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the kiss of death

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The Count had brought you in to study the plague. You were no doctor, but you had made your trade through research, and according the the summons Lucio had sent you, he thought your skills in research could help piece together a solution.

You met the court physician, a rather unremarkable man, first. He told you about the symptoms of the plague, how long victims usually survived, everything everyone in Vesuvia had already learned in watching the people around them drop like flies. He was rather useless for your research.

Next you met the plague doctor Lucio had summoned a few weeks before you, Doctor Devorak. He was a bit more interesting, and immeasurably more useful. He took you to his office down past what looked like an operating room and reeked of death, and he showed you his almost illegibly scrawled notes on his findings. The gleam in his eye was just shy of madness.

Devorak let you use his office as you pleased to copy down his notes into some semblance of an orderly manner. Overall, he was kind enough, even if he’d already begun to lose himself looking for his cure.

Then you met the Courtiers, and things finally started to get interesting. They were all strange, almost inhuman in nature at times.

Quaestor Valdemar was undeniably the leader of the four, even if they were the least involved in public affairs. That much became clear the first time you saw them all together. Praetor Vlastomil and Procurator Volta seemed like bumbling fools most of the time, though you could see how Volta was useful in her ability to, quite literally, sniff out signs of the plague. Pontifex Vulgora was...utterly focused on destruction, and seemed almost too eager about Vesuvia seemingly being on the verge of collapse due to the plague.

And then there was Quaestor Valdemar. They moved with a sort of silent grace that was almost unnerving, and on the rare occasions they removed their mask, their face seemed to always be fixed in a too-wide smile. They were good at what they did though, whatever it was they did. You weren't entirely sure what their job was.

Devorak assured you they were the best there was at their job, and they loved doing it. He didn't tell you what their job was though, and his hands shook while he spoke about Valdemar. You were sure he wasn’t lying though. He was afraid of Valdemar.

You were sure there was more to it than the unnerving energy Valdemar gave off, you were just left to wonder why.

And then they asked if you’d like to watch one day as they conducted their research. Their smile when they said their research was more “hands on” than most were willing to go was enough to make you nervous, but you agreed. After all, you were there to collect information, and maybe Valdemar’s hands on approach, whatever that meant, could provide you with information you needed.

They took you down to that putrid operating room, though they were at least kind enough to offer you a surgical mask to match theirs beforehand. It wasn't enough to cover the scent, but it gave you a bit of security to know you weren't directly breathing it in.

They opened the door for you, eyes smiling, and you felt yourself balk at the sight in front of you.

There was a man lying on the operating table in the center of the room, chest still. He was dead.

“Did you--” you started, and Valdemar cut you off with a wave of their hand.

“The plague killed him,” they said, eagerly wringing their hands together. “I have the privilege of getting to be a bit more...direct in my observations of how the plague is affecting Vesuvia. It’s really quite amazing, I think.”

“You--you get their bodies after they die?” you asked, unable to look away.

They snickered. “After they die? Usually, though sometimes the Count spoils me.”

“You operate on these people while they're still alive?”

You weren't sure why you were so surprised. Doctor Devorak’s fear finally made sense in your mind.

“Furthering research!” they exclaimed, excitement shining through in their voice. They laughed, high and clear. “And anyways, they're already infected when they arrive. They’ll die anyways, why not speed it up just a touch to find a cure for everyone else?”

You pushed down the fear creeping up your chest. You knew it would be easier if you were on their good side. “I guess that’s--that’s a more heroic way to die than just dying of the plague. At least their deaths are helping.”

You tried to tell yourself that too. You had a feeling that the only way your time here would be bearable was if you managed to convince yourself of that.

“Exactly! Our dear Doctor 069 observes as well sometimes, but he doesn't really have the stomach for all this, so his presence is a rare treat. It’ll just be the two of us today,” they explained, laying an assortment of surgical tools on the table beside the body.

“Maybe next time,” you said, eyes locked on the body that was now right in front of you.

His skin was sallow and waxy, his lips greying, and his eyes, still half-open, were a crimson red. It was as mesmerizing as it was horrible.

“What do you do with them?” you asked.

“That would ruin the surprise,” they said, lips pressed close to your ear.

You felt yourself flinch, just enough for them to notice and laugh, thoroughly amused. You hadn't noticed them take their mask off. Why would they take it off in here? You suspected it was better not to ask.

They gestured for you to step back as they picked up a scalpel, which you did with no hesitation. They were completely in their element here, and you knew doing something against their wishes would end badly.

They pressed the scalpel into his navel and dragged upwards, eyes rolling back in their head as the skin started to split.

It felt almost intimate, even as you tried to push down the bile you felt rising in your throat.

They didn't stop moving upwards until they reached his chest, and then they set the scalpel down and reached a gloved hand inside his torso. They looked the most content you’d ever seen them, too-wide smile replaced with an almost serene one.

They were almost beautiful, in an utterly macabre way.

You found yourself transfixed as they began pulling out various organs, to the point you couldn't even muster your previous nausea at the noises that were coming from the body.

“You don’t squirm nearly as much as the Doctor,” they muttered, soft enough you almost thought they were talking to the body in the table.

“I guess I have a stronger stomach than he does,” you said back, just as softly.

“I’m not so sure about that,” they said, too-wide smile back on their face. You didn't find it quite as unnerving as you had before. “You seem to be enjoying yourself, in fact.”

You just shrugged. ‘Enjoying’ wasn't quite the right word, but they were right in that you felt much more fascinated than the disgust you had expected to feel.

“Incredible,” they murmured, pulling out a bruised and swollen spleen.

You nodded your agreement, mesmerized at the sight of the plague’s effects so plainly laid out in front of you.

--

They invited you to observe their operations rather frequently after that, even allowing you to assist to an extent, and every time was just as intimate, just as exhilarating as the first. Then they asked if you'd like to observe a live operation, practically giddy at the prospect. Apparently, Doctor Devorak was even less fond of the live patients than the dead ones.

You agreed in a heartbeat. You were nervous, of course. You were going to watch your colleague, one you were starting to suspect you felt something for much more than was appropriate, murder someone with the hopes of scientific advancement. And it was murder, even if the patient was going to die anyways. You knew that. You just couldn't find it in yourself to be as uncomfortable with that fact as you would've been before you started spending time with Valdemar.

Their hands clasped together in excitement as soon as you agreed, and they led you down the familiar route to their operating room. Just before stepping inside, they took off their mask and handed it to you, something that had grown normal. You no longer thought anything of them removing their mask, it was just another of their oddities you'd grown to accept.

You slipped the mask on and they pushed the doors open, smile even wider than usual with their excitement. “The live ones are always fun,” they said, quickly walking towards the operating table, movements that unnerving combination of jerky and graceful that you'd never seen in anyone else.

You followed quickly behind, eyes already on the patient.

Her arms and legs were bound by the leather restraints you'd only ever seen dangling off the sides of the table, and her chest was rising and falling with shallow, rattling breaths. She really was alive. You felt a tightness in your chest, a feeling you couldn't quite place. You ignored it as Valdemar picked up their favorite scalpel.

“I don't usually rush this,” they started, pressing the scalpel to her skin, “but this specimen is almost too far gone to have any of the reactions we need from our live patients, and it just wouldn't do to deprive you of that.”

You smiled tightly, the feeling in your chest now undeniably nerves. “How thoughtful,” you said, unable to tear your eyes from her chest, still rising and falling.

They pressed the scalpel into her skin, and the moment blood began to shine through, her eyes flew open.

She pulled weakly at her restraints, whimpering and trying to cry out as loud as her weakened body could manage. You felt your stomach lurch as she thrashed around as much as she could manage in her current state, felt every nerve in your body screaming as Valdemar opened her up, smile still firmly on their face.

“You don’t seem to be enjoying this one as much as the others,” they noted, still smiling down at the woman on their table. “Is she too alive? Maybe not alive enough?”

They finished making the cut, which went further up than they typically did.

“I just--I’m not used to this much...activity. I’m alright, Valdemar. It'll just take some getting used to.”

They nodded in satisfaction, setting the scalpel down and picking up a tool you hadn't seen them use before, one resembling a pair of pliers.

They reached one side of them underneath her ribcage and clamped the other side down on top, and they pulled upwards. She cried out, the loudest noise she’d managed yet as her ribs broke to give Valdemar a clearer image of the inside of her chest.

“It's just wonderful what this plague can do to you,” Valdemar said conversationally to the woman on their table, voice full of cheer. “I’ve never seen a disease that affects the heart quite like this.” They looked up at you. “Don't you agree?”

You looked down at her chest, at her still beating heart, and your eyes widened. It was nearly blackened, shrunken small enough that it was clearly abnormal.

“This heart, my dear, is why we need live specimens. Entertaining as they may be, I don't only request them for my own pleasure. This heart will go back to normal a few hours after she dies,” they explained.

“So this plague is--there's a magical component?” you asked, looking up to Valdemar again, too distracted by the revelation to feel anything towards the patient.

“That’s a possibility,” Valdemar agreed. “Our dearest Doctor 069 believes otherwise. He doesn't think magic is anything more than intuition and sleight of hand.”

“Then I suppose I’ll have to keep coming to observe when you work with live specimens,” you said, squaring your shoulders.

“That sounds delightful. Now that you've seen what you needed to, shall I put this creature out of her misery?” they asked, eyes gleaming, and you were suddenly all too aware of the unnatural points of their teeth.

Still, it would be cruel to make her endure any more. “I think it's time,” you agreed.

Their smile grew feral. “I don't think you're quite ready to see that yet.”

You took the hint and turned your head away. She made one last choked noise, and then she was silent. You looked back down at her once you were sure she was dead. Her heart had been removed and placed next to her body, leaving an empty cavity in her chest.

You never heard Valdemar pick up, or set down, any of their tools. You had a feeling you didn't want to know how they did it.

--

You became desensitized to these live operations rather quickly. Soon, you could talk to Valdemar just as easily during them as you did during operations on corpses. Your fondness for them returned.

You knew there was no reason to continue operating on people. You knew that you, Valdemar, and Doctor Devorak had all seen everything there was to see during them. They were no longer about advancement. They were for Valdemar’s pleasure. The thought didn't disgust you as much as it should have.

Valdemar began running into you outside the operating room more often. You thought maybe they cared for you as well, in their strange way. They had never openly spoken to you about their desire to watch you fall victim to the plague so they could cut you open. Few people could say the same.

They linked their arm with yours when they led you around. You’d never seen them touch anyone in any capacity before. It was nice.

It felt like they were courting you at times, if Valdemar’s operations counted as dates. You counted them sometimes.

It was odd, the way you and Valdemar cared for each other. You weren't even sure it was noticeable to others. You weren't even sure you hadn't just made it all up some days.

Then you got sick.

You woke up with a cough, and fearing the worst, you looked in the mirror. Red had started to bleed into your right eye.

You allowed yourself some time to cry, you barred the door to your chambers, and you stumbled to your desk, noting that somehow your conditioned had already worsened in the span of less than an hour. You grabbed a quill and parchment from the desk and began to write about your condition.

You were as good as dead, but a firsthand account of every moment leading up until you were too far gone to write anymore could prove immeasurably useful. You could do that, at least.

Once every hour you stood and walked a lap around the room to see if you were still able. When it became enough of a strain you knew it wouldn’t be feasible for much longer, you grabbed the handheld mirror in your bedside table and brought it back to the desk with you to continue monitoring the progression of the redness in your eyes.

By sundown, you could only walk a few steps before the dizziness was too much, and your shaking hands had made your writing much less neat. You weren’t sure how much longer you’d be able to keep it up for. You wrote that down as well.

By midnight, both of your eyes had grown red all the way through.

You set the mirror down, and then there was a voice behind you.

“You’re dying.”

It was Valdemar. You wondered how they got in.

You nodded.

They moved to stand next to you. You’d never seen them sit.

“You’re taking notes on your condition.”

Another nod.

“Can you still speak?”

“Yeah,” you said. “Feels like I’m wasting energy if I do, though.”

They nodded.

“Valdemar?”

They looked down at you. They weren’t wearing their mask. They always wore their mask outside of their operating room.

They also weren’t smiling. Funny that.

“When I’m--when I can’t write anymore, I want you to operate on me. Write everything down. I--we don’t have any accounts of the plague’s progression like mine. It needs to be finished.”

They nodded. “If that’s what you wish.”

“It is. I won’t be scared. It’s just you. We’ve done this together dozens of times.”

They smiled again. You didn’t think that sharp, too-wide smile was something you would miss. Funny how you never even considered it until you were dying. You would miss it, after all. “I’ll make you my greatest masterpiece yet.”

You smiled back at them. “Good. And you promise to write down everything? I need you to write it down, Valdemar.”

“I’ll write it. I’ll personally deliver it to Doctor 069 as well. It should be useful to him.”

“Thank you, Valdemar.”

“I’ll see to it that you’re buried as well.”

And that was really something, wasn’t it? Plague victims didn’t get buried. Most of them ended up burned offshore, and Valdemar had their own creative ways of getting rid of their patients. You knew they relished in that disposal as well, knew it was important to them to keep their pets fed. And yet, they were offering to have you buried.

You didn’t respond. They seemed to understand.

They stayed with you as you continued to take notes on your worsening condition. A little over an hour later, just after writing down another update, you turned back to Valdemar.

“While I’m still--still mostly in control of myself,” you said. “I don’t want you holding back when you operate on me, okay? You always hold back on the live ones when I’m there, and I need you to do what you would if I wasn’t there. Get everything you normally would.”

“It won’t help your notes,” they assured you, hands clasping together.

“I figured. I still--I don’t know. Just please, I want to see what you look like when you let go.”

You couldn’t explain it to yourself, let alone to them. You didn’t know if it was morbid curiosity, or a desire to see another side to someone you’d grown to care for. Probably some mix of the two.

“If that’s what you want.”

You nodded. “We--we should go to the operating room now. Nobody’s going to be in the halls, and I don’t know if I’ll be able to get there if we wait much longer.”

They nodded in acknowledgement, and offered an arm to help you stand. You graciously accepted, and once you were on your feet, they wrapped an arm around your midsection to help support your weight. You leaned more heavily on them than you were willing to admit, and they didn’t seem to struggle with your weight in the slightest.

That was maybe one of the more unnerving things about Valdemar. They seemed to constantly be doing things that should be impossible for someone of their build, or of anyone honestly. You wondered, sometimes, if they were more than human. You regretted greatly that you’d never know for sure.

They grabbed the many pieces of parchment scattered on your desk, assured you they had quills of their own, and then the two of you began the walk to the operating room. It was silent save for the noise of your feet on the floor.

Only yours.

Valdemar was still moving with that silent grace, even under your combined weight.

When you reached the operating room, you sat yourself on the operating table, and Valdemar set your parchment down of the table they kept their tools, then left to go fetch a quill.

It was the first time you’d been in the operating room without Valdemar’s mask on. Your sense of smell had diminished enough that you weren’t even all that bothered by it.

When Valdemar came back with the quill, you wrote the details of your walk to the operating room, along with making note of the level your sense of smell had diminished. You continued to conduct your tests of your abilities while Valdemar watched over you, the both of you content to remain in relative silence.

When enough time had passed you were sure morning came long ago, your energy was completely sapped and your hands were too weak and shaking violently enough that continuing your notes would be impossible. You took a deep breath.

“I’m ready.”

They were immediately next to you, scooping up the parchment and walking away.

You stripped yourself of your clothes, you laid yourself down, and you waited. You weren’t as afraid as you’d always thought you’d be to die. Maybe it was because you’d been so surrounded by it as of late. The childish part of you, the part that always wanted a happy ending, wanted to believe it was because you knew Valdemar would be there until your last breath.

When Valdemar returned, they froze in their tracks for just a moment at the sight of you.

“Already such a work of art,” they commented as they spread their tools out on the table next to you, as well as pulled over a rack you hadn’t seen them use before. “You’ll be absolutely ravishing when I start my work, my dear.”

You smiled at them. “I’m sure I will.”

“A shame you won’t get to see yourself in all your glory,” they said, and they really did sound disappointed. “Almost as much a shame as the fact we won’t be able to enjoy each other’s company afterwards.”

You really did regret that you didn’t get to know them better. You supposed this was the most intimately anyone could know Valdemar. This was where their true colors shined the most.

They finished arranging their tools in a manner that pleased them, and then they smoothed your hair back from your face. “Do you need the restraints?”

You let your eyes fall shut, leaning into the contact. “No. If I move around too much, you can put them on me. I want to try without them though.”

“As you wish.”

You opened your eyes when you heard them pick up the scalpel. You’d seen them do this enough times to recognize that they were preparing to make the incision.

“Whenever you’re ready, Valdemar. I’m okay.”

They nodded, and then you felt the cold blade against your stomach. And then it broke the skin, just an uncomfortable level of pain at first, and as Valdemar dragged it up your torso, you felt like you were on fire. You cried out, your eyes squeezing shut of their own accord. They kept moving the scalpel upwards until the incision reached nearly to your collarbones.

You were panting when they stopped, but tried to smile at them. “Keep--keep going. It’s alright. Just--just talk to me. It won’t be so bad then. Tell me--tell me what you’re doing.”

“If that will make this easier for you.”

You nodded, pushing down your body’s every instinct to fight back, to try to stop the bleeding. Survival instincts weren’t what you needed now.

You didn’t look down at the bloody mess you had definitely become, instead focusing your attention on Valdemar’s face. They were looking down at you with an expression of pure wonder, pupils dilated and teeth bared.

“You already look beautiful, and we’ve only barely started,” they told you, looking you in the face.

“Charmer,” you said, tight smile still drawn on your face.

They reached down and grabbed the edges of the incision, pulling you wide open.

“You really want me to tell you everything?” They sounded hopeful. They were excited to share this with you. It was almost sweet.

“Please.”

They clapped their hands together. “I pulled the skin to give me a clearer view of what’s inside of you which, I can assure you, is beautiful so far. Now,” they said, reaching a hand inside of you, “I’m going to remove your intestines for the time being so I can see everything else happening in here.”

They grabbed what you assumed was an intestine, and you felt a dull ache in your torso, one that was unlike anything you’d ever felt. They pulled upwards, and then you were looking at your own intestine. It looked like it was moving around of its own free will, flopping around like a snake. Valdemar seemed to think it was funny.

“The human intestine naturally wants to coil itself into the position it’s in inside of you,” they explained, amused smile dancing on their lips. “Right now, your large intestine trying to crawl back inside of you. Which is why I needed this.”

They looped the intestine around the rack they’d brought with them. You knew the situation was, objectively, completely horrifying. You knew you were in the most pain you’d ever felt in your life, that your vision was growing white around the edges because of it.

Still, you found yourself as enthralled as they were. It was fascinating, and almost beautiful, the way the pieces of your body wanted to fit together as they always had.

They pulled out your small intestine next, wrapping it around the rack the same as the first. They continued to squirm around on the rack, and you found yourself transfixed.

“It is stunning, isn’t it?” Valdemar asked. “Everything inside of your body is just as breathtaking as this.”

You believed them.

They poked around inside of you more, telling you which organs they were looking at as they did so, and praising each and every one of them. Even through the pain, which had gone from excruciating to near numbness over time--and you knew that meant you were probably dying, you weren’t stupid--was still there, and you were in a position you’d, quite reasonably, never expected to be in, you felt so very cared about.

Valdemar was singing praises to you in a way you’d never heard them do with any of your patients. They usually got mocking, maybe occasional reassurances, but never anything like this. Valdemar was assuring you with every action that you were exquisite, that they’d never had someone on their table who did as well as you were doing, that they were grateful you’d allowed them to see every part of you.

It was romantic, in a way.

They did finish exploring your guts eventually, and looked at you with a slightly subdued smile. “You know this next part is going to hurt quite a lot, my dear.”

You nodded, gripping the edges of table. You were determined not to need the restraints. You wanted to be able to reach out, to touch Valdemar when it wouldn’t disturb them. They’d be within your reach now, and you needed to hold them.

They picked up those pliers, and you looked them in the face. You didn’t want to see this part. You may have been just as entranced by the organs and the more gentle parts of this procedure as Valdemar, but if you saw this part, it would be too much.

You felt a dull pain as they secured the pliers around your ribs, and then there was a sickening crack followed by the worst pain you’d felt in your life. You screamed, head thrown back, and you could feel tears streaking down your face. They kept going, breaking your ribs off until your chest was wide open for them.

You were heaving with sobs by the time it was over. It felt like an eternity. You knew it couldn’t have been though. They were always so quick with their work.

“Do you need a moment before we continue?” they asked. They never gave patients that option. Everything about the way they went about this was so different than normal. They really did care for you.

You shook your head. “Please, just--just touch me. I need--I need to--”

You didn’t know how to finish the sentence. You just needed their hands on you, on the outside of you.

They nodded, and then they removed one of their gloves. You’d never seen them without those gloves on before. Their hand was slender, and their nails looked sharp enough to resemble talons.

They reached down and rested a hand on your cheek, thumb stroking the skin. Their hand was calloused, but they were touching you so gently. You leaned into the touch, and one of your hands flew up to cover theirs. They interlaced your fingers and moved your hands away from your face, letting them rest on the operating table.

“Would you rather I keep my hand like this for the rest of the operation?” they asked, nodding towards your intertwined hands.

You nodded. “Please,” you forced out. It felt almost impossible to speak now.

You could feel blood in your mouth, stuck in your throat, running down your sides. It was everywhere. You were losing so much. You wondered if you’d bleed out before they finished you off.

“As you wish.”

They leaned down to more closely inspect your chest, eyes sparkling. They looked beautiful when they were like this. You thought they were maybe the most gorgeous thing you’d ever seen when they were so utterly captivated, especially since this time their adoration was directed at you.

“I don’t usually get to perform surgeries on live patients until they’re nearly dead already,” they explained, reaching their gloved hand into your chest and touching something, sending a shock of pain through you. You flinched, but tried not to squirm. “You still had hours left until your natural death. Your heart looks almost as it should before the plague.”

Your eyes snapped to theirs. They saw that you weren’t in much of a position to speak, and they continued on.

“That’s very curious, isn’t it? Almost all the damage to the heart must occur in the final few hours then, and then it reverses itself after death. I haven’t seen magic like this in many years. It’s rather impressive, really.”

They looked over the rest of your body and sighed. “You truly do look beautiful like this, my dear.”

You wondered if you could still blush. You were sure you would be if you could.

“I’m afraid you don’t have any time left, though. I’ll give you the choice of how you’d rather die, because I really have grown quite fond of you in our time together. Would you rather wait the few minutes it would take for your body to give out on its own, or would you rather I do it?”

You squeezed their hand, croaked out a quiet, “You,” in a voice that was thick with blood and no longer sounded like your own.

They nodded. “I’ll miss our time together,” they said, pulling the glove off of their free hand with their teeth.

They brushed that hand across your cheek, then leaned down to press a kiss to your lips as their hand grabbed your heart. You could feel your heartbeat under their fingers growing faster as you kissed back. They allowed themself to be kissed for a few moments, and then they pulled their hand upwards with that unnatural strength, and everything went black.