"It takes more than a month to grow the structure in the brain," reveals Gilbert, after Laurinitis and Arthur have moved inside the tank. "I don't remember when the pain stopped," he adds. "This was all... so long ago now. It was headaches and dizziness, and back then I thought it was because the guy who turned me was draining blood from me all the time. All I know is that if that structure is preserved, given time to grow, then you wake up after you die, because that's what provides your brain with blood while your body reorganises itself, after death. So you'll want to be giving yourself a lot of MRIs over the next few weeks, to see how that structure behaves and interacts."
"I knew it," says Laurinitis. His eyes are shining with promise.
"Yeah, well, you don't want to know how I know it," says Gilbert. "Feliks is right. He's right about everything. A-and, he could have told you a lot more, you know. I don't know why he didn't."
"I could conjecture," says Laurinitis.
"So that he's always got something left to hang over me, I'll bet," Gilbert says bitterly.
But Laurinitis is shaking his head. "In his own way, he doesn't disapprove. I don't know if he's exactly forgiven you, because I don't think he'll ever tell you this himself, because he doesn't trust easily and not at all once it's broken. I'm sure I'll be hearing about today for years to come. But there's no heat in the coals for the bellows anymore. I told him to move on years ago, and not only because there's a much more interesting and lucrative research goal to pursue. I never thought he'd listen to me." Laurinitis shrugs. "He can be stubborn, and though I didn't think it was good for him, to carry that much contempt, it's still his choice to decide when it's time to move on. I'm glad for him, that he decided it too."
Gilbert deflates. "Well, I wish he would've let me know," he says. "You can take all the MRIs you need to on me."
"It's been a week since you woke up," Laurinitis argues, "whatever changes there were, were made."
"Something different might have happened recently," Arthur says.
"Right," Gilbert adds. "Something Feliks doesn't disapprove of, I guess. Something we should thank you for." Arthur feels his cheeks warm.
"I'm not following," says Laurinitis. Arthur kills the cameras, binds a radius of silence to the tank, and then explains. At the end of it, Laurinitis is looking between them both, with a critical eye. "But that can't have produced any physiological changes," he says. "Can it?"
"I can enthrall you like I'm flexing a muscle," says Gilbert, "control I shouldn't have. You tell me."
"Just... don't go too far," says Arthur. "Don't seek out a way to replicate this. If you find it, you'd want to publish it."
"You won't have a choice," says Laurinitis. "This needs to be written up. In a case study, and we'll need to move fast, and everything will have to be perfect."
They speak at the same time. "Toris, no," says Gilbert firmly, "you can't do that," as Arthur says, "If you publish it then it's known about!"
"This is different," insists Laurinitis.
"How is this any different from that time you enthralled yourself?" asks Gilbert.
"Because a case study," says Laurinitis, flushing with embarrassment, "sets a precedent. That declares Gilbert as Knowledgeable in the Art."
"You wanna use the Sooth-Brown Agreement?"
"We'll have to, to establish you as more than just a subject! Because you're non-human, we need other sentience workarounds for legality. If we do that, then anybody who wants to try to replicate the results has to go through a lot more legal loopholes."
"They'd have to go through a third-party ethics board," realises Gilbert.
"They already know about this, I'm sure they have diviners. And if you told what happened to Dr Popescu last night -"
"- Who said it was an exercise in double-think," clarifies Arthur, "that he had to wipe his own memory."
"He's still an employee of the department," Laurinitis points out. "Is he a consultant like you?"
"Of c -" Come to think of it, Arthur actually doesn't know. "He may not be," he realises. Mircea's double-think was to ward against information retrieval. They shouldn't be able to file for information retrieval in the memory of a simple consultant. That's something you only do with someone who's engaged much longer term.
"Then it won't be long before they know about it. I'm sure they already do."
(We do. We know all about it. We know as much about it as we could possibly find out. We've had to study it, we've been through the paper that they will come to write together - over and over, upside down, backwards, frontwards - every which way - trying desperately to find the loopholes that would let us begin work, trying to create more pairs like Kirkland and Beilschmidt before another country's department or institute gets there first. To isolate what it is that causes that resonance, what it is that boosts the latent ability of the talented member, and assures the control of the vampiric member. To frantically peel apart what makes this union so worthwhile. But Dr Popescu has unfortunately covered all of their tracks and used our laws against us.
We were so very upset when we learnt of this. You've no idea, dear reader! How much a benefit it would be to us to have teams like Arthur and Gilbert on staff. How lucrative! How much easier it would be than to have to outsource our labour to them and hire them out all the time, filing requests for proposals, because they're an independent agency! Having to submit to their desires in contracts because they possess a monopoly on this particular skill-set, which nobody has been able to replicate because we constantly have to check it for ethics and it consistently fails. It would be so much easier to take turned individuals and pair them up! They'd have all the blood they need! What more does a leech want for, anyway? It's not like they're human.
Blast that Dr Popescu for saying what he did, for encouraging Arthur to go the way he did. How dare Arthur have managed to make a friend. We're angry, and we're stymied.
This is why we don't hire doctors anymore. They're a little too clever. People too clever don't submit.)
"Mircea said he was convinced it was nothing more than a crazy happenstance," says Arthur.
"More the reason to write up a case study about it. That way it's clear it's not meant to set a precedent for replicability. This will be a revolutionary paper regardless," says Laurinitis.
"Mircea will have to be there," warns Arthur.
Laurinitis frowns. "Must he really," he says unhappily.
"I insist," replies Arthur. "Part of the way we'll prove knowledgeability in the art, which will apply to you - and him - post-death. He'll want to know about it. There's more, however. It could set a badly-needed precedent for post-death care and infrastructure."
"That's true," says Laurinitis. "Can you show me how it works?"
Gilbert smirks. "You haven't had enough of it yet?"
"Not on me!" says Laurinitis. "On him! The one it produces visions on! And, Mr Kirkland, I'm going to need a similar demonstration."
Arthur shows him. Laurinitis' mug of coffee - gone cold, which he'd begun to drink around 8 am and then abandoned to talk to Arthur and then Łukasiewicz in turn. A skin has formed on the top. With a wave of his hand and little concentration, Arthur pulls the milk compound aside, to reveal the liquid underneath. And then, with a little more concentration, pulling from Gilbert, he draws the milk from the coffee. In thirty seconds, the mug shows two heterogeneous liquids - impossible to do without a great amount of energy. Arthur isn't even breaking a sweat.
"This is so useful," remarks Laurinitis. "And you say you shouldn't have these abilities? The talent isn't my research specialty, though, of course I took a few modules in university."
"No one has been able to demonstrate quite this resolution," says Arthur. "And I think this is about as far fine-grained as I can get. I don't want to try splitting atoms. If I were simply to heat it up, that's one thing, you can do that with a generic spell that acts on the whole. But this requires careful access and manipulation at the molecular level, on many agents at a single time." Arthur lets his hold go, and the milk and coffee swirl forward into each other again, recreating equilibrium. Laurinitis watches this all, spell-bound. "I don't know of anybody who's been able to do this," says Arthur.
"There's so much to do, so much to test for," Laurinitis says, in an awed hush. "Between this and the MRIs on the structure that's growing -"
"At least twenty years before you can off yourself," reminds Arthur sternly. Mircea's brother had between the years of 8 and 21 to grow it. "Be sure that structure has finished growing before you do anything you can't undo. So that project's going to have to be stalled."
"Between you two, I have more than enough to work on in the meantime. Now, Gilbert, if you wouldn't mind?"
This time Arthur is ready for it, the feathery softness at the edge of reality as Gilbert sinks him into the trance. He's getting better at this. Less of a shock. It feels more like Gilbert is supporting him as he slowly sinks him underwater. Arthur feels the care and the emotion in it. He doesn't just love you because he has to, says Morgan, as she slips away. I know, says Arthur. Focus, both of you, says Gilbert, and Arthur can hear him clearly like it's without Morgan's direct intervention, but his words are tinged with amusement ...
- ----- ---- -- -- -
Arthur wakes up. His eyes open to the ceiling, he's in bed, nude. It's not his bed, not his apartment. That alone is a surprise, he's lived in that flat in that tenement house for decades. But now he's moved. The quilt, on top of the duvet, is familiar. That's his quilt, on someone else's bed - a large bed, a bed for two.
He realises he can hear the sound of something sizzling, then the rushing of water as the tap is turned on, then off again. Someone's in the kitchen. Someone's making food, and it smells fantastic.
I never used to wake so late, he thinks. He realises: we have to keep the blinds closed now, everything's dark until someone hits the light switch, because the someone else who lives here, the someone else who shares this bed, can't tolerate long periods of sunlight. Arthur's heart starts to beat faster. He should get out of bed, though the lethargy persists and he does it in gradual steps, pulling himself to sitting, stretching his muscles slowly, then finally swinging his legs over the side of the bed to find some trousers and pad out of the bedroom.
Gilbert is standing over the stove. It's a gas range, and he's cooking with a loose t-shirt on, but no trousers himself, just in his pants, skintight and black and really leaving nothing hidden. It's a pleasant view. "Hey," he says. "There's coffee, if you want some."
"You're a blessing," Arthur finds himself saying. Gilbert grins privately to himself, ducking his head as he shifts what he's cooking around with a spatula. Mushrooms in butter with something green, maybe parsley. It smells divine. There's something already plated, covered in aluminium foil. Arthur peeks underneath as he passes to the coffeepot - a single poached egg, waiting on a thick slice of toast, beside a cubed apple and two thick slices of sharp cheddar. He licks his lips, he hasn't eaten like this since he left home. Mum was the last person who fed him this well. That was over fifty years ago. A blessing isn't half of what Gilbert is, really. Gilbert, who can actually cook.
The coffeepot isn't full. "Did you make a half pot?"
"No, I had a cup," Gilbert admits. "Without cream, obviously."
"Shouldn't do that without me up," says Arthur. He pours himself a mug and dresses it how he likes. "Just in case something goes wrong."
"Aw, I was fine," Gilbert replies.
"How's the taste?"
"Well, not like it was," he admits. "But I never liked it much. I don't miss the taste. And I only need a few sips now to really kick me awake."
Right. Greater heart strength, pumping a lesser amount of blood volume harder throughout the same body. Everything works faster on him. Alcohol they'd tried a few nights ago, and Gilbert was well past tipsy within minutes, a buzz that wore off twice as fast. "And you don't miss any of this?"
Gilbert shrugs. He takes the frying pan from the stove and cuts the flame, then tips it to spill the mushrooms on top of the egg. He adds cracked black pepper and a sprinkle of something else, maybe more parsley. He's not only good at cooking, he has a flair for it. Then he presents the plate to Arthur, and sits down across from him at the table. "I don't know," he says. "I can still smell everything just fine. But I don't feel hungry smelling it. If I did, maybe that'd change things." He tilts his head, cracking his neck. There's a lurid purple love-bite the size of a pound sterling on the side of his neck by the collar of his shirt. Arthur must have left that there yesterday, Gilbert heals too quickly otherwise. That explains his lethargy waking up.
Arthur looks down at his own wrists. Not bandaged. The wounds have closed up, which means they must've gone in to see Feliks and Toris yesterday morning, which means today is the day Arthur feeds him. That would explain the lovely breakfast he wakes up to. He grins, anticipating, and tucks in.
After he finishes eating, there's a pile of occult journals still waiting for their attention, and they take one each to pore over. This is what the work day looks like now, Arthur realises. How long have they done this? It feels natural. He glances at the dates on the journals: four months from now.
Arthur comes across something in the Journal of Occult Medicine. "Might've found something useful for the Chiswick couple," he finds himself saying.
Gilbert leaves his seat to Arthur's side of the table, and bends low, reading over his shoulder where Arthur points to the passage. "That's perfect," he says. "Then her uncle would've had a much harder time of it. Exoneration, or maybe just fancy insurance fraud."
"That'll be the job of the lawyers to figure out," Arthur reasons. Gilbert leans down and kisses his temple, then his cheek. Then his neck. Then his lips. Arthur leans back and pulls his chair out to allow room for it, and one kiss quickly leads to more. "I should brush my teeth," Arthur says, between kisses.
"You taste like egg and mushroom, it's fine," Gilbert murmurs.
"I don't really," he laughs.
"Well, no," is the sarcastic reply, "you taste like mouth, but how is that romantic."
Arthur is laughing as they kiss. "You're a prat," he says.
"You love me," says Gilbert, and he hoists Arthur up out of his chair and onto the kitchen counter with that fantastic strength of his. Arthur spreads his legs and Gilbert steps between them, and they resume their kissing with more passion. Gilbert's fangs, sharp and ever present, accidentally swipe past the tip of Arthur's tongue and his mouth floods sudden with the sharp taste of blood. Gilbert moans as he presses himself closer, sucking what he can out of him. Arthur swings his arms around to pull him in by the shoulders.
"You know, we've nowhere to be today," pants Arthur, between breathless kisses. Gilbert kisses the corner of his mouth, his cheek, his chin, his jaw. "If you're thirsty," he adds. He leans back, shifting his groin forward to press against Gilbert's flat belly, needy for contact, and cranes his neck upwards to give Gilbert plenty of room, as Gilbert exhales a hot breath that curls against his collarbone.
The doorbell rings. They freeze.
"You're joking," groans Gilbert.
"You expecting someone?" Arthur asks.
The doorbell rings again. "Shit," Arthur realises, "that could be a case."
"Do we have to?" Gilbert whines.
"We should, better to have other clients beside the ministry."
Gilbert grimaces. "Fine, well, you take it."
"You take it!" Arthur says.
"I'm indecent," he argues. "You have jeans on."
"And in them is the hard-on that ate London!"
Gilbert is about to reply but the bell rings a third time. "Fuck, fine," he grumbles, and then yells out, "One second, just one second!" He tears off for the bedroom to find his trousers, wherever he left them last night. Arthur slips off the counter and tries to calm himself down.
Once Arthur returns from the bedroom, having put on a shirt and made himself a little more presentable, he finds a young girl, dressed all in white, in their sitting room. She looks dead. She was probably quite pretty in life - she still is. From the shadows her hair was light-coloured, wavy and thick, cut jaw-length.
"This is Margot," says Gilbert. "From Belgium. She says she's a - what was it?"
"Witte wief," she replies. Her voice is tinny and gravelly, like most ghosts'. "It's like a kind of ghost. I don't have a lot of abilities except for fog and rain and some serious wind." She explains that her passing was last year, and now that her brother has finally shown some talent, local laws allow that she can visit him. "But now I can't leave my job in the town hall until they have someone to take my place, because of the windmill they put in. They say you're powerful, though - so I thought, perhaps? I could pay, and handsomely! It wouldn't be for very long, maybe two weeks, just long enough to visit."
They agree to look into her case more seriously and promise to return her call tomorrow. She leaves them a number where her lawyer can be reached and hurries back to the station, to make the train back to Brussels and get back to her post.
Gilbert doesn't like it. "Didn't they make you study Greek myths? This has Atlas and Heracles all over it."
"Well, that's why you'll be accompanying her," suggests Arthur, "to make sure she returns." They spend more time on research, Arthur for the current ministry project and Gilbert for whether enthrallment affects ghosts at all. He is successful setting up an appointment with a lingering spirit in the rectory in Borley, Essex, so that eats up the afternoon.
Borley is a lovely place, and when they make contact with the spirit, the outline of the former rectory becomes visible - it's stately despite the charring from where it was burned in the 30s and demolished in 1944. It turns out that Gilbert is not able to enthrall the spirit, whose name is Harry, but Harry mentions too some research of his on different varieties of spirits, and that there's a spectrum of varying connection. They describe the Belgian. Harry has a hypothesis: that her ability to connect to and manipulate the weather might root her enough to reality to necessarily make her enthrallable. In any case, he's an excellent contact to make, and he seems a nice chap, although he takes to Gilbert like a house on fire. Gilbert positively preens, basking in the attention.
"If I didn't know better, I'd think you were jealous," says Gilbert on the drive home.
"If he weren't so dead, I might be," adds Arthur.
Gilbert is quiet. "You know who I want more than anything," he says simply.
"I do," he replies, confident.
By the time they return, it's nearly half seven, and Arthur hasn't had much to eat besides breakfast and a quick snack on the road. Gilbert hasn't had anything at all since yesterday at the VHI. "What's for dinner?" Arthur asks.
For Gilbert, Arthur. But for Arthur ... "I'll think up something," says Gilbert.
It takes longer than Gilbert promises (it always does, Arthur finds himself thinking) but the food is delicious. "My aunt's recipe," he says, smiling, presenting a plate of meatballs in a cream-caper sauce, with rice and asparagus, lightly fried, drizzled in brown butter, and still crisp, served with a dark beer. It's simple, it's peasant food, nothing so rich or fancy, but it's so good Arthur could cry. It fills his mouth with flavour and the way his tastebuds awaken, he wonders if it has been years since he last used them.
They have to wait an hour until Arthur's insulin levels have spiked and fallen - not willing to put too much sugar in Gilbert's system, just in case. Meanwhile they settle in to watch a movie. Arthur sits up straight, and Gilbert reclines, leaning on him.
"Comfy?" Arthur asks dryly.
"Yeah," says Gilbert, his head in Arthur's lap, "I'm pretty cozy."
Arthur hardly pays attention to the movie. It's not uninteresting. Arthur hasn't heard of it because the commercials are currently on going, but in a strange way he has, because in the future he pays more attention to media and the real world than he does now, so his knowledge base overlaps. It's a thriller. He sees the end coming about halfway through. He's mostly paying attention to the pleasant weight that is Gilbert's head in his lap, the cool strands of his hair as Arthur runs his fingers through it absent-mindedly, the way Gilbert's marble flesh feels as he strokes his cheek softly.
"Hm," says Gilbert, as the credits roll. "I thought it'd be better."
"I've some ideas," says Arthur lasciviously, "for something better." Gilbert grins.
They move to the bedroom, in bed, finally in bed. It's not slow, because they have an easy familiarity by now and do away with the coy shy strip-tease of one-article-per-room, and because Gilbert must be hungry for this and Arthur doesn't want to wait any longer. Within minutes he is nude once again, entangled together. Gilbert rubs himself along Arthur's body in a filthy grind, frotting himself on Arthur; Arthur feels like he's been hard for hours now.
Even Gilbert is halfway there. They have been feeding a lot at the institute lately. Toris pays in blood and he pays well. But there's no substitute for a fresh source.
"Go on," whispers Arthur. He's been thinking of this since ten in the morning.
Gilbert bites down, in the angle between Arthur's neck and his shoulder, where there's not as many dangerous veins or arteries to tear open, and latches on firm. He moans around it; Arthur can feel the vibration from his lips on his skin. Gilbert thrusts his hips forward, helplessly, shoving his cock against Arthur's. Arthur gets his hand below and presses them together - Gilbert goes from partly to fully hard in the space of a few trembling breaths.
"Would you want to fuck me?" asks Arthur.
Gilbert retreats. The blood pools hot on Arthur's skin, Gilbert licks his lips. "Really?" he says.
"If you're up for it," Arthur replies. "You know I like it no matter what, but ..." He trails off. He doesn't know how to say it - that the exchange feels hotter when Gilbert takes something and gives something else. That it feels more profound.
A quick but efficient job of preparation later - Gilbert's slick fingers in his arse, it's such a strange feeling - and Gilbert is pressing against him, the head of his cock kissed to his hole. "I'll let you know if you're too fast," says Arthur.
"Oh, I can control myself," Gilbert teases.
He presses inside, in a slow burn that has Arthur split, flayed open and wonderfully exposed, and when he is finally as far deep as he'll go with this position, Arthur exhales. He can't find the strength to keep the moan from his voice. "S'pose that makes one of us," he whispers shakily.
"You're okay," says Gilbert, part question, part fact.
"Take me," breathes Arthur.
Gilbert bends down, withdrawing, and as he thrusts in again, he sinks his teeth into what he can reach, which in this case is the fleshier part of Arthur's pectoral muscle, inches from his nipple. He begins relentlessly; Arthur cries out, broken. It doesn't take long before he is lightheaded and dizzy, pushing back against Gilbert, shifting his hips to fuck himself on Gilbert as Gilbert's hand jerks him off. He can certainly see why Gilbert likes this.
Gilbert drives himself in deep and his eyes clench, his expression rapturous. Something's happening - Arthur feels himself fracture and infinity becomes the edges of his existence as he is pulled by the brainstem backwards out of his body - he senses the resonance machine that is their connection as a tangible thing he can touch, in warm loving harmony with the universe, screaming pleasure through the stars, his existence the edge of the galaxy - he is everywhere, he bathes in eternity - he extends a hand outward and feels lightning euphoria spread through his mind -
- ah - it's a thrall within a thrall - Gilbert's lost control again -
Arthur pushes himself out of it and returns, finding that somewhere in the trance, he's come and spilled all over his stomach. Gilbert drags his fingertips through it and gathers his come there, then lifts off Arthur's chest to lick it off his fingers.
Then Arthur is wiping the side of Gilbert's mouth, the corner of his lips where the blood has smeared. He pushes the fingers past his lips. Gilbert sucks them clean, a sharp desperate vacuum. His teeth get too close to the fingerpad and Gilbert is moaning loud, sucking hard, and thrusting deep, impossibly lost in this. He has no control, he forfeits it all; only Arthur's abilities keep them at all grounded. Arthur can feel it as a dull throb when he comes at last, deep inside him, Arthur's blood in his mouth, circular and even, possessing and possessed. Gilbert in his arms struggles for air, panting and shaking. Arthur has never loved anyone like this.
They spend the next few minutes like that, close, as Gilbert slowly softens and slips out of him, pressed close together. Arthur traces Gilbert's lips once again, with his thumb. Gilbert sweeps off the blood from his wounds as it wells and licks it off his fingers. They say nothing. They think much, and that alone passes between them in bursts of instant understanding.
In the end, Toris' serum is needed to properly close the wounds, because they won't stay put otherwise. Gilbert applies it with care, smoothing it gently over the places where Arthur's skin has broken and won't seal back up. They're running out, they should have gotten more yesterday, but then they would have to admit to Toris how much they've used. They'll be back in two days; they'll have to see how much they can get away with.
Gilbert settles on his chest, over his heart, and Arthur falls asleep to the scent of his hair.
- ----- ---- -- -- -
... slowly, reality returns to him, so slowly that he struggles to wake into it. "How long was that?" says Arthur, slurring his words. His tongue is leaden in his mouth Nothing feels real. He presses his hand to Gilbert's skin, to try and ground himself. Gilbert is soft, smooth, and stone-cold.
"Only two minutes," says Gilbert. Two minutes! A full day in two minutes. "What did you see?"
What can he say with Laurinitis right there, pen poised for notes? I saw myself happy for the first time possibly ever? For once in my life I feel like I'm making the right decision? We worked on a case together and it felt like achievement instead of filing something away to oblivion only to resurface weeks later? You cook like a dream come true? Sex with enthrallment is so good it should probably be illegal? I didn't think I could love anyone that deeply?
"Life," is what Arthur decides to reply, "but in colour."