A/N: I think the dynamic between these two is one of the cleverest strokes of the musical. A spoiled, exuberant, eternally bored gay vampire falling head over heels for the shy, wide-eyed, perpetually terrified vampire hunter who is supposed to be killing him - there's so much to unpack there. These two are polar opposites with wildly different attitudes to life, and yet Herbert is inexplicably besotted with Alfred, and Alfred in turn is subtlely attracted to the world Herbert inhabits...
So, here's a little 'what if' piece. I always wondered what might have happened if Herbert had decided to actually Try Again with Alfred upon discovering him at the ball, instead of going straight to his father. And for anyone that cares to picture stuff in their heads whilst reading: I tend to imagine the Kentaur sets and costumes, with Sergey Denisov as Alfred, Kirill Gordeev as Herbert, and Veronica Appedu as Sarah.
It had all gone so horribly wrong, and yet Alfred still clung to the hope that things might, just might still turn out all right.
He couldn't help it. The tendency to hope against hope, even in the worst of circumstances - and these were categorically the worst of circumstances - was something he'd always been guilty of, even though they had failed so many times over past few days that he was starting to lose count, and his head ached dully at the thought of it.
They had failed to protect Sarah. Failed to fool the Graf as to their true purpose in visiting the castle. Failed to fulfil their true purpose in visiting the castle and destroy the vampires that dwelled there (though Alfred had to admit, that one was really his fault, and the shame of it still made him cringe). Failed to break whatever awful, hypnotic thrall the Graf held over Sarah. Failed to stop the bite - an image that had seared itself into Alfred's memory forever - and failed to prevent the infection now pulsing through Sarah's veins, claiming her soul for the darkness and making Alfred's heart feel as though it might break at any moment...
They had, in short, failed where all other vampire hunters had succeeded in their stead.
It was like a fairytale gone horribly wrong, Alfred thought; the heroes were losing, the monsters were winning, and the damsel had very much not been rescued. Surely fate was playing some sort of cruel joke on them both? Logic dictated that this expedition ought to have been an unqualified success - great intellectuals that they were, men of science armed with stake and hammer and weapons of the Church, emerging triumphant from a hard-won battle against the forces of evil…
Instead, they were dancing the minuet (very badly, Alfred was certain) with a retinue of moth-eaten vampires at half-past midnight in a castle in Transylvania, and trying to work out how they might escape said castle without having their throats torn out.
There really was nothing left do now, Alfred thought with a gulp, except hope.
Was it naive - stupid, even - to hold onto faith, even in the face of the most dismal, most despairing of odds? To cling to his idealism with trembling fingers, as though he might bend reality through the sheer force of his own will?
To believe that true love, and good intentions, and a brave heart - well, a heart that tried to be brave, and surely that counted for something - could win out, even when all three had been trampled so completely?
Alfred blinked, pulled back to reality by a sharp tap on his shoulder and a creak of rusted metal. From the sounds of it, the Professor must be passing just behind him, his voice low and urgent in Alfred's ear, and the rest of him clattering through the steps of the minuet with a sound like twenty saucepans being dropped.
"...Professor?" he whispered, out of the corner of his mouth, careful never to take his eyes off his partner.
"There's a chance for her still, my boy!" the Professor was hissing in his ear, and Alfred's heart leapt in his chest. "She passed me just a moment ago. No sign of any fangs yet, and no change to her pallor either. She's still alive."
"Still alive!" Alfred could have sobbed with relief. "Oh, thank God, I thought perhaps -"
"Yes, yes, now listen carefully." The Professor's voice was urgent, businesslike. "We'll meet in the middle during the next round, I'll count to three, and then we make for the d -"
Too late. The music changed, signalling a switch-up of partners, and the Professor was spun away from him, swept back into the throng of ghostly, drifting corpses with their sunken eyes and yellowed fangs, disappearing behind a particularly tall, lithe vampire dressed all in violet -
Alfred buried his face back behind his fan, ducking his head so low that his chin touched his chest.
Nothing on earth was worth risking that particular vampire, that awful man, seeing him again. Alfred's knees quaked at the thought of what might happen if he did.
All things considered, it was a miracle nobody had uncovered their little ruse so far: Alfred was practically drowning in richly embroidered brocade, the material weighing down his shoulders and making him feel like a clumsy, overstuffed doll. He had stolen - no, borrowed - the clothes from an elegant French nobleman who, judging from the engraved title on his fan, went by the name of Lord André.
And surely, if anyone in this room knew the elegant male inhabitants of this castle by face, it would be Herbert?
Alfred shrunk into the depths of his coat, making himself as small as possible as the Erbgraf glided past with a swish of satin and a trill of laughter. The Erbgraf had pervaded his thoughts almost constantly since their encounter in the bathroom, and Alfred had no doubt that he would be suffering nightmares over that particular incident for the rest of his life. He breathed a sigh of relief only when the last thread of golden hair had vanished into the crowd once more.
Still alive, still alive, still alive…
The Professor's words echoed in his head, and his heart swelled at the memory of them.
His Sarah, his true love, his everything - there was hope for her yet. Alfred could have sung for joy. He peered cautiously over the top of his fan, scanning the crowd for the face of his beloved. The Graf was easy to find - Alfred felt his knees quake involuntarily at the sight of him - towering over the heads of his subjects on the other side of the ballroom, a black stain across the muted rainbow of colours. He still had a fleck of blood on his cheek, Alfred noticed. Sarah's blood.
Just like his dream...
Oh God, he felt like fainting all over again.
Focus - he had to focus, he had to stay calm, he had to find Sarah. Surely she danced at the Graf's side, her dainty frame tucked beneath the swell of his cloak, just out of sight? Alfred craned his neck as high as he dared, stretching up on tip-toes, tottering in his stolen shoes -
The moment lasted a second; his foot caught the lace trim of his coat, the material twisting around his ankle, and his partner grunted at him in dissatisfaction as he stumbled.
"Sorry - sorry -"
The words escaped him, and he bit furiously on his lip to silence them. Stupid, stupid thing to do! His timidness would be the death of them all, and he'd never forgive himself. He clutched his fan tighter, pressing it against his face and squinting through a small tear in the brim.
The Erbgraf had paused, mid-step, the ghost of his laughter dying away and a crease forming between two perfectly shaped brows. As though some vague, unconscious part of him had sensed the inconsistency, the momentary falter in the crowd around him. He cast a leisurely glance back and forth across the dancing couples.
Don't panic, don't panic, don't panic -
But Alfred was panicking, he was panicking like a scared child, his mouth dry and his palms sweating and slipping against his partner's as she spun in a loop around him, her crown of ringlets blocking his line of sight for the briefest of moments, and once his view was clear again - the Erbgraf was gone.
Alfred trod promptly on his partner's hoopskirt, his heart pounding in his ears. No, no, this was all going horribly wrong again! Had the Erbgraf spotted something amiss? Had he gone to alert the hunchback? Or worse yet, the Graf himself?
If the Graf found them out now, they were no better than dead meat...
The music changed yet again, and his partner was twirled from him, a new pair of arms encircling him from behind, but the dance didn't matter anymore - nothing mattered, except finding the Erbgraf, and cold dread was pooling in Alfred's stomach now, so that even as the dance began anew, he scanned the crowd frantically, twisting his neck back and forth, seeking a gleam of gold amongst the sea of decay -
And then the arms around him tightened, constricted like the grip of a snake capturing its prey, and Alfred's heart seized with a jolt of realisation that froze him where he stood.
"You know, my dear Lord André, I do believe it's been centuries since I last saw you dance with such vigour, such energy, such remarkable...youth."
Alfred opened his mouth, but no sound came out. Fear strangled his throat. Rooted him to the spot. His tongue felt numb and useless in his mouth. He couldn't seem to remember how to scream. Or move. Or anything.
"You do have quite the spring in your step this year, don't you, my friend?" the Erbgraf continued, soft and gloating and yet oddly breathless, as though giddy with delight at his discovery. "Why, you might pass for a man half your age, you are so full of frivolity and" - his lips caressed the shell of Alfred's ear - "life."
And Alfred felt his body act of its own accord, some raw human instinct taking over when his brain could not, his hands balling into fists and his legs tensing to run -
The Erbgraf's grip tightened with an immediacy that made him gasp, his feet slipping against the floor as long fingers dug into his waist like the claws of a bird around a wriggling mouse.
"If you run, my darling," the Erbgraf's breath dusted his neck, and the familiar sickly sweet scent of decay made Alfred want to cough and splutter to rid his lungs of it, "I shall simply trip you up again and scream for Father. And I'm sure I don't have to tell you how...displeased he would be, to learn of your little deception. I mean -"
There was laughter in the Erbgraf's voice now - a silvery, dangerous giggle lilting at the edges of his words.
"- I think it's terribly sweet and quite ingenious, but you see, Father tends not to dwell on the innate qualities of his victims when he's tearing their throats out."
Alfred stopped struggling, and instead made himself as still as possible, holding his breath and feeling the thump thump thump of his heart pounding through his whole body. A cry - somewhere between a gasp and a squeak of fear - choked in his throat.
"Hush, Liebling, I'm only teasing," the Erbgraf was giggling, allowing his chin to fall against Alfred's shoulder so they were pressed cheek-to-cheek, and the intimacy of it all made him want to cringe with shame. "Don't be frightened. I'm on my very best behaviour, I promise. Father would ground me for a century if I started eating the guests before the dancing has finished! Your blood is quite safe with me."
That's a very, very illogical thing to say to someone in the arms of a vampire, Alfred thought, but he didn't dare open his mouth for fear that he might whimper with terror, so he kept it shut.
"Alfred, Alfred..." The Erbgraf was murmuring his name like a little song to himself, nestling lovingly against his shoulder. "Oh, I'm so happy to see you. I was hoping for some time with you all to myself, before...later. Well, you heard what Father said, didn't you? He plans to feed you and your beloved Professor to the rabble, just as soon as the dancing is over. Ugh, you can't imagine how much I'm dreading having to squabble with our entire retinue for just a taste of you…"
He sighed despondently, and Alfred felt a vague surge of indignance at the flippancy with which the Erbgraf discussed his death.
"...Which brings me to the point, chéri," the Erbgraf interrupted his thoughts, his tone oddly businesslike now. "You see, I have a proposal of sorts, to make to you. A way for us both to get what we want, I think. A compromise."
"Ah, I knew that would get your attention!" Herbert sounded smug. "Now, I'm going to let go of you, and you won't run off this time, will you? Hmm? Good. No more sneaking around, no more stolen disguises, and most importantly -"
The ballroom passed in a sudden, frenzied blur of colour as icy hands spun Alfred on the spot to face his captor; he staggered and blinked, the inhuman speed of the movement leaving him reeling. His cry of protest died in his throat as the fan - no, not the fan, he needed that fan, it was all the protection he had! - was plucked smartly from his grip and refolded with an elegant flick of Herbert's wrist.
"- No more hiding that pretty face of yours behind this ghastly thing."
Alfred caught his hands mid-twitch as they leapt to cover his face, his heart racing in his chest. He felt like a hunted rabbit thrown out into an open field, fighting the urge to bolt behind the nearest pillar - but Herbert tucked the folded fan beneath his chin and tilted, slowly but insistently, until Alfred had no choice but to raise his head and gaze straight at him.
The Erbgraf was even brighter, even more gaudy, even more - too much - up close, Alfred thought. He had to blink a few more times, overwhelmed by the garishness of it all, the gleam of silver thread and the sparkle of crushed velvet. It was like trying to look directly at the sun - if the sun were an explosion of purple and lace and nails and long, long hair.
And yet, the Erbgraf - like his father, Alfred thought with a shiver - had a dangerous sort of allure to him too. The kind of allure that, in Alfred's experience, only deadly predators (and very, very pretty girls) usually had. Something about the way the vampire moved, elegant and prowling all at once, an inhuman grace cloaking his body even in stillness, and those eyes that never blinked often enough, but could make you forget the rest of the world existed if you looked at them for too long...
It was that allure, more than anything else, that made Alfred's skin prickle with unease. Because it was one thing to read about a vampire's deadly ability to attract its prey - it was quite another to actually be that prey, and have to contend with the vampire in question.
At present though, the Erbgraf seemed to have other things on his mind besides his own attraction. He stood with one hand on his hip and the other pressed in delight to his lips, his face glowing as he looked Alfred up and down, shaking his head from side to side as though marvelling at some rare species of animal.
"Chéri, you are clever," he beamed, reaching out to smooth the collar of Alfred's coat and causing decades of thick, acrid dust to fill the air between them, whilst Alfred coughed. "To hide in plain sight, to disguise your scent as well as your appearance! Quite the intrepid solution! I have half a mind to ask Lord André if you may keep that coat, it becomes you far more than it ever did him…but now, my darling -"
He took an abrupt, ominous step forward, eyes bright and focussed; Alfred felt slender hand trimmed with curved, cruel nails creep gently around his own, and he knew at once, with a surge of dread, what Herbert was about to ask.
"Would you do me the honour? This is a ball, after all, and I do so want to dance with you again." He drew Alfred's hand up between them, clasping it between their chests like a talisman, and Alfred fought the urge to gasp at just how cold - "And you being the good, sweet, polite young man that you are would never dream of refusing a dance with your own host now, would you?"
His lips pulled back in a grin that chilled Alfred to the bone, revealing the serrated tips of his fangs, gleaming and deadly in the candlelight.
Oh, why hadn't he just run when he had the chance?
"...P-Please -" His voice shaking so much it was almost indistinguishable, and his hand felt like it was slowly turning to ice within Herbert's grasp. "I - I would rather not. You know I'm dreadful at it. You've already danced with me. Lots. So - so there's really no need..."
He tugged hopefully at his hand, but Herbert only heaved a sigh, rolling his eyes to the heavens as though Alfred had said something entirely unreasonable and inconsequential to the situation.
"I assure you, Alfred, your shows of bravery are extremely gallant and very sweet, but now is simply not the time. I said, I want to dance with you."
He sounded like a petulant child, Alfred thought indignantly - a petulant child who wanted a slice of cake, but he hadn't given the cake any say in the matter.
"Come now, we'll join in the next round." He lifted Alfred's captured hand to his own shoulder, pressing it into place against the lilac brocade of his jacket. "You hold me like this, remember? And I hold you…"
He slipped a hand through the opening of the lace coat and wound it around Alfred's waist, his touch smooth as glass and familiar in the most mortifying of ways, and all Alfred could think was not again, not again, not again...
"...Like this," Herbert finished with a grin that stretched from ear to ear, dragging him forward until they stood chest to chest, and Alfred had to tilt his head uncomfortably far back in order to keep his partner in sight. "Just so. Now, hold tight and follow my lead. And chéri -"
He beamed down at him, obliviously happy, and Alfred scowled back with as much defiance as he dared muster.
"- Do be careful not to trip again, won't you?"
A/N: Update to follow.