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Tangled Up Gears

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It was not betrayal.

It was not. He had vowed love and he still loved only her, he had vowed faithfulness and he was still faithful even now, he had vowed honour and support and it was all true, would remain true for all eternity.

It was not betrayal.

When Shaft led the Belmont to him, Dracula had been pleased. The plan was nonsense - merely having the Belmont was enough, any lesser hunter would feed the fishmen - but it was a pleasing notion nevertheless. At last he would have a Belmont to accompany him through eternity, and that was enough to wave and tell Shaft to get on with it.

He wondered if Leon would appreciate the joke.

He went to see the Belmont before Shaft cast his spells and bound the hunter's spirit in chains of his own will. The Belmont spat and snarled the same idiocy he spewed the last time he and Dracula had met, the same lines every one of his ancestors had spewed at Dracula as if they were some sort of holy truth. He said as much to the Belmont - this was no fated battle, he had no appearances to keep up - and was told that if he tired of words, the Belmont would happily settle in blood.

Dracula agreed.

He took the whip from the hunter, of course. They relied too heavily on the maid's power, and he wished to see what they would have without it. Besides, it was good sense.

Of course, without the maid's rage and hatred buoying his power the Belmont could not hope to stand against Dracula. He fell, and....

It was not betrayal. His heart had only room for Lisa, even now.

It was sheer animal dominance, a low, base need that overtook him. He wished to see the Belmont submit, to have the truth of which of them was the stronger engraved on his very soul. He wanted to see all that faith and hope come to its inevitable, rotting end.

He bore the hunter to the floor and plunged his fangs into the Belmont's neck, and oh, the blood burned. He tasted red and gold, a pure holy fire that burned like alcohol all the way to his stomach, he smelled the harsh angles of the cross he once would have died for, and he heard the sound of incense that rested heavy on his tongue as he swallowed it all down.

And he saw Leon. He saw Leon just as he was when they had arrived at Constantinople. Leon as he turned to help the man Dracula had been off the boat, the light striking his golden hair, his lips turned up in an open smile, every detail perfect in recollection. Dracula could not move, struck still with the weight of centuries.

Then the Belmont jerked and fought beneath him and Dracula could not help but to slam that dull head into the stones, could not help but to tear at that strong flesh, could not help but to devour that hated, holy blood.

How dare the Belmont force him to recall Leon! How dare the Belmont bring back the memory of Leon's smile, when he could not recall his beloved's!

It was fair. It was right. It was just.

It was not betrayal.

He tore the Belmont's clothes from his back and scored deep welts that bled and bled. He plunged himself between the Belmont's thighs and reveled in the hunter's screams and curses. It hurt, of course. He felt his own dead flesh tear, his own blood oozing out with the parody of life feeding gave him. There was no pleasure in the copulation, nothing beyond a miserable compulsion that twisted his guts with rage and loathing.

But.

But it hurt the Belmont more.

He thrust with dull repetition, the familiar blasphemies pouring off his tongue without conscious thought. He tired of their taste. The Belmont did not - perhaps could not - offer the tedious replies he'd heard again and again, and that was well. He had no patience to hear the sanctimonious defense of the God that had stolen everything from him, that continued to steal from him even now.

It was over so quickly Dracula almost did not notice. He paused, rage temporarily satiated, and watched in fascination as the Belmont struggled to breathe through a ruined throat. Without healing he would die, and Dracula would be free of the Belmonts for good. One hand closed around the Belmont's throat and rested there, heavy.

But Shaft did have a plan, even if it was a foolish one. There was no real satisfaction in choking a defeated enemy. No matter how sweet it would be to see the Belmont line end...

Dracula stood and cleaned himself as best as possible. He called for servants and gave them the simple order "Heal him," which not even zombies could mistake. Shaft was there to wring his hands and make promises Dracula did not care to hear, and was soon left behind to care for his experiment.

The next time he met the Belmont, Shaft's spell was upon him.

Dracula stood back and watched as the Belmont arrogantly ordered his servants around, to their apparent displeasure...but not disobedience. The castle itself did not recognize the Belmont, of course, but there was little chance of any untested hunter being able to tell the difference. "It may work, for a time," Dracula murmured to Death, always at his side.

"If the creatures can bear it."

"They will, because I command it. And I will command it, because it may yet be useful." As they spoke, Dracula saw the Belmont snap at Slogra for disagreeing about his and Gaibon's placements, and also saw Death's skeletal hands tighten on his scythe. His friend had become fond of the pair over the past century.

Dracula left his place and strode forward. "But it seems time to remind them of who the true lord of the castle is."

The Belmont snarled and bared his teeth, as expected. Shaft frantically warned Dracula back - something about the spell being unable to overcome the Belmont's hatred - but he did not listen. Yes, the Belmont still had his whip. Yes, he was still strong. Yes, he still had crosses and storms of holy water at his command.

But that did not mean he was going to win.

It was simple, really. The maid lent her powers to the just and holy. Though her sheer rage and hatred was enough to make Dracula burn and bleed, she was fighting a battle on two fronts. Her strength alone was not enough to defeat Dracula, not when her wielder was so corrupted. The assembled creatures cheered when the Belmont bounced off the wall with a sharp crack, and roared with joy when Dracula picked him up by the neck for display.

It was intoxicating, to be able to defeat a Belmont so easily. The hunter still struggled in Dracula's grip, but it was wonderfully futile. A kick, a punch, all of that nothing compared to the battle of four years ago. He shifted his grip as the Belmont cursed him and demanded another battle, this one to last for eternity.

Dracula bit him instead.

It was sweeter than before. It still rang with holiness, still burned a stripe down his throat, but it was a darker, richer red and gold that filled his mouth. The cross and church in the blood were rotted through, the chants harsh and stumbling, and it was so very sweet to taste.

No Leon appeared to torment him, and that was sweetest of all.

The Belmont still fought, after all that, and it was that which made Dracula's blood rise. The creatures still cheered him, demanding more and more, mad with reflected triumph over their ancient enemy. They demanded he throw the Belmont down and claim him, here, in front of the entire castle; drunk on blood and victory, Dracula did.

It was not betrayal.

How could it be? This was raw dominance, answering the creatures in front of him and the Crimson Stone woven in his blood. It was proving his right to rule. He did not take the Belmont as a beloved queen, to rule the night beside him. The Belmont was not his equal. Lisa would understand that, were she still here to see it.

She would understand he had not betrayed her, still kept ever faithful to her memory.

The Belmont fought as he had the first time, to the same end. On a physical level, it still hurt. But there was pleasure now, the pleasure of his minions' adoration, the pleasure of watching the upstart break apart beneath him, the pleasure of knowing that for all of Shaft's plans and contingencies, only Dracula ruled the night.

The cheers and cries of the creatures grew ever louder, ever more raucous, and Dracula pulled the Belmont up so they could watch. It was difficult to maintain the position - despite the blood, this was still not a young body - but it did not matter. It was finished within moments.

He left the Belmont for the monsters. Shaft could defend him, if he wished.

That was all. He had not intended to meet the Belmont a third time.

He had been engrossed in Petrarch's Secretum in a quiet library room, writing notes for his own counter-arguments, and trying not to think about the fragile feeling stretched across his heart that almost resembled peace. If he took enough notice to enjoy it, it would melt away under the endless churn of anger, hatred, and agony that drove his days. But if he did not think of it, if he concentrated on logic and rhetoric...it held, for a time.

So careful and complete was his concentration that when a warm, human hand came to rest on his shoulder, Dracula's heart froze in wild hope.

It could not be. All reason and logic said so. But he did not want to believe what tattered strands of rationality he had left. If he did not turn, did not look, did not think...

A soft kiss was pressed just below his ear, exactly as Lisa would do when she came upon him like this. No, she would speak, ask him what he was reading...but perhaps she wished to surprise him?

An arm wrapped around his shoulder. More kisses trailed down his neck. Dracula stared straight ahead, not daring to look. The arm was...strong.

It was when a weight tumbled into his lap that he could no longer pretend. It was the Belmont that sat there, the Belmont that tangled fingers in his hair, the Belmont that gazed on him with plain affection, the Belmont that caressed his cheek, the Belmont that softly, lovingly called him "dearest".

It was hateful.

It was a filthy mockery of Lisa, a grotesque shadow puppeting a wretched human form.

The thing reached for his lips and Dracula flung it across the room. How dare it- how dare a human- Humans had been the ones to take Lisa from him, how dare it! How dare it think it could take her place!

Dracula stalked to where it was trying to pick itself up and clawed its back to ribbons, ripped and tore until white bone showed through the gore. Even the smell of its blood was nauseating when it spilled over his hands, the stone floor, the books, coating everything around them in bright red. It wasn't enough.

She hadn't been human, she hadn't been one of them, she was a spirit, an angel sent to him, something otherworldly, she wasn't like them-

He kicked the human across the floor, feeling the bones crack under his foot. He flipped it over, enjoying the wet screams when it landed on its back. He tore it open, plunged his hands in the viscera and called to fire and flame.

It was right. It was just. They had tormented her like this, she who had done nothing to them, she who was better than them in every way, they deserved it.

Ah, but he had missed the smell of burning flesh.

Someone was pulling at his arm, their words hardly audible over the human's raw, guttural noises. Another human. Another bit of filth defiling his castle, crawling through halls it didn't deserve to touch.

Another who had taken Lisa from him.

He left off the first one - its struggles were weakening, better leave it to die slowly - and fixed his claws around the new one's throat. It gibbered at him, spilling apologies like gangrene from its lying mouth.

He forced two fingers into the thing's mouth, gripped the jaw, and pulled.

It stopped making noises.

He was just about to run it through when another hand touched his wrist - not grabbing, just resting - and the cool bone was soothing in its familiarity.

"My lord. You may yet regret killing this one."

Slowly, Dracula's gaze focused to see Death beside him, holding him back from righteous justice. His words came back to him only slowly, hampered by the madness that ran its tangled vines through his mind and heart. "Will I? There is little to regret in killing humans."

"Usually, yes. But you have a use for these fools yet, do you not?"

His friend's dispassionate words pushed the madness back a bit further, and now Dracula could see the pathetic form of Shaft writhing in his grip. The Belmont at his feet was too far gone to do more than twitch. So bothersome.

But it was true. He yet had use for them. No matter how much he wanted to rip them apart, watch them suffer and die as they deserved...it was poor strategy to throw away such valuable pieces so easily.

It burned to spare them. But pleasure was always a slave to necessity.

He let Shaft fall to the floor, where the body was immediately dragged away by a pair of candlelighter skeletons. The Belmont was already gone. The scattered books and blood were cleaned up with a simple twist of will to the castle, and the fight was gone as if it had never been.

Death still floated at his side, and Dracula let his forehead fall to his friend's chest. The fine robe and smooth collarbone were simple comforts, but...enjoyable. Death's hands rested on his shoulders, light and gentle.

The madness wasn't gone. It rested there, twined around his heart. Lisa - he shuddered to think of her again, his hands knotting in Death's robe - Lisa had been able to drive it back so far he had forgotten it existed. Now she was gone - but he would not allow it to control him. Not so fully. Not until the right time.

Harsh breaths rasped in his ears, and it was long moments before he realised they were his own. And they would not stop.

"I will handle the priest and the Belmont if you wish to rest, my lord." Death's words were careful, but Dracula could hear the suggestion that bordered on an order inside them. He bristled...but his friend was right. This was not the time.

"Thank you. I will return...later." The library was tainted now. Alchemy held no interest. There was but one place in the entire castle to go to find peace.

Still, he did not move away from Death for some time.

In time, skeletons arrived to speak with Death. In time, the workings of the castle called. In time, Dracula retired to where none would dare disturb him.

There was but one room in the castle that never changed. Dracula recreated it as often as required, and it only connected to the rest of the castle by pure magic. No Belmont, no human, could destroy it the way they destroyed everything else. It was pristine, exactly the way she had left it.

Lisa's quarters were the only place where the cries of chaos quieted, even for a few minutes.

The neatly arranged herb mixtures. The medical books he had to read to her. Her silver hunting knife. They were all carelessly scattered across her desk, as if she had just stepped out for a moment and would soon return-

That thought was too close. Dracula grit his teeth and drove his claws into his cape - he couldn't risk bleeding here, he'd just finished washing his hands in water and acid and water again - until the madness stepped back for one moment. He couldn't risk destroying anything here. To set it right may be a thought, but...what if he forgot something?

So he waited instead.

When the madness retreated, he walked familiar steps to the wardrobe, a chest he only dared open once a century, lest the contents fade. Inside were his greatest treasures, more precious than money, life, magic and blood.

Three full dresses, in various fabrics, and an assortment of scarves and sashes. All still bearing the traces of her scent.

He gathered one - the fine grey silk he had especially imported, how she had flushed at the vanity but loved the feel - into his arms and sank to the floor. It was too light, too cold, too flimsy, but if he stared at her portrait - the one thing he had added - then...it was entirely unlike having her back. But he could pretend.

The silk smelled more of cedarwood and dust than anything else. But if he pressed it to his face and breathed deep, there was the faintest hint of the taste of green, the soft, moonlight glow of her holiness, the smell of forests and peace. It wasn't enough, it would never be enough, not again - but as Dracula clutched the faded dress and stared at the painting to carve it ever deeper on his soul, he knew it was all he had.

But as the centuries passed, his memories had become more and more of the painting and not of the woman. Her life, her smiles and frowns, the light of argument in her eyes and the wrinkles on her brow when she was deep in thought: all were flattened to a blank-faced image of wood and oil. After Elisabetha, after he had woken up one night to realise all he had left of the woman he had sacrificed heaven for was the vague idea that she had been blonde, he had sworn to not allow the same thing to happen again. He would remember Lisa when all the mountains of the Earth had been ground to the ocean floor.

He should not have underestimated time.

It was just one more thing the humans had stolen from him. If he could just remember the exact tone of her voice, the precise taste of her blood, her hair, her wit, her warmth....

His fingers twitched with the memory of warm blood. A recent memory.

It was not betrayal.

Slowly, not daring to think on his idea, Dracula rose and made his way to the portrait. He stroked at the sanded, unpainted frame, aged wood so unlike her soft skin, and remembered warmth. Warm human flesh, his to touch and to hold, right here in the castle....

It was like having Lisa back.

It was not betrayal.

It was not the Belmont himself he desired. Only his warm, human flesh and blood.

He only wished to remember her better, to love and honor her in every way.

What was the harm in that?

It was not betrayal.

Dracula pressed his lips to the portrait's frame - the paint too precious to touch, this was as close as he could get - and once again promised eternal love and devotion. This changed nothing.

And in the end, it was surprisingly easy to arrange.

He gave his orders to Shaft directly, letting his fangs show just enough to impress the price of ignoring his wishes again on the wretch. He was rewarded with cringing and immediate obedience.

So it was that Dracula walked to his bed one day to find someone already there. A nude human form, artfully wrapped in sheets such that scars, hair, all the more identifiable features were covered. The creatures had been hard at work, scrubbing and scraping and perfuming the Belmont until he almost, almost didn't smell like one. His eyes were closed, but Dracula knew if he pried them open they would be completely blank. The eyes of livestock.

But it wasn't the Belmont that waited for him. He had to believe that.

It was a delicate bit of trickery. Dracula had found other blood, had spent the day in Lisa's quarters, had so carefully avoided thinking about the plan. It wasn't the Belmont. The Belmonts were far away. Leon's children were dead and forgotten, the whip disenchanted and cast into a ditch. Lisa waited for him here, Lisa lay utterly still next to him, Lisa made no noise, did not call out to him...

She was tired, that was all.

She was tired, but had still come here, so it was all right.

Dracula reached out to stroke her arm and flinched away. Too strong, too muscled, it broke the illusion - it wasn't an illusion, he just needed to think of it the right way -

He climbed on top of the body, careful to have as little contact as possible. Lisa was...very tired. It wasn't worth kissing her, holding her close, or even telling her what fool scheme the Fishmen's Protection Association had come up with this time.

She had always had a fondness for the fishmen.

She should have said something by now.

News of villagers he didn't care about, an issue the witches would bring only to her, another point in their endless argument about the nature of man, or even scolding him for drinking from animals. She should have brought out her little silver knife and asked for his blood by now. She should have wrapped an arm around his neck and dragged him down to meet her.

The form beneath him was still and silent, and Dracula pressed into the waiting hole.

It was warm, at least.

He let instinct take over, thrusting slow and deep in the way he liked. There was no hurry. They had all the time in the world. Time to enjoy himself, time to forget, time to remember what it was like to have the ability to love.

There was a noise below him, of pleasure or protest he neither knew nor cared. It was too deep, and Dracula covered the false mouth with a hand before there could be any more sounds. One of the legs below him kicked out - too strong, too damn strong - and Dracula rested more of his weight on the form below. It was difficult, especially while maintaining as little contact as possible, but it was worth it. Lisa was too tired for more.

It was so good to have her back.