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Seras was used to strange beds. Being shifted around as a 'problem child' between orphanages and charitable schools meant that she was pretty familiar with that unsettled feeling you got the first few nights in a new building. It was, she reckoned, something that came from the basic human vulnerability of sleep and the comfort of knowing every millimetre of furniture in the room, even when you were in that groggy not-awake frame of mind.

 

She was used to crowds, too. To lots of people that she hardly knew. Dorm rooms were like that, beds and cots and mattresses on the floor all crowded together, and the quick and casual solidarity that came from everyone knowing that nobody would get enough breakfast. So were the early training boot camps she'd gone on, and the missions with the police. Though perhaps that was partly camaraderie made by taking the piss out of The Bill and sharing the change jar for tea and milk in the kitchenette. In any case, Seras was used to living with near strangers, and learning how to fit in with them in a short amount of time. So it wasn't the high employee turnover rate that had her feeling out of sorts and alienated.

 

Maybe it was because she wasn't human any more. Maybe her body, her muscles, felt different against mattresses? Maybe that was why she didn't feel safe when she slept. And maybe, all right, having the strength to kick through walls and bend the barrels of rifles and that lingering back-of-the-mind craving that was
always
there... maybe that had a bit to do with how distant she felt from the rest of the Hellsing Manor inhabitants. That bloodlust – lust in general, really, it seemed – at the back of her mind seemed to separate her from the upper hierarchy of the organisation. She didn't crave death the way that Sir Hellsing and Walter seemed to, or enjoy it half as much as Alucard did.

 

Actually, now that she thought about it, that was strange in itself. Because in the adrenaline of combat in the past, sometimes, well... it happened to everyone. Fight or flight and then fuck, right? A natural human reaction to a life or death situation. But since she'd become the living undead she hadn't had to discreetly hand-wash any of her underpants, hadn't spent any trips home shifting awkwardly and hoping nobody noticed the smell. A small mercy given her uniform with its bloody short skirt. But still. Weird.

 

She felt awkward in her own skin, and she really wasn't settling very well into her new situation. When the invitation to tea came, it was in the form of an abrupt summons from Walter through the speakers mounted in the wall. No explanation, just for Seras Victoria to come to this room, now, please. Immediately. So Seras went. She'd memorised most of the important areas of the house, but the designated room was somewhere she'd never needed to go before. It took two wrong turns before she found herself in the sort of room that she hadn't expected to exist in the Hellsing family's collective experience of life, let alone in Hellsing Manor itself.

 

It was situated in the back corner of the western wing and seemed really, well, open and vulnerable compared to some of the more secure and sturdy rooms that Seras had seen before. This room was all brightness and light, and Seras shied away from it. She knew she'd be fine. Most of the windows were protected with film and she knew theoretically she could go out in daylight, but that couldn't stop her from flinching. Light wooden floor, polished and half covered with a homey-looking rug. There were low and old chairs, curling and looking far too expensive to sit in, spaced about the room with small and equally precious looking side-tables.

 

The windows were tall and thin, and at the angle the sun was sinking into the horizon, they cast thick ribbons of light across the chairs that lined the room. Sir Hellsing sat in one of these, seeming to bask in the brightness. Her pale hair almost glittered with it. Her hands were at her sides, her legs crossed at the ankles, and there was a patient look on her face as if she was waiting.

 

It was like a scene from the telly, or something. A show about rich people in their country weekender castles, with rooms just for having cake in at the right time of day. The leather of Sir Hellsing's boots swung in a bright glaring arc as she swung a crossed leg impatiently. Her gloves were removed and folded tidily on her right thigh, the tips of her fingers had a pale pinkish mortal glow.

 

Seras hardly had time to notice that, because without even looking she could feel that her master, Alucard, must be sitting in one of the chairs cast into shade by the walls between the windows. She glanced past Sir Hellsing instead, to see Walter standing at a sideboard with a tea service as if nothing strange at all was going on.

 

Sir Hellsing's fingers tapped against her thigh. Seras inhaled sharply and stood to attention, realising she'd probably been staring for far too long.

 

'Sorry I'm late, got a bit lost.'

 

Sir Hellsing said nothing, but from his seat across the room Alucard chuckled. He twisted towards the doorway – and Seras – in a way that was just this side of humanly impossible. She suspected he only did it because it made Seras' spine and elbows ache just to see it. Or maybe to remind Seras that there was nothing human in either of their bodies any more.

 

'Show off,' Hellsing chided Alucard and waved a dismissive hand at Seras, 'and you, sit.'

 

'Yes ma'am.' Seras chose one of the chairs that was comfortably buffered by shade, because both Sir Hellsing and Walter were in direct sunlight, and it was a bit neater to balance things out. Now they were all spread about the room, and there was tidy symbolism in it even if the sunlight wouldn't hurt and the shadows really wouldn't be any protection if it could.

 

'Oh, but Mistress, you shouldn't treat her like a pet dog.' Alucard's voice was teasing, Seras assumed, though it could be hard to tell sometimes.

 

'Are you jealous, mutt?' Sir Hellsing turned away to accept a fine looking teacup from Walter.

 

Alucard's face split in a wide grin that Sir Hellsing could not see, and Seras began to wonder if she was even wanted at all in the room. She fidgeted a little, straightened her skirt and tried not to think about how odd this all was. It would be rude to excuse herself and leave, right? Her confusion must have shown on her face, because Sir Hellsing turned back to regard her carefully.

 

'This has been a... rare indulgence recently, but it is otherwise a tradition here. You do know what time of day it is?'

 

Seras knew that answer, at least. 'Um, fifteen-ten, Ma'am.'

 

Sir Hellsing raised an eyebrow and shared a very long-suffering glance with Walter, who made his way across from a small table towards Seras. He handed her the loveliest teacup that Seras had ever seen. It had delicate hand-painted flowers, and the comforting smell of tea had yet to turn her changed stomach. It was one of the few things that didn't taste wrong after everything. Thank G... well, thanks for small mercies.

 

'It is tea-time.' Walter said as he offered around a plate of biscuits, and then settled himself into a seat. 'The sun sets too early in winter to hold it any later in the day. In any case it is more of a casual affair than anything else.'

 

Seras took a tentative sip of her drink. 'Oh. I see. Well, er, thank you. For inviting me.'

 

Sir Hellsing frowned, set her cup aside and turned her whole body towards Seras in one smooth movement. 'I didn't. It was Alucard's suggestion.'

 

Seras' head turned to her master, who shrugged and neatly re-crossed his legs at the ankles. 'Remember, little lost girl, that the mistress of Hellsing is hardly a suggestible person.'

 

'I... think maybe I'm a little lost in all this.' Seras winced as she realised that she'd echoed his joke in her own words. It was a right pain, getting used to that not-quite-coercion at the back of her mind. Subservience. Oh, manners! She had forgotten her manners. 'But, ah, thank you for the tea, Walter.'

 

It was odd, very odd. But Walter inclined his head with a smile and then they just sat and drank tea for a few minutes. When their cups were empty Alucard seemed to vanish. Sir Hellsing strode from the room, obviously in a hurry to get somewhere. Walter collected the cups and plates and carefully set them all on a wheeled trolley. He left Seras in the room as the sun sank below the line of the tall fence of the complex, and an afternoon chill settled into the air. Seras shivered, gave up on trying to figure what
that
had all been about, and decided that she'd try again to have a short nap and
for once
wake up at a reasonable hour for hell-spawn.

 

- - -

 

The afternoons happened so infrequently that for the next month or so Seras was beginning to wonder if maybe it had just been a once-off. A way for Sir Hellsing to test her, perhaps. Or just some in-joke between the core powers of the organisation. A joke at the expense of the poor uncultured orphan. Maybe a lesson in the lack of her own humanity from her master. Not that she had much time to spend on thinking about that.

 

Her strange dreams were increasing, and she was becoming more bloodthirsty and brutal each time. Not just feeling that elated orgasmic rush that was beginning to come with the gore and death of fighting, but wanting to lose herself in it. A life could be spent forever like that. No hunger, no pain, just ecstasy. It would be the closest to a chance at heaven her soul would ever get, in the end. It made her feel unhinged, desperate for some basic line in the sand that she could not cross, something to restrict her. She wondered if Alucard knew that; that she wasn't resisting the power or responsibility of her new role. Just trying to find some limits, some lines somehow, somewhere, that could ground and anchor her. That could keep her in control. It felt that if she accepted the knowledge and power of his blood and legacy that she'd be overcome. She'd be swallowed whole, lose herself in the rising thirst and fury.

 

She'd been watching him. She knew he had the benefit of some sort of restrictions. The marks on his gloves and the words that Sir Hellsing recited sometimes. She couldn't remember exactly but there were levels involved somehow. They were only used when the situation was particularly bad. Even though Seras doubted they'd let her be cursed or spelled or whatever the hell it was, she kept hoping that she'd see something in Alucard that would help her. A hint, of how to learn to cope with her new self. A way to survive and feel like more than a slave to her urges. A way to be in control of herself again.

 

She hadn't been able to find it. In fact, the contrary. Alucard's behaviour was escalating, changing in a way that reminded Seras of the suicides in both the orphanage and the various teams she'd been assigned to at work. Listlessness, detachment. Withdrawal. Denial, and a complete lack of hope. He hadn't made Seras because he'd wanted to save her. He'd done it because she'd wanted to live, and he didn't. He didn't want to exist. He was trying to train her and pass it all on to her. The weight of the responsibility and the implied trust did nothing to help ground her. The only person who could possibly help her, and he was too busy playing chicken with his own existential depression and a death wish.

 

Maybe she was just reading too much into it all. She felt exhausted, frustrated and drained of all hope herself. She wanted to slap him or fist her hands in his too-tidy suit jacket and shake him about. Scream and ask him why,
why
, had he thought that someone younger and weaker and more vulnerable could possibly replace him. But he was in her head. He was her master. She couldn't resist or argue some points, and nobody ever told her enough for her to know what was actually happening in the grand scheme of things. Go here, soldier. Do this, fledgling. Show the punters your tits and thighs while we handle all the important things and the fights with the real villains.

 

Why? Seras had given up on punching bags and gone straight to the reinforced fucking wall. If it broke, well, the Hellsing Organisation was used to spending big on better defences. If Seras could break it, they had more problems than a few cracks in a wall.

 

It wasn't Walter who paged her that time. Instead she heard her master's voice. Not like usual, not loud or even words. But there was a thought in her head – it was a weekend off and she was late and it was fifteen hundred hours – that tasted like him. She'd learnt enough about duty by then that she just swore and spun on her heels to stride upstairs with certainty and speed. She paused for a moment on the threshold of the room, to take in the familiar sight of them all.

 

Nobody said a thing this time. Sir Hellsing was still quite solemn and furious about all the men she'd lost over the last few months. Seras sat quietly and smiled briefly when she accepted her cup from Walter.

 

You don't even like tea, do you?
She thought silently at the figure in the corner.

 

No, not really. But that hardly matters.
He grinned widely at her, madness or maybe laughter in his eyes.

 

Seras frowned, and decided that she'd probably be better off with her own thoughts than entertaining her master. Turning her body away from him, she returned to the dedicated sensual experience of afternoon tea.

 

Her cup was lovely. Just lovely. Thin and beautiful, handmade in a way that you could see and feel and even smell with vampiric senses. None of the chemical tang at the back of the throat or the synthetic bubbles of regular ink in the manufacture of this fine china. It sat slightly uneven in the saucer, and there was a bit of wear on some of the gold plating on the handle. A cup with history and intimacy in a way that made Seras feel connected. Not just to tea culture, but to someone very human, mortal and brilliant; someone who had the nobility of life and death, of having destiny and purpose.

 

If Seras hadn't been inducted into the Hellsing organisation, well... it didn't really bear thinking about. No, not at all. There was an endless pointlessness coming to her, she knew. She could feel it resonating in Alucard's voice, and had read enough about other known vampires to see the pattern. Listlessness, lethargy, a loss of self and direction leading to indulgent chaotic destruction. Everything dark, hollow, dusty and lifeless. Nothing at all like the soft glow that warmed her fingertips.

 

Even the teaspoon had been made by hand, rough around the edges – though they'd been filed down she could feel the scratches on her skin – and wonderful. Just wonderful.

 

It was strange, actually. Seras kept a half-mouthful of tea on her tongue until it started to cool. She looked across at the cups that Walter and Sir Hellsing were using. Walter's was bare, plain, recently made and quite cheap looking. Impermanent and faceless. Sir Hellsing's was very well-made, but also much younger and more precise than the brightly painted one Seras held. Sir Hellsing's cup was a standardised and high quality cup that, like most crockery in the official sections of the house, bore a reduced and stylised version of the Hellsing seal. Simple, functional, and dutiful.

 

Seras turned again more to get a glimpse at Alucard's cup than out of any desire to include him in her thoughts. It was a little hard not to, once she'd caught a glimpse of it. Black on the outside, it had a hint of ridiculously colourful and happy flowers printed – or was it painted – on the inside. Seras had to swallow quickly before she spat out the tea in her mouth, and ducked her head to try and avoid her bad manners being noticed.

 

Aha, it begins to dawn!

 

Her eyes snapped up to meet Alucard's. What begins to dawn? What is this all about, anyway?

 

Alucard shrugged, and raised his cup though he did not drink from it. What, this? This is just a cup of tea.

 

You know what I mean
, Seras scowled at him,
there's got to be more to this than afternoon tea. You asked for me to come here, didn't you?

Why?

 

He didn't answer. To Seras, the room even
sounded
divided in half. It wasn't just the lines of afternoon sunlight, but the way that both the wet living heartbeats were clustered together. Warm and alive.

 

Wait, I have a more important question... who chose the teacups? Was it Walter?

 

Alucard laughed then, not answering Seras. Just watching her and waving a gloved hand dismissively when Sir Hellsing raised her head. Seras shrugged helplessly when Hellsing's eyes fell onto her, and in a very inelegant way Sir Hellsing rolled her eyes. It made her look about ten years younger, and Seras suspected she even saw a smirk in the corner of Sir Hellsing's lips.

 

'You do realise that it is rude to exclude others from the conversation like this, don't you? I expect bad manners from a mutt like Alucard, but Victoria, you've been house-trained at the very least in your lifetime.'

 

'I, Ma'am, I...'

 

Seras trailed off uselessly as Sir Hellsing nodded and Walter distributed biscuits once more. She accepted one with a smile, set it on the side of her saucer and tried again.

 

'I'm sorry.'

 

'And I'm not,' Alucard said, 'because there are some things that the living don't need to know.'

 

There was something about the way he said 'living' that did it. Seras didn't know quite how she knew, but she did. She was absolutely sure of it. He
was
suicidal. He could see either an end to his usefulness to the Hellsing organisation, or an end to his ability to walk amongst the living. Not death, as such, not really. They were already dead as vampires, after all. However a self-destructive path towards oblivion... yes. Alucard wanted respite.

 

When you looked at it like that, it was what they were. Hot, wet and hungry for the throbbing lurch of life's blood, so eagerly ready for murder and death. That haze of belonging and rightness that only fell over her in battle now. The shiver of tingling physical joy when she tore and she killed. It was entropy and death and everything they craved. While Seras was still young enough to be disgusted and scared of it all, to be clinging to her humanity, It had been growing within Alucard all those years.

 

Seras could feel it as something more real than the saucer in her hand. Alucard was going to destroy himself. He knew it, and he knew he wouldn't be able to fight it one day. He wouldn't be able to carry on. It wasn't that he wanted to abandon them, but that one day he would no longer be able to hold it off. And he wanted Seras to take his place beside Sir Hellsing.

 

'It's a lot to ask of me.' Seras muttered.

 

'Pardon?'

 

She looked up from her cup, startled, to find herself looking at Sir Hellsing's curious face. Seras coughed, spluttered, wished she was a calmer person inside.

 

'Er, I was wondering, the cups. They're not a matched set. Who chooses them?'

 

Sir Hellsing smiled faintly. She ran a finger around the rim of her own cup. 'I do, actually.'

 

'Oh.' Seras felt her heart catch in her throat, but she had to say something. 'Thank you. I really love the craftsmanship in mine. The hand-painted flowers are gorgeous.'

 

'I'm glad.'

 

Sir Hellsing had a way of speaking that left no uncertainty at all in the air. It would have been obvious to anyone listening in on the conversation that Sir Hellsing had known all along what would suit and please Seras; that Sir Hellsing knew her weaponry as well as any fighter or commander should.

 

Seras couldn't drink any more. Sir Hellsing had given Alucard a cup that reflected the way that she saw him. There were rumours, of course, in the organisation. But it was the small things like
that
that confirmed it.

 

Master
... Seras didn't know how to continue. She hadn't been told, hadn't heard it in words as such. How could you respond to something like that?

 

Indeed. I am surprised that you figured that all out so quickly, fledgling. Perhaps you are better suited to our needs than I had anticipated.

 

The afternoon light was starting to fade from the windows. Walter was politely gathering cups, and Seras realised that she hadn't finished her drink before it had gone cold. She surrendered it feeling a little guilty until she saw Alucard's own untouched tea.

 

I can trust you to fulfil your duties, child?

 

Seras smiled farewell to Sir Hellsing and Walter, leaving the room with a quick stride. She had to go somewhere, do something, before she just exploded from the weight of the moment. It was worse than fighting the bloodlust or feeling frustrated with this process of adapting. He wanted her to drink his blood. To become more than he could be, to shoulder a responsibility that she was nowhere near ready for. She had known Sir Hellsing for mere weeks, maybe less if you counted actual time spent together or in conversation. It wasn't like Seras had become bosom friends with the woman. The whole thing still seemed unfair and rotten and cruel.

 

You bloody well can't ask me to do this for you!
She didn't really mean to contact him. It was just screaming in her mind and heart, louder than she'd cried out when she'd been mortally wounded.

 

Seras Victoria? I asked you a question.

 

Seras swore, and looked around herself to realise that she'd made her way to the target range. She went through the motions of setting the targets and timers automatically, swapping out her ammo for practice rounds.

 

Seras?

 

'Fuck!' She blinked back tears that absolutely weren't blurring her vision, and started shooting. The rhythm of the vibrations in her arms almost felt like a pulse.

 

What?! Yes. Yes, fine. I'll be there for the next one, fifteen hundred hours, and on time.

 

It felt a little wrong that he wasn't even able to admit it to her, to put into any form of words the things he seemed to be feeling and planning. It seemed dishonest. Or maybe like he was trapped.

 

I am glad that we understand each other
.

 

Seras stared down the faceless targets and promised herself in her heart, if she still had one, that it would stop with her. She'd serve her master – and then when she had to, her mistress directly – but she'd never be weak or stupid or thoughtless enough to make another of their kind necessary. Seras would have the strength to end it. She'd protect Sir Hellsing until the cold hard bitch's body was safe in the ground, her soul wherever the holy and innocent went.

 

She
had
to. What if there
weren't
any other types of teacups in the Hellsing manor? What then?!

 

Seras found herself giggling, a little hysterical, at that thought. But it was true, for a good many reasons there wasn't any more space or time for other vampires in Hellsing. Seras would just have to do her job. Keep stringing Alucard along, not assuming that mantle of power quite yet. Keeping him obliged to perform his duties. Becoming stronger, wiser, and enough to last until the very end.