April 1, 1840
For a time following Daniel's harsh punishment, he was reserved and timid. Henry was beginning to think he would remain that way but as the bruises faded, Daniel's personality returned. He would always cringe a little more when Henry was stern with him, but at least his spirit was not totally destroyed. Henry was relieved and in turn suppressed his temper as best he could. They grew close again, then closer than ever.
Daniel resumed his work at the museum, but filled his spare hours reading books borrowed from Paternoster's occult library. He read the books Paternoster had mentioned, even if some of the fantastic imagery in the Necronomicon gave him nightmares. Terrible as the books were, Daniel could not be frightened by mere words on paper when he had faced such horrors in reality. The nightmares were worth the price of gaining forbidden knowledge, Daniel decided. He delved further and further into the esoteric, much to Paternoster's approval. Henry tolerated the studies and soothed the young man through the worst of his night terrors.
Today Daniel was in a good mood as he worked in the British Museum. He was only cataloging another insect collection (how many people were so fascinated by the grotesque things?) but he was lost in thought. He had read a particularly fascinating theory in De Vermis Mysteriis and kept pondering its implications. He whistled a tune from a concert he and Henry had attended the other night as he worked.
Daniel cried out and nearly dropped the glass case of beetles. He was grabbed by the shoulder and turned around forcefully. He expected Henry or even Alexander, but it was only Charles Ledford. Daniel was about to greet him but his smile fell. The look of intensity in Charles' hazel eyes and the harshness of his grip made Daniel wince away from him.
"Charles, what on earth?"
"Daniel, you must come with me," Charles said. "I know you've braved danger before, and you are a lucky man. Come with me right away."
"I'm not—I haven't—Why? Go with you where?"
"Please, there's no time, the thing is devilish fast!" Charles said, tugging Daniel's arm. "Please, Daniel, I need your help. You are the only one that has ever suspected just how strange and powerful those artifacts are. I can trust no other. Please come with me."
The words had no sooner left Daniel's mouth than Charles was pushing him out of the stuffy little office. They garnered a couple of glances but no more. The men working in the museum were used to the zeal of academics and adventurers. Daniel wished someone would stop them, he had an ominous feeling about all this.
As Daniel struggled to keep up with Charles, he looked up to scrutinize the man. Charles had lost a few pounds, making his lean face fiercer than ever. His blond hair was never neat anymore, always a few inches too long and shaggy. He had changed and Daniel recognized the changes: the marks of touching the strange unknown. Daniel wondered if he should be afraid of him. Just as the thought touched his mind, Charles pulled out a small pistol. Daniel's heart stopped and he skidded to a halt.
Charles turned the gun so the handle faced Daniel and handed it to him. Then he drew his own revolver. Daniel gaped at the guns and then quickly looked around. What would anyone think if they saw them brandishing guns in the halls of the great museum? Daniel had no time to protest before Charles was off again. Daniel jogged to catch up.
"At first I thought that I was going mad," Charles said. "I thought the dreams and those damned hieroglyphs were working upon my imagination. Even when poor Goodfell died and Arlington was nearly crushed to death beneath those stones, I forced myself to look away from the truth. But I cannot any longer! No, I have seen it! I have seen the beast with my own eyes!"
"What beast? Charles, what are you talking about?"
"It must have come over with the artifacts, sneaking into a crate somehow," Charles said. "You know, I … I wonder if those three sailors that died during the voyage were actually murdered by that fiend? It is not one of the things in the bas reliefs, but it is some sort of lower form of them. It is some degraded descendant of those monsters, it must be."
"But you said that those reptiles were only gods worshiped by some old human tribe," Daniel protested. "You said that they did not exist outside of mythology."
"Well, I was wrong," Charles said ruefully. "I was horribly, horribly wrong, and people have died because of it."
Daniel said nothing. They approached the room where the artifacts were kept and the men stopped in their tracks. Even Charles looked hesitant to go inside. The museum was eerily deserted. It was so quiet that they could hear the patter of rain upon the windows of the foyer.
"You do believe me, don't you, Daniel?" Charles asked pleadingly. "I am sorry I called you superstitious, so very sorry. Now I understand. You must have seen something bizarre in Africa. You did, didn't you?"
"Yes," Daniel admitted. "I have seen many strange things, Charles. Things you couldn't imagine—Well, perhaps now you could. I believe you."
"And you will help me?"
Daniel drew a deep breath and shut his eyes. A moth to the flame. From somewhere he could not recall, Daniel recalled a voice telling him, You are not a moth and you need not be burned by the flames. The voice calmed him and he looked resolutely up at Charles.
"Yes. I will help you, Charles."
"Thank you, my friend. Thank you."
Daniel smiled, and then everything went dark. Charles paled and looked all around. He drew his revolver and Daniel did the same with his borrowed pistol. The soft spring rain burst into a violent downpour. Daniel's mouth went dry and he swallowed hard. Charles drew a very deep breath and his lips tightened into a thin line. His fear sharpened his ferocity and he looked more like the majestic felines of Africa than ever.
Charles opened his mouth to speak but was interrupted by a soft sound from inside the room of artifacts. Charles rushed in and Daniel followed him. He faltered upon being greeted by darkness. The light from the windows was faint due to the gloomy day outside.
"Charles, we should get a light," Daniel whispered. "It's too dark."
Charles was too intent on his hunt to turn back. Daniel rushed towards him. If he lost Charles in the dark he might panic and flee. He hated to act so childish but he could not help reaching out and grasping the end of Charles' jacket. Charles was too focused on his task to take notice.
They moved slowly through the room, the sound of scurrying occasionally meeting their ears. The sounds came from different places randomly, as if the thing was taunting them. Daniel did not know whether he wanted to lay eyes upon it to end the suspense or never see the beast. The reptilian things and their bizarre cuneiform writings leered at the two men from their stone prisons. With the knowledge of the Necronomicon and other such texts, Daniel knew more than he wanted to about that civilization. Yes, it had been a civilization, one predating mankind. The cuneiform symbols were more familiar than ever to Daniel and he had to look away before their messages imprinted themselves on his brain.
The scurrying sounded very close and Charles ran towards it. His jacket slipped out of Daniel's hand and Daniel rushed to keep near him. There was a muffled thud and Daniel froze.
"Charles?" he whispered. Upon getting no answer his voice raised several octaves. "Charles?"
"It is coming from beneath us," Charles murmured. He stomped his foot on the wooden floor. "Yes. Yes, of course!"
Daniel was too frightened of losing the man again to stop himself from reaching out to him. He grabbed Charles' arm and was dragged along. They went through a door set in the far back wall that Daniel recognized as an entrance to the basement storage area. Charles moved to go down but Daniel pulled him back with all his strength.
"It's too dark!" he exclaimed. "Charles, be reasonable, there is no light down there. We must fetch a lantern."
"So fetch one!" Charles snapped.
Daniel was loathe to leave him alone, but he obeyed. He sprinted from the room, hands shaking badly. He found a lantern all too soon in a nearby office. He lit it with one of his own matches and then dashed back towards the room with the Ledford artifacts. He paused in the hallway and glanced at the foyer. He could run and leave Charles to his mad hunt. He should run and save himself. Henry would drag him away kicking and screaming if he were there.
No, Daniel thought forcefully. No, I cannot abandon my friend. I was able to summon up the courage to save myself in Brennenburg, unworthy as I was of saving. I must do the same now to save the life of a good man. I cannot keep running from the darkness.
Daniel braced himself and ran back to Charles. That is, he rushed back to where he had last seen Charles. He was horrified to find the man gone. Had he actually gone down to the basement alone in the dark?
Daniel opened his mouth to call but decided against it. If Charles were alive, they would run into each other at some point. If he were dead, there was nothing more to be done. Whatever was down there, Daniel did not want to attract its attention. Daniel steadied his breathing so he would not pant noisily and started down the stairs.
For once, the memory of Brennenburg was a help. Daniel walked with the stealth he had learned in the blasted castle, hardly making a sound. The reptilian smell was nauseatingly strong down here. More of the hateful artifacts were stored in the depths of the basement. How many of the damn things did Charles bring back? Daniel wondered. I hope Paternoster does get his hands on them and locks them up where people who know better can control them.
The basement storage area was one large expanse divided by stone partitions. Daniel made his way through the open space, hiding behind crates or tarp-covered objects every time he heard the scurrying. He came to a section that held Egyptian artifacts and hid behind a sarcophagus. The humanoid figure beneath the tarp looked like a covered corpse, and Daniel kept imagining the lid creaking open and a bandage-wrapped terror climbing out. He almost ran at that thought but willed himself forward.
A louder noise drew Daniel into a section where statues covered by tarps stood like ghostly sentinels. The footsteps he heard this time came from normal shoes and he thought he heard an English voice muttering.
"Charles?" he ventured.
The sound of a gunshot nearly made Daniel drop both the gun and the lantern. He gasped and dodged back around the stone partition. He steadied his grip on the pistol, gritting his teeth.
The scurrying footsteps went right by him. Daniel bit his tongue and drew blood in the effort not to cry out. He dashed back around the partition and ran into Charles. He felt cold steel pressed against his neck.
"It's me!" he hissed. "It's me, Daniel."
The gun left his neck. Daniel lifted the lantern and Charles blinked down at him. Then there was another scurrying sound and he pushed Daniel aside. He ran into the next section and trained his revolver on the darkness. Daniel scrambled after him to provide light. It was difficult to tell if any of the shadows were cast by the monster.
Charles snatched the lantern from Daniel's hand and set it down atop a crate. Daniel's hand twitched in annoyance and fear. Then Charles left him as well, dashing into the room.
Daniel remained frozen by the light. It made the shadows even darker and he could no longer see Charles. He shifted on his feet uncertainly. He should not be here. He had escaped mortal terror once, he should not be here chasing it again.
There was a shout and several gunshots. Then a meaty thump and a strangled sound. The revolver went off again.
Daniel moved hesitantly forward. Then the scurrying went past him and he glimpsed a vile green thing moving past him. He whirled around and a malicious hiss sounded in his ear. He yelped and spun around again, aiming the gun wildly. Something swished past his leg and then pain blossomed in his calf. Daniel yelled in pain and sank to one knee. He could feel the warm spread of blood on his pants leg. He heard it coming closer and looked up.
Daniel's presence had drawn it into the light and he almost wished it hadn't. The thing moved like an ape although shaped like a reptile, loping on hind legs occasionally supported by its arms. It had a long thick tail like an alligator that whipped around the stone floor. It opened its elongated scaly snout to bare far too many sharp teeth. Daniel met its gaze and was stunned to see malicious intent there—sentient intent. The thing was grinning down at him in triumph!
Daniel reacted with the speed of a madman but the precision of a survivor. Now that the thing had come into the light he had a clear shot. This was not Brennenburg. He was not unarmed and mentally confused. He knew better now. He knew better and he could do better. He lifted the gun and aimed it at the reptile's head. The first shot went wild and the thing lunged at him. Time seemed to slow down and Daniel lowered his aim. The next shot hit the thing's skull point blank, yet it kept coming. Teeth overtook Daniel's arm, gun and all. As pain tore through Daniel's arm he quickly squeezed off as many shots as he could.
Daniel was still screaming and pulling the trigger when he realized the gun was empty. The pain in his arm had not worsened and the reptile was not moving. His nose and mouth were filled with the odor of it and its cold dead weight was upon him. Daniel carefully disengaged his arm from inside the reptile's maw and shoved the beast off himself. As he struggled to sit up, Charles came to his side. He offered Daniel a hand and pulled him to his feet. Charles was bleeding from a cut on his forehead and he had scratches and cuts along his body beneath torn clothing. Daniel inspected his own arm and was relieved that the gashes were only superficial. When they were done assessing their injuries, the two men turned and stared down at the reptile.
"Damn this thing," Charles growled, kicking it. "Who is even going to believe this? Surely they will think it is a hoax. I'm not certain anyone should know something so atrocious exists in the modern world."
"It was intelligent," Daniel said. "Savage but intelligent. It took pleasure in attacking me, I could see that in its eyes. No, I don't think people should know of this."
"What should we do?" Charles asked. "Burn it?"
"No!" Daniel lifted his head with a small smile. "No, I know someone that might appreciate a specimen such as this. Here, Charles, let's wrap it in one of these tarps. We can transport it out of the museum and somewhere … safe."
"Wherever could that be?" Charles eyed the reptile. "Are we even certain it's dead?"
Daniel looked warily at the reptile. He nudged it with one shoe and the thing did not move. He shrugged. Having killed it himself, he was pleased to notice that his fear had flown. He felt rather elated.
"It must be," he said. "Let's get it out of here before someone comes down. It's a miracle no one has come after all those gunshots. Let's hurry!"
Charles gave him an impressed expression. Daniel felt downright joyful as they covered the hideous dead thing and heaved it through the basement. They left the basement through a back exit that led onto the street to avoid any attention the gunshots might have brought. They managed to hail a carriage without any trouble, as the drivers were used to the antics of the museum's staff. The two men settled down in the carriage as they were driven through the rainy London streets.
"You conducted yourself admirably, Daniel," Charles said. "I would have died if you had not been there. I was right to call upon you for help and I am truly grateful."
"I never could have faced such a thing alone," Daniel said. "You're so very brave, Charles."
"You flatter me and I will not hear it," Charles said. "You are the man of the hour, Daniel. Thank you. Thank you so very, very much."
Daniel blushed and nodded. Charles took a flask from his inner jacket pocket and handed it to Daniel. Daniel drank deeply and then Charles followed his lead. They passed the flask back and forth between them, exchanging saliva as if kissing. Daniel was more drunk on adrenaline than on alcohol. He felt that he could have shot a dozen more of the reptiles. He felt strong and brave and important. Even Charles Ledford admired him now!
The two men drank and talked and laughed away the last of their nerves. The city was left behind in its sooty shadow. The rain smelled cleaner outside the city, and the scenery of passing trees lulled the men into quiet. At last the carriage came to a stop.
"Why, this is Winslow Paternoster's home!" Charles exclaimed. "Ah, I see, he does collect many curios and rare specimens. I suppose he won't be shocked. Much of his art shocks more than this reptile."
They unloaded their grisly burden and knocked upon the doors. Paternoster's staff knew members of the Sol Invictus Mithras on sight, so Daniel was allowed in immediately. Winslow Octavio Paternoster himself met them in the foyer and guided them upstairs. Daniel was wary of going to the third floor, but he heard nothing from Alexander. They did not go to the room of 'curios', but a laboratory on the third floor's West Wing. The reptile was lifted onto a steel table and uncovered. Paternoster leaned over it to study it with his keen gray gaze. He touched the scales with the tips of his long fingers and murmured something in another language.
"Marvelous," Paternoster said. "What a fascinating remnant. It is rather disappointing to think such a civilization has existed only to degenerate to this. Mr. Ledford, how much do you know of this matter?"
"I know it's real," Charles said wonderingly. "It is all fantastically real. I tried so very hard to deny it, but I can no longer do so. Those bas reliefs depicted an actual civilization, one of intelligent reptilians that predates men. My God! To think such things once ruled this world. Such an ugly world this was before God granted it to mankind."
Daniel and Paternoster shared a look. They knew there was no God such as the Bible spoke of, most of the Sol Invictus Mithras did. Paternoster shut his eyes for a moment, deep in thought.
"As odious as the truth is, this is knowledge that must be gathered," Paternoster said. He opened his hollow eyes and smiled placidly at Charles. "The world may not need know about it, but we must preserve their peace of mind. If there are any more of these things and their artifacts, do you not believe they should be gathered up at once?"
"Yes, I agree," Charles said. "They should be gathered and destroyed—locked away at the very least. I always thought that your collections were mere curios, but they are more than that, aren't they?"
"It is easiest to hide the truth in plain sight," Paternoster said. "Making a mockery of it and denouncing it as fraud is the best way of assuring the public that such things do not exist at all. I have devoted my life to protecting the good plain folk of this country from such horrors as I know lurk in this world."
"You truly are a benevolent man, Mr. Paternoster," Charles said. "I shall endeavor to do all in my power to aid your cause now that I know the truth of it."
"You are not frightened off?"
Daniel could tell that Paternoster had decided not to induct Charles into the Sol Invictus Mithras. Charles was a good man, perhaps too good. Even this event had not opened his mind enough for him to accept the truths of the universe were not so black and white as his religion made them out to be. He would be a useful tool for the group but no more. Daniel smirked smugly to himself. He had outdone Charles Ledford in many ways. There was no longer any reason for the jealousy that had driven him to betray Henry. It was worth it, Daniel thought. I am sorry for hurting Henry and that whipping was awful, but it was all worth it.
"Yes, I think that is just the thing," Charles was saying now. "I've been restless to get back out there and now we have a goal in mind. If you are willing to provide funds, Mr. Paternoster, then I will begin charting an expedition immediately upon returning to London."
"I will provide all that is necessary," Paternoster said. "Now that you have uncovered the truth of these myths of the reptilian civilization, I have information that can help you find a suitable location to explore. And I am sure Daniel will be eager to join your efforts, won't you, Daniel?"
"Yes, of course!" Charles cried, slapping Daniel's shoulder. "You are a lucky charm, my friend. I would not dream of leaving you out of it!"
Daniel grinned. He thought of Henry and his not-yet-vanquished fears. He thought of a million reasons why this was a bad idea. Yet he extended his hand and Charles shook it. Charles gripped Daniel's hand in both of his after the handshake.
"This will be the sort of adventure you've been after, lad," Charles said. "You'll see!"
"I have no doubt!"
They talked a while longer over the dead reptile's body. Charles and Daniel were like two boys setting out for a forbidden land, despite the difference in their ages. Paternoster watched with a satisfied smile.
They left the laboratory, Paternoster locking it behind them. They were heading for the staircase when Daniel hesitated. He bid the men go on and was left on the third floor alone. He could not say why, but he headed for the East Wing. He found the doors with the lion heads unlocked and went inside. He heard the rain beating upon the windowpanes and nothing more. He flinched around the taxidermy specimen of the Gatherer of Brennenburg, trying not to look at it. He wished that he had asked Charles to reload the pistol he still carried. He wondered if Charles would let him keep it. It was a great comfort to have a gun.
Daniel came to the shelf where Alexander's Memory Capsule was stored. There were other similar capsules and Daniel wondered who or what they contained. The capsule was dark and silent.
"Alexander, are you still there?" Daniel inquired. "I remembered the dream. I remembered you telling me that I need not be burned by the flames. I remember it all, Alexander."
Daniel? Is that really you?
"Were you, er, sleeping? Do you need sleep? In there?"
I let my consciousness drift. It is of no consequence. I am happy to see you, Daniel. Have you decided to forgive me after all?
"I think that I can now," Daniel said. "After all, I did get revenge for it and hurt you as much. Besides that, I know that my nature drove me to do those things as much as you did. We are both guilty and selfish. We were both wrong in Brennenburg."
Yes. Yes, I can admit as much.
"All that is behind me," Daniel said. "For the first time, I feel that I can truly move on. My life is strange and it can still be painful, but it is my own again. I always wanted more than the usual. I always sought out adventure, heedless of the price to be paid for it."
You remind me a bit of myself in that way. I sought knowledge and power in my own world, and I paid dearly for it in this exile.
"Yes, we are alike," Daniel confessed. "That is why, for better or worse, you have become a part of me. You forged me in Brennenburg. I will never deny that you were cruel or that I hated you for it. I cannot tell you that I would not go back and change it all if I could. But it is a part of me, as are you. We have both hurt each other and sinned and been hurt by others. You have forgiven me, and now I forgive you."
It is well, Daniel. I am glad. I see that you have finally found your place in life, as well. An expedition, hm?
"It really is impolite to read my mind that way."
I cannot help it. Humans minds are so … Well, let us just say that you are very transparent to me.
"Well, yes, I am going into the world again," Daniel said. "I don't know what I'll tell Henry, but he did promise he would not interfere with my career. I will miss him so very much, though. Was I too rash in accepting? Everything has happened so fast today."
Perhaps there is a solution.
Let Henry accompany you.
"Henry? But he has clients here and-and his work!"
Men go on holiday. As for Henry's work, I daresay it would be easier for him to conduct his experiments outside his homeland. You need not be parted for so long. Unless you wish to be separated? He can be overbearing.
"No, no! I don't want to be without Henry even for a moment," Daniel said quickly. "I will propose the idea of his accompanying the expedition. I would love to travel with him by my side."
"Of course I would," Daniel said. "Charles is very dashing and a friend, but he is not a lover. Nor is he a part of the Sol Invictus Mithras. He is too earnest and good for my tastes. Besides, I doubt he is partial to men. Not that I would ever forsake Henry, of course."
Well I am sure it will all work out, then.
"What of you, Alexander?" Daniel asked. "Shall you simply be locked away in that Memory Capsule forever?"
Perhaps, perhaps not. I do not think the man you know as 'Paternoster' intends to set me free anytime soon. But do not worry about me, Daniel. I am a patient man.
"Is it very horrible, shut away in the dark?"
My mind wanders and I dream. I am at peace. It gives me time to reflect and reconsider certain things. When the time comes, I may walk this Earth of yours again. For now, do not worry on my behalf.
Lightning flashed and thunder rumbled. Daniel went to the window and looked out at the strengthening storm. It was peaceful outside the city. Daniel wondered if Henry would ever consider moving into a house like this someday.
You should go before it gets later and colder, Daniel. I will be here. If you like, we will talk again.
"Yes. Yes, I think we will," Daniel said. "I hate to keep a secret from Henry, but I do miss talking to you. Strange, isn't it?"
There are stranger things.
"There certainly are. Well, I should go," Daniel said. "Goodbye for now, Alexander."
Daniel returned home just in time for dinner to be served. He giddily recounted his encounter with the reptilian being in the museum to Henry as they ate. Henry was horrified to hear how close his beloved had come to death, but he held his tongue. He had promised himself that he would let Daniel enjoy some independence, even if it meant he had to accept the youth would be facing danger alone. He swallowed his worry and let himself enjoy Daniel's exuberant pride.
Daniel grew quiet over dessert. His nervousness set Henry on edge in turn. He knew the way Daniel behaved when he had done something bad. After the whipping at Paternoster's mansion, Daniel had become wary of confessions. His hand twitched and he fidgeted and could not meet Henry's eyes.
"What is it, Daniel?" Henry sighed at last. "Sit still and say what you have to say. I can't bear your nerves anymore."
"You did say that you would not interfere with my career. You promised."
"You see, Mr. Paternoster and Charles decided it would be prudent to plan another expedition to the area where the reptilians lived," Daniel said. "Mr. Paternoster will provide funding, of course. Charles asked me to … to accompany him. He thinks I'm a lucky charm, of all things. He was very impressed with me today."
Henry had not needed to make it a question but Daniel nodded. Then he bowed his head, shoulders hunched. Despite Henry's promise, Henry could tell the boy expected punishment for his actions. Henry reached across the table and Daniel actually flinched. Exasperated, Henry took Daniel's hand into his own.
"Daniel, I meant what I said," Henry reassured him. "You need your independence and your ambition, I've accepted that. It isn't easy, but I have. I will miss you and worry about you, but if you must go, you will go with my … permission."
Henry could not lie enough to say 'blessing'. Daniel beamed at him and leaned over the table to kiss him. They finished dessert in peace and retired to the parlor. Henry lit a cigar while Daniel sat by the fire, gazing into it. The room was quiet save for the sound of the rain and a ticking grandfather clock.
Daniel came over and sat on Henry's lap. Henry set down his paper and put an arm around Daniel's waist. They shared a long, deep kiss.
"You do not have to let me go alone," Daniel said. "I was thinking about it, and you could do with a holiday. Come with us."
"With you? On the expedition?"
"Why not?" Daniel asked. "You could perform your experiments overseas, couldn't you? The Sol Invictus Mithras has branches all over the world. You have been researching more than seeing clients these days, haven't you?"
"That is true," Henry mused. "Go with you … Hm. It may not be such a mad idea. You should have someone there to look after you and keep you out of trouble, after all."
"Yes, I should," Daniel said with playful gravity. "I may behave badly. If you are not there, who would punish me for it?"
Henry laughed and ruffled his hair.
"Who indeed?" Henry tipped Daniel's face up by the chin. "Would you really want me there to guide you? Punish you? Hm?"
"I may need you there." Daniel nuzzled his face in Henry's neck. "To protect me from myself. To spank me if I'm bad."
Henry kissed him hard. They fell from the chair to the floor, Daniel beneath Henry. Henry peeled away the youth's clothes to explore his body with his mouth. Daniel groaned softly in pleasure. When he was turned onto his stomach, Henry gave his bottom a few teasing swats. He was amazed Daniel still found pleasure in pain after the whipping. The boy was a glutton for punishment.
The evening turned to night and the downpour softened. The two men ended up lying before the fire on the carpet. Henry was half-dressed but in his arms Daniel was naked. His pale skin was flushed and glowed in the firelight. His lank brown hair had come loose from its ribbon and fell gently around his handsome face. Henry traced the few thin streaks of white in it, then the old scars on his back. At least the worst of his trials were in the past. He could grow now. Henry had glimpsed the man Daniel could be over dinner, and he loved him. He promised himself again that he would not stand in the way of Daniel finding his place in the world. He had been foolish to do so in the first place.
"I will go with you," Henry said. "I do not mean to belittle you, Daniel, but this will be the first time you go exploring since Africa. Should anything happen to you while I'm not there, I would never forgive myself."
"I don't feel belittled at all," Daniel said. "It is what I want. I want you there by my side, always and in all things. I know it's greedy, but I can't help it. I love you and I need you."
"You need me less than we both realized, if you can deal with a monster as easily as you did today."
"Oh don't think that way, Henry," Daniel said. "If I didn't have your strength to come home to every night, I would go mad from nightmares. I would probably be mad or dead from Paternoster's plans had you not saved me. I need you, Henry. I do."
"I will always love and need you, Henry," Daniel said. "Never leave my side. Please."
"I would rather die." Henry kissed Daniel and embraced him tightly. "I mean that. I would rather die than lose you."
"You never will," Daniel said. "I promise. Ah, if I could marry you, Henry, I would!"
"Would you really?"
"Yes," Daniel said earnestly. "Henry, I would."
"Then 'til death do us part, Daniel."
"Yes. 'Til death do us part."
The playfulness turned solemn. Henry took Daniel's hand into his own and kissed it. Daniel laughed, a little nervous.
"I shall buy you a ring, my Daniel," Henry said. "You can wear it on your other hand or another finger so as to keep people from prying. But I shall buy you a ring to remember these vows by."
"Then you must have one, too."
"Yes." Henry laughed merrily. "No one will ever know, but we will be married in our own eyes. Dear Daniel."
"In sickness and in health," Daniel said through a yawn. "Forever and on."
Henry picked him up and carried him to their bedroom as if he were a bride. Daniel recalled sourly that his sister's wedding would be held soon. His bitterness about it had ebbed by this time. Having found his own love, he could hardly begrudge Hazel hers. He only hoped that she would be happy. He hoped that they would all find happiness, one way or another.
Life is such a struggle, we all deserve some happiness, Daniel thought dreamily. He was laid down on the bed and Henry was soon beside him. He threw an arm around the man and curled into his side. At the end of every day, he could always come home to this warmth and security. This was the first time that Daniel had ever known what it was to have a loving home. He supposed Henry had become his family, in a way.
Everything will be well now, Daniel decided. All will be well. The darkness has passed and the shadows have been burned away by the light. I will be happy and Henry will be happy, and Hazel and her husband too. Perhaps even Alexander can find some sort of peace. All is well. All is good.
Daniel thought he heard the whisper of a chuckle in the back of his mind, but it could not be. He yawned and closed his eyes. He was drawn into dreams of blue light and ancient worlds. They were not nightmares, only dreams. He slept peacefully with a smile on his lips and dreams in his heart.