Baiting Integra, at this point, was so automatic he didn’t have to think about it. Which was good – the last thing he wanted her picking up on was how *she* was disconcerting *him* – a defin...
She was standing some ten feet away when he stepped into the hall, as "out of uniform" as he'd seen her in recent years - jacketless and ungloved, sans tie, sleeves rolled up, shirt partially unbuttoned, with her hair pulled up again. A tantalizing glimpse of more bare skin provided background to a gold cross on a fine chain.
It was not a version of Integra he was particularly prepared to see just then. "Alucard," she said. He thought she was surprised, but his own thoughts were too loud for him to accurately pick up on hers. "You're up late."
"So are you."
"I can't sleep," she said. "It's too hot."
"Did you want something, then?" Preferably something I can kill? The scent of her, after his sweat-soaked dream, was maddening.
"From you? Not a thing. If you hadn't noticed, it's considerably cooler down here than above ground."
"Not that the heat appears to bother /you/."
"Suffering from temperature extremes being a mortal frailty, no." He smirked.
"Is that why you make that girl wear such a short skirt? She's not supposed to get cold?"
The smirk became a fanged grin. "That might be one reason."
She snorted. "Pig."
"She doesn't complain."
"She thinks you invented Heaven. Her opinion doesn't count."
"No, you just don't get an opinion. There's a difference."
"She can have opinions, which everyone will ignore. You don't even get that."
"Charming how you can sound offended and sulky at the same time."
"I do try." Baiting Integra, at this point, was so automatic he didn't have to think about it. Which was good - the last thing he wanted her picking up on was how she was disconcerting him - a definite reversal of the natural order of things.
There was only one thing to be done about it. He loomed over her, too close, blocking the hall. "Move," she said, sharp and intense. "Alucard, stop it."
"Why?" he asked, pleased with his cleverness. "Are you afraid?" He so rarely got a chance to discomfit his hypercontrolled mistress, and lately she'd been twitchy every time he got near her. It delighted him.
"I'm not afraid of /you/," she snarled with biting contempt. "Get out of my way."
"Where are you going?"
"Not that it's any of your business."
"Of course not. You never have to explain your erratic behavior to me, Sir Integra."
"You're not too big to be spanked," she muttered. "Get out of my way."
Well, /that is an image to be savored./ "Spanking? I wouldn't have thought that you'd like that sort of thing."
She rolled her eyes. "Everything has to turn into some kind of innuendo with you, doesn't it? Go away, Alucard."
"You're the one in my hallway, master. I was just wondering if you wanted... anything."
"I already told you, no. What are you doing up anyway?"
He shrugged. "Not sleeping well."
"'I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams,'" she murmured, mercurial as ever, and he stepped aside to let her pass. "Walk with me?"
"At your command, my master."
"But never at my request?" Her expression was inscrutable.
"Is there a difference?"
"Requests end in a question mark. You're required to serve, not to comfort."
"Comfort," he echoed. He couldn't remember a time when she'd been able to keep him this off-balance for this long.
"We are not comfortable people, you and I."
"I suppose not." She's wandering the halls at three in the morning quoting /Hamlet/. Perhaps the heat /has gotten to her./ He fell into step beside her, driven primarily by his curiosity.
Her restlessness would not let them stay underground long. They walked through the compound together, avoiding the men on duty, and wandered the wilting gardens. He cast surreptitious glances at her, letting his eyes linger on patches of bare golden skin.
"Is something wrong?" she asked, after the silence stretching between them had started to feel awkward.
"Wrong? Not at all." He realized they were in the hedge maze and wondered how long they'd been walking without speaking. "Should there be?"
Her very height was disconcerting this evening. "You're staring at me."
"No, I'm not." The denial was reflexive.
"What are you staring at?"
"'Nothing. Your hair in the moonlight.'"
"Do I look familiar?" Her expression was sardonic. "I doubt you've mistaken me for your dead girlfriend; she's rather shorter than I am."
He smirked. It was so peculiar, the things she knew - and the vast spread of things she did not know. It occurred to him to wonder if she'd ever been kissed. "I don't often get to see you like this."
"Like what?" She stopped at this, looking up at him.
Half-naked, wandered across his thoughts, but she really wasn't. Seras tended to wear less than Integra was wearing right now even when she was fully clothed. Vulnerable, a different kind of truth, would do nothing but infuriate her. "She's not my girlfriend," he said instead.
She shrugged. "It doesn't matter to me in the slightest."
"You're very quick to point that out." It was a random barb, but found a solid target; Integra flushed.
"I don't want you getting ideas."
"Don't want me thinking that she bothers you?"
"She doesn't," was the sharp-edged reply, but the flush didn't go away.
He edged closer to her. They had reached the center of the maze, and she backed up until the presence of the bench in the middle of the clearing caused her to sit down hard. "Then what's bothering you, master? Obviously you're... bothered." They were almost touching.
"/You're/ bothering me." She was trying for tart, but not quite making it. Her pulse was racing as he sank down on the bench beside her. "Go away."
"From 'walk with me' to 'go away?' Feeling fickle tonight?"
"I should have known you couldn't behave yourself." She wouldn't look at him. Her scent, this close to him, was dizzying.
"Give me an inch, and I shall take until you stop me." He stroked the nape of her bare neck for the second time in a week. "Are you going to?"
"Stop," she said. She was trembling.
"Not very convincing, master." His left hand slid across hers.
She swallowed. "Alucard - don't."
"Don't what? Look at me."
Her eyes were wide, dilated dark in the dim light from the garden lamps. Her color was high, and the blood sang sweetly in her veins. Hellsing blood. "Seras is nothing," he said. "Merely a child."
"Not what?" He brought up his left hand to trace along her cheekbones and across her chin.
"Jealous." The word was half-whispered.
"Of course not. Why should you be?"
"If I were enough for you, why would you have brought her home?" She clapped a hand over her mouth in absolute horror. "I didn't mean it like that."
"You are jealous," he marveled. "Have you learned nothing about the world, after all?"
"You implied earlier that we don't live in the same world, Alucard. Which world have I learned nothing about?"
"The one you're the center of," he murmured. "Can you be the focus of everyone around you and still be that uncertain?"
"The work is the focus. Not me. My father -"
"Your father couldn't handle me. Why else do you think I was trapped in the basement for twenty years?"
"He could run Hellsing without you." There was a trace of bitterness there; anger was always Integra's most familiar weapon.
"He couldn't run Hellsing with me," he corrected, smirking. "Why must you always compare yourself to him, and yet find yourself lacking?"
"Everyone says that I am. Hellsing was better when he was in charge - why can't you be more like your father, Integra?" Her imitation of Sir Percival was precise and furious.
"I don't." He brought up both hands to cup her chin. "Why can't you be more like yourself, Integra?"
"Who's that?" and she was halfway serious. "Don't do this."
"Do what? I'm tired of watching you strive for something you'll never reach, because you passed it ten years ago."
"What, because I can control you? Master of the monster? Hellsing's supposed to destroy vampires, and I keep one as a pet! Oh, that's definitely something to be proud of."
He chuckled. "Am I your pet, now? Your loyal dog?"
"That's not what I meant. You know that." She pulled away. "I'm tired; I don't know what I'm saying."
"You have a touch of melancholia tonight."
"A fistful, more like. I'm not fit company for man nor monster, tonight; I'm sorry."
"You are always fit company for me, my master." Entirely on impulse, he pulled her to him, wrapping an arm around her waist. She actually settled against him, leaning her head on his shoulder in a way she hadn't done since her fifteenth birthday.
"I suppose I was wrong," she said, voice muffled by his coat.
"About what?" He started stroking the nape of her neck again.
"You can be comfortable. When you want to be."
He chuckled and pulled her closer.