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prologue

parting words

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Death, be not proud, though some have called thee

Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;

For those whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow

Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.

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Integral Fairbrook Wingates Hellsing woke up knowing this would be the last morning she would ever do so.

She could feel it in her bones. She was a woman, an old woman, and her intuition had always been topnotch. She knew with absolute certainty that this cloying feeling of fathomless tiredness was not simply because she had overdone herself in the fencing match four days prior.

A sliver of the sun slid between the closed curtains and cast itself across her sheets. The dust sparkled. She could hear birds chirping. My, what a mundane day to die.

"Rise and shine, Master Integra, it's a lovely new day! Rise and—oh! You're already up!" Seras Victoria waltzed into the bedroom, balancing a tray of breakfast and her daily medicine on one hand. She was blonde and pale and bouncy, as she had been every day without fail for the past thirty years. She smiled sunnily at her boss. "And how is my favorite director of Hellsing feeling this morning?"

"I'm your only director of Hellsing," Integra pointed out. "And I feel like today is going to be the day."

The tray rattled, just a little bit. Seras hummed and set it down on the table. She made herself busy pulling the curtains open. Light, obnoxiously bright, streamed into the spartan room.

"I'm not joking, Seras."

The curtains snagged, just a little bit. Seras kept on humming. She tied the strings in a neat little bow. She moved on to the next window.

"I'm going to die."

The curtains ripped in half.

Integra stared. "Seras!"

"Oh, oh God, I'm so sorry, I'm—" Seras swiveled around. "Actually, I'm not." Her eyes were wide and her hands were trembling. "Don't say such things! If this is payback for my teasing your wrinkles the other day, you've already gotten yours with all the pinching. My cheeks still hurt. See?" She pointed at her flawless skin.

"And you need to get your head out of the sand," Integra snapped. "Surely you must feel it as well. Today's the day, Seras. I'm going to die."

Seras hummed louder and poured water into a cup. It slopped over the rim. "Just eat your breakfast and don't forget your medicine. All this talk about dying." She snorted. "This is the year 2030. Life expectancy is somewhere up in the eighties or nineties and you're only fifty-two." She wagged a finger at Integra. "You still have another thirty years of me to endure, so buckle up, Sir Hellsing."

"I'm pretty sure people surviving to their nineties didn't have cancer, Seras," Integra said dryly.

The Draculina's humming grew into such volume that she might as well be leading a performance. As it were, the melody was an off-key rendition of some old musical number. Defying Gravity, she thought it was. Seras had been a big fan of Wicked. "I can't wait until Master comes back and I tell him that our mighty Sir Integral Hellsing was intimidated by a little sickness."

"A little sickness called cancer, Seras." Integra reprimanded. She ignored the reference to him. "Which I have been succumbing to bit by bit for the past year, despite appearances. Don't be crude."

"Don't be cruel, then! And don't forget your medicine!" Seras said shrilly, picking up the destroyed curtains and storming out.

"Seras!" Integra called. She huffed. "Damn girl."

She combed a hand through her hair in frustration, then got up. There was a sudden bout of dizziness that she had to clutch her knees to weather. She managed to reach the bathroom regardless. Integra splashed cold water on her face and studied herself in the mirror.

She certainly did not look like a dying woman. Her one blue eye may be a shade duller than the brilliant diamond it had been when she was young, and her hair lighter, almost white. Yet her mind, her senses remained as sharp as ever. She could even win a fencing match. Ah, the wonders of modern medicine.

It had been, as she said, all appearances. Careful, deliberate measures taken to keep the Convention, the Vatican, and the vultures vying for her assets at bay. Her illness had been under the tightest of wraps. Only Seras and the family doctor were privy to her true state of health. How far gone she was.

Integra sighed. Seras.

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Seras lingered outside the bedroom for a while, her mouth pressed into a thin line, her shadow arm twisting the curtains. Her hand was unable to let go of the doorknob.

"Good morning, Miss Victoria!" one of the staff greeted, passing by.

She looked out the window.

It was. It was a good morning. A beautiful morning. And nothing bad was going to happen. Absolutely nothing.

"Yes, good morning," Seras replied.

Absolutely nothing.

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Integra did eat her breakfast, and did not forget her medicine. Though she knew the pills in her hand were now pointless, she welcomed the few hours' lack of pain they would grant. For exactly one hour she stayed in her room, going over papers, finalizing a few details she had left hanging for this particular occasion, and sealing them. Then she took off on a tour of her own house.

Good old Hellsing Manor. A building of heritage, honor, duty, blood, nightmares, monsters, and death.

A beautiful mausoleum.

She crossed the hall of portraits, feeling their painted eyes on her and not meeting any of them. Judgmental coots.

She did, however, stop at her father's portrait.

"It seems I'll soon be seeing you," she told him.

Arthur Hellsing had no reply, and she did not expect one. It was hard to tell whether her father would be proud of all that she had done. Frankly, she no longer cared.

It was the fate of all Hellsings to die early. The workload, the stress, the nicotine indulged to deal with said stress—it was a repeating cycle with a clear exit. She had quit her cigars a decade ago, but the damage had already been done. She did not regret the habit. Most of time it had been the only thing keeping her sane.

Then again...

Integra resumed walking.

Seras... Seras was in denial. Integra had thought she had shed that aspect of hers, yet apparently it had been merely dormant. Unsurprising. She was a bloody vampire. Vampires never seemed to grow up. No matter what age they had been when they were turned, no matter what age they existed to be, they could be all such children.

"Don't be too harsh on her, boss."

Integra growled. "Not you too, Bernadotte. Can't a lady walk in her own house in peace?"

The disembodied voice of Pip Bernadotte chuckled. "Technically I am your house."

"Don't bloody remind me," she grumbled. "What do you want?"

"Just what I told you. Don't be too harsh on Mignonette. You know how she is. Seras—she's not going to take your death lightly. Whether today or in another thirty years. She's never taken anyone's death lightly and never will."

"Well then, she needs to learn, doesn't she? She has a lifetime full of deaths before her," Integra said, in an unflattering bout of nastiness.

"That's cruel, coming from you, boss."

Integra stopped. She closed her eye momentarily.

"When you're gone, she'll be left all alone."

"She has you," Integra whispered. "She has...him. He's coming back, she said."

Her heart panged at the mention of him.

"Don't kid yourself," Pip said sharply. "She respects him, sure, and she misses him like hell, but their relationship is not even close to the one you have with her. Come on." The walls rippled. "You're the last and the greatest. You guys have been with each other for thirty years. I worry for her. There's only so much I can do. She doesn't look it, but she opens her heart very rarely, you know? And when she does she lets people in too deeply."

She laughed hollowly. "Sounds familiar."

"It should. It's you."

She faltered.

"I see those romance novels of hers have addled both your brains. I have never known love, Captain Bernadotte."

"The hell you haven't. You love so much that you don't know what to do with it. You loved your father so much that you sacrificed your whole life for his legacy. You loved your butler so much that you forgave him even after he betrayed you for a Nazi crackbrain. You love Seras so much that, even now, you're making plans upon plans on how to prepare her." Pip's voice grew quiet. "And you love that man so much, that you're still waiting for him, even after thirty years."

"Love?" Integra laughed. "Love? What you're calling love, Bernadotte, is called duty, senility, foresight and utter nonsense. Love?" she repeated, ignoring the way her heart contracted, the heat behind her eye, the trembling of her hands, the inaudible sob in her breath. "The day I admit myself of being in love, Bernadotte, is my funeral."

"Which according to you is today, right?"

"Get out!" She kicked the wall. "Go bother someone else with your blathering."

"Who's the one in denial, now?" Pip said, and she kicked again. "Merde! Fine, fine. But you forget I've known you for thirty years as well, Integra. You can't fool me or Mignonette."

"Out!"

"Stubborn old lady."

Finally, the halls were quiet.

She covered her ears, as if the silence hurt.

At length Integra lowered her hands and started to walk again, Pip's words ringing in her mind.

Her steps fell bittersweet, for each of them brought to surface those who had breathed their last on these polished floors. It was a truth that not even time could erase, and she bowed her head in memoriam.

She was not really aware of where she was going.

But when she reached it, she crossed her arms. "Figures."

The entrance to the dungeons.

Integra narrowed her eye at the walls in suspicion, half-convinced Pip had somehow altered the corridors so as to lead her there. But she relented. She took a tentative step forward, and then another, until she was making the arduous journey down the stairwell. The cool, stale and, if she concentrated hard enough, coppery air seemed to usher her in front of the heavily warded door.

She stared it for a while. She raised a hand to the metal.

"...Count?"

There was no answer. As had been for the past thirty years.

She wrenched away.

Integra let out a strangled laugh. Hopeful after thirty years. When had she become such a romantic? This was Seras' fault. She would sing "just a little while longer" and forcefully fan a flame that would and should have burnt out long since otherwise. Integra turned on her heel. "Pathetic. I've better things to do than loiter around here."

It was then her body decided to give out.

She could not make a sound. She grabbed her chest and dropped to her knees.

The walls undulated. "Boss? Boss! Fucking hell. Mignonette!"

"Integra." Seras was instantly at her side, shoving pills and water down her throat. "Integra!" She cradled the older woman in her arms. "It's—it's going to be okay. You'll be fine. I won't let you die, I won't! Let's get you to bed." She stood up. "Everything's going to be fine."

Integra was losing consciousness.

"Everything's going to be fine," Seras was repeating to herself. "Everything."

Oh, Seras.

They phased through the ceilings, leaving the locked room with the empty coffin behind.

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Death is the endgame of all beings, and those who proclaim themselves immortal are mere escapists; running, running, as behind them the hooded figure walks, sharpening his scythe. For she had been a knight who had accompanied Death in the entire course of her life, Integra only felt as though she was retiring after a great wearisome day. She fancied herself at once cold and warm. She thought she smelled daisies.

When she woke up, it was sunset. The dying rays of the sun were flooding her bedroom a deep and tragic scarlet. Her hand was being held between the small, chilly ones of Seras, whose cheeks were streaked with dried tears.

"Integra!" Seras leaned down. A fresh bout of tears spilled from her red eyes, that ever familiar color. "Oh, Master Integra. You had me so worried."

"Seras..." Integra tugged her hand out of her grasp, to raise it to her face. She cupped the girl's cheek. "Silly minx. Why the tears?"

Seras clutched at the hand that was thumbing away the unrelenting tears of blood.

"You knew this would happen, eventually."

Seras shook her head. "Not this soon! You were doing so well. We all thought you would be able to make it."

"I have always known it was inevitable," Integra said.

"It doesn't have to," Seras said quickly. "It doesn't have to be inevitable. I—I can drink your blood. I can—"

"And I told you, not to joke about that."

"I'm not joking!" Seras cried.

Integra placed her other hand on Seras' face, cupping her fully, the blood staining her palms. "And you're not that cruel or stupid. It has been my destiny, Seras, always my destiny, to die as a Hellsing—as a human."

"But—but—" She was crying harder now. "You haven't even seen Master. And I've never lied to you about that, ever. He's going to come back! He will! You won't even give him the chance to say goodbye?"

His face flashed in her mind, that beautiful and terrible mask of red and black and white.

"Alucard knows better than I, that all things come to an end. Everything. Even family, Seras." Integra took a fortifying breath. "I can admit now, that I loved you all, you vampires. And that above all, you were my family. The only family I have ever known." She smiled. "With a little blonde troublemaker—"

Seras laughed despite herself, shakily. "—and her chain-smoking beau—"

"—and her father, the Count—"

"—and his Countess." Seras waited for her to deny it.

Integra did not. But she did avert her eye. Thinking about the could-have-beens was pointless, illogical exercise and filled her with rue. "And the doting old butler, I think."

"Oh, yes. We can't leave out Walter." Seras squeezed Integra's hands to her face as if she was intending to never part with them. "If he'd—if we'd just had—" She sobbed. "We were all that. For a very short while before the war, we were, weren't we? Even if no one ever admitted it! And we could have been that still, if we hadn't been so stubborn."

"No, you're wrong." Integra's smile turned sad. "We were too scarred and too destructive. But you, Seras." Her fingertips stroked her cheeks. "I think you were the better person out of us all."

The statement brought on yet another torrent of bloody tears.

"I'm not, I'm really not," Seras babbled. "If it weren't for you I wouldn't be here at all. You're all I have. I can't function without you, please! I'm just like Master. I'm scared that I won't be able to retain my humanity without you. Please, Integra!"

It was the eleventh hour. Integra gently drew back her hands.

"No!" Seras grabbed them and crushed them to her lips. "No, no, no, please! You're all I have. Please. I can't lose you, too! I don't want to be alone again!"

"You are my best friend, my sister, my daughter, my Seras," Integra whispered. "And no parent should outlive their child."

"No."

Goodbye.

"Boss..."

Goodbye, Pip.

"Please."

Goodbye, Seras.

"Mother."

Goodbye.

"Mother! Why do you leave me? Why does everyone always leave me?"

I'm sorry.

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One short sleep past, we wake eternally

And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

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NOTES

This prologue was published on May 8, 2016.
It has been updated for grammar, punctuation, formatting, and word choice on January 28, 2021.

The original end note for the prologue can be found in the link in my profile.

Quote: John Donne, "Death Be Not Proud."