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Dead On Your Feet

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Aleksi woke with a cry, misery already making a home in his chest before his eyes had even fully opened.

He’d had such pleasant dreams, and yet they’d melt away with the coming day’s torment. The thought was enough to bring tears to his eyes, creeping fear rising up in his chest again, enough to suffocate him if he was still human, because his dreams were the only respite he’d had for months. They were the one place the hunters could never touch him, and whilst those hours were sweet, they always came to an end.

It was too much, it was always too much. How could he have been so stupid? He’d known his sire had never wanted him, had only thought of him as a burden. He’d known, and yet he’d still trusted him.

“Hide here, you’ll be safe, and we can come back for you,” his sire had said, and it had been the only time he’d shown Aleski anything even remotely like affection and kindness, so Aleksi had gone along. He’d believed him, because surely his sire would never stoop low enough to use him as bait, but he had done, and Aleksi was paying the price.

I’ll die here, and the thought was almost hysterical. A cackle left his parched mouth, because of course it would end this way. Little Aleksi Kaunisvesi: a loner drifting through life who’d been forced out of the sun and left to die, chained up in some freezing basement, blinded and broken.

Except the basement wasn’t cold anymore, and nor was he chained. A whimper left his mouth at that, remembering the brands the hunters had wielded, remembering the burns and blisters they’d left. The image of his skin bubbling as he’d screamed had been imprinted on his mind.

Change was never good, change was always a warning, he knew that by now.

What are they going to do to me? He sat up, curling his legs up to his chest. A blanket slipped down to pool around his hips, but that was absurd, because why would the hunters ever show him the tiniest modicum of kindness? It couldn’t be real, it wasn’t real, he had to have simply lost his mind. Now I’m insane I’ll be useless to them. They’ll put me down, I know it. Yet the thought was oddly calm. Death had been staring him in the face ever since his capture; it seemed almost right and proper for him to die now.

Still, when the door opened and soft footsteps entered the room, he couldn’t withhold a gasp, unseeing eyes fixed on them, because he still didn’t want to die. It would mean an end to the torture, yes, but death was so final, and he wasn’t ready.

“Please,” he heard himself whimper, but it didn’t sound like it came from his mouth, like he was far away, listening to it all rather than participating. Even the pressure of a stuffy nose and tears in his eyes didn’t feel quite like it was happening to him. “I didn’t do anything. I was hiding, I never did anything, please don’t hurt me anymore.” 

And then he couldn’t stop the tears, nor the pressure in his chest as his panic stopped his breath. The hunters’ leader would call him pathetic for it, sneering and striding over to slap him to give him something to really cry about, but he couldn’t help it.

The newcomer paused. “I-” he began, “I wasn’t going to,” he said, almost questiongly.

His voice. There was something about his voice, and it made Aleksi pause, his panic gobbled up by confusion. “Your voice,” he said. His own cracked. “Who are you?” Because he wasn’t one of the hunters, unless he was a very new one. 

But he smelled different. Aleksi’s sense of smell wasn’t as great as older vampire’s, but it was still good enough for him to realise the newcomer didn’t smell human. Some of his fear began to recede, enough for him to take a breath to calm himself.

“I’m Joel,” the man said slowly, and his voice was so gentle, so calm. “What do you remember of yesterday?” he added softly.

Aleksi took another deep breath; a great, juddering thing, and tried to think.

“The hunters hurt me,” he said, voice rasping. “They burnt me and strangled me, knowing that won’t kill me, knowing I’m too starved to heal, and they did it again and again. Then I fell asleep, and dreamt of freedom,” Aleksi finished. The last sentence was barely audible to his own ears.

Joel didn’t reply to that. Aleksi thought he might have actually left, but then the bed dipped under Joel’s weight as he sat down. Aleksi flinched hard, shrinking back from where he felt the mattress dip, but he didn’t make a sound until gentle fingers touched his hand. He curled his up into a fist, but Joel gently uncurled them enough to slip his hand into.

“You are free, Aleksi. It wasn’t a dream. Those hunters are dead, I ripped their throats out.”

Aleksi froze at that. “You what?” he asked, tears bubbling in his throat.

Joel gently urged Aleksi’s hand away from his body, his thumb rubbing across the ridge of Aleksi’s knuckles comfortingly. Aleksi swallowed hard, trying to summon the courage to let him, and felt the mattress shift and Joel changed positions. He let Joel stretch his arm out, could feel the radiating warmth of skin enough to know his fingers were close to Joel’s face.

Then his fingers met something hard. He flinched back, but replaced his fingers on the object. Joel let him feel around, and it wasn’t until Aleksi’s fingers met something soft and wet and muscular that gave way beneath his probing that he realised the hard thing had been one of Joel’s teeth.

No. Those aren’t teeth , he thought, feeling the hardened length and testing its point. Those are fangs. 

He pulled his hand back, the meaning of Joel’s fangs settling in his chest. “You’re a vampire too?” he asked tearfully.

He couldn’t stop the flinch when Joel cupped one of his cheeks. The older vampire’s skin was warm, so warm, and Aleksi distantly supposed he must have recently fed.

“No-one’s ever going to hurt you again, Aleksi,” Joel said, and his voice was so mournful it could have broken Aleksi’s heart.

He burst into tears again.