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la petite mort

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He doesn’t know what to make of her.

She smiles at him, lips painted bright pink. Perfect teeth. Perfect skin. Perfect hair. An unnatural grace to her motions; each word and each reaction genuine, but studied. He’d think her an immortal like himself, if it were not for the vibrant scent of life pumping from under her skin.

No matter.

He’ll drink from her soon enough.

“Barbara, my dear--”

“Oh, no,” she says, smile impossibly wider. “Please, call me Barbie. Everyone does.”

He’s not used to not leading the conversation, nor to the endless nicknames this century seems fit to bestow on everyone. Barbie seems too informal, too personal; it makes him uncomfortable in its perceived intimacy. Perhaps his centuries are finally catching up to him.

Or, perhaps, it’s just her.

He tilts his head, tries it out. “Barbie.”

Something like a dimple shows in her cheek. “Should I call you Vlad in return?”

“I--” No, he wants to say, a first instinct. His sense of formality wars with the conscience that these are different times, that this is a different world. And this? This feels like a test, hidden behind pink-painted smiles and guileless blue eyes. “Yes. Please do.”

“You have a lovely place,” she compliments, voice bright. Not a lie, then, though he cannot begin to imagine how it appeals to her. Her gaze flicks over the places where he hasn’t been able to let go of his old-fashioned furniture in favour of modern minimalism: ancient dark wood and intricate detailing, pieces of art by design. “All you see these days are the same styles and the same colours, but this looks all you.”

“I cannot get used to newer things,” he admits, almost unwillingly. “I have spent my life in old houses decorated like this, and anything else does not feel right.”

“I know what you mean.” There it is, that glimpse of a dimple again. “A house mirrors a person, I’ve always said. I couldn’t live anywhere that doesn’t have my sisters’ art on the walls, or that isn’t painted in my favourite colour.”

He can take a guess as to what such a colour is: everything about her is pink, pink, pink. A glittery pink jacket over a black and pink shirt, and classy pink pants under black shoes with pink laces. Pink lipstick, pink nail polish, two tiny pink jewels winking at him from the lobes of her ears, and a pink disposition to go with it all.

“You have sisters?” he asks, mostly uninterested.

“Three of them.” She laughs. Her pink lips part to let out the joyful sound, the lipstick barely faded at all despite the full meal she’d eaten; one delicate finger traces the rim of her goblet. “They’re a handful, but I wouldn’t trade them for the world.”

He raises an eyebrow. “You are the eldest, then?”

“Mhmm.” A sip, two, a pink tongue slipping out to catch a stray drop in the corner of her mouth. Her goblet is filled with red, fragrant wine; his with red, fragrant blood. Appearances above all. “Skipper is the second oldest, and then Stacie and Chelsea. It’s been a while since I’ve seen them, though.”

Americans and their names, really. Something about that thought niggles at his brain, but he chases it out. “I assume you’re far from home, then?”

A wistful smile. “Well, they’re old enough to have moved out, but work does keeps me busy travelling.”

“What do you do?” That’s the real question he’s been meaning to ask for a while now. He remembers a quick introduction, a Barbara Roberts, she’s here to-- and then a jumble of tasks and titles so great he’d managed to lose himself on what exactly her role was meant to be.

A corner of her mouth tugs up into something that could have been a smirk, if it were any less warm. “A bit of everything, really.”

“Amuse me.”

Well,” she says, long and drawn out, and from the glint in her eyes he can tell this is some kind of inner joke, kept from him. “I’ve been a diplomat, and a race car driver, and a chef, and an astronaut, and a veterinarian--”

“An astronaut,” he repeats dryly. He wants to call her on her lie - but. But. How strange. There’s no indication of a lie: no rise in temperature, no quickening of her pulse, no change to her eyes, nothing.

She laughs. “You don’t know the half of it. What about you?”

“I-- dabble.” He takes a sip, savours the rich flavour. Young girls, bright and full of life: truly the most decadent variety of blood. “In art, mostly. History, culture, from all around the world. I enjoy travelling.”

“I was a museum curator for a while,” she says, because of course she was. “Did you see the recent collection on 15th century boyars?

“My dear,” he says, strangely delighted, “I go there so often I’m almost part of it.”



***



She knows Turkish, Russian, French, Latin, Urdu. She has traveled to the ancient fallen cities of Peru, to the deep tundra of the Artic, explored the great ranges of the Carpathian mountains so familiar to him. She knows art and literature and music, and rides horses and pilots fighter planes and designs buildings and monuments and clothes known thorough the world, and always has a conversation topic at hand.

She’s perfect.

She’s unnatural. Terrifying in her approachable beauty, in her permanent smile. The worst, perhaps, is that none of it is false or fake: the crinkling of her eyes is genuine, the warmth of her voice cannot be dismissed, and for every tale of a wild exploit there is at least one picture or video or article ready to confirm it.

Barbie dismisses it all with a laugh. “I’m just lucky,” she says, pink smile already dimpling her cheeks. “I had opportunity and time, and I get the hang of things quickly enough. And if someone offers, say, a sky-diving course, or if they desperately need a nuclear physics teacher, I’m always happy to step in.”

Most people can’t just step in into such roles, he thinks, but doesn’t say. There is a mystery here, but one he enjoys not knowing, savouring each glimpse of a puzzle piece she allows him to see. She’s not an immortal, though her knowledge rivals one; her blood scents the air too sweetly. Not an immortal, though her perfection is something only one could ever achieve; not an immortal, and this is only further confirmed when her heart goes panicky, rabbit-fast when she startles and breaks a nail when repairing the motor of a car.

He should have gotten rid of her by now. Made a meal out of her, at least, even if only the once: her blood will surely be sweet, so sweet, heady and deep and dark when he drinks from her.

But he keeps finding excuses.

Not yet.

Not yet.

Drink her, he thinks when he finds her across the room at yet another dinner party, neck exposed when she throws back her head in joyous laughter. Drink her, he thinks when she sends out a too-clever quip his way, smile edging into one of those almost-smirks he always finds himself trying to tease out of her. Drink her, he thinks when she steps too close to say goodnight, too close, too close, blood and perfume mingling into a siren call to him and him alone.

He’s not a fledgling vampire. He should not be this tempted, this feverish and desperate to drink the blood of a single human, and so he does not. He has control over himself. He is Vlad Dracula, the Impaler, the Scourge of the Night, bravest of the sons of the land beyond the forest; his power is beyond any human’s imagination, and if he has no control over himself, then no one else should.

And then he runs into her again.

And again.

And again.

She flutters from companion to companion, politician to artist to charlatan, and yet it’s not her that accompanies them but the opposite. It’s to Barbie that the conversations drift, that the eyes follow, that the compliments and questions and musings are directed; never to her escort. It’s-- strange. Not that the attention is on her, especially when her large fan of careers had apparently included not only a glamorous rock-star touring life, but also a two-time stint as president of her country, of all things. But that in the scant few moments before she notices his presence, it’s the first time he can draw himself back and observe her from the shadows, unseen. He watches as the full force of her charms is not focused on him for once, judges every laugh and touch and flicker of the eyes as she searches the room.

For him.

He only realizes this on the third event, a charity gala of some sorts with plenty of influential people to get acquainted with. Her eyes land on him and go alight, normal smile turned into a full, luminous beam yet again: even though she arrives with a different escort each event, it’s with him she talks to the whole night, with him that she leaves, though their midnight jaunts under the city lights are never anything but chaste. Does she want them to be anything but chaste, anything but friendly, anything but the too-human sort of nice?

He is not ignorant to his own charms, not when he uses them so often to acquire a new servant, a new maiden on whom to feed, but to use them on her would feel cheap, unworthy. Both of him, and of her.

So he does not.

He does not, and when their relationship changes, it’s all her: her stepping into his space, long curled lashes brushing her cheek; her looking down to his mouth and then up to catch his gaze in a way that leaves no doubt to her desires. It’s her who curves her way around him and past the door, cool hand unbearably hot against his own when she drags him into his own manor; it’s her who wraps her hands around his lapels and pulls.

Her kiss is not sweet pink, innocent pink, bubbly and bright like the lipstick he smears away from her lips.

Her kiss is red, red, red.



***



And then he finds himself drowning. In her, in her, in kisses as deep and as intoxicating as wine mixed with blood, in blue eyes that pierce through what’s left of his soul. He lets himself be courted, be charmed, be dragged into alleys and doorways and dark spaces like she’s the creature of shadow and night instead of him; he no longer shows up to events unaccompanied, seeking his next meal, and she is no longer escorted in the arm of any other man but him.

Not that he is one.

He forgets, sometimes. That he is no longer meant for this, that he has left this life too long ago. That his place is under pale moonlight instead of blue skies, that many centuries have passed since he was anything resembling human.

He only remembers when he’s hungry, or alone, when her scent lingers and his mouth waters and his body aches, fangs straining to come out. Her hair fans out over the pillow, coiled into his fingers where his hands have buried themselves in it, and he wants to pull it back, to bare her throat and feed, bite, wound. And yet, at the very same moment, he mourns the thought of combing through it to find white strands growing amidst the blond, runs his finger down the contours of her lovely face and dreads to see it age. He does not even know how old she is, but she can’t be young. Not with so many careers and acquaintances of every age, and records of her doing going back for years and years and years. Soon, she will wither away. Soon, she will fade, and all of this will be gone.

And what is a decade to him, or two? A blink of an eye. A whisper of a breath. Decades get lost amongst centuries, a drop of water in the ocean, just as she will turn out to be. He remembers past lovers fondly, or with the dull ache of a time long past, but now even the names of some are beginning to slip away, and so will hers.

But she will not let him go.

Her fingers interlace with his. Her perfume takes a permanent residence on the collar of his shirts, on the sheets of his room. A tube of her lipstick, bright and pink, finds his way to the vanity in his chambers. The vestiges of his human heart ache at the thought of turning all of this away, though there is nothing here that can last unless he turns her. And Barbie might be fond of him, might know he favours her deeply, and if this were any other age and anyone else he would not hesitate to give in to his desires.

But Barbie loves the sun. She loves the brightness of the day and of spotlights with her front and center, and Italian food and long hours tanning at the beach, and all those little pockets of human activity and love and compassion, and these are all things he can never give her.

“You look thoughtful,” she says, settling on the loveseat with her knees touching his. She’s brought along a plate of biscuits and her ever-present pink water bottle, and now they balance precariously on her white capris. “Or grumpy. I’m going to go with grumpy, because you haven’t touched your wine all night.”

“I’m not,” he says sullenly, even though he is . He’s thinking of whether he should just leave, settle his other affairs and disappear without a word, or if he should tell her something first. The first certainly sounds better, but with her wide network of contacts she’d be sure to find him in a heartbeat, and then he’d have to explain himself. Which he really doesn’t want to do.

If only because he knows she’d talk him out of it in a matter of seconds.

“You are,” Barbie says. “Hey, have I ever told you about my sisters?”

“You’re the eldest,” he says, somewhat distracted. There’s a bit of powered sugar on the corner of her lip, a rare impossibility of her being anything less than perfect, and he tends to hoard these moments like a jealous dragon with his gold. “But there’s three of them, right?”

Barbie beams up at him. “You were paying attention, that first night!”

“Shouldn’t I have been?” It’s strange enough that he snaps his eyes away from her lips to meet her, a frown heavy on his brow. “I always pay attention to what you say.”

“Well, yes.” She squirms in her seat to move closer, the plate and the bottle nearly falling off before she finally settles. “But we weren’t friends, back then. For you it was an obligation more than anything else.”

He’s about to confirm it, but. But. “Only for me?”

But she’s already moved on, doing some sort of strange gymnastics to reach her phone. “I was telling you about my sisters, right? I just remembered I never actually showed them to you.”

He tries to picture three little Barbies, doll-like and perfect at different stages of life. All with her blond hair and long limbs and blue eyes and pink, pink everything, and finds himself unable - or perhaps unwilling - to believe that her existence could ever be replicated.

What she shows him is close enough.

“So this is Chelsea,” she says, pointing to a smiling face after another, “and Stacie. And this is Skipper.”

Oh.

Oh.

His heart no longer beats, and for once he is glad of it. His whole body feels stiff, frozen; he cannot move, eyes fixed on the mess of dark hair on the screen.

Skipper Roberts.

He remembers that name, now.

Barbie moves just enough to take a sip from her water. “But of course,” she says, “you already knew that.”

And then she presses her mouth to his, and he burns.

His lips rip from hers with a scream, boiling and bubbling like the skin of his face and throat. He’s flying to his feet, over the loveseat, halfway across the room, an horrifying realization settling in when she backflips elegantly to stand in front of him. “Holy water.”

“The holiest,” she says, nodding at him with an approving smile. “Special favour I called in from the Pope.”

He doesn’t ask why in the seven hells does the Pope owe you a favour, nor why are you doing this. The first is meaningless; the second... Well. He already knows.

Skipper Roberts. He hadn’t killed her - he doesn’t kill almost anyone, these days, not when there are cameras and cellphones everywhere and victims can so easily be tracked - but he’d fed on her, far more than once. Far too often.

Often enough that she’d barely responded to anything, in the end.

“She’s better now,” Barbie says, removing one of her wooden hair sticks. Pink, to go with her outfit, and sharp, which he’d been blind enough not to notice before. “If you’re interested in knowing.”

“I couldn’t know,” he gasps out, using up all the stale breath in his lungs. “I couldn’t know.”

She smiles at him, gentle and lovely and sad. “She couldn’t even recognize me for a while, Vlad. It’s been a long journey for us both.”

He takes a step back. Then, he realizes what he’s doing. He, Vlad Dracula, stepping away from someone who has no business fighting him, defying him. He, Scourge of the Steppes, son of ancient boyars and night kings, deceived by a woman who walks in the sun.

“Leave,” he growls, calling upon his powers to make the house creak, tremble, close in. A storm begins to rage outside, attuned to his strength. “Leave, and for the sake of the bond we once shared, I will let you go.”

But she keeps advancing, twirling the makeshift stake between manicured fingers. “Your myths say that if I kill you, she’ll be herself again.”

“You know who I am, then.” Not a question, not when she’s moving so assuredly. “You think you can face a Master Vampire and live?”

He conjures shadows, demons from every corner, swarms of rats and hellhounds to block her way to him.

But Barbie only laughs. “You’re hardly the first Master Vampire I’ve ever faced.”

And then she’s running at him, a deadly sprint he did not expect. Illusions fade beneath her feet; she flips over the snapping jaws of a hellhound, trapping it beneath her and sending it flying along her way without as much as a heaving breath.

He grits his teeth, elongated fangs fighting their way out. “So was it all a lie, then? A masterful deceit?”

“What?” she pauses in an elegant manoeuvre, sending him a baffled look. “Of course not! I had a lot of fun with you. I think you're lovely, and you’re super sweet. A boyfriend any girl would die for.”

“All you ever wanted was to kill me,” he snarls, blocking a kick headed towards his head. He ought to crush her leg, desperately wants to if only to quell the growing ache on the burned remains of his heart, but he finds that he cannot. Even if he could bring himself to do it, she’s stronger than expected, faster than expected; resilient, confident. So much like Barbie that he wants to weep.

“I love you,” Barbie says, so earnestly and so warmly that he wants to believe her, the filthy deceiver, cheater, liar -- “I know I never said it before, but I do. But my sisters will always, always come first, and I can’t let Skipper live like that when I can do something about it.”

And she kicks him hard enough to knock him against the wall, stake ready.

He wheezes. “How are you even this strong?”

“I’m an Olympian athlete.” She smiles at him, dimples showing. “And I had spy training for a while. And martial arts. And I was a cheerleader. Oh, and--”

He cannot help but laugh.



***



She stakes him, of course. Steady and unyielding, straight to the heart, undeviating in her will like with anything else she does in life.

Skipper recovers.

And Barbie waits for a long time. She showers her sisters in love, and goes shopping, and travels to investigate curious artifacts in Chinese tombs, and learns a few more languages, and waits.

And keeps waiting.

For all that she loves him, Vlad Dracula is now dust on the ground. Metaphorically, at least. She’d gathered all that was left of him into a lovely little decorated urn, somewhat glad his decorating tastes were so old-fashioned because he would absolutely hate it if she put him on one of her sisters’ hand-painted vases, and left him there with a note and strict instructions to the manor’s caretakers.

She wears pink, but also a lot of black. Sometimes red.

She pretends it’s not to remember him by, but it is. Barbie isn’t too good at lying to herself, when it comes to things like this: her affection is widely distributed and as bright as all the things under the sun, platonic or otherwise, so it figures that she needed a creature of the dark in order to tuck bits of herself tight, private and secure beneath the shade for no prying eyes to see.

Not too much.

Just a little.

The world is wide open to her daintily-sandalled feet. She takes Chelsea to sweep the tables in a casino tour across the continents, and helps Stacie keep all her Girl Scouts in line during the summer, and gets Skipper an internship under the techie from her old spy-squad, and she never talks about him.

It’s not that her sisters wouldn’t understand, though they definitely wouldn’t. It’s not that she doesn’t want to remember him, either. It’s more that there’s a dark hole blooming red in her heart, and every twinkling goblet she sees at a fancy dinner party tears it open wider, as do dark-haired men with longer hair and an aristocratic posture. Every glimpse of too-pale skin makes her jerk, too hopeful, only for her wound to bleed deeper when she realizes it’s someone else; every accent that resembles his has her turning with wide eyes. She goes to galas and dinner parties and fundraisers alone and leaves alone, because she can’t stand the thought of anyone but him taking her arm.

At night, she opens her windows wide, curtains fluttering in the breeze. Urban lights erase the stars in an ever-bright night, and she settles on her balcony to watch them, arms half-crossed to keep herself warm.

And then a streak of lightning crosses the skies, and she knows .

Barbie laughs, breathless. Loud. Joyful, like she hasn’t managed in a while. “A dark, stormy night? Really?”

“You knew.” His dark form looms over her balcony, accusing.

“Of course I knew.” She grins. Dimples, really. “Everyone knows Dracula always comes back.”

And then she pulls him down to meet her halfway, and presses red lips into a pink kiss.