She had nothing left of him but this photo.
The picture was crinkled and old, faded at the edges where fingers had smoothed its brittle surface hundreds of times.
In the center, two teenagers on the brink of adulthood laughed. The boy, sharp features worn blurry with age, twinkling eyes still burning brightly like twin black coals smoldering with heat. The girl, pressed tightly against him, her magnolia skin flushed with the rose-hued tinge of love and youth. Once, a glassy finish had coated its satiny surface and the colors had shone brilliantly in this frozen moment.
With a sigh, Océane DuFeu set the image carefully on the glass tabletop. Her hand shook tremulously with the effort. The magnolia skin wrinkled into nearly perfect pleats, papery thin, and her blue veins pulsed sluggishly beneath that delicate protection. She was tired beneath the warm, heady sunlight streaming into the room, and it served only to emphasize her age.
In the photo, she was young, but the photo was old.
So was she.
She could see her reflection in the shiny glass surface. When her eyes met those of her reflection, two pale, rheumy blue orbs stared back at her. Her parents had named her for the ocean. For eyes the color of the sea at its deepest and most mysterious depths, where sunlight slides into murky waters. He used to tell her that her eyes were like a bolt of lightning crashing into his soul, sizzling against the salty water in a hiss of steam. But that was so very long ago.
Ages ago, when they’d laughed and embraced and flirted like the lovers they were, he told her so many things. He told her about the color of sunset at breaking dawn and the whisper of butterflies in the early morning air. He told her about the feel of silk sliding against skin and the smell of summer. But, perhaps most importantly of all, he told her that he loved her.
And, oh, sinking into the velvet depths of his mind, she believed. She believed every silken word slipping from his lips like drops of honey, even when that strange connection that bound them told her differently.
When she touched him, truth spiked between them, despite any desperate attempts to hold it back. They had no secrets, no uncertain lies to spin their souls crashing apart. When he told her he loved her, that truth shone more brightly than any other word he spoke, and so she knew it was true.
Now, in the somehow stifling afternoon warmth, her eyes were pale as ice and faded, like the promise of his words and the photo lying so neatly before her. Outside, the ocean roared like a lion in fury, crashing against rocks and sand with white, frothy rage. It reminded her of him, just like everything reminded her of him.
He was, oh, so very hard to forget.
Squinting down at the photo, she smoothed it flat for the millionth time that afternoon. The image was never far from her hand. Despite everything she had seen and experienced, she treasured this bent and broken slip of paper the most.
His somber eyes stared up at her from the darkened and thinned photograph, framed by icy cold skin. Icy cold to the touch, perhaps, not that she would know. Skin so white it made her think of frost and glaciers, spun slick against the too black obsidian of his hair. Eyes like onyx and hair like hematite, the strands catching an awkward red in the sun.
She had loved to dance beneath the oak trees with him. With her honey-streaked hair whipping and catching around them, they would twirl under the afternoon sun until they collapsed into a laughing heap. As they lay there panting for breath, she would run her fingers through the silky tips of that hair and watch them glow a startling crimson. Then, as the last ray of light faded from those dark spikes, their mouths would meet and meld in a piercingly sweet vow no words could match.
They danced beneath the midday sun and the midnight moon, stealing each precious moment as if it was their last. And one day, it had been.
One day, Iakobos Katsaros had left her without a word of promise.
He’d talked about it so many times, but she’d always thought he was merely teasing. His eyes would darken as though they’d been dripped with tar, and the cocaine headiness of his voice would deepen with intoxicating sorrow. She could still see the faraway look turn his sculpted features lax, sixty years later.
“I am bad for you, ma cœur,” he said, his shoulder pillowing her head as she stared up at him through adoring cerulean eyes. One hand stroked a shivering path along the bare skin of her arm. Though his French was perfect, every so often she could catch the faintest hint of an accent. “I should go.”
And she, innocent and trusting as she was, merely snuggled closer. “Don’t go,” she begged against the smooth, smooth skin of his neck. A smile curved her lips. “I should miss you too much.”
He sighed. “Océane, I love you too much to stay.”
Those words always made her angry, even now, so many years later. “That is the stupidest thing I have ever heard,” she snapped, struggling to prop herself on her elbows though her body screamed in protest, telling her not to move away. Her hair spilled over them like a rush of honey.
As he caught a strand of it between his fingers, his smile was sad. And instead of answering, he casually asked, “Do you know what my aunt always told me?” Her sullen silence must have told him she wouldn’t play his game, because he continued with barely a pause. “What we do not know will not hurt us. I always thought it to be a stupid phrase.”
“It is your talk of leaving that is stupid,” she scoffed. She glared at him a moment more before resuming her former position
His hand curved around her, his fingers twining easily with hers. With their palms pressed next to each other, she could feel the even pounding of his heart. “You fear the unknown too much. It would be better if I left.”
Frowning, she clutched his hand tighter to hers. “Promise me you will not leave.”
“I cannot promise that, Océane. No one can.” He pressed a chaste kiss to her forehead and hugged her close, the strange cloud he refused to explain hovering around them, dipping her into the velvet-coated darkness of his mind. Even though she tried to ignore them, shadows hovered at the corners where she could not go.
No wonder he had refused to promise; Iakobos had always kept his word. Now, sixty years later, she could not name one promise he had not kept, except perhaps when he promised to love her forever.
She sighed softly, the sound more a wheeze than a whispery breath. Time had turned her lungs to paper and her body into a broken wraith of what it had been. Her memories remained the only intact part of her, and sometimes even those were fleeting.
But in the sultry silence of the afternoon, she swore she could still hear the sliding purr of his laughter washing over her. When she glanced up, her eyes told her she could see him standing in front of her, exactly as he had been so many years ago. Impossible, an illusion, but still welcome in the loneliness of her glass-encased home.
The apparition in front of her smiled. “Yes, ma cœur?”
She wasn’t his heart anymore. Her eyes softened and tears welled as the rough slide of his voice poured over her skin. He looked so real, so perfect, and she could be staring sixty years into the past, if only she didn’t know her mind had taken one step farther from reality. Oh, but to hear that endearment fall from his lips... If this was what being crazy meant, she would embrace it with open arms.
Wrapping her arms around herself, she laughed, the tears streaming down her face with too much abandon. Their wetness felt cool against her cheeks. Standing feebly, she shuffled to the sheet of glass separating her from the rough tumble of the ocean. Stared out over the endless expanse of the Atlantic. The Norman coast stretched craggily along that sharp blue edge.
Warm breath skittered along her spine, tripping over papery skin. She let her eyes slide shut, drowning the heavy press of sunlight and the salty taste of air into the black abyss of her memories. He used to stand behind her and encircle her with the heavy weight of his arms, pulling her back against him as though he would never let her go. She could remember it so clearly she could almost feel it, weighing the soft glide of his hand against her arm and the moistness of his words caressing her ear.
“Why do you pretend as if I am not here?”
She shook her head, trying to deny the memory of those words, and was surprised to find her hair trapped against a strong, hard chest. Startled, she blinked away the tears, eyes wide like the expanse of regret inside her. She twisted slowly in his arms, expecting to find eyes aged with wisdom and cheeks weathered by time, but instead she found only youth.
“Iakobos?” This time, her voice was ripe with questions. Questions she did not ask, but curiosity present nonetheless. Impossible, her mind whispered. But either way, her mind had to be lying. Either it was playing tricks or what stood in front of her was real.
Her heart beat just a little faster.
Some of the sparkle left his eyes when he looked at her -- really looked at her -- fading into a curious uncertainty. She didn’t let it bother her, two hands lifting to touch his face in something close to reverence, but she knew better than to think of him as a god. He had left her once, too long ago, and now all that was left was dust.
It had to be a dream, she thought, as her hands traced the face she had known so well. How else could he be here, perfect, the youth shining so brightly on his face? A dream, but it seemed so real. She sighed, relaxing against him, and wondered if perhaps she had finally died.
But as the regret crept slowly into his eyes, she remembered that long sixty years she spent waiting for him to return. Time that felt like an eternity while she trusted him to answer that strange call inside her, which calmed only when he was near. It nestled in her chest like a bird just returned from flight. As if in contrast, her anger rose hotly.
He must have seen it sparking in the pale, almost colorless eyes. Her mouth pursed into an angry line, thinned by age, and her skin drew tight across her cheeks. Regret turned his black eyes fathomless and guarded. “Océane,” he said, his voice stroking over her name, repeating it like a mantra. She could feel its seductive pull on each of her shrieking nerves. “S’il vous plait...”
When his skin touched hers, she could only let the contact slide over her like ice against a burn. She reached to place a finger against his lips, forgetting for a moment that she was old, no longer beautiful.
After the first wave of feeling washed over her, she remembered her fury. “You left me,” she accused, pulling away. And now, years and decades later, she could allow herself to glory in the scene she imagined so many times, so many different ways. “You abandoned me.”
Shame lurked in those black as night eyes, but his face was as stoic as ever. “It was for the best.”
“Non,” she shook her head, stepping away until the glass pressed against her back. The sullen air shimmered around her and lay heavily moist against her blue-white skin. She could feel his touch, hear his voice, breathe his scent... but it could not be reality. Sixty years gone by, and his thick black lashes still lay smudged against angled cheeks, just past the first flush of youth.
“Non!” she cried again. “You are just a memory!”
This time, she shoved her way past him, careful not to reach out and feel the empty air where he appeared. Imaging again that she touched him would be almost too much to bear. The movements were not as easy as they had been when she was young, and her bones creaked with the sudden sliding action. He stepped back, allowing her to pass, her mind rationalizing his youthful presence by realizing that he simply could not exist.
No one stayed young for sixty years. No one walked through light and shadow without a fresh wrinkle to dust the smooth skin of his face. No one stood straight and tall without the weight of age bowing their back or whispering through their bones.
No, if he were real, he would be as feeble as she.
She wrapped her arms more tightly around herself, sitting herself back in front of the photo, her eyes caressing bright black of his irises. A memory, an illusion, but dear god, it was nearly perfect.
A shadow fell across the photo and she swallowed hard, closing her eyes. Memories did not leave shadows. No matter what she told herself, he was solid. Her mind refused to grasp the concept. Without opening her eyes, she whispered, “How are you here?”
Maybe his answer would be enough to convince her that she was not crazy.
Maybe it would dip her farther in this half-sane dream.
His voice had the same effect as a rush of morphine through her veins. He always had been able to make the pain go away, easier than anesthesia on a fresh wound. “I do not want to hurt you,” he whispered, and she didn’t know how to tell him he already had. “I did not want to hurt you then, either. But I could not watch you grow old before my eyes, while I stayed young, knowing that I would lose you.”
“How are you here?” she repeated, her voice stronger and more angry. His words passed like murmurs in a dream-drenched sleep, barely registering on her brain. Let him make his excuses, but she wanted him to explain before she heard them.
A soft sigh fell against her ears. “Océane, I could not tell you then,” and the agonized tone of his voice made her open her eyes and look up, “but I am not like you.”
Her gasp rang gong-like through the room, her eyes fixing on the two slender fangs curving delicately over his bottom lip. Breath wheezed loudly and her eyes widened until his image swam before her. “Non,” she whispered, her head shaking back and forth slowly in disbelief. “Non...”
The face in front of her reflected only sadness. “Ma cœur,” he said softly, “I cannot stand to hear you suffer.”
She had only a second to wonder what he meant before he swooped down and bent her backwards across the couch. His touch was gentle, so gentle, but tears rose fresh in her eyes and panic made her heart beat swiftly in her chest. Impossible, her brain screamed, even as his mouth closed over her neck.
Iakobos had loved her, not this monster in front of her. “Je t’aime, Océane.” His words skittered across her skin, and then he bit. The sensation was not unlike drowning, not unlike sinking into his mind like she had so many times before. And the velvet-coated darkness was the same.
He could be no one else.
What he was doing to her didn’t hurt at all. It was amazingly peaceful, drifting through those suede-soft plains and dream-drunken valleys, only a brief stinging when his teeth sank easily into her throat. In that darkness, she could feel the lonely, cold years that stretched between them. He had not been any happier than she.
Finally, her mind grasped onto a word, one that had eluded her for those long sixty years. Soulmates. And she had been his. Sixty years they could have spent in happiness, if only he had been brave enough to tell her his secret and she been brave enough to conquer her fears. His sorrows soaked steamily into her mind. But, quietly, subtly, it all began to fade, drifting away into the cushioning depths of his memories, until she slowly melted away with the remembrance of a soul-baring kiss and a single set of words she heard only once in sixty years.
When her body sagged against his careful arms, her heart slowing to a stop, he set her carefully against the cushions. Her face was lined with peace. Sixty long years, and it had taken every ounce of will to stay away from her, knowing that if he told her what he was, the law demanded both their deaths.
It had been easier to kill her than to feel her pain at his absence. Each night, he knew when she dreamed about the days when they had been together and happy. Yet she had aged and he had not. According to the law, he had no other choice. Regret and sadness coursing through him, he turned away from her broken and lifeless body, his gaze dropping down. On the table in front of him, a photo from long ago lay worn and aged.
In the center, they laughed and embraced and loved like the children they were.
He had nothing left of her but this photo.