by Domashita Romero (地下ロメロ)
illustrated by serenity_winner
After searching around his workbench six times, Nicholas came to the conclusion that his supply of #9 gears had escaped somewhere. Perhaps it was house spirits, or the work of a team of dedicated mice with plans for building a watch that would be, in comparison to their size, gigantic, but the box was assuredly empty. This left him with two equally dire options: either he had to go out and buy more, or venture into the basement to see if he had any stashed away down there. He took the option that involved him not putting on his coat, and headed down the stairs.
He’d never had the basement wired up for electric light, and he regretted that decision every time he went teetering down the staircase with a lantern in his hand. The pale yellow light it cast lit up the whole galaxies of dust swirls that danced up every time he moved so much as an inch. Nicholas kept the place reasonably organized, at least, which meant his #9’s would be in a box on one of the shelves on the left wall; when he looked, though, he noticed that his system of storage had been put into something of disarray. Boxes were shifted, crates moved. His mind wandered to an image of truly industrious mice who wanted to abscond with a suit from his crate of winter clothes, but that idea left quickly when he cast the lantern to the right and found a collection of dead rats piled up in a little heap on the floor.
“Ah, more strays,” he said, nose wrinkling a little. He frequently had problems with cats getting into his basement and his workshop, but as long as they were killing pests, he supposed he didn’t mind, and whichever ones had been romping through his storage seemed to be doing good work of that. He looked a little closer at the bale of rodents on the floor. It was odd; they didn’t seem to have been gnawed on or eaten at all, but they were most certainly dead. He poked at the pile with his shoe, knocking one dessicated corpse off of the top, and when it hit the ground there was a clatter from the back end of the basement. Nicholas lifted his light just in time to see the pale figure coming at him, fangs bared.
Hell’s bells, he had a vampire in his basement. Well, at least something was taking care of the rats.
The vampire’s lunge was weak; Nicholas easily knocked him to the side, sending him crashing into the shelves to make a mess that would be very annoying to clean up later. He came at Nicholas again and this really was pathetic — Nicholas just had to give him a strong shove to send him back on his rear on the floor, and with his left hand no less.
“Now, just stop that,” he said, shaking his head as the vampire wisely failed to rise for another attack. “You’re only going to hurt yourself.”
“I’ll hurt you, more like,” the vampire said, and there was a twinge of Irish to his voice. All kinds of infestations today.
“No, I’d say evidence points to the contrary. How’d you get in here?” Nicholas was not entirely up to date on the ways of the undead, but he’d always heard they’d need to be invited in.
“Run a shop upstairs, don’t you? Place of business, nice and public, open invite. Walked right in.”
“And you went into my basement?”
“Sun was coming up. Had to go somewhere, didn’t I?”
This put the unpleasant image that this creature had come into his house during the night while he was sleeping on the second floor. “I do lock the door at night.”
The vampire sat up and brushed his hands off, looking annoyed. “And I picked it, mate, easy as that.”
Nicholas made a note to himself to see about reinforcing his locks. “How long have you been down here?”
“Few days. You’ve got a real pest problem, you know.” The vampire grinned, showing his fangs. “Unless that was your sweet pet pussycat I caught.”
“No, no, it wasn’t…” Nicholas looked to the stack of his uninvited guest’s former meals. “Rats and cats? Shouldn’t you be out hunting the night for innocent young girls or some such?”
That took the smile off his face. “Shouldn’t you be minding your own damned business?”
“Since you’ve decided to take residence in my house, I think it rather is my business.”
The vampire rested his arms on his knees and leaned forward, looking down. “Not much of a hunter, is all. Animals are easier.”
Something twinged in the soft part of Nicholas’ heart, but he pushed it aside. “I’m not surprised, after that effort you put forth trying to attack me. A child could have had you on the floor.”
That got the vampire onto his feet again with some speed. “See about that…” he said, and went for Nicholas’ throat again, this time with an outstretched hand. He moved faster this time, and Nicholas was taken aback–literally–and the step he took behind him moved him out of the range of the grasping fingers.
“Please stop being ridiculous,” he said, and reached under his shirt to pull out the cross he wore on a chain around his neck. He had never been much of a believer himself, but his departed mother had prayed very sincerely for his safety over the thing on her deathbed, presumably for occasions just as this. Well, no, she probably didn’t have specifically this in mind, but Nicholas was still glad for the streak of sentimentality that kept him wearing it.
It had an immediate effect. The vampire stopped a foot away from him and staggered back, wincing at the cross like he was staring at the sun. It didn’t seem to be causing him much pain though–just a general level of annoyance. “Now that’s just not playing fair,” he said through gritted teeth. Gritted fangs, Nicholas supposed.
“When we were playing fair I also won, so I don’t know what you’re complaining about.” The vampire was almost certainly sulking now. Nicholas let the cross drop a little bit. “Will you behave?” The vampire sneered a little, but in the end, he nodded, and Nicholas put the cross back under his shirt. “So, you’re a vampire who doesn’t kill people?”
“I have! I’ve killed people.”
He’d been in here for days and hadn’t had the thought to come up to Nicholas’ bedroom and feed on him while he slept; Nicholas, thus, was doubtful of his claims. “Who?” He laughed a little at the thought of this skinny scrap of a thing overpowering anyone. “An old woman in her bed?”
The vampire clenched his jaw and dropped his gaze from Nicholas’ eyes. “She wasn’t… in a bed…”
Nicholas put a hand to his brow and shook his head a little. “Anyone else?” The vampire just scowled at the floor before shaking his head. He knew vampires could look young at several centuries old, but this one before him, he had to be the age he appeared, no older than his mid-twenties, starved in the cheeks and scared and angry in the eyes. Nicholas sighed. “Well, the sun’s still up for a little while longer, but you can come up once it’s down. I’ll head to the butcher shop in the meanwhile.”
“What?” the vampire said, looking confused.
“Sometimes I put out milk for the strays. I’ll just get you a bottle of something less wholesome.”
The vampire clenched his hands by his sides. “I’m no charity case!”
“No, I think you are,” Nicholas said. “You can leave here at nightfall if you’re that unhappy with the idea. Try your luck at the hospital; plenty of invalids there.” He reached over to a near shelf and picked up a disused fireplace poker, and pointed it just over the vampire’s heart. “Or we could just end things another way.”
The vampire’s knuckled were whiter than white where he balled his hands into fists, and he swallowed hard as he stared at the floor in front of him. “Fine,” he spat out. “I’ll stay.”
He looked like he was going to cry. Nicholas put the poker away and bit the inside of his lip a little. “What’s your name, then? I’m Nicholas.”
Nicholas didn’t mean to laugh. “Bill?”
The vampire–Bill–glared up at him. “Something wrong with that?”
Nicholas shook his head and held up a palm. “No, no… I just thought your type were normally named… Stefano or Aloysius or Ivan or something.”
Bill threw his hands up. “Yes, because when I was born my mum looked at me and said, oh, this one, I’ll bet he’ll be a vampire someday! I was going to name him after my father but I think I’ll go with Midnight instead.”
Nicholas just smiled. “Bill it is, then.” He started to head back up the stairs. “Oh, and leave the cats alone, would you? They do a better job of getting rid of the rats.”
“I’ll do what I please with them, you bloody–” Nicholas did not hear the rest of the curse as he closed the basement door behind him.
The trip to the butcher shop took some time and a tale about making sausage, but Nicholas returned home near sunset with an ample supply of bovine blood. He locked up in front, drew the curtains over the windows, and went to open the basement door.
“You can come up now,” he called down. “It’s safe, I promise.” He heard shuffling from below, and then Bill appeared at the bottom of the stairs, squinting up at him suspiciously. “I’ve covered the windows and it’s almost dark as is. Come up, already, I’ve brought you supper.”
Bill glared a moment longer, then shuffled up the stairs. He cast a glance around the room when he made it to the top, looking for perhaps a trap or some danger. When his eyes came upon the blood, though, they went sharp, his nostrils flared, and his lips parted. Nicholas smiled.
“Yes, if anyone asks, you’re a pudding.” He handed the container to Bill, who opened it and stuck his nose in for a heavy whiff, then pulled back with a sneer. “Oh, not good?”
“Not… hrm,” Bill muttered, then brought it to his lips to drink. After a few gulps, he pulled his head back up with a sour expression on his face. “Well, it’s blood, certainly.”
Nicholas shook his head. “I didn’t know you were such a connoisseur. I suppose it’s not a fine enough vintage, no 1891 Felis catus.” Bill took another drink and grimaced again. “Ah, perhaps I should have warmed it for you, like a baby with his bottle.”
Bill glared at him. His lips were stained dark now, and with the shadows of his cheeks and eyes it made him look like some stage actor in a haunted role. “Are you like this with everyone, or am I getting some sort of special treatment?”
“A little of both,” Nicholas said, waving his hand lightly. He took a seat in the chair at his workbench and gestured for Bill to have a seat himself. He did, with the same wary glare he’d given everything else so far, gripping his blood supply in both hands. “But, honestly. It isn’t good?”
Bill looked down at the blood, then took another drink. “No, it isn’t.” He still drank more; hunger could do much to drive a man, it seemed. “Feels like eating rotted meat or moldy bread. Not fresh.”
“Hmm. I suppose this isn’t the best solution to your problem, then?”
Bill narrowed his eyes. “Oh, ‘my problem?’ You know all about my problems, then?”
“Well, you can’t continue living on street animals. You’re clearly starving, unless you’ve always looked like that, in which case I apologize.” Bill turned his gaze away and snorted, which gave Nicholas a confirmation of his suspicions. “And you aren’t a killer, are you?” This, he asked softly.
Bill’s fingers tightened on the glass that held the blood. “No. Never have been. Never was. I stole, for certain, but never did any killing.” He looked off; he would have been staring mournfully out the window if the curtains weren’t drawn. “That old woman reminded me of my mum…”
Oh, he was haunted, indeed. “So, you need another solution.”
Bill’s lip turned up. “There is no other solution.” He lifted up the bottle. “I can’t even get this on my own. Starve or murder, those are my options.”
Nicholas rubbed a little at his chin. He mostly did repairs by trade, fixing watches, phonographs, cameras and the like, but in his heart he considered himself an inventor. For every problem that seemed like it had no answer, there had to be an answer somewhere. You just had to come at it from the right angle, and Nicholas had an idea at exactly the degree he should approach this one. “I think there might be something I can do to help you. I have a friend I need to talk to, though.” He stood up from his chair. “Of course, you can always leave, if you like your current options better.” Bill took a drink of blood with slightly less of a sneer than before, and stayed in his chair, silent and staring at Nicholas. That was his choice then.
Nicholas picked up his coat again. “I’ll be back before long. Make yourself comfortable.” He gave a look over Bill’s bedraggled state. “Feel free to wash up. Actually, please, wash up.” Bill rolled his eyes, but gave a little nod. “And there’s plenty of books around if you get bored. If you can read, of–”
“Of course I can read,” Bill spat, looking angrier than he’d looked at any moment before. Nicholas just held a hand up and nodded.
“Well, then, help yourself. I may be late.”
Nicholas put his coat on and headed out into the city again in search of a witch.
Violet kept a small flat, and she kept it crowded with many things Nicholas couldn’t–and didn’t want to–name. She didn’t particularly care for being called a witch; she preferred terms like ‘arcanist,’ but Nicholas knew what word their priest had used when she’d started her dabblings in magic when they were growing up, and it’d always stuck in his head. As words tended to do after they were screamed repeatedly.
She hugged him warmly when he came inside, and took his coat to set it on top of a glass case that contained a stack of copper coins and a surprisingly purple-hued frog. “And here I thought you’d forgotten about me!” she said as they sat down together on the sofa.
“It’s only been a week since I last saw you!” She put a teacup into his hands and he did not particularly notice as it filled itself from the bottom up. He took a sip and sighed. Darjeeling, as always.
“And that’s too long and you know it.” She clinked their teacups together like champagne glasses and smiled at him. “Now, is this a social call, or are you here on business?”
“It could be both? There’s no reason it can’t be both.” Violet arched an eyebrow at him and he sighed. “Fine, it’s mostly business. I’ve got a vampire in my house.”
“Oh, well, that’s no good! That’s not really my field though. I suggest you use something sharp, or just keep the windows open during the day.” She grinned hugely. “And then just use a broom!”
“No! No,” Nicholas said, setting down his tea and holding up a hand. “I don’t want to kill him.”
“Oh. Why not?”
That was a rather important question, wasn’t it? “He’s just…” Nicholas sighed. “He’s just so sad.” Nicholas told Violet about the state of Bill’s existence, and while it didn’t touch her enough to necessitate the withdrawal of a handkerchief, it did make her bring her hand to her chest.
“The poor thing,” she said. “What would you like me to do, though? Make him stop being a vampire?”
“Can you do that?”
“Oh,” Nicholas said, and then sighed. “I did hope that we could come up with an… alternative.”
“Maybe not… to blood.” He stood up from the sofa and paced a little. “To blood that involves a living creature.” He waved his hands a little around the room, which was lit up very clearly and brightly, despite neither lamps or electric light. “I mean, if you can make sunlight in here–which, side note, means you should probably not invite Bill over, just in case–why not make blood?”
This made a very feline smile come on to Violet’s lips. “Artificial blood?”
“Yes!” Nicholas was gesturing a little wildly. He sat back down. “I thought we could work together, like when we made the aetheric amplifier.” It had been a device that heard the voices of ghosts, and it had been very successful, except for how ghosts had absolutely nothing interesting to say. “Water into wine is easy; you do that every time we have dinner together. Water into blood, though, that’s a new challenge, isn’t it?”
“It is. I like it! Let’s do it.” She put a hand on top of Nicholas’. “But I want to meet him. I’ve never met a vampire before!”
Nicholas frowned a little. “You’ve met demons and faeries and that werewolf and you’ve never met a vampire?”
Violet put a hand to her throat and fluttered her eyelashes demurely. “I am very delicate and no doubt would make a very appealing meal. I’ve avoided the risk.” She looked at Nicholas straight and smiled. “But yours won’t hurt me, will he?”
“If he tries, I’ll swat him on the nose with a copy of the The Times.” He took her hand. “Would you like to come right now? I’ve left him alone with all my things, so who knows what trouble he’s caused.”
“Sounds wonderful!” she said, and after a brief twenty minutes for her to amass a collection of (presumably) mystical tomes to bring for the trip, they were headed back to Nicholas’.
Bill was where Nicholas left him, although now his bottle of blood was empty down to the last dregs. Bill himself looked better now; he’d clearly washed up, straightened up his clothes, and put his hair into a much neater ponytail. It looked like he might have even trimmed the ends of his hair, too; Nicholas would no doubt be finding wisps of vampire hair around his sink for ages. He looked healthier too, his face flushed now and his skin no longer seeming parchment-thin. He was thumbing through what looked to be on of Nicholas’ historical novels, moving his lips slightly as he read, but he closed it quickly and looked embarrassed when Nicholas and Violet came through the door.
Violet nudged his ribs with her elbow and said sotto voce, “You didn’t mention he was handsome!”
“Violet!” he said in a shushing whisper, and found himself glaring at Bill. He was more handsome now, for certain, now that he didn’t look like he’d been living in basements for weeks. Still, he didn’t want Violet to think so. He didn’t know what things she got up to when he wasn’t around, but she was like a sister to him, and it just wasn’t appropriate.
“He looks very romantic,” she said, and Nicholas glared more.
“Hush,” he said, and stepped more into the room. “Looking better, Bill! Glad to see you’ve chosen to stay with us. This is Violet, and she might be able to help you.”
He pushed himself back in his seat, sprawling a little. “How can she help me? Make a donation, perhaps?” He looked at her hungrily with a smirk on his lips, and Nicholas was highly dismayed to hear Violet giggle next to him.
“Oh, but could I trust you to only take a little sip?” she said, and approached him, holding out her hand. “So pleased to meet you, and I hope I can help.”
Bill looked at Nicholas, then smirked as he took Violet’s hand and kissed her knuckles. Nicholas snorted as politely as he could, but pressed on. “Violet is an arcanist.”
“A what?” Bill said, still holding her fingers.
“A purveyor of the mystical arts,” Violet said.
“What’s that, then?” Bill asked.
“A witch,” Nicholas said, despite Violet’s sour face at it, and Bill let go of her fingers like he’d been burned.
“Oh, no way no how, I’m not getting tangled up with any witch,” Bill said, scooting his chair back some. Violet just kept smiling.
“Now, is that any way for a creature of the night to talk?” Violet said. “We have to come at this relationship with a mutual lack of prejudice.”
“She’s a very nice witch,” Nicholas said. “She’s never turned anyone into anything without their explicit consent.”
Bill looked between the two of them, then let out a sigh. “Suppose I can’t really complain, can I? Fine, what’re you going to do to me? For me. Whatever.”
Violet rested her hand on Nicholas’ arm. “We’re going to make something that makes blood for you!”
Bill huffed a breath. “I’d say the two of you are a good pair of somethings making blood already.”
“Bill, behave,” Nicholas said, and got the roll of eyes he was expecting in return. “We were thinking a machine.”
“A magical machine!” Violet added.
“A machine that makes blood,” Bill said, and then laughed a little. “I guess I’ve heard everything now. Fine, then, you make your machine, I get fed… what do you two get out of it?”
Violet and Nicholas looked at each other. Yet another important question. “The… satisfaction of a job well done,” Nicholas said.
Bill sighed and ran a hand over his hair. “A warm feeling on taking pity on the pitiable, I get it. Fine, suit yourselves. I’d be an idiot to turn it down, wouldn’t I, then?”
Nicholas smiled and clapped a hand on Bill’s shoulder; he was surprised how warm he felt through the fabric of his shirt. “Fantastic! We’ll start work right away. You can stay here in the meanwhile. I’ll keep the curtains drawn and you should be safe enough. And I know it’s not preferable, but I’ll keep you fed in butcher shop blood until we find a solution.”
Bill looked like he was chewing over something for a few seconds before he said, “Thank you.” No sneer, no snort, just a simple ‘thank you.’ Nicholas’ surprise must have been evident on his face, because Bill looked away from him as his cheeks took on color.
Violet took a seat next to Bill and put a hand on top of his; he looked at it like it was a dangerous animal ready to strike him. “Now, please tell me a few things that might help me in my work. How long have you been a vampire? How did you become one?”
Bill looked uncomfortable for a few seconds more, then reclaimed his hand as he crossed his arms across his chest. “Been about… two and a half months now.”
“Don’t new vampires usually have someone to teach them the ropes, a master or something?” Nicholas asked.
“Oh, I didn’t know you were an expert on the undead,” Bill said, and Nicholas just shrugged. He’d read a few books in his day. “Maybe that’s how it usually happens, but it didn’t with me. I was a mistake.”
“A mistake?” Nicholas asked.
Bill turned away from Violet a little, tucking in on himself. “Mistake when I was born, and mistake when I died, too.” He furrowed his brow and let out a sigh. “I was waiting in the alley beside a pub, waiting for some sots to come out so I could pick their pockets and maybe get a drink my own self. Wasn’t paying attention, though, and someone got the drop on me. Vampire got right on me, drank me up almost dry and left me in the alley to die.”
“But… you didn’t die,” Nicholas said, and Bill took a while to respond. Shame and pain were on his face, darkening the shadows there.
“He was with his mates. One of them laughed and said he should take pity on the poor little mouse. So he–” Bill brought his finger up to his mouth and mimed taking one of his fangs down upon it. “and put it over my mouth. Just a couple of drops, was all. Meant as a joke for his mates, but it went and worked, and I woke up with a sharp smile.”
Violet brought her hand to her mouth. “Oh, you poor–”
Bill cut her off with a gesture. “That’s enough, I know, I don’t need to hear it.” He rubbed his hand over his brow. “Went and found the one who made me like this and he just laughed at me. Told me I was a stray who should hunt strays.” He lifted and dropped one shoulder. “And that’s what I did, and that’s how I ended up here.”
Violet pressed her fingers over her lips a few moments longer, then said, “It’s just so tragic!” Bill shot her a sharp look, but she shook her head. “No, no, I know, I’m sorry, but… it just reminds me of… hold on.” She went for the bag full of books and other miscelleny she’d brought with her and pulled out a fairly slim and… not very mystical-looking tome. “You just remind me of the hero of My Heart Belongs to Caroline! He starts out in such bad circumstances and then things just get worse for him, but–”
Nicholas rolled his eyes. “Oh, Violet, are you still reading that trash?”
“It’s not trash!” she said, pouting slightly. She pressed the book into Bill’s hands. “You should just read it. I think you’ll identify a lot. It might make you feel better.” Bill mumbled a confused thank you and awkwardly held the book in his lap. “Now, if I could just have a sample of your blood, I think I might be able to get started!”
“A sample?” Bill said. Violet went back into her bag and removed a small vial.
“Just a few drops!” she said cheerily, and handed it to Bill. “Oh, Nicholas, get us a needle or a knife or something sharp, please.”
Bill shook his head. “No, no… I can handle it.” He bit the tip of his finger, just as he had pretended to do just shortly before, and squeezed out a few drops of his blood into the glass. It looked no darker or redder or more special than any human blood.
“That should be enough,” she said, and took the vial back from him, stoppering it up well. Bill licked the tip of his finger and the bleeding stopped right away. Violet put her things back in order and stood up. “Well, it’s been lovely meeting you, Bill, and I’m most excited to start working on the project.”
“Ah… yes, same to you, miss,” Bill said, and dipped his head a little.
“Do tell me what you think of the book!” She turned to Nicholas. “Would you see about getting me a cab, Nicholas?”
When Violet was sent on her way home, Nicholas returned to where Bill was and found himself a little at ends. Now that he had this vampire in his possession for the immediate future, what was he to do with him? “So… Bill. Do you play chess?”
Bill was thumbing at Violet’s book, glancing at the first page. “Don’t know how.”
“Want to learn?”
Bill looked at the book, then to Nicholas, then closed the book and shrugged. “Couldn’t hurt, I suppose.”
Nicholas smiled and got out his board and the set of pieces he’d made for himself out of discarded clock parts. They were a little mismatched, but hopefully Bill would be able to follow. He set up the board on the table between them and began to explain. “Now, the small pieces on the front row are pawns, and they can move ahead one space, unless it’s the first time you move it, in which case it can move two.” Nicholas glanced up at Bill; he was watching the board with serious intent, one fang pressed out over his lip as he bit it in concentration. Nicholas smiled and continued his explanation.
Nicholas spent his days with Violet, being her faithful assistant as she poured through her books and performed experiments of various success. They made several breakthroughs, such as when Violet ended up making the book she was reading bleed from its pages; the taste test of the results of that with Bill was not a success though. As he gagged, Nicholas suggested that he didn’t have a ravenous appetite for reading. No one appreciated his humor.
Eventually they came upon a seemingly working blueprint, a mess of tubes and piping that glowed faintly in bits and emitted a soft, almost musical hum when switched on. They poured water into the top, it passed through a series of valves, each with a mystical enchantment on it (and in one case, a lining of nixie hair), and then came out of the spigot at the bottom dark, rich, and red. When Nicholas had presented Bill with a glass of the latest product, he took a healthy sip, and then–surprisingly politely for a man of his upbringing–informed him it was something akin to the sanguine version of gutter water.
So Nicholas went back in to make some modifications. He’d made a very successful filtration system once for actual gutter water; surely he could take those theories into the production of artificial blood. While Nicholas tinkered at his workbench, Bill sat not far away in his usual seat on the sofa where he slept during the day. He’d kept himself occupied in Nicholas’ home, sorting through Nicholas’ boxes of spare parts when he got bored, and very determinedly losing at chess with Nicholas on a nightly bases. Just then, he was still working his way through My Heart Belongs to Caroline. The book wasn’t very long, but Bill wasn’t very speedy a reader, it seemed. Still, he seemed to be very enraptured with it.
Nicholas was working on adding a copper filtration system to one of the latter stages of the machine when he heard a little sound come from where Bill was sitting. Just a soft little whiff of breath, notable only because Bill was usually so silent. He continued to work until he heard it again, this time a little stronger, and definitely a sniff. He looked over at Bill, who had his nose in the book and was blinking very heavily.
“Bill…” Nicholas began carefully. “Are you… crying?”
Bill sat up straight, startled as though he’d forgotten anyone else was in the room. He sniffed hard. “No!”
Nicholas tried to keep himself from smiling. “Did Violet’s book make you cry?”
Bill scowled at him through faintly reddened eyes. “You’re ridiculous. Leave me alone.”
“You are!” He didn’t mean to laugh, really, and when he did, he didn’t mean it cruelly, but… “You’re crying!”
Bill snorted and wiped the back of his hand over his eyes, turning to glare at the closed curtains. “My eyes are watering because I have to squint because the light in here is terrible.”
“You’re a creature of the night. That isn’t a very good excuse.”
Bill was pouting slightly, which was an odd expression from someone with a mouth full of fangs. “It’s still terrible! And there’s poor ventilation.”
“Do you technically breathe?”
“Yes!” Bill paused, looking thoughtful. “I mean, I don’t have to, but… it’s a habit.”
Nicholas bit the inside of his lip to keep a straight face and rose from his workbench. “I’ll turn on another light, then, and your poor eyes won’t be further taxed.” He took down an oil lamp and set it very pointedly on the end table beside Bill.
“Fine,” Bill said, opening his book again and glaring lightly at the pages. “Fantastic, thank you.”
Nicholas shook his head a little and went back to work. Some ten minutes later, when he’d fitted the copper into the opening valve of the third tubing segment, he heard a heavy, hitching sob come from Bill’s direction. He looked over to him to see him with unmistakeably wet eyes and a quivering lip.
He said nothing. He only looked. When Bill looked up, he just sighed and shook his head. “It’s just so touching when Caroline returns to him of her own free will!” he said, voice breaking a little.
The warmest part of Nicholas’ heart got a little warmer. “I suppose it is,” he said softly, and Bill looked away, sniffling and wiping at his eyes.
“Leave me alone,” he muttered.
“Handkerchief?” Nicholas said, drawing an only slightly oil-stained one from his pocket.
“No,” Bill said, even as he rubbed his knuckles over his eyes. “Bugger off.”
Nicholas shrugged and set to doing just that, but then he paused and turned back. “Should I ask Violet for another book for you?”
Bill didn’t meet his eyes. “Well… if it’s no trouble. Don’t go out of your way or nothing.”
Nicholas smiled. “It’ll be no trouble at all.”
After enough experiments and variations with the machine, Bill was starting to get a little attitude about the multiple taste tests. By the seventh iteration he was holding it up to the light, swirling it in his glass, and making comments on the bouquet. When Nicholas scowled at him enough to get him to take his nose out of the air, Bill determined that while the taste of the artificial product was a pinpoint perfect replica of the real thing, it just wasn’t satisfying. Their concoction was delicious, but not nutritious.
It still put Bill in a better mood than he’d been through the whole endeavour. He spiked the cow’s blood he’d been drinking with some of Experiment #7 and deemed it passible.
“Passible isn’t good enough,” Nicholas had declared, and Bill had eyed him for quite a long while before shrugging and going back to the latest romance Violet had lent him.
“I think I’ve figured something out!” Violet said in a whisper to him when she arrived at Nicholas’ house a few days later. Bill was in the kitchen; after long enough he’d moved from organizing spare parts to straightening the kitchen. He had a secret desire for tidiness, it seemed.
“Why are you whispering?” Nicholas asked.
“I don’t want to… get his hopes up. And you might not like the idea.”
Nicholas frowned. “What’s wrong with it?”
“Well, I found this enchantment in here.” She held up a book bound in purple and with its name inked in letters Nicholas had never seen before in his life. “It’s sort of a healing spell, a life-giver… I think if I cast it on the final filter it should give it that life-like twist it needs.”
“Sounds good,” Nicholas said. “What’s the problem.”
“Well, the casting has some material componants.” Nicholas raised his eyebrow at her. “It requires a little blood to make it work?”
Nicholas sighed. “I thought the whole point of this was that no one had to bleed!”
“Only a little! Just a few drops! And only once!”
Nicholas looked at the machine, at its coils and twists, and then down to his own hand, with its blue veins beneath the skin. “Fine, but you’re not using yours. It’s just not proper.”
Violet rolled her eyes as she opened up the tome. “You’d faint if you knew what I’ve done with my blood,” she mumbled.
“Nothing!” she said, and smiled. “Well, get something sharp and we can do this right now.”
Nicholas looked to the kitchen and thought of before, thought of asking Bill to draw blood on him with his teeth. Just a delicate nip on his fingertip, a little suckle to draw a bead of blood. He shivered and went to find a knife from his tools.
“Just a little, right?” he said, ready to cut his fingertip.
“Just enough to go around that valve. Do it when I’m finished saying the incantation.” Nicholas nodded and readed himself at the machine, and Violet began speaking words in something that sounded like German run through a thresher. She said one last forceful, spittle-full word, and then ticked her head at Nicholas. He cut the tip of his finger and smudged the metal with his blood. When he completed the circle, the red ring of it sparked and melted into the metal, becoming a line etched deep into it.
“Did it work?” he asked, before sucking a little on his finger.
“Only one way to find out,” Violet said, and then called out. “Bill? Could you come here please?”
Bill came out from the kitchen drying off wet hands on his pants. “Got something for me, miss?” He had been unfailingly polite to Violet after his initial apprehension; their gossip sessions about penny novels had lead to a fast friendship.
She gestured to the machine. “If you’d like a bite to eat.” She paused, and screwed up her lips. “Well, not a bite, I suppose. That’s the point.” Nicholas laughed a little, but he noticed that Bill was not looking at the machine at all, but rather at Nicholas’ recently wounded finger with sharp eyes. Nicholas put his hand in his pocket.
Bill brought his eyes back up to Violet. “Well, let’s have at it.” Nicholas went back to the (now surprisingly clean and organized) kitchen to retrieve some water. He returned to switch on the machine, let it hum for a little while, then poured in water to the funnel at the top. The machine clattered and hissed, letting off steam at one point, and Nicholas brought the empty water glass under the spigot at the bottom and watched it fill with a very convincing fascimile of blood.
Bill took the glass from him and made a soft, appraising sound. “Hm, it’s warm now.” That was a good sign. He took a drink without putting on any airs, and his eyes went wide as soon as he swallowed.
“Good?” Violet asked.
“Bad?” Nicholas followed. Bill answered the question by draining the glass empty in a few heavy gulps.
“That is it,” he declared as he licked his lips clean of every red drop. “Goddamn!” He dipped his head a little to Violet. “Excuse me, miss.”
Violet waved a hand at him. “Please! It’s a damn fine thing to celebrate!” She just laughed when Nicholas scowled theatrically at her. “Which we should celebrate. Nicholas, do you have any wine?”
“I should, if Bill didn’t get to it when he was living in my basement.”
“I don’t drink wine,” he said, still licking his lips a little. Nicholas tapped the blood-streaked glass in his hand with his fingers.
“Well, you can pretend. Get us some wine glasses. And fill one up with water, of course.” Bill gave Nicholas a toothy grin and headed back to the kitchen.
Nicholas smiled at Violet, and leaned in to give her a kiss on the cheek. “Good work, little girl.”
She beamed up at him proudly. “Always happy to help.” She looked towards the kitchen. “And now you’ve got a tamed pet vampire.”
Nicholas followed her gaze to where he could hear the clinking of glasses. “I suppose I do,” he said, and felt a comfortable smile spread over his face.
Several bottles of wine later (some of which did end up mixed with Bill’s new blood supply), Nicholas stopped pouring glasses and instead poured Violet into a cab to send her on her way home, happy with a job well done. He came back in to find Bill standing in front of the machine, tracing his finger around the rim of a glass stained dark. He looked good, skin flushed pink and far more alive than he had been when Nicholas had first found him. Nicholas felt good, swimming a little from the wine; he approached Bill and reached out to him, skimming fingers over his hair before dropping a hand to his shoulder.
“I’m glad,” he said, smiling. “I’m really glad.”
“Thank you,” Bill said, and it still felt good to hear that from him. “Suppose you’re stuck with me now.”
“I wouldn’t say ‘stuck’…” Nicholas said, squeezing his shoulder a little. “I’ve grown to enjoy having you around to keep me company.”
“And keep your shop in order, certainly,” Bill said, snorting a little but with no real malice. He looked uncertain, though, working at his lower lip with one fang. “But you’ve got to get something out of this, don’t you?”
Nicholas took Bill in; there was something sweet about him, something he never would have expected from that scrap that tried to bite him in his basement. He rubbed Bill’s upper arm a little and smiled at him. “I suppose I do.”
Bill’s eyes got wider for a moment and his cheeks went dark, and then his face got serious and he nodded. “Suppose you do,” he said, and then dropped down on his knees in front of Nicholas and went for his belt.
Nicholas wavered on his feet a little, swooning as there was quickly nothing left in his brain but wine as all the blood went southward. This was… unexpected. “Bill, you… what are you doing?”
Bill paused where he was undoing the fastenings of Nicholas’ trousers. “You’ve… got to get something out of this.”
“Oh,” Nicholas breathed. “I suppose I do.” His hand fell atop Bill’s head, feeling how surprisingly soft his hair was. He put his fingers into the thickness of it and took a breath, enough to clear his head to let a single light of reason and proper behavior come to him. “Bill… you don’t have to do this. This isn’t why I helped you.”
Bill looked up to him, though his hands were still at Nicholas’ hips. “So why did you? No one does something like that without getting a payback.”
Nicholas took another breath and slipped his hand under Bill’s arm, pulling him up to his feet even as the brain south of his waist cursed the one on his shoulders. “I do. Violet does. We did it because we wanted to help you.”
Bill’s brows drew together. “Because you feel sorry for me.”
“No,” Nicholas said, then he sighed. “Well, yes, some. But more because we like you. I like you.”
Bill gave him a look like he’d suddenly begun speaking in tongues. “You like me?”
Nicholas nodded. Bill had seemed so rough when he found him, but he’d shown himself to be nothing but the softest of hearts under his prickle. “I like you, Bill.”
Bill’s cheeks got red, and for a moment his eyes clouded over wet, but he blinked it away. “No one’s ever said that to me before.”
Nicholas grasped him gently by both shoulders, rubbing his arms lightly. “And that’s terrible. I like you, Bill,” he said again. “And you can stay here as long as you want, and you don’t have to do anything to me in return.” He bit his lip a little as the alcohol in his body let his baser urges speak up. “Unless you want to. …Do you want to?”
Bill looked askance, chewing his lip again in a way that looked much more appealing than it had only minutes before. “Well… I’ve been thinking about it a lot.”
Well, that did nothing to reduce Nicholas’ arousal, which was, he remembered, still basically hanging out of his trousers at this point. “Thinking it was a good thing or a bad thing?”
Bill met his eyes again and gave him a little smile, almost cautious. “Good?” He laughed quietly, slightly sheepish. “I like you, too.”
Nicholas squeezed Bill’s arms tight without thinking about it as he couldn’t keep a grin off his lips. “Let’s just… try something.” He thought his intentions had to be clear when he leaned in, but Bill still seemed surprised as he kissed him. His lips were dry and a little cool, and after a few moments, they parted to let Nicholas kiss him more. Nicholas brought his hands up to cradle Bill’s face between them as he kissed him gently, teasing at Bill’s lips until he let out a shaking sigh and pulled away.
A different sort of flush was on his cheeks now, red high in them. He licked his lips and let out one of those breaths he’d only taken out of habit, and smiled just enough. “I want to,” he said, and dipped in for another swift kiss before falling back on his knees.
“Oh, sweet lord, don’t let me stop you, then,” Nicholas said, bracing his legs to keep himself steady. His breath caught in his throat as Bill reached into his trousers and pulled out his cock. His fingers were a little cool, just like all of him seemed to be, and he stroked him with just the tips, just so gently. His tongue flickered over his lips again and again, and Nicholas felt himself get harder every time he saw that little bit of pink. He looked up to Nicholas one last time before dropping his mouth over the head of his cock, taking him into his mouth by the slowest of inches. Nicholas let out a soft moan as his mouth moved, so wet and…
“Teeth!!” Nicholas yelped at that very first touch of fang on the most sensitive of skin made him remember he was letting a bloody vampire suck him. “Teeth, teeth, teeth!” Bill was already pulling off of him, and Nicholas pulled him up to his feet again.
“Sorry, sorry, I’m so sorry,” Bill was mumbling, and he looked miserable, oh, that wasn’t good at all. Nicholas stilled him by putting a hand on his face and kissing him again.
“It’s fine. It’s fine,” he said, stroking Bill’s hair and letting him feel a smile against his lips. “We’ll just… hands instead?”
“Hands,” Bill repeated, and let out a breath of a laugh. “I can do hands.”
“And it means I get to kiss you–oh,” Nicholas said as Bill wrapped his hand fully around his cock, quickly stroking it back to full hardness after that little scare. He had long fingers, long and thin like the rest of him, and they curled tight around his shaft and slid over it with a touch just light enough to make him squirm. Nicholas put a hand into Bill’s hair and kissed him hard, sucking at his lower lip and tasting the coppery tang that lingered in his mouth.
Nicholas remembered, after a few dizzy moments, that he was not actually completely greedy. He groped for the front of Bill’s trousers and found him disappointingly unaroused. “You’re not…” he panted into Bill’s mouth.
“Don’t know if I can,” he said, not letting his hand still, though. “Undead and all, remember.”
“Damn,” Nicholas huffed, and tightened his hand in Bill’s hair. “We’ll see about that.” Nicholas kissed him again, more determined than before. Even if Bill wasn’t stirred below the waist, he was most certainly still interested; he wrapped a hand around Nicholas’ shoulders to stroke at the back of his neck, making the little hairs there prickle and rise, and kissed him with a real hunger.
Hunger, indeed. As Bill sucked on Nicholas’ lower lip, one of his fangs scraped across the inside of it, just enough to draw a little blood. Nicholas barely had time to feel the sting before Bill was suddenly gripping his cock tight and suckling hard on that little cut, lapping every tiny drop of blood from it. The taste of it caused an immediate change. Bill had been lukewarm before, only a little warmer than the room, but after that taste he was hot, his fingers fevered and his body radiating it. He groaned and growled and Nicholas tugged him out of the kiss out of fear that he’d bite more. Bill’s face wasn’t then wasn’t one of animal hunger, though; it was one of pure lust.
Bill pushed him back towards the sofa, and Nicholas staggered and fell back on it, barely keeping himself upright before Bill was crawling on his lap. He was clearly aroused now, and if that little taste was all it took, Nicholas supposed he could handle the sacrifice. He tugged at the fastenings of Bill’s trousers and reached in for his cock. Bill made noise when Nicholas touched him, guttural and desperate as he bucked into Nicholas’ hand. His cock was long and thin, and felt good in Nicholas’ hand.
Bill bit his lower lip as he squirmed in Nicholas’ grasp, fangs pressing into the red of his lips, enough that Nicholas wondered if they would draw blood there. Maybe if it did, he would have a taste, he thought crazily, and then forgot to think at all as Bill doubled his efforts, stroking him with both hands. They were a tangle of limbs, barely managing to stay on the sofa, cramped and uncomfortable and Nicholas wouldn’t have moved for the world.
He wrapped his arm around the small of Bill’s back, keeping him steady on his lap, and leaned in to him to kiss his neck. Bill made a high sound, soft and breathy as Nicholas licked along his throat, and then just barely bit the curve of it. Bill let out a shivery laugh then. “Oh, you bastard,” he breathed, and stroked Nicholas harder. Nicholas came with his mouth pressed tight to Bill’s neck, breathing in his skin as he spilled out between them. He slid his hand under Billl’s shirt to press his palm to the bare skin at the base of his spine, holding them crushed together as he stroked Bill to his finish, too, leaving them both a panting sprawled mess on the sofa.
When Nicholas had mostly caught his breath, he laughed. “All of that work, and you ended up having a little snack of me anyway.”
Bill buried his face in Nicholas’ chest. “Sorry about that,” he said, and did sound genuninely abashed. “You tasted so good, though.”
Nicholas stroked a little up and down Bill’s spine. “Yes, you clearly enjoyed it.” Bill tucked his head down further and Nicholas kissed the top of his head. “And I did, too.” His leg was starting to fall asleep. He laughed a little and tried to sit up. “This is not the place for this. Care to come upstairs to bed?”
Bill lifted his head to look at him. “You want me to come upstairs?”
“That’s what I just said, isn’t it?”
Bill made an awkward little face. “Could you phrase it as an invitation?”
Nicholas blinked. “Is that why you’ve never come up? I thought you were just being weirdly polite!”
Bill scowled at him. “No, I really enjoy washing up in the kitchen basin. Just invite me upstairs, already!”
Nicholas put his hand on Bill’s cheek and pulled him up to kiss him. “Bill, I very cordially invite you to come upstairs and join me in bed.”
“Thank you,” Bill said irritably and stood up, and then his face softened as he looked at Nicholas. “…Thank you, Nicholas. Thank you.”
Nicholas stood up and came in close to him, resting his forehead against Bill’s as he curled a hand around the back of his neck. “I would do nothing less for a friend.”
Bill kissed him so hard then that it took them another twenty minutes to get up the stairs.