Rosario + Vampire

Queen of Hearts

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Author's Note

I would like to thank drake202 for providing me with the central idea for this story, and general character information and profiling.

~o~

The grounds were quiet at this time of night. Shiji preferred it that way, really. Oh, the vast majority of the Academy's resident monsters, demons, ghouls and creepers were pleasant enough company, to be sure, but he'd always liked to snatch a few moments peace whenever he'd gotten the chance. Leaning back in the bough of the tree's skeleton, he peered out over the gloomy scene. The sickle moon cast a dull glow on the worn and weary forms of tombstones, and a rasping wind was creaking in over the deadwood to the east. From the depths of the skeletal wood, he could just catch the harsh baying of a hungry werewolf, the initial chill of it having long since worn off. In the distance, about several hundred metres off, the last few lights were winking out on the upper floors of the dormitories; the rarely heeded curfew had been put in force hours ago, and even the few rebellious types who liked to loiter about after hours were finally turning in.

The Academy truly was asleep.

"Is it time yet?"

He rolled his eyes, not yet willing to move from the relative comfort of his treetop perch, "Not unless the clock's running quick tonight."

A long pause, as if the girl who sat perched on the tomb below him was not entirely sure how to respond to his brusqueness. She raised her eyes to him from where she'd been staring blankly into space, blinked her vaguely vacant eyes, and then returned to her endless shadow watching. A breath, and then, "You are joking again."

He sighed, rubbing a tired hand over his eyes, "Yeah."

The girl called Azuki looked harmless enough. Dark eyes brooded in a round pale face. Less-than-lustrous black hair was tied back in a nondescript braid, and the glasses that perched on the tip of her nose were well beyond unremarkable. Her figure, he was not at all ashamed to observe, was lacking a certain substance, though of course he'd never dare to tell her as much. All in all, she appeared to be nothing more than a marginally shorter than average Academy student, the only hint of her true descent a series of scattered markings to either side of her eyes.

An explosion rang out, racing across the eternal quiet of the night sky. Azuki didn't so much as blink. Shiji peered around with the sort of vague curiosity generally reserved for trivialities of the barest interest. Whatever it was, the source sounded fairly distant. At least a kilometre or so, by his reckoning. And if it was coming from the direction he thought it was, it would have to have come from reasonably near to the hospital wing. He had to roll his eyes at that. The Academy's infamous Newspaper Club had been holed up in school's medical wing for the better part of the last week after yet another of their madcap excursions. It had only been a matter of time until some of the cockier monsters had got it into their heads to kick the Academy's top dogs while they were down.

From the sound of things, things were either going exceedingly well, or astoundingly awry for the foolhardy interlopers.

Without warning, Azuki stood, and began to move off in the opposite direction of the disturbance. Shiji snorted, dropping carefully to the ground as he made to follow her along. Eight long years of having absolutely no inkling as to the indeterminable processes which drove her mind had long since driven him to stop wondering.

Two hundred paces took them out of the graveyard, and a further hundred beyond that carried them deep into the skeletal wood beyond, the irritating racket of battle quickly muffled by the thicket. Shiji peered around, trying not to let his distaste show. Apart from the odd bat colony, there was very little life on this part of the grounds. The other students thought it charming. As a former human, he found it more than a little disquieting. He'd been surrounded by the lush bounties of the countryside around the orphanage for the greater part of his life. It was off-putting to see so much desolation.

As if sensing his discontent – which she probably was, he considered wryly – the girl stopped in her tracks. She did not turn, but her voice was cool when she spoke, "Is something the matter?"

He took in the set of her shoulders, and straight set of her legs. She was very clearly in no mood to be disturbed by his discomfort. He shrugged, feigning nonchalance, "It's nothing."

There was another long moment, and then she nodded, and they moved on.

At length, they came to a pool. Or at least, it passed for something like a pool, anyway. The water was black, muddied by dirt and silt and who knows what else, while a few diseased reeds poked their tips from the shallows on the nearer side. The foul stench of rot and death wafted up from the bog. A narrow strip of dirt ringed the water, itself paved with shards of broken stone and branches. Above, the grasping fingers of trees shrouded the pale starlight above, leaving only a small window to the skies beyond. The whole scene wasn't the sort of thing you'd write home about.

Apparently immune to the general repulsiveness of the grotto, Azuki leant back in the arms of a long-rotted willow, settling herself comfortably amidst the grime and decay. Shiji wrinkled his nose, and settled for leaning up against the trunk opposite.

Their second year at the Academy had been nothing special. No more so than their first, at any rate. Oh sure, they were getting by, but that was about all they were doing. Their plans to establish a new Hive had been stalled as soon as they'd arrived. Azuki was no closer to breaking the Bio-Lock that that wretched Chairman had placed on her than when they'd first come to the Academy, and Shiji's proficiency with his own abilities had been in a steady decline due to Azuki's inability to perform the much-needed DNA imprinting. It was a royal pain in the arse, and though those who didn't know her couldn't have told it, Azuki had been in a foul humour for months.

Intellectual genius she might be, but patience was not one of the traits that Azuki could lay claim to.

He felt a trembling in his fingertips, and shook it out irritably. He glanced across at Azuki. She was staring back, face still set in that endlessly impassive mask. He'd have to feed from her soon, regardless of the risks. True, the dangers were fairly major, but even they paled in comparison to the consequences of his ignoring the Shivering. He much preferred his mind and body intact, thank you very much.

Another explosion ruptured the haunted peace of the wood, this one coming from much nearer. Shiji craned his head around, feeling the first flicker of concern. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Azuki doing the same. He might have been misjudging it, but that last one felt as though it had only been on the edge of the wood. He stilled for a moment, but there was no other sound to suggest that the combatants were still approaching. Even so, he didn't relax. If there was one thing the time he'd spent here had taught him, it was that when trouble came knocking, you had to be ready for it.

"Your cells are destabilising."

He didn't bother to reply. Truthfully, she'd known the answer to her thought before the question had even formed on her lips. It was a little disconcerting, having all your thoughts and feelings looked over by another sentient. Her almost unconscious ability to share in the most intimate of his immediate concerns was one of the less convenient perks of the bond they shared. Especially when he knew that she knew that he absolutely abhorred the process that she was certain to subject him to.

As if on cue, she began to roll up the sleeve on her left arm, "The transfer, though irksome, is a necessary one." She gave him a severe look, "The Hive shall never prosper if it's soldiers are not willing to make the smallest of sacrifices."

"Alright, already," he scowled, casting a lingering glance in the direction of the clamour, and moved reluctantly to her side, "S'pose we might as well get it over with."

She reached out with a small pale hand, and before his eyes, the fragile fingers began to dissolve. Digits of pink flesh and ivory bone dissolved into a series of ugly fleshy, green spores, themselves glowing with a faint hint of incandescence. The palm gave way to skeletal thread and bone; narrow plating surrounded a series of fragile hooks pushing out from the gaunt surface. Shiji eyed the appendage distastefully, and with a final apprehensive glance into Azuki's carefully lidded gaze, grasped it firmly with his own.

Two things happened at once.

No sooner had he grabbed her half-transformed hand, than the hooks had sunk into his flesh and begun to release the all-powerful substance which provided him with the decidedly unique set of traits that came with being the Sliver Queen's First. A rush of euphoria struck him, and he felt the Shivering cease as quickly as it had come. Azuki's DNA spread through the entirety of his body in a matter of moments, stabilising the points which had been weakened in the past weeks and establishing new points at junctions which had not yet been explored. The listless lethargy that had clung to him for the past week was lifted in an instant. He felt like he could fight off a horde of Third-Year monsters, and wouldn't have given a damn to

But his good humour was short-lived. The moment they'd established the link, an eerie glow had spread up along her arm from the plain black bracelet which clung tightly to her right wrist. There was a moment of calm, and Azuki's eyes met his with the ghost of what might have been sympathy. Then Shiji was struck by blind, agonising pain as the Bio-Lock forced the connection between himself and Azuki to close. The glowing tendrils snapped back through a split-second transformation, leaving her with those small, pale hands. It didn't stop there. Fire raced across his body from the point where they'd made contact. Shiji felt the iron grasp of Insanity clutching at his heels as the Academy Chairman's black magicks attempted to purge Azuki's unique biological code from his system. His blood was boiling; his eyes were blind. He tried to shout, but it came out as nothing but a wordless gasp.

After a second that felt like eternity, the pain was snuffed out, leaving Shiji heaving and gasping on the floor.

The bracelet – that accursed bracelet – was a very special artefact. It was just about the only thing the Chairman could have used to discourage them from attempting to turn the rest of the student body into unwilling members of the Hive. It worked, too. Any attempts to pass on the Queen's powers were always short-lived; largely due to the fact that the Bio-Lock would instantly reverse any of the gene-bending that Azuki attempted. Shiji was only able to escape relatively unscathed because Azuki had been passing her genetic material onto him for nigh on eight years. One of the uninitiated would be rendered comatose by a dose of the Bio-Lock's black power.

He hauled himself to his knees, giving her a lidded look, "Good to know that that's still fun."

Azuki flexed her newly reformed fingers, eyeing them critically, "This time the transformation took longer to expire. Perhaps-"

Whatever she was going to say was cut off as a deafening roar shook the dead wood, and the northern end of the clearing was engulfed in an enormous ball of fire. A stream of angry curses erupted as a black shadow emerged from the inferno, splashing messily into the middle of the shallow mere. Torchlight illuminated its masculine frame. Its body was white as pale death, and it was covered head to toe in an unreadable black script. A pair of small pointy horns poked from its brow, and its razored teeth were visible in its snarl. Wings of dying flame sprung from the figure's back, casting long shadows in the soiled glade. Eyes of fiery hell burned angrily in the dark, casting around until they landed on the two figures huddled on the opposite shore.

It smiled; an unpleasant leer of a grin. His intent was written all over his face.

Shiji didn't hesitate. He dived in the direction of the newcomer, his lean musculature rippling and tightening beneath his skin. He wrapped his hand into a ball, and hurled it with all his might at the newcomer. His fist made contact with the other monster's belly before he even had time to raise his guard. Red eyes flashed as he struck. His biologically augmented strength sent the stranger hurtling through the air, and crashing into the flickering embers from whence he had come. Shiji took the opportunity to glance over his shoulder. The shore was noticeably devoid of Azuki. He felt a low shudder of relief; with her effectively out of harm's way, he'd be able to focus all his attention on this opponent.

"Not bad."

Shiji scowled as the other monster clambered from the ashes of the forest.

"Not bad at all." He dusted himself off. Apart from the ragged look he'd worn when first he'd entered the clearing, he looked no worse for wear. He showed no sign of the heavy punch that Shiji had thrown. Far from it; he actually looked quite bemused, "Though I do wonder if you have any more of those of up your sleeve?"

Shiji resisted the urge to snarl. Those power punches cost him a good portion of his enhanced stamina. He would only be able to throw three or four of them all up. Less than that if his opponent's managed to launch a particularly trying offensive. The devil across from him must have sensed it. Which is exactly what he must be, Shiji thought, with a sinking feeling in his stomach. One of the lesser devils, doubtless, given the lack of a fiery wreath around the crown of his head, but still beyond dangerous.

He was suddenly enormously pleased that Azuki was gone.

The devil grinned, and was on him in a moment. The first strike landed on his chest, and the next was a hook to his chin. Shiji grimaced, pushing himself out of range. The points the devil had struck him burnt with the pain of being kissed by unholy flame. It was of a pain wholly different to the Queen's imprinting. He struggled to regenerate the seared flesh, resisting the urge to claw it away. The skin knit itself together with agonising slowness. He continued to retreat, his eyes never leaving the tall figure before him.

The devil advanced, its burning wings curling around its body in a cloak of fire. Shiji had no illusions about what it wanted. Judging by the way its wings had been flickering and faltering, it had been in a weakened state when it first appeared in the barren clearing. It would want to feed. Unfortunate, given that the staple of the devil's diet was essence of soul.

Shiji blinked futilely at the beads of sweat rolling into his eyes.

His opponent favoured him with a dark smirk, "Forgive my being frank, but you're not looking so good."

"S'okay," Shiji said wryly, "You're not really my type."

The devil laughed and took another step forward, but then hesitated, and peered over its shoulder. Perhaps it had sensed a danger at the rear, or perhaps it had just remembered the location of its long-lost shopping list. Shiji didn't much care either way. His fingers formed into needle-like points, and he struck forward with merciless precision, hitting his foe below the shoulder. His claws drove right to the bone. The devil screeched angrily. Shiji didn't pause. He withdrew his hand again, and it flashed forward once more.

This time, he didn't make contact.

The devil rounded on him, its own strike wreathed in fire and blood and vengeance. Shiji barely had enough time to fortify himself against the attack before it struck him square across the jaw. He was flung bodily across the open space by the blow, crashing against the bole of a tree with enough force to crack half a dozen ribs. He slid to the ground with a heavy thud. Retching violently, he managed to gather just enough strength to heave himself out of the path of the follow-up blow, landing in the puddle of disgusting black water. Behind him, the ancient husk shattered under the ferocity of the devil's assault.

His enemy, he noted with a black sort of bemusement, seemed to be wholly unaffected by the lethal venom that Shiji had injected into his system. That poison could kill a grown man in seconds. It spoke volumes that this punk hadn't even noticed it. He took stock of his own energy reserves. He'd already used up far more than what he'd gained through the Queen's ritual, and it wouldn't be long until he couldn't move at all. Though if his enemy kept up an attack of this standard, he'd be dead long before he ever ran out of power.

A thundering crash roared out through the woods, rolling down out of the east like an avalance. As if in answer, a flash of brilliant light streaked out of the trees a couple of hundred feet to the west. The devil turned, distracted again. Hunched over to his left, Shiji could see the fear scrawled plainly across the monster's tormented features. For the first time, he felt the probe of a much deeper and primal fear. What could possibly be out there that could make even this monster tremble?

The devil at last seemed to remember itself, and turned to him once more, crimson eyes flashing. Shiji steeled himself. He was only going to have one shot.

"Sorry, bud, but I'm gonna have to make this quick."

"Yeah, you wish."

Gathering what little power he could, he opened his mouth wide and screeched. The devil looked on with ambivalent bemusement, but it quickly turned to concern when the smaller boy's scream continued to rise in pitch. It took a single step forward, and then groaned and slammed its clawed hands over its ears as the noise began to numb its brain.

It was the only opening Shiji needed.

Dashing forward, he swung his right hand forward – newly formed into the shape of a blade – and swung a deep cut at his enemy's belly. The devil cried out in pain, but he didn't relent. Using a burst of speed to get behind it, he slashed crudely at the joint between the fiery wings. The wings sputtered and died, the tattooed creature screaming in helpless agony. Taking a deep breath, Shiji steadied himself to deliver the final blow to the base of its neck, and raised the knife of bone above his head.

A snap echoed in the woods to his left. He knew he shouldn't look, but he did anyway.

Azuki stood on the shore not ten feet away from them.

She was watching him impassively. Her eyes moved from the monstrous blade of blood and bone that his arm had become to the injured devil that knelt before him. He wondered if she even saw him, standing there right in front of her though he was. The blankness of her eyes had always left him wondering if she saw anything at all. It was a pointless question. For even as he looked at her, and she at him, he felt the black gulf of despair swallowing him up. The distraction caused by her return had cost him his advantage.

He had lost.

A grip of cold iron clenched around his malformed weapon. The devil's eyes were burning, his pale features scrunched into an expression of unquenchable fury. Shiji felt its grip tighten, and suddenly knew what was about to happen. All of his cool bravado was washed away by a flood of abject terror as he attempted to reverse the transformation and force himself from his enemy's grasp. The devil merely snarled. With a merciless twist of its wrist, it snapped the bone-blade, leaving it hanging by a strip of fleshy tendon.

The Enemy spat at him in disgust.

"Way more trouble than you're worth."

His vision swam as the devil finally released him. Through a blurry haze, he could just make out the grimace on his hated opponent's face. For some reason, it all meant very little to him. He could see the pulpy ruin that was his arm, and yet it barely registered. Everything from his shoulder down felt like a raging firestorm, and the relative peace of a hungry darkness was calling to him. Given the current state of things, relinquishing himself to it didn't seem like such a bad option. Surely nothing could ever hope to be any worse than this?

His dazed eyes raked across to where Azuki stood. She was watching him. He was certain this time. There was nothing written there, on that emotionless mask. No hint of righteous anger at the state of a lost friend, nor a sign of anguished sorrow at the ruin of an irreplaceable ally. The only thing there was a question. The same old question

Is this all that you have to give?

The shattered remnants of his resolve stiffened. Allowing his claws to reform on the tips of his one whole hand, he shifted pathetically in the dirt. He ignored the way the other monster scoffed. Even if all else broke apart and came to ruin, he could not fail the Queen. Nothing could jeopardise everything they'd done thus far. No harm could come to her; he had sworn it. His death to pay for her life. That was the deal they'd made. That was the deal he'd accepted.

The devil spat blood, and then moved toward him.

Shiji readied himself. His vision was still swimming and he was beginning to see double, but he flexed his claws experimentally, allowing venom to seep into the tiny blades. In the vague corner of his brain that operated on things other than Adrenaline, Fear, and Madness, he knew that he stood no chance. But he had to try.

The devil was upon him. He struck. The monster swatted his attack aside, bringing in his own fist for the killing blow. Shiji closed his eyes against it.

"Picking on kids again, eh, Yatsu?"

The world stopped making sense.

Or at least, Shiji thought it did, as he hit the ground with a painful jerk. What he had just heard made absolutely no sense at all. As did the fact that he wasn't dead, for that matter. He should have been halfway along his well-earned trip to the Underworld by now. He blinked his bleary eyes open. Azuki was walking toward him at a sedate pace, apparently unperturbed by the carnage in her surroundings. The devil, standing above him moments before, had retreated to the far side of the dirty pool, and his glowing red eyes were trained on a corner of the clearing that lay just outside Shiji's vision. Its stance was tense, and the air around it practically ignited from the hatred it radiated.

There was a pause, and then that same unfamiliar voice spoke from the direction the devil was staring.

"Could someone give the kid a hand?"

Shiji blinked as, after a pause, he felt a cool touch through the fire at his side. He tilted his head to the side, trying not to disturb his hopelessly mangled arm. A small Witch was crouched at his side, her young features scrunched up in concentration as she worked to repair the damage done to his limb. A further four figures were assembled on the shore beyond. He didn't need the benefit of his senses to know who they were. There wasn't a more distinct group in the entirety of Yōkai Academy. Two Witches, a Succubus, a Yuki-Onna, a Shinsō Vampire, and a Human who'd seen more transformations than Shiji himself.

The school's infamous Shinbun-Kaisho had arrived.

If Shiji weren't so irritated that he and Azuki had been dragged into one of their little inter-club conflicts, he'd almost have felt relieved. It was a well-known fact that almost anyone who brought trouble to the Newspaper Club walked away with their tail between their legs. Some even said that a stronger collection of Yōkai hadn't been seen since the Three Dark Lords rose to power back in the Eighteen-Hundreds, though Shiji considered that a fairly exaggerated call. Though they'd still be more than strong enough to deal with one troublesome devil.

Shiji bit back on a gasp as his bone snapped back into place. He resisted the urge to snarl an insult at the Witch, who was giving him a decidedly worried look. He just wished they'd never gotten him and Azuki involved at all.

Tsukune himself took half a step forward, the marks of his mutation glowing with a vibrant blue light along his forearms, "Giving up?"

Shiji could practically smell the loathing rolling off the beaten monster. It had probably been fleeing the scene of the massacre of its club-mates when it had happened to stumble upon Shiji and Azuki. To one who had just been faced with five monsters of impossible strength, no doubt they'd appeared an easy target for the taking. Maybe he'd hoped to drain them quick and beat a hasty escape. Maybe he was just in a bad mood after having his arse handed to him. Whatever the case, he hadn't been expecting much of a challenge when Shiji stepped up to the plate.

More fool him.

"You okay?"

He started, surprised to find that his bone-blade was wholly repaired, right down to the last nerve. The pain was gone, though an irritating itching lingered. Ignoring the Witch's question at first, he allowed his weapon to dissolve into the familiar, long-fingered hand. Holding it up in the midnight light, he flexed experimentally. Everything was exactly as it had been before. Forcing himself to meet Sendō Yukari's concerned gaze, he begrudged her a grateful nod. She blinked. Stood. Watching him hesitantly, she offered him a hand.

And then Azuki was at his side. She gave Yukari a level look, swatting her hand away. The Witch stared at her, then shrugged and rejoined the rest of her friends on the far side of the pond. Azuki watched her go, and then favoured Shiji with a black look.

"I am leaving."

The unspoken command hung in the air as she departed the clearing. Suppressing yet another groan of pain, he wondered if this might not be just another of her obscure tests. Stumbling to his feet, he pushed back the tidal wave of weariness that threatened to overwhelm him as he made to join her. At the last moment, he peered back.

The other five had already turned their attention back toward the devil. He was surprised he hadn't noticed how beaten they all looked. The Shirayuki and Tōjō sported identical bandages around their heads, and the former wore a heavy cast on her left arm. Kurono Kurumu was in much the same state; a plethora of bruises and bandages covered the visible parts of her body like a second skin. Yukari herself had a series of stitches running down from beneath her eye to the corner of her mouth. He absently wondered as to the reason why, if she had the power to completely restore his arm, she could not do the same for the health of her comrades. The Vampire Akashiya Moka was all but unmarked – unsurprising for one of the legendary Shinsō – but there was haggard edge to the set of her crimson eyes. Aono Tsukune looked by far the worst for wear. A long bloody gash ran down from his shoulder to his hip, and a single tear of blood was trailing listlessly down his cheek.

But in spite of all that, they stood strong. Tsukune was resting a steadying hand on Yukari's shoulder, while the stoic Moka was supporting a clearly pained Kurumu. Ruby had an iron wing wrapped protectively around Mizore, who was in turn holding the Witch up with an arm around her waist. The warmth and closeness that existed there was plain to see. In a college where classmates scrapping coming to bloodletting was commonplace, the sheer camaraderie they showed before him was a sight to see.

If he was truly honest with himself, it was that solidarity of theirs that quieted him. It was a stark contrast to the air of cool indifference that hung between him and Azuki. He understood the reason for it, of course. Her position as the Queen of the Hive meant that he could never hope to grow too close without eliciting the envy of the other drones, and she could never favour him without risking the overthrow of her authority. He knew how important her ambition was to her. It wasn't just a goal; she was her ambition.

But sometimes …

He blinked, and shook his head. He was being an idiot. She had saved him many years ago, and had elected him as her second. That gesture had to have held some meaning. The Queen needed him, every bit as much as he needed her. He was the only one that the Bio-Lock could not eliminate, and the only one who could wield the ancient and terrible power of the Sliver Queen. He felt a rush of guilty relief as he looked down the path she had gone. Without him, that devil would have found her alone, and she would have been helpless to stop him. These heroes might have been a saving grace at the very end, but she never would have survived to see them without Shiji's interference. She was no Queen of Hearts, certainly, but nor was he a Diamond King. All that mattered was that he was important to her, and she to him. For now at least, that was enough.

He cast a final wary glance across at the devil, and then back to the ragged members of the Newspaper Club. They were dangerous, and in more ways than one. He did not relish the thought of having to fight them, but knew it would have to come in time. When the Bio-Lock was finally broken, and the Queen began to restore the horde once more, the world would rise against them. These five would be sure to stand in their way. Having seen them in action, Shiji was more sure of it now than ever before. It was a pity, but an inevitability. He allowed the ghost of a smile to warp his lips as he waved his thanks to them and turned away.

Those days were far distant yet. He could afford to have friends such as these, if only for a little while.

He cast a final cheeky wink at the devil, who yet stood as though he were transfixed, and then vanished into the trees. The ancient wood rustled at his passing, and then grew still.

And after a time, the grounds were quiet once more.

~o~