Story Notes:Written circa 2006. A birthday fic for Katie Van Helsing (gabrielsangel).
The Vatican had a back door.
Most 19th century Roman Catholics were not aware of this fact, often being too overtaken by the sheer majesty and opulence of the Holy See’s grand entrances to be concerned with alternate doorways. For example, they wouldn’t bother to inquire if there was perchance a place by which the ragged, dirty and travel-worn Knights of the Holy Order could enter to avoid tracking mud on the immaculate red carpets. But since the world—Roman Catholics included—was unaware of the Holy Order that operated beneath the Vatican, neither was anyone aware of the back door that had been designed specifically for that purpose.
Yes, the Vatican had a back door, and this was where Gabriel van Helsing made his return debut after three months of battling Satanic druids and a deranged coven of psychopathic warlocks in the Scottish highlands. It was spring in Scotland, by the bye, and it had rained every other day in some form of precipitation or other. This was why Van Helsing was inclined to use the back door, because he and everything that he had taken with him was either covered in mud or moss, or a combination of both. He was hardly recognisable through all the dried muck caking his clothes and griming up his skin, and he quite accidentally sent a young squire fleeing down the corridor squealing like a panicked piglet.
The customary ritual upon returning after an assignment was to firstly debrief oneself to the proper authority, in this case Cardinal Jinette. But Cardinal Jinette was engaged with more pressing matters, the cleric who regularly worked as Jinette’s underground secretary told Van Helsing when he requested to speak with the man. Van Helsing was in no mood to be put off after such a grueling ordeal, and very seriously considered marching upstairs and barging into Jinette’s office, just to be able to wipe his crusty boots all over the Cardinal’s nice rugs.
But the hunter was able to resist these hilariously vindictive urges, and quietly conducted himself towards the Order’s subterranean labouratory. He didn’t consciously choose to go there, and he certainly didn’t want to cause a stir amongst all the intellectual, toiling busybodies, but he felt somehow that it was the next best place to go if Jinette wasn’t available. In fact, the only other person with whom he had regular contact happened to have a permanent station in the lab, and that was precisely where Van Helsing was headed.
He made quite a spectacle of himself as he steered his way through the labyrinth of tables and machinery; no doubt everyone was admiring the lovely array of sediments that he carried on his coat. And Van Helsing was also quite painfully aware of his odour, which spoke very clearly in any language that he was long overdue for a thorough scrubbing. In fact, to say that he smelled like a dead, water-logged sheep would probably be flattery. He didn’t expect to receive a warm welcome from anybody at this point, but Carl held a record of being the only human being capable of surprising him, and it was a record that the friar obviously intended to uphold.
“Van Helsing,” the blond-haired young man said with a delighted smile when he saw the familiar figure approaching his workbench. He stopped tinkering with the welding bit and removed his tinted goggles, revealing two pale circles around his eyes where the smoke and ash had not touched.
“Carl,” returned Van Helsing, though the man was unable to keep the smile off his face; the friar looked like a cheerful blue-eyed owl.
“I take it you just got back? Of course you did, what a silly question,” said Carl, peeling off his work gloves and maneuvering about the table to stand before Van Helsing. He paused awkwardly, staring at the other man with a bashful pause. “Well, ah, I suppose I should say welcome back. So, ah . . . welcome back.”
Carl extended his hand and Van Helsing shook it; somehow the greeting felt too formal, but embracing each other was obviously too intimate a gesture.
“Did you have a successful mission? I heard the weather was terrible up there. ‘Bloody wretched’ as we Englishmen would say. I wouldn’t know how the Scots would call it (my Gaelic is despicable anyway) but I’m sure it sounds worse in Welsh, right?” Meaningless banter. This was unlike the friar. “Of course, don’t tell anyone I told you that. I’ve got a bit of Scotch in my blood, but I can’t play the bagpipes worth a damn and I don’t think I could eat haggis unless somebody rammed it down my throat. I suppose I’ve gotten a bit spoiled by the Italian cuisine here, haven’t I?” He was babbling now and apparently aware of it; his cheeks were beginning to glow pink from under their layer of soot.
The grin on Van Helsing’s face slowly grew as he watched Carl blather on, personally curious to see how long the friar could keep it up. Eventually he began to flounder and Van Helsing finally took pity on him.
“Was I missed at all?” he interrupted, a tone of playful teasing in his voice.
“Well of course you were, don’t be ridiculous,” Carl chirped sharply, obviously surprised by the remark. “Three months is a long time, you know. Ninety days, give or take a couple. Twenty four hours in each day, multiplied by ninety makes . . . 2,160 hours, multiplied by minutes makes 129,600 seconds, and if you want to split hairs—”
“Carl.” Van Helsing placed his hands on the young man’s shoulders, stopping his runaway speech in mid-sentence. The hunter said nothing else. Carl looked up at him, and just for a moment he seemed utterly frightened.
“I, I made something while you were gone,” he stammered suddenly, stepping away to rummage about the tabletop.
“Ah, that new auto-pistol you’ve been telling me about?”
“Nh . . . not quite.”
“Oh. More phosphorus capsules then?”
“Er, no. Just give me a second to find . . . ah, here it is.”
Van Helsing removed his hat, set it aside, and watched with curiosity as Carl produced a small leather pouch, holding it in both hands like the Crown Jewels. The huntsmen noted with concern the small red welts and scabs on Carl’s bare fingers, like both his hands had been repeatedly burnt or cut. The young man was usually sensible enough to wear protective gloves when working, and Van Helsing couldn’t imagine where he had acquired such peculiar marks.
“What happened to your hands, Carl?” he asked solemnly. “Did you have an accident?”
The friar quickly tried to conceal his fingers by drawing his sleeves over them, and held out the pouch to Van Helsing.
“Carl, did you hurt yourself?” he repeated, this time more seriously.
“Not intentionally,” answered the friar, darting about the question. “But that doesn’t matter. Here, take it.”
Reluctantly Van Helsing received the gift, and watched the eager, expectant look on Carl’s face as he opened it and emptied the contents into the palm of his hand.
It was small, relatively lightweight, but soundly constructed of a sturdy metal. Turning it over in his hand, Van Helsing saw that it was a bronze pendant in the shape of the Sacred Heart; two twisting branches of thorns were expertly etched across the surface, completed by tiny carvings of blood drops. From the top of the heart bloomed shining copper flames. It was not a fancy piece of jewelry, nor was it made of particularly precious metals. The whole thing was hardly larger than a florin, yet so finely detailed that Van Helsing couldn’t help but to marvel.
“Carl,” he murmured, “this is beautiful.”
“It’s for you.”
The hunter raised his eyes, and suddenly knew how Carl’s fingers had been so injured. The friar saw the light of recognition cross Van Helsing’s face, and in turn hid his hands behind his back. “I couldn’t wear gloves because they were too cumbersome,” he explained hastily. “It’s very difficult welding and etching on something that size, you know, and I wanted it to be able to stand up to a lot of wear and tear.”
“Carl, I’m . . .” Van Helsing was at a loss for words. “I don’t quite know what to say.”
“‘Thank you’ would be appropriate, I think.”
The man shook his head. “No, I . . . I can’t accept this. It’s too nice for a—”
“Please, Van Helsing,” insisted the friar gently. “Please take it. I’d be insulted if you didn’t.”
“But Carl, your hands are—”
“—fine. Don’t be such a damned worrywart. It’s unlike you.”
“And giving me gifts for no reason at all is unlike you.”
“I have a reason!”
“What is it, then?”
Carl shut his mouth quickly when he realised he had spoken too much, and deftly changed the subject. “Here, let me put it on for you.”
Van Helsing allowed the young man to pluck the pendant from his hand and reach into his greatcoat. The hunter wasn’t expecting his stomach to flutter when he felt Carl’s hands pat his waist, searching for the pocket-watch chain that held all of his religious talismans. A few clinks later and the Sacred Heart was hanging between the Star of David and the Hindu Aum, and Carl pulled away almost reluctantly.
Van Helsing sighed softly. “Well,” he said, “I had wanted to warn you, but you’ve probably already figured out by this time that I . . . smell truly awful.”
The friar laughed despite himself, face creasing with a bright smile that was the loveliest thing Van Helsing had seen in the past few months. “It’s all right,” he assured. “I probably don’t look or smell my best, either. Besides—” He reached up to brush a clump of dried mud from Van Helsing’s collar. “—you have a very nice stink.”
“I bet you say that to all the foul-smelling Knights.”
“No, just you. I’m very faithful.”
Van Helsing fingered the new pendant on his chain, staring fondly at Carl. “I know,” he said softly. “Why else would you give me the symbol of everlasting love?”
A shadow of terror crossed the friar’s face and he immediately stepped back. No longer was their banter innocent; his secret had been unearthed and was now lying upon the bare surface, exposed for all to see and ridicule . . . especially Van Helsing.
“It, it’s not like that,” stammered Carl in a futile attempt to save himself. “Every Catholic is familiar with that symbol—it’s a very common icon of faith—and I j-just wanted you to—”
“—be reminded of you wherever I go?” Van Helsing finished, drawing nearer. “To know that your love is always with me though we’re oceans apart?” He leaned close to Carl, gently brushing his hand through the friar’s unkempt, golden-blond tendrils. “I don’t need to carry a trinket on my chain to keep me from forgetting you, Carl. Your friendship means more to me than that.”
The young man fidgeted shyly and smiled, eyes darting back and forth across Van Helsing’s handsome—if a bit dirt-smudged—features. “I, I was hoping you’d say that,” he said with a nervous titter of laughter. “For quite a while now, I’ve . . . I had been trying to b-bring it to your attention, but . . . I didn’t really know how to say it. So I thought a gift would . . .” Tears brimmed in Carl’s eyes, but he was grinning brightly. “I wanted you to know how much I love you, Van Helsing, and how much I appreciate you. I don’t think I’ve ever admired anybody quite like I admire you, and that’s saying a lot!”
He laughed at himself, and a few tears rolled down his cheeks. The hunter reached out and wiped them from one side of his face while Carl hurriedly brushed the other with his sleeve.
“But I, ah . . .” he continued with a sniff and a sigh, “thought that someone in this place ought to let you know what a difference you make around here. It wouldn’t be the same without you.”
“You’re probably right,” agreed Van Helsing with a serious nod. “It’d be a whole lot quieter for one thing.”
Carl chuckled and Van Helsing grinned, then he pulled the friar into a warm, smelly embrace. Carl didn’t mind at all, wrapping his arms about the hunter’s shoulders and squeezing tightly. (He had to stand on his tiptoes.) They stayed in that position only until the other workers in the lab began to take notice, and then with great reluctance they drew away.
“Thank you for the heart, Carl. I promise not to treasure it more than the hands that made it,” said Van Helsing, and he lifted the friar’s hands to his lips and kissed the blistered fingers with surprising tenderness.
“Ahem,” came a frighteningly familiar grumble, and both Carl and Van Helsing turned to see Jinette standing in their midst, arms crossed over his red mozzetta and one of his bushy grey eyebrows arched in suspicion.
“Your Eminence,” said the huntsman nonchalantly, still holding Carl’s hands.
“Are you finished corrupting this young man, Gabriel,” said Jinette crisply, “or would you prefer to shower him with your devious affections for a bit longer?”
Van Helsing made an incredulous expression. “Do I even have to answer that?”
“No,” grouched the Cardinal quickly. “But I don’t want to ever see you kissing poor Carl here again, do you understand?”
“Completely, Your Eminence. I promise you will never again see such a thing.”
Jinette nodded in satisfaction, then let out a startled squawk as Van Helsing picked up his hat from the table, hid his face behind it, and kissed Carl directly on the lips.