The cat is awake Tuesday morning when Arthur arrives at the VHI, and so is Gilbert. The cat is much cuter in person than in the pictures. So is Gilbert playing with it, because he looks so genuinely happy.
"Isn't she adorable?" Gilbert gushes. "Toris brought her in around nine last night! Finally, he's good for something!" He yells this last bit in Laurinitis' direction. Laurinitis, evidently used to this, ignores him.
"Did you sleep at all?" asks Arthur. There had been an awful lot of emails.
"Well, you were curious whether I needed to. And I had some stuff to do for a change, so it wasn't too tough." Gilbert shrugs.
The papers are still in processing, which Gilbert knows, so it wasn't a formal request, Gilbert simply obliged for - for no reason?
"Not just for you! I also was curious," Gilbert admits. "Imagine all the things I could do if I didn't have to sleep."
"Did you make much progress on the book, then?"
"Oh, I didn't touch it."
"You played with the cat all night long?"
Gilbert whips out Arthur's phone from his trousers pocket. Today he wears jeans that are a size too tight and a white hooded sweatshirt over a patterned tee that says something in German on it around a skeleton eagle. His socks are bright yellow. It is evidently Casual Tuesday. "Didn't you get my emails? I'm so glad you left this here," he says. "Next time, can you also forget the charging cable?"
"You're ridiculous," says Arthur, with no small measure of fondness. He pockets the phone to charge it later; there's no outlet inside Gilbert's tank. "I had a cat in the 80's, but it hated my guts and was not nearly this affectionate." The cat grabs Gilbert's fingers in its paws and nips at them. It's having a blast, probably because Laurinitis has never shown it much attention.
The door to the tank squeals open behind them; it's Laurinitis. "Gilbert, tests are back," he says.
"Does that mean what I think it means?" Gilbert looks very excited.
"Maybe." Laurinitis smiles. "If Mr Kirkland can oblige."
Gilbert looks up at him with such a pleading look that Arthur finds it very difficult to say anything other than, "Of course," even though he doesn't yet know what for.
Back at the desk, Laurinitis shows them some numbers. "These prove that I honestly can't find anything that shows detrimental effects of garlic on your biology, topically or internally. Including hair and nails. Are you certain you heard Dr Popescu correctly?"
"Fairly. I wouldn't chance it," adds Arthur.
"Not like I can eat it. Well! Who wants to go around smelling like a pasta shop," says Gilbert.
"Why were you looking so deeply into the effects of garlic anyway?"
Laurinitis flushes, nervously evasive. "Oh, you know," he says, "just in case there's a detrimental effect, s-suppose I use garlic in my cooking or something, I wouldn't want it to harm our patient." Except that Laurinitis told him yesterday he doesn't cook. "A-and some folk theories have a basis in scientific fact, which goes completely unnoticed for centuries! Like willow bark tea being good for pain relief and then we go ahead and make aspirin out of it. In this case, I can't seem to find anything. Same with the sunlight theory."
"Yessss," says Gilbert, rubbing his hands together with glee.
"I tried irradiating his skincells with all kinds of light. Ultraviolet, infrared, whatever might pass through the atmosphere - at this latitude and longitude, given the state of the Earth's ozone layer. It passes inspection under a solar-like profile of a combination of wavelengths at an appropriate intensity. But, your Dr Popescu may have a point - it's one thing to do research on cells and cultures I've scraped from him and another thing to do them on the real thing."
"And that's why he borrowed the tanning bed," chirps Gilbert helpfully.
"You didn't," says Arthur, alarmed.
"I told him he could," says Gilbert.
"Just his arm, just for two seconds," says Laurinitis, very serious. "When that passed, then ten, then thirty, then two minutes. Then some post-analysis imaging and tests." Laurinitis shrugs and gestures at the numbers. "It all seems fine. I even checked for mosquitoes and bug bites. Your blood kills them within minutes if they're dumb enough to try biting, so... you're cleared to go outside." Gilbert's face is radiant.
"Provided it's overcast, only for a short while - ten minutes! not one second more! - and take an umbrella -"
"Yeah, yeah," says Gilbert. "We'll be fine, Mutti."
"- and in case anything happens, Arthur goes with you."
"Tch, obviously," says Gilbert. He hooks his left arm around Arthur's right. "C'mon, let's go."
There's a park out back the institution - although park is really a misnomer, it's more like free greenspace with a bench by a footpath. "It's perfect," breathes Gilbert. "God, you don't know how stir-crazy I was going in there! I never thought I was an outdoorsy sort until I couldn't go outside." He inhales in deep. "Air!"
"I see why most vampires don't until nightfall," says Arthur, laughing. "You look legitimately dead. Just because you can do this doesn't mean you should. You'd attract some attention in public."
It's true. Under the sunlight, which is somehow harsher still on Gilbert's image than fluorescent, Gilbert's hair is a flat grey, his skin is sallow and wan and an unhealthy shade of porcelain, his eyes look sunken in at the sockets and his bloodless cream cheekbones seem sharper and gaunt. He looks ill, halfway in the coffin. The shadows are cleverly making him look like a literal skull. His teeth are the only things that don't receive the white treatment - they're offwhite.
"Thought vampires were supposed to be majestically beautiful with the power to entrance anyone," says Gilbert. "You're not doing a guy's ego a very good turn here."
"I've worked with too many to be so easily taken in," says Arthur.
Gilbert smiles to himself. It's a very smug smile that suggests he perceives these words as a challenge. But he says instead, "How many have you worked with? I'm not counting the guy in the red coat."
"That's the one. I mean how many who had actually turned. There must be some files in that department of yours."
Arthur thinks. "Only two I know of."
"Pfft! That's it?! And you guys are the experts? No wonder you know nothing about vampires!"
"Neither do you," teases Arthur.
"Were any of them pretty lady vampires?"
Arthur raises an eyebrow. "Why, you want an introduction?"
"N-no! I just thought, if anyone would take you in, it'd be, y'know. A lady vampire," says Gilbert, pretending caution.
Ooh, so it's That Talk, is it, says Morgan. She sounds gleeful.
Of course I'll hush! Better to pay attention. I love Those Talks. Now, he's 200, think that makes him closeted all his life or now-that-I'm-immortal-let's-try-everything-I-never-dared? Oh wait, Prussian - I bet he's a 'what happens in the army stays in the army' sort of chap.
Would you kindly cease, I can't concentrate.
"I'm not taken in by anyone," says Arthur. He sighs. "There was Alice - let's see - she would've been about sixty something in her years when I first got her file, and that was in the seventies, though she looked about seventeen as she was when she turned -"
"Oh yeah, that's the one they had the file on. Your department gave them to VHI, Toris let me read them."
"Does Laurinitis actually let you read them or does he just not care enough to stop you?"
Gilbert shrugs with a shit-eating grin. "Can't it be both? Anyway, you guys took a lot of stuff out of those files. Whatever happened to her?"
"Ah," says Arthur. "She left the field. Took early retirement."
Gilbert looks concerned. "Took or was forced out? When you say retirement what exactly do you mean?"
"What? No!" he says. "Nothing like that! That's not what I meant. She was retired for about twenty years, lived back home in Belfast for awhile, came back."
"None of that was in her file," says Gilbert.
"Well, naturally not. She works with us again, somewhere, I don't know where - not my department - so I imagine she's under a certain amount of protection." Alice is a single vampire agent employed in a department of over a thousand people. Vampires older than five years are so rare that Arthur imagines we would want her to be a well-guarded secret. He knows that we know how lucky we were that Alice joined on in the first place and how difficult it can be to get the same level of operation lacking someone of her skill-set. "They redact a good deal from current field agents' files. I imagine they'd do the same for mine."
"Sure." Gilbert remains unconvinced. "Who was the other one?"
"Bloke by the name of Harry Fletcher. None of us knew how old he was. He joked once that he was Fletcher because he used to fletch arrows, and at first I thought, there's no way he's that old, but he was all grey when I met him and he said he was turned at nineteen."
"I thought you said you never met any like me."
"I wouldn't say I had ever really met Harry. He was half senile and never the same person two days in a row. And just meeting you, he wouldn't remember you. He'd remember his own history all wrong."
Gilbert wiggles his eyebrows. "Sure he had it all wrong? He would've been there for it."
"He claimed he spied on Henry the Eighth in the privy once and he was two short men in a doublet."
Gilbert thinks. "Maybe he was being ironic. One a Catholic, one a Protestant. Historical metaphor."
Harry Fletcher was not that smart. "He hoarded acorns and never washed and if you disturbed his office nap instead of letting him wake on his own he wouldn't remember anything but his native Cornish. On Wednesdays he would spend the hour between 9:24 and 10:24 silently frothing at the mouth at his desk. He tried to duel his computer. One day he wore a fishbowl for a hat. He thought cars were the work of the devil. I think he just stopped forming memories after the eighteenth century and the inability to cope with the industrial revolution cracked him."
Gilbert snorts. It pushes into a chuckle, then a laugh, then a cackle and then he's doubled over in a fit of giggles so uncontrollable it's like he hasn't laughed since he died. It turns his cheeks pinkish and healthy and his smile is achingly handsome.
"It's not funny!" says Arthur, although Gilbert's riotous laughter has him cracking a smile. "Sometimes I think that poor man really wanted out of this endless life!"
"Oh, please. He could've taken it if he weren't so stubborn," wheezes Gilbert. "What got him in the end?"
"I don't actually know that he's dead. He transferred not long after the fishbowl incident, likely because he couldn't be allowed on the tube without us having to cover up his episodes and he had no other way to get to work."
"So we do age," says Gilbert, wiping a tear from his eye. "Just much, much, much slower."
"Something like that. Anyway. I know there are others partly associated with the department, because I process their files. So they've registered. But what's said in the files doesn't generally have any scientific bearing, so I don't know whether they've shared them with the VHI. They could have signed access to information clauses. And I've never met anyone long enough to be entranced, and anyway, it's not really done in the workplace, is it, seduce your coworkers to feast on their blood more easily? Hardly water cooler protocol. So much for erotic vampire love."
Gilbert smirks. "I guess that means I have more of an impression to make."
"Good luck trying," teases Arthur. "I'll just picture you dueling the computer with a fishbowl on your head."
"I hear it's a very common magical courtship ritual," says Gilbert with a smile.
He's so obvious about it, says Morgan. He's not even bothering to hide! I've never seen a two hundred year old more adjusted. He acts like he's younger than you!
This is hilarious. You could grab him by his shirt and look deeply into his eyes or something with equally little game and he'd probably swoon. I can't believe I thought he might be closeted.
Whether he wants me is one thing -
He definitely wants you. He wants to ride you like cavalry into sweet glorious battle.
- let me finish! - Have you ever considered the why? What does he know about me, anyway? Nothing! If he's flirting at all, he's probably doing it because he's bored. Do we have anything in common besides the fact that he's locked away in his cell and I'm the only one his keepers will let through? If we met at a pub, would we even talk to one another? And I'm here to do a job, not to think with my prick!
Arthur, the diatribe is great but he's talking again.
Shit. "Sorry?" Arthur asks.
"I said, I've made things awkward, haven't I," replies Gilbert.
"N-no, of course not, how would you have?"
Gilbert lifts a shoulder, his expression wistful. "You were really silent. I thought - maybe you didn't ... which, ah, you know, would be fine, but I should probably know, so -"
Morgan grabs hold of Arthur's temples and shakes his head from side to side for him.
Just trying to help you get laid once a decade!
"I was talking to my patron," Arthur says, when his vision stops swimming. Gilbert doesn't appear to understand. Arthur flicks his wrists and a shower of golden sparks erupt in streams from his fingertips. "Having the talent is only part of the path to skills like these, you have to apply for, and be granted, the patronage of a legendary creature to assist you with physical realisations and who will intervene if you try to take over the world. Ordinarily a god or a goddess. Mine is a fairy who doesn't shut up." He glares Morgan's way, though he's positive it makes him look even crazier than he is.
Gilbert's careful grin fractures. "'I was talking to my fairy.' Well. I will give you credit. That's a new one," he says bitterly. "In 200 years, that is the first time I have heard that excuse."
"It's no excuse! Everything else I do is by her consent, so I'm not surprised she likes to intrude with us. She has no bloody boundaries. Judging by how she won't shut up when you're around, I think she likes you," Arthur adds.
"'Course she likes me, who doesn't like me," says Gilbert, although he tucks his head down to hide the blush that he can't fight.
"I don't like you!" bellows Laurinitis' voice from behind them. They whirl around to find Laurinitis storming angrily across the green. "I said ten minutes! It has been twenty-one minutes that you wandered off! I've been trying to find you for eleven minutes!"
"Yes. We can also do maths," says Gilbert, slinging an arm around Arthur and pulling him close. He's clever about it, the movement looks like easy camaraderie, but as Arthur bumps physically into Gilbert and Gilbert cups his hand firmly around Arthur's shoulder, there's a squeeze that could be termed as tender before he breaks it and claps him soundly like any exuberant, platonic friend.
Laurinitis drags them back to the lab. Inside, he takes some more readings. He presses into Gilbert's forearm with his thumb and frets over the way in which the flesh springs back. "It's bright red," he remarks. "This is awful."
"That's just the fluorescent lights," says Gilbert.
"It's not," insists Laurinitis.
"I always look weird under these lights. Or any lights. I just plain look weird, because I'm undead. Look, I feel fine."
Laurinitis isn't really listening. He curses softly under his breath in a language that isn't English and is most displeased. He takes a few skin scrapings and buggers off to the microscope.
The phone has charged enough by now, so Gilbert shows him some more cat pictures.
"Toris, I'm adopting your cat," calls out Gilbert.
"She's not up for adoption."
"Well you never play with her!"
"That's why I brought her to you. Now I can keep an eye on her, and do my research, and you have something to do that isn't bothering me. Fixes three problems in one."
"Huh. Guess you do have good ideas once in awhile," says Gilbert.
"It wasn't his idea!" complains Arthur.
Gilbert looks up at him with new eyes, touched. "Thanks," he says, heartfelt, and then he leans in close. Arthur freezes. Laurinitis' back is turned. Time seems to slow as Gilbert draws nearer still and pecks him on the corner of the mouth, like he was aiming for his lips but planted it off-centre. Arthur's skin is on fire where Gilbert touches him and though he can't make himself move, he feels his lips twitch, trying as best he can while frozen to reciprocate, push back, kiss back, when he's helpless to do any of these, before Gilbert retreats and Arthur can move again.
Was that -
Yes. But only briefly, says Morgan, impressed. A very short enthralment.
But did it happen or did I dream it?
What kiss? Did I miss something?
Is she joking? Did it happen? Only Morgan really knows. Arthur doesn't. Laurinitis doesn't. We don't.
Somewhere around the hundreth cat picture, Arthur realises that Gilbert - who had fallen silent a few moments prior and stopped commenting on every cat picture, allowing Arthur to shift through them himself - is dozing on his forearms. It's just as well; looking at cat pictures is getting boring.
"That excursion took far too much out of him. He needs rest," says Laurinitis anxiously.
"Because he was up all night, not because of the sunlight," adds Arthur. "New data point, vampires do need sleep." Although it worries him too. What if it was the sunlight? He brushes Gilbert's soft bangs back from his forehead before he remembers that he should check that Laurinitis isn't watching.
Laurinitis is. But he doesn't say anything about it. "Well. Come bring him into the observation room. He can sleep it off there and the diagnostics can keep an eye on him."
The observation room is off the main lab and looks very like a doctor's office. There's a surgery table in the middle surrounded by machines on wheels, and a further monitoring station through the next room.
"'M fine, really," Gilbert keeps saying, but he also keeps rubbing his eyes and yawning and he's leaning very heavily on Arthur. He lets Arthur lead him to the surgery table where he lies down and curls up underneath a thin blanket. "This is dumb," he murmurs.
"You only come for three hours and now I'm going to spend one of those hours sleeping." He yawns again. "What a waste. Shouldn't have stayed up all night. Could've done that on the weekend..." And he falls asleep mid-sentence.
Arthur waits until he is quite asleep and softly snoring before he leans over and kisses him on the forehead, against his better judgement.
If Laurinitis sees it, he doesn't let on. Perhaps he doesn't care, thinks Arthur. After all, no enthralment is possible when Gilbert's asleep.
Mircea confronts him later that day in the kitchen, while Arthur is making tea. Less because it's tea time, and more because he's trying (and failing) to concentrate on the paperwork for boring cases like filing acceptances between young talented folk and their new patrons or getting the Seelie and Unseelie Courts to the negotiating table on the use of false morels or legitimising the adoptions of maltreated children by an Erlking daughter (who despite her heritage has shown a singular track record for exceptional social work in child protection). The work is slow going.
Ruling's come down from the top: Gilbert is to be granted basic respect as an autonomous agent - which he mostly already has - he is to be protected from emotional, physical, and mental harm - but Laurinitis already sees to that for the most part, since Gilbert explicitly gives consent until all that ethics paperwork is pushed through the pipeline, and anything Gilbert doesn't like (Arthur assumes) Gilbert doesn't acquiesce to - and his privacy and well-being are to be protected - and since Mircea says Gilbert is to get his own unmonitored room at the VHI, he will have all the privacy he needs during the hours he isn't being paid for his work.
However, we only adopted three of the recommendations made by Mircea. Gilbert is not permitted to revoke his participation in his research.
You see, late last year a new set of mandates was decreed, urging better co-operation between public-private partnerships, and we cited such reasoning in our ruling. It means that the VHI can do essentially just about anything they want (within reason) with little interference from us. In fact, Arthur and Mircea themselves are the only interference that we are ready to provide.
If we play nice with the VHI, they might play nice with us. And they have something we might like.
"This is fucking bullshit," Mircea says to Arthur. "I'll find a loophole, just you wait."
We are confident that he will.