Alucard was eavesdropping again, half in, half out of the wall at the far end of the corridor. With preternatural senses, it was close enough to pick out the conversation of the two men--one doctor, one steward--at the other end of the hallway, in front of his master's bedroom.
"To be honest, Mr. Stephson, the prognosis is not good." The doctor's voice was severe and no-nonsense, with only a hint of the fatigue he no doubt felt. He sniffed at the air, looked distasteful. "And from the smell in here, I can tell she hasn't exactly been following the treatment plan. I did tell you that she wasn't to smoke anymore, didn't I?" He seemed to loom over Stephson--a short man, to begin with--in that moment.
Stephson conceded, as he usually did. The man was nothing if not a push-over. Ah, if Walter had still been around, it would be different. "She can be very insistent, sir. She won't let up on the work. We can hardly get her to take her medication. And we've tried getting rid of her cigars, and... well, you've met her, you can imagine how long that lasted."
Because you're the kind of man who wilts before a woman like her. Weakling. What ever brought you here? Better she be in my care than yours.
Trying to put a positive spin on the matter, Stephson added. "On the plus side, she has been eating better, and she's given up the drink."
When she eats at all. And she hardly ever drank to begin with; considered it a vice not worthy of nobility.
The doctor sighed. "As her steward, you'll have to do better than that. I am not impressed. Her health is in peril, and all you can give me are excuses." He shrugged, threw up his hands in frustration. "We've treated her with medication. We've given her the best, the most experimental treatments. The next option, I'm afraid, is a transplant. And I do warn you, finding a donor, with her blood type and Rh factor, will not be easy. Would be easier if she had a direct relative, but again, no luck there. Your only ally is time, and it's not an ally you seem to be befriending, Mr. Stephson." The doctor paused long enough to calm his voice, and then added, in a lower, confidential, tone, "If you can't handle this duty, then I'm afraid I must ask that someone else be appointed her steward."
Alucard took his chance to advance on the pair, nodding a greeting to the doctor. "I trust you've told the same thing to Sir Hellsing herself?"
If possible, the doctor's stare turned even colder at his intrusion. "You will have discuss the details with Mr. Stephson. I'm not at liberty to discuss her condition with anyone else." And, as if the room had indeed grown physically colder at Alucard's appearance, the man suddenly felt the need to absent himself. "Good day, Mr. Stephson. Next time, call me sooner."
As he disappeared down the stairway to the medical quarters, Alucard turned back to Stephson. "She collapsed again." It was no question, this. He knew--had felt the failing of the beating that constantly accompanied him--and had returned to the main house. Not soon enough to avoid annoying physicians and troublesome stewards, he saw.
Stephson, nodded, hurriedly. If he had been nervous in the doctor's presence, he was positively frightened now, dry-washing his shaking hands. "Y-yes. She had been saying all evening that she didn't feel well, and right after dinner, she collapsed on her way back to her office. She is in bed now. The doctor says she should stay there until her condition improves some."
He could feel it, better than the doctor could. She was not improving. She was fading. The seal was fading with her, and he--he was not sure what to say about that. To Stephson, nothing, certainly. "Let me see her."
Stephson grew quiet, muttered under his breath, "Well, you'll see her whether I say so or not, won't you?" His words were tinged with bitterness.
Alucard grinned at him, being especially careful to bear his canines in the process. He knew it unnerved Stephson. "If you want me to respect your orders, do something to make me respect you."
Stephson leaped to open the door for him. It was an unnecessary courtesy, the kind evoked by fear.
She was, as promised, in bed, but sitting up, to avoid the coughing and breathlessness that plagued her when she lay down. How grey she looked today, too, positively ashen. Her eyes were closed, her head reclined back, as if lost in thought. Without opening her eyes, she said, "Intimidating my servants again, Alucard?"
He smiled. With mere words, she could assure him that mere illness could not shake her. "I don't recall Walter ever being that weak."
"He wasn't. But. You know what they say, good help is hard to find. Stephson was promoted--or demoted, depends on your opinion--to steward, I think, because his marksmanship skills were amiss. You will have to ask one of my commanders about that." The long speech left her winded at the last words. Regaining breath, she asked, "What news from the doctor?"
"You were listening, you should know," he said merely. She had a desk in her bedroom, by the window and yet close to her bed--for when did she ever stop working?--and he seated himself on it, lounging his feet on the edge of her bed.
She opened her eyes now, looked over at the desk. "You're sitting on the Kensington file. Bring it here, I still have some reading to do before I go to bed."
"You are in bed, Master. Better to rest while you're there."
"I don't repeat myself," she said, more menacingly this time.
"Then don't. But regardless, I'm not getting up."
"I suppose now you'll tell me the undead are making door-to-door deliveries, and so I can afford to sit a day in bed?" She sighed. "At least a cigar?"
He was about to give the same refusal he had given before. But hedonism, unlike duty, was something he understood. He also understood the fading, the failing, that was a constant part of his awareness now. And, after all, hadn't he heard that they let terminal patients in hospitals smoke all they wanted?
Terminal. Once he had been a two-bit prince with some German and a smattering of Latin to complement his Hungarian. Etymology, at least, he knew. Terminal, terminalis, terminus. These English liked to use Latin for words they wanted to distance from themselves; words like "end."
"Let's compromise. A cigarillo?" He fished in her desk drawer, where he knew he'd find them. A fresh box of them awaited. "I can see you've been persistent about your shopping list." He pulled one out, along with a silver lighter, and handed them to her.
With an eagerness that brought youth to her eyes, she took the paraphernalia from his hands, lighting the cigarillo with practiced grace. "What Hellsing wants, Hellsing gets," she muttered around the tobacco. "Or so I heard Stephson saying on his way out."
"Stephson should have your better interest in mind."
She snorted. "Oh, like you do? I believe it was your hand that just gave me this deathly thing."
"I am your servant, but not your steward, Master. I never claimed to have your best interest in mind."
"Funny how a bastard like you manages to look like the picture of innocence when you say that." She inhaled deeply from the cigarillo in her mouth. From the happiness it gave her, one would have thought it elixir of youth rather than a contributor to her failing heart. "So. I believed I asked what the doctor said."
A long pause waited. "How are you feeling, Master?"
A suspicious look crossed her face, but she replied. "Tired. And cold. My feet never seem to get warm any more. What are you saying?"
"Your heart is failing."
"I know that. They've been telling me that for three years now."
"You are dying."
A panicked look crossed her face briefly, a look that Alucard knew too well. He had certainly seen it reflected in the face of his victims over his five-hundred odd years.
She had pride, though, and she rushed to staunch the look, returning her face to the picture of stoic forbearance that it usually was. "Well, well. Is that what the doctor said?"
"He said that you would die if you do not have a transplant, and added that such an event was exceptionally unlikely."
"So you're merely interpreting the Oracle at Delphi?"
He smiled modestly. "You could say that."
A long silence followed. The threat of impending death didn't seem to deter Integra from enjoying her smoke. If anything, she clung to it more tenaciously. "I suppose you must be pleased about this development. You will be free."
"Will I?" He didn't dare presume too much at this moment. Mortals were unpredictable, most especially in fear.
She nodded, slowly. "The seal only passes through direct relations. Unless my cousin Boris knows how to renew it--and I suspect he doesn't--you shall be free to be the prince of tyranny and oppression that you once were."
"How will I amuse myself without you to torment?"
"I suppose Seras will offer amusement enough. And for eternity, even, or at least until she frees herself of you."
He chuckled. "She's much like you. Like you, she won't take my blood, either."
Another silence. Her voice returned, colder, menacing. "Don't say things like that. Not tonight. I'm tired enough, and old enough, that I won't do the right thing when you tempt me like that."
"Once you'd done it, there would be no right thing to do anymore."
"You said it yourself, though, didn't you? Only humans can fight monsters."
"Dead humans, from what I understand, can't fight much at all."
She had turned her head away from him, looking out the window, face set with defiance. "Fuck you, too, Alucard. Do you like waving your spoiled immortality in my face? It must be terribly easy to be brave, when nothing can kill you, especially not silly things like a failing heart." He could feel, now, the speeding of her heart with fear, with anger, with frustration. "I should have died thirty years ago, had you not found me. I should have died in battle, any time after that. This... this does not befit a Hellsing."
Alucard took the moment to calmly point out, "Your father did not die in battle."
"My father did enough for this institute that his worth was assured, death in service or no."
"And you think you have not?"
"Let's not play psychoanalyst tonight, Alucard, shall we?"
"As you wish. What would you like to talk of?"
She stared at him, somewhat unbelieving. "I expect you would know. You've 500 years of deaths behind you, many of them at your own hands. What do the dying say to the undead?"
"They beg for their lives. They tell me they are too young to die-"
"Is that what you want me to say? That I'm too young to die? Well, I expect I am."
Alucard shrugged. It all seemed so short to him, either way. "The doctor says that your weak heart is inherited; and that your case of measles as a child didn't help it. Most especially, he says your smoking has hastened it. Young, but not unnatural, Master."
"You would know of unnatural, I suppose," she smirked. "What else do they say?"
"Anything they think would save them, I expect. I had one man tell me he was a writer, as if he expected that to ensure immortality."
"And what did you do?"
"I sunk my teeth into his carotid artery and killed him quickly. It was the least I could do."
She snorted. "I'm sure the art community thanked you for your arbitration of good taste."
"I like to consider myself a scathing critic. None of my subjects survive my reviews."
Integra gave a weak laugh; stubbed out the cigarillo in the bronze ashtray by her bed, already stained black with ash. "Tell me more."
"Why so fascinated, Master?"
She took a while to answer, considering her answer. Alucard could sense the churning in her mind, but her thoughts were deep and veiled enough that he couldn't guess their nature. Eventually she smiled a weak smile, and said, "I just want to know how I am supposed to act. This is where I'm supposed to make deathbed confessions, isn't it? I must regret that I have nothing to confess."
"None? Not even childhood crushes?" The look he gave her betrayed that he knew more of this matter than she would have preferred.
She blushed a little, enough to bring the slightest tinge of color to her ashen face. "Well, those hardly bear confessing. I think the objects of my infatuations know well that children are foolish and fleeting, before they grow up and realize the weight of duty."
"I imagine they understand and are endlessly forgiving." Head in his hand, he smiled knowingly.
She sighed again. "Is it lonely, ever, on your side of the bed?"
He shrugged. "Not usually. Humans are removed enough from me that I've rarely cared enough about the ones I've seen die." It was cold, perhaps unnecessarily so, even for him. To tell the truth, dying unnerved him. Oh, not the kind achieved by his killing; that, he could control, and rather savored. But this "natural" kind, the slow take-over of entropy--he did not understand it. He most certainly did not trust it, and even more certainly did not know how to treat it--save for the simple offer that she repeatedly refused. Doesn't she see? As one of us, she would be a veritable Kali, a law unto her own, utterly unstoppable. "There's no reason why you shouldn't know for yourself what it's like on this side of the bed, Master."
"I told you not to bring that up again."
It made him furious. He didn't know why; it wasn't like any other human refusing his offer would send him into such a rage. It was such a waste for her to die. An infuriating, unaesthetic, useless waste-
He stopped. That thought had been uncannily human. He reminded himself that he would be free. There was nothing to agonize about.
Integra seemed to notice his agitation, though he liked to pride himself on keeping his motives hidden. "Bee in your bonnet, Alucard?"
He calmed himself, managed his usual distasteful tone. "Perhaps I don't understand why you refuse, when you're so close to death?"
"Perhaps you don't what it means to be Hellsing."
He bit back. "Apparently it means bull-headed stupidity. But then, that always was your forte."
"I have to be bullheaded. Otherwise, I might just say yes," she replied quietly. "I don't cherish the idea of dying, either. In fact, I dread it. I'm smart enough to know, though, that like all humans I've been bred to dread it. And then I try to calm myself, and tell myself that it means a pleasantly long vacation from work." She didn't smile when she said that. Her morbid humor seemed to have run out. "It's all just bargaining, after all, isn't it? We do that so well, humans. That's why we have big brains, so we could ruin our last hours thinking about everything we're missing, rather than passing with the peace of dumber beasts. Isn't that so? Isn't that exactly what you would say, Alucard?"
Alucard said nothing for a long time. She had, indeed, taken the words out of his mouth. He liked to fancy he knew her well; well enough to speak her mind as his own, but perhaps the same could be said of her knowledge of him. Unsettling, that a mortal should know him quite so well.
He was unsure where these words left her. Finally, he spoke. "I await your orders, Master."
"I don't want to do that. I could live another week, another month, another year, thinking every moment about the last moment. Spoiled moments, every single one of them. I won't dirty one more." She breathed as deeply as she could, and looked to him, her gaze steady. "You can ensure that."
His eyes widened as he realized what she called for. Her thoughts spoke it louder than words; a dignity unquenched by illness. "I won't do that, Master."
"What, why not? You tell me yourself it is a relatively painless death. Like going to sleep, you tell me. Or do you just tell me that so that we let you snack on the occasional human?"
It was a death he had died himself, and lived to tell the tale, and so he spoke truth. "It's true. But I won't do it."
"If you're having a sudden fit of ethics, find me my gun and I'll do it myself."
"They say suicide is cowardly."
"Should I take that as a yes, then? Certainly, being killed by a vampire is a much more fitting death for a Hellsing." When Alucard gave no reply still, she continued. "Would you rather the Institute slowly faded as I did? Better I die now, while all our business is still aright; while I still haven't bankrupted us with my cutting-edge medical treatments."
"It's always duty that sways you in the end." He was angry again. Why couldn't she, for once, act like a normal human? But then, would he prefer her bargaining for another couple of uncertain moments? It demeaned her; demeaned the duty she had fulfilled for these thirty years. He had called her, in past times, a mere human. But unlike a mere human she would control her own fate.
Nonetheless I will blink my eyes and she will be gone.
She was still looking up at him expectantly. He noticed from the tightness of her jaw that she was gritting her teeth. "Hurry up and decide, before I lose my nerve."
He stood, moved to the side of her bed. It was not a long walk, and too soon, he was sitting beside her on the bed.
He had killed so many, and yet he had never had opportunity to ask, "How shall we do this?"
"Quickly." She moved to push back her hair; put her cross aside and untied her ascot, exposing her neck. "I assume this will be the quickest?" He noticed, as she did this, that her hands were shaking.
He nodded. It had always been too much to hope for, that he be allowed another taste of her blood. Oh, certainly, she had had to renew the seal periodically, but she made sure that the farthest distance possible between her veins and his mouth was maintained. And now, it was too surreal for him to fully comprehend. No matter how many times he had done this before, he still found it incredibly awkward this time.
Finally, he placed his mouth to her neck, just at the carotid artery--for drawing arterial blood was much quicker--not yet biting. She flinched a little at the sudden cold of his bloodless flesh on hers. Her heartbeat was fluttering beneath his lips. She was scared, but, as usual, hiding as best as she could, taking calming breaths.
Are you comfortable? he said, speaking to her telepathically. Again, not usually his first concern when making a kill.
I was just thinking, this is the closest I'll ever get to a first kiss.
He clenched his fists in his lap, suddenly reluctant. Even the promise of virgin blood, in great quantity, didn't ease his mind. Quelling all these interfering human thoughts was another first for his kills.
But. In the end, you are my master. And, with alacrity, he moved to carry out her final order.