Actions

Work Header

Eight Minutes More

Chapter Text

Miskatonic University. Arkham, Massachusetts

October, 1901

Isaac William Cox, who went by Wilcox to distinguish himself from his father while still retaining some air of formality, prided himself on being two things: amicable, if not downright friendly, and punctual. However, since his arrival in Massachusetts some weeks before, he was proving to be neither in the eyes of professors and students alike.

Arkham was so different from the small Chicago suburb his parents still called home and he often found himself struggling to understand colloquialisms and local humor. Making friends was nearly impossible for all his awkward misunderstandings though the region's folklore fascinated him endlessly. He often eavesdropped on conversations between the Arkham, Ipswich, Newburyport or even Boston natives talking about whatever Odd Thing gripped the college town and its sisters. He stopped trying to enter those conversations after a while, never having any analogous anecdotes to contribute himself .

His lack of punctuality was a different matter entirely. It was as if Arkham itself was conspiring against him; making his days shorter and his walks longer. This particular day, he’d left early, skipped breakfast to do so on the slimmest hope he might arrive to class on time for once this entire semester. But, just as he thought he was in the clear the ominous black clouds opened upon him. The rain had first forced him to duck into the wrong building and after an attempt to get to class by weaving through unknown hallways, Wilcox was forced to backtrack and walk through the rain to the correct building. He was ten minutes late when he finally ducked into class, dripping wet and shivering. The doctor speaking cast him a weary, judgmental look, but did not break stride to reprimand him.

Wilcox collapsed in an aisle seat near the back so as not to disturb the class further, not paying attention to whom he sat beside or the growing puddle at his feet. He tossed his books onto the floor behind him, not bothering with notes today since he’d probably just soak through the pages and make the ink run. Shivering in the chill seeping through his clothes, he forced himself to pay attention.

The professor, Dr. Morgan, a wizened, stout fellow, was lecturing about the brain and its control of the body, harboring of the personality and logic and reason, and some other such thing. After a while, his words all blended together inelegantly to Wilcox under the weight of his temper that day. The young man slunk down in his chair a bit more, resting his steadily warming neck against the cool metal. He’d be sick by week’s end and now it was all he could think about.

There was a soft tap nearby that caught his attention; the sound of a rubber eraser hitting the wood desk too hard. Wilcox fought the urge to look for the noise and distract himself further, but it came again and again. A few people in the row in front of him peeked over their shoulders at the sound, but turned staunchly around again upon viewing its source. Another tap. Wilcox sat up in his seat, pointedly not looking, listening to the lecture with renewed earnest.

Dr. Morgan had moved on from the mechanical structures and functions on the brain and had begun yet another of his long-winded conjectures about the soul and its role in personhood. How even those with brain damage could maintain some sort of personality so long as they were still alive, and he wove in some commentary of a religious sort into his musings. Every time the good doctor said the word “soul” or “life” or similar, there was another disruptive tap at Wilcox’s right. Murmuring started up among the student body. Dr. Morgan plowed on growing more irritated, until a loud crack drove the whole room to silence.

Only when all other heads in the room turned, did Wilcox join them. He couldn’t really see the student sitting a few filled chairs away from him, only the broken pencil twirling between two long-fingered, bandaged hands, but others did and rolled their eyes before turning away.

“Is there a problem, Mr. West?” Dr. Morgan drawled, scowling at the impertinence.

“No, sir,” came the reply; a delicate voice. Smooth as good whiskey but not all that deep. More the voice of teenager than a man old enough for medical school. There was sickly sweetness to the way the words were said. Mocking, almost. Condescending.

A long silence dragged on until Dr. Morgan decided not to argue with a student during a lecture. “Well, then, Mr. West I suggest you invest in a pen to avoid such mishaps in the future.”

“Yes, sir.”

The professor, mollified by the disruptive student’s cooperation, wrapped up his lecture hastily and dismissed everyone. Wilcox stayed at his desk, drawing up his knees so others could pass him He did not want to fight with the Arkham weather again just yet. As people passed, he watched for those hands, and when they finally got to him, Wilcox’s curiosity finally won out and he looked up.

This West person wasn’t a tall man, maybe an inch above the average for the area and nearly half a foot shorter than Wilcox was. He was slender on a structural level but didn’t seem underfed at first, or even second, glance. He was well-dressed; clothes tailored meticulously to his form. There was a bit of dampness on a satchel of books slung over his shoulder that broke that particular illusion of perfection. Blond hair was neatly brushed out of his regal, almost angelic-looking face; all soft jaw, arched pale brows, and round eyes. He kept his hair just long enough to hint at a soft wave or maybe even a curl if it had been allowed to grow any longer, concealing the slightly too wide shell of his ear. Spectacles, round with gold frames, perched low on his straight nose and cut a line, stark and glittering across his high, pale cheekbones. When West’s eyes, a clear watery blue, focused and intelligent, glanced back at him, Wilcox felt his breath come up short.

He wanted to say something, to match that voice to that face by engaging the man in conversation, however short or awkward or trite, but the moment had passed and West was already in the aisle heading toward the door.

He rose, intending to follow, but Dr. Morgan’s voice stopped him.

“Mr. Cox?” he called, “A word. ” Wilcox stopped, but didn’t turn immediately. He was still watching West make for the door, transfixed.

Another quick glance from West as he shut the door did a strange thing to the muscles in Wilcox’s throat that young medical student resolved not to think about. No, he had other things to contend with; like the reprimand that was surely in store for him.

“Mr. Cox,” a bit more forceful this time.

“Yes, sir?” he said, turning around and crossing the room to approach the doctor at his desk.

When Wilcox left, he attempted to get on with his day. However, despite his best efforts, he struggled to get West out of his head. The day’s classes and a round of drinks after hadn’t saved him. That night, he lay awake into the small hours, listening to the rain beat viciously against his window, plagued by those furtive little glances. The next morning, he’d awoken to a fever, congested and inflamed sinuses, and a flush under his skin that followed him well into his recovery a few days later.

Chapter Text

The Commercial House Tavern. Arkham, Massachusetts.

Early November 1901

It was seedy little student haunt. A basement tavern close enough to tourist districts to get those in the know, but far enough away to deter all but the bravest of rabble. This time of year, the dimly lit, sour smelling tavern was packed with college students trying to drown their anxieties in alcohol for a time. Wilcox found himself among them watching the sunset rapidly approach between the shadows that cut through the small, warped windows near the ceiling. His study group had dragged him along with them for drinks and promptly forgot about him as he lingered on the edge of their conversation. Occasionally, he was forced to nod or offer a monosyllabic, noncommittal reply to a question that didn’t even really warrant his opinion, but those grew rarer as time wore on.

“Did you hear about West?” asked one of the medical students from the group; a brown haired, strong jawed man two years Wilcox’s senior.

“Who?” Someone else chimed in, confused.

“West- Herbert’s his first name. I think.” The medical student clarified, “First year med. Short, glasses, kind of queer.”

Wilcox felt his heart leap into his throat, rattling everything inside him. He struggled to keep his face placid, to fight the sudden pique of his interest.

Of course he knew who West was. West haunted him.

In the days, hell weeks, following the sharp words West had exchanged with Dr. Morgan, Wilcox had been unable to escape. Idle daydreams that had once been innocuous and varied were now saturated with the smooth tones of West’s voice, rising and falling like a distant ocean in his ear. It had gotten so bad, in fact, that physiology became a self-taught class; the hours-long lecture occupied less by listening to his professor drone on and more by memorizing every detail of West’s profile at a distance.

The first thing Wilcox had noticed was that West had taken Dr. Morgan’s advice and brought a pen to future classes. The second thing was that West would chew on the cap of said pen when Dr. Morgan’s lectures turned preachy in a way that bordered on obscene as far as Wilcox was concerned.

Nights, though devoid of West’s physical presence, had been much worse. When the realization finally dawned on him as to why the man occupied so much of his thoughts, it came with a stinging in his cheek. His father’s harshly whispered words from years past echoed in the darkness under Wilcox’s own ragged breathing. The tug on his heart at the memory of the doe eyed Reeds boy from up the road and the look on his face when Wilcox had to tell him his father didn’t want them to be friends anymore.

“Heard he’s been doing some kind of animal sacrifice over at the Laney place,” the original speaker claimed, jarring Wilcox back into the present. “Cats, dogs, mice, what have you.”

The young man sitting closest to Wilcox laughed openly. John Price, the one who had so amicably invited Wilcox to come with them, shook his head still laughing even as he said, “My word. Do you believe everything you hear? I thought you were a man of science, Michael.”

“How do you explain all the strays suddenly disappearing?” Michael countered, gesturing widely with his drink and nearly sloshing it on a nurse sitting next to him.

Before Price could answer, the nurse took the drunk student’s arm to stop his moving. “Proper animal control?” she offered, “Poor weather? Anything else.”

“I know the man’s odd, but you don’t need to throw such wild accusations,” John agreed, “West isn’t the type, right?” He turned on his stool toward Wilcox, “Weigh in, Cox. You actually have a class with the guy. Does he seem capable of ritualistic animal sacrifice-“

“I never said anything about rituals,” Michael interrupted, indignant, “It’s that damnable research of his. He’s obsessed with death! Why wouldn’t he kill things? He picked a fight with Dr. Morgan about it for heavens’ sake.”

Wilcox snorted, nearly choking on his drink in the process. John clapped him on the back as he coughed. “I would hardly call it a fight,” Wilcox forced out, “He broke a pencil. They exchanged words. Everyone moved on with their lives.”

The conversation petered out there.

As they left a few hours later, Wilcox broke off from the group despite their protests and warnings. Local superstitions, while entertaining to hear, held no ground for Wilcox. His sister had told him more believable scary stories when they were children; ones with actual monsters instead of just the imagined threats of one and rumors of people disappearing.

The heels of his shoes clicked against the cobblestone footpaths of the older side-streets and echoed back at him from dizzying angles. Darkness poured like water between buildings of mismatched architecture, leeching color from the little light the streetlamps provided and bathing the world in a dingy blue-grey. The air felt warmer, damper, like the breath of some massive beast, perfumed with tilled earth and the pungency of sickness sequestered in someone’s back room. Furniture moved behind doors. Nails of small animals ticked quietly just out of his field of view. He rounded a corner and heard the muffled sound of angry screaming from house that still had its lights on. Somewhere on the other side of that curtained window glass broke, and two voices suddenly turned into one. Wilcox quickened his pace, throat tight.

Wilcox was grateful snow was slow in coming, even if the bite of late autumn made his ears ache. He hiked up his collar, trying to ward off the chill. Every huff of his breath obscured his vision with its cloud and he could have sworn he saw something moving in front of him. Wilcox shook off the thought running a hand over his face and scratching at the all-nighter stubble that had settled on his jaw. He needed to think about something else.

Briefly, he considered ducking into the church just for an excuse to be indoors. The priests knew him now, after the weeks of Sunday mornings and Wednesday evenings Wilcox spent there in his valiant efforts to banish the fantasies about his classmate. They would let him in.

He rejected the idea, feeling silly for wanting to detour indoors.

His walk seemed to be full of detours anyway if Wilcox thought too much about it. He noted the small discrepancies in the town’s layout. The street signs varied in age and style; a sign of place constantly patching up holes ripped into it by the Odd Things locals whispered about but never actually experienced. A pair of shutters appeared slightly newer than all the rest on one house. The remains of a shed peaked out around the side of another just up the road, destroyed by some catastrophe and left to decay on the farthest edge of the streetlights.

He rounded a corner, then another and another. Corner, alley, corner, street, corner in a massive looping circle until he was back in the familiar territory that was the Miskatonic University campus. Then, out and back again. His eyes burned in the cold as he passed the eerily silent chapter houses of local organizations. Exhaustion clawed at the back of his neck somewhere between two brand new fraternity houses. He yawned, stretching his arms above his head and cracking the tendons in his neck as he passed a quaint, two story building with a recently patched roof.

His legs stumbled to a stop before his brain could catch up with his eyes. Wilcox blinked the fog of near-sleep from his vision. He was standing with his back to an intersection, a long stretch of street and someone coming from the opposite direction before him. The other figure was a man with stride long and certain of its path. A book was awkwardly tucked under one arm, held in place by an elbow. His face lit up in the warm orange glow of a match shielded from the breeze by one hand as he lit a cigarette fitted between lips all too familiar to Wilcox now.

West.

A scarf, ratty and worn, hung limply around his neck. The top button of shirt undone from what little Wilcox could see of it. Tow-colored hair caught the wind, disheveled but still more perfect than anything Wilcox could manage with an hour and a pair of mirrors. West’s glasses were pulled low, almost to the point of falling off entirely. West stopped, eyes widening a slightly, as he nearly collided with Wilcox.

They stood staring at each other from less than arm’s length away for some time.

“Evening,” Wilcox managed to cough out awkwardly. He struggled to remember how to blink.

West arched a delicate eyebrow and nodded back to him. A perfunctory acknowledgment that felt like a papercut on Wilcox’s pride. West stepped to one side, making his way around Wilcox and down the street.

“You know,” West commented as he passed, voice tugging at Wilcox’s skin, “It’s not safe to wander around Arkham alone at night.”

“I could say the same to you,” It had sounded much more coy in Wilcox’s head than it did to his ears. He could smell the note of cedar in West’s cologne under the smell of mothballs and old paper.

“I suppose, but I’m actually from here,” West quipped back.

Wilcox wanted to say something else. Needed to say something in reply. But his mouth was dry and his throat hurt and words were not something his brain was willing to supply him. No, instead, it had started up the very unhelpful task of supplying him with images. Ideas and speculations about what that marble cut skin might feel like under his fingertips. What West’s blue topaz eyes might look like hooded and dark. Luckily, West had already passed him and couldn’t see how flushed his face had become.

This was going to drive him mad, Wilcox was certain of it.

Swearing quietly to himself, he started walking again. Why am I acting like this? West was just one man, a fellow student, nothing spectacular.

The tall, watchful lines of the Miskatonic library guided Wilcox back to his dorm. He locked the door when he arrived at his room, quiet so as to not wake his snoring roommate. He tried to stop thinking as he hastily undressed, tossing his clothes on the footboard and not bothering to hunt for something to change into. A creeping feeling of shame made itself at home in the thrum of blood under his skin. It grew long, gnashing teeth and jagged claws as it whispered soft, sweet words into his ear. He was as weak to it now as he had been at thirteen. His heart pounded hard enough to knock the breath out of him and into the steadily warming patch on his pillow. His hands trembled. His vision faded to nothing and all he could smell was cedar and tobacco smoke.

Chapter Text

Miskatonic University Library. Arkham, Massachusetts

Late November 1901

Wilcox, to his credit, managed to keep himself collected for the end of his first term. No small part of that was owed to the absence of one Herbert West in his life for the remaining few weeks of his studies. The dreams, that steadily grew in vividness and vulgarity the more he tried to fight them, continued to haunt him until sleep was removed from his schedule entirely in favor of study sessions and late nights that left his eyes burning.

He spent much of his week camped out among a similar group of medical students to those that had invited him out for drinks weeks earlier, but not the same ones. Wilcox found himself more drawn to the people with the same terrified out-of-towner look he possessed, and they turned out to be a pleasure to commiserate with as final examinations loomed on the approaching horizon. After the first week, Wilcox began to forget what his dormitory –or his roommate- even looked like since he never saw them in the daylight hours anymore.

Sometimes, when the stress of studying and increasingly frequent, vaguely threatening letters from home became too much, Wilcox would abandon his seat at their table and wander. He wove, starting somewhere in the humanities and following shelf after shelf until he ended back in health and medicine. The occasional glance up at the ceiling with its low-hanging light fixtures and light wood allowed him to keep his bearings even among the unfamiliar books and treatises. The smell of paper, old leather, and wood made his nose burn if he breathed too deeply. Silence felt like static in his ears.

On one such venture, Wilcox extricated himself from that makeshift maze in a completely unfamiliar part of the library. He was somewhere in the vicinity of the genealogies, the last landmark he’d passed, but he couldn’t remember having ever seen this area before. Rows of desks separated by wooden partitions lined the back wall where the windows didn’t reach. Tables lay in neat rows like soldiers, each with the correct number of abused wooden chairs. Book carts dotted the shelves, all but one of them empty and the one that was occupied was full. Near it was a large stack of even more books and a solitary student pouring over them. There didn’t seem to be anyone else nearby at all.

Wilcox glanced at his watch; no wonder, it had already grown dangerously close to the library’s closing time. His own colleagues had probably abandoned their posts as well.

The lone student seated at the table turned, moving more books to the stack near the book cart. He startled when he noticed Wilcox only a few shelves away, but managed to not drop anything.

Wilcox nearly started too when he saw West staring back at him. So much for avoiding the man.

West broke eye contact with a blink. He rose from his chair, books on his arm, to a new cart when he realized his current victim could hold no more without breaking. He said nothing, even as he drew near to his classmate.

Wilcox braced himself first for a conversation that wasn’t forthcoming, and then to leave. But what good would that do? Was he just supposed to avoid the guy for the next three years? West would most likely be other classes of his as their careers went on. It would be best to just clear the air. Maybe if he got to know West, he swallowed hard at the thought, the rejection would be enough to jar him out of his little infatuation. He rattled off a quick script in his head, steadied himself with a deep breath, and approached.

Unfortunately, West saw him coming and addressed him first. “Mister,” West drew out the ‘R’, thinking as his eyes skimmed the titles of the books he held to put them in the correct order on the cart, “Cox was it? Morgan’s physiology.” He looked up, seemed to confirm his assessment with a glance, then went back to his books.

Blinking, Wilcox waited for his brain to catch up with what was happening. “I- Yes. You’re Herbert West, right?” He hoped the question sounded genuine.

Judging by the curl of West’s upper lip, it didn’t. “Yes. Though, if you are looking for a study partner, Mr. Cox, I suggest you look elsewhere. I have other things that require my attention before tutoring.”

Wilcox was not expecting the insult to his intelligence to sting as much as it did. Spitefully, he refused to acknowledge that West had just dismissed him. He glanced at the titles of West’s books. “And just what class are you studying internment for?”

“Not internment,” West corrected, glancing back at Wilcox over the rims of his glasses with something between curiosity and open contempt “Death; in a general sense not just a medical one.”

“A bit morbid,” his fellow observed, “for someone aiming to save lives.”

“Know thy enemy, Mr. Cox.” West laughed; a light, genuine sound that shook Wilcox to his core. His arms now empty, West returned to his desk to fetch more from the stack there. As he returned, blue eyes scanned Wilcox, appraising, weighing some list of ideas and details that their subject my never be privy to. It all worked out in his favor it seemed, as West continued talking to him. “Is there something you wanted from me?”

Wilcox’s mouth went dry. “N- I wanted to ask what you were researching.”

“And you found out.”

“In a vague sense,” Wilcox conceded, “But I would like to know details.” He could hear the mocking laughter of his peers now, but he ignored the feeling.

West arched a brow at him. “You want to know details of my research?” He echoed slowly, skepticism apparent in his voice. “Did Michael Fitzroy put you up to this, or Dean Halsey?”

“Neither.”

West believed that even less. “If that is the case,” he put the last of his books on the cart. “May I ask you a question first?”

Wilcox felt his nerves tie themselves in knots and settle in the pit of his stomach, dragging it to the floor. “I don’t see why not.”

There was a pause as West picked his question. Wilcox braced himself for something personal. Why was he there, what was he doing, what were his thoughts on the subject. But, what he got was:

“Why did you move in physiology?”

“I’m sorry?” Was all he managed to stammer out in response. West had noticed he moved. Which begged the question: what else had he noticed? Heat blossomed around Wilcox’s nose and spread across his cheeks. He’d spent so much time watching West from a row away. He couldn’t imagine how that might have seemed.

West leaned against the half-full book cart. “Why did you move in physiology? You sat in the back for most of the semester, but last week you moved to the front row. Why? Surely it wasn’t to get a look at Dr. Morgan’s hairpiece.”

“I found myself,” Wilcox chewed the inside of his cheek, choosing his words carefully, “frequently distracted.”

Another arched brow and skeptical look. “It didn’t seem to matter much. You still tested well.”

That pulled a smile out of Wilcox, “Not as well as you.”

“You looked at my score?”

“You looked at mine.” Wilcox’s anxiety didn’t ebb, but it set more comfortably now. At least the interest wasn’t wholly one-sided.

“Know thy enemy,” West said again, a bit more teasing this time. “But that still leaves my question unanswered: why move if you can work just as well with a distraction?”

Wilcox shifted his weight. He could tell West the truth in its entirety. He could lie entirely. Both seemed like terrible options to him, equally damning for different reasons. “I grew frustrated trying to work around the distraction,” he said, mostly true, “so I opted to avoid it entirely.”

West nodded pensively with a little thoughtful noise. “I am of a mind that death is like any other illness,” he said after a long pause. “That it can be treated; even cured.”

It was Wilcox’s turn to be skeptical, “You want to cure death?”

“Don’t we all?”

“Fair.” Wilcox conceded with a nod. He followed West back to his table and took up a stack of books meant for shelving. West stopped him from actually putting them on the cart with a raised hand and, instead, took them from Wilcox in the proper order and put them on the cart himself. “How do you plan to do that?” Wilcox asked.

“I haven’t gotten that far,” West slid a thick reference text between two smaller ones with his left hand while picking out the next from Wilcox’s grip with his right. “But I do believe its possible. The body breaks and wears down like a machine in other ways, why not this one?”

“Even the best machines are rendered obsolete eventually,” Wilcox quipped back.

That earned him an interesting look from West. A look he had not seen in his weeks of watching the man absorb and reject information. “You think people will one day be obsolete?”

“I think a new generation will replace the old with time,” Wilcox offered, and found that he felt it to be true.  “What would you use this for,” he added before West could argue his point, “if you found a cure for death? See the other side?”

“No. My wants are much simpler,” West said, emotion sparking behind his eyes “An advancement like this could do so much for medicine. For humanity. How many die before they learn to speak, Mr. Cox? How many families could you bring back together. Children you could spare losing their mothers in the birth of their siblings?”

Dread tightened around Wilcox’s throat. He made it sound so personal. “You raise a fair point, Mr. West.”

“Dr. Halsey doesn’t seem to think so.” West put the last of the books down with more force than was strictly necessary. “He’s reluctant to even give me an inch. I would need lab space, test specimens. But he refuses me all of it because he thinks- I don’t know what he thinks anymore.” He sighed, shaking his head.

Wilcox struggled for words. Part of him wanted to argue the points Dr. Halsey no doubt had brought up: what of the mind? What of the soul? But he was sure West would give him those answers if he lingered long enough. He would need a reason to linger, to involve himself in something this enormous and revolutionary, something so noble, if it managed to get off the ground. Never mind the fact that it would put him in league with a man that had so arrested his attentions with two purely serendipitous glances.

“I could assist you,” Wilcox hears the offer in his voice but doesn’t remember thinking it. “With the heavy lifting and with Halsey. He seems to like me well enough. Well, that is if you’re looking for assistance. This seems very important to-“ He trailed off when he noticed West staring at him.

When the silence stretched on, West attempted a response. He failed the first time, opening his mouth but not making any sound. Clearing his throat, he tried again with considerably more success. “I am much in need of an assistant. Or will be when all the bookwork is settled. I highly doubt Halsey is going to supply me one when the time comes. Thank you.” A smile, soft and open, tugged at the corners of West’s mouth, crinkling the corners of his eyes. Wilcox’s vision went a bit dim at the sight and his chest felt a size smaller than normal.

It was a feeling he wanted to get used to.

Chapter Text

The Commercial House Tavern, Arkham Massachusetts

Early December, 1901

With the academic season over for the year, Wilcox could finally breathe easy again. Sleeping easy, however, still proved a challenge with the strange and confusing dreams ever advancing upon his consciousness. His period of sleeplessness in order to study had reset his brain in some way and now Wilcox was plagued with other images that weren’t just West; images that escaped description or recounting upon waking. It left his heart racing and his lungs stinging as if he’d run the length of the campus out in the snow, which was still reluctant to fall in earnest even so late in the year. He chalked it up to stress at the time, but now with the biggest stressor gone, there was no excusing it anymore.

Wilcox isolated himself at a tall corner table of the tavern, running from both is fellow classmates and sleep entirely. His head was pounding and alcohol wasn’t helping as much as he’d hoped. He scanned the crowd in search of a distraction. People talked, leaning heavily on furniture and each other, complaining and celebrating in fits and starts. The air was thick, humid and warm, a welcome comfort compared to the sharp too-thin bite of the night air that awaited to be his only company home. Smoke, sweat, and stale liquor floated through the air like a fog so thick Wilcox was certain he would be able to smell nothing else for days after.

The chair near his scraped across the floor and Wilcox nearly jumped out of his own in surprise. He pressed his palm to his chest to still the fearful hammering of his heart. West slipped into the chair, too close to do anything good for Wilcox’s heart rate. West frowned at him, brow low; examining. “I did not mean to startle you,” he said. The warmth of the room fogged up his glasses so badly he was forced to take them off and wipe them down with his wrinkled shirtsleeve. The knot in his tie was lopsided, as if loosened and tightened again instead of retied.

Wilcox shook his head, taking a few deep breaths to steady himself. “It’s fine.” He took a long sip of his drink and scooted his chair to better face his companion. “What are you doing here? You’re a little late for the celebration.”

West scanned him again, it seemed sharp and judgmental even with the temporary impairment to his vision. “You call this celebrating?” his frown melted into a smirk, but his gaze didn’t soften. A crack in West’s lip, a dark red scab now, pulled dangerously, but didn’t start bleeding again like it had shortly before their physiology exam forcing him to press a handkerchief to it for most of the test.

Wilcox couldn’t argue the point. He remembered how he’d looked before he had left to come here: bleary, bruised hazel eyes staring back at him over the bathroom sink. A stubborn lock of hair kept falling into his face despite his best efforts to keep it in line. He swallowed hard around the film in his mouth, ran a hand through his hair and straightened his back. “I’d call it relaxing.”

West snorted, glancing up as he checked his glasses for further fogging. There was a small scar on his face, just below his left eye near his nose. Just along the eye socket of his skull, some grossly morbid, unhelpful part of his brain supplied. Wilcox stared at it as long as he could until it was hidden again behind golden frames.

“You didn’t answer my question,” Wilcox pointed out, trying not to come up with ideas about how West might have gotten that scar. He emptied his glass when West’s look turned thoughtful.

“I was looking for you, actually.” West said, “Your roommate said you’d be here if you weren’t at the library.”

Wilcox would have broken his glass had his elbows not been resting on table. “Beg pardon?” he croaked. West had been looking for him? He’d gone to his room? How did West even know where that was? Had he asked around?

“There’s been an update,” West was saying when Wilcox returned to the conversation, “concerning my proposal and a lab space. I’d assumed you would want to know about it, if you’re sincere about your offer to assist me.”

“Wha- Yes!” Wilcox blurted, “I was sincere. What’s happened?”

A wide grin spread across West’s face, reopening the split in his lip to a bright red line. The oppressive mugginess of the room dissipated around their little corner territory. “I got a lab space,” West’s voice was quiet, tight, as if he couldn’t believe the words even as he spoke them. “Not during class sessions, of course. I can’t impede academic pursuits. I risk heavy fines if I don’t care for the space and I’ll have to pay for my own reagents and subjects, but-“ he stopped appearing running out of air.

“But you got a space?” Wilcox couldn’t even begin to imagine how that conversation with Dr. Halsey must have gone. What had West sacrificed in return?

“I got a space,” West breathed. For a moment he looked fit to bounce in his chair like an excited child. He took a deep breath and composed himself. “Starting summer. If you aren’t going home for the holiday, I can start walking you through what I have so far Monday.

“Of course,” Wilcox didn’t even think of the promise he’d sent his mother in his last letter; that he’d come home and help her wrangle the family for the Christmas party. She’d never let him hear the end of it if he showed up late, but all things save for that excited, determined spark in West’s eyes were curiously absent from his mind. “I’d love to.”

“Excellent.” The word bloomed like hard-won praise in Wilcox’s chest.

To Wilcox’s surprise, West didn’t leave him after that, unlike the abrupt, awkward end their conversation in the library had come to shortly after Wilcox’s offer to assist. They stayed at Wilcox’s table, sharing a round of drinks and making small talk, mostly about academics and the hopes they held for their careers after medical school.

“Surgery?” Wilcox nearly choked on his drink. The corners of his mouth curled upwards.

West leaned back in his chair, offended. “You say that as if it’s a less noble endeavor than pediatrics.” He shot back.

Wilcox backpedaled a bit, anxious, realizing his teasing had hit a nerve. “No- No, I didn’t mean it that way.”  West’s scowl softened, “I just- you don’t seem to have the hands for it. You couldn’t seem to sit still at all in Dr. Morgan’s class.” A beat passed before Wilcox realize he’d just confessed to watching West in the one class they had shared.

If West noticed he didn’t show it. “Don’t have the-“ he huffed a breath, “I assure you, I can be still as a summer day when I need to be.”

Wilcox arched a brow at him. There was something particularly enjoyable about riling West up.

“You don’t believe me? Fine. I’ll prove it to you.” He rose and crossed to the bar, returning with a small rectangular box that he tossed on the table for Wilcox to inspect.

“Playing cards?” Wilcox handed the box back when West sat back down and gestured for it. “You’re going to show me a card trick?”

“Just watch. Take your hands off the table. I don’t want you sabotaging me.” West took the cards out and shuffled them in a warm-up of sorts. He passed them from hand to hand in a way that reminded Wilcox of carnival performers or back room poker tables. After a moment, West uncrossed his ankles to plant his feet and set to work, stacking the cards gingerly against one another in pairs. When he had a row of five dainty little triangles, he moved on to the next row. Wilcox, his hands in his lap, held his breath when he realized what West was doing.

Wilcox remembered trying to build card houses as a kid. His sister had always laughed harder the closer he was to completing it when it fell.

In the end, West used forty cards and constructed quite the structure of bent and unstable tavern cards. He waited a moment, silent, as Wilcox surveyed his handiwork.  Their eyes met through the gaps in the triangles. West brought his left hand close to one side and snapped his fingers. The structure tumbled into a messy line bisecting the table between their drinks.

Whether out of habit or some other force, Wilcox immediately set to straighten the deck, “I take it back. That’s quite the parlor trick.”

“Thank you,” West passed the stack of cards he hadn’t used over to Wilcox so he could shuffle the whole deck together. ”I’ve been practicing a while.”

“Your parents must have thought you quite the nuisance,” Wilcox quipped dealing a game of gin and delighting a little in the confused look on West’s face.

“My parents- What are you doing?”

Wilcox smiled at him, setting the deck down and picking up his hand. “Don’t you play?”

“I usually don’t have anyone to play with,” West shifted nervously, adjusting his posture. “It’s been a while. I’m pretty rusty.”

“I’ll go easy on you.”

The first game went quickly, even with the addition of more drinks. West lost, but only by a slim margin and stubbornly demanded a rematch. The second game moved slower, both sides playing in earnest now.

“Where are you from?” West asked, breaking the competitive silence that had fallen over their table. “Your accent’s what?” He looked at Wilcox over the rims of his glasses and guessed, “Midwest?”

“Chicago,” Wilcox nodded in confirmation, eye the discard pile hopeful as if the two of heart he needed would magically appear by force of his will alone. “Though my mother’s New England blood.” He glanced up at West, “You’re local, right? To Arkham?”

“Born in Arkham, secondary school in Boston,” West replied, “Mother was from Innsmouth. I didn’t find out my father’s family was from Canada until after he died.”

That stung something in Wilcox; burying one’s parents was a fact of life he cared for the least. “I’m sorry for your loss.” He hesitated, swallowing the nervous lump in his throat before asking, “How did he die? If you don’t mind my asking. I can understand-“

West silenced him with a look, something dark and threating hidden behind the glare of yellow lamplight off his lenses just where Wilcox couldn’t see it straight on. “It was hardly a surprise to anyone that knew him” he said, a bit glib given the subject, there was a pause before he clarified, “He was sick for a long time.” A glance across the table, catching Wilcox’s confused look. “Cancer,” he clarified. “I forget of what, I’ve forgotten many of the particulars now. We… weren’t close and it was a while back.”

Wilcox swallowed hard, the morbid part of his brain taking control when his drink-addled state. “How did your mother take it?”

“Fairly well,” West joked, ending his turn, “Considering she died before he did.” Something in silence changed after that; from static bitterness to something warmer and sadder, closer to what Wilcox had expected. “What about your family?”

“Both parents are alive and well as ever,” Wilcox was grateful for the opportunity to change the mood and finally finding that two he’d been waiting for. “I’m beginning to wonder if they’re even capable of getting sick. I can’t recall a time I’ve seen them be anything but chipper. It’s,” he scowled at his hand, “alarming.”

“Perhaps we should use them as research tools,” Wilcox considered it an accomplishment to see West’s good humor return. “Maybe they know something about cheating death that we don’t.” They shared a laugh across the table and West laid his hand down. “Gin.”

“Best two out of three.” Wilcox’s competitive streak was coming back. It was like the card castles with his sister all over again.

“If you insist.”

They wound up playing three more hands before they were kicked out with everyone else at last call. The streets were dark, empty. Snow and slush were pushed clear of the footpaths in grey-white lumps. Luckily, nothing fresh had come down for a few days, but the bite in the air was torment enough in Wilcox’s opinion. It stung his ears and the back of his neck, especially when the wind picked up on the wider roads. This didn’t stop him from walking with West, not wanting to part from his company yet, no matter how much time it tacked on to his walk home. They walked in companionable silence, neither looking at each other, but not letting their gazes wander to the dangerous black space between buildings.

“Shouldn’t you be going back to your dorm?” West commented a few blocks in, rifling through his coat for a matchbook, cigarette between his teeth. He’d offered Wilcox one with a nudge of his elbow and shrugged when the offer was declined.

Wilcox didn’t have an answer and didn’t feel compelled to make one up.

West struck his match, firelight making his gold frames sparkle. “Isn’t it the other way?” There was something there a good natured teasing, expectant. The opening of a door that led somewhere Wilcox wasn’t sure he recognized. West took a long drag and let the smoke out in a thick cloud. When it cleared, West was smiling at him.

They stopped a few steps later in front of a building. “I guess I just got caught up. Lost track of where we were. I’ll just,” he trailed off, taking a step back, turning to go.

West’s smile faded. Wilcox imagined the door closing and ached with regret alongside the cold. “Do hurry,” West warned, “Arkham isn’t safe at night. Though, at this rate, it may not be night by the time you get to safety.”

“You underestimate how quickly I can run.” Wilcox quipped, walking backwards, not wanting to turn his back on West until he had to now.

The smile returned, “We shall see, Mr. Cox. If you show up to the library Monday.”

Chapter Text

Miskatonic University Library, Arkham, Massachusetts.

Dangerously Close to mid-December 1901

When he arrived, West was already there. He was not hard to spot, standing at a table still trying to work the chill out of his ungloved hands and wind-pinked face. Save for a few duty-bound librarians, they were the only two there. “Mr. Cox,” Wilcox startled when West greeted him without looking his way. “Good to see you made it in one piece.” A teasing smirk ghosted across West’s face only to be smothered a second later. His cheeks and nose were settling into their usual color. The delicate skin beneath his eyes was stained with too little sleep. West worried a dry spot on his lip with his teeth a second and Wilcox felt his gaze like a cold, ghostly presence all its own. “Let’s get started,” West gestured to a chair.

Notebooks, a half dozen of them or so, were spread out across the table beside West’s discarded coat and scarf. Most were well-worn, pages fluffed up and darkened along the edges. All except for two: a black one, closed and set aside from the rest, and one that sat open near the table’s edge; both of these appeared brand new.

“Please,” Wilcox said, “I don’t think we need to be this formal anymore.” He was talking more to smooth the tension in his own shoulders, snaking through his chest and coiling in his gut, than anything else, “Wilcox is fine.”

West gave him a long look of consideration. “Informal it is,” he conceded with a nod.

Wilcox squared his shoulders and crossed the foyer to the table. His heels clicked and echoed back at him in a slightly different tone that might have been disorienting if he didn’t have a goal to focus on. Shrugging off his coat, Wilcox felt the chill bite of frozen death outside seeping in through the window panes. It wasn’t until he heard West laugh under his breath that he realized he was glaring at the lopsided mounds of white that glittered in the sun.

“You don’t get snow like this where you come from?” his companion teased.

Wilcox huffed, struggling to not be embarrassed, “No, we do. Worse even. It just-“ He frowned at the view. Arkham bathed in white and sunshine felt wrong in a way he couldn’t place. Like so much light did not belong there, stolen from somewhere else, or hiding there where none would expect to find it. In the distance dark grey and black silhouettes moved about in the morning mist; human shapes convalescing into something inherently not human. “It just isn’t like this.”

West joined him at the window, black book in his hand. “No, I don’t imagine it is,” he agreed. “Arkham is,” he hesitated a beat too long, “its own creature.”

“That’s a way of putting it,” Wilcox didn’t agree with him, but couldn’t offer a better explanation for why something as commonplace as frozen water felt so different to him here.

Another laugh and West nudged Wilcox’s arm with a sharp elbow, “You can lament the melancholy of my home later, Wilcox. We have things to do.” He held up the notebook, expectant, “This should cover everything I’ve managed so far. At least, on a cursory level. We have the whole day to work out the minutiae.”

He swallowed hard at the offer, but took the book. From what Wilcox had seen of West’s note-taking in class, which was admittedly little, he’d been led to believe that man’s handwriting illegible to anyone but himself. Scratches and swirling lines that refused to flow one into the next with strange punctuation marks or symbols; arrows pointing to previous notes and flow charts in his margins; the faint smudge of lead or ink when he’d grown tired and let his left hand slide against the page. Others had even joked that borrowing notes from West was like stabbing yourself in the foot; you learned nothing and now you were in pain for having done so.

This notebook, however, looked like it was written by another person entirely. Rows and rows of small, neat words so uniform they could have come from a typewriter if they hadn’t been so smooth and curving. Sections were started with slightly larger, ornate letters belying some practice in calligraphy. For a moment, on his first skimming of the text, Wilcox wondered if West had gotten someone else to write it for him and then scoffed openly at himself for the idea. He sank into his seat and went over the notes more carefully as West bustled about silently with his own books, preparing.

It was West’s work alright. Detailed to a fault on a wide variety of loosely interrelated subjects; philosophy, history, medicine, chemistry, and back again. Transitions were minimal, if they existed at all. Notes and corrections lived in the margins like squatters on the fringes of a growing city; cited references in the footnotes. Perfunctory sketches of the heart and brain filled a third of a page each along with suspected reagents and mechanics to jumpstart both. Wilcox was only about halfway through he had to shut the book and rub his temples. How long had West been researching this? Certainly more than a single semester.

 “This is,” Wilcox said, noting the quiet, concerned noise West made, “Cursory?”

“More or less,” West replied and it was probably the least convincing thing Wilcox had heard him say thus far.

“How long have you been working on this?” Wilcox couldn’t keep the disbelieving laugh out of his voice. He hoped it didn’t sound insulting.

West’s eyes flicked down, embarrassed a moment, “I initially set out when I was nearly fifteen. Before I moved to Boston.”

Wilcox blinked at him and realized he couldn’t place West’s current age by looking at him. His face, for all its sharp corners, still had the smooth, vaguely feminine planes of youth. If Wilcox had been asked to guess at his first glance of the man he might have placed him at a mature sixteen. Yet, he spoke with the ease and knowledge of a man twice that age. Wilcox, again, felt the pointed fingers of cold from the window at his back. He very nearly asked, but something checked his tongue, Whether it was due to propriety or fear of the answer he might obtain, Wilcox felt he was better off not knowing.

“This place,” West continued, not even allowing for questions in the first place, “takes death so simply. So readily. It never truly made sense to me. The Puritans call it the will of God. The Order sees it as a thing entirely other from life but still of an ordained, empirical design.” He laughed quietly, face a mask of disbelief as he pushed his slipping glasses up his nose with his middle finger, “Fear bred in those beliefs hinders these people. They want death to reek of permanency so it does not challenge the idea of Design and so it becomes permanent. But… what if it isn’t?”

West unfastened the cuffs of shirt and rolled up his sleeves to the elbows. Tawny freckles along his forearms caught the light and warmed the sickly quality of his complexion away. His cufflinks rolled off the book he’d placed them on and clinked noisily on the table; a pair of strangely pearlescent gold discs textured to look like fish scales. Wilcox, despite the strange churning in his gut, let his eyes linger on them a second longer than he probably should have.

“Medicine teaches us that the body is a machine of flowing humors and moving parts,” West rested his elbows on the table. “Each piece linked with the other, many capable of repair.” He traced a vaguely human shape on the table, the oils from his hand leaving a matte drawing in the polished wood Wilcox could see if he tilted his head to let the sunlight pass him.  “The heart and the mind are the most important of those pieces; linked so intimately that if one dies, the other follows it into death.” He pointed to the head of his drawing with his little finger, the chest with his index. “But if one might be able to restart one, the other could follow it back into life as well.” He lifted his fingers one at a time, perfect fingerprints left behind.

“I propose,” West concluded, “That in restarting the heart in a recently deceased corpse, one might be able to restart the brain as well.” He paused a moment, taking a deep breath and added, “Provided, of course, one were to catch the corpse in that period between the death of the heart and that of the brain, and that there were no factors that would kill the person again upon his reanimation.”

Wilcox leaned back in his chair and West leaned forward a bit more.

“With the right combination of drugs: stimulants, tonics, what have you. Possibly mechanical stress, but I won’t know until we start trials. We could get a stopped heart to beat again. Regain the consciousness soon after and restore the person fully to life.”

There was a heavy silence after, waiting. West watched him like a man ready to die staring down a firing squad; anxious, but without true fear.

Wilcox mentally filed his questions into a logical order, took a deep breath, and fired.

“How long are you proposing to wait between death and reanimation?”

“The fresher the corpse, the better,” West answered, “I wouldn’t want to wait more than a week though, and I doubt that would even yield the acceptable result.”

“And if the restarting of the heart does not encourage the mind to follow?”

“We get fresher corpses.” West’s brow furrowed, “If it doesn’t at all, we try a new formula.”

“What of the soul? Descartes proposes that the mind is non-physical; arguably comparable with the soul,” Wilcox argued when West’s lip curled a bit, “which departs at death. What if the brain reanimates, but the consciousness, the person, is still gone?”

“Well, Descartes is wrong.” West said with a hollow sharpness nearing to humor, “The soul is just a word given for the mind’s consciousness. If the brain exists and functions, so does the mind.”

That denial of the existence of the soul felt like a blow to Wilcox’s own, “You have proof of that?”

“I do not,” West admitted, “But in my endeavor, I intend to find it. And, if Descarte does prove to be right and the soul exists and informs the mind, then I will happily walk myself right into Hell.”

Wilcox couldn’t stop the little snort that bubbled out of him. “You still didn’t answer my question,” he  pointed out, grinning a little broader at West’s look of confusion, “What happens if you find that you cannot bring the mind back with the brain? What will you do?”

West considered his answer carefully and Wilcox took some pride in being able to give him a question he wasn’t prepared for. “Change my method, I suppose. I acknowledge that modern science has its limitations, and I may not be able to accomplish this in my lifetime, as much as I may wish to.”

A nod and Wilcox moved on. “Where do you draw the line?”

“Beg pardon?”

“Ethically,” Wilcox clarified. “Because you know Halsey will argue the ethics of both the research and the application. Would you let people volunteer to kill themselves so you might reanimate them for science and insure the best freshness of your corpse?” Something changed in West’s eyes then, “Would you kill someone? Have you considered how this knowledge might be abused?”

West wasn’t looking at him anymore. “All of that must be considered in conjunction with the good that could done. Just as with any new procedure, new medicine, one must compare the risks and rewards. Who could be saved? What would saving those people mean for those around them? I believe the rewards outweigh the risks.”

“Others would disagree with you. That this knowledge is dangerous and more prone to abuse than other practices.”

“All knowledge can be abused, no matter its nobility, Will.”

Wilcox’s chest knotted up and the momentum of his questions turned to steam, lifting and rolling out of him, replaced with something even warmer. He struggled to pull his list out of the ether. There was so much more he wanted to know, but could remember none of it. All he could hear, echoing over and over in his mind was that harpsichord lilt around his name.

 “Will you admit defeat, in any of this?” Wilcox asked, forcing himself back into focus, “Give up the research in favor of more practical endeavors should this not play in your favor?”

“No.” West said with a fierce, blazing conviction that could have moved the very stars themselves into alignment to prove his theory correct. “This is possible.”

“If ethically dubious.” The protest was half-hearted.

West shrugged, leaning back in his own chair, but didn’t argue Wilcox’s point.

The conversation became more technical after that. Wilcox picking apart what he could of the notebook West had given to him. The longer the critique of West’s proposal went on the more the man seemed to relax, answering most of the questions with practiced quickness and smiling when a question took him a bit longer to answer.

They’d gone through the whole thing by the time night fell. Impressed as he was with the work West managed to do on his own, Wilcox had found quite a few gaping holes in his research, particularly in the chemistry, list of potential therapeutics, and how one would rehabilitate a recently reanimated person back to their original health. He offered suggestions and West took copious, scrawling notes in his open book.

“I won’t be able to meet with you again until the new semester starts,” Wilcox finally confessed as their discussion wound down and they collected their things. “I promised my mother I’d be home in time for Christmas and-“

“You should have left by now,” West scolded, “We could have postponed this.”

“I had forgotten when I agreed to this,” Wilcox hunched his shoulders against the reprimand. “But I leave tomorrow. I apologize.”

West waved him off and led the way out of the building.

The night was worse than the morning had been and Wilcox could swear the white flakes lazily drifting from the sky were daggers, not snow. Was snow just colder in Arkham, or was he learning to hate the stuff more? He couldn’t tell. Blackness of liquid and clear nearly starless night, balked at the bright white of the horizon resulting in a fuzzy grey mist between ground and sky too thin to really be called a fog. They walked as a pair to the edge of the campus. Uneasiness crept into his limbs as they neared the threshold and Wilcox couldn’t find it in him to cross it. Instead, he paused, shivering, and said his good-nights. “Good luck,” he finished, not knowing what else would be appropriate.

West hummed thoughtfully, eyes raking over Wilcox with such shamelessness that Wilcox wasn’t sure it was a totally conscious action. “You remember where the Laney house is, right?” He gestured in the general direction, “Tall building, blue shutters, big hole in the roof?”

Wilcox nodded, cautious.

“I’m in two; second floor, left from the stairs. Mrs. Laney will let you up if you tell her you know me. Come by when you get back from your trip home. I’ll let you know if I’ve found anything new.”

Wilcox only blinked stupidly at his companion a moment, his tired brain struggling to process the request. West, the man that had weaseled his way into his life proper now after having invaded his dreams months before, had just invited Wilcox into his home. His mouth went dry and he swallowed thickly around the idea of being alone with a man in such a private space. At least at the library and the tavern were public, demanding a certain amount of propriety.

“Will?”

He took a sharp breath through his nose, hoping the bitter cold would clear the hazy heat behind his eyes. It worked. Mostly. “Sure,” he said hastily, clearing his throat, and trying to pretend that it didn’t sound like the third time West had prompted him for a response.

“Good,” West looked at him warily though. “Are you alright? You look a little,” he leaned in a bit closer, Wilcox’s heart skipped a beat or two, “flush.”

“I’m fine. Just tired.”

That earned him an unconvinced scowl that made West’s glasses flash in the light of the street lamp. “You’re shivering,” he argued. With a very put-upon sigh, West tugged at his scarf until the knot came loose and, before a protest could be said, stepped even closer and draped it around Wilcox’s neck. The cloth of his gloves scraped against the stubble on Wilcox’s jaw and lingered just a fluttering second too-long before moving to loosely tie it in place. “Do try not to freeze to death on your trip. I would rather not have to replace you so soon.”

He was so close. All Wilcox had to do was take him by the elbow, or the dip of his waist, and pull him closer. It was the middle of the night in winter, no one around for miles and no one likely to come out of their homes. No one would see them. Wilcox opened and closed his hands at his sides, everything within him speeding up and everything without slowing down all at once. West was a waif he wouldn’t even really need to pull all that hard to draw him in-

And just like that, West had taken a step back, drawing up his collar to make up for the lack of scarf and showing just how poorly his coat fit him. “Enjoy your holiday, Will. Send your family my regards.” He said, still frowning slightly.

“Yes,” Wilcox heard himself croak, “I- er- I will. Good night.”

“Good night.”

Wilcox nearly ran back to his room once West was out of his line of sight; nearly falling on patches of ice, taking stairs two at a time. Unable to sleep, he stayed up the night packing and repacking his things until sunrise snuck up on him and he was forced to bolt out the door.

Chapter Text

Dolores Laney’s Boarding House. Arkham, Massachusetts

January, 1902

Things had not gotten off to a good start at Wilcox’s parents’ house. He had forgotten to take off the scarf West had given him before knocking on the door and his mother had seen it immediately. The way her face lit up as she tugged at the fraying tassles and picked at the frizzy, rough wool that had faded from the Miskatonic University colors into some dingy insult to color itself, made Wilcox cringe internally. He’d only made matters worse by mentioning it was a gift; an admission his mother took as his having a female admirer looking out for him. He made it a point not to wear the thing again for the rest of the trip, instead tying it to the headboard of his bed as a constant reminder that he choose his words more carefully while he was home.

Wilcox spent as much time with his sister as he was allowed. She was as slow to make friends as he was and didn’t pick on him quite as much as his cousins did. Though such quality time came at the price of comments concerning inseparable twins and insinuations that Vanessa couldn’t take care of herself without her brother around. The latter was more frustrating to both since it usually ended in Wilcox getting punched in the arm while Nessie proved her point. Regardless, it was better than lingering in his father’s circles; all masculinity and ribbing at his choice to pursue academia rather than a man’s honest work. Or his mother’s; rife with questions about the non-existent women in his life and when he planned to get married and settle down.

At night, finally alone, he slept hard and dreamt vividly. Over time, they drifted away from his tormenting fantasies of West and into broader, bleaker places. Dark nights over turbulent oceans, black inhuman shapes whispering in a language he didn’t recognize always lingering on the corners of his vision. A warm hand on his shoulder, a soft kiss to his cheek, the cold, sharp edge of a knife on his skin. Claws shredding away at his chest, but stopping irreverent and uneasy at the sight of a still beating heart. Fingers digging into the small of his back hard enough to bruise or worse.

He would always wake feeling an odd mix of fearful and heartsick for the university and its quaint, eerie little township. Wilcox returned to the Miskatonic valley as soon as his family would release him, claiming he needed as much time as possible to prepare for upcoming classes and pretending he couldn’t taste the bitterness of the lie on his tongue.

Wilcox arrived on a Saturday to the same snow and glittering drear he’d left the previous month, only this time there was considerably more wind and sleet. It was a miserable excuse for day and Wilcox resolved to spend the whole of it in bed, gift boxes strewn across the floor, roommate still at home with his own family. Wilcox stared up at the ceiling through the loose knit of the scarf. The wind howled, forlorn and siren-like against his closed window, but carried no noises when he finally got up and cracked it open out of sympathy and a need for less stale air. The silence had been nice at first, allowing him to think undisturbed, but as it drew on it grew chokingly thick and heavy and spurred him to turn on the room’s cheap radio, if only to listen to static.

The next morning, Wilcox still delayed with his boxes of gifted pieces of home from his extended family. Instead, he opted to shove the boxes under his bed, not caring that a few of them were damaged in the process, and went on a walk through Arkham. Tucking West’s scarf under his chin, he kept his head down against the wind and hunted those less-travelled side streets he’d passed on his more dangerous nighttime jaunts. As he left the college housing buildings, Wilcox once more heard the sounds of civilization carried to him on the air. Children shouting and playing in the snow, dogs barking along, women talking in the high, shrill tones that usually accompanied post-church gossip; Wilcox felt a pang of guilt for having not risen early enough to go to church himself. And so soon after Christmas. His mother would faint if she found out.

The homes lining the streets were still sparsely inhabited, everyone still away. Some sat with the windows open to the bright white sunshine. Between gauzy curtains Wilcox spied garlanded Christmas tries sagging under the weight of their ornaments among mismatched furniture, but never lingered long enough to observe details. Occasionally, a house cat or watch dog peered back at him, silently sizing him up, but they never did anything more.

Eventually, Wilcox had wandered himself in front of a building. It was large, two stories and an attic if Wilcox had to guess. Shutters of varying shades of freshly painted blue at odds with the dingy whitewash.  A glance up revealed a newly patched hole in the roof. There were two holes at the edge of the sidewalk, a freshly removed sign; though judging by the little trenches in the snow, it wasn’t done cleanly. Wilcox stopped walking.

West had told him to get in touch when he came back. The sooner he did, Wilcox reasoned in a bid to justify his actions as he approached the door, the more work they would be able to get done. He swallowed around a wave of bitterness in the back of his throat.

The front door was a sturdy black thing that, judging by the gleam of the brass fittings, was recently replaced. He knocked twice, sharp and loud, just above a sign on the door, “Vacancy: Inquire Within.” On the other side Wilcox heard slow footsteps and muffled voices. He tugged at his scarf, only to remember that it wasn’t his and hastily remove it in the same motion.

A woman on the far end of middle-age, on the short side and heavy-set answered the door. Her thick, greying hair was pulled back in a loose bun and she looked up at him through the flyaways that had managed to escape. “You here about the room?” she asked, her accent a strange amalgamation of tinny Boston and the loose-tongued rural that plagued the local taverns. Her warm brown eyes softened as she examined him.

Wilcox was more grateful for the new coat now than when his uncle had given it to him; it was substantially nicer than the shirt and vest he wore under it and made for a much better first impression. “No ma’am,” he said with the friendliest smile and polite nod he could muster; things that had become second nature again during his holiday home. “I was told a Herbert West lives here? I’m a friend of his. He should be expecting me.”

The woman scrunched up her face, mouth drawing into a thin line. “I wasn’t aware the poor boy had friends.” She said, giving him another once-over before stepping aside to let him in. “He’s upstairs on the left.” She pointed with a calloused hand, joints knobby and twisting with the first signs of arthritis.

Wilcox shuffled his way inside. “He doesn’t get many visitors, I take it?” he shrugged out of his coat to hang it up on the rack that was already leaning precariously under the weight of two others.

The lady shut the door behind him. “From what I’ve seen, you’re the first.” She said with a little shrug. “He doesn’t get out much. Just like his father.” She chewed the inside of her cheek, “He could use the company I think. He’s weird enough. Someone like you might do him some good.”

Wilcox stifled a laugh at West’s expense. “Thank you, ma’am.” He said, fighting the urge to pry further and heading toward the stairs.

“Oh, can it with the ‘ma’am’, son. I’m not that old.” She gave him a little shove as she moved past him into a dining room. “Mrs. Laney’ll do just fine.”

He nodded briskly at her back and was suddenly left alone.

The stairs were narrow. They creaked and bowed a little beneath his feet. Watercolor landscapes in frames more expensive than the paintings themselves brought life to the otherwise depressing, peeling wallpaper. Everything smelled faintly of dust, wood rot, and dried flowers. It reminded Wilcox of his grandmother’s rocking chair in a way he didn’t want to acknowledge; he couldn’t recall the last time he’d even been near the thing. It had to have been before his grandfather burned it when Wilcox was twelve at the very least. He shook off the memory, too tired of thinking about family.

Left of the stairs was apartment two, designated as such by the shiny brass number on the mailbox beside the door. Just below the number was a handwritten label; “West” and then a thick black line with the words, “Herbert P.” written above it. Out of curiosity, Wilcox checked the other apartment on that floor, “Atkinson, Haymitch & E.” and wondered where the vacancy was. He guessed the attic, but couldn’t find a mailbox to confirm.

Unable to stall any longer, Wilcox lingered outside West’s door. Briefly, he wondered if West was even home. Mrs. Laney hadn’t said he was out, but she wasn’t his keeper. He could be anywhere. Wilcox shook off the doubt. It wouldn’t hurt to knock, he told himself. The worst that could happen would be that West didn’t answer, then Wilcox could just leave the scarf he was wringing between his hands on the mailbox and wait for West to find him.

Something heavy in his chest turned to air at the idea.

He knocked twice, just as he did with the front door, and listened intently. For a long while he heard nothing aside from the wind outside and the tinking of dishes in the kitchen downstairs. Wilcox waited, patient and debating whether he should knock again or just leave.

A knot tied in his stomach. Weeks spent without the specter of West in his life and Wilcox wasn’t sure how he felt about inviting it back in. Between the nightmares that left him shaking and the flights of fancy that felt so real his skin tingled after, things that had faded over the break, perhaps it might be best if he didn’t see the man again.

No. He’d promised West his assistance, and West would find him anyway if he went back on that promise. He seemed like the type to hold a grudge.

The soft thump of footsteps on the other side of the door roused Wilcox from his thoughts. It was too late now, the knob was turning, pulling the door open a crack.

“Yes, Mrs-“ West’s voice, thick with sleep despite the early afternoon hour, and more New England than Wilcox remembered it being, took to his heart like pins to a cushion. “Will!” He swung the door a little wider, “I wasn’t expecting you back so soon. “ Blue eyes blinked at him, straining to focus without aid of his glasses, finally free of the darkness of sleep deprivation. He looked to be just now rising for the day, hair damp, freshly shaven, shirt wrinkled and untucked. “Please,” he said, taking a step back. The floorboards complained under his socked feet. “Come in.”

West stepped away from the door and Wilcox followed him inside. After a moment’s hesitation, Wilcox shut the door behind him, not wanting to let the warm air out into the hallway.

It was a spacious little apartment: two main rooms, one larger than the other separated by a wide, arched doorway and a wash closet barred by a door. In the larger room, West had set up a parlor of sorts. A threadbare armchair and sofa with a cushion in a different fabric than the other two and a splintering low table encircled the gas heater on one side of the room. The corner by the windows overlooking the front yard, was taken up by a worn desk and crooked, sagging bookshelf overstuffed with books and treatises that spilled onto the desk and the floor in lopsided little piles. A rug saved bare feet from the wood floors and seemed to be one of the nicest things in the place save for the few books on West’s shelf that looked younger than Wilcox was.

The bedroom, what little Wilcox could see of it from the front door, was very similar to his own dormitory, if on a slightly larger scale. A double bed with a rickety wooden frame and cheap mattress took up most of the room. A thick quilt was thrown over it in lieu of proper bed-making. A nightstand held a kerosene lamp, a clock, and, temporarily, West’s glasses. A foot locker rested against the footboard, closed and locked with a heavy padlock. The door to the wash closet, when Wilcox shifted his weight to peer at it, was closed, a dark suit jacket hanging over the knob.

“How much do you pay for this place?” Wilcox couldn’t help but ask when West returned to the room after going to fetch his glasses and straighten up to a slightly more presentable standard outside of Wilcox’s line of sight. “It’s nice.”

West chewed his lip in thought, fiddling with his shirt sleeves. “Eighty,” he said, “But it varies depending on how much I run up gas or water that month or if anything happens to the house.” He scoffed out a laugh, “Climbed up to ninety when we got the hole in the roof. But it all seems fair for the space and privacy she gives me.”

Wilcox let out a low whistle. “What do you do for a living? How do you pay for this?”

“Inheritance,” West replied with a curtness that brokered no further questions, “just like my other expenses.”

Wilcox nodded with a thoughtful noise, not wanting to poke that wound again. He looked for a quick change of subject, remembering the scarf in his hands, “I brought this back for you,” he held it out to West, “even tried to wash the thing, for all the good it did me.”

It still smelled like West even now; all cedar and smoke and old paper.

West waved his hand at the scarf. “Keep it. I have more than my fair share of the things and you look like you could use one.” He moved to his desk and rifled through the drawers with one hand and a stack of notebooks with the other. He returned with a small stack of notes and a pencil. “Since you’re here, let’s get you caught up, shall we?”

Wilcox stayed for the rest of the day listening to West talk the way an aspiring musician listens to a concert. He took in every word, offered input when it was called for, but ultimately stayed a quiet audience. West outlined his plan to purchase supplies in Boston throughout the spring. When he offered to go with West on that trip, Wilcox was swiftly denied.

“You agreed to help me in lab work and research, Will,” was West’s reasoning, “Not leg work. I can’t ask you to do that.”

Wilcox chewed the inside of his cheek, forcing himself not to argue lest he say something particularly telling. West was right. He was a research assistant not a friend. Not yet anyway. “I suppose.”

The corners of West’s mouth pulled up into a sad, tired smile. Wilcox knew that look; stifled emotion, muffled frustration, words locked in the back of one’s throat for safekeeping. West gave him a curt little nod and proposed they break for dinner before the good places closed up for the night.

Restless and eager for a change of mood, but reluctant to part from West’s company just yet, Wilcox agreed.

Chapter Text

Miskatonic University Department of Medical Research, Arkham, Massachusetts

Summer 1902

It was a muggy June night when Wilcox and West finally got their hands on that lab space West had promised the previous winter. Wilcox arrived alone, sometime well after sundown, having gone back to his dorm for the first time since final examinations had begun. His roommate had held him up with a slew of questions about where he’d been; questions Wilcox didn’t have plausible lies for.

He’d been at West’s boarding house room every night for weeks, both studying for classes and helping him create a book of potential serum recipes with his only slightly better grasp of chemistry. He had only come by his dorm late in the mornings to change his clothes and restock on supplies for class from the boxes still tucked under his bed.

The arrangement had started mid-spring, after West had spent his break in Boston, gathering a stock of supplies that would be sorted into a single medical bag and left to sit on his footlocker until the end of the semester. There were a few things, chemical reagents and equipment, he hadn’t been able to afford or even find in some cases. It didn’t seem to faze West at the time, “The lab will have what we’re missing, I’m sure.”

Wilcox could barely remember the weeks that followed that. He went through the motions of school work, of sleeping on West’s sofa until the lumpy cushions were sufficiently dented to accommodate him, and of anticipating finally setting their experiment into motion. Wilcox was certain his grades suffered for it, but couldn’t be bothered to talk to his professors or look at his test grades. If he started failing, someone would say something to him before he lost his scholarship, surely.

Arkham in the summer was nothing like what Wilcox had expected. It was noisy for one, a stark contrast to the preternatural quiet that had settled in winter. Insects buzzed and frogs croaked so loud, Wilcox was sure he’d go deaf from the noise. It was humid, the air almost tacky to the touch, and though it wasn’t all that hot out, the stillness and moisture left him sweating through his undershirt almost as soon as he put it on. If this was a regular summer, Wilcox mused as he wove between the buildings, he’d hate to see what a heat wave was like.

From a building away, Wilcox heard voices: the familiar smoothness of West’s and another he didn’t recognize. He slowed his pace without thinking.

“And no one’s seen Minnie in weeks,” the unfamiliar voice was saying when Wilcox finally got into earshot. “Beth’s been livin’ there. She’s sayin’ they locked her in the attic. Did something awful t’her. But…well, no one believes Beth ‘bout anything anymore.”

West was leaning against the building’s wall, medical bag at his feet, letting a cigarette burn to ash between his fingers. At the other side of the window was a boy, his dark skin melding into the shadow so much Wilcox almost couldn’t see him at all, but for the cherry of his own cigarette and stained white work shirt catching the light of the street lamps.

“She don’t blame you though.” The boy continued, “Those Marsh fu-“ he stopped short, slouching a little, “That your guy?”

West turned, following the boy’s ash-flinging gesture, to spot Wilcox. He nodded, and waved him over.

Well, so much for eavesdropping.

Wilcox crossed the yard in a few long strides. West and the boy exchanged a few, much more hushed, words, but by time Wilcox got to them they were silent once more.

“Will,” West said, with a gesture to the boy who, up close, couldn’t have been more than fifteen; all wide brown eyes and soft, round features, “This is Puck. Puck, Will”

“Puck?” it came out less like a question and more like a condescending laugh even to Wilcox’s ears.

Both of his companions ignored it.

Puck nodded at Wilcox. “Sure do like ‘em tall, don’t ya?” he teased, glancing sidelong, and West slapped him on the shoulder. He laughed, flashing his bright, slightly crooked teeth and shrugged off the blow. After wiping his hand on his trousers, he offered it to Wilcox. They shook and Wilcox’s knuckles cracked under the firm, calloused grip.

“You should go,” West said, “before you’re missed.”

Another nod, “Yeah.” Puck handed West a ring of keys in exchange for a few dollars and the rest of West’s pack of cigarettes. “Scoured and out before sunrise. You know where to leave ‘em.”

West picked up his bag, “Good night, Puck.”

“See ya next week, Angel Face.” And just like that he was gone, vanished wholly into the summer night. West and Wilcox lingered in the black shadow of the building a second longer before heading inside.

“ ‘Angel Face’?” Wilcox fought the urge to ask, but lost that fight as they wound down hallways toward the laboratory closest to the storage rooms.

“Puck and I have history,” West replied, defensive.

“Some history.”

Wilcox didn’t see West roll his eyes, but he heard the exasperation in his voice. “I haven’t seen him in person in eight years. And you’d be wise to not question where your dinner comes from, Will.”

The idiom caught Wilcox off guard. It wasn’t the first time he’d heard it, but it seemed to almost exclusively come from the people native to the valley. He still didn’t quite know what it meant, having heard it in a wide variety of inconsistent contexts, and now, hearing West utter it, he wasn’t sure if he’d benefit from knowing. “Fine,” he conceded, biting back the sting of jealousy that had crept up on him. “Fine.”

The boy was, after all, helping them break into a lab after hours to put together their serum. Wilcox had figured out West was lying about Halsey giving them the lab the moment their shared class with the dean had started that spring. The look West and Halsey shared when Herbert’s name had been called from the roll was nothing short of openly hostile. Wilcox hadn’t bothered to confront West about it though; it wasn’t all that important, so long as they weren’t caught. If there were consequences, they would be much steeper for their accomplice anyway.

The prospect didn’t bother Wilcox as much as he thought it should.

They kept the lights dim for fear of being spotted through the windows as they set up their space. The missing supplies were, in fact, in the storage room just as West had predicted. Soon, burners were going, replacing the bright light of the lanterns with an eerie, dim blue. Bottles of reagents lay lined up by the sink in alphabetical order so they wouldn’t need to be brought near the flames to read their labels. The sharp tang of acids and the familiar astringent smell of expensive medicine mixed with the muggy, tilled-earth of the outside air flowing in the open window, and made Wilcox’s sinuses ache after the first hour.

Much of the night passed in bustling, easy quiet. West issued instructions in a hushed voice. Wilcox followed them to the letter. The first batch of West’s elixir came together drop by painstaking drop; a thick, syrupy clear thing that glittered like crushed glass as it collected at the bottom of the beaker.

He couldn’t deny that there was something exhilarating about all this underneath the fear of discovery. Wilcox leaned against the windowsill, taking a moment to breathe fresh air. He watched West work, glowing silver and ethereal in the light of the burners, his glasses pulled low to read his notes. West’s bony, pale hands brushed against glass bottles to check temperatures, showing the fledgling signs of impatience with their rates of heating and cooling.

He really was beautiful like this.

Wilcox mentally slapped himself for the thought and looked for something else to focus on.

Without instructions to follow, he perched himself on the window sill. He idly listen to the peaceful, bubbling night; in the distance he thought he could hear footsteps, erratic and scraping like something that kept falling and dragging itself along every few steps. Wilcox focused on the sound, trying to place it and it got him wondering about what things wandered the Arkham streets at night. What made its people so wary of danger that they’d warn newcomers the moment they had the opportunity.

So lost in thought was Wilcox that he missed West’s attempts to get his attention from the bench until West smacked his hand against the benchtop hard enough to rattle the beakers of distillate gathered around him. “Will, for heaven’s sake, pay attention. We need to get going.”

Wilcox, flush and embarrassed, hopped down from the sill and went to help him.

“If you’re too tired to continue,” West said as they started breaking down their setup. “We can call it earlier next time.”

Wilcox shook his head, “No. I’ll be fine next week.”

They tested their first batch of the elixir, which hadn’t rendered a single full bottle, on two stolen lab mice. One in the morning when they returned to West’s rooms from the lab, and one the following day. Neither was successful and they resolved to try again with new recipes the next time.

The second week they split. Each with his own set up and list of recipes to use in a bid to make the most out of their time in the lab. Wilcox went out of his way to distill down a bit extra of their individual reagents, particularly the stimulants, to save them time later, but it all got snatched up so quickly with the double batch that none of the work mattered. Their yields were terrible, probably from the haste and reckless abandon with which they approached their tasks; a proper chemist would despair at the sight of their methods write up, Wilcox had no doubt.

“I hold no illusions of immediate success,” West said the third week when Wilcox asked him if they were even on the right track anymore. They were both elbow deep in scalding water, scrubbing still-hot glass while the sky turned grey outside. “We just keep trying until we run out of ideas.”

They left smelling of solvents and with an optimism that persisted even in the face of weeks of failure. Each formula felt less promising than the last. Eventually, they ran out of mice and pet shop owners had grown suspicious of their purchases as far south as Boston. They ultimately turned to Arkham’s stray population to aid in their research.

West returned to Boston one week in late July, skipping their summer class, to fetch more supplies and reagents. Wilcox chipped in for half and had his money returned to him.

Their nights were sleepless, spent refining formulas, pouring over notes, or setting up animal traps in darkened corners. They traveled together at West’s insistence that numbers were safer at night.

Two little girls, sisters, and a young man disappeared that summer. Only one of the three was recovered a week later. The newspaper articles gave Wilcox nightmares he wished he could trade for his damning dreams about West.

Their days were spent crashing under the weight of summer heat and the walk to the surgery theater for summer lectures. Neither paid attention, too busy focusing on keeping the other from falling asleep in class. Luckily for both of them, West was knowledgeable enough in the field of surgical procedure that they could cheat their way through the worst of it.

Soon, the autumn semester was approaching like solid ground at the end of a long fall. They wouldn’t have the lab anymore, or the time, once classes started up again. Summer lectures and surgical demonstrations had been easy enough to plod through while sleep-deprived, but Halsey and Morgan were heading their classes and any slacking, particularly on West’s part, wouldn’t go unnoticed or unpunished, for long.

“I’m sorry,” Wilcox said on their last morning when West rejoined him on the edge of campus from wherever it was he stashed the lab keys for Puck to find. “That this didn’t work.”

West shook his head, leaning against the low wall that separated university property from the public sidewalk. He yawned into the back of his hand, sweat-damp hair hanging across his brow, eyes staying shut a bit too long. “It’s-“ he took a deep breath, “It’s a setback, yes. But now I know something’s missing. Something important. I haven’t the faintest idea what, but I will find it. Even if it kills me.”

“Don’t say things like that,” Wilcox elbowed him in the side. West just leaned with the blow and laughed at him.

“I think,” West said when he recovered, “I think I know where to look.”

Wilcox made a curious noise and West pulled a book out of his bag.

“I’m close to it.” He held up the book for Wilcox to see. It nearly fell apart in his hands. The wrinkled binding revealed where the spine cover just started to pull away. He passed it to Wilcox who held it as if it were a sick infant. The front cover was a soft tan, the back was pink, both were stained with watermarks and lightened with oils allowed to sit across the years. The crosshatch texture as apparent to the eye as it was to the hand. A logo was stamped into the cover; a human figure standing before an ocean.

“This was the first book I studied from,” West explained. “The one that made me think revivification was possible in the first place.”

Wilcox gingerly pulled open the cover. It crinkled and cracked at his touch, protective front page coming with it. Wilcox smoothed it down. The page was all green and grey paisley stained yellow and brown around the edges. The inside cover had the word “Marsden” written in thick black letters near the top left corner. The next page was the title:

Notes on Al Azif

Collected and Translated to English by H. Armitage

“I think I need to get my hands on the original text,” West mused.

Wilcox held his breath as he flipped through the book. The paper was thin and airy like a cheap Bible. West’s handwriting in pencil littered the margins with varying degrees of legibility. The pages were laden text and illustrations that made Wilcox feel a little queasy just for looking at them even without knowing their meanings. Black ink looked brown on the yellowed, too-thin pages. The passages Wilcox paused to read spoke of rituals and gods both New and Elder, strange plants, sicknesses made manifest by air and that created races all their own.

At the back, was a pair of pages without text. One was blank, and the other was filled with a single symbol in a red-brown ink that had soaked into the paper. A five pointed star with either an eye or small  lame in the center, Wilcox couldn’t tell with how much the ink had bled. It made his head hurt just looking at it.

He closed the book and handed it back to West who clutched it in both hands. They lingered together in silence watching the sun rise over the pitched gambrel roofs and the distant, black spires of local churches. Arkham, Wilcox had learned, woke more slowly in the summer, as if staying asleep would keep the heat and the toil of a new day out just a few hours longer.

Chapter Text

Miskatonic University Library. Arkham, Massachusetts

October 1902

A month and a half after their last night in the lab, West approached Wilcox in a secluded section of hallway asking for a favor. He claimed to finally know how to find what he was missing for the serum, but it would be more difficult to get their hands on than he originally anticipated. “I know it’s in there, Will.” He said with finality, “I saw the passage. I just need more time to translate it than the librarian would let me have.” He proposed, in hushed tones, that they sneak into the library when the staff had quit the building after close.

Wilcox had tried to argue that the idea was absurd. They could get caught, expelled, or even arrested. It was bad enough that they had stolen into a lab illegally all summer. Anything more was tempting fate and begging for disaster. Why not just get his translations from the book during the day over several visits; an argument West immediately shot down.

“Dr. Bywater’s friends with Halsey. He won’t let me back in the door.”

Wilcox realized in that moment he would never understand the standing feud West and Halsey had, but it was deep and personal.

For a moment, Wilcox considered telling West to just get Puck to help him again, but stopped himself before giving the idea a voice. They’d asked a lot of the boy over the summer, stealing the laboratory keys every week and covering for the missing supplies; including one incredibly elaborate scheme that had Puck stealing toxic substances and not-so-accidentally breaking the original bottles during his shift or, worse, other people’s shifts.  And they would probably be doing so again during the next holiday if West’s hunch was truly to be believed.

And that was how Wilcox ended up walking the perimeter of the Miskatonic campus after midnight on a Friday in Late October. West walked at his side, fresh notebook tucked into the pocket of his shirt. Their eyes strained to see in the light of the moon and distant streetlights. West had argued against lanterns for fear of being spotted and Wilcox had agreed. The less attention drawn to them the better. More than once, Wilcox could have sworn he saw something moving in the shadows between two buildings or heard a distant rumbling deep beneath the earth.

“Puck mentioned a guard dog,” West whispered as they drew near.

“For the library?” Wilcox was skeptical, but sure enough there was a large dog chained up outside the library door. It was a muscular thing, huge even at a distance, and lifted its massive head to sniff the air when the pair stopped in a shadow across the yard. “Well, I’ll be damned.” Wilcox mumbled under his breath. He leaned a little closer to West, “How do we get around it without it barking?” or attacking us, was left unsaid.

“We don’t,” West whispered back, practically pressing himself against Wilcox’s side to keep his voice low. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a small, black something Wilcox didn’t have the time to identify. West threw it without preamble as far from the door as he could get it, and the ensuing crash and noise set the dog to barking and running after it.

After a sharp yank to his elbow to pull him back to his senses, Wilcox and West both set off for the door at a full sprint. Something in Wilcox’s brain shut off during that run and he nearly collided with the door instead of stopping at it. Wilcox wasn’t the type to admit he was afraid of things. And, if he was being perfectly honest, he wasn’t afraid of much. But in those few moments all he could think of was:  There was a dog. It could still attack them.

He watched, numb, as West knelt down and took to the lock with a few small, thin instruments he seemingly pulled out of nowhere. Unable to help himself, Wilcox forced his attention outward, looking at the line of dog’s chain that disappeared beyond the corner of the building, taught and vibrating in time with the creature’s vicious barking. Deep breaths, he reminded himself, though the beating of his heart kept trying to convince him that hyperventilating was a better idea.

The chain was still taut when Wilcox got himself under control, but now he could hear human voices shouting. “West,” he growled out of the corner of his mouth, “hurry up.”

“I am,” West hissed back.

The chain was starting to go slack. The voices got closer.

Wilcox wondered how his family would react to finding out he was both expelled and in the hospital. Not well, he decided as he watched in frigid terror as the chain went more and more slack.

How had he let West talk him into this? At least with the lab there weren’t dogs or guards and they actually had the keys to that building.

West stood, there was sharp click.

Wilcox didn’t even notice the movement; his eyes were locked on sharp white teeth bared in a snarling muzzle at the bottom of the library steps. The beast’s brown eyes held his, head dipping low. Wilcox could only count his own heartbeats, his throat too tight for warnings. Teeth. Teeth and claws and why did it have to be dogs? He shifted his weight a bit, putting himself between West and beast. If it lunged, at least it would only get to one of them.

“It’s open,” West said over his shoulder. He hesitated once it was open.

Wilcox shoved him inside so roughly it knocked West from his feet before scrambling in after him and throwing his weight into the door to shut it again. West reached over him to lock it and tugged him by the elbow deeper into the library where the shelves could shield them from view. The door rattled after them as the guard dog barked and pawed at it. Voices shouted and the knobs were all checked. Yellow-orange lantern light flashed across the high windows, casting long shadows all around their hiding place among the bookshelves. Eventually, the lights retreated, and the voices faded to nothing. Even the dog’s whining and barking had stopped after a few more minutes. When silence fell, Wilcox could breathe again, and he put that first breath of cool night air to good use.

“What the hell?” He snarled at West, who was already straightening up to continue. Wilcox clumsily followed, “Are you trying to get us caught?”

“No,” West didn’t break stride, inching past him and out into the aisle running between the shelves toward the reference desk.

“What if they come back?” Wilcox wasn’t in the mood for curt answers.

“We’ll be gone before they do.”

Herbert.”

“What?” West stopped and rounded on him, fire in his eyes.

Wilcox deflated a little, his anger turning into something less jagged and gnawing. His heartbeat slowed down, finally, but his breathing didn’t quite even out. A year of words once carefully guarded and locked away made a bid for his voice. Fortunately for Wilcox, the winner was just, “Don’t scare me like that again.”

Something flickered across West’s face, and he turned on his heel before Wilcox could get a better look. “Let’s be quick about this.”

It was close enough to an apology that Wilcox was willing to take it as one.

They walked in silence to the reference desk.

“You want to tell me where you learned to pick locks?” Wilcox asked, forcing his voice to be light.

“Not particularly,” West laughed and glanced over his shoulder at his companion.

Wilcox very seriously considered shoving him again.

They wandered, the air around them less tense now, West’s sure feet guiding them through the reading rooms and offices; farther and farther from the library proper. Wide, arching doorways yawned to reveal foreboding blackness that seemed solid enough to touch if Wilcox just reached out far enough. Shelves creaked and papers rustled in an echo of a busy day. The painted floors reflected the moonlight that managed to reach it in swirling, impossible patterns creating a nightmarish hallucinatory landscape beneath their feet. Wilcox found himself gazing up at the black ceiling with its glittering, unlit light fixtures like too-close finite stars, to keep from feeling dizzy or nauseated. They stopped at a pair of double doors.

West took his time with both of them, crouching to the floor and pulling out what Wilcox now saw to be a hair pin bent out of shape and flat strip of smooth metal. “Wait here,” West said, once it was open and he was standing again.

“What? Why?” Wilcox’s frustration with the man came back with full, uncomfortable force.

“Just-“ West pulled out a book of matches, his notebook and writing supplies. “Just do this. I’d rather have you watching the door than in there with me. In case something does happen.”

Irrationally Wilcox considered decking the man and carrying him back out. It wouldn’t take much. “I don’t like this.” He admitted.

“I’ll owe you,” West promised, and disappeared into the room, closing the door behind him.

The hall seemed to stretch on for miles. He’d never been in this part of the library before, where the local histories and genealogies were kept. So much local folklore and records kept in one place. Maybe this was where he could find out why all the natives feared the night or where people went when they disappeared. What superstition was hidden in those books? What secrets? He remembered the destroyed shed, the hole in the Laney House roof, the moving shadow sounds outside his window and around corners. Would they even be documented? West wasn’t inclined to share secrets despite being Arkham-born and clearly knowing them. The same went for John Price and every other native son that Wilcox had met and asked questions of.

Don’t question where your dinner comes from.

Was that was this was? This making him wait outside because this room contained some written form of hushed whisper born of this patch of wet Massachusetts soil. Wilcox leaned against the doorframe, eyes closed a moment. Not that it helped much; the swirling shapes stayed printed behind his eyelids like a photograph. A frustrated breath puffed out of his nose before Wilcox could rethink it. He had trusted West enough to come on this little threat to their academic careers, hell to their very lives, why couldn’t West trust him in return?

What else was West hiding?

Not wanting to think on it too much, Wilcox occupied himself another way. He pressed his ear to the door, listening to stillness and the turning of pages before trying the knob so slowly it made his hand hurt. Still unlocked. Just a peek, he told himself, make sure West found what he was looking for, then he’d shut the door again.

He saw West at a large table, massive book laid out before him, all gilded pages and silken bookmarks. He’d acquired a candle from somewhere, or perhaps had it on him when they got there. He had told Wilcox he’d brought everything they would need for the jaunt, after all. The tome was bigger than Wilcox had imagined it, its pages thick, but still delicate judging by the reverent way West handled them. A heavy chain bound it to the desk it rested upon and rattled every time West turned the pages in bulk. After a few moments, West stopped turning pages somewhere around the second third of the text. He wrote notes furiously with his left hand and tracked his place with his right, eyes flickering between the two books. When West turned the page, Wilcox shut the door again.

He had no way of really telling how long West was in that room with its secrets. The light was too dim to read his watch and the windows, though large, showed very little of the night sky from this angle. It had grown quiet and still in a held breath sort of way. Wilcox thought his vision was darkening around the edges when the door rattled open beside him. “Let’s go.” West said, closing the door roughly. He sounded different. Far away.

“West? Are you-“

“Let’s go,” he said, slower and with more force. He jarred the door again and the lock clicked back into place.

Wilcox obeyed, but watched his companion more than the path back, nearly tripping twice in the process. He got a better look at West’s face, but there was nothing to see; just a passive expression around the glare of moonlight against his glasses. They spoke no words as they checked the windows for the guard dog, which was now sleeping in front of the door.  It took them a long while to find a window that could be opened and snuck out of, hidden on the far side of the building. They closed it as best they could without being able to lock it again from the outside.

They ran in long, silent strides away from the library and its dog, off campus entirely, and back into town. It was only when they were finally near the Laney House, the stars twinkling out with the threat of the approaching dawn, that they relaxed again.

“Thank you,” West said quietly, not looking at Wilcox, “for coming with me. I don’t think I would have had the courage to do all this without the help.” He went through his ring of keys twice before finding the one for the front door. “I meant it when I said I owe you for this and I will make good on that debt, Will. I promise.”

Wilcox, too tired and weary to care, waved him off. “It’s good, so long as this helps us.”

“It will.”

Walking up the stairs behind West was second nature now. He resisted the urge to lean on the wall as West opened his door, or against the door as Wilcox shut it behind them. His body, crying out in exhaustion for the comfort of his own bed back at his dorm, sank on to West’s couch, not even bothering to take off his shoes; West did the same beside him, their shoulders touching.

“May I ask you a question?” Grey light was leaking into the room when Wilcox could think again enough to speak. “Consider the question as a form of repayment.”

West was leaning against him. “I suppose.”

“What was that book you were reading?” Wilcox asked, “I mean I know it was the- what was it called-  Al Azif? But what’s in it?”

West took a deep breath through his nose. “You can just call it the Necronomicon. That’s the title in English.”

“It was a translation?”

“Latin.” West nodded, blue eyes glassy with fatigue as he pulled the notebook from his pocket. “It is said to contain both Alhazred’s genius and his madness.” His hands fidgeted with the cover. “He understood so much about life and death and things undefined in between. It’s” a sigh, “It’s fascinating to read. If a little spiritual for my tastes.”

“A holy text?” Wilcox laughed.

“Of sorts. It’s so many things all at once.”

Wilcox made a noise, not really buying the explanation, but too tired to argue with it. “Why not let me in the room? Didn’t want me reading over your shoulder?”

“I didn’t-“ West started, only to be cut off by a yawn and sinking more against his companion, nearly pitching them both sideways, “I didn’t know how much you knew about the book. I didn’t want to risk you figuring it out and trying to stop me.”

“Stop you?”

Wilcox could feel West smiling against his shoulder, “Ask any librarian in valley and they will tell you that nothing good has been born of the words in that book. They say it’s cursed or some other superstitious nonsense. But I needed to take notes from it. Alhazred was the only one that knew what I need to know and had the good sense to put it to paper.”

His words hung in the air for a while. Dawn was in full swing now and he could hear Mrs. Laney sniping at her husband over breakfast beneath their feet. Wilcox sighed, a resigned and graceless sound. “That dog could have mauled both of us. It was right there, Herbert.”

“I figured as much when you pushed me.”

“Better than getting mauled.” Wilcox countered.

West laughed, “Agreed.”

They petered off into sleepy silence again. After a while, they dozed off shoulder to shoulder, their feet propped up on the table. Wilcox woke once, to the sound of door closing too hard, and found West curled up against his side, breath warm in the crook of his neck. The pressure of West’s weight was making his arm tingly and numb. A bit of very careful shifting and he managed to free the limb without rousing his companion. Not knowing what else to do, Wilcox let his arm fall across West’s shoulders and sank further into the couch.

A part of him fought against the exhaustion, wanting to savor the moment as long as he could. Unfortunately the buzzing in his head and tingling heat behind his eyes won out and he was unconscious again.

When he woke again, Wilcox was alone on the couch.

Chapter Text

Dolores Laney’s Boarding House. Arkham, Massachusetts

January 1903

A gust of wind forced the door shut behind him with a slam loud enough to rattle the neighboring window. Wilcox flinched as soon as the knob was ripped from his hand, his other arm too occupied to catch it. It was too early for loud noises, the end of breakfast, but no one raised voices in complaint.

Curious, Wilcox peeked into the dining room only to catch sight of Mrs. Laney clearing the table, her husband skirting past Wilcox to get to the front door. The rest of the table was empty. Wilcox blinked in surprise; even Eliza from apartment three was absent and she never failed to take advantage of the landlady’s abundant hospitality.

“If you’re looking for your girl,” Mrs. Laney teased nodding to the ribbon wrapped bundle under Wilcox’s arm as she moved plates into the kitchen, “She took a plate up to her pa. Says he’s sick again.”

Wilcox bristled at the insinuation that he and Miss Atkinson had anything more than a passing animosity, but didn’t correct her. “And Mr. West?”

“Haven’t seen him in three days.” Mrs. Laney returned to the dining room, wiping her hands on her skirt. “Thinkin’ he’s sick too.” Something dark and vacant flashed behind her eyes; a memory she did not want surfacing unbidden. He’d seen the look a lot on the locals here. “Or, he gets… out of sorts every so often. He’s probably just having a spell. You know how he gets.”

Wilcox knew about these spells of Herbert’s. Usually a result of overworking himself; anxious fidgeting, fatigue bordering dangerously on exhaustion, refusal of company so adamant and harsh it had made Wilcox question their friendship the first time it had reared its ugly head a year and a half ago. There were times they’d get so bad he wouldn’t show up to class and had to get the notes from Wilcox later, all while refusing to see a doctor about his condition. “I’ll be fine, Will, stop fussing,” he’d respond with unwavering certainty when Wilcox pleaded. And he was right. Usually after a week or so he’d hit a wall, crash for a day, and be back to normal the next –well, Herbert’s definition of normal- until the next depressive spell came.

Mrs. Laney flashed a smile so false it looked painful, “Take his mail in for him, will you?”

“Will do.” Wilcox, frowning, nodded and left Mrs. Laney to her devices.

At the top of the stairs, Wilcox fished a rather impressive stack of letters out of West’s mailbox. He tucked the wad under his arm alongside his parcel and knocked.

“Who is it?” West’s voice called.

Wilcox hesitated a second. “It’s me,” he called back, “Mrs. Laney demands you empty your mailbox, you heathen.”

There was a pause. Wilcox took the opportunity to leaf through West’s mail, in case the man required more incentive to open the door. It wouldn’t be the first time Wilcox had stolen a letter from Randolph Carter to get West to give up his hermit tendencies. Apparently, Mr. Carter was still in Florida judging by the return address written with letters wobbly enough to imply drunkenness.

Then, Wilcox heard a chair scraping the floor.

The lock on the door clicked open, but the door remained closed even as West’s footsteps retreated. Taking the invitation for what it was, Wilcox let himself in.

West was back at his desk. He looked terrible; clean-shaven by some sort of miracle, but hair unbrushed and hanging in his dark rimmed eyes, made darker by the shadows cast by his glasses. He’d dug out an old sweater; the cream colored hand-knit one three sizes too large with fraying, greyed hems Wilcox recognized form West’s last battle with a head cold. Curled up in his chair, one leg tucked under him, Wilcox almost couldn’t make out the hot water bottle in his lap. On the desk was the black notebook, Wilcox’s handbook. West had taken to updating it when Wilcox went home to visit his family. He claimed it was easier than sending all the information via letters.

“So I’m a heathen now am I?” West asked, he sounded as tired as he looked. He cleared off a portion of his desk for Wilcox to set the mail. Wilcox set down the letters and the parcel in the space.

Wilcox chewed the inside of his lip, a sharp wire around his heart tightening. He draped his coat over the back of West’s armchair in silence, not trusting his voice.

“What’s this?” West asked, pointing to the bow on the package when Wilcox finally faced him again.

“Christmas present,” he replied.

West frowned, looking at the tag. To H from W written in the nicest handwriting Wilcox had been able to manage in the few moments he’d had to address the thing between purchasing it and hiding it from his nosy cousins. It wasn’t an overly large gift, a compact, slightly lumpy cylinder wrapped in brown package paper and dressed up with a red linen bow. “For me?” West asked, tugging at one of the bow ends until the loop shrank to nothing. “Why?”

“You’re my friend,” Wilcox offered, “And you don’t seem like you get many of the things.” He nodded to the well-loved sweater, then let his eyes flick to the old books, the threadbare quilt on West’s bed, the secondhand furniture before finally settling back on West.

The man had followed Wilcox’s gaze and conceded the point. “What is it?”

“Open the damn thing,” Wilcox pressed, laughing.

That was enough argument for West, who pulled the second loop loose and gingerly pulled the paper free. Inside was a small, tooled dark brown leather case sealed with a gold clasp. West made a curious noise, pulling the kit out of its paper nest. He prodded at the clasp a bit, eyes steadily widening as he realized just what his gift was.

“My god, Will, it’s lovely.” He breathed, unrolling the surgery kit to look at all the glittering steel tools within. “You didn’t have to do this.” Delicate fingers passed over cold steel and soft red velvet lining, taking inventory; forceps in several shapes and sizes, scalpels and knives, long scraping hooks, syringes, and curving catheter tubes, anything a respectable surgeon could want in a pinch.  He took in everything with an air of such reverence, Wilcox felt his skin prickle at the passing notion of that look being pointed, even just once, at him instead of an object. Pouches containing suture needles secured in patches of fabric and spools silk thread were opened and promptly closed as soon as their contents were seen.

West looked up at him suddenly, an expression of faint alarm making him look even more exhausted and ill, “I didn’t get anything for you.”

“Don’t worry about it.” Wilcox laughed, heart in his throat. “It fine, really. My family more than covered for you.” He left out the part where he returned several of his family’s gifts to purchase the kit in West’s hands.

West chewed his lip and said nothing. The silence continued even as he tore himself from the gift, putting everything back in its place and clicking the clasp shut. “I’m not done with the book,” West confessed when it dragged on. “I- I lost a day more than I was expecting. But I should be able to get it done today.”

“Don’t push yourself,” Wilcox said quietly, making his way back to the desk.

“I’m fine-“

“Herbert, you look like death.” Wilcox cut him off, short and harsh. His mother’s voice whenever he tried to convince her he was okay with obvious lies. The you’re going back to bed, mister voice.

West didn’t have a response for that. He reared back when Wilcox reached out to touch him. “I’m convalescent, Will, it’s-“

Wilcox touched him anyway, the back of his hand brushing West’s forehead. Warm, but not overly so. No fever then. “When was the last time you slept?”

“Will-“ Exasperated refusal.

Wilcox forcibly tipped Herbert’s head by the jaw. His eyes (so startlingly, beautifully blue up close) weren’t glassy, just a little bloodshot around the edges and bruised. Insomnia, but not too bad; he probably slept sometime yesterday. He was paler than normal, anemic looking, and his reaction time was sluggish. “Have you eaten today?”

“Stop mothering me, Will.” West snapped, shaking his head to make Wilcox release him.

A series of spiteful retorts bubbled up in Wilcox’s chest. We’re doctors, one said, care is my job. If you had a mother I wouldn’t have to, said another. Please, let me take care of you, said a third. He swallowed them all down along with the faintly nauseated feeling that came with the realization that he had not only been touching West’s face but he was close enough to do so again if he only reached out.

“You still contagious?” Wilcox took a hasty step back, and lilted his voice on the up-tick of the question to mask his nerves in a joke.

West rolled his eyes. “No,” and he seemed certain.

Wilcox opted to trust his judgment and collapsed on West’s couch, booted feet hanging over the arm.

“What are you doing?”

“You said you needed the day to finish the book I came so far out of my way for,” Wilcox heard West scoff in disbelief, but plowed onward. “I might as well linger until you’re done with it so I don’t have to come back out when it’s done.” A ball of crumpled paper soared over the back of the couch and struck him on the chin.

West didn’t kick him out. In fact, he seemed to enjoy the company; encouraging Wilcox to talk while he worked, and Wilcox was more than happy oblige. He described the controlled disaster that was his family’s coming together, just like it was every year. Wilcox even managed a few decent impressions of his great aunt and her third husband as they argued over whether or not Wilcox was betraying his heritage by not going into one of the family businesses. Herbert nearly choked on his tea when Wilcox got the falsetto just right on the “Well I never!” she’d shouted when Vanessa had returned a sharp comment with a particularly nasty one of her own at Christmas dinner.

Wilcox went on a long tangent about the wave of Typhoid that swept through Chicago putting dozens of people in the hospital. “I think they traced it back to the new canal. Or the well. Whatever it is, I hope they fix it soon.” Two of his cousins had come down with the disease. When he’d left, they’d been on bed rest at home, but their fevers were still high enough to make them delirious. He’d given their mothers what advice he could and left with their gratitude and promises to keep him updated on their condition.

Occasionally, he’d get up and bring things to West; a glass of water, tea, milk from downstairs, and would demand West drink them as he worked. At noon, he came back up the stairs armed with toast and a few less-easily-missed items from Mrs. Laney’s pantry and browbeat West until he picked at the shared plate. West rarely rose from his chair, and when he did, stiff limbed and wobbly, he wasn’t up and about for very long.

At supper time, Wilcox went downstairs again to fetch plates for both of them. Mrs. Laney’s meal schedule was a strict one and she very rarely let people just take plates from her table. If you didn’t show up and on time you were out of luck in her book. But a few unnecessarily verbose lies about the severity of West’s spell, allowed Wilcox to get away with it. “Just take care of him, dear.” Mrs. Laney sighed, fond, and shooed him with a wave of her hand.

When he came back up with the plates, West took over the conversation; giving Wilcox an abridged version of his translation of Alhazred’s text to disguise the fact that he wasn’t really eating. If he went long enough without touching it, Wilcox would nudge the plate closer with the side of his own fork and that got a couple of placating bites from the man before he was rattling on to the next topic, dinner forgotten once more.

“I think,” he said, when he finally ignored Wilcox’s nudging entirely. “I already have one of the new ingredients.”

“Oh?” Wilcox shifted in place, armchair creaking and his knees bumping West’s desk. He’d pulled it up to close, but didn’t really care.

West nodded, pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose, and fishing around for something hidden behind the books on the shelf; where he’d hidden most of his valuables. “Alhazred mentions at one point that in order to,” he cleared his throat and said in his softer, monotone reading voice, “ ‘permeate the mind and body’ one needs, ‘something more than ordinary water. Liquid steeped in starlight.’ “ When he straightened he was holding a large specimen jar filled with liquid and sealed tightly that he set on the desk between their plates.

Wilcox took it, holding the thing in his lap. The glass was cold; nearly frosted despite the warmth of the room. The liquid inside was clear, but ever so slightly thicker than normal water. More like a thin, transparent oil with a pearlescent shine of purples, yellows, and greens when the light hit it just right. “What is this?”

“Water,” West replied glibly, smirking a little before clarifying, “From the blasted heath.”

“The what?”

West blinked at him and laughed, “The blasted heath. You know- Oh, wait- It’s-“ He started and stopped, flustered a second by Wilcox’s apparent lack of common knowledge, “You know old Ammi Pierce’s place; that little farmhouse out past the edge of town?” When Wilcox didn’t seem to get it, West added, “Out in the glen; West by Northwest past Meadow Hill and the old Chapman place?”

“Yes?” Wilcox arched a brow. He’d been to Meadow Hill on one of his walks about Arkham and had spotted a distant cottage. He hadn’t been aware anyone lived there though.

“Past that, a good clip up the road, is this huge stretch of wasteland all grey and ashy.” It was starting to sound familiar, but only vaguely; information Wilcox had was lifted from overheard conversations, “No one’s lived there in ages.” West scowled, thinking, “A meteorite fell there in… ‘83 think? Or ’82? Something like that. And the people cleared out a year or so after.”

Yes, the meteor bit was familiar, he’d heard about it in reference to something called the Strange Days, and the death of a local farmer’s family. Wilcox nodded along. He hadn’t thought that that and this blasted heath thing shared a location.

“There’s a disused well there; by where the road used to be. Puck and I went out there shortly after you went home. There was still water in it. Luckily it hadn’t frozen over.” He smiled, and something in it lifted the hairs on the back of Wilcox’s neck. “I’m not sure if it can freeze.”

“Is it safe?” Wilcox asked, handing the jar back to West.

“I wouldn’t recommend drinking it,” West joked. Or Wilcox believed he was joking. “Not that I would regardless of its safety; I have to make this last.”

“Why is that?” Wilcox busied himself collecting plates and pushing the armchair back.

“Puck may have outright refused to go back with me on threat of, and I quote, ‘making that face of yours a little less angelic.’ And I’m not too keen on going back either.” Another one of those flashes of blank darkness, painfully like Mrs. Laney’s earlier, “Though I suppose I could if I had to.”

Wilcox didn’t press him on the subject of either the heath or Puck’s threat despite every protective instinct in him demanding he do so. When the urge grew too strong to ignore, Wilcox fled the room under the guise of keeping tidy and leaving West’s bemused look well out of his line of sight.

What would he even ask: how dare Puck make such a threat? No. If the people of Arkham were so reluctant to talk about this thing, Wilcox couldn’t rightfully blame the boy for not wanting to go back there.  Why had West taken him in the first place? Wilcox would have gone on that little adventure and wouldn’t have made threats to that pretty face afterward. Impatience maybe? Puck was native to Innsmouth; more familiar with the area. He’d probably known what the heath was the minute West brought it up to him between thinly coded gossip and inside jokes Wilcox couldn’t hope to understand. “Angel Face” he imagined the boy joking, fond but wary as he always was when Wilcox managed to eavesdrop on the two, “are you out of your damned mind?”

And West, of course, would scoff and goad him into doing it anyway.

Wilcox bit the inside of his cheek until he tasted metal. He wasn’t jealous. He wasn’t.

That sounded false even inside his own head.

But, Wilcox reasoned, Puck was expendable, in case something went wrong. No one noticed him passing, tampering, stealing things. No one would miss him when he stopped; except those like West, inconvenienced until a replacement could be found. Wilcox sighed, leaning over the sink, hesitating in going back upstairs until he’d collected himself.

When he finally did come back upstairs, West was back to work and only spared him a glance before Wilcox collapsed on the couch. “Mrs. Laney recruit you for chores? You were down there a while.”

Wilcox elected not to answer.

“You know, if this works,” West broke the silence sometime later, though how much time Wilcox couldn’t be sure between his wandering thoughts and dozing off. “We might be able to start human trials by the end of the year. Perhaps even sooner.”

Wilcox muffled a yawn with the back of his hand. “You think Halsey will go for it?”

“Who said we needed Halsey’s approval?” the conspiratorial tone in West’s voice made Wilcox’s heart skip.

“The Medical Association’s board of ethics,” he quipped back holding up his hand so West could see him counting the organizations off on his fingers, “The medical school given he is directly responsible for our continued enrollment. Because he’s the dean. The city. The county. The state.”

“Fine, fine,” West cut him off when Wilcox took a breath to keep listing things, “We’ll try to get Halsey’s approval. But the human trials will have to start whether he approves or not.”

“Herbert,” Wilcox dropped his hand and laughed up at the ceiling, stained and buckling in places, “that is so-“ appropriate for you to say, “Rash. So ill-advised. Too-too,” he gestured, fumbling for words.

“Too what? Like the lightning?” West supplied, voice a bit higher. Wilcox’s smile fell a bit. He could hear laughter in West’s voice but couldn’t place its kind. He sat up and West was sitting back in his chair looking back at him with the vainest attempt at a muffled smile on his face, “Which doth cease to be ‘ere one could say ‘it lightens’?

“Did you- Did you just quote Shakespeare at me? Again?” Wilcox deadpanned and West erupted with laughter. “Also, wait-“ He sat up a little straighter, propping his elbow on the back of the couch, “is that supposed to imply I’m-?” he continued, cutting off with a frustrated little noise which only made West laugh harder, “You’re insufferable.”

“You make it so easy, Will!” West choked out between fits, glancing up at Wilcox all glittering eyes and pink in the face. It was the healthiest he’d looked since Wilcox had arrived that morning.

Wilcox’s chest shrunk a size, overwhelmed. He collapsed back on the couch and tried to catch his breath, dizzy and lightheaded, like he’d just run the distance between the library and the boarding house again.

West finally managed to collect himself with a deep breath and a few more shaky laughs. “The book’s done.” He announced, “You are free from my ‘insufferable’ company.” His chair scraped the floor.

Wilcox sat up, adjusting his boots and stretching out his legs. He heard the soft sound of West’s socked feet coming up behind him. “O,” he put on his most dramatic voice, smirking when the footfalls stopped, “wilt thou leave me so unsatisfied?”

Behind him, West let out a startled breath through his nose and Wilcox called it a victory.

That is, until West replied in the same, laughing, feminine voice from before, “What satisfaction couldst thou have tonight?

Th’ exchange of thy love’s faithful vow for mine,” Wilcox quipped back, turning in his spot to get a look at the barely restrained mirth on West’s face again. He wanted to look him in the eye and dare him to keep the scene going.

But he’d miscalculated. Horribly.

West wasn’t a few feet away, like Wilcox had originally suspected. So, when he turned, propping himself up on his knees, he was nearly nose to nose with the man. The back of the couch was the only thing keeping them from actually colliding with each other. Wilcox’s breath caught, mouth snapping shut, and unable to look away. West held his gaze, eyes dark in the low light, shielded by long lashes and glittering lenses. The slight pink in his cheeks and ears deepened.

Had Wilcox been conscious of himself enough to blink he might have missed it. The way West’s eyes flicked down for less than a heartbeat, the flash of white as he bit his lip before his gaze returned. The way he breathed, slow and deep through his nose and shifted his weight closer in the tiniest of increments.

Oh.

Wilcox felt an urge to shiver ripple through his muscles, but didn’t give in to it. His mouth went so dry it burned all the way down his throat and made his chest ache. He braced his arms against the back of the couch and tilted forward-

Only to be bashed in the nose with firm leather; the smell of paper and dried ink nearly enough to make him sneeze. West whacked him one more time for good measure, firmly cementing Wilcox back in the present and safely on his side of the couch.

Cease thy strife,” West said, in a breathless version of his regular voice, “and leave me to my grief.”

It was like being doused in ice water. Rattled, Wilcox took the book from West’s hand and allowed the other man to retreat a few steps back. “Thanks,” Wilcox tried to say, but it caught in his throat and set him to coughing. “-Er.”

“You should go before it gets too dark,” West replied, a dismissal; uncertain and without teeth for once. Wilcox could argue with it, but no arguments came; just dull aches and regret.

West followed Wilcox to the door, holding it open to let him pass.

“Get some rest,” Wilcox scolded as an excuse to linger in West’s doorway. “Decent rest.”

“Yes, doctor,” no effort went into hiding his annoyance.

A sigh. “Just-“ Wilcox gave up, “Good night, Herbert.” It came from somewhere deep in his chest, too soft. Too sincere and pained. His voice, for those three words, betrayed him so wholly some irrational part of Wilcox considered never speaking to West again to prevent it from happening a second time.

West heard it too, eyes widening a bit, annoyed expression softening. He took a deep breath. “I shall say ‘good night’ til it be morrow.”

It tugged at Wilcox; invited him back inside, back to his spot on the sofa, his spot at West’s side. A compromise, a deferral, and enough to chase away the heavy weight of rejection that had settled in the pit of Wilcox’s soul. He could accept this much.

West closed the door.

Chapter Text

Miskatonic University Department of Medical Research. Arkham, Massachusetts

January, 1904

Puck was waiting for him outside of the research building, keys in hand. He tipped curiously to one side and arched a brow when he noticed Wilcox was alone.

“Said he needed to fetch something,” Wilcox answered. “Are you going to let me in?” There wasn’t much he could do without West and his formula books and that jar of bizarre water, but he could at least set up and wait for him.

Puck shrugged, “Sure,” and turned to unlock the door. He peeked inside a few seconds before motioning for Wilcox to follow.

“He said,” Wilcox began, not wanting to walk the halls in silence, “The two of you went out to the –er-‘Blasted’ something?”

“The Heath,” Puck offered, not looking at him. “Yeah. We did. He talking about going back? ‘Cause he can take you this time. I’m not going.”

Wilcox scowled. “Why?” he asked, “What’s out there?”

“Evil.” Puck said with the gravity and sincerity of someone that genuinely believed in something like tangible evil.

A huffing laugh puffed itself out of his chest without Wilcox’s consent, “What? You can’t be serious.”

Puck rolled his eyes and opened the door to the lab West and Wilcox had claimed as their own the previous summer. “You’re not from here. You don’t understand.”

Wilcox ground his teeth and may have set down his things with more force than was wise.

“But there’s-“ Puck gestured, hunting for words that could possibly give a visible shape to his words Wilcox might be able to see and understand. “There’s- There’s- The Indians –Pocumtucks? I think. Sentinel Hill fucks. Them. They got this… this story.” He hopped up on the edge of the low bench top without bracing his hands against it first; a couple quicksteps and single, surprisingly graceful leap, momentum sliding him a few inches across the polished surface. “Older, crazy woman in Innsmouth used to screech it at anyone that got to close to ‘er. They talk about spirits. Beasts that live in the mist; the fog that comes off the river.”

“That’s ridiculous-“ Wilcox started, but Puck silenced him with a look.

“I know, but- But the old woman used to say that the Beasts were strange. Beyond describing, I think she said. Powerful like gods. Used to warn people that buildin’ Christian churches on the river wasn’t a good idea.”

“Why?”

Puck shrugged, “Somethin’ crazy about the Christian God not being about to hear folks over the whispers of the Mist Beasts.”

He felt something pull in his chest and set to vibrating like plucked harp string. “Whispers?” Wilcox leaned against the edge of the counter, current tasks forgotten. He was interested in the story more for its novelty than its truth. He’d forgotten how much he missed the local gossip.

A nod, “They- They talk to people in their sleep. Whisper into their dreams and take ‘em to strange places. Lady used to say it was worse in White Folks. Especially the ones from money.” Wilcox scoffed, but Puck ignored it and powered forward, “She said they’re the only ones with enough free time and foolishness to actually listen to ‘em. White folks think they’re indestructible. They go… poking around in places they don’t belong. Looking for things that don’t need finding just to say they found it.”

Wilcox thought of West and the Necronomicon. “And what do they say?” he laughed, humoring the kid as something more than idle curiosity pulled him along. Something closer to fear, “These Mist Beasts.” He pushed off the counter and started setting up.

“Dunno.” Puck raised his voice a little when Wilcox ducked into the storage closet. “Nothing worth listening to I suspect. They never talked to me. Felt ‘em trying at the Heath.” He shivered and shook his head. “No. I’m not listenin’ to them. Not lettin’ them have me. People up in Innsmouth, I’ve seen ‘em worshiping the damn things. Churches, Holidays, whole thing. Asking for things; good fish and what not. Trading for things and inviting that devil worship with open arms. Started getting real bad around the time Angel Face left; knew more than I did at the time that’s for damn sure.”

Wilcox swallowed hard, a feeling like ice water down his back. It took him a few clumsy tries to light the burners.

“Don’t know why those folks bother.” Puck was still talking when Wilcox finally came back to himself, practically laying on the bench to lean in close and whisper, “The Mist Beasts- They don’t listen to prayers and all that. Pocumtucks knew that, I think. They don’t care. They only ever do one thing.”

“And that is?” Wilcox had to pretend he wanted to hear the answer, even though he knew it couldn’t be good.

Puck held his gaze for what felt like ages. “Eat,” he drawled, “All they do is eat.” A rattling from the door broke the silence between them. Wilcox took a deep breath, shivering, and trying to put the thoughts out of his mind, focused on the equipment in front of him

“Looks like Angel Face is here.”

“Why do you call him that?” Wilcox asked suddenly, not looking up. “He has a name.”

A stricken look flashed across the boy’s face so fast Wilcox nearly missed it. “You do have eyes, don’t you, Mr. Cox?” Puck laughed, suddenly chipper, hopping down from the bench before West could yell at him about contamination again.

West came in with his usual supplies; a second-hand medical bag clinking with reagents either stolen or purchased under false pretenses, a few books tucked into his coat. Under his left arm was a large metal cage housing what appeared to be a large, sleeping alley rat. He set the cage on the counter and the bag on the bench before Puck drew his attention away.

The two shared a hushed conversation. Puck passed West the keys and quit the room.

“What was that about?” Wilcox asked, poking at the cage. The rat was still breathing. The thing was absurdly large, closer to the size of a small, sickly raccoon.

“Puck’s not going to be able to let us back in in the summer,” West explained, lining up bottles and flipping through his notes, “He’s gotten a better job offer. Replacing someone at Christchurch.” At the end of the row of dark glass he put his jar of pearlescent water. His hands lingered on it for a few seconds.

“Grave digging?”

“He starts next week. It could play to our advantage. When the human trials start.” There was a long beat of silence before West added, “Provided we don’t get approval, of course. Now, come on. We need to get started. Make the most of our last night.”

West tore two pages out of one of the notebooks; one containing the recipe for their most successful venture yet. One where they had gotten a twitch and two heartbeats from a rat of maybe half the size of West’s current specimen. The other was blank. He asked Wilcox to take over the writing and flashed his own borderline-illegible sample as an excuse. Wilcox was sure it was just because West wanted to be the one doing most of the actual mixing and measuring, but accepted the role of transcriber and assistant without complaint.

In the vial that would ultimately be the vessel for their serum, West poured a conservative amount of the Heath Water, transferred via a small beaker. He filled the bottle about half way and set it, interestingly, in the sill of the open window, closed, and set to work at the bench.

It didn’t take long to follow the recipe, a few of their reagents still in working order from their last stint in the lab before Christmas. Wilcox checked and double checked the list even as he read it off to West; Digitalis. Ferric citrate. Glycerin. Tincture of mercury.

They didn’t spend much of the night waiting, but the time they did spend was agonizing. Wilcox caught himself glancing at the bottle in the windowsill. Checking on it, as if someone would snatch it and foil them so close to the end. Some crazed specter going on about how some things were never meant to be found.

In the end, it was still there. The bulk of the serum complete, West bid Wilcox fetch the bottle with a gesture. West touched the edges of the glass containing their strange concoction, testing its temperature. He pulled his hand back, waited a moment, then tried again until it was to his liking, and then poured the mixture into the bottle with the Heath Water.

Wilcox couldn’t recall having ever seen anything like it. The Heath Water didn’t want to mix with the serum, instead it bubbled and floated to the top through the solution like oil settling atop water. When it did, Wilcox noticed a faint, green-white glow coming from the Heath Water. When he looked up, West was smiling, cautiously triumphant. So it was supposed to do that, then.

“We should get the specimen ready.” Was all West said, and Wilcox set to work doing just that.

The room grew eerily still as they set about the task. The air itself watching with bated breath as they packed up all unnecessary equipment and wiped down benches as they waited for the drugs to kick in and the rat to stop breathing. Wilcox took note of the rat’s vital signs as soon as it was still; nothing. But they had to be sure. He took them again once all but their little section of bench had been scoured.

West took the serum bottle in his right hand, shaking it to mix the two reluctant liquids and bathing the station in a bright, ghostly glow. Wilcox bit his lip sharply to make sure he wasn’t dreaming. He’d never seen a liquid glow so intensely short of molten metal. With his left, West picked up a syringe.

“I’ll need you to take the notes this time,” West said, nodding to his usual notebook. “Just go to the first blank page. I’ll clean it up later.”

Wilcox slid the notebook over along with a pencil and his pocket watch. He wrote at the top of a blank page, a finger’s width away from the tear that had been the page before it:

New Serum Recipe (Adjusted by H. West) Living Specimen test.  Jan. 9 1903. Specimen: black rat; local to Arkham, MA (Acquired by H. West). Method: Overdose of Belladonna. (Delivered by W. Cox) No vital signs seen in approx. 10 mins. (Taken by W. Cox.)

West spread the creature’s fur between two of his fingers, needle of the half-full syringe poised over its neck. Silently, Wilcox wished him luck, and nodded for the man to continue.

The needle pierced the flesh easily, like it offered no resistance at all. West let the serum sink in slowly; fifteen seconds for the whole injection, and pulled his hands away to set the whole thing aside.

No signs of life at first injection. Wilcox wrote and laughed when West dictated the same thing to him a few seconds after.

West checked for vital signs. The two waited with bated breath for something. Anything. “No signs after five minutes,” Wilcox called out when the minute finally ticked by on his watch. To his credit, West didn’t let his face fall. Didn’t outwardly waver in his resolve at all, just kept all his focus on the rat, waiting.

Then, it twitched, startling both of them; Wilcox nearly falling over, West ripping his hands away. Blue eyes flitted up practically sparkling with excitement; Wilcox shifted under the look too warm and too cold all at once. The rat gave a few more increasingly violent spasms, then stilled, and Wilcox hastily scribbled down notes.

Rolling up his sleeves, West reached out to touch the creature.

It curled around his hand and sunk its teeth into the pale skin of West’s left wrist.

With a loud, shrill yelp, West instinctively tried to pull his hand away but the rat latched on and moved with him, clear off the bench, teeth ripping a gash into his arm as it held on for dear life. Wilcox slid the notebook across the bench, out of harm’s way, and dashed to help. The thing shrieked at an impossible volume when the pair managed to wrestle it off of West’s wrist. It twisted and snapped its teeth at both of them, but focused on West even as they managed to hurl it out the window and into the yard. Wilcox shut the window behind it with such force he worried a moment that he might have cracked it.

“It bit me!” West cried once they’d caught their breaths. He sounded beside himself with joy; a wide, bright grin splitting his face and crinkling the corners of his sparkling eyes. “It bit me! It tried to bite you- Will, we did it- It was alive!” He was laughing and practically bouncing with giddy energy. “It worked!” He lifted his hand to adjust his glasses and that’s when Wilcox caught sight of the wound.

It didn’t seem deep, but it was wide and bleeding profusely. Rivulets of bright red snaking down West’s arm and soaking into the rolled sleeve of his white shirt or dripping onto the floor. Wilcox, for all his staring and trying to get a word in edgewise, couldn’t seem to draw West’s attention to the wound.

“It understood threats, Will! It made noise! And we were certain it was-“

So, Wilcox took off his tie, crossed the room, and pressed the silk to West’s bleeding wrist as hard as he could before bodily dragging West back to the window so he could get a better look at it. “Ow- What in the-?” West only resisted a little until he saw all the blood on his arm. “Oh.”

The injury didn’t look nearly as bad up close. It was actually two deep cuts, from the top and bottom teeth where the rat had latched on, and some tearing around the edges still steadily oozing dark blood. The wounds were closer to bone than the veins, luckily, so Wilcox wouldn’t need to worry about him bleeding out all over the lab. “It’ll need stitches,” he says, tilting West’s wrist this way and that, completely forgetting the man attached to the arm was pressed uncomfortably close to his side. “And a rabies shot.”

“I brought my kit-”

“I want better light to do this by,” Wilcox said, shaking his head. He wrapped the wound tightly enough to threaten West’s circulation. “I’ll put them in at home. Just try not to make them worse.”

West made an affirmative noise and held his wounded arm over his head, stabilizing it with his right.

Wilcox tended to the mess in the lab, scolding whenever West offered what help he could. Eventually, he got the picture and settled himself by the door, talking at Will as he disinfected the benches.

“What should I tell the clinic,” he asked, smirking, when they were finally able to leave, “when I show up for the shot? Might as well have someone to corroborate the lie.”

Wilcox shoved him with his elbow.

They walked back to the Laney house in companionable silence. West’s coat hid the worst of the blood and Wilcox had the free hands to carry his things. Something followed them a street over once they left the campus. Wilcox couldn’t see it, but he knew it was there. A few times he tried to spot it over West’s shoulder, but never got more than an echo of movement.

The house was sleepy and quiet and the pair did their best to maintain that air as they snuck up the stairs like delinquent runaways. West leaned against the door once they were both inside, shrugging out of his coat and letting it pool on the floor around his feet.  “Towels are under the sink, right side.” He said, pushing off and crossing to his desk.

Wilcox nodded, his coat going over the back of the sofa as he passed it. He ducked into the small closet washroom and dug around in the only open cabinet West had there; the mirror was firmly secured in place and the left-hand cabinet beneath the sink was either stuck fast or locked. Though, why someone would lock a bathroom cabinet was beyond Wilcox’s reasoning. He shrugged it off, set to washing his hands and wetting one of the towels. When he came out, West was sitting on the edge of his bed, field surgery kit spread out over the quilt.

West slowly pulled the makeshift bandage off his wrist, wincing when the dried blood made it stick. “Damnation, “ he hissed, giving the worst of it a sharp tug.  The bleeding slowed to a sluggish ooze when West finally managed to get the tie off him.

Wilcox slid the kit down more and sat next to West, taking the man’s arm before he could cause any more damage. “Are you alright?” He couldn’t help but ask as he set West’s arm on the folded, dry towel balanced over of his thigh and set to wiping off the worst of the dried blood with the wet one. “How’s the pain?”

“Hurts,” West said, laughing, “But I’ve had worse. Best get on with it, Will.” He closed his eyes, taking deep, even breaths as he worried his lip between his teeth. He stayed as still as he could; which was a nearly unnatural stillness in Wilcox’s opinion. Like he was in some sort of meditative trance. Or dead.

Wilcox swallowed around the lump in his throat and dug through the kit for the curved needle and silk suture thread stored at the bottom. He threaded the needle, and watched West breathe out of the corner of his eye. Running his thumb over the swelling edge of the wound, Wilcox said, “Only you would be excited about getting mauled by a rat.” And sank the point of the needle in for the first stitch.

West winced, but laughed through it. “It wasn’t some random bite.” A long pause as he took another slow breath, “And, I’d hardly call it a mauling.”

“Yes because your standards are so high.” Out the other side. Loop. Tighten. West scoffed at him and Wilcox added, bracing for the next stitch. “Why do I get the feeling,” pierce, “that if you hadn’t done this to your dominant hand,” out, loop, tighten, “you’d be doing this yourself?”

“Wouldn’t be the first time I gave myself stitches.” West quipped back, his voice growing lighter as the pain really started to set in. Wilcox could feel him flexing his arm every time he pulled a suture tight. His breath stuttered a little on each new stitch, but he didn’t flinch or tug his arm away.

“Now that’s a story I’d like to hear,” Wilcox snickered to himself. Another finished. Then, the last one. “There. That should hold it.” He released West to put away the needle and dig out a gauze bandage to soak.

He’d just opened the bottle of clove oil when he saw West inspecting the stitches closely , pressing tentative fingers to the edges of the reddened, torn skin. “Your bedside manner is fantastic, but your actual stitches could use some serious work.” He glared at the four black knots, “That’s going to scar something awful.”

Wilcox rolled his eyes and snatched West’s arm back, pressing the soaked linen to the wound. The astringent smell of clove overpowering the blood that had settled in the air. A patch of dry cloth went on top of that and then a wrapping. “Alright, jackass. That’s quite enough. You know the drill with these. Please don’t tear them.” He tied off the bandage halfway up West’s forearm with a neat bow.

“Yes, doctor,” West teased, flexing his hand and testing the tightness of the bandages. When he found they were to his satisfaction, West pitched backward, stretching out on his bed to get the stiffness out of his shoulders. Wilcox couldn’t imagine what it was like to manage being that still especially while in pain; he vowed to ask West to teach him at some point.

But now he was distracted; half-heartedly cleaning and packing West’s medical supplies back into the kit. He rose, collecting their scattered things and busying himself with tidying up. The amusement practically rolled off West when he noticed, but Wilcox ignored him. Rinsing the blood off his hands and splashing cold water on his face as he lingered over West’s sink, Wilcox finally tried to wrap his mind around what had happened.

The serum had worked. West’s rambling came back to him all at once, jumbling with his own thoughts. It had worked enough that the rat had had the instinct to bite a perceived threat and hold on. It had been alive as far as they could tell. Whatever it was West had found in that book…

What Puck had said-

He felt equal parts elated and freezing.

When he stepped back out, West was still stretched out on the bed, arms above his head so his hands dangled off the edge. His shirt, rumpled and bloodied, had come untucked and the soft, white fabric of his undershirt peeking out beneath the hem. “I can’t believe it, Will,” He said, pulling Wilcox out of his thoughts. “The first try- The first trial with the new serum and we’ve already seen success. At this rate we could propose human trials by the end of next year. Hell, the end of summer!” He lifted his hands, long fingers stretching toward the ceiling. “This is amazing, Will. Please tell me you got all that down on paper.”

“Up until you got bitten,” Wilcox said, sheepish and feeling a warmth chase away the chill in his blood, starting in his face and working its way down. “Then, I’ll admit, I wasn’t exactly focused on bookkeeping.” He saw the corner of West’s mouth hitch up in a smile as he sat on the bed beside him. “I’ll add it in later.”

“Yes, you must,” West pushed himself up with his good arm crowding into Wilcox’s space a little. “Spare no details.”

“Including how you screamed like a schoolgirl when it bit you?” Wilcox chided.

West puffed up a bit, nose and ears pinking. “Okay, maybe spare that detail.”  After several long moments of silence, West sat up. “We should celebrate,” he mused, rising and crossing the apartment to his desk. He returned with a just more than half empty bottle of whiskey. “And I need to numb this,” he shook his bandaged arm as he sat back down and passed the bottle to Wilcox to open.

Wilcox, of course, obliged.

Chapter Text

The Home of Genevieve Moreland. Boston, Massachusetts

May 1904

On the ride to Boston, West had warned Wilcox that his aunt’s home was garish. Specifically, he described it as a picture of opulence painted by a colorblind, farsighted artist sitting too close to his canvas. The place was built before the war, according to West, but his uncle’s family hadn’t gotten their claws into until after, though one wouldn’t know for looking at it.

When they arrived later that morning, Wilcox wondered what West had been getting at. The house was quaint. A slender, leaning farmhouse remodeled to accommodate the encroaching industrialization. The paint was peeling around the edges, more from sheer age than lack of care. The windows sat open; the late spring breeze ruffling the drawn black curtains. Wilcox had known, or at least had suspected, that West had come from money despite the cheap way in which he lived. It was strange nonetheless to see that that was actually true.

The garden, small much like the house itself, was meticulously kept. Flowers Wilcox couldn’t hope to name overwhelmed the natural greenery in shades of bright pink and orange. Only the thin cobblestone path that led up from the street to the shaded front step was safe from the little devils, and it didn’t seem it would be that way for long. The perfume of it was a welcome reprieve to Wilcox after months of spending his mornings in labs and the university hospital without even West’s profile to offer a distraction. Maybe a weekend here would get the smell of sickness and chemicals out of his clothing too.

They didn’t stay long that morning. The maid answered the door; an older woman, with greying hair pulled back into puff, her dark skin freckled with age and eyes crinkling like dry paper around the edges when she saw West. The maid promised him, after a hug and a few polite pleasantries, that rooms would be prepared and their things would be taken care of while they were out, and they were off again.

Wilcox took to cities well. Something about so many people condensed into a small area made him feel less exposed; like it was easier to not have one’s mistakes noticed. West, when Wilcox glanced at him out of the corner of his eye as they walked together, seemed to be the opposite. He shrunk down, almost hiding in Wilcox’s shadow. Shops were easier; West knew most of the people they’d come to see, and thus led conversations while Wilcox watched him spin his web of lies in near silence.

They were researchers there on behalf of the university to gather supplies for their own project, looking into a new medicine for an arrhythmic heartbeat. When questioned, West explained that the lie was necessary, as many had expressed the same skepticism Halsey and Morgan had when he proposed the true intents of their research last time he’d gone gathering supplies.

Wilcox quieted after the mention of the Halsey and Morgan debacle. It had been his idea, after the the fifth successful reanimation, to take the research to the dean and another, less hostile member of the faculty. The pair Wilcox and West had chosen then organized a committee similar to the ones that doled out medical licenses. They gathered late one evening to pick apart West and Wilcox’s work.

Both of the students answered rapid-fire questions with ease. West led the charge with his theories, methods, and progress. Wilcox backed him up with chemistry, time tables, and eyewitness account. The whole thing had ended with a demonstration on a specimen provided by the university in the same research lab the two young scientists had mixed their original serums. It proved a rousing success.

Until Halsey had called it a hoax. It had been the first thing he’d said all evening and proceeded to back it up with outrageous claims that their specimen hadn’t actually been dead and all they did was wake it. Wilcox could only stare as West struggled to get a word in edgewise amidst the entire committee calling him a fraud and demanding he halt his inhumane research posthaste.

West hadn’t spoken to anyone for a week thereafter. Even Wilcox, who had taken to a permanent living on West’s sofa, had gotten the cold shoulder as the already too-quiet man buried himself in books, schooling, and silence.

“We’re going to do this, Will, if you’ll stick with me,” West told him one day; Wilcox was almost certain he was in one of his moods when he did, “I won’t let a bunch of Puritan grey-hairs hinder my great work. They will see the serum’s benefits. I will make them understand, Will, I swear it. Even if it kills me.” That same day, they planned their trip to Boston. Luckily for them, West’s aunt had planned to summer with her husband up north anyway.

They came back early in the evening with a few bags of supplies and a list of items to be judiciously procured from the university. The servants were just on their way out. The maid, whose name for some reason Wilcox just could not catch, lingered in the kitchen to talk to West in a hushed voice while Wilcox unloaded their haul into the parlor.

West had been right after all. The interior of the house was a dizzying eyesore of clashing colors. Old, faded wallpaper with a tight, symmetric pattern was speckled with watercolors and faded photographs in mismatched frames. The table Wilcox set the bottles and smaller odds and ends on was polished to a shine between two exceptionally old sofas. He portioned the bottles out; the ones that could pass for chemical lab fodder on one side of the oil lamp in the middle of the table, and those that would need their labels removed on the other.

Once done, West was still missing, so Wilcox did a circuit of the room. The watercolors were much less cheery up close, blotchy and ill-practiced. The work of Mrs. Moreland’s students, Wilcox speculated; he’d never taken etiquette classes himself, but the arts seemed the sort of thing one would learn in such places.

Two bookshelves framed the small, blackened stone fireplace. Both were packed near to bursting with books and pamphlets of all sizes in a wide range of languages with no real discernable organization. In front of those forced neat rows were knick-knacks; birds woven out of wire, porcelain figures, silk flowers, pinned butterflies in frames with ornately written labels, a cat skull. They spilled out from the bookshelves onto every other surface, none of it even remotely matching; gifts given when a new purchase could not be justified, kept and displayed out of gratitude.

On one of the shelves a photograph caught his eye. It was a simple picture of three young girls. The eldest, no more than twelve, in a dark dress stood behind two others. The one on the left had dark hair, around six, wide doe-eyes, and sleeves that didn’t quite cover her wrists. The one on the right, Wilcox placed at eight years, fair-haired, sharp featured and disturbingly similar to his current travelling companion.

Wilcox swallowed hard. “Odd,” he murmured to the picture. West hadn’t mentioned having a sister. Or any siblings in the years Wilcox had known him. Surely it would have come up by now. His mother then? Curious, Wilcox opened the back of the frame, but there was no year or anything else written across the back of the photograph. With a sigh, Wilcox replaced the back and hastily returned it to its place when he heard footsteps approaching.

He resisted the urge to turn as West entered the room and he heard the tell-tale thunk of plates being set on the table followed by the front door shutting. “I warned you,” he teased, “It’s very distracting.”

“Your aunt seems like an interesting woman,” Wilcox joked, still eyeing the photograph. “I’d love to meet her some time.”

“I’ll tell her you said so when I send her thanks for the house. She’ll be delighted.”

Wilcox finally turned and joined him on the sofa to eat. It felt a little bit more like home with the absence of a dining table. Though they weren’t quite comfortable enough to put their feet up on the table here.

“We’ll need a place to get fresh specimens,” West said once they’d cleared their plates and set to work scraping the labels off bottles.

“Arkham’s got two graveyards,” Wilcox offered, wiping lose paint chips off green glass with his shirtsleeve. “Right? Or did I imagine that?”

“It has two,” West confirmed with a little nod, “Christchurch and potter’s field.” With that, West rambled on, comparing the two places. Wilcox nearly wanted to laugh. So that’s what West had been so focused on during his silences. “Christchurch is where Miskatonic gets its anatomy cadavers. The ones that donate their bodies to science. We won’t be able to intercept those.” There was a finality there; like he’d already worked out the logistics and found them to be lacking. Wilcox glanced at him on a wave of concern; there was no way West could have done so much research around their schooling. Could he?

“Christchurch is reliable though.”

“True.” West moved to sit on the back of the couch, socked feet planted on the cushions, much like he did back in his own home. “They have the corpses of the highest quality. Well, the ones they don’t autopsy. But they’ll be the best guarded. And I know how you feel about guard dogs.”

Wilcox shuddered and West nudged him with his knee and left it there; a comfortable presence against Wilcox’s side.

“It’s also more likely to bury the corpses deep. Or, worse, embalm them.”

“That won’t be good for the research,” Wilcox put a newly bare bottle on the table.

“Ruinous.” West agreed.

“But potter’s might not report its internments,” Wilcox argued, “How can we guarantee freshness? Ask Puck to look out for us?”

West thought about it for some time, passing his cleaned bottle to Wilcox and gesturing for another one. “No. Not yet anyway. We’ll have to follow the obituaries ourselves. Surely, we’ll stumble upon something eventually.”

“What are we looking for with the corpses?”

West thought about it a long while. “A sturdy creature. Whole. Preferably without defects or illnesses. A sickness like a tumor or pneumonia may skew our results. Can’t draw a new breath if you can’t breathe, after all.”

Wilcox conceded the point, glib as it may have sounded. “Preferences on race? Male or Female? Age?”

“We can’t afford to be picky, Will. But, if I had to outline my perfect specimen it would be what the medical school has been treating as base line. Young adult, male, white, light musculature, record of good health, moderate to high intelligence.” West’s gaze slowly moved over to Wilcox. “Someone like you,” he laughed, “Or, well, someone slightly less smart than you, anyway.”

Wilcox sneered at the insult, “Only slightly?”

“You know what I meant.”

He did. “It makes sense. It would be what the official channels would want you to test it on anyway.”

“Exactly,” West said brightly. He tossed the bottle back and forth between his hands and changed the subject. “We’ll need a place to work. Mrs. Laney’s place isn’t going to have the space we need to mix serums.”

“And the labs are out,” Wilcox scowled, leaning back in his seat.

“Halsey would see us hanged if he caught us in there now. We can’t lie to the man. He’d know.”

The two sat, thinking, with only the sound of peeling paper between them as West lacklusterly pulled at the label on the bottle in his hands. Wilcox rested his cheek against West’s thigh, only to stop and pull away suddenly when he realized what he was doing.

West looked down at him, quizzical. Had he not noticed? “Idea?” West prompted with another gentle nudge after Wilcox had gone too long being quiet.

Wilcox felt heat rising to his face and struggled to recover. He looked up, dazzled for a moment by the lamplight glinting off West’s glasses. “Are,” he stammered, “Are there a lot of abandoned houses in Arkham?” he asked to buy himself time.

West worked his jaw as he thought, “There are a few. Not many of them in one piece. Old farmhouses and things that went defunct when the university took over. I thought you knew this. You walk about the place more often than I do.” West’s sharp brow dipped.

“I know- I- What about that one place, out past Meadow Hill, but before Pierce’s house? The one with the petrified tree and the big red slash down the side?”

“Chapman farm?” West tilted his head.

“Yes. That place.” Wilcox turned back to the room and pitched his idea as it formed. “It’s out of the way. It’s been abandoned a while, but still in one piece. The hill’s quiet at night.” He remembered his evening jaunts through Arkham back when he’d arrived. How he’d passed the street the old, nearly ruined building resided near and saw its dark shape in the distance. There were stories about the place, but none of them agreed outside of the superstitious “It’s cursed” or a bunch of stories that all amounted to “Something awful happened there, but no one is quite sure what.”

West thought about it. “The windows are visible from the road,” he argued, “Arkham’s people are nosey. If they see lights they might come poking around. We can’t afford that sort of discovery, especially early into the endeavor.”

Wilcox chewed the inside of his cheek, scanning the room as if that would somehow give him a counter argument. Much to his surprise, it did. “How fond is your aunt of her curtains?”

West looked across the parlor to the same window that had occupied Wilcox’s attention. “I shall write her a strongly worded apology when we get back to Arkham.” The pair shared a conspiratory look. “We can take them down before we leave.”

“What of the aftermath?” Wilcox asked after a moment, “We can’t use the school incinerator anymore.” How many boxes had they thrown into that thing in the hour before their clinicals? In those late nights mixing serums? Heavy things laden with lab rats, guinea pigs, stolen lab monkeys, stray dogs, or alley cats since they began these endeavors. Wilcox wasn’t sure he wanted to remember. There was a reason West refused to keep a count of his failures.

“We may just have to bury them again.”

“At the Chapman place?”

West shrugged, “Possibly. If it has a basement. Or the hill. Or take them back if they’re of the right size to be carried twice.”

A chill shot through Wilcox at the idea. He shivered and forced himself to ignore it.

“It’s settled then,” West said, “We head back to Arkham, case the Chapman place, then stock it with supplies if it is to our liking.”

“And if it isn’t?”

“We find another abandoned little farmhouse;” West offered, “I’m sure Pierce isn’t long for this world.”

Wilcox turned and looked at him, aghast at the idea. West held his gaze, stony and serious, for several seconds before pushing his friend’s shoulder. “I’m joking, Will! Don’t look so frightened.” A bright grin split his features and soon, Wilcox was laughing right along with him.

Chapter Text

Chapman Farmhouse. Arkham, Massachusetts

July 1904

Mottled grey skin shone white under the light of the acetylene lamp hung from a hook they’d strung up on a particularly low rafter. Wilcox could still make out the veins standing out dark black in the shadows of the boy’s neck. He was bloated from the water still; unnaturally fattened where he shouldn’t be. Dark brown hair was swept back from his wide, low brow. The face was probably the worst part about it for Wilcox. He’d been handsome and eerily familiar if Wilcox thought too long on it. Soft jawed and wide-eyed like the Reeds boy had been.

But this wasn’t the Reeds boy, Wilcox reminded himself. This was someone else. A simple workman, nothing more.

He couldn’t have been much older than the pair of them. How did someone like this drown in a pond, Wilcox wondered. What had he even been doing out there?

The pair stripped down their specimen to check it for injuries. West worried for any potential deterrents for his serums. They checked the lungs; since the boy had been a victim of drowning after all, and did their damnedest to rid the organs of whatever fluid lingered within without damaging them. “All pieces need to be in place,” West said adamantly, “This needs to work.”

The farmhouse itself only had three rooms. The one they’d set up to be their experiment room with a pair of repurposed tables; one to accommodate the specimen and another for their tools, and the lamp when it wasn’t strung up. The other, containing a fireplace both men feared to use, had gotten a single, long table and a pair of chairs. Along the length of the lab table were bottles of their reagents, respective surgical kits, empty glass containers, and an alcohol blast lamp that sat dark for now. Both spaces were made smaller by the employ of black curtains, cut down and nailed to the walls around all but one window that they used to air out the place. And, between them, in line with the main door and its new padlock, were a set of stairs leading down to their shovels and the hole they’d dug after marking the gravesite that afternoon.

Wilcox took a deep breath when West disappeared into their shadowed laboratory to fetch the serums and his kit. He held no illusions about their success that night; it was like asking lightning to strike twice.

He placed two fingers under the corpse’s chin and tilted its head up. The skin was waxy beneath his fingers, but not cold like he’d suspected. Just, the same temperature as the other objects in the room. No one had laid claim to the poor sap; any family or friends he may have had didn’t want him. His grave marker didn’t even have a name; just a simple wooden cross with a date above a pile of freshly tilled dirt.

It made Wilcox wonder what his own death would be like. If it were to be sudden, would West try to reanimate him as soon as he found out? Or would he make it home to his family?

Wilcox leaned over the corpse, his shadow breaking the ethereal illusion a little. “What have you seen?” he whispered, “What might you see?”

“You’re not still holding with all that soul nonsense are you, Will?” West’s voice nearly startled Wilcox to the floor. “I thought you were better than that.”

Wilcox took a few deep breaths through his nose until his heart slowed down. “That wasn’t-“ he started, “I didn’t mean it that way. It’s just- We don’t know what happens. We can’t. But now we’re so close to finding out.”

“I doubt,” West said, unpacking his syringe and piecing it together, “that it will be quite as spectacular as the religious texts say.” He set down the syringe by two bottles of serum and moved on to unpacking bindings and his stethoscope which seemed to have disappeared somewhere within the depths of his black bag. “It’s probably no different than sleeping.”

“People have rather fantastical dreams,” Wilcox countered. “Hellish nightmares even.”

Finally, West found what he was looking for. “Well, we should get on with waking him up then, shall we? See what he has to say on the matter.”

Wilcox nodded his agreement and set up his notebook. He’d already jotted down notes on the specimen’s death based on what was made public in the newspaper and what Puck had told them at the gate that evening. They had aroused enough suspicion asking around after corpses, but two medical students focusing on a specific death so soon after the body was buried would set off alarms.

West rattled off a few additional notes; inarguable signifiers of death, how much fluid they had pulled out of the lungs, estimates for height and weight, both in metric, and age. Wilcox wrote diligently despite the shaking of his hand and the racing of his heart.

Doubt came as quickly as the rush of nerves did. West had, on the way to graveyard that night, his face shadowed by the oil lamps, worried of partial reanimation. The spasms and writhing they’d seen in animal specimens given too low or too improper a dose. Movements and sounds too ghastly to be simple convulsions.

The questions of success, however, bothered Wilcox as much as partial animation concerned West. What if they did wake him? What if he said something? Was this one of those secrets Puck had warned him of? The things people of the valley learn that aren’t meant to be known? What if it proved to be like the rat that first night?

Who were they to play God like this?

It was a little after two in the morning when West filled the syringe as far as it could go and forced the serum into the creature’s arm. The limb was propped vertical as West bound the wound closed tightly, letting gravity help force the serum through the veins. Wilcox pulled out his pocket watch.

Five minutes: “Still no vital signs,” West said, stethoscope pressed over the corpse’s heart. “No heartbeat, no breathing.”

Ten minutes: “Still no.” Cautious, but still optimistic.

Thirty minutes: “Nothing.” Discouraged and frustrated.

Forty-five: “It’s not working. I think- I think if we need to add more of the heath water to the mix. To account for the extra weight.” West lowered the corpse’s arm. “Do we still have those bottles of the base?”

Wilcox thought on it and nodded. “They’ve congealed, but they’re here.”

West put a hand on his hip and ran the other through his hair, dark smudges of grave dirt marring the pale colors of both. He looked different in this light to Wilcox; polished despite the sweat, dirty clothes, and wrinkled shirt. Angelic even when agitated in such a way. “We should try. I don’t know when we’ll next get an opportunity like this. We can’t let it go to waste.”

“We have to bury the body by sunrise,” Wilcox warned.

“All the more reason to hurry,” West replied, collecting his kit and the lantern. “Come on.”

Wilcox followed West out of the room looking back only once over his shoulder. He found himself confronted yet again with the thick, tangible darkness that puddled in the corners of Arkham. A solid black sheet between the two rooms.

West set down the lanterns and rolled up the curtains for a window facing away from town. Then, he pushed open the window itself to air out the place from the smell of death and burning alcohol as Wilcox lit the blast lamp.

West returned to their makeshift bench, flipping through his notebook to the current formula for the serums. Wilcox took a seat at one end of the bench, scrubbing at his tired eyes with the knuckles of one hand. They worked in silence on opposite ends of the bench; West warming and purifying their mixtures before passing them to Wilcox to mix. West staunchly demanded to be the one making the measurements. “Not because I don’t trust you, Will,” He’d said, and Wilcox believed him. He even understood the feeling.

This research was West’s baby, and this was its big moment. Potentially, anyway.

West was holding a clamp suspending the last tube of tincture over the flame with one hand, and reaching for the jar of heath water with the other. Wilcox had a tube in each hand, waiting for the last drops to fall between them. That was when they heard it. In the moments before there was silence; unnatural given the open window and the warm summer night. Wilcox had chalked it up to concentration in the morning hours, but the evening hindsight would make him question that explanation. There was also a faint chill; like a strong wind whipping past the open window, but no howling to be heard.

Then, the sounds themselves. The first was a sharp, inhuman yelp, like a dog suddenly shrieking in pain. Immediately after, too soon for any creature to have drawn a fresh breath, was a unholy roar. A discordant mix of voices funneled through a tube of thick paper to amplify and hollow them all out. The tones vibrated they were so out of tune with each other to the point where, after a few seconds, all one could hear was the vibration of sounds. There were words mixed in, or sounds that might have been words once a very long time ago, but nothing discernable to the only two who were present to listen.

And they were not present long.

The yelp had startled glass out of both of their hands. West’s bottle of heath water ended up smashed in glittering, oily pieces on the floor. The man’s hand caught in the fire; his own yelp of pain lost in the demonic thunder from the adjacent room. Wilcox was covered in their serum mix as he scrambled to his feet, only a second or two behind West.

Several objects thunked to the floor behind them as they fled across the room and out the open window. Wilcox wasn’t sure how long they actually ran, but by the time they stopped his throat and chest burned something awful. He started coughing in his desperate attempt to catch his breath, and found that West had a hold of his wrist.

At the edge of his vision, Wilcox saw West struggle to collect himself; glasses askew, hair a mess from the run, eyes locked forward and sparkling in the moonlight. The hand that held Wilcox’s wrist was gripping almost painfully tight, trembling a little. His jaw shook too, forcing him to clench it and pant through his nose.

“It had to be demons,” Wilcox said, desperate to comfort the man and praying this would work.

West glanced at him, incredulous. “Demons aren’t real, Will,” he scolded. His voice was different though; like it wasn’t his own. A sound borrowed from someone else and hammered into a similar enough shape, but too soft around the edges to really fit.

A little, slightly hysterical laugh, “I mean, what other explanation is there?”

West thought on it. “The table fell? Something down stairs or in the attic?” He speculated.

They continued passing theories back and forth until they got to the town proper. West released Wilcox’s wrist, but still lingered close enough that they bumped shoulders every third step. Neither proposed the idea to turn back. It wasn’t until they were safely back on West’s sofa that they came up with a plan to investigate. Wilcox held both of their mugs of weak, hastily-made tea as West wrapped up the burn on his hand.

“I’m sure it was nothing.” West tightened the knot in the bandages with his teeth and held out his free hand for his mug.

“We’ve been up for days,” Wilcox agreed, “We could have imagined the noise. Or parts of it.”

West nodded, sinking further into the lumpy couch and leaning against Wilcox. “We’ll know tomorrow.”  He settled comfortably against Wilcox’s side, sipping at his tea. “In the evening.”

Wilcox shifted until West’s head was on his shoulder. “The farmhouse will still be there. The equipment and everything. Specimen included.”

When had this happened? This casual closeness? Wilcox fidgeted, wanting to pull West closer; to hold and comfort him. He wondered if West would rebuff him again if he tried. His heart trembled at the prospect.

“No one will investigate. No one will think to.” West’s mug was Wilcox’s footlocker which now served as their coffee table after a particularly nasty reanimation of an alley cat hand sent Wilcox toppling wholesale into the old one. With the footlocker had come the rest of Wilcox’s things. That had been months ago.

Without thinking, Wilcox slung his arm over West’s shoulders. West startled, tensing up. “Will?”

Wilcox went for broke, tightening his grip and pulling West flush to his side, resting his cheek against that too-soft honey hair. The smell of grave dirt, sweat, and the faintest hint of cedar assaulted his senses, but he didn’t care.

West leaned into it still trembling a little.

Chapter Text

Dolores Laney’s Boarding House. Arkham, Massachusetts

July 1904

The last thing Wilcox remembered was West leaving for a few hours, demanding that Wilcox get some actual sleep and to take the bed if he needed to. “I look at enough dead things. I don’t need it infecting you too.” Wilcox had tried to respond that death wasn’t really a sickness, more a symptom of sickness, but West was already out the door. He collapsed face down on top of the quilt and that was that.

He woke, slowly, to a soft breath of air against the side of his neck and a warm body close, but not touching his own. “Sorry,” a sleepy, familiar voice whispered into the cramped space, “Didn’t mean to-“ Wilcox cut him off.

West was so close, too close even, and Wilcox had waited three years for this opportunity, he wasn’t about to waste it. All it took was a tilt of his head and those lips that had plagued him since that rainy day in November were finally his. West tensed at first, surprised, but didn’t pull away.

Wilcox pressed harder, reaching out blindly to pull the other body closer. There were hands in his hair, teeth at his lip, soft puffs of air against his stubbled cheek. West tasted exactly like he’d imagined; like sour coffee and salt.

Things blurred around the edges for Wilcox, all haze and heat and the constant, whirlpool thought of how perfect this all was. It dragged him down, deeper and deeper with every touch of skin beneath his fingertips. Any and all arguments of how bad an idea this was were drowned out by nails against his scalp or a moan lost somewhere in the seconds they’d come up for air.

“Will…”

Wilcox blinked up at West. It was even more disorienting. His pale skin flushed pink, eyes turned dark, that damnable bow of his mouth not nearly swollen enough for Wilcox’s liking. Wilcox tugged the man by his loosened shirt tails and, easy as that, West was straddling him and pitching forward so fast he had to catch himself on the chipped headboard.

“Will.” It was sharper now, more intent and that was all Wilcox needed to start pulling buttons out of buttonholes. Wilcox let his eyes drift shut, operating solely on feel, forcing himself to slow down and savor this. Those soft breaths returned to the side of his neck, along with stinging bites and soothing little kisses, encouraging.

“William!”

Something light, but thrown with enough force to actually hurt hit Wilcox straight in the face startling him into consciousness with a loud, undignified scream. He sat there in West’s bed panting and trying to get his bearings between panic and arousal.

A newspaper. He’d been hit with a newspaper and it was now sitting in his lap, folded in half. West was at the edge of the bed, eyeing him with a mix of concern and annoyance that Wilcox thought suited his mother much better than his roommate.

The Wilcox saw those blue eyes give him a once-over. His heart sank and his face grew painfully hot.

“Interesting dream?” West commented when his gaze was back on Wilcox’s face. He patted down his vest for his cigarette case. Wilcox tried to pull a look like he didn’t know what West was talking about, but again those blues flicked down. “It’s not subtle, Will.”

“Fuck you.” Wilcox spit, picking up the newspaper and unfolding it over his lap.

“I’m not here to judge,” West laughed as he wedged a cigarette between his teeth and struck his match to light it. “Maria Fairfax?”

“Hush.” Wilcox shot back, “What am I looking at here?”

West didn’t even take a drag before answering, “Newspaper. Look at the front page article. Holly Masters?”

“Hush.”

Wilcox flipped from page two, which had been convenient for hiding his shame, but not so for information gathering to the front page. Printed across the top was the headline:

Summer Measles Sweeps Bolton

Wilcox skimmed the article, but didn’t find anything that might have peeked West’s interest enough to share. There wasn’t even a death toll printed. There were two more articles at the bottom. One about a man that had seemingly acquired rabies without contact with an animal. The other made Wilcox’s blood run cold.

Chapman Farm Burned: Suspected Arson

West sat on the edge of the bed as Wilcox read the article. The police, though they suspected arson, had no leads or suspects since no one lived there and the Chapmans had been in Bolton for decades and hadn’t even known the house was even still standing. Apparently one of them had even said “Good riddance. That place was cursed anyway,” when they’d been informed that morning.

“The blast lamp,” Wilcox groaned quietly. “Of course. Damn this means everything else went up too.”

West nodded, solemn. “It might be best that we take the time to rebuild. Luckily, I only lost two of my books of notes there. Nothing we can’t rewrite if we put our heads together.” He gestured at the paper, “Now turn to page four. Bottom left.” He paused as Wilcox turned then asked, “Eliza?”

“Oh god no.” Wilcox said before even thinking how that might sound to someone who knew him as well as West did.  “No.

West reared back, aghast, “Will, how could you? She’s what? Fourteen?.”

“Eighteen.” Wilcox corrected. The only reason he knew that was because Mrs. Laney kept trying to set them up.

West blinked at him. “She’s not even that pretty. She looks like a catfish.” He sounded absolutely scandalized. “Her eyes might pop out if you squeeze her the right way. And she acts like one too.”

Wilcox had to laugh at that. Though, all things considered, Eliza Atkinson wasn’t a terrible young woman, just mildly unpleasant. She was a plump thing with a simple affect and too-wide grey eyes that didn’t seem to close all the way when she blinked. She hated Arkham and only stayed to tend to her ailing father, or so she said, though said father never made an appearance outside of their room. Wilcox remembered trying to make conversation with her all of one time while he’d been on his way out one morning and was convinced forever after that she hated him.

“And she’s dumber than a sack of rocks! I don’t even think she can read.”

Herbert,” Sharp and stern to get the man’s attention before he started ranting in earnest; it was the only way to stop him, really. Wilcox arched a brow, “You sound jealous.”

Eliza though?” Completely ignoring the accusation.

“It wasn’t about Eliza!” Wilcox groaned, and before he realized what he’d done his eyes were flicking back to West’s face from the vicinity of his waist coat pocket.

West arched a brow, pinking around the edges of his ears.  

Wilcox turned his attention back to the newspaper. “What am I-“

New Grave in Potter’s Field Dug Up

“Oh no.” Wilcox felt the beginnings of a tremble in his hands and fought to swallow it down. The fine for graverobbing was nothing to sneeze at.

“Read the whole thing.”

Wilcox did.

“Wait,” Wilcox said when he got to the end. “This doesn’t make any sense.” He brushed a few rogue dark hairs out of his face and reread the article in double time. “Is Puck trying to mess with us?”

“Puck pointed out the article to me,” West countered, “I wouldn’t have seen it otherwise.”

“Puck can read?” Wilcox blurted and West smacked him across the back of the head.

“Focus, Will.” He scolded. “What could have caused this?”

Wilcox thought on it for a while. “You don’t think it was? We strapped it to the table. It would have gone up with the building and all our supplies.” His heartbeat picked up for a whole new reason now.

“Did we?”

“Of course we did,” But now Wilcox wasn’t so sure. West held his gaze for some time. “Where would it go?” Wilcox continued, not wanting to let fear get the best of him and failing. “There’s no way-“

West snuffed out his cigarette against the headboard, “It could still be out there. I could have sworn something was following me home from the graveyard.”

“How-“ Wilcox chewed his lip, paper wrinkling in his hands, “How would it even know us? It never saw us once it woke. If it woke. It’s- It’s not like we have some sort of special calling card, right? It’s not going to sniff us out.” He looked to West but all he got was the man’s sharp, well-lined profile staring off into the distance, “Right, Herbert?

“We’ll have to conduct more experiments to find out.”

Wilcox sighed. He folded the paper and set it on the nightstand. “How can we? We have no reagents. No working serums. No lab space or specimens.”

“We wait for the opportunity to present itself.” West said with a shrug. “Until then, we collect supplies. You and I are headed to the Blasted Heath soon. We need that water first and foremost.”

Wilcox swallowed hard, remembering what Puck had said about the place. “Alright,” his voice said without his brain’s telling it to.

The pair sat in tense silence for some time before West checked the clock and hurried Wilcox out of bed for dinner at Mrs. Laney’s table. They were halfway down the stairs when Wilcox couldn’t take the curiosity anymore and had to ask: “Do I talk in my sleep?”

“No more than usual.”

“Hebert, be serious.”

West thought on it. “No. But it’s not like you really have to.”

They didn’t share another word for the rest of the night.

Chapter Text

The Blasted Heath. Miskatonic River Valley, Massachusetts

January 1905

Arkham was quiet at night, usually. Almost eerily so as far as Wilcox was concerned and a stark contrast to his native Chicago. As he and West travelled further from the life sounds of town, trudging through the snow covered path past Ami Pierce’s warmly lit house and toward the woodlands it got even worse. Wilcox had suspected it would, despite all reason telling him it should be the contrary; that he should hear birds and insects, even in the cold. But he’d been in Arkham too long to trust reason.

They walked quietly, save for the tinkling of glass in West’s satchel and the muted crunch of their boots breaking snow. It was a little before midnight but the stars weren’t quite out yet and the moon was little more than a sliver in the sky. Still the bright, glittering silver of the snow reflected back just enough light to see by as they wove through the trees and followed the long-disused direction signs headed for Dunwich. No one went to Dunwich anymore, West had commented when they reached the edge of the woods and that first sign, especially not this way.

Puck had been right. Maybe not about the evil but Wilcox couldn’t doubt there was a sickness in this piece of land. The air felt dusty and acidic in his mouth in a way he couldn’t contribute to the cold. The warm orange of the town behind them, fading into the soft late-night blues and then to no color at all. The silence deepened, like blackness absorbing light. It felt, in its way, more dangerous than the rumors of Arkham; if something happened upon them, they could scream and not even hear themselves.

“Is it always this quiet out here?” Wilcox asked, just to make sure he could still hear when the silence itched against his skin.

“Usually,” West said back and even that one word was a comfort.

As they drew closer the trees and shrubs knotted and twisted into painful-looking shapes, curling and bending on each other in a bid to get away from something. Something Wilcox and West were approaching.

When they arrived, however, there was nothing. Nothing to warrant such fear in the very trees. It was a wide, open clearing blanketed with soft, glittery, untouched snow. At the far end of the clearing was the ruin of a two story farm house; its upstairs window still sitting open, the snow making the shutters tilt downward slightly. The front door was open too, but Wilcox couldn’t see through the shadows inside. In the center of the field were the posts of what may have once been a fence and a well.

The sight felt heavy, like a weight in Wilcox’s chest. Someone had lived here. Judging by the size of the house a family had been here. What had happened to them? Was it the water? Was it what brought the water?

He swallowed hard when he realized West was now several paces ahead of him, heading toward the well. Wilcox scrambled to catch up with him, not hearing the sound of his own footfalls anymore.

The well was much more sinister up close. Waist high on West, and crumbling in places, its wide mouth open to the sky. A faint, fetid odor drifted up from it; acidic, saline and faintly fruity. The smell of sickness; fulminant and deadly. Wilcox peered down into the well, but saw only blackness staring back at him.

A clunk of an old bucket against the edge of the well brought him back to his senses. West passed the handle, a sturdy rope tied to the metal arch, to Wilcox expectantly. “Lower it down so we can bottle it and get out of here,” he prompted when Wilcox didn’t take it.

“Are we sure this is safe?” Wilcox asked, still looking down the well.

“Not for drinking, I’m sure.”

“Herbert-“

“Will,” West’s voice was firm now, “Medicine is full of tinctures that while not safe to drink straight or in large amounts are perfectly safe in a mixture. You wouldn’t drink a mouthful of chloroform straight from the bottle would you?”

“I suppose you have a point,” it didn’t do anything to quell Wilcox’s fear that there was something inherently wrong with taking water from this place, but he lowered the bucket into the well anyway.

The well was deeper than Wilcox anticipated, or maybe that was just his own impatience. The rope smelled heavily of mildew and he knew it would stay in his gloves for days. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw West kneel and open his satchel. West laid out four squares of faded wool, fraying at the hems on the edge of the well a good distance away from where Wilcox was working. On each square he placed a glass jar similar to the one he’d used to hold the water he and Puck had gathered the previous year. He was planning to stock up.

When the bucket hit the water and Wilcox started pulling it back up, it felt like there was resistance; more than just the weight of the water within. Wilcox’s feet slid on the ice and snow until his hip hit stone. He yelped, nearly losing his grip on the rope as it tried to tug him in.

What would happen if he fell in? Did West have extra rope? He’d hefted the corpse they took to Chapman Farm out of its grave well enough, but would he be able to pull Wilcox out with added weight of winter clothing and water? Would whatever was down there, pulling him in, let him go?

Then, just as suddenly as it pulled, it stopped.

“Will?”

Wilcox was back to a few steps away from the well. No skids in the snow, no corroded stone digging into his coat, rope still firmly in his hands. “What in the-“ he breathed, staring at the mouth of the well.

“Will? Answer me.”

“I’m fine,” Wilcox said reflexively. “Just- thought I saw something.” He glanced at West and was met with the same disapproving scowl the man had leveled at Puck when the boy had refused to go with him back to the Heath. “I’m fine.” He said again, not sure how to make West stop scowling.

On anyone else it might have looked silly; West had shed his coat and changed his mittens for gloves to put the water in jars. His face was pinked from the cold already. His scarf was flipped over his shoulders and out of his way and his sleeves were rolled up to the elbow. To stay warm he’d tucked his hands under his arms, hugging them close to his core body heat and was already shivering a little. The moonlight caught on his glasses highlighting just how pale he was, and the light gave his blue eyes just enough color to stand out in the darkness. Wilcox hated how often he was struck by West’s features. He’d known the man nearly four years, surely the schoolgirl pining would have stopped by now.

He didn’t say anything in response to Wilcox’s assurances, just sighed through his nose, a little cloud of steam obscuring the bottom half of his face, and waited.

Wilcox pulled the bucket back up. It was a little leaky, and thus only mostly full when he finally set it on the wall of the well. West must have known this, and set to work immediately without even inspecting the thing. When Wilcox moved to help, West stopped him.

“So it’s not safe to touch then?” Wilcox teased, though his heart was racing.

“Neither is belladonna.”

“Touché.” His heart did not slow.

West filled the four jars, dunking them into the bucket and pulling them out full of that strange, oily, pearlescent water. He instructed Wilcox to wrap the jars in wool and put them back in his satchel, and Wilcox obeyed dutifully. He was grateful to get away from the well.

The jars in the satchel, West took off his gloves, stuffed them in the bag too and replaced his coat and mittens, rubbing the fabric to hastily warm it back up. Wilcox took up his satchel. The bucket was emptied and replaced in its little hiding spot behind the well.

Wilcox could still feel the pull, that subtle drag latching onto the weight in his chest even as they cleared the field’s border. He could understand why Puck never wanted to go back. He didn’t either.

They were just past the twisted tree line when a dark shadow came into view. West saw it first and stopped, taking Wilcox by the elbow to stop him too. It was blocking the path back to town, hunched and misshapen, little more than a formless blob in the darkness.

“Wh-“ Wilcox tried to whisper, but West shushed him.

It didn’t look like any animal Wilcox had ever seen. Maybe it was a person? Maybe it was something else?

Something had happened to that family that owned the farmstead after all.

West tugged on Wilcox’s arm, pulling him off the path and between the trees. They gave the shape a wide berth even at risk of getting lost. Wilcox silently cursed his willingness to go along with West’s no-torches plan. His fear of being caught should never have been able to supersede his natural caution. Yet here he was, being dragged blindly by the wrist through cold, sickly darkness around the unknown by West’s certain footsteps and forced longer stride. They wouldn’t run, no. They wouldn’t rush. That would make too much noise. Alert the shadow to their presence. But they would move quickly. Wilcox clutched the satchel to his chest, feeling the unnatural cold of the well water even through layers of glass, leather, and wool. He half hoped the cold would calm his racing heart, but all he did was muffle the sounds of their travel just a little more.

Their divergence from the path went on for ages. It felt like they walked for miles, West’s tight grip nearly crushing the bones in Wilcox’s wrist. Not once did he look back to check on Wilcox or their progress, his eyes plastered on the tree line, waiting for light, for sound, for signs of life from the city.

Wilcox stared ahead too. Even as the urge to look back surged up in him; the feeling of being followed, imagined sounds of snow crunching and twigs breaking, a surge of cool air across his spine, seeping like water through his coat and clothing. He wanted to see. Wanted to know what was following them through the blackness. But he knew better than to do so; Arkham had taught him that much.

West had taught him that much.

They rejoined the path, Arkham glowing faintly in the distance now, the treeline growing thin. Wilcox breathed a little easier and lowered his aching arm to his side. West held his wrist for a few more paces, no longer dragging, just guiding and eventually let go. They slowed their pace to a leisurely walk. West fell into step beside him.

They passed Ami Pierce’s house to find the old man’s lights were still on. But even as they glanced through the windows, it didn’t seem like anyone was home; no shadows, no movement, no sound they could hear from the edge of the property.

“Maybe it was Pierce,” West suggested, as they stepped out of the house’s warm glow toward the mound of ruined foundation that was Chapman Farm, “that we saw in the woods.”

Wilcox didn’t want to argue but he knew West was no more certain of that than he was.

Ami Pierce was known to sleep with his lights on.

Chapter Text

Dr. Alan Halsey’s Office, Miskatonic University. Arkham, Massachusetts

April 1905

They were already shouting when Wilcox arrived. He hadn’t been planning to go to Halsey’s office that day, but when Fitzroy let it slip that he’d seen West there without him, he knew there would be pieces to pick up afterward. Frankly, he was furious. West had said that neither of them would speak with the dean alone until they both had their degrees and licensure and there was nothing the old man could take those from them in retaliation for their continued research.

Halsey’s office was a secluded little place, filled with the hum of the quad below. It was a two room space, the main one housing a small desk and an equally small secretary in the form of Halsey’s niece, Mabel and several bookshelves and cabinets filled to bursting with filing. Photographs and clipped newspaper articles filled the wall space in glossy frames. Not a speck of dust to be found for the whole place. On the wall to Wilcox’s left was a door, and behind it he could hear voices, the dull droning tones of Dr. Halsey, and West’s sharp, biting anger.

“How dare you!” Was the line Wilcox walked in on.

“Oh thank goodness.” Mabel said from her desk. Her eyes were rimmed in red and watery, delicate hands at her ears. “You’re here.”

Wilcox frowned at her and crossed to her desk instead of the office, crouching beside her chair so he wouldn’t tower over her. “Are you alright?”

Mabel was a sensitive girl, always had been according to the people that knew her. Which, Wilcox was surprised to learn, was apparently everyone. A little slow on the uptake and suited to the sort of mind numbing secretary work Halsey typically assigned her. She was cute, in a mousey sort of way, her face swallowed up by her glasses and wide eyes. She sniffed loudly and rubbed at her reddened, freckled nose with her knuckles. She looked down at him with wobbling lips, pleading.

Wilcox glanced at the door. On the other side he was sure both men were shouting now, talking over each other in louder and louder voices.

“My work could change the foundation of medicine as we know it,” West’s voice argued.

“Yours is a selfish endeavor.” Halsey’s shot back. “The Lord t-“

“You would retard my life’s great work for something as shallow as religious morality?”

Wilcox winced and looked back to Mabel, who was covering her ears and closing her eyes. He liked Mabel. Most people did. So to see her cry was only another tick against West that day.

He didn’t get a chance to break up that fight, however. By the time he stood up, West was already storming out, not noticing Wilcox and slamming the door behind him with such force it dislodged a picture frame from its hook and sent it crashing to the floor. Mabel let out a little yelp. “I’m sorry,” Wilcox apologized to her on behalf of his friend. She didn’t hear him. Through the swinging door, which hadn’t caught in West’s fury, Wilcox could see the smattering of gossips that had gathered to watch West embarrass himself. So much for rumor mill damage control this time.

“Mr. Cox?” Halsey’s voice sent a chill down Wilcox’s back, “A word, please.”

As Mabel slowly rose from her desk Wilcox, instinctively, went to help her. A firmer, “Mr. Cox.” From Halsey stopped him mid-step. Obediently, Wilcox followed Halsey into his private office. The door shut quietly behind him.

“It has come to my attention that your living arrangement has changed, Mr. Cox. Sometime last year? Slightly before?” Dr. Halsey began.

The attempt at a conversational air fell hilariously flat. The electricity West had left in his wake made the hairs on Wilcox’s arms and neck bristle. He shifted from foot to foot, refusing Halsey’s gestured offer of a seat with a subtle shake of his head. He couldn’t stay too long. Shouldn’t stay too long. “Yes sir. I moved off campus to the boarding house.”

“You are Herbert West’s roommate?”

“Yes sir.” He knew where this line of questioning would end and he was dreading it.

Halsey lowered himself into his chair with a sigh, showing his age. His white hair and fine lines made him look distinguished, the logical progression of a handsome, kindly man into old age. His eyes, usually kind and patient, were lowered to his desk where his gnarled, freckled hands were laced together. He took a deep breath, broad shoulders rising and falling with a bit more animation than was probably necessary. “Then you would be the one to know. Has Mr. West been continuing his prohibited research off-campus?”

“No sir.” It technically wasn’t a lie. They’d only gathered supplies that winter and, over the course of several weeks, started rebuilding their supply of serum lost at Chapman farm. Wilcox tasted iron all the same.

“You understand,” Halsey threatened, “That if I find out that you not only participated in these endeavors, but that you hid them from me, it could be grounds for expulsion. Or the revoking of your license after you graduate.”

“I understand, sir.” Wilcox said. Those threats had been the only things to stay West’s hand since they mixed the first bottles. They were too close to the end to take risks, important as West’s research was. “Why-“ Wilcox swallowed around a knot in his throat. “Why do you ask? Did West mention something?”

“It isn’t important,” Finally Halsey looked at him. He looked tired. Concerned. “I just want you to know what is at stake, Mr. Cox. You have so much potential. Both of you. Mr. West could be the brightest surgeon of his time if he gave up this demonic endeavor and focused on helping the living. I would hate to see him drag you down too.”

Wilcox bit the inside of his cheek to quell the bubble of outrage threatening to escape him. Their work could help the living. Why was it still proving so difficult to make people see this?

“If we cannot save someone, you understand,” Halsey explained, probably as he had tried to explain to West before the shouting had started, “It is meant to be that way. Some people are destined for such fates. Sometimes it is simply a person’s Time and there is nothing we can do.”

“The Lord works in mysterious ways,” Wilcox muttered under his breath; he’d heard that phrase so many times at funerals.

Halsey, apparently, either didn’t notice the veneer of sarcasm, or chose to ignore it. “Exactly. Mr. Cox, I beg you, if you can get West to listen, please try to put him on the right path. He must like you enough to listen if he’s willing to live with you. It would be a disservice to medicine to see his talents wasted on this. Or, yours. Please, at the very least, do not follow him down his road.”

Wilcox nodded, “Yes sir.” He felt numb, like he’d been out in the cold too long.

A little nod of assent, Wilcox was free to leave. He nearly took it, but Halsey called after him once more. “If you were to ask for my advice,” he said, less gentle this time, “it might do you some good to distance yourself from him. I fear… I fear his influence may be altering your judgment, Mr. Cox.”

“With all due respect sir,” Wilcox couldn’t stop himself. The idea of distancing himself from any of the things he’d worked so hard to be immersed in over the last four years too insulting to let stand. The idea of distancing himself from West stung even more. He swung open the door, “I didn’t ask. Have a nice day.”

He left before Halsey could reply, content to storm out too. Until, of course, he saw Mabel, kneeling on the floor, sniffling and wiping at her eyes with her wrist as she tried to pick up shards of glass with shaking fingers. Wilcox’s anger melted and he stopped, crouching to help her stack shards onto the broken frame and help her to her feet. “I’ll talk to West.” Wilcox promised, feeling Halsey’s eyes on his back, “Make sure he comes to apologize.”

Mabel just sniffed and nodded, not looking at him.

Wilcox took the long way home, stopping by a few places to put a dent in his funds and enjoying the spring afternoon. There was a strange smell in the air, smoky and tangible like cotton but invisible to the eye. It stuck in the back of his nose and throat unpleasantly, but dissipated every time he went indoors.

When he arrived back at the boarding house room, hands full, West was already there. He sat curled in the corner of the couch, dressed down in that cream colored security blanket of a sweater. His hair was tangled from racking his fingers through it too many times, his glasses low on his nose.

“Wine and butter cookies?” He asked incredulously and Wilcox set both on his desk. “A strange combination.”

“The wine is for us,” Wilcox explained rifling through West’s desk for the corkscrew and cups. West didn’t keep wine glasses, so he settled for a pair of chipped coffee mugs. “The cookies are for you to take to Halsey’s office on Monday to apologize,” He turned, bottle in one hand corkscrew in the other just to see West glare daggers at him over the back of the sofa, “To Mabel,” the glare lessened, “for making her cry like the ill-mannered jackass you are.”

West’s anger fell like a brick into pale-faced mortification. “I made Mabel cry?”

“Yes.” Wilcox turned around and poured the sour-smelling wine into the mugs, “Yes you did and you should feel terrible about it. You know how sensitive Mabel is.”

“I didn’t even see her,” West confessed, “She was out when I got there. If I had known she’d come back…”

“Nothing would have changed,” Wilcox crossed and handed West his mug over the back of the sofa. The hard wooden back was starting to splinter a little and he scratched absently at a scorch mark with his thumb. “You know, for a man from money you and manners do not get on well.”

“We never have,” West shrugged, taking a sip. He winced as if slapped, “This is not wine, this is a punishment,” He said into the mug.

“One you deserve.” Wilcox said, rounding the couch to sit down. West sighed and resigned himself to his fate. They sat, drinking, in silence for some time. It wasn’t until West balanced his mug on his thigh and reached for his cigarette case that Wilcox asked, “What was the argument about?”

“The research,” West grunted, sitting back and hastily draining his mug and lighting a match.

Wilcox rolled his eyes, “Specifically.”

West didn’t answer immediately. He adjusted his position so he was lying on the couch, knees over the low arm, head cushioned against Wilcox’s thigh after Wilcox moved his half full mug out of the way. West tapped his short nails against his own mug, filling the room with a soft, thoughtful tink, tink stopping only to flick his ashes into the few drops of wine that clung to the ceramic. He stared up at the ceiling, jaw working. Wilcox knew better than to push now; it would just stop West from talking to him for the rest of the night. So, he waited patiently, brushing a few stray hairs from West’s brow.

“I let him get under my skin,” West confessed. “I had gone to petition for the morgue again. I thought if we weren’t students,” he grimaced, “If we could be taken on as faculty we could use the corpses before they went out for lectures. Our research doesn’t alter anatomy and would have effected nothing, save maybe the stock when we started seeing success-“ He stopped himself, remembering who he was talking to. “But Halsey wouldn’t budge. Said it wasn’t the logistics of the research, but the morality of them.”

“That your talents were better spent on the living?” Wilcox supplied.

“How much did you hear?” West’s eyes flicked to his face over the gold frames.

“I talked to Halsey after. He caught me comforting Mabel.”

“Shame on you for being so kind.” West teased.

“If you hadn’t made her cry,” West winced again, but Wilcox plowed on, “I wouldn’t have had to. But he caught me and asked me to try to steer you on the proper track or some nonsense.” He took a long draw from his mug, “I wasn’t really listening.”

That got a laugh out of the man, but it was weak and halfhearted. Forced. Wilcox was all too familiar with the sound after so much time spent living with the man. Halsey had crossed a line with West and now the man was looking for ways to take out his anger at Halsey’s expense. Luckily for Wilcox, he was doing so privately and not in ways to hurt his reputation further like challenging the good doctor to a rematch. Wilcox brushed a hand through West’s hair, shaking out some of the tangles in the longer parts. While the strands looked silken and polished at a distance, they were fleecy and thick to the touch, threatening to curl whenever Wilcox’s fingers got too close to the ends. He made a couple more passes for good measure.

And then, stopped suddenly.

What the hell was he doing?

He looked down at West who kept scowling a hole into the ceiling rafters, particularly the bent one in the middle of front room, oblivious. Wilcox stared down at him a moment and that apparently got West’s attention. He craned his neck, looking up at Wilcox with a soft, questioning noise.

The vice on Wilcox’s heart tightened into something unholy and painful. He took a sharp breath and that only made it worse. He had to stop thinking about this. He had to think of anything else. “What did he say?” Wilcox heard his voice blurt out before his mind could formulate a plan. He slapped himself internally.

“Beg pardon?”

“To- er-“ well, he was committed. West would hound him about what the question meant for hours if he didn’t clarify now. “What did Halsey say to make you start shouting? What got under your skin this time that was different from the other arguments?” It took a lot to push West to that point, Wilcox knew. The man preferred silent, subtle revenge to shouting matches. He couldn’t recall having heard West ever raise his voice in anger; to be heard, yes, in surprise, yes. But never in anger. Never like what he’d heard in the office today; emotional and reactionary.

West’s jaw started working again. He sat up, leaving a circle of cool air on Wilcox’s leg, and turned to face him.

“He said…” West stopped and set his features into an impassive mask. Wilcox hated that look. It made him seem so inanimate. So dead.

“He said that I don’t get to play God just because I think He has wronged me.”

Chapter Text

Miskatonic University Morgue

Summer 1905

The four horsemen travelled through Arkham that summer. Wilcox hadn’t been aware of it at the time, for they had come out of order and he was so wrapped up in all the events surrounding their passing. In hindsight, he could see no other explanation.

Famine was the first to arrive.

The first few days after the spring session had let out had been unnaturally hot. Scorching during the day, the sun dragged entirely too close by some malevolent force. At night, the air was still, choking and humid to the point where breathing was a challenge, much less sleeping.  It was enough to make one sick; headaches, nausea muscle pain, fatigue. Neither would come down for meals, both vowing to go when their appetites returned only for them to go to bed without so much as looking at a dinner plate.

On the third night of struggling to sleep with the window open, West and Wilcox were forced to take drastic measures. Under cover of darkness sometime around midnight, they pushed the couch and Wilcox’s footlocker against one wall, West’s desk and miscellaneous furniture against another. West’s thin mattress came off his bedframe and went into the center of the sitting room between the two windows where the airflow was best. West rolled up his quilt into a long, thin tube and situated it in the center so he and Wilcox could split the space without worry of overheating each other.

It took Wilcox a few nights to get used to the new arrangement; not the being so low to the ground or sleeping on a thin space that wasn’t the couch. No, nothing so simple. It was having West so close that drove him insane. Unlike the times when weariness and exhaustion sapped the strength from him and he didn’t even realize he was falling asleep next to the man, he now had to grapple with the idea of West sleeping mere inches away. He could hear the steady rhythm of West’s breathing without having to strain his ears. He could feel the warmth of West’s presence.

Many a night Wilcox would wake in a cold sweat, flush and short of breath; the echoes of imagined words, soft and breathy, and feather-light touches rapidly fading from his memory in the darkness and leaving behind only a sullen, gnawing emptiness that ached bone-deep.

War followed quickly on the heels of Famine in the form of West’s feud with Halsey drawing out to dramatic proportions. Their argument in Halsey’s office weeks prior hadn’t been enough to dissuade West from veritably destroying his reputation among his peers by going after the good doctor in any way he could. Including, but not limited to, a series of back and forth letters to the editor in the college newspaper. West called for a modernization of science and medicine in no uncertain terms. Wilcox’s favorite quote of the batch: “We cannot the same Puritanical values that violently sent our foremothers into the Miskatonic in the first place so devalue and destroy the youth of today.” Which had been brought to his attention by John Price and had sparked a fit of laughter that had alarmed poor Dr. Price into hastily changing the subject.

Halsey, for some reason unknown to Wilcox, replied to every single letter in kind, saying that even science must have limits, for if it didn’t, where would morality even find purchase in society? There would be no limit to the depravities committed in the name of science. One might even kill a man on the off-chance that he might bring that same man back, a line both West and Wilcox knew was a direct shot at West’s life-work.

And it only got worse from there. Soon, much of the university’s medical department was picking sides and letters showed up under the pseudonym Wilcox had caught West using --A. Trever-- that were not in the same succinct, knowledgeable diction West employed. The same could be said for Halsey’s supposed name --St. John. With time, and the lengthy visit of Pestilence on the college town, West gave up the argument, as did Halsey, their banners taken up by less respectable men with more time on their hands.

The first came in at the start of the summer session right after Wilcox had landed a teaching job for summer clinicals and West, by some miracle of fortune, had gotten a position in the university hospital surgical suite assisting Dr. Morgan in an anatomy lecture. Wilcox thought it fortunate that West was pulled away from such a position, though that fortune was very short lived. It was a young boy, that set the ball into motion, no more than ten, and he had been misdiagnosed by his physician.

Then another came in, also misdiagnosed with a summer fever and a stomach bug and sent home with a prescription of a clear liquid diet and bedrest.

It was only after the fifth that the plague was caught properly. The frequency of visits led to laboratory work where Bacillus typhosus was found, according to reports as Wilcox had joined in the response later than people like West or Price. After that it was all-hands for combatting the plague before it grew too terrible, but it was already too late.

Death came last and stayed the longest.

When the university hospital was nearly full to bursting and talks of converting the gymnasium to a quarantine zone were rippling through the staff, the plague claimed its first victim. The second and third followed soon after, perforations and hemorrhaging not caught in time. West checked every one methodically to find the cause of death. Wilcox didn’t have it in him to call the man out on his disrespect for the dead; it was a substantial opportunity to find a specimen fresh enough for another trial. The laboratories and morgue were open at all hours. The two cemeteries already scrambling to prepare for the worst.

They found one on the most sweltering night of July and Wilcox, hysterical from poor diet and lack of sleep thought that West had appealed to the Devil himself for a specimen and Hell was close enough that the plea had been heard. It was girl, fourteen, Esther. Wilcox couldn’t get the name out of his head, her mother had chanted it, shaking her gently for twenty solid minutes before the nurses pulled her away. She had succumbed to fever and dehydration rather than the more painful symptoms that claimed so many that summer. She was small for her age, a battle with measles having stunted her growth as a child. She was fair skinned. Her curly brown hair thinned out and brushed flat. She’d died that afternoon.

West had gotten his hands on the girl in the evening. She’d been taken to the dissection lab for holding before being moved to the cemetery at first light for burial. When Wilcox arrived, the note from West telling him where to be and when still in his palm, West was at the counter unpacking his supplies.

They moved quickly; it was still muscle memory even with those few weeks of silence while they had recovered from the Chapman Farm debacle. Wilcox took to the notes, confirming the girl’s cause and time of death while also taking measure of her height, weight, and other characteristics.

West drew a syringe full of the serum claiming it was new formula as he went. That he’d been tinkering with it off and on. Wilcox didn’t doubt him, though when West had found the time to actually put his alterations into practice, he had no idea. During class time perhaps, or on a sleepless night when it was West’s turn to break his back on the couch. He didn’t ask. He knew he was better off not knowing.

It looked the same; faintly glowing and oddly colored, but it caught the light differently as it blazed in the light of the cremating furnace. Wilcox though he could see tangible shapes in the pearlescent shine long undulating tendrils and blinking eyelids that covered nothing, tongues and teeth. It made his eyes hurt to look at it in the bottle.

On Wilcox’s mark, pocket watch in hand, West slowly plunged the entire syringe of the serum into the girl’s wrist, keeping it elevated for the first several minutes. Nothing happened. The seconds ticked on and there was no screaming, not even a flinch of movement. West lowered her arm at the ten minute mark.

Fifteen minutes. Nothing.

Twenty-five minutes. Nothing.

West filled another syringe.

Thirty-two minutes and just as West leaned over the girl’s untouched left arm for the second shot, he took a step back. Her eyes had shot open on their own. Wilcox scooted forward on his stool, holding his breath. Waiting.

She just stared. Slack faced and glassy eyed at the ceiling. Wilcox rose when West didn’t move and leaned over the girl, trying to catch her gaze. Her brown eyes locked onto him, all blown pupils and streaking red veins. They held his, searching, pleading, desperate for something Wilcox knew he did not possess and it killed him just as a knife to the heart might have. Though her face was emotionless, Wilcox felt sympathy for her; the pain she must be in. The shock she must feel at waking up in such a place.

“It’s okay,” he whispered, not realizing he’d done so until West brought it up to him at the breakfast table the following day.

She stared at him, her eyes flicked back and forth a moment, reading him.

Wilcox lifted his hand to her neck and felt nothing.

He blinked and the girl’s eyes had rolled back in her head. He shook her gently, called her name, but there was no response.

Another syringe didn’t rouse her and they were forced to call the experiment another failure. They were just stepping away from the furnace when the cleaning crew arrived and Puck’s replacements were much less forgiving about stragglers lingering after hours. Graduates or no.

The pair fled without argument, their work completed. West chattered the whole way home about finally having the proof he needed to prove Halsey wrong in his assertions about West’s research. His excitement, so usually infectious, was lost on Wilcox this time. West slowed to silence when he realized his companion wasn’t responding.

Every time Wilcox blinked he saw those eyes staring back up at him. What had she wanted? Had she even seen him? Or was it something else? The same something that had made the screaming noise at Chapman Farm? Wilcox doubted he would ever know. What would he do if he did?

“Will?” West hissed in his ear and waved a hand in front of Wilcox’s face.

Wilcox started to alertness at the bottom of the Laney House staircase with no memory of having walked there. West was a step above him, looking down. Wilcox couldn’t quite make out his expression in the dark and for some reason that terrified him. Like he’d been scratching at a wound all evening but now he’d finally broken skin and it was bubbling out in slow, fat drops and spilling everywhere. He tried to take a breath but the air wasn’t air it was water now and he was drowning. In the distance, through the water, he heard West swear.

Something grabbed him by the arm and dragged him, but it was too dark, everything was too dark and staring at him with wanting doe eyes he could never hope to appease, only crumble under the weight of their disappointment.

He woke on the entrance way floor, his head propped on West’s lap, his feet raised on cushions from the couch and the oil lamp from West’s desk not far to the side. He could feel West’s fingers with their short-clipped nails carding through his hair, occasionally stopping to refold and replace a damp cloth draped over Wilcox’s forehead. He was looking at the walls; the ticking of the clock by the stairs, silently timing Wilcox’s episode.

“Good morning,” he said, taking Wilcox’s wrist between his fingers and thumb when he noticed the man was awake.

“What happened?”

“You blacked out,” West droned, his mind too focused on counting the beats of Wilcox’s heart. When released him, Wilcox tried to sit up but West held him in place with a firm hand on his shoulder. “Your pulse is still fast,” he explained, “get up now and you’ll just faint again.”

Wilcox counted 300 ticks before West picked up his wrist again. 300 seconds of just lying on the cold wood floor with his head in West’s lap, West’s fingers in his hair, struggling to breathe in time with the clock.

“You can sit up now.” West helped him upright, catching him when he nearly lost his balance moving his feet off the cushions. He offered Wilcox a glass of water when he was upright. Once Wilcox was through a few deep sips, West started peppering him with questions, “How are you feeling?”, “Have you eaten today?”, “How much did you sleep last night?” and other typical fare. Wilcox answered with short, perfunctory responses; exhaustion was creeping into his limbs and even the half empty glass of water was too heavy for him to lift without considerable effort.

“I’m alright,” he said to stop West’s lackluster attempt at good bedside manner. “I’m just tired and overheated.”

West hummed and rose from his spot on the floor. With a raised hand he told Wilcox to stay in place and nurse the water while he put the cushions and washcloth back. He took the glass from Wilcox and picked up the oil lamp. “Can you get up on your own?”

Wilcox nodded and tried, taking West’s offered elbow when he tottered, but ultimately managed to stand on his own. West led him up the stairs, his pace slow to keep Wilcox in the corona of light his lamp was giving off.

Wilcox was grateful for that little unspoken courtesy. The darkness around them felt more sinister than any other night, even after Chapman Farm. It felt alive and aware of his presence, like it knew every sinful thing he’d ever thought in his life. It prickled like the eyes of whispering gossips against the shell of his ear and the nape of his neck.

He let out a shaky breath when they reached West’s open door. Something about West’s mattress laid out on the floor, piled high with pillows and the rolled up quilt, the curtains wafting a little in faint breeze felt so improper. Like the seedy whorehouse mentioned offhand in a sensationalist magazine short story published for shock-value rather than substance. It gave those darkness gossips something to talk about.

The skin of his cheeks and nose bristled with heat and it wasn’t the cloying, sticky air.

Wilcox kicked off his shoes at the door, shutting it behind him and leaning against it, forcing his eyes to the floor. He let himself fall with his full weight onto the mattress even though it barely better than falling on the floor. After a moment of what Wilcox could only assume was silent observation, West disappeared into the shadows to get ready for bed.

If sleep came, Wilcox judged it too akin to Death to trust its company.

Chapter Text

Dolores Laney’s Boarding House. Arkham, Massachusetts

August 1905

He was a mess.

The grey light of dawn hadn’t even begun to reach of the windows when Wilcox woke, his limbs heavy and brain too sluggish to be human just yet. His face half buried in a pillow scented of cedar and cigarettes and the choking dustiness of goose down. He didn’t want to get up yet. The childish, petulant part of him pouting at the idea of another sleep-deprived whirlwind of madness that he called his days now; a morning of counting those that had died in the night when the shift staff was smaller followed by hours of weaving between rows and rows of full beds and curtains with soiled hems. He could already hear the groans of pain and rattling of tin bed frames as patients shivered and the sudden, heart flipping sound of one retching over the edge of their bed. He could see their faces when he tried to close his eyes and go back to sleep; people of all ages, genders, backgrounds, complaining of their symptoms, begging for healing when all Wilcox could provide was temporary drug-induced sleep.

Some nights, Wilcox couldn’t remember walking home. Some mornings West would blink at him in surprise when they arrived at the repurposed gymnasium. They’d had to free up hospital beds. To isolate those that were contagious and treat them before the plague spread further, but it didn’t help much. It always spread further.

Everything had begun blending together into a single, solid block of time like papers soaked in water for too long and left to stick in the sunlight. Waking up in the middle of the night, sweat drenched and short of breath, standing against all good sense in the hope that mattress would cool and they’d get just one more hour of sleep. Rising and dressing while it was still dark, returning home when it was dark again, dragging the physical and emotional fatigue, constantly compounded with that of the day before to become a cumbersome ball and chain, home with them.

West’s had gotten so heavy it started waking him in the middle of the night, breathless and shaken, and then, at the start of August, it had grown too heavy to carry home on his own.

Wilcox blinked and it was Sunday again. Always a Sunday when he realized what day it was. People came in dressed in church best offering prayers and well-wishes and reminding Wilcox that he couldn’t remember the last time he went to church. Every time he would silently vow to go back when he had the time and energy, but all he managed to do was pick up his Bible again and skim it, but it wasn’t the same without West there to give him funny looks and argue with him about its legitimacy.

Wilcox’s hated returning to the Laney house alone. But he hated waking alone even more now, having grown so used to West’s presence in his life; the quiet sounds of the man making tea or reading while Wilcox pretended to sleep in. His dreams grew worse as his heart tried to cope with the void left behind; it gave him too much and not enough in equal measure. That smooth voice reduced to breathless whispers and low, throaty sounds; gentle touches on his crawling, sallow skin to still whatever restless creature had taken up residence beneath. But they were placebos and he knew this, negating whatever relief they might have offered him.

Forcing his eyes open to the dark grey of the empty apartment, rumpled sheets and unused pillow his only company, Wilcox knew sleep wasn’t coming back to him. It had moved on to some other, more fortunate soul. He had some time before he was due back at the quarantine hospital; the younger doctors had taken to calling it that instead of Halsey’s proposal of Sanitorium in an effort to scare fewer people in need away. Wilcox hated both terms, hated the idea that there were too many typhoid patients to hold in the university hospital, hated that the researchers traced the plague to the Miskatonic river but couldn’t figure out how it had gotten there.

He rifled through some of his old boxes, the ones that had once been shoved under his own dormitory bed and had now found a place under West’s. There wasn’t too much of value in them, but he did have books in abundance. Some of them left over from childhood, others gifts he’d never had the time to read. He started collecting them all in a box all their own, split down the middle; one side for children, one for adults.

When he’d filed away all he was willing to part with, it was dawn and he had no choice but to go downstairs and face another day of this nonsense. On his way out, Eliza Atkinson caught him by the arm. “Cox,” she barked in that strange, slurred way of hers. Like her teeth were too big for her mouth. She dragged him when he didn’t immediately follow her into the kitchen and Wilcox couldn’t help but be impressed by her strength.

Eliza and Mrs. Laney had set up a cart of sorts; it was clumsily made but held together well enough on the days they pushed it to the campus. They’d filled it with boxes of food and carafes of water boiled and cooled as per the fliers the medical school had posted all over town and in the newspaper. They also had a few pots of some clear broth and box of bread.

It stunned Wilcox to see how Arkham came together in a crisis. Mrs. Laney wasn’t the first woman to donate her food and time to the sick and he was positive she wouldn’t be the last. People –spouses, siblings, parents of the sick and some who only barely knew the patients- came out in truly staggering numbers, risking infection themselves to aid in the cause. Many claimed it was because they had no choice; the town at large was suffering and the sooner this plague passed, the better. Others wanted to be closer to their families. And some, like Dolores and Eliza, wanted to help the doctors more than the sick.

“Herbert didn’t come home?” Mrs. Laney commented as she swapped Wilcox’s meager box of books for a heavy vase of water without his consent. Wilcox shook his head, still too numb for words. “Poor boy’s going to work himself to death.”

Eliza and Wilcox were tasked with carrying the items too heavy for the cart, which Mrs. Laney pushed all the way to the quarantine. Laney wasn’t allowed inside, her age made her  too likely to be infected herself, which was just fine by her. Eliza took over in her stead, putting on the friendliest face she could muster which, in all honesty, was scarier than her usual face.

He dropped the vase off with her once she set up, and Eliz replaced it with a steaming mug of coffee. He almost took a sip of it, instinctively, but she stopped him, putting her hand between the mug and his mouth. “Not for you,” she scolded, then offered him a second one, “this one is.” He very nearly asked who the first was for, only to have his brain finally kick on. West. Of course. When Eliza sent him on his way, passing her bounty out to doctors and nurses, Wilcox brought the mug meant for West to his nose. The bitter aroma of black coffee spiked with the astringent bite of alcohol. He laughed under his breath.

It took some time to find West. Usually he was out and about on the floor checking the gauze drains in those recovering from surgery; silently pressing on stitches and noting inflammation, the consistency of what drained out of the open stitches onto the cotton, inflation in the abdomen, or other signs that surgery needed to be repeated. But this morning he was conspicuously absent, Michael Fitzroy doing the rounds in his stead.

The gymnasium was set up so the younger, more likely to recover patients were nearest the main entrance where visitors would come in to wish-well. Those recovering from surgery or closer to death were situated near the back door so they might be quickly and quietly removed when necessary. West had raised hell at the idea of surgical patients being returned to the quarantine before the drains removed and stitches closed the rest of the way, but his complaints fell on either deaf years, or, in Halsey’s case, silently resigned ones.

They’d converted one of the storage rooms into a break room of sorts; chairs, pitchers of water, a lumpy bed on a broken frame for people to sleep in shifts so someone was always on call. A single electric bulb lit the room with eye-straining dimness. On the back of the door was a simple wood board decorated with tally marks keeping track of the patients they lost; it was half-filled. Wilcox found West in there, lying on the floor, his legs propped against the wall, shoes beside his hip, letting a cigarette burn to ash over a tray. He craned his neck to look at Wilcox when he entered. “Morning? Already?” he sighed but was in no hurry to get back up.

Something was different about West. Off. It changed slowly over time but Wilcox’s increasingly frequent departures from his company made it more obvious. His clothes didn’t fit as well, when he stood it was never quite as tall or square. The musty smell of malaise and chemical cleaners surrounded him like an aura. He waved at Wilcox when he drew close, bandages on his fingers where the skin had cracked into deep fissures and bled no matter how much menthol, olive oil, and lanolin he rubbed into them. He pushed himself up onto his elbows when Wilcox crouched next to him, dragging himself away from the wall enough to sit properly. He drank deeply from the mug he was offered and coughed through his nose. “Wh- Who made this?”

“Eliza.” Wilcox laughed awkwardly as West drained the mug of spiked coffee.

“I must ask her to marry me.” West joked.

“I didn’t think she was your type.” Wilcox said back, ignoring the pit the quip dug into his stomach.

He nodded, conceding, “Nor I hers, I think.” He set the mug down beside him. “Is Halsey here yet?”

“No.”

West breathed a sigh of relief and when he opened his eyes again Wilcox saw how blown his pupils were even for the dim light. Seemed even West wasn’t above dipping into the pharmaceuticals to stay awake on the longer shifts; cocaine and digitalis were stored in abundance and no one would miss a dose or two if it meant the surgeons were on their feet after all. It left a bitter taste in Wilcox’s mouth. West rubbed at his eyes, twitching a little with the motion.

“Come home tonight,” Wilcox pleaded, “Let the night workers do their job. You need sleep. Actual sleep. Your heart will stop if you keep this up.”

“I know,” was all West said in return.

Halsey showed up later that morning while Wilcox was doing his rounds among the children and convalescent. He passed out acid rinses, strychnine for the weak hearted, and opium for headaches because they’d run out of ice days ago and what little they managed to restock went to the hemorrhagic patients first and the had heat made sure there was never enough to go around. He talked down crying children complaining of hunger trapped on their strict diets until they improved and parents demanding something more than “give it time” as a solution.

Often, Wilcox would see West coming and going through the back door, his hands constantly gloved now to keep the sickness away from his bandages and a handkerchief tied around the lower half of his face. He had, according to some of the nurses that had been on staff that night, demanded Fitzroy wear one as well after the latter had fainted at the operating table during the reopening of a septic wound, the smell too much for him. They said that West soaked the cloths in water steeped with mint and menthol which kept the mind awake and the stench to a minimum. Fitzroy, though reluctant to admit it, seemed to be benefiting from the change and even the nurses had taken it up when dealing with particularly odorous tasks.

Wilcox’s stomach tied in a knot at the idea of West and Fitzroy being paired for anything, despite a surgeon and an anesthetist being a necessary coupling. His fears were proved correct that night, later than he should have stayed for the sake of his shift, when he found Fitzroy, West, and Halsey packed into the tight break room ready to come to blows.

 Halsey was standing off to the side, not wanting to get in the middle of the two volatile younger men. “Gentlemen, please, enough of this-“

“No, no!” Fitzroy was shouting and Halsey pointlessly shushed him worried the patients might hear. “I know he’s letting those people die on purpose.”

West’s eyes widened, his nostrils flared, but he stayed rooted in the spot, “I did all I could for those people. I have been wrist-deep in blood and infection for days.”

Halsey struggled to get a word in, but Fitzroy’s shouting drowned him out. It wasn’t long before a small clutch of nurses gathered at the makeshift break room door to listen in. “How many patients did you lose today, West?” he hissed, “Six? Eight? Do you even know?”

“Do you?” West shot back, “As I recall you couldn’t even stay conscious during surgery last night.”

“You call that surgery?” Fitzroy was spitting with anger now. “Go back to sewing and women’s work, West. It’s all your good for-“

West lunged at him, Halsey quickstepped out of the way. Wilcox grabbed him by the wrist before West could take more than a single step. “You’re a glorified nurse, Fitzroy!” He snarled, in impotent fury, “I’m the one responsible for what goes on in those rooms where you just sit and watch. I’m the one getting his hands dirty.”

“Yeah, dirty killing people.”

“Michael, stop.” Wilcox cut in before West could bite out another insult. His wrist relaxed in Wilcox’s hand at the sign of reinforcement.

“Stay out of this, Cox. You weren’t here last night.” Fitzroy spat never taking his eyes of West.

Wilcox put himself between West and Fitzroy, more for the latter’s safety than the former. “Yes. I went home to sleep because I know better than to lose my temper where the patients can hear me, Michael.” He growled low in his throat before casting a glare the group packed in the open door. They skittered off to do their jobs, the fight clearly ending.

Halsey cut in then. “There is only so much modern medicine is capable of,” he said sagely to the three of them, “With this many sick, people are bound to die, we can only do what we can to mitigate losses. And in-fighting is not helping matters.” Fitzroy puffed up, looking like he was ready to say more, but Halsey didn’t let him, “Go home Michael. You’ve said quite enough for tonight.”

With a huff, Fitzroy shouldered past Wilcox and out of the building.

“You too, Mr. West.” Halsey added.

“Sir-“

“It was not a request. Dr. Price came to relieve you of your post hours ago, I don’t know why you’re still here.” Halsey snapped, “This is not your place to die. Go home, recover, and rejoin the fight tomorrow.”

West turned to Wilcox, looking for more backup. Wilcox, despite the softer parts of him bending to West’s will, refused to give ground. “You need rest, Herbert.” When he tried to argue, Wilcox put his foot down, let himself be selfish and demand the man’s company, just for one night. “I will pick you up and carry you home if I must.”

If West heard the plea beneath Wilcox’s threat he hid it very well, “You wouldn’t dare.”

“You want to test out that theory?” Wilcox threatened.

West buckled, betrayal written clearly on his face. “I’ll do my last rounds,” He said quietly. Halsey vowed to take on any patients West deemed in need of surgery personally. A vow that was equal parts a concession to West and a goodly deed on his part. West mumbled a “Thank you, sir,” and stormed out with less intensity than Fitzroy before him, but still enough to knock the tally board askew when he shut the door.

Wilcox took a few deep breaths, his heart racing.

“There are times,” Halsey said cautiously, “That I wonder about the nature of your relationship to Mr. West, Mr. Cox.” When Wilcox turned to look at him, Halsey was levelling a knowing expression that in a way, reminded Wilcox, uncomfortably, of his own father.

“I’m afraid I don’t know what you mean, sir.”

Halsey’s brow lowered, even more reproving now. “The concern you show for him. It strikes me as very kindred to concern my wife shows for me.”

There was an accusation hidden in there and it pressed against Wilcox like a knife just below his ribs. “He’s my friend, sir.” He said, carefully choosing his words, the pounding of his heart making it difficult to concentrate fully, “If I don’t worry about him no one will. Least of all himself.”

“Of that I have little doubt,” Halsey said, “Though I believe it is not the place of one’s friends to bestow such worry.”

“He has no family, sir.” Wilcox argued, but it was weak and they both knew it.

Halsey hummed thoughtfully and let the line of conversation die, “Be that as it may, make sure he gets some proper sleep tonight. We need all the help we can get and I can’t afford to have one of my surgeons impeding himself with his own hubris.”

Wilcox wanted to argue that it was not pride that drove West to work so hard, but decided it would be better to just cut his losses and drag West home instead. “Yes sir.”

West took a bit of coaxing to leave his post, but he finally did when Wilcox tugged on his arm hard enough. Outside, the air was finally starting to cool off, still summer, but breezy in a way it hadn’t been in weeks. The shadows around them moved with purpose again, like actors running into position before the stage lights came up. They were creatures of impossible proportions writhing along as if their only means of locomotion were to roll around, see what stuck, and drag themselves along by it. Noises followed them home. Frightened, curious strays nipping at their heels, sniffing the air, only to be gone as soon as either turned to see them.

Arkham was Arkham once more.

It had a strange effect on West, to be back outside after so many days cooped up in the quarantine, sleeping in the break room on the floor. The fresh air, the darkness, the space. When they paused briefly on the edge of the street, keeping close to coolest shadows the buildings cast, to let a noise pass them by, West didn’t start back up again.

When Wilcox turned, West was leaning against the wall of the building, glasses in one hand, the bridge of his nose pinched with the other, head turned down. He took a slow, deep breath through his nose, but it came out shaky.

Wilcox reached out to him, a hand on West’s shoulder. He felt so slight, so small compared to the massive ball of frustration and rage he’d been in the break room only a few minutes ago, “Herbert,” Wilcox tried to get his attention, tugging him gently. They had to go home. They were burning precious time and West needed to be off his feet.

West looked up at him, stricken, his eyes glittering in the moonlight entrenched in dark circles so deep it was surprising Wilcox could even see them. His throat worked a moment. His whole form shook.

Without thinking, Wilcox tugged him again, pulling West in close. West stiffened a second, then relaxed, pressing his brow to Wilcox’s shoulder. He was still, hands gouging wrinkles into the waist of Wilcox’s untucked shirt, his breathing little more than the occasional loud sniff.

“You did what you could,” Wilcox said, hoping it was at least somewhat comforting but knowing it probably wasn’t. He combed his fingers through the short hairs at the nape of West’s neck, draped his other arm across the man’s shoulders. Heavens forbid someone suspicious as Halsey were to stumble upon them like this. Wilcox blocked out the thought even though it tied his empty stomach in knots; it was late, the city was too tired to care about two people stopped in the shadows.

“It wasn’t enough.” West grumbled into his shoulder. “It’s never enough.”

“Don’t talk like that, Herbert. You’re exhausted.”

West mumbled something Wilcox was certain was either insulting or generally unsavory. He chose to ignore it, even if it was at his expense.

The next morning, the pair left shortly after Dolores and Eliza, arriving around the same time Halsey had the previous day. Three of the niches set aside for beds were empty; no basins, no beds, just the curtains that had bordered them. The next day, five were empty.

The day Halsey died there were twelve recovering patients left and eighty tally marks on the back of the break room door.

Chapter Text

Herbert West’s Apartment. Arkham, Massachusetts.

August 15, 1905

Sweet, gentle blackness erupted into fireworks of brilliant red pain behind Wilcox’s eyes. It started in the bridge of his nose and spread like a spiderweb crack on old glass, up his forehead and across his cheekbones. The dull throb was too insistent for him to remain unconscious any longer and when he tried to open his eyes they felt permanently crossed and sore. He tried to get his hands under him. His right pulsed in protest along the bones between his knuckles and wrist, the fingers refusing to bend even a little.

As he lay on the floor, for it was certainly West’s rug his cheek was plastered to with some tacky, thick liquid that was most likely his blood, Wilcox tried to remember how he got there.

They’d gone to Halsey’s funeral dressed fine and dapper in the nicest black suits they could tolerate. West cleaned up nicer than Wilcox feared and he had to force himself to keep his eyes forward during the service instead on the sharp, clean lines West cut in the shadowy back of the church. So many people spoke on the good doctor’s behalf and it seemed like the whole of Arkham appeared at some point during the rushed funeral. People passing through as the plague wound down; many would call Halsey’s death the peak of that nightmarish summer, Wilcox himself included in their numbers, for his was the worst death of all. He hadn’t even been taken by the plague but in its curing. But really, the sickness was dwindling. The hospital could hold the patients once more, the gymnasium empties out, patients sent home to recover in their own beds, though it was far from over and the Miskatonic had yet to be cleansed. The lingering threat of resurgence scared everyone.

The wake, if it could be called that, was held at the Commercial House Tavern just after noon. Drinks were passed out in Halsey’s honor, courtesy of John Price for the first round, then on the dollar of the richer graduates after that. John spoke on behalf of the doctors that had served under Halsey in a rousing toast: “To our mentor, who guided us through the gates of Hell when they opened upon us. Who saw to order when order was desperately needed. Who saw to care when death was inevitable. Who led our fight against the very spirit of sickness and saw us, in his death, victorious.”

They all raised their glasses with a cheer, West included, much to everyone’s clumsily muted surprise.

John approached them shortly after. “I’m surprised to have seen your face at all today, Herbert.” He joked, clapping the man on the shoulder. “I did not think you would so honor a man you hated.”

“He was a worthy adversary. If only he had let my research flourish I might have been able to revive him.”

A round of wary quiet surrounded the man.

“A lofty claim,” Price said, warning in his voice.

“Such is the nature of my work. Would it not be something to have a thing so small as exhaustion claim the lofty and beloved.” Wilcox felt a chill through his bones at the words; he remembered the vacant, searching eyes of the girl they’d revived that night early in the plague.

“You tread on shaky ground, West.”

“I do not intend to stay on it long,” West said, “Nor here in general. I have plans tonight,” which was news to Wilcox.

“Oh?” John laughed, glancing between the two of them, “You leaving too, Wilcox?” There was a smirk playing on his face, “Or is the matched set finally breaking up?” A slim, dark brow arched in Wilcox’s direction. Heat, damning and dangerous, bristled across the back of Wilcox’s neck. He cocked his head to the side, wondering if he was misunderstanding, but the responding smirk confirmed his suspicions behind Price’s question and the offer hidden beneath it. Wilcox was learning quite a bit today. How had he not noticed?

He need only turn to West to have his answer.

Something livid flashed across West’s face, chasing after the sly look as it left John’s face like fox after a rabbit. “We intend to celebrate the life of Dr. Halsey in a different way than drinking and rowdiness,” West snipped.

“How so?” The clever look had dissolved into a mask of offense at West’s sudden anger.

“We’ll be making a night of it,” was West’s simple reply, but his tone was pure poison. “Right, Will?” Wilcox nodded numbly, on the spot, but had no idea what West meant.

John left them alone after that.

Wilcox looked between John’s retreating back and West a few times. “Any particular reason you nearly clawed the poor man’s face off?” he muttered under his breath.

“I was hardly so hostile,” West sniffed, but the shame was clear in the pink tint of his ears as they took the stairs out of the tavern.

Wilcox stared him down.

“I need you tonight,” West admitted, and Wilcox’s heart stuttered. “Sober. We’re doing another trial.”

“You can’t be serious.”

“What better way to honor my greatest adversary than to use him as a demonstration of his own erroneous viewpoint?”

The last thing Wilcox remembered before waking up on the floor was Mrs. Laney waving at them from the kitchen and West slurring out a hello and pretending to stumble hard enough that Wilcox actually did stumble when there was suddenly too much weight on his right shoulder and feeling grateful that they’d moved the bed back onto the frame that morning because there was no way they’d ever be able to get the smell out of the sheets if they’d left their specimen there.

Wilcox struggled to force his eyes open again, blinking the blurriness from his vision and the ache from his eyes. He could see West across the room from him, curled in a ball on his side gasping for air, a deep cut on the underside of his chin and shallow mark on his arm both bleeding profusely. Every breath the poor man sucked in was released in a string of chest-deep coughs and noises of distress.

Wilcox pushed himself up onto his elbows. Looking down at his hands, he could see the beginnings of deep, black bruises along the middle and ring fingers of his right. The joints were swollen all the way to the wrist. He’d need splints. Getting to his feet proved impossible with the way his head was swimming and his vision went dark whenever he moved to quickly, so instead he scooted himself across the rug by his bruised elbows over to where West was.

The smaller man tensed under the touch to his shoulder. Wilcox pushed him onto his back, forcing his eyes to focus to get a better look at the wounds through all the blood and darkening skin. West coughed and wheezed out something that sounded like “I’m okay.”

Not thinking, Wilcox put an ear to his chest to listen to his lungs through his shirt.

Time stopped.

Instead of wrinkled cloth and the unyielding ribs Wilcox had been expecting at West’s breast, his ear pressed to soft, pliant tissue. West’s form wasn’t plush in any capacity; he was all scrawny limbs and jagged, protruding angles where bone pulled skin thin and white. Wilcox had always figured the looser parts of his meticulously tailored clothing had been to obfuscate his skinniness and dissuade questions regarding his health and eating habits not-

Not generate the illusion of something entirely different from what was actually there.

Wilcox pulled back abruptly, so fast it briefly crossed his eyes as a wave of pain rippled through his head. West was only wheezing now. Blue eyes looked up at Wilcox, caught his gaze, and knew.

Again, time stopped around them. Two seconds as they mentally argued with themselves and each other over whom should speak first. Should West explain? Did Wilcox want an explanation? Was there really a way to justify this? Were apologies in order? Accusations?

A pounding on the door started the clock again and tabled the argument.

“Mr. West? Mr. Cox? Arkham Police. Open the door.”

The pair looked up as one to see the still-closed door and broken window, scraps dark cloth and shards of broken bottles and instruments strewn on the floor not too far away from them. Both were too exhausted to rise to their feet and let in the officers so they stayed there, sprawled on the floor, feigning unconsciousness and then slow, groaning wakefulness when West’s door was kicked in.

Wilcox, it turned out, had a broken nose on top of everything else, which he had to forcibly reset himself when he refused West’s offer to help. One of the officers led them down to the dining room for questioning about the ruckus, their injuries, and the broken window.

West led the lies, he was just generally better at it than Wilcox was, recent revelations notwithstanding. Pithy lines about bacteriological samples and the study of germ theory so laden with medical jargon the officers forced him to stop even though the trained ear would have caught it as delirious nonsense. Wilcox only backed him up on the subject of their third and even that was with reluctance, claiming they’d only just met the man and had stumbled back here with him under the pretense of conversation and further drinking. “Well,” he said believably, as his words held the most truth of all the things they’d said in explanation, “My companions had a fundamental difference of opinion neither was quite willing to let die.”

In the end, the officers said they’d scour the area for their friend in case he was in danger and recommended West see a doctor for the wheezing.

“I am a doctor.” West said. If Wilcox had thought the tone Price had endured was poison, this one could eat through metal.

They got the hint and allowed the two men to return upstairs where Mrs. Laney and Eliza had nailed a sheet to their broken window. Both thanked the two ladies and promised to pay for the repairs despite Mrs. Laney’s protests and assertions that they should just focus on healing up. “The nerve of some people,” she muttered as they shooed her away and told her to get some sleep too.

Standing in the sitting room together, they waited for the house to settle. For the other residents to return to sleep.

By some fluke of nature, it was Wilcox that spoke first. “Were you ever going to tell me?”

West looked him in the eye and said, “No.”

Wilcox’s heart set to ticking like a clock stuck on a single number due to faulty mechanisms. “No?

“Will, keep your voice down,” West hissed. He… She… Wilcox battled internally over what to think of West as. Keeping in line with the lie West had spun hurt his brain less for now. He had distress painted all over his face. “Please. The whole neighborhood might hear.”

“God forbid they find out you’re a fraud.” Wilcox bit.

“I deserve what I have,” West snapped back. “My skill is mine. My knowledge earned. It didn’t just up and vanish because you… know now.”

Wilcox wanted to punch him. “I- How could you?” He said and West looked like he had been struck. “You- I’ve broken into university property with you. Stolen knowledge with you. Robbed graves with you. I’ve shared in your life-work. Your home. I’ve slept in your bed. And you couldn’t trust me with this?”

West tense shoulders dropped. “What?” he whispered.

“Is your name even really-“

“My name is Herbert West, Will.” He said, face softening as he stopped forcing his eyes to focus without his glasses, which still lay shattered and twisted on the rug.

The off-time ticking started up again, winding wire in his chest with every mistake; loosening on one proper tick, three backward pulling it tighter. One tick, three pull. “I don’t understand.”

“I didn’t expect you to. It’s… it’s why I wasn’t going to say anything.”

One tick.

Three pull.

Four years of pining.

“What else are you lying about?” He snarled.

“This isn’t a… it isn’t a lie.” West said, choked, forced, wounded.

“What is it then?”

West’s eyes widened and he was silent for a long moment. One tick. Three pull. “It’s a mistake.”

“A mistake? You commit fraud. You earn a degree under false pretenses you- You disguise yourself as a man on accident?

“It’s not a disguise,” West mumbled.

One tick, three pull. He was struggling to breathe now. All those sleepless nights, every sinful fantasy, every warm feeling he’d entertained toward West came back like ants crawling across his skin. “Well it certainly isn’t real-“

“I’m aware.” West bared his teeth, blood dark in the crevices between them.

“Is this why-“ The wire unraveled and suddenly the muscles in his chest stopped working. “Is this why you-“ He couldn’t get it out. He tried a few times, feeling helpless, sinking, drowning. West had known. He’d known how Wilcox had felt about him. About-

“I didn’t think I was your type. No more than Eliza is. Or those other girls you never look at.” West laughed bitterly at his own comparisons.

For some reason Wilcox couldn’t place, that hurt more than anything else. More than the lie. More than the betrayal of being kept in the dark. More than being accessory to yet another crime. That doubt. The hitch in West’s trust, in his confidence in Wilcox’s loyalty. The idea that maybe, just maybe, West had never really trusted him to begin with.

“How do you live with yourself?” Wilcox ground his teeth, eyes prickling. It was unnecessarily mean and Wilcox knew it but damn it if he didn’t want to hurt West now. He’d given West so much, all of himself, heart and soul and West- Had West given anything in return? Anything at all?

West’s face twisted in a pained grimace, “I-“ his throat clicked, “There are days I hesitate to call it living.” And Wilcox was reminded of his melancholy spirals, painted in brighter, starker colors now, “If it makes you feel better.”

“It doesn’t.” Something small inside him wailed in soul-curdling agony.  Wilcox took a shaking breath, clenching and unclenching his left hand. He debated storming out, braving Arkham at night alone but that wasn’t a solution; it was a bandage on a wound that required stitching. He looked at West long and hard, watching the fearless, defiant way his gaze was met. Prepared for the worst Wilcox could throw at him. His eyes were sharp as glass despite the lack of sleep and the bruising; hands clenched at his sides, blood already speckling through the linen bandage wrapped around his arm. Another cry for relief, and that screaming thing was burning now, the white cold pain of truly severe burn. The kind that warranted grafts and open air, that turned green and putrid and deadly if left concealed.

He took two long steps toward West, who tipped up his chin, still defiant, still waiting for the worst. Wilcox wanted to strangle him. Wanted to pull the rug out from under him too but he had nothing. Nothing at all. He’d been too honest, in hindsight. His heart too open, it had bled too much into West’s hands and…

Well, it was still there.

It was how Wilcox’s chest had managed to fill with wire or water so easily. Why when it screamed it echoed and folded back in on itself in kaleidoscope of noise. There was hole in his chest, just empty, desolate void where his heart once was. Like the black space between stars. Where West had stolen it right out of his ribcage with his bare hands and held it even now.

Wilcox took another step, less sure this time and he was in West’s space.

Would he be able to get it back at the end of this?

Did he even want it back?

The last question staggered Wilcox to a halt, the toes of his shoes less than an inch from West’s. West was watching him but had nowhere to go, his back was against the doorframe between the sitting room and bedroom; he’d been leaning on it to stay upright when they’d first come in and he still was.

For the third time that night, time stopped.

West’s resolve faltered. As if he remembered all at once how small and breakable he was.

The world capsized.

Wilcox took West’s face in his hands and kissed him.

It was awful. A split in his lip burned with the pressure of their teeth nearly clicking together. He saw stars and his head lightened, when their noses bumped together.  His head pounded at the sudden denial of life-giving air. West’s hands shot up to his shoulders, ready to fight him off, to force him away, and dug their short nails into the muscle there; the fabric of Wilcox’s bloody, wrinkled dress shirt the only thing stopping them from scratching rents into him.

It was perfect. A cool, soothing relief of an ache Wilcox never thought he’d be rid of so long as he knew West; ice to the burn on his soul. He wasn’t pushed away, he wasn’t fought off, or denied. After a second, the clench of West’s teeth loosened, his grip relaxed. Wilcox wanted it to last forever despite how much it stung, how much his body screamed for oxygen and proper bedrest.

Wilcox gulped down air when the threat of fainting pushed him back. West’s hands slipped down from his shoulders, resting against his chest as it rose and fell.

What?” West laughed in disbelief. “I don’t- Will what are you-“

“Don’t question where your dinner comes from, Herbert.”

West laughed, genuine this time, relieved, and for a second it sounded like it might turn to crying but he held it together. His head tipped downward, West took a few breaths to steady himself.

“Does… does Mrs. Laney know?” Wilcox asked after a few seconds, his hands moving from West’s neck to the dip of his waist; deeper than the illusion implied. He blocked out the wave of disquiet, instead focusing on the sound of West’s voice when he answered:

“No.”

“Puck?”

“He knew me before… I came back to Arkham.” West admitted, not looking up.

“Your family?”

“Father knew. Mother… mother died in denial.”

Wilcox swallowed hard. “Did… did Halsey know?”

West didn’t answer for a long time, his fingers tangling in Wilcox’s shirt. “He knew my family; his wife and my mother… were friendly. I think he suspected, but he had no proof with which to expose me. Much like what he thought of you and your… druthers.” Wilcox took a breath, but West cut him off, “No more questions, Will. Please. Not- not now.”

He sounded so tired, Wilcox felt like there wasn’t a choice.

Sleep was a dangerous thing both succumbed to, but closeness helped mitigate some of the fear. The weight of West’s head on his chest, the arm draped over his middle, kept Wilcox grounded through what was left of the night and most of the morning.

Chapter Text

Arkham, Massachusetts

Fall/Winter 1905

The police had returned to the Laney house that afternoon to interrogate Wilcox and West further. Apparently, there was some kind of monster on the loose and they weren’t the only ones that had been attacked by it that night. Their “friend” might have fared much worse than they thought. The pair feigned ignorance, they’d seen no monster, but in their hearts they knew.

The newspapers followed afterward and the young doctors held their collective breath for days. Wilcox spent his late nights waiting, listening, but he could never quite hear the sounds reported in the news the next day. West, owl-eyed without his glasses, sat in the armchair with a cooling cup of tea, too restless for bed. “The Plague-Daemon” they were calling it, though its strikes were not limited to just the homes of the stricken. It was speculated that it was all some sort of grand symbol of the grief that had come to Arkham, bloody and bestial.

Wilcox had, out of sheer guilt, offered to help in the capture of the monster on that fateful third night when all of Arkham came together a second time. He tried to encourage West to do the same, but West was, by more than just his own reckoning, useless without his eyesight and offered to stay up with Eliza as part of the relay network so Mrs. Laney could sleep.

The live capture of the monster was only a minor relief. Wilcox had returned home that following morning with a description of their abominable creation; a thing that had stunned him into lightheaded silence when he saw it. The putrid yellow-green of its suppurative eyes, the way it gnashed its bloody and broken teeth, how it followed movement with an unnatural turn of its head. Hidden under the cuts and bruises: Allan Halsey’s bone structure. He collapsed on the couch and told West everything, and West only stared at the wall and hissed, “Damn it. It wasn’t quite fresh enough.” When Wilcox turned to him in horrified silence West continued, “We need to shorten the window to less than sixteen hours.”

Wilcox didn’t say anything to him for the rest of the night.

They waited a week, quiet and with their heads down, impatient for discovery. For jail time in Wilcox’s future, Sefton’s in West’s when they discovered what he was. But it never came. No one suspected them. No one bothered to dig up Halsey’s grave to prove the man’s corpse was still there despite the pool of blood outside the receiving gate. No one said a word.

Their wounds healed as well as could be expected; the bruises yellowing over the course of a fortnight. Wilcox’s fingers reset without incident but his nose seemed reluctant to forget its mistreatment. The deep cut on the underside of West’s chin left a nasty-looking scar: pink, shiny, and concave, clearly visible whenever he tilted his head upward. His glasses were returned to him in one piece and with better lenses so he didn’t have to keep sliding them around to see. West still did it anyway, out of habit, and often swore under his breath when he messed up his own vision in the process.

The biggest surprise of all came when the leaves started to turn and the air cooled. When life simply moved on. Everything returned to normal. The last of the plague’s victims either died or recovered; the river clean once more. The newspaper pleaded with the staff to get a photograph of the doctors and volunteers responsible for such heroic steadfastness in the face of something so awful.

West had tried to be put off by the idea as he watched Wilcox get ready through the open wash closet door. “I like it the way it is,” he commented off-handedly while Wilcox debated the merits of shaving for the first time in weeks with his reflection. West immediately turned bright pink when Wilcox turned to face him, smiling. “But do whatever you want, it’s your face.” And he hid his own in his tea cup.

West had been made to stand behind Wilcox on the steps instead of next to him due to their difference in height. Despite West’s protests, Wilcox had gotten a copy of the newspaper and had the article, picture and all, framed.

Licensure tests took place in Boston and breezed through their lives like so much cool air through the cracks between the new window pane and its housing. They found temporary jobs in Arkham, teaching, but at night under the hiss of the gas turned up to fight off the chill, the pair discussed leaving the college town.

“I wouldn’t go as far as Boston yet,” West said, crossing his ankles were they rested in Wilcox’s lap. “Not with how unstable our experiments are.”

Wilcox nodded. The last thing they needed was another Plague-Daemon loose in a major city. “Somewhere small then?” He very nearly recommended the township his family called home, but bit his tongue. The last thing on Earth he wanted was his parents meeting West or risk discovery with his mother’s propensity for unannounced visits. “Where is it you said you grew up? Before you came back to Arkham?” Wilcox winced internally at the phrase, it had more weight now and he didn’t like throwing it around if he didn’t have to.

The issue of West, who he had been before medical school, was one they pointedly did not discuss while there were potential eavesdroppers. Wilcox’s curiosity gnawed at him, wanting to know more, wanting to ask as many questions as West was willing to answer. But, West had a point when he said that his secrets were dangerous ones and Wilcox wasn’t about to make that worse. West attempted to go on as if Wilcox didn’t know.

But, Wilcox noticed the flaws in West’s mask now; little imperfections. Feminine mannerisms probably so ingrained into West that they could never be totally untrained; the way he crossed his ankles when he sat, the way he held his weight when standing still, the slight loop to his gait when wasn’t in a hurry, the profound mood swings and ailments that Wilcox now realized were in cycles. All of it though, was easier to ignore than Wilcox might have suspected. West played his part so perfectly, as if it had always been his. As if it wasn’t a part he was playing. And, after he’d adjusted to the idea, Wilcox was willing to accept that it wasn’t.

“Innsmouth,” West supplied, face darkening. “All the money in the world wouldn’t be enough to pay me to go back to that hellhole.”

Wilcox hummed thoughtfully, rubbing circles with his thumb on West’s bare ankle.

“There’s Bolton,” West suggested after a moment. “It’s not far, so we could still get water from the Heath. It’s not a long ride to here and thus Boston’s not far. Hell, we cut through Dunwich we can go straight there.”

“Dunwich?”

“Backwater farm town. Nothing sinister.” West explained, “Aside from the rumors of devil-worship, but Innsmouth got similar rumors.”

When West didn’t continue Wilcox felt compelled to ask: “Were they true? The rumors about Innsmouth?”

West looked at a spot over Wilcox’s shoulder with murder in his eyes and only said, “Yes.”

Things came to a head close to the end of the year. They were on their last dollars. Mrs. Laney and West had more harshly whispered conversations in the boarding house foyer than Wilcox was even close to comfortable with. Teaching jobs were drying up with the approach of the winter holiday. Letters from home begged Wilcox to return and look for work there; that a church group had mentioned a need for doctors in the area. Without thinking Wilcox had passed the news on to his colleagues, only to realize afterward that he had taken his easy route, a route out of Arkham, away from himself. Tense hours not spent worrying or struggling to hold onto work, were spent huddled on West’s couch with the gas up pouring through newpapers for openings.

Wilcox came up empty, many people preferring to just come to Arkham or tough it out for their medical needs since there wasn’t a pharmacy in Bolton anyway. West was a bit luckier and managed to get a foot in the door at the mill when he just so happened to be around during an equipment malfunction.  They hired him as an on-site surgeon right then and there

After that, West spent most of his week in Bolton, sleeping in a hotel on company money and coming back to Wilcox on the weekends to sleep in a bed that wasn’t freezing and didn’t stink of mothballs.

In those intervals, those long work weeks, Wilcox missed West terribly. He’d thought going to bed alone during the plague was trying, but this was just hellacious. So soon after finally being able to reach across the bed and pull West close, to bury his nose in that too-soft blond hair with impunity, it was gone. West seemed to miss it too, if the way he curled into Wilcox’s embrace was any indication, but neither said anything out loud until:

“I’m going home for Christmas.” Wilcox said, the letters from home had become too much to bear.

West looked up at him, surprised. “I thought you said you didn’t want to deal with your family this year. Or was that someone else?”

“No, I said it,” Wilcox admitted, and he had, two glasses of wine into their mockery of Thanksgiving using conversation to drown out the rowdy Laney family downstairs. “But it seems mother has promised everyone I would be there and people want to congratulate me,” He put on his best imitation of his mother’s voice, “and they’ve traveled so far.” Clearing his throat to normalcy, he grumbled, “I swear, the woman wields guilt like a sledgehammer.”

A bright, slightly mocking laugh was West’s response.

“They want me to move back to Chicago.” Wilcox wasn’t sure why he said it the way he did. Maybe it was to see what kind of reaction West would have. Maybe it was to get it out in the air. Maybe it was for reassurance that he was right to not want to go back.

West bristled. “Do they now?” When Wilcox nodded, he asked , “What did you tell them?”

“I haven’t said anything yet.”

West puffed up a bit like an angry cat, but switched the line of conversation a little. “Enjoy your Christmas back home.”

 “I’ll write to you.” Wilcox promised, more for himself than for West.

“I shall endeavor to reply.”

It made him feel a little better.

And, West did reply to every single letter. It made Wilcox’s stay tolerable to know that between the platitudes and forced conversation he had those letters to read. They didn’t have much to talk about, having spent so much time together in everyday life and not wanting to commit anything too damning to paper. Wilcox worried some members of his extended family wouldn’t be above opening his mail and the fear of whispers of love letters reaching his father’s ears almost stopped Wilcox from writing the first one entirely.

West spent most of his writing complaining about the factory job; particularly of the asinine injuries men seemed prone to giving themselves because drinking before noon was a good idea to some. He spun wild stories in his sharp, efficient language about accidentally starting a fistfight, intentionally ending another, and finding out some underground boxing ring in Bolton that might be in need of a medic worth trusting. What is it with small towns and boxing clubs, Will? I will never understand it. Is it the boredom? Surely there is something better to do with one’s time than punching someone.

Each and every one was headed: Dearest, W. Wilcox wrote the same thing at the beginning of his. They dated each in lieu of a signature. Wilcox wasn’t sure how that started, but it came naturally to him and he assumed the same for West.

Wilcox replied with stories about his family. He described many of them in detail and, at one point, had received a flowchart with notes based on all his stories in return with a hastily scribbled is this right? In the corner. Wilcox showed his sister and she’d laughed for a solid minute. He added corrections and additions he hadn’t told West just yet and wrote Close enough under West’s question.

The last letter he received arrived a few days after Christmas. It wasn’t even a letter, technically; it was a photograph of a little two-story cottage. No neighbors nearby, the upper floor smaller than the ground floor. The covered front steps looked like they’d seen better days. The whitewash was flaking in places, the lawn overgrown with weeds. The windows seemed dingy but that could have just been the photograph. It would need fixing, regardless, Wilcox knew. On the back, in West’s hasty hand, it said:

All stone basement. You can see the cemetery from the second floor, straight shot. No neighbors for four numbers. We’ll have to change the lock on the back door, but it’s private and it’s ours. Whose name should go first on the sign? –H

P.S. It looks nicer in person, I swear.

Chapter Text

The Home and Practice of Drs. Cox and West. Bolton, Massachusetts.

January 1906

Vanessa accompanied him to Bolton, helping him carry extra luggage his mother demanded he take with him if he was going to move so far away permanently. She was eager to see the place and perhaps even more eager to meet West. “Surely he must be something,” she said on the train, “If you’re willing to move in order to work with him.”

They arrived at the house some time in mid-afternoon on a clear day. Wilcox had, quite frankly, seen enough snow in Chicago and was grateful for some proper sunshine. Vanessa beamed at him when they made it up the rickety front step. “You have a sign,” she said, pointing to the carved wood placard next to the door. West had decided to put Cox’s name first despite their extensive argument on the subject via letters over the holiday. When they came in, West having sent a key to Mrs. Laney for Wilcox to pick up, the house was already warm.

The front door opened into a small coat room, where they hung up their things. The door beyond that led to a spacious, open parlor. A section of the wood floor was covered by West’s rug from the Laney place, and boxes stood in place of furniture.  On the left was a door mostly ajar, brightly lit room beyond, straight ahead was a staircase leading up to the second floor adjacent to a doorway to the kitchen. Another door on the back wall to their right sat closed not far from a lit fireplace. From the doorway, the sound of metal tools clicking caught Wilcox’s attention.

In the kitchen a large round table sat filled with half-open boxes. A few things were on the counter and in the open cabinets; essentials, gifts from Mrs. Laney, a few of their medical supplies in the cupboards nearest the door. On the floor at the back door, a young man sat tinkering with the knob.

“Puck!” Wilcox laughed and the boy startled, arm cocked to throw the screwdriver in his hand.

“Wilcox!” Puck lowered his arm. “Wasn’t expecting you back so soon.”

Vanessa leaned against Wilcox’s shoulder. “You know him?” she hissed in his ear.

“He’s a friend of West’s.” Wilcox whispered back, offering his hand.

“Friend?”

Puck pushed himself up off the floor and took Wilcox’s hand. They shared a bit of small talk about the Potters field, the plague, and the holiday. It had taken several days for everything to arrive, between packages from West’s aunt, fresh boxes of deconstructed furniture, and there was apparently still more to come. West had spent his last dollar setting up the place, apparently. “Angel Face wanted me to mind the house and change the lock. He doesn’t have the coin to pay a locksmith, but I know the Eliots are good for debts. Didn’t have time to wait for you when the mill came calling this morning but he might swing by soon.”

Wilcox laughed. “Sounds like him.”

Only when the sound of the front door closing echoed through the house did Wilcox realize Vanessa had wandered off.

“My word there’s two of you.” Wilcox heard West’s voice say from the parlor. When he came out, West had his coat slung over one arm, Vanessa’s hand just being released from his free one. “You must be the sister. Victoria?”

“Vanessa,” she corrected all charming smiles, hands tucked primly behind her back.

Wilcox arched a brow and watched the exchange from the doorway.

“Dr. West,” Vanessa said, making it sound like she was guessing. “You have a first name I assume.”

West adjusted his collar awkwardly. “Herbert.”

“Isaac speaks fondly of you when he comes home.”

“Does he now?”

Vanessa laughed, “Oh yes. He doesn’t do so often, but when he does it is always kind. Though he did fail to mention your appearance or your family.”

“Hardly blame him. There’s not much to say about either.”

Vanessa gave him a curt little nod, “I believe we’ll have to disagree on that front, Dr. West.”

West’s ears turned pink. “Oh-“ he cleared his throat and Wilcox couldn’t stand it anymore. Stepping into the room to stand beside his sister, he saw West’s tense shoulders fell a bit with a soft sigh. “Will. Welcome back.”

Now it was Wilcox’s turn to change colors, the hairs on the back of his neck standing up when his sister turned to him and mouthed the name obnoxiously. West kept talking, mostly about repairs the house needed and a few things about Bolton, but Wilcox didn’t hear them over the ringing in his ears. He just nodded along.

A knock rattled the front window and a man in black-smeared shirt gestured at West. With a roll of his eyes and a polite good-bye to Vanessa, the surgeon slipped back out into the cold.

“He calls you Will.” Vanessa said quietly, pulling Wilcox aside. “What is that? You hate it when people call you Will. You don’t even let Nan call you Will. “

“It’s nothing,” It was snippy and defensive and telling, but Wilcox couldn’t stop it from coming out. “I just never bothered to correct him.”

Vanessa’s eyebrows shot up and Wilcox tore past her up the stairs to avoid the look. Luckily, his sister didn’t press the issue, following him up. The second floor was dusty and draughty with peeling wallpaper and dangerously creaking floorboards. A tin bedframe with thin mattress and West’s all-too-familiar quilt sat in one room, a desk and bookshelf in the other, the third empty entirely for now, a small closet at the end of the hall held linens and a dark locked box Wilcox recognized from under the counter in West’s wash closet.

Puck left shortly after they got started. “The house catches fire, it’s on your watch now, Wilcox.”

They started in the office; Wilcox hauling boxes up the stairs, Vanessa opening and unpacking them. Books mostly, some of them reference, some of them West and Wilcox’s research notebooks, but there were other things. A typewriter sent up from West’s aunt in Boston with a note that it had belonged to her husband but her wasn’t using it anymore. And Lord knows no one can read your handwriting, nephew. Good stationery. Bits and bobs from Wilcox’s family sent ahead of the twins in much smaller boxes than the ones Mrs. Moreland could apparently afford.

When he came up with the last box, the sun nearly down now with the earlier nights, fiery orange bathing the room, he noticed Vanessa had stopped unpacking. She was sitting on the floor in front of one of the boxes, looking at something. A picture frame.

“You never mentioned West having a sister.”

“He doesn’t-“ Wilcox blurted before he realized his error. “Anymore,” he tacked on to save it.

Vanessa held up the frame for Wilcox to see. Inside was a simple photograph of three people arranged in a tight cluster. At the back, an older man in a dark suit, with West’s cheekbones and nose stood gangly and awkward. His eyes concealed by round rimmed glasses so much like West’s Wilcox could swear they were the same. His thin, bony hand rested on the shoulder of the woman seated in front of him. She was lovely in an old-world royalty sort of way, on the younger side, with West’s eyes, mouth, and pale hair pulled back out of her face. She was wearing a high collared dress of some dark fabric. At her feet was a girl, no more than twelve years old, in a pale lace dress that seemed to swallow her thin frame whole. Her near-white hair hung over her shoulder to her waist in soft waves. She looked like a porcelain doll, all smooth white skin, crisp lines, and dead, pale eyes.

“Lord, she looks just like him.” Vanessa murmured, gently turning the picture back like it was some preserved holy text. She looked up at her brother, “Dr. West isn’t in this.”

Somewhere in that statement was a question Wilcox had the answer to, but didn’t trust himself with, “He’s the youngest of his family.”

“What happened to his sister?” she rose and put the photograph on the desk.

Wilcox swallowed down the bitterness on his tongue and said, “He doesn’t talk of her much. I think her death was hard on him.” It wasn’t totally false. In a way she was dead.

“He told you her name at least, didn’t he?”

No, he hadn’t. “Probably but it escapes me now.”

“I’ll just have to ask him.”

“I wouldn’t.” Again, too fast and too defensive. Vanessa gave him a suspicious look and he backpedaled. “Like I said, it was hard on him. He gets agitated when asked about her.”

Vanessa worried her lip but before she could say anything to Wilcox the sound of the door closing echoed through the house again. A few seconds of silence and she picked up the picture again. “I’m going to ask him.”

“Ness, no.”

“He’ll be upset with me, not you. And,” she put a hand on her chest and batted her eyelashes at him, “I don’t know any better.”

Vanessa-“ But she was gone. Wilcox hurried down the stairs after her.

The dark lower level of the house had a strange, foreboding quality to it. Like the Miskatonic Library at night. The sun wasn’t fully set, but it still felt like it was well into the night when Wilcox reached the bottom of the stairs. Like it had taken him hours just to go those few feet. Shadows moved and the house bumped and settled, jostled awake by new movement within its walls. The fire downstairs mitigated some of the effect, but not all of it, especially in the gloom of the stairwell.

Time seemed to move slowly when Wilcox made his way into the parlor, where he heard Vanessa’s voice talking about the photograph they’d found with West’s things.

“You unpacked my boxes too?” West was scowling at her. Vanessa might have had a few inches on him in height, but the look made her take a half-step back anyway.

“We were unpacking everything. I wasn’t awar-“

“Stop talking.”

Vanessa froze.

Wilcox froze too, lingering in the doorway watching West stare his sister down. He’d warned Vanessa; had told her a dozen times that West wasn’t the friendliest of men on a good day. But the look he was leveling the poor girl was something far beyond his usual bristly misanthropy. This was darker, chillier, like the blue in his eyes really was ice on a dark, frigid lake hiding some unknowable beast. For a tense, breathless second, Wilcox waited for sudden movement. That explosion into motion when a growling dog was pushed to biting. When a tight coil finally snaps.

But West held his composure. He closed his eyes, let out a long breath and when he opened them again he was a little closer to the polite gentlemen he’d been that afternoon. “I apologize. You couldn’t have known. It’s a,” he hesitated, “It’s a delicate subject.”

“I understand,” Vanessa said, sincere but a little shaky. “You two were close?”

“She died shortly before I was born.” West said.

The shift in tone brought Wilcox back into motion and he took up a space beside his sister, a hand at the small of her back to reassure her. She was stock straight and stiff, but there was no trembling there.

“I’m so sorry.”

West shook his head. “It was a long time ago.”

Vanessa held out her hand to take the photograph back, but West held on to it. “What was her name?” Wilcox could tell that wasn’t the question she wanted to ask now. It wasn’t the question he would have wanted to ask either. But West didn’t seem to notice.

After a long, tense silence, West said, “Edith.” Almost too quiet to hear. When he handed the frame back to Vanessa, he repeated it with a bit more confidence, “Her name was Edith.”

“She’s lovely.”

“Mother thought so too.”

Vanessa opened her mouth to speak again, but Wilcox cut her off. “Ness, could you… give us a moment?” Vanessa nodded, mumbling something about putting the picture back and disappeared up the stairs. Wilcox turned to West, “Are you alright?”

West let out a breath in a sharp puff of frustration. “I didn’t even know Genevieve still had that picture.”

Wilcox put his hand on West’s shoulder. “I’m just glad you didn’t rip Ness’s throat out.”

“I wanted to,” West confessed, gaze falling to the floor.

Wilcox bit his tongue. He could admonish West for that admission later. “How-“ he dropped his voice to a whisper, “How should we say she died? It’s bound to come up again.”

West went pale. “Consumption is easy enough. Believable.”

Wilcox nodded, squeezing some of the tension out of West’s shoulder. He watched the smaller man pull his glasses off to pinch the bridge of his nose until his breathing evened out. Temptation took over for Wilcox then, tugging at West’s shoulder gently until he stepped in close. The forefinger of his free hand brushing against the scar on West’s otherwise smooth chin. West’s lips were still a little chill against his own, all of him was still a little chill to be honest, but warmed quickly enough under the attention.

A creak upstairs reminded them that there was still a third person in the house.

“I should go get her, rope her into dinner with us,” Wilcox said softly into the space between them. He could feel the skeptical derision coming off West in waves. “Hey,” he scolded, “she’s my sister and I love her. You could at least try to get on with her. For me.”

West softened his scowl, but made no promises.

Jogging up the stairs, Wilcox found that Vanessa wasn’t in the office space. Instead, she’d hidden in the bedroom until she saw him, then corralled him into the office and slammed the door behind them. “What the hell are you doing?” she hissed.

“What the hell are you doing,” Wilcox hissed back, not sure why they were whispering.

“I saw you together.” Vanessa, eyes wild, looked like she might have slapped him if Wilcox had been in range. “How could you- Did you not learn your lesson with Gabriel?”

“Vanessa-“

She barreled right over him, a horse-drawn cart at full speed. “Do you have any idea what could happen to you? Ma nearly lost her mind last time. Dad’s going to have a conniption when he finds out-“

A couple of steps and Wilcox took his sister by the wrist, squeezing hard enough to get her attention. “He won’t find out, if you don’t tell him.”

Her eyes, little more than flashes of light in the rapidly darkening room, scanned his face. She must have found comfort in whatever she saw there, because her face relaxed. “The family will disown you.”

“They’re already looking for a reason to hate me.”

“That’s not true,” she whispered. Wilcox let her go. “Is this why you decided to stay? Why you’re not coming home?”

And that stung. He hadn’t expected to Vanessa of all people to be hurt by his decision to stay in New England. His mother had been, the rest of his family save for his father had argued until Wilcox was blue in the face defending his decision. She’d seemed so happy when he’d told her how eager he to continue his and West’s research and have his own private practice. But now, as the room turned from orange to blue and the cold bite of the winter air made itself known, Wilcox could see it. The same glitter of disappointment he’d seen in their mother.

“You’re going to get yourself hurt,” she said softly. And it was like they were children again, up before the first light of dawn, Wilcox sitting beside her bed as she whispered to him. “Just like last time.”

He held her gaze and said, “This isn’t like last time.” And it was true.

It was much, much worse in every sense of the word.

Vanessa buried her face in her hands. She didn’t cry. Vanessa never cried no matter how scared or angry or upset she was. She let out a shaky breath. Wilcox knew better than to touch her; a guy got himself punched that way. 

When she collected herself, Vanessa laughed, a little watery but still in control, “I suppose you could do worse.” Wilcox furrowed his brow and she added, “I mean he is a surgeon after all.”

Wilcox swatted her arm and she laughed a little louder, a little more jovial, a little less scared.

Chapter Text

The Home and Practice of Drs. Cox and West. Bolton, Massachusetts

Spring 1906

Dr. Cox spent much more time in Bolton proper than his business partner. West’s work usually kept him confined to the mill or their office; the former spent treating the black, inflamed lesions of workers or sewing machine-caught pieces of people back together, the latter pouring over new surgical techniques and testing them out when the opportunity arose. West had called Wilcox’s subscriptions to medical journals a waste at first, but now Cox caught him taking copious notes from their pages at breakfast and dinner. Many of them on the up-and-up, but a select few finding a home in West’s black notebooks.

Moving, settling, and renovations had put West’s passion project in the back of their minds and drained what little had been left of their funding for the endeavor. They had, within a week of Wilcox’s arrival in Bolton that January, procured a corpse from the potter’s field; a young man who had lost his arm to the mill that West himself had attempted to save at the time of the accident. The bleeding had been too severe for even West’s many talents and he died rather quickly. The last of their serum remaining from the Halsey incident went into the poor man and had taken the better part of two hours to show any effect.  The two had waited, holding their breath, and staring at the corpse on their table for whole of that time. It shot Wilcox a look that made his blood run cold and West swore like a sailor for the better part of an hour when the solution failed and the corpse’s eyes drifted closed again.

After that, Wilcox proposed they work quietly a while; rebuild their stock of serum and collect funds for a better laboratory. West, though restless, agreed and admitted to the necessity of building a rapport with the local color before going off to flirt with arrests and $500 fines once more.

West, to their joint surprise, established that rapport long before Wilcox did. Industrious and taciturn were traits to be respected in a place like Bolton. Their first patients were men from the mill that had taken to West’s manner, and their wives who admired the steel in his spine in the face of their husband’s surliness when brought in with stab wounds and bruises at all hours. He even garnered a few admirers in married and unmarried women alike, though he was less inclined to notice them than Wilcox was. The few he did, those forthright ones with the suddenly absentee husbands and a desire to do better the second time, he rejected less than politely.

With the spring thaw came the rampant sickness common with such changes in weather; varicella and measles were popular that year, the latter in particular around Easter, and it kept Wilcox out of the house and roaming the streets from first light until well after dark. He received no ominous whispers at his back for wandering the streets alone in the evenings here, and found he missed them. Or, perhaps, he missed their being warranted.

Bolton was a simple place. That was part of its charm, to be sure, or would be if Wilcox were inclined to like simple places, but Arkham had spoiled him over the last four years in that regard. The buildings we uniform; all red brick and light wood cut from the land surrounding and arranged in nearly identical ways. The roads were evenly spaced and spiraling out like a web, with the mill as the spider near the center; large and fat with anthrax, injury, and dust even as it slept. The repetitive nature of the place made Wilcox long for Arkham and its bizarre hodge-podge of modern and pre-Revolutionary architecture; its tight side streets, wide, looping avenues, and sturdy bridges overlooking the river that filled the streets with mist like gauze packed into a wound.

It took him a moment, sometimes, to differentiate the different commercial buildings without aid of their signage in the heart of the mill district. The court house, post office, general store, and newspaper all had the same basic design and he was convinced all four buildings were put up simultaneously. Specialty shops were easier as they advertised their wares in the front windows; silver, firearms, clocks, and the like on the streets Wilcox frequented on his walks from the far edge of the mill district to the residential one on the opposite side. Apartment buildings were the first to greet him and were his destination for hours of drudgery through language barriers and the smells of burnt hair and ammonia only barely covering up the mold and rats in the walls and left the young doctor with sinus headaches that followed him all the way home. The local physicians refused to see these places, sticking to the residential side, because the migrant workers struggled with English and payment in equal measure.

The town, in the mornings and evenings, was awash with warm tones; burnt oranges and deep, rich crimson that washed out to pastel yellows and overexposed sepia in noontime daylight. At sunset in particular when Wilcox walked with the sun at his shoulder but out of his line of sight, the whole place looked as if it had been set ablaze; the rooftops cast in black silhouettes, made smoky and inconsistent by the distant tree line that marked the north side of Pond Street. Wilcox would take the long way home on the well-timed evenings that let him start his walk right as the sun was dipping low and fiery on the horizon. The shadows cut long lines along his path, but he did not avoid them the way he had back in Arkham where they had been so dark as to be impossible to see into.

From the far end of the road, right when their little cottage came into view, Wilcox could understand why the local children had dared each other to go inside before the doctors moved in, and even a short while after. It was a run-down thing at that distance, teetering dangerously on the edge of disaster despite all the work they had done, and would do later, on it. Occasionally a shadow would move in a darkened window and Wilcox would comfort himself in thinking it was only West, away from his work temporarily for some reason, only to find out that the man had not left his post at his desk with his obituaries since his last patient left hours before.

On a cool spring day in April, about a week and change after Easter, Wilcox dropped by the cottage around mid-day, sneaking in through the back door as not to disturb West, who commonly set up in the parlor with its large front window, to work. He happened upon an older woman sitting at the kitchen table; Mrs. Carter, if he was remembering her name correctly. He’d given her a recommendation to bring her son to West for surgery after a throat infection refused to improve and had left the poor boy incapable of swallowing without a great deal of pain. It had stung his heart to see the nine-year-old, thin, pale, and bleary-eyed, spitting into a cup and wheezing at him whenever he asked questions.

Wilcox smiled at her and she returned it through the mask of concern on her face. He offered her a cup of tea or coffee or water which she tersely declined. Wilcox cringed internally at her tone and amended his offer to checking on the young Carter boy on her behalf. If only to get out of the room and not have to sit awkwardly with a woman that looked so much like his own mother staring daggers at him for what he was certain was the behavior of his associate.

West had brought his surgical bench, really little more than a table that could be broken down and moved by a single person in a pinch, from the basement out into the parlor. He'd draped it with a couple of linen sheets from the sick beds they kept on the first floor. The window at the front of the room was open; bright white sunlight pouring in at West’s back and over his shoulder, highlighting the outline of the sleeping boy laid out on the table. At his side, West had a tray of tools laid out on a repurposed stool: mouth gag, syringes, brown glass bottles, forceps, a pair of jars filled with clear liquid, pincettes, sponges, and other familiar tools.

Wilcox lingered in the shadowed hallway, watching West pull on his gloves; he’d cut back on his hand washing considerably since picking up several pairs of the things after the Typhoid Plague. White cotton, washed with bleach at the end of each work day and set out to dry overnight. West even had a few pairs set aside specifically for their more morbid research in the basement. Wilcox knew that West’s obsession with cleanliness in his practices bordered on neurosis in a dangerous way, but also knew that convincing West to seek help for such a thing was nigh impossible and it was useless to belabor the point. It wasn’t like he was hurting anyone with it anyway, save for himself with over washing until his cuticles split and bled. He had sleeves rolled up to the elbow, tie and jacket gone and top shirt buttons lose, an apron across his lap the ties woven through is belt loops to keep it in place.

The boy had a folded cloth draped over his mouth and nose, weighted down by some liquid; ether, Wilcox would have guessed as West avoided chloroform for many of his procedures given its propensity to nauseate patients. West pulled the cloth away, checking breathing and pulse before taking up the mouth gag from the tray. He situated it between the boy’s teeth and twisted it open just enough to give him room to work, but not too far as to cause future pain in the patient’s jaw.

Delicate, gloved fingers picked up one of the syringes, already filled and tapped free of air bubbles while the patient had slipped from consciousness. West held it up to the light to double check, beams of sunlight catching on the liquid and giving it a strange, preternatural glow not unlike the serum they’d crafted together and kept in sterilized wine bottles in the basement; waiting to be transferred to smaller vessels for easier access and use. Wilcox could see the line of West’s teeth through the part in his lips, focused and breathing even, still as the dead as he mentally recalculated the appropriate dosage before turning his needle on the patient.

He took a slow breath and sat back when he pulled the spent syringe free. Anesthesia had never been West’s strong suit. The Typhoid Plague had offered him assistants to pick up that slack and make sure the patients were in as little pain as possible or remained still and unconscious for the procedures so West wouldn’t have to. Wilcox nearly felt compelled to offer his help now, but checked himself. For all his hesitation, West knew what he was doing, and Wilcox couldn’t pass up the opportunity to watch him work undisturbed. He’d seen a few of the intestinal resections from the plague, had watched West thread tubes into corpses to clear out lungs of fluid before reanimation. But neither of those things had been quite so interesting to watch; they’d been quick and dirty tasks performed in the haze of sleep deprivation and manic necessity.

West pulled his glasses down the bridge of his nose with the ring finger of his left hand. Some shifting and sliding to one side on the stool as he tried to line up his workspace with the natural light. Wilcox held his breath, waiting, until West’s left hand reached for a pincette that was passed to his right hand, and then took up blunt hooks for his left.

West propped one foot on the support bar of the bench and leaned forward. Using his right forearm to hold the boy exactly where he wanted him, West threaded the instruments between the boy’s teeth. Outlined by the sunlight, Wilcox could see the tight set of West’s jaw, the flare of his nose as he focused; locking the pincette and propping it against the mouth gag. He reached across with his right hand to pick up a pair of claw forceps, never once taking his eyes away from his task. His brow dipped and he twisted the blunt hooks sharply, opening them with a slow spread of his fingers.

Whatever it was that was troubling him didn’t seem to let up under the attention. West reversed his grip on the claw forceps to free up his thumb, index, and middle fingers on his right hand to take hold of the hooks. His left hand dropped out of Wilcox’s line of sight, presumably to the boy’s throat and jaw. Wilcox remembered the swelling he’d seen two days before and very much doubted that it had gotten any better between then and now.

Wilcox could have sworn he heard West let go of his held breath when he finally got things where he wanted them. West rolled the stiffness out of his shoulders, his open collar spreading a bit, revealing a splattering a faint red marks on his pale skin just above the edge of his undershirt. Wilcox’s mouth went dry at the sight, the ghost of soft skin and unyielding bone between his teeth.

The corner of West’s canine pressed down into his plush lower lip hard enough to bruise. The next few steps happened quickly and fluidly, a run a fast notes across piano keys. Speed had always been his selling point; the faster a procedure could be performed the less likely a patient was to get an infection.

He worked the claw forceps in alongside the blunt hooks, taking hold of the inflamed gland, locking the claws closed with a flick of his thumb, and working the hooks out when they were no longer needed for spacing. Then, West reached for a loop of metal wire formed into a snare with single metal bar. Wilcox scowled at the sight; he’d never seen wire used for such a purpose when scalpels worked just fine. West looped the wire around the handle of the claws, pulling the forceps taut with his right hand and guiding the wire down with his left. He tightened the snare by twisting the bar, keeping everything tight until his right hand pulled something free.

He lifted the forceps out gingerly. Held in their tiny claws was the deep red, inflamed thing Wilcox had seen when he’d made his recommendation. White lines of infection stood out stark against bright veins and fresh blood. It was nearly twice the size it should have been by Wilcox’s reckoning and looked even bigger when West dropped it into one of the clear jars. The snare came out, dripping specks of blood on West’s apron, shortly after. The claw and steel snare went into the other clear jar for soaking as West blotted the blood out of the boy’s mouth with a sponge.

West relaxed in his chair, straightening his back and cracking his knuckles and wrists. He tended his tools, cleaning the claws and snare, and reorganizing his setup before settling in to repeat the entire process on the other side.  The second tonsil was arguably bigger than the first, and the two stuck together when West dropped it in the jar with its brother. The pincette was removed after, then the mouth gag last. A pause spent checking his work, rinsing the cuts, and wiping off the worst of the blood from doctor and patient alike, and West was pulling off his gloves. It was only then that he looked up at Wilcox, but there was no hint of surprise on his face for seeing him there.