that would resemble anything remotely kind, because in his eyes- that would denote pity.
I was sure that he expected it. And while I was intrigued- not to mention one step closer to understanding- I saw no reason to give him what he so clearly expected.

After all, everyone has scars...but not all of us wear them so proudly on the outside.

I reached again for the washcloth, and this time he only watched me with those bright eyes...paitiently waiting for some sort of response. I carefully lifted the cloth to his face, and started about the task of washing away the mask of grime that obscured his features.

"Why? And does Daniel know?" Simple questions, but he was squirming so much under my touch that I wondered if he had even heard me. "Stop it, you filthy little beast. I want you to look at least halfway presentable before we go home, and if I have to hold you under the water to get the job done, I will."

"Why not? I felt so numb...sometimes I wondered if I could still feel anything at all. That was my way of reminding myself that I was still alive. And no, Daniel doesn't know." Angerly, he brought a hand up to rub at his eyes. "Hey, watch the soap, ok? It burns."

Finally, he had begun to resemble something remotely human again- the angular, almost sharp features of his face accentuated all the more under the steady glare of the bathroom lights. He still wriggled, but had obviously resigned himself to the fact that his would be done, whether he liked it or not. Daniel had been much easier to handle...

"So, I'm assuming that the story you fed Daniel about your mortal life was true?"
He seemed fascinated by the water, which had turned a murky, dusky pink- reaching out to swirl a hand through it. I was aware of the fact that something had changed, something so small that it was almost impossible to detect just *what* it was. More of a feeling than anything concrete...and I waited patiently, to be able to pin it down.

Small burst of laughter, musical- echoing like the sound of a silver bell in such an enclosed space. "Let me assure you, if I wanted to make up a story, I would have been able to come up with something *much* better. No, Danny got the truth...although, not all of it. I don't know if he could understand if he knew it all. Like, for instance...what was the first thing he did, when he told you about me? He killed my uncle. Like he thought it was something he had to do, some kind of revenge, that would make me sleep easier when it was finished."

That was when I knew what had changed. It was obvious from the way that he looked at me, imploring me to be the one that could understand...the barrier was gone. He was no longer trying to lock away what he really felt, or disguise the emotions that leaked into every word with sarcasm or false bravado. We were on the brink of naked emotion, and I was the one that wasn't prepared for it.

"I tried to tell him that it never mattered to me...after all, no matter what my uncle did, or made *me* do, it never touched me. Not inside, where it counted. But Danny just saw this kid who needed protecting." He dropped his voice to a whisper, and I found myself bombarded with memories and feelings...peaking out from behind every word that came from his lips. "I never hated my uncle. That would have required too strong of a feeling, and he never deserved that. I felt sorry for him, because he was such a sad and pathetic man...but never hate. Giving in to that would have given him too much importance. So, in case you were wondering...no, I never viewed him as the Boogeyman, no- I never had any nightmares, and no- he never inspired any real terror in me. But I would have killed him, given half a chance. Just because it felt like the right thing to do."
All I could do was nod in agreement. It was nearly impossible to put into words, but I did understand this feeling...all too well. And it suprised me, to find myself on such common ground with a child. What he had explained in the course of a few minutes, I had been trying to put into words for centuries.

When I made no move to speak, he continued.

"Danny doesn't understand....everything is about power and control. You find someone elses weak spot, and you use it to your advantage. Sometimes it's the only way to survive. Like, when I started shooting up. Most people would see that as a loss of control...but my uncle hated it when I was high. He said that it felt like he was fucking a corpse. What does that mean? It means that I found a way to control the situation, at least a little bit. I might not have had any choice in the matter, but I could make sure that he didn't enjoy it. Same with Santino."

That name brought me back to the moment, sharply. I still didn't know exactly what had taken place between those two- although I was hit with the sudden realization that I knew without being told, just who the mysterious party had been, that stopped Erik's sojourn into the sun. Santino, of course, always hated to see a waste of good suffering.

"Be careful with him, Erik. He can be very dangerous at times...he's not one to play with." Suprising, that note of concern in my voice.

He laughed again, a thouroughly unnerving sound. "Oh, please. What's he gonna do to me that I haven't already done to myself? In those few hours that we spent together, I think I came off knowing more about him than he realizes. He gets off on other people's pain. He sees himself as this great manipulater, but the fact is, I think he's more pathetic than I am. He's empty, and he uses the suffering of others to fill the void."

He may have been underestimating Santino, but trying to explain that fact would be useless right now. He would learn his own lessons, in time.

The silence closed in on us again, only this time it was much more personable. Knowing that there was more to be said, but content with the amount that had been shared. I left him finally, knowing that he wanted to finish up alone. I would wait outside, suddenly wanting to be out of the confines of the small apartment...needing to put an end to this discussion. For now, at least.

As I waited, I knew that we had come to the end of the line. I had perhaps drawn this out too long already, using Erik as a pleasent distraction from my own thoughts. Marius and Daniel were both waiting at home, each with different reasons and questions. And Erik had provided me with the perfect oppurtunity to avoid them all.

It was already decided, in my mind, that we would go to Lestat. Not because he had requested it, but because I had questions of my own that needed answering. Together, perhaps, the two of us would be able to come to some finer understanding of things.

Besides, I wanted to see him again. Without the entire coven hovering about like misplaced guardian angels.

As Erik joined me outside, dressed in the stolen garments that had caught his fancy- his own ruined clothes undoubtedly thrown into the fireplace for good measure- I realized that it could have been this way in the beginning, if I had allowed it. Quiet companionship. But there was something on his mind that still weighed heavily, judging by the way that he kept glancing at me, when he assumed that I wasn't paying attention. But I wasn't going to push. No, indeed- I was too wrapped up in my own thoughts, trying to decide exactly how to handle my maker, once I stepped through the door.

Finally, outside of the Villa- he placed a tentative hand on my shoulder.

"I want to thank you for listening to me tonight. And I...I want to say that I'm sorry, for all the trouble that I caused." Voice all but swallowed up by the blackness, nothing but a wraith in the dark. "I never intended to be this much trouble. And no matter what you may think, I never intended to hurt Danny. Or you. I just....I don't know who or what I am, Armand. I'm so used to being the mirror....whatever anyone else wants me to be. I don't know how to be anything else."

He leaned forward, putting his arms around me, burying his face in my neck- suprising me with this sudden need for affection. I held him for a while, idly stroking his back...content in the fact that at last, I knew where we stood with one another.

Finally, I pushed him back- brushing away the tears that stained his cheeks. And here we were, two perfect reflections of desolation. It had been no wonder that I hadn't been able to understand this child, before- how was such a thing possible, when he didn't understand himself?

"Stop the tears, caro. All the work of getting you cleaned up, and you're about to ruin it."

No laugh this time, only a sad smile before looking down again. "I think you know what I'm going to say. I can't stay here, with both of you. I'd only be in the way. Besides, I think it's time I learn to stand on my own two feet. I have to figure out who the hell I am, before I cause any more trouble."

I had expected it, of course. For selfish reasons of my own, I wanted him to stay. Anything at all, so that I wouldn't have to face Daniel's well meaning questions. We had artfully avoided them up until this point, due mostly to the fact that Erik interupted at the most convenient moments. I wasn't sure that I was ready to be alone with Daniel just yet.

"Daniel will be disappointed, you know. He'll want you to stay." And so do I.
This time the smile was more genuine, and open. "Yeah, well- I'll handle Danny. I think he's too polite to say so, but he'll adjust pretty quick. Besides, it's not like I don't know how to take care of myself. I'll be fine. And maybe sometime in the future, we can all get together again."

With that said, he was through the front door and up the stairs, looking for Daniel, before I could even hope to respond. I pondered going after him, giving some good reasons to stay...Daniel would undoubtedly back me up. I couldn't imagine that he would want his only fledgling to leave the nest, just yet. But even as I thought, I knew that his leaving would be for the best. Keeping him here just for the sole intent of avoiding my own personal unpleasentries didn't seem worth the effort.

Stop putting it off, Armand...

I could see the soft blue flicker of a television screen, coming from the den- and knew that he must be waiting there for me. Waiting once again to try and get me to see reason. I wished violently that I could have gone back to change it- wipe his actions clean, and restore Benjamin and Sybelle to their mortal states. How could he not see that it was a disaster?

These thoughts were churning restlessly in my mind as I let myself into the den, quietly shutting the door behind me. With the door open, the urge would be too great to simply leave- walk away, and choose to ignore it yet again. While I knew that a few words would do nothing in the way of setting things right, the fact remained that I had not yet fully had a chance to have my say. After all, he owed me that much.

Marius sat casually in one of the leather recliners, head tilted to one side- carefully and meticulously studying the program that flickered on the small screen...almost as if he were unconciously trying to disect it, absorb it, and file it away into a neat little catagory inside his mind. When I cleared my throat to make my presence known, he greeted me with a warm smile- almost as if the earlier conversation hadn't taken place at all.

"I had almost given up all hope on your returning, Amadeo."

How confident he seemed, so sure of himself...as if my harsh words meant nothing at all, and when I came to my senses I would forgive him. It infuriated me that he still thought of me as a simple minded child. How he chose to ignore the fact that I had changed through the years, and was a being with an opinion and will of my own.

"I don't see why you insisted on continuing along these lines, Master. My opinion of your actions has not changed- nor will it, any time soon. You have made a terrible mistake, and I refuse to be the one that pays for it. Again."

It amazed me at times, how easily I could control my voice- giving the appearance of perfect calm and rationality. But there was so much behind the small phrase that I had just spoken, and he had to know it. I always payed for his mistakes, in one way or another...

As I watched the expression on his face change, I knew that my words had found their mark....and for once, I felt no regret. He had hurt me more than he would ever know. Let him be the one to hurt, for a change.

"Amadeo, you don't understand. You won't *let* yourself understand. Benjamin and Sybelle were my gift to you. Perhaps my conscience lead me to give them the Gift, but only because I knew that I have made terrible mistakes in the past, and you would never do it yourself, no matter how much you wanted to. This was my way of making amends, and I wish that you would open your eyes and see it as such." He stopped, shaking his head- perhaps at a loss for a moment, just as I was. "Please, ragazzo. I want you to come back to New Orleans with me. There is much that I want to know, and besides- Sybelle misses you terribly. As does Benjamin. It would do them both good to see you again."

I was not at a loss for long.

"Thank you, Master- you have finally been honest with me. I have no problem believing that your conscience *did* play a part in your decision, but you still don't see what is obvious, to *me*. You took my two mortals, and gave them immortality for one reason, and one reason only- to erase your guilt. You gave them to me so that I would not mourn your eventual departure...because you always leave me, do you not? And this way, perhaps, it would make it so much easier for you to walk away."

He started to open his mouth, to try to stop me before I finished- but I silenced him with a wave of my hand.

"Don't. I have no desire to hear any more on the matter. I have decided to return to New Orleans- but not because you've requested it. And certainly not because Lestat requested it. This is something that I want to do, for myself. You will continue to care for Benjamin and Sybelle, because as I have told you- I want no part of them, any longer. I refuse to allow you to push your two mistakes off on me, Master. Lestat did it once before, with Nicki- and I will not be put in that position again."

Blessed silence, at last.

There was no more that needed to be said. He had gotten what he really wanted...I would be going back to New Orleans. To face all of the demons that had been left behind, for the time being. I had been foolish to think that they could be vanquished so easliy, of course. The only question that remained was, would I be strong enough this time?

It was the end of one journey, and the beginning of another...

~Erik~

Amazing that you could feel this much nothingness, surrounded by everything you could ever want.

Everything and nothing, both at the same time....all wrapped up in a neat little package. Because that's what Miami was, a contradiction of sorts. Bright lights and beauty- offering the promise of perfection. But underneath? Darkness. Decay. And more death than even a vampire could begin to imagine.

And here I was in the heart of it- illuminated under the neon lights, alone...and yet not entirely lonely.

It was a difficult thing to explain, this utter lack of feeling...of lonliness. I knew I should feel something. I should be devastated after leaving them, my two angels of darkness...I know, it's a cliche, but that's what they were- I could see it so clearly now, in my minds eye. Danny giving me the gift of eternal life, and Armand giving me something far more precious...his understanding.

I left before them, of course- that was one rule that I couldn't afford to break. Always leave before you yourself can be left behind. It makes seperating so much easier. If you try hard enough, you can work it out to an artform, knowing just the right moment to pull away...when to say goodbye, before you run the risk of losing yourself completely.

It had been close this time. Too close.

Divulging secrets was usually something to be avoided at all costs, but Armand hadn't exactly given me much of a choice. And for that one moment, for the first time in my life, there had been at least a partial understanding between the two of us. True, he hadn't said very much- but actually, I was glad. Too many times, I had gotten close enough to let someone else in...only to have the whole thing shot down, as soon as the other person opened their mouth.

Just once, lie to me. I'll know it, but it won't matter. Don't try to impress me with your imagined empathy. A nod of your head would be better than all of your insincere words.

I realized now, looking back on it, that I had been hoping silently for Armand to blow it. It was a game, one that I was too used to playing- walking the tightrope. Exposing those inner secrets, and waiting...waiting for one wrong word, or one misplaced look. That was all it would have taken. Build up the house of cards, and watch it all fall down. Laugh about it afterwards. Smug superiority when I saw that I had managed to shock. The same old feeling after, they weren't worth my time. Never let yourself feel the disappointment.

Detatch. Stop feeling. Walk away.

But how do you go about shocking someone who's walked this earth for 500 years? This was a new ballgame, and one that I obviously wasn't as ready for as I had originally thought. I had no idea of what to do next when the disappointment didn't come- I was like a sleepwalker, going through the motions...telling him that I couldn't stay. There was no damn plan to fall back on this time, so the only thing I could think to do was what I had always done, before.

I didn't want to go, not this time. It was easy enough to admit now that it was over and done with, and they were both miles away in a city that I had only read about in books. I didn't want to be on my own anymore- not when I finally found the little bit of understanding that I had always been looking for.

The only thing that made it easier was the fact that I knew it wasn't about *me* this time. They needed time together, to work out the mess that had happened before I came into being. No matter how much I wanted to stay, I could give them this...it would be my way of making up for all the trouble I had caused in the beginning.
Happiness was easy to sacrafice, when you hardly knew what it meant anyways.
The parting had been sweeter than I had been expecting- nothing long and drawn out, just a few quick goodbyes. Almost enough to make me believe that we really *would* see each other again, that this wasn't as final as it felt. Danny had given all the arguments that I thought he would- I was too young and inexperienced to go off on my own, but we both knew that was a lie. If I could manage as a mortal, I could certainly manage as a vampire. I left what I was really feeling unspoken, however- that I didn't necessarily *want* to manage any more. Maybe he knew it already, maybe he didn't......and maybe the truth of the matter was that he was too wrapped up in Armand to really know or care what I was feeling.

And who could blame him for that? Armand was his future. I was his past mistake. Admitting that didn't hurt nearly as much as one might think.

Saying goodbye to Armand had been very strange. It felt odd, knowing that the competition between us had stopped almost as suddenly as it had started. He knew that I didn't want to go...sometimes I was convinced that it was in his power to know everything about a person. He wanted everything, and would settle for nothing less. Maybe someday, I would learn how to be the same way.

Just as I was sure he realized that my bravado was a front, I could tell that he didn't necessarily want me to go. It was the look on his face when we said goodbye that gave it all away, and yet- he didn't stop me. He knew as well as I did that this was important, leaving with Daniel...without me in the way to further complicate things.

What was I going to miss the most? Looking into his eyes.....so many secrets there....Yes, well- Danny and I had a few secrets of our own, didn't we? I wondered if that was one of the things that was eventually going to come out while they had this time together, the entire story of my creation. The version that Danny had given before had a few holes in it, although he couldn't really be blamed for that. He honestly didn't remember some of it. And if he never remembered, I certainly wasn't going to be the one to tell. I had caused more than enough trouble already.
You feel *nothing*, huh? Quit the tough guy act. You're lonely and you miss them.

Sometimes, I amazed myself with my melodrama...

Well, it obviously wasn't going to do any good standing around on the street, remembering. It was time to do something to get my mind off of all this.

I leaned back against the building, feeling the heat from the concrete burn through my t-shirt. Nothing in the world like sun warmed bricks. I glanced around me, taking stock of my surroundings. Man, this was nothing like Los Angeles. The kids were still here, selling everything that they had to offer- probably figuring that if it wasn't sold, someone else would just take it, anyway...might as well make a buck or two in the process...but here, they did it with much more...what was the word I was looking for? Stealth. Hiding in doorways, eyes carefully trained to ferret out the police and run away at a moments notice. No, nothing like home- where, after dark- the streets all but belonged to us. We were Nobody's Kids. We didn't really exsist.

The style may have been a little different, but the numbers seemed to be the same. Too damn many of them to count. Well, it made sense when you stopped to think about it, didn't it? This was what was known as a Tourist Destination City- perfect place for little runaways to show up, thinking that they're gonna find something better. As if such a thing even exists. You always end up falling into the same old traps...

One kid in particular caught my attention. Maybe three or four feet away, standing directly in front of the club where I had my first run in with Santino. He was slowly walking back and forth, looking cautiously over his shoulder every few minutes. This wasn't an act- this confusion and indecision was real. I could have easily read his thoughts, but I was very sure that I didn't need to stoop to any preternatural tricks to find out what he was going on inside his head. Probably one of the runaways that I had just been thinking of, out on the street for the first time without a real clue as to what to do first.

Somebody would be willing to teach him, I was sure of it.

Don't get me wrong- I didn't feel sorry for most of these kids. I knew from experience that most of them were every inch the predator- out for everything and anything that they could get their hands on, just as bad as the tricks that stumbled their way. But this one looked like a rabbit that was caught in a trap.

I could have killed him- god knows, I was always hungry enough for it. He wouldn't have put up much of a fight. Just from the way that his eyes darted nervously here and there, I could tell that he was like me in one respect: he was passively suicidal. You want someone else to do it for you, because you don't have the guts to do it yourself. If Armand was here, right now...there would be no decision to be made.

But I was even more interested in the guy that was watching from across the street. Mid forties, maybe...bland, non-descript clothing. Non-descript everything, actually- even down to his hair, which seemed to be some washed out combination of blond and brown. The one that no one else was paying a bit of attention to, because he looked so...so...ordinary. Which was all part of the disguise, of course. He was every bit the killer that I was, only these kids were all too wrapped up in the drama of the moment to even give him a second glance. Especially my nervous little friend, who had no idea that Mr. Suburbia across the street was certainly watching *his* every move.

It wasn't that I particularly wanted to let the kid live. I mean, chances are- he would end up dead in a year or two, for whatever reason. It was just that Mr. Suburbia was playing a game, and I wanted to play too.

He had crossed the street, and was on his way over...too full of himself, and far too confident. I could almost taste his superiority from here. Time to pull out all the stops, and see just what this guy was made of...although, I was fairly sure I already knew.

I sent my nervous little friend an image- a chance to see behind the artfully arranged mask, and sure enough...that was all it took. With one last look behind him, eyes wide with either fear or suprise, I wasn't particulary sure which- he bolted down the street, leaving Mr. Suburbia stopped dead in his tracks. Pity, the prey ran away. But that wouldn't be enough to stop him. Not when there were so many others around.

That's when it happened...my own game began to slip, and fall apart right before my eyes. I had pushed myself away from the building that I had been leaning against, and caught sight of my reflection in the store window. Black hair a wild mess, thanks to the wind- a little too long maybe, but getting it cut had certainly been last on my list of worries. Face too thin, like the rest of me...but it was the eyes that cut straight to the bone. Almost too big for my face, and so damned innocent- that had always been my biggest asset. Everyone was a sucker for innocence, even though such a thing didn't really exsist anymore in this day and age. The picture just didn't fit what I felt inside...and it hurt. Once upon a time, there was a little boy who believed in fairy tales and happy endings...he had the ability to dream, and believe that those dreams would one day be a reality.
I missed that boy. Somewhere along the lines, real life had beaten him to death...or at least scared him to the point where he had crawled so deep inside of me that he couldn't see the light of day any more.

Yes, better to believe that he's just hiding....don't face what you've turned into.

"You're lost." Nothing particularly distinctive about the voice- but it took me by suprise. I was so wrapped up in my own thoughts that I hadn't noticed him come closer.

Yeah, I'm lost...and you're gonna show me the way. Right.

I wondered if he saw the same boy that I had just been mourning a few minutes ago, when he looked at me. He was smiling, but there was nothing even remotely kind in his face- I guess he thought this was supposed to put me at ease, and make me see that he wasn't such a bad guy. Whatever. When I brought a hand up to rub at my eyes, I could hear his heartbeat speed up...he thought I had been crying. Worse than that, he thought that this was going to be *easy*. He had even stopped looking around to see if anyone had noticed him talking to me. Who's gonna notice one less street kid, right? Well, hell. Who's gonna notice one less pervert- ask yourself *that*.

"I'm not lost. I know exactly where I am." There was an edge to my voice, but I was sure that he probably misconstrued it as being flirtatious. I almost felt sorry for him....but not quite. He was enjoying himself too much.

"My mistake then. Have you eaten yet tonight? I was just about to head downtown for a bite to eat, when I noticed you...and you *do* look hungry." No polish, just go right in for the kill. If I didn't watch myself, I was gonna start laughing....

"Ummm, no- I haven't eaten yet, if you want the truth." And it was the truth. Just add a little smile, look frighteningly grateful...hell, it was too easy.

"Well then, follow me...hey, I didn't catch your name. Mine's Edward. Ed for short." He put his hand out, and I did what was expected by accepting it...but there seemed to be something a little unsettling about all this name business. And his hand was sweaty. I pulled mine back as quickly as I could, and wiped it on my jeans.

"Nice to meet you, Ed. My name's Erik."

He lead me around the corner, back to the parking lot behind the club, and gestured towards a van that was sitting off by itself. Gods, how original....this one wasn't just giving off warning signs...he was practically screaming *psycho* in huge red neon letters that I could *almost* picture, flashing above his head.
I wondered what trick he was going to use to get me inside, because I had stopped following him...I was too busy watching to see if those neon letters were going to appear to really do anything else. Of course, I shouldn't have bothered wondering...there was nothing subtle about this one, especially since he was so convinced that no one was going to see a thing anyway.

One hand grabbed my wrist, while the other made sure to cover my mouth....and in a second, he had casually tossed me inside- securing one of my hands with a pair of handcuffs, and snapping the other cuff onto the frame of the seat.

It happened so fast, the look of shock on my face wasn't faked...I had gotten so caught up in the moment that I hadn't been paying attention the way that I should have been. It took a few deep breaths and a few minutes of reflection to remember just what I was, and why I had followed him in the first place. I could still play along.

He slipped into the drivers seat, more visibly relaxed than I had seen him earlier, if such a thing was possible. Maybe he was just one of those people that hid their nervousness well...I remembered the sweaty palms, and decided that *had* to be the case. Obviously now, he thought his work was done, and he could let his guard down.

As he drove, he explained in a monotone voice how this was nothing personal...just one of those things, caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. What could he do, he had gambling debts to pay, and those people did nasty things to men who couldn't pay up when the time came.

God, I was getting tired of the sound of his voice. And the beating of his heart was driving me insane.

He wasn't paying a bit of attention to me. Only one glance in the rearview mirror since he had driven away. I tugged on the set of cuffs, and they easily came loose under the pressure with a muffled *snap*. I sat and stared at them in open fascination for a few minutes, realizing that I had never really experimented with this, finding out how strong I was. It made me smile.

He had stopped at a stoplight, and I could tell that he was considering just going through it- because, after all, we were out in the middle of nowhere, and who would notice? I took his moment of indecision as my big chance, and came at him from behind- not giving him a chance to fully react...just grabbing his head, and wrenching it to the side, exposing that pasty expanse of throat.

I bit into him viciously, locking my fangs as deep into the flesh as I could manage- because he was struggling...jerking around in the seat from side to side, trying to throw me off...and I realized with a little bit of humor that if he *did* manage to knock me loose, a big part of his neck was going to be coming off in my mouth.
I drew the life out of him in great draughts...for anyone else, I might have prolonged it, made it a little more gentle. But there was definatly pleasure in this- to have such a predator squirming around in my arms, fighting to get free...but he wasn't strong enough. And the strength that he *had* possessed was waning quickly. The meaty pounding of his heart wasn't fighting against mine like it had been just a moment ago...it was erratic, skipping beats here and there, letting me know that in a matter of seconds it was either going to stop completely, or explode in his chest.

There, finished. The blood hit my system with such force that it made me think back to the days when drugs had been a nice escape. This was definately a high that couldn't be described. It seemed funny all of a sudden, the whole situation...looking down and seeing the expression of shock on his face. It was priceless, too priceless...and all I could do was laugh.

I dragged him from the van and carried the body a few feet away, to the side of the road- where I went about the task of digging him a nice grave. Not that anyone would ever miss this one. But still, it seemed important not to leave any detail unattended to. The van could sit at the stoplight for the rest of eternity for all that I cared....I wasn't about to try moving *that*.

And when it was finished, and my head had cleared a little bit- I realized that I really *was* going to be fine. Maybe a little lonely, but I could do this.

My mind started to race, as the possibilities began to dance in front of my eyes. All of the places that I could go....what the hell was holding me *here*? I had always wanted to travel...but it never seemed possible before.

Now, everything was possible. I wondered why it took so long to dawn on me.
Armand and Danny had gone off to New Orleans to find some sort of *closure*- why should I be any different? The world was gonna have to wait for now.

I was going home.

The End

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