Everyone had their little rituals and customs.
Integra tried to ensure her own unpredictability.
It was more difficult for an enemy to pinpoint you, if you had no routines that you kept to. Diaries and schedules were a baseline for them, but she had no doubt she was far harder to track than someone who regularly attended church on Sundays like a good little Christian.
Of course, once in a very rare occasion, an exception could be made.
The city slid by as Walter guided the car smoothly through the traffic. The afternoon’s rain had left a faint patina on the glass, fogging the world beyond it just enough to give it a strange, dream-like haze.
She recognised the tension in his shoulders and smiled. “You don’t need to say it every time.”
“It’s an unnecessary risk,” her butler replied tersely. “Standard Holy Water is good enough. You don’t need to place yourself in such close to proximity to a threat for something we already have.”
She glanced at her reflection in the glass. “He’s no threat.”
“I’m not talking of him.” Walter said. “The… other one.”
Integra met his eyes in the rearview mirror. “I’ve dealt with far worse,” she reminded him. “I’m safer there than I am in my own building most of the time.” There, at least, there was no blood or violence or vampires clawing their way towards her. “The pax holds.”
She saw the downturn of his mouth. “Until it doesn’t.”
He didn’t know about the blade at her wrist or the blessed silver switchblade in her belt. She didn’t know if it would even work if it was required, but it was there and could be used if necessary. As much as she appreciated him, sometimes, Walter could be so damnably overprotective.
She returned her attention to the city around them. Parliament skimmed by on her left, which meant they were almost there. She checked her pocketwatch and smiled. It always took such careful timing, what with her own political intrigues and his business matters, but they had – as she had reminded Alucard as she walked out the door – an arrangement.
They swung northwards towards Soho and only minutes later, Walter parked the car outside a modest, old-fashioned bookshop.
“Wait here,” she ordered, out of the car before he could emerge to open her door. He had a terrible habit of stalking in after her like a benevolent shadow, which clearly did nothing to please her host. Alucard was just as bad, which is why she had ensured he could not interrupt either.
The door opened as she approached.
“Miss Hellsing,” her host smiled warmly at her. “Right on time, as usual.”
“Mr. Fell.” She inclined her head. “Good to see you.”
He looked mildly towards the car, beyond her right shoulder. “Your… man won’t be joining us today?” The mild reproof in his voice made her lips twitch.
“Not today, no.”
His expression brightened at once and he opened the door a little wider to usher her in. There were the usual pleasantries as he took her coat and led her through to the back of the shop: the weather, the news, the trivial things about health and happiness and such.
As usual, there was a small table laid with a tea set and two cups. A tiered platter of cakes was arranged beside it.
They both sat, he on the opulent, though worn Edwardian chair, and she on the chaise. All the little formalities, she observed, as he poured and fussed over her tea, then served her a piece of cake – how he always knew her favourites, she had never discovered – on a rose-decorated china plate.
Only once everything was laid out before her, could formalities be attended to.
For once, he began the conversation. “You’re earlier than usual this year.”
“Mm.” She leaned over, picking up a sugar lump with the silver tongs. “Unfortunately, we’ve had some trouble with the continentals again.”
He made a small sound of disdain. “Yes, they do have a tendency to cause chaos at the worst possible moment. I expect you’ll need a rather larger shipment than usual?”
Integra sliced her cake with the edge of her fork. “Unfortunately, yes. Will it be a problem?”
Mr. Fell laughed. “Oh, Heavens, no. Just send as many barrels as you need. Telephone ahead, of course. I would hate for your people to have a wasted journey.”
One side of her mouth turned up. “You could drive a harder bargain.”
His lips twitched. “I could, but then I wouldn’t be working against the forces of darkness, would I?” He took a dainty sip from his china cup, his pinkie up. He always looked so delicate, but according to plenty of sources, if he wanted to, he could unleash God’s wrath without breaking a sweat. “One must do what one can, after all.”
“Mm.” She chewed thoughtfully on her cake. “Speaking of the forces of darkness, where’s your demon?”
A blind man couldn’t have missed the rosy flush that spread across her host’s cheeks. “Oh. I… er... excused him for the day.” There was a pointed lift to one of his eyebrows, as if to reproach her without saying a word as he took another sip of his tea, then said, “What about yours, Miss Hellsing?”
She almost laughed. Always the riposte and parry. “In my basement,” she said, skewering some more cake on her fork. She met his eyes and smiled slightly. “In chains.”
Mr. Fell tutted. “Really, my dear,” he sighed, though she could recognise the mirth in his eyes. “You really ought to train him better.”
Her lips curled back from her teeth. “Coming from you,” she said sweetly, “that’s rich.”
Mr. Fell’s lips pressed together in the thin line that she recognised too well. He was trying his best to look disapproving and failing miserably. “Oh, honestly…”
It always astonished her how easy it was to talk to the… well, man wasn’t quite the right word, and she certainly didn’t want to describe him in the terms Alucard used. They were somehow far more terrifying to contemplate than something as simple as a vampire or a werewolf.
They talked a little longer about the business at hand, arranging a date for the following week, haggling over the specifics of the volume, source and quantity. He never adjusted his price, she had noticed, no matter how much more they ordered. For a businessman, he seemed to have little interest in profit.
Once, she had invited him to the Hellsing headquarters, but he had demurred. She had almost expected it. The shop was his place of power, after all. She could barely imagine him walking the halls where Alucard freely roamed.
Anyway, there was a pick-up point behind the shop, barely more than a narrow side street, but they had suitable vans that didn’t need much room. She had never seen Mr. Fell at work on their orders, though she imagined it was a far more intricate ritual than the rites that the Priests used, and yet her men had never once needed to unload the barrels from the vans.
And yet, somehow, Mr. Fell produced the most potent distillation of Holy Water she had ever come across. A single drop was enough to dissolve the worst of Hell’s creatures on contact.
Once the details were all ironed out, prices paid, and tea and cake finished, Mr. Fell fetched her coat for her.
“It’s been lovely to see you, my dear,” he said, holding the coat for her.
She slipped it back on and turned to face him with a small smile. “Thank you.”
“For the water?” He waved a hand. “Not at all.”
She shook her head. “For the…” Her eyes flicked to the tea on the table and the crumbs of cake. It was so rare for her to feel at peace and safe enough to indulge in something so simple. “For the respite, I suppose.”
He reached out and took her hand, the warmth in his smile washing away weeks of tension. “Oh, my dear,” he said so gently that she almost felt like a carefree child again, “You are always welcome here. Any time you like.”
She allowed it a moment longer, then drew her hand back and straightened up. “Perhaps.”
A little sadness touched his expression. “Yes,” he said and she knew that he understood that she couldn’t, not with all that was coming and everything she had to do. “Perhaps.”
He walked her to the door and even as the car pulled away, she could see him standing there, watching, his hands clasped neatly in front of him.
“It went well?” Walter said quietly.
Integra nodded, gazing out at the city washing by. “Yes,” she murmured, touching her hand where Mr. Fell’s soft, warm fingers had clasped hers as if she had the right to tenderness and kindness. “It went well.”