Autumn leaves part from their boughs and rush down the alley frolicking and twinkling in the sunlight. The gusts of cold wind are getting ever stronger. In an hour or two it will bring heavy clouds and persistent drizzle, but for now Integra Hellsing narrows her eyes at the piercing blue between the darkening clouds, listens to the crisp of the yellow carpet beneath her heels, and breathes in the smell of decaying leaves, a damp scent with a bitter undertone of faraway smoke.
Silently and for no apparent reason, Alucard materializes behind her left shoulder. After all those years being used to the unique chillness of his physical presence, Integra turns her head instantly.
“You wouldn’t mind some company, would you, Master?”
“Isn't it too early for you?”
“It is a fine day. The night is going to be much worse.”
Taking Alucard’s offered arm Integra strolls slowly forward with him alongside.
“You look differently today, Integra,” Alucard remarks in a tone vague enough for her to suspect approval, as much as a sneer, and the vampire’s expression is indistinguishable in the shadow of the hat’s brim.
The thick cloth of the longcoat corsets Integra’s waist, and the heavy flared hem is almost sweeping the ground. She decides on a sneer.
“Meaning, I look old-fashioned today for a change?”
After all, Alucard’s presence exerts too much influence even upon her choice of outwear.
“Don't be too strict to yourself, Master. Now you resemble a character from an English novel. Old estates, parks, draughts, colds, and delicate heiresses. Beauty poisoned by a mind too bold. Something very Jane Austin, I think...”
“Too dubious for a compliment,” Integra says with a snort. “Besides, you'll never make me believe that yearning for love and successful marriage catches your fancy even a little.”
“Why so? Do not forget that I hail from the olden days when there was no shame for men in reading and talking about sentiments.”
He is making fun of her again. Talking about sentiments not to a man – even to a monster several centuries dead! Is it not the ultimate absurdity?
“I doubt sentiments have anything to do with you, Alucard. Next thing you'll declare your love for Dickens.”
“Well, no. For Thackeray, more likely. Your guess was not far from the mark though. Byron has always been my preference over Austen.”
“Which does not surprise me in the least. Your passion for dramatic gestures speaks for itself. ‘Don Juan’ or poems?”
“Poems, by all means, Master. I was even keen on meeting this fascinating young man. Unfortunately, not only he preferred Greece to England, but also managed to die there.”
Laughing, Integra almost presses her shoulder into her vampire's stone-hard one.
“Who would have thought that you're such an expert in our literature, Count!”
“And for no reason at all. Books were my only window out into the world. So, my choice between France and England was due in no small part to writers.”
“Meaning, Wilde has made a better impression on you than Zola or Maupassant?”
“Sure. Englishmen were clever enough to drape their fear of the end of the century in irony. Moreover, England had Conan Doyle but no Huysmans, and this argument alone would be quite sufficient.”
“So, everything was about English literature. And here I thought it was about English women.”
And that is stepping onto the thin ice of the past, which Integra realizes too late.
“Women? Them too. But first, there were the books.”
“Who could have imagined that you still hold interest to...”
“...human fancies? Why not? How can one get tired of them? Humans keep on inventing something new. Or retelling old stories. Take that wiseguy who has recently retold the story of Odyssey the cunning, relocating his wanderings to Dublin, and no one recognizes Homer.”
“Have you read the...” Integra stops dead in her tracks and stares at her servant with renewed suspicious amazement. “Alucard, this must be beyond even your powers!”
“You are flattering me, Master. It has nothing to do with my powers. As a matter of fact, your father went on business to France taking Walter with him, and I had been left locked in the dungeon.”
Integra laughs again throwing her head back and grasping Alucard's cold wrist.
“Well, that explains a lot! Nevertheless, couldn't you have selected something more amusing for the occasion?”
“I had been misled by the thickness of he volume and the title. I must say I was expecting something akin to modern ‘Tom Jones’.”
“My condolences. So, what do you think of the novel?”
“I find noble hexameters and Penelope at the loom more appealing than messy speculations of a clerk and his adulterous wife. Moreover, the slaying of the suitors could have never left me unmoved as you may have guessed easily enough,” his dreamy, bloodthirsty smile and red gleam in the eyes bring Integra to her senses in a snap. However, Alucard continues as if nothing has happened. “As for indecencies, I prefer "Lady Chatterley's" unabridged edition.”
Who the hell has been in charge of Hellsings' library?!
“Oh, no. I'm not discussing this one with you,” Integra hisses through her teeth, pulling her hand free. But the moment is lost, Alucard is gloating upon her embarrassment.
“Why so? Do you find the very thought of mésalliance repelling, Integra? Lawrence has got some very amusing ideas... Especially considering women on top...”
“Nothing to worry about, Master, I do not support his views,” he adds with that insufferable, incredible smile of an insolent, omniscient creature.
“One more word – and I'll be getting an amusing idea about you may not having sufficiently suffered from English women and English writers!”
She should not have said this. The smile freezes into a snarl instantly. And, unlike many others, Integra knows the difference perfectly.
The gap between the clouds closes as a blast of cold wind bends the boughs, tearing away at the remaining leaves. Integra's eyes are watering, the hat is about to leap from the head, and her hair is tangling. Alucard is standing too close still, so that the flaps of the red raincoat are slashing at Integra's legs. With a tiny step the lady takes her vampire by the arm.
“That bloody Irishman”, Alucard sighs. “And quite a mediocre scribbler, at that. Nevertheless, Master, sometimes it seems to me that I have gained enough in return.”