AUTHOR'S NOTE: I must say, I don't enjoy Edward/Carlisle as a couple, but a dear friend on Livejournal alternately threatened, provoked and nicely requested this fic, so I wrote it. Because I donate blood to the Volturi regularly, I couldn't omit Aro from the story. Thus, everything in the present tense refers to the events of the Spanish 'Flu epidemic of 1918, and everything in italics and the past tense refers to Carlisle's time in Volterra. The title is taken from a shamelessly tweaked Goethe quote. All historical inaccuracies are my own.
The room is all whitewash and bed-frames, aseptic. Someone has used lye soap to scour away the stench of slow death, but Carlisle smells it still, clinging with the fingers of a ghoulish lover. They put the weakest here, the ones who are certainly marked for the grave. When coughed blood marks the sheets in crimson carnations and breath turns to gagging, Carlisle knows the end is imminent. The company of the dying, he finds, is not so terrible a thing now.
He cannot help. Oh, he knows that he can pray in half of a dozen languages, but better men than he have done the same and influenza has not relinquished its hold upon them. There is always hand-wringing and fiddling with the accoutrements of medicine too, but the red-cloaked reaper doesn't seem interested in either.
Nonetheless, he remains.
Carlisle cannot bear to return to his house, where his only companionship is that of canvas and oil and burgundy eyes, painted by Solimena years ago in another place.
—blood on mouths, and throats and fingers, everywhere and anywhere, as though a madman dipped his hands into a wound and smeared them on parchment—
Carlisle did not remember parting his lips, but an unholy sound, the wail of a sinner who had stumbled upon Lucifer's domain filled the air.
"My dear friend," Aro sighed, quite casually for a man with a child's shattered frame at his feet, "what is the meaning of this?" Pale faces, scattered like snowflakes at the chamber's periphery, watched the tawny-eyed vampire as though he were raving in a fever dream.
"What have you done?" Carlisle demanded, made reckless by righteousness.
"We have fed," the ancient said, in the tone of one explaining astronomy to an infant. "What is the meaning of your outburst?"
"This is monstrous!"
"Such pedestrian exaggeration," Aro purred. "My dear ones, will you allow us a moment? I must comfort the newcomer."
The dull susurrus of the footfalls faded, leaving only the corpse-room and two men.
"Immortality has its price," the dark-haired immortal said, garnet-flecked hands clasped in front of him. "You cannot condemn us for paying it."
"There are other ways," Carlisle insisted, the afternoon sun granting him fire.
"Perhaps. But we, unlike you, do not wish to be nomads and wanderers...and that, my young friend, has its advantages," Aro said. "Permit me to show you the library..."
Judas was bought by silver, and the angel Carlisle by vellum and ink. He did not have the presence of mind to notice such things as he hastily side-stepped a mother and son's corpses.
There are so many mothers in the wards, both smooth-cheeked and grey-haired. Though every breath is wrung from between their ribs, they use it to ask about their children if they yet live, to speak of their memories if they had died. The nurses listen as best they can and Carlisle does the same.
Every name and tale he hears becomes eternal, though its bearer is merely meat and bone now.
It is only a handful of letters, a little pompous, a little regal. The consonants crack and flake like the spine of an abused novel on the woman's lips, and Carlisle listens. The blood at the corners of her mouth, on her pillowcase, on the sheet pressed to her breast, tells him that there is no time.
"My boy—my boy has no-one," she whispers.
It is not an uncommon thing to be left an orphan, the golden doctor thinks, but asks nothing. Elizabeth Masen, as his records tell him, will speak precisely what she means, as those in death's embrace do.
"He is young," she pauses, coughs and Carlisle smells metal once more. "He has—"
Edward Anthony Masen, b. 1901. He has a future, Carlisle substitutes and nods gravely. "I will ensure your son's wellbeing, Mrs. Masen," he swears. There is no Bible here, no witnesses, but the pledge resonates nonetheless.
He cannot quite fathom why he has promised such a foolish thing, an oath that cannot be kept, but duty's flame laps at his heart.
Elizabeth Masen dies that warm afternoon—at least, Caslisle presumes it is warm, as the sun shines and the flies circle. It has been decades since he has properly felt anything at all.
Dido and Aeneas was a decadent opera, all spilling love writ large in blood. Sentiments swelled with the music as inhuman notes were hit and sustained. It was a tragedy, a romance, fate and cruelty and—
Carlisle could feel his heart shudder from exquisite sensation. Music, such delightful, rending music occupied the void between life and heaven itself. Beside him Aro watched politely. Perhaps he was moved, but his features were only marked by cautious curiosity.
"Did you enjoy it, dear Carlisle?" the ancient inquired, seeking his companion's hand.
Several breathless exclamations later, Aro laughed. "Your mind is ablaze," he said, entertained.
"And you, my friend? What did you think?"
Aro shrugged thin shoulders. "It was lovely, of course. Dido was not quite in top form tonight. Mortality and its trials, I suppose."
Carlisle wondered then how his mentor could be as unyielding as flecked granite. The riddle was pondered for many days in his own room, where he hummed the opening notes of the opera while the screams of the dying crawled through the walls.
Edward Masen is very beautiful, and just as doomed.
His body carries the heavy smell of old sweat and expelled blood, though the nurses try to keep the sheets pristine, especially when nothing more can be done. The hollows beneath his eyes are bruises now, like Carlisle's, but the skin of his cheeks is pure marble, unmarked and pale.
Rot is on his breath, grave dirt and trickling time.
"What am I to do with you?" Carlisle wonders, fisting his hands in the fabric of a cloth used to dab brows in a futile exercise of palliative comfort.
If and only if the golden doctor is very honest (before the mocking gaze of that thrice-damned Solimena) he will admit that there is more than a mother's promise chaining him to Edward's bedside.
The boy has pianist's hands, long and slender and silver, fingertips that have never laboured, palms that have cradled nothing heavier than a pen. His hair is polished, a mocking, penny-bright shade of copper that refuses to fade even in the ravages of pestilence, and... oh God, his mouth.
Though rust has settled in the cracks of his lips, something of a smile remains there, so very young and purer than water. That innocence, that lovely, breathless thing makes Carlisle's knees turn from bone to clay and drives the thorns of lust deep into his chest.
No, not lust.
This is a stronger sentiment, unfamiliar and aching, for he has not lingered in the realm of feeling for years. It intoxicates like heroes' mead, and he vows that he will do anything for Edward Anthony Masen, though it be reckless and sinful and mad.
Carlisle still could not say how he left Italy in one piece, or whether he had, in fact, left at all.
The bartering of the soul was a steady procession into the black.
It began simply, when the pages of folios by Galileo and Machiavelli were enough to ward away the prayers of those whom the Volturi fed upon. Music and glorious, glittering art tinted the world with grace though the foundations of the castle bled with the cries of the tortured. Injustice could be overlooked, for there was conversation here, and laughter in the company of friends whose minds were faceted and cutting as diamonds shaped by the most gifted hands.
Nothing of significance shattered the reverie, no revelation or cataclysm. By then, Carlisle doubted that he had the conscience for such a thing. Shamefully, ignominiously, it was only thirst to see the New World that drove him from the city of stone, his ears filled with whispers and invitations to return, a cursed painting in his possession.
It was only when he reached an English port that his mind came back. He had wept, tearlessly and punctuated only by appeals to God, for days.
Wounds, the sort that could not be seen, turned to scars that stung then seamed into abysmal apathy.
"You want to live," Carlisle says to a sleeping Edward in a vampire's whisper. "Of course you do. Why wouldn't you?"
He is convincing himself, or perhaps someone else entirely. He is no longer certain.
"There is only one way for that to happen, dear boy," he continues, affection tasting of feathers and summer on his tongue. "And I pray that You forgive me."
He interlaces a cold hand with the boy's clammy fingers, slick with slimy sweat. "I do not ask you to understand how much I—"
The word cannot be taken lightly, but then, neither can its omission.
"—love you. Just know that I do."
Carlisle's mouth tastes of metal and perfect joy soon after. The tessellations of frost on his heart turn to dew.
In the year of Our Lord 1918, Edward Anthony Masen dies. He is reborn a few days later (two, four, three, what does it matter?) and redeems only one man.
It could be blasphemy, but Carlisle does not mind.