Herbert’s pager shrilled just past five in the evening, flashing an unfamiliar number (unsurprising. His reputation had been spreading). Dan, as always, pretended not to hear, not to care why someone dismissed from the hospital months ago was so constantly on call. Herbert abandoned his half-completed sandwich, went to his room, and closed the door. Dan wouldn't pry, wouldn't pick up the extension.
The call connected, and was answered on the second ring. Rock music and laughter were audible in the background as a warm, musical voice invited him to a ‘party’ at Arkham's premier hotel.
He wouldn’t normally go to a client’s territory on their first deal, preferring to start from his car before making house calls, but the money was good—dangerously good. The address meant that the man could actually pay what he was implying, enough to keep Herbert’s share of the rent paid for at least three months.
Dan was agitating about it again, hinting at finding a cheaper one-bedroom place across town. One he could presumably afford alone.
In the end, maybe Herbert just wanted to get out of their drafty beige-walled Purgatory.
And it was undeniably pleasant being somewhere well-heated and well-lit. Somewhere where the staff deferred to him and looked at him with respect.
The dusting of snow on his coat and scarf melted, rivulets dripping unpleasantly down the back of his neck even as the rest of him overheated during the ride up in the elegant brass-appointed elevator. He avoided his own reflection in the mirrored yellow. He knew he looked no different than he ever had—slight, pale, clad in suit and tie out of fashion for the year and glasses large enough to act as a reflective barrier. A bit sharper-featured, perhaps, but aging did that. He disliked the reminder.
The hall was eerily silent, the entire floor bought out to give a single suite an air of palatial ownership. The decor was ostentatious, because of course it was. He felt like a shadow or dark stain on all the warm golds and tasteful creamy floral patterns, but proceeded nonetheless to the brass-fitted door and knocked. He hadn’t been invited because of his charming social presence, after all.
The door was answered by a punk, of all things. A man a decade younger than him easily, in clothes that looked like they could disintegrate away with the lightest touch. A servant or a front—not Herbert’s business. He did not ask, just shied carefully away from the too-friendly tattooed hand festooned with band-aids and rubber bracelets that sought to guide him into the suite.
He walked into a disaster area. Bottles and glasses of booze full, empty, and overturned; a shattered television next to its larger replacement; the haylike stench of smoke worked in so deep the hotel would have to throw out the pale blue drapes. He'd heard of this kind of thing, of course—the rich and complacent looking for someone to fuel a week no one would remember. Not his business, he repeated to himself. If they knew him, then it wasn’t his business what they did.
A man held court at the center of it all, not much older than the near-child who'd let him in. But his eyes were enough to set Herbert on his guard.
They were too clear.
Blue as gas flames; bright and intense and not at all impaired. He lounged on the sofa, draped in three half-conscious people of disturbing youth and varying gender, fully dressed in bizarre leather-and-lace style like the subject of a magazine photo shoot.
The room revolved around him, invisibly but tangibly.
His smile was wide and friendly, welcoming even, as he shifted one long leg to plant a motorcycle boot on the floor. That of a friend instead of a client, foolish as that was to imagine.
He beckoned Herbert, the movement gentle so as not to disturb his harem (they moved with him as parasites, breathed when he did. It was… unnerving. And just a bit familiar).
"Please make yourself comfortable,” said the voice from the telephone. Odd, that someone like this would bother calling himself rather than having a lackey handle it. “I'm afraid things got a bit out of hand." He aimed a significant glance at the suddenly shy youth to Herbert's left.
One piercing gaze among a sleepy confederation of bodies. It set Herbert on edge—he was many things, but to be a party to dulling and enslaving the unwilling wasn’t something he wanted on his resume. He'd never been interested in controlling others, forcing bodies and minds into unwanted acts. Hill’s laser surgical drill was rightly regarded as an expensive failure, and the world the better for it.
And yet, when he met those unsettling eyes again, his resolve softened. Surely this man meant his people no harm. He just wanted to have fun with them, to make sure they were as happy as chemicals could allow.
Herbert scarcely noticed he'd moved closer until the moment their hands touched.
"A pleasure to make your acquaintance at last, doctor..." The hand grasping his was warm and soft, the hold just long enough to startle him when they part (what was wrong with him tonight?).
"West. Herbert West." It slipped out without thought, a dangerous degree of honesty that sent a bolt of fear through him in immediate retrospect. A dark gold brow rose theatrically.
"We can speak alone, if you'd prefer."
On the one hand, fewer witnesses meant less risk of conviction. On the other...
He’d almost been rolled the month before, had knifed the former client and left him by a pay phone. Some people just couldn’t handle being cut off, reacting vigorously enough that Herbert was instead forced to cut them up.
But a man this rich wouldn't need to rob his dealer, particularly on a first meeting. Bad business, if nothing else.
"That might be best, Mr. ...?" He’d generally found it best to let them invent their own pseudonyms.
"Call me Lestat. It's only fair." He flashed teeth, and for a second Herbert could swear—
The thought slid from his head like water, and Lestat was already disentangling himself from his hangers-on, soothing them with whispers and touch so gentle Herbert forced himself to look away.
"There's a set of adjoining rooms that should do nicely." He was tall, maybe taller than Dan, and broader, sweeping them both from the room with utter authority. "I'm grateful you were able to come on such short notice. They told me you were the best there was."
Herbert shouldn't be gratified by acknowledgement of his superior skills at providing addicts with illicit drugs. The hand on his shoulder, though, with its glossy polished nails, the utterly genuine pleasure in the man—Lestat's—face...
He was good. He provided a service, and did so well.
He cast his eyes down and asked what exactly Lestat had in mind for the whole ‘party’ in the main lounge.
"Nothing damaging, nothing addictive,” the client said quickly, left hand fluttering and describing meaningless shapes as he spoke. “They're lovely, all of them. I wouldn't see their bright futures dashed. They tell me you are...responsible about such things." An inquisitive glance at Herbert's dull silence. "Am I wrong? You take such pride in your work, I can tell." They were quite alone. When had that happened? "Tell me what you prescribe, Dr. West."
The right hand hadn’t left Herbert’s arm, the touch subtle and clinging and just noticeable.
He pursed his lips, considering, tucked his own hands into the pockets of his coat. They were icy, more so than usual; he forgot gloves in his haste to get out.
"That depends, sir.” Slick packets brushed his fingers, waiting to be sold. “Just what results were you hoping to achieve? You've presumably exhausted the limits of alcohol and marijuana. I can recommend a number of hallucinogens with effects of varying durations and intensities. Narcotics, opiates, and stimulants are trickier, if you want to avoid dependency. Do you have a personal preference?"
"Your best." He's short now, brisk and intent. "Enough to give them ecstasy beyond their wildest dreams, and be no more than a dream by morning. Such stuff as dreams are made on."
The gnawing memory of dependence—addiction—is suddenly vivid. Herbert knows well the crushing, inescapable pain of cravings that cannot be denied.
He almost respects this man for wanting to keep his... people... free of it.
"Oh, and I would like to try some myself. To ensure it won't mix poorly with my own recipe."
He'd been about to inquire further, as to the preferred method of delivery and the environment in which it would be used, but this—
"I beg your pardon?" He stepped back. “If you're already dosing them with something, I cannot and will not guarantee results or interactions. Not without knowing what it was."
"It's difficult to explain. That's why I offered to take some myself—you're welcome to observe and make your own diagnosis." Lestat reached into the back pocket of his shredded jeans (how there was room was a mystery given how tightly they clung) and produced a thin sheaf of bills. "Not that I expect the service for free, of course."
"If you know my reputation as well as you say you do, you'll know I've made a habit of not allowing deaths at my hands when it's avoidable. This," Herber’s eyes flicked involuntarily to the money hanging between them, "counts as avoidable."
Lestat let out a dramatic sigh. "Are you sure there's nothing I can say that might convince you? If it's a matter of payment, there is plenty I can offer. Money and otherwise."
"I really can't think of anything." The things Herbert needed weren't ones this dilettante could provide. Money was a stopgap; he couldn't give a job or house or restore Dan's good will. No doubt he had no clue about the mysterious drug he'd been using, the chemistry or the biology of it.
Even a condition such as 'keeping the body in case of fatality' was useless to Herbert right then, with no access to any lab besides the small uninsulated storage space he rented for synthesizing his products.
"I see," the man pouted, expression downtrodden as a puppy newly scolded. "Not even a sample? You're free to do with it as you wish, of course. You don't seem the sort to get caught in your own product. Though if you did, I can promise I would take excellent care of you." The heat never rose to the surface, suffused every word with promises but never lingered—an expert's touch. And then the tension broke with a laugh. "The properties of it are quite interesting. I think even a man of your caliber would find them interesting."
Something new to work with. To use, to study, to make...
Herbert stilled himself, clamped down on the hunger for more and different. Likely it was nothing more than some new blend of street drugs and household chemicals.
"Even if I were to agree, I must stress that it wouldn't make experimenting with it tonight any safer or more predictable," he said coolly. (He never had been good at resisting an opportunity.) "And I'll still need my normal payment, plus something for the risk."
"Please, don't insult my hospitality." Soft hands clasped his, the wad of bills much heavier than it had looked when initially produced. "I only ask that you tell me what you make of it. Your expertise would be gift enough in itself."
For all the artful misdirects up to now, the next step was amateur: Lestat opened the squat mini-fridge on the table, and removed a vial of almost-black liquid. He holds it up. "Personal stock. Very fresh." It dangled from his fingertips, one false move from smashing to the floor. "I'm sure I can count on your discretion, Doctor?"
Asking a drug dealer for discretion. As though Herbert weren’t the one at risk. He ignored the caveat, moved instead for the practical:
"What is it, how is it administered, and what are the most common effects? Layman's terms are fine."
The neck of the vial was crusted with a rusty, flaking ring where some of it had escaped containment.
He took it gingerly, by the base, avoiding skin contact.
"It's as simple as drinking it. Small doses like that cause bliss and a few hours of heightened sensation. A larger dose gets a bit more exciting." He smiled indulgently and tilted his leonine head toward the room beyond, from where Herbert could hear the low sounds of laughter and fumbling. "They like to think of it as lifeblood. It fits with the conceit, you see? And I couldn't resist—a flair for the dramatic has always been my weak point, I'm afraid. Perhaps you know the feeling." Their fingers brushed in the handoff, electrified by an unspoken spark.
"I've no idea what you mean by 'the conceit', but it sounds simple enough." Sounded like something he should avoid, but wouldn't, because he'd eventually need to test it and it'd been so long. "Would you like something that can be taken orally? The one-night parameters put some things out, but I have several extracts of my own devising you could try. I can't allow you to mix more than one of them, given the existing unpredictability."
He was babbling, rambling, avoiding the blue eyes even as pale fingers with white nails delicately folded the vial into his own palm, so cold the refrigerator’s chill isn't even a shock.
"Whatever you suggest," (as though it was thoroughly beside the point now that this moment had been accomplished), "I feel quite safe in your care, Dr. West."
Lestat took bags of mundane chemicals alchemically transformed to powders valued in the thousands with only token interest, then produced a business card on heavy, black stock. "You won't find us here after tonight, but I do hope you'll tell me your thoughts regarding that sample. And if you change your mind… my offer stands.” He smiled again, warm and real. “I imagine it would be very enlightening."
Herbert was missing something, had gotten turned around somewhere. The card was embossed in silver and embellished with glossy opaque red, bearing a long French name, a PO box address in Florida, and a set of longform phone and fax numbers.
He would leave reeking of pot and hash and snowmelt, with a new drug he couldn't tell Dan about and thousands of dollars tucked in his pocket.
He wasn’t going to go home, he realized.
He was going to go to his lab, turn on the space heater, and drip this stuff onto a slide.
He wondered if Dan would even notice his absence—or complain, so long as he dropped the money off first (poor form to look, but the stack appeared to be hundreds all the way down; enough to pay for their illegal sublet into next year). Herbert told himself it didn't bother him, even as the warmth of the impromptu den closed behind him, carrying away that fluid, accented voice.
He wasn't like this. That instant connection—he didn't feel that often, and never without reason.
But of course, there was a reason. He'd been mentally starved, at subsistence levels only since his release from the hospital. (Thank God he'd been employed when the house collapsed, though that changed quickly based on his inability to do rounds while recovering. Based on the fact that he was not... liked. Still, he'd had health insurance when it happened.) A new chemical, a new 'lifeblood'... even if it was just a cocktail, it meant a night's work in his element. A chance to feel himself again, for a few hours.
His fingers kept worrying at the card in the pocket of his coat as he made the trip to his lab; it was innocuous enough, sitting on the table as he completed his setup. And then less so, when he jerked back from the table. The thing under his microscope belonged in a bioweaponry lab, hungry cells squirming and devouring any invading bodies. It was horrifying. It was the most fantastic thing he'd seen all year.
It was blood . It looked... not unlike dead tissue dosed with his reagent, but there seemed to be some mutation present on a cellular level, rather than a chemical enhancement. Viable, uncontained, and the man was feeding it to people , biohazards be damned.
He couldn't immediately tell whether it was some bizarre blood cancer, or an infection seething and replicating—not on a simple optical microscope under flickering fluorescent lighting.
He needed more samples and better equipment—some pedestrian part of him considered, briefly, informing the police. It's what Dan would insist on were he there, pearls clutched. Herbert just wanted to know what it could do, never mind the dangerous questions of whether its owner knew what he had on his hands or if there was someone more powerful calling the shots, dosing out this potent lure through an unassuming, handsome front.
The card on the table winked up at him, catching the light. Outside, the sun had climbed directly overhead while he toiled away.
His pager went off three more times that night, two regulars and one unknown. He ignored it. He could afford to ignore it.
He stowed the remainder of the sample in his (disallowed) mini-fridge, then opened the sliding shutter.
The management probably suspected him of living there, sometimes. He didn't care.
All was normal as rattling metal slid balkily up, up, jammed a bit at waist height, and then—sunlight lanced in, illuminating the rickety table holding his microscope and slides.
The flames were a surprise.
The hiss was palpable, even from a distance. By the time he scrambled back to the viewfinder his slide was empty, the glass cracked from the apparent force of the liquid's evaporation—though the word "combustion" almost seemed more appropriate. What the hell was he sitting on? He glanced at the fridge holding the half-vial that remained to him. Hardly enough to test what the properties would do to a human host, if it could produce that violent a reaction even under skin.
It was a mark of courtesy not to call numbers in their business during daylight hours, lest the wrong eyes catch sight of it. He had never been more tempted to break that edict.
Instead, he made note of the photoreactivity, turned off his pager, and stopped at a snowed-over Citgo for a full tank of gas before heading home. With any luck, Dan wouldn't be there.
Herbert was not a lucky person.
Dan had regular shifts and days off, was respected enough to get them. Herbert didn't even know what day it was, what night it had been when he left.
Dan looked... tired.
Frustrated, yes, but underneath that, he still seemed worried about Herbert.
Which was unnecessary, of course.
"Where have you been?" He didn't even bother with anger. His voice carried a sigh of inevitability, like he was angry with himself for even taking this tack, for expecting a new outcome.
"You don't want to know." It wasn't demurring, but fact. Dan adored his plausible deniability, the ability to hold Herbert at length like a dead thing on a stick.
A full day without sleep, and Herbert still looked the better of the two of them—at least his clothes were new, were clean.
Dan was already decaying, right here in this apartment. Falling to pieces in front of Herbert.
"Have you eaten?" he asks on the way to the kitchen, realizing he himself hadn't had anything at all since a snatched bite of cheese and tomato during the construction of that half-finished sandwich the night before.
He was ravenous.
"What would you like? I know there's not much here, but I can get groceries later today, after I've slept—"
"Would you stop?" Dan slammed a fist against the arm of the couch. "How long are you going to pretend that this is normal?"
Herbert inhaled shallowly, didn’t turn around to face his friend before answering:
"I had assumed you'd rather I not point out how little you've been sleeping. Or the long hours. I was only trying to be a considerate roommate." And it was safer than trying, ineptly, to pry where he was most certainly not welcome.
"You know what I'm talking about." Dan prowled his way into the kitchen, looking for something else to take his frustration out on. He snatched up the wad of bills on the counter. "What the hell is this ? How am I supposed to keep turning a blind eye to this stuff?"
"It's money. Rent, and more. Exactly what you asked for." The fridge was nearly empty, of course. His head was pounding. He could have taken any number of things to avoid that, but hadn't. Dan would be proud, if he weren't turning a blind eye. "I assume you'll proceed as you have been, to protect yourself. You don't need to be involved."
The milk wasn't sour, at least.
"Though I did find a possible new avenue of research tonight." Last night. He no longer measured by days.
"On one of your… jobs?" The disdain hurt, unexpectedly. The one thing Dan had always been reliable for was a faith in the Work, in their work. Now even that seemed to be slipping away.
"A social call." One of the cupboards yielded up a nearly empty box of cereal. Better than nothing. "Do you want to know, or don't you?"
The silence was too long, too ponderous, and when Dan broke it his voice trembled with some unclear tension.
"I want to know what you're doing to yourself. As near as I can tell, this might as well be another dead end excuse for you to play around with corpses." He shook his head. "It never goes anywhere. I'm tired."
So was Herbert. Tired, lost, but... energized. He hadn't felt this well in ages, despite the long night, despite the pain in his neck (a crick, too long at the microscope). If he could only share this, infect Dan with his vitality.
He reached out, gingerly put a hand to Dan's shoulder before skating it up his throat who-knew-why. Unkempt hair felt feather-soft.
"I know it's been hard,” he said as gently as he was able. “I know . Why do you think I leave you out of the things that don't matter?" The light dazzled suddenly, the drafts of the apartment cut through. "But this—you must see it, Dan. It's something else."
"I don't know." Dan's eyes slid immediately around in response to that point of connection, uneasy, but he didn't pull away. Another sigh, heavier. "Who is this going to hurt?"
"It's going to help people. This could be the piece I was missing. Dan, the regeneration in these cells—it's incredible. We could use it to repair brain tissue, preserve consciousness! Real, true life. It's within our grasp. Please," his pride crumbled before this man every time. "Let me show you." It would mean giving up the lab, if he agreed, teetering on the edge of another collapse. It was worth it.
"Dammit, Herbert." Dan wasn’t yelling. Not grabbing or shaking. He was stepping back, what, what did this— "You could have done so much."
"I believed in you. I thought—but look at yourself. Look! " He grabbed then, pinned Herbert’s unprotesting form, rifled unimpeded through pockets full of his wares. Baggies scattered on the floor.
Herbert was never a willing party to shame. Too much of it had haunted his early years, and he had more than had his fill. But just then he couldn't bring himself to meet Dan's eyes, to feel righteous indignation because this was what they needed. Did money come from nothing? Had Dan so much as spoken when Herbert was dismissed, had he hesitated to use this money when it kept a roof over them?
He'd given up using the reagent when Dan asked. He'd given him a bride. Wasn't it enough, ever enough? Tightly, Herbert offered his unimpeachable, useless defense: "I did what I had to."
"Excuses! You could've—"
"Could have what, Dan?" Something angry and predatory and wounded twisted inside. "Could have gotten a job in Arkham, with my history?" He stayed passive, riveting his stare to the scattered hundreds' worth of pills and powders on the stained linoleum. "Or could have left you?"
And now he'd done it, voiced the thing that needed to stay unspoken.
Given Dan that egress.
He closed his bloodshot eyes and waited.
"...God dammit." The hands stripping away at him tangled in his jacket. Dan's breathing went harsh and ragged. "That's not… you know that's not." A thunk. Herbert dared a small glance. Dan's head was against the wall, his back bowed. From a distance they would look nearly intimate. But no, not that. Never that. "I just want you to be what you promised."
"A savior?" He never could quit when he was ahead.
Dan was already backing away. "A doctor. Someone who gave a damn about saving people, not feeding them to his god complex."
Dan was wavering like a mirage, barely standing. The right push and he'd fall. He'd go along, or he'd run. No half measures.
"Dan..." he raised a hand, reached up. He was so close. Dan's radiant heat was nearly a match to that he felt not twelve hours ago, in a chance brush of fingers with a man so rich he'd have forgotten Herbert by now.
Because Herbert was so very forgettable.
He dropped his hand, dropped his head and shoulders.
"I'm tired," he whispered. The wall was cold and hard and real at his back."I need to sleep."
"I'll take care of the mess." Dan always seemed so pleased to be rid of him. He wouldn't do more than watch Herbert go, shucking off his clothes carelessly as he reached the dusty, cold room he called his own.
There were four missed calls on his beeper when he woke, late in the evening. All the same number, with a non-local area code.
He recognized it from the card.
The danger of an unknown contact, the youth of his followers, the frustration of being used: all of it seemed less important in that moment than the remembered look of passionate interest in Herbert's ‘thoughts.’
Dan was drained nearly dry.
He called back.
He left (Dan was gone, at work or just avoiding him—he still didn't know what day it was), drove in a daze to the address the unknown voice gave him.
The freeway map led him to a colonial-era B&B outside Arkham, kitschy and clichéd and utterly not in keeping with the man he'd met.
Lestat greeted him like an old friend, ushered him back to a secluded table in the rear of the dining room. His wardrobe had changed entirely in modesty but remained just as showy, dripping in black velvet and lace and bits of silver.
"Don't worry, we won't be bothered," he said, waving away Herbert's guarded expression. "Clarisse and I have an understanding. I did a favor for her father some years ago. This place has become something of a home away from home. Please, order whatever you like. I owe you at least that much for my rudeness the other night."
His eyes raked over Herbert, seeming to see through him. "When was the last time you ate, mon ami? You look as if you could waste away at any second."
He avoided the look, snapping his attention instead to the handwritten nightly menu. Three dinner options, all outside his normal budget but well covered by the cash he carried.
His aunt Mary used to fuss over his fat, spoilt cousins that way.
"I'll have the chicken." He set the textured cardstock aside, did not reach for the wine list. "And you were perfectly courteous, given the situation, Monsieur de Lioncourt." (Time in Switzerland ensured his pronunciation if not his comprehension.) "I take it you require my supplies for another group?"
Lestat had no menu of his own. Ate earlier, no doubt.
"If you're amenable. There's no rush." He waved business away as nothing, calling the slender, doelike waitress over and flirting shamelessly before delivering Herbert's order (she seemed delighted; weren't they always).
When they were alone again the man leaned forward in confidence, eyes glittering with some unspent joke. "And call me Lestat. Monsieur de Lioncourt has gone to his rest, and may the Devil have more use for him. But what did you think of it?" No time wasted, pleasantries at last minimal for all the flattery and fine airs
"It appeared incredibly dangerous, highly resilient, and potentially communicable." The crease of Herbert’s left elbow itched where he’d taken blood to mix crudely with the sample. "It was also photoreactive to an extreme degree, and I've no information yet on its mind-altering or addictive properties."
"I see." Lestat’s expression was that of a studious child pretending understanding, but the sincerity of it caught Herbert off guard. "You'll need a test subject for that, no doubt," he continued. "I'd volunteer, but unfortunately it has no effect."
"What I really must know is, who did you bleed to get it?"
That grin returned. "Well, it would be difficult if I had to go through some long chain of suppliers, wouldn't it? I imagine that's why you make your own."
"You." That smile, those eyes , peeking out humorously from beneath thick, lustrous, natural blond hair. So healthy, yet... so pale. And there was something neurological as well, expressions flickering and manifesting seconds late, like a performance. Eerie, in a way that bothered only the hindbrain. "You're suffering this... disease. That's why...?" That was why. His reputation, his... peculiar knowledge.
The purchase a mere smoke screen, with Herbert himself the goal.
"Vampirism, a disease!" Lestat sounded downright gleeful as he used the ridiculous term. "How modern. Yes, if you like. Folklore has a few other names for it, but for your scientific age I think the term will do quite nicely. As for why..." He gave another careless laugh as the food arrived. "Why do you think? I hope you'll indulge me. No explanation I can give can hope to be as enticing as your own conclusions, you see."
"I've only had one night. Stating any definite conclusions would be hasty." The food appeared, steaming, so quickly Herbert wondered if it had been at the ready all along. "I'll need data on symptoms of the infection if I'm to proceed." He ate carefully, gentlemanly, dismissed the rich hot moistness of fowl, the buttery potatoes and the crunch of dark greens. Wine arrived, unbidden; he ignored it in favor of his water.
"Anything I have is yours,” Lestat murmurs silkily. “You need only ask."
Herbert felt himself consumed as he ate, watched with voyeuristic pleasure through half lidded eyes, and foolish superstitions suddenly seemed far easier to believe. He couldn't remember, now that he thought about it, if the restaurant had ever held any patrons besides the two of them.
"I know my impatience is a trial—I assure you, I've been told as much time and again—but it's the only price. All of my resources at your command (and I assure you they are considerable), in exchange for your company.” Lestat rested his pointed chin on a pale hand, strange diseased eyes rapt. “For your thoughts."
Herbert’s breath caught at that, in spite of himself.
The red wine was deep, flavorful, tangy—he’d never learned how to choose or evaluate alcohol, but this slipped down his throat easily as water. He felt himself heating up, tugged his tie just a bit loose. Relished the flavor of flesh and dairy and vegetables in his mouth, the warmth in his belly, the mellow golden light of the intimate dining room. So quiet.
"What can you tell me?" Herbert asked, intent still, hungry for the mental stimulation that kept him alive. "What—can I tell you?"
The flames of Lestat's eyes dazzled, the glossy nails sparkled; candlelight softened what would have been a disturbing pallor to a pleasant airbrushed glow.
"A great many things, mon savant. Some of them even true. Though none in so efficient a turn of phrase as you're likely hoping. Still, I'm yours."
The words were innocuous, playful, but the wine sent them buzzing through him with an edge, making his conversation with Dan seem distant and cold by comparison. He leaned forward, anticipating the promised reward.
"I am a great deal older than I appear. In fact, my birth was 225 years ago. Well preserved, I think you'll agree.” (Lies, most likely, but verifiable through research. And if not… if not, Herbert might yet find his answers, his victory, the one he’s always known was his destiny.) “My body is as a corpse during the day—you saw what might happen were that not so—" (protective hibernation?) "and at night I wander the world, unable to eat or drink. Though these are a help." His smile revealed long, pointed canines.
They were alone, then, or surely someone would have come running. Would at the very least have demanded some better explanation for this most elaborate of pranks.
Herbert’s grasp of personal space was poor with patients. His arm stretched out, across the small table—his fingers made contact with full broad lips, careless, spread them for a better look at the dental malformation.
Real, solid, no wiggling beneath the pressure of his touch, even when he grasped the chin in his other hand. And—
He hadn't sliced himself with a scalpel in years, but this felt comparable.
"Careful." The words was breathy against his hand. "That fearlessness might get you into trouble one day." Lestat's tongue ran across his teeth, wiping away the proof of the accident. He caught Herbert's hand in his, brought the bleeding finger back to his mouth, and—
It was obscene. Herbert’s face heated; hard to say whether from the shock or the sight of that full mouth closed around him, a warm tongue feeling at the crevices of his injury.
He was released, the moment a memory almost before it ended. His finger was smooth, as if nothing had happened.
"Another side effect,” Lestat said quickly, gesturing at the lack of injury. “Minor healing properties. Very handy if one wants to hide the evidence. Or keep someone alive after an… encounter."
"Are you alright, Doctor? Your face is a bit red." Like butter wouldn’t melt.
"You're seriously claiming to be..." he struggled just a touch too long with terminology, "...hematophagous?"
"...A vampire?" Lestat said at the same time with a winsome, careful smile. "Exactly as advertised, love."
The smile dimmed, suddenly, converting to an equally calculated look of dejection as he took Herbert's still-outstretched hand, laced their fingers together in agonising intimacy. "Why—you really don't recognize me at all, do you?"
"I'm afraid not." Herbert tried to pull back, to put distance between them, but the grip tightens, implacable. "Should I?"
Too tight. Lestat wasn't even straining, gave no sign of effort, and yet Herbert might as well have been wrestling with stone.
Stone he'd apparently insulted.
"...Well. It's only, I just." Lestat looked honestly flabbergasted, the cool facade blown. "I had assumed that when I gave you my card, that settled things. Simply everyone seems to have heard of me these days." He let go at last, looking positively martyred. "But then, I suppose that means I'm being valued for my charming self rather than my fame." The new narrative seemed to satisfy him, bringing the warmth back. "Yes, of course. A doctor wouldn't have time for such frivolous things as rock stars, now would he?"
"...Quite." This was almost less believable than the vampirism. Ego, pride, power, lies—things to handle carefully.
But then again, the man was clearly not out to harm Herbert. His eyes shone, bright in the candlelight, so warm. Herbert was thirsty, took another drink of wine, expected to finish the glass but no, it was full, still full and delicious and dinner'd been cleared away and yes, Lestat was charming.
And the key to so much, if Herbert managed it all.
"Two hundred years—and you became infected how, exactly? Was it congenital, slowing the aging process, or...?"
He laughed—giggled, practically, a disbelieving patter of sounds that seemed to barely escape his mouth. "You really haven't heard a thing." A fleet of expressions crossed his face, ending in a grand flourish when he stood. "I have some rooms rented here with a comfortable sitting area. I can tell you the whole story.
“If you'd be so kind...?" Honest uncertainty was written across his face as he extended his too-strong hand. "You can ask all the questions you wish. I resolve not to rest until you're satisfied."
"I'll need more." The words spilled from Herbert’s mouth, rude, rude, even as he rose to follow. He hadn't been this awkward since Dr. Gruber offered him the position of research assistant, since he had his first real shot at something. "The blood. I need more, to test. And I need an *actual* description of its effects, not what you gave before."
"Of course." There's an arm around his shoulder, guiding him (keeping him steady) to a room on the second floor. "It's a tragic tale, but I'll try to pare it down to the facts." Said as though this would be a great sufferance, akin to the loss of a limb. "I was 20 when I was kidnapped by a man determined to make himself an heir. He locked me away in a tower, gave me this curse, and cast himself into the flames."
"Yes, but how —"
"Yes, I'm coming to that.” Lestat huffed and rolled his eyes at the interruption. “He swept me into his arms and pierced my throat, draining my blood until I was at the point of death. And then he fed it back to me from his body, held me down until I drank it and my body began to crave it. And when I woke, I was just as you see me now. Well, not just." He'd been pacing the room, acting out his own grand performance, and now he sat next to Herbert on the overstuffed chaise. "I was mad with thirst, but water and food made me terribly ill, sick unto death. Only blood would satisfy me. And when I drank it, I saw the world as if through new eyes. I'm afraid I can describe the sensation to you no better, with the senses you possess."
"So it requires active replacement of a significant volume of non-infected blood through feeding, and has hallucinogenic properties in addition to the feeding problems and enhanced lifespan." Lestat's hands were stroking Herbert's arm, his shoulder, traveling up cheap blue polyester—no surprise if his sensory perceptions were as distorted as he’d described. "No food or liquid works? Not, for example, high-protein broths or iron-rich supplements?"
(He knew the answer was no. He had his suspicions as to why, as to some as-yet-undocumented energizing force responsible for the difference between life and death.) "I need more."
"It's possible to survive on the blood of animals, but not to thrive. Our senses are dulled, our skills blunted. It's no way to live. I have no explanation, I'm afraid. But plenty of experience. " Lestat’s face went distant for a moment, but he returned to the present, hand coming up to cup Herbert's chin. "A little blood won't make a vampire, but I'm told it's quite pleasurable for mortals in small doses. Even the bite itself is rapturous—catch a mortal, and they'll beg you to drink them right down to their deaths just to sustain the feeling."
Herbert snorted; though he intended to pull back, he found himself suddenly immobilized by that gaze.
It couldn't really be that good—it couldn't really be that dangerous, even. The average human's stomach wouldn't hold enough for the 'drinking' to be fatal, unless the food source were left to bleed out after.
Something of this line of thinking must have shown on his face, prompting a gentle laugh from the strange, strange man.
"You think I'm lying? I'm hurt, my friend." Lestat tilted his chin up, leaned in—and brought his lips to rest on Herbert's exposed throat. "I can prove you wrong quite easily, if you're willing to trust me. Don't worry, I've had two centuries to practice control, even on someone as enticing as you." Lestat's other arm crept around Herbert's back, loose enough to break free from but inviting something closer. "I think this could clear up a great many suspicions, don't you?"
This was stupid. This was dangerous and impulsive and everything Dan would tell him not to do.
Dan wasn’t there, hadn't been there in ages, left so long ago for his own inadvisable nighttime frolics.
Dan didn't know where he was, he realized, just as an exquisite pain began in his throat.
Dan might never know what happened to him.
It'll be alright. No one spoke, but the thought suffused him down to the bones. He relaxed, and as he did the pain went with it, leaving only a heady, breathless feeling. It was like the moment of reagent hitting his blood as he remembered it, but it went on forever. The answers to all of his unanswered questions seemed no more than a thought away, if he were of the mind to pull himself together. But he wanted nothing more than to languish like this eternally, cocooned by a sense of warmth and complete comprehension.
And then it ended, leaving him stunned and gasping.
"Easy, easy. You're alright." Lestat was holding him, warm solidity counterpoint to a distant ache in his neck. He felt weak. "Didn't I tell you? It's quite wonderful for both parties. Better than sex, some might say."
Herbert didn't even try to answer the probing statement, the recognizable praise-seeking trap. He just sat, hunched, tie loose and hand clamped to his neck, feeling a sticky mix of saliva and blood over the puckered itchy tenderness of tangibly forming scar tissue.
"Herbert? Can you hear me, darling? I need you to answer if you can." That hand on his jaw again, insisting on eye contact. "It wasn't too much, was it? I'm afraid I may have gotten carried away..."
He'd lost blood—how much, he didn't know, but a not insignificant amount. His head, though, felt clear and sparkling as it had the night before, as it hadn't in so long.
He needed to examine the teeth for venom sacs.
He needed to avoid that.
He needed healthy foods and liquids to replenish what he lost.
He needed... he needed something, something, and he knew that feeling too well.
Dan would hate him for this, he thinks, even as those eyes bored into him with infinite concern, open giving. So much to learn. So much to work with.
Dan would... he'd have to help, of course. He’d see. This was an advance, proof.
The blue eyes narrowed, the lips thinned.
"Foolish idiot," Lestat muttered. Then Herbert was shifted bodily, cradled in a way that would be humiliating if not for the wine, the anemia, and the strange heated intimacy of the room. "Herbert, darling. I need you to do as I say. I promise I'll take care of you." Like something out of a nightmare, then, Lestat bit a gash into his hand and hovered the sluggish wound over Herbert's mouth. "Drink this. It will help a little. It will make you feel better. Remember what I said—a little isn't enough to change you." An almost desperate strain colored his voice. "Trust me, please."
Dangerous. Wasteful. Ill-advised, to do this without any proper testing. Infectious .
And really. ‘Darling.’ The French were so effusive.
That first taste on his tongue felt like a firecracker, explosive distilled energy rushing down his throat and into his system in entirely too few seconds. It carried something with it, a calming, tranquil understanding. An imperative: Dan wouldn't understand, of course. Bringing him in too early would only cause trouble. Might hurt his friend, even.
He knew this, had known it all along.
His world went black, even as he felt more alive than he had in years.
He's lovely , Lestat thought, gathering the lax form to his own blood-warm chest.
Overfeeding, perhaps; Arkham was most certainly short a few more cutthroats that night than it might be otherwise, but he’d so wanted to make a good impression. To appear a touch more alive, for this crusader in service to life itself.
He’d nearly spoiled things, getting overexcited by the promise of having those bright, burning thoughts in his grasp. A touch of guilt gnawed at him like a mongrel at a bone—he'd promised himself he'd use as little influence as he could, once he'd lured Herbert to him. What was the point, if he had a puppet and not that keen mind in its true, unfettered state? But he'd heard those insistent whispers of an outsider, and panicked. They weren't ready. Herbert needed to be his friend, his confidant. He was certain they could achieve it, if they went on like this. He moved with unexpected speed, this one. Willing to embrace (or be embraced by) the strange so long as it showed its work.
Didn’t he owe his darling something , considering the way he’d outraged him not an hour before? Tumbling the poor boy like an unwary farmer’s daughter—bad form. How trusting he’d been, though, how wonderfully fearless. And completely untutored in the ways of pleasure despite being more than a decade older in his mortal way than Lestat would ever reach; a celibate Priest of his Science. Truly, it had been a bit of an honor to see him dazed and ecstatic in Lestat’s grasp.
And of course, that perfect mouth bore the bruises and stains of feeding marvelously. Fierce.
He pulled off Herbert's shoes and jacket, tucked him into bed otherwise whole. It wasn't how he'd imagined the night ending, but he was as far from regret as he could manage.The poor dear was peasant-thin without his clothes and posture to inflate him. A true Personality.
It wasn’t as though anything he offered would be payment, as such. Nothing so gauche. Herbert was such a brittle creature, so brilliant and yet so utterly lacking in the things he needed to support that brilliance. Barely scraping by, counting every penny and fretting over every debt. Driven to providing for others’ excesses while denying his own.
Lestat had never been a Temperance man.
Things for the scientist’s Work, yes, naturally; he could undoubtedly give whatever he needed to continue his fight against Death. But that he’d been planning to do regardless; this new muse for this new world would need all to properly complete his wonderful theft from the Gods of old. Providing those supplies was simply expected of a patron.
Other things, though, might make suitable recompense for the strumming of his mind and the plundering of his body. Food, tonight, had been an effective and sensual win, and God knew Herbert of the Great Brain needed it. Clothing, perhaps. Maintenance—growing out that dreadful haircut would take time, but they had it, of course. Fed up, clipped and cleaned and polished, Herbert would be a flawless jewel of an Immortal, delicacy and pallor animated by Lestat’s Dark Gift and burning with that rebellious intelligence that already so moved and disconcerted all who met him.
Even now, the sight of the swoon caused by his own substance rushing beneath soft mortal skin was enough to make Lestat wish to go farther. He settled for a kiss only, thief that he was, licking traces of his own blood from parted lips in profound if one-way intimacy. Heartbreaking, to think of losing such a creature to the vicissitudes of mortal life, but he’d rules of his own, after all, and could wait for his latest favorite to choose him and the night and all its unearthly pleasures.
He briefly considered throwing out the pills and powders, the nasty concoctions his mortal made and sold to survive. There would be no further need of them now, of course, not now that he was under Lestat's black-plumed wing.
But perhaps... no, likely, he'd feel better with the illusion of choice. The impression that he still *could* do his odious job, if need be.
Lestat musn't come on too strong with this proud, independent little Self-Made Man.
The room was paid up through the next week; depending on the effects of his mental touch, who knew when Herbert would be of a mind to leave.
He ruffled choppy hair, removed the tragic spectacles (so thick for one so young!), and left his prize slumbering beneath the embroidered antique counterpane.
Morning was only a few hours away, and he had things to arrange for the coming months (and years). Herbert would keep.
Herbert woke alone, thirsty and confused (early symptoms, his hindbrain reminded him, sending lines of adrenaline through him). He staggered out of the overstuffed bed and into the bathroom, where he slurped water directly from the faucet. No sickness. It might be delayed, but Lestat had made the digestive distress sound severe and immediate.
So. Nothing worse than a hangover, then. His head pounded as he averted his eyes from the warm light of late afternoon filtering through the window. Shit. Would Dan wonder where he'd gone?
He shied away from that thought, and that of going home to their shabby, ill-furnished little hole in the wall. He’d never been one to care about his surroundings, but the light and general air of upkeep of these hotels was pleasant in comparison to the stained sinks and dingy walls he lived in.
He couldn't stay, of course, had likely overstayed his welcome already. Such an idiot, drinking and then allowing… whatever that was. Biohazardous, for certain. Suicidally stupid. Willful, deliberate contamination.
He had it, racing through his veins, multiplying or dying depending upon his immune system’s efficacy. Samples. All thoughts of home vanished: he needed to go to his lab immediately.
There came a knock at his (the) door, startling him into jumping like a nervous cat. He glanced again toward the window. Not Lestat then, unless he was giving away his conceit already (and what a time to do it, after feeding Herbert his blood… and he had taken it in willingly, was driven by some kind of biological high).
Instead, it was the young woman from the restaurant, holding a tray of food. "Sorry. I tried to bring it earlier, but I'm not sure you heard me." She tilted her head. "You did order this last night, right?"
He wasn’t so foolish nor so proud as to turn away food when low on blood.
Last night's dinner had been admittedly good. This breakfast—his mouth was swimming in tart orange juice, the fluffy texture of scrambled eggs, fruit-laden crepes like he hadn't had since Europe. Even the coffee, black and oversugared as he always drank it, actually had appeal above the energy he craved.
He may still have been under the influence.
After, he showered. Counted his possessions and products and bundled himself back into his clothes, slunk out under the assumption that the bill was not actually his problem so long as he wasn’t observed.
His pager had somehow gotten turned off in the night; he clicked it on in the car, only to see that the last number to call had been his own.
It chimed again as he drove back into Arkham proper, vibrating on the dash. Dan wasn’t supposed to have this number, wasn’t supposed to acknowledge it.
Lines drawn were breaking down.
A hurricane greeted him when he opened the door. Dan's voice was wrathful.
"Where were you?" He pointedly didn't touch as he followed after Herbert, shadowing him through the rooms. His voice was deafening, more than it should be. Had their apartment always been this bright? "Herbert!" At last, a hand on his shoulder. God, he could feel Dan's pulse through the thumb. "What is the matter with you? Where did you go?"
"Dan," he began inanely, then stopped.
Dan's face was blotchy, alternately flushed and pale under blue-black stubble. His eyes were sunken in bruise-violet sockets.
He looked wonderful, like something Herbert would like to fold himself into and hold onto. He also looked far too fragile—too vulnerable.
Too unsteady to handle the truth, not yet, not without proof, something deep down whispered.
The voice of experience, clearly.
"...Out,” he answered instead, averting his eyes. He didn’t lie, not to Dan, not in the past. “I was out. Don't you have work today?"
"No. No, they sent me home. I have a fever, it's nothing. I thought I would see you.” Disjointed, flustered. Poor thing. He needed rest. “You were gone all night? That's idiotic even for you. Did you get some kind of breakthrough in your miracle cure?" The words were sarcastic, but held an element of pleading. He wanted to believe it, wanted an excuse to not be angry.
"Patients. Nothing serious." It was easy to lie, but left a poisonous feeling behind. "Was there something you wanted?"
"I thought we might be able to just—never mind. I'm going to bed. It's your turn to vacuum."
"Dan—" he reached out, wanted to touch, to soothe despite his ineptitude, but it was too late. Dan was backing away down the too-short hallway to the master bedroom, to sleep off his fever.
There was food in the fridge.
Dan had shopped, presumably with the pile of cash left carelessly rubber-banded by the phone.
Herbert knew he should feed him, should do the only thing he could to fix the physical.
He was running out of time, though, for the blood contamination burning itself out against his T-cells.
...He couldn't risk it. Dan would forgive him when he found the missing link. It would all be worth it, and he'd have time to make it up to Dan. When he'd earned his assistant's awed smile back, it would feel like a breakthrough.
The sunlight on his skin left no mark nor pain. If anything, it was invigorating. He felt clear-eyed drawing a syringe, preparing another slide (the light was still abysmal, he should ask about that, but not yet).
He caught himself looking over his shoulder now and then, looking for someone to make remarks to and remembering he was free of an audience. He was half convinced, at times, he could hear Lestat uttering ridiculous praises in his ears.
He’d known it was hallucinogenic from the start. Sensory distortions, apparently followed by full-blown imaginary voices. Lovely.
He made a note and ignored it. It stopped eventually, thanks to either willpower or the fading half-life of the substance.
His blood was nearly normal—only a few rogue cells battled sluggishly in the mix, and they withered when exposed to sunlight.
A retrovirus, perhaps. So many things to check.
He kept taking periodic samples all afternoon, left the butterfly needle in for hours, until his arm was blue and aching, just to could avoid making a complete raw mess of the joint.
He kept working until nightfall, until his head was throbbing and his vision dim behind smeared glasses.
Until his hearing was fuzzy and remote.
Until he realized how much he wanted more .
He needed to buy sunlamps, to better control the UV exposure, he thought as he laid his head down.
That number was on his beeper again, punching against the fog in his head. Any more, and it'd become a pattern. He made his way to the payphone down the block, too foggy to bother with secrecy. Lestat had made it clear he had little interest in hiding anyway. Doubtless he could make someone disappear with ease if they became a problem. (That should bother Herbert, shouldn't it?).
"Herbert, why on earth did you check out?” Lestat’s voice, under the arch amusement and odd diction, held a thread of genuine worry. Unusual. I left it to you for the week. And here you are out wandering the street. Are you alright?"
"Why shouldn't I be? I thought the symptoms were supposed to wear off by morning." No sense in hiding the accusation, either. Not with the way he was feeling.
There was a silence on the other end of the line, one that unnerved based on an absence utterly alien. It took him a moment to realize what it was:
The uncanny lack of something so basic chilled him despite all logic, despite knowing that the autonomic functions were likely slowed to near-nothing as in hibernation.
The inhale he heard was utilitarian, preceding speech specifically.
"Mon ami, it's—it's not always so predictable. You took a rather large drink, and besides, didn't you like it? Wasn't it a lovely place?"
"It was fine." It occurred to him, on some level, that this was the man holding the purse strings. Not just for finances, but future samples. It wouldn't do to make him angry. "I'm not in the habit of taking days off. It seemed a shame to waste the sample ticking away in my blood."
"Ever industrious," Lestat's voice dripped with fondness beyond what their few meetings should allow. "Well, you're free now, aren't you? Can you meet me? We can go elsewhere, if you'd prefer."
"I meant to check in with my roommate. He's—" What was he to say? They weren't friends, precisely. How was he to explain wasting a research opportunity to coddle a grown man? "He's suspicious."
"Easily handled, darling."
A chill ran up Herbert's spine at the casual menace in his subject's voice.
"Don't—" he blurted, unsure what he could do. He couldn't murder a monster over the phone. He wouldn't—couldn't—Herbert was disposable, socially speaking, but Dan was employed and well-liked. He'd be missed.
Let Lestat realize that; let Herbert not have put his unaware companion in danger again.
"There's no need for that." He all but tripped over himself. "He's always been the public face of our operation. Quite respected at the hospital. It would be a real problem if something were to happen to him. It's no trouble."
"Oh? But you're prepared to brush off so many secrets to assuage him. That seems like something that could be quite troubling."
He had a deathgrip on the filthy public phone cord. Was this how it was meant to be? Was he to be threatened into coming and going at a madman's beck and call?
"I see your point," he said neutrally.
He swallowed, the click of it loud in his own skull. Limits would have to be set, but not likely over the phone.
He had his knife. He had a pistol if need be, though it usually stayed in the car.
"What exactly did you have in mind?” The metal-wrapped cord froze his skin. “And how long will it take? I need to be able to make plans for testing schedules."
"Dinner, to begin with,” Lestat cooed, voice all silky pleasure and audible smiles once more, gloating response to Herbert’s capitulation. “You're on your way to malnutrition, cher. Not fit to be taking nightly blood samples from yourself. Really, even an uneducated man such as myself can tell that. Why don't you meet me back at the suite, it's easier. And you sound awful; you really should have better accommodations. We'll plan the rest out from there. See you soon, doctor." The line clicks, a full stop to a river of chatter that left no room for disagreement.
Herbert resolved to take the gun in with him.
The halls of the B&B were still deserted, just the same as they had been the previous night. He wondered if Lestat had rented more than just the room. One hell of an insurance policy.
No sign of "Clarisse," even; he removed his coat and scarf and draped them over his right arm, cover for the weapon. He could afford a new coat now, if it came to it. If he had to shoot through it.
His medical bag felt heavy in his other hand, laden as it was with all manner of equipment, clinking softly while he made his way to the dim, intimate dining room.
Lestat's hair shone like a beacon in the absurd, persistent candlelight. He was contemplating a glass of red liquid that was definitely not wine.
"Herbert!" His face brightened, then dampened again to a look desperately trying for ‘restrained courtliness.’ He gestured to the chair opposite himself, the very same from the night before. "Have a seat. You can set your things on one of the other tables. I must say I'm disappointed." He took a long sip from his faux finery. "All that study of my blood, and you brought a gun. More pedestrian than I took you for. And completely unnecessary. You have nothing to fear from me."
Herbert considered pulling the trigger then, just to see what would happen.
"I've no idea what you're talking about," he said instead, obstinately placing his bag beside ‘his’ chair and setting the coat on top of it. The Saturday Night special was small enough to transfer to his lap under cover of the pale linen tablecloth.
The food was already there, table nearly hidden under dome-covered trays. He ignored it, ignored the pangs that attacked in this place with this man.
"Now you're insulting me." Lestat leaned back so far that his chair had to be hovering on two legs. Improved balance, then. "But have it your way. Tell me about these experiments that were so important they necessitated running out into the world under the influence of an unknown substance. What have you uncovered?" There it was again, that sense of genuine interest. "Or did your friend keep you even from that?"
"I could hardly wait for it to dissipate, if I'm meant to be testing it. Or didn't you want results, Monsieur de Lioncourt?" He bit it out as those long-fingered, glossy-nailed hands reach out, trailing lace, to uncover one tray after another. Enough to feed five people, every possible food in combination. "And Dan can look after himself. The fact that he tries to look after me is a positive, not a negative."
"You're angry.” Clearly the disease had no positive effect on the intellect. “Whatever for? Haven't I given you everything you asked for? You were, as I recall, the first one to ask for discretion. You can hardly blame me for wanting to do the same. Most of my kind frown upon this amount of honesty, you know. It's all meant to be very hush-hush." Another sip, then a grimace. "Ugh, cold. Every time. Ah, well. Sometimes the aesthetic is its own reward."
"Your version of discretion seems to resemble leaving me with no one to talk to but you." His kind. So there were more, then. Other specimens, victims, sufferers.
The irritation on Lestat's face, the narrowing of his unnatural eyes, boded ill, but Herbert was simply... tired. Long days followed by long nights. He'd done it before, but it grew ever harder as he (inevitably, horribly) aged.
And then in a blink, the pale face cleared, resuming a semblance of open friendliness and apology as he dished out small portions of food and shoved the plate at Herbert. The mood swings, the dizzying behavior, could be either a symptom or an inbuilt trait. Something else to look into, some time.
"Oh, dear. I'm afraid I am rather close with my secrets, and grasping with the time of those I adore." Lestat poured wine, both red and white, as he prattled. "In my defense, I am terribly constrained by my nocturnal lifestyle (if you will), and the last mortal who spent much time learning the secrets of our kind went quite mad trying to show them to others."
"Really. Yet you didn't see fit to mention that before now. Your concern is touching." The last lingering effect of the drug in his blood gnawed at him, and he gave in to the plate laid under his nose. It's felt like ages since he'd last eaten, another thing that had never been a problem before age began to creep up on him.
"Yes, I'm certain that wouldn't have frightened you away,” Lestat rolled his eyes, tossed his Barbie-doll-gold curls in a showy, affected movement. “After all, look at you now. Ready to shoot me after a single misunderstanding. How very foolish of me, to try and protect your sensibilities.” He hunched forward, elbows braced and brows beetled. “I am old, you know. Older than your father, and his father's father. These modern conversational manners don't always come naturally to me."
"I'm not a coward or a fool, Monsieur. And I operate better when given relevant information." It rankled, that undergrad's face paired with the condescending father-knows-best pontification. Age had never been an indicator of wisdom for Herbert—quite the opposite, in fact. Aging meant becoming inflexible and hidebound, drying up into the worst version of oneself. (Not Hans, of course, but he had been an exception to the rule as much as Dan was to the frequency of youthful folly.)
But the food was good, chicken and salad, beef and potatoes, all made electric by the remnants of the infection he can feel dying in his body. Hopefully Dan's would be as easily vanquished.
"You're right. You have a very irritating habit of it. Nonetheless, underestimating you was my mistake." Lestat bowed his head, penitent once more. "I hope you'll accept my apology." He let it hang a few moments, then resumed that manufactured casual pose. "I do hope we can put this behind us."
Herbert was not in the habit of forgetting snakes who'd reared their heads. It was, after all, one of the many things that had kept him alive this long.
"Honesty will be best for a continued working relationship." Boundaries had to be set, regardless of the talent Lestat had shown for striding through them.
"Of course, love." He smiled, so naturally that Herbert wondered whether the fangs were artfully hidden or retractable. "Never let me be thought a liar." The laughter that followed was shrill, unnerving, and far too long, the answer to some private joke to which Herbert was not privy.
"But in the spirit of that,” he continued, voice still trembling with mirth, “I must say— honestly—that I find your existing 'lab space' dreadfully insufficient."
"And I suppose you have an alternative." He'd finished the plate, his stomach warring with his dignity for more. "I'll need to approve it. If you've bought some standard setup it won't be adequate. I have specialized requirements—"
"Anything, Herbert. Didn't I make that clear when we began? All I need is a list of what you require, and I'll take care of it. It gives me considerable pleasure to give you these things. I'd only ask you to indulge me."
"Is that all you wanted? A list?" Easy enough to disentangle himself from. Better to do it quick, before this calm, relaxed feeling stole too far over him.
"I had hoped to offer you another of your 'doses,' but it seems the last left you in a bad way. Is there something special about your blood, something I need to know before giving you—"
"I don't need more." He raps it out automatically, the practiced denial of an addict. "Not to—I will need additional samples to work with, but I'd just as soon forego the... recreational use of the substance."
Never mind the hunger that the food couldn't sate. Dan would never forgive him if he stumbled back down into that pit, and for what? No measurable improvements to function, even, just pointless pleasure and annoying hallucinations.
"I've frightened you." Lestat’s face fell in response to some too-clear, too-easily-read signal. Some awful slipping of Herbert’s mask. "Oh, my dear friend. I want nothing more than for your to feel safe with me." Again with that touch, the gentle contact that Herbert was increasingly convinced has some manner of suggestive power—already he felt calmer. "Come speak with me, in private."
"We seem to be alone already." But his mind was thick, filmed over with a gauzy comfort, no doubt the result of his exhaustion and a proper hot meal. He needed to take better care of himself.
"The atmosphere is wrong for it, regardless." He didn’t even try to deny the eerie silence of the place. Than God, no insults to Herbert’s intellect at least. "I promise you complete control. I have a few more vials, if you like. Empty. I thought you might like to take things into your own hands."
And so, comprehension. Of course. Of course Lestat hadn't meant to upset him, to play upon the weaknesses Herbert wears invisibly etched into his being. The isolation of being afflicted with the disease must be terrible, especially if what Lestat had said about the last person was true.
Grasping at an affinity, a connection, was perfectly rational in such a desperate situation. He’d done the same, once upon a time.
And yes, yes, he needed more samples. Hadn't he just asked? Look at Lestat, being so wonderfully obliging.
The only problem was the gun—keeping it hidden while standing was going to be difficult.
Full lips curved into an entirely different smile, the candlelight flashing coyly over what might or might not be a hint of bizarre dentition, the mark of that mysterious beneficial illness.
That wonderful, immortal dream.
"I'm afraid I'll have to go ahead of you—there are a few things to prepare, if you do intend to take samples. Storage, that sort of thing. Join me whenever you're ready." The touch migrated to his shoulder as Lestat walked past, sparing a smile before tossing his hair—the same utterly ridiculous move Herbert had seen a hundred empty-headed freshmen pull on campuses the world over. With this man, it was quite nearly charming.
He sat that way for a while, willing himself back to sense. He told himself he should go home, check on Dan. He should keep walking, hold onto the small, small victory he'd won after weeks of sweating himself out on grimy sheets.
But if he let this go to nurse his own selfish weaknesses, and it was the key he needed—he'd have failed the legacy Dr. Gruber entrusted to him.
He slipped the gun into the pocket of his coat.
Another several bites of cooling meat and vegetables, a half glass of wine, hurt nothing, had no effect on his pride if no one was watching. He was still craving, of course, but wasn’t hungry at least. The soft lighting made attractive starbursts against his eyes as he navigated narrow Colonial blue halls with vivid white wainscoting. He stopped once to polish his glasses in vain, left his shirt untucked when entering the darkened bedroom where he’d spent one night already.
It felt illicit, more so than the perfectly legal situation called for. It felt... like something else, something foreign to his experience.
He wasn’t afraid of the alien, not enough to back down from discovery at any rate.
"Alright, doctor. Your show, your rules. I remember how to play the student." Lestat was there without so much as a whisper of sound, a shadow against his back. It wasn’t clear anymore which power plays he meant and which were just side effects of his illness that he'd grown used to. Either way, Herbert’s backup plan suddenly seemed uselessly slow.
"Somewhere with a table." He glanced around, cursing the all but useless lamplight. "Can you bring that over near where you're sitting?” Lestat obliged with something more than simply the ease of a young, powerfully-built man. The strength would need to be evaluated eventually. “Yes, that's fine. Do you have the needles sterilized?" Even if he was immune to illnesses besides the object of interest, contamination would be ruinous to the sample.
"The—ah. Another thing I've forgotten. My skin... I'm afraid needles are no longer sufficient."
"How do you mean? It seemed to puncture easily enough last night." He shoves away the thought of that filthy, dangerous thing he’d done, the alluring sight of Lestat's white skin smeared with blood like a soiled bandage.
"Touch, dearest." His hand was forced into contact, and before pulling away he felt it—a strange hardness, flexible when moving but weirdly impervious to outside pressure. He tried to palpate, to massage, and it did as much good as manipulating a china doll.
"I have scalpels," he suggested, still running his hands over the gleaming substance that had replaced normal skin.
"I'd suggest one you wouldn't mind losing, if you insist on it." Another flash of those fangs. "I've never seen anything that can get through but another pair of these ."
Another miracle property, there alongside that strange, calming toxin. "What are the chances you'll let me remove one?"
"I'm afraid I have to draw the line at being able to feed myself. Drooling invalidity isn't a particular goal of mine." Lestat’s face seized in a snarl much darker than the words call for, which then smoothed away like everything else. "But I pledge them to your service."
"Hmm." The saliva would be another contaminating substance, but apparently it had been there all along, if he was telling the truth. "Before that, may I examine them further?"
"Certainly, Doctor, if that will help. But why do you need to?"
He prepared preliminary notes and labels for the lined-up vials.
"There must be some kind of additional growth that allows for that placid reaction. No prey animal should behave that way."
Lestat looked genuinely taken aback at this, and then weirdly admiring of so basic a curiosity.
"I see; how clever. Of course, how foolish of me not to think. You'll recall that I've never had the opportunity to experience the wonders of modern medicine." He sat still as Herbert put aside his pen and wished in vain for better light—a penlight had not been among Lestat's supplies, nor had he brought his own. "I've always rather regarded the swoon as a pleasant gift, something that makes it bearable for myself and the one upon whom I feed."
Of all things, those strange blue eyes were easy to see in the dark. They seemed riveted to Herbert’s wrists as he unbuttoned his cuffs and rolled up his sleeves with easy, practiced professionalism.
"A poetic justification," Herbert admitted, drawing a pair of gloves from his bag. They made a pleasant, clarifying snap against his skin when he pulled them on. "Open your mouth, please."
The silence was rare and blessed, even if his movements were blunt. There wasn’t much more he could do, after taking a few swabs, but to reach in and begin feeling around the edges. Dentistry’s barbarism was only faintly related to proper medicine, the mouth covered in a few passing chapters and then forgotten. But the teeth felt normal save for those two pointed canines, and he could detect no swelling, nothing that seemed like an extraneous growth. After a few minutes’ fruitless probing, he left it at that, frustrated. Not much more he could do with an amateur's tools. At least there was the blood (and the sight of Lestat running his tongue across his lips, looking almost childlike as he grimaced at the taste of latex).
Herbert averted his gaze, busy removing the soiled gloves and replacing them with fresh.
"Generally samples are taken from the crook of the elbow," he instructed the subject. Keeping procedures as standard as possible in extraordinary circumstances cut down on unpredictability. Less likely that they'd have to worry about extraneous meat and tendons close to the surface there, too.
"'As you wish,'" Lestat replied, once more making the expression Herbert was coming to associate with extraneous details he was expected to understand. It didn't matter. He was fully occupied just trying to contain the bloodflow and ensure the bottled samples lacked obvious bits of skin.
The flow grew sluggish during the filling of the second vial, and stopped completely before he could manage a third. He noted that as best he could in among all the juggling of bottles and re-swabbing the visibly healing wounds.
When he finished, he looked up from the body part and remembered it was attached to a person.
There were good reasons he was recommended as a candidate for surgery and pathology, rather than encouraged to become a general practitioner.
"That." He cleared his throat. "That should be sufficient. Does it always heal that quickly?"
"Left on its own, yes." Lestat's tongue licked away the spare blood, either for effect or because vampirism involved some catlike compulsion toward self-cleaning (as yet Herbert’s theory remained inconclusive). "It's somewhat different if you have someone drinking it."
"Mortals, too. Something about the blood being drawn out, I think. How else could we make more of our own? Another test to add to your list." His tone was teasing, but he didn't push.
"I've imposed on you enough for the evening." Taking away that much blood, a human (an average human—he couldn't afford to be taken in by Lestat's ghoulish stories) would be left weak.
He stowed the vials in his bag, picked up his coat, and rummaged in the pocket for his car keys.
"Not at all, mon cher. You do me a great service investigating this, and a great indulgence spending time with me." He eyed the keys with obvious dismay and cast his gaze theatrically towards the frosted window, "But surely you musn't leave now. It's snowing—I can't let you operate an automobile in that."
"I've lived here for several years,” he said, already steeling himself for the inevitable five-minute wait for his third-hand rustbucket to warm up. “The weather is nothing new."
Lestat was practically up in arms now, caught in his own mental image. "But suppose something happens to that thing you insist on driving. You'll freeze out there!"
"Your concern is noted, but unnecessary. I really-"
"At least do me the favor of staying a little longer. Just to see if the skies clear. It's always worth stacking the deck in one's favor, wouldn't you say?" He patted the spot beside him on the delicate antique couch. "The samples can be stored in the cooler I prepared. They'll be perfectly preserved. But we cannot get more samples of your brain, Herbert dear."
Herbert for whatever reason acquiesced (true enough that if he was the one the ‘vampire’ trusted to investigate this matter, his loss would be problematic. Self-interest was a thing he could respect.) Lestat's behavior—whether archaic, cultural, or related to his illness—put him on edge, but it was foolish to alienate the subject too harshly. He nevertheless took the armchair rather than the sofa.
Now, though, Lestat seemed almost well-behaved, quicksilver personality shifting yet again to all disarming soft hopefulness and apparently genuine admiration of Herbert's rudimentary theories.
"I know,” he said in answer to nothing, “I've impeded your great work again. Your indulgence is touching, truly. I would love to hear something of your mentor—besides what my research revealed. He must have been a great man, to inspire such passion in you."
If the question was a calculated ploy, it was an effective one. Even nearly two years later, Herbert’s memories of Hans Gruber were still complicated with grief. To finally speak of them in the context of how much they almost achieved felt like a great purging, a pus-swollen boil lanced and allowed to bleed clear. (Dan had offered to listen, once, but wanted only the neat details—had been unable to bear hearing about those who had fallen in pursuit of their cause, no matter how well earned the eulogy).
The snow only came down thicker around them, the cold seeping in through walls featuring period-appropriate weatherproofing alongside the decor. The wind whistled through archaically bubbled single-pane glass.
Soon, he was too worn to drive, too sad and weak with catharsis to insist. Even Lestat's flawless, medical-marvel face tightened at the howling sound of the wind.
Herbert’s tie vanished, somewhere along the way, as did his jacket and shoes. The period-inaccurate gas fireplace made a warm focal point in the room, and he drowsed off mid-sentence as Lestat curled against his knee and blinked away tears.
It was a good night. He didn't have many of those; surely he was allowed, he thought, as he dreamed an oddly vivid sensation of his fingers tangled in that blond riot turned copper by the firelight.
Lestat was gone, again, and once more he'd been tucked away beneath thick blankets. But there was no headache, and no sense of being duped. Nothing taken except his old acrylic scarf, a fine cashmere tucked into its place as though in exchange. It was dangerously close to living up to the promise Lestat had peddled—of truly valuing his mind and his thoughts above all else, of wanting to ensure his ability to continue thinking. Novel. Terrifying for how much he craved it now that he could see the possibility.
He didn't bother going home this time, didn't turn on the damned beeper. Hans was dead, the poison in that wound allowed to fester. He couldn't face Dan or put him in that same danger until he had something concrete to show for it.
It was a principle, he told himself. Not fear that he'd already used his friend up and would be rejected. Certainly not a nagging worry that his mind was no longer enough for Dan, however much it had drawn him at the start.
Patterns. Puzzles. Herbert disliked them, disliked coincidences of interaction not governed by clear scientific logic.
He'd always done his best to transcend human failings, and moments like this only pulled him back in: the desperate need to make a chain of events out of random happenstance. But the thought stayed with him nonetheless. Followed him as he looked over his scribbled notes, as he accepted a doggie-bagged breakfast from the strange, ghostly girl who was there precisely when needed and no more. Chewed toast of all things as he prepared to look over slides of blood so mutated it might as well be alien. Adaptability was one thing he did prize about the human condition. At least he still had that.
He spent half the afternoon drawing his own blood and attempting to mix it in a petri dish. The change was there, but the cells were sluggish, nowhere near the agitated combination he'd recorded after drawing the mixture out from his skin. Something about the ingestion process, then. Something linked to that chemical causing the euphoria, the unnatural calm and trust.
The routine was becoming ingrained, so much so that it felt wrong when the evening came and he turned on his pager only to see that the last number to call was just one of his old regulars.
He kept working, wishing he had access to better space and more equipment, until seven o'clock rolled around and his stomach growled.
Still no calls.
He drove home.
"We need to talk." The most ominous of greetings. Herbert was beginning to wonder, in a vague, abstract way, if these little meetings were doing harm to Dan's standing at the hospital, to his work hours. Not that they needed the money.
"Well, talk, then." He set his ace in the hole on the table, the little cooler sheltering the future.
"Herbert..." Dan cornered him in the kitchen, radiating tension. "Look at me, dammit!"
How could he not? Dan had been his single support for so long, his ideal idealized partner. But now it was like seeing a dead star after basking in the focused adoration of the sun. He felt numb.
"This has to stop,” Dan said, tense, tense, breaking again the lines he himself had tacitly put in place when Herbert first parted ways with institutionalized medicine. “You're getting in over your head."
"You're basing this claim on what evidence?" He's hungry. There's a smear of blood on the knee of his pants where Lestat laid his head (something to look into).
"This was the first time someone's found out where we live and come calling."
At this, he does focus.
"Someone—who? Who came here?" It's not as though he'd thought it a secret, really, not from a man like Lestat who'd found Herbert by sifting through the refuse to start with, but he'd expected... courtesy. Circumspection.
He'd thought Dan well fenced off.
"Some college kid, I don't know. He couldn't have been old enough to drink, even. But he left this." Dan tossed a neat bundle of cash onto the counter—enough to buy a new house, practically, from the looks of it. "Kept asking these weird questions." And then, against all call for the situation, a flush crawled up Dan's neck.
"Dan... it's all right,” he stuttered lamely. “He won't do any harm."
And really, wasn't it just typical of Dan to become upset when he couldn't ignore it any more—when he was forced to see how sausage was made. The fact that Lestat disgusted him so made Herbert wonder how he'd have reacted to Lizard, or Sal, or the girls down at the Marriott bar with their chronic pains and inescapable careers.
"He won't—so this is how it is, now? I'm just supposed to accept addicts showing up here at all hours looking for you? What the hell , Herbert?” He flailed his hands in the air, rough-bitten nails and calluses, hands that had so often touched and so rarely helped. “I thought you kept me around to try and look normal."
"'Kept you'...." The statement shouldn't have made him angry. It was no different than any of Dan's tirades. "I offered you a chance at greatness. I confided my life's work to you! You weren't so eager to look down your nose at my methods when you thought it would save Meg."
The last time he'd played that card, Dan had shouted and raged. This time, this desiccated creature hissed and paled, drawing back into himself.
"He asked if I'd miss you, Herbert." Nearly inaudible. Might be, for some.
"And... what did you say, Dan?" He was curious, he realized, to hear what had been said about him, not to him.
"I said we're roommates and I need your half of the rent."
The words severed something in Herbert, leaving him raw and aching and untethered. Anchorless. He answered in a fog, eyes on the money again to avoid his… roommate: "I see that's no longer a problem."
"I guess it's not." Dan's posture, in the periphery of his vision, was wary, as if he were afraid of being struck. As if he hadn't loosed the fatal blow.
Herbert unfastened the latch on the cooler with numb hands, drew out one vial of his great proof. Dan didn't deserve it. But it wasn’t a gift now, he told himself. It was a reminder of what he was losing. "Keep this, if you like." He set the blood down on the table. "It can serve as a reminder of your victory."
"I don't want your drugs. And what vic—"
The slap startled them both; Herbert's hand stung, palm abraded by the growth of stubble on Dan's left cheek.
He'd never struck anyone before without the intent to kill.
"I told you. I never lied to you—this could be it , if only you'd listened."
"I wish I could believe you." Dan's hand cradled his own dear face, the growing mark flushed with blood and appearing coal hot (how fitting was his name now, hmm). Their ambitions lay between them, stillborn as every other life they’d ever created together.
"I'm going. What you do is your own affair." He didn't play games, had no use for them. He wanted so badly to be caught and reassured, for Dan to realize what he'd done. It was humiliating, the keen addicted need he felt.
He reached the door and paused there, the connection between them tangibly stretched, threatening finally to snap.
His beeper chirped in his pocket.
"Don't." Dan's hand was still warm on his shoulder, rumpling the fine soft scarf. He was still present and real as his enormous sad Labrador eyes begged Herbert not to check for the number he already knew he’d see. "Don't—just stay. Just stop. We can find you a job, something safe; you don't have to do this."
Herbert’s hand was on his belt, though. His head was far away. His goals were sacrosanct, and he was capable of sacrifice and abstinence, no matter how much it might hurt.
So very clear to him in that moment, something he couldn't put into words before. Dan didn't want him. Not him as he existed, thriving on the edge of possibility, doing what he was made for. Dan wanted him, but only leashed. Puttering about thinking about what he might do, and never reaching that point.
Dan would never want him. Not as he was.
"I've already made plans for the evening," he lied. "There's no need to wait up."
He'd return one day, when he'd won. When he'd done it. He promised Dan life eternal, and it would pain him beyond all else to renege on that. Dan, even faithless and disbelieving, was the first he would spare from the pain of mortality given the chance.
"If you need to reach me—" He knew better than do this. A clean break would best, and though Lestat had never said anything on the subject of secrecy, he hadn’t needed to. They’d had an understanding, after all, about so many things. Yet Herbert, weak needy Herbert, shoved that silky black card into Dan's hand as he left.
He drove on autopilot to the closed convenience store at the end of the block and fished out a quarter. He always had rolls of them—essential for a low-level drug dealer who couldn’t sell oblivion from the safety of his own home.
Lestat’s voice was soft, careful. Knowing. He didn't offer to meet him at their by-now-habitual rendezvous point. Instead, Herbert had no sooner hung up the phone than he spied a familiar silhouette perched on a streetlamp, tall and silent and perfectly ridiculous.
And when Lestat, magic, miracle, undying, touched down (didn't so much jump as float) and pulled Herbert into his more-than-muscular arms… he allowed it.
"I have something wonderful to show you," a promise delivered direct to his ear, sotto voce.
"What now? Am I to understand you've been keeping more things from me?" This wound was raw, new and not yet finished bleeding, but he couldn't altogether blame Lestat for being the instrument. Might as well blame the scalpel for the scar left by a tumor's removal.
"I simply thought you could use something to lift your spirits. It wasn't ready before now. I promise you'll like it." That touch again, cupping his face in a mirror of Herbert’s petty violence not a quarter of an hour before. "Will you trust me?"
Were he a man of superstitions, this would be his Faustian bargain. Already he stood half wrapped in Lestat's billowing coat, the two of them isolated in a single halo of light. No going back. Science had no use for weakness.
Of course he leapt, like the impulsive fool he'd always been.
Eyes closed against those gas-flame eyes, his voice sounded strange even to himself as he whispered a harsh "Yes."
It should have been more ornamented—more eloquent, but then, Lestat (for all his floridity) actually seemed to like him as he was, not as he might be.
"Then hold tight, cher." Lestat's arms closed around him, scooping him up from the ground, and he jumped—
they were in the air. Herbert could see the lights of the streets below, barely sketch out the shapes of buildings. An undignified yell ripped from his throat, and preservation held him closer to Lestat.
"How‽ " was the best he could manage.
"I told you—I'm a vampire!" And the half-malicious, half-gleeful grin he gave was without abandon, exposing fangs and all as they soared through the skies over Arkham. The lack of pretense comforted Herbert, even as the cold and the thin air sent his head spinning.
Laughter followed him down into the blackness of his own mind.