Daniel hauled his suitcase into the passenger's seat. "Of course I have to visit! They're my family! Do you even have a family?"
"Of course I do," Herbert snapped, stepping away from the car as it coughed to life. His voiced softened. "...but not while you're away. Hurry back, Daniel." He took two quick steps back while Daniel puzzled this out, and ducked back into the house before his partner could respond, watching through the window as he glanced back, then drove away.
Herbert sat heavily in his armchair by the fire, glanced at the identical, empty one next to it, and stood up again quickly. The silence was already oppressive. Dinner alone at the empty table would be unbearable. He called for the maid and called off the meal completely, then disappeared into the basement until the sun went down.
Over breakfast, which he took briefly in his room, he composed a letter. The house is empty without you and I had horrible dreams. He signed it, folded it, threw it on the fire, and called for more coffee.
He worked for an hour, saw eight patients, had lunch in his consulting room, over paperwork, saw two more patients, and then disappeared back into his basement laboratory until nearly dawn.
He burned six aborted letters in the first week. One of them was four pages long. Another said simply, My dearest Daniel.
On the first night of the second week, he slept in Daniel's bed. The blankets seemed warmer, and the whole thing smelled wonderful. Herbert buried his face in the pillow and pulled the covers up to his nose and dreamt that Daniel slept beside him.
The salesman arrived at the end of the second week. For two weeks, Herbert had slept poorly, restlessly, rarely. When he did sleep, he dreamt of unspeakable things-- monsters, madness, and a shameful lonesome longing he would deny by light of day. He worked until his fingers ached from writing, until his hands trembled and the laboratory glassware cracked against the metal counters. And then the salesman arrived, peddling his miracle cures.
He took such pleasure in sedating the man that it frightened him. For the whole third week, he was morbidly obsessed with the act, and the result. His sedating compound froze the body in a state near coma, vitals barely present, body still and calm. He fed a dilution of the stuff in a saline solution through an IV and sat by the body, watched its stillness, and wrote Daniel letters.
I love you, don't leave me, let me keep you close always, close as my own heart, he tore to shreds before he burned it. Find me handsome-- make love to me-- you will be mine until you die and you will never die. A few he read aloud to the body of the salesman, but all, in the end, he burned.
When Daniel came home, Herbert nearly ran to him, nearly leapt into his arms. He was with a patient. He said nothing until the woman was gone, then raced upstairs and stood in the doorway, watched Daniel move around his room, home at last, more handsome than Herbert had remembered. He swallowed back a sudden wash of love and shame.
"Welcome back," he said, voice soft. "How are your parents?"
"Fine." Daniel seemed distracted, unpacking his clothes in search of something.
Herbert wanted to scream. My dearest Daniel, he thought, imagining another letter, I missed you, haven't you missed me?
"My father isn't well. I'm glad I saw them. I brought you something." He turned with a smile and a box in his hands and Herbert stumbled forwards, eyes bright, face alight, and heard the words as he said them, as if from a stranger.
"I have something for you, too."
"Mine first," Daniel insisted, with a smile, and pressed the box into Herbert's hands. "We'll see how they travelled. My mother made them."
Cookies. They looked soft and rich and Herbert's mouth watered. "They look-- wonderful." Daniel's fingers were warm. "I only have... A body. A salesman. We can--" His senses seemed to return suddenly with Daniel himself. We can what? Experiment on him? This living man, this innocent? "He dropped dead. Weak heart. He stopped here for help but it was too late." The lies spilled out helplessly, and Herbert felt his heart pounding in his chest. Stupid, stupid, he had to do something, say something, stop this-- "I preserved him. I was waiting for you. He's perfectly fresh, Daniel, no damage at all, and I know we can--" He saw the look on Daniel's face. "It... isn't much compared to this," he hefted the cookies, "But..."
"Herbert..." Daniel laughed. "I would expect no less. I think this has been good for you. It's been years since I've seen you so excited."
Herbert faltered slightly. "I've missed you," he blurted, desperate.
Daniel smiled, fond and tender. "I've missed you, too. Alright, let me wash up. You go prepare your damn experiment." He touched Herbert's shoulder and smiled down at him, as if reassuring himself of Herbert's physical presence.
The rest was nothing Herbert would wish to remember. His most brilliant success and his most terrible mistake happened in seconds. Daniel did not forgive him. After it, the house was often silent, and Herbert wrote many letters. Forgive me, please forgive me, I can't go on like this, was burned in the fireplace. I'm mad without you, I don't know what to do, I'm losing my mind and I am so afraid, he kept for two days, carried with him, and then burned in a fit of rage. Daniel did not forgive him. He did not ask to be forgiven.
His second family crumbled like his first-- or so it felt, for the first month. Herbert didn't sleep, couldn't work. He was restless and miserable. He was short and strained with his patients. And then, one morning, Daniel did the unthinkable.
Herbert came back up to his room from a lonesome breakfast and found Daniel paging through his most recent and half-finished letter. Please don't leave me, it said, and If you must go, have the decency to kill me. I am afraid of what I might do without you. Herbert froze in the doorway, knees going weak, bile rising in his throat.
Daniel looked up.
"Daniel," he choked out. "How dare you come in here? How dare you read my papers?"
Daniel set the letter down. "What's the meaning of this? Why would you write this, after weeks, after what you did?"
"Get out of this room! Give me that!" Herbert lunged forward on his trembling knees and seized the letter, crumpled it and hurled it into the fire. "What do you want?"
"I wanted to know what you were always working on in here. I worried it was something you were keeping from me."
"It's none of your--"
"That letter was addressed to me."
"You weren't meant to read it!"
"I'm not going to leave you, Herbert."
"You already have," Herbert hissed.
"Herbert, I'm sorry. Please, don't you understand what you've done? Can't you see how hard it is for me to, to believe in you the way I did when you've... You killed him, Herbert, you're a murderer!"
Herbert went pale, laughed, leaned against the wall with a would be casual posture, to hide his shaking. "Did you think I wouldn't? Did you think I wouldn't kill for the work? I told you again and again, we needed fresher specimens, Daniel-- didn't you see his results? He was perfect! I'd do it again. I wouldn't hesitate. Don't be a coward."
"You're trying to provoke me." Daniel took a breath, forced himself to calm. "Or distract me. That letter..."
"Damn the letter! It's not your business!"
"You said something in it that I keep hearing in my head. Herbert, look at me. You said, Ask me to live without my heart before you ask me to live without you. Herbert, tell me what that means."
Herbert's face froze. He sucked in a breath. "You know damn well what it means!" burst out before he had fully decided to speak.
"After everything I've done, it's my affection that you can't tolerate..." He straightened up. "I have feelings for you. The sort of feelings a woman should have for her husband." His lip curled in self-conscious derision. "I didn't intend for you to find out."
"Herbert..." Daniel's voice was soft and terribly gentle. "You're shaking."
Herbert glanced down at his hands, curled them into fists.
"I'm not going to leave you. Come here."
"Don't talk to me like that! I'm not a child!"
"You're acting like one. Come here! Fine." Daniel stepped in, too quickly for Herbert to back away, and wrapped both arms tightly around thin shoulders. "I won't leave you," he murmured into Herbert's hair. "What's the matter with you? Why don't you tell me anything, hm?"
Herbert stiffened, then relaxed into his arms, let out a sharp and hysterical little giggle. "I don't know," he mumbled. "I don't know."
"What happened to the salesman?"
Herbert made a little sobbing sound. "I don't know," he repeated, and laughed again, brokenly. "I wasn't thinking straight. He came here with his miracle cures and I thought-- I thought it would be worthwhile, make his... his life worth something, and if I could bring him back, would it matter that it had happened at all? And I... There are so many people dying, Daniel, and what was one more on my conscience? And I wanted to. I wanted to. I don't know what's the matter with me. I was upset."
"Alright." Daniel breathed slowly into his hair until Herbert calmed. "We'll be alright, Herbert. I'm sorry I was upset with you. You frightened me."
"I frightened myself," Herbert confessed into his chest. "...I should have told you."
"I wish you had. But I forgive you."
They stood that way for a few moments more, until Daniel shifted-- perhaps his lips brushed Herbert's hair because Herbert felt a sudden shock of longing and listed after him as he pulled away.
"You have a patient coming in an hour and you're still not dressed."
Herbert glanced reluctantly at the clock and nodded, smiled. "Alright. So do you, you know."
"But it only takes me half as long to dress," Daniel teased. "We should both be ready by now. I'll be just across the hall if you need me." He cradled Herbert's cheek tenderly and smiled down at him, then turned on his heel.
By supper time, Daniel was worried again. Herbert had holed himself up in his consulting room and was barely speaking to him. He arrived to the table slightly late, looking slightly odd, and holding in his hands a folded sheet of paper.
My dearest Daniel,
Your recent absence has made some things very clear to me, and the weight of them is too great to conceal. I tell them to you in the greatest confidence, and with the hope that you will forgive me my trespasses.
I am in love with you, deeply, desperately, as any woman has ever loved a man. I know it cannot be welcome. While you were away, I slept in your bed and dreamt that you were next to me. I am not proud of it, but I would have you know the truth. I desire you-- your touches, your affection, and your love-- but you are far more to me than those things, and I swear to you that I will never act upon that desire. What I feel for you is more than simple love, and I would die before I drove you from me.
I have also learned that I am insane. No doubt you have known this longer than I, but these great shifts in my moods, in the way I think-- combined, of course with my passionate monomania, my skewed affections, and the feelings that lead me to murder a stranger in cold blood-- must be symptoms of some malady of the brain that we have yet to comprehend. Still, if you believe my theories to be within the realm of possibility, as I do, then I would ask you to tolerate my madness a while longer, until we have succeeded. I know that I cannot do it alone, or with any other. If you think you have seen me mad, I would ask you to imagine what I am like without you here. The thought of it frightens me. I trust you more than I trust myself.
Forgive me everything, my dearest friend.
Daniel set the letter down and looked up at him, standing uncomfortably beside the table. "Won't you sit down? We should eat, before it gets cold."
Herbert hesitated, and then obeyed. He was a bit stilted and unsure throughout dinner, but by the end of the meal, he was speaking easily again.
"I don't think it's his best work, that's all!"
"You don't like it because of the religious implications. Be honest with me, Daniel, darling. You're still clinging to some remnant of your Christian faith and it shocks and disturbs you."
"You completely misunderstand me! And you know that I still have faith. I think it only appeals to you because it's so perversely shocking. You love that sort of thing. I simply don't like the poem, that's all, and I'll admit that the subject matter doesn't help-- not because it offends me but because it fails to stir any emotion. It doesn't offend my Christian sensibilities because it's pure Miltonic claptrap with no Biblical basis whatsoever!"
Herbert waved a hand idly. "The Miltonic conception of the devil is so much more charming than the Christian idea."
Daniel rolled his eyes and stood up from the table, tucking Herbert's letter into his jacket. "The devil isn't supposed to be-- You're ridiculous. Come into the other room. I'd like a glass of scotch."
Herbert followed him obediently to a pair of armchairs, laughing pleasantly, and tucked his feet up under himself where he sat. "You know I choose my ideals for their charm, Daniel. Don't pretend to be surprised."
"I know you pretend to, Herbert. I know that you are, at your core, a selfless person and entirely devoted to bettering this world." Daniel poured two glasses of scotch.
It was Herbert's turn to roll his eyes. He reached for the second glass when his partner approached and smiled up at him. "You're such an idealist. But I suppose I am, as well."
Daniel pressed the glass into his hand and bent to press a kiss to Herbert's brow.
Herbert's scotch spilled onto the arm of the chair and his own slacks. "Da-- Oh! Shit."
"Clumsy," Daniel accused lightly, as though he made a habit of kissing Herbert fondly.
My darling Daniel, Please don't play such games with me. I am confused and nearly frightened. What did you mean by the kiss you gave me last night? It could have been a gesture of brotherly affection, a benediction, an act of forgiveness. My wild and disordered mind insists that it may have been something else, as well. Please--
"Herbert?" Daniel knocked on the doorframe. "Mrs. Pinkley called earlier. She wanted an appointment for next week. I checked your appointment book and set her in for Thursday at two."
"Perfect," Herbert murmured distractedly, crumpling up the paper he'd been writing.
"You aren't writing more letters, are you?"
"Like that letter you wrote me, before. You'd talk to me, wouldn't you? If something was wrong?"
Herbert hesitated. "Of course. It's nothing. An experiment that wouldn't hold water."
"Alright. Will you come into my room, when you're finished?"
"We're both already dressed for bed, Daniel. It's late."
"...Alright." He stood and followed Daniel into his bedroom across the hall, shifting his weight awkwardly as Daniel slid between the sheets. "What did you want?"
Daniel patted the bed next to him. "Lie with me."
Herbert flushed. "What? Daniel--"
"You said you felt for me as a wife might feel for her husband. Would it be odd for such a couple to share a bed?"
"No, but we aren't a married couple, Daniel! I know my feelings are indecent. I wouldn't--"
"Lie with me."
Herbert took a step towards the bed. "Why?"
"I'd like you to. I've had time to think, and I would like it very much. Come to bed, Herbert."
Herbert stumbled forward, fumbled with the sheets, his hands uncharacteristically unsteady, and crawled into Daniel's bed.
My dearest Daniel,
There are no words for how happy you have made me. It is fortunate that we will live forever, because I believe I have several lifetimes of devotion and affection to share with you. You are my partner in all things-- my practice, my work, and my life-- and I would have it no other way.
I love you.