Ryan was no doctor but Shane Madej was full of shit.
“I’m just messed up, man,” Shane repeatedly huffed at him from under a myriad of layers, crouched over his laptop screen like a waxen insect.
Shane’s claim was that he’d been taking Dayquil. Bottles and bottles of Dayquil each for two days and it had been a week. Ryan was beginning to have questions.
Ryan’s questions got specific when Shane started to look like That. Blue bruised eyelids, transparent under the eyes. Ghastly. His hair looked like frayed and aged fabric, singed at its edges and when he could chance a smile, Ryan saw something really base; animal and primal in the off-white of his bicuspids. Ryan didn’t know the signs but he knew the signs. Maybe it was the haunted, carefully distracted stare he’d fix on Ryan when he didn’t think Ryan was looking. Maybe it was that Shane seemed to squint hard at the sun, looked like he was suffering from sleep loss but Shane was late every damn day now, claiming he’d slept in. Odd excuse when Ryan knew he’d signed off their group chat at the early hour of 7 p.m. because he claimed he needed sleep.
Ryan liked so many things about Shane, some he’d rather die than say to Shane’s face, but the one thing he thought he could always count on was Shane’s honesty with him. So of course now Shane’s refusal to be straight with Ryan filled him with a guarding pain and a little feeling of betrayal. When hurt like that struck, Ryan always caught himself refreshing a catalog of promises he’d accidentally swallowed framed with phrases like Package deal and Best friend. Both sounded thoughts scared him when he considered the implications of Shane’s secrets and this unmistakable play-acting.
It was how he’d come to be standing at the doorway of Shane’s bedroom, looking in at a room darkened by heavy curtains; chilly like it hadn’t seen sun in weeks.
“Your door was unlocked,” he stated, the words spilling out of him like a panicked pool. “Anyone could’ve walked in--wait, I shouldn’t be surprised with your reckless-- I mean you really aren’t afraid of anything, are you?”
Shane blew a heavy breath from under his covers before his dazed head popped out, hair like a faded brown halo around his head. “Don’t know what you’re talkin’ about.”
Ryan didn’t have the stomach for detective work but if he did… “But you are afraid of some things, aren’t you?” If he did, he’d be an exceptional one. “Heroin. Someone poisoning your blood, right?”
“Blood s’not poisoned. It’s some virus. I’ll beat it down by the end of the week, I’m sure.”
Full. Of. Shit. It had been a month. This was no virus.
Ryan wanted to kick something. He didn’t have all the facts but he was worried. He knew what he was looking at but he didn’t have the solution, didn’t want to think that Shane might be just letting himself fall apart, thinking it wasn’t showing. “Stop lying to me and tell me how it works.”
Shane’s gaunt, black-eyed stare swiveled on him, lips formed a shaky, sweaty frown. “How what works?”
Ryan rested hands on his own hips, taking in the shadows surrounding Shane, his scent like death and the sheer lack of blood in his skin. He was sheet white, eyes glazed and hungry. “The bloodthirst? I woulda googled it but the mythos is divided. This obviously isn’t Twilight. You’re not about to tell me vampires like baseball because I know you hate sports. I’m not into making assumptions but...”
Shane’s laugh was like ashes. Decay. “Ryan, I have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about.”
Ryan swallowed the bubbling tirade of curses filling his mouth. He felt helpless. It wasn’t fair; wasn’t fair for Shane to have just rolled along into his life, to have made Ryan care what happened to him, making him this panicky. “Stop lying…” He heard the grate in his own voice, simple but hurt. “Just stop.”
Instead of the truth, Ryan got Shane’s dead silence and lack of eye contact.
Ryan stepped closer into the room. Not entirely sure he wanted to hear the silence change when he asked, “Does it need to be human blood?”
And how the silence changed. Shane’s reaction was stark, like an imitation at life in his limbs as he sat up. Ryan could practically hear the empty shell of his body creak as he drew to his best height sitting up in bed to look at Ryan. Really look at him. Crestfallen, sheepish, panicked.
Ryan set his expression. There’d be time for confrontations later. There’d be time for explanations even later than that. For now... “Just give me yes’s and no’s. Is it human blood?”
Shane’s expression changed. It was as if the whole time Ryan had known him, he’d worn some soft, neutral mask, a carefully humane construction of short smiles and gentle hard eyes. Now his gaze was a threat, an open and savage hunger directed up at him. Ryan could feel the oxygen shake right out of his chest. Fear. Real fear. Even though he hadn’t ever seen a vampire before, hadn’t seen one in this state, it had to be easy for anyone looking at Shane now to know.
Shane was a quiet, open-mouthed audience as Ryan stepped closer to him in the shadows despite his feeling a new kind of terrified--yeah--but monsters could be monsters. This was Shane. “Well?” Ryan pressed, keeping his voice steady. “Is it?”
“Yes,” said Shane, the dark edge on his tone was his thinking of it and Ryan shuddered in the middle of his back. “Well, not anymore… it can’t be. I’ve been--I’ve taken in secret for years and years. I don’t wanna do it anymore but it’s…”
Ryan’s hands were shaking. It was real. Monsters were real. More real now than they’d ever been and so was Shane. Ryan kept his name fragrant in his mind. Shane. Shane. Shane. Just Shane. You are not afraid of your best friend. Best friends aren’t afraid of each other. They’re not. “I guess you don’t owe me explanations.” He breathed on his own even tone, surprised that the tremors in his nerves begging to leap away from the being gazing out at him, glimmering death, wasn’t audible when he spoke. “Just tell me where things went wrong, so we can fix it.”
“I’m trying to fix it, Ryan.” Shane’s long fingered hands unfolded from their clutch in his covers. “It degrades outside the-the body from air contaminants; acidity changes... I’ve tried everything else….animals--tiny ones---made me so sick, and the taste isn’t right--no sustenance… like swallowing hairspray...”
He was drifting off, sloped eyes slowly shutting as he gulped hunger. What if he hadn’t come today? What if he’d gotten a grave phone call from Shane’s landlord saying… “I don’t want what’s happening to you to happen, got that? But I won’t bring you anyone. There’s no one I would do that to--”
“I’d never ask,” Shane cut across him plainly. “It’s the fight I can’t deal with anymore, Ryan. You have to fight them for it, subdue them as you drink and it’s the fight that kills them.”
It was time for Ryan to feel that fear again. “Kills...them…?”
Shane looked so wretched, so much like he was peeling deep layers under his own skin, flaying himself out for Ryan. “No more, you get that? Not for me. I’m ready for it to end.”
At that Ryan reached out instinctively to the lamp at Shane’s bedside, pressed the switch as if he were throwing meat to a wolf sitting right near him The shaded spool of light crashed over Shane’s features, made him seem all the more wide eyed and sickly, the lines of his face were like ravines, delicate grooves you could trace the framework of deadened veins through. Ryan uttered a soft sound; his heart felt brittle as he thought of it all. What it would mean to know he’d lost Shane. What the fuck would he do? His eyes stung. He was torn at how terribly angry it made him, like it wasn’t right to see your best friend like this and just wanna lose it on him but then why would he just never think to tell Ryan? Didn’t Shane even know him? Know that Ryan would always and forever do anything he could for his friends where it really counted?
“Well,” Ryan began. Or maybe he really didn’t know and it was on Ryan to make him understand. “What if they didn’t fight?”
Shane shut his eyes, bruised pain in those shocking blue veins on his eyelids and the tremble of his mouth said he knew what Ryan was going to say.
“What if the person offered it willingly?”
Shane blinked at him warily. “Blood offerings don’t just come along and they always have a price.”
“Well, I'd feel weird charging you for it.” The words flew up out of him before he could stop them. His train of thought was wild but he knew what had to be done to get Shane back. “I mean you could pay for lunch a little more often but…”
Shane cracked his first smile, but it looked shaken, panicked. “That’s not what I meant.”
Ryan was already sitting on the bed beside him, feeling awkwardly unsure of what physical gesture to make to get Shane to just quit being a puzzle about everything. “Let’s get it over with then. If you swear it won’t kill me, then I won’t fight.”
Shane’s hands went into his own hair, slid down covering his face with frighteningly bone-white fingers as a sigh rushed out of him. “Ryan,” he groaned.
It was too hard to keep the outrage out of his tone, hurt and a little desperate. “Listen, you think I’d get a look at you like this and just leave you?!”
Shane made no move to answer.
“Even…” Ryan really didn’t like the new feeling in his chest, kind of like a tight vice in his throat. “Even if it’s not my blood you want, you gotta eat, right?”
That made Shane surface, the black of his stare only dimmed by his surprise. “Ryan, you’re a twit. Of course I want your--I mean, I’ve wanted your….all along I…”
Ryan stared at him. Shane stared back.
“Oof,” Shane said with the demeanor of an old man remarking on the temperature of his tea.
“No shit, Dracula. I’m offering my neck here!” Ryan snapped, flushed to his ears. “That is, if that’s how you--”
Shane wasn’t looking him in the eye. “No, no, it doesn’t matter. I can--the carotid artery is just quicker--any vein would do--I mean it’ll take a little longer to get enough but-- Ryan, I don’t want...it wouldn’t be fair.”
“Well, I don’t want this to be a long process,” Ryan breezed past Shane’s stutters, ignoring the implication behind the word fair like Shane really thought Ryan would put a friend’s life in the barter system of simple boundaries. He could feel himself start to stress sweat; the room was sweltering now and his face was burning with it. “Whatever you gotta do to be...uh...good and you know, make it quick.”
Shane seemed to dart a glance at Ryan, not his face, but a terribly vicious guilty look at Ryan’s throat before he tore his gaze away. “I can’t. We shouldn’t be deliberating on this; it’s a bad idea. I...it was never supposed to be you...”
Ryan was fed up and a lot more angry because that had actually stung. “Well, you don’t have anyone else lining up at the door to save your life so….”
“I always told myself I’d never…” Shane looked delirious and so damn sad; it was killing Ryan, twisting his own stung ego with a tinge of anguish for him. He hadn’t felt like this for Shane before, not in any real way. “I’m--we’d have to be careful. Take measures to keep you safe--”
“Look we can sort out the details later, whatever dark contracts we need to draw up or pacts of secrecy; if I gotta meet with some sort of evil master lord of the damned guy--I’ll do it, just--”
He reached out. That immediately felt like a mistake because the moment his hand crossed some invisible boundary between them, Shane’s gaze fixed back on him, bold stare out of a sleep paralyzed state, Ryan swore when the cold touched his wrist. It might have been a sure touch if Shane hadn't been trembling, the surface of his practically translucent skin felt papery. It made Ryan uncomfortably aware of how bad Shane had let it get, how he should have asked sooner. If Shane had only just told him...
Shane’s weakness seemed to dissipate, a man finding life in the final grains of desperation; his palms flattened up Ryan’s back, crushed him in like a limp thing. Every muscle in Ryan seized up, startled at the shameless amount of skin Shane was touching; one hand curling around his arm, tugging him close as his nose buried right against Ryan’s collarbone, dredging upward as if he’d just opened Ryan up like the aroma seal on a brand new can of coffee and was soaking him in.
“Shane,” Ryan gasped, caught up awkwardly against him, fists in Shane’s shirt. “Woah, Big Guy…”
“Don’t fight, Ryan,” Shane breathed against his pulse, the first touch of heat. “Please, don’t fight. I can’t--”
“Right…” Ryan said, terrified because it was happening. His skin prickled to life just as he felt the touch of teeth, piercing and thick rake over a particularly tender part of his bared throat. Even though he’d started up a mantra in his head of ‘Don’t fight don’t fight!” his fear right deep in his veins hit immediate survival mode. As if knowing this, Shane’s long arms circled and cradled him and Ryan fell forward against the hard hollow surface of Shane’s chest, heard his leg knock something over and the crash of glass. Some distant lucid part of his brain knew it was the lamp, that he’d kicked it but it couldn’t matter because his heart was going to burst. Now over the initial panic, he kept himself firmly limp even when the shock set in, blistering pain delayed by a swoop of adrenaline in his veins and Shane’s mouth on his skin, forgetting the obvious weirdness of it, forgetting that they were only friends, forgetting that it was just Ryan. For sure that was it.
Maybe it was how he had had to grip Shane’s back but Ryan’s panic took on a new note, flush with the details of how not fighting any of it had made him--not like some dead victim-- but alive and almost complicit? He just hadn’t expected it to be like this. He thought it might be like some horrible procedure, how it looked in movies. Shane like an animal biting into him and listening to the horror sound of his throat convulsing as he sucked Ryan’s blood straight from an opened vein, but this was a whole other thing. Perhaps because Shane just kept moving, shifting his weight as if to get a better but gentle grasp on him, each time his mouth tightened, he seemed to want more of it.
It was dizzying because the pain was focused, wet but Ryan felt an awareness of his own body like he never had before. He was aware of his own hands balled into fists, consciously relaxing over Shane’s shoulders blades; he was aware of his chest hammering so hard that Shane must feel it, ramming in their ears because Shane was eating his heartbeat, syncing each swallow with the rhythm of Ryan’s veins. He was even more aware of how Shane moved on him, not some stiff board or creature simply there for violence; he was delicate with Ryan’s body, like a lover.
I’ve never been with another dude.
The thought draped delicately over the rest of it. A bland and considerably inappropriate notion as if this was the same. They were on Shane’s bed and there was so much touching. Ryan gritted his teeth, his nerves swimming because Shane’s hand loosened from a constricted hold on him just as he rolled them over, laid Ryan down under him, long frame of his body straddling and covering Ryan. His fingers were searching, kneading against the swelling veins of Ryan’s upper arm, to his shoulder to his Adam’s apple and with a confident, distracted gesture, tipped Ryan’s chin up, made Ryan stretch a little and it strung a series of very Uncomfortable spots of contact.
He snaked a hand up Ryan’s back, pulled him up close in a hot arch like he was angling him into a kiss and Ryan thought--in this private and holistically brand new moment with Shane to think, for these vulnerable seconds, to wonder if it would be like that. With them. Like an intrusive impression, he pictured the two of them alone in other moments like a strange reel of memories. Shane drawing close to him and Ryan stepping back with some strange instinct of fear. Not of Shane the monster; vampire; blood drinker or whatever this all meant he was, but fear that Shane might actually have some inkling of Ryan’s weird wordless curiosity he kept stepping on internally. Little secret what-ifs he’d gotten so good at shutting down.
Ryan heard the sound as it came out of his own mouth, a little mournful when Shane broke away, pressing quick fingers to the place where his lips had been to stop the flow of blood. He was reeling but he knew the sound he’d made was not appropriate for the situation. It didn’t need to put words to it for Ryan to know that unconsciously he’d just begged for Shane to do it again, which made it generally a bad moment for Shane to lean in, smelling of blood and heat and salt as he replaced the press of his fingers on the open wound on Ryan’s neck with his tongue, lapped a flat hot and-- oh--lick over the wound, numbing like a salve. A bad moment for Ryan because the once innocuous wistful noise bubbling up out of Ryan turned into a broken off groan.
“...fuck,” he hissed, turning the sound into something intelligible but it still sounded like That. Great. Perfect. He was flushed again, burning as Shane let him go and Ryan blinked up at him, gauging Shane’s new expression to see if he knew what had crossed Ryan’s mind just then.
Shane looked like Shane. Alive. A human being with a dazed look like he’d come up from a half-formed thought. His mouth was so red, deep and almost purple with Ryan’s blood but he looked vaguely excited. A man with a body alive with razors and purpose. Ryan had never seen him like that either and it distracted him from his own terror for wild seconds.
Shane’s red tongue swept along his bottom lip, pupils blown wide as he nodded with a shark’s smile. Ryan found himself for the first time actively stopping himself from reaching up and pulling Shane back down against him. There was no intent in it. Only want.
“Good,” he snapped; couldn’t help the sharp edge in his tone, aware of the swimming heat in his stomach and how his heart was still going. Shane didn’t show any sign of misgiving when Ryan pushed him off, simply withdrew politely. He felt instantly cold without the heat of Shane’s body, which was... Fuck.
The real mistake was when he tried to get to his feet. Like one moment he was looking at the wall opposite with his feet on the floor and the next it was Shane’s long, big arms all over him again, catching him as the ceiling swooped downwards.
“Side effect of the process, Ry; sorry,” Shane mumbled, spilling him into the bed. “Think of it like donating at a blood clinic. You gotta eat beforehand. Next time…” He stopped like he’d bit his own tongue and Ryan steadied himself against the headboard as he forced himself to sit up.
“Great,” he replied, keeping his tone clipped. “Great, then if this is your idea of a blood bank, you owe me a donut. Or Chipotle. I want a burrito bowl.”
Shane stood at attention, as if relieved to be given orders. Something to do beside tiptoe around Ryan with a new guilty look on his face that Ryan hated so much more than the weird twist of guilt he was feeling himself .
“Yeah, I can do that. I’ll get you whatever food you want--you just rest it off--thank you, Ryan. I mean it…”
Ryan had to stare at the wall behind Shane as he said it. “Don’t worry about it. It’s what friends do.”
“So no dark master overlord; no queen of the damned?” Ryan pressed. He’d got half a bowl of chicken and rice down and the weak sickness in his limbs was mostly gone. He still felt a little frail and irritable and definitely cold but he was sitting up on Shane’s sofa, and Shane was sitting not far off, looking so normal that it was hard to think that only moments before Ryan had had him curled around him in a viciously possessive hold on the bed.
Shane’s laugh, soft though it was, helped to alleviate that. “I don’t even know where you’re getting that there’d be some type of monarchy.”
Ryan chewed thoughtfully. “Everyone’s got government,” he stated. “Even ants. So we talkin’ President Nosferatu or Governor Dracula or…Prime Minister The One Dude From True Blood?”
Shane folded a leg over the other and leaned back in the sofa as he laughed even harder. “...even ants,” he echoed philosophically. “No, vampires don’t even have democracy. We’re just...there’s very few of us and we...don't keep in touch.”
“So you’re alone.” He didn’t mean for it to come out quite like that, like he was checking for something. An unwarranted possessive thought crossed his mind and made him a little bitter. It wasn’t fair though. He’d known Shane for close to five years now and this was all just like learning a close friend had been secretly practicing some sort of religion which, in and of itself, was more likely than this.
“Completely,” was Shane's unruffled reply. “No one else is gonna come ‘round looking for what you’re offering.”
Ryan didn’t like to think that letting Shane feed on him had opened him up to a whole new avenue of jokes that’d make him say, “Shut up, Shane,” like it was all just perfectly normal, all just so like them.
Shane came back to work, seemed unbothered by the L.A. sunshine which, you know, made sense considering. Ryan caught himself taking mental notes of Shane’s nature as if this were research. Little details like the way he’d eat-- Shane was a messy eater-- or how much Shane seemed to like hats, wore sunscreen, didn’t seem to have any viable weaknesses which Ryan totally wasn’t looking for but…
Work, lunch, jokes, research, more work, and home. Two days after Shane drinking his blood and Ryan was back into a rhythm with him.
There were things though. Things he was starting to notice more than Shane’s habits and whether they were vampire habits or exclusively Shane things. The fact that when Shane looked right at him, right into his eyes, Ryan got a little lost. He’d catch himself reaching up to the spot where Shane’s teeth had gouged into him, feeling along impossibly healed grooves of a wound, feeling a paralyzing carnal heat pool in the pit of his stomach. Worst of all, the feeling he got when Shane wasn’t there, just a nagging feeling like a small tug in Ryan’s ribcage, made Ryan’s hands wander over the casing of his phone, on the verge of a sudden phone call, an overextended and hyped, “Where are you?” when he knew perfectly well where Shane would be.
“Religious iconography,” Shane stated.
“Huh?” Ryan hadn’t realised it was long past quitting hour. They had so much to catch up on. The true crime premiere had been pushed back by too many weeks already.
Shane didn’t have anything he needed to do but he’d stayed behind with Ryan without question, sat there wordlessly until just moments ago, fixing a bright-eyed computer-lit gaze on Ryan across the short stretch between their workspaces. “In case you ever need to stop me.” He tossed that at Ryan like it was something you could really just say to someone.
Ryan swiveled his chair, folded his arms. “Why would I ever need to stop you?”
Shane’s smile was grim; the sort Ryan hated. A stubborn laying of facts and no discussion to be had. “Just. I don’t presume anything since you first offered. You’re not--your bl--what you’re letting me take is not mine but if I ever-- I’m telling you I wouldn’t intentionally just take…”
“Shane...” Ryan began. Of course. Of course it was just the one time but Ryan wondered what he meant to do going forward. When he would ask him again.
“Ryan, I’m telling you for both of our sake. If something happened, you wouldn’t be able to fight me, I could kill you. Find something you can use in an emergency. A crucifix, star of David, an ankh--anything. Keep one close because if I come for you and you don’t want it, you’ll be dead.”
Ryan’s mouth was dry. “Would it burn you or...what are we talking about me doing here?”
Shane frowned. “It’s all superstition, Ryan. I’m not gonna hiss and cower if you wave any of that around at me. You'll have to draw blood or it does nothing…”
“So...a regular knife wouldn’t do the same thing?” Ryan asked slowly. He could feel tension around Shane go stark but he didn’t understand any of this.
“It’s not...a knife will work too of course. I’m just--I’ve been told a lot of stories and a lot of them are just stories but I want to be safe about this.”
Ryan felt a prickle of sharp fear jumpstart his heart. “That doesn’t give me much choice.” The voice had been taken completely from his words; it was a whisper.
Shane didn’t demure. He was serious. “You’ll always have a choice; it’s why I’m telling you this. I can go as long as possible without it. I can usually deal with the thirst more than a month but it’s just been a little more difficult lately.”
Ryan hadn’t blinked in a while and he was conscious of it, of the way he felt light headed, staring back at the depth in Shane’s stare. What was he doing to him? What was it vampires did again? Some kind of hypnosis. “Do you…? Shane, do you need blood?”
The sound of the wheels on Shane’s chair thrummed a firm line in Ryan’s mind, something he’d remember vividly about those seconds as Shane drew closer to him, long arm reaching out, resting on the armrest of Ryan’s chair, encasing him between his knees, just brushing. “Now that you've come along. Always,” he intoned like a button press of warmth; a little bit teasing and a little bit rueful.
Ryan didn't even know what to make of that. He wrinkled his nose. “I guess it's like having your own water cooler, hey? Right by your desk?”
Shane grinned, brows turned up the way he did when Ryan said or did something perplexing. His hard delicate mouth looked so harmless screwed up crookedly like that; he might never have guessed there were teeth that could tear right into his skin in there. “Didn’t think I was being obvious. So whatcha got on your menu, man?”
Ryan quirked a brow, couldn’t help his laugh. “I just picture you pulling up in a drive-thru at McDonald’s saying the same thing...”
Shane was already leaning in and despite the fact that he was well aware they were sitting in the open bullpen where anyone from an upper floor could look down at the sight they made, Ryan felt his skin suddenly brim with a relief like he’d been craving just that the whole day. Shane was laughing, though, muffled and caustic. Ryan noted the whites of his knuckles and the creak of his chair’s armrest, cracking under the pressure of Shane’s grip. Ryan shuddered, feeling an even deeper cold come over him.
Shane shifted back, away. Silent smile, thinking in his own private realm. He didn’t bring it up again.