Have an epilogue, dear readers! ...Let's not talk about that fact it took me 3 months to get it posted :) thank you sincerely for following my odd, rambling little fic for such a niche fandom. You rock.
He will win, yes.
...But not quite yet, the Graf thinks, passing by the guest chambers later that night and glimpsing, through the half-open door, the familiar pale gleam of his son's hair, shimmering in the candlelight.
To allow his son to eat one - or worse still, both - of their guests before the ball would be nothing short of disastrous, for he cannot expect the motley retinue in the cemetery to follow the rules if Herbert so utterly flaunts them.
The Graf breathes a sigh - then slips noiselessly through the door and into the room.
His son is perched upon the edge of the coverlet, fair head bowed, hands knotted together as though restraining themselves. The Graf thinks, errantly, of a young prince in a fairytale, contemplating his sleeping princess - except that this prince is tracing his sharp, white fangs with his tongue, and the princess happens to be scrawny student who intends to hammer a stake through their chests as soon as he has the chance.
The Graf smiles wryly.
You will not kill me, boy. After last night, we both know you are too beguiled by our kind, by me, to slaughter us like you should.
He rounds the corner of the bed, peering over his son's shoulder. Alfred appears to be caught in the throes of a nightmare, tangled in a nest of sheets, sweat coating his brow and his unruly curls tossed in every direction. One hand grasps blindly at the air, the other is clutched around something bulky and wooden, half-buried beneath the pillow -
- The Graf swallows a hiss.
A cross. Of course.
He waits for his son to look at him. Slowly, as though struggling to tear his eyes away, Herbert tilts his face to meet his - and his face glows with a curious mixture of reverence and hunger alike.
"Father...how did you find the loveliest boy in the whole world to bring home to me?"
"You are not to touch him until the ball. You know this. Do not test my rules, Herbert. Not this time."
Herbert is not listening - his eyes have slid back to the boy on the bed, as though unable to stop themselves.
"You said he was not pretty," he breathes, voice soft with incredulity.
The Graf blinks. "I am not one to embellish the truth."
"But you could not have embellished it enough," he whispers, bending low over the bed to gaze at the boy's face, something uncannily like adoration in his eyes. "Don't you see? Look at him, look at his lashes…see the way they touch his cheek?"
He dusts feather-light fingertips across said lashes, one eye at a time, in rather the same way he usually fondles pretty trinkets or new shirts.
"I heard him scream in his sleep. I couldn't just ignore the poor darling, could I? I had to come to him, I had to comfort him." Thoughtfully, he strokes a few curls back from Alfred's forehead, twirling them around his fingers before smoothing them into place. "I wonder if he's dreaming about me..."
"If the boy has been screaming, we can be assured of that," the Graf says, lips twitching, and Herbert bats delicately at his shoulder with a tutting sound.
"Oh hush, you." He sighs despondently and leans over the boy again, gazing at him, drinking him in, as though hoping to see the depths of his soul through sheer willpower alone. "I do wonder what he thinks of me. He stared a lot in the courtyard, didn't he? And when I winked at him, he blushed. Blushed! Oh, it was the most adorable thing, I could have bitten him right there and then..."
The Graf resists the urge, just barely, to raise his eyes to the heavens. Time and time again, he had tried to teach Herbert the art of glimpsing his victims' minds - but such things took practice and forbearance, two things his son had no time for.
If only the boy had happened along sooner, he might have provided the motivation Herbert really needed.
Herbert's breath hitches as Alfred's voice scrapes softly, feebly through the gloom.
"Hush, my darling, hush," he whispers, caressing the boy's cheek in slow, soothing motions. "I'm here, you sweet thing. Shhh, now…"
"Herbert, the cross. Watch yourself."
"I am, I am," Herbert mumbles distractedly, tilting his cheek to press it upon the pillow beside the boy, dark curls mingling with his son's golden waves.
The Graf shakes his head in bemusement whilst Herbert continues to whisper sweet, comforting nothings into the boy's ear. He is quite plainly besotted. Besotted with this – this mousy boy with his thatched-roof hair and stammering voice and apparently exemplary eyelashes. This is the boy, of all boys - and there had been so many - that his son has finally lost his head over.
He cannot understand it - but, he reminds himself firmly, he does not need to. The boy is, after all, no longer his concern.
"...And to think that he's mine," Herbert is crooning. "Mine, mine, mine. For all eternity. How lucky for us both!"
Alfred shifts in his sleep, arching his neck back and mumbling something that sounds like a name - the Graf can guess which one.
Beside him on the pillow, Herbert swallows hard, eyes darting, tongue whetting his lips.
A light breeze winds its way through the room, ruffling tousled hair and damp skin. Herbert moans and twists his face away, pushing himself up off the pillow.
"But why not? Why wait?"
"The risk is too great. One twist of his arm and either of us might be burned. And I am opposed to dying for the sake of your impatience, Herbert."
"But I'm thirsty -"
"The night is young. If you wish to stand by the gate, I am quite certain a stray farmer or two would provide an ample snack -"
"I told you I don't want a horrid farmer!" Herbert bursts out in a hiss, sounding exactly like a spoiled five-year-old once again. "I want him! I want him now -!"
A loud snore from the other side of the bed makes them both freeze.
The Graf rises smoothly, poised to dive for the door. Herbert tucks his legs beneath him like a cat ready to flee, eyes wide. But the old man simply snorts - mumbles - turns over, and lapses back into his steady snoring once more.
Herbert ducks his head, and has the decency to look a little sheepish.
At the door, the two of them pause for a moment. The Graf stands to the side, arm outstretched, gesturing for his son to go first; he does not want to risk Herbert doubling back and locking him out. But Herbert appears to have no such plans in mind. He simply gazes one last time over his shoulder - hungry, wanting - back at the boy curled up on the bed.
The Graf regards him, a sinking feeling of trepidation low in his stomach.
Perhaps he should try again to tell him, as he had once before. To warn his son that the boy is in love already - a foolish kind of love, but love all the same. Love that will not evaporate, after Herbert has got his teeth into him.
Love like the love of a page boy, so many centuries before.
"Father? Is something the matter?"
His son gazes up at him expectantly, and the words hover on the Graf's lips, but - he shakes his head, letting out a heavy sigh.
He is a fool, if he thinks for one second that unloading his own guilt and regret onto his son's shoulders will make Herbert actually change his mind about pursuing the boy. Compassion has never been Herbert's strong suit.
Something he learned from his father, the Graf thinks bitterly.
No, he has done his part, in trying to scrape out some small semblance of redemption for himself. Alfred's life has passed through his hands already. There is no more to be done.
"...Nothing, my son. Nothing at all."
The door clicks shut behind them, obscuring the boy and his Professor from sight once more.
A sense of resignation settles upon the Graf's shoulders like cold chains.
It's the inevitability of it all that weighs upon him, more than anything. The boy's pure, foolish love. His son's appetite, as insatiable as his father's. The constant cycle of death, from generation to generation. The heartbreak and horror their kind will always breed.
The Graf closes his eyes, feeling all at once very, very tired.
"Come, Herbert. We have a ball to prepare for."