The opera singer cries out with a soft, mournful note as the strings of the orchestra take wing underfoot. The romance of the scene carrying with the drift of the song as the couples on the dancefloor face each other, wrist-to-wrist, set into motion by the note of steps they learned long, long ago.
Kurapika feels a bit dreamy at the sight, staring out into the world around him as the sleepiness that fogged his brain begins to subside. He can feel the gnawing pain of wakefulness pulling at him, calling to him, as if he had something urgent to attention to.
He takes stock of himself, revelation before emotion. He himself is in a dress that he cannot remember donning, a spilling red, silk satin gown with a scooping neckline. He can feel the weight of jewelry adorning him, earrings and pins in his hair, all startling and beautiful and red as well. He looks like a drop of blood on the dancefloor of black and burnished gold. Eye catching. Enticing.
He can feel the press of fabric against the upper half of his face, a mask, just as ornate as the dress and jewelry. He is facing another masked figure dressed entirely in black. His dark hair swept back from his face, drawing the white line of his jaw stark in contrast.
He looks like he is made of shadow.
Kurapika continues to dance with the figure before him, foggy reality spilling into the corners of his vision as the room around him begins to take shape—a grand ball. The host having spared no expense as performers twine together on a stage, musicians and contortionists; acrobats and aerialists catch his attention above, dancing through the air as precisely as he dances on the ground below.
He spins in the hands of his partner, a fire-breather sending out a brilliant plume of flame above them, sending a rush of heat across Kurapika’s skin and driving him closer to the dark stranger as the dance becomes slower, more intimate.
It is odd that he knows the dance, however. He has never been to a party quite as grand as this.
Moving closer again, the lips below the stranger’s mask tip with a smile. Kurapika stares at that mouth, full and pink, and his own lips part. Desire curls through him, gentle as a drifting thought, a fragile curiosity, but Kurapika blinks, dismissing it.
He does not want that mouth, that kiss—it would surely ruin him.
The lips curve again, flashing teeth and Kurapika’s spine straightens, finding fear in nothing when a warm laugh trails from those teasing lips. “Oh Kurapika,” His partner bemoans, the hands on his waist hold him still and steady. His mask is gone now, revealing a handsome face, ageless and bright with dark, dark eyes. “You bane of my blood, you absolute Kurta,” he spits the word as if it were filthy, “must you fight me so?”
Then, those lips, that smiling mouth presses hotly against his own.
Kurapika can feel himself giving under the weight of the that mouth, and the hands sliding up his back, gathering him up and closer still until they are flush together, melding into one being. Kurapika slips off his own mask in an attempt to get closer, chasing that feeling as something cold and coiling drops into his stomach.
Then, the moment breaks.
The fog in Kurapika’s brain recedes like the tide and pure feeling pours into him with abandon. He can feel the shape of Kuroro’s lips peak against his mouth, “There you are, love” before seeking to deepen the kiss, tongue sweeping against Kurapika’s mouth. Kurapika sinks his teeth into the meat of his tongue in kind, tearing himself away with a snarl.
He does not make it far out of the circle of Kuroro’s arms, however.
Kurapika spits, the sour spill of blood lobbing on the checkered marble floor, swept up by the other dancers. Despite his blooded tongue, Kuroro supports a smile. A tinge of red marking his lip.
Kurapika can feel his pulse quicken in his throat.
Kuroro smiles broader. “What a lovely sound,” he muses before, with a flourish, he hooks his ankle around Kurapika’s and bends him into a low dip, almost to the floor. He makes a low sound of satisfaction at the sight. His mouth tips, lips peaking again in that cruel smirk. Their fingers intertwine. “How does it feel to be a puppet on my string?”
Kurapika’s teeth grit. “I won’t let you train me, Lucilfer.”
Kuroro hums, pulling Kurapika back up and crushing him to his chest in a move that is almost punishing. The blood on his lip is gone. “I have no intention of training you.” His voice is a low purr, rousing and sleepy, as his hand slides across his back. Kurapika recoils, but there is nowhere to recoil to.
Kuroro has a firm hold on him. Kurapika’s right hand, the hand tangled with chains, clutched in his. This disturbs the flow of the dancers, especially without the fog of the spell to keep Kurapika light on his feet, but none of them seem to be paying much mind that he and Kuroro are not following with the steps of the room now. Every time they are about to brush into another couple, they cleverly bow out of the way, heads dipping to Kuroro in respect and eyes lingering on Kurapika with curiosity.
Kurapika wants to snarl at them for staring, for inching into his space, but never does it occur to him to plead or beg for help. The people around them are in the thralls of masque and finery, unbeknownst to the monster among them.
And Kuroro Lucilfer is such a monster. However, not the breed of monster that Kurapika has grown accustomed to in his years of vampire hunter. There is something about him that is distinctly different from the rest. Unflinchingly mild-mannered, bloodlust baying under an air of intelligence and regalia, all well-polished manners and knife’s edge smiles. He could kill everyone in this room, Kurapika included, without spilling a single drop of blood.
But he would. Just for the fun of it. Bloodletting for bloodlettings sake. A rite as ancient as he is.
No, Kurapika can handle this himself. He doesn’t want anyone else getting hurt for his careless mistake.
“And if I know those Hunters, which I do,” Kuroro carries on, spinning him again. His movements are too abrupt for Kurapika’s feet and forcing him to fall against his chest again for support. He snarls and the hand on his hip tightens, pain lancing up his side. “They are not planning on risking their necks for you, either.”
Kurapika doesn’t believe him, but doubt begins to slip through the cracks in his armor, unbidden.
He has only known the Hunters sent from the Association for a week. After their untimely arrival that started all this mess, they had built an uneasy alliance based on mutual interest. They had been sent to clean out the vampires in Ryuseigai and Kurapika had joined them.
He had been lingering in the shadows of Kuroro Lucilfer for years now; killing the monsters he unleashed upon the world and leaving the corpses buried along the road he traveled, like a warning, a promise.
He is merely a means to an end, after all. Bait that Kuroro had wanted in exchange for the lives of his friends. He had gone willingly, another plan foiled, and the last of the Kurta vampire hunters now resided in the clutches of the very monster that slaughtered his kith and kin.
Kurapika can feel anxiety curling in his chest, ready to punch out.
“Don’t look so maudlin, my pet.” Kuroro hums amiably. “I intend on taking good care of you until the time comes.” This, accompanied with the smooth strokes of Kuroro’s thumb against the small of his back, sends a shudder of gooseflesh up his spine.
“You make my skin crawl.” He snaps, but it sounds weak.
Kuroro smirks, spinning Kurapika in a slow, dizzying circle before pulling him back, arms cross his chest, drawing the bare skin of Kurapika’s back and shoulder against the soft velvet and brass. He is more exposed like this, looking out at the dazzling party, the glit and gold of the evening, not the monster at his back.
He can feel Kuroro leaning into him. He can feel the cool drag of breath that would never be warm as a living man’s. His lips skim across the quivering line of Kurapika’s throat, stopping at the hollow beneath his jaw. “This is not all,” his breath echoes in his ear, voice pitched low, “I can do with your skin.”
Despite the full-bodied chill that shakes him violently, there is a small part of Kurapika, slight and secret and weaned on the warm delusion of Kuroro’s influence, that is asking for those lips on his throat to pull back. If it suited him, the leader of the vampires could lose himself in Kurtan bloodlust again and finish the bloodline off here and now. Maybe then Kurapika could die with dignity. Sate that part of himself that still wishes he died with his family that summer night.
He closes his eyes, bracing for impact as those lips trail down the length of his neck again, placing a kiss to the top of his shoulder. “Don’t we make a lovely couple?”
There is mirth in Kuroro’s voice, not the cruel, menacing way he had dangled Killua and Gon over a cliff’s edge, but taunting, almost a chuckle. Kurapika’s eyes slide open, confused at what he is seeing as he takes in his own flushed cheeks and the bleeding red gown, but then his stomach drops.
Kuroro has spun them to the corner of the room where a large mirror has been set against the wall, positioned to make the party seem larger than it truly was. He is staring at his reflection, the beautiful room, the flowing aerial silks of the dancers above, the stage set with musicians, but the space behind him is empty. When he looks down, he can still see Kuroro’s arms against his chest, but in the mirror, he is alone.
Even beyond Kuroro, the beautiful bustling room full of noise and music and laughter reflects back empty in the glass. Glasses floating in air, silk lapping at the floor. A revelry of ghosts.
Vampires, his mind supplies. He can feel himself going ridged in Lucilfer’s arms, muscles locking, but no will to fight. I am in a room full of vampires. He swears a low oath under his breath, panic twist in his side. Stupid. I should have realized.
“Come, pet,” Kuroro murmurs against his ear with a wintery sigh, “the dance.”
He pulls Kurapika back into the thrall, moving in step with the other dances now, and Kurapika allows himself to be led, more preoccupied with his current condition—waning influence, surrounded by enemies, this stitching, pulling pain in his side—
“You seem distracted.” Kuroro intones, his voice turning teasing as he spins Kurapika in a tight circle, a flare of cape and skirts. “Plotting your great escape, my sweet?”
“Shut up.” Kurapika mumbles, distracted. “And enough with the endearments. I am nothing to you.”
Kuroro’s mouth pulls at the corner. “That is exactly what I wanted to speak to you about. Since it seems as though your Hunter friends have left you for dead—” Kurapika tries not to flinch under the well-placed jab, but fails. His glare hardens. “I have decided to offer you a place among our noble ranks.”
“Your ranks?” Kurapika intones, sarcasm dipping low and needling. “What? Did you eat the rest of your scullery maids?”
Kuroro smiles, but pointedly ignores the remark. “You see, due to unforeseen circumstance, I am looking for a new Spider.”
He remembers through the din, the previous days. The dark-haired man, tall and muscular and animal, with a brimming smile and a set of teeth Kurapika had last intimately seen sunk into the neck of his good friend Pairo. Tearing him to ribbons with glee. He had been one of the Spiders, Kuroro’s band of vampires that trailed him like a court to its king.
Uvogin had been his name.
He had been atop Leorio when they met, teeth baring down, about to tear another life from this earth and something in Kurapika had just moved, shifted into motion like muscle memory.
His slaying of Uvogin had earned him his own target on his back.
Kuroro eyes him, the length of their arms, as if seeing him fully. “It’s a life for a life, Kurapika. Surely you must understand that.” He ignores the little shivers that chase down his spine when Kuroro says his name. The gut-twisting thrill of someone capable of great carnage and danger looking at him as if he hung the moon. “You are young, strong, beautiful. You are befitting of immortality. You would be an asset to me and mine.”
He can taste his mouth going dry at the implication.
Death is one thing. Death is peace and sleep and an afterlife giving way under the dust of humanity. What Kuroro is offering is servitude. An asset to me and mine, he says. As if Kuroro would fashion him into a jewel, wear him on his throat like a prize from some great crusade. Something used. Something owned.
“I will never be yours,” he croaks, tongue heavy. He can hear the fire in his words, but its waning with each second, sinking under the smothering heat of Kuroro’s presence—the width of his shoulders, the curve of his hands, the dark, commanding eyes that glint obsidian and silver. Kurapika’s limbs feel weak. His lips numb. “Never.”
Kuroro draws him back in and Kurapika sinks back into his arms. Not a dance, but an embrace. Like lovers. He’s shaking.
Kuroro’s hands cup his cheeks. “Never is far longer than you have, Kurapika.” His voice is pitched low, almost chastising him as if he had said something foolish. His thumb sweeps across the flank of Kurapika’s cheekbone. “Even at the prime of your life, you have not yet met the peak of your potential. Allow me,” he says, drawing his hands down, against his neck, a necklace of flesh and bone, “to elongate that time for you.”
“A gift.” Kuroro says, sweet as kiss. “One brief moment of pain,” his thumb drags across the curve of his neck, “and we can be together forever.”
Like this they are chest-to-chest, Kurapika’s gloved hands braced against the double-breasted coat and cloak Kuroro wore to the masquerade. Kuroro’s face is tipping towards him, a forelock of hair falling against his brow, cutting the odd cross tattoo off-kilter in symmetry.
This close, Kurapika can feel no warmth from the man under his gloved hands. Despite the layers and collection of the room, even with the hovering the fire-breathers, Kuroro offers no body heat to combat the chill that runs through Kurapika with foreboding.
He stares up, into those opaque eyes and for the first time, he has a tremble in his voice when he speaks, “You have no heartbeat.”
Even of the worst of the monsters he faced had beating hearts, temperatures burning-hot with the pulse of stolen blood pumping through their veins. Wild, mindless animals.
Silence punctuates the moment.
Kuroro’s fingers sink along the spill of the dress, the valley of his breastbone, to the hollow of his throat. Two fingers sinking along to curve at the base of his throat, bringing his neck to arch under the support of his palm. Kurapika scarcely realizes he is being tipped back until the golden lights behind Kuroro turn dazzling and bright. Like stars, like fire. Lukso in the distance.
He is full of so many things, so many thoughts that fear seems to skirt at the corner of his being, too much, too little, too late. The soothing balm of Kuroro’s influence sinks into him once again like a drug, numbing him from being. His skin feels hot under Kuroro’s fingers, prickled and wanting of touch, begging for it.
He releases a shuddered breath at the sensation and Kuroro coos to him.
“Perhaps,” he says, words drawing long and low, a thumb soothing against his throat to make him preen, eyes rolling closed a moment, “it just needs to be rekindled.”
Kuroro’s mouth is a wide, terrifying cut of black, expanding and lengthening with shadows and teeth—fangs, like a wolf’s, like a bat’s, like a spider’s—glistening like the light off a dagger. Kurapika’s mouth gapes—to scream, to speak, to sigh—but the terrifying, thrilling roar of it all is cut short when the fire behind Kuroro sets to his back.
Kurapika is sent toppling to the marble floor when his only point of gravity folds in a terrified scream. He scrounges at the edges of the skirts and fine-polished shoes, trying to right himself once more, his training coming back to him quicker out of the circle of Kuroro’s arms. When he turns to face his captor, he finds him folded over in the throes of a scream that is more animal than man, more echo than sound—
He is on fire.
His back blooming with magnificent flame, clawing at his clothes and the pale, pale skin beneath. Kuroro bent forward, arms curling against his chest, fingers curling, nails lengthening; half-morphed into the monster that he is. The one Kurapika saw years ago flying over Lukso under the full moon, circling like a vulture as his Spiders took their pickings.
He arches back, throwing the flames from his shoulders and turns, skin beat-red with bleeding, searing, smoke. His jaw unhinges into an elongated maw and he sets his sights on a colorfully dressed man in the crowd.
One of the fire-breathers. Kurapika realizes, as the screams—human screams from inhuman lips, sink into his ears. He must have tripped. Dim realization kicking at his spine as he slips out of the shoes—fine satin heels—that Kuroro had selected for him, and bunches up his skirts in his fist, apt to run when something—someone—collides against him, knocking the wind out of his lungs.
Then, he is airborne, the yelp that punches from his chest is swallowed up by the whipping of air against his skin as he arches over the crowd. He rips at the arm holding him, shouting still, but a voice carries through the harebrained noise in his ear. It’s his name. “Kurapika, Kurapika! It’s me!”
Kurapika cranes his neck back, hair falling in his face as the ruby-studded clip falls loose, plummeting the crowd beneath them. The arm around his waist tightens considerably. “Leorio?” He whispers and the man’s face turns to him, half-covered by a mask shaped like a waning moon. “It’s you.”
He grins. “Miss me?”
“Terribly.” Kurapika mumbles, but the words get lost in his throat as he and Leorio arch upward to one of the opera boxes protruding along the walls of the ballroom. Kurapika scrambles for Leorio’s arm, but the protective band around his waist falls away, throwing him into the box and onto a pair of supposedly unsuspecting stowaways.
“Jeez, could he have put you in a heavier dress?” A voice grumbles, offended.
“Killua?” He feels a shift against his side, another pair of arms holding him aloft with much more strength than a child should. “Gon?” A bright smile beams under his arm as Gon fits himself to his side, arms bracing around him in a hug.
“Hey Kurapika! We’ve been looking for ya!”
Kurapika is too shocked too move, too speak. Last he saw the boys they were dangling in Kuroro’s clutches, writhing and breathing, but quiet as hands tightened around their throats. The rush of relief feels almost secondary. “You . . . came to save me?”
“Well, of course.” Killua says, arms coming around him, albeit not as snuggly as Gon had.
“We would never leave you behind.” Leorio says, disentangling himself from the aerial silk. He jumps down from the banister in the same smooth motion. His dark eyes are almost panicked. “Now, c’mon. Let’s—”
That singsong voice rose high in the quiet room. In all the trouble and all the noise, Kurapika had not realized the ballroom full of boisterous chatter, music and dance had gone eerily quiet. He can feel a chill thrill up his spine as Kuroro croons his name again, voice saccharine sweet.
He peers over the railing of the gallery, hair falling across his cheek.
The fire that had distracted Kuroro has been put out. Both his fine singed cape and the fire-breather that offended him lay at his feet in a messy pool. The king of the vampire band lifts his head, mouth the bleeding crimson of victory. Kurapika is sickened to see those lips smile. “Oh, Kurapika, my love.”
His eyes find Kurapika’s and it’s like ice shooting through his soul.
In his time at the castle, Kuroro has kept a careful lid on the monstrous parts of himself, showing only enough to keep Kurapika docile, but not enough to fear him.
And now, with the neck of the man—a lesser vampire—pouring out at his feet, filling the room with the copper scent of blood, Kuroro lifts a hand to the opera box, commanding the attention to the room as he beckons Kurapika back to him. Kurapika can feel his knees buckling beneath the weight of his skirts.
“We gotta get out of here.” Kurapika hisses as fear, true fear, prickles up his spine. His eyes tilt up, finding Leorio’s inquisitive gaze through the peak of the domino. “Now.” His hands grasp tight around both Killua and Gon, pulling them closer to his sides, almost behind him.
Killua tugs at his arm. “Follow us,” he says, shoving a pair of bokken, the ones he had been carrying since Pairo’s death, into his hands. “We got a plan.”
“I would hope you do.” He says flexing on the balls of his feet as Leorio tears once at the aerial silk in his fist, hard. The great chandelier in the center of the room quivers and snaps, sending a thousand shimmering, shining crystals down onto the vampires below, each sharper than the next. Screams score up the walls of the hall and Kurapika is yanked back through the opera box and into the side corridor.
He catches his footing quickly, arms and legs pumping in time as the screams of vampires take flight behind them. It’s not enough. It’s not enough to kill them, even if they had managed to spear a few, Kuroro would never allow himself such a simple death, of that, Kurapika is sure.
He hears screams as he runs through the halls with his comrades—his friends—voices that are at once distant and far too close. Whispers, like bat wings, rippling and roaring at the sound of his name over and over again. At first, he thinks it’s Leorio, but the man is pulling ahead of him, shouting at the kids as they make their retreat.
Kurapika Kurapika Kurapika—
His side aches with pain, the stitch in his hip crawling upward as Kurapika pours on the speed.
The corridors folding out before him with stone columns and oil paintings, torches and high-paned windows. All the dressings of wealth pillaged to decorate Kuroro’s castle.
They slide through another corridor, into another elegant room and the kids bar the doors behind him. He feels weighted down by the oppressive call of Kuroro’s voice—because it is Kuroro’s voice—endlessly and eternally in his ear, calling him back, to his arms, to his bed—
Blearily realization sends ice down his spine as Leorio snatches his wrist again, pulling him along as he had fallen behind. He is remembering something, caught up in a memory that feels achingly too surreal and too detailed for the land of dreams. Silk against naked skin, the tell-tale drag of fingers, and a brief moment of pain—
The stitch in his side. The bleariness of the last few days. The burning of the lights.
“No.” He whispers and Leorio hauls him closer, misunderstanding.
“Oh yes, we are.”
Faintly, he wonders where they are going. There is nothing in this room, an unused chapel, tall and beautiful, with arching ceilings and twin cathedral windows at the back in the staining the floors red, yellow, and blue with the evening lights. One of the kids launches something from their belt and those stained windows combust, sheets and sheets of sharp glass falling to the stone floor.
Gon and Killua lock arms. Leorio pulls him up. “Wait, wait, wait—” He can hear himself saying, but Leorio is louder, voice overlapping his, “Just trust me!”
They freefall through the open window into that dark abyss beyond and Kurapika’s stomach finds its way into his chest as for a moment they are floating, pin-wheeling, and then falling. The scream he had been holding onto all this time finally peels from his lips as they fall into the blackness below. Leorio’s arms lock around him. “Hold your breath!”
The water feels like falling into stone. Water closes overhead, shooting up his nose. Pain sings in the corners of his eyes. Bubbles lifting from his lips as he attempts to open his mouth, but hands haul him down. He hears a watery rendition of his name, fingers hooking against his skin pulling him lower and lower, and then a loud noise—an explosion, rocks overhead.
The castle is lit up from every window in a prism of pure light, white-hot and burning as the sound of the castle rubbles and settles into eerie quiet.
Kurapika feels light-headed.
Leorio drags him upward, arm hooked across his back. When they break the surface, Kurapika begins to hack, spitting and spewing as Leorio drags him to shore. He can hear other noises in the quiet night; the kids, though he cannot see them and the crumbling of the ancient castle shaking apart with the heat of the explosion.
Kurapika’s mind is still falling through that window.
He might vomit if his stomach had something to give. His hands tighten around the bokken.
Leorio only loosens his hold once they are on the shore, then turns to help the kids, who are shouting in elation. Kurapika can still feel the nervous, shiver-shakes of the explosion and sinks to his knees in the brackish water, fingers digging into the mud. His ears are ringing.
“What—what, what was that?” Kurapika wheezes, his throat burns with water in his windpipe. “What just happened?”
“Killua made a bomb.” Leorio explains vaguely, out of breath and makes a gesture towards the castle behind them. Kurapika stares, mind slow going, processing vague picture motions of the story Leorio is trying to tell. “It has the same flash-burn of sunlight. It killed them. It killed them all.”
Leorio says it so casually, so sure, that for a moment Kurapika almost believes him.
He can feel himself reaching out into that quiet that persists for a moment, two moments too long, between one breath and the next. Panic sings low in his bones when he feels a soft brush of something against his conscious. Something writhing and living like a virus, calling out for him. He can still feel him, nestled against the space between his heart and mind.
“He’s still alive, he’s—” He catches himself. Hands pressing to his mouth, teeth digging in. “Good God,” he hisses with a burning tongue, “he’s still alive. Damnit all!”
Hands seize his wrists.
“Kurapika. Kurapika, it’s okay, it’s okay now.” Kurapika tries to nod, he thinks he nods, he must nod, because Leorio is going on and on, wrapping a wet jacket around him as the kids scramble to shore, waterlogged and exulted, laughter peeling from their lips in a tiny echo. “—he’s in shock. C’mon we got to get him out of these clothes.”
There is a lot of movement around him, a lot of pushing and gathering, hands leading and Kurapika can only be numbly pulled along as the cool night becomes artic against his wet skin. Rocks cut at his bare feet. Kuroro’s voice in his ear, in his head, still drawing him back to the castle, promising a preferred numbness, warmth, and all sorts of things Kurapika would never wish for aloud.
He coaches himself to remember that face, the one that hides beneath that beautiful mask. The mouth of full of knives and curling lips and stretching bones. That is the monster who stakes a claim on him. That is the one who slaughtered his family for sport, leaving him stranded in this life of grief.
Like the bite that has already had time to fester and spread under his gown.