Late in the night, or early in the morning, Arthur wakes. He feels eyes on him, and not in the off-scene way. All the laboratory lights outside his hospital-like room are dimmed, which means Laurinitis must have gone home.
"Well, you might as well come a bit closer," he tells Gilbert, who's the only other possible candidate.
There's a shocked cough from the shadows before Gilbert emerges from them. "How did you know I was there?" he asks. "Did your fairy tell you?"
"She didn't have to. You're not nearly as sleek and noiseless as you think you are," says Arthur.
Gilbert grimaces. "I know. Some predator, right? I make a pretty shitty vampire."
Maybe. Maybe he just makes too good a human. Maybe, and this is the important part, maybe there's no need to label his condition so exclusively, like he can't still be human but just slightly different, instead of writing it up as though untouchable evil simmers underneath an affable flesh disguise.
And anyway, it's hard to swallow. For god's sake, it's only Gilbert. The worst part about him is not his fangs but his history, what he's done, and we've clearly seen that Arthur doesn't care enough about that.
"What are you doing up?" asks Arthur.
"Couldn't sleep," he replies.
Oh, so he decided to come and watch you, then? adds Morgan. "You should try," says Arthur, "it's back to work day after tomorrow."
"So soon?" Gilbert looks horrified. "Y-you're not going to maybe stay in bed another day?"
"Gilbert, you can withdraw your consent any time you like," he explains. "If you want to stop, then we stop."
Gilbert fidgets in that way that Arthur has come to recognise as intense discomfort. "That's the problem," he says, guilty. "I never wanted to stop."
"How do you mean?"
"I regained control. Twice!" he blurts. His voice becomes distraught. "But each time I just, I threw it aside, I didn't care. You just tasted so good, a-and you said I could, and I thought it was you saying it, and nothing's tasted like that since I died, maybe earlier, I couldn't get enough. I'm sorry -" he looks really sorry - "I know you're not food, I just. I can't stop thinking about it!"
Arthur's silent a moment. Is that why Gilbert's come to see him, then? A midnight snack? "Have you seen the tape?" he asks instead.
Gilbert nods. "It's awful," he moans. "You should have let me starve myself a week ago, I'm a monster."
"Oh, stop the self-pity," says Arthur, "it ill-suits you."
"This isn't nothing! You almost died!" This is the part that Gilbert cares most about, isn't it? Arthur wonders whether he would be upset if Arthur died because of Arthur, or because it meant Gilbert wouldn't get any more blood. Arthur wonders which line of thinking would help Gilbert better keep himself in check.
"But I didn't, because you reined yourself in the end." Arthur smiles gently. "I count that a victory."
"You showed restraint!"
"You don't know the meaning of restraint!" wails Gilbert, wild-eyed and apoplectic. "Between following a superior officer's orders and the protestant work ethic, I spent my life restrained! That? That was me giving in! I didn't think clearly enough, or I would have known that you - you were talking to me, and that's strange, because normally people who are entranced can't say anything, yeah? But you weren't really saying anything, a-and, and I should have put that together, and asked you something that needed your thought. But I didn't care, because I liked how you tasted and I wanted more!" Gilbert thinks a moment. "If you can talk even when you're entranced, how can I ever know that you're actually talking to me?"
"Because you know when you're entrancing me," says Arthur. "Don't you?"
"Sometimes," says Gilbert. "Not always."
"Another reason why we need to get this under control," he replies softly.
"Who's the hell's 'we'?"
"It's my problem too," says Arthur. He checks - there's a video feed that he can make out, but no audio. Rather than kill it completely and arouse suspicion... "Come closer?" Gilbert does, but not close enough. "Closer still," he says. "Keep coming." He keeps beckoning until Gilbert has his face next to Arthur's and his broad shoulders are in the line of sight of Arthur's head and the camera, blocking out a view of his mouth.
"Why aren't you afraid of me?" whispers Gilbert. "What's wrong with you?"
"Oh, go on, you're talking like you're the scariest thing I've seen. Now look," Arthur whispers, "don't tell Laurinitis. Or Łukasiewicz. But when you put me under, I get these - strange - dreams, visions."
"What?" Gilbert frowns, not understanding.
"I mean I see things," says Arthur.
"That's not -"
"I know. I lose sight of reality. I've never read of anyone else who this happens to - I thought, maybe it had to do with my gifts but Mircea never mentioned it. And you know, that thesis of his goes into quite a lot of detail."
"We can't do this," says Gilbert. "Y-you don't even want to stop me."
"No, we keep doing this, until I can stop you," Arthur insists. "Or you stop yourself. I don't really care which one it is."
"I'd rather it's you," he replies. "I can't be trusted with a kill switch. You need to be able to bring me down."
"There's a way to do that. I've done it before." Just not to someone he knew. Not to someone he -
- cared for.
There, see? asks Morgan. Now was that really so hard to say?
Gilbert looks sad. "I'm sorry," he says.
"Don't be," says Arthur. Because Gilbert isn't sorry. What has he got to be sorry for? He got what he wanted. What he needed. It was instinct.
A second thought occurs to Arthur. "Suppose ... suppose we tried it again after you've been fed." So far, all the times he's met Gilbert were before Gilbert had eaten. If he's only fed once a day at noon, then scheduling Arthur's sessions immediately before noon puts them at an obvious disadvantage.
"How will it work if I don't need anything? Isn't it supposed to be something I do because I need blood?"
"That's not a question I'm able to answer," says Arthur, "but you can. Do you think you could do it after you've eaten?"
"I don't want to do it any time at all, if I'm not even talking to you because you're high as a kite," says Gilbert sourly.
"I'd need Morgan's help," Arthur adds. "When I'm entranced, I can't hear her." Would you be able to make a constant level of noise while we try it? he asks.
I told you my mouthiness would come in handy one day, says Morgan. The only remaining factor would be you. Are you able to speak up the moment you can't hear me?
Arthur isn't sure. Do you see a better way? he asks.
At the moment... no.
"She'll do it," says Arthur.
"Then I'll do it," says Gilbert. "I'll see if Toris won't mind giving me breakfasts instead of lunch."
"I don't see why you can't have something mid-morning as well."
"What do you think this is, the Red Cross? We don't have that many units on hand!"
"I meant me," says Arthur.
Gilbert's face falls. "You can't be serious."
"Laurinitis seems to have figured out what's in your saliva that stops the blood from clotting." Even better if you didn't use it, adds Morgan, if your efforts on keeping a wound held closed suddenly stop because you slip into one of his trances. He could know when you're no longer with us. And you know he'll keep a careful eye on the wound. "If a baggie of donated material tastes like dirt in your mouth how much more will you want the real thing? It works like we do with food, doesn't it? If you eat too much, you feel sick?"
"I haven't gotten to that point yet," says Gilbert.
Why not? "I thought Laurinitis was told to work on gastrointestinal before he did anything else!"
"That doesn't include stuffing me like a Christmas goose!"
"Breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and elevensies," says Arthur. "That's my recommendation before we take this project any further. We'll tell Laurinitis in the morning. Now go get some sleep." Gilbert pouts. "Don't argue," says Arthur. "You know I've got a point."
"My own experience aside, there's at least a full chapter in Mircea's thesis as to why this is a bad idea," says Gilbert.
For a moment, Arthur says nothing.
What, is he scared of a little codependence? A little bond? Afraid of commitment? "You'd think someone who says he spent his life restrained and is now having problems with control would be up for a little tying down," says Arthur darkly. "Are you backing out of that now?"
Besides, Mircea isn't certain when his own connection formed. If all it takes to form a connection is one bite, then they've damned themselves to it already. If it requires some sort of emotional investment... well, the same could be said.
"It's not that," says Gilbert.
"I just don't see the benefit to anything stronger than a working relationship if it isn't even going to be long-lasting - I mean you don't drop anchor into a puddle! And I've done that before and it's fucking painful so if you think I'll put myself through it again so you and Laurinitis can do your science then you have another thing coming!"
"I - what? Am I dreaming this? Are you thralling me right now?"
Nope, says Morgan.
"Look, mate," growls Arthur, "if that's your thinking, then you've got your signals twisted because you've been sending me the wrong ones for a week now, loud and clear -"
"How old are you? Really?"
Excuse you, thinks Arthur. "You ask everyone that question?"
"No, just the people I could love," he replies simply. And of a sudden it strikes Arthur that Gilbert looks very sad and alone.
It hits Arthur then. A regular life is nothing to Gilbert's. Twenty years from now he'll still look the same, which might've annoyed or enraged the regular folk he had known. Or Gilbert. Or both parties.
That's assuming he lives twenty years. Most vampires don't see five post-mortem. If anything, Arthur should be asking this question.
"I was born in '37," says Arthur. "And I've looked like this since I graduated university and was paired up officially."
Gilbert's eyes narrow. "Are all of you guys like that? Is it the pairing?"
He nods. "Beings like Morgan feel the same as you do. A human lifespan is an eyeblink in hers. But a little longer and she can justify getting some work done. Mircea would be the same, though whoever licences his powers probably doesn't worry about it as much because Mircea's already long-lived through his condition. It's no less Faustian a deal he's made, though." Arthur sighs. "So, look, I know what that feels like, when you're watching your family and friends grow old and die around you. I've two grand-nieces left and I've never met them because they aren't talented like I am, so there's contact laws. Is that what you were on about?"
Gilbert is silent. "Sorry," he says finally. "That was insensitive." He rubs his toe against the floor. "I'm insensitive a lot of the time, actually."
"Yeah, hadn't noticed," says Arthur sarcastically. "Go on. Get some sleep."
But Gilbert pauses. He breathes in once, deeply, and says in a rush, "Can I sleep here with you?"
"Whuh," is what Arthur says first. Then he processes it again. "What?" In addition to insensitive, he is also, apparently, really blunt. "How can you - just - ask that?" Arthur stammers.
Gilbert shrugs. "I don't see the point in being vague. If I want something, I'll ask for it." He seems to realise that the possibility Arthur might say no is on the horizon. "Y-you, uh, you don't have to say yes."
"This is our workplace," says Arthur. "What would Laurinitis and Łukasiewicz think?"
They're both already thinking it, says Morgan drily.
"Actually, it's a hospital room inside a workplace, and people do that in hospital rooms. Don't they?" he argues.
"They're not supposed to. I suppose they do it, if they've no propriety," says Arthur stiffly.
"I'd be gone before morning," he promises.
"Wouldn't matter, there's cameras everywhere."
"Well." Gilbert grins, mirthless. "It was just a dumb idea, anyway." He turns to leave.
"You can stay," Arthur blurts.
Gilbert turns back. As he approaches the bed, smiling, and climbs in, he doesn't say anything teasing about Arthur's protestations. He's smart enough to know not to press his luck. Or he wants it badly enough. Or both.
But they don't do anything, anyway, in the shared space under the blanket as Gilbert (with his awful cold toes and cold fingers and the rest of him not much better) curls up beside him. In fact his sole moment of brattiness is when he lays his head on Arthur's shoulder and whispers with a smirk, "Sweet dreams," as though he isn't the one who's been providing Arthur with them for a week now.
Arthur flicks his nose.
When he wakes, Gilbert is gone, as he'd promised, and him being what he is means there isn't even much of a warm spot left behind.
Laurinitis isn't pleased. Well, when is he ever.
"That's an awful lot of requisition forms for more units of blood," he says. "The NHS is going to think we're up to something. We won't be able to remain as covert as we have been."
"I'll tell the department to liaise with them. Make things a bit easier," says Arthur. "They never ask us too many questions. While we're on the topic, why haven't you been feeding him more?"
"He got two units a day earlier on. It seemed to satiate him. He never asked for any more and showed no disorder in his eating - not until he started starving himself. But I admit we were only giving him two units a day in order to stimulate an erection to test his seminal fluid. Of course, it's not necessary to have an erection to extract seminal fluid but I thought it most dignified given that Gilbert has always been annoyingly masculine about things, probably because of the army -"
"That's a lot more information than I wanted," he interrupts. This line of discussion is making Arthur very awkward. "Did you ask him whether he was hungry?"
"Of course I asked him! What kind of scientist do you think I am? He always shrugged, said 'not really'. It's why his little hunger strike took us by surprise. He kept saying he wasn't in the mood, and we believed him - I thought - he's got no reason to lie, he knows we've enough to keep him fed, and it wasn't until he attacked me that we realised something was wrong."
"I thought Zwingli's experience occurred first," says Arthur.
"But she didn't say anything about it until after I was attacked."
Then it's possible that enthralment isn't possible if one is too satiated. That makes it less likely it's volitional and more likely subconscious or hormone-based. Possible. Arthur won't rule it out until it fails.
"I do have some good news," says Laurinitis. He flips open to his logbook and spins it round to show Arthur. It's three lines of C's and H's with some other letters and numbers interspersed for good measure. Molecules. "One of these three is the compound that's causing enthralment."
"How did you find that out so quickly?"
"I had already run some solid-phase micro extraction and solvent extraction on the organic compounds from his skin last week as potential mosquito attractant - that's how I knew that he could go outside safely without worrying about low-level toxins from bug bites. Desorption and analysis by gas chromatography and mass spectrometry shows what sorts of things the compounds I'm interested in are made of. Working on the assumption it's an ester or steroid - which is a good guess - organic chemistry suggests these are the forms such molecules would have to have. These three are the only ones that are not cross-listed anywhere on known human subjects from publicised research." Laurinitis looks at the page, thinking. "Shouldn't be too hard to synthesise them," he decides.
The jargon mostly eludes Arthur, but the take-home message is clear. "This is incredible," he says.
"Now, this is apocrine secretion, so I would venture to bet it's a possibility that it's an odorant carried by a protein, which binds odorous compounds and liberates them by interaction with something else. The something else -"
"Would be the catalyst for when he tries to thrall someone?"
"It could," supposes Laurinitis. "Or it could be done in the presence of certain cutaneous bacteria. Which - I also found evidence for, on the skin oils samples. At the moment I'm running composition and classification of the contents on those. It's too early to tell. Anyway, I have to get back to work."
"Very well," says Arthur. "I'll go and see him, if you don't mind?"
"Ah," says Laurinitis. "About that. Look."
"We'll both be right there, you can keep an eye on us," says Arthur. "And everything is healed about as good as it gets, anyway, I've no open wounds anymore."
"It's just that," explains Laurinitis, "I found these compounds in his saliva, too."
Arthur coughs. "W-what are you saying? I'm not planning on ingesting it!"
Laurinitis raises an eyebrow. "Nevertheless it's not necessary to ingest it in the way the security cameras show us that you already have." Arthur frowns but Laurinitis speeds onward. "It would be enough to speak face-to-face. To completely eliminate the possibility of contamination, you would need to be on the opposite side of the tank."
"Alright," says Arthur, unhappily. "And after it's inhaled, it goes immediately to the brain, right? Does it do so when -" he grimaces - "when ingested?"
"It can't have, without being activated, because we have all been talking to Beilschmidt for some time now - god knows he doesn't ever shut up - and there are fewer incidents than you would expect."
That's a good point. Arthur's been talking simply to Gilbert for some time now. Could this be the source? "And if it's ingested, it'll do the same thing as being inhaled?"
"Don't know," says Laurinitis. "Ingestion bypasses that centre of the brain. It might hit another one where it's just as effective. It would be hard to extricate one factor from another. But I would expect it does the same thing. A drug can be swallowed or snorted. It might intensify the reaction, or speed it up."
"But it would be different?"
"It might," figures Laurinitis, "instead of mild temporary paralysis, maybe just a slight tingling sensation. At most it'd be a temporary synesthesia."
"Nothing ... more drastic?" asks Arthur. "No hallucinations?"
Laurinitis narrows his eyes. "I don't think so," he says, and the way he says it suggests the unlikelihood of hallucinations during enthralment is high enough that Arthur's question baffles him completely.
Arthur isn't able to have another meeting to work with Gilbert just yet - it's already been too soon, Łukasiewicz has vetoed him until Monday (at that, Łukasiewicz has said that's a kindness and Arthur had to agree, even with such a splendid and speedy recovery, helped along by the transfusions). But he can go and talk to him, at any rate. Laurinitis, at least, seems to have realised that letting Arthur talk to Gilbert helps Gilbert behave better when Arthur isn't around.
He tells Gilbert about what Laurinitis is working on, because Laurinitis is flitting about the labs, too excited to stop or pause and involve Gilbert in any way, and Gilbert is mostly content to be left alone. All the chemistry jargon makes Gilbert's eyes glaze. In all justice Arthur can't say he cares much either. He hopes he didn't deliver the message wrong.
But Gilbert does pick up on the subtler meanings. "I might as well try to control the scent of sweat with my mind. If it's in the presence of bacteria, then I wouldn't be able to exert any control over it, would I," he says.
"Well - you might stand a chance," says Arthur, "but perhaps not."
"And you would be obliged to report that."
"That doesn't mean that I would do so," says Arthur. But it's true that he would be obliged to.
"But if it releases the smelly chemical because there's another protein telling it to, or some enzyme or something, then... maybe it could be controlled?"
"I don't follow."
"Well, maybe it's like insulin, released as the body needs. And if I want to suppress it, I could just take, like, an anti-insulin. Or something that inhibits it, removes the component that causes the molecule's formation. Some kind of vampire deodorant, maybe, so I could suppress the enthralment."
"Are you sure that's what you want to do?"
Gilbert shrugs. "If it means not being forcibly taken into the department, then yes," he says. He grimaces. "Don't get me wrong, I'm sure they want their grubby hands on me whether I can enthrall on command or not, it's just harder to do if I can control it. If I can't control it, then they have an excuse. But I don't see how I could show that it happens on demand if it's entirely chemical. Toris would have to demonstrate that the release of an enzyme is tagged with something else. Maybe something I do. At most - they could pair it with a hormone spike, the way eating something sweet triggers insulin, the way diabetics manage their own blood sugars."
Which might be tied into his digestive system because isn't that why certain people smell like off milk, because they eat a lot of dairy?
"It would honestly just be easier to show that you could switch the behaviour on and off," adds Arthur.
Gilbert is quiet for a moment. "Arthur," he says softly, "answer me honestly, would you?"
"I've never been dishonest with you," says Arthur.
"Has anybody been able to control enthralment before?"
"We've studied all of one vampire," Arthur says, "and by studied I mean it sure as hell wasn't in an institution like this."
"Hm," says Gilbert. "That wasn't the question I asked."
Arthur is quiet. "Just because Alice couldn't do it doesn't mean you can't," he says at last.
"But it doesn't mean it's possible, either," says Gilbert. And it doesn't bode well.
When Arthur returns to work there is a woman in a dark pantsuit waiting for him at his desk. He can't see her face. He tries to look up but never can, he remembers there's more important things to look at on the ground, or perhaps he forgets why he wanted to look up, or perhaps it's simply more comfortable for his neck. He doesn't question any of this until much, much later.
"There you are, god, you reek," says Mircea's voice behind him, "you never showed yester- ah ..." he trails off.
"Dr Popescu," says the woman.
"Another time," says Mircea to the ground, and walks off hastily.
"Mister Kirkland," adds the woman, "would you come with me please."
Arthur follows her feet - red patent leather stiletto heels, shiny and sharp - through the labyrinth of the cubicle farm that is their office at the department until she pauses at a conference room. "In here, please," she says, holding the door open. She closes the door behind him, leaving him alone.
The conference room is small, perhaps twice the size of his cubicle, with no windows. There is a presentation screen on one wall but Arthur can't see a projector on the ceiling or the desk or in fact anywhere. A single chair waits for him at the desk. He sits, not because it's what he wants to do, or that he was explicitly invited, but because he knows it's what's expected of him. How he knows, he can't say.
The screen goes dark, and then a man appears. It's one of us. His face feels familiar, although Arthur can't place it. Maybe it's the fellow who interviewed him? That was so long ago.
In actual fact, he isn't a particular agent of ours. Arthur's own mind is constructing the image of a person on the screen because we're provoking it to. It's the healthiest way to have these conversations. This is someone Arthur respects, but fears, concocted out of the aggregate information in his own memories of similar figures - politicians he's seen, schoolteachers he's had, his own father - and patched together.
Good morning, Arthur. You're wondering why we've called you in.
"Ah, well, a little, yes," says Arthur modestly, growing more anxious.
Not a little. It is. This is a courtesy message that you're to continue on the project. Looking forward, we estimate that you won't have to sign anything else. If Dr Łukasiewicz attempts to make you, you are to refuse. If he gives you attitude about your refusal, you know what you have to do. Simply file the report you need to, and hand him over, and we'll do the rest.
"That would hand over Gilbert, too," says Arthur.
Naturally. His contract will have to be absorbed and transferred to us if we need to speak with Dr Łukasiewicz due to his interference. It's just the way it works. We don't make the rules.
"Would I still be able to work with Gilbert?"
We will do the best we can. We see no reason to separate the two of you. You appear to be progressing extremely well in your ... teamwork.
(We say this without emotion, but the pacing of our toneless words colours them a distinctive mood. Arthur is left unsure whether we approve or disapprove.)
"Right," says Arthur. He worries his lower lip with his teeth, fighting a blush. "So ... so you're not upset with me?" he asks meekly.
Why would we be?
"Because I screwed up," he says. "I let him nearly drain me. I wasn't careful enough, I- I wasn't careful at all!"
It's your life, we explain patiently. If you had died it would have been your own choices, your own free will.
Arthur concedes the point. "You would have lost an employee," he supposes.
You're not an employee, you're a consultant. And there are always more of those.
"Well, thanks," Arthur replies acidly. "Look - if ... if that's all you wanted to say - you could have put this in Gilbert's file. Couldn't you? Was all the cloak and dagger really necessary?"
But then we would have had to put it in writing, we reply.
"Right," says Arthur once again. "Am I free to leave?"
The door clicks opens behind him. As he approaches the threshold we have one final parting sentiment for him, and he hears from the blank screen: Are you certain that what you did was 'screwing up'?
Arthur doesn't deign to answer us, but it was mostly rhetorical anyway. We're not offended. We can't take something personally if we're not a person.
He returns to his desk, having already forgotten the man on the screen and the sound of his voice. Mircea is there waiting for him. Mircea's former mood has completely evaporated, and he is quiet. He can smell Arthur - he must be able to, because his face pinches and his nostrils flare and he bristles - but he doesn't say anything about it yet. "Let's go grab a coffee," he says gently.
"Alright," says Arthur, even though this has never happened before in all his decades of working here.
They wind up at the busy Nando's by the Thames, instead of the two cafes that are nearest the MI:5 headquarters where their work is based. "It's quieter here!" yells Mircea.
"What?" shouts Arthur. "I can't hear you over this noise!"
Mircea rolls his eyes and waves his hand. A hush falls over them with a radius of about two metres. "I have my suspicions about the coffeeshops," he says. "Nando's, though. They wouldn't bother eavesdropping in a Nando's, would they?"
(Certainly we would.)
"Anyway. Arthur - what happened?" Mircea looks worried. "You haven't called in sick in years and then you show up at work in rumpled clothes with every last inch of you stinking of thrall? You know, every time I think you can't possibly smell any stronger of him, you prove me wrong."
"They didn't tell you?"
"They don't tell me anything I don't need to know, and I assume I didn't need to know."
Arthur heaves a sigh and launches into the explanation, from his experience on the table being fed upon while locked in a hallucination to waking up in a hospital bed, Zwingli's security video, Gilbert's ashen face, Laurinitis' discovery, Łukasiewicz's ire. He tries to leave out the really racy bits - not like clever Mircea can't guess at their omission - but even so, it sounds tawdrier than he'd like.
By the end of it Mircea has his arms folded across his chest. "I told you you should be feeding him on a regular basis," he says. "If you had, this wouldn't've happened."
"That would've made it personal between us," says Arthur.
"Which is exactly what you wanted. No - don't lie."
"I wasn't sure if it was what he wanted," says Arthur. He still isn't certain. After all, he's never gotten a clear answer one way or another. Arthur is Gilbert's only human contact who isn't Laurinitis and his life is miserable. It doesn't mean Gilbert likes him for any other reason than distraction. Even Arthur has to admit, sex would make a great distraction.
And he's never addressed the sneaking suspicion he has that Gilbert is merely using him as leverage. He's got something on Łukasiewicz, or Łukasiewicz has something on him - or both - and in order to have another piece to play against Łukasiewicz, he needs Arthur. Łukasiewicz isn't dumb, he's figured this out, why else would he get so upset that Arthur and Gilbert get all cosy together? Similarly, pitting Mircea against Laurinitis leaves Gilbert loose enough to slip free of the web while others are too busy bickering amongst themselves.
Using Arthur would make perfect sense.
Mircea doesn't seem convinced. But he concedes, saying, "Well, I don't know him like you do."
Arthur's heart sinks. "I don't know him at all," he sighs helplessly. "And you - so you don't know anything about -"
"I never had hallucinations," says Mircea. "I've never even heard of something like that. If it wasn't happening so regularly, I'd say it's just a weird fluke."
"Yeah," says Arthur. "But it can't be." He notices the time. "Well, had we better head back?"
"For an hour's work?"
It's only an hour for Mircea, who must have something to do tonight. Arthur of course has nothing but sitting at home thinking about Gilbert and so probably won't head home until 8:30, 9pm after a good while working on other files to distract himself from his pathetic, lonely life. He also ought to make up for the half-day he lost yesterday after Gilbert drained him.
"There is something else I wanted to discuss," Mircea adds, and his fingers twitch. The radius of hearing around them solidifies. This is a more secure version. Arthur frowns. "I found the loophole," says Mircea.
Arthur's eyes widen.
"There's two conditions. The first, he needs another job offer. And," Mircea adds, "the department is already preparing a contract. It has to have more money, or better benefits, or both." And Mircea naturally has access to the contract that Gilbert signed with Łukasiewicz, so it's an easy job to compare. "Then he can apply for special dispensation under Sooth-Brown, Section 12 to break his contract with Łukasiewicz between terms instead of waiting for the end of the term."
"But he is permitted to break it at the end of the term?"
"Of course," says Mircea, "it's just like us. We get renewed but it's conditional on our acceptance too. What's more, this would be pretty easy to do, because the contract doesn't specify anything for post-dead status, which means the benefits it includes don't factor in a post-dead status. We could give him a contract with the same salary, same vacation time, same healthcare, and his choice of vein at his leisure, and our offer would immediately outweigh Łukasiewicz's offer."
Arthur isn't sure how he feels about Gilbert feeding off of anybody who isn't him. But he sets aside for the moment his inane jealousy, which makes no rational sense. "What's the other condition?" he asks.
"In regards to his case, VHI applied for and was granted special privileges under scientific advisory statements to the Ben Nevis Pact, which means that they cannot be legally required to surrender Gilbert to the ministry - unless Gilbert does something illegal and/or dangerous and is tried and found guilty, or requires secure containment under Korus, then we could cart him away - or if the VHI obtains a new specimen as his replacement, which they can't keep secret, they are obliged to report that under the Fourth Amendment, section 1, subsection 3 to the Occult Act. Violation of that would immediately result in the VHI's occult licence's removal."
"Łukasiewicz would be fired," muses Arthur.
"No, he'd be jailed, declarations are mandatory! So a memo came into the file yesterday, says they've been making preparations for a new specimen, though it didn't say anything else. I assume I'm not working on that," Mircea says. "I think I'd feel better knowing less about it."
'Preparations for a new specimen'. Sounds ominous. How exactly are they planning that? Did someone volunteer? Under duress? "My thoughts exactly," says Arthur. "Who's the one doing the preparing?" Even though he knows who the likely culprit is.
"That's the thing," says Mircea. "The way the memo was written was clear, the department isn't the one doing the preparation, it's the VHI, but who at the VHI, they didn't say. There's no signature, which is suspect."
"They already have Gilbert!" says Arthur. "How could -" He thinks. "You said they already did all the science they possibly could on someone who had turned but hadn't yet died, before Gilbert's death."
"Exactly," says Mircea. "So simply infecting someone with blood in order to turn them gives them nothing new."
Arthur comes upon the conclusion readily, but the shock leaves him reeling and he speaks slowly and foggily. "You're not seriously... you can't be saying... Laurinitis is planning a murder of someone who's turned?"
"He might not see it as really murder if they come back hours later. Besides, I think he'd do anything for science," says Mircea darkly.
"That's a bit far!" says Arthur. "Look, he's not - he's not that bad. I know he doesn't exactly have a lot of social graces but let's be honest, neither do I -"
"But he wasn't happy about having to give up the project about what happened at the moment of Gilbert's death, was he? You even said so yourself."
"No, this is ludicrous. Laurinitis is weirdly devoted to science, certainly -"
"To the point that he doesn't exactly hold a firm grasp on the ethics of these things," adds Mircea. "That form should have had a signature. Shouldn't be surprised if someone was paid to look the other way about it. Look, I get it - I financed my PhD thesis in my own blood - if it weren't for the fact that he's not the vampire and it sets a nasty pattern for my future, I wouldn't judge Laurinitis at all. Take it from me, that's classic Eastern Europe."
Well, you said it, not me, thinks Arthur, as the Romanian throws the Lithuanian under the bus. But even though Arthur might have agreed at one point - in the hateful xenophobia that clings to him like ivy on a rural thatched cottage, entrenched deep into the foundations and not as innocently quaint as one would like - it still seems completely insane. Thus does Arthur find himself leaping to the defence of the character of a man he hardly likes. "I just don't think he would do this," he says, adamant.
"You don't know him at all. You don't even know Gilbert, and you're in love with him."
"I'm not in love with him!" says Arthur, his heart pounding, his cheeks warm. His mind grapples frantically for a return to the previous topic. "Is this what the department thinks? That Laurinitis is a lunatic, running illegal experiments in his laboratory?"
"I don't know," says Mircea coolly, "are you going to go run and tell him that?"
"I -" Arthur splutters.
"Wherever your allegiance lies," he continues, "you were hired by the department. Laurinitis has been performing some unethical experiments since I met him, which I say as a scientist -"
"Social scientist," argues Arthur. "It might be different for him?"
"Doesn't change the rights of the experimentee! And I can tell when those are violated, and if it becomes normal to treat people like Gilbert for the purposes of science then that's not a world I can live in, do you understand me? Moreover, as far as I can tell, Łukasiewicz lets him do whatever he wants -"
"If Laurinitis faces malpractice, Łukasiewicz would be responsible as director. He'd lose his job, certainly. I know Łukasiewicz the least well, because I don't care for him and the feeling's mutual but know ye this - he wouldn't give up that job. If he thinks Laurinitis is doing something illicit, he'd put a stop to it."
"If he knew," says Mircea.
"That Łukasiewicz is a micro-manager if I've ever met one," says Arthur. "He makes Laurinitis meet with him daily. He's got his hands deep into this case with Gilbert making sure we don't overstep our bounds. You think he'd miss it if Laurinitis overstepped his?"
Mircea considers it. "Good point," he says.
"Look," says Arthur, "I know you don't like him -"
Mircea snorts. "I really don't," he says.
"- but Gilbert has strength and reflexes on his side, and I've even seen him use them against Laurinitis. Gilbert's fast and strong, and if he wanted, well, there's nothing Laurinitis could do to defend himself. I might not trust Laurinitis, or Łukasiewicz, but I trust if Gilbert doesn't like what's happening, that he'll do something about it."
Mircea sits back in his seat in the booth and watches Arthur carefully for a slow moment. Something seems to have occurred to him and Arthur waits as Mircea works it through. "How do you know he isn't doing that already?" he asks at last. "Not with his strength or reflexes, but with you?"
"That's exactly what I'm afraid of," says Arthur, as one long, heavy, exhale of a sigh. His shoulders sink, and his spirits fall. But it's almost a relief to admit this at last: that he doesn't trust Gilbert. And yet his heart is torn, it feels like betrayal to admit it, because how can he feel this pull so strongly to this man, how can it be anything other than love, and how can he have that without trust? This isn't how it's supposed to work!
"Oh, Arthur," says Mircea, deeply concerned.
"I don't know what to do," Arthur whispers.
Mircea thinks, tapping his index finger on his lips. "Based on my research," he says finally, "if he did anything so fancy as trying to manipulate you, he would only be hoodwinking himself."
"How do you mean?"
"The way connections between donor and vampire form seems to pull the donor in, no matter how tepid their feelings are, but once formed - even during the process - I've never heard of a single one where the vampire doesn't end up harbouring feelings. Strong ones, too. Twenty cases that I know of that were studied, and they all wound up with the vampire head over heels. These people would put their lives down for the donor."
"Sure, because the donor's a food source," retorts Arthur.
"No, it's more than that," he replies. "It's still not that well understood. But it's the only reason I still believe. It's some form of justice, some karmic higher power, that a being so violent who can ensnare others the way vampires do, can be controlled so easily by someone they can't live without. If this is what he's trying to do to you - manipulate you, use you - then he's putting his life literally in your hands. And I've worked with you, so I've seen the damage those hands can wreak. If this is what he's doing, it's the dumbest thing in the world, and you don't have to be an expert like me to know it."
"He's read enough research about his condition," says Arthur.
"Then there's no way he wouldn't have put this together," says Mircea.
But that's not really an answer. Just because it's imprudent doesn't mean Gilbert wouldn't still do it. Didn't he himself tell Arthur all about the impulsive, stupid things he'd done, simply because he wanted to?
Arthur returns to work alone - Mircea takes off for the tube - and works by himself as one by one the other occupants of the cubicles on the floor filter out for home. By the time he looks up again it's 10 pm and his stomach is growling. It has been awhile since that peri-peri chicken sandwich.
Do you notice how Arthur barely describes the other parts of his day that are not-Gilbert? He knows that there's nothing that would interest you that happens in the hours of his day that aren't Gilbert. Perhaps he even believes these hours simply don't exist, that the flow of time is discontinuous once he leaves the VHI until he returns the next morning. It isn't, but all Arthur ever seems to do besides his job and his boring life is to let his mind wander and when it wanders too far into thinking about Gilbert he hits himself for being so pathetic, so we're not sorry that he isn't describing these parts to you because you're really not missing much.
Sometimes, it's almost like he isn't awake in the times he isn't with Gilbert. Maybe he isn't even alive.
Arthur heads home, where he microwaves a ready-made rogan josh and rice, which tastes like dirt in his mouth, and thinks about doing impulsive, stupid things for the sole reason that he wants to. He does this for about an hour before Morgan reminds him that he should try and get some sleep. It's good advice. So he lays down in his bed and stares at the ceiling.
He gives in at quarter to two, after he's been tossing and turning with no luck at getting to sleep. He's even tried, for god's sakes, his eyes shut tight, the covers are warm and his pillow is comfortable. There's no reason he shouldn't be drifting off.
He knows a spell for this. It's quick, efficient, practical.
Instead, he does something else, an impulsive, stupid thing, because he wants to, and night has made him daring, and slips his hand beneath the waistband of his pants.
He's hard within seconds, like his body has been waiting for this chance, waiting for him to acknowledge it, this simmering energy lurking beneath his skin, this fire Gilbert's been quietly stoking for days now.
Gilbert. Ah, Gilbert - the reason he's doing any of this, the reason his world has been turned upside down, the reason the past few days he's felt like a member of the human species again. Effortlessly Arthur draws up in his mind the way he smells, the way he looks - the way Arthur's mind made him taste when he dreamt they kissed - and Arthur's prick throbs harder in his hand. It likes this line of thought, dangerous as it is, and it feels so newly thrilling to do something so stupid so Arthur plunges forward headlong into his own destruction, heedless and carefree, to think of Gilbert. And why shouldn't he indulge, when everything hinges on Gilbert, when Gilbert has - unconsciously or not - given him so very much to think about?
His heart will not thank him for this. This is how you get it broken.
He casts his mind out for a fantasy, and what bites is Gilbert's mouth at Arthur's neck, following up what Laurinitis interrupted, Gilbert glued to Arthur's side as they sit together in the tank, the whatever-it-was they were watching off Arthur's phone wholly forgotten. Gilbert's fangs extend and hover uncertainly over Arthur's skin, glistening, waiting until Arthur nods before they pierce him decisively, and penetrate deeper as Gilbert bites down until he's seated to the tips of his front teeth. Arthur is shallow-breathed and panting, his head tilted back, Gilbert's hand around the back of his neck simultaneously to support it and thrust it forward that he might more easily drink. Gilbert's fingertips are gentle, caressing, but Arthur's fantasy is carefully grounded in a little reality and the middle finger at Arthur's nape, where his hair begins, feels calloused from years of handling weapons. Arthur doesn't bother lying or pretending anymore: the danger turns him on.
Gilbert's lips remain at his neck, sealed over the wound which Arthur is certain must be gaping, would be difficult even for him to heal from, but it doesn't matter, this is just a silly fantasy, and the rules are different here -
- when it changes, subtly. The scene warms, shimmers at the edges as it settles. This is most of the reason Arthur can't sleep tonight, because his mind is so active it's running away on him. In this new image, Gilbert's red mouth - Arthur's eyes are magnetised to it - is above him as he pushes Arthur to a bed below. Arthur can practically feel Gilbert's grip on his shoulders, pinning him to his own mattress. How this could have come to pass, Arthur doesn't know. Maybe he invited Gilbert over for dinner. Maybe it was a romantic date. Arthur's heart pounds. Gilbert's nude, somehow - Arthur won't question it - and he straddles Arthur's hips as though he'll -
Gilbert sinks himself down onto Arthur's prick to fuck himself with a low moan.
"You weren't fast enough," Gilbert teases, with a flirty smirk.
"Fuck," Arthur dreams himself replying, "you might have warned me!" It nearly burns. Gilbert lifts his hips and brings them down again and Arthur finds himself awestruck at the beauty of the expression of rapture on Gilbert's face. "You're a bloody glutton for punishment," Arthur gasps. "I could've given you more slick -"
"This is what I wanted, this - this is all I want," vows Gilbert, lifting himself up and pushing down, setting a mad frantic pace, riding Arthur like there's a hurry. The intimacy of the former scene gives way to an erotic bloodrush. Being this deep inside Gilbert feels like a magic Arthur doesn't recognise.
"Please," begs Arthur, because it's so much, how tight he is, how hot he is, how uncontrollable he is, Arthur can do nothing but let him take what he will and allow him to do what he wants. "Please, Gilbert -"
Gilbert above him is lost in his own pleasure. "Fuck," he chants softly, moaning, "fuck, ha-ah, oh - that's good - like that," he says, undulating his hips, twisting as he fucks himself on Arthur's cock. Arthur gives up the control willingly. Gilbert seems to find something he likes because his grip on Arthur's hand grows tighter and his breath grows shallow. "Yeah, that - ngh," and his eyes clench shut and he tightens further around Arthur as he comes -
Arthur lets slip a quiet moan, just the one, before he spills into his fist, thinking of the image his mind conjures up of Gilbert's face at the moment of orgasm, his body arched and his thighs spread. His pretty mouth in a cry, unselfconsciously displaying his long fangs, dripping with Arthur's blood. Arthur licks his own lips thinking of them.
What the hell was that?! Morgan shrieks.
Oh, come on! he says. You've never interrupted me before. I thought we had a nice deal, you and I: you don't watch me when I'm getting off, and I pretend you can't see me doing these embarrassing human things.
That's not what I meant! says Morgan. You slipped from me, just now!
I can't have, says Arthur, the clothes I was wearing are in the hamper - behind my wardrobe door, no less - and I took a nice long shower with plenty of soap, after all Mircea's needling. I can't even smell them.
He has to be here somewhere!
He can't be here, says Arthur. He's not allowed to leave VHI premises. And anyway, he'd make a crap burglar, we could hear him earlier today skulking around the VHI. It was just me fantasising, he mutters. Nothing more.
No - you're right, I can't feel anybody else here. Morgan checks backstage. Nobody's watching, she says. I can't see anybody with his abilities around for at least twenty klicks. I don't understand! I couldn't access you. It felt like a thrall. I've had enough of those recently to know the difference.
Then if it's not just the chemistry ... because it can't be, because there's at least one component that is independent of even having Gilbert physically there ...
It's magical, thinks Arthur. I don't understand how, but enthralment must be some sort of magic process.
And if that's so, then Arthur can control it. It's just a matter of practice.
Sad, lonely masturbation has never felt so victorious.