Becoming aware of myself once more, I am inundated by a multitude of impressions; pain, a sensation of heat in my chest, the lingering sense of danger, and hunger. I drag my eyes open, surprised at how weak I am. Some memory of last night returns – if last night it was, I'm not sure. A renegade Brujah frenzied when his Primogen questioned him, a gunfight ensued, Julian was targeted, I reacted... Pain and confusion take over for a moment, but before I can follow my instincts and flee or hide in the shadows, I hear the voice of my mortal friend Callum. "Get off, you oaf. Take that to your boss, he needs it more than me, Freddy."
He sounds normal, peaceful, so whatever happened to me must be in the past. I realize I am in my own bed, in my haven. How did I get here? I’m injured. Did I hurt anyone? Is Julian all right?
Frederick pokes his head around the corner of my inner sanctuary, and then approaches me, holding four rats. I almost growl at the sight of them, but then I remember that Callum is here, probably close. I don't see him, but I can hear the sound of cutlery and dishes being used, and the strong smell of coffee is in the air. With enormous effort, I keep myself from ripping the rats apart to get at their blood faster and making a mess of my bedstead in the process, but still I manage to slow down only slightly when my first hunger is appeased.
Suddenly, Callum is there. "Cheers."
A futile impulse makes me want to hide the last rat I am drinking from, but then I realize that he's already seen me suck blood from the animal, and I’m ashamed. How could he take me for anything more than an animal myself after he witnessed this?
"I see my patient has come to," he says gently, apparently not in the least disgusted. "How are you?"
Acutely aware of the rat blood staining my hands and face, I try to wipe away the traces, but without resorting to using my tongue (impossible!) it is a lost cause. "I’m... better. Callum, what are you... I mean… It’s good to see you." That’s an understatement. My turbulent emotions make me want to take his hand and hold it, and only the fact that then he would surely see my blooded talons gives me the strength to hold back.
Frederick's appearance around the corner saves me from more embarrassment. "Okay, boss, I’ll be going. Have a nice night."
I nod in acknowledgment. He must have kept watch over me in my weakened state. I am fortunate to have someone as trustworthy as him.
"Have a good one, Freddy," Callum calls cheerfully.
He never ceases to amaze me. Frederick may be one of my less ugly clansmen, but still... it appears Callum befriended him as if Frederick were no different from a mortal. "I see you’ve met my second."
"Yes, and I like him a lot."
That, I can believe. Frederick is easy to talk to, even if he acts a bit under-educated. But he's always been able to follow me, and he's also one of the best fighters currently in my Clan – fast, agile, deadly. "He’s… competent. Don’t let his manner fool you."
He looks at me gravely. "I didn’t." He sits down on my bed and smiles at me. His presence is like the soothing sound of rain onto a canopy of leaves, and I can feel myself relax. "Makes good coffee, too."
Helplessly, I smile back, feeling at ease and free of last night's events for the first time since waking up. Now that my mind is finally clear again, I remember what happened, and Callum's role in it. "You’ve saved my life, Callum," I say softly. It is a debt I can never repay.
"Yes, I did," he says gravely. "It was close, Daedalus."
"I know. I had no choice." It was my life or Julian's, and that was a choice with no choice. My young Ventrue friend would not have survived the projectile of a Dragon's Breath gun, but I am so much older than him. I had a chance.
And, apparently, I also had Callum to aid me.
He waves away my argument. "Let’s just say you were lucky, okay? I can only guess about the job you have with Julian, and it’s none of my business. Thus, you don’t need to explain anything to me. The few little things Freddy has told me are sufficient to give me an inkling of the kind of Pandora’s Box I’d be about to open."
"It’s been my experience that knowledge is better than ignorance, and you have learned too much already. Knowing more won’t make a difference."
He looks at me sternly. "You can’t try that hypnotizing stuff on me any more."
"Callum, it’s much too late for that. Nor would I want to. I’m committed to this course of action, and Julian has at least tacitly allowed me to proceed, or you wouldn’t be here." In truth, there are only three ways out for Callum at this point, and only one of them I'll accept. Embrace. Callum will have to become one of us now.
With a heavy heart I watch him look around my sanctuary. Unbeknownst to him, his last days as a mortal have begun. He didn't ask for this. His only mistake was befriending me. By being kinder to me than any human ever was, he gave up his lease on mortal life.
"Amazing," he muses. "You’re an amateur psychologist, a body-guard, a painter – and a good one at that – what else is it you’re hiding behind those beautiful sad eyes of yours?"
It is like a physical blow. My emotions, still too close to the surface after all that happened, surge up like a heat wave behind my eyes. He called me beautiful... No one has ever done that before. Fighting for control, I turn my face away and clench my teeth to keep from letting the sobs escape.
"Hey," he says softly. "I didn’t want to hurt your feelings." And then I feel his hand on my face as he tries to make me look at him. His warm, mortal hand on my face.
The feelings are too strong, or I am too weak to hold them in. I can only lie there, eyes closed, as the blood-tears leak out from under my lids. Ridicule, scorn, insult, even hate I can withstand with stoicism – yet kindness I have no defense against.
I feel cloth on my face as Callum wipes away the bloody stains, and then, wordlessly, he takes my hand and holds it.
"I’m sorry," I force out. "You haven’t done anything, it’s just… a little too much."
How am I supposed to resist the devastating effects of kindness when I'm not even sure I want to resist? Looking at our entwined hands, I realize that this is something I don't ever want to be without again: His normal, beautiful hand holding my misshapen paw with its bloodstained talons. He could strike me down now, drain me dry, extinguish me, and I wouldn't even fight him as long as he held my hand and stroked my face while doing it.
The ultimate weapon against the fearsome Nosferatu: hug him.
Amidst my tears, I smile at the silly thought. But at least, I can now control myself enough to calm down and stop the embarrassing display of emotion. Maybe it's possible to develop a resistance, if only he does it often enough? At the moment, he seems determined to inure me against his effect, as our hands are still clasped and he makes no move to let go.
"How long can you stay?" I ask finally, reluctantly. "It’s evening already. What about the children?"
He nods. "In fact, I’ll have to leave quite soon. I took the day off to stay by your side, but, yes, the kids do need me."
So, he did stay here all day, saw me at my worst and my lowest. He now knows all about me, and still he smiles at me. I have, indeed, found a friend.
Right on the heels of that heady thought follows my usual fear that this will be the last I'll ever see of him, that he'll somehow be snatched away from me by fate if I let him out of my sight now. "I'll follow you later tonight," I blurt.
He looks at me reproachfully over the rim of his glasses. "If you think so..."
On top of everything, he's worried about me! I try to look stronger than I feel. "I’ll be fine by then. Don’t worry."
"I look forward to seeing you vertical." With that, he gets up and leaves me to my thoughts.
I am not alone for long. Light steps on the stairway leading to the mansion wake me from the healing slumber I must have slipped into and inform me that I'm about to have another visitor. It's not hard to guess who that might be.
The blood I've drunk has greatly speeded up my recovery. My wound has closed completely, and I’m able to get out of bed and into my shirt and vest with minimal discomfort and just in time to greet Julian.
"Daedalus, good to see you're up and about," my Prince says, his relief unmistakable. "How are you feeling?"
"Much improved, thank you, Julian."
I wave him to a seat so I can sit down myself. Despite my words, almost meeting my Final Death is not something I can brush off easily after all, it appears. Aggravated by phosphorus burns, the injury will take some time to heal completely.
Julian sits down in my chair while I draw up the wooden crate and gratefully sink down on it, making a mental note to get a second chair for visitors. Caine's teeth, I hate to feel weak and helpless like this!
He regards me critically. "You're still looking a little pale." He smiles suddenly, falling back on an old joke. "Paler than normal, I mean."
I incline my head to acknowledge his words and the meaning behind them, and for a moment, we both remember how we first met. "Oh my God, you're pale!" were Julian's words when he saw me in the woods near his home in Manzanita. He was still mortal then, and although Archon Raine had told me of his plans to Embrace the young man and had already obtained Julian's permission, that had been his first encounter with a Nosferatu.
He'd taken it surprisingly well.
"I'm almost recovered," I assure him. "Was anyone else injured?"
"Cameron has taken a few slashes trying to overpower Bertie, but he was healed within the hour. Bertie is destroyed. Cash got him before he could fire another shot at me."
I nod. Frenzy or not, attacking a Prince is punishable by Final Death. And Bertie, undoubtedly, had served other nefarious purposes in this domain. It's good that we could identify him in this manner before he was able to wreak serious havoc.
"Thank you for saving my life, Daedalus," Julian says formally. "It would have been... undignified to meet my Final Death at the hands of a Brujah neonate."
I nod wordlessly. That's one way of putting it.
"But I must ask you to never do that again." He's turned quite serious. "Do you understand me? Never again sacrifice your existence to save mine. You are not worth less than I am, do you hear me?"
"I accepted the risk."
"If it hadn't been for the human doctor, you'd be extinguished by now." He looks at me with an expression I almost have to call pleading. "As a personal favor to me, Daedalus, please don't save me again. Not at the risk of your Final Death."
I regard him calmly. "You know that I can't do that, Julian. But maybe we can compromise. I won't save you - if you don't invite your own Final Death."
He gives a slight smile. "Sometimes, that can't be avoided."
"My point exactly."
We sit in silence for a moment.
"We've got to talk about something else," he changes the subject.
"About Callum. I know."
"What do you intend to do about him?" Julian demands. "He's seen you and Frederick. He’s not stupid, and it's a foregone conclusion that he guessed what you are, maybe even what I am. He's endangering the Masquerade."
"I know." Final Death may yet be in my future. Julian is my friend, but he's also the Prince of this city. After what happened, he can't cover for me any longer. "I can't embrace him into Nosferatu Clan, Julian. It would ruin his life. He's a doctor. A man whose purpose in life is to help others. Cursed by my blood, he couldn't be that anymore. It would drive him insane."
He frowns. "You know that if he's not embraced, he'll have to be killed or turned into a ghoul."
I draw a breath. "I want you to embrace him."
Not too long ago, I made the same request of Julian. Then, he refused me. But now, he has no reason. Ventrue are often doctors, and he must have seen, as I did, that Callum would make an excellent addition to Julian's Clan.
He looks at me, an expression of surprise in his face, but then he smiles. "Well, we both know that being Ventrue does not keep one from being friends with a Nosferatu."
I smile back at him, feeling warmed at this proof that he's stopped sulking. His friendship means much to me. Among all the Kindred I've known, he's the one I could stand to lose least of all.
"And I do owe him your life," he continues intensely, his brown eyes not leaving mine, "just as I owe you mine. Very well. If he agrees, I'll embrace him."
I incline my head. "I'll ask him tonight."
To be continued...