"Well, then. What do you want me to do about it?"
She asked this not unkindly. Integra was aware that a cranky, sleep-deprived Alucard could spell consequences. And if she admitted it to herself, she was a bit worried; she always was, even when her brain knew that he was indestructible. It must be her heart that made her feel such things. Her stupid heart. All aspects of her life she endeavored to encase in iron, and yet her heart remained stubbornly squishy underneath.
His flesh, his physical form is indestructible, but not his mind. A mind is susceptible to things the body is not. And his is as ragged as it can get.
When he was with her—when there were no enemies nearby, and no Walter—he could be a fairly pleasant, if salacious and shameless, company. Walls and closed doors did not hinder his entrance, and she had never really ordered him to stay out of her room (only threatened him with the promise of silver bullets down a very specific part of his anatomy, to which he had laughed). So he was here, in a corner, eyeing her and the bed she was sitting on.
"You want me to tuck you in? Is that it? Or perhaps invite you for pillow talk." Integra snorted. "Tell me this isn't some plot to gloat that you've been in my bed and cause Walter a heart attack. Go on. I dare you."
He leered. "I don't need a plot for you to invite me to your bed."
"Master." Alucard crossed the distance between them and knelt before her. "My Master. Mercy."
"Mercy for your poor beast, your beast of burden." His head was crooked as he looked up at her, and his eyes were red, devilish, and strangely tired. "One who labors night after night to keep your hands pristine while I sully mine over and over."
Integra made a show of looking over her hands. "A bit late for that, isn't it?"
"Your hands will always be clean compared to mine," he said.
"Let's agree to disagree," she said. "Playing the pity card, and flattery to boot? You must be desperate."
"Desperation is what creates a monster, Integra." Alucard smiled. It was a wearisome smile. Without much thought, because she had been meaning to do so all along, she grasped his face, and guided it close. He understood what she wanted, and with a small moan he rested his cheek on her knee. It was a cold, heavy weight. Integra slid a hand into his locks and they wrapped around her fingers, eager for her touch.
"Now a perfect bedtime snack would be a drop of blood."
She tugged at his hair in reprimand. "As if a mere drop would sate you."
"Drops, then. Plural. Why, are you offering?" Alucard opened his mouth, his tapering teeth gleaming in the faint light.
Integra seized his jaw with her free hand and clamped his mouth shut. "Watch your word choice, my Servant. I do not offer. I grant."
Then grant me a reprieve, my dear Master.
The hand holding his mouth shut shifted, and a dark finger traced those thin, pale lips. And the deadly mouth did not open this time but twisted in an agonized way, one half of his instincts wanting to bite off the appendage and the other half desiring to kiss it, lave it, as he could not other parts of her heady flesh.
When the finger left he almost keened, but there was one glorious, silent moment when it was slid between rows of very blunt, human teeth, and she bit.
"I really don't understand why you're still so fixated on my blood, nicotine-laced as it is," Integra said casually as his pupils dilated at the fat drop of red that was wobbling at the edge of the digit. "I shouldn't be so lenient with you, but just this once, Alucard." She leaned down and her hair tangled with his. Theirs was a connection of light and dark. One he would never break willingly.
"Just this once."
She painted his pale lips red, she colored his dreams with the same color that had tormented him, that he himself had spilled, had let spill. But hers was not the putrid waste reeking of regret and ruination. Hers was an earthy scent that he would always return to, for it was home to him, like the earth of his last domain. He would always return to it, for he had buried his wings there.
Once is enough, for us, my Countess.
And then, quietude was broken. Nightmares were not found asleep, they were found wide awake.
He left, and she, in his empty lair, gazed down at his empty coffin. She almost kicked it, but stopped. She instead cursed his name—all three of them—and as she marched back upstairs she did not know how to reconcile with this hollowness in her chest. She herself was empty.
This is my funeral, she thought. I tore out my heart and gave it an open-casket funeral.
It was the least she could do. Since it remained, even after everything (or perhaps, especially after everything) resolutely squishy, she had better part with it altogether.
So she cast it away, that part of her heart she had never been quite honest about.
Her footsteps bounced off the walls. They were its threnody.
The Count returned at last, to the sacrosanct ground he had buried his wings in, and she so graciously granted him her blood. Thirty years had changed her in such ways that he was fascinated with her anew—he admired the way the lines of her face matched exactly her rare smiles. He wanted to trace those lines, wanted to listen to the stories behind them. Alas, time had made them acquaintances, and they were getting to know each other once more.
Occasionally he felt, not without perturbation, as though he was an outsider. The Countess, after her initial welcome, soon regarded him with a modicum of distance. He had anticipated this. Certainly, three decades was a substantial length of time for a human; it was one-third of her life span. There was bound to be a grudge. He had been prepared for the cold shoulder.
Yet a week passed, and he was beginning to prefer that she put him out of his misery and just punish him.
He could not help but notice how she treated his fledgling (who could not really be called that anymore).
"Seras, you forgot about the tea again, didn't you?"
The girl scratched her head sheepishly. "It's too bitter, isn't it?"
"Just how long did you leave it steeped?"
"I tried to remember this time, I really did!" She smiled cheekily. "But you'll drink it anyway."
"Oh? You sound quite sure."
"Of course! You love me."
"Little minx," the Countess said. But the smile unfolding on her face was warm. She dipped her bare fingers into the tea and flicked it at the draculina, who laughed and ducked half-heartedly. "I should pinch your cheeks!"
"Mercy! Mercy! Anything but that, Master!"
He was at the same table, in the dining room with the both of them. And easily, so easily, they acted as if he was not there.
They were merely used to it.
Used to being just the two.
Used to him not being there.
"He's being very moody," Seras said.
It was near six, and the sun was still up. Seras, who was an early bird, was in Integra's office, massaging the woman's back. She had offered after her ears had picked up an uncomfortable noise when she stretched. Seras inwardly clucked her tongue. These muscles were bunched up something fierce. For a supposedly healthy woman in her fifties, her boss was not taking care of herself well enough.
That's my job, anyway, making sure she takes care of herself, Seras thought. She coaxed a knot loose. Integra sighed.
"When is he not moody?"
"Yes, but," Seras said, "you'd think, after getting rid of all those souls inside him, he would've mellowed a bit."
Integra rolled her eye. "If he was capable of such a thing, he would have let himself become dust centuries ago."
"And you," Seras went on, "you're feeling bitter."
Integra swiveled around. "Bitter?"
"You can be honest with me," Seras said, not skipping a beat at the look on Integra's face. "You were happy that he'd returned. No more waiting. No more wondering. But it's caught up to you, hasn't it? I know." Her voice grew quiet. "I know how you used to visit his coffin. Pip told me—"
"Bernadotte," Integra growled. The walls were silent. They were not stupid.
"—he told me how you would stay down there for a while. And—just—" Seras let out a huff of frustration. "Bloody knock his teeth out or something, if that'll make you feel better!"
"I already emptied an entire magazine into his face, what more do you want?"
"Not this 'dancing around each other' thing you've going on," Seras blurted. "God! Do you know how frustrating it is to watch you two? It's like, you're still circling each other at the point everyone else is doing the tango—"
"Live long enough, and you'll witness your vampire become a dance instructor," Integra quipped. She whipped her head back to her desk and grabbed a stack of documents. "I see Bernadotte has been a horrid influence on you."
"I don't need Pip to say all you need to do is jump his bones!"
"That's enough, you impish creature." Integra swatted behind her at Seras' arm. "Off you go, if you insist on spouting drivel."
"I'm not done yet," Seras squawked. "Let me get those muscles near your scapula."
Integra bit back a retort and glared at a nondescript pile of documents in front of her. Seras had no idea what she was talking about. She was not bitter. She was simply…adjusting. And jump his bones? The nerve of her! Of all the scandalous things to hear…
She grabbed a report to distract herself. In the process of turning a page, Integra's little finger slipped on the edge. There was the telltale smartness and, to Seras' nose, scent of blood. Integra held the finger up and scowled. Today was really not her day.
"Master, you should've been careful!" Seras winced. She could have her head blown off and her arms ripped apart, but paper cuts still made her cringe.
"Here," Integra thrust the shallowly bleeding digit over her shoulder. "Clean this up before I get blood on these papers."
"Ooh, thank you!" Seras grasped the treat and took it to her mouth. "Don't mind if I—"
"I hope I'm not interrupting anything?"
Alucard materialized into the office.
Seras froze. She had not even sensed his presence. His new power made her barrier around the manor pointless.
"M-master." Abruptly and awkwardly, Seras pushed Integra's hand away. "You're up early."
He ignored her. He was staring at Integra, who continued to read.
"Master," he said.
"Seras is right. You're up early." Integra turned a page. "Why are you here?"
He laughed. "Need I a reason to be in your presence?"
"You don't?" she countered. "That is news to me."
Alucard bared his teeth slightly. "Integra—"
"Do you have something to report? A complaint? Do you want me to give you a mission? Too bad it's quite peaceful these days, isn't it? Do you need my leave to go sightseeing? Not that I think you do, you were perfectly content to make yourself scarce without it."
Seras was stuck in the proverbial middle, wanting nothing more than to escape the office but finding it difficult with the way Alucard loomed like a murderous barricade before the door. Maybe she should jump out the window?
"Or perhaps you caught whiff of this," Integra flitted the hand with the bleeding appendage, "and wanted to partake."
His second laugh was harsh. "Are you offering?"
Her lips curved at the memory.
But she was not going to grant him the satisfaction of reenacting an old dalliance. "No," she said, and exuding nonchalance, she licked the blood off her finger herself.
Alucard's eyes blazed.
"Okay," Seras burst out. "I'm going to, uh, leave you two to, uh, sort out your differences and...uh..."
They ignored her.
"Don't wreck the office," she concluded hurriedly, and sprinted out of the room.
She passed three rooms before she stopped and slid down a wall, covering her red face. Eeeeeek. Don't wreck the office? What was I thinking?
"Mignonette after my own heart," Pip said.
The moment Seras was gone, Alucard moved—he must have, or else how would he be behind her desk, beside her, turning her face toward him and tilting her head back and kissing her?
He took. He thrust his tongue into her parted lips and scoured her for the drop of blood she had denied him. Integra did not pull away. Instead, she kissed him back just as harshly, grabbing his neck and digging her nails into his skin. When he pulled away for a brief moment, mindful of her breath, she stood and kicked her chair down. Integra shoved him against the windows behind them.
Alucard's face was twisted in barely restrained desire. "That's right. Take! We've waited too long for this."
She did not slap him, but she did fist his cravat tightly enough that a normal person would have choked. "How dare you put words in my mouth. What makes you think this is what I want?"
He persevered forward and craned his mouth to her ear. His hair swept across her nape, moving like sea waves, tickling. "If I am guilty of putting anything in your mouth, it won't be words."
Integra laughed. "How forward you've become, Count."
"Your memory is faulty, Countess. I have always been this forward."
She left him there as she took a step back, shaking her head. "Thirty years is enough to clean the slate, isn't it?"
He stood, hunched, in front of the windows beyond where the sun was going down in scarlet throes. It should have been warm to him, irritably so, yet on the contrary he felt very cold. "Have these years made us strangers?"
"We have nothing to define ourselves with. What are we, really?" She looked tired. "Do you have an answer for me?"
His eyes rivaled the setting sun. "Nothing? I'd rather say that the matter is simple. I am yours to call whatever you wish."
"Such lofty words," Integra mocked.
Alucard held his hands, his gloveless hands, in front of him, cupping the air to the curves of her face. "Once, I might have believed that you were mine to shape. My young master. How malleable you seemed. Already by potential alone you were perfection. That potential, I sought to cultivate." His hands crumpled. "But I should have known that it was the opposite, that I was the one shaped by you and your will. I deluded myself into thinking that when I urged you for your orders, it was to goad you, but in truth it was because nothing of mine had any meaning without your mandate." His voice was empty. "The mindlessness that is bloodshed without justification, is what made me, what I loathe, what I cannot help but pursue and what breaks me."
"And this is the enlightenment you reached while you were away?"
"My nightmare was that one day I would cease to be of use to you." He bared his heart in all its shriveled, ugly glory. "In this respect, the Angel of Death and I are the same."
Integra said nothing.
"Time and time again I have been failure after failure. A failure of a king, a failure of a husband, a failure of a man and even a monster." Alucard chuckled bitterly. "Yet through you I could be victorious...because I was yours, Integra, your weapon to wield, and your hound to keep on leash."
"Until you failed those, too," Integra said.
He dragged himself to her and seized her shoulders, only to sink to the floor. His nails snagged on the cuffs of her blouse as he knelt. "Punish me, if you must. Silver me. But don't cast me away. Don't let me be adrift in time and space."
She rested her fingertips on his cheek. "Didn't you spend that time killing all those souls inside you?"
"I did. I killed them all. And what was left, when the voices stopped speaking at last, was a void."
"I would have thought you welcomed that void."
"Where was I to go?" He pressed into her touch. "The silence was not the solution to my predicament. I still required a destination to physically manifest. A place I will always return to." He slipped his hand over hers. "Your final order was sound, Integra. Though it took thirty years, I obeyed."
Integra cradled his face with both hands. "And so you returned here."
"And so I returned here," Alucard echoed, clutching them.
He pulled her to him, and she collapsed gently into his arms, finding herself for once free of the tension that had become nigh permanent within her being. Her fingers became tangled in his sinuous locks.
"Alucard," Integra murmured. "I no longer need a weapon or a hound. What are you to me now?"
"I am your Count, as you call me."
"And what does that make me?"
"My Countess, as I call you," he whispered. "But only if you will have me."
"Let me see." Integra feigned contemplation while raking her fingers down his hair and gradually coming to grip the lapels of his coat. She started to tug them to either side. "What does it entail, being your Countess?"
Alucard let her take off his coat. "I will give you the world."
"I don't need the world. I tire of the world." She slowly untied the cravat. When his throat was exposed, she traced the flesh to the topmost button of his shirt, which she yanked apart. "What else?"
"Me," he rasped, shaking with each progression of her undressing of him. "I have nothing else to offer you. I am only one man. My vassals, my knights, their steeds have all departed. My coffin is a cold box of dirt. The only thing I can call mine, is you."
She kissed where his heart resided unbeating.
"Your coffin is cold, you say?"
"And too quiet, I imagine."
"Then would you accept this invitation to my bed?" Integra smirked. "My Count?"
He—they—must have moved, or else how would she be suddenly in her bed with him looming over her? Not that she was complaining. Alucard plucked the buttons off her blouse in the same manner as she had done his and he looked so pleased with himself, the bastard.
"Why, my Countess." He kissed a breast and she shivered. "You have granted me life and favor."
He smiled against her heart.