A/N: I appreciate your reviews more than I can say. Thank you, kind readers!
And before Alfred could respond, or take a breath, or brace himself for the inevitable ordeal to come - they were off.
The minuet, played upon a harpsichord that sounded as though it hadn't been tuned in several centuries, chimed and prattled in time with the frantic pitter-patter of Alfred's heart, as the Erbgraf pushed and pulled and spun them about the room. Alfred hunched his shoulders and fixed his eyes upon his feet - partly so he wouldn't have to look at Herbert, and partly to stop himself tripping over his own inadequacy at dancing.
Herbert was humming softly, contentedly in his ear, whilst the retinue of immortals continued to drift around them as though dancing on another plane of existence, bathed in ghostly moonlight and whispering across the floor like wraiths. The scent of mildew and rotting clothes stung in Alfred's nose, and he had to blink to stop his eyes watering from it.
What was it the Graf had called this? The dreamland of the night - yes, that had been it. A dreamland of soulless, unfeeling corpses doomed to walk the earth for all eternity. Alfred shivered. How chilling, to dance among them like this. As though he were already one of them.
Just like his dream...
"Bewitching, aren't they?" whispered the Erbgraf, pulling Alfred back to the present - he looked up to see Herbert watching him closely. "I do hope this all lives up to your expectations, chéri. You intellectuals always come to us expecting such high standards of demonic, malevolent evil, you know, and I do so hate disappointing any of our guests, even the ones that end up as dinner."
He gave Alfred a quizzical look.
"Then again - you have come to us with a purpose greater than the mere pursuit of knowledge, haven't you, my darling?"
Alfred hesitated. He wasn't sure where Herbert was going with this.
His voice came out as more of a squeak than a whisper, but it was better than nothing, Alfred reasoned. This was manageable, simple questions with simple answers - if he could keep this going, keep Herbert talking, rather than biting, perhaps he might still come out of this alive...
"Then tell me Alfred, so I may hear it from your lips, and not from your sycophantic Professor - what, precisely, brings you to to our illustrious midnight ball at Schloss von Krolock tonight?"
Alfred bit his lip. Herbert probably wasn't going to like this particular answer.
His gaze slid across the ballroom to the where Sarah - his poor, poor Sarah, her tiara askew and her neck still crusted with blood - danced by the Graf's side.
"You know why I'm here," he mumbled, watching Sarah totter in her heels and feeling a sudden, mad desire to rush across the room and hold out his arms in case she fell. "I'm - I'm trying to rescue the girl I love. From a monster. And from a terrible fate. A fate worse than death."
Silence, for a moment. Alfred tore his eyes away from his beloved, forcing himself to look back at the Erbgraf, and saw that the Herbert was watching him with a steady, thoughtful look, his brow furrowed as though trying to make sense of what he was seeing.
"Chéri, you don't...really believe you can still save her, do you?"
"Yes," he blurted, drawing himself up in defense. "The Professor says she's still alive, and we can stop the infection in its tracks - we have a way to cure her, a blood transfusion, I've read all about it, and the Professor has the necessary equipment..."
He trailed off; the Erbgraf was smiling down at him in an awful, patient, pitying sort of way, like a spider watching a fly try to struggle out of its web and simply strangling itself in the process.
"You are sweet, Liebling," he crooned, tucking a loose curl of hair behind Alfred's ear and patting it into place in a horribly patronising way. "Go on, go on. I'm listening. Tell me how you and your Professor shall prevail, how this fearful monster will be defeated and your little fairytale will reach its happy ending, against all the odds!"
Alfred swallowed, jutting out his chin as bravely as he could.
"I - I know you're mocking me," he said, trying to sound strong and defiant (and more like the kind of vampire slayer who would actually have been able to slay the vampire in front of him). "But there's still hope for her. Even if you won't admit it. You think you've won, but you haven't."
"Haven't we, Alfred?" Herbert murmured, half to himself. "Haven't we…?"
He steered their course across the dance floor so that they joined the innermost circle, and the other dancers wound around them like the coils of a snake.
"Look around us. You are surrounded on all sides. There will be no escaping this night, for you or your lady love. Her fate is sealed. Her heart will stop beating before the hour is out, and I needn't tell you it will be quite the challenge to proclaim your undying love to a girl who is intent on simply eating you."
Alfred flinched. He cast a swift, fearful glance around the dance floor, taking in the rows and rows of razor-toothed predators that encircled them, imprisoned them. Like a pack of wolves gathering to hunt, he thought with a swallow.
He sought Sarah's gaze, craning his neck to find her, but Herbert was whirling them around the floor too fast for him to pick out her face. Other women blurred past instead, other women with riots of curls and creamy skin, but shrivelled by years of dust and decay, a kind of quiet despair in their haunted, hungry eyes.
And to think that any one of these women might be Sarah, in just a few hours time…
"Come now, Alfred, you must listen to me," Herbert sighed, cupping his chin with one hand - cold, cold, cold! Alfred cringed inwardly - and tilting it back up to face him, holding his gaze as the world continued circling around them. "A starved predator, that is what your sweet Sarah will be. And you shall be no more than a fresh meal for her to sink her teeth into."
"Don't," Alfred blurted, feeling sick at the thought, "don't say that, you're wrong, the Professor said -"
"You must face the truth." Herbert's voice had a note of eagerness to it now, a purpose, as though he was building to something - he was spinning them too fast, they were getting ahead of the music. "You must abandon these silly notions of escape. You are both going to die tonight - the only question which remains is how."
"Does it matter how?" His voice was trembling now and pitched with terror, his body fumbling to keep up with the dance. "I - I won't abandon her. Even if she does become one of you. I don't care. I will stay by her side."
Herbert tossed his hair, letting out his breath in a gush of exasperation. "Alfred, now you are being quite absurd, she will slaughter you like an animal -"
"I'm going to be slaughtered anyway!" Alfred burst out, his voice breaking for the first time, and panic seized his body as the admission passed his lips, bringing them both staggering to a halt in the middle of the dance floor. "You said so yourself, just as soon as the dancing is over! What else can I do? She's all I have. If I can't save her, then I'll give my blood willingly for her, I'll join her in death, I can't leave her, I - I promised - I swore -"
Breathe, Alfred, breathe.
He closed his eyes a moment, turning his face to his shoulder so Herbert couldn't see his expression. His heart was hammering against his ribs, his head dizzy from spinning. He didn't know whether he wanted to scream or cry or flee the room as fast as his legs would carry him. Images were filling his head - savage, bloody images taken from the Professor's most luridly illustrated books. Great feasts where immortals fed in packs like rabid animals, tearing their victims to shreds in desperation to sate their appetite.
Oh God, oh God, oh God.
If he couldn't save Sarah - that was his future. That was what awaited him and the Professor, as surely as the sun would rise tomorrow. Pain, and anguish, and death.
How many of these vampires dancing so peacefully, obliviously alongside him would fight each other for his blood before the evening was out?
"Oh, my poor darling, you're trembling like a leaf."
Herbert scooped him close, drawing him against his chest, and it was only when Alfred opened his mouth to protest that he realised his body really was shaking from head to foot, his knees knocking together and threatening to give out at any moment. The world shimmered alarmingly around him.
"Mon trésor, did I frighten you so very much?" Herbert was murmuring against his hair, one hand cupping the back of his head, and Alfred was too busy trying to remember how to breathe to protest. "You must forgive me. I only want you to know the truth, you know, the reality of what awaits you. You know I care, more than anyone..."
Herbert was swaying them gently, pulling them back into the lull of the dance. His voice was soothing, comforting, like that of an old friend - an old friend who also happened to want to kill you, Alfred thought miserably. The scent of lavender and old lace tickled against his nose, a welcome relief from the stench of decay, and he drew a deep, shuddering breath. The world stopped shimmering.
"Much better." Herbert sounded pleased with himself. "Now, let me see..."
His voice lowered to barely more than a breath, soft and clandestine, as though sharing a secret only Alfred could know.
"What if I could offer you a way to escape all that nasty, brutal slaughter you were going on about, and still spend the rest of eternity in the arms of your beloved, if you so wished?"
"A compromise," he mumbled against the Erbgraf's shoulder, repeating his word from earlier. Realisation washed over him in an instant - so this was what Herbert had been building towards.
"Mm-hm," Herbert hummed in agreement, still swaying them back and forth, though he seemed to be absent-mindedly following the beat of Alfred's heart - pressed against his own, unbeating one - rather than the music.
"But...logically speaking, a compromise should give us both something worthwhile. Not give me everything I want, and you nothing at all." He raised his head from Herbert's shoulder, brow furrowed with suspicion as he gazed up at him. "What do I have to give you in return?"
Herbert smiled - but the smile had an edge to now, something avid and hungry and wanting that made Alfred's heart sink with dread. His hand drifted absently to the curve of Alfred's neck as though unable to stop itself, stroking the tender skin with icy fingertips.
"You allow me to escort you to my chambers and bestow the gift of immortality upon you myself. Gently. Sweetly. Lovingly. No violence, no suffering, no herd of wild strangers tearing away at your body. Just you...and me...and a single bite."
Far, far away across the ballroom, the harpsichord fell quiet. The dancing couples swept to a halt in perfect, chilling unison, swaying where they stood like marionettes. Herbert brought them to a standstill, though his arm remained entwined - firm, settled, possessive - around Alfred's waist. Silence crept across the floor, broken only by the rustle of moth-eaten clothes and the murmur of conversation. It was as though the entire ball held its breath, Alfred thought vaguely, in anticipation of his answer.
He shook himself.
What was his answer?
Of course...now that he thought about it, he should have been prepared for this, really. The Erbgraf's selfishness seemed to know no bounds, when it came to his appetite - it only made sense that he wanted Alfred's blood all to himself, like a spoiled child with a box of sweets he refused to share.
But it was more than that, Alfred reasoned - it was always more than that, with Herbert. He wanted to be the one to bite him, to infect him with the same poison that now pulsed through Sarah's veins; the most intimate experience a vampire could crave, something that would bond them in a twisted, horrible way, and the mark of that bond would scar Alfred's throat for the rest of his existence - he shuddered at the thought.
Just like his dream...
Then again, Herbert felt - something for him (Alfred didn't know what, and he refused to call it love) - but whatever that something was, it could protect him. Looking at it logically, a tender bite in the arms of the Erbgraf would be bliss compared with the slow, agonising death he was sure to die at the hands of the graveyard inhabitants.
Looking at it logically...
But a part of him wasn't being logical here at all, he thought with a lurch of shame. A part of him - a very small, very shameful part, the part that couldn't seem to cleanse his mind of that dream, no matter how hard he tried - was drifting back to the shadow of the castle's portcullis at midnight last night. Back to the crunch of snow beneath his feet and the desolate black sky above, and the voice that had wrapped itself around him like a cloak...
He couldn't really remember what His Excellency had said to him - odd, how the words now seemed almost inconsequential, though at the time he'd drunk them in like a man dying of thirst - but he remembered how it had felt. How he had hungered, in that moment - with a terrible, all-consuming curiosity that burned in his veins and stole the breath from his lungs - to know immortality. To live and breathe and taste the Graf's world of darkness.
For how else could he sate the fascination that had eaten away at him since the very first moment he'd met the Professor? In that moment, studying had no longer seemed enough - reading and writing and wondering and exploring and resisting, alwaysresisting the draw of these creatures seemed futile, pointless. His Excellency was right: curiosity was a deadly thing, and man had to become what he studied, to find the answers he craved.
Just like his dream...
Alfred drew in a quivering breath, clasping his palms together to try and stop them sweating. Of course, that had all been - nonsense, yes, complete nonsense. Flimsy, illogical - impossibly tempting - nonsense. The Graf had caught him at his most vulnerable and reeled him in like a fish on a hook, but that was hardly his fault, and besides, it was all in the past now. It had been an instant of madness, a brief flight of fantasy, that was all. No doubt brought on by chronic exhaustion and the deadly allure of vampires he had already learned to be wary of.
It changed nothing.
Of course, he had to tell Herbert no. Really, his feelings had nothing to do with it. This was a matter of principle, of right and wrong. Of being a brave hero, not a pathetic coward or a weak, easily seduced victim. He couldn't give up now, couldn't abandon all hope just because things had gone rather horribly wrong. He had to fight, like all heroes fought, until the very end of the battle, didn't he?
He couldn't make a deal with the devil for his own selfish sake. He couldn't abandon Sarah and the Professor simply to save himself pain and suffering.
He couldn't compromise.
...No matter how much a small, frightened - and perhaps just the slightest, tiniest bit curious - part of him wanted to.
Alfred drew in a deep breath.
"I - I can't do that," he mumbled, not daring to meet Herbert's gaze. "It wouldn't be right, and worse than that, it would be - giving up. And I can't give up. Not until the very end. Not until her heart stops beating."
He peered up at his partner, bracing himself inwardly - but Herbert seemed unperturbed by his answer, head tilting to one side as though Alfred had said something only mildly interesting rather than an outright rejection.
"You would rather Father fed you to the rabble, chéri? You would rather have five, eight, twelve of them fighting over you? Dragging you across the floor, tearing at your clothes, squabbling for a piece of flesh to sink their teeth into?"
Oh help, he felt sick again.
"Alfred, it pains me to say it, but to them, you are nothing more than a scrap of food. I must tell you, I have seen victims suffer for hours before they died, with screams that make the whole castle shake, not to mention the ghastly mess -"
"- What about the Professor?" He hated, hated himself for the note of hesitation in in his voice. "What would happen to him?"
Herbert blinked down at him. "I'm offering to help you, Liebling, not that senile old fool -"
"He's not senile, he's a genius!"
"- Genius or no genius, my darling, I shan't be bringing him into my chambers. Ugh, the very idea."
Herbert gave a delicate shudder and smoothed a hand through his lustrous hair, as though Alfred had suggested they bring a pet cockroach into his bedroom - and Alfred felt a lurch of something hot and indignant in his chest. How could the Erbgraf show so little respect to a man that deserved all the respect in the world?
"Then no," he glared. "My answer is no. I could never leave him behind, you must know that. After everything he's taught me, everything we've been through together, how could I ever -"
"Well, it's not as though he'll have that much time to mind, will he?" Herbert reasoned, sulkily. "He will be dead in half an hour regardless - less, if he's lucky..."
He held the Erbgraf's gaze, heart thumping in his chest as the word hung between them.
"I said - I said no."
Herbert scowled down at him like a child who'd been denied his favourite treat. His lower lip was jutting out, his paper-smooth features creased with frustration, as though this whole situation wasn't going nearly as well as he'd hoped.
Sulking, Alfred thought, and stifled the sudden, slightly hysterical urge to laugh.
Odd, really - Herbert hadn't bothered with anything as basic or decent as Alfred's acquiescence last time, had he? The concept of rejection - along with subtlety and personal space and a good many other things, Alfred thought grimly - didn't seem to feature in his vocabulary. He cringed as a rush of unwelcome memories flooded his head: floorboards grating against his spine, his wrists throbbing beneath Herbert's grip, screaming out help, Professor, help! as the vampire reared above him like a bird of prey diving for the kill...
...What had changed, then?
A/N: Update to follow.