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It Started Out Badly

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Adrian knew something was wrong when Devora met them on the edge of the property. The wolves were never far from his mother or father. The unease deepened as he saw Andrei, Sergei and three other security personnel patrolling the edge of the house.

Adrian,” Sypha said quietly and he nodded.

“Text Trevor please. Nothing alarming; just in case this isn’t related.” Sypha pulled out her phone and gave the Friesian his head. They slowed, not breaking through the treeline yet. Adrian didn’t want to attract the attention.

“He’s not answering,” she said with worry. Like a drop of food coloring into milk, the panic plumed, grew and spread.

I don’t know what this means but it can’t be good, he thought. He urged the horse into a trot. Andrei turned toward him with a look of surprise. He looked down at his phone quickly and his fingers moved. Then he looked up with a smile.

"Master Tepes, we expected you’d be gone a while yet. Did you forget something?”  He asked politely.

I forgot that my father is clever and driven, the thought smashed against the wall of his composure. I forgot that he will do anything to protect the Tepes legacy and he is very good at hiding his thoughts from the world. I assumed my answers were enough for him and I should have known better.

“Trevor, actually,” he said, dismounting. “He got caught up talking to Julius.” Conte sauntered over and nudged his leg. He automatically put out his hand to ruffle his fur. “What is going on?”

Andrei smiled. “A private meeting. Nothing to worry about.”

Adrian’s brow furrowed. “Wouldn’t you be in the meeting though?” He looked over and realized that there were more staff sitting in the gardens. He jerked, looking back at Andrei.

“He cleared the floor?” he asked. But he already knew. “Son of a bitch!,” he hissed as he whirled toward the main entry door, grabbing for Sypha. When his hand closed over her wrist, he felt the goosebumps.

She inhaled sharply and trotted beside him, whispering urgently. “You don’t think—?” 

“I do Sypha, yes, I do, and if we don’t stop this—” he muttered back. If we don’t stop this Father could ruin everything. Trevor doesn’t stand a chance. He’s still fragile from Carmilla and this might break him. If Father pushes, if he tries to find out what the history is… Trevor might tell him, he might accidentally let the trio slip and then, oh God, then it would be a showdown and I am not ready, I am not ready for this...

One of the security team was standing at the door and she shook her head apologetically as he strode up. “I apologize Master Tepes, but Lord Tepes was very clear he was not to be disturbed.”

Something was building in Adrian. It was fear but it was also anger. He’d asked his father not to approach Trevor. He’d asked his father, so many times, to respect his decisions and to let him live his life in peace. Yes, Vlad loved him but it was so clear, so achingly, poignantly clear that his father still thought he could control him and Adrian would simply bow to his will.

I am tired of being treated like everyone else knows better, he thought. I am tired of my father not respecting my choices. I am tired of this bullshit. I am Alucard Addrinne Tepes and I am about done with this. His head came up and he straightened, dropping Sypha’s arm and stepping forward. He looked the security guard in the eye. 

“You have exactly five seconds to move out of the way or find new employment,” he said with complete calm.

“Sir, I can’t—“

“One.”

“Please I’ve been given a direct—“

“Two.”

“Andrei, could you?”

“Three.”

“I’m truly sorry but—“

“Four.”

Andrei touched her shoulder and she gave him a relieved look. His father’s assistant looked at Adrian warily. “Sir, respectfully I think—“ 

“Enough,” the blonde said sharply. He rotated slowly and took in the entire company. No one spoke and no one moved. Adrian didn’t know it but at that moment, he was every inch his father’s son. Most importantly, they saw it.

Sergei’s mouth was hanging open and the two men behind him had shocked expressions. Good, the painter thought. It’s time to pay attention.

“Everyone. I will say this only once. You will step aside immediately or I will personally fire each and every one of you, regardless of my father’s wishes. I am the heir and you will obey my command.” 

He turned back to Andrei. “Now move.”

Andrei moved. 

Sypha followed him in. The moment he shut the door she exclaimed, “Good lord that was hot as fuck, but Adrian please tell me you don’t think your father has Trevor in ther—.“

They heard Trevor shouting and everything inside of Adrian merged into protective certainty. He took off at a dead run. “No, no, no, please not this—!” The blonde chanted under his breath.

Sypha clattered behind him as he rounded the corner and slammed his shoulder solidly into the door. Bursting through, he stumbled into the middle of a room so thick with emotion that it burned his eyes. 

His father stood behind his desk, palms on the surface and leaning menacingly. He was coldly furious and when he snapped his head up to see Adrian, there was resignation and determination. His son couldn’t worry about what it meant, he was too busy searching for Trevor.

When he saw him, Adrian caught his breath.

Trevor stood behind the armchair and it took him a moment to understand why. The sculptor’s fingers were digging into the back of the chair and he clung to it like it was a wall between them. Because it was, Adrian thought, Trevor’s afraid he’ll hurt him.

The tension in his lover’s body was painful and Adrian absorbed it like the impact of a baseball through a glass window. It was far worse than he’d feared. Trevor’s face was bright red and he was almost panting with fury. The muscles in his arms flexed as he crushed the upholstery. When he turned to the blonde there was nothing but betrayed rage.

“Tell me you didn’t know, Adrian!” Trevor whirled to him. “You better fucking tell me now, or I swear—“

“Know what?” The blonde asked, looking back and forth between them as his heart pitched like a ship in a storm.

“Vlad knows something!” Trevor hissed, the words pulling war machines filled with accusation.

Why did your father give them such vast sums of money, Alucard?  Isaac’s calm statement reverberated like the wail of a lost child in a gully through his heart.

Oh my God, no, he thought and looked at his father.

“Your friend is making some very presumptuous accusations,” Vlad growled, not meeting his gaze. He reached for his mug. It was the slight tremor that told his son.

“You do know something,” Adrian said in a whisper as the universe fragmented. Everyone in the room jerked.

“He said my parents weren’t at fault,” Trevor said, eyes searching over Adrian. The painter felt every blink of his eyelids like a bullet.

You would believe that I could hide something like this from you? He thought, feeling the bridge that he’d believed they’d constructed to each other snap and rupture like an exploding heart.

“This is absurd,” Vlad said with a sniff and took a sip of his beverage. Trevor snarled and abruptly quieted when Adrian held up his hand. His eyes never left his father.

To say that Adrian’s heart was breaking was to say that the sun was warm and that was all there was to know about it. The intricate complexities of what was happening inside his own skin was something he couldn’t even begin to process. But it didn’t matter right now. All that mattered was giving Trevor the answers.

“I wonder,” he said softly, “If I were to give Agent Isaac access to all our bank accounts—,” Vlad jerked, his eyes flying to his son’s face. “What might he find?” 

It lay as a genuine threat between them.

All the accounts were joint between Vlad, Lisa and Adrian. It was a safeguard and had been in place since he was eighteen years old. They both knew he never touched them, never even looked at them, but he could have full access in a heartbeat if he wanted.

“You would open up our private affairs to the FBI?” Vlad’s face grew coldly suspicious. “For him?” He jerked his head to Trevor.

“Yes,” Adrian said. Without even thinking twice, he added silently. Every inhale was poison aerosol containing the certainty that his father was hiding something. Every exhale a plea that whatever it was, he could survive. That this would not be the end of everything he held dear.

“He deserves the truth, Father.” He paused.“I deserve the truth.”

Vlad scoffed. “The truth is that the Belmont’s were forgers.” Out of the corner of his eye, the painter saw Sypha take Trevor’s hand. He ached to do the same. “I merely said that they weren’t at fault because Trevor had said something similar. I thought they were good people because I did a bit of business with them at one point. That’s all.”

“A bit of business would not have drawn the attention of the FBI,” Trevor hissed. “It wouldn’t have involved Adrian’s personal accounts, or explained why the funds were untraceable.”

My personal accounts? Adrian started, his thoughts racing. I was implicated in this? He looked over at the brunette and wondered exactly what else Trevor had been told by Isaac that he hadn’t shared. Why he hadn’t shared it. What that might mean.

Vlad waved his hand dismissively. “You expect me to remember every detail of business transactions that took place over a span of twenty years? Come now."

Twenty years?! Adrian felt everything inside of him spill out like invisible vomit. He took a calculated risk. “Twenty years worth of transactions? Yes, I do expect you would remember that. What did you buy?”

Vlad’s eyes flicked to him. “Pieces of art; I told you.”

Suddenly Adrian was so tired. It weighed on him, numbed him, and he felt like a tiny acorn dropping endlessly toward a forest floor that would smash him when he finally hit it. He knew it was coming but the falling kept happening.

He was tired of the evasion. He was tired of not knowing if this would mean Trevor would leave him and tired of trying to be polite, reasonable, respectful. I want some fucking answers, he thought and prepared to beat his father at his own game.

“Fortunately for you,” Adrian said smoothly, composing his face. “I have the Tepes Collection Archives saved to my phone. I reference them all the time. Let me refresh your memory.” He pulled the page up and went to the advanced search. He typed in “Belmont” under the acquisition category. Nothing came up.

“Ah, look at that,” he said with mild surprise. “There is no record of the Belmont gallery having ever acquired anything for the Tepes collection.”

“Motherfucker!” Trevor said violently and Adrian couldn’t look at him.

“I believe what I purchased were gifts. We didn’t keep them so they wouldn’t be in the archives. I know that two were for the RRG, as I’ve already said.” His father shrugged casually. “Like I said, it was over twenty years. How could I possibly remember it all.”

“But you remember that every item you purchased was a gift,” Adrian deadpanned back and his father just looked at him. Vlad’s face betrayed nothing and the painter’s last hope died.

He already accepted that this would break him; it was just a matter of whether there would be anyone left that the blonde could hold onto at the end of this. His family, his lovers, his own identity; it was all on the precipice of destruction because the depths to which his father was lying could only mean one thing.

“Did you have the Belmonts killed?” Adrian asked with deathly calm, unaware that he was horribly pale.

His father looked shocked and slammed his mug down. The coffee splashed all over the tabletop like dark tears. “How could you think that?!” He roared and Adrian simply stared at him. “That’s ridiculous and offensive and I—”

“If you don’t tell me what exactly was going on between you and the Belmonts right now, I am calling Mother and asking her,” Adrian said. The effect was immediate. Vlad flinched like he’d been struck and sat heavily. 

Adrian made himself move to the chair across from his father, opposite the chair which Trevor was using as a shield and behind which Sypha waited. He sat, and crossed his legs. Use what he taught you about the media, he coached himself. Show nothing, give nothing, feel nothing.  

Deliberately, he brought his hand to his neck and pressed the bruise hiding under the fabric. I love you more than you will ever know, Adrian thought as his heart wept. The slight pain and the reminder of his love kept him tethered to reality.

“I am waiting, Father,” the blonde said and heard Trevor’s breath catch. 

I do this for you, he thought. And for me and for whatever future we might have had. I would give you this peace, even if it means I lose you. 

“You make it seem so sinister!” Vlad protested and raked a hand through his hair. “It really isn’t, it was just... I just—I would spare Belmont the details because they will only confirm that his parents were criminals.”

You would spare yourself only. Because you are a criminal too, aren’t you? Adrian thought furiously, but simply shook his head.

“He is a man, Father, he can decide for himself.” Adrian said quietly and heard Trevor sit. He could not look at the sculptor without becoming hysterical.

“Tell me,” Trevor said, emotions running like a frantic herd of wildebeests through his words. The two words were a death toll for any possibility of love, and Adrian knew it.

“There isn’t much to tell!” Vlad said. “It started before you were born; I wasn’t yet thirty! I’ve always been interested in family history. I was appointed to the committee for art heritage and we were in the midst of the Gozer case at the time.” Adrian nodded.

“What’s that?” Sypha asked and Vlad started slightly, like he’d forgotten she was there. He stared at her and for the first time, Adrian saw fear.  

Of course it would be for Sypha, the painter thought with only slight bitterness. In a way, he could understand it. Disappointing Sypha was one of the hardest things to do. 

Adrian answered for Vlad. “It was a landmark class action in art recuperation. During World War 2, there was a great theft of Romanian art from Jewish families and our national museums. Billions in art, simply gifted to Hungary. Or so they called it. A gift.

The injustice of it still stung his national pride and his sense of integrity. “There are meticulous records on the event and the transfer and historical documents showing the original owners and where they were distributed.” His eyes were on his father. 

The sickening sense of mounting dread was pulling the coattails of fear over him but he kept talking. “The case was considered a sure thing. A carefully crafted, thoroughly documented lawsuit by the Romanian government against the Hungarian National Museum and a couple of high-profile collectors. It was a textbook case of war crime profiteering. That the museums and private collectors could hold the cultural wealth of my country was an obvious wrong that everyone was positive the courts would rectify.”

His father’s face was grim as Adrian finished. “When the case was thrown out, it was a huge blow to Romania and our pride and our heritage. It was a huge blow to the Jewish community and the art community.”

“Yes,” Vlad said, pride and fury in his tone. “It was during my work at that time that I discovered Mathias Tepes’ journal. My grandfather. In it, he talked about art works and belongings that had been taken when he was driven from his home. He made lists so that he could find them and get them back. Family heirlooms, birthday gifts, wedding gifts, even a locket with his mother’s hair.” The righteous anger on his face was plain.

“He never had a chance. He sent Elisabetha ahead of him to safety and never made it out alive.” The study was silent for a moment before Vlad spoke again. “I never knew the journal existed; my father did not speak of it. It was a godsend. I used it to trace hundreds of heirlooms, including several artworks that belonged to my family. Some I could buy back. Some…,” he trailed off.

No, Adrian thought, heart sinking. He suddenly understood exactly what his father had done. How ironic, the blonde reflected, that art would be the reason my life is falling apart.

“The legal system refused to provide justice to my people, who were slighted and cheated and stolen from. So I decided to do something about it.” His father’s gaze was defiantly proud.

“You stole them back,” Adrian said tonelessly. “And the Belmonts helped you.”

Trevor inhaled sharply and against his will, the blonde’s gaze slid to his beloved. The sculptor’s grip on the chair looked painful, his knuckles white and hands shaking from the tension. Sypha had her hand on his shoulder and was looking at him. Trevor leaned forward, piercing blue eyes locked on Vlad. 

“My parents weren't forging for money? They were trying to...do the right thing?"

It crushed him to hear the hopefulness in Trevor’s voice. It was such a precious, cautious thing that rolled impossible boulders of grief onto his chest.

Please give him this Father, the painter begged silently. Give him the answers he needs to be at peace with this. Let the hatred he will have for the Tepes and for what we stole from him be worth it.

“Yes, Trevor,” Vlad’s voice had gentled. “As I said, your parents were good people. They understood the injustice of what had happened to Romania and the importance of having our history returned to us.”

But you didn’t mention tracing and retrieving other family’s art, just your own, Adrian thought, eyes narrowing. He had no illusions about his father anymore. If Vlad had resorted to stealing and forging, it had been for purely selfish reasons. He never would have risked exposure for anyone but himself.

The scandal would only be risked for the Tepes art, he thought bitterly. Not for any of the families who couldn’t actually afford to sue, and forge, and steal, and— 

When the thought struck, it was the dig of fingers into a wound that was too fresh. No, oh my God, no. You told the Belmonts that it wasn’t just for you, didn’t you?! He thought. “You didn’t steal anything back but the Tepes art,” Adrian interrupted, the words like grave dirt falling from his mouth. “Did you?”

Vlad’s face transformed from open understanding to something closed and guarded, like a drawbridge had been raised. “You have to understand,” his father began in a lecturing tone. “The risk, the expense, the—”

Adrian surged to his feet as disgusted outrage overflowed him. He looked at the man he’d once admired, the person he’d yearned to be, and always felt inadequate beside. You liar, he thought. You horrible, cowardly, self-important--!

“You fucking hypocrite!” he said. “You would sit there and spout all this bullshit about the importance of cultural history but this was about you and your damned pride!” He seethed, words he never would have dreamed of saying this morning tumbling out as though they’d waited their whole lives. 

“How dare you speak to me like that!” Vlad barked back, face incredulous with outrage and shock. He slammed his fist on the desk. “You act like I tricked them into it! They approached me!! This was a wrong that needed righting and a worthy cause! To return the history of the country to its rightful—”

“Oh fuck that!” Adrian shouted over him. “You weren’t going to let something as stupid as the law get in the way of what you wanted! So you dragged Trevor’s family in--!”

“Stop,” Trevor said. 

It was quiet but forceful and froze to the painter’s skin like he was naked in an ice-tipped rain. Adrian stilled, holding his breath. Trevor’s gaze was hooked into Vlad so intently that the blonde could swear he could see the filament of fishing line between them. 

“My parents. The forgeries that they did--all of them--they were to replace artworks wrongfully stolen in World War 2 and return them to their rightful owners? That is why they committed fraud?” Adrian could see him working it out. “They were trying to rectify what the courts would not?”

Vlad smiled and Adrian hated his father. Hated him for his pride, his hypocrisy, his bullshit justifications. But mostly, he hated Vlad for doing this. For damning his future with Trevor before they’d even had a chance. For twisting the fates of everyone involved and closing off so many futures because he couldn’t accept ‘no.’

“Yes, Trevor. Your family was incredibly honourable and understood what needed to be done. They wanted to reclaim for my country what had been stolen from them. This is why they were forging.”

You lie, his son thought, this was a reclamation for one family alone. I know you too well and you would only risk something like this for yourself.

“Tell me Father,” Adrian’s voice was cold and dripping with scorn. “Which pieces were reclaimed that belonged to someone other than a Tepes?”

“That is not the point!” Vlad growled. “It would have happened eventually, I just needed more time and they—“

“You lied to them, didn’t you?” Adrian hissed, his secret fear suddenly confirmed. “Did they know that it was just your art that was being taken back? That you were happy to let the rest of Romanian history rot in the hands of strangers as long as you had yours back?”

“I did not lie! I fully intended to take all of them back but plans changed! The risk grew with every piece we reclaimed and the expense was incredible! I had to make a choice! It wasn’t intentional and it wasn’t—“ His father abruptly cut off.

“It wasn’t what?” Trevor asked, voice soft. There were dead rooms inside a cobwebbed house creaking open their doors. They beckoned Adrian to disappear into the darkness in Trevor’s voice. There was no hope there for anything resembling the life he thought possible only hours before inside of it.

This is my death shroud, he thought. The funeral to the love I could have had in the trio.

Vlad inhaled deeply and exhaled. “It wasn’t devious,” he said quietly. “None of this was. Not on their part and not on mine.” He looked at Trevor and there was something… something sad? “They were amazing people, Trevor; people I cared about and called friends.”

“Yes, they were,” Trevor said, something like grief doused in love and set fire with wonder blazing in his tone. “What went wrong?”

Vlad’s hands curled into fists and he shook his head. “That is very complicated. You have to understand, it’d been decades. We weren’t the same people who’d started this as idealistic youths. Dominic wasn’t the same man who’d asked me years ago if I would like the chance to make it right. We had families now, and the risks…”

“They wanted out, didn’t they?” Adrian asked, the dread so thick that he could feel the clench of it rising in a fist under his ribs. The fist opened, ripping out everything like a child making a jack-o-lantern.

“They wanted out, yes,” Vlad said, shaking his head. “So did I, actually. But there was a problem.”

Trevor rose slowly and stared him down. Vlad met his gaze with pride and bravado. “You didn’t.” When Trevor spoke, it was toneless, emotionless. It was a split second of silence before the opening maw of hell swallowed everything.

“Didn’t what?” Vlad asked warily.

“You didn’t ‘solve the problem’ by having them killed. Tell me you didn’t. Did you?”

“No!” Vlad said with obvious disgust and resentment. “Why the hell does everyone in this room think I would kill them?!”

“Because you would do anything to protect what you love.” 

All the men stilled and slowly turned. Sypha stood there like an abandoned toy on a playground. One hand clutched the back of the chair and the other rested on Trevor’s shoulder. Tears were rolling down her face and her eyes were pleading.

“Please,” she whispered and Vlad looked down at the desk, jaw working.

“It’s very simple really,” he said after a moment and Adrian could hear the plea. It would always be Sypha that brought that out of him. “The middle man, the one who swapped out the paintings. I...made a mistake with them.”

---

Trevor was afraid. Temper would have been better. Temper was easier, cleaner; a familiar friend to him. But this was a deadening creep now, a scythe that was swiping strips of his hope away like grain falling under the blade.

Adrian will never forgive me for this, he thought desperately.

Trevor understood now why the painter’s parents were so important to him. He had been welcomed into the circle of their love and felt the warmth of it. Even in his own house, he’d never felt so accepted as he had in the last 24 hours. There was something precious here and for a brief moment, he’d had too.

It was all falling apart in front of him and it all hinged on what happened with his parents. How many times in his life would this continue to be the case?

“And what mistake was that?” Adrian asked, in that awful, devoid voice. Trevor shivered. As much as he wanted to know, needed to know, his heart was bleeding with every syllable held in the painful emptiness of his lover’s voice.

“I told them why we were stopping. I told them that the Belmonts didn’t want to continue and that I would not be funding it anymore. That was fine. My mistake had been providing the full list to both them and the Belmonts. They knew there were still paintings out there, and they had the known locations for the ones that we’d located.”

The silence was profound and he waited for Vlad to continue, Sypha’s warm hand on his shoulder.

“The middle man had been a mutual decision. The Belmonts had used someone else previously but I did not know them, and besides, Penelope was sure they couldn’t handle the sheer scope of what we wanted to do.” Trevor tried not to flinch at the mention of his mother but Sypha’s little squeeze told him he wasn’t completely successful.

“We needed someone that would understand what we were doing and why. They had to be trusted and available to work for years,” Vlad sighed. “Which grew into decades. Obviously we were looking for an organization. Crimson Stone was my choice. They were ex-Securitate officers, and I thought, being Romanian…”

“Do you know the name?” Trevor whispered, the absolute rage and hope scratching inside of his brain like a crazed wolverine trapped in its own den. “The name of the person who killed my parents?” 

Give me a face to destroy, a name to pin all this torment on, he thought. Let me know that after all this time I can look them in the eye, and know who took everything from me.

When Vlad’s eyes met his, he could already see the sorrow. You don’t, he thought, moments before Lord Tepes confirmed this for him. “But you know that Crimson Stone was responsible?” he whispered and Vlad nodded.

“How could you?” Adrian asked, the jagged edge of ice slicing through the conversation. “You knew your friends had been murdered, murdered because of you! And you did nothing?!”

Vlad looked at him and there was such fury etched into his face that Trevor actually tensed. “You, boy; have no idea what you are talking about. I protected our family. I ensured that this whole sordid affair never came to our door. Crimson was going to come for us and I--.”

“You made sure they didn’t,” Sypha said quietly. Her tears had dried and her face was wooden.

You had them killed, Trevor thought but he needed to know. He had to know his parents had been avenged. “Are they all dead?” he asked. “Every last one of them?”

Vlad’s gaze shuttered and he inclined his head in affirmation but did not speak. “Yes,” Sypha spoke again and this time there was a fierceness to it. “You would have made sure. No one would come after Lisa and Adrian.” 

Lord Tepes offered her a nod and there was an understanding that seemed to pass between them. Sypha squeezed Trevor’s shoulder and there was an old, tired, worn creature of grief that sighed deeply within his heart. 

My parents' murderers are dead and I know it now, he thought. The creature settled aching bones down and closed its eyes. It wasn’t gone and it wasn’t sure what to feel, but it didn’t have to be on guard anymore. 

Vlad cannot possibly know what it means for me to have this. As much rage and agony was contained within this conversation, having this even fact alone meant he was prepared to listen to the rest.

“Why did they care that there were still paintings out there to acquire?” Adrian asked and Trevor looked over at him. The painter sat stiffly, a still porcelain angel guarding a tomb. 

A tomb to what he believed about his family, Trevor thought, miserable. A grave that my family helped to dig.

You know that they are dead now, his heart whispered. The justice you needed has been given. What can you give him to have the same sense of relief? 

Did Adrian need to hear the rest of this? He was obviously devastated by these revelations and by the realization that his father had participated in criminal activity. Trevor could only understand that too well. What can I possibly give him to soften the blow? He pondered, even as Vlad answered the question.

“There was still money to be made. You have to realize, we are talking millions of dollars left on the table and they thought I would still pay if I could be persuaded.” His mouth twisted in fury. “They knew I still wanted them and I think they thought if they just...," he swallowed hard and took a deep breath. "Those paintings... One in particular… It was the one I wanted the most.” His smile held no joy and for a moment, Trevor could see remorse.

My parents deserve your grief, Vlad, he thought. They deserved to be mourned.

“We’d been looking for years. It wasn’t even supposed to exist, we thought it'd been destroyed. There was no record of it, except for a letter written from the painter to Mathias that he mentioned in his journal and then… It was uncovered in the 2012 Gurlitt find and its existence was revealed. I only found out because of Penelope. She was called in for authentication and she knew.” He trailed off. “She knew.”

“What was the painting?” Trevor asked, curious despite himself. 

“It was a painting of a garden and a woman bent over at the waist. The sun is shining and there is a distinctive, low stone wall in the background. You can’t see her face, she could be anyone.” Emotion crept into Lord Tepes’ voice. “But she is my grandmother and she is weeding her garden in the summer sun.”

“Elisabetha?” Adrian asked softly. “Wouldn’t that make it obvious who it belonged to?”

Vlad shook his head. “No. The title was 'A Lady With Her Flowers,' and was a wedding gift from Mathias’ sister. A rather famous friend had painted it for her.” He sighed. “There was no mention of a Tepes claim anywhere but this letter. And I didn’t even have the letter, just Mathias’ references to it in his diary.”

His face was filled with a sad despondency and Trevor could feel the weight of these secret griefs burdening Vlad. “We talked about how to approach it, and whether to make a claim. But the sole source of information I had was the diary.” Vlad straightened. “I could not risk sharing it.”

Because you’d already started collecting the other artworks mentioned inside of it, the sculptor thought. Collecting them in an illegal, fraudulent operation. And if you surrendered the diary for authentication someone might notice the pattern. 

It was the thought of a pattern that made him broach the topic.

“Did my uncle know?” Trevor asked. The possibility that his uncle might forgive him if only he knew, if only this wasn’t his fault, was a sweetly tantalizing lure.

“Yes. Dominic mentioned that Theo Belmont was part of the forgery team but in what capacity was never clear to me. I didn’t ask but I did get the impression he painted.”

He did paint, Trevor thought. Extraordinarily well. “Did he know that they were murdered because of this? Did you talk to him? Did he know about you?”

Vlad shook his head slowly. “No one knew about me. Not even you. That was a condition of this. No one could tell their families.” He glanced at Adrian. “Which would only become a true issue later.”

“Does Mother know?” the blonde asked and the aching throb of fear was so real Trevor tasted it on his lips. 

Please not Lisa too, Trevor silently begged. Let Adrian keep that part of his heart intact, please.

Vlad straightened and leaned across the desk. “No, and she absolutely can’t.” He raked his hand through his hair, the action the first obvious sign of distress this entire time. Trevor was not surprised it was for Lisa.

“You have to realize how much danger even knowing this puts you in! You have no deniability on this matter now,” he looked at Trevor and shifted his gaze to Sypha. “None of you do, and with this Agent Isaac out there--.”

“Why not tell him?” Trevor interrupted. The lies, all of them; it was exhausting. Anyone could see that. Isaac wasn’t unreasonable and maybe... “Admit it all off the record, and see what he wants you to do.” 

He thought about the intensity of the agent's face when he talked about the case. “I think he just wants to know, more than anything. It’s what I wanted. There is no one to prosecute now. Crimson Stone is dead.”

Vlad put two fingers to his forehead and rubbed in a weary, irritated gesture. “Surely you must see how absurdly naive that is. There is absolutely no way that is possible. I would be handing him everything he would need to completely destroy the Tepes legacy and take everything from my family.”

But he might find it anyway, Trevor thought. Isaac will not give up. But maybe that in itself was a warning sign. No one could predict what Isaac would do and the risk was huge to Adrian and his family. I won’t endanger Adrian, he thought. That was not a question for him.

“And what about the Belmont legacy?” Adrian asked softly. “What about Trevor’s future? If people knew that they’d been forging to replace stolen artwork his family would be perceived incredibly differently. He would be perceived differently.”

That you would think of that; that it would matter to you in the midst of all of this, Trevor thought. You are the finest man I have ever known. But the cost is too high for your family and I will not accept it. I have lived through the decimation of mine and I won’t watch it happen to yours if I can help it, his heart vowed. Besides, no one would care about the one time the Belmonts forged for a good reason; they’d been committing forgeries for--.

“Wait a minute,” Trevor snapped out, his mind swerving over the rapidly building implications. “The newspaper article that exposed the forgeries... they said Belmont frauds were hanging in galleries across the globe. That the forgeries had been happening for over 200 years.”

Vlad steepled his fingers and looked at him. “I don’t know how long it had been happening, but I was not the first.”

“We need to speak to this reporter,” Adrian said firmly. “And I cannot believe you haven’t already done that. You would have wanted to know who his source was, if any of it could--.”

Vlad held up a hand to stop him. When his son fell silent, he spoke. “I was his source.”

The shock was a sudden crush of emotion and then temper, the constant companion that Trevor struggled with, broke through with the fury of a beehive under attack and he leapt up. “But why ?! That article crucified my family! It destroyed my life; it made me hate my parents! Why!

“I panicked when your parents were killed!” Vlad snarled. “I was half a world away, woken in the middle of the night by photos of dear friends who’d been tied--”

“Father!” Adrian said sharply and Trevor’s heart fractured like a thin scum of ice on a puddle under a falling stone.

“Did they suffer?” he whispered and Vlad would not meet his gaze.

Oh Mama, he thought as the agony of it burned down into his belly. Dear Papa. I am so sorry. If only I could have told you just how sorry I am. I hope, wherever you are, you know it.

“I had to make things up as I went,” Vlad continued. “I had some threads in place as a safeguard, but I fully admit that if I’d been completely logical, I would have handled it better. For the forgeries, I needed to establish a pattern because it would be suspicious if it was too recent.”

The ghostly whisper of his mother telling him that someday he might be proud of them rose up and pushed over the grief. “You chose 200 years though. You. Why would you completely tarnish the entire legacy of the Belmonts? You could have been gentle; you could have left something for them, for us to be proud of. Instead you told this reporter the Belmonts were in league with the mob!”

“There was a reason for that,” Vlad said simply. “It was a protective measure."

“It sure didn’t feel like it!” Trevor hissed, and Adrian cleared his throat.

“You knew that the courts would take everything once the mob was mentioned. The FBI would be involved! Who did you think would--,” Adrian paused and there was a note of reluctant understanding in his voice.“You were counting on that. You trusted the bureaucracy to chase its tail while you dealt with Crimson Stone.”

“Yes,” Vlad said calmly. “Although not just that. It also put pressure and scrutiny onto the actual mob itself. When they discovered that a rival organization had acted in their name, and had been blackmailing the Belmonts for funds using their names as cover…” Vlad spread his hands and smiled.

It was brilliant, Trevor thought. It squeezed Crimson from multiple directions. That didn’t stop the furious resentment from festering. “You misled the mob on Crimson Stone." Trevor stated flatly.

“I don’t know what happened,” Vlad said smoothly and with a touch of smugness. “I just know that there was an incredible amount of paperwork that suggested that Crimson Stone was using the mob as a front for their own operations and somehow that paperwork made it back to the mob.”

Paperwork you already had? Trevor wondered. What were you planning to do with it? Were you always going to sacrifice Crimson Stone, or was it just a contingency? The worst part, the part that had been niggling in the back of his mind finally found its way to the forefront.

How do I know if any of this is even true? He wondered. How can I trust it?

“You always have another plan, don’t you Father?’ The painter asked. Trevor couldn’t decipher what was in his voice and his hand ached from holding the armchair so tightly. He tried to relax, tried to be calm but Adrian had never felt so far away as he did now, only three feet from his hands.

What does he think of all this? Trevor wondered and knew that whatever the painter’s thoughts were, they were agony.

“When it comes to my family and our future? Yes. I do.” Vlad’s voice was firm and proud. He looked at Trevor. “I had to mention organized crime for my plan to work. I needed the murder of your parents to become an issue of federal jurisdiction. Then there was, of course, a scramble on who would hold the assets. Specifically the bank accounts, which were not unsubstantial.”

“That’s all well and good,” Sypha said tightly. “But you left Trevor alone and penniless. Did you know about that?” Her hand on his shoulder trembled once.

Vlad stilled and met Trevor’s eyes. The intense sincerity of the maroon depths was impossible to miss. “No.” Vlad said. “I truly believed that you were with your extended family. What happened to you was a mistake, and I am honestly so very sorry it happened.”

“Are you, Father?” Adrian asked quietly. “Or are you just sorry that it’s come back to haunt you?”

Vlad’s eyes flicked over to his son and Trevor could see his jaw clench. “As I said, I’ve made mistakes with what happened. I wish it could have been any other way.”

Trevor believed he was sorry for what happened to him. He wasn’t sure where that left them, but he did believe that part. As much rage and grief and pain this whole enterprise had cost, if Vlad was telling the truth, there was a certain amount of peace in it for him. The shattered pieces of his parents were coming back together. There were still flaws and still parts he was not proud of but they were not the complete strangers they'd become when he'd read the article.

It would take time for him to process it all but there were already jagged pieces of grief and shame that were easing out of the crevices they’d been rotting in. What was important now was how to protect Adrian from this mess. “So what do you plan on doing about Agent Isaac?” he asked.

“Yes, Father,” Adrian asked tightly. “How do you intend on restoring Trevor’s belongings, and inheritance, and family, and life to him, now?

---


I am the son and heir
Of nothing in particular
You shut your mouth
How can you say
I go about things the wrong way?

I am human and I need to be loved
Just like everybody else does
There's a club if you'd like to go
You could meet somebody who really loves you
So you go and you stand on your own
And you leave on your own
And you go home and you cry
And you want to die

When you say it's gonna happen now
When exactly do you mean?
See I've already waited too long
And all my hope is gone

"How Soon Is Now?" The Smiths