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By Any Other Name

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Some nights were more suited to hunting the undead than others. February 14, 1890, was dark, damp, and just cold enough to make one’s skin prickle. Dr. Lawrence Abraham Van Helsing checked his watch by match light. Two A.M. and still an hour until moon-rise. He doused the match and settled in for the long wait.

After four months of hunting necromancers on the Continent, he'd expected a vampire hunt in East London to be a welcome respite. At least, that's how his day started. Now, at two and with no sign of Mr. Aloysius Bartleby, it was a different matter. He pulled his coat close and lit another match.

His Gladstone had everything he needed to quickly dispatch one of the undead--be they vampire or otherwise. He dug around amongst the wooden stakes, garlic bulbs, and holy water until he found his hip flask.

A quick swig of whiskey set his mood back on track.

"Now if Bartleby shifts his dusty knickers and gets to it, I can get back to my bed." He wiped his nose on the back of his sleeve and sighed. "I'm getting too old for this."

He was contemplating, not for the first time, an early retirement when the sound of footfalls rang through the cemetery. The doctor leaned forward, listening closely as they grew louder.

A man shot past him, breathing heavily. Even in the darkness of the cemetery, Van Helsing could tell that the man was dressed in the finest evening wear. The man paused, leaning on a tombstone to catch his breath, before disappearing into the night.

Van Helsing stood, clasping a wooden stake. Whatever was chasing him couldn't be pleasant. He turned, scanning the landscape for danger.

His inspection was cut abruptly short by someone running straight into him. They fell in a heap at his feet.

"Why didn't y'all get out of the way?"

He grabbed the young lady and untangled her from the long-handled shovel she was carrying. "I'm terribly sorry, I didn't see you coming--"

She cut him off with a sharp blow to the ribs. "I almost had him!" She struck him again, this time with the handle of her shovel. "I was this close!"

Van Helsing wrestled the shovel from her hands. "What are you doing chasing a man through a cemetery at this time of night?"

She ripped the weapon from his grip and drove the handle into his ribs a second time. "I'm gettin' my revenge and you're not gonna stop me."

She disappeared into the fog before he could gasp out a reply.

He fell to his knees, clutching at his bruised ribs. He pounded his fist against the damp earth, fighting back tears. There was no doubt in his mind that his ribs were cracked in several places.

An injury of this caliber would need immediate medical attention. Luckily he knew a doctor who was always awake at odd hours and used to odd injuries. At the very least, he wouldn’t ask any embarrassing questions.

* * *

“What have you been doing with yourself, Abraham?” Dr. Watson shook his head at his friend. “You look at though you’ve been wrestling a pig in its sty.”

“Nothing of the kind, old friend.” He laughed, easing himself into one of the doctor’s comfortable chairs. “An unlikely encounter in Tower Hamlets that left me worse for wear. I would have waited until morning, but it’s imperative that I get back to the cemetery before dawn and— and I think I’ve cracked my ribs.”

He clucked his tongue. “One of these days you’re going to hurt yourself and then what will become of your ‘crusade against darkness?’”

“I suppose it will come to an untimely end along with me. Tell me, how is the famous Mr. Sherlock Holmes fairing these days? Did I hear something about a carbuncle of unlikely color?”

Dr. Watson gave the professor a sharp rap on the back of the head. “This is no time to be inquiring about criminal matters. Do you have any idea what today is?”

“Yes—February 14—oh! Watson! Forgive me! I had no notion of the date. I promise, it’s just another day to me— please, I’ll find another doctor—”

“There is no harm done! Mrs. Watson has been asleep since midnight and it isn’t properly St. Valentine’s day until morning. She won’t mind. You know how fond of you she is.”

He grimaced, trying to smile through the pain. “She’s far better than both of us put together.”

“I already knew that,” the doctor drawled. “Now let’s get this shirt off and see what the damage is.”

* * *

Van Helsing was back in Tower Hamlets Cemetery just in time to see the waning crescent moon rise above the tombs. He sat with his back against a headstone and clutched his injured side and took a quick sip of the "medicinal" brandy Dr. Watson provided, cursing the girl and her quest for revenge.

It was still three hours until sunrise, which gave him just enough time to find Bartleby's tomb and dispatch him. If he didn't keep to his schedule there was a good chance that he would meet the local constable on his morning rounds. Law enforcement was the bane of the vampire hunter's existence.

He sat and listened to the city sleep. There was no time for research between his arrival in England and when he first stepped foot in the cemetery. Bartleby's tomb was somewhere within yards of where he was sitting. He was sure of it. But the thin moonlight wasn't bright enough to illuminate the names on the tombs and he didn't want to attract any kind of undue attention.

There was the sound of rock crumbling nearby and he leaned back into the shadow. He took quick, shallow breaths. Something was moving between the headstones.

"Hiding from something?"

He jumped, knocking his head against the stone. "You shouldn't scare a person like that," he hissed at the girl with the shovel.

She lounged beside him, leaning on a nearby headstone. "I'm tryin' t' decide if you're a resurrectionist or a corpse-fucker."

He choked on a mouthful of whiskey. "Neither! I could have any number of legitimate reasons to be here."

"At three in the morning? Not a chance. So, which are you?"

"Neither," he insisted, "I'm a vampire hunter."

She snorted. “Isn’t that kind of a silly profession for a man of your age?”

He slid the flask into his pocket and rose. “If you’ll excuse me, I have a vampire to find.”

"Suit yourself, but Bartleby hasn't been here in weeks."

He squinted at her, trying to make out her facial expression. "Oh?"

"I like to keep track of the comings and goings in my cemetery. If you're interested, there's a pretty young lady who was buried in plot 113 not twelve hours ago who might satisfy your unnatural desires."

"Is she a vampire, ghoul, or spirit of some kind?"

"I see. You're a monster fucker, not a corpse fucker. Well, to each their own, sugar. She's none'a those."

He grimaced, not bothering to correct her assumptions before taking his leave.

"Where're y'all goin'? Aren't y'all curious about where Bartleby went?"

"I'm more curious as to how you seem to be speaking with a mouthful of mud. Goodbye."

Her footsteps thudded toward him. "I'm from Lou'siana."

"I'm not surprised."

"Funny, most people say I sound a little French. That’d be maman comin’ through a touch, I expect. She was a Parisian debutante. The most beautiful girl in her year. Yessir, my maman sure is pretty. I take after her, I supp—”

Van Helsing put his arm out and stopped her. "Why are you following me?"

"I want t' be there when you realize I was right and you were wrong. I also reckon that you'd like to know the 'xact location of Bartleby's tomb."

"I already know where Mr. Bartleby's tomb is."

"Where?"

He cleared his throat. "Somewhere in this general vicinity."

"That so?" She sucked her teeth. "I bet y'all'd like t' be really sure before you break in."

"I am sure."

"Then I'll leave you to it."

He tapped his foot for a few seconds, trying to make out the shapes of the nearby tombs. The Bartleby tomb had some kind of Gothic statue on the roof. If he could spot it he would be able to prove the tiresome girl wrong.

There wasn't a statue in sight.

"Miss," he sighed, realizing that he didn't know how to address her, "Miss, if your heart is set on showing me where Mr. Bartleby is buried, then I won't disappoint you."

She let out a bark of laughter. "He's right behind you."

Van Helsing whirled around only to find himself nose-to-door with a tomb. The exterior was the tackiest of white marbles and glowed slightly even in the wan moonlight. A marble gargoyle sat on the roof, its mouth twisted into a hideous laugh.

He felt the girl at his elbow. "Aloysius Joachim Bartleby, born May the 3rd, 1710, died July 20th, 1760, may he rest in peace," she read. "I guess that didn't work out for him too well."

Van Helsing drew a stake from his Gladstone and pushed the door inward. "Thank you for your help, that will do."

"I wouldn't bother."

He hesitated on the doorstep. "I assume you know something I don't."

"Well, see, Bartleby was a moneylender in both life and un-death. That's how come the tomb is so well kept even after almost a hundred 'n fifty years. Now, Bartleby was over in Spitalfields this past week collectin' from some a' his debtors and it didn't go s' well for him."

"How?"

"Some a' the locals got wind of him bein' one a' the undead and they decided to take the laws of nature into their own hands. Now, I don't s'pose they can be convicted in a court of our laws any more than you could-- wait, sorry, y'all can be convicted of grave desecration. The fine people of Spitalfields are only on the hook for littering and even that's doubtful on account of the fact that they swept him up when they were done.”

He repressed the urge to scream at the moon. It was three-thirty now, two and a half hours until sunrise, and his job had already been done by the honest working folk of the East End. He was cold, miserable, and a little drunk. “What am I meant to do now?”

“Not my problem, good sir. But, if’n you’re lookin’ for a way t' pass the time I have something a little stronger than that brandy in your pocket waitin' for me at home.”

“Do you promise to not fracture any more of my ribs?”

"Of course."

“Then lead the way.”

She grabbed him by the elbow. The path through the graves was long and winding— made longer by her stopping every few yards to let wil-o'-whisps float by.

One flew close to her face and he caught a glimpse of her in the fleeting light. It was an impression of a sharp nose and full lips that quickly faded from his tipsy thoughts.

"Don't worry about them. They're only dangerous if you don't know where you're goin' and I know where I'm a-goin'."

"What kind of doom does Tower Hamlets hold for the poor souls who don't know where they're going?"

"Usually Bartleby or one of the ghouls. Although Patches and company don't usually go in for living flesh. Now that Bartleby's gone I reckon they'll go back to tripping unsuspecting mourners with the tombstones. They think it's funny."

She stopped him in front of a crumbling tomb. The only signs of upkeep were a wooden door reinforced with iron rods and a holly bush growing in a pot next to the doorstep.

"Here it is," she said, "my home away from home."

He eyed the crooked lintel. "You live here?"

"It's got four walls 'n a roof that keeps out the rain much better 'n that shack they expected me t' live in. I'm not awful picky."

She pulled open the door and slipped inside.

Van Helsing stood on the doorstep and hesitated for the second time that night. It all felt like some kind of trap. He had no idea who this girl was--or even what she looked like. She could knock him out and rob him blind and he would never be able to describe her to the authorities. She could even be some kind of monster herself, ready to kill him without a second thought for what he did to her kin.

The door swung open and a lantern appeared, closely followed by the girl. "Aren't y'all goin' t' come inside?"

He swallowed his worries and stepped over the threshold.

The girl hung her oil lamp from a hook in the middle of the ceiling and turned her attention to a little table in the corner next to a coal stove. She poured two glasses of a suspiciously clear liquid and turned to face him.

"How d' y' take yours?"

He gulped at the sight of her. "I'll take it straight."

"Good, I like a man who can take his liquor." She handed him the glass and pushed him into the tomb's only chair. "So were y'all really after Bartleby? I still find it hard to believe that you're a vampire hunter."

He downed the liquor in a single gulp and relished the burning sensation in his throat. He needed all the time he could get to scrape his thoughts together.

The girl was not a girl. In the darkness of the cemetery, he'd only been able to see a vague, child-sized outline; but she was taller and older than he'd assumed. Her hair was a violent shade of orange that brought several unflattering nicknames to mind. It clashed with the bright red military jacket she was wearing and made her almost painful to look at.

But none of this was what drew his attention. It was her face, smeared with dirt and liberally freckled, that caught his eye. He set his empty glass down on the floor and stood before her, peering into her bright green eyes.

"Don't y'all think you're gettin' a little too close for comfort?"

He shook his head. "What--?" He shook his head again, pulling his handkerchief from his pocket and taking her chin lightly in his hands.

"Do I have somethin' on my face? I was digging a grave earlier and almost fell in."

"Shh!" He wiped the dirt from her cheeks and blinked. "They're still there." He ran his fingers across the long, red scars that stretched from the edges of her mouth to her jaw. "What did you get on your face? It won't come off."

"Oh, Lord. How much have you had to drink tonight?"

“I can hold my liquor—unless you drugged me.”

“I didn’t and you can’t.” She gently guided him back to the chair. “They’re scars, sir, and I don’t cotton to people goin’ around touching my face without permission; but I’ll give you a pass since you’re legless.”

“I am not.” He caught a whiff of his own breath. “Maybe I am. What did you give me?”

“Moonshine. I brew it myself. I must say, I never saw anyone take an entire glass in one go a'fore. I thought you knew what you were doin'.”

He shook his head a third time. “What happened to you?”

“You’re a little out of touch, aren’t you? Two years ago there was a madman running 'round the East End huntin' whores an’ one night he caught me instead. He cut up my face and,” she lifted her chin, displaying a scar that stretched from ear to ear, “slit my throat.”

He squinted through the alcoholic fog clouding his vision. His deductive reasoning skills were deteriorating by the second and his ribs hurt. Why did his ribs hurt so much? Oh, right. She’d cracked them in half a dozen places. Or was it a dozen? It felt like a dozen.

“How— How did you survive?” He managed to ask.

“A good Samaritan stopped and saved me. Are y’all feelin’ okay?” She frowned, leaning in to get a closer look at his face. “You look a little worse for wear. Are you sure you only had a little whiskey earlier?”

“It’s the pain,” he laughed, “But how did you survive getting your throat cut?”

“I’m not easy to kill and he used the wrong kind of knife.”

“I don’t understand.”

She shook her head. “You’re the densest man I ever met and a piss poor vampire hunter if'n y' can't figure out what I'm a'tryin' t' say. I’m a werewolf. The knife wasn’t silver. How much have you had to drink tonight?”

“Aren’t you burying the lead a little? How long have you been afflicted?”

“I’m not sick. How many drinks have you had?”

“Two brandies with supper, a little nip before I came to the cemetery, another little nip when I got here, the flask of brandy Watson gave me, and the drink you gave me. How long have you been a lycanthrope?”

“Since I was born. My papa is one. That’s an awful lot of alcohol for one old man to drink. Do y’all need a place to sleep it off?” She jerked a thumb in the direction of the cot sitting up against the wall. “It isn’t much, but the quilt is clean and there’re no bugs in it.”

He pinched the bridge of his nose. The room was beginning to sway. “I’m not old and I can hold my liquor.”

“Fine, you’re middle-aged, but you're also drunk. C’mon, get over here.” She lifted him out of the chair and carried him bridal style over to the cot.

“What are you doing?”

“Putting you to bed, grandpa.” She dumped him on the quilt. “Now lie down until you can see straight.”

She retreated and tucked herself into the chair.

Van Helsing watched her pull a long-stemmed pipe from her pocket and stuff it with tobacco. She surveyed him closely as she lit it.

“Is the room spinnin’?”

“Not anymore.”

“Good. In a few minutes I’ll get you a glass of water. Now, while you’re recovering, I’d like t' ask what a respectable middle-aged man like yourself is doing in a cemetery hunting vampires.”

He contemplated her question. “Before I answer, may I know your name?”

“You sound like my mother. It’s Rosie.”

He nodded. “How old are you, Rosie?”

“I’ll ignore the personal nature of that question and answer it anyway: twenty.”

He nodded again. “I thought so.”

She set down the pipe. “Still a little misty?”

“Yes.”

“Stay put, I’ll be right back with your water.” She disappeared through the tomb’s doors and reappeared a few moments later with a glass full of water. “Don’t worry yourself, it’s good clean rainwater.”

He took a deep drink. “Thank you.”

“While we’re on the subject of names and ages, I’d like to know yours.”

“Dr. Abraham Van Helsing,” he reached into his pocket and handed her his card, “I’m forty.”

Rosie frowned at the card. “Was one degree not enough for you? Which one of these is the professorship?”

“Metaphysics.”

“What’s that when it’s at home?”

“The study of abstract concepts like being, knowing, and identity.”

“So you’re not a real doctor?”

He bristled. “I’m very much a real doctor, thank you.”

“Fine. If you’re a real doctor, then how do I get rid of my cough?”

“Stop smoking for a start.”

She rolled her eyes. “You still haven’t answered my question. What is a man like you—with three degrees, albeit useless ones—doin' hunting vampires in Tower Hamlets?”

“I told you. It’s what I do.” He took another gulp of the water. “Thank you for the water, but I should be going.”

“Not until I get a better explanation than that.”

“Fine. Twenty years ago, around the time you were born, Leiden University fired me for insisting that vampires were real and that I could prove it. On any other occasion I would have gotten a teaching position and a raise, but since I paired my hypothesis with evidence that I found robbing graves in Begraafplaats Groenesteeg earlier that year, I was fired. I was lucky that I wasn't arrested for grave desecration, too.” He sat up and scowled at her. “It wasn’t a good year for me.”

She smiled. “It was a good year for me.”

“Now I have a question for you: what is a silly little thing like you doing living in a tomb?”

“I’m the gravedigger. The little shack by the gate gets robbed more times a month than th' whore on the corner gets fucked. It’s safer here 'n the owners don’t care much where I sleep as long as the graves get dug. Are you sure you want to get up? You still look a little wobbly.”

“I’m fine.” He tried to stand and fell backward onto the cot. “Back to normal.” He tried a second time with the same result.

“One more time and y'all'll be approaching insanity. Why don’t you spend the night? I promise not to take advantage of you.”

He eyed her warily. “Where will you sleep?”

“In the chair, on the floor. I’m not picky.”

“I don’t know—”

“Listen, I’m in no mood to mop your blood off the cobblestones out front. Stay put a'fore I make you.”

“Was that a threat?”

“It was.”

He slipped off his shoes and tucked himself under the quilt. She was right—it was clean and bug-free. “Happy?”

“Ecstatic.” Rosie grinned. “Y’know, doc, I have a feeling that this is the start of something really fun.”

“Fun. Wonderful.” He turned to face the wall. “Just what I needed.”

Chapter Text

Three Years Later

Van Helsing sent a bullet ripping through the nearest drone's head. The creature hissed in pain, its gaping mouth lolling open, but showed no signs of slowing its attack. It snarled, flashing its fangs at him. He pulled a long-bladed knife from his belt and slashed it across the drone's neck. Blood sprayed from the wound for an instant and the creature was gone in a puff of ash.

An unholy screech sounded from a nearby tunnel. He rushed to Rosie's aid only to find that she was lighting the last of the drones on fire. She grinned, her face lit up by the flickering light of the burning corpse. The feral light gleaming in her eyes worried him.

"It's one thing to dedicate your life to the destruction of the profane, but it's another thing to enjoy it."

She turned, brandishing her shovel in one hand and the torch in another. "I have t’ get my kicks somewhere."

"Was that the last one?" he asked.

Rosie shrugged and waved her torch at the darkened passageway, setting cobwebs aflame left and right. "I think so, but y' never know with these shifty little bastards."

“Or their master.” He reached into his pocket and withdrew a red paisley handkerchief. “Brimstone always seems to have something extra up his sleeve that we never expect. It’s beginning to wear on my nerves.”

“I wish it wasn’t all these godforsaken drones! Would it kill the man to come up with an original monster like that Swiss baron or go back to zombies and revenants? You can’t go wrong with the classics.”

“I really don’t know what else you would expect from a necromancer. They're all flamboyant bastards who weren't hugged enough as children. They developed unhealthy obsessions with death to deal with the fact that their father never came to their piano recitals or some such rot.

“Is that the voice of experience I hear?”

“I played the violin, my dear.”

She frowned. “Did you call me your ‘dear?’”

He coughed lightly. “It’s a generic term of endearment and, after three years of your nonsense, I have grown generally fond of you.”

She clutched at her chest. “Y’all’re gonna have t’ tone down your flirting, doc, or I’m gonna have heart palpitations!”

Van Helsing gave his knife a perfunctory wipe with the handkerchief and slammed it back into its scabbard. He holstered his pistol and pushed past her into the murky darkness of the tunnel. “Very funny. Shall we see if Brimstone has left us any other little unpleasant surprises before we depart?”

“Why would you want t’ do a fool thing like that? Let the dead rest in peace.”

“Rosie, have I ever once in our three years of partnership left well enough alone?”

She picked at her scars. “Fair enough.”

“Since you agree, will you please bring the torch?

The flickering light of the torch danced down the tunnel walls as she followed him. “Who’s tomb do you think this is?”

"I'm not sure. There are rumors of Templar Knights passing through this area after the third crusade. Some of this iconography is certainly similar to theirs." He inspected a scene of Mary holding Jesus painted on the wall. "Who knows, we might even find an undiscovered knight!"

"You should leave well enough alone. Even if there isn't some kind of ancient eldritch horror lurking 'round down here, Brimstone might have set a trap for us."

“Even more reason for us to explore.”

She gave a sarcastic bow, almost setting his coat on fire. “Age before beauty.”

They were ten yards further down the tunnel when he spoke again. “I’m almost certain that this tomb dates back to the third crusade. Look at these paintings!”

Rosie surveyed the lavish portraits of second-century knights with little interest. “Is that a dragon?”

“Is that all you’ve noticed?”

“’Dunno. A dragon seems like a big thing to paint just for fun. D’ y’ think there really was one here?”

“In Romania? I doubt it. There’s little evidence that dragons ever existed in the first place and if they did I would expect them to inhabit far warmer climes than this.”

“Where do y’all stand on King Richard halting an entire column of knights to build a lavish tomb for some guy and then fucking off back to England without so much as a how d' y' do?”

He frowned. "It does seem a bit far-fetched. However, if I can prove it, the discovery will be of immense historical significance. Think of it, anyone with a tomb of this size had to be someone beloved by the king."

“Are y'all sure it’s the historical significance you’re thinking of and not Professor Morse from Trinity?”

“He did cross my mind. If I can find an intact Templar tomb in the middle of the Hoia Baciu, Morse will eat his hat.”

“Have I met Morse? He was the one with the glasses and the stutter, right?”

“No, he’s the one with the drinking problem and the overeager research assistant.”

“Right. Morse and Lewis. I should have remembered them.” She leaned in to inspect a second painting of a dragon and it was only Van Helsing’s well-timed intervention that saved her hair from the torch. “Thank you. What do you think we’ll find down here?”

“A rich knight sumptuously entombed by his dear friends on their way back to England.”

“Not more surprises from Brimstone?”

He stopped her. “Listen, Brimstone Bertram’s only interest in history is raising it from the dead. He has no need for dusty old knights. I highly doubt the corpse would be suitable for any kind of necromancy. Even if it was, Templar Knights were famous for putting all kinds of religious symbols on their tombs to prevent just that eventuality. There’s nothing down here but history.”

She raised an eyebrow at his confidence. “Do y'all remember the last time you said that?"

He grimaced at the thought and rubbed his left arm gingerly. “I do.”

"And yet you still want to explore."

"You've often pointed out how stupid I am. By that logic, this shouldn't surprise you."

"It doesn't. Just-- Just be careful."

"I'm not careless." He took four steps forward, tripped over a ledge on the floor, and fell into a tomb befitting a knight of King Richard's court.

"Y'all sure about that?" She hauled him off the floor. "What'd you fall into?"

He rushed over to the sarcophagus and blew a thick layer of dust from its lid. "Reason to send Professor Morse a very strongly worded letter. This," he brushed more dust from the lid, "is the late Sir Felix of Devon who was 'struck down in the year of our Lord 1193 by--" He clucked his tongue in ill humor. "The rest of the inscription is worn off. It'll never do if I can't figure out what killed him."

He blew on the lid again, sending dust billowing in all directions and leaving them both blind.

"Was that necessary?" She gripped the end of the torch in her teeth and slipped out of her jacket.

He snatched the torch from her mouth. "You're going to set us both on fire! Again!"

She shrugged. "Not anymore."

He made a disgusted sound and turn his attention back to the inscription. “It worked. There’s more written here: ‘lost to this mortal world through the wickedness of something’—here, this explains all the dragons. One of his titles was ‘dragon slayer.’” He continued to mumble the words as he translated. “The Latin is badly worded in places. Almost like they didn’t know a damned thing about declensions.”

Rosie touched the stone, running her fingers over one particular phrase. “I know this one: requiescat in aeterna pace. Rest in eternal peace. We both know what that means.”

He nodded. “King Richard had good cause to think that his beloved friend would rise again. Probably something to do with the ‘wickedness’ that brought about his death. It’s a plea to the Almighty to cleanse his loved one of all earthly evils and admit him into heaven.” Van Helsing crossed himself. “May he never rise again.”

She yawned. “No wonder Leiden fired you. That was the most borin' lecture y'all’ve ever given and you’ve given plenty over the years.”

He glared at her. “Will you please help me with the lid?”

“You’re not thinkin’ of opening that thing.”

“I am.”

“You're the stupidest man I’ve ever met. Why are you going to disturb a perfectly peaceful vampire when we could let him requiescat in aeterna pace?”

“Because vampires seldom do. Now come here!”

“Did I ever tell you about my brother Adoniyah?”

He threw his shoulder against the coffin and pushed. “Your oldest brother? The one who once tried to seduce the mayor’s wife at a society tea? Yes.”

“Did I ever tell you about that one time he tried to wrestle an alligator?”

“A what?” He pulled back from the coffin, inspecting the lid for any weaknesses.

“An alligator. They’re about twelve feet long and their mouths’re full of teeth like knives. If one bites you it’s so long and thanks for all the fish and one night, bless him, Addy got it into his head that he should wrestle one.”

“Am I to assume that alcohol was involved?”

“Enough to kill your average human. Luckily he only got as far as Annabelle Lee’s pond in the backyard and she knows better'n t' hurt any of us. If he’d gone in th' other direction, he would’a ended up in the river in an alligator’s belly.”

“Is there a point to this story?”

“There is and I’m a’ gettin’ to it. What you’re doing right now is on par with wrestlin’ a ‘gator, stupid. Leave Sir Felix to his eternal rest and let’s go visit my family for a little while. Maman is dying to meet you.”

He leaned against the stone and crossed his arms. “While I would love to meet the woman who is half responsible for what you’ve become, I have an obligation first.” He drew the long knife from its scabbard at his belt. “I’m sure that Sir Felix would enjoy being at peace.”

Rosie grumbled about “irresponsible old men” and braced her shoulder against the edge of the coffin. “If he pops out of there and tries to kill us I’m going to let him get you and then I’m going to say ‘I told you so.’”

“I wouldn’t expect anything else from you. May I borrow your shovel?”

She clutched it to her chest. “For your suicide mission? What if I want you t' live?”

He sighed. “I’m going to live for several more years if only to annoy you.”

“Oh, Abraham, that’s so romantic. I didn’t know you cared.”

“I’d care more if you loaned me your shovel.”

“Fine,” she handed it over, “Don’t snap the handle ‘gain. I’m not goin’ t’ have time t’ fix it until we get back to England.”

He drove the blade into the crack between the coffin and its lid, twisting the handle until the seal popped. He withdrew the battered blade and handed it back to Rosie. “See, no harm done and nothing has tried to kill us yet.”

“Yet,” she grumbled.

He set his shoulder against the lid. “Are you ready?”

She shook her head.

“Good. Now heave!”

The lid flew off the coffin and hit the floor with a magnificent crash.

She clapped the dust from her hands. “That’s a bad sign. It’s almost like someone’s been oiling it.”

“It appears as though Sir Felix is not at home. I’m not sure if I’m relieved or disappointed," he said, leaning over the side of the coffin.

“Relief is what a normal person would feel right now—what you’re feeling is another matter, doc.” She skirted the coffin and brushed grime from the inside of the lid. “His death wasn’t an easy one. Look, fingernail marks. Which raises a very important question.”

“Just one? I can think of two: how permanent was his death and where is he?”

She nodded. “There’s somethin’ else. D' you smell that?”

He sniffed the air. “Brimstone. He’s been here and he would need a vampire to breed drones.”

“Which raises a third question.”

He shifted his gaze from the coffin. She was grinning like the cat that caught the canary. “What’s that?”

“Where did Brimstone take Sir Felix?” She held up a plain white calling card with a large letter ‘B’ printed on one side. “He took him to his hideout in London and we have the address.”

Chapter Text

Snow fell from the sky in huge, lazy flakes, covering the landscape in an icy blanket of white. The snow turned to sleet and a howling wind that blinded anything foolish enough to brave its wrath blew from the north.

“You,” she panted, trying to keep up with him, “just had t' pick the one day that there was going t' be a blizzard to explore! It was sunny 'n warm yesterday, why couldn’t you have gone then you stupid mother f—” Rosie's creative insults were lost to the wind.

He whirled on her, turning his back to the gale and sending the quickly accumulating snow flying in all directions. “I can’t predict the weather!”

“Well, that’s for damned sure! How can one person be so gods-damned unlucky all the time? I don’t think this is the right profession for y'all. Maybe you should go back to teaching impressionable young idiots about the funerary rites of the Andaman pygmies. Oh, that’s right, you can’t go back to teaching because Leiden wised up and kicked you out!”

She brushed her icy hair from her face so she could scowl at him properly. “How many times were y'all arrested for grave desecration before they fired you? Three? Four? That seems like a failure on their part—they should have fired you the first time 'n spared themselves the trouble.”

He raised his hand, mouth agape, ready to deal her a stinging verbal blow. Something about her hair or her siblings or her own illegal activities. The wind gusted, sending her careening into him and then the both of them into a nearby snowbank.

“What,” she snarled, pressing her face close to his. “I dare you to insult me!”

He lay there, stunned, staring up at the sky, with sleet pelting his face. “You,” he gasped, trying to remember something, anything suitable for needling purposes, but found his memory wanting. He had to settle for an inarticulate growl and pushing her into the snowbank next to him. “Sometimes, SOMETIMES, I really do hate you.”

“The feeling is mutual.” She stood, shaking snow from her jacket. “What now?”

He got to his feet, ignoring her outstretched hand. “I saw an inn on our way into the forest. It’s this way.”

She frowned at the tree line. “Are you sure?”

“Completely.”

“I don’t want this to be the night I have to freeze to death or worse, have to share your body warmth.”

He ignored her barb and started toward the tree line. It was useless to try to get the last word with Rosie, she always had something else to say.

* * *

After what felt like hours pushing through the blinding snow, slicing sleet, and freezing rain Van Helsing saw light filtering through the trees. “I told you it was here,” he called over his shoulder. “I hope they’re not full up.”

She appeared at his side. “I’m a’ stayin’ even if they are. I don’t care if I have to sleep like the Lord did on his first cold winter night, I’m fixin’ t' get warm. So, are we brother and sister or father and daughter?”

He frowned. “We look nothing alike. As countless inn owners have told us over the years.”

“I thank God for that every day,” she said, blowing on her fingers. “I s’pose that rules out any kind of blood relation. Are you my father’s childhood best friend? My legal guardian? My lawyer?”

A thought sprang unbidden into his mind. “As much as it pains me to even suggest this, perhaps the best course of action would be to pose as husband and wife.”

Her inevitable flood of profanity was accompanied by a snowball to the back of his head.

“Yes,” he replied, brushing the snow from his face, “I am aware that no one would ever believe that we were bride and groom. However, it's preferable to the truth in this instance.”

“Are y' sure? I can’t think of at least two stories he'd buy.”

“Do either of them account for our disheveled state and unchaperoned journey?”

“And what’re we goin’ t’ tell the innkeeper when he asks what we’re doing out in the most haunted forest in the world in a blizzard?”

“We went for a walk this morning and were caught off guard by the storm. We’re trying to get back to Klausenburg and our hotel, but their inn is closer. Now can we please go inside before I freeze to death?”

“I guess I can pretend to be your wife for at least five minutes without gagging--but if y’all try any funny stuff I’ll be on you like ugly on a’ ape.”

He shot her a look icier than the weather before pulling her into the light. A small brass plaque declared the building ‘Schmidt’s Inn.' He turned the doorknob and entered the inn accompanied by a gust of cold air and his counterfeit wife.

A homely woman sat behind a small counter, knitting in hand. She was the very picture of what a Hausfrau should be: petite and portly.

She looked up. “Kann ich dir helfen?”

Van Helsing shook his head an adopted a stupid expression. “Terribly sorry, do you speak English? I’m afraid my German really isn’t up to snuff!”

She smiled. “May I help you?”

He stepped up to the counter. “Yes, please, my name is Professor Van Helsing and this is my wife, Amity. We’re looking for a place to spend the night.”

The woman examined Rosie closely. “Your wife.”

He put an arm around her shoulders, hoping that she didn’t choose now to make an ass out of him. “Yes, we were just married last week, you see, and we’re on our honeymoon.”

Rosie curled her arm around his back, touching his collar. “Abraham, she doesn’t want to hear your life story. If it’s all right, ma’am, my husband and I would like to go to bed.” She gave a theatrical shiver that put Sarah Bernhardt to shame. “It was such a long walk through the snow and I’m chilled right to the bone.”

She narrowed her eyes. “Please sign the register and I’ll get you the key. We require half the rent up front and half upon checking out. Do you have any questions?”

“Does the room have a fireplace?”

“It does and it’s been freshly laid. You need only light it, Mrs. Van Helsing.” She glanced at the guest book, frowning. “Have I heard your name before?”

“It’s unlikely, I haven’t lectured for almost twenty years and when I did it was in Holland.”

“And yet you speak no German.”

Van Helsing pulled at his tie. “I haven’t had to use it in quite some time. I’ve been traveling in America—that’s where I met my wife.” He smiled at her. “It was a whirlwind romance.”

She nodded. “There is one last thing to attend to before I give you the key. Just an old woman’s fancy. You wouldn’t deny me my little fancies, would you?”

The woman picked up a little brass bell from the edge of the counter and rang it.

A bedraggled priest appeared at her shoulder, a glass of something warm and amber in his hand. He hiccuped. “You rang, Mrs. Schmidt?” He asked in a broad Irish accent.

“I did, Father Theodore. I have wonderful news: these two young people were married this week and now they want to renew their wedding vows!”

Father Theodore gave a watery smile and downed the rest of his drink. “Wonderful! We can hold the ceremony right here!”

He swallowed. So that was the old woman’s little fancy. It had to be some kind of blackmail scheme. He glanced at Rosie. The blood had drained from her face and her freckles stood out like ink spots on her cheeks.

Their eyes met. There was no way to back out of their deception now without being kicked out into the snow. He swallowed again. The Hoia Baciu was bad enough during the day, but at night and in the middle of a storm…

His thoughts were interrupted by Father Theodore, who had not had cause to preach a sermon for quite some time and was clearly delighted to finally be doing so.

“It’s so wonderful to see a young couple so in love!” He pulled a little Bible from his sweater pocket and flipped through the pages at speed. “Since it’s well after midnight, and between you me and the wall I’m a little,” he exhaled loudly, sending a brandy-scented cloud in their direction, “tight at the moment I should probably be getting to bed.” He chuckled. “The marriage ceremony isn’t actually in here, you know, but I always like to give the couples I’m marrying something to guide them through their lives together. Whatever verse the Lord decides to provide me with is what he wants you to remember in your married life.”

He stopped a little over halfway through and stuck his finger on the page. “Oh, this is a good one! The Lord is really on tonight. II Timothy 1:7 runs thus: ‘For God hath not given us a spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.’ I’ve always rather liked that one.” He snapped the Bible shut. “And since you have both clearly been through life’s trials and tribulations, I think it most appropriate. Now, shall we continue with the ceremony?”

Van Helsing frowned at the drunken priest and nodded. “I suppose we’d better. My wife is eager to get to bed.”

Father Theodore waggled a finger at him. “Oh-ho! Then we mustn’t keep the happy couple from each other. Now,” he addressed Rosie, “what is your full name, child?”

“Amity Rose Winchester,” she said, waving away his flammable breath.

“How delightful, but hard to fit on labels, especially with two new last names! And you, sir, your full name?”

“Lawrence Abraham Van Helsing.” He choked on the last syllable.

“Excellent, now what we’re all acquainted we can get on with things. This will, of course, be the abbreviated version of the ceremony.”

Mrs. Schmidt held up her hand. “But still legally binding in the eyes of the church and God?”

“Of course, my good lady! It merely cuts out the flowery bits. Now, where was I? Right: Amity Rose Winchester, do you take this man to be your lawfully wedded husband? To have and to hold, to love and to cherish, to honor and to obey, as long as you both shall live?"

"I do."

"And do you, Lawrence Abraham Van Helsing, take this woman to be your lawfully wedded wife? To have and to hold, to love and to cherish, to honor and to obey, so long as you both shall live?"

He glanced at his companion. She stood at his side, one hand clutching his, the other hiding her mouth. He imagined that she was covering some great, indescribable emotion, but couldn’t tell if it was sorrow or joy.

“I do.”

“Wonderful! Then I am ecstatic to pronounce you man and wife, you may kiss the bride.”

She stopped shaking and moved her hand.

Their eyes met.

Van Helsing swallowed.

“Come on, man, kiss your wife!”

He grasped her free hand with his and leaned in, closing his eyes. There was the briefest sensation of warmth against his lips and the faint scent of blood left over from their earlier battle and it was over. He pulled back, searching her face for some kind of emotion.

A smile pulled at the corner of her lips and her bright eyes sparkled with merriment.

Was she making fun of him?

Mrs. Schmidt applauded. “Wonderful! I’m sure you’ll forgive me for this whole affair—but I must always be sure that the couples who stay here aren’t doing so out of a desire to sin.” She crossed herself and the priest wobbly followed suit. “Your room is upstairs at the end of the hallway to the right.” She was beaming. “Please enjoy your stay, Professor! And you, too, Mrs. Van Helsing!”

* * *

The moment the door closed behind them, Rosie broke into a fit of laughter. “Y'all should'a seen the look on your face!”

He threw his coat down on the bed. “You’ll forgive me, I wasn’t expecting to get married this evening.” He scowled at her. “If we even are married. That man might not even be a real priest.”

“Remember your blood pressure, dear husband, I don’t want to be a widow before I even have a chance to be your wife. Do y’all think Mrs. Schmidt would set up some elaborate scheme t' make sure that every couple who stays here is married and then have it all be for nothin' because her priest isn’t kosher?”

He sank onto the edge of the bed. “Priests aren’t kosher, rabbi are.”

“Whatever. My point is that you’re reaching. There’s no reason t’ think that we aren’t married in the eyes of God and man.” She joined him on the edge of the bed. “I, for one, am going to enjoy being Mrs. Van Helsing.”

He ignored her. “It could be some kind of blackmail scheme.”

“You’re still reaching.”

“I can’t believe this happened.” He rubbed his face. “What will my mother say?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Most likely: ‘I can’t believe my bookish middle-aged son finally found a wife and such a beautiful and charming one at that!’”

“You’ve never met my mother.”

“No, in fact, I don’t think I ever thought about you havin’ one. I all’us thought you were like Athena and burst fully formed from your daddy’s forehead.”

“You’ll be right if she finds out about this. She’s more Catholic than the pope—she’ll disown me if she gets even a whiff on an annulment.”

“Don’t be so gods-damned dramatic all the time, Bram. We’ll just have t’ stay married and then she won’t have to disown you a’tall.”

“Rosie,” he pinched the bridge of his nose and tried to keep his tone even, “where are you from?”

“You already know that.”

“Humor me.”

“The border of Lou’siana and Texas.”

“And remind me of what your father does for a living.”

“He runs liquor past the tax men for our local moonshiner. He’s good at it, too.”

He resisted the urge to comment. “And your mother?”

“She doesn’t have a job, so t' speak, but she is high priestess of her coven.”

“Right. Now, my parents are a diamond cutter and a banker’s daughter. You can see where they might take our marriage as, how can I put this, un-ideal. In fact, I believe my mother has someone in mind for me already.”

“Well she’s shit outta luck, husband. You’re mine now and just because my parents ain’t all high brow ‘n fancy like y’all’s don’t mean shit.” Her accent became thicker as her eyebrows drew together and she scowled at him. “I’d wager that my papa has more money’n yours does—more money’n yours ever will!”

He put his hands on her shoulders. “I am not insulting your parents. Their letters to you are full of love and support and I appreciated that charmed sweater your mother sent me for Christmas. I am,” he paused, struggling for the right words, “I’m trying to explain to you what my parents, especially my mother, will think if they find out about you.”

“I see. So they wouldn’t approve of a silly, ignorant little southern girl for their smart European gentleman.”

“There’s no need to get upset about it.” He released her and crossed his arms. “You’ve never cared about anyone’s opinions before, why should you care about them now?”

“Because the person in question is my new mother-in-law.” She stood and began to pace the room.

“We don’t even know if we’re married!”

“It doesn’t matter.”

He sighed. “I would be honored to have a woman like you for a wife.”

She stopped, facing away from him.

“However, I don’t think these are the right circumstances for a marriage.”

Her shoulders slumped. “I’m inclined to agree with you on that point.” She was still facing away from him, staring at the wall above the unlit fireplace. “All you had t’ say was that you don’t want to get married and we’ll get an annulment.” She finally turned to face him, her expression was carefully emotionless. “Your mother never has to know.”

He frowned. Was it a trap? It felt like countless traps he’d been in before. If he said yes would she burst into tears? Was it even possible that she wanted to marry him?

“How does that sound? I won’t tell if you don’t. C’mon, it isn’t the end of the world.” She held out her hand. “Deal?”

He took it. “Deal.”

“Good.”

Van Helsing cleared his throat. “This does, however, bring up a rather touchy subject.”

She raised an eyebrow.

“Sleeping arrangements.”

“We’ll share. We always share when these things happen. Don’t worry about your honor, I’m too tired t' get touchy.”

“I don’t know—”

“Listen, how many times have we shared over the past three years? How many haylofts and inns and hammocks have there been? At least this is a bed.”

“It’s different.”

“How? Are you suddenly going t' be overcome by lust in the middle of the night? Well, if you do, you’re gonna be shit out’a luck because if you so much as touch me I’m gonna break your hand.”

Before he could stop her, she began to unbutton her dress and drew it off over her head. He averted his eyes.

“Do you want the left side or the right side?

“I’ll sleep in the chair.”

“Suit yourself but y’all’re gonna have one hell of a crick in your neck come morning.”

“That’s a risk I’ll have to take.” He stood and turned away from where he thought she was standing. He opened his eyes to find her standing about a foot away, her chemise the only thing between her and the chilly air.

“D’ y’all want me t’ light the fire?”

“If you’d like. I can take care of it if you’d prefer to go to bed.”

“Not t’all.” She crossed the room and he heard her light a match and swear at the fireplace. “This fucking thing—there it is.” She sighed contentedly and appeared at the edge of his vision. “Aren’t you s’posed to be gettin’ undressed?”

He frowned. “Do you mind?”

Rosie shook her head. “Not really.”

“I do.”

She grinned. “If I didn’t know better, I’d think you were getting shy.”

“And what if I am?”

“Nothing.” She shrugged. “It’s a little too late if you ask me. I did pull all that buckshot out'a your ass that one time in Ireland.”

He took his jacket off and threw in on the bed. “Is it too much to ask that you listen to my wishes for once in your life?” He started on his buttons. “You seem to get your full measure of joy in life by making me miserable.”

“A girl has to have a hobby. But y’all’re feelin’ shy.” She turned his back to him and set about warming herself by the fire.

Van Helsing found his gaze fixed on the light playing through the thin fabric of her underthings. He could see the soft curve of her hips and how they softly tapered into her thighs.

“Do you like what you see?”

He shook his head and turned away. “I’m sorry. I drifted.”

“A' course you did.” The bed creaked. “Turn down the gas before you get into the chair, will you?”

* * *

Van Helsing was wrenched out of a sound sleep just as the clock chimed three. Someone was shaking him. He pushed them, hard, and was treated to the sound of them swearing violently in French.

“Gods-fucking-dammit!” Rosie said, getting to her feet and straightening her chemise. “Did y' really think that pushing me was a good strategy? If I was a vampire you’d've been dead already.”

“Vampires don’t generally wake their prey before feeding. You, however, are another matter. If you want a snack you can go to the kitchen.” He pulled his coat up to his throat and closed his eyes.

“I didn’t wake you up because I was hungry, jackass. We have bigger problems than that. It’s Mrs. Schmidt.”

“What about her,” he asked sleepily, his patience thinning.

“If I’m not very much mistaken she’s on her way down the hallway. I heard footsteps a few minutes ago and someone jiggled the doorknob. She must be on her way back with the spare key.”

“And?”

“Honestly—you’re the thickest dumbfuck I have ever encountered and I’ve met plenty. This is our honeymoon. Why aren’t we sleeping in the same bed?”

“Fair enough.”

“You have three degrees! You should be smarter than this.” She pulled him out of the chair.

“What are you doing, I’m in my drawers—”

“Hush,” she pressed her free hand to his lips and pulled him over to the bed, “it’s your wedding night, you shouldn’t be wearing anything! In fact,” she tugged at his undershirt, “take this off, she’ll be here any minute.”

He pulled the shirt off over his head and tossed it onto the floor. “Are you sure this isn’t some kind of elaborate scheme to get me into bed?”

“I’m not that desperate.”

“I don’t think she’ll look that closely.”

“The woman keeps a priest on hand t' marry couples before they stay at her inn! Use your head for more than a hat rack! I’m sure she’ll look that closely.”

There were soft footsteps in the hall.

“Fuck.” Rosie started to pull at her chemise.

He grabbed her by the arm. “What are you doing?”

“Making sure it looks authentic.” She threw the remaining garment on the floor and pushed him into bed.

The floorboards outside their door creaked in protest and the doorknob rattled.

“Hold me close, husband,” she whispered, “unless y' want t' spend the rest of the night out in the snow.”

He wrapped his arms around her, heeding her advice as the door opened and a sliver of light fell across the bed. There was nothing but the sound of breathing. The sliver of light widened and he could hear soft footsteps crossing the floor.

His face was pressed close to the back of her neck and he was in real danger of being smothered by her hair. He swallowed, trying to concentrate on something else.

Unfortunately, the only other thing for him to dwell on was how her skin felt against his and how warm the bed felt with another person in it. His throat was closing up and he had no idea of a safe place to put his hands.

The footsteps had almost reached the edge of the bed. His hands would have to stay where they were. He tried to swallow his discomfort away and did his best not to breathe too loudly.

The world seemed to freeze in that moment. He lay in bed, his arms wrapped around her waist, his hands pressed to her ribs, his face close to hers, and Mrs. Schmidt stood over them. He prayed that his mother would never know.

It was, as always, Rosie who broke the spell. She made a delicate noise and turned over in the bed, pressing herself close to his chest. “Bram,” she murmured, her voice full of the warmth they shared, and kissed his breastbone.

His skin was on fire. It was all he could do to keep his eyes closed. He cradled her closer, pressing his lips to her forehead in what he considered a sleepy fashion.

The footsteps retreated from the bed and, in a few moments, the door swung closed.

He felt her breathe a sigh of relief. “Nosy old bitch,” she mumbled into his chest, “What right has she got to spy on people like that?”

“Heaven knows, but it’s most likely all tied up with that priest business. Just like you said.”

She tilted her head back, smiling at him in the half-light. “Did you admit that I was right?”

“I might have.”

“Then this is a night to be remembered. I can’t believe I got married and an admission of error from you all in one day. Not t' mention that I also got you into bed.” She wiggled closer.

He could feel the lacy fabric of her bloomers through his drawers. “You’re going to drive me to distraction.”

“Oh, don’t be so musty. This is our wedding night.” She bit her lip and grinned at him. “Why don’t we have some fun?”

“There are roughly a thousand different reasons but I’ll settle for the gap between our respective ages.”

“Weak.”

“Really? I was a senior at Leiden when you were born. Is it weak now?”

“Yes. Now give me a good reason.”

“Because I’ve said no and if you love me you’ll respect my wishes.”

She pulled back and looked him in the eyes. “Love you?”

“I’m sorry, a poor choice of words considering the current situation.”

“No, I understand. But can I get an ultimatum, too?”

“Certainly. What is it?”

“You don’t think we’re married.”

“I don’t.”

“I’m going to check into Father Theodore. If he isn’t a priest then we’ll leave the matter and never look back.”

He started to speak but she shushed him with a look.

“But, if he is a priest and we are husband an' wife, I ask you only one thing.”

He swallowed. “Which is?”

“That we make a real try of it.” She paused, staring at the spot where his collarbones met. “Truth is, I wouldn’t mind being Mrs. Van Helsing. It kinda has a nice ring to it.”

Van Helsing resisted the urge to pull her back into his arms and give her a wedding night she’d never forget. “Is this an admission?”

Her eyes snapped back to his face. “Maybe, but I’ll never tell. Do we have a deal?”

He paused, taking in her galaxy of freckles and ever-present scars. “I also quite fancy the idea of having a Mrs. Van Helsing. If the priest is real, then we’ll try marriage.”

She smiled softly and pressed a quick kiss to his lips before rolling over. “You don’t have to leave if you don’t want to.”

“Well, she might come back.”

“True, and you might need some help with that erection you’ve been trying to ignore for the last five minutes.”

Chapter Text

England was, as always, damp and dreary. Van Helsing stood on the doorstep of his childhood home and fussed over one of Rosie’s kid gloves. “The man in the shop said these would fit you.”

“Maybe he was lying or maybe,” she wrenched her hand from his grasp, “you’re trying to put it on backward. Now, back to the question you’ve been trying to avoid for the last two months: why are we visiting your parents? It’s a complete waste of time.”

“I haven’t been home in almost five years. If I were to visit England without visiting my mother it would mean the end of my life. Please imagine how your mother would react if she heard you were back in America and hadn’t visited her.”

“I would receive a very nicely written curse in the mail.”

“Which is why we’re visiting my parents. My mother actually used the phrase ‘it will be on your own head' in her last letter.”

“Sounds like my mother isn’t the only one who mails curses. I wish I’d known about your family’s little eccentricities before I married you.” She pulled at the collar of her dress. “I also wish you’d picked something in cotton. This dress itches worse than buffalo hide.”

He rubbed his face. “This is going to be a disaster.”

“No, it isn’t.” She knocked on the door. “I’ve memorized that story you gave me and a little itch never hurt anyone.”

The interval of silence between when Rosie knocked on the door and when it opened was just long enough to pray on his nerves. What if his mother saw through their facade? What if his father saw through their facade? He wasn’t sure which would be worse.

The door swung outward.

“Master Lawrence!” The woman rushed forward and embraced him. “It’s been such a long time since you visited,” she held him at arm’s length, studying his face. “Let me look at you! The same as ever—even though there's a little more snow around the temples this time.”

“It has only been five years, Mrs. Miller.”

“But it feels like so much longer. Between you, me, and the wallpaper, the years have worn hard on your mother. She hasn’t been the same since you left that last time. Oh, where are my manners? Who is this young lady?”

“Mrs. Miller, this is Miss Winchester, my research assistant.”

“Pleased to meet you, I’m sure,” said Rosie, taking Mrs. Miller’s hand in her own. “I’m so glad to finally see where the doctor came from.”

“An American,” the housekeeper commented, turning to him with a raised eyebrow. “How startling. But, no matter, any friend of Master Lawrence is a friend of mine. Please come in, your mother is waiting for you in the parlor.”

The hallway leading from the front door to the parlor was just as he remembered it. The floorboards still squeaked in the same spots he tried to avoid as a young man, the wallpaper still had a suspicious yellow stain where one of the cats took umbrage at the scent of another, and it all still smelled vaguely like his mother’s favorite potpourri.

“Mr. Van Helsing is still at the diamond exchange.”

“I wouldn’t expect anything else on a Tuesday. Does he still stay to all hours of the night?”

The housekeeper nodded. “Your mother was entertaining the neighbor’s daughter—you remember Miss Charlotte Lucas?”

“That unfortunate girl whose parents named her after a character from a book? How could I forget?”

“That’s neither kind nor helpful, Lawrence.” She stopped short at a door painted a delicate shade of dusty rose. “And I’ll thank you to not mention the unfortunate nature of her name in her presence.” Mrs. Miller knocked on the door twice before opening it. “Dr. Lawrence Van Helsing and Miss Winchester to see you, ma’am.”

A tiny woman with chestnut hair flew from the couch and into Van Helsing’s arms. “Lawrence,” she blubbered, barely contained tears welling in her eyes, “my sweet darling boy let me look at you! It’s been so long since you were home last!”

She drew back, as Mrs. Miller had, and examined him. “When did my little baby get so big?” She touched his hair and cheeks and gave his shoulders a little squeeze. “You’ve grown into such a fine young man.”

“Mother, it’s only been five years. I looked exactly the same when I left then. Miss Winchester has been away from home far longer than that and I expect her mother wouldn’t make such a fuss.”

Rosie rolled her eyes. “You haven’t met my mother.”

“Who is this?” Mrs. Van Helsing turned her attention from her son to the woman standing behind him. “Oh, right, your little assistant. You wrote me to say that she would be visiting with you.” She showed her teeth. “A pleasure to meet you, child. Lawrence, you remember Miss Lucas.”

The young lady sitting on the couch was the very picture of what you would expect Charlotte Lucas to look like: mousy, a bit down in the mouth, and completely forgettable. She smiled prettily at Van Helsing. “Pleased to meet you again, Doctor.”

“The pleasure is all mine. Now, we really must be going. Our hotel reservation is for five and it’s already four-thirty—”

Mrs. Van Helsing raised her eyebrows. “Am I given to understand that you are going to compromise this young lady’s honor by sharing a room with her?”

Rosie coughed, taking a moment to compose herself before answering for him. “It’s not like that, ma’am, your son would never think on doin’ that. We’ve rented a suite of rooms in a hotel a little way from here. There are two bedrooms and the dearest little sitting room. It’s a central location for all our research needs.”

“I won’t hear of it! Lawrence, you and Miss Winchester will stay here while you’re in London. I insist. Lawrence can take his old bedroom and our guest room is empty at the moment.”

His jaw fell slack for a moment before he realized and snapped it shut. “Mother, that really isn’t necessary.”

“Oh, but it is. Send for your luggage at once and you can move right in.”

“This is our luggage,” he said, gesturing at his Gladstone and Rosie’s carpet bag. “We travel light.”

Something in the tone of his voice made Mrs. Van Helsing start. “If you’ll excuse us, Miss Lucas, I’m going to get my guests settled. Why don’t you head home and come back around seven for supper?”

“That would be lovely, ma’am. Goodbye, Doctor, Miss Winchester.”

She bustled them out of the room before they could return the sentiment. “Lawrence,” she hissed, “Do you and Miss Winchester often travel alone?”

Van Helsing felt the blood rise to his face. “Well, we—”

Rosie cut him off. “Sometimes it’s necessary, ma’am. There aren’t a lot of people around in those dusty old European castles your son is all’us exploring. But I assure you he has never been anything but a perfect gentleman. Why we often meet people who ask him to chaperone for them. I was thinking the other day that it must be because of you. A mother has such an influence on her sons and how they treat women, don’t you think?”

“As a matter of fact, I do.” She blushed. “Goodness. I always knew my Lawrence would never do anything so inappropriate. Especially to a sweet little thing like you.” She touched Rosie’s cheek. “But where are my manners, you both must be exhausted! Come, I’ll show you to your rooms.”

* * *

His room was just as he’d left it four years earlier. Indeed, it hadn’t changed much since he left for Leiden sixteen years before that. Van Helsing took a deep breath, relishing the familiar scent of fresh linens and lavender water. He settled into his favorite chair and closed his eyes. It was so peaceful, so quiet.

The door burst open and slammed shut. “We have a problem.”

“We have several,” he answered, not opening his eyes, “but please continue.”

“Your mother is convinced that there’s somethin' goin' on between us.”

“Is there?”

He could almost hear her fuming. “No. Have you heard back from your friend yet?”

“I have not.”

“Then there isn’t a thing between us.”

“In that case, why are you disturbing my peace of mind today?”

“Because, as you said, we have more than one problem. It’s my time of the month.”

He opened his eyes. “Don’t you find that rather a personal statement?”

“You fucking— not that time of the month. The other time of the month. Y’know the one where I grow fur 'n fangs 'n get more unreasonable than you usually think I am?”

“I fail to see the distinction between the two, but I get your point. I thought you kept track of the phases of the moon.”

“I’ve been a little busy memorizing the fake life that we lead, thank you.”

He rubbed his face. “You’re in the middle of one of the most densely populated cities in the world and it’s going to be the full moon. How, precisely, do you plan on dealing with the situation?”

“You mean, how am I goin' t' turn into a man-eating wolf the size of a horse without causin' any kind'a damage? The same way I always did the last time I lived in London: I’m goin' t' go for a midnight run in Hyde Park.”

“That is a horrible idea. When did you come up with that?”

“My first full moon after I got stuck here. It works well enough. If you’d like t' come along you’re more than welcome. It’ll be nice t' finally show off my fur coat.” She wiggled her nose. “You’ve never been around on the full moon, have you?”

“No, because you usually whisk yourself off to the nearest forest and disappear for weeks at a time.”

“This time it’ll only be one night.”

“Then we’re agreed. When is the next full moon?”

“Tomorrow night. I can already feel my skin itching.”

“Excellent, then we’ll pay a visit to Hyde Park tomorrow night. Now, onto more pressing matters: if you’re going to survive dinner with my parents, there are a few things you should know about them.”

“Sugar, if I can survive an encounter with Jack the Ripper, I think I can survive a dinner with your parents.”

“My parents are far more dangerous than Jack ever was.”

She raised an eyebrow. “Go on.”

He cleared his throat. “You met my mother. She’s not as stupid or flighty as she puts on. She’s sharp as a tack and won’t miss a single thing you say and if you say something wrong, she’ll latch onto it like a bull terrier and never let go.”

Rosie grinned. “I like her.”

“You won’t if you get on her bad side. My father is a confirmed old flirt and if you give him any sort of attention he’ll be insufferable for the rest of the evening.”

“At least one Van Helsing man will be paying attention to me. I think I’ll take the risk.”

“Which is the quickest way to get on my mother's bad side. Do you remember the story we agreed on?”

“How couldn’t I? I’ve had it memorized for the last week. It’s not that hard.”

“Really? Tell me, how did we meet?”

“I was stranded in Vienna three years ago with not a penny to my name, wanderin' the streets in search of work. I was so desperate that I was even considering sellin' my body.” She clutched her hands to her chest. “But then you came along, my knight in shinin' armor! You took pity on my poor little self and offered me a job as your assistant. I’ve been working with you ever since.”

“Good, and what is my official field of study?”

“Metaphysics and theology, focusing on Eastern European folklore and why it's still relevant today. You don’t know anything about vampires, werewolves, witches, or ghosts outside of the old myths and legends.”

“What is my current project?”

“A book about how Eastern European immigrants bring their myths and legends to England and keep them alive and well in this bustling metropolis blah, blah, blah. Someday you'll be more famous than the Brothers Grimm. Perfectly respectable and perfectly boring. So unlike what we’re here for. Do you have any leads about where Brimstone’s little laboratory is?”

Van Helsing glanced at his bedroom door. “It’s somewhere in Whitechapel, but I’m having a little trouble finding it on a map.” He frowned. “It seems that there’s no Upper Swandown Lane anywhere in the borough.”

She stifled a giggle. “That’s a place from a Sherlock Holmes story. It doesn’t exist. Watson made it up to shield the true location of the opium house.”

“Do you happen to know where this opium house is?”

“Yes. It doesn’t exist either. We both know how little opium there is to be had in London these days.” She sniffed, as though fondly remembering an old friend. “But it’s good for the liquor trade—which is what brought me here in the first place.”

“You didn’t answer my question.”

She shook her head. “It’s on Alma Road. Where the East End meets the West End, where the very rich meets the very poor. It's a perfect spot for Brimstone to get bodies from both sides of the poverty line.”

“We’ll go tonight after supper.”

“And if your mother trips upstairs to find her darling boy missing from his bed?”

“She should be used to it by now, it’s only been happening since I was fourteen.”

“Naughty. What were you up to then?”

He tapped the side of his nose. “That’s for me to know and you to find out.”

Before he even sat down to supper, Van Helsing knew that the meal was going to be a trial. The diners were a perfect storm of personalities specially designed for either an evening of tense but bearable conversation or a complete disaster. There was no in between with this table. He prayed that they would be blessed with a boring meal.

Josef Van Helsing sat at the head of the table with his wife on his left and his son on his right. Rosie sat next to Mrs. Van Helsing and across from Miss Lucas. He privately wondered if that was a little social engineering on his mother’s part.

To her credit, Mrs. Charity Van Helsing, offered a rousing prayer to start the meal. Although, at four minutes long, it was closer to a small sermon extolling the virtues of chastity and the maternal bond.

“And finally, Lord Father,” she summarized, “we ask that you bless and protect all those at this table from worldly sins of all kinds. We also ask thy blessing on those who cannot be with us and share in thine bounty—for Miss Winchester’s family in America and elsewhere, for Miss Lucas’ parents who had a prior engagement, and for my dear little Christina who is so far away in Scotland. Amen.”

Rosie fixed him with a knowing stare before she spoke. “It's so kind of y’all to let us stay with you while we’re in London, ma’am. I know you don’t think it’s much, but it means so much that you would welcome me into your home without even knowing me!”

“Yes, mother, it’s awfully good of you.” He stabbed his chicken.

Josef Van Helsing made a sharp noise of derision from the head of the table. “It would have been pure folly to let you stay at a hotel and a waste of your valuable time and resources. Now, young lady, you must tell me all about my son and his work. He writes so seldom and visits even less. Sometimes it feels as though he’s some kind of spirit lurking in the shadows.” He followed his statement by fixing Van Helsing with a sharp look and a short laugh. “What is he working on at the moment?”

She dabbed her lips with a napkin before answering. “The doctor and I are currently traveling in Eastern Europe gathering legends and folktales for publication. After another trip to—where was it, Romania?—he’s going to study how Europeans in London are honoring their roots while adapting to the new world. It’s all very interesting.”

Van Helsing gripped his fork. It sounded so natural rolling off her tongue, but was it believable? Lord, it would all come out now. The grave robberies, Rosie’s full moon trouble, and, worst of all, their marriage.

His father’s response derailed his train of thought. “Fascinating! Lawrence, why haven’t you told me about this? Which specific folk legends are you focusing on at the moment?”

“I'm focusing on the myths and legends of Romania at the moment. That’s why Miss Winchester and I are traveling back there when we leave England again. They have a storied history with all kinds of things that go bump in the night. It will make an interesting addition to my book.”

“Yes,” she agreed. “All those nasty vârcolac stalking the Hoia Baciu at night. It’s the most haunted place in Europe, you know.”

Miss Lucas broke her silence. “It’s all so frightening. I don’t think I’d have the fortitude to be your research assistant, doctor. Miss Winchester, you must be uncommonly brave!”

In a second Rosie was the picture of genteel Southern charm. “I wouldn’t go quite that far, darlin’,” she purred, “I just know the difference between what’s real and what isn’t. That’s the key to investigating ghosts and goblins. Don’t you think so, Doctor?”

“Quite.” He took a bite of his chicken. Was it possible that the evening would end peacefully?

“Tell me, Miss Winchester, where did you meet my son?”

Van Helsing almost dropped his fork. It Rosie slipped up here, it would be the end for them both.

She bowed her head, the slightest hint of blush touching her scarred cheeks. “We met in Vienna—it was the springtime and everything was in bloom. I had traveled over to visit one of my aunts; but when I arrived, she had passed away the previous month.”

“Oh, my deepest sympathies,” Mrs. Van Helsing touched her guest’s arm. “But I fail to see how the death of your aunt led you to our son.”

“Blossom, Miss Winchester can’t finish her story if you keep interrupting her.”

“Oh, certainly. Silly me! Please, continue.”

“Thank you.” Rosie clutched at the napkin in her hands. “You see, I only had enough money to get to Vienna. My plan was to stay with my aunt until I could earn enough money to get back home, but her horrible husband already claimed the inheritance and had no intention of letting me stay without payment.” Her blush deepened

Van Helsing wondered if she could blush on demand.

“So there I was, wandering the banks of the Danube, trying to think of somewhere I could stay while I raised the money to get back home when I bumped into your son. Quite literally, in fact. I ended up on the pavement with a sprained ankle and, despite my objections, he carried me to the nearest doctor.” She smiled shyly at him from under her eyelashes.

“While I was waiting to be seen, he asked me what a respectable young lady like myself was doing wandering about on my own at such a late hour. When he heard about my troubles he offered me a job as his assistant and gave me a handsome advance on my first paycheck. I don’t know what I would have done if the doctor hadn’t come along right then.”

His smiled and grip on his fork tightened. “That’s exactly how I remember it—albeit from a somewhat different point of view. I was naturally quite startled to find a young woman of Miss Winchester’s good breeding out so late and I couldn’t leave her to the harsh wilds of the Austrian streets.”

“Always the gentleman.” Mr. Van Helsing chuckled.

“As well he should be! I wouldn’t expect anything else of my son.”

Miss Lucas spoke up, laying her fork down. “Forgive me if it is a sensitive subject, but I am very curious as to how you came about your scars.”

Rosie paused mid-bite and put her fork down. “I don’t like to talk about it.” She made a great show of brushing something, perhaps a tear, from her cheek.

“It was back in Texas. I was—was attacked by a man with a knife. The rangers said he was inspired by your Jack the Ripper. I was lucky to get away alive.” She crossed herself. “It was by the grace of God alone.”

Miss Lucas turned pink. “I’m sorry! I didn’t know it was such a sensitive subject.”

She reached across the table and patted her arm. “It’s perfectly all right, dear, you couldn’t have known.”

The atmosphere was decidedly icy at that point. No one seemed to know what to say next, least of all Van Helsing.

Rosie’s scars had always fascinated him. Werewolves were hardy creatures. It wasn’t uncommon for them to heal immediately. That particular ability had saved Rosie’s life. But her scars proved that Jack’s blade had trace amounts of silver in it. She was lucky to be alive.

“So, Miss Winchester, what are your intentions toward my son?”

Trust Josef Van Helsing to start a conversation.

She stared at her plate for a moment before answering. “I have no intentions of any kind toward your son, sir. I’m his research assistant.”

The ghost of shared beds past drifted through Van Helsing’s mind. “Father, I don’t think you’re being very fair to her. In case you hadn’t noticed, I’m not much of a catc—ouch!”

His mother kicked him under the table and smiled widely at Miss Lucas. “Don’t listen to him, he’s only being modest. Why, any girl would be proud to marry such an accomplished doctor! Aren’t I right, Miss Winchester.”

Rosie hid her smile behind her napkin. “Oh, to be sure, Mrs. Van Helsing. If I weren’t just a silly little American I might even pursue him myself.”

“It’s pity you haven’t,” put in Mr. Van Helsing, “We had hoped to see Lawrence married before we died, but now,” he trailed off, shaking his head, “It doesn’t look good.”

Her shoulders were trembling with suppressed emotion and Miss Lucas was a delightful shade of scarlet.

“Josef, how could you? You’ve made them uncomfortable!”

“Right again, I’m afraid, my blossom. I’m terribly sorry, ladies, sometimes these things creep out of my mind, you understand.”

They murmured their assent.

Van Helsing gave his father an acid look before speaking. “I’ll have occasion to marry once my research is done.”

He raised his eyebrow. “So, never.”

Rosie started to cough.

“Father, it’s none of your affair.”

“You’re forty-three, Lawrence! I had already had both you and your sister when I was your age! What’s your excuse this time, eh?”

“Well, ladies, this is man’s talk. Shall we retire to the library?”

Miss Lucas rose first and fairly pulled Rosie out of her chair. “Come, Miss Winchester, I’ll show you a book I’ve been very interested in lately. It’s a dearest little collection of African folklore…”

The door slammed behind them.

Van Helsing set his knife and fork down on his half-eaten plate of food. “You came to terms with my bachelorhood years ago. You even told me that you fully expected to never see me married. What changed?”

His father drew a letter from his pocket and set it down between them. “This came for you last week. It had my name on the envelope, too, so I opened it. Read it.”

Dear Abraham, the letter opened, I am writing to tell you I have found out all about your Father Theodore.

His surname is Crilly and he is originally from a tiny parish somewhere in Northern Ireland. It’s such a small place that I had trouble finding it, even with the map you gave me that one Christmas! Either way, I got in touch with them and they have finally gotten back to me.

You are to be congratulated, you old dog, you’re married! Father Theodore is a perfectly legitimate priest and, as far as the church is concerned, your Miss Winchester is now Mrs. Van Helsing.

(I haven’t the foggiest idea about what the Romanian or, indeed, English government will make of all this; but God has a little higher authority than that, don’t you think?)

Should you ever want to conduct a more proper ceremony, don’t hesitate to write! I would simply love to join the two of you together in a more official fashion and I can also help with the legal side of things if England requires any more paperwork (as they almost always do, more’s the pity).

Yours in friendship and congratulations,

Christoph

PS, I can’t wait to meet your lovely wife, she sounds like a real character!!

He sighed and set down the letter. “Two exclamation marks. Two. I suppose you have questions.”

“I have enough questions to fill a book. I’ll start with the obvious one, why did you marry without telling me and why did you have questions about the priest?”

“I didn’t originally intend to marry and the priest was a little tipsy at the time so I had doubts. Next.”

Josef slammed his hand down on the table. “Damn it, Lawrence! This is no time to be flippant! Why have you married this girl? She’s half your age and, from what I can tell, the worst liar in the room.”

“That’s where you’re wrong, Rosie is quite adept at lying.”

“I don’t question her skill. I question her motives. Where did you meet her? It certainly wasn’t in Vienna.”

“No, it was in Temple Heights.”

“The cemetery?”

“Yes. She was a gravedigger there. She couldn’t get any other work with her, you know,” he gestured at his face, “no one would hire her. She was cut up by Jack.”

His face was a mask. “Did you marry a prostitute?”

“No. At least I don’t think so. I never asked why she was in Whitechapel at night, I always assumed it was because she’s a moonshiner.”

“A what?”

“Her father runs illegal whiskey throughout the entire American South. He’s very rich, apparently. Her mother is a witch.” He found himself rambling all the things he knew about Rosie without really hearing what he was saying.

His father sat and listened until he trailed off. “Why did you marry her?”

“I didn’t mean to. The landlady of the inn we checked into pulled this priest out of her parlor and demanded that we marry before renting a room together. It was cold and snowing. We didn’t want to go back out into the weather and risk hypothermia. I didn’t think he was a real priest. I just said ‘I do.’”

Josef Van Helsing leaned forward. “Do you love her?”

He blinked. “I suppose.”

“Then why do you look so miserable? You’re married to a woman you love and I might eventually get some grandchildren!”

“You’re not cross?”

“That you married a girl half your age who has definite criminal tendencies and lies with alacrity?” He shrugged. “I never expected you to marry at all so anything is an improvement. Now, tell your father why you’re so down.”

“I’m not going to tell her about this. I’m going to tell her that Father Theodore was defrocked because of some scandal.”

“Why would you do such a silly thing?”

“I don’t know. It’s been running around in my mind ever since she proposed that we give our married the old college try—if it was legitimate, that is. But, I don’t think it would be a good idea. As you pointed out, she’s very young.”

“And beautiful, and fiery, and she has my blessing. I’ll have to talk your mother around, of course, providing that you don’t lie your way out of this marriage. Are you going to throw that all away because of some silly self-confidence problem on your part? Why don’t you ask her what she thinks? That’s half of what marriage is.”

“What’s the other half?” he asked dully.

“Sex, of course. Now, I will leave the matter up to you, but I wanted you to know where I stood. Are we clear?”

He nodded.

“Good, now let us join the ladies in the library.”

Chapter Text

He was sure it was a dream. Rosie was leaning over him, her hair brushing his face. She smiled. “Abraham,” she whispered, “Abraham, it’s time to wake up, I need you.”

He smiled. It was good to be needed, especially by someone who was usually so stubbornly independent. Especially by someone you loved. She looked so soft and inviting in the flickering candlelight. His smile widened when she opened her mouth to speak.

“Abraham, if you don’t get up with minute, I’ll slap you so hard our children feel it.”

He sat up. The spell was broken. “Our children?”

Rosie was sitting on the edge of the bed, one of his mother’s best candlesticks in one hand and half a sandwich in the other. She took a bite of the sandwich and nearly set the bed on fire. “We are married. There’s no reason we can’t have kids.”

“You know, you’re right.” He rubbed the sleep from his eyes. “I, for one, would enjoy keeping goats.”

“Bastard. I made you a snack,” she handed him what was left of the sandwich, “you have ten minutes.”

He grabbed it before she could drop it—or set herself on fire. “Ten minutes until what?”

“Midnight. We agreed to leave from Brimstone’s lab’ at midnight, remember? In case you’ve forgotten, we didn’t just come to London to visit your parents and have your father lecture you about how you’re the end of his line.”

“My sister has two sons. I’m not the last Van Helsing.”

“Whatever you say, sugar. I’ll be waiting for you downstairs.” She patted his head and was gone.

He slid out of bed and reached for his trousers. After leaving the dining room and joining the ladies, no one felt like talking. Miss Lucas left within ten minutes of his reappearance and Rosie excused herself not long after.

Rosie. Mrs. A.R.W. Van Helsing: moonshiner, werewolf, and his wife.

He had no doubts that she would take to styling herself in some such manner when-- if he told her they were a real couple.

He took a moment to fix his collar and tie in the mirror, sandwich in mouth. He frowned at his reflection. Something was wrong. Something so small he wouldn’t have normally noticed it. Something to do with Rosie.

He was halfway down the stairs with one arm in his heavy winter coat when he realized what it was. She was wearing perfume. It was a delightful scent, citrus mixed with the slightest hint of vanilla, and it lingered where she’d touched his hair. She usually smelled like a mix of gunpowder and whatever she used to scrub the blood from her clothes.

He thought about it more while he waited for her on the doorstep. She had many faults, but punctuality wasn’t one of them. Van Helsing checked his watch. It was five after midnight. He pulled at his collar, trying to catch a whiff of the orange and vanilla.

“What’s wrong with you?”

He started. One of Rosie’s less endearing habits was appearing out of the darkness like some malevolent spirit. “Nothing. Where were you?”

“I had to change.” She buttoned the last button on her jacket as if to prove her point. “We should go, Brimstone’s address isn't somewhere you’d want to visit during the day, let alone at this time of night.”

She set off at a brisk pace. “You’ll want t’ keep up, too. It’s not somewhere you want to get lost either.”

He sprinted to catch up with her. “You act as though I’ve never been anywhere dangerous before. We’ve been to plenty more dangerous places than Whitechapel.”

“True, but it ranks with the worst of them. Better safe than sorry.”

The nightly symphony of Whitechapel sounded around them with violent intensity. There were street vendors hocking their goods, prostitutes hocking themselves, and an undercurrent of rough, badwy music spilling into the streets from half a dozen nearby pubs.

The competing noise make Van Helsing’s head ache. “How do you know this area so well?”

She gave him a questioning look. “We’re less than a mile from Tower Hamlets. This is where I lived after Jack cut me up. It’s the one place in London where no one asked uncomfortable questions. Listen,” she pulled him into a nearby alleyway, “There’s only one way we’re gonna pass through Whitechapel unnoticed: we’ve gotta look like we belong here.”

He frowned. “I don’t like the sound of that.”

“You shouldn’t. From here on you’re goin’ t’ be a shabby old man who’s goin’ through a rough patch at home and stepping out with another woman—that’s me. Now, unbutton your shirt and wear your hat at a jaunty angle. Oh, and don’t forget to act like you’re completely legless.”

He did as he was bidden. “Am I to assume you’re playing the part of my young mistress whose company I likely paid for?”

“Assume away.” She unbuttoned her coat and let it fall open.

Instead of her usual plain gray dress, Rosie was wearing one that looked like it had been sewn together from several others. The skirt brushed the ground, but the bodice was so low cut it left little to the imagination. “I want y’all to be honest, doc. What’s the first thing you notice about me?”

He stuttered something about the patchwork pattern of the fabric and waved his hands at her chest.

“So what you’re tryin' t' say is it’s my tits?”

He choked on his words.

“I thought so. Hopefully all anyone will see is a silly little tart and her shabby benefactor on their way back to the hotel for a little fun between the sheets.” She pulled her blouse down until the top of her chemise peaked out. “If everyone is staring at my tits, no one will remember our faces.”

Van Helsing rubbed the back of his head. “You’re going to be the death of me.”

“Most likely—but hopefully not tonight.” She slid her hand into his. “Shall we go for a little stroll husband?”

Without further warning she pulled him back into the street and let out a high-pitched giggle. “Why, sir, you’re so naughty! We can’t! Not in the alley!”

He flushed with a mix of embarrassment and ill-humor. He had little reputation left to ruin as it was, but he didn’t relish the idea of losing it altogether.

“Are you sure this is the right way? Whitechapel isn’t the easiest place to navigate.” He stole a glance at her, only to find that his eyes wandered to her neckline and the soft shape of her barely obscured breasts.

“You worry more than my mother does. Why don’t you take in the sights?”

A nearby drunk vomited onto one of his friends as the rest of his companions guffawed at his plight. They were so loud they disturbed a small group of prostitutes huddled beneath the gaslight.

“It’s not much to look at.” He frowned at the prostitutes.

One of them whistled and waved. “Fancy a menage, darlin’? Or is your little missus there too eager to keep you to herself?”

“Fuck off, you miserable old bitch.” Rosie spat at her. “Y’all’re so old you couldn’t even please a man who was seven years dead!”

“Little cow,” the woman laughed, elbowing one of her companions. “Don’t you listen to her, sir, I have many pleasures left in me ‘n if you ever want a good fuck you just come and find me!”

He swallowed what was left of his dignity and blew the woman a flamboyant kiss. “I’ll remember you, darling!”

Rosie seized him by the wrist and pulled him through the foggy back streets at double speed. “You don’t have to get too into character.”

“A few minutes ago you were complaining that I didn’t look the part. Is this, perhaps, jealous I see?” He chuckled. “Come, come, that shade of green doesn’t suit you.”

“I ain’t jealous,” she snarled, “I don’t need every whore in Whitechapel knowing we’re here.”

He smirked. “Of course.”

“Not that I have any reason to be jealous. We haven’t even consummated our marriage.” She stopped short and faced him. “Did you hear back from that lawyer friend of yours yet?”

Van Helsing’s smirk turned into a grimace. “I haven’t and we agreed to postpone our marriage until we did. If you’re feeling unsatisfied, I’m sure one of Whitechapel’s whores can see to you.”

She let out a noise that reminded him how close they were to the full moon. Her eyes had a weird golden cast in the half-light of the dingy street. She swallowed, clearly trying to regain control of her more wolfish emotions. “Brimstone’s lab’ is this way.”

Three streets later, they ducked into an alleyway opposite what looked like an abandoned warehouse. Van Helsing stood behind Rosie and surveyed the building through his binoculars.

“Did you have those in your bag?”

He shushed her. It was no easy task to study their quarry. The alley was scarcely wide enough to accommodate both of them and it was next to impossible to study the windows without being seen. If anyone was at home, there was a good chance they had already seen them.

“It doesn’t look like anyone is in, but there are three guards standing by the doors. Or three tramps—I can’t see them through your hair.” He brushed the offending red strands away from his lenses. “That seems particularly odd for a derelict warehouse, don’t you think?”

She nodded, obscuring his vision with her hair a second time. “It doesn’t look like we’ll be doing much exploring tonight.”

“Nonsense, we’ll have to be stealthy about it.”

“Now would be a good time to start being stealthy—one of the guards is headed this way.”

“Damn.” He stuffed the binoculars back into his Gladstone. “And no place to hide.”

She sighed. “This isn’t going to be easy—for either of us. D' you trust me?”

Rosie had never once failed him in their three year partnership, but the proximity of the full moon and her current feelings gave him cause for pause and there was something in her eyes that struck abject terror into his heart. He sighed. “Of course I do.”

“That’s what I thought. Now, we’re gonna have t’ be as convincin’ as possible.”

“Please, for the love of God, tell me what you have planned.”

She whirled around, grinning. “C’mon, sugar, if I told you you might not go along with it.” Rosie grabbed his lapels and pushed him against the rough stone wall. “I sure hope this works.”

“What works?”

“This,” she whispered and kissed him.

Van Helsing felt like his face was on fire. He dropped his bag and tried to push her away. “What are you doing? Are you insane?”

“Listen, I’m dressed as a prostitute and you’re dressed as a dusty middle-aged man. What else would be doing in an alley in Whitechapel? If they see us canoodling they won’t think twice about it. Now kiss me!”

There was a kind of insane logic in her idea. Before he knew what he was doing, he was playing along. He grabbed her thighs and pushed her into the wall, lifting her off her feet. “Are you sure about this,” he murmured. Their faces were inches apart. He could smell the perfume that had so beguiled him earlier that evening.

She took advantage of the width of the alley and braced herself against the opposite wall with her knees. “Positive.”

“Then if you insist.”

He kissed her. His mind flew to a thousand things at once--her fingers tangled in his hair, the soft skin of her thighs against his hands, the moaning noises she made between kisses.

She pushed him away for a moment and he caught a glimpse of her in the half-light of the alley.

“You’re a man of many talents, Abraham Van Helsing. Where did you learn to do that?”

He leaned in and trailed his lips along her jaw. “Here and there.” He gave her a gentle nip behind the ear and ran kisses down her neck and into her décolletage, his lips brushing against the edge of her breast.

She gasped for breath, pulling his hair and digging her legs into his sides.

“Is the guard still there?” he whispered into her bosom.

“I haven’t been payin’ ‘ttention,” she giggled, “you’re a very distracting man, Abraham.”

“My first name,” he nuzzled the delicate curve of her breast, “is Lawrence.”

“I know—” she gasped, “but Abraham suits your positively Biblical outlook on life much better. It really speaks to your quest against evil.”

He pulled his face free of her dress, gulping at the cold night air, and kissed her twice more. “Please don’t bring the Bible into this. I’m sinning enough as it is.”

Rosie grinned. “Then you’re not going to compare my bosoms to fawns?”

“Not tonight.” He nuzzled her ear, pulling gently at it with his teeth. “Is the guard still there?”

“It looks like he stopped to watch.” Her smiled widened. “Who can blame him, I have a lot to offer.”

The blouse was slipping off her shoulders and Van Helsing could see the untamable influence of the full moon coming into play. Her eyes flashed golden for the second time that night, this time full of a kind of raw passion that spelled nothing but trouble.

“I’d better start pulling my weight.” She untied his cravat and let it slip from her fingers. “I can’t let you have all the fun.” She pulled on his buttons, undoing them one by one. “If I don’t start doing something he’s never goin’ t’ believe we’re the real deal.”

There was a moment of breathy silence where he was violently aware that he was in the presence of the one of the world’s apex predators and then she kissed him. She pressed herself close, biting his lip. She ran her hands up and down his neck, letting her fingers explore his patchwork of scars.

Rosie turned her attention to them, kissing them each in turn. She spent extra time on the dozens of bite marks he’d accrued over the years from various vampires and other creatures of the night.

“There are so many,” she breathed, pressing her lips to the hollow of his throat.

He was warm—too warm for comfort. Van Helsing tore at her jacket, not stopping until it had joined his cravat on the cobbles. He undid her bodice and pulled it down.

Her skin was pale and speckled with countless freckles. He wanted to count them, to taste them each in turn. To undo her corset and her chemise and reveal what they so thinly hid. He hooked his fingers into her corset and received a nasty pinch for his troubles.

“Be careful where you put your hands, husband.”

He sighed and returned his hands to her thighs, letting his fingers wander under her bloomers.

“If you keep doing that,” she whispered, “you’re going to lose something you hold dear.”

“Oh?” He gave her a playful squeeze. “And what about your hands and my belt buckle? Well?”

She undid his last three buttons and pulled his coat, vest, and shirt off. “This is what we call a Mexican standoff back in the states. The question is, which one of us is going to shoot first?”

He returned to her corset, this time picking at the bow that held it on. “I don’t know, which one of us is shameless?”

“You wouldn’t dare!”

He looked her dead in the eye and yanked on the bow. “Wouldn’t I?”

Her corset split apart and fell to the ground with a too loud clatter.

Rosie pitched herself forward and into his arms. “Bastard.”

“Never bet more than you’re comfortable losing.” He chuckled into her hair, wrapping his arms around her and trailing his fingers down her spine.

She shivered. “It’s freezing. Is he gone yet?”

Van Helsing glanced at the alley’s mouth. “Yes. It doesn’t look like he’s been there for some time.”

“Good.” She neatly escaped his embrace and leaned against the wall, her arms crossed over her chest. “I didn’t think you had it in you.”

He shrugged. “I’m a man of many talents.” It was his turn to shiver. “But mostly a cold one.”

“You’re cold? The only two pieces of clothing I seem to have escaped with are my skirt and my underthings and your hands are like ice!”

“You were the one who took my shirt off and you were the one who had her hands in my trousers.”

She smirked. “I was, wasn’t I? For the life of me I can’t remember why I took off your shirt— oh, right, it had something to do with those love bites you’re covered in. Mine and otherwise.”

Somewhere around the phrase “love bites” he’d lost track of what she was talking about. Her arms had shifted down and all he could concentrate on was what was between them—and what wasn’t. Something long buried inside him was urging him to uncross her arms and cut their conversation short.

“Aren’t y’all listening t’ me? Is somethin’ wrong?”

He swallowed. He hadn’t felt so warm since his university days. He shook his head. A wave of uncertainty swept through him. She was twenty-three. Young and perfect and… right in front of him.

If he pulled her close again, he knew she wouldn’t resist. She would take him right there and then in the alleyway without a second thought. He was pulled from his thoughts by the sensation of fingers being drawn through his hair.

He looked up and was delighted to find her freckles extended well beyond her shoulders.

“You look pale.”

His stomach muscles clenched. “It’s the cold.” He tried not to stare.

“Probably just your age, husband. How old did you mother say you were, fifty?”

“I’m forty-three,” he snapped. “Please get down before I freeze to death.”

“We could keep each other warm.”

“Get down.”

“Suit yourself.” She unwrapped herself from his waist and dropped to the ground. She winced as she reached for her discarded clothing. “We should have chosen a wider alley.” She lifted the hem of her skirt. “Look at my knees! They’re torn all to hell.”

Van Helsing averted his eyes, his fingers shaking—either from the cold or his attempts at self-control. “I don’t think we should explore the laboratory tonight. It’s too risky. Especially with you sloshing blood in every direction.”

“Oh, no, I didn’t let you kiss me for ten minutes just to have you say it was all for nothing!” She snatched his shirt from the cobbles and threw it at him. “You put your clothes on and we’re goin’ t’ find Brimstone Bertram if it’s the last thing we do!”

Chapter Text

It was two-thirty by the time they bypassed the guards, locked doors, and maze-like tunnels that stood between them and Brimstone’s laboratory. Van Helsing consulted his watch, rubbing the bruises on his neck. “What do you think we’ll find?”

Rosie shrugged. “I reckon we’ll have t’ find out.” She squatted in front of the door, examining the lock. She produced a set of lock picks from one of her jacket pockets and set to work. The door popped open with a satisfying click. “Voila.”

“Truly remarkable,” he commented as he drew his knife.

“Never forget it, husband.” She pushed the door open and pressed herself to the wall of the tunnel.

Nothing happened.

Rosie uncovered her head. “Is this the right place? I expected more explosions and death.”

“Don’t ask me, you’re the one who found the address.”

She fished in another of her pockets for the calling card. Her lips moved slightly as she read it. “This is the address, but where are the cunning traps and hideous monsters?”

Van Helsing flipped an electrical switch on the wall and the lights flashed on.

The walls of Brimstone Bertram’s laboratory were lined with shelves of every size and shape. The shelves were covered with books, glass jars, electrical equipment, and what looked like several live rats. One of the rats screeched at them and scuttled into a crumbling book.

“Charming,” she muttered, standing and nudging a nearby gurney with her toe. “I don’t think I want to know what needed ten straps to hold it down.”

“I fully agree.” He examined the nearest book. “Some Notes on the Creation of Artificial Life, With New Appendices Taking Magical Involvement Into Account by Baron and Baroness V. Frankenstein.” He made a face. “I’m glad to see his marriage took.”

“I can’t believe he shared credit. She probably tortured him until he agreed.”

“And he probably enjoyed it.” He dropped the book into a barrel of medical waste. It immediately combusted, leaving nothing but a cloud of acrid black smoke.

“What was that?”

Van Helsing turned his attention to the shelves. “I’m not going to think about it.” He pulled out a book and came face to face with one of the rats.

It twitched its piebald ears and twittered in his face before following its companion into the rotting book.

“At least it didn’t bite you.”

“I hate rats.” He shuddered.

“A strange fear for a man in your profession.” She grabbed a Mason jar off the shelf and shook it. The tiny creatures inside banged against the glass and swam in angry circles. “What are these?”

“Sea monkeys, I believe. They’re a novelty item. Although they don’t usually make rude gestures.”

She plonked the jar back on the shelf and returned the sea monkey’s rude gesture. “Where are the drones? He’s got enough tables here to breed at least a dozen at a time and it doesn’t look like he left in a hurry. Did they just disappear?”

“It’s always a possibility, but there’s no ash and we both know drones leave plenty of it behind when they go. He must have taken them with him when he went. Look here, this is one of his grimoires.”

She peeked around him at the giant moldering volume. “What does it say?”

“It’s his personal recipe for drones. Look, it’s even written like one:

“’Take one human, preferably young of age and sound of body, and inject with fresh vampire blood. The subject will immediately start to feel the effects of the injection and start a fearful racket.

Addendum: remember to pick more remote locations for experiments as your neighbors do not appreciate the sound of screaming in the night the same way you do.

After the subject ceases his racket, he will he malleable and, more importantly, dangerous. Bend him to your will as you see fit and enjoy!’”

She grimaced. “Lovely. I’m so glad I’ve never met him in person.”

Van Helsing closed the book and tucked in under his arm. “Unless something jumps out in the next few seconds, there isn’t much else we can do here but burn the place and go to bed.”

They waited tensely for half a minute before deciding his words weren’t a prophecy.

Rosie, as always, was the one who broke the silence. “I don’t think anything is here.”

“Agreed. What do you think will burn best?”

“Those bandages in the barrel. You saw what they did to that book.”

He nodded and tipped the barrel over. The bandages smoked for a few moments before bursting into flames that slowly threatened to overtake the room.

She shook her head, staring into the fire. “I can’t believe I let you paw at my thighs for nothing.”

“I didn’t paw you.”

She jerked her skirt up to an obscene height. “Bruises! I have bruises on my thighs, Abraham. It looks like pawing t’ me!”

“Oh, do shut up. I’m sick of your wining. We’ll go back to my room and I’ll take care of your legs. Come, before you set yourself on fire again.”

* * *

The sun’s dusky pink hues were brushing the horizon when they finally sat down on the edge of his bed.

“Hold still! This vodka wasn’t cheap, you know.”

Rosie lounged with her left leg draped in his lap, her knees exposed. “If you would stop staring at my leg and get on with your first aid you wouldn’t have to waste so much.”

He scowled at her and poured alcohol on his best handkerchief. “This was your idea. I was—”

“Going to let your wife die of sepsis? A likely story.”

“Would you please quiet down? It’s nearly dawn and my parents will be waking up soon. I would rather they didn’t wake to find me pouring alcohol on your legs.”

“Come on,” she grabbed his hand, “it’s a damn shame you’re wasting this stuff anyway.” She licked his fingers.

He felt his self-control rapidly waning. “You’re going to be the death of me.”

“I thought we already established that fact.”

“What do you think my father would think if he saw you dressed as a common tupp’ny whore and sucking my fingers?” He snatched his hand back. “Well?”

“You forget I’ve met your father. I think he would be thrilled to find us like this. It would be the highlight of his year to catch his stuffy middle-aged son alone in his room with a beautiful young woman. Of course, it might kill your mother.”

“Luckily it won’t kill your sister.”

They froze at the sound of the voice from the doorway. “I don’t have any sisters, so if you’d like to take care of this I’ll have some vodka now.”

The young woman standing in the doorway crossed her arms. She had the Van Helsing eyes and sharp features that rivaled her brother’s. “Is there something you want to tell me, Lawrence?”

“Not particularly, but, as you seem to have caught us—”

“Who is ‘us?’ Mother told me you were visiting with your research assistant. Tell me, what are the two of you researching?"

Rosie stood. “Hi, I’m Rosie Winchester and I promise I’m not fucking your brother.”

Van Helsing choked on a mouthful of vodka.

“That was a poor choice of words. You see, we might be married but he’s being a real gent about it, so we told your ma and pa I was his research assistant. I really do assist him with… things. But not like that. Gods-dammit. Is there any vodka left or did you use it all on my legs?"

He passed her the bottle. “I used most of it on your legs.”

“Damn.” She took a swig. “So, which one of us are you going to yell at first?”

“Neither. It’ll wake mother an father.”

“You shouldn’t be too worried, sister mine, I seem to remember you always took a fiendish glee in tattling on me.”

“Never when it counted.” She stepped through the door and closed it behind her. The hem of her bed coat brushed softly across the floor as she approached them. “I never told them about the vampire business.”

Rosie snorted. “You told your sister about vampires existing but not your parents? That’s a little cold-blooded.”

“Someone needed to be prepared in case of my untimely demise and I judged Christina the most responsible. Besides, her husband is something of an expert on the matter and, well, you’ve met my parents.”

“Fair enough.” She eyed her newfound sister-in-law warily for a moment before passing her the vodka bottle. “You need this more than I do.”

Christina took the bottle and a generous sip. “At least she’s intelligent. How long have you and my brother been married?”

“Two months and fifteen days.”

Van Helsing gave her a sharp look. “That’s when the ceremony occurred, but there is some question as to whether the priest was legitimate. I’m waiting to hear back from Christoph.”

“Your lawyer friend?” She frowned and took another sip of alcohol.

“He’s also a priest.”

“I see. And if you are married?”

It might have been his imagination, but he thought Rosie blushed.

“I suppose we’ll have to tell mother and father; but, until then, I would ask you to keep this one secret for me.”

“’This one secret?’ Have you any idea how many secrets I’m already keeping for you, Lawrence.” She took another, significantly larger, sip of the vodka. “I can’t tell my parents their only son is in mortal danger every day and now you’re asking to keep your marriage from them as well?” She shook her head and the vodka bottle, sending little drops of alcohol flying. “That’s too much.”

“Then do it for me.” Rosie touched her arm. “If you can’t keep anymore secrets for him, keep one for me. Look at me,” she smiled, the scars on her cheeks creasing painfully. “Do you think I’m what your mother has in mind when she thinks about her baby boy’s future? She’s thinkin’ about Charlotte Lucas from next door. I don’t want t' upset her if I can help it.”

Christina frowned at her. “You’re being considerate.”

“It’s the least I can do.”

She narrowed her eyes. “Are you sure your marriage was a mistake? She’d make a suitable wife.”

“Yes,” they answered in unison.

“If you insist. However, if you don’t lower your voices, you’ll have to convince our parents and I don’t think they’ll be as easy as I was. If you’ll excuse me, I’m feeling a little tipsy and that is a definite sign it’s time for bed.”

“Did Jack come with you?”

“He did, as a matter of fact. He’s still in bed, bless him. A decade of running an insane asylum and you can sleep through anything. I’ll speak to the both of you in the morning—oh, and, Lawrence?”

“Yes?”

“Please remember to send Miss Winchester back to her own bed before you retire. You wouldn’t want to have to explain her presence to Mrs. Miller as well.”

Chapter Text

All through breakfast, Van Helsing snuck glances at his sister. Would she say something to their parents? Would she keep her promise? The anxiety made his stomach turn.

“Lawrence, you haven’t touched a mouthful of your food.” Mrs. Van Helsing fussed over her eldest child’s plate like he was a contrary toddler again. “Is something upsetting you? Do you need to speak to Jack?”

“I’m sure Lawrence is fine, mother.” Christina set down her knife and fork. “Besides, I don’t think Jack would enjoy psychoanalyzing his brother-in-law.”

“Oh, I don’t know, it might be fun.” Dr. Seward winked at his wife. “But you do look a little bothered, brother mine. Come, a good breakfast will sort you out.”

“I’m fine.” He took a bite of eggs to prove his point. “I had trouble sleeping last night. My book has reached a crucial juncture and I should be back in Romania doing research.”

Rosie touched Mrs. Van Helsing’s arm. “But he wants to visit with y’all for as long as he can, ain’t that sweet?”

“That’s my darling boy,” she cooed. “Always so considerate.”

He colored. “Thank you, mother. Jack, how is the asylum?”

“As batty as ever and showing no signs of changing.”

“Are you still using those wax cylinders to record your observations?”

“I am.”

“Excellent, I was hoping to speak to you about those. They would be invaluable to my research and I’m certain Miss Winchester would welcome transcribing my notes in her own time instead of in the middle of blizzards or thunderstorms.”

“She certainly would,” said Rosie. “Your notes tend to run in the rain.”

Jack laughed lightly. “I would be happy to help. Should we adjourn to the garden and discuss it?”

“Actually, darling, I have something I need to discuss with my brother.” Christina rose and skirted the table. “Shall we speak in the library? I’m sure Jack and Miss Winchester can enjoy the garden until we join them.”

“I would be honored to escort Miss Winchester.”

“And I would be honored to be escorted by you, Dr. Seward.”

Van Helsing set down his utensils. His sister’s words were not without significance. The library had always been their special retreat as children. Even though they were ten years apart, the library brought them together on grand adventures that lasted until he left for college.

The doors clicked as he closed them.

“What did you want to speak about?”

Christina sat in their father’s favorite chair and gazed out the window into the garden. Rosie and Jack were clearly visible. Dr. Seward was laughing at some joke and Rosie was shaking her head.

“Lawrence, why are you keeping the news from mother and father?”

“I don’t know. Father already knows. I got a letter from Christoph.”

She frowned. “Miss Winchester didn’t mention the letter last night. Did it come in this morning’s post?”

“No.”

She cocked her head to the side. “So you’re not just keeping secrets from your family, you’re also keeping secrets from your wife. I’m assuming she is your wife?”

“She is.”

Christina drummed her fingers against the arm of the chair and looked out the window again.

“What are you thinking?”

“I’m thinking about how stupid you’re being.”

“Oh? Enlighten poor stupid me.”

“Ill temper doesn’t suit you, Lawrence. I was thinking you really do care for her and wondering why you haven’t told her about the letter yet.”

“I only found out about it yesterday.”

“Did you? And when did you receive those love bites?”

He pulled at his collar.

“That’s what I thought.”

“We were trying to evade capture.”

“Of course you were. Don’t baby me, I’m not a child anymore. I’ll ask you directly.” She stared at him, fixing him in place with her eyes. “Why haven’t you told Mrs. Van Helsing she really is Mrs. Van Helsing?”

He flinched at Christina’s use of Rosie’s proper title. “There are several reasons: our age disparity, the dangerous nature of my work, I don’t have time for a wife—”

She made a dismissive gesture and turned back to the window. “Weak.”

“Is that your official alienist’s opinion?”

“Yes. You reek of insincerity. I would tell her if I were you.”

“Why?”

“You know her much better than I do, Lawrence, how is she going to react when she finds out you kept it from her?”

He paled, sinking onto the small couch next to his sister’s chair. “Oh.”

“Exactly and what about mother? She’s been wanting you and Miss Lucas to be an item for well over year now. How will you explain to her that you can’t marry Charlotte Lucas?”

“I'll have to tell her then.”

“You should tell her now, but not before you tell Mrs. Van Helsing.”

“Have you considered that I don’t love ‘Mrs. Van Helsing?’”

“You poor, poor stupid man.” Christina chuckled. “You’re so far in denial I’m surprised you don’t have malaria. Of course you love her. Last night I found you in your room pouring a £100 bottle of vodka onto her knees to prevent infection. If you were smart you would have sent her back to her own room with it; but, no, you insisted in treating her knees yourself. Her knees, Lawrence.”

He stared at the floor. “Do you have a point?”

“Yes: you have commitment issues. I would suggest you consult a licensed alienist as soon as possible. Aren't you lucky that you have two of them in your family! Maybe one of them will give you a discount. Oh, and I would also suggest you tell your wife that you’re married before she goes mad waiting for you. You see, she loves you as well.”

He perked up at her words. “What?”

“She’s pretending to be your research assistant to save your reputation and your mother’s feelings. She hasn’t said anything downright inflammatory to mother or father the entire time she’s been here and I’m certain it hasn’t been easy.” She played with the lacy border of her cuffs. “I’m going to give you an ultimatum. You have one week to tell Mrs. Van Helsing the good news before I tell mother and father about it and I assure you it will not remain a secret once mother hears the news.”

“Rosie will hear her crying before anything else.”

“Exactly. So, tell your wife she’s your wife. You have no other choice.”

* * *

Professor L.A. Van Helsing spent the rest of the day wandering his mother’s rose beds and avoiding all human contact. When it got too dark for turns in the garden, he locked himself in the library with a snifter of brandy and his brother-in-law’s newest treatise on mental diseases.

The door creaked open and admitted his wife. She closed it behind her and swept over to the little couch. She threw herself down and set to undoing her shoes.

“If Jack Seward suggests one more ‘turn in the garden’ I think my feet will fall off. I can’t believe that man once fought off Vlad the Impaler.”

“He had some help.”

“I heard. Now, I have much more pressing matters.” She threw her shoes toward the blazing fire. “Do you remember what tonight is?”

“An unseasonably chilly May fifth?”

“Yes and also the first night of the full moon. Have you thought about my suggestion?”

“That you spend the night running about in Hyde Park? I still think it’s madness.”

“Too bad. We don’t have any other options. Are you comin' with me or are you staying at home with your booze and your books?”

“I suppose I should join you.” He cleared his throat. This was the perfect opportunity to tell Rosie about the letter. He opened his mouth and his voice caught. “I—I have something to tell you.”

She glanced up from her feet. “What?”

“It’s just—I—”

“Would you fuckin’ spit it out? You’ve never had trouble talkin’ before. In fact, I usually can’t get you to shut up.”

“I assure you the feeling is mutual,” he snarled. “Please listen for once in your life. I got a letter from my friend Christoph.”

Her mouth snapped shut. She swallowed. “What did it say?”

“Congratulations on your marriage, Mrs. Van Helsing. You’re stuck with me.”

She covered her mouth and leaned over with her head between her knees. “I waited so long— I was sure he’d tell us Father Theodore was a fake.”

Van Helsing shook his head. “As far as God is concerned, you’re my wife. Legally speaking, it’s another matter. Christoph offered to help us settle that side of things if—if you wanted to.”

She didn’t look up. “If I wanted to? What about you?”

He took a swig of his brandy. “What about me?”

This time she met his eyes but didn’t speak.

A swarm of doubts buzzed around in his stomach with the alcohol. His head hurt. “I’m a mess of a man. No one in their right mind would want me for a husband.”

“Are you sure about that?”

His heart skipped a beat. “If you want to remain my wife then I have no objections.”

She frowned at him, her eyes a dangerous shade of golden. “But do you want to be my husband?”

He wanted to tell her yes. Wanted to seize her and consummate their marriage in front of the fireplace without thought of anyone else in the house. Wanted to tell her he’d stay with her until she was sick of him.

The doubts returned. This time buzzing around his head. Alcohol on an empty stomach was a mistake he would pay for in the morning.

A distant clock chimed, breaking her concentration. “It’s already ten? Damn it!”

She was gone in a flutter of gray skirts and Van Helsing was left on the couch ready to declare his everlasting love. Or not. He shook his head. He now had one week to tell his mother or convince his sister otherwise.

As if summoned by his thoughts, Christina appeared in the doorway. “Did you tell her?”

“I did.”

“And?”

He stared at the empty snifter in his hands. “She wants to be my wife."

"Then why do you look so miserable?"

Van Helsing sighed and rubbed his face. "Because, for the life of me, I can't figure out why she'd want me. I've half a mind to divorce her, but... I've already told her I'm going to stay."

Christina raised an eyebrow. "Why would you even contemplate divorce? You love her."

"All the more reason to divorce her."

Chapter Text

“I can’t believe I agreed to go along with this.” A wet branch slapped Van Helsing in the face. “Would you please watch where you’re going?”

“Don’t have time. It’s almost moonrise.” She stopped short and dove into a nearby copse of bushes.

He squinted into the darkness. “Rosie, what are you doing?” Her jacket came flying out of the foliage, narrowly missing him. “Are you taking your clothes off in the middle of the park?”

She poked her head out of the bushes. “Wolves don’t wear clothes. Now hold this.” She thrust a pile of clothing into his arms. “It’s gettin’ clo—” she broke off and disappeared again.

“Rosie,” he hissed. “Rosie!”

There was no answer.

“Rosie, if I’m caught holding a pile of woman’s clothing in Hyde Park at this time of night I'm going to get arrested!”

Still no answer.

The clouds parted and Van Helsing watched as the moon rose over the distant horizon. His heart pounded in his chest. This wasn't a vague figure in the distance. It wasn't a stranger. It was Rosie and she was close.

“The moon is rising.”

The bushes rattled behind him.

“Rosie, I’d like to take this opportunity to resolve any lingering marital problems we have. Mostly because I love you, but also because I'd rather you didn't eat me. ”

They began to shake.

“Please, Rose, I’m sorry for what I said. I’m having trouble believing that— that someone like you would love someone like me. Well, that anyone would love me, really. Please, please don’t eat me!”

The bushes parted to reveal a young-looking police constable with magnificent blond whiskers. “You needn’t worry, sir, and I think your sweetie will like the speech. However, I am obliged to ask you what business you have in the park at this time of night.”

Van Helsing started breathing again. “Thank God it’s you.”

The man gripped his billy club and took a half-step backward. “Who were you expecting? Sir, you are aware the park is off limits to, er, thrill seekers after sunset.” He eyed the pile of clothing in Van Helsing’s hands.

He dropped Rosie's things. “These belong to my wife.”

“And where is your wife?"

"She's at home. She wanted me to take some of her old things to a local charity while I was walking the dog."

His eyes narrowed. “If that's so, where's your dog?”

“She’s right behind you.”

The constable whirled around and found himself eye-to-snout with the biggest wolf Hyde Park had ever seen. She growled, showing fangs the size of steak knives.

He took three steps back this time. "T-that's your dog? What is she?"

Before Van Helsing could answer, Rosie lunged forward and grabbed the young man by his helmet. She tossed him in the air like a snack and caught him around the waist.

"Rosie, no! Put him down!"

She dropped him, holding him down with a paw on his chest. Rosie sniffed his helmet for a moment before sinking her teeth into it. She turned her head to the side, trying to gain purchase on the slippery navy material. There was a sickening crunch that Van Helsing worried was bone and not cork.

“Rosie, no!” He drove for the man’s prone form, only to stop inches from her jaws.

She leaned in close to the constable and picked him up by the waist a second time. He went limp in her grip, his eyes pleading for help. She began to pad away into the trees.

“Amity Rose Winchester.”

She paused.

“Amity Rose, you put him down this second!”

She turned, staring at him.

The constable twisted in her jaws. “Your dog has a middle name?”

“Do shut up.”

“Please, make her put me down.”

“I’m trying,” he snarled, taking a step forward with as much false confidence as he could muster. “Put him down.”

She cocked her head to the side, a small river of drool dripping from the side of her mouth. She panted.

“I mean it.”

“He means it.”

Rosie, who was clearly not used to having her food talk back, whined.

“Now.”

She whined again and dropped him.

The constable sprung to his feet, backing away at speed. “What kind of dog did you say she was?”

“A big one.”

He took off his helmet. “Will you look at this! She’s cracked it clean through!” A note of the East End crept into his carefully manicured accent. “I ‘ave t’ pay for this, y' know!”

Van Helsing reached into his pocket and drew out a five pound note. “Here, buy yourself a new one.” He pulled out another. “This one is for your silence. Rosie is a very special breed of dog and it would be a pity if anyone found out about her.”

The man grinned. “What dog is that, sir?”

“Exactly, now get out of here before she changes her mind about her supper.”

The constable saluted him and was gone in a flash.

He turned his attention to his wife. “What were you thinking?” He shouted. “You could’ve gotten shot! What if he had a gun? Wait, never mind— You could have gotten me arrested. I could have been thrown in jail and you would’ve been thrown in a zoo!”

She flattened her ears against her head and whined.

“Oh, you’re sorry?” The adrenaline rushed through his veins. He stalked up to her. “If you ever do anything like this again I’ll have you kenneled.”

She sneezed in his face.

“I suppose I deserved that.” The pure absurdity of what he trying to do sprang to mind. Chastising a werewolf wasn’t the best of ideas. He swallowed “Good girl?”

He reached out and stroked her ears. They were massive—almost the size of his hands. “Aren’t you… big and you have such lovely red fur.”

She snapped at his fingers.

Van Helsing sprang back. “No!”

Rosie, true to her nature, ignored his command and shoved her muzzle in his face. She sniffed his ears and he could see the curve of her fangs beneath her lips and feel the hot breath on his skin.

“It’s me,” he whispered, trying to seem as harmless as possible. “It’s your Bram. Remember, the man you accidentally married?”

She licked his neck.

“Thank you, but I think you’ll find this night is going poorly enough without that kind of thing.”

She growled at him and he could feel the bass rumble in her chest.

“That’s it. I’ve had enough of this for one night. I’m taking you home.” He started to walk east but was stopped short by a set of fangs in his coat. “If you keep pulling you’ll rip it.”

She let him go.

“This was a horrible idea—no! Don’t you make that face at me, this is mostly your fault!"

The moon disappeared and thunder rumbled overhead. The skies opened, rain falling in icy sheets. It dripped down the brim of his hat and into his collar.

“How is it you always get me into these situations? If it weren’t for you, I would be at home and warm and dry.”

The wolf gave a very human shrug.

“I knew you could understand me better than you were letting on. Why did you try to eat that young man? You ate enough at supper for three people, pig.”

She snapped at him a second time.

“I’m in no mood for your excuses! It’s raining, I’m wet and miserable, and I want to go home. If you’ll excuse me, Mrs. Van Helsing, I’ll see you after the moon sets.”

* * *

He stood in the doorway of his room and stared at the wolf lying in front of his fire. She blinked innocently at him.

“I won’t ask how you got in.”

She yawned lazily.

“I’m glad to see that, as always, you’ve made yourself comfortable at my expense.”

A soft growl escaped her lips.

“Oh, you needn’t worry, I’m not going to move you.” He hung her still damp jacket on the back of his door. “However, I expect you to leave the moment you turn back. I found your jacket, by the way. No need to thank me.”

She didn’t respond.

“That’s what I like to hear: silence. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to bed.”

He pulled off his wet clothes, throwing them in a hamper for Mrs. Miller and glancing at Rosie every so often to make sure she wasn’t peeking. His nightshirt was warm and dry next to his clammy skin. There was still a slim chance he could have a restful night.

His bed creaked.

Van Helsing turned away from his toilette to find her curled up at the foot of his bed with her paws hung over the edge. She whined.

“Absolutely not! Get out!” He did his best to keep his voice down, but he could feel the blood rising to his face.

She didn’t move.

“This is not the time to be difficult.”

No response.

“Fine.” He pulled on his quilt until there was room and wedged himself into the bed. “Would you at least move so I can lie down properly?”

She shifted and the bed creaked again. Van Helsing’s bed hadn’t even been built for two people, let alone a person and a wolf the size of a horse. She straightened out and rested her head and front paws on his spare pillow.

“It’ll do for now. But, remember, the minute you turn back you’re to go to your room. Understand?”

She licked his face.

“Goodnight, Rosie.”

* * *

It seemed to be his lot in life to awaken at odd hours of the early morning for no good reason. This morning, however, it was justified. He rubbed his eyes. Rosie was tucked neatly under his left arm, curling close to his side. She clung to his nightshirt with a strange ferocity of will.

“There are no vampires in the house,” she mumbled, “Go back t’ sleep.”

“There may be no vampires in the house, but there’s a werewolf in my bed. One who promised she would go back to her room the minute she changed.”

“I lied.” She nuzzled his cheek. “Why don’t you divorce me?”

“How I wish I could. Imagine all the alimony the courts would make you pay me for the pain and suffering you’ve caused me over the last three months and twenty-two days.

“Not that you’ve been countin’.”

“Not that I’ve been counting. What am I going to do with you?”

She opened her eyes and grinned at him. “Not t’ be indelicate, but I have a few ideas. Now that we’re really married, of course.”

“Oh?”

She wiggled closer. “Well, our marriage vows did clearly state that you should ‘have and hold’ me.”

“If you’re trying to make me feel uncomfortable, it’s working.”

Rosie sat up, the blankets sliding down her bare side.

He looked away.

“Shy,” she tutted, effortlessly throwing a leg over his and balancing herself on his thighs. “Am I that horrible t’ behold?”

“No, I’m merely trying to preserve your modesty.”

“Funny, you didn’t seem too concerned with that last night.” She chuckled. “Don’t worry, I’ll leave, but before I do I want answers. You keep tellin’ me I’m not ugly, but sometimes, just sometimes, it feels like your objections to me are based on my looks. So, I guess what I want to know is why you don’t want to be my husband.”

The breath caught in her throat. “The night we got married we made a pact. You said if Father Theodore was a real priest and if we were married that we could try it out for a while. Well, he was a real priest and we are married. You’ve had three months and twenty-two days t’ get used to the idea of us being together and…” She trailed off. “What’s wrong?”

He looked away again, this time studying the floral pattern of the wallpaper.

“Bram, if you don’t want t’ stay hitched you need to tell me. Because, otherwise, well, a girl tends to get impatient waiting for— for the love of her life to get his act together.”

His jaw tightened.

“And when you look away it makes the same girl feel, well, undesirable.”

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw her touching the scars on her face. “Another girl might be able t’ brush it off as shyness, but this girl has a little more baggage than your average twenty-five-year-old. I was eighteen when that fucker did this t’ me and I was nineteen when I killed him. He left me to bleed out in some godforsaken alleyway like a piece of trash. Sometimes I wish I had because now I’m stuck this way for the rest of my gods-damned life.”

He forced himself to look her in the eye.

“It’s bad enough when a stranger can’t look at me, but it’s a thousand times worse when you can’t.”

He sat up, bringing himself unbearably close to her in the space of a second. His mind reeled, leaving him at a loss for words.

“Listen to me, none of this has to do with your physical appearance. It has everything to do with the circumstances around our marriage. I still can’t wrap my head around what we are to each other. Christoph wrote the usual claptrap about us being married ‘in the eyes of God’ but he wasn’t even sure if our marriage would hold up in court. Remember, we agreed we wouldn’t do anything,” he swallowed, “unwise until we knew for sure.”

“Did we?” She straightened the collar of his nightshirt. “We established Father Theodore was a real priest.”

He let his hands rest on her back. “He is.”

She smirked and looked away. “Then are God’s laws not good enough for you? If there’s no paperwork there’s no marriage?”

“You know that’s not what I meant.”

She snorted.

“Rosie, please.”

“Fine. Consider this a proposal. Abraham Van Helsing, since the laws of God aren’t good enough for you, will you marry me in the eyes of man’s law?”

His pulse pounded and he felt weak. He couldn’t answer. There was no answer.

“You know I l—” she stopped herself. “I love you. I've loved you ever since that night three years ago in Tower Hamlets and I will continue to love you for as long as we both shall live and even after that and because I love you, I would never dream of forcin’ you into anythin’ you weren’t comfortable with. Be it marriage or,” she stared at his lips, “bed.”

He found his voice, but she silenced him with a look.

“So if you don’t want to be married to me, you have to tell me now.”

He closed his eyes, willfully ignoring the feeling of warmth through his flimsy nightshirt and the softness of her skin against his hands. She deserved so much better. It would have to be quick and clean. She had to forget about him, had to hate him enough to leave.

“Is that all this is about? You’re horny and feeling neglected?” A hint of bitterness crept into his voice. “Is that all it will take to get you to leave me alone? Would a quick rubdown solve your problems? Am I merely a device for your pleasure?”

“Well, if you’re going to be a dick I might as well get a good fuck out of you.” She shoved him into the pillows. “What the fuck is wrong with you? I thought you wanted to stay married. I distinctly remember you saying you wanted to give marriage a try.”

“I didn’t know I was going to be shackled to an impatient virgin with the mouth of a sailor.”

She flushed. “Do you know what the first thing I thought that night? When I first saw your idiot face I thought to myself: ‘I could cut myself on that face and I would over and over again given the opportunity.' I love you, you stupid fucking idiot and if you’re too thick to see it, it’s not my problem. I love every stupid angle of your face and the way you light up whenever you find something that’s older than you are—even if it’s just a fucking rock.”

Tears ran down her cheeks.

“And I love the way you go out of your way to help everyone you meet. It’s going to be the death of you someday, Abraham Van Helsing, the way you’re so dedicated to helping every single fucking person. You fall in love with everyone you meet, even if it’s just a little.” She shook her head. “But you don’t love me.”

He knew he should tell her. Knew he should confess his love. But it was too late now. His plan was going too well.

“Do you know what it feels like to love someone body and soul and not be loved back? It’s like being beaten over and over again until you can’t feel the pain anymore and it’s just this dull ache in the pit of your stomach.”

She shoved him deeper into the pillows. “And I can’t even bring myself to hate you, you piece of shit!” She paused, breathing deeply. “So I’m going to do both of us a favor. I’m leaving you, Lawrence, and I’m not coming back.”

Rosie never called him by his proper name. It was always “Abraham” which “suited his stern Biblical outlook on life better,” or “Bram,” or any one of hundreds of endearments, each of which was more baffling than the last. (“Sugar” was his favorite because it implied she’d like to know what he tasted like.) But never “Lawrence.” Not even when they first met. His mother called him Lawrence, his primary school teacher, the professor who’d kicked him out of Leiden, the housekeeper, the downstairs maid—but never Rosie.

The name was a curse from her lips. It was cold, lifeless. It was dead.

Lawrence Abraham Van Helsing sat in his bed, nearly smothered by the pillows, with his wife perched on his legs, at a loss for words and actions.

“Aren’t you going to say anything?”

He opened his mouth to take a breath, but his voice refused to work. He cleared his throat. “Rose, I— Rosie—” he stammered her name a half dozen times before he knew what to say. He had to convince her to leave, but he didn't want to hurt her.

“You deserve a better life than the one I can give you. There’s nothing left in me besides this silly quest to rid the world of evil.” He shook his head. “I’m not even sure I have that left in me. Not anymore. I’ve been cursed to a life of cold and wandering and loneliness. It might sound a little dramatic, but you know how I can be.” He tried to smile at her.

“There’s nothing left of me. No love, no hate. I haven’t felt anything but numbness since I drove a stake through that first vampire’s heart. I can’t ask you to share my burden, I can’t ask you to continue wasting your life on my stupid quest. I tried last night. I really did. But I don’t love you, Rose, not the way you want me to.”

The lies tasted like sawdust on his tongue and he could feel the corners of his eyes beginning to sting. "I don't love you." The words echoed over and over in his ears. He couldn't tell her the truth, couldn't doom her to the life of emptiness he suffered through every day.

Her tears stopped. She swallowed and chewed her lip. This time it was Rosie who looked away. “If that’s what you want then I can respect your decision. I’ll be on the next boat to America.”

He sat up again, closing his eyes against her closeness. “Send me a telegram once you land. I want to know you’re safe.”

She nodded. “After that, you won’t hear from me.”

She was halfway to the door when his heart fumbled against his ribs. Was he going to let her walk out of his life without even a proper goodbye? Rosie laid her hand on the doorknob and pressed her head to the wooden panel.

Father Theodore’s voice drifted through his mind. "Speak now or forever hold your peace.

He opened his mouth to speak, his resolve crumbling, but she was already gone.

Chapter Text

Professor Lawrence Abraham Van Helsing’s life might have been a shambles, but it didn’t stop the dead from rising. It was three months since he made the worst mistake of his life and he was, once again, exploring the depths of the Hoia Baciu Forest in hopes there was some clue to Brimstone Bertram's location.

He sat quietly next to the small fire he’d built in the center of the dilapidated barn. Ever since he and Rosie parted ways, cold nights like these had become a burden. He was accustomed to having someone to talk to, someone to bounce ideas off of, someone to fill the long silences. It was deathly quiet without her.

He left home on May 6th and hadn’t been back since. Christina had sent several tersely worded telegrams, but stopped after the first week. He stared into the fire, trying to keep his mind from wandering.

A wolf howled in the distance, its voice mixing with the already howling wind. He strained his ears. It was nigh impossible to tell the difference between a werewolf and a normal wolf, but he still held that there were some tonal discrepancies between the two. He pulled a small silver knife from his coat and held it at the ready. There was no harm in being prepared.

The door creaked open. The cold air swept in and admitted a familiar figure. She leaned her whole weight into the door, struggling to close it against the wind. Her boots left puddles of snow and slush on the floorboards as she crossed the room. She collapsed on the floor next to him.

“You’re a hard man to find, doc. I’ve been a’ lookin’ for damn near two weeks.”

“I was under the impression you didn’t want to see me.”

“Well, it wouldn’t be the first time you were wrong about something important; but I didn’t think you were the kind of man to grow a beard.” She touched his cheek. “I like it.”

“Rose, I have never been more sorry than I am now. I was wrong. I’m the most confounded idiot you’re every likely to meet.” The words gushed from his lips like blood from an open wound. “I do love you. I don’t know what I was thinking, lying to you. I shouldn’t have done it. Please, please forgive me. I don’t know what I’ll do without you.” He grasped at her arm.

She smiled, leaning forward to kiss his cheek. “I forgive your stupidity.”

He breathed a sigh of relief.

His eyes snapped open. Someone was banging on his door.

Van Helsing groaned and rolled out of the uncomfortable hotel bed. The person banging on the door was also banging on the inside of his head. “Ich komme sofort!” He pulled on his dressing gown, shuffling into his slippers. “Would you please stop that infernal racket?”

The door exploded inward and the innkeeper rushed in. He panted, waving his hands at Van Helsing. “Herr Doktor, haben sie einen anderen Körper gefunden!”

* * *

“When was she found?”

The local coroner, a near-sighted, unfortunate looking man by the name of Klink, rubbed his face. “Just before dawn. She was found lying face down on the edge of the forest.” He crossed himself. “The spirits have claimed another victim.”

Van Helsing frowned. The old superstitions were alive and well in Klausenburg—and with good reason.

“This is hardly the work of a ghost, doctor, look at the bite mark on her neck. No, this was either a vampire or a drone. There is no doubt in my mind. It’s as obvious as the nose on your face.”

“Maybe as obvious as your nose,” Dr. Klink huffed, “but I doubt it was a strigoi. We are well protected from them here.”

He scoffed. “Surely you have heard the legends—”

The doctor made a dismissive gesture. “You mean the slanderous tales circulated about Prince Draculesti? None of them are true, not one!” He pulled a heavily stained sheet over the girl’s face. “I would advise you to look elsewhere for your culprit. Perhaps it was a revenant or one of those newfangled Hatian creatures.”

“I’m beginning to think you need a better monocle. It was a vampire. There is no denying facts, sir, and in a country where the things run rampant there is little doubt in my mind that it was your beloved prince.”

“He does not feed like this. The prince is our protector. We would not survive a week without him, especially here.”

“If he does not feed like this, then how does he feed?”

Klink cleared his throat. The uncomfortable noise rung through the small room and bounced off the tiled walls. “There are people from the village who volunteer their… services.”

“Surely your people don’t go along with that kind of thing?” He could feel the blood rushing to his head. It was imperative that he didn’t lose his temper with the coroner. If he did, there would be no way to track vampire kills in the area and no way to track Brimstone.

“It has been going on for as long as people can remember. We give him blood and he protects us for what dwells in the forest.” He crossed himself a second time. “Believe me, there are things living in there that are far, far worse than he is. It is what you would call a symbiotic relationship. He would never kill one of the village girls; it would undermine our agreement.”

“What if he has decided your agreement no longer suits his needs?”

“It would be suicide on his part. The villagers would burn his castle and drive a stake through his heart. Would it convince you if I told you he was part of the search party for Maria? He still hasn’t returned. The prince will be grieved to hear of her death. He’s known her since she was a child. He’s known all of us since we were children.”

“Dr. Klink was a particularly unmanagable scamp if his mother was to be believed.” A young man with curling titian blond hair stepped over the threshold. “I just heard the news, Wilhelm, are you certain it’s Maria?”

“It is.”

The man shook his head. “Please extend my deepest sympathies to her parents and tell them I will pay for her burial arrangements if need be. I may not be in when they call later this week.”

Van Helsing frowned at the newcomer. “Am I to assume you are Prince Vlad III, the one they called ‘The Impaler.’”

“You may assume whatever you want, sir, but in that case you are wrong. Prince Tepes was my younger brother, may God have mercy on his soul.”

The coroner crossed himself a third time.

“He is long dead. I am Vlad IV the Monk. However, in these modern times I go by Vladislav Calugarul or simplly Prince Draculesti. May I ask who you are?”

“Professor Abraham Van Helsing.” He extended his hand and the prince took it. “Dr. Klink was informing me of the, shall we say, unorthodox agreement you have with the villagers here.”

“You don’t approve?”

“I can’t say I do.”

The prince shrugged. “Then it’s a good thing I don’t seek your approval. Wilhelm, would you please give us a moment alone with Maria?”

He was gone before the prince finished his sentence.

“I heard some of what you were talking about with Wilhelm. Do you truly think another vampire did this thing?”

Van Helsing pulled the sheet down. “Would you dispute it?”

Prince Draculesti crossed himself. “The individual who did this must have been starving or careless. Have you taken drones into account?”

“I have.”

“No doubt you’ve heard of Klausenburg’s own necromancer, Brimstone Bertram.”

“I’ve been chasing him around Europe for almost four years now.”

“Have you had any luck?”

“My associate and I found his London base, but he was long gone. He left a small fortune in arcane books and equipment, but there was no real proof he was ever there.”

“Interesting. I also heard a rumor that you’ve had dealings with one of the local fey. You know the one I mean, he lives about ten miles from here and styles himself after my younger brother.”

“I remember him well. He was responsible for the death of a dear friend. He paid for his sins.”

“I’m sorry to inform you that he didn’t. Prince Ailill is very much alive and well.”

Van Helsing stiffened at the mention of the fey’s name.

“Please, it’s early and there is nothing more to be gained from staring at Maria’s corpse.” He replaced the sheet. “Let us leave her to rest in peace.”

“Assuming she does.”

“She will.” A hard note crept into his voice. “I make a habit of ensuring I am the only sanguinarian in the area, professor. There is no room for outsiders here.”

He smiled. “Was that a threat?”

“Not at all, friend. Merely a warning. Come, we can discuss our mutual friends over a cup of tea. Mrs. Stewart serves the best Scottish breakfast this side of the alps and the restaurant is about to open.”

The cafe was three doors down from the coroner’s house. A sign hanging above the door depicted an over sized garlic flower.

“An unusual sign,” Van Helsing commented.

“Isn’t it? Mrs. Stewart designed it to keep other vampires away.”

“You didn’t think to tell her garlic doesn’t work against the creatures of the night?”

He shrugged. “If it makes her feel safer, then why stop her? Besides, it’s quite amusing to have a local cafe called ‘The Garlic Blossom.’”

The prince pushed the door open and the whole room went silent. He smiled at the villagers, greeting a few chosen people by name and nodding at others. Van Helsing slowly realized that he was the one scaring the locals, not the prince.

“Good morning, Mrs. Stewart, how are you on this fine Romanian morning?”

The pink-cheeked woman standing behind the bar slammed down a tankard of what appeared to be coffee in front of one of her customers. He was left wiping the piping hot beverage off his face. If she noticed, it didn’t show. “I’ll tell ye how I am, ye wee devil! I’m missing my best dinner guest, tha’s how I am!”

She skirted the bar and embraced Prince Draculesti about the waist. She was tiny, not much more than five feet, and was built like any number of other Scottish women who came before her: sturdily. This was a woman made to wrangle great hairy cows in the highlands.

“And where have ye been lately?”

“There’s been trouble in the forest.”

“I’ve heard. But do ye not have to eat?”

“Emma, you’re well aware of my eating habits.”

“Aye, you like a drop of blood in your coffee with the cream. Shall I get ye one?”

“Yes, please, and a full Scottish breakfast for my friend.”

She eyed Van Helsing critically. “O’ course. I’ll be right out w’ your coffee and some tea for the gentleman.”

“She’s far from home,” Van Helsing commented after seating himself at the table.

“She is. But she makes the best coffee this side of the alps, so I’m not going to question her too closely about what brought her here.”

Emma Stewart reappeared with two tankards and some porridge. “This is to start ye off with, sir. Please pardon the vessels, one of the drunks broke my fine china last week and I’m having a wee bit o’ trouble replacing it.”

“Not at all. Thank you.” He took a sip of the tea and immediately regretted it. There was still a whiff of beer about the tankard. “Lovely.”

“Liar. I’ve never been one for tea and that is likely the worst slop to ever leave my kitchen. I’ll get you some coffee.” She disappeared and reappeared a few seconds later with a tankard full of coffee. “Enjoy, your food will be out directly.”

“Now would be a good time to ask your questions, professor.”

He eyed his new companion through the steam rising from his coffee. “If you aren’t Vlad III, how is it you came to be called ‘Dracula?’”

“Draculesti,” he corrected, “Dracula was a title our father gave himself. It means ‘the dragon’ or ‘the devil’ or something like that. He used it in much the same way that I use ‘Calugarul.’ It’s not quite a surname and not quite a title. ‘Draculesti’ is simply ‘son of Dracula’ and it suits my purposes. The last living Draculesti has long since gone to join our ancestors.”

“And the undead Draculesti?”

“My brother Radu and I are the last of the line, I’m afraid. Our family will die with us. Though there are those who won’t miss us. Yourself amongst them, I’d wager.”

Mrs. Stewart materialized and set down the professor's plate. “Enjoy!”

Van Helsing took a bite of the beans before speaking again. “Don’t be too sure of that. I welcome any enemies of Brimstone Bertram.”

Prince Draculesti frowned at the name. “Is it really him?”

“You saw the bite marks of Maria’s neck. There are very few things that feed in such a fashion and a full blooded vampire wouldn't have drained her dry.”

He nodded. “I was hoping it was Ailill acting up again.”

“No such luck.”

They lapsed into silence.

“Earlier you asked me how the villagers could bear to give me their blood.”

“I did.”

“It’s because of situations such as this one. This is one of the most haunted places in the world. There are ghosts, ghouls, witches, werewolves, vampires, and all manner of other unpleasant things wandering the countryside here and yet the people refuse to leave. This is where their parents lived, their grandparents, and their ancestors.

“Somewhere around the year 1750, Radu came to the monastery where I was cloistered and told me our brother was terrorizing the countryside. I left my studies with the blessing of the abbot and came home to find Cluj-Napoca—that is, Klausenburg—in ruins. Vlad had drained most of the villagers of their lifeblood and burned over half the village and, indeed, the country.

“We had no choice but to punish him.” The prince went silent. “It is the second time I had to kill a brother. That, Professor, is why they trust me with their lives. But enough of the past, we must speak about the future. The forest has coughed up another horror and now the people are in danger again. What must we do?”

“I think the obvious course of action would be to find Brimstone.”

“He could be anywhere; particularly if he is somewhere in the Hoia Baciu. We would never find him without help.”

Van Helsing frowned at his breakfast. “At another time I would be able to help you with that. My— traveling companion of many years was a werewolf. She could find Brimstone anywhere, even in the forest.”

“You needn’t worry about it. I have a werewolf and several ghouls in my employ; but Brimstone is known for his traps and the forest is known for its dangers. I don’t want to endanger anyone unnecessarily.”

“You may have to, Prince.”

He waved a hand at Van Helsing. “Please, my name is Vladislav. I’ve never gotten used to ‘prince’ and there are times when I would like to go back to being a simple brother.’”

“As you wish it, Vladislav. If we cannot search the forest, what is our next course of action.”

“I’ll need to consult my sergeant of the guard. She’s been tracking Brimstone ever since I hired her a month ago. In fact, it’s strange that I should meet you, Professor Van Helsing.”

“Abraham, please.”

“It’s strange that I should meet you, Abraham. We have a mutual friend.”

He frowned. What kind of friend could he and the vampire prince share? “Oh?”

“Yes, my new sergeant of the guard, Rosie.”

The eggs turned to ashes in his mouth. He pushed his plate away. “Rosie Winchester?”

“That’s her. We’ve been great friends since the first time she visited England. I was there on business and, one night, I sniffed out the most blood I’d ever smelled outside of battle and there she was—bleeding out in an alleyway. She was livid over it.

“To make a long story short, I brought her to the nearest undertaker and had him sew her back together. We’ve been fast friends ever since, so when she came to me and asked if I had anything for her to do,” he smiled, “I offered her the position.”

“She was always military minded.”

“Yes,” he mused, “she’s perfect for the job. She told me all about you, about your wedding, and about your subsequent separation. She didn’t mention the beard, though.”

He self-consciously rubbed his chin. “I thought the change would do me good.”

“It suits you.”

“Thank you. Tell me, where is Rosie now?”

“Back at my home, planning our next search of the forest. This won’t be a problem, will it? I was hoping you would be able to lend us your expertise. She tells me you’re a professor of metaphysics.”

“I am and I have no argument with her. However, I’m not certain about her feelings towards me.”

“You made her wait three months to consummate your marriage only to jilt her on what should have been your wedding night.” Vladislav clucked his tongue. “You’re not in her good graces. However, we both know Rosie is nothing if not a consummate professional.”

Chapter Text

The knife buried itself in the prince’s hand. “Rosie, I’ve already lied enough today. Please don’t make it worse. Dr. Van Helsing is here to help us find the necromancer.”

“Too bad. Lyin’ suits you.” She yanked the knife from his hand. “What did you tell him?”

“That I thought you were capable of setting aside your personal feelings in favor of finding the necromancer.”

She frowned at her one-time husband. “I might be able to—mind, I’m still a little bitter about our last conversation. Thank gods you have good reflexes.”

Blood dripped down his hand for a few moments before the wound closed itself and disappeared. “It came with the fangs. If you’ll excuse me, I have blood on my cuffs and I’d like to change my shirt. You are not allowed to do him any bodily harm, understood?”

“I can’t make any promises.”

He pulled back his lips, exposing wickedly pointed incisors and hissed.

“Y’all heard me, bitch,” she snarled, a hint of gold creeping into her green eyes, “I can’t make any promises.”

Van Helsing raised his hand. “I can take care of myself. Rosie doesn’t have any weapons in her arsenal I haven’t already dealt with.”

“If you’re sure, professor.”

“Please, go and freshen up.”

The prince gave Rosie one final meaningful look and made his exit.

She waited until he disappeared speaking. “When did you decide to grow a beard?”

“Just after you made your escape.”

“I didn’t escape--I was dismissed.” She crossed her arms.

He cleared his throat. “I clearly remember you saying you didn't want to do anything that would make me uncomfortable. You then proceeded to make me feel extremely uncomfortable. However, there was no reason we couldn't remain friends and colleagues."

Rosie snorted. “Did y’all really expect me to stay after you insinuated I was just after a quickie and didn’t really care about your feelings?”

“Your actions spoke louder than your words. I didn't want you to do anything that you'd regret."

"So your only recourse was t' call me a horny bitch and kick me out? Well, I hope you enjoyed that night because I don't think you're gonna ever see anything like it again."

“I don’t think I’d enjoy it.”

“You’re a real dick, y’know?”

“I’m well aware of my faults. You and Christina delight in pointing them out.”

“You told your sister? Complete with me being stark naked on top of you? Which, by the way, don’t think I didn’t feel that bo—”

“I did not,” he raised his voice, “tell her any of the details. I did tell her we were getting a divorce or an annulment or whatever was most appropriate for two people in our situation. Christina is an alienist. She’s heard far worse.”

“I’m sure she has, but not from her brother. You know, I’m glad we didn’t work out. I don’t think I could ever be with someone who was so conceited that they thought the whole world revolved around themselves—and their commitment issues.”

“Listen, I was wrong to think I could leave you out of my decision. But I could not in good conscience ask you to continue on with me under false pretenses. I’m sorry. I’m still quite fond of you, however, and glad to see you’re well.”

“No thanks to you.”

“Rose, I have no money, no security, nothing a husband should be able to offer. I’m just an old man with three useless degrees and an obsession with death. You deserve far better than anything I could offer you.” He touched her cheek. “I’m sorry, I don’t love you,” he whispered, “I can’t.”

She stared at the floor, softly touching the back of his hand. “I’m sorry, too. Sorry I ever wasted your time.”

He flinched, drawing his hand away and taking a half-step back. “We still have to work together. Brimstone is too dangerous to leave free.”

“Finally, something we can agree on.” She turned her attention to a series of maps hanging on a nearby wall. “This is the Hoia Baciu, as near as we can guess. I’ve had Patches mapping it out as much as he can, but there are places in the forest even a ghoul won’t go.”

“They’re very good. He has an excellent eye for detail.”

“That’s why I chose him. These,” she gestured at a series of red X's just outside a large oblong shape marked ‘Cluj-Napoca,’ “are the most recent unexplained attacks on the villagers. We can discount the ones to the south of the village, those were a rogue vampire we took care of last month. But these,” she pointed at the X’s north of the village, “are completely unexplained.”

“Were the villagers all killed in the same fashion?”

She nodded. “Their throats were torn out but there were no blood or body parts missin'. Definitely a drone. Now, we’ve been trackin' other strange occurrences in the forest and we’ve found that most of the activity is centered on this spot in the northern section of the forest.”

He frowned at the map. “It’s blank.”

“That’s one of the spots that Patches won’t go. Or can’t. He wasn’t clear about why, but either way, there’s somethin' nasty in that part of the wood. Notice how they’re all clustered on the edge of whatever is keeping Patches out. My theory is Brimstone is taking advantage of our blind spot to hide his new lab. Or he's just as afraid of it as we are.”

“Do you know what the source of this supernatural barrier is?”

“I sure do, Patches told me first thing when I asked him t' go farther north.”

He sniffed. “I think I can guess where this is going and I don’t like it.”

Rosie tapped the blank spot on her map. “It’s Prince Ailill’s territory.”

Van Helsing let out a long sigh. “Fuck.”

* * *

Prince Draculesti rubbed his face. “It would be him.” He groaned and, slumping in the nearest chair. “I suppose the first order of business is to pay His Majesty a visit. Although, he is due to visit me today."

“I was under the impression he was already dead. I did drive a holly stake through his heart.”

Vladislav laughed. “If only it were that easy. Our mutual acquaintance isn’t easy to kill.”

“Nothing in life is ever easy,” Rosie said. “That’s how it works. So, what is this fairy prince like?”

Van Helsing snorted. “Annoying, deadly, contrary, and a complete bastard. Just what you would expect from the fey. He’s a prince of the Unseelie Court, which we both know means he’s nothing but trouble. His influence over men is considerable and his even more so over women.

“His original identity is something of a mystery. The closest I came to an answer was when one of the librarians at Leiden suggested a book of Irish children’s stories to me. Even then I was only able to find his name in reference to Medb, Queen of Ulster.” He shuddered. “She’s not someone you want to cross.”

“You’re not wrong there, professor.”

The voice that sounded from the doorway was deep and colored by years spent in the Carpathians. The man standing on the threshold brought the ancient kings of Britain to mind. He was all, almost a head above both Van Helsing and Vladislav, and cloaked in black. When he crossed the space between them, he didn’t so much walk as glide with his cape streaming out behind him like the wings of a great bat.

“Greetings, old friends, I always hoped we would meet again.”

“Listen, fairy, if you rhyme one more blessed word,” Vladislav snarled, “I’ll have your head on a stake before sundown.”

The newcomer laughed. “It’s good to see that your brother rubbed off on you. But you needn’t worry, fair voivode, I’ll keep the rhymes to a minimum. And you,” he turned his attention to Van Helsing, “I never expected to see you again.”

“The feeling is mutual. I distinctly remember driving a stake through your heart and chucking you into the sunlight.”

At the sound of his voice, Rosie pulled off her garter and threw it at him.

He caught it. “What is this for?”

“It’s red, you numbskull.” She pushed past him toward the fey.

He threw back his head and laughed. “I’ve heard so much about your famous wit, Miss Winchester,” he bowed, “it’s a pleasure to finally experience it first hand. Tell me, how would you like to become one of the fey?”

She held out her hand and he kissed it lightly. “I’m charmed out of my boots just at the thought, but I’m already one of the moon’s daughters and she don’t like t' share, Prince Ailill.”

He smiled. “I never thought I would get used to what the humans call me, but my name is music on your southern tongue. Say it again.”

“Ailill, do I need my garter back?”

Van Helsing cleared his throat. “If I could interrupt—we were about to call on you.”

“Oh?” He let go of Rosie’s hand. “Why?”

“We have a map of recent attacks in the forest. You’ll notice the definite pattern and the cluster of attacks on the edge of your land.”

“It’s very detailed.” He stood before the map. “Patches’ work?”

Rosie nodded. “Some of his best. But he wouldn’t trespass in your territory.”

“A wise choice. Most of these marks are on the border of my home, but what of it? The supernatural is often drawn to my kind.”

“Last night a young woman named Maria was killed on the edge of the village,” Vladislav interjected. “Do you know anything about that?”

“It was not I. You’ve made it apparent I am not welcome there.”

“What about your wives? Or your little Turkish friend?”

Ailill sighed deeply. “Lazeri is my husband. We were all together last night. I don’t know what happened to your precious human peasant.”

Vladislav hissed and his eyes went white. “These people have entrusted me with their well-being,” he growled, his teeth lengthening as he spoke, “I am the only thing that stands between them and a horrible death at the hands of the likes of you. I won’t have you slander them.”

He rolled his eyes. “Always so sensitive. You would do better to be more like your younger brother in that respect. I’m speaking of Radu, of course.”

The vampire prince let out a deeper growl at the mention of his family member. “Leave my brothers out of this. Where is Brimstone, fairy? Where are you hiding him?”

Ailill turned to Van Helsing. “Would you mind taking the lady for a turn about the countryside? I would like a moment alone to speak with my old friend and it may get a little… messy.”

“Certainly.” He grabbed Rosie by the arm and pulled her toward the door.

“I’m sergeant of the guard! I have to—”

Van Helsing stooped and grabbed her by the legs. He slung her over his shoulder. “This is not the time to argue. Prince Draculesti can take care of himself.”

* * *

He didn’t put her down until they were out of the castle and far enough away to dodge any flaming projectiles. “Before you object, please keep in mind that being in the middle of a battle royal between a vampire and a fey is not the best place to be.”

Her mouth snapped shut. “I hate it when you’re right.”

“Good, then some things really do never change. My only hope is they don’t kill each other in our absence.”

“Those two?” Rosie shrugged. “It’s hard to tell, but they’ll probably get smashed and be the best of friends by the end of the night. Or they might not. V is pretty angry.”

“Has this happened before?”

“V thinks Ailill pops in on a bi-monthly basis to annoy the ever living fuck out of him and get drunk. I think it’s their version of friendship. But I don’t know, he’s really mad this time. Ailill shouldn’t have mentioned Radu.”

“It’s a strange world we live in, isn’t it?”

“I’ll make it even stranger: my garter is falling out of your pocket.”

He pulled the offending garment out of his pocket and tossed it to her. “I don’t need it.”

“That’s where you’re wrong, doc. You should allus be wearin' somethin' red around here-especially when his royal fairy-ness comes for a visit. It’s either this or wearing your britches inside out.”

“How am I meant to wear this, exactly? It’s not going to fit around my leg and it’s certainly not something I can wear in public.”

Rosie grabbed his arm and led him to a nearby rock. “Sit,” she commanded, “I’ll make sure no one can see it.” She pulled at his tie and undid the top few buttons of his shirt.

He grabbed her wrist. “What are you doing?”

“Probably saving your stupid life. It’s goin' around your neck.”

“N—”

“Don’t give me any lip. It’s the only place it’ll be out of sight and still protect you from the fey.”

“I am not wearing your garter as a necklace. What if someone sees it?”

“I’ll be under your collar. Listen,” she paused, glancing at the castle looming in the distance before speaking, “I might hate your guts, but I don’t want you to be whisked away by the fairies.”

Before he could protest any further, she untied the bow and looped the length of red silk and lace ribbon around his neck. “If you’re still feelin' self-conscious you can tell me about these love bites.”

He tilted his head back and waited for her to finish tying the bow. “You were present for enough of them to know what they are.”

“Fair enough, but I would like to know the story behind this burn.”

“I was bitten by a count not far from here. His mother was keeping his disease a secret instead of seeking treatment or having him… taken care of. He knocked me out and I woke up with a nasty bite—it was so close to the artery I thought I would bleed out. My only recourse was to cauterize the wound and douse it in holy water.”

She leaned back so she could look him in the face. “Did it work?”

“I’m not a vampire, am I?”

“Touche. Well, it’s not my best work, but it’ll have to do.” She grinned. “I wish I had a mirror so you could see how pretty y’all look, but you’ll just have t’ take my word for it.”

He picked at the bow. “And what is your final word?”

“It makes a handsome necklace. If you fix your collar we can head into town and get a head start on the investigation that the two drunken idiots are going to ask us to start.”

“I thought we established that it was at least partially Prince Ailill’s fault.”

“This really isn’t his style. He’s more of a ‘whisk women away from their boring lives’ fey. We have bigger problems. If Brimstone Bertram has settled into the area, there’s no telling what he’s up to. This place is haunted with all kinds of dangerous magic.”

Van Helsing pulled his tie back into place. “That is an understatement.”

Chapter Text

Van Helsing stood outside the door of the Garlic Blossom. Rosie was inside talking to Mrs. Stewart’s upstairs maid, Gitte. She hinted the girl would be more comfortable speaking to a member of her own sex, but he suspected they were talking about him instead of the recent spate of deaths in the village.

He sighed and pulled at his collar. The garter was starting to itch.

“Abraham? Abraham Van Helsing?”

At the sound of her voice, he was nineteen again and sitting on the sunlit banks of a canal. A beautiful Rhine maiden sat opposite, laughing at his jokes. Everything was warm and comfortable. He hardly dared turn to see what time had done to his dearest, but his curiosity got the better of him.

It was her. It was Ana.

He tried to keep the excitement out of his voice as he greeted her. “Ana, it’s been years!”

She let out a delicate laugh. “It has, but let’s not speak of it. It makes me feel so old to think I haven’t seen you since in twenty-three years. Tell me, did you ever finish your triple degree? It was the talk of the school at the time. We were all taking bets.”

“I hope you bet with me. I did finish them—and all the once.” All he could concentrate on was how her hair was still the color of ripe wheat.

“I always knew you could do it. What were they?”

He opened his mouth to answer but found he couldn’t.

“Theology, philosophy, and metaphysics—the most useless trio that higher learning ever invented.” Rosie waved to the willowy brunette standing in the doorway before turning her saccharine smile on Ana. “Aren’t y’all goin’ t’ introduce us, doc?”

Van Helsing started to see black spots. “Miss Ana Schmidt, this is Miss Winchester, a colleague of mine.”

Rosie shook her hand with vigorous enthusiasm. “It’s so nice t’ meet you. Bram’s friends keep popping up in the least likely places. It’s funny, though, he never mentioned you.”

“We haven’t seen each other since we were both twenty—oh, I’ve dated myself!”

“Don’t worry, thirty years isn’t that long a time to go betwixt meetings.”

Ana’s smile tightened. “You couldn’t have been very old the last time we met. Tell me, what age were you in 1870.”

“I was just bein’ born.”

Van Helsing could feel his soul leaving his body. “What have you been up to since our last meeting, Ana?”

“I also finished my degree. You don’t think chemistry is a useless degree, do you, Miss Winchester?”

“Not t’all, ma’am. It has many practical applications.”

Ana shot her a venom-laced glance before continuing. “After I finished my degree, I traveled around Europe for a while and then, just recently, I got married.” She held out he left hand and flashed an impressive diamond. “I’m Ana Brooks-Hamilton now. And even though Felix is no Abraham Van Helsing, he’s still the love of my life. There he is now! Felix, come here, I want you to meet someone.”

The man who crossed the road to join his wife couldn’t have been more English if he was the king of England. His black hair was slicked back from his forehead in an impeccable wave, and his blue eyes sparkled roguishly. He was nearly the same height as Prince Ailill and his suit seemed to be designed with the purpose of hiding his considerable strength.

He grasped Van Helsing’s proffered hand and shook it with, perhaps, more force than was needed. “A pleasure to finally meet you, old man, Ana was just talking about you the other day.”

“She was?”

“She was. I’ve been wanting to meet you ever since. Funny how life is, isn’t it?”

Rosie pushed her way between them. "Rosie Winchester, Sergeant of the Guard of His Imperial Majesty, Prince Vladislav Carugarul Draculesti, Voivode of Wallachia and it’s surrounding principals.”

“A pleasure, I’m sure.”

“Why didn’t you say you knew Prince Draculesti, Miss Winchester? We’ve been wanting to meet him for weeks but we can’t seem to get an audience. The local peasants seem to think he’s some kind of unholy monster or a divine protector and there seems to be no median opinion.” Ana leaned forward, every trace of malice carefully erased from her expression. “Is there any truth to the rumors?”

“The only time His Majesty is an unholy monster is when he gets angry. Luckily for us, it don’t happen all too often and as for meeting him—he’s very concerned with the recent deaths in the village and is, as such, unavailable for audiences at this time. Now, if you’ll excuse us, Professor Van Helsing and I must get back to our investigation.”

She gave a little bow and grabbed Van Helsing by the sleeve and didn’t stop walking until the other couple was out of sight. “Thank gods that’s over.”

“Is that how you get out of all uncomfortable situations? It was very rude of you to leave.”

“I'll answer your question with one of my own: am I to assume you and Mrs. Brooks-Hamilton were an item back at Leiden?”

He flushed. “We were.”

“Then I would like to know what entitles you to the phrase: ‘he’s no Abraham Van Helsing?’”

The took a moment to think back to all of her unkind comments and merciless teasing over the years. To the way, she’d so casually dropped the prince’s name and full title into their conversation. He grinned wickedly. “It might have something to do with my twelve-and-a-halfs, but you’ll never know, will you?”

She smirked. “Bold of you to assume I want to.”

* * *

They spent the rest of the afternoon canvassing Klausenburg, trying to find someone who had seen anything out of the ordinary. Unfortunately, on the edge of the Hoia Baciu, sifting through the reports of will-o’-wisps and strange noises in the night was easier said than done.

A farmer on the north side of the river, a sturdy man named Maximilian, claimed to have seen strange lights in the sky every night since he was seven.

An upper-class widow said she saw a naked man being chased through the streets by a small herd of lusty-looking young women. She was sorely disappointed when Rosie told her it was Patches and they weren’t interested in his after dark activities.

A little girl from the merchant district told them she saw a great red wolf the night of the last full moon.

“Don’t worry about the wolf,” Rosie said, patting her head. “She won’t hurt you.”

It wasn’t until they reached the crossroads leading north out of the village that they found a promising lead. The answer to their problems was a grizzled old crone named Helga. Her eyes sparkled with either hidden knowledge or the schnapps she was sipping from her hip flask.

“Little Maria died last night? A pity. I was certain she was the one His Majesty would finally choose. He’s been alone so long… Ah, well, may she rest in eternal peace. “She crossed herself.” “Girl, are you Catholic?”

Van Helsing snorted.

“No, ma’am,” she shot him an icy look, “but my mother is.”

“Pity. I have a nephew who would be perfect for you—what about you, young man?”

“I am Catholic.”

“Excellent! Would you like to meet my niece?”

“The professor is otherwise involved,” Rosie interjected. “We came here to ask if you saw or heard anything last night. The peddler down the road said you heard noises.”

Helga frowned. “I thought there was something going on between you.” She clicked her tongue and waggled a finger at Van Helsing. “You should have married a nice Catholic girl. Is she at least good to you? She looks like she has a temper.”

He bit back his laughter. “Rosie treats me very well, ma’am. Now, please, we must know about what you heard last night.”

“Horrible screams. I’m not surprised someone was killed. There was nothing else it could be. I haven’t heard screaming like that since I was a child—you know, before the prince came back.”

Rosie glanced at Van Helsing. “Was there anythin' else? Any sounds that might have come from whatever was attackin' her?”

“I’m getting to it, you silly little infidel. It was a very… feline noise. Like when two cats get into a fight, but louder. It must have been a great beast. At first, I thought it was one of the Hound of God,” she shook her head, “this was a creature of the devil. I could tell. It howled and screamed over and over again until the poor child stopped screaming. Her death was not a pleasant one.”

“Thank you, ma’am, that's all we needed to know.”

Helga patted his arm. “Come and see me if God ever strikes down that flagrant unbeliever. I have many nieces.”

“An interesting old woman,” Rosie commented once they were out of earshot. “I don’t know what to mention first, the fact that she thinks God is going to strike me down or that she claims to have been alive since the 1600s.”

Van Helsing looked over his shoulder at the simple cottage. “I’m wondering what her nieces are like.”

“Very funny, old man. What did you make of her story about the big cat?”

“There are no large felines native to this area. However, there is one creature that makes very cat-like noises when angry.”

“A vampire.”

He nodded. “When I examined the wounds on Maria’s body, it looked like she was attacked by someone with a broken bottle. Her skin was so torn I couldn’t distinguish one bite mark from the next. It was almost as if the creature hadn’t fed in quite some time and was desperate for a meal.”

She grabbed his arm. “You realize what this means.”

“Brimstone Bertram has brought his drones to your prince’s doorstep.”

“Great. Before it was suspicion, now it’s a fact. You were supposed to make this simpler, not more complicated. Now we have to go tell him someone’s breeding vampire drones.”

“It isn’t ideal, but at least we know for sure what it is and how to defeat them.”

“Decapitation isn’t exactly a walk in the park, sugar. I’ll have to find my shovel. The edges are getting dull.”

“Must you always use that thing? A sword or even a knife would be better.”

“Keep your knives, I’ll keep my shovel. It’s saved me more times than you have.”

He frowned, ignoring the barb. “Your garter itches.”

“Tough. Just think about how I feel wearing it.”

The path emerged from the forest and Castle Draculesti came into view, it’s walls soaring above the trees.

“Well,” she rubbed her chin, “at least it’s still standing.”

“And it isn’t on fire.”

“Not on the outside, anyway. Shall we see how the boys got along while we were gone?”

“Lets.”

* * *

“I’m not even sure I know what you mean by ‘vampire drones,’” Prince Ailill slurred. “But that might just be the alcohol. I’m thinking about what some vampires do to keep unsuspecting humans in their thrall. They,” he hiccuped twice and trailed off.

Rosie turned to Vladislav. “How much did he drink?”

The voivode shrugged. “A bottle or three. Something. Anyways, some vampires will bite their victims and, instead of changing them, will keep them as half-human servants. They usually do it when they need something that a full vampire or full human can’t get at, but some necromancers are making them themselves. Are there really drones in the forest?”

Van Helsing nodded. “Brimstone Bertram has brought them to your very doorstep.”

“The bastard.”

“Hold on, I know it was the alcohol because it sounds like you just told us that it’s possible to recreate vampirism with dark science,” the fey hiccuped again, “and that would be bad. It means that that bastard in Switzerland could build himself an army and come for us.”

He sighed. “It would be bad. But Baron Frankenstein is too lazy and too poor to attempt anything of the kind. Rosie and I know about him first hand.”

“Oh. So why don’t we find this Brimstone fellow and kill him.”

“Because,” Rosie said, “he’s in your neck of the forest and it’s so full of traps and shit that no one can get close enough to him to kill him.”

Ailill waved his hands around. “H-How do you make a drone?”

“You’re not thinking of getting into the business, are you?”

“No. Just cur-curious.”

“It’s easy. You take a little vampire blood and mix it into someone’s drink or inject them with it and boom, instant slave. There is one minor hiccup.”

“Please, please don’t say hiccup,” he hiccuped. “What’s the problem?”

“It’s an imperfect method. When a vampire bites and ensnares a human without turning them, they mostly go about their normal lives. Other than the fact that they’re now some kind of slave.

“However, when a necromancer does this artificially, something always goes wrong and there are two outcomes: a ghoul or a drone. Most of the time it’s a drone. Drones,” Van Helsing rubbed the back of his neck, “Drones can’t feed. On anything.”

Ailill suddenly looked very sober. “That’s horrible.”

He nodded. “They’re stuck in limbo between being a human and being a vampire. They throw up human food because a vampire cannot process it and they throw up blood because a human can’t process that. They all die of starvation after two or three weeks. It’s a painful, useless, and unpreventable death.”

Vladislav frowned. “And you think this is what killed Maria? They can’t spread their curse, can they?”

“No. Since they aren’t real vampires they can’t really do anything. They’re essentially cheap, disposable troops who’ll obey their master without question. The doc and I kill them wherever we find them, but they’re too easy to breed.”

“I’m less concerned with how they breed than with how we kill them.”

“Decapitation,” she grinned, “it’s the only way. I’m fixin’ t’ sharpen my shovel and get t’ work.”

“Optimism and work ethic,” Ailill smiled. “I knew there was another reason I liked you.”

“Oh, and what was the first one?”

“I couldn’t possibly say in front of other people. But, if you want to come back to my castle with me…”

Rosie let out a girlish giggle. “Please, you already have three wives and a husband? I’d have thought they were enough to keep you occupied for the next century.”

“Variety is the spice of life, my dear. I’m always looking for new… companions.”

“Please,” interjected Van Helsing, crossing his arms, “if there are drones in the area this is a very serious matter.”

“You think everything is a very serious matter.”

“Fair point, but this really is and even you can see that.”

“I know, but there’s no need for y’all to be such a stick in the mud.”

Vladislav cleared his throat. “I think our next course of action should be to find the necromancer. He’ll have human agents in town to do his work. When you went to the village were there any newcomers?”

Rosie thought for a moment before a malicious grin spread across her face. “Only two that I can think of: Mrs. Ana Brooks-Hamilton and her husband, Felix.”

“Did you find out who they are and why they’re here?”

“Oh, I was introduced. See, back in the day our friend Professor Van Helsing was very interested in Mrs. Brooks-Hamilton. Y’know, I knew somethin’ was wrong with them from the very beginnin’? They don’t have any clear purpose in town that I can see.” She turned to Van Helsing.

“D’ y’ think she’s the agent? Or is it him? There’s something dead in his eyes, but that could just be her. Or maybe the fact that he’s a vampire.”

Van Helsing dropped the empty schnapps bottle. It shattered at his feet. “Ana is married to a vampire?”

“She is. Couldn’t you smell him? Oh, right, human.” She smirked. “If Felix isn’t a vampire then I’m an albatross.”

“Then you’re sure he’s the agent?” Vladislav asked. “I don’t want you to harass any more tourists without good reason.”

“I would love to hear the story behind that,” Ailill commented.

“All in good time. Yes, I’m sure. It’s Felix.”

Chapter Text

The windows of room ten were lit up like L'Opéra de Paris and put on as good a show. While Ana Brooks-Hamilton was no can-can girl, she certainly knew how to parade herself in front of un-curtained windows. It was all Van Helsing could do to keep from staring.

He blew into his hands. “It’s June. It shouldn’t be this cold.”

Rosie sat at his feet, warm and content and wrapped in the finest of fur coats. She let out a little snort and her breath made a billowing cloud in the air.

“It’s all very well and good for you to talk. Some of us weren’t born with a fur coat.”

She nosed his leg.

“Don’t start. Not tonight. Let me complain in peace.”

He glanced at the second story window, watching Ana’s comely shadow pass back and forth across the square of light. “I loved her. I was going to propose, but then she was called back home. Her father was dying…”

Rosie yawned.

“Don’t tell me you didn’t have a childhood sweetheart.” He smirked at her. “Perhaps some nice bootlegger or charismatic bandido caught your eye?”

She snapped at his hand.

“As you wish. Keep your secrets, but don’t expect to learn any of mine.”

Ana passed in front of the window again. This time her shadow left even less to the imagination than it had before. He silently prayed that Rosie wouldn’t notice the color in his cheeks or the wild beating of his heart. His prayers went unanswered.

She sniffed his face and gave him a playful lick.

“Yes, thank you.”

She growled softly, looking from him to the window and back.

“I don’t think she knows we’re here and even if she did, the curtain is closed. All you can really see is her outline. There’s no reason to think she’s doing anything other than getting ready for bed.”

Rosie rolled her eyes.

“I would like to give her the benefit of the doubt and, furthermore,—”

“Excuse me?”

The small voice startled Van Helsing out of his train of thought. He looked down to see the little girl they’d spoken to earlier in the day. “What are you doing out at this time of night?”

“I wanted to see the wolf,” she pointed at his companion. “Miss Rosie said she was friendly and I wanted to meet her. But, do you want to know a secret?”

He nodded.

The little girl motioned for him to come closer. “See,” she whispered, “I think that Miss Rosie is really the wolf because they have the same hair—fur?—color.”

Rosie lay down and sniffed the little girl’s hair.

“I knew it was you!” She scratched Rosie’s ears. “Mama said that werewolves weren’t real, but I knew she was wrong. What are you and Professor Abraham doing outside the inn?”

She turned her golden eyes to Van Helsing.

“We’re making sure none of the monsters from the forest come into town. Now, it’s very late and I’m sure your mother is worried sick about you. Miss Rosie will take you home and you’re to stay there until morning, understand?”

The child nodded and picked at her braids for a moment. She rushed forward, grabbing him by the knees. “Thank you for keeping us safe, Professor Abraham. I know that you and Miss Rosie and Prince Vladislav will fight off the monsters.”

“You’re very welcome. Now, if you’re a good girl Miss Rosie will let you ride on her shoulders.”

“Really?” She let out an excited squeak and ran over to Rosie. “Can I?” She scrambled onto her back. “Thank you so much!”

Rosie let out a deep breath, but rose to her feet without further protest and carried the child off into the night.

Van Helsing smiled at the scene and pulled his coat closer. Was the unseasonable cold to do with Brimstone or was it just the mountain air getting to him?

“Abraham?” Ana’s voice drifted across the street. “What are you doing out there in the cold?”

He strolled across the street and looked up at her window. “I was walking one of His Majesty’s hounds.”

She frowned. “Then where is it?”

“She seems to have wandered off somewhere. She’s always doing that.”

“You don’t have to lie to me, Abraham, I know you came here to see me. Why don’t you come up?” She smiled, leaning out of the window until her bare shoulders were clearly visible. “Felix went to Vienna on business and won’t be back for at least a week.”

He could feel his heart rattling around his ribcage. For the second time in twenty-four hours he was a young man again. He felt a mischievous smile pulling at his lips. “I’ll be right up.”

Van Helsing sprinted over to the side of the inn and grabbed hold of the creeping vines that curled up a trellis and ended right below her window. He climbed, hand over hand, until he reached her windowsill.

“Would you back up a little, darling?”

She complied and he swung himself into the room.

“You called?”

She stood before him, wearing a lacy white negligee that revealed all her best qualities. A little thrill passed through him as she smiled. Her lips were the exact color of freshly picked raspberries and he fancied that if he kissed her they would taste the same as they had all those years ago on the riverbank.

“I did.” Her smiled widened. “I need someone to keep me safe while Felix is gone. After all, they say this part of the world is haunted by all manner of terrible creatures and that was always your specialty.” She ran her hands over his chest and pulled him closer. “You wouldn’t want me to be in danger, would you?”

“No,” he mumbled. Had her eyes always been so blue? He suddenly couldn’t remember.

Ana tilted her head back. “Kiss me, Abraham. Kiss me the way you did when we last parted.”

He obliged her, pulling her close. “Ana, I don’t think this is—”

“Shh,” she touched his lips, “Felix won’t be back for at least a week if not more.” She undid his coat. “Besides, what does it matter?” She dropped it on the floor and she started on his jacket.

“You’re a married woman,” he whispered as his jacket joined his coat on the floor, “I can’t do this.”

“But you can and you are.” She made short work of his untucking his shirt and moved onto his belt. “You can, we can…”

He moaned softly, gritting his teeth as her hands drifted lower. A name came unbidden to his tongue and escaped his lips before he could stop it.

Ana withdrew her hands. “What did you call me?”

He licked his lips. “Ana, of course. What else would I call you?”

She shook her head. “No, you called me ‘Rosie.’”

“You must have misheard me, I clearly said ‘Ana.’”

“They sound nothing alike,” a note of annoyance crept into her voice, “I should have known there was something going on between you and that little bitch. How could you? She’s half your age and an American. Not to even mention the way she acts. What are her parents, dogs?”

A cloud drifted across the sun in Van Helsing’s idyllic riverside memory. Had she always been this vindictive when crossed?

“We were married for a brief time, but nothing happened. I don’t have those kinds of feelings for her.”

Ana pushed him away. “I had my hands in your trousers and you said her name, not mine. I think it’s pretty clear that you feel that way about her.” She gathered up his discarded clothes and shoved them into his arms. “Get out.”

“Aren’t you being a little childish about this whole thing?”

“Am I? It’s bad enough that you said another woman’s name; but you also blew your chance at this,” she ran her hands over her curves, “and all for a silly little gutter rat. Out. I don’t want to see you again.”

“Bu—”

She picked up the nearest object—a book—and threw it at his head. “I said get out!”

Van Helsing beat a hasty retreat and slammed the door. Something hit it and the wooden panels shuddered from the impact. He groaned and slid down the door, hiding his face in his coat.

Footsteps approached from the other end of the hall. “Gitte came to get me when she opened her curtains and saw you scaling the ivy.”

“I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Oh, c’mon, didn’t you and your little friend have a good time? Your pants certainly tell a story.”

He didn’t speak.

“Or was it the other way 'round? Gods, don’t tell me you couldn’t find enough blood for that,” she laughed, “I really thought you had it in you.”

He glared up at her. She was wearing a borrowed dressing gown and a malicious smile.

“I have plenty of blood left in me,” he snarled scrambling to his feet and rebuckling his belt.

“Good, that still doesn’t explain why you’re out here moping in the hallway and not in there with her relivin' your glory days.”

“I can’t tell you.” He violently tucked in his shirt, trying to avoid her questioning gaze.

“You’re not helping your argument. In fact, by not tellin' me I’m just going to assume that you were imp—”

He cut her off. “Do you really want to know what happened? Fine, she asked me to leave because— because I said someone else’s name at a very intimate interval.”

“You didn’t,” she gasped.

“I did.” He pulled his jacket back on. “I’m a complete idiot.”

Rosie positively cackled. She could barely speak. “Who—who’s name did you say?”

Van Helsing stood in the middle of the call, buttoning his jacket, and stared at her. She still had that maddening smile plastered on her face.

“Well? I’m waitin'.”

He took two steps forward and stood so close that they were almost touching. “It was yours,” he said, letting the venom drip from his words. “I was in the middle of what promised to be a very pleasant evening and I said your name instead of hers.”

The smile faded from her face.

He turned on his heel and made for the stairs. “Come on, we have to find that drone before it kills again.”

* * *

For the next week, Rosie didn’t say two words to Van Helsing that weren’t completely necessary. Even then she sometimes resorted to hand gestures.

On Saturday, Vladislav approached the professor. “Is it possible to have a private word?”

He glanced up from Patches’ map of the wood--since updated to include most of Ailill’s territory. “Of course. What do you need?”

The prince scratched his beard. “In any other circumstances I would ignore what’s going on between you and Rosie. Your business is your own. However, these are not other circumstances. I need the two of you to work together and this… unnatural silence between you is troubling. Is there something I should know about?”

“We had words.”

“How terribly descriptive of you. I don’t need details, Van Helsing, I just need to know that you and she are going to try to work this out. This isn’t like her, she usually yells at you until you see her point of view. Her silence is more unnatural than yours.”

“I refused to see her point of view so she stopped yelling. It’s nothing for you to be concerned about.”

“As you wish. Shall we talk of this drone business instead?”

Van Helsing gave a tight smile. “I would prefer it.”

“Rosie mentioned a man and woman named Brooks-Hamilton who are visiting the town. Could you find any connection between them and Brimstone?”

He bit back an unpleasant memory of the previous Saturday. “Their guilt is unlikely. It turns out that I went to school with Mrs. Brooks-Hamilton and I can vouch for her honesty. Besides, all the other supernatural activity is centered around Prince Ailill’s castle. Something is clearly fixated on him.”

“Or it could just be the natural way that all supernatural creatures are attracted to the fey. There are more fairies in that wood than in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s imagination.”

“But,” he raised a finger, “what if it’s Brimstone trying to sniff out a weak spot in his defenses? What if Prince Ailill has something he wants?”

The color drained from Vladislav’s face. “There is always Marie-Ann.”

“Isn’t she one of his brides?”

“It’s more the other way around, actually. She’s an ancient and powerful sorceress--among other things. She has enough power in her little finger to turn you into a cow. Not just in body, no, but in mind and soul. To put it simply, if she desired it you would cease to be human. She terrifies me.”

Van Helsing pulled at his collar. “Sometimes I miss hunting vampires.”

“The vampires don’t miss it. Now, shall we pay a visit to the fey prince and see what he and his lady wives are up to on this fine afternoon?”

“Do you think that wise?”

“No, but we have little choice. Rosie will come along, of course, and you’ll treat her civilly; because, if you don’t, you might just end up grazing in my back pasture.”

Chapter Text

Van Helsing lifted the bone china teacup to his lips and took a cautious sip. One could never be too careful when receiving food from the fey—even when they claimed to give it with “no strings attached.”

One of Lazeri’s cats, a black and white fellow named Jerry, sat on his shoulder and watched his teacup intently. When he set the cup down, Jerry dunked one of his perfectly white paws into the steaming hot liquid.

He frowned at the feline as it drew the paw to its mouth and licked it clean.

“Too much cream then?” he asked the cat.

He meowed in agreement.

“Jerry, please!” A small, pudgy man wearing a turban and a burgundy sweater over his abaya rushed across the room and removed the cat from Van Helsing’s shoulder.

“You’ll have to excuse him, his favorite pastime is tasting people’s tea to see if they have the correct tea/cream ratio.” He gave the cat two firm pats on the head before setting him free. “Would you like a fresh cup?”

“No thank you, Mr. bin Muharrem; but, if possible, could you please fetch Prince Ailill and Marie-Ann? We have urgent business with them.”

A shadow passed over Lazeri’s face. “He’ll want to know what it’s about.”

“We’re workin’ to stop the necromancer who’s been causing a such a ruckus in the village,” Rosie said, “and we finally found out what the rascal is after.”

“And what is that?”

“Marie-Ann.”

His eyes widened behind his thick-lensed glasses. “Please excuse me, I’ll go and get them now.” He sprinted to the door, barely missing several cats on the way.

“It’s hard to believe that Lazeri fought in the crusades,” Vladislav commented, “and he could still fight as well as any modern soldier if called upon.”

A large tabby jumped into his lap and began to purr. The prince stroked its head lightly with the back of his hand. “He also has a remarkable wealth of knowledge in the most esoteric subjects. The two of you would get along very well, Abraham.”

Van Helsing pushed Jerry away from his shoulder and completely ignored the prince. “Why aren’t the cats bothering you?” He scowled at Rosie.

She smiled at the two foot cat-free radius around her. “Lucanthropsy.”

Jerry meowed in his ear.

“How long does it take to become a werewolf? I think I’d like to take it up.”

“It’s not that quick. I’d have t’ bite you hard enough to spill blood all over Lazeri’s Turkish carpets and I don’t think he’d appreciate it.”

“It couldn’t hurt to try.”

She sighed. “For a professor of metaphysics you sure don’t know a lot about supernatural creatures. It’s gotta be a full moon and I’ve gotta be in wolf-form. So deal with the cats. He obviously likes you.”

“Jerry,” Van Helsing growled, “Likes my tea.”

“Then give him the rest for gods’ sake! It’s not like you’re goin’ t’ drink it after he’s had his paws in it anyways.”

He lifted his cup up for the cat to sniff. Jerry stuck his nose in it and lapped noisily at the liquid, purring and leaning against Van Helsing’s head.

A laugh sounded from the doorway. “I think you take too much cream in your tea, doctor.”

“Jerry and I have already discussed it and he agrees with you.”

Prince Ailill laughed again. “Please, allow me to introduce my newest bride: Claudette.”

The woman’s long, graying hair hung over her shoulders thick braids and when she smiled at them her teeth glinted with gold. “Pleased to meet you all.”

“You’ve already met Lazeri, of course, and this is Marie-Ann.”

She couldn’t have been more than five-foot-three, but she had a supernatural air of grace that made her seem much taller. Marie-Ann wore the finest woolen dress Van Helsing had ever seen. The golden thread woven into the rich green fabric set off the dark color of her hair and eyes.

He felt himself being drawn in by her eyes as she began to speak.

“I’ve heard much about you and Miss Winchester, Dr. Van Helsing.” She turned her attention to the vampire. “I don’t hear of you as often these days, Vladislav. It has been almost a month since your last visit. We miss you.”

“And I miss you, my lady, but I have responsibilities to see to.”

“How dull.”

“Now that the formalities have been taken care of,” Ailill began, “let us tackle the business at hand. Lazeri mentioned that Brimstone might be after Marie-Ann.”

The sorceress lighted on the settee facing Van Helsing. “What does he want me for?”

Rosie and Vladislav both looked at Van Helsing expectantly. Clearly he was to be the mouthpiece at this meeting. He put his cup down, trying to clear his thoughts. Jerry protested. Loudly.

“If you would excuse me for a moment.” He sighed. He grabbed the cat and placed him on the floor where he started to make small, unhappy noises until Van Helsing let him back up into his lap.

“Thank you for your patience. It was Prince Draculesti who came to the conclusion that Brimstone Bertram’s ultimate goal was Marie-Ann. We think that's why there’s so much supernatural activity in the area at the moment—he’s getting a feel for his intended target.”

Claudette sniffed. “I’m sure you already know this, doctor, but supernatural activity tends to follow us wherever we go. It’s always been that way with the fey.”

“The occurrences are too frequent to be coincidence, my lady. There was the rogue vampire last month, two werewolves the month after them, and our current drone problem. Something is calling them here and I don’t think it’s you.”

“Besides,” said Rosie, “Patches wouldn’t come near this place even after he found out that y’all didn’t mean him any harm. He says there’s something else in the forest.”

Marie-Ann turned her coal black eyes to her husband and wife. “Did I not try to convince you of that very thing just last evening?”

“You did, mo shíorghrá.” Ailill said.

She shifted her attention to her wife. “Perhaps you should listen more.”

“I was listening, but I’m still not convinced the vampire isn’t telling us tales to throw us off his scent.”

Vladislav made a noise in the back of his throat but didn’t answer.

“We can’t trust them,” Claudette hissed through gritted teeth. “I’ve met his type before. Every time my people traveled to England there was always at least one of them—a man who was as two faced as Janus himself. They would call us disgusting creatures by day and chase our women by night!”

She crossed her arms. “Just where is this necromancer supposed to be hiding on our land?”

Van Helsing straightened his tie. “We don’t know.”

“I see. What about this Patches fellow? Has he found whatever is making him uneasy?”

Rosie shrugged. “He won’t go into the forest again. He says he values his life too highly t' risk it in such a foolhardy manner. ‘N that’s a direct quote.”

Marie-Ann shook her head. “Strange attitude for a ghoul. Did you find anything else out except these vague threats?”

“There was one thing.”

She raised an eyebrow. “Please go on, Miss Winchester.”

“There’s this couple that came int’ town just as Van Helsing was getting here. They’re the only newcomers in weeks and since y’all don’t get many tourists, well, it was suspicious.”

“Why didn’t you bring this up before, Professor Van Helsing? If there is anyone who’s presence is suspicious then we should question them closely about why they are here. What are these newcomers called?”

“Ana and Felix Brooks-Hamilton.”

“They’re a couple?”

Rosie looked distinctly uncomfortable at the question. “Yes, ma’am.”

“You hesitated.”

“I did.”

Claudette broke in. “Why?”

“I don’t think she likes him too awful much.”

“Does that have anything to do with the professor’s reluctance to mention them?”

Rosie glanced at Van Helsing. He shook his head.

“I can’t say.”

Marie-Ann snapped her fingers. “Now you can.”

“He’s stayin' quiet because he’s biased. See, he was in love with Ana Brooks-Hamilton when they were at university together and he can’t get over her. He even tried to rekindle the romance when she first arrived in the vill—” she clamped her hands over her mouth. “I didn’t mean to say—”

“I know you didn’t. But you did and you will continue to do so. Go on.”

Rosie’s hands seemed to pull themselves away from her mouth all on their own. “He fucked it all up when she seduced him and instead of saying her name he said mi—” she snarled at the sorceress. “This has nothing to do with the necromancer!”

“On the contrary,” said Claudette, “I think it has everything to do with the necromancer. Why else would this Ana seduce him.”

“I am sitting right here, thank you.”

“Sorry, ducky, you’re just not my type.” She smirked. “But apparently you appeal to Miss Winchester or, at least, she appeals to you.”

He blushed furiously. “This really has nothing to do with anything.”

Mo shíorghrá, Miss Winchester’s secrets are her own. We have no right to them.”

Marie-Ann caressed her husband’s face. “I may have no right to them, but when they involve Ana Brooks-Hamilton I need to know all about them. You do realize who she is, don’t you?” She addressed Van Helsing. “This college sweetheart of yours? Ana Bertram.”

At the sound of her last name it all clicked into place in his mind. The vague feeling of unease when he’d first seen her hadn’t been butterflies, but a memory. A memory of what she’d been called when they first met. Bertram. Sweet Ana Bertram who played a little too rough with the library cat and made it scream. Ana Bertram who knew the layout of the local cemeteries. Ana Bertram who never once mentioned her father.

“She’s his daughter.”

Marie-Ann bowed her head. “This is the kind of thing secrets breed. Tell me, doctor, do you have any more secrets that you’re hiding?”

Van Helsing bit his lips until they bled, trying to resist the influence of her eyes. His secrets were his own.

“We can’t work together if there’s something you haven’t told me.” Time seemed to stop and even the cats knew something was wrong. Marie-Ann stared at him. Her gaze seemed to pierce even his thoughts.

Vladislav broke the silence. “Please, he’s not hiding—”

She silenced him with a look.

“There is something between you and Miss Winchester, Dr. Van Helsing. It blackens your aura,”she paused, “the air thick with unsaid words.”

He licked the blood from his lips before speaking. “Why are you making an issue of this? It has nothing to do with our current situation.”

“It has everything to do with our current situation. The discord sewn by your silence could easily be used by Ana and her father to break us apart. Especially since she now knows about your feelings for Miss Winchester. It must be discussed. However, since you seem to be reluctant to discuss it in public—” Marie-Ann snapped her fingers a second time.

Van Helsing found himself lying on a hardwood floor staring up at walls lined with cleaning supplies. He tried to shift to the side and was abruptly hit in the face with a mop.

Rosie, who was sitting at his feet, laughed at his misfortune but had her merriment cut short when a broomstick fell on her head.

Marie-Ann’s voice filtered through the sturdy wooden door. “Knock three times when you’ve sorted out your problems and, remember, I’ll know if you’re lying.”

Rosie straightened the collar of her dress. “Well this is cozy. I guess it doesn’t pay to hide things from an all-powerful sorceress.”

“At this point she’s less all powerful sorceress and more ancient eldritch deity. She’s one of the few people who could call Vladislav ‘young man’ and be sincere about it.”

She shook her head. “Of all the poor life choices I’ve watched you make over the years, not admitting your feelings for me in that room is one of the worst. What were you thinkin'?”

Van Helsing lay back down and stared at the ceiling. “I harbored a delusion that my private thoughts and feelings could remain private. However, it seems like they’re too closely wrapped up in this mess for that to happen.”

She crawled across the floor and sat next to his head. “Well, are you goin' t' tell me how you feel now? It seems like that’s the only way we’re goin' t' get out of here.”

“It does, doesn’t it?”

“Yes.”

“We’ve been through them so many times, I don’t see the point.”

“If you’re saying my name when some other woman has her hands down your britches then we clearly have something else t' discuss.”

He cleared his throat. “I hoped you wouldn’t bring that up.”

“You’re not goin' t' get off that easily, sugar. See, it implies that what you told me a month ago when you dumped me because you were ‘too old and dried out’ and I was ‘too horny’ was a pile of shit.”

“It looks that way.”

“So, do you?”

“Do I what?” he whispered.

She crossed her arms and blew a stray hair out of her face. “Do you have any kind of feelin's for me? I want to heard it from your lips.”

“Of course I do.”

“Then say it. Tell me.”

Her words hung in the air between them.

“I love you. I have always loved you and I will continue to love you always. That’s why I tried to send you away. You deserve so much better—”

“Oh, cut the shit, old man. I clearly remember tellin' you that I didn’t care about how old and dried up you think you are. I love you, you idiot! And if we’ve established we both love each other, then what are we doing in this fuckin' closet?”

“Sitting here like a couple of idiots when we should be out there protecting a village full of people from a dangerous necromancer and his mad daughter.”

“Then we’re in agreement, but Marie-Ann thinks we have somethin' else t' say t' each other.”

He rubbed his beard. “Who can say with her?”

Rosie pulled at the front of her dress. “Is it gettin' warm in here?”

“Not unless the castle is on fire—although you might be onto something,” he loosened his tie, “it’s becoming decidedly uncomfortable.”

She fanned herself. “It’s probably just a little fairy magic. Nothing t' worry about as long as we’re both still wearing red.”

Van Helsing frowned. “If you’re referring to your garter, then yes, I am still wearing it. However, this isn’t fairy magic. Like I mentioned before, Her Majesty is almost a goddess. No amount of red will save you from her will.”

The temperature in the closet dropped back to normal levels.

“Thank the gods. I thought she was going to burn us ou—Abraham!”

Van Helsing sat up and before he knew what was happening he was pinning Rosie to the floor. “I’m sorry, I don’t know what—” his words were cut off when he pitched forward and kiss her. He pulled back. “I don’t know what’s happening!”

“I do.” Rosie pushed him off and made her way over to the door. “Open up, you dusty old bitch! You have no right t' do this t' two innocent people! We resolved our differences, let us out!”

As if obeying another’s will, Rosie whirled around and threw herself into his arms. He fell to the floor and she found herself sitting between his legs.

“I don’t think name calling will do any good at this point. Especially if you’re going to call Marie-Ann a ‘dusty old bitch’ again.”

“I figured that out all on my own, but thanks.” She started undoing his vest. “Don’t ask, I don’t know.” She sighed and ripped his shirt open, sending buttons flying everywhere.

Soon his vest, shirt, and jacket were laying in a rumpled heap on the floor. He could feel how warm she was through the fabric of her dress.

“If I start takin' off my clothes,” she growled, stopping between each word to kiss one of his ribs, “you are not allowed to look.”

“The same goes for you,” he gasped. “It’s getting increasingly hard to concentrate. What— what are we meant to be working about again?”

“Something about our relationship and how we can’t work together properly ever since we got married.”

“That was it.” He grabbed her by the shoulders and pinned her to the floor a second time. “Tell me, why can’t we work together anymore?”

“Because we’re too stupid to admit our mutual feelings,” she said, fumbling with her dress’ buttons. “It’s too bad, we seem t' be doing okay right now.”

Van Helsing pulled her hands away from her buttons before pressing a wild kiss to her lips. “I can’t say I disagree.”

“There,” she returned his kiss, wrapping her arms around him and pulling him closer, “we agreed on something. Do you think she’ll let us out now?”

“God, I hope not,” he murmured into her neck, “I’m starting to enjoy this.”

She ripped the last three buttons from her dress in her haste to get out of it. “Remember you promise, husband.”

“I don’t need to look I can feel— What were you doing going around without a corset on? And in these,” he pulled at her pantaloons, “they’re much too short to be proper.”

“Says the man with his hands between my legs.” She giggled. “Watch where you’re putting them, Bram! I know all this magic is getting to your head, but I’ve got to draw the line somewh—”

He cut her off with another kiss, trailing a line of them down her neck and between her breasts. “I think the magic is wearing off.”

“Your beard tickles.” She pushed him away. “How can you even tell? You’re still all hot and bothered and close you eyes!”

He did as she asked. “My motives are my own again.” He pressed his lips to where he thought her mouth would be, but felt the soft flesh of her breast instead. He laid his head where he’d kissed. “I’m a complete fool.”

“My goodness, I didn’t think I’d live to see the day you admitted it.” She ran her fingers through his hair. “Would y'all care to elaborate? I’m enjoying this.”

“You’re the best thing that’s happened to me since I graduated from Leiden and I was stupid enough to think you didn’t care for me.” He sat up and looked at her, taking in the delicate pink hew of the blush that slowly spread from her hairline to where her freckled skin disappeared into her underthings.

“If I haven’t insulted you too grievously, I would like you to remain my wife or become my wife. Whichever the case may be.”

Rosie sat up and shielded herself from his view. “Do you really mean that or is it just a little leftover magic?”

Van Helsing tugged at the garter still encircling his neck until it came free. He reached out and tied it around her thigh, his hands lingering on her skin, and pulled her into his lap.

“The next time you take it off it will be our wedding night. Our proper wedding night.” He touched her cheek, running his fingers softly over her scars.

She kissed him, long and slow, caressing the scars on his neck. “Is that a promise?”

“It is and you know I never break my word.”

The door flew open. “Oh, bother!” Lazeri turned his back to them. “As much as it pains me to interrupt your happy reunion, there is a woman at the door calling herself Ana Bertram and demanding and audience with Marie-Ann. Ailill and Vladislav have requested your presence.”

Van Helsing kissed his wife one last time. “I hope I have enough clothes left to make myself presentable. Shall we?”

A wicked smiled curved her mouth. “Lets.”

Chapter Text

Ana stood in the doorway wearing a satisfied smirk and a black dress that glittered when she moved. She cocked her head to the side and looked Rosie up and down. “You appear to be missing some buttons, Miss Winchester. Is Abraham up to his old tricks? He was never very patient with clothes.”

Rosie returned her acidic smile. “It’s Mrs. Van Helsing and I’m surprised a cold fish like you would know anything about that.”

“Darling, I might be a cold fish, but at least I’m not a virgin.”

She snorted. “What gave you that idea? I am missing half my buttons, after all. Oh, sorry, you must be projecting your own youthful experiences onto me. I’d suggest you see an alienist. May I suggest Christina Seward? Or maybe your problems are more suited to her husband.”

“Please,” Vladislav cleared his throat, “Mrs. Brooks-Hamilton has come here of her own volition to discuss our mutual problem. I think civility is the best course of action, Mrs. Van Helsing.”

Rosie rolled her eyes. “If you insist.”

“But is that really why she has come here? If you’ll excuse me questioning your motives, you’ve given us no indication of your purpose.” Ailill crossed his arms. “What do you seek, necromancer?”

She ignored his question, her eyes rested on Van Helsing. “Abraham, why are you clutching at the front of your shirt so tightly? Is it because your sweet little thing got overwhelmed her first time? I hope she didn’t scratch you too badly. One does hear rumors about how rough and tumble werewolves are.”

“I was speaking to you, Mrs. Brooks-Hamilton.”

“And I was addressing Dr. Van Helsing. Well?”

He released his shirtfront and crossed his arms. “I’m not going to answer insulting questions about my wife just to give you some sort of sick thrill. Why have you come?”

“I have come to secure the services of Prince Ailill’s wife.”

“Which one,” he asked with a smile.

Ana laughed delicately. “How very modern of you. I’m speaking of your first wife, Marie-Ann.”

Marie-Ann appeared at her husband’s shoulder and frowned at their unexpected guest. “What have you come for?”

“My, so many people have asked that question of me recently. I don’t really know how to answer anymore. I would, however, prefer to speak to you in private. The matters which I wish to discuss are somewhat… delicate.”

“I hide nothing from my friends or from my spouses. If you have something to say, you may speak freely before them.”

Ana’s voice faltered. “If you insist.”

A crack of thunder sounded across the landscape and Marie-Ann flashed a smile as bright as lightning. “As it happens, I do.”

Rosie grabbed Van Helsing’s sleeve. He instinctively pulled her closing. An oncoming wind blew his shirt open, leaving him chilled an embarrassed as Ana stepped cautiously over the thresh hold.

She surveyed the tapestry-lined walls with careful admiration. “You have a handsome castle, Prince Ailill. Almost more handsome than Prince Vladislav’s.”

“You’re stalling, witch.”

“And you’re jealous of the fairy prince’s riches, leech. We all have our faults.” She took a moment to straighten her collar before she spoke again.

“As you all know by now, I am the daughter of Brimstone Bertram and I have been trading under his name for quite some time. The real Brimstone, I’m sorry to say, has been dead for years now. May he rest in eternal peace.

“As my father was dying, he made me promise to fulfill his last wish. My father raised many things in his lifetime: countless humans, vampire drones, golems, werewolves, witches—the list goes on forever. But there was one creature he never conquered. A creature so rare that there may only be one left in the entire world: magni draconis.”

Van Helsing started at the creature’s name. “Do you know how many necromancers have attempted that and perished in the act? And how many more perished by the fangs of their creation? It’s madness to attempt such a thing!”

“Well, my father was never very balanced to begin with and he was even less so at the time of his death. But I, I have the means and the power to make his dreams a reality. I have already built the creature. Now I only require the spark of life.

“However,” she glanced downward and fluttered her eyelashes, “nothing I’ve tried has worked. So today I stand humbly before the master of life and death in hopes that she will help me in my quest.”

Marie-Ann picked at her cuffs for a moment before answering. “The master of life and death? Hardly. In my long years on your earth, I have learned one thing: no one is master of either. You might play at necromancy, child, but you will never master it.

“This is my advice: go home to your husband and take him far from this place. Go and never practice the dark arts again. They will drain the life from you and leave you a cursed and broken shell of what you once were. Look at what happened to Baroness Frankenstein—cursed with Death’s Touch and unable to take part in the most basic of human comfor—”

“Eglantine Frankenstein is sloppy! She’s nothing but an ignorant little slut who has ideas above her station! I’m a far more powerful necromancer than she’ll ever be! Death will not take me as he has taken her.”

“Oh, I have no doubt of that, child. You’ve heard all I have to say on the matter. Go.”

Ana’s lips curled back in a snarl. “Is that your final word?”

Lightening crisscrossed the sky. The unnatural light reflected itself in Marie-Ann’s eyes and they glowed brightly. “Leave my home” her voice distorted with the deep rumble of thunder, “or you will force me to be discourteous.”

“If you insist, but you’ll regret the day you turned me away. You all will.” She turned on her heel and slammed the door behind her.

The windows rattled with the wind and rain began to pelt the rooftop. Marie-Ann kept her still glowing eyes fixed to the door.

Lazeri broke the silence. “Do you think she’ll come back?”

She turned to her second husband. “Of course she will, my sun, but we will be prepared for her when she does.”

His attention wavered from her words of comfort as he watched the cats parade through the hall. He mumbled numbers to himself. “Darling,” he pointed to one of the animals, “that isn’t my cat.”

The small, pale feline paused its grooming to meow at the onlookers.

“How can y’all tell? There are so many of them.” Rosie frowned at them each in turn.

He shook his head. “There are six indoor cats and two outdoor cats. There are seven cats here and that isn’t one of the outdoor cats.” Lazeri squinted at the extra cat for a moment before springing backward and ducking behind his husband. “Ailill, that isn’t a cat.”

Ailill pushed Claudette behind him and into a nearby closet. He shielded the little Turk from the cat’s view. “What is it?”

The cat hissed, showing a set of pristine white fangs. It arched its back, hair standing on end, and began to grow. Soon it had outgrown its skin and was beginning to split apart. Blood dripped down its forelegs and onto the carpet.

“Lazeri, what is it?”

The thing continued to grow, no longer resembling a cat in any way. It was nearly the size of a man now, with sickly white skin and a gaping mouth. It hunched forward, its knuckles dragging on the floor.

Vladislav’s eyes turned white and his fangs stuck out over his lower lip. “It’s a drone,” he hissed.

The drone snarled at him and sniffed the air. It took a step toward Marie-Ann, its too-thin skin stretching over its ribs. The creature knew only hunger and its mistress’ will and its mistress wanted the fey queen.

Marie-Ann’s eyes flashed like lightning for a second time and the storm outside rose to a furious intensity. Rain lashed the windows and hail beat the door.

Van Helsing glanced at Rosie and found a great red wolf standing where his wife had been a moment before.

She flattened her ears against her head, taking a slow step toward the creature. Her claws scraped against the stone where the carpet ended and the drone snapped its attention to her.

It hissed.

Rosie sprang, her front paws pinning it to the floor. She growled, a deep bass sound that rumbled from her chest, and grabbed it by the head.

The drone screamed in terror, flailing its claws every which way in an attempt to get free of her jaws.

She tightened her grip and pulled.

Its head popped off with a sickening crunch.

Van Helsing felt the bile rising in his throat. He ducked quickly and put his head between his knees. There was blood creeping across the floor toward him. He couldn’t bring himself to look at his wife, to imagine the blood that surely stained her face and chest, to think of what she’d done. He grimaced.

There was a loud noise behind him, something that drowned out even the sound of the hail, something like the splintering of wood. He turned to see what caused the disturbance and everything went black.

 

Chapter Text

The first thing Van Helsing heard upon awakening was birdsong. His eyes fluttered open. Sunlight was streaming through the windows of the… kitchen? He tried to sit up but found that he was unable.

A man in a dark blue suit stepped over him, humming his way to the stove where he attended to a screaming kettle. The man glanced over his shoulder and smiled at Van Helsing. “Don’t get up, I’ll get you some tea.”

He opened his mouth, only to find that blood poured from it whenever he tried to speak. What had happened? Was this all some kind of surreal nightmare? Was he dead? Was this heaven or, indeed, was this hell.

The man took little notice of the blood. “You’re in a pretty pickle, Abraham. I don’t know what I’m going to do with you.” He set two plain mugs on a table and poured the tea. “Do you take cream?”

Van Helsing managed to gurgle.

“Ah, I see. The damage to your vocal cords was extensive. But you put up quite a fight, I’m told.”

He couldn’t remember seeing the man sit. One moment he’d been standing and the next… the next he was lounging at the table and sipping his tea.

“I’m sure you have questions.”

He nodded, trying to ignore the burning sensation in his throat.

“Everyone does. After all, what is death but the last question we all answer?” The man turned a set of electric blue eyes on Van Helsing and cocked his head to the side. “You’re dead, Abraham. Well, mostly. You’re lying on that cold floor in Ailill’s castle with your life pooling about your shoulders.”

The warm, sunny kitchen flickered from his vision. There were people all around him, shadowed figures of those gone past. Rosie cradled his head in her lap, she was weeping and pleading with Ailill to do something—anything! There had to be something. There was always something.

The spirits faded. His wife was gone. He was bleeding on a set of pristine white tiles again. He opened his mouth and choked on blood.

“You see my dilemma,” Death commented drying, fiddling with his tie, “I don’t usually make exceptions. However, your wife has convinced the fey prince to intercede on your behalf and he makes a compelling argument.”

Van Helsing waited for him to continue, half expecting Ailill to burst into the kitchen.

“He’s told me that you’re hunting Ana Bertram and that she seeks to raise that which is dead.” He let out a chuckle. “Listen to me, ‘that which is dead.’ Forgive me, just a bit of whimsy on my behalf. Now, Bram, I don’t make a habit of giving things back. Once something comes to me, it’s never returned.

“Take this for example,” he gestured at his tie, “it was a gift from the little flower who designed my gardens for me. A sweet girl. She stole it from a powerful demon and gave it to me for Christmas.” Death smirked. “It would be bad manners to return it just as it would be bad manners to return you.”

Black spots began to appear in Van Helsing’s field of vision.

“Oh dear, I seem to be running out of time.” Death ran his hands through his hair, displacing the perfectly coiffed curls in the process. “I’ll just have to cut to the chase. Prince Ailill said he can’t defeat Ana without you and, if it’s all the same, I’d rather she wasn’t running around the countryside bringing things back to life. Especially dragons.”

He couldn’t see Death now, only hear his honeyed voice in the darkness.

“So, Abraham, I’m sending you home.”

* * *

There were cleans sheets against his skin and a soft pillow beneath his head. He was warm, safe, and breathing. He was alive.

Van Helsing sat bolt upright in the bed and immediately regretted it. “Alive,” he murmured, clutching at his bandaged throat. He felt for a pulse with shaking hands and, finding it with no trouble, sunk back into the pillows.

Alive.

There was a soft thump next to his pillow and one of Lazeri’s cats crawled onto his chest. It was the same black a white tom that dipped his paws into the tea. The masked cat peered into his eyes and scented the air, his mouth open slightly.

He sneezed violently.

“It’s good to know you still like me.” Van Helsing chuckled, scratching the cat’s ears.

Jerry hissed at his touch, leaping off his chest and leaving eight perfect slices in his flesh.

“What’s the matter with him?”

“It’s the smell. You smell different now.” Rosie slowly came into view and sat on the edge of the bed. “He knows.”

His hands began to tremble. “What does he know? Am I dead? What does that cat know?” He grabbed her arm. “Tell me.”

“There was only one way for Ailill to bring you back. He— he had to use his fairy magic. You’re like him now. A fey. I s’pose that makes you a changeling or somethin'. I don’t really know how it works.

Van Helsing blinked. Everything was suddenly in stark detail. It was as if she had flipped a switch in his mind. Like he’d been looking at the world through a foggy windowpane his whole life and someone had just wiped it clean. Rosie, in particular, had a new clarity about her. He could have counted the freckles on her face if he was inclined too. And he was inclined to. He could have stared at her for hours.

He frowned. The fair folk never did anything without the promise of something in return. Something was wrong. “What did you give Ailill?”

She cocked her head to the side. “The only thing I had.” Her voice was oddly subdued. “I don’t— V tells me that I sold Ailill my memories. Of you.” She looked away.

The breath caught in his throat.

“Are we really married? Only, you don’t seem my type. But I must love you if I sold almost,” she frowned, as if grasping for something, “Did he say four years? I must love you if I sold almost four years of my life for you.”

“We’ve been married for almost a year and I seem to be the exception that proves the rule.”

“Right. Of course. There’s always exceptions. See, I remember traveling all ‘round Europe with… someone. But there are huge blank spaces in my memory. I remember being in Ireland trying to hunt down a rogue fey, I remember it had green hair, and I even remember that it was calling itself Seán, but I don’t remember why or who asked me to or even why I went to Ireland in the first place.”

He cleared his throat, unsure of what to say.

“V also told me that I love you.”

“His Majesty has been telling you a lot of things.”

“There hasn’t been much else to do. You’ve been asleep for almost a week Ailill said somethin’ about you resisting his powers and somethin’ else about you being the most stubborn man he’d ever met. Did I— did I ever complain about that?”

“Constantly. You were always going on about how I never listened to your advice.”

“I give wonderful advice!”

“I know,” he said softly. “I know. What happened to the second drone?”

“V killed it. But the third drone one took the original Mrs. Ailill.”

He bolted upright and fell out of the bed. “Ana has Marie-Ann?”

“Gods, don’t get too bent out of shape.” She shoved him back into the bed. “We’ve been searching for her while you were a’sleepin’. You needed your rest and I think we can manage without you. Besides, I might not remember you but,” she brushed a stray hair behind her ear, “but I do like the idea of having a husband and I’d like t’ keep you if that’s not too much to ask.”

“But if Ana manages to animate the dragon—”

“Hush!” She covered his mouth. “It’s not your problem. Your problem is getting your strength back and maybe helping me get my memories back from that fairy bastard.” She lowered her hand. “Any ideas?”

“Ana—”

“That isn’t what I asked,” she snarled.

“There’s always true love’s kiss. True, it wouldn’t be our first, but—”

“But it might work.”

She ran her fingers through his beard and pressed her lips to his. He sat up, as though his body had a will of its own and its only desire was her. There was still the faint tang of blood on her breath and he tried not to think about the drone that had perished between her fangs.

It was a quick kiss, chaste and cold, but it set his blood aflame. The very texture of her lips upon his… Was his also a side effect of his new situation?

She pulled back and stared at him. “So much for that idea. You got any more?”

He shook his head. “Why did you have to give him your memories? It would have been so much easier if you’d, I don’t know, given him your middle finger or something.”

“I need that for later and we can always make new memories.” She paused. “If we want to. Abraham, do I really love you? Everyone tells me I do but— I want to hear it from you.”

“We settled the matter before the drone came. You love me and I love you.”

Rosie stared at his lips. “How did we settle it?”

His face was hot. “In the normal fashion.”

“So we was… together.”

“Not completely. Lazeri interrupted our tryst. We were saving it for our honeymoon.”

“When was that meant to be?”

“Whenever we settled this Ana business.”

“Then I hope we can get the two of you on your honeymoon soon.” Vladislav stood in the doorway. “Come, Prince Ailill says we must prepare for war.”

Chapter Text

Chapter Sixteen

Lazeri’s sitting room was now a war room. Maps and battle plans were plastered on every free inch of wall space. Van Helsing narrowly missed tripping over a pike on his way to where Ailill and Vladislav were sitting on the settee with their knees jammed against the coffee table. The vampire prince examined the map that was laid out before them for a moment before laying his hand on a group of red x’s.

“I think our priority should be finding her base of operations. If we can do that, we can eradicate the stragglers and pen in the rest of her forces. The ghouls have already pinpointed areas that are the most likely.” He waved at the x’s.

Van Helsing stood to the side, watching the two supernatural creatures debate possible plans of attack. His newly sharpened senses took in very detail of the scene. Looking at them now, he couldn’t fathom how he’d ever thought either of them was human.

There was a feral thinness in Vladislav’s face and every so often when he turned, his eyes would flash pure white. His lips were stretched over his mouth as though they were hiding something and when he spoke, his fangs poked out.

Ailill was now terrifying. His eyes were no longer dark brown, but a hard and sharp black like shards of obsidian. His skin reflected light like the wings of an iridescent beetle. If Vladislav was inhuman, Ailill was alien.

He tore his eyes from the pair on the couch and turned his attention to the map laying on the table. Everyone was right, Patches was an excellent cartographer. “Has is escalated that quickly in a week’s time?”

Lazeri stood at the edge of the fireplace, eyeing his husband worriedly. “Since Ana kidnapped Marie-Ann we’ve retaliated no fewer than ten times. Your lady wife led twelve raiding parties and sent fourteen drones to their death, but we’re no closer to finding out where she’s keeping our wife.”

“It would be suicide to invade her territory without knowing precisely where she is.” Ailill turned his attention to Lazeri, moving to join him. He touched his shoulder lightly. “We will find her. Patches has narrowed it down to these four miles in the far northern region of the forest, but he refuses to go any closer without more information.”

“Ghouls have always had a flair for survival.” Van Helsing rubbed his chin. He frowned at the map. “It has to be a big enough space to house her pet project. Did you take that into account?”

Claudette answered, her voice full of venom. “Do you think we’re stupid? Of course we did.”

“You’re not stupid, you’re emotionally compromised. You might not see something you normally would. Is there anywhere within these four miles that could contain a fully grown dragon?”

Vladislav let his hand linger on the map. “There is one place,” he said, his voice barely raising above a whisper. “My brother built a castle in the northernmost mountains, just on the very edge of the Hoia Baciu, and dug miles of tunnels beneath it. The ruins are still there and so are the tunnels. It would be the perfect hiding place for a necromancer and her undead dragon. No one goes there anymore. The villagers believe it’s haunted by his ghost.”

Rosie laid a hand on her friend’s shoulder. “Is it?”

“No. I saw to that when I killed him.”

An uneasy silence filled the room. Van Helsing old sense everyone’s pulse. Everyone except the vampire prince’s. His heart had stopped beating long ago. It was, once again, very apparent that he was the only human in the room. But was he even that anymore?

Claudette broke the silence. “If even the ghouls are scared of going there, then it must be a dangerous area.” She crossed her arms. “Who are we going to send exploring?”

Van Helsing snuck a look at Rosie. “I would be willing to test out my new powers for the cause. If, that is, someone were to come with me. Perhaps someone with a sensitive nose who could help me sniff her out.”

“Are y’all suggesting that I be used at some kind’a bloodhound?”

He swallowed. “It’s our only option. Who else here would be able to find her?”

“And just how are you goin’ t’ use those new powers of yours? We don’t even know if you really got any!”

“Stop.” Ailill snaked his arm around Lazeri’s shoulders and gave his husband a firm squeeze. “This is not the time for arguments. I did the enhance the professor’s innate abilities. His eyes are sharper than a hawk’s and, if he listens closely enough, even the trees might speak to him.”

Rosie scowled. “Is that all? I sold you four years of my life so my husband could see better and talk to trees? A pair of glasses and a simple spell could’ve done that!”

“I brought him back from the dead for you. He’s alive and he won’t age. I gave you everything you asked me for and more still.” His eyes flashed. “It would be wise for you to curb your tongue.”

She barred her teeth at the fey, her eyes flashing golden. 

Van Helsing grabbed her arm. “We’re both very grateful, your highness. I, for one, am extremely happy to be alive. Rosie, let’s go outside. We can test my new powers. Maybe we’ll discover something the prince has forgotten.” 

“Unlikely,” she snorted, “he never seems to forget anything.”

He pulled her toward the door, watching the prince and his husband carefully. “Then this will give us a change to get to know each other better. Come on.” 

* * *

Outside the air was finally warm enough to justify it being June. Rosie shed her heavy woolen jacket and jumped onto a nearby rock. She scowled at the tree line, not bothering to look at her husband. Her posture radiated annoyance. 

“Where does he get off tellin’ me all ‘bout your ‘useful gifts?’ And you! Where do y’all get off treatin’ me like some kind’a dog? Is that what I am to you now? A bloodhound?”

“That isn’t what I was suggesting and you know it. What’s gotten into you? It’s the full moon tonight, isn’t it?”

“A’course it is.” She scratched her neck, leaving long red marks on her throat. “Good t’ know that you remember your phases of the moon.”

He skirted the rock and frowned up at her. “You didn’t forget you were a werewolf, did you?”

“I did not.” Rosie pulled her dress off over her head and threw it into the grass. “That wasn’t part of our deal.” She leaned back on the rock, letting the sun warm her skin. “But you were.”

He tried not to stare. His newly improved vision made it impossible to ignore what seemed like a galaxy of freckles that lightly dusted her skin in even the most unlikely of places. He wanted to see if he could feel them as clearly as he could see them. Van Helsing took a deep breath and moved closer.

“You really don’t remember me at all?”

“That fairy bastard wouldn’t let me keep a single memory. It was all’r nothin’.” She sat up, her hair almost brushing his face. “But you sure must remember somethin’ ‘bout me. If y’all stare any harder your eyes’ll come out of your head.”

“Let them. I won’t need them, I’ve already seen you.” He was surprised by the intensity in his tone. “If nothing else, this newfound sight has given me a new appreciation for you.”

Her eyes flicked from the forest to his face. “Then why don’t we do what you suggested and test your new powers. Rosie slid off the rock and was out of her underthings in one fluid movement. “If you can catch me I’ll make this a day you’ll never forget.”

He smirked. “What are you going to do? Break my nose again?”

“Again?” She cocked her head to the side. “Never mind, that’s something you can tell me about when you catch me.”

Rosie started to run and was gone within seconds.

Van Helsing shed his jacket and tie, his fingers fumbling with his buttons. If there was ever a time that called for speed, this was it.

* * *

The trees arched overhead, swaying softly in the warm breeze. He took little notice of them, only slowing to avoid their roots. He’d already tripped over one of them and gone for a tumble. It wasn’t something he wanted to repeat.

As he continued his pell-mell journey through the forest, he found that he was faster than he remembered. Maybe even faster than he’d been in his college days of track in field.

He continued on, deeper and deeper into the forest. Whispers drifted through the air around him. When he stopped to finally discard his shoes and socks, the whispers resolved into words. It was the trees. Prince Ailill was right, he only need listen. They whispered in the back of his mind—telling him secrets and half-truths about their home. One of them let out a merry laugh at Van Helsing’s continuing confusion and pointed the way to Rosie.

The path wandered further and further into the Hoia Baciu, but not once did he feel lost or out of place. This was his home now. This place and places like it. It he could have spent the rest of his life outdoors he would have.

He shed the rest of his clothes in a pine grove. The lady pines giggled at his pale, scarred skin; complimenting his fine “bark.” Your lady wolf has gone to the meadow, the eldest one murmured, her voice low and husky, She’s waiting for you there.

He continued through the wood. The brambles tore at his skin. On the banks of a river, a tall, becoming willow trailed her long branches over his shoulders and begged him to stay a while with her. To forsake all human love.

An ancient elm, grown tall and strong, called out to him in a high, clear voice: She’s very near! It’s not much further! Don’t let them distract you and don’t stray from the path!

The elm was right.

Rosie stood with her back to him, surveying the clearing. It hardly warranted the pine’s label of “meadow.” Lavender sprung up between patches of grass and moss and light streamed through the thinning trees. The wind picked up, tossing her bright red hair this way and that.

The trees sung to him. Begging him to leave her for them. They were his true family now. His brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, lovers… He pushed their voices to he back of his mind and thought only of her.

Van Helsing could see where the brambles had sliced at her flesh. He was standing so close now that he could smell the strange, wild scent that followed her everywhere. He rested his hands on her hips, relishing the feeling of her skin beneath his.

“I caught you.”

“Doesn’t count. I was waiting for you.” She peeked at him over he shoulder. “You look horrible. Are those willow leaves in your hair?”

“She wanted me to stay. You might be the only woman in the world who almost lost her husband to a tree.”

“So they do speak to you.” She studied a nearby grove of oaks. “What do they say?”

“This and that. The willow told me that she could love me far better than any human woman ever could.”

Rosie snorted. “As if. Y’all can tell that leafy little hussy to keep her twigs to herself. You’re mine.” Her voice caught in her throat. “You are mine, aren’t you?”

“I am and I always will be. I promised you on our wedding day.”

She watched the lavender sway in the wind for a moment before she spoke. “I don’t remember our wedding day. I don’t remember the day we met. I don’t— I don’t remember what it feels like to kiss you.”

“You kissed me right after I woke up.”

“That wasn’t a real kiss,” she said, whirling on him, her arms crossed. “It was just a little peck on the lips. There was no passion. No feeling t’all. I— I’m lonely for a man I’ve never been with. Hungry for the touch of a man I don’t even know. It’s… strange. My skin remembers you, remembers what it feels like when you touch me, but I don’t. I miss you,“ a sob escaped her lips, “I miss you even when you’re with me.”

He pulled her in close, pressing his face into her hair. “I’m here with you now and I’ll never leave you again.”

“That doesn’t fix my problem!” She leaned back until she could look him in the eyes. “I don’t remember you. M-Make me remember you.”

Van Helsing needed no further invitation. He kissed her, knocking them both into the lavender in his impatience. He kissed her eyelids, her cheeks, her neck, he trailed kisses down her body, lavishing her with the attention he had so long sought to give her. The attention she deserved. The attention he had neglected to show her since their wedding night.

Soon they were so entangled that he could no longer tell where he ended and she began. He took a moment to enjoy the feeling of being close to her. He pressed his hands to her ribs, pushing her away for just long enough to catch a glimpse of her smiling face. She was flushed, her skin a perfect shade of pink under the dusting of freckles.

He turned his attention to her scars, caressing them over and over, making sure she knew they would only ever add to his admiration. She let out a little moan and curled her legs around him, arching her back and pressing in closer.

His heart skipped a beat when she dug her fingernails into his skin, adding little scars of her own to his collection. He angled his hips forward, seeking to close the nonexistent space between them. He never wanted to let her go, never wanted to leave her feeling neglected or lonely or forgotten ever again. She was his wife and was going to make her remember it.

“Lawrence Abraham Van Helsing,” she whispered, pronouncing each syllable of his name as though it were a hymn, her lips grazing against his ear. “Bram,” she breathed, the air catching in her throat as he shifted, “Bram, I remember you.”

“I love you,” he mumbled into her lips. “I love you, I love you, I love you.” He brushed a soft kiss in the hollow of her throat. “I’ll never leave you again. Never.”

He grasped her thighs, struggling to find purchase against the moss beneath them so he could bring her bring her more pleasure. He thought little of the stinging in his knees or the aching in his lower back that only seemed to get worse every time he pressed into her. This, this was all for her and it was worth every pain.

A new pain began forming between his temples. Voices swirled around his head once more. Wild howls of panic cut through his love-fogged mind. His grip faltered and Rosie fell from his arms.

She landed in a soft patch of grass, still panting, with her legs still thrown open. “Abraham, what the fuck?”

He pulled away from her touch, clawing at his ears. He looked at her without really seeing her. A red mist descended over his vision. It was the trees. Their cries cut through his thoughts like a hot knife through ice. He bent double, adding his own voice to their chorus.

Van Helsing could feel Rosie grab him by the shoulders, but he couldn’t see her properly. She was saying something. He couldn’t hear her words over the cacophony of terror surrounding him. The trees’ cries resolved into a single, cutting voice that rose above the rest, giving name to their fears.

The fire bringer! The fire bringer has returned! Save us, changeling! Save us from the flames!

A shadow raced across the clearing, blotting out the sun as it flew. The dark figure circled a few times, the sound of great wings drowning out even the trees, before announcing its presence with a deafening roar.

He regained the full use of his eyes just in time to see a skeletal tail curling out of sight. The creature was headed north at breakneck speed. “She did it,” he whispered, clinging to Rosie, “she brought it to life.”