AS YOU WERE
CHARACTERS: Aro, Didyme
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Merina2 requested that I write her a story about Aro and Didyme playing chess and talking as part of a Christmas exchange. Since Didyme predeceased the development and arrival of chess in Europe, I decided to make this story a present-day AU, where Didyme was permitted to leave Volterra with Marcus unhindered, among other non-canonical aspects.
Because I'm an appalling chess player, I didn't design Aro and Didyme's game myself. It was instead heavily borrowed from a match played by John Cochrane vs. Howard Staunton in 1861.
Finally, Merry Christmas (oh-so-belatedly) and Happy New Year's to Merina2! Go check out her writing, because she's lovely and hilarious and clever.
Rome; present day
Aro waited, his perfectly polished oxford tapping an erratic pattern on concrete and cobblestones. A watch's silvered tick informed him that it was a quarter past three, and the hastily-scrawled letter in his pocket, written in mauve ink and signed Didyme, reminded him that his guest was due fifteen minutes ago.
Of course, his dear little sister would keep him waiting. She knew, no doubt, how sorely she was missed and how much leniency that would afford her. Sharing his blood made her all-too-adept at finding his weaknesses.
The winter wind chewed at the edges of his grey scarf with sharp little teeth. Not even the rib-white facade of the church behind him, a baroque monstrosity commissioned by an overeager pope, could keep the cold from settling into Aro's bones. Although the promise of rain caressed the sky with long, chilly fingers, Piazza Navone surged with tourists. Cameras whirring like the insect-wings, they clustered around the fountain at the square's centre, cooing about the motionless dance of stonework in a dozen languages.
He could smell the tang of metal in the water, the whisper of iron in pounding blood. The wet thrum of heartbeats became an unnecessary temptation.
Sibling or no, Didyme was a minute away from a stern text message.
As though the thought had summoned her, she rounded the corner, announced by the clack of high-heeled boots—she had never enjoyed being tiny. Fashionable and too clever, Aro assessed, glancing at the neat drape of her pea-coat, the elegant fold of black-gloved hands.
"My darling," he purred, opening his arms to her.
He had hoped for a kiss on the cheek, a glimpse of her mind, exquisite and beloved in equal parts. Besides, she could hardly call herself Italian while overlooking that custom. As though she had discerned his desires and found them amusing, she folded herself into his embrace instead, nuzzling a pale face against the cashmere of his jacket.
"You're formal," she said, glancing at him critically. "I didn't know that immortality came with a dress code."
Aro made a face. His suit was rather dashing, and at least he didn't look like a teenager. The childishness, the brotherishness, of his thoughts made him smile. It had been too long since he had felt young enough to make fun of himself.
"Not all of us can wear blue jeans, sweetheart," he said mildly.
"Oh, this is a matter of won't." She stepped away from him, not unkindly. Time could not tarnish his sister's strawberry-sweet smile. It was the only feature of hers that he would call beautiful.
"Are we already disagreeing?" Indulgent laughter laced his words.
"I missed you, brother," she said. Tucking a small hand around his arm, she gestured into the middle distance dramatically. "Lead on."
If Aro had Marcus' gift, he was certain that he would see the distance between Didyme and himself filled with the weave of bonds, bright as gems and strengthening.
"Where are you taking me?" she questioned after a few minutes of directionless drifting amidst narrow streets and buildings painted in the shades of string. Her eyes were unnatural, made dull by lenses, but wide with wonder nonetheless.
Aro wanted to ask her whether she missed Rome. The eternal city had clawed a place for itself in his marrow, and he could not imagine his sister being an exception to its draw. Only a reluctance to question her departure held his tongue. She hated the insinuation that her mind, caught like a butterfly behind glass at sixteen, was not equal to his. Besides, it would fracture his heart if she told him that Italy held no charms for her, that her delight stemmed from the starry spray of decorative lights, marking the beginning of Christmas.
"Nowhere in particular. I am buying time before I must return you to your beloved Marcus and bring you both to Volterra," he said.
Truth and loneliness lingered behind those words like ghosts. He saw her once every handful of centuries, and he did not think it sufficient. Her opinion on the matter had always remained a mystery, concealed behind gloves and excuses.
"Jealous, brother?" She was so small that her head barely reached his throat, but she raised herself on tiptoe so that he could see the mischief in her smirk.
He could feel the treacherous swell of her gift, dragging him away from gloom with the strength of the tide.
"Of course. Nobody is quite that eager to welcome me back," he said.
"I'd recommend a longer absence."
Didyme, it seemed, was not above lapsing into seriousness and concealing it with banter. Aro tucked the thought into his pocket like a lucky coin.
"This will do." He steered Didyme into the oak-framed darkness of a doorway.
It was neither a tavern not a cafe, this little establishment Aro had chosen to enter. Unapologetically charmless, it contained only quiet and the gentle apathy of those more interested in their own affairs than the sudden entrance of strangers. The furniture was mismatched, a jumble of decades represented in wood and dark upholstery; the walls a collection of paintings and postcards and images of saints.
The mess, with barely concealed nostalgia behind it, brought to mind the palazzo in Volterra that he was so desperately avoiding. Aro could not say whether that pleased or angered him.
The absence of Christmas paraphernalia, however, was a blessing.
The sole employee's eyes were failing. Misty splashes of cataracts betrayed that, and Aro found himself relieved. Between him and the handful of patrons, studiously reading or doggedly swallowing the contents of their glasses, there would be no-one to stare or question why a seemingly young man and his younger companion spoke a dialect of Greek that had died more than a thousand years ago.
He ordered wine for the pair of them, deep and red and smelling of oak. Didyme made a face.
"Fermented grape juice," she said, displeased.
"Fermented grape blood," Aro corrected.
She choked back a giggle, settling herself in a stiff leather chair. Her brother perched in front of her on a spindly divan that looked as if it was only seconds from a dusty death.
The coffee table between them had a chessboard inlaid into its surface, a neat splash of alternating squares that had survived time and beverages relatively unharmed. It took Didyme only a moment to find the corresponding set of chess pieces, secured in an old box and encased in plum velvet.
"I have an offer for you." She toyed with a statuette while she spoke, and when her fingers slowed, Aro noted that it was an ebony queen.
"Oh?" Games amused him, although his skill always outstripped that of his challengers.
"If you win, you may see my thoughts."
She knew him too well. No other option but agreement presented itself.
"Compelling. And what would you request if you won?" he wondered. With a careless nail, he tapped the stem of his wineglass, until the space between them sang.
"Tell me something true."
"I could lie," he admitted.
The suggestion did not seem to trouble her. Aro did not like contemplating the possibility that his sidesteps and evasions were translucent in her eyes.
With deft hands, Didyme arranged black pawns on her side of the board. Aro raised a brow. He had not played with pale pieces in centuries. Somehow, his opponents always cast him as the villain of the drama, giving him an army of dark marble to complete the pantomime. Arranging his ivory soldiers on the board took longer than he anticipated, each gesture unfamiliar.
"My turn, I believe," he said. A white pawn darted forward. Didyme mirrored the move.
"You are lovely as ever," he continued, his bishop creeping into play. A bold attack coupled with loving words pleased him. His companion, snake-swift though she was, could never spot ruthlessness until it was too late.
Didyme's nose crinkled with ill-suppressed amusement as she copied him once more.
"I wish I could say the same for you, darling brother," she said.
"I have no doubt that eloping to the south of France with Sulpicia would improve my complexion, but it would also leave the world to the unusual mercy of Caius and Carlisle." His gaze lingered on the crumbling pallor of his hands, so stark that the pieces beneath his fingers seemed yellowed as parchment.
"We moved to Sweden, Marcus and I. Wonderful people, by the way," she said.
Aro's smile turned mocking. "In terms of flavour or national character?"
His sister refused to dignify that jibe with a response. Instead, she beamed like a Renaissance cherub while claiming one of his pawns with her bishop. "And how are Caius and Carlisle?"
"The former burns people, and the latter cuts them open and fiddles with their insides. Medicine, he calls it."
Aro exchanged a small, secret smirk with his too-charming competitor. She loved his brothers by name and blood—as she loved anyone who would accept it—but that could not stop her from laughing at Caius' mad wrath, Carlisle's affected piety.
"How similar," she remarked, tapping her lip with a daintily-manicured fingertip, painted the sugared hue of cherry blossoms. A pensive wrinkle marred her forehead.
"And dear Carlisle has found himself a mate. You will meet her shortly, I assume." Aro could not keep a note of caution from his voice. His younger sister had been introduced the golden doctor centuries ago, and seduced him effortlessly. It was not her body that she offered him, but human blood. Only her goodness, that honeyed purity that illuminated her from within and could be blown out and relit as easily as a candle had convinced Carlisle that feeding upon mortals was no sin. The third brother doctor was her creation and she had always been selfish with those.
She only grinned.
"And this mate of his is perfectly lovely, no doubt?"
"Esme is simply precious." Aro thought of caramel curls, wounded eyes and the cloying conclusion that grown men and women, monsters from first to last, needed a mother.
"Athenodora and Sulpicia are plotting her death while we speak." It was not a question, but a spoken fact. Her dimples deepened, as they always did when she was entertained.
Aro had forgotten how much he adored his sister.
"Oh, most definitely." He plucked a knight from its place amongst the ranks. His favourite piece, lawless and whimsical, promised him victory.
Didyme's laughter was the blur of wind-chimes. "And they hate each other still—Caius and Carlisle?"
Her obsidian knight matched Aro's, move for erratic move.
"Virulently and very politely," he said.
"That works well."
It did. When he asked for their judgment, his pale-haired brothers glared at one another, and promptly gave opposing verdicts out of spite. Aro merely sided with the more convenient view.
"Never tell them that," he murmured.
He promptly captured her bishop, and she took his knight in return.
"And where is Marcus?" he inquired, somewhat sourly. His sister was far too skilled at this game, or perhaps he was altogether too fond of underestimating her.
"He insisted upon giving us privacy." Something soft dusted her words like snow, and her gaze turned besotted.
It was foolish to expect Didyme's affection for her husband to decrease, Aro reasoned. Immortal love eluded erosion. Even so, two thousand years in the company of Marcus should have granted her some insight, if nothing else.
Their remaining bishops were removed from play in quick succession.
"You haven't asked about Sulpicia," he said. There were better ways to gain confessions from Didyme than simply demanding outright.
To make a point, he captured her queen with his own, his smile serene.
"I assumed she still had the capacity to make you act like a fool," Didyme said as her rook flashed across the board and stole his queen in return.
The game would be over quickly, he knew. A struggle without the strongest piece never lasted long, and securing a victory was doubly difficult. Nonetheless, Aro's thoughts turned to watercolour, running and vivid, as they always did when his wife danced into his mind.
"I doubt she's happy." The admission came so easily, considering that it was a sentiment he had never voiced before. It was half a lie, of course; he could feel Sulpicia's displeasure beneath his fingers every time he tried to soothe her.
"What have you done this time?" She always sided with her sisters, he recalled, disgruntled. It had been centuries since either of them had needed defending.
Her knight was captured by his.
"Nothing. That might be it," he said.
Sulpicia blossomed when she was surrounded by war and fear, anger scraped to madness. The bloody birth of his realm, when nothing was certain and lives were discarded as easily as pawns on a harlequin board set her eyes aflame. This, the quiet lull of peaceful rule, calmed by Carlisle and enforced by Caius, bored her. Aro had seen the same dullness in his sister's gaze just before she decided that she had no interest in Volterra, in him.
"Oh?" Didyme wondered, rapt. Her hands had left her dark pieces in deadly constellations.
"She wanted an empire, and I gave her a family," Aro said, and awaited her reassurance. It did not come.
Didyme's coral-tinted mouth slipped into a frown. "Marcus is the opposite. Too happy, perhaps."
Aro remembered the way his brother looked on his wedding. It was the expression of a man coming home after miserable decades marked only by suffering and uncertainty. He bowed his head in agreement, disliking the number of his pieces lined at the board's edge, useless.
"He was fiercer once. He could endure." Her voice was a whisper, shivering with some sentiment that threatened to drown her in a salty, stinging rush.
That much was true. Marcus, young and wild-eyed, has been as vicious as Caius with none of the fear seeping through.
"And now?" He could understand her worry if Didyme confessed that the slow tumble of time had polished away Marcus' edges.
"He has me. What else could he possibly need?" Her voice was bitter as the untouched wine between them and weary, as though she had carried a chafing burden for too long.
"You could always come back to us," he offered. Marcus had been happy in Volterra once, surrounded by ideals and ideas, impassioned opinions and politics delicate as blown glass. If his wife resented being the absolute center of his attentions, perhaps she would accept the offer.
"To you. And I'd rather not contribute my talents to your collection," she said, wary. Her hands, a finer echo of his own, closed over her knight.
"You'd prefer the alternative?"
He had forgotten how much his sister needed to be adored. Perhaps he had even wished that she would abandon that trait with age.
"Yes. Check and mate."
His king was wretchedly trapped between a knight, a rook, a handful of pawns. It was a clever play, no doubt, but Aro did not like losing. He knocked over the crowned piece with mocking fingers, and sighed.
Defeat settled like seasickness, slick and squirming, in his belly, though it was only a playful skirmish with his dear sibling.
"Ah—good game," he murmured, scrambling for the right words and settling on the brief exchange that disgruntled opponents gave one another at football matches. The tactlessness of it amused him.
"Yes," she agreed, beginning to sort the pieces. "And I believe you owe me a secret."
Once again, his hands cupped the cool surface of his wineglass. The smell of the bloody liquid made his head swim as he glanced across the pitted table. Didyme's curls had escaped from their neat braid, and victory lent quicksilver to her smile. She looked so beautifully human that Aro almost trusted her.
"It's falling apart, you know. From within," he said, stumbling in just the right places to make the confession seem credible. No other details slipped out, and he waited to see what his sister would assume he was referring to—his bond with his mate and brothers, his rule, something else entirely.
It was, after all, in her nature to play the rescuer. Perhaps, if she thought that he needed her enough, she would return to him and to Volterra.
Instead, she sighed, her shoulders shuddering into uncertain softness.
"I know," she said, heavy and quiet, nothing like herself. Even the tendrils of her gift seemed dim and dying. "I can't change it."
He had no idea how to comfort this shadow of his Didyme. Instead, he busied himself with the remnants of their game. When the pieces had been encased in velvet and tucked away, he rose. A handful of Euros was pressed neatly on the table, held in place by the edge of an ashtray. There was comfort in the mundane; he had stumbled onto that realization long ago.
"Come with me," he said. "We are obligated to attend a Christmas party planned by vampires now. You cannot force me to endure that alone, darling."
"Yuletide cheer brought to us by Jane and Alec," she said. "Somehow, I think that might make everything better."
She aimed for cynicism, but hope crept in instead.
Winter was making itself known outside, pressing frosty kisses against glass and turning breath to mist. Streetlights glowed everywhere as the remnants of a sullen twilight washed the horizon in amber.
Aro did not know what to say. Instead, he hugged his sister too hard. On any other day, she would have squirmed and giggled in his arms, as she did when she was only a child in her older brother's embrace, but today, she folded herself against him just as insistently. Her sharp chin buried itself in his shoulder.
"Sometimes," she breathed, "I think that I made a mistake somewhere along the way." Her words, a cold confession, did not cloud the air.
"Sometimes," he admitted, "I think I did too. But the outcome wouldn't improve if we had done something differently."
"Maybe," Didyme decided, nibbling her lip. She hated the habit but returned to it often, every time doubt clouded her thoughts.
"You're arrogant," she grinned.
"You're short. And your hair is funny." It came so easily, being an older brother.
"Take it back." She was imperious for a moment, before laughter shattered that mask.
He let her take the lead, back to Marcus and the lives they had carved for themselves from the rubble of too many years. It did not matter, the ruler inside him insisted, that he had made his sister smile, that she was as brave and afraid as he was. Nonetheless, he held her hand and walked with her through Rome, patiently naming the churches as their evening bells tolled, sending pigeons flying amidst the wheeling stars.