Daniel's smile hovered uncertainly, the cup and saucer he held in his hands rattling. "You must find me so silly. A grown man having night terrors, being afraid of the dark." His attempt at a smile finally gave up and faded away. He looked down into the depths of his tea, but the leaves floating in the dark liquid offered him no advice he could discern.
The baron stirred across from him and Daniel's eyes flashed up. The old man was only settling himself in his chair, his chin now resting in one gnarled hand, the other lazily spinning the contents of his own tea cup. He wasn't looking at Daniel, much to the young man's relief, but was staring into the fire, golden eyes reflecting the flames back oddly. When the silence stretched out to an unbearable length, Daniel took a sip from his cup. His hand gave a traitorous shake and a healthy slosh of the warm tea spilled onto his shirt. Yelping he dropped the cup in shock… But no tinkling of broken glass met his ears. Alexander had reached over and caught the cup before it met the floor. Daniel hadn't even seen him move from his chair. The baron straightened from his crouch and set the cup on the mantle. "The china set was expensive." He murmured, as if that explained his surprising speed and dexterity.
Daniel nodded, cringing back into his chair. "You startle appalling easy." Alexander flashed a grin over his shoulder before returning to his seat.
"My apologies. I have always been…high strung. Nervous. And these dark days even more so."
Again that amused smile from Alexander's thin lips. "No need for apologies, my dear boy. Under the present circumstances I would be shocked if you weren't a bit overwrought. There is also no shame in it. Do not be so concerned over how I will judge you, for I assure you I am not."
"You are too kind to me." Daniel fidgeted. He disliked it when the baron stared at him so. Those yellow eyes could be piercing and when they unflinchingly focused on him he felt as if the baron could pry into his very thoughts.
"Perhaps I am." A smirk twitched on his lips before he turned that penetrating look back to the flames. After a moment he added, "Do you think you will sleep tonight?"
"No, Alexander. I do not think so." He sighed. "I am so very feeble, am I not?"
"Daniel, I think you are very human."
Alexander gave a small bark of laughter. "I guess you would find that a compliment."
"Nothing, Daniel. An old man's ramblings. Would you object to a spot of brandy? I have a rather good brand and it would be nice to finally share it with someone. Drinking alone tends to make one maudlin I find."
"Yes, of course. No, don't trouble yourself. I'll fetch it. It's the least I can do for keeping you from your bed at this hour."
"I sleep little and I do not mind being denied my rest if it's for your sake."
Daniel hurried to the table underneath the mirror where several bottles of spirits and glasses waited. "Which bottle is it?"
"The round one." Alexander gestured towards a squat bottle to the left. There was dust on it and it didn't look as if the baron had drunk from it much. Daniel selected two glasses, holding them up to the candlelight to make sure they weren't dirty. He measured out equal amounts into each glass.
Alexander rose to his feet; the movement reflected in the mirror caused Daniel to raise his eyes. He almost dropped the bottle. He whirled around. There was Alexander's back outlined by the glow of the fire, shoulder's still broad despite his age, white hair falling just below his shoulders. He had one hand against the small of his back, the other resting on the mantle. Daniel glanced back in the mirror. What stood in front of the fire was decidedly not the baron. The creature turned towards him and Daniel gasped, twisted around again.
The baron was looking at Daniel, one eyebrow raised. "Are you having trouble? Do you need assistance?"
"No, I can manage. I just got…distracted."
"By what?" The exasperation was clear in his voice.
"I was looking at my reflection." He looked over his shoulder. The monstrosity was worse when viewed from the fore. "I am much changed." He picked up one glass and walked towards the baron. His hand was trembling again. He prayed he wouldn't spill it.
"I would not take you for a vain man." Alexander plucked the glass from him. One long finger tucked a strand of hair behind Daniel's ear. "Besides, I still find you comely enough."
Daniel remembered the clawed fingers the baron's reflection had sported and shuddered. He took a step back. The baron's expression fell into puzzlement before smoothing into something blank. "But where is yours? I thought you would join me."
"I'm sorry, my lord. I find I have no taste for alcohol tonight. My stomach feels rather delicate. In fact, I feel I should retire to my own rooms. Maybe a bit of a lie down would do me some good."
"You were fine a moment ago." The baron frowned, eyes searching Daniel's face.
"That is the thing about sudden illnesses. They are…sudden." He hastily took a step back as Alexander reached for his hand. "I shall take my leave now. Good night, Alexander." He fled; leaving Alexander frozen, hand still extended towards him.
Daniel soon developed an obsession with mirrors. Alexander seemed to be bemused by his charge's new fondness for them, shaking his head and muttering to himself whenever Daniel diverted from his course to seemingly check his hair or fix his attire. In reality Daniel was not interested in his own appearance but that of the old man who always seemed to be just a few steps behind him.
After the night he had awakened Alexander, crawling to his door like a cringing dog with its tail between his legs, he had not seen the horror in the mirror again. Whenever he peered into reflective surfaces it was always his own face and the well worn, slightly annoyed, but very human visage of Alexander that he saw. He should have been relieved. He should have chalked the whole night up to his mind being overly stimulated by his terrors and his exhaustion, but he still could not help himself from looking as if to catch the baron unawares.
Daniel woke up screaming. He quickly rolled over and smothered his cries into his pillow. When he had exhausted himself and the sharp edges of his nightmare had begun to dull with his waking, he finally rolled over. Pressing a hand against his eyes he began to sob. How could he bear this? How could he continue on if all his nights were fated to be like this? He should just go ahead and end it. His death had probably become an inevitable and irrevocable thing from the moment he had touched the orb, maybe from the moment he had set foot on the sands of Algeria.
An image of a room came unbidden to his mind's eye, pushing the dire thoughts aside. The polished wood of the furniture, the thick rug before the fire cheerily burning in the grate; it was the study in Alexander's rooms. There was a sense of beckoning, as if an invitation were being extended to him. The feeling grew stronger the more he hesitated. How odd. Despite himself he found his legs swinging from under the warm covers. He yelped when his bare feet hit the cold stone of the floor. Quickly he jumped to the nearest rug, wrapping his arms around himself to keep warm. If he was going to venture out into the drafty halls he should probably get properly dressed. Calling on the baron at this hour especially called for decent attire. He drifted told his wardrobe, but the sense of urgency grew to become most overwhelming. He gave into it, snatching up a dressing gown that was flung over a chair and fastening the belt as he walked into the halls. He gritted his teeth as his feet grew more and more numb with every step he took, but he had no idea where he had thrown his slippers if he even had any to begin with.
He was shivering by the time he reached the door to the baron's private chambers. The door swung open before he could bring up his hand to wrap upon it. Alexander looked as if he had dressed in a hurry, his shirt was only half buttoned up and his hair was disheveled. Perhaps Daniel was not the only one to be having restless dreams. "Well, don't just stand there, come in." Alexander snapped, opening the door wider and turning his back to Daniel to walk over to the fire.
Daniel flushed and hurried to do as bid. He shut the door behind him and followed the baron, taking his accustomed seat. He sank into the plush of his chair with a sigh, grateful to be warm at last.
"Daniel, I am aghast. You look half frozen through. Do you not have any common sense?" Alexander rose from his chair and fetched a throw rug. He threw it over the young man's lap. "You don't even have shoes on. You will catch your death if you aren't careful." Something flashed in his eyes and Daniel wondered if it was regret at his choice of words. Being reminded of his possible demise conjured a chill that could not be dispelled by the fire. He tucked the rug around his legs and turned towards the flames.
Alexander reached out and then snatched his hand back. "Would you like some tea? Or perhaps now you'll take something a bit stronger with me."
"Tea to begin with if you please." He closed his eyes and listened to the clanging of the utensils and water being poured into the kettle. There was a screech of metal that Daniel assumed was the lead bar for the kettle being swung to hang over the fire. He opened his eyes, suddenly ashamed of himself. "I am sorry. It should me preparing the tea."
"Truly?" Alexander began to lay out the cups and saucers onto the table. "And why is that?"
"Because I'm…Well, I'm the…" He was going to point out that he was the younger of the two, but could not gauge how well that would be received. Though he bore many wrinkles and his fingers were as gnarled as the branches of a tree, he was still as spry as Daniel. Maybe even more so. "I'm your guest." He finished.
"I thought it was the custom of your people to have the host wait upon his guests. Am I mistaken?"
"Then please go back to your dozing. I shall stir you when the tea is ready."
Daniel wanted to ask what the baron would do while he drifted off. He had the unsettling feeling that the man would just settle back into his chair, fingers steepled, and watch him slumber. That was an unnerving thought. He opened one eye. Alexander was back in his chair, but he had a book open on his knee. His shirt hung open and Daniel was amazed to see that the flesh on his chest and neck did not seem to be as marked by age as the rest of him. He wondered why that was so. His eye drifted shut and he turned so his cheek was pressed against the wing of the chair. Assured that the baron was not staring at him, he let himself nap. He didn't register the slight thumps that may have denoted a book being shut and then put aside.
The whistle of the tea kettle roused him. He rubbed the sleep from his eyes with the back of his hand. Alexander chuckled. "You make a cozy picture, curled up in front of the fire like a house cat."
In his sleep Daniel had tucked his legs up underneath him, something that would have had the sternest of English matrons tsking at him. He hurriedly put his feet back on the floor.
"Don't stand on ceremony, Daniel." He said, wrapping a cloth around his hand and retrieving the kettle. "Set up the teapot and leaves please."
Daniel did as bade and watched as Alexander poured out the hot water, steam dancing in the air. "I'm-"
"Please do not apologize anymore. I am at my limit for apologies."
He smiled. "That's better. Now let's divert ourselves from the reason you find yourself in my chambers in the middle of the night with more pleasing topics. I assume you read."
"I did go to university." Daniel answered, defensive. "I'm proficient in French, Latin, a little of Arabic, not to mention classical languages such as Greek, Aramaic and Hieroglyphs.
Alexander laughed. "I meant for pleasure. You read for pleasure. Calm yourself, little one."
Daniel became extraordinarily fascinated by the tea in his cup. "Oh. Yes. I do like to read."
"Are you blushing or is the heat of the room causing you to flush?"
"Don't tease me." It came out as a near wail, which made the baron laugh again.
"Sometimes I cannot seem to help it around you. Do stop puffing up like that; I will endeavor to be nice from now on. Who do you read?"
"I am rather fond of Milton and bits and pieces of Chaucer were rather nice. Oh, and the roman authors are always quite smashing."
"Anyone more recent?"
Daniel only looked at him, puzzled. Alexander smiled to himself. "Have you read anyone from the Germanic lands?"
Daniel shook his head.
"A pity. There are some remarkable writers and poets. I may be a bit biased of course."
"I must admit that I never had much interest in the German language before I received your letter. I had never thought to travel any of the Germanic states. Who would you recommend?"
"From Germany or in general?"
The discourse on books lasted several hours. They went through another pot of tea and Daniel discovered that the baron had a wicked sense of humor, making small jests and jibes that Daniel only realized were such several minutes after Alexander had made them. The jokes were most often at Daniel's expense, but he didn't mind. It didn't seem to be out of maliciousness, just mild teasing. The only other person who had teased him thus had been Herbert.
He frowned as he remembered his old mentor. Dead now. His body probably lying unburied in the desert, whatever that unholy abomination hadn't gorged itself on now food for jackals.
"None of that, Daniel. No more apologies and no more black moods, at least for tonight."
"I'm…Yes. I think I will have that stiff drink you offered a bit ago. I'll get it. Do you want one as well?"
"If I am assured of your company this time, I think I can imbibe."
Daniel hurried to the bottles before a word of apology could worm its way past his lips. As he was pouring, he glanced up into the mirror, as had become his ingrained habit. The thing was resting in the baron's chair. Abhorrent chin resting in a clawed hand, its head pointed in Daniel's direction, foul yellow eyes trained on him, unwavering. It smiled, or maybe leered would be a more apt word. God, there were so many teeth.
He swooned. He caught himself in time, one hand striking the table and clutching on. He pulled himself back to his feet as soon as the world became in focus again. A cry behind him and he heard Alexander getting to his feet coming to his aid. Strong hands on his shoulders trying to support him, but he pushed the other man away. The baron stumbled back and Daniel turned his back to him. Head lowered he panted for breath. His hands were shaking and he could feel that he was bathed in sweat.
The abomination was hovering behind his reflection in the mirror. He turned. Alexander was a few feet behind him, standing preternaturally still. Daniel could feel the raw energy boiling from him. If Daniel made another misstep, if he even looked near to collapse, the man would be at his side in an instant whether he wanted his assistance or not.
He took a step towards Alexander. "I'm-" He didn't know whether the last word would have been "all right" or "sorry". He stumbled, his legs no longer containing the strength to keep him upright. And Alexander caught him.
Daniel found his nose pressed into the small space between Alexander's collarbones. Alexander had one arm around his shoulders and a hand tangled in his hair, keeping him in place, keeping him upright. He tried to thank the man, but all that could come out was a sort of hum. He closed his eyes, focused on his breathing, on making it even instead of the erratic mess it was now. Alexander smelled of medicine. Of the fire. Of tea. Safe things, normal things. Things an abhorrent monstrosity shouldn't smell like.
"Are you all right? Just nod, don't try to speak."
Daniel nodded. Alexander's hold on him loosened enough for him to stand up straight. He was still encircled by the baron's arm though and he was now being petted. It felt nice, having his hair stroked like that. He closed his eyes tight, squeezing them shut. It was still Alexander before him when he opened them again. There was no expression on his face at all besides a slight wariness in his eyes.
Daniel ran a hand down his chest. It felt normal enough. A heart beat against his palm, strong and steady. He followed the ladder of ribs. Normal. No sign of the extra…bits he had spied on the creature in the mirror.
Alexander could have been made of stone, frozen in place as he was. It should have been a warning to stop, but once he had started he found that he could not cease his explorations. Surely eyes could be deceived, but not touch. He slid a hand up Alexander's throat, the pulse fluttering against his fingertips like a butterfly's wings. He cupped the baron's weathered cheek in the palm of his hand. He wanted to pull the bottom lip down a little and see if Alexander's teeth were as sharp as the one's his reflection bore, but he was sure that it would have been inexcusable and he was certain he was already trying the baron's patience as it was.
Daniel gave a small laugh and let himself collapse against Alexander, his forehead resting on the man's shoulder. The arms around him tightened. "What has gotten into you tonight?" The baron murmured into his hair.
"I do not know. I think…I think I may be going mad." He realized that he was sobbing. It had to be the only explanation though. The man who was holding him, who he was clinging to, was as real and as perfectly formed as any he had ever encountered. No extra appendages, no bony bits perturbing from the flesh, no sharp claws, nor any sharper teeth. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry." He repeated in between sobs, stricken that he couldn't keep his promise to Alexander to not apologize anymore, not sure how he could not.
"Get a hold of yourself." The growl didn't have much force behind it, but Daniel did make the effort none the less. He sniffed, pulled back, and raised a hand to touch that cheek again. He looked up at Alexander, aware suddenly that were standing quite close. He could feel Alexander's breath on his face and wondered why it seemed to be as uneven as his own.
He opened his mouth for one more apology… And found the words stopped by the simple expedient method of the baron's lips over his own. He gasped, tried to take a step back, but found he could not because Alexander seemed rather intent on keeping him pressed against himself and that Daniel's own hands seemed to be tangled in Alexander's shirt.
They pulled apart and Daniel took in a hungry mouthful of air. Alexander's lips didn't stray far, they brushed the corner of his mouth, kissed his cheek, mouthed at the line of his jaw. Daniel ran his fingers through the white locks, silkier than he would have imagined, addictive.
Alexander nipped him on his neck, soothed it with kisses afterward. It made Daniel give a high cry that had the baron pulling him even closer. When the baron began to suckle at a point over his jugular, Daniel began to squirm, the hand in Alexander's hair clenching involuntarily. Alexander pulled away, a strange light in his gold eyes. He didn't speak, just regarded the young man with a hint of challenge. Daniel let his eyes drift half shut and tilted his head, all the invitation Alexander needed to continue. The kiss was searing, calming, shattering, a chaotic explosion of emotions within his breast, but he was certain of one thing: he didn't want it to end.
Again that night, the image of a room rose in his mind. A grand four poster bed, the bed clothes all a rich burgundy in color. Even though he had never seen the room before, he knew it was Alexander's bed chamber and he much desired to go there, the sooner the better. He felt the baron laugh though the kiss didn't break. A hand on his waist and some slight pressure and he found himself being walked backwards towards a door. He made the mistake of opening his eyes again. They were right in front of the mirror. Daniel pushed Alexander from him. It was the baron's turn to catch himself on the table. "Daniel, what in the hells-"
"I'm sorry, I can't." He shook his head violently, trying to dispel the image of himself in a passionate embrace with a monster. "I just can't." He ran.
Out of the corner of his eye he thought he saw Alexander start towards him and halt, attention suddenly distracted by the mirror, he thought Alexander might have cursed, but he did not tarry long enough to be certain.
In case anyone calls it into question (though I can't imagine that anyone would) Daniel isn't counting Latin among the classical languages because it was still used in his time for medical and research journals, so technically it wasn't as dead as a door nail yet. And also because Daniel is silly like that. Alexander would most definitely call it classical and is silently laughing at Daniel and finding him utterly charming. (I used to be a huge Latin nerd in high school, can you tell?)