A Measure of GuiltCousin Shelley
Carl poked at the fire and wished he knew the words that would draw Van Helsing out of his mood.
They had just finished eating. As usual, before Carl could even attempt conversation, Van Helsing excused himself to check the area around their camp one last time before nightfall. Carl thought they both could be saved a lot of work and worry if they chose to stay in towns and villages when possible, but Van Helsing seemed to lead them purposefully away from people. The only time they'd not been alone had been on the return trip across the Adriatic, when the presence of others simply wasn't avoidable. Van Helsing had been visibly tense the entire time they'd been on board. And unlike on land, he made it a point to hover over Carl the entire trip, as if ensuring his safety from whatever evil might lurk among the travelers.
Carl thought once they were back on the peninsula Van Helsing's aversion to strangers might abate, but it hadn't. And he'd noticed that the return trip was taking much longer than the trip to Romania. Of course, the sense of urgency was gone, but Carl couldn't help feeling it was more than that. The closer they got to Rome, the slower they traveled. Van Helsing claimed that foul weather was coming and they needed to make camp, or that the horses needed rest, or sometimes he gave no reason at all. They could have been in Rome at least three days ago without stressing their steeds, and the weather had been fair for at least a week. Today, it couldn't have been much past midday, Van Helsing barely let his horse fully stop before he dismounted. "We'll camp here," he said, without looking at Carl, and his tone left no room for argument.
Of course, Carl did argue, half-heartedly, mostly to hear the sound of someone's voice and to get some kind of a response from Van Helsing. He didn't mind stopping, truth be told he was tired of being on a horse, but he complained enthusiastically as he busied himself with his well-practiced camp preparations. "You know, Van Helsing, I've never had a rock try to bow my spine when I slept in an actual bed. In an actual inn." He threw his bedroll down with an exaggerated grunt. "In an actual village." His only reward was a slight smile. Then Van Helsing looked away quickly as if he'd done something wrong, and announced that he was going to check the area.
He came back a few times throughout the afternoon, but always managed to find reasons to go back out on his own. During the short moments Van Helsing spent by the fire, Carl groused and tried to make conversation, even if only about how uncomfortable he was. Van Helsing answered with a word or two, or none. And now, after a bit of bread and salted beef he'd gone to check the area again.
Carl could understand the man wanting to be alone, but this went beyond a need for occasional solitude. He wondered if Van Helsing delayed their return for the same reason he avoided people on route. Could he be afraid? Not for himself, but for others? Maybe he had some lingering doubt whether or not the wolf was really gone and he feared what he might do. Carl knew Van Helsing would never harm an innocent, he was certain the wolf had been destroyed with Dracula's antidote. But perhaps Van Helsing wasn't so sure. Carl sighed and prodded the fire, sending up a fountain of sparks.
That would also explain why he spent so much time away from camp. He checked the area so often and for such a length of time that more than once Carl was afraid something had happened to Van Helsing and he would never return. Sometimes Carl would wake in the middle of the night and he would be gone. Could he be afraid of hurting me? Carl wondered. At Castle Frankenstein, an enraged Van Helsing had grabbed Carl around the throat, but that was wolf struggling for dominance over the man. And the man defeated the beast, that time. Carl hadn't been harmed.
Anna Valerious hadn't been so fortunate.
He knew Van Helsing carried such guilt about Anna; he probably would for some time, if not forever. Carl had tried logic: "Van Helsing, the werewolf killed Anna. It just happened to be inhabiting your body at the time. It could as easily have been her own brother." Carl tried pleading: "Anna would not blame you. Look how she regarded Velkan, even as he was gripped by the werewolf's curse. She spoke to you of forgiveness once. Please, forgive yourself." He'd even tried, though he regretted it now, another form of guilt: "Anna's wish was to see her family again. You told me yourself that you know she's with them now, and she's happy. To know the guilt you carry for her sake, to see you this way, would cause her great pain, Van Helsing. Let it go."
Despite the brilliance of his arguments, Carl knew if he'd been the one carrying the wolf inside him and had caused Anna's death, it would be difficult not to feel the same way. He felt a measure of guilt himself. If only he'd have been able to get the antidote to Van Helsing, maybe he'd be smoke and ash and Anna would still be beautifully alive. Carl blinked back tears for Anna, and shamefully accepted that some of those tears were for himself. It wasn't a stretch to compare Van Helsing's guilt to what Carl himself would feel if Van Helsing, in wolf form, hadn't turned and grabbed Carl's wrist, preventing him from driving the silver stake home.
It wasn't a stretch to compare it to how he felt now, knowing he'd been one second away from killing a man who meant more to him than anyone. How much Van Helsing meant to him honestly surprised Carl. He cared, he was always aware of that. But two days ago he'd been rummaging around in his satchel and his hand brushed the stake, and the depth of his feeling overwhelmed him. He had to sit before he fell down--he'd almost killed the person he was closest to in this world. Tremors overtook him, the tears came, and he wasn't able to stop for several minutes. For once, he was thankful that Van Helsing happened to be off on his own. Carl couldn't stop seeing himself driving the stake into the wolf then watching it morph back into a dying man. A dying Gabriel Van Helsing. Carl knew a thing or two about pain, and guilt.
But he was aware that guilt wasn't the only thing troubling Van Helsing. Carl caught him staring many times at the ring he wore, usually while they ate, the only time Van Helsing seemed to sit still. 'Not knowing' had never seemed to haunt him quite this much. Carl vowed to redouble his efforts to help Van Helsing unravel his past once they got back to the Vatican. But that didn't help him now.
More than once he'd considered putting his arms around Van Helsing, pulling him into an embrace and telling him to let go, let it out, everything will be all right. Sometimes the urge to do it was so strong as to make Carl uncomfortable. He found he wanted to hold his friend, the friend he'd almost killed, a low little voice reminded him, and tell him he was safe. Considering everything they'd been through together, it seemed ridiculous that Carl could be so flustered at the thought of offering a simple hug. After much thought, and even prayer, Carl decided that it was something he should do. But Van Helsing avoided him to such a degree he feared the gesture would be not only unwelcome, but almost offensive.
Right now, Carl decided, he would do the only thing he could. He would find Van Helsing while his resolve was strong and explain his revelations about the man's odd behavior. He would confront him about his reluctance to return to Rome and his avoidance of villages where they actually have beds. And his unwillingness to be near Carl for any length of time.
Carl meant to convince him that none of these precautions was necessary.
Van Helsing took deep, deliberate breaths. His heart pounded in his ears, his eyes stung, his head ached. Despite the chill, sweat covered him. He wanted so badly to tell Carl how he felt like he was trapped inside someone else's body, how he still felt the touch of evil inside him like a ghost, how he was sometimes mesmerized by the moon. He wanted to tell him all these things more than he'd wanted anything for a long time, but he was too terrified of what Carl might say.
Or what Carl might think, and not say.
No one had ever stood by him the way Carl had. At least no one Van Helsing could remember. Carl had seen him at his worst and still he was there, steadfast in loyalty, always. . . there. He was so grateful for that friendship that nothing in the world meant more to him. But if Carl knew the dreams Van Helsing had, the feelings, the things the wolf sparked within him. . . .
He could almost believe that nothing between them would change. Carl wouldn't judge him, he was too good for that. After all, Carl hadn't told Rome the full story after Van Helsing killed the werewolf that had possessed Velkan Valerious. He'd conveniently left out the part about how their most-prized Knight of the Holy Order would be sprouting a snout and fur come the next full moon. Carl had *lied* by omission for Van Helsing's sake. But they had a job to do, and Anna claimed there was a cure.
This was different. The werewolf was gone, this was just Van Helsing, the man. What if the way he felt, the thoughts that gripped him, weren't things that could be fixed with an injection or one of Carl's ingenious devices? Would that change the way Carl thought about the situation? About him?
Van Helsing wasn't willing to risk the only good and steady thing in his life, even though it pained him to not trust in Carl's good spirit as he should.
His breathing slowed to normal and Van Helsing laughed, remembering the look on Carl's face as he threw down his bedroll. His complaints were too good-natured to take seriously. Carl obviously said some of the things he did for Van Helsing's benefit--he'd been trying to get a remark or a laugh out of him for some time. Sometimes he wanted to laugh. He wanted to clap Carl on the back and tease him as he'd always done. But what right did he have?
He'd nearly strangled Carl in Transylvania. He'd killed Anna. For reasons he didn't yet know, he wore the ring of a devil. How could he touch anyone, touch Carl, so casually with those same hands? So he stayed away as much as he could, making excuses, finding things to do. He feared his distance hurt Carl, but Van Helsing knew that some kinds of pain were better than others. The pain of uncertainty being among the worst.
This was the first time Van Helsing could remember not knowing what to do next. Before, he had a general purpose--to vanquish evil. He went on a mission, he completed it, and then he was sent on another, and another. Now he'd become part of the evil he'd spent his life (or lifetimes?) fighting. What did that make him? His resolve faded, his sense of duty and purpose like a shadow at dusk, slowly becoming indecipherable from the darkness around it.
He thumbed his--no, Dracula's ring, spinning it on his finger, and for the hundredth time took it off and drew back his arm to throw it. For the hundredth time he found he could not. The ring held too many keys to his past. He was fascinated by it, as much as he detested it. Dracula had spoken his name with such familiarity. Such. . . glee. Someday, he would uncover his past and figure out how Dracula fit into it, he had to. But now it took all his energy just to get through each day, and night, without losing his mind.
He walked back toward camp, not wanting to be too far away if Carl was sleeping. It was a cold night, damp enough to chill him through. And yet that urge was there. The urge to tear off his clothes and run, to tear off his. . humanity? To feel the animal power of the wolf again, free of worry and regret, and restraint. To feel alive.
He often dreamed of the wolf. When he woke he could feel the wolf's heightened senses falling away from him like leaves in autumn. Sometimes the sensations lingered, and even though Carl slept yards away, he imagined he could smell Carl's skin, warm under layers of cloak and blanket. He'd close his eyes and breathe deeply until the comforting scent faded.
Shortly after they'd left Romania, he had his first dream of Carl. Van Helsing was stretched out on top of the sleeping man, the entire length of their bodies pressed together, his mouth pressed against Carl's. At first the dream was pleasant, so much so that even now he felt a guilty shiver pass through him remembering the warm feeling of covering Carl's body with his own, feeling Carl's lips under his. But then, his dream-self realized that instead of merely kissing the man, he was drawing out his life, stealing his breath. Devouring his soul.
He woke, horrified to find himself trembling on his knees beside Carl, who slept peacefully unaware. What if Van Helsing hurt him, without even realizing it? He couldn't take that chance.
Another part of him wondered what if, still caught in the confusion of sleep, he'd leaned down and covered Carl's mouth with his own? He didn't dare risk something like that happening, either.
Since that night, he waited for Carl to fall asleep and then he found someplace he felt was far enough away to prevent an incident of either kind, yet close enough to keep watch over him, and be at his side in an instant, if needed.
Van Helsing, suddenly tired with the weight of guilt and worry he carried stopped and leaned against the trunk of a great oak. Cardinal Jinette had often claimed that Van Helsing's life, his work to stop evil, was some kind of penance for past sins. This life, being with the one person he trusted and yet finding himself unable to converse, unable to confide--this must be his ultimate punishment.
Resting the back of his head against the tree, he looked toward the heavens and marveled at the gravity of the sins he must have committed to earn such hell.
And part of him, the part that still clung to the wolf-life, what Van Helsing thought of as the tainted part of him, thought of the first part of his dream--the feel of his body against Carl's, the taste of the man in his mouth--and wondered if one more sin could really matter.
Carl found Van Helsing's path easily, even in the fading light; it was as if the man had charged through with a scythe and a purpose. But where was he headed? To Carl, checking the area had meant just that, the area close around the camp. It appeared Van Helsing had taken a line directly away from camp and kept going. This only reinforced Carl's belief that Van Helsing was afraid of being around him, around anyone. But how was he going to get through to the man when he found him?
'Van Helsing, your choice of footpath has confirmed my suspicions about your sudden solitary nature.' How brilliantly moving. Think man, think!
Carl slowed to give himself time to figure out exactly how he was going to go about this. He'd tried so many different approaches already just to get the man to open up to him, without success. Carl tried to calm his emotions and set his analytical brain to work on the problem. Before he'd taken more than a few dozen steps, he knew what he had to do and mentally chided himself for taking so long to come to the proper conclusion.
Van Helsing was an unconventional man, suffering for truly unconventional reasons. Carl would try simple persuasion once again, but if that failed, as he suspected it would, perhaps an unconventional approach offered the best hope of success. As the plan formed in his mind, he knew it would be difficult for him to carry it out. But it could be no more difficult than taking that silver stake from Van Helsing and agreeing to kill him, should the need arrive. He'd agreed to do it, and when the moment came, as awful as it was, he'd intended to follow through. That pain, that loss, would have been Carl's forever.
Any pain he was about to cause Van Helsing would be temporary and for the man's own good. Carl said a quick prayer for strength and forged ahead.
Van Helsing froze. Something moved in the darkness between Van Helsing and the camp where Carl probably slept, completely vulnerable. How could he be so careless?
He'd been too absorbed in his own thoughts and hadn't been paying attention to the forest around him. Van Helsing circled the tree, putting it between himself and the source of the noise, giving him at least the element of surprise. He held onto the tree as if it might try to run away. Damp bark cracked loose under his fingers. If anything had happened to Carl. . . he pushed that thought aside, and tried to see whatever was coming closer.
Carl walked faster now that he had a clear course of action. He almost tripped when the hem of his robe caught on a prickly bush and refused to pull free. He tried to extricate himself without tearing the fabric but only managed to get himself more tangled.
Frustration won out and he jerked his robe free, tearing the already frayed edge. "Damn!"
Van Helsing could hear something moving again, several yards away, what sounded like something scrabbling in the underbrush, and then a curse. His knees softened with pure relief. "Carl?"
Carl jumped. "Oh, Van Helsing!" He patted his chest and looked up at the quickly approaching man. "You scared the wits out of me!"
Van Helsing was beside Carl before he finished the sentence. "What are you doing? Is something wrong?"
"No, I just caught my robe on a bush and--"
"Why are you out here wandering around?" Van Helsing's voice was tight. "It's almost dark."
Carl squared his shoulders and took a deep breath. "I'm aware of that. But I want to talk to you about your recent behavior."
"You're out here alone in the woods because you want to talk to me? Now?" Van Helsing stepped directly in front of Carl. "Have you taken a leave of your senses?"
Carl refused to be intimidated. "No, I haven't. But I'm starting to wonder if you have."
Van Helsing stared at him and turned his head slightly, questioning. But even in the near dark Carl could see that familiar cloud pass over his features, and he found himself growing angry with Van Helsing. He couldn't give up and give in to this! Not him, he couldn't lose heart. Not Gabriel Van Helsing.
It was Carl's turn to advance. "What in the hell is wrong with you?"
Van Helsing retreated until his back came up against another tree. "Carl. . . ."
"You're delaying our return to Rome. You avoid populated areas. You can't even stand to be near me." He cringed. He'd meant to emphasize his last word, but not to the degree he'd actually voiced. "You can't go on this way." And neither can I, he thought.
Van Helsing stared at Carl, wide-eyed and silent.
"Talk to me." Carl held out both hands, palms up. "Would that really be so difficult?"
Van Helsing shook his head. "There's nothing to talk about. What's done is done, Carl. Let's get you back to the fire."
Carl had expected resistance. Plan B, he thought. B for bold. He still held his hands as if in alms. Inside, he rattled with apprehension. Please, let this be the right decision.
"Did you see the moon last night, Van Helsing?"
Van Helsing flinched as if Carl had struck him.
"It was beautiful. Didn't you think it was beautiful?"
Van Helsing closed his eyes and shook his head. His chest hitched.
"I heard a wolf baying at it in the middle of the night." Carl steeled himself, determined to follow through. For a moment he didn't think he could say it, but he forced the words out. "Was it you?" He set his jaw and pretended to be genuinely curious.
"Carl, please. . . " Van Helsing drew a shaky breath.
Carl wanted to grab him and tell him there was nothing wrong with him, the evil was gone, he was sorry for everything. Instead he said, sotto voce, "So was it you then?"
Van Helsing hung his head. When he spoke again, his voice was so soft, so filled with despair, Carl's heart broke for the man. "I cannot help what I am, what evil has done to me. How. . . how can you mock me? How can you do this?"
Carl couldn't maintain the façade any longer. He put his fingers under the man's chin and lifted his face. "Van Helsing, how can you do this to yourself?" When Van Helsing only stared at Carl, he continued. "Of course it wasn't you. Yet I think you fear hurting someone. Hurting me."
Van Helsing drew a quick breath.
Carl nodded. "I thought so. The werewolf is gone, Van Helsing. You will harm no one."
Van Helsing grabbed the hand that supported his chin and jerked it away, though he didn't let go. "You don't know what's inside me."
Carl shuddered at the certainty in Van Helsing's voice. He watched Van Helsing struggle with what he wanted to say, what he didn't want to say. Carl would not look away from his eyes.
Van Helsing took a deep breath. "Carl, I. . . "
Carl had imagined this part involving an embrace, but as much as he wanted to console him, he was still unsure. He squeezed the hand that still held his, and placed his other hand on Van Helsing's shoulder. "Please. Let it out. Tell me."
"I--I can't." Van Helsing tried to release Carl's hand, but Carl held fast.
"You must. Gabriel. . . please."
The two men stared at each other for several moments. Van Helsing shook visibly, and finally let out the breath he'd been holding. "I can still feel the wolf within me." He pulled Carl's hand to his chest and covered it with his own. "Here. I can feel its power wanting to break free. Its needs. Its desires. It's part of me, Carl. It is me. I don't even know who I am anymore." Van Helsing laughed mirthlessly. "As if I ever did."
"I know who you are." Carl thought he could feel Van Helsing's heart pound through the layers of clothing and leather. He tried to breathe steadily. "You're Gabriel Van Helsing."
The pressure on the back of Carl's hand increased even as Van Helsing shook his head and whispered: "I'm a murderer. A monster. Unworthy of your concern."
Carl's voice broke. "No." He turned his hand underneath Van Helsing's and curled his fingers around the other man's. "You are. . . my friend." He squeezed Van Helsing's hand and gently pulled on his shoulder. "You're my friend."
The look on Van Helsing's face was something Carl would remember until his last day on earth: unshed tears in his eyes, an unspoken response on his tongue. It was a look of relief and at the same time utter disbelief. As if he'd expected Carl to confirm his worthlessness, label him as evil and unreachable, and he didn't quite know what to do when that reaction never came.
Van Helsing made a soft sound in the back of his throat as Carl pulled him in, cradling the back of his head with one hand, Carl's other hand trapped between them, their fingers still entwined. Van Helsing fell into the embrace, slumping down, his head on Carl's shoulder, one arm wrapped gently around Carl's back.
He expected me to reject him, Carl thought. Just as I feared he would reject my help.
Carl felt a warm tear slip down his cheek, and found he could manage no more than a whisper. "You're my friend, damn it." His lips brushed Van Helsing's ear as he spoke, the contact sending ripples through Carl's stomach. Is that all this is, he thought, just friendship? He momentarily felt ashamed. Then Van Helsing's arm tightened around his back, and he thought of the risks he'd taken in just the last few moments. And how much he cared for the man who seemed so broken in his arms.
"You're not alone in this, Gabriel." Decisive in a way he'd rarely been before, he pressed his lips against Van Helsing's neck, below his ear. "Never alone."