When I stopped needing the bag to breathe right I uncurled and rolled over to face Hans. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say I flopped over. I was exhausted, and worn, and burned out. In the absence of panic or adrenaline, I felt slow. Everything seemed to be dulled out. But Hans was still sitting there, watching me worriedly – just like Megan had been on the night of the wingman-fail incident all those years ago.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I panic sometimes. It’s not your fault.” The excuse sounded paltry and stupid in my ears – but since that pretty much summed up what was left of me it seemed appropriate.
Hans frowned. “I just turned your world inside out and sideways without warning,” he said gently. “You have nothing to apologize for. I did this poorly… and believe me, I’ve seen people handle it worse even with a lot more forewarning.”
I just nodded. I wasn’t sure that I really believed him, but I definitely didn’t have the energy to argue. I pulled myself up to the head of my bed and dug one of the pillows out from under the covers so I’d have something to hug. Then I sat with my back to the wall and my knees up and looked at Hans over the top of my pillow while I squeezed the bejesus out of it and tried to sort out my thoughts while I was still too deep in shock to be in a crazy panic.
“Okay,” I said at last. “So, you bit me. On the hand in the restaurant, and on the lip just now. I’m not going to develop an irresistible urge to howl at the moon and attend furry conventions now, am I?”
For a second Hans looked back at me blankly. Maybe he didn’t know what furries were. Well, I wasn’t going to explain. That’s what the internet was for.
Then he seemed to get what I was asking. “No,” he said firmly. “No, I would never be that irresponsible with the curse.” He held up a hand and started ticking off fingers. “I wasn’t in my wolf form,” he said for one. “And it isn’t a full moon,” he added on another. “And I didn’t break your skin.” He held up his fingers. “It takes all three for lycanthropy to spread.”
“Oh,” I said. “Okay.” That was one worry down, at least. “What about Mr. Salvatore? He hasn’t been turning my coworkers into his undead harem, has he?” That would certainly explain the large number of women in the office. The only men were Jimmy and Carl, and they were pretty much exiled to the basement.
Hans shook his head with a chuckle. “No,” he said, but this time he didn’t elaborate.
I frowned. “How can you be sure? He still needs blood, right? And that means people get infected.” At least I knew Megan was okay. I’d seen her in the daylight enough to… to not really be sure of anything. Dammit. I’d seen Mr. Salvatore around in the daytime, too. I didn’t actually know anything about vampires – or werewolves – that didn’t come from movies, TV or manga, and even that didn’t always agree. Who knew what was actually real?
“Look,” I said. “I get that he’s your friend or whatever. And that it’s always awkward to talk about other people’s issues when you aren’t hanging around a clothesline with the other gossipy midwives. And I should be really concerned with you, and asking lots of questions about werewolves. But I’ve been working for Mr. Salvatore for two years – which means I’ve been freaked out by him for seven hundred and twenty eight days more than I’ve been freaked out by you – so I kind of think that now that I know he really is a vampire, I need to know how that works.”
Hans blinked at me, then shook his head. “Alright,” he conceded with a sigh. “I’m much more versed in explaining about werewolves,” he added, and then he frowned while he put his thoughts together. “Well, first of all: Vampirism isn’t a disease. It’s a curse. People don’t get ‘infected’ with it, not the way you’re thinking of, no matter how many times they provide blood. It isn’t even the blood that provides a vampire with sustenance. Blood is just the medium of transference. What a vampire takes from his donor is life.”
“Life?” I asked.
Hans nodded. “People think of the undead as walking corpses. I suppose the surge of zombies in popular fiction is to blame – but a zombie isn’t ‘undead.’ It is reanimated; a marionette of a corpse, driven by hunger and nefarious magic. The true undead, like vampires, are not corpses because they are not dead. Neither are they alive. They have passed through the state of death and come back to something that could be called ‘unlife’ as easily as ‘undeath.’ A place between alive and dead.”
Hans pursed his lips and picked his words carefully as he explained. “The undead are balanced between life and death. When they feed on life, they become more alive: they can eat real food, their hearts beat again, their emotions return, their injuries will heal and the weaknesses that come with their curse fade away. A well and recently fed vampire can even withstand the sun, for a time. But when a vampire hungers, he tips more toward death. He loses the ability to feel pain or emotion, his heart and breathing stops, his wounds will not close and the other weaknesses inherited with the curse become more pronounced, the sun burns. A vampire that is starving is a terrible predator: merciless, inhumanly strong, relentless.”
I swallowed. Mr. Salvatore had always creeped me out. This wasn’t helping. “Okay,” I said. “What does that have to do with his unholy harem, or lack thereof?”
“It has to do with how the curse is transmitted,” Hans said. “If it could pass with just a bite, the world would run out of mortals and all the vampires would starve, especially if the vampires spent as much time in the daylight as Salvatore does. No, when a vampire feeds on a mortal, he’s feeding on that mortal’s life force. And in order for the curse to be passed, the donor must take that tainted life force back. The vampire and the mortal share blood, and then… Then the mortal has to die in order for the curse to take root. But even then, they don’t always come back.”
“Oh,” I said weakly.
“Yes,” Hans agreed dryly. “Most new vampires are recruited from mortals who are terminally ill or who have suffered a debilitating injury – descendants of their maker’s family or friends, usually. People the vampire cares about, but who have been afflicted with something to make the potential reward worth the inherent risk. If Salvatore were doing something as reckless as turning your coworkers then quite a few of them – most of them – would simply be dead.”
I swallowed again. “Alright,” I said. “But the sun thing is real, right? So he has to have blood to walk around during business hours. How does he deal with that? Does he just, like, have hospital bags of it in a mini fridge under his desk or something? Or does he just hypnotize people and treat the office like a great big buffet?”
Hans snorted. “Wouldn’t work,” he said, “Either one. It’s the consumption of life that matters, not the blood. So although decanted blood is perfectly useful to doctors in a hospital for mortals, for vampires it just isn’t…” he waved a hand vaguely, “…potent,” he finally said. “Salvatore needs blood from a living donor in order to live, himself. But he can’t just take it by force – or rather, he could, but the victim would remember it. Hypnosis is something else that has been built up by fiction. A vampire’s geas is like a fae’s. It can leave a mortal enamored for the moment, but it can’t change memories and it doesn’t give the vampire any sort of direct control – and unless the spell is maintained, it would only result in a temporary infatuation. Eventually the mortal would come to their senses. I imagine it would become rather difficult for Salvatore to keep his condition a secret around the office and leave everyone alive at that point.”
I squeezed my pillow and narrowed my eyes at Hans. “You know, the whole, ‘it’s probably okay because nobody’s dead yet’ thing you have going on in your logic isn’t really that reassuring.”
Hans chuckled weakly. “Right,” he said. “Then let me be more blunt about it. In Salvatore’s case, specifically: I know he maintained a couple dozen willing donors while he was in the city. These were people who are aware of his curse, and provided him sustenance cyclically so he didn’t risk taking too much from any one. And there was another – his secretary – who stayed with him during the day to make sure he didn’t need to take from an unwilling donor if an emergency arose.”
I stared. Mr. Salvatore’s secretary? Katherine? Katherine was in on it?! I took a deep breath. “Okay then,” I said. So he probably hadn’t been secretly feeding on us this whole time. He still freaked me out. And now Katherine was even more intimidating than she had been when she’d just been a gothic dominatrix who’d been day lighting as a secretary to make ends meet and who was always sent in to remind us about deadlines in the scariest ways possible. She actually let Mr. Salvatore drink her blood? Squick! At least I didn’t have to work with her anymore… although that did beg the question of who Mr. Salvatore’s emergency supply was, now that he was back in town. Would she be coming back? But Mr. Salvatore was supposedly leaving after New Years’, so what then?
And… if Mr. Salvatore really was a vampire, then why was he leaving? His ‘mysterious illness’ was pretty obviously a cover story, now.
“So, what really happened last year?” I asked. “I mean, unless that was when he got infected… er, cursed. Is that it? He really did have some terminal condition, and then got turned – and spent the last year learning to be a vampire?” I frowned and let go of my pillow. It flopped on the bed between us. “But that doesn’t make sense. Why would Katherine already have been his donor if he wasn’t a vampire before then? Or, is that why she quit? She went off with Mr. Salvatore for the last year?” My brow crinkled as I tried to puzzle it out. I was pretty sure Megan and Katherine had gone clubbing together somewhere in that time span. More than once, even.
Maybe Mr. Salvatore hadn’t actually left town, and had been secretly sneaking around while he adjusted to undeath? That was a creepy thought. I’d already had the occasional paranoiac fit about the probability of him lurking in a tree outside Megan’s window – the “he’s a vampire” bit just made that seem more likely. I really wished Hans could answer faster than I could speculate. I was starting to get wound up again.
Hans shook his head. “No. Salvatore has been undead for a very, very long time. But there was an incident last New Year’s Eve. He wasn’t able to feed from his usual donor that night because of the party – so he fed on Katherine. After that….” Hans sighed. “Neither of them was very clear on the details, according to the report. Apparently the punch had been spiked; Katherine was drunk. And that got Salvatore drunk as well – and then he over-imbibed.” Hans grimaced. “She was hospitalized, and Salvatore has spent the last year in recovery. Rehab, if you will.”
Hans stared at my pillow. “Salvatore and I… well, we go back a ways. He has been my mentor and friend, and I owe him a lot. So when he asked me to keep an eye on him and stand in as his emergency donor while he got his affairs in order, I agreed. In a few days, when he’s done here, he’ll be going back to the rehabilitation center for a decade or two, and I’ll be taking over his duties here.”
I stared at Hans while I tried to wrap my head around that. He was being so calm and matter of fact about it, I had to wonder if the holy shit I was thinking was appropriate, or just more of my knee jerk paranoia and anxiety. But I couldn’t stop thinking that all those times I’d been creeped out because Mr. Salvatore had been staring at Megan like he wanted to eat her… He’d literally been staring at her like he actually wanted to eat her. “How can you be so blasé about this?” I demanded. “He put someone in the hospital!” Sure, I didn’t really like Katherine and she’d apparently signed up to be the potato chips in event of munchies, but I’d caught Mr. Salvatore with Megan in the bathroom last New Year’s Eve. And if he’d been drunk and out of control, then… that might have been a very, very close call. For both of us. “How can you be okay with that?!”
“I’m not,” Hans growled – and for the first time tonight he sounded angry. I snapped my mouth shut and shrank back, but I don’t think he noticed. I don’t think he was angry at me, either, but it was still scary to see. “It’s not okay,” Hans continued, and his hands curled into frustrated fists. “It’s tragic – for both of them. Salvatore hurt Katherine, badly – and when he came to his senses he locked himself away for a year, and he’s going to go back for at least another ten. It’s the blood, Abigail. Blood is life to someone with Salvatore’s curse, and that’s addictive in a way I don’t think you or I or anyone who isn’t similarly afflicted can really understand.” He took a deep breath, held it, and let it out. His anger and frustration seemed to go with it.
“The thing is,” Hans said, “It isn’t even that simple. Salvatore is old. We supernaturals live a very long time, and Salvatore has had plenty of time to learn to cope with his cravings. But it’s worse than just… Than just knowing you have to eat in moderation.”
Hans put a hand on his chest. “I’m a werewolf,” he said. “Any injury or illness I have will be gone after I’ve shifted shape. Anything that doesn’t kill me outright is basically just a nuisance as long as it isn’t the full moon and I’m in control of my form. But vampires have already died once. There is nothing they can’t come back from as long as you give their remains enough blood – not even being burned to ash by the sun. And Salvatore… Salvatore and I fought together in the last great war, and he’s older than I am. He was a general then, and had fought in three more of the world wars before that. He’s been in recovery before, both for injuries earned on the battlefield, and in rehabilitation for the blood addiction he earned when those injuries were treated. That he’s gone back to the center, that one accident has made all his work in recovery undone, is tragic.”