MIT at night

 

"The Life and Times of a Macedonian Vampire"   

Author: DJ Clawson (dj_clawson@yahoo.com)

Rating: strong PG-13      

Archive: Only with permission

Season: Post-series AU Characters: Aristotle, Larry Merlin, Nick, Feliks Twist, LaCroix, Janette, Qa'ra, Miklos, Divia, Natalie (off-camera), Alma (off-camera)

Warnings: Computer geeks cursing like morons, implied slash and het, torture, but no explicit sex or adult scenes.

Betas: Walt,  

Introduction:

This takes place in 2003, and assumes a couple things: Season 3 never happened (though there was some confrontration with Divia as she's mentioned), Schanke's still alive, and Nick has moved on. He's still a vampire, but he married mortal Natalie anyway and adopted a daughter. They live in Winnipeg and his wife is severally anemic. Most vampires have moved out of Toronto.

Aristotle's the main character here, so it's mostly from his POV, though various other characters show up and have impact on the plot (LaCroix has a decent-sized segment). Nick shows up twice but Natalie is only mentioned. The story is mainly about his decision to create a son, something he hasn't done in a long time because of his own tramatic fledgling-hood.

This story does not totally line up with my other story on Aristotle ("Corpus Aristotelicum") because it reuses some names assigned to different characters, but it still assumes that Nick and Aristotle
like to get drunk and play Mario Kart.

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"To stay young requires unceasing cultivation of the ability to unlearn old falsehoods." -- Robert A. Heinlein

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Chapter 1

c. 2003

It was midday. A time when all good little vampires were asleep.

'Little' implied the length of one's days, and Aristotle had too many of them. A fledging would drop at the sight of the sun and not wake until it was gone, waking only in emergencies or to feed. Young vampires would thrill at the concept of staying awake of their own will, not having their bodies so dictated by the rising and dying light, only to be cranky in a few hours before finding some rest. He could remember, with his perfect recall, how frustrated he had once been that twelve hours out of his day were lost to sleep, more than he'd needed as mortal. It seemed like such a waste when life eternal was still a fresh concept.

Two and a half millennia later, Aristotle was lucky to doze off to the television. A game show could be too noisy, and he might find himself unintentionally stimulated by the concept of the debates of the talk shows, only to be disgusted by the quality of the debates and angry at himself for not changing the channel sooner. After adjusting to the current lineup, he discovered that soap operas were good for putting him into enough of a mental coma for him to find a few hours of sleep. It was the only time of day when it was safe to leave his phone on, unless the call was from overseas. The vampires of Western hemisphere were safely asleep.

He'd forgotten to put the sleep timer on, and woke to the irritatingly catchy Pokemon theme song. Animation was far less fascinating to him once he discovered the process, which was nothing more than putting a series of pictures in line to create the illusion of movement. Brilliant in its simplicity, it had little appeal to him beyond that. He wanted more visual complexity; his vampire senses demanded it.

Aristotle finished off the bottle of homemade blood wine and rose to shower and prepare himself for the remaining day and long night ahead. He showered and meticulously trimmed his beard, a ritual that would allow for no interruptions from an insistent phone. His appearance wasn't very fashionable - the very opposite, in fact - but he had been obsessive about good grooming since his mortal teachers had first chided him for it.

Someone once had the gall to ask him how he dealt with being eternally balding, when most vampires had the fortune of a full head of hair. He did not give the actual answer, which was that the other ravages of age were more troublesome - specifically, the very unflattering hair in his nose and ears.

He was in the mirror the same man he had always been. His vampire memories were almost perfect, while his mortal memories were as they were the moment he was brought across - somewhat faded by age, ravaged by disease, and partially the stuff of re-imaginings and dreams. Looking now, he had to remind himself that he once had curly red hair, less paunch, and skin not pocket-marked by scars and moles. He sighed. Even your introspection is stale.

You're in a rut. Ruts were depressing for mortals, but deadening for vampires. Aristotle always contended that time was a far greater threat than stakes, holy symbols, and sunlight. The march of endless nights was more physically draining than any flight from angry mobs of torch-wielding villagers. Admit it. Know thyself.

Now he was speaking King James English instead of just quoting the Greek. Great.

It was late in the afternoon and people were awake. There were three messages on his voicemail to check, and he put it on speakerphone before sitting down to check his downloads, stocks, and whether the CD burner had finished processing his new album.

"Aristotle? Do I have the right number here? Well, if not, ignore it, but my name is Sarah. I'm Lady Beatrice's child and she said for me to call you for paperwork. Anyway, my driver's license is expired and the DMV says I need a birth certificate to renew it. Oh, and how much does this cost?"

Kids. He hit the 'save' button.

"Hi, it's Larry. Look, the social security numbers are gonna take another week. I can give you maybe three, but they're only good in the state of California. We need to dot the I’s and cross the T’s with these now, you know? Call me if there's a problem, otherwise I'll talk to you on Tuesday."

Larry Merlin was perpetually stressed and came off slimy even when not in a club setting. Amazing that such a sophisticated hacker was born to a traveling circus couple during the Depression. He liked Larry, which was a bonus, because he preferred to work with people he liked. He hit the erase button. No need to get Larry wound up.

"Hey, it's Nick. Nothing important - no crisis yet." There was a voice that made Aristotle smile - when he wasn't for asking for something that endangered both their lives. "I have no idea how busy you are - hopefully not to busy to listen to the whole message. Anyway, I heard you were staying in Boston for awhile, and I have an academic conference hosted by BU coming up next month and Nat's staying back so I'm on my own. If you're around, maybe we could get together and pretend to drink coffee. On me. Call me if it enters the realm of possibility."

There was a possibility. A social life? Even if it was just in a crowded café outside the hotel between sessions? Call Nick, he wrote on the notepad and pasted it to the computer screen monitoring his eMule downloads. His Mystery Science Theater 3000 collection was taking forever, and he had a longer definition of forever than most people.

Too bad. He was late for class.

********************************************

" ... assuming you have at least medium to thorough knowledge of java, c++, and at least a semester's worth of COBOL, you may be able to pass this course," the professor droned, sending a passing glance to Aristotle as he entered the room and scurried to his terminal. Professor Steiner was one of the only professors who taught night classes worth the time and effort, so Aristotle was at the mercy of his desire for punctuality. Only four weeks until Daylight Savings Time, and then Aristotle didn't have to get singed on his way to class. Fortunately computer labs were not known for their natural light and he had a red thermos full of blood to heal with as he booted up the computer. "You'll be getting your group assignments before you leave. And no, before you ask, you cannot change them. They were random selections and you should all be familiar with variable-based selection programs by now, and how to write them, or you shouldn't be in this class."

Over the next hour Steiner went into detail about the sole project that would be required of them to pass the course - the design of an operating system that at least minimally worked. Aristotle was only auditing the class, but his partners depended on him.

They were released early to meet in their groups. He didn't know Mike at all - a rather hefty, overachieving undergraduate whose computer comprehension placed him in the class, but who suffered for social skills. That much was obvious within the first few minutes. Alex was a grad student and had been a teaching assistant in the summer class on java script. He supervised two of Aristotle's projects, and could be well-spoken when the situation called for it. It was a shame this generation seemed to wallow in euphemisms.

"Ari, aren't you just auditing?"

"If anything that means he's not doing it for the credits. It means he actually wants to write an operating system," Alex came to Aristotle's defense. Aristotle was used to some hostility from the rising generation, who either saw him as a crazy beatnik or a probable pervert. Who else would want to hang out in a dark room that smelled of cheetos until the computer lab closed? "Right?"

"Someday, yes. For now I'll settle for one that just boots properly and runs notepad." He just smiled amiably and let them argue over names for the project for the remainder of class time.

"Code Red."

"The soda? Forget it. Besides, Jolt is better."

"Jolt? Who still drinks Jolt? I don't think even Ari remembers what Jolt is."

Aristotle looked up from his palm pilot. He should have set the lamination machine up before he left. The new ID cards would still be hot when his guests arrived to pick them up, maybe too hot to touch. "I assume you're not referring to the electrical phenomenon."

"See?" Mike said. "Code Red is still our best suggestion."

"Sisyphus."

They both looked at him. Aristotle let his suggestion stand.

"What is that? A venereal disease?"

"That's syphilis," he corrected.

"Sisyphus was a mythical king," Alex said before Aristotle had to answer.. "He was punished by the gods by being made to push a stone up a mountain for all of eternity. Whenever he gets near the top, he loses his grip and it rolls back to the bottom of the mountain again. "Sisyphean is an adjective meaning that an activity is unending or repetitive."

Aristotle smiled. "That's correct."

"That's depressing," Mike replied.

"Well, do you have a better one? And do you want to come up with it before the campus store closes? Because I still have five bucks left on my daily credit. I missed breakfast and it disappears into the void of University dollars at midnight."

That was enough to tempt Mike, and it was decided to retreat to a place with more snack and beverage offerings.

"You want to come?" Alex said. "They don't just take our swipe cards."

"I've got to get going - appointments. I work nights." He gave them both his card. "You've got the university email they assigned me, but this is the one I'll actually answer." Both of them held his card like they were foreign objects. "Yes, when you're over a hundred, you get your own business cards," he snickered, and left.

********************************************

Thursday's class was smoother. Aristotle was on time, as it was raining heavily and the drive far less painful. For the semester, Professor Steiner would be little more than a supervisor to their projects, and he handed out worksheets to guide them before simply letting them split off into their groups. Mike was in a better mood, having adjusted to being assigned to the group with the weird old man auditing the class. Alex, who was older, didn't have to play mediator as much, though it helped that Aristotle never initiated arguments. He was here to learn how to write an operating system. Having his own, built from the ground-up, would severely improve the security of his database.

When he had been a student, and even a teacher, he had been far more argumentative. He was called vain by his peers and his teacher, and he never denied it, feeling he had ever right to feel as he did, his intellect only matched by the head of the Academy. Instead of shunning him, people flocked to him for the burdening prize of engaging him in philosophical combat, knowing they would both come out the better for it.

Mike was different. He was vain but beneath it he was deeply insecure, like most of the kids Aristotle encountered in universities today. His youth was no doubt spent in an atmosphere of American high school, where intelligence was mocked and not fostered. Now he was at MIT, with every chance to prove himself, and not quite sure how to go about doing it without cutting down everyone around him first. Aristotle had met dozens of Mikes over the years, so he simply accepted him and even laughed at some of the jokes made at Aristotle's expense. It would make the project easier.

Alex was more of a puzzle. He was older, thinner, and could pass as attractive if he had any intention of emerging from the light of the computer monitor. He had confidence in what interested him, but seemed to disregard the things other people found important. He did not partake in the hallway talk about job offerings at Microsoft ("the man" of the computing world, though a well-paying man), nor did he complain about his thesis with the other graduate students in the class Aristotle knew to be PhD candidates. He simply listening with a knowing smile, but didn't respond. He was holding back.

Aristotle pondered these two little mortals - a cunning distraction from their steady, enticing heartbeats - as they squabbled with the other teams over room reservations in the comp lab before deciding just to use Alex’s office. He shared it with another grad student, where he held office hours for the two courses he was TA in. When the comp lab wasn’t available, they could requisition the other TA’s computer and use that. It made Aristotle’s scheduling a little easier, and he was grateful for small miracles.

********************************************

Larry Merlin was late, which wasn't entirely out of character for him, but Aristotle would go as far as to say he was later than usual. "Traffic," he stammered, though Aristotle showed no signs of disapproval and had none. Driving with two crates of blank passports in the trunk was always a nerve-wracking experience. "Nice place," he said as they carried in the boxes and set them down beside the basement work station. This was his first visit to Aristotle's Bostonian home, barely more than a year with him in residence. They usually just talked and emailed, but some goods could not be trusted to a courier. "Do you still have that merlot you made in Ottawa?"

It was his finest vintage in years. He wasn't sure why; both the blood supplier and the winery were the same. He assumed he was just lucky with that mix. "I think I still have a bottle or two." And he had already cleared his schedule for what he expected to be a long meeting. Larry didn't venture to Boston for nothing, not with his schedule. He poured Larry a wineglass, and filled his own mug, seeing no reason to clean an extra glass.

"Why do you have an 'MIT Parent' mug?"

"It was on sale. And I was once a parent." He cleared away everything but his laptop on the table "So technically I qualify."

"I thought you were already certified in C++."

"Linux is just not cutting it. It's too common now. They're selling open source Linux computers in those megastores. Too many security flaws."

"You're making your own operating system?"

"Trying to."

"Am I going to be able to use it?"

"Hopefully not, if it's as secure as I want it to be." He tasted the wine. A very good vintage. If only he knew what he'd done different that day. Changed the filter? "Also, do you read Greek?"

"Someday you'll be in trouble and need someone to access your systems."

"Better start learning Greek. I recommend Herodotus as a place to start." He took the folder out of Larry's hands. "Expired socials. The list looks smaller than usual."

"The 1930's had the lowest birthrates of the century. And the government's getting better at recycling them. Can't let good numbers go to waste. What we need is those baby boomers to start dying."

"Good things come to those who wait."

"I was thinking foreigners born abroad," Larry said. "Children of aid workers and that sort of thing. It's a long paper trail to create, but you can write it out of air."

"I hope the Community likes being born in the Democratic Republic of Congo."

"You should go."

"Me? In a war zone? Besides, I have ten weekly magazines to try to alarm me as to which disaster zone I should care about. Besides, I'm keeping my traveling down until this course is over. Emergencies only." He raised his mug to Larry in his cheap suit. "You could go to Africa. You'd blend right in."

"Maybe as an arms smuggler. And then I'll either be worshipped or shot."

"Either way, it won't hurt. Where's your sense of adventure?"

"Where's yours?"

"I'm old. As my classmates are so keen on reminding me."

********************************************

Aristotle spent the weekend using Larry's materials to construct a dozen identities, completely with partially-filled passports, leaving on specifics to be put in at the last minute, when the materials would actually be required. Normally he enjoyed the busywork of stamping different passports with all kinds of exotic travels, but he found himself distracted, more than even his slowly-amassing .mp3 collection and powerful speakers could assuage.

Throughout his long life, music interested him the way everything else did - in its workings and manifestations more than an appreciation for the art. Music that became classic remained, gaining new adherents by repetition, while lesser works faded to obscurity. Now nothing would be lost - a whole generation of musicians were transferring their material to such an easy medium so perfect for storage and preservation, that they might never need worry about their music being lost. In a thousand years, he might be listening to it - the only one doing so with any recollection, but all the same, it would remain part of the collective human experience, while the tunes he had enjoyed in Greece, Rome, the Byzantine Empire, the Abbasid Empire, and so on - that was gone and he would have to produce it himself to expect to hear it again. Life's capacity for retaining collective knowledge, once limited to a few mortal life spans now had the possibility of being endless. Did mortals really have a notion of the informational utopia they were creating, driven by their obsessive need for the new and fashionable, or did it take a vampire's perspective to see it?

He put aside the well-worn Bahamas customs stamp - everyone had been to the Bahamas - and changed the playlist. He had a fondness for rap. The noxious tone of it didn't bother him. It was insightful, argumentative, and full of passion for something other than a girlfriend or lost love. And he had a soft spot for under-appreciated genius. It also made his clients do a very amusing double-take when they descended the stairs, which in his opinion was always worth it.

"If anyone dared to play this in my club, he would be fired before the end of the song," said Rhea, a former noblewoman and current leader of a small community in Pittsburgh. "Assuming one can determine the proper ending."

"Yes, assuming that," he said, and pushed his chair away from the workbench so it came to rest in front of the computer. "What can I do for you?" He assumed one of the things to do was turn the music off, which he promptly did.

"I have two fledglings - not mine - who need new identities."

"Their master?"

"You remember Peter Lazarus?" She read his expression. "You don't know where he is."

"No." He did know Peter, of course, but he had not seen him in years. "Did he intend to create them and then abandon them or was it an accident?"

"With Peter, it's always hard to tell. Oh, and I need death certificates, too. They'll be joining me in a few days, so we can do this properly, but I needed to get that started."

"Of course. Their socials?"

Setting up two new files for two new vampires - who, presumably, would not see the end of the next century - took time, but he was efficient, and Rhea's own knowledge of them was limited. The real work would be when they came on Wednesday. He didn't mention it and neither did she, but Rhea was one of the more responsible city elders and would pay him for his work. He never asked and accepted whatever came his way, but some of the wealthier vampires preferred to think it was their way of escaping any debt to him and he was happy to let them do it. Passport materials didn't pay for themselves. Neither did his expensive new speakers.

Rhea's stay was brief. She had other things to do in the city and he had, though he didn't say so, homework. For all the ribbing they earned him, his reading glasses protected him from being strained by hours of coding in front of the false, irritating light of the screen, something vampire eyes were even more sensitive to than humans. It took a few days for his eyes to really burn, and no damage was permanent, but he didn't like pain and he liked how harmless the glasses made him look. It was very hard to get vampires to let their guard down, and his occupation required it.

Aside from a few calls and a few programs he set to run, nothing interrupted his coding. In the back of his mind, the vampire felt the sun rise and fall, but it barely registered in his consciousness. He was caught in a string of logic, even if it was computer code logic, and it was his favorite place to be. All he needed was a blood IV and he would truly be complete.

"Aristotle. It is Tuesday. You must sleep now."

The words were distorted by the computer's clumsy attempt to pronounce the letters, but it did startle him enough so that he turned off the computer's set alarm and looked at his watch. It was Tuesday, 10 am. He did need to sleep, and shower, and feed if he was going to make it through class tonight.

This time, he made it all the way to his bedroom instead of the living room couch, and to his surprise, did sleep.

********************************************

The familiar sound of the ball in the brass tin woke him. The horrible clank sound could do nothing else. He cursed himself for dropping the ball in the first place; he hadn't realized he was nodding off until he was, in fact, nodding off. That released the ball in his hands, and the tin woke him: an ingenious device if he did say so himself.

"Aristotle." It was Xenocrates, towering over him with his superior height. He had an air of quiet, dignified benevolence about him, which made him likable. "A perfect mind requires perfect concentration."

"A perfect mind would require no concentration at all," Aristotle replied with a yawn. "Concentration is an effort to focus the mind; a perfect mind would need no focusing, being perfect and pure." He was aware of how Xenocrates liked purity, which was why he used the words he did. "Moreover -"

"Moreover I am not trying to make a debate of your sleeping habits."

"You shame yourself, sir, by implying that your concentration is lacking, and therefore your mind not pure, as we have already established, if you are meaning to imply that you need a discussion that provides nourishment but does not require philosophical debate. We both know there can be no such discussion. It would shake the foundations of our very essence. Nothing short of the rape of a sophist is to slander the good name of debating. Where is your purity of values now?"

Xenocrates rolled his eyes. "I was referring more to a purity of body, which is something you are lacking in your refusal to nourish it."

"Purity of body is a pointless exercise," he grumbled. He resented the topic despite his own habits of cleanliness, which exceeded even the Athenian standard. "Harmony of my limbs and organs is something I would dare even Asclepius to achieve." He had always been a sickly man, retreating from city life to be closer to the ocean air that was good for his lungs.

"I will surrender that if you will surrender that purity of mind cannot be achieved when one is too weakened to achieve it."

"Your statement is too insular. It attempts to prove itself and I will not accept that sort of argument. Not from you."

He thought perhaps Xenocrates was conjuring an answer, but instead the older student simply grabbed his curly locks and tugged them just hard enough for him to feel it. "Will you accept that argument that I, failing to see you find sleep before the next lecture, will continue in this manner until every strand is gone? Or must I prove it a bit more first?"

"Ow! You insult yourself with your brutality."

But Xenocrates only smiled. "You can only have me insult myself so many times before it gets old. Go to sleep, O Aristotle of Stageira. What would the old man think of hearing your brass toy drop during his speech?"

"I accept defeat on the condition that you let me go, and with the condition that I may exact my revenge on you in a public forum."

Xenocrates let him go and Aristotle stood, adjusting his chiton (tunic) "I will accept your terms on the condition that your revenge be via a treatise on the purity of body, however you wish to defend or denounce it."

He groaned. Public meant in front of Plato, and it was not his favorite topic to be discussing before or with the old man. "I have trapped myself."

"You are so rarely trapped. One must account it to drowsiness."

He ignored Xenocrates' well-meaning smirk, collected his tin, and hurried back to his domicile.

********************************************

The vampire woke first. That was a constant. He would either have to fight it or sate it, and the latter was easier. He had a mini-fridge under his bed stand just for this reason, so he could stumble about without having to reach the kitchen.

The beast did not give in so easily. His life was too artificial, too human as of late. He needed to hunt. Technology provided answers to the most inhuman of the inhuman vampire - thirst - but he'd been on earth over two millennia with this beast, and he felt that he knew it well enough that he understood the vampire wanted to hunt. It was a predator, and he had found a way to domesticate it.

Camping, he scribbled on his notepad. Campers disappeared so easily and it was so long before they were found, sometimes after the other animals had picked the remains clean.

By the time the water was hitting him in the shower - so efficient but so uncomfortable in making him stand - he was thoroughly in control of the beast again, and could even focus on the night ahead, though his thoughts lingered on the remains of the dream. How much of it had been true and how much was fantasy? Xenocrates had a nature similar to how he appeared spectrally, and the events seemed familiar. He decided to file them under 'likely' and continue on with his tasks.

Tinted windows, a cloak, gloves, and sunglasses didn't help much against the sunny day even if it was receding, and he arrived at lab grumpier than usual, nourishing his body by drinking from a flask while hiding in the men's room. He calmed himself. He was back in the safety of darkness, and its false fluorescent light that couldn't harm him. Yes, a camping trip was definitely in order.

"Ari?"

He quickly capped the flask. "I didn't see you. How are you, Alex?" He'd heard the heartbeat, but he honestly had not been paying attention. "Are you all right?"

"No, I'm vomiting in the sink, but it's cool. Well, not cool." But he was bent over the sink and running the water. "You don't have to be ashamed. You are totally not the only person showing up to class loaded."

"You're sick?"

"It's mostly heaves. I'm on this allergy medicine and it makes me really nauseous. And I pigged out at a study break, so it's really my bad." He was trying to shrug it off, but he was quite pale, even for him. "I was talking to a sorority chick - like I'd ever have a chance with her - and I guess I didn't notice what I was eating. I can't have that much dairy."

"If you need to skip - "

He shook his head rather adamantly. "It's cool."

"I'm serious."

"Dude. I've been to class wasted, on acid, and with the flu. I'm fine. Are you cool?"

He laughed his concern away. "I'm very honored to be considered cool. And no, I'm not a drunk. They say wine is good for my heart."

"You take it so medicinally."

"I forgot my crystal goblet."

"Good. Then we'd have to add gay to the list of things we call you. You own a crystal goblet?"

"You know in my day, we would smack kids like you for saying something like that."

"Kid? I'm twenty-four."

"You're all kids to me," he said, feeling better already. "Even grad students."

********************************************

With their perfect time slot, the Sisyphus team was able to log in four solid hours on their project immediately after class, putting them ahead two weeks and still leaving time for the mandatory pre- midnight snack run. Aristotle joined them and bought a Hawaiian punch, hoping to find some later use of the bottle. He was very good at pretending to sip.

"Is that one of those phones that does video?" Mike was eyeing Aristotle's PDA as he scrolled through his messages.

"No, only pictures."

"It must cost a fortune."

Aristotle shrugged. Yes, they might consider it a fortune, but they were also at a college that cost more than a house.

"What do you do, anyway?" Alex had collapsed in a chair in the student center outside the shop and didn't look ready to get up yet. Aristotle knew he was sicker than he wanted to admit, but didn't say anything.

"Murders and acquisitions."

"I loved that movie." Alex turned to Mike. "Feed me a stray cat."

"What are you quoting? Simpsons?"

"American Psycho," Aristotle said. Rhea had texted him and she was a bad typist. He pulled out his reading glasses. "It's a play on the word 'mergers and acquisitions.'"

"Because the 80's guy businessman is a psycho murderer. Or thinks he is," Alex explained. "The movie leaves it open. The book is just ... messed up."

"Books are usually better than movies," Aristotle said, even though he had been quoting the movie, but not really meaning for them to get it to the extent that they did.

"The book was too unstructured. They reordered the scenes for the movie to create a narrative thread. Don't get me wrong - Bret Easten Ellis is a good stream-of-consciousness writer - but there's no climax or conclusion to the book, just an exploration of Patrick's reality based on what he views as important. You can't make that into a movie without losing the audience, so the screenwriter added another layer, that maybe his reality wasn't the real one, and just a result of the drugs he does. But if you watch the movie again, that's clearly not the initial intention of the text. The movie's stronger because it has more layers than just the way Patrick sees the world. It calls his assumptions into question."

"So? Was it real or fake?"

"I told you, the movie leaves it open."

"That's right." When Aristotle used his perfect memory, the movie came back to him. He thought the movie did interesting things with blood, especially in the credits. "The lawyer tells him he had lunch with Paul Allen, but we know Paul Allen must have been dead, because people saw Patrick dragging the body bag. It was a nice joke - they were so oblivious they asked where he got the bag. So either the lawyer was lying, or the lawyer was mistaken."

"And he was just trying to fuck with the audience's heads," Alex said. "But I think it's deeper than that. He says that he's irrelevant in the closing monologue, right? The opposite of Neo in the Matrix when he finds out his reality is a false one. Neo becomes the Messiah and Patrick is a nobody. What Patrick means is the world exists but maybe he doesn't. We're viewing the world through the lens of someone who is unable to influence it, even after the most dramatic attempts. Like the scene were he goes back to the apartment where he stashed the bodies, only to find out it's being shown to people looking to rent? And the woman kicks him out? Reality has its own rules and it's forcing them on him, but he doesn't want to conform. He doesn't even know how to conform. He tries to by giving himself up to the lawyer, and he fails. He's left in some kind of endless loop of events, standing just outside of real existence. I don't think the book had any of that."

"'I think, therefore I am,'" Mike interrupted, and they both stared at him. "Hey, I have some philosophy credits. Two from last semester alone."

"Then the movie contradicts your assertion," Aristotle said. "Patrick thinks but doesn't exist, according to Alex's interpretation. It was always faulty logic on Descartes' part, in my opinion. Too simplistic and self-absorbed. It doesn't answer the question of whether you can be without anyone else to observe you being so. The thinker's existence has to be acknowledged by another thinker for the existence to be confirmed. But Descartes knew he would be read, so that didn't bother him. He couldn't eliminate reality in his assumptions about his existence."

"If a tree falls in the forest, and it hits a mime, does anyone care?" Alex said, and when Aristotle looked perplexed, answered, "The Far Side. It's more interesting than the actual tree line, which had to be said."

"Not after midnight," Mike said, rising to leave. "Oh, Alex - we have that thing."

"Dude, rude to Ari."

"That's why I said 'that thing.'"

Alex frowned and looked at Aristotle, who honestly wasn't expecting them to explain themselves. "Do you want to come to a LAN party?"

"What are we celebrating?"

"...The ability to play Counterstrike?"

"And you can buy us beer," Mike said.

"I can buy you beer," Alex said. "I'm over twenty-one. And if you all want to get hammered, fine. I won't stop you from slowing your reflexes."

"I've read about it - Counterstrike is that game. Like Doom?" In this area, Aristotle felt a little helpless. Normally he could keep up, even prided himself on doing so, but something was making him especially self-conscious tonight.

"Yes. You hunt down your enemies - the other team - and shoot them. Preferably from behind, which is so much more awesome."

Aristotle grinned. "You had me at 'hunt.'"

********************************************

Shortly after sundown the next evening, Rhea arrived with the girls. They were both young, and had used fake IDs to get into the bar where Peter Lazarus hung out anyway. It didn't surprise Aristotle at all when they revealed they were roommates; they spoke as if they had the same brain, and not a very large one at that.

"My dad's dead and I hate my step-mom and my mom's somewhere on the West Coast, so it's cool I guess," said Melanie. The other one, Stephanie, was more upset about abandoning her life and her family, and Rhea weathered the unfortunate task of handling that.

The best way to handle it was methodically, not without emotion but without that enthusiasm that irritated vampires. "So you were both University of Pittsburgh students. Melanie, I'll start with you. What was your major?"

"Philosophy, why?"

"Good choice."

"Always cheat off the guy with the beard and you're fine."

"Oh." He decided not to register any further reaction to that. "Did you have a minor?"

"I'm a sophomore! Why do you care, anyway?"

"I'm trying to assemble a list of areas of knowledge, so I can assign you a work history. Like if you were a journalism major, I could give you a past as reporter."

"I have to work?"

"You have to earn your keep," Rhea said, very diplomatically.

"I can't create an identity with no work history. It's suspicious," he explained.

"I worked at a girl scout camp for three summers," Stephanie announced. "Oh, and one at my dad's firm."

"What did you do there?"

"I was in charge of shredding."

From the look Rhea gave him, a half-smirk, he was not doing a good job of appearing anything but disgusted. "I'm putting secretary in your history."

"Sexist."

"Fine, administrative assistant," he grumbled.

"Girls," Rhea said. "Aristotle is a respected and important member of our community. You will show him some respect."

"Sorry, Aristotle."

"Sorry, Aristotle. Hey, that name is familiar," said Melanie, the philosophy major.

"Lots of famous people were named Aristotle," he said quickly.

"No, that guy - I know! The Kennedy! Aristotle Onassis! Did you know him?"

Aristotle hopped putting his head down on the keyboard wasn't too exaggerated a gesture, as he felt it was the only one that could express his sentiments without causing damage to himself and anyone else in the room.

********************************************

Two hours later - an excruciating long time to interview two subjects, even new ones - he was finally on his way. He didn't drive; he wanted to fly, an experience that was worth the whole of his vampiric condition. He showed up at the computer café with a backpack of computer equipment and thermoses. If anyone asked, he was certainly someone lame enough in their esteem to take the bus.

The café was closed downstairs, but upstairs was set up and hot from the collective body heat and the computers running themselves at maximum capacity. "I did not bring beer. I will not be that guy."

"You can come in anyway," Alex said. "Guys, this is Ari Tuttle, and he can code like a motherfucker. Ari, guys."

"I call not his team!"

"You had to shout that, didn't you? Fag. Just for that I'm shooting you in the back of the head. No, fuck it, I'm using a knife."

"Are we going to play or what?"

Aristotle was familiar with video games. They were entertaining on a certain level, depending on the game, and he enjoyed the thrill of accomplishing something beyond his abilities in normal life (beach volleyball in the sun was one of those things), but he was quickly frustrated by this game. Not the controls, which he mastered after two rounds, but the hunt. His senses demanded more information, but he was limited to only sight and sound, and neither was very good. When he hunted, all five worked together, making the simulation seem as flat as the screen it appeared on.

What was different was the joint effort and the camaraderie, even if these post-adolescents expressed their endearments by spelling the word 'fag' with different uses of capitalization in the text box. He chose his nickname - "the Mind." It was one of his favorites, long out of use.

Alex_The_Great :Ari u R a camping fAG, move

THIS.is.a.Knife1: fuck it hes dead I hate cs

THIS.is.a.Knife1: fucking Fag

TheMind: Where?

Alex_The_Great: Where what

TheMind: Where did that guy come from? I didn't even see him.

The answer came in a different color, from the other team.

Scott_Tennerman: Haha jacked you from behind get glasses

TheMind: I have glasses.

TheMind: Faggot.

THIS.is.a.Knife1: SCOTT TENNERMAN MUST DIE

Alex_The_Great: haha we all saw that coming fag

"Episode of South Park," Alex said to Aristotle's unasked question.

"Thanks. Are we starting again? I'm stuck on this one gun and it sucks."

"You want the MP5 sub machinegun."

"Oh." He selected it and fired a few rounds into the barrels across the digital road. "I think I do."

"Just don't shoot the hostages. Wait, are we the terrorists? Jeff?"

"Dude, we're the terrorists. Shoot the hostages!"

 

THIS.is.a.Knife1: Fuckin noob

TheMind: fag

TheMind: I shot someone

ManBearPig: fuckn noob shot me

 

"Ha!" Aristotle laughed. "I like this game."

********************************************

Despite his temporary euphoria at this new distraction, Aristotle was quickly consumed by interest in his weekend plans. He barely made it through class and then their coding session, apologized for not staying longer, and raced home to get his work done. Birth certificates had to be filled out with the correct typewriter from the correct era, he was forever lamenting ID cards and licenses, and he spent most of the early morning hours engrossed in reading about China's new immigrant absorption policy. He fielded calls from three panicked vampires, put a call into Larry and to a number of couriers, and managed to finish by noon, at which point he dropped like a stone. Even though he had extensive contacts in the mortal world, it was usually through a computer, punctuated by periods of activity where he engrossed himself in some imaginary or real profession - like security manager or student. He'd played doctor on a number of occasions - one of his favorite costumes - to get vampires out of emergency rooms without suspicion. But his recent exposure to the mortal world of MIT's programmers was more intense than anything he had experienced in decades. Even as an established outsider, they seemed ready to accept him into their world if he learned the lingo, to the point where he could, if briefly, imagine that he was one of them.

But he was not. He was a fiend, a predator, a monster not capable of facing the all-seeing, accusing sun. And after such a thorough repression, the vampire that sustained the person who had once been a human named Aristotle wanted freedom.

He knew better than to refuse it. He was going hunting.


Chapter 2

Massachusetts was truly lovely - full of campgrounds and natural woods, some even dating to before the arrival of the pilgrims. In the full moonlight, perched high on a heavy branch, he could see the colors of the changing leaves. Science taught him that they were always colored, but their sustaining chlorophyll turned them green. Only when it came time to starve to death did they show their true selves.

Enough of the philosopher. His mind was concentrated on the hunt, his eyes picking up animals with their tiny heartbeats, un-enticing prey but still within his sphere of awareness. It was still too close to civilization for bears and mountain lions, deer staggered along beneath him, feeding as they went and completely unaware of the very real threat from above. There was a wolf in the distance, trailing the deer. No need to frighten them off, when he had other things to do.

Not far from where he parked were several cars in the 'camping' spaces. When he was close enough, he could smell them, which was why he preferred to stay in the trees. Humans made fires and the smoke drifted upwards, serving as a warning. He ignored the group of scouts around the fire - too much effort. That and part of him was still human, and had always refused to feed on children. Most vampires did.

Across the stream, he leapt down onto the trail and studied it. Two sets of footprints, heading up to the ridge where he knew there was a nice view. He stalked the trail, following it in the deeper foliage. With his senses ringing, and letting the vampire take control, he could smell them before he could hear them. A man and a woman - if they could be called that, so young and stupid and full of that lust only found in those just having lost their innocence but not gained the wisdom required for adulthood. Their insipid giggling made him snarl.

"What the hell was that?"

"I don't know - a deer."

"It didn't sound like a deer. It sounded like a bear or something."

"Baby, there's no bears here. You read the guidebook."

Their fear, only mild now, was all that more tantalizing. He had to heighten it to sweeten the blood. The man arrogantly shined his flashlight around, as if the false light was a sword to warn oncoming villains. At least peasants had been smart enough to use crosses and fire.

"It said there were wolves." She sounded more concerned than scared, but her heart was racing.

"Wolves are more scared of us then we are of them."

"I thought that was bees."

He stayed still, waiting for their heartbeats to slow. He did this so rarely, best to draw it out and take pleasure in every moment of the hunt, even before the prey knew they were being hunted.

The male, still aroused and more frustrated that he'd been stymied, however temporarily, tried to assert his authority again. "The book said the next clearing is the best place to make clamp. The view at sunrise is amazing."

She kissed him, satisfying him for the moment, because there was hope for the immediate future. Aristotle could sense it all without trying. "And you'll be up for sunrise?"

"I have an alarm in my phone. I promise to set it before we get into the heavy stuff." He had, among the camping essentials, a six-pack. Not very essential - or smart. "C'mon."

They continued. He flew ahead. He would let them reach the clearing, but make them eager for their supposed safety. When his boots touched the branch he pressed down, making noise.

"That I heard. Did you hear it? It was in the trees."

"Then it wasn't a bear or a wolf. They can't climb trees."

"What if it was a snake?"

"We're not in the rainforest, silly."

"I'm not being silly," she said, swatting him with annoyance to cover her growing fear. She was the more observant of them. The male discounted her intelligence. Not that they had any hope of escape now, but she would be quicker to seize any opportunity than him. "Let's just get the fire started."

When they pulled out their Duraflame logs, he knew he was safe. Clearly, neither of them had ever lit anything but a cigarette. They couldn't get a chemically-treated piece of dry firewood going, much less sustain it. He swooped around, circling them, and the leaves ruffled with his movement. They were trying to ignore it by an escalating argument about the fire and their failure to create it.

"It's ten minutes to the car - "

"For another lighter that's the same as this one," he said. The male was using a cigarette lighter instead of a torch. "And it's twenty, easily. And back."

"Look, maybe we should - "

"We have a full moon and a flashlight. And no bears." He kissed her; lust so heavy could not be forgotten so easily, even in panic. "Relax, baby. I was a boy scout."

Aristotle laughed. He actually laughed - not very loud, and in his current state, it was far more sinister than his usual amiable chuckle.

"Shit! Do not tell me you didn't hear that."

"It's a prank," he said, still annoyed at another failed attempt to distract his mate. "Or the wind playing tricks on us. Horny teenagers in the woods - how clichéd can you get?"

It's common because it works.

"Well, can you go look, or something?"

Yes. Yes, you want to do that.

"Over there." She pointed in Aristotle's general direction. "Just look, okay? And don't find anything and I'll feel better."

He huffed. "If it makes you feel better."

"It will."

It won't.

"Keep working on the fire," the male commanded, and stepped into the clearing. Even with the flashlight he could see very little, and wandered about somewhat, giving his mate extra frights each time he stumbled into some patch or caused a twig to snap. "Sorry! Just me! Looking for nothing!"

But he was scared. He smelled of fear that appeared as his confidence in the evening's adventures drained and reality set in. Aristotle watched from above, letting him circle around until he was just beneath -

The male swung his flashlight's beam up just in time to see Aristotle leap from the tree, his reaction a confused combination of a scream and a curse as Aristotle toppled his prey, tearing away the jacket. The beating heart rattled his ears and he could smell the blood beneath the skin before he broke it, sinking his fangs into clammy but warm flesh. The kind of flesh only the living produced. The kind of experience only the living produced - they were the finest vintage of all.

It was not his intention to drain him dry, but the girl wouldn't go far, and he was lost anyway, seeing only red and feeling only the blood. The young man's brief life was filled with sensations and experiences that were, at that moment, his to revel in, to absorb in one sweet moment of ecstasy. When he had taken it all - not all of the blood, but all of what the blood could offer - he pulled out from the now-limp form, catching it before it dropped. The pounding in his ears was down and he could hear the girl screaming. He snapped the man's neck - no accidental fledglings would be made tonight - and, fangs still bared, turned to face the girl head-on.

What did she see, in those moments before she turned to run? The beast in human form, or just a monster? He would never have a chance to ask her. He stood still, growling and letting her get a head start. He'd come this far, and saw no reason to end the festivities early.

She went for the trail, of course. In the dark, downhill, and with only a weak flashlight that if nothing would ruin her night vision and further confuse her sense of direction. It was too dark to find the colored markers set by the rangers on the trees, and he was positive she was incapable of that level of coherent thought, anyway. She was dangerous, in this state - to fall and kill herself, or lose blood, would be a disappointment. Instead he was waiting for her at the stream, and the log meant to cross it.

She threw the flashlight at him. It came nowhere near him, even if he hadn't moved. He grabbed her and pulled her hood clear. Beneath it, even her sweat smelled of fear, a scent other predators would pick up if she lived long enough. She wouldn't.

He still heard her screams until he tasted the flesh and blood, and then they were gone. She hadn't stopped, but he was beyond that now. All of his senses were regulated to processing the magical elixir of her blood, and her memories that came with it. Safe in her mother's arms. Playing on the grass with the other children. Being called out in school. Her first kiss, her first boyfriend, her first everything and last everything.

He drained her dry.

There was little reason to, but still whirling from the experience, he had enough sense to break her neck and dump her body deeper into the bushes, further off the trail. Then he collapsed, kneeling with a hand on the tree to steady him. The vampire was reluctant to recede, but he did not force it. Given time, the beast would move from ecstasy to a more lasting contentment, satisfied with the night's events. The thrill of the hunt was receding, but the afterglow carried him on his merry way back to the car, miles from the scene of carnage he left behind for the wolves he had ignored earlier to pick at before the bodies were found.

He shambled to his car, his senses still working on overload. The road was abandoned for that time of night, and he focused on the necessities. He shed his bloody outer layers and replaced them with fresh ones from the trunk. He wiped his face, enough to get him home without coming home looking drenched, and put the correct plates back on his car.

He sat in the driver's seat and put his head down on the wheel. It was some time before he was collected enough to drive. Music always helped. He had a cassette set up, and both Aristotle and the beast hummed their way through 'Life Can Be a Dream' all the way home.

********************************************

Once a month and only with great reluctance, Aristotle held a sort of open door session at the Blue Angel, Boston's only vampire-owned club. His history with the owner, Elizabeth Beckham (originally Duchess Elizabeth Cavendish), dated back through all of her five centuries. Boston was not a major vampire city, and she played Elder despite her youth, and because she was very good at her job of keeping the young ones from running amok with the college student population. Universities were just too careful about student deaths these days, and could only write up so many as a result of alcohol poisoning or suicide - or so he insisted, and she readily agreed. The club, then, was more designed to keep the vampires in town away from the unsuspecting population and the population away from them. It was fashionable, but not too trendy, and catered to a milder form of the BDSM crowd, which kept the college students away unless they really wanted to get into trouble. Fetishists (within reason), normal club- going mortals, and vampires filled the dance floor, and Elizabeth monitored it from her office above and its one-way mirror window.

She had only one other request of him and she asked it so politely that he actually committed to her terms, which were that he be dressed decently. They had different definitions, of course. His clothes were always clean, well-pressed, free of stains and adhering to the modern guidelines of modesty. However much he argued this point, Elizabeth insisted jeans and T-shirts were not acceptable, and offered to pay the bill for a personal shopper. In the end he wound up with precisely two suits (in case one got blood on it) that could pass as something worn by someone with not a lot taste but a decent cash flow. She only wished she'd been more specific about the tie, as he made sure it never matched no matter how expensive it was. She knew it was to harmlessly irritate her, and he knew that she knew, and they were both fine with that.

"You look hideous," she said to his outfit, all very perfectly matched except for the tie with the periodic table of elements on it.

"I try," he replied as he took his usual seat in her office and set up his laptop. Most of the clients would be locals with questions or minor requests; more detail would require privacy and an appointment. Being available here cut down his appointment hours, without people stopping in his office to ask for one thing that wasn't his department anyway. He was looking to trim his hours, being dangerously addicted to both the Sisyphus project and Counterstrike. The only reason he wasn't doing either of them now was because he felt compelled to share a glass of blood wine with Elizabeth. She always brought out her best stock for him. It didn't compare to his recent woodland adventures, but it was still quite good, even by his ridiculous standards. "It's good."

"You don't like it."

"That's cruel and untrue. Untrue because it is good and cruel because you know I would never think that of your selections."

"Not everyone has the time to make their own. Or do it so well. Speaking of ..."

"I don't have the tub set up. My whole basement is filled with equipment and the rest of the furniture is so ancient. Wait - did I just say something a hundred years old was ancient? Thank goodness I'm talking about plumbing."

"You are the one who will be forever young."

"At heart," he finished for her. He was forever sixty-two - older than most people who were brought across. "But I appreciate the sentiment."

They met at court - Queen Elizabeth's court, to be precise. When he was a member of the Privy Council, he was introduced - despite his best intentions - to most of England's nobleman and women. And he was there to clean up the mess left when her first hunger caused her to kill her husband. Her master thought it was amusing, not having any sense of propriety or notion of the scandal it would cause. With some help from Aristotle, she continued her reign as Duchess for another thirty years before faking her death and moving on, after she arranged for her son's successful marriage. When she asked why, he said it was the least he could do to keep the Enforcers out of England.

"I'm supposed to keep a lookout for Peter Lazarus," Elizabeth said. "Something about him creating two fledglings by accident and abandoning them."

He shrugged.

"Know all about it, do you?"

He shrugged again.

"Of course you do. You make conversation very hard."

"You could ask me what I'm up to."

"I can, but you won't answer."

"I have hobbies, you know."

"Yes, as the campus beatnik. Very amusing."

"I'm not a beatnik."

She sipped from her crystal goblet. "I admire your ability to associate with mortals, though I can't quite comprehend your desire to. And don't try to write it off as research for work. You don't have to hang out with them, too."

"Spying on me, are you?"

"If you weren't so absorbed in your mortal fascinations you might have noticed. I am the city Elder, and will be unless some Ancient whose been passing himself off as much younger wants to claim the title." Leadership always went, almost without exception, to the oldest. Which, by a long shot, was Aristotle.

He just shook his head. "I can't imagine who would be that foolish." And he didn't have to listen to her response, as there was a knock on the door. It was a man, barely twenty years since his conversion, with a question about money. It was almost always about money, even though Aristotle wasn't the banker. He was used to it.

For the next three hours he answered the assorted questions and took requests from the local population, and a few who had come into the state for the evening to see him in person instead of calling him. He knew most of them, but he almost never chatted when he was working.

"Why do you keep us at such a distance?" Elizabeth said when he sent away the last guest and poured himself another glass of wine.

Why was she being so observant? "I'm a professional."

"You're a vampire."

The memories of 'camping' still simmered, stirring the beast. "I haven't forgotten."

"Vampires need other vampires."

"I am sitting in a vampire club with a city Elder, if that counts toward anything." But he didn't want to get into this, not even with her. He cared about other vampires individually, if they were friends, and about the Community as a whole. No one could say he did not contribute more than his fair share to their preservation of the Code. But was he exclusive, shying away from mortals and whiling away his hours with his fellow immortals? No. And did he want to tell her why? That was out of the question. "And that should count for the evening." He looked away from her, out the one-way glass. Below, the club made excellent use of the strobe lights to create a surreal atmosphere. In the thick of it, he could only tell the mortals from the vampires by their heartbeats. And vampires were rarely stupid enough to wear - "Holy shit!"

"What? What's wrong?"

"Nothing." He started laughing and couldn't stop. He scrambled for his phone. "I have to get a picture of this. I hope it works through the window."

"Aristotle..."

"See the guy, in the bondage outfit without the mask?"

"Which one?"

"The one on the leash with the blond leading him." He snapped a picture and looked at his phone to check its quality. "That's my professor! He's the head of the computer engineering department."

"Is he married?"

"Not to her!"

Even Elizabeth, usually so serious, found this hilarious.

********************************************

The next two weeks were a blur of coding, with his usual meetings squeezed somewhere in the gray zone between lines of code and blood drunk straight out of the bottle. He barely had time to call Nick and say yes, he would be available that weekend, and looked forward to seeing him.

The house would have been a mess if not for his maid, a nice old woman and easily-made thrall. Frieda was so heavily under his influence he wondered if she understood how much he paid her, and how she didn't have to work the other days in other people's houses if she didn't want to. She also knew never to open the refrigerator (locked with a keypad anyway) or bother him downstairs in his office. He didn't keep much 'vampire' paraphernalia around the main house so it wasn't much of a problem even if she was capable of telling someone about this job.

The sound of her vacuuming in the living room woke him downstairs. He picked his head off the keyboard with a groan and wandered upstairs to get something fresh from the fridge. "Drapes," he groaned, and she quickly drew them shut. She was the only one who opened them and she closed them when she left.

"Sorry, Mr. Aristotle. I thought you were asleep upstairs."

"I was asleep downstairs." And his face probably still had the imprint of the keyboard on it. "The place is ... kind of a mess. I'm taking this course and it's just crazy. What time is it?"

"Twelve-thirty, Mr. Aristotle."

"And what day is it?"

She smiled with a little mocking disapproval thrown in. "Wednesday, Mr. Aristotle."

"Wednesday?" He cursed in Latin, the first language that came to mind. He had a LAN party to get to.

********************************************

Aristotle's desire to fire a digital gun at his pixilated enemies was stymied by a downed server. Twelve computer nerds and none of them had suggestions that worked. It made it worse that none of them could decide which fix to implement and in what order.

Aristotle collapsed in a lounge chairs, nursing a bottle of what appeared to be a very dark shade of Hawaiian Punch. "Too make cooks."

"I hear you," Alex said, clinking their soda bottles together. His was ginger ale - and actually what was printed on the label. "I feel like we should be coding anyway."

"Hey, if you want to, I'm not going to stop you."

Alex sat down next to him. "You know five people have dropped the class?"

"I was warned about it when I applied."

"How much does it cost to audit and get the same education that we do?"

"Thirty-five dollars. How much do you pay?"

"I think undergrads pay something like $3000 a course. Or it comes out that way. I did the math once."

"And grad students?"

"I'm scholarship, all the way. Why do you think I was a summer TA?"

"Is it enough to live or is it a stipend?"

"Both, sort of. I live in graduate housing, I TA two courses a semester and I can only take two that aren't related to my thesis. But I'm on the meal plan and the health plan, and I have a stipend for books and whatever. The free ride is the only thing keeping me here."

"What about your thesis?"

"I finished my thesis."

"You haven't defended?" He heard students considered defending their thesis the worst part of it. He considered the argument not to be only the most important part of presenting an idea, but the most enjoyable. But instead he said, "I heard that's tough."

Alex shook his head. "I could have done it two years ago. I'm ready. But my scholarship ends when I get my PhD - so shhh!" He put his finger up to his lips.

"You don't want to leave college? The way you work with a computer, Microsoft must be banging down your door. Or you could at least get a professorship at some Midwestern college. They're always looking to expand their computer science departments." It would be a good place to place vampires, if only they would learn computers.

"This is what I want," Alex said, gesturing to what was around them. "That and to live to see the Singularity, but I have my doubts about it."

He wasn't expecting this sort of conversation and welcomed it. "I have my doubts about the Singularity."

"You don't see it happening? The explosion of information? The challenging of all previously known methods of thought? The new level of comprehension computers can provide? I thought you were a nerd, Ari."

He smiled sheepishly. "Heisenberg's uncertainty principle."

"What about it?"

"Assume for a moment all of the knowledge in the world could be contained - something we're steadily moving towards. The moment we contain it, we begin to observe it, and the interpretation contains new knowledge. We change it by continuing to exist. The only way to achieve the ultimate height of knowledge is to collect it and then destroy everything else."

"To dumb down this conversation, like that Futurama episode."

He was actually familiar with it, but he was more impressed with Alex's familiarity with quantum physics. "Yes, precisely. Ultimate knowledge, if Heisenberg is correct, can never be achieved."

"But Heisenberg himself didn't have perfect knowledge, so how can we know until we try? Conceivably we could reach a point where both knowing all previous knowledge and also knowing all future knowledge is possible. Heisenberg died in the 70's - before computers were common. He had to make his conclusions purely from mathematical formulas and theoretical technology."

"Mathematics are a purer state than computers. Formulas don't break down when you're trying to have a party. They are limited only by our own comprehension of them."

Alex laughed. "I'll have to rely on time to prove me right - or wrong. Either way, it'll be interesting."

Now he was curious. "Did you minor in mathematics?" It could, at times, be the closest thing to philosophy there was.

"As an undergrad? Double major - computer science and math theory."

"At MIT?"

"At Yale. MIT is just my grad school. They don't like you to continue on at the same place, and MIT had a better computer science department for what I wanted to do. And they gave me a scholarship. I really wanted to get out of New Haven."

"You're from Connecticut?" He knew Yale took very few state residents as students, for some bizarre admissions reason.

"Yes, I'm from the drive-through state. You?"

He weighed it, and decided to be honest. "Greece."

"Moved when you were young?"

"Much younger than I am now."

"Ever been married? If we're doing biographies here."

"Twice. Though the second didn't legally count. And no, not because it was gay. It had to do with her citizenship not matching mine. Very complicated. But I loved her."

"What happened?"

"One of us died," he said, which was not entirely accurate. Technically both of them had died, depending on one's definition. "And I lost my first wife to a complication in childbirth. My daughter, too." He didn't know why he was saying all this. Maybe it was the innocent nature of mortals, who wouldn't store the information in their brains and turn around to use it to their advantage two hundred years from now. Maybe because they all knew the old loner had a story and the only person who thought to ask was someone who seemed genuinely interested.

And Alex was embarrassed. "Wow. I'm sorry."

"It was a long time ago."

"I guess my child-of-divorce story isn't that bad."

"It's not a contest," he said. "You don't win or lose."

Something about this was heartening to Alex, whose expression softened. "My mom and dad split when I was like, three. My dad died in a car accident and my mom remarried. She said the divorce made her smoke like a chimney and she died of lung cancer during my freshman year, so all I have is my step-dad. Not much to keep me in New Haven."

"You can go wherever you'd like, once you graduate."

Alex laughed, but something wasn't right about it. Something was sad about it. Aristotle focused on his heartbeat, but as usual it was calm, even a little slow. Or maybe he was having trouble comparing it to the other people in the room, who were all shouting and their beating hearts calling to him. "I should go," Aristotle announced. "Actually get some work done at my actual work."

"What do you do, anyway?"

"I move things around for other people."

"Oooo, secretive."

"More like lucrative," he responded, and said his goodbyes. Other than Alex, nobody heard him.

********************************************

"Come now, you must marry," Xenocrates said, an odd opener for a conversation, but not an unusual one. The nagging nature of the question was designed so it could not be ignored. "It will get you out of this ..."

"Research?" Aristotle said, still not looking up from the cage he was so focused on. Of the hundreds of wooden cages in the room, this was his newest, or at least its occupant was. The bird did not take well to the notion and flew from end to end, but never succeeded in damaging itself. He would have to realize it when he was done taking down its specifics. It had an island name, but that hardly satisfied him. "You want to interrupt my research? How selfish of you, to deny the universe its proper study. Is our existence not worthy of that respect?"

" ... depression."

Having been bitten by too many birds, Aristotle knew better than to stick his hand in the cage. He used a wooden device instead to bring the seed into the cage, but the bird would not eat. It was too distressed. "I challenge you to prove your theory."

"We are not at the Academy!"

"No." He frowned, and not at the bird. "But we are sophists all the same. I did not abandon my principles as easily as my adherence to a particular school."

"Then I challenge you instead, to prove to me you are over the old man's death and your reclusion has nothing to do with it."

Aristotle, angered, looked to his friend for the first time since he'd entered. "You can say his name without destroying me. And you ought to show him that respect."

"Ha! By empirical evidence, my theory is proven," Xenocrates said, and quickly softened. "I would not insist if I did not think it best for you."

"And you, not being me, are then the expert on what is best for me? Does this sort of scholarship require perspective from the inside or out? Know thyself." He had not known Socrates, but he was useful for supporting his theses - especially against Plato.

Xenocrates was right, of course. Saying his name made it so much worse. Aristotle returned to the bird, only to discover the seed was gone, the little monster having consumed it in his observational absence.

"Come with me across the water and drink tonight. If nothing you will gain further wisdom of the idiocy of the good men of Atarneus. They are so eager to meet you."

"They are too eager to meet me, and drink freely of my wisdom, as a man swallows a cup to convince his host the wine is good and gain his favor. Promise me you will only introduce me to men who do not have unmarried daughters."

"I can promise the opposite."

Aristotle scowled, but he did go.

********************************************

The dream startled him, causing the very rare occasion where he woke only a step behind the vampire, and was already thinking on it before there was blood in his mouth. Plato never truly left his mind, but he had not thought of his wife Pythias, or his father-in-law Hermias of Atarneus, in years. Centuries maybe for the later. There was an easily-reached conclusion to this, that speaking of it with Alex had brought these memories to the surface. They would sink again as other things consumed him, their immersion almost artificial in how temporary it was.

Maybe Elizabeth was right, and he was getting too close to these humans. But if they survived unscathed and he had a few dreams of his former life in the sun, what harm could come of it?

Famous last words, he snickered, and went in for a shower. And preferably, a very long and very hot bath.


Chapter 3

Aristotle's shabby attempts at a life were consumed by work and coding. His usual pile of magazines went untouched and sprung up like a tree in spring. The only thing on his schedule, as his computer was set to constantly remind him, was Nick's visit to town. That was an appointment he would not be missing. Even if he could not imagine something in his life that would interest the younger vampire, it would be good to talk to him. It was always good to talk to him. Nicholas de Brabant was as he had always been and always would be - warm and accepting, despite his notoriously difficult upbringing. He always looked surprised when Aristotle accepted his never-ending quest for humanity - something no other vampire afforded him - while he was always surprised that Nick tolerated all of the things Aristotle did that so bothered other vampires. They were both odd ships that so very rarely passed in the night. It was worth it to savor it, though he doubted the extent to which that could be taken was on Nick's mind that night. He was married.

The conference was at the Hilton downtown, or one of them, and around eleven Aristotle avoided the security mortals as he walked in. Minus the name tag, he could easily pass as one of the academics, but avoiding the attention of people not looking for him was an important skill honed over centuries to such perfection that he didn't always realize when he used it. The lobby was filled with professor-types returning from restaurants, stumbling a bit after overindulging in that second glass of wine.

"Hammered is one of the only ways to get through some of these things," Nick said from behind as Aristotle watched someone trip to the elevator. "Aristotle."

He'd sensed him before Nick was properly in the hotel, but he hadn't said anything. "Nick." He looked at the name tag. "Professor Lambert, PhD."

"That's right. I do have that, in Pre-Columbian archaeology. I can't always remember where I got it."

"Arizona State," he said, having written Nick's current résumé. "How are you?"

Nick embraced him. "Already bored. Can you recommend anything?"

"Not to your tastes, Nick. Unless you intend to surprise me."

They settled on the diner near the hotel, empty before the post-club-closing rush. Nick paid for the coffee. "I keep forgetting the dollar is more here. I thought this was cheap coffee." Nick lived in Winnipeg, where he was participating in a dig looking for remnants of aboriginal bison hunters.

Aristotle looked down at his cup, with no intention of touching it. "I don't doubt that it is." Normally they would go to a house or a club and share wine, but he wasn't sure what Nick was currently drinking and if he had any. "How's Canada?"

"Quiet, at least where you sent me. Thanks, by the way."

"How's Natalie?"

"Very happy. She just received another grant for genetic research. She insists on earning them on her own - kind of a status thing in the research community."

He chuckled, and resisted the urge to say something about the status thing in the house and home. "And Kate?"

"Starts pre-school next year."

"They grow up so fast." Actually her name was Katherine, as it said on her birth certificate, one of the few things in the Lamberts' current existence that he did not have to write himself, though he had a copy on file, along with her adoption papers. Whenever they moved next - probably before she started high school - he would have to revise some of it.

"Did you have children?"

"Two. My daughter died while I was still alive, and my son I wasn't involved in. He was an infant when I was brought across." He shook his head. "What is it with everyone asking me about my life? My actual life?"

Nick never failed to be good-natured about it. "I guess because you know all about ours. Why, has someone been asking more than usual?"

"No." He decided to change his answer. "Yes. Mortals. They're so curious. And I thought they didn't trust anyone over thirty."

"Maybe they're making an exception. And I thought you didn't 'do' mortals."

"Says the man at the academic conference."

"I'm quoting you, though."

"This is why I don't like to go on record. You get quoted," he grumbled. "The future, Nick. It's in computers. What the hell do you think I'm doing in Boston, pilgrim research? MIT is amazing - and their registrar secretary isn't a Resistor. They usually are, for some reason. I think because they have to say no to students so often."

"Is that why you've been so busy?"

"Who said that? There's no vampires in Winnipeg - I made sure of it."

"I own a phone. And a computer. Did you know you have a waiting list?"

For the waitress' sake, he pretended to sip his coffee. The flavor was noxious. "Of course I know. It's just not that bad yet. You've never seen bad. 1946, that was bad. I was flying across Europe for years, trying to clear that up. And 75? I couldn't get a moment's peace."

"I remember that. Why was that?" He was in Chicago, trying to get something simple, and he had to wait six months.

"Russia. Cold War. Long story." He waved it off. Nick was too much a historian and it wasn't worth the explanation. Nick would demand too many painful details. "Let's just say you all take me for granted and leave it at that."

"I don't."

"It was more of a collective you," he said, a little guiltily. If he was in anyone's debt, it was Nick's. "Sorry."

"If you don't like what you do - "

"I do like it," he defended. "I love my work. But I have other interests. You know about balance. It gets frustrating."

"Like Counterstrike?"

Aristotle frowned, then looked down at his book bag on the table, and jacket flap that was open. One of the books' spine clearly read Counter-strike Strategy Guide. "Yes." He added, "It's fun. Like hunting in a pack - without the negative implications."

"The moral ones, you mean."

"Yeah. Those." It was something other vampires would make light of, but not Nick. Nick was always different. "Do you have plans?"

"I'm giving a lecture in a basement conference room at three PM tomorrow, so I have to be back by sunup. Otherwise, no."

Aristotle raised his eyebrows. "What are you drinking these days?"

********************************************

To Aristotle's surprise, Nick was more than happy to fly - actually fly - to the Back Bay Victorian he called home. There really were not enough opportunities to see Nick since Toronto, and know what he was up to and what he was currently doing to decimate his body. Apparently, simply not killing his mortal wife by accident was enough torture and otherwise he was back on the vampire's natural cycle, minus the nasty bits about murdering humans for their blood. If he was still prone to long-winded rants about the nature of mortality and the evil nature of the vampire, he was not in the mood tonight and Aristotle would be the last person to nudge him into it. Instead Nick was content to view the private lair of the master hacker-vampire, human though it was.

"What's the bathtub for?"

"Bathing, Nick. Surely LaCroix taught you something of it."

Nick rolled his eyes. "The one in the backyard."

Aristotle pulled his head out of the storage fridge, where he had been busy looking for one of his better vintages. The kind for guests, not clients. "That is for wine-pressing, but I haven't gotten around to installing it anywhere. My neighbors must think it's for gardening."

"I remember now - you used to have a whole vat in your French château."

That was before the war - the second to be called 'the war' - and yes, he did. "That was before computers."

"Computers don't make wine."

"You know what I mean. Aha!" He finally found it, and wondered if it was still good. Only one way to find out. "Here it is. I don't know what went so right about this batch. I wish I did." He poured Nick a glass, then himself. He retreated to the living room couch, awaiting Nick's assessment.

"This is really good. Where did you learn to make wine like this?"

"There was a time when everyone knew how to make wine, Nicholas," he said. "And the rest is merely a combination of experience and luck. So - how's suburban life?"

"I should ask you that." Nick took a seat, looking around at the complete inconspicuous surroundings. Sure, he might have had a few more video game systems and DVDs than the average homeowner, but he was a bachelor. It was certainly not supernatural to own every gaming platform since the early nineties and have them all hooked to the same television via router.

"How's married suburban life?"

"I love it." Nick was practically glowing with his usual boyish charm, amplified by more contentment than Aristotle had seen in decades. Assuaging to his soul or not, his violence-related professions like policeman or combat medic were so draining, and his academic forays provided him with a stability rarely seen otherwise. "I'm home from work in time to take care of Katie for the day, until Nat gets home. We eat dinner, and I go to work." He was on the night shift of the dig. Technically, his position was more of a guard, or would be if he was mortal. "The most suspicion I've gotten is that I'm better at finding things at night than any archaeologist they've ever had at the site. I found what we think was part of spear - the longest one found yet. But I think Nat is more amused that I'm amused than actually excited about the spear. She put up a good performance the day I found it. I have to give her credit for that."

"Not everyone is so obsessive about archaeology." He personally had been in the area two thousand years prior, but Nick's dig was searching a species of human that lived four thousand years prior, so he did not contribute his personal travelogue. That and he shied away from things in his history that would date him. “She has her own research. Expensive research. Grant-winning research."

"Yes." Nick had a smile on that made Aristotle suspicious. "Speaking of-"

"Got an impossible request for me? Can't you visit without strings attached? Someone should."

Nick winked. "I know you'll say no. Everyone has. But I promised I would ask." He finished his glass and Aristotle poured his guest another. "Natalie wants to do a genetic panel of vampires."

"Nick - "

"Not for the cure. For research. When she moved into this field, she started on me about vampire genetics - did they function like human genetics, could we be traced to common ancestors, that sort of thing. And I realized I couldn't answer her. There's the Old Ones, the Ancients, Fledglings, and me somewhere in between. Even LaCroix's construction of his family was artificial. I was married to my sister. All Nat needs is a few tubes of blood - which, I know, is a few tubes too much. But I'm asking, so you can say no and we can move on."

Aristotle didn't respond, and sipped his blood wine.

"Aristotle?"

He looked up at Nick. "It's an interesting idea. Fascinating, actually. And valuable. But no, it can't be done."

"The Enforcers."

"Well, yes."

"Why?"

"Why what?"

"Why would the Enforcers care? Natalie already knows about vampires and this isn't looking for a cure. If anything, it would benefit the Community. The only thing LaCroix will really tell me about our history is that so much of it was lost before he was made. We don't know how old the vampire gene is, where it originates, if it's self- generating or if we have a common ancestor - "

He interrupted, "I know we don't. And the Enforcers would have to be told what she was doing was wrong by the Council, and they wouldn't know why, but they wouldn't question their orders." He had to explain that, of course, but Nick deserved it. "A lot of our history was lost for a reason. Stories became myths, and by the time you were brought across, they weren't being repeated, even as myths. The Council let our secrets be buried and, unlike your mortal colleagues, isn't eager to go unearthing them."

Nick's expression said it for him - 'Why?'

Aristotle laughed. "Why else, Nick? Why didn't LaCroix tell you about Divia until he was forced to? Because it was hideous and embarrassing, those memories were something he wanted to bury with her. History is written by the winners, and as I'm sure you're aware, the winners might have cheated."

"How do you know about Divia?"

"I know your whole lineage up to Qa'ra's master, Ra'el. I'm probably the only one who does." He mused, "I haven't said that name out loud in a thousand years. Maybe more. If vampires had ever once had a chronicler, it would have been me. But the Council decided to destroy that position and I kept my opinions to myself so they didn't destroy me. So I would be interested in her study - very interested. A lot of ancient bloodlines were lost around the rise of the Roman Empire, and we could probably re-find them with enough participants. But that requires a lot of awkward questions that people don't want to answer."

Maybe it was the wrong thing to say, even though it was necessary, because Nick's expression changed to his usual one of frustration, one Aristotle had seen so often during Nick's different careers as a policeman working on a case. "So the Council's just going to shut us down."

"Yes."

"And there's nothing I can do about it."

"Not without getting your family killed and your own life ruined, no."

"Even you wouldn't - "

"Nick, how about this? I'll just tell you how I'm related to you." He took another, bigger gulp of wine. "We're third cousins."

"What?"

"I think it's third cousins. Not sure what the designation is." He finished his glass and held it up for Nick to pour him another, which got Nick to stop pacing. The pacing was making him nervous. "My master and Divia's master were brothers."

Nick was so cute when his jaw dropped. He really was. "What?"

"You have perfect recall. I don't think I have to repeat myself." To this, his guest could say nothing. He started on the new glass, the only way he was going to get through this conversation. "I was my master's last creation. He died about a hundred years later, but not before he'd briefly but memorably introduced me to his brother. Between their age and heritage, they had the power to conquer the world. They didn't because the sorts of people who have world-conquering potential don't generally get along. After my master died, I was sent to look for my uncle, but Divia had already killed him. Based on our encounter, I can't say I was terribly sorry. Sorry to insult your great-grandfather, but it's true."

His guest sat down in the armchair instead of resuming his pacing. He didn't speak for awhile and Aristotle didn't force him. He was busy trying to stave off his own memories of Qa'ra, all of them bad. Nick's question was naively full of self-preservation. "Does LaCroix know?"

"No. He's never asked and I've never offered the information. Is he going to get it all from you now?"

"No," Nick said quickly. "I can bury it. He said he'd stay out of my head for awhile anyway. I don't know if he'll honor it, but you know how it is."

Aristotle nodded.

"Was your master the same way?"

"I was never capable of hiding anything from him. And if I tried, I was punished. So, we can commiserate together."

"I didn't come here to upset you." He moved quickly from investigative Nick to guilty Nick. He was disturbingly good at it. "I'll go."

"Don't," he decided. "I said I didn't agree with the Council about burying the past. I should honor my own words. But there is an emotional component to their decision. Tell your wife that when you tell her I said no."

Nick nodded obediently.

"If you leave now I'll just think about it until I go to sleep, and I don't want to relive any of that. Ever." But it was a lie in that he knew he would. He just wasn't prepared for the immediacy of the notion. "You owe me."

"I'm game. What's your price?"

Four AM came more quickly than either of them expected. The sun had not risen, or the sky lightening, but their internal clocks said that it would soon - and that it was time for Nick to retreat to his daily shelter. In this case, it meant the convention center, because he had to give a speech there.

"I think you have to leave," Aristotle said. "It's late."

"Early. But I know what you mean." Nick smiled and finished his run. "One more game."

"I don't think I have any more coordination left after - what was it I was drinking?"

"I don't know what you're drinking."

Aristotle looked down and read the label. "Scotch. Doesn't mix well."

"You having no coordination is the only way I'll win, which I'd like to someday." He grinned and selected “start” on the battle mode again. Aristotle was a fierce opponent even when drunk, but this time, his monkey-shaped donkey's cart finally succeeded in pushing Aristotle's mushroom man over the edge. "Haha. Loser."

"You - you got me drunk and had your way with my Mario Cart!" He pushed Nick in the arm, toppling the other vampire on the carpet.

"You got me into this game."

"Don't blame this on me! Don't even try." He stood, with some difficulty, and helped Nick off the floor. "I can out-debate you, Nick. Even drunk."

He did have a cute smile, that radiated a youth that he did not truly have, and yet still could be seen. "Fine. I won't try. It was good to see you."

"You, too. Say hello to the wife and kid," he said. "Tell Natalie all we did was drink other people's blood."

"I'll phrase it differently," he replied, and was gone.

********************************************

Alcohol was a soothing balm without the nastiness of a mortal hangover, and it was one of the few remaining things that could make him sleep through the day. When Aristotle stirred on the couch, which was as far as he had made it, it was dusk, and his phone was ringing. The quicker way to silence it was to deal with it, or smash it, and he didn't have a replacement phone. This was his replacement phone. "What?" he growled, somewhat literally.

"Ari? Did I wake you? Shit, sorry man."

He forced the beast down. "No. I mean yes, you did, but it's fine." He curled up on the couch with the cordless. "What time is it?"

"Almost six. I won't call but I'm sure Mike's been texting you all day. He put some error in the script last week and it just started causing problems. We don't know where the hell it is but if we don't find it, we're not going to be on schedule for Tuesday's class." There was some genuine concern in Alex's voice. "Is it a bad time? I know you have a life and stuff."

"No. Last night would have been a bad time. This is a good time. Let me get on my computer and call you back, okay?"

"Okay. Sorry again."

He didn't argue the point and let Alex hang up. They were working diligently while he was drinking and playing games with his friend. Mortals - and we think we're so different from them. He smiled and poured himself a fresh mug of uncut blood before descending to his office. He wasn't sure how Nick's visit would go, though a combination of hard liquor and Mario Kart was on the list. Low on the list, but it was there. Telling Nick of their shared lineage was not, though he could look at it with perspective as he watched his computers boot that it was probably inevitable. Nicholas was too curious for his own good and always had been, which had in the past even worked to Aristotle's advantage, especially during the Inquisition. He really did owe him a great deal, and all he asked for was the truth. Not the whole truth, thankfully - that would have been a much longer and more painful conversation.

"I'm on," he said into his headset as Alex picked up on the other end. "Now what kind of trouble did you kids get into while I was gone?"

********************************************

By Tuesday they were back on track, though who had messed up the line of code was still an area of some contention. Professor Steiner was meeting with all the remaining students by project group, and he had scheduled them for half an hour before class. Unfortunately, Aristotle could not hypnotize over the internet, and piling onto his recent misfortunes was an unusually sunny day. Only one week to daylight savings was one of his few coherent thoughts as he cowered in the men's room, trying to gain control over the vampire as his burns healed from a very painful drive. He finished his flask of blood entirely before he was able to leave the bathroom.

"You look like shit."

He opened his eyes, hoping they were brown. "Thanks," he said to Mike, and tried not to contemplate what ripping the fat bastard apart would feel like. He had no real dislike of the undergrad, but he wasn't in the mood to be understanding about Mike's lack of social skills. He was in the mood to tear him limb from limb.

"Do you want to go to Health and Human Services? I know you're not a student but it's not like they're going to kick you out - "

The voice was not Mike's. Aristotle, now sitting on the floor outside the professor's office, looked up at Alex. "I'm fine."

"You're all ... blistered."

Not as much as he'd been five minutes ago, but yes. "I had an allergy attack from Steiner's scheduling. I took my meds and I'll be fine."

Alex, with his soothing and enticing heartbeat, looked him over. "What are you allergic to?"

"I have solar urticaria," he said. "Allergy to ultraviolet radiation."

"Sunlight."

"Yes."

"Like a vampire?"

"Yes. Like a vampire." He stood, smiling at the perceived joke.

"It's an autoimmune disorder, right?" Alex said. "I hear there's a whole new set of infusion drugs coming out to treat that."

Aristotle stood as Professor Steiner opened the door for them to enter. "And I heard the side effects are liver failure and death. I'll take the night shift." He slapped Alex on the back, which hurt his hands more than it could have possibly hurt Alex.

********************************************

"What's with you and Steiner?" Alex said at the following night's LAN party, the first time they had to talk. After class they took a break and Aristotle welcomed it, returning home to drink half a bottle of blood wine before finally getting to all the paperwork that piled up while he was either drunk or coding. Those passports weren't going to stamp themselves. "Every time you look at him, you look like you want to crack up."

"That?" Aristotle put on the headset for the computer. "Oh, private joke. I'll tell you sometime."

"Does he know? Because he's glaring at you."

"No. He doesn't know. What team are we?" The computer loaded tonight's information. "What, the Baghdad mod again?"

"You have to admit it's cool."

"Yes, and timely. And the Arabic on the wall by the gate is even mostly correct, but that doesn't mean I'm not sick of it."

"Says the man who's never written a mod," said Jake, another student from the comp sci department, also on his team tonight.

Aristotle chuckled. "I'd love to take you up on that challenge, but not until winter break. The very aptly-named Sisyphus project is ruling my life." He logged in with his usual handle, TheMind. No one else would ever get the joke, but handles weren't about other people necessarily getting the joke.

 

THIS.is.a.Knife1: remember to shoot this time camping fag

TheMind: Remember not to shoot me this time

 

/ManBearPig has changed his name to THIS.is.a.Gun1

/Alex_the_Great is online

/THIS.is.a.Knife1 has changed his name to FAG.Manbearpig.FAG

 

"Nice. Are we going to play or what?"

Not that that would stop anyone from changing their names, commenting on the sexual status of anyone else in the room, or simply shouting curses. It did start the game. Aristotle went right for the better rifle in the tower, but Claire, the only girl in the room, was waiting there for him, and pushed him off the tower with only a dagger. The fall killed him.

 

TheMind: Apparently I do suck

FAG.Manbearpig.FAG: Haha you got killed fAG

Alex_the_Great: I will avenge his death!!!!

Alex_the_Great: oh shit I'm dead who invited her?

Clarissa_Explains_Nothing: Wasn't me. Busy killing Ari

THIS.is.a.Knife: haha I have no fucken idea where I am now

THIS.is.a.Knife: this level is gayballs

THIS.is.a.Knife: gayballs

THIS.is.a.Knife: gayballs

THIS.is.a.Knife: gayballs

THIS.is.a.Gun1: This is my gun. in your face

Clarissa_Explains_Nothing: That was me we're on the same team fucking fag

THIS.is.a.Knife: gayballs

 

There was no reason to determine each and every death, as most of their avatars looked exactly the same, and after Jacob killed everyone, they restarted with a different mission, a jungle mod they weren't yet sick of.

 

TheMind: OK I have a flamethrower Alex back me up.

THIS.is.a.Knife2: Oh nice announce it why don't you

Alex_the_Great: it burns it burns haha

 

/Alex_the_Great has changed his name to Alex_the_Flammable

 

Clarissa_Explains_Nothing: Oh shit where are they giving out flamethrowers!?!!

TheMind: Not telling. Eat fire. For breakfast.

THIS.is.a.Gun1: I thought girls were anorexic

Clarissa_Explains_Nothing: oh shit burned by Ari

Clarissa_Explains_Nothing: but not Jeff nice try

 

/Clarissa_Explains_Nothing has changed his name to VirginJeff

 

TheMind: haha

 

/THIS.is.a.Gun1 has changed his name to PedophileAri

 

VirginJeff: Fag

TheMind: Where did that come from? Just for that I burn you

PedophileAri: cmon we all know it

PedophileAri: admit it

PedophileAri: fag pedo

PedophileAri: pedo fag

TheMind: You're mad because you are dying a death of flames right now

 

His glee was cut short when his ammunition ran out, and he was unable to obtain more lighter fluid. He had to drop the weapon, and noticed Alex's avatar on the ground. "Hey, sorry, I didn't notice you died." He was caught up in the faux-hunt.

"It's fine," Alex said, a little harsher than usual. Aristotle looked over at Alex, his skin a bizarre blue from the glow of the computer terminal. He didn't seem to be paying attention.

"Alex? You cool?" How easily he slipped into their language! Abandoning his game avatar to no doubt get jacked, he wheeled over to Alex, who rubbed his eyes and mumbled something.

That was when he noticed it. All of the mortals' heartbeats were racing - except for Alex's. It was slow and irregular.

"Ari, you're just standing there!"

"Fine. Kill me," he said, and looked at his watch while focusing on Alex's heartbeat. The beat was slow, and dropping. "Alex, answer me. Are you all right?"

"I'm fine," he said, now openly hostile as Aristotle grabbed his wrist. "Just tired. What are you doing?"

"Taking your pulse," he said.

"I didn't say you could touch me. Wow, your skin is cold."

"I know." He wasn't interested in anything but the pulse and the watch. "Okay. We're going to the hospital now."

"What?" Jeff pulled off his headset. "What's going on?"

"Nothing," Alex seethed.

"A heart arrhythmia is what's happening. Come on, kid." He stood, but Alex did not stand with him. "Hospital. Now."

"Are you a doctor?" Claire asked, not sarcastically.

"I know more about biology than most MDs," he responded. "Alex, you're going."

"I just need to sit."

"You are sitting," Mike pointed out.

Aristotle was not going to let this continue. He pulled Alex up, but Alex frantically fought this notion, and staggered away. "Don't fucking touch me."

"Alex," he said, approaching him but not touching him. He was already focused on the heartbeat. "What hospital do you want?"

"I have to go to Mass General," he replied, leaning against the wall. Then he recovered. "I don't want to go."

"Too bad," Aristotle said, and when Alex tried to avoid his grasp again, the young man swerved and hit the floor. Fortunately it was carpeted, and Aristotle ignored the cacophony of curses that was their collective reaction and picked Alex up. "I'm taking him to Mass General. Anyone know where that is?"

"We should call an ambulance."

"I can get him there faster," he said. At the rate Alex's heartbeat was slowing, calling for an ambulance was too chancy. "Trust me. Who knows where Mass General is?"

Claire raised her hand. "My mom has her chemo there. I drive her sometimes."

"Then you get shotgun. Let's go." He did not answer questions. He would have flown, if he'd known the way, or at least flown to the car if Claire wasn't there, but he needed this other mortal. Alex was conscious but not responding coherently to their attempts to get probe him as they put him in the backseat.

"You sure this is better than an ambulance?"

"Yes. Buckle up." He added, "I mean it. Where am I going?"

Claire's frightened heartbeat was distracting, especially because she was so young and her shirt so low-cut, going for the goth look. He was more annoyed at the vampire more than anything else as he listened to the directions, memorized them, and fired up the engine.

"Hold on," he said, and meant it.

********************************************

Aristotle very rarely used his vampiric senses to drive. It was perfectly safe - to him, anyway - but it was grueling on the car, especially the tires, and there was always the danger that the police would be bothered by someone speeding down a main street at 120 miles per hour and swerving into an oncoming lane to do it. If the police came, fine. He would deal with them at the emergency room parking lot - uniformed policeman were like soldiers, used to taking orders, and therefore very easy to hypnotize. The only real distraction was Claire's cursing in fright each time he rounded a corner and made the tires squeal, or swerved across the yellow line and into oncoming traffic to get around a slower car.

Alex was completely silent.

Claire couldn't get the directions out fast enough. They nearly missed the hospital entrance, swerving just in time. He slowed to find the entrance for emergencies, and only then noticed a police car was tailing him. Fine. He would deal. "I'll deal with the cop. Get them to bring out a stretcher for Alex."

A very terrified Claire just nodded, and he took that as a yes and leaped out of his car before the cop was even out of his. "Evening, officer. There's no problem here."

"There's no problem here," the officer repeated, feeling the full force of an Ancient and very angry vampire on his mind.

"You'll call everyone else off now."

"I think I'll call everyone else off now."

"Good work, officer," he said, and walked away from the patrol car, wondering if the officer still knew who he was and where he lived, then decided he didn't care either way.

The stretcher was outside but Alex was still in the car. Aristotle shoved the team aside and pulled an unresponsive Alex out faster than they ever could have and put him on the stretcher. "This is Alex. His heart pace is erratic and his pulse is dropping." He reached into Alex's jeans and pulled out his wallet, following them as they wheeled their patient in. "His name is Alexander Nemcosky. He's twenty-four, blood type O, and he just passed out when I started asking him about how quiet he was being."

"Are you his father?"

"No. We're both MIT students." She didn't look like she believed his answer, but she accepted it for the moment as he removed Alex's insurance card and passed it to the most official-looking member of the team.

"You have to stay in the waiting room, sir."

"I - "

"Hospital policy."

He could have fought her, but he would have had to hypnotize half the ER, and that would just interfere with their work. "All right. Let me know what's going on."

"Your name?"

"Ari Tuttle." It was the name on his Massachusetts driver's license.

She was gone, into the room they wheeled him into, and he was left holding Alex's wallet and suddenly feeling helpless. The situation was in the hands of the proper authorities, and for all of his years of studying the human condition, he was not one of them.

"Ari," Claire said, and he noticed her again. "You have to move your car."

What an irrelevant thing to say when Alex was dying. She didn't mean it that way, of course. Someone was probably pestering her about it. He nodded. "I have to park. I'll be back. Do you want to wait here or do you need to be somewhere?" He wasn't sure how well she knew Alex; she was just here because she knew how to get to the hospital.

"I'll wait until we know something."

Which eased his conscience long enough to park - an excruciating procedure when he would rather be inside, even though inside meant not doing anything and trying to wait patiently. When he returned ten minutes later - two minutes longer than it had taken him to get to the hospital from the café - she was sitting anxiously in the same position he'd left her, so he took a seat beside her.

"I'm Claire," she said, offering her hand. "I don't know if we've ever been introduced. It's so dark in there."

"Ari."

"Your hands are cold."

"I know."

"And you're a crazy driver. You were right about the ambulance thing, but I am seriously afraid to ride with you again."

He smiled, even though he didn't feel it. "I understand the sentiment. And I don't normally drive like that."

"You're Alex's lab partner or something, right?"

"We're on the same project team for Steiner's night class. We're supposed to be writing our own operating system this semester. You?"

"I'm a physics major." She just didn't dress like it - though he supposed he had no idea how female physics majors ought to dress. "Jeff introduced me to the group. I think a few people aren't MIT, but it's so close, most of them are." She was still scared. Her heart was beating like a rabbit, but he wasn't interested. Worry was very dampening to the Hunger, and he always fed well before the LAN parties. "Is Alex sick? You don't have to answer if he told you something he didn't want people to know."

"He said he was on allergy medication." To be honest, he suspected Alex of having a weak countenance, but as he had had one at Alex's age, he wrote it off. Vomiting in the sink before class? How bad was his nausea? And why didn't I see it before? "But he knew to come here, and he's not from Boston or Cambridge." He marveled at how little he knew of Alex, even though they'd spent more hours together every week for the past six weeks. On the other hand, he wasn't Mr. Talkative about his personal life for his own reasons.

They sat in silence - though the waiting room in an emergency room could hardly be considered 'silent.' Claire picked through some magazines but didn't read anything. Aristotle sat quietly, his mind racing over all the possibilities. Like all things immortal, he was accustomed to waiting. This was so new and immediate that it was thoroughly distracting.

"Mr. Tuttle?" The doctor offered his hand and Aristotle was ashamed that he had not seen his approach. He shook. "I understand you brought Mr. Nemcosky in."

"Yes. How is he?" He couldn't hear a heartbeat that was definitely Alex's - he had no way of telling. Alex was somewhere or nowhere. He could very well be dead.

"Stabilized for the time being. We had to remove some fluid buildup in his lungs which we suspect caused the heart failure, and now he's just waiting for the dialysis team to prep him."

"Dialysis?"

"We won't have a positive diagnosis for a few hours, but the cause seems to be renal failure. When his regular doctor comes in the morning, there'll be a more complete picture. At the moment, there's no need to operate. The dialysis should stabilize his kidneys, and the ultrasound will determine where the problem area is."

"His regular doctor?" Claire parroted, as Aristotle tried to match his outdated concepts of mortal medicine with what the doctor had said.

"Yes. Are you family?"

Aristotle was tired. He didn't want to do this to a doctor, but he didn't want questions. He wanted answers. "You are going to tell us what he has."

"I'm going to tell you what he has. Non-Hodgkin lymphoma."

Aristotle ignored Claire's look. "That's a type of cancer. Is it aggressive?"

"His type is. Diffuse B Cell Lymphoma."

"He was vomiting - I saw him. A few weeks ago."

"That might have been from the chemotherapy."

"He's in chemotherapy?" He had so little sense of what that entailed, and he couldn't imagine Alex in a hospital chair, bald and pale.

"I'm not his regular doctor, but according to his charts, he was. He discontinued treatment in August." The doctor was coming out of trance; Aristotle hadn't whacked him that hard. "The rest is confidential if you're not family. He's going to be in ICU until the dialysis is finished and we have a definitive ultrasound, so no visitors. If all goes well, he'll be moved to a regular floor later tonight or tomorrow morning, and you can see him then."

He would work around that, but not at this moment. "Is he awake?"

"No. He's been sedated for the breathing tube. He'll wake on his own sometime in the early morning or later."

Aristotle gave the hospital his number and offered Claire a ride home. She was a little hesitant, but he smiled weakly and promised to drive normally. Even though she lived much closer to the hospital, the ride took twenty minutes.

"I didn't know he was sick," she said. "I mean, not dying."

"If I was him, I wouldn't announce it," he said. "I'm going to go back and stay with him. If anyone asks, he's stabilized but don't give them his diagnosis. I don't think we were supposed to hear that."

"I've never known anyone who was dying. Except my grandmother."

He looked over at the little mortal, shivering despite her coat and the unusually warm autumn. "I don't think he would want you to look at him that way. It's very hard to be surrounded by people who look at you that way." He remembered it quite well. It was the last of his mortal memories, so it was still clear. "When I was sick years ago, I knew everyone was thinking about it when they looked at me. They didn't expect me to make it. They pitied me." Actually, they wanted him to name a successor. "It made it much worse than it already was."

"But you made it."

"I'm still here." It was so easy sometimes just not to lie. He pulled up to what she indicated was her mom's house. "Some people beat cancer."

"My mom has a good chance. They caught it early."

"I'm glad to hear that. Thank you for coming tonight."

She took his card, to check up on Alex, and left her on the sidewalk and turned around. When he was back at the hospital, he parked with more deliberation and pulled his laptop out of the backseat and opened it on the hood of the car. He wouldn't have good reception in the hospital, so he called now.

"Domino's. Thirty minutes or your pizza is free."

"Larry, the passports are going to be late," he said. "By a day, maybe more. I'm stuck somewhere until tomorrow night. And I need you to do something for me."

Larry Merlin didn't sound overly surprised, not with Aristotle's current schedule. "What is it?"

"I want all the records on an Alexander Nemcosky." He opened the wallet and read off Alex's vitals, from his date of birth to the address on his Connecticut driver's license to his credit card numbers. "Pull everything from his birth certificate to pending transactions on the Debit card. He has medical records at Mass General Hospital in Boston. Scan it all and send it to my remote server, and text me when you have it. I can't talk in the building, except in certain areas, so the phone's out."

"This is ASAP I assume?"

"Yes, please. I'll owe you."

"Hospitals leave their systems ridiculously unsecured because most of their files are paper. I should have something for you in a few hours."

"Thanks." He didn't want to discuss it, and Larry knew better than to ask, so he just hung up, closed his computer, and carried it to the waiting room. Alex was still in ICU with the dialysis started, so there was nothing he could do without hypnotizing half of the ICU staff, and he didn't want to interfere with them - yet. Sighing, he found the most comfortable plastic chair and settled in for a long night.


Chapter 4

"Mr. Tuttle?"

Aristotle shut his laptop and stood. He was just doing busywork without a wireless connection. "How is he?"

"Mr. Nemcosky is stable, and he's been transferred to a step-down unit, which is like a normal floor with more intense observation. We spoke to his oncologist, who will want to do an MRI as soon as he's ready, probably sometime this afternoon." Technically, it was the next day. "His chart doesn't list any emergency contacts."

"I'm going to stay with him," he said, "until he wakes up."

"You're going to stay with him until he wakes up."

Really, mortals. So useful and yet his patience could be so limited. Without hypnotism he might have gone insane centuries ago. "What did the ultrasound show?"

"Possible lymphoma in the left kidney and liver, but that's a call for his oncologist to make. Our job was to get his heart and lungs operating normally again. We just pulled the breathing tube and he seems to be breathing on his own."

"Take me to him." He supposed normal doctors didn't escort people, but there was going to be an exception to the rule. "Is he awake?"

"Not yet. When he wakes up, he might be a little confused from the sedation. This should pass fairly quickly. Just call for the floor doctor and speak very slowly to him."

As if he couldn't grasp the obvious. Well, he supposed there were a lot of frightened, sobbing relatives by people's bedsides, so he didn't comment. He let the doctor make explanations for him when they reached the floor.

The smell of hospitals was so unappealing. Their attempts to cover the stink of sickness and death with chemicals was admirable, but those smells were a sign of humanity, which lived and died, and the chemicals were not. They were unnatural, something that irritated his senses. Fortunately they dampened the beast, which could be so easily incited in the presence of open wounds and bloody containers.

For the dead of night, it was so bright in the room, even though they were no doubt on "night" settings. The main lamps were only dimmed, and there were many other sources of light from the lit hallway and glass window, and the many monitors that crowded both sides of Alex's bed.

"Hi," he whispered, taking a seat in the darkened corner and touching Alex's hand so lightly as not to disturb his rest. Alex appeared very much like he was in the car when they arrived - pale and unresponsive - but now he was sanitized and plugged up with plastic tubes and wire patches. His clothes and watch were on the stand by the bed, in a plastic bag labeled A. Nemcosky.

Aristotle's time in hospitals were not spent at a patient's bedside, at least not the bedside of a patient with a pulse and a normal heartbeat. It was so odd to hear both Alex's actual heartbeat - a natural, happy occurrence indicating his vitality - and the corresponding and irritating beep the machine made a millisecond later, drowning out the humanity of the blood-pumping organ Alex so desperately needed. Even vampires needed their slow-beating hearts to circulate blood so they could heal and keep their digestive system operating. Both of them were so dependent on one organ, and that organ, so fragile.

Aristotle took the chart out of the bin when the nurse wasn't looking and sat down to read it, having a feeling most of it would be in doctor-ease and confirm what he already suspected. The records began with Alex's move to Cambridge for graduate school, with a pre-existing condition of stage 2 aggressive non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Over the last four years, he'd endured rounds of chemotherapy and radiation, which did not have conclusive results except to temporarily shrink the cancerous nodes. When he was labeled stage 3 over the summer, he stopped chemo, the written reason being a dangerously low white-cell count. There were no visitors listed, only his next-of-kin, a name Aristotle didn't recognize but was listed as his stepfather. There was also a partially-filled 'do not resuscitate' order, but it wasn't signed by either the doctor or patient.

No wonder Alex seemed to have no future prospects. He had no future. He was just living the life he wanted to live, learning more about computers and not defending his thesis so his scholarship would continue. All he wanted to do before he died was study.

The sun was closing in on Aristotle. He shut the blinds, knowing he would be trapped in the hospital for the day and resigned to that. The nurse came in and out every hour to check on Alex, and Aristotle stayed in the corner, avoiding her notice entirely. For once he did not play on the computer, or check his messages, or read any of the articles he had to read on new security measures for immigration. He sat silently and waited.

The room was lighter when Alex stirred. Aristotle stood up and put a hand on the railing, but waited for Alex to be the first to initiative contact, as he opened his eyes and looked around.

"I was on the floor," he said, his voice hoarse. Aristotle offered him a cup of water and held it up so he could drink. "Where is everyone?"

"You passed out. You're in the hospital."

He sipped from the cup then pushed it away. He was confused, but not alarmed. Alex looked up, their eyes meeting for the first time. "Ari."

He grinned. "Good morning."

"You came?"

"I drove. Claire directed me. She's not here - she went home."

"What time is it?"

He checked his watch. "Five-thirty. In the morning."

Alex's mind, usually swift, was muddled, and the information seemed a more difficult blow to him than hearing the time under normal circumstances. "You've been here - "

"I had to leave to drive Claire home but yes, I've been here the whole time. They let me see you after they transferred you from ICU." He pushed the button for the nurse. "The doctor will explain everything better than I can, but you had fluid in your lungs and it was causing the heart arrhythmia. The source was your kidneys - they gave you a round of dialysis and drained the fluid. And you're breathing again." He looked over his shoulder at the arriving nurse. "He's awake and needs to speak to the floor doctor."

Alex swallowed, which looked like a painful procedure. "Renal failure."

"They think so."

"Are they going to take out a kidney?"

"I don't know. I don't think so."

"You didn't have to stay."

"Of course I did. You shouldn't have to wake up here alone." He stepped back for the floor doctor to enter, and listened to him carefully repeat everything he'd said and been told, but not drawing any conclusions from the ultrasound.

"Dr. Wilson will be here first thing in the morning - which is only a few hours from now. He'll have much more to tell you then. The best thing you can do for yourself is get some rest."

"My throat hurts."

"You had a breathing tube in for a few hours. The nurse will administer Advil and if you keep drinking, the feeling will go away quickly. You're on clear fluids until we know what other tests need to be run. Do you want us to contact anyone?"

"No."

"Are you sure?"

He looked irritated with the question. "Yes."

"The nurse will be in with the Advil, and I'll be here until 7 AM. Call for us if you need anything. You're in a step-down unit, so someone will be checking on you regularly." He quietly gestured to Aristotle. "Do you want privacy?"

"No, he's my friend. I want him here."

"Don't let him keep you up if you need to rest."

"I know. Thanks, Doctor."

The doctor left them, shutting the light off as he went, another indicator for Alex to rest. He waited for his advice and more ice chips before speaking again, looking away from Aristotle. "I didn't want you to know I was sick."

"I know."

"You can leave. You don't have to stay and I know that you have this super-secretive job - "

"I can stay." He sat down. "I have to, anyway. The sun's coming up."

"You're serious? You can't get someone to give you a ride?"

He sighed. "If I show you, will you go back to sleep?"

Alex nodded.

The first rays were appearing in the sky, and he pulled back the curtain. His first instinct was to run, but instead he stood to the side and held his hand out. The pain was immediate, even if his skin was slower to react. He could feel it before it appeared, the vampire surged, and he closed his eyes and waited just another moment before retreating into the safety of the cool, dark corner, away from the nasty, deadly sun. His hand was singed, and just starting to smoke. He could smell the burned flesh, but if he screamed he would show his descended fangs, so he just growled and kept his mouth and eyes shut.

"Ari?"

He held his hand to his chest and seethed for a little while longer, pushing back the beast and its demand for fresh blood to replace that lost healing his new wound. Only when he was perfectly sure his eyes were normal again did he open then. "I'm fine."

"Holy shit."

"I know." He could barely stand, but he made it to the cord and pulled the drape closed. With the light gone, the beast was in retreat, but he would have to nourish it sooner or later. "Now sleep. I'm not leaving until you sleep and I really need to get some ointment on this."

"I would haven't have asked - "

"I knew what I was doing." His voice was harsher than he would have liked. The vampire's fault, but Alex didn't know that. He even smiled for him, and watched Alex fade. "Sleep." Even he wasn't sure if he'd used hypnosis, but Alex was out like a light. His breathing slowed and Aristotle fled, to get away from that beating heart and all the others.

He knew where the blood bank was. He could follow the scent (and the signs) and he grabbed a bag of AB negative and hid himself in the basement emergency stairway, slowly sucking on the bag with his fangs. The fireproof cement was cool and soothing to his senses, away from the awful light and the awful sounds and smells of the chemical rooms. Still, after he was calmed and healed, he had no hesitation about returning to Alex's room to sit and wait for the doctor. He was trapped in this maniacally artificial prison for the day; he might as well spend it with someone he cared about.

********************************************

Alex woke as breakfast arrived. "Wow. That looks terrible," he said to the assortment of broths, sodas, and jello.

"I can't say I disagree," Aristotle said. "You should probably have something with sugar in it. What looks the least terrible?"

"The Sprite," he said. "You don't have to do all this for me."

"I don't see you jumping up." Aristotle poured him a cup with ice in it. "Drink."

"You know they just give it to you because it's clear and I'm on clear liquids? As if it's different from other sodas somehow." He did sip slowly, setting the cup rest on his chest. "Is your hand okay?"

There was a bandage over it, even though he was fully healed. "I'll be fine. Trust me - it'll be gone by tonight. You'll see."

"What do you if you're driving and the sun comes up?"

"I find somewhere to stay."

"If you're in the middle of nowhere."

"I once slept in my trunk. It started raining so I didn't have to stay long, but I had a crick in my neck for a week. Here." He took the empty cup from him.

"I bet if you went to a hospital they would study you."

"That's why I stay away from hospitals."

"I guess I'm lucky to just have something common. They told you what I have, didn't they?"

"To be fair, it took some convincing."

"I didn't want you to think - 'hey, here comes Alex, it's a shame that he's dying.'"

"I don't think that. And I've been around a lot of people who've died. That's why I don't let it happen so easily."

"I know, I should have gone to the hospital," Alex said. "I remember fighting you."

"Well, after being here I can certainly understand not liking the place." Aristotle put the food tray away for him. "Do you want someone to contact your stepfather?"

"So he can come here and pretend to be nice to me when he's really gloating? Fuck no." He anticipated Aristotle's confused expression. "Charlie thought I was a worthless punk until my diagnosis. Since then it's been all cash register signs in his eyes. When I die, he's a rich man."

"Why?"

"My father died when I was young, and to spite my mom, he set up a trust fund for me - four million dollars and interest. The catch was, nobody - including me - can touch it before I turn thirty. He didn't want me to sail through life starting at twenty-one - learn some responsibility first. And I guess he didn't hate my mom that much, because in the end, he wrote that if something happens to me, it defaults to her. And after she died we figured out that if she predeceased me, it defaults to her current spouse. So if I call, he'll come racing up here to treat me like a prince and he won't mean any of it."

"There's no way to get the money out by paying taxes?"

"That fund is locked up tighter than Fort Knox, and I have six years until I see a dime. Chemo bought me some time, but not that much."

It was always about money, wasn't it? "Why did you stop the chemo?"

"I would have had to stay in the ward, and even then it would have been dicey. My doctor agreed that we should break for the semester. I'm going to die in a hospital, but I don't want to live in one." He pointed to the door. "When my doctor comes in, he's going to be nice about it, but it's not going to be good news. You don't have to stay."

"Do you want me to stay?"

Alex debated it. He was so protective of himself, used to being alone and not accustomed to the threat of support. "You can't go anywhere, can you?"

"I can go to the waiting room. I'm not helpless. I'm used to being trapped places."

Alex didn't have a chance to respond before there was a knock on the door, but it was open anyway and a doctor was leaning in. "Hello, Alex."

The boy tried to sit up a little. "Dr. Wilson." He gestured to Aristotle. "This is my friend Ari, from MIT."

The doctor, a middle-aged, pleasant-looking fellow, nodded to him. "Professor."

Aristotle smiled sheepishly. "I'm just a student. We're in the same project group this semester."

"Ari drove me here," Alex said. "I don't remember it, but the last thing I do remember is him telling me to go to the hospital."

"Well, it looks like it was a close call." Dr. Wilson was nice, even a bit charming, and Alex obviously had a good relationship with his doctor. Aristotle was relieved and sat down as Alex made no motion for him to leave. Dr. Wilson set the chart down and opened it. "How long have you been awake?"

"I was up like at dawn, and then again when food came a little while ago. Maybe half an hour."

"Is your throat still sore?"

"No." But he accepted Dr. Wilson shining a light in his throat anyway, and checking both his eyes.

"Look up. Okay, no yellow in your eyes. How do you feel?"

"Tired." And he looked every bit of it. He was usually on the pale side, but he looked thinner than he did the night before, his eyes sunken, his black hair a mess. He flinched when the doctor put the stethoscope to his chest. "It's cold."

"I know. Breathe real deep for me. There we go." He checked his ears and went back to the chart to make notes. "The good news is the ER staff got the fluid out of your lungs, and the dialysis should prevent further buildup until we decide what to do about your kidney. I want the heart monitor to stay on, just to be safe, and you tell someone if you start coughing."

"Okay. The bad news?"

"The most probable cause is renal failure, and the ultrasound found suspicious dots in your left kidney, but not the right one, and nothing in the liver. The least invasive thing to do next is an MRI and we may need a biopsy anyway. Do you think you're up for this afternoon?"

"I want to get this over with." His face was grim. "Lymphatic nodules in the organs is stage four."

Dr. Wilson was not happy to say it, but he did not lie to his patient. "Yes, but it depends on how widespread they are. If it's just your kidney, surgery is an option. I wouldn't recommend it unless I was sure, which is why we need a very thorough MRI and whatever other workups we can do."

"What if there's nodes elsewhere?"

Aristotle watched as the doctor decided on his answer. "Then there are some options to discuss. You still have options, Alex."

"Hospice is not really an option."

"It would get you out of the hospital, and I know this isn't exactly your favorite place to be. But why don't we talk after we have a clearer picture? Finish your breakfast, because after it's gone you're NPO until the procedure. After that we can probably move you to the regular floor, and you can have an internet line." He seemed to know exactly what would put a smile on Alex's face. "You're scheduled for three. They'll come for you probably around 2:30."

"Thanks, Dr. Wilson."

"See you then." He closed the chart, smiled to Alex, and was on his way.

"He's nice about it, but he's always honest. That's why I like him," Alex said. "Stage four is 2-3 months. Four if I'm lucky. If chemo was an option he would have mentioned it."

"What do you want to do?"

"Get out of here, finish Sisyphus, and defend my thesis. I want my PhD. But I'm gonna be here another few days, and then I'll be really wiped - we won't finish in time."

"Professor Steiner will give us more time."

"I've known him for four years, and he will not give us more time, even if I am dying."

Aristotle pulled out his cell phone. "He will. I have blackmail." He handed him the open phone and the loaded picture.

"I don't think - Holy shit! Is that him?"

"Yes."

Alex covered his eyes, laughing. "I didn't want to see that. I mean, I did, but I will never get that image out of my head. It's burned in my brain now, you bastard. And his wife isn't blond. I meet her at a university function."

He grinned. "I know."

"Fucking shit, Ari! Where did you get this?" He had to look at the grainy but unmistakable image again. "Oh G-d!"

He was happy, not because he had blackmail, but because he could make Alex laugh. "I know the owner of the club."

"Jesus fucking Christ. Does he know you have this?"

"He will soon enough."

"You know I'm going to be sitting in that giant MRI machine, and all I'm going to have to think about is Steiner in a - I don't want to say it." He gave him back his phone. "Christ. No wonder you've been cracking up all the time. Please tell me you were just stopping by."

"Like I said, I know the owner. And she hates the way I dress. Very tacky ties - completely unforgivable." He was laughing, too. It was infectious. It was also the only way they got through the morning.

********************************************

When Alex went in for the MRI, Aristotle was advised to go to the hospital cafeteria, where there was some internet reception. Larry Merlin was not old enough to be awake during the day so there was no use calling him, but the hacker had left him an email saying there were new files on his remote server, which he accessed and downloaded. The magic Merlin was nothing if not thorough. Everyone was now on Aristotle's laptop, from Mrs. Nemcosky's admission records to the maternity ward to Alex's current tab at the internet café. His story, which Aristotle felt no shame about reading, included skipping two grades because of his academic record, a private school for the gifted (scholarship, of course), and a hospital admission record for mysterious injuries. Some were listed as "skateboarding related" but there was one police investigation involving his stepfather, but it never went to court because at 16, Alex left for college and the state didn't pursue the litigation. Since his cancer diagnosis, he'd been to dozens of doctors before choosing a specialist at Mass General, and rounds of chemotherapy and radiation. Without access to his trust, he qualified for Medicaid, so it was the only area where he wasn't relying on another source for funds. And, from what he could tell, everything Alex said about the trust was true.

This was nothing that Feliks Twist couldn't handle, but was he justified in doing something? Would it bring Alex happiness? All the money in the world couldn't buy him time, just the satisfaction of not letting an abusive stepfather cash in on his death. Was he that vindictive, or in his last moments, would he forgive, as so many were inclined to do?

Why not give Alex the option? When he could make sound decisions, of course, but he seemed more than capable of doing that most of the time. Maybe not when he was near cardiac arrest, but the rest of the time he was the most level-headed person his age.

Aristotle dialed Feliks, whom he knew was in London and would be awake. "Feliks."

"Aristotle! I wasn't expecting to hear from you." There was noise on the other end of the line, like birds squawking. Feliks was in London for some kind of rainforest exhibition, so he probably caught him on a night tour. "Everyone says you've been busy. Too busy for an old friend."

"Never." Though he didn't consider Feliks old, he did consider him a friend. "I need a favor - but it doesn't have to be done tonight. I won't interrupt your bird watching."

"It's not the birds, it's the plants! Gorgeous things - and terribly deadly, I'm told. I just touched one that would give a mortal hives, but I can't find where it stores its seeds. Also something about the dust being a problem - can't have my laundress coming down with some rainforest disease, can I? I suppose not." He was forever in a good mood. "What can I do for you?"

"There's a trust fund that I'm considering breaking into, as a favor to someone. I want to know if it can be done."

"I see. American?"

"Yes."

"How much?"

"Four million."

"And it absolutely cannot be accessed through legal methods until the person turns a certain age, I suppose."

"Precisely."

"Hmm. Ow! Blood-sucking ... oh, it's one of those vampire plants. How aptly named. If it wasn't so ugly I'd insist on purchasing one. And I probably shouldn't have put my finger in its mouth - though to be fair, it was fairly difficult to recognize the mouth, per se. Plants are like you - excessively proficient at camouflage."

He looked up from his table, to check that he was still sitting in privacy. "Only from you would I take being compared to a plant as a compliment."

"The fund - send me all the information you have and I'll look at it when I return to the hotel. I'll have my assessment for you tomorrow as to how long it would take to crack it, should you decide such a course of action. It will probably require my return to the country in question first."

"I understand. Thank you, Feliks."

"This is for a mortal, isn't it?"

He growled. Sometimes Feliks was too observant for his own good. "I don't do mortals."

"Yes, yes, we all know you say that, but actions speak so much louder than words. Good evening, Aristotle. Or should I say, good afternoon."

"Good night." He closed his phone and set beside his computer, sitting quietly as the cafeteria closed down. He needed to think.

********************************************

Alex was moved after the MRI to a regular floor in the cancer word. He was eating dinner, or trying to stomach it, when Aristotle entered. "How was it?"

"Boring. And why do those beds have to be so cold? If I have to sit inside a machine for half an hour they might as well give me a blanket."

It was good to see his old humor back. "And?"

"The radiologist said some nonsense about having to review it with Dr. Wilson, as if he wasn't there, but there's lymphatic nodes in my kidney and my pancreas. Surgery for the kidney is a bad idea - too stressful on my body after last night's event, and it won't stop the spread, just decrease the number of cancer cells. I could do chemo, buy some time - but it won't be good time." He was trying to sound casual about it, but there was a tremor in his voice. "They said I'm going to be here a few days, for some blood tests to come back and some more monitoring, and basically because I'm not strong enough to go home and can't afford assisted care."

"You've already ruled out your medical options?"

"It's not that I don't want to live," he said with a voice that spoke of this conversation having been had many times before, if only with himself and his doctors, "it's how I want to live. I can't defend my thesis on chemo. It messes with my head. I'm not sharp enough." Uncomfortable, he changed the subject. "Are you going to class?"

The sun was setting, but he hadn't thought about it at all. "Do you want me to tape it for you?"

Alex's eyes lit up. "You would do that for me?"

"I'll take any excuse to use my new camera. Which I need to get from home. You'll be all right here?" I won't be back until tomorrow night."

"I'm used to being alone. But when you come by tomorrow, if you could bring me my laptop - that would be great. I hope the ER guys didn't take my keys." He pulled his jeans out of the bag and took the keys out of the pocket, along with his student ID swipe. "Tang Hall, Room 314."

"Pi."

"Yeah." Pi was 3.14. "I lobbied for that room. It's been two years since I moved there and no one's gotten the joke."

"I'm honored to be the first one," he said, and took the keys.

********************************************

Aristotle went from the hospital to class, late by ten minutes and attracting extra attention because he knew the latest about Alex. Some of the students swarmed him after class, but the information he gave was limited to how much better Alex was doing.

Mike wasn't in the mood to code, even though they had to get something done that night. "I didn't know he was sick."

"He didn't want anyone to know."

"Is he going to be all right?"

What should he tell this kid, so sheltered and innocent? But how sheltered could he be, if he watched the news these days? "For now, yes. Eventually, his cancer is terminal."

"Shit."

"I know."

To Aristotle's surprise, Mike didn't openly worry about their project, at least not that night. He showed Aristotle to the grad center, where they picked through Alex's room and found his laptop, the books he was currently reading, and his bathrobe.

When Aristotle returned to the hospital, visiting hours were over and he avoided all the guards to get into the cancer ward. Alex was asleep with the television still blaring. Aristotle shut it off, deposited the items with a note, and left.

********************************************

"I can understand if you do not wish to congratulate me."

Aristotle groaned. "I cannot think!" His exotic silk-cushioned chair did nothing for him. He preferred to be walking, moving, even if it requires a cane to do it. "Being away from the sea makes me weak. I despise this place sometimes."

"You grew up here," Xenocrates said, following him as he ascended the grand steps to the terrace, where he could overlook all of Pella and Philip of Macedon's court. "Am I mistaken?"

"You are not. Thus we may conclude the source of my ill health." He coughed and sat on the ledge, newly-painted to celebrate the king's most recent conquest. "And I will congratulate you, O Xenocrates of Chalcedon. I refuse to deny the reality of your success."

Xenocrates smiled. "I am willing to accept that compliment."

"It is an acknowledgment of the unmovable forces of nature and nothing more." But even Xenocrates' nomination to the position of head of the Academy could not sour their friendship, not that completely. As Aristotle's friends reminded him so constantly, he would continually lose elections for the position he so rightfully deserved if he would spend less time, however eloquently, discussing his own merits and his opponents' lack thereof. "I will not flatter falsely."

"It is in your interest. I cannot support you from Athens."

"Yes, yes. Philip will lose interest in me when my reputation is tarnished not by actions, but the power of the democracy so beyond his comprehension," he said. It was a bitter truth. Without Athenian citizenship, he relied on Philip's patronage to have any kind of distinguished position at all - much less home, as Philip's armies had conquered and sacked his own hometown a few painful years ago. "I am tired of defending Philip to my fellow Greek."

"And you are tired of Alexander."

He shook his head. "Alexander is tired of me. Or, lest we stray from full accuracy, Alexander may never have been interested in me from the first word that went from my mouth to his ears." He accepted the wine the servant brought them.  "The congratulations of his wrestling tutor are far more enticing to him."

"It will be redundant for me to say you may need that boy's patronage someday."

Aristotle slaked his thirst on the court wine, which was very fine, close to his favorite, because it was imported from Greece proper. "I cannot imagine what will occur when they unleash that brute upon the world, should his father not slay him first. But I am unkind."

Xenocrates softened it, as usual. "You are honest."

"No, I am not taking his full faculties into account. He may have heard a thing or two I said, and may even remember an entire sentence when securing the throne from his father is settled and off his mind. I doubt I will be here for this nonsense. Or that if I am, that I can stand any of it."

********************************************

"It's Feliks," the machine said as Aristotle stumbled around his bedroom, drinking the blood from his mini-fridge straight from the bottle and trying to dissect the dream before pushing it out of his consciousness. "I can access the fund but it will be more difficult from here. If it can wait until I return, I would be grateful - assuming you have come to a decision about Mr. Nemcosky's trust. And I've always been very fond of that name - Alexander. Good day."

Aristotle could imagine Feliks's wink. He hit the delete button and fast-forwarded through his other messages. Hearing nothing of immediate importance, he saved them all and flew to the hospital.

Alex was awake and in a surprisingly good mood. "How did you know to bring Warcraft 2? I haven't played it since college."

"It was a guess. And on the top of the pile on your desk."

"This was from my phase where I wanted to be a video game programmer. I took some courses, but got bored. Not as fun as playing them. Ha! Suck it, orcs! Can't afford new buildings without your mine, now can you?" He looked up. "Sorry. You know how it is."

"I know."

"So my parole's coming up on Monday, depending how I do over the weekend. And then I'm out of here. He says I should stay out of class for a little while, though."

"What's the news?"

"They took off my heart monitor, thank G-d, because I couldn't sleep with it on. And my kidney is working, though I may have to come back for more dialysis like an old man. Oops, sorry."

"I'm used to it. So no surgery on the kidney?"

"No, he's pretty strongly against it, and so is the surgeon, believe it or not. Surgeons always want to cut. I had a consultation today. It's too stressful on my system at this point, not if the dialysis keeps working. And the cancer's in some inoperable places as well, so ..." He shrugged. It was amazing, the front he put up. He was too mature to be in denial, but no one was that brave. His eyes said everything, and when Aristotle made contact, Alex flinched and looked away, as if he knew Aristotle was looking past his façade. "If I stay in bed, I can code from my laptop - "

"When you're out of the hospital, we can discuss it. Until then, can you tell me how to defeat the final undead level? Is there a cheat or something? I could never beat it."

Alex smiled, no longer threatened. "Dork."

********************************************

"Just to warn you," Elizabeth said as he ascended to her office, the club's music blasting so hard it shook the steps, "the line's longer than usual."

"How long?"

"Another half hour and it would have been out the block. And I only like to do that to my mortal customers. Put them in their place." She kissed him, something very few even of their kind were allowed to do. She was one of them. "You've been busy."

"I have." That was the whole of what he said to her for the next few hours, as he made her office his own and she returned only to freshen his drink. It seemed as if every emergency had to happen at once, and he fell back on the old safety net of Paris, sending one vampire there just because it was an easy place to put them. He delivered two lectures on the complexities of tax law and how vampires were not exempt from the sales tax on clothing, and hypnotizing sales clerks to believe specifically that was not in accordance with the Code. He sped through the requests for documentation and said they would be delivered later in the week by courier. Utterly consumed by the complaints and grievances of the local vampire population and a number of people who had driven in just to see him, he barely noticed the club winding down.

"Aristotle," Elizabeth said as he sent off another person who wanted Qatari citizenship for tax purposes, "the sun's nearly up."

"I'm prepared to get a little singed."

"You're welcome to stay the day." She added, "You could use it."

He quashed his first instinct to refuse. All he would do if he went home was be trapped there instead, and everything he needed for the day was on his laptop. Other vampires were more relaxed during the day, if they were awake at all, and it would be a pleasant change from passing out to the television and waking to Frieda's vacuum. "Do I look that bad?"

"You smell of antiseptics."

"I do not." He sniffed his jacket. "Maybe a little."

She went down to make sure her club would be properly closed and those seeking shelter were situated for the day. He closed his laptop, switched his phone to vibrate, and sunk into the couch in the now- empty VIP lounge. Through the window he could see the whole club, lit for cleaning and amusingly unsexy with the high beams on and the colored lamps off. Her thralls were sweeping up gods-knew-what from the dance floor, and her daughter Cassandra was closing up the bar. He knew her better than he knew most vampires of passing acquaintance, but was not in England when Elizabeth created her during the 1810's. Elizabeth, ever the consummate duchess, was discreet about Aristotle to the point where he wondered how much she really knew or at least strongly suspected. Cassie regarded him as a weird old man but treated him with the appropriate respect, taking her cues from her master.

"She knows you're here," Elizabeth said, returning from behind. "She won't disturb us."

"You are dangerously close to reading my mind."

"It is my business to know the minds of everyone in my circle. Even you. I will content myself with the idea that you make yourself obvious and I can catch a glimmer of it. Now I will make no further demands of you except that you remove this," she said, pulling on his tie, "immediately."

"Hamster Dance is a great website. I'm so fortunate they make ties for it. But I suppose I should get rid of it before you tear it in half. I did have to pay like ten bucks in shipping."

"Yes, it might be a good idea."

He loosened his tie and tossed it on the glass table, putting the rows of pixilated hamsters out of her sight. "So the dress code gets loosened around six, huh? I should show up later."

She slid next to him. She always moved so fluidly no matter what her outfit, though he supposed she had centuries of practice from whale- bone bodices and hoop skirts. "I failed in one respect, to properly identify your current distraction."

"Nothing that can get me killed. Or even maimed. Or tortured somehow. So that's saying something." He finished his wine and she poured him another, and one for herself. "Besides, I don't want to have the 'you're too involved with mortals' conversation again."

"I never thought I would be giving it to you," she said, stroking his cheek. His goatee was a little overgrown and there were the beginnings of a beard, like the one he had for most of his existence. "Cassandra is involved with a mortal. She wants to bring him across."

"Does she want to make an appointment? There's a waiting list for death certificates. She might as well get on it."

She smiled despite her obvious opinion of the situation. "She imagines an endless parade of passionate nights ahead of her. She's not old enough to know what it is to be bored."

"And he'd be even younger. It could work."

"Don't tease me."

"Don't think I bought the hamster tie because I have some other use for it." Teasing was the basis of their current relationship. "She's old enough to bring someone across. That doesn't mean it won't be a disaster, but everyone takes that chance. But I suppose that doesn't matter, because you don't like him."

"He's perfectly charming."

"As a mortal."

"Yes." When she smiled, she always showed her teeth in the most predatory manner. "I've tried explaining how it doesn't always cross, but she's too young to understand."

"She has to have a few failures before she understands, and you love her so you don't want her to go through it. And there's the possibility it will go right and you'll have to put up with him for eternity."

"And your recommendation, Councilman Aristotle?"

He always shivered when she called him that. He didn't remember when he'd let it slip that he was once a Councilman, but it was one of the few slips he regretted. He just didn't have the heart to tell her. "Research. Taste his blood without either of them knowing and see what his motives are. I'd say she should do it but we both know she won't stop. If you find nothing to disapprove of, let her try, but don't let her talk you into doing it for her. This has to be her responsibility. And put him on floor duty for awhile. That seems like a fledgling job."

"Hmm." She tickled his chin. "Academic and unromantic, but practical."

"Did you expect anything else?"

"Advice from hopeless romantics I can get. Our world is filled with them."

"Unlike us."

"Yes. The voices of reason."

He never understood what she saw in him, when she was the most beautiful creature in the club even at its most alive and he was ... well, him, but he did accept the kiss as an eager prelude to her neck. He waited for her to sate herself and more explicitly offer her herself with a gesture before he sunk his already-descended fangs into her waiting flesh. Her blood exploded in his brain, a mix of desire and beastly hunger and flashes of memories that played like the best, most absorbing movie of his life. She shed her jacket, and helped him unbutton his shirt, his own hands shaking from the rush so he could return the favor. But it was more than that - a complete circle was offered more than pleasure. In the ecstasy of union he recognized how lonely his existence really was, and how much he needed this - and he remembered it without any sorrow or self-pity. He just wanted it to go on.

He was trained to keep secrets, and his blood never flowed freely the way it did with younger vampires. He selected for her what memories she would see - their time together at the château before the war, before they both fled in different directions - her to her native Britain before the bombing frightened her to New York, and him to Chicago. It was what she would see aside from his surface emotions, and even those were guarded.

"You're only making the chase more exciting," she whispered in his ear, his blood on her lips.

"A happy coincidence, I'm sure."

********************************************

Elizabeth slept in the club, two floors above her child and those under her protection. She needed far more sleep than him, even at her age, but instead of getting up, he just watched her sleep. She was so innocent when she slept, like the young woman forcibly engaged to an older and frustrating duke. In her time, her skin was painted to imitate the fashions of the Virgin Queen, and now it had the same flawless alabaster on its own, without messy cosmetics. Why did women look so perfect in death and men so flawed? Very few of them turned into marble gods to match their goddesses.

He was very content to lie there, so still after so many weeks of activity, even if it was restricted to his hands and eyes at the keyboard. Normally busywork was soothing, a productive way to pass the endless time immortality afforded him, but she was right in assuming he was wound up to the point of being both unable to recognize it himself and unable to stop. There were so many reasons, one most pressing, and he wasn't sure he successfully kept it from her. Well, no reason to fight that uphill battle. He closed his eyes and let her blood coarse through him.

She woke well before dusk, before anyone would need her, briefly alarmed as the vampire flared, and he looked into her golden eyes and let her feed the morning hunger with the blood in his veins, a mix of his and hers. The vampire settled, as it always did, and would wait for a larger meal later, and now she could lay there a bit longer with him, something she looked very content to do.

"I told you that you need to spend more time with vampires." She nudged him. "These humans are sucking you dry."

"What they offer in return is surprisingly rewarding."

"And so transitory. The world is yours to take, if you want it. But you hesitate."

He sighed. "Am I not as good at blocking as I used to be?"

"You've been consumed by this mortal."

Why? That was the question that even he wanted an answer to. "He makes me remember what it feels like to mean something to someone."

She pouted. "I'm hurt."

"You know what I mean. It's so much more potent when it's fleeting. When they know there's an end."

"Is there an end to this one?"

He didn't answer her, because he didn't have an answer.


Chapter 5

Aristotle was about to head to the hospital anyway when he got a call asking for a ride. It caught him before he left the house, so he took the car instead of flying. He arrived to a very harried doctor blocking his way into Alex's room. Alex was dressed, the only remainders of his stay being a bandage on his hand where the IV was pulled. "Hey, Ari. Give me a second here."

He picked up on the alarm in the room. Alex's heartbeat was steady, but frustrated, and so was the night shift doctor's. "What's going on?"

"He's discharging himself," the floor doctor said, "against his doctor's advice."

"What? Why?"

"Because I want to leave. They're not doing anything for me here," Alex answered without looking up from the clipboard full of paperwork. "What's the date?"

"Dr. Wilson discussed it today and we've been concerned about his energy level," the doctor said, hoping Aristotle would see reason. "His blood work came back and he's fine, but I can't in good conscience release him on his own. He needs some level of care. If he'd wait until tomorrow, we'll keep him here for monitoring and we could get the paperwork going for him to qualify for home care or hospice."

"I don't want hospice and I don't need a nurse. I'm healthy - as much as I can be - just tired. So I'll sleep a lot. Date?"

Aristotle told him the date. "You should listen to your doctors."

"If they gave me a reason to stay I would. If there was anything they could fix, any tests that needed to be run, any reason I needed serious monitoring, I would stay. Dr. Wilson is just worried because he's a nice guy and he knows the other grad students aren't the most observant people."

"Give us a minute," he told the doctor, who reluctantly left. Aristotle turned to a very determined Alex. "You can stay with me."

"What?"

"I know, I know, pedo Ari is inviting you to his house and it's all creepy and you should call a bunch of your friends first to collect the body from my backyard. Listen, I have a whole house I barely live in, a guest room I never use, and a maid who comes in almost every day of the week. You can stay for a few days, get plenty of rest without having to do anything, and when you're strong enough you'll go back to school and defend your thesis."

"You're sure?"

"I'm sure." He was sure, even though he hadn't even considered the idea before walking in the room. "I didn't drive you all the way to the hospital and visit you every day just so you can pass out again on the floor of a dorm. Don't they make those things out of cinder block? And before you ask, you're not imposing. I'm offering."

"Do you want to watch me die?"

It was supposed to hit Aristotle, like being slapped. It was Alex's last defense, the biggest cannon in his artillery, but Aristotle just shook his head. "I'll be sure to kick you out while you're still breathing. For insurance purposes. I run a business out of my basement."

Alex smiled.

********************************************

Alex was quiet during the ride, mainly because he was nodding off in his seat. Aristotle had a half-dozen calls to make, not having this be his main plan, but he waited and drove quietly instead. "Here we are." He waited for Alex to pick his head up on his own.

"You have the cleanest car I've ever ridden in."

"I like to be clean. Not neat, but clean." The brownstone was on a packed street of old houses crammed together with tiny yards on each side and a fence just barely separating them. One had to go through the house to get from the front yard to the back yard on one side. Everything about the way he kept the appearance of the house matched the other houses on the street, down to the tacky lawn gnome. He pulled into the garage and turned off the car. "Before we go in, you have to agree to something."

"Okay."

"I think you've figured out by now that my business isn't completely on the level." To which, Alex just nodded. "My basement is off-limits unless I invite you down. Your side of the house is completely your own, but stay upstairs when clients come and if you do see them, don't talk to them. It's for your own good."

"Should I ask what you do?"

"I get people in and out of places," he said. "Sometimes those places are countries."

"So it's a little beyond making fake IDs for college kids."

"A little. Not much." He did make fake IDs. Just not for college kids. "Frieda will come tomorrow. Her English is very good and she'll get you whatever you want during the day. I usually sleep somewhere around noon. Otherwise, what happens in this house stays - "

"- in Vegas, I get it." He was amused, not annoyed. But he was also exhausted. "Or you'll kill me."

"No," he said without a hint of sarcasm. "My clients will."

Aristotle got out of the car and opened Alex's door, helping him to his feet whether he wanted the help or not. He sensed the battle between Alex's deteriorating body and his dignity would be unending, so he waited for Alex to make his own way up the steps to the main house instead of guiding him.

He was relieved that the house was in fairly good shape, even for him. Frieda collected any wine bottles without ever asking what was in them, and he finally had a use for the empty second fridge. "I don't have any food here you can eat. If you tell me what you want, I'll go out and get stuff for the fridge." His own fridges had electronic locks on them, so that wasn't something to worry about. He carried all of Alex's things to the guest room upstairs, where clients and friends sometimes found shelter for the day, but very rarely. The only thing he wasn't completely sure about was the bathroom, but that could be fixed if it didn't work.

Alex looked around at the well-furnished bedroom, grander than any dorm room and most people's houses. "You don't have to do this for me."

"I want to," he replied. "Groceries?"

"I don't know - the normal stuff. Milk. Soda. Pop tarts. And probably some fruit or something. And bananas - I need potassium."

He was grateful for the most basic description, because otherwise he was likely to come home with nothing but spices and packing foam. Supermarkets were too sterile and colorful. He didn't know what to make of them. "Anything else?"

"Mountain Dew. No Code Red. I hate that stuff."

"I remember." He pointed to the intercom as Alex finally sat down on the bed and started going through his backpack. "This will reach me anywhere in the house. And the password to the wireless network is ‘the republic,’ no capitalization, no spaces between the words."

"I can't decide if you love or hate Plato."

His eyes must have twinkled when he said, "Neither can I."

********************************************

When Aristotle returned, he put everything in the refrigerator, unsure what required it and what didn't. Frieda would be there in the morning to sort things out, but until then he was helpless. The trip to the supermarket was bizarre. What could humans possibly do with so many flavors of pop tarts? What made the tart pop? Why was everything in cardboard boxes? Beside his own façade of being in touch with humanity, he was a helpless fool.

He checked on Alex. Even from the hallway he could hear the steady beat of his heart, and the slower breathing of a sleeping mortal. Aristotle entered silently to put the Mountain Dew - which in no way resembled actual mountain dew - in the mini-fridge by the bed and turned up the hidden monitor. If Alex's heart stopped, he would hear it in the basement.

Mortals were so incredibly fragile. Alex, who should have been at the peak of his physical capabilities, was thin and worn, pale not from hiding from the sun but from lack of nutrients in his body. Tiny nodes, most too small to be seen with the human eye, were ravaging his body and slowly killing him. They would grow and multiply until they caused his system to crash and power down, closer to a computer than anything Aristotle was. He couldn't be sick or even permanently harmed. His old, scarred body would last an eternity. As much as he lamented his physical state, brought across so late in his life, it was sturdier than anything Alex would be dreaming about.

Aristotle left his guest, and descended the stairs to his basement office. He fired up the computers and poured himself a mug of blood wine, but didn't touch any keyboard of the four in front of him or answer the blinking light on the answering machine.

He had too much to think about.

----------------------------------------------------------------------

Part 2 - Alexander

Alex thought he understood Ari. Occasionally he let this delusion last a few hours or days, until his lab partner said something that made him look twice, and by then, Ari was already onto the next thing. He never let him rest in that respect.

The offer to stay at his place did not take Alex by complete surprise. While he hadn't expected it, it was something Ari would do. He was the type. He was concerned, compassionate, wealthy, and lonely. Who wouldn't want a friend's company, if only for a little while? In so many ways, Ari Tuttle fit the profile of a night student. He was a widower, childless, and had probably been in computers when they were the size of bookshelves. He embraced his inner-geek because it gave his life meaning. He surrounded himself with youth while other men his age sat in computer classes at community college and learned to use Microsoft Word. He was wealthy, but that brought him no happiness beyond the material, and he was bored with that. He was utterly alone.

There was something beyond that, but Alex couldn't quite put his finger on it. Ari moved through their world with a practiced ease and eagerness not found in someone his age and position. He treated every new idea like it was one step closer to some beautiful, glorious future that he would live to see. He had the sense of immortality - of endless days before him - that only people Alex's age were supposed to have. And he was not, as so many joked, a pedophile. He wasn't even gay.

Well, Alex was fairly sure of that.

He woke swathed in black silk sheets, more than he remembered putting on himself when he passed out the night before. It was so easy to get lost in them, and remembering his promise to get some rest, he stayed still for quite a while. How long, he couldn't be sure, until the need to use the bathroom finally got him up and staggering towards the spotless bathroom. He removed the bandage on his hand, finding a nasty bruise from the IV that would take a long time to fade, and sighed as he looked in the mirror. He did look too pale for a healthy man, even one who spent most of his time in a darkened computer lab. He'd probably been losing weight for awhile (something that often succeeded in escaping his attention) and lost more while he was in the hospital; he couldn't remember a single meal he ate there, though he was sure there were a few.

Remembering Ari's mention of clients, he hesitated before descending the stairs, only to find an old woman with a big smile on her face waiting for him. "Mr. Alexander. I am Mrs. Frieda. Mr. Aristotle said I should make you breakfast."

No one had made him breakfast since he was six. "Mr. Aristotle?"

"Yes, Mr. Alexander."

"So that's what his name is?" He laughed. "You don't have to make me breakfast. Really."

"Mr. Aristotle said you must eat something!"

"I can make my own breakfast, I assure you. Been living on my own for awhile." He opened the refrigerator, which was completely full - of everything. "Why is the cereal in the fridge? And the bread? And the gum?"

"That was how Mr. Aristotle put everything."

"What does he eat?"

"He has his own fridge, Mr. Alexander."

"Alex," he said, removing the refrigerated items that did not require any kind of cooled storage and shelving them himself. "I'm just Alex."

"Yes, Mr. Alex."

He had a chilled bowl of frosted flakes before exploring the house. Ari was not to be found, so he was probably asleep. Alex couldn't believe it was noon - he had slept for over twelve hours. Frieda insisted on washing his dishes for him as he explored the house, and he decided it was better not to fight her about it.

It was a small, converted Victorian, so there were more entrances to rooms than rooms, and old doors with crystal door handles. Only the door to the basement and what he assumed was Ari's bedroom were shut and locked with an electronic bolt and keypad. The rest of the rooms didn't look used, but had books from floor to ceiling, on everything from Quantum physics to a full medical encyclopedia to a Farsi primer.

The living room was what would have been his dream playhouse. The big screen television was hooked to a router that was connected to six different gaming platforms, and every other system he could name was nearby on the shelves. Rows and rows of cheap shelving held up video games, videos, laserdiscs, and DVDs. He had stacks of magazines on the coffee table - PC Gamer, WIRED, even Nintendo Power. He also had a ton of magazines on real estate, home shopping, and a subscription to Archaeology. From the way they were stacked, they were not just for show. The name on the subscription sticker was Ari Tuttle.

Ari Tuttle. Aristotle.

Alex laughed.

"What's so funny?"

Ari was standing in the doorway, his bare feet just inches away from the shaft of sunlight that invaded the room. Out of nowhere, Frieda appeared to draw the heavy drapes again, making the room as dark as night. She turned on a lamp. "Mr. Aristotle."

He smiled at her. "Frieda. I was going to ask before you left - can you come tomorrow?"

"I have Mrs. Levi in the morning, but of course I can cancel."

"No. I'll be up in the morning. The afternoon is fine." He sipped from his 'Proud parent of an MIT student' mug. "Thank you, Frieda."

She did not linger. Ari, still bleary from sleep, turned to Alex. "As I was saying-"

"Your name. I know I shouldn't be laughing, but I thought it was Ariel like my Israeli friends. Aristotle?"

He didn't look bothered at all. "I said I was Greek."

"So what's your real last name?"

"My parents thought one was just fine. The registrar just thinks otherwise." He added, "Alexander."

He took a seat, sinking into the couch. It was very comfortable. "Like you couldn't figure that one out. I bet you read my chart at the hospital."

Ari shrugged. "I had a lot of time to kill. How do you feel?"

"Fine." Knowing Ari would demand more than that, he said, "Tired. And my hand hurts. I hate it when they put the IV there, but they said the rest of my veins sunk. And yes, I ate breakfast. You know cereal isn't supposed to be in the freezer, right?"

"I don't eat cereal." Ari set his coffee mug down and pulled out a pen light. Before Alex could stop him, he held his eyes open one at a time and shined a light in it. "Dr. Wilson called, said to check if your eyes were yellow."

"For liver failure, yeah. I could do that in the mirror."

"Now you don't have to." He stepped away. "There's a blanket on the shelf if you need to sleep but don't want to go back to bed. If you need me, intercom or cell. I'll be at work." He took his mug and stepped back into the hallway. Alex could hear the keypad being punched and the heavy basement door swing open and shut.

Just like that, he was gone, and Alex was free to do as he pleased. Ari was accurate in his assessment that Alex was not eager to spend any more time in bed. He brought his laptop down to the living room and set it up on the coffee table, but he couldn't focus on the coding. The screen burned his eyes when he tried to read it; he was straining to much. Grumbling, he turned on the television instead. Ari had something like 800 channels, so flipping through them killed some time before he found a Star Trek: The Next Generation marathon. He didn't recognize the episode - something from an early season - and he didn't have time to catch much of the plot before he faded out on the couch.

When he woke, he was lying down properly and there was a blanket over him. He found a note on the coffee table: "At class. Eat something." The second sentence was underlined.

Despite himself, Alex smiled.

********************************************

For the next few days, Alex did little else beyond eat and sleep. He made several attempts to code, or at least look at his thesis notes, but his mind was not as sharp as he demanded it to be and he would either drift off in the chair or give up and watch something from Ari's massive video and DVD collection. He saw very little of his host, who was usually working or asleep, and seemed eager to give him space and privacy after the hospital had afforded him so little. Nonetheless Alex knew he was being monitored. When his experimental cancer drug made him vomit, Ari was immediately there, fetching ginger ale for him and dialing the emergency line for Dr. Wilson. Alex was able to talk his doctor down; he'd eaten a microwave burrito because the new nausea medication was working so well and it was really his fault, and an examination could wait until his appointment, which Dr. Wilson insisted be tomorrow.

Ari couldn't drive him in the daylight, but he did arrange for a fellow grad student to give him a lift. Whatever needed doing was already taken care of. It was far more restful than the hospital, without anyone checking his temperature and blood pressure every four hours and constant beeping of IVs and heart monitors. More importantly to Alex, it was more dignified.

When he returned, Ari was waiting from him, but Alex beat him to speaking first. "Is coffee all you drink?"

Ari smiled and raised his coffee mug to his lips again. "No."

"So you want to know how it went."

Ari nodded.

"Dr. Wilson wanted to tell you how thankful he was that were taking care of me. I'm just relaying the message." He was tired, and a little cranky, more at his body than what the doctor said about his body. He should be able to make a simple doctor's appointment without being exhausted afterward. "He drew my blood, but the results on that are going take a few days. Everything else checked out, and he changed my nausea medication and my cancer drug. And no more burritos."

"Bed rest?"

"Until I feel strong enough."

He was tired, yes, but he did not want to go to sleep. He wanted to stay awake through one day. Still, Alex didn't resist when Ari approached and gently pushed him down on the couch.

"Sometimes it's hard to admit when you're not strong enough," his friend said, and left him be.

********************************************

The schedule of the house was not difficult to figure out. Ari's clients stopped by at night, usually very late, or in the early morning before it was light again. It wasn't a steady stream. But Alex was either already asleep or content to stay in his room with his laptop and keep his promise to Ari. He didn't see them and they didn't see him. Yes, his curiosity was piqued, but he was restricted to what he could see from his window, and sometimes he never saw them approach before the doorbell rang. There was no distinct group he could put them in, though most were below fifty. Some were exquisitely dressed and others were in rags. Most were harried and upset: one girl was shaking in her designer boots, ten years out of style.

None of them drove. They all walked. That was odd.

There were a few other idiosyncrasies. It took Alex a while to notice it, but Ari had no pictures of himself or other people in the house. He had an oil painting of Queen Elizabeth I, her body in odd proportions from the painter's style and the dress she was wearing. He had photography of the sea, mostly the Mediterranean. Not surprising, considering his heritage. But when it came to family photos, even ones in picture frames in the kitchen or living room wall unit, he had nothing. Anyone could live here. Were memories of his family just that painful?

"That," Ari said, interrupting his inspection of a painting of the sun rising over the sea, "was a gift from a good friend of mine. He's an excellent painter. I think he did everything here except the one of Elizabeth. I got that from a museum replica catalog."

"He painted the sea in sunlight," he observed. "Do you miss it?" He could only mean the sun. Ari could visit the sea whenever he wanted.

Ari was startled by the question, which was impressive. He shrugged, but it was a defensive shrug. "He misses it much more."

"You're in a support group?"

"We're definitely supportive of each other. Nick is obsessed, though. He's spending millions to search for a cure. That's how he met his wife - she's a doctor and she was willing to do research."

"That's very noble of her." But Ari only shrugged again. "It must be tough - I mean, being stuck inside all day. Not that I'm normally inside anyway, but the idea - am I stepping out of line?"

Ari's voice was soft. "No. And I do find it inconvenient, but I like my lifestyle. Now I just have an excuse to watch those weird movies they play at four AM."

"Donnie Darko is great at four AM, if you have it. If not, you should see it. Though it is sort of a 'child of the 80's' movie. Dukakis jokes and all that."

"I would get Dukakis jokes," Ari said. "I was there."

"Tears for Fears?"

"Great band. Though I like any band that focuses on something other than the singer's metaphorical girlfriend. That's why I like rap so much."

Alex couldn't hold himself back from laughing. "You like rap? Rap is about women."

"Sometimes. Sometimes it's just about anger - about how they perceive the injustices of their lives and how they deal with them. They turn their anger into consumption for the most part, though Snoop Dog had a pretty powerful message about smoking weed."

"He said that as an alternative to crack. Weed isn't addictive. Crack ruins your life."

"That's right. He acknowledged that the outside world was so painful and damaging that to manage, like Eastern religions, one should enter an entranced state. But he preached moderation over access. It's a very powerful message."

"Have you ...?"

"No, but I've done hashish. It's very cheap in the Middle East because they can't drink alcohol, but humanity seems to demand the escape of a chemical state."

"That's where the word assassins comes from. Because they smoked hashish the night before they would go on their missions."

Ari nodded. "That's right. Or so the legend goes."

"Most legends are based on fact."

His host nodded. "So you want to see my basement."

"I didn't say - "

"I know you're curious, and you're here all day. But what I said the first night, when you were barely conscious in my car - that goes. Very seriously. People will kill you, and then possibly me."

"Who am I going to tell?" But seeing Ari was serious, he put up his hand. "Scout's honor."

Something about that was very, very funny to Ari, but his host didn't explain. He punched the keypad and unbolted the door to the basement. "I am going to get in so much trouble."

The rest of the basement was nothing like the house. The brick wall was exposed, and the floor cement, with no adornments whatsoever. Ari sat down to check his downloads at his massive computer desk, where he had six screens, four keyboards, and a eight computer towers squeezed to the side or underneath. There were other computers in the room - older ones, even Macs from the 80's. There were rows of data tapes and microfilm containers like he'd only seen in MIT's science library basement. And there was what looked like a printing press, though when he looked closer he saw it was a laminating machine. The rest of the room was open storage - cardboard boxes on shelves and overflowing filing cabinets, some of which couldn't be closed. And stamps - not the postal kind, but the kind with an old-fashioned ink pad. They had their own shelves in the wall unit and there was row after row of them, most unlabeled. Completing it all was a washing machine and drying rack, where what were unmistakably passports, colored for their different countries, were hanging to dry.

"You have to make them look a little weathered sometimes," Ari said without looking up, but sensing Alex's question. "A very light wash and a hair drier at the right moment will do that without making the ink run."

This was, as mentioned, far beyond what the guy at the corner store who sold fake IDs to college students so they could get into bars did for money on the side. This was a major operation involving dozens of countries - and Ari was letting him see it. Alex's hand was shaking when he reached for one of the stamps that was set aside. It was in a glass case which popped open when he touched it.

"That," Ari said, "was nicknamed the Stalin stamp, because if you had the mark on your document, it was as good as Stalin's word - and this was after he was dead. It was mainly used for approved visas, which weren't given out a lot in Soviet Russia. I spent two years in a prison in Leningrad for trying to obtain it. Fortunately I managed to put it in the mail before they captured me, so it was waiting for me when I returned to the states."

Now he was really afraid to touch it. Alex closed the glass lid and set it down. "You spent two years in a Russian prison?"

"Yes."

"What - how did you live?"

"Not well. I ate rats. They have enough nutrition to get by." He was printing something; he pulled it from the tray when it was done and put it in a folder. "When they finally decided I wasn't a spy, they let me go. And I wasn't, but they were very hard to convince."

"If I was smart I would keep my mouth shut," he said, "but did they torture you?"

"They did. And you are smart, just stupidly brave. Of course I've almost gotten myself killed a number of times over for seeking too much information, so I can commiserate on lacking that particular survival skill. Can you hand me the date stamp with the blue tape on the handle?"

Alex fetched what he hoped was the right stamp and passed it to Ari, who rolled the numbers to a different date, dipped it, and stamped it on his current sheet, whatever it was. "Thank you." It was too technical for Alex to make out from afar and even he understood boundaries.

"People must pay you something insane for this."

"Some do. Some can't pay." He continued stamping and then added a signature. "I don't do it for money. I do it for people who need my help."

"Just anyone, or special people?"

"To get my name, you have to be a pretty special person."

Alex didn't doubt it for a second. He turned to the bookshelf in the corner, filled with a mishmash of different items, from printer cables to glassware, mostly wineglasses. There was only one book, a monstrously large thing secured in plastic.

"Be careful with that," Ari said.

"What is it?"

"1282 pages of bad Latin. A Gutenberg Bible."

"You have an exact replica of the Gutenberg Bible?"

"It's not a replica."

Now he couldn't resist. Alex pulled it off the shelf with the care he would treat a living creature and set it down at the work station. Ari looked up from his papers and carefully watched him unwrap it, but not touch the cover. Alex let his hand hover over the leather cover. "There are only twenty-one of these in the world."

"Twenty-three. I know someone who has one. He gave me this one. He didn't need two and he wanted to pay me for my work." He retrieved a letter opener and held it out to Alex. "If you want to look inside, use this. The oils on your hands will hurt the vellum."

He nodded and nervously pried open the cover to lines of heavy ink on bleached animal skin. "This is incredible. Why did he give you this. I mean, other than the financial reason. I can't imagine you selling it."

"No. I wouldn't. But I'm not religious. It's what it represents."

"The dawn of the Age of Reason."

"Not the only Age of Reason, but the current one. But that aside, if I could point to any one event and say that this was the moment when mankind began its inevitable march to the Singularity, it would be the invention of the printing press."

"I thought you didn't believe in the Singularity." He turned to a page with a woodblock print of a biblical scene. It was simply incredible.

"I believe in our march toward it."

Alex shook his head. "This is unbelievable. You have a Gutenberg bible in your basement and we're in the same project group."

"Those concepts are so disconnected that I can't quite comprehend how you see an incongruence between them."

"I've never met anyone like you. Anyone important. I'm dying of cancer and my life is still so ridiculously sheltered." He closed the book with some sadness. He could have continued to try and make sense of the Latin, but there was no reason. The point was made.

"I hope I'm not just important because of what I own."

He had nothing to say that could express it. Maybe because he couldn't understand it himself. "You know what I mean."

Ari nodded, and Alex wondered if Ari knew his own thoughts better than he did.

********************************************

Two weeks after his release from the hospital, Alex returned to his life on campus. Despite the secrecy and Ari driving him in at night, there was a crowd of grad students (most of whom he'd never spoken a word to before or even looked in the eyes) waiting to greet him. Food stolen from half a dozen different study breaks they were all supposed to run made for a great party, even if he was sitting in one place for all of it and only had soda. The new drug was making him too nauseous to eat; Dr. Wilson was considering intravenous feeding and he was considering accepting the idea, if only to keep him going.

He called the computer science office the next morning, and said he would be defending his thesis at the end of the semester.

------------------------------------------------------------------------

Part 3 - Aristotle

Upon his return from dropping Alex off at that horrible cement monstrosity that was the graduate building, Aristotle returned to his house and booked a plane to Seattle.

The Sisyphus project was not as off-schedule as he thought it would be. Mike, when pushed, was an incredibly brilliant programmer, and in the last few days Alex had managed some coding himself. They would spend the weekend catching up, and while he should rightfully be there, having Alex in his house kept him occupied beyond his expectations and put off what was an increasingly necessary trip. His ticket was changeable, but with any luck he would be back Saturday night, Sunday at the latest. Of course, one never knew with vampires.

He should have liked Seattle. It rained constantly, making traveling that much easier, but there was little in the city to interest him now that grunge was dead. It had no history. And it was windy. After the charm of the rustic part of Boston, Seattle was positively deadening. Well, this wasn't a pleasure trip.

Lucien LaCroix was still the Nightcrawler, albeit broadcasting from an American station. He was warned that he was going on ten years on the job, and while radio provided anonymity and would give him a much wider berth, he had to look at the calendar once in a while. He took a few years off to live in Moscow with Janette after Nick's marriage, only to return to a place where the radio signals would reach his son in his new home in Winnipeg. Aristotle put a cap on thirty years for the radio personality, but he assumed General Lucius would be bored with it long before that.

Aristotle took a cab. He had the address of the station, even if he had never been there, and he needed the ride to think. The plane was too noisy, even in first class. He needed to prepare himself. Talking with Lucius was always a battle, even when he wasn't in the mood, and especially when he wanted something. And he did want something. He needed something from the General, a very bad position for any vampire to be in, no matter how old.

The door was locked for night but the rooftop entrance wasn't properly bolted, and he rode the elevator down to the studio. He let Lucius sense him coming. It would set the old grouch off if he didn't. He just didn't let him know it was him until he was tapping on the glass.

LaCroix paused and looked up, his cold blue eyes registering some surprise. He then resumed his broadcast, which lasted another five minutes before he switched to music. He sat and waited in the booth for the "ON AIR" light to turn off, and Aristotle entered.

"I have not been lax in scrutinizing my behavior or my son's," LaCroix said, ever so calm, "and your expression denotes the same. I can only conclude this is some sort of visit." He smiled at the end of the sentence, showing his canines. "To what do I owe the pleasure?"

"I won't further interrupt your show. I can wait."

"Waiting on me? Then it must be quite a pleasure." On his end, yes. "And radio hosts are so terribly unreliable. Maniacs all, otherwise they would be on some relevant medium."

It was best, he decided, to spit it out and not give LaCroix that much chance to mock him. "I need to know how you created Janette and Nicholas."

"I have trouble believing that your master left you so in the dark about the birds and the bees. A basement is a terrible place to work. You should get out more."

"You've had dozens of children who successfully crossed over. I know - I placed most of them in their current homes. But Nick and Janette were your only successes, bringing them across the old way." 

"I believe Nicholas would argue that point rather stridently. Who are you to take my opinion over his?"

LaCroix wasn't going to make any of this easy. "You gave them your power but kept Qa'ra's poison from killing them. I've never been able to do that."

The General's eyebrows shot up. It was really an impressible sight; it was a shame he wasn't in the mood to appreciate it. "And what," he said with protective venom in his voice, "would that have to do with you?"

"Qa'ra was my master's brother. We both have the curse."

LaCroix registered no emotion to this, which meant he was thinking. He switched the microphone back on. "A final question for you, gentle listeners, to ponder as the night grows ever later and darker. They say those who forget history are condemned to repeat it. And what of the ardent students of our past? How do they break free of the poisonous cycle? Or is it our very nature to move forward only to discover we are walking on a wheel, and a step forward will only swing us back to where we started? If you have divined an answer, share it with us when I return tomorrow. Until then, the Nightcrawler reminds you that as you walk this torturous path, condemned, as it were, I will be watching you. Protecting you. Because, I love you all." He switched the microphone off before Aristotle started laughing. "I mean every word."

"Only when Nick is listening."

"I deserve more credit than that. My show has expanded its interests somewhat over the years. And my son is not listening - he is at a dinner with the charming doctor and some of her friends and he is pretending to be interested,” he said. "He is taping it."

********************************************

LaCroix lived close to the radio station. He had few interests in Seattle, clearly, and Aristotle suspected he would move on as soon as Nick did. There was a club scene in Seattle, but if he had any involvement in it, he made no reference to it. His apartment, as usual, was sumptuous and exquisitely designed, with not a chair or book out of place. There was no junk mail piled up next to the door or partially-read magazines strewn across the coffee table. The furniture was glass, black, or a dark wood. Most of the color was on the walls, in paintings that were unmistakably Nick's. Most were expressionist, though one was clearly Janette approaching a victim with all the grace and beauty of the Virgin Mary at the same time. LaCroix had precisely two photographs - his living room, anyway. One was of his family - himself standing proudly behind his favorite creations. It dated to the 1880's from the clothing and the quality of the film. The second, more recent, was of a blond girl playing in her backyard on a sunny day. LaCroix had a picture of his granddaughter. Perhaps there was some humanity in him after all.

"I rarely have guests," LaCroix explained, answering the question as to why both photographs - one incriminating and one embarrassing - were out. "The Community here is a very wild, untamed bunch. Their Elder does little to rein them in." He stepped into the kitchen area and returned with a bottle of wine and two glasses. "The lack of sunlight is perhaps too encouraging."

"I don't see you intervening."

LaCroix had many different smiles. This was of amusement. "Far be it for me to discourage our kind from embracing their true nature. One could almost call me a hypocrite. I know quite a few people who would try."

"And when the Enforcers come to clean up the mess you'll claim you were not involved."

He poured a glass for Aristotle, then himself. "And it won't be a lie."

Aristotle accepted the glass and sipped. LaCroix had exceptional taste in wine. He attributed it to his Roman upbringing.

"So you've come to ask me that essential question," LaCroix said as his guest stared down into his wine glass, "though I believe you know something more of the situation than I do. I take it the legend of the backstabbing brothers is true?"

"Yes. Qum'ra and Qa'ra consumed their older brother to steal his power for themselves, and he cursed them that their blood should be like poison and their children like the monsters they were. Or that was how I heard it from someone, and my master never denied it. I was his last creation before he was killed by a mortal tribe he'd been attempting to conquer. Qa'ra lived another two hundred years."

"You've never mentioned our shared history."

"You never asked."

"Ah, how thoughtless of me," LaCroix said. "Did you ever meet Qa'ra?"

It was not a question he was looking forward to. "Yes, once, when he visited my master. I was maybe a twenty-year-old fledgling at the time. It was brief but memorable visit, the sort that made me relieved to hear of his death, however it was accomplished." He decided to continue before Lucius had a chance to ask more questions about that. "A normal vampire's success rate in bringing someone across is about one in two, depending on how cautious they are in their selections and how old they are. Qum'ra and Qa'ra both had trouble bringing anyone across - and when they did, the young vampire would usually destroy themselves or have to be destroyed within the first year. Those who survived became very powerful in their own right, very quickly. And it put me off bringing people across. The three that did live I couldn't bear to nurture the way my master trained me. They lived their lives like any normal fledgling and died in various ways over the centuries. I've never had the success that you've had."

"You do me honor, and I will reward you with honesty - I am not the wild success you believe me to be," LaCroix said. "Of both kinds - those I simply brought across and those I nurtured and trained - my history is littered with ashes of children I destroyed. Several were even ... well, I had some faith in my success, as they seemed to take well to our family's special brand of child-rearing for the first few years. One even lasted a decade. He was ... very difficult to destroy. I thought about simply letting him loose might prove amusing and let him burn off steam, but our link was too strong and the rampage he pursued threatened my own sanity. Temporarily, of course. But you wish to avoid that pain."

"Yes."

"And you are not content simply to apply the same methods your master applied to you?"

Aristotle shivered. "I could never do that to him."

"Then don't. Leave this mortal be and find some other thing to fill your days. Nicholas talks incessantly about the latest in digging up aboriginal bones. You could join him there."

"Lucius."

"I would do you a disservice by sugar-coating it. If you wish to bring someone across as your child, and give them all the advantages of your ancient bloodline, you will stomach the discomfort you feel at beating him into submission when he fails to control his rage. He will suffer and you will be the cause, and he will be the better for it."

"I will not be hated for it."

LaCroix of course knew exactly what he was referring to. "Nicholas creates his own tortures easily enough, and assigns me the blame whether I deserve some or not. He is that very rare breed that values human morality - something you are unlikely to find unless you are bringing over a saint. I believe he delights in invoking my rage."

"You tell yourself that so you don't have to admit you've made mistakes."

"Do you want my advice or not?"

"I was only pointing out the obvious. I do not believe in fooling myself or anyone else. At your age, you should be held to the same standard." Aristotle had to gain some ground to not sink into a well of despair. "Nicholas is a tremendous success as a vampire, even if he hates himself for it. Any other vampire his age would have withered away on a century of cow's blood and denying the hunter. He has outfought and outlived those who were judged to be tougher than him. And he hates you for what you've done to him - not just the vampire part. You drove him to forsake human blood with that ballet dancer."

"There might have been some miscalculation - "

"And the many times he's tried to kill himself? If only he wasn't so well-built; he might have succeeded. There's irony in it, is there not?"

The General looked away so he didn't have to face him. "May we get to the heart of the matter?"

"I believe this is the heart of the matter."

"If you wished to exchange taunts you would do wise to save yourself the effort and call. No, you desire some of my most painful memories for your own gain. You would see my most private moments with two people you call friends without first seeking their permission. Or am I mistaken?"

Now it was Aristotle's time to avoid a stare. "What is your price? There is always a price with you, Lucius, and I would pay it now and not later."

LaCroix took a sip of his wine as he considered his options. "You will not violate your personal codes, I assume."

"No."

"Or, no doubt, enlighten me on some lore the Council would desire you to keep secret."

"You know I can't."

"Then I propose we trade memories. I will give you my experiences in the early years of both my children, and you will give me your memories of Qa'ra. I have been curious about my grandsire since I first heard his name."

"They are ... personal." And he was not looking forward to revisiting them through the blood link.

"I would assume so. Nonetheless that is my price. Rather small, I should think, since we are discussing someone long dead and not two living children. But see it how you will and decide." He stood, leaving the bottle but taking his own glass with him.

Aristotle sat for quite a while, with Lucius leaving him alone to decide. There was no harm in giving Lucius his memories of Qa'ra in the long run, but they were deeply personal. But so was what he was asking. "I accept."

"I assume you do not wish to wait."

"No. I only need a few minutes. Do you have uncut blood?"

"Of course." He disappeared, returning in moments with an unmarked bottle from the fridge. "Help yourself."

He did. He had a full glass of blood, and then another. There was a long night ahead of him.


Chapter 6

When Aristotle was sure all the mental barriers he would need were erected, and LaCroix himself well-fed (as if the old dragon could hide anything from Aristotle!), LaCroix unbuttoned the cuff to his shirt and rolled it up. "You know, no doubt, of Janette's mortal past."

"Yes." Not that she didn't make it obvious that she was once a whore.

"When I found her there was no hesitation in my offer the way one would consider the sanctity of their soul. There was only the mild hesitation that I was yet another man meaning to drink her and rob her pimp of his price. Fear of the known is so much easier than fear of the unknown. When I saw she recognized that I was something else, I took her then and there, and found her true answer in her blood instead of hearing it. I have known many powerful women in my time, but her spirit was strong without the twisted taint of the scheming helpless women find so necessary to use against the dominant men who hold them at their whim. That was what attracted me to her, and I was not mistaken. So." He offered his wrist to Aristotle.

Though there was no heartbeat to beckon him, Aristotle called on the beast easily enough, and sunk his fangs into LaCroix's wrist. His blood had a sophisticated flavor, not sweet like a scared mortal, but strong and heavy. If he were simply feeding, he would be satisfied very easily. Instead he sucked barely enough to keep the wound open and the blood flowing, and delved more greedily into what the blood offered than the amount.

First, unbidden, came LaCroix's immediate emotions - discomfort, curiosity, and some fear. Lucius Divius preferred the known to the unknown, and Aristotle was an unknown. The fact that he revealed less and less of himself over the years, even altering his aura so that vampire perceived him as no more than five or six centuries, was disconcerting to Lucius. Someone doing so much hiding must have so much to hide.

As curious as Aristotle was, this was not their agreement and he did not freely delve into Lucius' mind, taking only the memories that were offered, even if he had to draw them out. It was not very hard to take what was so freely offered.

********************************************

Paris c. 1080

"LaCroix," his daughter begged, I wish to hunt. There is still time, I think."

If she was quick about it, yes. She was still a fledgling, and would be easily caught by the rising sun, expecting to be able to run for longer than she could, and instead fall asleep somewhere that would, later in the way, be the target of a shaft of sunlight. He would feel her flesh burning, but would he reach her in time? "I will go with you."

"Yes, Master." Sometimes she called him Master, sometimes LaCroix. Never Father - he had forbidden it. She did not know why, as he said freely she could think of him as a father if she so pleased and he knew she quite often did, but it was too disconcerting. A thousand years since Divia's death and a single word could still do such great damage to him.

Janette was old enough now to hunt on her own, and often did, but it was later in the night and he preferred not to take chances. She was so promising. He wondered if she, once the unwilling seductress trained to gauge men's desires, knew how utterly ensnared he was of her as everything she was to him - a vampire, a daughter, a lover, and above all, his child. He went to elaborate lengths to hide what she meant to him, knowing that it was dangerous to their relationship to let her know how much power she really had over him.

Janette was an excellent hunter, even by his standards. She preferred, to no great surprise, a handsome man over any other prey, and would spend hours if she could afford them hunting down and then seducing her choice, letting him believe he was the hunter and not the prey until his very last, sweet moments when she would feel the surge of fear as the man realized his imminent death. By then he would be half-drained, so filled with lust he hadn't noticed the initial bite. The fear made the blood like fine wine, and she thrilled at the completion of her chase, and so did he by association, sensing her excitement and then climax and completion. They would often retire not long after that, her vampire still in a romantic agony so much that he could not always tell the vampire from Janette, and they would drink from each other and make love, the only words he could use to properly describe the physical act when it happened as such. With the sun she would fall asleep in his arms, and he would lay there for some time with her, sleeping most of the day away, but usually rising before she was awake.

Tonight was different. She hunted, they returned to the castle, and she was filled with the urge to hunt again rather than drink from her master. With a raised eyebrow he complied, but was not far from her as she sailed across the rooftops of Constantinople. She took the prey unusually quickly - a handsome but slovenly noble, wandering out of a tavern - and had to pause to remember to snap his neck before abandoning the body. No matter about that - he would not have changed. He was utterly dry and quite dead, beyond return.

"Another," she said, turning to him with red eyes.

"No." It was not a suggestion. "The sun is coming."

"I am still hungry."

She wasn't. He knew that; he made sure this time to keep the link between them particularly strong. "I will sate you."

"Where is the fun in that?"

"My dear, I am offended."

Her senses were still about her enough to bow her head. "Forgive me." She was relieved to find a smile on his face. He was not that offended; he just wanted her back in the safety of the dark castle. "You are right. We should return."

He offered his hand, and they flew together, returning through the window. LaCroix drew the drapes and removed his cloak. Janette sat on her bed, but not in any expectant way, as earlier implied.

"My child." He would not let this linger. "Let me taste you before I sleep tonight." Again, it was not a suggestion or polite request.

She bent her head sideways to offer him her neck, but not as seductively as he was used to. He removed his gloves and caressed her neck, his fingers finding the two barely-visible bite marks from her creation: her Maker's Mark, the wound that never fully healed but left a tiny, almost undetectable set of scars. Her skin was so soft that he felt as though his rough soldier's hands would harm her. When she could not be further coaxed into being interested, he simply bit, and began to drink.

He tasted lust: lust for the hunt, lust for the men and their blood, and lust for all that this life had to offer her after her mortal life provided nothing. But Janette was no tawdry whore, and never had been. There was so much complexity to her desires, so much so that even he could not always make them out, and through the vampire what was so damaged and suppressed as a mortal came out in the most wonderful ways. She was truly a sublime creation.

He probed a little further, running over the night's events and trying to pinpoint what propelled the second hunt when the first one filled her physical needs. He searched the wildness, encountering the beastly side of the vampire as he went, but ignored it. And then he saw it - the horrible darkness that lay just at the end of her mind, like an army creeping upon the gates late at night.

He was intimately acquainted with this darkness. Other vampires didn't seem to have it, and it frustrated him to no end even after an Old One he located in India provided some explanation of the power in his blood and the terrible price that came with it. It had destroyed Divia from the inside out; his final blow was putting the vampire out of its misery.

He drew back. So. There it was.

"LaCroix?"

He did not stop her from caressing his cheek. He even rested his head against her breast, but said nothing. He would not give up on this one. He would not accept defeat.

"You are troubled."

He could lie, and it was his first temptation, but it would not work. He was too plain with his emotions. "I have, I think, some more lessons to teach you."

"Have I done something wrong?" The remaining part of her that was innocent asked the question. She really did want to know.

"No. Quite the opposite, my dear. You are a great success." Saying this, he could smile without it being false. "You have come so far, and now a greater power will beckon you. You must let me see you through it, and you will become a queen among us."

"Whatever you wish."

"You must wish it," he insisted, though he would use his powers to force it on her if he had to. "You must be willing to be guided, lest the power of the blood take you for its own."

"I am yours, Master. You know that."

He knew that now, but he wished he could remain so sure. "Sleep," he told her, and she needed little suggestion. The sun was rising and she would sleep the day. He stroked her neck but did not find rest so easily. This castle would not be sufficient. It was barely standing and it was too close to town, and renovations would make her suspicious.

At dusk, he casually informed her they would be traveling to the French countryside. She did not ask why and he did not offer. Damien had a place there, a Byzantine castle built on a solid Roman villa. Foundations were very important.

There were no incidents of sudden hunger or unusual enthusiasm on the three-month journey that took them to Western France. He was not entirely sure if she was fine or merely subconsciously suppressing it, knowing he was reading her thoughts and not wanting to displease him. Janette was not so devious - not as devious as to match his own cynicism, to be specific - as to trick him. It was not to her interests while she was so young and reliant on him. He intentionally kept her from other vampires, so she could go to no one for shelter who was not his friend or too weak to defend himself against LaCroix. In time, she would be perfectly independent, strong-willed, and in a hundred years, a match for most European vampires. And if half his predictions came true, he would never be able to let her go.

Sentimentality and fatherhood mixed poorly. The vampire was a heartless, deceitful beast, only thinking of its next kill. He believed it could be combined with the human body to create a truly divine - and he found no irony in using that word - creature. He also understood how difficult that balance could be - especially for his family.

The summer passed quickly. The Franks imagined themselves so sophisticated, but they were all the same when they were running for their lives. To get beyond farmers, they inserted themselves into the local noble circles with practiced ease, and picked them off with even greater delight. Janette began to chase a Lord Robert, the son of a count, and drew it out much longer than even she preferred.

"You cannot continue to draw from him," he warned her. "If he does not become suspicious, the servant who draws his bath will."

"Ah, you forget we barbarians never bathe."

"Janette - "

She kissed him on the cheek. "I will be careful."

Of course she would be. He was no more sure of it through their link than when it came out of her mouth. She would not deceive him or herself with her very careful plans. And while she slept, he did something unusual - he drew her blood and discovered the depths of those plans for himself.

Resigned to their fates, he let her return to Lord Robert's. He caught her in his bedroom. Lord Robert was drained and dead, and though her eyes were all surprise at his appearance, he ignored that particular elephant in the room. "And what now?"

"Now, LaCroix?"

"Yes. Now. What are you planning now? Will you flee before the servants burst in or will you take them all, one by one? Will you gorge yourself on the young and old, the seduced and the unwilling?" He stepped closer and her away. She never stepped away. "You make no attempt to justify it. You do not understand it."

"Master -"

"Shh. Do not be afraid. My intentions are pure - though you will doubt that."

"I would never doubt you, Master."

He grabbed her by the neck and forced her against the wall. She was fighting him, and not just out of self-defense. He knew she didn't mean it, but that did not mean he could dismiss it. "I know, mon cherie. But you may find me very unkind."

Vampires responded well to beatings. They were safer than other sorts of injuries, where they could bleed or be struck with wood. Bones would mend and unused organs would heal. All it took was blood and time. He had been quite ruthless with his former children - all male. He had decided, months ago, that Janette would not have the same fate. As a mortal, he had struck women - whores, slaves, the vicious wives of his enemies, even the mother of his child. And there was the small matter that he had murdered Divia - but it was the only time he ever struck her, that final blow. She was family.

LaCroix had promised Janette no mortal man would touch her again without her consent, and he had little desire to do it himself even though the bargain left him exempt. Instead he put her in the dungeon and chained her to the walls, where the only damage she could do was to herself or him, and he was willing to take as many scratches and bruises as she could fit in as he force-fed her. He was shocked that the surging vampire had the strength to resist him in the first place after a few days of starvation. A normal fledgling would be incoherent, not begging for mercy while trying to claw his eyes out.

She was strong - but he was stronger.

********************************************

"Did you tell her why?"

Janette's first imprisonment lasted months. The others were shorter. LaCroix looked down at his quick-healing wound. "No. But make no mistake: I know better than to tell the whole of the truth instead of lying. She was satisfied with my answers." He swallowed a glass full of blood, his mood foul. "You want Nicholas as well."

"If you would."

LaCroix finished the bottle and returned with another one. "Nicholas considers you a good friend. He will look poorly on my sharing memories that reflect so badly on him."

"I assume you won't be telling him." Not that Aristotle really thought anything LaCroix would show him would change the way he looked at Nick. He knew more of Nick's history than most people. "You never taught him how to close the link."

"No."

"Or even how to open it the other way."

"I don't know how and I've never tried to learn." It was a rare admission for LaCroix, but if he lied, Aristotle would probably know, at least for the next few hours, while LaCroix's blood was still hot in his veins. "Some information can be dangerous. But I insult you; you have not come to be told what you already so acquainted with." He rolled up his other sleeve. "Shall we?"

********************************************

Nicholas de Brabant was such a fascinating challenge because he wasn't meant to be.

From the first night he followed the child of the light, LaCroix understood that there was more to Nicholas than the brutes that surrounded him. Even the bloody battles of the Levant and seven years in a Saracen prison could not diminish an inner spirit. Yes, it was covered in a layer of anger and defeat, more than the mortal could fathom and overcome within his lifetime. He stumbled about, his wounds barely healed, going from cheap pleasure to cheap pleasure to dull the pain for a short while. He was no match for Janette's wiles and without the willpower to reject LaCroix's offer.

On the other hand, he was a man - and a soldier, at that. Not even a very good one, as he was shot by an arrow and captured in his first major combat before he could strike a single killing blow. The male species was not complicated, as Janette was so keen to remind them. He responded to simple stimuli, sometimes distinguishing little besides pain and pleasure. LaCroix merely needed to balance them to control him.

It worked for him through Nicholas' early nights, when the vampire was stronger than the actual man and eager to harvest Nicholas' pain and training as an unstoppable killing machine. LaCroix did not offer the vampire an inch when it came to feeding him as soon as he woke, when he could not control his senses, strengthening the bond between them until his hold on Nicholas' mind was as complete as it could be without destroying the younger vampire. LaCroix used Janette to his endless advantage, disguising his own intentions by distracting his son with her ministrations. He would have done it himself, but Nicholas would not accept it - not yet. Time would break all barriers, and he was going to be patient with this one. He liked him.

There were some early bumps in the road, what he could look back on as warning signs that all was not well with young Nicholas, and not in the way he expected. Light did not become darkness when he crossed over, and he was reluctant to take full pleasure in the hunt, even questioning the meaning of a particularly successful hunt - as if there were anything to question. At first LaCroix assumed it was a simple misunderstanding of the nature of the vampire, then attributed it to youthful rebellion with a side of Nicholas' remaining mortal moors, and Nicholas stopped complaining. Instead he harbored it deep inside him, so deep even he couldn't see, but LaCroix could.

How could such a brilliant little creature be so impossibly thick-skulled? Were LaCroix's words Greek to him whenever he mentioned that he had a wide-open window into his son's mind, and always would? That no intentions or desires could be hidden from his master? Were his eyes closed when LaCroix went out of his way to demonstrate it, again and again? No, Nicholas would not be tamed. Seven years of torture and sodomy in a filth-infested Moorish prison had not broken him, and he foolishly still called no man his master, even when he clearly had a master. When he said he was master of his own soul, LaCroix responded with the cunning reminder that he didn't have one. Nicholas refused to believe and the cycle began anew.

LaCroix spent his lonely daylight hours while his children slept pondering what he had unleashed - something so powerful and yet so naïve. He could be tricked, but never tamed. The very opposite of his sister - what a delightful pair they made.

There was potential in Nicholas, good and bad. When he was in a good mood, he thrilled in their lessons. When sour, he spurned his gifts and LaCroix's love. Of course, all this effort meant LaCroix was absorbed in his parenthood, and constantly delving into the inner recesses of his complex son's mind to tighten his hold. It was hard to distinguish Nicholas' disgust with the vampire, the vampire's disgust with Nicholas' morality, and any possible additional surges, but it was not impossible. Also, Nicholas sped things up quite a bit by draining a tavern full of mortals and then willing putting himself in danger by burning it to the ground. He was still recklessly tossing torches on the rubble when LaCroix collected him. Well, subtlety was not Nicholas' strong suits.

LaCroix was ready to be harsh. It was not Nicholas' first beating and he doubted it would be his last. His son's fiery spirit seemed to tempt it and he responded better to physical lessons than philosophical lectures. Janette never said a word, though on occasion he sent her away to let Nicholas know how unprotected he really was. This was one of those times.

"Growing pains," he said to her when her face demanded an explanation. Rare for her - she must have sensed the surge of madness in Nicholas as well. "He will master it."

"I wish to see him." She said it in the voice he could not refuse. She had a finger wrapped around his heart and she seemed to know when to tighten it.

"I do not recommend it." But he did not deny it, either.

He should have.

Nicholas was chained and most his clothing was torn and blackened from fighting with his master and sweating blood. There were still fresh wounds around his arms and wrists, opened anew each time someone entered the room. "Janette! You must talk sense into him! He is a madman!" But his face fell when he saw LaCroix in the doorway behind her. "You have come to abandon me as well."

"LaCroix has not abandoned you," she said, and cupped his cheeks. "The very opposite, Nicolas. He loves you. He will care for you?"

His ire was easily invoked in his current state. "And you will not? I mean nothing to you?" He bit the hand that would have so willingly fed him and given him some strength to face LaCroix again, and the brutality of it caused her to shy from him. She did not cry out or show how upset she was, but they could both feel it. She held her hand until it healed, nodded to her master, and left.

"No! No, Janette ..." How quickly anger could turn to misery. Janette's blood was still smeared across his chin. He had no way of wiping it off. "Bring her back! I did not mean - "

"You wanted and you took. A shameful lack of control," LaCroix said. "She does understand that, and much more than you at this juncture. But you will learn."

But he could not explain. He could not tell his son their blood was tainted, that there was power in their line that could conquer kingdoms if it did not consume him first. The latter was so much more likely. There was strength in Nicholas, and he had that ordinary response of responding to violence with violence. He would hit back, so much as he was capable, until every bone was broken and he fought the urge to bite his master or willingly take his blood to stave off starvation.

"You would do better not to fight me, Nicholas," LaCroix said, feeling Nicholas's rib cage break again not just between his hands, but in his own ribs. Nicholas' pain was his own, but he would endure. "It would end if you could stop." But Nicholas only howled, none of it human.

That was what he wanted. The sane Nicholas, the human Nicholas. The Nicholas that could, despite his many lectures, defeat the vampire - this vampire. How could he communicate that, but through blood and violence? The vampire in Nicholas did not know reason and Nicholas did not have the will to control it.

LaCroix vowed to teach him control, even if it meant provoking the beast over and over. When Nicholas slept with the sun he treated, to nurse his own wounds. The actual ones were minor, but the aches through the blood haunted him throughout the day.

For months, Nicholas fed only from him, the only blood available. It strengthened their bond, but it made the beatings so much more agonizing. To be the giver, the one in control, did not relieve him of the fact that he was on both ends, and worse, that Nicholas did not understand how he suffered. He was in no condition to do so, even if he wanted to - and Nicholas did not want to. He hated him.

Nicholas' fate was decided by LaCroix's feeling that a despised father was better than a dead son. He could live with despised, as long as Nicholas lived with him.

********************************************

"Haphazard at best."

They were LaCroix's first words after a long silence, as Aristotle pulled away and replenished himself. The drapes blocked the dawn.

"Don't you think? To simply destroy what you cannot understand?" It was the sick smile now, of the man who was in pain and wouldn't admit it. "Or does my purported success justify the means?" When Aristotle did not respond, LaCroix stood, and poured himself a full glass of blood wine, downing it instantly. "If you haven't the stomach for it, save yourself this trouble. I will collect on my debt tomorrow. I can recommend a haven, or if you wish, you can stay."

Aristotle finished his own glass. "I'll stay."

********************************************

Both vampires were Ancients, so neither needed much sleep. It was sheer exhaustion that drove them to their beds. The desire to lay quietly and absorb what had passed between them was too great to allow any other new input. LaCroix knew he wouldn't leave and Aristotle knew he would stay, so he showed him to the guest room without being asked and left him alone. Like everything else it was out of a home decorating magazine for the more exotic tastes, and he guessed from the other (and Natalie-less) pictures of Nicholas on the shelf that Janette was its most common resident when it was used at all. When he removed his jacket and laid down, he could smell her.

He could smell Janette. He knew the scent from LaCroix's memories, forever burned into his brain but more potent with the blood still in his veins. In a few hours it would be gone, and they would smell like normal, clean sheets.

According to LaCroix's memories, ensuring Janette and Nicholas' survival had cost him almost everything - the respect of his both his children, his freedom in that he was bound to them, and possibly his sanity. The only thing that superseded all of it and maintained him through the centuries was his devotion to both of them, and their occasional expression of a return of those feelings. He was their father and they were his children, the way Aristotle and his master had never been. LaCroix had beaten them, tortured them, tricked them - and created a family in the process. The sadistic bastard.

Aristotle slept, though not easily. His dreams were not a coherent message, just an uncomfortable surfacing of his fears mixed with LaCroix's own. He was grateful that at least that would pass quickly, leaving him with his own thoughts and on one else's.

For now.

LaCroix's strategy was not the abuse. It was the tight hold he nurtured on the mind of his children as fledglings, then reinforced at the first sign of trouble. If he was guilty of only one thing, it would be hyperactive parenting - but it was effective.

He rose at dusk, checked his phone for emergency messages and even answered a few, then poured himself uncut blood. He was about to be drained, and though he was quite accomplished at staying focused during the process, but he preferred to do it on a full stomach.

His host made his first appearance of the evening. "My computer refuses to recognize my printer."

"That sounds like some sort of existential crisis."

"Aren't you the philosopher?" LaCroix growled, and returned to his study. Aristotle followed him, deleted and reinstalled the drivers, and reconnected the printer. "You are accomplished."

"About as accomplished as a mortal under ten," he said. They moved to the living room with the bottle of blood. He would be a fool to delay the inevitable.

"Lucius, you should understand before we begin," he said as he rolled up his sleeve, "that this was a much different time. I know, not long before yours, but it was before the Council was formed, and while the last vampire kingdom was still standing in Persia. And the rights of fledglings were nonexistent." He sighed. "I can only remember parts of it, but I will give you what I have."

"I accept the offer." Lucius bit into his arm, and Aristotle leaned back, ignoring the searing pain of the bite and the blood loss. He knew so much worse.


Chapter 7

302 BCE

Aristotle did not care for the desert, something which his master was well aware. Not that it mattered; Qum'ra had his money in Greek coin and it paid for quite a home in the new kingdom of the Macedonian Empire. King Seleucus, unsure of his new crown, was favorable after a few thousand drachmas, all Qum'ra needed to secure himself a palace from an old Median fortress. Solid battlements made for dark hallways and secure havens, and plenty of room for his staff of thralls that kept him and Aristotle in comfort. Qum'ra, never himself a king, preferred to live as close to one as possible without attracting attention, and he was a master of it.

Not that it made Aristotle's life any easier.

"Aristotle," Qum'ra called, actually using his voice instead of just summoning him.

Though he was still weary from sleep, the sun just set, he was as composed as possible as he bowed. "Yes, Master."

"My brother is coming tonight." Qum'ra did not look up from his massive parchment spread across the bench. Whatever he was working on, it was taking him some time and written in a language he had not yet shared with his child. "Though I despise every fiber of his unnatural being, and he the same of me, we will pretend otherwise for the evening. You, of course, will show him every respect."

He didn't know why it was in question. "Yes, Master."

Qum'ra grabbed him by his beard. Maybe it was time to trim it. Once a sign of wisdom and age, it was now only an inconvenience. "Qa'ra is a vicious little beast and you will obey his every wish. Do you understand?"

"Yes, Master," he said with a bit more feeling.

Qum'ra barely flicked his wrist to release him but it was enough of a shove to send him backwards so hard he broke the new chair. It was wood, and the splinters hurt. He knew his master felt all of his pain, and he also knew his master ignored it. Nonetheless Qum'ra stood, and towered over him. "You have my word on this: I will not let him break you."

"Master?"

"Clean up this mess."

Aristotle waited for his master to leave before he groaned and picked himself up. He picked up every piece of the chair himself and disposed of it in the room for firewood before summoning a thrall to pick the irritating splinters out of his head. Only then did the bleeding stop and he fed from the same servant before releasing him from his duties for the night. Water was in short supply - one of the many reasons to hate the desert - but he fetched enough to properly wash himself before the festivities. The wandering barbarians that inhabited this land might consider it fine to be covered in sand and grime, but that did not excuse him. It was one of the few dignities he was allowed and he took great pleasure in it. Hopefully their next home would have a proper bath.

The link with his master was unusually quiet. Not that he could get ever get into his master's head, but he knew his wasn't being invaded beyond the norm. It could only mean Qum'ra was truly occupied with his own thoughts, and Aristotle didn't care to guess what those were. Through his master's blood he knew something of the story of the three brothers, as full of treachery and murder as any tragic play, but he could not now recall an image of Qa'ra himself. His master blocked the specifics. If Aristotle had hated his own brother so deeply, he would have never answered letters from him, much less opened his home to him, but Qum'ra was from a different culture, where hospitality was sacred. It took some getting used to. There was so much lying involved, too much for his tastes.

He sensed another presence before Qa'ra formally arrived. It wasn't in the link with his master, but it was clearer in his mind than any other vampire had been, startling him. Aristotle fixed his tunic and ran to attend his master. He was shocked by what he saw - brother embracing brother, as if no enmity had ever passed between them, but the most startling thing is they really did look like brothers. Both had dark skin and long black beards, both were in layered robes and headdresses that took modesty to ridiculous levels, and from the similarities in their voices and facial expressions, they actually looked like brothers. Was it possible? Were they brought across together? Aristotle was left to ponder this as he gestured for the servants to see to Qa'ra's comfort; Aristotle was a fledgling so he did not need to be acknowledged. The servants removed his traveling cloak, brought pillows for him to sit on, and brought him the healthiest and most beautiful of the women for him to quench his traveling thirst. The link was alive but unreadable. It took Aristotle some time to figure out he was merely adjacent to blood bonds passing between the brothers, and susceptible to his uncle's presence. He stood quietly and watched them talk, sometimes quietly and sometimes animated, but always in a language probably long-dead.

"Aristotle," his master said, and he approached them and bowed.

"So this is the philosopher," Qa'ra said in Greek. "I've read some of your works."

"I did not know they were in circulation," he said before he caught himself. The memory of his master burning his writing while he lay on the floor, too weak from the transformation to move, was still very fresh in his mind. He scolded himself; his master would read that and be angered by his lingering grudge. He lowered his eyes.

"I thought the ability of a mortal to make such audacious and widespread claims about knowledge of the inner workings of the universe was rather more limited. I see I am proven wrong."

"I only wrote what I observed."

Qa'ra laughed. "So humble, this one. He was not so humble when he was writing - or as a student, I heard. You must find him troubling."

"He is an interesting challenge," Qum'ra said, his voice unusually guarded. He did not mean it as a compliment to Aristotle.

"And yet he is not mad yet. You must have gone too easy on him or have some skill I do not. I am all envy."

"You flatter me. The others would scoff at bringing an old man across, especially a pretentious Greek. They think they own the world. And I have no doubt they will say it to my face when they get the chance."

"Then do not give them the chance." Qa'ra laughed again. It was rattling to Aristotle, more than it should have been. "Sell him to me for the night."

"Now you insult me. You know here is no commerce between brothers. He is yours."

Aristotle had been sold before, but usually he was worth something.

They played some game with stones for a short while, talking in their old tongues about old things. He stood and watched. Once a broken old man, he was now a powerful vampire who could stand on his feet without a cane for an evening, only he did not feel so powerful now. The battle to maintain his dignity with Qum'ra was hard-fought and hard-won. He did not think he could repeat the performance with someone less invested in his survival.

I will not let him break you.

It was startling to hear his master's voice so loud in his head. Usually it was more subtle. Qum'ra wasn't even looking at him when Qa'ra took him, almost dragged him when he would have gone willingly to private chambers because that was what he was told to do. Certainly it was not because he wanted to.

"My brother is a fool," Qa'ra said to him, bolting the door behind him. "He knows that I know that, and no doubt he thinks the same of me, but at least I have a reason." He grabbed Aristotle's arm, not giving him a chance to offer, and bit down. Aristotle fought all of his instincts to struggle but it was so painful. He dropped to his knees as Qa'ra pulled back, blood still on his lips and fangs still extended. "He does not know how to tame you. He could break you, yes, but he would destroy you. And where's the fun in that?" He grabbed Aristotle by his collar and raised him up. Aristotle could smell his own blood on Qa'ra's lips. "You still have your own thoughts. You still defy him. My brother, who would be king of kings if he could manage it, if only he could have defeated me and taken my strength. Defeated by your insufferable mind! What a bitter pill that must be for him to swallow. But to destroy you would be to admit his failure, and we can't have that, can we?"

"I have done - "

"You do not mean to defy him, of course. Yes, plead your innocence. It might even be true. But you cannot make yourself dumber than him, more foolish than him, slower to learn and deduce. I could feel his frustration all the way from Egypt! I must know its source." He pressed his thumb against Aristotle's collarbone and nearly broke it. "If you fight me, it will be worse."

"I swear I will not fight you." Please don't make it any worse.

I cannot promise that, Qa'ra answered, already in his mind. Terrified, Aristotle squirmed under the master vampire's grasp, but to no avail. He tried not to look at the glint in Qa'ra's black eyes as he pushed his head to the side and tore into his flesh, almost as if he meant to consume him whole.

There was no fighting. The strength went out of him so quickly that Aristotle dropped limply into Qa'ra's arms, and Qa'ra guided him to the mattress, never halting the draining of blood as he shoved Aristotle down and climbed on top of him.

Aristotle did not black out. The link kept him very much awake, though not entirely conscious of the physical world as the exchange, however one-sided, consumed his mind. He could feel Qa'ra digging in every corner, smashing down every door he might have left closed, so that every memory of his mortal life now had Qa'ra in it, standing there in black and darkening the room with his very presence. He tried to let the vampire take over in him, because the vampire didn't think and if Qa'ra focused on that, he would leave Aristotle's memories alone. It didn't work; the vampire didn't come when he called it. It was as if the beast was asleep.

"I told you not to fight me," Qa'ra said, tearing a column from the Academy's main walkway and hurling it at the young Aristotle, whose fragile mortal bones crunched beneath it and he fell at the top of the staircase. Aristotle was mortal in this memory and he couldn't breathe. Qa'ra grabbed the passing memory-image of Xenocrates and tore his head off. "This is how you break in a fledgling."

Aristotle closed his eyes, and opened them when he heard his daughter's cries. Qa'ra was feeding on Pythias, having stripped her of her garments first, and there was nothing he could do. It is just a memory. She's an image in your head. She cannot be harmed.

"You will not defend your own daughter?" Qa'ra pulled out of her and advanced on the now older Aristotle, the one who walked with a cane. "You are that much of a coward."

"She is not real."

"She is real to you. And considering the mortal girl is dead and gone, this is perhaps the only version that still exists." With that, he tore that awful bust off its pedestal and smashed her face in with it.

"I cannot fight you," Aristotle repeated, mainly to himself. "I will not win. Claim your victory and be done with it."

"You give in too easily!" He walked from the memory of their home in the Macedonian court back to the Academy. Aristotle recognized the office, the writing tablets strewn about, the scrolls in storage holes.

"No!" The younger him was faster, barely fast enough to grab Qa'ra's robes as he advanced on Plato. "Not him. You don't want him."

"I have no interest in him. In that you are correct." He pushed Aristotle away with such force as the younger vampire went flying and smashed into the stone wall, putting a dent in the marble. "Your response is just so much more interesting. After all, is he not just an image? A fragment of a memory?"

"Leave this one be! I will do anything you ask."

"You have offered that already and doing so with more conviction makes it no less true." Qa'ra stepped behind the wizened philosopher. "Answer me this: Who is your real master, Aristotle? Qum'ra or philosophy?"

"You know the answer to that. You are in my head - why do you ask?"

"I am interesting to hear what you actually say, as opposed to how you feel. I will show Qum'ra, who is no doubt peeking when he said he wouldn't, what it was he could not define in you that makes you so unbreakable. He really should have read your works before he burned them or he would have had the answer years ago." He grabbed Plato, who did not speak, and held him up by the neck as if he were a doll. "Who is your real master? Qum'ra? King Philip? Plato? You've defied them all so I cannot imagine it could be so."

There was one thing he loved more than Plato, and he loved Plato above everyone else. "The truth."

"Yes?"

"My master is the truth." He felt stronger when he said it, even if his limbs were still broken and he had no way of escaping the prison of his own distorted memories. "There - you have it. You have your victory. Do as you please, and change nothing."

"Your allegiance is to a philosophical concept," Qa'ra said, clearly amused. "How unbelievably pathetic - and all the same, stronger than any other master in that it is unshakable. That is, if you are sane."

Plato dropped. He dropped too, somewhere, and opened his eyes to the ceiling of the chambers. He was barely strong enough to tilt his head and see Qa'ra wiping his mouth. He was utterly drained and the sun was coming. Soon he would sleep and this nightmare would be over.

"Rejoice - you have not outlived your usefulness to me." Qa'ra bit him on the other side, and he screamed until he had no more voice and no more sight.

********************************************

"Stop. I need to stop."

LaCroix obeyed. Aristotle held his wound and watched it close on its own. He did not immediately go for the blood, his hunger somewhat abated by how sick he felt. "Thank you."

"As you wish." LaCroix's voice sounded almost concerned as he poured him a fresh glass. "There is more to story, isn't there?"

"Yes. Though, technically my bargain is fulfilled because Qa'ra does not appear." His hands were shaking as he gulped down the offered blood. "He was gone when I woke. I never saw him again. But if you wish to know what I know of him, I must continue."

"Do you wish to wait?"

"No." He drained another glass as quickly as it was filled. "No, let's get this over with."

********************************************

302 BCE

Upon waking, Aristotle's body registered two things. First, he was in a lot of pain. Second, he was very, very hungry. He could not remember so fierce a hunger since his earliest days. It took all of his might but he sat up and rang the bell, not caring which servant appeared. They weren't servants; they were dinner.

Was it night or day? It had to be night, but he couldn't tell. His internal sense of the sun's location was murky. He was fighting with this notion when a young man entered, barely more than a boy, and he leapt on him and nearly tore his head off to get the best angle on the throat. Aristotle sucked greedily, but the boy would not be enough. His shoulder still hurt. He ached everywhere. He was getting angry.

He tossed the boy aside and rang the bell again. And again. And again. When no more would come, he leapt over the pile of bodies and darted out into the hallway. His vampiric speed was back and his limbs were mended, but he still hurt. Other than his shoulder, he could not define where or why. Blood would help. Blood would quench this thirst. Where would he find someone who tasted good? Everyone was sour to him. He took the cook and the cook's aid, not stopping to savor them or check that they were truly dead. The maid in the doorway screamed, and he grabbed her, hurling her against the doorframe and shattering her pelvis. He began to drink, but she died quickly from her injuries, too quickly for him to finish her.

Aristotle dropped her and tried to continue to the next room, only to stumble. He leaned against the wall, but the dizziness would not pass.

"Aristotle! What in -"

His master. The ultimate prize. His blood would be so sweet. The blood of the master always heals.

Qum'ra caught him in mid-flight and covered his mouth with an iron bowl so he could not bite. "Control yourself!"

The blood of the master always heals. The blood of the master always heals.

"Aristotle," his master said again, holding him back by tackling him against the doorframe, "stop and think. You are so good at it."

It was almost soft, the way he said it. It tickled Aristotle's mind and he giggled, but he was in so much pain. Couldn't the master understand that? Didn't he know?

Qum'ra had a very different response to his silent pleas. He bit him in the arm, pulled back, and spit out the blood, cursing. "He poisoned you!"

The blood of the master always heals.

"I won't let him break you," Qum'ra said, and there was almost affection in his voice. Aristotle howled as he dragged him, knowing very well where he was going - the basement, now a dungeon. He was acquainted with dungeons, having spent five of his years with Qum'ra in one. He did not like chains. They would not make him feel better. "So much for the staff," his master said, and disappeared.

There was no light and he was weak, except for brief bursts of excitement at the thought of food. Days could have passed before his master returned, with three of the servants. They hissed like vampires. "Drink," he ordered the first one, and the former guard bit Aristotle with the Hunger of a new vampire. "Drink," he repeated to the others, and they all fed from him. He closed his eyes, thinking he was unconscious until he smelled the smoke, forcing him awake. Fire! And he could not escape!

"Not for you," his master said, and in the haze he saw little but heard the screams of dying men. He could not close his ears.

"Drink."

Now the command was for him. It took him a moment to realize it, when he smelled his master's blood. Qum'ra had cut open his arm wrist and held the wound open for him, to entice him. "Drink."

He did. The blood of the master always healed.

********************************************

It was LaCroix who politely pulled back, sensing the story was over, or as much as Aristotle wanted to reveal through the blood. Aristotle was far from drained, but it felt good to drink anyway. It was calming. His senses were still rattled from reliving it.

"I found out later," he said, "that he turned three servants to drain me. My blood was poison to everyone but him, so they went insane and he destroyed them all, but that was his plan from the beginning. He knew that if he drank from me, he couldn't feed me, because I would just get the poison back from his blood. Someone else had to drain me, so he sacrificed the servants. It was like dying all over again. There was no transformation, but it was just as painful as being brought across. When I came out the other end, I finished off the remaining servants in a frenzy, and he let me. Nothing about control or showing restraint. He knew what that poison could do. He let what remained of it run its course. By then, of course, Qa'ra was long gone. He left at the end of the first night, and I didn't wake for two days." Already feeling naked, he unbuttoned his shirt and drew back the collar to reveal the badly-healed bite mark. Unlike his Maker's Mark on the other side, which was neat and unnoticeable, this flesh had been torn when Qa'ra bit, and didn't heal properly for some time, and when the skin came together it formed a pattern-less mess of scars. "I tell people it's from my mortal life. I've had different stories through the centuries. Whatever seemed to fit."

Lucius nodded. It was so unusual to see him overwhelmed, but Aristotle was not one to bask in triumph as he covered it up again. "We're even."

"We are." LaCroix poured the wine instead of just blood. "Tell me something of this mortal."

"That was not part of the deal."

"I am making conversation. Besides, you are here to ease your parental anxiety. I ought to at least try to accommodate my guest."

Aristotle stood and walked to the window. The Seattle skyline was unique but unappealing to him at the moment. "I'm still deciding."

"You have already decided, and now you are looking for courage. If you wanted friendly support, you would have run to Nicholas, who would have promptly tried to talk you out of it. The mortal soul in peril and all of that nonsense. Best to leave them to their short and brutish lives."

"If this is the way you talk to Nicholas, I can start to understand how he feels about you."

LaCroix ignored the taunt. "It cannot be your conscience, and your performance anxiety is now somewhat alleviated. Perhaps you have spent so much effort to convince the rest of us you are a weak nobody that you have convinced yourself."

Aristotle paused, then turned to LaCroix. "Damn. You are good."

"I aim to please."

"Thank you, Lucius." He was one of the few people who could freely call him that, and he regularly took advantage of it.

"So - what's his name?"

"I'll tell you if he survives," he answered, and took his leave.

********************************************

The redeye flight got Aristotle back to Boston by the following evening. He only had a few hours to kill at Logan Airport before he could leave, and he spent most of it annoying the man in the overpriced watch store about the various intricacies of their "lifetime guarantee" policy.

There were thirty-five messages on his machine for the vampires who didn't understand the concept of a mobile phone, in addition to the voicemails on his cell he'd shut off in LaCroix's apartment. He narrowed down the list to the most important ones and started returning calls from his computer terminal. Season 8 of Mystery Science Theater was still downloading, a week after he started it. On his IM account, which he used only for school purposes, both Alex and Mike were online. That was a good sign. On the other end of the line, a vampire in Morocco needed new housing but didn't want to move out of the country. Aristotle typed as he listened.

 

OldManAri: hey

OldManAri: I'm back. How are you?

OldManAri: Sorry, on the phone right now or I would call.

TsarAlexander: I'm good.

TsarAlexander: Is mike hitting you with IMs?

OldManAri: I don't think he's seen me yet

OldManAri: How do you feel?

TsarAlexander: well he will once he does.

TsarAlexander: I'm ok. Doc appointment tomorrow

TsarAlexander: Mike is freaking out but it's actually not that bad

TsarAlexander: he's just Mike

OldManAri: ;)

TsarAlexander: Yeah

TsarAlexander: Exactly

TsarAlexander: How was your trip?

OldManAri: Productive

OldManAri: Mike's on the other screen.

TsarAlexander: Time to code

OldManAri: Yeah

 

He got the vampire off the phone line, and turned his attention to coding.

********************************************

By this time in the semester, the class was little more than a formal time for the project groups to gather and throw questions at Professor Steiner. Most usually stayed for a few minutes and then left to head up to the computer lab.

"I won't be in Thursday's class," Alex said when they were alone in their lab. "I have outpatient dialysis. I know, bad day, but he said it couldn't wait and it takes all day and can run pretty late. And I should really rest after that."

Mike was understanding. He might have had no concept of what Alex was going through and was visibly afraid to ask more questions about it, but that couldn't be helped. He was young and he thought people their age lived forever.

“I’ll work tonight, late. And all day tomorrow, except during my meeting with the thesis advisor. So, we should be on schedule,” Alex assured them. The only one who cared about passing the class was Mike, but they had a responsibility not to let him down. He would not switch project groups unless Alex dropped the class, and Alex refused to do so.

Aristotle waited until Mike was gone for the night to ask about it. “So?”

Alex shrugged. "The blood work came back and the numbers aren't great. I just don't want to turn into a weekly thing. I don't have the time for it. You just sit there for hours. I should be working on my thesis or something but the process is so draining. I can't concentrate."

"I thought your thesis was done."

"I have to defend it, and I haven't debated since model UN in high school. The only one who can prep me is my thesis advisor, and he doesn't have all the time in the world to just drop everything and give me months of practice in a few weeks."

"I'm good at debate," Aristotle said. "What's the topic?"

Alex grinned and shook his head. "'Tensor Methods for Solving Large-scale Systems of Nonlinear Equations.' Know anything about it?"

"None, but that doesn't matter as much as you think," he said to a skeptical-looking Alex. "A debate is about proving an argument or disproving an argument, depending on your side. All you have to establish, I'm assuming, is that Tonsil - "

"Tensor."

"- that the Tensor methods, whatever they are valid for solving non- linear equations. If I was sitting on the board, I would have to invalidate Tensor methods for having that capability via challenging you to prove it. Debates go much more quickly when the defender proves themselves wrong because the attacker pushed them into a argumentative trap. Do you have flash cards?"

"Yes."

"Bring them to the lab tomorrow. At least give me the chance."

"Seriously?"

"Trust me," he said with a wink, "The topic is irrelevant. I have a lot of experience in debates."

********************************************

Aristotle and Mike decided to ditch Thursday's class altogether long before Aristotle got the call from the ambulatory center. Alex needed a ride.

"I feel really, really bad about this," he said as he got into Aristotle's car. "I would take the bus but if I throw up on the bus ... I guess I would just be another person who threw up on the bus. For some reason I felt like your car would be a much better place. I didn't think this through at all, did I?"

"I don't mind," he replied. "Try to aim out the window."

"Thanks. I mean, really, thanks for this. I wish I knew someone who owned a car."

"You don't know anyone who owns a car?"

"Nobody responsible. And my license is expired. I haven't needed it since I got it, so I didn't go home to renew it in time. And I'm probably really rusty by now."

"I noticed," Aristotle said, then explained himself. "In the ER, I had to give all the information I had on you. It all came from your wallet."

"The EMTs would have stolen it anyway. Thanks. Why are you driving so slowly?"

"I'm old. I thought I was supposed to drive slowly. That and the impending threat of me seeing what you ate today."

"Claire said you are an insane driver."

"Claire was with me when I was trying to get you to the hospital. I was very motivated."

"She said she actually smelled burning rubber."

"Wheels can be replaced." People could not. "Do you need to stop anywhere first? That overpriced grocery store that's so close to campus?"

Alex was already that fading, and it wasn't that late at night. "No. Just home. By the way, how do you know so much about Tensor methods? You were amazing last night."

"I don't. It's all in asking the right questions." He pulled up to the dreary graduate house. "Get some rest. No flashcards."

"You're not my dad," Alex said as he got out of the car, and Aristotle did not contradict him.

********************************************

The next few weeks were gone before Aristotle noticed them. He went days without sleep, busy between his class and his job. His leftover time was packing and helping Alex with his thesis. The kid really was so untutored in oral defense, and Aristotle only had a few weeks to turn that around. As to whether the thesis was worth defending, Aristotle had absolutely no idea. He confessed that he didn't understand it at all, nor did he have time to learn about it. The clock was ticking. If Alex failed, he would not get another chance in front of the committee until the following semester, and nobody in his inner circle deluded themselves into thinking he would still be alive in the spring. His kidneys were failing. Only weekly dialysis and intravenous feeding were propping him up. He refused a harsher regimen of cancer drugs, saying he needed his mind at its sharpest and they would just detract from that. Dr. Wilson, the oncologist, agreed with him.

"It's very important to him to finish his thesis," the doctor said to Aristotle when they saw each other again, once when he was picking up Alex from an MRI that ran very late. Winter was upon them and the sun started to decline at four in the afternoon. "You have to let the patient make his own choices, especially at this stage."

Sisyphus inevitably fell behind. They could get the system to boot, but only on one computer that mystically succeeded in running it, and it wouldn't load any programs. They needed another week to make it work. Aristotle went to the professor and explained the situation.

"If he knew this was going to be a problem - which he did - then Alex should have dropped the course and let both of you move to other project groups," Professor Steiner said.

"He doesn't want to drop the course."

"Then tell him there's no shame in doing so, but really, we should have had this discussion weeks ago."

This was not about shame. It was about Alex's decision to see things through to the end, and it was the decision that was keeping him alive. "I didn't want to have to do this," Aristotle said. He flipped open his phone and put it on the professor's desk, then sat back and simply waited for a response.

He wished he still had the phone, or another camera, to see Professor Steiner's eyes bug out.

"I have copies."

Steiner closed the phone and the very compromising picture. "You have one more week."

********************************************

Aristotle had to remind himself to pull away from the computer and start making other arrangements. Life was so very unpredictable. When he showed up at the Blue Angel on an off night, Elizabeth looked at him as if he was some invading phantom. But she was polite, inviting him to her office and serving him the best of the house before even inquiring as to the reason for his appearance.

"I might be leaving Boston."

"Might?"

He looked down at the ornate wooden desk, running his finger along a knot in the wood. "I don't know yet."

"When?"

"Soon. Probably before the end of the year."

"I like Boston," she said. "If I stay, I won't see you until - "

" - until you move on. Or you can come visit. I never have guests."

"Where will you go?"

"Not sure yet. Somewhere in the States. I was thinking maybe the West Coast."

"Hippies. If you don't get high feeding on them, at least the blood will be organic."

He smiled. "We'll see."

She did not ask him why, either because she suspected or because it wasn't polite. When a vampire had to move on, they moved on. No questions asked. Aristotle's policy was part of the Code, mainly because he made it so. "I'll miss you."

One thing he could say as a vampire, and enjoyed saying, was "We'll see each other sooner or later."

"Try not to make it later."

********************************************

"I'm back at last," Feliks said. Fortunately Aristotle actually had his phone on to take the call because it was three in the morning on a Saturday, when not even overworked college students were working. "And I have some lovely seeds that may grow into lovely plants that you must come and see. And one that's already potted. Poor thing looks so sad from the transfer. I would say to come and see, but you are so very busy these days."

He didn't bother denying it. "I am."

"The fund?"

"When he dies, how long before it comes out of escrow?"

"Six months, maybe more. Of course, it is highly preferable if the money simply isn't there when the next-of-kin goes looking for it in the first place."

"Right. Of course." He hadn't made the call yet because Alex didn't know about it. He still had a conscience when it came to matters that didn't involve his food source. "Can you make it look like it's not stolen?"

"Just have them not find it missing until they specifically go to open it? Of course. If you want there to be some delay in the estate finding it's gone ... well, that will take more time. A month, maybe. That would require several false trails to keep the lawyers going."

He bit his lip. "Crack it and steal it."

"Swiss account?"

"Whatever you think is best."

"Open access number?"

"Open access number."

"Very good. That shouldn't take long - I'll have an account number for you by Friday. And it might be in Euros, depending on the exchange rate on the day of transfer."

"That's fine. Oh, and I need a fund transfer."

"You can do those online now. I assume this is beyond the limit for that?" Feliks was very good at assuming things, but he was so pleasant about it that it never bothered most of his clients. Not that they had any choice.

"Right. I don't know how much is in there now, but liquidate another two million for me from some holding that isn't making any money. And put it in my Fleet Bank account. I hate to throw all this on you, but I don't have time for the paperwork right now."

"I did have the fortune of selecting a good time for my vacation," Feliks laughed. "As long as you don't ask me to take over for you."

"No, of course not. But I am really dreading that call to Larry."

********************************************

In the end, the Sisyphus project group only needed three additional days beyond the original deadline. They lived in the computer lab, sleeping on the hardened couches in the meeting room. Aristotle didn't sleep at all, Mike clocked in a total of about seven non-consecutive hours over four days, and Alex would have quite literally passed out a few times if Aristotle hadn't caught him. He arguably ate better than all of them, being on a feeding tube, and joked about being on a Mountain Dew IV at the rate he was consuming it, the only thing still going in his mouth. The amount of work he contributed, considering his condition, was impressive, and he absolutely refused to abandon them. He was there - and mostly awake - when they succeeded in loading the word processor, nicknamed Stylus, and making it save and print.

"Gentlemen, we are at launch!" Mike said, and they clinked their soda boodles together, though only Aristotle's flask had an actual metal sound to it. "When does that fuck Steiner have his first class on campus?"

"Not for another six hours," Alex said. "We could get drunk and pass out, though I may take the option to just skip to the passing out part."

"Mike, I think you've been designed as the delivery man," Aristotle said. "Don't spend your twelve comp sci credits all in once place."

"No wonder it was double credits! I should have figured it out," he said, shaking his head. "And before I collapse - I need your camera from the car."

"I don't know, guys," Alex said. "It could be a disaster."

"Fine. He'll just go to your defense and tell me how it went," Aristotle said. He was actually quite regretful that he was incapable of being at the departmental building for Alex's thesis defense. He already checked it out, and the room was too well-lit and the building far form shelter. "But your graduation, someone is taping. I don't care who."

"I have to get through one before I get to the other." Alex shook his hand. "I want to say, see you at class, but I won't, will I?"

"No, but I'll see you anyway."

********************************************

Aristotle was one nervous vampire on Thursday. He was trapped in house, drinking and watching mind-numbing but time-killing morning shows until he got the call. "Hi."

"He killed," Mike said. "Fucking killed. His thesis advisor was all like, 'who the hell tutored you?' and Alex just grinned like the smart ass he is. It was you, wasn't it?"

"Tell him I'm proud of him."

"I would, but he's sleeping. I'll leave a note. He was so nervous he didn't know I was taping him," he said. "Look, there's something I want to ask you."

"Go ahead."

"They're closing my dorm on Monday and I'll be back in Montana for winter break - and that's almost five weeks. Do you think -?"

"I can't say for sure, but I wouldn't bet on seeing him again. Say what you need to say to him before you leave."

"I've never known anyone who died. My age. He's not my age, but he got cancer at my age."

"It's very rare."

But that was not what Mike was upset about. He was upset about living, and Alex dying. "I don't know what to say to him. I can't just say goodbye."

He was very used to saying goodbye - or not saying it at all before he left. "Write it in a letter. Then if you want to say it, say it. Or just give him the letter. He expects people are going to be nervous about it. But if you do something, he'll appreciate it. It doesn't matter what it is."

"Thanks. Am I going to see you next semester?"

"I don't know. My business takes me all kinds of places."

"I know you really like Alex. Like he's your kid or something. Do you have kids?"

"Had."

"Shit, I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said anything."

"You'll never learn anything in this world if you don't ask," he said "Always remember that. I'll swing by tonight to pick up the tape."

"Okay." Mike wasn't the most verbose of people except when he was nervous, and now he was calm, so he hung up. 


Chapter 8

Aristotle picked up Alex from dialysis on Friday. "I watched the video. I'm proud of you."

"You watched that? I thought it would be really boring."

"Debate is never boring unless it's on television. Then it puts me right out. Do you want to go to dinner? My treat."

Alex was too gracious to say no, but too weak to sit in a restaurant, so they got take-out and Alex ate in his dorm room. Aristotle was not eager to have him at his house unnecessarily, as it was filled with boxes for the move and it would involve a lot of uncomfortable questions. Formal graduation ceremonies occurred in May, but for Dr. Alexander Nemcosky, PhD, they would be making an exception. "I asked - they won't do it at night. Cutting into the professor's schedules and all that. They have lives or something."

"I understand."

"Mike will be in Montana, so Jeff is taping it. If he wakes up in time."

"You might want to call him and wake him up before the ceremony."

"That might be a good idea." Alex was already fading. Aristotle could see it in his eyes. "It's not a big deal. I'll be wearing a stupid gown and it'll last ten minutes."

"It's important for you."

"It's not supposed to bother me. I'm supposed to be past the fact that everyone in that room is going to be thinking about how nice it is that I accomplished something before I croaked, but what a waste of a good mind. I know they can't help it, but I still don't want their pity. I want to succeed like a normal person. Even if this is it, I don't want it to be ... it."

Aristotle said nothing. He needed Alex to say it on his own, without prodding, or he wouldn't.

"I don't want to die. Just because I did everything I said I was going to do - that doesn't make it okay. Ari, I don't want to die."

The only thing that surprised Aristotle was that it was so long in coming. Alex put up such a brave front even through painful procedures. Now that it wasn't required of him, he was crying. Aristotle held him. "I know. I know." Dying was scary - he'd done it once. "You deserve to live." Alex was so shrunken by his illness. His limbs were thin and his heart was racing. "I don't know of anyone who deserves it more. And you deserve the ceremony. So get through it, and then we'll talk about what the hell I'm going to get you for your graduation."

That made Alex smile, so he wouldn't cry himself to sleep. Aristotle waited until his breathing slowed to a healthy quiet for a deep sleep before leaving the room. He had calls to make.

********************************************

While Alex graduated summa cum laude, Aristotle slept. He meant to stay awake that day, but things were catching up on him. He let Frieda go, releasing her from his hold after paying her enough to retire to a small island in the Caribbean and wiping her memory of particulars he didn't care for her to remember. He had his tires replaced and the engine checked in his car, which he had already abused considerably but wasn't willing to part with. There were so many little things to get done, and he was such an expert at doing them that he forgot how consuming they could be. He passed out on the couch to Bob Barker and his insipid materialism-based guessing game. When he woke, it was nearly dark, and it took the phone to wake him. "Hello?"

"Ari." It was Jeff. "If you want to see Alex, I think you should come down to the hospital."

He wasn't fully awake yet, and still throttling the beast into submission. "What happened?"

"Well, he graduated. Full honors. He got to wear a hood for his three degrees. I said before the ceremony, hey man, your eyes are really bright and he said 'I know' and just ignored me after that. And there was the reception - I didn't tape that - and we sat in the café near the building, and he says, 'Ari can't drive me. I need an ambulance this time.' His eyes were yellow. Like superhuman yellow."

"Liver failure."

"That's what they said. He's in the ICU at Mass General."

"Is he conscious?"

"In and out."

"I'm there. Tell him."

"Okay."

He hung up on Jeff and let a steady stream of curses fly as he collected his things. Why had he let this go on so long? What did the ceremony really mean if he didn't survive it? He dumped his knapsack in the car and made record speed to the hospital, which required hypnotizing two cops and one hospital guard when he arrived.

"Alexander Nemcosky," he said to the guard at the door to ICU. "And you're going to let me goddamn see him." Seeing the guard's stunned face reminded him not to hit mortals too hard with that, but it worked and once he was on the other side of the door he didn't care.

"Mr. Tuttle?" it was the voice of Dr. Wilson, the only voice Aristotle might stop for. Knowing his eyes were full of rage (against himself and his foolish delays), he closed them and calmed the beast before he turned to speak to acknowledge the oncologist. "Alexander is in the third door on the left. He's sedated right now, but you can sit with him. One of his friends from college is there but he could use someone ... older."

"I know." He stopped kicking himself for a moment. "How bad is it?"

"His liver failure is acute, and he's not a candidate for a transplant if we could even get one in time. He can live on the current setup and we can keep drawing fluid from his lungs as they fill, but sooner or later it's going to go to his heart." Even though he was an oncologist and therefore used to patients dying, he was not without emotion. "I understand he graduated today. I had them put 'Doctor' on his wristband."

"I'm sure he'll appreciate it. Thank you, Doctor. For everything."

"I know he doesn't want to die in a hospital, but he didn't sign the do-not-resuscitate order, and we can't safely put him in hospice - which he never agreed to, either. If he is pulled off the IV and the respirator, he'll be dead in a few hours. If it comes up, you may want to remind him of that. He's not conscious now, but if I know Alex, he'll try to discharge himself as soon as he can. And since he's mentally competent, he can do that."

Aristotle nodded. "I'll tell him."

"We can make him comfortable. If he leaves now, he'll just suffer. But it's his choice."

"He's very good at choices," Aristotle said, and shook the doctor's hand for the final time.

********************************************

Aristotle turned off his phone. He hadn't brought his laptop with him, or any other way to pass the time. He simply waited in the chair beside the bed, listening to the heartbeat and the more irritating heart monitor. Compared to what he looked like now, Alex had looked positively sturdy before his thesis defense. There was no color in him at all, his lips were blue, and he was breathing through a tube. Aristotle checked the armband. A "Dr." was indeed added to it, so it read "Dr. Alexander Nemcosky" instead. His hand was cold - not as cold as Aristotle's, but below human normal.

Jeff was happy to be relieved of his watch. It was clear he did not know how to say goodbye, as if anyone did, but that Aristotle promised to stay helped him be able to leave. "I uhm, got him a card from the gift shop."

"I'll make sure he reads it."

"Thanks." His eyes were watery as he turned away, leaving Aristotle alone.

The night became late, and every moment was agonizing. Somewhere after two AM there was some movement, and when he reported it to the nurse, she called the floor doctor. Alex was waking, and his first action was to panic and choke, so they had to pull the breathing tube and replace it with an oxygen mask. Aristotle helped hold him down. "Relax. Just breathe. Just breathe, Alex."

The young man did settle, mainly because it was hard to him to be so active while coming out of sedation, and he didn't speak for awhile, except to ask for some water. When the doctor decided he was stable, he left him alone. Aristotle clocked it after the nurse took Alex's blood pressure and temperature - she would be back in an hour. He drew the thin sheet that served as a drape to the glass wall between Alex and the nurses' station, this being the intensive care unit. "I thought you'd like some privacy," he said, sitting down on the bed. "So. The graduate."

"I know I should have gone to the hospital when I looked in the mirror," Alex said, his voice still hoarse, "but I put it off until after the ceremony."

"You deserved that ceremony."

"I scared you."

Was he really so obvious? "A little. Only because I couldn't get to you."

"What does it feel like, to be trapped all the time?"

It deserved an honest answer. "Frustrating. When I'm just working and hanging out with my support group, it isn't a problem. When I make friends with normal people with normal hours, I miss things. And sometimes I miss the sun. Just the sun over the sea. I was born near the sea."

"Have you ever gone back?"

"No. It would be like visiting a parking lot where your childhood house used to be. I have no desire to return. You can only go forward in life. You can't go back, or even stand still." An odd thing for a vampire to say, but he believed it. That was why he was taking courses at MIT. That was why he was friends with Alex, before he knew he was sick, and all the other mortals in class and at the LAN parties. "Time inevitably decays all that you love, so you replace it with the new. And the future has such wonderful things for us."

"For you," Alex said angrily, then quickly softened. "I didn't mean - "

Aristotle put his hand over Alex's, but he could barely feel the skin, so covered in tubing and medical tape. "You did mean. It's not fair that an old man like me gets to live on and you have to die. If you could change it, you would. You would give anything to be in my shoes."

"Yes."

Aristotle swallowed. "I haven't been completely honest with you about some things in my life."

"Ari, I know you're not really a pedophile. And I also know pedophilia involves children under fourteen so we're safe with you either way."

Even while dying, Alex could still make him laugh. "I was honest about that, yes. I don't think I ever lied to you. I just omitted some things. Like about my sunlight allergy. And my drinking problem. And my allergy to garlic. And why my skin is always room temperature - very cold. And my age."

"You're not sixty-two?"

"I am sixty-two. I have been sixty-two for a very, very long time and I will continue to be sixty-two for the rest of my existence."

Alex thought over this, then said, "You're bad with metaphors."

"No, Plato was bad with metaphors. The Cave nonsense was a terrible way of expressing what he meant. I'm being literal. I will be sixty-two until the day I die, if I ever do, of being staked and thrown in the sun. I may be old, but I'm pretty sure the sun could still kill me. And fire. It would have to be a bonfire. And I would have to be unconscious." He shivered. "Horrible way to go."

"Ari, I know you're trying to cheer me up, but you're not funny. Normally you are, but this - "

Aristotle let the beast rise and turned his golden eyes to Alex, snarling. "Is this funny?" His fangs, still far away from Alex's flesh, were close enough to strike. So very close. He could hear Alex's heart racing for him, smell his fear, see the beautiful exposed neck as he clamped down on Alex's mouth so the nurse wouldn't hear the scream. The touch made it worse. He was so close to him, to his blood, to the blood of a scared young man. His favorite kind.

No. He shook his head, forcing himself to look away, shoving the beast down with more ferocity than it was accustomed to. His hand was shaking when he removed it from Alex's mouth. He opened his eyes, knowing they were brown again, and readjusted the oxygen mask he had shoved down. "It's very hard - to control. The monitor helps."

Whatever color was left in Alex's face was gone now. "The monitor?"

"The heart monitor. It's a millisecond late, but it distracts from the sound of your heartbeat."

"You can hear my heartbeat?"

"Yes."

"Now?"

"Always." The vampire would not completely settle. His voice was still a bit bestial, and he had to look away again. So enticing ... "When we were at the LAN party, I knew you were ill because while everyone's hearts were racing, your heart rate started dropping. That was how I diagnosed you. The pulse just confirmed it."

"You ... are not fucking kidding."

"No. I am not fucking kidding." There was still harshness in his voice. He couldn't get rid of it. He'd been thinking of this moment for too long. "Do you want to live forever?"

Alex stumbled over any imagined answer to that that might have popped in his head. In the breather, Aristotle steadied himself, shoving the vampire back down. When he could speak again, his voice had returned to its usual turn. "We have a Code - never reveal ourselves to mortals. So for me to tell you, on what is probably your deathbed, that I am a vampire means I am pretty fucking serious. I don't walk around the cancer ward and offer around. I want you to live - in the only way I can offer you that. You deserve it. But you have to want it."

Alex still needed more time, but Aristotle just sat and let him have it. Finally he answered, "So my choices are death or living forever. Why would I not choose to keep living?"

"Some people believe our race is damned. We can't walk in the sunlight, we can't enter a house of G-d, we fear all symbols of holiness - and holy water burns. Especially in the eyes. Somehow they always get you in the eyes."

"You don't believe it."

"Don't believe what?"

"That you're damned." Alex was his usual observant self, frightened or not. "You don't act like you believe it."

"The people who say I'm damned are not vampires themselves. They're the people I used to eat, before blood was bottled. So why shouldn't they curse me? But I am not obligated to adhere to their belief system. I have my own set of rules for a continuing existence that are beyond their comprehension. They can't sit and pass judgment on me, though they certainly try."

"And your immortal soul?"

"If I had a soul, I see no reason why I don't still have it. The soul is not something I could objectively identify or measure as a mortal and I haven't had any luck in the time since then. So I remain as I was when I was alive - what you would call an agnostic. I don't have enough evidence to draw a conclusion."

The boy frowned. "Are you really Aristotle?"

"I tell everyone that I'm not. Avoids a lot of conversations I don't want to have."

"You didn't answer my question."

"No. I'm sorry - you only get that answer on the other side."

"Did you really spend two years in a Russian prison in Stalingrad?"

"Leningrad, and yes, I did. Fortunately the rat population was considerable or I would have starved. I wouldn't have died, just been too weak to move, putting me in a very awkward situation. Also it's very dark in Russia, so that was a help. But I got my stamp."

Alex was taking his time to put it together. "Your clients are vampires."

"Yes. Exclusively. Though I did help some Russian Refuseniks in the 70s. I had some sympathy for them."

"And now you code."

"I am a bit of a laughingstock," he said. "They don't make movies about vampires who aren't dangerous and sexy very often, do they? I love computers. They represent so much possibility. And they're based on math, the most perfect form of logic." He looked at his watch. "The nurse is going to back in a bit while to check your temperature and blood pressure again. After that, you have to decide."

"What will happen to me?"

"I'll bite you, and you'll die. If you decide to come back as a vampire, you'll get up again. If you decide to go into the light, you really will die. Either way, your vitals will disappear enough for the doctor to declare you dead, and a real death certificate and live witnesses causes much less fuss than a faked death. From there, I'll take care of everything." He added, "Oh, and I had a friend steal your trust fund."

"What?"

"You said you didn't want it to go to your stepfather."

"So you stole it?"

"Well, Feliks did. I don't want the money - I don't even currently have access to it. It's in Switzerland somewhere. When you die, one way or another, your step-father will get his lawyers to try and pull it out of escrow, and find it gone. It can't possibly be traced to me as I had almost nothing to do with it. Unless you're feeling sympathetic to the man who abused you and you want him to have it. We can still put it back."

"You can read my mind?"

"No. I can read your medical history and hospital databases aren't that secure." He softened. "I'm sorry for the invasion of privacy, but I had to know a lot of things about you."

Alex shook his head. "I need to think."

"I'll be outside. Tell the nurse and I'll hypnotize her so she never heard you."

"You can do that?"

"How do you think they let me into ICU at this hour?"

Alex grinned, and Aristotle left. He didn't go far, sitting unobtrusively on a bench as he watched the nurse go in and out. When Alex's hour was up, he steeled himself, and returned, drawing the drapes again.

"I'm afraid," Alex announced.

"I know."

"But not because you're reading my mind."

"No. Because when my master offered to bring me across, I was scared absolutely shitless. It's quite common."

"Why do you need my consent, anyway? It's not as if I have a wonderful life to look forward to. There's no real choice here."

He looked Alex in the eyes, brown on blue. "You deserve to know something of what you're getting into. Some people are brought across in moments of sympathy, when they're dying of the plague or just in a horrible situation from which there is no escape, and they resent it. They wanted their soul or they wanted to die as a human, not live in darkness forever. Some young vampires just walk into the sun - our way of suicide." He shook his head. "If you did that - I don't think I could bear it. So do you want to die now, peacefully in a hospital with plenty of pain medication to make it easy, having lived a fuller life than most people four times your age and achieved all of your goals, or do you want to take a chance at a life in shadows?"

Again, Alex looked away, down at his hands before responding. "When they told me my thesis was accepted, I thought I would feel something that would make it easier. Some completion. And I did feel a little, but it didn't make me whole. In fact, it just made me empty, because I had nothing else planned and even if I did plan, it would be something I couldn't achieve. I wasn't expecting to feel so miserable about getting my doctorate and having nothing left to live for, but wanting to keep living." He looked up. "I want to do it."

"Do you understand that you have to give up everything in your mortal life, including friends and family, who will all think you're dead?"

"Yes."

"You'll keep your degree, sort of. I can make a phony one in the same thing from another college. But you are leaving Alexander Nemcosky behind. You can have your property, the things in your dorm, but you won't want them anymore. You'll be different. You won't be the same person you are right now."

"I don't want to be the person I am right now. This person is dying. Do it. Please."

He actually said, 'Please.'

"This will hurt," Aristotle said. It was not hard to summon the vampire, always just lurking beneath the surface, and now especially eager to be in control. He let it go, grabbing the little human that was to be his, yanking his head aside, and tearing into the artery and all the ambrosia that flowed through it.

Aristotle had tried specifically not to think about what Alex's blood might taste like as soon as he started growing attached to him, and shoved all the thoughts out of his head after the LAN party and the hospitalization. The vampire still wondered, of course, but his conscious thoughts he forced down with great ferocity. Alex was young, attractive, and though his blood was tainted by illness and the toxins that doctors gave him, Aristotle would taste none of it. He wanted him, and now could admit that there were a dozen times he contemplated taking him, either as a meal or a very sudden bringing across. The time Alex spent in his house was especially bad, and for weeks afterward, his scent was everywhere.

Now he could have his blood, and it was everything he dreamed of. Alex was the rare breed of mortal that he loved - unbelievably and unrepentantly intelligent in an age when true intellect went unrecognized. He was full of life beneath the layers of illness. He was always learning, always looking for new ideas and absorbing them into his growing collection of old ones. That was why Charlie beat him, Aristotle could now see. Charlie wasn't that smart. Average intelligence, just enough to be insulted by his stepson, and as a boy Alex took the bait all too easily, with a misplaced jibe or correction that would earn him a beating. He did skateboard, which accounted for some of his injuries, but not all of them. And he lied, prodigiously, to his mother because he knew she was dying, and she was his last link to any kind of family. He was kind but not too full of himself, as Aristotle had been at his age. The vampire hoped that part of him wouldn't be consumed by the beast and would cross over, but only time would tell.

Stop. Alex had stopped struggling and was now limp. Aristotle could feel him getting weaker, but pulling out was one of the hardest things he'd done in centuries. He laid him back on the bed, cut his wrist with a scalpel, and let the blood drip into the back of Alex's throat, enough to start the change. While he knew Alex's mind and perhaps soul were somewhere else, Aristotle had work to do. He plugged a device into the heart monitor, which otherwise would flat line, and Alex couldn't "die" just yet. It kept beeping falsely, buying him precious time.

"Alex," he whispered, turning back to the bed. "Come back to me. I can give you everything you never had. I can give you eternity." It was taking a long time. He forgot that it sometimes did. Was Alex in some other realm, consciously making a choice, or was his body merely deciding to accept or reject the transformation? "Please don't leave me."

He reached to touch Alex's cheek, and the young man jerked. Aristotle held his breath - a mortal practice he had never shed - and bit his wrist open, holding it up. "Drink. Drink and live."

Alex sprung up, following the siren call of his master's blood, and his new fangs tore into Aristotle's wrist. It wasn't painful - not even for the giver. Even though he was the one bitten, and he was the one being drained, it was much closer to ecstasy. There was relief, that Alex had decided to join him at his side, that he wouldn't have to part with this particular mortal. There was that odd sensation of a new bond being formed, as Alex drank a combination of his own blood in Aristotle's veins and what was purely the ancient vampire's body's supply, between master and child. Father and son. He could sense Alex in the room, not just see or hear him. It filled him in a way no other connection could, not even the sustained ones he had with other vampires over the years. Those had to be formed manually, and they faded with time or circumstances forced them to break it off. This was for eternity. As long as they both lived, he would feel the sensation of another person in his life. The empty space that had been in his mind so long, since the death of his master 2200 years before, was finally filled. As the infant vampire that currently wholly controlled Alex suckled on his arm, overwhelmed by the flood of strength and sensations Aristotle's blood could provide, he stroked his son's hair and whispered reassurances to him. Alex had chosen to cross over, but his body had to survive the ordeal, and there was no predicting if that would come to be. Aristotle believed it required a certain strength of will, something so obvious in Alex. He was hopeful.

Alex pulled back, his fangs still extended, and fell back on the bed. He would sleep for three days, if one could call it sleeping. "Good luck," he whispered, and pulled his attachment out of the heart monitor. The steady beep immediately turned into a long siren. All of his vitals disappeared except his body temperature, which was rapidly dropping. "Nurse!" He hit the emergency button and put a panicked expression on his face. "I need a nurse!"

The nurses tried to push him out of the room when they realized what was happening, but he would not budge. He did move away for the floor doctor to try to resuscitate Alex with the defibrillator, but his heart would not respond to electric shocks.

"Call it," the doctor said to the nurse with the chart ready, and looked at the hospital clock. "3:23 AM."

Humans. So quick to give up. Aristotle disappeared into the shadows of the room as they pulled the sheet over Alex's head and the doctor signed the paperwork. No one noticed him until half an hour later, when the morgue attendants came to collect the body, and Aristotle hypnotized them into believing he was Alex's caretaker and would transfer the body to the funeral home he used for his paperwork in Boston. The director was a friend of his and had no idea how many times Aristotle forged his name. He even convinced them to wheel the body to the parking lot, and that he had a hearse, and was not laying Alex in the trunk of his car in front of their eyes. Where he would be without mesmerism, he had no idea.

He had Larry on speed deal, and could manage the phone in the car even with the engine being pushed to the limit. "It's me. I'm canceling all my appointments. At least for the next few days."

"Well, congratulations," Larry Merlin said, though he didn't sound incredibly enthusiastic. Aristotle's business would fall on a number of different people to manage while he was away. "Do you have an estimate for me?"

"I'll know in about a week. Maybe less. Hopefully more. And I will really, really owe you one for this."

"Damn straight you will."

He shut his phone off entirely. He had too much to do and little time to do it in. His haven in Boston was ready, but he had to be at home, in case anyone came calling to offer their condolences or the police had questions for him. Their finding the dead Alexander Nemcosky in the guest room would be rather awkward, especially when he tried to bite them.

Alex was still out when he opened the trunk, but there was activity on the other side of the link. They weren't thoughts so much as responses to the rapid changes his body was going through. Guiltily Aristotle closed the link so he wouldn't feel the same pain, at least not now. He needed blood, and he needed to learn to filter the bond between them better. Well, everything in its time.

He carried Alex to the guest room, the only room that hadn't been completely prepared for the movers, and changed him out of the humiliating hospital gown and into the pajamas Alex used during his last stay. They would soon be ruined, but that was the least of his concerns. Aristotle flew down to his fridge and back up with several bottles and bags of blood, storing them in the room's mini-fridge. Only when he was sure the infant fledgling was settled did he tear open a fresh bag and satisfy his own thirst.

He was not one to be still. Time, however endless, was a commodity to him, and he hated wasting it. He almost always busied himself, one way or another. But he wasn't idle, sitting alone in that chair, not moving for hours. He was watching, and waiting.

********************************************

The doorbell did ring a day later, and he reluctantly left Alex's side to go downstairs and answer it. Being the middle of the day, it could only be a mortal, and he was theoretically at home. He had an awning over the front door so direct sunlight never hit him as he pulled it open. "Hello, Jeff."

"Hey." Jeff squirmed, but Aristotle didn't feel like inviting him in. "I got your address from a card in Alex's desk."

Aristotle just nodded.

"I heard you were with him."

"I was. It was very peaceful," he lied.

"Well, you should know that uhm, the funeral's tomorrow. It's more of a memorial service, because the mortician said he wanted to be buried in Connecticut, but - well, you probably can't go, can you?"

"No." He couldn't leave Alex now, even if the ceremony was at night, which it wouldn't be. "I wrote something." He had a folded piece of paper by the door. "Could you read it?"

"Sure. Oh, and the reason I came - Alex sent an email to the department a few days ago saying that if his stuff was just going to go into the trash, it should go to you. Unless you don't want his stuff."

"I'll take a look," he offered, as if he hadn't written the email. "Thank you."

He didn't linger. He couldn't - Alex was waking again. He said his goodbyes to Jeff and ran back upstairs.

Alex wasn't coherent, or even mobile, but every few hours the vampire would wake and thrash until Aristotle fed him. He didn't need much, just something to soothe the beast that was ravaging his system, refitting it to the form it would forever be. His skin was as pale as it had been in the hospital, but now for a different reason, and the weight he lost to illness was returning. Soon he would have all the health of someone his age and so much more.

Aristotle wasn't sure how he could manage to ever sleep with the link between them so alive. A computer was consuming enough. To be linked into someone's head was an endless wealth of activity, even if the activity on Alex's end was not coherent, and sometimes painful. But it was a good kind of pain, the pain felt through a real connection with someone.

At the end of the third day, when Alex's thoughts became closer to something like thinking, Aristotle changed the plates on his car and went looking for a body. Alex's first meal would have to be a kill. Even if he drank bottled blood the rest of his life, he would know what it was to be a real vampire, to thrill in the hunt and bask in the glory of the kill.

This was one time being a creepy, lonely old guy could pay off. He was an obvious mark for whores. It took all of ten minutes to find his prey and hypnotize her and her friend. "You saw her leave with a red-headed man in his twenties with a full head of hair. They're going to the Econo-Lodge," he told the one who would live. Modern inconveniences.

The whore wasn't that smart, used to taking orders, and ridiculously easy to overwhelm so she didn't even talk.

"Sit." He had no time for her once they were in the house. Alex was waking and he would be hungry.


Chapter 9

 

Part 4 - Alexander

Alex understood that he was falling, registering it by the two directions he could still sense. Above, there was pain and death. That was were he came from, where he could never go back. It would defeat him. Below him no picnic either. As he sunk his body felt aflame, then cold as ice, then torn apart and picked at by scavengers. He hurt in areas that were never supposed to hurt, but it was making the pain outside more manageable, like a poison that was drunk just a bit at a time to make one immune. At the bottom he would be strong enough to last. More disconcerting was that he was not alone. What was consuming him was a fierce thirst as if he was a wild beast, or there was a wild beast inside him. Where he had once been one, now there were two of him, and one could only think of consumption and what to destroy to find it. It cried out and he cried with it, because the hunger was that bad. It wanted to do terrible things, and he was helpless to argue. He would not be spared, knowing it would bring him along for the ride, make him enjoy it.

"Drink."

He felt the carpet beneath his toes. He was standing. The carpet never felt like that before, like he could feel every strand, smell the shampoo and cleaning products. He could barely stand, but the beast could, and the beast would get him to food, and then the pain would stop -

He smelled her before he saw her. He didn't need his eyes but he used them anyway. Her skin was white, with freckles too small to casually notice, but he was not looking casually. He was focused on her neck, as if he tried hard enough, he could see through it to the food that lay beneath, pulsing ever-so-slightly. Her rhythmic heartbeat was so loud it made his ears hurt and almost threw him off-balance, so he grabbed her instead. She gave a little cry, not as much as he wanted, but enough to know she was alive and she was scared and that was what he wanted. He didn't know why he wanted it, but it excited him.

Oh yes, he would drink. And he would enjoy it.

As much as he wanted to favor it, as her life-force reached his throat, there would be no stopping or slowing down. It did not just taste - it felt. It was not like drinking so much as taking - memories, thoughts, fears. He saw it all, too fast before his eyes for him to make real sense of what he was seeing but knowing he had to have more. He tore into her with a growl and drank until there was nothing left to drink, and she was lifeless in his arms, and her heart had no beat.

Now the hunger wasn't driving him, he could see beyond what was before his eyes, and he had nothing to focus on. He was Alexander Nemcosky, and he was holding a dead woman in his arms. Maybe almost shrieking and dropping her to the floor like a sack of potatoes wasn't the most dignified thing to do, but it was the thing that came naturally.

"You killed a hooker. Please don't do the 'Oh G-d, what have I become?' thing if you can possibly manage it."

Ari. He remembered now. The other presence in the room, so much further than the maniac inside him. In his ravening thirst he hadn't seen him, but he looked over his shoulder and he was there. The wise father-figure, sloppily-dressed, wearing old Birkenstocks and poorly-framed glasses. Ari, whose smile could make everything bearable.

His master.

Ari had no heartbeat, no body heat, nothing to entice him except the feeling that he belonged to this man. That he was just a part of this man's world and he should be thankful for the honor. Ari gave him life and then he joked about it. Ari would make everything okay. Alex needed his approval and Ari gave it with a knowing nod. He understood that Alex was barely at human comprehension, and speech was beyond him.

"In the old days, I would have told you that you can look forward to an endless parade of death, and that you should shed any lingering mortal morality now, lest it burden you." He stepped closer to him, and put a hand on his shoulder. "But actually, we're mainly bottle-fed now. You'll learn to hunt because you'll need to know it - and you will want to know it. I will not have a dog instead of a wolf. But fresh bodies are ... well, they're hard to get. Mortals account for their own now."

Alex, suddenly self-conscious, wiped his chin. His pajamas were stained around the neck. He smelled of blood - and he loved it. He just didn't like the sensation of a far-away terror, growing ever stronger. "What is that? What am I feeling?"

"The sun," Ari said. "I don't know why we can't stand its presence. There are all sorts of legends floating around - most of them undoubtedly nonsense."

The sensation was making him dizzy. "I've seen you awake - during the day."

"I'm very old and very powerful. I require very little sleep. You, on the other hand, are a newborn. You'll fall asleep with the sun and wake with the night for many years." He was holding him up now. Alex was trying to stay awake, but the feeling was making him weak. "It won't burn you. You have my eternal protection." He put his hand over his eyes. "Rest."

Darkness again - and this time, no pain.

********************************************

Alex understood that the feeling inside him, the creature he couldn't control, was the vampire. Ari actually referred to it as if it was a separate thing, even after he explained that it wasn't. It was what sustained Alex's body, and he would protect it with an intelligence and resourcefulness it didn't have. And he would control it. Ari qualified this statement by saying that it was very, very hard to do - something Alex was already familiar with, but hearing it from his master's mouth made it less embarrassing. He went for anything that moved, anything Ari presented him with. The second night was a man. He tasted the desperation and drugs in the drifter's blood. The third, another woman, someone who looked like a barfly. He didn't talk to her; he ate her, and Ari disposed of the body. It slowly occurred to Alex that it might be polite to ask him how.

"Coastal towns are good," Ari said. "Tear their throat to disguise the bite marks, fly them twenty miles down and out, and they'll wash up somewhere in New York weeks from now, too bloated to identify. Never go swimming in the Hudson."

And he hadn't even left the house. There were so many questions but he was only aware that he couldn't think of them. His mind wasn't slow, but it the vampire was so emotional, thinking only of the kill, and it was distracting. "It's so much stronger than me," he pleaded.

"You're weak from being brought across. You will get stronger, and you will have control. And if I didn't think your intellect would make it across, I wouldn't have turned you. I like you for a reason, Alex."

He noticed the boxes around. Ari explained. "We can't stay, of course. You're dead." He reached into the desk drawer and pulled out a death certificate. "My condolences."

Massachusetts General Hospital. Time of Death: 3:23 am. Age of Patient: Twenty-four. Cause of death: Cardiac arrest. It was unreal. He could remember the hospital, and talking to Ari, and not truly believing, but willing to follow an idea, any idea to end his suffering... But there it was.

"Fake death certificates are much more work than real ones," Ari said, taking it out of his shaking hands. "I gave Jeff something to read at your funeral. Which I heard was nice, by the way." His tone was stern. "Your old life is over. Dead - as good as if you really were. Vampires have to keep moving, or people will notice we don't change with them. I was planning to leave whether you make it across or not. If not, I would have no real reason to stay. I couldn't go back to MIT without you, and there's plenty of other universities to audit. And with you ... well, that's preferable. The college gave me whatever was in your dorm that they didn't claim for themselves, but I burned a lot of your papers." He must have sensed his alarm. Ari seemed especially attuned to his feelings, always knowing what to say so Alex didn't have to. "Not your thesis and not your diploma, of course. You can have keepsakes. But your records - you can't carry those around. You can't contact anyone, you can't carry things that would identify you. Dr. Nemcosky was a very distinguished student who died of complications related to stage-four Non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Very sad. You are Alexander Nemcosky, the vampire. Doctor if you want. You did earn it."

It was hard for him to decide what questions to ask first, before the vampire took over again. "Why did you let me get so sick? Why didn't you take me at the LAN party?"

"You wanted to finish your degree. It was important to you, and I decided it was worth the risk. You can't spend the rest of eternity regretting your unfinished mortal past - not if I could help it."

Ari didn't force conversation out of him when he wasn't ready. Alex was busy fighting the vampire, fighting every instinct he didn't understand or couldn't possibly follow. He had time to think, even if it wasn't always coherent. So much of Ari's life made sense. He had no pictures of his family because there weren't photographs thousands of years ago. They never saw him drink anything that wasn't red. He was unnaturally observant. He understood things even someone much older than them could not have, like a six sense that was really just centuries of experience.

"Are you really Aristotle?"

"I once saw a video they made for high school students about Greek philosophers. I wish I'd kept the library's copy. It reenacts Socrates' trial in this ridiculous fashion. Not that I was there, but I don't imagine he was like Santa Clause in a white Roman toga. He spoke eloquently, of course. Everything was well-reasoned and his arguments were sound. But he didn't stutter or squint. His health wasn't bad. He wasn't accused of either worrying too much or being too vain, depending on the day. He didn't fight with his students and they didn't fight with him. He wasn't human," he said. "That's how mortals - and vampires, sometimes - see the figures of the past. The father of European scholasticism, the scientific method, and the classification system for animals was not bald and had bad eyesight." Ari shook his head. "It's best not to shatter people's assumptions. Also I am severely misquoted and I do somewhat resent that. Sitting through a Greek philosophy class is just painful. I tried it once."

"I ... don't know much about Aristotle. The one in the books."

"Good. They're mainly wrong. The only biography that's correct is the one I wrote a couple centuries later on a bet, and most scholars disregard that one as being too outlandish." He smiled when Alex smiled. "If a vampire ever asks you if I am Aristotle, you say it's none of their business. Or give whatever non-answer you want. Even vampires are too curious sometimes."

The hours were tedious in a way, in that he was constantly fighting the vampire, not understanding what it wanted after the initial meal and not knowing how to respond, or if to respond, and what to do when he just wanted to think. But Ari knew, and when it became too much he held him down. Alex didn't want to growl and bite at his master like an animal, but Ari's face was all understanding. "You will get through this."

Alex did succeed in chomping down on Ari's hand, and the flow of blood, though merely a trickle, was invigorating - and soothing. He did not want to let go. He looked up for a sign of disapproval, but Ari had his eyes closed. He was concentrating. Alex felt the vampire retreat, if just for a moment, and he collapsed.

"There is a very powerful link between us," Ari said as he carried him to the bed. "Sometimes when a vampire creates a child, they just let them go on their own. Those sorts of vampires don't live long. When you take someone as your own, and feed them your blood, it creates a connection that can never be broken, and it strengthens the child. I promised you eternity, and I plan to give it to you."

Alex needed to stop thinking about the taste of the blood and the nearest hand to his mouth, and start focusing harder.

"I control what you receive from my blood, in terms of memories. With a human you get everything at once, in a brief flash before they die. For a vampire, the transfer is different. My master taught me to control what I gave people, and not share my secrets. When you're strong enough, I'll show you whatever you want to see from my past."

Alex needed to think, and Ari's voice helped him do that. Ari's voice made him calm. This person was his world. "I want to know about your master."

"Qum'ra was what we call an Old One, one of the very first vampires, or so they claimed. There are maybe one or two who are still alive, and I'm not sure about the second one. He was very old - he would be easily four thousand years old if he were alive today. When I was a hundred, a group of angry villagers in a now-extinct culture in the New Mexican desert set him on fire. They let me live. Why, I don't fully understand. They demanded a favor from me, and when someone stumbles on the right ruins, I'll repay it by flying down and translating their dead hieroglyphs. They didn't want to be forgotten. I'm their immortality. That is, if they ever move the multiplex and find the damn temple beneath it. Before that, I think it was a hotel. A really tacky one. Terrible carpeting."

Ari stood, and Alex grabbed him before he knew what he was doing. "Don't leave me." He didn't know why he needed him to stay, and he didn't feel mature saying it, but he was prepared to beg. He wanted to be sane and not the vampire. He wanted to hear Ari joke and remind him that part of him was human. The madness on the edge of his consciousness frightened him.

Ari did not look displeased. He stroked his hair. "I won't." It was the link between them, something Alex couldn't quite grasp but always felt. He tried to focus on it, but was sure he was wrong in thinking that something in Ari was happy to hear him say he needed him.

********************************************

Alex's next day began with bottled blood instead of a live meal. It was unbearably lifeless but it took the edge of his hunger, so he could function without killing someone.

There was a plant in the living room that hadn't been there before - a beautiful bonsai tree in a very expensive-looking container.

"It came during the day," Aristotle said. "It's a gift for Feliks. He never goes anywhere if he doesn't have to and he's coming over tonight."

Briefly alarmed that his sanctuary was being invaded, Alex stammered to remember the name. "The thief?"

"He's not a thief. He's a banker. And he's doing a lot of my job because I seem to be so preoccupied these days. He's a friend of mine - and I don't say that often about other vampires. We're too competitive. Predators tend not to get along, even though we pretend to." He took a bottle of what he said was blood wine out of the fridge. That was the locked one, the one Alex had no access to when he was here as a mortal. "Oh, and vampire etiquette - never offer your hand or any part of your body. If they want to be touched, they'll initiate it." The doorbell rang. "And to answer your question as to whether he's gay or just really British, the answer is a little from column A and a little from column B."

"I wasn't going to - " but Ari wasn't paying attention and just walked by him to open the door.

"Feliks! Thank you so much for coming."

"I could hardly resist. Here - have a plant for your travels. And before you say anything, it's one of the easiest to graft so you have no excuse."

The man who entered definitely would have invited the question Ari preemptively answered. He was short, with long black hair kept at a sort of 'Don Juan' length, complete with the curled black mustache that was even more striking against his very pale skin. His suit was a shade of maroon with yellow stripes, and its cut dated a century back, completely with the high white collar and silk scarf as a tie. He walked like a British aristocrat from a movie and talked like one. He bowed to Alex. "You must be Dr. Nemcosky."

"Feliks, this is Alexander. Alex, Feliks Twist."

"Delighted." And the little man actually did seem delighted. He removed an envelope from his breast pocket and held it out. "Happy Conversion Day."

With an approving nod from Ari, Alex opened the envelope, which wasn't sealed. The single sheet of paper contained the number for a Swiss bank account and an account - Four million dollars. And change. It wasn't that he was giving him money, of course, so much as which money he was giving him. "Thank you." He felt like blushing.

"Don't spend it all in one place. Stay away from faro - it is very addictive. People still play faro, don't they?"

"I'm sure it'll make a comeback," Ari said. "I think the kitchen is the only part of this house where we won't be sitting on boxes."

Ari could have easily asked Alex to leave, and he would have understood that the 'adults' needed to talk, but he didn't. He was allowed to join them at the table (where Feliks and Ari did, in fact, drink out of crystal goblets) as they ran the numbers on Ari's various accounts, most of which were just under code names. Feliks had some hesitation in sharing what were obviously private records for not only Ari, but dozens of vampires, but Ari simply nodded him on. "Alex can hear anything."

"Well, the De Brabant trust has given you two million in the last quarter, paid into your pension fund. What did you do for him?"

"I have no idea. We had a drink and played Mario Kart. Maybe he was just feeling like he owed me for the position on the dig. Who knows?" Ari had a lot of donations that ranged from a thousand dollars to the millions. "Open a checking and savings for Alex, transfer it there."

"Dual names and access to the account? What last name?"

"I don't know. Alex, any ideas on a last name? I have to retire mine."

Never thought he would be asked this question, he needed a moment to decide. "Can it be anything?"

"To not raise any flags on a checking account, it has to be something that's not ridiculous. When you're older and have your name on a lot of funds, you can have a name like Twist. Or Aristotle can just curse you with it when it appears on your passport."

"It's grown on you. Admit it."

"I am fortunate in that respect. Name?"

"Green," Alex said. "Sorry, I'm staring at a plant here." The bonsai gift tree was the table's centerpiece.

"It works," Ari said.

"Can I keep my first name?"

"Yes. Yours is common enough," his master said.

Feliks made notes and had them both sign a form with the new last name. "I'll forward your debit cards and checkbooks to the Lake Tahoe address, unless you tell me otherwise. It should take about five working days."

"What am I supposed to do with it?"

"Earn interest," Ari said. "It's for emergencies. And blood can be very expensive. Also, your laptop is on its last legs."

"It totally could go another year if I got a new DVD drive. And a wireless card."

"Just don't go crazy," Ari said. "It attracts attention."

"Thank you," he said, realizing he'd just been handed more money than he'd seen in his lifetime, besides the four million in his lap. Ari didn't live like a prince, but he worked hard, and he had accounts that were two hundred years old. Money meant nothing to him. Alex figured he would have to act very appropriately with his money, as displeasing his master was about the last thing he wanted to do.

Ari and Feliks did go out back to talk for awhile, and admire Ari's "sad excuse for a garden." Alex had no doubt he was the main topic of discussion, but why wouldn't he be? He drank more blood fresh from the fridge and tried not to think about it. Blood and Ari - those were the only two things he could really focus on.

By the time Feliks said goodbye, it was late, almost 3 AM. He thanked them for the bonsai tree and walked out the front door, then disappeared into the air.

"When do I get to learn how to fly?"

Ari laughed at the eagerness in his voice. "Lake Tahoe."

"What's there?"

"Mountains. Nature. A lot of privacy. I don't think you want to find out now by me pushing you off the roof. Do you? It could work. Sometimes you have to be pushed into it, like riding a bike. And it's only two stories. The worst that will happen is you'll fall into the flowerbed."

"Uh, no. When are we going to Lake Tahoe?"

"Depends on the movers. Probably Wednesday. It's not good for you to stay in town, you being dead and all. But I want to be here when they wrap up my monitors. They broke one of them during my last move."

Aristotle the vampire still had his very human priorities. It was a familiar thing and in this new world that was so very difficult and frightening, it brought Alex some small comfort.

********************************************

The next night, it took Alex a long time to get control of the vampire. He insisted on trying to do it himself, though that didn't make Ari leave the room. Alex stared into the bathroom mirror, trying to will his eyes normal and his fangs up, something Ari could seemingly do without much effort. It worked, finally, but not for long, and the vampire flared and smashed the mirror. On instinct, he put his bleeding hand in his mouth, not tempted by his own blood. It wasn't unpleasant, just unsatisfying, and his wounds hurt. He looked up, guiltily, at the man who owned the mirror.

"It won't hurt the resale value nearly as much as the carpenter ants in the garage," Ari said. "Take your hand out of your mouth."

He obeyed, not knowing what to do.

Ari bit his wrist and offered it. Alex wished his hungry dive to his master's wrist was a bit more dignified, but the blood made his pain stop. When he looked down, his hand was completely healed.

"The blood of the master always heals," Ari said. "Obviously life is far more convenient when your master is alive." He put his hands on Alex's shoulder. "Rest. You're tired."

Even though it was early evening, he was. He didn't want to sleep so much as lie still. Fighting the vampire within was so tiring, but Ari's blood soothed the beast's temper.

When he was willing to rise again and face the world, or the small world within the house, he could hear Ari in the front yard, talking to some woman he didn't recognize. He knew the voices of the neighbors, having discovered he could hear them in their own houses if he listened closely. Otherwise he would have had no idea the Kleins were swingers.

"I can't believe I'm loaning you my car."

"I'm having some trouble myself," his master answered. "I will pay for damages."

"You could try not damaging it."

"I figured I would skip that step and just be honest."

She found that funny. She was attuned to his sense of humor, even if she sounded far more sophisticated. He was not sure if he should interrupt, but he sensed Ari was in an open mood. He wasn't sure how their link worked, but Ari could definitely send him his mood. Not words, but a sense of what he was feeling.

"Alex!" Ari smiled as Alex stepped out onto the front steps, the furthest he had been to going outside since his arrival. "Eliza, you have to come inside. We can't have the dead wandering the streets."

The sharply-dressed woman seemed to understand him perfectly. She was probably in her twenties, but could easily passed for much older with the sophisticated way she carried herself as Ari led her in.

"Elizabeth, this is Alexander. Alex, Lady Elizabeth Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire."

"Aristotle!"

"Fine, Elizabeth Beckham."

"Alexander." She offered her hand, and accepted.

"Mrs. Beckham." He sensed power from her, or maybe it was just the way she appeared.

Ari confirmed his guess. "Elizabeth is the city Elder for Boston. It usually falls to the oldest vampire who wants the responsibility, and with that second modifier, it's her."

"Meaning Aristotle has convinced everyone that he's both younger than he is and doesn't care," she said, chiding Ari. They were obviously on very good terms. "It's a pleasure to meet you. He talked about you."

"He did?"

"I did not," Ari said defensively.

"He didn't say your name or who you were but it was on his mind," she said. "I was just the only one who picked up on it. Everyone else thinks he's just very into some computer game again."

"Ultima Online did eat several months of my life," Ari said.

"In the old days, we used to have coming-out parties for fledglings, usually when they were a year or two old. It's fallen out of practice for some reason."

"The 'old days' refers to the Renaissance," Ari explained. "And some other times, too. It's fallen in and out of practice. And I don't think you came out until you were thirty, when you were done playing mortal."

"Aristotle was on the Queen's Privy Council at the time," she said. "Did she know, do you think?"

"Walsingham was definitely on to me. Almost said it to my face. He thought I was important to have around. As for Old Bess, she knew I wasn't normal, but I don't know what he told her or what she knew. It wasn't something I would bring into conversation."

Alex was fairly sure they were talking about the Queen Elizabeth whose portrait was in the study, but decided to spare himself the humiliation and ask Ari about it later.

"Don't worry - Aristotle won't throw you to the sharks just yet. He won't even tell me where he's taking you so I have nothing to say when I have to answer to the people at my club begging for the passports and their driver's licenses."

"Life would be so much easier if the DMV was open at night."

"Inconsiderate mortals." She kissed Ari on the cheek. "I must be off. My city and its complaining populace awaits. It was a pleasure to meet you, Doctor. Aristotle - good luck." The way she stroked his cheek before leaving made it clear the "no touching" rule did not apply to her. With him.

"Don't say it," Ari said. "I know you're thinking it - "

"You were a thing."

"We were not a thing." He squirmed and returned to the kitchen to get a fresh bottle of blood. "Her master practically abandoned her, and I was available. I covered for her so she could stay duchess for awhile. We were close." He poured himself another glass. "Vampires ... blood ... it's all very complicated."

"She was all over you."

"We have a complex relationship that's lasted centuries. Also we fuck occasionally. There. You have it." He shoved the glass of blood in Alex's hands. "I have to pack the car."

Alex decided any follow-up questions he had on vampire sexuality could wait until another time, and hid upstairs until sunrise.

********************************************

Ari was back in good humor the next night. Alex soon discovered why - he wanted him to see the "modifications" made to Elizabeth's black jeep.

"You have a satellite dish on the car."

"Jeep. And it's a very small dish. I am not driving 2500 miles without at least a semi-constant wireless connection. Can you hand me that cable? The blue one?"

Alex pulled a blue Ethernet cable out of the pile of computer parts in the garage and passed it to him. "Does Mrs. Beckham know what you're doing to her jeep?"

"If she doesn't like it, I'll pay for damages."

"I think you might have to replace it. You're drilling a hole into the cushions."

"Just one of them. Drill bit. The long one. And where's your sense of adventure?"

"It's your call, man," he said, and gave him the longest drill bit available. "It looks like you have plenty of room in the trunk if you remove that black cover - "

"That's for sleeping."

"Sleeping?"

"If we get trapped." Ari paused for his loud drilling, then resumed the conversation. "I think I told you once I have to sleep in the car if I get stuck on the road somewhere. I borrowed Elizabeth's car because she has the most trunk space."

"Uhm, it doesn't look that big."

"Then hope we don't get caught."

"We could fly. You know, in a plane? Or is there some reason we can't do that?"

"When I was a hundred, my master made me walk across the entire world, starting in Greece and ending in Pictish Briton, because he wanted to prove to me the world was round and not a flat disc as I insisted. Sure, we got to fly, but that was only over the Bering Strait - and it was brutal. So count your blessings. Besides, you've never been West of New York state. Don't you want to see it? Damn, I think I broke the glove compartment."

"Already?"

"Smart ass."

********************************************

Alexander Nemcosky, now Alex Green, prepared to leave his life behind. Even though this one was only a week old, it felt longer, as if it was all he knew, with his life at MIT a memory hidden behind a fog. But when it came to actually leave what he came to consider his home town, he was frightened, and not of the vampire. He was tempted to release it, to be lost in its simplistic worldview of hunger and satisfaction.

"Moving on is very difficult," Ari said. "For all of us. We grow attached to the lives we lead when we have to forsake them. In that sense we're still mortals, avoiding change. But staying the same is deadly to the vampire. Instead of rotting physically, we rot emotionally. If you want to be part of the mortal world, and not just live in a cave in the desert, feeding off whatever comes along, you have to change." He put a baseball cap on his head. "And we have to cover our faces until we get of the area where the people who went to our funeral live. Come on. I want to be in Ohio before sunrise."

Alex finally got to experience firsthand Ari's semi-legendary driving. Now he realized it wasn't talent so much as Ari's vampire reflexes, which were so much more sophisticated than a human's. He was more attuned to the car, the road, and the other cars. And he wasn't afraid to test the car's ability to go very 100 mph.

That didn't mean Alex wouldn't inadvertently grab the handlebar - as if that could have done something for him - as they weaved through the narrow mountain roads in central Pennsylvania. "Uhm, so do the cops sense you're a vampire and just let you go?"

"No. That's what the police scanner is for. I wish I knew where it was. I put it somewhere in the trunk, I remember, but I can't remember where. I'll find it tomorrow." He grinned, showing his teeth. "Besides, you need to learn how to hypnotize people. Cops are pretty easy."

"They are?"

No sooner had he asked did Ari weave in and out of the oncoming lane to get around a truck that was using the left lane illegally, and it required some acceleration, which attracted a cop car. With the sirens, Ari slowed the car down and parked the car on the shoulder. It was the highway in the middle of nowhere, Pennsylvania, and it was two in the morning. They were the only ones on this road now that the truck was gone - aside from the cop.

"Now, what you want to do is focus on his heartbeat and keep your voice very stern, like what you're saying is some universal truth that he can't possibly contradict without his heart exploding." Ari pulled his license out of his wallet, and the registration out of the taped- together glove compartment. "You'll feel like you have a hold on his heart. It's really his mind. Then just say what you want him to do. Like, 'you're going to dance for me.' But don't make it too outlandish. Like actually dancing." He rolled down the window. "Evening, officer."

The traffic officer did not look pleased. "License and registration."

Ari handed them over without any hesitation.

"Are you aware of how fast you were going?"

"About a hundred and twenty."

"Is there some kind of emergency that would require you to swerve into an oncoming lane?"

"I'm trying to teach my son how to drive. Alex?"

He could hear the cop's heartbeat, slow and steady, but he couldn't focus on it so much as what he wanted to do about it. He wanted all that heart to pump blood to his waiting mouth -

"Alex," Ari said sternly.

"Hi, officer," he waved, his own voice quivering.

"Eye contact," his master whispered.

It was too hard. He wanted the blood so badly. So unsuspecting ... No. He closed his eyes and pushed the beast down, promising it all the blood it wanted later, and looked into the cop's eyes, the light reflecting off his eyes from the cop car's headlights. "Officer. Everything's fine here."

"What?" It didn't take.

"I said ... you don't see a problem here."

The cop's voice was robotic. "I don't see a problem here."

"His pad has our license plate number on it," his master whispered.

Did he have to do everything. "You should tear up your pad."

"I should ... tear up my pad." And he did so, right before their eyes. "You ... you can go, sir." He gave Ari back his documentation.

"Thank you, officer." He smiled amiably at the officer and returned to the road. Only after the patrol car's lights had disappeared behind him did he take a hand off the wheel to give Alex a playful tug. "Congratulations."

"I totally thought I was going to blow it. Don't do that to me!"

"Paper trail. You have to make sure they don't leave themselves a paper trail to check later. The hypnotism doesn't last. It's a subtle art, and it doesn't work on everyone, but usually on cops. They're used to taking orders. The point is, great job. Next drink's on me."

"So it's pointless for me to mention I don't have my own supply of drinks?"

"Not pointless so much as rude." But he didn't sound upset. "Time to find a motel. Tell me if you see one of those blue signs."

At the aptly-named Motel Inn, Ari requested a room with no one in the adjoining rooms and received one at the end of the lot. It only had one bed and a very bad cot. Ari installed a fridge in the backseat of the jeep, and he poured two glasses of blood wine for them. "This is going to hit you pretty hard."

"I thought I was a vampire."

"You're still susceptible to alcohol - especially because of your age."

"I'm twenty-four!"

"The vampire is not. And I suspect Alex Nemcosky was a lightweight." He clinked his glass against Alex's. "To your first hypnotism."

"Thanks." He sipped the wine. The blood made it bearable - he didn't think he could have drank it without it. It was bitter, and stung his throat, but he drank it all anyway, as fast as he could.

By now it was four, and even though HBO was thoroughly advertised by the sign on the road, the television only got seven channels, all of them local stations. Alex tried to pay attention to the infomercial - it was so strange to look at mortals and not be tempted by them, not hearing their heartbeats - but he was dizzy and his body felt warm.

"I told you. Lightweight," Ari chuckled, and Alex fell asleep in his master's arms.

********************************************

"I told you."

Ari looked at the smoking engine and growled, closing the hood. "You did not tell me the engine would start to smoke."

"I told you not to push it. Cars aren't made to go and stay over 130 - "

"I know how cars are made. I had a Ford Model T."

"Did you ruin that one, too?"

His master snarled and dialed triple A. As he explained the problem, Alex walked out into the other lane. The Indiana highway was two lanes and completely empty, with nothing but cornfields on both sides. The last dozen cars they'd seen were all trucks and the cafes passed were all-night truck-stops.

Maybe he pushed his master too hard. Ari hung up the phone but succeeded in not destroying that with his anger as he tossed it on the driver's seat. "C'mon. We have to haul the car."

"To where?"

"Into the corn. I don't want to be bothered during the day and people are going to do something about an abandoned car on the side of the road."

Alex assumed his position facing the trunk. "What happened to triple A?"

"They can't be here for two hours - and then it'll take at least another hour to get the jeep set up and towed. Way too close." It was almost three. They hoisted the car as they would a very heavy piece of furniture, slowly dragging it into the high stalks of corn, where it would sit out of view of the drivers on the highway.

"What are we going to do?"

"There's a reason I put an internet connection in the car," Ari said, already consumed with his next task of getting the satellite internet signal working. "Want to play something? I'm hearing good things about EverQuest. Your debit card isn't here yet, so the account's on me."

"Thanks, but I meant about us. During the day."

"And you laughed when I borrowed the jeep," he said, clearing away the corn stalks to open the trunk. When they pulled the back seats down and raised the black tarp over the windows, there was quite a lot of space - in comparison to a regular trunk. "Just say it."

"Gay."

"Fine, sleep under the car. I'll give you a blanket so you don't fry as badly."

Alex decided it was time to quit. "You said something about an EverQuest account?"

Twenty minutes latter they had a surprisingly stable connection for rural Indiana and quick to learn that nobody would group with two first-level characters, even if one was a healer. They were stuck letting their character camp for gold and rare items while they read only FAQs and Ari checked his email. Alex's accounts were all deleted while he was still crossing over, and his new ones had no contacts. "You did tell triple A to like, come tomorrow night?"

"They said they'll be here by 8. So, figure 10 PM. It's still better than walking."

"You really walked with your master across the United States."

"No," Ari said, not looking up from his screen. "We got about halfway and he died. I walked the rest of the way myself."

"How did you know you would reach Europe again? Couldn't you have turned around?"

"To turn around would have been to defeat the whole purpose of the enterprise my master died for. And if there was an end of the world, literally, I would have liked to have seen it and settled the question once and for all. So I kept going East until I hit the ocean. It was too far too fly, so I walked Northeast until I could see an island - what was Greenland - and crossed over that. I didn't know where the hell I was until I met someone in southern England who spoke a little Greek."

"Was it scary?"

"Terrifying. It was the first time I was without my master and I was completely lost. There were no vampires in the Western Hemisphere at this time - none that I found. There were humans, yes - but no vampires. And whatever the Community says, I don't want to be a pretend human."

"They call you that?"

"It's heavily implied. But I'd rather be laughed at than feared or hated. It's better in the long run."

"There's being respected."

Ari chuckled. "Highly overrated."

Alex probed the link with his master, but had no more success at getting anything than he'd ever had. He could sense him, but unless Ari was intentionally projecting, nothing else, and even then, it was only emotions or something resembling a hint. That didn't stop him from trying - it was too interesting a sensation for him to just ignore.

"What do you want to know?"

Of course, Ari knew what he was doing. Alex sighed. He couldn't hide anything. It could be comforting and it could be frustrating. Usually both. "I don't know, really. I was just curious. Sorry."

"I'm in your head enough that you have the right to at least try and invade mine. It won't work, but you can try."

"You're sure about that?"

"I won't rule it out completely, but I've never known of anyone to succeed - and I know some very old and very devious vampires who would like to know their masters' secrets. But I also know some masters who have good reasons for keeping them."

"Is that a warning?"

Ari finally looked up, the screen lighting his face. "It means that there are some things you have to be old enough and strong enough to be ready to know. Or maybe the master would just prefer you not know it."

"Because it's personal."

His master shook his head, but he was smiling. "You do remind me of myself. Asking clever questions. You're lucky I have such sympathy for it."

"I'll shut up if you want me to."

"You won't. It's not in your nature, and when you become a vampire, your nature is amplified and hardened. You become more of who you were than when you were human. That or it twists and destroys you. Even I can't change you, and I would be a fool to try." His eyes returned to the screen and his typing. "I knew what I was getting into."

Alex tried to imagine it - his master as the student, looking the same but being the young one, undoubtedly curious about all that vampirism had to offer him. Instead of a dying old man, he was now a near- indestructible immortal. Taking orders from ... "Tell me about your master."

"I did."

"No. Not who he was. What he was like. What it was like for you."

The smile disappeared on Ari's face. "He wasn't much like me." It had a finality to it that ended the conversation. Not that it would have continued for long anyway with the fast-rising sun. Ari would stay up for awhile longer, so Alex shut his computer off and laid down. The space was still very cramped, but there was nothing he could do about it. The darkness provided safety from the terrifying sun and his master would protect him from everything else. As the car started to warm from the sun's rays, he shivered in fear, and Ari held him until he stopped. Then he could sleep.


Chapter 10

The sun invaded his dreams. Alex was in his backyard. The sun was warm and bright, a perfect summer afternoon. He was supposed to be at the skate park, but ironically, he couldn't get a ride and he wasn't allowed to skate that far. Instead he did some spins in his driveway and only succeeded in crashing into the plastic recycle bins and ruining one wheel. He knew how to replace it. Mechanic things interested him, and he understood the importance of being self- reliant. First, he had to clean up the cans.

"Alex!" It was Charlie. "You little shit! That recycle bin is town property."

"It's not broken," he said.

"Take him," the vampire said. The vampire was standing next to him, so angry and possessive of his emotions. "You deserve him. He deserves his death. A painful death at your hands."

It made sense. There were so many reasons - he could kill Charlie over and over in this dream. But his master would disapprove. His master was not vengeful.

"He stole Charlie's inheritance."

"That was mine to take! He just gave it to me."

"He would not deny you anything, or make you suffer to deny your true nature. You are a predator. A killer."

They were Ari's words and the vampire was using them, twisting them so they meant something different. "You don't know anything about him!"

"He created me. What does that tell you?"

"Apple doesn't fall far from the tree, does it?" Charlie broke in, and in a burst of anger, Alex swung his broken skateboard and bashed Charlie's head in. The blood on the pavement smelled like the finest roast, like the kitchen did before dinner when his mom wasn't too sick to cook.

Aristotle growled at him, not the vampire. Ari was mad at him, Alex, his son, his creation. "I didn't bring across a killer." His eyes were glowing red with passion - and disappoint. "You little shit!"

********************************************

"Ah!" Alex cried out for the strike that didn't come. He woke in a panic, pulling his arms over his head. They were soaked with blood- sweat, and he couldn't help but bite them, not because he wanted his own blood but because he needed something to bite.

"Hmm?" Ari rolled over to face him. His eyes were brown and calm. "Don't panic. Drink." He rolled up his sleeve and offered his wrist. Alex did not hesitate. He would suck on that sweet nectar for as long as his master allowed, struggling against the confines of the jeep. "Shhh. Drink."

He forgot about the dream, brought on by the vampire's anger, now so easily abated. Ari wasn't mad at him. Ari wasn't disappointed. Ari didn't curse. Relieved, he pulled away, and retreated as much as was possible to his side of the trunk. It was day and his eyes were already closing again, but he didn't want to sleep. He wanted to explain himself, he didn't want his master to know -

"We all have bad dreams," his master said, in that soothing, good- humored voice of his. "Even vampires. Sleep."

Even if it had been a command, he would not have attempted to disobey it.

********************************************

Well after dark, after they sated themselves on the blood supply in the secret compartment beneath the trunk, the tow truck arrived. At least the engine was no longer smoking.

They had spoken, but not of the dream. There was no reason to. Like with mortals, it was his fears manifesting themselves, made more vivid by the unconscious but potent power of the vampire. Instead they managed to level up one by tackling a bear in EverQuest, just in time for the truck and the end of their internet connection until they reached town.

"Put your hat on," Ari said.

Alex's hair was wet from the light snowflakes now falling. He hadn't even noticed them. He realized it was because he couldn't feel how cold they were. "Why?"

"Because it looks strange. It's thirty-two degrees outside. We're supposed to be bundled up."

"Maybe I'm the rebellious type." But he didn't disobey, and put on a fleece cap. "It's thirty-two degrees?"

"At least. To be snowing."

He didn't feel the cold. He only had a jacket on because Ari had a jacket on. "Will I ever feel cold?"

"If there's wind, yes. There's no wind tonight." He approached the tow truck driver and shook his hand. "Hi. Can you get us out of this?"

"The nearest town with a good mechanic shop is Springfield, about thirty miles down the road. Do you have a lift or is someone picking you up?" He read their expressions. "You need a lift. Well you paid for it anyway, so hop in."

Ari was right about the earlier suggestion to bring headphones. Alex had the window seat, furthest from the very mortal driver, and even blasting his music directly into his ears, he could still hear the driver's heartbeat. He could hear it over the conversation Ari and the mortal were making, some scattered small talk to pass the time. He closed his eyes and tapped his foot incessantly against the pad beneath it, trying to distract himself and hold it together. By the time they arrived in Springfield, he was in physical pain and leapt out of the car before it completely stopped moving, narrowly avoiding the waiting mechanic as he ran for the bathroom and locked himself inside.

He tossed his headset in the sink and pulled open the pouch hidden under layers of clothing and the blood bag, tearing into it with already-extended fangs. No wonder he was so isolated by Ari. One mortal and he could barely hold it together. Would he ever think of them as something other than food?

He sat on the closed toilet seat in the cramped, dusty bathroom until he was calm, and the vampire settled enough that he could see the blue in his eyes again. Only then did he put his layers back on and return to the main floor, where Ari was talking to the mechanic. He didn't seem displeased, and though there was concern through the link, none of it was evidence on his face. "So how long?"

"Three days. I could say two if there was no holiday. I know it must be disappointing for you to be stuck here for Christmas."

"We didn't have important plans, but yes, this was not something we considered," Ari said. "This is my son, Alex."

Christmas? He didn't even know what day of the week it was. It all seemed so irrelevant to him. "Hi."

"Richard." The mortal had a weak handshake - or maybe it was first, but just not a match for him anymore. "There's a Motel 6 down the road - it's probably empty. There is a bus that goes to - "

"We don't have any relatives in this area, so we might as well just stay," Ari said, very politely. "Here's my number for when the car is fixed. Thank you."

They loaded the important things (blood, their laptops) into their backpacks and walked the half mile through shoveled snow to the Motel 6. All the rooms were open but two, and the manager kindly informed them the outdoor pool was closed for the winter. There was only one set of adjoining rooms, but it was open.

"Sorry about the accommodations," Ari apologized sheepishly as Alex plugged in his laptop. "And thanks for not eating the tow truck driver. That would have been hard to explain."

"I didn't know it was going to be this hard."

"I didn't explain. There was no way I could explain it. Some of us just live away from them altogether." He put his credit card into the internet port and activated it without checking the rate. "I guess with bottled blood and online gaming it could be possible, but it wouldn't be much of a life. And those guys who've been living in a cave for five hundred years probably do not have an EverQuest account. Speaking of which, I leveled up during the day."

"You bastard!"

He shrugged. "I had to pass the time."

"Did you know it was Christmas?"

"It's hard to avoid the holiday spam, yes."

"Are we going to say we're Jewish or something?"

"No, we can be more creative than that. It's more fun to lie on your feet sometimes. Besides, you're a Lutheran, even if you haven't been to church since you were eight. And don't even think about going now if you want to keep your skin un-melted."

"Does it bother you? I mean, you're not Christian, are you?"

"I'm not, but all holy symbols bother us. I just have a bit more tolerance. Comes with age and indifference. And I only know one person who can go in a church and stay there - Christ." He turned on his phone. "Hang on for a second."

"I'll post that we're looking to group," Alex said of their EverQuest game, setting up his laptop opposite Ari's. Even though it was just a normal phone, his hearing meant he could hear both sides of the conversation, though one was considerably more tinny than the other.

"Lambert."

"Nicholas!" Ari said, smiling. "Merry Christmas. I didn't know if I could catch you tomorrow. Do you do that family dinner thing I've heard so much about? And I don't know when Mass is."

"Natalie does it and I offer moral support," said the voice on the other end. "And Midnight Mass is at midnight, Aristotle. But thank you. No one else has called me."

"Will anyone?"

"Janette, maybe, if she's in a good mood. Oh, and Feliks did once, but also because he needed my account number. I think he just saved it for Christmas so he could have a reason." On the other end, 'Nicholas' was walking around. Alex could even hear the footsteps, but not a heartbeat. "But I am honored to hear from the mighty and mysterious Aristotle. And congratulations."

"If you heard ... you either heard it from LaCroix or it trickled down so far in the Community that everyone knows."

"Yeah, I am the last to know anything. I guess it was only a matter of time before you brought a secretary across."

"He is not a secretary, and that's not why I brought him across," Ari growled. "And he's listening. Alex, say hi. He can hear you."

"Hi," Alex said, in his normal voice.

"His name is Alexander?"

"See, this is why I don't tell people things. Go, get it out of your system."

"I actually don't have a bunch of Macedonian jokes lined up. It doesn't come up as often in my life as mammoth hunters. We have a lot of jokes about them here. You should come by sometime, see the place you bought me. And ... Alex can come to." He was trying really hard not to laugh. "Happy Saturnalia, Aristotle."

"Merry Christmas, Nick." He closed the phone and set it aside. "I call very few vampires friends. Nicholas is one of them."

"Isn't Saturnalia that Roman holiday? Do you celebrate it?"

"Not really, but his master is Roman, and he throws amazing Saturnalia parties about once a decade. That was where I found out you can put acid in blood and drink it. Nick wrote 'Saracens suck' all over his boss's car. His boss at the time was black, but I don't think he got it. Nick's not a racist, but he did spend a lot of time in a Moorish prison, so you know. Plus the acid."

"What did you do?"

"I don't know. It's all kind of blank after the car thing." He ignored Alex's bemused look. "There's an age requirement. 200 years."

"Aww. You're dashing my hopes and dreams."

"I think LaCroix will still be around in 200 years, if Nick doesn't kill him, but he never will."

"This is his master?"

"You know those relationships that are so publicly abusive and repetitive that it's actually kind of funny? You feel bad thinking it is, but you still laugh behind their backs?"

"Yeah."

"Well, that's LaCroix and Nick." He chuckled. "Why won't anyone group with us? I'm level 2."

Alex looked at his little level 1 barbarian. "Rub it in my face why don't you?"

********************************************

Alex was slow to wake, and slower to stumble around and find the mini- fridge with the bottle of blood stored for him. He was used to waking up next to Ari, or at least in the same room, but he was too embarrassed to admit he missed it. He showered and was still shoving the thought out of his mind when his master entered.

"We've been invited to Richard's house for Christmas dinner with his family. They want to know if we're vegetarian."

"You accepted?"

"Not yet." He settled in the room's only chair, an uncomfortable, gaudy desk chair. "We can say no."

"You don't think I can do it."

"It'll be difficult. And I really need that car part if we ever want to get out of this town."

"I thought you wanted me to learn control."

Ari knew what he was thinking, of course. "It takes time." He was not angry about last night. He did not look disappointed. Alex didn't lose control, however close he came. "You're two weeks old. I know you feel insulted when I treat you like an infant, but you have to stop looking at it in mortal terms and be patient with your body."

"What were you doing when you were two weeks old?"

Ari looked away. It was the wrong question to ask.

"You're not helping me by protecting me. I can't be near humans, you've taken me away from other vampires. I have nothing to compare. I just have your word on everything. And why do I even have to say this? Why don't you just read my mind and find out for yourself?" He wanted to blame the vampire for the sudden burst of anger, but he couldn't let it take control, either. That would be admitting the failure Ari was implying. "So the vampire is an infant and my body is weak. My mind is still the same. I'm still an adult! I'm twenty-four, I have a doctorate, and I thought you respected me!"

Ari just looked down. Every word was like a physical blow, and it made Alex feel good. He wanted to make his master understand. He wanted him to feel what he was feeling. He was not going to listen to this increasingly pathetic, frightened old man.

"Say something you old fuck!"

The vampire in him was fast, especially when it was angry, but Ari was faster. He was still getting the end of his sentence out when Ari had him up against the wall so hard he put a dent in the plaster, his own fangs bared. Alex growled, mainly in pain as his shoulder blades broke under the strain. He squirmed, but Ari's grip was impossibly strong, and now his mind was clouded by pain. Everything was fuzzy except his master's words, which came in sharp like a finely-tuned radio turned too loud.

"You want to know what it was like for me? Taken in old age by a master who had killed and eaten his own brother? Who thought breaking me would be fun?"

He was not in control. He wanted to be in control. He wanted to answer Ari in a normal voice, but he couldn't even form words. Ari caught his mouth, practically pushing his skin up to the fangs. Every instinct Alex had told him to bite and he could not disobey.

"So find out."

********************************************

Alex was still very hungry, despite all the blood in his mouth - and on his tunic, his hands, and between his sandaled toes. He was so very hungry and the woman hadn't quenched the thirst. Neither had the man who came before her, or his young son, or the boy in the field outside the house ... the dog ... the traveling merchant ... His hunger still burned in his stomach like fire. He staggered to a tree to hold himself up, and leaned his forehead against it. He had no breath and yet he felt compelled to catch it.

"Come to your senses at last?" his master said, his black robes in stark contrast to the white robes of the dead bodies that littered the street. His beard was black, his skin dark. The only light was his white teeth, his canines so visible when he smiled. "Are you sated?"

"No." He lurched forward and grabbed his master by his robes. "Make it stop."

"No."

"You poisoned me!"

Qum'ra laughed. "If I had poisoned you, you would know it. It would not be something you assigned to your current, very natural symptoms. A starved man, when presented with a feast, will stuff himself until it hurts him as badly as the hunger pains."

Ten days. They traveled for ten days, and he had not fed. He did not know where they were going and Qum'ra did not respond to questions. It was dark and he was weakened by hunger, and he could not make out the countryside. Then, when the first torch to light the stone pathway came into view, his master unlocked his shackles. He required no other motivation.

But that was hours ago. How long he did not know, only that the sun had not risen yet.

"Inconsiderate brute," Qum'ra said, pushing him away so he had to find his own support. "You left me nothing. Not man, woman, or beast. Do you not think I do not hunger?"

"No, Master."

"Would you take food from your master's mouth?"

"No, Master. Forgive me." He did feel very, very sorry. All he wanted was forgiveness. He just did not know how to get it.

Qum'ra casually tore the door off the house, following the trail of blood inside. "Not even the children, Aristotle. You've left me not a single snack."

"Please, Master. Forgive me."

"I will." It was so assuring, yet so unsympathetic. "I will tell you when you tell me where we are."

"Master?"

"Don't look at me like a fool. Control yourself and open your eyes, the ones you don't use for hunting. Not that there's anything left to hunt." He kicked away the woman at his feet. Aristotle remembered her. She'd tried to run. Her fear was delicious. Her pleas were like music to him.

Ignoring the pain in his stomach, he sat on the stone step and looked out to the ocean. In his life the view calmed him, and the sea breeze gave his lungs strength. Now he did not breathe, and the sea was a dark, deep blue with only the moon to provide some direction to the endless, dark horizon.

"I know this place," he said, his voice closer to human than it had been in two weeks. "I ... I used to walk here." He walked now, instead of hobbled like he used to. His vampire legs were stronger than any cane. He found the stone bench, and caressed it. "Philip rebuilt it ... I told him to. And Alexander made it perfect."

"That insipid brat did love you, didn't he?"

"He did." He realized he didn't know if it was still alive. "I ... what is this place?"

"Say its name."

"Stageira." His hometown - his home, the place of his birth and some of the best years of his life. When Philip's armies destroyed it, he was devastated. Partially in payment for his services as tutor to Alexander, Philip belatedly reversed his decision and had it entirely rebuilt, and its inhabitants that had been sold into slavery freed.

"It was Stageira," his master said. "Now it is nothing but a ghost town, filled with haunted souls deader than us."

He looked down, at his white himation stained by blood, flesh, and grime. Blood pooled in the indentations in the stones, belonging to someone else. Someone dead. "Why did you do this?"

"I did nothing. You did everything."

It was true. His master did not indulge. Was he even present? Aristotle didn't know. He hadn't been paying attention. He was lost to the hunger. Everything was in a red haze, even his most recent memories, and yet he could not get the screams out of his head. What was once pleasure was now just pain.

"Your memory is perfect," his master said. He put a hand on Aristotle's shoulder, but there was no affection there. He was just showing him he was there, his eternal torment. "You will never forget a minute of this. What you would have given, for such a flawless mind in your cushioned mortal existence?" He dug his claws into Aristotle's exposed shoulder and lifted him into the air. "Anything? Your very soul?"

He didn't answer. He just screamed.

********************************************

He was still screaming, but Ari clamped down on his mouth with one hand and grabbed the television's remote with the other. Realizing where he was, Alex relaxed, and fell back on the bed while Ari lowered the TV's volume down to a normal level before shutting it off.

Alex's mortal response was to gasp. It wasn't necessary, but it made him feel like he was responding to the stress. It would not be polite to throw up his master's blood.

Ari returned to the desk, pouring himself a glass of blood. He sat quietly as Alex rose, wiping a sheen of blood sweat off his face. "How long was I out?"

"Ten minutes." His master's voice was so sedate.

"It felt like hours."

"Memories can be deceiving."

Ari didn't sound like he was deceived. He sounded like he was miserable.

"I - need to shower." And to think. His clothes were ruined by blood sweat. At least the wounds to his shoulder blades were healed. Ari waved his hand and gave no verbal objection. He was not the only one who wanted to be alone.

As the water hit his cold flesh, Alex tried to think about it without reliving it, but found the task nearly impossible. He could get lost in those memories, still so fresh in his head. Ari had to relive them, too, he realized. Was that how the link worked? Did he have to watch anything he sent? Was he as captive an audience as Alex was?

Qum'ra was what he expected of an ancient vampire - mysterious, destructive, and in a word, evil. He was everything Aristotle was not. Alex could tell he was everything Aristotle did not want to be, but the only thing he knew.

Alex toweled off and changed into the other outfit he had with him. When he stepped out, his master had not moved from his position. He was drawing on the desk placemat. Alex approached. Ari was doing high level equations on the hotel's furniture. Something no one he knew had the intelligence to appreciate.

"The uh, 2 is wrong," he said, tapping on the mat. "There. It should be under the line, and the three on the other side of the equation."

Ari smiled. "That's what it was." He scratched it out with the cheap hotel pen and fixed it. "Thank you. That was really going to bug me."

"I was a Math Theory major," he said. "Listen, I'm sorry about everything."

"You don't have to be sorry. You didn't know what you were asking."

"I could have guessed," he insisted, and Ari looked up at him. "You kept avoiding the subject. Even when I directly asked you to show me your master, you refused. And you never say no to me. I should have thought it out, and I'm sorry."

Ari looked down at the equations again. "Apology accepted." He added, "Ask whatever questions you want. Just don't let the vampire ask them for you."

"Was it always like that? With your master?"

"No. Eventually we got to sort of like each other - or he liked me, to be precise. Even when I hated him, I loved him. He made sure it was never any other way. His control over our link was very tight. But by the end, I think, I'd grown on him. When he died, if I had had the chance, I would have thrown myself into the fire with him." He finished off the equation and put the pen aside. "The blood makes everything complicated." He paused, and finished his drink. "No. That's just an excuse. Mortals are just as complicated. We're just an angrier, more competitive form of them. The blood lust demands it. Math is so much simpler."

"Not that kind of math."

"To us, maybe," Ari grinned. "Are you hungry?"

"No. Nauseous."

"Good. Christmas dinner then?"

********************************************

Was Alex's life to be one lesson after another? He quickly discovered what this one would be - beyond his deadly desire to slaughter every member of Richard's family and feast on their remains before their hearts stopped beating. No, this one brought his master far more amusement - they both had to fake consuming at least some of their portions.

"We're saved," Ari said as they approached. "A dog." He was referring to the barking inside. "Table scraps."

"What happens if I eat food?"

"You vomit. Try not to do it on the table. But it'll be hard because it's pretty instantaneous."

"This is amusing to you somehow?"

"Tricking mortals is one of the only lessons that brings me pleasure to teach you, so I might as well savor it." He rang the doorbell, and the barking increased. "I'll handle the dog."

"Handle?"

Ari did not have time to respond before the door opened and Richard's wife welcomed them into their garishly decorated home. And no sooner did she than a cocker spaniel bounded towards them, stopping just short of leaping on either of them, and began barking incessantly.

"He doesn't bite," she said. "I'm Martha. You're not afraid of dogs are you?"

"Ari. And this is my son, Alex." It always gave Alex a warm feeling when he said that, however casually, as Ari knelt to look the dog in the eyes. "And this must be ..."

"Max."

"Max," he repeated, with a certain intensity that only Alex could detect. He looked the dog in the eyes, and the animal blinked first, then ceased his noise and calmly licked his hand. "And I have no reason to be frightened of dogs. Not this one, I don't think."

"He's really taken a shine to you, hasn't he?"

"I suspect he'll follow me all night," Ari said, a mischievous twinkle in his eye. Alex just rolled his eyes. Martha welcomed them into her cozy little house, and in short order they were introduced to her two youngest, a girl and boy no older than six, who would be put to bed before dinner. Richard welcomed them and offered Ari a glass of whiskey, which he accepted, and introduced his daughter.

It was either the link or Alex's eyes widening that much that made his master smack him on the back of the head. Beth was only seventeen, and they were proud to say, an early-admissions acceptance to NYU; she was wearing a purple New York University sweatshirt to prove it. Alex was not looking at the sweatshirt. He was mainly concerned with how much it covered her neck.

There was no way he was going to get through this. He heard Ari chuckle, definitely at his expense. Bastard. And I don't care if you hear me.

"I was so glad Richard invited you," Martha said as they were seated at a table decorated for the holiday, with an unwieldy centerpiece of holly and napkins with little Santa Clauses embroidered in them. "It's such a shame to be away for the holiday."

"Mom, maybe they're Jewish," Beth said, apparently having some clue. Alex was busy trying to drown out her voice with anything else he could possibly think of.

He tried his voice. "Actually, I'm Lutheran."

"I'm Greek," Ari answered, letting them draw whatever conclusions they wished to draw from that. "It's not a major holiday for us. But yes, it is nice to be off the road. Thank you for your hospitality."

"You said you weren't vegetarian?"

"We're not big eaters. We're just here for the company," Ari answered. "Sorry we couldn't bring anything, but the hotel mini-bar doesn't have much to offer."

"I suppose everything's closed already," Richard said. "Red or white wine? Neither's very good."

"Richard!"

"I wanted to be honest."

"Red," Alex and Ari said at the same time.

"We say grace in this house. You're not obligated to join us," Richard said as he poured, then took his seat at the head of the table. "L-rd, we have thinks - "

While Alex squirmed, he watched his master take the opportunity of bowed heads and closed eyes to put blood from his flask in both of their wines. "Amen," he said, his voice shaky, but he recovered more quickly than Alex and whispered. "Don't drink it too fast."

When he was a child, Alex had mastered the art of moving food around on his plate to make it look eaten, but it wouldn't work for a full plate. Every time he was curious to try it, a good whiff discouraged him. It was turkey, mashed potatoes, and string beans - all things he had liked as a mortal, all vile to his senses now. Ari was a master of moving his food from his plate to his napkin, and from his napkin to his hand, where the dog was quick to scoop it up. He even took some of the turkey off Alex's plate as he fielded questions.

"So, what do you do, Ari?"

"I'm an accountant. Mutual funds, slow growth investments - that sort of thing. It's actually not very interesting, just moving money around for other people. On the side, I write computer software, though I'm not as good as Alex here."

Alex buried his expression in his wine glass. The wine was rough on his throat, but it was palatable because of the blood.

"And Alex?"

"I just got my doctorate in computer science."

"From Harvard," Ari interrupted.

"Very prestigious," Martha said.

Of course. The specifics had to be changed. Alex was proud of his degree, but he probably would have made the mistake. He swallowed his shame with another sip of wine.

"You must be so proud of him."

"I am," Ari said, and actually looked like he was eating his mashed potatoes. "This is very good."

Alex did as he did, and managed to swallow despite his initial disgust. The regret was instantaneous, and he had to be careful not to trample anyone while running to the bathroom. He lost the one swallow and all of the wine.

"He has a very sensitive stomach," Ari said, back in the dining room. Alex could hear perfectly well how relived they all sounded. "So Miss Elizabeth, I hear you're going to NYU. What program of studies? I think I know some deans there."

Alex was tearing up his emergency blood pack like it was a packaged drink and he was dying of thirst. He barely heard their words, and only remembered as he was about to leave that he should put the pack back in his pocket and not in the bathroom trash bin. He steadied himself and returned to the dining room. "Sorry."

Ari was an expert at avoiding uncomfortable subjects. "Alex, did you take art history as an undergrad?" He knew the answer, of course, but that hardly mattered. He was continuing a conversation with the daughter already in progress.

"One semester, because I needed to fill a requirement. Learned a lot about Grecian busts," he said, to which Ari raised an eyebrow. He counted it as a win. "Some of them are supposed to be really inaccurate."

"Dad wants me to take something other than the humanities as a major," Beth said.

"Your undergraduate degree doesn't matter that much unless you're going into a specific field that requires it," Alex said as he retook his seat. "And even then, you probably need graduate work for serious job qualifications." Now exempt from eating the food, he accepted a glass of water and sipped. This didn't seem to bother his system aside from some minor discomfort.

He could say the dinner passed pleasantly, but it didn't. While trying to appear well and even in a good mood (something he seemed to be succeeding at), he was in agony. It wasn't the hunger so much as the desire, so powerful he was afraid to look at his master for fear of reproach or anything that would set off the vampire. He was genuinely happy only once, when Ari turned down their offer of any after-dinner board game entertainment and insisted on not intruding on them any longer. Alex managed not to stare too hard at Beth and mumble a "Good luck" before leaving. Richard offered them a ride, but he turned it down before Ari could say anything. The fresh air would help him think. That or he might eat Richard out of frustration.

"You did well," his master said, but the hand on his back just made Alex jump. Ari was right; the wind did make him feel cold, but right now he wanted to feel anything but what the vampire was feeling. "And now we can go back to the motel and I can throw up the mashed potatoes. I'm not any better at digesting them; I can just hold them longer."

How could he be so blind? "Do you know what I was thinking? Do you know what she did to me?"

"Yes." He pulled out the motel key to his room. "And it's perfectly natural."

"It's not natural!" He was shouting as he followed his master in and slammed the door behind him. "It's horrible!"

"Can we have this discussion in a few minutes?" his master said, perfectly calm, before disappearing into the bathroom. That left Alex with nothing to do but sit and stew.

He couldn't. He just couldn't. It was wrong, it was insensitive, but he threw open the bathroom door anyway. "I wanted to rape her."

His master registered no surprise. He flushed the toilet and sat down on the cheap mat, his back against the shower stall. "She was very attractive."

"That doesn't make it okay! That isn't the vampire - that's just sick! And it was all I could think about."

"It is the vampire," Ari said. "Blood is sweeter when the prey is frightened - and women being violated tend to be very frightened. On top of that, you would get the physical satisfaction of sex. So combine actual lust with lust and you get a combination difficult for any vampire to ignore." He was so matter-of-fact about it, it was frightening. "You are a predator, and your hunger is now intrinsically connected to your sexual desires, which as you may have noticed, did not disappear when you were brought across. So yes, you will desire to bite beautiful women. And you will desire to have sex with them. The two combined is generally deadly to the prey, so the idea of violating them to heighten your pleasure doesn't bother some of us so much." He added when Alex had no verbal reaction other than a gaping mouth, "For your information, I have a personal line in the sand about it, and like everyone else, mortal and vampire, I set the line and occasionally cross it, then feel miserable afterward. Nobody's perfect about their own boundaries, no matter how devoted to them they may be."

Alex needed to say something, needed to justify any of this to himself. "The vampire is ... it's too evil."

"I don't think the vampire sees it that way. Its nature as a predator is to go for the best possible prey, which happens by whatever evolutionary plan formed us to be a frightened and aroused human. Morality is not the vampire's domain. It's yours - the part of you that is still human." He stood, and left the bathroom. "Humans have their own battles, though they project it onto something outside of themselves, like the devil or their enemies or something outside that would provide their temptation. The difference is we know it's inside of us. How we choose to act on it is still our decision."

Ari went for the mini-fridge and a fresh bottle; Alex sat on the bed and thought. He had not expected this, but so little of his life was expected. "Can I have sex without ... I mean, can it be consenting?"

"Yes. Seduction is actually very easy for us; something about the vampire is very seductive and it makes hunting easier. But she does die at the end, generally. It depends on your self-control. I know very few vampires under a thousand years old who can bite and not drain to the death."

"A thousand years?"

He shrugged. "Depends on your self-control. That's a talent that can be nurtured." Ari opened his laptop. "I don't seem to remember Alex, the sex-crazed grad student."

"That doesn't mean I'm a virgin," he said, as if his master didn't know that. As if he didn't know every last aspect of his life. "Can you please treat me like an adult?"

"You're not an adult," Ari said. "If you want to have sex and not kill, I would say try it with a vampire, but vampire sex is very violent and you'll probably get broken in half. You'll live, of course, but someone who's one can overcome you. But you don't have to take my word for it. You can find out for yourself."

"But you'll just be right." Not that he wanted to have this conversation twice in one evening with his sire. At least this time the vampire was not driving his frustration. "And I'll come crawling back to you."

"Depends on if your back is broken or not." He looked up from the computer. "I'm provoking you, I know. You're not used to being protected, but I am obligated to do so. And there are vampires who would take great pleasure in harming you for the fun of it." His voice was unusually serious. "Everything will come in time, something you have an unlimited amount of. That, I promise you. You just have to be patient."

Alex left the room before he was forced to admit it wasn't something he was good at being.

********************************************

On their last night in Springfield, Ari announced they were going to the zoo.

"What? Why?"

His master was so beguilingly simplistic. "I like the zoo."

"Is it even open?"

"No. It's Christmas and they don't have night hours. Most public places don't have night hours. What, you've never jumped a fence before?" He laughed. "Well, it's fun. Put a jacket on."

Not sure if this was a lesson, a time-killer, or just Ari treating him to some bizarre vampire-child bonding, Alex dressed for winter and followed.

The Springfield Zoo was not particularly large and had almost no offerings for the winter. A sign indicated that it was closed for the holidays and had only a few hours in the winter for the indoor exhibits. Some of the animals were even "taking a vacation" to warmer climates, as the cutesy sign put it, complete with a cartoon of a hippo carrying a beach umbrella. When Alex looked hesitant at the gigantic chain link fence and the barbed wire at the top, Ari grabbed him by his collar. "Try to land on your feet!" And with no warning, he tossed him right over.

His reflexes were incredible. He did land on his feet - rather softly for falling thirty feet, but hard enough that he at least felt it. Ari simply appeared beside him, having flown. He put a fifty in the donation box. "Come on. They have an elephant somewhere and I want to find it before we get caught."

Alex shook his head and ran to catch up with his master. Most of the animals were asleep, in hibernation for the winter, or the cages were empty. A black bear growled at him as he went past, startling him, but if Ari knew, he took no notice. He was long gone down the loop of the zoo path for the outdoor cages, and by the time Alex caught up, he had found his elephant. It was sound asleep in its gigantic caged habit. The sign said it was a Sumatran elephant, born and raised in captivity but originating in the Indian subcontinent. "It says its name is Frank."

"A completely undignified name, of course." His master was actually whispering. Was he concerned about waking the sleeping elephant? "And the climate is completely wrong. They should have it in a heated room. They probably don't have the money."

"I heard zoos were like, bad for elephants." This was really beyond his area of expertise. He could not remember his last trip to a zoo, though he was sure it involved a school trip at some point early in his education. "Then again, I don't think it's good for most of the animals here. Maybe the polar bears. But I don't think - " But his master was gone - right over the fence. "Ari!"

"I'm not helping you over again," was Ari's response as he approached the snoring giant. "Are you a vampire or a mouse?" He put a hand on the wrinkled forehead of the beast with a bigger head than most of his body.

Alex briefly debated the wisdom of going over the fence in the first place, but could not resist the urge to prove himself. However, nothing in his mind could make his feet lift off the ground, and he was stuck climbing the wire fence. It was surprisingly easy, and he jumped down with a bit more grace than his last major fall. "What the hell are you doing?"

"Petting an elephant. What does it look like I'm doing?"

"What if it wakes up?"

"I'm perfectly capable of hypnotizing an elephant. I've done it a number of times. Besides, elephants are that rare breed of animal that doesn't immediately respond to us by going defensive. It senses the vampire, but it doesn't care. It's a fucking elephant."

"How does it sense the vampire?"

The elephant groaned in its sleep, but didn't look bothered by their presence. Ari continued in a hushed voice, "Animals are attuned to sensing predators. An instinct humanity has lost - and in turn, I suspect, animals no longer give humans the time of day as a result, unless they have cause."

"So can I just ask if all vampires are as batshit insane as you are?"

"Very appropriate word choice tonight. And you will find us in all shapes and colors," his master replied. "Alexander gave me an elephant."

There was only one Alexander he could be referring to, and he never spoke of his mortal life unless probed specifically. "...Really?"

"Yes, had it sent all the way from India. His final gift to me before his death. It outlived me - I never found out what happened to it after I was brought across. Went to some king's collection, I suppose. It was grayer than this, I think. Or it may be the lack of light. I don't know." He went right over the fence again, and Alex was a bit faster, but he was still climbing.

Ari was right; the other animals would wake and snarl or growl or baw when they approached. There were no more jumping of alls or touching of animals. In the reptile room, Alex had to laugh as a Burmese python continually knocked its mouth against the glass in an attempt to bite him. "If I stand here any longer I'm going to give this one brain damage."

"He's a predator. You're a predator. Respond." When Alex looked at him, clueless, Ari bared his fangs at the snake, hissing as the vampire came to the fore, and the python decided the back of its tank was suddenly a very interesting place to be. Ari stepped back, swallowing as he visibly struggled to quiet the vampire. It didn't take him long. "I suppose there's a more dignified way to do it, but it works. And it's easier than hypnotism. Dumb animals can be very hard to hypnotize."

"I thought pythons were supposed to be clever."

"Well, yes - for snakes."

The final challenge was their exit, and the fence that stood between them and the rest of Springfield, the legal parts to be trespassing through. Especially when Ari insisted that he try to jump it instead of climb it.

"You promise not to laugh when I fall?"

"I could promise, but I'd be lying."

He growled. "You're sure I can do this?"

"You seem pretty set on falling at the moment. Try to get a running start. Imagine yourself as a bird. Imagine yourself as Yoda. I don't care."

"Yoda couldn't fly."

"You don't know that. Maybe they cut that scene."

He had to try, before his master got the great idea to start talking in the Yoda voice. Alex walked back a considerable distance and released the vampire, who was much better at jumping, making it thirty feet in the air. Unfortunately, the fence was forty-five.

"I hate you so much," Alex said to his master, who was cracking up as he laid on his back on the wrong side of the fence, his face bleeding from the barbed wire. "I'm never buying you an elephant."

"Good. I don't know where I would put it." He lent a hand to help him up. By then, the cuts on Alex's face were already healed. "Again."

He was getting angry, at his own body, the vampire, and a little at his master for being insane. This time he backed up further, let the vampire take almost complete control, and got a flying start. And he cleared it - and crashed very ungracefully onto the dumpster, putting a dent in the top. At least it wasn't open - his only victory of the evening.

"Here." Ari was already at his side with his wrist exposed and torn open with his fangs. "Good job." The blood of the master always healed.


Chapter 11

Part 5 - Aristotle

Fatherhood was such a puzzle.

Aristotle had been a father twice as a mortal, both times to a normal human child who was raised largely by the servants and his wife. Alex was not a child in as many respects as he was one. Like an infant, he needed constant nursing and attention, had no understanding of his own body and instincts, and probably would have exposed himself to mortals a half dozen times by now and done a dozen things he regretted if Aristotle didn't steer him away from those situations. But he was still Alex, with an adult mind and mature expectations for what he could do and how he would be treated.

In a way, Qum'ra's strict traditions made life so simple for both of them. Aristotle was the slave, Qum'ra the master. He had no rights until he earned them, and like a sword on hot iron, the abuse made him stronger. He understood that, though he couldn't face it until Lucius confirmed it. The vampire was a beast that could only be tamed through discipline and force. So far, he had to admit, he had been lucky with Alex. The boy was so malleable that he took the smallest suggestion seriously, and he was clearly afraid to disappoint Aristotle by asserting himself. Alex was still naively desperate to please, as if he could really do anything that would be truly disappointing. No, Aristotle knew all his thoughts, and he wasn't capable of it. He loved him too much.

The feeling was reciprocated. In time it would be problematic, but for the moment keeping Alex on a tight leash through the blood bond was a necessary action. To release him into the wild now, when Alex was reliant on him entirely, would be cruel. No, Aristotle had chosen his path and he would see it through.

Alex didn't know he was doing it, but he played with the link as he drove. Just as Alex could not free himself of it, Aristotle could never fully close it. He was always aware of the existence of his child, his location, and his emotional state - and that was when he was actively trying to shut it down. Aristotle had experienced powerful, cultivated links before, but with other vampires, not his own creation. He couldn't resist the urge to explore it. Alex's conscious mind, as they crossed the state border, was focused on trying to build more farms for his Orcish army on the computer. His unconscious mind was the usual mess of hidden desires, ignored emotions, and things unknown even to him. Lurking in the background was the vampire, never fully sated but momentarily quieted by a healthy meal before their departure. And all the while, he was completely unaware he was there. How blissful was his ignorance. The combination of terrors and pleasure that awaited him as the vampire matured would have terrified Alex. He's not a month old. Let him be a child for a little bit longer.

He knew Alex was increasingly aware of how much he was holding back. Of course, one round of conversations around a major vampire haunt would tell Alex how sheltered he was compared to today's fledglings, all lacking the strong, difficult to form but impossible to destroy bond with their master. But that was the tip of the iceberg. Alex's mind was constantly drifting towards whatever Aristotle tried to hide from him, especially the events since his own conversion to Qum'ra's death - precisely the experiences he didn't want to share. Should he tell him that his master had done everything to destroy his mind, then whored him out to everyone who wanted a favor from the legendary Qum'ra? That he sold him into slavery to the last vampire king, only to buy him back when he discovered how much Aristotle enjoyed the time away from him? Alex had been abused as a mortal child, but only by mortal standards of the time. He still had emotional scars - and physical ones that would never heal - and it made Aristotle all the more reluctant to hurt him, even inadvertently, in an effort to teach him to control the vampire. But it would come, sooner or later, and he would hate himself for it. Until then, he would enjoy every moment that Alex still loved and trusted him.

The American West was such a lovely country. Humanity had not yet succeeded in destroying it, possibly because there was so much of it. If it was not winter, he might have made the trip even longer, but sleeping in the car because of a snowed-out road was not the most idle situation. Doable for him, irritating for Alex. The young vampire panicked at the slightest hint of sun, even a drawn curtain in a motel room, and he had to restrain him and feed him before he would settle. Sometimes Alex wouldn't remember waking at all, but Aristotle would. He could not sleep peacefully with his son so unsettled.

Aristotle's esteem for LaCroix was growing in leaps and bounds. To be fair, Nicholas was a troubled child for his own reasons and LaCroix made no effort to understand Nick's solidly medieval worldview and theology, further widening the wedge between them. Such misconceptions could, in Aristotle's opinion, be solved with a trip to a decent library and a few solid days of reading. The Crusader's concepts of good and evil, divine and unholy, human and demon, were all laid out quite simply by modern medieval scholars for underachieving students. LaCroix simply believed Nick's beliefs, whatever they were, were wrong. The details did not interest him. When their arguments caused Nicholas to appear at Aristotle's door once again, begging for a quick transfer to the middle of LaCroix-has-never-heard-of-it nowhere, Aristotle was tempted to send General Lucius a copy of Medieval Christianity for Dummies. Nicholas' pathos were all laid out on the page, if LaCroix would only read them. Unfortunately, LaCroix was of the opposite, very Roman mindset that his way was superior, all others beneath him, and that a son should always defer to his father's will. It was a very explosive combination, though few vampires took the time to understand it. Aristotle liked to read, so he did. And to be honest, he liked both of them. Both were strong, intelligent vampires he could rely on, even if LaCroix's friendship would come with some price tag that Aristotle suspected Lucius would never have the gall to collect on. If there was some kind of conflict, both of them would undoubtedly be allies. Allies were an important thing to have.

Aristotle insisted they spend one night in the badlands of North Dakota, passing the day in an abandoned ranger station just on the edge of the area closed for the winter. He knew it would be more impressive during the day, but that he could not give his son. Alex, who had never seen anything higher than the topography of Massachusetts in his brief life, was impressed enough. He could run faster and jump higher, even if flying was still a bit beyond him, and the open space gave him a freedom and safety the city could never offer him. Where there were no trees, only stones and sand, he couldn't even accidentally impale himself. His wounds from rough falls and smashing into a rock formation would heal. He was, despite being emotionally and physically bound to his master, freer than he had ever been in his mortal life. Watching him, Aristotle's heart felt lighter than he could remember feeling in centuries.

"I've got to get a skateboard."

"You'll put your eye out."

"That's a B.B. gun." Alex rolled his eyes. "Is all of your information about modern existence from movies?"

"No. Commercials can also be very informative."

********************************************

Aristotle's Lake Tahoe estate - which was technically the proper thing to call it - was not on the titular lake, but it was on one. It was secluded, with only one road in the area and a ramp leading to the house that until a few years ago had still been dirt. He had it paved so the cleaning lady would have an easier drive. He hated dust.

"How many places like this do you have?"

"A bunch?" That was his best guess at the moment. He was more concerned that everything was open and stocked according to his wishes, and the specialist had been in to install the electronic lock to the basement door. "Most I use as safe houses. And I own an island in Greece."

"What's sad is so little of what you just said surprises me."

"I hope it's not sad," he said, passing a trunk off to Alex to haul in and closing the trunk.

"That's not what I meant."

"I know what you meant."

The advantages of the Tahoe location were numerous. The primary one that it was secluded enough for only the most aggressive and desperate vampire to personally seek him out, affording him some privacy without leaving the continent. The second was that with no mortals watching over him and a very stable real estate market, he could leave the place closed up for years, with the important items in the fire-proof basement to survive the Californian wildfires if they drifted too far East. It meant he had a lot more of his collection displayed and not hidden in boxes. He also had a real library here, the kind that needed a ladder (or the power of flight) to reach the top shelves. As he went to check the blood shipment that was waiting for him to sort, Alex disappeared, and he found him in the main library, running his fingers along the spines of the books. "Why don't you have any of your books?"

"You mean Aristotle's writing?"

"Yeah. I mean, what if I want to read any of them?"

"I believe the local bookstore will have a shoddy translation of some pieces of it," he said. "I can't read that stuff. Imagine someone published your third-grade class notes and then scholars spent centuries analyzing them and finding everything that was wrong because you didn't have good instrumentation. Or were drunk when you were finishing that paragraph. Or are being taken out of context because your master burned most of your material."

"I guess I never saw it that way." Still, Alex was curious. He would read them sooner or later. "I read part of The Republic in high school AP History. It was very summarized."

"Plato wrote for publication," he said. "The work that survives is polished. I was mostly making notes for future biologists. I do have a copy of his collection, but it's in the original Greek. Which reminds me." He scanned the shelves and pulled out a Greek primer. "Start learning."

"Why?"

"Because I said so. And because you can't program in Greek if you don't read it. Your memory is perfect. Concentrate properly and you'll find it easy. The grammar is the tricky part."

He left Alex to ponder that as he returned to his own work, a smirk still on his face.

********************************************

The following night, Aristotle stopped Alex before he could reach the fridge. "No." He closed the door. Human blood would just make what was coming taste worse. "Tonight we hunt."

"Where? There's no campers out here."

"That's not the kind of hunting we're doing. Sorry to disappoint. I recommend some sturdy shoes."

Alex was stuck in the common rut of overthinking flying and thus being unable to do it. The simplest way was to force it out of him while teaching him a different lesson.

"I'm going to warn you," he said, "animals are terrible compared to humans. But when you have no other options, you won't starve to death."

Alex, a child of the city, was visibly frightened when they entered the deep woods. "What if I lose you?"

"Follow the link."

"Can I have a flashlight?"

"I gave you night vision and you need a flashlight?" He tried to sound insulted. Alex's night vision would only help him detect life forms, but that was all he needed. "Go get 'em."

"What are them?"

"I don't know. Deer. Bob cats. Mountain lions."

"Mountain lions?"

"Just stay away from bears." He slapped him on the back. "Make me proud." With that, he flew into the trees, leaving his fledgling to his quarry.

It was amusing to see someone so out of his element. In truth, he wasn't, but Alex thought he was. He walked - walked, as if that would get him somewhere - through the brush as his master followed silently above. He could sense Alex's terror, made so much worse by his own heightened vampiric sense. They were meant for the hunt, but Alex grew up in a sterilized environment, so for the moment, they were merely overwhelming.

And there it was. The beating heart of a fawn, not too far off. Alex's instincts kicked into gear without his consent, his eyes already glowing in anticipation. The quivering grad student was gone. This man was a beast, and he was a hungry one. The deer took off when his foot broke a branch, and the chase began.

The fawn was fast, and exceptionally coordinated. It was the prefect prey in terms of challenge, designed to avoid a wolf-like predator like a vampire. Alex was faster and smarter, but the chase took skill and he was still crawling and not walking. When his feet continually gave him away, he leapt into the trees, grabbing a branch to steady him as he closed in on his target.

Aristotle opened the link a little more. It was almost voyeurism, following the feelings of a hunt that were not his but might as well have been for all the sensations he experienced. The vampire rose inside him, but he clamped it down. This was Alex's kill, and he wasn't sure what would happen if he joined him.

The fawn seemed too fast. It was not an easy first target, especially now that it was scared and its tiny heart was beating so fast, but Alex was caught in the hunt and he would track it as far as he needed to. He abandoned the trees entirely and soared over his prey before tackling it, clamping his fangs down on its spine. Caught in the moment, Alex wasn't thinking of much beyond the thrill of the hunt. The fawn was limp when he dropped it and fell to his knees. The ecstasy of the kill was wearing off and the fawn was growing cold, its heart no longer pumping blood.

Aristotle landed next to him, and waited. He knew Alex wasn't satisfied. His appetite was barely whet.

Alex wiped his mouth. "I ... why do I want to wash my mouth out with grass?"

"Because you just ate a fawn. What do you think it eats? The blood's foul, yes, but it's fresh. I know someone who used to drink this stuff bottled. Crisis of conscience."

"I thought ..." But he wasn't really thinking. Too many sensations were assaulting him. "Do all animals taste like that?"

"It varies a little, but not much. It's an emergency meal. And something to do when it's good to get out without bringing in the authorities." He kneeled, and looked him in the eyes. "You want to go again?"

"Yes." Even with the taste, he wanted more. "I want to go again."

********************************************

Alex was more excited for the new year than Ari was, and seemed disappointed that he had no plans. "Sorry, kid. I guess I've just seen too many of them." And he'd turned down a few invitations on the basis of keeping Alex away from very old and very curious vampires. "The holidays that had meaning to me ... well, they don't celebrate them anymore. Also, blood mixes terribly with champagne. Has to do with the bubbles."

"I could never drink champagne. As soon as I was old enough, I was on some med or another that didn't mix well with alcohol."

"You can try just champagne if you want, but you won't like it. I don't have any here. I'd have to get some."

"I'll just believe you on this one."

That did not mean the evening was without liquor. Alex had some lingering desire to watch the Twilight Zone marathon until East Coast midnight, then switch to a classy but oddly ageless Dick Clark celebrating the New Year with a colored ball. At parties, Aristotle was usually wasted by this point, so he'd never actually seen it with full comprehension on how insane and yet obviously concerned with fertility this light ball descending to earth was. Alex did not appreciate the subtlety, having consumed too much blood wine, and was asleep in his lap when the revelry at Time Square really began.

Aristotle left Alex on the couch and wandered to where the remote had fallen, and switched it off. This was the first new year's he could remember in the Gregorian calendar where he was not alone. Even asleep, Alex was still projecting his liquored thoughts so much that Aristotle had to actively work to keep the link closed, and he was very tired. The effort was exhausting in its own way, and the concerns and frustrations of this endeavor weighed him down, if in a good way. One that he wouldn't trade for the world. He finished off the bottle and turned the television back on, but couldn't follow the storyline after missing the first five minutes of the episode. He closed his eyes to Rod Sterling's voice and Alex's thoughts.

Alex was so young and so alive, so eager for every experience his new life could offer him. The fear, confusion, and uncertainty about his new state was beginning to wash away with Aristotle's careful tutelage, and a more self-assured and strident vampire Alexander was emerging. It wanted to hunt, it wanted blood, and it wanted all of the pleasures its senses demanded. Sooner or later, it wouldn't be afraid to take them, whether Alex was truly consenting or not.

Fatherhood. So complicated. Aristotle wondered if humans had a book for this sort of thing.

********************************************

"Ari." Alex had returned from his outing, skateboard still in hand. "I have the mail. There's an envelope with 'Don't you dare ignore this one' written in red on the outside." He put the rest of the mail - magazines, mostly - down on the computer desk. "Fancy envelope."

Aristotle stopped typing and accepted it. "Thank you." It was shaped like a fancy invitation, complete with the heavy, off-white paper. The inside was lined with red sheet paper to contain the invitation, completely embossed and in French. "Yeah, I can't ignore this one. I thought it was next year, but I was wrong."

"What is it?"

"A meeting in LA. The host is Janette DuCharme."

"Janette DuCharme." Alex butchered the pronunciation, but it was a good first attempt. "Sounds sexy."

"You may be looking at the only person to ever turn her down. Though that's not doing her justice. She is very selective. She's also a thousand years old and you're going to show her a lot of respect."

"I'm going?"

"Of course you are." He looked up at his moon eyes. "But you may need to change your expression before I start laughing. And it's actually a very boring meeting of the authorities of the New World and you're lucky that you won't be in the main room but down at the bar."

"Wait. Tell me the Janette rejection story. I have to hear this." He even pulled up a chair, as if he was setting up for a long tale.

Aristotle sighed. "She was still in love with Nick, her ex and my good friend. I could read it in her blood without trying. I couldn't go through with it, and spent the next couple years convincing her it wasn't a rejection of anything she could have controlled. Also it probably would have been pity sex, but I didn't tell her that. If I didn't accept pity sex, I don't think I would ever have it."

"Ari! Gross."

"You asked. And you can never repeat that story."

"Dude, why would I want to? So is this how she invites you to a meeting? What's it about?"

"Every five years, all of the oldest members of the North American Community get together in a semi-legal meeting to discuss different issues in the Community. And, being the guy who placed most of the vampires in their various cities and therefore can be accused of causing all the problems, I have to be there and at least pretend to pay attention."

"Why is it only semi-legal?"

"Because the Council in Egypt is supposed to be the only ruling body of vampires and the Enforcers are the army that enforces that. But they were formed when Egypt was in the center of the known world, and sometimes it's just necessary for more local coordination. So they know about it but it makes them nervous. They send a couple of Enforcers to watch and stare at us." He widened his eyes for effect. "Like this. All night."

"You have to mark your territory."

"That would be a way to describe it." He tapped on the invitation. "It's in three weeks. You might want to get something to wear. Only one of us is old enough and has enough authority to show up in a horribly clashing suit."

"Is this one of those sexy vampire clubs that I would never get into as a mortal and everyone is inexplicably hot?"

"We do adhere to at least some stereotypes. But hopefully some weird half-breed hunter vampire who says cool catchphrases will not show up and massacre us. And if he does, I severely doubt he will have a katana for any reason."

"Maybe we could just invite Wesley Snipes and see how it goes."

"Most vampires don't watch vampire movies," he said. "At least, not as much as we do. Blade 2?"

"Blade 2 sucked."

"It has the guy with the freaky jaw who’s actually scary."

"Not when he uses wrestling moves to fight."

"Fine. Blade. But we're watching the French dub. You have to learn French."

"Fine. I have it memorized anyway."

Aristotle rolled his eyes. Maybe getting out would be good for both of them.

********************************************

"3 ... 2 ... 8?" Alex swallowed the blood in his mouth, his fangs not far from Aristotle's open wound.

"Now you're just guessing. It's four numbers. You can guess on the last number."

His child growled, but bit into his arm again. The vampire was eager for more blood, but Alex's mind was not. Aristotle could feel him probing the link through the stream of blood, searching, but it was more like him hitting a brick wall with a bat. And it wasn't even a strong brick wall. He was just tired. "7. 327." Alex withdrew. "And I don't know what the last one is. Something between 0 and 9. Six?"

"No."

"Five."

"No."

"One?"

"Yes." Instead of holding it open, Aristotle watched his wound heal and rolled down his sleeve. Blood would not give Alex the healing he needed. Rest would.

Alex laid back on the couch, his eyes open but dim. "3271."

"Very good. You want to sleep?"

"No!" he shouted, but not very loud. "I'm barely awake enough as it is, sleeping all day. I want to stay up." But mentally, he was barely holding on. "I want the lazy master who doesn't teach his children how to read other people's blood."

"No you don't. You're just tired. It's one of the hardest things to master, but it's one of the most important. The other is hiding things in your blood."

"I'll never be able to hide from you."

"I'm referring to other people." Seeing Alex was determined to at least make the effort to stay awake, he settled into the armchair and poured himself a glass of blood wine. "It's not going to be like this for you, but when I was a fledgling, anyone could drink my blood. They just needed my master's permission, and he almost always gave it."

"Why?"

"Because he was a bastard." It actually felt good to call him that.

"No." Alex smiled a little. "Why would they want to?"

"I don't know. It was kind of a societal thing. Elders wanted to taste the new members, see why they were chosen to be brought across. I was drained almost every time my master had guests. I was very happy to see that go out of fashion. Now if you were to ask a master that, he would look at you like you asked to go in the back room and molest his kid."

"Did it feel like that?"

"A little. I got used to it, just like everyone else."

Alex finally closed his eyes. "I'm sorry."

"It's the way it was." And he was happy it was over. That didn't mean Alex didn't need his own skills with the blood link, for when he eventually chose to share his blood or take someone else's. The other fledglings these days were so unprepared. Alex would be prepared. He would be able to protect himself. That was what Aristotle said to reassure himself that he was doing the right thing when his son passed out with three hours still left to go before sunrise.

He opened the link, but Alex's mind was unusually dormant, happy to be lost in the bliss of sleep. He picked him up, but even physical contact couldn't rouse Alex as he carried him to his bedroom. In three months, Alex had thoroughly made it his own with what was left of mementos from his life and what internet shopping could offer him. This included a lot of computer equipment, probably more useless external devices than pairs of pants. Greek workbooks and dictionaries were piled up on the dresser. An English copy of The Complete Works of Aristotle, Volume 1 that he thought Aristotle didn't know he owned and Aristotle didn't tell him he knew about was hidden in the dresser drawer.

Alex mumbled in his sleep as Aristotle pulled his shoes off for him. It was amazing how quickly he regenerated, and not just physically. His mind was already racing again, let lose by not having to be awake or controlled by sensory input from the world around him. By nature, his thoughts were still on the memories he received in Aristotle's blood while trying to break down his mental barriers for the number he was thinking of. On the edge was the vampire, never Alex's friend but becoming a part of him, something familiar for him to deal with. The vampire had its own desires, fueled by rage, hunger, and an increasingly sophisticated set of desires that Alex wasn't aware of yet. That was only a matter of time, but Aristotle contented himself with the thought that he would burn that bridge when he came to it.

********************************************

Aristotle and Alex were hunting easy prey that night, normally elusive but quite populous in the area, especially this time of year: the migratory ski bum. Forty miles south of their place was a resort and a considerable number of bars to cater to the temporary residents. Tonight included a special lesson for Alex, of course - how not to freak out in the presence of smoke and a little bit of fire. The school was the hookah bar.

"It is worth it to learn this," Aristotle said before sucking on the hookah pipe and slowly exhaling the smoke. "That is, if they were willing to put hashish in this. This is just tobacco."

"I thought it was like a bong."

"No. It's not good for weed. It's not meant for that, despite what these guys will tell you," Aristotle said as two guys in parkas joined them on the mat. "You have to convert it into a bong, and you can do that with anything."

"Can I have a hit, Gandalf?" the blond one said, but in a friendly manner. Plus Aristotle was wearing a T-shirt with a wolf on it and a non-matching fake army jacket over it. And his goatee was a little on the scruffy side. All right, he would give them that. He passed them the pipe, which brought Alex instant relief. "Why is the apple flavor so good?"

"When I was in Israel," the brown-haired one said, "you could get a pack - and I mean, like, a pack of twelve coals - for like, eight shekels. Less if you were willing to haggle with the guy."

"How much is that?"

"Two dollars," Aristotle answered, very aware of exchange rates, and of the spike in Alex's tension as the blond exhaled a steady stream of nicely-scented smoke in his direction. The vampire would react to smoke and panic at the sight of fire, the ultimate destroyer besides the sun, but Aristotle knew vampires who could smoke, and did, just for the way it made them look. Tobacco had little to no effect on their systems.

"So what are you guys doing here?" the brown-haired one said after taking his turn. "Are you locals?"

"I'm teaching my son how to smoke." Aristotle passed on the pipe to Alex. "But he's being a wuss."

"Ari!"

"You teach your kid how to smoke? What are you, like, the dad from heaven?"

"Total divorce dad. When my parents got divorced, they both spoiled me to win my love. He would buy me grass if he thought it would make me like him better," said the blond. "Or is that like, a sore spot?"

"Step-dad," Alex said. "And I'm not smoking."

"Dude. Hookah smoke is good for you. Didn't you know that? Be cool to cool step dad."

Alex glared at the blond. Aristotle knew his son had picked his dinner, but he also was pleased to see him take a puff. There was barely any smoke in his mouth before he started coughing and dropped the pipe. He bent over, fighting the surging vampire.

"Good try," Aristotle said, taking the pipe from him. "But if you're going to hack it all up, we might as well do something worth your time."

"Are you carrying? Because I would be willing to nominate you for fucking step dad of the year."

Aristotle looked at his son, who had his eyes and mouth closed to hide the vampire on the surface. "Depends. And before you ask, I am not a cop."

Two hours later they were safely back at the house, sated and completely baked. Aristotle was not willing to let good pot go to waste and he knew Alex would just cough it out before he inhaled everything, so he gave it to their dinners instead. They were all too happy to take more than their fair share, not knowing that their fates were sealed. It took longer to fly home because they kept crashing into things. He was so high he agreed to something he would normally never agree to, which was allow Xena: Warrior Princess to be on his television. "No! No, it was nothing like that!"

"What was Aphrodite like then?"

"She was - she wasn't real! But if she was real she wouldn't have been all ..." He waved his hands in the general direction of the screen. "And Ares. Yes, gay. No, leather."

"Ares is so gay because he wears leather."

"Gods don't need clothing! Everyone knows this! It would just get in the way of all of the war god fighting he had to do. A helmet is all you need. Maybe a cloak."

"I don't think this channel is gonna have naked fighting." Alex's eyebrows shot up. "That would be awesome."

Aristotle was unable to stop the mental picture broadcasted through the link. "You have never seen women have sex."

"What?"

"Your picture is totally wrong."

"I have totally seen lesbian porn."

"No! I ban that word from this house!"

"Porn?"

"Lesbian! You cretins have no idea what it means."

"Dude, Ari, not hard to figure out."

"I loved lesbian wine. It was the best."

Alex snorted. "I bet you did."

"Lesbian wine. Wine from the island of Lesbos! Which was a perfectly decent island before someone wrote some stupid poetry while staying there and just ruined the name for all of us."

"You lived on the island of Lesbos?"

"Yes. It's a very nice island and the gay tourism industry has stomped all over its beautiful ecology. Any vampire who asks me to book them a flight to Lesbos gets strangled. Policy. Even Feliks. No one's touching my fucking birds!"

Alex thought this was, like everything else, hilariously funny, and however angry he was at the imagined insult, Aristotle was in no mood to do anything but laugh right along with him.

********************************************

Aristotle very rarely used the private jet. It was ludicrously expensive, even by his standards, and sometimes the mortals in first class were interesting. But taking Alex on a plane with a bunch of mortals for several hours was out of the question. It might be fine, or it might go horribly wrong and he already knew there would be Enforcers in town. So when they arrived on the private tarmac, it was after getting of a G3. They sheltered in a hotel for the day, and Aristotle fussed over every little detail and was worked into a panic before Alex was even awake.

"Don't let anyone seduce you. Even if they say they're an old friend of mine and I'll be fine with it."

"Yes, Master."

"And don't taste anyone else's blood. I don't care if everyone in the room is doing it. You're not doing it."

"Yes, Master."

"And don't drink from communal punch bowls. Bottled wine only. Watch the bartender pour."

Alex rolled his eyes. "Yes, Master."

"And one glass. You can have one glass."

"Yes, Master."

Alex claimed he knew how to tie a tie, but he didn't. Aristotle straightened it for him. "Don't offer your master's name, but tell them if they ask. If they make fun of me because I'm a nerd or a bore or an old man, ignore it. No confrontations."

"I'm not supposed to defend your honor?"

"Absolutely not. If you sense someone is more than five hundred years old, don't initiate conversation. Let them do it. If you get in a situation you don't like, the bartender's name is Miklos."

"Is that Polish?"

"Greek. Modern. The only one who overrules him is Janette and she'll be upstairs. Don't offer anything about me and try not to offer much about yourself. If they're old and worthy of respect, answer politely, but keep it yes or no. If they ask why you're doing that, tell them I said to do it."

"Is there anything I can talk about?"

"The weather."

"We can't feel the weather."

"Doesn't mean we can't talk about it." He straightened out Alex's collar one last time. "You look good."

"You are way more nervous than me. Should I be worried?"

"No. You're Aristotle's child. No one will lay a hand on you."

"Then why the pre-prom behavior speech?"

He sighed. "Because I'm leaving you alone with at least thirty drunken vampires, all of whom are older than you. And I would like to keep my pledge about eternal protection without running down two flights of stairs. A man my age? I could break a hip."

Alex could no doubt sense his apprehension through the link, but wouldn't understand the full extent as to why. He tried to send a calming vibe, to keep Alex from getting nervous, and reminded himself that he had a far more grueling evening tonight. Alex, he said over and over, would be fine. He was young, he was dressed sharply with that adorable bed-head look the kids seemed to be into, and he desperately needed the socializing so intrinsic to vampire society. Aristotle would be the one upstairs, trying to maintain the pretense of caring about the conversation while monitoring him through the link.

It wasn't until they were a block away that he pulled the rental over and put his head down on the wheel. "Fuck."

"Ari?"

"Fuckfuckfuckfuckfuck."

"Did we forget something?"

His anger woke the vampire, but he swallowed that before his fangs could descend. "It's not you. It's not me. There's someone at this thing I didn't know would be here." His eyes were still red when he looked up to Alex's questioning phase. "His name is Marius. He's the head of the Enforcers."

"How do you know he's here?"

"I can sense him." Yes, it was definitely Marius. "Fifteen hundred years ago, we were on the Council together. I stepped down partially over an argument we had, partially because I was terminally bored. A couple hundred years later, he stepped down to form the Enforcers. He's never forgiven me for questioning his judgment in a trial that ended with someone's execution, even though we held the same rank and it was my business to question him."

"He wants to kill you?"

"No, he would never do something that stupid." He was trying not to panic, but he was also trying not to make Alex panic. He shoved the vampire down with more force, and his eyes returned to normal. "It's a long and complicated story that I can't really get into right now without being inexcusably late, but for the last thousand years I've been completely apolitical and done everything short of pledging him my life to show him that I'm willing to bury the past. He's too cynical; he believes I'm still a threat somehow. And he's here tonight. And Janette didn't tell me!"

Alex swallowed. "And you're sure it's him?"

"Yes. When I was on the Council, I had extensive blood bonds to everyone else. They never complete fade. I know he's here and he knows I'm here. And I'm going to do the usual 'I have no problem with you' civil dance I always do when we see each other and it's going to be annoying." He straightened out the car, and parked. "It doesn't affect you, I promise. Fledglings that behave themselves don't show up on his radar. He's playing a larger game." He took a moment to calm himself. "Everything will be fine. Annoying, but fine."

"You're sure we can't ditch."

"We can't ditch. And we don't want to." There was nothing to do but face the music. Marius knew he would be there, yes. Now he knew he was there and that part of it was over. But it had to be unrelated. He'd not so much as taken two wrong steps in the past fifty years. And if the Enforcers had issue with him, they would never make it so public. Janette would never tolerate it. Aristotle reminded himself that he was where he wanted to be, flanked by allies if it came to that. Janette. LaCroix. Elizabeth. Rhea.

It probably had nothing to with him. You're not the center of the universe. "Okay. I'm good. Let's go."

He really, really wanted this night to be over, for all the wrong reasons.


Chapter 12

The nightclub's entrance was remarkably quiet despite the beautiful sign. Despite the flow of people, the signs for 'private party' kept away unsuspecting mortals.

"Take care of yourself," Aristotle said when they were close enough to hear the music from inside, and tapped on his temple. "Big brother is watching you."

"Thanks, Dad," Alex said, and left him for the main club. Alex's nervousness, brought on by the very human social anxieties of being out of his element in a trendy, exclusive bar were almost soothing to Aristotle in that they were so very mundane. Seeing Miklos was behind the bar, Aristotle went to the side with the gated door, which the vampire guard opened for him with a hint of acknowledgment.

Upstairs was a different situation. It was a private party, reasonably well-lit and without any musical accompaniment aside from the slight vibrations from the dance floor. The people - vampires, all several hundred years old or more - were elegantly dressed and talking casually. There were also a great deal more of them than Aristotle expected, but judging from the noise he picked up on the stairway, the other guests were of the same opinion. The gathering was three times as large as it normally was.

Janette, of course, was very easy to find, greeting him with an air kiss on the cheek. "Monsieur Aristotle."

He grinned his very goofy grin, the one that made everyone comfortable with him. He preferred not to be taken seriously unless he wanted to be, and his voice, despite his expression, made it quite clear he wanted to be. "You didn't tell me Marius was coming."

Though her expression also didn't change, her tone did. "I didn't know. He's our Enforcer contingent this year."

"Overdoing it a bit."

"It's not going to be a problem?"

He shrugged as neutrally as he could manage. "I have no quarrel with Marius." He accepted a drink from the passing tray. "I would say you look beautiful, but at this point I think it's redundant."

"I like the glasses," she said. Vampires hated his glasses. It was almost an insult to their senses to see someone humble themselves to wear them. That was the main reason he wore them, as his sight was almost perfect except for very tiny print after many hours in front of a computer screen. These had square lenses and were green, to match his tie - the only part of his outfit that matched.

"Thank you." He sipped his wine and nodded to his host with approval of the drink, then continued down the hallway. At least he was safe from Feliks and Larry, both being too young to attend. And Marius wouldn't show himself until the main event. He checked the link. A terrified Alex was trying to order a drink without any ability to distinguish between the massive wine list. It made him smile, even before he saw the person approaching him. "Nick?"

"Aristotle." Nicholas Lambert was pleased to see him. His eyes always gave him away in that respect, even if his general attitude was one of annoyance. "Meet the Elder of Winnipeg."

"There's a second vampire in Winnipeg for you to lord over?"

"Not that I'm aware, but the invitation came anyway. I thought it was LaCroix playing a joke on me, so I confronted him before Janette."

"I assume it was a terrible idea."

"I really should have called Janette before trashing his studio. Not that he hadn't said some things first to instigate it."

He just nodded, hiding his amusement at the mental image of Nick and LaCroix having one of their infamous battles in a broadcast booth. "Of course."

"Anyway the list got handed down to us by the Enforcers this year, and I was on it. And I think we share the same love of Enforcers."

"They are quite popular. At least in derisive conversation." He added, "And the Enforcer's name is Marius."

"How well do you know him?"

"Too well."

"Does he know about Natalie and Katie? Because they're not here, but I didn't send them packing, either."

"Of course he does. He's the head of the Enforcers. He knows everything about everybody. And he has the decency not to make private issues public. It was cleared with him long ago, I'm sure." At least he could be of some relief to the perpetually-worried Nick. "I don't think his issue is with your rule in Winnipeg."

Nick smiled. "I guess not."

Aristotle sniffed. The odd smell was Nick's drink - cow blood. "You on some kind of moral crusade again or just trying to annoy LaCroix?"

"Annoy LaCroix."

"Ah yes. One of his many talents," Lucien LaCroix said, appearing next them. Aristotle sensed him in the room but hadn't really been paying attention. The Roman had his usual less-than-innocent grin as he put a hand on his son's shoulder. "So you've heard of his recent foray into radio. Fortunately for the ratings, I hear the youth are fond of indiscriminate smashing sounds."

"And curses in Latin. There were plenty of those."

"The FCC obviously is not filled with Classical scholars, as I've yet to receive a fine," LaCroix said. "Aristotle."

"LaCroix." It was polite not to call him Lucius in public. They actually shook hands, which was a relief to Nick, because it meant LaCroix wasn't touching him anymore. LaCroix's other hand, like everyone else's, held a drink. "I am a bit surprised to see you, with your current schedule."

"If I could have gotten out of this, I would have."

"Something we can all agree on." LaCroix liked to socialize, but he did not like structural gatherings where he was not clearly on top. He did not believe in any sort of democratic or shared-power system, which notoriously put him at odds with the Council. The Council had five members, which in LaCroix's very Imperial opinion was four too many. He preferred to be left alone in his own territory, and his main contact with the Community hierarchy involved smoothing over some incident concerning Nicholas. And since Nicholas was in Winnipeg, behaving himself as an archaeology professor, LaCroix had been in a good mood for the past few years - something to be savored in its rarity. "We really must get together - a sort of family reunion. You do owe me."

"Only in one respect." He remembered his promise. "His name is Alexander."

Nick was trying really hard not to laugh. "Everyone thinks Larry made that up."

He hid his expression by taking a drink. "It's just a happy coincidence."

"Don't mock parents with infants," LaCroix said to Nick with a mock- serious voice. "They're very anxious. Lack of sleep, constant worrying about health, all sorts of stresses. You of all people should be sympathetic."

"You were kind of a nervous wreck when you gave me the adoption papers," Aristotle said, trying to steer the conversation to Nick's kid instead. "And you were missing hair."

"Having a baby in neo-natal for three months will make you tear some strands out. If you have any left to tear."

Aristotle ignored the jibe. Nick had a right to it. He was there when Katherine was born, three months premature in the ambulance to the hospital after her parents were fatally stabbed. He was the officer on the scene, and it gave him and Natalie an edge in the adoption system, which they insisted on doing legally, to Aristotle's amusement at the time. "Well, I'm going to go talk to someone who is capable of a sustaining a normal family relation. Nick, nice to see you here. We should get together sometime."

He didn't wait for the look on their faces. LaCroix would be insulted and Nick would need a moment to digest it before he was amused, and that was how Aristotle wanted it. He could name everyone in the room, of course, and where they lived, and except in a few cases, what the documentation in their wallets said about them. The New World, as America was still often called, was not known for its large population of Ancients. He was the oldest person in the room, and most of the room didn't know that, or if they guessed, would do better than the average vampire but not be close. Over the years, he acquired the art of tuning his aura to someone vampires would sense to be six, maybe seven hundred years old - old enough to have authority in the New World and be trusted, but not someone to lord over them. Few noticed he always stayed that age.

"Aristotle."

He nodded. "Rhea." It was the Elder of Pittsburgh, who to his knowledge was still housing Peter Lazarus' strays. That or they were dead. It was even money.

"I suppose it would be useless to ask if you'd seen Peter."

"More useless than usual."

"I know. You know, Larry can't do half the job you can do."

"Larry's not supposed to be doing half the job. It's supposed to be a team of five. I suspect at least two have been shirking the job."

"You will have to introduce me to the reason."

Everyone knew, of course. It wasn't something he bothered to keep secret, as it would explain his absence, but the details he realized were incredibly sparse. "Meeting intimidating elders is a bit low in the list of important things for him to be doing at the moment."

"Do you consider me intimidating?"

"If I was three months old and had a grain of sense, yes. Besides, it's a good leadership quality."

"I'm an Elder in the New World. Sometimes I wonder." She rolled her eyes in the direction of the latest entrance, being made by Constantine, the Elder of Las Vegas, whose vampire population was constantly in flux but was, at peak times, the largest in the States. In life he'd been a clerk in Constantinople, brought across during the Fourth Crusade when a fleeing Mamluk who was a fan of irony and took pity on him. After being kicked around by the various European Elders, he was one of the first to find a permanent residence in America. Unfortunately, freedom hadn't taught him much responsibility or how to tone down his image. He remained in charge because of his age and because he was exceptionally good at finding places to hide bodies.

Constantine entered with a female thrall on each side. The two of them removed his fur coat as they departed, and he raised his drink to the room in general.

"Power's gone to his head."

"As it inevitably does." Though Constantine did nothing but throw cheap insults at Aristotle when he spoke with him, there was nothing threatening about him and he was good at controlling the populace in Las Vegas and not leaving messes for Aristotle to clean up. Ergo, Aristotle liked him, if from a distance.

"Aristotle." But the voice was soft, and to his side.

He responded by kissing Elizabeth Beckham on the cheek. "Elizabeth. Slipped in while Constantine was putting on a show?"

"Actually, I got held up by Marius. You know he's here, I assume."

"I haven't seen him yet, but I don't need to." He also knew Marius wasn't in the room, but not from looking. "How is he?"

"Still a jerk. What's he doing here?"

"Let's hope for the best, that he's just expecting us to cower in fear."

"Not all of us like doing that."

"I don't like it," he said. "I'm just good at it."

She softly nudged him. "So. How's Alex?"

"Doing very well, I think. Not to credit myself too much." He shook his head. "It is exhausting if you do it right."

"You could write a book."

"No. Someone else could write the book and help me the fuck out." He looked up. "And there comes Marius."

Marius could be considered elegant if he didn't put so much effort in looking daunting. Like his Enforcer minions, his color was black, though he had a silver tie on, complimenting the shiniest of the perfect Caesar cut on his black, Roman hair. He was probably in his mid-thirties or a bit later, having risen all the way to General in the Roman Empire in what Lucien LaCriox considered the "shoddy" third century of the empire. When Aristotle sat on the Council with him, he was the youngest member but threw his weight around like he had six extra centuries - and very successfully, that. That said, he was not much for rhetoric or debate, Aristotle's two favorite things in the Council chamber, which made for a very bad match. Aristotle's main problem with him was he didn't understand the difference between a debate and an argument. The subtleties of speech eluded him while Aristotle was notoriously silver-tongued. Aristotle's many-faceted attempts to bury the hatchet with Marius only seemed to further the other's case against him as an irritating gadfly.

Very few people other than Janette were actively approaching him as he made the rounds, but he expected it. He looked Aristotle in the eyes as he passed. "Aristotle."

Aristotle nodded neutrally. "Marius."

"Shall we begin?" Janette said, the reluctant master of ceremonies, and they agreed.

 

Part 6 - Alexander

Alex watched the dance floor from his table on the platform, trying to keep the link from broadcasting to Ari how desperately terrified he was.

The stereotypes were right. Vampires were barflies - the sexy kind - and they were all so much cooler and more sophisticated than he was. They dressed better, they had smooth things to say when he listened in, and then even walked better. It was like they glided between each other without actually flying. The humans in the room, all thralls for tonight, had beating hearts that pulsed against the vibrations of the dance music. There were dozens of side rooms with velvet interiors, and more than a few vampires disappeared back there, and no one dared to disturb them. He was utterly out of his element, and he knew it. And he felt like they knew it. Not because he was a little kid to them (though maybe they thought that too), but because he wasn't cool enough, wasn't sexy enough, wasn't daring enough to initiate conversation. This was his senior year of college all over again. It was the only year he had a girlfriend, who took him downtown to hit the bars the day he turned twenty-one, and what he remembered of that night was embarrassing. He couldn't look her in the eyes for a week. It was Yale, so he was protected, but these people did not look like people who went to Yale. They looked like people who were popular in high school for their looks and then went on to successful careers at firms that traded things. The guys had muscle. He did not. He was still a self-conscious little shrimp, even as a vampire. Some things never change.

"Hey! Do I have to shout?"

"Apparently," he said before he stopped himself, and looked over his shoulder as the girl joined him at the table. "Uhm, hi."

She was blond, and she was beautiful. Well, not swimsuit model, but she had that undead pallor that was so seductive on women because it made their skin perfect. Her hair was long and in curls, somewhat controlled by a scrunchie. "Sorry. You have the saddest look on your face."

"I am pretty sad."

"It's cute," she said, and he blushed. "I'm Amanda."

"Alex."

"Are you stuck here because you escorted someone to the bigwig meeting upstairs?"

"Kinda." He shrugged. "Not really escorted. He just told me I was going. Said I needed to get out." He liked talking to her, if only because she didn't have a racing heartbeat to entice him. He could actually talk to her - like a human being to a human being, because neither of them were human beings. "Sorry. I just - you know, I would never get into one of these places when I was mortal, and now I suddenly have to go, and I don't know what to do."

"You're supposed to dance. Or get plastered. Either one."

"Neither is really a good option. Take my word for it." He looked down at the table, his drink still mostly untouched.

"You know, you do belong here. This is not a club about style, even though the owner is like a fashion diva or whatever. This is a haven for vampires. Some of us live here."

He looked up at the word vampire. Somehow he expected other people wouldn't say it, like it was as secret as they were. "You live here?"

"I don't have any other contacts in LA, and I can't go back to New York after this whole ... thing ... so Janette lets me stay. There's a whole complex downstairs."

He wanted to ask where her master was, but stopped himself. Everyone here acted like they didn't have masters. "Nobody ... like, asked you to do this on a bet, right? Or Miklos told you to do it?"

She looked insulted. "No, I did it of my own free will."

"Sorry." This time, he took a sip of his wine. "I had that experience a couple times."

"Not tonight?"

"No, not tonight. Everyone's been cool."

"Because you're one of us. Whether you like it or not."

He smiled. "I do like it. Most of the time."

"So. Where are you from?" She added, "You can just make up a place. Or you can tell the truth. Everybody kinda goes half-and-half on it I think."

"Massachusetts." It was, until his death, his home. "You?"

"San Fran. New York was awesome, and it was supposed to last longer than it did, but things happen. I had this whole thing set up, and instead of ten years I got one. Aristotle was really understanding," she said.  "Why are you laughing?"

He saw no reason to hide it. "Aristotle's my, you know, dad."

"Really?" But she didn't jump all over it with requests like he thought she would. "My master is nothing like him."

"What's he like?"

"Like most of the people around here. Young. Devoted to the bar scene. He's been in Paris for a few years now, but he says it's getting crowded."

She must be older than she looked. He reminded himself that everyone was except him. "So you're ..."

"Thirty. Just counting vampire years."

"I was going to say, you don't look thirty."

"I'm twenty-seven."

"Twenty-four." He might as well get used to saying it. "And four months."

"And you've never been in a bar before."

He squirmed. "Not this type of bar."

"You get used to it really quickly. I was some kind of commie flower child mix. I wouldn't be caught dead in one of these downer, capitalist pigsties. I had a boyfriend who had me convinced that alcohol is the opiate of the masses and the bourgeoisie stays in charge because they charge so much for it. I didn't wear makeup, I didn't wash my hair ..."

"Do you wear makeup now?"

"No. But I wash my hair. And dropped the whole commie-wannabe thing."

"Vampires are kind of aristocratic. It doesn't really work."

"My G-d, yes. It's worse in Europe. I was only there for a few years, but everyone has their place, if you know what I mean. If you're under a hundred they don't give you the time of day."

"I heard it used to be like that everywhere. Before Columbus discovered America. Or the Vikings discovered America, if you want to count that. I don't know if any vampires came over with the Vikings."

"I know a guy whose master was Incan, so maybe. She died before she said anything about our kind, pre-Columbian. If I really wanted to know, I would ask ... well, your dad, I guess."

"He does know a lot of old stories but part of his job is not to tell them."

"If you asked him about the Incan priestess, could you tell me his answer? It's okay to say no. I just want to know."

"If he knew the answer, he would tell me, but I don't know if I could tell you. If it's not about someone's passport I guess it's not a big deal, but you never know. Like, I have no idea what they're talking about up there. He just said it's really boring." He checked the link, and Ari was hard to read, but he was there, if very involved with some conversation. It was comforting.

"I'm sure it is."

 

Part 7 - Aristotle

Aristotle understood why some people preferred to stand. It was basic psychology: the taller person was superior. LaCroix would always stand, unless he was intentionally mocking someone by attempting to appear unconcerned with their petty grievances. If no one sat, it wouldn't work, and it would look ridiculous with the chairs around. Some vampires liked to express their independence by doing whatever they pleased; Aristotle found himself in that group, even though his sneakers were probably the most comfortable shoes in the room to stand in. The agenda, as usual, was written, but he had it on his palm pilot anyway - or he pretended he did, and opened the solitaire program.

All the opening material was very mundane: blood banks, issues with different wine distributors, some behavioral trends in fledglings. It was as if they forgot Marius was there. Unlike the usual Enforcers that arrived, he wasn't making his presence known. Aristotle was the only one constantly aware of his presence, because he couldn't feel otherwise. He distracted himself by occasionally fielding questions about logistics and checking in on Alex. His son had found someone to introduce him around, that fledgling whose sire sabotaged her New York club last year, and he was actually happy. Aristotle was happy for him. He was happier for him than he was for himself.

Marius was bothering him, more than he expected his presence was. It made no sense. Nothing on the agenda was even remotely interesting, even to the Enforcers. Their presence was a matter of establishing authority, and required drones. Marius was not a drone. He was one of the busiest vampires in the world and he had better things to do than this. There was a reason he was here, and he was drawing it out, until they were all ready to be done with the meeting, when they wouldn't be at their peak. As he thought this, Marius looked him right in the eyes - not for the first time in the evening, but as if he was reading his mind. Aristotle knew that he couldn't, but it was unnerving all the same.

"If your local business is concluded ..."

"Yes," LaCroix said. He was sitting, actually, and he was one of the few old enough to speak against an Enforcer and ex-Councilman, "Why don't you relieve us of the suspense as to why you have graced this ship of fools with your presence?"

At that very moment, Aristotle liked Lucius. A lot.

"Well, now that Lucius has invited me into the conversation," Marius said, even though he had never been uninvited, "I am sorry to be the bearer of some difficult news."

Aristotle rolled his eyes. As if he came to give them all conversion day cards.

"The Council is debating a measure to deal with these ... fledgling problems that seem to be increasingly problematic to the preservation of our Community. Of course, the matter remains undecided, and they felt it might behoove you all to know about it now." He paused for drama. "A condition would be added to the Code where all new fledglings would be presented for approval to the Council."

Marius looked surprised at the downpour of murmurs and some curses, as if he could have expected anything else.

"May I inquire," LaCroix said over the din, his voice acting with its usual supremacy as a silencer, "as to what would happen if the then- turned mortal were to be found disappointing in some fashion, earning the Council's disapproval?"

"For the safety of the Community, they would be destroyed."

Now they weren't just murmurs - they were shouts. Among themselves, yes. Not to Marius just yet. It was too shocking and he was still too intimidating a presence.

"It's impossible," Constantine was the first to say. He was the bravest of them. "We wouldn't have any children if we had to have them all approved first."

"They could be approved after they were created. One has to account for 'accidents.'"

"And all unfavorable 'accidents' would be destroyed?" Even Nicholas was angry about this. "When? A month, a year after their creation? How does massacring children solve our problems?"

"It would be a logistical nightmare," Aristotle said, scratching his beard.

"Hmm?" Marius was very interested in what Aristotle had to say, even though he was one of the few people in the room not currently ruling any domain. "Do you wish to lodge a complaint?"

"It's not so much a complaint as a statement of a fact," Aristotle said. "Most vampires these days have never been to Egypt and never would go unless summoned, and I doubt the Council would come to them. In other words, the Council would finally have to get a phone line. Possibly a fax." He shrugged. "While you're at it, you might as well just thread an Ethernet cable through the desert. How many thralls would it take to keep that line secured during the day? I assume there's no wireless access in the Valley of the Kings, and yet they would need a direct way to get in contact with us - anywhere, at any time."

"Unless you assigned representatives to make the decisions on behalf of the Council," LaCroix said, "which I believe would require a considerable strengthening of your forces, if I'm not mistaken."

"The Enforcers' numbers are based solely on the requirements of the Community, and increase and decrease depending on the current status. Since this measure would control the vampire population, one could logically conclude that the eventual number of Enforcers would go down, not up."

Assuming no one revolts, Aristotle thought, and he was sure he wasn't alone with that sentiment. But the matter is still open. How can the Council not know that we'll contest the whole idea? Are they really that removed from modern society?

"Have something to say, Aristotle? Aren't you in charge placing fledglings?"

Why are you baiting me? "Only if they need new identities. And that's a job-and-a-half. If there's going to be someone assigned to make sure all new vampires get to meet the Council's representatives, I de-nominate myself for the position before anyone can dare to nominate me." He decided not to break Marius' glare. "Also it's completely unfeasible and you're intelligent enough to know it."

"I am just the messenger."

"I believe there was a time they were shot." He knew it was a mistake before he said it. The room went silent. "Right, right. Enforcers have no sense of humor."

Fortunately, Marius was either in a forgiving mood or just too involved in the crowd around him. "I assure you all current fledglings will be grandfathered in to the old system, Aristotle." He turned to Janette. "I have been a terrible guest and you a wonderful host. As I have nothing to say beyond delivering this message, I will leave you to debate how you wish to proceed with the Council." He gave his card to her. "You will probably feel less inhibited in voicing your feelings without me. I understand the sentiment and will respect it. Good evening to you all."

He stepped out of the room, never taking his eyes complete off Aristotle.

"I have to go apologize, don't I?" he said to Nick, who would be the most sympathetic.

"Yes, I think you do."

"And make sure he leaves," LaCroix said. "We have a lot to discuss."

Irritated with his own behavior and finding the room too tense for so many reasons, he decided to let the 'Elders' talk amongst themselves. He'd already stated his opinion on the matter. He satisfied himself with that and caught Marius on the stairs. "What the hell was that about?" Even he wasn't entirely sure if he was referring to the new policy or Marius' behavior towards him. "You could have guessed my opinion on your ridiculous decision."

"My decision? You know very well I don't make decisions for the Council anymore - and neither do you. But they will be happier if we talk somewhere else."

He had to obey LaCroix's request. Tired, he accepted a glass from the passing waitress and followed Marius into the private room. "Stop acting like you're not the one spearheading this initiative," Aristotle said after shutting the soundproof door. "It would double your forces and give you complete control over the vampire population. And you talk about accidents - half of the vampires in that room were 'accidents.' You were an 'accident.'"

Marius gestured for him to take a seat and he did, but only because Marius was drinking. The master Enforcer even undid his tie. "And you were a flight of fancy. The difference?"

"You know very well the difference between a planned conversion and an act to save someone's life. If we only had planned conversions, we wouldn't have another generation of vampires. No one does it anymore."

"You do yourself a disservice."

He tried to pretend he wasn't insulted at the implication that he was being watched. "Surely you have better things to do with your time than make sure one graduate student makes it across."

"You're right. I do. Forgive my interest in the life of a former colleague." Marius took a sip from his own drink, the first of the evening. "You always wish to bury the hatchet - as your American friends would so eloquently put it, though I don't quite understand why hatchets were buried. I am willing to do so."

"And in return I will support your ridiculous measure."

"It isn't my measure and I don't expect that from you. Quite the opposite, but you won't act against the Enforcers or the Council. You're too smart. I only have one favor to ask of you, and you'll find in comparison to what is being asked of the Community, it's rather small."

"What?"

His reflexes should have been faster, fast enough to dodge the bullets from the gun, but then again, Marius was head of the Enforcers for a reason. Aristotle looked down at the half-dozen tranquilizer darts in his chest. He had no words - in fact, his mouth didn't seem to be working.

"Sleep," Marius ordered, and fired his last round for good measure as Aristotle blacked out.

 

Part 8 - Alexander

Alex didn't mean to spit out his drink. The action was too spontaneous to prevent, but fortunately most of it hit the table and not any of his new friends.

"Jeez, Alex, swallow."

They were in a private room - him, Amanda and Jimmy. The door was still open, but they wanted to get away from the music. So many hours of the steady beat was irritating to their systems, they decided. Jimmy was also late-twenties - but really ten years old - and his master had an apartment uptown. He had been, at some point, a DJ, and still occasionally was, though his music did not suite Janette's tastes and he played in other venues. He deeply resented the fact that his tattoos faded after a day and required constant reapplication.

But Alex didn't care about any of that now. "Something's wrong." He probed the link, but it was unusually quiet after a burst of activity too quick for him to make out. "Give me a moment." He lowered his head, putting his hand over his eyes, and blocked out as much of his other senses as he could to focus on the link.

Ari did not respond to his pleas for attention. He was sleeping.

"Something's happened." He stood. "Something happened upstairs - no, downstairs."

"Did you hear something?"

Ari told him the younger masters didn't know how to create links with their children, who only knew if their masters were alive or dead and usually not much more. "I felt something from Aristotle." He put his jacket back on and ran to the bar. "Miklos, I need to speak to someone upstairs."

"It is a closed meeting. I can't help you."

"Something bad has happened. I know it. I just want to speak to Aristotle."

"Why don't you call him?"

Annoyed that the Grecian vampire might actually be right, Alex opened his phone and dialed Ari. It rang for several seconds before going to voicemail. He growled and redialed, only to immediately get the voicemail this time. The phone was shut off.

"Something's really wrong. Please, you have to let me upstairs."

"That is not my decision. The door only opens in one direction."

"Can you call up?"

"They will not answer. I am familiar with these meetings, Alexander. If something was wrong, they would know it. Sit down and relax. Either there will be a commotion or it will be settled. I am sure of it."

He was about to scream otherwise, but Jimmy and Amanda dragged him away before he could attack the bartender. Miklos was right in one respect - he had to settle down. Panicking just because Ari was possibly taking a nap was downright undignified. "Get off me."

"Jeez." Jimmy released him. He was so much stronger than him, but he was older. "Sit down. Have a drink. He's probably right."

"He's not." But he did sit, and he did finish what was left of his drink, which was not much. "Something happened to Aristotle."

"You just know?"

"I just know. I'm linked to him." He tapped his head. "I can't read his thoughts, but I can tell if he's around, and sometimes, what his mental state is. And he went from nervous to sleeping in like, one second."

"Can he do that to you?"

"He can read all of my thoughts." Saying it out loud made him very self-conscious, especially around people his age. He looked to their expressions, but they weren't overly shocked or disapproving. "It's an old way of bringing someone across. It has advantages."

"My master said his master could go in his head before he died, but I didn't really listen," Amanda said. "He only mentioned it once and I could tell he was trying to intimidate me. I knew he couldn't do it to me."

"How old is Aristotle?" Jimmy had the courage to ask.

"Old." He put down his glass, trying to focus on his master, trying to find some connection that would reassure him that he had overacted, and everything was fine, and he was just too young and weak to understand. His eyes drifted upwards. "ADT."

"What?"

"They have ADT." He stepped over the table and climbed up on the couch next to Jimmy. "The security system. Fire and burglar alarm. The box here is a motion sensor." He pointed to the plastic knob quietly situated in the corner, far above their heads. "I recognize the brand. I spent a summer working in a van, installing them in people's homes in New Haven."

"While that's an interesting observation, I don't think Janette would appreciate you pointing it out to guests," Amanda said. "People don't like to know they're being watched."

"It's not a camera. Just a motion detector. And it's not turned on because the club is open. Otherwise it would be going off." He checked the link yet again. He was not used to the sensation of his master being asleep, as he'd never seen him actually sleep, but it was his best guess as to what it was. He knew Ari only needed a few hours, and took them in the middle of the day - never at night. Vampires had trouble sleeping at night. And during important meetings. "I'm giving it ten minutes, and then I'm going to the car."

"What's in your car?"

"I'll let you know in ten minutes."

********************************************

Twelve minutes later, Alex had had enough. He checked with Miklos no less than three times before giving up. The bartender really had nothing for him, and he was right - the door to upstairs was locked from the other direction and they weren't answering the phone when he finally convinced Miklos to call.

But his master wasn't upstairs. His master was down, not up. Not very far, but down. He could find him if he concentrated, and if his path was unobstructed. And he still wasn't answering through the link and his phone, beeper, and emergency pager were all turned off, even though he never turned them off.

Amanda followed him to the car while Jimmy covered for their absence. "You can't do this. Janette will kill you."

"I don't care." How could he explain that he didn't care about anything at that moment but his master's safety? That he would do anything and everything to get to him? Instead he just opened the trunk. "If you don't want to be involved, I understand. If you do, grab the toolbox for me. The smaller one. It's blue." He moved to the side door and opened it, picking up his laptop from where it was buried under a jacket on the backseat. When he returned, she had the toolbox, and he closed the trunk. "Thank you."

"Did he design you to be crazy?"

"No," he said. "I just care about him." More than he could possibly define. "Do you know where there's a keypad for the system? There has to be at least a few of them. They're probably by doors."

"Is this your only idea?"

"I can trip the fire alarm or I can set a fire. Take your pick."

She hesitated before answering. "There's a keypad by the emergency exit behind the private rooms, but I don't know the code."

"Depending on how old her system is, I won't need one."

"And your plan is to tell everyone what we're doing by tripping the alarm?"

He started the walk back and let her catch up. "If the fire alarm goes off, what do you think happens? Everyone leaves. And then we establish why my master is taking a nap at one in the morning."

"You're the one who knows about arcane vampire rituals."

"Sleeping is not a ritual. It's sleeping. And it's what he's doing." And there was no way he would be stopped, now that he had a plan. He would tear the place apart to get to Ari. He was sure of it.

Trying to look as inconspicuous as possible, they waited until Miklos went behind the bar to restock before taking their stuff to the private rooms, and Amanda showed him the emergency exit. Beside it was a wall-mounted keypad. Alex pulled up a chair and turned his laptop on. "Screwdriver. The little one."

Jimmy opened the box and handed him one. "This is a really bad idea."

"Probably," he said, "but it's still the best one I have. Amanda, can you kinda grab my arm and hold it still? I have to heave a really steady hand to not trip its security system now."

"I thought that was what you wanted."

"Not yet. I need to pop the case first, and it's sensitive." He felt Amanda's hand on wrist, a calming force. Unlike a mortal, her skin was the same temperature as his, and he couldn't smell the blood coursing through her veins. He swallowed and began to unscrew the casing, something he was more accustomed to doing in broad daylight and without his hand shaking. With the last screw, he slowly pried the cheap plastic case off, revealing the layers of wires that were hooked to the buttons and the screen. "Okay. Great. Now I should be able to find some kind of schematic for the alarm system from my old files, if they're on this computer. If not, it'll be more of a guess from memory." Fortunately it was his old laptop, and though Ari had deleted his person records, he'd left his programs untouched, including very old ones. There was something to be said for wearing a laptop out by holding onto it for years. "Got it."

"I don't know the code," Amanda reminded him. "And I don't think I could guess."

"Then I'll have to do it manually. Jimmy, there should be wire clippers in there. If there's two pairs, I need both, or we're going to have to find something else."

There was only one pair of wire clippers, but a pair of scissors would suffice for the second set. "Are you sure about this?"

"The worst thing we do is disable the alarm system altogether, and it shouldn't be this easy to do it. We have to snip the wires at the same time - these two. I think."

"You think."

"It's an estimated guess," Alex said, positioning the clippers. "If you want to look like you weren't involved in this, now might be the time to walk away."

Neither of them moved.

"Wait - vampires don't melt in water or anything, do they?"

"No," Amanda answered. "Why?"

All he said was "good" and snipped both cords. The wail of the fire alarm was instantaneous. They covered their ears and Alex covered his laptop and put it under the chair, just in time to avoid being drenched as the house sprinklers turned on.

"We really don't like fire, so I guess this is better!" Amanda shouted as they returned to the main room, where the confused and increasingly wet crowd was scattering to find shelter or leave altogether. "Do you have a plan for what happens next?"

"Yes. I find Aristotle!" he shouted back. "If the Enforcers kill me for this, thanks for everything!" He had no time for her response or Miklos' confused glare as he ran past the bar to the side door, the one leading to the stairs. He did not reach the doorknob to try for himself before two vampires he didn't know came rushing through from the other side, opening the door for him. "Thank you!" They were oblivious as he rushed passed them. They were coming from upstairs, but he was fairly sure Aristotle was downstairs. He paused to concentrate on the link, already so hard to follow with Ari unconscious, before someone shoved him back into the main club. "Hey." The vampire was instantly to the surface. "Get out of my way."

The man all in black grabbed him by his arm, clutching so hard as to break bone. "Who the hell are you?"

The pain made the vampire angry, and he just snarled. When the other vampire easily flipped him over, nearly tearing his shoulder off in the process, he realized it was the wrong thing to do. His concerns about his master were lost as he hit the dance with such force that either his back or something shattered beneath him. Probably both, he guessed before he blacked out.


Chapter 13

Part 9 - LaCroix

The evening was quickly went from bad to worse, but Lucien LaCroix was ready to declare it a disaster when he caught his favorite child bashing the leader of the Enforcers over the head with a barstool.

Really, these things were much better when they were boring. He wouldn't be caught dead (or dead-er) saying that, but it was true. Having the Enforcers present was always unpleasant, but Marius' appearance sent a chill up even his spine. If he was an ordinary vampire, Marius would have been worthy of note, but not a threat. He was younger than him, but only by a few hundred years. More importantly, he was from a much younger and weaker bloodline than Lucius Divius. But none of that mattered because Marius was not only a former Councilman but the founder and current leader of the Enforcers, and a former Roman general to boot, even if he hadn't been an especially good one by LaCroix's rather high standards. No matter: Marius was still possibly the most powerful vampire alive, in terms of sheer political influence. He wielded the power of the Council, who must have known they were growing increasingly irrelevant as they remained in their complex in Egypt, cut off from modern society and its complexities. On the ground were people like Marius and Aristotle, visible and aware of the requirements of the modern age, and the sort of vampires it produced. Of course, nature was not without its sense of humor, because the two were constantly at odds. Their very nature would allow nothing else. Aristotle was a pacifist, willing to concede anything and accept any insult except one to his intelligence, and even there he was reluctant to give himself the credit he deserved in order to keep the peace between himself and other vampires. Marius was smart and clever, but lacked the shining brilliance of his elder, and deeply resented Aristotle for it, making up for it in sheer will and actual use of force. They played the game so subtlety that LaCroix doubted half the people in the room knew they disliked each other so much before Marius so obvious baited him tonight.

Of course Aristotle would oppose the absolutely ridiculous addition to the Code, though he would take the path of least aggression and merely point out how unfeasible it was, and everyone would know he was correct. If Aristotle said something couldn't be done, he was probably right. LaCroix idly wondered during the meeting if the measure really existed, or Marius was playing some game, either with Aristotle or with the entire contingency of New World vampires, who were so far away from people who could confirm his story.

Normally a cornered Aristotle would make for an amusing evening, but not when Marius was involved. In the ensuing conversation after their departure, LaCroix almost wished to be a fly on the wall for their conversation, no doubt bringing up all sorts of old grudges and slurs. It would more enlightening than watching the younger ones squabble over how to go about protesting the measure without upsetting the Enforcers and getting themselves killed. The answer, obvious to him at least, was to contact the Council directly and verify the story before any further movement, but that didn't keep people from heading into dangerous speculation. Downright treasonous speculation, actually, which he wanted no part of. So he said nothing, and sipped his wine until it was filled with water from the sprinkler system.

Though LaCroix considered himself quite observant, the chain of events that followed would have been hard to follow if he didn't have the duty of making sure his son and daughter were safe. Janette tried to calm everyone, of course, and Nicholas sprung into 'I am a police detective' mode and went to investigate. The fire alarm was going off, but there was no smoke, and no one sensed fire. From the screams downstairs they knew the younger populace wasn't taking that chance and going right ahead with the fire-induced-frenzy, however safe and very wet they now were. Which all would have been something that was at least only a cause for momentary alarm until Marius appeared.

Apparently one couldn't stay invisible in a rainstorm.

The Enforcer did not offer explanation for his sudden appearance in a room he claimed to have vacated half an hour ago. He flew away with the rest of them, and LaCroix shrugged at Janette's expression. "Perhaps we should find out why the alarm's going off in the first place."

As if his life would be that simple. When he reached the bar, it was well behind Nicholas, who for some reason had taken the initiative in engaging the departing Marius - from behind, with the nearest available weapon in a stool. A metal rod to his head would simply irritate the Enforcer, but when he turned around, LaCroix was there to give him a glare of disapproval, the best one in his arsenal. If he stayed to kill Nicholas - a very real possibility - he would have to explain himself. Marius visibly weighed his options and decided for the emergency exit instead.

"Before you thank me for saving you," LaCroix shouted - so undignified, but necessary against the sound of the alarm, "would you care to explain yourself?"

Nicholas stepped away, revealing Marius' quarry: a young man bleeding out on the broken dance floor. "I couldn't let him kill him."

"Do you even know who he is? And will someone shut off that damned noise?"

As if magic, Janette finished disabling the alarm, and now only had the sounds of approaching fire trucks and ambulances to compete with. "Thank you," he said in his usual voice, and stepped over the rubble of the fight to kneel beside the dying fledgling. "Whom does he belong to?"

Miklos, who looked like a drowned rat with wet hair, answered the question. "Aristotle."

"What?" Nicholas said.

"This is Aristotle's son," the bartender said. "Alexander. He was going on about some kind of trouble for the last half hour. We called up, but you didn't answer."

The sprinklers finally finished. Good. The fledgling's body was so injured it couldn't even reabsorb the blood pooling around it, but at least now it wouldn't wash away and be lost forever. "Shit."

Nicholas' expression brought him no amusement, even though he had cursed in his presence and not in Latin. LaCroix took command, of course. "Miklos, bring out at least a case of blood. Nicholas, go with Janette and as she talks to the mortal authorities, get that wire from the ambulance. The one that goes in veins."

"An IV tube."

"Yes. And don't take all day or Aristotle will never do you another favor again." Which didn't answer the next question of where Aristotle was, if he hadn't left with Marius and he hadn't left on his own, something he wouldn't do if Alexander was still here. It did not bode well, but he set that aside until they saved the boy. Aristotle would never forgive him for doing otherwise.

Nicholas was efficient when he was saving someone's life; LaCroix gave him silent credit for that. He also apparently knew how to set up an "IV." "There's something to be said for years of living with a doctor," he said. If Alexander was too weak to absorb his own blood, he wouldn't drink it, either. Nicholas found a vein and helped Miklos set up the bottle of blood to feed directly into him. Alexander didn't get up off the floor or look like he would be doing it anytime soon, but he stopped bleeding. In other words, he stopped dying.

"Well," he said to the blond fledgling to his left, who was trying to hide behind the bar but still watch the scene, "I suppose you and the boy under the chair are his cohorts, and should explain yourselves now."

Most of the other Elders had fled or were not in the main room. LaCroix was oldest, and though this was Janette's territory, he had every right to take command and she was happy to give it up, busy as she was hypnotizing a small army of mortals convinced a prominent nightclub was on fire that they shouldn't come in and check.

The terrified girl spoke first. "He said something happened to Aristotle. It just came into his head and he wouldn't give up on the idea. He tried to go upstairs but it was locked. He tried to call him but the phone was shut off."

"And his solution was a very noisy shower?"

"He knew how to trip the alarm. If you thought there was a fire, you would come down, and he could go looking for Aristotle. He said he was downstairs somewhere."

"Downstairs."

"Yes. Were you guys - "

He waved for her to be silent as Janette returned. She moved gracefully even if her hair resembled a wet rat's nest. "The police are leaving."

"We need to locate Aristotle. It seems young Alexander was completely convinced, prior to being smashed into your floor by our invisible intruder, that he is still here somewhere. Possibly downstairs." He glared at Nicholas. "Stay with him and don't let him die." When he did find Aristotle, he would not enjoy delivering that piece of news. It was bad enough already.

Janette put her bouncer on guest control and they descended the stairs, following Alexander's hunch. Janette had keys to the private rooms. The wine cellar was devoid of life, but the door was open to the meeting room across from it.

By all appearances, Aristotle was slumped in the armchair, sleeping peacefully in the comfort of Janette's taste in furniture. He appeared uninjured and did not have any open wounds. LaCroix didn't bother with shouting - if the noise and water hadn't woken him, nothing would. He grabbed his wrist and bit. When the foul taste hit his mouth, he spit it out before it could do any damage and the wrist fell limply back on the chair. "Drugged."

"Curare?"

"Enough to put out an elephant," he said, and checked under Aristotle's eyelids, as he had once seen Natalie do to his son. The eyes were glazed over and the pupils dilated. He pushed Aristotle's head back so it rested more comfortably against the cushion. "We might as well begin the discussion without him."

By discussion he meant damage control. While two thralls put Aristotle on the couch, where he could at least sleep in his very medicated slumber without any discomfort, LaCroix and Janette returned to the main floor, where those who hadn't fled had collected. "Aristotle will not be joining us." At their alarmed gasps, he explained the situation.

From there it was not hard to dissect what had happened. Marius, who had every intention of staying to spy on them, got Aristotle alone and drugged him. Only Aristotle could sense Marius' presence, and he had to be eliminated for the rest of the meeting but would be too suspicious about being thrown out entirely. Marius hadn't counted on a weak but clever fledgling with a strong mind link to his master being upstairs, one who devised a rather ingenious way of expressing his concern. Marius might not even have known whom he was fighting on his way out, or he would have thought twice about it.

Yes, Aristotle was a pacifist, LaCroix mused but didn't say out loud, but he was also a father.

It was a conundrum; Alexander was stabilized but wouldn't heal without his master's blood, and his master was so 'doped' as the fledglings would put it that his blood, even by transfusion, would be useless until it ran its course through his system. At least he wasn't awake to be panicking about that particular part of the problem.

Realizing that situation would need time to resolve itself, they turned to the next emergency: the fact that they had just discovered a spying Enforcer who had a case that they were treasonous, and Nicholas had attacked him. If they didn't act fast, their lives were forfeit. Unfortunately with the Council, one could never act fast - unless one was an Enforcer.

It was Constantine of all people to provide the answer that became obvious in post. "Elaine."

All eyes turned to LaCroix, who huffed. "I suppose I will call."

Janette had a real office, complete with a hardwood desk and books never to be used, and from there he could make a call with only the other Elders in the room. He dialed the international number by heart. It was midday in Paris, but that didn't matter in the least to him.

Elaine, the Elder of Paris, inherited her lofty position from her master when he retired two hundred years ago, but she was not without her own credentials. Immediately before that, she was a Councilman since at least the 1100s. There were very few ex-Councilman in public life - or at all, with two out of five members supposedly still sitting on it since its inception. The few known retirees usually departed from the Community out of exhaustion, took up other positions (Marius), or went through great lengths to hide their notorious résumé (Aristotle). Elaine simply returned to her first love, the Community itself, and ran the largest vampire city in the world with a notorious efficiency.

The phone was answered immediately. "She is unavailable."

"Wake her. Tell her Lucien LaCroix requests her presence."

The thrall did not sound happy about it. "Hold please."

They did not have to wait long, though every minute was excruciating. When she did get on the phone, Elaine did not sound particularly awake - not surprising, considering was about 11 AM in Paris. "Oui?"

"Elaine." He did not waste her time. "We have a situation."

He explained the situation as quickly as possible. Elaine, still waking up, mumbled halfway through. "May I speak to Aristotle?"

"No, I'm afraid that is part of the problem."

"Is he hurt?"

"Drugged."

"The lengths he will go to, to get out of responsibility," she said. "Continue."

With some people speaking over his shoulder, he managed to convey the severity of the situation by ending the tale with Marius' deception and flight. Her legal acumen was never far from her. "Marius has broken a number of laws regarding Enforcer behavior, if you haven't figured that out. At the very least, he will be responsible for appearing before the Council for a hearing, presuming he has an explanation good enough to save his head. I have heard rumors of this supposed measure concerning fledglings, but in the past such a thing was always eventually voted down. Logistical problems."

"Exactly how Aristotle put it."

"He is very logical. I don't know the current status of the measure, if it is even currently in their discussions, but Marius' behavior of going through such great lengths to tell you about it and then hide his presence from you while you discussed it is disconcerting at the least. If he had not been caught, it would have been one thing. He undoubtedly had a plan for explaining away Aristotle's disappearance, but he overplayed his hand by expecting not to be caught spying on a continent's worth of elders."

"We were just talking. Nothing treasonous occurred."

"I don't know what he expected of you. Maybe he just wanted something simple, like blackmail for when he moves to enact some measure with his Enforcers. It could be as simple as that. But as for your immediate concern, as to whether you are going to be swarmed with Enforcers looking for your heads, I will see to it that any great movements will be noticed and the Council will be notified immediately. By the end of the day, I should have something." Which, considering it was the day, was incredible. But that was why she was in charge of Paris. "Stay in the club until I get a message back to you. All of you. And have Aristotle call me when he wakes." Having a lot to do, she hung up the phone, and they all felt as though they could sigh in relief. Her tone was on-the-ball and reassuring.

They separated, all having calls to make. LaCroix was the exception, with both his children present, and he returned to the floor, where the two children responsible for aiding Alexander were with Nick, who was on the phone to his wife in the corner but keeping an eye on Aristotle's fledgling.

"Is he going to be okay?"

LaCroix looked down at the girl, who couldn't have been more than thirty. She had a blanket over her now, and he supposed he ought to say something comforting. "When Aristotle wakes, he will feed him."

"He said that he could sense his master, that that was how it was done in the old days."

"Many traditions have been lost." He had no desire to reveal any of them to her. "Is your master alive?"

"Yes. He's in Paris."

"You should contact him."

She nodded, and left to find a phone.

His own son was on the phone. "Yeah," Nicholas said. "I love you, too." He looked up at LaCroix. "LaCroix sends all his love, too. He specifically said for me to say that to you. Go back to sleep. I'll call you tomorrow." He shut his cell phone. "Nat says hi."

"I'm sure she does." He had fallen into one of his abusive patterns with Nicholas as of late, started by a misunderstanding and kept going by momentum and tradition, but the malice of it was gone. They would annoy each other, and occasionally cross the line, but they were for the moment friendly most of the time. "Either Alexander was improperly schooled on respecting his elders, or Aristotle has been exceptionally duteous about cultivating the blood link."

"Or he just wanted to rescue his master," Nicholas said. "Some people just like doing nice things."

LaCroix didn't take the bait. He could play this game with Nicholas for the rest of the night, or he could fix his hair, which had shamefully collapsed in the artificial rain. He had his dignity to preserve.

********************************************

It was hours after dawn before the guests were mollified and settled, and LaCroix found Janette finally relaxed on the couch with Nicholas. Nicholas was watching Aristotle, who would probably sleep through at least the next day, depending on his body's resistance to the curare. They chatted quietly and LaCroix smiled at his two favorite children and listened from the hallway.

"It was terrible."

"The wine was good."

"How do you know? You didn't drink it. You're starving yourself again."

"I heard it was good. From very reliable sources."

"Why must you torture yourself?"

"I'm just torturing LaCroix at this point. And it's not your fault," he said.

"No. Your silly games with him are not my fault. The gathering was a disaster."

"The party you threw was excellent. The ex-Councilman hissy fit and the hacking of your security system with pliers was an unfortunate coincidence."

"I am told coma patients can hear people who speak in their presence."

"He's not a coma patient. He's tranquilized," he assured her. "And I like the new drapes. It's a nice touch. I hope the water didn't ruin them."

"They're supposed to be very resistant to liquids. And still under warrantee. Unlike my chairs."

"To be fair, I used a stool. Those are cheap. And you know I'm good for it."

"Nicolas."

"Fine, I'm sorry I tried to beat the Chief Enforcer's brains in with your precious bar stool."

"And did you tell your precious Natalie that part of the story?"

"I think she'll appreciate it better when I'm in our living room and not trapped in LA under threat of an army of revenge-seeking Enforcers."

"Very wise, mon cherie."

Seeing they had that situation under control, he returned to Janette's office to await the call from Elaine that everything would be handled. He did not have to wait long - no more than an hour later, Elaine called the club and was patched through to him.

"I spoke to Abasi, the Council's Egyptian representative, and he relayed the message. You're very lucky it's night here."

"I am. Do go ahead."

"The immediate ruling is that Marius is to report to the Council immediately or face further repercussions. Though the Enforcers often act without his direct consent, they have been specifically notified not to act against anyone involved in the LA scene or any North American Elders without the Council or my express consent. So, plan to be very nice to me for a while, Lucius."

"I would never plan otherwise. May I assume Marius was acting out of his own interests last night and not the Council's?"

"Yes and no. The picture is complicated. Yes, the Council is unhappy with the newer generations and is considering a measure to enforce an approval process, but they've made no ruling and were not planning to in the immediate future. They were tossing this idea around when I was on the Council - every generation is worse than the last. The difference here was that Marius did offer to field the idea to your gathering, though he was told specifically to be polite about it. That implies he was not meant to sow dissent, drug an Ancient, attack his fledgling, and spy on you. The Enforcers can hide their presence, but only in Code-breaking situations. Even if he hadn't touched Aristotle, he would still have to explain his actions in a hearing. His Chief Enforcer status has been revoked and he's still at large, but I doubt he'll attack you again."

"I understand he is one to carry a grudge, and my son did strike him."

"The concerned father as always, aren't you? No, you won't have to defend Nicholas for actions this time, at least not yet. I didn't ask yet, but I assume they will find his actions justified considering the situation. That and Aristotle will raise Heaven and Hell if they go after Nicholas for defending his fledgling." She added, "You are adorable when you're worried about Nicholas."

"Are you spying on me?"

"I am imagining. I've seen you do it enough times."

"I don't suppose I could inquire as to the nature of Marius' legendary feud with Aristotle?"

"It is quite legendary, but the details are not for public consumption. Why don't you ask the man himself, when he's done tearing up the streets after Marius."

"I am having some issue imagining him doing such a thing."

"Yes, but there is a reason Marius considers him a threat. Don't underestimate him."

He considered the strength and cunning of the nerdy vampire's four- month old fledgling and said, "I never do."

********************************************

Though the Council's ambassador and Elaine assured the Elders it was safe for them to leave Los Angeles the following night, there was no news on Marius, who was still on the lam. Constantine and Rhea had to leave immediately, several others waited an additional day, but Elizabeth Beckham insisted on waiting until Aristotle was awake. Unfortunately he slept for three solid days, waking midday with what they could only imagine was the master of all hangovers.

"Light," he whispered, trying to raise his hands to his eyes to cover them, but not having the coordination to do so. LaCroix turned the main light off and ordered candles brought in, and Nicholas produced a pair of sunglasses.

"Aristotle - "

"Don't shout!" Aristotle succeeded in covering his ears.

"Aristotle," Nicholas whispered, putting on the sunglasses for him, "you should drink something."

"No. I don't want to go near anything. Ever. Again."

"You weren't drunk. You were drugged," LaCroix said, his voice softer than its normal tone, which was still fairly quiet. "Do you remember?"

Aristotle didn't respond immediately, but waved away the mug of blood Nicholas was holding up to his nose. "No. Not yet." He sighed, and rolled onto his side, but didn't attempt to sit up. "Marius was here."

"Marius drugged you," LaCroix said, pleased when Aristotle did accept some blood, even if he was only willing to do it through an undignified straw. "You've been asleep for three days."

"I didn't tell ... Shit. Alex." He tried to sit up, but Nicholas and Elizabeth caught him before he could fall over. "No. No, I have to get up."

"Not yet."

"No." He was becoming agitated, but not enough to fight them off, or stand on his own. "Where is Alex? He's in trouble."

"He's not. He's stable, and your blood is useless to him until you recover. You have to wait."

"Don't tell me what to do with my own son!" Aristotle hissed, showing his fangs. LaCroix nodded and they released him, but Aristotle's attempts to stand were as bad as his early attempt to straighten up, and he had to be caught before he fell forward and eased back onto the sofa. He groaned, and accepted another mug of blood, slowly draining it. "More."

"Not too fast."

"More."

Elizabeth reluctantly refilled his mug, but he had some trouble swallowing it as quickly as he would have liked, and spit some of it back up. "Aristotle, your blood was practically solid curare when we found you. Alex is asleep and he can wait for you to recover."

"No he can't!" But he stopped struggling and just buried his face in his hands. "What happened? Say it slowly."

"Marius drugged you so he could spy on our meeting without your interference," LaCroix said, in his soothing radio voice. "It would have worked if your protégé hadn't immediately sensed something was wrong. No one believed him, so he set off the fire alarm. Marius attacked him, but fled after we discovered him. He was stabilized on human blood, and Marius is now a fugitive."

Aristotle took time to absorb this, sipping from the mug. There were moments where he seemed to be nodding off again, but he always came to with a gasp, like he was in pain. "Where is Alex?"

"In bed, after it was safe enough to move him. He is not awake."

"He's in pain anyway." He finished the mug. "Take me." He grabbed Nicholas as he tried to stand, leaning on him and nearly tearing his shirt in the process.

"You need to rest," Lucius said in his hypnotic voice, which occasionally worked on vampires, especially drugged ones. "You cannot force yourself. Rest."

Aristotle almost looked like he was listening, but he shook his head and staggered forward. "Lucius, don't you dare fuck with my head! I - I need to see him. I won't feed him - not yet. I promise." He added. "Scout's honor."

LaCroix looked at Nicholas, who just shrugged. "I think we should take him. Walking will get his blood pumping again anyway."

LaCroix gave a nod of approval, however reluctant. Alexander's room was well-stocked, enough for Aristotle's reaction to seeing him in pieces.

Nicholas was trying to distract him on the slow and unsteady walk. "He saved all of us, you know. And soaked us. Setting off the fire alarm set off the sprinklers."

Aristotle chuckled. "Everyone must have looked terrible." So, his sense of humor was still indestructible - at least until they guided him into the room where Alex lay on the bed, still hooked to a blood IV. "No." He abandoned Nicholas and staggered to Alex's side. "No no no, I promised him. I promised him he wouldn't have to go through this again."

Nicholas turned to LaCroix, who had no answers for him. "If you wish to heal him, you must flush the curare from your system first."

"Then give me the damn bottle!"

There was such a feral anger in his voice. LaCroix expected it, but had never seen it - not in Aristotle. He offered the bottle and Aristotle upturned it and drained it so quickly he had to gasp and cough some of it up. "More."

"I could put him on an IV," Nicholas suggested. "He wouldn't have to drink."

"Do it." Aristotle was giving orders, not taking them, and they all knew better than to interfere with the seething vampire - angry at Marius for having done this, and angry at himself for not having been able to prevent it.

He had no hesitation in rolling up his sleeve for Nicholas to find a vein, something most vampires would see as a violation. He did look away, at the unconscious Alexander. "I promised you." He ran a hand through his hair, which was still matted with blood. "Knife."

"Don't give too much."

Aristotle wouldn't be listening to that, of course. LaCroix knew that; he would put himself at risk for his child, even though he was too old to bleed to death. He cut his other hand, then Alex's, and held the palms together. "I promised I would protect you."

Seeing they were intruding on a private situation, everyone left but LaCroix, as no one had the authority to tell him to leave. He stayed leaning against the door, not making a sound, as Aristotle visibly relaxed. The blood transfusion was working from the look of relief on his face; Alex was accepting his blood. He was beginning to heal.

"He might have healed a bit faster with vampire blood," LaCroix said, changing the blood bag on Aristotle's IV bag, which was now emptied, "but I insisted he was too young to have someone else's blood." He knew Aristotle would see it as a violation. Some of the others were too young and lacked that understanding.

"Thank you." Aristotle was hoarse, or just very upset. He pulled Alex's IV. "I promised him he wouldn't be sick again. Get this out of here."

LaCroix wheeled it away. Aristotle was regaining all of his senses as the blood flushed the curare from his system, but it was only bringing him agony. He bit his wrist, and offered it to Alex. "Drink." A few drops in the boy's open mouth was all it took to rouse him, however injured, to the waiting elixir of health. Aristotle pulled him close, stroking his back as he sucked greedily on his master's arm. "Drink." He kissed him on the head.

LaCroix left. Aristotle had not survived 2300 years without learning how to care for himself. In the hallway, Nicholas and Elizabeth Beckham, the Elder of Boston and one of Aristotle's old friends from Tudor England, were waiting for him. "He will be awhile."

They busied themselves. Some needed sleep, able to finally relax now that Aristotle was recovered and his fledgling's safety assured. Nicholas offered to check on him, but LaCroix warned him away. Had anyone interrupted him when he was tending to an infant Nicholas, he would have torn their heads off.

 

Part 10 - Aristotle

Aristotle repositioned Alex on the bed so his body was less haphazard after collapsing so quickly after he finished feeling. Through the link, he knew Alex had not truly been awake at any point, which brought him some relief. Alex would sleep now for at least the day, possibly more, and when he woke he would need to feed from him again, but then he would be fine - almost like new. Searching through Alex's memories, he saw little of the fight with Marius that LaCroix described. He would suffer with eternal recollections of that.

Reluctant to leave his side, he bid LaCroix to enter, sensing he'd never gone very far. "Is there something you need me for?"

"Elaine requested to speak with you when you woke."

"Worried about me, is she?"

"On the contrary, she seemed confident in your abilities to handle Marius. We puny fledglings that dare to consider ourselves Elders were more of a concern. I think she was merely interested in what you had to say."

"I assumed she phrased it differently." He accepted the wireless phone LaCroix passed him, as his cell phone seemed to be missing. "The part about you. Not her confidence in me." He dialed the Parisian Elder, not bothering to check if it was night or day there.

It was her private line, and she answered. "Oui."

"Everyone seems to want to speak to me," he said, watching Lucius leave without being asked to. Whether he listened in on the other side of the door or not was not something Aristotle could be bothered with.

"Aristotle! You had me worried."

"Really."

"I was wondering what you would do to Marius when you found him, but you seem in too calm a mood."

He looked at Alex. "I just woke up. Haven't had time to get angry yet. And there's no sense in chasing after someone who would tear me in half until I've gotten enough supplies. I'm thinking a crate of C4."

"From what was described to me, Marius had no idea whom he was attacking."

"The second time."

"Still, exceptionally bad luck for him."

"Marius never made enough time for research. I don't expect him to change now." But it was very hard to shift his attention. He would not truly tackle his issue with Marius until Alex was fully healed. "So what has the Council said?"

"They're still searching for him, but they'll find him. And when they do, I suspect they'll do whatever you ask them to do to him."

"He hurt my son. A terrible crime, yes, but not something you kill someone over. Certainly not in the old days. He could make a case."

"Destruction of property would be a case against Marius 'in the old days.' And there is that small matter of attacking you and inciting sedition among the New World Elders."

Aristotle sighed. "I don't want to be responsible for Marius' execution, but I'm not eager to defend him, either."

"Aristotle, he would have you dead if he could manage it."

"It's not that sort of grudge. Remember we were colleagues."

"Trust me, no one on the Council is capable of forgetting it."

"He just doesn't understand that disagreement and disrespect are not intrinsically connected. He never has, and I must hold out hope that he will."

"Ah yes, you are against the death sentence. His problem with you in the first place, or so I was told."

"Yes." He did not want to launch into the story, nor did he suspect he had to. When she sat on the Council, three of its members were from his time. The blood links between Council members meant she knew the story in great detail, almost as if she had been there, eight hundred years before. "I suppose the good to come of this is the Council will have to shelve that insipid measure once and for all, without me having to personally convince them to do so."

"Ah, but it would remind them what they miss by not having you to lecture them."

She was one of the few that could make him smile when discussing his Council days. "The meetings are probably shorter now."

"You did make yourself a legend in your brief tenure. Their fault for putting a master of rhetoric in a speaking position."

He grinned at the compliment. "I assume everything else is being handled?"

"LaCroix seems to have kept the rest of them from panicking. He has that effect - when he wants to. It's an admiral quality in an Elder."

"He was a general."

"So was Marius. Call me when your cell phone is repaired - it doesn't seem to be working. And keep in touch."

"Thank you, Helena."

"Aristotle." She did not respond negatively to being called her real name, fallen out of use. She was polite as always before she hung up. And she actually seemed concerned.

He opened the door to return the phone, and Janette was waiting. "It is good to see you well."

He squirmed, reluctant to leave Alex's side. He would not be well until he was. But she understood that - she was LaCroix's daughter, and she helped raise Nicholas. "Thank you for your hospitality." He handed her the cordless. "And I'll replace the security system."

"It was outdated anyway. Apparently just anyone could 'hack' it."

"Well, not just anyone. And now you know the sprinklers work."

"He had help. You remember Amanda Rogan?"

"Is she still living here?"

"Yes, though I suppose she would like some reassurance that I am not angry at her for helping sabotage my club. And Jimmy Deisei - he was here that night, but he's back with his master now."

"Thank you for being understanding."

"It was the least I could do after he rescued us from accidentally committing treason," she said. "You should rest. You look awful."

He supposed he did. He hadn't showered or shaved in four days, and he was still a little drained from feeding Alex. And Amanda was too young - she wouldn't be up until nightfall. "I suppose I should. Good night." There was no question that despite the limited facilities, he would not be leaving the room. She left him alone, and he pulled up the couch. Surprised at his own exhaustion, he fell asleep quickly, only a few feet away from Alex.


Chapter 14

When he woke, it was nearly nightfall, from his internal but always accurate clock. Alex had not stirred, and was nowhere close to waking. Aristotle finished the open bottle of blood wine and left him long enough to go down the hall and wash his face. Unless he was playing a part, he had no desire to look shabby, but his need to return to Alex's side was too great for a real shower. Janette left clothes for him in the bathroom - hideously fashionable, yes, but they did fit. Black was such a ridiculous color for a vampire. It was just too obvious.

Alex was dreaming. It was a good sign, an indicator of brain activity after the bash he took to the back of the head. He did not pry into the dreams themselves, as they were always hard to follow anyway. As long as it wasn't a nightmare, it wasn't his concern.

There was a knock at the door, and he stepped out and closed it behind him. "Miss Rogan."

"Mr. Aristotle." She looked nervous, like all young ones did, especially when he had a concerned face on. "Can I see Alex?"

"Briefly. Don't disturb his rest. What's that?"

He was gesturing to the black bag. "Oh. His laptop. He put it under the chair before the sprinklers turned on. It was still a little wet, and I didn't try to turn it on, but it might still work. I thought he would want it back."

"That's very thoughtful. I'm sure he would." He opened the door and let her enter, but there wasn't much to see. Alex was just asleep normally, his arms crossed over his chest, oblivious. Her movements didn't wake him, and after hovering by his bedside, she put the laptop on the coffee table and rejoined Aristotle in the hallway.

"I'm really sorry about everything." She was Janette's charge now, at least until her master returned from Paris to take some responsibility, and she was eager to please. He was familiar with the type. If only her master was more responsible himself, and didn't let her take all of the blame for New York ... but that was not Aristotle's business. His business was getting her settled in LA with an identity and a place to stay, and he did that.

"You don't have to be sorry," he said, smiling in that reassuring way. "From what I understand, you were more of a help than a hindrance."

"Janette is upset."

"Janette is a perfectionist when it comes to her club and her parties, and both were ruined by a rampaging Enforcer. Nothing that can't be repaired, but her anger isn't directed at you." He sent her to Janette because Janette had sympathy for the abandoned, and he could see he was not mistaken in doing so. "She'll be over it as soon as Alma arrives with redecorating ideas and she has an excuse to do the place over again." He added, seeing her concern, "Even if Marius knew you were involved and came after you, she would protect you. And he won't."

"And he won't go after Alex? I don't think he recognized him, by the way. I was right there."

"No. He won't touch him." Now he was not smiling. "Everything will be fine."

She accepted his assurances and left, still intimidated by him. Maybe it was all the black.

No matter. Inside, Alex was closer to waking than ever. When he did wake, it was in a frenzy, but Aristotle had his wrist open and bleeding for him. "Drink." The vampire responded with more ferocity than he could manage the day before. He was hungry from all the healing his body was forced to do, and so quickly. "Shhh." He rubbed his back, letting Alex feed until he was just suckling for comfort.

He was content to stay that way until he was drained, but Alex pulled away, and sat up, confused as the vampire receded. "Where am I?"

"One of Janette's guest rooms." He opened a new bottle and poured himself a full glass. "You would have woken earlier, but I was unavailable, and you're too young. You needed my blood to heal."

"What happened to you?"

"Marius tranquilized me with curare," he explained. "One of the few naturally-occurring toxins that has an effect on us. To humans it's lethal, to us it's like alcohol poisoning. I was asleep for three days. He had this ... awesome dart gun." He smiled and sipped his drink. "I've never seen one used on a vampire before. I don't know why I didn't think of it myself."

"Where is he now?"

"Hunted by just about every vampire on earth," he said. "He didn't mean to kill me, and he wouldn't have touched you if he knew who you were. He just wanted me gone so he could spy on the others. Very illegal, even for an Enforcer. They'll find him eventually. Too many people have blood ties to him."

Alex nodded nervously. "So it's been ...?"

"I think this makes it five days. Nicholas saved you. Bashed Marius on the head and got an IV from the ambulance that showed up, with enough blood to keep you alive until I woke."

"This is the guy who always saves you, right?"

"Not always, but yes. He's done it a number of times. He's good at it."

Alex's normal pallor was returning, even if he was still weakened by what his body had been through. "I don't remember anything after that guy - the one in black. Black hair, short cut. I assume that was Marius."

"Yes."

"I was looking for you, trying to find you in the link, but he was in my way. I yelled at him to get out of it."

Aristotle laughed. "You yelled at the Chief Enforcer? No wonder he responded so kindly."

"I was pretty upset by then. My friends ... well, if they're still my friends, they thought I was crazy."

"They're still your friends. Amanda was just here, asking for you. And still terrified of me even though I have put every effort into being the least intimidating vampire ever."

"She said something about New York."

"I'll tell you in Tahoe. We used to have a phrase - 'watch out for servant's ears.' Meaning, someone's always listening. I wouldn't tell you at all if you were anyone else." He patted him on the back. "Some people are rather eager to meet you. You should probably wash up." To Alex's alarmed expression, he added, "And they're all rather impressed with you."

Alex made his way to the shower, and stayed there for a long time. With all of his injuries, no one dared him to give him anything more than a minor scrub, so he was still bloodied and his clothes were ruined. The emotions through the link were mainly nervousness and exhaustion, both to be expected. When he emerged, also wearing clothes from Janette's collection for guests, he settled in the armchair and did not look like he wanted to get up anytime soon. "So vampires and black. Is it a creature of the night thing, or is it just sexier?"

He chuckled. "I don't know. I do know it's slimming." There was a knock on the door. "That's Nick." He could smell the faint sent of cow. "He saved your life. Hit Marius over the head with a stool. He's also your third or fourth cousin. I'm not sure which."

"Okay." Alex consented to the visitor, and Aristotle opened the door. "Nick, this is Alex. Alex, Nicholas de Brabant, as everyone else calls him, or Dr. Nick Lambert, as he calls himself."

Alex stood because he was determined to do so, and took the hand that was unexpectedly offered from the blond vampire. "Nice to meet you."

"I would say Aristotle has said a lot about you," Nick said, "but he doesn't talk about things that are really important to him. Especially people. I didn't even know your name until he spilled it on the phone."

"Thank you for saving my life," Alex replied, and they sat. He was uneasy on his feet, still weak from his recovery, incredible though it was. "And you didn't even know who I was?"

"Not on sight, but I used to be a cop. Breaking up fights sort of comes naturally."

"You were a cop?" Alex's eyes shot up. Aristotle was amused but decided to stay out of the conversation, and tried booting Alex's laptop. "What kind?"

"Homicide. Some of us do have careers in the mortal world, but very few. Now I'm an archaeologist. Aristotle wrote my CV. I don't even remember where he said half my degrees were from, other than Arizona State, and that was my PhD."

"Your undergraduate work was at Cornell," Aristotle said. "And you went to George Washington High School."

"That sounds about right."

"Also you were President of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Alliance."

Nick glared at Aristotle. "I was not."

"You really should read those folders I give you a little more carefully."

"LGBTA was really popular on my campus," Alex said, knowing he wasn't helping the situation. "Yale gave them all kinds of funding. Threw awesome but really creepy parties."

"Okay, we can stop now," Nick growled, but his mood quickly softened. "I can see why he picked you."

"I hope that's a compliment to Aristotle," Alex said.

"He knows it is." Nick stood, not wanting to take up Alex's time. He must have read the exhaustion on his face. "You can return the favor by getting Aristotle to visit us in Winnipeg. You seem to be the only way he'll take a vacation."

"I'll try."

Nick nodded to Aristotle and left. The older vampire already knew the question on his fledgling's mind, the one he didn't dare to ask Nicholas and look ignorant. "Nick is married to a mortal and adopted a child. It's very, very rare. Usually he would just bring her across, but he met his wife because she offered to help cure his vampirism. She thought it was a disease, and he doesn't want to be a vampire. Moral issue. He's not regarded very highly in the Community for shunning us, but he's my friend."

"He wanted a cure?"

"Yes. He still believes there is one, but he agreed to stop looking for it if the Enforcers left him alone to marry Natalie and spent the rest of her life with him. There is no cure, but she did develop some interesting drugs that had dangerous side effects for the vampire, so they put an end to her research. On pain of death for both of them."

"Do you think there is a cure?"

He probed the link and touched mere curiosity, not self-doubt. That was a relief. "No."

"You're completely closed to the possibility."

"All things are possible, but it's improbable. And that's not me speaking as a vampire. That's me speaking as an observer, a scientist, and a biologist. When the human body accepts the vampire virus, if we want to call it that, it's changed beyond a point where it can be reversed. The immune system is heightened, the digestive system is altered, the heart rate slows, and most of the organs stop functioning entirely and slowly die. The body becomes dependent on the vampire virus and blood to sustain its existence. If he found some chemical that eliminated the vampire, his body's only logical response would be to drop dead. And that's excluding any metaphysical elements there may be to the vampire - our undead nature, our soul or lack thereof, our inherent evil nature that makes us monsters among men - et cetera, et cetera." He waved his hand. "It doesn't amaze me that Dr. Lambert - and I mean his wife, Dr. Lambert the geneticist and coroner - believes there's a physical explanation for the existence of vampires. There's no reason why there wouldn't be one. Actually, I'm surprised no one thought of it sooner. I suppose we like to get caught up in myths and legends as much as mortals do."

Alex pondered the concept. "Is there a physical explanation for why holy symbols harm us?"

"Natalie believes it's psychosomatic. Nick believes his faith in G-d helps him overcome that. He's the only vampire I know that can wear a rosary, though he never wears it around us. He built up a tolerance to it. Incredible, really."

"But are we harmed by holy symbols we don't recognize to be holy symbols?"

"Yes. Kind of throws a wrench her theory, but that will never put her off. You'll met her sooner or later and see. The Catholic vampire married the agnostic scientist." He shook his head. "There's a pool going for when he accidentally kills her, if he's going to bring her across or not. I have a fifty on yes. He's too passionate to let her go. Hey, your computer still works. Amanda managed to save it."

"Really? Awesome."

It was good to know they had their priorities straight. Aristotle could sense Lucius wandering around outside. He supposed he couldn't put it off any longer. "Nick's master is Lucien LaCroix. He's also Janette's master. And has another dozen vampires scattered around the country - but Nick and Janette are his children."

"Lucien the what now?"

"His name means 'Light of the Cross.' Meant to be ironic. Also his Roman name was Lucius, but don't call him that. He's almost my age and it's disrespectful. He's probably the second-oldest vampire in the New World and he likes to be intimidating." Sensing Alex's fear, he continued, "He's not going to push you around. He's smart enough not to cross me." He set the laptop on the table next to Alex and opened the door. "LaCroix."

"Aristotle." LaCroix actually seemed a bit mellow by his standards, which was frightening enough to Alex. He didn't smile - he must have known his smile could be terrifying - but he did nod with approval at Alex. "Alexander. So nice to finally make your acquaintance. A real pleasure. I gave Aristotle a chance to tell me all about you, but he was reticent concerning my offer. Though we did have a nice little chat about - "

"Lucius," Aristotle hissed.

" - him being overly protective, and probably wishing to tell his version of the story first. I cannot say I am surprised. And your experiment with Janette's security system was impressive." Now he did smile. "We will see each other soon."

"Nice to meet you," Alex squeaked out, not attempting to correctly pronounce his name, and relieved when he didn't have to. He was unconsciously holding his breath until LaCroix was gone. "You weren't kidding."

"In life he was a self-made Roman general. Earned his citizenship the hard way, with twenty-five years in the army. So, it comes with the territory. Also, he's a prick and I have no shame in saying that." Noticing his son was hungry, he poured him a glass before Alex had to ask. "Though he is very old and age means power, so do bloodlines, and LaCroix is the same generation as you. His grandsire was Qa'ra, Qum'ra's brother. So, if he hadn't been brought across at Pompeii or you had, you would be equals. If he ever makes some comment about following your career, that's why."

"What was he talking about? When you shut him up."

He poured a glass of wine for himself. "When I was debating about turning you, I went to him for advice. Since we're the same bloodline, we have some of the same experiences with fledgling behavior. He's had more success than me in bringing people across."

"You brought other people across?"

"Not successfully." Though Alex deserved to know everything eventually, now was not the time or place to elaborate and his six spectacular failures. "I wouldn't have gone to him, considering his rocky relationship with Nick, but I was desperate. If I was going to do it, I was going to do it properly and you were going to survive the transformation. He was actually rather forthcoming about it. Many people like to stroke his ego, but not about his parenting methods. Never go to him for something unless he's your absolute last resort. His favors come with a very high price."

Of course Alex wouldn't hesitate to ask, "What was his price?"

He winced at the memory. "He wanted to see my memories of Qa'ra. None of them are pleasant, so under any other circumstance I would have refused."

"When was this?"

"Columbus Day Weekend. Remember I was away?"

It was hard to Alex to re-imagine his life through Aristotle's vampire lens. He felt manipulated, lied to - and rightfully so, though the end justified the means. Aristotle reminded himself to stop constantly reading his son's thoughts.

Alex was recovering, and the first person to greet him when he entered the now-closed club was his host. Janette didn't hesitate to kiss him on both cheeks with an odd motherly affection. Of course if Aristotle said the word 'motherly' to her, she would retaliate with a well- placed curse, so he kept that thought to himself and just looked surprised. "I am so happy to see you are well."

"Thank you. And thank you for letting me stay."

"De rien. It was nothing. All I could do for you."

Alex was of course completely captivated by this seductive woman with a sexy French accent, and Aristotle might have knocked him on the head - mentally or otherwise - if she hadn't had to attend to something else in the club. Aristotle watched her go, then found Alex staring at the dance floor. There was still an Alex-sized indent, several inches deep, and dust from the destruction. "This is going be really expensive to repair."

"If she charged people who were injured in her clubs, she would be the richest woman on earth and most of the Community would be broke. She will be insulted if you offer to help. She is a host and you are her guest. And speaking of guests ..." With Alex absorbed in his own thoughts, Aristotle who first noticed Amanda approach the bar. Aristotle had to nudge him, but did not join him as he went to reassure his new friend. He could hear perfectly well at a distance, and Alex needed friends his age. Well, not his age precisely, but young enough for him to relate to. He didn't yet fully comprehend the powers he would have that she did not, with the ancient blood coursing through his veins. That he was different from other vampires. A very aristocratic and dismissive thing to say, but Aristotle knew it to physically be true, not just a societal concept. Alex's circle of vampire friends and acquaintances would expand over the years, but there was no reason not to build a foundation now, when he had eternity to build the rest of the structure.

"Waxing long about your fledgling?" Elizabeth said, joining him at the far table. "Your expression really gives you away."

"People our age - the people he'll meet through me - don't mix well with people his age."

"You are exceptionally good at doing so and you know it."

"But I'm his master now. It's different."

She smiled and put her hand on his arm. "Somehow I don't see you as the overbearing father type."

"There was a time when your master was your entire world for the first hundred years of your existence, if not more."

"You could probably say 'there was a time' to just about any statement and have it be true of us. And how did you do, when your hundred years were up?"

He was miserable. Taught to be the obedient slave, when he finally returned to the Old World, he was unable to assert himself before the Ancients that ruled the vampire world with an iron fist, to claim his right to his own destiny. They were not years - centuries, to be technical about it - he would willingly relive. "Not well."

"And you have a gift so rare among our kind - you can learn from mistakes. Yours and other people's." She patted him on the hand. "You will be fine. He will be fine."

He watched Alex, and dared to hope.

********************************************

There would be no waiting until Lake Tahoe. Alex assaulted him with questions on the plane about everyone he met and everything that was said to him or in his presence. Aristotle was mostly relieved that Alex wasn't dwelling on his encounter with Marius, and answered patiently when he was willing to answer. He had the right to some secrets from his child.

It was not until they were back in the Tahoe house that Alex asked the question Aristotle knew was in his head, but was politely waiting for him to actually ask instead of his usual habit of just going ahead with the answer. Alex was working up the nerve to do it, and it took him a day, mainly because they arrived very early in the morning and he didn't ask before he fell asleep with the sunrise. Relieved to be in one of the few places he could remotely associate with the word 'home,' Aristotle popped in a CD of Tears for Fears and listened to music for awhile before drifting off himself, and slept longer than he usually did.

Breakfast was bottled. As Alex's hunting skills increased, Aristotle began to dread pulling him back from the chase. Through the link his own senses were intoxicating, and he found himself more eager to hunt - human or otherwise - than he had felt in centuries. Normally it was only every few months that he dared to kill a mortal, with all the planning it required and mess it created. In five months he had tripled that, and if he counted Alex's kills as his own, far more than tripled. No, he would acknowledge the beast and control it, just as he always did.

Sometime after surfing the web Alex finally worked up the courage to ask, "What happened between you and Marius?"

"It's actually not that interesting," he said as he put a blank CD in the drive to burn for Larry. "Well, interesting in that involves a murder trial that ended with an execution, but boring in that we were really arguing over philosophical principles of justice and not the case."

"You were the defense attorney?"

"Actually the opposite, in the initial trial. Then while he was awaiting his death, I spoke to the vampire and new evidence came to light, and I reversed opinions and appealed. Marius didn't want to spend time on it. He thought it made us look weak, and he thought I was weak for being persuaded by a murderer. And he was - he killed his own master, an unpardonable crime. But he did it completely by accident and happenstance, and I wanted his sentence reduced to anything else. Marius got the other Councilman on his side to overrule me, playing on their fears about appearing weak themselves, but it was still a close decision, 3 to 2. The real issue, to Marius anyway, was that after the verdict, I lectured him for about four hours. Not an exceptionally long time for me, but as they say, his blood was up."

"Can I see it?"

He raised an eyebrow. "You want to see me talk about the importance of balancing justice with mercy for four hours?"

"No. I just want to see it - what it looked like. Unless it's secret, and no one's supposed to know how the Council operates."

No one really did know how the Council operated, except ex-Councilmen, but he wouldn't get that from a visual image. What made them function was their constantly active, cultivated blood-links to each other. That was not Alex's interest. He wanted to see Aristotle in his prime, so-to-speak, at the height of his political power. This concept was amusing enough for him to grant Alex's wish. "Okay."

********************************************

Thanks to years or tutoring from his master and no less than two other Old Ones, Aristotle was exceptionally good at transmitting imagery through the blood link. When Alex bit him, he transported his fledgling to wherever he wanted to take him. In this case, the scene was difficult to set up, but the effort was worthwhile. Instead of just letting Alex experience his own memories, he put them both on a carefully-crafted stage, a 3-D world that played the memory like some advanced projector.

They stood near the entrance to the Council chambers, deep in the Valley of the Kings. The old Egyptian tomb was cleared and refashioned centuries before this event. The Council chamber itself needed to be pure of all prior influences, and was consequentially carved from bedrock like a reverse sculpture, leaving only the circular table with the hole in the center, and five stone chairs still attached to their mother stone. The only adornments were cushions on the chairs, which could tax even vampire backs. Blood provided the rest.

Four Councilman were sitting. "You know Marius," Aristotle said. All of the Councilman wore assorted robes of no particular style, derived from their various cultures and personal preferences. Marius' was most Roman, but the toga was black instead of white, and the sleeve lined with purple (an assignation from his mortal days) sewn with gold thread. He was talking animatedly, but no words came out of his mouth. Aristotle continued on. "The one to his left is Orpheus, who still sits on the Council today. He was not the original, just named after him. I rather liked him." Orpheus was not speaking, just listening, his colored tunic and outer cloak only two times, but very stylishly done, with a separate Byzantine hood.

Aristotle smiled when he pointed out Devana. "So does Councilman Devana. She was originally Pictish, but took her army south before she was turned." Though she had the Byzantine veil that fell to the floor behind her, and the loose drapes of a shawl that matched the place and time, she wore an ornate gold broach to secure her tartan shawl. Her hair was black, and her eyes fierce.

"You liked her," Alex said, ever observant.

"She was one of the reasons I stayed on the Council as long as I did," Aristotle said. "And we found ways to pass the time when some of the younger ones were sleeping."

"You - oh! Will you stop with that?"

"You asked." He was not sympathetic to Alex's fight over mental imagery. He had, at the time, loved Devana. Some part of him still did. "And here, beside her, is Nicetas. Younger than me, but longer on the Council. Lasted a few more centuries, then retired and walked into the sun. To this day, no one knows why." Nicetas was, unlike most vampires, a fine, fat man with brown hair and a simple tunic, just made longer than the Roman ones so not even the feet appeared.

"Did you like him?"

"I liked all of them, in their own way, even if they were terrible bores."

"I thought it was implied that you were the one who bored them."

"I lectured them. Many people over the centuries found my lectures quite interesting."

Pacing back and forth behind his empty chair, as he so often liked to do, was his younger self. Though colored in blues and grays and not white, his toga was still remarkably Greek, with no fastening buttons or clasps like the others had taken to as the mortals discovered them, so that he constantly had to readjust it or hold one end of it with one hand, raising a pointed finger with the other. His hair in the back was shorter than it was now, but the main difference in his appearance was his beard - gray, with the traces of reddish brown from his youth that survived in his face to the moment he was turned. It was not particularly long, having no desire to look like a monkish ascetic. Instead it was properly trimmed to the fashionable length of his own era.

"Say it."

Alex released the chuckled he was holding in. "You do look a bit more like the bust."

"The bust has hair. Alexander was good enough to commission one that did not reflect my current state. He preferred to remember me as I was as his childhood tutor." He growled. "I hate that bust."

"Now I know what not to get you for your birthday."

Alex could make him laugh, even when he was angry. "Seen enough?" The images would stay in Alex's head forever; he could ruminate on it later.

"Yes. Thank you."

Aristotle took apart the construct and pulled them out of it.

********************************************

Though there was some small, trifling physical pain when Alex bit into his flesh, Aristotle rarely noticed it. The only negative sensation he felt was when Alex retracted, not ending their association but that immediate blood link. When it should have been draining, the experience of feeding Alex was euphoric, even if it was meant as a lesson or forced him to relive memories better left unearthed. It was unlike anything he'd ever felt, even when he'd created other vampires, or shared his blood with a friend or lover. He was not so much sharing his power as bestowing it, giving his son life, and the strength he would need to survive it.

Alex, overwhelmed by the experiences so new to him even they were repeated constantly, could not comprehend the comforting nature of their link. Perhaps he never would. It made him happy and it soothed his vampire, but he was ready to move on to the next thing. Aristotle had given him life and he wanted everything that life could offer him.

Fledglings are so selfish, he mused with a grin as Alex leapt off the balcony and flew to the driveway, to enjoy his newfound energy with the physical release. For the moment it was not the hunt, but the more mundane gravitational trickery of skateboarding, something he gave up after his stepfather sawed his last skateboard in half and he recently rediscovered. Though he could fly, with what one would imagine might take some of the magic away, Alex did use that particular power and only used his vampiric reflexes to guide the board, so that he appeared very normal, if just very talented. He was twenty-four, and always would be, but in these fleeting moments where nothing was demanded of him, where not even the vampire was guiding him, the boy in him escaped and Aristotle was content to sit on the rooftop and watch the release. There were so many things ahead of Alex, both wondrous and terrible. His youth was in his innocence, untouched even by the trained killer that lived inside him and sustained his body and mind. If the ultimate achievement in life was happiness, Alex was already there.

Aristotle was just happy to be carried there with him.

End

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Historical Notations

 

1. Though he calls himself Greek to modern people, the historical Aristotle was actually Macedonian. He was born in Stageira, which was part of Macedon, not the traditional areas of Greece. The Macedonians often considered themselves Greek, but the Greeks themselves distinguished themselves from their new rulers. When Aristotle lived in Athens, he was considered a foreigner, neither a citizen or a Greek, and had to pay an alien tax. 

 

2. Xenocrates of Chalcedon (396–314 BC) was a fellow student with Aristotle under Plato. After Plato's death, Xenocrates traveled with Aristotle to Asia Minor, where they met Hermias and Aristotle's future wife, Pythias. Xenocrates then left to return to Athens and run Plato's Academy after the death of the new instructor. Xenocrates' philosophy was much closer to Plato's. In actuality he was considered a very stern, serious man, but in the flashbacks here I portray a younger Xenocrates, who had to placate the arrogant, grieving Aristotle. 

 

3. Despite the flashback in Pella, Aristotle and Alexander the Great were actually on very good terms by the end of Alexander's school days. Alexander wrote him often from the battlefield, and sent him specimens of exotic species from Asia, as Aristotle was a biologist and collected such things. He probably never sent him an elephant because of the sheer logistics of it, but there's no proof either way. 

 

4. There is some disagreement as to whether Aristotle was married once or twice. He was definitely married to Pythias, daughter or niece of Hermias of Atarneus, and had a daughter with her (also named Pythias) who survived until his death, as she is mentioned in his will. He later had a son with a woman named Herpyllis, whom he may or may not have married (she may have been a concubine or a former slave). Legend has it he gave his son Nicomachus a book on ethics, which is why Aristotle's writings on ethics are called The Nicomachean Ethics. One historian from the period claims he was Aristotle's young lover as well. Though he provides no evidence other than his word, given Athenian culture, it is not that unlikely.

 

5. Aristotle is quoted as saying, "Plato is dear to me, but dearer still is the truth." This should explain some of his reactions in the dream-torture devised by Qa'ra. 

 

6. Plato's nickname for Aristotle was "the Mind," which became a running joke at the Academy. This is the nickname Aristotle uses when he plays Counterstrike.

 

7. The references to Aristotle being a member of Queen Elizabeth's privy council is a plot idea stolen from the Forever Knight tie-in novel, All Our Revels. In my opinion, Aristotle's appearance is the only thing that makes the novel worth the pages it's printed on. An entire book that's one long flashback that goes nowhere? Seriously. 

 

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