The news came at the worst juncture possible, and Vlad couldn't hide his horrified expression quick enough. Bertrand glared around the chamber, daring anyone to comment on it, and later bowed low when Vlad made the request, though they both understood the reality of what he was asking.
"You -," Vlad started, glancing anxiously towards where his sister was sat, before continuing, "You can say no if you want to. This isn't a demand."
Ingrid raised an eyebrow and shook her head, but didn't say anything, and Bertrand tried not to let on how much the younger vampire's words touched him. He was cold and heartless, or he was supposed to be, at any rate.
"It's my honour to serve," he said instead in a tone that was cool and respectful, and Vlad gave him a searching look before finally nodding his dismissal.
Bertrand left in a flurry of cape and determination, surprised to find that he really didn't begrudge being chosen for the assignment. No other vampire could be trusted to be as restrained, not even Ingrid, and informing the Guild could only be a last resort, given the current tensions.
Besides, he thought as the night air swept by him, at least he could rely on Robin to be suitably impressed when he turned up as a one man rescue party.
Robin shifted experimentally, and instantly wished that he hadn't. His hands were bound painfully above his head, and from the sickening rush of pain he suspected that if nothing was broken, something had to be dislocated.
Back when he was twelve he would never have believed that having a vampire for a best mate could have a downside. Twelve years later and he had acquired more than enough evidence to convince anyone.
The room was dank, dark, smelt of death and the kind of bodily fluids he tried not to think about. He was shivering with cold and shock, and he wondered with no little horror if they were going to torture him before they made a meal of him.
It was all massively unfair, really, because he hadn't even seen Vlad in near a twelve month, and then the other man had been so busy with the baby he had spent most of the visit playing chess with Bertrand.
Not, he conceded even as he resigned himself to waiting for some input on what the hell was happening, that it had been much of a hardship.
There were, after all, some benefits to being best mates with a vampire.
Perhaps he had grown vain at Vlad's side, big headed, but the force waiting for him far outnumbered what he had been expecting. And he generally expected the worst of everything.
Suspicions formed in his mind as they finally succeeded in subduing him, clapping the cuffs around his wrists, and pressing the UV wand to his back for no other reason than that it amused them. A horribly familiar voice confirmed them, its owner leaning in so close he was forced to repress a shudder.
"A good hunter understands that his bait is the most important weapon in his arsenal."
"What do you want, Vasilev?" Bertrand ground out, refusing to give the older vampire the satisfaction. The last time they had met had been almost a century ago. The so-called War to end all Wars had been over, and he had declared himself thoroughly sick of the despair and the filth of it. He had wanted lights, and music, and dancing, and prey that struggled against him, not begged him tearfully to put them out of their misery.
He had been making the rounds of the club scene, gorging himself on pretty girls at the cabaret, and pretty boys at the speakeasies. He was with one such conquest when Vasilev had crawled from the sewers to offer him a deal. The boy had paled, so that his dark eyes were even more striking, and Bertrand had let him run because he didn't share, not with anyone.
In the present Vasilev simply smiled, a sight Bertrand remembered all too vividly, and motioned for the lackeys holding him to start moving.
"All in good time, Bertrand."
Robin supposed he must have fallen asleep. Or passed out. He wasn't too proud to admit to it.
Still he came back to himself with a start, jerking his shoulder as he did so which made him hiss through his teeth, blinking at the sudden influx of light.
"Not so special now are you," a voice spat in a tone that spoke of longstanding animosity, and a figure was pushed into the cell before the door was slammed closed again.
Robin tried to concentrate on not panicking. It could be another human. A pretty girl, perhaps, who he could rescue from this certain death and get his name in the vampire equivalent of the Stokely Chronicle. The glow of UV wrist cuffs filled the room, outlining a very male figure, and Robin reluctantly shelved that theory.
He could hold his breath, maybe. Kick the vampire in the unmentionables when he made for him, and then - Then die even more painfully. He was freaking out, he registered dimly. Hyperventilating.
There was shuffling, the vampire was trying to get up. Robin could feel blood dripping down his calf from where the jolt had reopened the wound. It was like a red flag to a bull, he had no hope.
"Calm down," a voice told him, though it scarcely registered. "Everything's going to be alright; I'm going to get you out of here."
The sight of Vasilev's handiwork was affecting him far more than he had expected it to, reducing him to the level of spouting nonsense platitudes. There were no windows, and the doors were properly sealed; their enemy was no idiot.
Robin was visibly terrified, and though once he would have revelled in it, now it only hammered home his weaknesses. He could feel the way the breather flinched when his back hit the wall beside him, to provide leverage for regaining his footing, and it struck at something deep inside, the knowledge that even Robin, deep down, considered him a monster.
He bit it back, refused to give in quite so easily, and worked his way back onto his feet, surveying the cell once again though it relinquished no new secrets. He couldn't get his own hands free without Robin's assistance, that much was obvious, and he couldn't get his body to co-operate and form flame, the air thick as it was with powdered garlic and argentilium.
"I've been on these pretty nasty tablets lately. If the NHS doesn't want my blood, I'm sure you wouldn't want it either, probably full of all kinds of -" Robin was babbling and Bertrand made himself ignore it.
The only other option was to concentrate, harder and harder, until it felt like his head would split with the pressure of it. He grit his teeth and kept up at it, eyes snapping open as the chains finally snapped and he hissed in pain, the UV cuffs burning into the flesh of his wrists as he instinctively tried to reach out and break Robin's boneless descent to the floor.
He sank gracelessly to his own knees, watched as the haze of mindless fear lifted from dark eyes to be replaced by recognition.
"Bertrand?" he whispered, like he couldn't quite believe it, and Bertrand had to force himself to be practical.
"Undo these cuffs. There has to be a way out of here."
Under normal circumstances he only ever saw Bertrand after extensive fussing over his appearance, all on the extremely unlikely off chance that Bertrand might have a secret passion for over inquisitive breathers. These were anything but normal circumstances, and if the dirt and the grime and the sweat weren't off putting enough, the sting of tears he couldn't quite keep back had to be finishing the job off for him.
The stoic bravery he had managed alone had dissipated with Bertrand's arrival, and it was cold, colder than he could ever remember being. He wrapped Bertrand's cape tighter around himself, as if it could keep out the pain and the knowledge that if nobody got that door open, he was only going to starve to death anyway.
Like he could read his mind Bertrand said, "Don't worry, one of them will drop by shortly. Vasilev never could resist premature posturing."
The last was said with a sneer, darker than the kind he used when describing students or councillors, but familiar enough to be soothing. Bertrand had already explained that Vlad had sent him, how, in the worst case scenario, at least someone would know to come looking for them. Robin tried to get a grip, to be helpful.
He fumbled in his pocket for his mobile, pressed uselessly at the buttons, and said, voice strained, "I'm going to send Orange a strongly worded letter when we get out of here."
Bertrand looked over at him, stopped pacing and moved to sit next to him. Robin tensed, for a moment, then let his head rest against the other man's shoulder.
He might not, he reasoned, get the chance to do it again.
Bertrand stiffened, instinctively, then drew in an unnecessary breath and forced himself to relax. He didn't want Robin to think he didn't want the intimacy. That last thought reverberated around his head, mocking, because he truly had become pathetic.
Long ago Vasilev had taken him under his wing and he had been grateful, in the beginning. Had learnt from the master just how much torment a human body could withstand, and what it meant to have the power of life and death at his fingertips. Then there was the book, and enough war to last a thousand lifetimes, and though he was an expert at subterfuge he had never mastered the ability to lie to himself.
He wanted things he had long since vowed to turn his back on. Kindness and warmth, companionship and trust. Love, he supposed was the proper term.
"I'm going to be late for work," Robin mumbled into the fabric of his jacket, as though it was truly urgent, and Bertrand allowed himself to lay a palm across the pale forehead. The skin was burning, and not just in comparison to his own chilled flesh, though Robin's teeth were chattering. Fever, he diagnosed, and watched as his own hand pushed into dark hair, his thumb rubbing soft circles against Robin's temple.
He had to stay in control, keep his wits about him. Ignore the heady scent of blood, so thick he could almost taste it. That was what Vasilev wanted: for him to give in and feed, tear apart the treaty and confirm everyone's objections to a half-fang being given any position of responsibility.
There was nothing he could do but wait, and hope that Vlad hadn't shut his mind to the signal he was attempting to send him.
Time slipped by in fits and starts. The constant pain in his limbs, and the cold that only ever seemed to seep deeper. Bertrand's voice telling him things that he could only be imagining, because Bertrand would surely never tell them to anyone.
Tales of fallen comrades and desperate mothers who pleaded on behalf of terrified children, of a lonely child in another time entirely, and memories of fresh laundry and the French countryside.
There was light, noises, but then darkness again and Robin felt almost as though he were floating, his mind replaying the first time Bertrand had revealed anything of any personal value to him. It hadn't been long after his first encounter with Vlad in years, and his knuckles had still tingled when he thought of it, in memory of the way he smashed his fist into Vlad's nose in place of trying for a civil conversation.
Vlad had already unlived through his Coronation, though Bertrand had yet to be promoted to the Chamber. He had admitted to himself that the man of his dreams was cold and dead, and more than a couple of centuries older than him into the bargain.
"When were you turned?" he had asked one evening, when Vlad had disappeared to who knew where, and being in the older man's presence had robbed him of any semblance of tact he had ever been able to lay claim to. He had been much younger then.
Bertrand had raised an eyebrow because, so he had learned later, the fact shouldn't have been obvious. "Why aren't you afraid of me? I could rip your throat out."
It had tumbled from his lips, the way van Helsing had never stood a chance, even if he had remembered. Not when it had happened so quickly, not when he had a bus full of school pupils to think of. He'd arched his head back, so that his own brush with undeath was visible, and said, "If you were going to kill me, you would have done it already."
Bertrand had simply sat and began setting up a battered chess board,
"It was 1672, the beginning of the Franco-Dutch war. I knew nothing of death and little enough of life."
Cold fingers gripped at his own in the present and Robin struggled to break free of the scene.
He wasn't sure he wanted to.
Vasilev was at once an unknown quantity, and as predictable as ever. He found him watching over Robin's restless form, and the scene must have spoken louder than words because Vasilev smirked, and told him,
"I'm disappointed. I expected better from my favourite childe."
The bile rose in his throat even as he kept his expression indifferent. He knew from experience that any sign of weakness would only make things worse for him.
"The others are getting restless. They're hungry and, in the scheme of things, what is the blood of one expendable little breather?" Vasilev moved closer, steps cocky though he held a UV baton in one gloved hand, proving that he didn't really have confidence in his ability to overpower him.
"Your plan will fail," Bertrand said, tone measured. "Vlad has the support of the Guild, the Clans and the Council."
Vasilev smiled. "You haven't changed." It was punctuated with the touch of leather clad fingers to his cheek and he had to fight to suppress a shudder. Once the man had been everything to him; the thought was sickening.
"I could have gone for the Slayer, the halfling," Vasilev continued, "but that would have been foolhardy. You would never have arrived alone had that been the case. No, he will come underarmed and undermanned and, if you're very good, I'll let you watch as I kill him."
Bertrand bared his fangs, couldn't help himself, and then he was trying to tear the other man limb from limb, without any style or finesse, just the blinding rage only Vasilev had ever been able to inspire in him.
The baton bit into his arm, and two other figures came running from the corridor to join the fray. Andrei snarled at him, though to all intents and purposes they were brothers, even if Andrei was the elder and he the usurper. He didn't recognise the other and succeeded in knocking him out cold, locking eyes with Andrei before pushing the stake he carried for emergencies through the other vampire's chest.
It was over, he was going to win. Then Vasilev threw something into his face, something that made him howl with the pain, and the door was slammed to, leaving him alone with nothing but Robin and the darkness all over again.
It was hopeless, he thought as the hours stretched into days. Robin's pulse was so weak it was barely there, and the hunger gnawed at him so strongly that were he a couple of decades younger he doubted whether he would have been able to restrain himself.
The argentilium had been ground with something, he didn't know what, and he could feel where it had burned away the skin when he gingerly pressed fingers to his face. It felt bad, but he had no real way of telling. It wasn't as though he had a reflection to worry about anyway.
He hit his fist uselessly against the wall again and, when Robin stirred, he dropped to the floor beside him, hoping that his presence might be comforting somehow. He had seen it over and over again on the battlefield - nobody wanted to die alone.
And if Vlad didn't turn up, it would all be over, and, yet, if Vlad did turn up it might all be over anyway.
Robin woke to find himself in hospital. Nowhere else had quite that mix of stark clinicalism and ingrained tragedy. His mother was asleep in the chair beside the bed, exhaustion written clear on her face. He tried to move, to sit up, but it was no use.
The world lurched and swirled around him, and still there was no sign of Bertrand.
Vlad didn't know how to approach the subject, that much was obvious. Bertrand wished fervently that the young vampire would choose to leave the topic alone entirely.
He had had to be rescued, for the first time since his fangs had fully descended. It didn't bear thinking about. Worse his own security staff had seen him wrapped around - an albeit barely breathing - breather. How could he ever hope to command their respect again?
"They got all of them," Vlad said, with just a trace of anxious concern, though his eyes were wide as they flickered from his bandaged arms to his face and back again. "They'll be executed at sunrise."
Bertrand nodded stiffly. It was the proper thing to do with them, even if he could read the remorse on Vlad's face at having to order it, no matter how carefully he tried to hide it.
Silence stretched, and Vlad shifted as if to leave. Bertrand felt some of the tension draining, only for it to return tenfold.
"You should go and see him. I mean, spend some time with him." Vlad flustered, "I - it's the least I can do."
He mulled the words over all day within the confines of his coffin, debating whether it would be a mark of greater cowardice to go or to leave Robin to live his life. In the slow hours before dusk Wolfie shied away from him, and Ingrid looked him over pityingly, confirming that his face was more of a mess than he had imagined.
He would go, he decided. There could only be one answer, and to delay hearing it would be the real cowardice.
Robin listened obediently to the medical babble, and nodded in the right places though he had no real idea what they were talking about. He'd broken something, but that he'd already known. He'd been dehydrated and feverish, and he was lucky to have come through it.
His mam gripped his hand tightly when they were told the last, and though he was 24 and hadn't needed to scare the nightmares away in years, he squeezed back to let her know it was appreciated.
The twins came to see him straight from work, and Chloe caught the bus back from university, though he had told her over the phone there was no need to. His workmates came round with a card, and his dad spent a visiting hour in stiff silence before abruptly pulling him into a hug, and telling him that he had better not even think of scaring them all like that again.
He had near given hope when he finally caught sight of a dark haired figure, and he did his best not to let his shock show, when Bertrand stepped close enough to let him see his face clearly.
"I'll just go and get a cup of tea from the canteen," his mam said, though she had a half full cup sitting on the bedside table.
Bertrand took her place, though his posture was full of tension, and he waited until Robin had told him exactly what the doctors had said before saying,
"They say it will heal, it will just take time."
There was something in his tone that made Robin's heart clench in his chest. A vulnerability he hadn't seen since he had come to keep Bertrand company, in the aftermath of a particularly nasty case of blood poisoning.
"You saved my life," he said softly, mindful of the listening ears of the other patients.
Bertrand snorted, studied his hands. "I was unprepared. My mistakes almost cost you everything."
Robin couldn't take it, reached out with his better arm and took Bertrand's unresisting hand in his own. The words stuck in his throat, came out as little more than a whisper, "It was me who got kidnapped in the first place. Perhaps we need to make it up to each other."
His heart pounded in his chest, panic stricken that Bertrand wouldn't understand what he was saying, still more afraid that he would understand exactly. The silence stretched on and on until he was certain of rejection then, just as he was wondering how he could possibly have been so stupid, Bertrand lifted his hand and pressed his lips to the back of it, like everyone else in the ward wasn't watching avidly.
"You don't know the things I've done," Bertrand told him, and now the initial shock had worn off the angry red flesh was less distracting. He had sketchy memories, vague images of a fight, and a howl of pain, and it made his insides try to twist themselves inside out, to know that Bertrand had gone through that for him.
He lay back against the pillows, still quick to give into exhaustion and told him simply,
"No, but I want you to be able to trust me enough to tell me."
Robin improved every day, and when he was well enough to go home and to move freely Vlad was true to his word, and freed him of all responsibility for a week.
"Robin's my best friend," he told him awkwardly, cheeks colouring with the help of a system full of soya blood. "Don't - I mean, you wouldn't, but just…" He trailed off awkwardly and Erin picked it up for him, smiling too knowingly,
"Don't do anything I wouldn't do."
Bertrand nodded, unable to think of any more appropriate action and fled as quickly as he could without making it look like he was fleeing. Not wanting to be interrupted by Robin's flatmates any more than his parents he had already made arrangements, though he surprised himself by his willingness to sit through tea and cake to humour Robin's mother.
"I think it's lovely that you're taking him away," Mrs. Branagh told him, smiling at him with such benign trust he had to focus on the inside of his teacup. "Just make sure that he eats properly, and doesn't over-exert himself."
"Mam!" Robin exclaimed, blushing at the seeming insinuation, and his father came close to choking on a mouthful of Kendal Mint cake. Bertrand smiled in spite of himself, and didn't wait until they had reached the end of the street before pulling Robin close and kissing him.
It was staggering, still, that Robin allowed it and, when they arrived at their destination, trusted him implicitly though behind the door there could have been anything waiting for him. It wasn't particularly outstanding, as guest crypts went, but it was dry and erring on the clean side, and best of all there wasn't anyone around to bother them.
"Cool," Robin said appreciatively, taking in the decoration, and then raised an eyebrow at the sight of the bed frame.
Bertrand smirked, because it came naturally, and sat on the bed with a flourish as he said,
"The Council expects its officials to do a lot of entertaining."
Robin laughed, a bright sound he hadn't realised how much he missed until it had entered his unlife again, and as though he could read his wistful thoughts, Robin stepped closer, until Bertrand could feel the body heat pouring off of him. Robin put his hands on Bertrand's shoulders and leaned in to press a kiss to the bridge of his nose, where he was told the skin was taking longer to heal.
"I never thought I'd get to be this close to you," Robin murmured, looking half embarrassed at his honesty, and Bertrand wrapped his arms around the figure in front of him, allowing his hands to wander across the expanse of his back, before pushing up beneath his shirt.
Robin shivered, and he would have pulled his hands away, except that dark eyes met his own, and a dark voice begged him to continue. They ended up lying across the bed, Robin on top of him, pinning him in place as he kissed him. He ought to be ashamed that he could stoop so low, to allow a breather to have such a hold over him, to press kisses to the juncture of his neck, teeth grazing hard enough to leave a mark of dominance.
In truth he couldn't care. He had tried being the perfect vampire, and he had failed at it as he had failed long ago at being the perfect son.
"You're perfect to me," Robin whispered, as though they were sharing more than a mattress, and he let go of every negative thought he was clinging to. In that moment it was more than good enough for him.
Robin clutched at the other man with a desperation he was sure wasn't at all attractive. Still Bertrand clutched back, and made encouraging noises, and when it became clear that the older man wasn't going to do the expected thing and take control of the situation, he took hold of his wrist and pressed the cool hand between them until he couldn't think clearly about anything.
"Please," he managed to croak when Bertrand got the idea, and his movements became more and more erratic, until he could do nothing but kiss Bertrand wetly, his entire frame shaking.
Bertrand held him in the aftermath, tender like he couldn't imagine any vampire other than Vlad being. He rolled the thought around as he shifted so he could look into Bertrand's face, trace the fading scars, and wonder how much of any vampire was an act, and how much was heartless evil.
"I never thought I'd get this close to you," Bertrand said, voice raw with the effort it took, repeating his own words back to him. Robin smiled, thought of countless chess matches, and hours spent daydreaming about if only, so that he was certain it must be painfully obvious to all and sundry.
"If all it takes is nearly dying, I'll do it more often," Robin joked in response, pulling the expensive looking covers over them, and let Bertrand give him a glare that was equal parts fond exasperation and admonishment.
Bertrand was the first to fall asleep, deathly still though his arm was still wrapped tightly around him. Robin looked around the room again, taking in the details, and then back at his arm full of vampire and grinned wide enough to split his face.
His twelve year old self had been right after all. He had just been destined to end up with a well fit vampire.